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Archer Barron, accidental detective

accidental detective

Archer Barron is rebuilding his life after hiding from it for years. Once he had grand expectations–graduating law school, donning drag to express his feminine aspects, and the love of a devoted boyfriend–but fate became cruel. HIV-positive cruel. And a growing involvement with an Oakland Santería priestess who promised a cure in return for devotion and a lot of cash. His lover died. His faith and spirit almost followed.

Now Archer works a sorry job as a university night watchmen and volunteers at a free clinic. The walls he’s built in the years since his loss are about to come crumbling down when a former member of the Santería family he belonged to comes seeking legal help. And then the police discover the body of the priestess. Archer’s grudge makes him a prime suspect.

In Joyce Thompson’s evocative new mystery, How To Greet Strangers, the Bay Area welcomes a new detective: he’s black, he’s spiritual, he’s stunning. And he’s in great danger.

* * * * * *

How to Greet Strangers: A Mystery, shouldn’t be mistaken for a “mystery novel” with all the well-trod “mystery novel” conventions in place and duly activated on schedule. The hero, Archer Barron, is far too complex for that, and his life far too, well, full of life. The mystery is how we all pick our way through a complicated life; or the nature of faith; or the place of love and loss; or the flexibility of gender. Archer Barron is a black, gay, well educated, HIV-positive sometimes drag queen, who is struggling with loss of faith after a falling out with his Oakland-based spiritual community. He becomes a reluctant detective when bodies start falling around him. Is this a who dunnit? Well, sort of. But that’s hardly the point. The real mystery is how Archer Barron gets so far in under a reader’s skin so fast and talks to you from inside your own head about things you thought you only knew. The mystery is how, until now, author Joyce Thompson has managed to keep Archer Barron all to herself. Fortunately this is no longer the case. Fortunately – and you get this from inklings in the author’s blog, www.archerbarron.com – there’s more to come.

United Cakes of America

United Cakes of America

By Warren Brown

Stewart, Tabori, & Chang

ISBN: 978-1-58479-839-2

$29.95

Warren Brown stopped being a lawyer and started baking cakes. He brought prodigious education and enthusiasm to the task at hand, so his version of baking cakes works out as seven retail store fronts – CakeLove – in Washington, D.C, and Love Café. He put a couple of years into Food Network TV, a show called “Sugar Rush.” And he produces fabulous cookbooks, first Cake Love, and now United Cakes of America. He shows no signs of stopping to catch his breath, which is a good thing. Be sure to check out his website: http://www.cakelove.com/

United Cakes of America

The book is divided into four geographical sections – Northeast, South, Midwest, West – and in those sections you will find cake recipes from each of the fifty states. This calls for as broad a definition of cake as possible, in the true spirit of all-inclusiveness.  So you get the obvious – Boston Cream Pie in Massachusetts and Johnnycakes in Rhode Island – as well as the inspired – Pumpkin Pancakes in New Hampshire and Nutmeg Spice Cake in Connecticut.

And everything in between. Not just cakes, but  crème brulee, frostings, trifle, butter creams, cupcakes, cheesecakes. It really is all rather mind boggling. And if you have any, ah, issues with sugar, fat, and diet, um, well, you may want to steer clear. This is a wicked, wicked cookbook.

Brown’s recipes are clear and instructive. Hints are scattered throughout the text, as are little known details (Ohio was home to 8 presidents). If you were to own only one cake baking cookbook, I’m thinking this is the one.

Whole-Grains Never Looked So Good

Good to the Grain, Baking with Whole-Grain Flours

By Kim Boyce

Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, $29.95

Finally, whole-grains get sexy...

Coming off winter I am 10 pounds too heavy. You can see it in my face and in my belly. So the last thing I should be doing is baking, anything. And then there’s my growing sensitivity to wheat. Sometimes it’s just a little cough and a runny nose after the first bite of toast. Other times it’s like an asthma shutdown. Weird shit, that. And I better have it checked out.

In the meantime, there’s Good to the Grain to contend with. It is, basically, every yummy baked confection you could imagine, but using whole grain-flours – stuff like teff (think Ethiopia), spelt, amaranth, and kamut. Ah, kamut. Pumpkin pancakes? Cheddar biscuits?

Kim Boyce, late of Spago and Campanile in Los Angeles where she served as pastry chef, has taken it upon herself to explore the flavor and texture potential of whole-grain flours. “The joyful discovery” Boyce writes, “was that the flours and the recipes made from them weren’t just substitutes for the ‘real thing’. What started out as a way to feed my daughter nutritious pancakes and muffins turned in to my style of baking… These are not the fancy recipes of my former life as a restaurant pastry chef. They are the recipes I cook at home for my friends and family. And you can, too.”

Some of what she cooks at home includes honey amaranth waffles, strawberry barley scones, pear and buckwheat pancakes, corn and gruyere muffins, ginger peach muffins (with oat flour), banana walnut cake (with quinoa flour), maple Danish, carrot muffins (think spelt).

Good to the Grain is organized by primary flour in the recipe, whole-wheat flour, for example. Twelve chapters in all. There’s an introduction on technique, tools, and the goods you should have in the pantry. There’s a chapter on jams and compotes as well. This isn’t to say that only one flour is used at a time in any given chapter, for Boyce has become a master at mixing for best effect. Whole-wheat gets a little help from regular old all-purpose white flour, and the multi-grain flour mix of five different flours gets a boost from whole-grain pastry flour. She uses cooked oatmeal and whole grain cereals, and cooked sweet potato – in muffins. She lays a groundwork, and if you bake your way through this text and learn the technique, there’s no telling what you will come up with on your own.

There’s always a table of wholesome whole-grain baked goods at the local farmer’s market. You know the one. Breads of extraordinary weight. Cinnamon buns that gum up your teeth and clog your mouth. Muffins with sawdust texture, and flavor. Slices of whole-wheat pizza you dare not drop on your foot. It’s enough to make any sane person run in the direction of white flour, white sugar, shortening, and butter.

Kim Boyce brings all that to an end. Time will be marked as Before Boyce and After Boyce once this book gets around. It’s too late for me. I just can’t go there. But damn, the pictures are enticing.

Cookbook Backlist: Three books worth a look

Three books left from last season, sitting on the edge of my desk. I’ve been picking through them in the kitchen, seeing which recipes or which foodways are likely to stick. I am as guilty as anyone for recycling the same half dozen dishes week in and week out and calling it dinner. (My latest fave – call me lazy – is to put on a pot of brown rice, bone out and flatten a couple of chicken breasts, then grill those on the stove top cast iron grill with a veg in the microwave, all of it seeming to come together in 10 minutes.) Weekends, I find, are for more thoughtful, more adventurous cooking. Somehow it all works, and new cookbooks are an always welcome stimulus.

A Tavola, Recipes and Reflections on Traditional Italian Home Cooking by Gianni Scappin and Vincenzo Lauria. Lebhar-Friedman Books. $29.95

It’s hard getting past the antipasti chapter. Always a good sign. And it’s pan-regional antipasti. The greatest hits of antipasti. In fact, A Tavola could be called  the greatest hits of Italian home cooking. And this from the Culinary Institute of America where the two authors are instructors.  That they come from opposite ends of Italy only helps the material rise above any overt regional bias.

Sweet and sour eggplant, striped bass salad with white beans and pesto, warm large shrimp with fennel and arugula dressing, lightly pickled fried squid – why do I need to go any farther? Can’t I just sit down and tuck a napkin under my chin?

Chapters in A Tavola (Antipasti e Zuppe aside) include Pizzas and Breads: Polenta Rice and Pasta; Main Dishes and Accompaniments; and Digestives, Liqueurs, and Desserts. Each chapter is stuffed with supportive information – a discussion of Italian cheeses, for instance, or olive oils, or pasta variations. For anyone steeped in Italian cuisine, this will all be old news. But for anyone just getting a leg up, this is a valuable text. The bottom line is the result at the table. Follow these recipes, build a meal, and you will, in fact, bring traditional Italian home coking into your own home.

Classic Lebanese Cuisine by Chef Kamal Al-Faqih. Three Forks, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. $24.95

I have this big event coming up, and I was thinking along the lines of over-the-top macaroni and cheese and Cajun meatloaf. You with me? But then I picked up this copy of Classic Lebanese Cuisine. And the rain on my parade came in the form of hummus and baba ghannouj, tabouleh and fried cauliflower with tahini sauce, spicy red pepper and walnut spread, roasted lemon-garlic chicken, stuffed squash and grape leaves, fava beans with garlic and lemon, and home made baklava. So I find myself setting aside that which will clog everyone’s arteries for food that will make anyone want to go home and have sex on soft sheets. I swear. Food that lights you up. Food that leaves you both sated and healthy. Chef Kamal (you can find out more about him at www.cookingwithkamal.com) takes you right to the heart of Lebanese cuisine, and the best of the Mediterranean diet. There’s no going back.

Thirty Minute Pasta, 100 Quick and Easy Recipes by Giuliano Hazan. Stewart, Tabori, and Chang. $27.50

One hundred quick and easy recipes is saying something. But consider the source. Giuliano, son of Marcella. Now, I am sure, like any son, he looks forward to the day his own name rises of its own accord. But the unique quality of growing up under Marcella’s wing is this: The recipe as written and described will deliver the dish as it is meant to taste. That was Marcella’ great gift, and it is Giuliano’s as well. Sounds simple, I know. But pay attention to this book and you won’t find yourself serving the wrong sauce with the wrong pasta ever again.

Chapters break out into Pasta Soups, Vegetarian Pastas, Seafood Pastas, and Meat Pastas. So, yes, there is a Pasta e Fagioli recipe – bean and pasta soup, and it is simple, direct, and delicious. Giuliano doesn’t shy away from butter where it is needed, but this is a healthy book, from a healthy diet. Spaghettini with fresh tomato, olive oil, and basil? C’mon. Count me in. Linguine with shrimp and porcini? Where do I apply for the taster’s gig?

The thing is, working your way through this book, you get very comfortable with producing delicious dishes in less that 30 minutes. And if that doesn’t put an end to takeout, I don’t know what will.

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Slacker

There was a time, oh, about six weeks ago when I was glued to the computer and pounding the keyboard to dust. It was all about getting an effective website up and running, and I got maybe 75% of what I was aiming for. Part of the process was delving into WordPress and Google Analytics, expanding my FaceBook reach, tweaking Twitter. The deeper I got into social network marketing the more it felt like that scene in Lord of the Rings when Frodo is wending his way through a gloomy marsh, getting sleepier and sleepier and sleepier.frodo166

I had to take a break, shake it off, then recommit. In the meantime I learned that placing ads in FaceBook had as much effect on website traffic as not placing ads in FaceBook; that placing broad spectrum ads had as much impact as placing tightly targeted ads. And now that there are no ads, the traffic graphs spike up and down and up and down in a sign of life all their own.

As modern as it may all seem, it’s really back to the days of steam. To make steam someone’s gotta pick up the shovel and start feeding coal into the fire. I may be too much of a slacker. I haven’t been tweeting regularly. I haven’t been posting new material on Xomba or my website. My FaceBook entries have fallen way off. And the gap that exists between what truly interests me and what I would need to do to keep the engine running simply deepens.

In other words, I need a schedule. I need to be my own program manager. How much material does a blog/website need in a week, and when will I produce it? How much administrative maintenance is necessary, and when will I carry out those tasks? What kind of self imposed continuing education is necessary to keep up with  changes, and when will I do the work? That kind of stuff.

The alternative is to let it all slide. But a certain fondness has developed in the meantime, and to stop now would be a little like showing the cat the door.

The overarching question here is how do you keep it interesting? And not interesting for anyone who happens to find the blog or website, but interesting for me. How do I keep it interesting for me?

Such is the nature of business. Once you have it up and running, how do you keep it interesting, for yourself?

I think of my grandfather, who owned and ran a five-and-dime general store in a small town in the west his entire adult life. I can picture him standing in front of the greeting cards rack, checking the cut of his fingernails from time to time, waiting for a customer to appear. At night he would take home the day’s receipts, count everything out on the dining room table, and make the appropriate entries in his books. He started his professional work life as a bookkeeper, and I suspect the store was his excuse to have books all his own. Accounts. He weighed the tedium of the day against the elegance of well-kept accounts. And when he closed his books at night, he was done for the day.

Balance. I need balance.

The New Thanksgiving Table: BHM Cookbook Review

For food magazines, Thanksgiving rolls around in late spring, when the turkeys are all frozen, not fresh, but the photos have to look perfect anyway. It’s the problem with lead time, the time it takes to put a holiday issue together. Newspapers have it a little easier, but those holiday issues come earlier than the holidays themselves, and there’s all the disassociated planning to deal with, the time out of time. Year in and year out. Imagine facing down yet another Thanksgiving issue and you are 25 years in to your food writing career, hoping the next round of newsroom cuts head over to sports and leave the food section alone. Just a thought. What the hell could possibly be left to say?

Well, the answer comes from Diane Morgan and can be found in her lovely new cookbook, The New Thanksgiving Table.newthanksgiving2T

She cops to the writer/ recipe developer struggle right off: “So there we were, my husband and I, enjoying an al fresco Thanksgiving dinner in May, followed by numerous other Thanksgiving feasts with family and friends in July, August, September, October, and – at last – November!” She goes on to talk about how writing about holidays and holiday cooking brings into “sharp relief the real stuff of life: baking bread with family and friends, sharing traditions, and creating memories.” As a result, what comes through in The New Thanksgiving Table is a refreshing honesty. This isn’t a cookbook based on a gimmick or a marketing plan, a cookbook written to fill a need and niche that never existed before. This is an honest embrace of a critical meal in American life, and the proof is in the food.

Diane Morgan begins with mouth watering and relatively easy to prepare appetizers such as Vermont Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese Straws, a tip of the hat to convention, and Tex-Mex Honey Pecans, an acknowledgement of expanding cultural definitions. I am particularly taken by the Crostini with Fig and Kalamata Olive Tapenade, as well as the Crostini with Gulf Shrimp, Jalapeno, and Lime. Nice way to start.

Her soups include an Oyster Stew designed to elevate the lusciousness of fresh oysters.  Her Butternut Squash Bisque is garnished with Fried Sage and (believe it or not) Popcorn.  Salads include Hearts of Romaine with Crisp Red Apples, Celery, and Cider Vinaigrette, Butter Lettuce Salad with Persimmons and Pomegranate, or a Chicory, Pear, and Toasted Pecan Salad with Buttermilk-Black Pepper Dressing. I don’t know about you, but I am feeling the season.

Turkey, of course, is the focus of the chapter on main courses. How to buy a turkey, how to brine a turkey, how to make turkey stock for gravy, how to truss, roast (those critical times), carve, and present the big bird – it’s all here and, from my modest experience, it all rings true. I am a big fan of brining and I intend to try Morgan’s Apple Cider and Ginger Brine this year.  But then there’s her recipe for Juniper-Brined Roast Turkey with Chanterelle Mushroom Gravy. There’s also the Maple-Glazed Roast Turkey with Applejack Giblet Gravy to consider. Were the recipe for Jack Daniel’s Whiskey and Brown Sugar Crusted Ham not so engaging, you might think it an after thought.

And that’s not even half the book. There’s a chapter devoted to Stuffings, Casseroles, Biscuits, and Breads. Linguica Sausage Stuffing with Mushrooms and Caramelized Onions gets my vote, as do the Hazelnut and Fresh Herb Popovers. The chapter on side dishes has some show stoppers, to whit, Honey and Chipotle Glazed Sweet Potato Spears with Lime. The Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Smoked Ham and Toasted Pecans looks particularly delish. There are also sauces, compotes and salsas.

Desserts include Spiced Pumpkin Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Bourbon Pecan Pie with Buttermilk Whipped Cream. And finally, the chapter on leftovers.

I am actually looking forward to Thanksgiving this year, a holiday meal that too often shouts out for the same tired old recipes because that’s the way it has always been. Well, not this year. This is the year of The New Thanksgiving Table.

The New Thanksgiving Table

By Diane Morgan

Chronicle Books

ISBN: 9780811864930

$24.95, 224 pgs.

Cooking the Cowboy Way: A cookbook review

Grady Spears has staked out the Texas cowboy-turned-chef territory with such cookbooks as The Texas Cowboy Kitchen, A Cowboy in the Kitchen, Cowboy Cocktails, and the minimalist The Great Steak Book. He either owns, has owned, or been a consultant to scads of restaurants from Ft. Worth (home) to Beverly Hills (hallucination).

In Cooking the Cowboy Way, which he co-authored with food journalist, June Naylor, Grady gets downright philosophical: “It’s a life where boots and hats are always about function, not fashion… When your days are filled with the smell of fresh-cut hay and the creaking of worn leather, when you wake up with the sun and to the smell of coffee on the boil and biscuits from the chuck wagon, you are living the Cowboy Way.” Which is to say, I guess, don’t bother trying if your days have nothing to do with that.cowboywayT

The Cowboy Way is a sidebar design feature that turns up every few pages in the book with cowboy insights and information such as, “Each cabin has a remote controlled gas fireplace, so you don’t even have to get out of bed to adjust the flame.” Ah, the Cowboy Way is the life for me. It’s kind of a repetitive thing – Cowboy Way, Cowboy Way, Cowboy Way – and, like those oft repeated Weapons of Mass Destruction, say it often enough and you find you have good reason to invade Iraq, or serve cowboys Green and Citrus Salad with Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette.

OK. I’ve had my fun. There are a lot of terrific recipes in this book, the one I just mentioned among them (it has Spanish chorizo in it as well as a mix of citrus and avocado). Why it has to be packaged as something it isn’t, I don’t understand. The tag line says the recipes were inspired by campfires, chuck wagons, and ranch kitchens. But the (mostly) Texas ranches in Cooking the Cowboy Way are of the dude persuasion, if not outright spas. Ranches with steakhouses and conference accommodations attached. There isn’t a working cowboy alive who can afford a night at Rancho de la Osa in Sasabe, Arizona. And that’s a shame because the place sounds fabulous and the food that shows up in this cookbook is ever so tempting: Lamb Tenderloin with Green Olive Jam, Asparagus and Portobello Enchiladas in Chipotle Cream, Baked Acorn Squash with Pistachios. I’m down.

There are desserts to be tried like Toby’s Crème Brulee or Kumquat Refrigerator Pie, cocktails like Blood Orange Mimosas, Bloody Maria, and West Texas Sunrise; meat dishes like Ranch-Rubbed Prime Rib, Porterhouse Steaks with Wildcatter Steak Rub, Ranchero Grilled Quail with Vaqueros Migas, Fish Tacos, and Longhorn Chili. The baked goods are an impressive lot, and so too are the salads and the dressings.

But hey, I’d really like to see Grady Spears explain to a working cowboy how using good-quality balsamic vinegar is the key to his Wild Mustang Salad. It’s not that I disagree. I just don’t get the Cowboy Way of it.

Cooking the Cowboy Way

By Grady Spears with June Naylor

Andrews McMeel Publishing

ISBN-10: 0740773925

$29.99

Recipe Road Test: Cuban Picodillo

This just in: Cowboys in Florida eat Cuban food. This according to Cooking the Cowboy Way by Grady Spears, a new cookbook from Andrews McMeel Publishing. They also drink minty mojitos and eat kumquat pie for dessert. Things are different on the range in Florida, but who am I to argue?

I figured I might as well give the picodillo a try.

Cuban Picodillo from Cooking the Cowboy Way by Grady Spears
3 tsp vegetable oil
1 ½ pounds lean ground beef or turkey-1
1 large white onion
2 or 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 (6-ounce) can tomato sauce
¼ cup dry white wine
1 cup pimiento-stuffed olives, coarsely chopped
1 cup golden raisins
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups fluffy cooked white rice

In a large skillet over medium high heat, warm the oil and brown the meat with the onion, garlic, and pepper. Decrease the heat to medium-low and add the tomato sauce and wine. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add the olives and raisins. Add the seasonings, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes longer. The consistency should be similar to chili. Serve hot, over rice. Serves 6

Recipe Road Test: True confession time. I didn’t have a white onion. Mine was yellow. Well, the outside peel was yellow. The onion itself was white enough. Maybe what Grady meant was that the meat of the onion should be white, and don’t worry about the skin. As opposed to a red onion.

I used ground beef (organic) not ground turkey. If you think the beef industry is hairy you don’t even want to think about turkey. Those birds have it almost as bad as commercial pigs. And the way pigs are raised you don’t ever want to think about that, either.

So then there’s this direction to brown the beef with the onion, garlic, and bell pepper. I sautéed the vegetables first, letting the garlic and onion brown a little, just to develop their flavors. Then I tossed in the bell pepper (mine were orange and yellow) and beef. Once the beef had changed color I added what was probably a cup of home made tomato sauce. Hard to tell since it was still a little frozen and chunky. I didn’t have any white wine.

Grady doesn’t say anything about covering the pan, but I did. I didn’t want to cook off excess liquid at the beginning. I added the olives and raisins, and I added some red pepper flakes, too. This is contrary to most things Cuban, which is not a cuisine that ever calls for hot spice. But to tell you the truth, when I tasted the picodillo, it seemed a little on the bland side. Since the jar of Trader Joe’s Steak and Chop Grill and Broil spice mix was sitting right there on the counter, I sprinkled some of that in, too. You see how this is headed.

The picodillo finished cooking with the lid off to thicken up the juices. I served it over short grain brown rice, which has a nice nutty flavor.

Road Test Result: The picodillo turned out pretty tasty. It was simple to cook, and once it’s on rice you can see how it’s a kind of stretch the hamburger dish. The little edge of spice gave it a nice kick. With a big Caesar salad, you are good to go.

Tomato Soup: Where Culinary Discoveries Come From

First of all, you want that gourmet type tomato soup. It comes in a box, not a can. The one I buy comes from Trader Joe’s and they say it also has roasted red peppers in it. I empty the contents of the box into a pan, which is to say I squirt the soup from the box into the pan. It ends with a rather disgusting noise, the kind that simply pleases the hell out of any four year old boy child. All you have to do at that point is heat the soup. I use a modest flame. I don’t believe in rushing good food. And the microwave is for reheating a cup of coffee.

So, I have done, or am doing all this. It’s lunch time. I can tell because I have this empty feeling. And a bowl of tomato soup doesn’t quite look like enough. So I get out the Orville Redenbacher’s original popcorn. You will find no Jiffy Pop in this household. And you will not find any microwave popcorn of any brand or kind, either. I am a popcorn traditionalist and make it on the stovetop, in a pot, a single layer of kernels plumping in a bit of hot peanut oil. Lid on, mind you.-1

This is where the butter comes out, too. Not margarine. I don’t just melt it. I brown it. This was one of my wife’s discoveries, and it makes all the difference. That and sea salt. Ahhh. The perfect snack.

So. I put the two bowls of tomato soup on the table, then the bowl of popcorn. Joyce finds this amusing. She digs around in the refrigerator for the grated Parmesan cheese, and brings that to the table. I am happily eating my soup, and enjoying fingers full of popcorn. Joyce sprinkles her soup with the cheese, which seems like a good idea, and then dumps a handful of popcorn onto her soup. Et voila! This is where culinary discoveries come from! A perfect marriage.

The next time a child of any age shows up at my house, I know exactly what I am going to serve: tomato soup and popcorn.

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