Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Happy Halloween!

JENN McKINLAY: I was going to write a post about the world's scariest places in keeping with the Halloween vibe, but then I went to Las Vegas, which to my mind was not known for being haunted. But I was wrong!

A large group of us journeyed to Lost Wages, er, I mean Las Vegas to support our friends the Gin Blossoms, who were playing the Freemont Street Experience and celebrate some life moments among our group. All good fun. 

Except two of our party ended up in a haunted room. Yes, haunted. While one person was sleeping and the other was reading, a dresser drawer opened all by itself! Our friend didn't panic, thinking these things happen, buildings settle and all that. But while she was in the shower, and her partner was still sleeping, the hot water tap in the sink turned on - again - all by itself! 



The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, one of the most famous ghost photographs of all time, originally taken for Country Life and first published in December 1936.


Being mature grown-ups, we naturally determined that the room was haunted and the speculation about who was haunting it, what would happen next and whatnot, ran rampant within the group. 

This reminded me of another time when the Hub and I checked into a hotel in Jerome, Arizona. We went out to dinner and came back and to get ready for his gig. While we were changing, the door to the closet opened by itself and a stack of blankets were hurled out of it as if they had been thrown. We exchanged a look and without saying a word, grabbed our stuff and checked out. 



Do I believe in ghosts? Maybe. I'm still not sure. But there was definitely something otherly about our room in Jerome and our friends' room in Vegas. 

How about you, Reds and Readers? Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever felt an otherly presence?


Monday, October 30, 2023

Turkey with a side of...?

JENN McKINLAY: This time last year, I was in Ireland (research!) and it was fascinating because as they were taking down the Halloween/Samhain decorations, they were popping up the Christmas ones. I know retail stores are now doing Halloween-Christmas mashup displays that start in July  (good grief!) but this was private residences and whatnot. Of course, I realized after a beat, that they don’t have Thanksgiving in Ireland so of course they can roll right into Christmas. It made me actually appreciate Turkey day as the stop gap it is.


For some inexplicable reason, I volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner this year. Hub is cooking so that technically leaves me with cleaning and baking duty, which is not a hardship but given that the Hub’s definition of cooking is meat – just meat – well, I suspect I’m going to have to produce some side dishes.



So, I implore you, Reds, what are your favorite Thanksgiving sides? I need the next three weeks to practice if we’re really doing this, which apparently, we are. 


HALLIE EPHRON: My favorite side from growing up was a sweet potato and apple casserole. Sadly I have never been able to reproduce it so I post a plea, just in case any of our readers have a recipe! It was layers of sweet potato and apple slices, layered with something like brown sugar and butter. There must have been some liquid …I’d have guessed apple juice. Or water. But I’ve failed miserably trying to make it, figuring out what the proportions are to make the potatoes and apples absorb the liquid and congeal into a delicious sweet gluey hunk. Anyone??


JENN: This sounds amazing!


RHYS BOWEN:  we are having a big celebration for John’s birthday at the same time as Thanksgiving, renting a huge house in Paradise Valley and thus I’ll be cooking for 16 (actually I’ll be overseeing. I’ll have help) Among those 16 are gluten, lactose, vegan challenges!

We always have to have the green bean casserole for my son in law but my son Dominic has promised to make it with real beans, mushrooms and coconut milk so that our lactose intolerants can eat it. Clare will make gluten free stuffing. The stuffing is my favorite dish. Lots of onion and sausage and herbs in the non vegan one!


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I also have a lactose-intolerant guest, and very frequently either vegetarians or vegans as well, Rhys. A standard for the vegetarians has been a couple of quiches: fairly quick and easy to make, and everyone likes them. One year I made a vegan version (using egg substitute and fake cheese from Trader Joe’s) that was a smash with the meat eaters as well!


As for sides, Jenn, I like ones that can be made a day or more ahead. Coleslaw would be great, considering your warmer temperatures, and maple baked beans (very New England) can cook and be reheated in the crockpot. If I’m not prepping them ahead of time, they need to be quick and easy - mashed potatoes, canned cranberries with some spices and mandarin oranges stirred in, good store-bought buns. 


We’ll be skipping it this Thanksgiving, as I’ll have TWO sober kids there (my son is four months and counting!) but in the old days when we used to host a crowd, I liked to make a punch instead of offering cocktails when guests arrive. Everyone can help themselves, and you can also do it as a non-alcoholic base with a bottle of rum/tequila/gin on the side.


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: One, mashed potatoes. You can make them in advance, and put them in the fridge. To reconstitute,  put in a baking dish, dot with butter, cover and heat at 350 for 30 mins. DELICIOUS. Add chives or bacon bits.

Same with mashed sweet potatoes. WIth just salt  and pepper and butter, I don’t gussy them up with sugary stuff.

Green beans. Cook in advance until almost done, blanch, wrap in paper towels, refrigerate. Day of, throw more butter in a frying pan, saute quickly, add slivered almonds and s & p, go.

Stuffing. SO EASY. Follow the instructions on the Pepperidge Farm stuffing package. I usually saute onions and celery first, then do the rest. DELICIOUS. You can also make in advance, put in a baking dish, and reheat with the potatoes.

Oh, cranberries. Buy a package of Ocean Spray. Follow the directions. Add zested orange rind. You can make this in advance, too, and it’s much better.

THE GRAVY IS THE HARDEST PART. We’ll talk.

Backtime the turkey, but it can rest an hour. 

BE SURE TO TAKE THE GIBLETS AND STUFF OUT OF THE TURKEY.

Get fresh parsley for garnishing everything.

Oh. Make sure your turkey pan fits in the oven WITH the turkey. Seriously. 


DEBORAH CROMBIE: My absolutely favorite side is my own homemade cranberry relish, so I will make this even if I'm not cooking anything else. Next up is my daughter's roasted Brussel sprouts. I don't cook Brussels, because Rick doesn't like them, so they are a real treat for me. Kayti roasts them with lots of olive oil and flaky sea salt until they are starting to get crispy and caramelized, then once out of the oven, drizzles them with a little balsamic vinegar. So yummy, and good for vegetarians, too.


We make dressing, not stuffing, so cornbread is an essential, although I usually use half cornbread (homemade!) and half a good country wheat. Lots of celery and onions sauteed in butter (it's Thanksgiving!), then mixed with the dried cubed breads and loads of sage, moistened with chicken stock. Can be baked ahead and frozen. Easy to sub olive oil and veg stock to make vegetarian/vegan. 


We also really like haricots vert, the way described above. I actually don't care anything about the turkey–it's all about the sides for me.


HANK: What’s the difference between dressing and stuffing? Whether it’s cooked IN the turkey?


LUCY BURDETTE: I don’t know the answer Hank, but I suspect it’s regional. We call ours stuffing, even though it’s no longer stuffed into the turkey. Mine sounds a lot like Debs’, sometimes with the addition of sausage, but always cornbread. Once I made it with oysters–it was good but weird. Here’s the link to my recipe: https://www.mysteryloverskitchen.com/2013/11/thanksgiving-cornbread-and-sausage.html


I love the sound of Kaytie’s brussel sprouts, but prefer the can of cranberry jelly to anything homemade. Oh, and here’s one more recipe for decadent corn spoonbread: https://www.mysteryloverskitchen.com/2019/01/donna-kleins-corn-spoon-bread-revised.html


The cranberry debate is a blog post for another day as I am firmly on Team Canned Jelly with Lucy.





Okay, Readers, your turn. What's your favorite side dish? And are you a canned cranberry jelly or homemade cranberry relish person?


Sunday, October 29, 2023

Pumpkin Mousse Perfect for Fall

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: If it's Sunday, it must mean Celia Wakefield with another delicious recipe. Today, she has a showy-looking dessert perfect for your Hallowe'en-Thanksgiving-Christmas dinner menu. As usual, I had the chance to gobble it down as fast as possible try a taste, and I can promise you'll enjoy it - as will your guests, who, let's face it, might be a teensy bit tired of the same old pumpkin pie. As usual, there's a video sharing some of Celia's techniques at the end.

 

 




Good morning dear friends, writers and JRW’s. We are in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, surrounded by yellow and orange everywhere we look. Orange is what I have to share today. 
 
 
Although all the writing I do is memoir based or recipe based I do take care to read each JRW blog and post to learn more about improving my writing. Please feel free to chime in here, though with the expert editor, Julia, who checks my writing, hopefully I won’t make too many bloopers. I know it’s important in writing mysteries to have a main theme and several sub themes and I hope I have achieved that. 
 

Pumpkin is the queen of Fall, and pumpkin pie is universally beloved in the USA and is THE quintessential Thanksgiving dessert. Probably not made from the pumpkins your grade schoolers carved and decorated with magic marker. 
 
 
However arriving in the States as an adult, I found many new customs that I might have heard of but didn’t realize that I would adopt. Once Olivia was headed to nursery school I learned that Halloween and Thanksgiving were celebrations I needed to appreciate, understand and get with the program as any good mom would. 
 
 
Luckily, Dad loved to carve pumpkins with daughter as my poor artistic skills were not even up to pumpkin carving. However I did made awesome costumes, and three year old Olivia was a star in the tiger suit I made from fake fur, which may have been eclipsed by the Queen of Hearts a couple of years later. A circular skirt of silver lame embroidered with BIG hot pink lame hearts. Barbie, eat your heart out. 
 

But Thanksgiving - lots of new food to learn to love. I do remember eating squash or something with marshmallows on it served at a friends house, and it turned out that pumpkin pie is not a fav of mine either.  (However, apple crumble is always welcome.)
 
One year, we were invited to Olivia’s favorite babysitters home for Thanksgiving dinner, and I was asked to bring a dessert. Panic on the pie front. How could I turn pumpkin into something I would be proud to serve and eat? 
 
I hunted through my American cook books and Gourmet Magazine, and found in The Everyday Gourmet, published the previous year by my local Junior League, a pumpkin mousse. It looked good, it fitted the brief, and best of all it had rum in it and wasn’t too complex a recipe. 

 
How did I get involved with the Junior League of Northern Westchester? No, I wasn’t a member but I was the British Butler. The Junior League had undertaken a three year project to build and outfit the first house for domestic violence victims in the area. This was a big deal, and part of their fund raising was The Everyday Gourmet with its 400 recipes. It is the epitome of late ’70’s cooking with lots of cream, butter etc.
 
 
I was asked to teach the volunteers to make the dessert for the book launch at a luncheon at the local country club. It was all very upmarket, and I found they wanted me to work with volunteers to create a hundred or so floating island desserts! All I remember from the prep part is sticky. So many egg whites, so much custard made from scratch, so much beating and shaping. But with my volunteers, we were successful, lauded and appreciated. (My cookbook offering from the British Butler was a demo on working with phyllo pastry, which was in demand by my clients.)
 
 
Where better to look for a different pumpkin dessert than the Junior League book? I found a pumpkin mousse submitted by Nancy Hoggson which I successful presented for  the Thanksgiving dinner. I promise it will be welcomed at any Halloween buffet, decorated with candy corn or eyeballs, or at Thanksgiving Dinner, with whipped cream and pecans, chocolate or my fav: crystalized ginger shards.

INGREDIENTS:

2 packets unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup dark rum (substitutions: orange juice or bourbon)
8 eggs
1 1/3 cups sugar (measure 2/3 cup sugar for half recipe)*
2 cups cooked pumpkin (canned works very well)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp mace
1/2 tsp ground cloves
2 cups heavy cream, whipped

EQUIPMENT:

Double boiler or set a Pyrex bowl on a small saucepan with simmering water in the bottom

Mixing bowl 

Electric hand beater or a stand mixer

Small bowl for measured spices

Chilled bowl for whipping cream

Whisks and spatulas

METHOD:
  • Set double boiler with water in bottom half on stove
  • Place the rum or liquid in the top half and sprinkle on the gelatin. Place over the lower pan and watch as the gelatin melts. Keep the heat low and stir gently. When dissolved remove from heat and allow to cool down.
  • Measure the other ingredients, mixing the spices in the small bowl.
  • Break the eggs into the mixing bowl and start beating. Once they are mixed well increase the speed and add the sugar in a dessert spoon at a time.
  • Beat well till the mix increases in volume.
  • Sprinkle the spice mix over the eggs and sugar and stir in.
  • Add the pumpkin together with the rum-gelatin mixture, and stir with with the electric mixer on low.
  • Add the cream to the chilled bowl and whip till stiff
  • Mix a couple of spoons of the pumpkin egg into the cream
  • Using a spatula fold the cream into the pumpkin mixture till incorporated
  • Spoon into individual bowls or into a serving bowl and refrigerate.
  • To serve decorate with whipped cream and small candies.

I made a half recipe for us to try which certainly made enough for 6 people. Nancy writes that this quantity serves 8-10 but with other desserts it would serve more. 
 

Saturday, October 28, 2023

The Robots Are Coming...For Your Burrito Bowls

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: As a science fiction lover from an early age (Star Trek: the Original Series, y’all) I’ve been fascinated by the concept of robots for a long time. The origin of the word, for those of you who might not have taken Early 20th Century Theater in college*, comes from R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech playwright Karl ńĆapek. The Czech word robota refers to the forced labor of serfs or slaves - yeah, think about that the next time you turn on your Roomba.


 

 

Most of the robots in popular culture dating back to the 1920s are, well, sexy. Interesting. Dramatic. Think of the famous machine-person in Metropolis, or the menacing Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still. (“Klaatu barada nikto!”) Rutger Hauer breaking your heart in Blade Runner and Data charming you in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I won’t even get into the vast number of SF films that feature the so-very-not original “beautiful robot girl who will also kill you.” (For an interesting gender twist on the old chestnut, see Ich bein dein Mensch /I’m Your Man on Hulu.)

 


Sadly, in our world, we are not getting sexy, interesting or dramatic robots. We’re getting burrito bowl makers.


That’s right. Soon, your dinner at Chipotle’s (which dubs itself a “fast casual” restaurant) will be courtesy of Chippy the tortilla chip maker, Autocado, which preps avocados (get it?) and a third robot, sadly without a cutesy name, that assembles salads and burrito bowls. On the one hand, there won’t be much chance of catching e. Coli from our machine friends. On the other hand, goodbye to another swathe of $15/hour jobs.


What’s next? Robby the Robot flipping burgers at Mickey D’s? (“Danger of cholesterol, Will Robinson!”) The Terminator serving you mozzarella sticks at Applebees? (“I’ll be back…with your margaritas.”


What do you think of mechanical meal makers, Reds? And are there any other services you’d rather see robots perform?

 

*See, Dad, it wasn't a waste of money after all! 


 

HALLIE EPHRON: Mechanical meal makers seem scary to me. Last weekend I was in the airport watching a worker assemble breakfast sandwiches at a Tim Horton’s and thinking how mind numbingly repetitive the work must feel. But it’s a way to make a living… until the robots take over.


My son-in-law is a robotics engineer and I’m endlessly fascinated by his work. For a while he was working on a robotic arm that could perform colon surgery. They were testing it on a pig. TMI, I know. And he worked on the digger arm of the first Mars lander. I think his company has been acquired by Amazon. Figures.


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I remember reading R.U.R.! I adored it, and tried to look for other plays like it. LOVE that you know it, too! I still think about it.


Welp, I feel bad for the poor salad-making robot with no cute name. The Mixinator? And the burrito bowl maker could be Bowlene. (Bowlene, Bowlene, Bowlene, Bowlene–I'm beggin’ of you, please don't take  my man.) (See? The humans could sing it. It’s the first anti-robot union song.)


 Love it for the practicality, I loathe it for the job-taking. It’s such a quandary in progress and transition. 


Other services. Potato peeling. Laundry. But wow,the advances in medicine and prosthetics are incredible.


RHYS BOWEN:  my grandson is currently doing his masters in robotics and interested in remote surgery. Huge potential there! A robot saves a life in an operation in Africa directed by a surgeon here. And I can see robots doing repetitive jobs, chicken plucking, vegetable planting … but there are humans who need those jobs. 

 

What will happen when all low end jobs are done by robot?  

When I was young there were hundreds of women who worked the factory production lines. Boring repetitive work but they chatted with each other and made money for their families.  I’m really concerned for the future. 


 

 

 

 

 

JENN McKINLAY: Bring on the robots! No one should have to do those boring jobs for a rate of pay that is abysmal. Isn’t the whole point of having mechanical help so that people can pursue even bigger and bolder ideas, innovations, and art? Just think, if robots take over doctoring, then healthcare could be free and people wouldn’t be slaves to jobs they hate just for benefits because the insurance and pharmaceutical industries have made life virtually impossible without benefits. People could be happy pursuing their dreams and not risk bankruptcy over an appendicitis because the family robot could fix them right up. 

 

Yes, I’m joking, but…am I? I drive past driverless cars every single day now. It’s becoming common. So, bring on the burrito bowl robots. People have better things to do or they would if they didn’t have to make burrito bowls.



DEBORAH CROMBIE: I do worry about the people losing their jobs, and while I'd like to think they could find something better, I'm not convinced that they can. And I worry that every bit of human interaction we lose makes us a little less…human. We are all online orders and phone trees and more and more removed from dealing with other people. I know I sound like a real Luddite here, and I think the scientific and medical uses for robotics are amazing and fantastic. But… Progress marches on, and I do love Chipotle, by the way, so I will check out our local robots at the first opportunity. 

 

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? Are you in the Luddite camp with Debs, or do you welcome our robotic overlords like Jenn? 

 

Friday, October 27, 2023

Hops and Hounds

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: This past week, I went to DC to help my sister Barb at an event put on by the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, Paws in the Park (which, until I checked the website for their link, I have been calling 'Bark in the Park' for two years. Oops.)

I flew down with Youngest, who had a lively time of it herself - visiting friends from her US Senate Youth Program days, seeing the pandas before they get shipped back to China (amnesty for Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji!) and attending Evita at the Shakepeare Theater. Sadly, she was SO busy, she didn't take a single photo I can share with you! (I know, she's not your typical Zoomer.)


But before work, we got to play, at Snallygaster '23, an amazing twist on Oktoberfest. Tickets get you into a huge space created by shutting off a five-block area of Pennsylvania Ave; once there, you collect your small official tasting glass and have access to over 175 brewers from across the nation and from Germany and Belgium. It was packed!

 

 There were also bands (yes, I did a little street dancing) and amazing food trucks from all over the capitol area. 

By the end of the event at 6PM, I was feeling a little, well, Voll wie drei Russen, as they say in Bavaria.

 We walked to a great local Mexican place and got our legs under us with guacamole, fish tacos and beans. I stuck to water at this point, and was glad I did.

Then it was off early on Sunday morning to set up Barb's tent(s) at Paws in the Park.


 See that little black and white terrier with three legs in the picture above? That's their dog Trinity!

This is the second year Barb has had a presence at the event; she raffles of dog toy-and-treat baskets and offers free photos with Snoopy - Snoopy played by a boy scout from her husband Dan's troop. 

Last year, both their sons were available to help out:

But this year, they're both away at university, so it was just the three adults, and we were HOPPING. Dan counted over 130 visitors who came to get photos with Snoopy - which is why the only photo I have of Barb and I comes from last year:

Barb chats with visitors to the tent and hands out info on her Realtor business. She specializes in finding homes and rentals for people with pets, so it's a great place for her to meet potential clients. (If you're looking for a place in the DMV area, give her a call!) 

Here are some of happy customers:





Some dogs thought Snoopy was a little sus

An adoptable pup with a AWL volunteer!

 Then at 4pm we broke everything down again. By the time we headed home, I felt like someone had beaten on my legs with a lead pipe.

There were also several walks to the park with Barb's three dogs, shopping for a 'welcome to your new home' present for her clients who were closing that week, and some impromptu Hallowe'en decoration. I didn't take any snaps, but here's a video of the same type of Creepy Child who Sings in Piping Voices who turned on EVERY TIME I stepped out of the front door (she has two, a boy and a girl.)


We had to get up for the flight home at 5:20am. Insert sad-face emoji.

 

 Whew! happy to collapse at home with my own puppers, who had been well cared for by the Maine Millennial's roommate. What traveling have you done recently, dear readers?

Thursday, October 26, 2023

"... says only nation where this regularly happens."

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Dear readers. I had a lighthearted post about my trip to Dc last week ready to go, but I have no light in my heart right now.

 

As I write this, Lewiston, Maine has joined the terrible club of places where a mass shooting has shattered daily life and the sense of safety. As of 10:40PM Wednesday night, there are some 16 to 22 people dead, with 50 to 60 reported injured.

 

The average annual homicide rate for the entire state of Maine is in the low 20s. 

 

Maine has never suffered from a mass shooting before, and I have to confess I felt a sense of security and pride in the level-headedness in my state.

 

I don't feel safe anymore.

 

Lewiston is an hour away from where I live, a half-hour from my daughter Victoria's home. Her boyfriend lives in the small city of 37,000 people. She works for the hospital that's now responding to this mass casualty event. Even this far away, my kids and I are all sheltering in place while the gunman is at large.


I don't know anyone that might have been injured or killed. But I'm still struck with grief, and shock, and horror. I can't imagine how the families of the people affected are feeling right now.


And I find myself asking, as I have when the news has been so much farther away and so much less personal - how much longer?


How many more dead?