The Imaginary Heroine

searching for the plot

East Meets West Soup with a dash of Amelia Peabody February 1, 2010

(SPOILERS: Includes an overview of the Amelia Peabody Series by Elizabeth Peters. Ruins elements of the first book, but doesn’t deal with plot lines or mystery arcs)

Just to prove that I actually do eat and cook foods that aren’t chocolate desserts, I decided I had to make something worth posting for Sunday dinner. I was flipping through some cookbooks and online sites and couldn’t find anything that both sounded good and included ingredients in my kitchen.

I finally settled on making some plain old English potato soup, but when I started prepping the kitchen my eyes fell upon my bookshelf.
After a recent home improvement kick, there are now five bookshelves in the apartment. One in the living room holds classics and our DVD collection. Three in the bedroom house my Middle East books, 7abibi’s sci-fi and Chinese books, and our poli-sci/economics books respectively. The one in the kitchen has two shelves. The bottom shelf holds my cookbooks and food magazines. The top shelf holds my favorite novels: Harry Potter, Bridget Jones, Sookie Stackhouse, Amelia Peabody…
Amelia Peabody, known to many as the female Indiana Jones, was probably one of the biggest influences in the selection of my college degree. Actually, it was her linguist-cum-spy son, Walter Peabody Emerson AKA Ramses, that got me on the Linguistics/Middle Eastern studies track. Huh. No wonder I can’t get an interview… Though the Amelia Peabody series is usually enjoyed by a more mature audience, I was sucked in by the original novel The Crocodile on the Sandbank in eighth grade. The series now boasts eighteen titles with the nineteenth, A River in the Sky, due to be released April 6 of this year.

The stories are a suspenseful mix of murder, black markets, romance, history, and hilarious family drama. Elizabeth Peters is actually a nom de plume of Barbara Mertz, who received her PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago at the age of 23. Which means that a lot of the egyptological methods, theory, and history in these books are real. Many of the characters featured in the novels are also either real people (like Howard Carter, the Pankhurst sisters of women’s suffrage fame, and many more) or based on real egyptologists and travelers in Egypt and Britain during the early 1900’s.

The books usually involve the academic excavations of Amelia and Radcliffe Emerson being interrupted by a murder or theft which our intrepid egyptologists must solve before they can get back to work. The mysteries come to revolve around the character of the Master Criminal, who runs the black market antiquities trade between Egypt and Europe (one can almost hear Indiana Jones saying “that belongs in a museum!”). In the later books, a new generation joins the fray and the action becomes tied up in the unsettled political atmosphere that plagued Egypt during the final years of British occupation and the run up to WWI.

The series is a happy combination of several opposing elements. It skillfully weaves together factual events and people with fictional plots and characters. Though the main character is a female heroine who can kickass and take names, the books still manage to have interesting and worthy male characters. The flavor of the stories combine British, Ancient Egyptian, and more modern Colonial Egyptian elements to create deliciously complex story settings, characters, and structure.

Which brings me to East Meets West Soup.

Looking at my spice rack, I decided plain old potato soup simply wouldn’t do. I started pulling Central Asian spices like coriander, ginger, and turmeric. My general theory being that if Indian spiced potatoes taste good and English potato soup tastes good, then Indian potato soup would taste awesome. This is of course based upon the “good + good = awesome” maxim, as related to me on several occasions by 7abibi.

East Meets West Soup

This is a kind of “throw it in” type of recipe. Not finicky in the least. So if you haven’t got it, substitute your butt off. It’ll be just fine.

Ingredients:

1 large onion (I used yellow, but you can use anything but sweet – Wallawalla/Vidalia/etc)

1 cup baby carrots

6 stalks celery

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large sweet potato

2 large russet potatoes

3 teaspoons broth/stock bouillon base (I used Better than Boullion chicken, but you can make this vegan

with vegetable stock)

3 teaspoons dry ginger (slightly less if you’re working with fresh or minced)

3 teaspoons minced garlic (3 cloves, if starting with whole)

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons dry cilantro (a handful of fresh is better, but dry was all I had in the kitchen)

4 cups of water

Equipment:

chef’s knife or utility knife

cutting board

vegetable peeler

large 2 – 4 quart pot

wooden spoon

ladle

Directions:

Dice onions and cut celery and carrots finely and combine in large pot. [Hey look! You just made a mirepoix. Don’t you feel all knowledgeable and chefy now?].

Sprinkle salt over vegetables. Place pot over medium/low heat, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon for 10 minutes until mirepoix is fragrant and vegetables begin to soften. This is a sweat, so you shouldn’t hear loud sizzling or see any browning. If you have that, turn the heat down until it stops. You should simply have steam and fragrance.

While the aromatics are sweating, take this opportunity to peel and chop your potatoes. I like pieces that are fairly large, because they tend to disintegrate as they get softer and bigger chunks means more chunks are left in the final soup. Chop the russet potatoes last, because they will start to brown after the flesh is exposed to the air and that does not look tasty at all.

Place the potato chunks in the pot with the aromatics and add spices (NOTE: if you’re using fresh chopped cilantro, wait and add it to the finished soup after you turn off the burner), bouillon base, lemon juice, and garlic. Stir until all pieces of vegetables are coated and then add water. Cover and let simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Usually celery is the last to go, so be sure to check a big chunk of that to be sure about doneness.

Ladle into bowls and enjoy.

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Guilty Pleasures and Guiltless Double Chocolate Scones January 29, 2010

Guilty pleasures first. After admitting my supreme dorkdom in the previous post, it’s amazing that I still have some qualms about admitting this….but… I am a Twilight fan. Actually, I prefer Twitard, in honor of one of the most hysterical blogs on the net Twitarded.

I didn’t want to read the Twilight Saga. I was tricked into  it by one of my professors. Once I started reading it, I didn’t want to like it. I started out with a pencil, circling questionable vocabulary decisions (‘verbose’? Seriously? I think she meant ‘loquacious’). But despite its doubtful literary merit and dubious moral undertones, it nearly ruined the last week of finals in my undergrad career. I started Twilight on stop day and went out and bought the other three books and devoured them one after the other. I simply had to know what happened.

I thank you Stephenie Meyer for all the joy you've brought me, but WTF, mate?

Even after the fiasco that was Breaking Dawn, I was still addicted to the books, audiobooks, soundtracks, movies, and various cosmetic and wardrobe products affiliated with the movie. I have the Aerie ruffled roll over sweats that Bella wore in that scene in New Moon where Jacob jumps into her window. I am that lame. 7abibi (“ha-bee-bee” which means my male beloved in Arabic and refers to my boyfriend, with whom I share an apartment and an annoying yet adorable cat) has born it all with puzzled equanimity, poor man.

I thought I had plumbed the depths with those sweat pants, but I was wrong.

After a few rotations of books 1 – 3 and even a stab and trying to like Breaking Dawn, it was obvious that I had to find more. I had to dip into the torrid, Mary Sue laden world of fan fiction. Don’t misunderstand – I have a few friends who read and also write fanfic. It only took a few peeks into Harry Potter fanfic during the long cold nights between books before I was totally turned off. Totally. Malfoy/Ron X-rated slash fic is just not for me. Sorry.

But after hearing the buzz on not one, but several sites about the fanfic Wide Awake by angstgoddess003, I had to go check it out. I was in pain. I needed more Twilight!

Dare I say it, but even devoid of vampires, magic, and other fantastical elements, Wide Awake is absolutely phenomenal. It’s full of delicious teen angst, drama, and romance woven together with a perfect stripe of tart humor by light and skillful hand. I stayed up two nights in a row and snuck peeks between calls at work. I was truly a woman possessed.

**Disclaimer: Wide Awake is rated M for mature. It has lots of filthy language, some graphic sexual content, and disturbing imagery that may trigger, offend, or disturb some readers. This is not your tween or prudish Twimom’s Twilight**

I want to examine some of the themes in a later blog post, because it’s a really beautiful text with many points of interest, but right now I just want to talk about cookies. You’ll notice that the chapter titles are named after cookies. These cookies provide a quick snapshot of Bella’s state of mind in a particular chapter. She relates to others through her baking.

This is something I can really relate to, as I both enjoy baking and eating baked goods. My greatest joy is always seeing other people eating and enjoying food I’ve made for them. It gives me a way to connect with people I may not know how to approach. Food helps me tell people that I care for them. For me, a gift of food is meant to encompass nutritional sustenance, sensual pleasure, and personal affection.

This recipe is based on one for a healthier cookie that was originally published in SELF magazine circa 2000. I was trying to counteract the guilty reading pleasures with a bit of virtuous eating (I seriously am trying to follow a Clean Eating diet, but my life simply can’t go on without baked goods). Unfortunately, my first batch turned out to be seriously lacking in tastiness. Who cares if food is healthy if no one wants to eat it? However, with a bit more leavening and some other tweaks, the recipe turned out to yield a pretty darn good (and quasi-healthy) scone.

Dark Chocolate Oatmeal Scones

Yield: Makes 2 -3 dozen depending on drop size

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour (regular whole wheat works too, but white whole wheat tastes lighter)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup ground flax seeds or flax meal
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp kosher or sea salt
3/4 cup drained great Northern, Cannellini, Garbanzo or any white beans, liquid reserved
2 tbsp coco butter at room temperature
1/2 – 3/4 cup agave nectar
2 large eggs (can be replaced with 3 egg whites and 1 yolk, but all whites can result in crumbly, hard scones)
1/4 cup skim milk or unsweetened soy milk
1 1/2 tbsp pure vanilla extract
8 oz chocolate chips with at least 60% cacao content
Optional mix-ins: these are great with walnut pieces, dried cherries and/or cranberries
Optional topping: 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt and 2 teaspoons raw sugar

Equipment:
1 medium mixing bowl
1 large mixing bowl

Stick blender/immersion blender
Coffee grinder
OR
Food processor

Flexible silicone spatula
2 metal teaspoons
Silicone baking mats
Cookie sheets
Nylon rigid spatula (or other cookie de-panning device)
Cooling racks

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Using coffee grinder OR food processor, process oats until finely ground but not powdery. If you’re using the coffee grinder, this will have to be done in batches. Combine with flour, cocoa powder, ground flax seeds, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium mixing bowl. This is your dry goods bowl.

Using stick blender, purée beans and 2 tbsp reserved bean liquid until smooth in a large bowl. Add coco butter, Agave nectar, eggs, vanilla and mix with immersion blender until combined. Alternatively, purée beans and liquid in clean bowl of food processor, and then add coco butter, agave nectar, eggs, vanilla and pulse until combined. Then transfer contents to large mixing bowl. This is your wet goods bowl and soon to be your final mixing bowl.

Add dry goods to wet goods bowl in batches, stirring slowly with silicone spatula to avoid puffs of dry goods. Stir in chocolate chips (and other mix-ins like nuts and dried fruit). Batter will be thick and wet with heterogeneous bits of mix-ins and bits of oatmeal and flax. If batter is dry, drizzle in milk 1 tbsp at a time and mix until it becomes wet. If batter is too runny, add in whole wheat flour 1/4 cup at a time and mix until it becomes thicker.

Using metal teaspoons (in my experience, the batter is too sticky for a disher or scoop) drop about 1 – 1 1/2 tablespoons of batter on cookie sheets with silicone baking mats. The concern while baking these scones is upward lift, instead of outward spread. They can be made about 1.5 inches apart from each other, but be sure to spread the batter out to about 1/4 inch thickness. It will puff up quite a bit as it bakes.

Once the scones are dished onto the baking surface, now would be the time to add the topping if you so chose. Mix together salt and raw sugar and sprinkle a small amount onto the tops of the scones.

Bake 15 to 17 minutes until centers are firm. Use nylon spatula to transfer to wire rack to cool.

***

This recipe is very forgiving and versatile. Wet batter can be remedied with a bit more flour, while dry batter can be fixed with a bit more milk. There are also lots of other flavor combinations you can introduce to the batter with great results. Here are a few off the top of my head:

  • For a mocha scone add enough instant coffee mix for 2 or 3 cups of coffee to the wet goods before mixing in the dry goods
  • Try black beans instead of white – the dark, smoky flavor goes well with chocolate
  • Omit cocoa powder and chocolate chips and use mixed dried fruit and substitute lemon extract for half of the vanilla extract for a light, fruity scone
  • Omit cocoa powder and chocolate chips and substitute almond extract for half of the vanilla extract. Mix in sliced almonds for a toasty almond scone
  • Omit cocoa powder and chocolate chips and add 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 3 teaspoons ginger, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and use molasses in place of agave nectar to make a spicy gingerbread scone (omit pepper for milder gingerbread flavor)
  • Substitute maple syrup for agave nectar, nix all or part of the vanilla extract, and add in bits of cooked turkey bacon for a sweet and savory scone
  • Omit agave nectar, vanilla, cocoa powder and chocolate chips and swap 2 tablespoons olive oil for the coco butter, then try savory mix-ins like 1/2 cup parmesan cheese shreds and 1 cup broccoli pieces and 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning. Or use black beans as suggested above and add in diced bell pepper, cumin, paprika, and cilantro and serve them with salsa for southwestern scones.
  • I’m not particularly well-versed in the use of alternative flours (yet), but I feel like you could experiment with omitting the wheat flour in this recipe for gluten-free alternatives like rice flour and chickpea flour. You could also try partial substitutions of soy flour to lower the carb count, but I think a full substitution could result in hockey pucks instead of scones.