Marie Cooks Skyrim: Venison Stew

When my brother in law tagged a deer last fall, he and my sister promised me some to cook with. I was a little anxious because I had never cooked with venison before. I wanted to do something different – I didn’t want to make any old beef recipe and simply substitute venison, I wanted to choose something that would compliment the venison. Rob gave me a small tip roast, and after comparing a lot of different recipes online, I eventually settled on this one from Jamie Oliver. As I was cooking it, the aroma of juniper and rosemary mingled in my kitchen – I don’t know that I would have ever suspected them of going together, but they do fantastically. My only error was that because I only had a small amount of meat, I reduced the rest most of the recipe by a quarter… but forgot to reduce the spices I put in, and as a result it was overpowering. Still, the meat was tender and delicious and I would love to try to make venison stew again in the future.

Venison Stew
Serves 6

4 tablespoons plain flour
800g (1.5-2lbs) quality stewing venison, cut into 2cm (or 1 inch) chunks
olive oil
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
3 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 sticks celery, trimmed and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon juniper berries, crushed in a pestle and mortar
2 sprigs of rosemary, leaves picked and chopped
1 Tablespoon butter
6 sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley (separate the stalks and the leaves)
2 beef stock cubes
600g (1-1.5lbs) small new potatoes, scrubbed clean, larger ones halved
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

  1. Dust a chopping board with 2 tablespoons of flour and a good pinch of sea salt and black pepper, and toss your chunks of meat through this mixture until well coated. Heat a large pan on a high heat, add a few glugs of olive oil and fry your meat for 3 minutes to brown it. Add your chopped onions, carrots, celery, crushed juniper berries, rosemary and the butter. Add a few tablespoons of water, give everything a good stir, then put the lid on the pan and let everything steam for 4 to 5 minutes.
  2. Take the lid off so your meat and vegetables start to fry, and stir every so often for 5-10 minutes. Chop your parsley stalks finely, and once the onions start to caramelize, add them to the pan with your remaining 2 tablespoons of flour and your crumbled stock cubes. Stir, and pour in enough water to cover the mixture by a couple of inches. Put the parsley leaves aside for later.
  3. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to medium low so that the stew is just simmering. Add your potatoes and slow cook with the lid slightly askew for at least 2 hours or until the meat falls apart easily. You can add a splash of water if you think it looks too dry.
  4. Put your chopped garlic in the middle of a chopping board. Add most of your parsley leaves with a teaspoon of sea salt and half a teaspoon of black pepper. Chop everything together so you get a rough paste. Add this to the stew and stir through. Chop the last of the parsley leaves and sprinkle over before serving.

The Call of the Wild

When I was little, I had an abridged version of The Call of the Wild which I read repeatedly. It had beautiful illustrations and I felt like I came to know all the many different canine characters well. Along with an old battered book on Balto it helped to perpetuate a love of dogs which I think I shared by most children. However, something about the word “abridged” on the front of the cover made me assume that the original text was long, dense, and unapproachable. I considered for many years picking up the full book, but always shied away, stopped in part by my childhood impressions of difficulty.

A couple weeks ago, I visited my parents for the first time since before the pandemic started to see my dad after he had shoulder surgery. As I lay on the pull-out bed in the basement, I looked at the random assortment of books on one of the shelves. Among them was The Call of the Wild – the full-length version. I figured now was as good a time as any and picked it up for some bedtime reading. I was somewhat surprised to find that it was actually a light and quick adventure story and I finished it in only 3 sittings.

The events and characters came back to me as I read; I remembered Buck’s quarrel with vicious Spitz to be lead dog, Curly’s death, the three city slickers who mistreat the dog team, Buck pulling a sled out of the frozen ground for the love of his human, and Buck eventually leaving behind his life with humans to join a wolf pack in the Yukon. I didn’t really remember how much the book had felt like a lecture on primitivism, the fragility of civilization, and on nature vs nurture. At every chapter, Buck sheds some other aspect of his life in “civilization”, learns to survive and lead a pack, has increasing ancestral memories of living as a wolf with a primitive man, and eventually returns to the wild after the death of his beloved owner. Most of Buck’s actions seem very exaggerated or implausible – including the idea of being drawn to an ancestral memory. This time around, I found the book a little too moralizing.

On top of everything else, the ending of the book is uncomfortably racist. While Buck is out roaming in the woods, his owner is killed by a group of Native Americans called who are portrayed as cruel and stupid. Buck wreaks violence upon them, and they fear the “ghost dog” forever after. The “Yeehats” are not a real tribe, but a collection of harmful stereotypes. Using such a stereotype of brutal and superstitious Native Americans as a shoehorned plot device is both lazy writing and a damaging perpetuation of racist ideas. As a result, I could neither appreciate the ending nor can I heartily recommend the book.

Although I still have fond memories of reading my illustrated copy of The Call of the Wild, I will not likely return to reading this book again.

Finding a New Normal in My Reading Habits: Yeshiva Girl by Rachel Mankowitz

Like many people who love reading would insist, books are a comfort to me. I think a great weekend would be spending hours at a time reading a whole novel in one sitting. I do hold onto many of my books and sometimes I even am comforted simply by sitting in front of my bookshelf and observing the many shapes and colors of the spines or taking one book off the shelf and feeling the grain of the paper and the smell of its pages. And yet, even in reading it is important to sometimes branch out of my comfort zone. Leaving my comfort zone means I can earn a reinvigorated enjoyment of my comfort reads once I return to them. It also means I can learn and explore new ideas and sometimes even find more things to enjoy that I hadn’t expected.

Yeshiva Girl is not the type of book I normally read – my reading “home” often includes castles in idyllic natural settings, magic, swords, and plucky characters boldly facing what challenges them. These are the things that I return to over and over. Books with themes about sexual assault usually fall more into the category of “dentist office” – I go there because it can be important, even though it’s uncomfortable. That’s not to say I dislike such books. Lolita, for example, is a beautiful piece of literature which I adore even though I had to take lots of breaks while reading it to cope with the subject matter.

I picked up Yeshiva Girl because I follow the author, Rachel Mankowitz. I stumbled across her blog years ago with her post “Harry Potter et Moi” and since have continued reading her weekly posts about life, her dogs, her Jewish faith, and more. I often find that her posts contain beautiful nuggets of insight that are thought-provoking; her writing feels dynamic – always moving fluidly from one point to the next. She published the book a while ago, but although I knew I wanted to read it, I delayed a little due to it having what is for me a “dentist” topic. Ultimately though, I found that reading Yeshiva Girl was a rewarding experience, not one to fear.

Yeshiva Girl follows Isabel, a teenage girl who is suddenly transferred to an orthodox school in the midst of an inquiry into her father for sexual contact with a student. The novel reads a lot like one of Mankowitz’s blog posts; the writing moves quickly and is told in intimate detail from a first-person perspective. There are a fair number of musings about Jewish precepts that she also has written blog posts about, such as “Embarrassing a Person is Like Killing Them,” and “Be a Mensch.” I found many of these insights into Jewish life and religion interesting and thought-provoking.

Isabel is smart and inquisitive, and she also deals with anxiety, disordered eating, and a dysfunctional family life. Experiencing life from Isabel’s point of view as she navigates teenage relationships, growing into an adult, and coming to terms with her own abuse as a child feels deeply personal. Although these are all YA themes and although the book is marketed as being for teenagers, I couldn’t help but feel that that book was really meant for an adult audience. This is for two reasons: firstly, Isabel’s story, although told from a 15 year-old’s point of view, is sometimes told with the clarity of retrospect to such a degree that it feels like an adult reminiscing about what it was like to be 15. Isabel may be confused and in turmoil, but her voice is sure. The feeling of reminiscence is driven home by the second reason: the technology level described in the book is that of perhaps 20 or more years ago. Although I dislike it when other novels conspicuously emphasize current technology, the way a modern teenager would interact with others has been fundamentally changed to the degree that a modern teen might even categorize this as “historical fiction.” Isabel’s friend must pass on the message to her boyfriend when Isabel stays with her grandparents for a weekend so that said boyfriend can call her on her grandparents’ landline instead of her parents’. Isabel is occasionally bullied at school, but there is no hint at all of bullying extending to online interactions – in fact, no one uses a computer or cell phone for the entirety of the book, even when the absence seems glaring. This is not a problem for me (I sometimes miss the pre- smart phone and social media days!) but may be a small barrier for a current YA reader. Although it is a very real portrait of a brilliant character, I do not feel like I just connected with a modern teenager, but rather I am left with the distinct impression that this story is perhaps from an old high school friend, confessing to me the distress they went through that I was oblivious to at the time…

Interestingly enough, by reading the book as a confessional, I feel *trusted* by Isabel, which also makes me feel motivated to be someone who is *trustworthy* and more open to being a better friend to those who may need my support. It is said that reading novels makes people more empathetic, and this underscores the importance of continuing to read things outside of my comfort zone and growing better able to understand the mindset of the people around me on a daily basis.

I am glad I read this book for the insight into various aspects of Jewish life and for opening my eyes to the way some people may cope with childhood trauma. Mankowitz’s writing is engaging to the effect that I read this in only a week, which is much faster than my average rate of reading! I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books about people handling tough situations or thought-provoking discussions of religion – and I recommend it even more for those people who find it a step outside of their comfort zone.

Slow Cooker Southwest Lentil Soup

I love crockpot meals. I love throwing ingredients in the morning and coming home to a delicious meal ready made for me. Joe and I like to make crockpot meals on Wednesdays (which is Dungeons and Dragons night) so that we don’t have to worry about cooking when we are also meeting up with a bunch of other people in different time zones online. Lately, I’ve really wanted to find more vegetarian slow cooker recipes, which lead me to try this soup. Joe and I both liked it a lot and because it’s so easy we will certainly make it again often!

Continue reading “Slow Cooker Southwest Lentil Soup”

Book Tag: My Life In Books

I found this at Meg’s Magical Musings and decided to give another book tag a try.

Find a book for each of your initials:

M- The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley – I read this when I was 19 and it consumed me utterly for the whole summer.

L The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin – one of my favorite books of all time.

SA Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar – A new read for me within the past year, but I now admire Sofia Samatar and can’t wait to read more of her work.

Count your age along your bookshelf: what book is it?

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez – no, I’m not 100 years old. No, it didn’t take 100 years to read, either. A beautiful, beautiful book.

Pick a book set in your country/city:

Blankets by Craig Thompson – I’ve had this recommended to me numerous times and I bought a second hand copy about a year ago, but I have yet to read it… and I only just now found out it takes place in Wisconsin!

Pick a book that represents a destination you’d love to travel to:

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt – my 23 hour layover in Dublin didn’t quite count as getting to visit Ireland. I enjoyed this book a lot and found it hard to put down.

Which book do you have fondest memories of?

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – Perhaps one of my earliest memories is of sitting on the couch next to my Dad while he read Bilbo’s story aloud to my sister and me.

Which book did you find the hardest to read?

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – Nabokov is a brilliant author and the language of this book is stunning… but the subject matter made me keep putting the book down for long stretches of time before I could finish it.

Which book in your TBR pile will give you the biggest accomplishment when you finish it?

This is somewhat hard to answer because I I don’t have a physical TBR pile – it is an ever-morphing monstrosity that lives partly in my head, on many varied scraps of paper, and in several text documents, but nowhere in whole. The first book that pops into my mind is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy because I think it will be a challenge, but also I am looking forward to the experience.

I’m looking forward to reading your answers as well!

Hugo and Nebula Classics: Peace and War

The finalists for the Nebula Awards and the Hugo Awards have both been announced for this year! Many of the books listed have been floating around my awareness lately, so I am excited to read some of these including Mexican Gothic, Piranesi, and The City We Became. Although I like following plenty of book awards (The World Fantasy Award and Pulitzer Prize are two of my favorites), I am not one of those wonderful people who finish reading all of the nominees for an award before the ceremony. Although in more idyllic days, I was able to keep up with and occasionally outpace my to-read list, at my current stage in life I’m happy if I read two books a month compared to the two books a week I used to enjoy. I decided a good start would be to read all of the joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula. In my experience Hugo winners tend to have an engaging plot, Nebula winners tend to have good writing, and the joint winners are the total package. So far I have read 12 of the 25 novels, the most recent book being Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman.

Joe Haldeman actually has two novels that are joint winners, The Forever War, and Forever Peace. Despite the similarity in names, one is not a sequel to the other, although they do form a thematic pair; if The Forever War showed us the horrors of war, Forever Peace asks “how can we stop this from happening again, and worse?” Haldeman is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and received a Purple Heart. Keeping that in mind while I read The Forever War several years ago made the book much more poignant and reinforced the absurdity of war and the difficulties that soldiers have when readjusting to life at home. The Forever War entranced me while I was reading it and has stuck with me over the years. Because I enjoyed reading it and found the book so powerful, I was excited to read Forever Peace, as well.

In Forever Peace, a soldier named Julian Cass remotely controls a robot for war by being “jacked-in” neurally to a remote link and to the other members of his team. When he is made aware of a scientific experiment that could be turned into a doomsday device, he agrees to participate in an attempt to “humanize” every person in the world so that no one will have the capability to commit violence against another person again.

I had an interesting experience after reading Forever Peace, though. I absolutely loved the book while I was reading it; several times I said out loud “Joe Haldeman is such a great writer!” to my husband… or my cat… or an empty room… just because I was fascinated by what I was reading. I enjoyed the play with the concept of “jacking-in” and sharing consciousness with another person. How would merging minds affect your personal views, your relationships, your sex life? The more time that passes, however, the less I recall any of the things I liked about the book and the more I recall the gripes I had: mostly the major plot holes around whether or not an experience of empathy can truly “humanize” people, the ethics of forcing people to undergo “humanization,” and that (even if possible) such “humanization” was unlikely to be hereditary as it is portrayed.

The thing I wondered the most was – what about people who are “violent” from a distance? Who kill by neglecting to care that their actions hurt others, or by forcing others to do their will? Even if “humanization” makes an individual unable to physically attack another person, I can think of many people in this world who start or perpetuate evil without ever lifting a finger in themselves. Without removing stress, hunger, fear, greed how could we truly remove the things that drive humans to violence? Although I was not satisfied with Forever Peace’s answer to the question of how we can end war, I still think it is a highly important question to ask, and to continue striving for the solution.

I would highly recommend reading Joe Haldeman’s work for his insight and his writing skill. Although The Forever War had more staying power with me than Forever Peace, everything I have read by him so far has been valuable.

African Classics: Things Fall Apart

“No man can understand another whose language he does not speak (and language here does not mean simply words, but a man’s entire world view).” I found this quote by Chinua Achebe while reading about the author of Things Fall Apart. Although it was in response to critics of his work, I liked the quote in relation to his most well-known novel, because in some ways it is the central idea of Things Fall Apart. While reading the book, I was immersed in the worldview of Okonkwo – a strong, but flawed Igbo man who strives to earn respect in his village. Achebe’s use of language makes this a powerful book by portraying an intimate look at Igbo (or Ibo) culture and an unflinching portrait of a man whose contempt for all things feminine leads to his downfall.

I enjoyed learning about Chinua Achebe after reading Things Fall Apart. Finding out about his background made the book feel even more personal. Achebe grew up in Nigeria with both Christianity and traditional Igbo religion. He did well in school and won a scholarship to study medicine at university. However once there, Achebe was so disturbed by literary portrayals of Nigerian characters as either savages or buffoons that he left his studies of medicine to instead become a writer. Achebe was active in politics and in teaching and was also an Igbo High Chief. Although he spent his later years living in the United States, he always held his home culture in love and pride. Achebe’s background and his love for his home is evident throughout the novel.

Things Fall Apart is divided into 3 parts: the first introduces the strong man Okonkwo. By depicting his life in the village of Umuofia “feared by all its neighbors[…]powerful in war and magic”, Achebe creates a portrait of Igbo culture before the arrival of Europeans. The second part surrounds Okonkwo’s life in exile and the third part deals with the fundamental change of their culture with the arrival of white missionaries.

Igbo words, phrases, stories, and traditions are woven throughout the story to relate the reality of village life. Achebe does not try to explain or justify Igbo culture for a Western audience – he just shows how things are in such a straightforward manner – it simply is. The sights and sounds of the village, festivals, religious rites, and daily rituals begin to feel almost familiar, despite being so very different from my own daily life. I appreciated the book’s ability to make me feel “at home” in a place I have never been. This is important because when Christian missionaries start to appear, they immediately felt strange and out of place to me, as they might to someone who had never seen a white man riding a bicycle before. Although because I know how missionary work often hurt despite “good intentions,” I also felt a sense of foreboding.

It would be erroneous to say that the book is only about colonialism, though – the center of the book is Okonkwo, his rise and fall. Okonkwo’s father was lazy and unsuccessful; although he owed debts to nearly everyone, he was loved by most for his loving attitude and his skill with music. However, Okonkwo is ashamed of his father, and in all things strives to be his opposite. Whereas his father never earned a title, Okonkwo is determined to earn as many titles as he can to become a respected leader. There are rigid gender divisions in Umuofia – social and religious roles are limited by sex, certain crimes are described as being of “male nature” or “female nature”, and even crops are divided – Okonkwo will only grow yams “a man’s crop,” not cassava which is for women to grow. Okonkwo is prideful, detests the feminine, insults other men who he does not deem manly enough, and beats his wives at times. Sometimes his neighbors chastise him for being too harsh on others, but they continue to recognize his skill at wrestling and his hard work as a farmer. However, Okonkwo’s fear of being perceived as weak leads him first to participate in the execution of a boy he loved as a son and then to forbid himself from mourning the boy’s death or dealing with his own guilt. Although Okonkwo is highly respected, it is clear his hatred of anything feminine leads to his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. Although Achebe could have portrayed Okonkwo as “bad” due to his violence and refusal to deal with attachment or emotions, he simply shows how Okonkwo’s sexism (and what we would now call toxic masculinity) are part of him – he is a whole person and his flaws exist as part of the whole. Achebe examines Okonkwo without piling judgement on him for his issues with masculinity, yet still demonstrates how destructive those tendencies are. I appreciated the completeness of his characterization – because we know Okonkwo and his worldview intimately, we can see his poor actions without casting him as a villain.

When Okonkwo accidentally kills a man in celebration at a wedding, the inadvertent killing is judged to be a “female crime” – a violation against the earth goddess. For this he and his family are banished for seven years and his home is burned down. He goes to live in the village where his mother was born and although he is well-received there, Okonkwo resents this. He spends his time planning how he can regain renown and return with a flourish to the more war-like Umuofia. This includes telling his daughters not to marry so that he can use their marriages more favorably when they return. By the time he returns, the Umuofia has changed because of the influx of missionaries, and Okonkwo is angry to find out that the other men do not intend to fight them.

The missionaries do not understand the Igbo culture, but they try to change it. Because the first two parts of the book made the Igbo culture feel like a natural way of life to the reader, the attempt to mold it into something else feels like a violation. “Does the white man understand our customs about land?” asks one Igbo man. “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?” his friend responds. As with Okonkwo himself and his way of life, Achebe does not pile heavy judgement on the missionaries – he continues to simply show things as they are, and the reader is able to feel the tension between the desires of both groups. Although Achebe does not foster hatred toward the missionaries, he does show the catastrophe in Umuofia that results in part from colonialism.

By the end of the book, Okonkwo has spent his life aggressively pursuing status and molding himself to a hyper-masculine version of the ideals of his society, but when his village is changed unrecognizably by colonialism, he is unable to survive. “Okonkwo is paying the penalty for his treatment of women, that all his problems, all the things he did wrong can be seen as offenses against the feminine,” said Achebe. His anger leads him to fight even when it is unwise and ultimately this anger turns inward on himself causing his own destruction and the destruction of everything he worked for.

It would be easy to say Things Fall Apart is about how missionaries caused the collapse of a village’s culture, or about issues of masculinity, but really it is an intimate study of the worldview of two main characters: Okonkwo and his village, Umuofia. Both are flawed, but both are beautiful in their own way. This book is one that continues to unfold with more and more meaning as I continue to think about it, even well after I have finished reading – a trait that is common to all my favorite novels.  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking and character driven works.

Pi Day Hand Pies – Butternut Squash, Sage, and Parmesan

Along with Star Wars Day (May the 4th), Pi day (3.14) is one of the more popular geeky “holidays.” My chemistry teacher in high school preferred Mole Day (10-23) while others are devout observers of Free Comic Book Day (the first Saturday in May), and although my anniversary falls on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, my personal favorites may be Tolkien Reading Day (March 25th – the day the Ring was destroyed) and Hobbit Day (September 22 – Bilbo and Frodo’s shared birthday.) The big perk of Pi Day is, of course, getting to lean into the obvious pun and eat a lot of pie. Perhaps a round pie is more appropriate – you can calculate the circumference of your pie using pi! But this year on Pi Day I happened to make hand pies.

These hand pies are filled with a rich and flavorful mixture. The sweet butternut squash and red onions, earthy sage, nutty Parmesan, and toasty pine nuts all blend together and complement each other. I had this recipe bookmarked for years before I was finally was a confident enough cook to make them, but they are actually quite simple to make! Once I had finally made them, I was sure to make them again, soon. These will be a new favorite at home for me.

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