Friday, November 27, 2015

Sneaky Chef: Chocolate No-Nut Butter

This product was provided free to me; my comments and opinions, however, are my own.

Yesterday was a lovely Thanksgiving. We tried cooking the turkey on the grill for the first time, and I was surprised at how quickly and well it worked out; that was probably the best turkey I've had. And the Christmas decorations are now up, all glowing and shiny. Yes, this is the season for staying at home, watching favorite movies, and eating lots of bread and sweets. Or maybe sweets on top of bread?

That's where this chocolate spread comes in. It's a Chocolate No-Nut Butter from Sneaky Chef. If, like me, you had never heard of Sneaky Chef before, here is their style: they make healthier versions of common treats, adding less sugar and sneaking in vegetables. (Here's where I hope it isn't like those bean chips and cereal I tried, which sounded like a good idea but just tasted like burnt beans.) So we know that this spread has no nuts. These days it's mostly about Nutella (while I love chocolate and hazelnuts together, there are much better, less plasticy chocolate hazelnut spreads out there) and maybe some oily chocolate spreads. The substitution for nuts in this spread is yellow peas. Interesting. I never eat yellow peas (I don't think I ever even see yellow peas), but the label tells me that they taste "naturally sweet and nutty," which makes them perfect for a chocolate spread. The spread is also non-GMO, has less than 1/2 the sugar of the leading chocolate spread, is soy/gluten/dairy free, and has no high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, or artificial colors/flavors.

Whew. Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let's get to the tasting. Because if it doesn't taste good, then none of the rest of that matters.

I admit that I was surprised at how nice this spread smelled when I opened up the jar: it smells more like a fudge spread than just a chocolate spread. And it looks beautiful, going on nice and smooth. I tried it first on brioche toasts from Trader Joe's, which are halfway between bread and crackers and are therefore the perfect accompaniment for snacking on chocolate spread.

For how smooth the spread feels at first, it has the slightest dusty graininess in texture once you taste it. This, however, is not exactly a terrible thing, especially given that it doesn't have the plasticy texture of so many chocolate spreads (which is probably the number one thing I dislike in a chocolate spread). So just not being plasticy is a big deal to me.

Now, when you have this spread on top of bread or whatever else, you'll basically just taste chocolate. But if you're eating it off the spoon, you will get a slightly earthy kind of flavor (not bitter earthy, something much lighter than that). Again, this flavor isn't bad; it's just probably a little different from what most people are expecting from a chocolate spread. The Sneaky Chef didn't quite cover up the fact that there's something unusual inside--but she did make the unusual element taste generally nice and make sense in the mix.

The sweetness level is exactly balanced, as is the taste of the chocolate, which is neither milk chocolate nor dark chocolate, just chocolate spread. And do you know what? The more I eat it, the more this spread is starting to taste like peanuts. I don't know how that happens. Now I'm getting tempted to get some regular bread instead of the brioche toasts, just so I can keep eating more. The press release also suggests adding the spread to cupcakes, or heating to make fondue. Cupcake icing sounds good. Maybe even add it to ice cream?

For me, the strange thing is the fact that this spread was not made for me. I don't have allergies and I'm fine with eating the vegetables and the desserts separately instead of mixing them. So this isn't something I would really have tried on my own, and I wonder if even now I would buy it on my own. And I'm not quite sure. The non-GMO thing is what makes me lean toward saying yes, as is the flavor. But then again I guess I don't buy chocolate spread too often anymore, so maybe that's why I'm not sure. The fact is, I think for people who do have allergies or who are trying to sneak vegetables to children (or themselves), this product will be a good fit. It achieves what it set out to do. And it tastes good. (They also make a non-chocolate version, by the way.)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Jedi Return

I know, I'm late posting and I'm stacking Star Wars posts again, but I have been busy with things, so I'll just set this post down because it's ready to go, even though I have others planned. 

Well, well, I am so glad. In the young reader retellings of the original trilogy, I enjoyed the first book and quite well disliked the second--but am happy to report that the third one (full title: Return of the Jedi: Beware the Power of the Dark Side!) brought the level back up. True, it's a completely different reading experience from the original Return of the Jedi novelization, but it's still good.

Tom Angleberger may have taken even more of a neutral stance than Alexandra Bracken did with her narrative: he's just telling a story, sticking to simple terms and descriptions so as not to daunt his age group and sparing readers some of the details of the fights but not dumbing anything down or talking down to his readers at all. The narrative voice of this book is simple in a way that just allows you to see the characters and what's going on.

Of the three, this book also was the one to most tie in the OT with what we now know from the PT and maybe also other content. I'm referring to the slight discrepancies that exist between the two trilogies. Leia says she has slight memories of her real mother and yet in Episode III, Padme dies as soon as her children are born. In the novelization, we learn that Owen Lars was Obi-Wan's brother and so not actually Luke's uncle. R2 jumps off of Jabba's barge to fall in the sand and yet we see him flying in the PT. Things like that that don't really make sense. They're all tied in and either given an explanation or explained differently (of course Owen wasn't Obi-Wan's brother, so after the PT established that fact, I don't think anyone had the need to refer back to that discrepancy). However it works out, this is a retelling of the story we all know--but with all the details worked out and also with some connection to the characters we know from the PT (Anakin thinks back to Padme, for instance). I would recommend reading this book just for the whole connecting factors alone.

I don't exactly know why, but I love the beginning of Return of the Jedi. Maybe it's because it took me years to realize that there was an elaborate, layered plan to rescue Han. Maybe it's because this is the time that we see Luke as a Jedi for the first time (or, frankly, the first time we see any Jedi in action--because Obi-Wan's lightsaber fight with Vader in Episode IV was, well, brief and simple and more like a sword fight than anything else). Maybe it's just because I love seeing Tatooine on screen. Either way, reading the opening chapters of this book reminded me of these scenes that I love. And some of those pictures were just fantastic.

So let me take a moment to appreciate the pictures in all three of these books (though I kind of think this one had the most--am I wrong?). They're a mix of artwork from Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston--I had already seen some of Ralph McQuarrie's work, but I love having it in hard copy like this. Now that's the way to illustrate a children's book: give them just as good material as you would give any other age group. They'll appreciate it just as much.

While perhaps this book doesn't give as lofty themes as the regular novelization does (all of that about nature overcoming the evil of the cold, industrialized Empire and such), it does provide explanation for all of the little things in the film that children might not perhaps realize on their own. Like I said, it took me years to realize everything about the plan in Jabba's palace--but this book explains that it's all a layered plan. Things like that. So it really would be a helpful companion piece for children who enjoyed the movie; maybe they just want to relive their favorite scenes, but they'll also gain a little more understanding of what's going on.

And I think that's it. I can't believe I've managed to get through this huge stack of Star Wars books; now I only have one left and there are still four weeks before the new movie comes out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

So You Want to Play Being a Jedi?

I don't know how this happened. In the young readers' retelling of the Star Wars original trilogy, I really enjoyed the first installment for A New Hope. But I don't understand the approach to The Empire Strikes Back at all. The full title is The Empire Strikes Back: So You Want to Be a Jedi? and perhaps that is where the complications begin.

I know this series is for children. But trying to use modern lingo isn't the only way to write for children. I think the reason (or part of the reason) that many children like Star Wars is that it's full of serious moments, moments that aren't dumbed down. And one of the reasons people of any age like Star Wars is because it immerses you so fully into another world.

It's strange because Adam Gidwitz stresses in his author's note that his background is in writing fairy tales, saying that Star Wars is essentially a fairy tale, as well. I agree that it's fantasy, so why do I disagree so much with the approach to this book? Let me try and break it down.

The entire book is told in present tense, which is fairly common these days. It's fine; it works. About half of it is in third person but all of Luke's sections are in the less commonly used second person. The reasoning behind it is that Luke is the character the audience is supposed to be able to see themselves as. Okay, I get that. But those sections of the book aren't just told in second person: they're written as if it is literally you in the story. Which is odd for many reasons. One reason is when the narrator is trying to spare you the mushy parts and tells you that saying that Leia kissed you is necessary, though, so that you can wipe off the kiss or whatever: that's just weird (and what's with all the talk about the mushy parts of the story? If you talk less about how it's necessary to include Han and Leia having a lovers' quarrel, then you can just state it and get it over with if you think your audience really doesn't want to hear it). Another reason for the oddness of the second person perspective is that it gives you no one to strive to be like. Do you see what I mean? Instead of this perspective making me feel closer to the story, all it did was put up a wall. I don't want to be me in the story: I want to see myself in the characters. There's a big difference, even if there are "shell characters" that are intended to be filled in by the audience. So while second person might have been okay, I don't like the way it was used at all.

Then there is something about the narration that almost reminds me of C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, which confuses me because I like Narnia but I didn't like this narrative style. The narrator is constantly making comparisons to things in our world that pull you our of the story: saying R2 looks like a trash can (which is rather rude, isn't it?) and such. And he also refers a lot to the reader, reacting to what he imagines the reader's response is and that sort of thing. I don't always (maybe sometimes) mind when Lewis does this in Narnia because it just adds to the vintage feel and he kind of does sound like an old uncle telling you this story. But in this book, the style just bothered me. It made me feel like the author was talking down to me. I said that The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy seemed like it was for ages 10-12; this one feels more like age eight. I complain all the more because I think Star Wars is great at challenging children's capacity for understanding, so you kind of want to keep the style as elevated and adult as you can. I think.

And the third thing is the worst of all. At the end of most chapters, there is a short Jedi lesson, usually one to three pages. It usually involves telling you to stop what you're doing and meditate, often while having something throw soft objects at you. I'm not even kidding. Tell me how that is helpful or even entertaining. Okay, so the book is obviously trying to place the most emphasis on the Jedi training aspect of this story. Okay. That is important. But applicability, applicability is the problem. Star Wars can be applicable to a person's real life in the themes that it presents, not in lessons about meditating. If you want children to learn something from a story, make the themes about patience, kindness, understanding, and resisting negative impulses very clear. Don't try and bottle them into weird activities--that involve the throwing objects (I'm picturing a sock or pillow knocking over a lamp or a naughty friend/relative throwing a not as soft object--did no one find these suggestions a liability?). And anyway, this isn't supposed to be an activity book. You have children sitting with a book in their hands and you really want them to put that book down to throw things at each other instead? Really? Let's not mention what teachers will do if any children ask them if they can perform these activities during class reading time. And anyway, even if you do ignore the activities in the lessons (which I imagine most people will. Even if some children want to do them at first, there are so many and they're all basically the same that I can't see everyone doing all of them), then you still have all that wasted space that could have been spent on the story instead.

The book wasn't all bad. But the good passages were far outweighed by the mediocre ones. I always felt like there was a wall between me and the story and so I could never really get into it. (The problem is not that it is written for children: some of my favorite books are children's books, some of which I read for the first time as an adult.) This book was very disappointing.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Writing Adventures: Part 1

I have a confession for you all: I'm a writer and not just of blog posts. It has come to my attention that I am crazy (or perhaps overly cautious is the word) for not making some of those blog posts about writing; or maybe the timing just wasn't quite right yet. But it is now. I'd like this new series to come at intervals, updating you on what I've been doing. But first I have to update you on what I have been doing up until now.

Way back during my senior year of high school I started to get this image (of a tree, that is) that I wanted to put down in writing and so I thought I would use it for a scholarship that involved writing a piece of short fiction. So I wrote out this little tableau and I edited it and I tried to get a whole theme and story into it. But as I worked, I realized that I was constraining the image too much by trying to stay within the (fairly short) word count required by the scholarship. So I decided to throw away the idea of using it for the scholarship and let it just grow as much as it wanted.

I worked a little bit on it during the rest of senior year. And then I graduated and went off to college and became a bit more busy. So I was never putting full time work into this piece of writing, but I would return to it now and then and add a scene or another image. I tried to put the date on most of what I wrote because I thought it might be interesting, later on, to see exactly when I wrote particular sections. I would handwrite everything, often on the blank backs of old papers that I didn't need anymore.

I started writing a second narrator and then decided that the two narrators could be put together. Then I added a third narrator. And it all kept growing, tiny piece by tiny piece.

Eventually I typed up all of what I had so far, printed it all (on four pages per sheet so as not to waste paper), and then cut out each individual section and started arranging everything in chronological order on the floor.

You see, I had heard writing advice; I'd heard that you don't need to write first drafts in chronological order. But I always thought that I was a chronological writer. That's how I used to write essays: I would picture the whole thing in my head before I wrote down even one word. But I found that I was writing this project differently, image by image. And the order that I got the images in wasn't necessarily chronological order, especially since I had settled on three narrators simultaneously telling three separate stories. So I ended up with lots of little pieces that needed order, and physically arranging them on the floor, though not a technique I'd expected from myself, turned out to be the best course to take.

Arranging them in order helped me see what pieces were missing, and I continued slowly adding to the project. And then I graduated college with a B.A. in English literature from ASU; I also attended their Barrett Honors College, where I did my senior thesis on three of Charlotte Bronte's novels. And so after graduation, I suddenly had the opportunity to spend much more time on this writing project of mine. That was back in 2013.

To be continued.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Vanini: Dark Chocolate with Rosemary

Sorry that the alignment on this post is off: I keep setting it to align to the left but most of it just keeps switching to the center. I'm trying to figure out what the problem is.

Hmm, this chocolate is pleasant. A bit minty. Not overly pronounced, though. It's nice. But wait, what am I crunching on? 

It turns out that I was crunching on pieces of sugared rosemary. I think that's a new ingredient in chocolate for me.

Vanini has showed up in the last couple of months at World Market. Given that it's a brand I had never tried before, naturally I had to choose something from their line. It's an Italian, bean to bar chocolate company; the back of the card box also has a Sustainable Trade logo and info about long term partnership with cocoa farmers. That all sounds good--and this 100 gram bar was only $4, which is in the lower price range. 

The chocolate is made with Bagua cocoa, which the label tells me dates back many years to the Mayo Chincipe people (the date they give is 3000 AD, which I suppose must be a typo for BC since I don't suppose they got this cocoa from a thousand years in the future--unless it was just supposed to say 3000 years ago). Hence the "Bagua Lost World Cocoa" line on the front of the box. 

The attractive card box gives way to a foil-wrapped and sealed chocolate bar composed of ten squares. This is the part where I sigh: though sealing the bars in foil keeps them fresh, I do prefer to unwrap the foil instead of having to tear it open. Maybe I'm just strange. 

Rosemary, at first, may sound more like something to put on a turkey than in a bar of chocolate. But rosemary can in fact taste very similar to mint, as long as it's properly proportioned and placed. The chocolate here is 62% cocoa, which is fairly low but not in the bland 50% range. And it's just the right cocoa content for pairing with the rosemary: the chocolate doesn't taste dark but there is just a hint at sweetness in it that helps mellow out the rosemary while also not becoming so sweet that the chocolate is cloying. 

And, yes, the rosemary is sugared, which as you can tell I didn't realize until after I started tasting the chocolate. Since it's in tiny pieces, the effect is almost like crisped rice that has been broken into smaller sizes; it has that same type of crunch. The sugar must also make the rosemary sweeter so that it tastes less like an herb and flows smoothly in with the taste of the chocolate. Never while eating this chocolate do I feel like it is an odd flavor combination: everything is in balance. 

The only thing is that I can't really eat more than one square at a time. After that, the rosemary tastes does start to build up in my mouth enough that I don't want more. But I'd hardly call that a drawback: it just means that one bar lasts longer. 

Given that it's rosemary chocolate, I do wonder how it would be to serve it at Thanksgiving. You could have it as an appetizer with maybe some type of fruit (pears maybe?) or after dinner to transition between turkey and dessert. Yeah, it's all about Thanksgiving to me. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

More than a Princess, Scoundrel, and Farm Boy

You know what's interesting? Way back in my earliest memories of Star Wars, back when I was in the five to eight years old range, I don't remember thinking of Leia, Han Solo, and Luke as being a princess, a scoundrel, and a farm boy. The identities that they become and that they play for the remainder of the time became so quickly dominant in my head that I think I always saw them as the leader, the captain, and the well, whatever Luke is (he's a lot of different things, that is).

Yet this book is titled A New Hope: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy expressly so that it can then show why these three characters are more than these simple, initial labels. I'm not sure that that needed to be proven to anybody--after all, other than the fact that people call her princess we never see Leia acting in a particularly royal status (she acts as a leader, yes, but with the destruction of Alderaan, she's not really a princess anymore in anything other than lingering title) and we only see Luke on the farm for a short while (and the most we see him working at the farm is in taking care of the droids, which isn't from our view a particularly farm boyish activity) and we all know that Han is just rough around the edges but does ultimately care.

However. Just because this is something that didn't need to be proven doesn't mean that it wasn't great fun to see it proven.

Back when I read the announcement for this trilogy of books, I thought that they were supposed to be more YA/teen. But it appears that they're designed for a younger audience, I'm guessing around the 10-12 range, though I'm not sure if that was the intended age. At Barnes & Noble, I had to ask for help in finding them because I thought they might be in the teen section, but wasn't expecting them to be in the separate, children's section of the store. I almost felt like maybe I shouldn't be buying them if they really were for that young of an audience, but consoled myself with the fact that at least they were such beautiful covers. All in black with just one color, silhouetted image. A New Hope pictures Leia in profile, with Han and Luke in fighting stance. Under the book jacket, the colors are reversed: the book is blue with the silhouette appearing in black. Just beautiful, really; a great collector's piece. (I just wish it didn't have that soft finish that marks so easily when you touch it.)

The beginning of the book did feel a little dumbed down for age appropriateness. But once it settled in, I almost forgot I was reading a children's book. Yes, it's written in a simpler style, but it's the same content. On the title page, the book is called a retelling of A New Hope. I hadn't exactly been looking forward to reading this trilogy because I thought it would be just another rehashing of the story I've seen dozens of times already. But it's surprisingly fresh and original--especially considering that it's the exact same story. I'm not even entirely sure how Alexandra Bracken managed to do that.

First the book is divided into three sections. Leia tells the first third (in third person), Han tells the middle third, and Luke tells the last third. This means that Han begins his narration at the time when he first appears in the story, while Luke beings speaking after he's already been in on events for a while. So Luke's narration includes some brief explanations of things he's done that the book hasn't shown because it was focused on another character's narration during the time of those events: going after R2, rescuing Leia, etc. Somehow this format works. Leia is able to start in with showing resilience, Han follows up with acceptance of and appreciation of and care for others, and Luke finishes off with understanding his own ability and his capacity to effect positive changes.

There are exact lines of dialogue from the movies, paired up with additional lines and with enough narrator commentary that even lines we're all familiar with had some new context or were at least introduced in a new enough way to keep holding my attention. One or two rough areas are smoothed out, giving some cohesiveness between the stories in the OT and PT.

And it's kind of like having A New Hope retold in a way where you know what is important and why. Back when that movie came out, there was much that the audience didn't know about the characters and the story. And now it's all told with the awareness of certain things--without exactly telling them. If that makes sense. And it's also like having the story retold so that it lingers on what have become our favorite bits, the things we've rallied around. There's more emphasis on what makes Leia's spirit great, on the way the X-wings fly, on the fact that Luke treats R2 more like a person than a droid, that sort of thing.

There is also more of a chance (despite the fairly short length) to linger on things it's easy to forget. In the movie, Luke has that one moment where he looks down in mourning of his aunt and uncle and then he never mentions them again--I don't think the novelizations were any different, either, if I remember right. And Leia looks in shock when Alderaan is destroyed, but she never talks about the fact that her home and family were just destroyed in front of her eyes. So I was glad that they had the chance in here to take their moment of grief and also to look back on it later on and use it to help them remember why they are fighting against the Empire.

The princess who leads a rebellion against oppression, the scoundrel who knows he can't fight just for his own skin, and the farm boy who takes his journey all the way from the desert to becoming a Jedi and right back to reminding his father of something so simple as love for another person.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Do You Celebrate? Thanksgiving Edition

I used to think of Thanksgiving as the day that initiates the holiday season, but now I see so much in Thanksgiving itself that I don't think that phrase holds true for me anymore, though it perhaps still does for many people.

Over the years, I've been putting more and more emphasis on Thanksgiving. At first it had a lot to do with the turkeys. I don't know why, but I love turkeys. In third grade, we had a tokens system where we collected "money" from turning in assignments or being good in class, that sort of thing; every so often, our teacher would set out a "store" where we could buy things with our tokens. And one time she set out a turkey made of wood or grasses or something like that; my friend and I were talking about what colors we would paint it if we got it. Then we learned that it was 500 tokens, which was pretty well out of most people's tokens budgets; I, however, had enough. So I very proudly went up to get my turkey and I still set it out every year--sixteen years later. Someone in my family even found a smaller version of it for sale somewhere, so now my turkey has a little brother.

I have also a felt turkey, a wooden twig one, one dressed as a pilgrim, little ceramic ones, vintage toy turkeys, a glass turkey votive holder, and a vintage turkey card in a frame. The turkeys seem to make the place happier as the weather is starting to cool down, when you need something to brighten it up and something to look forward to. Thanksgiving is something to look forward to and something to plan for.

I always want there to be more Thanksgiving things in stores and I get excited whenever there is something just because there is usually very little. I guess what else can they sell besides turkeys, pilgrims, pumpkins, and cornucopias? But still, I want there to be more. Every year, I make molasses crinkles around November; I've started making sugar cookie turkeys to accompany them, which always seems to delight people. Movie-wise, Thanksgiving stories are usually about families complaining while dinner is cooking and then realizing that they like each other despite the arguments by the time the food is ready--so there isn't much to choose from that's any much good. But last year I did find a good one; it's called An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving. It's a period movie from a few years ago and I thought it was nicely done, so I would recommend you watch it (it's based on a Louisa May Alcott story that I haven't read yet). Snoopy also has some good Thanksgiving cartoons if you catch them when they're on TV.

While I prefer cooking at home versus eating out or buying food to heat, most of us can agree that daily cooking is on a much smaller scale than Thanksgiving cooking--no matter how small a group you're cooking for. But that's exactly what makes Thanksgiving cooking exciting. It's the only time of year that I buy a whole turkey, so it's kind of fun to clean it and season it and babysit it in the oven (I've never done the carving myself). This year actually I think we're going to try and cook it in the barbecue grill, which should be interesting. Then there are all the sides. Pumpkin pie is a big thing in my house: we usually all pitch in the day before to make them and we've finally found a good pie crust recipe (well, years ago we had a good one and then lost it--it took us a while to get another decent one). Last year I made the rolls myself for the first time. Mashed potatoes to boil and prepare. I make the stuffing now, too, so there's toasting the bread and everything now, too. Some sort of vegetable, as well. There are a lot of steps and ingredients, so I start planning well ahead of time and most of the day (and the day before) ends up being devoted to cooking. It's nice to have focus on something simple like the preparation of food.

And now we move on to the Thanksgiving table. In my house, we usually like a semi-formal type of table and usually to get dressed up kind of nice--but to also act very informally. Prettiness and comfort in one, I guess. Sometimes I wear a nice dress with my turkey socks just because I can. Now, most of my extended family doesn't live nearby anymore, so majority of the time Thanksgiving has been a smaller affair, six to eight people tops. These days it's even smaller. Yet while it isn't about seeing relatives you don't usually get to spend much time with (as I know it is for many people), Thanksgiving can still be a day to enjoy and appreciate family. It's the day where you all take a moment to hang around each other, to break bread together and to trade conversation. Even if you only spend Thanksgiving with people you see fairly often, it's still important to appreciate these people--and if Thanksgiving is the day to remind us to appreciate, then that is a good thing.

Wow. Sometimes I'm almost blown away by what Thanksgiving represents. Sometimes I think we are too focused these days on explaining why the Thanksgiving story has nothing to do with actual events and surrounding circumstances--but doing that takes too much emphasis away from Thanksgiving the myth. The myth has a beautiful theme, and it's the theme that's important--and it is lovely that it's a national myth and a national theme. It's the theme of getting along with the people around you (which can apply to family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.), of sharing what you have graciously and receiving gifts gratefully, and of being thankful for life, health, safety, sustenance, and companionship. 

Thanksgiving is like a prayer. Taking in your surroundings, seeing what is good, and asking to be better because you have been given something good.