After suffering through Islands in the Stream (go figure, a Hemingway novel about men drinking & fishing) I gave up on the Read Harder Challenge. I was spending a lot of time trying to identify books to read for each category, and I got tired of it. I read 13 of the 24 categories, so not bad.
I have kept up with reading new releases (I count that as within three months of publication) and more recently-released stuff in general, which has been really great. I also signed up for Book Riot’s Tailored Book Recommendations service, and will get three recommendations each quarter. I got the first set recently and was pleased to see that none of them were already on my radar, and they all sounded interesting.
We hosted Thanksgiving for the first time, and everything turned out beautifully.
While menu planning, I spent quite a bit of time trying to identify things that could be completed or gotten pretty far along ahead of Thanksgiving day. My guests were coming from out of town and thus weren’t bringing anything, so we had to handle everything. I actually think that was ideal for a first Thanksgiving, as it helped me think about how to time the meal and plan for sides that could reheat easily. I also didn’t have to worry about sorting in other people’s things on the fly at the very end, which is when I did briefly get into my “I’m so focused I can’t tell you how to help me” mode.
The thing that really helped the most, though, was the spreadsheet I made where I planned out several elements of the meal:
- The cookware, servingware, and serving utensil for each dish
- Make ahead/prep ahead lists, including estimated prep time (which helped when my original plan for make ahead was derailed by getting sick)
- A quick oven schedule with temperatures
- A very detailed schedule for the big day that included things like the time for each dish to go on and off the heat, estimated prep and finishing times, a main cook and a sous chef for each, and some miscellaneous notes. This included everything down to setting the table and getting dinner drinks for everyone. I also added a column to make sure I had enough oven space and burners to finish the sides and gravy once the turkey came out.
I found this very helpful because it enabled me to work backwards from mealtime and figure out how to make it all work. My Mom thought this was hilariously on-brand, but I really do think some kind of written plan is in order for this meal, especially if you’re serving more than a couple of people and/or making more than just a couple of sides.
When I was making the menu I spent quite a bit of time looking at recipes from Cook’s Illustrated / America’s Test Kitchen. These are all available online, but are likely paywalled unless you have an online subscription, which I recommend.
- I got the turkey from Open Book Farm, and then followed Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe for Roasted Brined Turkey. I did the short brine and added a handful of fresh herbs (thyme, sage, rosemary), some black pepper, and a couple of cracked cloves of garlic. I did the upside down roasting step (to rotate our 12 pound bird, I had D insert the ends of two wooden spoons into the cavity, one from each side. He lifted it slightly off the rack and I rotated it around the handles using a clean kitchen towel) which I think might be tricky with a larger bird. I could not have been happier with how juicy and deliciously seasoned that bird was. And the leftovers are not dried out!
- I wanted to make sure the the mashed potatoes were creamy and smooth vs stiff and gluey. I did some research and wound up following another Cook’s Illustrated recipe, Master Recipe for Mashed Potatoes. The main trick seems to be that you add the butter first, as that coats the potatoes and they don’t absorb as much of the cream/milk. I did also boil them whole, since I wanted to use my food mill. That didn’t work as well as I thought – my food mill totally shredded the peels on the yukon golds I used. I was not serving people who would be into having lots of peel in their mashed, so after my Mom and I picked out most of the bits from the first few potatoes to go through the food mill, I started quartering them, letting them cool just enough to handle, and then slipping the peel off before tossing them into the food mill. That worked fairly well. They were delicious and are softening back up nicely in the microwave.
- Turns out I didn’t have my Mom’s stuffing recipe, but I found something similar from Cook’s Illustrated. This Rustic Bread Stuffing with Cranberries and Walnuts was made a little extra rustic by using whole wheat baguettes, which brought in some additional nuttiness that I quite liked. It also made a TON of stuffing. This could be because we didn’t remove as much crust froth bread as the recipe calls for, not sure. I think if you have baguettes that are soft enough that you don’t have to remove much of it, you could get away with less bread – I’d tear it directly into the baking dish to get the right volume. Very tasty but (obviously) a very dry stuffing so may not be to your taste. Also next time I might throw in more cranberries and walnuts, they all but disappeared.
- Gravy didn’t work out quite as planned. I made a half batch of Cook’s Illustrated’s Our Favorite Gravy, which should have served 6-8 but left me with exactly 1 cup of finished gravy. I may have reduced it a little too much, but that was definitely not enough. We supplemented with some last minute jarred stuff from the grocery store. In the end the 1 cup was enough for dinner, but there wouldn’t have been any for leftovers. It was good but beware the yield.
- I had two kinds of cranberry sauce. The kind from the can (which I don’t think got touched at dinner, much to my delight) and Simple Orange-Cranberry Sauce from Just Add Sauce, which was bright and light.
- For veggie sides, I made Hashed Brussels Sprouts with Lemon from the NY Times, a small batch of a variation on roasted carrots from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and balsamic glazed acorn squash wedges that were a mashup of two recipes, one from Cook’s Country and the other from Just Add Sauce. We also had steam-in-bag corn. The Brussels sprouts are a snap, especially since I have a food processor for the shredding, and they bring a nice lightness to the plate. The carrots were good but in the end it turned out I only made them for two of us, so that wasn’t great planning. The squash was pretty good, but I reduced the balsamic glaze too much and had trouble coating them. Texture wise they’re not holding up great as leftovers, they’re getting a bit stringy. I think I’ll approach veggies differently next time, especially if I’m cooking for my family and doing all the sides myself.
- Last but not least, my husband made two Smitten Kitchen pies. The Even More Perfect Apple Pie, which I wanted the moment I saw the recipe earlier in the fall, and her Pecan Pie, which he made for I think the third year running. That one went first and I think we might have to make another one soon as two slices was not enough.
Sometimes I wonder why I still have a blog. Anyway, still working on the Read Harder Challenge and also trying to get to more new releases more quickly. I’m aiming for about 3 months after publication, and while I haven’t quite made my self-imposed limit I have read a few things within a few months of publication, which is unusual for me.
Also, guess which month I didn’t travel.
- This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jenkins (not-quite-new anymore release)
- Pretty Mess, Erika Jayne
- Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann (A book of true crime)
- Shoal of Time, Gavan Daws (unfinished)
- Lumberjanes, Vol. 5, Noelle Stevenson & Brooke Allen (illustrator)
- Lumberjanes, Vol. 6, Shannon Waters, Kat Leyh, Carey Pietsch (illustrator)
- Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1), Octavia E. Butler
- Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2), Octavia E. Butler
- Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
- Tangerine, Christine Mangan (not-quite-new anymore release)
- Force of Nature (Aaron Falk #2), Jane Harper
- Bizarre Romance, Audrey Niffenegger & Eddie Campbell (illustrator) (not-quite-new anymore release)
- Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
- Be Amazing or Go Home, Shep Hyken
- The Effortless Experience, Matthew Dixon
- Among Others, Jo Walton
- The Leavers, Lisa Ko
- Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1), Kate Atkinson
- Human Acts, Han Kang
I’m doing the Read Harder Challenge again this year, as well as trying to read more new releases. I’ll indicate the category (or publication date) in parentheses.
Once again, a lot of random library holds came in all at once.
- The Maze at Windermere, Gregory Blake Smith (January 2018)
- A Study in Scarlet Women, Sherry Thomas
- We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Samantha Irby
- Uprooted, Naomi Novik
- The Wanderers, Meg Howry
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Notorious RBG, Irin Carmon
- The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden
- Super Extra Grande, Yoss (A book of genre fiction in translation)
- Schroder, Amity Gage
- The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (An Oprah Book Club selection)
- Yes Please, Amy Poehler (A celebrity memoir)
- Feminist Fight Club, Jessica Bennett
- The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (A classic of genre fiction)
- The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah
I’m doing the Read Harder Challenge again this year, and will indicate the categories in parentheses. I’m also trying to read more new releases – hoping for about one a month – rather than forever being the voracious reader who hasn’t read, say, Lincoln in the Bardo or The Underground Railroad yet.
That said, I’ve had a run on library holds coming in over the last few weeks, so it’s been tough to work on the Read Harder books and new releases.
- Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit
- Nimona, Noelle Stevenson (a comic written & illustrated by the same person)
- The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin
- A Separation, Katie Kitamura
- The Biographies of Ordinary People, Vol. 1, Nicole Dieker
- Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
- The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth Mckenzie
- Elmet, Fiona Mosley (December 2017)
- The Perfume Collector, Kathleen Tessaro
- The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 6: Who Run the World? Squirrels, Ryan North and Erica Henderson (illustrator)
- Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 2, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chris Sprouse, Rich Buckler, Brian Stelfreeze (illustrators)
- Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, Michael Dietsch
- Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
- The Strange Bird: A Borne Story, Jeff VanderMeer
- Borne, Jeff VanderMeer
Lots of good stuff in the last couple of months. Of particular note: Borne and The Stone Sky, if you like sci-fi (the latter is the third in a trilogy); A Separation; and Sing, Unburied, Sing.
I read, or attempted, 97 books this year. Subtracting the 6 I didn’t finish, that’s about a book and 3/4 a week, though of course it’s not evenly distributed in reality. This is 30 more books than last year. About a third of the increase can be chalked up to reading more volumes of comics, but the rest I think can be put down to a combination of long flights, trips to see family where I wind up reading a lot, and a concerted effort to get off the internet on evenings when I find myself refreshing Facebook and Twitter so much they have no new content for me.
37(!) books got five-star reviews this year, which has got to be a record for me. Ten were comics (mostly Squirrel Girl and Lumberjanes). Of the rest, I’d most recommend Every Anxious Wave, Mo Daviau; The Color Purple, Alice Walker; and The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Dinaw Mengestu.
In 2017, I participated in the Read Harder Challenge, which was a great way of finding new things to read. There were two categories I didn’t manage to find something for – a book published by a micropress and a book of translated poetry on a theme other than love. I found that the best way to make sure I was reading books that fit the challenge was to spend some time every couple of months identifying books that fit different themes, and queueing them up at the library. (I kept track of which theme each book fit.) This way I had a pretty steady stream of books for the challenge interspersed throughout my other reading. I’m planning to participate again in 2018.
Stats (excluding unfinished books):
- 86 ebooks, 42 from DCPL
- 80 works of fiction, 10 nonfiction
- 50 books by female authors
- 14 volumes of comics
- 6 books for book club
- 6 books of short stories, including the wonderful Apocalypse Triptych
- 2 re-read books
- 1 audiobook