Monday, May 17, 2010

The hardest part is over, hurray for my dragons!

I've been a very bad dragon keeper and haven't updated this blog since last week, I know.  But I have some exciting news: with the help of my dragons, I'm finally done re-writing the end of my novel!  I had to do some serious revamping to change my story  from a one novel story to a three novels arch, and until now I had never been truly happy with the results.  Well, these times are over, the first installment of my dragons' adventures is now officially closed!  We went out on Friday with Dave and celebrated the event, as it was truly a relief for me to come up with a good ending to this volume.

I am giving myself a couple of days away from it before I start rewrite session Number 2, I tend to work better when my eyes are "new" again.  And then the never ending process of tweaking and correcting and rewriting and cutting and rewriting again is going to continue of course... I estimate I'm about 3 or 4 rewrites away from being ready to send the novel out--as you can see, I'm far from being done yet.  I also have to trim down at least 10'000 words to bring it down to 100'000 words, which is the limit to send out a first novel to an editor.  I haven't quite decided if I'm going to do the cutting down myself or hire a book doctor to do so, but I'll think of that when I'm done with the next few rewrites.

Don't tell anyone, and particularly not my dragons, but I'm already thinking about the first sequel and I have to force myself to stay away from it until I'm done with the first book.  I know that if I let myself go and seriously start on the sequel, the original manuscript will never be done.  I do however, furiously and scrupulously write down all the ideas and plot tweaks that come to my mind for the sequel, to come back to it on a later date.

So there, you have it! The current rewrite is going to take a little time, I suspect about a month, for I have to start thinking about those cuts and might need to do some rewriting for it to be seamless, but  that part shouldn't be difficult, just tedious.  I will try to keep you updated on the progress my dragons and I are making a couple of times a week.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Can I have some more RedBull for my dragons, please?

I don't know what my dragons ate last week end, but I wish I did!  They are ON A ROLL so far this week.  It's been a long time since I've been caught in such an inspiration frenzy, and the chapters are coming out of thin air and shed dragon scales.

Another two pretty important chapters were written today, and if my eyes weren't so badly hurting me right now, I'd even try to tackle a third one.  I'm so afraid this wonderful momentum isn't going to last!  My dragons are a little disappointed to have to stop for the day, but I won't help anyone by forcing my eyes, and they'll just have to understand.  The list of things I need to incorporate in the story before the end of this volume is shrinking day by day, and with God's help (and the help of my dragons, of course), this volume could be closed pretty soon.

I hate hate hate having to stop right now, but simply looking at the screen to type this post is painful.  Please, muses and dragons, forgive me--and please come back tomorrow!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Another pivotal chapter done!

Oh, I know what you're going to say.  You worked all day, and all you have to show for it is a single chapter?  Technically, you'd be right, of course: one single chapter is not much for a full day of work.  But in my defense, it's not just "any" chapter--it's a BIG one.  Figuratively and literally speaking, for it's over 8 pages long.  Every single last chapter of the MS from now and until the end of this volume has to be "everything".  It has to be strong, it has to maintain the tension, it has to be focused and sharp and perfect.  No pressure, right?  Which basically means every single last chapter of the MS from now on is going to be a herculean task to rewrite, and is going to go through about twenty extended rewamps during it's creation.  What did I say?  Rewrite?  Ah, yes, you've picked up on that, haven't you?  Well, when I originally wrote the novel, it was supposed to be a one segment story.  After NY and the Pitch&Shop conference, it was strongly recommended to me I make it a trilogy--which means that I have to rewrite the ending... completely.  Yay me, LOL!

What's so special about this chapter, you will ask?  Well, in this chapter, my dragon hero meets the King of Falmeers for the first time--and my dragon badly needs his help, too,  for he's running out of time.  The King has been evoked throughout the book, but never in depth.  Right now, he's only that very powerful monarch that rules over the Falmeers, the race that is told to be the source of one of the two poles of all Magic--nothing less.  So obviously, the King needs to make an entrance.  But I'm nearly at the end of this segment of the story, and I have to keep up the pace until the end not to lose that famous momentum I so carefully whipped up.  Which also means that if I don't want my momentum to deflate like a sad soufflé, I don't have three chapters to devote to meeting the Falmeers and doing character buildup for the King.  It all needs to happen fast.  Every paragraph, every sentence, every word has to count, and anything remotely redundant or slowing down the flow has to be mercilessly chopped away--something I, like most writers, hate doing.

Also, he's a Falmeer, not an Elf, despite the ears.  Which means he can't be just another Elron clone, that hangs out in robes in his living room on top of a tree, while he feasts on vegan burgers and tofu salad as he communes with Mother Nature.  He has to be different, and he has to exude Magic from every one of his Falmeer pores.  He has to eat bacon.  Basically, he has to be a badass.  Sorry, Elron.

So there you have it, that's why I "only" wrote one chapter today.  You think it's easy?  You are welcome to try! :)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Ups and Downs and Double Flips...

Time to conclude yet another week of work. I have to say that the ride has been pretty rough this week, with lots of ups and downs and never really knowing if I was going to make it through. But all in all, if the week had been a road trip, I think that my dragons and I would have made it to our final destination--even if it meant we had to take a few detours and an occasional bus to get there.

Emotionally, it was a really hard week, going from days of really great writing, to days where I couldn't come up with a single word I was happy with. I don't understand how my mind can be so cooperative one day and simply refuse to align 5 coherent sentences together the next, but I guess that is something I'm going to have to learn to accept on the road to becoming a more seasoned writer.

The bottom line of these last couple of days for my dragons is still very good. I think I've managed to get myself out of a seriously deep ditch in the story that had been bugging me for quite some time. Kept on turning it over and over in my head and couldn't find a way out. And I knew that the bump was out there waiting for me at page 490 of my MS, that knowledge never left me as I was going through the rewrites and moving up in the chapters... It's kind of like a 40th birthday, you know it's out there waiting for you even when you're only 30, LOL!

Then during the last couple of days, something strange and magical happened and I could definitely feel tremors in the Force, ideas and concepts starting to form in my mind, yet staying right beyond my consciousness. Yesterday morning, it started to come together as I had worked my way through the rewrites up to that infamous page 490... I sat down in front of my screen at around  8am and started to write... and didn't stop until about 6pm on that evening. It was a BLAST! I knew I had other things that I had to do, important things, but I didn't want to lose my momentum. I tried to walk away a couple of times and tackle those other things I had on my to do list, you know basic stuff like BUY FOOD and COOK DINNER, yet didn't manage to stay away for long, and I am happy to report that the infamous pivotal point of the MS has finally been tamed and rewritten!

5 new chapters in all came out of that incredible day. I guess my dragons were really whispering in my ear. I wish they'd do that more often ;) I am truly convinced that the book is 10x stronger now than it was just a day ago, and it gave me a true boost of confidence as to the work I still have to do to get through the current rewrite.

A toast! To the dragons, to the muses, to the incredible joy of a good day of writing! And to my husband too, who had to have hot dogs and fries for his dinner last night and was so happy to see me happy that he didn't even mind :)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Week-End is over, back to work!

Yes, I know. I haven't posted an update since Friday, and I'm a bad, very bad dragon keeper. The call of the sun was simply too powerful to resist, and I took my dragons out for the week end, well hidden in my purse. How, will you ask, can one hide something as big as not only one dragon but several dragons in a woman's purse? Well, dragons are magical creatures, and therefore can decide where they want to hide--and this week end, they wanted to hide in my purse. You would be amazed at the sheer volume of things I manage to hide in my purse--sometimes, I think it has no bottom. Maybe it's magical too?

Anyway, we (me, my husband and my dragons) decided that we were going to enjoy ourselves and take it easy this week end, and I have to admit that it was WONDERFUL! I barely even cooked (breakfast really doesn't count). As much as I enjoy cooking, it was truly very nice to go out and enjoy something didn't have to make for a change. We also went to see a movie yesterday, "The Losers", which was a decent action flick. No real surprises in the script, but I didn't expect any. It served its purpose, which was to simply entertain for two hours. And after that, we strolled down the mall and I had a huge warm cinnamon bun covered in gooey icing--not my typical pastry choice by far, but it was truly satisfying.

But this morning... BACK TO WORK! I did very well on my rewrites today. Stayed at it for about 6 hours, and  worked through over 100 pages--it might not seem like much, but when you do rewrites, 100 pages is a LOT, trust me. I found several passages that needed cuts, and as much as I hate trimming down my work, I can tell that the end result reads a lot better. On that subject, I found out that it's much easier for me to bring myself to do cuts if I "save" the removed material. I have a dump file where I paste all the parts I'm trimming from the current work copy, and I'm keeping it all there until I maybe find another spot in the story I can use it. I might not, mind you--but it's comforting to know that it's not totally lost.

It's now past 3pm, and I have to go grocery shopping for the week. Right now, I'm as hungry as a dragon--I forgot to eat again, immersed in my rewriting, and I could really eat a big fat steak tonight. I'm thinking two nice, thick, and juicy bone-in ribeyes with a home made "maître-d'hotel" butter (garlic, parsley, salt and pepper). And maybe a couple of fresh cut fries. Nothing fancy, in any case. Wow, just writing it down made me even hungrier. Off to the butcher I go!

Edit: I just had to post a picture of the two HUMONGOUS 2inch thick bone-in ribeye steaks we ended up eating. Vegetarians are out of their friggin minds, I'm telling you!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Yesterday was chili night

What is this? Two food related posts in a row? What happened to the dragons? Don't you all worry. My dragons are fine. They are more than fine--they are fine and well fed! The fact that this blog oscillates between my writing and food related topics is not going to surprise anyone that knows me well. I am very openly obsessed with food and cooking and come from a family of foodies, where everyone knows how to cook and enjoys a good meal, whether it's a sophisticated tasting gourmet dinner, or a simple down to earth homey one pot dish. As it stands, I'm very passionate about a few things in life. My husband, my writing, and food. Get me started on either of those subjects at your own risks only.

Yesterday was chili day. That means starting to chop early enough for my mise en place to be done by 10am, and the chili to be on it's way to a one way trip of at least 6 hours before reaching it's destination in the Parthenon of comfort food at 11am at the latest. Chili is one of dishes that are often misunderstood imho. A good chili is not a complicated thing to do, and it's definitely not an expensive dish to make, except maybe for the peppers (and even then we are talking single digits). All you need to make a good chili, is a good pot, patience, and time.

Yes, I've put a good pot first. Not that you can't have a good chili without a good pot--it's just a lot harder. Because it has to simmer for so long, and because nobody has the time to stay next to the stove and stir for 6 hours, a good pot is truly essential. Of course, you can always start your chili on the stove and then let it cook in the oven on low, but I found that if it should work in theory, the end product never quite manages to be as tasty somehow. I'll put a note on pots at the end of this post.

And then, there was patience--the most underrated ingredient to good food in my opinion. Can you make a chili in an hour? sure. But the flavors won't have time to marry and combine. You'll need to boil it hard on high heat instead of simmering it on a corner of your stove for a full day. There are no miracles in life, stews (which is essentially what a chili is) take time. In fact, it would even have been better for me to cook that chili the day before my guests arrived and reheat it, letting the flavors expand overnight.

Back to my chili. I'm an advocate of beans, unless I plan on freezing. Now let me warn the purists that will materialize out of thin air and start screaming of heresy. This is MY chili. I never pretended it was the exact copy of the first chili that was ever made. I don't give a rats ass if you approve of it or not. I like beans in my chili, and if you don't like it, you can bite me.

This little detail being taken care of, back to the beans. I experimented with fresh and canned beans, and I have to say that as much as I always try to use fresh ingredients, in that case, canned beans give me better results. I like to mix two types of beans, pinto and red kidney. I think they have very distinct textures and both  contribute to the end result. Of course, if I plan on making a batch for pure freezing purposes, I won't add beans. I also won't reduce the chili quite so much, because it will finish reducing when I reheat it; I'll also add the beans at that stage in that case.

I don't think that there is a "best chili" recipe. Chili is like gratin dauphinois. As Joel Robuchon (my cooking GOD) says it: "The best gratin dauphinois recipe is the last really good gratin dauphinois I ate".

I don't pretend to have the ultimate chili recipe. I have the chili recipe that I ended up with, after adjusting it to my particular taste, and to what I wanted to find in a chili.

I must be onto something though, because guests always come back for more.

And if you managed to read all of the above without falling asleep your face embedded in your keyboard, then you definitely deserve to get a copy of my recipe. So here goes:

For my chili, you will need:

  • 1 pound of chuck, cut into half an inch cubes
  • 2 pound of ground chuck, 80-20.
  • 1 pound of bacon
  • 2 yellow onions, finely diced. 
  • 2/3 of a head of garlic, de-germed and pressed.
  • 3 bell peppers, preferably green (they have more flavor), cored, peeled, and diced into half an inch cubes. (why peeled? because it makes them a lot easier to digest). It's also really easy to do with a simple vegetable peeler. Yes, yes, I know, I could have roasted them under the broiler and done the plastic bag trick--I just couldn't be bothered lol) 
  • 2 cups of strained tomatoes
  • 3/4 of a small can of tomato paste
  • 2 cans of pinto beans, with juice
  • 2 cans of kidney beans, drained but not rinsed
  • 1 cup of fresh chopped cilantro
  • 4-6 cups of beef stock (approx cup per hour of simmer)
  • 1 12oz bottle or can of beer.
  • 1 small can of chipolte in adobo sauce
  • 1 tsp of onion powder
  • 1 Tbsp of garlic powder
  • 3 Tbsp of chili powder
  • 2 tsp of paprika (not smoked!)
  • 2 Tbsp of ground cumin
  • 1 tsp of cayenne
  • 2 Tbsp of ground coriander
  • 1 Tbsp sea salt, plus adjustments later.
  • Green onions and sour cream for garnish.

Just a note before we start. I have divertuculitis, which is a conditions that prevents me from consuming anything with seeds. That's why my tomatoes are strained, and why I seed all of my peppers, even the chipoltle in adobo ones. If you decide to leave the seeds, please remember that for the same amount of jalapeno peppers you will end up with a much--much hotter chili. I also use sea salt. It's not quite as strong as kosher salt, so make sure you adjust the salt proportions to the type of salt you use, by tasting as you go.

  1. Dice your bacon pretty small and render it, starting on a cold pan with a little canola oil on medium low. Cover and let all that wonderful pork fat melt. Take the bacon out with a slotted spoon, and reserve it for whatever you can use bacon in--mash potatoes, potato skins, salad, you name it. You get the idea.
  2. Add 2 Tbsp of butter in that wonderful pork fat, and add onions and peppers. Season with a little salt to help them render their water. Saute on medium heat until peppers and onions are nice and caramelized.
  3. Add the garlic let it fry for a minute or three, making sure it doesn't burn.
  4. Add the beef cubes, raise the heat to medium high, and saute until the beef is nice and brown, stirring once in a while so the onions and garlic don't burn. DON'T SALT YOUR MEAT YET.
  5. Add the ground beef and stirr. Saute until it's starting to brown and the meat is almost cooked through. Don't break it up too much, it will add more texture to your chili. 
  6. Once the water released from the beef has almost disappeared, add all the spices and the salt and toss. Let it all fry in the pan, stirring often, for a good 5 to 6 minutes on medium/medium-high.
  7. Add in a small can of chipoltle in adobo, seeded and chopped, with the juice of the can. Stirr and let cook for a minute so that it coats and permeate all the beef.
  8. Add the strained tomatoes, the tomato paste, the beer and the beef stock. Cover and bring to a boil
  9. Add the 2 cans of pinto with the juice, and the 2 cans of red kidney without the juice (but not rinsed). About this, one small word. I used to use masa or flour to thicken my chili. I found out that using the juice in the box (and all the starch coming from the beans it contains) brings me the same result, without having the flour making my chili stick to the bottom of the pan as it cooks.
  10. Add the chopped cilantro.
  11. Stir. Cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer on LOW, and come to check on it and stir every 45 minutes or so. If it reduces too much, add a little stock. 
  12. Simmer for at AT LEAST 4 to 5 hours. More is better. 
  13. Once it's ALMOST to the right consistency, taste it for salt (taste a beef cube, not a bean). Add salt if needed to make it taste delicious. I always end up adjusting the seasoning at the end and adding more salt. Something as simple as seasoning well is often the difference between an "ok tepid dish" and a great one. 
  14. Serve with chopped onions, cheddar and sour cream. 

Side dishes? You have quite a few options. You can make a southwestern-type pilaf (with onions, garlic and a little tomato paste). You can serve it with a pile of nachos. Or on top of fries. 

I take baby yukon gold potatoes that I cut in two in the lenght and boil in well salted water with 2 cubes of beef bouillon until the potatoes are tender. Then I toss them with a Tbsp of butter in an aluminium disposable pan, and roast them under the broiler, first skin side up, then flesh side up, until they are nice and toasted. I then add the chopped bacon I ended up with earlier, a little salt and a generous amount of shredded cheddar cheese, and hop under the broiler until the cheese melts. These small potatoes are always a giant hit.

About pots:

I used to make my chili in a huge Le Creuset cast iron pot, and it was working very well. Last Christmas, Dave (my husband) bought me this amazing pot, the "Pauli never burn" sauce pot, that I had been contemplating for some time. I have to say that it brought the pleasure of cooking chilis, gumbos and the likes to new heights. It is virtually impossible to burn something in that pot. They are a few drawbacks, of course. First of all, it weights as much as a dead horse that just had a good meal. But then again, so did my cast iron pot. The second drawback is that it takes a while to heat up at the beginning, and that browning and sauteeing is a lot slower too. When I'm really in a hurry, I do the browning in another pan, than transfer it to the pauli pot for the simmer part, deglaze the old pan and dump it in too.

Anyway, here is the link to the Pauli pot.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

You can have your beans and eat them too!

Today was a big, BIG day. The kind of day you wish you had twice the amount of hours to have a chance to stay on top of things. It all started at 8am. Sun was shining, my MS was calling and my dragons and I were in excellent spirit. We did a serious dent in the rewrites for a couple of hours (maybe 5?), then I spent an hour color coding my edits throughout the MS. It was a pain, but it will make things a lot easier to spot for the next session of rewrites.

At 2pm I headed to the supermarket to buy a few things I still needed for tonight's dinner, as well as everything I will need for tomorrow's dinner (We're having my SIL and her fiancé for dinner, I promised them a chili). That's right, I'm THAT insane. I planned 2 heavy duty meals two days in a row LOL.

Back to tonight's dinner. I made a traditional Egyptian fava beans and artichokes stew. It is typically eaten for lent around Easter, because it is usually made without any meat. It is served with rice and is absolutely delicious. I couldn't find fresh fava beans for Easter but I found them this week end and I couldn't resist.

So here I am, 6 pounds of fresh fava beans, about 4 to 5 pounds of medium artichokes. Time to get to work! Started to peel and turn the artichokes and to open and peel the fava beans and sort them (the really big ones needed to be blanched and the second skin on them peeled as well, the small ones were tender enough to keep their skin). Worked on it until 5pm, ended up with about a pound of fava's and beautiful artichoke hearts, then proceeded to actually cook the stew. Just for kicks, I'll add the short recap of the recipe at the end of this entry.

It is now 8pm, dinner has come and gone, and the stew was well worth the effort.

I've written. I've cooked. I've eaten and cleaned up. Time to relax with the husband in front of the TV!

And tomorrow ... chili! LOL

     Artichokes and fresh fava beans stew.

  1. Fry 2 finely chopped onions in clarified butter, until they turn light golden. Add half of a bag of frozen artichoke hearts and saute it with the onions until everything is nice and golden. Why also use frozen artichokes when you have fresh ones, you will ask? Well, the frozen ones pretty much melt into the stew, thickening it up and making it a lot meatier. 
  2. Once the onions and frozen artichokes are medium gold, add the fresh artichokes cut in 4 that you previously had soaking in water and lemon juice. Also add the artichokes stems that you also peeled and reserved in lemony water. Saute the fresh artichokes for about 6 to 8 minutes on medium heat. 
  3. Add the fava beans, except the big ones you blanched and peeled. Saute everything together in the pan for another 8 minutes or so, stirring once or twice. 
  4. ONLY AT THIS POINT, season your dish with salt (see salt if you have it) and about 1/2 to 3/4 of a tsp of cinnamon. Saute for enother 2 minutes, so the cinnamon melts into the vegetables and the butter. 
  5. Cover with chicken stock (or water if it's lent), leaving 3 inches of liquid above the level of the vegetables--you will use that liquid after it reduces to make the rice.
  6. Bring to boil and lower to simmer and cook almost covered for about 30 minutes. 
  7. Check for seasoning and add the big fava beans that you blanched and peeled. Season them with a little salt before you toss them in with the rest.
  8. 15 minutes later, Check a fava bean (one with it's skin, not a blanched and peel one). If it's tender enough, the stew is ready. Turn the heat off and take a few ladles of liquid from the stew, leaving enough liquid to reach half the level of the vegetables. Reserve the liquid for the rice and cover the stew.
  9. Make a standard pilaf. Use fresh butter, not clarified, and for the love of all that is sacred, don't be afraid to use enough of it to fry the rice! I use about 2Tbsp of butter per cup of basmati rice. Once your rice has fried in the butter on low heat for about 3 to 4 minutes, add the liquid you took from the stew as well as a few fava beans from the stew (about 2 Tbsp). Season your rice, but keep in mind the stock is already seasoned. 
  10. Bring your rice to boil, lower the heat to LOW, cover and leave it alone for 19 minutes. 
  11. Check rice and stew for doneness and seasoning. Fluff up your rice and serve it on a large flat plate. Serve the vegetable stew in another deeper plate. 
Traditionally, you serve the rice then a ladle of stew on top of the rice. Put lemons on the table for a fresh squeeze on top. It is also traditional to accompany it with thick plain yogurt on the side (the greek type), but that's optional.

I took a few pics throughout the process. I'll post them tomorrow.