Counter Action: Kasha varnishkes

kasza varnishkes

Last week I turned 25.

This made me ineligible for the Miss America pageant, which was very disappointing because I totally had a running chance before. (The narrow hips, sunny personality, and butt-glue are all optional, right?)

But on the bright side, it also means that my frontal cortex is a little more developed, renting a car just got easier, and I’m another year closer to menopause. So really, who’s the real winner here?


Everyone who officially saw this button. (Go us!)

If you’re teetering on the edge of “real adulthood” like I am, kasha varnishkes is the kind of dish that will give your confidence in your maturity. It’s filling, earthy, simple, and fiber-rich, and paired with a green salad, it’s a complete meal. If you’re a little fancier than me, you could also use it as a side dish for a hearty soup, like this Ukrainian borscht,  or a main-dish salad, like Martha Stewart’s flank steak salad or zucchini and chicken salad.

Kasha varnishkes

(adapted from this recipe)


  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, grated
  • 1 c. uncooked kasha (buckwheat groats)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 c. chicken broth
  • 1 c. uncooked farfalle (bowtie noodles)
  • salt + pepper to taste


  1. Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add carrot and cook 2–3 minutes longer.
  2. Transfer onion–carrot mixture to another bowl. In small separate bowl, mix kasha and egg until kasha is well coated.
  3. Pour egg–kasha mixture into hot saucepan. Cook, stirring often, until egg is cooked.
  4. Add broth and onion–carrot mixture. Bring to a boil and cook until kasha is tender (~10 minutes).
  5. Meanwhile, fill medium saucepan with water and bring to boil. Add farfalle and cook until al dente. Remove from heat, drain, and set aside.
  6. When kasha is tender, add cooked farfalle. Toss well, adding salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Serve with green salad. Keep refrigerated for up to five days.

Counter Action: White bean stew with Parmesan and greens


I have an alarming amount of fun in my local grocery store.

It’s one of these food outlet deals, where they stock surplus goods from other grocery stores. You do have to be a little careful about expiration dates, and if you’re working from a strict list of needs … well, you probably shouldn’t. They’ll probably carry bread and milk every day, but don’t count on habañero–mango salsa or fresh ginger.

On the bright side, this now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t policy turns grocery shopping into a little adventure every week. They might have regular old chicken stock … or they might have a bunch of super-fancy organic free-range chicken stock for 50 cents a box. They might have your normal bagged spinach … or they might have a set of fancy bagged salads, croutons and dressing included, that will forever change the way you feel about kale.

A couple of weeks ago, I was prowling the aisles with my cart when I saw something new at the end of the bean/lentil/rice display: a whole carton of Great Northern beans.

I’ve been curating a slew of Great Northern bean recipes since forever, and now making some of them was actually within reach, thanks to some other store who ordered too many of them.

I tried to play it cool. I’m technically an adult, after all, even if I sometimes temporarily lose that card by, say, buying ridiculously cheap chocolate milk instead of regular, as I did today. But with those beans, I knew, my adult card would be sticking around a lot longer. They’ve got fiber, they’ve got protein, they’re low in cholesterol and calories and fat, and if you’ve been putzing around saying to yourself, “Boy, I’m feeling a little low in iron and potassium,” they’ve got you covered. To make them even more attractive, in this stew, they’re anything but bland. There’s red pepper flakes and paprika to give them a kick, Parmesan and the aid of a potato masher to make them creamy, and greens to boost their health quotient even further.

In short, if you’re looking for a way to keep your eating on the healthy side this holiday season, this stew is the perfect way to do that. And good news: If you start haunting your local outlet store today, you might be able to track down some Great Northerns by New Year’s.


White bean stew with Parmesan and greens

(adapted, barely, from How Sweet Eats)


  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 4 c. vegetable stock
  • 4 c. water
  • 2 c. dry white beans (I used Great Northern), soaked overnight
  • 1 Parmesan rind (+ more to grate on top)
  • 1 c. chopped kale
  • 4 c. chopped spinach


  1. Heat olive oil in large stockpot over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook until soft. Add garlic, peppers, salt, and paprika, and cook until fragrant.
  2. Add stock and water. Raise heat to high until soup boils.
  3. Add beans and Parmesan rind. Reduce heat and simmer covered until beans are tender (between 30 minutes and 1 hour, depending on how long they soaked).
  4. Add greens and cover pot for a few minutes, or until greens are wilted. Stir to combine. Simmer uncovered until contents are thick enough to be called stew instead of soup.
  5. With potato masher, mash stew a few times. Serve with Parmesan grated on top and plenty of sourdough.

The First Annual Poetry Spam

A few weeks ago, I tinkered with having a comment policy. It included this statement: “Interesting or funny spam will be preserved for posterity.”

I’m pleased to say that the spambots rose to the challenge. Here are three gems that have lately tickled my funnybone:

amazing spam

“One cannot ever go wrong with ethnic attire. […] The men are left pleased.”

Two very important priorities. Well done, spambot.

amazing spam ii

Quoting Auden? I’m impressed. Clearly this isn’t your average bot. Where do you reckon it went to college? Spamford? Spamherst?

(I’ll show myself out.)

amazing spam iii

“Cactus is not a kitchen ventilator.”

Pure gold. It’s like something I’ve heard at poetry groups, usually read aloud by someone who is either (a) still hungover from the night before and thus still half-convinced that Erato and Calliope appeared and handed down these words, or (b) slowly realizing, as he’s reading, that this did not in fact happen, and what used to sound brilliant now pales in the faces of his sardonic peers.

I’ve been there. I think we all have.

My point is, apparently we’re reaching some sort of Spam Renaissance, its quality increasing to balance out the decreasing standards of pop lyrics. If this trend continues, I predict spam in iambic pentameter within six months.

But why wait? Let’s set this ball rolling with some highbrowed spam of our own. Here’s the challenge: Look through your spam filter and pick out three juicy selections. Using only the words found in those messages, create a poem and post it in the comments below (or on your own media, with the hashtag #poetryspam). Bonus points are available for iambic pentameter.

I’ll start:

My clingy cactus cannot feel or sing;
Terrific radiation is my brand.
To run from kitchen offers is to block
An inspiration never pleased with fits.

The bar is set extremely low, my friends. It’s your turn now.

Counter Action: Orange–coconut sweet rolls


It’s November 16? What the heck? Where did autumn go?

I don’t know if it’s the new weather scheme, or the new crazed schedule, or the longer commute, or what … but ever since I moved here for grad school 14 months ago, time has been whizzing past me like a caffeinated peregrine falcon.

My default source for life allusions is Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, and here, as at many times, I will step back and let it explain how I feel.

Our spring and summer had been strenuous to the point of exhaustion and I, at least, having read many books about farms and farmers, had looked forward to winter as a sort of hibernation period. A time to repair machinery, hook rugs, patch quilts, mend harness and perform other leisurely tasks. Obviously something was wrong with my planning, for it took me sixteen hours a day to keep the stove going and three meals cooked. I leaped out of bed at 4 A.M., took two sips of coffee and it was eleven and time for lunch. I washed the lunch dishes and pulled a dead leaf off my kitchen geranium and it was five o’clock and time for dinner.

If you’re in a similar predicament, maybe you’re gulping down dried fruit and instant mac-and-cheese in the ten free minutes you have per day. But at some point in the near future, I hope you have the time to make something slowly — maybe a bean soup, maybe a pan of roasted vegetables, maybe these yummy rolls. Whatever it is, don’t feel guilty about taking the time to make it. Savour every minute it takes to prepare … and then savour every bite when it’s finished.


Orange–coconut sweet rolls

(using the Pioneer Woman’s cinnamon roll dough as a base)


  • 2 c. milk
  • 1/2 c. vegetable oil
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 2-1/2 tsp. (or 1 packet) yeast
  • 4 + 1/2 c. flour (divided)
  • 3/4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 T. salt
  • 1/2 c. butter
  • 3/4 c. coconut
  • 2 oranges
  • splash of orange juice
  • about 1-1/2 c. powdered sugar
  • pinch of salt


  1. Combine milk, oil, and sugar in a large pot. Heat and stir until comfortably warm (but not too warm to stick your finger in).
  2. Sprinkle yeast on top. Let sit for 5 minutes.
  3. Mix in 4 c. flour. Cover pot with tea towel and set aside to rise for 1 hour.
  4. Stir in 1/2 c. flour, along with baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Transfer dough to fridge while making filling.
  5. In small saucepan, brown butter. In toaster oven or conventional oven set to 375°F, toast coconut until golden-brown. Zest oranges and set zest aside, then peel, seed, and dice orange pulp.
  6. Turn dough out onto floured surface and shape into flat rectangle, roughly 12″ x 24″. Pour browned butter over dough, then sprinkle liberally with coconut, 3/4 of the orange chunks, and 1/2 of the orange zest.
  7. Starting from nearest long edge, roll dough and filling into a log. Cut into 1-1/2″ sections and place in casserole dish.
  8. Let rise 20 minutes, then bake at 375°F for 15–18 minutes.
  9. In small bowl, combine remaining orange zest and pulp with powdered sugar, splash of orange juice, and pinch of salt. Adjust powdered sugar:liquid ratio until you have a reasonably thin glaze.
  10. Remove rolls from oven. Top with glaze. Best right after baking, or keep covered at room temperature for 2–3 days.


Book Chatter: Ex Libris


In my grad program, there’s been a lot of discussion about The Future of the Book (ominous capitals very much intended). We discuss reading rates and literacy programs. We discuss what kids are up to these days. And perhaps inevitably, we talk about the rise of ebooks, and the slowing of the rise of ebooks.

We don’t have many extremists on either end of the scale. Most of us acknowledge that while we might have a personal preference, it’s our role as future librarians to provide users with whatever materials they prefer. This will certainly include ebooks, but given both people’s personal preferences and the state of e-readers’ digital divide, physical books will probably be in demand for a while longer.

But once in a while, I’ll hear a classmate say, “Ebooks are the future. That’s inevitable. We can’t change that.”

Whoa there, Pythia. Let’s stop and think. What are the ways in which ebooks could completely take over the reading world under their steam?

Well, paper could be outlawed worldwide for environmental reasons. (The statistics on how much energy is consumed to produce ebooks and charge e-readers would be gently ignored.)

But people are still making the decisions there — ebooks themselves aren’t deciding anything. Hmm.

What if publishers decided that they had to switch to 100% electronic formats to save money (although many people say that we’re vastly overestimating printing costs, and that authors are getting a raw deal in an ebook-heavy industry)?

No, people are still calling the shots there. Inasmuch as any technology can be neutral (which is a big enough debate for its own post series), ebooks seem to be pretty chill.

I should add here that I love ebooks. I also love physical books. I like downloading stories and textbooks in seconds, and I like the heft of 300 paper pages in my hands. Having these different technologies available is super helpful in matching format with function.


“What’s he training for? A marathon?” “Naah, he’s bringing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix home to his kids on Friday.”

But here’s something germane I read in class this quarter: In the physical sciences, like astronomy and chemistry, false theories won’t change the nature of reality. You can say “The sun orbits the earth” all you want, but it won’t change the truth.

In the social sciences, things work a bit differently — theories are the basis for action, which can change reality. For example, if you say, “Nobody uses the library anymore; they have Amazon and Google,” that theory could be used to justify shortening a library’s hours or even closing it altogether — and then, in accordance with your theory, library usage would indeed decrease.


Also, if you theorize that your neighbour’s livestock have no right to your land, apparently a fence will make that belief true. Who knew?

So when I hear things like “Ebooks are the inevitable future,” it scares me a little bit. There are all kinds of readers in the world, with all kinds of needs. Ebooks aren’t looming over us with swords, threatening destruction if we don’t adopt them. We still have a choice in how and where and when they’re used. If you prefer ebooks, read and buy ebooks. If you prefer physical books, read and buy those. But a reading culture is healthiest, I believe, when its members acknowledge that diversity (of both genre and format) is a beautiful, strengthening thing.

"All right, Pixabay, show me what you've got for 'strong'."

All right, Pixabay, show me what you’ve got for “strong”. … Really? Interesting.

Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader doesn’t address these tensions, per se; she focuses more on celebrating books as physical forms. The narrative centers on her and her husband’s attempts to integrate their two personal libraries. If you’ve ever done this yourself, you know how traumatic it can be. Do you get rid of duplicates? How will you arrange your collective library? Will you be allowed to file your mystery novels by publication date, just like you’ve always done? And will your significant other be persuaded to stop interfiling cookbooks with poetry anthologies?

It’s these small tensions that Fadiman describes in lyrical detail, as well as many other small portraits of her interactions with the printed word. Whether you prefer physical tomes or couldn’t live with your Kindle, Ex Libris will touch the heart of anyone who loves books.


Photo credit: Book cover from Better World Books; weightlifter from tpsdave, fence from DanEvans, and peaches from stux on Pixabay. 

NaNoWriMo: A Full-Throated Defense

“What a wonderful crazy system that lets everyone in on the game” — I couldn’t have described NaNoWriMo better myself.

Jacke Wilson

This is national novel writing month (NaNoWriMo), which isn’t something I’ve ever participated in, mainly because I write fiction year round and don’t need any extra incentive. What has struck me this year is that there are such strong opinions AGAINST it. Even purported supporters often give NaNoWriMo participants the back of their hand – suggesting that these people are delusional, they’re churning out garbage, they don’t realize how hard writing is, they give agents and editors headaches, they’re unrealistic about the prospects of instantly earning millions of dollars, they’ve turned writing novels into a lark, they should be READING and not writing. I won’t link to these articles to give them any more traffic than they deserve, and because I’m trying to stay positive here.

But to answer each of those criticisms I say:

So what?

We have democratic voting system for a reason. Take a close look at…

View original post 413 more words

NaNoWriMo: A Summary.


“‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.'”

Counter Action: Roasted garlic soup with rosemary yams


Three truths about this soup:

  1. It isn’t the prettiest soup on the block. It’s beige at its best, and greyish at its worst. That’s one reason I like to throw some roasted yams on top — in addition to being super tasty, they liven things up like a disco ball in a middle-school gym. Joy the Baker, the source of the original recipe, used purple potatoes to the same effect. Whatever you choose as a garnish (fresh parsley and crumbled goat cheese? broiled cheddar lids?), be sure it’s bright and attractive.
  2. While the roasting process turns garlic from a zippy, pungent bulb into a deep, velvety flavor vehicle, it’s still recognizably garlicky. So, maybe steer clear of this soup before job interviews and meeting future in-laws. Save it for a dark, rainy day when you’re home with the flu — or else a group of adventurous dinner guests.
  3. It’s a seriously good soup. I believe I already used the word velvety, so let’s try … silky. Warming. Full-flavoured.  Comforting. It’ll win over guests in no time — and earn you instant admiration points when you reveal how much garlic it contains.

Roasted garlic soup with rosemary yams

(Adapted from Joy the Baker’s recipe)


  • 25–35 unpeeled cloves of garlic (divided)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 medium onions, sliced into half-moons
  • 2 Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
  • 2 tsp. thyme
  • 6 c. chicken broth
  • 4 T. lemon juice
  • ¾ c. plain yogurt (can also substitute milk, whipping cream, or sour cream)
  • grated Parmesan
  • 3–4 yams, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 T. dried rosemary, crushed


  1. Place 20–25 unpeeled garlic cloves in oven-proof dish. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  2. Roast garlic at 450°F for about 20 minutes, or until soft.
  3. Remove garlic from oven, let cool a few minutes, then pop garlic out of skins. Throw away skins and set garlic aside.
  4. Heat 2 T. olive oil in stock pot over medium-low heat. Add onions, Yukon Golds, thyme, and 5–10 raw unpeeled garlic cloves. Cook until onions are translucent.
  5. Add broth and peeled roasted garlic. Raise heat to medium-high.
  6. Simmer until potatoes and raw garlic are tender.
  7. Toss diced yams with olive oil and rosemary. Roast at 450°F for about 30 minutes, or until tender.
  8. Purée soup in batches and return to pot. Add yogurt and lemon juice, and stir to incorporate.
  9. Scoop soup into bowls. Top with roasted yams and Parmesan. Swirl in extra lemon juice, plain yogurt, and/or extra virgin olive oil if desired.

Possible variations:

  • Boil and drain 1/2 c. cannellini or Great Northern beans. Add to soup before puréeing for extra protein.
  • Replace Yukon Gold potatoes in soup with yams for a brighter colour.
  • Dice onions instead of slicing, and purée only half of the soup for a chunkier texture. Stir in 1 c. shredded chicken before serving.



Book Chatter: Bird by Bird

Widely regarded to be one of the best writing books out there, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life has a special role in my life.


When I first read it, I was in college, involved in a writing group. Now, there are several flavours of writing groups. Some are more about tea and chatting, and then in the last fifteen minutes they might get around to discussing their latest pieces. Others are very focused on Getting Published, and if they don’t have charts tacked to the wall detailing the progress of everyone’s query letters, it’s because their memories are doing the job perfectly well.

And then there are the groups that are all about being honest. These can be tricky. They can be super helpful. They can also completely crush your spirits and make you believe you will never write anything good again, not even a Facebook status or an inter-office memo. Probably even when you buy a new car and try to create a good license plate number, you will crash and burn because your ability to string symbols together is not to be trusted.

"Poor guy --- thought he could play Scrabble."

“Poor guy … thought he could play Scrabble.”

The trick to dealing with these groups is to choose very carefully what piece of writing you bring to them. You can’t bring something you’re too attached to, but you have to care about it enough to value the criticism you get. It’s a delicate balance.

It can also be a little tiring, and several weeks into the group, I was talking with a writing friend who wasn’t in the group. She’d heard about the dynamic and, in sympathy,  told me to read Bird by Bird. It turned out to be exactly what I needed — Lamott knows how to push her readers into writing more, writing better, but she does it so gently that it’s a delight to be challenged. She talks about perspective, about plot, about character development, about writer’s block, and all throughout the book her voice is encouraging, calm, and humorous. Wherever you are in your writing journey, whatever kind of setting you’re writing in, Bird by Bird is a resource that is well worth your time.


Photo credit: Book cover from Better World Books; fire from tpsdave on Pixabay.


Counter Action: Pomegranate applesauce


Day 2 of NaNoWriMo! How are we doing? Everyone hale and hearty?

And hey, how about that extra hour this morning? Did you put it to good purpose? Did you rise an hour early and greet the wan winter dawn with a Sun Salutation atop a mountain?

I sure didn’t. I used that hour to sleep. Now, apart from this cold I’m nursing, I feel fantastic. Thanks, Ben Franklin.


All week long I’ve had three Gala apples sitting on my counter, perfectly ripe but still a little soft for eating straight. I meant to turn them into Smitten Kitchen’s apple–honey challah this weekend, but then I got sick and felt more like lounging around drinking tea than wrestling with several pounds of dough. To compromise, I wrestled with a pomegranate instead and made this applesauce. It’s pleasantly pink with a gentle tangy sweetness from the pomegranate arils. I like it solo or on oatmeal, but it would also be lovely warm on pancakes or waffles.


Pomegranate applesauce


  • 5–6 apples (I used three Gala and two Honeycrisp)
  • 1/2 c. pomegranate arils (or if you’re in a rush, substitute 1/4 c. pomegranate juice)
  • 2 tsp. honey (I used blackberry blossom; feel free to go milder or stronger)


  1. Peel, core, and dice the apples. Place in a stockpot with the pomegranate arils and honey. Depending on your pot’s size, fill about halfway with water — you want the fruit to be floating about four inches from the burner.
  2. Simmer for about 30 minutes with the lid on, then about 30 minutes with the lid off. You’re aiming for the apples to be cooked and most of the liquid to evaporate. Add water as needed to keep the sauce from scorching.
  3. Feel free to eat as is. If you’re like me and prefer to get rid of the crunchy little pomegranate seeds, put the mixture through a ricer before eating.
  4. Makes about three cups of applesauce. Eat immediately or keep in the fridge for 5–6 days.