#FCSDay and The Food Side of Things

ALL FOUR STARS by Tara Dairman coverPeople who’ve read my novel All Four Stars and its sequels often ask me how I became a writer. Sometimes they also want to know where my book ideas come from. (Ha, if only I knew! I’d go back and grab a few more.)

But recently, a friend asked a different question: How did I get interested in “the food side of things”? Cooking, and eating adventurously, play a huge role in my books—and I bet a lot of readers assume that (like my foodie heroine, Gladys), I’ve been passionate about food since childhood. But they’d be wrong about that.

I don’t talk about my “foodie awakening” as much as I should. But here goes. Though I wasn’t like Gladys as a kid, my parents were in some ways like her parents. They weren’t cooks. They didn’t own any cookbooks, or clip recipes from magazines. And neither of them had been taught to cook when they were younger. It was a skill that had, between generations, slipped out of use in our family.

Stars of SummerAs a result, the kitchen was like a foreign country to them—and a kind of scary one. Sharp knives could cut you! The stove burned! They didn’t have experience using these tools, so they only saw the dangers. The microwave seemed safe enough, so they cooked pretty much anything they could in it (and some things that you probably shouldn’t). And when our freezer ran low on microwaveable meals, we ate cereal or got takeout.

So perhaps not surprisingly, I was not an adventurous eater when I was a kid. (I was a lot more like Parm in my books than like Gladys!) I hadn’t been exposed to a wide range of good-tasting food, so I didn’t like much of it. Finally, in high school, I started trying new cuisines, thanks to a club advisor who made it his mission to blow our minds with Indian, Ethiopian, Malaysian, and Japanese food.

STARS SO SWEET by Tara DairmanBut it wasn’t until much later—when I was a college student, on the verge of living on my own—that I took a hard look at my future as an eater. I could go the way of my parents, relying on frozen-meal companies and fast-food joints to feed me for the rest of my life, or I could roll up my sleeves and learn how to cook.

I bought a copy of Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, asked for a food processor for my birthday, and never looked back.

Those first days of cooking, on break from school at my parents’ house, were slow and a little painful—especially when I’d promised everyone dinner at 7, only to get it on the table at 9. But with practice, I grew more confident, and the results grew more delicious. My parents may not have cooked much for me, but they let me cook for them, and soon we were sitting around the table together, enjoying a homemade meal. I had turned a pile of raw ingredients into something nourishing for the people I loved—and I was truly shocked at how powerful that made me feel.

So, that’s my story about “the food side of things.” I kept enjoying new cuisines and making food for others. I finally got brave enough to attempt my dream of writing a novel, and I wanted to make my newfound passion for food a part of it. When I got the idea to write about a young girl whose parents ban her from the kitchen after a cooking mishap—a girl whose dream is to become a restaurant critic—I knew I’d struck gold.

When I meet readers today, some tell me that my books have nudged them to try a recipe out for themselves. It’s not often that we fiction writers get to hear about our stories affecting people’s real lives. But knowing that Gladys’s foodie adventures have inspired kids to develop a skill that I know will serve them—and others around them—for the rest of their days…well, I can’t help but weep salty little tears of happiness.

What “Dining In” looks like for me these days

Saturday, December 3, is #FCSDay, when tens of thousands of people commit to “dining in” with family and friends. To celebrate, the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences (AAFCS)—with support from my publisher, Penguin—will be giving away several sets of the All Four Stars trilogy to participants as prizes. To learn more and sign up to “Dine In,” visit aafcs.org/FCSDay, and follow the #FCSDay and #healthyfamselfie hashtags on social media.

 

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Recipe: Soto ayam, the world’s best chicken soup!

It’s fall (or just about), and I have my first cold of the season. 😦

But all is not awfulness, because at least I have an excuse to make my favorite chicken soup–which, since 2011, has been soto ayam. (Sorry, matzo ball!) With its super-flavorful, coconut-milk-thickened broth filled with chicken, rice noodles, and crunchy sprouts and scallions, it’s not just the only chicken-noodle soup I’ve ever really gotten excited about; it’s one of the best dishes, period, that I tried during my world travels.

Soto ayam, Labuan, Java

Soto ayam in Labuan, western Java

 

The way I make this soup at home is in the style of the little roadside stall in Labuan (western Java) where I first tried it. Apparently, soto ayam varies by region in Indonesia, so when I returned to the states and wanted to learn how to make it, I had to sift through many different recipes. After a few rounds of experimentation, though, I finally developed this master recipe, which is very true to my memory of the soup I had in Java. It’s a bit of a project, but completely worth the effort, in my opinion. If you try it, let me know what you think!

Soto ayam

Soto ayam made at home

Soto ayam recipe
serves 4

Broth ingredients:
1-2 bone-in chicken thighs (depending on how much meat you like in your soup)
2 lemongrass stalks (or 1.5 TBSP lemongrass powder)
1 tsp salt
6 cups water

Spice paste ingredients:
8 almonds
3 garlic cloves
1-2 TBSP chopped fresh ginger (or one knob of ginger, peeled)
1 small onion (or 2 shallots)
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 TBSP coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 small dried chili
1.5 tsp turmeric
1 tsp brown sugar
juice of one lime
1-2 TBSP neutral oil or coconut milk

Additional ingredients:
2 TBSP neutral oil
1 can coconut milk (or 1.5 cups)
reserved chicken broth
reserved shredded chicken
1 bunch bean sprouts, rinsed
1 bunch spring onions, sliced
7-8 oz thin rice noodles

Directions:

1) Combine broth ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 40 minutes, partially covered. Remove chicken thighs and set aside to cool. Discard lemongrass stalks (if used). Reserve broth to use later in the recipe.

2) Combine spice paste ingredients in a food processor. Process for about 5 minutes, or until a thick paste has formed.

3) Once chicken thighs are cool, remove the meat from the bones and shred it. Discard the bones.

4) Heat 2 TBSP oil in your large pot on medium-high heat, and add spice paste. Fry spice paste for 5 minutes, stirring almost constantly. Add coconut milk, reserved chicken broth, and shredded chicken; bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add bean sprouts and cook 5 more minutes. Add spring onions and cook 1 minute. Turn off heat.

5) Meanwhile, boil a pot of water and cook rice noodles according to package directions. When ready, drain, rinse with cold water, and mix in a little oil to keep noodles from clumping.

6) To serve: divide rice noodles among four bowls and ladle soup over them, making sure to get a good mix of solids and broth. Serve with a spoon and either chopsticks or a fork. Enjoy!

(Note: In Indonesia, this soup would be served with a bowl of white rice on the side–but for me, the rice noodles are starch enough so I don’t bother. It might also be served with fried shallots sprinkled on top, which are delicious. I’m just too lazy to make them most of the time.)

 

A Baked Creation!

SWEET blog button2Stars So Sweet comes out tomorrow! If you’re in New York, I hope you’ll join me at Books of Wonder to celebrate!

Blog tour stop #8: Check out this delicious review and bonus cheese and scallion madeleine recipe (YUM) by Sylvia at A Baked Creation! Her fancy photography of Stars So Sweet among the macarons is definitely worth a gander, too. 🙂

More blog tour (on launch day eve!)

SUMMER blog button3The blog tour for The Stars of Summer is rolling on! First, on Friday, we had this lovely review from Lisa at Fic Talk. I love how she says that this series appeals to adult foodies as well as young readers, because I think so, too! 🙂

And now today Lucy at The Reading Date shares her reactions to the book–and some of her favorite veggie dogs from around LA, should Gladys ever want to come out and visit. The pictures and descriptions have me drooling.

The Stars of Summer hits the shelves TOMORROW, and my first bookstore launch party is the day after that. There are also plenty more blog tour posts coming your way. It’s going to be a busy, but exciting week!

Pick of the Day at A Mighty Girl!

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman CoverI was so pleased to learn this morning that All Four Stars is the Pick of the Day from A Mighty Girl!

A Mighty Girl is an awesome website that seeks to empower and inspire girls with books, toys, movies, and music, and Gladys and I are honored to have her story featured.

Their post recommends several other terrific foodie reads (including A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff, whom I interviewed here!)–and just in time for the kickoff of Masterchef Junior. 🙂

Happy cooking, everyone!

Interview and Giveaway: SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS by Jeannie Mobley!

Colorado is for writersToday I am so pleased to welcome my friend and fellow author Jeannie Mobley back to the blog!

Jeannie was the very first interviewee in my Colorado is for Writers series, when her debut middle-grade novel, Katerina’s Wish, was released. Now we’re just days away from the release of her second book, Searching for Silverheels. I got to read an advance copy, and I loved it just as much as I loved Katerina. You can read my review of the book at the end of this post.

Here’s the blurb about Silverheels, then you can read on to my interview with Jeannie and enter to win a signed copy!


Searching for Silverheels by Jeannie MobleyA girl’s search for the truth about a legendary woman teaches her a lot about what bravery and loyalty really mean in this gorgeous novel from the author of Katerina’s Wish.

In her small Colorado town Pearl spends the summers helping her mother run the family café and entertaining tourists with the legend of Silverheels, a beautiful dancer who nursed miners through a smallpox epidemic in 1861 and then mysteriously disappeared. According to lore, the miners loved her so much they named their mountain after her.

Pearl believes the tale is true, but she is mocked by her neighbor, Josie, a suffragette campaigning for women’s right to vote. Josie says that Silverheels was a crook, not a savior, and she challenges Pearl to a bet: prove that Silverheels was the kindhearted angel of legend, or help Josie pass out the suffragist pamphlets that Pearl thinks drive away the tourists. Not to mention driving away handsome George Crawford.

As Pearl looks for the truth, darker forces are at work in her small town. The United States’s entry into World War I casts suspicion on German immigrants, and also on anyone who criticizes the president during wartime—including Josie. How do you choose what’s right when it could cost you everything you have?

Interview with Jeannie Mobley

Tara Dairman: I love how the relationship between Josie and Pearl is so layered, and continues to develop throughout the book. Did their dynamic come to you easily, or did it take a few drafts to get right?

Jeannie MobleyJeannie Mobley: The relationship between the two characters was the very first thing that came to me about this story, so I’m glad you loved it! This book was born when I was driving across the state of Colorado. I had driven from my home in Longmont, in the northeastern part of the state, to Cortez, in the extreme southwest corner. The trip was a bittersweet one, joining old friends who I hadn’t seen in some time, in order to scatter the ashes of another old friend. So, close, complicated, enduring relationships were on my mind. And on the way home, I was listening to an audiobook, Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas (one of my favorite historical fiction authors). In the book, a character briefly retells the legend of Silverheels. I had known the legend since childhood, having grown up in Colorado, and as a kid I had a very romantic view of it, but hearing it again as an adult, I had a more cynical take on it. It hit me like a bolt of lightning–what an interesting story to have an old cynic and a young romantic debating the truth behind the legend. By the time I got home from that trip, the characters and their relationship had taken shape in my mind. It developed so quickly, so naturally, and so solidly that I knew I had something, so I started building a setting, time period, and story around them. Their relationship was spot on from the first draft. It was elements of plot, secondary plot, and the shape the legend took that shifted through various drafts.

TD: Of course, I have questions about food. 🙂 Between the cafe where Pearl works and the big picnic, there is so much scrumptious food in Searching for Silverheels! How did you learn what kinds of foods were popular in 1917? And do you have a favorite dish from the book?

JM: I must admit, I gained weight writing this book. For months while working on it, I craved pancakes, which I hardly ever eat. On several occasions I snuck away from my writing desk at lunchtime and went to the nearby Perkins Restaurant for pancakes. So while it’s not necessarily my favorite dish, it is something I associate strongly with this book. Plus, I love all the colloquial words for pancakes–like hotcakes and flapjacks. Somehow, they taste better when you call them flapjacks.

I actually didn’t do much research on 1917 foods. Instead, I drew on my own memories, from having grown up in the country and traveled a lot of back roads in my childhood. My dad loved to stop in for a cup of coffee and pie at small town cafes when we traveled, and I acquired my love of that setting from him. In small, agricultural towns, the café is often the gathering place, and there is almost always that table in the corner full of old timers, talking at length about nothing in particular. So that was the setting I tried to create in my book. It’s a setting I like to think of as perpetual and timeless in rural America, not just a feature of the early 20th century. I think of the food in those places as timeless too: pie and coffee, eggs, hash, pancakes, fried potatoes for breakfasts, sandwiches and stews and soups for lunch.

That said, I have looked at menus from the early 20th century to get a sense of some of the types of sandwiches, for example. Unlike today, where sandwiches are made out of processed lunch meats, then sandwiches were made from a big ham or roast or other chunk of meat, cooked and sliced on the premises. Cold tongue was a common sandwich meat in the early 20th century that you don’t see much on menus anymore. That one doesn’t show up in Searching for Silverheels, but I’m saving it for some book in the future. I figure that has a great gross-out factor for today’s kids that I should take advantage of at some point.  (I’m calling dibs on the cold tongue sandwich here, fellow authors!)

(Note from Tara: I actually love cold tongue! I grew up eating it at kosher delis in New York.)

What I had to do to put the café into 1917 was to think about differences in supply connections and in equipment. In a small mountain town in 1917, chances are Pearl’s mom would have been cooking on a wood-burning stove. Coffee pots would have been percolators on the stove top, not electric drip brewers, and hotplates/heat lamps wouldn’t have been an option. I can’t quite imagine feeding crowds of people cooking like that, but then Pearl’s mom is a pretty strong woman.

Mmm, cherry pie!

Mmm, cherry pie!

Also, in 1917, food would have had to come in and out of the area by train, and so seasonality of foods would be much more relevant–no fresh strawberries in December or apples in June. Anything out of season would have to be canned–no good frozen transport, at least not in rural Colorado.  I used the seasonality to my advantage–making it a big event when Colorado cherries arrive and Mrs. Barnell bakes cherry pies. The whole town turns out for a slice of those pies!

I also made use of what I knew would be local resources–trout out of the mountain streams and wild game like rabbits and deer (although I think my rabbit stew and venison might have gotten edited out of the book). Because it was a small, somewhat isolated town, I figured people would have used more neighborly barter to pay their bills, like bringing game to the café when they could. That is something that I think is more true to 1917 than to today. 

TD: Thank you for all this food insight, Jeannie! I love it!


Katerina's Wish by Jeannie MobleySearching for Silverheels,
like your first book, Katerina’s Wish, is set here in Colorado. Are there other parts of the state–or other periods in the state’s history–that you hope to explore in future books?

JM: I am working on a book now that is set in Denver in the 1930’s, but I don’t pick Colorado locations for their own sake. I tend to think of the premise of a story first, and then look for the time and place that best suits it. In both of my books so far, the time and place that suited happened to be in Colorado. Having grown up here, I know a lot of the local history, and that makes these settings easy for me to recreate. Silverheels had to be set where it was because it had to connect to a local legend, and I picked the time period (World War I) because I wanted to build a powerful theme around what gave women strength, so the First World War was an obvious choice because of the conflict between women’s suffragists and the war effort, and also the ways women had to step up and fill in for men on the home front.  However, if my next idea connects best to a time and place far from Colorado, I would certainly not hesitate to set the story elsewhere.  One of my current projects is set on a train running from New Orleans to Chicago, for example. For me, setting has to serve the story, not the other way around.

Thank you so much, Jeannie, for all this behind-the-scenes insight into your wonderful new book!

Tara’s review of Searching for Silverheels 

Searching for SilverheelsSearching for Silverheels by Jeannie Mobley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This fantastic sophomore outing confirms Jeannie Mobley as one of my favorite middle-grade authors. This book has the perfect mix of mystery, history, politics, and romance, with a good dose of humor thrown in for good measure.

The story, set during WWI, focuses on the relationship between 13-year-old Pearl and 70-something Josie. Josie wants all American women to have the vote; Pearl wants Josie to stop bothering the tourists at her mother’s cafe with her political rants and suffragist handbills. And maybe she’d like a little romance on the side at the Fourth of July picnic, too.

Pearl’s and Josie’s brushes with each other lead to a bet regarding the truth behind a local legend: the dancer Silverheels, for whom Mount Silverheels is named. I could say more, but the twisty-turny plot is really so delicious that the less you know going in, the better.

I give this book two huge thumbs up–I fell in love with the characters, learned a lot about a specific corner of Colorado and a specific time in history, and was smiling the whole time. Can’t ask for a better reading experience than that!

GIVEAWAY ALERT! You can enter to win a signed and personalized hardcover copy of Searching for Silverheels by leaving a comment on this post! You can also earn up to two extra entries by posting about this giveaway on Twitter and/or Facebook–please mention or link your extra posts in your comment. 

Sample Tweet:
Win a signed copy of ‘s SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS at ‘s blog!

Sample FB status:
Win a signed copy of SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, the new book by KATERINA’S WISH author Jeannie Mobley! 

I‘ll announce a winner on 8/28. Good luck!

Eatin’ and Authorin’ All Over Texas!

Hello, friends! As you may know, I spent last weekend traveling around Texas with my husband and with fellow middle-grade author Rebecca Behrens (whose debut novel, When Audrey Met Aliceis one of my absolute favorite reads this year). We did three author events together and ate a whole lot of very healthy food. Here are some pics!

Texas is known for having amazing barbecue, and we made sure to eat as much of it as possible. The first stop was Micklethwait Craft Meats in Austin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrisket, enormous beef rib, and pork belly sausage. A delicious start to the trip.
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Ice cream break! (Texas is HOT.) Austin’s Lick is known for having interesting, locally-sourced flavors.
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My favorite Lick flavor? Caramelized Carrot with Tarragon. Pretty sure it was my first time eating tarragon in ice cream. It was surprisingly fantastic. Hill Country Honey ran a close second.
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On to Dallas, where a big blue eye greeted us.
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Pecan Lodge is Dallas’s top BBQ joint, and probably our favorite of the trip. Gladys would have given the brisket, burnt ends, and collard greens all four stars. (Peach cobbler was just okay–maybe 2.5 stars.)
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Pecan Lodge also lets you doodle on the bathroom door. 🙂 I left a little mark commemorating our books and bbq tour.
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Our first book event was the Author Roundup at the Fort Worth Library. They set us each up with our own little station!
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Here’s Rebecca, looking adorable in her racecar dress (printed with just the type of car that Alice Roosevelt used to drive).
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Our fellow OneFour Kidlit debut author Christine Kohler drove all the way in from West Texas just to see us. Her debut YA novel, No Surrender Soldier, is fantastic.2014-08-16 13.16.45We also got to meet 2015 debut author Jenny Martin, whose YA novel is called Tracked. Here we are making a Jenny sandwich and showing off our All Four Stars temporary tattoos.
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One of the library’s copies of All Four Stars on the display table. This was my first time seeing the book jacketed in library plastic–a very exciting moment!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Jenny’s suggestion, we headed to Roanoke, TX, for dinner: “The Unique Dining Capital of Texas.” It is an extremely cute small town packed with restaurants.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Butterfly interlude!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA And now back to food. After a whole lot of meat from Hard Eight BBQ, we stumbled over to the Oak Street Pie Company.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Raspberry-rhubarb pie. Quite possibly the best slice of pie I’ve had in my life. Rebecca said that her cherry pie was also some of the best pie she’d ever had. Looks like Classy Cakes has some competition in North Texas!PieMooooving on (heh heh) to the historic Fort Worth Stockyards…
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Where we got to see some lovely longhorns.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen on to Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere we ate some lovely longhorns. Tasty brisket, plus sausage from the famous Kreuz Market.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFueled up on meat, it was on to Fort Worth’s Barnes & Noble for our next author event, where we teamed up with the wonderful Texas authors Polly Holyoke and K.A. Holt.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPanel time! We talked about writing convincing settings, our long paths to publication, and lots of other good stuff. 
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The next day found us back in Austin, seeking yet more barbecue. We ended up at John Mueller’s, where we had some delicious brisket (noticing a trend?), pork ribs, and cheesy squash. Thanks to Rebecca for snapping this pic of me and the mister.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a very interesting visit to the LBJ presidential library, we headed up to Round Rock for our final author event. But first, there was time to seek out the famous round rock itself!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere we are at The Book Spot with our fellow MG panelists Nikki Loftin, K.A. Holt, and Jennifer Ziegler. It was a fantastic panel, culminating in a fun trivia session with prizes.
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The trend of wonderful people traveling a long way to see us continued! Here I am signing a book for my friend Linda, who came all the way from Houston for the event.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bookstore was awesome and got cakes for the party. They asked for one cake that said “Happy End of Summer” and one that had a unicorn on it. This is what the bakery delivered. #oopsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2015 debut author (and my fellow Emu!) Donna Bowman Bratton joined us for a post-panel Tex-Mex dinner. While it was hard to eat a meal that contained no BBQ, we did our best to power through.
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Texas was a blast–and I’m not just talking about the blast of furnace-like air that hits you every time you step outside in August. (Seriously, it was 100 degree every single day we were there.) Thank you so much to our fabulous co-panelists, the amazing booksellers and librarians who invited us in for events, the hard-working bbq pitmasters and dessert artisans who swelled our waistlines, and the friends who made us feel so very welcome. Can’t wait for next time!

P.S. If you are looking for a signed copy of All Four Stars, The Book Spot in Round Rock and the Barnes & Noble in Fort Worth each have a stash of them now. Happy reading!