Cooking with Strange Ingredients of Questionable Origin

Ugh, I do not feel like I am winning this camp session so far. I don’t think I’m going to not win (yet) but it’s been a slog and I’m quite a bit behind. This nonfiction writing business is kind of a drag. I mean, it’s interesting and stuff, but I feel like I need to do about twenty or thirty minutes of research for every ten words that I write. I knew I would be writing few words this time around and that it would take more research and fact checking, but sheesh. I could really go for just a quick and stupid blitz through draftyville right now, you know?

That said, it hasn’t all been rainclouds and misery these last couple weeks. One of the two nonfiction projects I’m working on is a cookbook, and that means cooking! Furthermore, it means experimental cooking, which is probably the best kind of cooking that there is.

In the interest of keeping the cookbook accessible to normal humans, I can’t do anything too crazy-go-nuts, and that’s kept me reigned in reasonably well. After all the ingredient I’m showcasing here is a little wacky itself- birch syrup. (Who here has heard of birch syrup? Tried it? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to know what you think about it!)

Birch syrup is like the half-sibling between unrelated maple syrup and molasses. It’s got that maple treeishness, and molasses’ kind of minerally tang to it, but has a flavor profile all its own that varies quite a bit from batch to batch. I’ve been working on a series of recipes that bring out its uniqueness, but within the kinds of comfort foods that people already know and love.

Some of the recipes I’m working on are things like birch vinaigrette, birch baked black beans, and birch-infused profiteroles. There are birch caramel popcorn balls, and boreal bliss ice cream, and birch brined moose jerky. (These are my comfort foods, okay?)

My kids’ favorite so far, though, has to be the birch bacon mac and cheese. Sweet and salty and gooey and hot, that double batch I made didn’t stand a chance.

1/2 pound of bacon

1 lb chopped vegetables of choice (broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, etc)

1 lb dry pasta

1/4 c unsalted butter

1/4 c all-purpose flour

2 c whole milk

1/4 c dark birch syrup

1 1/4 c mozzarella cheese

3/4 c cheddar cheese

1.  Boil pasta according to directions, cooking just slightly less than al dente. (I usually find the directions for al dente and then subtract one minute for every five. Bite a piece and if it feel just a bit undercooked, it’s ready.) Drain the pasta and set aside.

2.  Cook bacon in a frying pan over high heat until crisp, about eight minutes. While bacon is cooking, steam vegetables. I typically chop vegetables into chunks about the size of my curled forefinger and steam for five minutes, until they are just a tiny bit crunchier than al dente, like the pasta. Set aside vegetables. Drain bacon, and then chop into bite-sized chunks and set aside.

3.  Melt butter over medium-high heat in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. When the butter begins to boil, add flour and whisk until the mixture becomes fragrant and turns a light brown, about three minutes. (It’s better to undercook than overcook at this stage. Overcooking with make for a slightly lumpy cheese sauce while little brown flecks, while undercooking is easy to correct with a little extra cooking later. Either way, it will still taste fine.) Slowly whisk in the milk. It may be a little lumpy at first, but keep whisking as the milk comes up to heat and it will smooth out. Whisk constantly as the sauce thickens, taking care that the bottom does not scorch. Turn off heat, but keep pot over burner, and whisk in the birch syrup. The sauce should be a uniform light caramel color.

4.  Add cheese a half cup at a time, allowing it to melt completely and then whisking it in before adding more cheese. Sauce should be thick and gooey; if it is too thick, add two tablespoons of additional milk at a time until desire consistency. (I usually end up adding about an extra half cup of milk at this point, but my family likes a slightly thinner mac.)

5.  Pour the noodles, bacon, and vegetables into the cheese sauce, stirring gently until well coated. Cook over low heat until cheese sauce just begins to bubble and all ingredients are heated through, about five minutes. Serve hot.

Looking for a slightly lighter side dish? Omit the bacon and vegetables, instead adding one teaspoon of salt to the cheese sauce.

Note: While any pasta would taste good with this sauce, different pastas hold sauces differently. When choosing a good mac-and-cheese pasta, pick a “short” pasta, rather than a strand or ribbon pasta, that would cup the sauce and transfer little reservoirs of it into your mouth. Medium-to-large sized tubes or shells (such as penne, conchiglie, or rotini) about the same size as your vegetable and bacon chunks would be about right for this recipe. Alternatively, if omitting the bacon and veggies, you can go for a smaller pasta such as macaroni or campanelle.

PS- If you can’t get your hands on birch syrup (like most of the world outside of extreme northern latitudes), don’t sweat it. This recipe will still be tasty if you use maple syrup or molasses instead. Just, while you’re eating it, you are legally required to think of how much nummier it would be if you had the real deal. Legal truth. *nods*

Until next week, happy writing cooking!

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Reblog: How to Become a Successful Writer and Work-Full Time

Hi friends! As you well know, it’s a NaNo month, and that means reblogging my way to a murky victory by reserving every iota of brain power for spitting out garbage first drafts! Hooray!

One of those distracting brain power sinks is my job. I work two or three part time jobs in the winter, but in the summer, I work one part time and one full time, leaving me little time or thought for writing. This summer has had the added complication of doing freelance writing work for three different operations all at the same time. So while I don’t have the time to do any fiction work right now, I am still writing, with a bonus of contractually obligated deadlines (which for me is a very good thing).

That said, this week, I’ll be reblogging a guest article from The Creative Penn, Ron Vitale’s How to Become a Successful Writer and Work Full-Time at a Day Job, which is a really long title. Later in the month, I’ll probably post a snippet from one of my projects, which I’ll tell you more about then. Until then, happy writing, and enjoy the article!

How to Become a Successful Writer and Work Full-Time at a Day Job

Back in 2008, I made a decision that changed my life. I decided to write a novel.

Yes, I worked full-time at a day job and had two small children, but realized that if I wanted my life to change, I needed to either make a move, or let go of my dream. Having my big “four-oh” birthday on the horizon proved to be the kick in the pants that pushed me to act. I thought long and hard, but decided to take a leap of faith and try. I now have 7 novels on sale on various platforms and am working on my next.

I went from “wanting to be a novelist” to “being one.”

How? I did the following:

  • Made a public commitment to my family and friends, holding myself accountable.
  • Created a schedule that worked for my busy career.
  • Chunked the work into bite-sized pieces.

Believe in Yourself

All my life I had waited for someone to validate me as an author. To change that unhealthy behavior, I started doing. I wrote in the morning before work, read “how to” articles and started listening to podcasts on writing and publishing. I reframed my goals by choosing to invest in myself and my dream.

No longer would I wait for someone to discover me, I would discover myself. 

Ready to read some more? Find the full article here!

Miss Frizzle, Colored at Last!

Thank you for your patience last week. And look, I finally colored the thing! Whee!

And just a heads up- today is the first day of another session of Camp Nanowrimo, so this month I will be lazy and stupid while I direct my brain power in other directions. We’ll have lame art and reblogs and who knows what else. Should be fun times!

Happy writing!

Excuses, Excuses

My last three four days have included:

  • Three four doctor visits
  • Two three ER visits
  • Two family members on exciting new medications
  • No sleep whatsoever
  • Vomiting
  • Bleeding
  • More pus than I ever thought possible
  • Hey, look, we hit our deductible!
  • And now with facial scarring- maybe plastic surgery to come?? The fun never ends!

As such, there will be no update this week. Check back next week for some long overdue art. Thanks for your understanding!

Trial Separations: When It’s Time for a Break

After writing last week about ways to keep your mind limber while on a writing break, I promptly went on a small week-long writing break. Thirty-one members of my immediate and extended family were in town, we were camping for days, and what had started as volunteering to pick up the food from the grocery story quickly morphed into me being in charge of all things food related. I had an absolute blast, but it just wasn’t feasible to be doing any writing work. (Thus I find myself last-minute typing this blog post up during my lunch break.) I hadn’t really planned be to taking a break, but it just happened. (Sorry, that-one-deadline.)

Breaks happen. Sometimes they happen when you plan for them to, like when I know I’m about to birth a human and I’ll need some time for my brain to readjust to endless screaming needs, or when I know I’ll be car camping on the side of the road without electricity for a week or more. At other times, breaks happen without warning or a plan, like when a computer suddenly breaks or there’s an emergency that needs immediate and full attention.

And then there are the in-betweeners. The breaks that happen maybe a little unexpectedly, maybe a little uncertainly. These are the breaks that don’t have to happen necessarily- you could probably keep writing if you really worked at it, but for one reason or another you don’t.

Deciding to take a break from writing is very personal and everyone does it for different reasons. I’m a big fan of powering through and writing every day, no matter how little, no matter what’s going on, but that doesn’t work for everyone. Heck, sometimes that doesn’t even work for me.

So here is a short list of some perfectly legitimate times when it might be appropriate to take a break.

Your life is busy and you have rent to pay.

The sun is shining and you haven’t left your cave in three days.

You’re feeling burnt out and are bored with the sound of your own writing.

You want a break.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, it’s totally fine to take a break. That’s right, even just wanting to take a break is a totally legitimate reason to take a break, and you don’t have to plan for it and schedule it in for it to be ‘allowed’. We writers can be a pretty miserable bunch- frustrated when we’re writing and frustrated when we’re not. I am the queen of hurling abuse at myself whenever I’m not living up to my own high standards.

It does not have to be this way. We would never treat other people like this, so why should we treat ourselves so poorly?

There are a lot of really good reasons to take writing breaks and sometimes those breaks are actually more beneficial than just powering through. Taking a break allows you to see your work with fresh eyes. It can refresh you mind and allow you to approach writing again with new ideas. It can fight burn out and help you relax (or pay for groceries, or visit your grandbabies, etc).

A break does not mean that you are quitting writing forever, or that you’re not a ‘real’ writer, or that you lack willpower. It simply means that now isn’t the best time for writing and you’ll get back to it when you have something to say and the time to say it. And until that time rolls around, don’t feel bad about taking a break. After a little recovery time, you’ll be back at the races and stronger for the time you spent on the bench.

Take care of yourself! Be kind to yourself! And- if it works out- happy writing!

Of the Atrophy of Brains and Brawn

(Oops. I have family visiting and we stayed up until one playing dice last night and I completely forgot to post this thing. Sorry!)

Summer always seems to hit me like a golf club. Smack! And we’re off!

I never seem to transition well between the quiet lethargy of winter to the frenetic busy-ness of summer. In particular, my physical activity goes zero to sixty once summer starts. I do basically no exercise during the winter, but in summer, I bike commute and play rugby and generally cavort around with my family- canoeing, hiking, minor home construction projects, the works. These first few weeks of summer can be pretty rough until my body adjusts. Soooo much soreness…

Getting back into writing again after a break can feel a lot like that too. I mean, I never completely stop writing- like I never totally stop walking around and lifting things during winter- but there’s definitely a difference in pace between when I’m actively pursuing writing with a love-of-my-life passion and when I’m doing it just because I know I should be. Take this summer for instance. As I mentioned last week, I’m not doing much fiction writing. And by “not much,” I mean hardly any at all. I’ve also been known to take breaks like while vacationing for weeks or months on end, or after having a kid or going through some other massive life changer. These breaks aren’t always avoidable, and you might not always want to avoid them completely. Sometimes breaks can be a good thing (more on that later).

But to go back to the exercise example, just like I always tell myself all through winter, I shouldn’t just stop everything. Yeah, cutting back might be a good idea for a variety of really good reasons, but I always plan on getting back on the wagon, and it really would be better for me to just do some exercise throughout winter. And so I usually talk myself into doing an ab workout here and there, or maybe a few squats- just enough to make sure I realize how pathetic I’ve become. But as pathetic as these efforts are, they are really truly better than nothing. Every little bit is going to make the summer transition that much easier (and my overall health that much better).

There are little writing things you can do even during a writing break that will help make the transition back into full-steam-ahead writing a little smoother. Here are a few things that I like to do even when I’m technically on a fiction writing break.

Write Blog Posts I don’t know why I am so do-until-I-die dedicated to blog posts, but I really like them. I love the steady schedule and the public accountability of them. I like that they force me to constantly come up with fresh content. Even if they’re not fictional and sometimes not even fun, they keep my writing muscles limbered up.

Jot Down Story Ideas It’s true that you get more ideas as you work on the ones you already have, but that doesn’t mean that all ideas completely stop when you’re taking a break. And some of these ideas are really great ones that should be revisited later. Keep writing down all your cool ideas, and then you’ll have plenty of material to play with at the end of your break.

Read Books Nothing keeps the brain fed and well nourished quite like a full and varied diet of good literature. Whether or not you’re on a writing break, you should always have a ready answer when someone asks you what you’re reading right now.

Tell Stories Even if you’re not writing them down, keep telling people stories. Tell folks about your day, about that funny lady at work last week, about when you lost your phone and where you finally found it. Tell them about something you’re proud of, or something super cool you saw someone else do. A pause in writing does not mean a pause in storytelling.

Learn New Things Some of the funnest stories I’ve written have come about because I was learning about some wacky little nonfiction slice of life (human or otherwise) and I thought, “Huh! What if this, but with that?” My brain is not happy unless I’m constantly learning new things. And when it’s happy, it poops out little story ideas (that I of course write down). So nourishing!

There are tons of things that I could share about keeping your writing brain in shape, and I’m sure you fair readers have a bunch that you like to lean on in those hard times when, for whatever reason, you can’t write as much as you’d like to. None of these things (except maybe the blog post writing) take up that much time. They’re simple and easy and fit neatly around the rest of my day. That makes it easy to keep doing all these things with all due diligence! And if you have any writing brain limbering tips you’d like to share in the comments, I’d love to give those a try too!

Until next week, happy writing (or not)!

Seasonal Work

Hi, friends! Boy, summer is a busy time around here. I’ve started my full time work for the summer, hot on the heels of wrapping up a crazy school year. Sadly, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for working on my fiction projects, or even for doing submissions. (Less sad about that second part, honestly, because submissions, ugh.) But some exciting new writing opportunities have cropped up to suck up what little time and brain power I have left at the end of the day.

It’s a change of pace, but it’s interesting to be working on different things. I’ve never done work like this before, and golly, it’s downright refreshing to be getting paid for writing. I am not used to that. Here are a few of my shorter term writing projects that will be keeping me busy this summer!

Developing a Game Narrative I stumbled upon this one entirely on accident. A couple I know runs a design company in Washington. One of their clients made a game but wanted some kind of narrative overlay for it before pitching it to game companies or self producing and didn’t feel equipped to do it himself. They thought of me, and next thing I knew, I had a writing gig! This job is perfect for me because I love writing and I love games, and I basically get to do the fun ‘flavor’ stuff while the game designer does all the hard work. I’ve had a lot of fun pitching different narrative ideas and the client has picked his favorite. Now I get to work on fleshing it out into a full game manual. Whee!

Updating and Rewriting a Manual Honestly, this one is… less fun. That said, I believe the information in the manual is important and I like the people I’m working on it for. The manual is for one of the local nonprofits here in Fairbanks and it’s for the volunteers in their program, but the “current” manual is mega outdated. It’s like ten years old, predating like half of what the program currently does and referencing a bunch of things that it doesn’t do anymore. So it’s definitely due for a refresher. I’m going through it with the program head to figure out exactly what he needs done, and then I’ll go at it. Not the most exciting work, but rewarding in other ways.

Writing a Cookbook! Yaaaay! I’ve been wanting to write a cookbook for years and I’m finally working on one! I’ve spent the last few months getting more and more deeply enmeshed in another local nonprofit, this one all about kids’ education and sustainability and citizen science and art and basically all things that I love. I got involved through my husband’s cousin, who got me mixed up in the springtime birch sap cooperative, and I’ve been weaseling my way in further ever since. When I pitched the idea of a cookbook using the birch syrups that the nonprofit makes and sells to help fund their program, the program director loved it and send me off with a couple bottles of syrup. Guys, I am having a blast experimenting with recipes and bothering local producers about food. Putting together the proposal packet isn’t the funnest, but for real- THE FOOD. Why did I not get into this sooner???

In addition to these three big projects, I wrote up a couple little mini articles last week for the sports shop that I work at, but I haven’t heard back on those yet. We’ll see how it goes. Mostly, they’re just fun to write, haha. They’re pretty much about the ways I goof up my adventures and hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes before getting lost in the mountains in winter or going on a sea kayaking trip without a rain jacket. You know, really complicated things anyone could get wrong.

I feel like everything is so seasonal here in Alaska. The summer world and the winter world are so wildly different, and that profound different-ness (which is def a word, yep) seems to seep into every aspect of my life, including writing. But this year definitely takes the cake on seasonal shifting between projects. Who knows what July’s Camp NaNo project will be? I sure don’t!

How about you fine readers? Any exciting new projects in the works? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!