Monday, December 9, 2013

Baby, it's COLD outside!!!

This picture was taken some three years ago and while we don't have the white stuff on the ground and on the trees, it certainly feels like it!

I've never been a fan of cold weather.  Growing up in El Paso, Texas does that to a person!  While we might complain about the heat in the summer, we sure wish for it in winter.

To that end, I've hauled out the warm clothes, the extra blankets and afghans, we've loaded up the wood rack... and I've heated up the kitchen.  This time of year is when my urge to cook goes into overdrive.  Perhaps it's because my kitchen gets so warm in the summertime (no air-conditioning... if we ever admit to it being too warm in the house, we turn on the ceiling fans and open all the windows!) that I make my warm-weather meals with as little heat inside the house as possible (that means a lot of grilling, which makes Paul the cook!)

But in the cold weather months, not only does cooking and baking help keep the house warm, it also keeps us warm... and in more ways than one.  This is when the holiday baking begins, to prepare the gifts I give to family, friends and co-workers.  And it's when I go all-out on the meals I prepare for the family.  Somehow, despite the shorter days, I find the time and energy to make the big meals that are so much more appreciated in the colder days.

One dish I've recently acquired came from a good friend in San Antonio.  Those of us from El Paso fondly remember Jaxon's Restaurant and their signature chicken tortilla soup.  I can't swear that my friend, Sonja's, soup is the reason Jaxon's closed its doors, but the timing is suspicious!

Here's the recipe:

2 chicken breast halves, bone-in with skin
4 quarts water
1 whole white onion, quartered
2 Tablespoons chicken bouillon (Knorr, if you can find it)
1/4 tsp. garlic powder (more or less)
pinch of ground cumin (not too much)

Combine the above and bring to a boil.  Simmer until chicken is cooked through (do not cover; evaporation makes the broth more concentrated.)  Remove the chicken from the broth and let cool.  At this point, I usually refrigerate the broth, in the pot, overnight and remove the hardened fat from the top. 

Bring the broth to a simmer and remove the skin and bones from the chicken breasts.  Coarsely shred the chicken meat and add to the broth.  Add 1 green bell pepper, finely diced, along with 3 stalks celery, finely diced (chop the leaves and add them, too) and 3 green onions, thinly sliced.  Add one 15 oz. can of petite diced tomatoes with the juice (you can also chop fresh tomatoes, enough for two cups, and add along with their juice).  Simmer until vegetables are tender.  Add 1-2 teaspoons dried oregano to the soup along with 1 bunch of chopped cilantro (about 1/2 cup chopped.)

Ladle the soup into bowls and serve with the following toppings: diced avocado, sour cream, shredded cheese (cheddar or jack), and crisp fried tortilla strips (cut corn tortillas into thin strips, fry in oil and sprinkle with salt... make plenty, everyone likes to snack on them!)  You can also add diced jalapenos or green chile and have lime wedges to squeeze over the soup. This is a perfect cold weather soup and no matter how you top it, it's delicious!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reviews: The importance of being honest AND nice

Over at the OTP (Oak Tree Press) author connection group, we've been having a discussion about negative book reviews... and how necessary they are.  It seems that someone ran across an article deploring negative book reviews, calling them unnecessary and mean-spirited. 

As a writer, there is a part of me that secretly agrees... the part that was raised to believe that if you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all.  But there's another part of me that firmly believes that negative reviews are necessary and probably essential.

That's the part of me that is called "book buyer".

Several times I have purchased a book on the glowing recommendation of a fellow author or friend who posted a review on or some other site that made me feel that I was missing out on the best reading experience of my entire life.  Once I had the book in hand and had begun reading, my eagerness dissipated until I was left with a half-finished book, extreme disappointment, and a measure of anger at having felt betrayed.

The reviewer, I'm sure, meant well.  Understood that writing is a hard endeavor.  That many hours of work and a lot of true feelings and heart went into putting those words together.  That the author had high hopes and a dream that was coming true and that surely they deserved an "A" for effort and, anyway, it really wasn't bad.  Well, not THAT bad.

So they ignored the misspellings, the inconsistencies, the inane dialogue, the confusing jumps in point-of-view, and the forced or improbable plot.  They applaud the author's weak and misguided attempt at imitating the writing style of a famous author though it seems obvious and contrived.  And with a clear conscience, they give it a 5-star rating, feeling good about having bolstered a fellow human being who had undertaken the gargantuan task of writing a book.

Or, maybe they figure, "Why should I be the only one to suffer through this???"

For the record, let me define "negative book review": it means that the book does NOT deserve lavish praise, is not highly recommended, or it scores a dismal one or two stars.  It does not mean that the reviewer gets to BE negative and declares open season on the author.

There have been some reviews posted that make me cringe.  Some people enjoy being mean-spirited and snarky and nothing works up their creative juices like excoriating someone who has dared to take the steps necessary to reveal their innermost thoughts and dreams to the world. That is certainly NOT the negativity that I'm endorsing!

But it doesn't help the writer to be told that there is no room for improvement.  Or that they sacrifice quality for quantity in padding their prose with excessive detail and description... or bail at the crucial moment and simply gloss over deep thoughts and feelings rather than explore them fully and allow the reader to truly feel what they feel.  The reader feels cheated as well.  We know when the author chickened out and left us with a sense of unfinished business or, worse, assumed that we aren't capable of reading between the lines and explain everything in minute and even condescending detail.

So as much as I hate criticism (and who doesn't?), I appreciate the time a reader takes to point out problems in my stories or in my writing skills.  It helps me to improve.  What some reviewers forget (or ignore) is that there is a difference in criticizing and insulting.  Everyone can use some constructive criticism.  What no one needs is to be insulted and made fun of in a public forum. 

So when one takes on the task of writing a review, remember that one can point out the problems with the author's work without being vicious.  A good reviewer will refrain from personal attacks and will stow their envy, pride, and attitude away and focus on the writing and the story.  They will look for the good and emphasize it and also recognize the not-so-good and give an honest, but kind, appraisal.  And the author has the responsibility to recognize that there is always a potential for growth and learning and not take honest criticism as an affront to their writing skills.  No one is perfect and no matter how much success and experience one has, falling short is always a possibility.  And, yes, sad to say, there ARE some writers whose enthusiasm far exceeds their abilities.  Maybe everyone can write, but not everyone can write well.  Sometimes, the best thing a reviewer can do (if they really can't bring themselves to be honest) is bow out as gracefully as possible and decline the opportunity to post a public review. 

The readers are the ones who matter.  They make an act of faith every time they pull out their wallets in exchange for our written words, so they deserve our very best.  It's up to us to give it to them.