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Monday, March 26 2012

Left Coast Crime, an annual mystery fan convention, is coming to Sacramento this weekend. This not only marks the first time I've attended this particular convention, but the first time I've attended any convention, and I can't wait to see what really happens at these things. The women in my writing group attend conferences on a regular basis, and they always come back with interesting tidbits about the state of publishing, which panels were most informative, or who was seen out and about. Based on these comments, I've formed an idea in my head of what I think the conference is going to be like, but I've discovered that when I imagine something ahead of time, reality rarely matches. I'm picturing authors in fedoras and/or scarves sipping scotch on the rocks in the hotel bar, rooms full of books, books, and more books, and panels so crowded that latecomers have to stand in the back.

Speaking of panels, I need to put on my detective's cap (if only I really had one) and decipher the titles of the panels to figure out exactly what each panel is about. Is "In the Nick of Time" about finishing your manuscript with mere seconds to spare, or writing a thriller where the main character rescues the victim moments before they're killed? "Cultures and Communities" could cover a wide range of topics, as could "Barely Legal." I'm hoping "I Wish I Knew" has authors providing a list of insider tidbits they wish they knew earlier in their careers that they can now share with the rest of us, rather than the authors sitting around and listing things they still wish they knew, like how to pick winning lottery tickets or how to embroider a pillowcase. I noticed a couple of panels I'm interested in occur in the same time slot, which means I'll have to pick, but I'm sure all the panels will be fun and interesting. There's really no wrong choice.

I also need to figure out what to pack. I plan to print off part of the manuscript for my second book and give it a read-through as I sit in my hotel room in the late evenings, although I suspect I'll be so wiped out from the events that, instead, I'll zone out in front of the television and use the manuscript to keep my clothes flat in my suitcase.

Still, I'll pack the first hundred pages. If I spend all my time riding up and down the elevator, hoping to bump into a famous author, I can always read the pages when I get home.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 10:12 am   |  Permalink   |  2 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 19 2012

When people think about eating healthier, their thoughts tend to gravitate toward cutting out calories and fat. And who can blame them? Too many calories make you gain weight, and too much weight often leads to health problems. On top of that, even if you're already at a healthy weight, you should still watch your fat intake. Trans fats are considered a huge no-no nowadays because of their link to heart disease, and saturated fat isn't far behind. But another aspect of healthy eating that doesn't always get the attention it deserves is sodium intake. Too much sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of heart and kidney problems, as well as strokes.

But it can be all too easy to forget about watching your sodium count. Fast food restaurants have started offering delicious salads and snacks that are low in fat and calories and seem like the perfect option when you're trying to eat better and don't have time to cook. But oftentimes, the restaurants compensate for the lack of flavor derived from fat by adding extra sodium to make the food taste better. This is true for one of my favorite fast food salads. The calories are low, the fat is manageable, but once I add up the sodium in the chicken, salad, and dressing, the total is over one thousand milligrams, almost half the recommended daily dosage! I'd actually be better off ordering a cheeseburger.

And once you decide to start watching your sodium, it may be hard to track. Many cooking magazines don't bother to list any nutritional information, but even those that do often only list the calories, fat, carbs, and protein information, things they figure the average home cook wants to know. They leave sodium off altogether. The good news is that if you're doing a lot of home cooking, you're already ahead of the game in terms of sodium consumption. It's those packaged breads, frozen dinners, and snacks that you really have to watch out for.

Once you start checking the nutritional labels of packaged foods at the supermarket, you'll find it's habit-forming, almost like a game as you try to find products with the lowest levels of sodium. Pretty soon, you'll turn in to an honest-to-goodness sodium detective. And your body will thank you for it.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 10:03 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 12 2012

For Christmas, I got a cheese-making kit. I read through the packet and was excited to see that the box contained enough contents for thirty batches of either mozzarella or ricotta at almost a pound each. Immediately, I was envisioning caprese salads, pizzas, lasagnas, pasta dishes, sandwiches, and anything else I could slap some cheese on. I read through the instructions and they seemed easy enough that any Joe Blow could make the cheese on the first try (right there, I should have known I was in trouble). The only problem was that it requires an entire gallon of milk, something that tends to be in short supply in my house with two young kids.

But a couple of weeks ago, I finally remember to buy that extra gallon and reread the instructions, paying more attention to missteps that might lead to a disastrous cheese experience. For starters, the milk shouldn't be ultra-pasteurized. I check over the carton, but nowhere does it mention just how pasteurized the milk is, so I can only assume it's not ultra, whatever ultra is. I also need to use unchlorinated water. Hmm. I'm pretty sure our water is chlorinated, but after a quick search, I find a web site that says you can boil the water for twenty minutes to get the chlorine out. I find another site that says most water districts now use chloramine, instead of chlorine, and you can't just boil that out, but I decide to ignore that site. I boil my water, leave it on the stove to cool for a few hours, and I'm all set.

I dissolve my rennet tablet in some of the water and set it aside. I mix the citric acid in the rest of the water and put it in a big pot. So far, so good. It's just as easy as the booklet promised. I add my gallon of milk, heat it up, and then slowly stir in the rennet solution. This is where I start to get nervous. The instructions say to stir the solution with an up and down motion for thirty seconds. How exactly do I do two opposite movements at the same time? Do I make a butter churning motion while also swishing the spoon side to side? I give it a try, feeling insanely awkward, and count to thirty. Then I cover the pot and leave it for five minutes. According to the book, when I lift the lid, it should look like custard. Only it doesn't. It looks like a gallon of milk with lumps in it, like when my youngest throws his sippy cup under the couch and I don't find it for a few days. I check the instructions, where it says if the curd is too soft, let it sit for a few minutes. Well the curd is soft all right. I put the lid back on. After another five minutes, I check again. The milk hasn't changed.

I read the troubleshooting section. Either I stirred too long or my milk is ultrapasteurized and the label is hiding that fact from me. Or it could be that boiling my water didn't fix anything. The good news is that this gives me some ideas to change next time. I'll keep trying until I can top a pizza with my own mozzarella. Or until I run out of ingredients. We'll see which happens first.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 08:05 am   |  Permalink   |  2 Comments  |  Email
Sunday, March 04 2012

I've been gone awhile -- okay a long while -- but here I am again!

During my absence, I read A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Lawrence Block's latest Matthew Scudder novel. It's been a few years since I've read anything by Lawrence Block, and I'd forgotten how witty the guy is. A bunch of smart retorts from different characters had me laughing out loud, even rereading certain lines because they were so good.

Overall, the book was what I would call a "slow read." That's not to say it was boring, but that the pacing was steady and unhurried. Scudder spends much of the book attending AA meetings, which provided some interesting inside tidbits about how the meetings operate and how vital a good sponsor is. Block definitely nailed an authentic feel for the life of a recovering alcoholic.

When one of his childhood friends, also a recovering alcoholic, is murdered, Scudder finds himself drawn into the investigation, though he's not sure he wants to be. But, in between AA meetings, he interviews potential suspects and tries to figure out what happened. The even pacing is a good reflection of Scudder's own life as he plods through each day trying to stay sober until he can reach the next day. It's not as dreary as I'm probably making it sound, and the humor adds another dimension that keeps the book entertaining. The second half picks up in speed as more people die and Scudder finds himself in danger.

I like that this was a flashback book, where Scudder is telling an old friend about these events that took place in the eighties. I don't feel like I've missed anything by not reading all of the previous Scudder books. Now, I'm off to find more Scudder novels, figure out which ones I've read before, or maybe even read them again. Block's style of writing never gets old.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 01:00 pm   |  Permalink   |  2 Comments  |  Email