Book Report: Longbourn

If you're a Downton Abbey fan like me, you are likely anticipating the start of the new fall TV lineup with that yearly disappointment that, here in the states, we still have to wait several months for the final season with the Crawleys and their staff. Fortunately, I recently stumbled upon a book that delivers the same behind-the-scenes feel following the household staff of an old English household. As a bonus, the staff in this book support the Bennet family of Pride and Prejudice. Darcy + Downton = match made in heaven!
Longbourn by Jo Baker centers around Sarah, a housemaid in the Bennet household, who was taken in by the housekeeper after losing her parents as a child. The work seems never-ending to keep up with the needs of the five Bennet sisters and their eccentric mother. But everything below stairs at Longbourn soon changes as a mysterious new footman arrives, promising not only a lightened load, but fresh new life into the otherwise tiresome responsibilities of the household servants. But Sarah learns you must be careful what you wish for:

This was what Sarah had always wanted: something--anything --to disturb the quiet, to distract her from the sounds of Mr Hill's revolving mastication, and the prospect of another spiritless evening, and the monotony of her own voice reading three-decker novels and three-day-old news. But now change had come to Longbourn, and Polly was staring at it as if she were a simpleton, and Mrs Hill kept topping up its glass, and even Mr Hill was smiling and glancing at it and then shyly away, and Sarah was left heartsick and ignored, and wishing that this change, with its dark hair and its hazel eyes, and its skin the colour of tea, had never come to Longbourn at all.

While knowing the story of Pride and Prejudice is not necessary prior to reading Longbourn, it certainly adds to the story's complexity. Just when you think you've figured everything out, there are more and more plot twists you'll never see coming. And the author's description of each of the characters makes even the secondary players important and intriguing. Pick this book up and you won't be able to put it down!

**If you would like to read Pride and Prejudice beforehand, or after reading have the urge to read again, you can read it for FREE on your Kindle app (on your phone, iPad, etc.) by clicking here.

A Summer Party Menu

When I plan a party, I always start with the food. I love what seasoned entertainer and cookbook author Amy Thielen recently wrote in Saveur:

"Fixate all your obsessions on the food, and let the rest of the details slide."

Amen! If you have plenty of great food being eaten by great friends, everyone will have a wonderful time, even if you stink at making tissue paper balls and icing cupcakes in perfect swirls (like me). I like food that isn’t too precious or fussy—food is enough on its own; it doesn’t need to be color-coordinated to your party theme.

I recently had the chance to throw a baby shower for a dear friend. After lots of browsing food blogs and flipping through cooking magazines, I decided on a menu that could be made mostly ahead and took advantage of all the delicious produce available this time of year. These dishes work great together, or you can choose just one or two as an easy summer dinner.

Israeli Couscous with Vegetables
This is one of my favorite summer dishes. It keeps very well in the fridge, so make a big batch and enjoy for lunches or dinners. It’s a delicious side for any grilled meat. Get the recipe.

Grilled Peaches with Shallot Vinaigrette
I make this simple salad all summer long. The prep is minimal and since it doesn’t require turning on the oven, it’s just the thing on hot days. Add a little goat cheese to make it more substantial. Get the recipe.

Watermelon and Cantaloupe with Mint
The mark of a made-for-summer recipe is when the ingredients can be counted on one hand. The directions are just as simple as the ingredients for this refreshing salad: cut up a watermelon, cut up a cantaloupe, sprinkle with chopped mint, and a squeeze of lime juice if you’re feeling ambitious.

Grilled Bread with Avocado
I love serving grilled bread at parties because it’s an economical and simple way to feed a crowd. Like everyone else in the country, I’m a big fan of topping said bread with smashed avocadoes, but anything (or nothing) goes great with smoky, salty, olive oily bread (sliced tomatoes, herbed ricotta, roasted garlic, etc.). Get the recipe.

DIY Strawberry Shortcakes
Strawberry shortcakes are a nice change from ubiquitous cupcakes (as wonderful as they are). Plus, they’re much easier. Make some biscuits (recipe here; increase the sugar by a tablespoon), add a few spoonfuls of sugar to a bunch of cut strawberries, and whip a little cream (I add 2 tablespoons of sugar per cup of cream).

Pink Lemonade Shortbread Cookies
How cute are these? The glaze is dyed pink with a single raspberry, which also lends a delicate flavor. Get the recipe.

A Matter of Timing

As a preface, anyone who knows my dad knows he's a skiing addict. He's self-diagnosed himself with a form of depression called SDWIDS (Situational Depression When I Don't Ski) and has water or snow skied every single month of the year since 2003. Waterskiing in particular has always been one of the ways my dad and I connect. Skiing with Dad has been the source of many life lessons, including this one.

In the Northwest, waterskiing usually involves being cold, at least for a minute or two. In April, a wetsuit does little to take away the chill of the season’s first run, and in October, frozen feet throb as they pound up the dock in flip flops . Even in summer, mornings are cool and dropping in or getting out of the lake is likely to induce goose bumps.

But it’s different in the tropics.

My family spent part of one Christmas vacation waterskiing on a beautiful lake at the foot of Arenal, the volcano that is the beating heart of Costa Rica’s central jungle. When I jumped in, there was no sharp intake of breath, no muscles seizing up. The paradox of skiing and feeling warm took my mind a second to process and then I understood why some people actually choose to live in Florida.

During our blessedly warm adventure, I learned something new about how to ski a waterski course--a set of six buoys a skier attempts to turn around while the boat races down the center. I’d always seen the course as something that required pushing myself to the absolute limit--every pull-out, every turn, every trip across the wake demanded the most intensity I could possibly muster. And while it’s true that the course does require focus and major physical effort, it’s more than just muscles and drive. It’s more than I can do. It’s also a matter of timing, of figuring out the rhythm and working with it.

By the end of our trip, I realized I didn’t have to pull out like a person trying to win a tug-of-war contest against a giant to make it through the course. In the right conditions, a gentle but purposeful glide could be just as effective. Knowing when to let up was as important as knowing when to pull with all my might.

Back in the coolness of the Northwest and skiing in the shadow of our volcano, I’ve thought about that lesson as I practice my rhythm on the water. Living life to its fullest--something my dad has taught me more about than he’ll ever know--requires the ability to recognize that we can’t muscle our way through life alone. Or at least we shouldn’t.

The course lost much of its intimidation factor when I realized I didn’t have to kill myself to make it through. In the same way, finding fulfillment and purpose becomes less scary as I recognize that life requires more than I can do with my own strength. It’s also a matter of trusting in the timing of the One who will lovingly use his infinite power to empower us to finish the course.

What's the best lesson your dad has taught you?

Blackberry Pie

recipe for blackberry pie

When I was young, my Grandma Jean lived on a big lot near the lake in a house she built with my Grandpa in the 1950s. The large deck was lined with pots filled with geraniums, petunias, and impatiens--all thriving under my Grandma's unassuming green thumb. On the sprawling lawn, we'd play kickball or practice gymnastics until her legendary dinner of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy was ready.

If it sounds idyllic, it was. But it gets even more lovely. In a field next to my Grandma's property were dozens of giant blackberry bushes (no surprise in the Northwest where they seem intent on taking over any abandoned lot or empty ditch). On warm, forever-light summer evenings after stuffing ourselves at dinner, we'd grab plastic grocery sacks and head over to pick berries.

Picking blackberries is dangerous work for little hands. The thorns are unforgiving, and the rounded shape of the bushes make it hard to harvest without leaning dangerously forward into the prickly plant. But each berry-picking expedition had a concrete goal: four cups of perfect blackberries. Four cups is what we needed to enable my mom to make her own crowing culinary achievement: blackberry pie.

This is the pie everyone requests for birthdays and special occasions in our family. Serve it warm with vanilla ice cream and prepare for your own perfect summer idyll.

recipe for blackberry pie

how to make blackberry pie

blackberry pie recipe

Recipe: Blackberry Pie

For the crust
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 3/4 cups Crisco
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup cold water

For the filling
4 cups blackberries (fresh or frozen and thawed)
2/3-1 cup sugar, depending on the sweetness of the berries
1 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

For the crust, combine the egg, vinegar, and water in a small bowl and mix to combine. Place in the freezer while preparing the dry ingredients.

Mix together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the Crisco and cut into the flour with a pastry cutter until the Crisco pieces are no larger than peas.

Add the cold egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Gather half the dough into a ball (be gentle - overworking pie dough makes it tough). Roll out on a lightly floured surface to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Carefully place in the pie pan and roll out the other half.

For the filling, combine the sugar, lemon juice, and flour. Pour over the berries and let sit for 15 minutes. Pour into the bottom crust and top with butter pieces (this helps thicken the filling as it bakes). Gently place the top crust over the berries and crimp the edges. Make some small cuts or designs on the top crust to allow air to escape during baking. Cover the edges of the crust with foil.

Bake at 425 for 20 minutes. Then reduce oven heat to 350 and bake for 35-45 minutes until crust is golden brown.

Serves 8.

Wednesday Wisdom

Today I'm working hard to remember that change is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to reinvent, to improve, to shift perspective, to stretch, to discover, to consider what really matters, to appreciate that life is not stagnant. Choosing not to be afraid is the best gift I can give myself.

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