February 29, 2012

A Comparison of Co-op Games

Co-op (or cooperative) games can now be found in abundance.  There's something fresh about playing with the people sitting next to you instead of against them.  In co-op games, the game itself (and sometimes a traitor) is the opposition.  These games, accordingly, tend to be hard-to-beat, with a "let's play one more" when victory slips away at the last moment.

This isn't a complete list by any means, but it does give some of the breadth of the genre.  They're not ranked in any particular order, either.  These are all good games, and cover the range from quick, casual games to invested endeavors.

Pandemic: Perhaps because it was the first one I played, this sticks in my mind as the classic co-op, enjoyed by casual and dedicated gamers alike.  Many co-ops have roles for each player with special abilities, but in Pandemic, you always hurt for the missing roles.  Everyone works together to try to stop outbreaks of relentless diseases from sweeping over the globe.
 Forbidden Island: This actually plays a lot like Pandemic, though of course, the objective is different (grab the treasure and get off the island before it sinks).  I love the artwork on it.  It's a shorter game, about half an hour, and the rules are a bit simpler than Pandemic.  It's easy for casual or younger games to pick up and you can play a few games back-to-back.  I like it because I can sneak in a game before bedtime with my husband without frying my brain.  As an added bonus, for a board game, it's dirt cheap, despite the lovely components.

Shadows over Camelot:  This game is longer than Forbidden Island, but the rules are similarly easy to grasp, based on cards numbering 1-5.  It also plays a lot -- up to 7 -- making it great for a crowd.  I've played it with all adults, but this would be an easy one to include a younger player with, too.  This game includes the possibility of a traitor (a player secretly working against everyone else) which adds to the fun.

 Yggdrasil: This one also works with a crowd (up to 6), but it includes some unique, interesting game play mechanics that require extra effort to manage.  I still don't think it's hard to learn, but it does offer complexity and choices.  Also, I love Vikings.

 Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game: This is the ultimate paranoia game.  Traitors abound.  I've never seen an episode of the show, but my favorite part of this game was still saying, "You're a Cylon, aren't you?" Like Yggdrasil, it has some cool mechanics (in this case, a card-voting system) and works with up to 6. 

Space Alert: Co-ops can suffer from one person trying to dictate everyone else's actions.  Usually game mechanisms (from specific roles to possible traitors) minimize this.  In Space Alert, micromanagement is simply impossible.  A CD tract announces new threats -- enemy ships, asteroids, commandos on the bridge -- and players have a limited number of actions to keep their ship intact.  There's no pausing the CD, or the onslaught of problems.  No one person can cover energy supply, shields, and lasers in the crunched time.  The game is short, fast, hectic, and amazing. (There's also a free app that you can use instead of the CD, making play even easier).

Anyone have a favorite co-op I left off the list?

February 22, 2012

Cardamon Tea from Throne of the Crescent Moon

He took a second-to-last slurp of tea, savoring all of the subtle spices that Yehyeh layered beneath the cardamom.
                             --Throne of the Crescent Moon, Chapter One

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, recently came out.  I had a blast reading this book.  The cardamom tea here sounded lovely...so I heated up the stove and opened my spice cupboard.

Cardamon Tea

2 tablespoons green cardamon pods
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 small stick cinnamon
Sugar or honey, to taste.

Place all ingredients in a heavy-bottom pan and toast over medium-low heat until fragrant.   You don't need to be precise about measuring -- I know some people like concrete numbers, so I included them.  It works just as well to throw in pinches of everything, and extra of the cardamon.  Toasting the spices took about ten minutes on my stove.  Cast iron is good at this -- it distributes heat evenly.

Toss the toasted ingredients into about 4 cups of nearly-boiling water.  Let it steep for at least twenty minutes.  Though, really, you could just throw it in the fridge and forget about it until tomorrow.  

Strain, then sweeten to taste with honey or sugar.  My husband likes it unsweetened, but I think a touch of honey actually brings out the flavors.

Simple, but delicious.  And my house gets to smell like cardamon. 

*As a side note, none of these spices should be expensive.  Bulk food bins, the Hispanic foods aisle, and ethnic food markets all have these for cheap where I live.

February 15, 2012

Staying Sane & Reading Aloud

Last weekend, I took a rather impromptu trip to LTUE (Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium) and attended Mary Robinette Kowal's class on how to give a book reading. It's not the same as hearing the explanations, but Mary's amazing and has posted a treasure trove of information on the subject (the first one's here).

One of the things that fascinated me was placement -- talking towards the front of your mouth, in the middle, or towards the back.  Once upon a time, I took a singing class, and we talked about this, too.  Forward makes your pitch brighter, backwards makes it darker.  While reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom for the thousandth time, I practiced placement, reading one page forward, another in the back, and playing with my voice.

Suddenly, a book I can read with my eyes shut became fresh.  I'm a person who likes to learn.  I'm basically home with the little ones, and I struggle to come up with creative ways to fill my brain all day while still being highly engaged with them.  Usually this takes the shape of cooking (I swear toddlers are designed to shake vinaigrettes).

But now I have another tool. I'm not aiming to be a professional book reader, but I already spend a lot of time everyday reading out loud.  Now I have some resources to proactively improve.  I'm accomplishing and learning something when I read, in addition to teaching and spending time with my kids.  This is the best kind of multi-tasking.  My day is a little happier and a little saner -- and so is theirs.

February 8, 2012

Unicorn Hair Soup from Ella Enchanted

Mandy dosed us with her curing soup, made with carrots, leeks, celery, and hair from a unicorn's tail.  It was delicious, but we both hated to see those long yellow-white hairs floating around the vegetables.
                                     --Ella Enchanted, Chapter One

I've been sick.  This soup from Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted was the first thing I thought of.  Wouldn't it be lovely to have some unicorn hair soup to make everything better?  Soup sounded great anyway.  I'm going to admit that the actual vegtables didn't -- I ended up eating broth with just the "unicorn hair," but here's how to make the whole thing.

Unicorn Hair Soup

1 leek
2 carrots
2 stalks of celery

Some chicken bones
1 tablespoon of butter
1 long piece of peeled ginger

Prep the veggies, reserving the end-bits.  For the leeks, this means taking off the dark green parts, the roots, then splitting the leek down the center, then slicing thinly.  Fill a big bowl with cold water and swish these around; leeks inevitably have dirt between the layers.  Dice the carrot and celery.  Mmm...look at those veggie ends.

Toss the veggie ends and the chicken bones into a rice cooker, crock pot, or pot on the stove, then cover with water and simmer away.  Taste, season with salt, then strain.  Okay, so you could just use store bought chicken stock...but why not make it?  It's super-easy, healthy, practically free, and -- most importantly -- tasty.  I always keep a baggie in my freezer to stash chicken bones and vegetable trimmings.  I just throw everything in my rice cooker and let it go, but you could also make stock by bringing it all to boil on the stove, then reducing to a simmer for a few hours, or letting it go overnight in a crockpot.  Taste it.  If it's seems bland, add a few pinches of salt.  If it tastes watery, let it cook longer and reduce.

Add the diced, prepped veggies to the pan with a pinch of salt and cook on medium-low until they soften.  I'm afraid in my eagerness for throat-soothing soup, I skipped this photo.  Sorry!

Meanwhile, use a peeler to shave thin, long pieces off the ginger.  It's the right color, I love to eat it when I'm sick, and in a perfect world, unicorns would taste like ginger.  If you really like ginger, peel a lot.  If you're wary about it, use less.

Slice these thin pieces into "hairs."  The thin pieces, taken the long way across the ginger, should be with the grain anyway, so these end up looking quite a bit like hairs (despite my struggling photography). 

Add the "hairs" and four cups of the broth to the vegetables.  Simmer for about ten minutes, or until the ginger softens.  I'm afraid I neglected taking a picture of the end product, but I loved having little ginger hairs in my soup!  And then, of course, I tossed the peelings from the brown, outside part of the ginger with a lemon in the rice cooker, and lemon-ginger tea was born.  I know.  I use my rice cooker for everything. 

February 1, 2012

Fruited Tallew Rice from The Way of Kings

[Barm] barely spared Kal a brown-eyed glance, then told one of his servants to go fetch some flatbread and fruited tallew rice.  A child's meal.  Kal felt even more embarrassed that Barm had known instantly why he had been sent to the kitchens.
                                           --The Way of Kings, Chapter 37

The food in Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings enchanted me.  The flora and fauna of the world is different than ours, and there's a culture of food appropriate for men, women, and children.  My memory held the food as a large part of the book, so I was surprised flipping through the book that food isn't mentioned on every page.  Sanderson managed to evoke a lot with a few cunning details.

I'm sure I'll be coming back to The Way of Kings for more recipe fodder -- I already have a few things in the works.  Anyway, on to the recipe!

Fruited Tallew Rice

1 1/2 cups pearl barley
A piece of pork fat (or 2 tsps of lard or bacon fat)
1 tsp salt
1 cup dried fruit, diced
1 tbsp honey or amber agave nectar

Put the barley with three cups of water in your rice cooker and hit go.  Cooking barley can be done on the stove top (bring water to boil, add barley, cover, reduce heat, simmer for about 50 minutes), but it's a lot trickier and you have to watch carefully for the spren of food-that-doesn't-suck to pull it off when it's done but not burnt. Why barley?  Tallew rice isn't found in our world, but later it's described as puffed with water.  Barley puffs well, it has a mild taste, and I can imagine it growing in the climates were people eat it.  I actually tried millet first, but the flavor was too strong.

Salt the bacon fat and toss it into a small cast-iron skillet on medium-low heat.  Let some of the fat render out.  In the chapter, other people are eating fresh pork, so I imagine Bram would have some fresh pork fat on hand to make children's food on the side.  Lard works just as well, as would bacon fat (but if you use bacon fat, don't add more salt!).  I couldn't find, and didn't remember, any mention of cows (butter) or oils, making pig fat my go-to for this recipe.  You can adjust this to taste, but you need at least enough to get the bottom of the pan glossy.

Add the dried fruit and continue cooking on medium-low until the fruit softens and turns glossy, about 15 minutes, then remove the fat.  Stir in the honey or agave.  Before you toss out the fat, taste a piece of fruit.  If it's not pleasantly porky, cook longer.  The barley's going to come out chewy, and soft fruit is a nice contrast to that.  Since we don't have native fruits, like simberries or methi, be creative!  This would work fine with raisins, but I'm all for picking less familiar flavors.  I used dried cranberries and sultanas, convenient because they don't need to be chopped.  Apricots or figs would also work great.  I'm not sure what kind of sweeteners they'd have -- maybe bees, maybe something comparable to agave -- but either one of these brings an extra layer of flavor to the pan that granulated sugar can't.

When the barley's done, fold in the fruit and serve.  The whole thing gets a nice, mild sweet-savory taste from the fruit.  The next day, these flavors mellow into the barley even more.  Unlike long grain rice, barley doesn't harden up in the fridge, so it's fine to eat cold (very non-authentically, my husband poured milk over it like breakfast cereal).  My kiddos gave me strange looks when I tried to take pictures instead of feeding them -- yes, that is an actual impatient child's hand in the photo -- then gobbled it up, so I think the flavors passed the kid-friendly test.

I promise to work on my food photography skills for next week!  Thanks for reading.