Open Letter to Jeff Bezos and Amazon

Attacks on Amazon by Authors United—a group of authors, many of whom seem to have cozy relationships with traditional publishers—are in the news again. The group was founded in 2014 by novelist Douglas Preston, during book distribution contract negotiations between Amazon and Hatchette, the traditional publisher with whom Preston is under contract. The current round of attacks have been made this week at the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute, during a panel discussion sponsored by, among others, Authors United and The Authors Guild.

According to published news reports on the conference, statements made about Amazon’s “deleterious impact” on, and power over, the world of publishing include such breathless pronouncements as that Amazon is “already affecting the free flow of ideas in our society,” “now controls the vital informational market of books,” that there are potential authors out there “who may never write books because of Amazon’s policy ‘to extinguish’ competitors” (What? Authors are potential competitors to Amazon?), that “Amazon is ‘destroying the culture of book publishing,’” and that “if Amazon’s business practices continue unchecked the result could be a ‘nuclear winter’ for book publishing.”

Wow—are we talking about Amazon, or the First Order from the new Star wars movie? The next thing you know, these guys are going to be claiming that Jeff Bezos is actually Supreme Leader Snoke.

Preston and Authors United have previously accused Amazon of maintaining an illegal monopoly over the entire publishing industry, and have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and prosecute Amazon for antitrust practices—a request that thus far has gone unheeded.

Coincidentally, last week I received an email from Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing division, titled “How Are We Doing?” In the email, Amazon—sounding not at all like an Evil Empire— asked authors to complete a brief survey about their experiences with the Kindle Direct Publishing program, and to offer suggestions for things they’d like to see improved or changed. I did complete the survey, but I’d like to go beyond that here, and offer my own take on the effects Amazon has had on the world of publishing.

To give some context to my remarks and opinions, I’m the author of a historical fiction series called The Strongbow Saga. I am not a best-selling author. I’m what used to be called “mid-list”: my books sell steadily, and have for some years, though not in huge numbers at any given time. The first books in my series were originally published by HarperCollins, one of the big traditional publishers, but after they languished there for a number of years I was fortunate enough to be able to reclaim the rights to them, and have rereleased them, and continued the series, by publishing my books myself, including through Amazon. In other words, I have personal experience as an author with both traditional and independent publishing.

So let’s talk, without all of the hype and emotion, about Amazon’s impact on the world of publishing. Make no mistake—Amazon’s impact has been enormous, and has in many ways turned the way publishing occurs upside down. But judge for yourself whether the impact and change has been a good thing, or the beginning of a nuclear winter endangering the very existence of books, writing, and publishing.

When I began my career as an author, there was no self-publishing option for authors. Self-publishing, in fact, used to mean that an author paid a so-called vanity press to print copies of his or her book, because he couldn’t sell them to a ‘real” publisher. The path to getting a book published was narrow and difficult, and controlled by a series of gatekeepers whose approval had to won. First, an author had to convince a literary agent that his or her book was worthy of consideration, and persuade the agent to actually deign to read the book. If the author was fortunate—and a large part of that, of course, included if the book was sufficiently well written—the agent would agree to represent it, and would take it to the next level of gatekeeper: editors at the big publishing houses. If the agent could find an editor who could be convinced that the book, if published, would make significant money for the publisher, then a contract would be signed, and the author would have broken into the rarified world of being published, and achieved success.

Except, of course, that very few authors, only a tiny percentage of those who have been published through this traditional model, actually ever achieve any kind of significant financial success under this system. Most books that are published are not bestsellers, and if that does not occur with traditionally published books, the author is unlikely to see much monetary return from his or her efforts. This was, and still is, the reality: the publisher typically will take about a year after the contract is signed to actually bring the book out into the marketplace. Once the book finally does go on sale, the author will begin earning royalties, or a percentage of the book’s price when sold—typically somewhere in the range of 6% for paperback editions, and 10% for hardcover. For e-book editions—and when my books were first published, the e-book market was envisioned and anticipated, but for practical purposes did not yet exist—the author’s royalty is 25% of the sale price. At those royalty rates, a LOT of copies of a book must be sold for the author to receive any kind of significant income, and the literary agent will take 15% off the top of anything the author does earn, for as long as the book is published under the contract the agent negotiated.

How did Amazon change that? To begin with, it pretty much created, through its own efforts and at its own expense, the e-book market as it exists today. Two essential elements were needed for a viable e-book market to develop: e-book reading devices that provided an enjoyable, easy to use reading experience, and were reasonably enough priced to persuade a large number of consumers to buy one, and a large supply of e-book content that those consumers could easily acquire, for a price that would cause readers to purchase an e-book edition rather than a print book.

There were e-book reading devices before the Kindle—Microsoft and Sony, for example, were among the early e-reader manufacturers. But those early devices were relatively expensive, there was limited e-book content available to buy, and what few books were released in e-book editions were priced by the big publishers so close to the cost of print editions that consumers were unimpressed, and the market for e-books remained a promising theory that didn’t catch on. Until Amazon entered it.

Amazon began creating and selling its Kindle e-book readers that were smaller, lighter, and easier to use than the competition, and Amazon sold them at a low enough price—supposedly making no profit, or even taking a small loss on each sale—that consumers began to buy them in significant numbers. And year after year Amazon brought out new, improved models, and kept lowering the price. Amazon believed in the potential of the e-book market, but understood that until many, many readers—millions of readers—had devices to read e-books on, that market was never going to come alive. Amazon had the vision and understanding of what the e-book market could be, and was willing to spend its own money as an investment to make that potential a reality. Amazon spent a LOT of its own money, probably millions, to develop a viable e-book market. No one else did. That should not be forgotten.

But e-book readers were only half of the equation. E-book content, making lots of books available in e-book editions, and at a low enough price to entice readers to buy an e-book instead of a print one, was the other half. And the big publishers were not supplying the content, nor were they pricing those e-book editions they did produce at a lower price than print. So out of that need for content, Amazon’s direct publishing program for authors was born. Amazon created something entirely new in the publishing world: a system where authors could bypass the entire traditional publishing path—the literary agents, the editors, the big publishing houses—and publish their books themselves, as e-books, with a major distributor, Amazon, who would handle the entire sales side for them. And Amazon offered terms the like of which no author had ever seen before, or even dreamed might be possible. If an author agreed to price his or her book between $2.99 and $9.99, the target range Amazon had determined was likely to draw readers to e-books rather than print, Amazon would pay the author 70% of each sale. Moreover, it would provide sales data to authors, telling them how many books they were selling, on an ongoing, daily basis, and would produce formal sales reports, and pay royalty earnings, monthly—a far cry from the big publishers’ practice, which continues to this day, of reporting sales and paying authors only twice per year.

Amazon’s vision of what could be proved prophetic. After the introduction of the Kindle self-publishing Program (now called Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP) for authors, and over several years of releases of successively better and less expensive Kindle e-readers, the e-book market grew by large margins, until now it makes up roughly 20% of all book sales in the United States. And Amazon has carried this vision beyond the U.S., establishing Kindle e-book stores in the U.K., and later in many other countries, building a world-wide market for e-books.

Once the e-book market came to life and began generating millions of book sales for Amazon and the authors and publishers who availed themselves of this new way to publish, many other e-book distributors joined in, and have since established their own direct publishing platforms for authors, modelled after the innovation created by Amazon. Today authors can directly publish their books in e-book editions not only through Amazon, but also with Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple (a major flaw, by the way, with the monopoly claim by Authors United, which seems to understand that area of the law about as well as the Malheur malcontents understand Constitutional law), and in Europe with the e-book publishing conglomerate Tolino. While it is true that Amazon still holds the largest share of the e-book market, that is neither surprising nor unfair, given the history of how the market was in its early years largely created by Amazon—and given that Amazon still does the most effective job of selling e-books to readers and attracting authors to its direct publishing program.

But Amazon has not just revolutionized publishing in the area of e-books. Authors can now directly publish their books in print editions, as well, through Amazon’s CreateSpace division, and have them sold all over the world. Through the ACX Exchange, another Amazon division, authors can find partners to create audio editions of their books, and have them sold by both Amazon and Apple through Amazon’s Audible division.

All of these changes have brought benefits to numerous authors, including many who, under the traditional publishing system controlled by the literary agents and big publishers, might never have seen their books published at all. But it is not just authors who have benefited from the innovations Amazon has brought to the publishing world. There are numerous new jobs and opportunities that have come into existence because of these changes. The audio editions of my own books, for example, were created by a young man (and at my age, I’m finding myself using that description “young” more and more frequently) who has been able to carve out a successful independent business for himself by virtue of his strong work ethic, amazing talent as a voice actor (my books have lots of dialogue and numerous characters, but he performs each with a distinct voice), and the ability to connect with authors through Amazon’s ACX Exchange. He has, at a young age, been able to build for himself a career that didn’t exist before Amazon began transforming publishing. Similarly, there are numerous graphic artists who are now able to maintain successful independent businesses designing book covers for authors who self-publish their books through Amazon and other direct publishing platforms. Thousands of people benefit financially from the changes and upheaval Amazon brought to the publishing industry.

The big publishers, and the literary agents whose livelihood is inextricably linked to them have, of course, lost some business due to these changes in how the world of publishing works—what their claim that Amazon is “destroying the culture of book publishing” really means. That change is occurring does not mean, however, that book publishing is on the verge of destruction. Amazon is not destroying the world of book publishing; it is transforming it. Transformation and destruction are not the same thing. There are many, many authors, including me, who can finally make a living from their writing, who could not under the old traditional publishing system. What Amazon has done is to democratize publishing. The oligarchs who used to hold total control over the publishing process are unhappy about that, because they are losing power and money as a result of the changes that are occurring. Thus the overheated outcries by groups tied to the traditional model like Authors United and the leadership of The Authors Guild (and I used to be a member of the Guild, but let my membership lapse due to my disapproval of their positions). Those who have become part of the successful one percent of authors under the old, traditional model cannot see beyond themselves to realize how the changes that are occurring benefit so many.

So Amazon, when you ask “How are we doing?” of the authors who choose to publish their books through the many innovative publishing systems you’ve created, who sell their e-books and audio books in marketplaces you largely brought into being, and who can get print editions of their books sold in many countries around the world thanks to you, I personally would say you are doing damn well.

Viking Warrior E-book On Sale

A challenge for every author is to continually reach new readers who have not yet discovered his or her works. To that end, this week Viking Warrior will be a BookBub featured deal in the historical fiction category on Wednesday, January 13th. In support of the promotion, the e-book version of Viking Warrior will be priced at 99 cents in the U.S. and 0.99 GBP in the U.K., through Friday, January 15th, on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and ITunes.

Behind the Scenes of Book 5: Becoming Halfdan

During the coming months, I plan to periodically post about book 5, the final installment of The Strongbow Saga. Some of the posts will offer tidbits and glimpses into the story itself. Others, like this one, will explain some of the processes I follow to write the book.

Writing this story does not come easily to me. It is not simply a matter of sitting down at my computer and banging away on the keyboard, churning out X number of hours and words per day. I know writers who do that, and am awed that they can. But for me, writing—writing this story, at least—is a complex and slow process. I first began working on The Strongbow Saga in the late 1990s. Over time, as my years of research into the world of the Vikings revealed new aspects of their history and culture to me, and as characters became more vivid and took on lives of their own, the story has evolved considerably from my earliest concepts, though its core elements have remained the same.

Now, finally, I am writing the last installment of the story. In truth, I am more than a little bit intimidated by the task. Over the years I have been contacted by a great many readers, and I have more than a few times been stunned, though certainly very gratified, by those who have told me how much the story has moved or touched them. Many readers have been waiting a very long time for the conclusion of this story—Viking Warrior, its first installment, was initially published ten years ago, in 2006. For all of the readers who have been waiting for years, for all those who have been touched in some way by Halfdan’s tale, and for all those who have not yet found the story but someday will, I want to get this right. I have to get it right. I do not want to let you down.

The first step of the process is that I must, once again, become Halfdan. Halfdan is not just the hero of the story. He is its voice. It is told through his perceptions, his experiences, his thoughts. To become Halfdan, I must immerse myself in him, in his story. Halfdan is a man of the 9th century, of a distant time and a very different culture. I am a man of the 21st century, but when working on Halfdan’s story I must, as much as possible, shed my own skin, my own perceptions and attitudes, and adopt his. Otherwise, I cannot write true to Halfdan, and to the story.

To do that, I have been rereading each of the four books of The Strongbow Saga, taking detailed notes as I do. I have been refreshing in my mind how Halfdan perceives the world and the events he experiences, I have been reminding myself of the things that have shaped who he is, and how he grows and changes over the course of the story. As the Norns weave the threads of all men’s lives into the fabric and pattern of fate, so I must weave together the numerous threads that have made up each installment of this story in order to give it the culmination it, and its readers, deserve.

What would Halfdan do? I must become him, and let him tell me.

Gumbo

When I was growing up, Gumbo was a traditional post-holiday meal after Thanksgiving, both because my father loved it, and because it’s a great way to use the carcass from the holiday turkey. In recent years, Jeanette and I have revived that tradition in our own home. Here’s how to cook my version of Gumbo–if you’re having a turkey for Christmas dinner, consider saving the carcass once it’s done and giving this a try.

This is not the dish you would get if you order Gumbo in a New Orleans restaurant. A fancy chef’s version of Gumbo is going to be all about the roux, the thick, dark brown base to which a limited amount of vegetables and either shellfish or meat are added, then it’s served over rice. The Gumbo I make is closer to the dish’s roots: a hearty, backwoods, catch-all stew, which originated in southern Louisiana in the 18th century. It takes a bit of time to prepare, and it makes a large amount, but if you’re not feeding a crowd, don’t worry, the leftovers freeze well and make a wonderful already prepared meal to pull out of the freezer at a later date.

The first step is to make the broth.That’s where the leftover turkey carcass comes in. If you don’t have one, you can also use a chicken carcass–you’ll just end up with a smaller batch of soup. For the past two years, we’ve used the spatchcock method of cooking our Thanksgiving turkey, in which you cut out the bird’s backbone, press the bird flat, and soak it in a wet brine for one day and a dry rub for another before roasting it. So we had some raw pieces–the backbone, neck, the wings, and the gizzard, heart, and liver–which we’d tossed in a bag in the freezer at Thanksgiving. We started our broth by putting those pieces in a large stockpot with a coarsely chopped onion, a carrot, and several bay leaves, covering them with water, and simmering for about two hours.

20151210_111834

Then we added the carcass from the cooked turkey, from which most of the meat had already been removed, and simmered the lot for about another hour. Once the carcass pieces are beginning to separate, using a slotted spoon and tongs, remove all of the bones and meat from the broth. After they cool, pick the chunks of meat from the bones and set aside. If you have a dog, save the gristle, skin, organ pieces and the like in a separate bowl. Our Border Collie Sigrid feasted on those, stirred into her dry food a little bit at a time, for almost a week after Gumbo day.

20151210_153745

20151210_171350

While waiting for the turkey bones to cool enough to pick, add your vegetables to the broth. Chopped okra is a classic Gumbo ingredient. Don’t worry if you normally don’t care for okra–it blends in with all of the other ingredients. And don’t worry about following our choice of vegetables too closely–make the soup your own by adding what you want in it.

20151210_161437

In addition to okra, onions, garlic, celery, and bell peppers are classic Gumbo ingredients. They’ll add more flavor to the soup if you saute them in olive oil before adding them to the broth. Thyme is a classic herb used in Gumbo (thyme and sassafras root are the ingredients in Gumbo file, a powdered seasoning and thickening agent used in some versions of Gumbo), and we typically add oregano and marjoram, also, because we have patches of all of them growing in our greenhouse. Chop the oregano and marjoram and add them to the onions and peppers when you saute them. The easiest way to use fresh thyme, rather than picking all of those tiny leaves off of the stems, is to just tie a bunch of stems together with thread into a bundle and throw the whole thing into the pot. As the soup cooks, the leaves will come off the stems and become disseminated throughout the pot.

20151210_161819

20151210_165200

As I mentioned above, this is not fancy purist Gumbo–this version is a hardy, catch-all stew–a true peasant food. Since moving to our farm where we have a large garden, Jeanette and I now just pull out packs of vacuum-sealed frozen vegetables when making soups and stews–for this batch of Gumbo we used green beans, fava beans, corn, chopped yellow squash, chopped zucchini, tomatoes, and fire-roasted hot peppers. The frozen tomatoes are easy to use in recipes: while still frozen, dip them for a few seconds in a bowl of hot water, which will cause the skins to split and loosen. Remove the skins, coarsely chop the tomatoes, and throw them into your dish before they thaw and become messy. But before we had a large garden, a quick and easy shortcut we used when making Gumbo was to just add a bag of frozen mixed vegetables (in addition to the okra), and use canned diced tomatoes.

20151210_114926

20151210_162721

Gumbo is an easy soup to customize by varying the meat you use. In addition to the turkey, we like to add some pieces of spicy sausage–in this case some smoked Polish beef sausage made by Knee Deep Farm, a grass-fed beef ranch near Eugene. If you do use sausage, add it to the broth at the same time you add the vegetables.

20151210_162008

At this point, most of the work is done. Simmer the soup for at least an hour to cook all of the vegetables, but it’s a very forgiving dish, so you can easily let it simmer longer–doing so will just give you a thicker soup, and will blend the flavors more.  Periodically taste the broth and add sea salt as needed, and adding some white wine will also add flavor to the finished broth. About twenty minutes before you plan to serve your meal, add the pieces of reserved turkey meat back into the soup. If you plan to add rice, a traditional Gumbo ingredient, be sure it’s cooked by now. This version of Gumbo is hearty enough that you don’t really need rice, but we often serve ours over a hearty rice-like grain such as faro or spelt.

We like a Gumbo that includes seafood, so we usually also add a handful of shrimp at this point–when we add the turkey meat–and if we have them, we gently simmer some shucked oysters in a saucepan in white wine and a dash of Worcestershire until their edges just begin to curl.

Your finished product should be a large pot of rich, hearty stew:

20151210_221532

To serve, put a few spoonfuls of your cooked rice or other grains (if you’re using them) in the bottom of each bowl. If you’re adding oysters, put a few in each bowl, then ladle the hot soup on top. A salad on the side, and some bread–preferably fresh baguette–to sop up the dregs of soup once you’ve emptied your bowl, and you’re ready for a delicious, hearty meal. If you enjoy spicy heat in soups and stews, Tabasco Sauce complements this Gumbo very well.

20151210_222021

Haricot Verts

First, a brief commercial: there’s still time to take advantage of the Northman Books 2015 Holiday Sale, and get autographed copies of the Strongbow Saga books at reduced prices in time to give them as gifts for Christmas. And Strongbow Saga t-shirts are also on sale in the Northman Books online store.

Now, on the Haricot Verts, which is French for “green beans.”

I grew up in the south. The green beans I ate as a child were called string beans, or sometimes snap beans, because to prepare them you would break or “snap” them into roughly one inch long pieces, peel off the tough string along the side that was exposed when you did that, them simmer them in salted water for a long time, usually with a ham hock for added flavor, because they were tough and it took a long time to cook them into tenderness. They were delicious, and I still occasionally cook them that way to this day–our nickname for them now is “hammy beans.” But in 2005 Jeanette and I experienced a totally different kind of green bean and way to prepare them.

That year we saved up our pennies and traveled to Paris to do research on what would become books 2 and 3 of the Strongbow Saga. The background setting for those books was an actual Danish military campaign in the year 845 A.D., during which a fleet of 120 Viking ships raided up the Seine River and ultimately captured the city of Paris in a surprise attack on Easter morning. The historical campaign was an amazing story, and made a wonderful backdrop for a portion of Halfdan’s story in The Strongbow Saga. But I had run into a problem: I could not find any information at all about what the city of Paris looked like in the year 845, and I was trying to tell the story with as much historical accuracy and detail as possible. Thus the trip to Paris came about.

But this post is not about the research and what I learned–it’s about beans. When we travel (which is not often), Jeanette and I don’t like fancy hotels and restaurants. We like to stay in B&Bs or small inns, and eat in the small restaurants and cafes where the local people eat. One night in Paris, we ate in a tiny little cafe, run by a father and his adult daughter, and had a very simple meal–a roasted chicken leg and sauteed green beans were the primary components. But though the meal was simple, it was delicious–so much so that we ate there again and had the same meal another night. The chicken had more flavor than I’d ever tasted before in chicken (and I later came to realize that was because of the way most chickens raised for meat by commercial poultry factories in the United States are produced), and the beans were an entirely different vegetable from what I’d grown up eating: they were crisp and delicate, very light and flavorful and crunchy. As we later discovered, they are also very fast and easy to prepare. Here’s how.

You don’t want to buy the standard green beans that are widely available in most U.S. grocery stores. What you’re looking for are beans that were picked when they were still young and delicate, much narrower in size than the standard beans. Fortunately, they’re becoming much more readily available in grocery stores, and are a popular item in many farmers markets, too.

We grow our own now, and for the gardeners out there, the variety we like best are a heritage breed called Spanish Musica. They’re slightly different from traditional French haricot verts varieties, which tend to produce round, slender beans about the diameter of a slim pencil–Spanish Musica beans are flattened in shape. But we prefer them because when picked at a very young and slender size, they’re perfect for haricot verts, but if you let them get larger they still cook up tender and delicious when used in soups and stews. And you can grow a lot of these beans on a very small footprint in your garden which, when we used to live in Texas and only had a tiny garden, was an important consideration. Spanish Musica are pole beans, which means they’re essentially a vine that needs some kind of support to climb on, and these are very vigorous climbers. We use bean towers sold by Gardener’s Supply, and can grow a summer’s worth of beans, and have plenty to put up for the winter, using a single tower, which only takes up about 18 square inches of ground space.  And when production starts to fall off, don’t give up on the vines. Water the foliage with a soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion, and they’ll produce a whole new round of blossoms and beans.

But I am digressing. This is about how to cook haricots verts, not how to grow them. As I mentioned earlier, you want to use beans that are young, small, and tender. In this photo, the beans on the bottom of the cutting board are the size you want–the ones on the top have gotten large enough to be more suitable for use in soups or stews.

20150928_210309Trim off any pieces of stem, and cut the beans into roughly two inch pieces–for most beans, this will be just cutting them in half. Coarsely chop three to five cloves of garlic. Coat the bottom of a skillet with a good quality olive oil–it’s a major component of this simple dish, so pick a flavorful one–then add the beans and garlic.

20150928_213647Turn the heat on to medium high, and saute the beans, stirring constantly. This won’t take long, because the beans are tender to begin with, and you want the final product to still be crisp and crunchy. When the garlic has turned a light golden brown and the beans have turned a bright green and are just beginning to show a little browning or blistering in spots, remove them from the heat, salt lightly, and serve.

20150928_214422

Holiday Sale of Print Editions

Here at Northman Books (also known as “here on the farm”) we are expecting to receive, early next week, a shipment from the printer of copies of Viking Warrior and Dragons from the Sea with the new covers. To celebrate that, and for the holiday season, for a limited time we’re offering autographed copies of all four books at reduced prices. In stock quantities of the new covers will initially be limited, so if you would like one by Christmas, please order soon. The sale page is here.  In the main store on the Northman Books site, the price of Strongbow Saga t-shirts has also been marked down to $5.00. The selection of sizes and colors is limited, and once these shirts are sold out, they will not be restocked.

Pasta With Turnip Greens

You need to trust me on this one. I know it sounds strange–it did to me, the first time I saw the recipe. And you may think that you don’t like some of the ingredients, so you wouldn’t like the finished dish. But this recipe is quick and easy, uses only a few inexpensive ingredients, and has a very unique and delicious flavor, unlike any other dish I’ve ever had before. Give it a try.

Jeanette and I found this recipe in an Italian cookbook we happened on years ago in a used bookstore. It’s not the typical spaghetti and lasagna type of Italian cookbook most people are familiar with; instead it focuses on regional, country-style dishes. This particular dish is from the Apulia region of Italy.

Your basic ingredients are a medium size turnip or four to five of the small Japanese salad turnips that have become popular in many farmers markets in recent years, enough fresh turnip greens to fill a medium mixing bowl or colander, a two ounce can of anchovies (I like the King Oscar brand–they’re meatier than many others), four to five large cloves of garlic, some good quality, flavorful olive oil, red pepper flakes, some Parmesan cheese, and a little white wine. You’ll also need the pasta–use one that has a small to medium size, such as penne or rotini, or one of my favorites, caesarica, because you need to be able to toss the cooked pasta in the sauce to thoroughly coat it. Because this dish is so simple, if possible use an imported Italian pasta–many really do have more flavor than inexpensive mass produced pastas.

To begin, wash the turnip greens and tear them into bite sized pieces.

20151021_212845While the water for the pasta is coming to a boil, prepare your other ingredients. Coarsely grate about three to four tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese (DON’T use the pre-grated stuff in a can–it has no flavor!). Chop the turnip into pieces roughly one quarter inch square, slice the garlic cloves into thin slices, and coarsely chop the anchovies. Please don’t rule this dish out if you think you don’t like anchovies (many people dislike them)–when you use them in this recipe, they literally melt in the pan, and add a lot of flavor without making the dish taste like anchovies.

20151021_212651The original recipe calls for dried red pepper flakes to be added while cooking, and those work just fine. I’ve come to prefer using chopped Calabrian peppers in pasta dishes, however–those are what’s on the bottom right corner of the cutting board in the photo above. A friend who worked in a restaurant taught me about them, and I find they add similar heat to a dish as dried pepper flakes, but more flavor. If you can find them (they’re imported, and can be tricky to find), I’d recommend using about four, chopped, in this dish.

20151124_155007Put enough olive oil in a non-stick skillet to cover the bottom, then add the diced turnips and saute them on medium heat until their surface begins to lightly brown. Add the garlic slices, anchovies, and Calabrian peppers or red pepper flakes and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic begins to brown and the anchovies dissolve.

20151021_213904By now you should also have added your pasta to the boiling water–most pastas this size take somewhere around ten minutes to cook. Add the turnip greens a handful at a time, stirring constantly as they wilt. Periodically add a splash or two of white wine, as needed, and cook until the greens are tender, which should only require a few minutes. Here’s what the dish should look like at this point:

20150923_223701Turn the heat off under the skillet. When the pasta is done, drain it and add it to the skillet, stirring and tossing  it to thoroughly coat the pasta with the sauce, then sprinkle the Parmesan on top.

20151021_22082520150923_225720Now stir the cheese in, letting it melt into the sauce and on the pasta, and you’re done–it’s very quick and easy! Add sea salt to taste after serving.

If you eat meatless meals, this could certainly serve as a main course. We usually have it as a side with a grilled lamb chop, although on this occasion, we served it with trout we’d caught in the McKenzie River, that flows behind our farm. Jeanette made a quick, simple pesto out of olive oil, garlic, salt, and some extra turnip greens, and we stuffed the trout’s body cavities with the pesto, wrapped them with thread to hold it in, and I cooked the trout in a wood smoker grill.

20151021_215452Another quick and easy protein option is to top the served pasta with a fried egg–either for dinner, or as we sometimes do, with the leftovers for a quick and different breakfast.

20151124_125848

New Book Covers

Over the past week, I’ve been working with Lou Harper, of Harper By Design, to get a new, more powerful cover for Viking Warrior. She also made some significant improvements to the cover for Dragons from the Sea. Here are the new covers for the print editions. The e-book covers are on display on my author page on Facebook–if you haven’t found it, please visit me there, too.

VikingWarrior print cover jpgDragons_Print JPG

Salmon Pasta Primavera

Classic pasta primavera is a dish that celebrates spring, topping pasta with sauteed fresh vegetables, usually including asparagus. Although there are versions of the recipe that use a cream sauce (sacrilege!), usually it’s a very light, fresh dish that is tasty, healthy, and fairly quick to prepare. In the version I make, the only sauce is the olive oil the vegetables are sauteed in, plus a few spoonfuls of basil pesto. On this occasion, I also added some salmon chunks, because we currently have a goodly amount of salmon vacuum-wrapped in our freezer after a recent successful fishing trip. Besides salmon, any firm-fleshed fish should work (sometimes we use fresh albacore), and shrimp and scallops work nicely, too.

Because the actual cooking time is very short, you’ll need to prepare all of the ingredients in advance.

20151023_20444020151023_204631Skin the salmon–only a small piece is needed–remove any pin-bones in the meat, cut into cubes roughly one inch square, and place in a bowl. I like to toss the cubes in a spoonful or two of garlic hoisin sauce for extra flavor.

20151023_203222Slice a handful of cherry tomatoes in half, and mince a large sprig of fresh Italian parsley and fresh rosemary.  Put the tomatoes and herbs in a bowl, added some minced or crushed garlic,and toss with just enough balsamic vinegar to coat.

 

20151023_21240520151023_212328Next you’ll need to prepare your vegetables by cutting them into small pieces. Pasta primavera is a wonderfully flexible dish–you can use whatever fresh vegetables you have available. On this occasion, we used the dish to say goodbye to some plants in our garden that had reached the end of their season. Because of the cooling autumn nighttime temperatures, our yellow squash and zucchini plants had a number of baby squash on them that had set but had essentially stopped growing, so we harvested those then pulled the plants out of the garden. We also harvested some small broccoli shoots that had grown on a plant the main head had previously been harvested from, plus some purple cauliflower, and I cut about three cloves of garlic, also from the garden, into thin slices.

20151023_212337We also cut up some red sweet pepper, a small sweet onion, some chanterelle mushrooms, a few black olives, and–just because we had them–some squash blossoms. But again, almost any combination of vegetables, as long as they’re fresh, will work in this dish.

20151021_115639Very little goes to waste on our farm. Our sheep also benefited from this dish–here they’re feasting on a cauliflower plant pulled from the garden after its head had been harvested.

 

Now it’s time to actually begin cooking. Bring a saucepan of water to boil for the pasta and begin cooking it. On this occasion we used a penne pasta, but any similar size, such as casarecca or gemelli (aka rotini) will work–you want a pasta that’s close in size to the vegetable and salmon pieces. Incidentally, I used to think there wasn’t much difference in pastas, but a few years ago I was enlightened. Some pastas really do have much more flavor than others. Some of our favorite brands now are rustichella d’abruzzo, from Italy, and Sfoglini, which is made in New York City, athough both are little pricey. A very good brand which has tested high on blind tastings, but is considerably less expensive if you have the ability to shop at a Costco store, is Garofalo, another imported Italian variety.

Add olive oil to a saute pan or large skillet. Use a good oil that has flavor, because it will be a significant element of the vegetable topping and overall taste of the dish. Over medium heat, begin sauteing the vegetables, adding them sequentially according to how delicate they are and how long they’ll need to cook. With the vegetables we were using, I began with the onions, garlic, and red pepper, then after sauteing them for a minute or two, stirring constantly, added the mushrooms and olives. After a minute or two more I added the squash–if they’d been just diced squash, rather than these delicate baby squash, they’d have gone in earlier–and after another minute the broccoli, cauliflower, and cubes of salmon. As soon as the broccoli turns a bright green, turn off the heat. I added the squash blossoms at that point, then about three heaping tablespoons of pesto and a few pinches of sea salt, and stirred the vegetables to coat them. We always make and freeze a number of batches of pesto during the summer months when fresh basil is plentiful to be sure we have some on hand, but if you don’t make your own a good quality store-bought pesto is fine.

20151023_21505320151023_215108Here are the vegetables and salmon, sauteed and tossed with pesto. Meanwhile, when the pasta is done drain it, return it to the pot, and toss it with a tablespoon or two of pesto to coat.

 

It’s done! For each serving put pasta in a bowl, top with some of the vegetable and salmon mixture, then add a spoonful or two of the the tomato and herb mix over top. Total cooking time should be fifteen minutes or less, plus maybe another twenty to thirty minutes of preparation time in advance.

20151023_215749