Snow Books

These are amazing.

(and for more things that look like books, but aren’t, go here.)

Advertisements

Wild Rice Gratin with Kale and Gruyere (Smitten Kitchen Cookbook Test 1), and a textile bonus

Wild Rice

Wild Rice – Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Flick (Creative Commons License)

One of my Christmas presents this year was The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman, author the blog of the same name . I was pretty excited to get this book even before I had a chance to take an in-depth look at it; I have already made several recipes from the blog, and I have found them to be both delicious and well-tested. Nothing I have made from Smitten Kitchen has failed or been even vaguely disappointing. (Tip: Try the pumpkin muffins)

I’m happy to report that this recipe was no exception! I’m afraid to say that I have misplaced my iPod, which is my only camera (don’t panic! I think I just left it at work!). So this post won’t have any pictures of the cheesy goodness. But this recipe was fabulous! For those of you who don’t already have the cookbook (and you should! Valentine’s Day gift? February splurge?), the gratin is pretty simple. You prepare cooked wild rice, steamed kale, and caramelized onions, and mix them altogether with swiss cheese, add more cheese on top, add breadcrumbs, and bake.

Now, I am sure that would be wonderful just like that. But I am constitutionally unable to make dinner recipes without modifying them – baking recipes, I can follow to the letter, but when cooking dinner I always have the urge to change things a little, often so that I can use up stuff in my cupboards. On that note, I cut down on the amount of wild rice, and cooked up some basmati rice to supplement it. This was for reasons of economy (wild rice is expensive, even though I do live near one of the largest historical centers of wild rice harvesting), and because I thought that a little basmati would make for a nice hearty texture. I also added some frozen chopped carrots, for a little color, and added a teaspoon of a herb blend in my cupboard called Tuscan Salt, from Les Soeurs en Vrac in Montreal. The whole thing looked a little dry when I put it into the casserole, so I slurped in some milk around the edges of the baking dish; I won’t deny that I was also hoping to get a bit of creaminess, slightly evocative of canned mushroom soup. Finally, I added a few crushed Ritz cracker crumbs on top, just because I could – I always read recipes for casseroles that have Ritz crumbs on them, but we hardly ever have Ritz crackers in the house. Right now, we do, as the result of overbuying for a Christmas party.

My husband saw the casserole before I put it in the oven and he said “It’s a . . . HOTDISH!” (the jury’s still out, though, on whether this is the correct Wisconsin term . I added to the feeling of Midwester midwinter cosiness by serving the casserole with some braised red cabbage that I had made earlier and frozen (a note on the linked recipe: do not use balsamic vinegar as called for: use red wine vinegar, or cider vinegar or even white vinegar). I then reheated the frozen cooked red cabbage with a splash of gin, reasoning that my dad often throws in a few juniper berries when making red cabbage and/or roat pork. The mixture of casserole and red cabbage was a winner, and we’ll definitely be eating this again.

The casserole has a great texture, with some chewiness from the wild rice and softness from the onions. The flavor is slightly reminiscent of stuffing. But the real genius of this recipe is the decision to use Swiss cheese instead of a more strongly flavored cheese. It means that a mild cheesy flavor permeates the whole dish, without overpowering it. It doesn’t hurt that we can get very good Swiss Cheese, living, as we do, near the Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA. As an added advantage, this recipe makes perfect use of local foods available in winter, without being a variation on “same old, same old” dishes. I’m now inspired to mix everything with Swiss cheese and wild rice, and call it dinner!

Bonus for lovers of textiles, printing, quilting, design, competitions, or any combination thereof

My friend Kate Austin is one of ten finalists in the Repeat(ed) fabric design competition on the Printed Bolt. I’m so excited for her! Check it out!

(and psssst, Kate also sells her fabric designs through Spoonflower. I love love love her Park Toronto design; it makes me homesick for my city).

Blanket in the snow

In addition to the ridiculous piles of yarn and sweaters populating my house, I also have a number of 100% wool blankets, which are definitely keeping me warm these days. In particular, I have a queen-sized Hudson Bay Point Blanket that we received as a wedding gift from my parents – it was tucked inside a cedar blanket chest built by my Dad. Best gift ever! We love this blanket – it keeps us toasty and it’s so heavy that it prevents the sheets and duvet underneath it from shifting during the night as well. But I was getting worried (to the extent that one should be worried about textile cleaning), that I would either a) have to pay an arm and leg every couple of years to get it dry-cleaned or b) have an increasingly grimy and smelly blanket on our bed. That’s why I was intrigued the other day to read this article in Mother Earth News on cleaning wool with snow. Who knew? You can clean wool blankets and rugs by scrubbing them with cold snow!

It’s been quite cold in Madison this past week, and last Thursday it was around 5F/-15 C. You need cold weather to make this cleaning method work, otherwise the snow simply melts on contact and makes the blanket too wet. So I decided to give this a try. I took the blanket outside and hung it on our clothesline for an hour or so, to pre-chill it. I then spread it on the snow (about 6 inches) covering the ground:

IMG_0482

The article linked above simply said to walk all over the blanket, in order to smush the snow into the fabric. This didn’t seem like a good idea considering that I was wearing heavy, soiled boots! So I got on my hands and knees and crawled all over the blanket, then flipped it over and did the same thing on the other side. I took a break at one point to admire the scenic view:

IMG_0481

and then shook it out as best I could (which wasn’t very well – that thing is heavy), and took it upstairs to hang it over the banister to dry out.

(OK, the real story is that between crawling all over it in the back yard and bringing it inside, I discovered that I had locked myself out of my house, in 5 degree F weather, wearing jeans and my Bucky the Badger sweatshirt, no mittens, no phone, no wallet. Thank goodness for neighbourhood stores that let you use their phone, and for the fact that our property manager lives around the corner. Phew!)

So, after I made an idiot of myself crawling all over a blanket in the snow, did it work? YES! Yes it did! The blanket smells much better, and I do believe it looks brighter as well. So I think this will become a yearly activity, and I’m happy to be able to continue using my beloved Hudson Bay blanket every day without worrying about it becoming too stinky. A good discovery!

(Finally, for those who are expecting that a blog called “Bronwen Reads” should include some mention of, well, reading, never fear! In between all of the textile-washing this weekend I had the chance to place lots of holds on library books – I’m particularly looking forward to getting my hands on Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford.)

Overdue

I’m so happy to be back in Madison after about a month in Toronto. I couldn’t be happier to be lying here on my own green couch, listening to the laundry in the machine, and mulling over what to cook for dinner in my own kitchen. I’ve signed up for an account with Mealboard, a website and app that allows you to load recipes, make grocery lists and plan your meals based on the contents of your pantry. It was a bit of work to set it all up – I entered most of the information onto my iPod touch during a long train ride – but I’m interested to see how it will all work. I entered several recipes from one of my favourite Christmas presents: the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook! First up on the testing roster is the recipe for Wild Rice Gratin with Kale and Gruyere, which should help me to make a small dent in the mass of frozen kale in our freezer. I’m planning on writing several posts/recipe reviews related to this cookbook: in short, I adore it.

We have a gigantic amount of canned and frozen vegetables in stock right now, as the result of my September mania for preserving the tomato in all its forms, and because of our membership in the Harmony Valley Farm CSA (community supported agriculture). Before leaving for Toronto, I went through our fridge and froze as much as I could, including about ten pounds of carrots and several pounds of parsnips and turnips. I even sliced, blanched and froze two bags of sweet potatoes, in the hopes of making my own pre-frozen sweet potato fries. I think you can just freeze sweet potatoes without blanching, but a little online research suggested that they would be a better texture if I blanched them first. I’ll report back on this experiment! I love sweet potato fries and it seemed like a shame to let the sweet potatoes go to waste.

One of the vegetables that I froze from our CSA box was this beautiful Scarlet Turnip

IMG_0070

In addition to the pile of laundry and the storehouse of vegetables that greeted me at home, I was also confronted by a pile of overdue library books. I think I heard somewhere that librarians pay more in overdue fines than members of the general public, not less. This doesn’t surprise me in the least: not only do librarians tend to be heavy users of libraries, they also, shall we say, tend to be a little scatterbrained and distracted. Currently overdue, or very close to being due on my account are:

More Baths, Less Talking, by Nick Hornby (not actually an ode to bathing, unless you count reading in the bath – this is a book of book reviews)

The Mormon People, by Mathew Burton Bowman (a history of Mormonism, which was very detailed but very unwilling to engage with controversial topics – not surprising considering that the author is himself a Mormon and the book was written with co-operation from church authorities, but it definitely made the book less interesting)

and The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You (I won’t try and explain what this great book is about, just direct you to Pariser’s excellent Ted Talk.)

Visit Scotland, see well-dressed ponies

Greetings, long-neglected blog readers! I’m glad to be back posting here, and I’ve got lots of ideas for things to write about this year! And. most importantly – I finally own a functioning camera again, in the form of a new iPod touch, which takes surprisingly good photos, and, perhaps more importantly, is connected to this amazing thing called the Internet, meaning I don’t have to search through my desk drawer for my camera cord every time I want to overshare post something interesting.

Despite the lack of blog activity, the fall was not without reading activity, or cooking activity, or knitting activity, about which I plan to write more in the coming weeks. I’m toying with the idea of releasing a few knitting patterns, in fact, so watch this space. But the most exciting plan around these parts is definitely the fact that my husband and I are planning to spend this coming fall in Scotland, a wonderland for both book lovers (and book sculptors) and, of course, lovers of yarn and history. Sounded like a perfect plan to me just as soon as we came up with it. But I gained further confirmation that I was meant to be in Scotland when my twin sister notified me that in Shetland, they have started dressing their small ponies in intricately patterned cardigans. If one of these ponies had a book stashed behind its wind-beaten grassy hillock, we would be soulmates.

ponies in cardigans

Review: Norwegian Handknits: Heirloom Designs from Vesterheim Museum

I picked up a copy of Norwegian Handknits: Heirloom Designs from the Vesterheim Museum, by Sue Flanders and Janine Kosel, when I was downtown yesterday, browsing at A Room of One’s Own Books and Gifts. The bookstore is now in its new, expanded location on Gorham Street, and since it has merged with Avol’s Books, it now offers a wide selection of second-hand books, as well as new stock. There don’t seem to be too many second-hand knitting books, however, but this is unsurprising: most people buy knitting books to keep them on the shelf to refer to repeatedly, of course. I heeded the signs in the bookstore – “See it here, buy it here, keep us here” – and took away this lovely book to peruse in the coffee shop across the street.*

The book is a collection of patterns inspired by items in the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Vesterheim, which means “Western Home,” was the name given to the United States by Norwegian-American immigrants. One of the most striking aspects of the book (and, presumably, the museum) is the feelings of connectedness between the “old country” and the immigrant communities in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. These connections are most clear in historical photographs from the museum that are spread throughout the book, showing women in long dresses on skis, children sleeping under intricate blankets, and little boys making snowmen, wearing Norwegian mittens. Are these photos of Norway or the US? Hard to tell sometimes, until you look at the captions. I loved these photos, and I wish the authors had included even more of them.

The book also includes photos of the historical pieces that inspired the patterns, as well as photos of finished objects and full-colour charts for knitting multi-colour designs. The lace patterns are not charted, but only written out. I can’t read lace charts, and I am, in fact, quite bad at knitting lace no matter how the pattern is written, despite the best efforts of chart-fans like Scottish knitting designer Ysolda Teague, who has written a handy tutorial entitled “Using Charts Even if You Hate Them. If you like knitting lace from charts, you might have to make your own charts for the few lace patterns in this book, which include a triangular garter-stitch shawl with lace edge that might just be at my skill-level for lace.

But, as you might expect, lace is not really the main player in a book about Norwegian knitting, and I really bought this book because I love love love to knit complicated mittens. Recent projects for lucky mitten-recipients include a pair of Kalev’s Mittens, from another excellent book, Folk Knitting in Estonia, by Nancy Bush, and Northman Mittens, a pattern by David Schulz. And this new book did not disappoint! There are mitten patterns ranging from a very simple pair of mittens in the style of Sami clothing, knit in bulky Lopi Icelandic yarn, to a fairly complicated pair of women’s mittens, knit in fine yarn with a snowflake pattern on the hands and another charted pattern of roses on the cuffs. I learned a few things about Norwegian mitten design as well. Some parts of the country favour asymmetrical designs, such as the rose pattern, while in some areas, the patterns are always mirror-images, such as the Selbu rose, which I usually see as a star or snowflake (picture of a Selbu rose mitten, below, by larskflem on Flickr) Selbu.

While I am very tempted by the more complex Daddy Long-Legs Mittens, winter is coming soon enough, so I think I will start by making Flower Mittens, with a Cross-Country Ski Hat to (almost) match. The hat reminds me of a hat my twin sister bought last winter in Tallin, Estonia, from the “Wall of Knitting.” This wall in Tallin, (pictured below by hilde h on Flickr), where women sell all kinds of sweaters and other knitted goods, is definitely on my lifelong “knitting tourism” list (which just keeps getting longer every year, by the way). Warm clothes all over

Until I can pay a visit there, and to other places in Scandinavia, books like this one will have to keep me going. Luckily, I have tons and tons of fine-gauge wool yarn, bought for me by various understanding family members on trips to Denmark, Iceland and Sweden. I was also pleased to see several patterns that were designed for yarns made by Blackberry Ridge Woollen Mill, in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, which is close to Madison. It’s rare to find designers using their yarn, which comes in numerous rich colours, and is really hard-wearing. Wisconsin knitters, take note!

I do recommend this book, particularly if you enjoy knitting mittens. Several of the online reviews I have read (warning: don’t read Amazon reviews if you don’t want to get grumpy) have complained about the fact that it contains only two sweater patterns. First of all, the sweater pattern that is included is definitely something I have never seen before: it’s an adult-sized two-colour sweater, and a simplified child’s variation, in an interesting “Voss” pattern based on a headscarf in the Vesterheim museum, that has a striking neckline with four different diamond motifs, and an all-over two-colour pattern on the body that consists of diagonal lines mirrored around the central line descending from the neckline pattern.

Second of all, the writers point out that two-colour “ski sweaters” are actually a fairly late addition to traditional Norwegian knitting, having become prominent only at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems that, in much the same way that we consider fair-isle knitting “old-fashioned”, despite the fact that it really only became popular in the 1920s and 30s, Norwegian sweaters might be more the result of marketing than of tradition, and the motifs, colours and patterns are actually more complex.

Thirdly, it seems that the authors designed the book to display not only the variety of the knitted items that are found in the Vesterheim collection, but also to appeal to knitters at a range of skill levels, and to be a tool for everyone to learn new techniques. Beyond the creativity and math necessary to place two-colour patterns on a sweater, I actually don’t find the techniques of Norwegian sweaters to be particularly interesting, and I would have been disappointed to buy a book that consisted primarily of numerous colour charts that could be applied to the standard formula for these sweaters, which can be summarized easily as 1. knit a tube 2. knit two more tubes for sleeves 3. Cut the first tube, attach a tube, repeat 4. Knit another small tube for a neckband. So I am quite pleased that the authors decided instead to devote space to techniques like needle felting, creating various kinds of braid for straps and decoration, and to creating items in a variety of shapes, gauges and levels of complexity.

I am of two minds about the authors’ decisions about the use of space in the book, however. They include several recipes in sidebars, for example. I’m unlikely to try these specialties, many of them baked goods that require the use of special pans and equipment, and while I like reading recipes for interest’s sake, I feel the space could have been better used to include larger photos, both of historical scenes and of the final knitted garments. The charts, in contrast to the photos, are as big as they could make them, although I expect I will have to do some creative photocopying for some of the more intricate charts.

Reading this book, I was reminded a little too much of the economics of producing a full-colour, illustrated hardcover book: it’s tough to figure out how much space to devote to written instructions, versus photos, versus charts, versus contextual information, and to know how to create a knitting book that is both useful and affordable, especially when costs have to take technical editing and test-knitting into account. I find this aspect of knitting publishing particularly interesting, since I assume that publishers are aware that they are competing with the booming market in downloadable PDF patterns, which can be resized and reprinted by users without any extra expenditure on the part of the publisher, who is now often the designer herself.** So, I sympathize, and I’m willing to be forgiving as I squint at a few photos. I still think the book is a great value and an important collection of historical information, which I don’t think I have the expertise to critique. I’m sure it will make many readers more interested in the Vesterheim Museum and in the Norwegian immigrant experience more generally, and it’s lovely to have the chance to reflect on the experience of these immigrants and knitters with a real book in my hand, rather than staring at a computer screen. A more unfortunate flaw, however, is the fact that the patterns in this book were published with quite a few errors: errata are available here. I have read that newer printings of the book have been corrected, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for errors in charts and instructions as I go along.

When I was considering buying this book, rather than simply getting it out of the library, I had to remind myself that the money you spend on a knitting book covers many hours and hours of enjoyment: there’s the first few hours, looking over your new purchase, preferably with hot drink in hand, the minutes here and there you spend double-checking patterns and planning, and then the many hours, with the book at hand, knitting the lovely things it contains. So, in other words, don’t be cheap – buy nice knitting books! Especially at your local independent bookstore! The same authors have recently published Swedish Handknits: a Collection of Heirloom Designs, with designs inspired by items in the collection of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With Kari Cornell, they have also collaborated on two other collections: Knitting Socks from Around the World and Knitting Socks and Mittens from Around the World. All three books are now definitely going on hold at the library!

* Yes, unemployment has its perks.
** It occurs to me that many of the same problems of size, formatting, expense and usability come into play when thinking about books about maps, and I’ve been mulling over similar digital vs. print questions as I prepare to write a review of Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. Watch this space!

Recipe: Spicy September Noodles

We are drowning happily in good vegetables these days from our CSA membership to Harmony Valley Farm. I came up with this recipe to use up some veggies and I’m quite happy with it! It’s slightly reminiscent of pad thai, but less work and a bit lighter tasting. It’s slightly reminiscent of pad thai, but less work and a bit lighter tasting. I’ve called it “September Noodles” because eggplant, peppers, basil and cucumbers are all really amazing right now (and cheap!)

And yes, I do like spicy Asian eggplant dishes.

Ingredients:

1 asian eggplant (pale purple skin, long and skinny)
2 red bell peppers (I used about 8 miniature sweet peppers, which we get from the CSA)
one onion (I used a red onion)
1 block extra-firm tofu
1 package wide rice noodles (I used Thai Kitchen “stir-fry noodles”)
2 tbsp. San-J spicy Szechuan Sauce (for Canadian readers, this seems to be similar to PC Memories of Szechwan Spicy Peanut Sauce, but without the peanuts. Also, it’s not as good, let’s be frank. But us expats have to make do with what we have.)
1 tbsp. soy sauce
canola oil

to serve:
1 lime
1/2 cup dry-roasted unsalted peanuts
small handful fresh basil
1 cucumber

Method

Slice the eggplant into 1/2 inch slices. Heat up about 2 tsp. oil in a cast-iron frying pan. Place eggplant slices in hot pan in one layer and cook on high heat until they are soft and slightly charred. This will take about 5 minutes per side. The smoke alarm may go off!

Boil water in a kettle. Place rice noodles in bowl, and pour boiling water over noodles. Let soak in hot water for 10 minutes, and then drain.

Cut onion in half, and then cut each half in thin slices. Cut the tofu into one inch cubes, slice the red peppers, and cut the cooked eggplant into one inch cubes.

Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a wok (we have a non-stick wok – if you don’t, you may need more oil). Add the onion slices and fry for one minute. Add the tofu, and fry until tofu is lightly browned and the onions are soft and beginning to caramelize. Use high heat and don’t stir too much – if you move the tofu around too much it will not brown as nicely. This will probably take 5-7 minutes.

While the onions and tofu are frying prepare the garnishes. Finely slice the basil, and cut the lime into wedges. Grind the peanuts into smallish “crumbs” using the food processor, or by putting them into a ziploc bag and smashing them with a rolling pin. Cut the cucumber into thirds, and then cut each third into slices, then cut each slice into strips.

Once the tofu is lightly browned, add the red pepper slices, and stir fry for about three minutes. Add the Szechwan sauce and soy sauce to the pan, along with about 1/4 cup water, and stir until the tofu is coated with sauce. Add the drained noodles, and stir-fry until the noodles are heated through, about 1 minute. Add more soy sauce to taste. Add fresh basil and stir to combine.

Serve in bowls with cucumber strips, peanuts and lime wedges.