Home again, home again

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(thanks, Willy St. Co-op Facebook feed, for this cartoon)

3 things that are making me happy these days (besides the summer produce taking over my fridge) . . .

1. Returning to my home library, and the “place hold” button
After a fairly monogamous summer vacation, reading-wise, of devouring A Suitable Boy, I had lots of fun picking out my reading matter for the rest of August, using that ever-so-satisfying (and economical too!) “place hold” button. On hold, or already borrowed right now, are

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Ruby Programming for the Absolute Beginner, Jerry Lee Ford
Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, by Fuchsia Dunlop
Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, by Fuchsia Dunlop
Head First Excel, by Michael Milton
“Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, by Fuchsia Dunlop
Are You My Mother, by Alison Bechdel
Head First PHP and MySQL
Canada, by Richard Ford
Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A.J. Jacobs

(I’ve linked these to WorldCat so you can see if they are your local library – just enter your location at the top of the results list to find the copies nearest you)

2. Friends working on cool projects
A friend of mine just made me aware of an interesting project she’s working on: Marine Lives . The project team will be transcribing 17th century documents about life at sea from the High Court of Admiralty in the UK, which tell us, among other things, just what to do with a drunken sailor. I find this type of project really interesting: it appeals to both the “treasure hunter aspect” of my intellectual interests and to my desire to engage in certain kinds of more repetitive work. Transcribing, like making bibliographies, or coding html pages, or even taking notes, casts me into a satisfying trance-like state of focused relaxation, much like knitting does. If you want to know more about these kind of projects, I recommend this article on Galazy Zoo and the New Dawn of Citizen Science, which appeared in The Observer earlier this year.

Pssst, Marine Lives is looking for volunteers to start training next week for 50 hours of transcribing documents and learning about 17th century seafaring! Anyone interested in history can do it, from Grade 12 students on up!

3. Speaking of trance-like knitting

I’m also excited to be making some plans for knitting for the fall, as, if you can’t tell from my reading list, I’ve got quite a bit of free time and I can’t spend all of it learning new computer skills and cooking Chinese food! In addition to knitting several pairs of baby booties for the offspring of friends and family (these ones? or these ones?), I think I might jump on the short-row stripes bandwagon and attempt a Stripe Study Shawl, using some lovely red and cream yarn my parents brought me back from Copenhagen (oooh la la!), or, I’ll try and get better at doing cables and make a Sagano Shawl using some firecracker-coloured sock yarn I got recently in a swap.

(PS, do my non-knitting readers find, like my husband, that when I talk about knitting all you hear is the sound that the adults made in the Peanuts cartoons?)

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Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey [it’s vegetarian]

Goat Curry

Goat Curry at Rangoli photo by mellowfood @ Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the best meals I’ve had in a while was the dinner we had last summer at Vij’s Rangoli in Vancouver, at the very end of our honeymoon. Rangoli is the more casual sister restaurant (which also sells prepared meals to take home) of the elegant Indian restaurant Vij’s; both restaurants are owned and operated by Vikram Vij and his wife Meeru Dhalwala. Vikram Vij also writes occasional articles for the Globe and Mail newspaper, including recipes, like this one for Boatman’s Curry.

What made our meal at Rangoli so good? We love love love Indian food, but that’s not why. It was because it was really really really good Indian food: the ingredients were fresher, the flavours were more interesting, and the combinations of dishes were satisfying and varied. One of the things I liked about the restaurant was the fact that, unlike in many Indian restaurants, you ordered a combination plate, with, for example, black chickpea pakoras, rice pilaf, and portobello mushrooms in creamy curry, or, quinoa salad, spicy beet greens and a lamb kebab, instead of ordering a number of dishes accompanied by plain rice. We still shared tastes of each other’s dishes – my husband and I were treating his aunt to dinner, which meant we sampled 9 dishes all together, I believe – but I liked having the preset combinations because a) the chef is probably better at picking combinations of flavours than I am and b) it meant that our starchy side dishes were more interesting than plain rice, and that the flavours of the pilafs, potatoes, grains, etc. could complement the other dishes.

So, you can imagine I was pretty excited to discover Vij’s at Home: Relax Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking on the new books shelf at the Madison Public Library (here’s the catalog record, FYI).

This cookbook is even better than I expected. The recipes range from dead easy to fairly uncomplicated, there are lots of interesting tidbits included about ingredients (especially spices) and life and business at the restaurant (including recommendations from the kitchen staff, who seem to be mainly, if not entirely, Punjabi immigrants to Canada who come from smaller villages than Vikram and Meeru, and therefore have different ideas about food). The couple has two daughters, who also appear in the book, along with some of their favourite dishes, including a really yummy-looking butter-chicken oven-fried schnitzel with dipping sauce. I also really enjoyed reading about Vikram and Meeru’s life at home, which appears to be more family-oriented and relaxed than the average restaurant power couple’s. The book opens with a quite evocative description of how Vikram and Meeru’s decision to turn their study/playroom nto a proper dining room had a powerful affect on their approach to both family meals and entertaining. But, I have a bone to pick here: there’s no proper photo of the dining room in question!

But that’s a small quibble, really, and it just serves to show how readable and friendly this book is. I think the strongest aspect of the book is the balance it strikes between teaching you how to make straightforward Indian specialties, and introducing you to new ideas, techniques, and ingredients. The result is food that is “Indianish,” while taking advantage of the excellent ingredients (especially seafood and produce), that is available locally in Vancouver. We’ve joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm-share for the summer, so our vegetable supply these days is quite varied; Vikram and Meeru also rely on a CSA to supply some of the produce for their restaurants, and the cookbook includes recipes to help you use up seasonal supplies like beet greens, celeriac/celery root, and less-than-perfect apples. It’s also really helpful that each recipe includes a “Serve With” suggestion that will help you to make good combinations like they serve at Rangoli.

Madhur Jaffrey in her Quick and Easy Indian Cooking, Vikram and Meeru also suggest that you use a pressure cooker for some of their recipes, particularly meat curries made with tougher cuts like goat. We don’t have a pressure cooker, and we eat vegetarian at home, so I’m unlikely to try out this suggestion, but I have to admit I’m intrigued by the idea of cooking dried chickpeas in a matter of minutes rather than hours! If anyone has used a pressure cooker to cook pulses or curry, please let me know in the comments! My parents did often use theirs to cook beets (another time-consuming vegetable to cook), and to make beef stew, which is not far from curry as cooking methods go.

These are the recipes from this book I want to try:

roasted eggplant raita
beet greens sauteed in ginger, lemon and cumin
cuuried deviled eggs
quinoa salad with lentil sprouts
portobello mushrooms with red bell peppers and creamy curry
rapini and shitake mushroom curry
black chickpea pakoras
eggplant and navy beans in kalonji and tamarind curry

I’ll definitely keep you posted on the results!

The Homesick Texan’s Green Chile Posole with Black Beans

You know it’s a good cookbook when you keep your library copy at home, accruing late fines, just so you can make a few recipes.

And yes, I did buy my own copy of The Homesick Texan Cookbook and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival. Using the library copy, I made two recipes: Austin-style black beans and Green Chile Posole with Black Beans. It is possible to make the posole (soup with hominy) with canned black beans, but I wanted to try the Austin-style black beans since the author explicitly says that she was trying to recreate the smokiness of a ham-based bean dish using only vegetarian ingredients. She does this using chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, which are smoked. The beans are very very good, although not as salty as they would be if made with ham or bacon; I will definitely make them again. I doubled the recipe, and can’t think why I wouldn’t do so again next time, as dried beans are cheap, and it takes a while to cook them (about 2 hours), so it just seems to make sense to make lots.

Using the Austin-style black beans, I then proceeded to make the green chile posole. I did make a few modifications to the recipe. I actually didn’t use any green chiles, since we had found the black beans to be quite spicy on their own. I also used vegetables from our CSA (community-supported agriculture) share as much as possible.

The first step was to weigh out the fresh tomatillos, and then boil them for five minutes until they were soft.

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(The tomatillos above are being kept company by a frog shaped silicone oven mitt, a regift from my husband’s granny that was one of my favorite wedding shower gifts. My friend’s daughter loves playing with it when she visits us as well).

I then assembled a big pile of lovely vegetables and herbs in preparation for making a puree: spinach, chives, green onions, garlic and cilantro.

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Everything except for the garlic and cilantro was from our CSA share from Harmony Valley farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin. The recipe originally called for onions, but we are drowning in chives and green onions from our weekly veggie delivery, so this seemed like a good chance to use them up. We are really enjoying our first CSA experience – the vegetables are really excellent quality and it is fun to try out new foods.

I whizzed it all up in our lovely food processor, another excellent wedding present:

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I then took the leftover black beans out of the fridge: yum! And took out a can of hominy as well. In the meantime, I had added some vegetable bouillon to the water leftover from boiling the tomatillos, and this was simmering on the stove.

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I had never eaten hominy before: it’s corn kernels that have been treated with lime to remove the hulls. The addition of an alkali also increases the nutritional value, and this process, known as nixtamilization is very ancient. (For Little House on the Prairie fans, this is the same process used when Ma makes “hulled corn” in Little House in the Big Woods: there’s a recipe for how to do this, using lye instead of lime, in The Little House Cookbook).

Here’s what hominy looks like, to the unitiated.

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I really enjoyed the flavour: it basically tastes like corn tortillas, but with a more chewy texture, of course.

After you’ve made the beans and pureed all the greens, the rest of the soup is very easy. You just dump the puree, beans and hominy into the boiling broth and let it cook for half an hour. Because the spinach is pureed along with the rest of the ingredients, it turned out less green than I thought was appetizing, so I added a few fresh spinach leaves at the end to add some colour and texture.

We’ve really been enjoying eating outside in our little backyard these last few weeks:

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The verdict: delicious! and easy! I need to try some more recipes from this book, and I need to use my food processor more often as well.

I’ve got a project in the works for the blog that I’m excited to share with you, by the way . . .

“eccentrics and eccentricities–fiction”

Novels don’t often receive subject headings when they are cataloged, but two of my favorite books received this gem: “eccentrics and eccentricities–fiction.” And it couldn’t be more appropriate.

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(last summer’s foray to BBB&B land – the Strait of Georgia)

The books in question are Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast and Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book, by Bill Richardson, a Vancouverite who writes light fiction, non-fiction and children’s books while working as a radio host for the CBC.

(fun fact of the day: Bill Richardson used to be a children’s librarian – he has a library degree from UBC.)

The books (which stand alone, but are probably best read in order) chronicle the adventures and misadventures of fraternal twin brothers Hector and Virgil, who run a book-focused bed and breakfast on a small island in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. The island is never identified by name: it is a mythical addition to the Gulf Islands, a group of islands that, to some observers, might as well come out of a storybook. The islands have a reputation for good wine and food (especially cheese), beautiful scenery, eccentric architecture, and low-key inhabitants. Guests come to the BBBB&B from a variety of Canadian towns and cities with the goal of either solitary or social reading of books ranging from Proust to P.D. James. They are encouraged to write their stories in the inn’s guestbook, and these are sprinkled throughout the narrative. The second book, modeled on the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, is more scrapbook-like than the first, and includes recipes.

Hector and Virgil are the product of a dalliance between their mother, a frustrated socialite with a passion for auto mechanics, and a traveling book salesman, and the description of their parentage and childhood is one of the most enjoyable parts of the first book. Although both parents are dead at the beginning of the narrative, the twins are haunted by them, through their father’s boxes of books, delivered annually on their birthdays, which turn them into devoted bibliophiles with extended (sometimes bordering on pretentious) vocabularies, and and by their mother’s ghost, which occasionally appears “in person” but more often makes herself known through the voice of the twins’ parrot, Mrs. Rochester.

A number of secondary characters also pop in and out, sometimes to provide comic relief, sometimes to spur reflection on the part of the twins or the reader. Hector’s girlfriend, Altona Winkler, writes romance novels and tabloid-esque articles in the local paper (both are excerpted); their friends Rae and June run a local cafe called The Well of Loneliness and the second book sees the introduction of their handyman, Caedmon Harkness, who lives in a thatched VW bus with his pet parrot, who is mute. Virgil has a photographic memory for poetry, both serious and comic, and both the twins and their guests (who occasionally take the narrative reins) make numerous recommendations for books of poetry, non-fiction, novels and cookbooks.

While it is a pleasure for the reader to discover new poems through Virgil’s recitations, not everybody will have a taste for one of the books’ dominant running gags, the doggerel moral poetry written by the island’s late resident poet, Solomon Solomon. It will either make you giggle and think, or it will annoy you, and the same could be said of these books’ quirky vocabulary and wordplay and their reflective and slow-moving tone, which sometimes verges on self-indulgent navel gazing. But don’t let me put you off – I wouldn’t be writing about these books if I didn’t enjoy them very much. The first one is definitely best enjoyed in audiobook form, read by the author: the narrative was designed for radio, as Bill Richardson first introduced the characters on CBC radio in the early 90s, and I suspect that the audiobook would be perfect for commuters, as it is divided into short snippets of narrative.

These books will probably be familiar to my Canadian readers (I’m still, frankly, getting used to the idea of having readers! Hello readers!) Richardson won The Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for the first book. But, as I have discussed with friends in Madison, books that are well-known in Canada are not always well known elsewhere, and vice versa, so I hope that I have convinced some new readers to meet Hector and Virgil at the Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast!

Comfortable (a recipe for lentil shepherd’s pie)

Once I had recovered sufficiently from my flu last week to think of cooking, I wanted to try out something I’d read about, coincidentally, in both Apple Betty & Sloppy Joe and in that unexpected free issue of Cook’s Country Magazine: making mashed potatoes with an electric mixer.

When I was learning to cook, I remember my dad telling me that if you overwhipped mashed potatoes, as he sometimes did by mistake while using an immersion blender, they would become gummy and unpleasant. So I had always avoided electrical help, and used the world’s best potato masher to make my mashed potatoes. But the potato masher got lost in the move, and so I decided to try out the mixer-method in one of my favorite vehicles for mashed potatoes: vegetarian lentil shepherd’s pie.

This is my own recipe, and it changes a little every time I make it, but I thought this latest attempt was particularly good, because I decided to make caramelized onion “jam” for the filling.

Ingredients

Makes at least 6 servings

for the onion “jam”
4 large onions (yes, you read that right)
2 tsbp olive oil

for the lentil base

4 cups brown lentils
8 cups water
2 tsp adobo seasoning (I use the version from Penzey’s)
2 tsp granulated garlic or 2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp ketchup
2 vegetable bouillon cubes (I use Knorr)
2 tsp dried thyme

for the mashed potatoes

8 medium potatoes (Yukon Gold or other floury potatoes_
3/4 cup 2% milk
1/4 cup butter
salt and pepper to taste

Method

At least three hours before you want to eat, cut the peeled onions in half, then cut the halves into thin slices. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy pot (I used an enameled cast-iron dutch oven) and put the onions in to cook. Cook the onions over low to medium heat for at least one hour, stirring occasionally. If you hear sizzling, the heat is too high. At first, the onions will give off a large amount of liquid, and look mushy. They will then start to caramelize. They are ready whenever they look yummy to you! They will cook down to at least half of their initial volume, so don’t despair if it looks like an enormous amount of onions at the beginning.

*Since this takes so long, I would actually double this part of the recipe and use 8 onions. You can freeze the onion “jam” and/or use it in other recipes, and it’s a good way to cook up a bunch of onions if you have some that are slightly “on the edge” of freshness. My husband used only about 1/4 cup of the “jam” as the base for a very good chickpea/spinach/quinoa salad for example.

To make the lentil base, put the lentils in another large pot (stockpot or similar), and add the water and all the seasonings. Bring this to a boil and then turn down to simmer. Check every ten minutes to see if the liquid is used up – what you want to end up with is soft cooked lentils with not very much liquid in them – about a porridgey consistency. This should take about an hour.

You can vary the seasonings in the lentils depending on what you have on hand. I sometimes use worcestershire sauce or Marmite to give a “meaty” flavor, or toss in whatever I have in the fridge that seems good: tomato paste, roasted red peppers, fresh herbs. I find the thyme, soy sauce, and bouillon cubes are really essential to give it sufficient flavor.

You can cook both the lentils and the onions in advance – the lentils actually taste better if you cook them and then leave them overnight.

On the day you plan to eat, boil the potatoes according to your preferred method and prepare to make the mashed potatoes using an electric mixer. Heat the milk in a small pan till it’s the temperature of hot coffee (not boiling – I would have done this in the microwave, but we don’t have one). It’s probably a good idea to preheat your oven to 375 F at this point too. I used my stand mixer to make the mashed potatoes, but you can use a hand-held mixer too. Put the boiled potatoes in the mixer bowl, and beat them with a normal paddle attachment (not the whisk) at low speed, then moving to medium speed (speeds 2-4 on a KitchenAid). Add the butter and keep mixing. Then add the hot milk, and salt and pepper to taste. I would estimate that I beat the potatoes for at least five minutes at speed 4, so there is no need to fear over mixing. The more I beat them, the better they became!

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They were the best mashed potatoes I have ever made: fluffy, smooth, but with a few chunks to vary the texture, and not at all gummy.

To assemble the shepherd’s pie, lightly oil the bottom and sides of a 9×12 pyrex or ceramic baking dish (or you can use cooking spray). Pour in a layer of lentils about 3 inches deep, then add the onions. Important: You will probably have either onions or lentils left over. Don’t overfill the dish, and leave enough space for a nice layer of potatoes. Use the leftover lentils to make another pie later, or as a base for soup.

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Then top the whole thing with the mashed potatoes. Take a fork, and drag the tines up and down the mashed potatoes, like you were making furrows in a field. Using a pastry brush, brush the potatoes with milk, which will help them to brown in the oven. Bake at 375 F for 30 minutes, or until the top of the potatoes are golden with a few brown bits.

Enjoy! and enjoy all the leftovers – the flavor improves over the course of a few days.

Immune system speed-dating

My recent move to Wisconsin has had an unexpected side effect: I have caught three vicious viruses since we got here, including the one I am now fighting, a scant three weeks after I recovered from the last one!

So, my plans for heavy-duty reading of Bowling Avenue have been put on hold. I did read, over the weekend, a biography of Margaret Sanger, which I can’t comment on yet because I’m pretty sure there’s a rule somewhere saying you shouldn’t write about birth control, feminism and eugenics in a public forum if you’re pretty sure you have a fever. I also read, as usual, the New York Times, and particularly enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s “Hello Martians, This is America.”

And somewhere in there I read a free copy of Cook’s Country magazine which arrived unsolicited in my mailbox, dropped there, it seems, specifically to taunt me, an anemic in a vegetarian household, with recipes for pulled pork, roast beef, and several items containing bacon.

For the most part, though, I’ve been doing this:

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Tea with lemon, knitting (a plain shawl with moss stitch edging, out of the lovely Lorna’s Laces Solemate,) and lots of laptop time. In particular, I’m enjoying a systematic reading of one of my favourite blogs: Needled: by Kate Davies, interesting to anyone with an interest in knitting, reading, feminist history, textile history (including the history of bathing suits, the topic of Kate’s latest issue of Textisles, her e-magazine), epublishing, hiking, stroke recovery, home-brewed beer, Scotland, and dogs. In other words, a fair cross-section of those reading this blog, I’m pretty sure . . .

Gentle, with jellied salad

Apple Betty and Sloppy Joe cover photo

On a family visit to Olbrich Botanical Gardens this past weekend, I picked up Apple Betty & Sloppy Joe by Susan Sanvidge, Diane Sanvidge Seckar, Jean Sanvidge Wouters, and Julie Sanvidge Florence. Yes, another cookbook.As I told my students today, some people read mystery novels or romances when they’re busy at work; I read cookbooks.

This cookbook, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society is the work of four sisters, who were raised in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in the 1950s. If you can imagine your stereotype of how a Midwestern middle-class family ate in 1955, you will likely imagine some of the dishes the Sandvidge sisters describe: jellied salad appears, as do various preparations for canned vegetables and pot roast. Many of the recipes in the book aren’t recipes at all, rather good-natured self-mockery on the part of the authors. Nobody actually needs to know how to make the disgusting midnight snacks cooked up by the youngest sister, but that is not the point. The point is remembering: the author’s remembering her eating of those concoctions in bed, curled up with a flashlight and a novel, and the reader’s remembering of similar moments connected with special foods and food rituals.

In its focus on these rituals, on regional ingredients and family stories, the book shares some of the goals, if not the tone, of The Homesick Texan. More surprisingly, the two books share concerns for the use of whole unprocessed foods, and for the perpetuation of ethnic cooking heritage (in the Sandvidge’s case, this heritage is German, including grandparents who made their own sauerkraut in their garage). Convenience foods certainly appear – not least breakfast cereal, which the sisters seem to have consumed in truly monumental quantities – but their role is not as prominent as one might expect.

Would I actually cook anything from this book? I was not tempted by many of the main dish recipes, although some of the German specialties made me bemoan my household’s current vegetarianism. But I don’t need another recipe for sauerbraten and potato dumplings, or for baked beans with bacon. The baking section, on the other, hand, does include several recipes that I would like to try, for coffee cakes, donuts, muffins, and cookies that seem like they would be both delicious and quick to make, and introduce me to some new tastes.

On the whole, though, this is not a cookbook for cooking, it’s a cookbook for reading, and I don’t mind that. It introduced me to some of the specialties and traditions of the area in which I now find myself living, and gave me a few good laughs, and a few good grimaces at the authors’ corny humor. And I’ll definitely pull it out at Christmas when I need to find some more ways to use some of the good Wisconsin butter!

Olbrich Gardens - My First Macro

Olbrich Gardens by Tony Heussner via Flickr