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

In Arcadia

Twin Valley beach
Twin Valley Beach at Governor Dodge State Park, via wonder_al on Flickr (Creative Commons)

A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of discovering a new bookstore, Arcadia Books, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. (Why yes, the URL for the store’s website IS readinutopia.com – they are obviously able to laugh at the fact that some parts of southern Wisconsin don’t really seem like the real world). We were in Spring Green looking for a place to eat lunch before we headed to Governor Dodge State Park to go to the beach. Our lunch was so-so (if you can call a swiss-cheddar-cheeseburger with fried onions on toast grilled like a grilled cheese sandwich so-so), but our visit to this bookstore certainly made up for it.

The first sign that Arcadia Books was my kind of place was evident when we first entered: they have a large range of children’s book-cover t-shirts from Out of Print Clothing hanging above the shelves in the children’s section. I’m a huge fan. There is also a nice little cafe in the store. After we had done our shopping, we enjoyed sitting down and drinking an iced cold-brew coffee. I have found that cold-brew coffee is much more common in Wisconsin than it was in Toronto when I was visiting this summer, so I was excited to share the joy with my sister, who was visiting. Try it yourself! It’s got a much better flavour (less bitter) than iced hot coffee.

And, what did we shop for? My sister was looking for some children’s books, being as its birthday season in my family. We had a great chat with the store manager, who obviously has a great knowledge of children’s books, and a great memory for titles! The selection of children’s books in the store, especially chapter books for ages 6-12, is one of the best I’ve seen. And I visit A LOT of bookstores! They had some old favourites, like The Great Brain and many many Tintin books, but I was mostly impressed by the great selection of children’s books I’ve never heard of, including many many series. Two that books that stood out were:

Shoeless Joe and Me, part of the Baseball Card Adventure Series of stories about kids and baseball heroes in historical context, and

The Mysterious Benedict Society, the first in a series about four kids who answer an ad in a newspaper asking “Are you a gifted child looking for new opportunities?”

As everyone who was a voracious reader as a child knows that as soon as a kid finishes one book, he or she is bound to ask “What’s next??”. The store manager not only knew which series were likely to be attractive to kids of a certain age, he also knew which books came first in each series, and which books they had in stock for each series. Excellent!

We also received several recommendations for adult books, and my sister picked up a copy of The Night Circus. I had the chance to look at their great selection of NYRB Classics, a reprint series from the New York Review of Books which I had never seen “in person” before. They are very aesthetically pleasing but somewhat daunting. I’m not sure I’m ever going to pick up my own NYRB classics edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton – only 1392 pages of light reading! The store also keeps on hand a full set of all the plays being performed during the current season at American Players Theater in Spring Green, and, as one might expect, has a large number of books on Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived at nearby Taliesin.

Me, I opted for some beach reading, and picked up a copy of F in Exams: the Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers. I had browsed through this book earlier in the summer in a bookstore in Toronto, and I had been kicking myself for not buying it. I was not disappointed, and I sat in the cafe at Arcadia Books and laughed so hard at this book that I started crying.

I’ll definitely be back to Arcadia Books!

 

The ten longest novels ever written?

I finished A Suitable Boy! Yes folks, I read 1474 pages in 5 weeks. I love summer.

Which brings me to this (unscientific, but seemingly reputable) list of the ten longest novels ever written, compiled by an Amazon customer. How many of them have you read? In addition to A Suitable Boy , which is number seven on this list, I’ve only read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which is number ten on this list. Could it be a coincidence that I also read this enormous tome on a summer holiday? I think not! My sister, it should be said, also happens to be tackling another big one on this list right now – Les Miserables – and the only time I ever tried (and failed) to get into War and Peace , it was also summertime.

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge into David Foster Wallace’s crazy world of insidious entertainment, drug addiction, obsessive tennis and Quebecois terrorists who speak inexplicably bad French, here’s a good starter guide to reading Infinite Jest. In my case, my reading of Infinite Jest was greatly encouraged by the fact that I started it while I was in Europe on holiday with my (now) husband, and I read most of it during two weeks in Budapest, while my husband was at a summer course. Once you’ve seen many of the sites in Budapest, which are lovely, it is a sad fact that you can get a little lonely, surrounded by people who speak Hungarian, also known as “the least accessible language in the world for foreigners who don’t happen to be Finns.” Budapest does, however, contain a number of parks with excellent swimming pools, many of which are equipped with ice cream stands, beer gardens, and best of all, places that sell the excellent savoury doughnuts called Lángos. I don’t think it’s essential to eat fried dough covered in cheese and cream in order have the energy to wade through Infinite Jest , but it certainly helped!

And so, in memory of another big book read in summer, a few photos of Margaret Island in Budapest, where I read many, many pages:

Margaret Island, Budapest, ruins

Margaret Island, Budapest, food stand

Margaret Island, Budapest

Booker prize 2012 long list (with wine gums)

Still in VacationLand, still reading. I’m about halfway through A Suitable Boy. There’s nothing more relaxing that lying down on your bed on a summer afternoon, reading a large book with hundreds of pages to go, and eating a large bag of Maynard’s Wine Gums (not widely available in the US – pity).

I continue to LOVE A Suitable Boy – I’m learning so much about India that I never knew before (including the fact that monkeys seem to gambol freely around public parks), yet the characters inhabit a place that seems entirely familiar. It is a very funny book too.

I happened to see on the Guardian website today that the
Booker Prize Longlist has been released. I’ll be interested, when I return to Madison, to see how much media play and shelf space (in both bookstores and libraries) is given to Booker Prize Nominees. The prize receives a fair amount of attention in Canada because only authors who are citizens of the U.K., the Commonwealth, and the Republic of Ireland, are eligible. I’ve noticed before, and discussed it with my American librarian colleagues, that the fiction markets in the U.S. and Canada are remarkably distinct; my husband, for example, had never even heard of David Foster Wallace and his big fat crazy novel, Infinite Jest, until he moved to the States to attend graduate school. and my husband’s a tennis-playing logician. On the other hand, I had a great time pulling several well-known (in Canada) Canadian novels to lend to a Madison English-teacher friend for her summer reading this year, including Fall on Your Knees and Lives of Girls and Women.

This year’s Booker longlist, unlike in some previous years, contains many almost unknown titles; the exception is Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall. Mantel’s book is also the only nominee that I have read – I devoured it in a beachside marathon of Renaissance machinations and gore during the first three days of our holiday. I’ll definitely post a longer review soon. In the meantime, I think I’ll agree with the London bookies, cited in the Guardian article, who are calling it: I think Bring Up the Bodies will win the Booker.

Recipe: Sweet and Spicy Szechwan Style Eggplant with Tofu

Greetings from Ontario, Canada’s Variety Vacationland!

(I just bought this awesome postcard a few days ago, one of several good ones by Canadian Culture Thing)

Things in Vacationland are strikingly similar to RealLifeLand, and primarily consist of reading (A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth), visiting family, swimming, cooking and knitting. I just wrote up this recipe for one of my favourite dishes and figured I might as well share it. I have been known to eat massive amounts of this sort of dish in a good Chinese restaurant, so I’ve been trying to perfect it for several years. This last attempt was particularly good, if I do say so myself, so here it is:

Bronwen’s Sweet and Spicy Szechwan Style Eggplant with Tofu

Ingredients:

For frying:
3 asian eggplants (long and skinny, pale purple)
1 block firm or extra firm tofu
1 red bell pepper
2 inches long piece of fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup peanut or canola oil, or enough to fill your pan to 1 inch

For sauce (adjust to taste)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp sesame oil
4 drops Tabasco or to taste
1/2 cup water, or to taste

To serve:
1 tbsp rice vinegar (I used Chinkiang black rice vinegar)
about 10 leaves fresh basil, finely slices (roll it up and slice it)

Method:

Cut the tofu into slices about 1/2 inch thick, then cut the slices into triangles: stack all the slices up, then make four cuts into the stack – one slice across, one slice up and down, and two diagonals. Hard to explain. I don’t know why the triangles are better, but they are.

Lay the tofu out in one layer on a clean tea-towel (which I used), or paper towel. It fries better when it’s dry.

Cut the eggplants lengthways in half, then lengthways again into quarters. I’ve found that the long pieces give you the best texture, because the insides get yummy and soft without the edges getting dried out. Put them on a tea-towel too, for the same reason.

Fry the tofu (if you’re feeling virtuous, you can skip this step and just add plain tofu to the sauce and eggplant at the end, but this way is yummier). Pour the oil into your pan to a depth of 1 inch. I normally use a wok, but this time I used a cast iron frying pan – I think it makes the flavour better because there is more charring on the eggplant, but it’s a bit more of a pain. Stick a piece of tofu in the oil to test the temperature. Turn the heat on high and keep it there – I was always squeamish about hot frying oil, but if you turn the heat down the oil will soak into the food. High heat is key. Watch it like a hawk and ventilate – have your husband standing by to turn off the smoke alarm! Once the test piece of tofu starts to bubble around the edges, add the tofu to the pan. Try to keep it in a single layer. Fry it, at high heat and without moving it around, for at least five minutes, or until it starts to become visibly golden brown on the bottom. Flip it and repeat (takes a little less time on the second side). Remove the tofu with a slotted spoon and drain it on a clean rag (yes, I’m a hippie), or paper towel.

Fry the eggplant. Drain off some of the oil in the pan if necessary until you have about 1/2 inch left. Keeping the heat on high, place the oblong pieces of eggplant into the pan with one of the the cut (non-skin), side down. Fry (about 5 min?), until the cut side is lightly browned. Turn it so the other cut side hits the pan, and repeat. By this point, the eggplant should be mushy and it should smell sweet. Mushiness is key. Keep the eggplant always in one layer – with a standard cast-iron frying pan I had to do the eggplant in two batches. Remove the cooked eggplant to your absorbent draining surface of choice.

Turn the heat down slightly, and add the red peppers, chopped in one inch squares, and the garlic and ginger, finely chopped, to the pan. It’s important to add the garlic along with everything else, not before, or it will burn. Stir-fry this mixture until the peppers are fairly soft and smell sweet. Add the sauce ingredients, including 1/2 cup water, to the pan. You want there to be an excess of sauciness, because some will be soaked up by the tofu and eggplant when you add it. Wait until the sauce is boiling and cook until slightly thickened – about one minute. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings, especially spiciness.

Add the fried eggplant pieces and tofu to the pan and cook in the sauce with the peppers until everything is heated through and soaked in sauce. Add the rice vinegar, tasting to adjust seasoning, and the chopped basil, and mix everything up. Serve over rice.

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!

Warm weather reading

beach

(July will be spent reading on this beach on beautiful Lake Huron)

A colleague of mine, who is studying to be a children’s librarian, was slightly flummoxed the other day when she happened upon an online book list titled “Warm weather fiction for boys.” I suppose the author thought that boys wouldn’t like the term Beach Reads?

I have a confession: when I said the other day that the semester was over, I wasn’t telling the truth. I haven’t finished my grading (or, as us Canucks call it, marking) yet. So I will let The New York Times recommend the reading for today, in an excellent article about Beach Reads.

I should mention, though, that in case you liked the sound of the Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast, you can find more Canadian humour (with a U, naturally), by perusing the list of past winners of the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. I’ve certainly enjoyed several books on this list during summer camping trips and cottage visits, and in the wintertime too:

Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies (1955 winner)
The Fencepost Chronicles by W.P. Kinsella (1987 – Kinsella is, of course, the author of those two other great summer baseball books: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Shoeless Joe ), but his short stories are less well-known, and hilarious)
Prayers of a Very Wise Child, by Roch Carrier (1992)
Barney’s Version Mordecai Richler (1992)
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (2008)