Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Problem with sleep and hibernation on the Lenovo Thinkpad T60 in Windows 7

I couldn't find any hints on how to fix this online, so I'm posting my findings here.

Essentially, the problem was that, after installing Windows 7 on my Thinkpad T60, when I closed the lid on the notebook to put it into Sleep mode and then connected it to the AC adapter to charge, after what seemed like 15 minutes or so, it would automatically go from Sleep mode to Hibernate mode, meaning that it would take longer to start back up when I opened the lid. In Windows Vista, it would simply stay in Sleep mode and would only go into Hibernate mode if the battery became dangerously low.

I had installed Lenovo Power Manager (a surprisingly useful tool, as with most Lenovo system tools, and unlike most other vendors' system tools) and wondered if that was the problem. I did uninstall it before fixing this, but I don't think that's what solved the problem.

The problem, I think, was solved as follows:

  1. Go to Control Panel, then Hardware and Sound, and then Power Options.
  2. On the active plan, click Change plan settings.
  3. Click Change advanced power settings.
  4. Now, in the Sleep category, under Hibernate after, for a Plugged in state, my configuration had it set to 20 minutes. By setting this to 0 minutes, this is equivalent to "Never", and my problem went away
So, after making these changes, when I put my notebook to sleep and plug it in afterwards, it no longer goes into Hibernate mode automatically, and I don't have to wait for the "Resuming Windows" stage to begin using my notebook again, which is how I prefer it and how I it was configured in default in Vista (or at least in the configuration of Vista as supplied by Lenovo on my notebook).

I am impressed by the depth of power options available on this notebook in Windows 7, though. It gives you fine control over the behaviour in different power states. Lenovo's Power Manager gives even more options, but I may be able to get by without it for what I need.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wild rice, tilapia, and mushroom & onion sauce... plus spinach!

For some (good) reason or another, I thought these would go well together and they really, really did.

You need:
  • 1 filet tilapia fish
  • 1 small onion
  • 1.5 white/Cremini mushrooms
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup wild rice
  • 2/3 cup water
  • olive oil for rubbing tilapia
  • handful of spinach
  • salt and pepper
The steps are below. Obviously, you can (and should) organize these so that some of them run in parallel.

Wild rice
There's not much to this, it just takes a long time to cook (mostly unattended). Rinse and drain the rice, put it in a well-covered saucepan with 2.25x as much water as rice (i.e. for 1/3 cup rice, use about 3/4 cup water). Try 1/4 cup rice to begin with, since I found 1/3 cup a bit over-filling. Bring it to a boil and then reduce to a very low simmer and leave it there for 40-45 minutes. Remove from heat (keep it covered) and let stand for 10 minutes in the saucepan and then flake it with a fork.

Not much to this, either. Rubbed with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then baked in the oven at 425F for about 10 minutes. I used High Liner frozen tilapia, which is better than the fresh I've tried (see the end of the post for more on this).

Mushroom & onion sauce
Heat about 1.5 tbsp butter in a saucepan on 60% heat. Meanwhile, cut about one-and-a-half white or Cremini mushrooms into thin slices, and dice a small onion. Add mushroom & onion to the butter when it's fragrant and bubbly. Sweat them for about 5 minutes, stirring to redistribute every minute or so. Add about 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour and stir to coat (it will look very dry). Cook for another minute. Add about 1/3 cup milk, stir, bring to a boil and then simmer for 1-2 minutes, stirring periodically. Season to taste with salt & pepper.

Wash spinach and steam for 2 minutes.

I'm not very good at picking wines to go with food, so I just picked up the one I had on hand and it worked very well -- much to my surprise. I don't usually buy pricey wines, and this was no exception. It was Pelee Island Cabernet Franc VQA 2007 -- an Ontario (Canada) wine.

That's about it. I just put the rice around around the edge, the tilapia in the middle, the sauce on top of the tilapia, and the spinach on the side.

The only potential problem I can think of is that the quality of tilapia seems very variable. I've had frozen tilapia that tasted very good and was firm/flaky (High Liner) and fresh tilapia that was rather soft and tasted of chlorine. Since I see nothing at all wrong with the frozen tilapia (and since it is farmed and can presumably be frozen at the peak of freshness), I keep buying the High Liner stuff.

Once the rice is taking care of itself, it's a pretty quick meal, and it tastes really good. I think the reason is that the main flavours -- wild rice, mushroom, spinach -- are all quite musty in taste. You can hardly detect an edge between the three flavours and they integrate really well. The tilapia and onion are both sweet (as are the butter and milk in the sauce).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ontario autumn porridge: what to do with the apples coming out of our ears

In this part of Ontario at this time of year, we have apples coming out of our ears. Pick--your-own apple farms are in abundance for the month of October, and apples appear everywhere in supermarkets in the month that follows -- 50 cents per pound at my local supermarket for the local varieties.

Apple pie is one of the obvious uses for this extravagance, but there is only so much you can take.

Over the past few days, I've been trying to use apples and their byproducts to come up with a good porridge. Today's was just about right. You could reasonably make this with all-local ingredients, except for the cinnamon.

Here is what you need for 1 serving:
  • half of an Empire apple: Empire apples are good because they fall apart when cooked. You could also use a Mac apple, but it would be more tart.
  • 1/4 cup sweet apple cider: I am talking about the pressed apple cider and not the alcoholic cider
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup uncooked grain cereal: over the past few days, I have used a ground 10-grain cereal made by Bob's Red Mill. Today, I was at the bottom of the bag and mixed 10-grain cereal with Quaker rolled oats (not the quick variety). Essentially, anything that has about a 10-minute cooking time will be OK with this recipe. Something I have not yet tried in this recipe but would probably be great are Oak Manor Farms's Toasted Porridge Oats. They are a farm in SW Ontario but available in the GTA.
  • 1 cinnamon stick: only if you like cinnamon with your apple
  • maple syrup: readily-available local maple syrup is available all over Ontario
First of all, dice half of an Empire apple. You don't need to peel the apple unless peels really bother you. They will soften during cooking and add a nice texture and flavour, I think.

Put the apple cider into a saucepan, bring it to a boil and then add the apple pieces. Simmer (covered) the apple pieces in the cider for 2-3 minutes.

Then, add the water and bring it to a boil. Add the cereal grains and stir briefly to prevent clumping and then reduce to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer covered for 10 minutes. Stir periodically (every few minutes).

[ Optional (cinnamon): Depending on how cinnamon-y you like your apple to taste (if at all), add the cinnamon stick to the saucepan earlier or later in the cooking process. If you like a strong cinnamon flavour, add the cinnamon stick when you add the oats. If you like a mild flavour, add it about 8 minutes into the 10 minutes simmer time. ]

Once the grains have simmered for 10 minutes, remove from the heat and uncover. Add the maple syrup to taste (for me, this is about 1 tbsp.).

Put it into a bowl, let it cool down a bit and then serve.

I was pretty impressed with this. I think cider is to apples what tomato paste is to tomatoes -- it amplifies the essential flavour.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Frank Furedi on the crisis of adult authority, with implications for our crisis of education

Regarding the crisis of adult authority, British sociology professor Frank Furedi, as usual, has a lot to say and is usually right.

'All the big debates about pedagogy – how children learn to read, whether English literature is superior to media studies, whether history teachers should focus on the Napoleonic wars or the Holocaust – all these are really secondary issues’, says Furedi. [...] Today, we have an inability to give meaning to education because we struggle to give meaning to adulthood.


The struggle to give meaning to adulthood is expressed in a number of familiar ways. From parents struggling to know how to tell a two-year-old to behave to teachers feeling threatened by ‘violent’ four-year-olds and politicians threatening parents of truanting teenagers with jail, discipline is one area of life that used to be taken for granted but has now become an endless source of conflict and anxiety.

A related trend is that which Furedi terms ‘socialisation in reverse’. Socialisation, he notes, ‘is the process through which children are prepared for the world ahead of them’. [...] Today, however, this intergenerational responsibility is being usurped by a new breed of professionals, so-called experts ‘who transmit values by directly targeting children’. Parents will be only too aware of the way that children now come home armed with advice for their parents about how to eat healthily and recycle their rubbish correctly.


One result of the devaluation of adult authority is that ‘the proper relationship between education and society has been turned upside down’, and ‘education is used as the site where the unresolved issues of public life can be pursued’. As adults are infantilised and children are treated as mini-grown-ups whose voice must be expressed and heard on every matter from the content of the curriculum to the attributes of their teachers, education becomes viewed as a place where political debates can and should take place.
It's been awhile since I've read one of his books but I am about due for another visit, I think. He is becoming a fine successor to Neil Postman, now that the latter is no longer with us.

In these times of non-violent coercion that we presumably picked up from our participation in the Cold War -- where political and social pressure is used in an organized and concerted way in lieu of physical force -- public education is in some ways becoming a racket in that it occasionally exhibits a violation of the public trust and an illicit misuse of education where the child is used as the violent social weapon of strongly implied but ostensibly optional enforcement.

I was sitting in the waiting room of a music store a couple of weeks ago and overheard a young girl quietly chastising her Dad for not buying her music book from the store where she also did her lessons. "But if you buy it here then [the store] will get the money," she said. "So you have to buy it here, OK?". You could hear the wife in her voice. It was calm and collected with a strong insinuation that you'd not be spoken to for a long time if you didn't act appropriately. The Dad stood there in near silence, seemingly unsure of how to handle the situation. He made a few uncertain comments about the books at the store being expensive and in bad physical condition.

It makes me wonder if children are also being told in school that they have to support local businesses. Is the Chamber of Commerce giving talks in elementary school now? I don't really know. But, she was not of an age where she would have reached this conclusion herself.

The child, however, likely does not comprehend such detail. I have written at greater length and with more detail about this problem of child indoctrination by the public school system in the past.

Forget what I said about Tori Amos and "Midwinter Graces"

Forget what I said about not buying this album. I have had a chance to preview it and it is actually very good and I will be buying it.

I was also wrong about it sounding as if it came from the same session as "Abnormally Attracted To Sin". I had only heard a very brief preview before, but having heard it in greater length it sounds quite different: the piano is back in front in a few songs, and there are a few of those piano textures that stick in my mind long after I've finished listening to the song. There is nothing raunchy here and it is quite a warm-sounding album.

But despite efforts to make it appear otherwise, it is clearly a Christmas album, though mostly an agnostic one. One thing I appreciate most about it is that she messes with some of the familiar twists and turns of the traditional Christmas songs that are included. This prevents it from being predictable and also from becoming quickly annoying. For this reason, you would be able to hear elevator Christmas music in discount department stores all season and still be able to come home and listen to this album.

She also adds some original songs that don't break at all with the character of the traditional songs. It's a very even album and uncharacteristically restrained -- she does not normally select songs so carefully. This also makes it a rather short album in comparison to most of her recent work.

If I had to compare it to her previous albums, I'd say it has the most in common with "Scarlet's Walk".

So, it comes out on November 10 and if you have any interest in her work then you should probably buy it.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

On the transition to an almost car-free existence in the transitless suburbs

Even though I live in a transit-less and distant suburb of Toronto, I have so reduced my use of the car that it is now perfectly feasible to get rid of it and rent a car when needed. Since I have not yet taken this step -- I will probably keep it until it needs to be replaced and then not replace it -- I have now found myself in the position of having to take it out for "walks" now and again so that it doesn't succumb to a flat battery or just rust into place and cease to be mobile.

Though I don't find it particularly clever, here is how it's done. It won't work for everyone, but it will work for a lot of people who say it won't work for them:

  1. Take transit to work: this gets rid of the main legitimate reason for having private transportation
  2. Establish a walking routine: decide for yourself that it's good for you to get out for a walk at least a few times a week
  3. When you walk, make it count: rather than walking in big circles or a circuit, walk somewhere useful. This is not brilliant. It is the simple act of running errands, except that you do it on foot.
  4. More frequent trips make lighter work: I am now in a position of being able to do all of my grocery shopping by foot. Doing this all in one trip would not be possible on foot without a lot of pain, so I go at least three times a week. This can be combined with other errands.
  5. Rent a car for longer trips, and make that count, too: if you have to make longer trips and they are not that common, you can get by with renting a car. But when you do rent, make it count: make a plan of everything you need to do in the car and do it while you have the rental. This might include large grocery items, or other bulky or heavy things
That's about all there is to it. If you have the gift of being totally honest with yourself, you can tell whether it's really practical or not or whether you are just lazy. If you already have a car, why not use that backup as a way of trying out the above? There is no consequence. If you happen to be in a rush one day, you can use the car. But if you can't be bothered at the end of the day, it is amazing how quickly you get over that when you get outside. Habits take a few weeks to form and become normal.

After slowly becoming car-less over time, I had one weekly trip that I had been using the car for, which was about a 5 kilometre trip. It seemed too far to walk but, after trying it, it really isn't that bad. It takes about 40 minutes each way when walking with a concerted effort, whereas it took about 10 minutes in the car with all of the traffic lights and stop signs in the way. So, yes, that is an extra hour. But it's also exercise and you can listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks while you walk. That is the reason my car had gone unused for more than 3 weeks, as it was my last remaining regular car trip.

I don't know what it will be like in the winter. I have bought some good-quality winter boots and will continue to try it. To be honest, I am more concerned about the summer than the winter as the former will be far less comfortable and has the risk of severe thunderstorms. You can dress for winter.

In the spring, summer, and autumn, you also have the option of a bicycle. In my case and in my experience, it takes about the same amount of time to do groceries by bike as it does by car when you consider the startup time of the car, the shortcuts you can take, and the fact that you can park your bike right by the supermarket door and load your groceries directly into your backpack at the self-checkout, which eliminates the parking/loading/cart return process. My grocery trip that takes 1 hour on foot (2.5km walk to, time spent in store, and 2.5km walk home) takes about 20 minutes by bike.

There are some people, I'm sure, who drive about the same distance and then go into the gym attached to the supermarket, exercise for 30 minutes (and not only pay for that privilege but also burn electricity doing it), and drive home again. Pointless?

I also find that I am less likely to over-buy when shopping on foot or bicycle. I always consider that I have to carry what I am buying. And list-making is much more important. Sometimes I will go only to buy one or two things, if that's all I need. Because the main purpose is to go for the walk.

Anyway, none of this is special or revolutionary. I am simply explaining how my mostly car-less existence in the transit-less suburbs (amongst neighbours no older than middle age and with no children, but who seem to take 3-4 car trips a day) came to be. I used to drive to work and to my weekly appointment and do all of my shopping within the context of those trips, and I went for regular walks but they were shorter and they were on a circuit that didn't go anywhere in particular, except maybe to the library or post office once in awhile. Now, I take transit to work, go on longer walks that are almost always with a purpose other than exercise, and have to take my car for a walk once in awhile to keep it healthy.

There are possibilities and feasibilities that you may not have considered.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

(not much of a) Garden update: September 2009

Well, the tomatoes were doing well until they came down with the blight that so many other tomato growers have had problem with this year, due to the damp weather that makes it easy for the fungus to grow and the violent thunderstorms that help the spores spread through the air.

At the moment, there's about 1 good tomato for every 15. Up until a few weeks ago, everything looked very healthy and every tomato on the vine could be picked, so it came on quite suddenly.

I also found three carrots. I'd left my carrots for dead because I thought they'd all been eaten, but three of them made it. Makes me wonder: if the animals don't want them, why do I? But, they tasted OK.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Jamie Oliver's American Road Trip: some thoughts on the concept and the first episode

I recently got the chance to see the first part of Jamie Oliver's new series -- Jamie's American Road Trip -- where he is taking a trip around America to explore the food culture that exists there. In each episode, he will visit an area of the US that has a distinctive food culture.

I like Jamie Oliver's work a lot, and that's unusual for me because I normally don't get involved in mass-market and big personalities. But I think he does good work, he has contributed the most to my interest in cooking, and his shows and books are just easy to watch and digest. So, I have bought most of his books and seen most of his shows. If there is one celebrity I follow, he is it.

My first reaction to the concept of this series was to wonder what kind of food culture America has that would be worth making a TV series about. But then I started to think about it a bit more and it made me realize that I was perhaps conflating the US and Canada -- countries that are culturally very similar in many respects. Canada is the one without a food culture. My immediate thought was of the cooking in the deep South -- soul food like fried chicken, cornbread, hash browns, and that kind of thing. I struggled to go beyond that, but it gave me enough mental chewing gum to think that maybe there would be something to this series after all.

But, I sense that he did struggle to find a quintessentially American food culture... because the first episode takes place in East Los Angeles in the middle of gang land, where he learns how to cook authentic Mexican cuisine from the authentic Mexicans (?) that mostly populate that part of the city. As expected, he makes it interesting -- visiting a cactus farm for some fresh cactus to use in a recipe he has in mind, and unknowingly being slipped some hallucinatory wild fungus under the counter by a shopkeeper who he doesn't seem to be that friendly with on the way out. We could probably do without the social commentary on what it must mean for kids to grow up in the middle of gang land, though. And the show is much more of the style of his Italian roadtrip than his other shows -- it is about food culture and food experience far more than it is about "how to" and recipes. This is not a flaw.

A blog post by Richard Ehrlich over at The Guardian is somewhat critical of the show by viewing it through the lens of Oliver's reputation, despite the author seeming to enjoy it. The reader comments that follow are mostly scathing and rude and seem to miss the point. The most frequent criticism seems to be that Mr. Oliver is in no position -- and is in fact rude -- to come into someone else's kitchen with very little knowledge of their culture and pretend to be able to cook something for them that they'll love*. And it's true that he doesn't even seem to know the basics, having no pre-conception of what Mexican "mole" (mo-lay) is and actually seeming surprised that it exists. Having picked up any book on Mexican cooking, such a thing would have been prominent.

But, that misses the point. I have no idea whether the innocence was genuine or not -- whether he is simply pretending to be unaware -- but it is effective at drawing people who have no knowledge of Mexican food culture into the occasion. If you are seeing it for the first time, it's as if you are discovering it with him. The time and space gives you time to absorb while you are watching. The blank slate approach makes for good TV. He did not take the same approach with his Italian roadtrip, but much of his cooking is based on an Italian influence and I suspect he toned down his assumptions in that one, too. Further, he has made the comment before that being inquisitive and relatively innocent brings out the best in other people and encourages them to explain their method. If you don't presume to know something, you might learn something. Even if you know 90% of what someone has to say, if you make them feel as if you already know what they're talking about then they may never reveal the other 10%, assuming that you know it already. I can cook a few things, but know very little about Mexican cooking, and I was informed about its essence by this show. As Mr. Oliver's goal frequently seems to be to motivate people to get into the kitchen and broaden their horizons, this is perfectly consistent with his usual goals.

So, what about the show? Why should we watch an episode on Mexican cooking done by someone who seems to lack even basic knowledge about the food yet pretends that he might wow his audiences with something they never knew they were missing?

I had the same questions myself going in. But then I found myself becoming interested and realized that he does this precisely because the alternative would be worse: watching a show in which Jamie Oliver went to Mexico for a few days, learned a few things, and then pretended that he could teach us all there is to know about authentic Mexican cooking by bashing out the classics from a Mexican cookbook would be pointless. So he doesn't do this. He goes inside the culture, learns a bit about its defining characteristics, and then uses his own instincts about what works to try and create something that is his own, but which is grounded in the culture of that which he is televising.

I'm looking forward to the next episode, based around the cowboy motif and set in Wyoming. And, beside having an effective style that is enjoyable to watch (though this is obviously subjective), I look forward to seeing how he will use these experiences to enhance his own personal cooking sensibility in future.

* The attitude demonstrated by the commenters is so quintessentially "modern England", too: a blanket objection to any kind of apparent Imperialism that suggests to some culture that it may be improved by the insights of some other culture. This is one reason that children in the UK are now so much more likely to stay in the trappings in which they grew up: because how Imperial it is of us to say that there is the possibility of a "better" life if we harness their outstanding natural abilities and support it with a more productive culture. I am not saying that this is what is going on with Jamie's show, but it is an undercurrent that influences the comments, I think.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Garden vegetables: not doing too badly, considering the cooler growing weather this year

The yellow tomatoes are heirlooms and the others are hybrids. The beans are from the one bean seed that wasn't eaten by animals shortly after planting!

Also, one of my tomato beds mostly died off for some reason, while the one directly opposite looks like a jungle.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tori Amos concert : August 10, 2009 : Massey Hall : Toronto, ON

I went to see the Toronto stop of Tori Amos's "Sinful Attraction" tour at Massey Hall last night.

There's a strange feeling at Tori Amos concerts. There are a lot of people at these shows that seem to act far younger than their age -- that is to say that they are immature -- and I'm not sure what that's all about. There are also a lot of gay people, vegan-looking types, and people with thick-rimmed glasses. There would be a lot of wool coats if it was winter. It's an offbeat crowd. I am the one that keeps it grounded :)

"Bells For Her" was well done, as were "Lady in Blue", "Concertina", and "Carbon". The familiar but short improv was dedicated to bassist Jon Evans because it was his birthday.

But I just couldn't hear a lot of the other songs because the sound was cranked so loud that everything just mashed together into a sludge. This has been getting progressively worse with each tour -- far more focused on an ambiguous energy than an acoustically-pleasing set. I have a feeling it is becoming a bit too much about the persona than it is about the music. You really had to know the music and lyrics in advance or you wouldn't have been able to make them out in many cases. The piano was often buried and even when it did come out, it was bright and harsh. I spent much of this concert in a phased-out state like you do when you're at the dentist.

I would probably pay twice as much for a solo piano show with good acoustics (I have never seen one, though she has done many in the past, before I started going to her shows), but I'm not sure I will go to another of her shows unless I know in advance that it's going to be acoustic. I was on the fence about this one already (actually, I said I wouldn't go :)).

I don't expect that to happen, because the audience still very much likes what she's doing. So maybe I'm the odd one out.

People taking photos and videos were also getting a bit annoying, as ushers were constantly coming around to get people to turn the cameras off and the sea of flashing LCD displays seen from behind the audience was getting distracting. They should have started kicking people out because it was obvious that it wasn't allowed. Everyone involved seemed to be waiting for their own private warning from the staff before putting the camera away. But, on the other hand, this wasn't one of those concerts where half the audience doesn't arrive until the opening act is underway which is also an annoying characteristic of modern-day concerts that wasn't much of a problem here.

The opening band was very good, actually, and I haven't yet been disappointed by one of her openers. It was a British group called "One eskimO" (isn't "eskimo" offensive these days? Hard to keep track). The best description I can think of is that they were like a blend of Martin Page and James Blunt. The lead singer progressed from a forward hunch, hobbling from one foot to another like a caveman (or eskimo?) to some kind of shy rain dance (inconsiderate, since I hadn't brought my umbrella), to actually standing up straight by the end of the set.

Well, a disappointing show after all, but I'm sure I'm in the minority with that opinion.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Wild blackberries from the garden

In the back, I've got a native wild blackberry bush that's quite prolific, even when you cut it down to the ground every autumn. In the trail across from me, I've seen these same blackberry bushes in the wild as well as some wild raspberry bushes.

This is the first picking, probably with two or three left to go.

[ update: a few days later, another bowl ]

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Ants in the garden: looking beyond the obvious and why not to kill them

This morning, I was sitting under the shade of a burdock plant that I've let grow far beyond what a lot of people would tolerate (these start out as small rhubarb-like "weeds" but will grow to human-height very quickly if allowed, and throw out huge umbrella-like leaves that are quite nice to sit under in the absence of other shade. Also, you can eat the roots.

I noticed ants crawling up and down the stem, onto each leaf, and around the perimeter of the top and underside of each leaf, as if they were on a racing circuit. They didn't seem to be eating the leaves at all, more like doing some kind of security surveillance. When I looked a bit further, I noticed a gathering near the top of the plant attacking (eating, presumably) what looked like a group of small black eggs that some other parasite had laid near the top of the plant. They were slowly eliminating this parasite.

In another spot in my garden, ants show up in large quantities. Whenever you walk nearby and just slightly disturb the soil, swams of them are apparent. It's actually quite worrying at first because the sight of so many in one place can be surprising. Since these ants tunnel into the soil and make mounds of decompacted soil that develop over time as the ants come and go from the surface, they had pretty much buried an entire rock border in my garden. Rocks that used to be on top of the soil were now underneath it. When I set about correcting this situation by levering the rocks up to re-seat them, underneath I noticed that the ants were voraciosly devouring what looked like maggot larvae. In the centre of the small garden surrounded by the rocks is an old tree stump on which a whiskey barrel planter sits. My guess is that the maggots are attracted to the decaying wood from the old tree under the soil, and that the ants are attacking the maggots.

I have no idea what type of maggots they are, but I know that some maggots can eat the roots of plants, but ants generally don't. They must have been in "attack" mode when I disturbed them because a bunch of them tried to eat my legs. My legs do look a bit like maggots, colour-wise.

In both cases, the ants are doing a good and positive job. and they are a symptom of a deeper problem and aren't a problem in themselves. When their job is done, they'll move on to something else. True to their reputation as hard and organized workers, it seems like they only really stay around as long as necessary and then move onto something else.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Children getting the work done

In the June/July 2009 edition of Mother Earth News was a photo of the process of slaughtering your own chickens, should you decide to keep some of your own in your backyard or on your farm. I was surprised by the photo, just because I so rarely see children doing such gritty work these days. Here's the photo:

It reminded me of a photo from Jamie Oliver's book of recipes associated with his travels around Italy -- "Jamie's Italy". In the excellent TV series that accompanied this theme (which was more culture than cooking), he went quite hands-on with the meat, including an occasion when he quite uncomfortably slaughtered his own sheep. But the book contains the image below, where they are draining what looks like a pig using what looks like the young Italian girls' paddling pool:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Tori Amos album finally grows on me

After giving it a rest for a couple of weeks, I listened to it on the train again yesterday and liked almost every track. After awhile, you start to hear what's underneath the surface and get into the flow and now I rather like it!

One side effect is that I have caught myself singing one of the more catchy lines under my breath in public. Unfortunately, that line is:

That guy
At night makes me scream
Let's hope I can keep this under control.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Another leftovers recipe using remnants of canned tomatoes, green pepper, onion, and garlic

Another experiment that turned out well.

The leftovers:
  • 1/4 of a green pepper (sweet)
  • 1/2 can of tomatoes

The rest (there are all things that any self-respecting kitchen has in stock at all times)

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 handful dry farfale
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1.5 cups water
  • pinch of dried Italian herbs
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • parmesan cheese for dressing

Most of the leftovers recipes I've come up with lately have been the all-in-one-pan type. Cleanup is a lot easier! So, this time I tried cooking the dry pasta directly in the ingredients rather than preparing it separately in water, and it worked pretty well.

I used a sautee pan. I think it's essential for this because the large surface area lets you reduce the liquid very quickly, so that you can cook the pasta properly but without having too much water left in the sauce once the pasta is cooked. You could probably try with a smaller pan and less water, but then the surface area is also useful for the sauteeing part.

First, dice the onion, mince the garlic, and roughly chop the green pepper.

Heat a sautee pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 tbsp. olive oil right away and when it starts to smoke, add the onion, garlic, and green pepper. Sautee for about 3 minutes, shuffling with a spatula periodically.

Add a pinch of dried Italian herbs. This is usually cheap and in the dried herbs section labelled as "Italian seasoning" or something like that. I wanted to use basil, but there's none in the garden yet and I didn't have any. Don't over-do this "pinch". If in doubt, under-do it. Mix in and sautee for another 1 minute.

Add the Balsamic vinegar and stir it in right away. It will probably sizzle quite violently. Sautee for another minute or so.

Add the canned tomatoes and stir. Bring to a fast simmer.

Add the water and return to a fast simmer.

Now, add the farfale and stir it in so that it's submerged in the liquid.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and it should come down to a simmer. Let it simmer for about 12 minutes, stirring periodically. If it becomes too dry, add more water a small amount at a time and half-put the lid on the pan if it seems necessary (this will slow the evaporation of liquid).

It should have thickened up at this point. Season to taste with ground black pepper. Let stand in the pan for about 2-3 minutes, and then serve with grated parmesan on top.

Note that I didn't add any salt at all because canned tomatoes are usually high in salt, and parmesan has salt in it, too. If yours aren't, you will probably want to add salt.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Rain barrels and mosquitoes... and goldfish, all in or near Georgetown

I was surprised to read in today's Georgetown Independent that the town's rain barrel sale created havoc on town roads due to the incredibly high demand for the at-cost pricing of some rain barrels that the town had set up an event to sell. Apparently, they came stocked with 300 barrels and were sold out within 30 minutes.

That is a very nice thing to hear, though I wonder why there is so much interest. Clearly the town was not expecting it. But you can't water your lawn with a rain barrel and you can't drink the water, so what are the intentions, I wonder? Are vegetable gardens really making that much of a comeback?

On the topic of rain barrels... obviously, mosquitoes are a concern because rain barrels are a body of water that sits still for quite awhile -- until you use some water or it rains and starts to fill up again. You can get closed barrels and install screens, but did you know... that you can put a goldfish in your rain barrel and it will eat mosquito larvae? As long as there's oxygen going in and out of the barrel and you don't completely drain it and run the poor goldfish dry, you can do this, apparently.

In other news... the house next door to me hosts drug dealers and the house across from me has now been condemned. 2 down, 1 to go... maybe the fact that they just busted a $1 million grow-op just outside of town will keep things at bay for awhile. Honestly, I would not be surprised if half the rural area was hosting grow ops. It is happening in BC.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Garden update : May 2009

Baby salad greens poking through. Putting these in a barrel, surrounded by gravel and sand seems to be a very good slug deterrent. That's well-suited to salad greens, too, because you cut them early and the others fill in the gaps left behind. So, you don't need a lot of space unless you eat way too much salad.

I've uncovered last year's attempt at soil rehabilitation (sheet mulching) and planted vegetable seeds here. I posted last year around the same time of year when I started that sheet mulching experiment.

I put a number of different tomato varieties here last year (I wrote about it back then) and it's a very good sun trap. This year, I'm going to interleave pole beans and peas. In all of my planting, I try to avoid too much of the same crop in one spot. Just as banks collect money in one spot for bank robbers to steal, putting a crop all in one place seems like it'd just attract more and more pests that like that crop.

New forsythia: one more step toward the evisceration of grass. Mint in the barrel is on the way back.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Crate Designs review: good post-purchase support

I wrote a bit about Crate Designs not too long ago. The furniture I bought from them arrived a couple of weeks ago but was parked in the living room for a week or so because the room it was destined for wasn't ready to receive it.

It's very nice furniture and is of high quality but, unfortunately, when I took the protective plastic that was holding the drawers and glass doors closed on a credenza unit, I noticed a big crack bisecting one of the glass panes. I asked the company about it, thinking I might be able to go and pick up a replacement glass pane from their store or something like that but, to my surprise, they actually came to my house today and installed a new pane!

This company has a lot of things going for it. It makes nice, solid furniture that seems to look better with age, it's made locally, the salespeople know the furniture very well, and they always seem to deliver when they say they will and, in this case, went well beyond my expectations.

So, I think it's worth posting this just so that others know about them. I've had two furniture orders with them now and everything has gone perfectly both times.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Muesli review: Finax, Bob's Red Mill, Dorset

Muesli seems to me to be a good cereal. It's the only cereal that I eat nowadays because I've come to the conclusion that all boxed cereal is bad for you, whether or not it's organic, low sugar, high fibre, granola, or loaded with vitamins and "essential nutrients". On the odd occasion that I do go back to the usual boxed cereal, I can tell it's no good because of how it makes me feel: highly-strung and feeling full but still hungry.

But, muesli doesn't seem to have these problems. It's a dry and relatively-raw cereal without any fancy sugar-based varnishes, crunch enhancers, or funny shapes.

I'm going to briefly mention three types that I've tried over the past few years: Swedish Finax, American Bob's Red Mill, and British Dorset. I was also going to include Bulk Barn's no-name muesli but they changed it recently to have some hard, gritty pieces in it. That's fine if you're going to cook it, but I eat it cold with milk so I don't buy it anymore.

Finax isn't so subtle in their marketing, with a big "GOOD FOR YOU" plastered on the front, as if it's the name of the muesli (it very well may be the name). It's mostly made up of flaked grains with a sporadic scattering of sweet pieces like papaya and raisins. It's a good cereal for a small bowl because there aren't any big pieces to come rolling over the top when you put the milk in. Because the sweet things are so sparse, it seems like a lighter cereal and doesn't sit around in your stomach for hours or have any adverse side effects. In fact, after I eat it, I feel like I might be ready for a half-day's work at a Swedish social democratic government job (though of course I'd take a full day to do it).

In Canada, you can get it at Superstore.

Bob's Red Mill
Bob's Red Mill is probably what you'd call a "hearty" muesli. It has a serious, earthy look to it and has some dates and raisins for sweetness. The sweetness is higher than Finax because there are more sweet pieces, and the flakes are larger. It also has a lot of sunflower seeds compared to most mueslis, which over time I haven't come to like very much. Everything else in the mix crunches in your teeth nicely, but the seeds slide around sometimes or just get in the way.

In Canada, you can get it at a number of places that carry Bob's Red Mill stuff (usually in its own display). Superstore carries it.

Dorset is like a "deluxe" muesli, regardless of the version you choose (there are many). The simplest version has whole hazelnuts in it, for example. It's also loaded with dates and raisins and the sweetness (though natural) is the highest of the three. It's not TOO sweet, but it's on the sweet side. Combined with the relatively large amount of nuts, it turns out to be a pretty rich cereal and I don't like to eat it every day. But, this is what I remember as "muesli" -- fitting, since it is British and I grew up in England. At the same time, muesli isn't a British invention so it's likely a British interpretation.

In Canada, you can get this at A&P/Metro. Foodstuffs in Georgetown has a few of the varieties, too.

So, really... I liked Bob's Red Mill at first but over the long term got tired of there being so many seeds. I don't like lots of seeds in muesli. Finax is the best "every day" muesli because it's light -- not too rich and not too sweet. Dorset is a good "special" muesli for when you want something a bit sweeter and heavier and it's fell well-balanced, but I find it a bit too heavy for eating every day. Maybe you can call it a "dessert muesli" :) This is based on their least-extravagant muesli. I've tried a few of the others that they make and they're all about the same as far as the heaviness goes.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ray LaMontagne concert : April 15, 2009 : Massey Hall : Toronto, ON

It hasn't been that long since I saw Ray LaMontagne in concert because I saw him last year at Danforth Music Hall. It was just as good the second time around -- this time at Massey Hall -- and I haven't got much more to add.

But, this review of the concert at Jam! is a pathetic review, giving it a mediocre rating apparently only because RL didn't talk very much during the show. Maybe this is important to someone who either (a) wants to have something different to say in a review or (b) doesn't care about the music, but even with both of those in play, you'd have to be pretty insensitive to notice that the reception to the concert was very enthusiastic and nobody seemed to care about any of the points she raised because they were there for the music. It's a rude and insulting review written for the type of people that wouldn't really care about the so-called showmanship even if it was there (and I'm not sure that it wasn't there, anyway... there was nothing at all missing from this show).

It reminded me that I also saw world-class flamenco guitarist Paco Pena in the same hall last year, and he didn't say a single word -- about 50 words less than RL did last night. But so what? It was one of the best flamenco shows I've ever seen and I don't have a single negative memory.

We need more good musicians: we don't need more amateur comedians. Ray LaMontagne is better for being the former and for not trying to be the latter.

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P.S. The gallery seats at Massey Hall -- those above the balcony -- are actually pretty good. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the hall is so shallow, and the gallery seating is staged at such a relatively large angle that you get an excellent view of the stage. In some cases, they would be better than the floor seats. I had floor seats at Danforth Music Hall last year and the view was larger but not as broad.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reinventing the carnival freak show

One of the appealing things about the old-fashioned carnival was the mystery and promise that accumulated in advance of the carnival's arrival. Promoters were sent ahead of the travelling carnival, and parades through town gave a hint of what would be seen if you went. But, even when you've seen the preview and when you arrive, the dissolution of mystery is further suspended because everything is tucked away behind inscrutable, colourful canvas tents and the muffled sounds from within them blend with the relatively quiet atmosphere to create a place that's both peaceful and exciting at the same time.

At the time, there were lots of exotic animals and freaks of nature attached to these shows because this was a very affordable way for average people of the time to experience things from such far-flung places. Most people were not jet-setting around the world on planes multiple times a year to go to foreign places, and particularly not during the Depression, when the carnival had a even more special meaning.

When I went to Carnivale Lune Bleue last year, it was obviously a shoe-horning in of something from a different time and place into the present, and you had to use a lot of imagination to try and make it fit. We don't have as much need for what the carnival offers as we used to.

Beyond that, though, I wonder about the sideshows. Carnivals used to taunt you with the promise of seeing real freaks of nature -- the two headed kid; the bearded lady; the turtle boy. But I almost think that kids wouldn't be impressed by that these days. The contemporary world of a child is a world of fantasy, after all -- very sheltered and with little left to chance. I'm sure many kids are shuttled from colourful plastic playset to colourful plastic playset as the adults enrich their lives with events while the kids stay in the area furnished by the event facilitator that's "great for the kids".

But everything fantastic that they could possibly see has probably been seen on TV. Would freaks impress them? Probably not, and that's why I think we need to reinvent the "freak show".

In my mind, a modern freak show would involve freaks of nature such as the following -- never before comprehended by a modern child:
  • The man who makes bread from grass: step right up and see the man take seeds of wheat, grind them up, and make loaves of bread with the powder!
  • The egg-laying chicken: come one, come all! See the chicken lay an egg and watch as our death-defying stage manager makes an omelette with it... and eats it!
  • The man who drank milk from a cow: watch in amazement as the odd little man milks the udder of a cow, drinks the milk, and lives to see another show!

I think -- no, I feel -- that these would be much more appropriate and effective freak shows for the children of modern times.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Airy and even-flavoured 100% whole wheat bread in the Zojirushi BB-HAC10 bread machine

I've finally perfected and repeated this recipe enough times to know that it's a solid recipe now, so I'll post it here. Bear in mind that the BB-HAC10 machine is a 1 lb. machine, so makes a small loaf. Most machines are 1.5 lb. or larger. It's also a very good machine, and some aren't :)

First of all, whole wheat bread recipes seem to be somewhat dependent on the type and grind of flour used -- way more so than white bread recipes. I have had complete success with President's Choice Organics 100% whole wheat flour. I have had no success with Milanaise Organic Stone Ground Whole Wheat Bread Flour. Making an educated guess, I'd say that non-organic regular whole wheat flour would work fine because the grind and consistency looks similar. I haven't had success with the Milanaise flour in any recipe at all!

Normally, I see bread machine recipes as a compromise -- speed and cleanliness in exchange for a lower-quality loaf. This recipe is the exception to that experience. I would be as happy with this loaf if it came from the oven as if it came from a bread machine. It does require a bit more work than a regular bread machine recipe, but nowhere near as much as without the machine.

The 100% whole wheat recipe in the machine's manual is not very good, in my opinion. The loaf is dense, and the flavour isn't cohesive. It's a flat taste with these uncoordinated accents that fire off all over the place and aren't that nice, to be honest.

This is based on the whole wheat technique in Peter Reinhart's "Whole Grain Breads", which really does make one of the best-tasting whole wheat loaves. It's probably better than any straight-wheat bread I've got from the bakery before, too.

You need to prepare this about 24 hours in advance. The basic technique is to prepare the "soaker" and "biga" 24 hours in advance, let them rest for 24 hours, and then combine them with a few more ingredients and start the machine.

Day before: Soaker
  • 113g whole wheat flour: as above, I used PC Organics 100% WW
  • 1/4 tsp. salt: I used unrefined grey sea salt
  • 89g milk: I used whole milk
Mix together just so that there's no loose flour in the bowl, cover with plastic, and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours. That's all.

Day before: Biga

  • 120g flour
  • 1/8 tsp instant yeast (aka bread machine yeast)
  • 85g tepid water (room temperature)

Mix together in a bowl until roughly combined, then wet your hands and knead the dough for a couple of minutes. Re-wet your hands if the dough starts to stick (it probably will). Then, let it rest in the bowl for 5 minutes, re-wet your hands, and knead again for another minute or so. Cover the bowl with plastic and put in the fridge for 24 hours.

Baking day

  • 35g whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast (I haven't tried instant.. if you are going to try, use a bit less than 1 tsp.)
  • 21g honey: I used blueberry honey, unpasteurized
  • 9g butter
A couple of hours before baking, turn the oven up to maximum heat for about 30 seconds and then turn it off. Remove the plastic from the bowls and put them in the briefly-warmed oven for 1-2 hours. If you don't have an oven, just let them sit at room temperature for about 2 hours. The idea is to take the chill off the biga, since it had been in the fridge.

Flour the counter and pull the contents of the bowls out of the bowls and lay them down. Dust with flour and use a dough scraper to divide each piece into 6 pieces. Put them into the bread machine pan.

Add the honey near the edge of the baking pan. Cut the butter into paper-thin slices and scatter it around the edges of the dough pieces. Add the salt near the edge. Add the flour to the centre of the baking pan. Make a little well in the flour just big enough to contain the yeast, and put the yeast into the well.

Now, all you should have to do is start the regular cycle and leave it. It's not a bad idea to check it once it's kneading to make sure that none of the ingredients have stuck to the sides of the bowl. Sometimes a few little pieces of butter won't incorporate and I just wipe them onto my finger and stick them onto the dough ball while it's kneading.

That's about all. The loaf should be relatively airy (for whole wheat bread) and have a delicate crust that tastes like a good cracker. The flavours will be well-integrated, unlike with whole wheat recipes that don't have the soaker and biga.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Georgetown Bach Chorale : A Winter's Evening : February 21, 2009 : Norval Presbyterian Church : brief review

Last night, I attended this concert at the Norval Presbyterian Church in Norval, Ontario. It was a nice collection of baroque music, variously performed by a small string section (2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello), a 24-member choir, harpsichord, and recorder (voice flute?) in a small church with excellent acoustics.

The performance's title was "A Winter's Evening". It was very appropriately-named as the winter weather outside was terrible, as were the roads. But what a nice contrast between the harsh outdoor weather and the comfortable and warm indoors of the church.

I enjoyed this presentation and particularly the live sound of the harpsichord and a quality recorder (as opposed to those plastic ones I remember having to play when I was in elementary school!). The choir sounded full and very smooth and well-rounded. The acoustics and warmth of the church were also very nice.

But, I think I may have been spoiled by the wonderful violin performance of Conrad Chow in their first performance as the ones here were not as good, although obviously far better than many people could do and impressive when considered on their own and in context. At least one of the violins did consistently sound a bit out of tune, though.

Overall, though, it was very enjoyable and another great opportunity to see this type of music performed locally.

Hopefully not breaking any copyrights, I have made a copy of the programme available as a PDF.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Georgetown Sourdough: fin

Yesterday, I finished the first sourdough loaves from the sourdough palaver I started last week.

First, here's how they look:

Not bad! The loaves look large in the picture, but they are actually not much longer than my fully outstretched hand, which is about 8 inches from the base of my palm to the tip of my middle finger. They are batards.

You can tell by the air bubbles in the cut surface that the wild yeast were quite active. I already knew they were, though, because the dough had formed some large surface bubbles during the final rise, indicating that the dough was not only properly kneaded (since it could hold air to the extent that a translucent bubble was able to form within the dough -- the dough is loose enough to allow a bubble to form and strong enough that the bubble holds) but also that the yeast were active and alive.

The doubt about whether the wild yeast were sufficient had always been in the back of my mind, even though the scent of the dough clearly said that there was some activity going on. If it had failed on account of the yeast, a week's worth of work building the culture. would have been wasted.

Anyway, this was an unbelievably drawn-out process. I started in the morning and didn't actually bake the loaves until after 9pm at night! It might have taken a bit less time if I kept my house a bit warmer than I do, but I keep it at under 20C in the winter. Here's what was involved:
  • reactivate the starter (12 hours): since the stiff dough levain had been in the fridge, I took it out the night before and prepared the recipe starter, leaving it out overnight to become active
  • mix and hydrate the initial dough (30 minutes): white, rye, and whole wheat flours were combined with water and left to stand to hydrate
  • add the starter, knead the dough (20 vigourous minutes): the starter was added to the hydrated dough and kneaded for 15-20 minutes until the windowpane test was passed (the test is to stretch the dough until you can form a thin translucent window without tearing it)
  • fermentation (2 hours): let the dough ferment in a covered bowl
  • folding and rising (5 hours): flatten and fold the dough, and then let it rise until the volume increases by 25-50%
  • dividing and shaping (10 minutes): divide the dough, flatten and fold, and roll into batards
  • couche and proofing (2 hours): the couche to support the rising loaves is formed and the formed loaves are left covered to rise until volume increases by about 50%
  • scoring, baking prep, and baking (1 hour): the oven is prepared with a baking stone and empty broiler tray; the oven is preheated to 450F about 30 minutes before baking; the loaves are scored; water is boiled; just before putting the loaves into the oven, the boiling water is poured into the broiler tray to create steam; the loaves are baked for 15 minutes at 450F and a further 20 minutes at 400F.

The loaf tastes very nice, and it has a definite sourdough flavour but it's a complex one. It is dense, as sourdoughs tend to be. It is very good toasted. It's good untoasted if warmed first.

Was it worth it? It's hard to be honest with myself with these things because of the amount of time and effort I put into it. But, really: no... it wasn't worth it. The main product is that I know I can do it. But when you consider that you can get an equally-good loaf from the local bakery for $3, unless you really enjoy it then it's very hard to justify. The amount of resources consumed for a single pair of small loaves, too, is painful to try and justify -- all of the cleanup, oven preheating, plastic wrap, etc... these things are much more efficient when done in the context of mass production.

On the other hand, if you can get your bread machine to turn out a good loaf -- which requires advance planning, too, and a biga and soaker -- then it's justifiable. The cleanup is minimal and the prep time is insignificant relative to the quality of the end product. I've come up with a good bread machine recipe/technique of my own for a 100% whole wheat loaf that I can do in my Zojirushi BB-HAC10 bread machine. It is (heavily) based on one of the methods in Peter Reinhart's "Whole Grain Breads" book, adapted for the fixed behaviour and size of my machine, and it tastes really good.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Gingersnaps / Pepparkaka

After spending a bit of time reading through Michel Suas's "Advanced Bread and Pastry", this evening I tried a small batch of a variation on one of the recipes inside. The book is excellent, by the way. It is written and formatted as a textbook for professional bakers in-training.

These are the Swedish version of gingersnaps. They are crunchy once cooled completely, and they contain a number of spices besides ginger. The recipe for my small batch was put together using bakers' percentages, and is based only on one cup of flour, so it only makes about 7 of the type shown in the picture -- about 4-5" in diameter. While I'm experimenting, I don't want to make too many in case I make a mistake and the batch isn't too good.

Bakers' percentages base all ingredient weights on their relationship to the weight of the flour, making it easy to create custom batch sizes by calculating based on your desired amount of flour. For example, a bakers percentage of 86% butter means that the weight of the butter in the recipe is 86% of the weight of the flour. For a recipe with 125g of flour, the weight of butter would therefore be 125g * 0.86 = 107.5g.

  • 125g all-purpose white flour
  • 63g room temperature butter
  • 21g canola oil
  • 86g sugar
  • 38g molasses
  • 25g egg
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 tsp. grated fresh ginger

The main modifications of the recipe are in the use of 25% canola oil in place of butter, the addition of fresh ginger and a small reduction in the amount of ground ginger. If I'd had a reliable source, I would have added some orange zest, too. But I haven't got any organic oranges at the moment and they coat the other ones in all kinds of strange chemicals.

I also modified the preparation a bit -- I was forced to because of the canola oil addition, which required refrigeration of the dough to make it handleable. I experimented with canola oil because it reduces the richness a bit, and is a bit more healthy if you eat quite a bit of butter elsewhere in your diet.

So, the recipe...

Combine the dry ingredients except the sugar, but also including the fresh ginger. Cream the butter, sugar and canola oil together. Beat the egg and add it to the creamed mixture in a slow stream while mixing at the same time (similar to how add the oil when making fresh mayonnaise, although the rate of stream isn't quite as death-defyingly critical). Add the molasses and combine.

Combine the wet and dry mixtures. I used my hands to do this, and the dough was then too sticky to really do anything with, so I scraped as much as I could back into the bowl and put it in the fridge for about 45 minutes. If you use all butter, the dough isn't quite as sticky.

After 45 minutes, preheat the oven to 300F. While that's doing, scoop the dough into 1.5" balls into an insulated cookie sheet and then put the sheet in the fridge for about 5 minutes or until the oven is pre-heated (whichever comes later). Then, put the sheet into the oven.

Bake for 22-24 minutes, remove from the oven and leave the cookies on the sheet for about 10 minutes, and then transfer them to a cooling rack for cooling. Let them cool completely. Mine didn't go completely crispy until they'd completely cooled and spent overnight in a sealed plastic container.

That's all! If you want smaller gingersnaps, you can reduce the size of the balls and reduce the cooking time by a couple of minutes.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Jesse Cook concert review : Guelph, ON : January 23, 2009

I went to Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook's concert at Guelph's River Run Centre this evening. This is the 4th time I've seen him in concert, and the first time in Guelph. Previously, I've always gone down to Oakville to see his show.

A bit of pre-amble first. Someone from the concert hall sent out an e-mail a few days before the show to let everyone know that there was a Guelph Storm hockey game on the same evening, starting before the concert, and that parking would be a challenge. So, I arrived about 90 minutes early and spent about an hour wandering around the Guelph library. I found a most interesting book on the Waterloo Mennonites. It was a fairly long book specifically about the Mennonites in and around Waterloo, Ontario. I am going to see if I can find my own copy.

But, back to the concert...

The band
I didn't catch all of the names in the band, but I recognized Nicholas Hernandez who was playing the second flamenco guitar alongside Jesse. He has been in at least one of the prior shows I've seen, and I bought his CD some time ago. Very talented.

Art Avalos wasn't around to do percussion and there was someone else with a much larger drum kit than I've seen in the past. Chris Church was on violin, and I think he has been at all four of the JC concerts I've been to. A new bass player has also been added to the band since I saw him last.

I have mixed feelings about the use of violin. In the concerts, it's a celtic style of playing (Middle Eastern in a few places). I suppose I like it in the context of Jesse Cook's music, but it is far from what flamenco is about. At the same time, though, the celtic and flamenco dancing are clearly compatible in many areas.

The cajón was used effectively, too, and sounded great.

JC was more chatty than I've seen in the past (though he has always been chatty). He did a short Q&A bit, too, which was interesting and refreshing even in this day of MySpace and Facebook pages. He didn't answer the question someone yelled that I'd have been interested to know about: "when you are you coming back to Oakville??".

"Querido Amigo"

The first half of the concert was pretty routine. There was no opening act. A bunch of familiar tunes and all pretty straightforward. The second half was far, far better. First of all, since I saw JC last I have been exposing myself greatly (in a wholesome way) to more traditional flamenco music. I have seen Paco Peña at Massey Hall and I also went to the capstone show of the 2008 Toronto International Flamenco Festival. The more unadorned sound is what I prefer, and there was a lot more of this in the second half of the show. "Querido Amigo" is one of my favourites, for example, but he didn't play it here. There were some in the same vein, though. Two or more flamenco guitars solo on stage would be my ideal, but that's not why you go to a Jesse Cook concert.

I was surprised to see a flamenco dancer in this show -- Jesse Cook's wife, apparently -- because I've never seen a dancer at any of his other shows. Actually, when she came on stage I was wondering how well the dancing would complement the music because JC''s stuff is very structured and doesn't have the wandering vagrancy of more traditional flamenco. Interestingly, Nicholas Hernandez played much of the music alongside which the dancing was done, and it was a more traditional sound. I assuming JC can play styles other than what he does best, so I wonder why he wasn't playing more in this segment.

The cover of "Fall At Your Feet" made another appearance in the encore in an unplugged style where the microphones and effects go away and the sound is completely natural and unamplified. I think this has been a part of the encore for at least 3 of the 4 shows I've seen. Chris Church did a very good job with the vocals. There was one more song in the encore after this one, which seemed a bit "off" because FAYF would have been the ideal closing song.

"Rattle and Burn"

River Run Centre is rather average, acoustically. The bass from the bass guitar and the bass drum gave off distracting standing waves, as happens at many concerts that use them in medium to large halls. Whether or not you get standing waves may depend on where you are sitting in the audience, but I can't believe I always pick the bad seat! The Tori Amos concerts I've been to get ruined in parts by this kind of thing. It wasn't as bad as that here, but I enjoyed the songs without the bass guitar more than the ones that had it for this reason. The hall was fine for the flamenco sounds, though. It was nothing compared to Massey Hall or St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto, of course... and not really as good as Rose Theatre in Brampton, either, but perfectly adequate.

The audience
The audience was made up mostly of middle- to older-aged white people. This is usually the demographic at his Oakville concerts, too. Strange. When I went to the Toronto show, there was a wide variety of ages and races and lots of Spanish people. Guelph is not Toronto, obviously, but they do have a multicultural centre and an annual multicultural festival!

A good concert, I think. It wasn't quite as long as some past concerts, but I think he has finally got the length just about right. In some of his earlier concerts, there were some very same-y songs played back to back and I drifted off a few times. This time, there was so much variation (especially in the second half) that it was interesting throughout. This is something Robert Michaels is still struggling with, I think. I have seen RM twice and his most recent show was better, but there are still some areas where it goes flat. I'm not saying they have to go as far as Sarah Brightman and do the whole do flying around on wires and always coming out of strange places, but something of that nature is required. If you're going to do energetic music that isn't down entirely to world-class solo skill (most of JC's music is band-backed contemporary rumba flamenco) then you have to find a way to make it translate well on stage and I think he has figured this out now. Overall, lots of fun!

Coming back home was not much fun. The highway between Guelph and Georgetown was intermittently covered in snow that had blown onto the road from the open fields at the wayside. I almost skidded out in one spot, where it went from bare road to deep snow within about 2-3 seconds. Well, that's winter, I suppose!

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Puritan apple pie

Here we have the puritan's apple pie. Why is it puritanical? Because the filling contains nothing other than apples, sugar, and water. And the pastry contains nothing but butter, lard, flour, salt, and water.

I used some old Granny Smith apples. I think these apples must have been 4 or 5 months old. They were sitting in the fridge but were a bit too old to eat, but not "bad". This makes them suitable for pies, I think. I'm not sure it's anything but a recent tradition to use apples that are perfectly good for eating to make a pie. In the past, the old or sub-prime apples would be used for pies because you can't use them for eating so you'd want to find another use for them so as not to waste them, and the freshness is rather irrelevant when you're going to bake them for an hour.

The pastry was a straightforward ordeal -- 1 part fat (half butter, half lard) to 3 parts flour, but all of the rules for good flaky pastry were followed: I used pastry flour, the fats were kept as cold as possible throughout the preparation, I used ice water to bring the dough together, and as little mixing as possible was done. The result seems very good. It's a fragile pastry that falls apart when it hits your tongue. I rolled it very thinly. I found another use for my silicone baking sheets that my Great Aunt from England sent me: I rolled the pastry on the flour-dusted sheet with a towel underneath, meaning I could just lift the whole sheet to rotate the pastry during rolling, rather than having to lift the pastry itself. Silicone baking sheets are like a super-slippery waxed paper (with the same flexibility) that you can put directly in the oven (although I had no use for them in baking a pie).

The filling was prepared with 6 Granny Smith apples, a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar, and water to a few millimetres depth in the pan. Cooked for about 6-7 minutes in a sauté pan with the lid on for about half the time and disturbed by stirring periodically. I just cut up the apples into pieces around the core, and didn't peel them. I like peels on apple in apple pie -- lots of taste --they soften significantly, and they're good for you, anyway. The cores don't break down so you have to remove them.

I didn't mess around with egg glazes this time: whole milk with a bit of sugar for the glaze.

Baked at 300F, centre rack, for 50-55 minutes.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thoughts on "Revolutionary Road"

The above picture that is often seen accompanying the film "Revolutionary Road" is brilliant in more ways than one. First of all, in one shot it portrays one of the essential messages of the film: that you can't read anything into appearances -- the characters in the photo are inscrutable. Secondly, for marketing purposes, it allows you to project whatever meaning you want onto the image. It is Kate and Leonardo, back for a second run at Titanic-like fare, right? Absolutely not. You could not be more wrong.

But that's what I had assumed going in, and until I found out more about it I wasn't interested. I liked "Titanic" very much, but it's something that I thought might be ruined by an attempt to capitalize on the partnership once again.

I'm not going to give a big long review because there are probably plenty of better ones out there than anything I could write (you may not want to go further than Christopher Hitchen's excellent and rich review in The Atlantic). But, I'll write a few things about what stood out to me. I'll get one point out of the way first: as above, I was worried that it'd be a failed attempt to recapture the magic of "Titanic". I initially saw the two actors as they were in their former roles and mentally rolled my eyes when even Kathy Bates showed up near the beginning in a role very similar to the one she had as the Unsinkable Molly Brown in "Titanic". These doubts held out for about 15 minutes and never surfaced again -- this film is something that stands on its own two feet.

First, this point may clear up something straight away: "Revolutionary Road" is simply the name of a road in a suburban housing development that is somewhat on the frontier of suburban housing developments in America. Set in 1955 (the novel was written in 1961), we get to see what we imagine might confront a young couple leaving the city for a place that promises an idyllic place to raise a family.

From that point-of-view alone, it is interesting. But beyond that superficial veneer, it's a film about so many things.

It's a film about the promise of suburbia at its inception and how the promise was true to the letter, but that after living in the bustle of the city you didn't anticipate that you couldn't spend entire days and lives in such tedious tranquility. As the chaos unfolds on-screen, the birds continue to peacefully chirp in the background. It's so subtle as to almost be unnoticeable, but I'm sure it was no accident.

It's a film about outward appearances of not only the individual but also a marriage and, further, the forced neighbourhoods of suburbia and how they can be so difficult to reconcile with what's really going on inside all three.

It's also a film about the pressures of the American Dream and the unrealistic expectations it can set up for people. The promise of what's to be had and what is actually realized can railroad some people into disappointment, no matter how relatively successful they are at the things that matter in life.

What's true in public is rarely true in private. In fact, you could find more truth in inverting everything anyone says to your face and assuming the opposite to be true. With that in mind, when everyone is so friendly and positive to your face it can be depressing to consider what it really means, and considerable effort is spent by the characters here in avoiding that line of thought. In an interesting plot tool, when we are introduced to the son of the real estate agent that sold the young couple their house who the young couple dines with on a couple of occasions, we learn that he holds a Ph.D in Mathematics but has sadly deteriorated mentally and is in and out of the mental hospital. But he is the only the one who tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He tells everyone involved what they're too ashamed to think or too polite to say, no matter how angry they become.

"Revolutionary Road" is excellent at everything it set out to do. I think it took a talented director to pull this off. Many times, you are put in the shoes of the people trying to express the complexity of what's going on inside. You know when the words that are spoken didn't come out right, and it's not just because of the excellent acting but because of the dialogue and pacing and the way everything unfolds. I can't say I have seen too many films that have put me in that position so easily and genuinely. It is directed by Sam Mendes -- the director of "American Beauty", which is a less-accomplished relative of this film.

Very much recommended.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Canned chick peas are good, but there's a better way

Canned chick peas are probably the easiest way to get them -- they are already cooked and you just have to drain them, rinse, and eat them straight away.

One of my general observations about life, though, is that where there is convenience, there is something significant lost somewhere else, and it almost always goes beyond a simple price difference.

There are some clear negatives to using canned chickpeas: canned chick peas are a bit soft and lacking in texture, and the briny solution they can them in is often rather salty and sometimes has preservatives in it. Some people suggest that they are significantly less nutritious (though no evidence is cited). They also take up a lot of space in storage. One way to avoid all of these things is to cook them from dried.

Preparing them from dried form overcomes these problems. It has the following advantages: their taste is stronger and much more natural and nuanced, and the taste is not overpowered by salt. They take up less volume in storage and can be decorative -- stored in a glass jar, for example, on the kitchen shelf. They're also cheaper -- a bag of dried chick peas is significantly less expensive than the equivalent in canned form and probably preserves the taste better when in storage for longer periods of time.

On the other hand, they do require a little bit of your time to prepare them and are therefore less convenient. But it doesn't take much time at all, and with a bit of planning it need not be inconvenient. Here is the procedure, in my case:

  • rinse and put 1 cup of dried chick peas into a bowl
  • put 3 cups of water into the same bowl (3:1 is the general idea -- 3 times as much water by volume as chickpeas)
  • let the above soak for 6-8 hours (i.e. overnight)
  • drain soaked chick peas
  • put beans and the same amount of fresh water as above in a pressure cooker for 17-18 minutes at 15 psi pressure (the cooking time starts when the pressure has built up in the cooker)
  • remove pressure cooker from heat and let it cool down until you can open the lid

After that, you can drain them and use them as you would with canned chickpeas. You can prepare larger quantities than above; it really depends on the size of your pressure cooker. I could prepare far more than that in mine, but I limit it to what I will use in the short-term. I suspect you could freeze a large volume of cooked chick peas and they'd be fine.

I did the above last night and ate them for breakfast with a spoonful of real mayonnaise, a couple of splashes of malt vinegar, and some pepper. You can add herbs. They look like breakfast cereal -- Corn Pops or something like that :)

If your pressure cooker has a higher or lower level of pressure, you can adjust cooking times up or down as appropriate. If yours is higher than 15 psi, for example, you may be able to reduce the cooking time. If lower, you will have to increase it. Mine has two settings -- 5 and 15, controlled by the configuration of the release valve.

Another thing: you can cook them directly from dried in a pressure cooker, but they take about twice as long to cook. Better to spend a couple of minutes the night before to start them soaking, I think. It's a good idea to make sure you rinse the dried chickpeas before soaking them, else you may find bits of grit and sand in them later on.

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