30 January 2009

Review: A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother is another of my 84 cent books I picked up at Superstore back before Christmas. I had been interested in reading Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time but never quite got around to it, so when I found this book I thought it might do as a second choice for seeing what sort of books this author writes and if I'd be interested in reading more.

A Spot of Bother is about George Hall's gradual descent into madness as the date of his daughter's second marriage approaches. He doesn't want to be a bother, especially since the rest of his family seems to be falling apart at the seams in the lead up to the wedding.

Opening paragraph:
It began when George was trying on a black suit in Allders the week before Bob Green's funeral.

It was not the prospect of the funeral that had unsettled him. Nor Bob dying. To be honest he had always found Bob's locker-room bonhomie slightly tiring and he was secretly relieved that they would not be playing squash again. Moreover, the manner in which Bob had died (a heart attack while watching the Boat Race on television) was oddly reassuring. Susan had come back from her sister's and found him lying on his back in the center of the room with one hand over his eyes, looking so peaceful she thought initially that he was taking a nap.
It's not really fair to say the book is just about George's mental health, though, as all members of the family – George's wife Jean, their son Jamie, daughter Katie, Katie's son Jacob, and the fiancé Ray – are equally important to the story. One of the really wonderful things about this book is how human these characters all are. They're full of faults and foibles but they still come across as sympathetic, likable, believable characters.

Another really wonderful thing about this book is how funny it is. I suppose it's that sort of British humour, but it's just the sort of humour I most enjoy. No pratfalls and no gross-out humour. I can't seem to find any of the bits that made me laugh the most, but really, a funny book.

Honestly, I can't think of a bad thing to say about this book. I'm sure, like any book, it's not for everyone, but I can't think of what would put anyone off it. It's just thoroughly enjoyable.

Mark Haddon has written a number of books for children, but is probably most well known for his first adult novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. A Spot of Bother is his second novel for adults; you can read more about it, including a number of short extracts, at the official website, here.

Haddon, Mark. A Spot of Bother. Toronto: Anchor, 2007.
Finished: 27 January 2009
Rating: 5 of 5 cancerous spots on the hip
This was my 5th book in January and my 5th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

27 January 2009

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The main reason I found myself reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that with the movie release, the story was also re-released in its own paperback book. It feels like cheating to include such a short story in my list of books read, but hey… it has its own set of covers and its own barcode: technically it counts.

The shortness is another reason I found myself reading it. I went out for lunch one day, alone, and needed something to read besides the free newspaper, and Button was the shortest, cheapest thing available. Worked for me.

So Benjamin Button, if anyone's managed to avoid hearing about it from the movie trailers, is the story of a child who is born as an old man and then ages in reverse. It's all rather unbelievable – my brain is still going but how does even a shrunken, small 5-foot-whatever-inches old man fit inside a human womb? Did he expand the instant he hit air? - but really that bit of it is kind of irrelevant. Social satire and all that.

Opening paragraph:
As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At present, so I am told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anesthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So young Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon the astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.

I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself.
People talk about how aging makes babies of adults – eventually you wind up in diapers, napping at all hours of the day, being fed soft foods because you've got no teeth. This book makes that idea quite literal. This is a surprisingly funny book, probably because it does so reverse the natural order of things. And of course there is something ridiculous, and thus funny, about an old man being treated as a child.

It's nice, though, to see that the situation isn't turned entirely into a farce. There's something occasionally sad about the story, the discomfort that such an odd life causes in Benjamin's family – his father doesn't truly relate to him until they reach an age where they look physically similar, the way his wife and son assume he's made some perverse choice to be so different from the rest of the world.

On of the things I really liked about this story is the structure of it, the way that Fitzgerald bookends events in his life. For instance, when he meets his wife, he looks old and she is young and everyone around them exclaims over the young woman attaching herself to such an old man, then later in life, he looks quite young and she's gotten old and everyone wonders how such a vibrant young man could end up married to an old woman. The story is full of events like this and it's one of my favourite literary devices, at least when done so well as this.

At any rate, this was a thoroughly enjoyable story. I think it would have been interesting to read more about Benjamin Button, but Fitzgerald probably did the right thing to keep it so short. I often don't like short stories, and I didn't like the only other Fitzgerald work I've read, The Great Gatsby, but I'm glad I picked this up despite my misgivings. Maybe I should give Fitzgerald more of a chance.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was the author of several novels, including The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby, and several collections of short stories. You can read the full text of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button online here or here.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Toronto: Scribner, 2007.
Finished: 21 January 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 pairs of short pants
This was my 4th book in January and my 4th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

26 January 2009

Ginger Pork with Garlic-Basil Rice

Another boxed rice pilaf. I keep trying out different ones, looking for something tasty and worth buying and I never quite find it. This one is pretty good, for rice from a box, but still not what I'm really looking for. (Probably a good thing, since the only place I know that sells it is no longer selling it.) It was somehow both too salty and too sweet, without having high amounts of sugars or sodium.

Anyway, the star of this meal is the ginger pork, anyway. This has been my go-to recipe for ginger pork for at least 8 years and I've never changed a thing. I can't remember where I originally got it from - it's written in the back of a cookbook that I left at my mom's house when I moved away last and I had to call her a while back to get her to read the recipe to me over the phone so that I could make it.

Ginger Pork, for two

~220g/8 oz pork loin chops, cut into thin strips
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tsp oil

2 tbsp sodium-reduced soy sauce
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp dried ginger

1/2 cup water
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch

1. Heat the oil over medium high heat in a frying pan. Cook the pork and ginger for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently to brown all over.
2. Lower the heat to medium, add soy sauce, sugar and ginger. Mix well and continue cooking for another 2-3 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, mix together cornstarch and water until smooth. Add to pork and stir to combine with ginger-soy sauce mixture. Bring to a boil and cook for about 2 minutes or until pork is cooked through and the sauce has thickened.

I know some people don't like to use cornstarch because it can leave a taste behind, but I've never found it to be a problem with this recipe. If there is a problem it's probably the ground ginger, but I've been eating this exact recipe for 8 years and I hate to think of messing around with it, just to use fresh stuff instead.

I didn't feel like cutting vegetables today, but this sauce is really good on stir-fried vegetables as well. I used to make this with half the meat but all the sauce so that I could pour it over vegetables and rice. So tasty and easy, even sauce-making challenged me can make this.

23 January 2009

Tilapia with Penne, Broccoli and Green Beans

When i found this recipe in a pamphlet at work, I thought it looked pretty good. Fish, pasta, broccoli. All tasty things. But it turned out to be surprisingly dry and bland. It was work to swallow that dry whole wheat penne. And although the broccoli and the beans were both lovely, they just tasted... boring.

I have the second half of this meal packed away for tomorrow, but honestly I don't think I'll manage to eat it. I hate to throw it away, but I'm really not sure what to do to add some taste to it.

Review: Criminal Minds: Finishing School by Max Allan Collins

Here is one true thing about me: I'm a book snob. I like to think that I'm not a book snob because I enjoy fantasy and I've read and enjoyed Science Fiction and I read a fair bit of young adult fiction. But the fact is, I'm a book snob about MOST science fiction and MOST fantasy and an awful lot of young adult novels and I'm a book snob about pretty well all the genres you can think of when it comes to genre fiction. I hold the general assumption that genre fiction is poorly written and badly plotted, that the characterization is weak and that most of it has no reason for existing. (As in, it doesn't entertain me, so how could it possible entertain anyone else?) My book snobbery gets even worse when it comes to genre fiction based on a television show. So I'm not quite sure how I came to find myself buying a novelisation of Criminal Minds. But I did.

I imagine that where there is one novel based on the tv show, there will be other novels based on the show. But this particular novel, Finishing School by Max Allan Collins, takes the BAU team to Minnesota where the bodies of three blonde teenage girls have been found buried in the woods. As in any television episode, they use their skills as profilers to figure out and catch the person who has killed the girls.

Opening paragraph:
The first rays of a November sunrise peeked over the horizon as if making sure the coast was clear before the sun gave up its cover. In his deer stand, fifteen feet up and wedged into a triangle of aspen trees, William Kwitcher looked down through the tightly bunched thicket, his breath visible.
Naturally since the book takes place in the Minnesota forest in November, the team is shown on the cover standing in a desert in summer. And that's only the first of the disconcerting things about this book.

Other disconcerting things: The characterization. Including, oh my god, the obsessive Rossi love. Nearly every character (outside of the team) exclaimed over him and his books. I know that's a part, a small part, of the show – his having fans – but the place it takes in the book reads almost like the author only saw one episode, say Rossi's first when they were trying hardest to get across the idea that Rossi is one of the originals of the BAU and one of the most well known. Or you could look at Garcia (who the author refers to as zaftig, vomit), who is made virtually a non-entity except when Collins mentions that she's flirtatious, and then… doesn't make her flirtatious.

The obsession with the appearance of the characters and the clothes that they wear. Virtually every character appears in any given scene with a run-down of the day's outfit. Morgan wears a lot of mock turtlenecks. Rossi wears geometric ties at least twice. Reid looks like a prep school student. It drove me nuts because I just can't see what purpose the descriptions served. If you want the cop to seem like a laid-back guy, don't just make him wear jeans and yesterday's button-down plaid shirt, show him behaving in a laid-back fashion, you know?

But setting aside that, there is also the lame dialogue including this exchange, which belongs to that last moment before the intro and/or first commercial break on CSI when Grissom throws out his zinging one-liner:
As he led [the unsub] away, Morgan said, "You must be a hell of a forester, [Unsub.]


"You sure know how to spread fertilizer."
Um, yeah. I can totally imagine that coming out of Morgan's mouth, except not. And setting aside the dialogue, there's just this really corny undertone to the writing. He says things like only to have it go to h-e-double l or [random character] wore many hats (which is a pet hate of mine, so far as phrases go). Or mentions how Prentiss keeps from feeling terminally gross, which… am I reading a book by, for and about 14 year old girls? There's a reference to the time when Reid first felt like a man.

It wasn't a terminally terrible book. I mean, it wasn't well-written or characterized and I really don't see the point, but the actual unraveling of the crime, figuring out the motivation and how and why it was done wasn't so bad. I'd figured out a couple of things from the outset, which the BAU team didn't piece together until near the end, but the actual mystery part of the book wasn't bad. It wasn't great, mind, but I've read worse crime novels and I've read worse mystery. I've spent worse hours reading more celebrated books. I finished it in two afternoons because it was obviously, bad bits aside, compelling enough to keep me interested. It wasn't one of those books that makes me not want to read the last chapter because I'm not prepared for it to end (and god, I love books like that) but it was good enough that I didn't just toss it over for something, anything else. So I guess that's a good thing. I think I'll probably better manage to avoid buying another of these books, if I ever see one again though.

According to Wikipedia, Max Allan Collins is "a prolific American mystery writer who has been called "mystery's Renaissance man"." He has written several novels, including several novelisations of films and television shows, including CSI and CSI: Miami. He's also written two other Criminal Minds novels, Jump Cut and Killer Profile. He's also the author of Road to Perdition, the graphic novel which was turned into a film starring Tom Hanks.

Collins, Max Allan. Criminal Minds: Finishing School. Toronto: Obsidian, 2008.
Finished: 20 January 2009
Rating: 3 of 5 girls wrapped in plastic
This was my 3rd book in January, and my 3rd in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

21 January 2009

Sunlight and Shadows blocks

This for a while has felt a bit like a never-ending project, but finally, there's an end in sight. I've been working, off and on, on this quilt since August 2007.

Right now it looks like I could finish it. I'm only one block short of having enough to make a decent sized quilt, but I'm still holding out for one more row and one more column. (I like quilts to either be square or to conform to a particular ratio of width to length. So 4 12-in blocks by 6 is too long or not wide enough, but 5x6 or 4x5 is perfect.)

After much humming and hawing about it, I decided to sign up for the Livejournal Birthday Blocks group again this year. Depending how things play out, I'll either get 9 blocks via the group (and so will need only 6 more) or else I'll get 18 blocks and then have 3 spares, which I don't yet know what I'd do with them, but. In any case, by... late September (all things going well) I should have all the blocks I need to finish this thing. Brilliant.

And then comes the hard part - figuring out placement of the blocks. And then the harder part - actually quilting the thing. Eek.

20 January 2009

Turkey-stuffed Red Pepper with Spaghettini and Broccoli

I had the worst indigestion today, which pretty much never happens to me, and so I thought I wouldn't wind up eating dinner - again - because it was too uncomfortable. People who get indigestion all the time... How do they live with that? Ugh. But I've been playing WiiFit a lot lately and did again when I got home from work and it seems to have the added benefit of straightening out a lot of my digestive woes, including today's indigestion. (I shall not recount the digestive woes, though; suffice to say they've existed my whole life. Turns out frequent exercise is good for more than just keeping you fit.)

Anyway, once I felt better, I decided I should probably make food that didn't involve a microwave or frozen leftovers. I decided I should probably eat that broccoli that's been in my fridge so long by all rights it should have been compost. I decided to stuff something, because food which has been stuffed is always pleasing to me.

Basically, this is a red pepper stuffed with a giant turkey meatball with mozzarella melted atop it. It was quite tasty, though I did think that the pepper could have stood to cook a little bit longer. I ate all the meat first, then scrapped the flesh of the pepper off the skin with my teeth. It was lovely, but as I said could have cooked a little longer.

Review: The Tales of Beedle the Bard by JK Rowling

So. JK Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard. What's there to say about this? Well, I picked it up because it was cheap and had a lot of Airmiles attached to it at my work. And also, when I start in on a thing, I get obsessive about it. I can stop liking it, but I still have to complete the set. (Case in point: The Matrix? A very fine film. The follow-up? A very poor one. And yet, I own the third film, which I still haven't taken out of the plastic over wrap and have never seen.)

The thing about Rowling is that I don't think she's a very good writer. I think she created a compelling universe with compelling characters and a compelling story line. And I think she had a good editor, at the beginning, who was able to help her tell the story in a compelling way. Somewhere along the line, everything but the compelling universe (for me) got lost.

The problem with a compelling universe, for me, is that I want to know more about it. I want to know all the bits of that universe that she didn't explain before. So things like this book and like her other charity books (Quidditch Through the Ages and… the Beast one, I forget the title) make me want to have and read them, even if I think I'll be disappointed by the story they tell.

Opening Paragraph:
There once was a kindly old wizard who used his magic generously and wisely for the benefit of his neighbours. Rather than reveal the true source of his power, he pretended that his potions, charms and antidotes sprang ready-made from the little cauldron he called his lucky cooking pot. From miles around people came to him with their troubles, and the wizard was pleased to give his pot a stir and put things right.
So this is a book of wizarding fairytales, written originally in runes by Beedle the Bard, then annotated by Dumbledore, then translated by Hermione Granger, then brought to the muggle world by Rowling. It's a short selection of tales – just five – and, well, five days later, I've forgotten them all.

Oh god, it's just so boring. I wanted to like it, but it's boring. The stories read like fake fairy tales and not like ones that might really have existed in some other society. I'm not sure if anything would have felt "real" enough for me, but this certainly didn't.

I'm certain that some small part of my dislike is just the lingering disappointment of the last few books of the Harry Potter series, but the rest of it is just wishing that Rowling (and I, obviously) would just let it go. I don't really know where she can or will go from here, but even though I'm still apparently willing to buy it, I do wish she'd stop treading old ground. (Even if it's being done in new, for her, ways.)

Does it need to be said what else JK Rowling has written? Nevertheless, Rowling has written the 7 Harry Potter books, which have all been (or are in the process of being) made into movies. She's also written two other short books in the Harry Potter universe, Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Rowling, JK. The Tales of Beedle the Bard. London: Bloomsbury, 2008.
Finished: 15 January 2009
Rating: 3 of 5* warty cauldrons
This was my 2nd book in January, and my 2nd in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

18 January 2009

Review: The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery

Several months ago one of the grocery stores near me had a discount bin of books for 84 cents each. Most of the books weren't worth even 84 cents to me, but I picked up three or four just to try them out. One was a book by Bill Bryson, which turned out pretty good if not fantastic, but which I read during my year long off-period when I didn't read much and didn't write anything about any of it. Another was The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery, which is a non-fiction book about climate change and global warming. It's not a subject that I know a lot about, so I thought this would be a good (and cheap!) introduction. It was.

Opening Paragraph:
Until a black mood takes her and she rages about our heads, most of us are unaware of our atmosphere. The 'atmosphere': what a dull name for such a wondrous thing. And it's hardly specific. I remember, as child, my great-aunt sitting with my mother at our kitchen table, a cup of tea in hand, saying meaningfully, 'You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.' If we took the same linguistic approach to things maritime we would use the catch-all word 'water' to replace 'sea' and 'ocean', leaving us with no way to indicate whether we meant a glassful or a half a planet's worth of hydrogen oxide, as H20 is properly know.
Not a really interesting opening paragraph, I'm afraid. It also needs to be said, it was an awfully depressing book to open the year.

This book is a pretty large overview of how the world's climate has gotten from where it was in pre-industrial times (and much further back) to what it is now to what it may become in the next fifty or hundred years. Flannery focuses quite a lot on the future, not just how we've gotten to this point (both the human forces at work, primarily through CO2, and the earth's forces as well), but what it'll mean to go on as we already are or if we make small changes or if we make sweeping changes.

I felt a little bit swamped, really, by the masses of information covered in this book, mainly because my understanding of science is often shaky at best. It wasn't that Flannery didn't explain the science, but I read the book spread out over several weeks and I'd often forget things by the time they were mentioned again or else I would understand the words but not really grasp how it worked.

What really stuck with me wasn't the science of how we've done it, but the anecdotes of how we've already changed the world – extinctions of various species, the break up of the Larsen B ice-shelf, the greater number of stronger weather events, and so on. I found, for me anyway, that the strongest parts of the book were those parts where he was giving evidence of change. I suppose that's maybe because even if I don't understand (or remember the meaning of) albedo or global dimming, I can and do understand what it means to say that golden frogs or gastric brooding frogs no longer exist. I can look at a picture of the polar ice cap and see how much smaller it has become and understand how that affects the plants and animals that live and hunt there.

I said before that I found this a depressing start to my year's reading. And it was because I was really left with this overwhelming sense that the politicians, businesses, people of the world won't get their heads out of their asses until it's too late to fix things. Flannery does talk about various ways to fight climate change on a personal level, but many of them are not practical for me (I don't make decisions on whether or not to purchase solar panels for electricity, since I rent) and others I'm already doing (like taking transit, rather than driving). But I do wonder how much change any one person can make, and that's what's depressing to me. I live in a province so heavily dependant on oil that I can't see things getting any better here, not for a long time. Anyway, a worthwhile read, even if it did leave me in a bit of despair about the state of things.

Tim Flannery has written a handful of other books including The Future Eaters and The Eternal Frontier (both ecological histories, the former of Australia and the latter of North America). You can read more about the book, including a much longer (and more interesting) excerpt from The Weather Makers' Introduction at The Weather Makers website.

Flannery, Tim. The Weather Makers: How we are changing the climate and what it means for life on earth. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2006.
Finished: 13 January 2009
Rating: 4 of 5* gastric brooding frogs
This was my 1st book in January, and thus my 1st in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

16 January 2009

Hummingbird Cakes

Quite a long while ago I discovered Hummingbird Cake. It's apparently something out of the American South, which might explain why I (coming from the Canadian prairies) had never heard of it. I had been looking for recipes for cupcakes with fruit in them and I found a cupcake blog with a lot of really cool recipes, including this one. Hummingbird cake tastes a lot like a more-cake-than-bread banana bread, with pecan bits and crushed pineapple. And it's ridiculously good.

I've only ever made hummingbird cake as cupcakes - mostly I find them easier to work with. You can share them at work more easily and icing a cupcake is easier than icing a whole cake.

Here's the recipe, for 24 cupcakes:

3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1-1/2 tsp vanilla
1 8oz can crushed pineapple, with liquid
2 cups mashed, ripe banana
1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350F.

Mix flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, salt in a good sized bowl. In a second bowl, beat eggs lightly with a whisk. Add oil and vanilla to beaten eggs and mix until combined. Add the liquids to the bowl of dry ingredients. In the now empty egg bowl, mix together pineapple, bananas, pecans until combined. Add to the rest of ingredients and stir to combine.

Bake at 350 F for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the pan after 15 minutes, until golden and a cake tester comes out clean.

I topped these with cream cheese icing and a half pecan. The icing recipe is as follows:

2 tbsp butter, softened
4 oz/125g cream cheese, softened
2 cups icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Whip the butter until creamy. Then add the cream cheese and beat until combined. Then add the sugar and vanilla; beat until smooth. Either spread or pipe icing onto the cupcakes in a thin layer.

Both of these recipes came from the aforementioned cupcake blog.

15 January 2009

Taco Salad Pitas

I'm playing catch-up a bit now, since this and a forth-coming entry are both from yesterday. Fortunately, I have no plans to cook tonight or tomorrow, so I shouldn't get too bogged down. So long as I don't go back to posting nothing, anyway.

This was a lunch I made using up some leftover meat from the last time my sister made tacos. (It's a common Saturday night dinner around here.) There isn't anything especially special about this meal, but it was really tasty. And easy. That's the best way to cook most days. The only real problem? I've now got the rest of that box of mini-pitas to use up. Or freeze, I guess. Dunno.

Greek-spiced Lasaga, Take Two

So, something like, oh, nine days ago, I said this: Tomorrow if I eat some of the leftovers, I'll try to take a proper picture.

I did take a proper picture. Too bad I didn't also post that proper picture. Well, here it is now. This picture comes with 100% more greenery than I ate the day I made the lasagna. It also has extra cheese melted over top because you can never have too much gooey cheese.

One of the nice things about lasagna is how forgiving it is, you can do so many different things and it'll still come out delicious. It's pretty hard to really mess up, unless you wind up with too little sauce (dry lasagna) or too much of anything. Anyway, this one? Definitely worth trying to kinda sorta recreate someday down the line. But maybe I'll put some spinach in it. Or add chopped vegetables to the meat sauce. Hm.

09 January 2009

5 purple quilt blocks

These five quilt blocks are ones I made as a swap angel for the Birthday Blocks group on Livejournal. This block is called Rose Dream (I think) and is done by paper piecing. I am pretty familiar with paper piecing, and this is a very simple pp project, but somehow I found it incredibly difficult. It took three separate sewing sessions to get them completed because I kept hitting a point where I couldn't bare to keep on working at them. Strange.

The person who requested these blocks asked only for varying shades of purple, so I dug through my fat quarter stash to get as many purples as I could. I'd found around 30, but managed to lose a few behind the washing machine, so I'm not sure how many I used altogether in the end. I was surprised to find that I had so much purple in my stash, though, because I'm not generally a very big fan of purple. But I love all these fabrics quite a lot, so I probably bought them all individually thinking they were the only purple fabric I'd ever like so well and suddenly I found myself with a couple dozen favourites.

This block really depends on having a good contrast between the two colours in each quarter of the block, and for the most part, I think I did a pretty good job with that. There are two quarters that I'm not overly happy with, but I think the recipient might end up with a few extra blocks (one of the people who'd disappeared without sending all her blocks has reappeared, so there might be some extra swap blocks out there) so if she doesn't like those "bad" quarters, maybe she could pull a couple of these blocks apart to result in four blocks, eliminating the quarters without much contrast.

Anyway, I really hope that Anna, the recipient, likes them when they finally arrive.

06 January 2009

Greek-spiced Lasagna

What? That doesn't look like lasagna to you?

So I took it out of the pan too early, and it hadn't set enough, and it really just made a big, sloppy mess on the plate. But it tasted quite lovely. This was a sort of... ethnically confused, mishmash of a dish. A bit Greek, a bit Italian, a bit... stuff I had in the fridge.

When I was in junior high (grade 8, I think) I had to take a Home Economics class, where we mostly did a bit of cooking, once a week. One of the things we cooked was something called Pastitsio, which seemed to be a kind of lasagna with a white sauce. I don't remember too much about it, except that it had cinnamon and nutmeg in the meat sauce, which I can't remember being very saucy, but must have had something to keep it from drying out.

In any case, I had a sudden craving for lasagna today when I was leaving work, which was a bit funny since I felt quite sick all day and actually hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. But I went around the store anyway for mozzarella and ground beef and tomato sauce and cottage cheese. (I know, most people prefer ricotta, but I grew up on lasagna with cottage cheese, so that's what I'm used to and what I like. I'm not sure ricotta could be bought in my hometown when I was a kid.) I had intentions of doing a very standard lasagna, with nothing special about it, but suddenly remembered pastitsio and wanted that flavour. Or anyway, the part of that flavour that I could remember.

So instead of using an Italian herb mix to flavour the meat/tomato sauce, I used cinnamon and nutmeg and a bit of mint (though I didn't have enough mint to make it a noticeable taste). And it was a flavour explosion on my tongue.

Or something, anyway, I also had mushrooms in the fridge, so I sautéed a couple of those and made a layer of them as well. That was a pretty forgettable part of the lasagna, but over all, delicious. Tomorrow if I eat some of the leftovers, I'll try to take a proper picture.

05 January 2009

Herbed Pork Loin Chop with Barley and Vegetables

I've had some motivation issues with cooking ever since Christmas and though I have been cooking, I haven't been particularly happy with anything I've made or interested by any of it. (I don't think I could name a thing I've eaten in the past week.) This was quite good, though, and I only really put in effort on... 1/3 of the plate. Maybe less.

The pork is something I've made before, I may even have photographed before, though I can't really recall. It's essentially just a pork loin chop that's been rubbed with crushed garlic and covered with basil, thyme, and oregano before baking. It's actually not anything overly special, but it's nice and it's easy. (And that was the effort part.)

The side dish, which took over the plate, is a barley and vegetable pilaf from Green Giant. What's on the plate is about 1.5 servings (it comes frozen in a 2 serving box) but since I wasn't making a separate salad, I decided to get in all my vegetables this way. I actually really liked it, for a boxed and frozen side dish.

It's a combination of barley, broccoli, red pepper, and edamame in a very light sauce of soy sauce, garlic and ginger. I always worry about frozen meals like this because so often they're really high in sodium, but this one for 1 serving was only 240mg of sodium (about 10% the recommended daily serving). It tasted a tiny bit salty to me, but only in the way that soy sauce tastes salty, not like it had been over-preserved or seasoned.

I think I'd definitely pick up one of these boxes again, maybe even eat them on my night shifts on the weekend, since I'm always at a loss for something to eat at 2 am when I'm starting to get hungry and am also cold and in need of energy.

Anyway, a decent dinner. And a new plate! It's actually a part of a two-piece set but until I make soup again I probably won't photograph it as it's meant to be. (I've got the same set in blue, so it's shown up here before.)

Turkey Pie with Vegetables

I meant to blog this last year, when I made it (funny saying that, last year, as if I weren't talking about something that happened a week and a half ago), but we had guests and things to do and it just didn't happen. It's also a little boring, but boring is okay when it tastes so good.

We had a pretty traditional Christmas dinner - turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cooked carrots, some salads. Actually, it was pretty much just last year's dinner but with carrots instead of asparagus/red pepper and different dessert. (My grandma brought pumpkin pie. Yum.) I did take a picture, but to be honest, I can't see the sense in posting it.

In any case, we made a smaller turkey this year and to get a jump on using up the leftovers, I made turkey pies on Boxing Day with half of the leftover turkey, leftover gravy, leftover mashed potatoes, and a bunch of cooked vegetables.

I didn't have a recipe and only really measured the meat and the vegetables, but for two pies, I used 4 cups of vegetables (carrots, celery, and onion), which I sautéed until soft and then positively doused them with dried parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. I didn't use enough in the end, but you need far more than tastes good on just the vegetables, because then you need to add enough leftover gravy to turn it all into a kind of thick paste. I use about 1 1/2 cups of leftover gravy, which had solidified into a solid mass, so I thinned it with about half a cup of water. Unless you like a runny pie, it should be thick enough that you can spread the mixture, but not thin enough to really pour it. (If you tipped the pan upside down, it should plop out, rather than pour out.) Next, I stirred in about 4 cups of chopped leftover turkey.

I split the mixture between two pie shells (mine were made by Pillsbury, available in the dairy case) and then topped them with enough mashed potatoes to make a thin crust over all. I can't even begin to guess how much potatoes it took. Right near the end of the cooking time, I brushed a little melted butter over the potatoes and crust in hopes of browning it up a bit. I don't know if it was the butter or just the heat that browned it, but there it is.

I can't remember how long I baked it, or at what temperature, but if you looked up any pot pie recipe I imagine it'd be a usable number - it's already cooked so you only need to heat through and brown the crust/potatoes. I think I did mine about 45 minutes to an hour at 350F, with a few minutes at the end under the broiler to brown it up a little.

It was delicious, even though I didn't put enough herbs in to get a really, really great taste. We had a fair bit of leftovers, so I had some again the next day and I think it was even better once it'd sat. Meat pies make delicious winter dinners.

The vegetables, by the way, were because I was in desperate need of something that didn't contain starch. Don't get me wrong, the pie was great, with it's mashed potatoes and flaky crust, but after piroshky, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pie the day before, I needed to eat a meal with a fair bit of green in it - cold sugar snap peas and a cucumber/tomato salad. Refreshing and delicious, even if they don't really match with a meat pie.