28 May 2009

Review: Spook Country by William Gibson

My boss and I have often talked about William Gibson's books at work – he's a big fan of both cyberpunk and steampunk and though I know very little about either, I do have at least a passing interest in them and enough knowledge of Gibson's older books to have a conversation about them. He'd recently listened to an audiobook of Gibson's most recent novel, Spook Country, but hadn't really liked it. He didn't really articulate what he disliked about it, but since we had the book for sale in our store, I decided to pick it up and find out for myself.

Spook Country follows three characters who eventually come together on different sides of a plot involving spies and a secret cargo container that everyone seems to want and no one seems able to find. Hollis Henry, recently employed by a not-quite-existent magazine called Node, is writing a story about locative art, a kind of high-tech art form that requires goggles to can tap into and display the virtual art. While interviewing Bobby Chombo, a producer of sorts for the art movement, she accidentally discovers a piece of his own locative art, displaying a cargo container, which he very much did not want her to see.

Opening paragraph:
"Rausch," said the voice in Hollis Henry's cell. "Node," it said.
She turned on the bedside lamp, illuminating the previous evening's empty can of Asahi Draft, from the Pink Dot, and her sticker-encrusted PowerBook, closed and sleeping. She envied it.

This book really defied all my expectations. I came into it expecting what I expect when I think of William Gibson: futuristic science fiction. Instead, I found myself reading a thriller, a spy thriller I suppose, taking place more or less in the present day. (I don't recall if there's any specific dates mentioned, but it's post-September 11, 2001 and there are still PowerBooks and iPods and life seems more or less as we know it.) I found it disconcerting because the things I thought were going to be important – the locative art I mentioned before and the GPS technology used to position it – were of nearly no importance in the story. It's part of the framework of how Hollis Henry winds up in Vancouver on the trail of a mysterious cargo container, but it's ultimately not that important.

Still, I enjoyed the story once I could stop waiting for something strange and science fictiony to happen. The mystery of it was interesting – why does anyone care about that cargo box, why do so many people care about it, what's in it – and the ultimate reason Bobby Chombo's employers are seeking out the container and their response to finding it is simultaneously anti-climactic and entertaining. (I wish I could say what I think of their response, but I couldn't really without spoiling too much.) In any case, I found it an engaging story, and a fairly quick read.

William Gibson is probably best known for his novel Neuromancer, but he's also published several other novels and books of short stories, including Pattern Recognition and Burning Chrome. William Gibson's website and blog can be found here.

Gibson, William. Spook Country. Toronto: Berkley, 2009.
Finished: 04 May 09
Rating: 4 of 5 Mongolian Death Worms
This was my 1st book in May and my 15th in 2009.

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

Review: The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by MG Vassanji

I picked this one up as part of my continuing efforts to read all the winners of the Giller prize. (I've read 12, I think, of 16.) MG Vassanji is a two-time winner of the prize and his other winner, The Book of Secrets, is still on my to-be-read pile. (It's also on my mental to-be-bought list, but one day...)

From The New Yorker, a description: In this novel set among Kenya's Indian diaspora, two ill-fated loves—Vikram Lall's for a young English girl, his sister's for a young African man—symbolize their family's tenuous social position as neither privileged oppressor nor righteous oppressed. Vikram, now in exile in Canada, recounts Kenya's painful process of decolonization and his own role laundering money for government officials, an activity that he justifies as the survival tactic of one considered "inherently disloyal" because of his race.

Opening paragraph:
My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country's treasury in recent years. I head my country's List of Shame. These and other descriptions actually flatter my intelligence, if not my moral sensibility. But I do not intend here to defend myself or even seek redemption through confession; I simply crave to tell my story. In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country, I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose. I have even come upon a small revelation – and as I proceed daily to recall and reflect, and lay out on the page, it is with an increasing conviction of its truth, that if more of us told our stories to each other, where I come from, we would be a far happier and less nervous people.

I enjoyed this book; I wasn't sure if I would. It has a sort of slow movement and beginning, a sort of memoir of someone you're not sure you're interested in knowing. But then the background and the history, the Mau Mau Uprising and then Independence and the corruption later began to interest me, as well as the in-betweenness of Vikram and his family - Indians who consider themselves African, but who nevertheless do not seem to belong in the country they call home.

I think what keeps me from giving this book a higher rating is the dispassionate retelling of the story. Vikram does talk about his coldness, but somehow his disengagement kept me just that much disengaged as well.

MG Vassanji is the author of several novels and a couple books of short stories, including The Book of Secrets, The Assassin's Song, and When She was Queen. Vassanji has won the Giller prize (twice, for this and for The Book of Secrets, as well as The Commonwealth Writers Prize. MG Vassanji's website can be found here.

Vassanji, MG. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2004.
Finished: 28 May 2009
Rating: 4 of 5
This was 3rd book in May and my 17th in 2009.

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

25 May 2009

Baked Chicken Kabobs with Quinoa Tabbouleh

I've had this window open for two days and can't seem to decide what to say. So here's the thing: I've been having stomach problems for quite a while and I, like anybody, hate going to the doctor. I couldn't hope to self-diagnose (and wouldn't bother trying - that's a good way to freak yourself out), but I decided to do an elimination diet for a bit and see if I feel any better while not eating some of the foods that often trigger people. And then I'll start adding things back and see if anything pops up.

I hadn't realized how difficult it is to cut things out. I mean, I don't like hot breakfasts, so cereal is usually my option. But I'm not eating dairy or wheat (for the first bit, then I'll start adding back) so that cuts out the cereal. (There are gluten free cereals, I know, but I don't like any of them that I've seen.) So I was looking up recipes for non-gluten grains, because obviously vegans manage without the dairy, but everything I find is still for hot grain breakfasts. I could get up and make myself a bowl of quinoa or amaranth with fruit and soy milk for breakfast. But I wouldn't enjoy it. So then toast would be my next breakfast option, but... wheat.

For breakfast this morning, I had an orange and a bowl of tabbouleh (made with quinoa, rather than gluten-containing bulgar) that was leftover from the dinner pictured here. It was a strange thing to have for breakfast, so much parsley and green onion and tomato. Tasty, but strange. I made a rice pilaf tonight which I refrigerated so that I can have that for breakfast the next couple days - just brown rice with a lot of vegetables in it.

In any case, this was the first elimination diet dinner. The recipes came from the book YOU on a Diet, which is not my favourite diet book out there. I find the tone kind of irritating, though I know they were trying to be playful about it, and at times I was bored by it and then the greatest disappointment: there weren't many recipes and I wasn't very attracted to many of them. I decided to try this chicken recipe because I mostly always like chicken and vegetables skewered together and cooked that way.

This particular version was a little dry for my tastes, though. You don't use any fat on kabob and no liquid marinade of any kind, so the fact that I left it an extra minute under the broiler made a pretty big difference. The chicken was tasty, but extremely dry. If you look at the bigger version of the picture, the mushrooms are all shrunken because they lost all their liquid but didn't have anything to reabsorb. They had a surprisingly great texture, though, for all their dried out skins.

The tabbouleh was a slight variation from their given recipe, since I used quinoa in place of the bulgar and left out the mint. (I didn't have any and didn't want to buy it just for this.) Here's the recipe I came up with, to serve 2-3:

1/3 cup quinoa, rinsed
1/2 cup water

1 tomato, diced
4 green onions, cut into thin rings
1 cup parsley, diced
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Bring the water to a boil, add quinoa and a bit of salt. Lower heat to low and cook 20 minutes or until water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let cool if you like.

Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables and toss in a bowl with parsley and the remaining ingredients. Stir in the finished quinoa, adjust seasonings to taste, and enjoy.

22 May 2009

Mushroom and Oka Cheese Tatin

So I found Oka cheese at the grocery store a while ago and bought it on a whim and then went, 'Oh crap, what do I do with this?'

Oka is a cheese made in Oka, Quebec, a location I know more for the Oka Crisis in 1990 than for their cheese. But the long and short of it is this: Trappists monks at the monastery in Oka developed this cheese, which is "a surface-ripened semi-soft cheese," using techniques brought over from... France. (I think.) I can't say I know particularly what that means, but I do know that it smells pretty pungent and isn't (for me) that enjoyable as is. However, once you cook it, it's very lovely (though I couldn't hope to describe the taste). I first had it on these mini burgers from Redwater restaurant here in Calgary.

Since I didn't really know what to do with it, I went to Dairy Goodness looking for recipes. I went directly to their recipe section, but just now I found their page describing Oka. The Mushroom and Oka Tatin recipe seemed like a good choice to me - I had pastry patty shells in the freezer that I needed to use, I have honey I don't like but don't want to throw away (might as well cook it, right? maybe the flavour will be disguised), and I do love mushrooms.

You're meant to use puff pastry, but I didn't want to buy puff pastry to do a single serving of a tart, and I had Tenderflake Patty Shells in the freezer, which I'd bought for something I've never made. (Also? There is an ice cube tray of frozen gravy that I made for that something I've never made. Yeah. I await the day a guest wants ice cubes.) So even though it wasn't going to work out quite right, I decided to use patty shells instead.

For the recipe, you cook the tatin in a ramekin with the pastry stretched over, then flip it over onto a serving dish once it's cooked. Patty shells come with a circle popped in the middle so that the "lid" comes off easily once it's baked and then you can stuff it afterward with the filling. You bake them from frozen, so I wasn't sure how it would work as a substitution for puff pastry. Hence my decision to try it two ways.

First, I thawed one of the patty shells before getting any of the rest of dinner ready. (I wrapped it in a damp towel to keep it from drying out, which seemed to work.) Then I made enough filling for two tatins, and started baking the second patty shell (from frozen, as it says on the box to do).

I baked the mushrooms without a pastry top at the same time and for the same amount of time as the one with a pastry top and couldn't really tell the difference between them. I think the mushrooms with the pastry top (the top photo) got a little more caramelized, but otherwise I couldn't tell the difference between them.

The pastry, in both cases, was pretty much a failure. You don't really see it in either photo, but it didn't cook properly. I left the according-to-directions patty shell in the oven longer than the box suggests, but inside it was still raw and oily looking. (I got impatient and just pulled it out of the oven unfinished, scooped in the filling, and took the photo.) The one cooked from raw was cooked quite nicely around the edges, but the steam from the mushrooms left it kind of sticky and damp in the middle and I couldn't bear to even try eating it. (I don't know if it had cooked through or not. I lean toward not, but it was quite nasty looking.) In both cases, I ate the filling and the crunchy, puffy bits from around the edges of the pastry cases and threw away the rest.

If I could work out the pastry issue (maybe, and here's a wild thought, I could use actual puff pastry like they suggest) I think this would be a great starter to a nice dinner or, with a salad, a really great lunch. It's gorgeous (though it'd look nicer with fresh thyme leaves across the top after it's cooked) and the filling tastes wonderful - sweet and savory and the mushrooms taste better than you could imagine.

Even though it didn't work out quite right, I didn't really miss having the pastry to eat with it; the crunchy bits were nice with the mushrooms, but I could have happily lived without them. I'm not quite sure how I'd serve mushrooms cooked in honey otherwise, but if I ever think of a way, I'll definitely try it.

19 May 2009

Spring Vegetable and Bean Soup

My brother-in-law brought home a big tray of cut vegetables from work a few days ago, which were good but beginning to dry out just enough that I didn't really want to eat them as they were. I thought that soup would be a good way to use up at least the carrots and celery - I don't eat raw celery anyway, I don't know if it's an allergen, but it makes my lips and tongue go numb if I eat it raw - and maybe the cauliflower as well.

Then, when I was reading Jamie's Food Revolution, I found the perfect recipe: Spring Vegetable and Bean Soup. It used some of all the vegetables I'd saved, except for green and red peppers (though probably I could have added some anyway) and really... just sounded interesting.

It's a very straightforward recipe, almost plain - the mirepoix cooked in a bit of oil, then chicken or vegetable stock added, then cauliflower, broccoli, white beans, and fresh tomatoes added and cooked through. At the end, you're meant to stir in spinach, but I had none so I skipped that. I did add parsley and some crumbled bacon bits for colour and a bit of saltiness, but it was a really nice, fresh soup. Hearty without being heavy.

It'd make a great vegetarian soup, had I skipped the bacon. (Hence my listing it as a vegetarian soup. I only used the bacon to add the saltiness because we've only got table salt right now and I've turned into a suck who prefers to use sea salt.)

In the background you can just see the burned edges of my cheese toast. The only way I eat processed cheese is broiled until it blackens, so that it's kind of oozy under the burned topping. I had a craving for that a while back - kind of like the boxed mac and cheese craving, it really doesn't happen often - and now I've got a package of processed cheese slices in the fridge that I feel too guilty to throw away. Occasionally I toast it up when I'm eating a light meal, and it's nearly gone (I'd bought the smallest possible package), which is a good thing.

17 May 2009

Asian-style Steamed Salmon

I signed up a couple days ago for a website called Goodreads, which is basically a library website with social networking capabilities. I'm not quite sure why I signed up for it because I've been happily using aNobii for quite some time, but I guess there's no real harm in having two different libraries online. I've never used the social networking functions at aNobii and I'm not certain I will at Goodreads either, but I do like having somewhere to keep track of all the books I own and when I read them. (You can find me here at aNobii and here on Goodreads.)

I haven't been the best at adding reference books to aNobii, so there are a lot of my cookbooks that have never been added. I actually do read cookbooks, but unlike regular books, I don't mark a date in the cover when I finish them, so I never remember to add them to aNobii. But since most of my books are packed away in boxes right now, I've only added to Goodreads the books that are in my bedroom or in the kitchen, which means that the majority of my cookbooks are listed there. In fact, of the 60 books that I had in my room/kitchen, 28 of them are cookbooks.


The newest cookbook is one from Jamie Oliver, Jamie's Food Revolution (published in Britain as Jamie's Ministry of Food). I've become a bit wary of buying British cookbooks because the foods that are common there aren't necessarily the same as the ones here and I sometimes get frustrated trying to track things down or trying to figure out substitutes. I had looked at some of Jamie Oliver's previous books but never bought them for that reason. And then too, I sometimes find Oliver's recipes a bit... I don't know. Ridiculous somehow, though I can't really peg what it is that makes me think so. I've watched bits of his shows and been interested by what he's doing, but have rarely had the desire to try it out for myself.

This book, with the quick read through I did in the store, seemed a bit different. More down to earth and sort of average (though I can't think of anything particularly wild and out there I'd seen him do on television) and so much of it very accessible, even for someone in the middle of the Canadian prairies. (Or the west end of them, anyway.)

This dinner is from that cookbook. This meal preps and cooks up in about 15 minutes, though it took me a bit longer because I was toddling around taking my time doing everything while half-asleep. The fish and vegetables are steamed together in a steamer basket over water while you make the dressing. I don't know that it'd work out well for a family-sized meal, but cooking for one (or two as the recipe suggests) it was perfect. Just one dirty pot and steamer basket, one cutting board, one bowl for the dressing, one plate to eat off, and I used the cutlery I ate with for chopping and mixing.

Taste wise it was lovely as well. The fish and vegetables were only steamed so their flavour was fresh and light. The dressing was a really nice complement, and except for the olive oil and lemon is almost exactly what I'd make to use on a stir-fry. (I'd use more soy sauce for a stir-fry and then afterwards add in flour or cornstarch to thicken it, but otherwise.)

The focus of Food Revolution is the idea of getting people who don't cook or don't cook much or who mainly just order take out or buy ready-made to start cooking. (Actually, that's the same idea as Ramsay's Fast Food.) Oliver's trying to show that cooking doesn't have to be complicated or time consuming and that it's healthier and tastier than ready-made or take out.

Oliver also puts forth the idea that people who buy the books should learn some of the recipes and then pass them on to other people so that they'll start cooking as well. So here's me passing on this recipe:

Jamie Oliver's Asian-style Steamed Salmon

serves 2
a large handful of broccolini or broccoli rabe
1 x 8-oz can of water chestnuts
a large handful of sugar snap peas
2 salmon fillets, skin on, scaled and bones removed (about 7-oz each, though I used more vegetables and only about 100 g fish)

a thumb-sized piece of ginger root
1 clove of garlic
1/2 a fresh red chile
1 scallion
2 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp olive oil
1 lemon

To prepare the salmon:
If you have a steamer basket, add water to a saucepan just below the level of the basket. If you don't but have a metal colander, add water about half way up a saucepan that will hold it. Put water on high heat to boil. Trim the ends off the broccolini. (I used broccoli because it's what I had, cut to florets). Drain water chestnuts in a colander or through the steamer basket. Add washed sugar snap peas. Lay the salmon fillets, skin side down, on top of them, then scatter the broccoli over. Cover the colander with aluminum foil and scrunch tightly around the edges to seal the steam in.

To cook your salmon and make your dressing:
Put the colander or steamer basket (with lid) over your pan of boiling water and let it steam for 8 to 10 minutes. While that's happening, peel and grate the ginger and half the clove of garlic into a small bowl. Finely slice your chile (I used a serrano pepper, because it's what I could get) and scallion and add them to the bowl with the soy sauce and olive oil. Squeeze the juice from half a lemon into the bowl. Mix together with a spoon and set aside. After your salmon and vegetables have been steaming for 8 minutes, peel back the foil to check the fish it cooked through, it should flake apart.

To serve your salmon:
Divide the salmon, water chestnuts, and veggies between your plates or bowls. Give the dressing a quick stir and drizzle it over. Serve with the remaining lemon half, cut into wedges, for squeezing over.

Oliver also suggests using cod in place of the salmon and asparagus or asparagus, peas, and greens in place of the broccoli and snap peas. I think it'd probably be quite nice like that.

My sauce came out chunkier than in the book pictures, but I didn't measure the liquids, so I might have had too little soy sauce and olive oil.

[Edited to Add: I found the snap peas came out a little more well-steamed than I like. I think maybe putting them above the fish while steaming would solve that.]

14 May 2009

LJ Birthday Blocks - May 10

These are the most recent quilt blocks that I've made for my birthday block exchange group. This block, called Depression Block at Quilter's Cache, is one of the nicest scrappy blocks out there, I think; it always looks really great when you use a ton of different scraps.

A couple years ago, Jenn at Quiddity Quilts made a full quilt of this block, in blues and creams, but I can't find where her picture of it is, which is unfortunate because it really looks great. And I'd totally link to it if I could find it again...

At any rate, the recipient of these blocks asked for burgundies and creams, so these are the blocks I was able to make using burgundy scraps that I'd had in my scrap basket. I did have to buy some creams, but only because I didn't want to use the same two creams throughout the block.

I think I'd like to make a whole quilt of these someday, though I haven't really decided what colour or if I'd like it to be more scrappy or something completely planned.

13 May 2009

40 Garlic Clove Chicken with Rice and Vegetables

So I'm in Saskatchewan on holidays right now, which means that I've been eating a lot of lunches out and not really cooking so much. Well, that's not true: I have been cooking, but I've been cooking things I've cooked before. I've been making things for my parents that I've made and liked in the past little while, so I've done the pork skewers and Thai Chicken Salad. Tomorrow I'm going to make Cherry Tomato Lasagna.

In any case, my mom wanted to try a recipe for chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. I've seen a few of these recipes around but my mom had one from a magazine that she wanted to try. It was a little different from most that I've seen in that it creates a sauce of the garlic, onions and tomato. The sauce was really delicious, especially when I mashed the garlic cloves into it.

Here's how I made it:

2 tbsp olive oil
6 chicken breast halves
salt and pepper
1 small onion, diced
40 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup white wine or chicken broth
1 can (28 oz/796 ml) plum tomatoes
1 tsp rosemary, dried
1 tsp thyme, dried

Heat the oil in a skillet large enough to hold all the chicken breasts. Salt and pepper the chicken, then brown it on both sides. Remove from the oil and set aside.

Add the onion and garlic to the oil and cook until lightly browned. Add the wine, bring to a boil, then simmer until most of the liquid is evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with a spoon, and let them cook 20 to 30 minutes or until the garlic is tender and the tomatoes have thickened into a sauce. (If it seems to be getting too dry, add a bit of broth or water to moisten it.)

Return the chicken breasts to the sauce and cook another 15-20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. When it's finished, you can remove the chicken and puree the sauce with an immersion blender if you wish or just leave it chunky.


02 May 2009

Mango and Chicken Stir-fry

This Cat Cora cookbook, Cooking from The Hip, is pretty quickly becoming a favourite cookbook. There's a lot of really tasty things in this book and it really is full of the sort of things that I can make with mostly ingredients that I've already got (or can fairly easily get) and can do in a short enough amount of time that I don't feel like I've wasted a bunch of my day on cooking and then cleaning.

Stir-fry isn't really something that I think of as needing a recipe; the sauce, maybe, but even that doesn't or shouldn't need a lot of work. This is a pretty standard recipe - soy sauce, ginger, garlic and diced serrano pepper to marinate the meat - and then vegetables of choice. She suggests, and I used because I had all of them, carrots, broccoli, and snow peas.

The thing that males this stir-fry interesting is the addition of fruit. Cora suggests peaches or mango, and let's face it: May in Alberta is not exactly peach season. It's not exactly mango season either, since mangoes (like most fruits) don't grow here, but I can get a nicer Mexican mango this time of year than I can get... Chilean peaches any time of year. (They're hard and never ripen properly and why even bother, really?)

Okay, I'm going to interrupt myself for a minute because there's this amusing story my boss likes to tell about bananas. My job - I work in a grocery store - is to deal with signage and labelling, but generally speaking we don't have a lot of control over what's printed on the signs. I mean, we could change most signs to say almost anything we want, but we could also get fired for doing so. And there are people in an office somewhere who get paid to decide what our signs are going to say. So someone, somewhere along the way decided to make the signs for bananas read: "Bananas - Imported." And one day someone came up and read the sign and said, incredulously, to my boss, "Bananas are imported?!" Like, oh my god! I'm never going to buy a banana again if it's not 100% pure Alberta grown banana. Where in Canada did that person think they came from? Our hidden tropics off the coast of Northern Quebec?

Which leads me to something else. Right now, there's a show on TV called The 100 Mile Diet (at least I think it's called that) which deals with a town or a group of people in a town in BC somewhere where they agreed to go on a 100 Mile Diet for a year (I think - I haven't seen the show). And I wonder how that would work in Saskatchewan, where I'm from. I mean... in my backyard we grew very small cherries, smallish plums, and small apples in the summer, but other than that, it's really not a fruit growing region of the world. (We do have wild Saskatoon berries, and presumably blueberries though I've never seen those. And raspberries/strawberries can be grown there.) And it's far too cold to be growing lettuce or other greens during the winter. How on earth would anyone survive such a diet without getting scurvy? I mean, yes, you could can or freeze a lot of produce (now) and obviously the First Nations people survived the winters there (back in the day), but I think it'd be a pretty depressing show wherein all the people on the diet find themselves losing weight, getting ill, and being in general incredibly frustrated by the experience. I don't know. I find the 100 mile diet both intriguing and maybe... pointless. I can imagine every one of those people on the show going out for a Tim Horton's coffee and a bar of chocolate as soon as filming was over.

In any case, what I wanted to say about the mango in my stir-fry was that heated up it became impossibly sweet and delicious. It was like some whole other fruit I'd never tasted before and it was a really delicious addition to the stir-fry. Something I'd try again, for sure.