Jan 022016
 

Over the Christ­mas break I made a couple of dips, one of which got bet­ter reviews than the oth­ers. This is not a recipe for pur­ists, since a real tapen­ade should have anchovies in it, but I didn’t have any and my fam­ily doesn’t like them any­way.

None of the quant­it­ies are exact. The sun-dried toma­toes were loosely packed in the meas­ur­ing cup and I didn’t meas­ure the olives, just drained the can and tossed them in the food pro­cessor. I didn’t chop any­thing before put­ting it in the food pro­cessor.

  • Approx 2 cups black olives (con­tents of one can, 398ml size). I used Cali­for­ni­an black olives since those were in the cup­board, next time I’ll prob­ably use Kala­mata olives.
  • Approx 3/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried toma­toes; let most of the oil drip off but not all of it.
  • 5 cloves of gar­lic.
  • 2 tbsp capers

Pro­cess in a food pro­cessor until finely chopped. If it’s too dry, add a few drops of olive oil (or oil from the sun-dried toma­toes).

Jan 252014
 

If you've ever browsed through, or read, one of those self-help books that promises life will be perfect if only you think good thoughts, or that success in a business comes from setting goals and striving to meet them, you may have had the niggling thought that there might be something missing in the rosy pictures these books paint. If so, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking might be the right book for you. I haven't reviewed many of the books I've read recently, but this struck me as important enough to do so.

The book talks about how always trying to be happy, thinking only positive thoughts, and trying to pretend bad things never happen to people doesn't work to make us happy; there is real value in confronting our fears and worries and working through the worst-case scenarios as well as the best-case dreams. The author points out that fear of failure makes businesses blind to the reality that setting goals and doing things in the same way as a successful company doesn't bring success in and of itself.

The chapter called 'Goal Crazy' got me adding bookmarks: it's about how goals often don't work, and it's not just because companies and people set the wrong ones, but because setting goals at all often means neglecting other important aspects. Examples include people determined to succeed in business who end up divorced and with health problems, or companies who focus on sales and starve the research department of necessary funds. Interesting stuff indeed, and lots to think about.

The author discusses various philosophies and methods to accept life without the 'think positive at all times' mantra, including stoicism, meditation, Eckhart Tolle's teachings, and the Mexican tradition of memento mori, and teases out the similarities between these. In the final chapter, entitled 'Negative Capability', he comes to the conclusion that happiness includes negative thoughts and emotions as well as positive ones. This is a grounded happiness, rather than something fleeting that depends on one's mood. This, to me, sounds like something worthwhile (and achievable).

Dec 112013
 

My Mum used to make ginger beer on the farm. We would seal it in the glass bottles with bottle caps that you tapped on with a hammer, trying hard not to break the glass. A bottle or two would occasionally explode during the fermentation process, which was exciting, and messy.

I've taken to making it. Home-made ginger beer is a refreshing, fizzy drink, much less sweet than commercial soft drinks, with a pleasing zing. There is a small amount of alcohol in it due to the yeast-making-bubbles fermentation step, but it's minimal. The process of making it is fun, teaches the kids something about chemistry, and is much less messy with the advent of PET bottles.

The process is reasonably simple. You start with a ginger beer plant (actually a fungus yeast and a bacterium; more details here). You feed it ginger and sugar every day until it's ready, then add the liquid to a mixture of water, sugar, and lemon juice. Bottle, store for a few days, and enjoy!

There are a number of places on the internet you can get a ginger beer plant. I made my own; as a consequence it may not be a 'real' ginger beer plant, but given the ginger beer it produces is good, I'm not bothered by that fact. There are lots of variations; this is the recipe I follow.

To make the plant, put the following ingredients in a jug or jar.

  • 8 organic sultanas (golden raisins). You need organic (or other unprocessed, if you're lucky enough to be able to get them) to get access to the natural yeasts that live on the sultana skins. Modern processed sultanas are too clean and don't have those yeasts on them, so the ginger beer won't ferment properly.
  • ¼ cup lemon juice. Use real lemons to get the juice, not something that comes in a bottle. Organic is nice, but not necessary.
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest. Make sure you wash the lemon first to get rid of any coating that might interfere with the yeast.
  • 1 tablespoon sugar. I use white sugar, but you can use any type.

  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger. You can also grate fresh ginger if you like, but I find that's too much work.
  • 2 cups water. I usually use ordinary water, since our tap water isn't too heavily chlorinated. If you wouldn't drink your tap water, use bottled or filtered (but not distilled).

Stir, and cover the jar loosely with a cloth. You want air to get in (for the natural yeasts) but not bugs (in summer this is a magnet in my kitchen for fruit flies). Keep at normal room temperature. Feed every day with 2 teaspoons ground ginger and 2 - 4 teaspoons of sugar (I use 4, you may like it slightly sweeter or less sweet). After a couple of days, you should notice some bubbles in the mix, and even a slight smell of fermentation as the natural yeasts go to work on the sugar and ginger. The plant will be more active in summer, when the kitchen is warmer.

After a week or three (the period depending on how much time I have in any given week), make the ginger beer. You will need around 12 one-litre PET bottles. If you don't have those at home, a local beer-brewing shop will be happy to sell some to you, complete with the caps. Wash in soapy water, and rinse to get the bubbles out. You don't need to sterilise the bottles, I find the usual detergents to be adequate.

In a large pot, boil 5 cups of water with 3 cups of sugar. Stir to make sure the sugar is all dissolved, then take the pot off the heat. Add the juice of three fresh lemons (yes, the prohibition against bottled lemon juice applies here too). If you have small lemons, make that the juice of four lemons. Place a clean cloth (an old linen tea towel, for example) over a sieve or colander and pour the ginger beer plant through the cloth into the pot. Squeeze the cloth to get as much liquid out of the plant and into the pot as possible. Add 7 litres of water to the pot (same comments on the water as above; I use tap water). Bottle the ginger beer, leaving some space at the top of the bottle for expansion.

The contents of the cloth are the ginger beer plant itself. Take approximately half of it, put in a clean jar with two cups of water, and feed. I also put another couple of sultanas in at this stage. This is the basis for the next batch of ginger beer, so feed every day as before. Give the other half of the plant to someone, or add to your compost bin. The plant gets better as it ages, so it's worthwhile keeping it going rather than starting new each time.

After a couple of days, you should see some small bubbles in the bottles, and the bottles should be firmer. This stage may take a couple of days longer in winter than summer. You can drink the ginger beer at this stage, but it tastes better if you can leave it at least a week.

May 202013
 

Jan Wong is a well-known journalist and author in Canada. I'd read some of her other books, and then a friend suggested I read her memoir about depression, "Out of the Blue" (amazon.com link, amazon.ca link). For a summary, read Globe's Reaction to Jan Wong Depression Put Journalism in a Sad Place .

Jan Wong's book details not only how a person in a high-stress job can hit a wall when something goes wrong, but also how the company that person is working for can help, or make it all worse. In her case, it was all much worse than it needed to be. I admit, over here in Vancouver, the entire kerfuffle that started her spiral into depression evaded my attention (and, I suspect, the attention of most people who aren't avid Quebec/Ontario watchers).

This book is more than a memoir of one woman dealing with depression; it also makes it clear how many people suffer or have suffered from depression, whether they've been formally diagnosed or not. There's a stigma attached to depression that makes it hard for people to admit they might have it and so they battle on and through. I suspect, for example, that my mother suffered from depression after my parents divorced, but it isn't something she would have ever admitted to herself, let alone anyone else. Some passages in the memoir are hard to read (especially, for me, the effects on her family), but in the end it's a positive book. I'm glad I read it, I learned a lot about the medical aspects (e.g., that depression can be triggered by external factors, or can be due to an internal predisposition, or a combination of the two). Neither the triggers (often stress and/or insomnia) nor the reactions (fight or flight, anhedonia) are widely understood. I didn't know, for example, that depression is often a short-term condition, that medications take so long to take effect, that so many famous people suffer from chronic depression.

Recommended for anyone who works in the corporate world, or has more than a few friends and relations. You may be lucky enough to never work with or be close to someone who has or has had depression, but even so, it's worth getting an appreciation for what it's like. Chances are, someone you know has it, had it, or will have it in the future.

Jun 102012
 

It was the newly six-year-old's birthday party yesterday. I booked a package at a local community centre that provides party leaders, games for 45 minutes in a gym, and a private room with tables and chairs for lunch and cake after the games. The party leaders did all the decorating and clean-up afterwards, as well! I organized most of the food for the random assortment of around 20 kids, aged between 4 and 6, and their parents. Which meant providing stuff the kids would eat, and stuff the parents would eat.

One thing I discovered a couple of years ago: most kids love grape tomatoes and sugar snap peas, even if some insist on opening the latter and only eating the miniature peas inside. Those all disappeared quickly again. The cheesy crackers went, the grain+seed gluten-free crackers were mostly ignored. The adults loved the walnut-olive tapenade (recipe from Eat Like a Dinosaur: Recipe & Guidebook for Gluten-free Kids) but the kids mostly ignored it. They went for the mini bagels with strawberry cream cheese instead; the occasional kid preferred the the plain cream cheese. My husband made 70 small chicken kebabs which I paired with the "not peanut sauce" almond-butter based satay sauce from Paleo Comfort Foods: Homestyle Cooking for a Gluten-Free Kitchen (since there are a few kids with peanut allergies in the group). Some of the kids ate the kebabs, the parents ate a lot, and the remaining few were polished off by the party helpers after the kids and parents had had their fill. I also made carrot-beetroot fritters (those are beets for you North Americans), which the parents liked and the kids mostly ignored. I thought they were good, and even better with a dollop of tzatziki on them.

For dessert we had store-bought miniature cookies, and my son made marshmallow lollipops. Let's see, sugar, coated with sugary white chocolate and dipped in even more sugar? What 6-year-old could resist? Very few, as it turned out, although a couple of kids in the group don't really like sweet things and turned down the marshmallows. These were the same kids who turned down birthday cake afterwards.

The birthday cake was a basic minimal-flour chocolate cake, with lots of frosting and sprinkles. I like these basic cake recipes; they're the sort where when the cake is almost done you can turn off the oven and leave it overnight to finish and cool down. Light sponges that need precise timing are too much work I find; things happen and I don't get back to the oven in time and they're dry and horrible. A dense, rich cake has a lot more leeway in terms of baking, and a small piece goes a long way as well.

Afterwards, the kids all piled out the door to the lawn outside the community centre and ran around for half an hour, a lovely end to a fun party. As I'm writing this, my daughter is having a long nap, recovering from all the excitement! And we still have lots of cake, satay sauce, and a few fritters in the fridge.

Jan 292011
 

With a picky four-year-old who loves veget­ables but won’t eat much else (she won’t touch pizza or sushi, for example), and an eleven-year-old who’s only slowly start­ing to appre­ci­ate veget­ables and fruit (but loves both pizza and sushi, as a typ­ic­al Van­couver kid does), meal­times are often a struggle. On a whim a few months ago, I made fon­due and dis­covered how pleas­ant a peace­ful meal where every­one cheer­fully eats what’s in front of them can be.

Cheese fon­due the way we make it is sim­ple, and reas­on­ably healthy, as long as you have no lactose-intolerant or vegan people at the table. I slice up whatever veget­ables and fruit are around, and every­one has some bread and lots of veget­ables or fruit to dip into their cheese. There’s some­thing about the com­mun­al dip­ping that’s attract­ive, the col­ours of the veget­ables and fruit con­trast with the creamy sauce that each piece is coated with, and nobody keeps track of just how much every­one eats. 

Cheese fon­due is laugh­ably sim­ple and quick to make. I make it in the fon­due pot on the stove (we have a gas stove) so there’s less washing-up after­wards, and start to fin­ish it takes about 15 minutes.

I always wash and slice the veget­ables and fruit first. The staples on the table are an apple, some sug­ar snap peas, a bell pep­per (cap­sic­um) or two, some broc­coli spears, some cherry toma­toes. If we have oth­er veget­ables or fruit that won’t fall off a fon­due fork too eas­ily, those go on the table too. A loaf of good hearty bread, or a crusty French baguette, are also de riguer.

The fon­due itself has 400 — 500 g of grated cheese (about a pound) for four people. We like the clas­sic gruyère and emment­al (as well as a mix­ture). Brie is good too (cube it rather than grate it, and toss the rind as it won’t melt). Old ched­dar is a little too sharp for some, a milder ched­dar is bet­ter. After grat­ing, toss the cheese with about 2 table­spoons of flour. Heat slightly more than a cup of white wine (some­thing with some fla­vour that isn’t too sweet, such as riesling, gewürztram­in­er, pinot gris, or pinot blanc) in the fon­due pot until it bubbles gently. Stir in the grated cheese + flour, stir until the cheese melts and the fon­due is smooth and reas­on­ably thick, serve.

We’ve tried lots of dif­fer­ent com­bin­a­tions of cheese, wine, and veget­ables. Exper­i­ment­ing is part of the fun.