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.