Sunday, November 25

Christmas Shopping Online

We usually do most of our Christmas shopping on the internet. It's vastly easier, especially when Christmas includes traveling, and when some of your recipients of gifts live in different places.

Here are the sites I'm shopping from:

Things I Want Gift Registry - I've set up my wishlist here, and my shopping list for gifts that I want to buy. I've been keeping this for a couple months now and it's been very useful.

MoMa Store - Modern & design museum shops are great places to get unusual, interesting gifts.

LL Bean - They're having a free shipping "sale", even to Canada, so I'm getting a few practical gifts.

Nature's Gift - My favorite aromatherapy site, it's hard to go wrong here. Aside from the straight essential oils they have blends (which they call synergies), exquisite bath products, and some other mixes for external cleansing and health. (And some gift suggestions.) Oh, and they also have essential oil kits for someone who's just starting to get into essences. If you want to give a diffuser as a gift, I highly recommend the aromastone. While many of their products are a bit expensive (yes you are getting quality, but let's face it sometimes you need to safe money), if you get the "anointing" version of the synergies they cost less than $10 and are just as luxurious, in some ways more handy. I can also recommend Mountain Rose Herbs, though I wouldn't recommend buying precious oils from them, their quality there is not as good.

Occasional Gourmet - As I mentioned, I'm getting some spice mixes from here.

Perpetual Kid - Great for cheap stocking stuffers and silly gifts, especially if you are buying for the 13 to 18+ age set.

Bucky - Some of the nicest quality sleeping and back aids. They appear to be having a 25% sale, they don't say when it ends.

Freedom Filer - I can't vouch for it yet, but I've heard many rave reviews about this filing system. We'll get one for ourselves as well because our file is a bit unmanageable. Great for the 20 to 25+ age set.

LowBlueLights.com - As I mentioned before, these amber colored light filtering products help to maintain natural melatonin levels by absorbing blue light waves (amber, also known as orange, is the opposite of blue) which prevent the body from producing normal amounts of melatonin. Great for the insomniacs on your list. This is somewhere between a teasing stocking stuffer and a useful gift. The products here range from $4 lightbulbs to $80 glasses, so you take your pick.

Now & Zen - Home of the zen alarm clock. These are fantastic. For years I abstained because I felt they were too expensive and yuppie, but now I have decided that this is what alarm clocks should be like and if you can afford it, it's worth it. The small handy ones cost $100, they are not as conspicuous as the bigger clocks. $100 might be a bit much, but it's something to consider.

Update: Unclutterer has some great clutter-free gift suggestions, and more good ideas follow in the comments.

Today's Blend: Many Forests

This blend I just started is incredible. Four drops of cedar, three drops of spruce, two drops of fir, two drops of diluted lemon balm, one drop of lemon.

There are the two evergreens, spruce and fir, giving the blend its primary character--great and powerful and austere and alive. The cedar matches those essences in as another wood oil, and rounds them out with a base of sensuousness and familiarity. The lemon brings liveliness and focus, mirrored by a receptive, complex, musty lemon balm.

Wednesday, November 21

Small Quantity Spices

This would go very well with the previous recipe: I've recently come across The Occasional Gourmet, which sells small amounts of spices, packaged a bit like tea bags to preserve freshness. In particular, they also have blends which also sound truly wonderful.

I'm planning to order a bunch of the spice blends and a few of the spices that I would like to use, but extremely rarely, such as asafetida, aleppo pepper, and a few common spices that I'm not as familiar with like coriander. I'll give some of the spice blends to my mother and friends as christmas gifts, and keep the rest for myself. (Can you see me rubbing my hands greedily?)

Saturday, November 17

Chickpea Crunchies

Yum, yum, yum. We just ate these, and I'd happily eat some more. This recipe is from Mothering Magazine's recipe list.

2 cups chickpeas cooked, well drained
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt
paprika or chili powder

Preheat oven to 350F. In a bowl, toss the chickpeas with the olive oil. Add salt to taste and toss a bit more, check if you want to add more salt.

Spread them over a baking sheet (I used our baking pan) and sprinkle the spices over the chickpeas. Bake for 30 minutes.

Eat them the day that they're made.

Milk Pudding

As enamored as I am of Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, I haven't cooked very much from it yet. This milk pudding, or muhallabeya, is one of the first. To be honest, the end result was a little eh... however, it is incredibly easy to make. If, as I was, you're craving something mild and pudding-like late at night, this dish can be produced quickly and easily. Also I suspect that it's really the toppings that make this dish worthwhile to the palate. It could be a lovely sweet, filling, exotic yet mild end to a meal that could be prepared long ahead of time. Here is the recipe, with some notes and changes.

3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons rice flour
5 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon flower water (such as orange blossom or rose)
1/4 cup almonds chopped
1/4 cup pistachio nuts chopped
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon floral water
1/2 cup water

Roden offers the alternative of using 2 tablespoons of rice flour instead of the 3 tablespoons of cornstarch. Not having any rice flour, I used 4 tablespoons of cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of oat flour (for color more than anything). It seems that the cornstarch made some tiny little clumps. In the future I might actually grind rice in my coffee-grinder-in-which-no-coffee-is-allowed. I wonder how it would work with ground brown rice? It may be worth experimenting with other grains, as well.

Pour half the milk into a bowl and slowly add the cornstarch and flour, whisking to prevent clumps. Set aside.

In a saucepan, bring the rest of the milk to a boil. Add the cornstarch flour and milk mixture, stirring constantly. Put the heat on low and keep stirring until you feel a slight resistance.

At that point, leave the milk on low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring every so often. Be sure not to scrape up the layer that forms on the bottom of the saucepan; it often burns slightly, and if scraped up will add a burnt flavor to the pudding. A few minutes before time is up, add the sugar and floral water.

Let the pudding cool slightly, then pour into bowls. If serving appearance matters, be sure to pour into individual serving bowls, as it will solidify and look strange if served in scoops. Chill the pudding in the refrigerator.

When the pudding is sufficiently chilled, mix the honey, water, and floral water. Roden recommends boiling them to make a syrup, but to me that sounds like needless work and destruction of the enzymes in the honey. Decorate the surface of the pudding with a pattern of chopped nuts. (If you have no nuts handy, you could use ground spices instead for visual effect.) Pour the honey sauce on top of the pudding and nuts and allow it to seep in.

Monday, November 12

Cornbread Pudding

After making cornbread last night, we had a lot of cornbread left over. Actually, we'd eaten all the crust, since that was the yummiest part. To be perfectly honest, the center of the cornbread was not completely baked--you will recall that my husband forgot to follow the recipe, and by the time I checked in with him he was happily squishing the batter through his fingers (that's one way to mix when you forgot to melt the butter) and saying "Now what do I do with it?" So, as I was saying, it wasn't perfect cornbread. It was delicious and beautiful though, with all those unblended corn kernels. So I saved the rest for cornbread pudding--I'd been craving bread pudding for weeks.

I used another recipe from Cook's Illustrated, the one for bread pudding. I do think this recipe could be improved upon, but I'm going to have to make it a few more times before I think of how.

Bread Pudding

2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
4 eggs
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup sugar granulated
2 1/2 cups milk
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons bourbon
1 tablespoon nutmeg, ground
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 ounces bread (about 1/2 loaf), cut into 1 1/2 -inch square pieces (about 8 cups)
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus extra for greasing pan

Mix the sugar and cinnamon and set aside. Preheat the oven to 325 and grease a 9x13 inch baking pan with butter.

Whisk the eggs, yolk, and sugar together in a large bowl. I found the sugar to be slightly excessive, although I generally prefer less sugar--next time I'll decrease it slightly. Add the milk and cream and whisk. I actually used 4 cups "cereal cream" and 1 cup milk, since the local stores don't have heavy cream. Add the vanilla extract, bourbon, nutmeg, salt, and whisk.

Add 6 cups of bread to the liquid, reserving 2 cups of bread, and let sit for 20 minutes.



Pour this into the baking dish. Scatter the reserved bread on the surface of the mixture. Pour the butter into this exposed bread, and sprinkle the cinnamon sugar over the whole surface.

Bake for 45 minutes. When it's done, the recipe recommends that you let it sit for 45 minutes--but we could only manage 15, and it was perfect then.

Attaining Healthy Sleep

A good sleep schedule is important for your health. During sleep your body rests, readjusts, performs certain functions specific to sleep, and your spirit is nourished by its travels and contemplations.

Sometimes the modern life counteracts our ancient circadian rhythms. These are particularly responsive to light waves. Blue light waves wake us up, halting our production of melatonin--and lightbulbs, television screens, and computer screens all produce blue light waves. I recently came across https://www.lowbluelights.com/ which sells amber colored glasses and other such products which filter out blue light. (Amber, or orange as it is called under common circumstances, is the opposite of blue, being composed of the two other primary colors, red and yellow.) This is also the science behind the light box, for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder, which floods your environment with strong blue light waves. While I'm on it I might as well mention that I've heard that Amazon has the cheapest light box.

Every evening I dim the lights and put on some quiet, soothing music. I do best when I put the computer away several hours before bedtime, but sometimes there are things I want to do, so I'm getting an amber screen filter.

There are many other simple steps which foster healthy sleep. I keep coming back to this post on a New York Times blog, Curing Insomnia Without The Pills:

One of the most effective methods is stimulus control. This means not watching television, eating or reading in bed. Don’t go to bed until you are sleepy. Get up at the same time every day, and don’t nap during the day. If you are unable to sleep, get out of bed after 15 minutes and do something relaxing, but avoid stimulating activity and thoughts.

So-called sleep hygiene is also part of sleep therapy. This includes regular exercise, adding light-proof blinds to your bedroom to keep it dark and making sure the bed and room temperatures are comfortable. Eat regular meals, don’t go to bed hungry and limit beverages, particularly alcohol and caffeinated drinks, around bedtime.

Finally, don’t try too hard to fall asleep, and turn the clock around so you can’t see it. Watching time pass is one of the worst things to do when you’re trying to fall asleep.

It may be hard to believe, but studies show these simple steps really do make a meaningful difference for people with sleep problems.

Sunday, November 11

White Beans with Kale and Rosemary, and Cornbread

Tonight we dined on White beans with Greens and Rosemary and Cornbread. These are both recipes from Cook's Illustrated, which devotes itself to perfecting classic recipes. In our case, so that we can mess them up and still eat well. As you may notice from the photo, we don't have white beans--I thought for sure we did--so I replaced them with kidney beans. Also, what is not entirely clear from the photo is that my husband, who made the cornbread, followed the ingredients list instead of the recipe, just dumping everything into one bowl, disregarding the directions to keep dry and wet separate and to blend some of the ingredients--and it still turned out delicious.

The beans in particular would make a great vegetarian-friendly side dish for a Thanksgiving dinner.

If you're making these two together for a meal, start the cornbread first since it takes a long time to cool.

Cornbread

1 1/2 cups flour, all purpose (7.5 oz)
1 cup cornmeal, yellow (5.5 oz)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup brown sugar (1 3/4 ounces)
3/4 cup corn, frozen and thawed (3.5 ounces)
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
8 tablespoons butter, unsalted (1 stick), melted and cooled slightly

Thaw the corn and prepare the melted butter. Preheat your oven to 400F. Oil your 8 or 9 square inch baking dish. (Cook's Illustrated recommends pyrex for baking dishes. Yes, they also test equipment.)

Whisk the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl.

Here's the part that Gordan dispensed with. Put the sugar, corn, and buttermilk into a blender or food processor, and blend for about five seconds. Add the eggs and blend another 5 seconds or so.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and pour the wet ingredients in. Mix them together quickly a few times. Add the butter, and mix briefly. Pour the batter into your baking dish, and smooth out the surface. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until it looks deliciously golden brown and an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Cool in the dish on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip it out of the baking dish and cool by itself for another 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.

White Beans with Greens and Rosemary

1/2 pound white beans, soaked
1 bay leaf
4 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
1 teaspoons salt
2 pounds kale, collard, mustard, or turnip green (roughly 2 bunches), stemmed and washed and torn or cut into nicely sized pieces
1 teaspoons salt
2 cloves garlic thinly sliced
1 teaspoon rosemary, fresh minced
a small pinch of teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt
optionally, some grated parmesan cheese for serving

stemmed, washed in 2 or 3 changes of clean water, and coarsely chopped

As I mentioned, we substituted kidney beans. We also quick-soaked the beans--you boil the beans for five minutes, and then soak them for an hour. They could have done with more soaking or cooking, I'm not sure if kidneys need more time than white beans. I'll report back when I make this again.

The beans can be made up to 5 days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. Go through the beans, clean and rinse them. Soak the beans for at least 4 hours, if you aren't quick-soaking them. Simmer the beans, bay leaf, and garlic in a saucepan, partially covered, for 30 to 40 minutes. If you are making the beans and greens at the same time, start the greens now while the beans are cooking.

When the beans are done cooking, remove them from the heat, stir in the salt, and let them stand for 15 minutes so that they become more tender. A note: the original recipe called for 1.5 teaspoons of salt, but I found that slightly too salty. And when I find something too salty, that's saying a lot--I like my salt. So I decreased it to 1 teaspoon.

Drain the beans, reserve one cup of the cooking liquid, and discard the bay leaf. Store in refrigerator or set aside. Another note: the original recipe has you discarding the garlic, but I say nonsense to that--cooked garlic is delicious and nutritious, and while some might call it "unsightly" it mashes easily into the liquid, enriching the sauce.

Now before you start with the greens, I'm going to warn you about one detail. You're going to have to pour the greens into a colander, and keep using the sink for rinsing the pot. If you can keep the colander to the side in the sink, or place it into a bowl after pouring out the greens, this will work more smoothly. You'll also want to do all of this quickly.

For the greens, bring about 9 cups of water to a boil in whatever vessel is most convenient--I used our smallish stock pot. Add the salt and the greens, and stir until they're wilted. Then cover and cook for around 7 minutes, so that they become tender. Drain the greens into that colander and put aside.

Now rinse the pot with cold water to cool it down, and then fill it with cold water--enough to immerse the greens into. Drop the greens into the cold water, to prevent them from cooking further from their own heat. Now take handfuls of the greens, squeeze them out, and set them aside.

In a large pan heat the olive oil, garlic, rosemary, and pepper flakes on medium heat until the garlic has just barely browned. Add the greens, stir to cover with oil. Add the beans and reserved cooking liquid. Simmer for about 5 minutes. Season to taste and serve with the parmesan.

Saturday, November 10

A General Update: Classes & Music

I've also been reading SmellyBlog, a perfumer's blog. Lo my astonishment and excitement when I discover that said perfumer is located in Vancouver (where I live), and offers a fantastic course series called Botanical Alchemy... on perfumery, health, cooking, and bodycare with essences! I'd rather take the whole series, while only the last two classes are left now... I'll email and inquire.

I'm also planning to take a class in February, either on watercolour painting or portraiture.

Tonight Gordan and I went to a Suzanne Vega concert. Amazing. Astounding. A month or two ago we passed a poster about her concert. He pointed it out, I got all excited and then promptly forgot about it. A week or two later, he'd bought the tickets. Isn't he brilliant? I considered it a bit of a chore really... based on her second to last album Songs of Red and Gray I thought she'd changed far beyond the Suzanne Vega I knew and loved. In fact she has not. She sang lots of old songs, as well as songs from her new album. She has the same oval face and eyes, while looking her age in a wonderfully real way--a stunning combination. She talked a fair bit, and was quietly witty. The audience surrounding me was a little odd, but towards the end when some people were calling out requests I was impressed--I would really have liked to meet these local Vegaphiles! Anyway, I'm generally swoony about it.

While attentive to her lyrics and stories my thoughts became more fertile, as they often did while listening to that kind of music. We came home and had a fruitful discussion about creativity in our lives. I used to be a tremendously creative person, and now I am not. It is partly due to a gradual adaptation to Gordan who, while he adores all things inspired and unusual, is inclined to a very simple life himself. It is also partly the result of my old inner conflicts around art etc, increasingly resolved. We agreed to make more music together, one of the most accessible things for us, because it is one of Gordan's areas of greatest skill and I can generally sing as well. I still dither on whether to take ukulele classes or not. And I'll have to look and ask around further for a traditional folk songbook.