Foodie Friday: Adventures in Vegetarian Cooking

 Posted by at 23:57 on 10 January 2014
Jan 102014

A group of three friends plus myself comprises what I call my Lunch Bunch: we take it in turns to host the others for lunch. We only manage to find a date that works for everyone every 6-8 weeks or thereabouts, so it’s been awhile since I hosted lunch for them. This week it was my turn – we’d settled on 7 Jan.

While contemplating what to serve them, I realized they’d be here on the first day of the carnival season of Mardi Gras. I only make king cake during the carnival season (which runs from the day after Twelfth Night, 5 or 6 Jan, to Mardi Gras itself, the day before Ash Wednesday), because I find things are more enjoyable when I observe their seasons. Whether it’s Christmassy food, eating fruit while it’s in season in my own hemisphere, etc, it all works so much better for me when I keep it to its season. Obviously, King Cake was in order. But what else?

Adventures in vegetarian cooking …

With our Mardi Gras decorations up and the king cake a definite, some Cajun, Creole, and/or Southern dishes would go nicely. But two of them are vegetarian, and I’ve never come across vegetarian Cajun food in my life. Hm. I called up several vegetarian Cajun recipes online, and found that they weren’t too different from my existing ones, actually. Simply leaving out the meat and substituting vegetarian ingredients doesn’t always work, as I’ve learned with gravy. (I’ve yet to make a decent vegetarian gravy.) But hey, here’s numerous sources telling me essentially to give that a go with these things. Okay, so I did. I broke my rule of always testing recipes before serving them, because it’s a very friendly group. In the end, I served:

  • Red beans and rice – I modified my own recipe slightly for this; it turned out beautifully.
  • Gumbo (with rice) – this uses carrots as the main thing instead of meat. I didn’t like it, because carrots go sweet when you cook them like that. I might try it with potatoes at some point in the future.
  • Hoppin John – in honor of being so near the new year, I introduced them to this traditional New Year’s Southern dish.
  • Cornbread – our recipe has always yielded sweet cornbread, and I wondered how it’d taste with less sugar, so I halved it. It came out far too salty; I’m not sure if I added too much salt by accident, or if less sugar means less salt is needed. It was also more crumbly than usual. I shall keep tinkering with this.
  • King Cake – always a favorite. This time I filled it with blueberry and black currant jams. The filling looks a bit lacking – I think it needs the even-spreading texture of something like that cream cheese filling. As luck would have it, I plan to make the next one with lemon curd, which will have that same property, so I can test this theory!

We usually have a starter, then a main course, then a dessert, like civilized people, but I really couldn’t come up with a starter I could do with the time, ingredient, and cuisine constraints, so instead I served all but the cake together, and told them to look at it sort of tapas style: take a little of each, and then take more of whatever they like.

It worked out pretty well! We all got full enough, I think, and enough praise was heaped on the dishes that I think they all found something they liked. Phew! I knew I was going out on a limb with Cajun food in general – we generally stick to much less ethnic food. But I made it all extra mild so the flavors would come through, and it seemed to go over okay. Hooray! So now I’ve given them some education into the ways of the Swamp People.

The rest of what we’ve been cooking …
  • General Tso’s Chicken – added some seasonings to this to get a great dish. Yum!
  • Egg drop soup – tested making it with vegetable broth instead of chicken broth, for future possibility of serving it to vegetarians. Worked well! They don’t do this soup here – the bog standard British Chinese soup is chicken and sweetcorn, which is good, but it’s not egg drop soup. I’m so glad I found a recipe that’s nice and easy.
  • Hashbrown casserole – This was hideous. I’m trying to clear out the cupboard, and found a can of cream of chicken soup (lord knows why I had that). Did a search on for recipes using this, and thought, hey, we love hash browns, can’t go wrong with this, right? Wrong. It felt like sacrilege in the kitchen to put perfectly lovely hash browns into a casserole, and at the table we confirmed it was. Ho hum. Live and learn!
  • Pasta bake – This was a decent start. I found this one because I was trying to use the can of tomato soup I found lurking in the back of the cupboard. Mission accomplished! We’ll keep this recipe, and improve it gradually.
  • Lemon curd – Chris finished the jar I made him for Christmas ages ago, so I made him another jar. He’s really liking this new cooking spree. 😉

That’s really all that’s worth sharing this week. We’ve just put the turkey in the brine so we’ll have roast turkey tomorrow night – no special occassion, just because they still had turkeys at the store (they’re seasonal here), so I decided we’d have another since we’ve finished most of what we cooked in November (we’d frozen it). On that note, good night!

Thinky Thursday: To-Do Lists

 Posted by at 23:57 on 9 January 2014
Jan 092014

Welcome to a new series, Thinky Thursday, wherein I share a thinky thought that’s been percolating in my head. This series will run when I have something to share, however often that might be. What’s a thinky thought? Tune in for a few of these and you’ll find out. 😉

A blog I started following recently is Hands Free Mama: she’s sharing her journey away from being overly focused on to-do lists, perfection, etc, and towards focusing on what matters: time spent with her family. It’s a thing that resonates with me, and most of her posts are quite inspiring. Her most recent post, Vow to Breathe, made me ponder. She shares her Vow to Breathe, her daily prayer, with us. It says, in part:

Read more …

Vow To Breathe

No longer do I want to feel like I’m always running late.

No longer do I want to feel like I’ll never catch up. …

No longer do I want to feel the brush of a hurried kiss on my husband’s lips. …

No longer do I want to feel depleted and empty.

No longer do I want to feel like each day is a blur.

No longer do I want to feel half alive.

Instead, I vow to breathe.

I vow to…

It’s very good and worth a read – go read it now. I’ll wait.

Anyway, I stared at that second line in particular, “No longer do I want to feel like I’ll never catch up.” I often feel like I’ll never catch up. I could only articulate one thought: “Yeah, sure. Of course I want that to quit happening. But HOW?” All of it, really – of course I want to focus less on my to-do list and more on enjoying time with my husband. Of course I want to quit feeling like I’m (or actually) running late. And so on. But HOW?

Now, she may have already told us; I haven’t really explored her site. Her book had actually just released that day; maybe the answer’s in there. But instead of looking into these options, I just mulled it over myself.

The thing is, for me, I need my to-do list. I function better with that list on paper in front of me, but whether I have it or not, I have these tasks that need to be done. Clothes have to be washed; food has to be cooked; dishes need to be washed. Life gets miserable pretty quick when these things don’t happen (I know, I was once a bachelorette.) So regardless of whether you have a literal list or not, you have these things to do, and they have to get done. You could get more mellow about whether or not they get done, but only to a point. If you get too mellow, you start to live in a sty with no water because you didn’t get around to paying the bill, turning your clothes inside out over and over again, and probably falling ill eventually. Clearly simply forgetting about your to-do list isn’t the answer.

No, instead we have to find a happy medium. Despite this being the answer to so many queries, it still somehow seems difficult. So I mulled it over some more. How to find a happy medium between “MUST GET DONE NOW!!!” and “Oh, who cares, let’s tickle and play some more!”?

But then I realized what I need to do: focus differently.

I’ve always thought of my to-do list as a set of tasks to get through (sometimes to suffer through) as quickly as possible so I can do something I want to do. The list has always been an annoying buzzing fly to take care of so that the picnic can be enjoyed.

But what’s on my list? What do I need to do? Why, it’s all the stuff that makes up my life. Schedule that date with that friend. Then go. Write that letter. Cook that meal. Reply to those emails. It’s my life. It’s how I’m choosing to spend my few precious hours on this planet. Wait, no, it shouldn’t be about getting through this as quickly as possible – I want to experience my life, and hopefully enjoy the journey!

I don’t know why I never thought of this before – enjoying the journey is exactly what road trips are about, and they’re just about my favorite thing ever.

Obviously this point of view won’t work for everyone. For one, what’s on your to-do list will have a huge impact on your ability to look at it this way – but then, you control what goes on your list.

The other thing I think many people will have to fight against is the massive pressure our culture puts on us to focus on the next thing. When I was in school, all the focus was always on the next school and how it’d be there, and how I should prepare for that. Now, conversations I have seem to always include what the next vacation will be of at least one person in the group. Having something to look forward to is important, but I think we’ve taken it to an extreme, to the expense of savoring the moment.

I encourage you to try, however. Rather than feel overwhelmed by what you have to do, rather than feel like you’ll never catch up, realize instead that it is precisely doing these things that keeps your life full and hopefully happy. If it doesn’t, then change what you do, of course. Savor whatever it is you spend your time doing: enjoy it for its own sake.

  • Stop and talk to the people you interact with in your shopping and errands; get to know them. It makes shopping so much less of a chore when you’re going to see familiar faces of people you know a bit about.
  • Banter with the call centre worker when you have to phone up the water company; try to make it enjoyable.
  • Take pride in a lovely meal, and the wonderful time it provides you and yours together to chat about whatever’s on your minds.

And so on. Enjoy the journey; quit focusing on striking everything off the list. That’s what I’ll be trying to do. Join me.

Travel Tuesday: Denman College

 Posted by at 00:56 on 8 January 2014
Jan 082014

Welcome to a new series, Travel Tuesday, wherein I share photos from our outings. Most will be daytrips (since that’s what we do the most – we do like our comforts of home); some will be longer. Some will be multi-part. I hope to post this at least most Tuesdays.

For this first one, I’ve decided to share the photos from my trip to Denman in April & May last year. These are mainly of the grounds, because I did manage to look around a bit in the mornings before class started, but otherwise, as you’ll recall from my year in review post, I generally looked like this:

I was at Denman for a week of sewing with the fabulous May Martin. I looked like this a lot. - 1 May 2013
Click for photos …

There was a long train trip, but it was pretty boring countryside, to be honest, and none of the few photos I took came out, so just imagine 3 hours’ worth of fields to start with. Oh yes, the one interesting thing was that there were less dry stone walls and more hedges. Right, so three hours’ worth of hedged fields. And then…

(Remember to click on any photo to start the slideshow.)

My favorite pair of photos out of those are these two:

20130502_083544 20130502_084848

What a difference the angle makes!

And then it was home sweet home. 🙂

Foodie Friday: What we’ve been cooking

 Posted by at 08:09 on 3 January 2014
Jan 032014

Awhile back, I used to do regular Dinner Tonight posts, crossposted to a few places. Then I got bored of cooking and, by extension, of talking about food. After leaving it for some time, cooking is fun again, and I’d like to talk about what we make again.

In the interim, however, I’ve seen some of those old dinner tonight photos, and they really were quite dreadful; I’ll spare us all the photos, and instead just share the recipes and my thoughts on them. I’m also not doing this daily; weekly will suffice. I’m also not planning to talk about or necessarily share every recipe I’ve made in the week, since that gets repetitive. I’ll usually be linking to my own online recipe book (the one Chris made me); you are warned that that is very much a living thing, since I adjust recipes constantly. If you want a copy that’s not subject to change, print it (or print it to pdf). All those caveats in place, let’s get started!

First up, what was for dinner on Boxing Day?

We had a (mostly) English Roast Dinner on Boxing Day when the in-laws came over. Pulled pork isn’t a usual feature at an English Roast dinner – usually it’s a roast of some sort – but we decided to introduce the in-laws to it since:

  1. the timeline for cooking it was convenient for us (we could cook it in advance and then warm it up),
  2. we knew we’d have turkey at theirs on Christmas Day and we didn’t want it two days in a row,
  3. beef isn’t an option (mother-in-law doesn’t like it), and
  4. we have a rule against serving things we’ve never tried before, which limited our options for preparations of large hunks of meat. Clearly this is something I should address before next Boxing Day.

So, we had:

  • Pulled pork – always a favorite recipe for us (thanks, wraith!). Instead of mixing it with our usual barbecue sauce or making it into cochinita pibil, we just mixed it with regular gravy, and it was quite good – it was even a hit with the in-laws!
  • Roast potatoes – always a favorite.
  • Mashed potatoes – I do prefer these ones done with the ricer.
  • Carrots, peas, corn, gravy
  • Stuffing – this came out okay. I’m still struggling with it.
  • Yorkshire puddings – I love these things. On Boxing Day night, they deflated, but I think I’ve cracked it now: using bread flour gives more gluten, yielding a firmer structure that doesn’t deflate as much, and it has a better chew. Definitely doing that from now on. Some crazy people think Yorkshire puds should only be had with beef – I say we should have them all the time, with almost anything!
  • Chocolate cake – Hoooray, I have a keeper! I have searched high and low for a good chocolate cake recipe: moist, chocolately, not fudge: apparently it was a tall order. I finally found the cake! Hip hip hooray!
  • Red velvet cupcakes – we frosted these with green and white icing, just for the fun of it. Red & green aren’t really Christmas colors here – there’s even a rhyme that says “Red and green should not be seen”, but red and green still means Christmas in this house.
  • Mini golden syrup sponges – Yum! We’d tested this the week before and they were absolutely delicious – and reheated well, so we decided they would do nicely. Then when the day came, they took three times as long to bake and never did rise as much or get browned. I finally realized why – the next day. I’d (knowingly) substituted the plain flour for the self-raising, but forgotten to add in the baking powder and salt that you need to do for that substitution. Just too busy in the kitchen that day, and it slipped through the cracks! I’ve rewritten the recipe now to include those (I refuse to buy anymore self-raising flour, since it took me about three years to get through my last bag, and all it is, literally, is plain flour with baking powder and salt added). Amazingly, they were still pretty tasty.

What else we’ve been cooking …
  • Pizza – with this crust and this sauce (made without any of the meat), loads of lovely toppings, and a side of salad. I forgot how good pizza could be. That was delicious, and will make a regular appearance on our menu once again.
  • Turkey Enchiladas – with this sauce and Mexican rice on the side. I love that Mexican rice recipe. Not only is it tasty, but it freezes and reheats beautifully.
  • Alfredo Shrimp Tilapia, broccoli & cheese (the rest of the alfredo), carrots, peas, and rice. This is our traditional New Year’s Eve meal. It is tasty. 🙂
  • Hoppin John – it is traditional where I come from to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck in the coming year. We’ve finally adopted that tradition. I’m still tinkering with this recipe; first it was too bland, and now I think it’s too seasoned. I’m sure I’ll get there eventually.

That’s really all the interesting stuff we’ve had lately, so I shall close this for now!


 Posted by at 01:20 on 3 January 2014
Jan 032014

I was amused that someone finally commented on my use of the word yall – for the first time. In a meta way, he’s amused that I use yall instead of you. I’ve been waiting five and a half years, bracing myself with each new listener to my use of that word for confusion, mockery, derision, and the like. Every time, they just roll with it: they understand what I mean and get on with the business at hand. I’m surprised every time, to be honest. Today, comment finally came – from someone who’s known me basically that whole time because he works at my greengrocer’s – and it wasn’t derogatory at all. The English aren’t cold or reserved; they just take longer to warm up than Americans, that’s all. 😉

I was so busy being surprised that someone’s finally commented on that word choice that I forgot to correct him. He said he knows it’s just my accent — but it isn’t at all. It’s a word choice, not an accent, and a very deliberate word choice. Yall is a wonderful word whose formal equivalent is simply missing from English. Other languages have it; English just apparently forgot that the unambiguous plural you is a good word to have. Admittedly, having that ambiguous plural and singular you (you) is useful at times, but so is having that unambiguous plural you – and the only one I know of is yall. Thus, I use it – do yall know a better word? 😉

Web Wednesday: Interesting Things From Around the Web

 Posted by at 23:58 on 1 January 2014
Jan 012014

Welcome to a new series, wherein I share with you some of the interesting, cool, freaky, amusing, and otherwise evocative things I come across online. I don’t want my blog to become just a republisher of others’ content – there’s plenty of that out there already – but some of the stuff I find is entirely too cool to not share. Like what, you ask? Well, there’s…

Click to discover!
Photograph by MANUEL M. ALMEIDA

Photograph by Manuel M. Almeida

Photograph by David Doubilet.

Photograph by David Doubilet.

Made by Rick Mabry.

Made by Rick Mabry.

A water vortex in the open ocean – read more here. Suddenly, Jesus… A funny story from here. Sharp bellied and nearly flat, razorfish swim in perfect formation as they rush for cover among the branches of a red sea whip. Read more here. A nifty little animation made by a professor of mine, Rick Mabry. Animation here.
  • Dilbert: A new facial expression to scare away the weak.
  • The Laziest Human – that’s what that author calls him; I actually thought he was quite clever, myself.
  • Mental Floss: 12 Things You Might Not Know About The Twelve Days of Christmas
  • YouTube: The Amazing Machine (a Mousetrap-like construction) – really worth a watch!
If you like children, don't click on this one.

If you like children, don’t click on this one.

A brilliant classic Volkswagen ad from here. Traumatize small children this winter in 6 easy steps – find the rest here. A hilarious tweet. Hilarious – amazing customer service from Bic.

Year in Review: Photographic highlights from 2013

 Posted by at 22:56 on 1 January 2014
Jan 012014

I always feel daunted by all the reflective posts at this time of year; I generally don’t have deep thoughts in this week between Christmas and New Year’s. Maybe I’m just too busy flomping from the hectic season, I don’t know. Anyway, this year I’ve decided I will at least reflect a bit: here, enjoy a smattering of our photos from the year.

I know, these sorts of posts usually have their place in the days leading up to 31 December, not on 1 January. I’ve always had a problem with punctuality. Ho hum. Besides, the year wasn’t over yet – something interesting could’ve happened!

Chris has found and installed for me a great new photo widget (thanks to John Scalzi for using it so I knew it existed), which I didn’t really explain in my last post. Click on the blue arrow as ever, and then if you want, you can click on any of the photos to start the slideshow view – where you’ll be able to do things like read the whole caption and look at all the photos by using the left and right arrows.

On with the photos!

Happy Birthday, Logan! — A Trip to Chatsworth

 Posted by at 10:00 on 28 December 2013
Dec 282013

Today’s my eldest nephew’s 9th birthday – Happy Birthday, Logan! We’ve sent him a book that is set in my local area: Chatsworth House, a stately home dating to the 1550s which is the home of the Duke of Devonshire. Since I’ve visited Chatsworth House, I thought Logan might like to see some photos of what it looks like these days, either before or after he reads that book. Others might enjoy it, too.

We went on 30 August, 2008, so it’s a bit of a blast from the past to look at these photos, but I’m sure it hasn’t changed too much since then.

First we explored the grounds …

The part of the house they’ve opened to the public is the part they built in anticipation of King William and Queen Mary (reigned 1689-1702) coming to visit. How the other half lives: houseguests? Time to build another wing onto the house! The visit never happened, but it does make for a good showpiece to open for tours. There weren’t any guided tours available, so I got an audio tour and listened to that.

Then we went into the house …

Then we looked around outside the house a bit …

Then we were home! Hope yall enjoyed the trip. 🙂

A few photos

 Posted by at 17:12 on 12 December 2013
Dec 122013

A few photos from my wanderings yesterday. Click on any to bring up the nifty new gallery way to see them, clicking from one to the next. Let me know what you think of this new plugin!