Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 - the year in books

Inspired by a couple of other bloggers who have recently posted lists of the books they have read this year, I have decided I will too.  Only I haven't kept a list so I'll just start off with what I do remember and then add to it as and when I remember anything else.  I can't find all my library receipts and the few I have found from the start of 2010 have reminded how bad my memory is (maybe a bit worse in this case because some of the books I've read were so forgettable and/or the memory of them badly needed to be supressed).

I'm going to start with the book club books (I'll put BC after them) although I didn't actually finish all of them - I will eventually.  I've also managed to read a good few books from my unread shelf - these are mostly the kind of books you buy for 10 for 1 euro at library sales and flea markets when you see one you want to buy and then figure you might as well get another nine and just grab anything that looks vaguely interesting or is by someone you've heard of.  I did that a few times five or six years ago and am still working my way through the pile but at least making some progress on it now.

I will put (RR) in brackets after something I've re-read - there are some books, such as by Georgette Heyer, that I invariably read every year when the escapism of new fiction isn't enough and I want to escape into familiar stories that always make me laugh or cry.  I've re-read a lot of stuff that's already on my shelves this year, partly to stop myself buying new-to-me books and partly because I love to read good books over and over. 

And finally, I am including some non-fiction stuff which I know I read start to finish but am not including various cookbooks, books on preserving, gardening books etc. that I have dipped into again and again but not necessarily sat down and read cover to cover.

  1. The Women - T.C. Boyle (BC book which I didn't finish on time for meeting but should finish this weekend)
  2. Daddy Long Legs – Jean Webster (BC)(RR)
  3. The Thirteen and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear - Walter Moers (BC - not finished)
  4. The Disappearance - Philip Wylie (BC)
  5. American Gods - Neil Gaiman (BC)
  6. The Deep End of the Ocean - Jacquelyn Mitchard (BC - the one book club book this year that made me wish I had the time back that I spent reading it - where its reputation comes from I do not know)
  7. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon (BC)
  8. Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood (BC)(RR)
  9. The Omnivore's Dilemna - Michael Pollan (BC)(RR)
  10. Let the Right One In - John Ajvide Lindqvist (BC)
  11. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel (BC)
  12. Frederica - Georgette Heyer (RR)
  13. These Old Shades - Georgette Heyer (RR)
  14. The Foundling - Georgette Heyer (RR)
  15. A Civil Contract - Georgette Heyer (RR)
  16. Cotillion  Georgette Heyer (RR)
  17. The Black Moth - Georgette Heyer (RR)
  18. The Corinthian - Georgette Heyer (RR)
  19. World Made by Hand - James Howard Kunstler
  20. Nancy Astor - Derek Marlowe
  21. The Dwelling Place - Catherine Cookson
  22. Kate Hannigan - Catherine Cookson
  23. A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin (RR)
  24. A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin
  25. A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow - George R.R. Martin
  26. A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold - George R.R. Martin
  27. Food Rules, An Eater's Manual - Michael Pollan
  28. The $50 and up underground house book - Mike Oehler (not finished yet)
  29. In Defence of Food - Michael Pollan (RR)
  30. Bitten - Kelley Armstrong (RR)
  31. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - Barbara Kingsolver (RR)
  32. Growing Out of Trouble - Monty Don
  33. A Knight of the Word - Terry Brooks (RR)
  34. Angel Fire East - Terry Brooks (RR)
  35. No Humans Involved - Kelley Armstrong (RR)
  36. Brand New Friend - Mike Gayle
  37. Matters of Choice - Noah Gordon
  38. The Rabbi - Noah Gordon
  39. Ninja Soccer Moms - Jennifer Apodaca
  40. The Eye of the World - Robert Jordan (RR)
  41. The Great Hunt - Robert Jordan (RR)
  42. The Dragon Reborn - Robert Jordan (RR)
  43. The Shadow Rising - Robert Jordan (RR)
  44. The Fires of Heaven - Robert Jordan (RR)
  45. Lord of Chaos - Robert Jordan (RR)
  46. A Crown of Swords - Robert Jordan (RR)
  47. The Path of Daggers - Robert Jordan (RR)
  48. Winter's Heart - Robert Jordan (RR)
  49. Crossroads of Twilight - Robert Jordan (RR)
  50. Knife of Dream - Robert Jordan (RR)
  51. The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
  52. A Taste of the Unexpected - Mark Diacono
  53. A Man of Property - John Galsworthy
  54. The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Monk Kidd
  55. Beauvallet - Georgette Heyer
  56. The Film Club - David Gilmour
  57. The Appeal - John Grisham

Sunday, December 26, 2010

So much food, so little space

I've had a quiet few days but have ended up with a lot of food on my hands.  Because of working so late every night last week I didn't cook at home at all so I still had a big butternut squash to use up and because the farmers' market won't be back for a couple of weeks I thought it best to stock up a bit and use the opportunity of a three-day weekend to get some cooking in advance done.  But now my freezer is full and I still have things to cook. 

I bought two turkey pieces on Wednesday.  I wasn't really sure what the English for these two pieces is, it's essentially the entire leg cut into two.  I looked it up and am offered drumstick and thigh.  Of course, drumstick.  My goodness, how quickly you loose words when you're not using them every day.  On the other hand, the size of these bits is not necessarily what comes to mind with the word drumstick, which is usually a little thing that a little kid can easily hold in one hand to eat.  The drumstick was nearly 900g and the thigh nearly 500g.  Big difference in kilo price at 3.20/kg and 5.30/kg respectively but total price for each was nearly the same (2.59 and 2.76).  And I used both on Friday to make a casserole. So these were browned a bit in the pan:

And added to leek, carrots and onion:
And topped up with some stock:
And cooked it for about an hour at 150 and another three hours at a bit less than 100.  I just sort of left it in on that low heat until I was hungry.  Didn't plan a four-hour cooking time but the meat was just falling off the bone when I took it out.  So much so that I decided to take the two joints out of the casserole first and strip the meat from the bones entirely.  I'm glad I did because as I was doing so it occured to me that it'd be nice to keep some of it aside to add to the pumpkin curry which was the other big meal I wanted to prepare this weekend.  So I had a generous helping with some of the casserole and some boiled potatoes (afra, a floury type) and the rest filled up a big tupperware container and went into the fridge.  I did have a moment of something like disconnect when I was sorting out the meat as it has been a few years since I cooked a turkey and the only turkey I would have cooked in the last while would have been an occasional fillet from the breast.  And somehow we've gotten so used to all poultry being 'white' meat, so the look of this lot made me smile, thinking of those friends I have who would not want to eat it because they only eat white meat.

Not a great picture, especially since the steam rising from the hot meat obscured everything a bit but I left the white-handled knife on the plate for comparison. :)  The piece on the right is the thigh, which was almost entirely meat and on the left is the drumstick, which was more meat and less bone than I had actually expected.

I've also made a butternut squash lasagne, which I had a piece of yesterday and what would fit has gone into the freezer, which has left me two more small portions in the fridge for this week.  I had some of the squash/cream cheese sauce leftover as well so that also went into the freezer to be used as pasta sauce some evening when I'm stuck for time (I discovered that it defrosts really quickly).  For dinner yesterday I had a small piece of steak with mashed potatoes.  I boiled a big pot of the afra and mashed them and the rest of the mash is in the fridge waiting to be made into potato cakes this evening. 

At the moment I have the rest of the casserole heating up in a pot with some potatoes added to it and some of the turkey put back in.  Some of that will be lunch and the rest for during the week.  And I still have lots of pumpkin to turn into a curry.  It occurs to me that now may be a good time to take some of the pureed strawberries out of the freezer and use up.  I put a good few portions in there during the summer, planning to use them for smoothies but then my magic bullet died so I haven't had any smoothies for ages.  Book club is supposed to be held in someone's house next Tuesday as a potluck type affair so maybe I could concoct some kind of dessert that would use up some of the strawberries.  Leaving me a bit of room in the freezer for some curry.  Decisions, decisions.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wooly blankets

A couple of years ago I decided to knit a patchwork blanket for a friend's 40th birthday, which I then ended up barely finishing in time for his 41st!  And, being honest, I didn't finish it very well, it was very much a bung it all together any which way kind of business by the time I was finishing.  And it turned out to be totally unappreciated by said friend too, who I think barely even noticed it was there and almost certainly never used it.  Through a various range of circumstances, it has ended up back in my house with a few other things I am looking after for him and I told my brother (who was completely in love with the blanket and throughly disgusted that my friend appreciated neither the blanket nor the work that went into it) that if it wasn't missed, I would give it to him.  I can always knit my friend a jumper or something he might actually want.  But a few weeks ago I had visitors who had never seen the finished blanket so I dragged it out to show them.  And since then I've discovered it is so much better than any other blanket I have for curling up on the couch with.  You don't even realise how cozy and warm you are until you want to get up and the (comparative) chill of the air hits you.  I took a pattern for a baby blanket and made it lots bigger which means I hadn't taken account of the fact that it's so heavy it is completely dragged out of shape all the time.  And since my sewing/finishing skills are just barely above non-existent it has at least one hole in it already.  I will fix all that up sometime as well as perhaps blocking it properly and adding a small border around the edge.  But in the meantime, I'm enjoying snuggling under it during the cold weather and my brother may just have to wait a long time before he gets his hands on it.

I read a book a while ago called the Friday Night Knitting Club.  Although it was a novel it also, as far as I remember, included a pattern for making an afghan (which was knit by the various characters through the course of the book) out of various squares.  I'm a bit annoyed with myself that that book was mistakenly put into the charity shop pile before I had a chance to try it out but given how much I love this patchwork blanket, I can definitely see more of the same in my future.  But with bigger squares.  Each of those little ones took between 20 and 30 minutes to knit (I'm not a fast knitter)!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Posty surprises

I've had a couple of really, really horrible days in work with the prospect of more to follow.  I have found zero christmas spirit this year and don't even care.  Haven't decorated and don't plan to.  Haven't organised to do anything and don't plan to.  The fact that the holidays fall on weekends this year means we don't get a lot of time off anyway (if a holidays falls on the weekend here you don't get a Monday off to 'make up' for it), just the Fridays that are Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.  I'll head to the market tomorrow to stock up since they won't be back until the second week of January but I don't have any plans for fancy meals either.  Just a bit of time at home to cook and enjoy some simple food will be enough.

So with all this grumpiness following me around in work the last couple of days, not to mention the tiredness which is inevitable when you end up working twelve and fourteen hours a day (because a few weeks ago my boss started again on the whole 'make sure you leave on time' thing - so that people will get annoyed no-one is there to help them and he'll be able to justify hiring another person - but what he fails to grasp is the fact that if I am only there for eight hours, I can only do eight hours of work, which means things are left undone and then I have to work like a maniac to catch up), it was even nicer than it might otherwise have been to come home to some nice surprises in the post.  First of all was the not so nice surprise that is the (hopefully) final bill from the dentist.  Good: it's about two hundred less than his estimate.  Not so good: the health insurance won't pay me their part (about three hundred) up-front; I have to pay it first and claim it back from them.  Oh well.

But the very nice things were a christmas card from a friend who had a baby in July.  I missed seeing her by about a day when I was home and since I'm not on facebook and she kept getting my email address wrong I haven't actually seen the baby yet.  So it was lovely to get a photo of what must surely be the cutest baby in the world.  :)

And then I got a big envelope from a friend who only lives a few minutes away from me and couldn't figure out what she might be sending me.  It's a copy of an essay about a book we discussed recently, which she said moved her greatly and she wanted to share it.  What a lovely thing to receive.  So it looks like I will have to make time to do something special this weekend after all and make sure I have time to sit down in piece and quiet to read it. 

The world's not such a bad place sometimes.  And I can always comfort myself further with the fact that hopefully this time next year I will be heading in my notice at a workplace I like less and less all the time. :)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How to waste money

Decide that your christmas present to yourself will be something from your list of stuff it would be nice and/or useful to own sometime.  In the interests of frugality and not going overboard on buying new (to me) stuff while still in possession of lots of debt, decide second-hand books are the way to go.  Forget to notice that one small word at the end of the title (after managing to see it on at least ten booksellers before the one you chose) and somehow assume that because of the price, it must be the big book you were looking for.  Be disappointed that after forking out TWENTY-TWO POUNDS  (that's TWENTY-SIX euro, for one book! - thirty-four dollars so anyone reading from the US will understand my annoyance), what you receive is not a recent addition of the home canning bible, the Ball Blue Book of Preserving.

While the Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving RECIPES is lovely and interesting and all, it's a reprinted (so only a new edition by virtue of the fact that it's a reprint) 56-page book.  Big pamphlet might even be more accurate than book.  And frustrating because from what I can see online it is at least forty years old (if not closer to 70, which the following sentence makes me think might be the case: People must eat well to be well, and be well to do the work that must be done for Victory.).  And I know I've heard that not all canning recipes from pre-sometime in the 80's are actually safe to use.

And mostly annoying because it's my own stupid fault and I don't have enough money to be doing stupid things with it.  Sigh.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review - A Taste of the Unexpected by Mark Diacono

Far too many months after receiving a review copy of this wonderful book, I am finally going to share (that is an affiliate link by the way, if you click on it, I get a small amount of reward points from amazon - I think, I'm new to this whole thing).  It's not that I left the book lying around or found it so boring I didn't know what to say.  On the contrary, I've found myself reaching for it every couple of days to read another bit or re-read something (for a third or fourth or fifth time).  I think I've just been feeling the pressure of having promised to write a review.  And then felt so guilty about not writing it yet that I haven't even been reading Mark's blog, which I really miss.

So without further ado let me start by saying that this really is a fantastic book and I'd heartily recommend it.  The premise of the book is to introduce people to some varieties of food to grow that may not be traditionally grown (in the UK) but which are now more viable due to improvements in varieties coupled with taking potential climate change advantages into consideration.  He also mentions a few very traditional but no longer very much in favour things, such as quince and medlars.

The first section deals with choosing what to grow and preparing your space.  And I think there is much to be said for his philosophy of letting flavour be your guide, growing some unexpected flavours, growing things that are either entirely unbuyable or very expensive to buy, growing transformers (e.g. spices, where just a little can completely transform a meal).

Then there is a section on growing and eating, which devotes a couple of pages to each fruit/veg/herb/spice/nut - varieties, how to grow and care for it, harvesting and, very importantly, what to do with it once you've harvested it.  There are a couple of recipes for each crop, most of which have left me longing to have a garden of my own so I could grow and eat all of these amazing things.  Luckily, some of what is listed in the book is already grown in the community garden I volunteer at here so I have some hope of trying a few of these in the foreseeable at least.

You can tell while reading the book that Mark Diacono is passionate about what he is doing.  He also seems to have a far better developed palate than I do but despite the fact that I may not be able to distinguish "...a citrusy, lemon sherbet wave that gradually gives way to warm heat...", I badly want to grow my own Szechuan pepper just to see what he's on about.  And although I didn't get around to it this year, I can't wait for next year's walnut harvest to show up at the market so that I can make fesanjan, a sweet-sour Persian dish.  And that's to say nothing of the fuchsia fruit leathers, the lamb and quince tagine, choclate soufflés with apricot sauce, medlar and apple chutney, nectarine salsa, autumn olive jam, lemon honeysuckle bars, wineberry vinegar, oca saag aloo, carolina allspice rice pudding, cardoon gratin, hot and sour daylily soup not to mention mulberries (which, I am ashamed to admit were for me until now just a very lovely candle scent - I've never seen or tasted mulberries in real life).  Hmmm, have to stop now, I'm making myself hungry.  No wait, one more fabulous thing, there's even a recipe for making your own Chinese five-spice mix.  And I'm not quite sure whether I should be fascinated or just plain scared by the Egyptian walking onions (completely going off on a tangent here but about thirty years ago a friend of the family gave us a Speak + Spell for christmas and that's how I learned to spell both Egypt and onion and it seems strange to write both those words so close together now), which I find kind of freaky looking. 

The book finishes up with a directory with some basic information on sowing, tools, planting a tree, a list of suppliers (mostly UK-based obviously) and recommended further reading.

All in all I think this is one of those books that I will refer back to again and again and I can see its pages becoming somewhat grimy over the years as I use it in the kitchen and, eventually, in my own garden.  If you're looking for a nice christmas present for the gardener or wannabe gardener in your life, do have a look at the Taste of the Unexpected.  It's got enough basic information to be really good for beginners but I think it's also unusual enough to appeal to the more experienced gardener.  And the photos are wonderful enough to justify it's existence as a coffee table book even if you don't like gardening at all.  I did receive my review copy for free but I will be ordering one for my brother soon and I have several friends who can expect to be getting copies for their birthdays next year too.

P.S.  I was just testing the amazon link to also let people know that normally it is possible to just change the country code in an amazon link to get your own country's page for that book (i.e. changing to .de brings me to the German site).  It didn't work for the US site though and it seems that across the pond the book is called The Food Lover's Garden: Amazing Edibles You Will Love to Grow and Eat. Just so's you know. :)

Monday, December 06, 2010


The doctor reckons I do have an inner ear problem.  These problems are, according to him, brought on by either an infection of some other kind (and since I haven't been sick lately that seems unlikely to be the cause) or by stress (hmmm, wonder if that could be it).  I have tablets to take and have been taking it easy on my day off.  I'm supposed to go back to him tomorrow if I'm still not well and get a sick note for work but what I'll do is probably go into work first and go to him if I'm finding it difficult.  So at least I'll be able to make sure anything urgent is taken care of because honestly, at the moment, I have no idea what is on my to-do list in work.  I write one every Friday before I leave and then mostly forget about it until I look at it again.

I have not, however, allowed my illness to give me another excuse to not cook proper food and fall back on the takeaway train.  I bought a teeny small pumpkin and butternut squash from the market a few weeks ago and hadn't used them up.  The pumpkin was starting to go off so this weekend I bought another one, plus another butternut squash, with the plan of making something with at least one of those things for dinner yesterday.  But the friends who were visiting wanted to invite me out for dinner so we went for tapas instead.  I did cook the pumpkin quickly yesterday afternoon as I knew I may just leave it slowly rotting otherwise and didn't want to do that.  So this afternoon, I chopped up the smoked chicken breast I had bought at the market as well (my friend's son wanted to try all the different things at the christmas markets so we ended up eating lunch out both days as well - which means I had a lot of food to use up), with some onion and garlic, sauteed that lot and then added the cooked pumpkin, a small tin of coconut milk, the same amount of water, a spoonful of kasundi (and promptly dropped the not quite fully closed jar as I was turning around to put it back into the fridge!) plus a chopped up chili, lots of black pepper and loads of curry powder.  The result, after a half an hour or so of simmering is a very tasty, not too spicy soupy-puree consistency curry.  Very delicious with some rice.

While waiting for that to cook I peeled and chopped the butternut squash and put that on to cook with just a small amount of water in the pot.  I also added a good dose of salted mediterranean herbs so that it will be a completely different flavour that today's dinner.  Of course I forgot about it being on the cooker for nearly an hour but it was on a low enough heat with the lid left on so the liquid didn't boil off and leave everything to boil at least.  I stirred it all around and then added in the tub of garlic and chive cream cheese that also didn't get eaten at the weekend.  Stirring vigourously enough to ensure that was mixed in was enough to roughly puree the whole lot and I have to say it looks and smells amazing.  I was trying to think of what I would actually do with it but I think a little bit heated up and spooned on top of some pasta tomorrow evening will be just perfect.  Might freeze the rest although I'm not certain about freezing something that has cream cheese in it.  May just make a small lasagne with the rest of it tomorrow as well.  Now all I need to do is use up the salad I also bought at the weekend and despite my visitors not having eaten what I bought with them in mind, I should have no food waste this week. 

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Spinning around

Well, not me.  Just feels like the room is.  I woke up in the middle of the night and a couple of minutes later had a horrible sensation in my head, just like the room was spinning around or something.  It's hard to describe but was very unpleasant.  I lay still for a while, terrifying thoughts of "what if it's a stroke" etc., going through my head.  Got up, went to the bathroom, checked my eyes, which looked fine and there was no disfiguration on either side of my face.  So obviously that's not what a stroke feels like.  Back to bed, turned over and it happened again.  Couldn't sleep so over the next half an hour or so I lay quietly and tried to turn over a couple more times and it happened again every time.  At that stage I got up and woke up my friend, who has come over with her son to visit for the weekend.  I was so grateful that there was someone here, I was scared and needed someone to be here.  We suspect an inner-ear infection - her mum suffers from vertigo and she said what I described sounds very like it but since it's (so far) only happening when I'm lying down it's probably due to an infection (she looked up stuff on the internet - I refused to since I would have found something to convince me I only had a couple of hours to live!).  I did manage to sleep for another few hours afterwards but the same thing is still happening if I'm lying down and turn over.  Looks like sitting up or moving around will be a better option for this birthday.  I will head to casualty if it gets any worse but I think I'm probably okay waiting to go to the doctor in the morning.  Why is it that Saturday/Sunday night is always the time things like this seem to happen.

Apart from all of that, it warmed up during the night so the white landscape we were expecting to wake up to has turned into a damp, grey, drizzly day instead.  C'est la vie.  Maybe it'll mean the crowds at the christmas markets won't be as, eh, crowded today!