Next aluminum chef

I'm a long way from iron. Heck, I probably shouldn't have a metal at all yet. Maybe it should be "next parchment paper chef." Never mind chefs of the calibre of those competing to be the next Iron Chef. I look at the creations of my friend and food blogger Vanessa and I'm awed by her creativity. There are still a lot of places I fear to tread.

There are, however, fewer and fewer of those as time goes on. Watching so much Food Network Canada has certainly been inspiring. I learn specific techniques and food combinations from watching shows like Next Iron Chef and Chopped (I'm addicted to both). But more important for me, I learn to be less safe. It's not like I'm going for big risks when I'm cooking. Frankly, if I want to do that, I should do it only when I'm cooking for myself (at least the first time). But I find that I'm becoming less fearful about trying new things and more open to flavour combinations that I had not thought of before.

When I was being a care-giver recently, my charge made a request: some kind of pasta dish with shrimp and scallops. Not exactly the most difficult batch of mystery ingredients! No lychee fruit or cheese curls. But I wanted to use those three ingredients well. For some reason, I didn't do as I often do, which is to go look for recipe on the web. I've made lots of pasta sauces out of my head, so I figured I'd do it this time as well. And I had a model I vaguely remembered, which is a smoked salmon sauce.

I assembled my ingredients, a little clumsily. At first, I bought green onions, but later I realized I really wanted shallots. I got a red bell pepper for colour. I got some fresh basil (on the hoof, good for future meals if it grows). I bought a lemon for its zest. And garlic, of course. There were also some materials already in the fridge.

I chopped my vegetables. Then, in a very large sauté pan (a size I find I would like to have), I seared the scallops in a mix of olive oil and rendered bacon. I set them aside, and then quickly sautéed the shrimp. I never overcook my shrimp! At least not anymore. I set those aside, and then proceeded to sauté the veggies. I added a whole lemon worth of zest, some seasoning, and chopped fresh basil. Then I finished it with some light cream that was in the fridge. I didn't want to use it all (should have thought to get more), so I went a little skimpy. I worked with some of the pasta water when I mixed in the linguine, but it could definitely have used more cream. The dish was finished with a bit of grated parmesan.

My customer and I were both happy (and she was happy later with the leftovers), but I knew I had to do better next time. Learn learn learn! First thing was to make sure there was enough cream around and not to be afraid to use it. Fear of cream! Mostly, fear of it breaking or curdling. I did some reading, and apparently, three things make a successful cream sauce: high-fat cream, not too much acidity in the sauce, and not too much heat. Some disagree with that last one, because you actually can reduce a cream sauce. In this sauce, using only zest and no lemon juice or wine, the acidity was pretty low. Because of that, for a repeat I stuck with light cream. Heavy cream is 36 percent butterfat, and that's really rich for us. As well, this didn't need a reduction, just blending, so I didn't push the heat.

One other change I made was to use fresh thyme rather than fresh basil. Thyme and lemon zest and seafood all go well together. There was nothing wrong with the basil. It's just that I think thyme works better. I still have a lot to learn about herbs. Even some professional chefs do, apparently, because I've seen more than once when someone on Chopped overpowered a dish with sage, which even I know has a strong and distinctive flavour.

The final difference was a negative one—I had no bacon! One thing I've learned from cooking shows is that bacon is a very handy thing. But packages are generally at least a half pound, and if you don't use it fairly quickly, it won't keep. What I need to find is a shop that sells bacon by the piece. I know of one, but it's far out of my normal path. I need to check locally. And save bacon fat whenever I cook bacon! Fat is flavour, and bacon fat is especially flavourful.

Even without bacon, the revised dish worked very well. I think I have overcome my creamophobia!

These days, even when I make everyday dishes, I want to add a little something that I might not have done before. Tonight, I made a simple frittata with broccoli, mushrooms, and corn that I found on Cooks.com (although I substituted Swiss cheese for the jack in the recipe). I wanted something to accompany it. White potatoes are not the best thing for Sweetie, and I didn't want to run us out of regular bread by making toast. So when I was out getting some additional supplies, I found some seedy, whole-grain ciabatta rolls shaped like triangles. I sliced them in half and grilled them with a little butter. No big deal, but just a little more clever than I once would have done. I'd like to keep finding touches like that. Not only do I want to keep Sweetie happy; I want to keep myself interested as well. Maybe I'll earn my aluminum.


Black emptiness

They call it Black Friday. Black is one of my favourite colours, but really, that just sounds sinister. Bad shit happened on Black Monday. Why should Black Friday be good?

Yes, the economy can always use consumer spending. And if stores don't do well leading up to Christmas, I suppose that's a bad sign for everything. But here's a question: does the economy need more consumer credit card debt? If you go (or went) shopping today, will the credit card(s) be paid off before interest kicks in? Was there already a balance from the previous period?

I know that I'm fortunate. I don't have to run up debt to buy things. But I also don't buy a lot of things. On this 20th anniversary Buy Nothing Day, probably the only thing I will buy is dinner, and that's only because I was away and the larder is rather bare until we go grocery shopping tomorrow. I know I won't be buying electronics.

I've seen ads in Skytrain stations about buying things for Christmas that won't have to be thrown away. We've thought this is a good idea for many years. Sweetie got her sister and sister-in-law a two-night stay in a really nice hotel, plus dinner. My family don't need anything from me. I will probably get Gifts of Hope from Plan again—donations that buy livestock (and other things) for people who can't even dream of anything like Christmas presents.

Yes, I'm a consumer. I buy all kinds of things. This Christmas, it's the kitchen that needs some stuff, like a coffee mill to replace the one that's about 15 years old. It still grinds really well but the plastic cup that catches the grounds is mostly cracked. But for gifts, unless someone knows me really well (which would not be my family, sadly) and could buy a book or DVD or CD or clothes that I would really like, I would much rather get food or a donation to someone who really needs stuff more than I do.


Mile high reviews

Not that kind of mile high, silly. Get your mind out of the airplane washroom!

I'm referring to movies watched whilst on a long flight. Air Canada offers on-demand in-flight movies (or TV or news) on a screen on the seat back in front of you. There is quite a selection available in different categories such as "Hollywood" (fairly recent commercial releases) and "Classic." Even though sometimes I prefer to listen to music or read, I often take advantage of this feature.

I find I will watch movies on an airplane that I might not rent when at home. That was the case with the movie I watched on the flight out of here, One Day. I had read the book for my book club and liked it very much. I had also heard that the movie was a stinker, but I figure I'd take a chance. Hey, I'm on a plane, and I have time to kill. And I love Anne Hathaway. How bad could she be?

As it turns out, I thought the movie was decent. Not as good as the book, but I never expect that. It's true as I had heard that Hathaway's supposedly northern accent drifts in and out and is never totally convincing, but I managed to ignore that for the most part. I found the movie similarly uneven but with several quite good scenes. Some of the "years," corresponding to chapters in the book, were pretty inconsequential, but others were quite well done. I was especially struck by the scene in which Emma's boyfriend Ian, whom she never really loves, pops back into her apartment. He's a bit of a loser, but he basically has a good heart, and you can understand why he's bitter. In fact, I quite liked Rafe Spall's performance overall. I also enjoyed the interaction between Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. As in the book, it's a bit of a mystery why Emma loves Dexter, but no mystery why he loves her. As he notes somewhere in the film, with her he's actually a good person. Without her, he's pretty much a disaster.

I'm not sorry I watched it.

On the way back, I chose one from the "Canadian" category. I'd read a lot about Starbuck. It's a comedy by Ken Scott (writer of La grande séduction, a.k.a. Seducing Dr. Lewis) starring the wonderful Patrick Huard as a kind of overgrown kid and general fuck-up who learns that, due to a mistake at the sperm bank where he had donated sperm some 20 years before, he has 533 children, several of whom are suing to find out who he is. The way he deals with this makes up the bulk of the film. Some of his encounters are amusing, but some are quite touching. It's a comedy with heart, yes? It slows down in spots but comes to a satisfying conclusion. Unlike One Day, this is one I want to rent and watch with Sweetie, who I think would enjoy it. And I'd love to see it on a screen that isn't just a few inches across.

In between flights, on terra firma (and big screen TV), I saw one film on DVD that my friend shared with me, Love Actually. I enjoyed it. Bill Nighy is a scream as an aging rock star cynically doing a Christmas version of the Troggs's 1967 hit "Love Is All Around." Hugh Grant is charming, of course, as the Prime Minister who finds love with his tea girl. I loved the relationship between a bereaved man (Liam Neeson) and his stepson. Emma Thompson is brilliant, as always, as the wife of a possibly straying Alan Rickman (yum). There is some unexpected pathos in the encounters between Laura Linney's character and her schizophrenic brother. It's a Christmas movie, so the timing was good!

By the way, why it is called the "mile high club" when cruising altitude is generally more than six miles up? The "mile high club" is something you could join by having sex in Denver!

What I did on my autumn vacation

It wasn't really a vacation. I took a week off to help a friend. I've gotten a lot of snaps for that, but believe me, it was one of the best, most rewarding weeks of my life. A friend became a true friend. A sister really. And that was worth all the flying.

It was definitely a working vacation, but it wasn't all work.

I got to meet two other online friends, people I've "known" for a long time whom I now know face to face. That was special. And if that wasn't enough, one meeting involved really yummy Burmese food, and the other some excellent crab cakes and a very good Irish red ale.

Remember about the shoes? Well, of course I did go to DSW. It really is like a candy store for me. I'm very picky about shoes, as I am about all of my wardrobe, but in a store that size, it's hard not to find something that catches my eye. I needed a new pair of ballet flats, and I found a really good pair, with not too much frou-frou and an actual grip on the bottom instead of the slick sole that my current (well-worn) pair have. And then there were the booties on a display that caught my eye. Guess, not leather (I call them "vegan boots"), but so friggin cute. I tried them on twice, because I really didn't need them. I walked around in them, looked in various mirrors, and decided I'd get myself a treat. At DSW, everything is discounted, so it really didn't break the bank. Or my customs limit.

I also stopped into Ulta. We don't have Ulta in Canada. I've seen the name often enough in InStyle, and now I've seen a store. Huge! Bigger than the Sephora stores I've been in. I didn't need anything except Nail Envy, so I didn't go wild, but I did pick up some really eye-catching purple nail polish for winter. I could see having fun in that place.

And then there was Target. We're getting Target soon in Canada, but I had to go anyway for other reasons. I imagine my slavery footprint doesn't get any smaller going to Target than it would going to WalMart (where I do not go), but I like Target stores so much better. And, hey, I really needed those jammies! I could have done a lot more damage if my suitcase hadn't already been full.

I hit my first Dunkin Donuts in ages! I grew up with DD, or "Drunken Donuts" as we called it when I got a little older. The first full day I was there, I treated myself to a breakfast sandwich. Real Hillshire Farms sausage! It was very yummy, even though they put it on an English muffin instead of the biscuit I asked for (which apparently they didn't hear).

Transportation needs were well covered too. I quite enjoyed my rented Nissan Versa. They make inexpensive small cars better than they used to. My Subaru is now old enough so that it's missing little features that show up even in cars like the Versa.

My flights were fairly uneventful too, which is what you want. But oh, whatever did I do before there was free wifi in airports? Read a lot and listened to music, which aren't bad things at all. But as an interwebs addict, I love being able to go online while waiting, especially if I have a long layover. Email, Facething, blogs, all the comforts of home! Some free wifi is better than others, of course, and sometimes I think it depends on where you sit. At least now you don't have to camp out on the floor near an outlet. Some airports set up stations. Some have outlets at certain points in the chairs.

I had luck on my side on the way home. On the small plane for the first leg of the trip, there was no one in the seat next to me. And on the longer flight, which was otherwise rather full, there was only me and a skater boy in a three-seat row! We both appreciated the extra room.

I have a crackpot theory that if you dress decently for a flight, you get treated a little better. At any rate, I like to do so. I wasn't wearing anything fancy on the way home—purple long-sleeve top, black A-line skirt, purple tights, pink and blue and purple scarf—but I know I looked nice. I decided to take a chance on the new booties, which went well with the outfit. I made it for well over 12 hours wearing those boots, including lots of airport walking and taking public transit all the way home (love the Canada Line!) in the rain. I was ready to kick them off when I got home, but my feet didn't feel too bad. It was only today that I got out my ruler and realized they had a lot higher heel than I had thought—four-and-a-half inches with a half-inch platform! Funny, I didn't feel that tall. I love those boots! Although I might not go dancing in them.

I missed the anniversary of starting this blog (it was October 27), but here's another milestone: my 100th post!


'Tis better to travel?

You've got to be kidding.

OK, a good road trip, sure. Or a nice relaxing train trip. But anything on an airplane sucks. It gets you to where you have to go, hopefully without too much discomfort, inconvenience, and potentially much worse.

I'm a pretty good traveller. I don't mind showing up early. I'm patient in lineups. I'm OK with sitting around waiting to board (as long as I have my laptop and free wifi and/or a book and/or music, and probably coffee in any case). I don't mind being on an airplane. I have no fear of flying, even during turbulence. I even deal with situations such as intrusive security theatre, flight delays, and general airline passenger insults pretty well. My expectations of service these days are low, so I'm rarely disappointed.

No, my big anxiety is about packing. I hate packing. I hate deciding what to bring, what not to bring, what I can possibly cram into a suitcase that is never large enough. I'm not a light traveller. I wish I were. I want my entire wardrobe with me, or at least a substantial part of it. That just can't happen. I have to choose and choose wisely. And that's where the anxiety comes from. I never seem to be happy with what I put together if it's for more than a couple of days.

That's what my friend says: "It's only for a week." A week! Do you have any idea how many clothing changes I can make in a week? We're not talking about undergarments. I can always pack enough of those. But outfits! Pants, tops, skirts, dresses! If I were travelling for work, packing would be fairly easy. But this is not for work.

Weather forecasts are only somewhat helpful, especially long range. Everything might change by the time you're at your destination. And even if the forecast is accurate, if it shows that temperatures will be all over the place, how do you pack for that?

Shoes are the worst. You just can't pack a lot of shoes. They're both heavy and bulky. But of course at my destination, I want a nice choice of shoes! Instead, I must compromise. And possibly go to DSW and come home with more shoes than I left with.

No, I was wrong. Shoes are not the worst. I can triage my shoes. But inevitably, too much of my suitcase, both by volume and weight, is taken up by various and sundry cosmetic products. Even when I put things into small bottles, there are a lot of them. Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, facial cleanser. Toner, serum, facial, eye moisturizer, facial moisturizer. Body moisturizer. Makeup, makeup remover. Hair dryer and mousse. These things are not optional! I do my best to leave things behind and compact the rest, but inevitably I have two large plastic bags of toiletries taking up copious amounts of suitcase real estate. It's not like you can put any of this stuff in carry-on anymore.

And then, of course, you don't want to forget anything vital. There are a lot of things which, if you forget them, you can get a replacement. I'm thinking of skipping certain toiletries and just getting some there. But there are some things that you really want to have with you and can't easily replace. Anxiety!

Somehow, I always survive. Yes, it's only a week.

[I wrote this before I left. I almost posted it but decided not to. Internet paranoia? Even though my blog is public, it's not like I have such a large readership (tiny in fact), and it's not like I think anyone is casing my house. But somehow I never want to post that I am away. I am protective of my sweetie!

My packing turned out OK. I could have used some lighter tops, but in general what I brought worked fine. I did a little socializing, but mostly I was taking care of a friend in need. And right across from the supermarket is a DSW. Yes, I returned with more shoes than I left with!]


Something wilder

The Wild Flag show at the Biltmore on November 12 was definitely a step up from the album. The band played hard, and they played well. Unlike so many now who are too kool to kalypso, they really moved around on stage, giving off infectious energy. They were as much fun to watch as to listen to.

Having done our time years ago in mosh pits (although the pit looked pretty well behaved), my height-challenged sweetie and I found a slightly elevated perch with a side view of the stage. We didn't have a good view of Janet Weiss, but we definitely heard her. We got a good view of the rest of the band, with Rebecca Cole closest to us, Carrie Brownstein on the far side, and Mary Timony in the middle. Amazingly, the sound even from that angle was excellent! I was hoping maybe the lyrics would be buried a bit, as they so often are on stage, but no such luck. (I don't know if they are touring with their own sound person or if Swann did the sound.)

I was not taking notes. I thought about it, but the napkin got a little wet, and I figured I was not really there to write a review anyway. So I must work from memory (after two pints). Did they start with "Endless Talk"? I can't remember now, but it was a strong start. Then they went into "Short Version," and I was definitely happy. And then I totally lost track of the order of songs. I know they played "Electric Band," which did not improve on stage. Somewhere in there they played "Future Crimes" and "Black Tiles," both of which sounded good. But inevitably, we hit the first single, "Glass Tambourine." I love that Mary Timony is 41 years old (not young in rock and roll years), but that only means that she should know better than to use lyrics that she might well have written in high school (and should have left back there).

There were a few songs I didn't know. The band didn't announce them as being new, so I'm guessing they were songs from previous bands, although I did not recognize any Sleater-Kinney. They did a good hard version of "Romance," which was a high point. They also did "Something Came Over Me," which I did not realize was Timony's song. That sounded good too. They played "Boom," another song with lyrics that no amount of live energy can improve.

They ended the set with "Racehorse." It's six minutes and forty seconds of self-indulgence on the record. I'm pretty sure it ran well over 10 minutes on stage. Actually, considering the lyrics, I'd just as soon they do a long jam on the song. They're good musicians. But they seem not to realize that they are good ensemble musicians. They're not virtuosi like Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Only Weiss really reaches that level (and gave us some great Ginger Baker at one point). So the long jam isn't really what it ought to be, or what they seem to think it is.

They left the stage briefly while Manservant Hecubus retuned the guitars. Then they came back and did a short, fast song that I didn't recognize. And then they gave us their one cover for the night.* Were we going to have to suffer through "Beast of Burden"? No! It was Television's "See No Evil"! Squeeeee! They did a very good job of it, with Timony singing lead. Here's the problem though. Hearing them play "See No Evil" just makes it obvious that they aren't writing songs of that calibre.

It's interesting what you can learn from watching a band on stage that you can't perceive from the album. For instance, not only does Timony stand in the middle. She also seems to be the anchor of the band in a lot of ways, between her singing and her playing. I already knew that Weiss provided a really solid backbone and Cole's keyboard riffs were a huge part of the sound. But I guess I expected Brownstein to be more of a presence than Timony, and that wasn't true. Brownstein, in fact, while clearly having fun, gave us no rock star moves. Not even one kick, unless I missed it. Maybe the Biltmore stage is too confining.

Overall, I enjoyed the show. It's great to see such a good ensemble with members who have such fun playing together. There are no posers here! Now if they can only write material that lives up to the great sound they have together.

By the way, if I read another article that talks about Wild Flag being an "all-female band," I'm going to unleash a very poisonous pen in comments. They're a band! Seriously, that's all I saw on stage. They just happen to be women. I mean, really, when's the last time you saw a band referred to as an "all-male band"? And that's because by default, "band" = "male band." That is what male privilege means.

* OK, with the much more knowledgeable Caitlin's help, I now know there was at least one other cover.


Not so wild for Wild Flag

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a band called Sleater-Kinney. They were a brilliant trio of women who started as a punk-ish band and grew into much more, culminating in a kind of 1970s revival on their final album, The Woods.

Now we have Wild Flag. The expectations for Wild Flag were huge before the band really even existed. Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney! Mary Timony from Helium! Rebecca Cole from The Minders! The last two bands must be known to those with more serious indie cred than I have, because I have no clue who they were. When the eponymously titled album came out a couple months ago, reviewers fell over themselves to praise it to the skies.

It took me a little longer to obtain the album. I'm not exactly underwhelmed. Maybe more like confused. For a start, I think how much you like this album might depend on how much you liked The Woods. For me, that was "not so much." I had always loved the space in earlier Sleater-Kinney albums. The Woods was very full. And for me, it was more about the players showing off their chops than delivering edgy, memorable songs, which they had done so well earlier in their career.

Wild Flag seems to mine the late 1960s more than the 1970s of The Woods. Certainly that's what Timony does. "Glass Tambourine" (totally channelling Cream in the intro), "Electric Band," and "Black Tiles" bring me back to my youth, and not always in a good way. Some of the lyrics are downright embarrassing. Brownstein contributes her share of less-than-stellar lyrics too, like on "Boom" and the six-minute-plus indulgence of "Racehorse."

"Romance" starts the album off with a bang, but it also provides a good illustration of some of the problems. The chorus is absolutely killer, but the verse and the odd extra bits all sound like they belong to a different song. Much of the song sounds like riffs that were strung together, not terribly coherently. Brownstein just doesn't have the vocal power that her former band mate Corin Tucker has, nor does she seem to have much of a knack for melody. The band tries to cover all of this over with some enthusiastic and rather busy playing. There's no question the playing is good! But really, it's not quite the song it attempts to be—until that chorus hits.

The high point of the album for me is "Short Version." That's the song where it feels like everything comes together. I don't have to make an effort to like "Short Version." I just do. "Future Crimes" comes close. "Something Came Over Me" starts promising but doesn't deliver. "Endless Talk" is a cute girl-group kind of song. "Black Tiles" provides a strong closer for the album (not having an iPod and thus not buying from iTunes, I don't know what the bonus 11th track sounds like). But that's really not enough for me to go crazy for this album. Can we have more like "Short Version"?

It's interesting that the band has such a love for late-60s psychedelia. It's not often you hear anyone revive that stuff. But maybe there's a good reason for that. Maybe that was music very much of its time. I love the clip of the comedian on Tool's Aenema album about all those genius players back then—"real fuckin' high on drugs." Maybe Wild Flag need to tune in and turn on to really understand those grinding organ sounds and wailing guitars—and tacky lyrics that we'd rather forget.

The empress isn't naked. She definitely has clothes on, and pretty good ones. But I don't think she's arrayed in quite the finery that so many other reviewers and fans seem to think. I understand people wanting this to be a great album. I just don't think it lives up to the hype. And maybe that was impossible anyway. Hype can be that way.

I fully expect to be much more enthusiastic when I see Wild Flag play live on Saturday. I might not think the album is great, but I can tell the band is very good.


Fashion fail

Vancouver Fashion week ends tomorrow with a closing party. Did I attend any events? Not a one. Some fashionista I am.

Mostly it had to do with not having anyone to go with. Sweetie tends to be busy during the week between teaching school in the daytime and doing homework for a class she has on Thursday. If my friend from school had known ahead of time that her Thursday course had been cancelled, we might have gone that evening. There were even half-price tickets available through Karma Exchange. But she didn't find out about the cancellation until she was already on campus, a bit late to start the evening, especially without any tickets.

I also had a slight excuse of a minor revision to surgery I had on my right eyelid. It's hard to feel stylish when you've just had the suture taken out on Monday and your eyelid is still swollen. But it really looked fine later in the week, so it was a pretty limp excuse.

Let's face it. We're really talking fear and me letting myself be intimidated. And I'm ashamed of myself for that.

I have great confidence in my own style. I know what looks good on me. I put outfits together well. I get feedback from enough people that I know it's not just me deluding myself. I still have plenty to learn, but I should be able to show up at any event and look right in place. Better—I should stand out in the right way.

But for whatever reason, I let Fashion Week intimidate me, or at least intimidate me from going alone. And that was ridiculous. I can go places alone. I can be fabulous alone. And this is Vancouver. How fabulous could regular attendees be? Yet somehow fear got the better of me.

This would have been perfect for my new year and new start. I funked it.

But here's the deal. It's still my new year. I whine in my blog. That's what blogs are for. And then I move forward. Fall-Winter 2012 Fashion Week will happen in six months. There will be another Eco Fashion Week, which I also missed. There will be lots of smaller events, most of which don't even cost any money because they really want you there. Maybe Fashion Week was too much for me to jump into, especially without people to go with. But I'm not going to curl up in a ball.

One thing I might do is relaunch a fashion Meetup group. The Fashionistas is about to die, but I still think it's a workable idea. There have to be other women in the same situation as I am—wanting to attend events but not always having someone to go with. Starting fresh with a new membership list might let it work this time. That is, if I get off my bum and put the effort into it.

No excuses, no regrets. Is that a good mantra?