I write a lot about using cast iron cookware on this site, but I assume that everyone is already a convert to the traditional cookware movement. Cast iron often gets a bad rap because those unfamiliar with it assume it takes a lot of work to maintain. Yes and no. The simplicity of a non-stick fry pan is countered by the need to "season" and re-season, and yes, re-season cast iron pans. But in reality, after the first five to ten uses, a well-loved cast iron piece will need little more than a wipe with some oil to keep it clean, fresh, and ready to use. And when a simple cast iron routine settles in, you'll never go back to Teflon coatings.
Seasoned to Non-stick
Finding the Write Platform is Rightous Freedom
I think it would be fair to assume that aside from a few exceptions, long gone are the romantic days of authors penning their novels longhand on paper with a pen or sitting at a desk with a clicketty-clack typewritter slapping ink onto clean white sheets. Having written multiple millions of words both personally and professionally — though mostly personally — finding tools that fit the lifestyle of the writer become the most important factor. Myself, I do most of my writing these days on an iPad with a wireless keyboard which is portable and (usually) free of most distractions. More importantly, connected in the background are online word processing tools — private Google Docs, Drupal drafts or Scrivener projects — that ensure those words are not trapped on the iPad and if I need to open up my inspiration from my desktop computer (or even my phone) I can write, edit, and revisit whenever I get the strike of inspiration — or even just a little bit of free time to spare.
Finding Inspiration in Applied Randomness
Anyone who has ever given themselves the task of writing creatively (for fun or profit) knows that, similar to starting a fire, fiction begins with a single spark and grows from there. In this analogy then it is useful to have a box of matches to save oneself from needing to light that fire the old fashioned way. There are various tools for sparking the imagination —books of writing prompts, idea generators online, even just long walks in the park — and any of these are great. My kindling of choice these days are Story Cubes: a box of dice with icons and pictograms on their faces, each different. Roll one, two, or any of the all nine dice and — spark! A simple one or two word prompt, particularly when it links back to a larger plot concept, becomes enough to set the imagination aflame and let the words come crackling onto the screen.
Landscaping for Fruit
I’ve often told people who are envious of my raspberry patch (which is modest at best, but produces faithfully each season) that a raspberry bush was literally the first thing I planted in my yard. We moved into our newly-built home about 15 years ago and spent two years setting the landscaping foundations that would eventually be our (mostly) finished backyard. I didnt have many rules, but one of the few that I set down as I started planning, planting and pruning was that whenever possible I wanted fruit-bearing plants to occupy the garden and beds. The result is, fifteen years later, we have a summer of picking berries and other fruits from around the yard as they grow and ripen. And it all started with a single raspberry plant.
Storing Sourdough Starter for Future Proofs
Spreading some active sourdough starter thinnly across a bit of parchment and letting it dry out is a great way to pause, preserve or pass along the work and legacy. The effort will result in dried chips of dough that can be stored for the long haul in an airtight container to be revived in the future. Going on a long vacation often means neglecting the feeding cycle required by an active starter, but can be brought back to baking status in a few days if dried and shelved. Getting a friend into sourdough is simple if you just give them a bit of fresh starter, but dried chips could be mailed or packed as gifts. And making sure a starter that is years old survives in some form, even through an unfortuate accident or unforeseen neglect, it doesn’t hurt to have some stashed in the cupboard dried and ready to restore if required.
Also known as couch grass, twitch grass, quick grass, scutch grass, or devil's grass.
Gardening in Alberta means fighting the quackgrass invasion that never ends. The invasive, aggressive grass is hardy and thick, and grows by spreading its rhizome roots underground at rates of up to two and a half centimetres per day. Pulling off the tops does little to thwart the progress, mowing is laughably pointless, and unless garden edging reaches to the core of the earth, bordering gardens does little more than frustrate. When I was digging fence posts, a meter in the ground, I found quackgrass as deep as I dug down. The most effective attack is probably a chemical one... or just learning to live with it.
The Almost (but not quite) S'more Ice Cream
When I announced that my next batch of ice cream was going to be S'more flavoured, the Kid turned to me and replied: That's just rocky road, Dad! I disagreed, and to the internet we went to compare and contrast. Rocky Road is generally considered to be a chocolate ice cream swirled with marshmallow and something crunchy, like nuts. On the other hand, my S'more ice cream is a marshmallow base swirled with chocolate and something crunchy, like graham cracker bits. The flavour profile is definitely in overlapping territory, but swapping the base and the swirl fundamentally changes more than the name. Arguably, the foundation -- chocolate versus marshmallow -- is what hits the palate more prominently, and the accent -- marshmallow versus chocolate -- is the burst of surprise inside. I can give her a pass for thinking Rocky Road and S'more are basically the same, but they are different enough that it should be noted... and probably a taste comparison wouldn't hurt, either.
Hacking well-loved recipes for fun and flavour.
If the blast of warm, gooey sweetness is not quite enough to rattle ones taste-buds, there is a simple hack to add some variety to the time-tested s'more recipe of graham crackers, chocolate and toasted marshmallow. Many will default to using a plain ol'milk bar as the source of chocolate in this concoction, but we've found some amazing mixes are available to those willing to unlock the flavour combinations of using more complex starting points: a peanut butter cup, a couple squares of caramel filled chocolate bar, or a slab of dark chocolate with crumbled peanuts all make for some interesting additions to a campfire treat.
Does Sourdough Starter Improve with Age?
Like anything that involves subjective evaluation, opinions vary widely on the quality of sourdough flavour that is produced by a decades-old starter versus one that is only a few months or years old. But while any mature starter, one with at least a few dozen feeding cycles to its claim, is likely better than one freshly cultivated there are probably other more important factors at play than age. New starters, for a start, might more often be used by bakers new to sourdough and thus with less experience. Or, perhaps a long-lived starter is part of a healthy bread-making tradition and simply gets fed more consistently with better flour. Or maybe, just like any luxury item, our perceptions of quality are clouded by the illusion and allure of eating something we think is rare and old.
Natural Yeasts Versus Baker's Yeast
While many enthusiastic new bakers are kneading their way into learning the nuances of sourdough, seasoned flour-fluffers will eagerly remind them that there's no good shortcut to a great starter. Commercial yeast, bought from a store, has been selectively bred and cultivated with the express intention to provide bread-makers with a quick, clean rise. Natural yeasts, captured from the air, grown with patience, and maintained for years as a sourdough starter, are slower and allow longer proof-times that produce interesting flavours giving sourdough its distinctive taste. Purists will insist that bread made with commercial yeasts are not actually worthy of the sourdough label.
Weed Control is (Literally) in the News
A co-worker alerted me to a simple tip to recycle and re-purpose newspaper and advertisements that land in the mailbox as garden weed blockers. During the pandemic, the absence of flyer advertising has been notable as anyone who knows this trick will instead be on their hands and knees plucking weeds by hand this year. Spreading out old newspapers or flyers onto the ground around the sprouting vegetables blocks even some of the more aggressive weeds from poking through. A little topsoil to hold the papers down and every page is a couple fewer square feet of weeds to pull... and by autumn the paper has composted and dissolved into mulch that disappears into the soil.
Vegetable Gardens in 2020 might be the COVID-equivalent of Victory Gardening
During the World Wars of the 20th century, history reminds us that ordinary people were encouraged to plant vegetables in their gardens in an effort to bolster morale and supplement food shortages. To my knowledge it has not been specifically recommended by local governments to do that sort of thing during the pandemic, but the increase in backyard suburban gardening during the lockdown has likely been a reflection of not only extra free time by millions of people sheltering in their homes, but also a bit of that victory garden spirit. What better way to thumb one’s nose at the fickle hands of fate and the ravages of a viral plague than to cultivate food to feed yourself and your family, grown from your own soil with your own labour?
Not Actually Bugs
When building a sealed ecosystem in a jar it is important to establish a balanced colony of insects or other small critters to act as a kind of "clean up crew" for (among other things) the inevitable build-up of dead plant matter. Poking under rocks and bits of patio stone in my yard, I collected a small herd of sowbugs. Not actually "bugs" at all, sowbugs are actually a species of crustacean making them more closely related to shrimp and lobster than the various ants and aphids that they were previously living amongst. Fourteen legs, and a highly segmented body, so long as my luck holds out I should have at least one matched pair to start making bacon and keep the colony of contained critters strong for a few years.
A cool treat with a loooooong history
Bananas and ice cream have a long story together serving on the front lines of the frozen dessert battle. Likely the banana split is one of the most famous sundae concoctions, sporting a triple scoop serving with multiple flavours -- pineapple, strawberry and chocolate -- of toppings and sporting a whole banana, cut in half lengthwise and fencing the rest of the ingredients. It's served in a "boat" and topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry on top. It's reported to have been first served in 1904, but I first had my taste of this desert in the early 1980's in the soft-serve version popularized by Dairy Queen restaurants. It's a small wonder I have such fond affection for the humble banana, especially served cold.
Free Drawing, Some Rules, No Restraints
Photographers don't necessarily get it easy, but in comparison to pointing an iPhone at a scene and thirty seconds later uploading a pic to Instagram, urban sketching is a demanding and patient art form. Pencil plus paper plus patience, the practice of setting up in a quiet corner and drawing a fast-but-detailed line drawing of what one sees is hardly new, but the attempt to formalize a set of rules and build an online community around the approach might be a more recent contribution. Enforcing a culture of the art-of-the-moment, on-location drawing with simple tools forces an impressionistic overtone to the interpretation of a scene with paper and pencil in the same way a camera encourages a photographer to snap a scene and capture a frame of time for posterity. It's just a lot slower.
Nature’s Tropical Sundae
Living in a Northern climate means that for six to eight months of the year Canadians can walk outside and eat a cold treat from their front yard. While eating yellow snow is usually ill-advised, fresh powder mixed with maple syrup is a cultural treat that is the highlight of many winter festivals. There may not be much snow where the Inga feuilleei (or pacay) naturally grows, but in South America the fruit of this tree has led to it being referred to as the ice cream bean tree. The creamy, smooth pulp of the beans of this plant apparently resemble the taste of vanilla ice cream. Perhaps a cultural exchange is in order? We’ll ship some snow south in trade for a few cases of fresh beans?