25 February 2009

And the winner is...

...me! On a whim, I entered a contest over at the foodtv.ca blog (discovered through the miracle of Twitter) and I won! I entered a couple of days ago, found out I'd won yesterday, and received my prize today. Now that's service! And what did I win, you ask (or maybe you didn't, but I'm still telling). This:
The Fruit Hunters

A book is a great prize in itself for a book addict like me, but one about food simply rocks. Check this space for a review in the near-ish future (my current read, Henry VIII is both long and dense. It's taking a while to get through).

Thanks, foodtv.ca!

20 February 2009

Getting seedy

It's almost that time of the year, when gardens need to be planned and seeds started. Still a little early in these parts for the seed starting, unless you want freakishly tall and skinny seedlings (trust me--you don't). It is, however, a great time to start buying seeds. I actually prefer plants: they don't take as long to get established and I don't have to worry about finding space for trays of potential seedlings (some of which, frustratingly, never materialize). Also, with seeds, you always get way more than you need (or can give away) and it just feels wasteful. It's far too early to buy plants, though.

I've been perusing the catalogues lately. As usual, I find I'm interested in way more than I can find room for:

Peppers, Big Chili Hybrid
Peppers, Gypsy Hybrid
Peppers, Tajan Hybrid
Sorrel, Profusion
Tomato, Old German (heirloom)
Tomato, Red Currant 'Organic'
Tomato, Sweetie

Aquilegia, Miss MI Huish
California Poppy, Rosa Romantica
California Poppy, Thai Silk Formula Mix
Hollyhock, Jet Black
Hollyhock, Queeny Purple
Nasturtium, Cherry Rose
Nasturtium, Dwarf Jewel
Ornamental Pepper, Black Pearl
Poppy, Double Shirley Mix
Poppy, Mother of Pearl

Basil, Oriental Breeze
Mint, Cotton Candy (Also considering Improved Spearmint, Peppermint, Jim's Fruit Mint, Fruit Sensations Mint, Sweet Pear Mint, and Wintergreen Mint)
Thyme, Rose Petal

Fig, Hardy Chicago
Geranium (Pelargonium), Lemon Sculpture

I might get most of these or only some. I might even get none if I pay a visit to the garden centre first and get inspired by all the exciting options I find there. I would love to get more roses, but that would involve putting in more beds and ultimately more work. I'm really trying to keep things under control this time. No, really.

If I had the winning lottery ticket, why do I get the feeling that bookstores and garden centres would be the real winners?

17 February 2009

Take a Stand!

I want an umbrella stand. I'm not even sure where to find one (despite the plethora of links when I was searching for a photo), but I intend to get one. Probably something more traditional than the stand in the photo, although I think it's fantastic (and was pleasantly surprised to find out it's an antique).

The umbrella situation around here has gotten out of hand. For years there was only Red, attractive and sturdy despite having been acquired in a discount store. But then the SO deemed Red too small, and showed up one day with a suitably manly umbrella: solid black and big enough for a family of four to picnic under. Then came the one that was a promo item. Then the paper parasols (one a gift, one purchased in Chinatown). And the compact one we really didn't need and which is kind of flimsy, but had to be bought due to its extreme cuteness (black with white polka dots. No one could have resisted. Besides, it was on sale.)

But even with umbrella chaos, I hesitate to say I need an umbrella stand. They seem to be one of those items that make life prettier, more comfortable, more organized, and so on, but aren't strictly necessary for getting by on a daily basis. I seem to be attracted to a lot of those types of things.

Other Nice-but-Not-Really-Necessary Items:
  • candles and their various holders (like dimmer switches, provide ambiance, only with the added fun of a fire hazard!)
  • teapots and cups (let's be honest, a microwave and a mug are perfectly serviceable and are more practical as well)
  • water goblets (love them, rarely use them)
  • coasters (really, wouldn't a saucer or a napkin be just as good?)
  • trays (sure, in theory they're useful, but I can't remember ever seeing one put to use)
  • bookends (might be more practical if there weren't so many darn books taking up all the shelf space)
  • fancy spice bottles (my mom has been re-using the same spice bottles--refilled with fresh spices--she got from the store thirty years ago. No good reason not to)
Don't get me wrong; I love all of the above and have collections of multiple items from this list. I don't let a little thing like practicality stand in the way of comfort and aesthetics! But I find it interesting how many things are considered essential when they really aren't. Anyone out there care to add to the list?

PS: For anyone interested, here's the link to the umbrella stand pictured.

13 February 2009

It ain't so hard, either...*

You can't open a decor magazine or the homes section of the newspaper lately without seeing something on green design. It's come a long way from the days when environmentalism seemed to be the exclusive domain of back-to-the-land types (yet who somehow all seemed to think energy efficiency meant heating their homes with wood). Or has it? The more I read about these so-called eco-friendly homes, the more I have to wonder just how green they are.

Many of the buildings lauded for their green design are new construction. It's fine to include masses of recycled or natural materials, or to have ultra-efficient appliances and workings, but too many questions are raised in my mind. What was on the land before? Did another building get torn down and trashed or was the land previously green space or farmland? Recycled materials still require industrial processes to produce--how green are they, really? What are the environmental impacts of shipping, say, bamboo and sisal from point A to point B? New houses all seem to be huge (with lots of wasted space, like two-story high "great" rooms)--even with efficient heaters and air conditioning, how much energy do they end up using to make them comfortable? And darn it--why are so many of these houses covered top to bottom, inside and out, in wood? Yes, wood is a renewable resource...to a point. I keep picturing entire forests being devastated just so some self-proclaimed environmentalists can have cedar shingles and knotty pine encapsulating their houses.

The so-called green renovations being featured aren't much better. How is going into a perfectly good house, gutting it, and creating an entirely new (albeit largely recycled/natural) interior environmentally friendly? I can't help but feel that people who buy a house merely to gut it and re-create it according to their own whims or passing fads not only have no interest in actual green design, but lack respect for the house itself.

What isn't mentioned by green design mavens, however, is old (I'm thinking mainly pre-WWII) houses. It's true these houses precede the green revolution, but that doesn't mean their builders didn't take environmental concerns into account (whether knowingly or otherwise).

Old houses are solidly built with quality (usually, if not always, local) materials. I also happen to think they're beautiful, and despise unsympathetic renovations...but that's another post. Granted, a house that old will probably need repairs and/or updating, but what goes into that is still far less than a gut-job reno or building from scratch. Retrofitting is also a good solution, as old heaters can be replaced with energy efficient ones and old windows can be replaced (if absolutely necessary) with new. In the case of our house, the original leaded windows have been preserved, with new energy efficient windows installed on the outside. You don't even notice the new windows, but drafts and noise have been minimized. Refinishing existing hardwood floors, for example, is also environmentally superior to cutting down trees, processing them, and shipping in order to create new hardwood floors.

Old houses also tend to be more modest in size. I admit, as a collector, I sometimes find smaller homes limiting. But realistically, we're making good use of the space we have (actually using all the rooms!) and, as long as I keep my packrat tendencies under control, it'll be a while before we outgrow it. I'm stunned when I see some new homes. Does anyone really need (or want) a bathroom larger than most bedrooms? Think of all the cleaning! Or how about kitchens big enough to host a Greek wedding reception? Yes, they look beautiful, but I can only imagine they would be exhausting to work in (and there's the cleaning issue again). Larger houses consume more materials to build, use more energy to run, and--let's face it--will collect more stuff no matter how hard you try to avoid it. It's inevitable that an empty space will eventually be filled--and who's going to want to clear out their closet when it's the size of an island nation?

When we moved into our current house, I was concerned that the south-facing rooms would get too hot in summer. What didn't occur to me was that people in the past, faced with the same hot summers and no air conditioning, had taken climate control into account. The numerous deciduous trees planted in front of the house do a great job of shading the rooms in summer. Yet once their leaves have dropped in winter, sunshine streams in and warms the place. This could be the easiest (and most attractive) passive solar heating system ever. In the north-facing backyard, trees have been placed in such a way as to not block light, and hedges have been planted as wind-breaks. I think it's time we collectively give props to our forefathers--when it came to building and being intuitively green, they knew what they were doing!

*With apologies to Mr. Kermit the Frog...

08 February 2009

Gimme gimme carb treatment

Sunday mornings around here are pleasant. Being an early riser, I have a few hours to myself before the SO gets up and joins me. On Sunday mornings I like to spend this time watching the Brit soap opera Coronation Street (the week's episodes are all aired from 7:30 to 10 am on CBC). Now, unless a show features, say, Cylons or a certain bleached-blond vampire, I can almost never give them my undivided attention. So while Coronation Street is on, I'll clean or catch up on the week's newspapers or--most enjoyably--bake. Not only is baking therapeutic, but the 1950s housewife in me loves the idea of my guy waking up to the smell of freshly baked cookies or bread.

Today my baking foray turned out better than usual. I made cinnamon-raisin bread that was like a lighter version of cinnamon rolls. Quite addictive. Next time I plan on adding an icing sugar glaze. You know, to make it even more ridiculously irresistible. We had it fresh out of the oven for brunch, buttered and sliced alongside scrambled eggs and bacon.

And because sharing is a virtue, here's the recipe (based on one from my KitchenAid mixer instruction manual). Enjoy!

Cinnamon-Raisin Bread

1/2 cup milk
3 Tbs sugar
2 tsp salt
3 Tbs butter or margarine
2 pkgs (aka 2 Tbs) active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water (105F to 115F)
5 to 6 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins

Cinnamon Swirl

1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tbs butter, softened

Place milk, sugar, salt, and butter in small saucepan. Heat over low heat until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Cool to lukewarm.

Dissolve yeast in warm water in warmed mixer bowl. Add lukewarm milk mixture and 4 1/2 cups flour. Attach bowl and dough hook to mixer. Turn to speed 2 and mix about 1 minute.

Continuing on speed 2, add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time [Note: I found a total of 5 cups of flour to be plenty] and raisins, and mix until dough clings to hook and cleans sides of bowl, about 2 minutes. Knead on speed 2 about 2 minutes longer or until dough is smooth and elastic. Dough will be slightly sticky to the touch.

Place dough in greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover. Let rise in warm place, free from draft, about 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk.

Meanwhile, mix sugar and cinnamon for swirl.

Punch dough down and divide in half. On a lightly floured surface, roll each half into a rectangle approximately 9 x 14 inches. Spread each half with 1 tbs softened butter and sprinkle with half the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Starting at a short end, roll the dough tightly. Pinch to seal the seam. Pinch the ends and turn them under. Place the dough, seam side down, in well-greased 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 1/2-inch loaf pans.

Cover, let rise in warm place, free from draft, about 1 hour or until doubled in bulk. If desired, brush tops with beaten egg white.

Bake at 375F for 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown (and sounds hollow when tapped). Remove from pans immediately and cool on wire racks. If desired, once completely cool, drizzle with an icing sugar glaze.

Makes 2 loaves

05 February 2009

Honey, pack your things, we're moving to Hogwarts!

If you're like me, when you watch TV or a movie, you pay as much attention to the sets as to plot and character development. In a great movie, a gorgeous setting is icing on the cake, but even a mediocre movie is elevated (or at least made more bearable) by beautiful design. Hell, sometimes the sets are more interesting than the shows themselves!

Here are some of my favourite sets from shows and movies I love. The list is by no means comprehensive (partly due to my photo google-fu, which was not so strong this time).

Rivendell (Lord of the Rings trilogy)

In the books, my heart belonged to the Shire (particularly Bag End), but the movies really brought Rivendell's beauty to life. I'm too tall for a Hobbit house anyway.

The Harry Potter movies (above) haven't thrilled me since the first one (and that was before I read the books), but I have to say I adore the set designs (and the score too, actually).

Forget the magic; I wish that world were real just so I could live there!

I love Pushing Daisies. I can't even say how sad I am it's been cancelled. Besides the show's originality, great characters, and compelling stories (much like Bryan Fuller's other prematurely cancelled shows, Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls), the sets and costume designs are amazing, with a retro feel and super-saturated colours. I also wanted to find photos of the exterior of the aunts' house (interior, below) and Dead Like Me, particularly the Lass house, but see above re: google-fu, lack of.

As you can tell from the next photo, I have a taste for fantasy and whimsy. Let's just say I'm not a fan of neutrals! This is Jack's house from Nightmare Before Christmas (one of my favourite movies of all time). Too bad I couldn't find a picture of the gothic-arched windows with scrollwork panes.

I liked the movie Practical Magic a lot, but I love the house! In fact, I think the house made the movie. If I ever build a house, it'll be based on this one.

The kitchen. Great stove (I believe it's an Aga)! And although you can't see it, I want a pantry full of herbs like theirs.

The Royal Tennenbaums is a great movie (in fact, I can't find any fault with it). The house is fantastic as well: a great, decrepit mansion that suits the characters and makes me drool every time. [Edited to add: Apparently the original photo was the wrong one. Google and my memory both failed me this time! Here's the right house...]

Angel (the character) seemed to always live in style, both on Buffy and Angel (the series), but in my opinion, nothing topped the Hyperion hotel, which he and the Angel Investigations crew occupied for not nearly long enough. I don't know about anybody else, but it made me want to buy and convert an old hotel (lots of room for guests too). This is a shot of the hotel's courtyard.

Anyone else care to share their own favourite examples?