31 January 2013

Review: Stitch Step by Step by Maggi Gordon and Ellie Vance

I love needlepoint. Seriously, of all the crafts I've tried, needlepoint is my favourite. I'm not sure why. I don't think I'm particularly great at it (you know how your work is supposed to look just as good on the back as on the front? Yeah...not so much). The results don't generally have a practical use, like say, a sweater you knit or a necklace you beaded. It's kind of expensive and time consuming. And can cause some serious eyestrain. But there's something so completely relaxing about it. And there's a satisfaction in making something purely for the sake of creating (as opposed to for the purposes of wearing it or eating it) that resonates in a way more practical endeavours don't.

That said, when DK Canada sent me Stitch Step by Step to review as part of 2013's Start Something New theme, I was excited. This is a book made for me. Besides needlepoint and embroidery, it covers smocking, openwork, beadwork and more. It is a book of sheer inspiration, but it also gives you the knowledge needed to turn that inspiration into completed projects. As with any intricate craft, clear instructional photos are key and you get them here. In fact, this is one of the best sources I've found for showing stitches. There's also useful information on topics such as how to use an embroidery hoop and transferring designs.

As with my review of Knit Step by Step I tested the instructions by trying out some of the techniques in the book that were new to me. And the verdict?

Fern Stitch: First let me say the light grey instructions placed over a dirty white background is nobody's friend, and it recurs throughout the book. That is definitely a design fail. Luckily the photo instructions are much easier to decipher and the fern stitch was a breeze.

Spider's Web: A cool filling stitch that's also fun to do (okay maybe I have an odd idea of fun). The instructions were clear and easy to follow.

Byzantine Stitch: I love this stitch. It's another filling stitch that has a lovely staggered, geometrical appearance. It's a slightly tricky design to get right (and I think the instructions could have been more detailed) but it's not a difficult stitch to learn.

Leaf Stitch: One more filling stitch, composed of interlocking leaves, and another easy one to do once you get the hang of it. It creates a lovely effect.

One thing I learned from Stitch Step by Step is that there's really no such thing as a difficult embroidery stitch. All you need to do is break it down into smaller steps. Which I suppose is the way to do any task, really. But this book has boosted my confidence and made me even more excited about delving deeper into the craft of embroidery. If you have any interest in needlework (or think you could with the right encouragement) I highly recommend this book. It'll help you get through any project, whether following a pattern or working your own designs. So far I'm loving trying new things in 2013. Hope you are, as well. If you're still looking for your new thing to try keep an eye out for my future reviews on sewing and preserving.

Stitch Step by Step by Maggi Gordon and Ellie Vance. Published by DK.

22 January 2013

Going Granola

Ever since I read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, my view on what I eat has changed. I've become more aware of not only the quality of food but its source (which, alas, is not to say that I don't still consume my fair share of junk food--but I'm working on it). The book inspired me to at least try to replace over-processed garbage with real food whenever I can. I thought a good place to start would be cutting out breakfast cereals. I'm a fan of a number of them but if I stop to think about it I have to wonder if most of them even really qualify as food. They're sugary, starchy, salty (which I discovered when I had some after a few weeks of avoiding them--suddenly the sodium levels were shockingly noticeable), and pumped full of additives, preservatives, flavourings and vitamins (to make them "healthy," I guess). The fact that you can't make them yourself in your own kitchen is a good sign (as far as I'm concerned) that they are indeed over-processed (seriously, how the heck is cereal made?) Is this really the best choice for the most important meal of the day? I'm thinking not so much. But since I like milk in the morning (and not just a plain glass of it) I decided the best alternative to cereal was to start making my own granola.

And what do you know--it turns out granola is super easy to make (not to mention delicious and--I suspect--cheaper than the store-bought kind, although I haven't done the math). The best part is you can customize it the way you like it. Don't like raisins? Skip them. Love coconut? Go crazy. The recipe I originally started with was meant to be low fat, but I've decided I don't mind fat as much as I mind sugar so I've changed the proportions of the ingredients. You can experiment too, but here's the way I make it...

This is what I like in my granola but you can go with whatever you prefer.

Oats and nuts: the basis of all good granola (although nuts are optional)

The honey needs to be gently heated to make it runnier and easier to mix into the oats. I've also started adding coconut oil to the honey, not only because it's good for you but also because I'm trying to get the granola a little crunchier.

The oats and nuts after the honey mixture has been stirred in evenly

Pour onto a baking sheet...

And press into an even layer. This is strangely satisfying.

Toasty and golden brown out of the oven

Now you get to mix in whatever other goodies you like

Ready to eat

Easy Granola

6 cups large-flake rolled oats (you don't need to use large-flake oats but I find they result in a great texture)
1/2 cup slivered, blanched almonds
1/2 cup organic and/or local honey (don't skimp on this) or maple syrup (or a combination)
1/3 cup good-quality coconut oil
1 cup raisins (I like Thompson)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup shredded/desiccated unsweetened coconut
cinnamon (a teaspoon or more, to taste)

Heat honey/maple syrup and coconut oil in a small saucepan over low heat until oil is melted and honey/maple syrup is runny and no longer thick (should only take a few minutes). Meanwhile place oats and almonds in a large bowl. When honey/syrup mixture is ready, pour over oats as you stir to coat evenly.

Preheat oven to 350F.

While oven is preheating, line a large baking sheet with tin foil (don't skip the foil--trust me). Grease foil. Turn oat mixture out onto baking sheet and press into an even layer with the back of a spoon. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes in the preheated oven.

Remove baking sheet from oven and let cool. When cool enough to handle, carefully pull up edges of tin foil so that the granola is more or less contained in the centre. Getting the granola off the baking sheet is the worst part of the granola-making process--pulling up the foil like this helps keep granola from ending up all over your kitchen. Carefully lift foil and pour granola into a large bowl (don't re-use the bowl from before). Add raisins, cranberries, and coconut to the oat mixture in the bowl. Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste. I've found the easiest way to mix the granola is to use a measuring cup to scoop up the mixture and pour it into a storage container. You can store in the granola in any airtight container but I particularly like the Tupperware-type containers that are made for cereal (they have a lid with a pouring spout). That's it! Way easier than I've probably made it sound and you have a nice supply of tasty granola to serve with milk or yogurt or to snack on plain.

Makes about 9 cups of granola.

15 January 2013

Review: Knit Step by Step by Vikki Haffenden and Frederica Patmore

I'm not a big fan of new year's resolutions. It seems a bit odd to decide one arbitrary date is the universal time to fix everything in your life. Not even to fix everything but to promise that by the next year you'll have completed at least one major lifestyle change. Things you couldn't manage to do the previous twelve months will somehow magically become possible once the clock strikes midnight and the calendar page turns. I'm pretty sure no one in the history of this tradition has ever actually kept their resolutions. On the years when I have made them I don't even remember them by the end of January.

Trying to achieve unrealistic goals on a schedule has zero interest for me. I do, however, like to try new things and take on new challenges. So when DK Canada got in touch with me about reviewing books for their 2013 "Start Something New" theme I was immediately on board. Starting something new should be a year-round, lifelong theme, really, but instead of celebrating the new year by making pointless promises, why not celebrate by trying something you've always wanted to do? I'd much rather hear about someone learning to bake or do yoga or knit rather than listening to them lament that they never did manage to lose twenty pounds or balance their chequebook or quit smoking. And it's way more fun for the participant as well.

I've started my new year by learning how to crochet (see my previous post) but when it comes to crafts I'm a multitasker, always with a few projects on the go. My entree into the world of yarn was as a knitter so I decided to start my reviews with Knit Step by Step. I haven't actually done any knitting in a while (after undergoing wrist surgery I ended up engrossed in other endeavours) so this book seemed an ideal re-introduction. Just glancing through it I was immediately inspired. The author describes Knit Step by Step as "a comprehensive guide to a wealth of knitting skills," and that does seem to be an accurate description. The topics covered include materials, tools, techniques (so many techniques!) and design and decorative work. Not bad.

One thing that has ruined many otherwise-good knitting books is a paucity of clear photos or illustrations. Luckily DK books are never lacking in this department and this one is no exception. Every page has multiple colour photos with clear images of how things are supposed to look. That alone makes this a book worth cracking open, particularly for beginner knitters.

The writing itself is on the dry side (and the type size is frequently annoyingly small--or maybe I just need glasses in my advanced years). I doubt anyone other than Dumbledore reads knitting patterns for fun but I do generally like to see a little more personality in my reading material (especially since my preference is to read books cover to cover). Still if you want a straightforward manual Knit Step by Step will suit your needs. Although it's impressive in its comprehensiveness, I was surprised to see some obvious information missing. For example, despite entries on yarns I'd never heard of (milk-protein yarn, anyone?) there was no mention of bamboo, a fibre that's pretty common these days. I'm sure oversights like this are rare but they clearly do occur, so be prepared for the occasional gap. On the other hand there are more casting-on methods described and illustrated than I ever could have imagined existed. In any case, I'd say the writing in a knitting book is secondary to the photos and, as already mentioned, they alone make this book worthwhile.

So, how good are the instructions? Well, using only the book, I tried a number of techniques that were new to me, including:

Spiral I-Cord: Because I'm out of practice with knitting I found the needles felt alien in my hands and were awkward and frustrating to use (especially after the simplicity of a crochet hook), so working this cord was probably harder than it should have been. But the instructions were clear and making a spiral I-cord should be no problem for anyone who can handle basic knitting and purling. Mind you, my I-cord wasn't nearly as neat and tidy as the one in the book's photo, but I don't know if that was due to my technique, the yarn I was using, or the size of the needles.

Knit-On Cast-On: Delightfully straightforward instructions had me mastering this cast-on method immediately. It's the simple things that bring you the most joy in life :)

Picot Chain: Much less joy on this one. The instructions seem simple enough and my chain kept starting off well. But something got lost in the translation and despite several attempts I could not get anything remotely like the chain in the photo. Was this due to a failing on my part or could the instructions have been phrased better? I can't say for sure but since the steps are seemingly so simple, I'm blaming the instructions this time. Mistakes are common in even the best knitting patterns/instructions, though, which is why corrections are often made available on book and magazine websites (since I couldn't find a corrections page on DK's site you may have to  go searching forums for help if you run into trouble).

Mobius Loop: This one was fun, especially since it involves doing something you're usually supposed to be careful not to do (twisting the yarn). I had no problem figuring out the technique--my biggest issue was finding the right length of circular needles.

Because I'm already in the middle of other projects and didn't want to get too stuck into anything new, I didn't attempt any of the bigger projects in Knit Step by Step (like learning the Fair Isle technique, which seems to require at least one other pair of hands). Although, as mentioned, there are tons of techniques in the book, there are only a few actual projects, and they all seem pretty basic (striped scarf, baby booties, raglan sweater...) While I would say the techniques portion of the book would be valuable to any knitter, the projects are mainly going to be of interest only to beginners. But I'm definitely planning on going back when my project pile gets a little lower and taking my time with everything the book has to offer--and I recommend any knitters or potential knitters out there pick up this book and do the same. And if knitting isn't your thing, no worries--it's a new year (or day, week, month)--try something (anything) new (you can get some ideas by clicking on the button below, or keep an eye out for my future reviews for inspiration). Have fun!

Knit Step by Step by Vikki Haffenden and Frederica Patmore. Published by DK.

12 January 2013

Getting Crochet-y

Squares today, blanket tomorrow
Life is strange sometimes. Like when you wake up thinking you really need to make a blanket. That's what happened to me a few weeks ago. I'm not sure why--it's not as though there's a blanket shortage in this house.; if anything we have more than we know what to do with. I'd like to think I'm channelling my mom and grandmother, both of whom were avid crocheters. My grandmother made blankets for all her grandkids and as many great-grandkids as she could before her doctor told her she had to stop (I'm not sure what his reasoning was but I think it was a non-crafter's overreaction). My mom mostly crocheted lace but she also made several blankets. The only hitch in my blanket-making plan was I didn't know how to crochet (classic 'I'll get my mom to teach me later because we have plenty of time' folly).

I did knit, however, so my first thought was to look for a blanket pattern I could knit into being. But all the patterns I liked required a crochet hook. So what else could I do? I taught myself to crochet.

Of course I had to go and start with a pattern that was too advanced for me. And I went and bought all the yarn before I realized I wouldn't be able to do it (I like to make things as complicated as possible, apparently). So I found this tutorial for a simple granny square, figured out how to make it, and decided to turn the pile of newly purchased yarn into a pile of granny squares that will ultimately be stitched together into a blanket. I figure I'll need 150 squares (10 width by 15 length) for a queen-size blanket. Since I have 10 different colour combinations of squares that works out nicely.

This is what happens when (a) you're not quite sure what you're doing (note the messed up centre), and (b) you don't pay close enough attention to the pattern (behold the wavy edges--they should be straight). I decided to keep it, though, to commemorate my first completed granny square (but it won't be part of the blanket)
 Happily, I discovered I really enjoy crocheting. I've got a confidence with the hook and yarn that I never had with knitting needles. Maybe I am channelling my grand/mom, after all. Once I finish this first blanket, I plan on making more (including the original pattern that proved too tricky for my novice self). I also plan on trying out all sorts of fun projects I keep finding on Pinterest (another reason I stopped posting for a while there--full-on Pinterest addiction). Whatever prompted me to get crocheting in the first place, I have to say I like feeling as though I'm carrying on a family tradition. And hey, I'll never have to worry about being cold.

So far I've made 16 squares of the eventual 150 I'll need. The dark colour on the squares that are second from the right looks black but is actually a dark purple.

10 January 2013

The Lentil Loaf that Turned Me into a Carnivore

It's alive!

And by it I mean me. As some of you may have noticed, it's been a long time since I last posted. I'm not entirely sure where the time went but I've spent a lot of it trying to figure out my life. As part of that exciting process I gave up meat for a while.

Anyone who knows me wasn't surprised by that decision--I'm a crazy animal lover with a strong sense of guilt. I've actually been a vegetarian before as well (for five long years), but I really thought this time I'd stick with it. I was prepared to give up so many foods that I love (bacon, BBQ, burgers...) I was willing to put up with the ridiculously limited vegetarian options available at most restaurants. I was okay with cohabiting with three unrepentant carnivores (two feline, one human). And I was more than happy to live with a clear conscience.

And then came the lentil loaf.

Don't get me wrong--I actually really like lentils (including in loaf form). And I like cooking. What I don't like is wasting hours (nearly four!) and multiple ingredients to make something completely blah. It was unsatisfying. It was too sweet. It was way too high in carbs for something that wasn't a dessert. And suddenly it occurred to me that for way less time, effort, and ingredients I could have had a delicious and satisfying meat loaf. And my resolve collapsed. There's a reason why there aren't more vegetarians in the world, I realized. With apologies (and thanks) to the animals I'm back to eating meat. Delicious, delicious protein.

I still feel guilty about it, of course. I fully believe animals have intelligence, personalities and souls. I guess I'm putting some major black marks on my karma. I am trying to mitigate the badness of it, though. We're making a point of getting humanely raised meat (we've just signed up for a CSA program with local farmers--I'll let you know how that goes). I also will be getting and reading The Compassionate Carnivore (although given the pile of books I got for Christmas that could take a while). I'm also happy to hear your (constructive) thoughts on the issue. Anyone else struggling with being a meat eater?

For you curious types, here's a few pictures of the lentil loaf process (as well as the recipe)...

The ingredients, including a package of vacuum-sealed dates
Freshly ground nuts
Cooking the first batch of ingredients

Mmm...appetizing. I think this is the stage where I first started worrying.

Getting ready to mix it all together

Ready for its first stint in the oven.

Preparing the glaze.

Just what the loaf needs--another layer of sweetness!

Now it's ready to go into the oven for the second time. I really started worrying when it was finally finished yet still looked exactly the same.

Vegetarian Meat Loaf
[Found online a while ago but I can't remember the source now. Please speak up if this is yours. My comments in brackets...] 

You need:                 

A food processor (you will save yourself a lot of headache, trust me.)
1 cup dry brown lentils
2 medium carrots, grated or shredded
1 cup finely diced dates (I did mine in the food processor) (these are essential to a meaty flavour) [There was no meaty flavour. The dates just added unnecessary sweetness.]
1 medium onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons HP sauce [I'm not a fan of HP sauce so I used BBQ sauce]
1/2 cup ground or very finely minced pecans (did 'em in the good ole food processor)
1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
3 large eggs

Sauce for Topping Loaf:
1/2 cup ketchup
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

First, note that you can do all your chopping in the food processor. You might as well, because you need it anyway to get the lentils the right texture, so if it's already got to be out, you may as well take advantage of it. Do the pecans first, then do the onion, celery, and carrot, and lastly the dates, because they are sticky and you  want to minimize the cleaning effort.

1. Cook your lentils in plenty of boiling water for about 20 minutes, or until they're very soft but not yet mush. Drain them really well and set aside to drain more.

2. Meanwhile, saute the onion, carrot, celery, and dates in the butter over medium high heat for 6-8 minutes, until things are getting soft (like the onions) and there isn't a lot of liquid. You should stir a lot to make sure all the liquid gets a chance to evaporate. Add the garlic, cumin, soy sauce, and HP sauce and cook for another minute.

3. Pulse the lentils in the food processor until they're smooth. Put them in a big bowl. Pulse the cooked vegetables in the food processor until they're smooth. Add them to the lentils in the big bowl. Mix all this well and make sure it's cool enough to not cook eggs.

4. Add the rest of the ingredients for the loaf to the bowl and mix well. Make a sling with tin foil and put it in the bottom of a loaf pan. Grease the bottom and sides of the pan for easy removal. Spoon in your loaf mixture and cook for 20 minutes at 375ºF.

5. While it's cooking, add the sauce ingredients to a small saucepan and cook on low for 5 minutes, until thickened. After your loaf has cooked for its 20 minutes, take it out and slather it with the sauce. Then put the loaf back in the oven for another 20 minutes.

6. Let it cool for about 10 minutes, then slice and serve as you would normally serve meatloaf! In our house, that means with lots of ketchup. [The ketchup surprisingly did help--probably because it actually added some flavour to the thing.]

I'm curious if any of you try it to know what you think (just remember you've been warned). As for figuring out my life I'm still working on that. The only thing I know for sure right now is that I have an ongoing passion for crafting, decorating, reading and gardening--everything that this blog is about. I don't expect to be taking any more long breaks anytime soon.