Saturday, April 30, 2016
We bought a house in a new suburb, one of those skinny two-storey houses that is pretty close to the houses on either side. Essentially it's a detached townhouse without the condo life, which means the yard is very small compared to the houses we grew up in. In total, maybe 2000 square feet of yard, most of which is shaded by the house and garage. And a large portion of that in the front is on the other side of the sidewalk, a "city owned boulevard".
However, I've been able to make pretty good use of the small, shady space. We have two 4x10 raised beds in the back yard, which provides more than enough garden space for vegetables. The edible plants don't stop there though. In the front, we have a tiny apple tree that I actually fit into the back seat of my Ford Focus in 2014, and shockingly produced 30ish apples last summer already. There are four haskap bushes in the front (still young and small, but doing pretty well for being in mostly shade), raspberries at one side of the house, a saskatoon bush in the back next to the deck, and strawberries in a few different places (including some wild strawberry plants I bought this year). I have a rhubarb that I have moved twice now so it hasn't produced anything but is still alive and kicking, and is hopefully in its permanent spot now so it can actually get to growing.
This year I learned that the city is okay with planting on the boulevard, just as long as it isn't trees or shrubs - essentially I now have way more full-sun garden space than I realized I had! The grass isn't doing so well there so I think I'm going to try and kill a larger patch of it and start a garlic garden - I grew about four heads of garlic last year and they were so easy to grow, I replanted all the cloves last year and they're huge already (April 30). Garlic needs to be planted in the fall to establish its roots before the snow falls (like other spring bulbs), so a spot on the boulevard where it would be definitely covered in a blanket of shoveled snow all winter is perfect for such a plant. I also moved the rhubarb to the boulevard last weekend, as the spot I had it in was arguably too shady and also too small for a plant that gets so big.
The most exciting thing this summer is that I finally ordered a couple of hardy kiwi plants! I've wanted to plant these for years, but the only time I ever found them in Saskatoon was the first summer we were in our house and we didn't have any yard yet so I couldn't plant things. I found them at Home Depot and still regret not just overwintering them in pots and planting them the next year, but I assumed if they were available one year, they'd be there the next. And of course they weren't. So I ordered from a nursery in Quebec which hardens off all of its plants before selling, and I'm looking forward to hopefully being able to harvest little kiwis from my own yard in a few years.
(Source - Green Barn Farms)
Other than the apples last year, most of the other fruit plants were just establishing roots so I only got a couple of berries here and there. I'm hoping to increase that to a few handfuls this year. Not quite the summer of fruit but slowly getting there.
Saturday, April 23, 2016
The week after my dad died, my workplace required me to go for counseling in order to provide "evidence" that my "condition" was being "treated" so I could get approved for stress leave and not have to go back to work four calendar days after he died (let's not get into that - but note that the government actually only requires companies to provide three days of bereavement leave, yet you can go on compassionate care leave for months if you know that the person is going to die). Anyway, during that counseling appointment with a social worker who wasn't specifically trained in bereavement, but had lost her mom unexpectedly as well, she said something that I kind of brushed aside/rolled my eyes at. "You may not think it now but you'll get to say goodbye" she said. She told me a story about how a few weeks after her mom died, the phone rang and she heard her mom say hello at the other end, and then the line went dead. She said she tried to tell people about it and they all told her she was making it up or remembering a dream, but she knew it was real. She couldn't explain it but it was very much a real experience to her.
I honestly forgot that story until a couple weeks ago, when I was debating writing this post. I don't know who, if anyone, reads my blog these days other than my husband, but nonetheless I feel kind of vulnerable putting it out here. I haven't told this story to anyone but close friends who I knew wouldn't laugh at me. But this story is what it is. It happened and however one chooses to try and explain it is fine with me, as long as they don't try and tell me my interpretation is unacceptable. Just like the counselor choosing to believe it was her mom at the end of that phone call, I am choosing to believe that my dad came to say goodbye in March 2015.
I was at home alone, sitting in my living room and watching TV. Brahm was out of town for the weekend and my mom was staying in our guest room but she was out of the house at the time. There was a heart-shaped helium balloon hanging out on the ceiling of the living room that my mom had brought over a week or two prior, which had stayed put in the living room pretty much that whole time. My cat liked to grab the string every so often and pull it around the house/chew on it, but it didn't move much other than swaying a bit when the heat turned on.
As I was sitting there, the balloon started to shift. I noticed it was slowly moving towards the stairwell and I wondered if it would stop or get stuck at the top where we likely wouldn't be able to reach it. Eventually it did make its way into the stairwell. A few minutes later I went to check on it, assuming it would be stuck at the highest point in the house, but it had actually turned the corner and was moving toward the upstairs hallway. This seemed like slightly odd behavior for a balloon so I stayed put and watched it travel along its course. Finally it came to a complete stop in the middle of the guest room door, where I mentioned my mom was staying for the weekend, as well as where all of the photos of my dad from his funeral were being kept.
It took a few minutes for the significance of where the balloon stopped to hit me and then I broke down and cried, sitting on the floor in the hallway. The balloon didn't move for the rest of the day. When my mom got back it was still there. My mom left it there while she slept that night.
The next day, I don't remember exactly when, I heard the balloon start to rustle and watched it move over a few feet, to some pictures from our wedding. It stopped, and stayed in this spot for another day.
After that day, the balloon was downstairs again when I got home from work. I'm not sure how it got there, perhaps the cat brought it down, but I swear the balloon followed me around for about an hour that day while I moved around the kitchen and main floor. Following that, it started losing its helium and moved around the house a bit sporadically but nothing as (what I'll describe as) "determined" as those couple days.
If you are shaking your head, or rolling your eyes, or feeling uncomfortable that I might believe this scientifically explainable balloon movement to have anything to do with my dad, please don't. It is not hurting anyone or anything for me or my family to derive meaning out of this. And if it was just a bizarre coincidence, what does it matter? It was an experience that will stick with me always and an experience that brought and still brings me immense comfort.
After this happened for a while I was hyper-vigilant about balloon movements and placements when we had them in the house, hopeful for more significance, but it never happened again. That is why I'm confident that it was a one-time shot; it was my dad coming to say goodbye, and no one can tell me otherwise.
Friday, March 25, 2016
In summer 2006, I was working for SCI-FI Science Camps. I had a coworker named Brahm who I got along with really well. One week that summer we were both running camps in Prince Albert, with four other co-workers, all of whom had family or friend connections in Prince Albert. This meant Brahm and I ended up hanging out by ourselves a few times. One evening we were flipping through the channels on the TV in the Super 8 hotel room I was sharing with a coworker who was out partying with her Prince Albert friends and came across a show I'd seen a couple of times called The Office. We watched a couple Season 1 episodes and were completely hooked. The next week when we got back to Saskatoon, Brahm downloaded all of Season 1 and 2 and binged everything. A couple weeks later we started officially dating, and from Season 3-7 watched every new episode together.
We both stopped watching around the time that Steve Carell left the show. Brahm pretty much stopped after the Goodbye Michael episode, and I gave up a few episodes into Season 8. I did tune into the finale a few years ago but didn't have much interest in finishing the entire series.
When The Office arrived on Canadian Netflix a few months ago I decided to watch through again, and this time I hoped to finish the full series. I'd heard a few people say that the show was still decent after Michael Scott's departure so I thought I would give it a shot. When I got to the end of Season 7, the few episodes left that season without Carell were still pretty good. The cast could hold their own. Why did I stop watching? I wondered.
Then I got to season 8 and Robert California. If you haven't watched the show or like many, stopped after season 7, Robert California, played by James Spader, was probably the most shark-jumpy character I've ever seen on a TV show. He made the show painful to watch and 4 episodes into season 8 I quit again.
However, still determined not to completely give up, I read the season 8 spoilers and saw that Spader only stayed on as a cast member for that season. I watched the finale of 8 and started over with season 9.
Other than a few major points of annoyance/weirdness (e.g. why did they turn Andy into such a horrible character, after building him up to be someone you rooted for by season 7), season 9 was overall pretty solid. I liked the Jim and Pam storyline, I liked that the documentary actually became a plot point, I liked the continuity of bringing back some old randoms (like Dwight's friend Rolf), I even liked the new characters. I know many on the internet don't agree with this but I enjoyed the season. I laughed a lot and also cried a lot in the last few episodes of the series. There is no denying that Michael Scott was pretty integral to the show, it wasn't half-bad without him (as long as it was also without Robert California).
If you, like me, were once a big fan of The Office but gave up after season 7, I encourage you to give season 9 a shot if you're looking for something to watch on Netflix. I was not disappointed for the most part and I hope you will agree.
Sunday, March 13, 2016
A while ago I mentioned finally figuring out a perfect sourdough recipe. To me this meant plenty of sourdough flavour, less than half white flour, but still soft, light, and sandwich-worthy. It took many, many attempts to get something that worked but finally the experimentation paid off and I can consistently make a pretty brag-worthy loaf. And I knead it in a bread-maker, so the hands-on time is pretty minimal overall (though you do need to be home for at least a half-day to tend to it between risings).
I find it works well even if my sourdough starter has been neglected for a few weeks (though definitely does rise faster if it's been fed recently). I start by mixing 90g of (50/50) starter with 100g whole wheat flour, 50g white flour, 50g rye flour, and 200g water to essentially make a large bowl of 50/50 starter. I let it sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours, 24 is better. After that it will be bubbly and ready to make the dough.
The dough is simple, but has a few extra ingredients beyond typical water/flour/salt/yeast, to increase the lightness of what could become a heavy loaf. To the starter I add 150g of white flour, 100g wheat flour, 10g vital wheat gluten (to improve the structure since I am using so much wheat flour), 10g salt, 10g cocoa (sometimes, to add some flavour and make a nice brown colour), a scoop or two of extra grains if I feel like it (I'll often add flax or chia), about 1.5 tsp yeast, and 100g milk.
Toss that into the breadmaker, let it knead, and unplug. Depending on the starter activity and type of yeast used (instant makes for a faster rise), it will need to rise from 2-4 hours to double in bulk.
Then it goes into a loaf pan for the second rise, which usually takes 1-2 hours. I had, and still get, many ripped loaves due to under-proofing so it's important to let it rise well above the edge of the pan before putting it in the oven.
Then it goes into the oven, 375F for 35 minutes. Out comes a perfect loaf of bread, made more perfect if it is left to cool out in the open overnight to develop an extra-crisp crust. It stays fresh for 3-4 days before starting to get a bit stale, at which time I slice the remaining loaf and freeze it.
Sunday, March 6, 2016
If you are a long time reader, you might remember a couple of posts from back in the day when I decided I needed to learn to make macarons. You will remember that I had some mild success after 8-10 batches. The last successful batch I made was a nearly perfect batch of peanut macarons - I was able to get good shape, good feet, and they didn't brown, but they were still fairly hollow inside. After I got that "almost perfect" batch, I pretty much stopped making them forever because they were so difficult. I also never wrote down the recipe I used (it was in a notebook that I am pretty sure is lost now) so over the past couple years I tried a couple times to recreate it, to pretty much always abysmal failure.
Then, about a month ago Brahm and I got hooked on The Great British Bake Off, a lovely baking competition show featuring a bunch of polite British home bakers attempting the most amazing feats of bakery. We started watching at the recommendation of a friend and after just a few episodes, both of us, like the entire United Kingdom apparently, were suddenly inspired to up our baking game. While Brahm has focussed on tarts so far, I was intrigued by the use of Italian meringue in so many items and finally worked up the nerve to try this method for macarons, which serious food bloggers all swear is the superior method. I'd learned about it through Annie's Eats but having always wanted to try making chocolate macarons, I first attempted this recipe (including Italian meringue for the first time). I had approximately half success - half of the macarons cracked, I know they were slightly overmixed, and half were a little misshapen but pretty good for a first attempt:
Having gained confidence I attempted the Annie's Eats recipe linked above, to complete failure. Every single macaron cracked and they seemed to be overbaked as well. I did not take photos of that batch. They were obviously undermixed (likely all the meringue was not combined with the almond paste properly) and who knows what else.
I did a bit of reading and figured I might be making my meringue too thin, so I tracked down this recipe and followed it almost exactly, other than adding a bit of cream of tartar to stabilize the egg whites better, and also added a couple grams of corn starch so the shells would dry out faster. I sifted all the dry ingredients and took greater care to get my meringue stiffer and...
Not perfect but much improved! Three days of practicing piping these and a better textured batter helped get them uniformly shaped. I think the lopsided ones are due to using my oven in convection mode (will not do that again) and I think the batter was just slightly undermixed, but at least distributed evenly. For sure the best looking batch I have made, and they also seemed to be the least hollow!
I'm definitely confident using this method and making Italian meringue and I don't plan on ever attempting the French method again because why?? And bonus, to make one batch of these (half the Love and Macarons recipe) took only about 20 minutes to prep, 15 minutes to rest, and 13 minutes to bake. They were out of the oven and filled, and the kitchen cleaned, in under an hour.
While I am 1/4 English (I'm actually a Mayflower descendant), I've never felt particularly in tune with that part of my ancestry. Watching The Great British Bake Off, I can see how it's not just a baking competition but also quite patriotic for Brits. I do have several quintessentially "British" hobbies but have never thought about them that way before, and cheesy as it sounds now I do feel a little more in touch with my British heritage.
Monday, February 8, 2016
Two years ago to the day I posted about the natural swaps I was making for skin/body care. One of the items I mentioned was using baking soda and vinegar to wash my hair. In a more recent update post I mentioned that I was not using that method anymore, but I thought it might be interesting (and potentially helpful for anyone who stumbles across this blog in a google search) to provide a full run-down of all the different un-shampoo methods I tried before settling on my current (consistent) method.
1. Baking Soda and Vinegar
This method is most widely referred to as "no-poo" though that term can really refer to any non-conventional shampoo hair washing. It's the one that started me on the path, but after a couple months my hair was feeling pretty dry and some quick research explained that the BSV method is actually pretty damaging to the scalp because you change the pH so drastically. At this point I researched some other methods and tried the next one people were raving about...
2. Rye Flour
Yup, it sounds pretty weird. But rye flour is really low gluten and did feel really nourishing to my scalp. Surprisingly it cleaned pretty well and made my hair feel really soft. However it wasn't 100% consistent as it didn't work in hard water which could pose issues when traveling, and sometimes was hard to wash out (kind of gross finding a strand of hair coated in dried dough later in the day). So, on to the next...
3. Morrocco Method
In my never-ending research for a consistent hair washing method, I stumbled across tons of rave reviews for these products. They are apparently all natural and the internet had nothing but good things to say about them, so I not very smartly splurged on the full line of products. After several months of using them, hoping I was still in a "transition period", I gave up with tons of product left. These "shampoos" did not clean my hair well at all - it was visibly greasy and I could smell the sebum on my scalp. I felt gross. However ordering this full line of products was not a complete loss, because one of the items that shipped with it was called Zen Detox - essentially just some bentonite clay, for which I followed the directions and put it on my scalp and then washed it out. And it cleaned BEAUTIFULLY.
To note about MM products before I move on, I will never put them on my scalp again but they work okay as a conditioner for my ends, and also work pretty well as a body wash that doesn't strip all the oils off my skin. So I can for sure use them but just not in the way they were intended. There were two products in the line that I did really like, the Blood of the Dragon styling gel and the Pearl Essence Creme Rinse. Otherwise personally I do NOT recommend the shampoos for a person with fine but thick curly (Caucasian) hair.
4. Bentonite Clay
I figured I had finally found the holy grail of natural shampoo. During all of my research though I knew that bentonite clay had a similar pH to baking soda BUT it is supposed to be mixed with vinegar prior to skin application to neutralize it. This was something that couldn't be done with the BSV method because neutralizing it before washing hair made it ineffective, but the clay still cleaned very well after neutralizing. Overall though after a while it still felt kind of harsh on my scalp, and I continued to research clays for skincare.
5. Rhassoul Clay
This is it folks, the real deal. The internet recommended rhassoul clay as the best clay for skin and haircare, and I found it for pretty cheap on a soap making website and tried it out. After a bit of recipe tweaking, what seems to work really well is about 2 tbsp of rhassoul clay mixed with some apple cider vinegar, aloe, and glycerin, with some tea tree and other essential oils added, to create a thin paste. This cleans incredibly well and does not appear to dry out my scalp. A++++, would highly recommend. The "shampoo" takes about 30 seconds to mix up and at most I have to use it once a week, depending on outside humidity (in summer I can go 2-3 weeks, winter about 10 days, before my scalp starts feeling greasy), just rinsing with water in between. I have been using a variation of this recipe, with rhassoul clay as the main ingredient, for almost a full year and it's proven to be far more consistent than any of the other methods - something easy to stick with that doesn't frustrate me after a few weeks. I wondered for a long time whether I would actually find something that worked or if I'd be forced to go back to conventional shampoo, but this seems like it will be a keeper for life.
On this note I stumbled across the product line Naturalicious yesterday and noticed that their shampoo is made with rhassoul clay as the main cleansing ingredient too (and happens to have a pretty similar ingredient list as the stuff I make myself - so I must be doing something right!).
6. Epilogue - DevaCurl
I learned about DevaCurl products, which really seem to be gaining in popularity, a while ago when getting my hair cut by a DevaCut certified stylist (it is definitely the way to go if you have curly hair and have suffered from bad haircuts your entire life). When I get my hair cut the stylist washes my hair with these products and my hair does come out insanely curly. My sisters have been using the DevaCurl products for a while and I bought a set of the products for one of them for Christmas, for which the package got lost and didn't show up until after Christmas when I'd already bought her a replacement set from Chatters. I decided to use it up myself but after about 2-3 washes I noticed my scalp flaking pretty badly so I went back to the clay. I am not sure why DevaCurl No Poo made my scalp dry as it appears to be a really moisturizing product, but it didn't work for me consistently. The gel and the conditioner work really well though, but as far as washing my actual scalp I am sticking with my rhassoul clay.
Overall this natural shampoo journey has been at times extremely frustrating as it took me well over a year to find a method that worked consistently, but I'm glad I stuck with it! My hair is so much healthier and easier to take care of than it was when I used conventional shampoo and I don't plan on ever going back.
Sunday, January 24, 2016
I've never been much of a coffee drinker. I was one of the few weird university students who could get by without multiple cups of XL Tim Horton's per day, and the few times I needed to stay up all night to get a report done I'd drink a Pepsi for the caffeine boost. I would enjoy the occasional frozen coffee drink which though is very likely much closer to a milkshake with some coffee flavouring than to an actual cup of coffee. A lot of it had to do with the fact that when I drank coffee it seemed to make me ill - either too jittery from an excess of caffeine or worse, a full-day "coffee hangover" during which I would have no appetite and feel gross and nauseous.
However in recent years I started noticing that this coffee hangover didn't occur with all types of coffee, nor did I ever feel it with other caffeinated or acidic drinks. We've been to Hawaii a few times over the past winters and drinking fresh ground coffee purchased right from the farms didn't affect me once. We started purchasing whole bean coffee for home use that was locally/freshly roasted (currently we subscribe to Phil & Sebastian out of Calgary) and again, none of it ever affected me, but I was definitely not building a tolerance. Almost every time I would take a gamble on drinking restaurant coffee, including espresso drinks (which have never bothered me at home), I would get sick. The only common denominator in the coffees that didn't make me sick seemed to be that they were from places that advertised using fresh, recently roasted beans.
I always assumed that the coffee hangovers had something to do with caffeine and acidity and potentially brew method, but that just didn't really add up. Sure, Starbucks and Tim Horton's do have typically more caffeine than other types of coffee but if a dark roast is supposed to be lower acid and lower caffeine than a lighter roast, why were medium roasts with bold acidity from Phil & Sebastian fine to drink at home, but a dark roast cappuccino at a restaurant that didn't use fresh beans made me sick? Why did the drip coffee we made from fresh roasted beans in Hawaii not bother my stomach?
Further, once I started drinking good fresh coffee, I really developed a taste for it and generally have no problem drinking it straight black. But how do I know when it's safe to order in a restaurant or cafe?
This morning I finally sat down and spent a good hour researching what might be causing my coffee sickness, and I think I have finally found the culprit: not acidity, not caffeine levels, but RANCIDITY.
Here's a summary of what I learned:
- The longer coffee beans are roasted, the darker the roast and the more oils from inside the bean get to the surface. The oils can also naturally escape the bean, even with lighter roasts, the longer roasted beans sit on a shelf.
- The oil on the outside of the bean can go rancid EXTREMELY quickly - potentially within hours if exposed directly to oxygen, humidity, and light.
- Rancid coffee oil on the outside of the bean can cause the coffee itself to also spoil.
- Rancid coffee can cause the coffee to taste bitter and stale (if the coffee you have doesn't actually smell like coffee anymore, it's stale) and upset the stomach or cause other digestive issues (including heightening coffee's laxative effects).
After roasting, whole coffee beans should be stored in an opaque airtight container with a one way valve to allow for off-gassing at approximately 20 C and consumed within one month. After GRINDING, those ground beans should be used within a couple of hours.
Apparently, any pre-ground coffee you buy is almost always rancid or well on its way. As well, commercial grade coffee is allowed to have up to 4% defective beans (which can mean broken, moldy, beans that are actually bugs, etc.) in the mix which also contributes to bad flavour and increased rancidity. A large tub of Folgers for example is pretty much guaranteed to be rancid by the second time you use it.
Most people are able to stomach rancid coffee just fine with no digestive effects (though I'd argue that non-rancid coffee is not much of a laxative) so if that's you and you're fine with the taste, enjoy the fact that you can drink coffee anywhere you want without becoming ill for a day.
Unfortunately for me, I'm going to have to stick with coffee that I know is not rancid - freshly ground and roasted within a few months of consumption. This limits me to home, or pretentious cafes. Which is maybe not the worst thing ever because having made it to age 31 without ever developing a caffeine addiction is definitely something to be proud of.
Note: I didn't provide references because unfortunately I did all my research on my phone and then sat down to type this up, and none of my references actually had references of their own, though some of the articles were written by chemists. This could all be complete BS, or it could be truth - I choose to believe it because it makes sense scientifically and I'm 100% positive that it's not in my head. But just don't use this information for a science project or anything unless you're going to put the claims to the test in a lab!