25 September 2013

Warmth With a Click

A puzzled cat demonstrating how to be warm
It got colder recently. So this morning, I walked over to a spot in the wall, clicked over a little switch, and warm air started streaming out of some holes in the floor.

I mean, how crazy is that? One click of a switch, and it gets warm in this house again. I remember years ago, going to visit a friend who had just moved into a new house with a snazzy gas fireplace (it was the first time I'd ever seen one of those). When I got there, she said, "Hmm, it's kind of cold. Let's start a fire," and click, she hit a switch and the flames in the fireplace leapt to life. I was laughing, probably a little hysterically - I had just come from our little place, where the furnace was broken and we heated the house with an airtight wood stove. "Starting the fire" at home meant going outside, getting a log from the wood shed, chopping it into stove-door-fitting chunks, hauling it into the house with a canvas carrier, splitting off kindling, crumpling some newspaper, carefully stacking all that in the firebox, striking a match, lighting the paper, regulating the stove vent (if you left it open too far and too long, the house would overheat; but if you closed it too soon, the fire would die)… And here my friend "started a fire" with one click of a switch. Just like I did this morning.

I really like wood fires; they are the nicest form of heat. But I'm profoundly grateful that I am not dependent on them as my only source of warmth. Being able to click a switch and instantly get warm has a lot to be said for it. The same goes for light, and cooking fuel. Click an electric switch, and there it is.

Life, the Universe, and Automatic Fires. How fortunate we are.

17 September 2013


Did I mention that I like food? I guess I did, maybe once or twice (a month). Yes, well. It's one of the greatest pleasures of life, food is. And I enjoy it. Specifically, right now I'm enjoying soup.

I never used to be a big soup eater. I'm still not, really, although they're great fun to cook (you can be very creative with soups). But I have a few kinds of soups I really like, and one of my current favourites is Jamie Oliver's Cauliflower Cheese Soup. I got it from his book Jamie's Food Revolution (called Jamie's Ministry of Food in the original UK edition), a book I'd highly recommend for beginners and seasoned (haha) foodies alike. I'm not sure what it is about the combination of cauliflower and cheese, but it's just to die for (or rather to live for or on. It's really nutritious, as well as addictively delicious.). And just so your taste buds, too, can experience the bliss of cheesy-cauliflowery wonderfulness, here's the recipe - my version, but it's mostly the same as Jamie's.

2 carrots
2 celery stalks
2 medium onions
2 cloves of garlic (I leave those out, I can't eat garlic. But they'd be very tasty, I'm sure.)
8 cups cauliflower florets, or about 1 head of cauliflower
2 quarts (litres) chicken or vegetable broth (I use homemade chicken stock*)
salt and pepper
8 oz (250g) grated cheddar cheese (or whatever other kind you like)
1 tsp mustard
(Jamie also suggests nutmeg, which I don't like, so I don't put it in)

Chop the vegetables. Put a glug of oil into a big soup pot, turn on high, dump in the veg. Sauté the veg for ten minutes or so, until they're softish (the onions at least). Pour in the broth (Jamie says to boil the broth in another pot first, but I don't, I just put it in cold). Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the vegetables are really soft, about 30 minutes. Purée with an immersion blender. Add the mustard and grated cheese, stir until melted. SERRRRRVE. Makes enough for 6-8 people, or else it freezes and reheats very well. Also good in thermos containers in lunches and such.

*Oh, and just as a PS, here's how I make chicken stock:
take a chicken carcase or two or three (raw with a bit of meat on it still is best, but the bones from a roast chicken, even one of those rotisserie ones from the supermarket, work very well too). Put into a stock pot. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, turn down, simmer for a couple of hours or so. Strain out the bones, pick off the last bits of meat (they make great chicken salad), chuck out the bones, DONE. I pour the stock into old litre-sized yogurt containers and freeze it for future reference. It's THE best base for homemade soups of any kind. Note, I don't add any seasonings, not even salt, because I want to be free to play with the seasonings in the final recipe. Also, if you want to simmer the stock down to concentrate some more, the salt or other seasonings would become too strong, so it's better to just not put any in up front. If I wanted to make plain chicken soup from this, I'd simmer some seasonings along with the bones, say, an onion, a couple of carrots, some celery, and a leaf or two of lovage (a garden herb that tastes like Maggi, similar to celery leaves; it's a great soup seasoning).

There you have it: Life, the Universe, and Soup. Guten Appetit!

11 September 2013

Snow White and Rose Red

from Wikimedia Commons
Steve thinks I'm studying the wrong Snow White story. Oh, didn't I say? This semester, one of my courses is a reading course on fairy tales, and I'm focusing on "Snow White". The one with the seven dwarfs. But Steve, being of the ursine persuasion, thinks I should do the one with the bear in it. His argument is that there's a dwarf in that one, too, so if I'm stuck on dwarfs, it'll do just as well. But sorry, Steve, "Snow White and Rose Red" just isn't well-enough known in English-speaking countries for there to be much scope for a whole course of study. No Disney or other movie adaptations, no cheesy YA novels, and nary a picture book to be had, unlike the Seven-Dwarfs version. Which makes me wonder if the dwarfs had a hand in disseminating the latter tale; it sure makes dwarfkind look good, while the other story - well... But you've probably never heard of "Snow White and Rose Red", have you? Well, here it is - my version. (If you want to read the proper Grimms' one, #161 in the Children's and Household Tales, you can find it here.)

There once was a poor widow who lived in a little cottage in the woods. In the garden in front there were two rose trees, one white, one red. Inside the cottage, there were two little girls, one called Snow White, the other Rose Red. (Creative, eh? You gotta wonder if the kids were named after the trees, or the trees planted for the kids.) Those two little girls were the poor widow's daughters, and they were so good and sweet, it's downright nauseating. (The Grimms go on for more than a page about just how good these kids were. I'll spare you the recital.) So one bitterly cold winter's night, they were snugly sitting by the fireside, mother reading out of a fat old book while the girls were spinning (yup. With a spinning wheel.) when a heavy knock fell on the door. "Go open the door, girls," says mama, "it'll be a poor woodsmen needing shelter from the cold!" (Apparently they hadn't heard of not letting strangers in the house.) So the girls opened the door, and outside stood - a big, black bear. Now, it seems they had heard that black bears are dangerous, so they let out a shriek and tried to slam the door, but the bear got his foot in the crack first (well, okay, that's not what the Grimms say, but it's the gist of it), and said, "Kind ladies, don't be afraid! I only seek to warm myself by your fire." Now the mother figured that a talking bear must be less of an issue than the ordinary growly kind, so she let him in and talked the girls into coming out from behind the sofa, where they'd been hiding. He stretched himself out by the fire, got the kids to brush the snow out of his fur, and once they figured out that he was really quite tame (besides being able to talk), they made right pests of themselves, petting and poking and rolling all over him, using him as a sort of live hearth rug or oversized puppy dog. The bear put up with it quite good-humouredly; in fact, they had such a good time that the mother asked him to stay the night. When he left in the morning, he snagged his fur on the door latch, and Rose Red thought she saw a little bit of gold underneath - but she wasn't quite sure, so she didn't say anything. Mama invited him back the following evening, and so all winter long, the bear spent his nights at the cottage, sleeping in front of the fire and being plagued by the little girls.
 Now, come spring, bear said, "I can no longer spend my nights in your charming company, for I must go and protect my treasure from the wicked dwarfs which come out of their caves now that it is warmer. Farewell, my friends!" (or something equally sonorous; he talked kind of posh) and took himself off into the woods.
So then one day the girls were out picking flowers or something, when they made a new acquaintance. By a log, they saw something hopping up and down, and when they got closer, they noticed it was a dwarf, with the end of his long beard caught in a slit in the log. He'd been trying to split the log for firewood, and got caught. He was an extremely rude and self-absorbed dwarf, yelling at the girls and calling them names, but nevertheless, they helped him out. Snow White had her sewing scissors in her pocket (being that sort of girl), and she cut the end off the dwarf's beard and set him free. He swore at her for mutilating his beard, collected a bag of jewels he had stashed nearby, and scampered off. This being a fairy tale, the same thing happened twice more: once they cut the dwarf's beard free from a fishing line he was caught in (the fish was trying to pull him under), and the other time they pulled him out of the talons of an eagle who wanted to lunch on the crabby little fellow. Even when the dwarf yelled at them for tearing his clothes in the rescue attempt, they didn't regret what they had done, which shows you just how sweet, good, and slightly dimwitted they were.
But the last time they met the dwarf, the outcome was just a little different. They were coming back from town, and there in a clearing was the dwarf. He'd spread a big bag of jewels all over the ground, and was gloating over his hoard, when he noticed the girls. He started screaming and yelling at them, but then suddenly, with a growl, a big black bear jumped out of the bushes. (You know where this is going, don't you?) He attacked the dwarf, who started whimpering and whining, begging the bear to spare his life: "Here, eat those two little girls instead, they'll be much tastier than me!" Of course, wicked ungratefulness of this kind must be punished, and the bear did the honours: one swipe of his paw, and the bad little dwarf was no more.
The girls were running for it - they weren't sure if the bear wouldn't take the dwarf's advice and have them for dessert - when they heard the bear's voice: "Snow White, Rose Red, do not be afraid! It is I, your friend!" They stopped to wait for him, but when the bear caught up with them his black bearskin fell off him, and there before them stood a most handsome young man, dressed from head to foot in cloth-of-gold. (Being good-looking doesn't mean he had fashion sense.) "I am a king's son," he proclaimed (to the surprise of no one except Snow White and Rose Red), "and the evil dwarf had me under an enchantment, so I had to live as a bear until I was freed by his death." (Which means that if the girls hadn't been so polite to the rude dwarf and kept saving his life, the prince would have been freed from his enchantment much sooner. I guess the moral of that is that you really should let rude people get what's coming to them.)
So Snow White married the prince, and Rose Red married his brother (which sounds like cradle-snatching to me, as the girls are described as quite young for most of the story), and with the dwarf's treasure, which they divided between them, they all lived quite a cushy life. Mama came to live in the palace with them, of course, and she brought along the two rose trees, which continued to  bloom happily ever after, each summer, one white and one red.

There, now you know the story of "Snow White and Rose Red". Isn't it fun? It was always one of my favourites (not just Steve's).

Life, the Universe, Snow White and Rose Red. And if they haven't died by now, they still live on today.

03 September 2013


Hey, where did August go? All of a sudden it's September, and I haven't written a blog post in almost a month. That's the second time this year a month has gone missing on me - I lost May, too. First it was April, and then, I could have sworn not much more than a couple of weeks later, it was the middle of June. It's like that odd character in the equally odd movie adaptation of Five Children and It, the strange uncle played by Kenneth Branagh. He loses a Thursday in that movie. Well, it happens, you know.

But actually, to be honest, I do know what happened to August. Holidays happened. Company, and road trips to be company; and then of course peaches and salsa and relish happened, too (pears and pesto are still forthcoming). And I read P. D. James (who isn't nearly as gritty and disturbing as I remembered from the first book of hers I read), and watched movies, and went places and saw things with company and as company. And between all of that, there was no space left for blogging. Oh, sure, I could have made myself do it - there was the odd blank space in the margin of my life that didn't have anything scribbled on it. But quite apart from the fact that after all the term paper writing I did in July I had a mild case of writer's fatigue, I needed to keep those margins blank.

Because the thing is, a person needs margins in their life. There needs to be space around the edges of the sheet of things you've got to do. Because if there isn't, if you cram your life so full of doings that you live it right to the edge, when something extra drops into the middle you get pushed right off the rim. Splat. When you work right to the limit of your capacity, all day and every day, then any crisis, perhaps even a minor one, will send you spiralling into a meltdown. If you spend right to the edge - energy or money, it's all the same - you might find yourself suddenly clinging desperately to a narrow rim which is all that is left to hold onto.  No margins are not a healthy way to live.

Now, I know that there are times when you simply can't help it, when your sheet, or your plate, as it were, is full right to the edge through no doing of your own. But I do think that more often than not we can help it. We make choices about what else we pile on that plate or scribble on that sheet. Writing into the margin is something we decide to do, because we figure that (for whatever reason) the thing we're putting down is more important than having that extra space to absorb unforeseen stress. God knows, I've done it so many times. And fallen off the edge with just a little extra push from the middle. It's not a good thing, trust me. Quite apart from the pain of hitting the ground, once you're splattered on the floor, you get nothing else done - so then what have you achieved with your overcramming of your life?

So I don't want to live like that any more. I want to keep margins in my life, some blank spaces around the edge. Keep the middle to the middle, fill it with only those things that really are important. And I want to do that before life forces me to do it through illness or loss or any other nasty ways that it could possibly do that. The stuff in the middle, that's important, but we need the margins to keep the middle in place. With margins, a crisis can be handled - without them, it becomes a catastrophe.

Life, the Universe, and Margins. I'm going to leave some blank around those edges of my life.