Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Holidays

The Timmins evacuees arrived and departed in waves: first to get there were Jean and I, the evening of December 22; then my older sister, Joanne, followed shortly by my younger sister Michelle and her family, on December 24. Boxing Day was the first departure, by Jo; then Jean and I drove back on December 27; then Michelle’s family flew back the following day. Some small departure delays due to weather and a bit of a close call getting through the very crowded luggage drop-off at Pearson were the extent of the travel issues.

The influx of people made gave my Dad some stress in keeping us all fed and finding everyone a place to sleep, but it all worked out. It helps that Dad’s a very good cook, and yes, we all pitched in with grocery shopping, baking, food prepping, and cleaning up. Michelle and Jackson kindly volunteered to sleep on couches the two busiest nights, so no one had to check into a hotel.

Big Guy!

Even Santa was helping with the food

The 23rd we had a great visit with our Timmins friends (all two!) and Christmas Eve offered a succession of family Réveillons.

Only the Kid's can get this exited about Christmas

Lefebvre great-nieces excited for Santa

Santa!

Père Noël appreciates the adulation

The little gift exchange theme this year was “ornaments”. Jean’s made the biggest splash: He Etsy’d his own ornaments starting with old photos of his siblings, converted into luggage tags then ribbon’ed by hand. My contribution of ornaments made by Peruvian artisans landed well with Jean’s sister, who had just returned from a trip there. Jean ended up with these rather cool bird ones.

The facets' of Christmas!

New ornaments for our tree

Christmas morning at McNair’s we did the stealing game again. This was after much email discussion, during which we’d decided that each person would get an age-appropriate gift. Of course, the kids don’t really do their own shopping for this.

My brother, for whom there is time like the last minute, was copied on all emails but didn’t really dig into them until about Christmas Eve, when he was off to do his shopping. He checked with Michelle: “I have to buy gifts for my own kids?” he asked. “Really?”

Yes, really.

This didn’t really work out with Sarah-Simone, though, who—even after “her” present was available—simply couldn’t resist going to the pile of presents to try again after some adult  kindly “stole” the present she had. Even though, as she pointed out, most of the presents “sucked” for a 10-year-old.

Her package :)

Another gift not entirely suitable to its recipient…

Things eventually got sorted through final trades.

The Stealing Game :)

Or in my case, earlier, by stealing this fine wine collection from my brother

Jean ended up with the item I had contributed, a coffee infuser. It’s not fast, but it does make a nice smooth brew!

We also got out for some snow shoeing on this gorgeous winter day.

Winter Wonderland!

Jean and my brother-in-law went again on the less-pleasant Boxing Day, coming back with a harvest of chaga tea (which looks like dirt mounds, but you clean it and brew it and it’s apparently full of anti-oxidants. Pretty mild-tasting.)

Slaying the dragon and making off with the Chaga!

Slaying the dragon

The days between Christmas and New Year’s, Jean worked while I sat around and ate bonbons.

Not really. (Well, maybe a few bonbons.)

New Year’s Eve, we returned to The Berlin, one year after first going, for their four-course dinner. City buses are free that night, so we decided to travel that way. We did the whole route-planning thing on the transit website, and found the perfect trip. As long as all buses were exactly on time.

However, the first one was three minutes late, meaning we missed our transfer by about two minutes. And faced a 28-minute wait, 30 minutes before our reservation.

Fortunately, seeing our expression, the bus driver asked where we wanted to go, then helped us get there. Her route had another stop with a downtown connection. We had very little wait for that bus, and we were arrived at the restaurant just five minutes late, so all good.

New Year's Eve Menu

We sat in view of the kitchen for the first time, which was pretty interesting. (And not only because chef Jonathan Gushu is kind of a babe.)

The Kitchen Crew

It was busy night there, of course, but everything we had was just delicious, and the wine pairings were creative and uniformly excellent. Service was a bit scattered at times—running off with menus before actually finding out what we wanted each course, for example (“I can’t believe I did that”, he said)—but generally they have their timing down now. (We just have to accept it’s not as luxuriously paced as Verses used to be.)

Eying my Roe!

Amazing starter

As appetizers, I had the lobster ravioli and Jean the terrine.

Terrine - Pulled Pork and Foie Gras mmmmmmmmm!

To cleanse the palate, they gave us a pineapple sorbet in sparking wine.

Pinnaple Granite in some bubbly :)

Then it was duck all around, with a really interesting Italian wine, that not everyone got (we’re special 🙂 ).

Duck Breast and Ragout, with Honey Mushrooms and Heart Nuts served with a great pairing wine from the Canary Islands

And Jean concluded with the pear dessert, I the hazelnut nougatine (with a vermouth). We also received a touch more dessert for the road.

Hazelnut Nougatine!

We took a taxi home. 🙂


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Things more Christmas-y

As my seasonal gift to you all, I will set aside the “political update” blog post I’ve been puttering away at and instead write about things more Christmas-y.

Though in the same province, my home town is far from where I live now. (Even Canadians get surprised at how far apart two cities in the same province can be.) Though we try to get there for Christmas, that’s normally the extent of the winter travelling to the north.

This year, however, we were lured there a mere two weeks before Christmas by Jean’s Mom celebrating her 90th birthday. She’s doing rather well!

Mom_90th_Birthday_161210_(19of20)

Gosh, I think I took this photo. Yay, me.

Also occurring around the same date were my Dad and my brother’s birthdays, so while at it, we celebrated those as well.

Dad_81st_Birthday-161209(0006of0006)

The combined ages of the two birthday boys

A snowstorm in the southern part of the province delayed our arrival back home (by plane) til the next morning, but it was a nice visit.

Being away for an extra December weekend meant condensing the amount of Christmas cooking I did, both in terms of time and quantity. (It also meant even more online gift shopping than usual.) This past Saturday I made my single tourtière, using a recipe that is now traditional to me, though not to the rest of my family. I was unable to find the ground bison that I usually combine with the ground chicken, so I tried lamb instead.

The distinctly lamb-y smell of it made me worried while preparing the dish, but in the end, it really didn’t overwhelm everything. And the crust turned out quite remarkably flaky and delicious.

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Tastes better than it looks!

Sunday was when Jean and I celebrated “our” Christmas. I decided to roast a duck, not having done that in a while. I’m amazed by how many people are totally intimidated by the idea, when it’s really the same principle as cooking a chicken: stuff  the bird if you want, then put it in a roasting pan in the oven at 350 or so until it reaches 165 F. Only real difference is where a rack in the roasting pan might be optional with chicken, you really want to use one with duck, because so many fat drips out of it. You don’t want your bird floating in it.

For the duck, I consulted a Jamie Oliver recipe that involved stuffing it with ginger, rhubarb, and sage, then serving it with a broth / red wine (didn’t have masala) sauce and crisped sage on top. As sides, I made roasted Brussels sprouts with apple while Jean handled the mashed potatoes. It made for a delicious combination of food in the end.

Duck, Brussel Sproutss, and Mashed Potatoes!

Serving it with 2010 Chateau-neuf-du-pape didn’t hurt, either

For dessert I cobbled together a nice-looking tray (if I do say so myself) of items mostly not made by me:

Desert Tray

As tasty as it looks!

The sucre à crème in the forefront was my doing (sugar, sugar, and cream: with a little butter, because why not). But the rum balls were a (homemade) gift. And the ginger cookies were President’s Choice. All rounded out with some foil-wrapped chocolates.

Happy holidays, everyone.


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The Christmas after

For our Christmas travels I’d lost the argument about flying this year, so we drove off after work on December 22 and made it to Huntsville, then finished the journey the next day. Our unseasonably mild and snow-less winter made for a good drive, fog being the only challenge at times.

Timmins did have snow, albeit far less than usual, and it seemed almost freakishly warm (up to +3 C!).

My younger sister and family flew to Timmins without issues, but my older one had the unpleasant experience of her flight getting all the way to Timmins, then refusing to land due to fog! (Though other airlines were landing in the same conditions.) So she ended up spending Christmas in Toronto after all.

Celebrations began on the 23rd with a belated 80th birthday party for my Dad, held at my brother’s. Pretty well-attended, considering the busy time of year.

Gerry_McN_BDay2015_(14_of_43)_151223

The birthday boy (foreground)

December 24 brought very high winds, then widespread power outages to Timmins. But power was back most everywhere by mid-afternoon. We attended mass at my Dad’s church, then headed off to Réveillon celebrations, first at my cousin’s, then at Lefebvre’s.

Dad's gonna PieFace her! .. or he takes one for her :)

The “pie in face” game was delighting the kids this year. (I abstained from play.)

Always too much food! ... it' s Christmas

We didn’t lack for food

The “left / right” gift exchange theme this year was “computers,” and the price limit is pretty modest. That meant a lot of USB sticks going around.

and the Grrraand Prize goes to Come, he also get's the clown.

But some people were more creative (and no, Jean did not come up with this mouse pad himself)

Christmas morning was at McNair’s, where we tried a new approach of the “stealing” game.

Caleb showing enthousiasm ;)

This resulted in some kids getting items they were less-than-enthused about

Master Skyper John!

The Toronto folks participated via Skype

A round of trading afterward produced more satisfactory results, at least for some. (I took the mini-Cuisinart off my nephew’s hands and he got my cool gift pack of gourmet popcorn and DVDs.)

A few specific gifts were handed out as well.

S-S modeling her

You’ll never guess who gave my niece this Buffy T-shirt

Champagne instead of coffee in the morning ... That's how you know it's Christmas :)

And we enjoyed the morning Champagne

The afternoon was consumed with helping Dad prepare the Christmas turkey and fixings. We had 13 people over for dinner, and everything turned out great.

On Boxing Day we resisted the sales, but managed to get together with some Timmins friends at a local coffee shop, which was very nice.

We departed the following afternoon, and except for the car having a mysterious battery failure (solved with a boost), the two-part drive home was uneventful. We even found a very good restaurant in Hunstville for dinner (3 Guys and a Stove).


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Sonos your kitchen

Although the best music setup in the house is the surround sound system in the TV room, the room in which I listen to music most often is the kitchen. I do so while cooking, while cleaning, and even occasionally while eating.

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The music setup in the kitchen was as follows: an audio receiver, a CD player, and iPod dock / headphone jack (for my tablet) connected to two small speakers. All wired; no remote control access. Sound quality was OK, and I was sufficiently accustomed to docking my iPod (classic; no bluetooth, no wifi) or connecting my tablet via headphone jack that it didn’t seem especially inconvenient.

But the whole system was at the back at the kitchen, and I mostly worked at the front. Apart from the fact that it was a bit annoying to have to stop cooking and walk over to change the volume or song selection, I often just couldn’t hear the music properly once the fans and frying got going.

A first-world problem for sure. Nevertheless, for Christmas I requested some way to get my music playing closer to where I was cooking.

Much research ensued, and wireless seemed the way to go. But wireless meant somehow still playing my iTunes library despite my not owning any “modern” iDevices. And that certainly suggested Sonos as one option.

What is Sonos?

Sonos TV commercial

Essentially, Sonos is a family of wireless speakers and components that are all controlled by an app that runs on Android, iOs, and Windows. The key marketing features are:

  1. Easy setup. “It just works.”
  2. Access to “all the music in the world”: your owned music, streamed music, online radio—all available through one interface, combined in whatever way you choose.
  3. Full-house control; that is, ability to play different (or the exact same) queues of music in any room in the house that has a Sonos-connected speaker.

The main downside? Price. But, we figured that we could start with just one speaker—the new Play 5—for the kitchen. Then if we liked the Sonos app, expand from there.

The setup

The Sonos Play:5 just sat around in its box for about 2 weeks before we got the courage to try to set it up. (Yes, I opened my Christmas present early. Not like it was a surprise.)

And it started out well. Getting the Play 5 onto our wifi network was simple. Downloading the app on tablet and PCs—no problem. Linking in my Google Play, SoundCloud, LastFM, Spotify accounts (note that you need a paid account)—also a breeze.

The problem was the iTunes playlist, because I had a somewhat non-standard setup: music files on a NAS (network attached storage), iTunes music library (playlist data) on PC.

To get the thing working, Sonos needed two connection points: one to the music directory on the NAS, another to then PC iTunes library location. Retrospectively, that seems obvious, and in fact it wasn’t hard to do.

computer-repair

But figuring out that’s all we had to do required a lot of experimentation, caused a few tears, and took the better part of an afternoon. (And yes, I did read the documentation!)

Using Sonos: The things I fretted about vs. the reality

Ahead of time, I was a little concerned (and obviously only in between bigger worries about climate change and world peace and such) about the following regarding use of this system.

Fret: Would I have to start my PC, and maybe even iTunes, just to play my music in the kitchen?

Reality: No, not with my music setup. Sonos copies in the iTunes playlist data, so neither iTunes nor the PC have to be running. It’s just the NAS that has to be on for the music files to be accessible. And the NAS  was already programmed to start when we got home from work and to be on all day on weekends. (It’s handy to be married to a handy husband.)

Fret: How can my Android tablet possibly control my iTunes playlist on a NAS it doesn’t even know about?

Reality: If you’re using Sonos, that “just works”. (The non-Sonos’ed can try the Retune app. Pretty cool! But iTunes does have to be running for that one.)

Fret: Would I still be able to use the Musixmatch lyrics app? (Because I kind of love that app.)

Reality: Yes. While Musicxmatch isn’t fully integrated into the Sonos app, it does work quite well in “Listening” mode.

Spotify Lyrics display

The rather esoteric lyrics to Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke”

Fret: Can I continue playing a music list where I last left off? (This matters to me. Don’t judge.)

Reality: Sonos absolutely, by default, picks up where you left off.

Fret: Will it play our local CBC radio station? Can you program it to start and stop automatically at a certain time? (Otherwise, we won’t be able to expand Sonos to our bedroom. CBC is our alarm clock.)

Reality: Yes, local CBC radio is one of the ba-jillion radio stations included. And yes, Sonos has timer functionality.

Fret: When you change your iTunes playlists, how much of a pain is it to get the update into Sonos?

Reality: Haven’t actually done that yet, but appears to be a single-click process you can perform on PC or tablet (allowing time for it to re-scan the files).

Fret: Does it keep track of play counts and dates?

Reality: No, it does not. This is the one disappointing item.

In iTunes I created “smart” playlists with criteria such as “High-rated songs I haven’t played in the last six months” and “Songs I’ve played fewer than two times each”. And I use those playlists a lot to avoid “I’m sick of this song!” syndrome.

But Sonos has nothing like that built in. However, it does integrate with Last.fm, which does keep track of what I’ve played, on both iTunes / iPod and Sonos. And research indicates there might be some geeky, scripty ways to make use of that data. I will be looking into that more later.

last.fm

Sonos playlist data for the week, courtesy Last.fm. (I’m sure you’re all shocked about Top artist.)

Features I didn’t even realize I wanted, but turns out I do

10kindsoflonely_art-500x500This one seems dumb, but I’m a bit obsessive about album art, and I loved seeing some of that blown up in size on my 12.2 inch tablet when I’d previously only viewed it as a thumbnail.

More significantly, the much more dynamic (compared with iPod) song queue is fun! For example, I can:

  • Start with an iTunes playlist and add songs from Spotify or Soundcloud (or whatever)
  • Combine various playlists into one queue
  • See what songs are coming up, and edit the list if I want—without affecting the original playlists
  • Decide I want to, say, switch to a podcast now, listen to that, then automatically return to my same spot in the music queue
  • Save my current queue as a Sonos playlist for later reuse

But it’s a speaker. How does it sound?

Kids, this speaker sounds so good, I’d like to marry it and have its babies. 🙂


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Chocolately, literary, comforting joyful Christmas (with an Eighties tinge)

This might be a record number of Christmas posts in a row, but it is more than a one-day event for me (albeit not 12 days), starting with our Noël à deux in advanced of December 25. I’ve already mentioned the meal we had, but we also do a small gift exchange. Jean’s main gift from me was a new watch of a brand he admired, but he got some other little things, like a Chromecast and “life-changing” Saxx underwear (as the ads I now encounter everywhere I go on the web remind me).

My main gift was a record player, which many people thought was an interestingly retro choice of gifts. What I didn’t mention too loudly was that this is actually my second record player (we won’t even talk about how many DVD players I have). The main feature the new one has that the other didn’t is a USB connection to make it easy to digitize LPs. (Because some songs are rather difficult to find digital versions of.) But it also has a nice Start function, and is hooked into the better stereo system. I’ve already listened to more LPs in the last 2 days than I have in the last 2 years.

I received other little items, including a great deal of chocolate: Not one, not two, but three boxes of Purdy’s chocolates; a raspberry chocolate bar; and mini snowballs! I also happened to win a Godiva chocolate basket at a Christmas dance. So the chocolate stores are shored up for a while.

Then we headed to Timmins, where it was weirdly mild this year, but not so mild as to melt the snow:

Gillies Lake in Timmins

We took advantage of the nice winter weather to go walking and snowshoeing, once on our own, once with toute la gang (almost).

Snow shoers

Five of the fourteen of us who went snowshoeing one day

A day after a fresh snow fall, the kids couldn’t resist doing this:

GIF of tree snow clearing

Christmas Eve my side of the family had dinner and stockings at my brother’s house, then the two of us went out to the Réveillon with Jean’s side of the family. As usual, everyone was fasting:

Réveillon food

A tiny sampler of the available food

There was a very good turnout, with only a few nieces and nephews away this year. The gift exchange from Jean’s side is an anonymous one on a theme, which this year was royal purple. I am now the proud recipient of two purple travel mugs. My lucky giftee now owns Prince’s Purple Rain on CD and BluRay.

With my family it was the first time in quite a few Christmas’s that all the siblings were up. We had a terrible time. 🙂

Two siblings and an in-law

Two siblings and an in-law, as I don’t seem to have a photo of all siblings. Perhaps I’ll get one from Dad later.

We also attempted a theme this year, though it was only loosely adhered to: comfort and joy. Cozy scarves were a popular item.

jean with cashmere

Cashmere!

S-S and faux fur

S-S rockin’ the faux fur

As were books! I have, like, six new books now. Most everyone else got a least one, I think. I made my sister’s fit into the theme with the Pleasure in the title—pretty close to joy, right? (Plus, John Taylor—yummy! Joy!)

In the Pleasure Groove

To add to my haul and increase the utility of my earlier gift, I dug through the LPs from our teenage years that had been languishing at my parent’s house, and brought home a bag-ful. Duran Duran, Aha, Prefab Sprout, Adam Ant, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, The Housemartins, Paul Young, Squeeze, Echo and the Bunnymen, … I have quite the makings for an Eighties party.

80’s Music Medley from YouTube


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Pre – Christmas dinner

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“Our” Christmas dinner à deux featured duck, which is becoming typical. Less typically, I wasn’t too lazy to make a jus for it from the drippings, featuring rhubarb and ginger. That give a nice zip to the rich, juicy meat.

The mashed red potatoes were seasoned with sour cream, butter, chicken broth, and wasabi paste. They were also a little zippy — and quite delicious.

I’m generally not a fan of stuffing, which usually seems too salty and greasy to me. But this version (cooked on the side, not in the bird) had base of quinoa, lentil, wild rice, and cranberry, to which I added some olive oil, and crisped whole-grain bread. It was very tasty, without all the salt and grease.

Not pictured but also cooked and eaten were maple-glazed butternut squash. And dessert was a custard pie (tarte au oeuf), whose lovely filling made up for the center crust being moderately underdone. The crust at the edge was lovely flaky.

Wishing everyone happy Christmas dining.