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


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Making yogurt

When I first got an Instant Pot, I was sort of skeptical of its ability to make yogurt. Not that I doubted that it could—I just wasn’t sure of the point. Yogurt is easy to buy, and it’s not a processed food.

But the New York Times recently ran a story on the wonders of yogurt making, and I got curious to try it. Particularly as I hadn’t used the Instant Pot in a while.

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The New York Times emphasized the importance of using very fresh, great-tasting milk as the base. And here’s where being Canadian is problematic, because we have supply management. And supply management means that basically all of our milk (and butter) is uniformly the same bland product. (Why is food so great in France? In part, because they have better butter!)

I won’t turn this into a treatise into supply management, but… The only milk I could think of that actually claimed to be different in some way was Eby Manor’s Golden Guernsey Milk. And it was produced right in my home town, which I hoped meant it was pretty fresh.

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Golden Guernsey milk comes in glass bottle

Could I taste the difference? Actually, as I never drink milk on its own (that is, not in cereal or a smoothie or something), I figured I’d never be able to tell anyway. Now I’m thinking I should have done a taste test between it and whatever “normal” milk I had on hand. Next time, I guess.

The only other ingredient—since I couldn’t find yogurt starter—was a yogurt with “active cultures” to act as the starter. So yes, to make yogurt, you generally have to buy a tub of yogurt, of which you’ll use only 2 Tablespoons.

The elapsed time for making yogurt is quite lengthy (basically it’s an all-day thing), but the working time is short and the process is easy. Sterilize the milk; let it cool to room temperature; whisk in the yogurt; cover the Instant Pot and let it run on the Yogurt cycle for 8 hours. Cool, then chill the result.

So this makes plain yogurt. And how good can plain yogurt be, right? But actually: pretty damn good! Like, it’s still plain yogurt, but I’ve never had such a nice tasting and beautifully textured plain yogurt. Of course, this would be the freshest yogurt I’ve ever had, so I suppose that’s part of it.

I was asked if it’s possible to make Greek yogurt; yes it is, by straining the yogurt first. You could also make flavored yogurts, but I don’t really see the point; with plain, you can produce whatever flavor you want by adding fruit or flavorings. (Think you’ll find that not much sugar is necessary.)

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say you should buy an Instant Pot just to make yogurt (as apparently some people do), if you have one anyway, you might want to try this functionality.


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Dinner in an instant (pot)

An Instant Pot is a Canadian-manufactured pressure cooker whose claim to fame is that it can also be used as a slow cooker, steamer, saute pan,  and yogurt maker (!). It’s been a hot seller, and already available in baffling variety of models, with a great number of supporting cookbooks and web resources.

I at first wasn’t interested in the device, as it was described as a handy one-pot option for people who don’t like to cook. I got more intrigued with the reports of the speed which you could cook certain things—baked beans, brown rice, whole squash. Maybe it would allow me to cook those types of dishes and foods more often.


I used some birthday money to take the plunge. This required first doing some research into the varieties of models available to figure out what I wanted. I thought that maybe I would want to make yogurt some day (?), so I’d go to at least the Duo model, instead of Lux. But I didn’t really see the need to be able to control the thing with a phone app (!), so I wouldn’t spring for the “Smart”.

I then tasked Jean with figuring out where to buy the Duo from. We ended up getting it at Best Buy: The 6-quart Duo Plus.

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There’s a bit of a learning curve to this thing. I did read the manual, and some web resources, but Jean and I were still fumbling our way through the first recipe we tried, honey-garlic chicken. Like, first we had to sauté, and we missed that we were supposed to wait until the indicator said Warm before adding the food. Then it was on to pressure cooking, and it took a few tries to get how to set the cooking time, and how to tell when it was actually cooking. And then we had to decide on a technique for “releasing” the pressure cooker five minutes after it was done.

So all in all, this supposed 30-minute recipe took over an hour. It was, however, absolutely delicious.

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And did kind of look like this. Photo courtesy the Diethood blog.

Since then I’ve also tried:

  • Adapting my Mom’s baked bean recipe to the Instant Pot
  • Making roast potatoes with rosemary
  • Steaming basmati rice
  • A momo meatballs with cilantro chutney recipe
  • Cooking whole beets
  • Making pina colada rice pudding

And so far I’ve learned:

Mentally add in a 10 to 20 minutes preheat time to each recipe

Long-grain rice in 4 minutes? Baked beans in 40? Well, not quite. Because recipes will tell you how long to saute or pressure cook something, and how long to let it sit before releasing, but will never estimate the preheating time—perhaps because it can vary with the model or how hot it got in the previous phase. So in addition to prep and cook time, you have to consider that preheat time.

It’s not always faster

Baked beans, chicken with bones, brown rice, beets—even with the preheating, all of these were definitely faster in the Instant Pot than they would have been in the oven or stove top. But for long-grain white rice…? About the same. And, you have to make a lot of rice at once, which isn’t ideal if you’re trying to limit carbs.

It doesn’t do crispy

It’s been terrific at producing tender meat, creamy rice pudding, and flavorful and tender baked beans. But in roast potatoes, I prefer more crispness than you get cooking them this way (though I still might do it again if I were low on time).


What I’m most eager to try next is a macaroni and cheese recipe (from a book) and a chicken adobo. I’m looking forward to trying risotto (which I’m too lazy to make the traditional way) and seeing how it does with whole squash.

Oh, and I guess one of these times I’ll have to try making my own yogurt (!).

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Case where the Instant Pot definitely beats the alternative (from https://www.motherearthnews.com/)


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Christmas 2017

The Christmas season started with a lot of dancing. Mid-December, our dance class event in community centre gym was very well-attended. For Jean and I, it was one of those nights where our dancing was just clicking and we were able to move around the floor with ease. (Which we could bottle that.) We also enjoyed the music choices (our dance instructor played DJ), which included a slow-fox version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and a strict-tempo jive of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

The following night was a fancier dinner/dance at The Victorian Park Pavilion, which is a beautiful venue. We forgot to request seating with people we knew, though the people we ended up with were fine—until one lady started bending Jean’s ear about the wonders of raw-food veganism, or some such.

The meal served was not raw-food vegan, though, but a traditional turkey dinner—and quite good, particularly considering the $35 per person fee. No booze on offer, though! Since we couldn’t bottle it, our dancing didn’t click quite as well that night. Music was a bit more “traditional” as well. But still a nice night out overall.

Finally on this theme, one couple in our dance class hosted a house party that did not feature dancing, but was still a very enjoyable evening of food and conversation. Amazing what these dance classes have done for our social life.


Jean and I did not do a gift exchange with each other this year—though a few new kitchen gadgets still trickled in, as Jean had planned ahead in case, and figured we needed them anyway. But we did do a Christmas dinner à deux, featuring roast duck, wasabi mashed potatoes, broccoli with tahini, and cranberry-pear sauce. Served with a nice California Pinot noir. Then, sugar pie for dessert.

Though we haven’t had the greatest luck with Christmas air travel in the past, we decided to book flights to Timmins this year. Our departure was set for 11 pm the night of December 21—we thought that the airport would be less busy at that time. I had that day off, but Jean was working. Or, he was until about 10 am. At that point he called me to come pick him up at the office, as he was experiencing the serious low back and abdominal pain that indicated kidney stones.

At home, he sat in the tub and drank tea until the worst of it passed. It would still be a few more days, though, until he really felt right again.

It was snowing, and Christmas, so we allowed for a lot of time to get to the airport and check our baggage. Everything went really well, though, so we had a lot of time to wait. At least I got plenty of reading done.

We boarded the plane pretty much on time, but then had to wait in a lineup on the runway for de-icing, for what turned out to be an hour. After about 45 minutes I finally turned airplane mode off on my phone so I could email Dad that we were still in Toronto, so maybe he didn’t want to wait up for us. He agreed that he didn’t.

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Ornament from Dad’s tree

Timmins was nippy when we arrived, but our rental car was already running and setting out front of the airport exit. (And boy was the rental guy happy to see us. We were his last customers, at about 1:30 am, and he’d started at 7 am that day.) Dad didn’t even hear us arrive; the next morning, he wondered if we even had, until he noticed that the guest bedroom door was closed.

Friday and Saturday were pretty mellow, partly because Jean still wasn’t feeling up to snuff yet. We did visit with his Mom, of course, and saw some of his other siblings at her house. And Neal and Sarah-Simone came over to Dad’s for a visit on Saturday. We also tested out the Skype connection with Joanne and Jon ahead of Christmas morning, and ran an errand at the LCBO (booze store, for non-Ontarians). But that was about all the excitement.

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Though this might have provided some excitement, had Dad’s brownies actually contained the ingredient suggested on the lid! (Hilarously, Dad stores his homebaked brownies in a container that previously contained hemp products.)

Christmas Eve morning Michelle, Jackson, and John arrived—Hugh decided to stay in Toronto for the Macphie family Christmas this year. That livened up the house a bit. And in the afternoon we paid a visit to our friends Paul and Sylvie, which is always nice. We got tales of their new cottage, and Jean and Sylvie exchanged photography tips that Paul and I pretended to understand.

We had a nice salmon Christmas Eve dinner at Dad’s that night, then they went to church while we got ourselves (eventually; we did get a bit lost) to my cousin’s for Réveillon #1. Fewer people in attendance this year; my uncle Gilles, for one, was not feeling up to going. But that made for a nice opportunity to talk to those that were there—my cousins, their kids, and their kid’s kids, and my aunt and uncle.

We did have to leave before the game portion of the evening to get to Réveillon #2, at the Lefebvre’s. And now I have to apologize because Jean was kept so busy at this event—first playing Santa to hand out the kids’s gifts, then reciting the left/right story for the random gift exchange—that he didn’t take any pictures. And it just didn’t occur to me to do that instead.

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Ornament from Jean’s Mom’s tree. Not taken on Christmas Eve.

And this year’s gift theme was hats, so that would have made for a lot of amusing photos! Jean, for one, got right into it and provided a whole collection of ridiculous hats: a poop emoji mask, three pucks in a nylons (a hat trick! Think about it), and so on. I supplied this book:

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Which did greatly amuse the recipient, niece Natasha.

A large-format version of the following photo from our anniversary party was provided as a family Christmas gift to Jean’s Mom.

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The Lefebvre family (with part of the McNair family in the background)

The McNair Christmas gift exchange was still the stealing game, but with a couple differences this year: The price limit was set at $30, and the number of gifts to be bought was divided up such that Neal and Michelle didn’t have to buy extra just because they had kids. So each family bought three and Dad bought two, and that covered everyone…

(Except that Michelle was so busy she didn’t quite read all the rules, so she caught the $30 limit but not the fact that she didn’t have to buy as many as item, so we had a couple extras, but that’s OK.)

So we Skyped in Joanne and Jon for the whole thing. Jackson got Hugh in on Facebook on his phone, but only as required—that is, only when Hugh had to pick or was involved in a steal. Otherwise Jackson would just hang up on him. This turned out pretty funny, because I don’t think anyone was involved in more steals than Hugh! So he kept have to be reconnected and then brought up to speed on what exciting new items had arrived since he had last been with us.

The most laughs, though, were courtesy of Jean’s contribution, a leftover ridiculous hat.

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Jackson modelling the hat along with a VR headset, another contributed item

Also somewhat amusing was that Thérèse had accidentally grabbed an individualized gift (slippers for her grandmother) instead of one for the exchange. So we had to imaginarily include what was intended.

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Isaac with his “invisible” hammock

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Some of the kids, mid-play

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Caleb’s cozy gift ends up with Michelle

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And there were a few “Godchildren” gifts to hand out at the end

That afternoon, the temperature hadn’t quite plunged to the depths it was about to in the coming days, so we finally got outside. The snowshoe trails weren’t open at the Ski Club (not enough snow!) so we just walked on Carium Road.

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Outside!

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Winter wonderland, I guess?

The rest of the afternoon was mostly about food prep. Late afternoon Jean headed to the Lefebvre family dinner. Happily, Gilles had recovered enough to join the McNair supper, along with Terrie.

After dinner and cleanup, we played a game of Telestrations, which was one of the items Jean and I had contributed to the McNair gift exchange. It’s like the telephone game, except that you had to draw what the word was and then the next person had to guess what you had drawn. Very simple, but absolutely hilarious, some of the results. (Though should be noted that Neal’s family has enough talented artists that a number of items got through 8 people successfully.)

Boxing Day we were scheduled to fly out at 10:20 am; Jean had to work on the 27th. All seemed good as we boarded the plane and took off on schedule. It didn’t seem we were elevating as much as usual, and drink service seemed a bit slow, but I didn’t think too much of that until the captain came on and said: “I’m sorry for what I’m about to tell you.”

There was a mechanical problem with the plane. The good news was, we weren’t all about to die. The bad news was, we had to fly back to Timmins. The wheels of the airplane weren’t elevating into the plane as they needed to. The drag that caused on the plane meant there wasn’t enough fuel to get us to Toronto.

Then it was a waiting game. They did first try to see if the plane’s problems could quickly be repaired, but that turned out to be a no, and then it was flight cancellation and rebooking time. We recalled that we had purchased On My Way travel assistance for this flight, which was supposed to give us priority in being rebooked. When we called that number, and they suggested that we should be able to get on the 4:00 pm flight that day, but weren’t able to do that immediately as the flight was “frozen” while all passengers were processed. When we finally got our rebooking email, though, had us on a 5:20 am (AM!) flight the next day. We called again, and they said there was nothing they could do.

So we’re following up with Air Canada about that.

Meanwhile, we took a taxi back to Dad’s (who then had to dash out to the grocery to get more food for his now larger number of dinner guests). One upside is that it did give me a chance to visit with my Aunt Irene, who is 88, and my cousin Monique and daughter Simone. They dropped by at Dad’s on their way to bringing Simone to the airport. It was also nice having more time with Dad, Michelle, Jackson, and John. And the lasagna dinner was very delicious.

Getting up at 3:00 am for our next flight was less delicious, particularly as it was -35C at that point, but we did it. Dad very kindly drove us to the airport at 4:00 am. And yes, that flight took off in time, and managed to get all the way to Toronto. Where it had snowed considerably and was pretty darn chilly!

Wishing everyone a happy new year.


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Bright spots in December (other than the obvious one)

The Christmas vacation post is coming, but Jean hasn’t had a chance to select and process the Christmas photos yet. So in the meantime, here’s a list of items that brightened the per-Christmas period for me this year.

Gel eyeliner

I’m a makeup girl. (Woman. Whatever.) I never wear perfume, I rarely bother with nail polish, and I don’t like spending much time styling my hair. But makeup, I find fun. It seems worth than 10 or so minutes lalmost every day.

But eyeliner has always been tricky. Liquid eyeliner is too dramatic for day use. And hard to apply corectly for night use. Pencil eyeliners are easy to apply but often result in a rather pale line that usually smudges during the day, producing that terrific raccoon eyes effect.

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Fortunately it rarely got this bad, but still… (photo from the Huffington Post)

I don’t know why I’m only learning this now, but makeup artists prefer gel or cream eyeliners—the kind that comes in a little pot. Having a good brush is vital, but with that, these eyeliners are pretty easy to apply. And they don’t set immediately, so if you don’t get it quite right, it’s easy to fix. And best of all, once you are happy with the results, it will set and stay with no smudging for the whole day. The line is distinct, but not as harsh as with liquid eyeliners. I love this stuff.

The brand I got was Estée Lauder Double Wear Stay-in-Place Gel Eyeliner in Stay Coffee colour. From The Bay. The brush that comes with it is fairly useless, but with a better one (that I already owned), the product itself is excellent.

 

T-shirt bra

The ThirdLove bra company advertised fairly heavily in the Washington Post this year, til I finally got intrigued. “Discover your best-fitting bra in 60 seconds.” No tape measure required. You just had to answer a series of questions about your breast shape and current bra-fitting issues.

Maybe other people have better mental self-image, but for me this took more than 60 seconds because I kept having to run from PC to the bathroom mirror to see which little breast diagram best reflected my shape and whether my current bra rode up or gapped. But it’s true I didn’t have to use a tape measure.

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Nor, fortunately, were any of these sorts of calisthenics required

Having completed the questions, I tried to take ThirdLove up on their “try free for 30 days” offer, but it didn’t apply to Canada, so I abandoned the effort. Only to then be emailed me and offered a discount. I then went ahead with an order, that was promptly charged to my card.

Some days later I realized I had yet to receive a shipping notification, which seemed odd. Some days more after that, they did email again say there was some issue with my order, but that it would come eventually. And also here’s another discount for my next order. Then there was more radio silence, with the added small aggravation that every time I visited their website to try to figure out what was going on, they’d email trying to get me to buy another bra!

So I was a bit predisposed to be skeptical of their product when it finally did arrive, but damn if it isn’t the best-fitting, most comfortable bra I’ve ever had.

BBC Live Aid documentary

Lo these many years later, I retain fond memories of the 1985 Live Aid concert. It was organized by a singer I really liked (Bob Geldof); my favourite band, Queen, were the stars of the day; and it featured so many other artists I also like (The Who, U2, George Michael, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, The Boomtown Rats…). And all for a good cause!

So I was pretty excited when YouTube coughed up this recommendation:

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I also found this buried in a drawer!

Though produced in 2011 or so, I had never heard of this Live Aid: Against All Odds documentary—a hazard of not living in the UK, I suppose. Being 3 hours long (there’s a Part 2 as well), I had to wait a bit to start it—because once I did, I predictably didn’t want to stop.

I’ve watched other documentaries on Live Aid, I’ve read books and magazines, but still, I learned more from this one. Like just how demented and troublesome a figure Bill Graham was. And that the hosts on the BBC side had never done anything on this scale before and were petrified. There’s also considerable time spent on the degree to which Midge Ure (co-writer of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) was overshadowed by Bob Geldof—though Midge refuses to go into an all-out rant about it. (“That’s just Bob.”)

Definitely recommended viewing to anyone else who looks back on that day fondly.

Yoga mat and blender parts

These things are so prosaic, but still…

mat_group_sweep-COLOURFixMy old yoga mat was basically disintegrating. I was looking to add an item to an online order to get free shipping. I saw they sold yoga mats at what seemed a reasonable price, so I threw that in.

I guess I hadn’t particularly realized that, like anything else, some yoga mats are better than others. This yoga mat is just better than any I’ve had before (though admittedly, the “before” are all cheapie Canadian Tire ones). It’s thicker. It’s “stickier”. It just feels better to stand on. It’s the Halfmoon Studio yoga mat.

(Also, did you know you can clean yoga mats in the washing machine? Cold water, delicate cycle, hang to dry. Works great, no manual scrubbing.)

brevilleAs for the blender parts, I was just glad those were so easy to buy. I used to have Cuisinart blenders. The units worked great, but eventually the bowl or the lid would break, crack, chip—somehow become unusable. And Cuisinart just made it really difficult to buy replacements (at least at the time). Hard to find, expensive… Once I bought a whole new unit just to be able to use the parts with my previous unit.

Now I have a Breville. For which I needed a new small bowl and lid before the cracks spread to the point of making them unusable. Remarkably, all I had to do was go to their website and order those two parts, which were then shipped to my house. Imagine!

Glow

This Netflix series has been out for a while, but it was December viewing for us. Set in the 1980s, it’s about a group of women cast as wrestlers for a television series. Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is the main character we follow through, but all the women get some time in the spotlight. Marc Maron plays the failed B movie director Sam Silvia, hired by rich-boy wrestling fan Chris Lowell to direct the show. All the actors are really strong.

I’m no kind of wrestling fan, but I still enjoyed the pace, drama, and humour of this women-focused series (as did Jean). I even gained some appreciation of wrestling. And as a bonus, it also has a great 80s soundtrack.

 


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Dinner party

As we’ve established, planning a party is hard. No, it’s not hard to say BYOB and order a few pizzas, but when it comes to any parties larger than that–dinner parties, holiday parties, weddings–there are a lot of moving pieces. There are guest lists and menus and seating arrangements and invitations and possibly staff, all weighed against the ultimate stress of any party: money. So every party, generally, is a balance of all those things. It’s an experience that makes the most people possible happy without the hosts going broke.

Uncommon Courtesy Blog

So, I don’t do it all that often, the planning of a dinner party.

Well, that’s not really true. Planning them—at least to the extent of musing about having one—I do pretty regularly. Actually carrying through on those plans is what’s rare.

But last weekend, such a unicorn occurred. I had been thinking of trying to reprise some of the more “gourmet” dishes we try out at new year’s for a larger group people. And about the fact that we had some friends that we’d never had over for dinner before—some had never even seen our house. And we mixed those folks with some people we hadn’t seen in a while.

That added up to six guests, plus the two of us, which is really two more people than fit around our dining room table. So we had to do a table addendum:

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In terms of food, I went mostly with tapas-style items. This gave variety, and most items could be largely prepared ahead. Downside was a variety of dishes to prepare, which took up a fair chunk of the weekend:

  • Vegetarian spring rolls
  • Edamame with sea salt
  • Lamb skewers with mint pesto
  • Seared tuna with avocado and orange
  • Wild rice with fruit and nuts

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The wild rice was the one item we’d never prepared before, added so we’d have enough food, basically. It was probably least successful. It was a bit mushy, a bit too sweet. (No, none of the guests complained. That’s my assessment.) Everything else was quite good, though. People went back for more.

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For wines, we just opened a nice Ontario Riesling, a French Beaujolais (light red), and an Ontario Sangiovese, followed by a French Vacqueyras, so people could take what they would. The music playlist was a Sonos-assembled, timed segue: “high-energy” songs to start the evening, pre-dinner; “thoughtful” (quirky pop) music during the main course, then “romance” for dessert, coffee, and post-dinner relaxation.

As for dessert, that was dark or white chocolate bark with fruit and nuts (dark was much better), chocolate souffle, and grapes—frozen and not. Frozen grapes is something Jean has gotten into that was a novelty for most. Also made for some interesting conversation, adding to the very wide range of topics discussed all evening.

So, I think that was successful. But I’m not quite ready to start musing about the next one.


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Welcome 2016 dinner

I vaguely wanted to do our New Year’s gourmet-ish, cooking together dinner again this year, but I was completely uninspired as to what to make.

But I had the week off before Christmas and New Year’s, and I had three-month trial subscription to Texture (formerly Next Issue) magazine app, with its multiple food magazines. So I decided to go through those virtual pages for ideas.

I hit pay dirt almost right away, in a Food and Wine magazine from December 2015. They had recipes for all these different theme parties. But instead of sticking with one theme, I picked and choosed among different ones. Preferred criteria were that they sound good, of course, but not require me to run all over town looking for obscure ingredients. And not having us slaving in the kitchen all day.

The one course not covered by this one Food and Wine issue was dessert. And I wasn’t finding much inspiration in other magazines, either. But that weekend’s Globe and Mail happened to feature a New Year’s Eve menu for two people—including a cake that made just two servings! We had a winner.

We did this on January 2. We started working around 4:00, and were dining by about 6:30.

Theoretically first up (really, most everything was ready at the same time) were marinated olives with oranges, which, at Jean’s suggestion, were served with almonds and walnuts.

Olive Apetizer

This involved frying up some garlic, orange zest, and hot pepper, to which olives were added. Then everything marinated in orange juice. So pretty simple.

I don’t how much that treatment enhanced the olives? But I was pleased to find that the Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc we’d selected went nicely with them.

The main course was a smoky mussel stew. For this one, potatoes and Brussels sprouts were roasted, while fresh mussels cooked in a mix of white wine, butter, shallots, and herbs. The mussels were then removed from the broth, and cream added. Everything then came together: potatoes, Brussels sprouts, mussels (shelled), with the addition of smoked mussels.

Smoked Mussel Stew!

This isn’t the prettiest dish ever, but it was some good! The slight smoky with the creamy and the butter and the roast veg… Even the fact that we had to use frozen Brussels sprouts (fresh unavailable!) couldn’t wreck this. Yum.

The side dish was brown basmati rice with coconut and turmeric; basically, rice cooked in coconut mik with turmeric and salt. And served with mint on top. It was fine, but nothing outstanding. Rice does turns a nice yellow colour, though.

The wine we had with was an Ontario Gewurtz. Great wine; not sure if it was the best possible match, however.

The salad was spinach with orange and goat wine, with a red wine vinaigrette. I wasn’t able to find blood oranges, so Jean suggested adding cranberries to make the pictures prettier. 🙂

Goat Cheese and Orange Salad

The dessert, finally, was a gâteau Basque. You make it a bit like a pie crust, mixing together flour, egg, sugar, and butter, then forming it into a disk and putting it in the fridge. When ready to bake later, you roll it out to cake pan size.

Gateaux Basque with Warm Cream!

It was served with a simple cream sauce of whipping cream, sherry, and sugar, and topped with raspberries.

It was yummy, yummy this. As was the sparkling Moscato D’Asti we had with. Though supposedly only two servings, we had enough left to enjoy the next day, also.

Happy start to 2016.


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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. 🙂