Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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And a foodie new year

Our annual new year gourmet dinner was held January 2, giving us a day’s break from New Year’s Eve dinner, and the day following (today) to rest up before heading back to work.

First course: Wild mushroom toasts

Originally my idea was to have lobster bisque as the first course, but I changed my mind based on:

  1. Feeling that soup might be too heavy a starter for also fairly heavy main course.
  2. A sense that I didn’t really want to kill anything to ring in the new year, but that frozen lobster might be sub-par.

So, we went back to a fairly standard item at these dinners, wild mushrooms. But a new recipe, from Fine Cooking magazine.

The one ingredient I wasn’t able to find was crème fraîche. But I did find instructions on how to make your own. Basically, it’s this:

  1. Add 1 Tablespoon buttermilk to 1 cup slightly warm whipping cream.
  2. Let that sit on your kitchen for about a day and half, stirring every once in a while, til it’s thick.
  3. Put it in the fridge.

Isn’t that weird? You’d think leaving dairy products out at room temperature for so long would be a bad thing, but we did eat that yesterday with no ill effects, so I guess not. (I also don’t understand why that’s called crème fraîche, which literally means fresh cream.) It didn’t seem to impart that much taste to the dish, which mostly tasted of mushrooms. I think it was more about adding texture.

Adding crème fraîche to the mushrooms:

The wine we had with this course was a 2007 California Beringer Pinot Noir. We’d bought it that same day, in the “last chance” bin, just on the thought that Pinot would be good with mushrooms. Turned out to be a very nice wine.

The soundtrack for this course was my Get Happy! playlist. Looks like it worked:

Dining on mushrooms and Pinot

Second course: Seared Scallops with Spiced Mango Coulis

The recipe we used here was from the New England Culinary Institute, and we picked it up while on vacation in Vermont. It was super-easy, though; the most challenging part, which Jean took on, was peeling and slicing the mango. Half a mango decorated the plates, and the rest was blended with ingredients like ginger, white wine, and clove, to make a coulis.

Happily, we were able to find some beautiful, large sea scallops at Sobey’s, and then you don’t have to do much to them. Salt, pepper, sear in a bit of grapeseed oil, then drizzle on a bit of olive oil.

Scallops and Chardonnay

The result was just delicious… My second-favorite dish of the night. (And Jean’s number 1.)

Zoe, me, and scallops

The wine was a French Chardonnay we had on hand, that wasn’t spectacular in itself, but went quite nicely with this food (which you really didn’t want to upstage). Moments after this shot, a bit of an accident occurred. It made us really happy this was a white wine:

Tower of wine

I guess the soundtrack for this portion—the Thoughtful playlist—wasn’t quite as effective.

Third course: Venison Osso Bucco with side of Vegetable Barley

This was the one course planned well ahead, when I spotted the venison osso bucco cuts at Brady’s. I then scoured the Internet for recipes, since I’d never made any kind 0f osso bucco before. I finally settled on a recipe from cdkitchen.com, which involved cooking it with lemons, oranges, carrot juice, red wine, juniper berries (which I couldn’t find, so I substituted gin), chicken broth, and various veggies. It wasn’t too hard at all.

Unfortunately, the results were disappointing. For whatever reason—having to scale down the recipe size, not using the best pots, whatever—the meat just wasn’t tender enough. It was tasty, but lacked that “falling off the bone” quality. If I try it again, I think I’ll go for a slow cooker method.

Osso bucco and Zinfandel

The barley side dish, though deliberately unexciting, was quite nice. I started with a recipe from Taste of Home, but made some changes: Cooked it in chicken broth instead of just water, used carrots instead of red peppers, and reduced the amount of green onion.

The California Zinfandel wine we had with this was a Christmas gift this year, and man, that was a lot of wine. Big and fruity. Nice, though.

Soundtrack was an old standby for dining, my Beautiful Ones playlist.

Dessert: Chocolate soufflé

I wanted a light (tasting) dessert to round things off, and what could be lighter than soufflé? I’d never made it before, either, so again I had to search online for recipes. I ended up with a highly recommended one from Epicurious.com, which had the added bonus of being fine with making everything ahead and just baking it right before eating.

The ingredients were really simple: eggs, milk, sugar, and 10.5 ounces of “extra-bittersweet chocolate”. It was easily the most fun dish to prepare, starting with the need to round up six soufflé ramekins when we had no idea what those were. And the word just struck us as really funny, so we were giggling the whole time we gathered a dog’s breakfast of custard dishes, small corningware, and oven-safe storage containers we figured could substitute for ramekins.

Then it was all beating egg whites and melting chocolate and buttering and sugaring the faux ramekins, not to mention really enjoying licking all the bowls and spoons.

After baking, the moment of truth: Would the soufflés rise? But, they did, they did! (The photo is of them inside the oven.)

Souffles in oven

While we considered port, we decided to open a Cabernet France ice wine from Stratus (a gift we received last Christmas) to serve with the soufflé. It was lovely.

Souffle and ice wine

What I wasn’t expecting, and loved, was the molten chocolate pool lying under the floating soufflé top:

Inside the souffle

This (unsurprisingly for me) was my favorite dish of the night. (And Jean’s #2.) The soundtrack for this portion of the evening was, of course, “Love, the sweetest thing” (that is, romantic songs).

Happy 2011, all.


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Reno, part 1

The downstairs renovation planned out nearly a year ago finally resulted in concrete action: installation of fireplace. Isn’t it beautiful?

The fireplace itself is actually pretty attractive. The surroundings, at this point… Well…

But we are indeed pleased with how quiet the new fireplace is. We rarely used the old because the fan was too loud. Not an issue here. And now we have proof that the downstairs gets 1 degree C colder than the main floor, so a little extra heat down there is welcome this time of year.

And whatever the funny-looking results, we paid for the installation of this, so the effort on our part was zero. That won’t be true of the next step, which is to put in new flooring. We’ll be picking something like laminate (though not wood-style), which isn’t supposed to be too hard to put down. What does seem nightmarishly hard? Moving everything out of that room. All those books? The treadmill? The TV, PVR, stereo equipment? The computers? Where the heck will it all that go in the meantime?

But that still lies ahead. First, to actually select the flooring…


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How does your garden grow?

It grows pretty darn well this year–certainly a damn sight better than last year!

Whereas last year we had one (1) pea, this year we actually had a handful! And they were delicious. And we’ve already eaten twice as many tomatoes (4) than we ever got all of last season–despite having far fewer plants this year–and there appears to be many more tomatoes on the way, working their way from green to orange to red.

Yes, the garden has been doing so well, in fact, that some animal has discovered it. This is a first, actually. It’s a raised bed, so that deters a lot of critters right there. I was just plain confused, at first, to find that the parsley and cilantro plants that had been so abundant with leaves at breakfast looked really… stemmy at dinner time. Took a while to realize that meant some sort of animal invader.

The next day was worse, the parsley and cilantro now completely leafless, and some of the tomatoes tried and discarded (they’re still pretty green, most of them).

Worst of all, the critter didn’t even touch the sage. Sage, I’m starting to realize, is the zucchini of the herb world: hardy, abundant, yet not very useful as a food item. That, I would happily share with anyone. Yet all of its many, many leaves remained intact, serving only tp make the naked parsley and cilantro plants nearby look more sad.

I went on the Interweb to look up “keeping animals out of garden”, and of course that just left me totally confused. Cayenne works, except when it doesn’t. Put dirty socks out there. Or smelly soap. Electric fences. Radios set CBC (human voice).

Anyway, we finally decided to try a modified fencing approach. We now have mesh fabric running around the whole garden, lowered at strategic points so that I can still get at it. I have no idea if I’m dealing with raccoon, bunny, or even cat exploring his vegetarian side, but regardless, at least that should make access more complicated, so hopefully they’ll go visit the neighbour’s garden instead.


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The story of my stuff

You’ve seen The Story of Stuff, yes? The fairly enlightening, partly animated video about how we North Americans all have too much stuff, and why that’s a problem? It has made me think. (99% of what I acquire is discarded within 6 months? Really?) But so far, I don’t think it’s really made me change my behavior.

It’s just so ingrained. Just watch this beautiful justification for why two people having three television sets just isn’t enough….

********

Many television series ran their course for the season back in May or so, but we’ve been getting by with season 1 of True Blood (never did develop the love, though), season 1 of Californication (whereas I really did get caught up with all these flawed people), and even finally finishing all my PVR’ed episodes of Flashforward. (And the TV critic who claimed the last episode was confusing and open-ended was an idiot. The last episode wasn’t in the least hard to follow, and the series tied itself up very nicely, leaving some areas open for the future, yes, but hardly to a frustrating extent. The whole thing is recommended for all who like sci-fi, physics, and philosophical questions of will vs. fate, as presented by pretty people.)

But now all those are done, too, so Jean and I have near run out of shows we both like to watch. This is a problem, because we both tend to like to settle down around 9:00 for a bit of TV. What to watch, what to watch, when all I want to do is catch up with So You Think You Can Dance (nestled there on the PVR) but he’s already engrossed in an action thriller on AMC?

What, you only have TV, you ask? Well, no. But the thing, we only have one TV in a location where it’s actually comfortable to sit down and watch it. The second one is in the kitchen, where your only seating option are the high stools at the breakfast bar. Fine for catching the news while preparing and eating dinner, but not so great for settling in for a long watch. (Plus, being that close to the food also leads to way too much snacking.)

And the third? If you can even call that a TV, given that it’s–and I’m serious–a Commodore 64 monitor. So it’s very old and therefore prone to some flickering, and also very small. And, it’s in the exercise room. Being an exercise room, there are no seats in there, unless you count the big weight machine chair. So it’s a great place to play exercise or other videos while exercising. But if you just want to watch TV, you’re kind of stuck with a yoga mat on the floor as “seating”.

This, combined with the grumpiness that comes with the heat and humidity of late, that has led to us arguing over our respective television preferences, and who is to be banished to the uncomfortable upstairs. Adding insult to injury, upstairs person also loses PVR access. Stuck with live TV, with its many, many long commercial breaks (all telling you that you suck and need to buy more stuff)…

So, clearly, we need to put a TV in the living room.

Much like TV in the bedroom, this is something I’ve always resisted, with some idea that the living room should be about “higher” culture like books and music and paintings and conversation.

But one has to be practical. Fact is, it is the only other room in the house with couches and chairs.

But we ain’t putting a TV cabinet in there. So, the thing will have to wall-mounted. And, it’s the living room; it’s going to have to look good. So there’s no question of moving one of the existing extra TVs into that room (and besides, we need them where they are!). Clearly, we need a new TV.

A lovely, sleek, new flatscreen television.

************

See how that works? And the lovely new television will, in turn, lead to justifications for high-definition TV receivers and service and PVRs, not to mention BlueRay DVD players and discs. And won’t that mean some sort of sound system upgrade? …

And hence we demonstrate our value in this culture of consumerism.


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What is a normal dinner party?

Though I like to cook and have a reasonable fondness for the company of others, I don’t host dinner parties that often. This is because I can’t seem to just have “normal” ones. Actually, I’m not even sure what a normal one is, but I think it means basically cooking something you normally do, only a little more of it, adding a dessert and a couple nice bottles of wine, and inviting a few other people over to help you eat it.

I always seem to go bigger and more complicated. Perhaps it’s true that everyone needs a challenge once in a while, and this is one I set up for myself. So, for my most recent dinner party, the idea was trying to “harmonize the food and wine for each course to a particular soundtrack, based on mood.” Which indeed was a wee bit of a challenge.

Selecting the moods

How many courses, and which mood would each have? At the start, the only thing that seemed obvious was that the start [snacks] needed to exciting and energizing, while dessert was by nature romantic. Retrospectively, only, I realize was I did from there was segue gradually down from that starting mood to the ending one. So exciting gave way to merely happy [appetizers], then to engaged/interested [main course], and onto refreshed (which I’m still not convinced is actually a mood) [palette cleanser], and finally to the relaxed romantic.

Playlist assembly

Again, the starts and ends were quite easy. Exciting = dance music to me, and I already had a large dance playlist. I could afford to get pretty picky with that, knocking out the slower numbers and the ones I didn’t like as much, and still being left with a good 7 hours of thumpa thumpa. And I similarly had a good start on the romantic already, which just required a little removal of some racier items, and the addition of some more love songs.

But happy was tough. Apparently I’m not the big a fan of the upbeat pop tune. I was really having to comb through to find enough to last a sufficient amount of time.

For engaged I looked for songs that were of moderate mellowness and featured smart lyrics. I am much more of a fan of this type of music, it appears, so this was easier to put together. A lot of women artists feaured here—Alannis, Tori, Sarah… even a little Madonna.

And refreshing? I decided that was electronica… Not sure why. As I have only about 12 electronica songs, it was easy to gather them, and that was long enough for the palette cleanser course.

Food and wine

Jean was actually a big help in getting this part settled. I really didn’t want to do fiddly little appetizer things, because I hate making that kind of stuff, but I was failing to see how I could possibly make soup or salad “fun”. He’s the one who suggested that a two-tone soup, which we’d once had at a restaurant, could be kind of fun, especially with chow mein noodles. So that’s what I went with, adapting a carrot and parsnip recipe that was meant to have everything combined, but instead cooking it in two parts.

Similarly, it was his point that salmon seemed too dull to be the only main course protein on offer, leading to the idea of offering duck as well. Which of course meant  we had to serve Pinot Noir, the intellectual wine—as we learned at the KW Symphony’s food and wine concert. And that concert is also where I got the Julia Child chocolate recipe that I thought I would make a suitable dessert.

With those main items selected, the rest just had to be built up around it. And we were so well stocked in wine at this point, selecting those proved pretty easy, and required no special trips to the LCBO. Everything was already in our wine cupboard.

Inviting guests

Oh yeah, the people! On the first date we proposed, very few could actually attend. So we were pretty surprised when, on the second day we suggested, everyone could go! But that’s a good problem to have, since we wouldn’t have invited them if we didn’t want to see them. So we were eight guests, plus Jean and me. Inventory revealed we actually did have enough chairs and dishes—as long as we weren’t too fussy about everything matching—and a little creativity allowed everyone to sit at the same table, albeit covered with three different, small table cloths.

Everyone was willing and able to bring something, and that also helped round out the menu and assuage concerns that someone would go hungry. And on the day, all were really great about helping with music changing, wine opening, dish delivery and removal. I could definitely why I wanted to spend time with these people.

So how did it go?

Generally, I think it went well. Jean and I had fun. Everyone else claimed they did too. I felt most items I made turned out well, and certainly everything brought was delicious. Definitely the most challenging part was the final preparation of the main courses, where we had to cook duck, beans, salmon in sequence in the oven (cause each needed a different temperature) while also preparing the sweet potatoes and reheating the magret, but we mostly managed that. (We probably would have done a little better had we not already had a couple glasses of wine by then, but hey, it was a party, and we didn’t have to drive.)

After that, everything was actually pretty easy to serve, as it was all ready, so then we could largely relax and just enjoy the company and conversation.

As I had typed up the menu for the whole evening, I’ll copy that in here now. Thereby making this the longest post ever!

1 – Gathering

“Cue the pulse to begin.” —The Burnside Project

Soundtrack: Swing, Disco, Dance, Hip/Hop, Reels, Jigs… As long as it’s got a beat and you can dance to it

Wine style: Refreshing white and lively red. Choice of:

  • Peller Estates Ice Cuvée (ON; champagne with dosage of ice wine)
  • Bartholomew Park Winery 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (CA,)
  • Malivoire 2008 Lady Bug Rosé (ON)

On the menu:

  • Lightly spiced orange hummus
  • “Guess the secret ingredient” guacamole
  • Trail mix
  • Pita, corn chips, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes

2 – Appetizers

“I’m picking up good vibrations.” —The Beach Boys

Soundtrack: Upbeat pop

Wine style: Rich white. Starting with a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from Samson Estates (ON).

On the menu:

Creamy carrot soup with parsnip swirl, topped with dried apple and mango and crisp Asian noodles

Rye toasts with smoked salmon canapé

Assorted Ace bakery bread

3 – Entree

“Did I say something true? Did I have a point of view? Well, I’m not sorry.” —Madonna, “Human Nature”

Soundtrack: Mostly alternative with some folk, pop, rock, and R&B

Wine style: Rich red—with a rustic edge

  1. Rodney Strong’s 2007 Estate Pinot Noir (CA)
  2. Malivoire 2008 Guilty Man red blend (ON)

On the menu:

Roast duck + magret de canard with apple-mustard glazed, served with tangy apple relish

Crisp-roasted salmon fillet topped with tomato-basil relish

Mashed sweet potatoes with touch of maple and cream

Roasted balsamic-tarragon scented green beans

French-style potato salad in Chardonnay

4 – Palette cleanser

“Find out in the garden.”—Mirah

Soundtrack: Electronica

Wine style: Off-dry white: Malivoire 2009 Chardonnay musqué spritz

On the menu:

Lavender sorbet and crudité

5 – Dessert

“The sweetest thing.” —U2

Soundtrack: Jazz, pop/rock/R&B ballads

Wine style: Sweet and rich. Choice of:

  • Stratus Cabernet Franc (red) ice wine (ON)
  • 10-year-old Tawny Port (Portugal)

On the menu:

Dessert trio:

Gateau au chocolat: l’éminence brune

Blueberry cobbler with blueberry whipped cream

Le Cendrillon (Québec), Oka (Québec), and Nettles Gone Wild (ON) cheeses

Tea and coffee

“No pressure over cappuccino.” —Alanis Morissette


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Just banging on my old piano

Thought I might periodically start writing about “a few of my favorite thing”—my own, narcissistic version of Stuff White People Like, I suppose. So I’ll get to PVRs, chocolate, and Zomig eventually, but I’d like to just start with my piano. Which I’ve talked about before, but now I have pictures!

It’s gorgeous to look at. It finishes off the living room very nicely. (That room’s come a long way from its empty desolation when we first moved in with only condo contents.)

But more important, it sounds great. Even though I’m the one playing it, and I’m hardly the world’s most gifted player. When we were shopping for it, I also tried out the smaller, cheaper version in the same brand (the one I’d walked in expecting to buy), and the larger, more expensive one with a million complicated doo-dads. Of the three, this one just had the nicest tones. The piano player’s piano, the salesman said.

So I love playing the thing. I’m having no trouble motivating myself for twice weekly practice sessions, which of course is also contributing to it not sound too bad when I play. I wish I had even more time for it.

In shopping for it, we discovered that we get could  a real piano for less than we paid for this digital one. Not a grand, of course. An upright. A “starter” upright, whatever that means. But we stuck with digital, mainly for not having to tune it, for it being so much lighter and more portable, and for being able to get the look of a grand, without the expense.

But I also like some of the digital features. For example, though I do mostly play in “piano” mode, I can choose between Piano 1 and Piano 2. And though I can’t explain to you the difference between the two, I can hear it, and some songs sound better in one or the other. I also occasionally use the more exotic sounds, like harpsichord for Bach, or strings+piano for, say, The Beatles, or electric piano for Queen’s “Your My Best Friend”. The one thing I’m actually missing a bit from my old keyboard are the synthesizer sounds, but I can somewhat approximate that with some of the weird vibraphone mixes included.

You can also fine-tune things. Like I was finding the touch a little too resistant (after years of playing on a keyboard with no touch sensitivity at all), so I was able to lower that. I can increase the resonance, so the sounds is fuller and richer without me playing any better. And I can take songs in impossible keys, like “Love Reign O’er Me”, which has six (!) flats, and transpose them into another key. Allowing me to play the song as written, except with only three flats (it somehow feels like a song that needs some flats), but it comes out sounding OK, and I can actually get through it.

So yeah, my piano is definitely on the list of things I like.

Something else I like? That Glee is back soon. With Madonna! And Joss! And Neil Patrick Harris! And The Beatles! Squee…


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Weekend viewing

In preparation for Tuesday’s concert by one of those Queen tribute bands, I re-watched my Queen Live at Wembley DVD, otherwise know as The Last Concert Ever by the Original Four Members of Queen. Talk about going out on top. This late in their career, it’s just wall-to-wall hits… so many they can’t include them all, since they also want to include some surprises as well. It’s the end of a long tour, so the set is well-honed; they sound fantastic. The massive crowd is adoring and lively.

Most awe-inspiring: The part where Freddie does these solo gymnastics with his voice, teasing around his highest register, demonstrating why he’s the best rock singer ever. Then followed by Brian May pyrotechnics on guitar. Then “Brighton Rock.”

Most fun: When all four members of the band gather at the front of the stage and swing through a medley of early rock classics: “(You’re so Square) Baby I Don’t Care”, “Hello Mary Lou (Goodbye Heart)”, “Tutti Frutti”, and “Gimme Some Lovin’”. Then BoRhap.

Most heartwarming: The crowd singalong during “Love of My Life”. I love the British fans—unlike the North Americans, they know all the Queen songs, not just the greatest hits.

Most chilling: Freddie, the only man in the room with an inkling that this might be the band’s last concert ever (he hadn’t yet told his band mates of his HIV-positive status), explaining how rumors of Queen’s breakup are highly exaggerated, and that the band is going to be together “until we fucking well die—I’m sure of it!” Then launching into “Who Wants to Live Forever?”.

And then for something completely different…

Jean and I watched Lisztomania, director Ken Russel’s 1976 or so film, very loosely based on the life of pianist and composer Franz Liszt. Definitely one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. It starts as a kind musical comedy-romance, then gradually becomes this sort of gothic horror movie with vampires and demons, and then there’s kind of a bit with war and Nazis, and finally there’s a space ship. And some singing.

It’s hard to believe this thing was ever made, because it’s not some B movie thing. It’s a high-budget picture with cinematographers and famous people in it. Must have been some really good drugs in the 1970s. And so, while it’s certainly not a good movie, it’s definitely an interesting failure.

Most awe-inspiring: Awe-inspiring? Geez, I don’t know. When Listz sprouts a giant penis for the four ladies to ride? When Richard Wagner sprouts vampire teeth and drinks Listz’s blood? The demon-worshiping scene with all the naked girls and the candles? So many options…

Most fun: The opening scene really is hoot. Liszt and the contessa’s fun romp to the ever-increasing beat of a metronome is rudely interrupted by her sword-bearing husband, leading to duel featuring chandelier-swinging, banana-eating, and a quickly improvised loin cloth made of sheets.

Most heartwarming: Well, the Chaplinesque scene where Liszt thinks back on his romance with the contessa actually is kind of sweet.

Most chilling: You know, when the dead Wagner rises as a zombie Hitler and starts mowing down the Jews—that really is kind of chilling. Especially as it’s intercut with Liszt being tortured, then killed, by his daughter, wielding voodoo pins on “tiny daddy” doll.