What We’re Reading: Non-Fiction

From Beth-Anne

imgresThe Can(‘t) Cook Book by Jessica Seinfeld

It’s no secret that I can’t cook.  Correction: I don’t like to cook.  However, since becoming a mother, I have honed some survival skills in the kitchen but cooking up a feast I have not yet done.  Nor do I have any plans to do so.  In my most recent cleaning purge, I finally tossed the file folder of recipe clippings I have been collecting since 2003.  Let’s be real: I was never going to cook anything from that packet of papers and it was liberating to watch the magazine pages flutter to their demise in the recycle bin.  Best to concentrate my efforts on what I enjoy doing and not trying to be someone who I am not.

That being said my three little boys ALWAYS WANT TO EAT!  What’s with these kids?  I am reminded of Nathalie’s favourite meme that depicts an exhausted looking mother slumped over, cradling her head with the words: Why do they want dinner every single night? url

Enter Jessica Seinfeld’s The Can(‘t) Cook Book, a simple how-to guide for the absolute beginner cook.  She gives all the basics: what tools your kitchen needs, what to stock the pantry with and visual step-by-step instructions on proper cutting technique.  The recipes claim to be easy and quick (they are).  She had me at easy and quick.

This spiral-bound, picture heavy, simplified cook book is all that I need.  Family favourites include pan-roasted chicken breasts (I made these without setting off the fire dectector), crispy shrimp (so ridiculously easy and delicious that my 7 year old can make them with little supervision) and Mexican corn (but really, who doesn’t love Mexican corn?).

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SHE: A CELEBRATION OF GREATNESS IN EVERY WOMAN by Mary Anne Radmacher and Liz Kalloch

Sometimes you just need a little pick me up.  Retail therapy, a hot bath, a good book, a night out with friends: all of these are often cited as just the ticket to boosting a sad mood.  But what if you’re looking for a little inspiration or some words of encouragement?  SHE: A CELEBRATION OF GREATNESS IN EVERY WOMAN is just that.  This elegantly illustrated book features words of wisdom from many wise women including Harper Lee, Peal Buck, Rachel Carson, Hilary Clinton, Mother Teresa, and many more.  Their words are meant to empower, inspire and encourage women on the topics of leadership, friendship, purpose, risk-taking, compassion and more.  Maybe she is a recent graduate?  Maybe she is looking to change careers?  Maybe she is about to embark on travel adventure?  Maybe she is unsure of her future?  Whatever the challenge she is up against, SHE: A CELEBRATION OF GREATNESS IN EVERY WOMAN offers advice from women who have been there, done that and have lived to tell the tale.

From Nathalie

keeganThe Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Anne Fadiman, one of my all-time favourite writers, wrote the preface for this posthumously published collection of essays and short fiction written by a former student of hers.  The book is named for the essay that she wrote for the Yale Daily News and that went viral when she died in a car crash.  It’s a wonderfully passionate essay.  I would read the back of a cereal box if Anne Fadiman recommended it, so I have to say that I was surprised that this book did not quite live up to its hype.  The essays are impressive, and she does have a voice that is uniquely her own, and it is clear that this is a writer with many talents and a lot of promise.  I had the feeling, though, that I’m just too old to appreciate them.

RR_InPraiseIn Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe

We are not supposed to like Katie Roiphe.  She wrote a book a few years back in which she said that part of the blame for date rape rests with the victim.  I can’t comment; I didn’t read the book.  I wouldn’t read it because I don’t like that kind of shock tactic stunt.

I’m beginning to think that I made a mistake to dismiss it on the basis of the reporting of that stunt.

This collection of essays knocked my socks off.  She’s ferociously smart, incisive and, yes, opinionated.  Her opinions, though, she backs up with powerful and persuasive writing.  Her essay on Joan Didion is so beautifully crafted I want to frame it, but it is her essays on parenting that really hit home with me.  She tells things that make me uncomfortable, she makes observations that make me squirm, and I think that’s a good thing.  In “The Feminine Mystique on Facebook” she writes about the trend of using your child’s photo as your profile picture:

Here, harmlessly embedded in one of our favourite methods of procrastination, is a potent symbol for the new century.  Where have all these women gone?

And in “The Child is King,” in which she reviews Elisabeth Badinter’s  book about our child-centric culture, The Conflict, she draws attention to

the dark idea…that children are the best excuse in the world not to pursue happiness, not to live fully or take risks or attempt the work one loves.  The compromises we make are justified, elevated, and transfigured by the fact of children, and this can be a relief.

I really enjoyed sparring with the ideas in this book.  I found myself disagreeing sometimes, but always able to respect the thread and construction of her arguments.

Book-Cover-Dreaming-of-Elsewhere_mediumDreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home by Esi Edugyan

This slim book is Esi Edugyan’s lecture for the Henry Kreisel Lecture Series at the University of Alberta.  Edugyan, the winner of the 2012 Giller Prize for Half-Blood Blues, explores her sense of “home” and “belonging.”

Home for me was not a birthright, but an invention. … I do not think home is a place, only.  Nor do I think belonging is the most important of our possibilities, long for it though we might.  I believe home is a way of thinking, an idea of belonging, which matters more to us than the thing itself.

 

From Carol

start somethingStart Something that Matters by Blake McCoskie

Easy and uplifting read about a young man’s successful foray into unconventional business with heart.  He started TOMS, a shoe company that promised that for every pair of shoes sold, a pair would be donated to a child who needed them.  Apparently these shoes are everywhere, and just last week, I saw my first pair at my son’s school.  McCoskie is unabashedly passionate about the uncharted possibilities of social enterprise; I felt old when “youthful exuberance” came to mind to describe the tone of the book.  It’s not to be dismissed for this but appreciated, and I finishing the read with the feeling that the world of business doesn’t just need more infusions of ethics, but also imagination.

4 hourThe Four Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss

I surprised myself by picking this up again – I had borrowed it from the library and failed to read it a few years ago – but I got through it this time.  Ferriss is the founder of a sports nutrition company and tells the story of how he mastered the art of streamlining his work processes so he can – you guessed it – work four hours a week.

I don’t subscribe to major premises of his book.  He asserts that for 90% of us, the best job is the one that takes the least time; I disagree so fall into that little 10% window.  His master tools for freeing up time are outsourcing as many tasks at work and home as possible and leveraging the power of the Western dollar by living for extended periods somewhere with a weaker currency.  Neither of these ideas appeal to me:  I both want to live the details of my life and enjoy the rootedness of living in one place, single currency and all.

But I was drawn to the ruthlessness with which Ferriss cuts out things he didn’t want in his life.  He guards his time passionately against infringements he doesn’t want and gives firm reasons and methods of saying no, which can be summarized neatly by the mandate:  say no.  He recognized in his life the existence of the Pareto principle – that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, for better or for worse – and worked to maximize the beneficial 20% and cut the crap 20% that was causing 80% of his grief.   Most impressive is how he eliminating a few toxic connections to huge benefit.   And he slices through common and generally accepted excuses for living less than a full life.  His version of this is not mine, but I was persuaded by his basic argument that all of us have far more choices than we exercise.  The book galvanized me to make a couple of difficult but positive changes after reading it, so I have an indebtedness to it.

all you needAll You Need Is Less by Madeleine Somerville

I was given this book to review, and have been looking for a good way to describe it.  It’s subtitle is “The Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity”, and this type of claim is made on a zillion green books.  This one is different because of its content though, which I think I might describe it as the next generation of green living.  We’re beyond turning out the lights when we leave a room and only running the dishwasher when it’s full in this book; we’re into clotheslines and worm bins and neti pots.  Somerville is easy-going and self-deprecating while she tries to bring this next tier of green into the centre – she makes fun of “hippie-ness” so no one else can and there’s no holier-than-you tone in this book.  Sometimes she tries a bit too hard – I cringed when she reduces the benefits of acupuncture mostly to creating a placebo effect – but this is a good resource for anyone who has made the more well-known green changes and wants to take it to the next level.

 

 

The Pleasures of Handmade Chocolate

050I didn’t clue in on the second or third or fourth readings why my son was so fascinated with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Apart from the fact that it’s a timeless, fabulous read that’s entertaining for both children and adults.  We were also loving the edition illustrated by Quentin Blake, whose whimsical drawings seem to perfectly complement Dahl’s outlandish tale.

But there was another reason, and that’s because my boy really wanted to make chocolate.  I was ever so slow to catch on to this.  When he first talked about being a chocolate maker and a chocolate inventor, I said sure, and got on with whatever critical task I was doing.

When he kept talking about making chocolate, I clued in that he actually wanted to try and I told him one of two things:  a) I didn’t know how or b) you can’t make chocolate.  I’d like to think I made the former claim, but I’m pretty sure I said the dumber latter thing.

At last, when the poor child was blue in the face with asking, I had a glittering eureka moment.  Why don’t I just look into it, I thought?  And promptly discovered that it is not only possible to make chocolate at home, but not difficult at all (unless you are starting truly from scratch with cocoa beans, which we weren’t).  Snapping out of my no-can-do trance, I remembered that I love making things in the kitchen at home with my boys and at last we got to work.

We did some research, read a bit, watched a few youtube videos.  There are lots of different recipes out there, but I wanted to make one with cocoa butter, because this seemed the most delicious and pure way.

The recipe I used (and I cannot for the life of me find the source, sorry) contained exactly four ingredients.

250 grams of cocoa butter (edible, some kinds are intended for body care)

8 Tbs of powdered milk

12 Tbs of cocoa

250 grams of icing sugar

(pinch of salt, optional)

The most difficult part of making the chocolate was getting some really good ingredients, and even that was just a run to the natural food store.  I splurged on raw organic cocoa butter and got some good cocoa powder, because with a recipe with four ingredients, the quality of these would seem to really matter.

We melted the cocoa butter in a makeshift double boiler, and blended it with the mixed dry ingredients.  And, um, that’s it.

Then we poured our chocolate mixture into a variety of silicone molds (maybe some chocolate bar molds should go on my son’s gift wishlist?  If you don’t have these, you could line a loaf pan or baking tray with a lip with parchment paper and break the chocolate into bark.  Spooning out the liquid chocolate was messy so we poured it first into a little milk jug which made pouring into the molds much easier.

We chilled them, popped them out of the molds and wrapped them in mason jars as we had a bunch of May birthdays to celebrate.  I read somewhere that handmade chocolates melt more easily than storebought, so we kept the presents refrigerated until time to give them.

The outcome?  It’s a lovely chocolate.  Not a true dark chocolate, but more dark than milk chocolate, partly because of the milk powder but especially because it was just sweet enough and no more.  It was strikingly similar to some very nice, very expensive handmade chocolate I sampled at a high end farmer’s market.  The texture of ours was a little grainy, which I can only attribute to the milk powder as the other dry ingredients are so fine.  There are lots of other recipes out there, and since it’s so easy and pleasurable and great for gift-giving, I can’t see why we won’t be doing this more and more.

It should come as no surprise that I was enamoured with the process entire.  With reading to my son a wonderful story and having it make a deep enough impression on both his imagination and sense of possibility that he’s spurred to try new things.  And that his energy moves me to try new things.  That I have the opportunity to stretch a little more a mind that I thought was already open to adventures in the kitchen with my kids.  That we get to create and taste and share really decadent and quite healthful treats.  I still can’t explain the blinders that delayed this handmade foray, but thank goodness for the persistent child who helped knock them away; it’s reason enough for me to love these chocolates completely.

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Making Maple Candy

144Snow finally arrived to our corner of the world over the holidays.  Real snow, inches of it, like I remember we always had when I was a girl.  We kind of had a non-winter last year, with tentative slushy bits of snow that couldn’t hold up against the warming winters, and truthfully, I found it kind of depressing.  So when we saw the beginnings of the first heavy snowfall this December, I felt relief, and then elation.

There is no taking it for granted anymore.  We immediately pursued sledding trips, snowballs, snow angels, snowmen, and generally wading around in the snowy surroundings.  But I felt like our first winter snow in two years required further celebration, so we decided to make maple candy!  Oh my.  We’ve read about it in several stories, and not long ago, Sam said that we could do it.

So true.  All you need is maple syrup which, as in any stalwart Canadian home, is a staple here.  I’ve never made candy, but this is so easy, anyone can do it.  Basically you boil maple syrup for a few minutes at about 235 degrees, and when it reaches a certain foamy, glassy texture, you take it off the heat.  I like this tutorial, because it gives lots of visuals about how the boiling maple syrup changes as it boils, and you can try it even if you don’t have a thermometre, which we kind of didn’t as ours only went to 220 degrees.

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When the syrup is done, you pour it in strips or other shapes on clean snow, either outside or collected in a bowl by your kids and brought inside.  Wait a moment, then pick it up, with your fingers or rolled onto a popsicle stick.  Then eat.  If eaten immediately, it’s stretchy and chewy like taffy.  If you wait, it will become a hard candy.

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I don’t really like candy, so it’s easy for me to pass on it.  But I was curious about the maple candy, and of course we had made it ourselves, so I tried it.  I must say, the stretchy stuff was so good.  I wouldn’t recommend it if you have loose fillings, but otherwise, surrender yourself.  The kids loved it, and as far as treats go, you could do way worse than some rivulets of maple syrup.  I only boiled half a cup to contain the experience, and we ate all of it, saving a piece or two for their dad, so there was no gorge.  It also left us wanting more, which we will surely address before the winter is through.   It was so much fun to do, so easy to share with the kids, and felt like a perfect way to celebrate the return of the snow.

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Baked Kale Chips

Have you tried these yet?  You may well have, because recipes for them pepper the Internet.  And for good reason, because they are positively delicious.  And the best for we who mother, and the worst, is that kids love them too.  At least mine do.  This is the best because they will down a head of nutritious kale in about four minutes.  It’s the worst because if I don’t make a second head, I will barely get any.  They really are that good.  There are never, and I mean never, any left over.

Also, the kale chips are such a cinch to make, your kids can practically make them themselves.  You (or they) will need just three things:  kale (with curly leaves), olive oil, and salt (sea salt is nice).   Then:

–  wash the kale, removing the stems*

– massage some olive oil on the leaves (some people say a tablespoon for a bunch of kale; I use more)

– sprinkle a little salt

– spread on a baking tray in a single layer

– bake at 350F for 12 minutes or so.

The only trick is to check the kale carefully and turn it to make sure it doesn’t burn.   Dark green chips are ideal.  A little brown is okay but too much brown will taste burnt.

Then watch, as they will seem to disappear into thin air, but you’ll know their nourishing your favourite tiny bodies in all the world.  Frito Lay, eat your heart out.

*About the stems, during one of our cooking sessions, my five year old cried out, let’s bake the stems!  So we did.  They didn’t have the crispiness of the leaves and were thus a little less satisfying, but they were eaten up too.  Usually I keep them for a really nice addition to veggie stock.

Budding Gourmet in the House?

This is how I know I’m a lucky Mom:

This is my six-year old, Sebastian. He made dinner for me last Saturday night. Peter and Daniel were out of town this weekend, so Sebastian decided that he’d look after making a meal for the both of us.  From scratch  and  by himself, more or less.  I looked after getting the baking sheet in and out of the oven. I cut the chicken, too. But he supervised, “to make sure I didn’t  cut myself.”

His menu: crunchy homemade chicken fingers, asparagus, and potatoes.

He set the table, and wouldn’t let me into the dining room until it was ready.

Hot chocolate for him. Milk for me, on his insistence.  Because it’s good for me.

I think I should let him cook more often.