Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

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What a great book this is – I highly recommend it. Us Conductors is a love story, a spy novel, a history lesson and a biography all in one. The story is based on the inventor of the theremin – a musical instrument that creates sound from electricity. The story (based on a true one) is set between the two World Wars and follows the life of the Russian inventor as he travels to America at the behest of the Russian state to show off his creation.

I am one of those stodgy souls who still reads the newspaper, and every weekend I eagerly turn to Sean Michaels’ column about music in the Saturday Globe. I’d buy the paper just for that section, and it’s made me a fan of the music blog Said the Gramophone as well. His book, Us Conductors, was sitting on a cart waiting to be put away at the library a few weeks ago when I was there picking up my latest stash of kid materials. As much as I’m loving Baby Signs and Raffi (and I do actually really like Raffi) these days, us mommies need something with a bit more depth and intrigue to balance out the day. I don’t know if I would have read it if I hadn’t come across it by chance. Too often I am disappointed in the prize-winning books (Us Conductors won the Giller Prize last year), but not this time. There is a freshness to the voice, a creativity to the storytelling and a level of effort and craft to the writing in this book that is really special. After reading all those music reviews I’m not surprised – all of those elements are in his weekly column, too. To see that style played out over the course of a whole novel was just delightful.

Another thing to point out: I think men will like this book. So much literary fiction is geared toward a female audience and I often see the men in my life struggling to find a good book. There’s a little bit of James Bond in Lev, the inventor, who is a spy as well as a scientist, and the time period the book is set in shows the seeds of the Cold War brewing between the United States and Russia.

July 29, 2015 at 10:51 am Leave a comment

Zucchini muffins

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After making these muffins and enjoying zucchini in salads and pasta the past couple of weeks I am sorry that I did not plant any of this delicious veggie in my garden. It’s on next year’s garden wish list. I know zucchini is notorious for overproducing, but it is so versatile – I would happily freeze it to use all winter long.

I’ve talked before about trying to reduce or eliminate animal products like butter and eggs from my cooking. I’ve been experimenting with coconut oil as a substitute for butter lately and it is wonderful in these muffins. The tops have a delicious crunch and I think it’s the coconut oil that does it. I made these muffins on quite a hot day so the coconut oil I keep on my counter top was very soft – the consistency of half-melted butter. This was perfect for mixing in with the other ingredients. If it is a bit colder out I think it would be worth warming up the oil to create that same melted texture.

Zucchini muffins
Makes 12 muffins

4 cups grated zucchini
2 flax “eggs” (combine 2 tablespoons ground flax seed in a bowl with 6 tablespoons hot water; let sit for 5 minutes)
1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup coconut oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour (I used a half-and-half mixture of all-purpose and whole wheat)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ginger
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup hemp hearts
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup raisins

Combine zucchini, flax eggs, honey, sugar, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Combine dry ingredients in another bowl and stir into zucchini mixture until just combined. Spoon into a greased muffin tin and bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes or until tops of the muffins are golden brown.

July 27, 2015 at 10:50 am Leave a comment

Lovely plums, lovely cake

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It is plum season at our house. One of the great pleasures of our garden is the old, gnarly plum tree growing in the southwest corner of our yard. When we moved in to our house last summer the tree was bursting with fruit. We ate as many as we could (which was a lot – I was about 6 months pregnant then!) and several of our friends came over with plastic grocery bags to pick the fruit. I called the food bank to see if they wanted to harvest some. The wasps had a field day with everything that dropped to the ground.

I have a memory of standing out on our deck surrounded by the loud buzz-buzz-buzz of circling wasps, drunken on overripe, fermenting fruit. I remember thinking I should really do something about this, I should get out the hose and some soap and spray the whole thing down. Instead I ignored the mess and stood there eating plum after plum, with sticky juice streaming down my arm, realizing how happy I was to be in my new home with a little bambino kicking away inside me.

The tree is not quite as full of fruit as last year, but there is still more than enough. I’ve been taking baskets of plums with me wherever I go and I hope all of our friends and neighbours are enjoying the receiving as much as I am enjoying the sharing. It is such a proud feeling to show off the home-grown goods.

When I was in Vancouver last week I brought along some plums to share with a dear friend. We met up at the beach for a dinner-time picnic of salad, cheese and fruit, and while we were picnicking she described a recipe for plum cake. She is a great cook and a foodie extraordinaire, so I knew I had to try it. Sure enough, it was absolutely delicious.
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As you know, I can’t resist tinkering with recipes to suit my own tastes, so this is an adaptation on the famous plum cake recipe she sent me from the delightful smitten kitchen site – truly one of the best food blogs out there. I used our golden plums instead of purple ones, spelt flour instead of wheat flour to make it gluten-free, and some hemp hearts and a little less sugar to make it a tiny bit healthier (although not too little sugar – as I once learned, yellow plums turn quite sour when you bake them).

The only problem with the recipe is that the cake is gone in a flash. We enjoyed it the other night with my in-laws and everyone agrees it is already time to make more. I’ve got another one in the oven right now for our neighbourhood shindig later this afternoon and it smells so good.

Yellow plum cake
Serves 4-6

1 cup spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar (I used raw cane sugar), plus 1-2 tablespoons for sprinkling on top of the cake
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs
8-10 golden plums, pitted and halved (I’m sure any kind of plum would be delicious)
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Heat oven to 350F. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, cream together butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add in eggs and then dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. Spoon batter into a 9″ springform pan and top with plums, skin side up. Sprinkle the cake with lemon juice, sugar and cinnamon, and bake for about 45 minutes. So easy, so delish!

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July 25, 2015 at 3:17 pm Leave a comment

Spinach, nectarine and Brie salad


I love fruit in salad. I’ve written before about blueberries and strawberries in salad, and now that nectarine season is here it’s time to share this recipe.

Nectarines are one of my very favourite fruits. As someone who loves pretty much everything in the fruit and vegetable department I think that is saying something. What is it about nectarines? They’re perfect. Sweet, summery, beautiful to smell and touch and see. No fuzzies. Not that I have anything against peaches, they are delicious, too (especially as jam), but I really prefer nectarines for eating as a snack or in a salad like this one.

I’ve been eating California nectarines for about a month now and it is so nice to see the BC fruit here. I also found this delicious, Canadian-grown and made Balsamic Fig and Date Mustard at the store a few weeks ago and I am in love with it for salad dressings.

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Spinach, nectarine and Brie salad

For the salad, pile greens, diced nectarines, slices of Brie and pumpkin seeds into a bowl. Spoon on dressing and enjoy!

For the dressing, combine 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, and 2 tablespoons dijon mustard. Try Kozlik’s if you can find it – there is a wonderful sweetness with the dates and figs. If you can’t find it, use regular dijon and add a tablespoon of maple syrup. I use a mason jar for dressing. Once you’ve combined all the ingredients, give it a shake and spoon the dressing over your salad. Any leftovers can be stored in the fridge for another day – just take the dressing out of the fridge about an hour before you want to use it so the oil can warm up (it will go solid-ish in the fridge).

July 23, 2015 at 11:27 am Leave a comment

Scenes from the berry patch

A tiny bounty of berries is growing in our garden right now. It is the first year for the strawberries, blueberries and raspberries we planted, so I am happy to have anything at all.

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The tally so far: about 40-50 raspberries, maybe a dozen strawberries (and counting since there are still a few flowers and white berries), and six blueberries. A modest harvest to be sure, but it has thrilled me to bits to be able to take our little guy out to the garden every day and pick a berry or two to go along with his cereal.

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I have fond memories of picking berries (and other good things) from the gardens of my childhood and I hope our garden can be the same source of happiness for our son as he grows up. I also love the picture I have in my head of my now three-year-old nephew running out to the yard when he was just over a year old to pick berries from the raspberry patch. It was amazing to see such a little guy so tuned into the good stuff growing in the yard.

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Casey will be a year-and-a-half-old next summer, so I wanted to get our berry patch planted this year so we have a chance of keeping up with demand. One thing I know about this kid is that he’s an eater… I’m sure no berry will be left behind next year!

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Strawberries are his hands-down favourite right now. He loves to hold them by the stem and suck on the berry until there is nothing left but a white core and leaves. Who says you need teeth to eat?

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July 20, 2015 at 11:27 am Leave a comment

Salmon soba salad

 I love how easy it is to eat salad this time of year. All the greens and veggies are so tasty, and so easy to grow in your own garden or to find at farmer’s markets. And patios and warm weather are made for healthy food like salads and fish…no need for warm soups or pastas baked with a blanket of cheese right now.

I made this salad with some leftover cedar plank salmon that we cooked on the BBQ. Cedar plank cooking was popular a few years ago and I feel like it dropped off the radar too quickly. It’s still trendy at our house…so delicious and so easy.

In baby-land, we have just started on solid foods. We are trying the baby-led weaning approach to food, which basically means that little ones get to eat what the grown-ups are having without too much interference (no pureeing, etc). It is still mostly mucking about instead of real eating, but it is a lot of fun watching him try different tastes and textures. It’s hard to believe that there are three of us at the dinner table now – babies grow up so fast. Avocado, salmon and cucumber have been a big hit so far, so this salad is perfect for sharing.

Salmon soba super salad

Serves 2

Salad:
2 salmon fillets, grilled or poached
6 cups spinach or mixed greens
1 avocado, sliced
1/2 large cucumber, diced or cut into long chunks for baby
1 carrot, grated
1 bundle of soba noodles
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds

Dressing:
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablepoons fresh ginger, minced
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons water

Assemble salmon, greens and veggies in individual bowls or plates. Cook soba noodles in a pot of boiling water – be careful not to over cook as they only take a few more minutes. Drain the noodles and add to the salad.

To make the dressing, saute garlic and ginger in sesame oil on medium-low heat for 2-3 minutes and stir in remaining ingredients. Pour warm dressing over salad and sprinkle with pumpkin seeds. Healthy yum! Any extra dressing can be saved in a jar for another salad.

June 23, 2015 at 2:52 pm Leave a comment

Early summer garden

 Here are a few recent photos of our garden. Lots of roses in bloom, plus lavender, calla lilies and some beautiful purple things that I don’t know the name of yet. 

  
Lots of herbs – chives, sage, thyme, parsley, oregano and the most delicious smelling mint that is calling out to be made into mojitos. The mint and sage are growing into the grass and every time we mow the lawn it’s like heaven.   I can’t wait until tomatoes and basil start coming. They are just in the flower and seedling stage right now, but our back deck is smoking hot so hopefully it won’t be too long.  I also planted cucumbers and a couple of varieties of hot peppers. I haven’t grown either before, so I am hoping for the best. The greens are all doing well. I wish I’d planted spinach earlier as it is already going to seed from the heat, but baby chard and beet greens work just as well for salads, pasta, etc.

 My parents have been amazing at helping me carve out some space for edibles in our overgrown perennial beds. We’ve cleared out lots of invasive stuff – buttercups,  Queen Anne’s lace, bergamot – to make room for blueberries, strawberries, beets, carrots, and a raspberry patch along the back fence. I had my first raspberry today, in fact, when I was out watering while the baby napped. Then I felt guilty since it is supposed to be his raspberry patch. He is 6 months old tomorrow, which means starting on solid foods, so he can actually eat raspberries now. Or at least mush them around. How time flies. 
 

June 15, 2015 at 3:31 pm Leave a comment

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