Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Summer Reading - The Help

I just finished reading The Help (by Kathryn Stockett).  I know, I know, I'm pretty much the last person to read the book, but better late than never.  I really enjoyed it and kept drifting over to read parts of it during the day.  I kept wondering what was going to happen next and found myself thinking about it as I went about my day. I haven't been hooked by a book, like I was with this one, in a long time.  

I love a story that attempts to accurately portray a specific time period like The Help did. I like to learn something about another time and place and what life was like for people living then. I especially liked that even though this was a difficult time for the black maids, they were not left without hope that things would improve for them at the end of the story. I'm sentimental enough to need to have some positive outcomes at the end of a story or I'm left feeling upset and sad.

One of the things I liked about The Help was that it was set in Mississippi. I have always been intrigued by life in the Southern US - it seems so different to life here in Canada. We aren't raised to say "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am" and have impeccable manners and we don't cook black-eyed peas on New Year's Day and have magnolia trees and cotton farms and ... I could go on and on.  Not only was the location intriguing, but I have always loved the fashion from the early 1960s so I spent the book imagining what they were wearing and how the cars and houses looked. It will be interesting to see how someone else portrays it in the movie.  

I've actually finished three books so far this summer and they couldn't be more different from each other. I thought it would be fun to find some photos to capture what I was imagining for each of the books. Although two of the three books have recently been made into movies, I haven't seen the movies yet so these are just the inner workings of my mind (scary, I know).  

So here are some of the images that struck me as I read The Help:

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10    

I'd give The Help a 9/10 and a must-read recommendation.  My only complaint was not finding out about Cecilia Foote's back story - I kept thinking it was going to be significant and maybe even had to do with Constantine's departure (if you get my meaning without revealing anything in case you haven't read the book).

Now I need to get my hands on the movie so I can see how the book has been interpreted. Have you read the book or seen the movie? What did you think? 

P.S.  For an interesting article about filming the movie and the set designs read here.

Linked to Literary Friday at Art @ Home

Friday, July 26, 2013

Larb from Laos

We have been traveling at a break-neck pace through Asia these past few months and I now have food from Laos to share with you.  

We opted to make Larb, a spicy mixture of marinated meat with greens and herbs, which is considered the national dish of Laos. It can be made with almost any kind of minced meat (and is sometimes eaten raw although we most definitely cooked ours) flavoured with fish sauce, lime, and chili. The dish is served with sticky rice, ground toasted rice, and a variety of raw vegetables.

Larb is really tasty and easy to make and something that I will definitely cook again as a quick summer meal that is different than a regular salad.  I wasn't sure I had used the right kind of lettuce as Romaine didn't seem very Laotian, but I didn't know what else to use and the boat shaped leaves worked well to load up with rice, larb, and vegetables and use as a wrap.

By the way, I based my version of Larb on recipes found here, here, here, and here.

vegetable oil for cooking
2 lbs ground chicken or pork
1 stalk lemon grass 
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1 red onion or 2 shallots, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped ginger
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (I used lemon juice as some of us don't like lime)
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 red chilies (optional)
2 tablespoons ground toasted rice powder

Serve with:
lettuce leaves
1/4 cup mint leaves
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
cucumber slices
lemon wedges
ground toasted rice powder
sticky rice
(please ignore the red and orange bell peppers as they were my own addition and are not mentioned in any of the recipes I read - I just like them and thought they would taste good with Larb ... and they did)

To make ground toasted rice powder:
1.  Place about 1/3 cup of uncooked sticky rice in a dry frying pan or wok and cook over medium heat shaking frequently and stirring.
2.  The rice is done when it looks toasted and lightly browned.
3.  Grind the toasted rice in a coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle into a fine powder.

1.  Cook ground meat until it is no longer pink.
2.  Add the lemon grass, green onions, red onions, ginger, fish sauce, lime juice, red pepper flakes, and chilies (if using) just as the meat is finishing.
3.  Add 1 tablespoon of the ground toasted rice powder and toss and add more as needed so the meat is not runny.
4.  Taste and add more fish sauce, lime juice, or chili flakes as desired.
5.  Serve meat at room temperature with the rice and vegetables.  

P.S. You should read this interesting post for details on all the different spellings of Larb, Lab, Laab, Lahb etc

Monday, July 22, 2013

Inspired by Blueberries

We're not sure why, but we don't have many chipmunks at the cottage this year which means we have lots of blueberries. It is a tough call which we like more.

Aren't blue and green the best together?  I'm in love with this colour combination lately.  And I'm seeing it everywhere. 

Like in the blue of the canoe and lake against the green forest.  Does it get any more relaxing than this scene?

Or the blue and green June Hosta in my Mother's cottage garden. Such a beauty and definitely my favourite hosta? 

Or the blue and green drapes in our cottage bedroom window. The same fabric had been used for dining room drapes in our home in Nigeria when I was young and I remember them blowing against the back of my head in the wind when we ate dinner - until they were stolen one night by some thieves that is.  My Mother got more of the same fabric to replace the stolen drapes. I'm so glad she thought to bring the extra fabric home, though, as I love these drapes at the cottage when the morning light shines through them. 

And I can't leave out the blues I recently introduced into our family room that mingle well with the soft greens (you can read about it here).

Isn't blue and green the perfect summer colour combination.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Char Kroeung from Cambodia

Our around-the-world-cooking adventure has taken on lightening speed as I want to finish before our youngest goes off to university in September.  We just finished Thailand and are now in Cambodia (virtually speaking, of course).  I like to post these recipes so I have an easy resource to find them again (love that search feature down the sidebar!), but I was pleased when Donna from An Anglo in Quebec commented that she actually makes some of the international recipes too. Yay, for inspiration!

After a bit of research into Cambodian cuisine we decided to make Char Kroeung.  Kroeung is a distinctive spice blend that is used in many dishes in Cambodia.  I based my recipe on this one, but had to make some changes as I was not able to get all the same ingredients (no kaffir lime leaves available at the local grocery store here in Ontario) and I had to take the spiciness down a notch.

Here's the recipe.

For the kroeung paste:
2 stalks lemongrass, outer leaves removed and thinly sliced
5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 large shallot, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon crushed chili peppers
1/2 cup water

For the stir-fry:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
600 g beef or 600 g chicken (I used chicken), cut into bite-sized chunks
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large onion, peeled and sliced into wedges
Oher vegetable (optional)
1 red bell pepper, sliced (bell pepper) 
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, ground

1.  Blend all the kroeung paste ingredients in a bowl until smooth (the recipe calls for mixing them in a blender.  Since we don't have one we did try the mortar and pestle, but I'm not sure it did much).
2.  Add the meat to the kroeung paste and mix well.
3.  Heat the oil in large wok over medium heat. Add meat, stirring well until browned.
4.  Add fish sauce, sugar and salt and stir until the sauce is bubbling.
5.  Add the onion wedges and cook for a few minutes.  Then add the other vegetables if using and cook a few minutes.
6.  Add the red bell pepper and 6 tablespoons of roasted peanuts. Stir for another minute, then remove from heat.

Sprinkle with remaining peanuts and serve with rice vermicelli noodles, lettuce (we used spinach), and bean sprouts. The recipe also called for fresh mint, but we don't care for mint so I omitted this.

We loved this dish.  I say that frequently, I know, but I will definitely be making it again so that confirms my Char Kroeung love.

P.S.  I've seen this written as Cha Kroeung and Char Kroeung and I'm not sure which is correct (they both have close to the same number of Google hits so that doesn't clear it up either).  If anyone has been to Cambodia and knows which way to spell it, I would love to find out.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Japanese Brush Painting

I was at the cottage all of last week taking an art course at the Haliburton School of the Arts.  It was the perfect combination of visiting my parents, enjoying cottage life, and doing some art. The weather was lovely so I got in swimming a few times and we enjoyed walking through my Mother's garden. 

I took a Japanese brush painting course, which was held in the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School. It was fun to see how different schools are in cottage country.  

Where else could you look out the classroom window and see a deer (and her two fawns hiding in the woods just past her) walking around the edge of the forest?

And where else would you find bear awareness posters all over the school?

And where else would you get a view like this from the school?  Gorgeous, right!

Japanese brush painting, also called sumi-e, is beautiful and rewarding when the strokes are done correctly, but very challenging as well.

Sumi-e (pronounced soo- mee-eh) is an ancient Asian art form that originated in China, but is now done mostly in Japan.  You use a little black ink stick (that you can see resting on the edge of the square stone in the photo below) to mix with a few drops of water in the stone.  You use one brush in different ways to make thin, thick, and rough lines. 

We completed many different exercises to learn the different strokes needed to form leaves, flowers, needles, pine cones, bark, bamboo, and even scenery.  Although they don't look too difficult, trust me they are very hard to do.  There is no room for error as you only make one stroke for every leaf or branch and you can't go back and correct it.  Practice makes perfect though - or better anyway - and by the end of each day we had always managed to make a few reasonable paintings.

Bamboo and pine boughs were my favourite - especially loved doing the trunks.  I have to confess, though, that I found plum blossoms excruciatingly difficult to do. I want to try using sumi-e to paint some Canadian scenes - I think it would be a nice art fusion.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pad Thai

We've made it to Thailand in our round-the-world cooking adventure.  Since I had never cooked pad thai before, that is what we chose to make.  It tasted great and really wasn't very difficult.  I used this recipe here, but made some modifications since I was cooking for 7 people and I wasn't able to get all of the ingredients.

INGREDIENTS (serves 8):
1-454gm (16 oz.) package of rice noodles (linguine-width)
4 chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
marinade for chicken: 3 teaspoons of corn starch mixed with 1/2 cup soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 fresh red chilies, minced (optional)

1/2 cup fresh coriander/cilantro (optional)
3 cups fresh bean sprouts
8 green onions, sliced
3/4 cup peanuts, roughly chopped
slices of lime
1/2 cup vegetable stock
oil for cooking
Pad Thai sauce: 
3 tablespoons lemon juice (the original recipe called for tamarind paste, but I couldn't find any so I used lemon juice)
6 tablespoons fish sauce (this is the magic ingredient that makes it taste like Thai food and is available in most grocery stores)
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed chili pepper flakes
5 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon pepper

1.  Marinate the chicken pieces for at least one hour.
2.  Soak the noodles in warm water for 30 minutes or until they are soft enough to be eaten, but still a little crunchy.
3.  Mix together the pad Thai sauce and set aside.
4.  Heat oil in a frying pan or wok and cook the garlic (and chilies if using) for about 30 seconds.  Add marinated chicken and cook for 5-7 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.  Add 1-2 tablespoons of chicken stock at a time as needed to keep the cooking chicken moist.
5.  Add the noodles to the cooked chicken and pour the pad Thai sauce over it.  Using two utensils stir the noodle mixture like you are tossing a salad for 1-2 minutes.  Add more oil or chicken stock as needed to keep it moist.
6.  Add the bean sprouts (and 1 more tablespoon of fish sauce if desired) and cook for 1 more minute.
7.  Serve the pad Thai with fresh coriander, chopped green onions, chopped nuts, and a slice of lime.

I felt like this meal was a little lacking in the vegetable department so I stir fried some bok choy and red peppers with onion and garlic and a little fish sauce.  It was my own version of faux Thai vegetables, but they tasted great with the pad Thai.  I didn't include a photo of them because they weren't authentic.

We've also cooked Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam so I'll be posting them soon.  Have you ever cooked pad Thai?  It is a popular dish and I think this version tasted pretty authentic if you want to give it a try.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Green and Navy

Our family room has been on the needy side for a long time.  I decorate the mantel and change it up seasonally, but the rest of it is pretty plain.  We were given a super comfortable, super cozy, super long sofa when our friends moved and couldn't fit it into their new condo.  We love watching TV lounged/sprawled all over it, but I hadn't ever got around to adding any cushions or art on the wall above it.  We also didn't have a rug in the family room (apart from the little mat that was needed to help Juno get some traction for jumping on and off the sofa).  

I debated long and hard about what colours to use in the family room given that everything is pretty neutral.  The sofa and walls are both a soft gray-green and the rest is white and wood.  

I was inspired by the photo that Kat from Low Tide High Style gave me, which you can see on our mantel in the picture below (you really should check out her website for this and other amazing photos that she has for sale).

I love the blue of the door and wanted to use something like that colour or even a bit darker - somewhere between cobalt and navy.  I wondered how it would look with green, but was reassured by the colour of the boat surrounded by gray-green grasses and trees in this watercolour in my friend's living room.

So I did what any sensible person would do - I went to Home Sense and bought every navy pillow they had.  I decided I would channel my inner Sarah Richardson and decorate the sofa with many different patterns as long as they were navy/cobalt and cream/beige.  I also remembered that we had a blue and cream striped rug from IKEA and it matched perfectly.

Now I need to work on the gallery wall that is going to go above the sofa and possibly a bench to go along in front of the sofa to put our feet on.

Here's one more before and after.

I think the deep blue is a little unconventional with the gray-green, but I happen to love blue so it works for me.  I can see a dark brick red working as well so who knows what things will look like down the road.  Are you a fan of pairing green with blue?  What colour would you have used with the gray-green sofa and walls?