Jacques Pépin would approve...

i have a scratch on my forehead, a self-inflicted wound involving an extra-sharp knitting needle, and it keeps stinging like crazy, especially in all the humid weather we had recently. naturally, i am waiting for my acceptance letter from Hogwart's to show up any day now.

i am not sure where one buys and owl in the middle of Montreal, but and i am sure the cats can manage to deliver a small package between the three of them... although there might be some disagreement over who gets to play with the empty box. and, i have plenty of pointy sticks that could double for a wand... once i stop injuring myself with them, that is.

it is a lovely, crisp, cool September afternoon, and i am sitting here, enjoying an extra-large cup of steaming hot coffee. this is following the two slightly-less-large cups of tea i had earlier in the day. Autumn is definitely here... for real this time.

it would appear that i was a bit premature last time around in declaring the Summer done, because we got hit this past week with a wave of what the weather people described as "soupy" conditions.

hopefully, that is all behind us, as we seem to have finally arrived at the type of weather i love. i was actually shivering a bit this morning, but i was far too lazy to get out of bed to find a warmer cover. so, i just shivered, and smiled, and went back to sleep.

i was sipping my second cup of tea earlier today, and staring out across the treetops, searching for the slightest blush of gold, orange and red leaves. there was none to be found, so i had to settle for a handful of marigolds from the balcony garden. that looks Autumnal, no?

the green leaf in the middle is from the calla lily he insisted on buying this Summer. it may have accidentally broken off when i was watering the plant, so i figured i would put it to use in my mini-arrangement.

the plant has these long, skinny leaves that look like elongated arrowheads...

and flower-like structures that gives it the appearance of some type of pitcher plant.

i may have also broken the stem on one of them while taking those photographs, so now that bit gets to hang out with the marigolds too. happy accidents, as Bob Ross would say.

the highlight of this past week, however, has to be the epic pickling of things. this is just a small sample.

there i was, in the midst of "feels like" temperatures near 40°C (think, 105ish°F), boiling, peeling, chopping, and stuffing a whopping fifteen pounds of beets into jar after jar. then i turned around the next day and did the same with ten pounds of green peppers and pickling cucumbers... minus the boiling, because that would make for really gross pickles.

let me just discuss these pickles for a minute.

as i have noted in times past, i spent most of my growing-up years in New York City. my idea of a "sandwich" is freshly-cooked pastrami or corned beef, sliced thin and piled high on rye bread, with a schmear of mustard... and NOTHING ELSE in between. the only thing that is allowed on the same plate—on the same table, even—is a dill pickle spear, which you can nibble on as a "palate cleanser" of sorts in between bites of your sandwich. how does one cleanse their palate with a pickle? shh... do not disturb me with silly questions when i am taking a stroll down the happy side of memory lane.

back in high school, i used to meet mom most Fridays for a late-lunch at the deli across the street from the World Trade Center, where she worked. we always only ever had the same thing. that sandwich. the meat would be stacked so high, we would order one with two extra slices of bread, and split it between us to make two still-overloaded sandwiches.

and i always got the pickle. it was salty, garlicky, and tasting of dill. it was everything a pickle was supposed to be. i never understood the appeal of those thin-sliced, far-too-sweet pickles people put inside of sandwiches. if you are eating a sandwich that requires candied pickles on the inside to make it taste good... that is the Universe's way of letting you know that you should be eating something else.

so, there i was on day two of my pickling extravaganza, contemplating what to do with the cucumbers that were cluttering up the fridge, when i was struck by the desire to try something a bit different. i do not make dill pickles at home. but, on the rare occasion that i make pickles (which happens ever few-or-so years), i usually prefer recipes that stick to the sour and salty side of things, with little-to-no sugar involved.

this time around, i decided to make my first ever batch of bread-and-butter pickles. however, i did end up using only about half the recommended sugar, as anything sweeter would cross the line into being called a jam to my way of thinking. i had also purchased a giant bag of green peppers for pickling, so i ended up with a mixture that was roughly half pepper, half cucumber, to which i added some sliced onions and about half a head of garlic thinly-sliced.

not gonna lie... this is my favorite batch of pickles to date. [that yellow color is from a dash of turmeric in the liquid.]

i filled five quart jars, and one jar was empty again by the middle of the week. i (still) have zero desire to use them in sandwiches, but we have been treating it (along with the pickled beets) like a side dish with our meals.

which brings us to the pickled beets that started all the insanity.

the supermarket has bags of what they call "ugly beets" in a fifteen pound bag selling for about four or five bucks (the exact amount escapes me). i was fully prepared to have to throw away large sections of grossly deformed beets. what i got, instead, was a fifteen pound bag of beets that looked perfectly-normal to me.

having grown beets on multiple occasions, i can say with complete certainty that i have never discarded a single one because it was not perfectly round, so the idea of vegetables being tossed aside because they lack perfect symmetry (or because they were a little bit ovoid when they should be round) is complete nonsense to me.

i remember Jacques Pépin once talking about buying mushrooms in the supermarket. he said that he walks past all of the pristine white button mushrooms, and goes straight for the slightly-discolored ones with their caps already opened... the ones the markets usually hide away on the discount shelf in the corner, lest a passerby be traumatized by their non-perfectness. his reasoning? they taste better!!!

i am fairly certain Jacques Pépin would approve of my pickled ugly beets.

i have nine quart-sized jars of beets in total, three of which are earmarked for his parents, who will (in turn) give us more tomatoes and beans from their garden... with which i will fill up the remaining eleven quart-sized mason jars. it is the circle of life... with pickles. makes perfect sense to me.

we have been eating all the pickled things just as is, alongside our regular meals. these beets are also especially good with a drizzle of olive oil, some fresh herbs (here i used oregano and basil from the balcony), and a pinch of salt and pepper. it is the perfect accompaniment to (almost) any meal.

i can feel Jacques smiling approvingly.

i am adding a postscript to note that shortly after i finished typing most of this text, i decided to spend some time checking out the newest patterns over on Ravelry, when i came across this beauty. message received, Universe. i am packing my bags as we speak. just waiting for the post to arrive with my letter, and i will be on my way.

him: ooh... you should knit one for the balcony. maybe that will keep the squirrels away.

it is nice to be reminded that i am not the only crazy one around here.


dead to me...

i am snacking on a bowl of concord grapes—the first bowl of many in the coming weeks—on what is shaping up to be a cool, crisp day here in métropolis nord. everyone has a breakfast of coffee and grapes, right?

no exaggeration... i spent most of the last few weeks looking forward to this day. my lips are already itchy, as i am mildly allergic to the skin of the grapes, but it is totally worth the itch.

for the uninitiated, concords are a "slip grape", which basically means that the skin is significantly thicker than the more common types of table grapes. they are usually eaten by sucking (or squeezing) out the pulp, but you can totally eat the skins if you like.  i always leave them behind, however. itchy lips are one thing, but an itchy throat could end in a trip to the emergency room, and i am not willing to take that risk. seriously... why am i allergic to all of the things i love?

there is a plus side to all those discarded bits. the skins of concord grapes make for a great natural dye, producing a color that looks like the stain you get from spilling red wine onto light-colored fabric. makes sense, no?

i made a wall display some years ago of metal canisters mounted on a pair of metal panels through the magic of super-strong magnets. it is home to some of my hand-dyed and hand-spun yarns...

and one of those repurposed hot-chocolate canisters contains two hanks of yarn i dyed (more than four years ago) using concord skins that i had saved for several months in plastic bags in the freezer.

that yellow yarn was dyed around the same time using onion skins as the dyestuff. not bad, eh?

i am going to skip all of the relevant chemistry, but as i noted at the time, i was curious to see how the choice of mordant would alter the end product, so i pre-treated one hank with alum, and i post-treated the other with citric acid. they have both been sitting in that canister on the wall in my light-filled living room for a few years now, and i have to say that i am pleasantly surprised at the staying power of concord skins as a dye. [note: the colors appear much lighter than in that old post, as our old place had very little natural light, while our new place is flooded with sunlight most days].

it is a bit difficult to see with the camera, but upon closer inspection, the alum-treated yarn does show some discoloring along sections of the hank that were sticking out of the canister, which suggests that is it not especially lightfast. therefore, i would not consider that to be a good long-term color choice.

however, the citric-acid-treated hank appears to be consistent all the way around, and the color is a lovely non-girly shade of pink.

i plan to collect the skins from this Autumn's inevitable grape-gorge, and use them to over-dye both hanks, this time using only citric acid as the mordant. i will then try to find a pattern (maybe for a large shawl) that would take advantage of the slight difference in color between the two hanks.

overall, i think we can categorize this one as a win for kitchen experimentation. Science rules!!! and now i will have the "Bill Nye the Science Guy" theme song playing in my head for the rest of the day.

so, there i was with my lips growing increasingly itchy as i pressed one concord after another against them, when inspiration struck.

me: you know the painting i was putting off getting done because it was too sticky and hot to be handling a paint roller with sweat dripping into my eyes?
him: yes...?
me: well... i think i might get back to that now that it's nice and cool.
him: that's a good idea. 

and, just like that, it became official. so long, Summer... Autumn is here!

and just in time too, as August proved to have been the most miserable, soul-draining month i have had in years. i will spare you the details, as most of it falls well outside the range of absurdity i usually talk about here. however, i will say that it got off to a lackluster start and got rapidly worse somewhere toward the middle. then, as i was holding my breath in hopes of getting through that last week with some measure of sanity intact, the universe saw it fit to destroy that plan.

i admit that there were a few moments of humor (like our trip to a fiber festival, and the debacle with a dress that has since been marked for destruction by fire). but mostly it was stress, heartburn, sleepless nights (more than usual), and a whole lot of tears.

so.. yeh... bon adieu, August! may we never meet again. 

and, yes... i do realize that said month will (probably) come around again next year, but i will be referring to it as Jultember. August is dead to me!

now, i get to look forward to Autumn... my absolute favorite time of the year.

there are all sorts of lovely fruits and veggies coming into season, so there will be lots of food adventures in the coming weeks. i have two dozen jars waiting to be sterilized and a massive bag of beets that need pickling. we have been watching "The Big Painting Challenge", so the Wednesday Watercolor Society will likely resume semi-regular meetings... just never on a Wednesday. and, after mostly neglecting my knitting during the extended heatwave, i am so enthusiastic to pick up my needles and get going again.

hopefully i can (finally) finish that cardi for mom during this long weekend... unless i am making pickles... or halfway up a ladder painting walls (although, to be fair, he does all the bits that require a ladder, as my vertigo kicks in after the first rung)... or sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by watercolor paint and paper... or spinning yarn... or washing fleece... or reorganizing my stash as i plan for future knitting... or just hanging out on my favorite sofa with a cat (or three) for company while i sip many steaming cups of tea and alternate between watching k-dramas and documentaries about ancient civilizations.

i love this time of year!


31: eight Batmans later...

i asked my favorite animator if i could borrow one of his Batmans to use in my photo for today's post.

him: which one do you want?
me: you know that one i really like.

so he disappeared into the studio, and returned with the Mike Mignola maquette.

me: not that one. you know my favorite one... the one with the cape.

this one features Batman perched contemplatively atop a Gargoyle... high above Gotham.

him: that one is your favorite? why?
me: why not? just look at the ripples on that cape as it's draped over the gargoyle. they captured that texture perfectly.

him: that is what you like about it?
me: yep. why do you say that like it's wrong?
him: it just seems like an odd reason. maybe it's a knitting thing. 

we were both standing in the studio at this point, while he moved several other Batman figures out of the way to get to the one i wanted at the back of the display case.

me: on second thought... give me ALL of the Batmans. 

naturally, i was not trusted to actually carry any of them out to the table in the living room, so i went there and waited for them to be brought to me one at a time.

me: this is kinda like those archaeology documentaries where they go to a museum to examine some ancient artifact, and it has to be brought out of a special protective case, and they are only allowed to touch the item while wearing white gloves. 

then the Batmans started to arrive... one at a time. eight Batmans later, he asked me if that was enough?

me: there's more?

then he gave me a look that let me know i had asked a silly question. so he went back to the studio, and returned with five more Batmans.

him: there's some more of them in the boxes in the closet. i can go rummaging if you want more.
me: i think this will be plenty. no rummaging required. 

i need to offer a brief explanation to put this final post into perspective. this topic was intentionally left for the end for a couple reasons. firstly, it was the longest-delayed of all of the things i intended to talk about, as it all started more than a year ago. and, secondly, it was intended to be a story told in three parts, but i have not quite gotten around to the last bit just yet, so i am hoping that ending off the month on this topic would encourage me to get back to that part of things.

anyhoo... thank you to anyone who stuck around for the month of postings, and what follows is a rather bizarre account that begins with an obituary, and ends with something that genuinely brought me a great deal of joy.

i was scrolling through the headlines one morning last Summer, when something caught my eye.

me: aww... Batman is dead.
him: yeh. i saw that earlier.
me: that's kinda sad.

you know how some people experience a meltdown at the death of a favorite celebrity... so they run right out and re-purchase every book, movie, or album (s)he ever produced... then they call in sick for the next two weeks so they can read, watch, or listen to it all on a loop?

well... i am far too much of a stoic to ever behave like that. if life was a Star Trek series, Vulcans would be constantly telling me that i need to lighten up. it really is that bad.

to have lived a long and truly interesting life is about the best thing i could ever hope for anyone, and Adam West certainly did just that. however, the news of his death kept going around in my mind. it was not necessarily about the man, or the character with which he was so closely identified. it was all those memories of the childhood years i spent watching Batman reruns in the Summer. those were some really good times.

i spent most of those extended breaks from school with two of my closest friends. their mom (who was my mom's best friend) babysat a few little kids from their neighborhood during the week, so their house was always awash in activity.

by contrast, i was the only child in a single-parent home, and my mom's job on Wall Street meant that she frequently worked long hours. even when i was old enough to be home alone for the whole day, that meant being by myself for all of that time, so (naturally) i went where the action was.

no exaggeration, i would show up at their door on Monday morning, and mom would call on Friday to ask if i planned on coming home for the weekend. i sometimes said no, so she would stop by on her way home to pick up my laundry and drop off some clean clothes on her way to work on Monday.

it really was that much fun being at their place. we would throw blankets and pillows on the living room floor every evening, then watch late-night reruns until we fell asleep. i have seen every episode of The Odd Couple, MASH, All in the Family, The Honeymooners, and all those other old shows more times than i care to admit, because that was how we ended every single day.

then we would wake up the next morning, have breakfast, and do it all over again. there was Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, The Dukes of Hazard, Fantasy Island, Leave it to Beaver, The Love Boat, I Love Lucy, and (of course) Batman. nothing screams "summertime" like watching some guy in a mask and long johns walking up walls and fake-punching bad guys, with his equally-ridiculously-attired young ward in tow. seriously good times!

their mom usually kicked us out of the house when the afternoon soap operas started, and we would spend the rest of the day playing with the other kids on the block, returning briefly to have dinner, then running back out to carry on playing well into the evening. i learned to ride a bike on that block. i learned to roller skate on that block. i learned to jump double-dutch on that block. all sandwiched between our watching of too much old-time tv.

seriously... why would i have passed up a second of that to be back home at our place, where i spent most of my time alone in my room with my nose stuck in a book? i am certain all of that reading helped in nurturing the über-nerd i eventually grew up to be, but it was nothing compared to time spent in the company of friends while we reveled in the joy of summertime.

 so, there i was that Saturday morning, drifting on a cloud of happy childhood memories, when the urge to do something creative finally got the best of me. i went rummaging through the closet at the end of the hall that houses most of my yarn-related supplies.

him: what are you doing?
me: Batman is dead. i'm gonna dye some yarn.
him: i see.

it was not yarn at this point. that part came later. i had purchased a pound of unspun fiber from The Fibre Garden with every intention of dyeing and spinning it into my very own yarn for socks (for him, naturally, because my constellation of allergies does not allow for the wearing of such things).

i weighed out half of the fiber—reserving the other half for some future must-dye-something-now emergency—then carried it and all of the other necessary bits out to the balcony.

[that roll of plastic wrap that shows up in many of these photos is not some un-clever attempt at product placement of any kind. it was an important part of the dye process. this blog is not underwritten by the folks at Glad® or any of their affiliates, nor do they supply me with free (or even discounted) products in exchange for shoving them into random photos.]

i also mixed up all of the dyes before going outside, and tested the colors in the usual highly-scientific way (i.e. i touched the end of the stir-sticks to a piece of paper towel). yep... you can definitely see how i got that PhD.

next came the fiber.

this stuff is so fluffy and beautiful, even before it is dyed.

i made a loose knot at one end, and used my hands to make a long crochet-like chain to keep it organized (i also drank a lot of sangria to stay hydrated). this took a few minutes, as i had to get through quite a bit of yarn... and sangria.

finally i had a long chain ready to dye.

first i soaked the wool in water with a healthy splash of vinegar. this is where i usually pull out a white lab coat and put on my biggest glasses to explain the importance of pH in dyeing fiber, but i will spare you that lecture. just trust me that it is an important part of the thing.

next i drained and squeezed most of the water from the fiber, as i did not want it to be a drippy mess for the next stage, as that would only result in the colors bleeding together when i apply the dye.

this fiber was from BFL sheep. they have curly wool, which gets straightened out when the fiber is processed, but it goes back to being curly when it gets wet. kinda like if i was to flat-iron my own hair... then walk bareheaded in the rain.

now we dye!!!

i unrolled as long a piece of plastic wrap as i could fit on the part of the balcony that was not crowded with large containers of plants, and folded the braid of fiber a couple-few times to fit on top of that.

then i grabbed my applicator bottles which i had filled with dye in a bright yellow, deep blue, and dark bluish-grey.

this is, basically, the recipe for making a whole lot of muddy green, so i had to try to keep the colors separated. the first step was to squeeze most of the water from the fiber, and the second step was to maintain a small border about half an inch wide (that is roughly one centimeter for the entire rest of the world) between the colors. capillary action would wick enough of the dye from either side to bridge that gap without excessive blending of the colors.

next i folded up the long sides of the plastic, making sure to overlap them as tightly as i could...

then i folded the plastic to seal the ends and rolled the whole thing up like a psychedelic cinnamon roll. you usually know right away if there was too much liquid in your fiber, as the dye will run, pool, and ultimately leak while you are doing this part. ask me how i know.

i was ready to add this to my dye pot so it could be steamed for a bit to set the dye, then i had a change of heart.

now, i always dye fiber in my dye pot, but there are all those lunatics who talk about setting dye in their microwave, because... you know... it is so much faster. i was already being uncharacteristically sentimental. why not give it a try? so i did.

those same lunatics usually say things like, "all it takes is five minutes in the microwave"... then you see all of the dye bleeding into their rinse water, because it did not have enough time/heat to properly bond to the fiber.

by contrast, when i dye wool in my dyepot, i usually keep it at the "threatening to boil" point for twenty to thirty minutes (or even longer when i am working with those pesky blue tones), then i turn off the heat and leave the whole thing to cool. trying to rush the process only ends with washing dye down the drain that should have been bonded to your fiber.

still, i went ahead and gave the microwave heat-set a try. i heated it for a total of ten minutes, giving the cinnamon roll a flip halfway through the time. i brought the bowl back outside and left it to cool while i finished my drink and examined the dye that always manages to sneak past the big rubber gloves and stain my hands. not too bad this time.

i spent some of that time watching a tiny spider construct a web between the container of tomatoes and the strawberry pot of herbs. the yellow/black is the spider, and the white spot is the center of the web. if you squint really hard, you can just barely make out the circular lines of the web. it was a very small spider and a very thin web.

once the fiber was cool enough to handle without risking injury to my person, i opened one end of the plastic wrap, and let the fiber slide out into a sink of warm water with a squirt of soap (to help neutralize the acid and remove any loose dye), then rinsed it in plain water. i was genuinely shocked by the absence of dye bleeding, as i was fully prepared to add microwave dyeing to the list of things you see on the internet that you should never try at home. trust me... you do not want to know what else is on that list.

the hardest part came next. finding even more patience to wait till all that wool dries. it looked like a colorful wet dog at this stage, but wait till you see how it turned out... next time!


30: envelope of delights...

we recently discovered a restaurant right here in Montreal that does a phenomenal job at making one of my absolute favorite foods on the planet, i present to you, the humble roti

this one requires a bit of background, with just a hint of history and a splash of geography for good measure. to begin with, i am using the term roti as it applies to Caribbean food culture. in that setting, it is a wrap-type sandwich (similar to a burrito) which consists of a thin outer bread layer that is wrapped around an assortment of curried vegetables and meats. the contents are limited only by the maker's imagination.  

however, the name of the dish is ultimately derived from the (east) Indian roti, which is the name for the super-thin flatbread itself. in fact, the whole dish is a reflection of the influx of East Indian workers into the region during colonial times, and continuing up through the mid twentieth century. 

full disclosure: part of my extended family—including one of my grandparents—is of Indian descent. however, you do not have to go digging through anyone's family tree to recognize the influence of Indian culture in just about every facet of Caribbean life, and this one dish may just be the single best culinary representation of that influence.

every part of the Caribbean has their own take on a roti, and every eater has their personal preference as to how it should be served. while some form of curried meat (chicken, lamb, goat, shrimp) is considered part of the standard filling, i have had some amazing rotis that were filled with such a tasty assortment of curried vegetables, potato, and chickpeas (which i absolutely love) that you would not miss the meat. 

full disclosure... this is NOT considered to be "posh food". you are far more likely to find the best rotis being sold from a food truck or a hole-in-the-wall type restaurant. it is a meal that is designed to be eaten on the go, which is probably why it is usually sold tightly wrapped in parchment-type paper.

this is the "neat" side...

flip it over to reveal of the ends, which are neatly folded and tucked to form an edible envelope of delights. i did not want to risk making a mess by unfolding it any further, as i can never seem to return it to to the starting position.

you will occasionally come across someone who tries to impress anyone who might be watching by discarding said wrapping paper, and eating it with a knife and fork. however, among us far-less-pretentious types, it is  most convenient to unwrap it just enough to take a few bites...

then just continue to 'unwrap and eat', until done. that wrapping paper may be the only thing keeping a generously-stuffed roti from unraveling, and curry stains are for life. ask me how i know.

it should be noted, if i am being completely honest, that this is one of the few dishes i am genuinely afraid of making at home. it is not because of the filling. i have been making curries since i was like eight years old. i could manage that part with both eyes closed. the intimidation factor is all about the dough.

let me give you a bit of perspective so you can better understand this fear. you would need to stack at least five or six of those roti flat-breads together to reach the thickness of a pita bread. crazier still, it is traditionally made from a multi-layered dough, and you can usually peel away one tissue-thin layer after another. 

do you see that crumbly yellow stuff lurking right under the surface of the bread? that is a mixture of ground, spiced split-peas... and it is in between the layers of the dough... and all of those layers together are only a fraction of the thickness of a pita. 

i love a culinary challenge, but i lack the patience to work with such thin dough. but now i do not have to even try, because the Curry House is just a short drive away from my door. my life in Canada finally makes sense. 

oh, in my excitement... i almost forgot the sign. yep... it definitely makes sense.