Sunday, 28 September 2014

September Reading



I do read an awful lot of random stuff, online and off.

I tend to share links to interesting articles and essays when I come across them, but I thought I'd try something new this month and write up a quick summary of the best things I've read.

Spanning topics from language and science, to food and philosophy, I think there's probably something here for everyone. Feel free to leave links to other interesting pieces in the comments.


"Amazeballs to zonkey", insight into how Oxford University Press decides which words to include in which dictionaries.

Artificial sweeteners linked to glucose intolerance - this research looks pretty rigorous, even if the effects have mostly been observed in mice so far.

This is a long, sometimes harrowing piece about emergency response in Syria. But these guys deserve a few mins of your attention & discomfort: Whoever Saves A Life.

On a lighter note, this little collection made me laugh so hard: 18 Apple Varieties With Badass Names

Do women rule the world in the year 2000? There's only one way to find out. Take a look at some classic time travel fiction.

I love this: "We don’t need to be better than anyone else: we just need to love where we are and what we’re doing and who we are. That’s what matters." Plus a few other reasons why you shouldn't compare yourself to others.

A nice summary of trends in lifespan and longevity research: What Happens When We All Live to 100?

Rejected Princesses is one of my new favourite sites: illustrated histories of forgotten (or popularly maligned) women, covering a wealth of times and places. Where else can you read about a martyred mathematician alongside a supreme mistress of the sword?

Some of these insights into modern communication are not unrelated to my thesis: the changing face of punctuation.

Ever wondered what an Amish barn-raising looks like? In time lapse? This is pretty impressive. (Okay, this one's a video rather than an article, but I think it's awesome enough to deserve a free pass.)

Can you tell artificial from natural flavourings? And how? The secrets of fake flavours is a fascinating piece on food technology.

Interesting reading on impulse, economics, and psychology (it gets a bit US-centric at the end, but most of the insights are more widely applicable).

How does your brain process metaphor?
 "It sounds like a question that only a linguist could love," says the author, but I can't see how anyone could fail to be fascinated by this kind of brain imaging study.

Short fiction is a great way to get to know some new authors, for minimal investment: 17 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read in a Sitting

And finally, whoever thought of this is a marketing genius: Lidl goes Michelin-starred.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Canadian Rockies in Winter



Train journey from Vancouver to Toronto

In January last year, as part of our coast-to-coast tour of Canada, we took the VIA Rail Canadian route from Vancouver to Toronto.

The Canadian route wends its way through the Rocky Mountains, giving rise to some stunning scenery. I'm sure the Rockies are beautiful at any time of year; I love mountains, and these are some serious mountains. But they're especially fabulous in the snow.

You do have to be dedicated to wrapping up warm: January is truly the depths of winter. It wasn't just cold, it was -35°C, broken-rail freezing. When the temperatures have dropped too low for even the Canadian railways to maintain normal operation, then you know you're looking at some serious weather.

Train journey from Vancouver to Toronto

Train journey from Vancouver to Toronto

Train journey from Vancouver to Toronto

When we stopped to stretch our legs in Jasper and Winnipeg, woe betide anyone who forgot their gloves or decided they could get away with only a couple of warm layers. Even walking to the buffet car, you had to crunch through minor snowdrifts in the vestibules.

Jasper in particular had the look of a European ski resort, all wooden chalets with snow-capped roofs. I've only ever been skiing in Europe, but the gorgeous scenery on this trip got me interested in looking at ski holidays in Canada. North American ski resorts have a reputation for being less technical than some of the European mountains, but also having more space on the slopes, which I think would suit my (somewhat haphazard) style. Either way, it would be fun to find out, and to experience a different style of ski holiday.

We had to settle for admiring the mountains from a distance this time (although we did pop up to go snowshoeing on Grouse Mountain while we were in Vancouver), with the occasional short walk when the train stopped to refuel. If we'd been able to plan a longer trip, I wished we'd had time to stop off in the middle of the country, so I'm sure we'll be returning before long to correct that omission.

And we did actually get one extra day of scenery, compared to the scheduled service. We'd planned a day in Toronto before hopping across to Montreal to catch the Ocean route to Halifax on the Atlantic coast, but instead, we woke on the fourth morning to find the train hadn't moved in the night. The aforementioned fractured rail, coupled with a couple of broken-down trains, had led to a backlog on the route - and one interesting feature of Canadian railways is that the passenger trains have to give way to the all-important freight. (For the 'inconvenience' of the delay, we got a refund of half our fare. Not bad compensation for an extra day of sightseeing!)

Train journey from Vancouver to Toronto

Train journey from Vancouver to Toronto

Train journey from Vancouver to Toronto


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Red Onion & Caraway Rolls



Onion & Caraway Bread

I just realised that I've had my bread machine for over a year. This wasn't our first bread machine, but it's the first one that's actually been good enough for us to use it regularly. And honestly, there's very little that beats fresh bread, so I'm in favour of anything that makes the process that bit quicker and easier.

We actually ordered this specific model after visiting friends who fed us the lightest, fluffiest bread we'd ever eaten. If you've never had that kind of accidental sales endorsement then I can heartily recommend the Panasonic range (there's a good range on Tesco Direct). Ours is the SD-ZB2502, which is the one with all the bells and whistles, but the main difference from the lower spec is having a yeast dispenser - helpful if you want to put the timer on and not worry about the yeast starting to activate too soon, but not exactly critical.

Bread machine

Admittedly most of the time I use the machine to facilitate my laziness. On the timer, overnight, it's easy to make a simple sourdough loaf for breakfast. And if I get up in the morning and realise we've nothing for lunch, there's a "speed" cycle that makes a perfectly adequate loaf in two hours. Obviously the two-hour loaf will never be quite as good as dough that's had time to rise slowly on the five- or six-hour cycle, but it's more than nice enough for a sandwich or to accompany a bowl of soup.

But when I have a little more time, one of my favourite things is to knock up a batch of fresh rolls. It's fun to experiment with different flours and flavourings - and I know I manage to try out a lot more ideas now I've got the machine to do the leg-work for me.

For the base of these rolls, I used the focaccia dough recipe from the booklet that came with the bread machine, which has a lovely texture and results in a great crumb. You could totally make these by hand, too, you'll just have to spend a bit more time kneading.

Onion & Caraway Bread

Onion & Caraway Bread

Onion & Caraway Bread

Red Onion & Caraway Rolls
Makes 6

300g (10½oz) strong white flour
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp salt
170ml cold water (about ¾cup)
½tsp instant yeast
1tbsp caraway seeds
1 small red onion (diced finely)
  1. With a breadmaker:
    Add all ingredients to the bowl, and use the dough cycle to combine (on mine, it's program 22 for 45 minutes).
    Without a breadmaker:
    Warm the water and dissolve the yeast, then fold all ingredients together and knead the dough for 30 minutes.
  2. Divide the dough into six even pieces and fold the edges underneath to create a rounded shape.
  3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).
  4. Arrange on a floured baking tray, and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size (30-45 minutes).
  5. Brush the tops of the rolls with a little extra olive oil.
  6. Bake for 15-20 minutes until lightly golden-brown in appearance. Each roll should sound hollow when you tap the base.
  7. Cool on a wire rack, or enjoy while warm.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Creamy Asparagus Pasta #PastaPlease



Asparagus Pasta

Shaheen at Allotment2Kitchen has combining Jac's Pasta Please with her own new challenge Eat Your Greens, picking a green theme for Pasta Please this month.

I've been a fan of Shaheen's blog for absolutely ages, so I'm delighted that she's got a new monthly cookery challenge for us. (And one that won't be any trouble to enter, since I'm always using green vegetables in all sorts of recipes!)

I'd been planning this dish for a little while, anyway, and had some asparagus spears in the fridge when I read the announcement - so it was very good timing for me. Asparagus is one of my very favourite vegetables (of any colour!) and pairing it with the fresh coriander leaf worked surprisingly well.

 

Creamy Asparagus Pasta
Serves 2

250g asparagus spears
1 small onion
1tsp olive oil
¼cup vegetable stock
2tbsp fresh coriander (cilantro) leaf
1tbsp clotted cream
salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
200g pasta (dry weight)
  1. Wash and trim the asparagus.
  2. Finely dice the onion.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a small pan and fry the onion and asparagus until the onion softens.
  4. Meanwhile, boil water for the pasta.
  5. Add the vegetable stock and simmer to cook the asparagus.
  6. Blend the sauce, adding the coriander, pepper, and cream at the last minute.
  7. Cook the pasta, toss through the sauce, and serve immediately.


Friday, 12 September 2014

Niagara Falls in Photos



Niagara Falls

On our recent visit to the US, we noticed that we'd be passing within an hour or so of Niagara Falls. Well, I say "we". I had no idea where Niagara was, so it fell to Andy to do all the actual noticing, but I was very glad he did, and obviously we planned our route to make sure we had a spare day to spend at the Falls.

There's some debate over whether the American side or the Canadian side of the Falls is "better". Given the simplicity of crossing the bridge between nations, however, it seemed silly to visit Niagara without taking in both aspects.

The American side has a lovely State park, and you can get up close and personal with the raging water.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

We decided to walk to Canada, in part because our rental car wasn't insured for international travel, but also because the chance to walk to Canada doesn't crop up that often. It's always fun to stand straddling an international border, with each foot in a different country. The view from the Rainbow Bridge was spectacular, and really gives a great sense how huge this river is.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

The Canadian side, by contrast, has arguably the better views, but keeps you at a greater distance from the water (only the American side has signs telling you that it's illegal to swim).

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

We were really surprised by the number of Amish tourists, on both sides of the river. We've visited the Amish heartlands in Pennsylvania on a previous trip, but I hadn't realised that the Amish lifestyle left scope for taking vacations to tourist hotspots. Many of them even had cameras to capture their own holiday snapshots.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

We decided to treat ourselves to an overnight stay in Canada, so I did a little online research to pick out the hotels likely to have the best views. I found a really handy map showing all the area's hotels, on both sides of the river. Thanks to a great deal at the last minute, we booked into the Embassy Suites Fallsview hotel (part of the Hilton chain) for a price that was only about twice what we'd have paid in a mid-range business hotel with no such view. Although the desk clerk tried to sell us an upgrade, we'd already picked our room carefully, and the view was spectacular. There was also a huge jacuzzi bath, and free wine at the manager's reception, so I had absolutely no complaints. The breakfast buffet was decent, too, with plenty of choice and a few cooked-to-order options (and more views!).

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Staying in Canada also gave us the best chance to view Niagara Falls at night. There was a storm coming in so we got a bit wet when we ventured out to see the light show up close, but with the lights off in our room, we could enjoy most of the experience without even leaving the comfort of our armchairs.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

All in all, Niagara falls is (obviously) a massive tourist trap, but for me it was one of those rare occasions when something massively hyped turns out to be, actually, absolutely worth a visit. I loved every minute, and we'll definitely be going back.

Niagara Falls


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Fates of Worlds: A Charity Anthology



I'm excited to announce that I'm working with six other authors this month to raise money for literacy charity Reading is Fundamental.

This is an anthology of the kind that's really only become possible since the development of e-books: we're releasing seven full-length books for the price of one, with all profits going to charity.

The Fates of Worlds is almost a million words of sci-fi goodness, and is available now to pre-order for less than the price of a coffee.

UK Links:   Amazon • iTunes • Google Play
US Links:   Amazon • iTunes • Barnes & Noble • Google Play



I've only read Tsar Wars and Escape Velocity so far (well, and Rebellion, obviously!), but if that's any indication of the quality of the collection, this is going to be a great deal. I'm looking forwards to sinking my teeth into the rest when I get my copy of the anthology (release day is 15th September).

Here's a little more information about all the books in the collection:

PREDESTINATION by J. Daniel Sawyer
"A sweeping tale of politics, corruption, intrigue, betrayal, and murder...a fast paced ride through a future that's too plausible to be ignored." --Nathan Lowell, author of Quarter Share and Ravenwood

TSAR WARS by Stephen Goldin
“In all ways I enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading the next one.” (reader review)

STAR VIGILANTE by T. Jackson King
Matt Dragoneaux is an interstellar hired gun who follows the Code of the Vigilante: track ‘em, strike ‘em, and be elsewhere when the Anarchate battleglobe shows up.

THE REMNANT by Paul B. Spence
“It has action, suspense, very good character building and enough plots and plot twists to fill the whole book shelf, let alone one book.” (reader review)

THE CHOSEN ONE by Anna Erishkigal
“It's like Star Trek meets creation mythos... ” (reader review)

ESCAPE VELOCITY by Steven J. Pemberton
A phone call from his dead wife wasn't the strangest thing that happened to rocket scientist Sam Grainger that day...

REBELLION by Rachel Cotterill
A fast-paced adventure following a young woman's search for a secret society of elite assassins, described by reviewers as "cinematic" and "unputdownable".


UK Links:   Amazon • iTunes • Google Play
US Links:   Amazon • iTunes • Barnes & Noble • Google Play

Monday, 8 September 2014

Italian Stuffed Mushrooms (Secret Recipe Club)



Italian Stuffed Mushrooms



My assignment from Secret Recipe Club this month was Corey at Learning Patience. Corey is an expat in Trinidad, which sounds amazing, and I spent ages reading about her travel adventures. She's also a fellow runner and eats a lot of vegetarian food, so we have plenty in common. And I think we must have pretty similar tastebuds, too, as I was really torn between loads of Corey's ideas.

The most fascinating thing I found was a recipe for sauerkraut pierogis, but since I've never eaten sauerkraut or a pierogi, I wouldn't have any way to know if I'd done a good job. That just seemed a bit too brave.

In the end I decided to go with this Italian stuffed mushroom recipe. These are simple but really addictive. I could eat them all day. I've always loved garlic mushrooms, and the wine adds a subtle extra layer to the flavour.

Italian Stuffed Mushrooms

Italian Stuffed Mushrooms
Serves 2 as a starter

6 large chestnut mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
1 small onion
1tbsp olive oil
2tbsp white wine
25g (1oz) fine breadcrumbs
a handful of fresh herbs (I used oregano and thyme)
25g (1oz) grated cheese (I used mature cheddar)
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F).
  2. Remove the stalks from the mushrooms.
  3. Wash the mushroom caps, pat dry with a sheet of kitchen paper, and arrange in a non-stick roasting tray.
  4. Finely chop the garlic, onion, and mushroom stalks.
  5. Heat the oil in a small pan and sauté the garlic, onion, and mushroom stalks until soft.
  6. Add the wine and simmer for a couple of minutes.
  7. Stir in the breadcrumbs.
  8. Spoon the mixture into the mushroom caps (you might need to press down to fit it all in).
  9. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until the mushrooms are cooked through.




Italian Stuffed Mushrooms


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Baby Corn & Snow Pea Pad Thai




I love pad thai; it's usually the first thing I look for on any Thai menu. I also do a reasonable number of easy stir-fried dishes at home, so really, I don't know why I don't make this more often.

The traditional Thai recipe would have fish sauce, but for a veggie alternative, soy sauce works just fine.

Baby Corn & Snow Pea Pad Thai
Serves 2

80g (3oz) flat noodles (dried weight)
80g (3oz) snow peas (mange tout)
100g (4oz) baby sweetcorn
150g (5oz) shredded vegetables (carrot, cabbage, bean sprouts, bamboo)
30g (1oz) unsalted peanuts
2tbsp soy sauce
2tbsp shaoxing wine
juice of ¼ lime
a large handful of fresh coriander leaf
  1. Soak the noodles in a bowl of hot water for 5-10 minutes until soft, taking care to avoid sticking (I find it helps to fan out the noodles before adding them to the water).
  2. Stir-fry the vegetables for a couple of minutes over a medium heat. (I use a high-quality non-stick pan which doesn't require any oil, but if you don't have one, you could add 1tbsp sunflower oil.)
  3. Add the noodles, peanuts, soy sauce, and shaoxing wine to the pan.
  4. Stir-fry for a further 5-10 minutes, until the noodles are cooked through.
  5. Squeeze the lime juice over the noodles and stir in the coriander just before serving.
  6. Serve with extra lime wedges.


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