Sunday, 17 August 2014

Courthouse Steps

I decided to do some Courthouse Steps blocks for a very special quilt that I'm making (more about that in a future post). I wasn't sure what colour scheme to use, and then I remembered this Batik fat quarter bundle I bought at last year's Creative Stitches show. When I looked at the bundle, the fat quarters were already separated into warm and cool colours, so I decided to go with that scheme. 
This is the first time I've done Courthouse Steps, which is a variation of the Log Cabin block. It worked up quite easily. The centre square is 2" and all of the steps are 1-1/4", yielding a 12" block. 

Vegan Slow Cooking: A Cookbook Review

I'm in love! With a cookbook, that is. In my experience, it's much safer to fall in love with a cookbook than with a man. As a matter of fact, when it comes to relationships, if it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all. But enough about my personal life. I want to talk about this cookbook, but let me start a few years back when I moved into my house. A couple of my friends that helped me move informed me that I had too many slow cookers. And I replied, "No, I don't. I use every one of them." I won't say how many I actually have, because I haven't counted them lately <smile>, but I do use them. Some more often than others, but they do get used.
Slow cookers are my favourite small appliance. I remember years ago thinking that someone needed to create a vegan slow cooker cookbook. Then Fast Cooking in a Slow Cooker: A Slow Cooker Vegetarian Cookbook came out in 2006 and I purchased it. I do love that cookbook as well, but it's more family-sized recipes. And I'm alone (plus the cats, who don't eat vegan generally), and I don't always like to eat the same thing for a whole week. Or more. So this cookbook, Vegan Slow Cooking for Two or Just for You: More than 100 Delicious One-Pot Meals for Your 1.5-Quart/Litre Slow Cooker offers ideal sized recipes for my life. And the food is good!
The recipes are generally straightforward and easy to prepare. Most ingredients can be found in your local supermarket, and for those that aren't, there are some recipe replacements. Recipes for "Cashew Cream" or "Italian Seitan Coins," for instance, can be found in the Budget Rescuers section in the front of the cookbook. And no overabundance of mushrooms in this cookbook, or cilantro (both of which I detest). I've tried several recipes, with mostly delicious results. I'd never tried Old Bay seasoning before, but I was able to find it in one of my local grocery stores and it gave a really nice flavour to the New England Tofu Rolls. I used Vegannaise in this recipe and I found the lemon juice broke it down and made it too watery. Next time I think I will either half the lemon juice or omit it entirely. The Spicy Southern Chickpeas and Grits were also quite tasty, though my northern tastebuds weren't too sure about eating what should have been cornmeal mush as a savory dinner dish instead of breakfast. I will probably skip the grits next time and use rice instead. And I might add a little arrowroot/cornstarch to thicken up the tomato juice. Potato, Greens, and Chickpea Curry - yummy! The only "clunker" recipe I've found so far is Tofu Braised with Pears and Brussels Sprouts. I love Brussels Sprouts, but 7-9 hours to cook them when they're shredded was overkill. Overcooking in a slow cooker, I've found, renders a funky flavour, and that's what it did to this dish. And the whole house stank. Now, having said that, I will admit that I think my slow cooker cooks a little fast, even on the low setting, so I could try reducing the cooking time. I also prepared this the night before and kept it in the fridge before starting it in the morning, so not sure if that impacted it at all. Plus, as an abstainer, I used grape juice instead of the port wine. So the funky flavour may not have been entirely the fault of the recipe. However, I don't think I will retry this dish. One experience with funky-tasting Brussels Sprouts was more than enough. I did not eat the leftovers. Otherwise, an excellent cookbook that I'm really excited about. My only objection is that the recipes I've tried so far are too spicy for my tastebuds, but that's easily remedied.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

How to Make a Quilt: Book Review

How to Make a Quilt: Learn Basic Sewing Techniques for Creating Patchwork Quilts and Projects

by Barbara Weiland Talbert
Disclaimer: I received a free electronic preview edition of this book from Net Galley for review. I have not received any compensation for reviewing this book.

In order to review this book more effectively, I decided to construct the sampler quilt by following the book's instructions. Given that the preview edition doesn't have any pictures, it was rather like sewing a mystery quilt, only harder. Indeed, having never seen a Tam's patch quilt block before, I was rather in a quandary when I was told to construct it according to the diagram, which wasn't there. I ended up having to google Tam's Patch, and even so, since this was a variation, I had to decide how I wanted to arrange the final four sections. I had a similar issue with the Two by Two and just kind of randomly threw it together how I wanted to.  But that glitch is not the fault of the author. However, there were a few things in the actual instructions that left me scratching my head. 
In constructing the Tam's Patch block, I needed to make two half square triangle units. The instructions told me to cut one square of each of two fabrics, cut them in half diagonally, and then sew a light triangle to a dark triangle. The book then warned me to be careful not to stretch the fabric as I'd be sewing along the bias. I really didn't know anyone was still using this method for making half square triangle units. By drawing a diagonal line corner to corner on the light coloured block, putting a light and a dark coloured block together, sewing 1/4" each side of the line and then cutting on the line, you end up with two HST units without having to worry much about stretching the bias. For me, that's much more efficient. So, I was rather puzzled that any instructor in 2014 would still be teaching the old way. (If you're interested, you can see both methods explained here: Intro to Half Square Triangles). In this case, I did not follow the book's instructions. Ditto with the Hourglass block. The book said to cut the two blocks in quarters diagonally and sew bias seams. I knew there had to be a more efficient way to do that block, so I googled once more and found Jenny Doan's youtube instructions. Quick and easy! With either instructions - the book or Jenny's video - I would end up with two hourglass blocks. In Jenny's case, it would be for a whole quilt. In the case of the book, I only needed one hourglass block for the sampler quilt, so I ended up with an orphan block. I hate orphan blocks. They make me feel guilty, like somehow I must use this block so it won't be left alone and forlorn. Isn't there a way to make just one hourglass block? 
And on the subject of extras, the instructions for Tam's Patch said to cut two rectangles of fabric from both the light and the dark, but only the dark were used. I'm still puzzling over that one. What am I supposed to do with the light ones? Hopefully this has been corrected in the published edition of the book. 
The final block was the pinwheel block. For these HSTs, the author said to use the folded corner piecing method. This may work well for Flying Geese units and the Snowball block, but to use it for HSTs wastes a lot of fabric and time. I did the initial cutting for all of the blocks prior to sewing, so I only read enough of the instructions to know what sizes and shapes I needed to cut. Therefore, I didn't realize until it was time for sewing what a waste this was. Following the directions, I cut out 4 dark and 4 light 3-1/2" squares, when all I really needed was 2 dark and 2 light 3-7/8" squares if I was going to use the regular HST method. Grrr! So not impressed. So I cut the pieces I needed to do it my way, which to me is the logical way. I finally finished all of the blocks, and added the sashing, cornerstones and border. Here's the quilt top:
Blocks as follows:
Pinwheel - Flying Geese - Snowball
9 Patch - 4 Patch - Two by Two
Square in a Square - Hourglass - Tam's Patch Variation
Though the book does give directions for finishing the quilt, I don't plan on finishing it right away. It's hardly worth paying to quilt something this small (30" square) on the long arm. If you've been following my blog, you know that I am challenged when it comes to machine quilting on a domestic machine. I haven't been able to learn so far with several online classes I enrolled in, so I am hoping to take a live class this fall. I will probably need some projects to work on in the class, so I will save this quilt top for that. 
Meanwhile, back to this book: While there is useful information in it, I was disappointed with some of the techniques used and don't feel they're the best choice. I can't honestly say that I would recommend this book to someone who desires to learn how to quilt. There are so many better resources available out there. 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Last Chain on Billie: Book Review

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic preview edition of this book from Net Galley. I have not received any compensation for writing this review.
Wow, poignant and powerful, without being excessively graphic, Last Chain on Billie is a good read. Carol Bradley not only tells Billie's story, but gives some background in each chapter on the plight of elephants in captivity, without getting boring or heavy. Very well written, this book shares Billie's life in such a way as to develop empathy not only for Billie, but for all elephants who are forced into this existence. I was deeply saddened to discover the cruelty that captive elephants endure. Long ago, I swore off circuses, and this book only reinforces that decision. Unfortunately, circuses are not the only venue where this abuse is perpetrated. Why do human beings feel it necessary to exhibit such inhumane behaviour? I was ready to stand up and cheer when Billie was finally given her freedom. But why should she have had to endure so much? And why do elephants - and other animals - continue to be abused? This book is an education, but it is also a call to action. We should not rest until laws are in place - and enforced - that will make this kind of abuse a thing of the past.
If you want more information about Billie's new home, visit The Elephant Sanctuary.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

My Martingale Prize

Hey everybody. I entered a couple of quilts in the Bloggers Quilt Festival held by Amy Ellis at Amy's Creative Side. While my quilts didn't win anything, I did win a "door prize," or rather a "comment" prize - anyone who posted a comment was entered to win. And I won a $50 gift certificate from Martingale. That was pretty exciting, especially since they have free shipping in Canada and the US if your order totals $40 or more. 
Wow, it was hard to decide, but here's what I finally chose:
I've been wanting to try Tunisian Crochet for some time, so what better time than when I could get the book free! I've already started on my first project. I also like to try out vintage quilt ideas, so it was a toss up between this 30s one and a Civil War one, and the 30s won out. Finally, I ordered the Ruby Beholder, used to help determine fabric value. Using something transparent red was mentioned in a couple of places I've read recently and I thought I'd give it a try. Especially since I was getting it basically free. I think Martingale has a new customer. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Eat Your Vegetables: Cookbook Review

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic preview edition of this book from Net Galley. I did not receive any compensation for writing this review.
Refer to my page, Cookbook Criteria, for what I look for in a cookbook.
First off, let me say that I don't like reviewing cookbooks on a kindle. I have a basic kindle, so the food photography is in black and white. I can't flip back and forth readily between recipes when I need to find one in another location that I need to use for a recipe in my current location. Ingredients and instructions might be on different pages on the kindle. So, I was hampered in my review by the format.
I was attracted to this cookbook as I live alone and the product description bills it as "A collection of eclectic vegetarian and vegan recipes for singles as well as lone vegetarians in meat-eating households." However this isn't a vegan cookbook. It isn't even a vegetarian cookbook. But what I found really startling is that in all my years of life, I never realized an egg was a vegetable. At least, that seems to be the case in a cookbook called Eat Your Vegetables that employs a liberal use of eggs. There are even instructions for making the perfect poached egg - in the salad section, no less, although it does join tofu in the salad recipe following. Why does one need both egg and tofu in the same recipe?
This cookbook is a little topsy-turvy in that it gives the instructions before it lists the ingredients. I'm not sure if it does that in the paper version, but it just seems rather odd to me. I feel that I need to know what I need first, before I need to know what to do with it. Another quirky thing about this cookbook is that the author insists on starting with raw seeds and nuts and then roasting them. In our busy lives, how many of us have time to roast our own nuts and seeds? I've done it occasionally, but I don't want to have to do it as frequently as this cookbook mandates. He also states that roasted ones get stale faster than raw, something I find hard to believe.
On page 43 is a recipe for Vegan Sloppy Joe, which I planned on using as my trial recipe.  With vegan in the name, this one, at least was guaranteed to not contain eggs or dairy. but what it does contain as the main ingredient is chorizo-spiced seitan or other vegan meat. Big disappointment. No lentils or bulgar or other naturally vegan food, but I've got to run to the city to find chorizo-spiced seitan. How unimaginative! In addition, other hard-to-find ingredients include Peppadews, raw peanuts, brioche, challah, miso, Israeli couscous, and so on. And mushrooms, a plethora of mushrooms.
When I read some of the recipe names, it actually dampened my appetite: Tomato, Beet and Peach Stacks? That doesn't excite me in the slightest. Most of the recipes are for more exotic flavours and combinations, not the typical North American fare. I suppose that's why it has bold recipes in the subtitle. After wading through about half of the exotic flavours, funky combinations, anchovies (is that a new vegetable?) and fungus aplenty, I gave up on trying to find a recipe that I considered worth trying. My enthusiasm was exhausted. While other vegans who don't mind mushrooms and miso will find a few recipes they might like to try, it's just not worth the price of this non-vegan cookbook. For the lacto-ovo vegetarian and the carnivore who enjoy exotic flavours and combinations, this cookbook might be for you. But it definitely isn't for me. If it hadn't mentioned vegan in the product description, I probably would not have requested it.

What I Look for in a Cookbook

I love cookbooks. I always have. And now that most of them have wonderful food photography, they're even more exciting. And I have quite a collection. As a matter of fact, I've come to the conclusion that no one needs to own as many cookbooks as I do. Unless you're running a lending library. So, I've gotten fussier about what cookbooks I want in my library, and drew up this set of guidelines. And when I do a cookbook review, I'll be referring to this list.
Here's what I look for in a cookbook:
1. Plant-based or vegan. While I do have some non-vegan general purpose cookbooks with basic preparation and cooking information, I don't really feel I need any more. I also have some niche cookbooks, like 5-Ingredient Slow Cooker Recipes or 660 Curries, that either have some plant-based recipes that I like or are easily veganizable. But, as a general rule, I don't want any more of these. I really find it gross when a cookbook tells me how to bone a chicken. Eeeewww! Or a picture of something made with shrimp. I could never figure out how anyone can eat something that looks like a grub from the garden. So, basically, I want only vegan cookbooks.
2. Whole foods. I don't mind the occasional bit of white flour or maybe even a small amount of refined sugar (I use organic). But I'm really disappointed when a plant-based cookbook uses mostly refined products. Remember The China Study? It's a whole foods, plant-based diet that's healthiest for us. It's all well and good to go vegan, especially for the animals' sake, but I think some meat eaters might be healthier because they eat less refined foods. Remember: potato chips and soda pop are generally vegan, but definitely not healthy. 
3. Limited use of meat analogues. Meat analogues, that's what we used to call those pretend meats. And there are pretend cheeses, too. And there are more and more available. And that's great, because it does help make the transition to a plant-based diet easier. And they are nice upon occasion. I love some good veggie bacon. But most of these products fall under category #2 above. They are highly refined foods. They also tend to be much more expensive than less refined products, like whole grains and legumes. And when you live in a small town in red-neck cattle country, like I do, there is limited availability as well. I'm not happy when I want to prepare a recipe, only to find out that it requires vegan sour cream or some other product that would require a trip to the city - about 90 minutes drive away - to purchase. And if I'm trying to turn people on to the plant-based lifestyle, I don't want them to give up because it's too expensive or inconvenient.
4. Limited use of obscure, exotic and specialty ingredients. My local health food store carries nutritional yeast, Bragg's Liquid Aminos (or whatever they're calling it now) and quite a number of other useful products. But still I sometimes open cookbooks and end up having to google some of the ingredients. See above under #3. Being a vegan should not be expensive or inconvenient. If I'm making a special meal, like a curry, for instance, I don't mind going out of my way occasionally to find unique ingredients, but I don't intend to do that on a regular basis. I don't live in Los Angeles, or wherever it is people find those things.
5. Easy to follow instructions, simplicity of preparation. Yes, I will occasionally make a recipe that requires a lot of preparation, like Vegan Trifle or Frozen Peanut Butter Ice Cream Cake. These are worth the effort, but I don't make them on a regular basis. I work full-time. I also have outside interests besides cooking, so I don't want to spend most of my free time preparing food. Oh, and it's frustrating when one recipe calls for you to cook several other recipes first, though, on the other hand, if a recipe calls for vegan sour cream and it gives me a recipe option for it, that's a bonus. Even better if it gives me the page number to find it.
The above are the most important points in this list. The following are more about personal preference. 
6. Limited use of ingredients I don't like. Cilantro makes me gag. Ditto for seaweed. I find mushrooms quite unappetizing as well. Trust me, you can be a vegan without ever having to eat fungus. So, why is it in so many recipes? I can tolerate mushrooms raw, if I have to, but cooked - they make me shudder. So, when I heard that there is a naturally occurring carcinogen in mushrooms, I found that a good enough reason to dispense with them altogether. Beets and parsnips I tolerate, but I don't want to eat too many of them. I'm not at all fond of black licorice, so anything with a flavour reminiscent of licorice (anise, fennel, tarragon) is also out. In addition, as an abstainer, I will not use any alcoholic beverages in my cooking. And when I found out where Tempeh comes from - moldy beans - I haven\t eaten tempeh since. And Tempeh also falls under the meat analogue/exotic ingredients category. I certainly can't find it in my town. 
7. Awesome food photography. I am a food photography junkie. Let's face it: some well-done pictures can really make your mouth water and long to try that recipe. I have some older, pocket novel sized cookbooks that have no pictures. Are they ever boring! I don't even use them most of the time, unless I know there's a favourite recipe in there.
8. A glossary of unique ingredients and cooking techniques. Always great for the novice. And not everyone knows how to google.
I think that sums it up.