The first cuckoo

Yesterday I heard the first cuckoo of the year. Spring has well and truly arrived.

A piece of classical music by Delius: ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’.

I will be back with more posts soon. Look out for #7 of my blog challenge recipes!

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Book review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles front cover — no copyright infringement intended. All rights remain with their respective owners

Image source: The Age of Miracles at Amazon.com

I was lucky to get an advanced review copy of The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker and I just finished reading it. It is a striking, original début novel and it is definitely one to watch out for when it arrives in book stores next month on June 26.

I’ll give you a brief summary of the plot before I share my thoughts on this novel. The Age of Miracles is set in California….wonderful, sunny Southern California, in a quiet everyday neighborhood. But then the Slowing begins. The earth begins slowing down, meaning that the days and nights grow longer and longer until our human concept of 24 hours in a day no longer has any relevance. Julia, the protagonist, is eleven years old when this takes place but the story is narrated by Julia when she is older and looking back on the events of “the slowing”. The author, Karen Thompson Walker, thoughtfully describes the changes which take place when “the slowing” happens: changes in gravity and Circadian rhythms, the death of birds and crops. Catastrophes are woven with the story of a young girl beginning adolescence, creating a multilayered story of people going about their daily lives in a setting which feels very unreal.

This is a novel which is all about time and its power over us. Even though the government attempts to enforce the 24 hour clock, nature is ever-powerful. As this article from the website of the British newspaper, The Guardian points out, The Age of Miracles is “eerily prescient” because something like this could actually happen. When the massive earthquake struck Japan last year, it moved our planet on its axis, causing our day to shorten “by a fraction of a second”. The Age of Miracles has a quietly apocalyptic feel to it: there are no dramatic explosions, no zombies parading the streets, no extraterrestrial beings conquering the Earth. And it is this fact that makes it so believable; it’s not your typical sci-fi novel.

However, although the novel is well-written and the concept is engaging, I am disappointed by what I think is a weak ending. The book leads the reader on to wonder what will happen but then, all of a sudden, you arrive at an anti-climactic and forgettable ending. The ending is my main issue with the novel. I tend to avoid giving stars or points in my reviews but if I had to rate this on a scale of 1 – 10 I would probably give it a 5 or a 6: I enjoyed reading it and it gripped me but the ending was unsatisfying. Don’t let that dissuade you from reading it though; despite the fact that my enjoyment was somewhat negated by the ending, The Age of Miracles is a thought-provoking read and Karen Thompson Walker is a talent to watch out for. For more info and to read an extract from the book, visit the website at theageofmiraclesbook.com.

Blog challenge recipe #6: India

If you are a new visitor to my blog, you can read about my blog challenge here in my post ‘I’m setting myself a challenge’.

For the sixth recipe in my blog challenge, I decided to head to India (not literally!) and cook a delicious curry. So far the title, ‘challenge’, has been slightly misleading because none of the recipes I’ve cooked are especially challenging. But sometimes simple is best! I hope to work some challenges into my cooking during the next few weeks and since I have had blog visitors from nearly forty countries, I have plenty of opportunities to cook unusual dishes and investigate different world cuisines.

Spices


Public domain image: Spices by Jiří Dokoupil

When you think of Indian food, you probably think of curry. It is a staple dish in many Asian countries, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and there are thousands of different types of curry. In India alone, curries vary according to tradition and region, for instance, in Kerala (a state in south-west India) curries are often vegetarian and are made with creamy coconut along with spices such as coriander and turmeric.

Coconut palm tree

Public domain image: Coconut 1 by Greg Getten

The recipe which follows is one which I created using basic ingredients from the store cupboard. Simple, nutritious and very, very tasty! It took me approx. 15 minutes to prepare and about 30 mins to cook. I made this for dinner last night and didn’t bother measuring out ingredients so the quantities listed here are very approximate and you will have to adjust according to the amount of servings you need — recipe below serves 2 with generous portions. Feel free to alter, change or add anything (it might be nice with a few crushed garlic cloves) and as always, let me know if you enjoyed it and share your thoughts in the comments section.

Potato and cabbage curry

Ingredients:
10 baby potatoes, chopped into chunks
½ green cabbage, chopped into shreds
1 onion, finely chopped
Cream of coconut – a block of compressed coconut, not coconut milk. I used approx. ½ cup of this.
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp coriander
Black pepper to taste
A 2 cm chuck of fresh ginger, finely chopped
5 tablespoons olive oil
Boiled water

Method:

1. Finely chop the onion and gently saute in the olive oil. While the onion is cooking, prepare the curry paste mix. Add the creamed coconut, chopped ginger and spices to a blender with approx. ½ cup of boiled water and blend until the coconut is dissolved and no lumps remain.
2. Wash the potatoes and chop them into approx. 3 cm chunks. Add them to the onion along with the coconut mix. Cook on a moderate heat, stirring frequently.
3. When the potatoes are nearly tender, add the chopped cabbage. Add just enough water to almost cover the vegetables and cook for a further 10 – 15 minutes, until the cabbage is cooked but not overdone (overcooked cabbage = eww!) and the potatoes are soft. I served it with steamed carrot sticks and brown basmati rice.

The Hunger Games movie review

At long last here is my Hunger Games movie review! And I would like to prefix it with the following Spoiler Warning: this review contains spoilers from The Hunger Games book and film, including the ending, so if you don’t want to know what happens I suggest you avert your eyes. You have been warned!

Where to begin? With the main character would be a logical starting point, I suppose.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen is superb. I had my doubts initially but after seeing the film, I agree with the praise of the critics. Her performance is so nuanced and faithful to the book character that I found lines from the book running through my head at times during the movie. When she rode in the chariot with Peeta and caught sight of herself on the screen, her surprise at her appearance showed on-screen: ‘I am not pretty. I am not beautiful. I am as radiant as the sun’ (quote copyright Suzanne Collins, 2008, The Hunger Games). You can tell how many times I’ve read the book, being able to quote lines ad lib!

Lawrence outshines the other actors in the movie and Liam Hemsworth (Gale) in particular does not have any real long-lasting presence in my opinion. It is a shame that Gale’s character in the movie is nothing more than the hunky best friend. In the books he is a leader of the rebellion, a strong character who takes a stand against the Capitol. I hope that he will become less a part of the background scenery in the movie adaptation of Catching Fire and that his character will be better-developed and more involved. But admittedly, the first book focuses mainly on Katniss so I can forgive this, although more back story on Gale’s character wouldn’t have been a bad thing.

I think Josh Hutcherson is good as Peeta but the movie makers cut far too many of his lines, resulting in a more wooden character on-screen than the one in the book. But there is plenty of room for character development in the next film and if I seem a little harsh here, I do actually like Hutcherson’s portrayal of Peeta very much. Regarding the other actors, Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) are perfect on-screen representations of how I imagined them in the book. Overall, I have no particular criticisms with the performances of the rest of the cast.

Effie and Katniss: the juxtaposition of obscene wealth and hopeless poverty
Photo by Murray Close – © 2011 Lions Gate Films Inc.
No copyright infringement intended

The photo above shows what The Hunger Games is really all about: wealth and poverty and the ability of dictators to manipulate whole countries into submission. In a world where people buy $20,000 couture while children are starving, some points that The Hunger Games makes are not very unrealistic at all. The Hunger Games is a pop culture phenomenon which comments, in part, on pop culture phenomenons (reality TV etc) and I think the film makers succeeded in balancing the political messages of the book without letting them override everything else in the movie.

The cinematography of the movie is very well done. A lot of people have commented and criticized the shaky hand-held camera during action scenes but I didn’t have a problem with the shaky camera work in the violent parts of the movie. It wasn’t distracting at all, in my opinion, and it allowed the film makers to achieve a fine balance between emphasizing the chaotic free-for-all at the Cornucopia during the fight scenes and avoiding too much violence.

Regarding the music, James Newton Howard’s score is beautiful but is under used in the film. There is remarkably little music in the movie but this is a good thing, in a way, because it avoids manipulating the audience’s emotions and instead means that more emphasis is placed on the abilities of the actors. The agonizing silence in the reaping scene after Prim’s name is picked is especially effective.

My main criticisms are as follows:

1. I would have liked to see how Katniss and Gale first met, with an emphasis on the fact that Gale is Katniss’s hunting partner and friend, because I think that viewers who haven’t read the book probably jump to the incorrect assumption that Katniss is in love with Gale. Nothing especially crucial to the plot was lost but I preferred the added details in the book.

2. Rue and Katniss’s relationship was not sufficiently developed. The main problem I have with the movie is the lack of development, e.g. as mentioned above in terms of Gale. Some scenes were simply too short but I appreciate the difficulty of condensing a whole novel down into movie length. Nevertheless, Rue’s death scene is as heartbreaking and tragic on-screen as it is in the book.

3. The cave scene with Katniss and Peeta was cut far too short. They missed out Katniss telling the story about how she got Prim’s goat and a lot of other lines from the book, especially Peeta’s lines, were cut. It made a difference to me because, having read the book a few times, I know exactly how I wanted it to be and it didn’t match my expectations.

4. President Snow. I just don’t think that President Snow (in the movie) is evil enough. When reading the book, I imagine him to be completely different from his on-screen appearance; a snake-like man with small features which is how the book describes him. Donald Sutherland doesn’t resemble book Snow. But then again, Donald Sutherland also played Mr Bennet in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film so I kept half expecting him to declare that ‘Mr Darcy has arrived, Elizabeth’ and make a few witty jokes. The on-screen President Snow doesn’t display enough menace and isn’t cold enough to realistically make the audience believe that here is a man who is happy to command the bombing and torture of innocent civilians, not to mention overseeing the barbaric Hunger Games.

5. The scene on the train when Katniss tells Peeta that she was just acting and that she wasn’t really in love with him didn’t have enough impact. In the book the atmosphere feels a lot more strained and tense at the end, especially with the fact that Katniss has defied the rules of the Capitol.

All in all, I wanted more detail, especially in the areas I mentioned above. I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on the fact that Katniss has laid the foundations for a rebellion against the totalitarian regime of the Capitol and I think the ending is also too rushed. It should be more menacing and sinister. But then again, it was never going to match up to the depth of the book. On the whole it is a faithful adaptation and is better than most book-to-movie adaptations. I am eagerly anticipating Catching Fire!

What do you think of the movie?

Blog challenge #5: nettle soup

Nettles

Public domain image: Nettle Flower by Максим Кукушкин

Recipe number 5 of my blog challenge comes from Panem….no, not really. Just kidding! Please ignore my current Hunger Games obsession. But it does sound like something they would eat in District 12 because it’s inexpensive, simple and nutritious. No one knows the exact origin for nettle soup but it’s a traditional recipe in Northern and Eastern Europe, in countries like France, Sweden, Poland and Ukraine. Since I have had blog visitors from all of those countries, this is the perfect recipe for my fifth challenge.

I followed Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s nettle soup recipe (link) and it is really delicious. Because you’ll need to sort through the nettles when you’ve picked them to avoid bits of grass and stalks, the method I used is to blanch them in boiling water for five minutes, making sure all the nettles are covered by the water. After that, I carefully drain them and rinse them in cold water. The boiling water gets rid of the stings so they are fine to handle and chop if necessary.

I hope you enjoy the recipe! Don’t be deterred by the unusual sound of it. You will probably be pleasantly surprised by the taste.

Blog challenge recipe #4: Greek koulourakia

Greek flag

For my fourth blog challenge recipe, I chose to make something with an Easter theme. And I found the perfect recipe for delicious Greek koulourakia at Brownie Bites. Although you can buy koulourakia all year round from bakers in Greece they are a traditional Easter specialty too.

The only things I changed in the recipe:
1. I added more orange juice (about half a cup) than the recipe states but then I had to add more flour as the dough was too sticky.
2. I used brown sugar instead of white because I prefer baking with brown sugar and that was the only sugar in the store cupboard anyway!
3. I added approx. 1 tbsp of finely grated orange zest to the mixture.

Happy Easter!

Blog challenge recipe #3: Honduran cuisine

WordPress has recently added country stats to the regular stats page and I have had blog visitors from a few countries which my little flag counter widget didn’t identify. So now I have even more recipes to prepare! One of those countries is Honduras so, without further ado, here is a post on Honduran cuisine.

I already knew that the typical dishes served in Honduras were based on beans and rice. The food varies depending on the area, for example, the food of coastal regions of Honduras is focused on seafood and fish as you might expect. Ceviche, a dish prepared with fish marinated in lime juice, is very popular and I would love to make it sometime as I have never eaten it. The following recipe is very simple and is inspired by traditional rural Honduran cuisine. Pimenton (hot smoked paprika from Spain) is not commonly used in Honduran food – cumin is a staple spice there – but I decided to use a little anyway as it is so delicious with nearly every savory dish!

Blog challenge recipe 3

Honduran pinto bean recipe – serves 4

Ingredients

½ cup pinto beans (per person)
Onion, finely chopped (2 medium)
Garlic, crushed (3 cloves)
Carrots, diced (4 medium)
1 can of chopped tomatoes
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ tsp pimenton (or cumin, if you want it to be more authentic)

1. Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Then rinse them and boil until soft (approx. 1 hour). Rinse in cold water again.
2. Saute the onion and garlic together until soft and golden. Add the diced carrots and cook gently until the carrots are tender (about 20 minutes). Add your chosen spice – pimenton or cumin – along with the pinto beans and canned tomatoes. Cook until piping hot and serve with rice. Cheese is a common ingredient but I made this recipe for vegan family members so it’s entirely dairy-free. If you choose, mix some crumbled quesillo cheese or regular cheese into the dish just before serving. ¡Buen Provecho!

Nominated for the Sunshine Blog Award!

Thank you to Lisa at fLVE for nominating me for the Sunshine Blog Award! Lisa’s blog is a wonderful blog about food, cooking and dining. Check it out!

In order to accept the Sunshine Blog Award, there are a few steps to complete:

1. Thank the person who gave you the award.
2. Write a post about it.
3. Answer the questions that come with it.
4. Pass it along to 10 people and let them know they have received it.
5. Answer the following questions . . .

Favorite Color: I love blue: the color of the sea. But I enjoy wearing red and pink, although not at the same time!

Favorite Number: 9

Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink: I can’t go without green tea in the morning!

Facebook or Twitter: Facebook.

My Passion: Culture and traveling

Getting or Giving Presents: Both! It’s equally nice to give and receive gifts, in my opinion. 😀

Favorite Pattern: I love the patterns on Mediterranean tiles

Favorite Day of the Week: Saturday.

Favorite Flower: Roses – they are beautiful

Finally, I am nominating the following 10 blogs to receive this award:

Back Road Journal – I found this blog when I was searching for blogs about New England, specifically Maine. It’s one of my favorite blogs.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch… – I love this blog because of Jessie Veeder’s beautiful writing and North Dakota photography. It makes me want to go live on a ranch and ride horses everyday!

Cartoons & Creative Writing – I found this blog when it was on the Freshly Pressed page and I really enjoy the posts. Lots of amusing cartoons!

101 Books – a blog written by a man who is undergoing the challenge of reading each one of Time Magazine’s 100 greatest novels, plus Ulysses. I like books and I also like blogs about books. If you’re the same, check out the link!

Seen Along the Trail – this is a photo blog by a woman named Carolyn (aka Skip) who lives in Ohio. Her blog charts her daily walks via the medium of photography. Lots of beautiful, peaceful photos of nature.

Mama’s Gotta Bake – I love cookery blogs with photos of things that look unbelievably mouth-wateringly good. This blog indulges my sweet tooth!

Frugal Feeding – another cookery blog. This one is fairly self-explanatory: delicious recipes which are low-cost to prepare.

The Maine Road – another lovely photo blog with gorgeous images of Maine throughout the year.

Canadian Cinephile – a well-written blog with lots of great movie reviews.

And last but not least, Oh Shine On – a cookery blog with delicious recipes!

Blog challenge recipe #2: hummus

No-one really knows exactly where hummus originated from but it is a staple dish in many countries in the Middle East, including Israel. So far, I have had exactly one blog visitor from Israel so this is my blog challenge recipe #2! It is a really easy recipe and didn’t take me long to make. This is my own recipe and so I have included quite a lot of garlic because I love garlicky hummus. But if you would prefer not to have garlic breath for the next 24 hours after you have eaten a serving of the following, you can cut down the amount of garlic to 3 or 4 cloves! The smoked hot paprika is optional, although it adds a wonderful smoky, spiced flavor.

Hummus recipe

Ingredients

¾ cup/170 grams chickpeas (dried weight)
Juice of ½ lemon
1 tbsp tahini
6 cloves garlic – crushed
A pinch of hot smoked paprika
Approx. 1 cup water (boiled, then cooled)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Soak the dried chickpeas overnight in cold water. The following day, drain and rinse them. Put them in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and then cook on a moderate heat for approx. 60 minutes or until they are soft.
2. When the chickpeas are cooked, drain them and rinse with cold water.
3. Mix all ingredients together and then blend until this mixture is thoroughly pureed: you don’t want lumpy, chewy hummus!
4. Sprinkle a little paprika on top and decorate with fresh herbs. Serve and enjoy!

Blog challenge recipe #1: Irish soda bread

If you read the post below this one you will know that I am working on a blog challenge: to cook or bake a recipe from each one of the countries which my blog visitors come from. Here is uimhir a haon (‘number one’ in Irish Gaelic) of my challenge recipes.

 

Soda bread

 

I used this recipe from http://www.food.com as a rough guide but I made some changes which I have given after the recipe (see below)

Irish rye soda bread (recipe below is reproduced from this source and no copyright infringement is intended)

  • 4 cups rye flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 2 cups milk

Directions:

  1. First, pre-heat the oven to gas mark 5 (180C).
  2. Now, mix the first three ingredients, the dry stuff.
  3. Then, mix the next two ingredients into the flour mix, and stir quickly with a wooden spoon. Try not to over work the mixture – just combine it. Add more milk if it’s not working.
  4. Pop this into a lined 2lb loaf tin. Then, just before putting into the oven, throw some ice-cubes onto the bottom shelf of the oven to create a little steam. This helps make the loaf rise before the crust sets.
  5. Bake in the centre of the oven for around 45 – 50 minutes. The loaf should sound hollow when it’s tapped underneath. Cool in the tin for 10 mins, then finish cooling on a rack.
My alterations:
1. Instead of using baking powder, I used cream of tartar which is one of the traditional raising agents for soda bread, along with baking soda (bicarbonate of soda). And instead of using 4 tsps of baking soda, which is too much in my opinion, I cut the measure by half, so I used 2 tsps of baking soda and 2 tsps of cream of tartar.
2. I used 6 cups of flour because I wanted to make two small loaves. If you only use 4 cups of flour as the recipe states, I would recommend you to cut the quantity of milk because even when using 6 cups of flour and 2 cups of milk, I had to add some more flour as my mixture was too gloopy.
3. I rubbed a small amount of butter (approx. 50 grams) into the flour after step 2 of the recipe.
4. I glazed the top of each loaf by brushing it with a little milk before baking but this is optional.
5. Finally, my last alteration. Instead of using a loaf tin, I divided the mixture into two pieces and baked it on a baking tray after I shaped it into round loaves. I cut a cross into the top of each loaf. According to tradition, this is to let the devil out! According to food science, it allows the bread to better expand and rise in the oven. Whether you believe the former or the latter, I think it’s always best to cross the soda bread before baking.
If you wish, you can swap the rye flour for whole-wheat flour or for white flour (or a mixture of both). That would result in a lighter bread since the rye loaf turned out fairly dense and substantial. It’s your choice!