Love your Library

I’ve blogged in the past about how much I appreciate libraries, but it bears repeating. I can’t deny I prefer writing in my lovely office, but modern libraries are beautifully set up for those who need to work away from the office, with power points, standing desks, and quiet spaces. I’ve spent the past two days in the public library. My word count is down, compared to working at home, but I’ve enjoyed the people watching.

One of my key observations from the past two days is how the library is a safe space in the middle of the city. A fellow at the table next to me spent an hour working on a jigsaw puzzle while his computer and phone sat unattended and unobserved on the other side of the room. Parents of toddlers calmly browse the shelves while their little ones scamper around happily out of sight. Those same toddlers swagger through the library to visit their favourite books, posters, and egg chairs as though they’re in their own living room. When their parents eventually look up and find their children gone, they don’t panic, but casually stroll after them, stopping now and again to check out an interesting book on the way. After three o’clock, kids of all ages descend upon the library to read, hang out, and play games until their parents are able to pick them up. The implicit assumption is that everyone in the library is kind, helpful, and honest. I’m sure that’s not entirely true, but the expectation is so high, I think anyone who tried to behave in a socially unacceptable way would be instantly frog-marched out of the library by all the other visitors.

It’s good to have these spaces. It’s a reminder that we can create safe spaces, where strangers from all walks of life can mix and mingle over a shared love of books.

Neenish Tarts

Neenish Tarts

The Darfield Bakery is a mandatory stop for us whenever we pass through Darfield.

Our most frequent purchase is neenish tarts—little lemon tarts with chocolate drizzled on top. I’ve had neenish tarts from other bakeries and none stacks up to Darfield’s.

Not all neenish tarts are lemon—my understanding is that the ‘traditional’ neenish tart (they originated across the ditch in Australia) has a gelatine-thickened cream filling and is topped with two colours of frosting. I’m not particularly fond of this overly-sweet, bland tart. Lemon neenish tart filling is made with lemon juice, icing (powdered) sugar, and sweetened condensed milk.

My neenish tarts probably shouldn’t even be called neenish tarts, because they bear no resemblance to the ‘original’ ones, and veer off course even from the Darfield Bakery’s tarts. Still, they’re inspired by neenish tarts, and are just as delicious as the ones at the Darfield Bakery.

Make your favourite pie pastry (enough for a one-crust pie). Roll out thinly (roll more thinly for little tarts than for pie, or you end up with a tart that’s all crust), and cut into 10 cm (4-in) rounds. Line the wells of a cupcake pan with the rounds. Bake the shells empty for about 15 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF), until the edges are nicely browned. Turn out of the pan and cool on a wire rack.

While the pastry shells are cooling, make lemon curd. Combine in a saucepan:

3 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
60 g (4 Tbs) butter
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup lemon juice

Heat over medium heat, whisking constantly, until thick. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 tsp vanilla.

Spoon warm lemon curd into each shell and allow to cool.

Melt about 50 g (2 oz) dark chocolate and drizzle over the tarts. Allow lemon curd and chocolate to cool completely before serving.

In Praise of Parsnip

The rangy rosette of a parsnip plant.

A bit like carrots, but sweeter and starchier, parsnips are wonderful winter vegetables.

I’m not certain when I first ate parsnip, but I know I’ve eaten a lot of it. When I was breastfeeding my son, nearly everything I ate gave him colic (It took eight weeks of 24-hour-a-day screaming for me to work this out … longest eight weeks of my life). Parsnips were one of the few safe vegetables, so I ate parsnips. Lots and lots of parsnips. But I never got sick of them. Their comforting, earthy flavour only grew on me the more I ate.

I try to grow parsnips every year, but I’m not always successful. Parsnip seed has a short shelf-life, and germination can be poor, even with seed that isn’t officially past it’s ‘plant by’ date. I buy a new packet of seed every year, whether I’ve used all of the old seeds or not. Even so, I don’t always have luck germinating it, because parsnip doesn’t like to be transplanted, and needs to be seeded directly into the garden beds. In my garden, that means the seeds tend to dry out, in spite of my best efforts. It also leaves tender seedlings at the mercy of birds and slugs, which seem to enjoy parsnip as much as I do.

But this past summer the parsnips did well, like many other crops that appreciated the unusually warm, wet weather. The parsnip I picked for dinner yesterday was 15 cm in diameter at the crown, but still tender and delicious. And there are plenty more out there to harvest.

Parsnips are sweeter after the first frost, so they’re a great autumn and winter food. They store well in the ground, so there’s no need to fill your fridge with them at harvest time. When we lived in Minnesota, I used to use a pickaxe to chip them out of the frozen ground through the winter.

Parsnips make wonderful additions to stews and casseroles. Their flavours meld well with potato, carrot, and celeriac. They compliment beans and pulses. They’re great vehicles for butter and cheese. Back when I was subsisting on little beyond parsnips, we used to mash them (like mashed potatoes), braise them, and roast them, in addition to using them in stew and soup.

It’s no wonder these versatile vegetables have been cultivated since long before Roman times. They’re a great winter staple—a vegetable you can eat again and again and still enjoy.

Billy Stoneface

“Quit making faces or your face will get stuck that way!”

Billy laughed at his mum when she said that. He kept on pulling faces.

***

“Mum, look at that funny rock. It looks just like a face.” Kaleb scrunched his own face up, imitating the stone.

“Careful. Your face will get stuck that way.”

Useful Crafts?

I do a fair bit of crafting—I weave, sew, knit, embroider, etc.—but almost all of what I create is useful. Clothing, rugs, bags, household furnishings … if I need something, I make it.

It’s unusual for me to create something with no utility at all.

Maybe that’s why I had so much fun making this fabric collage wall hanging. There is no purpose for this piece of whimsy, beyond fitting the ocean theme my husband declared for the new family ‘art installation’ in the living room.

I didn’t have to worry about whether the metallic threads would hold up to use, or whether the long embroidery stitches would snag on anything. I didn’t have to finish all the edges of every piece of fabric. It didn’t have to be machine washable, warm, comfortable, or something I’d want to be seen wearing in public. It didn’t have to be biologically accurate or to even make sense in any way. I could make it as silly as I liked. I could do whatever I wanted and call it finished when I got sick of it.

What started as a project I felt obligated to do (because everyone else in the family was contributing to the art installation) turned out to be a joy. I spent twice as long on it as I originally intended and, though I’m not sure it particularly counts as Art with a capital A, it makes me smile when I see it on the wall.

Maybe it was useful after all.

Gluten Culture

“I’m allergic to gluten-free.”

That’s my son’s line when people ask.

In part, it’s true; he’s allergic to buckwheat, which is often used in gluten-free products. But what he’s really saying is that gluten-containing foods are a staple at our house. Our diet and our family culture would break down without gluten.

It’s been a while since I blogged about a bread day, but they still happen. Every two or three weeks my husband fires up the bread oven and bakes two dozen loaves of bread. I follow with a couple of cakes, cookies, or whatever sweets I feel like baking. On the tail-end heat, my husband might throw in some bac-un or seitan—gluten-based meat substitutes.

Between the bi-weekly gluten fests, we make pastries, muffins, scones, crackers, and all manner of other gluten-containing food.

If we took gluten out of our diet, we’d lose a protein source and a suite of family activities.

And, yes, you can bake gluten-free bread, cakes and cookies.

But they’re not the same.

There is something fundamental, something visceral about the feel of gluten—under your hands as you knead bread, in your mouth as you chew it—something that is integral to my family’s enjoyment of food.

Yes, I think we’re all allergic to gluten-free.

Conversation Overheard in the Park

Every time I see these trees, I think they look like old men sitting around talking.

“Remember,
When we were just saplings?
How we thought the wind was so strong?
Thought it was going to blow us right over.”

“Well, it almost did, didn’t it?
Joe was nearly bent in two
In the cyclone in ’17.”

“Aw, he was a youngster.
He came right.”

“Ah, but ‘17 wasn’t half as bad
As that big blow in ’44,
When Carol and I lost nearly half our limbs.
I thought the rot might get us after that, you know?”

“I heard a pair of poplars the other day,
Young things,
Hardly able to grow lichens yet,
Complaining about the wind.
Ha!
What do they know about wind, I thought.”

“They don’t make wind like they used to.”

“Or snow.
I remember snow so heavy it took off branches.”

“Yes, but don’t you think the sun was brighter back then?
When the sun was up it was up,
And you knew it.
Not like this weak sun nowadays,
Hiding behind clouds,
Hardly enough to photosynthesise with.”

“Absolutely. Water tasted better, too.
When we were young.
Cleaner.
Modern water just isn’t the same.”

“Do you remember those kids?
The ones who used to climb right to the top of my branches?”

“Then there was that one,
The boy with red hair,
Who fell.”

“Broke his arm, didn’t he?”

“Do you think that’s why they did it?
Why they cut us down?”

“Don’t be stupid.
That was years ago.
Humans have short memories.”