Home Cooked [A Review]

Cooking good food is one of those things we just do not seem to have time for these days. Most folks subsist on a combination of microwaved dinners, takeout, or dine-in. When we do cook, it’s usually a matter of popping open boxes from the pantry or pouring a frozen bag into a pan and coating it with a tear-open packet of sauce. After all, when creating a relatively decent hot meal is this easy, is it really justifiable to pour extra time into a meal just to make it from scratch?

home-cookedIn her new Home Cooked: Essential Recipes For a New Way to Cook (10 Speed Press, April 2016), Anya Fernald offers a middle ground between slow-cooked, high quality foods and fast but flavorless cooking. Her suggestion is simple, yet genius: put in time creating quality base ingredients and preserve them, and then when time is short on a weeknight you’ve got flavor-packed ingredients that are ready for use immediately.

Take, for instance, her sofritto: there’s nothing to it but olive oil, onions, carrots, and celery, and I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve made this to start a soup. I usually rush it, cooking it hot just to get it done, and the flavor is never as good as it could be. Her innovation is to cook it ahead of time and freeze it in ice cube trays for ready-to-go flavor later on.

The first portion of the book is devoted to such recipes for base ingredients, and then the rest of the book is divided up into appetizers/cocktails, meals, and desserts that utilize these base ingredients. Interspersed throughout are her various thoughts on cooking as well as stunning photography.

If there’s anything that turned me off about the book, it was the many recipes that I personally found rather unappealing (fried chicken hearts? raw beef?). I imagine it’s mostly because I’m vegetarian, but my omnivorous wife had much the same reaction as me.

That being said, there are plenty of other interesting recipes in the book that are appealing. I normally link to both the physical copy and a digital copy of the book, but in this case just do yourself a favor and pick up a hardback copy of the book from Amazon for $17.50. Not only is the Kindle Edition actually more expensive, but the hardback is worth it. It’s well-bound and sturdy, and quite aesthetically pleasing.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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The Water-Saving Garden [A Review]

When my wife and I got married, we thought we’d try our hand at gardening—the fruits of our labor that summer were pitiful, but the joy of growing our own food carried us on. It’s a wonderful feeling to grow so much food for free, but the thing is that when you sit down and do the math, it’s not that free anymore. After the cost of seeds, good soil, fertilizer, and most importantly, water, it can end up being fairly expensive. If you don’t get a good yield from your plants, it can actually be more expensive than just buying groceries from the store.

61bu6y4v2yl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Because of these concerns, I was intrigued to pick up a copy of The Water-Saving Garden by Pam Penick. If I could learn ways to make a gallon of water go further in my garden, I would love to. While Penick offers plenty of advice on how to be more thrifty in terms of water usage, unfortunately most of her advice wasn’t very applicable to those who are trying to simply grow a small sustenance garden. I’ll offer a fuller critique in a moment, but first, what I appreciated about the book.

The Water-Saving Garden is divided up into 5 parts: motivation and inspiration for a water-saving garden, practical strategies and habits to use less water in the first place, how to landscape and pick more drought-resistant plants, how to evoke the illusion of water abundance, and a list of specific water-saving plants to consider.

Parts two and three were probably the most helpful bits; she gets very practical about how to collect and use (free) rainwater as well as the importance of permeable paving that lets rainwater soak into the ground, as well as mulching that slows the evaporation of that same water. Further, she also helps the reader understand that lawns gently sloping away from the house are good for the house’s foundation, but bad for water utilization because so much of what you sprinkle runs directly into the street. To that end, she gives practical ideas about how to replace lawns (which need tons of water in the first place) and re-landscape with native plants that are less thirsty and can trap water from running into the gutter.

Rainwater collection is a legitimately good idea that would help with my vegetable garden, except for the fact that I live in Colorado where it is very illegal to do so. I am very interested in trying some of her ideas with my front lawn, however, which is currently the epitome of water wastefulness. That’s a lot of money that I don’t need to be sending down the street! It was also valuable for me to think through the role of mulch in trapping water from evaporating, but I wish she would’ve spoken explicitly about vegetables (especially root vegetables) where you have to disturb the soil more frequently.

I hate to say it, but in general the book struck me as having a fairly pretentious tone. The introduction is mostly a guilt trip about using so much water in our country, and names sustainable living and climate change as the primary reasons anyone would want to save water. The pictures of gardens she presents in part one are these grand, sweeping vistas of beautiful shrubbery and carefully landscaped paths. I think gardens are beautiful as much as the next person, but it just seems like she’s writing exclusively to upper class middle-aged Americans who garden because they can and because they don’t have much else to do. Saving water, for this demographic, is mainly a moral concern rather than a financial one. I’m not in any way saying that these people shouldn’t save water, but only that it comes across as very pretentious to those who need to save water in order to make gardening a feasible endeavor.

For what it is, the book is a good one, which is to say that it accomplishes what it intends. That being said, it wasn’t the book I was hoping for. If you tend a largely non-edible garden, this will probably be a great read for you. You can pick up a paper copy of the book from Amazon for $13.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The River Cottage Booze Handbook [a review]

From rose hip vodka to green walnut grappa, from elder flower and gooseberry wine to blackberry cider, from puffed wheat beer to dandelion and burdock beer, it is clear that alcohol is really something of an art form for Wright. These brews are intended to stand out from the crowded shelf of normalcy.

Just about anything in this world can be transformed into a delicious alcoholic beverage, if you know what you’re doing. That is precisely the message of John Wright’s new River Cottage Booze Handbook. As the title perhaps implies, the booze culture of Wright’s world is more akin to Hobbits in hobbit-holes or Redwallian friar mice in forest abbeys. His passion is for the forageable fruits, nuts, berries, leaves, and roots you can pick for yourself in the wild, and the delightful concoctions you can then make from them for next to nothing.

The book is a series of recipes for the most unusual and delightful drinks, divided up into four categories: infusions, wine, cider, and beer. From rose hip vodka to green walnut grappa, from elder flower and gooseberry wine to blackberry cider, from puffed wheat beer to dandelion and burdock beer, it is clear that alcohol is really something of an art form for Wright. These brews are intended to stand out from the crowded shelf of normalcy.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and the true test here is whether these recipes are truly drinkable. Since the mint patch in my backyard is in season right now, I decided to follow Wright’s recipe for Watermint Vodka (67). My variety is actually chocolate mint, but the infusion was simple to make and turned out quite well within just a couple hours. (I decided to get a little crazy, however, and add some lemon thyme leaves after a few hours. I wouldn’t recommend it–the resulting flavor was close to cough syrup.)

One of my favorite parts of the book is Wright’s discussion on each recipe. Sometimes he offers tips on where to find various ingredients and how to identify them in the wild, or what sort of cocktails you might make, or how to maintain the correct specific gravity when adding high water content ingredients. All the while he maintains a wonderfully dry sense of humor.

The one downside to the Booze Handbook is that Wright is English, and the book is really aimed at the UK. Though the edition I am reviewing here is the US edition, there are plenty of terms that Wright uses that are unfamiliar to me as an American reader. This gets most problematic when certain ingredients don’t even grow (natively) in the US, such as Alexanders. One might expect that in a US edition of a book like this, substitutions would have been made.

Notwithstanding, this book is a pleasing collection of recipes, many of which I intend to try soon. The hardcover edition is gorgeous, with innumerable high quality photographs, thick paper, and a rugged binding. I would recommend it if you enjoy crafting your own beverages from raw ingredients and you’re comfortable with the necessity of figuring out substitutions for UK-native ingredients.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $16.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Kindling a Revolution in Reading

We bookish types are straddling two very disparate worlds right now. The old world is that of the wonderful used bookstore crammed with too many floor-to-ceiling bookshelves which are in turn crammed with too many used books, each ripe enough to give off that certain scent of a well-loved book. It’s a world that carries a certain comfortable nostalgia for me, like a grilled cheese and tomato soup on a rainy day. It’s also a world that has been massively overturned by the meteoric impact of a new world: digital reading.

Kindle and Book
Two worlds collide.

Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, and all the other knock-offs each come to the ring with none of the nostalgia but with legions of features that make them far more appealing than a traditional book, such as the ability to carry not only a book but an entire library wherever you go. I am personally torn, as perhaps you are, between the joy of reading a hard copy of a book and enjoying the conveniences of the Kindle. I wanted to reflect here on what I’ve found to be valuable about the Kindle ecosystem and then offer a few suggestions on how it could improve.

What I Enjoy About My Kindle

Overall, I have been duly satisfied with the device over the past year. It’s a great form factor, and (in my opinion) has a more pleasing design than its competitors. Tight integration with Amazon means I can purchase just about any book I need (for cheap!) and be reading it in seconds. The refresh rate is speedy, so turning pages no longer suffers from former lag that would derail my train of thought. The Paperwhite lives up to its name with internal illumination that can get incredibly bright. 

Though many people are opting for tablets for their multi-functionality, I was interested in e-ink devices for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to be able to do anything other than read with my device (I’m easily distracted as it is), and 2) I want to avoid the eye strain of reading for long periods of time on a backlit device. Though e-ink displays feel clunky and dated compared to the current level of fluidity on something like a tablet, it was a cost I was interested in paying.

Amazon obviously wants you to be purchasing books through their massive online store, but it’s also possible to download books from third-party retailers and email them to your Kindle, where they are also stored in your own personal document cloud. You can also check out ebook versions of library books via overdrive.com, which stay on your device for the length of the checkout period and then delete themselves.

I can read an ebook as fast or even faster than a traditional book, given the ability to customize and fine-tune typography to my own personal needs. One of my favorite features of Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem is cloud syncing, so that I can start a book on my Kindle and then pick up where I left off automatically on my phone while waiting in a line or on my computer when I don’t have my Kindle with me. Highlights and notes sync as well, which comes in handy when I’m reading for school.

What I Wish Were Different About My Kindle

Though my experience has been largely positive, the technology still has plenty of room to mature. Here are a few things I hope to see in future iterations of digital reading:

Better desktop apps.

The software for the Paperwhite and the iPhone app receive fairly regular updates and are quite commendable, but it’s a different story with the Windows 8 app and the web app (I have not tried their apps for Android or Mac). One of the biggest selling points for the Kindle is the universality of your library: you can read it on pretty much any wifi-capable device you might own. The idea is great on paper, but the implementation is bare-bones at best and frustratingly confusing at worst. Neither the web app or the Windows app support collections, which makes sorting your eBooks rather pointless if they appear as just a big heap in some of the apps. The current situation would perhaps be somewhat more permissible if desktop filtering options were as robust as those on mobile and Paperwhite, but they aren’t. The most filtering you can do is between “Cloud” and “Downloaded,” but you’re out of luck if you’d like to see only Docs or Periodicals. There are other negative observations I could make, but instead I’ll turn to making positive contributions to what desktop apps could mean within the Kindle ecosystem.

My dream for desktop Kindle apps goes beyond the mere ability to present your purchased content on a different device. What if Amazon leveraged the strengths of a desktop computer (namely, its large screen, physical keyboard, and mouse) to make a Kindle app specifically designed for research and analysis? I obviously have academic works in mind more than your average pleasure reading, but it would be immeasurably helpful to be able to quickly sort through all my highlights, notes, and bookmarks and export them to various bibliographic formats. Further, what if Amazon souped up its search algorithm so that it not only did the job of returning results, but did it excellently? As Google knows well, a user isn’t usually looking for every occurrence of a phrase, but rather a specific instance of that phrase. Smart search lists results not necessarily in chronological order, but instead ranks them by relevance. When I am writing research papers, I am sorting through hundreds upon hundreds of quotes. I would like a search function that helps me find what I’m looking for faster, rather than just providing a rough index of word occurrences. It is possible to use Kindle eBooks for academic reading, but the system clearly is not designed to make it easy. Better desktop apps for Kindle would mean a positive contribution to the world of reading that would progress beyond the limits of physical books.

Better typography, consistency, and polish. 

Another frustration with the Kindle ecosystem is its lack of standardization or consistency. One cannot expect the interface elements to be in the same place across different apps: the back button on the Paperwhite is in the top navigation bar, whereas on every other app it is in the lower left-hand corner. Syncing on the Paperwhite is in the drop-down menu; on the iPhone it is in the sidecar menu; on the web app it is in the top bar. When it comes to searching, on the Paperwhite it is in the top menu on the right side. on the iPhone it is in the sidecar menu; on the web app it is in the top menu on the left side. In the Windows 8 app it is in the Windows sidecar navigation panel on the right side of the screen. Some of this is due to operating system-specific design standards, but this alone does not account for all the inconsistency. 

As mentioned above, filtering is simply not available on Windows 8 or the web app. On the iPhone I can filter down to Books, Newsstand, Docs. and Collections. On the Paperwhite I can filter down to Books, Periodicals, Docs, Collections, and Active Content. The lack of standard vocabulary is, simply put, confusing. 

One of the neat features on the Paperwhite and iPhone is their time-to-read feature at the bottom of the screen (it tells you how long it will take you to finish the chapter or the book). This, unfortunately, is absent from the Windows 8 app and the web app. 

Further, there is a lack of standardization across different Kindle eBooks: some have page numbers correlating to physical editions, while some only have digital location numbers. Most books allow you to fine-tune typographic settings to fit your personal needs, but some books puzzlingly do not. The Paperwhite has another handy feature in its “Go To” menu that allows fast access to the table of contents, but this also is not available for every title (even though those titles it is not available for do in fact have tables of contents). I’m sure there’s an understandable technical reason for this inconsistency, but it’s another example of a lack of polish. 

Table of Contents
A lack of standard feature sets between different books in the same digital eBook ecosystem is confusing and irritating. On the left is a book that doesn’t allow access to its table of contents in the “Go To” menu, while on the right is what many books offer.

I risk sounding whiny and petulant with complaints about polish, but for me it significantly impacts the reading experience. If Amazon wants a monopoly on the eBook market, the least they can do is provide top notch apps for users to access their purchased content.

Real-time Syncing. 

As I said above, syncing works fairly well, but if you need to switch from one device to another immediately, you usually can’t. It takes a minute to sync reading locations, and notes and highlights take even longer. Greater seamlessness here would make for a much smoother reading experience.

Disabling Automatic Screen Turn-off.

The Paperwhite automatically turns its screen off after a few minutes of inactivity, which is usually a good thing. It’s frustrating, however, when you’re trying to reference a certain text while writing a paper and the device keeps putting itself to sleep. I haven’t found any way to turn this feature off, which is irritating.

Conclusion

All in all, I have found my Kindle Paperwhite, and the Kindle Ecosystem in general, to be convenient and useful. That being said, it still has a ways to go. I understand that Amazon’s primary aim is to make money by selling books and that their Kindle devices and software are only means to that end, but I hope they understand that they could only gain happier customers who thus spend more money by making the reading experience more smooth, beautiful, and useful. A greater attention to the little details would, in my opinion, be a much more rewarding update than some fancy new (yet half baked) feature such as X-Ray or Goodreads integration. 

You’re Never Ready

You'll never sleep in again

About two months before I got married last summer I remember running into an older lady I knew only at a very shallow level. We exchanged a few pleasantries and when I told her about my upcoming wedding she burst out, “Oh! That’s so exciting! Are you planning on starting a family right away?” I was a bit taken aback, to say the very least. I thought it somewhat presumptuous of her to ask me that, given the near non-existence of any sort of relationship with her. “Ha ha, no,” I chuckled, “no, I don’t think we’re quite ready for that yet.”

“Oh, you’re never ready honey!” she admonished.

I thought it was maybe just her, but since then I’ve had about a half-dozen conversations along the same vein. I think I understand and agree with the basic premise of this snippet of common wisdom. Maturity is quite unlike the world of video games where you level up to unlock upgrades and abilities. In real life things are much messier and asymptotic, meaning that there may be a standard and a goal that you’re aiming for but under our human limitations you’ll always fail to reach. Sure, I buy that. I wasn’t ready for everything that being married to my wife brought and have had to learn some things mid-course.

But I wasn’t completely unprepared for marriage, either. Before I even got engaged, I spoke with wise spiritual mentors about the meaning of marriage. I asked married folks in circles of friends and family whether they thought it would be a good idea if I got married. I read a bunch of books regarding the meaning, purpose, and theology of marriage. When we got engaged we spent six weeks doing premarital counseling. After all that I walked into my marriage and to my surprise it was different than I had imagined. The challenges have been different than I anticipated. Sex is a lot different than I had anticipated. My role as a husband isn’t quite as easy to define as I had thought it would be. Things have been different, sure, but not completely so. I wasn’t ready for everything, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t ready for anything.

The problem is that we don’t use this “Never Ready” advice anywhere else in life, and nor would we want to. Imagine if my wife walked into her engineering firm right out of high school and asked for a job. “I know that I’m completely unqualified for this job, but they say you’re never quite ready so I figured I’d just dive in and learn by doing!” Right. Imagine if you enlisted for the army and you heard this: “We were going to put you guys through boot camp, but they say that nothing can prepare you for the horrors that await you on the battlefield so we’re just going to skip basic training and send you straight off to Iraq.” Right.

The premise of GK Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting hill is that the presidency is chosen by random lottery and paints a picture of how ludicrous it would be if we put a completely unqualified individual in as president. Yet somehow when it comes to parenthood, when it comes to being responsible for a completely helpless human being for 18 years we have an astonishingly blasé attitude that since you can’t fully prepare, then you might as well not bother at all and just do it.

I know that I’ll never be ready, but I’d like to take a few years to at least prepare somewhat. I’d like to develop a strong and healthy marriage between my wife and I before we add a child into the mix. I can’t imagine having to try to get your sea legs for marriage and parenthood at the same time. How does the gospel inform my theology of parenthood? Do I want to raise my children in a rural, suburban, or urban context? What are my convictions regarding corporal punishment? How do you teach a child the meaning of both justice/judgment as well as mercy and grace? Folks often say that the last child gets the best parents, but what if I didn’t just assume that my first child will function as a guinea pig to teach me how to be a good parent? What if I could be a decently good parent to each one?

Only the Lord knows the future for my marriage, but as far as it depends upon me I want to be a good steward of my children when/if God entrusts them to me. I know that at the end of the day the only reason that I can possibly be a good parent is because of God’s grace, but in my eyes that is no excuse for being rash.

Am I being naïve? Is there some piece of the puzzle that I’m missing? Am I right to believe this?

Disequilibrium

“Tom doesn’t need our worn out clichés. Tom needs the truth of the gospel message packaged in the unwavering love of the messenger. Tom needs to be invited into our homes, with his husband and kids, where a great steak, some good wine is waiting on him, prepared by people who love him enough to point him to the one who gave his life for him.”

If you’re up for a good, quick read fit to challenge your biases and opinions, check out Bryan Loritts’ latest post, “Tom“.

The Silence of God

What would it be like for God to be silent for 400 years? That thought has always nagged at me. I mean, think about it. God had consistently spoken with the people of Israel for their full history through his prophets, and then after Malachi, boom. Silence. 400 years. It’s just such a long time.

Silence
Silence over Clear Creek last night.

My wife Kylie and I have pondered that question this year, as we’ve been reading through the Bible chronologically (PDF). Yesterday we read the book of Malachi, and with the end of September came the end of the Old Testament. After spending 3/4 of the year reading the OT this way, you begin to gain a massive sense of perspective. Not only in respect to Israel’s story, but perspective in the sense that we as Christians spend 99% of our time in the New Testament. When we venture into the OT, it’s either into Genesis 1 to get angry at each other about the origin of the world or into Proverbs to find a tweetable verse.  There’s a few other stories that we sprinkle into childrens’ Bibles, but I think it’s fair to say that until I really spent intimate time walking through the entire story step by step, I didn’t really comprehend what the OT was about.

And so here we found ourselves a few weeks ago, fast nearing the end of our journey in the Hebrew Bible. It was so fascinating, so alive, and yet so unfulfilling. Like a good mystery novel, God kept dropping foreshadows and cliffhangers like a boss. What is he getting at? What on earth is Daniel talking about with these seventy weeks? Why is Branch always capitalized? Why are all of my thoughts in italics? We spent some time talking about the 400 years of silence that occurred after Malachi and before John the Baptist, and we lamented the fact that our reading plan didn’t really let us see that. Suddenly an intriguing idea popped into my head: what if we tried to experience that somehow? What if we took a week off of our reading plan to feel what it’s like to not immediately satisfy all of our questions?

So that’s what we’re doing this week: trying to experience the silence of God. When I woke up this morning, it felt admittedly odd. I wanted to read the next installment in our reading plan. I wanted to hear from God. What happens next? And yet all I heard was silence. I desperately worked back through what we had already read. I worked through Daniel a little bit, but it only heightened the poignancy of my questions. Is there any hope? Malachi said God was going to send a messenger! Where is he?

Silence.

Ours is a week. Theirs was 400 years. Can you imagine?