Guest blogger: Martine Svanevik

(In which I am excited to present my very first guest blogger, fellow writer and friend Martine, who writes about two of my favourite subjects.)

Martine Svanevik is a Norwegian ex-pat living in Montreal where she attempts to combine her job as Text Coordinator for Funcom Games Canada with revising her novel. She’ll get back to you on how that works out. Hook up with Martine on her blog: https://nascentnovelist.wordpress.com/ or on twitter: www.twitter.com/martinemonster.

Writing Snacks That Help You Focus

Having spent an extended period of time working from home, I’ve had the chance to try a fair bit of  writing food and I’m here to tell you: nutrition is important when you want to get that grey matter moving. See, I started out with Uncle Whisky and M&Ms, but after a while I just had to accept that they weren’t giving me with what I needed. Sure, there were the coolness points, but for sustenance, alcohol and chocolate were found lacking. So I looked elsewhere.

First, I turned to fast food. I consumed an embarrassing amount of portion-sized bags of salt and vinegar potato chips before realizing that they made me hunger for more. Instead of giving me focus, the delicious chips took it away by making me hunt through every cabinet, desperately digging for just one more bag. Those were dark days.

Next, I jumped on the health wagon and began making all my food from scratch. It was great. My energy increased, my skin regained its shine, and my cooking skills improved rapidly. There was only one problem: I spent so much time looking up and trying out recipes that the writing got lost in the middle of it.

I finally saw the light: I had to find some form of snack that gave me energy without making my body and mind crash, but it had to take less than five minutes to prepare. Sounds impossible? Not at all. Here’s my list of excellent snacks that keep you focused and clearheaded, without taking time away from what’s important: your writing.

My Rules of Thumb:

  1. You need protein, fat and carbs
  2. It has to be consumable without making your fingers greasy
  3. It has to take less than five minutes to prepare

There was some trial and error involved, especially once I got a job in an office and had to plan things beforehand, but I ended up with a few favourites. Let me know how they work out for you!

Martine’s Ultimate Writing Snacks:

  1. Carrots and almonds: cut the carrots (or better yet: by pre-washed baby carrots) and toss them in a bowl with some almonds.
  2. Sugar snaps and pistachios: put in bowl. Serve.
  3. Celery dipped in peanut butter: slather some almond butter on some celery sticks. Put them on a plate. Warning: these might lead to greasy fingers if you’re not careful.

Now, these are just snacks. For lunches and dinners you might have to put in a few more minutes. Not many, though. Barebones cooking is the way to go, at least when you know what’s important to you: getting those words out.

What are your favourite writing snacks? What gets you going when you feel like there’s no more energy left in you? Let me know how these snacks work for you!

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Petite pie post

(In which I make a small detour and a questionable pie.)

So, the promised Big Baking Bonanza is coming up, really! But suddenly, it was Pie Week! Since I’m a bit of a pie fanatic, who am I to argue with that?

So, since I had a bit of chicken I needed to use, I decided to make a chicken pot pie in honour of pie week.

Pie without wheat? Not great, to be honest. I did a bit of googling for pie pastry without wheat, but since it called for a bunch of weird stuff that I didn’t have in my cupboard (such as xanthan gum, whatever that is), I just improvised.

I mixed rice flour, barley flour, and oat flour with dairy-free butter (sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it?), and 5-6 tbsps of ice-cold water. (Don’t really know how much I used of everything, I don’t usually measure. Maybe 3 cups of flour and 1 cup of butter? Basically, if it looks to dry, add more water or butter, if it looks too wet, add more flour. Just keep adding stuff until it looks like pastry dough.)

Yay, food processor!

I usually mix with my hands, but I have a new food processor, and I kind of love it! Imagine, making pastry without getting your hands all sticky or floury! The mind boggles!

(I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an entire post soon constisting of some sort of ode to the food processor.)

After mixing, I wrapped it in plastic and popped it in the fridge for a bit.

Since I’ve never made chicken pot pie before, I based my filling loosely on comfortablydomestic’s recipe.

Pretty vegetables. Yes, colourful food makes me happy.

I chopped some carrots finely, and added whatever vegetables I found in my freezer that would go with it; onions, green beans and peas.

You all know what chicken looks like. What's the point of this photo?

The reason for making this pie; some leftover roast chicken, which I picked and shredded. Not a lot of chicken, but it’s a small pie just for me, it’s not like I’m feeding a family.

I made the gravy with dairy-free butter, soy milk, cornstarch and vegetable stock (and salt, pepper and thyme).

I know. Doesn't look like a pie, does it?

Because I didn’t have a lot of chicken, and my pie plate was far too big, I baked it in my bread pan (for half an hour or so at 200 Celcius – maybe a bit longer, at least until it looked brown and crispy).

So. There’s a reason they put wheat flour in everything, people. Beacuse it’s tasty. Especially in pastry. When I scooped it out onto my plate, it all fell apart and was more like a crumble than a pie. (And that’s just wrong. Crumbles shouldn’t be savoury! There should be berries involved! Or apples, or raisins, or all of these.)

Chicken pot...crumble?

The taste was really good (the gravy worked great, even with soy milk and all of that stuff), but the texture was just wrong. Yep, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It was really wrong and crumbly and strange. If only the pastry had worked out, this would have been great.

I’m really looking forward to ending my experiment, having wheat again, and making proper chicken and mushroom pie with fluffy, flaky pastry.

The thing is, I’m an amateur in the kitchen, just starting out exploring all the exciting tastes out there. Stuff isn’t going to be perfect. My kitchen isn’t spotless, I don’t wear an apron, I don’t take my pictures on pretty china, and not everything I make will turn out great. I’m not that kind of blogger. But I think it’s important to share the less successful ventures as well. That’s the whole point of cooking! (Except that you have to eat to live, and all that.) Be adventurous! Try something new! Don’t worry if you have a few disasters – how else will you learn?

 So, here’s one of my less successful experiments. It’s highly unlikely it’ll be the last!

Determination and deprivation

(A post which deals with food and writing at the same time, in which I make two scary resolutions, but both for good reason.)

 

So, it’s been November for a week already. This brings me to the first of my resolutions:

NaNoWriMo!

Thousands of crazy writers, professional and otherwise, wow to try writing a 50 000 word novel in 30 days. It might not be for every writer, but I think it’s worth giving it a shot. This is how I discovered I could actually finish something. Some people use it as an opportunity to hammer out a first draft of something they need to write anyway, others will see it as an ‘holiday’ from their normal, ‘serious’ writing – a month where you give yourself the license to write something without thinking too much about it, while others (most of the participants, I suspect), do it for the sheer fun of it, just to create something, even if no one will ever read it.

I’ve done NaNo twice before, but this year it will be a quite different challenge for me. Cause this year, I’m also doing rewriting/ revisions on a manuscript that my editor is waiting for. Yes, proper, ‘serious’ writing that I’m getting paid for and stuff. (A first for me.) I’ve decided to try doing NaNo as well as working on my MS. For NaNo, I’ll be trying to finish another novel that is half-finished, and has been sitting around in a drawer for ages waiting for me to rekindle my enthusiasm for it. I’m hoping NaNoWriMo will help with that. It’s been a week already, and although I’m way behind on the word count, I’m optimistic and starting to care about those old characters again (while not losing interest in my other MS either, so I’d call the experiment a success for far).

To any writers who has never tried the wonderful November madness; I highly recommend it. It’s wonderful what deadlines and optimistic pressure will do for productivity. Also, they run @NaNoWordSprints on twitter, and sprinting is fun, and awesome! Also, the NaNoWriMo community is fun and supportive. Check out the website.

Now, anyone would think that this would be enough of a challenge for one month, but I figured I might as well use the November momentum for a food-related challenge as well. Which brings us to my next scary resolution:

 

Wheat-and-dairy-free Month

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and it seemed the right time for it. One challenge can propel the other along, so to speak. The (rather uninteresting) background for this, is that I’ve had some pain in my joints for over a year now, and so far the doctors have been unable to tell me what it is (except that it’s NOT arthritis). After some googling, I’ve seen that many people experience relief from similar symptoms after cutting wheat and dairy, so I’ve decided to try it for at least a month to see if there’s any difference. (I tried just going dairy-free for a month, and while there wasn’t much difference to my joints, my skin was noticeably clearer and healthier.)

 

So far, so good. I’ve been doing this for almost two weeks now, and so far, no big difference to my joints, but a huge one to my skin (and also some improvement in digestion).

I’d like to think that I don’t really see this as something scary and restricting, but rather as an exciting opportunity to try something new, and cook in ways I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. But the big challenge here is of course, TREATS. (Hey, if you’re going to write a novel in 30 days, you’re going to need a LOT of treats. You know, stuff you can nibble while typing, that will fuel you through sleepless nights when your characters won’t let you go to bed (ok, maybe not, after all, I have another MS to work on, and a normal day job every other day)). So because the job that really pays the bills (for now, anyway), is only every second day, so I’ll have time for writing in between, this means I’m not exactly rich. I’m on a rather tight budget, so there’s no money for lots of expensive gluten-free baked goods (3 times the normal price for a packet of Jaffa Cakes that taste less than the normal ones? Are you kidding me?). This means I had a big baking day, where I tried to make my own treats and breakfast foods (but mainly treats, to be honest), without dairy or wheat.

No real butter? No cream, milk, cheese, yoghurt, or white flour? How can you bake anything yummy with these restrictions challenges?

Very soon, there will be a big, bold Baking Bonanza Blog post, in which you will find out whether I succeeded in making anything edible.

 

 

PS. Bedtime reading!

I’ve finished The Book of Negroes (which, I’ve discovered, is called Someone Knows My Name in the US, because the word Negro just wouldn’t fly there, even though the title is lifted from a historical document which is vital to the story). The last time I mentions it, I said it was a bit of an anitclimax after The Book of Night Women (written by the extremely talented Marlon James), and I know why -the latter is written in such a rich, evocative, almost hypnotic language, that it makes other books seem almost simplistically written in comparison. However, that is not the case with The Book of Negroes, which is actually written in a straighforward, et sometimes lyrical style. It just took some ‘acclimatizing’ to normal English again after the ‘vernacular’ of The Book of Night Women. (I think the language and writing style might merit its own blog post at some point, because it made me think a lot about writing voive.) And I highly recommend both books – the suck you into their worlds and make you care about their (very different) protagonists.

Now, I’m going to start The Long Song by Andrea Levy, and hope it lives up to these two! Also, I’d love reading recommendations! (Not just about slavery! Although it might seem like I read about nothing else at the moment. I’m open to anything, although I have a fondness for well told historicals, magical realism, and realistic/urban/historical fantasy.)

 

 

Taste of autumn – Apples

(A not-so-thorough post about apples, in which I make an unexpected dicovery, prepare some apples for freezing, and make my first ever store-bought-pastry pie.)

Despite sitting outside in shorts and T-shirt for the past 2 days, I finally have to admit defeat and realise that autumn is well and truly here.

The thing about autumn though – it’s a gracious winner. Once you surrender, you realise autumn is actually pretty great; a treasure-chest of all things cosy and comforting.

This would have been even prettier if I'd taken it yesterday, when it was all sunny and golden.

There’s pretty colours on the trees, you can stay inside with tea and a good book, without feeling that you HAVE to go outside because it’s sunny, lots of great TV shows start up again after summer hiatus, and there’s plenty of new seasonal produce around. If you’re lucky, you might find some just outside your door.
World's smallest orchard

'My' apple trees

After living in this flat for almost 3 years, I suddenly discovered, not only one, but two apple trees outside my window. To be fair, I’ve always sort of known the trees were there (I may live in my own little world, but not to that extent!), but I’ve never noticed the apples. I must mention that I live in a block of flats with a shared garden, so I spend very little time there.

Needless to say, this was a very exciting discovery (maybe not Colombus-coming-to- America-exciting, but at least spare-fiver-down-the-back-of-the-sofa-exciting). It’s almost getting a bit too cold for apples now, but there were some left, and after a good rummage on the ground, I found a few that I could use (and also made the slighty less thrilling discovery of a dead mouse in the process).

There’s just something about apples that says ‘autumn’ in a way that recalls golden childhood evenings spent nicking apples from unsuspecting neighbours’ gardens under a canopy of flaming leaves (not that I’ve ever done this, of course. Stealing apples is bad, kids. Also, the owner of the tree is usually all too happy to get rid of a few apples if you ask first. Although that isn’t nearly as thrilling).

Apples aren’t exactly expensive in the shops right now, but there’s a special feeling about cooking with apples that you’ve picked yourself (and that probably aren’t full of pesticides and stuff).

Flawed, but beautiful

They’re not as pretty as the apples in the shops, but beneath those lumps and discolourings lurks a wealth of flavours. I have no idea what variety they are, but there were 2 different kinds, which were both crispy and juicy with a tangy flavour.

There’s obviously a huge amount of things you can do with apples, but one of my absolute favourites is apple pie. There’s not going to be a proper, thorough recipe this time, but maybe later. The reason is that I decided to try some ready-made puff pastry I had in my freezer, and see how it turned out. Yes, this was my first time making pie without making the pastry first, and I was rather sceptical. (No less so because my ready-made puff pastry didn’t acually contain any butter! That’s right, pastry without butter. It just doesn’t sound natural. I think they put in some vegetable margarine and oils instead. The reason I wanted to try this, is that I might go back on a dairy-free diet I tried a while ago (more about that later, most likely). And since I can’t live without pie, and dairy-free butter is quite expensive and hard to find around here, while this puff pastry was relatively cheap and available in a shop near me, this might work out cheaper and easier than making my own.)

Wow, that was a long parenthesis – and parenthesis within parenthesis! The proof-reader part of me would have something to say about that.

Anyway. I started with peeling and slicing the apples, leaving some for freezing (put some lemon or lime juice in the freezer bag with the apples, so they don’t turn brown, and freeze them as flat as possible for quicker defrosting).

Sliced apples. In case you didn't know what that looks like.

I froze 3 medium apples, about the right amount to fill my pie tin.

I then filled my pie tin with the defrosted pastry sheets and a layer of the apple slices that I didn’t freeze. On top of that went a liberal sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a few dollops of jam. Whenever I don’t pre-cook the apples with some water and sugar, I usually put in some jam, fruit compote, of whatever I’ve got around to keep things from becoming too dry. This time, I used some cheap and horrible strawberry jam, and a bit of fancier apricot jam. (At this stage I would normally sprinkle sugar over the apples as well, but I forgot, to be honest. Luckily it didn’t matter, as my jam and apples were sweet enough, and I prefer to keep some of the tang from the apples anyway, not make it sickly sweet).
Sticky goodness

First layer of apples with spices and jam.

Yep, the edges are pretty uneven and ugly. I just couldn’t be bothered, and besides: round pie dish+rectangular pastry sheets. you do the math.
Then one more layer, with more spices, but no jam. This time, I laid the apple slices out a little bit prettier, to compensate for my lazy pastry-shaping.

Just before going into the oven.

 While the pie is in the oven, there’s time for a large cup of tea, two You-Tube-videos, three medium-sized magazine articles, or a short episode of a TV show (Friends, for instance). Which means I baked it for about 20-25 minutes at 200 degrees Celcius.

If you put your head really close to the computer, and believe, you can detect a faint aroma of apples and cinnamon. Or so the legend goes.

I don’t know if you can see it in this photo (well, now that I’ve told you, you will see it), but it sort of puffs up weirdly to the right. Because I used puff pastry. (Shouldn’t have told you.) Unsurprisingly, the deformed puffed bit was the best part.
Verdict:  Store-bought puff pastry is puffier than homemade (maybe because I’m no pastry expert yet, I tend to make shortcrust more often), and not having to actually make it is a bonus. But it’s also less flavourful, which could be due to the no-dairy thing. If I’m short on time, or can’t be bothered with flour all over my kitchen, or decide to do the no-dairy thing and can’t find dairy-free butter (or it’s really expensive), then this is a great alternative. Especially if the other option is no pie at all. Dreadful thought.

Something's missing here... Oh, yes, ice cream.

How can you have apple pie without ice cream? I hear you ask in dismay as you look at my photo. I’ll tell you how: not have any in your freezer because you decided to go dairyfree a while back, and haven’t bought any since, not even that dodgy soy stuff, because you’ve overcompensated for having no dairy by making lots of homecooked comfort food, and the freezer is now too stuffed with these things to accommodate a tub of ice cream as well.
But a cup of chai almost makes up for the lack of it. (Just don’t use rice milk in tea! Ever. Seriously. It doesn’t give any milky flavour to the tea at all, but instead makes it more watery and grey. Not good.)
I ate this while watching the excellent True Blood finale. Nothing like pie to enhance the southern atmosphere. (Well, it was either that, or have blackcurrant squash and pretend to be a vampire.)
Bedtime reading:  Neil Gaiman’s short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. You should read it too! (Just don’t read the story called ‘The Price’ when you’re alone and it’s dark.)

An ode to vegetables

Welcome to the first new, shiny post of my combined writing/cooking blog! Strange combination? Perhaps. But they’re both things I love, and while it’s impossible to write something good without proper fuel, words are food for the soul. So you see how it all fits together.

This first post concerns food, but there will be writing/reading/publishing related ones later. I’ll try to tag everything so it can be sorted easily. Now, onto the subject o this first-ever post:

VEGETABLES!

Don’t you just LOVE vegetables? Crunchy, colourful, varied, good-for-you vegetables? Not to mention humourously shaped veg. (If you hate veg, you’re gonna have issues with this blog. I’m not likely to stop writing about them.)

 What’s the big deal?

  • Cheap! They are so much cheaper than meat. (At least if you’re the least bit health-conscious and try to avoid the worst processed cheap meat products.) Great news if you’re on a limited budget (maybe a student, or like me, a poor writer or other starving artist) but still try to be healthy.
  • Pretty! They add colour to your food. I don’t know about you, but I find a plate full of greens, reds and yellows more inviting than a plate of, well, just different shades of brown (meat, rice, fries, pasta…you know). 
  • Healthy! I actually notice a difference in my wellbeing when I’m eating lots of veg vs. eating little. I just feel better in general, better skin and hair, more energy, better digestion, etc.
  • Varied! There’s just so many different types of veg and sooo many ways to cook them. I’m 30 and still trying new vegetables (recently; plantains and okra. Success). If you’re not afraid to try something new, you’ll never suffer from culinary boredom.

Hate vegetables?

Like a lot of people, I grew up with a standard dinner of meat/fish, boiled potato and two boiled veg. There were a lot of vegetables I really loathed, but now I absolutely love most of them! How? I learned to think differently.

The solution is probably not to avoid vegetables altogether (I won’t go on about how good they are for you and all that, cause I’m sure you know).  Instead, view this as an opportunity to discover new flavours as you search for alternative ways of preparing veg. There are several ways to ‘trick’ yourself into eating more veg, or getting used to a vegetable you don’t like.

  • Pinpoint what it is you don’t like about a specific vegetable. Is it the texture? Maybe you’ve had it cooked wrong (soggy, overboiled carrots, anyone?). Try it cooked a different way – stir-fried, raw, mashed, roasted, grated in salads, etc.
  • Is taste the problem? Try adding flavours that mask or complement the vegetable. (To continue with the carrot theme; this carrot, chili and coriander soup might make you see carrots in a new light).
  • Which brings us to: soups. A blender and some cream can work wonders with a boiled vegetable. This works with a huge variety of vegetables: Boil veg, drain, add some stock and spices, whizz in blender, add a bit of cream and bring back to the boil. If you’re a fan of spicy food, you’re lucky to have an easy way to mask unwanted vegetable flavours, if not, adding more cream will soften the veg taste. This site is a soup goldmine (or gold pot, if you will).
  • When making stews and casseroles, substitute some of the meat for veg. About half the mince in spaghetti bolognese can successfully be swapped with -you guessed it – chopped carrots. (If you don’t like the texture, try grating it.) Onions, mushrooms, bell peppers/capsicums are also great in spag bol.
  •  Salads! It doesn’t have to mean limp salad leaves and soggy tomatoes. In fact, it doesn’t have to contain any leaves at all, just put in whatever you want. A friend of mine barely liked any veg, but learned to like them after having lots of salads with just about any vegetable on earth, topped with olives and feta. The key is variation; throw in enough different veg so that you have different textures and colours and it looks pretty and colourful.
  • Raw veg! It’s great. (I could have written ‘crudites’, but I’m not that fancy, really.) Try dipping sticks of carrot (I know, just shut up about the carrots already!), celery, bell peppers, swede, cucumber, zucchini or anything else you fancy, in dips like tzatziki, hummous, etc.
  • If anything else fails, grate some into stews and casseroles, and because it’s grated into tiny pieces, you’ll hardly know it’s there. You’re not learning to like them, which is a shame, but at least you’re getting some of the nutrients.

Other people have written about this before me, much better too. Here’s a few great tips.

Over at cheaphealthygood, there are loads of exciting dishes that uses vegetables in ways I never would have thought of myself. Plus, cheap! That’s a good bonus, right?

Of course, I deliberated for a long time what my first post of this exciting new blog would be, and I landed on this.  Purely because I had an extremely tasty dinner of cabbage and carrots, both of which I used to hate, and I wanted to share the love.

 Sautéed cabbage & carrots

A pile of unphotogenic goodness

(Really, how appetising can you make cabbage and carrots look? Just imagine what the smell of garlic and chili would look like and then pretend this is a picture of that.)

 I used:

About 1/6 of a whole cabbage

1/2 yellow onion

1 large carrot

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1/3 of a fresh red chili (deseeded)

Pinch of pepper

Chop everything finely, cook in a bit of oil (and maybe some butter – I like to add some for flavour) over a medium high heat, in a wok or frying pan/skillet. (It’s also a good idea to add the garlic towards the end so it doesn’t burn.) Stop cooking when it’s glossy and slightly softened, but still has a bit of crunch left – taste as you go along to find your own perfect texture. Season to taste with salt and pepper (but really, with chili and garlic you don’t need a lot of salt – good news for your health).

I had this with two types of buttered roll. One was a sort of improvised wholemeal rye roll which turned out ok, but nothing out of the ordinary (the small one to the right in the photo). The other roll, I have to tell you, was THE BEST ROLL I’ve EVER had! Yes, so amazingly good that the caps are almost justified. Big balls of crunchy, fluffy, soft, golden, tasty goodness.

The recipe for these AMAZING cornmeal rolls are over at comfortablydomestic. I’ve only just discovered her blog, but she seems to be somewhat of a domestic goddess who has lots of lovely, comforting, ‘proper food’ recipes. American measurements and temperatures, and I don’t have a good metric one, unfortunately. To be honest, I’m so crap with numbers that I can’t be bothered with conversion tables or calculators – I simply try to get the measurements right in relation to each other (i.e. if a recipe calls for 2 cups of water and 1 cup of cornmeal, I make sure I use twice as much water as cornmeal). If the measurements are more complex, I just use some educated guesswork, and it usually turns out fine.

Now, off to bed, to read On the Way Home, a diary by Laura Ingalls Wilder. A fascinating look ‘behind the scenes’ of the world of the Little House books (and, coincidentally, it has a few interesting food mentions).  Any bedtime reading recommendations for me, people?

Good eating and reading, everyone!