Saturday, 30 March 2013

Planting the indoor starters - my urban garden

So as some of you may recall, the DH and I bought our first home in November (YAY!!!!!)  Obviously, I've noticed several perks of moving from a one-bedroom downtown apartment to a detached single family.  A big perk being that we have multiple unused rooms to do with as we please.  Another perk is the fact that we have an absolutely enormous backyard, perfect for a brand new urban garden!

The problem with the latter point is that there is still like three feet of snow in the yard, despite thoroughly epic melting that's been going on over the last few days. But that's where the spare rooms come in.  Having a spare room where I can leave the door shut is a great opportunity to try indoor starting several of my garden plants.  This was an option that was completely unavailable to me in the apartment, where the best I could do was a scraggly container garden grown mostly in shade that rarely produced anything beyond lettuce and peas.

5-gallon pails, not the greatest decor...

And so yesterday I began the 2013 gardening season by planting my fabulous indoor starters!

Selecting my crops (OMG I love calling them "crops", it makes me feel like I'm a successful gardener already!) was a lot of fun.  I had a selection of store-bought seeds remaining from last year, but I wanted to try my hand at some full-sun plants and indoor starters that I have never had the chance to do before.  On a recommendation, I also purchased some heirloom seeds from Heritage Harvest Seed.  They are a great company in Manitoba which sells harder to find and heirloom varieties of many plants, especially tomatoes.  They were even nice enough to send me a free extra pack of tomato seeds with my order!  The nice thing about the heirlooms is that it not only encourages biodiversity and preserves rare plant species, but it also allows you to select the specific characteristics you want in a plant (black peppers, anyone?) with the detailed descriptions provided.

My collection of seeds.

The plants that I have indoor started are: yellow de parma onions, parsley, marigolds, shasta daisies, bell peppers, forme de coeur tomatoes, and early annie tomatoes.  I will also be planting other veggies like spinach, swiss chard and peas in my garden, but these don't require the early start and can go straight into the ground later.

At any rate, I decided to go with peat pots for my plants, in two sizes.  The smaller "strips" of pots I used for the parsley, shasta daisies and marigolds.  The larger round pots I used for the tomatoes, peppers and onions.  Apparently, one is supposed to start all these things in super-small pots or those little round soil pellets and then transplant them up to this size later.  But to me that just sounded like buying more stuff.  So I am taking a "risk", but I don't think it'll be a big deal.

The supplies, putting it all together on the back step.

Despite the term "indoor starters", for the love of god put the dirt into the pots outdoors.  I have no idea how you could possibly do this inside without making a horrendous mess.  Filling the pots, soaking them and planting my seeds took about 2 hours from start to finish.  I put three or four seeds in each pot, depending on the plant.  After they start to sprout I will only keep the strongest and cut back the others.


So after all that I brought them in the house and put them into what is now known as "the plant room".  I've tagged the strips and pots so that I know what I've planted in each until the plants start coming up and it's more obvious. The plant room is a small, south facing room so I think it will be a perfect place for the plants to get lots of warm sunlight and start growing.

I am very excited for my plants to sprout.  Further posts on my gardening adventure will be forthcoming, stay tuned!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Angela Carter's "The Magic Toyshop" (book review)

I love YA books.  I love how teen protagonists fall so perfectly into that golden zone where they are still young and energetic, but also have a surprising amount of freedom that allows them to get involved in all kinds of crazy adventures.  However, too many YA books in a row is a lot like living off a diet of junk food.  It's really sweet at first, until it becomes too much of a good thing.  Once your vocabulary begins to slide and the brain starts to atrophy, you have to read "real" literature for a while.

And that doesn't mean you have to go subject yourself to Rushdie or Dostoevsky or some other similarly obtuse and overwhelming work.  Coming out of a YA tear is a great time to pick up an old favorite author who you've meant to revisit, but you've just been so busy with The Hunger Games.
So to get out of my YA rut, I turned to Angela Carter.  Angela Carter was a writer of poetry, short stories, magical realist and feminist fiction and children's books, who unfortunately passed away quite young, at the age of only 51.  She was active as a novelist from 1966 until her death in 1992.  I'd only read one of Carter's works before, and it was Nights at the Circus.  I absolutely LOVED it, so I figured that Carter would be good for another shot.  From Carter's substantial repertoire, I  selected The Magic Toyshop.

Splendid creepy reading.
 The Magic Toyshop self-describes (on it's back cover) as a "gothic novel".  Now let me be honest and say that I honestly had no clue what that meant.  Thanks to the power of Google, I looked it up, and it turns out that a gothic novel is one which combines horror and romance.  Which is a remarkably accurate description of this book.  The protagonist is a teen girl, who after a midnight misadventure in the garden finds herself suddenly and unexpectedly orphaned.  With her well-to-do parents gone, Melanie and her siblings are sent to live with their icy giant of an uncle, Phillip, along with his silent wife Margaret and her two brothers Finn and Francie.  Things quickly get scary and WEIRD for Melanie, as magical realism elements start to kick in she discovers the monstrous manipulations of her uncle upon his family.  As Melanie registers as a target for Phillip's wrath, she also inadvertently proves to be the catalyst which drives massive changes for the family.

This is not a story for the faint of heart.  Many awful things befall the family, right up to the very end of the story (which I really can't give away, but it is a heck of an ending).  But interlaced in the terrible events are moments of tenderness between Melanie, Margaret and Finn which show the reader a new definition of what makes a family, and how people react when placed in dire circumstances.  Carter has such magnificent control of the English language, her prose is much closer to poetry.  Lyrical phrasing and distinct imagery combine to give the reader a very authentic experience.  And in a book which moves at quite a slow pace, Carter's masterful writing drags the reader in, and makes this book almost impossible to put down.

Fans of Margaret Atwood would almost certainly enjoy The Magic Toyshop.  I would also recommend this work highly to fans of magical realism in the vein of Banana Yoshimoto, or to anyone who enjoys a lyrical, engaging work of fiction.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (a review)

I am a happy member of a quite unusual book club.

Our book club is not only "open genre" (meaning we are not confined to the whims of the Oprah Book Club sticker or any other such tyrannical restrictions on the genres we read), but we are also a non-prescriptive book club.  Meaning, we are not all forced to read the same (awful) book each month.  We are allowed to choose the book we read, which we at least partially attempt to match to a theme that is randomly selected at the end of each meeting.

This month, book club elected not to pick a genre (such as romance, sci-fi, etc.) like we usually do.  Instead, we swapped favorites.

Of course there's always the risk that one person's favorite is another's complete and total NIGHTMARE.  The book that you treasure and love with all your heart might stir the same feelings in your friends, or it might make them want to vomit in their lap.  Or some reaction in between.

Anyway, we risked it all.

My selection then was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, a book which I knew absolutely nothing about, except for the fact that it was recently made into a film (which I have not seen).

Quite the minimalist cover.
Not knowing what to expect from Wallflower, I took a glance at the reviews on the back cover.  One of the critics described it as a combination of Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace.

At which point I hit the floor and started wailing and pounding my fists.

Because there is very little in the world of literature that I dislike more than Catcher in the Rye (with the possible exception of Jane Eyre, but that's another rant for another day).  Holden Caulfield is the preeminent prophet of the emo, and later the hipster, teenager.  The book is horrifically boring, a forced, hypocritically "phony" mess, and completely repugnant to me in every conceivable way.  And A Separate Peace, which I was force-fed in high school, was not that much better.  I felt as if I may have walked into a minefield of all the things that I despise about literature contained in one slim chartreuse volume.

But mercifully, as I started into Wallflower I actually found myself enjoying it.  The letter-style format is never one that I've been particularly fond of, but in this case it is quite effective.  The fits and starts of action and dialogue are suitable to Charlie, a high school freshman who has the extraordinary good luck to befriend the older wallflowers at his school.  The motley crew take Charlie under their wing and introduce him to all the perks and dangers of high school life.  While this does require that one has to suspend belief that a group of 17-18 year olds would want to keep company with a 15 year old (just saying, do YOU know anyone that's happened to?  I sure as hell don't).  I very much enjoyed reading about Charlie's various misadventures in dating, drugs and general survival in the high school environment.

AND THEN... the book had to go and get all Catcher in the Rye on me.

In the final chapter (or letter, whatever), Charlie uncovers a hidden truth that basically takes the whole happy adventure and converts it into a super-depressing nightmare.  This completely blew me away as a reader and actually really pissed me off.  I was not impressed with the book at this point and almost gave up on it.  However, the epilogue to the work very much helped with this sudden twist, and returned the book to it's usual course and tone.  The epilogue basically saved the book for me, and prevented it from turning into just another melodramatic, "shocking just to be shocking" high school life book.   

So overall, despite being unpleasantly jerked around in the last twenty pages, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is overall a good read in the genre of "average high school life" books.  I don't know that I'll see the film, but I would definitely recommend the book to others.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Dang Good Vietnamese Cuisine - restaurant review

Everybody needs a favorite take-out place.  When the DH and I lived down by Edmonton's Jasper Avenue (in the apartment from hell, if you'll remember...), our favorite takeout was from Jasper Sushi & Noodle House.  They were just down the street from our house, and had fabulous cheap sushi and green onion cakes.  So we stuffed ourselves regularly.  When we moved, we were forced to leave behind our favorite takeout joint behind, with no small amount of regret as this family-run business had become a fixture in our lives and our dietary habits.  And there was much more sadness, because our new neighborhood completely lacked even a shred of the culinary presence of downtown.  Hardly even a take-out joint in sight! (Because the supremely vegan-UNfriendly Burger Baron doesn't count as take-out, let alone as food.)

However, we were given cause for optimism this weekend with the opening of Dang Good, a new Vietnamese restaurant located at Circle Square, on St.Albert Trail and 118th Avenue traffic circle NW corner.  This convenient, high traffic shopping area located just north of Westmount Mall contains mostly service businesses (accountants, hair salons, laundromat, etc), but is also home to a few small restaurants, including the new Dang Good which opened it's doors on March 1st.

We were there on the second day of operations.  A billboard had advertised vegan-friendly options so I immediately wanted to sample the wares.  The restaurant has a very modern style and colour palette, with hints of traditional style here and there.  I loved the fact that their fishtank is of a virtual nature, broadcast on large screen TV's, rather than the heinously dirty and uncared for tanks you typically see in restaurants.  As a new restaurant should be, Dang Good was sparkling clean and new.

There were many servers working at this family-owned operation when we arrived.  We ordered tea, and proceeded to examine their diverse menu, which included Vietnamese subs, rice dishes, pho and a collection of eclectic appetizers.

Very cute, modern dishware.
Many items on Dang Good's menu are marked as "vegetarian or vegan" options available.  However, these are very clearly not the same thing, and the terms are not really interchangeable.  After seeing a chow mein dish listed as one of these items (chow mein typically contains egg), I asked our server which of the items could be made specifically vegan.  She was really not sure, and attempted to find out the answer for us.  However, in the busyness of the restaurant's second day, she was never able to give me a precise answer for this.  Now I'm a pretty forgiving vegan in general and will tolerate if an item has small amounts of egg (no milk though, makes me ill), but this is an issue that Dang Good will need to address in the near future.  Their staff need to have a list available of what is truly vegan versus what is only vegetarian.  I took my chances and settled on a Vietnamese Sub, and the DH ordered an udon noodle bowl.

Soon after we ordered, our server brought us this mystery item:

Not too sure what I'm looking at?
DH and I, for the life of us, could not come to an agreement on what this item is.  I suggested that it might be a salad of some kind, with bean sprouts, basil, lemon and a chili pepper.  DH pooh-poohed this idea, as we hadn't yet received any cutlery with which to eat it.  He thought that it might be toppings to add to your main dish.  We never did agree... and pecked at the bean sprouts while we waited.

Things went a bit off the rails at this point, as we waited quite a while before we were informed that there were no udon noodles available at that time for DH's dish.  Knowing that this is all a matter of a new restaurant getting it's "sea legs", DH cheerfully ordered something different.  The manager on duty, Linda, was highly attentive to this delay and change, and provided us with green onion cakes to enjoy on the house while we waited for our entrees to arrive.

And they were crispy and delicious. :)

And at last, my sandwich commeth!:

Really good.
While I was expecting tofu, my sandwich appeared to be a faux-ham.  Which was only the second thing on my mind after the surprise over the portion size.  For a sandwich priced at only $5.25, it was a very generous portion.  I was expecting an item about half this size.  Along with the faux ham, the sub contained cucumbers, scrumptious pickled carrots, and just the right amount of cilantro.  I kicked up the spice a little bit by adding some sriracha from the condiments available at our table:

Sriracha on the right, also available: chili, teriyaki, pepper, soya sauce, tamari.

The sandwich was absolutely delicious and very filling.  The flavors were a perfect balance, with no one sub topping overwhelming the others.  It is an item that I would absolutely have again, and the price makes it even more worthwhile!

As we were leaving, manager Linda provided us with cute, business-card sized take-out menus.  The website does not yet have a menu available, and their social media presence is still in the development phases, so if you want to know what's on the menu down at Dang Good, you will have to pay them a visit or send off an email.  As far as I'm aware, delivery is not currently an option.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend Dang Good, even if you are not a resident in the immediate vicinity.  It is so nice to have a vegetarian/vegan-friendly Vietnamese restaurant in Edmonton!  And while the staff still need a bit of training and guidance on the difference between these two diets, their cheerfulness and dedicated service will help them to get there.  Despite the new-opening jitters, our experience at Dang Good was a welcoming one and we will gladly do repeat business with this family-owned gem.

***UPDATE: May 19, 2013: I feel that I have to make an addendum to this post... the wonderful delicious sandwich I first enjoyed is apparently no longer a menu item at Dang Good.  I find this really disappointing as it was not only scrumptious but also one of the more affordable menu items.  Also, the last time I was there I tried the so-called vegan version of the ginger beef, and the tofu was so overcooked that it literally turned to powder in my mouth (really gross).  I haven't been back since because I've been quite disappointed that instead of them improving as time goes on and they get established, they seem to instead be going rapidly downhill, at least as far as vegan options are concerned.