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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mesclun greens and fruit make a great salad



Between my wife going to Weight Watchers and my granddaughters spending an inordinate amount of time at our home, our fridge had filled with oodles of fruit and other healthy stuff. My heart and stroke doctor would approve no matter what the cause. I'm sure he'd tell me to just get imaginative and eat the stuff -- and I did.

Tonight I made dinner in a bowl. With almost a whole bag of mesclun salad mix as the base I added fruit and other stuff to create a satisfying, heart-healthy meal.

Ingredients
  • Dole mesclun mix - lots
  • 1/4 of a small, red onion diced into large pieces
  • 1/3 of a fennel bulb diced into large pieces
  • a splash of Newman's Own oil and vinegar dressing
  • 2 1/2 navel oranges, sectored and diced
  • a large handful of chopped strawberries
  • a couple of tablespoons of both dried cranberries and dried cherries
  • 2 ounces of chicken breast, chopped and quickly browned in a fry pan
  • 1 ounce of fry-pan-browned pecan bits

The salad was easy to make and quite delicious. And no wonder it was good. It was inspired by a wonderful salad I had recently at Waldo's in Byron. Although, I have to admit that Waldo's was better. I gave myself an eight. The onion bits were too big and too strong. The next time I may eliminate the onion and add apple chunks. I'd choose either Fujis or Galas as they are both known for their sweetness.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Farro and Porcini Risotto on a Budget


Being retired means watching the budget. Then again, for most of us watching the budget is a wise thing to do even when not retired.

As I have mentioned before, years ago The London Free Press did a series on the difficulties encountered when trying to live on a tight budget. In 2013 the Middlesex -London Health Unit conducted a survey calculating it took $6.47 a day for each of us to eat enough to keep body and soul together. This was calculated using a family of four.

With inflation, I'm sure it costs more today. Let's up this amount to $7.50 a day, keeping in mind that food has increased in price faster than the overall inflation rate.

Today, my wife and I spent the entire $7.50 plus maybe another buck and a half. On the plus side, we got a lot for our money. I started the day with oatmeal porridge bought on sale for less than twenty cents a serving. I used 1% milk rather than water to make the porridge and added one banana well mushed for sweetness.

For lunch both my wife and I had Heinz tomato soup from the Dollar Store. It cost less than 70-cents a can. Finding the Heinz soup was a good deal as I like the Heinz product better than the more expensive Campbell's sold in the grocery store. Sometimes we add crackers bought in bulk from Costco.

If we want a snack in the afternoon, we have fresh fruit. We watch the weekly flyers and try to buy our fruit on sale. We have seven different grocery stores just minutes by car from our suburban home. With such a wide selection, there is almost always fruit and other stuff we need available on sale. We buy lots when stuff is available and this keeps our pantry well stocked. We are still working through the pasta bought for 49-cents a package some time ago. The threat of getting snowed-in doesn't frighten us.

Dinner tonight was a treat. My wife and I worked together to crank out farro and porcini risotto served with asparagus topped with a sprinkling of Parmesan. The Italian farro and porcini normally sells in the $22 range. We paid half that. We found a large bottle, enough for six meals, at Winners. I highly advise checking out the specialty foods at Winners. That place is a godsend when it comes to punching up a day's menu while staying within a tight budget. And for Parmesan, check out Costco. A big block of the hard Italian cheese is expensive at about $25 but wrap it tightly in foil and it keeps a long time.

We made this rice-less risotto using Campbell's chicken stock purchased at No Frills for under a buck. We kicked the risotto up a notch by adding a few small pieces of quickly browned boneless, skinless chicken breast. We have a large tray of this meat with each breast individually wrapped to make defrosting easy.

With my heart condition, I'm only allowed a couple of ounces of chicken or fish and then only every other day. Red meats are out except for one day each month. To simplify our food preparation, my wife also follows my food restrictions.

Dinners made from leftovers nudge food budgets back in line.
We don't drink any beer to speak of. The cost of beer is way too high when one considers how much of the cost is tax. I already pay enough tax.

When we have company I buy some Steam Whistle and hope our guests leave me lots. What we do like is a glass of wine with our dinners. Canadian box wines are actually good as one's personal house wine. We especially like the Jackson-Triggs Shiraz. It often goes on sale and each time $3 is chopped off the price we buy a box or two.

For dessert we each had fruit yogurt which was also bought on sale.

The farro and porcini was a special treat. My wife's a good cook and her risotto with chicken and asparagus was like something I'd get at a fine dining restaurant. We may have overspent for the day but all will pull into line by month's end.

As I have said before, there is no reason to eat pet food in retirement despite what The Free Press warned in an editorial some months ago.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Is this art? Well, it sure isn't happenstance.



I admit, it doesn't look like much. Yet, there's stuff to appreciate in this simple work of art. And what are these, you might well ask. The answer, I would say, is consistency of style and choice and purity of colour wrapped up in a drive to create. A simple, drive. A still developing drive. But a strong drive, nevertheless.

Little Isla, not yet two, has really taken to painting. The other day she will took my hand and ordered, "Come on." She lead me through my home to the basement stairs. "Paint," she said. It was a statement of fact, of what was she had planned.

We went downstairs. Isla climbed onto her chair. There was a pad of blank paper sitting on the table with paint brushes off to the side. When I get down the paints, she squealed with excitement. The moment the paints were within reach, Isla was chanting, "Orange. Orange. Orange"

She unscrewed the lid on a small jar of orange paint, picked a paint brush and set to work pushing the brush, now wet with paint, into the paper. It left big, colourful blobs of orange paint. Isla worked quickly and consistently. She repeated her violent attack on the paper. I have never seen her paint with such ferocity. Within moments she was done with the orange. She handed me the jar and turned her attention to the other paints.

She chose a yellow jar, removed the lid and looked in at the bright yellow paint. "No," she declared after a moment's consideration. She handed me the open jar along with the lid.

Isla poked at the remaining jars: purple, blue, red and green, clearly considering her colour choices. She settled on green. With a satisfied look, she dipped a big brush deep into the small pot of paint and then rammed the brush into the paper just as she had done with the orange. There were few swirls or tepid touches of the brush to paper this day.

As soon as the two colours touched, she stopped. "Done," she announced, got up and headed for the bathroom to clean-up.

Addendum:

A few days after posting this, Isla got a look at the posting and her featured painting. She immediately recognized her work. I asked her if what we were looking at was a painting of a horse. "No," she said emphatically. I then asked if it was a drawing of a bird. The answer again was a firm "No." But, when I asked her if this was a painting by Isla, a small smile appeared and she said softly, "Yes."

This painting was, and is, important to her. I'm amazed.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A dinner a child could make -- and almost did



My granddaughters visit often and, for this reason, I find myself playing kid's games. I hate kid's games. Why mess with Play-Doh when you can mess with cookie batter? Why make pretend cookies when the real thing is so easy. Both activities take the same effort but doing something real carries a bigger payback.

When not cooking, Fiona like to draw.
With this in mind, I let my five-year-old granddaughter, Fiona, help with dinner the other night. Amazingly, she was a lot of help and she had great fun being adult for twenty-five minutes or so. Working around a hot stove, one doesn't play at being adult; one has to be adult. Fiona was.

So, what recipe did my granddaughter and I tackle? A skillet dinner featuring penne with broccoli and chicken. I got the recipe from Cook's Illustrated, a magazine produced by America's Test Kitchen. With everything cooked in one, large skillet, it was easy to keep an eye on Fiona. That said, the kid rallied to the moment and stayed amazingly focused as she stirred the penne to keep it from sticking.

I like both the America's Test Kitchen television show, it could be alternately titled "Cooking with Sheldon" as they approach cooking using the scientific method. It is high school science class meets home economics.

There were four ingredients eliminated from our take on the recipe: onion, garlic, red pepper flakes and white wine. And Fiona and Isla also skipped the grilled tomato served on the side. All five ingredients are on the grandchildren's don't eat list.

Using a kitchen scale, Fiona weighed out the eight ounces of penne while I quick fried the chicken strips. Fiona measured out the chicken broth. We used two cups. And she also measured out the water. I added both to the skillet. She sprinkled a quarter teaspoon of dried oregano over the pasta while it simmered and she took a break from stirring to snap the broccoli flowers apart. No knife was involved. Minutes before the penne was done, Fiona added the broccoli to the almost cooked pasta. Then, just before serving, Fiona added Parmesan cheese grated earlier.

Amazingly, the pasta turned out al dente and the broccoli was a rich green with just a hint of crispness. In other words, nothing was overdone. And the chicken broth added extra flavour to the pasta which both Fiona and Isla appreciated. My wife, Judy, also appreciated the dinner. She declared it winner and said it appeared to be Weight Watchers Friendly to boot.

I posted this in mid February, 2015. The Cook's Illustrated magazine with the recipe may be off the shelves by the time you find this post. You can try finding the recipe on America's Test Kitchen online site but you may find it difficult. These folk are not into simply giving their knowledge away. You may be asked to sign up for a free two week trial. I can't fault them. Giving info away has not been a profitable tack for newspapers and others in the information business.

And lastly, I may have cooked up a monster along with a dinner. Fiona, all of five remember, told Judy, my wife, not to worry about dinner in the future. She (Fiona) and I would be making all meals from now on. I've got to find a way to let this kid down gently. It is that or finding more recipes she can tackle.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Brian Williams brouhaha and UFFI have in common: Torquing.

Years after the damage was done, Harris Mitchell told the rest of the UFFI story.

It seems the media are appalled that NBC news anchor Brian Williams embellished a story. Yes the story involved Williams himself and this puts a little extra wobble in the usual spin but pumping up stories is all-too-common in the media. It even has a name: torquing.

As everyone now knows, Brian Williams claimed while covering the war in Iraq the chopper in which he was riding was hit by enemy fire and forced to land. It's a great war story for a journalist, unfortunately his harrowing first-person account isn't true. Williams was in a following aircraft. His aircraft drew no fire. As Mark Twain said: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."

A fellow with which I worked at The London Free Press in London, Ontario, left the paper rather than torque a story. Sent to cover what the editorial department heads believed would be a sensational trial, he returned with a relatively dull tale. The courtroom drama failed to materialize. With lots of space set aside for a front page story, a non-story wasn't acceptable. The reporter was ordered to torque his piece. To inflate it. To fill the space. He refused. Rather than knuckle under he cleaned out his desk and bid the paper adieu. Another reporter, a more malleable one, was assigned the task of torquing the story.

I can't tell you how many times I watched reporters twist stories. One occasion that still roils me up involved a small child lost over-night in a cornfield. The little girl wandered into the tall, mature corn at sunset. Police were called and the field searched. When the police left sometime after midnight, the child had not yet been found.

At daybreak a helicopter arrived and flew over the crop still chilly with wet morning dew. Inside the chopper the passenger aimed an infrared thermographic camera down at the field. Soon the high tech tool, normally used to detect heat loss in buildings, had pinpointed the location of the child. Despite mild hypothermia, the sleeping child's cool body still was much warmer than the surrounding soil.

Although it made a great story in the morning edition — high tech saves child — the high tech angle wouldn't save the story in the afternoon edition. And so the reader-pleasing sidebar to the story was born. According to a later edition, the child could have been found earlier if only the insights of an area psychic had been followed. While television and radio were still hawking the high tech angle, the paper ran a paranormal sidebar.

Of course, the psychic story wasn't true. Both the reporter and I were at the farmhouse all night. There was a reason the reporter hadn't given the psychic much weight in the first story and I hadn't spent time in the darkroom printing pictures. The psychic had been of no help whatsoever.

But, as the day wore on, and interest in the high tech angle wore thin, the psychic saviour took on an attractive patina.  The paranormal story got torqued.

Which brings us to one of the best known torqued stories in the history of journalism: the UFFI scare story. Admittedly, more was at work here than simply pumping up the dramatic value of a story. There is an unhealthy amount of Steven Colbert's "Truthiness" at work here, as well.

Urea formaldehyde foam insulation — UFFI — was forced off the market in Canada decades ago and even today folks selling homes in Ontario are still being asked if their home contains UFFI. Banned in Canada in 1980, UFFI is occasionally still used in Europe. And after briefly being banned in the States it is back in limited use there as well.

Fear of Foam: Harris Mitchell
Why is a product deemed unsafe in Canada legal in Europe? The E.U. is well known for being quick to hit the "ban button." Think of genetically modified foods, pesticides for increased food production, bovine growth hormone, chlorinated chicken, food dye and more. UFFI is not quite ho-hum in Europe but neither is it a scare-you-out-of-your-pants story either.

The reason for the continuing Canadian UFFI scare story is simple. The media loves a good story and one about killer insulation is a beaut. It is not true but it is still a beaut. Sadly, the story has hurt a great many Canadians — both home owners whose homes have lost value because of the story and small, private business owners who lost everything when their insulation businesses closed after the foam, installed using expensive specialized equipment, was made illegal.

I'm not surprised the UFFI story is now known by many to be false. I was certain the story was torqued when it was originally broke in Canada by CBC Marketplace which brags on its Internet site that it "did several groundbreaking reports on it [UFFI] 20 years ago."

Why was I certain? Because I had insulated a fifty year old home with the foam. After reading everything I could, I settled on UFFI. In use in Europe for years, it was a proven product.

From the brochure for Insulspray by Borden that I was given.
I had the Borden Chemical Company product, Insulspray, injected into the hollow walls of my home. The installer told us that the UFFI would not damage our wall by expanding and forcing the aging plaster off the laths nor would it cause any other pressure related damage. He assured us that the foam would shrink as it dried. This would reduce the insulation value a little but insure a damage-free installation.

After tens of thousands of Canadian homes were insulated with UFFI, many with government assistance, insulation horror stories began circulating. As I recall, I was incredibly angry about the attacks made by Marketplace. For instance, Marketplace made a big deal out of the shrinkage. It was great television but poor science and poor news reporting.


Three metal fasteners in UFFI for years and no corrosion.
Newspaper editors saw the Marketplace story and felt scooped. Newsrooms across Canada scrambled to retell the Marketplace story but with a local angle. The scare spread and politicians caved to media pressure. UFFI was banned. More than a quarter of a million Canadian homes required the removal of the foam from hard to reach exterior wall cavities where it had been injected, often with government assistance.

I recall one story on which I worked. Since being insulated, a local home had had a string of residents taken by ambulance to the hospital and the indoor air had a hazy quality.

The home was being used as a defacto old age home. All those taken to the hospital were seniors. Health emergencies came as no surprise.

And the hazy air? The home, draft free since installation of the foam, now had all windows covered with tightly taped plastic. The home was filled with a haze of tobacco smoke. Most of the residents were smokers. The energy saving measures had cut air infiltration to almost zero/ The smoke was no longer being diluted by outside air. The haze was no mystery.
  
Most news stories are good stories but not all are true. The Brian Williams Iraq War fable is not out of place in the world of journalism. Torquing a story has a long, well respected history.
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For more on the present thinking on UFFI, read: Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

It is hard to go wrong with good ingredients



It snowed yesterday and the city failed to plow our street. We were stuck. I had planned on going to the nearby grocery store but with the deep snow I decided not to walk nor to drive. Too cold to walk and too difficult to drive. I decided to make do with the ingredients in the house.

I had a cauliflower I got on sale at Metro and some cherry tomatoes from Costco. First, I fried the tomatoes in a little olive oil in a large wok. After a couple of minutes I added some minced garlic. When the tomatoes began to split, I put them in a small, colourful roasting pan. I put a dab of tomato pesto on each, spread some sun-dried tomatoes and grated Parmesan cheese on top and put the pan in the oven to bake at 350-degrees.

While frying the tomatoes, I lightly cooked the cauliflower in the microwave. After moving the tomatoes into the oven, I added the cauliflower to the remaining olive oil in the wok. I also added a little more minced garlic. I fried the cauliflower until it started to brown while taking care not to burn the garlic.

While frying the cauliflower, I partially cooked some butternut squash in the microwave. Before the cauliflower had browned, I added the squash to the wok. Then, I added about 18 coarsely chopped cashews. When the cauliflower browned, I mixed the cauliflower, squash and nuts thoroughly together before spooning all into a small rectangular Emile Henry roasting pan. I sprinkled some chopped broad leaf parsley and grated Parmesan cheese on top and placed this dish, too, in the oven to bake.

With two pans roasting in the oven, I baked the remaining butternut squash in the microwave with a little butter. Actually, I used Becal margarine as my doctor has ordered me to forgo butter. The squash may seem redundant but actually it adds a much needed focal point to what had to be a meatless dinner -- more directions from my heart doctor.

A big slice of butternut squash looked great on each plate. The cauliflower and squash mixture also looked nice. And the tomatoes not only looked great but they tasted absolutely wonderful. Hot, full of flavour, with a taste nicely accented by both pesto and dried tomatoes.

Leaving meat out of the dinner made it healthy for me and point-friendly for my Weight-Watchers-attending wife. Buying the ingredients on sale and at Costco kept the price low. As I've said before, there is no reason to spend a lot on food in retirement unless you want something expensive and special. (And often even those ingredients can be bought on sale. Here I'm thinking of lobster.)

When reporters warn seniors about the possibility of eating pet food in retirement, I shake my head in disbelief.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Mixed use development coming to London

Near the end of a discussion about a rapid transit development plan for London, the city’s planning chief John Fleming asked: “Why not us? Why can’t we have what other cities have?"

The London Free Press reporter, Randy Richmond, continued on the same tack, asking in his recent story, "Why can’t we be one of the cool cities?" Richmond openly wondered why we can have what Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and Ottawa have and London doesn't.

Why stop with the usual short list of similarly sized Ontario cities? Why not find inspiration not just from cities within the province but from cities outside the province, even outside the country? If we are going to dream, let's dream big.

Think of City Crossing in Luohu, Shenzhen, China with its dramatic mix of uses: retail, commercial and residential. City Crossing - RTKL. Done right, a mixed use development like this would give the London downtown some competition as a destination spot and this might be good. A richer, more vibrant city benefits everyone.




In Calgary, the site of the historical Dominion Bridge steel foundry is slated to be transformed into possibly one of the most vibrant mixed-use developments in the region. The site promises to be a dense, mixed-use district incorporating smart growth with sustainable strategies to create a walkable neighborhood. Dominion Bridge at Ramsay Exchange - RTKL




Makes one wonder what could be done with the former Galleria Mall in downtown London. Built for more than a 100 million it last traded hands for a fraction of its original value. Why not treat the beautiful and not so old failed mall as is being done in many places with ugly, former industrial sites?

Actually, it is half way to conversion today after changes including the name. Both former anchors, one an Eatons and the other a Hudson Bay, have been repurposed with the city's Central Library in the one.

Add an apartment tower, possibly condominiums, drop a grocery store into the mix and could the old luxury mall become a successful mixed use destination? 

If Calgary can do it with an old foundry, why can't London do it with an old mall?