all the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon

We were in Duthie park yesterday, and there were lots of lovely crocuses blooming. And a curious absence of pigeons. Ryan and Gus had set up a slackline and we gave that a try. I found it impossible to even stand, but Brad seems to have some latent talent for it and was taking 4 or 5 steps along the line within a few tries. He’s just kind of annoying like that. I slipped away from slacklining for a wander around the winter gardens (huge complex of greenhouses, fabulous place to spend a few hours on a dreary winter day).

Today we went to Deceptive Wall, which is one of several schist sea cliffs near our house. Schist tends to be steep and tricky, with lots of horizontal breaks that occasionally favor your desperate pawing hand with a nice juicy bucket. Tricky to protect though – the horizontal breaks are often just thin brittle fins, or shallow grooves – so you have to be creative and sometimes do without. The breaks tend to look very tantalizing from below, too, luring you upwards towards what looks like a perfectly serviceable crack only to discover that no, sorry, it’s full of funky bits of loose shale. Keep moving, nothing to place here.

Scoping for gear on the deceptive wall

So today was spring training for me – moderate routes with tricky gear. Brad patiently belayed me while I pfaffed around and finally flumped over the top of a VD and two Severes. My goal was to only place gear I would be happy to fall on, and I didn’t really accomplish that but I did learn some lessons, which were

  1. memorize where all my gear is racked before I leave the ground, and try to put it back in the same spot if I take it off and don’t use it.
  2. when looking for gear placements, don’t forget to look down. Things can look a lot different from above than they did from below.
  3. I don’t think quickly under pressure, so the best strategy for me is to go up, have a look, and then reverse to a comfortable stance to make a plan. Then just do it.

Baby steps. I hope to be doing VS by the end of the summer. Watch this space. But more generally my goal is to be happy swinging leads on long routes in the mountains. I don’t need to get E-whatevers, I just want to be confident in my ability to see tricky situations through on my own so I can cover lots of ground this summer.

Recipe Wednesday: Bok choi and shitake on soba

Ingredients

  • Soba (1 bundle each)*
  • cooking oil
  • A package of fresh shitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 2-3 baby bok choy, washed and sliced (often called “pak choi” or “chinese cabbage” here)
  • 1-3 hot peppers, minced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • a thumb of ginger, minced
  • A splash of mirin (chinese cooking wine)
  • A splash of soy sauce
  • A small splash of sesame oil
  • a few spring onions, sliced
  • cilantro (coriander)
  • toasted sesame seeds

Directions

Boil water for the noodles and prepare your ingredients. Saute the shitake mushrooms in oil with a little salt. Add the garlic, ginger, chillies and a splash of mirin to deglaze the pan. Add the bok choi and saute for another minute or two. By now your noodles should be done – add them to the pan along with soy sauce, sesame oil, and a little more mirin. Toss along with the spring onions and serve garnished with cilantro and sesame seeds.

*It’s not always easy to find soba (buckwheat noodles). Sometimes you can find them in the “special” foods section (e.g. in the Sainsbury’s on Berryden Rd) and certainly at asian stores (like Matthew’s Foods).

Recipe wednesday: Aloo gobi

I have a lot of fond food memories from the Vancouver years. One of them is the all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffets around 41st and Main, and especially the buffet-style aloo gobi. There is just something low-brow but delicious about overcooked and saucy cauliflower sitting under a heat lamp all afternoon. I’ve tried to re-create that experience at home and it’s never quite the same. But it’s good in it’s own way. Green beans (and other veggies) are optional, I just like the extra color.

Ingredients

  • vegetable oil
  • a sprinkle of mustard seeds
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, diced
  • a thumb of ginger, diced
  • a few pinches of cumin and coriander, toasted and ground
  • 1-∞ hot peppers
  • 2 potatoes, cubed
  • 1 can/box of chopped tomatoes, or 2-3 fresh
  • a half head of cauliflower, roughly chopped
  • madras curry powder
  • a handful of green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces (and/or other veggies, e.g. red pepper, zucchini, chopped spinach)
  • cilantro (coriander)
  • basmati rice

Directions

  • Heat the oil in a big pan. Add the mustard seeds.
  • When the mustard seeds start to pop, add the chopped onion and saute until soft (5-6 minutes).
  • Add the garlic, ginger, hot pepper, cumin, coriander, and potato. Saute for a minute or two.
  • Add the tomato, a cup of water, and plenty of curry powder. Cook on high heat for 5-6 minutes.
  • Add the cauliflower, lower the heat, and cook for 20 minutes or so, adding water occasionally to keep the curry saucy.
  • When the potatoes and cauliflower are cooked through, add the green beans and other veggies and simmer for another 5-10 minutes.
  • I’ll sometimes stir in a few spoonfulls of plain yogurt at the end to fill it out, especially if it’s gotten too spicy.
  • Garnish with cilantro and serve with basmati.

Recipe Wednesday (on saturday): parsley soup

It’s only February and we already missed a Wednesday. I have an excuse, which is that I was in Portsmouth. Well, I was only actually IN Portsmouth for a couple of hours, and the rest was planes, trains, cars, airports, train stations. It was a long day, and it cut a hole in the middle of a very busy week, and I’m feeling pretty worn out. The disgusting weather – cold, windy, rainy – doesn’t help. But it’s not a problem! Because I’m going to make some parsley soup and everything will be A-OK.

Parsley is the superfood. It has more than twice as much calcium, potassium, vitamin C, and iron as spinach. And everyone loves it, but folks sometimes shy away from buying big, nutritious, delicious bunches of leafy parsley in the store because they don’t think they can possibly eat it all. Well, here’s one delicious way to eat a lot of parsley in a sitting.  I actually feel a little euphoric after eating this soup.

Ingredients

  • 1 big bunch of parsley (english or italian), leaves separated from the stems
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, 2 left whole and 1 diced
  • a pat of butter
  • 1 large potato, cubed (or two smaller ones)
  • 1 cube of veggie bouillon

Instructions

  • First, make the “stalk stock”. Put the onion, carrot, whole garlic cloves, and parsley stems into a pot with 3-4 cups of water, along with any other veggies and seasoning you would like – celery, bay leaf, peppercorns, and lemon slices are all nice.
  • Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer for at least 20 minutes (longer doesn’t hurt it but you may need to add more water).
  • While that simmers, saute the potato and garlic together in butter in a second soup pot (big enough to contain all the stock you are simmering).
  • When the potatoes are soft, strain the vegetables from the stalk stock and add the liquid to the pot with the potatoes. If it doesn’t look like enough liquid, add some more water.
  • Add the bouillon and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and stir in the parsley leaves. Simmer until the parsley starts to break down but is still nice and green.
  • Blend with an upright or handheld immersion blender, season to taste.
  • Eat and wait for the euphoria to kick in.

Weekend Warriors

The skin on my hands is quite sore at the moment. It feels like I’ve using a belt sander on my palms. Strangely enough, I also feel quite satisfied to feel this way. It means I had a great weekend. It kicked off Friday night with a bouldering competition at the local climbing wall. Unfortunately, I didn’t do all that well, but my friend Stuart did and it’s always good fun anyway so it’s hard to be angry. Mandatory pints with the crew at Blackfriars afterward chased away any lingering self-flagellation.

Saturday morning Matthew drove up from Edinburgh in search of quality coastal climbing. The forecast was extremely good, promising chilly temps but sunny skies.  It’s pre-nesting season for the hoards of sea birds that come to cover the cliffs and winter storms have washed away last year’s nests and guano.  This time of year many of the best crags are in condition. We headed to the Red Wall, which I’d already climbed at a few times this year. There was still much to do and hopefully the sunny skies would encourage me up some harder climbs. Despite climbing in the dead of winter, I’m very much a fair weather climber. I don’t perform well when I can’t feel my fingers.

We abseiled down to the base of Red Wall and Matthew immediately jumped on a hard E2. The book describes it as being strenuous, with barely adequate protection. Gear looked tricky to place, wasn’t confidence inspiring and the moves above it were strenuous indeed. I was happy to second it. My lead was a less ambitious E1 flake crack that looked quite good from the ground. I found the moves to the crack poorly protected which kind of freaked me out. Once in the crack I was given only one shallow nut placement to protect the moves above. My leg did a fair Elvis impression while placing more shallow gear before the final hard moves to safety. Guess I won’t be trying anything hard today.

Matthew’s next climb was another E2, this one quite excellent. Good gear and good steady climbing with a tricky bit at the top. Again, I was happy to second but this time just because the climbing was so fun. Winter cragging unfortunately means short days and we had lost our sun around the horizon. It was time to start thinking about getting out. Once down at the base, the only option for getting out is to climb.

I chose a quality two pitch HVS to get us out. Pitch one was quite good climbing up to and then around a roof into a perfect flake. By the time everyone was up to the belay it was getting quite dark. Thankfully Matthew led out the second pitch with all due haste and we topped out in the dark. I found the last pitch quite  cold and covered in lichen. I think we went off route a bit, but it was the path of least resistance and we didn’t get benighted so I wasn’t complaining. In fact, I was quite happy with the day. Four more climbs! We’ve been very lucky. And tomorrow the forecast looked just as good.

The next day we headed back up North to Long Haven. This time we were going to the Round Tower, a place that fills me with a bit of trepidation. There’s a hard climb there I want to do but I doubted this was the day. It was colder, the sun still hadn’t come out as promised and there was ice in the puddles. We stomped out to the Round Tower and were greeted with a rather damp looking wall. We decided to take a closer look. The approach is on the north side of the tower along a narrow grassy ledge some 20 meters above the sea. It was a bit wet and we had packs on. It was a bit hairy, but we made it. Once around the backside we were able to see most of the routes. Some are very hard, others less so, all were greasy. The architecture of the rock is quite amazing though. It will be great to get back there some sunny day before the birds return.

We had a look at other cliffs on the way back to the car. No climbing outside today. Far too greasy. Funny how quickly conditions change on the coast. We decided to go climbing indoors, had a beast of a session. A lot of good friends were there as well which made it even more enjoyable.

We sent Matthew on his way with a belly full of haggis. A proper end to a great weekend. Pictures below.

Recipe Wednesday: Palak Paneer

Most recipes for palak paneer have an excessive amount of fat in them. I’m not a fan of “light” foods but it does seem to me that if you’re already frying cheese in oil, adding cream is just a bit much. Moreover,  the whole dish is really much more delicious and fresh tasting, and looks more appetizing, without adding dairy fat to the sauce. You don’t even really need cheese, but it does add indulgent little chunks to an otherwise virtuous meal.

You really need some kind of chopper/blender/cuisinart for this one. We have a little “mini-prep” cuisinart that does the job nicely.

Ingredients

  • cooking oil – we like grapeseed oil, but any vegetable oil is fine.
  • a handful of cashews, ground into a course powder
  • 1 big tomato or two little ones, pureed or finely chopped, or 2/3 cup of pre-chopped canned tomato
  • paneer – we usually use 1/3 to 1/2 a standard-sized block, cut into 1/2 inch cubes. If you don’t foresee using the rest of the block soon, stick the rest of it in the freezer for next time because it goes off quickly, and freezing doesn’t seem to affect it much.
  • A large quantity of fresh spinach. Bags of pre-washed baby spinach are our favorite, although they tend to come in smaller quantities so we often use two bags. A single big bag of unwashed “adult” spinach is great too, but do soak the leaves in cold water to get rid of any grit, and remove big tough stems. We’ve tried frozen spinach in this as well and it’s OK, but not as delicious as fresh.
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, diced
  • a thumb of ginger, diced
  • 1-∞ diced chillies, depending on how spicy you like it
  • big pinch of ground cumin
  • big pinch of ground coriander
  • slices of lemon and chopped cilantro (coriander to you brits) for garnish
  • basmati rice and/or naan

Directions

  • Put your rice on to cook.
  • Prep your ingredients. If you’re starting with whole coriander and cumin seeds, toast them together in a dry skillet and then grind them to a course powder. Grind the cashews and blend the tomatoes separately and set aside. Chop your paneer, onion, garlic, ginger, and chillies.
  • Fry the paneer in oil until lightly browned. Set aside – preferably on a paper towel to soak up excess oil.
  • Saute the spinach in oil with the diced chillies until it is a miraculously tiny pile of bright green stuff (~2mins). Scoop it out into the chopper/blender and blend it into a smooth sauce.
  • Saute the onions in oil with the cumin and coriander until soft (5 minutes).
  • Add the garlic and ginger and saute for another 2 minutes.
  • Stir in the spinach, cashews, and tomatoes and saute for another 5 minutes. Salt to taste.
  • Finally, add the cheese and serve on rice, garnished with cilantro and slices of lemon on the side.