Saturday, August 20, 2016

Lab Girl

Lab Girl
Hope Jahren
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

Hope Jahren is a scientist and a professor and has a blog ( that I started reading a couple of years ago. Mostly she blogs about her life and her work, which includes plenty of rants about sexism in science and related subjects – she’s a woman scientist, and this isn’t an easy thing to be. This book is her autobiography, potentially Volume I of a series because she’s far from the end of her career and/or life at this point so I assume there are many more stories to be told. But Hope sure can write so I’m quite optimistic that she’ll keep us updated as she sees fit.

This was a highly-anticipated book among the other bloggers I regularly and semi-regularly read. It was also an anticipated book among many of the people I know in real life, who may or may not have their own blogs but many of whom are women and scientists and women scientists. I bought this book in the Chapters in West Edmonton Mall in May; I was at #WEM with my post-doc advisor, Dr. Maria Strack and when I showed her my purchases I promised her I’d loan her the book when I had finished reading it myself. I’ve just loaned it to Charlie so Maria will have to either wait or buy her own copy.

I read Lab Girl in a single weekend. I haven’t read an entire book start-to-finish in a weekend like that for a long time – the last time I’m sure I did that was with Jurassic Park, and I was about 16. I think there’s something about some books that just hooks me at the right age; when I was 16 that hook was in Jurassic Park, when I’m 38 that hook was in Lab Girl. So my opinion of Lab Girl is very positive. But Book Club blog entries have never been about just reviewing a book, they (should) always be about other ideas that flow from reading a book. Such as this idea of age-dependent hooks in books (rhyming is good and fun). Oddly enough, Lab Girl was certainly not written for me, so the hook in it that got me counts as by-catch.

I say that because there is so much in Lab Girl that’s inspiring as a scientist, that gets right at what I want to do as a scientist. More than once, Dr. Jahren describes walking out into an ecosystem, and just letting the environment and her mind interact at some subconscious level until she comes up with a Research Question (capital letters denote things that are more permanent than the daydreams I romp through almost continuously). She kneels in a peat bog in Ireland until an Hypothesis regarding ecohydrology occurs to her, then she starts collecting specimens. She helps a colleague unpack samples and then spends half a decade running fossil carbon through her mass spec. But while I love those stories, they’re not for me – they’re for somebody like me but who has experienced things I have not, things like sexism and manic-depressive mental illnesses interacting with pregnancy.

Having said that, there’s actually less sexism and discrimination and injustice in Lab Girl than I was expecting based on my reading of Dr. Jahren’s blog. My impression of her blog is that she is angry – completely justifiably! – about the institutional sexism and high-level bullshit that infests academic science. That anger is present in Lab Girl, but it’s very much in the background. She may have made her blog about it, but she didn’t make her life about it. Her book, in other words, is not a product of her blog; both her book and her blog are products of her writing, which is itself a product that passes through many filters and checkpoints on its way from her life and her mind. At least, that’s my meta-impression of what of hers I’ve read. I intend to read her scientific papers (well, some of them – at one point in Lab Girl Dr. Jahren mentions a mid-career total in the neighbourhood of 70 peer-reviewed papers) for another look at her overall writing but also because I find myself in a related field. The parts about water-use by plants is especially interesting at the moment.

There are a couple of small errors, and while I really really like Lab Girl, I feel like I need to point them out. The most glaring is a description of DNA and chromosomes as protein. She’s describing the genome of Arabidopsis thaliana, that workhorse of plant genetics, and in two separate paragraphs talks about the length of protein unraveled from each cell. No. Chromosomes do include plenty of protein, but genomes are made of DNA.

In another part of the book, a shocking (to me) casual negligence toward automobile seatbelts is described. Look, just wear your damn seatbelts, OK? Every. Time. Complaints about “Grizzly Adams” field scientists not taking her seriously are much less impressive after reading her laissez-faire attitude towards field work. If you’re going to tell me you don’t feel safe around that creepy post-doc, don’t follow it up with multiple stories of car crashes and heads bouncing off windshields. The creepy post-doc might have legitimately been terrifying, but he didn’t give you a bloody nose and a concussion the way bad car decisions did.

The last thing in Lab Girl I didn’t like – and in a discussion like this I feel I need to remind myself that this is a really good book, like top 10 lifetime books I’ve read GOOD – is a description of what amounts to a “teachable moment”. After her misadventures in Ireland, which culminated in all of her meticulously documented samples being disposed of by an Irish customs agent (Get a permit. It’s not that hard. But I digress), Dr. Jahren has come up with a test of new graduate students that aims to simulate that crushed distress upon having one’s recent hard work destroyed. She describes an exercise in which a new student, somewhat insultingly referred to as a “noob” (LOL OMG BBQ) is made to carefully label a large number of sample vials in anticipation of an upcoming field trip. Then Dr. Jahren and her long-serving research partner (that’s a relationship for a separate Book Club, it’s too big to tackle here) play a game of “Good Cop-Bad Cop” that ultimately results in the entire set of vials being unceremoniously dumped in the trash. This is, on a certain level, a simulation of the end of their Irish trip. But the intent is entirely different, and intent matters.

The intent of the Irish customs agent was to enforce the law, a law that Dr. Jahren should have known about, and Dr. Jahren should have had a permit to export plant material from Ireland. There was a bit of an aside in there about checked vs. carry-on luggage and I don’t think she learned any lessons there; she did claim to have learned the lesson about permits, even if only at the “I’m sorry I got caught” level rather than the truly “I’m sorry for what I did” level.

The intent of Dr. Jahren and Bill in their test-the-noob exercise is to see if an A+ student is really an A+ student or is really a B+ student. The difference, and this is my taxonomy not hers, is that the A+ effort includes something well above-and-beyond expectations, some action that counts as Outstanding. She slyly describes a student who “passed” this bullshit secret test by pulling the vials out of the trash and cleaning them, making them potentially useful for another field trip. There’s so much wrong with that, but I’m going to just focus on the stupid bullshit of a secret test – and that’s all a “teachable moment” is. I went through one or two during my time as a grad student and they were always completely unjust and unfair. If you need me to do something, I’ll do it. If you need me to learn something, I’ll learn it. But don’t “cleverly” combine the two and ruin both. Please. Please, Dr. Jahren, please stop doing that label-vials / good-cop-bad-cop exercise. It shows considerable contempt on your part towards your student, and is a violation of trust. Cut it out.

I would be very happy if pretty much everybody I know could read Lab Girl. It’s a damn good book, a series of great stories told with considerable skill and pushed together into something much bigger than the sum of the parts. I especially want a handful of individuals I know to read Lab Girl; I’m looking forward to presenting this book, this individual copy of a mass-produced hardcover to Maria. And I want to buy more copies for other people. It seems like a mild violation of privacy to describe any of these other future-gift-recipients by name here, but I can plug the wonderful, horrifying, terrifying, fantastic writing of my internet-friend Elise the Great here, and Elise, please read Lab Girl. I’ll send you a copy or an Amazon gift code or something.

Friday, June 10, 2016

My Leatherman

7 Years

I had my Leatherman tool, on my belt, for seven years. My soon-to-be-PhD-advisor-at-the-time, Dr. Steven Siciliano, gave me a Leatherman Charge TTi - a top-of-the-line multitool - before my first field season with him and his research group in 2009. He gave it to me around March or April of that year, and I've worn it on my belt nearly every day since then.

That's around 2500 days of that lump of complex, hinged, bladed metal on my left hip. I've gone through three sheaths and I don't know how many subconscious hand-passes over my belt to make sure its still there.

Early this year I accidentally tried to take it through security at Pearson International Airport, on my way to visit Charlie in February. The security personnel were quite nice and polite about it, and let me mail it back to myself in Waterloo; it was waiting in my mailbox when I returned a week later. 

At the end of my 6-week-long bookended-by-conferences early-summer-2016 fieldwork I sent it in to Leatherman's facilities in Burlington, Ontario, for warranty repairs. Before I flew from Calgary to Fredericton, I went to Canada Post and sent it to Ontario. Tonight, it has been returned to me.

Or rather, an updated substitute has been returned to me, and my Leatherman is no more. Because the Charge TTi has been replaced in the Leatherman Inc. lineup by the Charge Titanium, that is what I now have. This new Charge Titanium is a thing of beauty, a tool of vast utility that fits perfectly with the accessories (sheath, screwdriver bits) I was instructed not to send in. But it's not my Leatherman (yet).

The knife blade is flawless, not the chipped, scratched, and haphazardously-sharpened blade I used to cut ludicrously-fresh tomatoes and pears on the top of an Arctic mountain.

The saw blade is perfect, not the scratched, difficult-to-open tooth I used to cut branches and an uncountable number of zipties (using the sharp hook on its tip) on seven years of Arctic expeditions and Prairie Rivers canoe trips.

The file - both sides! - is clean to the point of optical illusion along its cross-hatched surface, and bears no trace of the steel soil-gas probes I filed and filed and polished and cursed before fitting their machinist-perfect but field-work-distorted hammer-cap on to drive into the rocky soil of the Arctic polar deserts.

The pliers are smooth and shiny, not the sticking, misaligned grip I pulled endless nails from endless boards with.

Even the scissors, tiny and sharp, are quite excellent, and not the cutters I pushed and squeezed through paper, string, cardboard, and plastic over the majority of a decade.

I'm going to enjoy and appreciate this tool over the next seven years - or more! - but I do feel like an old friend has been lost, and a concrete symbol of my PhD has disappeared.

Thank you, Leatherman, for making such fine tools. I hope my use of this new multitool lives up to the legacy of the previous one. And thank you, Dr. Siciliano, for sending me down this pathway seven years ago.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

My Boring-by-Comparison Fort McMurray Story

My summer 2016 schedule is a bit different from last year's. Instead of staying in one place, working at a single site for four months, I am spending this summer travelling to several different sites. My job this year is primarily to help the graduate students in our lab get their field work established, and set up a side-project Maria and I came up with that adds a little bit of extra work to the day-to-days of the students and research assistants. I give a bit, I take a bit.

Summer field work in Canada south of the Arctic Circle often gets started in May, or late April if conditions allow. There are four sites in northern/central Alberta where I'd like to do some science, and two conferences to bookend this early-summer setup season, so I created a plan back in February / March to spend around one week at each site, covering the last week of April through to late May.

The first site to visit was Fort McMurray; we're continuing work with Suncor on their wetland reclaimation / restoration project, and we have a handful of "reference" sites in the area. Sarah, a master's student in our lab, was planning to spend the entire summer working at Fort McMurray on these sites, and because her work is largely focused on hydrology (especially the transport of dissolved materials through the study systems), she wanted to get some instruments into place as early as possible. In an ideal year, that would have included snowmelt, but given how weird 2016 has been pretty much everywhere, we had to satisfy ourselves with the last week of April.

I flew from Munich, Germany (my weekend in Munich will be the subject of another post, sometime) to Calgary on Monday, April 25, stayed with my parents one night - a too-short visit by far! - then picked up my rental car Tuesday morning. I drove up to Fort McMurray, an entirely uneventful 7-hour drive up the middle of the province.

We had our Kickoff meeting - a general overview of the project, with an emphasis on safety with our contacts / immediate supervisors at Suncor - on Wednesday morning, then Sarah and I got to work installing her runoff collectors and carrying out other beginning-of-field-season type work. I've had to explain these tasks in varying levels of detail to a range of other people - safety folks at Suncor, passers-by, other researchers, etc. - and to be honest, the details have kind of blurred together at this point. Digging and playing with soil, for the most part.

Suncor has tight rules regarding photographs at their property, and while I do have a valid camera pass, I have to submit any photos I plan to share with the world (websites, scientific conferences, etc.) to a manager at that company, and at the moment I think they have higher priorities to worry about. I have lots more to say about this issue, but not right now. So, no pictures of Sarah's experimental apparatus, or anything else at Suncor.

We can only work at Suncor on weekends if we really need to, and we didn't, so we had a chance to visit the reference sites on Saturday and Sunday. My side project, a look at the effects on greenhouse gas exchange (especially methane) of the cutlines so abundant in the Canadian boreal forest, needed to get started. Sarah and I went to Saline on Saturday, expecting a modest day - maybe 6 hours of work - and a need to work fairly hard given the still-frozen soil in many places and the long walk in to Saline. Saline is, as the name suggests, a fen (a wetland with a direct connection to groundwater, contra a bog, without such a connection) with high levels of dissolved ions in the local water supply. The vegetation community is dominated by sedges and reeds, with very few mosses able to tolerate the high salinity.

Saline April 2016 1
The Saline Fen. The pipes sticking up in the front-left are a nest of piezometers, used to measure water flows through this fen.

Saline April 2016 6
We use 60x60cm collars to isolate patches of ground and measure greenhouse gas exchange. Ours are constructed of steel, and rust rapidly in the salty peat of the Saline Fen.

Saline April 2016 8
My new collars (actually, just relocated old collars that were not too rusty), on the cutline that cuts right through the Saline Fen. I'm not sure why this cutline was constructed; possibilities include to provide a winter road or temporary access to areas beyond the fen, a seismic survey looking for buried deposits (in this part of the world, oil), or some other reason.

Saline April 2016 10
The cutline, continuing on to parts unknown.

Saline April 2016 11
On our way out - surprisingly early, we were back at the truck by 11:30 - we spotted a couple of caribou (Rangifer tarandus).

Saline April 2016 13
One seemed a little curious about us.

We returned to the house in Fort McMurray rented by the University of Waterloo, and had a few small tasks to complete mostly concerned with getting ready for Sunday, with a visit to Poplar, a tree-covered bog.

Poplar Cutlines 3
Poplar Bog. Both the "Large" and "Small" cutlines are visible here, along with the patch of "undisturbed" bog between them where I placed my reference collars.

Despite a greater number of collars to install and more difficult soil conditions - ice was close to the surface at Poplar, and abundant tree roots made cutting into the peat especially challenging - we were again finished before lunchtime. My plan was to drive to Peace River, a road distance of nearly 700 km, on Monday so I could attend a required safety training course in Peace River on Tuesday morning. Sunday afternoon was thus spent in quiet relaxation. Later in the afternoon we noticed the smoke plumes to the south and to the north, indicating wildfires. Wildfires are not particularly rare in the boreal forest, and given the hot, dry conditions the area had experienced all April, such a fire in the forests near Fort McMurray was not surprising. 

We treated the circling firefighting aircraft - we saw at least three water-bombers plus at least two helicopters carrying buckets and one "birddog" control-and-direction airplane - as a pleasant and interesting diversion on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I was a pretty enthusiastic airplane nerd when I was around 10 years old, and I snapped a few pictures.

Sunday Afternoon in Fort McMurray 1
Sunday Afternoon in Fort McMurray 2
Sunday Afternoon in Fort McMurray 7
Suburbia-and-smoke shots

Sunday Afternoon in Fort McMurray 3
It's hard to see, so I've highlighted the water stream, but a neighbour a few houses down was watering their lawn. I took this picture thinking it made an amusing contrast, but in hindsight it takes on more of a futile-gesture feeling.

Sunday Afternoon in Fort McMurray 11
I snapped this shot off at an awkward angle, but it shows the red stain from the firefighting foam this airplane has been dispensing. I saw none of the famous Canadair scooper-type waterbombers, and these 'planes need to return to an airport after dropping their loads. The advantage of the foam over water is greater wetability - water isn't actually that wet, especially when splashed onto burning trees. And, I'm not certain that a scooper would be able to operate effectively around Fort McMurray - the Athabasca river has very few straight parts, I don't know how deep it is, and there are few large lakes in the area.

Sunday Afternoon in Fort McMurray 15
Sunday Afternoon in Fort McMurray 19
Sunday Afternoon in Fort McMurray 27

Sunday night was quiet - I don't think waterbombers usually operate at night - and Monday morning included a heavy haze of smoke over the city. I dawdled my morning, sticking around long enough to wash and dry the sheets from my bed, and triple-check I wasn't leaving anything behind.

Conditions cleared up completely once I was about 15km south of town, and my drive down the infamous Highway 63 was about as calm and uneventful as is possible. Highway 63 is infamous because of the high death rate during the peak boom years, about 4-5 years ago. The news across Canada would periodically cover the more spectacular crashes, most of which were generated by young men with large incomes and powerful cars beyond their abilities to properly control driving at ridiculously high speeds and making dangerous passes on the two-lane undivided highway. Last summer I saw intense construction activity all along Highway 63 from its junction with 55, about 250 km south of Fort McMurray; this year, they appear to have completely twinned the highway except for one short section that feels like a normal construction zone. I stopped for fuel in Wandering River, and continued on my way.

The rest of that drive is more interesting, but I'll save that for another post. It wasn't until Tuesday evening that I realized the wildfires I had seen near Fort McMurray were actually forming an existential threat to the entire city. Sunday afternoon we'd joked about the smoke, asking each other how far away that fire might be, and I remember saying something like "It must be pretty far away, they'd pull out all the stops if it gets too close to the city. There's no way they'd let Fort McMurray burn." The amazing damage to the city and the total evacuation puts the lie to my confidence in the unlimited abilities of northern Alberta firefighters. This fire - apparently now named "The Beast" - is beyond any normal human efforts, and I can only salute the crews working to minimize the damage from my safe vantage point.

Peace River is living up to its name, in stark contrast to the catastrophe I accidentally avoided.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Club: Near Death in the Desert

Near Death in the Desert
True Stories of Disaster and Survival
Edited by Cecil Kuhne
Random House, 2009

I picked up this book in a used bookstore not long ago, realizing the useful niche between fiction and long-form non-fiction a set of short non-fiction stories like this occupies in my reading-for-entertainment habits. Cecil Kuhne has also edited a series of apparently similar volumes, listed in the front matter of this book with titles like "Near Death in the Arctic".

I assume Cecil Kuhne, in addition to choosing stories to include and separating out parts he wished to include from longer works (i.e., the work of assembling this volume) wrote the 1-paragraph texts that introduce and post-script each story. He does a very poor job at this, over-sensationalizing all of the stories (as much as the title does - few disasters are involved anywhere) and, more seriously in my opinion, opening one story with a bit of frankly racist nonsense. The oldest story fragment here is from the account by J.W. Powell of the 1869 expedition to explore the Colorado river and a part of the Grand Canyon. Kuhne states "Major Powell set out from Green River, Whyoming, to explore territory and rapids never before viewed by human eyes." (emphasis added by me) The story, which I can only assume Kuhne read, includes multiple mentions of the discovery by Major Powell of the remains of native American habitations, and plenty of description of such artifacts found overlooking the river as abundant broken pottery and the outlines of house foundations.

Overall, this wasn't a great read. The variety of voices was a strength, certainly, but despite covering adventures separated by more than a century (the most recent story takes place in the early 1980's) I found more in common among these authors than their voyages across hot sand and rock: none of them were particularly likeable or relatable. I think it's probably a hazard of this kind of extreme travel-writing that the author-adventurers start out as people of a tiny minority, who feel such a strong wanderlust that they set out on near-suicidal and deeply uncomfortable voyages (the squidgiest part of this book for me was the description of attempts to remove lice from clothing). They don't relate well to most "normal" people in their home societies, so they don't come across as particularly relatable in their day-to-day concerns or their long-term goals to most "normal" people, either. I don't consider myself particularly "normal" in this sense, and I like to imagine that I am actually closer to these authors along some hypothetical "stay-at-home / see the world" spectrum, but I don't like them. Perhaps I'm subconsciously worried that I will fall into some of their more unpleasant habits as I pursue my own adventures (lice aside, there is a general acceptance among these authors of some pretty blatant human-rights violations happening around them. Sure, what can a foreigner do, especially alone in a strange culture? But, that to me does not extend to slavery).

I'm leaving this book in the informal library at the hostel I'm staying at in Munich this weekend, perhaps one of my fellow travellers here will enjoy it more than I did.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Betty Crocker Cookbook #39 Cuban Pork Sandwiches (pg. 451) - 160218

Rather than buy roast pork, or make it in the extremely limited time we had available, Charlie suggested we use the pulled barbeque pork out of the previous night's slow cooker.

No pictures, again, but I can blame the pickles for that - a fine addition to nearly any sandwich!

Betty Crocker Cookbook #38 Pulled Jerk Pork Sandwiches (pg. 157) - 160217

When I visit Charlie, I tend to buy a nice big piece of meat for her freezer and her slow cooker. This time, it was a pork shoulder. This recipe calls for a 2.5 pound boneless shoulder, but those are hard to find in Regina so we ended up with a 4 pound bone-in shoulder. This worked quite well, and the resulting sandwiches were fantastic. No photos, because apparently I get easily distracted by great food.

This also supplied "roast pork" to the Cuban Pork Sandwiches we made for lunch the next day.

Betty Crocker Cookbook #35: California Black Bean Burgers (pg. 504) - 160215

For my first foray into the Vegetarian chapter of the Betty Crocker Cookbook, Charlie helped me make burger patties out of black beans. The "California" part of the name comes from the salsa used as garnish during final assembly; I gather that such non-standard burger toppings are stereotypically associated with the hedonism of The Golden State.

I took no photos of these burgers, mainly due to the extreme mess that results from trying to force a fairly wet bean paste into a coherent patty. They were also excellent, so I didn't put down my burger to pick up my camera.

Betty Crocker Cookbook #36: Chicken and Broth (pg. 434) and #37 Quick Jambalaya (pg. 433) - 160216

I visited Charlie in Regina over reading break in February, and together we completed enough recipes in this project to add considerably to her store of frozen meals.

Several of the recipes we chose - chosen as we drove back to Regina from Cypress Hills - were set up as prerequisites supplying key ingredients to subsequent recipes. In this case, the Chicken and Broth supplied chicken broth to the Quick Jambalaya; we also added some of the cooked chicken that resulted, despite not being called for in the Jambalaya recipe.

Some of the broth from the Chicken and Broth. I felt like we were using this simple recipe in the way the authors of the cookbook intended - this recipe doesn't produce a meal, or a component of a multi-dish meal, it provides ingredients to further recipes.

Quick Jambalaya
We didn't have frozen brown-and-serve sausage links as called for, and our shrimp still had tails, but we substituted regular sausages and added most of the smaller chicken pieces. I couldn't convince Charlie to dive all-in to this project and get instant rice, so we just simmered the jambalaya for longer and used regular brown rice.

Absolutely delicious!

 I had to go back and change the recipe numbers when I realized we made the California Black Bean Burgers Monday, and these recipes Tuesday.

Betty Crocker Cookbook #34: Glazed Carrots (pg. 457) - 160207

Hey, look at that! I'm close to two months behind on my blogging already! Oh well. Hopefully I can remember the relevant details for these recipes.

Glazed Carrots

I'd chosen glazed carrots as a way to get into the Vegetables chapter, then felt mildly intimidated by it, because it's pretty far from my "normal" diet. In any case, it was far simpler and took much less time than I had expected, and the flavour was quite nice.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Betty Crocker Cookbook #33: Spiced Corned Beef Brisket with Horseradish Sour Cream (pg. 156) - 160204

I chose this recipe to use up the rest of the very-salty "navel" beef I'd bought for recipe #21. I washed the beef chunks in running water for about 10 seconds to remove some salt. As with nearly everything I put into my slow cooker, everything emerged after 9 hours that same colour of brown, and quite soft.

Corned Beef Horseradish

Despite my slow cooker's tendency to colour everything the same, the taste is more robust. Especially salt. This was still pretty salty. Also, I'm now convinced that I have, at some point, completely ruined my ability to taste the hot/spicy part of the flavour of horseradish. I glopped a huge amount of the horseradish sour cream on this, and it was delicious but completely non-spicy.

Also! I finally bought a freezer. $60 from a person moving out of a house in Cambridge.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Betty Crocker Cookbook #32: Beer-Cheese Soup (pg. 440) - 160131

After my heavy breakfast with sausages and eggs, I was happy to tick off a meatless soup for supper. Soup generally goes well with bread, anyway, and I'd bought some lovely beer at the local brewery in growlers.

Beer-Cheese Soup

I used Waterloo Dark for the beer, though I'm not sure how much of a difference that makes. The celery didn't soften as much as I expected. It wasn't crunchy, but it was more firm than I'm used to. Of course, most of my celery consumption comes out of my slow cooker, which turns most vegetables into brown paste regardless of starting characteristics.

The last ingredient is "Popped popcorn, if desired". I don't normally desire, but I have a bit of regret that I did not pick up any popcorn in anticipation of this recipe. Presumably there are other recipes that call for this American staple, so I can correct that oversight.

Betty Crocker Cookbook #31: French Bread (pg. 84) - 160131

My first yeast bread from this recipe book for this project! I decided to make this, as well as do some needed household chores, instead of going for a Sunday Drive this week. Every recipe in this book comes with a time estimate, usually broken down by major stages: prep, cook, stand, etc. The totals, however, can conceal a pattern of work / rest with more steps than simply "prep", "rise", and "chill". Betty Crocker's French bread suggests 25 minutes of preparation, 3 hours 15 minutes of rise, 4 hours of chill, and 20 minutes to bake.

These totals are probably accurate (except the bake time). There are three rise stages, each about an hour long, separated by blocks of preparation. I've baked bread a few times before, so I consider myself to know my way around kneading and yeast-handling. The big variant here is the repeated applications of sprayed-on water, and the pan of water in the oven during baking. This helps to develop a crispy crust, apparently.

The baking time was described as "18 to 20 minutes" but I think my oven struggles to acheive and maintain high temperatures, so I left the loaves in the oven for about 30 minutes before they looked the right colour to me.

French Bread 1

French Bread 2

I goddam love fresh bread. I couldn't wait, so I cut one loaf using an oven mitt to hold the hot loaf and smeared butter on the cut pieces. Fantastic!

Betty Crocker Cookbook #30: Mexican Scrambled Eggs (pg. 221) - 160131

I think the easiest recipe in this book is Scrambled Eggs, so I took on the variant, Mexican Scrambled Eggs. This is very similar to the breakfast burritos I sometimes do - scrambled eggs, stir-fried onion & pepper, wrapped in a tortilla with cheese - but with some chorizo sausage added. The sausage wasn't really "chorizo", it was whatever sub-category the sausage the Mennonites sell at the St. Jacob's farmers' market falls into. There are Mennonites in Mexico, and I didn't go for the garlic sausage, so I'm going to call this substitution "close enough".

No photo, so I can't show you how I made a rather large breakfast for myself. I was pretty stuffed.

Betty Crocker Cookbook #29: Broiled Fish Steaks (pg. 243) - 160129

I bought enough basa fillets for about four meals (at least!) so I decided to make more room in my freezer, still lacking a stand-alone unit, and broiled up a trio. I don't yet have a broiling pan, an oversight I covered with my metal trivet balanced on a cookie sheet, but I'll need to get a proper one before I tackle any other broiling / roasting recipes. The variant for this recipe is fillets, and the instructions are nearly exactly the same as for fish steaks.

Broiled Fish

These were actually kind of bland, but that's not really surprising, they were seasoned only with butter, salt, and black pepper. Still, not bad and nearly as quick as advertised. I'd picked up some sweet-potato oven fries and broccoli at the grocery store, mainly because I had the realization in the frozen isle that I hadn't bought anything that could be described as "prepared food" since I began this project. Frozen pizzas were a prominent part of my diet last year, and I'll probably break down and buy one or two eventually but so far I'm not really missing them.

Betty Crocker Cookbook #28: Pecan-Crusted Fish Fillets (pg. 243) - 160127

It took me a while to make up my mind regarding the fish to purchase when I was at the grocery store this week. Most fresh fish is pretty expensive around here, but I settled on Basa fillets (boneless and skinless) because they seemed suitable and were not nearly as pricey as (for example) the tilapia or the Atlantic cod. One aspect of this project I'm really looking forward to is the fish and shellfish chapter, because I eat very little fish normally. Aside from the occasional bit of tuna, I almost never eat anything from the sea or freshwater.

The reason it took me a long time to choose the basa was mainly because it is not included on the list of fishes on page 242 of Betty Crocker - there's a helpful table for classifying fish. Mostly it comes down to the texture of the meat. Some recipes call for "medium-firm texture", others for "delicate to medium" or "firm". I gather these differences would affect cooking times and temperatures, and the ways one might handle the fish pieces during cooking. A bit of googling reveals that basa is southeast-Asian catfish, farmed in the Mekong river. There's actually a fair bit of discussion regarding basa online, and I'm not sure I'll buy it a second time. This is part of the reason I so rarely eat fish: I don't want to contribute to an industry that has so many harmful environmental impacts across so many different ecosystems.

No photo this time, because somehow it completely slipped my mind. Chopping up the pecans took a bit of time, and only about half of them stuck to the egg-dipped fish fillets. So some of the pecans ended up fried directly in the pan, which was fine, it's not like nuts go soft in a frying pan or anything.

Betty Crocker Cookbook #27: Orange Smoothie (pg. 63) - 160126

This is labelled both "Fast" and "Low-fat", but I think the second one depends on the use of vanilla frozen yogurt, rather than the alternative built into the main recipe (this actually has no variants) of vanilla ice cream.

As usual, this recipe makes enough for multiple servings, in this case four. I cut it down to a single serving because a) it's just me and b) I only had a little more than 1 cup of vanilla ice cream anyway (and no frozen yogurt of any flavour).

Orange Smoothie

This was very sweet, but pretty tasty. Too sweet for me for breakfast, really, but this would make a pretty good dessert. Especially, I suspect, with frozen yogurt.

Betty Crocker Cookbook #26: Skillet Calzon (pg. 525) - 160125

I played Pathfinder with my friends on Monday night, starting about an hour after I got home. I threw together this meal from the "20 Minutes or Less" chapter, and even though it actually took closer to 30 minutes (this is a pattern for me) it worked quite well. Fortunately, I can mute my microphone through, the website that lets us play this "tabletop" role-playing game (RPG) online: nobody else had to listen to me chew.

I guess you can buy mushrooms in little jars in the USA, because this is the second recipe I've done from this book in which I've substituted a 10-oz can of mushrooms for the called-for 4.5-oz jar. I like mushrooms, so it was no problem. The basic idea is to cook up this tomato / ground beef / vegetables sauce and slather it on some toasted French bread with Parmesan cheese. The instruction "French bread" is a little vague, though, I think they must be using much larger loaves than what I bought. I used what amounts to a baguette, though at some local grocery stores I know I can sometimes buy "French bread" that's wider.

Skillet Calzone

This handily made enough leftovers for a second meal. I'm not sure where the name comes from, as a calzone is a kind of stuffed pastry and this doesn't involve anything like that. Also, the use of a 10-inch skillet seems wildly inappropriate, the volume of sauce - even accounting for my excess mushrooms - is far larger than would comfortably fit in my 10-inch frying pan, and a quick Google Image Search suggests I'm not wrong in thinking "skillet" is a synonym for "frying pan".