Monday, November 19, 2018

Gagne Family Sukiyaki: This is going to be complicated

My Dad was born in Ontario, Canada, and my Mum was born in Lincolnshire, England. That's already a somewhat complicated life. Now take all that and move it to Bainbridge Island, Washington. That places the ingredients of my background into a cultural mix that includes people from the Philippines, and Japan, not to mention others.

My Mum converted to Roman Catholicism in order to marry my Dad, and that put her into a community by default. She may have been utterly rejected by her new in-laws (she was) but she had a built-in community at Saint Cecelia's Church. I suppose that's where this story really starts.

My God-mother was a woman named Kimiko Sakai, but we all grew up knowing her as Auntie Kim. She and her husband Toshiro (Uncle Tosh) went to our same church, and she and my Mum built a friendship out of their shared sense of being alien. Despite having been born and raised on Vashon Island, Kimiko knew she would alway be 'other' because of her Japanese heritage. To her credit, my Mum understood that, though her own English background was much more palatable to the Bainbridge Island sensibility, that she would also always be 'other.'

I'm not very good at remembering things. I get pictures and feelings, but I'm not the kind of person who can tell you the colour of my sweater on the first day of third grade. I remember being in Auntie Kim's house many times. I remember her beautiful Japanese garden. I remember Uncle Tosh lifting weights in the basement of their house and praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary for strength before hand. I remember her mother-in-law (Botchan) working in the fields. I remember being in the kitchen while Botchan prepared food and helping a little.

So, when I had my very first kitchen of my own, what did I make? Sukiyaki! It was a favourite growing up, and I wanted comfort! I called Mum for the details. How much soy sauce? How much aji-mirin? Never mind the fact that there wasn't a soul within miles who knew what aji-mirin was. I made do.

Through all my years of being a vegetarian, I could deal with missing bacon, but missing Sukiyaki was a lacuna I couldn't accept.

So here, my dear reader, is my current Gagne Family Sukiyaki recipe based on half-remembered formulas and strange emotional attachments but I will promise you one thing: there's nothing but fucking love in the bottom of that pot. I'll wager my soul on that.

Gagne Family Sukiyaki


1 cup soy sauce
1 cup aji-mirin
1 cup sake
1/3 cup erythritol (working on the carbs, eh?)
2 eggs beaten

Warm the sauce ingredients until the erythritol is melted. Allow to cool, then add the beaten eggs.


Brown the beef
1lb sukiyaki meat
(if that's a mystery to your grocer, move on. There's no substitute for paper-thin marbled beef)
3 scant pinches of aji-no-moto
1 white onion
1 bundle green onion
1 bundle celery
3 bundles bok choi
1 carrot made into flowers
(because that's what Grandma Sakai fucking DID, Carole)
1 can water chestnuts
3-4 mushrooms
Add onions

Brown the beef. Add three slant pinches of aji-no-moto
Add the onions and stir until they start to soften
Add the non-green ingredients
Add the sauce
Add the green ingredients
Cover the pot and start to blog about your background.

Then it's all good.

The white layer

Add the sauce

It takes a lot of green

 Bubble bubble in progress

Yup. That's the stuff.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Creamy Garlic Brussels Sprouts

1. Ingredients (sans parmesan)
This recipe was inspired by one that I found through Facebook. I executed it per instructions on a weekday evening, and I found it cumbersome. I'm willing to deal with one or two phases in a weeknight recipe, but not four. I don't really have time or attention for that level of fuss when I have my outfit to plan for the next day.

I did, however, love the basic flavour profile, so started think of ways to modify and simplify. This is the result. Even starting from un-touched Brussels sprouts, I would do this on a weeknight. It takes about 20 minutes from melting butter to that-look-in-his-eye from the boyfriend.

Creamy Garlic Brussels Sprouts

  • 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter (half a stick, yo?)
  • 1 cup diced onions
  • 4 cups peeled Brussels sprouts sliced in half
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 generous tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon corn starch
  • Grated parmesan to taste
  • 2. Onions seconds before becoming black
Melt the butter over low heat, then add the onions. Turn your burner up to high, and within about four minutes your onions will start to brown and crisp. Add the dry spices and stir thoroughly. (photo 2)

Add the Brussels sprouts. Stir constantly as the onions become blackened and the edges of the sprouts start to caramelize. When most of the spouts show some crisping, add the garlic and stir. (photo 3)

Add water to the corn starch to make a slurry. Add to the whipping cream and pour over the sprouts. Return the pan to low heat. Cover and simmer for about five minutes. Sprinkle with parmesan prior to serving. (photo 3)

Prepare for marriage proposals.
3. Ready for simmering!
4 Please, don't beg. I'm taken.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Welsh Rarebit

Once upon a time there was a very nice woman from Sussex who with her equally nice and Sussex-y husband ran a tea shop in a small seaside town. The very strange thing about this teashop was that it was not in England. It was, in fact, in Poulsbo, Washington, where I was raised. My English mother was so enamored of this place and the couple who ran it that she and I would go there at least once a week. For their part, I'm sure that the proprietors were entirely delighted to have a local ex-pat as such an enthusiastic patron and promoter.

Pronunciation tip: In many if not most English accents the letter 'r' is only pronounced at the beginning of a word. In the middle and end, it is silent, but changes the quality of the vowel before it. So, Americans usually hear "rabbit" when someone says "rarebit." If you're lucky like me and have someone who can read International Phonetic Alphabet it's /ˌwelʃ ˈreəbɪt/

Learn more about it here: Welsh Rarebit
Her menu was a straight-forward one. High tea, scones with Devonshire cream, ploughman's lunch, etc. My personal favourite was the Welsh rarebit. It's a kind of cheese sauce made with... well, you'll see what it's made with in the recipe below. I hadn't had it for perhaps thirty years when for some reason weekend before last I decided to try to make it for Doug and me.

It took a few experiments, but at last I have a recipe that closely matches the one I enjoyed so often with my dear mother in Mrs. Sussex's tea room. No, that wasn't really her name; play along, OK?

Welsh Rarebit

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoon mustard powder
  • 2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/3 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/8 – 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup India pale ale
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 8 slices of bread for serving
Melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and cook until the mixture starts to brown.

Remove from heat and whisk in the cream and beer. Add the mustard powder, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper.

Return the pan to the burner and turn up to medium-high. Whisk the sauce continuously until fully thickened.

Add the shredded cheese in small handfuls, adding more as it melts into the sauce. Toast the bread and pour the rarebit over top. For an extra bit of fun, put the plates under a broiler for a few minutes to slightly brown the sauce.

Serves four generously as a side dish.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Beef, Barley, and Mushroom Soup: An Instant Pot Story

One of my all time favourite Winter soups is Beef Barley. I'd never made it before, but it was always my first choice when it was gloomy and gray outside. After going on my low carbohydrate diet to get my diabetes in remission, I learned to just no think about the foods that I needed to avoid, so as to not let myself feel the kind of self-pity that leads to unhealthy choices.

Today, however, as I am approaching my fourth anniversary in diabetic remission I decided to just go look up how much carbohydrate is barley. Quite a lot, but lots of fibre too. I tentatively did some searching for Instant Pot recipes and to my surprise, discovered that many of them had as little as 2/3 of a cup of uncooked barley. That's only 80 grams in an entire pot of soup!

So, my usual routine: I read six or seven different recipes and then went off on my own. The result was a smashing success and I have my favourite Winter soup again!

Fifteen minutes prep and 35 under pressure.

Beef, Barley, and Mushroom Soup

  • 1 diced onion
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 diced carrot
  • 1 diced celery stalk
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 lb beef stew meat
  • 1  lb pureed Roma tomatoes
  • 32 oz beef stock
  • 1 dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 2/3 cup pearled barley
Set the Instant Pot to sauté and when the display reads "Hot" pour in the olive oil and diced onion. Sauté for about five minutes, then add the celery, carrot, garlic, and thyme. Continue to stir for a further five minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Put the lid on the pot and hit the "Meat / Stew" button and go watch an episode of The Crown.

When the buzzer goes, do a quick pressure release and go to town!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Project 57: Retirement Aloha Shirt

Early in 2017, a longtime co-worker announced his plans to retire at the end of the year. He had often commented on a particular one of my Aloha shirts, and asked me if I would make one for him. Tailors choice of design, etc. I was quite happy to accept the commission, especially since we're the same size and I wouldn't have to create a one-time use pattern.

The fabric that I had used had shiny gold ink in the design, which though fabulous for a showy person like myself, would have been too much for the laid-back retiring scientist. I decided to do some color blocking to reduce the overall shine and told him that his shirt would be hand-wash / hang dry. He said that was fine.

I love it. He loves it.

Happy retirement, Mark!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Project 56: Tartan Dress

True confession time: It was supposed to be a long jacket over a black flowing skirt and blouse, but things happened.

For many years, Penny and I co-directed the Gaelic music program for Slighe nan Gaidheal. A couple of years ago I decided to retire and she took over on her own. This last year, they took on the project of assembling a four-part choir to compete in Scotland at the Royal National Mòd.

Penny came to me about six months ago and asked for an outfit to wear while conducting the choir. I had an immediate vision of a knee-length tartan jacket over a black silk blouse and flowing black skirt.

She gave me a list of the tartan designs that would be acceptable in descending order, and very luckily, I was able to find the second choice in sufficient supply of poly-viscose fabric at Fabricana in Richmond for a fraction of what wool tartan would cost in Scotland.

After producing several unsuccessful muslins, I finally got enough of the geometry right to proceed in fabric. The original design had just one button in front and functioned as a jacket, but I wasn't entirely pleased with the overall silhouette, so I gave it a serious think.

The solution that presented itself to me was to button all the way down the front, lose the skirt, and treat the jacket as a dress.

The only aspect of the original vision that I question is insisting on doing all the contour shaping at the side seams to avoid disruption to the tartan pattern in the front. I think I could have made it slightly more flattering if I had let myself add contour seams to the front at least.

Anyway, she got lots of compliments, so I feel good about the final product.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

How I Make Patterns

figure 1: draft design in Garment Designer
When I woke up today I knew that I was going to spend this Sunday making a pattern for a new project. I've recently had some questions about my pattern-making technique, so I decided to document my work today and share what I've learned.

When I first started sewing in 2008, I bought commercial patterns and just tried to follow the instructions, not knowing that you have to know how to sew to follow them. When I read a word I didn't know, like "baste" or "edge stitch" or "ease" I would just use Google and YouTube and muddle my way along. It worked pretty well for me!

After many seasons of watching Project Runway, though, commercial patterns started to feel like cheating. Why couldn't I just make my own designs? Luckily, I didn't know that you can go to school for four years and earn a damn college degree in pattern making otherwise I never would have tried.

figure 2: sliding glass door light table
Cochenille Design Studio makes a Mac / Windows software product called Garment Designer, which is deceptively easy to get started with, but actually requires you to understand quite a bit about garment construction and pattern drafting. Garment construction I had down, but the geometry of pattern drafting was a money pit of trial and error. Luckily, the company also offers online training. Several webinars later, I have a much better handle on all kinds of topics like sleeve fitting, crotch geometry, and a host of other things.

So, you can see in figure 1 that I have my first draft ready of a flared jacket which I'm making for the conductor of the Gaelic choir I sing in as we are taking a trip to Scotland in October to compete in the Royal National Mòd. I will execute the final garment in her family's tartan, but this time it will be cheap polyester suiting!

figure 3: lining up registration marks
Once I was happy with the basics, I printed out 58 pages and started taping them together. I like to use my sliding glass door because the light coming through allows me to line up the registration marks more easily. In the Winter, I usually use a glass-top table and a strategically placed light bulb. For long pieces like this jacket, though, it's better to use the glass door.

figure 4: paper tiling is done
Once all the paper pieces are assembled, I use the brilliant idea given to me by my sewing Mentrix, Paula Lalish. I lay transparent plastic sheeting over the paper pattern pieces and trace them with a Sharpie. That gives me durable plastic pattern pieces that are easy to store and re-use. Most importantly, though, I can see the fabric through the pattern piece while cutting.

figure 5: The most important sewing
supply you can find at the hardware store
When matching patterns for a patch pocket on printed fabric, or just getting the grain line right on jeans, this is like having a damn super power!

figure 6: Trace with Sharpie
Once you have your plastic pattern pieces done, you can start cutting. The first time I use a pattern, I cut through both the pattern and the fabric, but I haven't noticed and significant decrease in the lifespan of my rotary cutter blades, so maybe it's not like cutting paper with fabric scissors.

Another great benefit of the registration marks on the tiled paper pieces is that you can use them to make horizontal and vertical grain lines on your plastic pattern pieces. Very helpful when working in tartan, let me tell you!

figure 7: Ready to start cutting
No matter what fabric you are working with, the ability to see it through your pattern pieces is transformative in terms of your relationship to the cutting process. We all hate cutting, but with the right techniques, it can be much less of a pain.

figure 8: Visibility matters
And there are my grain line marks giving me total confidence that when the final garment is done that all the vertical lines will remain vertical and all the horizontal ones horizontal.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Project 55: Hunks of Twilight Aloha Shirt

Part sewing project and part social experiment, this aloha shirt is the first one that I developed the pattern for myself. After taking Sharon Lazear's webinar on the first twenty things you learn about pattern making, I felt a lot more confident using Garment Designer.

Now, a little about the fabric: I found this delightful print when I was shopping for sassy pocket material for my black velvet jacket and fell in love with the cheesy / sexy goodness and knew that it was going to have to get a star turn of its own. I also really like the colours. The designer, Alexander Henry, has quite a few naughty prints in case you ever need one.

It's not actually a licensed Twilight franchise product, so I wonder how Alexander Henry is getting away with it, but I'm glad he is. I honestly wasn't expecting to find anything when I did a Google search for "hunky shirtless men print fabric" but voila!

I'm waiting for reactions to start coming in. I've seen plenty of aloha and other mens' shirts with pinup girls on them, so turnabout really should be fair play, but you know how boys can be!

There are a couple minor issues with the pattern that I will adjust before doing a production run of four or five of them. The collar band needs to narrow as it approaches center front and there is a little too much easing to do at the sleeve caps. Also, the sleeve length was an experiment that doesn't please me too well. Looks a little too much like a smock.

Pattern matching for the pockets and center front meant that I consumed a vast amount of fabric for just one shirt, but my oh my those boys look good.

I call him Mr. Pocket
P.S. I've never seen any Twilight movies or read any books. I just picked the fabric for the hot guys, bats, wolves, and the Moon.