Category Archives: life

Hacklab Cooking: Thai curry from scratch, and coconut tapioca pudding too

It feels a little odd to post two cooking-related entries in a row, but I wanted to take notes on this (and share it with y’all!). =) Yesterday at Hacklab, Eric, Abtin, and I made Thai curry from scratch, and I made coconut tapioca pudding too. We (mostly) followed this recipe for the Thai curry, tripling the proportions:

Paste (we prepared this in a blender instead of a food processor, and we thinned it with a little coconut milk to make it blendable)

  • 3 Thai chilies
  • 1 stalk lemongrass
  • 3 shallots
  • 1/2 red pepper, deseeded
  • zest of 1 lime
  • stalks from a third of a bunch of coriander
  • thumb-size piece of ginger – we didn’t grate this, we just blended it
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tsp ground coriander

Curry

  • Tofu, marinated in soy sauce, chopped chili, and the juice of 1 lime
  • 400ml coconut milk
  • eggplant
  • zucchini
  • green beans
  • mushrooms
  • half a red pepper, deseeded
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • basil

Coconut tapioca pudding

  • Tapioca
  • Coconut milk
  • Sugar
  • Maple syrup

The Fresh.co near Hacklab didn’t carry the kind of tapioca I wanted for the coconut tapioca pudding, so I made do with the minute tapioca that they sell in the instant snacks area (along with Jello and custard powder). I couldn’t figure out how to translate either the coconut tapioca recipe (which specifically tells you to avoid minute tapioca) or the instructions on the back of the tapioca package, so I made something up instead. I used the entire package of minute tapioca, added the remainder of the carton of coconut milk, whisked it to dissolve the tapioca, and cooked it over medium heat (constantly stirring) until the tapioca was no longer crunchy. I added sugar to taste, and I followed the original recipe’s suggestion to top it with maple syrup (… which happened to be the maple syrup that had boiled over during last week’s icing experiment). You’re supposed to let it cool down, but it was yummy while warm anyway. =)

So, more experience points earned and achievements unlocked!

  • First time to make Thai curry from scratch instead of using the canned curry paste
  • First time to cook something with lemongrass
  • First time to make tapioca pudding
  • First time to make up dessert as I went along
  • … First time I’d gone through that much coconut milk

Also, Monday, I made chicken pot pie with a biscuit crust. Technically, I made most of it on Sunday, and then I made a quick biscuit crust after we came back from the polling station (I voted in Canada for the first time, yay!). It was wonderfully chicken-y, not at all like the frozen pot pies you can get at the supermarket. Mmm.

I really like this cooking thing. It’s fun to be able to turn simple ingredients into good tastes, decent food, and shared experiences, even though there’s a lot of figuring things out and adjusting and occasionally making the wrong decisions. =) So far, things have been working out really well.

Cupcake challenge: accepted!

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For the Hacklab grand re-opening party, I made 58 vegan chocolate cupcakes using about four batches of this Basic Vegan Chocolate Cupcake. Each batch called for:

  • 1 cup soy milk
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt

mixed and baked in a 350F oven for 18-20 minutes (20 minutes at Hacklab). Once cooled, we decorated them with this Vegan Fluffy Buttercream Frosting, which called for:

  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup vegan margarine
  • 3.5 cups icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup soy milk

Fortunately, Eric had donated an electric mixer (hand), so whipping up the frosting was easy. The cupcakes were not too sweet, so the frosting was a nice balance.

I also made 12 non-chocolate, non-vegan, gluten-free cupcakes from a boxed mix, since some Hacklab members have those dietary restrictions. Eric iced those with a different recipe.

It was actually pretty fun making dozens of cupcakes. Because they’re in liners, it’s easy to make large batches of them and set them cooling on whatever surfaces are handy. I started at 4ish and spent the whole afternoon cooking. I also had fun using the simple cake decoration kit to pipe letters and icing on it, although my hands were a smidge shaky. I actually forgot to add the soy milk and extract the first time around, but I caught it after icing the first ten cupcakes with something that was mostly sugar. After I beat in the soy milk, icing was a lot easier.

We don’t really make a lot of desserts at home because we’d like to eat more healthily, but since J-‘s friends are often over, maybe I should look into making more snacks to keep around the house. Probably not chocolate cupcakes – maybe something healthier? – but it’s definitely baking season, so some kind of baked good. Then again, W- reminds me that a box of cookies on sale is pretty cheap, so we might as well use the time for other things.

I don’t quite remember making cupcakes before the party. Maybe I’ve made cupcakes before, but just forgot about it? Anyway, they’re not intimidating after all. =) And with vegan recipes, I can taste the batter a little to see if I’m on the right track!

On “Hell, yeah! or No” and other approaches

If you find yourself overcommitted, the “Either ‘Hell Yeah!’ or ‘No’” approach suggested by Derek Sivers (among others) might be a good fit. The idea is that if you rate things on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being awesome), ditch the things that are less than 9 instead of wasting your time and energy.

2014-10-22 On Hell Yeah and other approaches

2014-10-22 On Hell Yeah and other approaches

I can see the merits of this approach. Reflecting on it, though, I noticed that I prefer to do things a little differently, and I wanted to dig into the reasons why.

When it comes to requests from other people, I’m pretty good at sticking to the “Heck, yeah!” range. After all, whatever I say no to might be a good fit for someone else, or it could be an opportunity to help someone pick up new skills. Besides, if I make few promises, I have more flexibility when it comes to choosing what to work on at the moment.

For myself, though, I’m okay with working on things that aren’t an immediate “Heck, yeah!” I think it’s because I see a lot of value in the range of things you would rate from 3 to 8 on that 10-point scale, so it can be good to deliberately carve out time to work in that range instead of spending most of your time at 9 or 10.

When I look at the skills and interests that have become big parts of my life, very few of them were instant passions. I’ve always liked reading. I think I fell in love with programming immediately, but I’m not sure because I don’t remember enough about the beginning. On the micro-scale, though, there’s often a little bit of awkwardness and mediocrity when I’m learning something new. I liked personal finance and analytics as soon as I learned about them, but statistics took me longer to wrap my mind around.

Most of the things that enrich my life grew slowly. It took me years and years and years to get to the point of enjoying writing, drawing, or cooking. I didn’t look at W- across a crowded room and feel my world come into focus; I got to know him as a friend before growing to love him. Canada made me sad and homesick before it slowly became a second home. Biking was something limited and a little scary before it became freeing. I’m still working on enjoying exercise and picking up DIY skills.

Sometimes my goals for learning something burn brightly enough to keep me going, but sometimes I start something trusting that it’s good for me and that I might eventually enjoy it more. It can be difficult getting through the plateau of mediocrity, but it might be worthwhile.

I might not often rate deliberate practice and improvement as a 9 or 10 on the excitement scale, either. Sometimes I get impatient or distracted. But it’s good for me too, and it helps me do even better. So I’ll spend time on that, even if I feel a little blah about getting started. Sometimes momentum creates its own energy.

Still, it might be interesting to get more of my activities to that “Heck, yeah!” level of energy, when you’re jazzed up about things and you’re in the flow. It’s fun to have those happy-dance-“I rock! I rock! I rock!” moments. How can I amp up the things that I do, moving them up the scale, now that I understand my motives a little better?

2014-10-22 What kinds of activities do I want to fully enjoy

2014-10-22 What kinds of activities do I want to fully enjoy

  • Coding: If I’m coding on my own, I can encourage more “I rock!” moments by coming up with lots of little ideas for personal projects, investing time into improving my workflow, and practising in other ways.
  • Writing, drawing, packaging: This is tricky, since the “I rock!” moment isn’t as clear as in coding. Maybe if I come up with questions and explore them all the way to the point of packaging a resource…
  • Sewing: If my main challenges are patience and skill, maybe I can start with tiny projects and gradually work my way up, learning how to enjoy the process.
  • Exercise: Even small exercises have their own “I rock!” moments, and I can track my progress to enjoy this more.
  • Learning: Maybe progress tracking, speed, and practical application? Hmm…
  • Talking to people: Can I build up a stronger interest in people’s stories and lessons learned? Also, if I accept silences and the occasional awkward bit as normal, that reduces the downsides of conversations.
  • Committing to stuff: Actually, maybe I’ll continue to minimize this for now. =)  

Reflecting on motives

I’ve been thinking about motives and bigger dreams lately. I have a good foundation for experiments, and I probably should be building something bigger on top of it. But I don’t resonate with the entrepreneurial stories of passion and focus. I don’t start with a vision of how the world should be and then work backwards from there in order to make it reality. I don’t dream of dollars or media mentions when starting an experiment. So if those aren’t the things that get me going, what does?

2014-10-21 Exploring my current motives

2014-10-21 Exploring my current motives

A couple of recent decisions are helping me learn more about my motives. Over dinner, one of the Hacklab board members asked me if I would consider helping with bookkeeping, since the current volunteer was struggling with some of the work. After some deliberation, I agreed to help out. I noticed that my reasons for doing so were primarily because I felt Hacklab board had good people in it, and that solid financial information could help us navigate this somewhat precarious period.

On another note, I’m wrapping up the consulting engagement I’ve been working on for the past two and a half years. I said yes to that primarily because the person who asked me had good karma. He had helped me get into and make the most of IBM, so I wanted to help him and his team as well.

These two decisions helped me realize how strongly I’m motivated by helping specific people, versus being motivated by a grand vision, the desire to help a general class of people, or other reasons. I hadn’t realized the extent before, but now that I look closely, I can see how it plays out. I like prototyping because I can quickly build things with lots of feedback from people who will actually be using the tools. I like automation because I can save specific people time and effort. I like helping people with Emacs because of the individual quirks of their workflows.

I do have other motives, too. Sometimes I do things out of curiosity and because they tickle my brain. Tracking data and tweaking Emacs for myself belong to this category. Sometimes I do things because I think they will be useful, like writing and drawing.

I feel like I have small-m motives rather than the big-M Motives you read about in the biographies of people who change the world. I like working on a small, personal scale. Does that mean I should just focus on small dreams, gradually growing them in size? Are these motives something I can tinker with, work around, or transform into even better strengths?

2014-10-22 People who follow similar motivations well

2014-10-22 People who follow similar motivations well

Fortunately, I can look around me for role models living good lives following similar motivations. My parents also seem highly motivated by helping specific people. For example, my dad wanted to help one boy with autism who was interested in photography. That grew into a large initiative called Photography with a Difference. He’s also motivated by curiosity and crazy ideas, like the way he decided to go on a cross-country ultralight flight. My mom was once asked about passion and work. She replied, “John’s passion is photography. My passion is John.” She focused on building an advertising photography business so that my dad could do amazing things behind the camera. W- seems motivated by helping specific people, too, and he also focuses on doing things well. Many of my friends who are into programming are into it because of curiosity and the joy of creation (it helps that it pays the bills, too!). On my best days, I do what I do because I get to help specific people, follow my curiosity, and build resources that might be useful.

So if you can live a good life even with “small-scale” motives like this (compared to, say, the desire to reshape the world), what does that mean for me? How can I make things a little bit better? And–just to play with the idea–what would it be like if I had different motives?

2014-10-21 Reflecting on my primary motives

2014-10-21 Reflecting on my primary motives

I’m not strongly influenced by everyone, but since I do have that desire to help specific people, I can be deliberate about the people I spend time with and include in this consideration. It works out well if helping people out also helps me build skills and resources. It also works out well if I can expand to a group of good people, so I’m not anchored by only one person. For example, having gotten to know the rest of the team during my consulting gig, I feel like they’re also good people I’m happy to help.

I want to balance the people motive, though. This is such a strong pull on my brain, and it’s so tempting to work on other people’s tasks instead of following my own curiosities or developing my own things. I can de-emphasize this by being selective about the tasks I take on, picking the things that are best-aligned to what I want to learn or do anyway. I can also carve off time for self-directed interests, since I’ll probably benefit from training myself to get even better at following curiosity and making things I can build on later.

It would probably be very difficult to swap out my motives, going from concrete to abstract, even if it would theoretically be interesting to do so. Ah well. I’ll start by working with what I have, but it might be interesting to see if I can experiment with being an Alternate Universe Sacha just in case I discover I actually like it.

Anyway, what kinds of things do I want to be able to do with slightly tweaked motives?

2014-10-22 What would I like to be able to do with sustained motivation

2014-10-22 What would I like to be able to do with sustained motivation

I think it would be interesting to play around with Emacs, open source, and other tools, getting the hang of building more resources. It would probably be good to be able to fully enjoy DIY skills (including sewing) and other things that are good for me, like exercise. If I can notice things about these activities that line up with the things that currently motivate me — or tweak my motivations so that I like more of the things that are good for me — maybe that will make this stuff easier to do and easier to stick with.

Hmm…

Leveling up in cooking

I made sweet potato and miso soup yesterday, with popped wild rice and Caesar salad on the side. W- made garlic bread with the baguette I bought. It was yummy. The other day, I helped make butternut squash and sweet potato soup at Hacklab, and that was well-received as well. Yay!

Five years ago, before we discovered bulk cooking and bought a chest freezer, W- used to cook every 1-2 days. I didn’t know a lot of dishes that I could confidently cook and he was so much better at cooking than I was, so I was the sous chef. I helped prepare ingredients, make rice, and cook simple recipes. He’d come home early to make dinner, and we packed leftovers for lunch the next day.

Now I cook most of our experimental meals, trying new recipes in the search for future favourites. I also enjoy refilling the chest freezer with time-tested meals like chicken curry and shake-and-bake chicken. Our next goal is to work out a good rotation of known favourites, sprinkling in new recipes here and there.

It feels great to be able to cook–and to take charge of the kitchen, which is an interesting experience. I’m usually trying recipes for the first time, or experimenting with a new variant of a recipe that we’ve had before. I’m never quite sure how it will work out, but since we have backups (hooray for leftovers and low expectations!), it’s okay to stretch and learn. Besides, with all these years ahead of me (probably), the more exploration I do now, the more it will pay off in terms of skills and knowledge.

So probably every Tuesday or so, I’ll be learning a new recipe (helping out at Hacklab). Two or three times a week, I’ll also try a new recipe at home – maybe Wednesday and Sunday, or something like that. I’m also working on rediscovering old favourites and writing them down in the shared Evernote notebook I’ve set up with W-, and maybe transitioning to a grocery/recipe system I’m building for the two of us.

Nice to have a kitchen and the time to cook! =)

Level up! Making IKEA-compatible shelves

2014-10-05 Routing shelves

We’ve been decluttering, moving things around and getting rid of things that no longer fit our life. W- decided to reorganize the downstairs cabinets, shuffling the supplies around so that the paper was closer to the printer. It made sense to add another shelf there. The cabinets had been discontinued, and W- couldn’t find shelves matching the dimensions we needed. Time to make our own!

W- picked up a long piece of pine from the hardware store and he cut it into three pieces. We went to IKEA to ask for more shelf pins, which they rustled up after lots of digging. Then we used the router (the woodworking one, not the networking one =) ) to carve out small indentations that would accommodate the pins. While I lined up the existing shelf as a guide, W- adjusted the piece of scrap wood that we were using as a fence and then clamped it into place. He rehearsed the cut, then routed the three boards. We repeated the process for the other indentations. Then we tested the boards – and they fit nicely. Now we’re varnishing them. We probably don’t need to varnish them, but we might as well. =) If we do another set — which we probably will — I’m looking forward to practising routing again.

Making shelves and varnishing them might be pretty small things, but it’s great to be able to do this. I like how W- is helping me learn all these practical skills. I’d love to learn more about building small and medium-sized things around the house: an open box for my cubby at Hacklab, some support for the kitchen shelf, a headboard, maybe even a study table. Someday!