Vegan Green Tea Ice Cream

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Green tea ice cream!  Such a wonderful treat… cool and creamy but not overly sweet, with the rich flavour of matcha green tea.  After my recent purchase of an ice cream maker, I have been experimenting with delicious homemade vegan ice creams.  I’m still tweaking some other recipes, but this green tea ice cream turned out beautifully.  It’s just like the ice cream in a Japanese restaurant, which I have so missed since giving up dairy and eggs.

This recipe uses an ice cream maker, but if you’d like to try it and don’t have one, try these tips for homemade ice cream without a machine.

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  • 2 cans (400ml each) coconut milk
  • 1/3 cup very hot water
  • 2 tablespoons matcha green tea
  • ¾ cup white sugar (or a little more or less, to taste)

Whisk the matcha powder into the hot water to dissolve it as much as possible.  Whisk the sugar into the coconut milk, then add the matcha mixture and whisk the whole thing until you’re sure the matcha and sugar have dissolved.

Transfer to an ice cream machine and follow the machine’s directions.  After about 25-30 minutes, the ice cream will have a soft texture.  Transfer it to a freezer-safe container and freeze about 30 mins to firm it up before serving.

This ice cream does freeze rather hard, so if it’s been in the freezer for longer than a couple of hours you may wish to give a few minutes at room temperature to soften before scooping.

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Gnocchi with Roasted Veggies and Fresh Herbs

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This is a very easy and flavourful dish that is great for serving guests.  Because it’s only lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, the vegetables and herbs really stand out and are so, so delicious.

This recipe makes a lot; probably about 5-8 servings.  I always make a big batch because I like to have some leftover to eat the next day (or two!).  This recipe is also very forgiving and easy to adapt.  All of the amounts listed are suggestions; they can vary a lot and it’ll still turn out wonderfully.  The veggies listed are my favorites, but you could sub in anything that roasts nicely (sweet potato, eggplant, fennel…).

If you’re vegan or serving vegan guests, read the ingredients on the gnocchi to make sure no milk is sneaking around in there.

  • 1kg package gnocchi
  • 1.5 cups butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1.5 cups grape tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes)
  • 1 medium onion (I use vidalia but yellow, white, or red would work)
  • 1 medium zucchini
  • 1.5 cups crimini mushrooms (small ones if possible)
  • 1 large or 2 small red peppers
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper.
  • 1 handful fresh parsley (I prefer Italian but curly is fine too)
  • 1 handful fresh basil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Chili pepper flakes – optional.  (I use about a tablespoon… a teaspoon might be safer unless you love spicy food)

The veggies take longer to prepare and cook than the gnocchi, so I recommend putting a big pot of salted water on the stove when you get started, but waiting until the veggies have been cooking for at least 10 minutes before you get going on the gnocchi.

Preheat the barbeque or oven (see below).

Microwave the squash cubes in an appropriate dish for 6 minutes on high.

Put aside the tomatoes.  The goal with the rest of the veggies is to prep them so that they are in pieces about the same size as the gnocchi or a little bigger.  Cut the onion into large wedges then separate the layers.  Slice the zucchini in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise into about ¾ inch pieces so that you have thick half-moons.   If the crimini mushrooms are small, leave them whole, if they’re large, cut them in half.  Chop the red pepper into gnocchi-sized pieces.  Put the veggies (including the partially-cooked squash, and not including the tomatoes) into a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then toss to coat.  Then either barbeque (my preferred method) or roast them.

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Whichever method you choose, add the tomatoes (also lightly coated with olive oil) when the other veggies are almost finished; the goal is to warm them but not cook them so much that they break their skins.

To barbeque, heat the BBQ on medium-high, and place the veggies into a large grill wok.  It’s ok if they’re kind of heaped in there; they’ll shrink.  Use a large metal spatula to gently stir and turn over the veggie pile every few minutes until they’re soft inside and slightly charred outside, about 20-25 minutes.

To roast, heat the oven to 375.  Spread the veggies in single layer onto one or two cookie sheets (you can cover them with tinfoil if you want).  Roast for about 20 minutes or until done, with a bit of char.

While the veggies are cooking, get the pot of water boiling, then add the gnocchi.  It will cook VERY fast.  The pack usually says 3 minutes but honestly, I find it’s more like 1-2 minutes.  I always just try one after about 90 seconds to see if they’re done.  Avoid overcooking the gnocchi or it’ll turn into mush.  Chop the fresh herbs, not too finely.

When the gnocchi is done, drain it and place it into a large bowl.  (If you’re still waiting on the veggies, add a bit of olive oil to keep the gnocchi from sticking together.)  Add the veggies, herbs, lemon juice, and chili flakes if using, and drizzle with a bit more olive oil if desired.  Toss it all gently together and serve.

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Some Thoughts on Video Game Credits

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A brief musing prompted by my completion of Tomb Raider 2013 (read my review here):

I am not one of those people who watch film credits until the end.  Unless I suspect there will be a scene during or after the credits, I’m leaving the theatre and/or pressing stop by about 30 seconds in.  Conversely, I always sit through video game credits.

I attribute this to emotional investment.  While a film can evoke emotion, it’s a passive experience.  I, the viewer, did not accomplish anything by getting to the end of the film (unless we’re talking about really, really bad films, in which case watching the credits would make me feel even more pathetic than sitting through the film already has).

It’s different with a game.  I’ve put in dozens of hours, I’ve grown with the characters, shared their failures and triumphs.  If the game was a really special one, I’m probably just as sad about putting it behind as I am satisfied by completing it.  I’m saying goodbye to a character (or several) that I feel like I built myself.  I’m pondering the overall experience that game provided.  I need a moment to savour the denouement, and the credits provide this.  I scan the list of names and jobs and think vaguely about all the work that went into producing this game.  For most games, I know that when the credits end, I’ll turn it off and may never play it again.

I feel feelings while I watch the credits of games.

Does anyone relate to this?

Tomb Raider 2013 Review

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Back in my Playstation 1 days, I loved Tomb Raider and Lara Croft.  I even used to frequent a TR news site called the Croft Times (anyone else remember it?).  I’ve played almost all of the TR games over the years, and was curious about this new installment, given the hype about Lara’s redesign and the gorgeous environments.

Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that I really enjoyed this game.  Not because it’s challenging or groundbreaking, but because it’s fun.  Here are my thoughts on some aspects of the game.  (Note:  I’m only reviewing the main single-player gameplay mode.  Because really, who plays Tomb Raider for the multiplayer?)

Pacing

The story moves quickly throughout the game, and the gameplay is similarly fast-paced.  I never felt bogged down by difficult puzzles or boring stretches of play.  The alternating rhythm of exploration and battle was well-balanced and made me reluctant to end play sessions, always wondering what would happen next.  Lara’s “Killer Instincts” ability, which highlights interactive objects and quest items, ensures that you never get annoyed about having to walk up to every single item around in order to see if it’s “something.”  Everything you collect and find is instantly autosaved and geographic checkpoints are very frequent.

Story

To my delight, Tomb Raider has real character development and an interesting story.  I’ll admit I often play action-adventure games without paying much (if any) attention to story, spacing out during cut scenes, just in it for the gameplay.  However, I enjoyed the story in this game.  Not complicated or political (ahem… recent Final Fantasy games), laced with supernatural intrigue, and featuring an island that malevolently controls the weather to crash planes and ships and keep people from escaping (COOL!) and a religious fanatic for an antagonist (right up my alley).  Sad scenes were genuinely emotional and in general I really felt for Lara’s borderline-ridiculously-terrible predicament.

Lara

Obviously, Lara’s looks have evolved.  Her proportions, while still idealized, are at least grounded in reality.  She spends the whole game gritty, bloody, often limping or applying pressure to wounds, and is generally a far cry from her previously impervious and aloof incarnation.  I like her personality a lot, as she struggles in a relatable way with ethical decisions in a nearly hopeless situation.

Gone are the Cirque-du-Soleil-worthy acrobatic side- and back-jumps (and accurate shooting whilst performing these feats) of the older Tomb Raider games.  Lara jumps up or forward only, and lands hard, putting a knee and hand down (a nice touch). Sometimes when jumping to grab a ledge, Lara’s hand slips and you have to do a quick grab to keep her from falling.  Lara’s physics-defying ability to change direction mid-jump persists as a leftover from previous games, but since it’s sometimes handy, it’s hard for me really hate on it.

While she still possesses the upper-body strength of an Olympian weightlifter, the endurance of a Tour de France rider, and appears to have significant additional training as a gymnast and rock-climber, Lara is generally more realistic and relatable this time around.

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Cinematics

I have never seen smoother integration of cinematics than in this game.  The seamless transition between player-controlled segments, full-motion videos, and cutscenes that include player interaction is awesome.  For example, you are creeping Lara around an enemy camp when a guard spots you grabs Lara.  As the game cuts to a cinematic scene of struggle, indicators appear onscreen to guide you through timed button-presses to fight back.  If you time it right, Lara subdues the guy in an FMV and the game switches back to regular player-controlled mode as you dash back into your hiding spot.  If you miss the buttons or timing… the cutscene continues and it’s not so nice.

Visual and audio

As has been widely reported, the visuals are fantastic.  The ambient lighting, including from Lara’s torch, is realistic and moody and Lara’s shadow is perfect – no vague shadow-blob here.  The textures are for the most part very good; I almost never noticed any pixel-y weirdness, though I would have liked to see more movement in the plants and trees.  The explosions, and there are many, are seriously awesome.  The many action-packed sequences involving exploding and/or avalanching buildings and Lara’s frantic acrobatics to escape look especially good, as the camera is right there with you providing angles that are great visually and also allow you to see where you’re going.  I don’t think I ever felt a fatal fall or misstep was due to bad camera, and that scores big points with me.

The voice acting is excellent and the graphics are good enough that you can pick up on subtle expressions and gestures by characters that betray their feelings and intentions even when they’re lying through their teeth.  I particularly enjoyed listening to the conversations of baddies while creeping around to set up stealth kills; casual, random conversations giving way to frantic shouts when they realize they’re under attack.  (My favorite: a guard asking his friend to help him find Sprinkles, his pet rat).  The music is sparse and effective.

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Battle

The battle system in this game reminds me a bit of the Batman Arkham series. Enemy encounters occur in discrete battles, the beginning and end of which are indicated by Lara drawing or holstering her weapon.  Especially at the start of battle, stealth plays a significant role in the game.  I enjoyed the stealth aspect, which is saying a lot because normally I’m more of a guns-blazing type.

There is no health bar, and instead Lara can take a few hits, as the screen gets redder around the edges, before dying.  If she takes hits and manages to get cover for a short time, she’ll shed the damage and be back at baseline.  This means there is a lot of use of cover in the game, the mechanics of which are intuitive and easy to use.  Lara has a variety of long- and close-range attacks, as do the baddies, and there are lots of sticks of dynamite flying around to ensure that you can’t take cover in the same spot for long.  My only complaint here is that almost all of the battles are pretty easy, especially in the first two thirds of the game.

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Customization and skill development

Disappointingly, this is definitely the weak aspect of the game.  Lara has four weapons (the bow was my favorite throughout the game) and a pickaxe as her “gear,” and three categories of skills: survivor, hunter, and brawler.  Skills upgrades are purchased using skill points gained from XP, and include things like keener “Killer Instincts,” improved weapon use and different hand-to-hand combat moves.  The weapons are upgraded using “salvage,” the game’s currency, and found weapon parts.  The problem with this system is that given the abundance of salvage available and the relatively quick XP gains, it’s pretty easy to get all of the skills and upgrades available at a given time.  This means that there is no developmental path for Lara; the player does not need to choose between specializing in long-range versus close-range combat, or between a defensive or offensive skill emphasis.  Overall, it amounts to a system of character development that theoretically involves customization, but in practice is just a steady increase in power in all areas.

Verdict

Tomb Raider is a quick, engaging, and fun game.  So fun that I have forgiven the fact that it’s very easy.  There is little-to-no replay value in this type of game, but that’s alright.  Pick it up for a week or so of intuitive, exciting gameplay with a cool story, and bask in the return of a new and improved Lara Croft.

Wheatberry Salad with Cranberries and Parsley

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This is my go-to salad to bring to potlucks and barbeques.  It always gets the same response from people, gradually moving from “What is this?” to “This is so weird….” to “I love it!”

This salad is really intended to be a vehicle to showcase wheatberries, which are my current grain obsession.  All of the listed quantities are suggestions and can vary a lot depending on your preference.

If you aren’t familiar with wheatberries, beyond whatever google says, they are kinda like extra-chewy bulgar. At No Frills they are inexplicably located in the baking aisle, in bags, labeled ‘soft wheat.’ I cook them like pasta – boil them in lots of salted water for about 15 mins, then start checking until the texture is firm and chewy but without a hard centre.  No need to pre-soak!

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Makes about 3-4 cups

  • 1 cup (uncooked measure) soft wheatberries – cooked and cooled
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries (variation: dried currants)
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds (or whatever seeds)
  • 3-5 green onions, sliced
  • A large handful of fresh parsley, chopped
  • Juice of 1 lemon (maybe one and a half)
  • Olive oil – a big glug
  • Salt and pepper

Mix it all up and add more of whatever.  This salad keeps well for a couple of days in the fridge.

Variation: Sometimes I add diced English cucumber if I know the whole salad will be eaten at once; it won’t keep as long in fridge if you include the cucumber.

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Shiitake & Sausage Pizza

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Yesterday was one those days where you realize too late that you should have gotten groceries.  To make things even more difficult – I mean challenging! – I only had about 30 minutes until dinner had to be ready.  I knew as soon as I opened the fridge I’d have to get a bit creative.

I narrowed down the odds and ends available to a pizza-crust-and-sauce kit, a big bag of shiitake mushrooms (fresh, not dried), a red pepper, and half a package of Field Roast brand Smoked Apple Sage vegan sausages.

(Have you tried Field Roast sausages?  They are, by a huge margin, the best vegan sausages I’ve ever had.  They’re grain-based rather than soy-based and they sauté up so nicely… I put them on pasta all the time.  So good.)

I sliced the mushrooms and pepper and got them cooking in one pan, and sliced the sausages lengthwise and then crosswise and put them in another pan so that they could get nice and brown and crispy without the mushrooms sweating all over them.

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After saucing up the pizza crusts I sprinkled some oregano, basil, and chili flakes over them (the sauce in those kits never seems to have enough flavour).  Once the veggies were soft and the sausages were brown I threw them on the pizzas and slid them into the oven.

I had time while they were cooking to throw together a salad that was even more random than the pizzas, and the whole thing was on the table just in time.  The pizza was awesome, hubby and I agreed.  The sausages and mushrooms together provided a really nice, complex mix of flavours.  Plus, for once I didn’t put 1,337 different toppings on the pizza so you could actually taste the ones that were on there.

Great success!

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Mappy: The Cure for Pre-Wedding Stress

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Do you love Mappy?  I do.  Actually, I love Mappy so much that the big blue mouse practically walked me down the aisle.

I got married last September.  Being a bit socially-anxious at the best of times, I was pretty stressed in the months leading up to the big day.  I was back in my hometown to plan it over the summer, staying with my mom.  A good friend of mine who is a massive collector of vintage games and consoles came by one day with an amazing solution to my pre-wedding nerves: a top-loading NES console and a stack of games to keep me busy over the summer.

I played some Battletoads and Mario 3 and a few rare games that I’d never seen before (Little Nemo: The Dream Master was pretty fantastic).  However, the 101-in-1 cartridge definitely got the most play.  And of those 101 games, Mappy is the one that saved me.  When I wasn’t planning, cooking, or out with the dog, I was hiding from the sun in my mom’s basement, basking in the glow of Mappy.

I’d played Mappy before.  In high school I had a brief run on 31-in-1 and Mappy was one of my faves.  This time was different.  I was drawn to it.  Helping the namesake mouse-cop recover the valuable loot stolen by cats and stored in some kind of warehouse was my mission.  Learning the patterns of the pink cats (did you know they’re called Mewkies?) and how to manipulate them with Mappy’s movements focused my attention and stopped me from going in circles, worrying about the wedding.  I became obsessed with catching up to the big cat (“Nyamco”) to get the 1000-point bonus when he hides behind the item you’re collecting.  How do I know the names of these characters?  I read the wiki.

I set goals for myself: get to level 15, get to level 20, get to level 30.  It was thrilling every time I reached a new high level.  (I’ve never been much into playing games for high-scores.)  I developed and constantly refined patterns for the earlier levels and learned that to make it through the higher levels, you need to be fearless and comfortable speeding along in close proximity to the mewkies.  I decided my favorite loot to recover is the big old-timey radio, and my least favorite is the circa-1990-looking computer.

I played right up until the evening before the wedding.  I tricked myself into believing that since I’d been playing Mappy all summer was still playing Mappy, it was just a day like any other.  I kept it together well and even slept that night.  The next day I had an amazing time at my wedding.  I have Mappy to thank for helping to get me there with my sanity intact.

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