Books, Bikes, and Food

Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.


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Recipe: Cold Avocado Soup with Cucumber and Yoghurt

I haven’t been posting many recipes lately, because I haven’t actually been cooking that much. There have been some culinary discoveries in my kitchen and I’ll share them all eventually, but first I need to tell you about THIS COLD SOUP. It’s been a while since I’ve been so completely wowed by a recipe that I feel the need to get on a soapbox or sing it from the rooftops, or else I might burst. Here’s a bit of context though: spring has officially sprung in this corner of the world, and with it came an appetite for tangy, fresh dishes, salads and cold soups, and lemon, definitely lemon, and also avocados. Browsing through my recipe bookmarks, I came across this beauty, and the stars aligned. (Also… I appear to love avocados even more than I realised, seeing as the last few recipes have all involved this wonderful green fruit.) I didn’t quite follow the recipe to the letter, so here’s my take on it.

 Ingredients (2 large portions)

  • 2 avocados
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 very small onion, or 1/2 normal size
  • small handful of fresh flat parsley (or cilantro as per the original recipe)
  • 150g full-fat or Greek yoghurt
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • (really) cold water
  • olive oil

Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a tablespoon. Then cut half of the cucumber and one of the avocados into large chunks. Dice the onion and roughly chop the parsley. Place the chunks of cucumber and avocado in a mixer along with the onion, parsley, yoghurt, lemon juice and a good pinch of salt, as well as some freshly ground pepper and a dash of cold water. Process until smooth and pour into a bowl. Refrigerate.

Dice the remaining half of the cucumber and the second avocado. Add the chunks to the avocado paste and add some more cold water until you reach the desired creamy consistency. Refrigerate until serving time. Drizzle with some olive oil just before serving.

Optional: dice a small tomato and top the soup with it. Enjoy!


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Edgard Telles Ribeiro: His Own Man (2010)

his_own_manI first came across His Own Man (original title: O punho e a renda) through Guy’s great review at His Futile Preoccupations. A novel about the involvement of a Brazilian diplomat in the dark times of Latin America’s military dictatorship in the 60s-80s? My Latin-America-and-International-Relations-loving heart jumped. And His Own Man did not disappoint.

Brazil, 1968: a young diplomat is approached by Marcílio Xavier Andrade (Max) and asked to lunch. He’s honoured by this more senior figure’s assessment of him as one of few “luncheable colleagues” and quickly joins his social circle. Max has a penchant for surrounding himself with interesting figures, writers, artists, actors etc., and inviting them to listen to jazz. Things take a sinister turn very quickly though and slowly but surely, those with oppositional views disappear from Max’s circle of “friends” as the political environment becomes ever more oppressive.

Max, it turns out, is a careerist chamaeleon, able to adapt himself quickly to any situation and any new “master”. He becomes increasingly involved in the dark manoeuvres of the Brazilian state in Uruguay and Chile, where the country was heavily involved in supporting the military regimes’ rise to power. But Max isn’t just a chamaeleon, he also seems to have a highly efficient non-stick coating. No matter how deeply involved he becomes, nothing sticks, and he’s able to swiftly shift his allegiances post-democratisation:

“There were few among us like him, so readily adapting to the ever-changing conditions of that time with such charm and competence, swiftly scaling the ranks of our hierarchy over the twenty years of military rule, and then going on to achieve further triumphs after the return to political normalcy”

The narrator, who has been following Max’s career, is eager to finally unearth all there is to be known about Max’s real actions during the dark chapters of Brazil’s recent history. As he goes along, he discovers the real extent of Max’s ruthlessness.

His Own Man is an excellent exploration of the inner workings of Brazilian diplomacy over several decades. The issues it addresses affect everyone working in a diplomatic service – mostly to a lesser degree though: to what extent is it possible or impossible to remain true to political, ethical or personal beliefs if your job is to represent your government (no matter what)? What role does your conscience play and when do you have to act on its calls? In other words, is it possible to remain “your own man (person)” as a diplomat? To some degree, a good diplomat is one who is able to make his own judgement fade into the background in favour of his country’s interests. But in the case of this novel’s title, the answer to these questions is ironic, since Max is nothing but “his own man” – everything he does, every acquaintance he makes, even his marriage, has only one goal: to further Max’s own advancement. To achieve his goals, he sheds every morsel of morality and ethics, and seemingly every aspect of whatever personal values he may have held at some point.

The narrator ponders these issues as they pertain also to himself:

“I knew full well that I’d been no hero. I hadn’t criticised my superiors out loud; I hadn’t resigned […] nor had I taken up arms. On the contrary, I’d become part of an orchestra – in which Max was the soloist.”

What’s more, the narrator addresses the responsibilities of any diplomat dispatched to a country under a dictatorial regime. To what extent is it your duty to try and take action against the regime, and if so, how? In what ways are you able to influence the government of a country that isn’t yours and where you’ve been sent as a representative of your own government?

“During my year and a half in Central America, I hadn’t hesitated to dutifully socialise with known tyrants of the region, to whom I was introduced at dinners and receptions.”

His Own Man sent shiver after shiver down my spine. The fact that Telles Ribeiro himself is a former diplomat means that he can explore these issues in an extremely thorough way, drawing on his own experience. This is an excellent political novel.


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Bringing Biking Back

Those who have been reading here for a while know that while I lived up in the flat North of Germany, I was an avid bike commuter. Even before that, when I was living in the slightly flatter parts of Southern Germany, I was also an avid train/bike commuter (read: I biked from the train station to my office). Now, I live in a part of Southern Germany that has HILLS. Proof:

While this view from my balcony will almost certainly never get old, I obtain it by living at the top of one of those steep hills, which, as I have mentioned, already seriously humiliated me once.

But I refuse to give up, so today I commuted to the office. It was very smooth in the morning and I’ve never gotten to the office this fast. Of course it was also all downhill, so I just wore my normal office clothes as I knew I wouldn’t break a sweat. The way up, however… required some planning ahead. I took some sports clothes with me and changed in the bathroom before leaving the office.

(I actually did wear shoes while biking)

I also actually paid attention this time and took the designated bike route on the way up. It’s marked quite well with clearly visible signs and it seems like someone actually put thought into finding the least steep way up my home mountain. There was still some serious climbing to be done at the start, but then it levelled out and was fine.

So I’m pleased to report that this worked out well! I worked up a nice sweat and felt really accomplished afterwards. Weather and appointments permitting, I plan to do this about twice per week now, on days when I’m not swimming or doing other exercise after work (kayaking season starts this Friday for me! Yay!).

Bringing Biking Back: a success story so far!


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Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven (2014)

Station_ElevenTo be entirely honest, I don’t even know what I could possibly say about Station Eleven that hasn’t already been said. I’m usually super cautious about digging into books that get a lot of hype, but this one got the good kind of hype from book bloggers whom I know I can trust, so I jumped right in. And of course, everyone was right, this is one amazing book. And since all the intelligent things have already been said about it, I’ll just focus on some of the aspects I loved the most.

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel set 20 years after a particularly virulent strain of the flu has killed the vast majority of the population. The Internet is gone, there are no cars, phones, and computers, airtravel and electricity are a thing of the past. The first 20 years have been hard and life is still much harsher than we’re used to, but one thing that I absolutely loved about Station Eleven is that it’s set once life has started to “normalise” a bit under the new conditions. People again have jobs, there are certain rules, and above all, there’s still art. Station Eleven follows a travelling symphony that puts on concerts and stages Shakespeare plays. Their motto is “Survival is not enough”, and if the idea that even after civilisation as we know it is over, culture and the arts continue to exist and inspire isn’t uplifting, then I don’t know what is.

Station Eleven is set at a time when many people are still around who know what life before the flu was like, but there are already children and even young adults who only remember post-flu life. I loved how the different ways of dealing with the catastrophe are portrayed in the book. Many people try to pass on their knowledge of how things were to the children, but trying to explain the Internet to someone who has only ever seen a computer as a non-functional plastic box that does nothing at all is a challenge. One of my favourite characters curates a “Museum of Civilisation” where he keeps things like passports, credit cards, mobile phones, etc. on display for those who want to either reminisce about life before, or marvel at things they don’t fully comprehend. Others interpret the flu as some sort of punishment, many join strange cults.

I loved how Station Eleven follows a number of characters and slowly peels away their stories from before and after the flu. Their lives are all interconnected, and slowly these connections appear until at the end, the reader understands how they all fit together. And rather than being contrived (as it might if the story were less well-crafted), the characters’ encounters before and after weave a touching fabric. I cried several times during Station Eleven, because what happens is terrible, but I also cried because the slivers of hope that keep appearing are so touching. This isn’t your typical post-apocalyptic “anarchy is everywhere” and “things will just keep getting worse” kind of book. Instead, it’s inspiring and hopeful in a very melancholic way. I loved it.


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Happy International Women’s Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I thought I’d do a round-up of some interesting things in the world of feminism I’ve come across recently (some more bookish than others).

Image Source: lulastic.co.uk

Currently reading: 

Gioconda Belli’s El país de las mujeres (A Women’s Country). It’s set in a Central American country where a feminist party takes power and starts exercising it, much to the dismay of some men. Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan poet and fiction writer and an awesome feminist. I’ve previously read and enjoyed another of her novels, La Mujer Habitada (The Inhabited Woman). Check her out!

Looking forward to: 

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I know I’m REALLY late to the party on that one, everyone and their sister have already read it except me. Since everyone is also raving about it, my excitement just keeps growing!

This excellent quote sets some things straight and is available as a print from this great Etsy shop.

Watching: 

I’ve already ranted at length about the This Girl Can campaign and why I think it’s awesome. For International Women’s Day, the ladies at the BBC have gone and shot their own video of being awesome while female and sweaty.

Loving:

  • The idea of making International Women’s Day your #feministdayoff (Link in German) – enjoy Sunday while feministing to your heart’s content: watching films, reading, posting a blog entry… the possibilities are endless!
  • This article in the Guardian’s Women in Leadership section addresses an important career dilemma for women: how to manage employees who are older than themselves? (Unfortunately the article’s advice wasn’t that great, I thought, but at least they identified an important topic)
  • One of my male friends who asked his female friends on Facebook what advice he should give to a younger woman in his department. If only more men asked these questions!
  • This post on Bookriot.com on feminist books for kids and teenagers. Yeah for getting them started early!

Have a great day :)


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Leanne Shapton: Swimming Studies (2012)

Lately, I’ve been reading really great books, I don’t even quite know where to start reviewing! Some books just hit right home, and Swimming Studies is one of them. Leanne Shapton is a former swimmer who competed in the Canadian Olympic trials in 1992. She later quit competitive swimming and became an artist and writer, but swimming continues to be a very big part of her life. In Swimming Studies, half autobiography, half artistic essay, she explores what swimming has meant to her at different stages of her life and how she has become who she is in part due to swimming.

As a swimmer myself (though of course nowhere near as good as Leanne Shapton), I could relate to her writing in a very personal way. Although for me, swimming has been mostly recreational, I did compete when I was younger, and currently swim as regularly as my life lets me. It’s like once you’re in it, swimming stays with you. When I swim, everything else around me goes, I’m counting strokes and lanes, and when I climb out of the pool I’m tired but relaxed at the same time and my mind has cleared. Swimming, for me, is like going on a mini-retreat. Leanne Shapton describes the way thoughts float through your mind while swimming in a very poetic way:

As I swim, my mind wanders. I talk to myself. What I can see through my goggles is boring and foggy, the same view lap by lap. Mundane, unrelated memories flash up vividly and randomly, a slide show of shuffling thoughts. They flash up and fade, like the thoughts that float peripherally before sleep

There are many very poetic sections in Swimming Studies, but there is also some very interesting art work. One of my favourite bits is Shapton’s photos of her swim suit collection; she describes each suit and where she’s worn it.

I also love the section on smells, which she visualises as multi-coloured dots of paint.

Swimming Studies is one of the most extraordinary books I own because of its mixture of different art forms and Leanne Shapton’s beautiful writing. It’s a stunning book and will stay with me for a long time.


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Recipe: Chicken with Avocado-Yoghurt Dip

It occasionally happens that you get inspired. On Monday, I was going to make this recipe and follow it pretty much step-by-step. I was also feeling supremely lazy (so if you’re feeling too lazy to click on the above link to the original recipe, I totally hear you – it’s called “Greek Chicken Skewers with Avocado Tzaziki”), so I decided to make this recipe even less work than it originally was. I was going to leave out the skewers and just fry the chicken breast. I was also going to leave out the “Greek seasoning mix”, mainly because I wasn’t quite sure what it was (I’d never even heard it was a thing), what it contained, and was too lazy to google it – so I was just going to replace it with whatever Mediterranean spices I could find in my spice drawer.

And then, inspiration struck. Because what exactly would happen if in addition to the olive oil, garlic and assorted spices I coated the chicken breast in tahini before frying it? In one word: magic. The tahini really made the chicken pop! And the avocado-yoghurt dip was divine. On a side note, I’m refusing to call it tzaziki, for the love of Greece. The poor Greeks already have it hard enough as it is without folks – and worse, Germans – butchering their cuisine (although, might I say, in a freaking delicious way). And on that note, this video, made by German public television (you will not believe this), is absolutely BRILLIANT. It had me in tears laughing.

Man, so many words for such a simple recipe. So here it finally is. It admittedly doesn’t photograph very well (poor lighting, bad camera, etc.). It was a whole lot more interesting than it looks in this picture. The dip, which was velvety avocado-yoghurt perfection. And the chicken breast was soft and at the same time almost-crunchy tahini perfection. Maybe the next time I’ll add some actual sesame seeds too, to make it even better.

Ingredients (2 portions)

For the dip:

  • 1 avocado
  • 150g natural yoghurt (I used the low-fat kind and it was still incredibly creamy)
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 8 drops tabasco sauce
  • 1 pinch oregano
  • pinch pul biber
  • freshly ground pepper
  • salt

For the chicken

  • 500g chicken breast
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • pinch of oregano
  • pinch of pul biber
  • pinch of thyme
  • 2-3 tsp tahini
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • salt

To make the dip, place the pitted avocado, yoghurt, garlic, and lemon juice in a blender and whizz until smooth. Add the tabasco and spices, stir, cover, and leave it to chill in the fridge while you make the chicken. Wash the chicken breasts and cut them into thin strips. In a medium-sized bowl, mix the olive oil, tahini, garlic, and all the spices. Add the chicken to the bowl and mix until it’s is evenly coated in the dressing. Fry the chicken pieces in a non-stick frying pan until golden. Serve with the avocado-yoghurt dip and enjoy!

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