Books, Bikes, and Food

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

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What I read while away, Part I

After this long hiatus, I wanted to at least do one quick roundup post of some books I read while I was away. I’m not going to do reviews of all of them – instead I’m just going to mention a few that left an impression, favourable or unfavourable. I’m splitting this post into two parts.

Dave Eggers: The Circle (2013)

the_circleIn the “unfavourable impression” camp, we have this dystopian novel by Dave Eggers. You can’t even begin to imagine the disappointment, and I’m honestly still not sure why I slugged through this. Maybe because deep down at heart I’m a hopeless optimist and was waiting for it to become less predictable and condescending right up until the end? This book basically sums up all hyperventilating opinion columns about the dangers of the Internet and lack of privacy in social media etc. It’s incredibly predictable: young impressionable girl goes to work for big tech company (The Circle), has episodes of “whoa shit, this is awesome” interspersed with episodes of “whoa shit, this is getting creepy”, however sort of fails to realise the creepiness and gets drawn in deeper and deeper… you get the idea. I’d hoped for something much more surprising. Continue reading

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Recipe: Pumpkin Pasta

As I said yesterday, it’s moving time at Casa BBF. Yesterday I spent the better part of the afternoon cleaning my oven, hob, and fridge, which means that from now till Moving Day, cooking activity will be minimal to keep them nice and shiny for the new tenant (not that I’d have the time or patience to start cooking feasts anyway). This morning, I finished packing up the living room. But what better distraction from back pain and boxes than posting a recipe?

The perfect pumpkin

This one is originally from ZEIT Magazin’s weekly column “Wochenmarkt” (weekly market), German-speaking readers can find it here. The instant I saw it, I knew I needed to give it a spin – I just loved the idea of roasted pumpkin with nuts smooching with pasta, a whole explosion of starchy goodness to prepare you for those chilly autumn days. It turned out my father had the same idea, and he made it first. It also turned out that my mother hated the outcome, while my Dad loved it. “I hope you don’t like it either”, my darling mother informed me over the phone. Well, I’m afraid to say that I did like it – this recipe accomplished everything it had promised. I hope my mother doesn’t disinherit me now. All this to say that apparently, creamy starchy goodness is not everyone’s cup of tea. You’ve been warned.

Ingredients (serves 2 very hungry autumn lovers)

  • 1 medium-sized Hokkaido pumpkin
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • 100g nut mix, coarsely chopped (the original recipe has you use cashew nuts only. I thought this was a bit boring.)
  • one small handful sage leaves, fresh
  • a dash of fresh lemon juice
  • 1 small red chile, finely chopped, seeds removed
  • 30g grated parmesan
  • 300g pasta

Pre-heat your oven to 200°C. Wash the pumpkin (no need to peel it), halve it and cut off the ends. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and cut into about 1.5cm (1 inch) thick wedges. Line a baking tray with baking paper and place the pumpkin wedges on it. Drizzle with olive oil and salt. Roast the pumpkin in the oven for a total of 20 minutes. After about 10 minutes, sprinkle the nuts and whole sage leaves over the pumpkin and let it roast for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta al dente. Reserve the cooking water! Once the pumpkin is done, take it out of the oven and cut the wedges into smaller pieces (they don’t have to be very small). Slide the pumpkin into a bowl and add the chile, lemon juice, parmesan, a dash of olive oil, and some of the pasta water. Mix well with a fork. The pumpkin will turn into a kind of pumpkin mash and the water will make this “sauce” creamier. You can play around with this depending on how thick you want the sauce to be. Mix with the pasta and serve. The pumpkin mash keeps well in the fridge for a few days. In that case I would recommend cooking fresh pasta for the second serving and using more of the pasta water when re-heating the sauce.



It is possible that I may be back…

Marco? Marco? Marco? Just in case there is anyone still out there to shout “Polo” back – I may take up posting again. This blogging hiatus was quite unintentional to be honest. It was just that work got even more insanely busy than it had previously been, my social life in Hamburg finally became a bit more intense, and then I started job hunting… and as you’ve probably experienced first hand, that can turn into a second full-time job of its own. I was still booking, biking, and fooding, but I just didn’t have the energy to write about it on top of everything else. Throughout this post are some pictures of a few things I did get up to when I wasn’t working or job hunting.

I went bicycle spotting in the Basque Country.

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Cycling City Hamburg?

Today, to my great surprise, thanks to a friend I discovered the following story in the Independent:

Auto ban: How Hamburg is taking cars off the road

It’s a very interesting article about how the City plans, over the next 20 years, to eliminate car traffic from the centre and instead improve cycling (and public transport) infrastructure so that people will simply not have to use a car. The project is called “Green Network” and the City provides information here (in German). I don’t know too much about the details and how well thought out they are – but at first sight it sounds like an awesome idea that will considerably increase the attractiveness of Hamburg’s centre:

“It will offer people opportunities to hike, swim, do water sports, enjoy picnics, restaurants, experience calms and watch nature right in the city”,

a City spokesperson is quoted in the article. Sounds good, right? This is what it’s going to look like:

Source: You can also download an English version of the map here.

At the moment, cycling infrastructure in Hamburg is not completely terrible, but it’s also far from great. Narrow, badly maintained bike lanes that often run alongside the sidewalk without separation encourage clashes between cyclists and pedestrians. More often than not, traffic guidance dilemmas at intersections are resolved in favour of everyone except cyclists. Frequently, as a cyclist you’re not actually quite sure which way you’re supposed to go because of contradictory signs or bike lanes that disappear out of the blue, and so on. Hence, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

In the article, Hamburgers are portrayed as quite willing to dispense with a car, and as if this was something special in Germany. I would say this applies to many German city dwellers nowadays – our public transport infrastructure is decent, bike infrastructure could be worse, and the inconvenience of a lack of parking space coupled with an abundance of traffic jams means that many people feel they don’t need a car or don’t want one. However, despite this, many Hamburgers still remain very attached to their four-wheeled motorised vehicles. And in my experience, they’re particularly impatient drivers: just yesterday, on my 2.5k commute to work I counted no less than four heated exchanges by honking for absolutely no apparent reason. Prior to moving here, I’d never experienced such a level of impatience and road rudeness.

So I’m very curious how Hamburg is going to pull off the feat of completely turning its traffic infrastructure around. To be sure, they’ve given themselves plenty of time. 20 years – a lot of political, social, and environmental change can occur over such a long stretch of time. Such change might be positive, but the time frame also leaves lots of critical junctures (e.g. elections) where – especially early on – it will be very easy to derail the project. Or, depending on the changes that happen, this now fancy-sounding infrastructure may very well be outdated by the time its construction phase concludes around 2034.


Recipe: Basmati Rice and minced Beef Soup

I don’t know about you, but I’m full. Stuffed. After the deliciously long Christmas holidays my partner and I treated ourselves to this year (we got back from the Basque Country last Thursday), I feel like I’ve eaten enough to last me for the rest of the year – and it’s only January, so I’ll let you gauge the amounts of food I gorged myself on from that statement. I’m sure this feeling isn’t gonna last long, I can already feel pangs of hunger and even appetite coming on every once in a while. But for now, I’m in the mood for simple dishes that should also be warming, since Hamburg greeted me back with its typical winter mix of cold and rain. Even though I actually already made this recipe before the holidays, it fits the bill quite perfectly and so now is just as good a time as any to share it.

I’m calling it a “soup” for lack of a better word. It’s really more like a stew, but since it only involves around 15 minutes of actual cooking time, this label doesn’t seem quite justified (for some reason, the idea of a stew evokes thoughts of something simmering on the stove for at least an hour with me). This is the perfect winter weeknight meal. It’s incredibly quick to prepare and just as incredibly fragrant and warming. I didn’t think this dish had so much in it when I first read the recipe. This is my adaptation of a recipe that appeared in Brigitte, a German women’s magazine, a while ago. They have you use pre-cooked quick-boil basmati rice, which in my view is completely unnecessary, because  it doesn’t actually speed up the cooking process at all as basmati rice only takes about 10 minutes to cook in the first place. But anyway. Make this. Be surprised. Let the fragrance of this delicious little dish waft through the room as you eat. Go.

Ingredients (2 portions)

  • 1/2 leek, thinly sliced
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 40 g fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1-2 carrots (I used purple ones, which gave my soup its funky colour), peeled and grated
  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 150 g minced beef
  • 700 ml vegetable stock
  • 3-4 tbsp soy sauce
  • 125 g basmati rice
  • 1/2 handfuls coriander and mint each, chopped
  • 1/2 tpsp hot paprika
  • 2-3 tbsp lime juice

On your cutting board, crush the clove of garlic with the back of a knife. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the minced beef in it over high heat until golden. Add the sliced leek, garlic, ginger, and grated carrot, mix everything well and fry briefly. Reduce heat, add the rice and pour in the vegetable stock, add the soy sauce and leave to boil over low heat for 10 minutes. Season with lime juice, paprika and maybe a bit more soy sauce. Sprinkle with the coriander and mint and serve immediately. Enjoy!


Óscar Pantoja, Miguel Bustos, Felipe Camargo, Tatiana Córdoba, and Julián Naranjo: Gabo: Memorias de una vida mágica (2013)

As I was typing up my post of books read but never reviewed in 2013, I realised that there was one I actually did want to write about in a bit more detail: a graphic novel about the life of Gabriel García Márquez entitled Gabo: Memorias de una vida mágica. The premise of this book is brilliant – five artists get together and illustrate the life of a great writer by taking a chapter each.

Continue reading


Books not reviewed in 2013

Happy new year everyone! I hope you’re all as full of delicious food and relaxed as I am. Before we launch into a new reading year, I just wanted to do a little bit of housekeeping by telling you quickly about some of the books I read but did not review in 2013. There aren’t that many… mainly because I didn’t read that much, but I also may have forgotten a few because I’m notoriously poor at keeping a record of what I’ve been reading. So there were several more than made this list, but these are the some that I at least wanted to briefly mention.

Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own (1929)

Room_Own_Woolf_smallThe reason this book never got reviewed was because I wanted to post on it so thoughtfully that I just never got around to writing said thoughtful post (talk about setting too high expectations). What struck me about A Room of One’s Own, as far as I can remember, was how much of it still applies to women’s position in society almost a century later. This is why we need feminism. I also remember that there were parts I disagreed with, but have sadly forgotten what exactly they were and now do not have my annotated copy with me. This must be the most underwhelming paragraph ever written about A Room of One’s Own, as well as the complete antithesis of the post I so much wanted to write when I’d just finished it. I can only recommend that you go and read it yourselves, right now.

Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward: All the President’s Men (1974)

presidents_menKim of Sophisticated Dorkiness got me interested in the classic account of the Watergate scandal with this post. When I was younger, I very much wanted to be a journalist, and it’s no secret I’m a bit of a politics junkie, so this book was likely to be a big success with me. And it was, to the point that I got so captivated by the story I couldn’t sleep for sheer excitement. I’m not totally sure why I never wrote about it, but All the President’s Men turned me into a Watergate obsessive for about a week. This is much, much better than most political thriller’s I’ve read.

Katie Kitamura: Gone to the Forest (2012)

GoneToTheForestAnd now for something completely different: Gone to the Forest is a novel about the end of colonialism in Africa. A white family based on a farm witnesses the decline and downfall of their lifestyle as what they came to see as “their” land is slowly taken and the country descends into civil war. Before this background, the family’s own struggle – Tom, the son, versus his elderly but tyrannic father – unfolds, with a love triangle mixed in. This book had a lot of potential, but it somehow missed the mark for me. I didn’t like the style, which seemed very tedious to me, and that made it impossible for me to get drawn into the storyline. I think this may work for other people, it just didn’t work for me.

Carlos Fuentes: La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962)

ArtemioCruz_smallThe reason I never blogged about this is that I think I read this book the wrong way. It somehow turned into a staple on my bedside table and it took me months to read it. Which, given the way the novel is constructed, made for an extremely confusing reading experience interspersed with moments of lucidity that made me think “this is bloody brilliant”. Come to think of it, that’s possibly a very fitting reading experience for a novel based on the perspective of a man on his deathbed who is slowly descending into confusion and reliving different scenes of his life. However, I think a reader may get more out of it than I did if they read it in larger chunks than I did.


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