Irrational Fear

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I’ve been working on a sweater for my sister (incidentally, the worst kept secret on the Internet) for, oh, let’s just say a long time. The pattern is really wonderful to work with, as is the yarn. The lace detail in the front is interesting and not too frilly (not frilly at all, really), and there’s just enough of it to keep me on my toes while also being a primarily relaxing and mindless thing to knit. When I first cast on for this sweater, I raced through the three inches of broken ribbing, excited to move on to the main feature. When I got to the lace-and-stockinette body portion, I dutifully worked on it every night, giving it my full attention at the expense of dinner preparation, socializing, reading, attending to whatever I was supposed to be watching on TV. I learned quickly that continually asking “what did I miss?” when I was absorbed in my knitting and not paying attention to the plot of the TV show I was watching with Keith would only lead to exasperated sighs and the occasional frustrated glare in my direction (deservedly so, I will admit), but I pressed on nonetheless, motivated by my own intense interest and the joy I pictured on my sister’s face when she opened a box containing a beautiful hand knit sweater made just for her.

I finished the body of the sweater–all 16 and one-quarter inches of it– very quickly, and then it was time to move on to the sleeves. I thought I’d be smart about it and knit both sleeves on the same needles.

Humboldt sleeves

Knitting two sleeves at once is touted as a big time saver and is supposed to ensure that they’re uniform, so it seemed like a great idea.This sweater is going to be a gift, after all, and I want everything to be perfect. What proponents of the two-for-one fail to tell unassuming knitters like myself, though, is that it makes the process of sleeve knitting, easily the most boring part of making a sweater, even more boring. Not only do you have to contend with extra needles getting in the way, you’re also working with two balls of yarn that get tangled up. All the stopping-and-starting necessary to knit two sleeves at once–stopping to untangle yarn, stopping to flip the sleeves over to start the next side, etc–really killed my mojo for this sweater. I made a point of working on the sleeves at least once a week, but, beyond that, it wasn’t totally apparent that I would be able to finish this sweater by the time our birthday rolls around in August.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped me from knitting other things. In fact, one might describe what I’ve been working on instead of my sister’s sweater as procrasti-knitting (haha, I just came up with that!). Since I’ve stalled out on the sweater, I’ve done the following:

– Started and nearly finished a baby sweater for my new niece or nephew (only collar detailing remains).

– Started 5, and completed 3, pairs of socks.

– Cast on for a new, bulky sweater that will be great for the fall (but also kind of an insane thing to knit as the weather gets warmer).

– Swatched with some linen yarn for a lightweight summer cardigan.

So, I’ve been keeping busy and trying not to feel too guilty about neglecting the mental albatross that my sister’s sweater has become.

Fortunately for me and my sister’s sweater, though, the neglect hasn’t been too bad. At some point last week, I took myself by surprise and managed to get the sleeves to the right length. Time to join the sleeves to the body and finish the yoke!, I thought to myself for about a second. Then, I realized that I’ve never actually done this part before. All of the sweaters I’ve made up to now have been knit from the top down, where the sleeves are picked up from the shoulders and knit after the yoke and body have been finished. In other words, easy to do. This bottom-up sweater business, on the other hand, is entirely new to me. And even though the new challenge of bottom-up sweater construction is one of the reasons I chose this pattern, I’ve found myself feeling completely terrified of continuing. What if I mess this up in a really irreversible way? If I make a mistake, will I be able to fix it, or will there be no going back?

I suppose this is all preamble to the main point, which is: I’m going in. Today’s the day that I figure out how to join the sleeves to the body of this goddamn sweater, once and for all. If anyone has any advice they’d like to share about how to do this well (or, at least, how not to ruin what I’ve already done), I’m all ears. Wish me luck! I’ll happily accept any positive vibes, good karma, well wishes, etc., that anyone has to spare.

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Worth the Effort, or My Chicken Epiphany

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Well, that was a longer hiatus than I had intended. I hope you small cabal of readers will forgive me my absence over the last few weeks, which have been very busy and filled with good things. First, I graduated from my doctoral program last week! My Mom flew out from Edmonton to attend my convocation at York University (the only of my three convocations I’ve ever attended… I figured the last one would be important enough to make up for missing the previous two) and I am now, officially, Dr Sheena. Hooray! And, as if that wasn’t good enough, I’m happy to tell you that I finally got a full time job! Starting in July, I’ll be working a 9-to-5 office job in downtown Toronto, which means the end of underemployment for me! I was a bit worried that not working in academia might bum me out, but I can honestly say that I couldn’t be more thrilled to be starting this new chapter in my life so soon. My new boss seems great, the work seems interesting, and I will no longer have to support myself with part time jobs. What’s not to like about that? And, as a cherry on the sundae, my friend Margaret gifted me with her entire yarn stash and all of her knitting needles yesterday afternoon. Am I lucky, or what?

Anyway, now that my good news is out in the open, let’s focus on the task at hand: chicken. For most of my life, I’ve been of two minds when it comes to chicken: 1) Chicken is good for you; 2) Chicken is gross. While the former is definitely something to think about when making choices about what to eat, my decision to become a vegetarian at age 19 was primarily based on the latter opinion. For years, my distaste for chicken (and beef and pork) was the only reason I didn’t eat meat. And, because I didn’t see the point in lying about it, it was also the reason I gave when people asked why I’d become a vegetarian. As an adult woman living in North America in the twenty-first century, I thought this was a perfectly appropriate reason to be a vegetarian: I’m in charge of what I put in my body and there’s no reason for me to force myself to eat something I don’t like just because. Then I met a classmate who decided to clear it all up for me. My reason, he told me, was stupid. Not enjoying meat was not a good enough reason to give it up, he argued, so if I was going to be a vegetarian I’d better come up with something better than that. Then, as now, I brushed off his reasoning. What business is it of others what I eat? When it comes to food, I’m definitely something of a libertarian. I have never judged others for eating meat, so I expected others to keep their opinions about my vegetarianism to themselves.

All of this is now moot, of course, because I’ve eaten quite a lot of meat in the last year or so. I mean, it’s hard not to be tempted when you live within walking (and smelling) distance of the best Carolina-style barbecue north of the Carolinas. But there’s even more to it than that. Eating meat has given me more energy than I used to have, and it’s helped me lose enough weight that people have recently started commenting on how different I look despite not having changed anything about my fitness regime. Most importantly, though, and because my taste buds govern just about everything I make and eat, I’ve finally (finally!) begun to figure out how to cook meat so that it tastes great.

Surely I’m not alone in being intimidated by cooking meat and, especially, roasting a chicken. Anyone who’s grown up in North America has probably seen a Swiss Chalet commercial or two in their lifetime and, thanks to them, we all know what the ideal chicken should be: spit-roasted to perfection, with tender meat and crispy skin. But how, outside of a rotisserie, can a mere mortal achieve similar results in a crappy, apartment-sized oven for whom the description “seen better days” was most accurate more than a decade ago? Sure, you can cover the bird and preserve the juiciness of the meat at the expense of the crispy skin, which becomes flabby and insipid. Or, you can leave your bird uncovered and try not to choke on the resulting dry breast meat, which ends up tasting chalky and sucking all the moisture out of your mouth faster than you can drink a glass of water. As most of us omnivores probably share the opinion that flabby chicken skin and dry chicken breast has as much appeal as cleaning the bathroom, neither of these cooking options were going to work for me. So when I finally mustered up the courage to learn how to make the best goddamn roast chicken ever, I turned to Julia Child.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how great Julia Child is, and I’m certainly not going to get into the details of my girl crush on her, which developed primarily after reading her letters to Avis DeVoto. But I will say this: Julia Child is the most logical chef ever. Anyone who’s ever cooked from Mastering the Art of French Cooking has probably noticed the great attention to detail and orderliness of the book, with ingredients listed alongside detailed but accessible instructions about how to prepare them. On the subject of roasting chicken, Julia’s instructions are masterful. When it comes to timing, Julia employs a simple formula: 45 minutes + 7 minutes/lb. In other words, a 1lb chicken only needs about 45 minutes in a ˚350 F oven, and each additional pound beyond the first one will need about 7 minutes each. So, as an example, the nearly 8lb free-range Amish bird pictured above took about an hour and a half to roast. To avoid the dual problems of dry meat and flabby skin, Julia suggests an aggressive solution: frequent basting with butter and chicken drippings combined with occasionally turning the chicken in the roasting pan. The results are nothing  short of outstanding.

So, now, to explain the title of this post. Yes, this chicken is a lot of work compared to other methods of roasting chicken. The constant basting and turning might have you muttering bitterly to yourself under your breath, vowing that nothing in this world could be worth as much effort as you’re putting into your chicken at that very moment. I guarantee you won’t feel this way for long after you have your first bite, though. I’m even willing to bet that, after that first bite, you’ll ask yourself how soon is too soon to roast another chicken. And if, for some reason, you don’t feel this way about Julia Child’s roast chicken, I apologize in advance. In fact, I’d be happy to take that chicken off your hands…

Poulet Roti a la Paysanne Provençale

Recipe adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking  and Luisa Weiss’s My Berlin Kitchen

A confession: the first chicken I ever made that I thought was delicious came from blogger Luisa Weiss’s incredible memoir, My Berlin Kitchen (must read!). Her recipe for braised Provence-style chicken is really something else and was a great introduction to cooking chicken for someone who had never done it and was terrified of the process. I’ve channeled the spirit of Weiss’s dish and combined them with Child’s technique, with stunning results. 

2 tablespoons cold butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 ready-to-cook chicken of any size

1 teaspoon salt, divided

2-4 tablespoons softened butter (more butter for larger birds, less for smaller birds)

1 large or 2 small shallots, minced

4 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped

12-20 oil-cured black olives, pitted

2-4 sprigs of thyme

1. Preheat the oven to ˚425 F. Melt the cold butter and the olive oil together in a small saucepan. Set aside

2. Rinse the chicken inside and out in cold water, then dry thoroughly. Sprinkle 1/4 tsp salt inside the chicken, then smear 1 Tbsp of butter inside. Rub the outer skin with the remaining butter and place the chicken in a roasting pan, breasts up. Strew the minced shallots, chopped tomatoes, pitted olives and thyme sprigs around the chicken and set the uncovered chicken on the middle rack of the preheated oven.

3. Allow the chicken to brown lightly for 15 minutes, turning it on its left side after the first 5 minutes and then on its right side after the next five minutes (tongs and a flexible spatula will make this part easier). After each turn, baste the chicken with a few spoonfuls of the melted butter and oil. When the butter-oil mixture runs out, begin using the drippings from the roasting pan.

4. After the first 15 minutes, reduce the oven’s heat to ˚350 F and continue to baste every 10 minutes.

5. Halfway through the estimated roasting time (remember 45 minutes for the first pound and and extra 7 or so minutes for each pound after that), salt the chicken and turn it to its other side. Continue basting as before.

6. About 15 minutes before the end of the roasting time, salt the chicken again and turn one last time, breasts up. Continue basting as before.

7. To check for doneness, pay attention for the following: a sudden rain of splutters from the oven, a slight puffiness in the chicken breast, and the drumstick should feel looser in its socket. Prick the thickest part of the drumstick with a fork to see if the juices run clear yellow. If so, you’re done! If the juices are pink, test again in 10 minutes.

8. When done, remove the chicken to a platter and let the meat rest for 10 minutes before cutting. Then, serve and enjoy!

Challenge Accepted

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I know I promised you last week that I would write about the best roast chicken ever (and it’s coming, I promise!), but I need to show you what I just finished making. Check out that sock! Isn’t it cool looking? It might seem crazy to be knitting thick, warm socks so close to summer, and knowing that I generally hate wearing socks and avoid buying them until the moment I absolutely need them probably won’t make me seem any less insane. But these sock were born out of necessity, you see. I knit them because I needed to learn how to do something before I try something else.

It began last weekend when I was at a conference in Hamilton, Ontario. The conference organizers had arranged for us to see Hamilton’s Art Crawl,  a free monthly event where numerous galleries and shops on James St North stay open extra late so that people can check out the truly vibrant art scene that has been quietly growing for several years without the usual institutional or corporate support that tends to ruin local, independent communities. It was here that I discovered the wonderful and amazing  Handknit Yarn Studio, Hamilton’s lone and brand new local yarn shop. Yarn from the LYS, as knitters call them, is usually far out of my price range, so I was expecting to have a quick poke around and leave empty handed. Then, I spotted the Lopi.

ImageLopi is a type of yarn from Iceland that is famed for its warmth and its extreme delicateness. According to Cirilia Rose, lopi pulls apart like cotton candy if you’re rough with it, so it’s something that needs to be handled with care while knitting. I’d also heard that it can be expensive, being an import from Iceland, so I definitely didn’t expect to be bringing any home with me. Anyway, as I was admiring the beautiful range of colours stocked by the shop, I spotted the price: a mere $4.50 per skein. Totally in my price range! And, with that, I brought home 4 skeins in two colours, enough to make a pair of warm mittens and maybe even a hat as well.

Because this yarn is so delicate, and because I wanted to try using both colours in one garment, I realized that I would need to start practicing a technique that’s been scaring the crap out of me for as long as I’ve been knitting: stranded colourwork. (Okay, I haven’t been knitting all that long, but you get the point) Colour stranding is exactly what it sounds like (knitting with two or more strands of colour at once) and I was convinced that it was going to be really hard to do. So I decided to start small, with an easy stitch pattern on a project I could easily start over if I messed up badly (full finished project to be revealed in another post).

Fair Isle pattern

Turn out, colour stranding is SUPER EASY!  Emboldened by my success, I decided to start a pair of socks using a pattern I’d long admired but could never see myself having enough skill to do well. And, well, the sock you see above is the final product!

So far, I’ve finished the left sock and I’ve cast on for the right one. These socks are really time consuming to make, and I can’t seem to knit anything without including a mistake or two (the mistakes aren’t obvious, though, so I’m not going to point them out). I probably should have continued my colourwork experiment with a less complex pattern, but I’m the type of person who likes to throw myself into a challenge head first. In this case, my recklessness has definitely paid off. After I finish the second sock, I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to turn that Lopi into something warm and beautiful without ripping it to shreds.

To all you experienced knitters out there: have you ever knit with lopi before? Are there any tips or tricks for handling this yarn that you might be willing to share?