Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The best "use-stuff-up" recipe ever: Knödel (dumplings) in veggie-cream-stew!!

This is my favorite recipe, mostly just because it's delicious -- but it's also great for fighting food waste!

This recipe is especially for using up bread that has gone stale, and it's also a delicious way to use fresh vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms that maybe you don't have a specific use for.

I will start by writing out the complete recipe, then follow with tips, explanations, and variations.

Knödel (dumplings) in veggie-cream-stew

Ingredients for the Knödel:

  • 250 g. stale bread
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • some chopped fresh herbs (e.g. parsley, rosemary)
  • oil for cooking
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 dl. milk or beer
  • 80-160 g. lardons (Speckwürfeli) (optional)

Ingredients for the veggie-cream stew:

  • 1 onion (or bunch of green onions), chopped
  • 1 small hot chili pepper, chopped very small (optional)
  • 500 g. chopped vegetables and mushrooms
  • some chopped fresh herbs (e.g. thyme, wild garlic)
  • oil for cooking
  • 1 dl. broth
  • 200 g. crème fraîche

In a large pot, cook the onion, garlic, lardons, & herbs in a bit of cooking oil until the onion bits are translucent. Set this aside to cool a bit while you slice the stale bread very thin and put the slices in a large mixing bowl. Mix together the eggs, milk or beer, and nutmeg, then pour this mixture over the bread. Then add the earlier cooked ingredients (including the oil).

Knead the mixture thoroughly with your hands until there are no dry bread chunks left, and then form the mixture into 6-8 balls.

In the same pot as before, cook the second set of ingredients as follows:

Add some more cooking oil and cook the onion, hot pepper, and herbs until the onion bits are translucent. Then add the vegetables, mushrooms, and broth, starting with whichever vegetables need to be cooked the longest. Bring it to a boil, then add the crème fraîche and bring it to a boil again, then reduce the heat to a simmer.

Place the dumplings on top of the vegetable stew and cover the pot. Simmer covered for 20 minutes.

Serve and enjoy!

This recipe is a combination of two different recipes I found in some local cookbooks -- with my own modifications based on the experience of making it all the time. The recipes are "Semmelknödel auf Rahm-Kürbis", p.25 of Martina Kittler's "Kürbis: Das Best vom Herbst" (GU Küchenratgeber, 2013), and "Brot-Knödel auf Rahm-Gemüse", p. 68 of "Resten Los Geniessen" (Betty Bossi, 2018).

I love making this recipe because I love to mix-and-match flavors! And I love to try out different seasonal vegetables! You can use essentially any vegetable that you might normally use in a soup or stir-fry.

Naturally you can use "Kürbis" (pumpkin/squash), broccoli, spinach, zucchini (though that one gets a little mushy), bok choi, green beans, snap peas, etc., etc. In this instance I used carrots, brussel sprouts, and kale.

You can even use protein chunks such as meat or tempeh in place of part of the vegetables.

Ideally, you can make this recipe with just ingredients that you already have in your kitchen -- so it's cozy comfort food for a lazy day when you weren't planning to go out. And since you can substitute your own favorite ingredients at every step, your version will taste better to you than mine would!

Unless you specifically dislike mushrooms, I would recommend not skipping the mushrooms as part of your 500 grams of vegetables and mushrooms. They really affect the flavor.

This time there were some fresh local mushrooms in the shop, so I bought them specifically for this recipe.

However, even when I use fresh mushrooms (and especially when I don't have any on hand), I generally add some dried mushrooms as well. They impact the flavor even more than the fresh ones do, so it's a good idea to keep some dried mushrooms in your cupboard for such occasions.

If you're using dried mushrooms, start by re-hydrating them since it takes about 20 minutes. They'll be ready by the time you need them.

In this picture you can also see the fresh herbs I picked from my balcony garden (thyme, rosemary, and sage). This January heat wave we're having is kinda scary, but I guess I have fresh herbs year-round, so yay...?

You can use your own favorite herbs from your own garden -- or maybe you or someone else in your household bought some fresh herbs for a recipe and didn't use them up -- feel free to try them out in this!

If you don't have any fresh herbs, naturally you can use dried herbs instead.

I normally divide the herbs so that I'm using some for the knödel and then different ones for the stew so that the components will have different flavors.

When sautéing the onions for the dumplings, I generally use the same pan I'm planning to cook the whole lot in later. Naturally you can use a different pan if you like, but then you have to wash two pans.

I had thought that pine nuts might make a good vegetarian alternative to using lardons in the dumplings, but they didn't really work because the flavor was too subtle.

So in this picture I'm using vegan faux-lardons from Outlawz Food. These worked really well and were quite delicious, so I'm definitely using them again.

For the bread, one recipe recommends Ciabatta (which works well), and the other lists various breads. I usually use butterzopf (which is like brioche) because my kids like it for sandwiches, and (if not eaten) it gets hard/stale by the next day.

More or less any bread will work as long as it's at least a bit stale/hard so that the liquid of the recipe can penetrate it. Both recipes say to use bread from the previous day, but I've found that bread that's up to 4 days old works just fine. Just keep in mind that the harder it is, the smaller the pieces you need to cut it into (and obviously don't use bread that's moldy, etc.).

For the liquid, both recipes say to use milk (one says milk or water), but I like to use beer instead.

This is because one time I started making this recipe and realized that we didn't have any milk (since we don't use milk that often), so I had to find a substitute. I'd heard that beer can sometimes be used as a substitute for milk in recipes (and we definitely have that), so I decided to try it out -- and it works great!

An extra advantage of using beer is that it's not sold in 1 dl portions (that's just a 10th of a liter), so you can open a bottle, set aside 1 dl of beer, and drink the rest while making this recipe!

Naturally the eggs can also be replaced with vegan egg-substitutes.

Forming the dumplings is quite simple. Just squeeze everything together with your hands until everything is mixed and there are no lumps of dry bread. Then form the balls with your hands.

I usually make six of them to make it easy to divide this into three portions, but you can also make eight for four portions.

Then set this aside and start on the vegetables.

I usually add a hot pepper here because I like the flavor combination of spicy and creamy. Neither recipe includes this (not even as a suggestion), so feel free to leave it out if you don't like spicy food.

In this case, I had preserved some hot chilis from my balcony garden in olive oil, so I used some of that for both the chili and part of the cooking oil.

(You can see my little jar of hot chilis on the right-had side of the picture of bowls of ingredients above.)

The biggest difference between my recipe and the ones in the books is the amount of broth. One calls for adding 1 dl of broth, and the other none at all. So why do I recommend half a liter of broth?

Since a bouillon cube makes half a liter of broth, I initially used to make the 5 dl and then only use 1 dl. But I found that -- depending on the vegetables you're using -- it's easier to cook them down without burning them (and simmer 20 minutes!) if you use more liquid. And since I already had more broth right there, I started using more and more of it until I ended up using all of it every time.

As you might guess, this changes the character of the recipe entirely. Both of the initial recipes are for dumplings that can be served on a plate with a vegetable cream sauce over them. My version is more of a soup or stew (hence the title) that's served in a bowl.

If you'd prefer a creamy sauce rather than a creamy stew, you can easily achieve this by using 1 dl of broth rather than 5. But, personally, I love soups and stews! So that's how I make this recipe.

If you make it as a stew, the cream actually becomes optional. If you prefer a transparent brothy soup rather than a creamy soup, you can leave out the cream entirely.

If you don't have any crème fraîche, you can substitute heavy cream. I've done this, and it works fine.

If you'd like to substitute lower-fat dairy products (like yoghurt or sour cream), the one thing to be aware of is that they can curdle when cooking them. So if you're using a substitute here, just be sure to pick something that is made to be cooked.

Then -- after a quick 20-minute simmer in their own soup or sauce -- you have delicious knödels! Made with your own favorite ingredients!


Saturday, December 24, 2022

A Very Special Totally Normal Christmas... Special!!!

 My kids and I finished up our latest Totally Normal Town episode -- our Christmas Special -- just in time for Christmas Eve!!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

State of the Me: 2022-2023

This year's "State of the Me" is probably going to be the most positive one so far in this whole series! I'd just like to remind readers that I started this series in January 2010 because I was depressed about moving from France to Switzerland and really needed to make some long-term changes to get my life in order. So if this post looks at all like a brag-fest, it's that a bunch of goals I've been chipping away at for the past decade or two have actually wrapped up successfully in 2022!!

First and foremost: I actually finished illustrating book 1 of my comic book!!!

To recap: I wrote the script for the 3-book series during a fantastic vacation in Paris in 2014. By the end of 2015, I had the main concept art done. By mid-2016, I had finished illustrating part 2 of book 1. By mid-2017, I had finished illustrating part 1 of book 1. And then part 3 of book 1 -- which was supposed to be easy because it took place in mostly the same places as parts 1 & 2 -- took me until midway through 2022.

I need to do a bit of last-minute cleanup/corrections before printing a batch of copies of the comic book, but I expect to have it ready to go before the end of my Christmas vacation.

My plan had always been that I'd look for a publisher once book 1 was done, but I feel like I'm not quite ready to do that yet. Since it took me about five years just to draw these last 16 pages, I need to ensure that if & when I find a publisher, I'll be in a position where I can reduce my work hours and do whatever else it takes to draw the other two books as quickly as possible.

This leads into my main goals for the upcoming year:

1. Improve my skills at tools for creative processes. Specifically, I'd like to get better at creating music with the computer and at creating (2d) animations (probably with Unity). Plus I bought a green screen -- and my kids and I tried it out and found that it's quite easy to swap out the green background using ordinary editing software.

I'd like to be able to create at least reasonably professional-looking videos. I have no intention of doing it professionally, but I love storytelling through various media (amateur theater, comic books, puppet shows), and I feel like if I put in just a bit of effort on learning the tools better, I could make stuff that would be cool and that I could be proud of.

Additionally, it's fun doing collaborations with my two (now adult) kids, like our Totally Normal Town series, and I'd just like to get myself into a position where I feel like I have the skills to create a good video whenever inspiration hits.

I'd like to be in that position before I lock myself into another who-knows-how-many years of focusing on drawing the other two books of my comic book trilogy (hence wouldn't have the time to build these background skills) which is why I'd like to do this before doing a serious search for a publisher.

2. Improve my tool set for drawing my comic book. When I first started drawing it, I developed some simple tools in Python for some image correction tasks, and I've stuck with the same toolset and techniques for the whole eight years or so that I've been working on it. Now that I'm at a good breaking point, I think I can use that experience to evaluate how I can improve my techniques in order to create my drawings faster as well as better.

Once I've accomplished those two goals (hopefully by the end of 2023!) I think I will finally be ready to start looking for a publisher for my comic book.

Another related goal I've set for 2023 is that I'd like to join the local English-speaking community theater group (along with my kids). This so completely nails what we need in our lives right now that I'm kind of afraid to get my hopes up too high with respect to this working out. But here's the situation:

My kids attended the French school (Lycée Français de Zürich), so they never learned German quite as well as they should have, and they speak almost no Switzerdutsch. Since they have always been close with each other (plus they're not neurotypical), they didn't really even make a lot of lasting friendships among their French-speaking classmates. And English is the language they're most comfortable in by far.

A few months ago my older son Nico was feeling stressed about various aspects of his life -- including his lack of socializing outside the family. So I made some suggestions: (1) that we take a Switzerdutsch class together, and (2) I recommended joining an English-speaking community theater group I had heard about.

So we took the Switzerdutsch class together (the last class was this past Monday), and we're planning to sign up for the English theater club in January. The Switzerdutsch class was not great for socializing (it was a tiny class), but it was a good opportunity to get out and interact with other people (the institute that Nico is attending to learn video game programming/design is mostly online).

I think the theater club will be better because it will give an opportunity to interact with all sorts of people in real life -- in English -- doing something fun and creative together. I'll try to get my younger son Léo to join as well since improv theater was one of his favorite after-school activities. And we could all use some new friends -- especially locals who might be interested in collaborating with us on our other creative projects. (My husband might also participate a bit, but maybe not since he has his own separate interests.)

Naturally I'm always grateful for my more distant friends and creative collaborators! Here are some who've been keeping Main Street Plaza lively as we enter into awards season again:

I have a list of good ideas for more blog posts, but somehow I've been doing a bad job of buckling down and writing them. Maybe this will change now that I've discovered Mastodon (where I post as I always liked the decentralized landscape of the blogging world, and I'd been long hoping that a communication network like the #fediverse would come along and replace the for-profit social media platforms. Now I find I'm energized about connecting with people online again!

And now for the latest status on my other long-running goals:

1. Learning German and Integrating:

We're officially Swiss!! My husband and I and our two children now all have Swiss passports!

To some degree I feel like I will always be a foreigner wherever I go, but this step has had a huge impact on my outlook. Now I feel like I belong here -- like I'm a part of this place and a part of this culture.

I'm also happy that I was able to get my name change recognized. When I became French, I changed my first name from Carol to Carole, but I had to jump through some additional hoops to get this name change legally recognized in Switzerland (since my birth certificate says "Carol"). It's a silly little thing, but it's part of my chosen identity as a European.

My German is pretty fluent, but I've been wanting to at least understand Swiss German for a long time -- ever since I noticed that hearing it made me feel excluded. But it's really hard to find any reasonable materials for learning it!! The course I took with Nico was somewhat helpful, but not as helpful as I would have liked.

My new plan/hope/goal is to use the book Züritüütsch isch aifach schön -- which contains the lyrics to 5 CDs worth of clever Züritüütsch songs with transcripts and translations into high German and English. I like it so far -- I just need to set up a schedule to learn new songs from it regularly.

2. Freeing my apartment of clutter:

I've been talking about this one for years, and I think it's finally in a good state. It's not perfect, but I've managed to donate (online) some of the larger items that were still good, and I've recycled and reorganized and thrown away so many things that I now have space to breathe. I no longer feel like I'm drowning in junk!

3. My job:

My career is going amazingly well. Since I've been at my current company, I've had a vision of building a centralized DevOps/Cloud Infrastructure team that meets each tech team where they're at -- providing as much or as little setup/training/support as they need to deploy their projects to the cloud infrastructure (which we maintain) in a scalable and automated way. And I've made it so.

Looking at my team now, this positioning seems expected and inevitable -- but in reality, it took some work to convince various teams across the company to trust us with this responsibility rather than fragmenting the DevOps tasks.
I've had the pleasure and privilege of training and collaborating with some fantastic colleagues. My boss has done a fantastic job of helping us prioritize a new roadmap of system-wide upgrades. And the icing on the cake is that I earned a big raise and promotion -- I've been the tech lead of my team for months!

My only goal on this one is to update my CV and my linked-in profile with all of the fantastic successes in this job!!

4. Anything else...?

I've gotten all recommended vaccines and boosters, and we're still masking in the public transport and while shopping. So far none of us has gotten Covid at all.

The protection provided by the vaccines has allowed me and my husband to resume some of our favorite leisure activities, especially travel and throwing parties.

On the very bad side, the world's response to climate change is still nowhere near where it needs to be. But at least in my little micro corner of the world 2022 was a good year. Let's hope 2023 will be even better!!

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

The Grim Strikes Again!!!

 If you watched my previous video, you probably saw this coming!

Our town has been great fun, but part of the fun of Legos is that your creations aren't meant to be permanent. They're built, then demolished, and then the parts find new uses in other builds -- it's the Lego "circle of life"!

A new "Totally Normal Christmas Town" has already started to spring up in the place of the old "Totally Normal Town". And, yes, you can look forward to a "Totally Normal Christmas Special" coming this season!

Sunday, September 11, 2022

And in the industrial corner...


Last -- and certainly not least -- we have Totally Normal Town's factory.

This factory is another one of the few buildings in Totally Normal Town that is wholly original and not inspired at all by any set.

Basically, I wanted to try my hand at a bit of engineering, so I built a working factory in which you can pour a bunch of studs from one of the four bins into the windowed tower, and then when you turn the gear on the back, the studs will ride along the two conveyor belts and into the bins on the ends.

One of the conveyor belts also has a mechanism that moves up and down as if to stamp or press the studs as they go by. All of these mechanisms run simultaneously when you turn the large black gear on the back.

The mechanism isn't perfect, but it works surprisingly well considering how complex it is.

I think if I make another similar factory in the future, I'll probably try to make some kind of drive train rather than making a long chain of gears in which each one drives the next one.

Overall it's a fun build though.

And once you graduate from Hogwarts, you can go to Space College!

 This incarnation of Totally Normal Town has one more school: Leo Deblin's Space College and Institute of Barbering!

This building is a reference to the very funny "Leo Deblin" series that Roy Wood Jr. did for the Daily Show. We even put a Little Caesars Pizza next door because in some of the sketches he says that it's right next to the Little Caesars.

I got the space college logo by taking a screenshot of the video.

This pair of buildings is based on the Bike Shop and Café set #31026 I mentioned earlier.

Since there's an ATM machine on one side, you can see Scrooge McDuck there getting some money with his 3 nephews -- plus lots of other entertaining characters inside and out!

Both of these buildings hinge open so you can see the interiors. Leo Deblin is in his space college wearing a blue space suit.

Hogwarts? But, of course!

No Totally Normal Town is complete without Hogwarts!

This Hogwarts building is an original design that includes some pieces from an actual Hogwarts set.

When I made it, I wanted to use these tall dark-blue columns for some reason, so I ended up with a color scheme that includes the normal Hogwarts color scheme plus some deep blues and light greys.

Ultimately, I think the chaotic color scheme in this case doesn't work, so I won't be too sad when "the Grim" takes this building.

We've gotten some more Hogwarts sets since this one was constructed, so I think we can make a better Hogwarts next time.

This building hinges open so that you can see the interior.

A Totally Normal Dojo!

 The dojo where my minifigure takes her Spinjitsu lessons is an original building, but it is (obviously) Ninjago-based.

In the very top section lives a lava-monster. The lava-monster is from the "Power Miners" series from the 2000's. Sadly, I think we lost most of our lava-monsters, but I thought it would be fun to put this one in a little lava pool at the top of the dojo.

 The lower two sections have screens that slide open, revealing secrets in the interior.

It looks like part of the left side of the dojo has been taken over by the "upside-down" from "Stranger Things."

In fact the whole dojo has been taken over by various monsters including an alien on the ground floor and Slenderman in the garden.

The back is similar to the front except that the panels don't slide open.

And there's a little garden on the side with a Ninjago-inspired tree. I'm including various photos below:

Surfin' the web in Totally Normal Town

 The Internet Café and co-working space is one of my favorite buildings in Totally Normal Town because it's one of the few buildings that is completely original and not at all inspired by commercially-available sets.

It has a lot of really cool details and design elements that work -- making it a fun building unlike anything you'll see in a typical Lego city.

When we first started rebuilding the city, we decided that we needed a nice place for our minifigures to surf the Internet (since that's what people do all day), so we set down a bunch of desks and computers (plus a coffee machine). Then Nico started building a wall all the way around the outside.

I really didn't want to have such a big building surrounded by a solid brick wall, though, so I gathered up a bunch of arches to make the outer walls entirely open windows.

Then, to make the wall/windows more interesting, I attached a bunch of neon-orange claw-like pieces kind of represent lights.

Since the building has such a large footprint, and since the interior is fun and interesting, I wanted to ensure that it stayed visible by keeping everything open. So, as with the walls, I created the suggestion of a glass roof by putting beams across the top, aligned with the irregular corners in the original footprint that Nico put down.

And I had some of the beams go up into a pyramid shape to give the impression of a dome, plus I added more little neon orange lights along the top.

(To be precise, the coffee machine is from a set, but the building is not.)

The building has three doorways and lots of minifigures busily working inside, including some friends from the Muppets and Harry Potter.