Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rescue Mission

I have a soft spot for the less fortunate.  I try to do my part, donate money and time and resources where I can, and hope that it's enough.  Mostly, I think I should do more.

Two weekends ago, we were visiting Lance's grandmother.  She has a stray cat population that she (more or less grudgingly) has been feeding and sheltering.  Lance's mom has been doing her best to find homes for the tamer ones and spay/neuter the ones she can catch so that the cat herd thins out a bit.  Kittens still turn up, however, and we'd noticed two cute little tabbies.  Upon closer inspection, it appeared that the smallest one was sick--she had a respiratory infection, gunky eyes, and was gaunt because she was too small to compete with the bigger kitties (including her littermate) for food.  I pleaded with Lance for us to take her to the vet, but he thought she would probably get better without our help.

Last weekend, we went up, and she wasn't better.  In fact, she was probably worse--and when Lance felt her tiny little ribs sticking out, he decided we could do our best to get her well, on the condition that we find her a new home (so, if you're near me: free kitty!).  I took her to the vet yesterday, and she has an upper respiratory infection, as suspected, as well as suffering from fleas, dehydration, diarrhea, and possibly some other things.  The poor thing weighed in at 1.5 pounds (her brother is almost twice her size) and sat hunched over and looking pretty miserable and pathetic. She didn't even fight me as we took her home, then took her back and forth from the vet.

We anticipate that under our care (and antibiotics) that she'll start to get better and go on to be a happy kitty.  This is the fifth cat that I've rescued or helped to rescue (I kept two of them), so I feel pretty good about helping out tiny, defenseless animals.  Especially when they grow up to be such awesome kitties:

Then I got to thinking about the time and resources I was using to rescue animals.  Wouldn't it better to use it to help people? my conscience dinged.  That was troubling.  By choosing to spend $40 on a sick kitten, was I saying that people who are in desperate need aren't as worthy as a kitten?  Wouldn't the time I spent nursing the kitten back to health be better spent volunteering to help people?

Ultimately, I don't know.  Maybe I'm not directing my energies in the right direction.  Maybe what matters is that I'm trying to help a suffering creature, even if she is just a kitten.  I don't think it's a matter of rating animals higher than people; instead, it's a matter of taking responsibility for creatures we domesticated and who wouldn't necessarily thrive (let alone survive) without human interaction.  And I'm sure this tiny kitten will bring something special to her future owner's life.

Monday, June 21, 2010

In Which I Resolve to Speak My Mind

It had been almost a year since I had an actual conversation with my dad.  Due to a series of announcements, misunderstandings, misfires in communication, and a general reluctance to simply deal with our issues, the last time I talked to my dad was Father's Day 2009.  It's been a tough year.

I've been angry, sad, unhappy, annoyed, resolved, and myriad other adjectives about the whole situation.  I doubt that everything is fixed, really, but I think we're finally making a start.  We cried, laughed, apologized, and talked for two hours.  I got off the phone emotionally drained, but optimistic.

The one thing I've realized after wading through our reasons for how we dealt with each other is that I need to be more assertive.  If you met me ten years ago (or even five), you'd realize that I'm much more assertive than I used to be.  But I need to be bold, be unafraid to speak my mind, and stand up for myself.  They (my parents and others) may not like what I have to say, but I think that being upfront and honest is the best way to handle a lot of situations.  Things get ugly, I've discovered, when people don't communicate and deal with problems.  By speaking my mind, the other party has the opportunity to voice theirs and perhaps clear the air, instead of sulking and having the wrong ideas about the situation.

It was easy to blame them for a lot, but I have to take a bit of responsibility myself and admit that I was afraid to directly confront some of the issues.  I honestly didn't think they would listen--or I thought they did listen and just weren't interested in what I had to say.  And part of that is true.  I can't expect everyone to handle situations the same way I do, and I can't expect them to confront something.  Sometimes, they need to be forced to confront it.

Anyway, I'm glad the situation is changing, at the very least, and hopefully it'll be a change for the better.  And I am learning that I should just be strong and speak my mind, even if it's a little uncomfortable.  Of course, speaking my mind doesn't mean I should be tactless or undiplomatic.  I'm just thinking about it as good practice for both life and my future career.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

First Jam of the Year

Lance picked blueberries last week.  We also picked black raspberries from a friend's yard (and got attacked by chiggers.  Ack.)  Since berries either need to be frozen or dealt with quickly and we are berry-rich, I decided to make a quick jam.  Using my favorite canning book, Well Preserved, I looked up blueberry recipes and came across both a blueberry chutney (which I'll make later) and the Black and Blue Jam, which I made this afternoon.

It was hot, but luckily it came together quickly on the stove.  I love using my enameled cast iron dutch oven as a jam pot:
After cooking the jam for 20 minutes or so, I put it into jars.  It made three 8-oz jars and one 12-oz (or maybe 16?) jar:

It was very good on a cracker:

And now it's time for me to get ready for the 80's pubcrawl in honor of CB's going away to grad school!  I actually made my top for it, which I'm very excited about.  I'll post more pictures of my outfit tomorrow--it involves a 20-year old crimping iron and an outfit that may double for a robot costume at a later date.  A sneak peek:

Oh yeah, recipe.

Black & Blue Jam
(adapted from Well Perserved by Mary Anne Dragan)
  • 3 cups black raspberries (original calls for blackberries)
  • 3 cups blueberries
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tbsp lemon juice (about 2 lemons's worth)
  • zest from one lemon
Put the berries and sugar in your jam pot.  Using a potato masher, crush the berries.  Let sit at least one hour. Add lemon juice and zest.

Prepare the preserving jars by sterilizing the jars, lids, and rings in a pot of boiling water.  While the water is boiling to sterilize the jars, bring the berries/sugar/lemon to a boil over medium-high heat.  Boil rapidly for 15-20 minutes, stirring often.  The mixture will get dark and thick.  (If desired, test the set by dropping a little on a plate that has been in the freezer.  If it gets thicker as it cools and hold its set, then it's ready!)

Remove from the heat, stir, and skim off the foam (if necessarily).  Pour the jam into the sterile jars, leaving a 1/4-in head space.  Wipe rims clean and seal according to manufacturer's directions. Process the jars in a boiling water bath (your sterilization pot is perfect and already hot!) for 10 minutes.  Remove from bath and let cool.  Lids should seal as the jars cool

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What to Eat

Remember last September when I decided to be a vegetarian?  I have, with a few exceptions, stuck to it.  I don't crave meat; in fact, I sometimes find the thought of eating meat a little repulsive (which is the reason I started in the first place).

Lately, I've found myself more firmly in the vegetarian camp, identifying more with a vegetarian lifestyle.  I've even been flirting a little with vegan cooking, thanks to a fun cookbook called Veganomicon.  I love the cookbook, and while I have no intentions on being a vegan (no yogurt? no buttermilk? too much smugness?), I think that there are health and environmental benefits to be had from generally consuming fewer animal products, not just eschewing meat.

Just as I'm starting to identify more strongly with the vegetarian lifestyle, I run across a review about a book called The Butcher and the Vegetarian.  Written by Tara Austen Weaver of Tea & Cookies, the book is about how after being told that she should eat meat by her doctors because she struggled with chronic fatigue, she decides to explore the world of meat.  She is scared of giving herself food poisoning, cooking it poorly, or just not knowing what to do with meat because she grew up a vegetarian.  Basically, she moves in the opposite direction of most folks who, like me, become vegetarians after growing up eating meat.

The book was an enjoyable exploration of the moral implications of eating meat: she ends up seeking out farmers who strive to produce meat that comes from an animal that is treated like an animal (and not a product) and is slaughtered humanely.  I found these parts the most interesting because I started eating less meat because of this very issue, and it's one reason I cite if people ask me why I'm a vegetarian.

Weaver also struggles with the guilt she feels about eating meat: she truly enjoys it, especially when she learns about charcuterie (preserved meats) and meets individuals who are passionate (and talented) about cooking meat.  But her mother and vegetarian background play the angel to her meat-enjoying devil, and she spends a good deal of the book wrestling with those issues.  She started trying to eat meat to improve her health, but when research shows that a vegetarian or vegan diet is usually the most healthful, she has to wonder: will eating meat really make her healthier and happier?

Ultimately, she finds that a mostly raw food diet is the cure to her fatigue and illness.  But she still eats small bites of meat here and there and cooked food--she understands that she found the key to what made her healthy and happy within herself.  Food choices often boil down to that: what works for the individual and her own convictions.  Weaver concludes:
How we feed ourselves is an intensely personal act. It brings together all manner of family and cultural traditions, issues of health--both our own and those of the world at large--and the simple fact that we want to be delighted by what we eat; we want to be satisfied and comforted.  Right or wrong, in a world that sometimes has sharp edges, food is often our solace.
We cook our food, we eat for pleasure as well as for sustenance, and this is part of the problem.  Michael Pollan is right: Our food choices present a dilemma.  For us, what to have for dinner will always be complicated.  Do we eat for our palate, for our health, for the planet? Can we have it all?...
We also don't live in a meritocracy.  Those who do a good job conserving resources don't get to advance to the next level while the wastrels get held back.  We're all in this together--vegetarians, vegans, and carnivores.  We're sitting at the same dining table.  The problems we face in regards to health, planet, and increasingly limited resources are ours.  They are ours to fix, or ours to flub.  I'm hoping we can fix them.
 This is what my decision to be a vegetarian boils down to.  I've realized that I'm healthier and happier when I'm eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a bit of dairy here and there, and I feel bad (and gain weight) when I eat lots of meat, processed foods, sugar, and fat.  My diet works for me and what my body needs.  I don't expect Lance to ever give up meat--nor would I ask him to--and he makes his own choices based on what he enjoys and feels good about eating.  (He ends up eating mostly vegetarian too, but has been known to cook himself a piece of venison or pork when he's in the mood for it).  And sometimes he makes bacon-wrapped tofu:

Eating is an intensely personal choice, which is why some meat-eaters get up in arms about vegetarians and vegans, and why some vegetarians/vegans adopt an attitude of moral superiority and smugness about their dietary choices.  In the end, however, it simply comes down to what you want to eat and what you feel good about eating--and sometimes, it really is okay to eat a butter-filled cupcake or a piece of bacon.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Handy Kitchen Tools

I have a running group that meets on Thursdays to run.  I've brought treats a couple of times, and when I was at the half-marathon last weekend, one of the guys asked for baked goods this week.  I had bananas in the freezer that I accidentally let thaw partially, so they were no good for banana soft-serve (try it! seriously!), so I decided to bake banana-black raspberry muffins.

I would give you all the recipe, but I sorta made it up based on the Basic Muffin Recipe in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.  (I really should measure things, but I am so lazy).  I'm not going to give you all a recipe, but I am going to talk about one of my favorite kitchen tools: the dough whisk.

But first, a picture of Neko, who jumped onto the stool in the kitchen to get attention (on top of my cookbook). We have trained her using peanut butter (yes, she loves peanut butter), so she associates the stool with petted, food, or treats

I first heard about the dough whisk from Chocolate & Zucchini.  Intrigued, I decided to buy one for Lance and his brother for Christmas one year.  They both bake lots of bread.  I figured if a French woman with a tiny kitchen recommended it, then maybe it wasn't too gimmicky.

Lance and his brother both praised it as very useful indeed.  Since I usually leave the bread baking to Lance, I ignored it, content that Lance used it and liked it.  Until I started using it to mix the wet and dry ingredients for muffins and quick breads.

It's marvelous.  It works 1000 times better than a regular whisk or a rubber spatula.  AND it doesn't have dough sticking to it--the batter slides off easily and quickly.  I use it to whisk together dry ingredients:
And then to mix the wet and dry together.

You know how muffin/quick bread/cake recipes always admonish you to not "overmix" or DOOM will befall your baked treat? Well, this dough whisk gently combines the ingredients.  No overmixing!
And you know how if you mix something by hand, inevitably (even while risking the dreaded overmixing!) you miss some flour or something on the bottom?  Well, the dough whisk really gets it all.  No more flour spots lurking in the middle of your perfectly whisked batter.

If you find yourself making lots of muffins, pancakes, bread, etc, I would heartily recommend adding this to your kitchen tools.  Get rid of something pointless like one of those crappy whisks, if you have a small kitchen.  You won't regret it.

I'll leave you with an image of another well-used tool in my kitchen: the 1/2 cup ice cream scoop:
PERFECT for measuring out muffin batter.  And absolutely dead-on for the amount of cupcake batter you should portion out into each cup, as I mentioned yesterday.  Another tool well-worth the cost and drawer space!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Where to Start?

I have several posts in mind.  When that happens, it usually means I can't choose what to write about, so I write about nothing.

I had another half-marathon last weekend in Kansas City.  Which originally was going to be my topic for tonight's post...but then I realized I'd rather talk about cupcakes.

I have a passion for cupcakes.  You would think that I run just to be able to consume the cupcakes that I bake, and you would not be completely wrong.  Luckily, my cupcakes are such an undertaking (and as it grows warmer, it has to be a Very Special Occasion for me to bake in a non-air conditioned kitchen) that I can outrun the butter and sugar.  Just barely.

I realized that I had not yet posted my last cupcake baking endeavor.  I believe they were from a weekend in April, a birthday party batch.  A very fun birthday party, in fact, thrown by AB for her husband.  Cupcakes being my thing, I offered to bake them.  (I always do love an excuse to try a new recipe).

It all started when I made cookies.  I was meeting up with some people and wanted to bring something to nibble on, so I baked Coffee and Walnut Splodge Cookies, straight from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess to their mouths.  (CB declared, "You brought noms!" which made me unspeakably happy.)  They were so delicious: rich, nutty, not too sweet--a great cookie.  I never would have thought to blend coffee and walnuts, and they were pretty much perfect, unified by butter and love.

So, I had walnuts and coffee on my mind.  When I made the Super Special Birthday Cake, I had encountered a Walnut Layer Cake with a Coffee Buttercream in Regan Daley's incomparable In the Sweet Kitchen, which begged me to bake it.  PLEADED.  But I had been asked for a CHOCOLATE/coffee combination, not walnut/coffee, so I simply used that fabulous, beautiful Coffee Buttercream to frost the SSBC. And kept that walnut cake in my baking queue.

The cupcakes, I decided, would be that cake.  The frosting would be that Coffee Buttercream.  But what garnish?

I feel that cupcakes (and cakes, for that matter) should always have some special touch.  If you make a carrot cupcake with cream cheese frosting, how about candying some carrot pieces to top it? (For example).

I was home alone that weekend, so I made myself a special lunch (curried bok choy, asparagus, pumpkin, and tofu over soba noodles), complete with a glass of wine and dessert.

I had bought some beautiful strawberries at the farmers' market that morning, so I chopped a few up, threw some orange juice on them, then topped them with two of the leftover walnut/coffee cookies.  The tart of the strawberries meshed perfectly with the dense/dark flavor of the cookies, and I knew had my my garnish.

I proceeded with the Walnut Cupcakes with a Coffee Buttercream, Garnished with Strawberries, and this is what emerged:
They were so beautiful.  I was pleased with myself enormously.  These, these cupcakes.  They would be perfect for a birthday celebration.  I happily loaded them up and headed to the party.

And they went over very well.  In fact, L and D (who are both firmly Team Cake) had looks of pure pleasure on their faces as they bit into the cupcakes.  Later in the night, partygoers decided to make a cupcake sandwich, and were pleased with the results.

It took me long enough to post them, but don't you think they were worth the wait?

But first....
Walnut-Espresso Cookies
(from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess

  • 1-2/3 cups flour (you might mix all-purpose with whole wheat pastry, if you like)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp instant espresso powder (Indispensable for baking! Buy it!)
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • generous 3/4 cup/7 oz. walnuts, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  In a separate mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.  Add the espresso powder, then the eggs.  Stir in the flour mixture and walnuts.  Don't overmix or you'll be sad.

Using a small ice cream scoop, scoop onto lined cookie sheets (or a baking stone), about 2 inches apart.  Bake for 12 minutes until they are golden and smell really, really good.  Cool.  Eat.

Now for the main feature! (Please do not be frightened by the obscene amounts of butter in the cupcakes/buttercream.  They are for SPECIAL occasions, which ALWAYS calls for obscene amounts of butter. And wine, beer, or whiskey/gin.)
Walnut Cupcakes topped with Coffee Buttercream
  • 1-1/2 cups unsalted butter (yes, that's 3 sticks of butter)
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tbsp pure maple syrup (Grade B or C, if you're being picky)
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup finely ground walnuts (this is when you really love your food processor)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare the pans with cupcake papers (or two 9-in rounds, if you're anti-cupcake.  If you are, then GET OUTTA HERE. *ahem* Carry on.).

Sift the flour (which I actually did for once), baking powder and salt together in a bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of your mixer with the paddle attachment (or a big bowl if you're a hand-mixer type), cream the butter and the sugar until pale and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping the sides of the bowl after each egg.  Beat in the maple syrup and vanilla, then mix in the walnuts.  Add the flour mixture to the mixing bowl in three additions, mixing just enough to moisten the flour between each.  Fold the last addition in by hand with a large rubber spatula.

Using a large scoop (known as my muffin scoop--1/2 cup capacity, I think), fill the cupcake papers 2/3-3/4 full.  Bake until done (I know, I know, so vague), something over 20 minutes, being careful not to overbake or they will be dry.  Let cool completely.  

Frost with coffee buttercream, garnish with strawberries, and share with lots of people because I don't want to be responsible for any heart attacks.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Small Potatoes

Every Sunday, we go to a potluck.  I love it.  We're a creative bunch who likes to experiment with foods and flavors, and it's always fun to see what the other people will bring.  We sometimes have themes to help us pick what to make.  I feel like it's made me a better cook, even if it's not so good for my waistline sometimes, especially when S gets carried away with the butter and cheese, which is often.

Since last weekend was Memorial Day weekend, the "theme" was grilling.  And while I'm not much of a grill-person (because Lance takes it over, and I'm more than happy to let him do so), I decided to focus my attentions on a salad of some sort.  I had gobs of greens from the garden that desperately needed using, so I started thinking of a potato salad.

Now, if you're into potato salads, you will know that there are lots of different philosophies and approaches.  Some like there's covered in mayonnaise.  Some vehemently argue for an oil/vinegar/herb dressing.  Pesto makes an interesting alternative.  Personally, I'll eat it as long as it tastes good.  My prerequisites are: enough salt and bite from vinegar or pickles (so many potato salads are bland, bland, bland) and lots of flavor.  You can leave those boring, plain salads at home.  I also usually prefer them nice and chilled.

I was in a bit of a time crunch, however, (we were just returning from Lance's grandmother's) so I know that I wouldn't have time to make a chilled salad.  A warm potato salad, perhaps?  With lightly cooked chard and beet greens?  And some boiled eggs to bulk it up a bit?  What if I roast the potatoes with some garlic and onion?  I thought and thought, and came up with an unusual combination of textures and flavors.

It may not be pretty, but it was freakin' delicious.

I'm not a huge mayonnaise fan, though I will eat food with mayonnaise in it.  Subsequently, we don't usually have it in the house, so I had to figure out some other way to dress my salad.  What about the tahini-yogurt sauce recipe I'd made for some falafels a few weeks ago?  I'd been eating the leftover on salads, and it was delightful: tangy, garlicky, and lemony, with a rich depth from the tahini.  Oh, yes.

I tasted it, and decided that it needed a bit more bite: pickles.  Since I was completely off track from a traditional potato salad, I used my homemade dilly beans (yes, there will be a post when I make this year's batch because OH MY GOD they are awesome) and some of the dilly vinegar.  Next time I'll add a bit more (I was trying to keep it light on the vinegary taste for a vinegar-hater).  The end result?  A keeper.  Everyone gobbled it up and demanded that next time I put in more dilly beans.  And here's the recipe.

Warm Potato and Greens Salad

  • ~1 lb new potatoes (I used a mix of red and gold.  I also have no idea how many I used, so...)
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • several cloves of garlic, peeled and cut into halves/quarters if especially large
  • olive oil spray (or just a glug)
  • chard and beet greens (or just chard), chopped. (I eat stems and all.  Stems have a nice crunch)
  • 4 eggs, boiled, peeled and chopped
  • pickles, chopped (dills preferred).
  • vinegar from pickles, to taste
  • salt, pepper, nutritional yeast*, to taste
  • tahini-yogurt sauce (recipe to follow)
Preheat oven to 425.  Wash and chop the potatoes into bite size pieces.  Spread on a cookie sheet with onion and garlic, and spray over with olive oil (or toss lightly in a bowl, then spread on cookie sheet).  Place in oven until brown and potatoes are cooked to preferred texture, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, cook the chard/beet greens: chop the greens, stems and leaves (some people don't eat the stems. I say "fools").  Heat a little oil in a skillet or pot and toss in the greens.  Stir until they start to get bright.  Add some water and cover to let them steam, stirring occasionally.  They won't cook for too long because both chard and beet greens are more tender than, say, kale or collards.

When the potatoes are done, put into a big bowl and toss with the greens, egg, pickles, tahini-yogurt sauce, pickle vinegar, and seasonings.  Taste and adjust flavors.

Tahini-Yogurt Sauce
(adapted from the estimable Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything Vegetarian)
  • 1/2 c. yogurt
  • 1/2 c. tahini with oil
  • 2-4 cloves garlic (the more garlic, the better in my book)
  • juice from 1 lemon
  • salt/pepper
  • parsley
In a food processor, toss all the ingredients and let it go until combined.  Taste and adjust flavors.

(My version for the salad was heavy on the salt since it needed it to season the potatoes.  It also makes an excellent sauce for many, many other things, including salads, Greek food, etc).

*I frequently flavor with nutritional yeast.  It adds a little extra something delicious that I love.