Thursday, September 23, 2010

Political Musings

A friend on Facebook linked an article on Eagle Forum about NEA campaign spending.  Although I have been a member of NEA, as it is required for student teachers in order to have liability insurance, I understand and agree that the organization's influence is extending too far beyond matters of education.  The NEA is often a bully and a monopoly; it seems to be more interested in supporting the status quo than making any progress.

However, after reading about Eagle Forum's mission, I became angry and sad.  Certainly, there are issues on which I agree with the Forum.  But there are other points in which I see intolerance, hatred, and most of all, irrational fear behind the Forum's goals.

I am usually not a very political person.  I don't pay much attention to politicians, and I don't identify strongly with one party over another.  But this website made me so upset, I had to say something.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chicken Stroganoff

Last night I had some friends over for dinner.  Since I started my new job this week, I got home maybe ten minutes before they came over.  Fortunately, I had planned for this, and made Chicken Stroganoff in the Crock Pot.  Very easy recipe-- only two steps!

Step 1: put cubed chicken in the CP with butter and a packet of Italian dressing mix.  (The recipe called for margarine, but I don't buy that so I used butter.)

Do not add any additional liquid; this way, the chicken comes out browned and lovely 5-6 hours on low later, which is when you're supposed to do step 2.  I got home more like 6.5-7 hours later, but it didn't seem to matter.

Step 2: add one can cream of chicken soup (I used the Healthy Request low-sodium/low-fat version) and 8 oz. cream cheese.

Leave on low for another 1/2 hour or so (until cheese is melted and everything is combined).  Serve over rice or pasta-- I used tri-color rotini.

There are no more pictures, because we ate it too fast.  This made the perfect amount for four hungry people-- no leftovers!

Verdict: good, but could be better.
Known issues:
1. All the cream cheese and CoCh soup made it VERY rich and thick-- too thick for my taste.  Solution: use sour cream (the traditional thickener in Stroganoff) instead of cream cheese and maybe a little milk or white wine to thin it out.
2. Rather salty, probably due to the Italian dressing packet.  Solution: use 1/2 packet, or preferably, mix up your own seasonings.

All in all, however, a very fun evening with minimal stress about food preparation.  What more can a working girl ask?

PS-- we also watched the movie Waitress.  Very funny and a little sad, all at the same time.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

New Skills

Thanks to some great friends and quite a lot of time spent working it out, I can now sing the Alphabet Song backwards.  I can also play it on harmonica.

Ah, the things you can do with a music degree.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Powdered-Milk Cheese

I just made cheese out of powdered milk, water, and lemon juice!  Recipe here, photos and more after I try it again with a larger volume of milk.

3 cups of milk powder and 1/5 cups of cold, filtered water mixed together (no heat yet).

On medium low heat (about a 3.5 on my electric stove), bring to about 140 degrees.  I didn't measure with a thermometer, I just stuck my finger in.  When it's the temperature of a hot bath, you're good.  Add 1/4 cup white vinegar.  The milk should begin to curdle immediately.  (Note: the first time I did this, it only curdled a very little bit.  This means either your temp is too low or you didn't add enough acid.)

Immediately after adding vinegar.  The yellow bits are the whey.
 Keeping the temperature steady at hot-bath, stir and watch curds form.  After no more than two minutes (if you've added enough acid), it should be in one or two big globs of curd, like this:

Where's Little Miss Muffett when you need her?
Remove from heat, and pour through cheesecloth or a clean white tee-shirt.  (Note: the first time I did this, I used cheesecloth from Cub.  It had a very low thread-count, and the cheese stuck to it awfully.  This time, I used the tee-shirt method.  It still stuck some, but not as badly, and I think the shirt is salvageable for cheese-use again, unlike the cheesecloth.)

Sorry for the weird angle.  Trying to keep my shadow out of the pictures.
 Strain and squeeze out the whey (the liquid stuff), reserving it if you like-- I hear it makes good bread.  More on that later.  When you're done, you should have a lump of cheese, like so:

Now, the site on which I found the recipe says you should have as much volume of cheese as you originally had powdered milk.  I did not find that to be the case; I used 3 cups of powdered milk, and ended up with maybe a cup of cheese.  Anyway, I tried a little and it didn't taste like anything, so I took some salt in my hand and kind of kneaded it in.

As for the whey, I did save it, and will try making it into bread dough at some later date.  For now, it's going in the fridge.

Not urine, I swear.
Verdict: easy enough to make, although it tastes very bland.  But it melts correctly when heated, so I think it would work well in omelets or other dishes where the cheese is primarily a cohesive agent, not a key part of the flavor.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Happy Birthday to ME!

Yep, it's my birthday-- I turn 23 this year, which as my mom points out, means I am beginning my 24th year (same concept as 1900's = 20th century.  Please don't argue with me about this, because I am right.)

If this was a super-cool, trendy blog (like Pioneer Woman, for example), I would be doing a giveaway to celebrate.  Sorry friends; if you're looking for free stuff, look elsewhere.

But I will share with you the fun things I have done today.
My parents sent me a basket of flowers.  This is significant because they live on the east coast, and I live in Minnesota.
Aren't they pretty?  Clockwise from top left: Begonias, Golden Pothos, African Violet, and two unidentified spiky things.
And then I made cake.  Now, it's important to point out that I didn't really feel like eating cake; I just wanted to make it.  But unfortunately, making cake means that you then have a cake (you can't make a cake and... not... eat it too?), which has to be eaten by someone, and when you live alone that someone is often you.  BUT, I will be visiting some friends (who also happen to have birthdays right around this time) tonight and they shall help me eat it.

I decided to make Honey Cake ala Joy of Cooking because I have a JoC page-a-day calendar, and this recipe was yesterday's page.  It looked pretty simple, and I already had most of the ingredients.  Recipe is transcribed below; my comments are in italics.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.  Grease a 13 x 9 inch glass baking pan.  (I didn't do this until later, but whatevs.)
Combine in a medium saucepan and cook, stirring, over low heat until well blended:
1 1/2 cups honey
1 cup coffee (I didn't have this, so I used chai tea instead.)
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla

(Sorry, no picture of this step.  It looked like a pot of dark brown water on the stove, happy now?)

Remove from heat and set aside to cool.  Whisk together in a large bowl:
3 3/4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup raisins (optional) (I used them.)
3/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional) (I used them.)

Pre-whisking, of course.
Beat in a medium bowl on high speed until thick and pale yellow, 4 to 5 minutes:
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar

Little story about eggs: I had none, so I went to Cub.  I am used to buying eggs from pastured poultry at the farmer's market (at $4/dozen), which have really really dark orange yolks, are incredibly tasty and fresh (which you can tell by how much the yolk sticks up), and where they let the chickens live like chickens.  These, on the other hand, although supposedly "cage-free" and "vegetarian-fed" (both good things) are not comparable in any way to my usual eggs.  Pale yellow and flat, that's what these were.
Beat the cooled honey mixture into the eggs.  Add the dry ingredients (my bowl was too small, so I added wet to dry.  Didn't make much difference that I could tell.) and beat until well blended.

I think I need some bigger mixing bowls.  Or maybe a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, to augment the powers of my little handheld.
Scrape (pour) into the pan and spread evenly.

Mmm, raw dough.
Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes (52 minutes).  As soon as the cake is removed from the oven, use a fork to prick holes all over the surface.  Heat 1/4 cup of honey to lukewarm (I used the microwave).  Using a large spoon, pour and spread they honey all over the surface of the cake.  Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a rack before cutting.

Hey, my real camera decided to work again.  Hooray!
That means macro shots actually work!
Mmm, macro shots...
I'll give you the verdict later, after I've eaten some.

EDIT 9/11-- Verdict: Excellent.  Well-received by party guests and hosts alike.  We served it with Maple Nut ice cream, which IMO was an inspired pairing.  Problem: I still have half a cake left.  Who wants some?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tomato Tasting

Yesterday, S and I drove down to Seed Savers Farm near Decorah, Iowa.  It was a long drive (almost three hours), but totally worth it.  The weather was gorgeous and cool-- just the first hint of fall.  The tomato tasting event was scheduled to start at 1pm, and we got there just a little after noon.  We had some time to tour the gardens.

Several varieties of sunflowers:
Giant sunflowers!!!

Some really tall corn, beans, herbs, and squash, among other things.
Is this a squash or a gourd?  I don't know.
Near where the tomato tasting would take place, there was a small folksy band, complete with violin/fiddle, accordion, guitar, and drums.
The band.
(Also many loud children playing in the sandbox and slide.)

Then, the tasting started.  Somewhere around 40 varieties of tomatoes, ranging in size from less than a centimeter in diameter to about six inches, and in colors including yellow, orange, pink, red, purple, black, green, and multicolored.

So many tomatoes!!!
At the head of the line, where they handed out tasting comment forms, pens, and seed saving tips, there was also this cool display:
I don't know this woman's name, but she was very friendly and helpful.
Some of my favorites were the Black Krim, a dark tomato from Russia with a really strong, sweet flavor, but not the typical sweetness you expect with tomatoes.  I can't even describe it, but I liked it.  I also enjoyed Dr. Wyche's Yellow (sweet and tangy) and the Velvet Red (a previous winner, cherry-sized).  At the end of the table, there were ballots to vote for your favorite; I voted for the Black Krim (which, incidentally, sounds like a great name for a pirate ship).

After we tasted, we took the 45 minute hayride around some of the outlying fields.  Our guide, Heidi, was very friendly and knowledgeable.

On the hayride, we got to see the compost heap (covered with blue fabric/tarp) and the diseased compost heap (well away from the usable one, not covered, smelled like compost).  It was very interesting to see the fields where they grow their crops-- those that are in danger of cross-pollinating with wild varieties are kept in tents to ensure the seeds will propagate true.  The tomatoes do not face this hazard.  This year, they're growing five varieties of tomatoes-- so many that they have them grow up fences instead of stakes.  It looks like a vineyard out there.

Surprisingly, Seed Savers sells absolutely zero produce.  All their crops are used for seed, which I suppose makes sense if your name is "Seed Savers".  But S and I wondered whether the staff ever just go out in the field for a snack.  At any rate, that's a lot of seeds to extract.

The hayride, while fun and informative, was not nearly as long or involved as S or I would have hoped.  But that left us time to explore a few last areas.  First, the livestock.  Seed Savers keeps heritage poultry and cattle:

This guy was making lots of noise.  Can you see the horns?
Sorry I couldn't get a better photo; these guys look crazy.  They've got big fluffy "headdresses" of feathers.  S didn't get why you would want a chicken to have that.
There was a nice herb garden near the visitor's center, as well as a giant old barn.
That's the visitor's center in the back.
View of the herb garden from the barn loft.
Finally, S and I took a short walk around the grounds.  There are some really neat trails to take around the property; alas, we only had time for the little loop around the pond.

All in all, a very fun trip.  Even driving there and back was fun-- we got to go through a bunch of tiny little towns we'd never heard of, and see all the pretty, just-on-the-brink-of-fall fields.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Book Review: The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax
by Dorothy Gilman

This book was recommended to me by my friend S (of the State Fair adventures).  She and I share a taste in somewhat-feminist-but-not-really fantasy novels, among other things.

The novel opens with Mrs. Pollifax visiting her doctor.  During the course of their conversation, we learn that 1. her husband is deceased, 2. her children are grown and live far away, 3. she is in good health "for a woman of her age", and 4. she feels she has outlived her usefulness.  The doctor recommends that she find a meaningful hobby, something she actually likes, as opposed to the clubs and volunteer work she does to keep busy, but secretly loathes.

As it turns out, as a child, Mrs. Pollifax always wanted to be... a spy.  So at whatever age she is (we can safely assume over 65), she makes an appointment with the CIA, and asks to join.  Due to certain scheduling mix-ups, she is actually given an assignment!  Hilarity ensues.

Not just hilarity, though.  Throughout the novel, we find that Mrs. Pollifax is made of stronger stuff than we, and the CIA, might have suspected.  When she finds herself in dire situations, it is Mrs. P, not the trained CIA agent, who makes plans to escape.  It is Mrs. P who befriends her communist jailers and wheedles special favors and useful items from them.  It is Mrs. P who is ultimately responsible for the top-secret information getting back to headquarters.

Not to get too heavy, but a character like Mrs. P makes us reexamine all the older ladies we know, who seem to live such sensible, somewhat mindless lives.  Mrs. P outwardly engages in all the activities we expect: Garden Club, the soup kitchen, listening to her neighbor talk about her travel slides.  But inside, she is possessed of a quick wit and a deep compassion for all people, even her so-called "enemies".

Grade: B+.  Very nearly an A-.  Lost points for predictability, but scored very high on humor and delightful characters.

MN State Fair

Disclaimer: all of the photos below, unless noted otherwise, are from and do not belong to me.

Yesterday, I went to the State Fair with my friend S.  Despite living in this state since 2005, I had never gone before.  It was a very fun time, and I would definitely go again next year.

First, we went to the Heritage exhibits.  Some nice pottery and other crafts; some really strange kitschy stuff.  After that, we went to the livestock exhibits.  It was 4-H Llama Day, so we toured the stalls with kids brushing llamas.

These llamas look particularly happy.
I was surprised at how intelligent these guys looked.  I was expecting the general interest level of a cow, and instead they were curious like goats.  Several watched us intently as we walked by.

Next, we went into the Swine Barn.  Pigs are big!  And, somewhat sadly, they look like meat hung on a skeleton.  Minnesota's Largest Boar was especially disturbing.

The sow and her piglets were cute, but also a little sad in that she's kept in that "sow stall", which keeps her from squishing, eating, or otherwise killing her little ones, for 21 days.  During that time, she doesn't get up at all.  She can't even turn over.  Sad.

We weren't able to go into the horse barn because it was being cleaned and prepared for a new set of horses to move in.

These were all over the place around the agricultural section of the fair.
There weren't any shows going on in the Colisseum while we were there, but it was a pretty cool space anyway.

Note the size of these cows-- significantly smaller than their handlers.  This is what I thought a cow looked like.
In the Cattle Barn, I learned that full-grown cows are HUGE.  Like whoa.

These are Jersey Cows, which, although still XXL, are not as large as...
Holstein cows.  Credit:
Holy cow!  (Ahahaha...)

Our last stop in the agriculture area was the Miracle of Birth center.  I found this building to be a little silly.  Basically, they get as many pregnant animals there as they can, and hope that some of them might give birth during the fair.  While we were there, there were a large number of people watching a pig give birth.  We didn't feel like fighting the crowd to get close enough to see, so we wandered around and looked at all the other babies.

Now, just so you don't worry, yes, we did look at other things besides animals.  But for me, that was the most fun part.  We ate authentic fair food: fried cheese curds.  We wandered through the international bazaar (but didn't buy anything).  We saw the Horticulture exhibit, including the largest pumpkins:

You could totally make a child's carriage out of one of those.  Cinderella, anyone?
Man, that would be a cool Halloween costume.  Hollow out one of those monsters into a carriage, dress your toddler girl-child up as Cinderella, and have your dog pull the carriage.  Awesome.

Just as we were leaving the Horticulture exhibit, we were halted in our progress towards cheese curds by the daily parade.

There were several high school marching bands, and they were good.  Certainly better trained and more disciplined than our marching band was, although in my opinion their playing left something to be desired.

Once the parade was over, we found cheese curds and walked back to S's apartment.  I was very glad to sit down for awhile.

Peach Syrup... ?

I have been traveling and doing exciting things for the past few days (see next post!), but on Tuesday, before I left New Jersey, I attempted to make the leftover peach peelings (from Peach Cobbler)...

... into peach syrup.

I had no recipe, just a vague idea that it should be like making chicken stock: boil the stuff in water for a long time, then strain out the pieces and cook down, maybe with some sugar added.  Good concept, but in practice, not so easy.

First, I covered the peelings with water and boiled them until I got bored, about an hour and a half.

Looks ugly, smells really good!
Then, I strained the mixture into a bowl in the sink, using a small strainer.  This worked pretty well to get most of the liquid out, but the mixture I was left with was still very wet.  I didn't want to waste any of the liquid, so I got out what I thought was cheese cloth (would also have worked), but turns out it was just a very thin kitchen towel.  Put the hot peelings (very hot!  just-came-out-of-boiling-water hot!) in the middle, and squeezed the rest of the juice out.

Big purple dish-washing gloves: very handy (ahaha!) when working with very hot materials.
I was left with some vaguely peach-flavored water.

This went back in the pot, onto the stove, to cook down.  I added about 2/3 cups of white sugar, to help it get syrupy.  I could have added more, but it was already quite sweet from the peaches themselves, and I didn't want to overdo it.

Long story short, it did cook down significantly-- I was left with about half the volume of liquid I started with.  However, it didn't every get really syrupy in texture.  I ended up with some runny but very tasty peach water.

Nice jar I found in the cabinet.  Thanks Mom!
I had some on vanilla ice cream-- tasty, but runny.  Might be good as a mix-in in tea?  I didn't have time to try it, as I had to leave for the airport and leave my watery-peach-stuff behind.  Hope Mom and Dad enjoy it.