Friday, August 12, 2016

Under Our Dome of Shooting Stars

We set the alarm clock for midnight.  We knew there was no way we'd manage to stay up so late, especially on a work night, and thought a little "nap" might help.  When the alarm sounded in the dark I was thoroughly confused--until I remembered the reason behind such craziness as purposefully waking oneself from a comfortable sleep in the middle of the night.  The Perseid meteor shower was well underway and we wanted to experience the wonder.

The night before we'd set out west of town to take in the stars, but it was barely 10:00 pm and not nearly dark enough for a proper viewing.  We each saw a handful of very small meteors--the size of your average, every-day type of shooting star--and then called it a night, declaring to do better the next day.  We needed to get out after the dark had had longer to settle its blanket over everything.  We needed to get out after midnight.

Now I can stay up dancing all night long if the music is good.  In the comfort of my quiet home, kitty on my lap, book in hand, etc.....sigh...I am ready for bed well before midnight.

I can now attest that an alarm clock is quite jarring at midnight, particularly after just a few hours of rest.  Still, with excitement about this cosmic dance we rose, heated tea, grabbed some blankets and pillows, and set off into the night for a second try at star-gazing.

After we'd lay there under the sky for a half hour or more, our eyes adjusted well to the darkness.  The Milky Way streamed overhead, punctuated with meteor after meteor after meteor.  I had intended to keep count, but quickly lost track.

My eyes strained to become a wider lens, able to take in as much of the sky as possible.  The meteors zipped by in the corner of my eye, falling from directly overhead, plunging into the Big Dipper.  Where to look?!  Where to look?!

In addition to myriads of the smaller, more every-day sized shooting stars (the ones you might see in the yard and make a wish upon) there were dozens and dozens of substantial, bright meteors that briefly lit their entire corner of the sky.  It was dazzling to watch as their fiery tails lingered and then faded after them, momentarily leaving an impression of their path across the sky before dissolving into the ebony backdrop again.

It felt like observing a miracle.  A miracle shared by so many people in so many places and times.  What a gift!  Tired or not today, we are contemplating going out again tonight....

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Second Charcoal Dress

I finished a dress this month--one that I'd started cutting out in April.  It was about time.  I did make a bit of progress during Me-Made-May.  In fact, at that point I optimistically thought maybe I'd finish it in time to wear it for MMM '16.  That, it turns out, was not in the cards.
It is another take on the Cynthia Rowley 1801 dress, which I'd made twice previously--as seen here and here (second photo).  This time I used a sturdy, charcoal grey double knit my mom gifted me.   Those who pay attention to these things might notice I've already got one dress made out of it, actually.  I liked The Charcoal Dress well enough to want a second with a different cut though.  It has a wonderful weight and drape to it.  It was very aggreable to work with which was a marked change of pace from the last Cynthia Rowley I made.

(Full disclosure:  I called my second version of the Rowley  "The A$$**** Dress" pretty much from the moment I started sewing on it.  That beautiful, slinky fabric was terrible to work with.  Terrible, just terrible.  I don't even want to think about it.)
With this third attempt on the Rowley pattern I altered the pattern in three ways.

First off, I adjusted the length.  The long version is too long and the short version is too short.  So, I made up my own hemline in the happy middle ground.  I know some people think calf-length equals frumpy, but I don't.  Plus, experience has taught me that it's the most practical and comfortable length for me.

Second, I made the neckline a few inches higher.  I am over the moon pleased with this pattern revision.  The neckline as printed is too revealing for my taste so I always had to wear a tanktop underneath.  Not with this new dress!  By changing the angle ever so slightly it is perfect now--just a bit of cleavage without leaving me worried I'll bend over and expose myself!  Matt tells me he really likes it.  ;)  I only wish I'd drafted a paper piece for the adjustment as now I'll have to eyeball it again.  I will have this dress to use as my guide though.

Last, I skipped the zipper.  The double knit has enough give I decided not to bother with putting in a side zipper around the inseam pockets.  It is just easier that way and my experiences with the other versions have convinced me I don't need that zip.  It would be different if I was making it in cotton, I suspect.
I really dig all the gathers on this dress--front, back, and shoulders.  I sort of love the act of making gathers, actually--its like sewing voodoo, something that is SO simple and yet offers such a dramatic visual effect.  I also can't say enough about the deep inseam pockets.
It is a good dress.  I've worn it loads already.  I guess since I already have a dress which I call The Charcoal Dress I'll have to come up with a different moniker for this one.  The Charcoal Rowley, maybe...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Knockin' Off My Favorite Dish Ever

I have been trying to knock off this totally fantastic chili-garlic sauce for a while now.  Previous attempts have proven quite tasty, but not really all that similar to the one on my favorite dish at Siam Thai--eggplant jay.  That sauce is like heaven.  I could almost drink it by the glass.  I have to restrain myself from licking the plate in the restaurant.  It is that good.  Hence my wanting to have a knock-off at home.
Finally--after trying different vinegars, hot sauces, and levels of garlic--I have come close to recreating those heavenly eggplant jay flavors.  Possibly as close as I ever will unless I use store-bought garlic chili sauce and MSG, neither of which I plan to do.  Its a pretty amazing knock-off, I think.  I am quite pleased with it.  It was a magnificent way to dress our first eggplants of the year, too.  With enough for lunchtime leftovers the next day as a delightful bonus!  Hooray!
Spicy Roast Eggplant Sauce

8-10 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 C tamari/soy sauce

1/4 C brown sugar
4 T red wine vinegar
2 T white wine vinegar
1/4 C canola oil (garlic infused, if possible)
1/2 t crushed red pepper (more to taste)
handful of Thai basil
3-7 Asian eggplants


Combine all ingredients in a fairly deep oven-safe dish.  
Add eggplant, chopped into fairly large pieces, and toss with the sauce until well coated.  
Bake at 400 degrees F for about 30 minutes, or until very, very tender.  
When the eggplants are just about finished stir-fry all other desired vegetables.  
When they are cooked to your desired level add the eggplants and sauce and stir fry for another minute.  
Serve over rice or rice noodles. 
Yum.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Newbery Challenge - 1920s

This year I challenged myself to read all the books that had won the Newbery Award.  The Newbery has been given out annually since 1922 by the American Library Association to the author of "the most distinguished book of literature for children," published that year.
I clearly underestimated how ambitious the project was until I got underway.  By the end of March I was only five books in.  That's when I knew I was in trouble.  Not exactly promising.  Nevertheless, slow and steady wins the race.  There is, quite certainly, no way I am going to complete the challenge in one year, as I'd proclaimed, but I'm not giving up on the idea, just prolonging the duration of the project.
1922 - The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon
Oh, this first selection started me off on the challenge with a feeling of dread.  Its a 500 page history book.  Jeepers!  That isn't the sort of thing that wins the Newbery Award these days!  Still, I must say, I found it much more interesting than I anticipated.  As expected, it was rather dated in many ways though every now and then it would shock me with a progressive value that I'd not expect from a history book from that era.  The author wove religious and political history together in one narrative, which was interesting and not all that surprising.  The many charming expressions caused me to smile with delight while reading.  Take this passage on the discovery of writing:  "Without written documents we should be like cats and dogs, who can only teach their kittens and their puppies a few simple things and who because they cannot write, possess no way in which they can make use of the experience of those generations of cats and dogs that have gone before."  Or this one that describes the retirement of Sulla as follows: "He ruled Rome for four years, and he died quietly in his bed, having spent the last year of his life tenderly raising cabbages, as was the custom of so many Romans who had spent a lifetime killing their fellow-men."  I just had to laugh at that one.  Tenderly raising cabbages?!
1923 - The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
I really enjoyed this book.  It was a wonderfully readable follow-up to The Story of Mankind.  I also, to the surprise of many, had virtually no exposure to Dr. Dolittle before this.  I knew the premise--a doctor who could talk to animals--and I am pretty sure I saw part of the Eddie Murphy film version, but I was never much of an Eddie Murphy fan so I don't really recall.  I've never read or seen any of the Dolittle books before, so far as I know.  And I had been missing out!  The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle was loaded with fun, whimsical tales.  I wish I could converse with animals!  It made me think of a woman I know, Carol, who says she can talk with rabbits.  She says anyone can do it, if they just take the time to learn.  There were a few bits in the story that wouldn't be politically correct by today's standards, but I can take a book for what its worth in its place in time.  When I was growing up it was perfectly acceptable to say "sitting Indian-style" instead of "cross-legged" or "criss-cross-applesauce."  Its all part of the history, I figure.  Things change and while I am usually glad for it, I don't like seeing old books being sanitized for today's more politically correct readers.  To me it's part of our literary and cultural legacy, for better or worse.
1924 - The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes
I thought this book about pirates and adventure on the high seas would be much better than it turned out to be.  Perhaps it was a language thing though.  Much of the book was written in that old King James, Shakespearean type language.  Lots of "thithers" and "thines" and so forth.  That just makes me have to concentrate more on the words which, to some extent, prevents me from just getting lost in the story.  In addition to the language, I think the author assumed I'd know a lot more about ships than I do.  He'd name a part of the boat with no description of it--say, "scuppers" sending up spray like a volcano.  I kept having to look them up which made the reading more tedious.  I guess, if nothing else, I learned a bit about the anatomy of a ship.  I didn't find the drama all that dramatic and was pretty much just glad to finish the book though.
1925 - Tales From Silver Lands by Charles Finger
This book is a collection of stories from South America.  All in all it was pretty unremarkable--not bad, just not all that memorable.  There was one story that quite impressed me however.  So much so that I shared it with several other people.  The legend was about a village of lazy people.  A sorcerer type fellow comes to town and makes small wooden dolls to do all their work for them.  Long story short the people end up bored and restless because they have nothing to do. They had a hard time sleeping because they didn't go to bed physically or mentally tired. They thought that having every thing done for them was what they wanted, but in the end, it backfires and they flee their village and start over again--doing the work themselves this time and finding it greatly satisfying.  It really struck me as parallel to our modern convenience-obsessed culture.  I've certainly found more satisfaction the more I do for myself.  There was a neat origin story about how hummingbirds got to be so pretty--they call it a pretty dress!  There were a lot of themes that were fairly commonplace for this sort of collection, such as evil witches lurking in the woods or magical strangers which may be part of the reason it didn't leave a strong impression on me.  It had really unusual illustrations.  They reminded me of the prints made from woodcuts, but quite colorful woodcut prints, these were.  The part that made them most unusual though was that they were fully colored, but all in shades of green, orange, and yellow.
1926 - Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
I enjoy origin stories and there were some neat ones in this collection, like the genesis of chopsticks and the discovery of fireworks.  I doubt they're at all true, but each of these great ideas did have to start with someone so....why not just make up a little backstory about it.  It reminds me of Ayla (from The Earth's Children book series) being the first person to domesticate the horse and use iron pyrite for starting fires, etc.  Someone figured this stuff out!!  The collection also seemed to have a fairly common theme of promoting proper behavior in children.  You know, the sort of stories where a lazy/lying/mean little boy or girl gets what is coming to them and learn a lesson about how to behave better.  Though, in the case of the fireworks, its laziness that brings about the great discovery.  So, at least sometimes, mischief pays off.
1927 - Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James
While western fiction isn't exactly my bread and butter genre I was genuinely excited to read this book as it was written by Will James.  I don't think I've ever read anything by him.  In fact, I don't think that I knew who Will James was until I met Matt, who attended a middle school named in honor of James.  That put Will James on my radar.  Then I learned more about him--he was born in Montana in a wagon and was driving cattle from Mexico to Canada as a fully capable cowboy by the time he as thirteen.  I never cease to be amazed of stories like that.  I know a couple of teenagers who couldn't figure out how to change the time in a wall clock at Daylight Savings Time, let alone ride the range responsible for their own lives and lives of others.  I enjoyed the charming language the book was written in.  Its folksy and quaint, but easy to understand.  "Figger," instead of "figure" for example.  Or "et" instead of "ate."  I don't know why the King James dialects madden me and the ol' west dialects made my day, but there it is.  I was surprised that the first almost 60 pages was just about the horses running wild on the range.  Smoky's early years involved almost no cows or humans.  It was lovely.  The story take a real sad turn when Smoky gets stolen and ends up living a rough and tumble life for much of his adulthood.  It ends well though.  All in all I found it to be a very charming story.
This was a new bird for me--a Calliope Hummingbird.
1928 - Gay Neck, The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Muckerji
Gay Neck was a really neat book.  It was exotic and full of history and drama.  It follows the life of a pigeon from India named Gay-Neck, on account of his pretty neck feathers.  Apparently, at one time almost every boy in India had a bunch of pet pigeons.  They'd take trips to the wilderness and let the birds go, training them to return home.  These adventures involved frantic escapes from predators and visits to the lamastaries, where the Buddhist lamas live.  (This was a new word for me, lamastary, which made me realize that monastery is based on the word monk, since its where monks live.  Interesting!)  Later Gay-Neck goes to France to serve as a message carrier during World War I.  He is injured and traumatized by his encounters with the German "machine eagles" (airplanes) with the result that he will not fly any more when he returns to India.  After time with the lamas meditating and praying for an end to their sickness of hate and fear, Gay-Neck recovers. While not being too obvious about it--at least until the very end-- the story is clearly a message of peace and harmony.  Of thoughtful kindness and respect to all beings.  That, of course, worked will with this reader.  I quite liked it.
1929 - The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
The Trumpeter of Krakow didn't get me fired up at first, but in the end proved to be a very nice tale from medieval Poland.  There is a sentence I never expect to write.  In Krakow there is a church from which a trumpet plays the same tune to each of the four directions every single hour.  They trumpeter was also the town's lookout for fires and invaders.  The book opens with the trumpeter sounding the alarm of an invasion and paying the ultimate price for his commitment to the oath taken by all those who play the trumpet from the tower.   The story centers around a family fleeing the loss of their home and all they hold dear--save for a secret family treasure and the clothes on their backs.  There is mystery, drama, magic, and adventure.  The father, and later the son, become one of the trumpeters.  I was surprised by how riveting the book was for me.  I wanted to learn about the secret treasure, the young scholar who was leading others to dabble in some dark ideas, and all the rest.  It was quite compelling and ended happily.  To this day a trumpeter plays from that tower in Krakow, though its more symbolic than anything else at this point.  Here is a recording from inside the tower and from below the tower, if you're interested.
And now we're on to the 1930's--Hitty by Rachel Field.  Eight books down, 86 more to go.
All photos from a birthday party I attended recently at my friend Jesscy's farm.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Grilled Bok Choy with Spicy Vinaigrette

Along with June, our season of bok choy has passed by us.  It was a good one though, running from May through June.  We use bok choy in smoothies and stir-fries. mostly, but probably my favorite way is grilled.  While preparing the vinaigrette to toss with the greens I realized that I've adjusted this recipe a bit since I first posted it back in 2012.  Recipes are constantly evolving in our kitchen, so it seems.  The alterations aren't huge, but I like the recipe well enough to post it again regardless.  There is something about fresh greens and grilling that really make it feel like summer is well on its way.  We look forward to it every year.
Grilled Bok Choy with Spicy-Sweet Vinaigrette
4 T sweet vinegar (mango balsamic, rice wine, etc.)
2 T mild oil (safflower, canola, grape seed, etc.)
1 T chili sauce
1 T sesame seeds
salt and pepper, to taste
bok choy, one or two heads depending on size

Chop the bok choy into fairly large pieces. 
Separate the thicker stem parts from the more delicate leaf parts.  
Place the stems into a grilling basket and grill for five or ten minutes, until they're starting to get tender and just barely charred.  We cook the stems for a while first since they take longer to cook that the leaves.  
Add the leafy bits to the basket and grill until they are wilted and charred on the edges.  
Toss with the vinaigrette and serve.

We paired our greens with some Macaroni Yum.  Its was wonderful summer comfort food.  With July we've moved into the season of chard, which is able to tolerate the 90 degree heat in a way that bok choy and spinach just can't.

And since I'm actually timely, I'm going to link this up with the Eat Your Greens monthly challenge from Shaheen over at A2K and The Veg Hog.  I don't follow many food blogs, mostly because I've got recipes and cookbooks coming out of my ears, but I like Shaheen's blog a lot.  Its full of bright, vibrant recipes and good leads on cookbooks to track down at the public library.

Friday, July 1, 2016

An Entire Year of Homegrown Garlic

We harvested the garlic this week--a week earlier than last year.  The heads are certainly less impressive than the 2015 batch, but Matt says its unreasonable and unrealistic to expect every year to be better than the last--and I have to agree.  There always have to be off years.  There are so many factors outside of our control, like hail storms, for example.  So, smaller than last year, sure, but we're still pleased with the harvest.  They're still drying/curing in the garage so we haven't trimmed the stems or weighed them yet.
Of special note to us is the fact that we didn't buy garlic all year--long enough to make it back around to harvest time again.  In fact, we still have a few heads in storage from the 2015 crop.  We're so pleased at every step we make toward greater self-reliance.
The biggest and best of this harvest we will set aside for planting in the fall.  And hopefully we can make it back around again, even with a smaller bounty.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Emerald Soup (Or I'd Have Never Thought....)

... that I would enjoy something called, "Cream of Spinach Soup."  I mean, it just doesn't sounds all that appealing to me.  It sounds too healthy.  It sounds like it wouldn't be filling.  But...I surprise even myself sometimes.  Its a superb addition to our recipe box--though I refuse to call it Cream of Spinach Soup.  No way.
It all started when every single shelf in our fridge contained bags, tubs, and even a large soup pot full of greens, namely spinach and bok choy.  I decided to flip though a few cookbooks and see if I could find a new recipe that would put gads of them to use and maybe even clear off a shelf in the fridge.  When I saw, "Spinach - Cream of Spinach Soup," in the index I was immediately dubious.  Still, we needed something for dinner and had everything it called for so....
As directed by the cookbook we found the soup a bit plain, but we've made it our own with a few adjustments and alterations and we quite like it.  Its got a surprisingly luscious mouthfeel on account of the tofu.  Not at all thin and watery like I might have imagined spinach soup to be.  Still, I rebranded it.  Emerald Soup has a more alluring ring to it, if you ask me.

We've served it with toasted cashews sprinkled on top or with fresh Navajo-style fried bread.  Make it even more filling by pairing it with some nice baked tofu.  The possibilities are endless.
Emerald Soup

1/4 - 1/2 onion, chopped
olive oil
3/4 - 1 lb fresh spinach
2 C vegetable broth

1 1/2 t cornstarch
3 - 6 oz tofu, any kind
1 t Italian seasoning
1/2 - 1 t salt  
(optional, see note below)
1 C additional vegetables (optional, see note below)


Saute the onion in olive oil for a few minutes, until translucent.  Alternately, skip the fresh onion and use a teaspoon of onion powder, if you prefer.
Add spinach and cover.  Cook about five minutes, until wilted.  Alternately, skip this step for a more raw, spinach packed flavor.
Place all ingredients in a blender/Vitamix and process until smooth.
If using a Vitamix just run at high speed for three or four minutes until the soup is steaming hot.  If using a regular blender, transfer the pureed soup to a pot on the stovetop and heat through.

Serve.
Notes:
We make our own vegetable broth which contains no added salt.  If using a store-bought variety likely you do not want to add the additional teaspoon of salt that is called for in the ingredients list.

Feel free to add in different vegetables.  Other greens in place of the spinach.  A chunk of bell pepper.  A handful of garlic scapes.  A spring of rosemary.  Keep in mind that adding too many different veggies may affect the bright green color for which the soup was named, but so long as it tastes good that's the bottom line.  All the additions we've made have played out well.
Its a nourishing, uplifting soup for a spring or summer day.  I mean, just looking at it makes me feel better.