Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A New Look for an Old Couch

In all likelihood we "should" buy a new couch.  (And by "new couch" I mean a nice used couch.)  But, Matt and I like to do things in our own way, of course, so we didn't buy a new couch.  We just found a workaround.
See, we have a swell brown leather couch that Matt has owned as long as I've known him.  He bought it from a roommate who bought it from a roommate who bought it used.  Or something like that.  This is really a testament to leather's durability.  (I realize this is an decidedly un-vegan thing for me to say, but it is the truth and it's not like I bought the leather new or anything so....)  Nothing lasts forever though, not even leather.
The cushions are now splattered with holes, the leather worn thin by the countless butts to sit on them.  We flipped the cushions over when the holes first appeared, but eventually both sides were shot through with holes and that stopgap became decidedly less effective.
That was a real shame, too, because the couch in question is comfortable as all get out and the rest of the leather is still in fantastic condition.  Just look at the difference in color between the arm/back of the couch and the seat in the photo above!
This lead to a what-should-we-do-about-the-couch conversation.  We didn't want to throw it out since that seemed like a real waste.  I mean, what a huge piece of garbage to toss into the landfill!!  Egads.  I just hate to think of it.  At the same time is is not like we could sell it or give it to charity, given its condition.  It hardly even seemed worth offering for free on Craigslist or something like that.

Besides, if we replaced it who knew if the new one could come close to being as comfortable.  So, I decided to try making new cushion covers instead.
After a trial run with some black fabric (which didn't match the look and showed the cat hair horribly) I found some fabric in my stash with a rusty brown that matched super nicely!  I have a dress made from the same fabric and so now I can be totally camouflaged sitting on the couch, too.  This is silly and, I must confess, makes me smile.
I will only briefly mention the absolute Beth-fails-at-math-spectacular that came about during the construction of these new cushion covers.  After the, oh, seventh measuring error I was surprised at my ability to still laugh at myself.  It was absurd.  One of the covers is now pieced together from about five bits of fabric...though I do think the original piece would have been big enough, you know, if I wasn't such a scatterbrain when it comes to planning and measuring.  Numbers aren't my strong suit, but perseverance might be.  So, all is well.
Matt and I both like how it turned out a great deal, as do the cats.  Of course, this is really just another stopgap--postponing the inevitable--but this old couch has life in it yet and that makes this project very satisfying to me.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Cashews, Pasta, Mushrooms and Other Things I LOVE

When the Good Earth Market was having their going-out-of-business sale we quickly snapped up all the cashews that were available.  There is no such thing as too many cashews.  We love nuts, but cashews are the favorite in our household.  Toasted with a little spice or salt makes a yummy snack.  Heck, even raw and unsalted I find them to be tasty. 

Cashews are also a critical "secret" ingredient in awesome vegan cuisine.  With the Vitamix we can make cashews into a heavenly creamy sauce in a matter of minutes.  (It can be done with a standard blender, too, but only if the cashews are soaked 12-24 hours in advance.)  Cashew sauce is very versatile, being able to fill in for all sort of things requiring a decadent mouthfeel.  Its perfect for, say,  creamy desserts (cheesecake!), or rich, satisfying casseroles and, in this case, an amazing pasta sauce.

This was the recipe that inspired the recent non-dairy milk post.
Pasta in Creamy Cashew Sauce with Marinated Mushrooms
Marinade:
1/3 C tamari (or soy sauce)
1/3 C maple syrup
1/8 C apple cider vinegar
1/8 C olive oil
1 t sesame oil
Creamy Sauce:
1 C cashews
1 C non-dairy milk
1/4 C nutritional yeast
1 C silken tofu
The Rest:
1 pint mushrooms, sliced
1 onion, chopped
3 C seasonal veg of choice, chopped
1 T vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
short pasta, such as penne, fussili, or shells
parsley (optional garnish)

Combine marinade ingredients in a medium-sized bowl.  
Place sliced mushrooms into the marinade for at least 20 minutes, but the longer the better.
Add mushrooms, onions, and any other veg to a skillet preheated with vegetable oil and saute until all are nearly cooked.  Vegetables such as green beans can be parboiled prior to this if a more tender texture is desired.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta as directed on the package.
When the vegetables are cooked remove from the pan and set aside.
Add the garlic to the skillet and saute until aromatic.  
Take off heat.
Puree the creamy sauce ingredients in a Vitamix or blender until very smooth.
Add the creamy sauce to the garlic oil and let set a few minutes to thicken and absorb the garlic flavor.
Stir the cooked pasta and the veg into the cream sauce until well combined.
Serve garnished with parsley 

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Podium: A Hierarchy of Non-Dairy Milks

Mac-n-Cheese
Matt and I made this super-duper yummy pasta with a mushroom cream sauce that I love for dinner recently.   The cream sauce was a mixture of rice milk, almond milk, and raw cashews.  We blended the rice milk and almond milk because we didn't want the stronger flavor of the almonds to overpower the garlic infused into the sauce, but we didn't want to just use rice milk either because it is so thin and contains basically no fat--and fat is a critical component to a white cream sauce.  This led to an interesting conversation in which we ranked the various milks we use on their merits.  Tastes are so personal that this may not be interesting to anyone but me, but none the less...
Christmas sugar cookies.
The Podium:  Soy Milk, Coconut Milk, Cashew Milk.

Matt and I go back and forth on who gets the gold, silver, and bronze precisely, but these three are definitely our top picks.  All are relatively neutral in taste which suites them to an abundance of applications.  All three contain a reasonable amount of fat which imparts a smoother mouthfeel and helps when thickening cream sauces or desserts.
Mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, seitan, and corn.
Matt says soy milk is his favorite non-dairy milks.  It has a neutral taste and a thickness similar to cow's milk, somewhere between skimmed and 2%.  It is also usually one of the more affordably priced non-dairy options.  Some people get down on soy saying it causes cancer or shrinks testicles or causes over-sized mammary glands or whathaveyou.  For me, organic soymilk (and other traditional soy foods) is A-OK--with a cultural history going back centuries and centuries.  I think it is a whole different ball game, health-wise, than eating chemically grown and separated, genetically modified soy bits in things like Doritos and Pop-Tarts.  That's just me though.

Cashew milk is probably my favorite.  The thickness and mouthfeel are rich and very appealing to me.  It is a tad too expensive to be my go-to milk, but we buy it for variety from time to time, especially when we spot it on discount.  It is really versatile and can be used in a basically any recipe from breakfast through dessert.
Creamy baked macaroni casserole.
Coconut milk.  There are, it should be clarified, two kinds of coconut milk.  The kind in the can and the kind in the carton/jug.  Coconut milk in a can is basically heaven.  This kind of coconut milk makes for the creamiest, richest sauces and fillings.  Of course, it also imparts coconut flavor, contains copious amounts of (delicious) saturated fat, and is pricey so it isn't something we use on a daily basis.  The other kind of coconut milk is more like soy or almond milk.  It comes in a carton/jug like any other non-dairy milk, doesn't separate, and does not have a coconut flavor.  It has a nice velvety consistency--though not quite so much as its canned cousin--which lends well to making thicker, creamier sauces and soups.

Almond milk is nutritionally robust and has a nicely balanced level of fat.  It is another very versatile milk, though with a stronger flavor than cashew milk.  If my Non-Dairy Milk Options Olympics had a runner's up prize it would likely go to Almond Milk.

Pea Milk is a relatively recent offering on the non-dairy milk market.  I guess I had no idea what a protein powerhouse that little ol' pea might be.  Matt and I both enjoy it, finding it nutritionally dense (more iron and calcium and less sugar than 2% cow milk) with a nicely balanced fat ration and mouthfeel.  It is fairly expensive though so we typically buy it when we spot it on sale, too.
Non-dairy cheesecake with strawberry topping.
Rice Milk isn't something we purchase any more these days.  (A friend had gifted us the carton used in the dish which inspired this post.)  Matt in particular is not a fan.  It is too thin for our liking and not very nutritionally robust in comparison to the other options, though it certainly works, if it is all that is around.  Cream sauces may not be as thick and awesome, but it works.  I find it totally fine in a fruit smoothie, especially one with mango or banana to thicken it up a bit, and over a bowl of cereal.

Oat Milk falls last for both Matt and me.  We don't care much for how earthly it tastes and are unsatisfied with its somewhat grainy consistency.  The only satisfactory use we found was in our breakfast smoothies where its oaty flavor and thin consistency are corrected with sweet, pureed fruit.
Homegrown strawberries with milk and sugar.
Recycling options for the tetrapack style catrons in which these milks are typically sold are not available where we live.  In an effort to reduce the trash output of our household Matt tried his hand at making soy milk at home.  I thought it was fine, but Matt, who is more sensitive to textures than me, found the end result unsatisfactory.  Maybe we'll try again, but for now we purchase the majority of our non-dairy milks in #2 recyclable plastic containers (even if it is a better price in tetrapacks at Costco), supplemented by super-deals at the discount grocers.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Inspiration Thursday - If

I heard bits of this poem before I encountered it in complete form.  Unsurprisingly "If" first crossed my path through a scene in The Simpsons.  That show has brought a shocking amount of literature, art, and culture into my life.  I don't begrudge Mr. Kipling one iota since the poem was written for his son, but would add that when I read this poem I make it HUman in my head.  The gender doesn't really matter though, in light of the sentiment.  These traits of perseverance, humility, equanimity, trust, and morality are equally of value to men and women.  "If" encapsulates a a superb life's aspiration.  One I shall continue to strive toward.
If
By Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!
Photos from a glacier overlook spur trail on the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.

Winter Camping, Winter Swimming, Spring Cycling

The Boiling River/Gardner River
Earlier this week, though it seems nearly impossible for me to believe, the Universal cosmic dance came 'round again, heralding the magic of spring.  As I was cycling to work through the blue-skied sunshine it really felt like spring, too.
There are plenty of reasons I am always a little giddy about spring--baby birds and bunnies in the yard, bright spring blossoms popping up here and there, fresh garden spinach in our breakfast smoothies.  (Sidebar:  I can't wait to try a fresh picked spinach salad.)
Camping is the thing that gets me really hankering for spring though.  I'm always chomping at the bit to get back out under the stars.  As such, Matt and I end up in Yellowstone earlier and earlier each year, so it seems.  I just love the shoulder seasons in the park.
We enjoyed watching the bison clear the snow with their big, shaggy heads and then eat the exposed vegetation.  What a way to get dinner!
This year we decided to break out of our comfort zone all the more and try a little winter camping.  We'd certainly been snowed on during camp outs in the borderlands of spring or autumn, but we'd never actually set out to camp in the snow before.
Previously we'd kicked off our camping season as early as late March, but feeling ambitious and well equipped we thought there was no reason to wait (or make a daytrip of our soak).  So, we headed for one of our favorite forest service campgrounds located just outside of Yellowstone National Park for an overnight in late February.
Our tent pitched among the boulders.
The primary motivator for this winter camping expedition was actually the Boiling River as we've set ourselves a goal of making a trip once a month this year.  We wanted a good soak, maybe a couple good soaks, and so decided to give winter camping a try in order to maximize our soak time.  It was so spectacular, too, that I cannot believe we've not spent more time in the wintery woods.
We were only in the area for 30 hours or less, but spent a good nine or ten of those hours soaking to our hearts content, going both Saturday and Sunday.  It was surprisingly busy at the Boiling River, given it was a 20 degree day, especially on Saturday--though that stands to reason, I suppose.
Matt demonstrating his frozen hair.
Walking into the river wasn't bad, being in the river was heavenly, walking out of the river was a bit brisk...and then while trying to change out of my wet swimming suit there was about 30 seconds where I thought I might die of coldness....but it was mercifully brief.  As we walked back riverside to the parking area I was completely comfortable in my warm, dry socks and fluffy bathrobe.
Back at camp things were all the more glorious.  We had a big fire and Matt made nice kettle of warm soup and fresh flat bread baked right on the flames.  We watched the stars and talked and drank tea and spiked hot chocolate.  It was still and quiet and lovely beyond words.  The moon on the snow was surprisingly bright.  I made notes in my journal about the day while diligently drying my suit at the fireside.  (I couldn't bear the thought of putting on a literally frozen swimming suit for our Sunday soak.)
Fresh, warm naan by the fireside making me warm inside and out.
"Two meditations on the wind:  A saturation of small sounds.  Surety, certainty seen as invisibility."
The combination of heat and cold around the Boiling River made from some nifty ice formations.
"Temperature and comfort are fairly relative, but are often at least partially within our power to change."
"Wind and water are unfathomably strong forces."
Winter Wonderland!
"Be in the now, especially when things are amazing and worry less about unpleasantries you know or think will come."
We woke fairly early on Sunday as Matt was damp all over.  He didn't have a sleeping mat, as I did, and so had melted the snow beneath the tent with his body heat.  He kept scootching closer and closer to me on my (tiny) mat.  Meanwhile, I was toasty warm and dry all over.  I can't say enough great things about our highly cuddleable and snuggly-warm double sleeping bag.  Plus, I'd slept in my down coat, too.  Everything was frozen to everything--the tent to the ground, our bag to the tent...
That shiny white-and-black bit in the middle is melted slick from body heat.  Pretty neat, really.  I mean for me more so than Matt, probably, since I was dry and warm.
The sleeping bag was frozen to the tent floor and shattered into a million shards as I started packing it up.
We parted with tradition and neither made breakfast nor broke camp.  Since Matt was damp and chilly we skipped right on to the next step in our plan--heading straight for the Lamar in the hopes of seeing some more wolves.  We didn't have any luck there, but encountered plenty of other critters and had a lovely morning drive none the less.   Bison and Bald Eagles were out and about in noteworthy numbers.  We learned that the snowplows just bang their blade against the ground to get the bison to move along.  I'm not sure how I feel about this, since it clearly disturbed them and I make it my general practice not to disturb wildlife.  Still, the plow had work to do so....
We stopped for tea and breakfast (more nann!) at the Yellowstone River Picnic Area where it took the ravens significantly more time to find us than normal.  They must not hang so nearby when the lunchtime tourists are less plentiful.
The Raven showed up just as we were getting back into the car.  During busier seasons they're lurking about within minutes, seconds even!  Matt and I occasionally wager on how fast they'll be in noting our arrival...the poor, habituated beggars.
Warm Bread + Peanut Butter and Honey = UbberYum
...though it was pretty swell with just a shake of salt, too.  Everything tastes better in the woods.  It makes a person appreciate the simple treats all the more.
We retraced our driving route and enjoyed our second soak before striking camp and heading home again--jiggity, jig!  I didn't even really feel like I might die of cold that second time either.  Thank heavens I was able to get my suit dry...
It was a delightful new experience, this winter camping.  I quite liked it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Inspiration Thursday - Living is an Art

"Living is an art.  You've got you canvas and I've got mine."

Tales of a Very Reluctant Salad Eater

Hell might be freezing over as we speak.  For the people who know me best, well, you better sit down. 

*clears throat*  Hi.  My name is Beth and I actually like green salads.
Matt and I have longed joked that one of the reasons we knew we were meant to be together is that we were vegetarians who didn't like salads.  We could eat them sure, especially when it was the only vegan option available, but it was never something we'd prepare for ourselves.

Matt realized they weren't so bad at some point while he was working at the co-op.  He persistently, but gently encouraged me to explore the salad arena, but I was stubbornly resistant.

It made perfect sense to me how salads are a quick, easy, portable, and nutritious meal and I did want to eat more raw veg and leafy greens, but...

I don't like cold savory foods, with just a couple exeptions.
I don't like hardly any raw vegetables, especially lettuce.
I don't like cold, creamy sauces or condiments, especially if they're white-ish.

As such, I was just certain that I couldn't like salads.  Buuuuuuuut, it turns out that I actually do.

Michelle and Matt, two of my most highly valued culinary wizards, kept nudging me, encouraging me, inspiring me to think about salads differently.  Michelle actually blew my mind with what she defines as a salad making it all of the sudden seem reasonably feasible.

"Make a sweet potato salad with peanut dressing and green onions and corn and black beans and fresh red pepper for color."

Surprise, surprise!  I'd just been much too narrow and rigid in my thinking.  When I thought of salad I thought of the boring ranch covered iceberg salad bar concoctions of my youth.  Or of the even more horrifying potato or macaroni "salad" options that cause my nose to wrinkle in distaste.  I was limiting myself with all the I-don't-likes instead of focusing on ways I could make a salad that I actually would enjoy eating.

So what if iceberg lettuce is not for me?!  Spinach salads are amazing.  Even if I always think ranch dressing is gross there are so many other options!  Annie's Goddess dressing is pretty galled dang tasty, once I got over how it looked.  (Though I am in no way prepared to describe it as "drinkable.")

With that, I've become a salad eater (though I'll still probably balk if you give me iceberg).  I bet I've eaten more salad in the past month than I have in my entire life.  Not only am I adding more bright, beautiful veg to my diet, but I also cut down on my use of the microwave and take much more time chewing and eating my lunch or dinner...instead of just wolfing it down.  It has been surprisingly satisfying for me on all counts.

My current favorite is baby spinach with toasted sunflower seeds, marinated baked tofu, red bell pepper, and Goddess dressing--with a good twist of fresh black pepper.

My sister, Sarah, may be right.  I really CAN do anything I set my mind on.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Snow and Sunshine

"There is no bad weather, just bad clothing." 
- Norwegian proverb
Growing up in eastern Montana I was accustomed to winters that settled in around Halloween and finally petered out in March if we were lucky.  (Or this is what is seemed like anyway...)
That is not the case in my adopted southcentral Montana home.  Seriously.  It is a whole different world.  Matt jokes we're in the "banana belt" or the "San Diego" Montana.
The winters here are pretty much perfection, by me.
There is snow and cold, but not too much and there are sunny, blue-skied reprieves between the storms.  I derive much pleasure from the changing seasons.  I don't think I'd been keen to live without this dramatic play of light, temperature, and precipitation.  Each season is its own special jewel.  The first Bleeding Hearts and the baby birds of spring, swimming and eating raspberries right off the bush in summer, the rainbow of leaves and epic vacations in the fall, and the beauty of fresh snow, warm soups, and excessive board game playing in the winter.  And so on.
For much of my life I was pretty down on winter.  It was the "bad" season.  The season that found me bored and cooped up, deprived of being outdoors.  While it is still my least favorite of the four seasons I have realized within the last, oh, decade, that the issue might not be winter itself, but my attitude in regard to it.
So, I made a conscious decisions to embrace winter.  I prepared myself with appropriate winter gear from woolen socks to puffy coat.  I (re)discovered the joy of playing outside--sledding, snowshoeing, snowball fights, and a magical stroll through the neighborhood.  I even started some winter cycling, a few years back.  We recently went winter camping for the first time.  Winter is beautiful.
It is also our slow season and I've totally learned to love and look forward to that.  I breathe a deep sigh as autumn winds down and I know we can relax after the (amazing) hustle and bustle of summer--traveling, tie-dye gigs, gardening and so on.  I look forward to quiet evenings at home as they days grow shorter.  Matt and I play games and drink tea.  I work jigsaw puzzles and read with a cat on my lap.  And then just when I start feeling bored of that Spring comes and it starts all over.
It sure has been a winter wonderland, too.  Record-breakingly so.
Following a wet perfect-for-snowman-building storm in November Winter waited until December to start in earnest.  January was a minor reprieve, but winter's grip just hasn't really let up yet.  This is fairly unusual, in my experience, for our relatively mild wintered city.  This lead me to have a dorky good time looking over some historical local data from the National Weather Service recently.
Snow fell 21 out of 31 days in December with late December bringing two days of record-setting snowfall--2.3 inches on December 27th (previous record 2 inches in 1934) and 8.9 inches on December 29th (previous record 4.1 inches in 2010).  At the height of the storm on December 29th the snow was falling at one inch per hour.
With 25.3 inches of total snowfall December was the 3rd snowiest month in the past 84 years (the record being 30.4 inches in 2016).  This is still well above the December average of 8.2 inches of snow though.
January was a bit milder with only 7 inches of snow (when the average is 8.4 inches) so we caught a little bit of a break there.
The capper though is that is has been colder than normal for the past three months.  Both December and February were a full 3.5 degrees colder than usual.  January was half a degree colder than average.  While 3.5 degrees might not seem like a lot, it really is.
As February wrapped up there had been a total of 76.9 inches of snow since July 1 (the point in time that the National Weather Service uses to differentiate between winter seasons).  That amount broke the previous record from the winter of 1977-78 and put us at 44 inches above the expected norm.
At one point city snow removal employees were working 12-hour shifts around the clock to try to keep on top of it.  I wish I could say that I was surprised to hear so many of my fellow citizens complain about how it still wasn't good enough despite the effort and expense expended.
All in all there would be five days in the short month of February which would either break or tie historical records for daily snowfall and would ultimately rack up 32.4 inches of snow, shattering the monthly average of just 6.2 inches.  That makes it the 2nd snowiest February in 84 years, missing the 2014 record by 4.6 inches. 
We are now at 83.8 inches of snow for this winter as of the first week of March.  The 2017-2018 snow season is still behind the winter of 2013-2014 that got 103.5 inches, the highest season on record.  So, we've got a ways to go before coming close to that record.  I'll enjoy it if it comes, but I also enjoyed how free and clear that Poly bicycle lane was this afternoon as I pedaled to work.
Photos from November 2017 - March 2018.