Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Energy Drinks

How to change a bad habit into a parentally-supported research project: turn it into a blog subject and call it a writing assignment. My teenagers love energy drinks and are always curious about the next one. Needless to say, as a Good Mommy, I disapprove (but don't ban them). Since they were always trying new drinks, they needed a way to keep track of the ones they had tried and whether they liked them. So they created a blog, the buzzed, and started writing reviews of the various brews. Then they just happened to let it slip in my presence. Once I saw that they were approaching the drinks seriously and doing some writing voluntarily, I started keeping my eyes open for new drinks and actually bringing them home. The boys appreciate it just enough to keep writing entries.

I like the fact that they are learning that writing has a real purpose, besides just getting schoolwork done, but I think the real lesson for them is in parental psychology!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Baby Artichokes

I felt pretty smug last night when I went looking for a recipe for baby artichokes and found one for artichokes and fava beans in a book of Provence recipes. Unfortunately, I must have done something wrong (starting with not peeling the fava beans, I suppose), because it was pretty bland. But I've learned how to treat baby artichokes and I think I can work with the ideas.

To trim baby artichokes:
Cut end off stem. Cut top off leaves to get rid of the hard spiky parts. Pull off all the hard leaves that stand out distinctly, so that you are left with the edible light-green leaves. Cut in half or quarters lengthwise and drop in a bowl of water with lemon juice. Cook as desired.

Basic idea of recipe:
Toss artichoke quarters in olive oil and sautee lightly. Add white wine, minced garlic, and herbs (fresh thyme), cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add PEELED fava beans, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes, until fava beans are tender. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

I think I can play with the spicing on this to make it tasty. I might try preserved lemons (except that my daughter ate them all) or plain lemons, curry powder, or onions. That assumes, of course, that I can find more artichoke hearts. I also ran across a mention of pickling baby artichokes, so if I find them, I will buy plenty.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

5-Second Rule

It's amazing the things that scientists get paid to test - like the 5-second rule for dropped food. A Washington Post article has quotes from three different scientists about the rule. Doesn't everyone (including scientists) know that the rule isn't scientific? That it is simply an ackowledgement that "yeah, it's dirty, but I don't think this dirt is going to hurt me"? The part of the article that makes the most sense is the comments (from non-scientists) about social norms and how people use the rule to fend off the disgust of other people. The scientists are undoubtedly right in their results, but they are completely beside the point. Confusing science and culture can result in some pretty silly-looking science!

Pickles

Having brought home 20 pounds of cucumbers yesterday, today was the day I turned them into pickles.

First task: Find the recipe. Since canned goods can turn dangerously nasty if mistreated, I can't just wing it. It's not on a recipe card. Neither of the recipes in my two dedicated pickle books look right (ok, so it's a little weird to have cookbooks for just pickles, but as I said, recipes are critical and I like canning things). Back to the old stand-by, the Joy of Cooking. Yup, that looks better. Except that it starts with 4 pounds of cucumbers going into pint jars, and I have 20 pounds going into quart jars; guess I'll have to start small and see how it scales up.

Second task: Get the canning jars and lids into the dishwasher for sterilizing. Jars I can find, but I'm short of the proper lids. So it's off to the grocery store for lids and bulk white vinegar (lucky I checked before leaving!). While there, I pick up a box of canning salt because I can't remember if I already have some and it's cheap. In the meantime, my faithful daughter loads 14 quart jars (all she could find), 4 pint jars, and the associated rings into the dishwasher and starts it up.

Third task: Find all equipment and get the water in the canning pot heating. The big aluminum canning pot I use heats very slowly, so getting it started is one of the first things to do. Find the canning tongs (a tool which elegantly matches its purpose - I wouldn't can without it again), a jelly bag and string, the large funnel, and the ladle, then clean the dutch oven after two months of disuse. Fold a towel next to the stove as a landing place for hot, wet jars (one of my best innovations!)

Fourth task: Get ingredients together. Cucumbers come out of the fridge, vinegar is on the counter, dill comes out of the water, peppercorns come out of the spice cabinet, the box of salt I already had in the cupboard comes out (and the new box goes in). Equal parts of vinegar and water go into the dutch oven, along with 1 cup salt for each 9 cups of water, and it is set to boil.

Fifth task: Wait for the dishwasher to be done. Turn down heat under canning pot and vinegar. Put lids into a jelly bag, tie, and suspend in boiling water in canning pot - no point in getting another pan on the stove for sterilizing the lids.

Sixth task: Finally, the dishwasher is done. Turn up heat again. Remove hot jars from dishwasher with towel. Stuff each quart jar with pickles; first add 6-8 peppercorns and 1-2 heads of dill, then start packing proto-pickles with the largest ones and end with smaller ones on top. Luckily, there aren't enough cucumbers here to worry about pickle-packer's thumb (caused by repetitively cramming the last cucumber into the jar with your thumb).

Seventh task: Transfer the boiling vinegar to the jars. Get fed up with the ladle and remember that the pyrex measuring cup works better. Discard the funnel as useless. About half of each jar is filled with vinegar, even though it looks full already; it doesn't seem to matter if the pickles have been sliced or not. Top quickly with hot lids and rims. Suck on burned fingers until they quit stinging.

Eighth task: Place seven filled jars into canning pot with tongs. Put lid on and bring water to a boil (this seems to take forever - sit patiently and read a magazine rather than watching it); let boil for 15 minutes. Then remove jars with tongs and place on folded towel to cool.

Ninth task: Start another batch while the jars seal int he boiling water. Add more water, vinegar, and salt to the dutch oven. Start slicing cucumbers for the smaller jars. Discover that there are still plenty of cucumbers on the counter, find more jars, and run them through the dishwasher, too - this time on the short cycle. Find more lids. Add 4 peppercorns and 1 head of dill to each pint jar, then load with sliced pickles. Leave a little room at the top. Experiment with flavorings: add dried red peppers to two jars, some curry powder instead of dill to one.

Tenth task: fill with vinegar and repeat tasks above. Eventually finish, well after the day has started getting hot. Wait a month before eating. Twenty pounds of cucumbers makes 19 quarts of pickles, which means four rounds of the canning bath. With luck, this will hold us until next summer.

Caution: Do not try this at home unless you also have a good basic guide on canning!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Blue Angels

We went to the airshow today, to watch the Blue Angels perform. All the publicity about the show was careful to not give any kind of a schedule, so that people would come early and watch the opening acts (while buying food from the vendors, perhaps) while they wait for the Blue Angels performance late in the day; but on such a hot day (pushing 100 degrees), the tarmac gets too hot for kids pretty quickly, and cars were leaving before noon. Still, that didn't make much of a dent in the crowds sitting along the taxiways or looking at the static displays. The boys promptly took off in different directions to look at everything (thank goodness for cell phones!); my daughter and I admired the planes, enjoyed the tent with the water mister, and headed for the shade (and cooler) of our truck.

We had parked at the far edge of the field, but enough cars left before we got back that we were able to move two-thirds of the way up the row, where we had a good seat for the show. My daughter and I watched from the truck, where we could see everything the planes did, not just the official manuvers. She liked the solo and duo moves, while I liked the 4- to 6-plane formations; the best was when they came roaring overhead in the mid-field passes, right over our heads.

The thing that amazed me about the crowd was how many people started leaving just as the Blue Angels - the entire reason for the show - started performing. Some people had come out to the cars to watch the show, as we did, and some of them left as soon as the performance was done; that I understand. And I understand leaving because you have run out of time, or a child has had a melt-down and needs to go home NOW. What I can't understand is waiting 3-5 hours in the hot sun, then turning your back on the headliner and leaving, all to avoid the traffic. But apparently lots of people can, because by the end of the performance, 10-15% of the cars had left the lot.

Farmers Market

We are moving into serious vegetable production now - not me, personally, but the lovely people who are willing to work in the hot sun to grow vegetables for my use. I had a feeling that the pickling cucumbers would be ready by now, so I went to the farmer's market early this morning and headed right for the Hutterite colony stand. Sure enough, they had 5# bags of pickling cukes and were selling them fast; I bet that within half an hour after the market opened, the bags were gone, leaving only regular cucumbers to taunt canners. But I have mine! All twenty pounds. Conveniently, dill ripens at the same time the small cukes are ready, so I am set to make the pickles tomorrow. I also got several bags of shelled peas to stick in the freezer for the fall, some in the shell for dinner tomorrow night, more fava beans, fennel, carrots, green onions, and baby red potatoes (which I'll boil and serve with our local goat cheese made with garlic and chives). I even found some baby artichokes at Gallatin Valley Botanical; I have no idea what I will do with them yet, but something will work, maybe with the fava beans. The nice thing about early vegetables is that they all seem to go together well, and they don't need much cooking to be wonderful.

One thing I didn't find is lettuce. The heat has ruined all the lettuce in the valley, making it bolt and go bitter.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Berries

It's a long fruit drought here in the spring. After the citrus-fruit rush in mid-winter, we go clear until June before we have any in-season fruits again. As much as I prefer fruits in season and, when possible, local, I'm reduced to buying bananas and frozen fruit once the store apples get mushy from storage. So rhubarb, although a stem instead of a fleshy seed-bearing case and therefore not technically not a fruit, is very welcome when it appears in late June; we bake crunch cakes and make rhubarb-ginger butter, then freeze what we can't eat . A few early-season strawberries are just teasers for the main event.

Then comes late July, and we have an explosion of cherries and berries. Cherries flow out of the Flathead Lake area, sweet-tart and juicy, perfect for pies and shakes. This year we got a 20# box and ate as many as we could; the rest we pitted and froze. (My son's recipe: 3 C pitted cherries and 2 C vanilla ice cream, blended together and drunk quickly before an older brother - or mom - steals it.) Strawberries and blueberries appear in the grocery store; you can tell they are in season because all the berries in the containers are good. But the fun berries are the ones we pick ourselves.

Our raspberry patch, which started as ten canes 15 years ago, took over the strawberry patch and then the entire vegetable garden, and now threatens to take over the back yard. As much as I treasure our thornless canes, the raspberries are weeds if watered; we mow and pull them out of flower gardens and lawns every summer. We got a pint or so of berries yesterday, and I'll need to send a kid out to pick again tomorrow. They are so precious that we just eat them fresh; I only make jam if I get a case commercially, or if we go too long without picking them and they are past their prime.

The kids have the most fun picking service berries, probably because the bushes have to be found first and because the kids pick from horseback; standing on a saddle to pick the high ones only adds to the fun (as long as the horse stands still). Service berries are a native plant, also called June berries, with seeds that taste like almonds. Treated like blueberries, they made a great pie for dessert last night (and an even better breakfast this morning).

Pie: Lay out a pie crust in a pie pan. Mix 4 C berries, 1/4 C flour for thickening, 1/8-1/4 C sugar, 1/4 C lemon juice, and 1-2 Tbs candied ginger in a bowl, and place in the crust. Add a top crust if you like (I usually don't because I would rather make a second pie with the dough than have one look perfect). Cook at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Let cool at least two hours so the filling thickens a little. If you have to hold it longer than 24 hours, make the crust and stick it in the freezer; mix the berries and refrigerate separately. Bake the day you will eat it; it will hold 24 hours at room temperature, but refrigerating it will make the crust heavy.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

New Drivers

When my oldest son was learning to drive, he told me that he was happy to drive whenever I was tired. But coaching a new driver is exhausting. If you normally "drive" 100 yards out, checking for traffic and other obstacles, with a new driver you have to drive 200 yards out; the extra distance is needed so you have time to process and verbalize and they then have time to respond appropriately. And you have to retain enough energy to respond helpfully when they make a mistake, instead of blowing up. So it was easier for me to drive when I was tired. Now that his driving is now good enough that I can let him drive when I don't feel like it, he is heading off for college in August.

When my 15-year-old finished driver's ed, the 50 hours that he is required to spend driving over the next six months seemed easy to accomplish. But then reality set in. Most of the time he is in the car with me, we are driving in tourist traffic and construction zones, and he only wants to drive if he is alert (which I appreciate). If I do drive in quieter parts of town or out of town, either he isn't with me, or we are in a car with a stick shift, or I am too hurried or tired to let him drive. As a result, we aren't getting the 20 minutes a day that we should be averaging; I guess we'll have to start setting up drives just for him, instead of trying to fit it into our day. With all the driving I do in a week, it baffles me that I will have to add more driving in order to give him the experience he needs. But since my other back-up driver is leaving in a month, I am motivated to make sure I have a replacement driver as soon as possible!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Middle Ages

We will be studying the Middle Ages this year, which causes a problem for me: It is my favorite period in history, and I have an over-abundance of material. I have materials for kindergarten through graduate school, so choosing only those things that are most appropriate for each kid and ignoring all the other really good things I have is tough; but if I don't, the kids will be overwhelmed. The over-abundance also makes it hard to organize the information; the list gets so long in places that it is hard to make sense out of it all. Should I spend a week on illuminated manuscripts? I have some really good books on it, and it lends itself to art projects. Or should manuscripts be a side-light when we focus on France, with the week used for the Scottish rebellion (Robert the Bruce and all that) instead? I haven't answered this one yet, but I'm leaning toward including the Scots.

Another challenge comes from the fact that most children's books on the Middle Ages lump together 500 years into one culture; or else show one 100-year period of the High Middle Ages as representative of the entire period. Finding age-appropriate books that show the development of the period, from the end of the Dark Ages in Charlemagne's court around 800 to the High Middle Ages in France around 1300, is difficult. Luckily, the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia does a good job of covering the developments, and I can usually find single-topic books to supplement it with details, biographies, and stories.

And then there's the fact that history was happening outside Europe - and not just in the Middle East. Finding the balance between the traditional western civ. story line, primarily concerned with French and British history, and the history of the rest of the world is tricky. Even getting the outlying edges of Europe into the narrative can be difficult: how do you deal with Russia when it was primarily a Central Asian culture? It's critical to cover the Byzantine empire and the growth of Islam, but in how much detail? China had some really interesting developments, and there is the samurai period in Japan, too... I finally decided to use parallel tracks instead of bouncing back and forth between "Europe" and the rest of the world.

The good news is that I get to revisit my favorite historical period and, because I am organizing the information for the kids, I'm learning the dates and timelines better than I've ever known them. Best of all, because I try to draw connections between events over time and space (where appropriate), I am having to make the connections first, which means I remember them. For instance, I always knew Charlemagne was important, but only last spring, when I wrote the week's text on him, did I realize that it is because he unified Europe and started schools at his courts, effectively ending the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. That kind of enlightenment is why I love putting together my history curriculum instead of buying one.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Enough Already

A normal summer in western Montana (if there is such a thing) includes a week to ten days of hot weather in mid-July, with high temperatures in the 90s and an occasional 100 degree day. With only a week of hot days, air conditioning really isn't needed in houses; we get by with fans to pull in the cool air at night and grills for cooking dinner outside. But this summer is all out of whack. Our hot days started in mid-June, and we are now in our fourth (or is it fifth?) week of highs over 90 degrees. According to an article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the daily high temperatures are running about 10 degrees higher than usual - and it sure feels like it. Sleeping is hard when the nights don't cool off; I'm just grateful that I don't have to work outside in this heat.

This is the weather for shandies, a British drink that is half lemonade and half lager beer (Corona, in my case) and very tasty in hot weather. Other cooling options have included going to the movies, swimming, and spending as much time in the basement as I can justify. Possible but as-yet-unused ideas include ice packs in my pillow case and putting towels and bras in the refrigerator when I take a shower, so the "room temperature" (ie 90 degrees) fabric doesn't undo all the good of a cool shower.

La Parrilla

It's funny how having one small part of your routine out of commission for a few months can leave you feeling slightly off-kilter - even when it is a minor part. For the last 5+ years, we have had lunch once a week at La Parrilla, a local burrito place, every Tuesday unless we are all out of town. We know the staff and they know us (and our usual orders). I always get the same thing, exactly. It's a reliable part of my week, something the rest of the week can pivot around when chaos strikes (as it tends to do).

Or it was. On April 1, La Parrilla closed for "two months" so they could move the building across the street to a better location. Two months?!? without my favorite lunch? Acckk! I ate there every day I could before they closed, hoping to get sick of it (which didn't work). Then I resigned myself to a two-month drought. Which turned into a three and a half month drought. I even drove to Missoula to try out the La Parrilla there (good, but not quite the same). FINALLY they re-opened again last week, and we promptly resumed our Tuesday lunches. It's amazing how much better, in very subtle ways, my week goes now that I can re-instate that one little piece of my routine. My taste buds are happier now, too.

With the move, La Parrilla added parking and a nice patio, expanded the kitchen prep area, and added air conditioning. The funny thing is that they expanded their dedicated parking, but lost their overflow parking. So the parking lot is much nicer, but more cars are parked on the street out in front.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Fava Beans

I bought some fresh fava beans at the Farmers Market the other night and was suprised when the woman selling them asked how I cook them. She hasn't been willing to peel them, as "everyone" knows you are supposed to, and was curious if it was worth the work. I told her that they are just fine with the skins on, and another veggie-person nearby agreed; she had watched a friend peel them once and decided that that was too much work for any vegetable.

The first time I found fava beans in town, I got some without knowing what I was going to do with them. I had always heard fava beans should be peeled, but I didn't have the energy for that so I tried cooking them with the peels on. I like the way the slightly bitter taste of the peel, less astringent than radicchio, contrasts with the buttery insides. After cooking them a couple times, I felt guilty - after all, wasn't I missing the whole point of fava beans? and peeled them; they were too bland. So I've gone back to cooking unpeeled fava beans. They show up early in the growing season, along with green onions, so I usually combine the two; but red onion is good too. The best part about cooking with them may be the fuzzy insides of the pods.

1 1/2# fava bean pods
1 bunch green onions or 1/2 small red onion
2 preserved lemon slices
2 Tbs olive oil
Shell the fava beans, stopping to enjoy the fuzzy pods, but do not peel the beans. Chop the onions fine. Mince the lemon slices. Place all ingredients in a microwavable bowl and microwave for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. The fava beans should be just warmed through. Stir and serve.
(Since most people don't have preserved lemons in the refrigerator, try replacing it with plain lemon slices and some salt.)

Fava beans, also called broad beans, are native to northern Africa and southwest Asia and have probably been part of the eastern Mediterranean diet for 8000 years. In Egypt and the Middle East, fool medames or (ful mdames) is a popular breakfast dish using dried fava beans and garlic; hot pepper and lime can also be added. According to Wikipedia, the beans can be fried, causing the skin to split open, and then salted to produce a crunchy snack popular in China and Thailand.

The first place I ever heard of fava beans was Unplugged Kitchen, by Viana La Place. She also likes the slightly bitter flavor of unshelled fava beans, and cooks with them peeled much of the time; she says that leaving the shells on keeps the beans from absorbing too much water and getting mushy. Her recipe for fava and spring onion pasta is similar to my recipe; she cooks the beans in water and the onions in a sautee pan, then adds mint leaves, black pepper, and parmesan to the pasta. She also has a tasty-sounding recipe for fresh fava beans with hot red pepper:
2 cups shelled but not peeled fava beans
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
Chopped fresh hot red pepper or red pepper flakes
2 tsp flat leaf parsely
salt
olive oil
Cook fava beans in a little salted boiling water until tender, about 10 minutes for very young beans. Drain well. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, garlic, red pepper, and parsely.

Fava beans also lend themselves nicely to a puree for putting on little toasts.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fresh Peas

I love getting fresh peas at the farmers market. It is worth the work to shell them all (somehow, I can seldom find a kid available to help me), and cooking them is a simple matter of adding butter and microwaving for a minute or two. The problem is that their appearance on the table routinely leads to bad puns. Whirled Peas. Take a pea. All we are saying is give peas a chance. And those are the "intelligent" ones!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Girls' Night at the Races

Friday night, my daughter and I left the males in our family at home to fend for themselves and took ourselves to the local stock car races for our annual girls' night out. I didn't grow up with car racing and I know almost no one who is familiar with them, so each annual visit is a learning experience as I try to sort it all out. Last year, I came home and promptly looked up the flag codes on Wikipedia - but this year, I realized that the race starter wasn't using the same ones Wikipedia does, so we had to figure them out ourselves.

When the cars first come out on the course before a race, they parade around for several laps to give the audience a chance to pick favorites to cheer for (or maybe to make sure the cars are running well). When the starter is ready for them to line up in pairs, he holds a furled green flag in one hand and a furled yellow flag in the other, then flips them back and forth - his body language makes the goal obvious, even if you don't know the flag code. Once the pairs are all in order, he holds the furled green flag over the course to indicate that the next lap is the start. On the next lap, the unfurled green flag is waved madly just as the front cars reach the starting point (an orange cone on the edge of the track, which an official then tows out of the way with a string) and the cars accelerate hard.

If there is a mis-start - a car starts accelerating too soon, or there is an accident within the first lap - then all the cars line up in pairs again, just like the first time, except that the car that caused the problem goes to the back of the line. This can be a huge penalty: one car that started in front and was leading nicely was then sent to the back of the line and ended the race way back.

Any time there is an accident, the yellow flag comes out and all the cars slow down while the drivers figure out what is going on; this can last for 8-10 laps if untangling an accident is complicated. Except sometimes, a driver doesn't see the flag and goes racing around other cars until the odd behavior of the other drivers sinks in and he (almost always he, but not quite) slows down too. When the yellow flag is out, the cars have to maintain the order they were in when it first came out, including letting cars "cut in" if they got out of order. We never saw the red flag that would stop all the cars. Once the cars are back on the track, or towed to the center, or the debris is off the track, the starter uses the furled and then unfurled green flags to get things started again. The amazing thing is how few serious accidents there were, and how often the cars came right back out on the track to finish the race; sometimes the body work was flapping wildly, but only once did that make a car leave the race, when a crunched, non-aerodynamic front left fender caused the wheel to leave the ground with disconcerting regularity.

When the front car catches up with the slowest car, lapping it, the starter holds out a blue flag with a large yellow-orange spot in the middle; the slower driver is apparently supposed to yield to the faster one, and the starter is always emphatic about which car he means the flag for. When the laps are half run, the starter holds up furled green and white flags and crosses them to indicate the half-way point. The unfurled white flag means "last lap", and of course the checkered flag means "finish".

Once we figured out what the flags meant, the races were a lot more fun to watch, since we had some idea of what was going on. Now if I could just find out what furled black (or blue) and yellow flags, crossed, means.

Magpies

I've grown up with magpies all my life, and they've always fascinated me - maybe because they are still worth watching in January, when it is 20 degrees below zero and all the summer birds have gone south. The iridescent black back and wings against the white chest is much flashier than a robin's red breast, and magpie activities are more intelligent. They are everywhere, in the garbage, on the dead gopher in the road, sociable creatures always talking and quarreling. I read once that if magpies only lived somewhere exotic, they would be prized instead of reviled. But whether you love them or swear at them, magpies seem to suit the extremes of weather and terrain we have in Montana.

Then again, maybe magpies fascinate me because I sense a kindred spirit - there is too much to life to focus on just one area, to specialize. Magpies explore everything, eat almost anything, and are well known for their attraction to shiny things (which they often incorporate into their nests). I'm a lot like that with ideas, picking up anything shiny and trying to find a way to incorporate it into the way I think; my favorite bits and pieces are those that change the way I think about something, the way I see the world. Sometimes my brain feels like a magpie's nest, a ball of twigs filled with shiny bits from everywhere. Now if I can just find a way to make it all make sense...

For a nice summary of magpie behavior, see Rich Adams' entry. For possibly more than you wanted to know about magpies, see Magpie in Myth and Nature.