Monday, December 31, 2007

Earthquake Risk

It is well known that California is laced with earthquake faults and is likely to slide off into the sea someday, and that southern Alaska has earthquakes - they are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Less well known is that there is a small area of high seismic risk far to the north, around Yellowstone National Park. On the USGS seismic danger map, there is a bright red dot on the border of Montana and Wyoming, with a trail extending down through Wyoming to Utah. Yellowtone National Park and Big Sky, Montana, are in seismic zone 4 - just like San Francisco (and much of California); the only other place in the US with zone 4 ratings is southern Alaska. Bozeman is in zone 3, along with much of the northern Rockies, the rest of California, the area around Puget Sound (Seattle), much of Alaska, Puerto Rico, the main island of Hawaii, and a portion along the Mississippi River, in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri (over the New Madrid fault).

Just to make the point, there was a magnitude 3.6 earthquake in Yellowstone National Park last night, followed by 13 aftershocks. It didn't do any damage, but it was larger than usual.

New Year's Eve Fondue

When I was growing up, we always had fondue with some friends the week before Christmas, and I loved the tradition. But our week before Christmas includes a birthday and a solstice celebration, so adding a fondue would be way too much. Luckily, my husband's family had always had fondue on New Year's Eve, when there is plenty of time for a drawn-out dinner. We follow that tradition, which is close enough to make me happy.

So tonight, we will have a beef fondue, with cubes of top round dipped in hot oil, then into any of a variety of dips (hollandaise, horseradish sauce, salt and pepper, sweet and sour, soy/lime juice, plus anything that happens to still be in the fridge from the holidays); my husband's favorite addition is a thick-sliced pickled ginger that I make once in a while. Over the years, we have added a bunch of vegetables to accompany to meat; this year, it will be portobella mushrooms, daikon, sunchokes, celeriac, cherry tomatoes, and maybe garlic cloves. I love leeks, but couldn't find any good ones this year; I have also used potatoes and sweet potatoes with success. Actually, any vegetable that looks good at the store seems to work, some cooked and some eaten raw. I'll serve some good bread with it and call it good.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Artichoke and Tomato Salad

I found gorgeous cherry tomatoes at the Co-op today (much to my surprise), which prompted me to make a salad I had been mulling over but figured would wait until next spring. I sauteed a bunch of the tomatoes, about a handful per person, in plenty of butter, with herbs de Provence and a little salt. When the first tomatoes started bursting, I gently smashed them all with a spatula so they would all burst evenly (and hopefully without splattering all over the kitchen), then sauteed them a bit longer, about 20 minutes total. While they were sauteeing, I made a salad of mixed greens with a red-wine-vinegar and oil dressing, same spicing as the tomatoes, divided them between the plates, then nestled artichoke bottoms on the greens. When the tomatoes were ready, I spooned them on the artichokes, along with the juice. It worked out really well.

I served it with pork chops (basic preparation) and individual goat cheese souffles from a Martha Stewart recipe (which I can't find on her website); the goat cheese I used was an aged one with some blue threads in it. It made a great combination.

Earworms

It's amazing what you can find browsing the internet. I just learned that there is a word for a song that gets stuck in your head and won't leave you alone: earworm, borrowed from the German ohrwurm. Now if I could just figure out how to get rid of earworms.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Roasted Winter Veggies Again

I didn't have any cream tonight, and I wasn't about to go to the grocery store for it, so I had to think of some other way to re-serve the roasted winter veggies before they went bad. I wasn't feeling too ambitious, so I turned them into a baking pan (with the goat cheese), topped them with some sun-dried tomatoes, and stuck them in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes, long enough to warm through. They were still good.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Food Ideas

Coming up with food ideas is never a problem for me - the problem is finding time to cook them all. Reading The United States of Arugula, I came across a mention of Veau Prince Orloff, an excessively heavy dish that "required you to bone and tie a five-pound roast of veal, prepare a soubise of rice and onions, a duxelles of mushrooms, and a veloute from a roux enriched with heavy cream and a pinch of nutmeg. You pureed the soubise and the duxelles together to spread on each slice of the roasted meat, then covered the entire roast with thick sauce and grated Swiss cheese so that it would brown when you reheated it." I don't even know what the French words mean, but it sounds way too much. On the other hand... I like the idea of slicing a roast and layering it with pureed onions and mushrooms. I think I will try it with a lean beef roast. I could slice the roast the wrong way, then spread the slices with a puree made from onions and mushrooms sauteed together in butter, wrap the whole thing in tin foil, and cook it. The wrong-way slices will mean that the filling shows up in every (thin) slice. Or I could do a beef roll-up with the onions and mushrooms as the filling, so that they would make an elegant spiral when sliced (if I can get the roll right).

Now I just need to think of some way to cut the richness so it isn't overwhelming. Maybe a pickled vegetable, or something with lemon, or a green salad with vinegar and oil. Another way would be to do some kind of a red-wine sauce on the meat (although my favorite one has butter in it, which isn't exactly light, either). Probably the red-wine sauce on the meat and a green salad with oil and red-wine vinegar would be best.

It needs a basic starch, like sourdough bread, or just rice to serve under the slices of meat; the rice would be best with a sauce. That gives me something rich, something acidic, and something calm, my preferred balance for a meal. For dessert, I would probably serve one chocolate truffle per person, to go with the big red wine this deserves.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ham Bones and White Beans

Ham for Christmas always means white bean and ham soup a day or two later. I start the white beans the night before, soaking them in plenty of water so they soften. I simmer the ham bone in a stock pot all day, then remove the bone and pull the meat off. Into the broth go the white beans, ham, chopped onions, diced celeriac, a few minced cloves of garlic, a can of diced tomatoes, some herbs, and salt and pepper; if I have one stashed in the freezer, I throw in a parmesan rind (to add some umami, I now know). Simmer for an hour or so and eat with some good bread and a medium red wine like a pinot noir. Very tasty!

Books for Travelers

I have just discovered Longitude Books, a web bookstore for travelers. You start by clicking on a region, which then narrows down until you get a list of recommended books. At the top of the list is what Longitude calls Essential Reading, a selection of items that can be purchased as a package, with a discount; for Montana, the list includes:
  • Compass Guide Montana, a guide book with literary excerpts and short essays;
  • High, Wide, and Handsome, a 1943 history of Montana that is still one of the best general histories about the state;
  • Bad Land, an American Romance (fiction), which I don't know anything about;
  • The Last Best Place, an anthology of Montanan writing both fiction and nonfiction that serves as a great introduction to Montanan literature; and
  • a map.

This Essential Reading is followed by a long list of other books that might be of interest to travelers to Montana: guidebooks, history, cultural portraits, biography, natural history, field guides, science, maps, and literature. It is a good selection; I suspect that I will be acquiring some of these books in the near future, even though I already have a pretty good library of Montana books.

Now I just need to figure out somewhere to travel, so I can justify using this site more!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Roasted Winter Veggies

I think I have finally found my Christmas veggies, after several years of experimenting. It is seasonal, and I can put it in the oven just before my parents come over with gifts to open. I commented to my father that I know they aren't big fans of winter vegetables, and he joked, "I didn't know there were any." But he ate it all, as did my mother. Now I just have to decide if the left-overs will be eaten fast enough or if I should make them into a gratin of some sort.

Roasted winter veggies
Preheat oven to 350 or 400 degrees. Clean, trim, and cut into bite-size pieces some combination of the following (I used the first four plus shallots):
Celeriac
Rutabagas (sweet, looks like a turnip - very good)
Parsnips
Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes)
Turnips
Beets
Carrots (big chunks)
Shallots or onions (definitely include some of these)
Garlic - whole cloves
Potatoes (not too many)
Sweet potatoes or yams

Place in a roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and some herbs (I used savory), and toss with your hands. Place in oven; this will take just under an hour at 400 degrees, over an hour at 350 degrees - the temperature can match your meat, if it is in the oven too. About 20-30 minutes before you pull the veggies out, trim some sweet peppers (I like the little ones that come in a plastic case) and add them to the pan.

Remove the pan from the oven. Cut some goat cheese into small chunks and toss with the veggies. Serve.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Umami

Even though we were taught in school that there are four flavors (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter)there is now a fifth: umami. Well, actually, there have been five known since 1908, but no one told elementary school teachers that, in part because scientists didn't isolate the taste buds that match it until 2000. MSG is the pure version of the flavor, like sugar is for sweet; umami can also be tasted in steak, mushrooms, anchovies, ketchup, and parmesan, but I can't figure out exactly what the connections are - I can't isolate it as a separate flavor. According the the WSJ article, it is "usually defined as a meaty, savory, satisfying taste". And it is popular right now because umami can be used to decrease the salt needed to make a meal taste good.

To learn more about umami, see this nice collection of articles on Finding Dulcinea. The linked article from the Wall Street Journal is especially helpful.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Brussel Sprouts and Oyster Mushrooms

I went to the Co-op today to pick up vegetables for tonight and Christmas dinner. I picked up root veggies - parsnips, rutabagas, sunchokes, and baby sweet peppers - to roast and toss with local goat cheese, to serve with wild rice and the fresh ham I picked up from Miller Farm. My parents aren't big on winter vegetables, but I think they will like this.

To go with steak tonight, I picked out tiny brussel sprouts and oyster mushrooms; I will sautee the mushrooms with shallots I already have, microwave the brussel sprouts, and toss them together before serving. The sprouts and mushrooms led to conversation at the check-out stand, when the young man checking me out asked what I was doing with the oyster mushrooms and how they were different than criminis or shitakes. He likes mushrooms and cooks with them regularly, but hasn't tried oyster mushrooms because they are pricey (and shitakes aren't?). I pointed out that I had enough mushrooms for 6 people, at a cost of $2.50, and enouraged him to try them. When I mentioned that I was going to mix them with the sprouts, we then had a long discussion about not liking brussel sprouts and how to cook them so that they aren't so bitter (microwave in a covered bowl with a little water until they are JUST tender, before the flavor get strong). He sounded game to try them now that he is older; he may never like them, but at least he will have a better idea of what they really should taste like. I can't say that brussel sprouts are my favorite, either - I get them because my husband loves them and they are at their best this time of year - but they aren't bad when they are cooked with mushrooms, shallots, and butter. And they are one of the easier choices this time of year, when I am still missing the summer vegetables.

Kingfishers

One of my favorite birds is the belted kingfisher. We don't see them very often, but today a kingfisher was perched on the power lines along the bridge over the East Gallatin River, precisely in the middle of the span, watching the river. Kingfishers are riparian birds, claiming about a kilometer of the river, bank, and vegetation as their territory. They build their nest by burrowing tunnels into the bank, up to 8 feet in length. We first became intrigued by them when my son wore a mohawk; he was delighted by the fact that the bird did, too. That year, we saw the kingfisher almost every morning on our way to preschool; since then, we have been lucky to see them sporadically. So seeing one makes me happy because I don't very often, and because it reminds me of a particularly cute stage in my son's life.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Newly-Minted Driver

After six months of supervising driving time, I finally have another new driver: my son passed his driving test this morning. Apparently the examiner agreed that it was too slick to have expected him to stop for one orange light (it snowed heavily last night) and was impressed that he took his test in a stick shift (his preferred option, the suburban, was in use - it also impresses examiners). So he passed. Now comes the really fun part: finding times when we are comfortable letting him drive by himself, short drives outside of town when the roads are bare and dry, so he can build some confidence and experience.

Winter Solstice

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year - or maybe more accurately, the night between Dec. 21 and 22 is the longest one of the year; winter officially starts on Dec. 22, as the nights start getting shorter. Ancient religions, especially from the northern latitudes where the changes in day length are most notable, often had explanations of why the sun dropped so low in the sky and what had to be done to make the sun come back so that summer would return; these rituals are the source of many of the religious winter festivals, with the emphasis on lights and candles and fire.

Inspired by Seasons of Light at the Museum of the Rockies planetarium, we have come up with our own ritual to scare the sun back up into the sky. Every July, we get an extra set of mortars and fountains, which we stash until December 21 comes along and it is dark and cold. We have my sister and her family over, and we set off fireworks in the snow. Fireworks in the winter is a completely different experience than July fireworks, as the lights reflect off the snow. Some years, it is so cold that we use a propane torch to light the fuses and the little ones watch from inside; other years, we can sit comfortably outside and light them without gloves. And it works - every year since we started, the sun has promptly started rising in the sky the next day, making the days longer and, eventually, warmer.

For more information on winter solstice rituals, see
Religious Tolerance
Candlegrove

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Chile Rellenos

I used to make chile rellenos for Christmas Eve dinner, but gave up when my two boys, maybe 6 and 4, declared that they didn't like them and I got tired of supplementing the rellenos. I even added a sticky note to the recipe reminding me that the boys didn't like it. Imagine my surprise when my eldest son (admittedly, a few years older now, and off at college) started talking about how much he likes chile rellenos, and when the other kids chimed in appreciatively! With that pressure, I dusted off my recipe and made a batch tonight - and sure enough, they were all eaten enthusiastically.

There was one challenge to overcome first: I had carefully bought three cans of WHOLE green chilis, avoiding all the cans of chopped green chilis on the shelf. But when I opened the cans, they turned out to be full of chopped green chilis. I looked at the labels, thinking I might have made a mistake, but no, they were mislabeled. So my husband and son made a run into town, to a different store, to get more cans of whole green chilis. This was good, because even the larger cans they got didn't really hold enough chilis for all six of us; my son had done his best to figure out how many chilis each can held, but was fooled by the "Approximate servings per can: 5" - it turned out that each can held three large chilis.

Chile Rellenos
Find cans of WHOLE green chilis, two chilis per person (don't trust the label - get an extra can or two); remove any seeds, trying not to tear the chilis. Slice farmer cheese (or Monterey jack, or pepper jack, or something else that melts well), not too thinly; cut some of the slices diagonally to create two long, thin triangles. Stuff each chili with slices of cheese, using the triangles to get down into the points.

Put some flour on a small plate, and mix in a little salt and chili powder. For 4-6 people, beat 2 eggs (or 4 egg whites*, if you made hollandaise recently) and place on another plate.

Heat something to fry with in a skillet; the best is lard, if you have it, but shortening or oil will work. Make sure it is good and hot before moving on. Dip each chili carefully in the eggs, then in the flour to cover. Place the chili in the lard and fry on each side until just turning golden; if you cook it too long, the cheese will melt all over the pan and make a real mess. Serve and eat promptly.

Good with black beans, Mexican rice, or just chips and salsa.

*Egg whites freeze well, at least for this use. I freeze one egg white in each depression of a mini-muffin tin (or an ice tray), then bag them together.

Road Food

I was looking for a sandwich recipe when I stumbled on the Road Food site. The site celebrates "great regional meals along highways, in small towns and in city neighborhoods", with listings and reviews. "Roadfood is almost always informal and inexpensive; and the best Roadfood restaurants are colorful places enjoyed by locals (and savvy travelers) for their character as well as their menu." You can search the site by state, making it a great resource for road trips. When I searched for Montana, I noticed that my favorite road trip restaurants are missing, so I might have to do a few reviews to remedy that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

London's Beer Challenges

Sometimes the oddest things are connected - like beer and ground subsidence. According to Philip Ball in Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, "London subsided by an average of two and a half to three inches between 1865 and 1931 as a result of the lowering of its water table. There is now a rumor, however, that at least some parts of London's water table are rising again because the big breweries, which consumed much of the water in the city's aquifers, have moved out of town (or out of business). Londoners are warned of an impending threat of flood rising from the deep because the capital no longer makes its own beer." I can't find anything to corroborate this, but the basic idea is plausible and a good example of connections between unlikely events.

In looking for something to back this up, I did find reviews of a report that said, among other things, that London is subsiding generally as the land mass of England responds to the unloading of the last ice sheet, with the north tipping up and the south tipping down. The weight changes as tides come and go up the Thames are dramatic enough to change the level of the ground by 10 mm twice a day, and the seasons load the ground differently, so that measuring true subsidence is tough. All this is relevant because the Thames is rising over time, about 1 mm annually, leading to increasing flooding. So even if the lack of local beer doesn't flood London from below, the Thames is likely to take care of the job.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Price vs. Service

A mom who was trying to find a guitar for her daughter wrote, "we went to Music Villa [a local instrument store] and found a guitar that seems to be a good fit. I really liked the service there too. I am going to check the internet sites first to see if I can get the guitar cheaper."

It must be so frustrating to be in retail anymore. You provide a quality product and good service, spend time to help someone figure out what they need, and then they buy elsewhere to save a few dollars – if they really save anything after shipping. I understand wanting to save money, and internet purchasing is great if you know what you want; but if you need the service, it is only fair to pay for it instead of “stealing” it from the business. It seems wrongheaded to me. And I won’t even get started on supporting the local business community so it is there when you need it!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Jews and the Crusades

Funny the things you find out when you start doing research. I always "knew" that the Crusaders killed Muslims in the Holy Lands; it wasn't until this year that I found out that not everyone in the First Crusade worried about reaching their goal before they started killing "infidels". Some impatient Crusaders decided there was no point in going all the way to the Holy Land to kill infidels when there were Jews in Europe. Jews were appealing targets of Christian hostility for several reasons. Theologically, they had originally worshipped the true God but refused to worship Christ; this made them enemies of God and the Church, so they deserved to be treated harshly. Economically, Jews had no prohibition against usury, the lending of money for interest, so they became merchants and bankers to the Christians – meaning that Christians often owed Jews money, which the debtors resented, and killing Jews was a way to cancel the debt; even if there were no debts, the Jews represented a chance for good looting. Politically, Jews had taken the anti-Christian side in the Holy Land since the seventh century, primarily because Islam generally tolerated them as another "people of the Book" (the Old Testament). Popularly, Jews were “other”, foreign in a time when strangers were automatically suspected; because their religious rituals were strange to their neighbors, Jews were often accused of witchcraft, in particular of using Christian blood and killing Christian infants in their ritual.

In 1096, the People's Crusade, the first branch of the Crusade to leave France, made its way into Germany, where the hot-headed among the Crusaders decided to eliminate the Jews before continuing to the Holy Lands. Jews were massacred and temples desecrated in Spier (in spite of being sheltered by a Christian bishop), Worms (where 1000 died), Mainz (where they were protected at first by the archbishop, who later fled; 900+ died), and Wurzburg. In Hungary, Jews were attacked in Trier, Metz, Prague, Ratisbon, and Nitra before the king of Hungary stopped the Jew-killers. Would-be Crusaders in England picked up the idea and massacred Jews in London, York, Stamford, and Norwich; only Winchester Jews were safe.

The killing didn't stop in Europe. When the Crusaders made it to the Holy Lands, they killed Jews even more enthusiastically than they killed Muslims; the Jews in Jerusalem were basically wiped out, in generally upleasant ways. This pattern lasted throughout the Crusades, as far as I can tell, but seldom shows up in the text books.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Plating for a Crowd

I was reminded last night that the obvious way to do things isn't always obvious to other people. For instance, if you have to plate dinner for 20 people, you can do it one plate at a time, giving the server a nice 2-3 minute break between trips to the tables and letting the food cool off before it is eaten. Or you can plate entire tables' worth at once, ensuring that all the food is still warm when the last person gets theirs.

Plating for a table is actually easier than plating individually, especially if the kitchen you are working in has expansive countertops. You lay out 8 plates, deal out a pork chop to each plate, then get the potato pan and spoon out a portion on each plate, and follow with the pan of apples. In the meantime, the server puts a roll and two pats of butter on the plate, where you indicate. At the last minute, you start putting 4 asparagus and a dollop of hollandaise on each plate, just before the server takes them. In this way, 8 plates can go out in about two minutes, instead of 10 minutes, even if the server takes the time to serve the ladies first. The second table's plates can be put together while the first table is being served, and everyone can eat quickly.

When serving at a family event with young children, it also helps to figure out if there are any special plating instructions - like small portions - before you start putting food on the plates. (But I suppose it is unrealistic to expect young adults to have mommy experience.)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Chocolate Lessons

We are having a family dinner tonight; dessert is a chocolate fondue "dip-off", a competition between the three siblings to see who makes the best chocolate fondue. So I bought five bars of good dark baking chocolate and started melting it this afternoon; when the chocolate was melted, I added the cream and Kahlua - and it promptly turned all grainy and lumpy, with lots of cocoa butter floating on top. Yuck. Now what?

I called La Chatelaine, which makes very good chocolates, and asked what I had done wrong. The chocolate master wasn't there, but the person I talked to thought that the problem was adding cold cream to the warm chocolate. I then told my sad story to a chef friend, who said, "You broke it. And you can't fix it." All her recipes call for adding the liquids before melting the chocolate, or warming them before adding to the warm chocolate. She also very nicely admitted that she had had the same problem with a batch of chocolate for mousses last week, which made me feel a little better.

While I was talking to real people, my technocentric son hopped on the computer and found this advice on the internet: "Be extremely careful not to get any water (not even a drop) into the chocolate. Water will turn the chocolate into a grainy, lumpy mess. If this happens, you can add a little vegetable oil in order to make it smooth again, but this will affect the flavor. What if your recipe calls for melting chocolate along with water or some other type of liquid? That's fine, as long as the liquid is mixed with the chocolate from the beginning of the melting process, it won't get grainy on you, (but adding even a drop in mid-melting will cause this problem)." Which makes sense of what I was hearing. (For more on what happens when you melt chocolate, see this Cooking for Engineers post on tempering chocolate.)

Sigh. So I went back into town, got more chocolate, and came home to try again. This time, I added the cream and Kahlua before turning up the heat - and it worked perfectly. So it was an expensive lesson, but I learned something.

Dark Chocolate Fondue:
Put in the top half of a double boiler (I suspended the fondue pot by the handles over a pot of water):
4 bars of chocolate (5.3 oz each)
1 3/4 cups heavy or whipping cream
1 oz Kahlua (give or take)
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

Turn the heat to medium low; the water shouldn't boil or even simmer. As the chocolate softens, stir regularly. DO NOT ADD ANY LIQUIDS.

Keep the chocolate mix warm and dip any or all of the following in it:
Pound cake (Sarah Lee frozen is the best for this use)
Pineapple bits
Mandarin orange segments
Banana slices
Walnuts

I will also take praline bits (ice cream topping; I would have prefered Heath bits but couldn't find any) and dark cocoa powder to dip the chocolate-coated goodies in, for a truely decadent experience.

Terra Nueva

One of the casualties of the November Chi Chi fire, north of Big Timber, was Terra Nueva Farms. Terra Nueva is a small truck farm that supplies local grocery stores with produce, especially hydroponic tomatoes in the cold months. They lost all their greenhouses and farm buildings; only the house was left standing. The Food Co-op has started a campaign to donate money to help them rebuild - which is how I heard about it. I hope they can pull it off - I miss their tomatoes.

Friday, December 14, 2007

French in England

I knew that in the centuries following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, English kings spent quite of bit of time on the continent, running, fighting for, or trying to reconquer their lands in Normandy, Aquitaine, Maine, and Anjou. But I didn't realize that the French had ever landed on English soil with conquest in mind.

According to a biograph of William Marshall that I am reading, when King John died in 1216 and left a 9-year-old son (Henry III) as his heir, the English nobles did not automatically transfer their allegeince to the boy. In fact, many of them, already in rebellion against John, had chosen the French prince, Louis, to be their leader and had invited him to be the next king of England. So in 1217, Louis and his knights landed in England and soon controlled southeastern England, with the exception of Dover and Lincoln castles; it took William most of the summer and fall to run the French out and regain the loyalty of the rebel nobles. Since the French king, Phillip Augustus, had already run John out of Normandy and his other possessions, this was the beginning of the true separation between France and England, although the English kings tried unsuccessfully to reverse it for another couple centuries.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Weekly Rhythms

Years ago, when I had a kindergartner and a toddler, I had a Tuesday routine. I took the toddler to gymnastics, then we went to the grocery store, then we picked up the kindergartner. I was so regular with this routine that if I missed a Tuesday, the grocery store clerks were concerned about me. Then life intervened, kids got older, and I did my grocery shopping on a catch as catch can (or can't) basis - which made me nuts but was the best I seemed able to do.

Life has changed yet again, and now I have a child at an activity for 45 minutes near the grocery store, at a time when I can haul groceries - on a Tuesday. So I am once again buying groceries on Tuesdays, whether or not we are desperate for them. It is lovely. When I put things on the grocery list, I know when I will get them, and we run out of things less often; I can mail packages or drop off film then, so I am more likely to remember them; I can check my post office box. But best of all, it reclaims a rhythm that I had really liked, brings a calm back into my life that the haphazard patterns had eliminated. It's funny how such small things can make such a big difference in your life.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Born to be Wild?

A friend sent me this link to a great commentary on aging Baby Boomers. Technically, I am in the Boomer cohort, but I am too young to fit most of the stereotypes - I am certainly not just about to retire and join the AARP. In fact, I often resent being grouped with the Boomers, especially when the subject is the Boomers' self-absorption. On the other hand, following them isn't all bad - they demanded new products, like good baby backpacks, that never existed for my parents and make my life a lot easier.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Left-over Artichoke Dip

If, by any miracle, you have left-over artichoke dip, there are lots of things you can do with it:
  • Use it as a spread for a grilled or hot sandwich, especially with portobello mushrooms, chicken, or beef.
  • Pound some chicken breasts flat, spread some spinach leaves on top, and cover with a layer of the dip. Roll up carefully and place in a baking dish. Add a little something for moisture (white wine, chicken broth), maybe a slice of provolone on each breast, and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
  • Grill beef tenderloins, reheat dip (maybe after adding some minced garlic), and serve beef on top of dip, with baguette.
  • Use as a topping for baked potatoes (reheat first).
  • Add chopped onions or shallots, reheat, and use on top of mashed potatoes.
  • Top a hamburger with bacon and warmed dip.
  • Grill portobello mushrooms, top with warmed dip, and stick under the broiler for a few minutes, then serve as appetizer or main course. I would probably add a dash of Worchestershire sauce to the mushrooms before I grilled them.
  • Reheat and use in pork or chicken tacos (without too much hot sauce).
  • Spread on pizza instead of tomato sauce, preferably after adding some minced garlic.
  • Reheat and use as intended.

Hmmm - I might have to see if the dip freezes and make several batches to store for future dinners. I know it will keep in the fridge for 24 hours before baking and I can't think of anything that freezing would harm. (On the other hand, everything in salsa freezes fine, but salsa gets watery after being frozen.) It would certainly be handy to have stashed in the freezer.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christian Apologetics

In spite of the way the word "apology" is used now, Christian apologetics aren't apologizing for their faith, or its existence, or its past excesses (such as the Inquisition or witch hunts). As they use the term, it comes directly from the Greek word apologia (απολογία), which means in defense of; someone summoned to an ancient Greek court to face a charge would present an "apology" or a defense. Christian apologetics start by arguing that "Christianity is reasonable and in accordance with the evidence that can be examined, analogous to the use of the term in the Apology of Socrates, written by Plato." (Wikipedia) From there, apologetics becomes the attempt to defend Christianity and establish its truth, using reason, evidence, and scripture. At its far reaches, it appears to blend into evangelism, when it becomes "the work of convincing people to change their views" and moves from defending Christianity to requiring the questioner to defend his own faith against the apologetic message.

Amusingly enough, although apologetics developed with the first apostles and was part of the church before the Protestant Reformation, Christian apologetics now defend "their" faith against Roman Catholics, in addition to Mormons, Muslims, and atheists.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Hard-core Lasagne

For my birthday today, my kids made dinner. My youngest son made an artichoke dip for an appetizer, my daughter made the chocolate pound cake for dessert, and my teenage son got the heavy work of making lasagne. You and I know that there are fairly straightforward ways of putting lasagne together with ready-made ingredients, but I haven't told my son that because the recipe he uses starts from scratch and is amazing to eat. I did let him off the hook for making the lasagne noodles (which he did one year, and which adds an hour to the process), but he still made the tomato sauce from scratch, simmering it for two hours; the cheese is a mix of ricotta and heavy cream and spices; and the sausage has various things added to it before it is browned. It took him multiple pots and all afternoon to make two pans of lasagne (one for dinner, for for the freezer as my birthday present) and a few small ones for lunches. It made for a fabulous birthday dinner that didn't need any side dishes, and I am looking forward to having leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

Someday I will tell him that there are easier ways to make lasagne - when he is no longer home to make it for my birthday.

Artichoke dip:
In a food processor, place
2 cans artichoke hearts, drained
1 C shredded parmesan (do this in the processor before switching to the metal blade)
4 oz feta cheese
enough mayonnaise to make it all hold together, about 1/4 cup
Pulse to blend and stop before you have a paste.

Spoon into a small baking dish and cook at 375 degrees for half an hour. Serve with crackers or small toasts.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Hello, I'm Special

Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity, by Hal Niedzviecki, is an interesting examination of several modern trends, but it would be better if it were a little more carefully structured. He defines his two buzz terms, "conformist individuality" and "I'm Special", loosely and belatedly, which makes it hard to get a firm grip on exactly what he means when he uses them (repeatedly) as adjectives. More sloppily, he conflates two different trends into one thesis without apparently distinguishing between them, so that the weaker argument drags down the stronger one.

His comments on conformist individuality are the stronger parts of the book. His primary observation is that the urge to establish yourself as an individual is so strong now that it has become a kind of conformity of its own. Although I wouldn't say that I feel a compelling need to present myself as an "individual", I recognize myself in his description of the many people (from the baby-boomers on down) who bypass the formal institutions - religion, work, marriage, having children - in order to organize their lives exactly the way they want them. In my case, it is homechooling; I bypass not only the school system but also the formalized homeschool curricula available, and create individualized curricula for my kids designed for their specific strengths, weaknesses, and interests. So while I don't think of it as being an individual, I am clearly acting in ways that place a higher value on individual needs and preferences than on traditional structures and forms. This argument makes sense and makes sense of current trends.

It is when he brings in the "I'm Special" theory and tries to apply it to every aspect of modern life that Niedzviecki loses me. I accept that people want to feel special; that pop culture causes some people to be dissatified with their drab, humdrum lives, that it encourages them to do stupid things in order to be famous, and that it is ubiquitous in modern culture. His descriptions of why people feel the need to be noticed in the media help me make sense of behavior that I don't otherwise understand, such as volunteering to go on Survivor, and other things that are simply odd, like the number of people who post videos on YouTube. However, Niedzviecki confuses the basic human need to be an acknowledged part of a community, a need that goes back to a time when being an outcast was practically a death sentence, with the need for celebrity (or notoriety, which it increasingly resembles). Of course it is important for people to have a niche in a community, to know that other people know who they are and (with luck) value their contribution; this is part of being human, not a modern development. But this is not the same thing as doing things like setting up back-yard wrestling federations, engaging in extreme sports, or killing school kids in order to make it on TV or the internet. (He neglects to mention one obvious example: more people are giving their children unusual names or unusual spellings of common names.)

Niedzviecki sidesteps the flaw in his argument by setting up a world in which everything is a symptom of the I'm Special disease; no one is immune, in his view. Doing stupid things to get on TV is obviously a symptom, but so is joining a strict religious order - the latter is simply a reaction to pop culture's insistence on being special. He ignores the obvious counterexamples: what of the Amish, who mostly avoid pop culture altogether? And more relevantly, what about people who simply don't care? There are still people who are happy with their lives, who take sufficient satisfaction in family and friends and doing a job well, who don't feel the need to make a fool of themselves in public just to get their name in the paper. Niedzviecki may not know them, since they are mostly married and not part of hip culture, but they exist in substantial enough numbers to disprove his universal application of his theory.

Niedzviecki has some good observations, stories, and points, and explains some odd trends in modern life. Now if he would just apply a little more precision to his arguments, he would have a stronger book - although maybe less sensational.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Christmas Lights

I hate to be a Scrooge about the wonderful displays of Christmas lights that brighten our long, dark winters, but in a time when global warming and energy prices are daily news, it seems a little head-in-the-sand to be encouraging people to increase the size and potency of their displays every year. Every town or neighborhood should have one person who spends most of the year planning for their holiday light display. But when every other house is lit up with lights dripping from the eaves of the entire house and garage, brightly-lit yard displays, strands of lights winding around every tree, and more lights along the fence, it gets overwhelming - and expensive in terms on energy use. The new icicle lights don't help, since they make it easy to string dozens of lights where there used to be one or two. So one small way to combat global warming (and lower your power bill) is to refuse to play the "bigger, better" game and be content with a single strand of lights over the front door or along the walk. It is still festive, and it still allows you to celebrate the season, just without excess or a hangover when you open your next power bill.

Of course I figure this out just after I bought some new icicle lights for my deck.

Joan of Ark?

According to Jim Shea's review of a survey by Time Magazine, 10% of Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Just in Time Snow

I woke up this morning to snow falling, accumulating fast - just in time for Bridger Bowl's opening day tomorrow. The six inches of soft new snow will really help the hill out, covering the harder, older snow that forms most of the base. Of course, the new snow on the slick surface of the old snow is going to keep the avalanche crew busy setting off all the avalanches they can find before tomorrow morning.

We took advantage of the unfortunate warm spell to peel the ice off the driveway and put up the house lights while the roof was dry. With the exception of one string of lights that I had to get last night, we are now ready for winter again!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Chili Marathon

A decade ago, my husband developed the "ultimate" chili recipe, which promptly became famous in my family. Over the years, it has gotten harder for him to make it, but everyone still wants to eat it, so I ended up taking over the cooking. This would have been simpler if I had actually had the recipe instead of just a list of ingredients and the memory of how he did it. Luckily, chili is basically a fancy stew with lots of chili powder in it, so I have been able to fake it well enough that only my kids know that the cook has changed. This year, my mom asked for freezable 2-person batches of chili for Christmas, so someone had to make it. Which means me.

Even a fancy stew takes time, half a day for this recipe. I figure that if I'm going to put that much time into one dish, I will make the most of it - four batches worth. Luckily, my son tried making beer last summer, so we have a huge stainless steel that worked perfectly (although I still need to get the bottom completely clean). So I spent most of today making chili: browning the pork and beef, peeling tomatoes, dicing onions and more onions, seeding and mincing four different types of peppers, sauteeing the vegetables, and simmering the whole mess all afternoon. I got some help on the tomatoes from my daughter, but the peppers were mine to deal with; I have washed my hands repeatedly, but I can still feel the pepper oil on my skn. The good news is that the chili smells wonderful and I have plenty to put in the freezer for this winter, even after saving some for my parents and my father-in-law.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Gallatin Valley Food Bank

There was a political cartoon in the paper the other day titled "Meals on Wheels" that showed a station wagon labeled Community Food Banks, up on blocks, not going anywhere. That seems to represent food banks nationally, but our food bank has four wheels on the ground and is making good speed. The Gallatin Valley Food Bank has done a great job of reaching out to the community, making it easy to volunteer and fun to donate to, and the efforts are paying off. It is the non-profit of choice when a group wants to do some good with an event; there must be an event every other week that requests donations of food in place of an entrance fee. The letter carriers do a massive food drive every spring that collects about 25,000 pounds of food, there are about two dozen large drives somewhere in the area each year, and there are dozens of small collections of food or money. School kids collect food through schoolwide drives, teens collect canned goods at Halloween instead of candy, ski resorts trade lift tickets for food, hunters provide packaged game meat, and this year saw Huffing for Stuffing, a new race that raises money for the food bank, start up on Thanksgiving day. When the food bank had 60 turkeys in early November and 650 families signed up for Thanksgiving boxes, the newspaper ran an article on it; the food bank received 2500 turkeys, mostly in small donations of one or two turkeys! This was enough to supply all the local boxes, send some to the food banks in Livingston and Three Forks, and have plenty left over for Christmas. Their success is a combination of an easy mission for people to feel good about and for kids to understand, lots of people looking for ways to help others, and superb outreach.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Oh, No! Rain!

We had several days of lovely winter weather - fresh snow on the ground, 10 to 20 degrees, sunshine or fresh powder sifting out of the sky. It was easy to get excited about winter, and my boys were ready to go skiing right now. So today it gets depressing. Warm enough to melt snow, solid low clouds that don't manage to be dramatic, just a heavy grey blanket, slush on the roads. Ugh. Then it starts raining. I can't even tell myself "At least we need the moisture", because it is all running off the frozen ground and into the rivers; snow pack is the only way we can use moisture now. The only consolation we can find is that it might be cold enough at Bridger Bowl to be snowing instead of raining.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Darwinian Deer

For years, a deer on the road would act exactly like a proverbial deer in the headlights and freeze - just where you couldn't possibly miss it with your car. The deer didn't seem to catch on that it wasn't a good idea to stand in the middle of the road when several tons of metal was hurtling toward it, and I wondered how long it would take before deer evolved to avoid cars and roads. It seems to be happening now: I am noticing many more deer who stand to the side of the road or leap off it when a car comes by instead of walking to the precise middle of the lane. Deer who recognize cars as predators have a much better chance of having babies than deer who think roads are convenient places to stand, so car-deer accidents should decrease in the near future (assuming the deer population doesn't grow too fast). It's not often that you can see evolution at work.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Candles in the Darkness

Every year, on the first of December, I take everything off the dining table, wipe down the table, put the mirrors in the center, and place one candle on it. From here until the winter solstice, we will add one candle each night, until the mirrors reflect a blaze of lights in the dark nights. It is a count up to one of our favorite markers of the year, similar to an advent calendar but more brilliant. I use white candles, brass holders, and clear glass oil lamps on the mirror; this year, I found a tree shape covered in tiny mirrors to add sparkle in the center. If I could only keep one ritual from our year, this is the one I would keep.

Christmas Tree Stalking

Every year, we talk about going into the woods to cut a Christmas tree, but lately it's been too cold, we were out of time, there was too much snow, or my husband's qualms about cutting down a perfectly good tree got the better of him, and we ended up at a local tree stand in town - where we got a nice tree cut in Montana. But still. This year, we had time, the temperature was cold but not bitter, and there wasn't too much snow, so we went up Bridger Canyon to stalk a wily Christmas tree ourselves.

We took some teenage friends and sleds so that we could mount a diversion, not let the trees realize that we were actually looking for one to bring home. The boys had a blast careening down short, steep slopes full of obstacles, where they really shouldn't have been sledding at all, but it wasn't enough to fool the trees. Nearly all the good trees headed for higher slopes or took refuge behind a ratty looking older trees, and we had a hard time finding one that came even close to our requirements (which admittedly got looser as we got colder). Finally, my daughter found one hiding amoung four or five spindly trees and, after a lot of discussion, we cut it down and took it more-or-less proudly home. It looked pretty small and sparse in the woods - that was part of its disguise - but turned out to be a great tree with lots of room for ornaments, and just the right size. So we got a trophy tree after all, in spite of the wily trees.