Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Signals of fall

I've started to notice something over the past few days.

First, I saw it in the coop.

I had my suspicions of what was happening but I was in denial.

Today I came home to this, and I must now face the facts.

Can you see what's weird?  Not quite?  Here's another angle.

How about now?

This morning there were no feathers on the ground. 

Every single feather has a yellowish tinge on the tip, meaning they all came from the same hen.  This hen.

Our Buff Orpington, Curry, is molting.  I think that Croquette may be molting as well.   She went through a really hard, ugly molt last winter.  That's her on the far right:

This means 3 things.

First, Curry and Croquette probably won't lay another egg until spring.  Hens need about 2 months to recover from a molt.  As a full, hard molt - as it appears Curry is experiencing - takes a month or more.  Three months from now it'll be December.  Our girls took the winter off last year (arg).  Therefore Curry & Croquette are out of operation until April or so.  Bummer.

Second, I'm going to stop selling eggs.  Our hens went through really hard molts last autumn and we had a long, cold winter.  We got exactly zero eggs from December until perhaps April. 

Third, and most importantly, falling feathers signal autumn's arrival. 

Fall is here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

My last birthday as Jenn

I turned 37 yesterday. 

Up until then I could tell people that I was going to be 37 when Bean is born.  No longer.  Eeek.  My late 30s are here. When you're 36 you're in the mid-30s... but 37.  Wow.  On top of that, I'm nearly done with my second trimester.  Bean is due to be here in just over 3 months.

It was my final birthday as "Jenn".  This time next year I'll be some variation of "Mom".  I'm trying to savor my independence, spontaneity, and leisure to focus on a single task as long as I want - knitting, cooking, talking on the phone, chilling with Rosemary, etc. - while I still can.  Once Bean is here, I expect that my idea of "free time" will drastically change. 

I also know that in a year I'll have a hard time imagining our life without Bean.

It being my birthday, I started inviting people over.  The next thing I knew, the dinner guest list was up to 10 people for dinner and another 4-6 for cake & ice cream.

I had most of the ingredients for a Spanish paella (pie-AY-ya).  I couldn't find the recipe a friend once gave me so I looked up a few variations online and winged it.  This same friend, a former co-worker, used to loan me her paella pan.  As I rarely see her since leaving that job - and my commute to Seattle - I had to make due with my Le Creuset wannabe (seriously - the Martha Stewart stuff is OK, but it's no Le Creuset).

The great thing about paella is that if you need to stretch it, add more rice.  Paella suits my cooking sensibilities really well: you use what's on hand and call it good.  I do it in a slightly different order than many recipes but the end result is about the same.

This is more of a method for making paella and not so much a recipe.  Putting together a paella is not excessively time-consuming or difficult but it does take some prep and fore-thought.

Chop the ingredients for a sofrito.  Everything should be about the same size.
1 onion
1-2 red or green bell peppers
1-2 tomatoes
4 cloves of garlic

Put the chopped stuff aside.

Brown the meat. 
Heat about 2T olive oil in the largest pot or pan you have.  Brown the meat in batches and put it into a bowl to set aside for later.

My freezer contained 8 chicken thighs, 2 thigh quarters, 2 pork chops, and chorizo.  So that's what went into my paella.  There are no hard and fast rules about which meats can go into a paella.  One recipe I found called for a rabbit and a chicken.  Do what you want.

This was the first time I'd put pork into my paella.  I cut it into slices the seasoned it with paprika, salt, pepper, and oregano.  I wanted it to taste distinct from the chicken, which is why I treated it this way.

If you have or can borrow a traditional paella pan, go for it.  I used an enameled cast iron pot with the most surface area I could muster.  Paella is traditionally cooked outside in the grill but we were out of propane.  It was inside on the gas flame for me.

Cook the sofrito.
Next you prepare the sofrito.  Simply throw all the chopped sofrito ingredients into the pan (drained of extra fat if necessary) and cook them down until you gat a thick paste.  This should take about 15-20 minutes and does not need constant monitoring.

After the sofrito is done you can either continue to the last stage or put it aside and wait to start up again about 30 minutes before you want to eat.

Season the sofrito and cook the rice.
All paellas, no matter their other ingredients, seem to agree on the sofrito as one of the mandatory components.  The others are saffron, which gives the paella the traditional yellow color, and rice.  Use a short-grain rice such as arborio.

At this point I added the seasonings:
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (not traditional but it gave the meal a little kick)
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt
2 T oregano
generous pinch of saffron (Trader Joe's has one for around $6 per bottle)

Here's something I haven't done in a while:

Add your rice - I used 2 cups - and 4 cups of chicken broth.  I added about 2 cups of a dry white wine at this stage as well.  The end result was soupier than I'd meant it to be but the rice did eventually absorb the extra liquid.  If you want less rice, adjust this quantity accordingly.  Keep in mind that I was planning to feed 10 people with leftovers for lunch on Monday.

Stir this sofrito-rice mix well and bring it to a simmer.  Tuck your browned meats into the rice, cover tightly, and cook on low for 20 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed.

Add seafood if wanted.
It seems that every photo you see of paella includes mussels.  You can also add squid, scallops, shrimp, or cod at the last minute for other seafood flavors.

We bought a pound of mussels for something like $3.50.  About 10 minutes before the rice was finished cooking I tossed them on top of the paella and replaced the lid. 

Not my pic... I got busy & forgot to take a photo of the finished dish.
Serve and enjoy. Offer wedges of lemon to squeeze over the plates. 

We served the paella with a beautiful spinach salad a friend had made.  We ate outside, crammed around a little table but enjoying the company.  Gene told me that nearly everyone went back for seconds.  There was a handful of little kids, all of whom quite enjoyed feeding their leftovers to the girls, one forkful at a time.  The chickens, as you may imagine, did not object.

Paella goes well with beer or dry white wine.  We all had lemonade and blueberry shrub (which was shockingly popular!).

Here are some paella recipes that are less fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and have specific quantities

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Earthquake memories

Yesterday's earthquake on the east coast brought back memories of the shakers I've experienced in my lifetime.

Washington (State) has had its fair share of rattles over the years.  I was 5 when Mt. St. Helens blew her lid, and I remember the ash dustings we got in Tacoma: they looked like frost and the gardens had a particularly good year as a result of the extra nutrients.  There were plenty of rumbling earthquakes in the months before and after the blast, most small. 

Having grown up in Western WA, I've gone through countless earthquake drills from the time I was in grade school.  My most recent one was just a few months ago at work. 

The biggest earthquake I ever experienced was the Nisqually Earthquake in February 2001.  Nisqually is an area between Tacoma and Olympia, our state capitol, and was the epicenter.  I was living and working in Tacoma, as I still do, though at a different university.

It was a beautiful February morning, and unseasonably warm and sunny.  I had gone to a monthly all-unit meeting in another building across campus, leaving my coat and purse in my office.

The building where we had the meeting was constructed in the 1940s.  It had some funny characteristics to it, one of which was that the terrazzo floors would bounce in certain spots if even the smallest college girl walked past you.  It's a handsome brick building with lots of masonry.

The meeting was over and my co-worker - we'll call him Ted - and I had just left the meeting room.  Ted was, and still is, a tall, athletic man's man.  He's funny and smart, and harbors a deep love for white-water kayaking and mountain biking.

As Ted and I rounded the corner I noticed that the floor was bouncing.  I slowed down and looked around for the wee sorority girl who was making the floor seem so unstable.

No sooner had I stopped in my tracks did Ted squeal "earthquake!".  Being from the northeast and probably never having been an earthquake, real or drilled, Ted freaked the eff out.  He shoved me aside and ran from the building, just like you saw people doing on the news yesterday.  He later told me that once outside, he saw the ground swell and heave like the ocean.  He nearly heaved himself!

I'd been through several earthquakes, though none this strong.  Later on we would find out that it was a 6.8.  As Ted ran away, I walked to the archway that was just 5 feet away and waited out the earthquake.  There was a table nearby but it was right next to a large glass window.  I was safer next to an interior wall anyway. 

The building's restrooms were right next to me.  I chuckled to myself as college students ran out of the bathroom, tugging up their jeans and begging to be told what to do.  "Stay where you are and hold on," I told them.

The shaking went on for some 25-30 seconds, which seems an eternity when you're wondering if the building will fall down around your ears.  It didn't.  Tacoma is on a foundation of granite.  Even though we were 30 miles closer to the epicenter than Seattle, Seattle experienced a great deal of shaking and damage due to its foundation of glacial deposits.

After the shaking subsided I found a phone and tried to call my grandma, who lived about 1.5 miles from my office.  I couldn't get a local line and was quickly shooed outside by security staff anyway.

Do you know how weird it is to see a university's population outside all at once?  You rarely think about how many people are there - students, faculty, and staff - and it's shocking to see everyone together at once.

I had left my coat and purse in my office when going to my meeting.  Facilities would not permit people into the buildings until inspections had occurred: without my purse I was stuck on campus without any way to contact loved ones.  Cell phones weren't as ubiquitous a decade ago as they are now.  Thank goodness the weather was warm.

I'm still terrible about leaving my purse, and even my cell phone, in my office when I leave the building.  It's been a difficult habit to change, though I suppose I should try harder.

When I finally got home later that afternoon, I found my 2 cats unharmed but skittish.  Quite a few items had "walked" to the edges of shelves in my apartment but nothing was broken.  I was very lucky.

It's been on my to-do list ever since to create an earthquake kit.  I think of it each time I hear of one occurring.  I put it off for another time and rationalize that we've got so many jars of food at home that we'd be fine.  But what about the animals?  What about water?  What about our son?

Are you ready for a disaster?  I certainly don't feel prepared.

Here's a website to help us all get started: http://www.ready.gov/.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I drink vinegar

 I've been drinking vinegar lately. 

And no, this isn't a weird pregnancy thing. 

Granted, my expanding belly & swollen ankles have made it pretty clear that my condition is nothing short of "delicate".  I've not been inclined towatrd any bizarre cravings.  In fact I haven't even been that hungry for about the past month since Bean's last growth spurt left him pressed beneath my stomach, significantly reducing the "eat, and eat NOW" signals to my brain.

No, "drinking vinegar" (as a noun) is an old-fashioned beverage called a "shrub".

OK, get it out of your system...


NPR recently did a story about shrubs, or drinking vinegars.  Then a friend of mine who'd heard the same story posted pictures of her concoctions on her facebook page.  Being pregnant, unable to partake of my nightly glass of wine, and highly susceptible to edible suggestions, I was game to try it for myself.

A little internet research on the topic revealed that I'm perhaps a little behind the trend:

Granted, perhaps it's not a "trend", per se, if drinking vinegars have been around since Roman times.   This is the best resource I found on shrubs, both on their history but also on their preparation.

There are two methods to make a shrub: hot and cold.  Both are simple.  Hot is fast, cold is slow.  I happened to have blackberries that were rapidly deteriorating, and blueberries that I bought (unknowingly) past their prime.  Both are ideal for shrubs - save the perfect fruit for preserves.  I used raspberry vinegar that I'd made 2 years ago and had no idea what to do with... until now!

Blackberry Shrub (hot/fast method)
1 cup blackberries
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup sugar

Heat berries & vinegar in a saucepan until boiling, boil for 10 minutes.  Strain out the berries and add the sugar.  Allow to cool.  Store in fridge.  Mix 1 part shrub syrup to 4 parts water or club soda (or make ratio to your taste).

Blueberry Shrub (cold/slow method), recipe from Epicurious
I recommend mashing the berries before macerating them in the vinegar for a few days.  Otherwise you don't get as much flavor from the berries in the syrup.  You will have to strain the mixture but the extra effort is worthwhile.

Still feeling adventurous?  Here are a few more recipes, these taken from cookbooks dating to the 1800s.

By now you're surely thinking: "Jenn, get to the point: what does it taste like".  I think that the flavor profile is a lot like a lemonade: sour and sweet at the same time.  It smells faintly like vinegar but not overpoweringly so.  It is, as reported elsewhere, very refreshing and addictive.  One person wrote that it they felt they'd found their first "true non-alcoholic beverage for adults".  I like it because it's not cloyingly sweet.

You can use it as a mixer for cocktails but be mindful of the acid.  Imagine a blended blackberry shrub margarita.  Oh yum.  Blueberry shrub muddled with rum and mint?  Yes, please.  Raspberry shrub and vodka over ice?  Yes yes yes!

The second time I had a glass - and I find myself drinking 2 glasses at a time - I poured more of the syrup than I thought I'd want.  It was better with more syrup!  It was sweeter and less tart.  Strange but good.

If you're looking for something new (but old), want to offer unique non-alcoholic beverages to your guests, or even are searching for a new cocktail mixer, try making a shrub.

Besides, it's kinda fun to see the look on people's faces when you tell them you drink vinegar.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Meditations on love

I stumbled upon a tragic story quite by accident this past week: food blogger Jennie lost her husband suddenly and unexpectedly.  In her 30s, she now finds herself a young widow and single mother of two girls.  Jennie recently posted about how she and her husband had made time for a date after he'd finished a busy work project.  She talked about the peanut butter pie - his favorite - she'd been meaning to make for him.  She talked about how important it is to tell our loved ones how special they are to us because you never know when tomorrow won't come.

Several years ago a friend loaned me the book The 5 Love Languages.  In reading it I realized that my love language is "acts of service".  In fact, my favorite act of service is cooking.  Spending the day in my kitchen to concoct a variety of delicious things is both my idea of entertainment and a way to show others that I care enough to do something special just for them.  Besides, cooking is a gift that we can all enjoy.

The challenge comes when people speak different love languages.  If one person values physical touch over acts of service, the time I devote to a locally sourced, homemade, multi-course meal will matter less than the accompanying hugs and kisses.  The opposite is true: an embrace is more enjoyable if preceded by some choreplay.

When I cook for someone, I spend the time thinking about them, reflecting upon what they mean to me and making sure that what I'm making will be a treat that takes into consideration their favorites.  For me, cooking is more than assembling food: it's about translating the love I feel for someone into a tangible, if fleeting, gift.

As I assembled the ingredients for this pie it dawned on me how many of the items in our home came into our possession due to love.  Just on my kitchen countertop you see a small colander of new potatoes from my garden, squash from a friend, the battery charger for the camera I gave Gene when we were dating, my grandmother's cookie jar, an orchid a friend gave me for my birthday, and the food processor my mom gave me.  Each of these items represents a gift of love.

I suspect that many cooks are acts-of-service people. 

Jennie requested that readers make a peanut butter pie to share with their loved ones:
For those asking what they can do to help my healing process, make a peanut butter pie and share it with someone you love. Then hug them like there's no tomorrow because today is the only guarantee we can count on.

I used her recipe, changing it slightly to swap lower fat ingredients where possible (reduced fat peanut butter, no peanuts, graham crackers, neufchatel cheese).  You can find the recipe on Jennie's blog linked above, as well as more recipes and tribute blog posts on the Food Network blog.

To the people in my life for whom I cook: every bite is my way of telling you that I love you. 

p.s. When I took the springform sides off the pie it slowly oozed onto the countertop.  What a mess.  I slid the whole thing into a deep dish pie plate and froze it.  This made for a very tasty frozen pie. 

Despite the lower fat ingredients, it's really quite rich.  Don't be gluttonous with your first piece as I was: I couldn't even finish it.  Me... the pregnant chick... couldn't eat a whole piece of pie.  I'm a shame to my kind.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Blackberry-sour cream muffins

On weekend mornings I arise before Gene by at least 2 hours.  I'm enjoying these quiet mornings while I have them, knowing that once our little boy arrives I may well lose the morning solitude for, oh, a decade or more.

My favorite way to pass the morning hours is to brew a pot of tea, make a pastry of some kind, and read the paper with the dog snuggled on my legs.  I make some kick ass scones and considered it this morning but ruled them out in lieu of muffins.  Last weekend we bought a half-flat of mixed raspberries & blackberries at the farmers market.  There was still a half pint of blackberries left and I thought they'd mix into a muffin batter better than into a scone dough.

I started out with my favorite muffin recipe, and tweaked it just a bit to accomodate for ingredients I had in the house and to make them a little sweeter.  If you have some lemon zest, throw that into this recipe to make it even better. 


2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t salt
1/4 c lemonade
2 T vegetable oil
1 t vanilla extract
1 cup low-fat sour cream
1/8 c milk
1 large egg
1 cup fresh blackberries

Cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix with a fork.
3. Combine all wet ingredients in a measuring cup and mix with a fork.
4. Dump wet into dry and stir until just barely incorporated. Do not overmix.
5. Fold in berries.
6. Spoon batter into muffin tins.
7. Bake for 18 mins or until wooden pick comes out clean.
8. Remove muffins immediately & cool on a rack

By the way, if you're wondering why muffins should be removed from the tin ASAP, it's because they'll steam themselves soft if left in the tins.  Nobody likes a gooey muffin (except chickens, which aren't known for having discerning tastebuds).