Sunday, December 20, 2009

Gift making...almost there...

My decision to make all of the Christmas gifts I/we are giving this year (and as many as possible out of used materials) has proven to be a challenge. Here are some things I would like to tell the gift making me of next year (and everyone reading, since you should seriously try this next year)...

1. Start before thanksgiving. This year I had ideas throughout the summer and fall, but did not begin making things until...probably about two weeks ago. I will probably be able to complete most gifts if I work really hard, but Nathanael (at least) will not be getting his until sometime in January.

2. Gather materials over a long period of time. There are some supplies that you can't really avoid buying new. Thread and certain specialty fabrics are among them. But for everything else, certain fabrics, button and snap shapes and random materials, collecting over a long period of time as you can find them from relatives and at charity thrift stores allows more flexibility than settling for missing pieces.
3. Work on people's gifts in the order you will give them. (i.e. Micah your presents will not arrive on Christmas...but they'll be neat!)

4. Do something abnormal. This year I have tried a lot of new things, some of which I didn't think I would like, or that I would be good at them, or that the final product would be worthwhile. But, I have been happily surprised with everything. I have been sewing odd shapes and materials, melting things, and learning old fashion trades. Last year I discovered I could paint pretty well, and I doubt that I am the only one out there with hidden gift making talents.

5. Work with someone else if possible. Nathanael has been pretty busy with his research, teaching and classes, but on the occasions he has been able to give me opinions, recommend alternate directions for projects and lend me tools, he has been fantastically helpful.

After Christmas I will post pictures and descriptions of some of my projects...once all of them have been received that is.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


A little while ago Mrs. Long asked me what I would do with an eggplant.
Eggplants are so interesting. We classify them as a vegetable in the grocery store because they are not sweet, but of course botanically speaking they are a fruit. And whichever way you choose to look at them they are completely odd. Eggplants have always reminded me of a dinosaur. They have leathery skin and their sepals (the leaves near the stem) are thick and tough. Inside they are foamy and probably mostly air. So, maybe the dinosaur thing doesn’t go very far. Still, they seem to have little in common with other items we purchase in the produce section.
Growing up my sisters and I were in a 4-H club with our town, and every year the county would have an event called, “International Foods Day”. At this event all of the clubs in the county would represent a country, cook lots of their foods, create a presentation, and share all that they had learned and cooked with the other clubs. The preparatory time with the other club members was always really fun. On different years our club represented Italy, Scotland, Finland, Mexico, Bosnia, and some others. From most of the countries I can still recall the foods we made, and the dances and games we performed onstage. However, the only thing I remember from the year we chose Bosnia is that a few of us were in charge of a food that involved taking strips of roasting eggplant, picking them up, and squeezing them through our hands to separate the eggplant from its skin and seeds. Raw eggplant seems like such a harmless and bland food, but the roasted eggplant was so acidic that it made our hands itch and burn. No one could have known how hard we had worked for that mushy looking dish.
The most recent eggplant recipe I have attempted did not cause any pain, turned out quite delicious, and was actually pretty quick. I will not post it on here because I found it in a library book I highly recommend called “Cooking with my Indian Mother-in law”, which has provided us with Indian food recipes for weeks now. But, if you are really interested in making Aubergine and potato curry, you can either attempt one on your own (which would probably turn out fine), look it up in the library, or email me. I don’t mind sharing other people’s recipes on a person to person basis, I just don’t want to broadcast them to the world when that’s what they wrote their book to do. I will be sending the recipe to Mrs. Long.

*One tip from this recipe that I found really handy was to soak the eggplant pieces in water after you cut them to reduce the bitterness a bit, and the potatoes to keep them from oxidizing. Press the eggplant into the water with a plate because they will float...they are mostly air after all.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Oh what bacterial cultures can do...

When I was little I was a very picky eater. (My parents are both fabulous cooks by the way.) In the last few years I have often looked at the food I am cooking and thought,"First grade Sarah would not have appreciated this food." I cook some pretty odd things these days, which I now consider delicious, but I know that if I think about it, I would still be able to point out the characteristics of a given food that have would have determined why my little self could not have done anything but despise it. Some of these traits include soggy, slimy, mealy or plastic-like textures; bitterness which adults often fail to notice; sulfurous, fishy, or otherwise strong unpleasant odor; and unidentifiable ingredients (which was often solved by cooking with my Mom).
Thinking back to those times, I find it funny that even though I would need to receive punishments before I would eat plain chicken or hot dogs, I and my sisters always ate my Dad's soup. You may think to yourself, "Oh, kids always love chicken or tomato soup." But my Dad has always been more creative than that. He is inspired more by ingredients than by recipes. Some of the soups we curiously consumed included a beef soup with mandarin oranges and watermelon in it (both turned to odd strings of sponge); a multi-vegetable soup of family legend which prompted me to ask, "Do I have to eat the black corn?" (ask us about that one); and various soups using Chinese ingredients such as reconstituted fungus or dehydrated vegetable protein. I am not sure what led my sisters and me not to flinch at such unusual combinations. Perhaps we felt daring, or perhaps we knew that the recipes could not be reproduced and so it was a one time obligation.
The one constant in my relationship with food has been yogurt. I have and could eat it for any meal of the day throughout my life. Sometimes we purchased it, often my Mom made it for me, and now I regularly make it for Nathanael and myself. Making yogurt is less expensive (especially here in Wisconsin where the milk is well priced, but virtually no local yogurt companies exist), and this makes me feel a lot better about using it as an ingredient for indian food, or eating it frequently with cranberry sauce.
If you've never made yogurt before, the process is neither difficult nor precise...

1. Put some milk in a pot.
I usually measure out 8 cups of whole milk, but you can use other milks and you can certainly use smaller amounts.
2. Heat the milk (while stirring) until it steams and has some foam on top, but not to boiling.
3. Turn off the burner and allow the milk to cool until you consider it comfortable to touch. It should still be very warm but not have that sharpness of heat that would make you call it hot.* (If using a thermometer this is between 90 and 120 degrees F.)
4. Mix in a few tablespoons of store bought yogurt, preferably something with three or more bacterial varieties that is fresh (not opened more than 14 days ago).
5. Pour the mixture into glass containers. Jars or bowls both work.
6. Cover and place in a warm* (90 to 120F) place for 6 to 8 hours.
I usually turn the oven to the lowest temp (200 on mine) for 10 minutes, then place my jars in a water bath, turn off the stove, slide them in and leave them overnight. But the heat for our building is turned up so high I could probably just leave them by the radiators.
7. Refrigerate. (This will cause additional thickening.)

*If the yogurt cultures are exposed to temperatures over 120 for very long they will begin to die off. You might get some thickening, but your yogurt will probably be less than satisfactory.
If the temperature falls below 90 the cultures will not continue to multiply and thicken your yogurt, but you can return them to the proper temperatures for a longer period of time and it will continue to thicken (even if you have already refrigerated it).

Finally, a few wise words from New Hampshire's yogurt man, Gary Hirshberg, who spoke at my most recent graduation...he gave us all free yogurt.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Not buying much.

Last Christmas, I had hopes to make most of the Christmas presents I gave away. In the end I was able to give a mixture of my own paintings and photography, and books that I purchased. One exception (within my immediate family) was my Dad. Though I am always excited to be giving him a gift, I never have an easy time deciding what it should be. I settled on purple asparagus rootstock. Strange, yes, but also the perfect choice.
This year I would like to make more of the gifts, but art supplies don’t just grow on trees. Thus, as many of the materials as possible are going to be from recycled sources. I probably would have made it a lot easier for myself if I had made this decision before I minimalized my belongings for the move out here, but I think I have located some good sources.
Today is day one of my creating, and I am hopeful that I will be able to make gifts that are both interesting and useful on a regular basis. Last year I gave my sister’s husband, Michael, a shadow animal book and a ladle. One was interesting, and one was useful. (I’m not sure that Michael thought the same.) This year may turn out similarly, but at least I know that these presents will have more of my personal effort involved in them then ever. (Though I did spend some time after Christmas dinner showing Michael the shadow animals I had learned from his new book.)

Last Christmas...

The nine birds I painted for Nathanael

Me and Melissa with our new strainers

I would like to share with you some of the odd and creative gift ideas I have come across through my library and internet research, but given that over half my readers are likely to be my family members, I’m afraid I can’t reveal all of my secrets. However, here are some of the supplies I will be using this year…

Plastic bags and food wrappers—out of our recycling bin and pantry.
Old notebooks—from courses gone by.
Fabric strips—I went to the tailor downtown and asked them to save their fabric scraps for me. I have gotten some pretty neat pieces.
Old clothes—From a thrift store that sells them by the pound
Maybe: Strips of old tires—Nathanael brought them back from Africa.
Nylon cording—From a Nathanael’s tangled Mexican hammock.

If you have come across interesting low-cost homemade gifts send them my way.
If you would like to know more about some of the things I will be making, please email me, I would love to share. Otherwise I may wait until after Christmas to reveal them.

Fabrics from the tailor

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pumpkins a’plenty

The graduate housing at the university has a community garden associated with it, and though we do not live there, through some good connections Nathanael was able to rent one of their garden plots last year. Since we were married in August, I had no part in the hard work of gardening. Nathanael did all of the seed selection, planting, weeding and maintenance of the garden on his own all summer and I arrived just in time for the easy part: harvest time. From the time I arrived there was no rain at all for more than five weeks, but water is available to each of the plots. Through the end of August until early October we made weekly or bi-weekly visits to the garden usually on our tandem bicycle, filling a backpack with the basil, tomatoes, carrots and peppers, which became a large part of our diet. As the season wrapped up there was one thing we could not carry on our bike…well, twelve things actually.
Nathanael had planted two pumpkin seeds, which resulted in two enormous vines that merrily took over our garden and filled it with twelve large Cinderella pumpkins. In order to collect these beasts we would put them in a wheelbarrow and rolled them down the long hill to our car.
One Saturday afternoon, when we had not been to the garden in over a week and our kitchen compost was brimming to the top, we decided to venture out and collect a few pumpkins and a bit more basil and tomatoes before the frost came. When we stepped outside we realized that it looked like rain was coming, but we were pretty determined and anticipated a quick trip. When we arrived at our plot there was strange stillness. Out of the acres of plots covering the hillside ours was the only one with gardeners foolish enough not to have realized that enormous thunderclouds were blowing in at quite a ridiculous speed.
Hurriedly clipping basil and picking tomatoes, the two of us stuffed our bags and piled pumpkins into the wheelbarrow as all layers of our clothing stuck with wetness and our shoes began to slosh. Not wanting to be struck with lightning, we decided to leave the pumpkins and run to the car. By the time we were half way down the hill we could hear each other when we shouted but not make out the words.
After we had waited out the thunder, we returned to the plot and collected our pumpkins while the purple swirled sky subsided to a drizzle. The square bottomed wheelbarrow had about a centimeter of water covering its bottom.
The storm did not pick up again until we had begun to drive, increasing to cherry sided hail for about three minutes while we found street parking. The roadsides were flooded with rushing water, melting hail and bits of garbage, but our shoes were already soaked through, so we sloshed our way to the door and made our way inside, relieved at the warmth.
Since then we have been canning, cooking and baking with pumpkins, and attempting to give them away.
There are still three in our apartment.

This pumpkin using recipe is adapted from the book Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld, which I recommend to anyone with excess vegetable purees lying around, or to cooks who serve a crowed that just doesn’t have a taste for ordinary vegetables.

Pumpkin Banana Peanut Butter Muffins

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup peanut butter
½ cup pumpkin puree (or nearly any mild vegetable really)
½ cup thoroughly squished banana
1 egg
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

Mix ½ cup of the sugar with the pumpkin, banana, egg, vanilla and peanut butter. In a separate bowl combine dry ingredients. Add wet and dry until just mixed. Divide into a greased muffin pan (12 muffins), and divide the remaining ½ cup of brown sugar onto the muffin tops and stir once shallowly to make the sugar stick.
Bake at 350 for 15 to 20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove to a wire rack. Store when completely cool.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The best way to eat kale

During my first year of graduate school I lived in an apartment with girls I had found through a mutual contact. I didn't get to know them well, but I was able to gain some information from them occasionally, whereby I discovered that the apartment had been rented by them or someone they knew for the last two years or so, including summers, without any break. This meant that it had never been completely cleaned out, and that some of the previous residence probably were unaware of some of the things they had left behind. There were odd things, like a rusty old saw, a five piece ceramic cheese and pizza set decorated with french cheese labels, a body pillow, a Sunbeam stand mixer complete with two glass bowls, and various teas, cheesecake pans, and most of the condiments in the refrigerator.
The other girls did not know where any of it had come from or how long it had been there, only that it didn't belong to them (which I think they were wrong about on a number of occasions). One day I discovered an old food processor stuffed beside the refrigerator in its box from the late '70's. This had been my best find yet, and I excitedly experimented with this recipe for Kale Chickpea Soup, which I slightly modified from one I found epicurious. Dark green leafy vegetables aren't always my favorite thing, so I found this to be an excellent way to get those health benefits and still enjoy my dinner. Excited about how the food processor would add to my cooking convenience, I asked the girls in my apartment if they owned the food processor. Neither one thought so, though their grandmother had brought some stuff and that might have been in the mix. When the first girl moved out a few months later I was anxiously waiting...will she take it? will she not? Will she come back for it later. She didn't take it. But she did come back for it later.
I can't really complain though, after Lucy (my last roommate) and I moved out at the end of my two years there I walked out with a free game of Settlers of Catan, Taboo, various bakeware, a brand new pair of Puma cleats, and a collection of other things I sold at a yard sale for about $15 (including the mixer).

Every so often Nathanael will find something in our current apartment and ask, "When did you get this?" to which the constant reply is, "It came with my old apartment."

Kale Chickpea Soup

2 medium onions, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 large boiling potato(3/4 lb), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3/4 lb kale, stems and lower center ribs cut out and discarded, then leaves very finely chopped in a food processor (4 cups)
3 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or bullion with water)
2 cups water
1 (14-oz) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 links Italian hot sausage, cooked through by steaming in a pan then cut into thin half circles
* For vegan version omit sausage, add 1/2 teaspoon roughly crushed fennel seeds and 1/2 teaspoon of fenugreek powder.

Cook onion, garlic, bay leaf and peppers in oil in a wide 4- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until onion and garlic are softened and beginning to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add potato, kale, broth, and water and cook, partially covered, until potatoes are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Reduce heat to low, then add chickpeas and sausage and gently simmer, uncovered, 3 minutes. Discard bay leaf and season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Granola: colorful textures

My Mom is the queen of granola. She varies the ingredients in her homemade granola from time to time, but the basic texture and dependable goodness are always the same. My sister Melissa has created a number of granola recipes since she began cooking, none of which are anything like Mom’s, but instead they usually have a wide variety of ingredients and an addicting crunchiness. I think that my freshman year of college I probably consumed a gallon or two of that granola all on my own just on the occasions I stopped by her apartment to say hello.
I have made granola in the past, though usually either under the supervision of my Mom (or with my Mom on the phone), or with an end product that was nearly inedible. Probably part of my problem is that I would like to mix the flavor of Mom’s with the texture of Melissa’s. A few years ago I attempted to make a crunchy granola, added 5 or 6 different uncooked grains (wheat berries, barley, buckwheat, etc.) to the oats and came up with something that smelled fantastic, but was destined to break your teeth. My roommates felt sorry for me and ate some, but in the end I threw most of it away.
With a few years of added cooking experience and my Mom unreachable by phone (don’t know what she was up to), I successfully created a tasty granola recipe this morning from some interesting ingredients that gave it a little crunch. Give it a try if you’re feeling adventurous; putting it together doesn’t take very long.

Chipmunk Granola
Toast 5 cups of oats on a baking sheet at 350 F for about 10 minutes
In a large bowl mix:
¾ cup canola oil
1 cup honey
2 Tablespoons flax seeds
½ cup flax meal
3 Tablespoons raw millet
¾ cup puffed millet
1 cup shredded coconut (I used unsweetened)
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt

Combine mixture with oats and stir until completely coated. Divide onto two baking sheets and bake on the top oven rack at 350 F for 5 minutes, then stir with a wooden spoon. Return to oven and repeat 5 minute intervals until oats are a light golden brown (they will darken as they cool). This took me 15 minutes or so, but it may vary depending on your oven. Stir on tray every few minutes as it cools to prevent sticking. Store in airtight container.

Variation: Exchange the ingredients you don’t have for some you do, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, unsalted nuts, or soy grits. You may also want to add a cup or two of dried fruit, but this should be done right after you take it out of the oven.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cleaning up

I have always tried to use paper goods conservatively, but I am happy to announce that I have now been paper towel free for about three months. Nathanael’s family has always used rags instead of paper towels, but I wasn’t sure how this would work considering the messes that I would sometimes rather throw away than wash out. I think I have proved I was able to adhere to this challenge, however, when the kitchen compost leaked all over the floor during the time that tomato and pumpkin season overlapped. I was surprised to find that my rag, though contaminated with some of the worst smelling stuff my nose had experienced, did the job better and rinsed out quite cleanly before I tossed it in our little soiled rag bin.
Before we got married Nathanael made sure we were well supplied with four stacks of happily colored rags, costing him a total of about $5, which are now divided between our kitchen and bathroom. They should last us a good long time, saving us a bit of money and a few trees. Plus, they're rather nice to look at.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Welcome to the crayonbox

I have a lot of ambitions. Two of them (which really is quite few) combined to form the concept behind the title of this new blog. But, since these themes are likely to be frequently showcased here, I thought it was appropriate.
The first is to eat healthfully and enjoy it. Crafting delicious food is something I truly revel in. Lately I have been exploring a wider variety of ingredients (partially an advantage of finding myself in a city) and cultural foods (cities also bring more international friends, and more well endowed libraries). Both of these things have livened the colors of my foods, and color on the plate not only brings a smile to your mom, but it also makes things altogether more appealing. I judge books by their covers. I judge foods by their looks. Ugly food can be delicious, but if a nutritious food is bland I have a lot more fun consuming it when it is pleasing to the eye.
The second aspiration is to find creative ways to live as a good steward. To harm less. Sometimes this will involve food, for example the months I have spent dealing with pumpkins and tomatoes that we grew ourselves. But other times, you may hear about some nutty decision that Nathanael (my husband) and I have made to reduce our impact, or some Christmas presents I plan on creating for my family (including my new brothers) out of recycled or foraged materials. We do not yet live on a goat farm in some mountainous Asian region, so it is my hope that you may find some of the creative conservation that we have stumbled upon personally applicable.
Those of you who know me well know that many of my interests besides these two are touched by my predisposition toward color, including my art, home decoration, attire, and occasionally even my talks with God. These are all sure to appear from time to time as well, but they are likely to be more minor topics.
I look forward to your questions, comments, and your camaraderie despite the distance.
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