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Oh, shiitake. January 29, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Please forgive our friend Ben the uncharacteristic vulgarity, I just couldn’t resist. Exciting times have come to Hawk’s Haven, the rural cottage our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA: We just received a package with two inoculated shiitake mushroom logs.

Silence and I have always wanted to grow our own mushrooms, but have frankly found the cost of mushroom-growing kits prohibitive. But this year, after an especially generous Christmas gift from Silence’s beloved family patriarch, Mr. Hays, we felt that it was safe to indulge. We were discussing making our mushrooming dreams come true when Daily Candy, an e-mail service Silence gets that reports on retail trends, featured a shiitake mushroom farm, Lost Creek Mushroom Farm in Perkins, Oklahoma, that specializes in shiitake mushroom logs. (Owners Sondra and Doug Williams insist that the name of these mushrooms is pronounced “she-TAH-kee,” not “she-ih-TAH-keh,” as our friend Ben has long thought.) Check them out for yourselves at www.shiitakemushroomlog.com.

Clicking the link, we found that you could get a special deal on two inoculated logs with soaking trays (these look like plastic terracotta-colored window boxes), so you could alternate their fruiting cycles, bringing one into mushroom production while the other one rested. By alternating the logs, you could have a crop of homegrown shiitakes every month for four years! Suddenly, the price didn’t seem that exhorbitant.

Log care is simple: You keep it hydrated, alternate the temperature (it needs a cold “shock” to fruit after the initial cycle), give it alternating light and dark cycles, and maintain comparatively cool temperatures (the ideal is 50 degree F. nights and moist 70 degree F. days).

In addition to extremely complete instructions, our logs arrived with a complimentary recipe booklet. Silence of course also ordered Janet Bratkovich’s Shiitake Sampler, also available from Lost Creek Mushroom Farm, which includes many more recipes, from Shiitake Turnovers and Shiitake and Barley Soup to Timbale Shiitake, Shish Kebab Shiitake, and Shiitake Pilaf.

Silence and I are eagerly anticipating harvesting mushrooms in about two months, and from then on monthly for years to come. We love the flavor and meaty texture of shiitakes, and enjoy including them in Silence’s signature Mushrooms and Sweet Onions in Madeira Wine Sauce with Rice as well as in Chinese and Indian dishes. Oh, shiitake! We’re so looking forward to you.

To label is human, to shut up, divine. January 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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9 comments

Silence Dogood here. I just read a blog post about “vaguetarians,” and of course it set me off. Maybe it’s because I had to work so hard and give up so much to become a vegetarian. But maybe it’s because I just don’t see the point.

We already have vegetarians, folks who don’t eat meat, fish, fertile eggs, gelatin, lard, caviar, etc. Then we have vegans, folks who don’t eat any of the above or any type of dairy product, egg, yeast bread, or honey. At the farthest extreme, there are fruitarians, who only eat fruits, berries, grains, rose hips, and other produce that would naturally fall off the plant, as opposed to killing plants in order to harvest them. (A fruitarian would eat squash or rice, but not lettuce or onions.) There are also locavores, folks who make a great effort to eat food produced locally, usually on small family-owned organic farms. (You can cross over here and be a vegetarian, vegan, or fruitarian locavore, if you enjoy amassing as many labels as possible.)

Then there are the folks who call themselves vegetarians but eat fish. Last time I checked, fish were in fact animals. Why these people would call themselves vegetarians is beyond me. I myself refer to them as “piscatarians” (as in Pisces).

But beyond the piscatarians, there’s a wide world of people screaming to be labeled. “I’m a vegetarian because I eat mostly vegetables.” (This is an actual quote.) “I’m a vegetarian; I only eat chicken and fish, no red meat or pork.” “I’m a vegetarian except when I eat hot dogs and hamburgers.” I’ve heard all these, many times over. This strikes me as akin to saying “I’m a teetotaler, except I drink beer and the occasional Scotch.” And now we have flexitarians, who’re vegetarians except when they’re not, and vaguetarians, who would sorta kinda like to be vegetarian, or at least have other people think of them in those terms, no matter what they’re eating.

By the time we reach this point, I have to ask, why?!! Why seek out a label for yourself when you basically eat anything and/or everything, just at graduated intervals? Why not skip the label and just eat?

Simply have to have that label? Not a problem, we already have one for you. It’s the oldest and most inherent label around, the eating style that enabled us (and monkeys, parrots, pigs, chickens, dogs, bears, and many others) to survive and thrive, wherever we found ourselves. It’s been raised to an art form by celebrity chefs, and celebrated in local cuisines the world over. So if you must have a label, wear it with pride. When someone asks, “Are you a vegetarian/vegan/locavore/whatever?”, smile and say, “No, I’m an omnivore. I enjoy it all.”

                  ‘Til next time,

                              Silence

A wedding cheesecake. January 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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9 comments

Silence Dogood here. While flying home on Sunday, I noticed that the woman in the next row up was reading a brides’ magazine. There was the photo of the stereotypical tiered white wedding cake (with a second tiered chocolate cake also pictured for variety).

As it happens, I’m actually fond of vanilla cake with white icing. But glimpsing that photo through the space between seats brought on one of those “Eureka!” flashes. The actual photo faded from mind, replaced by a glorious mental picture of a tiered wedding cheesecake.

Cheesecake is one of those sinful indulgences that I really love, but almost never eat, so in my mind it takes on almost mythical qualities of deliciousness and specialness, two qualities that every wedding cake ought to have. The cheesecake that I love is the denser, drier, almost flaky vanilla cheesecake that I always think of, rightly or wrongly, as New York style. It has that rich, creamy, old ivory color that speaks of the wealth of sensation waiting in every lingering bite. Like old money, it needs no ostentatious display, since what it is in its essence is already the best.

However. Good as it is, simply slapping a cheesecake on the wedding table would never do. This is, after all, a wedding cheesecake. The cheesecake I envision is tiered. Only the bottom tier has the Graham-cracker crust; the upper tiers are pure cheesecake. Each tier is glazed (on the top only) with a gorgeous coat of orange marmalade, the rich golds and oranges bringing out the lush creaminess of the cheesecake’s color. And around the bottom is a wreath of rosebuds nestled in sprays of rose leaves. The rosebuds alternate: one that matches the golden cream color of the cheesecake itself, followed by a pink rosebud, then a peach rosebud, and so on around the wreath, set off by the dark, glossy green of the foliage. (Can’t you just see the bride in an old ivory dress with a matching bouquet?)

Does this sound luscious and delightful to anyone but me? And is anyone else so food-obsessed that they match the bride’s outfit to the cake, rather than the other way ’round? Oh, well.

I’m not about to try to tell you how to make such a splendid cake—I’m no caterer—but in case reading this post has made you hungry for a slice (or two) of cheesecake, I will share a cheesecake recipe from my good friend Sarah Price. Unlike many cheesecake recipes I’ve seen, this one is so easy, you have no excuse not to make it. Or, as Anna Thomas says when introducing her (quite elaborate) chocolate cheesecake in The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two, “You only live once, so do it.”  

               Sarah’s Simple Cheesecake

3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature

5 large eggs (may reduce to 3 for a less eggy taste, but try all 5 the first time and see what you think)

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla (I’d make it a tablespoon, but then, I love vanilla!)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan (a round cake pan also works). Beat cheese until smooth. Add remaining ingredients, and beat until smooth and thick. Pour into pan. Bake 1 1/2 hours. Cool and chill, then remove sides of pan, slice, and serve. (If using a regular cake pan, slice, lift, and serve right from the pan.)

See how easy that was?! And if anyone wants to try my wedding cheesecake, I tell you, it’s bound to take the bridal world by storm. All I ask is, won’t you save a slice for me (and maybe two for OFB)?

          ‘Til next time,

                  Silence

Fresh salsa. January 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben spilled the beans (not literally, thank goodness) about my buying a magazine of Mexican recipes on our recent trip down South. Reading through the recipes, the magazine reminded me how easy it was to make fresh salsa.

As it happened, I’d picked up a container of fresh salsa from our local grocery to go with our refried beans and toppings before we’d left for our mini-vacation, and there was still a bit left when we returned. This grocery makes perfectly good, reasonably priced fresh salsa, great for dips, pasta sauces, salad toppings, Mexican dishes (especially tacos and quesadillas), and a personal favorite, as a layer on a pizza crust to add crunch to the finished pizza.

Checking the ingredients list, I saw tomato, cucumber, green pepper, red pepper, red onion, cilantro, lime juice, tomato juice, garlic, poblano pepper, serrano pepper, and salt. That certainly packs a lot of flavor at 5 calories per 2-tablespoon serving! Paging back through my recipe archives, I saw that lots of other “fresh” salsas also included tomato juice or tomato sauce, though as far as I could tell, cucumber was unique to this version (most others substituted green onions, aka scallions).

Fresh salsa (salsa fresca) is delicious and forgiving, so you can modify it to suit your taste or your dish. My own recipe is a no-brainer:

         Silence’s Salsa Fresca

2 large firm-ripe tomatoes or 5 ripe paste tomatoes, diced

1 large green, yellow, or orange bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced

1 large sweet onion (Vidalia, WallaWalla, or 1015 type), peeled and diced

3-5 scallions (green onions), trimmed and minced

1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

juice of 1 lemon, seeded and squeezed

1 fresh jalapeno pepper, cored, seeded, and minced

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds or 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

salt and pepper to taste

Mix all together and refrigerate overnight to give flavors a chance to blend.

Variations? You betcha.

* Substitute lime, orange, or even grapefruit juice for the lemon juice if you’d like a different twist on an old favorite.

* Replace the tomatoes with 6 to 8 fresh tomatillos, husked, rinsed, cored, and chopped, or one 11- to 12-ounce can tomatillos, rinsed and drained, for fresh salsa verde.

* Replace the tomatoes with 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh, peeled peaches, mangoes, plums, pineapple, papaya, or crisp green apple (such as ‘Granny Smith’) for a fresh fruit salsa.

 * Replace the lemon with fresh-squeezed lime juice, add a splash of tequila, and stir in a teaspoon of brown sugar for “Salsa Margarita.” Ole!

* Replace the jalapeno with 2 canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, or one 4-ounce can diced green chile peppers, drained.

* Replace the sweet onion with a red (Spanish) onion.

* Add canned black or pinto beans, canned, frozen, or cut-off-the-cob corn kernels, chopped roasted red peppers, nopalitos (diced fresh or canned opuntia catcus pads), even fresh coconut and/or underripe bananas or diced plantains to suit your personal taste. I can imagine salsas with fresh chopped grapes, Mandarin orange or blood orange segments, and/or pomegranates. Anything goes!

Sheesh. I can picture a salsa with orange marmalade, sweet onions, lime juice, and pomegranates served over cornmeal tortillas with refried beans and lots of cheese—maybe queso fresco and crumbled feta or even shredded pepper Jack—plus an abundance of shredded Romaine lettuce, paste tomatoes, and sliced black olives as toppings. Yum, I think I have to go see what’s in the fridge now… 

         ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

A shameless plug for parakeets. January 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, wit and wisdom.
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4 comments

Today is the first anniversary of the arrival at Hawk’s Haven of two of our three budgerigars, Taco (blue) and Belle (yellow). (Laredo, green, arrived about a month later.) Our friend Ben is going to use this first anniversary as an excuse to shamelessly plug budgerigars, or parakeets, as they’re typically known in the States.

Our friend Ben has literally had parakeets since before I was born. (My parents bought my first parakeet, named by them Philomelia, the Elegant Fowl, while I was still in the womb.) I have never not had a parakeet. I would never want to be without parakeets.

Why? Well, first, a bit of background. Our friend Ben loves and has raised quite an assortment of birds over the years: budgerigars, several true parakeets (grass parakeets, Bourke’s parakeets), the exquisitely colored rosellas, our beloved bronze-winged pionus, Marcus Hookbill, and a number of species of Amazon parrot, including Plutarch the Parrot, our yellow-naped Amazon, the leader of the flock. And all have been fascinating and delightful. In fact, I wish I had a rosella and Bourke’s parakeet right now, along with Plutarch and our budgie trio, and I wish our Marcus were still with us. But whatever other birds have been part of the family, parakeets/budgies were always among them.

Again, you may be asking, why? Budgies are cheap and commonplace. You might think of them as the avian equivalent of hamsters and gerbils. But if you thought that, you’d be vastly mistaken. These bright-colored little Aussies have as much personality as any person, even the famously personable Aussies themselves. They have big parrot personalities stuffed into their beautiful little parakeet bodies.

If you’re willing to get just one at a time, they’ll bond to you like a dog and learn to speak English (or your language of choice) with fluency and ease. (Admittedly, “L” is a challenge for them, which is why saying “pretty bird” is a lot easier than “I love you” or “hello.” But once they start learning, they’ll get around to “L” and everything else if you practice with them.) Our friend Ben has read of budgies with 100-word vocabularies, and there are legendary budgies that supposedly could speak 250 words. (Even dogs supposedly only recognize 200.) The trick is to practice with a single word, patiently and not for too long each time, much like teaching a trick or an obedience command to a dog, and then add another word once the parakeet has mastered the first, and then the next word, etc., always making sure you include all the earlier words and phrases in each practice session. Budgies can also learn to whistle, sing, and mimic other sounds.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood opted to get a trio of parakeets after our beautiful budgie Willow died, because we house our parakeets in a huge (for them) cockatiel cage and we thought they’d enjoy each other’s company, and because our Plutarch is quite fluent and affectionate, so we didn’t feel it was essential that the parakeets either speak English or bond closely with either of us. If you get more than one, it’s far more likely that they’ll bond with each other rather than with you, and it’s much harder—though not impossible—to teach them to talk. So if you want a pet, get one parakeet, and give it the affection and attention its personality and intelligence deserves.

Let’s get back to why I’m plugging parakeets. After a lifetime of bird companions, our friend Ben still feels that you can’t do better than the humble budgie. They’re cheap and readily available, come in a huge assortment of gorgeous colors, don’t require a lot of space or expensive accomodations, are intelligent, amusing, and affectionate, are appropriate for all ages, and are comparatively long-lived. (They’ll easily reach their teens, and I’ve had one who lived into his twenties.) What more could you ask of any pet?!

In case our friend Ben has convinced you, let me offer a few dos and don’ts of parakeet keeping:

* Do give your parakeet(s) a spacious cage. As noted, we keep ours in a huge rectangular cage designed for cockatiels, so they have plenty of room to fly and roam around.

* Don’t put your parakeets in a round cage. Studies have shown that birds, fish, and humans become  uneasy in round or circular rooms, and are much happier and calmer in rectangular or square rooms.

* Do let your parakeet out if you want to and don’t have cats or dogs. It’s easy to finger-train a budgie, and can enhance the human-parakeet bond. But don’t feel obligated to let your budgie out. As long as you provide a spacious cage, add and rotate plenty of interesting toys, and spend lots of quality time interacting with your bird, out-of-cage time is optional.

* Do keep a butterfly or large fish net on hand in case your budgie flies the coop and you need to get him or her back in it ASAP.

* Do keep a small travel cage on hand in case you need to take your budgie to the vet’s. And do find an avian vet in your area before you need to see one. (Note that budgies are hardy little birds and seldom need to see a vet, but better safe than sorry.)

* Do provide millet sprays, honey- or fruit-based seed treats, treat and conditioning mixes, cuttlebones or calcium/mineral blocks, and other treats along with a good basic seed mix for your parakeets. Budgies are grass-seed eaters in their native land, so you may have trouble getting them to eat a wider assortment of things, such as fruit and veggie fragments, shreds of lettuce, tiny pieces of bread, etc. But no worries. If you give them fortified seed and vitamin-enhanced water, and make sure they have mineral blocks, they’ll flourish. (In all the years, OFB has only had one parakeet who was ever willing to eat fruits, veggies, and lettuce. And trust me, I’ve tried with every one.)

* Do provide entertainment. Parakeets, like people, thrive on stimulation. Give them brightly beaded swings, mirror toys, rope toys, bells, everything. And rotate the toys so the budgies don’t get bored. If you haven’t been to a big pet-supply store like Petco or PetsMart lately, you’ll be in for a surprise when you see that vast assortment of parakeet toys, foods, and supplements available. Choosing among them is so much fun! Remember that a parakeet’s sense of sound, sight, taste, and smell is as acute as ours. If it looks, smells, and/or sounds good to you, chances are your budgie will agree, so go to town! But don’t turn your parakeet’s cage into a funhouse. That’s where rotation comes in. Three or four toys at a time are plenty, especially if you have millet sprays or treat sticks hanging from the ceiling.

* Don’t forget the furniture. Besides several kinds and textures of perches, two pieces of parakeet furniture that our friend Ben thinks are essential at all times are a swing and a ladder. Make sure they’re substantial, not dinky.

* Do buy a parakeet magazine and book when you buy your first bird. A book will tell you the basics, and a magazine will show you all the latest treats, cages, food and nutrient info, and gizmos.

* Don’t buy sanded perch covers and floor mats. When OFB was a child, sanded perch covers and floor mats were considered essential parakeet-cage items, much like carpets in human habitations. The glued-on sand was supposed to help file down the bird’s claws (perch covers) and add grit to their crops so they could digest food (floor mats). We’ve come a long way, birdie. These days, there are many textured perch surfaces to help hone those claws, and grit, cuttlebones, and mineral blocks take care of the nutritional angle. Apparently the floor covers did nothing but collect detritus and the sand-covered perches hurt birds’ tender feet (ouch).

* Do clean your cage once a week. Our friend Ben and Silence have friends who clean their birds’ cages daily, and if your birds are messy, or you’re a clean freak, it certainly won’t hurt, might help. But parakeets, who typically eat dry food and don’t splash water around, really only need to have their cages cleaned once a week. We pull out the seed tray, discard the dirty newspaper sheets, wipe everything down with a paper towel, add fresh newspaper sheets, replace the seed tray, sweep up around the cage and stand, the end. All told, it takes less than 20 minutes a week to keep the cage clean, and that includes a daily 2-minute sweep of the floor beneath the cage.

Ack, our friend Ben sees from that last point that I’ve failed to discuss what to do with your birdcage. It’s important to give it a stable base or hang it securely from the ceiling. Since our cage is big, a sturdy footed base (made to support this particular cage) is ideal. Situate the cage where it gives the bird(s) both security and stimulation. In our case, the parakeet cage is next to Plutarch’s cage, against the wall in the kitchen next to our table and directly opposite the sliding deck door. This means that our parakeets have Plutarch’s lively company, Silence’s company while she prepares food, both of us providing company while we read the paper, eat, and/or converse at the table, the great view out the deck doors, and music whenever Silence is cooking or we’re eating. Not to mention visits from our dog Shiloh and three indoor cats (another great reason to make sure your bird’s cage is secure and up off the ground and your parakeet is integrated into the rest of the family). Btw, we’ve never had a problem with our bird and cat/dog interactions as long as the birds remain in their cages. The dogs love them, and the cats don’t seem to recognize that they’re the same things they watch with such hungry intent through the windows.

So, please: If you’ve never known the joy of having parakeets, or wonder what would be an ideal pet for a child, consider the colorful, friendly, larger-than-life budgie. I promise, you’ll never regret it!

Traveling in words. January 23, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood always like to pack a few books when we travel, so we’ll have something to read during the endless airport stops between flights and in the late evenings (and often early mornings) in the motel or before our hosts are up and about, or after they’ve retired. We’ll often swing by the library to stock up before a trip, but this time around didn’t get there, so we grabbed the books from the tops of our to-read piles. As it turned out, they were all, in a way, travel books, so in addition to traveling in reality, we’ve been traveling in words.

Silence brought along Peter Mayle’s French Lessons, an amusing look at the specialty food festivals in various regions of France. Since of course we couldn’t resist swinging by the airport bookstore once we arrived, she also indulged in a cooking magazine featuring the foods of Mexico, with gorgeous photos and enticing recipes. So far, we’ve managed to refrain from rushing around trying to find a Mexican restaurant (we doubt that our hosts would approve of this sort of behavior), but are looking forward to making (Silence) and eating (OFB) some delicious moles and salsas (not to mention a trip to various groceries in search of Mexican cheeses) when we return to scenic PA.

Our friend Ben grabbed Frances Mayes’s A Year in the World, a travelogue that takes the reader with Frances and her husband Ed to locations like Morocco, the Greek Isles, the Turkish Coast, Burgundy, and many another place Silence and OFB would like to go (at least in our armchair travels). Last night, OFB joined Frances in the souks (markets) of Fez. And at the airport, we found a book of short stories contrasting the decline of the feudal and rural classes with the rise of the middle and industrial classes in modern Pakistan, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Since our dear friend Huma is Pakistani, the topic was of great interest to us, so our friend Ben snatched it up and had finished it by the following day. (We’ll pass it along to Huma, if she hasn’t already read it, on our return, assuming Silence has also finished it by then. Get going, Silence!)

One great thing about books like these—besides, of course, their ability to transport you around the world—is how much fun they are to share. When we finish, we simply switch books and start in on a book that we know (based on an always energetic review by the first reader) we’re going to enjoy. Then, of course, there are the hours of enthusiastic discussion that follow. It still fascinates us how we can both read the same book, yet be struck by such different things. To us, these are all good reasons why travel—even armchair travel—is always best shared.

Up in the air. January 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were airbound yesterday en route to visit relatives for a long weekend. It had been a long time since we’d flown—over two years—and we’ll admit that we were dismayed by the shabby, rundown appearance of the parts of the airports we were in and the aged interiors of some of the planes. We’d been expecting dreadful check-ins because of all the uproar, but everything went smoothly. What surprised us most, though, was how much less expensive the fares were than they had been last time we flew (same airline, same destination). Curious!

Fortunately, the flights were peaceful and pleasant. OFB, who loves the window seat, enjoyed as always seeing the living map of the land spread out beneath the plane. On the stretch of the flight that flew up over the clouds, Silence pointed out the numerous personalities that seemed to be looking up (or out) from the cloud bank: “Look, there’s Abraham Lincoln! Doesn’t that look like Darwin? Yow, it’s Richard Nixon!”

But the most startling sight occurred as the first plane was coming into Philadelphia. Our friend Ben saw what appeared to be a glittering plain stretching out below, with sparks of reflected sunlight shooting up in endless rows. It was only after some concentrated thought that OFB realized that what we were seeing was sunlight on gravestones; the city of the dead shone like a field of diamonds. Food for thought, and probably poetry, there!

Milestone: 150,000 January 20, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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7 comments

Yesterday, our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, passed 150,000 views.* This cheers us up no end. We love writing the blog, and we love it that folks have come here 150,085 times (so far) to see what we’re up to.

We’ll doubtless drone on and on about our various stats (posts, comments, spam, most popular posts, etc.) on our second birthday this coming February, so we’ll spare you that now. However, each of us who contributes posts to PRA would like to share a little something to celebrate, according to our lights:

Our friend Ben: The secrets to good houseplants and great aquariums, our friend Ben is convinced, are a good setup and benign neglect. We’ve kept beautiful aquaria—and the tropical fish in them!—alive for decades by creating lush, balanced landscapes with good lighting, plenty of live plants, stones artfully arranged to support plants and give fish and shrimp places to hide out, shrimp, snails, clams, and for the fish, a mix of bottom-feeders, midrange tropicals, and top-dwellers. Our selection always includes schools of beautiful, eyecatching small fish for our viewing pleasure (we’re especially fond of tetras), plus lots of scavengers and bottom-feeders (like the cute little triangular corydoras catfish) to keep the bottom of the tank clean and pristine. Our cardinal rules are not to overload the tank with fish, not to overfeed, or feed at all on weekends, and not to heat the tanks. We defy anyone short of the level of a Takashi Amano to produce more beautiful tanks. As for our houseplants, we pot them up in good, rich organic soil, give them good light, water them no more than once a week (and only when dry), adding liquid seaweed and SUPERthrive (a natural vitamin/plant hormone mix) to the water, remove dead leaves and flowers, the end. If they’re lucky, we’ll pot up the plants in spring if we see that they’re really outgrowing their pots. Visitors constantly ooh and ahh about our gorgeous houseplants, and we look at each other and think, “If they only knew!”

Silence Dogood: Here are my five rules for failproof cooking. Follow them, and your food will get raves wherever it’s served. 1. Take your time. Good cooking takes time, both on your part during the preparation, and during the cooking itself. As cook-in-chief, it’s up to you to keep a careful eye on your food while it’s cooking as well as while you’re making it. (If you doubt this, next time you’re cooking a sauce, stand over it until it’s thick enough to lusciously cling to every piece of pasta or whatever, as opposed to being thin and splashy, and see why it makes a difference.) Yes, this can get boring, but it’s well worth the time spent. To make it go faster, I suggest putting on some favorite music and enjoying a glass (or two) of wine. 2. Buy the best. My own dear Mama was adamant about this, and she was so right. Beautiful fresh produce, delicious cheeses and dairy products, real butter, extra-virgin olive oil, good bread, the best meats: The money you put into quality ingredients will repay you many times over in the flavor of the finished dish. The prices on those stickers may seem high, but compare them to horrible prepared foods and you’ll quickly see that you’re saving money while serving your beloved and/or family the very best. Still not convinced? Compare the price of a home-cooked meal for your loved ones to the equivalent meal at a restaurant! (Let me hastily add that I’m not talking about buying trendy or status-priced ingredients here, just the best quality of the ingredients you actually need.) 3. Don’t skimp on the seasonings. Butter, olive oil, herbs, salt, spices, dressings, condiments: Ah, the fine art of adding as much as is needed without skimping or drowning your dish. The secret here is smelling and tasting. A well-seasoned dish should smell heavenly and taste delicious. If it doesn’t measure up, gently add more of what seems to be lacking, give it a minute or two, and taste again. Practice makes perfect here; soon you won’t even have to think about it. 4. Throw out the cookbooks. If you know me and my extensive cookbook collection, you’ll know that I’m not being literal here. But much as I love reading my cookbooks while relaxing before bed, I don’t actually cook from them. That’s because the authors’ tastes aren’t mine. Instead, if I want to make a dish I haven’t yet invented and have never cooked before, I go to my cookbooks, choose the appropriate ones, read the recipes they give for that dish, let them all settle in my brain, and then make an amalgam based on what I know I’ll like. The finished dish may bear scant resemblance to the dish as given in any of the cookbooks (or online), but I’ve yet to be disappointed by striking out on my own. 5. Let your senses be your guide. Does it look delicious, smell delicious, taste delicious? If so, you’ve accomplished everything you could want. Cooking doesn’t get any better than this, be it never so trendy, expensive, or elaborate. Precious is bad; yummy is good.

Richard Saunders: As a coin collector, I’d like to offer a little advice as far as getting great value without spending a fortune, especially with the prices of gold and silver going through the roof. I myself wouldn’t even think about trying to buy gold coins with gold prices at a historic high. (Wait until the prices inevitably come down.) If you can afford silver dollars—or half-dollars, or quarters, or dimes—good for you. But I myself would suggest that a collector with a modest budget focus on creating a high-quality collection of Roosevelt dimes, Jefferson nickels, and Lincoln cents. (Since the Roosevelt dimes are overdue for a change—the only coinage that hasn’t yet been modernized—I’d start with them.) Buy highest-quality mint uncirculated coins (and proof coins, if you happen on loose ones for sale), keep your oily fingerprints off them, store them carefully so they won’t get scratched, and don’t pay a cent more for them than you feel comfortable spending. Then sit back and wait. You’ll never make a fortune from these low-denomination modern coins, but if you take good care of them and buy the highest quality, you will eventually see a solid return on your investment.

Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special: As the ranking (well, only) black German shepherd puppy in OFB’s and Silence’s household, I thought I’d let you in on a secret. What’s the very best dog treat? Sweet potatoes. Of course, your dog will be happy if you’re eating baked sweet potatoes and share a bit (especially if it’s buttered and salted) with him. But, fortunately for us dogs, pet supply stores have realized our love of sweet potatoes and now offer a wide range of sweet-potato treats. Dried sweet potato slices, chewy sweet potato “fries,” duck, lamb, and chicken rollups with sweet potato centers: You can find many variations on the sweet potato theme, and I’m here to tell you, we love them all. Some are even fortified with glucosamine and chondroitin to help support the joints of big dogs like me. So next time you’re in the pet food store and see a sweet potato snack, bring it home for your dog. She’ll be so grateful!

Linus Beaumaine: Shiloh’s had her say, it’s only fair to give us cats a chance. As the sole blogging cat among the three of us living at Hawk’s Haven with Silence and OFB, I figured it was up to me to represent the feline POV in this post. So, without further ado, here are my five rules for a happy life. Do as I do and as I say, and you’ll be happy, whatever species you happen to be! Rule #1. Sleep as much as possible. Sleep is comfortable, sleep is relaxing, sleep is refreshing. Sleep early, sleep often, preferably curled up next to your favorite person. Rule #2. Play every day. Playtime is too much fun to skip just because you’re busy. Have plenty of your favorite toys at hand (make sure the dog doesn’t steal them!) to remind you to make play a priority. Rule #3. Don’t forget your friends. Spend time with them as often as you can, hopefully every day. (Silence tells me that e-mailing and calling count when they don’t live as close to you as you’d like.) Don’t be greedy—share your food, toys, and treats, especially when you know which ones are their favorites. Good friends mean good times. Rule #4. Make every minute of “alone time” count. In a little cottage like ours, with two people and eight pets (not counting the fish), finding a few minutes of alone time isn’t easy. But when you do, make the most of it: run, dance, sing, laugh, jump. Do something for the sheer pleasure of it, especially if it’s something you’d feel sheepish about doing in front of other people. Even a minute or two of exhilaration is enough to revive you to face the rest of the day! Rule #5: Ask for and give love often. Hugging, cuddling, kissing, and so on just can’t happen too often. Physical affection creates healthy bodies as well as healthy relationships. (Our bodies need to know that they’re loved every bit as much as our minds and hearts do.) I’ve found that purring loudly is a good way to alert people that I’d like to be petted and snuggle up for a while.

Dr. Franklin: Benjamin Franklin here. OFB keeps telling me that I’m this blog’s inspiration and mentor, and I’ve been persuaded to write a few guest posts in the past, so I suppose I should add a little something to today’s roundup. Do you ever wonder why a portrait of me appears on the $100 bill, and it’s even popularly referred to as a Benjamin? Besides me, the only other non-president so honored is Alexander Hamilton (on the $10 bill), and since he was the founder of America’s banking system and the first Secretary of the Treasury, that’s not surprising. Well, according to The Franklin Institute, sayings of mine such as “The way to wealth… depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality; that is, waste neither time nor money,” laid the foundations for the American Dream, “the idea that all people are created equal and each person has the same opportunity to achieve success.” They add that “Ben Franklin’s personal ideas about economy helped to shape our country’s economy.” So I guess that’s why I’m on that “Benjamin,” looking pretty scary if you ask me. Couldn’t they have at least shown me when I was animated and smiling?!

* If you look at the SiteMeter on our site, you’ll see considerably fewer hits than 150,000, but that’s because it took us a while after we started Poor Richard’s Almanac to realize that we needed a SiteMeter, and even longer to get it set up. Unfortunately, the meter only started from the time it was activated rather than from the blog’s beginning, but luckily, WordPress, our blog home, has kept track from day one, so we can keep an accurate count. Too bad it doesn’t show up on the blog!

Baking Brie. January 19, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , ,
3 comments

Silence Dogood here. From what I’ve been told, the soft, creamy, gooey, buttery, golden cheese with the white rind known as Brie is one you either love or hate. Our friend Ben and I are in the “love” category. We love slivers of Brie with buttered slices of crusty baguette and crispy, crunchy apple slices, or with crunchy red bell pepper rings and table water crackers, or with wheatmeal biscuits and grapes or slivered pears, or with assertive, crackling, multigrain crackers and pretty much anything you want. But our favorite way to enjoy Brie is baked.

OFB and I discovered baked Brie years ago at a Christmas party hosted by one of my work colleagues, Rana. Until that very moment, I’d always thought of Brie as a savory cheese. But Rana baked her Brie with a topping of butter and brown sugar, then served the hot, meltingly soft results with dipping crackers that were themselves rich, salty, and buttery, like Ritz crackers. Dubiously dipping our crackers into the sugar-coated Brie, our friend Ben and I took our first tentative bites and decided that we’d died and gone to Heaven, or that Heaven had decided to take pity and pay us a visit on that particular Christmas. Thank you, Rana!!!

I never forgot this culinary visit to the heavenly realms. Years later, when I was admiring the many hand-crafted items in a nearby shop that showcases local artists, I saw a handmade ceramic dish created specifically to bake the rounds of Brie now widely available in grocery stores. It even came with a hand-carved wooden spreading knife and a recipe. Next thing I knew, I was leaving the shop with the carefully wrapped Brie baker, knife, and recipe clutched to my heart. And, since I’m such a sweet, lovable person, I’ll share that recipe with you:

               Baked Brie

1 8-ounce wheel Brie cheese

2 tablespoons white wine (such as a dry Riesling)

1 tablespoon orange juice

1/4 cup sliced almonds

Place Brie in ceramic baker. Combine wine and orange juice and spread over Brie. Cover with almonds. Place in oven, then turn to 325 degrees F. to let dish warm up with oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Serve with French bread rounds. Serves 6-8.

Sounds yummy, right? Well, try it and see what you think! Meanwhile, here are some baked-Brie variations I’ve come up with to expand your eating pleasure. Note that a baked Brie appetizer is especially delicious served during a leisurely cocktail hour with a dry Riesling, champagne, spumante, or other sparkling wine like a blackberry sparkler (a regional specialty), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, or a Compari and soda (served, of course, with a slice of lime). And don’t forget the fresh fruit!

One further note: Once you’ve put your Brie in the oven, keep an eye on it. You want it melting-soft and heated through and the toppings all “cooked,” but you don’t want burned, dried-out, or blackened Brie or toppings. Check at 10 minutes, again at 15, and again at 20 if it’s not done before that. Don’t raise the oven temperature higher than 325 degrees F. If the toppings seem to be drying out too fast, add another splash of liquid and/or cover the Brie dish with aluminum foil.

Brie Southern style: Expanding on Rana’s basic concept, I like to put a coating of brown sugar on a wheel of Brie, press in pecan pieces for a good crunch, then dot the top with tiny bits of butter before baking. Oh, yum! A buttery cracker like Ritz is essential with this. And yes, you can up the ante by sprinking a little cinnamon over the Brie before baking.

Brie Mediterranean: Cover the top of a wheel of Brie with fresh minced sprigs of thyme, mint, rosemary, and basil. Add pitted kalamata halves and a spritz of extra-virgin olive oil, some fresh-ground pink, white, green, and black pepper, and sea salt to taste (or skip the olives and add a splash of ouzo), bake, and serve with wedges of puffy Greek-style pita.

Brie for brunch: Because Brie is so rich and luscious, it lends itself to a topping of peach or plum jam, apricot preserves, quince jam, apple or pumpkin butter, cherry preserves, seedless black raspberry jam, or marmalade. Oh, yum, once the Brie is baked, roll a generous tablespoonful (or more) of any of these combos in a pancake, crepe, or blintz, top with sour cream or creme fraiche or even applesauce and cinnamon, and serve with Mimosas. Wow!

Brie with a burn: Try baked Brie topped with a spicy-hot chutney, red or green Jalapeno pepper jelly,  blackberry/Black Czech hot pepper jelly, or apricot/lemon Habanero preserves. Spread the baked Brie on a slice of crusty baguette or hot cornbread, or eat it on hot-from-the-griddle corncakes, rolled in a warm tortilla, or on cornmeal crackers. 

Brie Casablanca: Cover the top of a wheel of Brie with minced dried apricots, minced dates, fresh shredded unsweetened coconut, slivered almonds, ground cumin powder, ground red and black pepper, several tablespoons of fresh-squeezed orange, lemon, or lime juice, and salt to taste. Serve the baked Brie hot with Greek-style pita, naan, or other flatbread, or with table water crackers.

Brie Oriental: Spread a thin layer of orange sauce (I like Iron Chef Orange Sauce with Ginger) over a wheel of Brie. Top with Mandarin orange slices and finely chopped green onions (scallions). Add a couple of tablespoons of juice from the Mandarin orange can, bake, and serve hot with table water or rice crackers. Variations: Up the ginger quotient by adding finely minced fresh or crystallized (candied) ginger to the topping before baking. Substitute tamarind or duck sauce for the orange sauce, and slivered plums or pluots for the Mandarin oranges.

Needless to say, the possibilities are endless. Even now, I’m fantasizing about creating Brie Margaritaville, with tequila, margarita mix, a sprinkling of margarita salt, and maybe some lime zest for good measure. Hmmm… what would Jimmy Buffett do?

How do you like your Brie?

            ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

A cooking marathon (with recipe). January 18, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,
4 comments

Silence Dogood here. In these financially challenging times, it makes more sense than ever to look for sales, even on fresh produce. But when fresh produce comes on sale, you’d better be on notice that you should cook and/or eat said produce at the EOM*, or it’s likely to go bad. Sure, if you have chickens, an earthworm composter, and/or a compost bin system, as we do, you can give past-peak produce to one or all of them, so everybody wins. But if you actually use the produce for your own meals and feed the scraps to the chickens, earthworms, or compost, then you’re really getting the most from your grocery money.

The cooking marathon referred to in this post’s title came about because I’d bought a bunch of green bell peppers, mushrooms, new potatoes, carrots, and onions on sale. I figured I’d better do something with them, and fast. As it happens, I’d also bought some really good tomatoes when OFB and I passed through Virginia on our Christmas trip down to visit family in North Carolina, and, with visions of tacos with refried beans dancing through my head, I’d also snapped up some shredded lettuce and red bell peppers on deep discount at our tiny local grocery.

So I’d made my famous refried beans (including cinnamon and cloves as seasonings; see “Fiesta time! It’s Cinco de Mayo!” for the recipe for Silence’s Top Secret Disappearing Refried Beans) with tortillas and all the toppings (chopped red peppers, black olives, tomatoes, and scallions, shredded white Cheddar, sour cream, shredded lettuce, green and red salsas) earlier in the week. There were plenty of leftovers for a second supper, so I didn’t have to worry about cooking dinner from scratch. Instead, I could focus on cooking those peppers,  potatoes, onions, mushrooms, and carrots for future meals. No pressure.

I’d decided that I wanted to use the green bell peppers to make stuffed peppers and to season spaghetti sauce, so this was uppermost in my mind as I began to plan my cooking marathon. If you’re a meat-eater, stuffed peppers typically involve green peppers stuffed with a mix of ground beef, rice, onions, and seasonings and topped with tomato sauce. But if you’re a vegetarian like me, and are also contending with a guy who’s not wild about cooked tomatoes like OFB (unless they’re cooked in pasta or pizza sauce), what would make a really satisfying pepper stuffing? I’d already saved leftover rice from a couple of earlier meals with the stuffed peppers in mind. Now, my challenge was to think of how to make a rich, satisfying stuffing for the peppers, hopefully using some of the produce I’d bought on sale.

After pondering this for a bit, here’s what I did: I sauteed diced sweet onion and mushrooms in melted butter and added herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram, rosemary) and seasoned salt (Trocomare). When the onions had clarified and the mushrooms had cooked down, I stirred in the cooked rice, thoroughly coating it with the herbed butter and mixing in the onions and mushrooms. When the rice was heated through and completely coated, I turned off the heat and added cottage cheese, shredded mozzarella, and shredded sharp white Cheddar, stirring well to blend.

Yum!!! Our friend Ben and I agreed that we could have just eaten this, without even bothering with the peppers. But chasing OFB away from the stuffing, I filled four cored green peppers with it and set them in ovenproof loaf pans with 1/4 inch of water in the bottom, then put them in the oven at 350 degrees F.

Only thing was, there was leftover stuffing! What to do?! I grabbed a ‘Carnival’ winter squash, which we’d used as part of our Harvest Home display and which is supposed to be as delicious as it is beautiful, halved and seeded it, stuffed the halves with the remaining stuffing, and put them in a baking dish, also in 1/4 inch of water.

However, I was far from done. Hey, the oven was on, 350 degrees for at least an hour, right? Better take advantage of that! Seizing another Pyrex baking dish, I washed the new potatoes, chopped the carrots into 1-inch pieces, cut a sweet onion in wedges, broke up some cauliflower into manageable pieces, and removed the stems from the remaining mushrooms. Pouring a little olive oil in the bottom of the dish, I arranged the veggies, sprinkled more olive oil and added tiny bits of butter over the top, then dusted everything with Trocomare and put the dish in the oven on the top rack (the bottom rack was filled with the peppers and squash).

Then of course I made our taco dinner. As OFB and I were enjoying the tacos and toppings, I could smell the delicious fragrance of the roasted vegetables. And at the end of the meal, when we removed the stuffed peppers, squash, and roasted veggies from the oven, it was all we could do not to sample them on the spot, full as we were. Now we’re looking forward to several scrumptious meals later in the week that are good to go if we just heat them up. And, with the rice saved and ready to go, I can’t tell you how little time it took to get this all together!  So easy, so yummy. Try it! (And if you have a multicolored assortment of bell peppers—yellow, orange, and red, as well as green—to stuff, so much the better!)

Mind you, when I started planning this cooking marathon, I was envisioning making the spaghetti sauce while I was at it. But a quick trip over to the neighbors’ with a treat turned into a “won’t you sit down and have a glass of wine” affair, followed by “don’t you want another glass of wine?” By the time I got back home, OFB had arrived and there wasn’t as much time for cooking as I’d hoped. Never mind. With all this good food ready to heat and serve (maybe with sides of snap peas or broccoli or spinach or green and yellow wax beans and, of course, always a big tossed salad), I’ll have plenty of time to make spaghetti sauce!

           ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

* EOM=earliest opportune moment

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