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A late-winter omelette. February 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

Silence Dogood here. As the snows drag on (and on) here, I’ve been thinking about late-winter foods that might still be in your larder and garden.

Here in Pennsylvania, you’re not going to be outside harvesting abundant crops, or even salad greens, in late February. But you might find, like we have, that if you grew kale, parsley, and Swiss chard in a protected place and kept it out of harm’s way, it might survive the winter and allow you to harvest a little now and then. (But bear in mind that it’s not going to put on new growth until true spring, so what you harvest won’t be replaced for a good while.)

If you were diligent about curing your potatoes, onions, and garlic, and merely brushed the excess dirt off rather than succumbing to temptation and washing them before storage, then put them in a cool, dark place, you should have plenty of good ones left if you’ve managed not to eat them all by now. Carrots and winter radishes store best in the fridge or in containers of cold, damp sand or a more modern equivalent, like excelsior; apples will keep for months in the fridge, as will cabbage. And if you grew beans for drying—pintos, limas, black beans, etc.—and corn for popping, you’ll also have those in reserve. (Obviously, any produce you canned, pickled, froze, dried, or jellied will still be at your disposal, too.)

What about other fresh produce? It’s easy to grow your own nutritious microgreens, aka sprouts, in the comfort of your own kitchen, no matter how cold and miserable it is outside. Alfalfa sprouts are still probably the best known, but spicy radish sprouts can add a flavor kick to winter dishes. And you can buy inoculated logs and grow all kinds of mushrooms indoors (we’re trying to grow shiitakes in the laundry room as I write).

Our friend Ben and I live out in rural farm country, so we have access to fresh local dairy products, including raw milk, butter, and Amish cheeses, and eggs throughout the winter. (We give our own chickens a break every winter so they can stay healthy and keep all those nutrients for themselves.) Yes, we’re so lucky.

So, thinking of a filling and satisfying late-winter dish, I at first considered sharing a stir-fry recipe, but ultimately opted for an omelette, since today’s Sunday and an omelette makes such a satisfying brunch. (Mind you, so do huevos rancheros, but that’s another post for another day.) I’ll add my recipe for fried apples, another late-winter staple, since they’re so good with the omelette. You’re on your own as far as making toast, biscuits, cornbread, English muffins, or apple, bran, corn, or pumpkin muffins to enjoy with your omelette and fried apples. (Or try hot slices of my pumpkin bread with butter, yum; search our blog for pumpkin bread to find the recipe.)

         Late-Winter Omelette

This omelette feeds two; multiply the ingredients and make additional omelettes for a larger family.

4 eggs, beaten

1/2 stick salted butter

1 large baking potato, peeled and grated

1/2 large sweet onion (Vidalia, WallaWalla, or 1015 type), peeled and diced

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1/2 cup radish sprouts (optional)

dried rosemary, thyme, basil, and oregano, for seasoning

Trocomare or salt (we like RealSalt) and crushed red pepper, black pepper, or paprika, to taste

1/2 cup (or more to taste) shredded Parmesan, Swiss, sharp white Cheddar, or cheese of your choice

Melt butter in a heavy Dutch oven or pan. Add onion, spices and herbs, grated potato, and mushrooms, and saute until onion clarifies and mushrooms cook down. Add radish sprouts. Pour beaten egg mixture over veggies, stirring to blend. Once egg mixture sets, cut omelette in half and use a spatula to flip each half over in pan. (If you’re really good, you can simply filp the entire omelette in the pan, but I’m not that coordinated. This works fine.) Top each half with shredded cheese. Once cheese melts, place one half on each plate with fried apples and bread of your choice.

               Fried Apples

Such a simple recipe, and so good! Again, this recipe serves two, so multiply to suit your family. And Health Police, don’t panic; we’re not really talking about frying here, it’s more about sauteeing. But it’s so good.

2 firm-fleshed apples, such as ‘Granny Smith’, cored and sliced

1/2 stick salted butter

1/2 cup maple syrup or 1/2 cup dark brown sugar plus 1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, if desired

In a heavy frying pan, melt the butter. Add the maple syrup or brown sugar and water and cinnamon. Add water as needed to make a thick but liquid coating. Add sliced apples, and stir until coated, then cook over low heat, covered, until just tender.  

Yum, it’s almost 10 am here, and that means brunch! If you have your own brunch favorites to contribute, please share them here. Otherwise, give these a try. They’re easy and oh so good as winter keeps telling us—liar!!!—that spring will never come.

         ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

Let’s play word games. February 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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4 comments

Our friend Ben is sick of watching the snow come down and being trapped in the house. So I’d like to suggest that you join me in a fun word game. This game was originally started by The Washington Post, which publishes the top contenders every year in its Neologism Contest. It involves making up a new definition for an existing word. (They also have a contest, the Style Invitational, that involves adding, subtracting, or changing one letter of an existing word and then providing a new definition, but let’s save that one for another day.)

Examples of 2009’s top entries in the Neologism Contest include: flabbergasted, appalled over how much weight you have gained; gargoyle, olive-oil-flavored mouthwash; willy-nilly, impotent (my favorite); and pokemon, a Rastafarian proctologist (close second).

So this morning, our friend Ben was thinking about how appallingly deficient my knowledge of geometry is. I could remember the name “isosceles triangle,” but couldn’t recall to save my life what the triangle looked like. And what was the hypotenuse?! (For those who simply must know, it’s the longest side of a right triangle.)

Hypotenuse, however, struck our friend Ben as a wonderfully humorous word that was begging for a new definition. So here it is: “A species of hippopotamus whose diet consists chiefly of cannabis.”

Your turn! Please share your new definitions of old words here. We’re eager to enjoy them! And who knows, perhaps you can submit them to The Washington Post and gain world renown, or something…

Not as smart as we think. February 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

It was bad enough to learn that poor Homo sapiens was a mental midget compared to the Neanderthals, whose considerably larger brains apparently enabled them to be much more creative and artistic than our slower-witted ancestors. But our friend Ben’s IQ—and chances of winning that ever-hoped-for MacArthur award—suffered yet another blow this week when I saw in The Wall Street Journal that even what comparatively little brain we have has actually been shrinking.

You read that right: The human brain is shrinking, and at an appalling rate. In just the past 5,000 years, our brains have shrunk 10%. The article says that the reasons for this are unclear, but our friend Ben can think of a single obvious conclusion: Our so-called civilization makes it less necessary for us to be smart in order to survive.

Doubt me? Let’s take a comparatively brief stroll back in time to the Colonial era here in America. It wasn’t just the high-profile historical figures, the titans like Ben Franklin and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who excelled in many areas. (Franklin was, among so many other things, a scientist, printer, diplomat, postmaster, inventor, author, and community organizer; Washington was a soldier, surveyor, farmer, Freemason, and politician; Jefferson was a gardener, inventor, architect, politician, diplomat, gourmet, and philosopher.)

Every person living at the time had to have multiple skills in order to survive. Nobody went to work in the morning, performed a single specialized function which was all they were trained to do, such as computer repair or eye surgery, and then came home with some takeout fast food and watched TV until bedtime. There was wood to be chopped and seasoned, food to be procured by hunting, gardening, animal husbandry (the raising of livestock), and farming, and then the food had to be prepared from start to finish, butchering to curing to roasting, threshing to grinding to baking, fermenting to distilling to drinking. There were houses and outbuildings to be built, land to be cleared, fences, tools, and other useful items to be made, wool to be sheared, turned into yarn, and knitted or woven, or cotton to be harvested, dyed, and turned into cloth, clothes to be sewn, quilts to be made from the scraps when the clothing wore out. Herbal remedies, soap and candles to be made. Families to be raised and educated, lives to be defended. The list of chores to be completed each day would make today’s stressed-out soccer moms look like idle royalty. And all this in addition to whatever folks did to make a living.

Today, it’s rare to hear of someone who excels at many things. You’re a pro golfer or an auto mechanic or a VP specializing in direct-mail marketing for a large corporation or a late-night talk show host, but not all of the above. When someone does manage to break out of the narrow channels in which we’ve been confined—let’s say Steve Martin, comedian and painter, or Joni Mitchell, musician and painter, or Dan Aykroyd, comedian, musician, and vintner—it not only makes news but is greeted with considerable skepticism. These people have stepped outside our claustrophobic, one-step definitions of who we think they should be. Their “additional” talents must therefore be bogus. Talk about one-track minds! No wonder our brains are shrinking.

And on the “But wait, there’s more!” front, you may, like our friend Ben, have been told at some point that we humans only utilize 10% of our brains. Our friend Ben always took this as good news. After all, there was always the possibility that we could figure out how to use, if not every single brain cell, at least a much larger percentage than we were currently putting to work. Surely talent, genius, and that longed-for MacArthur Fellowship were within reach!

Fuggidaboutit. That 10% business turns out to be an urban legend. We actually do use all of our brains, though we don’t use the entire brain at one time. (That’s why scientists can map the areas of the brain that “light up” when we’re dreaming or taking a test or anticipating eating a chocolate bar.) And herein lies an opportunity.

When our brains are developing in the womb, bazillion neural channels are formed as our synapses develop and fire off communications to each other. But as we get older, those channels shut down, obviously because we aren’t taking advantage of them. But all is not lost. We don’t have to get dumber just because we’re getting older. We just need to keep challenging ourselves. Go to a community or vo-tech college and take a class in cabinetry or cooking or cheesemaking or guitar-building. Learn a new language or how to play a new instrument. Pick up a math or history or travel book and take yourself into new territory. Learn to play chess or ping-pong or ice skating, or write that book, take up watercoloring, plant a garden. Brew your own beer, become an herbalist or Reiki master, learn how to install wiring or repair the plumbing. Or all of the above.

After this last blow from The Wall Street Journal, our friend Ben has only one thing to say: We’d better start usin’ it, ’cause we’re rapidly losin’ it. Don’t let it happen to you!

Still more wacky blog searches. February 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood aren’t especially happy about this winter’s weather trends. True, we’re not surprised that the snow and sleet are drowning us, after a sustained very wet spring, summer, and fall. But sheesh! As I write, we’ve had at least 48 inches of snow so far this winter—four times our average—with another foot expected over the next two days. That’s 60 inches, enough to bury Silence up to her neck! (Ow, Silence, no offense! Just reporting the facts!)

Anyway, to take our minds off the predicted deep snows, high winds, and power outages, we’d like to provide a little blog humor, courtesy of some of the searches that have recently turned up on our blog. These are captured for us by our blog host, WordPress, and, given the breadth of our subject matter, are always curious and often hilarious. Here are some of the latest and greatest, with, of course, our responses:

* Frugal living and plastic: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

*Poor old richard’s almanac: Oh, dear. Our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders is not amused! 

*Hat was the roosevelt’s square deal act: Uh, we’re assuming that would be “what.”

* Sir richard’s almanac: Richard Saunders says, “Now that’s more like it!”

* Moles on full body the Chinese almanac: We suggest that you check out the Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm” and leave us alone.

* Cheese of the month cheap: Good luck. If you find something good, please check back in and let us know. 

* Allergy to stink bug saliva: If you’ve been kissing stink bugs, we don’t want to know about it.

* A cream soup recipe lab: Um, thanks, but please keep your lab recipes to yourself.

* Photos delightful older ladies: Every conceivable comment suppressed, and please get off our blog.

Stay warm, dry, and well-fed,

          Our friend Ben, Silence, Richard Saunders, Shiloh, Linus, Plutarch, and beyond.

The easiest way to peel garlic cloves. February 24, 2010

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

Silence Dogood here. If there’s one thing I’ve always hated, it’s peeling garlic cloves.

It’s easy to peel off the papery cover of the bulb itself, but once you get to the individual cloves, the agony begins. First, separate the cloves, no problem. Then, put a clove on your cutting board and cut off the tip and base. No problem.

Then, try to get the skin off the clove. Big problem: Those slivers of tough outer skin get under your fingernails, stab in, and hurt like hell: Suddenly you know what it must have been like to be at the mercy of a torturer working for the Spanish Inquisition. And even if you finally do manage to get them off, the slippery inner skin sticks to your fingers like white on rice. Even if you somehow manage to get the sticky garlic skin off your fingers, there’s still the lingering smell, not precisely the perfume you’d hoped to wear that night. (And just try getting that off. Yeah, yeah, stainless steel, lemon juice… Ha!)

I’ve read that the easy way to remove the skin from a garlic clove is to hold the blade of a knife over the clove and smack it with the flat of your hand. No thanks, I still have such vivid memories of my last trip to the emergency room that I’d rather not try out for another one. But you’re so sweet to suggest it.

Yes, I’ll go through the agonies of garlic-peeling to add garlic to dishes like pasta sauces, but have been in no hurry to add garlic to any dish that didn’t simply scream for its inclusion, and I don’t care how many health benefits were claimed on behalf of the “stinking rose.” Dammit, these are my fingers we’re talking about!

But you’ll be happy to know that I’ve finally learned a (literally) painless way to separate garlic cloves from their skins, thanks to my friend Huma. She had asked me during one of my visits to her house to please chop garlic and ginger for a dish she was making. Gritting my teeth and smiling sweetly, I took up a paring knife and was preparing to do battle with the first garlic clove when Huma looked around and screamed, “What are you doing?!” Seizing the pestle from a large olivewood mortar on her kitchen counter, she pounded the unfortunate garlic clove with a few good whacks. Before my disbelieving eyes, the skin split neatly off the clove, leaving the somewhat flattened flesh ready for the attentions of the paring knife.

Well. As it happens, Huma had been kind enough to bring me an olivewood mortar and pestle as a gift last time she returned from a trip to the Middle East. So the next time a recipe I was making called for garlic, I showed it no mercy: I put those cloves down on my cutting board and smashed the life out of them with the side of the wooden pestle. Three good whacks and the skin separated from the flesh and was ever-so-easy to remove and discard, with no pain to the cook, no lacerated flesh beneath the fingernails, no clinging bits of stinky garlic skin on the fingertips. Wow.

Should you not happen to have a sturdy mortar and pestle in your kitchen, and if you’re unwilling to stink up your venerable rolling pin with garlic, I have a suggestion for you: Put your garlic cloves in a Ziploc bag on your cutting board and smash them with a hammer. (Just make sure your fingers are out of the way!)

Let me close by making an argument for everyone who cooks getting a mortar and pestle: It’s a great low-tech way to pulverize herbs and spices. Huma uses hers to mash ginger and garlic for recipes instead of mincing them. You can also use one to crush seeds like sesame or mustard seeds, pulverize salt crystals, peppercorns, or clumps of sugar, or make a paste from a variety of herbs and spices to use as a rub, as a dressing, or in a dish.

And anyway, pounding things is so therapeutic.

        ‘Til next time,

                 Silence

An aspirin a day keeps the doctor away. February 23, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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4 comments

Aspirin’s not just for headaches anymore. Gals, guys, and folks of all ages who smoke, drink, or exercise, listen up.

Silence Dogood here. The other day, I read a news item on www.msn.com that really made me sit up and take notice. It was about the effect of taking aspirin on breast cancer. (And guys, don’t stop reading yet. I’ll be getting to you in a minute. And besides, you all have moms, and many have sweethearts, sisters, and daughters, right? The stats on breast cancer are horrifying: 2 million American women living with the disease now, and 40,000 deaths every year. And that’s just in the U.S.)

The data emerged from the prestigious Nurses’ Health Study, in which a team of doctors from the Harvard Medical School followed the health and habits of 238,000 registered nurses for 30 years, from 1976 to 2006. Nurses with breast cancer who took two to five aspirin a week, usually to prevent heart attacks and strokes, were 60% less likely to suffer a recurrence of the cancer and 71% less likely to die from it than nurses with breast cancer who didn’t take aspirin. (Weirdly, those in the study who took six or seven aspirin a week actually dropped their protection to 43% and 64%, respectively.) This news is being rather cautiously reported, since it was an observational effect rather than a clinical trial.

If you’re a breast-cancer survivor, you’re probably already rushing for the bottle (of aspirin, I hasten to add, and no, that’s not funny, given that even the most moderate alcohol consumption raises the odds of breast cancer recurrence). But if you’re not, what has this got to do with you? Plenty. So stay with me here.

Taking aspirin has already been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and various cancers, including colon and prostate cancers. But why? Because it reduces inflammation.

Inflammation is proving to be the great health villain of our time. As I’m reminded every time I go to the dentist and sit there being tortured—I mean, having my teeth cleaned—while staring at this enormous, grisly poster on the opposite wall, inflamed gums not only cause gum disease but can lead to heart disease and diabetes. Inflammation is apparently also what causes plaque buildup in the arteries, which can lead to blockage, blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. Inflammation is now believed to be responsible for the initiation, spread, and recurrence of cancers. I’m waiting for the doctors to announce that inflammation is responsible for aging. (Seriously.)

So, how can a humble aspirin be the little David fighting such a huge Goliath? Aspirin is classified as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID for short). It reduces pain by reducing inflammation, which is why it can soothe a headache. And maybe even provide a preventive for the great ills of our day.

The clearest explanation I’ve found about how inflammation spreads cancer comes from Bernadine Healy, M.D. in an article called “Aspirin: A Blockbuster Therapy for Breast Cancer Survivors?” on the U.S. News & World Report website, www.usnews.com. I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety. Here’s what Dr. Healy had to say: “We do know that deadly cancers hijack the inflammatory system to spread and invade distant organs… “

Er, but what’s the “inflammatory system”? Does Dr. Healy mean the immune system? No. But the inflammatory sytem, as I learned through further research, is indeed part of the immune system. Inflammation is part of the body’s arsenal of natural self-defenses. But in this case as in so many others, there can definitely be too much of a good thing. To quote Peter A. Ward, M.D., of the University of Michigan’s Medical School, who’s spent a lifetime studying inflammatory diseases of the lungs, “When immune systems go awry, virtually without exception the problem begins with the triggering of a strong inflammatory response.”

That aspirin can effectively combat inappropriate inflammatory responses, and the damages they cause to our health, is the big good news, but there’s plenty more good news: You don’t need a prescription to buy aspirin. Aspirin wasn’t developed and patented by a pharmaceutical giant, so it’s widely available and cheaper than vitamins. And you don’t need to take megadoses to reap its anti-inflammatory benefits: a teensy “adult low dose” aspirin, with just 81 milligrams of aspirin (compared to a standard aspirin with 325 mg), will do the trick.

Of course, there’s always the flip side. Aspirin can cause stomach bleeding, and while it’s hard for me to believe that such a low dose would have any harmful effects on a healthy person, if you’re already on prescription drugs, you should definitely consult with your doctor before taking it. The Harvard team that conducted the Nurses’ Health Study warns that cancer patients undergoing radiation and chemotherapy should absolutely not take aspirin while they’re still undergoing treatment. And I would be concerned about taking aspirin, even at low doses, while also taking any type of blood thinner.

But there’s more good news: Other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen (whatever that is), also had protective effects. (Acetominophen, the other popular alternative to aspirin, did not.)

So, folks, if you’re not already taking a daily (low) dose of aspirin to keep heart attack and stroke at bay, I suggest that you get with the program. I myself am not particularly worried about heart attacks or strokes—at least not anytime soon—but I’m terrified of cancer. I’ve known too many people, of all ages, who’ve fought that dreadful battle, and many who are still fighting it. If something as simple as an aspirin can help me slay that dragon before it takes a bite out of me, by God, I’m taking it. If you’re a smoker, since smoke inflames the lungs, it can’t hurt to take a low-dose aspirin every day to up your odds of avoiding lung cancer. If you enjoy your wine with dinner or your cocktail hour or your after-dinner drink, why not take an aspirin along with your vitamins to keep your liver and digestive system inflammation-free. If you’re an athlete (or even a weekend warrior) who’s putting inflammation-causing stress on your joints and muscles, take an aspirin with that glucosamine-and-chondroitin supplement.

Obviously, I’m a blogger, not a scientist, doctor, or researcher. I’m no expert making recommendations from on high. I’m just suggesting that you do the research for yourself—check all this out online—and use the sense God gave you. As the great poet W.B. Yeats said in another context, “One cannot begin it too soon.”

         ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

Spices, Scotland, Shiloh… and cheese. February 22, 2010

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

Silence Dogood here. For Valentine’s Day, our friend Ben surprised me with (surprise!) cookbooks. If, like me, you love cooking, I thought you’d enjoy hearing about them.

But first, a brief digression about the other thing OFB produced as a Valentine’s Day present: A bottle of my favorite liqueur, Drambuie. Drambuie is a Scottish liqueur that was apparently developed in 1745 for Bonnie Prince Charlie and which has been enjoyed by countless lesser beings, such as yours truly, ever since. (Their classic motto is “The spirit lives on.”) But when our friend Ben triumphantly produced the bottle, I thought he’d bought a knock-off by mistake. That was definitely not the classic Drambuie bottle, brown glass with a shape as ancient and dramatic as its origins. This was a plain old clear liquor bottle that could have held vodka or rum. Worse, until I picked it up, I thought it was, gasp, plastic. How the mighty had fallen! Tragically, it proved to be the real thing. The bottle had been redesigned, so the company claimed, to “reveal the unique golden liqueur” inside. Ha! How about, the bottle has been redesigned so it’s cheaper to produce and more of them will fit onto a store shelf. Give me back my brown bottle!!!

While I’m already off-topic, let me explain how our beloved black German shepherd Shiloh fits in to all this. (Fortunately, Drambuie has nothing to do with it.) Our friend Ben had somehow managed to find a Valentine’s Day card with a photo of a black German shepherd on it. At first I thought that, despite his true Luddite incapacity around anything technological, including cameras, OFB had somehow managed to Photoshop it. I mean, how likely is it that a greeting card company would decide that any sort of German shepherd was a good subject for a Valentine, much less a black German shepherd? But checking it out, it was a real honest-to-God Valentine from Shoebox/Hallmark. Kudos to OFB for pulling that off!

Now, back to the books. Back in the fall, I’d read a review of a new cookbook called Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster, 2009). It sounded like a must-get. Having long since abandoned any pretense of subtlety where our friend Ben is concerned, I clipped the review, handed it to him, and said “Next time you’re stumped for a present for me, I’d really like this.” At the time, I was hoping it might make an appearance for my birthday or Christmas, but it didn’t, and I eventually forgot about it. Meanwhile, poor OFB was carting the review around in his book bag all this time. And for Valentine’s Day, he not only got me Modern Spice, but Ms. Bhide’s earlier book The Everything Indian Cookbook (Adams Publishing, 2004). And, for something completely different, The New American Cheese: Profiles of America’s Great Cheesemakers and Recipes for Cooking with Cheese (Laura Werlin, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2000).

The Everything Indian Cookbook is aimed at the beginner who’s just sticking a toe into the enticing, exotic ocean of Indian cuisine. It features 300 recipes, including (to quote from the front cover) Minty Potatoes in Yogurt Sauce, Malabari Coconut Rice, Spinach Lamb Curry, Sizzling Tandoori Chicken, and Almond-Coated Naan Bread.

But what I found most valuable about it were the pointers throughout the book to help the novice feel at ease with Indian cooking, from chapters on “Basics of Indian Cooking” (including techniques and a basic Indian spice pantry) and “Basic Recipes,” including the classic spice mixtures garam masala, tandoori masala, and chaat masala, plus homemade ghee (clarified butter) and paneer (Indian cheese), to tips and definitions scattered throughout. Tips include everything from “Deep-Frying Made Easy” to how to find and use dried fenugreek leaves and the proper techniques for cooking with cumin seeds. (“Cumin is never used raw.”)

The Everything Indian Cookbook is, admittedly, not something it would have occurred to me to buy. But I’ve really been enjoying paging through it. It has no photos and is not vegetarian—two drawbacks in my book—but it has tons of veggie-friendly recipes and others that can easily be adapted, and I’ve already learned plenty of things I hadn’t picked up from more beautiful and sophisticated Indian cookbooks. (My friend Huma, for instance, has told me a hundred times that the Indian dish I make with spinach and paneer is not saag paneer, but it wasn’t until I got this book that I saw that the dish with spinach is called paalak paneer, and that saag paneer uses mustard greens instead of spinach.) Highly recommended if you’d like to expand your culinary horizons.

Modern Spice is a whole different animal. To quote Ms. Bhide: “This book takes Indian cooking and translates it for our generation—this book embraces the intense, spicy Indian flavors but is not stuck on an artificial standard of authenticity that no longer exists even in India.”

As an intuitive cook, I completely approve of this approach, as long as it’s plainly stated upfront. To say that India, with all its diversity, has a “standard” cuisine is like saying that there is one style of cooking that characterizes my native South. Anyone who’s tasted the signature dishes of, just skimming, South Carolina, the Florida Keys, my home state of Tennessee, Louisiana, and South Texas will find little similarity between them, and little do they know how many variations play out in every region. Think about the endless variations of a single food such as barbecue or chili or even coleslaw (that’s just “slaw” to us Southerners) and you’ve said it all. Ms. Bhide’s point is well taken.

Modern Spice is full of useful advice, instructions, and tips, many gleaned from Ms. Bhide’s years teaching cooking classes and coming to understand what American amateur cooks need to learn. But it has a sophistication and range that picks up where a basic Indian cookbook leaves off. You won’t, as Ms. Bhide notes, find a recipe for mango lassi here. Nor will you find saag paneer or even paalak paneer. Paneer, yes, used in recipes such as Paneer and Wild Mushroom Pilaf, Paneer and Fig Pizza, Anaheim Peppers with Mint-Cilantro Chutney and Paneer, Papad Stuffed with Crab and Paneer. (As you can see, this book isn’t vegetarian, either, but again, has many veggie-friendly recipes.) I was deeply disappointed by the lack of photos—the book has only eight, stuffed awkwardly in the middle—but was charmed by the author’s essays, interspersed throughout, about her upbringing and food adventures. If you already know and love “classical” Indian cuisine in its many variations, Modern Spice is a must-buy.

Now let’s leave the world of spices and talk about cheese. As an avid cheese-eater, I have many books on cheese and cheese-making. I fantasize about learning to make my own cheeses. I also avidly read articles about American cheesemakers and fantasize about eating their luscious boutique creations. (Our friend Ben and I will very occasionally splurge on a handmade cheese by a local artisan, but normally fine cheeses are, like fine wines, alas, far beyond our budget.)

So The New American Cheese was the ultimate fantasy. This book won one of The IACP Cookbook Awards, and it’s easy to see why. It is photo-rich and breathtakingly beautiful. It tells the story of the evolution of cheese in this country and profiles 80 of the foremost American artisanal cheesemakers at the time of its publication.

And the recipes are to die for: Bruschetta with Fig Puree and Blue Cheese; Teleme, Squash, and Onion Galette; Mozzarella and Roasted Mushroom Panini; Mixed Beet and Crottin Salad with Walnut Oil and Lemon; Dill-Lemon Greek Salad; Blood Orange, Fennel, and Feta Salad; Pistachio-Coated Goat Cheese Rounds on Mixed Greens with Nut Oil Vinaigrette; Pizza with Blue Cheese, Butternut Squash, and Fried Sage Leaves; Polenta with Wild Mushrooms, Fontina, and Aged Cheese; Green Garlic Risotto with Cauliflower, Pancetta, and Fromage Blanc; Lemon Parmesan Risotto with Asparagus; and Cheese Enchiladas with Lime-Tomatillo Sauce. There are also tantalizing meat-based main courses, like Grilled Pork Chops with Cheddar-Corn Spoonbread and Apple-Sage Chutney; sides like Fennel, Apple, and Celery Root Gratin and Lemony Artichokes with Feta and Oregano; and dessert classics like (of course) cheesecake and apple-Cheddar pie, as well as more innovative desserts.

One thing (among many) that charmed me about The New American Cheese was a delightful chapter devoted to upgrades on classic American comfort foods, from French onion soup, mac’n’cheese, Cobb salad, and fondue to Welsh rarebit, grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, classic Iceberg lettuce with Maytag blue cheese dressing, and shepherd’s pie. This cookbook is a must-have for anyone’s shelf, for the recipes alone but especially if you want to really learn about cheese and cheesemaking.

In case you’re wondering why I’m torturing you with the concept of all these recipes and not giving you any, every one of these books threatens dire consequences if any of their content is reproduced in any way. Sob! You’re on your own, I’m afraid. I can’t afford artisanal cheeses now, and would really rather not contemplate the prospect of eating “Government Cheese” behind bars. (Just ask Martha.) But perhaps I’ll write a post soon that provides you with my own distinctive recipe for saag—I mean, paalak—paneer…

          ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

Another nose on your face moment. February 21, 2010

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

As in, “plain as the…”

Silence Dogood here. Today I was trying to do a bit of spring* cleaning around here, tossing the old catalogues and replacing them with the current ones. (As opposed to letting the new ones avalanche off the coffee table because the old ones are taking up all available space in the magazine rack.)

While shoveling out, I came upon cookware catalogues from Chef’s and Williams Sonoma. As a passionate cook, I love looking through cookware catalogues, fantasizing about buying each and every gadget, not to mention every piece of LeCreuset cookware in every conceivable color. (I use my heavy, enameled cast-iron LeCreuset pots and pans every single day, and I love them, but I also love color and sadly, my vintage set is a boring grey. But I digress.)

Pausing in my decluttering efforts to skim the Chef’s Catalog, I had the same thought I have every time I see elaborate gadgets for mincing herbs or garlic, slicing eggs or lemons, slicing and dicing vegetables and fruits, you name it: Sure, it looks cool, but a paring knife will do all that, and it’s so much easier to clean. (And store.)

It’s always seemed to me that you’d lose the time saved multi-slicing, dicing, or whatever—and then some—trying to wash out those multibladed gadgets. Some of them are so intricate I don’t see how you could ever really get them clean, and I’d rather not get my fingers too close to all those sharp edges anyway. Since I loathe washing dishes and actually enjoy cutting produce by hand, I’d much rather put my effort into preparing the meal rather than cleaning up afterward. But somebody must be buying the endless parade of gizmos, or people wouldn’t keep making them.

I had reluctantly stashed the catalogue and returned my attention to clearing out the magazine rack when, many years after it would have occurred to a halfwitted turnip, enlightenment dawned. Suddenly, I had a flashback to the trip our friend Ben and I recently took to the Poconos. I was sitting peacefully with a cup of tea and watching with bemusement as our friend Huma plunked all sorts of elaborate kitchenware into the dishwasher.

The dishwasher.

Now, we had a dishwasher when I was growing up, but it was of such a dubious and temperamental nature that my mother basically used it to sterilize dishes rather than to clean them. I had to manually wash every dish, glass, and piece of silverware until it was spotless before it went into the dishwasher. It would never have occurred to Mama or any of us to put a pan, much less a gadget, in that thing. And that was the last dishwasher I have ever used.

Gee. As it turns out, people who use these helpful “kitchen aids” don’t risk their sanity or their fingers washing them. They use them, then put them in the dishwasher. The slashing discs and razor-sharp blades pose no threat to plastic and steel. There’s no need to worry about cleaning the last bit of pesto off of bazillion impossible-to-reach parts. Add some soap, turn a knob, and a machine will do it for you, and dry them all, too.

Admittedly, it’s hard for even me to believe that a reputedly intelligent adult (and one who cooks, for that matter), even with my anti-tech Luddite tendencies, would have taken so long to figure this out. But there’s one bright spot in this dismal cloud of stupidity. Since I have no intention of ever getting a dishwasher—as my father famously says, I’m not studying it—at least now I can enjoy looking at all the gadgets and gizmos without being even slightly tempted to buy one. Have paring knife, will travel.

               ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

* If, like me, you’re looking out at mountains of snow, with more predicted all this coming week, the concept of “spring” cleaning must seem almost as farfetched as a moron who forgets that normal families use dishwashers.

What’s with the woodpeckers? February 20, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , ,
5 comments

Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood welcome woodpeckers. (Well, except for the one that tried to hammer its way through the bedroom wall one year. Our friend Ben finally resorted to hammering loudly with a fist on the exact opposite side of the wall when it began excavating. Sure enough, after three or four of these episodes, it remembered a pressing engagement elsewhere.)

Typically, we have downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers here, as well as those other woodpeckerish comedians, the white-breasted nuthatches*. We have rarely—far too rarely, for our taste—seen red-headed woodpeckers, northern flickers, and red-breasted nuthatches here as well. (Where have all the flickers gone, anyway? When we first moved to Pennsylvania, we often saw them.)

We have, sadly, never seen a pileated woodpecker in our yard, though our friend Ben saw an ivory-billed woodpecker once. (Until, that is, Silence pointed out that it was actually a plastic bag that had blown in from the street and gotten caught high up in an evergreen. OFB has seen all manner of rare birds over the years, but they inevitably prove to be, not misidentified birds, but normally inanimate objects that have found themselves in unexpected places. But we digress.)

Point being that we love hosting woodpeckers here at Hawk’s Haven, but around here, they don’t act very woodpecker-like. What do we mean? Well, during breeding season, we do indeed hear them drumming for mates in the trees and see them scouring trunks and branches for insects and insect eggs. But in winter, woodpeckers are supposed to eat suet, right?

So we set up our little suet cage and slide in a square of some enticing suet cake studded with mixed seeds and sporting a name like Citrus Delight, Berry Delicious, Peanut Butter Supreme, or even Energy Bar. Pleased with ourselves for helping the woodpeckers fuel up, we return to the house and wait to see them enjoying their high-cal treat. And wait. And wait.

True, we’ve seen birds eating the suet cakes. Crows especially seem to appreciate them. But woodpeckers? Never. Instead, they seem to favor the same black-oil sunflower seed we set out for our other winter visitors. The small birds—the downy and hairy woodpeckers and the nuthatches—eat them right from the tube feeders. The red-bellied woodpeckers prefer to take them from the cabin (“hopper”) feeder. What’s up with that?

Today, our friend Ben finally spotted a red-bellied woodpecker on the gigantic maple tree where the suet feeder is hanging. “At last!” I thought, calling for Silence. But did the woodpecker actually go to the feeder? Nooooo. Instead, it flew all over the branches, checking them out for pupating and hibernating insects.

Mind you, it’s not that we have the least objection to woodpeckers decreasing our surplus insect population. And we’re happy to keep them well stocked with sunflower seeds. But why aren’t they eating the suet cakes?!

* Silence would like to note, for her fellow stinkbug-haters, that white-breasted nuthatches are said to eat stinkbugs. She’s trying to figure out how to lure a nuthatch into the house to deal with the upcoming annual stinkbug invasion…

Can you solve Einstein’s puzzle? February 19, 2010

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

“My IQ is just one point below Einstein’s!” a friend announced recently. This comment kept gnawing at our friend Ben, and finally I consulted Google to see what I could find on the subject of Einstein and IQ. As I suspected, Einstein never took an IQ test, so nobody really knows his IQ. But my friend, whose IQ is 177, wasn’t just engaging in idle boasting, either: Most estimates place Einstein’s IQ between 178 and 180.

However, as our friend Ben was looking for Einstein’s IQ, I came upon something intriguing that I think you’ll enjoy. Listed most frequently as “Einstein’s IQ Test,” it’s actually an exercise in deductive reasoning, aka a puzzle, supposedly invented by Einstein for his students. It presents a hypothetical situation, provides clues, and then poses a question that you’re supposed to answer based on the data you’ve been given. (And yes, it is possible to solve it; our friend Ben did it, but only, I admit, after diagramming it.)

Our friend Ben has no idea if Einstein actually developed this puzzle, or if it somehow became attached to his name in the manner of an urban legend, but I enjoyed working it out and think you will, too. Ready to get started? Here we go:

                Einstein’s Puzzle

The data:

* There are five houses in five different colors.

* In each house lives a person with a different nationality.

* These 5 owners drink a certain type of beverage, smoke a certain type of cigar, and keep a certain type of pet.

* No owners have the same pet, smoke the same brand of cigar, or drink the same drink.

The question:

Who keeps fish?

The clues:

1. The Brit lives in a red house

2. The Swede keeps dogs as pets

3. The Dane drinks tea

4. The green house is on the left of the white house

5. The green house owner drinks coffee

6. The person who smokes Pall Mall keeps birds

7. The owner of the yellow house smokes Dunhill

8. The person living in the house right in the middle drinks milk

9. The Norwegian lives in the first house

10. The person who smokes Blend lives next door to the one who keeps cats

11. The person who keeps horses lives next door to the one who smokes Dunhill

12. The owner who smokes Blue Master drinks beer

13. The German smokes Prince

14. The Norwegian lives next to the blue house

15. The person who smokes Blend has a neighbor who drinks water

Have fun and good luck! Remember, the point of the exercise is to determine who keeps fish. You can do it! (And no, there’s no “score” or IQ ranking associated with this puzzle, which is why our friend Ben was puzzled—pardon the pun—as to why it’s known as “Einstein’s IQ Test.”)

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