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Shiny hair at home. December 3, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was just reading an article on how to protect your hair from drying, brittleness, and a lifeless look now that winter is sucking humidity out of your home and your home’s heating system is making the situation worse.

Their experts suggested making an infusion of vinegar, fresh mint leaves, fresh rosemary, and lavender, then pouring boiling water over it and letting it steep. Once it had reached room temperature, you were supposed to strain it, then pour it over your hair after shampooing, work it in, and then rinse it out with COLD water.

No, thank you. It’s horrible enough to get into the shower when it’s cold, without pouring COLD water over your head. I expect this would certainly add shine, since the vinegar would strip off dulling residue, and the herbs would add a nice fragrance. But it seems like a lot of trouble to go to for one shampooing (the recipe makes enough for one use). And did I mention the COLD water?!

Fortunately, when I was in grad school, a Pakistani friend taught me a simple secret for healthy, shiny, hydrated hair, one I’ve never forgotten. She put plain yogurt on her hair about a half-hour before her shower, worked it in, then wrapped her hair in a warm towel. (Easy enough to warm a towel by tossing it in the dryer for a few minutes, and oh, the luxury! Not to mention that the heat will help open your hair’s pores so the treatment will be more effective.) When it was time to shower, she took off the towel and shampooed as usual. The result? Beautiful, healthy hair.

These days, I’d use plain, full-fat Greek yogurt if I were doing this, since the yogurt’s already been drained of whey—no fuss, no muss—and the full-fat content will add more shine to your hair. You won’t be racking up bills, either, since you can use half a single-serving carton and the other half will keep perfectly in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. (Depending on how long or short, thick or thin your hair is, you might even be able to get away with 1/3 single-serving carton per use.) And don’t forget to heat your towel! Your hair—and cold body—will thank you.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Saving money on cheese. December 1, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. This morning, I was reading an article from Cook’s Illustrated comparing different brands of artisanal Cheddars. They were trying to see if they could find something that compared to a real English Cheddar, with a bite and a flaky texture, rather than those rubbery blocks of plastic-wrapped Cheddar we’re used to picking up in the dairy aisle. A Cheddar, in other words, that you could eat with crackers, fruit, crudites, or even ploughman’s lunch.

The problem with many of these artisanal Cheddars is that they can cost up to $25 a pound (not including shipping) and are often only available regionally, and not in groceries even where they are regional. (The one exception seemed to be a Cabot super-sharp white Cheddar, which the Cook’s Illustrated staff thought was the best grocery-store Cheddar.) The cheeses have another problem as far as I’m concerned: Many are aged in lard-soaked cloth, a definite no if you’re vegetarian like me.

So what do you do if you’re not up for shelling out $25 for a block of Cheddar and still want a flaky eating Cheddar that tastes great out of hand? I say, buy Asiago instead. Nothing beats an aged Asiago cut straight from the wheel at the cheese stand, but a mellow Asiago from the grocery (I believe the Cook’s Illustrated folks voted for Bel Gioioso the last time they compared grocery-store Asiagos, but please don’t quote me on that) will beat any grocery Cheddar hands down. Its delicious sharp but nutty flavor and flaky (but never crumbly) texture makes it a perfect accompaniment for dried and fresh fruit and nuts. Yum!

My fallbacks here are Black Diamond Cheddar (on the pricey side) and Cracker Barrel Reserve (in the black wrapper), which has great Cheddar flavor but that inescapable rubbery texture. When I was a child, before Kraft bought the Cracker Barrel cheese brand, my grandfather loved to buy his favorite, that day’s equivalent to Cracker Barrel Reserve. It was called Coon Cheese and featured a raccoon on the package, and we would eat it with apples. Ah, the good life! There was an even sharper Cracker Barrel cheese called Rat Trap, which was sold on the store shelves along with all the other Cheddars. My grandfather loved that, too (and it was quite good), but when Kraft bought the brand Rat Trap vanished. I guess their marketing department didn’t approve!

I’ve found that it’s easy enough to save money on Swiss cheese as well. Our favorite Swiss is Jarlsberg, with its smooth texture and rich, nutty flavor. It’s so delicious sliced and served on flatbread crackers with grapes, hazelnuts or almonds, and dried fruit like apricots and cranberries. (I prefer Swiss on crackers, unlike Cheddar, which I enjoy eating out of hand. Maybe it’s because those flatbread crackers, like Rye Crisps, add a satisfying crunch to complement the creaminess of the cheese.) But nobody ever said Jarlsberg was cheap! A chunk of it can eat a chunk out of your grocery budget.

What to do now? Easy. This time, Kraft has come through. I don’t know if it’s because the creamy texture of Swiss neutralizes the plastic packaging, but I’ve found that a block of Cracker Barrel Baby Swiss makes a perfectly good eating Swiss, and you can often find it on sale. You’re not going to end end up eating Jarlsberg, but you will be eating a nice table Swiss to enjoy with crackers, fresh and dried fruit, and nuts. You’ll enhance the experience if you add a little salt—but just a little sprinkle—over the cheese. And you will be saving lots of money while still enjoying Swiss cheese rather than something that tastes like stretchy plastic.

If you have other tips for saving money on cheese—but please, no tips about freezing cheese—please let us know!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Matthew, Mark, George and Ringo. November 10, 2014

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A friend who teaches philosophy at a local community college recently told our friend Ben that he’d asked his class who the current Pope was. Not one hand went up, even though Pope Francis is the most popular Pope of the era, or at least the one with the most media coverage. But let’s give the kids a break: Not everyone is Catholic, after all. Could you name the pastors of the megachurches if you weren’t Evangelical, or name the head of the Anglican Communion if you weren’t Episcopal?

But then, he asked them—a class who identified as Christians—who had written the four Gospels. Again, no hands went up. This is pretty bad, even shocking, to a generation who grew up reciting “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed I lie upon” every night. It’s one thing to ask a class to name the members of the Beatles, or the Monkees, or even Led Zeppelin, a generation or two out. Why would they know or care? But the Gospel writers?! Sheesh.

Get out there and vote. November 4, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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We know these “midterm elections” aren’t exactly thrilling. A friend who volunteers at a polling station every election year tells us the place is almost deserted unless it’s a presidential election. But what happens today will determine who controls the Senate for the next four years, whether your governor is a Republican or Democrat (as is the case here in scenic PA), whether three states legalize medical marijuana. And that’s just the beginning.

So no, a president isn’t being elected tonight. But a lot of very important things are going on, things that could change your life for better or worse. Whatever your party affiliation—Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent—the polls are open ’til 7. Please stop on the way home and cast your vote. Some of these races are so close that your vote will really make a difference.

Harvest time. October 28, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silnce Dogood here. It’s a mild October day, and normally I’d be sitting out on our back deck listening to the corn talk. (The farmers in front and in back of our little cottage here in the middle of nowhere, PA, grow corn, and once it gets tall and dries out, it “talks” with every slightest breeze.) Today, however, I’m hiding in the house.

That’s because the farmers are harvesting the corn behind the house. There’s a terrible noise, and every few minutes a rhino-like, John-Deere-green creature passes in front of our deck doors, bellowing and presumably cutting down corn. This of course isn’t corn on the cob, it’s dried corn and cornstalks to make silage and sustain their milk cows through the winter.

I wonder what our poor chickens make of all this. This will be their first winter, and they love the dried corn in their scratch grains, but I doubt that they’re loving the racket that machine is making. People always tell you that country living is quiet and peaceful, but apparently they forget about the machines.

It’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking about a move. Not to mention all the toxic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and so on. There are plenty of upsides—we have lots of great deck-sitting days—but downsides too. Days we see toxic bubbles from farm chemicals in our stream and wonder if our well water is drinkable. Days we can’t breathe outside because of chemical application. How wonderful to live surrounded by organic farms!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Another reason men aren’t like women. October 14, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. A friend just e-mailed me, telling me that she had an upper respiratory infection and was making garlic-onion soup to try to get rid of it. I understand this completely. When I was recently ill, unable to keep anything down, all I could think about was miso soup and white rice. Healing, soothing: ahhh!!!

But when our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders was recently stricken with agonizing kidney stones, unable to eat, moaning and groaning for days while taking powerful narcotic painkillers nonstop, what was the first thing he wanted to eat once he’d passed the stones? He wanted a “California burger” with the works—mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion, provolone, pickles, potato chips, and a giant order of fries with plenty of ketchup. And a salad and breadsticks on the side, please, with butter for the breadsticks! Our friend Ben and I took him out to get one. He ate every bite, too.

The mysteries of the differences of the sexes will never end, but yowie kazowie. Easing back into health doesn’t seem to be on guys’ agendas. Richard isn’t the only one. God knows, OFB is ready to get up and go the minute he’s able. No miso soup or garlic-onion soup for these guys, bring on the burgers or wings or fried chicken or pizza or whatever. And don’t forget the sides! (Actually, pizza doesn’t sound so bad. Hmmm…)

‘Til next time,

Silence

Birthday cake. October 7, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As it happens, my birthday falls on the long Columbus Day weekend holiday. And so does my sister’s. We were both born on October 11, a year apart, and were both premature, so go figure that, while our brother, born several years and several months later, was a huge, late baby. I now love having been born on a holiday, but growing up, I don’t think I noticed that. Instead, what mattered was the cake.

My mother wasn’t much for dessert, so we almost never got any, except for holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. (Plus, of course, the inevitable Halloween basket.) But for our birthdays, we each got to choose our own cakes. And since my sister and I shared a birthday, we got to choose two cakes. This was a really big deal!

Sadly, at this point I can’t even recall what my brother’s favorite was. (I’ll have to ask him. But I already know the answer: “What are you talking about?”) My sister’s was chocolate cake with homemade chocolate fudge frosting. But mine was always angel food cake with whipped cream icing.

Even out of a box, this was not an easy cake to make. You needed one of those tall cake pans with a tube in the middle and a removable bottom. You needed lots of whipped eggwhites. You needed to get the cake out of the tube pan and let it cool while whipping the cream and adding sugar and vanilla, then chilling the whipped cream until just before icing and serving the cake. When I was a child, in October berries were unavailable, so there were no sliced strawberries or whole blackberries or raspberries or blueberries on the cake, not even any sliced bananas. There certainly was no whipped cream in a can. But I loved the delicious purity of that whipped-cream-topped angel food cake.

These days, if I’m invited to friends’ for my birthday, I’ll still celebrate with angel food cake. This time, the cake will be store-bought, and I’ll have plenty of lovely berries and sliced bananas to nest in layers of whipped cream (still homemade). Yum! It’s no longer my favorite dessert, but it’s still my favorite cake, and it holds so many memories. It’s light, so it doesn’t weigh you down—all those eggwhites, why it’s called “angel food”—a perfect finish for a meal.

Anyway, my point is that every child should get to choose their own birthday cake. It’s such a special thing. Maybe your children will choose a different cake every year, rather than going with the same one as we did. But in a world where everything’s constantly changing, having one ritual that never changes, empowering your children to do one thing exactly as they want it, is more important than I can say. They may not know to thank you now, but they’ll thank you later. And it’s just a cake.

Someone sent me a “happy birthday” e-mail this week, and encouraged me to celebrate with a big slice of cake. I can’t really remember the last time I had cake, or any dessert—usually, it’s food or dessert, and I choose food. But the e-mail reminded me of my childhood, and those birthday cakes, and my family, and the good times. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Recreating spinach balls. September 27, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s not often these days that you find a restaurant, much less a quiet country inn, with a signature dish. But at the Bowers Hotel in the scenic crossroads of Bowers, PA, where chicken cordon blue and chicken marsala, not to mention shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie, and liver and onions, are all still on the menu, one appetizer was the restaurant’s signature dish: baked spinach balls. Try finding those on somebody else’s menu!

The delicious spinach balls were the reason our friend Ben and I have been returning to the Bowers again and again since we first moved to this area. When the restaurant closed for a time before reopening in 1212, the first thing reviewers noted was that the beloved spinach balls were still on the menu. OFB and I loved taking visitors to the Bowers to experience the famous spinach balls for themselves. I’d recently been sick and unable to eat for a week, and last night, I insisted that OFB and I head to the Bowers so I could celebrate my recovery by sharing a plate of spinach balls.

Oops, what are spinach balls, anyway? They’re basically a mix of spinach and breadcrumbs, shaped golf-ball size and pan-fried or baked to a golden crispiness outside, then served hot over shredded Romaine lettuce with a honey-mustard dipping sauce. (And trust me, even if you think you hate honey-mustard, it’s a perfect match for spinach balls.) When we first encountered them, they were pan-fried, with a higher proportion of breadcrumbs to spinach. The latest incarnation had lots more spinach to breadcrumbs and was baked to make a healthier appetizer. Both were really good.

Backtracking to our experience last night, we arrived at the Bowers in a triumphant mood. (At least I did: Free to eat at last!) And then I looked at the menu. I looked at the appetizer menu again, and again, and again. No spinach balls. When our server arrived for our drink order, I asked where they were. “The chef’s replaced them with spinach-artichoke dip. Nobody was ordering them.” Spinach-artichoke dip! Excuse me, this isn’t Applebee’s!

I was devastated. But I wondered if, just once, I might be able to recreate the spinach balls at home, since they weren’t fried (something I refuse to do, eeeewww). What could go into them, I wondered. Thawed frozen spinach rather than fresh, I was guessing, cooked and with the liquid pressed out. Minced onion. Breadcrumbs. And a binder, such as beaten eggs or eggwhites, plus salt and pepper to suit.

I was unable to find the recipes used at the Bowers Hotel online (sob). But I did find a recipe on Epicurious that I thought captured the spirit of the dish and would be easy enough to make at home. Here’s a version of it:

Spinach Balls

Makes about 2 dozen.

1 10-oz. box frozen spinach
1 cup herbed bread stuffing (such as Pepperidge Farm)
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup grated Paresan cheese
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Cook spinach according to directions on box. Drain well. Mix in all other ingredients, continuing until well mixed. (Add more stuffing mix if needed.)

Form balls of 1 teaspoon-1 tablespoon size as desired. Bake on lightly greased cookie sheet at 350 degrees F. until lightly golden and done. Serve with honey mustard or the mustard of your choice as a dipping sauce.

Double recipe as desired. These freeze and reheat well.

Another thing I found in my researches was a recipe from a British restaurant chain (and possibly grocery) called Carluccio’s for a wonderfully delicious-sounding pasta dish with giant penne and spinach balls. The thought of making the spinach balls crispy, then adding them to a basic Alfredo sauce over pasta, struck me as brilliant. Will I make that? I don’t know, but I’d love it if someone made it for me. Will I try making from-scratch baked spinach balls at home? Yes, probably. Will I grieve the loss of another regional specialty? Absolutely.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Happy Hobbit Day! September 23, 2014

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Today, September 22, is Hobbit Day. And as huge fans of JRR Tolkien’s beloved book The Hobbit and all things hobbit, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac thought we’d celebrate with a quiz. See how much you really know about hobbits! The answers will follow the quiz, but no cheating, now:

1. Bilbo Baggins lived to be:
a) 111
b) 75
c) 120
d) no one knows

2. Bilbo’s home was called:
a) Baggins
b) Bag End
c) Bag Hall
d) Boromir

3. Frodo Baggins was originally called:
a) Fungo, after a cartoon ferret
b) Drogo, after a horse lord from “Game of Thrones”
c) Bingo, after a toy koala
d) Groucho, after a popular comedian

4. A song was written as a tribute to Bilbo. Who wrote and performed it?
a) Captain Kangaroo
b) David Bowie
c) Michael Jackson
d) Leonard Nimoy

5. Who tried to steal Bilbo’s silverware, auction off his belongings, and move into his house?
a) a gang of trolls
b) Samwise Gamgee
c) the Sackville-Bagginses
d) the Black Riders

6. The wizard Gandalf came to Bilbo’s final birthday party. Why?
a) for old times’ sake
b) to shoot off fireworks
c) to check in on old Bilbo
d) to take the Ring of Power for himself

7. Where does Bilbo want to go when he “retires”?
a) to Laketown
b) to the halls of the Elvenking in Mirkwood
c) to Mordor
d) to Elrond’s halls in Rivendell (Imladris)

8. To which of these hobbits is Bilbo Baggins related?
a) The Old Took
b) Belladonna Took
c) Bullroarer Took
d) Peregrine Took (Pippin)

9. What do Bilbo and the creature Gollum do when they meet?
a) eat raw fish Gollum has just strangled
b) play chess
c) exchange riddles
d) show their childhood photos and exchange childhood memories

10. What is a hobbit?
a) a small, quiet, singular creature that inhabits Middle-Earth along with larger beings like dwarves, elves, and men
b) the name is a cross between rabbits and humans; JRR Tolkien created them to amuse his young children
c) a heroic small race whose attributes, though modest, enabled first Bilbo and then Frodo and Sam to save the day when no other race could
d) the hero of a parable: YOU can save the day (or the world), no matter how unimportant you—and everyone else—thinks you are

And now for the answers:

1. d) Bilbo sailed away with the Elves at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; no one knows how old he lived to be.

2. b) Bag End. It’s basically in a luxury suburb of Hobbiton (as opposed to Bree or Bywater).

3. c) Frodo was originally called Bingo, after Tolkiens’s sons’ toy koalas. And Frodo was originally Bilbo’s son, not his nephew!

4. d) Leonard Nimoy. Good thing Doctor Spock mostly stuck to acting! Though you could certainly call his performance “out of this world.” Yowie kazowie!

5. c) Bilbo’s greedy, hateful, pretentious relatives, the Sackville-Bagginses.

6. a-c) Any or all of the first three would be correct as to why Bilbo’s dear old friend came to his 111th birthday party.

7. d) Bilbo had a fascination with Elves from the time he was a little hobbit, and when he actually saw Rivendell, he fell in love with them and their lifestyle.

8. a-d) Bilbo is a Took through and through on his mother Belladonna’s side; he’s related to all of them, even the foolish but lovable Peregrine Took (Pippin).

9. c) JRR Tolkien, a scholar of ancient Norse cultures and literature, must have found a connecting link across cultures in riddling. While it’s hard to imagine meeting someone now, especially a potential enemy, and challenging them to a game of riddles, Tolkien either found this plausible or didn’t want to scare his little boys, for whom The Hobbit was written.

10. a-d) All of the above. Hard to believe that Tolkien started out imagining hobbits as rabbit-sized people who lived in humanized rabbit holes, given the great importance they’ve taken on in the popular imagination. But there you are!

How’d you do? Happy Hobbit Day from our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders here at Poor Richard’s Almanac!

Chewable toothpaste. September 17, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. For most people, brushing your teeth is just another routine chore, like taking a shower or clipping your nails. But for me, it’s a dreaded ordeal. I have thyroiditis, and, for whatever reason, when I stick a toothbrush in my mouth, it usually makes me throw up. NOT fun!

So you can imagine how excited I was to read about toothpaste tablets in yesterday’s newsfeed. Toothpaste tablets?! I instantly pictured the equivalent of Greenies and other dog treats that cleaned dogs’ teeth while they chewed on them. The thought of chewing on a toothpaste tablet, even if I had to do it for ten minutes, spit out the remains, and wash out my mouth, sure beat throwing up.

I rushed to my good friend Google to see if this was true, or too good to be true. It turns out to be a little of both. There actually are toothpaste tablets, marketed both for children who are toothpaste-averse and for travelers who don’t want to carry tubes of toothpaste on planes. But in every case, you chew up the tablet, then brush your teeth. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help me at all. Rats! I’m not prepared to start chewing Greenies myself, so it’s back to the drawing board.

‘Til next time,

Silence

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