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Perfect pomegranate cocktails. December 30, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. You’ve heard that pomegranates, pomegranate juice, basically pomegranate everything is good for you, right? So it had to only be a matter of time before someone developed a pomegranate liqueur. Our friend Ben and I discovered this on Christmas Eve, when we’d been invited to celebrate with good friends and our hostess surprised us with a Christmas present—a bottle of Pama.

When we opened the bottle, we immediately noticed the heavenly fragrance and brilliant red color. We could tell from the smell that this was going to be sweet—way too sweet to drink on its own. (For us, anyway.) We needed something bitter to tone it down, and bubbly to cut the syrupy texture. Mandarin orange sparkling water to the rescue! The chilled, carbonated water was exactly what the Pama needed. (Think a goblet of 1/8 Pama to 7/8 sparkling water.) Beautiful red holiday color and light, effervescent texture!

If you’d like something a bit sweeter, you could swap out Martini Asti or Yellowtail White Bubbles for the sparkling water in the same proportion. (Or whatever pleases you!) There are more recipes with the bottle, and no doubt still more online. What a great way to celebrate the New Year, with this simple cocktail! Perhaps adding some pomegranate seeds and an orange slice would be the perfect finishing touch.

‘Til next time,



Is the bell still ringing ’round your house? December 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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To paraphrase the two gentlemen who accosted Scrooge on Christmas Eve in Charles Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol, at this festive season of the year, the poor feel want more keenly as the cold bites hard and the well-to-do rejoice. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love the scene in the musical “Scrooge” where you see poor Bob Cratchit trying to pull together Christmas for his impoverished family against a backdrop of well-to-do Victorians and what they’re able to buy. It would be enough to give even a Scrooge, as Mrs. Cratchit points out, a piece of her mind to think about.

The great divide between the rich and poor in the Victorian era was as great as our own today, but there was a difference: The Scrooges of the past didn’t have to see the poor unless they wanted to. They were shut away in workhouses and poorhouses and coal mines and factories, the Oliver Twists (another great Dickens creation) of the world. Deprivation and dirt were ways of life. (Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” lives this kind of life at home in District 12.)

Today, the poor aren’t kept away from us. We see them shopping at Wal*Mart or eating a Big Mac, painting their nails and using their electronics just like us. They don’t look thin or hungry—cheap but filling convenience-store food usually makes sure of that—unless they’re homeless, and they’re certainly not begging.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not suffering. Just this week, we read about a grandmother who was caught trying to shoplift a carton of eggs to feed her multigenerational household because the carton cost $1.75 and she only had $1.25 and was desperate. (The policeman called to the scene bought her the eggs, and she tried to give him the $1.25. In the ultimate happy ending scenario, she wasn’t charged and the townspeople started sending in food for her family and other needy people in their area.) Also this week, we read about families who had to choose between food and health care every month.

Pope Francis is building baths in one wing of the Vatican so the poor and homeless can take regular baths and feel better about themselves. And the soup kitchens and rescue missions are as busy as ever, while the rest of us have been documented throwing out an ungodly amount of food—48%, if memory serves—not even bothering to compost it or, say, feed it to the chickens or earthworms. Our friend Ben is sure Pope Francis’s favorite birthday present this year was the massive amount of meat a Spanish meat organization donated for distribution to the poor in his name.

Getting back to the point of this post, for many years around this time, everywhere our friend Ben and Silence went, we would encounter the jolly Santa and the black Salvation Army kettle, his bell ringing furiously as he doubtless froze to death. In front of one local pharmacy, Santa had been replaced by caroling kids. Whatever the size of our offering, we were always happy to give. But for the past three or so years, the black kettles and their tenders have been gone. Whatever happened to them?

We used to have a thriving Goodwill in the shopping mall in the closest little town to us. It was always packed with people, most of whom appeared to be buying clothes, shoes, toys, and the like for their families, most of whom were poor, most of whom spoke a language other than English. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood loved the Goodwill—going there was like treasure-hunting, you never knew what you’d find—and, as noted, it was as crowded as Cabela’s, a godsend for people for whom Wal*Mart was a luxury. A thriving business. Then one day, it was gone. We were horrified, but what must the people who depended on it to clothe and entertain their children think?

Just yesterday, we went to drop off some clothes at one of those drop-boxes in a pharmacy parking lot, only to find that it, too, was gone, and nobody seemed to know where another one was. Why and where had it gone?

In areas where just getting from one place to another is an issue if you don’t have a car, having stores like Goodwill just pack up and leave is a real hardship. For those of us who’d like to bring a little warmth and good cheer to those in want during the Christmas season, failing to find Santa with his bell and black kettle on every corner is really demoralizing.

If the bell’s still ringing ’round your house, please give to keep it going. For us, it’s one of the happiest sounds of Christmas.

And please, don’t waste food this year while others are going hungry!

Try a Red Roo this Christmas. December 15, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. This past Saturday, I was reading an article in The Wall Street Journal called “The Tippling Point.” The article was about the rising popularity of Champagne cocktails, how they were breaking out of the “Mimosa brunch” category and turning up at parties and suppers.

According to the article, this was because good Champagnes were becoming so affordable that people could afford to use them in cocktails (unthinkable with expensive estate Champagnes), that other sparkling wines like Cava and sparkling rose and Asti and Prosecco were becoming available in dry versions that were even more affordable then Champagne and delicious in cocktails. They also pointed out that Champagne cocktails went well with any food, were very light on the stomach, and left you feeling refreshed the following day as opposed to hung over.

The article interviewed seasoned mixologists about their (and their patrons’) favorite Champagne cocktails. I noticed that, while the Champagne or its equivalent sparkling wine may have cost “only” $30 a bottle, there were bazillion uber-expensive or unavailable ingredients in the form of liqueurs or, say, fresh-squeezed Meyer lemons (and where will you get those?) or homemade simple syrup infused with 10 super-expensive, elusive spices and strained through God-knows-what after cooking? Geez. By the end of it all, you might as well just show up at the party with a bottle of Champagne.

What I did notice, however, was that the basic recipes for the various Champagne cocktails included liqueurs, bitters, and typically fruit and fruit liqueurs (strained). Reading that you have to shake and strain a cocktail is enough to make me break out in hives: Can’t you just pour it in the damned glass and drink it? But I digress.

My favorite liqueur is Campari, the beautiful red herbal bitter aperitif. Typically, I drink a splash of Campari with mandarin orange sparkling water and a splash of Key lime juice. But I was inspired by The Wall Street Journal article to invent a “Champagne cocktail” of my own, one that’s affordable, flavorful, and beautiful.

Bless our friend Ben, he’d recently surprised me with a bottle of Campari and a bottle of Pink Bubbles, a dry sparkling rose. It’s made by Yellowtail, whose symbol is the yellow-tailed kangaroo (thus the “Roo” in Red Roo). I find it delicious as is (chilled, of course), and you can get a bottle for $9.99 around here. Can’t beat that price! Campari will set you back a bit more, as in about $28.99 a bottle, but you use so little in a Red Roo that a single bottle will see you well into the New Year.

Using just a little Campari is key here: It’s bitter, sweet, and complex, and you want it to color and add some flavor notes to your Red Roo, not overpower it. Try a jigger in your wine glass to start with, then fill the glass with chilled Pink Bubbles. (Do not be put off by the too-cute name, this is good stuff, I promise.) The color should be a perfect Christmas red, and the flavor should be delicious, with a light texture and that luscious sparkly finish. If you find you have a taste for Campari, you can always up the amount you put in your Red Roo, but not to the point where you weigh it down or make it too sweet, please.

Unlike everyone in the article I read, I don’t happen to own a set of coupe glasses or Champagne flutes. I don’t have room for glassware that can only be used for one thing, and I have better things to do with my money. So I use plain old wineglasses for my Red Roos, and they look both beautiful and festive. And taste amazing. Try some this holiday season. Cheers!

Note: I thought up a complementary holiday “Champagne” cocktail to offer holiday guests, the Green Roo. You’d substitute Absinthe (“the green fairy”) for the Campari and Bubbles (Yellowtail’s sparkling white, also dry and quite good on its own) for the Pink Bubbles. I’d think a tray of these red and green sparkling cocktails would be an amazing kickoff to any holiday gathering. Assuming the Absinthe remained green. And clear.

Absinthe is an herbal aperitif like Campari, and it got a bad name after so many French artists died after hanging out in clubs and bars drinking it. It was considered the opium of its day. As a result, it was banned here until just recently, when someone finally figured out that it wasn’t the Absinthe per se, but drinking until their livers failed, that killed all those idiots.

Despite Absinthe’s reprieve, I can’t recommend the Green Roo, simply because I’ve never had Absinthe. And I have a bad feeling that I read somewhere that when you add it to a glass, it becomes cloudy, which would hardly enhance a sparkling cocktail, much less give it a green color. But then, why did they call it “the green fairy”? If anyone knows the answer to these mysteries, please let me know.

Meanwhile, enjoy your Red Roos!

‘Til next time,


Keep your Christmas plants alive. December 7, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, pets.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were determined to get some poinsettias and cyclamen for our mantel and Christmas table yesterday. We didn’t want anything fancy—just two white cyclamen and two scarlet poinsettias for our mantel, and one large red poinsettia and two smaller white poinsettias for our Christmas table. We’ve found that the mantel plants are perfect with our Christmas tree with its red balls and twinkly white lights, and the kitchen table is too small for anything more elaborate than our poinsettias and two red candles.

As we were driving back from another classic display, the Goschenhoppen Historians’ Christmas market, we passed a small greenhouse that had been on the road from Green Lane to Red Hill just about forever. It was a classic mom-and-pop operation, its signs said it was open, and one of them said they grew their own poinsettias, a real rarity in this age when most greenhouses, groceries and the like buy theirs as “plugs” (started plants) from one or two enormous poinsettia greenhouses. Silence and I screeched to a halt, turned around, and returned to the little greenhouse.

It was a horrible, cold, drizzly, miserable day, the kind where you just can’t wait to get back inside and crank up the heat or turn up the fire. No wonder we were the only customers, and Grandma was the only person minding the store. But the plants were gorgeous, and Grandma was full of good, easy advice for keeping them healthy. Since we only bought the cyclamen and poinsettias, this is what she told us:

To keep cyclamen fresh and healthy, don’t water them until the soil is dry. The leaves may wilt, but the second you water them, they’ll perk up and the plant will look beautiful, including those gorgeous patterned leaves. Choose plants with plenty of buds coming on (look at the base inside the leaves), and you’ll have gorgeous blooms continuing through Easter.

As for poinsettias, Grandma said the only thing that could make them wilt was to overwater them. We’ve heard that before, too: That you can kill poinsettias by overwatering them, but otherwise, you’ll enjoy them through the summer. Our small white poinsettias (free from our local bank last Christmas) lasted through the summer. Who’s to know what these will do? Let us know how yours hold up.

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,


Saving money on cheese. December 1, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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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,