Saturday, March 24, 2007

This and That

Now that Spring has officially sprung, it seems fittin' and proper to feature a photo of this spring blooming hedge plant, known variously as English laurel or Cherry laurel or simply flowering laurel. When the plant is in full bloom, it looks to be covered with about a kajillion fat, frothy lace candles.

Around here, should one keep it clipped and trimmed, the laurel makes fantastic hedges although, in some parts of the northwest, it's considered an invasive plant. I've not seen evidence of "suckering" tendencies in this area but I do know the laurel turns into a tall fat tree if left untrimmed. I know of at least two homes around here that used to have quite nice laurel hedges until the trimming amenity was neglected. They now have quite nice laurel trees that rise triumphantly above roof level of the houses.

This seems a good time to cover a couple of questions about bread that have come in, either from the Comments link or in private mail. I always give you recipes as whupped out on the dough cycle of my bread machine. I have been asked whether bread machine recipes can be converted to stand mixer and/or to old-fashioned hand mixing. Yes. Absolutely. Perhaps the easiest way to get a handle on the differences is to pull up Google and type in something like "convert bread machine recipe" and browse the links that show up. Basically, it pretty much comes down to the order in which you mix ingredients.

Sometimes I mention the addition of Vital Wheat Gluten in my recipes. This is an optional ingredient but I've learned to love it. Keep it in a container in the freezer. You can usually find it at the supermarket in the flour section. If you're making bread with all white flour, you don't really need it. Vital Wheat Gluten makes a huge difference, however, in the rising and the lightness of texture if you're using any kind of whole grain flour. For more info on this and other bread dough additions, go here and scroll down the page.

Hmmm. Well, now -- what's happened here is all this talk about the venerated Staff of Life has got my tummy perking up and asking, "What's for lunch?" Oh dear. I'll have to think on that. Excuse me while I mentally mull over the assorted contents of shelf and cupboard, preparatory to mindlessly mauling selected items into edible form. We have to keep our respective tummies happy or they will simply drive us mad. And some of us don't have far to go.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Rainbow Bridge

I love this photo of Mei Tu. It was taken last June, when he flopped down in the shade one day and called me to come play with him.

For those of you who might not know, Mei Tu belonged to my late buddy, Annie, who had the herb garden next door. After she died, several of us took over making sure his food was always laid out in the usual place beside the patio. Somewhere along the way, Mei Tu decided we could be friends (he had been most emphatically a one-woman cat when Annie was alive) and he pretty much moved in with Ralph and me on this side of the street.

This past week I noticed he seemed awfully tired and a bit off his feed. Instead of his usual hearty appetite, he would munch a few mouthfuls and then sit quietly, just contemplating the world. Because we had a stretch of days with lovely weather, he and I would venture out into the sunshine, leaving Ralph to gorge himself at his food dish. There we would sit, carrying on a conversation and indulging in a mutual touchy-feely orgy, with me scratching and stroking while he wound around my ankles and purred.

Until Saturday. I went downstairs to feed the "boys" and found Mei Tu laying beside the food dishes. It looked as though he had been walking along and simply collapsed. Heart attack? I don't know. All I know is, wherever Annie may be, I hope Mei Tu has joined her. And I know I miss him way more than I thought I could, dammit.

Today my youngest daughter, Patti, came down and helped me bury Mei Tu in Annie's garden. We picked a spot near one of the peaceful "alcoves" that contains a couple of chairs and a little table. There, beneath a towering rose and surrounded by clumps of Annie's beloved lavender, we dug the hole and carefully consigned his body to the space. Atop the burial mound, we placed a crock containing assorted sedum plants. It wasn't until we were almost through scattering bark over the soil that I noticed the name tag for the lavender variety -- "Graves" English Lavender, or "Lavandula angustifolia."

Annie must have a kajillion different varieties of lavender in that garden. What are the odds that we would end up beside the one with that name? I swear I didn't do it on purpose. But I'll bet Annie did.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Sliced Vegetable Soup

I've got to share this bread recipe with y'all. It's quite different from anything I've ever tried before and the result is astonishingly good. Imagine a bread that tastes somewhat like vegetable soup! Really.

The trick is in the liquid used (tomato juice) and the seasoning (which you can vary greatly) and the grated carrots. I don't see why you couldn't experiment with adding some finely minced or grated veggies of all kinds, like bell peppers and olives and whatever grabs your fancy. Anyway, here's the basic recipe for VEGGIE BREAD:

Put two eggs in a 1 cup measuring cup and add enough tomato juice to make 1 cup of liquid. Whisk together and put in your bread machine pan. (I used a 5.5 ounce can of 'mater juice. If your eggs are very large, one might do the job.) Toss in 2 tablespoons butter or butter-flavored Crisco, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 tablespoon dried minced onion and 1 tablespoon seasoning of choice -- I used Mrs. Dash. You could also use Italian seasoning or dill weed or basil or any combination of seasonings that appeal to you.

Now add 2 cups regular flour and 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, 3 tablespoons vital wheat gluten and 1 tablespoon yeast. On top of everything, toss in 1/2 cup grated carrots. Set machine to the dough cycle and let 'er rock and roll. When it's done, flop out on lightly floured or greased surface and knead out air bubbles. Shape into loaf and let rise again in bread pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes.

The fragrance of this bread will drive you crazy as it bakes, that's how good it is. Can you imagine the flavor when you use it for sandwiches piled with cheese and tomatoes and onions and avocado? Oh bliss. Oh ecstasy. Oh sliced vegetable soup. Yes!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Annual DST Bitch and Moan

Those of you who have shared coffee with me over the years will recall I am not a fan of Daylight Saving time. I go along with it only because, to quote the Borg, resistance is futile. Besides, I'm convinced lack of rebellion gives me the right to indulge in bouts of therapeutic bitching each year when the dreaded DST goes into effect. A righteous therapeutic bitch is -- uhmmm -- therapeutic.

This year, when we are forced to suffer the effects of DST earlier than usual, I feel my bile gland bubble and sputter accordingly. Ye gods and little guppies, can they never quit meddling? They shout far and wide about the joys of that extra hour of sunlight in the evening, never mentioning for a moment the missing hour of sunlight in the morning, when you really need it. Nor do they ever reveal the effects of adjustment trauma every year as folks struggle to get all the clocks set correctly while they stagger around, muttering, "Spring forward, fall back."

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that practically everything comes with a clock anymore. Clocks in the car, on the coffee maker, the microwave, stove and/or oven, the computer, cell phones -- for all I know, they might even have clocks on the variable speed drill and the weed whacker. The point is, twice a year, you have to go around changing the durned thangs ... assuming you even remember them all. Our computers, bless their motherboards, are practically the only units with a clock that take care of the change themselves.

Let's not forget, while we're cursing and fuming, the problems inherent in adjusting the good old-fashioned sun dial. Yes, it can be done (see Wikepedia's explanation, which makes my head ache) if you have a sun dial that CAN be adjusted. You know, that might illustrate the problem, right there. We have made it far too easy to fiddle with our clocks. I'll bet nobody considered DST back when sun dials were the only way to go. You just marked time with "sun up" and "sun down" and that was it. No muss. No fuss. No running around, frantically punching buttons and twirling wheels, only to have the electricity go off just long enough to require you to do the drill again.

What is this obsession we modern humans have with time? I mean, gee whiz, sunrise and sunset is not good enough for us? We have to fiddle with the stately progression of stars and planets and the whole flippin' universe? The ancient Mayans were considered to be incredibly sophisticated with their knowledge and accuracy in dealing with time and, by golly, they didn't muck around with DST. Nossir. They did the heavy stuff, like building pyramids, in the morning when it was relatively cool and then, in the heat of the afternoon, they could relax. Probably sat around in the shady Mayan equivalent of Starbucks, sipping their stylish mixtures of coffee and chocolate and chili and cinnamon, four of the major food groups of Central America.

There are less anal ways to determine time than enslaving oneself to a pitiless clock. I'm reminded of a logger I knew who would come in for an after-work beer every evening when he got through with the job. He'd sip the beer and visit with friends and then he'd say, "Okay, one more beer for the rooster." He'd drink the second beer and head for home.

One day I asked him, "I've heard of one more for the road but never one more for the rooster. What is that all about?" He grinned and explained. "I have a very punctual bladder," he said. "When I get home, I won't go to the bathroom before I hit the sack. Nor will I have to set the alarm clock, even though I have to get up really early in the morning. This second beer will be demanding my attention at exactly the right time. Works better than an alarm clock -- or a rooster."

He never mentioned adjusting for DST but, in his case, it would probably entail the simple procedure of adding a third beer to the ritual. For myself, I have not been able to achieve the same accuracy with coffee. I either wake up at 2:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. -- and then I have to read for awhile before I can go back to sleep. My rooster crows to a different drummer.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Yolking Around

Teetering on the edge of offering unsolicited advice to a friend, I pulled back just in the proverbial nick of time and sent "break a leg" wishes instead. The phrase that flashed into my alleged mind to stifle the well-meant effort was, "Don't try to teach your grandmother to suck eggs."

That phrase has always seemed beyond bizarre to me. Oh, I understand it means one shouldn't try to advise an expert in their own field when you, yourself, don't know diddly-squat about the subject. But -- SUCK EGGS? The mental picture that forms make me gasp in shock. Both of my grandmothers -- and my great-grandmother -- were lovely, gentle women. Sturdy, hard-working, pragmatic -- all of these things, yes. But why, in heaven's name, would they be sucking eggs? In my mind's eye, I see the appalled expressions on their faces as they contemplate the eggs and ask that same question.

It's a very old expression -- in use many long centuries past -- so maybe sucking eggs had an entirely different impact then. Today, if you tell someone to suck eggs, you're not being polite at all. You may, in fact, be setting yourself up for a temporary diet consisting of anything that can be sucked through a straw, including egg nog. But way back in the olden days (heh-heh), maybe sucking eggs was a serious task.

Aha! A bit of research indicates terminology may be the problem. Actually, when it comes to eggs, sucking and blowing seem to be interchangeable terms, sometimes depending on whether one is using the one-hole or the two-hole method of draining an egg shell of its contents. To further confuse the issue, the much-maligned egg-sucking hound dog does neither. He just gobbles up the whole durned egg, shell and all.

Anyway, egg sucking (or blowing) has an honorable purpose, both way back then and right here and now, just in terms of crafting artfully decorated shells. There are numerous online sites explaining the methodology, such as this or this. There is also a neat web site that shows you how to suck eggs into a jug or bottle and even tells you how to get the egg back out again. Well, okay. That might be fun to try once but, dang, I believe I'll pass. Don't think I want to use the egg after it goes through all that and there don't seem to be any egg-sucking hounds in the neighborhood to pick up the slack.

So, okay, I feel a little better about the whole thing. That is to say, not so much like I'm insulting my grandmothers if I use the term. Still, seems to me we could get the idea across just as well by saying, "Don't try to teach your grandmother to make pie crust." Or crochet doilies. Or make lye soap. Or darn socks.

Can't help but wonder, though, now that I've dug into the subject ... did my grandmothers know how to suck eggs?