Friday, August 31, 2007

Gold In Them Thar Loaves

I can see from the hole in the heel, I didn't get all the air bubbles out when I shaped the loaves for the bread pans. Not that it matters. I got two loaves of some wicked good bread ... and I'd better enjoy it because it might not happen again.

You know how that happens. You get to fooling around, tossing in so much of this and a little bit of that and maybe just a tinch of thus and so. Lo! It turns out most excellent and you're not at all sure you will ever be able to remember how you did it this time so how the hell can you count on doing it again next time?

It started with the remainder of the can of coconut milk that I had used for the Thai peanut sauce in yesterday's culinary adventure. There was almost a cup left and I sure didn't want to waste it so I thought, hmmm, wonder how it would be in bread?

Then I got to thinking about the squash I had cooked up. You know, the mystery squash I showed you a couple of weeks ago. I had cooked it in the oven, then sliced and diced it. Some of it went in a veggie soup and I scored a couple of bags for the freezer. There was about a cup of it left that I figured just might go well in the bread.

So I pulled out the pan for the bread machine and set to work. First I whisked an egg into the coconut milk and warmed it in the microwave, then dumped it in the pan. Then I tossed in, oh, say about half a cup of sun-dried tomato wedges. (translation: dried in my trusty dehydrator) Then 3 cups of all-purpose flour and 1 cup of whole wheat flour and 3 tablespoons of vital wheat gluten. That latter really does seem to make a huge difference in how well the dough rises when you use whole wheat flour.

I thought about it for a bit and decided to add something like 1/3 cup of sugar, figuring it would compliment the squash. I was looking for something in between sweet and savory. Then a tablespoon of kosher salt. Yes, a whole tablespoon. Trust me. I topped all that with the cubed squash and a tablespoon of yeast.

Dayum, I said to myself. That isn't going to be enough liquid for that much flour. There was a wine glass sitting on the counter so I grabbed it and filled it half full of warm water and tossed that in with everything else. Looked spiffy to me.

As you can see, everything was done seat-of-the-pants style. If you want to duplicate the adventure, I see no reason to get obsessive about measurements. Your version may well come out a whole lot better. For instance, I'm thinking now that using brown sugar instead of white would have been even better. Go for the gold!

And there is a lot of gold in this bread. The machine does such a good job of kneading that both the tomatoes and the squash were reduced to picturesque little flecks of red and gold throughout the dough. And the flavor. Oh bliss. I had some plain. I had some with blackberry jam. I smiled a lot. I'm awfully glad I made two loaves. This is going to go fast!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

It's a Jungle In Here

A mere three weeks and three days ago, I showed you this pot of baby basil plants. Remember? I had this trio in here, on the window sill by my desk and another pot with a single plant on the window sill by the dining table. I was figuring to compare the difference in growth between the southern exposure (here) and the western exposure (there).

Well! I ended up with all the plants in the dining area window as of a week or so ago. The singleton was doing its best to outgrow the triplets. Also, the singleton seemed perkier, somehow. The leaves of the trio tend to hold themselves in a sort of umbrella mode. I thought that might change with the new location but, no, they continue to bow like inscrutable Orientals and the singleton continues to do its jumping jack routine.

Aside from that minor personality quirk, all four plants are suddenly behaving as though they want to form their own private jungle. I pinched off the top leaves of each plant maybe two weeks ago and they have unquestionably begun to get bushier -- even as they continue to vault vertically.

Here they are, as of today, gracing the window sill and telling me they're ready for another trim. I'm sure there will be an entry on the menu that would benefit from the addition of a few tender basil leaves. I'll just have to think on it a bit. Something will come to me.

At the moment I sitting here content after a dinner of shrimp and mixed rice. I tried something a little different when I made the rice. Threw in a handful of the blueberries I had dried in the dehydrator. They plumped up as the rice cooked and make marvelous little surprise jewels of semi-tart sweetness in the finished dish -- especially welcome since the Scoville rating of the mixture got a bit out of hand.

What it was, was, I sorta-kinda overdid the red curry paste. I had thought to saute the shrimp in a mixture of curry, olive oil and soy sauce before adding the rice. I wondered if I had been a bit too generous with the curry when the fumes coming up from the pan made me catch my breath. Then, when my taste buds began screaming and begging to jump in the pool, I realized there needed to be a rescue effort. A quickie peanut sauce with bit of coconut milk and the remainder of my peanut butter supply soon had the mixture gentled down to a thermal level that didn't require asbestos mouth liners. Sure cleared out my sinuses though.

Now I'm just relaxing and checking in on the afternoon football games every now and then. My guys don't start playing until sevenish, Pacific time, so I can dink around a bit. And yes, my taste buds are fine, thank you. Semi-conscious but fine. When you live in a jungle, you have to learn survival tactics, don'cha know?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I'm With Charlie

Ah. Now I know summer is trickling away and autumn is starting to fill the pool. It's that time of year again. You know what I mean. Don't pretend you don't remember my seasonal insanity.

This is when I equate "fine cuisine" with Tailgate Food. It's when I spend agonizing hours over stats and standings to pick the winning teams each week. It's when I make rash promises to the football gods if they'll just give my beloved Raiders some good mojo this year. (Can I help it if I can't find any sacrificial virgins any more?)

It's also when I sign up for Field Pass, which allows me access, via radio feed, to any NFL game being played each week. See, this is the last week I can sign up and still get the discount. Gotta love that discount. So I done gone and did it. This morning. Which means I can listen to a preseason game tomorrow evening, when my Raiders mix it up with the Seahawks.

It isn't that one takes preseason games all that seriously. They are, after all, a series of shake-down cruises to see how well the children play together. They save their good stuff for regular season. But it gives us a chance to get back into the swing of things without succumbing to emotional trauma right out of the chute. If the guys look less than heroic, we can always shrug and say, "This has only been a test. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along."

This is also the time of year I fondly contemplate my old buddy Charlie Brown, of Peanuts fame and lore. If you recall, nearly every year poor ol' Charlie went through the tortures of the downtrodden with that treacherous bitch, Lucy, when she'd swear to hold the football steady so he could kick it. And she never did. And Charlie would always end up on his back, aching and humiliated just one more time. Except for one year when she didn't jerk the ball away -- and Charlie missed!

Over the years, this seasonal duel has become a metaphor for many things. A quick Google browse will show you that, sometimes in the most astonishing ways. Basically, though, it's always stood as an example of things just not working out for poor ol' Charlie. But some of us who can't help cheering for the underdogs (remember -- I'm a Raiders fan) got an optimistic lift from the same-old-same-old ball-jerking routine before Schultz died. If you go here, you will be treated to a very good article by Jake Austen, who shares some interesting background. Best of all, he reproduces the final strip (of the football gig) in which Charlie Brown finally -- well -- you have to see it for yourself.

NOTE: The football cartoon used for this entry has been gratefully scooped up from a talented cartoonist named Jeff Bucchino, the Wizard of Draws. Thanks, Jeff!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sharing Blackberries

When I cut across the park area to go to the Post Office, my path goes right past the wild azalea bush. The azalea blossoms are long gone in this, the shank of the summer, but a wild blackberry vine has twined itself through the branches and is steadily ripening a few juicy berries at a time.

It works out great. I grab a few berries on the way over and have them all well consumed by the time I walk through the Post Office door. On the way back, I grab another handful and perch on a stump under the redwood tree while I eat them. That leaves plenty for the birds and, next time I go for mail, there will be more that have ripened.

I suppose there would be enough for a small cobbler if I wanted one. I think about that every time I pick some of the berries. And each time I vote in favor of enjoying a few right off the bush, out in the sunshine -- or the shade, as the case may be. Some things really can't be improved upon and I'm thinking wild blackberries are in that category.

Wait. I could throw some in a bowl of Brownie batter. That works with raspberries so I don't see why it wouldn't be equally fine with blackberries. It occurs to me I can be ever so easily subverted with a little judiciously placed chocolate. Well, there you go. Some of us are just easy.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Bug Off!

Responding to the last post, Bex toyed with the idea of using basil plants to repel skeeters. With the West Nile virus carriers in the area, the need to protect is certainly of primary concern.

Curious my own self, I started Googling "insect repellent plants." There is a lot of valuable information on the subject -- and a lot of plants that will do the job. There are also certain plants that, though advertised as repellents, simply aren't.

More importantly, a plant just sitting there in a pot or in the flower bed is in no position to be of help to us. The leaves have to be crushed to release the oils that do the job -- and, like as not, we need to smear the stuff on our skin to fend off the buggy-wuggies. It's my understanding that certain plants do help keep an area free of some insects simply by their presence but we're talking about protection from skeeter bites here and that is more of a hands-on thing.

One caveat: there is such a thing as allergic reaction. Some folks can't handle certain plants so it's a good idea to proceed with caution if you have any doubts, okay? For instance, if you know you're allergic to ragweed, you might also get a reaction from chamomile.

I mention that because chamomile is my personal favorite in the mosquito repellent sweepstakes. The word is Greek and means "ground apple." Indeed, it has a wonderful, light, apple-like scent. Some folks think it smells like pineapple. The above picture, which I borrowed (with an attitude of gratitude) from the Gates & Croft Horticultural Design site, is labeled as Pineapple Weed but, around here, it's the variety of chamomile found growing wild. More of a ground cover than an upright plant and the blossom is more center and very little in the way of petals. Other varieties of chamomile look like a type of daisy. When in doubt, squeeze and sniff. The fruit scent will tell you when you hit paydirt.

Years ago, an issue of Prevention magazine described using chamomile as a mosquito repellent. It suggested steeping a handful of blossoms in hot water to make a tea that you dab on your skin, repeating the procedure every couple of hours. One camping weekend, when the kidlets were small, the skeeters were making the evening "sit" around the campfire anything but relaxing. We were slapping ourselves plumb silly. Then I remembered the article and immediately set out to gather blossoms from the chamomile plants that, fortunately, grew in abundance there.

It didn't take long to turn that handful into a couple of cups of dark amber tea. My Philistine family, meanwhile, was hooting and mocking my gullibility and refused to allow me to anoint them with my magic potion. Fine. More for me. So I dabbed and dabbed and inhaled the fragrance and went back to the campfire.

It was wonderful. George and the kids kept slapping. I sat there, relaxed (and smelling damn good), and watching with fascination as the skeeters kept hovering over my arms but never, NEVER landing. George couldn't bring himself to back down and use any of the tea but I noticed the kidlets slipping into the tent to avail themselves of Mother's Folly.

I can only personally vouch for the freshly gathered blossoms because that's all I've used. From what I read, though, there's no reason not to expect the same results from chamomile tea bags. Perhaps a box of them should always be packed with one's camping supplies -- or handy when having a marshmallow roast in the back yard.

While I wouldn't rule out the pots of basil or catnip or any of the other designated repellent plants, applying the active ingredient to one's skin seems the reasonable way to go. While the oils from these plants can be purchased, I have to say the tea (made from any of the repellent species) is a pleasant option. It feels fresh, smells great and is utterly non-sticky on your skin. And it works. There's something to be said for that.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Basil Binge

My friend Linda gifted me with these cute little basil guys -- these and a single one in a pot all by itself. The trio sits on the window sill in my bedroom slash sitting room slash office. The singleton is on the dining table. It will be interesting to see how they do in the different light situations.

In doing my Google gig to try to make sure I knew enough to keep my new plants healthy and productive, I was amazed to discover they're a lot more interesting than I would have believed. For one thing, basil is one of the most widely-used plants in the world, according to one source, and not just for cooking. It was used as an embalming and preserving herb for the mummies in ancient Egypt. To the Greeks, it was a symbol of mourning. Apparently it originated either in India or in China or Africa. How's that for precise? Sorry -- the sources don't always agree.

There was a time when both the Greeks and Romans believed the most potent basil had to be sown while ranting and swearing. See? The idea of talking to your plants has been around for a long time.

In medieval times, it was believed you could attract scorpions by placing basil leaves under a flower pot. But basil was also considered good medicinal treatment for poisonous bites. I'm finding it a little difficult understanding why one would want to attract a poisonous critter but it's certainly handy that the bait is also the antidote.

Although earlier Romans considered basil to be a symbol of hate, in later times it came to stand for love and young Italian girls wore it in their hair to indicate they were available. In Romania, it meant they were engaged if a young man accepted a sprig of basil from a girl. Well, that's cheaper than a diamond ring.

It's also supposed to repel flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches. I read a comment from one woman who said she keeps pots of basil all around her patio just for that reason. Even if that's not true, with somewhere around 60 different varieties that come in different colors, it would certainly make an attractive setting. And the flavors! There are even varieties of basil that taste like lemon and cinnamon. How cool is that?

Basil supposed to stimulate your appetite, which makes me wonder if it ever gets smoked. Nah. Probably not. It's also said to curb flatulence. Hmmm ... maybe a few leaves tossed in the old bean pot would be helpful. Then there's basil tea, which is good for dysentery, nausea and gassy tummy. Now, there's where the lemon-flavored version would be good.

The thing that strikes me after reading different sources is how contradictory various basil legends can be. Down through the centuries it's been symbolic of both love and hate, life and death, good and evil. On the one hand, it's been touted as an aphrodisiac, on the other, it's supposed to promote chastity. Boy, talk about your mixed feelings.

Tell you what -- I'm going to be careful about speaking kindly and gently to my basil plants. No ranting and raving. I figure the less potent they are, the less confused I'll be. You think?

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Pass the Pizza

That might not be the purtiest pizza in the world but it is, by golly, right up there with the tastiest. That is, if you like white garlic sauce and spicy chicken. And I do. I really do. I also like the way the recipe I found for crust just made a great timing framework for everything else -- including occasional contemplative coffee breaks. It's hard to enjoy cooking if you're so rushed you can't take time to smell the spices.

PARTY OF THE FIRST PART -- CRUST: In a small bowl, put 6 tablespoons of warm water and dissolve 1 teaspoon of sugar in it. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon yeast over the top and let it sit in the sunshine to get all bubbly and frothy.

In a larger bowl, put 1 cup of flour and stir in 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon dried sweet basil and 1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning. Make a well in the center, pour yourself a cup of coffee and sit and sip while waiting on the yeast.

When the yeast mixture is ready, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to it, then pour the whole thing into the flour mixture. Sing "I've Got Friends In Low Places" to keep the rhythm while you beat the dough into submission. It should be cleaning the bowl by the time you hit the chorus for the third time. Put a cover on it and set it somewhere warm to rise. You should have some more coffee until you quit panting.

PARTY OF THE SECOND PART -- TOPPING STUFF: Whatever pleases you is what should go on top of a pizza, of course. Second choice is whatever pleases you out of what you happen to have on hand. I diced up 1 skinless, boneless chicken breast and quick-fried it in a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled it with a generous portion of McCormick's taco seasoning mix. Put it in a bowl to cool.

The only cheese I had on hand was cheddar but I concluded that was okay, given the Mexican flavor of the chicken. Shredded up a very generous cup or so of it. Then I sliced and diced some of that wonderful garden-fresh real tomato. Thought about dicing up some sweet Walla Walla onion but forgot.

PARTY OF THE THIRD PART -- WHITE GARLIC SAUCE: Take a couple of fat cloves of garlic, peel and smoosh and mince them. Get out the frying pan again, put the heat on medium and plop in half a stick of butter (2 ounces) and, as it's melting, toss in the garlic. Stir everything around a bit, then add 2 heaping tablespoons flour. Stir and stir and stir and stir. Add 1 cup of milk and use the whisk to keep the sauce from lumping up. Season with kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. Turn off heat when it thickens. How thick? I dunno -- thick enough that it won't run off the edge of the pizza but not so thick that it could pass for a second crust.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees fairy height. Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured surface and knead about a minute. Shape into a ball, cover and let rest about 10 minutes. Might as well have another mug of coffee while you're waiting.

PARTY OF THE FOURTH PART -- GETTING IT ALL TOGETHER: Roll out the dough and lay it in the pizza pan. Mourn the fact that you can't seem to get the knack of spinning it around on your fist to spread it out. That would be so cool. Spread the white garlic sauce around on the dough, leaving a margin around the edge because it suddenly occurs to you that you need to roll the edge a little bit to contain the filling. Artistically sprinkle the sauce with the colorful bits of tomato and chicken and then cover it all up with the shredded cheese. Do a sorta-kinda roll all around the edge of the crust and shrug. It'll have to do.

Put the pizza in the oven, bottom shelf, and set the timer for 15 minutes. Ovens vary so you might need to go 20 minutes. As it happened, the 15 seemed perfect.

When the pizza comes out of the oven, try not to sob with pride. Take pictures, slice pizza, take more pictures. Eat some of the pizza. Moan with ecstasy.

See those two slices below? They don't exist any more. Neither do two more slices I didn't bother to photograph. I think my current level of satiation is pretty much at Overkill so I'll save the rest for a midnight snack. I almost said "midnight mass." That works. Good food is a lot like a religious experience.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Squash, Mayo and Clooney

My buddy Linda N. and I were talking on the phone this morning, arranging for a quick run to the library.

"Do you like butternut squash?" she asked.

"You bet!"

"Oh good," she said. "I like summer squash but I don't care for winter squash. If you want it, I have this nice butternut you can have."

Well, you don't have to slap me up alongside the head when friends are sharing summertime produce. We all have to do our parts to keep the good stuff from going to waste, don't we? (We won't discuss how many lies we end up telling to get out of taking on outrageous supplies of zucchini but that's the exception.)

Anyhoo, the above photo is what she gave me. Unless it's some kind of hybrid, I don't believe that's a butternut. At least it doesn't have the familiar jug shape, nor is it as thin-skinned or as pale as the usual butternut. It's more the shade of light, unglazed clay pottery -- the color tones on the right side are closest to true. Definitely not the orange of a pumpkin, although it's shaped like a small one. This specimen is about dinner plate-size. It might be a Gold Nugget. It's close to the same color as the Long Island Cheese squash -- except it's not flattened on top like the cheese squash. Hmmm.

Doesn't matter. It's going to be delicious, I know. It's a good thing winter squash keeps well because I haven't decided yet how I'm going to fix it. Lord knows there are a blessed variety of recipes online and I can assure you I'm perusing them with a fine-toothed comb. Or maybe a slotted spoon would be more appropriate.

Linda also gave me a couple of absolutely perfect garden-fresh tomatoes. Ohmygawd. I'd forgotten how utterly sublime a real tomato can taste. I've already had two sandwiches with dill-sprinkled 'mater slices and cheddar cheese. Heaven!

Before I could make the sandwiches, I had to whup up a fresh batch of my magick mayo, which you may recall from this entry. And I did. And it was wunnerful, wunnerful. As I was sitting here munching away on my sandwich and occasionally moaning in ecstasy, I got to wondering about all the possible flavor variations one can do with mayo. Next thing I knew, I was munching and Googling and having a great time.

And that's how I found Chef John at Food Wishes. This is a terrific foodie site wherein the recipes are demonstrated on short videos, hundreds of them. For instance, here's Chef John's version of the immersion/stick blender mayo. His recipe is just a bit different than mine: he uses 2 egg yolks, I used 1 whole egg. He uses a half-cup more oil than I do. From the looks of things, his mayo and mine come out the same. This tells me the method is a forgiving one that allows creative tomfoolery. (Insert wicked chuckle.)

I hope you'll visit Chef John -- and bookmark his site. Speaking for myself, watching a dish being made is immensely more informative than simply reading a recipe and crossing your fingers. Besides, the man is funny and unassuming and gives good vid. And how could you not love a guy whose profile photo is a George Clooney look-alike?

Friday, August 3, 2007


I know. When you say someone is "twitterpated," you're describing them as goofy with love. Besotted. Wiggly and squiggly. All that good stuff.

Not this time. This time I'm using the term to describe a curious phenomena that has been taking place in the maple tree outside the kitchen window. In that subdued twilight time between sunset and full dark, there are what surely must be a kajillion sparrows flitting about the branches of the maple, well-hidden by the leaves, and they're all talking at once! I'm here to tell you, a kajillion birds speaking in unison are LOUD -- and it's all twitters.

Don't ask me what has them so excited. I don't have a clue. Maybe it's some kind of convention and they are enjoying their cocktail hour. Yeah. That's your typical cocktail party -- everyone has something to say and nobody is listening.

I'd have been happy to take a picture of the gathering for you but it's really hard to see anything but leaves. Once in a great while, one of the sparrows pops out of the tree as though it's been ejected and then it dives right back in again. No time for any candid shots.

Fortunately, I was able to use the above picture of a house sparrow that I downloaded free from here. Interestingly enough, the site is simply called "" And I appreciate them. I think it's wonderful they were able to photograph a sparrow that was behaving in a calm, sedate, mannerly fashion. A sparrow that wasn't -- uhmm -- twitterpated.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Sometimes You're The Windshield

... other times you're the bug.

When we last heard from our gallant heroine (that would be me), she was about to crack the secret of spicy dried peas, sans wasabi.

As Charles Schultz would say when a comic strip deadline approached: "Back to the drawing board!"

The peas dried up just fine, thank you, and the spicy sauce in which I tossed them was tasty. The result, however, in a word -- sucked. Garbage pail stuff. Really.

I was not completely stymied by this discouraging state of affairs. After thinking on the problem a bit, I began to wonder what would happen if I deep-fried some fresh peas. I scooped out about half a cup of frozen peas, thawed them, then dropped them into some vegetable oil at 375 degrees fairyheight.

Well, that was fun! The peas sizzled and scooted around in the oil like they were equipped with tiny invisible motors. Some of them went spiraling across the surface of the oil like whirling dervishes. Some of them snapped and popped and one actually blew up with such a loud bang that I must have jumped three feet in four directions at once.

When they began to turn brownish, I scooped them up and drained off the oil and spread them out on a paper towel. Then I sprinkled them with kosher salt and chili powder. That's what you see in the photo above. You know what? They weren't bad at all. Some were tender-crunchy, some were soft, all were tasty.

Will I do this again? No. While the french fried version smoothed my ruffled culinary feathers, it just wasn't good enough to bother with another time. As for the dried pea version, I don't even want to think about it.

And now I've got that oil sitting there in the pot. That's why I hardly ever deep fry anything. I hate dealing with the oil afterward.

On the other hand, I haven't made doughnuts in just forever ...

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Whirled Peas

In spite of the title, we are not going to be discussing Things You Can Do With A Blender. But we are going to play with peas.

Okay, I'm going to play with peas. You can sit back and watch and snicker. As well you may because I don't have the slightest idea if this will work or not. I live on the fine edge of danger. I laugh -- hah, hah, hah! -- as I dodge the merciless arrows of outrageous fortune ...

Oh dear. There I go, digressing again. Back to the subject at hand. Peas.

Have you ever had the pleasure of munching on crunchy dried peas that have been coated with wasabi (Japanese horseradish)? It's been a while since I have but when the memory crossed my alleged mind earlier today, my mouth instantly watered and my Gimme gland started pulsing. But I didn't have any wasabi peas. In fact, I no longer have my trusty tube of wasabi because I'd had it so long, I was afraid to trust it -- so I tossed it.

Dayum. Don'cha hate when that happens?

Never let it be said that I can't rise to a food challenge. I won't worry about what I don't have. I will tote up what I do have. Peas. I've got lots of perfectly good peas in the freezer. I also have assorted hot spices on the pantry shelf, some of which are more than equal to the thermal potency of wasabi. I also have this handy-dandy food dehydrator that happens to be ready and willing to gently waft the moisture out of all the peas I care to spread out on its trays.

That's the first step. As shown in the above photo, the peas are placidly passing their water content into the air, getting themselves ready for whatever hotsy-totsy coating I whip up for their "enrobement" tomorrow.

Yeah. They should be good to go sometime tomorrow. That gives me plenty of time to mull over the possibilities for the coating. There are a couple or three ideas floating around as we speak but the vote isn't in yet.

Have some more coffee. There's plenty of time to sip the good stuff while we're waiting.