Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ralph and I Bulk Up

This is Ralph at the self-service counter. Usually he either curls up beside his dish and quietly stares at me until I put some kibble in the bowl -- or he walks all over me at o'dark-thirty in the wee hours. Occasionally he decides to serve himself, working on the theory that you have to do it yourself if you want it done right.

I do try to limit his portions in an effort to limit his proportions but Ralph insists on maintaining himself at about 20 pounds. Okay, we can live with that. It doesn't seem to slow him up any or give him any difficulty when jumping up or down so maybe a little chubby is okay for His Fluffiness. I just don't want him headed for the dimensions of that 44-pound cat on the news today. If you'd like to see Princess Chunk, go here. I certainly wouldn't want her to give me a walk-over wake-up call!

Speaking of food, if you click on Jo's Journal over in the sidebar, you'll see she's been making lots of apple pies. Gorgeous apple pies. Which made me really hungry for an apple pie of my own -- except I didn't have any apples on hand. But I do have plenty of chicken and there's certainly nothing wrong with a savory pie. Besides, I wanted to try the Cook's Illustrated vodka crust and the only vodka I have is ginger-flavored. My thought was the ginger would better compliment savory than sweet. As it turned out, there was no ginger taste to the finished crust so it wouldn't have mattered. Other sources say you can use any liquor to make this crust. Vodka was the choice for the original because of its neutral flavor. Go here for the recipe if you feel like giving the booze crust a shot. (No pun intended but, heh, heh.)

As for the filling, I wasn't in the mood for the pot pie version with peas and carrots and gravy. So I Googled around and found lots of terrific recipes, mostly South American or Spanish or Greek, that called for raisins to accent the savory content. I rarely use raisins anymore. It's dried cranberries all the way for me. They're certainly excellent with the chicken.

The filling I settled on was from a Greek recipe, calling for a sweet onion, diced and sauteed in olive oil, along with 1/4 cup of uncooked long grain rice. Toss the onion-rice mixture into a bowl and add chopped cooked chicken -- I think I had between 1 1/2 - 2 cups each of onion and chicken -- a little bit of nutmeg and cinnamon and salt and pepper and 1/2 cup of dried cranberries. Then beat 2 eggs and stir well into the mixture. Fill an unbaked pie shell, cover with top crust, vent crust and bake in 400 degree oven for 20-25 minutes.

Okay, this is the finished pie. And the crust is tender and flaky -- but not as flaky as it might have been had I used shortening instead of olive oil. It's just that there was so much butter in the recipe, I decided the olive oil would be healthier than the shortening. I even stuck it in the freezer awhile, along with the vodka and water, to get so cold it was like thick honey. Still, the oil makes more of a tender shortbread effect than a flaky one.

I was kicking myself for forgetting to put shredded cheese in the filling but, as it turns out, the pie reheats beautifully whilst a slab of cheese melts quite nicely on top. Whilst. You don't often get to use that word.

My opinion on the crust? Allowing for the fact that I altered CI's recipe a bit, I think the crust was very good but too rich for my preference. Too much butter for me. But I might experiment with the vodka in other crust recipes that aren't so butter-rich. Gotta use up that darned ginger-flavored stuff somehow. I guaran-damn-tee ya, I ain't gonna drink it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Magic Window

I'm beginning to think the window by the dining table has certain magic qualities. Or maybe the magic lies in the unique "top of the tree" view, opening vistas somewhat different than that achieved at ground level. Certainly I get to see bird activity from a decidedly different perspective than the usual.

Take this little guy. I've been calling him a zebra bird, partly because of his stripes and partly because I'm just not at all sure about identification. He might be a variety of Savannah sparrow but maybe he's just a juvenile edition of the ubiquitous house sparrow that daily cavorts in the branches. Although, to tell you the truth, there is something about that picture that makes me think of penguins, in miniature. And I adore penguins.

There seemed to be quite a few of them (zebra birds, not penguins) yesterday, busily nibbling away at the little catkin thingies on the birch trees. In point of fact, the above is one of a pair that were companionably noshing away on the same branch. The second zebra bird is pictured below. It was one of those situations often found in photo sessions with more than one person. You know -- in each photo there is always one person blinking or looking away or being goofy or blurred or -- something. In this case, I didn't have a single shot where both little birds were at their best so I just cropped the good ones from separate photos. What the heck. I'm flexible.

For one reason or another, I haven't spent as much time gazing out the window today but at those times I sat and sipped my coffee, I didn't see any more of the zebras. Lots of house sparrows but no zebras. Which probably signifies nothing in particular except perhaps lousy timing. Still, I'm thinking that if they're house sparrow teenagers, they should be appearing daily. Shouldn't they? Therefore, if they're from another branch of the family, maybe they were just passing through, like my occasional Cedar Waxwings, who only drop in long enough to tantalize me.

Ah, but I'm not complaining. I might not always have answers for the questions about what I see out that window but I love it that there are things worth questioning when I look long enough or at the right times. When I think back, I've had all kinds of marvelous views from countless and varied windows, from breathtaking grandeur to the so-called mundane. And do you know -- it's the mundane that turns out to be endlessly fascinating.

That is not a downgrade of the grand. No indeed. The grand is -- as it should be -- inspiring and, well . . . grand. But one can get down and identify with what is closer to everyday life, don't you think? And one can be inspired, too, by the incredible diversity of the smaller things around us. The closer things.

Nor does it hurt to be able to draw on magic and dream of zebras and penguins.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wild Dominoes

You know how they patiently build those endless lines and patterns of dominoes and when they're done, they tip over just one, which topples all the rest, one by one. A prime illustration of how one durned thang can lead you right along to another. It was sort of like that in my kitchen today. The dominoes I was dealing with were the new Whirley-Pop, a container of Jolly Time popcorn, a bowl of cooked chicken ready to be portioned and frozen, a package of bacon and an avocado.

As I sat sipping my morning coffee, my thoughts strolled leisurely from recalling the ease of using the Whirley-Pop yesterday for the coffee beans to contemplation of using it for its original purpose -- a batch of popcorn. I was also thinking I'd like to fashion another meal out of that chicken before freezing the rest of it. Had myself two burritos yesterday stuffed with spicy rice, chicken and cheese. Something similar might just hit the spot today. Like maybe some chicken patties. Except I didn't want to use a lot of the chicken supply so I'd need an extender like bread cubes. Oops. I don't have any bread. Well, I suppose I could whup out a loaf ...

I mulled this over as I got online and registered the Whirley-Pop. Couldn't help but notice all the popcorn recipes while I was at the site. Which got me to thinking -- instead of using bread cubes as an extender, why couldn't I use popped popcorn? That called for a Google session to see if anyone else had done that. Found lots of recipes where the popped popcorn is whizzed through a blender or food processor until a flour is formed. The result is used in baked goods instead of, or in tandem with, regular flour. But I didn't see anything done the way I was picturing it. Hmmm ... time to call on my inner mad scientist.

By the time I got back to the kitchen, my line of mental dominoes was proliferating at an alarming rate. The first thing I did was to whup up a kettle of popcorn (1/3 cup of kernels, which made around 6 cups of popcorn) and set it aside in a bowl.

Then I took the package of bacon and cut it in half across the strips and baked the half-strips in the FlavorWave. That was a shining success! The grease couldn't drip off of the strips fast enough and the bacon cooked perfectly -- and nicely flat, as well.

While that was going on, I started a batch of bread dough with the idea of making hamburger buns instead of a loaf. Any basic bread recipe will do for this. When the dough cycle is done, divide the dough into 8 parts, shape the buns and lay them on a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan that has been sprinkled with a thin layer of cornmeal. Cover and let rise, then bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Gorgeous buns -- and they taste much better than store bought, honest.

The bacon was finished and draining further on paper towels. The dough was doing its thing in the bread machine. Time to have at the chicken. A couple of days ago I boiled the bejaysus out of a whole chicken until it was literally falling off the bones. The result was a lovely bowl of meat that can be used for so many different things it makes one dizzy.

I scooped out enough chicken to measure about 2 cups once it was thoroughly minced to a faretheewell. To that I added about a cup of shredded cheddar and a couple of tablespoons of dry onion flakes. Then I added 1 egg to 1 cup of chicken broth and whisked them together. For seasoning, I wanted to try a tip from the Rachael Ray site. She says if you don't have any smoked paprika, you can make a substitute by mixing 1 tablespoon cumin with 2 teaspoons sweet paprika. So I did. And I scared myself because, without thinking, I put the whole thing in the broth mixture instead of just a portion of it, as I'd intended. Fortunately, the result was wonderful so that goes down in the column under Serendipitous Error.

Now it was time for the "mad" part of the mad scientist experiment. I poured the broth mixture into the chicken mixture and then started working in the popcorn, a couple of cups at a time. Got my hands right into it and started going moosh, moosh, mooshy-moosh. That popcorn slurped up the liquid like a dying man in the desert and it blended itself quite nicely with the other ingredients. I used the whole 6 cups of popcorn. Or maybe it was 7 cups. I'm really not sure of anything except that it all went in before I got the consistency that would allow me to make patties that wouldn't fall apart.

Using an ice cream scoop for portion control, I shaped 8 patties out of the batch. Laid them out on a platter and popped them in the freezer until the buns were ready. That happened all in due course so, while the finished buns were resting with their towel cover, I pulled a couple of the chicken patties out of the freezer to cook. Next time I think they'll do best if they're pan fried with just a touch of olive oil. They're a bit too tender to be laying directly on the wire rack in the FlavorWave, which is how I fixed them this time. It worked out fine but there was a touchy moment there, when I was turning them over to do the other side and thought I was going to lose pieces.

While the patties were cooking, I sliced a couple of buns in half and spread them with chipotle mayonnaise (McCormick makes a really tasty version.) and layered them with avocado slices. The patties fit perfectly on top of the avocado and the bacon settled in place on top of the patties. I cannot TELL you how sublime was the combination of flavors. And nobody would remotely imagine they were eating popcorn.

Well, they wouldn't if I'd made sure there were no unpopped kernels in the chicken mixture. Actually, I was under the mistaken impression that every single kernel had popped but, by golly, I found an "old maid" in the first burger patty. For the record, it was hidden in this one, the one in the closeup below. I think of it as the final domino in the chain.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Monsooned Swoon

I'm not going to tease you, Coffee Mates. I'm throwing this picture right out there so you know my glorious coffee beans were delivered today. Whew! I feel much better now, thank you.

Most green coffee beans really are green -- of one shade or another. Not so the mighty Malabar, which has, I understand, something to do with the way they're cured during the monsoon season. And that's okay with me because it's that particular treatment that gives them the flavor I love.

Got to try a new (to me) way of roasting today, too. Over the years I've gone through two electric home roasting machines. Both were very good but I just wore 'em out. Since their collective demise, I've roasted beans both in a skillet, like our great grannies used to do, and I've roasted them in a pan in the oven. The beans turned out okay either way but the first required standing at the stove and stirring beans for a long time and the second was touchy about temperature. I caught my first pan of beans on fire and turned 'em into crispy critters.

I decided I wanted something a lot less expensive than the electric units and a bit more user-friendly than the last two methods. Believe it or not, a popular method of roasting coffee beans at home is to use the good old-fashioned stove-top Whirley-Pop. Yep, the same kettle you use to make popcorn, with the lid and the crank handle. And Sweet Maria's handles home roasting equipment as well as the beans. Such a deal.

Once I'd lugged the package upstairs, it sure didn't take me long to unpack the bag of beans and the Whirley-Pop. While I skimmed instructions and got everything set up, Ralph hopped in and out of the box, testing out the dimensions. Guess I'll have to leave it out awhile, until he gets thoroughly tired of it. Boys and their toys.

As you can see, it also didn't take me long to roast my first batch of Whirley-Pop coffee -- and I am quite pleased with it. Didn't take as long as the skillet method, nor did it produce as much smoke. (One makes good use of open windows and stove fans when home roasting coffee.) I also like the idea that I can roast a bigger volume of coffee than with the electric units. That saves some time and effort, let me tell you. While the roast isn't as even as what comes out of the electric units, that's not really a troubling result. You actually get a slightly more complex flavor with the mixed roast because each degree of roast brings out different aspects of that particular coffee's nature.

Okay, that's what one coffee expert claimed. With my peasant palate, I wouldn't know, to be perfectly honest. But it sounded so knowledgeable when I said it that it made me grin.

This made me grin, too. The first cup out of the pot. I didn't have the patience to wait a few hours for the coffee beans to settle a bit. Heck, I barely waited until they cooled to run them through the grinder and start a pot brewing. It seemed appropriate to sip and swoon from my old Nestle Co. world cup. Right about the middle of the map you can see India dangling down from the continent. That's the home of the Malabar coffee bean. You may file that under Information Overload. You never can tell when you need to know something like that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Having a Blonde Day

I am. Having a blonde day, I mean. Not for any particular reason, you understand. It's just that the day has been -- uhmmm -- strange. Even the weather didn't know what it was doing. Started out overcast and ended up sunny and warm.

To begin with, I got a phone call this morning from a nice man at the DHL depot in North Bend. I had ordered a fresh supply of green coffee beans from Sweet Maria's and thought it was coming via snail mail. The other option they offered was with UPS so why the package ended up with DHL, I'll be dipped if I can tell you.

Anyhoo, he only had the post office box address so wanted directions to my humble abode. Which I gave him in scrupulous detail. Then he asked me for the street number and my morning pre-coffee mind drew a blank. It's not like I ever use the street address, you know? I made a wild stab at it and warned him it might not be correct. He talked like that wasn't a problem, he just needed something to put on the paperwork. After all, he was familiar with the town and knew which building I'm living in.

So, okay-swell, I'm all excited because my coffee beans are coming and I'm going to, by golly, roast me some fine Monsoon Malabar Gold this very afternoon. That's what.

He hadn't arrived by 2:00 but that didn't worry me because we usually get our deliveries on the tail end of the day in this neck of the woods. I figured it would be safe to trot up to the market and the post office because the driver had instructions to leave the package in the car port anyway.

Saw something mind-boggling at the market. There was a feller there who pulled up in front in what looked like a brand new, very fancy, very huge motor home. Not only was the motor home big, it was pulling a matching trailer unit that was something like two-thirds as long as it was. To give you an idea, when he parked that puppy in front of the building, it was fully as long as the entire width of the market! Now, you know those big RVs don't get what you'd call thrifty gas mileage. Given the size of this mini-train, I suspect the mileage is just plain horrible. Guess the price of gas and diesel isn't bothering him, huh? Well, that's fine. More power to him. But I'll bet he plays hoppin' hell, trying to find parking places.

So I did my shopping, picked up my mail, and hustled my buns back home. Package still wasn't there. Not to worry. Still early times. I put away the groceries, keeping out one gorgeous Yukon Gold potato, one yellow onion and a handful of baby carrots. Cut the tater and onion up in wedges and tossed them and the carrots in a gallon plastic bag. Drizzled some olive oil in, added a generous shake of parmesan cheese and an equally generous sprinkle of chipotle seasoning. Tossed everything real good until all the bits and pieces were pretty well coated and then dumped everything into a shallow baking dish. Half an hour in the FlavorWave on High and I had myself a bonanza of some of the best roasted veggies I've had in a long time.

I'm glad they were good. Eating them made me feel less blue as I kept watch out the window for the DHL delivery person who never showed up. I can't tell you how many trips I've made up and down the wooden mountain today, just to check and see if the package was there. I guess I'll probably get another call in the morning and we'll try it again. At least this time I'll know the correct number for my address.

You think that might help?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Riding the Wave

Looks sort of spooky, doesn't it? What you see is an experiment in progress. I hauled out my FlavorWave countertop oven the other day and I've been busy reacquainting myself with its sunny self. I think I've had it for something like three years but it's been stored ever since I moved in here and it fell victim to the old "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome.

There are several different brands of this type of oven out there. NuWave, Koolatron Total Chef, Morningware Halogen and Super Turbo, to name a few. They all operate pretty much the same, cooking via conductive heat (like your oven), convection (with constantly circulating hot air) and infrared. That's what you see in the photo to the left. The infrared is doing its thing.

I really love this oven. It's great for when you don't want to turn on the regular oven and heat up the kitchen. Also, it uses a lot less electricity, which cannot be a bad thing. For some things it's faster than a regular oven, for others, it takes just as long -- which isn't a problem if you're not in a hurry anyway. It really shines at perfectly cooking meats from a frozen state but it does other things well, too. And there are a few things it can do well only if you figure out the magic formula.

Baked goods, for instance. It seems to be fine if what you're baking isn't going to raise up real tall in the saddle. Don't know yet how it would do with round loaves of artisan bread but I don't think I want to try a regular loaf in there. I do know I can make killer yeast rolls and hamburger buns in it, and biscuits do just fine, thank you. The problem is, there really aren't a lot of recipes available for cooking with these ovens. That seems to be a common complaint with most owners of the little beasties. Which is why I experiment and try to figure out how to adapt regular recipes to the FlavorWave's style of doing things.

I found out it will cook my beloved Yorkshire puddings just beautifully. That was a relief. But today I got to thinking about doing a pudding cake. A lemon pudding cake, to be specific. This is a lovely concoction wherein the batter separates into a light, souffle-like cake on top and a pudding on the bottom. You can make it in a big baking dish or in individual servers, as I did here. Once the two extras cool completely, I'll pop a lid on them and put them in the refrigerator where, I'm told, they'll keep just fine for several days. That is, they would if I didn't eat them first. Wanna guess which it will be?

I did a lot of hunting for this recipe -- which is actually a conglomerate of several -- and I'll lay it out for you the way you'd do it in a regular oven and then, in case you have one of these countertop ovens, I'll 'splain what I did in the FlavorWave. Okay? Okay, this am the way it goes ...

In a bowl, whisk together: 1/2 cup flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Separate 2 eggs. Add the yolks to the flour mixture, along with 1/3 cup lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 2/3 cup milk. Whisk until well mixed.

Beat egg whites until stiff and fold gently into the other mixture. Pour into buttered baking dish (or dishes) and place in larger pan in 350 degree oven. Pour very hot water into outside pan, up to about the halfway level of your baking dish. Bake about 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from water bath when done. Can be eaten from baking dish or turned out on serving plate. Good hot or cold.

Note: There is enough batter for a 1 quart (4 cup) baking dish. The individual Corning Ware dishes I'm using hold 2 cups max so I guess I probably put about 1 1/3 cups of batter in each one. Just so you know.

Okay, here's the deal for the FlavorWave version. The whole idea of a water bath for these cakes is to keep the pudding part from cooking too fast and getting too firm. But the FlavorWave's heat source is only at the top. Granted, hot air circulates all around the cooking item but the bottom doesn't cook as fast as the top, which means some things need to be turned over halfway through the cook cycle. With that in mind, I did without the water bath in the Flavorwave, put the puddings on the low rack and set it for 1/2 hour, on High.

There were still 18 minutes left when I gasped and said, "Whoa! These puppies are getting brown way too fast!" Cleared the control window and reset it for 325 degrees and turned it loose again. That seems to have worked just fine. Next time I'll probably do it for maybe a full 45 minutes, given the lower temperature.

I chose to turn my sample pudding cake out onto a plate. As you can see, it's not so pretty. The pudding cooked firm and had to be spooned out. I'll just eat the others right out of their cooking bowls.

As for flavor, oh my stars and garters. The cake part is extremely light and fluffy and the pudding is lemony bliss. One could add whipped cream or ice cream to this dessert but I really think that would be overkill. A sprinkling of fresh berries would be nice, though. Raspberries. Strawberries. Blackberries. Nom, nom, nom!

Note to self: next time, I'm going to try it with only 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup lemon juice. I likes me that lemon.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Flight Pattern

Holy flitter-flap, Batman! Are we under a flight pattern or what? This is amazing, Coffee Mates. There I was, minding my own beeswax, sipping coffee at the dining table while gazing out the window -- and it happened again! This big (really big) butterfly flitter-fluttered down and perched on a branch of the young redwood that is positioned a good 40 feet away from the building. Yessir, 40 feet. Easy. Which tells me this ol' flutterby was built of impressive dimensions.

I do like the butterfly attitude. When they light on a branch, they hang for a while. None of this jittery hopping around that the sparrows give me. Which gave me time to retrieve the camera from the computer desk because it wasn't on the dining table today.

Again, I was shooting through the window screen with the lens right up against the wire. I should point out that when I uploaded the photo to Paintshop Pro, I adjusted the gamma correction for better contrast and then hit it with the unsharp mask to lift the detail. The softening effect of the window screen seems to fade out detail, especially with the distance. The zoom can only do so much, wonderful as it is.

This is not, you may have noticed, the California Sister butterfly featured in the previous post. A quick click back into the most helpful Butterflies and Moths of North America site soon had me homing in on the skinnies about this feller. Apparently what I have here is the Western Tiger Swallowtail. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of difference between this and the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail except area and, to tell the truth, I was figuring him for the Eastern version until I saw the map.

It's the dimension of these guys that is blowing me away. I'm used to seeing butterflies half that size so you'll please forgive my awe. Sheesh, you could go hang gliding with one of them, I swear it. Okay. That might be a teensy exaggeration. I tend to break out in hyperbole when impressed. It's like verbal hives.

All I know is, if I'm living in the flight pattern of migrating butterflies, I've been gifted. Yes indeed.

If I may catch up on comment responses from the previous post, Ava, I didn't even think about trying to track down the origin of that name. Good on you! Maggie, don't feel left out. I had never seen one of those California Sisters either. What a treat, eh? Bill, please let us know how your "screen shots" turn out with the deer family. I'm looking forward to that.

And now I must return to the observation deck because there may be some more weary travelers floating in and desiring a bit of rest and refreshment before continuing the trek. Bless 'em.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Butterfly Flutterby

Look at the big beauty who came to visit me today! And therein lies a tale of the wonders of Google.

Earlier this afternoon I wandered into the kitchen for another cup of you-know-what. I happened to glance out the big window by the dining table. It looks down on the top of the maple tree about 20 feet out from the building. Just as I looked, a very large butterfly flittered down and perched atop the maple, right next to where the neighboring birch draped down to mingle. And the camera just happened to be right there on the table, handy. For a change.

Needless to say, camera was in hand and zoom lens was on its way out even as I raced to the open window. I was shooting through the screen, lens right up against the mesh, so I figured there would be an annoying grid pattern when I uploaded the pictures. Too bad. I didn't really have any choice. Interestingly enough, no grid pattern appeared. Rather, the screen seemed to act like a softening filter. Something to think about in future, I reckon.

Once the photos were uploaded to the computer, the obvious next step was to go online and try to identify my guy. Google came through. You would not believe how many web sites provide excellent photos for butterfly and moth identification. In no time at all I had me some good news and I had me some bad news.

The good news is, there are a squintillion different identity photos out there. The bad news is -- there are a squintillion different identity photos out there.

I must have waded through a good gazillion of those purty pictures before, cross-eyed and near to weeping in frustration, I finally stumbled across the correct one. Behold, Coffee Mates! Let me introduce you to Adelpha Bredowii, otherwise known as California Sister.

California Sister? Is it just me or is that a rather strange name for a bug? Like Twisted Sister. Nah. I'm sure this butterfly is not into heavy metal. It's more a Beach Boys kind of dude, don't you think? Sun, sand and surf. Vegetarian cafes and juice bars. Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.

All things considered, I thought it was right nice of him to stop by. Hope he comes again.