Saturday, December 20, 2014

Now THAT'S a Good (hot) Ginger Ale!

Over the past several years, we have explored new ginger ales and ginger beers as we came across them. So far, the best has been Ginger People ginger beer (according to my husband). The other night we tried a nice ginger beer from Trader Joe's that came in a large green swingtop bottle. It was also very good. But probably a little expensive. A very enjoyable project I worked on some years back was brewing my own ginger ale with a pinch of yeast and a liter soda bottle. One limiting factor was that when it was ready, you had to chill it and keep it chilled, since the yeast would continue to merrily divide, spewing out co2 until the bottle exploded or was drunk. The other problem my son kept complaining about was, "It isn't hot enough!" I tried adding more ginger pulp, but could never satisfy his craving for the ginger furnace he knew was possible.

I have since tried the other method of making ginger ale, creating a syrup and adding that to carbonated water. It wasn't bad, but it was a tedious process of peeling, slicing, simmering, straining, sugaring, etc. so I gave it up. The thing I WASN'T going to do was scrape my knuckles raw with a micro shredder and squeezing little bags of ginger pulp to just get the straight juice. And then, a light bulb went on. My Braun juicer!

I had picked up this big round juicer at the thrift store for just in case I ever wanted to make carrot juice or a little glass of apple juice! This is a serious machine, with heft, and a spinning shredder plate that flings the pulp against a whirling centrifugal strainer. Perfect!

I picked up a handful of plump ginger root pieces at Safeway, and got right to it when I got home. I peeled them and cut them into chunks. It was great fun dropping them into the hopper (immediately setting the pusher in place to keep them from flying back out again) and gently pushing them onto the grater. It was almost as much fun to hear the "REEEeeeeeerrrr" sound that made as it was to watch the yellow trickles of ginger juice run out into the cup. I ended up with a half cup of juice. When I opened the juicer, the strained pulp was dry as cardboard. I may or may not try to rinse some more flavor out of the remaining pulp next time.

I gently simmered it for about a minute with 3/4 cup sugar, 2 Tablespoons honey, juice of a half of a lemon, and a half teaspoon of lemon zest. It is thick, and opaque yellow. I put about a tablespoon into a half cup of carbonated water with a couple ice cubes.

It is amazingly hot and spicy, flavorful and juicy. What's great is that, for calorie watchers, you won't be glugging mouthfuls of sugary soda, you'll be sipping a small glass slowly. I'm still adjusting the ratios of sweetener to ginger juice, and deciding whether I need the lemon zest or not.

But I think this one is a keeper.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Beer Tasting in Eugene Oregon

Over Memorial Day weekend, Wes and I drove up to Eugene for a little get-away and beer tasting jaunt. Although we did more than just taste beer, beer is what this post is about.

We stopped in Ashland to do a little shopping and then it was lunch time, which meant our first stop, Standing Stone Brewery and Restaurant. I had had their sampler before. They make it very cute and appealing with the tall little cylindrical glasses in the wood tray. But I’d had it before, and decided to chose a glass. I was torn between the saison and the abbey style, so the waitress brought me a taste of each. I’m always pleased when the staff can do that without having to charge extra for a little cup! I chose the “Dear Abbey,” which was moderate enough to be a delightful accompaniment to the food. The food was good, except for the quite horrid sweet potato soup. If I had to describe it, I'd say grayish milk gravy with glistening beads of fat on the surface, indeterminate flavor, and a prize in every spoonful- vegetable shreds that were eerily similar to fingernail clippings. (probably ginger root?) She took it away and didn't charge me. 

When we got to our hotel, we made the lovely discovery that a local brewpub and restaurant was directly next door! Hop Valley Brewing is an exciting and popular place in town. They had a large sampler available. My favorite was the Proxima IPA, similar to the Alpha Centauri Imperial IPA, but less “over the top.”  

The next day, we had planned on visiting Ninkasi, but decided to go elsewhere, since it was lunchtime and they did not serve food. We chose the High Street Brewery and Café, located in a renovated old house near downtown. The sampler was limited to their choice (including a berry one), so I chose their Jam Session IPA (FYI- Malts: Golden Promise, Vienna, Flaked Barley, Crystal C15 Hops: Chinook, Centennial, Mosaic, Falconer’s Flight  OG: 1.047  TG: 1.010  ABV: 4.77  IBU: 51  SRM: 4) which was very nice and well suited to a mid-day lunch. We had an unplanned and somewhat disturbing floor show, as we relaxed over our meal in the front yard patio. It quickly became apparent that the woman seated nearby was mentally ill, possibly schizophrenic. After she verbally abused the waitstaff, they asked her to leave. She kept trying to get someone to take her order, but they declined. The police didn't show up until she had screamed at the crowd, cussed the waiter, threw the table centerpiece containing salt shakers, menus etc. out into the street, and slapped the waitress as she was walking up the steps with a loaded tray. 

That evening it was back to Hop Valley for dinner. This time I ordered a pint of Proxima, and Wes ordered a glass of their pub-brewed root beer. And this was about where the Great  Sriracha Event happened. 

We had our food, our drinks, our ketchup cups, and by request, a full pint-sized jug of sriracha sauce sat in the middle of the little table. I reached for it, but the plastic was slippery and it popped out of my hand. All I could see in my mind was the jug rolling around the table bowling over our drinks, so I started grabbing. But the jug was still slippery, and the plastic was so flexible that every time I got a grip it would squirt streams of red hot sauce in wild arcs across the table, across our food, and finally in a big puddle on the carpet beside the table. The rolling bottle had caught one ketchup cup, flinging its contents all along Wes’ white long-sleeve shirt. It all took place in about 1.5  seconds. I hardly knew what to say. But I was happy to see that the drinks were still standing. (sorry I don't have a picture of that, though I could take a picture of the small pink stain that was left on his shirt after I laundered it.)

We left for home Monday morning, scouting for a likely pub when noon approached. Here is where an ipad is very handy. You can do a search, then check the reviews, even get a virtual tour sometimes. We discovered the 4 Daughters Irish Pub in Medford Oregon. 

Located downtown, this is an awesome pub in an old brick building with two stories, full bar top and bottom, a mixture of tables and chairs, couches, coffee tables, parlor chairs and electric fireplaces. Tasteful and interesting Irish memorabilia and decorations are everywhere. 

I was tempted by Smithwicks, but when I found out they had an ale on tap brewed by them, I had to order that, a brown. It was the best brown I’d had in a while, just a touch of roast, and crisp enough to keep up with the food (Shepherds pie, and Bubbles and Squeak). 

Then home again, home again, jiggety jig.

Next time... Bend, OR!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fermentation Frolic - Pt. 2, Making cheese

Not all cheese is fermented, and the type that we were going to make, fresh mozzarella, would not be fermented. But since we were all novices to cheesemaking, we considered this exercise but a first step to more and greater fermentation in our cheese-futures to come.

First step, install tiaras.

Second step, study the recipe and lay out all our ingredients, milk and rennet being primary.

Supposedly, the very best way to make a superior fresh mozzarella is to use raw, unpasturized milk. But we just weren't ready to do that, with a group of us all being responsible for each other's health. We also did not have a personal source, and grocery store raw milk is quite expensive, comparatively. So we settled on a nice fresh gallon of regular milk and got started.

Some citric acid was needed to curdle the milk. I grew up baking things, and often the recipe called for buttermilk, which wasn't always in the fridge when you needed it. So we were used to curdling fresh milk with a couple teaspoons of vinegar or lemon juice. But citric acid will to the same thing, but without leaving its own flavor. After adding the acid, the temperature needed to be brought up to exactly 90 degrees.


I used to trust my instant-read thermometer above all my thermometers. And then one day I proofed all my kitchen thermometers with boiling water and was shocked to find out how much off some of them were, even my esteemed instant-read! So I always advise proofing thermometers when every degree counts. Water boils at 212 degrees at sea level, so you can use that standard.

Time to add the rennet! We used vegetable rennet, but when I go to buy my own stock, I'll probably get the original stuff made from calves stomachs. Gentle mixing for 30 seconds, and then let it rest for 5 min. The instructions are to: Put the lid on! Don't touch the pan! Walk away! Live your life for exactly five minutes! So I'm assuming that part is petty important.

Now it was starting to get fun. With a long knife, we cut the soft curd into a one inch checkerboard pattern. After heating up the mixture again slightly, we used a slotted spoon to transfer the curds into a colander. A this point, the main goal at hand was to get the whey out of the way.

Swirling and folding, squeezing and kneading, heating it up for brief periods in the microwave, these all helped to make a nice firm texture and let the liquid leak out of the curd. When it was done, we formed it into little balls and dropped them into cold water.


It was very delicious!

It shouldn't be surprising that there wasn't really very much of it. Even though milk has enough of a fluid consistency that you can actually pour it and drink it out of a glass, for some reason, I still expected more solids in our little glass cheese bowl and less in the jug of leftover whey. It would feel more efficient if I had a use at hand for the whey, but I haven't come up with one yet. So I don't think it would be especially cost economical to make it, if you are looking at the rubbery mozzarella balls you get for making lasagne or pizza. But if you want a hand-crafted treat covered with herbs and olive oil, or a lovely Caprese salad, then I suggest you try it. Plus, it really is fun!

If you want to follow the recipe we used, here is the link.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fermentation Frolic - Pt.1

When the long nights and short days of winter start wearing you down, when you look for a little more sunshine in your upcoming weekend, what do you do? Have a party! A Frolic, in fact. A fun and frivolous frolic, a Fermentation Frolic.

Fermented foods are getting a lot of attention lately. The science behind their benefits seems sound, and humankind has a long history of using them. The beneficial bacteria and microbes partially digest elements of the food, making them easier for us to digest, they add nutrients, they crowd out other, harmful microbes, they can make the food taste better and keep longer. My friend decided to host a party devoted to the pleasures of fermentation, both making and consuming. The invitations went out, the day arrived!

Our attention to fermentation began with considering alcohol. Yeast eat the sugars from grains, fruits, and other vegetation, creating alcohol as a byproduct. Alcohol is a handy thing to have in your drinking liquid if you don't want germs to grow in it. Eventually, the alcohol content can become high enough to even put the yeast to sleep. Distilling it concentrates and refines it. That was the sort of alcohol we were experimenting with tonight.

The first order of business was seeing to the liquor cabinet. It wasn't all about volume, it was about variety. So many cocktail choices! We started off with Bloody Marys using a homemade recipe for the mix while we prepared for the official cocktail sampling. I was in charge of that part.


I was well-prepared, with a half-dozen promising recipes, the required ingredients, and a sack of cocktail glasses picked up from Goodwill. I had recently finished reading The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart, and had a good idea of what a classic cocktail should be all about. It is not an alcoholic slushy in a vase, it is not an iced pitcher of goods poured into tumblers. A cocktail should be a small, intense, quality treat in a a proper cocktail glass, prime of which is the martini glass. It took some looking to find some of those which held the requisite 6 ounces.

Next, begin mixing cocktails. I decided to go from sour to sweet, starting with a White Lady.

2 parts gin (Tanqueray)

1 part orange liqueur (should have contreau, but I used triple sec)

1 part fresh lemon juice.

The fun part was using the cocktail shaker. I made one drink and divided it up between the four of us who were there that night. I figured that over the course of all the drinks, we would each have about one good stiff one. This drink was brisk and refreshing. It did need to be very cold to taste good, and a little dilution didn't hurt. I tried to garnish the drinks with a bit of lemon curl, but the one in charge of making those hadn't figured out the lemon curler by the time I needed to hand out the drinks.

The next gin drink was the Gin Sling. Apparently there is a Singapore Sling that is famous, but it called for cherry brandy. I wasn't willing to pay for the good stuff, and I couldn't bear to buy the cheap stuff. So I made a gin sling. Most of those recipes called for sweet vermouth, which I also didn't have, so I found a recipe that did without. I can't quite remember the proportions I used, but it went something like this.

2 parts gin (Tanqueray)

1 part fresh lemon juice

1 part simple syrup

Shake with ice, pour into cocktail glass, add a bit of soda water, some crushed ice, then a dash of Angostura Bitters.

This one was one of the favorites. It just all came together in a tasty, balanced icy little treat.

The last gin drink was to be the Jasmine. Supposedly, this drink would taste like grapefruit juice. I discovered Campari's lovely complex bitterness some time before, and was looking forward to a new way of using it.

2 parts gin (Tanqueray)

1 part fresh lemon juice

1/2 part Campari

1/2 part Contreau (ok, I used Triple Sec here too)

Shake with ice in cocktail shaker and strain. Indeed, it tasted remarkably like grapefruit juice! With a significant kick. This was another one that benefitted from long shaking with the ice. The color was a lovely pinkish hue, a bitter enough to please those us with that taste preference.

Now it was time to start in on the creamy drinks. I had one in the cards called an Orange Chocolate. I don't remember now exactly how it went because it was sort of ho hum. But it went something like this:

White creme de cacao

Bailey's Irish Cream

Triple Sec

some vodka

Shake with ice, strain. As I recall, the taste was improved a bit by adding a squirt of Nestles Quik syrup. But not really worth it. Some time, I'll try it again using some different orange tastes.

Pink Squirrel. Ok, I'll say it. The name. It's the name. The first time I heard of it was when I was barely old enough to drink and an elderly family friend ordered it at a casino in Reno. I was impressed with the whole package, the name, the color (pink) and that she knew about it. So I hunted up a recipe. It actually calls for Creme de Noyaux, which is supposed to be nougat or something, and it is red. But I also read that it is virtually identical in flavor to Amaretto, which I already wanted for my liquor cabinet. Not seeing any reason to duplicate, I substituted. The Pink Squirrel is almond-flavored and is garnished with a maraschino cherry. So to make the necessary pink color, I tipped in a little of the cherry syrup.

1 part creme de noyaux

1 part creme de cacao

2 parts heavy cream

Shake up with ice in a cocktail shaker, strain into cocktail glasses. Garnish with a cherry.

We all just thought this one was pretty fine. It was rich and tasty, but not overpowering. What was in the little glass was enough. Almond is such a delicious flavor!

No one living through the 90's could have escaped the popularity of the Mudslide. You can buy big jugs of the mix which you pour in a blender, adding equal parts ice, and whir until you have a big chocolatey alcoholic slushy. And I think they are fine. But I wanted to see what a REAL mudslide cocktail tasted like.

1 part vodka

1 part Kahlua

1 part Bailey's Irish Cream

Shake with ice in a cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass. Really really good! It gave the Pink Squirrel a run for the money. I think both of those drinks are worth keeping the stuff around for.

One thing that is a necessity about making cocktails for yourself is toying with ingredients and proportions to get the results that please you the best.

We had a lot of fun trying these out, and everyone was encouraged to only drink what was liked, feel free to pour out what doesn't please you. I feel as if I could make an order at a bar now, if I needed to, knowing that I would get something I liked.

Stay tuned for more fermentation!


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Five Favorite... Sounds

Writing about noises? I thought I would be a fun challenge, to make you hear what I hear, through your eyes seeing my words on a page and translating them into the auditory section of your brain. I love music, but formal music is not what I'm talking about. I'm thinking about sounds I hear, at random, on purpose, artificial, natural, sounds that make me feel happy or well-fed, that make me feel a little bit of longing or yearning, or that just make me feel peaceful. If it's possible, I'll come back later and add sound clips!

1. Paper
I love the sound of paper folding and crackling. Not all kinds of paper. Printer paper is sort of tinny and boring, and so is lined paper torn off a legal or steno pad. But big, thick handmade paper that is a creamy white is so inviting. I pick up one of the feathery edges and feel the rougher texture on one side, the screen texture on the other. I'm going to fold it in half, and so I bring the edge over evenly, briskly to line it up with the opposite edge. It pops out a low, rolling sound, almost like the boing! of a saw blade bending. As my fingers slowly smooth the crease, I hear a soft, sliding sound, that is to my ears like the feel of fine beach sand on my fingers. I watched a video of a man creating a life-sized origami elephant out of a single sheet of paper. Some of it is speeded up to show the process, but about two minutes into it, you can hear some of the paper noises, big low-pitched folding paper sounds that make waves of soft, muffled pops.

The other paper I like to hear is food paper. You know the kind I'm talking about. Those shiny crackly sheets they wrap Taco Bell food and drive-in hamburgers in. One side is plain, the other printed. When you get your food, it is wrapped up like a little present. Sometimes I look closer at the paper, because I'm sure that it is double layered, with airpockets in between that are popping as the paper is unfolded, bent back, slid around the food behind the part I have exposed for eating. The paper merrily crinkles and crackles all the while I eat, giving up a final imploding whoosh as I crumple the empty wrapper and throw it away.

Did you know that people make videos of themselves manipulating paper? And that people watch these? Google "soft relaxing sounds of paper folding."

2. Bells
I think my first fascination with bells came when I picked a little book off the library shelves all about bells. I had been reading a book that mentioned change ringing, and I wanted to know more about it. According to Wikipedia, "Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns called "changes"." The protagonist in the story would go out with his fellows to the church to practice their moves.
If you want to see this in action, here is a link.
I learned a little big about how bells are made, and how there is a special alloy called bell metal, or bell bronze. I understood about the overtones, after I read that section, and then listened carefully to the next bell I rang. The bells I like to hear are big. They ring like a freight train getting started, not like the sports car of a little handheld one. When pull the clapper over to the inside curve of the bell at Fort Ross, the vibrations begin to move the great mass of metal. Slowly at first, and then as the molecules move in rhythm and vibrate, a rising whoooOOOOOMMmmm! moves the air all around my head.
You think you can name the note of a bell, but the overtones, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes clashing in a particular bell, make its tune as  complex as a fine Belgian ale.
I got my very own bell, a USN Ship's bell for Christmas one year and hung it under my porch awning. There is summoned folks to eat or answer a telephone call. It is not a melodic bell, it is clangy, has a rough obnoxious sound. It's purpose is to get attention. Hey! Look over here! It is not made of rich, melodic bell metal. It is iron. But that's ok. I am very fond of it. It has its own job, and it makes me feel good to ring it.

3. School Children at Recess

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Five Memorable... Trees

Another post in my Five Memorable series. Trees. I like trees, a lot. Especially great, big, long-lived creatures. When I look around my place and lean back to look up into the distant canopy of live oaks, I can hardly believe that I own them. I actually own them! I would have the right to chop them down if I wanted to. (shudder) It just doesn't seem right. They are older than I am, I'm sure. I like to think about how the roots go down, weaving in among the rocky dirt, collecting nutrients and water, anchoring their trunks in place with as much material below ground as there is above. I am luxuriating in the time I wil have to get to know them all.
I've had a few favorite or memorable trees pass through my life, and now I'll share them with you.
The Old Willow Tree

When we were kids, we moved from a little rent house to a 4 acre piece of property in the country. The house wasn't any bigger, but the grounds were covered in pastures and trees and shrubs and weeds and mysteries to be explored. One big fixture that stood at the edge of the front lawn was all we needed for playground equipment: a large, old, drooping weeping willow tree. It didn't look even and well-groomed like the illustrations you would see in books. Several large-diameter limbs arched up and over the trunk, so high up in the air that when you went under the tree it seemed like you were in the middle of a gothic cathedral. Long slender branches and twigs hung down to brush the ground like green beaded curtains. You could sort of see out, but you couldn't see in.
We were Tarzan! Ahhhee-ee-ee-ee-ahhh! Standing on top of a rock or a chair, clutching an armload of branches we would leap into the air, swinging through the african jungle to drop below in the clearing. We played house, making little brooms. With a sweep of the fingers down a leafy twig you could collect a compact spray of leaves. Holding them at the base of a suitable stick, you could lash them in place with a piece of freshly stripped bark from another twig. We played Barbies underneath in the cool shade. I didn't need a Ken doll. I could have any type of boyfriend for her that I wanted by snapping a willow stick at just the right height (one inch taller than Barbie's hairdo) and imagining him. We braided and tied off jewelry from the flexible twigs. We made Indian costumes and whips. When my sister would bring back a coffee can of red dirt from up the road, we would mix in water to make red paint and, using willow leaf paintbrushes, paint boards, rocks, the fence, and our faces.
One fall day, as we walked home from school, the horizen seemed different. We could see the southern sky across the front yard. The willow tree lay, down like a dead elephant. We were stricken and heartbroken. And angry. "Why did you cut it down?" we cried. The truth was that willow trees are not long-lived, and this fellow was elderly. My dad could see that the limbs were not as strong as he was comfortable with, seeing as how much time we spent underneath it, and swinging on it. So they had it chopped down. Even then, it hadn't lost all its play value. We climbed and crawled all over its carcass, running along the trunk and limbs as though it was a multibranched trail, until finally, all the pieces were cut off of it and disposed of. And then that was that.

The Oak at the Corner

At our home in the country, we were surrounded by foothills, swampy areas, orange groves, and valley oak trees. Some of these trees were old and massive. In our neighborhood, we all had a special fondness for the Oak at the Corner. Our neighborhood was within walking distance to our K-8th grade school, a little country school serving the little town of Lemon Cove and surrounding community. To a third grader, it was a long walk home -- in city terms, probably a couple blocks worth. After you crossed the busy highway (Stop! Look both ways. Now go!) and walked down the rough-laid asphalt, you turned the corner onto the dirt and gravel section of your journey, went a little further, and then you were home. In the hot months, that could be a long sweaty walk with the sun beating down on you. But after about mid-morning, a treat awaited at the corner. Wide-spread, cool, dark shade from the huge valley oak growing there. All the kids in the neighborhood hung out there a lot. We'd stand there, straddling our bikes, planning where we would ride next. We would cal each other on the telephone. "Meet you at the oak tree!" We didn't scramble on or around it, since it was behind the old barbed wire fence of someone else's pasture, and weeds and nettles grew around the base of it. But in spite of that, we felt somewhat possessive of it. In a sense, we OWNED it. We used it's shade. It was OUR landmark, OUR hangout. It hads always been there; it would always be there.
Then one day, when we were a little older and drove cars to meet each other instead of bikes, a mighty CRACK was heard. The oak at the corner had split right in two, right down the middle of the fat, forked trunk. Fully half the oak tree was lying down, across the barbed wire fence, across the road at the corner, acoss the ditch.
Just for old time's sake, I was glad part of the tree was still standing, but it just was never quite the same.

The Pomegranate in the Summerhays' Pasture

In our country neighborhood in the foothills, we could easily let ourselves feel like we could live off the land if we needed to. In the moist shade grew miners lettuce and sour sheepshank weeds. In the neighbor's boggy pasture grew fields of spearmint. Orange groves and individual citrus trees were ubiquitous. We could even find some lemon and grapefruit trees tucked in one unkempt grove. In October we would pick buckets of small olives to cure from the wild olive trees growing in the brush, and, of course, there were stands of wild or feral pomegranate trees. Because they were not irrigated, they would usually ripen and split early, but we took full advantage of them when they were good to eat. We would come home with black hands and mouths, stained from the red juice. We would also bring them home and seed them for Mom to make jelly out of.
Pomegranate trees are brushy and spiky all the way down to the ground. There was one exception though. And that was the pomegranate in the Summerhay's pasture.
The Summerhays' pasture adjoined our own, and, like our own, was mostly bare of trees, about a couple acres big. In our day, fences were not borders or boundaries. They were only meant for one thing, and that was keeping livestock in. So were were experts at climbing over various kinds of fences.
(That reminds me of a quick story. We had a little fire get away from our burn pile recently and our whole family was busy stomping it out. I hollered for my teenage daughter to go over the neighbor's fence and help my husband put out the advancing edge of flames. She ran over to the fence, milled around a little bit, and then plaintively called out, "How do I get over?" I was a little dumfounded to realize she didn't have any experience in fence-climbing.)
About in the middle of their pasture stood a lone pomegranate tree. This tree actually had a bare trunk. The branches didn't begin until about my shoulders. And that was because there were some cows in there, who kept the growth trimmed up. The one thing I always wanted to be sure of before I went fence climbing was, were there any cows in there and where were they now? I was afraid of large animals and tried to avoid them. And that was the beauty of the Summerhay's pomegranate tree. If you needed to take that shortcut, or you were just messing around exploring, that lone tree was your safety in their pasture. As long as you knew you could reach it before the cows could reach you, you would be ok. I spent more than one occaision sitting on a branch in that tree looking at black and white cows milling around beneath me, waiting for them to get tired of being there and moving away. Far enough away so that I knew I could get to the fence before they could get to me.
Our Umbrella Tree

I think most people call them "chinaberry trees," but we always called ours an umbrella tree. They must have been quite fashionable in the fifties, because you saw them everwhere. My grandparents had half a dozen of them. They are native to Asia, and are relatively fast-growing. The way they were usually handled was this: About three or four main limbs were allowed to spread out of the main trunk at about five feet tall. Every other year all growth on these limbs was stubbed off in the fall, leaving a naked, dead looking thing, until spring, when slim new growth would appear, making a light canopy for that summer. By the next summer after that, the tree was lush and full again, but if you didn't prune it that fall, it would quickly grow thick and big and out of control. The leaves were pinnate, like feathery fronds, and the fruits were green orbs, a little bigger than peas.
Our umbrella tree grew in the back yard, sort of on the dividing line between the back and the side yard. It made some well-needed shade there at the southwest corner of the house, and was part of our play area when we were cast out of the house on lazy summer days upon saying, "I'm bored!" Sometimes we climbed it, but it wasn't a particularly interesting climbing tree, since the only place you could really go was the crotch of the tree, due to the pruning practices. Everything in our kid-land was rated on its play value, and the umbrella tree stacked up pretty well. We called the chinaberries, "poison potatoes." They grew in prolific sprays and no one cared about them. So we could strip them off the tree and throw them at each other. We could gather bags of them and pretend they were money as we practiced commerce. We could set out dishes and bafles and play, "County fair midway," where we had to throw the "coins" in the targets to win prizes. When the poison potatoes ripened and fell off the tree, they started to look more like their namesake, with dessicated mealy flesh around a pit, covered by a flabby beige skin. They felt dangerous to handle, because they were deadly poison. Weren't they even called "poison" potatoes? The other play value we enjoyed immensely was making little people out of the sticks that began falling off the tree along with the leaves. The sticks were brittle, and we would break them off an inch or two above the natural separation point at the thicker base. Then, leaving a trail of skin connected to the stub, we would wind it around and around, peeling a strip of skin from the long end as we went. When you were done, the skin would uncoil like curly ribbon around the "head" of the little stick person you had made.
Early one sunday morning while getting ready for Sunday school, we heard a crack! and a soft whoosh! Our umbrella tree had split down the middle and fallen across the outside summer bed, where, thankfully no one was sleeping at the moment. Later, Dad took the chainsaw and finished off the tree, leaving a little ground level platform with a remnant of play value in it. We didn't mind too much. The sticks were a pain to rake up in the fall, and there were plenty more poison potatoes to play with at my grandparents'.

The Cork Oaks

Even though there were half a dozen cork oaks on our homeplace, I'll use the biggest, fastest-growing best located cork to be the stand-in. It stood by the lane, on the western side of the property, shading the hot, late afternoon sun and partially screening the back patio from view of the stray car or two bouncing down the gravel road. This was not my childhood home, but my children's childhood home.
When we lived in Davis, near the university, we took frequent walks in the arboretum and around the campus. Huge cork oaks, native to Africa lined the streets and grew in groves along the lawns. Cork oaks are just what they sound like; the bark is harvested to make cork products, like wine corks. It is very curious looking, fissured and thick, showing the unmistakeable grain of cork. My brother-in-law presented us with a dozen oak sprouts a year after we had given him a bucket of cork oak acorns for Christmas. We had just moved to our first very own home on an acre and a half, and I carefully planted those little sprouts everywhere I thought we might want a tree.
They grew surprisingly fast, along with the dozen or more valley oaks I also planted. After almost twenty years, my favorite, biggest, cork oak towered high, its deep, fissured bark tempting you to scrape off soft chunks of cork, but instead delivering a hard, resistant surface. It was tall, very tall. Don't ask me to estimate. I am terrible at estimating vertical distance. You will know that if you have ever seen my video of me placing a bear bag in a tree. But its shade was wonderful, and since it is a live oak, it continued screening the back patio all year long.
My oaks were the one sorrow I had over selling our place. I hoped the next owners would cherish those trees like I did. I was afraid we would end up in a new place without mature trees. I couldn't wait another twenty years for big trees!
When we bought our new house, I felt rewarded for the care I had taken in planting my sprouts so long ago. Almost a dozen humongous live oak trees and a giant valley oak grow on our acre of land. The house is shaded during the hottest part of the day by these massive giants, along with the biggest liquid amber tree I have ever seen. (Ok, so the liquid amber is a sort of throwaway compared to the others.) I stand under them and stare and think. And whoever planted them; the squirrels, chance, or God, they feel like a reward for planting those other long-lived trees that I didn't even know for sure I would be the one to enjoy their maturity.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Brown Eggs

When you hear "Brown Eggs," you probably think of the brown-shelled eggs that come from many home-grown eggs, or ones you buy at the farmers market. But I will give you a new image of brown eggs that you probably never heard of before. "Huevos Haminados," true brown eggs, a traditional Jewish Sephardic specialty. (The "Huevos" part isn't Mexican, it is from Medieval Spain)

I like eggs, but sometimes it feels like I have run out of ways to cook them that are exciting. Yes, you can make great things with them, like fritattas, but what if you just want an egg? Honestly, I'm not that fond of deviled eggs, though I like a good deviled egg salad on Wonder Bread, just like when I was a kid. But when I learned how to make Brown Eggs, and deviled them with a different flavor profile, I found that I enjoyed these deviled eggs better.

Eggs are like beefsteak. You have two choices; either cook it until just barely done, or cook it with moist heat until it is tender. They are both protein, and that is how you handle protien. And with these eggs, I'm talking 10 hours or so!

The first recipe I tried called for boiling the eggs all day. That was fine, and they turned out well, but what a pain! I had to keep replacing water, minerals got all over my pot, and I had to keep turning the burner off when I left for awhile. The next time I used my Crock Pot. And that worked perfectly! I put them in first thing in the morning, and pulled them out that night.

When you peel these eggs, (and with the long cooking, the eggs evaporate some, making them super easy to peel) you will discover why they are called brown eggs. The white shell comes off to disclose a pretty caramel-colored egg white. Suprisingly, the yolk stays bright yellow, except for the unavoidable green coating from the iron in the yolk. The eggs's flavor is rich and meaty, the texture is a little more firm, but still tender.

The way I devil these is to crumble the yolks, mix in a light amount of real mayonaise or olive oil, salt as desired, a pinch or two of cayenne powder, and a few drops of liquid smoke.

Another method that I have seen online is to bake them, rather than boil. I'm not really willing to have my oven on for the 5 hours it calls for, but it would be interesting to see if the flavor is any different.

If you enjoy eggs, try making brown ones. It's worth the look on people's faces when they see them!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Shrubs, and Not the Kind You Prune!

I had never even heard of a "shrub" beverage until a few years ago when I attended a forum for Civilian American Civil War Reenactors. Amongst all the other fascinating lectures and how-to's on life in the 1860's, we sampled a strange little drink called a shrub. When they said it was made with vinegar, I could not think that I would like it. But surprisingly, I thought is was tasty, in its own way.

A shrub is a beverage made from drinking vinegar (that's the present participle functioning as an adjective here) mixed with fizzy water. The word is derived from an Arab word sharab, meaning to drink. Where did it come from? Why was the idea even conceived? The early English version arose from the medicinal cordials of the 15th century. Spirits were often a component. The American version has its origins from 17th century England, when vinegar was used as a preservative for fruits and berries so they could be enjoyed in the off-season. Fruit was infused with vinegar and sugar was added. The resulting strained mixture was called a "drinking vinegar." You could mix it with water, soda water, or even alcohol. A refreshing tart-sweet drink was the result.

When I got tired of looking at that gallon ziplock bag of blackberries in the freezer, I decided to resurrect my shrub experience and began to look for recipes. What I saw was that there is no one way to make them. There are only general instructions and a simple goal of making something tasty! My first stop on the Internet was the web page for the Drunken Botanist. I had recently finished listening to the book on Audible, and then received the hardbound copy for my birthday. One of the pages on the site was about shrubs.  I followed several links worth of instructions, scanning them. Some used the heating method, some used the cold method.

 I decided that I would use the cold infusion method. It looked like, in general, you used equal amounts of sugar and fruit, let it steep together, crushing the fruit at some time, and then strain the liquid off. Add equal amounts of raw vinegar to the liquid you recovered. Some recipes called for the vinegar to be a part of the infusion. But I wanted to see how much liquid I ended up with before I added the vinegar. I used the only raw cider vinegar I could find in the stores, Braggs.

As soon as it was finished, I tested it. Incredible! The flavor was bright and exciting. Forget about the thought of drinking some vinegar bringing up your gag reflex. The closest I can come to in describing it is tart lemonade. But not. Because it is definitely tangy from vinegar, not citrus. I can't see chugging a whole quart of this drink at a time. But it is delightful to sip on, savoring the fruity sweet and sour taste, sparkling on my tongue with fizzy water.

I made this one simply, with no added spices or herbs. Some day I may get to that level, but not yet. I am trying a new one right now, pineapple, made from fresh pineapple. Because it is fibrous, I lightly pulsed it in my blender, just to make sure I got as much juice as I could out of it. I also may go ahead and add some vinegar earlier in the process, with the sugar, to see what it does to the flavor development.

I can see this as something I will have on hand! And maybe someday I'll have a cute little set of oddball flavors in medicinal bottles like this.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Brew Tips - Bottle Washer

First off, ignore the ugly, stained laundry tub. Thanks! Now let's look at my clever little bottle washer.

When you bottle your homebrew instead of kegging it, there are a lot of bottles involved. Lots of bottles. Five gallons of homebrew can fill several cases of bottles, especially if you want to fill some 12 ouncers along with the larger 22 ounce size. To prepare previously used beer bottles for filling requires a couple steps, and the most tedious is washing and rinsing them.

If there are labels, or if a residue of any sort remains inside the bottles, they must be washed with something like Oxy Clean or PBW, a highly effective powdered brewers cleaner. The stuff is like magic, melting the labels right off and stripping the gunk out of the insides. It also doesn't foam much, so rinsing is easier. But the rinsing must indeed happen, and this is where most of the tedium occurs.

You can drop the bottles into a big tub of water and try to get them to sink and fill with clear water. Swirl the water, turn the bottles upside down and watch the water glug glug out. Circle the bottle rapidly to create a whirlpool inside so the water will shoot out quicker, but notice how the centrifugal force also pins the draining water to the inside wall. Is it rinsed enough? Better rinse it again to make sure there isn't any cleaner remaining!

After the 10th time, I knew I MUST have a bottle rinser of some kind and applied myself to coming up with a simple solution. I put together three simple items, two of which I already had, and now I have a very effective rinsing tool.


I bought a brass dishwasher connector from Home Depot. Perhaps because of its wide use, it was about the cheapest fixture on the brass fittings wall at the store, only about three bucks. I used an extra Starbucks straw from a Venti size reusable cup for the tube. The little rim at the bottom of the straw is perfect for holding it in place. Feed the straw through the compression fitting that comes with the connector, and then the nut, and hand tighten it onto the connector.

Use a basic plastic or metal hand-held sprayer that has garden hose threads on the spray end. That will be where you screw on the female end of the dishwasher fitting. The other end of the sprayer will fit on a hose or a laundry tub spigot. What is nice about the laundry tub is that I can easily use hot water, and I don't have to try to figure out how to hold a hose in place.

Turn the water on part way, and just hold the soapy bottle upside down over the straw. squeeze the spray handle and water will shoot up inside the bottle, quickly and neatly draining itself at the same time!


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Organizing My Spices


You'd think I'm crazy to get this much pleasure out of organizing my spices, but it's true! I'm giddy with satisfaction and pleasure at viewing all the little powders and dried things tucked away, each in their own matching jars. It has been a long time coming.

There are so many ways to handle the kitchen spices. When I was younger, spices mostly came in little tin boxes, red and white with the Schilling brand stamped on them. We had them stacked like tiny books in a lower kitchen cupboard. Their snap tops were plastic and had a scooping side and a shaker side. If you went back a little further in years, the tops were also tin, and they slid back and forth over an oval hole in the top of the can. This more ancient style resided in my grandmother's cupboard, who probably never heard of spices getting old and probably wouldn't have been able to bear to throw them away if she had. The tin boxes were great for keeping light out, good for keeping moisture out and easy to line up on a shelf. It was a drawback to not be able to see how much was left though, or to know what might be inside without actually reading the can.

Eventually, we went to keeping the spices in a shallow drawer, which worked very well. I used that method when I got my own house. Except by now, more and more spices were coming in an assortment of plastic bottles. I bought the bottles based on whether they would fit in my spice drawer. I laid the tall ones down, I Sharpied the names on the red lids of the small bottles and set them upright. Bulk spices started to become available. As I repurposed bottles, I had to cross out one name and write another. It sort of became a jumble with older ingredients at the back of the drawer where they weren't easily in view.

At my new house, I didn't have a drawer I could give over to the spices, so I used a basket in a lower cupboard. Finally, I'd had enough of that pile of old and new mismatched bottles piled up in the plastic basket and started looking for a new way. I looked through Amazon for glass spice bottles. I didn't want the staining and odor retention of plastic anymore.

When I came across Ball brand 4 oz jars with a standard size lid opening, something I had not known existed, I knew I'd found exactly what I wanted! They happened to be available at Walmart, and for only a little more than a dollar a jar. These came with a plastic lid with a snap shaker top incorporated, though I could have gotten some at Target with the regular style lids. The standard lid size was important to me, and I was vindicated when I saw that one of my plastic lids was broken, and I had to dig out a standard canning lid to cap my mulling spices. (I had dropped one of the boxes of four jars and suspect that was when it happened.)


I jumped in all the way and bought over two dozen of them. I wanted enough for all my herbs and spices. And I know where to get more!


These jars stack in my basket perfectly, and I keep them in the lower cupboard where light can't get to them.

I love to use canning jars for lots of things. In all their sizes and shapes they are good for left-overs, making tea, storing pantry ingredients, sending Kefir in someone's lunch kit, and now, finally, a size perfect for spices and herbs!