Monday, May 31, 2010

These Are My Confessions

Well, really just the one: I kind of, maybe, just a little, but only in some respects, like Martha Stewart. Not like-like, and not like, want-to-be-"BFFs" -like, but one really has to admire the woman. If spending time in jail doesn't cause your massive domestic empire to fold up and hide in a corner, and you pretty much built all that yourself, well.. would that I may someday be so successful (sans the imprisonment thing).

I've been hunting for the book that started it all (according to Amazon, anyway): Entertaining, the 1982 guide to all things party, from hiring help to setting the table and making a bazillion dishes for the guests. For some reason none of the used bookstores I've scoured (a significant number, both in Brattleboro, Vermont and Washington, DC. The links are to my favourites) have it in stock. I think everyone else wants to hang on to it as well. For one thing, it's an emblem of a bygone era, the 1980s. In hindsight (and I'll grant you, I wasn't alive for most of that decade) everything was bright and hopeful, exuberant and jubilant and full of optimism. Nostalgia aside, the book brings that back to us, and gives denizens of this decade and century an opportunity to modify and modernize some very classy parties to fit our own characterless era.

I did find my own copy of Hors d'Oeuvres, which is equally sumptuous and dreamy. I think juxtaposing that style of opulence in decor and food presentation with a contemporary minimalism could be very gratifying. The best part of this book is not that Martha presents themed party menus or very tasty and precise recipes, but that everything is a bit mix and match. Because my guests are so often vegetarian or vegan, I need to be on my toes with modifications. Miniature tarts and sandwiches, small bites of fruit and cheese, roasted tortellini (the pictures in Hors d'Oeuvres inspired me to make my first tortellini from scratch) are all conveniently alterable. There's usually two parts to a recipe: the filling and the base. If, for example, I really like the salmon mousse tartlets, but can't serve salmon, I can replace it with herb mayonnaise and cucumbers, a sprig of dill on top. The first menu even begins with highly interchangeable tea sandwiches (p. 19).

This is also the book that led me to discover how few people in the States know what a pain de mie pan is. I even made a bet with a friend that Sur La Table wouldn't have one, or know what it was. Someone still owes me a cookie.

All of this is actually leading up to the fact that I made a recipe from Martha Stewart Living (May 2009) for dinner last night and it was very tasty. It did, however, fulfill my butter limit for the week, so I guess I'll be having dry toast for a while. The recipe was Brioche French Toast with Roasted Asparagus and Orange Beurre Blanc (image and recipe from As usual, I had about half the required ingredients, but I think it came out just as well anyway. I substituted smaller amounts of vermouth, soymilk, blood orange juice and onions for dry white wine, heavy cream (which I also left out of the beurre blanc altogether), more orange juice and shallots. And I made the brioche from scratch that morning, from a recipe in my new Beard's Bread Book for brioche loaf (not to be confused with little brioche buns). Very tasty bread, and it adds to the egginess of the dish without oversoaking the slices. Plus it smelled great in the pan as it was cooking. And I like asparagus.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Moths and coincidences.

Yesterday I found this moth lying against the curb on the sidewalk in Dupont. I thought he was gone from this world, and tried to at least move him to a happy resting place in the grass just over the curb, but as I slid the magazine under him he flapped and jumped an inch in the air before coming down to rest again. It took about five minutes to get him to hold still on my magazine, and then, as I went to lower him onto the grass, he took off and flew away across traffic to some rooftop. I never thought I'd see one of these in downtown dc. The distance from one wingtip to the other was maybe 5 inches.

Then, a block away, as we walked to the corner to cross the street, I noticed a man who looked a bit familiar. There being a lot of people in DC, I assumed he was just another face, but after 30 seconds of awkward and mutual staring, he said "Marlboro? ...Elli??" Yup, I managed to be on the one street corner in the whole city where I could run into the former Marlboro Math Fellow who came from England to teach for two years. He just happened to be in DC after leaving VT and before going on wherever else in the world he was going. It's a very very small world, sometimes.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Photos of phood

This morning started out with slightly frenetic whipping of eggs, cream and mascarpone, followed by some folding and chilling, all of which led to this evening, when I laid out the strawberries and added lemon glaze... I'm pretty pleased with the results, but I'm very nervous that the nut crust will do its usual thing and refuse to dislodge itself from the confines of the pie plate. ah well. It will still be very, very tasty. Unfortunately I wont know until we get to the brunch party tomorrow. Impatience.

And wouldn't it be nice if I could include a digital taste in posts about food? Like scratch and sniff.

And then dinner tonight (after a batch of banana bread to take over to friends) is about to be fresh pasta with spinach, tofu, and green garlic pesto. Fresh pasta is wonderful, but it's very difficult to roll out by hand. The dough is quite stiff, and pressing down firmly enough with a rolling pin to get the sheet thin enough to make reasonable sized pasta is enough to make my carpal tunnel twinge.
And while I was out earlier I bought (extravagantly) a very clean, plastic covered jacketed copy of James Beard's bread book from Capitol Hill Books (staffed by an appropriately grumpy old guy and piled to the ceiling, literally, with books. Including the bathroom.). I'm pretty excited about it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Conflict of interest

Not to sound schizophrenic, but I have a choice here, and I'm of two minds about it (and they keep fighting. In my head). On the one hand, I could be making money (in theory) off this blog. I could monetize, I could use the $100 Google AdWords coupon they sent me (and look into AdSense, too), I could sell something, I could even put a Paypal donation button on here.

Or I could do none of those things, appealing in part because then I have to do none of those things (I'm not lazy, I just like to conserve time). I could have a beautiful, ad-free blog, affix this lovely ad-free blog sticker to myself (er, I mean, the blog) and skip about on my moral and ethical high ground.

I don't really want to expect revenue from my readers, or plague them with advertisements, or, in general, be a sellout. As a librarian, the point of blogging (and life) is to share information with people who need it (even if they don't know they need it. mwahaha.) I realise that just putting up a couple ads and such isn't really demanding anything more from readers than the rest of the internet does, but heck, I don't want to be the rest of the internet. I want my motives for writing to be pure and simple (not that this seems to generate frequent updates).

On the other other hand, I'm kinda broke.

The conclusion I've come to is that as soon as I stop procrastinating and set things up, I'll do a trial run of Attempting To Make Money With My Blog. Comments and thoughts on this whole thing would be appreciated. I'm likely over-thinking it. I'm also trying out partial syndication, so people who get my blog in a feed reader will need to click through to get the full post. Again, thoughts appreciated.

EDIT: That was a dumb idea. "Short" syndication publishes a fragment, doesn't append so much as an ellipses, and therefore doesn't let the reader know that there's more to be had just one click away. If I could get a "read more" link in there it would be fine. Heck, I say, to heck with that.

There's a Calvin and Hobbes strip that illustrates how I feel about the internet, which I wont post here because I'm sure it would incur all kinds of copyright wrath. It's the one where Calvin is standing outside staring at the stars and he yells "I'M SIGNIFICANT!" pauses, then says "...screamed the dust speck."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Tuesday Night Dinner, part III

I'm not actually sure where this recipe came from. I think it was clipped from a Better Homes and Gardens magazine by Wortklauberlein. It was originally for bread crumb, spinach and feta burgers, but I had only one of those ingredients, so some modifications were made. Because I was making it up a bit as I went along, I changed all the original measurements and uhm... it's a whole different recipe now.

Veggie Burgers

~1-2 cups cooked black eyed peas
1 cup spinach (frozen or fresh)
2 eggs
2 tbl olive oil
2 tsp dill (fresh always better)
1 tsp oregano
a pinch or two of sage
Salt and pepper to taste, and any other herbs/spices

1. Mush up the black eyed peas to rough texture.
2. Mix everything else in, makes sure there's enough egg to coat the ingredients and hold them together. Hold back on the spinach or peas if it seems like a stretch.
3. Heat up a cast iron pan with some oil, use the same pan the sweet potatoes were done in, if using in the same meal.
4. Drop large spoonfuls of the mixture into the pan and let cook. Flatten a bit with the back of a spatula to make sure all the egg is cooked and turn over once they hold together. They're never going to be very solid, but they do hold together.
5. Serve with Asparagus Pesto.

I added the black eyed peas not just because I didn't have any bread crumbs handy, but because they're protein, and the meal needed some. I just moved the starch aspect over to the sweet potatoes instead. I suspect that other beans could be substituted. When in doubt, try something different.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tuesday Night Dinner, part II

For the main course, I made asparagus pesto over some veggie burgers. The pesto, first:

This recipe came from the New York Times, very timely, just as I was considering what to do with some overly aged asparagus in the refrigerator drawer. As usual, I modified it to fit what I had around, and it was drastically different from the original. It turned out a little damp at first, but reabsorbed the liquid as it cooled and behaved very well on the burgers.

Asparagus Pesto
Some asparagus, perhaps a bunch
2-3 tbl olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon (or to taste)
Fresh ground pepper
"21 seasoning salute"
Few pinches salt, to taste.

1. Wash and cut the asparagus into small inch long pieces. Boil a pot of water and drop the pieces in, cooking until they are bright green, no longer. Drain and rinse in cool water, then add to the container of a food processor.

2. Add the lemon juice, pepper, 21 seasoning salute, if you have it, or other spices. The 21 seasoning salute is a Trader Joe's mix that's especially tasty on popcorn, but can easily be replaced with fresh garlic and whatever else strikes your fancy. I used it purely for the garlic, as I was otherwise fresh out. Salt, too, then blend.

3. That's it! Set aside for later use, reheat it in a saucepan or microwave if you need to. Serve on pretty much anything.

One of the most important parts of using any recipe is being able to make it do what you want, with what you have. If I ran out to the store every time I was missing an ingredient, I would never have time left to spend in the kitchen. So, it's best to substitute where possible, adjust to the amounts you have in stock, and not let yourself be too rigid in following directions.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tuesday Night Dinner, part I

You may or may not have seen my tweet last night describing my dinner:

@ekl1773 Made strawberry whole wheat scones, cinnamon sweet potatoes, spinach and blackeyed pea burgers with asparagus pesto. Pleased with self.

The scone, burger and pesto recipes all came to me at once, opportunely. The sweet potatoes I made up on the spot to go with everything else, partially because I didn't have the "herb seasoned stuffing mix" called for in the burger recipe (and the horror of buying such a thing instead of working with a loaf... perhaps I'll post my stuffing recipe someday).

Cinnamon Sweet Potatoes

A couple small (1' diameter) sweet potatoes
Olive Oil

1. Clean the potatoes and slice into thin slices, less than a quarter inch thick.

2. Drizzle a couple tablespoons of olive oil around the bottom of a cast iron pan and heat up.

3. Add potatoes to the pan and stir to coat, being careful not to break the slices. Spread them out and let cook. Sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of cinnamon and an 1/8 teaspoon of cardamom, just enough to put a dash on each slice. Stir and try to flip most of them over, sprinkle the other side as well. Add a little more olive as necessary.

4. Cook until soft, slightly browned on the edges, but not mushy. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Caramel corn

I'm going to post a few recipes over the next couple of days, because I have a small backlog piling up here. And why post them all at once when I can spread them over several posts and not overload you all at once? Cooking and baking are things I do to procrastinate, even to avoid writing blog entries, say, so I figure, heck, I'll turn that sucker right back on itself and show it who's boss. Uhm, by which I mean, me?

First up, we have Caramel Corn. I made this for work a few weeks back and it was quite a success. The recipe could easily be halved if you don't have a ginormous bowl around. I found it in the Joy of Cooking, 75th anniversary edition. I've only got three copies of the Joy so far, and I'd like at least four, maybe six... My other two are both from circa 1950, one from a used book store and one that was my Grandmother's (I'm very happy to have the latter, as well as her recipe box!). You see where my interest in cooking and booking overlap here: collecting cookbooks is a fantastic hobby. A bunch of mine are in my LibraryThing collection.

Caramel Corn

3/4 cups unpopped popcorn
corn/canola oil
1.5 tbl unsalted butter
1.5 cups light brown sugar
6 tbl H2O

1. To pop the popcorn, put a few (three) kernels in the bottom of a large pot (needs to hold 6 cups of popped popcorn) and just cover them with a layer of the oil, making sure it's distributed evenly across the bottom of the pot. Turn heat to high and wait for the oil to heat up. When all three kernels have popped (watch out for spraying hot oil), pour in the rest of the popcorn and put a lid on it. While waiting for it to pop, hold both pot handles and shake the kernels to make sure all of them are exposed to the heat and none of them stay in one place long enough to burn. It is possible to do this just above the burner so the oil keeps getting hotter. This process took me a few tries to learn, so you might want to try a smaller batch, first. The balance of heat and oil is delicate; too much direct heat and it burns, too much oil and it's greasy. You can also caramelize "airpop" popcorn, but I haven't tried it. Remove from heat when popping slows.

2. Lightly salt the top of the popcorn in the pot, then pour into large bowl and salt again, toss to coat.

3. To make the caramel, melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the sugar and water. Heat should be mediumish, whatever it takes to create just some loose bubbles around the edges of the sugar. Put a lid on for a few minutes to let the steam wash any sugar crystals off the sides of the pan. Cook to 234F, the "soft ball stage."

4. Carefully and slowly, pour the caramel over the popcorn, stirring as you go. Try not to get it on the sides of bowl, but cover as much popcorn surface area as you can initially, as it cools fast. Keep stirring until the caramel stops moving to new kernels.

5. Spread the popcorn out on cookie sheets to cool. Once it's at a comfortable temperature to handle, break the bunches of popcorn apart with your fingers, down to bits an inch big or smaller.

6. When completely cool, pack it up in bags, containers, or put it back in the bowl and share with party guests. I consider this recipe seriously easy and seriously tasty. Would make good party munchies along with my spicy caramel almonds recipe (which I'll have to find again...).

Friday, May 7, 2010

Crafty crafty

Back on April 25th, I lucked into* two tickets for the 28th Annual Smithsonian Craft Show at the National Building Museum in DC. So, with a liked-minded crafty companion in tow, I moseyed up and had a look around. *again, thanks to a certain lovely co-worker are very much due!

Unsurprisingly, there were lots of the usual things, purses, jewelry, some abstract sculpture objects, and oodles of people looking around but not buying stuff (including moi). I think just getting face time with potential future customers is valuable for the artists, especially because some of us would go home and tell our friends, or, sayforexample, blog. So here are a few of my favourites:

Locality loyalty first, there were at least two booths from Brattleboro, VT in the array:

Natalie Blake's ceramics have been on my "to buy" list for years now. She makes these spiffy little jar stoppers that look like sea anemones, and decorates her work with patterns that look like scratch-art (actually called sgraffito).

Randi Solin's Solin Glass is also captivating, full of glittering fragments. The vases have so many mosaic layers they're often at least an inch thick, and you get lost staring into them (One of these became a Christmas gift to my mom a couple years back).

Both Blake and Solin have studios in Brattleboro, VT at Cottonmill Hill, one of my favourite warehouse-gallery-studios. The Torpedo Factory in Oldtown Alexandria is similar, and a lot closer to DC, for those who want to go exploring.

In alphabetical order, then:

Ignatius Hats had sculptural, woven, straw hats of all shapes. Some looked like fools caps, one looked like a fairy cap made from leaves (above), but I just like the wide-brimmed basic hat with a tuft of feathers at the side.

Lenox Workshops presented what looked mostly like very plain, ladder back style chairs, but for some unique shaping. My favourites had legs that curved outwards and looked like they could walk away if they got tired of being sat on.

A lot of the "wearable art" said either "grandmother" or "person skinnier than me," but I really liked Starr Hagenbring's dresses. Her work was pieced together in vertical strips, making the shaping of the dress very pronounced and the skirt very full.

Shu Juan Lu displayed another example of wearable art, this one calling to my minimalist tastes. The dark fabric obscures some of the interesting folds it makes; the wool stands on its own while the knit uses the wearer for stability.

My favourite straight-up, framed-work artist was Thomas Meyers. His work bordered on similarity with Nick Bancock (Griffin and Sabine) and Peter Sis (Tibet: Through the Red Box), but was primarily reminiscent of private doodlings on odd scraps of paper.

One of the most desirable objets d'art at the show was a reddish-orange leather coat from Toshiki and Maryszka Osaki of Futari, Inc. It was shaped by wavering, raised darts around the torso, not unlike climbing vines or trails of steam rising (Meyers, whose booth was directly next door, commented that a great many people had fawned over it until they saw the price tag).

The prize for most mesmerizing piece definitely goes to Jeffrey Zachmann, whose wall-mounted kinetic art (read: marble toys) kept a full audience catatonic for at least 5 minutes apiece. The only issue I had was that the pieces required small motors to carry the marbles back to the top after each run. Each machine made different clattering, swirling noises, and altogether they overwhelmed each other. One alone might make a nice variation on the sound of an indoor fountain (there are videos on the website!).

Last but not least, more shapely weaving, this time with willow bark into baskets by Jennifer Heller Zurick. I loved how the pieces were uneven and unique, how sculptural each was and how different weaves and braids were laid on top of one another.

The only downsides to the show were that a) the booths were teeny and I felt guilty taking up space staring at things when other people wanted to look. Craft show, not gallery. and b), which is part of a, there were so many people I felt pressed to keep moving, or at least not walk straight into them. (and c) that I didn't have camera to take my own pictures of the work for posting.) I heard that the other days of the show were less crowded, so maybe next year...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Chocolate Caramel Cups, +3 for alliteration

Yours truly recently acquired some very exciting and rare footage of the elusive Chocolate Caramel Cups in the wild. As you will see from the somewhat grotesque imagery shown here (reported exclusively on this blog!), the Chocolate Caramel Cups have a fearful habit of wreaking havoc on their fellows. Evidence suggests that an Alpha Chocolate Caramel Cup will strip an entire rival tribe of their outer coatings before eviscerating them (as seen below!). Your faithful reporter has little stomach for this, and shall not go into further detail. The photographs must speak for themselves in this case.

The first photograph, daringly captured by our field scout, is a close up of one of these Chocolate Caramel Cups. You may observe the formation of the cranial ridge and overall dimensions of the beast. The second image shows the vestige remnants of rival Caramel Cups, and the third was captured after the war party had left; a lone victim of the atrocities.

~ ~ ~

All silliness aside, the camera on my phone is of seriously low quality, but it's all I got. The recipe for these monsters is as follows.

Chocolate Caramel Cups

You will need one or two mini-muffin tins and tin-liners. The quantity of chocolate is easily variable and amendable, but the caramel can only be fractionally divided. I made a full batch (measurements below) and have leftover (woe is me).

1-2 ~10 oz bags of semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips (I used ghirardelli)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup cream
2 cups sugar

1. Start the chocolate melting in a double broiler over simmering water. Stir occasionally.

2. Melt butter and sugar in saucepan over medium heat. Stir once or twice to incorporate.

3. When sugar has dissolved and no crystals remain, add the cream and again stir until just mixed. Over-stirring causes the sugar to crystalize. Continue to cook over medium to low heat, just hot enough that the caramel bubbles a little at the edges but does not get too carried away. Cook until caramel reaches 240 degrees F. (you will need a cooking/chocolate/candy thermometer for this. Make sure it doesn't touch the bottom of the pan when you're measuring.)

4. Meanwhile, the chocolate has melted. Put a small spoon-full in the bottom of each mini-muffin cup (lined) and use a pastry brush to brush it up the sides so that it reaches the top and covers all the paper. Place tin in freezer to solidify.

5. Remove chocolate from freezer and carefully pour, do not spoon, the caramel into each cup. Do this by transferring the caramel from the pot to a pyrex measuring cup with a spout. Add enough caramel to almost reach the rim, perhaps leaving 2-3 mm free for the top layer of chocolate. This top layer must be able to connect with the first layer of chocolate to seal in the caramel. Place the cups back in the freezer again while you melt a little more chocolate.

(if the caramel gets too hard/crystalizes, turn the heat back on and don't stir it.)

6. Remove trays from freezer again. Spoon more chocolate on top of the caramels and smooth it to the sides with the back of the spoon. Fill to the brim. Replace in the freezer.

7. Once everything has solidified a final time, peel the muffin cups off of the chocolate and pack away for later or eat. They should be just fine at room temperature, or in the fridge if it's hot out.

Feel free to try other fillings with the same method. I did peanut butter caramel "cups" previously, but was lacking the muffin tins, so they were really... sandwiches.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lessons learned

Commenting and leaving your website/blog info here and there on the interwebs can actually generate traffic. So sayeth my recent interpretation of the data I've been collecting on this very blog. Before you freak out, no, I can't tell exactly who you are, and if you're on the web you're spreading information about your surfing habits all over the place anyway. I left a comment over on Meredith Farkas' blog, Information Wants to be Free after the CIL2010 conference along with my blog address, and got a few clicks off it. That's certainly one way networking works, and why we should form connections online. (There's a building slowly on top of foundations metaphor here somwhere)

Posting links on certain days of the week, and times of day results in different levels of click-interest. I got a ton of clicks yesterday, and I suspect this is because people were le bored at work on a Monday. I'll have to devise a controlled experiment to test this theory. Maybe posting the same number of links of similar type every day? There are also notable changes in click frequency based on how I've "sold" the link in my tweet or text.

People are more likely to respond to a post or a link if they can see that others have done so before them. Facebook posts with lots of comments or clicks get shuffled to the top in the "Top Stories" feed, and if there are several comments saying "omg, so cool" and "this is great!" everyone else will click, too.

Which brings me to the irritating point that people are frequently more interested in visual content than in text. (this post is already screwed) This generally makes it difficult to communicate information to people because they are lazy or unwilling to go through all the trouble of reading. The blog Information is Beautiful takes advantage of this by posting awesome graphs, diagrams, charts and whatnot that are visually interesting, full of information, and make their point. I admit that I am also guilty of this trend. When I go through my Google Reader feed at lunch every day I beeline for the "pretty" items, the webcomics, and posts I know will be brief.

I'll just conclude by saying that posting interesting, wordy content and creating a reader base isn't as easy as one might think.

(if I put a kitten here, would you be more interested? another future study.)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

To think, to write...

Four years ago, I packed up my life and moved it all 500 miles to one small town on the top of a hill in Southern Vermont, without a damn clue what it would turn into for me. I may wax poetic about it all for years, in hindsight, in retrospect, whatever shades that might tint the memories. Everything wasn't always perfect, but the town of Marlboro felt like *home*. But before Marlboro, there was another me. A me who filled journal after journal with tiny cramped writing, drawings, designs, and lord-knows-what workings of teenage consciousness (the first image in this post is a quick view of some pages from an old journal of mine, and two books I hand-bound on the edges of the frame). Most of the writing probably isn't worth reading, but the way I lay out the text and sketches, sometimes weaving strands of text into images makes the journals visually appealing, a flip-book of nostalgia. Once I got to Marlboro I stopped writing and sketching after one journal of nothing but text. My question is, why did I stop? While I'm not prepared to completely answer that yet, here are some thoughts on the subject:

First, why did the content shift to text-only? Was it because I felt I didn't have the time to commit to more sincere creations on the pages? Because I felt my sketches and layout concepts were piddly, and not worth putting on paper? How could I be more self-conscious in college than in High School? My intent in keeping the journals was always that someday, someone would read them. Whether that would be a progeny or a historian, an alien anthropologist... Or maybe I thought they would fall into someone's hands sooner than that, and prove how awesome I was. With that in mind, I suppose the shift was because I started sharing more with people face to face at college, and didn't feel the need to record everything on paper for future transmission.

And then why did I stop writing entirely? Even at times when I could have used some introspection, I didn't write... at least not in paper journals. I began emailing, using Facebook and Twitter, recording my movements and thoughts in communications and snippets. Microblogging. This, so far as I'm concerned, is a significant step down. Maybe even a slide. Then again, I'm not sure all that introspection helped me develop much at the time, either.

I don't know if trying to restart my journaling is a mistake or not (my own version of NaNoWriMo... whatever month it may be). But if I think "nothing I do is worth recording, not the entire day, certainly" then I'm only discouraging myself. Maybe I became more private, in an odd, long-term way.

... and here I am blogging about it. Hopefully posting this will make me more inclined to journal at least once a week...