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Saturday, November 29, 2008

This Is Just Too Easy!

I am morally opposed to most "convenience" food products. Things like Spam, Rice-a-roni, instant ramen noodles and, most especially, Hamburger Helper. The problem with many of these "convenience" foods is that they are more expensive than they are convenient, and they contain more sodium and chemicals than they do food and nutrition.

Then there are the REALLY convenient foods. Shelf stable TV dinners, individual servings of soup, stew, and other things that used to come in a can or live in the freezer. I don't like these because of the extraneous packaging and extra pollution they cause, not to mention they usually taste like $#!+, at least to me.

But there are some convenience foods I cannot do without. Namely, potato chips, spaghetti sauce and frozen puff pastry.

Don't think potato chips are a convenience food? You don't know Oprah, do you? A bag of chips and a stiff martini contain all the major food groups (salt, grease, cold, wet) with a double helping of vegetables. Hey, potatoes are a vegetable, and so are olives. If they are pimento stuffed olives, that's another helping of vegetables. And if they are blue cheese stuffed, you now have your dairy. I am telling you, this is a balanced meal.

Spaghetti sauce, what can I tell you. I used to use Ragu. Then I started making it from scratch. Now I use one of those "fancy" brands, sometimes adding cooked ground beef or Italian sausage. I use it on pizza, on pasta, in lasagna and in making stuffed peppers and other recipes. Yeah, it probably has too much sodium but you are talking to someone who eats potato chips for dinner. Salt is a dietary requirement for me.

That brings me to the frozen puff pastry. You need to get to know this secret ingredient. There is practically no end to what you can make - savory, sweet, and everything in between. And if you have never thought about how this product is made from scratch, all I can say is DON'T!

First you have to make the dough. Then you wrap it around a block of cold butter. Whack it for a while with a rolling pin. When it's sort of flat you start folding it, like a letter, and rolling it, again and again and again. Eventually you end up with a thin sheet of dough that is actually infinitesimal layers of dough and butter. When it bakes, the liquid in the butter heats up and expands, causing the layers to separate and the dough to puff up. Then the liquid evaporates, leaving behind shatteringly flaky layers of buttery pastry. Mmmmmm!

What can you make with this miracle food? Anything! Topping for pot pie; turnovers; cheese puffs; angel cookies (I can't remember the real name - some people call them elephant ears) just to name a few. My favorite is a fruit tart. Couldn't be easier and boy is it tasty! Another one of those "too easy" recipes. Don't blink or you'll miss it.

Place the pastry, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator to thaw for a day or two. Don't try to hurry this step along. The pastry is going to crack anyway but the longer it takes to thaw, the easier it is to work with. Re-wrap the other piece (usually comes two to a box) and return it to the freezer.

Peel and slice an apple. Or a pear. Or two. Use any fruit you like. Pitted cherries, sliced peaches or nectarines, plums or apricots. Whatever you like, have on hand, or don't want to eat raw.

Unfold the pastry and roll gently on a lightly floured board. If you are fussy you can trim the edges to be square and neat again. This is supposed to make it puff better. Or just leave it as is. You may also have to sort of pinch the creases back together where they broke apart. This area won't rise much but it will be okay.

For individual tarts, cut into equal size pieces about four or six inches square. For family style just leave it whole. Take a sharp paring knife and score the edge of the pastry all around, making about 1/2 to 3/4 inch border. Transfer to a baking sheet. It's best to line the sheet with baking parchment. Don't scoff, you'll be glad later when you don't have anything to clean up.

Now lay your fruit slices all over the pastry, layering them or overlapping them or just jumbling them all over. Be as neat or as messy as you like. Take a spoonful or so of sugar and sprinkle it all over the fruit and the edges of the pastry. Likewise a little ground cinnamon, nutmeg, mace or cloves, whatever you prefer or have on hand.

Pop the tart(s) into a preheated 400 degree oven and bake about 15 minutes or so. The pastry will puff dramatically around the edges, the fruit will cook and the juices and sugar will make their own "sauce". But don't let that deter you from serving the tarts with a dollop of whipped cream.

Luckily, the pastry sheets are kind of small so this makes just enough dessert for two for a day or two, or a nice presentation to take with you to a brunch or your book club meeting. I kid you not, they will think you bought this at Le Patisserie Expensive or that you are a Cordon Bleu chef.

Make this often, using the sheet of pastry left in the freezer. Once you open the package, you don't want to keep this around for too long. Besides, you need the fiber.

Quotable Quotes; in the category What The Heck Is A Runcible Spoon?
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart.
Edward Lear

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hawk Sighting

Yesterday Bill and I went to his favorite store for big & tall jeans and shirts to see if I could find a hooded zipper sweatshirt. They did not have any that I liked (and I secretly don't really want one anyway, I guess) so we left.

This shop is located in a place that is pretty easy to get to, but quite a challenge to get home, as are many places in Chicago. We turned the corner and there in the middle of the block was a red tailed hawk plucking its catch - a pigeon - in preparation for its Sunday meal.

Bill and I see hawks when driving on the expressway and we have seen a variety of wildlife in our little urban wilderness - deer, skunks, opossums, raccoons, chipmunks and yes, even hawks. But this is the first time we have seen one in somebodies front yard!

Earlier this spring Bill watched a hawk building the beginnings of its aerie in the top of a tall tree on someones yard, but the nest was never occupied and he never saw the raptor after the initial sighting.

This bird was apparently at ease and intent on its pending supper, in spite of a row of cars trundling up the street past its dining spot. We resisted the urge to go "around the corner" since in reality it would mean going around several corners, and contented ourselves with this rare and rewarding sighting.

So I didn't get a sweatshirt - I got something better, a happy memory!

Quotable Quotes; in the category I'm Sorry, I Guess I Wasn't Paying Attention.

“The bird hunting a locust is unaware of the hawk hunting him”

Old Proverb

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Patches

Once again, the recent postings about Chris have resurrected yet another memory - patchwork quilts.

Sometime around fourth grade, Chris and her sisters invited friends over to her grandmother's house in Ferndale after school for quilting "bees". We would learn to piece patchwork quilts, have an after school snack and a good time, and make new friends.

Actually, the most fun was hearing Chris' grandmother ream out one of the girls for cutting her material in mid-air instead of laying it down on the table. She cut crooked and wasted fabric. A big no-no in the thrift centered world of patchwork quilts.

Chris' grandmother would pick us up in her car (a sedan, not the requisite station wagon that everybody else drove) and drive us to her house. Down to the basement we went to learn to draw and cut out our four-inch-square cardboard template; how to trace it onto fabric (placing it just so to get the greatest benefit from the design of the material and making sure not to waste any); how to stitch the patches together to create our four patch design (Cathy was making a nine-patch - a more advanced pattern that we novices were not yet ready to tackle).

There was some kind of snack of the cookies-and-juice variety and probably some form of gossip, although in the 1960s fourth graders were a bit less worldly than they seem today and we probably did not have a whole lot to gossip about. What was happening at the next Girl Scout meeting, who had a new pair of shoes, who had seen Sister Mary Cool Nun at the dime store the previous Saturday. Still, it made for an enjoyable afternoon, and there was the excitement of the ride home and the beautiful scraps of fabric from somebody else's scrap bag to tide us over until next week.

I don't think many of us ever finished a quilt. I know Chris has made countless quilts and her sister Cathy did as well. At least, I'm sure she finished the nine-patch, I'm not sure about any further progress.

I have made exactly five quilts in my lifetime, including the four-patch I started that year. I first sewed the whole thing together, but later learned that if I pieced out my meager stash of quilt blocks with solid fabric blocks, I would not only have enough for a bed size coverlet, I would have a more interesting design as well. I think I took it apart and finally put it together when I was around 18 years old - a mere nine years after its genesis.

That original quilt lived on my bed for years and went with me to Chicago when I married. Eventually, the backing fell apart and the stuffing disintegrated. I did not replace it but instead cut down an old blanket for a new lining, and added a new backing of fabric that I had purchased for another purpose, then decided I did not like. When that second generation also went the way of all quilts, the remainder became a sort of slip cover for the couch, then for the front porch glider and eventually a sort of de facto picnic blanket. I think we last used it as a moving pad some 14 years ago.

If you want to make a similar quilt, cut a pattern of stiff card four inches square. Using this pattern, cut two patches from solid color fabric, and two more from a coordinating or contrasting print. Mix and match your fabrics for the most whimsical look.

Sew a solid and a print square together with a 1/4 inch seam by hand or by machine. Repeat with the other two patches. Now sew these two together, flipping them so that the two solid squares are next to the two two print squares, with all four corners meeting in the center. Your finished block will be about seven inches square.

Once you have a supply of these "blocks" you can lay them out on the floor with space in between. Twist and turn them and move them around until you like the arrangement. Now, buy some material to coordinate or contrast with your quilt blocks. Chris usually favored small gingham check, the one with the 1/4 inch square checks. This fabric comes in many primary and pastel colors and makes a good background for your quilt.

Cut squares from the gingham the same size as your finished quilt blocks. You will need at least as many as you have pieced blocks. Once again, lay them out alternating the plain and the pieced blocks. Begin sewing the blocks together in strips, then sew the strips together until you have one solid piece. This is your quilt top.

Measure the top and purchase sufficient material for the back. Most material comes 44 inches wide. Your quilt top will be wider. You can sew a seam down the center, but it will look better if you have one 44 inch wide piece down the center, and cut another length of fabric in half, sewing the narrower pieces to each side of the center strip to make your quilt backing. The backing and the top must be the same size.

You will also need a quilt batt. These are sold in standard sizes for single or double beds. You may have to fudge a bit to get your quilt top and your batting the same size. If you trim the batting, you can use leftovers to make pillows, mini quilts, or for other craft projects.

Lay the backing down on the floor, face down. Lay the batting on top of this, then lay the top over all, face up. Line up all the edges and safety pin the whole thing together, all over. There should be a pin every 4 or 6 inches or so. You will need a lot of pins.

Now, thread a heavy darning needle with a length of knitting yarn or embroidery floss. You will want to use this doubled. In the center of every pieced block, where the four points come together, you want to take a double stitch with the needle. The needle goes in one corner and comes out another, then goes in and out the other two corners. Keep your stitches close. Leave a tail of yarn and tie in a double knot. Snip the yarn, leaving tails about 1 - 1/2 inches long.

Repeat this in the center of every pieced block and in the center of every plain block. Repeat also at the corner of every plain block. Eventually, you will have knots all over the quilt about 3 - 1/2 inches apart. This holds the whole thing together.

To be fair, this type of quilt is often called a knotted coverlet to differentiate from a quilt which has been quilted all over with millions of tiny, tiny stitches. I have a quilt I have been working on for 31 years - a wedding gift to my husband, Bill. The pattern is called "Nelson's Victory" and resembles a series of naval flags. It is named for Lord Nelson's battleship, The Victory. It was originally knotted, then I decide to quilt it about 15 years ago. So far, I have not been victorious.

To bind the edges, you can buy quilt binding or make it from strips of leftover fabric. Or you can simply fold the back of the quilt up over the top of the quilt and hem this down, using stout thread and firm stitches. Be sure to leave your backing a few inches larger than the top to allow extra for the hems.

Your quilt is finished, ready to place on the bed or on the wall, or folded over one of those cute little quilt racks at the foot of the bed. Be sure to make a label to sew on the back of your quilt. Or just embroider your name, the date, and the name of the person the quilt was made for on the back. This is important - it gives your quilt "provenance" so that when it shows up on Antiques Roadshow in a few years, they will know it is incredibly valuable and will appraise it for thousands of dollars.

Quotable Quotes; in the category Couldn't I Just Have Some Lemonade?

“When life gives you scraps make quilts” Anonymous

Saturday, November 15, 2008

SPAM!

For some reason Mary and I were talking about spam. Probably because the spam blocker on my email has a "spam of the day" recipe. Unfortunately, they are pretty bad recipes and they recycle often - there are probably only about six or seven different recipes - but it's fun to mock them and it brings us together. What can I say.

Just to scare you, you can google many recipes for spam sushi, among others, and lots has been written about the peoples of the world who favor the taste of spam for reasons I will not divulge here. Spam was never a regular at our house. Either it was too expensive or my dad did not like it - seemingly the most common reasons food was or was not purchased by my family. But once in awhile we got to have a taste of it, and Chris often had a spam sandwich in her school lunch. IMHO, spam is nearly inedible unless heated in a skillet or, better, over a charcoal grill or campfire.

Years and years ago, I went camping with Chris and her dad. I think one of her younger sisters came too. It was the most amazing camping trip I've ever been on. Understand that we went camping every summer as a family from the time I was a toddler until I was almost through high school. Dad brought everything including the kitchen sink. A veteran scoutmaster, he was skilled at turning a campsite into a three bedroom suite complete with kitchen, dining room, lounge, and all without electricity or an RV.

On the trip with Chris, we brought next to nothing. A tent for the girls to sleep in, a little grill to put over the fire to cook on, a large spoon, fork, knife and can opener. Instead of a giant cooler and cabinets full of food, Chris' dad brought a grocery bag of goodies. He was amazing. He urged us to drink a whole can of Hi-C right off the bat so we would have a large "pot" to cook in and, later, to wash up the few utensils.

He placed an open can of Dinty Moore beef stew right on the fire grate to heat up, configuring an ingenious method of turning the hot can with the tongs and serving up with the big spoon. Did I mention there were potato chips and Hydrox cookies, delicacies unknown in my world? I told you everything was better at Chris' house.

Chris' dad slept in the car. To stay cool and keep out the bugs, he rigged some kind of mosquito netting into the windows and slept on the back seat of the station wagon (everyone we knew drove a station wagon in the 1960s. That was the law, I guess).

For breakfast the next morning, we had grilled spam sandwiches. The spam was sliced and laid on the grill to brown. Hot dog buns were set there too, to toast. We spread them with mustard and ate them just like that. The most succulent breakfast I ever had the pleasure of eating.

I thought Chris' dad was awesome, and I was floored that he was able to camp, have a great time and get everything done with the barest minimum of fuss, equipment and (need I mention) clean up! It was only years later, when I mentioned this trip-of-a-lifetime to Chris, that she exclaimed that it was the most horrible trip ever because her dad forgot to bring any of the camping gear.

Once again I was stunned. But I learned that not only beauty, but most things, are truly in the eye of the beholder!

Quotable Quotes; in the category I Know It's The Obvious Choice, But This Was All I Could Find

"Shut up! Bloody Vikings! You can't have egg bacon spam and sausage without the spam." Monty Python's Flying Circus - the Spam Skit

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Autumn Annual

Last year around this time we went to the Hesston Steam Museum, as we do every year, to ride the steam trains and enjoy the fall weather (there was none) the apple cider (there was none) and Joe Jackson's Fruit Stand (there was none).

The weather was in the 80s. Not bad in and of itself but not appropriate for a "crisp, fall day".

The cider shed was closed. It was closed the year before, too. There are other places to get cider but unfortunately the only cider you can get around here has been pasteurized AND costs about $5 a half gallon.

The cider shed presses the cider on the spot, charges $2.50 a gallon (maybe it's $3) and the cider is guaranteed to get "hard" in a couple days. Anybody who knows their cider knows that that's the whole point.

Joe Jackson's moved sometime in the past couple years. On the old site they are building a condo development called "The Cornerstone". Joe Jackson's was the farm market in New Buffalo, MI, that carried produce from local farmers. Apples, melons, squash, onions, potatoes, just about anything you could want. Louise was good for at least an hour, comparing the relative merits of carnival squash against delicata, ambercup against acorn, and did she need three bags of apples or four?

That's all in the past. The new Joe Jackson's is just not the same. It's farther up the road, well away from traffic and the parking lot has lost its chaotic dodge-em-cars charm.

We go to Hesston every year at this time. Several years ago we celebrated our 25th anniversary there with train rides, stops at the apple barn and the sausage shop, and dinner at Hannah's in New Buffalo. It was a great party.

Last year, only Bill's folks made the trip to join us. What the party lacked in numbers it made up for in grim humor. We rode the "ghost train" and took delight in making sure the wussy kids in our car were genuinely scared by the lame witches, ghosts, goblins and silly "scary" story told by the conductor as we chugged along.

But the creepy guy with the chain saw - - - THAT scared the kids, even the ones that were too big and too cool to be scared by ghost stories. I guess there's something about crackly autumn leaves and the smell of burning coal, the chug, smoke and hiss of a vintage steam locomotive, that really sets the mood for an insane lumberjack to emerge from an abandoned sawmill, chain saw growling, as he rushes at the passing train. I think some of the littler kids had to change their costumes before trick-or-treat.

We did not make it to Hesston this year. Beth asked me about it. Our friends were not able to go and Bill and I did not have the heart to go alone. As more of the "attractions" disappear, the disappointment increases. Maybe we'll have to find a new autumn destination - or maybe a year off will put new allure into the outing. We'll let you know next year whether we resume the annual tradition. Maybe you can join us.

Quotable Quotes; in the category Well That's The Way I Remember It!

"It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life." P.D. James

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Gettin' Plastered

Writing about the paper dolls reminded me of something from Kindergarten, or possibly first grade - the plaster birthday cake.

Can you imagine anything more torturous to a five or six year old than a beautiful birthday cake, iced in white frosting and decorated with sugar roses, and completely inedible?

At school, this cake was brought out to celebrate each birthday. There was one of those birthday candles in the shape of a number 5 or number 6, depending on the birthday child's age, stuck in a hole in the top of the cake. The candle was lit and the class sang happy birthday to the lucky celebrant. All those eager young eyes gazed at the sugar white frosting, the pastel tinted icing roses, the burning candle, as they anticipated the deliciousness of birthday cake.

The birthday child took a deep breath and blew out the candle. Now was the time when the cake would normally be cut. But no, the candle was removed and allowed to cool and the cake, that beautiful, sumptuous looking cake, was slid back into the cupboard to wait for the next birthday.

Unfortunately, they did not wrap the cake with tissue or anything and eventually, it became encrusted with dust. But to the eyes of a five-going-on-six year old it always appeared magically delicious.

Years later my sis made an awesome assemblage (that's artist talk for a sort of sculpture). It consisted of a doll house, the attic ceiling painted blue, with clouds to resemble the sky. Inexplicably, a plane was flying through the attic.

In one of the downstairs rooms (the dining room, no doubt) was a circle of little girl figures, cast in plaster, sitting in chairs and wearing party dresses. The circle of plaster girls surrounded one of those magical plaster birthday cakes, complete with plaster icing roses and a few unexplained finger prints, as though some disbelieving six year old boy had attempted, a little too aggressively, to taste the icing.

The cake was monstrously large in proportion to the party girls. In fact, it filled the room floor to ceiling. The piece evoked the childish wonder inherent in all birthday and other celebrations - the eager anticipation, the feverish excitement of reality, and even the disappointing letdown when the event did not quite live up to its initial promise. In all, a remarkable and inspired work of art.

Imagine my delight when my sis bequeathed this wonderful childhood reminder to me. Now I can have my cake and . . . not . . . eat it . . . just like in the old days.

Quotable Quotes; in the category Enough Is As Good As A Feast.

"All the world is birthday cake, so take a piece, but not too much."
George Harrison