Friday, August 29, 2008

Labor Day - a national holiday for hot dogs?

Like a lot of things, Labor Day has morphed into something else. Personally, I'm ok with that - families getting a long weekend to spend together before the school days of autumn begin. But I think it is also nice to remember why the heck we get that day off in the first place.

It started, in 1894, as recognition of the American worker, brought to the forefront by the helatious working condition in American factories and the ensuing riots and demonstrations against them. Child labor, seven day work weeks - this is the stuff that Congress had in mind when it recognized and created Labor Day.

A holiday that was born from marches in the streets, boycotts and riots - riots so bad that President Cleveland had to call in troops - has lost much of its original meaning to most Americans. That's probably because we don't have seven day work weeks for most folks anymore and child labor laws in the US are enforced. I don't know how much the holiday itself had to do with these changes but national recognition of the situation back in day must have meant a great deal to those workers.

Ok, have you duly reflected? Have you given a thought to those folks who brought you the holiday? Ok, good. We've honored the past, now it's time to eat and celebrate.

Burgers, hot dogs, steaks, ribs - it's like a beef council commercial on Labor Day, right? That's ok but there is nothing wrong with mixing it up a little too. Grilled Szechwan Shrimp sounds pretty good, or how about Cuban style Pork Burger? Creamy coleslaw is a good bet for summer's farewell. Toss back a few mojitos and that's a par-tay.

Perhaps mixing mojitos with horseshoe tossing wouldn't be a good suggestion, so how about badmitton? I'd like to get a bocce ball set, partially because it's fun to say "bocce". Yard games haven't been the same since they pulled yard darts from the mix, due to the deadly spearing tips but hey, there are other games. Surely the recent Olympics must have given you some ideas. Pole vaulting, anyone? (Is that still in the games? I don't know.)

So this was a very long way of saying "Have a happy Labor Day, everyone." Gather ye rosebuds (or blackberries, or whatever other summer item you want to substitute) while ye may and enjoy the three days. Tip your glass to the American worker and flip your steak on the grill. Anyone for bocce ball?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fabulous Fifty State Tour - Colorado and Pumpkin Walnut Muffins

It's off to the mountains this week in our continuing tour. Denver, the current host of the Democratic National Convention, is also the capital. The name of the state means "ruddy" or "colored red" in Spanish, which probably has something to do with the first Spanish explorers visiting there in the 1500s. Colorado was claimed by Spain but became part of the US in that great land deal, the Louisiana Purchase, so we now benefit from excellent skiing, omelets, stegosaurus remains and the pinto bean capital of the world.

With the Olympics now over, it is interesting to note that Denver is the only city to turn down hosting an Olympics. In 1976, the winter games were slated to be held there but the citizens of Denver voted to just say No and the games were relocated.

My grandpa would have appreciated the wild west history of Colorado; Doc Holliday ended his days from tuberculosis there and Kit Carson established the first military post.

So with a pedigree like that, I can hardly offer up the Denver Omelet as a taste of the Centennial State. Though Colorado produces the most lamb in the US and is famous for its beef and buffalo, I thought I'd bring the pumpkin to the table. Why the pumpkin? Well, a landmark restaurant in Denver named The Fort convinced me of the long long history of this veggie in Colorado history.

It seems that the pumpkin has been making appearances in Colorado since 400 CE, which is considerably longer than the state itself has been around. It was a tried and true food of the pioneers and was used in bartering for buffalo hides. If that isn't bona fides enough for you, fall is coming and we can always use another good pumpkin recipe, right? So, check out these Pumpkin Walnut muffins made at The Fort Restaurant in Denver:

"5 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups dry powdered milk
4 tablespoons baking powder
3 tablespoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
4 large eggs (size does make a difference!)
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
1 1/4 cups water
2 20-ounce cans pumpkin (not pie filling)

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease 3-inch muffin tins or line with paper.

Mix all the ingredients together. The batter should be easily scoopable. If it is too thick, add a little more water. Fill the tins three-quarters full and bake for 40-45 minutes. Let the muffins cool before removing from the pan.

Because they are so moist, these reheat beautifully."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Spiders Three, Woe is Me

I'm not big into superstition, though I tend not to walk under ladders or jump up and down on sidewalk cracks. But sometimes, I get a little fearful when weird things happen - you know, when bats fly into your hair (true story, it happened) or when you find a frog on your pillow (no, I didn't kiss it).

Now I am wondering if I need to be worried about spiders. In the last three days, there have been three large spiders making an appearance in my home. The first, especially weirdly, was in my bed when I turned back the comforter. Yeah, that's creepy. Number two was found downstairs, in a bedroom. And number three, the biggest and blackest and full on scariest of them all, was in the bathtub of the guest bathroom.

Now, I don't like spiders in the best of times - Charlotte is an exception but generally I find them to be like Shelob. So when I saw Number 3, there was a full freakout. Hubby was called and he handled the extermination. Sorry, no moving it outside on a broom to live in the wild. This thing could have worn a saddle, so out it went permanently.

But the bigger question is, what do these spider sightings mean? Yes, the weather is changing and fall is coming and the spiders are moving indoors. I get that. But three monsters in three days? It has an Ides of August feel about it or Something Wicked this way comes-ness that really makes me wonder what the heck is going on.

That or I just don't like spiders.

Book Review: Fortune Cookie Chronicles

I'm a sucker for book jackets. I'm the person they wrote the old phrase "Never judge a book by its cover" for because that is exactly what I do. Browsing at the bookshop, I am drawn to the books with interesting covers, good photography, unusual fonts. Yes, even fonts.

Tragic, I know, that I miss out on good books with plain Jane fronts, but everybody has to make a choice somehow, and that's typically how I make mine. My success rate is about 80/20, which isn't bad. A new selection, titled Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee falls into the 80% good category - and it has a great cover to boot.

The book was prominently displayed on a table with cookbooks by Ina Garten and Bobby Flay, which is how I saw it in the first place. I think someone at Borders should have read the book before placing it there. True, the book's theme is all about Chinese-American style food, it really is more of commentary than cookbook. The author begins her story by relaying a strange occurrence in a multi-state Powerball lottery; all the winners used numbers they found in their fortune cookies.

Ms. Lee goes on from there, discussing lighter things like the origins of the fortune cookie (it isn't where or whom you think it is) and darker things like human trafficking in Chinese illegal aliens (who end up working in restaurants). It's a fascinating book about a topic that you might not know you are interested in until you read it. Her writing is informative and a bit irreverant, which made it great reading for a somewhat soggy Sunday (whew, talk about alliteration).

For those interested in it, or just the cover art, I've added it to the widget at the bottom of the blog. You may find yourself craving egg rolls when you are done. You've been warned.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fabulous Fifty State Tour - North Dakota & Serinakaker

NR would be right at home in North Dakota. Milk is the official state beverage. When I think milk, I don't immediately think North Dakota, but I guess I will now that I know that. I'll also think of North Dakota when I see sunflowers because this state produces more than any other in the US - go figure. Despite this fact, the state flower is not the sunflower but the "wild prairie rose", which I've never heard of and had to find a photo of just to know what the heck it looks like. (Thank you, Netstate for having such a nice photo.)

The Roughrider State (hey, I don't make this stuff up) was 39th to join the union. The capital, Bismarck, also is a great doughnut and no one has looked at wood chippers the same way since the movie, Fargo. It might not be too surprising that square dancing is the state dance but it ought to be ballroom dancing; Lawrence Welk grew up there. Peggy Lee, Louis L'Amour and Angie Dickinson all hail from ND, so there must be something to all that milk drinking.

Speaking of dairy, Cream of Wheat got its start in North Dakota (well, I eat mine with cream, so that's dairy...). We couldn't conclude our little sojourn without tasting a little something. How about some Hungarian style Spaetzle made with Cream of Wheat? No? Ok, for those not fans of farina, how about some Scandinavian cookies? There was a large population of Scandinavians that settled in ND and I'll bet some folks there are still making serinakaker (Serina's cookies - now you know the Norwegian word for cookie, and Serina.)

And since my great-grandma's name was Serina (well, Serene, but close enough) and she was Norwegian, these almond and butter cookies are a fitting close to a trip into North Dakota. Someone pass the milk. Wunnerful.

(If you don't know why I am doing this post, here's the first of the series.)

Political aside...

I just have to comment on the pathetic 24% voter turnout in Washington State's primary. Come on, peeps. This is crazy.

Yeah, it's just a primary but come on - 24%? More people turn up for the opening of a envelope than this year's primary.

Let's hope November can do better. Sheesh.

/steps off soapbox, returns to kitchen to make a cake.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sometimes you feel like a jar, sometimes you don't

I don't have a problem with spaghetti sauce in a jar - red sauce, that is. By and large, the product is good and only requires a bit of doctoring; more herbs, garlic, pepper, whatever. I like red sauce in a jar because it is quick, consistent and easy to improve. Usually, I go with two jars of complimentary flavors - Newman's Own Marinara and the Garlic one, although I've been cheating on Paul with some Classico lately. A little Merlot or Cabernet added, some diced roasted red pepper - the possibilities are endless.

Not so with Alfredo. I don't claim to be an Alfredo expert; heck, I don't even really care for it, except on rare occasion. And on the rare occasion (which was yesterday), I went with a sauce in a jar, again for quickness. Never again. Maybe it was the brand, but I found the sauce to be disgusting, right out of the gate. Gloppy, flavorless, it practically dissolved the pasta.

I was at a loss for a remedy. It wasn't like the red sauce that can be enhanced, tweaked, even seriously re-flavored; this stuff was just a hot mess. I felt sorry for the chicken that went into it.

So, when the itch for Alfredo comes around again, I will take the time to actually make it, rather than open it. I'll trust some folks that know good sauce. I might even try one from Mr. Bam himself, Emeril LaGasse.

Or I might convince hubby that we really ought to eat out that night. Then I can get eggplant parmigiana instead.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Fabulous Fifty State Tour - New Hampshire and Apple Crisp

I haven't traveled to all fifty states, and truthfully, I don't want to. Oh sure, there are probably so many great things to see along the way; the largest ball of twine, maple syrup museums, places where George Washington's Uncle's Second Wife slept, etc. etc.

Nope, I'll never hit all the states, though I've been to a few of them and hope to do more. I'm really eager to see Massachusetts and I'd like to see the historical sights in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Of course, there is DC (not a state, but yeah, so what), which is my dream trip and I wouldn't mind getting to New York City some day. Oh and Savannah, Georgia would be a fun one too. Back to New Orleans, at least once more, and I hope to travel to Yellowstone and Yosemite some day too...

Ok, that's enough travel ideas to last far beyond my budget (and my husband's patience). And since I can't get to everywhere, I thought I'd take a little exploration here, posting some quintessential recipes from our sister states, for a little tastebud travel. In honor of this year's presidential campaign and Jed Bartlet from the West Wing, we kick off our tour in New Hampshire.

The Granite State apparently also has the nickname of "Switzerland of America" which I assume is from their great fondness of fondue and yodeling. I gotta love a state that has adopted the Ladybug as their state insect - I had no idea that insects rated high enough to be adopted by states, but the ladybug is a good choice. For those of you testing your high school memories, Concord is the capital and her native sons (and daughters) include: JD Salinger, Maxfield Parrish, Franklin Pierce, Robert Frost and Mandy Moore. Yes, the teen star.

Alright, enough trivia, on with the eating. New Hampshire lays claim to many of New England's foods and recipes including chowders and maple syrup, but the state also grows apples. The former Governor of the state, Jeanne Shaheen has provided a recipe for apple crisp and heck, that sounds like a pretty good source for a taste of New Hampshire. Fix up a batch, find a local ladybug and pull out your copy of Catcher in the Rye (or dvd of Princess Diaries, whichever you happen to have) and say howdy to New Hampshire.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Baby, it's Hot outside

Ok, I know that I can't really complain about the heat, not when folks in Texas have gone through 200 degree days but still - it is really hot here. It's 9 AM and my house is already 80 degrees, with 95 degrees predicted for later in the day.

I'm a bit hard of hearing, what with all the fans blowing directly into my ears over the last few days, so I probably won't hear the tiny violins that you all will be pulling out for me. I know, I know, nobody likes a whiner.

I guess one good thing about the heat is that I don't sleep very deeply and I remember my dreams when I wake up. I had a great one last night about Bradley Whitford, from West Wing (my current crush du jour, move over Keith Olbermann) and some fine California cheese and Washington wines - it was a wine tasting dream, poolside somewhere in SoCal. Sadly though his lovely wife, Jane, was not in the dream. Oh Darn.

Alright, I digress. Seriously. But that's about as good as it gets with little sleep, high heat and a dream about cheese. What does any of this have to do with homemaking, you rightly ask? Not a gosh-darn thing. Oh, but Columbia Winery's Cellarmaster Riesling really is tasty and reasonably priced. Try it with some Monterery Jack.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bring on the baby booties!

I am so excited because my dear Sis and her hubby are expecting child number two! We found out today that she is due in April. I feel some crafting coming on - bet I have a pattern for booties somewhere.

Congratulations, guys!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Random Recipe Monday - Sourdough Bread

I am in a Western state of mind lately. It probably got started with watching 3:10 to Yuma, which was a good movie once the thing got started. I'm also doing a bit of research into my great grandmother and her journey in a covered wagon to San Francisco. Add to that my wish to take a City Slickers-type vacation to a dude ranch, and well, you can see why Western stuff is popping up lately.

For the most part, I'm not a big fan of Western style culture. I don't own cowboy boots, I don't dig rodeos or even country music. Roping and riding aren't my hobbies and I wouldn't know a working end of rifle from the business end of a cow. All that said, however, I still find the lifestyle of the pioneers and those that journeyed out into the west to be fascinating.

I mean, imagine coming to a land with nothing but the provision in your wagon and your own self-reliance. No grocery stores, no mercantiles, no place to restock your food pantry. Hard enough to imagine baking bread on a daily basis, let alone needing to keep a starter going for the yeast. I find it amazing that people not only survived but thrived in this kind of environment.

So, as I just finished making a peanut butter sandwich for NR on grocery store bread, I salute those pioneer cooks who did it the hard way. Here is a recipe for a modernized sourdough bread. I think I'll mix up a mess of pork and beans, a loaf of this and rent a few more Westerns from Netflix. Yeehaw, everybody.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Of Moles and Men (or how I lost my sanity)


The day we moved into the new house - the very day - molehills started appearing in the nice front lawn. Not just one, oh no, but several - every day. The absence of the realty sign must have given them a signal to go forth and destroy the lawn with their burrows and endless tunnels.

Every morning, I dutifully go out with a cardboard box and scoop up the dirt that the mole has expelled onto the lawn. I stuff some down the hole to close it up and give a little silent prayer to whomever is in charge of moles that these moles will move to the forest that is next door, literally, to my house.

Sometimes before the afternoon has even passed, there will be fresh holes in the lawn. Sometimes it takes until the following morning for the trail of molehills to wind through the grass.

Last week, I bought some mole repellent, which purports to drive them away with some scent they don't like. The idea is that each day you sprinkle another section of the lawn and thoroughly water. By the end of day four, they have been driven off the land to less stinky pastures.

By day three, they had circled the mole wagons and were back at the beginning of the lawn, making three extra big hills, just to prove a point.

And that, ladies and moles, is when I went crazy. Spade carrying, hose toting crazy. I scooped up the dirt but left the holes open. I turned on the hose and gave a good long squirt of water into each hole, hoping that a sudden wave of water might run them out of town for good.

No hills this morning. Not yet. Sure, my grass looks like swiss cheese at the moment, but there are no new hills. If a new one pops, I'm going to be forced to get a trap. I hate to do it, really, but this can't go on. I can't let them destroy the front yard and that's what they'll do if I let them keep burrowing under the whole thing.

I've heard bubblegum down the holes works, as does human hair. I can just picture a new hill with hairy wads of pink bubblegum poking out of the top like some gummy mount vesuvius. I've tried those sticks that emit sounds with no result. I don't want to use poison and the repellent did nothing. So that leaves traps. Unless, the sudden blast of water drove them out - at least for now. I'm sure this won't be the last encounter with a mole.

I've read an awful lot of kids' stories that have a Mole as a character (Wind in the Willows comes to mind) but somehow, I can't quite picture our moles hunkered down in their burrow, smoking pipes and sporting tweed jackets. I'd be more inclined to take tea with them if they were.

UPDATE: A new molehill is now right next to the old hole that I flushed with water.

*Photo found at
this site. Shudder

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Blackberries are coming

Late summer means blackberries. It's amazing that fruit that good can come from a Class Four Noxious Weed. Perhaps that's why those plants can cover so much ground so fast - birds can't ignore the berries (and their seeds). Of course, having rhizomes that travel under the ground and the fact that they can live twenty five years doesn't hurt either.

But, on the sunny side of things, you get lots of blackberries when you have blackberry plants. If you can pick them. Blackberry thorns are a deterrent but a good pair of gloves, some rolled down sleeves and jeans go a long way toward protecting from the pokes and scratches that come from reaching for that really good berry, just over your head.

There are different kinds of blackberries but most of us are familiar with Himalayan, which are the ones you typically see growing along the side of the road. True "wild blackberries" are smaller, have less seeds and, some folks think, a superior blackberriness to them. They are also a bit like finding Sasquatch in the woods.

But whether it is the common variety or a rarer species, the upcoming crop of berries holds all kinds of possibilities. Pies, cobblers, cocktails, barbecue sauce, muffins, cakes, smoothies, jam...oh the list is endless. Whatever you decide to make with the berries you bravely battle the stickers for, you'll have to do it fast because these berries won't last long once picked. Keep them dry - don't wash them until you are ready to use them and keep them in the fridge too.

Summer might be on the way out (pout) but at least she's putting on a good spread for her going-away party.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Messy Kitchen is a Happy Kitchen?

While wandering the aisles of a grocery store yesterday evening (sometimes you have to take what "me" time you can get), I saw a plaque that read "A Messy Kitchen is a Happy Kitchen". The sign had a grinning sow and a mock aged patina, clearly for the country kitchen fan. I looked at the sign, not with an interest in purchasing it, but rather to ponder the sentiment. Does a messy kitchen really mean a happy one?

I've had it both ways - messy and clean(er). For me, I much prefer clean. A messy kitchen just makes me feel glum. Nothing takes the wind out of my baking sails than walking into the kitchen and seeing dishes everywhere. Who wants to whip up some impromptu cookies if you have to wash two loads of dishes before you start?

Clearly, I look too deeply at things (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar) but is the message more about justification or explanation? If you hang that sign in your kitchen, does it give you an out when the dishes are everywhere and you'd rather just watch TV than wash them? I kinda give credence to subliminal messaging and I wonder if such a sign reinforces slacker impulses.

Hogwash, you say. I don't know if it is hogwash or not and maybe that's the point. Some people are disciplined enough to do what needs to be done and others can let a grocery store sign keep them on the couch (I'll scoot over, join me). For me, I'm trying to live by two absolute rules - I can't go to bed if there is clean laundry to put away and I can't go to bed if the kitchen is a mess. Yes, some nights I'm putting away the last of the towels at midnight but I sleep easier.

A spotless kitchen probably isn't too happy but I don't think a messy one is either. As the heart of the home (at least in my view), the kitchen needs a little more TLC than the mudroom or the basement or the den. Instead of the grinning sloppy sow, how about we take some inspiration from Charlotte's Web:

Arable: That's some pig.
Avery Arable: He's terrific.
Lurvy: He's radiant.
Mrs. Zuckerman: Well, he's clean anyway. That buttermilk certainly helped.

My kitchen might not be terrific or radiant but it's clean anyway. That's happiness I can get behind.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Ace of Cakes we ain't

We had NR's birthday bash on Sunday and it was a fine day for it. Sunny skies, warm but not too hot, tables in the shade and family willing to travel to our house in the hinterlands - good times. We chowed on rootbeer glazed ham, curried potato salad and baked beans. NR had chosen "ham on a ham bone" for his meal, so I finally found a ham shank that would fit the bill. Finding a ham that isn't pressed meat with water added is not as easy as you would think.

He also did a look-see through my copy of "Hello, Cupcake" (see the widget at the bottom for info on this fun cupcake book) and selected bowling pin cupcakes (of all things). I expected him to pick the sharks or the horses or even the big alligator, but nothing doing - it was bowling pins for the non-bowling kid. Alrighty, that was what he wanted, so that's what I was going to make for him.

Or make that "we" were going to make for him. Hubby stepped up to the challenge and almost single-handedly crafted these towers of cupcakes and donut holes. All would have been well if I hadn't made a mistake on the frosting side of it. Truth be told, I don't often do canned frosting because I don't care for the flavor. I have in the past used a canned cream cheese frosting that tastes pretty good so when the recipe suggested canned frosting, I went with my whipped cream cheese. Bad idea. The frosting needed to be warmed to a melty goo consistency so the cupcakes could be dipped (think chocolate dipped ice cream cones) and the bowling pins given their white veneer. Unfortunately, the whipped cream cheese frosting decompressed and turned a strange yellowy-white.

Never ones to be defeated by confectioners' sugar, we opted to merely frost the pins with the frosting and omit the dunking. The end result was a bit more impressionistic than we might have hoped but NR liked them just the same. As the birthday boy, he ate the one bowling ball that accompanied the pins.

Worry-wart that I am, I decided to make a back up dessert to the cupcakes. I just wasn't convinced that they would taste alright (they did). Our back up was a 7-UP cake - NR is a big fan of lemon/lime sodas. I had never made one before but the ingredients were fairly straightforward, if laden with butter. I mixed it up, plopped it in the bundt pan and hoped for the best.

I think, in the end, the cupcakes were favored more than the 7-UP cake. The cake was fine, if a bit dense like a pound cake, but it didn't have a big lemon/lime taste. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but if I made it again, I'd add some additional zing to the mix.

So, this is all a really long way of saying that hubby and I are not Aces of Cakes yet, but we gave a good attempt with those cupcakes. They were fun to make (when we weren't freaking out over yellow frosting) and how often do you get to debate the merits of carved donuts with your spouse?

If you are interested in the vintage 7-UP cake recipe, check out this one. I used a version from America's Lost Recipes, but this one is pretty close.