Thursday, December 30, 2010

Soaking in Bliss

Today is my dear friend Caren's birthday and I finally got it right. For years I kept telling myself it was on New Year's Eve, then I convinced myself it was December 29, and actually went to bed last night thinking, "Oh, no! I talked to her on the phone this afternoon and forgot to say 'Happy Birthday'!" But I didn't mess up this year.
     A few years ago someone gave Caren a really big bag of Dead Sea salts and she passed a generous supply on to me.  They were great for soaking sore muscles, like after a long day working in the garden. But being the kind of person I am, I couldn't leave well enough alone. I love aromatherapy and skin-softening ingredients, and hence my bath salts have evolved.
I scented the above batch with my own favorite relaxing fragrance blend, based on three essential oils: the dominant note is patchouli, tempered with sweet orange and an undercurrent of lavender, not enough to really identify as such, but it adds to the relaxing effect. A nice beginning to a mellow and possibly romantic evening. 
     Joe also enjoys a relaxing bath, and for him I add rosemary and peppermint essential oils to the basic unscented blend, since he likes a morning bath and those fragrances are energizing (and he really likes them, especially the rosemary).
     I have read that actual salts, even sea salts, are really not good for the skin (read the labels on your bath salts - if sodium chloride is the first or one of the main ingredients, beware; the manufacturer is taking the cheap way out). So now I use epsom salts, which do everything we want a bath salt to do - relax us, relieve sore muscles, even soothe some skin rashes or eczema. The recipe below also contains powdered milk, oatmeal, oil, and honey, all of which soothe the skin.  In addition, the honey acts as a humectant, attracting moisture to the skin, softening it while also relieving rashes, skin irritations, or sunburn.

Pantry Bath Salts
2 cups epsom salts
1/2 cup dried milk powder
1/2 cup oatmeal (any kind_
2 Tbsp. honey
2 Tbsp. oil (olive, jojoba, canola, any vegetable oil)
25-30 drops of essential oil(s) of your choice
       In a bowl, combine salts with dried milk powder.  In a coffee grinder, blender, or food processor, grind oats to a fine powder; add to salt/milk mixture and thoroughly combine.  Add the oil and honey (measure the oil first, then use the same spoon to measure the honey and it will slide right out without sticking). Mixing in the oil and honey is messy and you'll probably want to get in there and use your hands to break up as many lumps as possible - don't worry if there are a few small lumps left in.  Add your fragrance oils a little at a time, checking the aroma effect as you go.  I like my bath salts well-scented, but it is possible to get carried away.  Incidentally, when I washed my hands after I finished mixing these salts, they felt and smelled incredible! 
       I start with 10 drops of rosemary and 5 of peppermint for Joe's blend, and then add more of each, a few drops at a time, till I like the effect (which may vary depending on the brand or age of your oils - patchouli gets richer and more mellow over time but that's not the case with other scents).
For mine, I start with 10 drops of patchouli, 10 of sweet orange, and 5 of lavender.

Happy New Year to everyone! I'm not big on formal resolutions, but this time of year I like to remind myself to treat others well (like maybe with a birthday gift of bath salts) and also to treat myself occasionally. A nice, long, hot, fragrant, soothing bath, with a bath pillow, a book, and maybe a cup of tea, is one very nice way to do that.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

No Pasta of the Week

When Joe was growing up, Sunday was pasta night at his house, and we try to continue that tradition. But last Sunday the power went out at 4:41, just as I was about to start dinner, and stayed out for nearly two hours, forcing a change of plans.
It was also cooling off - yes, we do get cold in the desert - and I'd just lit a fire in the fireplace.  We also lit the oil lamps on the mantel and several candles, and as it got darker outside, Joe went out to the garage and brought in a couple more oil lamps.  Then he went in the kitchen and washed dishes by lamplight, while I took that opportunity to organize our candle stores - over time we've collected a lot of candles!  There are many more than I'd remembered and now they're organized into two boxes - one for tapers and one for votives - freeing up some much-needed space in the bottom of the china closet.
     As time passed it became clear there would be no Sunday night pasta.  Instead, we had smoked oysters, cheese, crackers, and sliced persimmons by candlelight.  Delightful.  When my daughter was a little girl we did that sometimes as a special treat; she still loves smoked oysters and so do her two boys.  She also learned to love Limburger cheese at the age of three, like her grandmother and great-grandfather (when I was a kid I thought it was totally gross but learned to like it as an adult).
We did have pasta Monday night, but just with red sauce from a jar (Newman's Own Pesto Tomato, which Joe spotted on sale and which is actually pretty good), sausages, and salad. Tasty but hardly worth posting. Then yesterday I knew I wouldn't feel like cooking dinner after work (tomorrow's my last day this semester and I'm pretty tired), so I put some cabbage and potato soup into the slow cooker before leaving in the morning and made a quick Irish soda bread when we got home, for a truly simple peasant dinner.  The soup wasn't terribly exciting - potatoes, cabbage, onion, a carrot, some celery, chicken broth, bay leaves, salt and pepper - but it was warm and comforting and good enough (I should have browned some bacon or added more herbs, but you know how mornings can be).  The bread is incredibly simple, and a warm, dense slab with butter makes me imagine the probably damp and cramped but picturesque cottages of my Irish ancestors, with kettles and cauldrons bubbling over turf fires while the day's loaf baked on the coals. Hopefully my peasant ancestors could afford to keep a cow, so there'd be butter for the soda bread!  

Irish Soda Bread
4 cups white or whole wheat flour (or a mixture of the two - I used 
     the white whole wheat flour from Trader Joe's; King Arthur's 
     Flour sells that too.  All regular whole wheat might be too heavy)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups buttermilk 

Preheat oven to 450. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, make a well in the middle, and stir in the buttermilk, beginning with the smaller amount and adding more only if you need it to make a soft dough.  Don't knead or handle this any more than is absolutely necessary to get it to hold together in a ball, which you'll place in a greased pie pan or 8" cake tin.  Cut a fairly deep (1/4" or so) cross across the top and bake at 450 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 400 and bake another 25 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when you tap the bottom.  Cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes before slicing, if you're not too hungry to wait that long.
     If you don't let it cool some before slicing, those first slices may seem a bit gummy because of the way the knife squishes the delicate crumb together.  It will still taste good, though, and if you slather it with butter and jam you won't see the damage you've done.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Muffin of the Week, Luminaria Nights, and Other Things of Beauty

First things first: this was breakfast, and it was very good. Well, actually it was brunch, since we didn't sit down to it until 11:30, which justifies it being fairly hearty since I hope it will hold us over till an early dinner. The muffins are Mollie Katzen's Carrot and Currant Muffins; the recipe is available on her website at:

In the book she says it makes 8-10 muffins though on the site it says 12. Guess it depends on how full you fill the cups; I got 9. They're quite good, but I like them somewhat less than some of the others I've posted; they don't quite have the intensity of flavor that I crave. But they're better than most you could buy, and certainly a nice way to chip away at the over-abundance of carrots resulting from buying a 5# bag a while back (because it was such a good deal).
Maybe my lack of enthusiasm stems from too much carrot cake. At the University of Arizona every catered event features carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. It's a very rich, dense cake, and I liked it very much the first couple of years - maybe even the first five years. Then I started just eating some of the frosting - I guess I'm a frosting person in that ongoing debate over which is best, cake or frosting. Now, after 18 years at U of A, I shudder at the sight of what used to seem like a treat (of course that doesn't mean I might not still have a taste, just to see if it's improved, of course).
Joe'd been craving bacon and while I was at the dentist yesterday morning (for a broken tooth which, oddly, didn't hurt at all, and that was good because I had to wait two days since the dentist was out of town) he went hunting for it in the freezer and couldn't find it (I'd been shifting things around and it was behind the vodka).
A few words about bacon: I know it's not the healthiest food but we only have it once every week or two, and then only "good" bacon. I grew up on the stuff that comes in plastic packages, Oscar Mayer and his ilk, but I haven't bought it in years. Now we buy only the nice thick bacon from the butcher's case, which goes on sale frequently and freezes beautifully. It's soooo much better and leaner and tastier, especially (I think) the kind with pepper on it. Most markets carry it; we shop at, Sunflower and (less often) Albertson's, good thick bacon at a reasonable price, often less than the stuff in plastic. To freeze it, I separate it into 2-slice units (enough for us each to have 1 slice with an ordinary breakfast) and lay out a fairly long sheet of waxed paper, then I fold up the waxed paper like an accordion, with 2 slices of bacon in each fold, separated from the next 2 slices by a layer of waxed paper (I hope I'm making that clear) so that it's easy to take out just 2 (or 4 or 6 or however many you want) at a time. Then I wrap it all up again in the butcher's paper and put a rubber band or two around it. Usually I cut the slices in half crosswise to cook them so I can use a smaller pan; they thaw very fast at low heat and are easy to separate in just a few minutes.
As I said, the bacon I buy seems leaner than what I grew up on, so it doesn't render out as much fat, but if there is melted bacon grease I save it in a jar for other cooking. I read once that if dinner isn't ready when a man comes home he can be pacified by the smell of onions frying, if you think to put them on the stove in time. With Joe, at least, that would work even better if they were frying in bacon grease. However, many of us aren't in that kind of traditional situation, even if we have partners - Joe and I take the bus home from work together and he's as likely to cook dinner as I am. But it's a nice idea.

This is the big Christmas tree at the entrance to the Tucson Botanical Garden, where last night was the first of the annual Luminaria Nights (continuing tonight and Sunday night, 5-8 p.m.). The pathways are lit by traditional luminarias, with various musical groups performing in different areas. At one point there were bell ringers in the indoor hall, an accordionist near the conservatory, a bluegrass group farther on, Irish dancers in the xeriscape gardens, and a choir in the large pavilion. The performers changed at 6:30 and on our way out we sat for a while in the indoor hall listening to a wonderful string quartet - one of the nicest parts of that was how happy all the players looked! - especially the violist, a young Austrian woman.
There's something magical about the gardens at night in candlelight.
In spite of the crowds and the music (and the food vendors, so it's good to come hungry!), there's a kind of peaceful hush that seems so appropriate to the season, and such a nice corrective to all the commercial craziness that otherwise accompanies it. When you come to the gardens at any season, time seems to slow down, so that it's okay to just sit and enjoy listening to the birds and otherwise being surrounded by things of nature. Even what's mechanical and manmade contributes to relaxation, like the lovely little model railroad in its "Old West" setting (which was hard to photograph last night, but I'm posting these pictures anyway):
And now, after yesterday's busyness, today I'm at home, relaxing, cooking, blogging, puttering...with my beautiful friend and familiar Sophie. You probably can't read it, but the title of the book lying next to her is Mirror, Mirror on the Wall - I'm quite sure Sophie's mirror tells her every day that she is indeed the fairest of them all.