Thursday, March 17, 2011

I Made This!

Saint Patrick's Day is nearly over - I hope you had a good one! I spent much of the day outdoors in the garden, not just wearin' o' the green, but surrounded by it, planting lots of alyssum, petunias, marigolds, and some herbs. We did our celebrating, such as it was, having dinner with at my mom's: corned beef and cabbage, the classic dinner. My contributions were Irish soda bread and Guinness ice cream; the soda bread I've made before, but the ice cream was a new venture. The recipes for both are at:

Here's the soda bread ready to go into the oven (the cross is not only traditional for religious reasons but lets it rise properly):
and here it is just out of the oven:
I made just half the recipe and baked it as one large loaf (the full recipe says to divide the dough into 4 round loaves) and added 1/3 cup currants, just because I happened to have them. I make soda bread occasionally when I want a quick, fresh, hot bread to have with soup or stew and haven't the time or inclination to make a yeast bread. I took this loaf out of the oven, wrapped it in a clean dish towel and headed down to Mom's, and it was still warm when we had dinner.
We ended dinner with the Guinness ice cream (recipe also from the above website):
Looks like coffee ice cream, doesn't it? It's extremely decadent - a 12 ounce bottle of Guinness boiled down to 3 ounces (presumably the alcohol cooks out), 2 cups of heavy cream, 2 cups of whole milk, and 6 egg yolks! plus sugar and vanilla. The Guinness reduction adds an interesting bitter note that's good with such a rich and otherwise potentially cloying custard base. Now that we've got the ice cream maker back out of deep storage, it will probably get used mostly for lighter sorbets and frozen yogurts. But as the Irish say, "A little bit of what you like never hurt you!" Just so long as it's a little and not too often.
But the main thing I'm excited about today, and the reason why I gave this post its title (stolen from the closing credits of an old TV show - the X-Files, maybe?) is my new IKEA dresser that I put together 99% by myself (Joe did help me turn it upside down to fasten the top on).

I am so incredibly proud of myself! It had been sitting in its box for a few weeks; I hadn't tackled it because, quite frankly, I'm married to a man who does all the handy craftsman-around-the-house stuff so well that it kind of intimidates me. But he's been busy with major garage reorganization, involving replacing a piece of the ceiling that came down when it was so cold and a pipe burst, so I though, why not give it a try. I've served as carpenter's helper often enough I thought I could handle it - and I could! And I did! And now I have room for all my socks in one drawer with space to spare! (My sock fetish started when I learned to knit on double-pointed needles - Joe's as impressed with my ability to turn a heel as I am with his carpentry, landscaping, and other know-how. One evening when we were watching TV and I was knitting a sock, he said in a tone of absolute innocent amazement, "It's just magic the way you do that!" Well, it isn't really, but I suppose the directions do look pretty arcane to a non-knitter.)

Notice the Hindu god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, to the left of the oil lamp - I'm sure having him there in the room helped a lot, as I only got confused a couple of times and not for long. IKEA instructions are all pictures, no words worth mentioning, and I didn't use any bad words at all while completing this project! The hardest part was getting the drawers into position to slide properly, and that was my fault, not IKEA's.

Just a little feng shui note: our bedroom is in the love-and-marriage area of our house (nice planning on someone's part, huh?) so red is the appropriate color, in addition to being a main color in my favorite quilt. The dresser is in the helpful people area of the room, and the pictures above it are right for that spot. Clockwise from top left they are: a print that my grandfather won for my grandmother at the fair when they were courting (and a protective angel is always a good thing to have); a cross-stitch sampler I made years ago, a copy of a Shaker design and sentiment that I find both calming and instructive ("Hear and learn to be silent, be silent and learn to understand, understand and learn to remember"); my father's church Cradle Roll certificate from Gem, Kansas, 1921; and my mother's church Cradle Roll certificate from Emmett, Idaho, 1923. So in addition to Ganesh and another angel on the dresser, both on a beautiful doily Joe's Nonni crocheted, I think we have lots of loving, positive energy there, don't you?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring Break!

It was a hard winter for the desert southwest, with many more freezing nights than usual, and much colder ones. I've just come in from slashing and burning some of the damage--well, slashing it, anyway, and pretty much filling up the big dumpster with plant parts dead or severely damaged by the cold. I thought we'd completely lost all three of our firesticks, those splendidly dramatic euphorbias, and their cousin who doesn't look a thing like them, the dense 3-foot tall crown of thorns.
But as I snipped and clipped and tried not to stab myself too often on the crown of thorns (I don't know if you can see all the wicked spikes that give it its name, but believe me, they're there and hard to avoid), I realized there was quite a bit of it left, and just enough of one of the firesticks to warrant keeping. That's what's left of the firestick below. Not a lot, but if it hung onto life through those long dark freezing nights, how could I in good conscience consign it to the trash? 
It was a great way to spend a couple of hours. I found that some things we'd feared were dead aren't, like the asparagus ferns by the fence at the top of the hill, though we still don't know if the hearts and flowers on the hillside itself, that provide such good erosion control (even though they're not my favorite plant, I acknowledge their practical uses) will come back. The swath of ground they cover appears to be pretty much a dead zone. The buddleia that's been kind of a disappointment actually looks pretty good, much to my surprise, and the other "butterfly bush" (asclepias tuberosa) is coming back nicely from the roots. It will look like this in a while:
And I cut the first asparagus stalk from the bed we planted two years ago - it was so hard to just let it grow for those first two springs and go to the market to buy asparagus for dinner instead! When I lived in Idaho I stalked the wild asparagus along the ditchbanks and loved the foraging as much as the eating. Most of the lemon grass - planted at the same time as the asparagus - didn't make it, but enough did to regenerate, I think. Given the damage done to yards and gardens here this winter, I'd say we've been pretty lucky.
When I came in from the garden to wash up, Cosmo was waiting for me in the bathroom, taking a little siesta in the sunlight and in my sink. I wish I could have gotten a picture of the big yawn he greeted me with! I've talked mostly about Sophie here, but we have two other handsome fellows living at our house. Cosmo is twelve, which puts him well past middle age for a cat, but he acts like a 12-year-old human. Angelo (pics of him later, I promise) is seven or eight.  They're all rescue cats in one way or another, and all complete individuals. 
     I knew a woman once who said she didn't like cats because they were all alike, all sneaky and unfriendly. She did like dogs, and maybe she thought she had to choose between the two - I don't see why, but I know lots of people feel that way. Every animal I've had or known has been absolutely unique, just as people are. A verse of the Tao Te Ching says, "When once you see the face of God, you see that face in everyone you meet." I think we should extend that to animals too, and celebrate the fact all of us, humans and animals and plants, are so wondrously different from one another!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Many Uses of Tea and the Beauty of Bells

I'm having a hard time waking up this morning. Maybe it's because spring break begins at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow, and I am soooo ready! Maybe it's because I haven't had my tea yet.  Tea is a wonderful thing, great to drink, but not only to drink. Afterwards you can lie down with cooled tea bags over your eyes to reduce puffiness. And used tea leaves are wonderful for plants.
On the left is a dish of tea leaves, on the right the tea bags that used to contain them. The tea leaves go on top of the soil in potted plants or in the garden, the tea bag papers into the compost (you could throw the tea bags into the compost unemptied and straight from the pot, of course). Because the tea leavings look so much like soil, no one even notices, though you could take a fork and mix them in, or spread them evenly and artistically.
     I learned about plants' affinity for tea and coffee years ago, when I was visiting the Methodist minister in Payette, Idaho to see if my Brownie troop could use a room at the church for our meetings. In his office he had the most glorious Boston fern I had ever seen, and I asked him what he did to make it so lush. It was simple, he said. He tended to forget about his (black) coffee sometimes, and his secretary would scold him for letting it get cold, so before she could catch him he'd dump the cold coffee into the fern's pot. I drink my coffee and tea with sweetener and milk or cream, so I don't empty my cups into my plants, but the dregs from the pot are a different story, and the plants thank me.
     This is the covered entryway to our front door. You can see I like ferns. From top to bottom, Boston fern, maidenhair fern, and the little one in the blue pot at the very bottom is called a mother fern. I think the label said they originally come from Australia. All of them like tea!
     When I lived on the north coast of California one of my favorite places was Fern Canyon, a gorgeous, magical spot opening onto the beach and a nice hike from Elk Prairie campground. Ferns are a little trickier in the desert, but they do nicely in this protected space (though I took everything inside during our recent hard freezes, except the ivy on the trellis, which survived quite nicely).
     Here's a close-up of that ivy, with a couple of the Talavera pottery animals that climb our entry walls, and one of Ben's Bells ( 
"Ben's Bells are not for sale... Several times a year, hundreds and hundreds of Ben's Bells are hung randomly in public places around Tucson and beyond. The only way to get a Ben's Bell is to find one or to be 'Belled'." 
We found our bell hanging from the railing of an abandoned office building. The idea is, after you find one, to take it home and hang it  where you'll pass by it and let it be a reminder to be kind to those you meet. The organization also "Bells" people to honor them for their charity or community service. Ben was a little boy who died suddenly in his mother's arms some years ago, and out of that tragedy has come a way to celebrate kindness and sharing and love. Hundreds were hung around Tucson after the January 8 shooting here, and blessed all those who found them or heard of them.
    I hope your day is blessed with kindness and love and maybe a nice cup of tea.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Another Breakfast

Last time I posted a wonderful pancake recipe, and I have another one today, but it's very different, savory, not sweet, and full of healthy stuff with plenty of room for improvisation.
     Joe and I have the good fortune of having Korean friends who've introduced us to some amazing food! I love good food from all parts of the world, and whether cooking at home or dining out, Asian food is among my favorites. But I really wasn't very familiar with Korean food, and of course I'm no expert now, though I'm looking forward to further exploration! Joe's loved kimchee for years (along with salsa and ketchup, it's one of the three "red sauces" we always keep on hand--not counting Joe's version of his Italian Nonni's amazing "gravy" for pasta!), and we tried making our own once with a recipe from the Frugal Gourmet (it was not a success). But that and bul-gogi (barbecued beef) was pretty much the extent of our Korean food knowledge.
     Enter Seoul Kitchen, a tiny mom-and-pop restaurant here in Tucson, on Grant Road just east of Swan. A few weeks ago we were treated to a sample of Pa Jun, a pancake usually served as an appetizer or side dish, though we love it for breakfast or to take to work for lunch if we have leftovers.

   On this plate you can see Pa Jun large and small (roughly 6" and 2-3"). I think the small ones would be especially nice as appetizers. The condiments, from left to right, are chopped kimchee (the vegetable pieces are much larger in the jar when you buy it), soy sauce, and a soy-vinegar sauce (recipe below) that's also great on other dishes.  So here's my adapted recipe for Pa Jun, followed by the sauce. Disclaimer: although the more authentic and absolutely delicious Pa Jun at Seoul Kitchen was thicker and more breadlike, mine didn't turn out so  well when I made them like that the first time, so this recipe yields slightly thinner pancakes. To get the thicker pancake, one recipe I read suggested using a sauté pan rather than a griddle, so the sides contain the batter and since it doesn't spread, it stays thicker. I may try that next time.

Korean Scallion Pancakes (Pa Jun) serves 2-3 for breakfast, more as an appetizer or side dish.

You can tweak the added ingredients to your own taste or whatever vegetables, meat, or seafood you have handy. I've sometimes added finely chopped chiles, carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, or kimchee, among other things.

1 c. flour (I use whole wheat, which is probably not traditional)
1 egg, beaten
3/4 to 1 cup water, enough to make a batter somewhat thinner than American pancake batter
1/2 tsp. salt 
1/2 bunch scallions or more, thinly sliced (more traditionally, halved lengthwise and cut in 2"-3" lengths)
other fairly finely chopped vegetables - today I added 1 medium grated carrot, about 1/4 c. chopped kimchee, and about half of a leftover cooked chicken breast, also fairly finely chopped
Oil for cooking, and/or cooking spray

Mix all ingredients together and let sit about 10  minutes. Remember, batter should not be too thick or the Pa Jun will not cook quickly and evenly.
    Heat a pan (I like a cast-iron griddle) over medium heat and coat with a thin layer of oil or pan spray.
    Pour enough batter on the pan to spread out in a thin layer and make a pancake the size you want. Six or 7 inches is a nice size and you can turn it without it falling apart. Cook for 3-4 minutes until set and golden brown on the bottom. As with American pancakes, you'll see bubbles form and burst at the edges, and the edges will firm up and look cooked.
    Turn with a spatula and cook 1-2 more minutes, until both sides are cooked. You may want to add more oil to the pan between pancakes or even spray the uncooked side with pan spray before turning.
    Serve with soy or spicy dipping sauce.

Spicy Dipping Sauce
1/3 cup soy sauce (low salt is fine)
1/3 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 T. sesame flavoring oil (not the plain kind used for cooking - you want the intense sesame flavor)
1 T. crushed red chili flakes
1 T. thinly sliced scallions
    Mix all ingredients together. This will make more than you need, so store the leftover sauce in a small jar in the refrigerator - it's good on all kinds of things, like potstickers, dumplings, egg rolls, etc.

Here's a picture of Pa Jun cooking on the griddle. You can see the scallions, grated carrot, and little chunks of chicken. And here it is on the plate, drizzled with dipping sauce and with a spoonful of kimchee on the side.
It's a great way to start the day - hey, it's great any time of day!