Friday, December 31, 2004

At the stroke of midnight 

Great good luck to the house,
Good luck to the family,
Good luck to every rafter in it,
And to every worldly thing in it.

Good luck to horses and cattle,
Good luck to the sheep,
Good luck to everything,
And good luck to all your means.

Luck to the good-wife,
Good luck to the children,
Good luck to every friend,
Great fortune and health to all.

--Scottish Hogmanay (New Year's) chant

Feline Friday 12: New Year's Eve 

One of the little rituals that we have for New Year's Eve is to wash all of the bedding, so that we have a fresh, clean bed to sleep in on the first night of the new year.

Sasha, Sergei and Lyra like to help us make the bed. They are particularly interested in seeing that we put the sheets on correctly, and understand the importance of checking the underside of the top sheet for wrinkles. Their approach is, not surprisingly, more time-comsuming than ours.

The third tale of Christmas: Laughter unto Tears 

When Paul opened one of his presents from my parents, he was very pleased, as it was a book that he'd wanted for some time. While the rest of us were helping the boys to unwrap their presents, Paul started reading his new book. Almost immediately, he began laughing -- small chuckles at first, progressing as he turned the pages to full out belly laughter. It didn't stop there. A few pages into the book, he was laughing so hard that he couldn't speak, then laughing so hard that he was crying. Words cannot express how happy I was to see him so overcome with amusement. This has not been much of a year for belly laughs, which makes them all the more precious when they occur.

And what, you may ask, was the cause of this great joy?
Click here to see...

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The second tale of Christmas: Pork Loin Roast 

While I've never had any interest in becoming a Junior Leaguer, I must admit that the women of the Junior League in my hometown of Houston know how to put together a mighty fine cookbook. Stop and Smell the Rosemary is a favorite cookbook in my family; every woman in the clan has a copy, and uses it regularly. Last week, when my mother was pondering what to prepare for Christmas dinner, we went to this book. Mom didn't want to roast a turkey ("we had turkey at Thanksgiving") or a beef tenderloin ("you wouldn't believe how much they're charging per pound!"), so we looked through the pork section, and found this recipe. It is transcribed as written, with photo illustration and annotation added.

Apricot and Pecan-Stuffed Pork Loin

1 1/2 cups dried apricots
1/2 cup pecans
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
4 tablespoons molasses
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 boneless pork loin roast (5 pounds), halved
1 cup bourbon
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon salt

   Coarsely chop apricots, pecans, garlic, salt and pepper in a food processor. Add 2 tablespoons thyme, 1 tablespoon molasses, and two tablespoons oil. Process until mixture in finely chopped, but not smooth.
   Make a lengthwise cut down the center of each half roast, cutting to, but not through, the bottom. Starting at the center slice, slice horizontally toward one side, stopping 1/2" from the edge. Repeat on other side. Flatten each half to a 1/2" thickness using a meat mallet or rolling pin. Spread apricot mixture evenly over pork.

I was surprised that there was more than one way to interpret the instructions for cutting the roast. (My mother does not think spatially.) I got the job of cutting and pounding. After 15 minutes of pounding with a mallet, I had perfected a swing that would drive large nails; the roast was still over 1/2" thick. Good enough.
   Roll each loin half, jelly-roll fashion, starting with long side. Secure with string. Place both rolls, seam side down, in a shallow roasting pan. Brush with remaining 2 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with remaining thyme. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
As I had not pounded the roasts down to 1/2" thick, they did not look quite like jelly rolls. My mother attempted to tie one using a single long piece of twine, crisscrossing it over and under. The whole thing fell apart, and had to be rerolled. (Did I mention the spatial thing?) Then we tied each of them with several small loops of twine.
   Bring bourbon, broth and remaining 3 tablespoons molasses to a boil in a large saucepan. Remove from heat. Carefully ignite the bourbon mixture with a long match. When flames die, pour over roasts.
   Bake at 350 degrees for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until meat thermometer inserted in thickest portion registers 160 degrees. Remove pork from pan, reserve drippings, and keep warm.

The bourbon burned for so long that we covered the pan to put out the flames. If you roast 'til the meat thermometer reads 160, you'll have dry, overdone pork. The internal temperature of a roast will rise by ~10 degrees after coming out of the oven. I like pork cooked to 155 degrees, so I take roasts out at 145 degrees.
   Pour reserved drippings in a small saucepan. Add cream and salt. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened. Slice pork and serve with sauce.
Here is the sliced pork roast, with a wild rice and mushroom pilaf. The roast looked beautiful when cut, with little bits of apricot adding color to the swirl of stuffing. The sauce was a lovely, deep golden brown, and smelled wonderful. And, most importantly, it was delicious.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The first tale of Christmas: Crackers 

Over a decade ago, I went with my morris dance team to perform at the Christmas bazaar held by the Order of the British Empire's Houston expat group. These English people, most our parents' and grandparents' ages, were amused and pleased to see a bunch of young Americans dancing the rather eccentric folk dances of their homeland; we were pleased to be dancing for people who knew what it was they were watching.

After dancing, we wandered through the bazaar, nibbling on Cornish pasties and looking at tea towels and cozies, porcelain figurines and other things British. We spotted a booth whose occupants were sporting brightly colored tissue paper crowns, and went to investigate. The booth was covered with boxes of brightly wrapped and beribboned cylinders, which a purple-crowned English matron explained were Christmas crackers.

An English tradition for over 100 years, the Christmas cracker is a small cardboard tube covered in a twist of wrapping paper. When the ends of the cracker are pulled apart, the paper tears, and a small strip of chemically-impregnated paper produces a sharp "pop." The cracker contains a small gift, a joke or riddle, and a bright tissue paper crown.

On a whim, I bought a couple of boxes, enough for everyone who would be at our family Christmas dinner that year. And they were a hit! Everyone seemed to like some part of the experience, whether the "pop" or the silly riddle or the paper crown. I bought more the following year; by the third year other members of the family were checking to see that we'd have them. We have had them every year since.

While everyone is happy to participate in the pulling of the crackers, the reading of the riddles and testing of the tiny toys (including, this year, a hot pink top that spins beautifully), there has been some variability in the willingness of participants to wear the paper crowns. Reluctance is found more often in the males of the family; the boys find them annoying, and the men... find them annoying, but in a different way. A willingness on the part of the women to swap yellow or green crowns for any pink ones that the men might pull from their crackers helps to quell resistance, and there is a period of at least a few minutes when everyone wears their crowns. It is, of course, the women who wish to document these moments photographically. My mother is the only woman in the following photographs because my sister and I, in our pink and purple crowns, were both taking pictures.

Show me the crowns!

Seasons change with the scenery 

Houston's brief flirtation with winter was ending when we left yesterday. The sky was a bright, clear blue, and the thermometer was edging into the 60's. This was the weather that I remembered from many a childhood Christmas; cool enough to require a jacket, but perfect for riding the brand new banana-seated bicycle that Santa had brought. This year, such weather would've been perfect for chasing nephews around the yard. Ah, well, it was a lovely Christmas anyway.

I sleep easily on airplanes, and yesterday's flight from Houston to Seattle would've provided evidence of this to anyone who might have doubted it. After some reading, and a surprisingly passable sandwich, I nodded off for a couple of hours. I awoke to the sounds of my aislemates talking about the mountain. Anyone who has spent time in western Washington will know that the mountain is Mt. Rainier. I looked out the window, and there it was, snowy peak glittering in the late afternoon sun. Surrounding it was a blanket of clouds, extending as far as I could see.

As the plane turned north to make the usual looping descent over Seattle, it became apparent that the cloud cover over downtown was low. The top of the Bank of America Tower, Seattle's tallest building, poked its head up above the clouds. It was the only visible landmark, a small, dark island in a sea of white.

On the final approach to SeaTac, the clouds were still below us; nothing on the ground was visible. The man sitting next to me asked, "Haven't we passed SeaTac by now?" as we entered the clouds. Seconds later, I could just make out red landing lights, and then we were on the ground, bouncing a bit as the airplane slowed.

A short while later, we stood waiting for the parking lot shuttle to take us to our car. I looked out at the fog, and found myself humming, thinking: Look around, leaves are brown, and the sky is a hazy shade of winter.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Too far north?! 

Oddly, Houston was too far north to really get in on the snow that fell on Christmas Eve. Parts of the South Texas coast got a real snow, with accumulations of up to a foot. While Texans are inclined to make a big deal over any snow at all, as it is so rare here, this really was enough to be considered a white Christmas. If only the main storm front had extended 50 miles farther north...

Friday, December 24, 2004

Let it snow! 

It has been snowing off and on in Houston for much of the day and evening. This is the type of snow that can't quite make up its mind whether it wants to be snow, sleet, tiny hail or nothing at all. It is, however, something frozen that is coming from the sky and making its way to the ground in a more or less floaty way. And, within the past three or four hours, it has even begun to accumulate on cold spots, such as rooftops and parked cars. The weather forecasters say that there may be up to an inch accumulation by tomorrow morning!

What does my Connecticut-born-and-raised husband make of all this? He is completely stunned and amused by the strong reactions of the natives to what is to him an inconsequential amount of frozen precipitation. At first, he was unwilling even to grant the snow a designation beyond a "flurry." Upon leaving my sister's house after dinner, and noting the buildup of snow on the roof of the car, he conceded that this could be considered a "dusting" of snow. And, when we arrived back at my parents' house, he made a small snowball from said snow, and tossed it at the neighbors' car.

While neither of us would consider an inch of snow on the ground in the morning to constitute a "white Christmas," it would be fun to see it, and to watch our nephews playing in the first snow that they've ever seen. So, keep it coming! Let it snow!

Feline Friday 12: Waiting for Santa 

Like many boys, Sasha finds it difficult to wait patiently for Santa Claws to come down the chimney, bringing furry mice, feather birds and other treats for good little kitties. When he hears a sound on the rooftop, he wants to know right away if it's Santa. Just looking won't do. He's ready to go up the chimney to get to that jolly old cat.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Craig Claiborne's Cardamom Cookies, aka cardamom snaps  

The first time that I needed to make an "important dessert" for a very fancy dinner party, I called one of my college roommates, the one who Bakes. I told her that I wanted to bake a fabulous chocolate cake, something that would go well with port. Her reply to me, in her clipped Boston accent, was, "Maida Heatter." "What?" "Maida Heatter. Get one of her baking books. My wedding cake? That was from one of her recipes. And she writes well, too. You'll enjoy reading them." So I bought a couple of her books, and kept them beside my bed for weeks, reading recipes. Then I taste-tested several cakes on a group of very happy friends, and found just the right cake for the dinner party. That, however, is another story for another time.

This recipe comes from Maida Heatter's Brand New Book of Great Cookies, a copy of which I gave my mother several years ago. While I have neither made nor eaten these cookies, I have it on good authority that they are wonderful. Said authority recommends doubling the amount of cardamom in the recipe. As I do enjoy Ms. Heatter's writing, I'm including the entire entry for this recipe. It has been a while since I transcribed anything verbatim from a book; doing so has been a reminder that my touch-typing is not what it once was. So, after spell-checking, I give you Maida Heatter:

Craig Claiborne's Cardamom Cookies
36 cookies

   Craig is my hero. Not only is he my all-time favorite cookbook author, but even if he had never written a recipe, I would love him just as much. This delicious cookie is from his book, An Herb and Spice Cookbook, which was published in 1963.
   Did you ever use cardamom? I did, but I never really tasted it until I tried this recipe. This time, instead of buying ground cardamom, I bought the whole seeds and peeled and ground them myself just before using. There is a big difference in flavor - involved and exotic but mellow.
   I have often bought packaged cookies and thought the texture of the cookies divine. I read the ingredients to see if I could find out what was responsible for the texture. The list of ingredients included so many strange names of chemicals that I didn't have a clue as to what had made them so crisp, flaky, sandy and light. Well, these cookies have that same elusive texture by no strange-sounding ingredients.
   These are lovely, simple cookies with an unusual flavor and texture - and once you have prepared the cardamom (it takes a few minutes), they are quick and easy.

A few teaspoonfuls whole cardamom (to make 1/2 teaspoon ground)
2 1/4 cup sifted unbleached flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 packed cup light brown sugar
1 large egg

   Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with baking parchment or aluminum foil, shiny side up; set aside.
   The cardamom pods may be green or bleached. The green will have a little more flavor than the bleached, but they're both good. To prepare them, work on a cutting board. With a sharp knife cut a few teaspoonfuls of the pods in half the long way. Then either shake the seeds (they will be black and/or gray) out of the shells, or, if necessary, use the point of a small knife to nudge them out. Discard the shells. Grind the seeds in an electric grinder; you could use a coffee grinder or a pepper mill (I use a Cuisinart Mini-Mate). Strain through a fine sieve. Measure 1/2 teaspoon; set aside.
   Sift together the flour and cream of tartar; set aside.
   In the small or large bowl of an electric mixer beat the butter until soft. Add the ground cardamom, baking soda, and salt; beat to mix. Beat in the sugar, then the egg. Finally, on low speed, add the sifted dry ingredients and beat until incorporated.
   Flour a pastry cloth and a rolling pin. Work with half the dough at a time. Roll out the dough until it is 1/4 inch thick. Cut with a round cookie cutter (I use a 2-inch round cutter). Place the cookies 1 1/2 inches apart on the lined sheets.
   Bake one sheet at a time for about 10 minutes, reversing the sheet front to back once after 5 minutes. The cookies will rise and puff up during baking, and then they will begin to settle down a bit just when they are done. When done, they will be a light-golden honey color all over.
   With a wide metal spatula transfer to racks to cool; when cool, store in an airtight container.

Happy baking to all ('mouse and any other creatures stirring).

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Christmas came early 

Last night, Paul mentioned that he wanted to give me one Christmas present early, so that he wouldn't have to schlep it to Houston (and I wouldn't have to schlep it home). He brought out a nicely wrapped package, and set it on the coffee table.

"I hope you'll like it. I know you've wanted one for a long time."

I was puzzled, as nothing on my wish list was this size or weight. I opened the package. My laughter startled the cats, who were hovering, hoping to get hold of ribbon and paper. I laughed so hard that I couldn't speak. I set the gift and wrapping paper on the floor, and stopped laughing long enough to kiss Paul. By the time I got the camera, Sasha had come to investigate.

Astute readers may remember that, in a recent post, I stated, "I want a ___." My sweet husband was paying attention.

What is it? Move over, Sasha!

The Shortest Day 

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!

--Susan Cooper

Monday, December 20, 2004

The longest night 

Tonight is crisp, cold and clear in Seattle. The half-full moon and city-bright stars are out, and Orion's belt is pointing toward the roof of our house.

I've been waiting for this night for three months. It's the longest night of the year, and here that means more than in any other place I've lived. While I have spent colder December nights in Boston, and wetter ones in Houston, this is the farthest north I have lived, so this night is the longest that I have known.

According to a Seattle Times article today, this longest night is special:
Tonight will be the longest night of the year: 15 hours and 36 minutes. It also will be the longest night for thousands of years to come.

Each year, the Earth tilts a bit less on its axis relative to the sun, gradually shortening both winter's longest night and summer's longest day. We're now at about 23.5 degrees away from perpendicular. Ten thousand years from now, the Earth's tilt will be about 22 degrees. Then the angle will start to grow again.

Not that this is something that I'm ever going to notice, but it's nice to know that this is the darkest that it's going to get in my lifetime.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Wishing for biscuits 

This morning I made preserves again. The Cranberry Cherry Almond Conserve with Orange Liqueur that I made last Sunday was so good that it called for repeating. As I was going about the process of ladling the conserve into jars, I accidentally knocked over a full but uncapped jar. While it did not escape onto the floor, the lovely contents spilled onto the dish towel on which the jars were sitting. Oh, happy accident! As I could not put that 1/2 cup or so of (perhaps contaminated!) conserve back into a jar, I scooped it up into a bowl, and set it aside. And then, when the jars were boiling in the canner, I pulled out a small spoon, took it and the bowl of conserve to the kitchen table, and ate it while I read the NY Times Sunday Magazine.

While I was savoring the conserve, I found myself wishing for biscuits. And I remembered that, shortly after Thanksgiving, a friend of ours asked for the recipe for the biscuits that we served at a Thanksgiving dinner a while back. Since I'm typing out the recipe, I'll share it, as these biscuits are remarkably good with everything from a turkey dinner to homemade jam.

Angel biscuits are a raised biscuit, meaning that they are leavened with both baking powder and yeast. While yeast rolls, like yeast breads, rise twice before baking (once after making the dough, the second time in the pan prior to baking) these raised biscuits are baked with only a short single rise or no rising time at all.

As I've never known anyone outside of my family who makes angel biscuits, I've always thought of them as a family recipe. I thought the same thing of the raw cranberry orange relish that is one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving dinner, until I saw the recipe on the back of a bag of cranberries. (Oh, the things we learn as we grow older!) It turns our that there are many recipes for angel biscuits available at Internet recipe sites, so clearly other people have been making them for a while, too.

My fifteen minutes of research suggests that angel biscuits are a traditional Southern recipe. (My mother's people have been Southerners since they arrived from the British Isles, so that fits.) The name "angel" supposedly comes from their light texture; because the addition of yeast makes them almost foolproof, they are also known as "bride's biscuits." (That name, suggestive of brides who moved from their parents' home directly to their husband's at such a young age that they had not yet mastered the art of the traditional baking powder biscuit, is amusing to one who married at 37.) While the ingredients are almost identical in all recipes, there are some small variations in their proportions: a little less sugar here, a little more flour there. One recipe has 2 packages of yeast. However, the greatest variations are in preparation; more on those later. First, here is my family's recipe:
Angel Biscuits

5 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening
1 package yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 cups buttermilk (room temperature)
Melted butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Dissolve yeast in warm water, set aside. Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in shortening until coarse crumb texture. Add yeast and buttermilk to dry ingredients, mix well. Turn out onto a floured board, and roll out to 1/4" thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter. Dip in melted butter, fold gently in half. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until lightly browned. Makes approx. 3 1/2 dozen. This recipe can be halved, although the amounts of yeast and warm water will stay the same.

So, that's our recipe, and it produces a lovely, light, slightly yeasty biscuit. Due to the folding, the biscuits have a distinctive appearance. They look a little like a pair of folded wings, and I've always I thought that's why they were called angel biscuits. I have sometimes used a heart-shaped cookie cutter for cutting the biscuits, because the folded heart bears a stronger resemblance to wings. However, I learned today that this is the one aspect of our recipe that is unusual. None of the other recipes I found for angel biscuits involved either dipping the cut dough in melted butter or folding the biscuits in half.

The variations in other recipes fell into several categories:

1) Chilling the dough: After mixing the dough, some recipes say to cover and chill for at least an hour. One recipe states that the dough should be prepared the day before the biscuits are baked. Some recipes state that the dough may be kept in the refrigerator for up to 10 days, so that biscuits may be made in small quantities as desired. Imagine! Angel biscuits on a weekday morning! This seems almost too good to be true, but I'm willing to give it a try.

2)Rolling the dough: All of the other (unfolded) recipes I found call for rolling the dough out to 1/2" thick. Of course, if you fold 1/4" thick biscuits in half, as per my family's recipe, well, you do the math.

3) Rising: Some recipes call for immediate baking. Others call for covering the cut biscuits with a dishcloth/waxed paper/plastic wrap and allowing them rise for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. (Two hours? If they're going to take that long, why not make yeast rolls? That's taking the "quick" out of quick bread!) Recipes suggest that, after the specified amount of rising time, the biscuit dough should be "puffy" or "almost doubled in size." Most recipes also call for lightly greasing the baking sheet; it should go without saying that dunking the whole biscuit in melted butter obviates the need for greasing.

4)Baking time and temperature: specified temperatures varied between 400 and 450 degrees, and times varied between 10 and 20 minutes. Obviously, "until browned" means different things to different people.

As I have only used my family recipe, I can't speak to the results that you'd get from any of the above variations. However, I'm planning to try some of them, especially the refrigerator biscuit version. (I still can't get over the idea that I could have angel biscuits on a weekday, before going to work!)

There you have it: all I know about Angel Biscuits. Oh, just one more thing: they don't keep well, so eat 'em up while they're fresh. I promise you won't find that at all hard to do.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Feline Friday XI: The nose knows 

Sergei's nose is as black as his coat. Given his striking white whiskers and chin, his nose does not stand out in his face, but reads as part of the field of black. His nose is most noticeable when he is deeply asleep, because our sweet Sergei snores. Sometimes I mistake the sounds of his breathing at night for Paul's.

Lyra pushes her nose into the hand of almost anyone within reach. If I hold my hand a few inches above her head, she will stand on hind legs to butt her nose against my outstretched palm. If you want to make Lyra quite happy, stroke her along the bridge of her nose, from its soft gray tip up to the inside corners of her eyes. She may respond with open-mouthed purring, a lovely full-throated sound.

Even more than either Lyra or Sergei, Sasha gets to know the world around him through his pretty pink nose. We suspect that this may be in part because his eyesight is not so good. He wants to smell everything, and while the others may be content with a sniff, Sasha wants several drags on any new odor in the house. It is not surprising that Sasha is the catnip fiend in the McKitten family.


Last week, I found Make-a-Flake through a link at SB's lovely site Watermark. Take one architect with a love of pattern, and one web-based version of a childhood activity much loved, but long forgotten (one that folds the "paper" for you, and allows you to undo any "cut" that you decide you don't like!). Fold together. (Fold together... I make myself laugh. Heh. Heh heh.) Oh, ahem. Sorry.

As if I didn't already spend enough time online...

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Light and shadow 

"We can't sense space without light, and we can't understand light without shadow and shade, which are different from each other. Shadow is the ghost of an object; shade, the absence of light, offers us refuge from the overzealous sun."
-- Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore, Chambers for a Memory Palace
In the gloom of many winter days, Seattle looks flat, dull, lifeless. It looks the way that depression feels. What I miss is not so much blue sky, or even the blazing disc of the (rarely overzealous) sun. Mind you, I am as phototropic as the next Seattle resident, tilting my head without conscious thought toward any hint of light or heat from the sky, but my eyes long for something else entirely. What I miss on gray Seattle days are shadows. I miss the contrasts created by the play of light on objects.

This morning, as I headed downstairs to feed the cats, I caught a glimpse out our stairwell window of these shadows cast by roof overhang and brackets on weathered shingles. This is our nextdoor neighbor's house. I see this roofline several times each day. But on this morning, just days away from the longest night of the year, the strong, crisp edges between bright and dark almost took my breath away.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Seattle from my bathroom window 

The first sign that I had that today would be a beautiful - other than the local infotainment that calls itself the weather forecast - was the light on the huge old cherry tree in my neighbor's back yard.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Lone Star bling-bling 

Yesterday I received a package in the mail from my friend Cowtown Pattie. Pattie and I are both native Texans; unlike me, she is still a resident of the Lone Star State. However, Pattie maintains that, while you can take the girl out of Texas, you can't take Texas out of the girl.

(I'd have to say that I agree with her. Although I have not lived in Texas for almost nine years, I still think of myself as a Texan. While I may well be a life-long expatriate, I doubt that I will ever think of myself as, say, a Washingtonian. I can more easily see myself as a Seattleite, but I think that's because I have less attachment to being a Houstonian than to being a Texan. Now here's an odd idea: might I eventually think of myself as a Seattleite and a Texan?)

The package contained this fun, sparkly Lone Star State bling-bling. (The other charms are bluebonnets, Texas' state flower, which carpet the roadsides and fields of central Texas each spring.) While I have owned many things bearing the distinctive outline of Texas, I've never had Texas jewelry. When I see that craggy silhouette, the words that come to mind are home, family, heat and sun... things of which I was happy to be reminded on this cold, dark, rainy Seattle day. And today, when I caught a glimpse of the bracelet, or felt an earring against my neck, the other word that came to mind was friendship. Thanks, Pattie.

Besides knowing how to be a friend, Pattie also knows how to tell a story. Her writing is funny, earthy and straightforward, her voice is decidedly Texan, and she leans in the same direction as Molly Ivins and Ann Richards... and me. So to any of y'all who haven't yet done so, get on over to see Pattie, who, as she says, meets life and takes it by the horns.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Sunday afternoon thing 

I had finished making the cranberry orange cherry and almond conserve. Paul had gone out shopping, so I had the house to myself. I should rephrase; I was the only human in the house, and, as the cats were napping, the only creature stirring. I'd dragged some Christmas decorations up from the basement, and was considering which ones might possibly be catproof. While doing said considering, I was checking my email, and reading a few blogs.

The phone rang. It was Nina, calling to suggest an outing to pick up my CSA veggies at the Ballard farmers' market and do a little Christmas shopping in our neighborhood. (While we've met for coffee on Sunday afternoons several times this fall, this was the first impromptu get-together, and the second meeting in as many Sundays. It's become "the Sunday afternoon thing," a regular part of my social life, rather than an experimental meeting with someone whose blog I read. Who knew that blogging would have such lovely side effects?)

A short while later, we were at the market, where I filled my canvas bag with beet greens, broccoli, carrots, celeriac, garlic, potatoes, and kabocha squash. Fortunately, the pie vendor from last week was not there today, so Nina and I escaped having done considerably less damage than we did last Sunday.

We did, however, spend a few minutes with Sam, a beautiful, very friendly green eclectus parrot, and his person, whose name we never learned. I don't think I'd ever seen an eclectus, and I'd never before been so taken with a bird. The feeling was apparently mutual; Sam walked up my arm onto my shoulder, and leaned in for a kiss. Had I not closed my mouth, I would've been French kissed. While the attraction was mutual, it apparently was not exclusive on Sam's part; his person laughed, called him "Sammy the Seducer," and allowed as how Sam really likes women.

Leaving the market, we crossed the street to the little neighborhood children's store, which was filled with lovely wooden toys, cute kids' clothes, and very little plastic. Nina found a couple of Christmas presents for her kidlet, and I found something for wundernephew Max. I saw a red Che Guevara onesie that I thought would be perfect for the new son of some leftie friends; sadly they did not have it in 6-9 month size. We headed back to our side of town, where Nina, corrupting influence that she is, introduced me to two very dangerous stores, PAPERspace and Monkey Love Rubber Stamps. I am often powerless in the presence of really nice paper products, but as I have no need for beautiful letterpress invitations or more Christmas cards to add to my existing unsent stock, I managed to escape from PAPERspace unscathed. I was not so lucky at Monkey Love, where I decided that a few holiday-themed stamps were in order.

Declaring shopping to be finished for the day, we proceeded to Uptown Espresso (Home of the Velvet Foam), because it wouldn't be the Sunday afternoon thing with Nina without coffee drinks and lots of good conversation.


Have you ever bought a couple of extra bags of cranberries at Thanksgiving, thinking that they were on sale, would freeze well, and you'd surely use them sometime in the next few months? And have you ever gone through your freezer early the following November, and discovered those same bags of cranberries, languishing against the back wall, coldly reproaching you for leaving them for so long?

It is rare that I have done the first of these without also having done the second, but not this year! Today, I decided that I would turn those cranberries into some sort of sweet preserved goodness. Did I really need to add to the 6 or 7 dozen jars of jam, preserves, sauce and chutney already in the cellar? Probably not, as I have plenty for these holidays and beyond, and I will probably replenish the stock with marmalades after the first of the year. But when I'm in the mood for preserving, need is not a word in my vocabulary.

So, what to do with the cranberries? While I was tempted by the recipe for paradise jelly, I did not have that much time to spend. I was looking for a recipe that would come together in little more than the time required for traditional cranberry sauce. I pulled out Mary Anne Dragan's Well Preserved: Pickles, Relishes, Jams and Chutneys for the New Cook. This is the book that helped my preserving gene, inherited from my paternal grandmother, to finally express itself. And, despite the title, it is not only a book for new cooks. The recipes are wonderful, and unusual, and I expect that I'll still be making some of them when I am a very old cook. Turning to cranberries in the index, I found recipes for cranberry apple jelly, cranberry butter, cranberry ketchup, cranberry relish, and (what's this?) Cranberry, Rum and Raisin Conserve.

What is a conserve? My friend Nina asked that question today. Until I read Ms. Dragan's book, I did not know. A conserve is a jam made from two or more fruits, one of which is often citrus, that is gussied up by adding nuts, dried fruits and alcohol.

The ingredients listed for Cranberry, Rum and Raisin Conserve were cranberries, oranges and orange juice, brown sugar, raisins, Brazil nuts and dark rum. I had the cranberries, citrus products and sugar. However...

I did not have enough raisins, but I did have a bag of frozen semi-dried cherries. (In July, I pitted the last of the local cherries and put them on a baking sheet, covered with wax paper, in the freezer in our basement. And I forgot them. By the time I rediscovered them, a couple of months later, they had not only frozen, but partially dried. I popped one in my mouth. Cold, chewy, and bursting with sweet cherry goodness. I transferred them to a freezer bag.) I like cherries better than raisins anyway.

I did not have Brazil nuts. (I never have Brazil nuts, as I do not like Brazil nuts. I do not understand people who like Brazil nuts, or perhaps I should say that I do not understand their fondness for Brazil nuts.) I love almonds, and am particularly fond of them with both oranges and cherries. I had slivered almonds.

My bottle of good, dark rum is at the office. (Eggnog, people, it's for eggnog, which we'll be having tomorrow at our staff meeting! I do not drink rum and diet Coke when I am alone in the office. Really, I do not.) However, I had the right amount of orange liqueur at home, and thought it would work well with the cherries and almonds.

So, the revised ingredients for the conserve were cranberries, oranges and juice, brown sugar, semi-dried cherries, almonds and orange liqueur.

The recipe wasn't much more difficult to make than the cranberry sauce recipe on the back of the Ocean Spray bag. After the oranges (with peel on) were finely chopped, the fruits, juice and sugar went into a pot to simmer. There was plenty of time during the simmering for toasting the slivered almonds (a few minutes in a 350 degree oven). When the fruit mixture was the consistency of... can you guess?... cranberry sauce, the almonds and liqueur joined the mix for a final minute of cooking.

After ladling the conserve into jars, and sending them off for 10 minutes in very hot water, I turned my attention to the extra 1/4 cup or so of conserve that would not fit into a jar. And, oh, what joy! The bits of orange peel had partially candied during the simmering, much as they do in marmalade. The cherries were plumped with orange juice; their soft sweetness contrasted wonderfully with the almonds' crunch. And the orange liqueur added a zing to what was still, at heart, cranberry sauce... but cranberry sauce dressed in satin and pearls, out for a night of dancing.

I don't know what the best partner will be for this conserve. However, my extra bags of cranberries will never end up as frozen wallflowers again.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Feline Friday 10: On little cat feet 

While I love our cats for their sweet, quirky personalities, I am also rather enamored of their warm, furry little bodies. Each cat has particular physical features of which I am fond: Sergei's striking white whiskers and sleek, shiny coat, Lyra's beautiful eyes and her white 'locket', Sasha's rich tabby stripes and proud, extravagant brush of a tail. All three cats have beautiful paws. More than any other part of her, Lyra's paws have a decidedly silver lining. She is very protective of her paws, and does not like to have them handled. She has lived with us for 2 1/2 years, and we have yet to clip more than two or three of her claws at any one time. Because Sergei's and Sasha's paws are white, their toes and pads are pink. Sergei's toes are very long, which I think is part of the reason that he is so good at snagging flying furry mice out of the air. Serg also uses those long toes to hang on to Paul's jeans while being massaged. Sasha has long, luxurious white tufts of fur between his pink toes. The tufts grow to over an inch long, and have earned him the nickname Rufty Tufty. Sometimes they get dirty, and I try to wash them rather than clipping them. Sasha doesn't really like either option.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Jam and bread 

A while back, the charming and talented Bakerina offered a prize for identifying the source of this title. As I am good with Google (and a hint or two), I was the first to identify the song. I won! Among the several yummy edible prizes that I was offered were homemade lemon curd (Bakerina wrote a wonderful post about this, which for the life of me I can't find now) or damson plum jam. Now, I have made plum jam before, and while plums make a very nice jam, I thought that I knew all there was to know about plum jam. And so I asked for lemon curd, which I adore, but have never made.

Only days after choosing the lemon curd, I read Bakerina's lyrical essay on the very good thing that is damson plum jam. Have you ever developed a crush on a friend's new love - one whom you haven't yet met - just because of the way that she talks or writes about him? Well, I got a mad crush on damson plums just from reading Bakerina's paean to them. I thought about emailing her to ask if I could change my mind, and choose the jam instead. But no, I had made my choice, and for all that I knew, the lemon curd was already on its way west.

Instead, I started thinking about how I might get my own damson plums. We have been planning to completely tear out the landscaping (and I use the term loosely) around our house, and replant with a number of edible plants, including some small fruit trees. I found that Raintree Nursery, one of the best regional sources for fruit, nut and berry plants, sells damson plum trees. I figured that, if we planted a couple next spring, I might have plums in a year or two. Then I would make my own jam.

And then I learned that Bakerina had not yet sent the lemon curd. She was apologetic; I was thrilled. I could ask for damson jam instead! On Saturday, I received an email entitled "Release the biscuits," warning me that the jam was coming my way.

The jam arrived yesterday, a whole pint, carefully packed in bubble wrap. I held the jar up to the light in the kitchen; it was, as described, a beautiful magenta-purple shade. And I could tell by the movement in the jar that it was the sort of soft set that I prefer in jam - somewhere between syrup and the hard set of most commercial jams. I didn't think I could do it justice after dinner, so I saved it for this morning. (It is rare that I resist this sort of temptation, but I wanted to really savor it, rather than approaching it with a full stomach and dulled palate. That is one of the reasons that sometimes one really should eat dessert first.)

This morning, I warmed the brioche that I had acquired for this purpose, as sadly I do not have time to make biscuits on weekday mornings. While it was warming, I opened the jar of jam. I heard and felt that perfect hollow pop of the seal breaking. When I removed the lid, there was a marvelous aroma of fruit, and a hint of flowers. (Old fashioned roses, the kind that have a slightly spicy scent.) I took the brioche out of the oven, and pulled it open. I spooned jam onto the brioche.

And then I made myself stop, and take a picture.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

I want a Tonka Cat 

When my sister and I were young, my mother loved to dress us in cute, girly dresses. However, she and my father believed, way back in the early 60s, in raising their daughters in an egalitarian, non-sexist way. And so, along with soft stuffed animals and dolls and little tea sets, my parents also gave us "boy" toys: sixshooters and sheriff's badges (it was Texas), a football, a basketball (complete with hoop and backboard over the carport), and cars and trucks. Our first truck, and my favorite, was a pickup truck. About 12" long, it was shiny fire-engine red, with chrome trim and hard rubber tires. Of course, it was made of steel, with a paint finish that proved to be much sturdier than the paint on the baseboards and doors in our house. I loved that truck, and used it to move all sorts of things - blocks, Lincoln logs, my plastic horse figurines - around the house and yard.

While we had cars and trucks, we did not, as I recall, have Tonka toys. The boys on my block had Tonka toys - dump trucks and backhoes and bulldozers. They were bright yellow and black, and they had all sorts of cool operable parts. The boys' Tonka toys phase was around the same time as their "girls have cooties" phase, so I didn't have much chance to play with the Tonka toys.

Now that I'm an architect, I spend a fair amount of time around construction sites. I see the excavators, backhoes and skip loaders in action on a regular basis. On my job sites, however, I'm focusing on the condition of the excavation, or the concrete formwork that is going in, rather than on the big yellow machines. Other people's job sites are a different matter. There's a big construction site two blocks from our house; I drive past it every day on my way to work. For a couple of months now, I've been watching the bulldozers and excavators demolish the old buildings and dig out what will become the basement parking garage for the new building. More than once, as I've watched a backhoe rip apart a wall, or move a load of dirt, I've thought, "I want to do that." I want to learn how to drive and operate one of those pieces of equipment. I love the idea of wielding the power in one of those huge, awkward beasts to tear into something and take out only the desired part. I think about how much I've relished using my 8 lb. sledgehammer to take down walls, and can only imagine how satisfying it must be to take out the side or roof of an entire building.

What do I want for Christmas? How about a few hours with this big Cat and a very ugly building... or even just a big pile of dirt?

Friday, December 03, 2004

Feline Friday IX: Up a tree 

After more than a year of shopping and talking and then shopping some more, we finally found a very suitable cat tree. Suitable for the McKittens would've been fairly simple: one or more posts for scratching and climbing, and at least 3 horizontal surfaces for lounging. Suitable for Kimberly and Paul was a different matter altogether. First, Paul had to overcome his resistance to the idea of buying furniture for cats. After perhaps the hundredth time that I suggested that Sergei might not lounge on top of the armoire if he had his own furniture, Paul conceded the point. (Have I seen Sergei on the armoire since the cat tree arrived? Paul reads this blog, so I'm not telling.) Second, as we did not plan to drop a wad of cash on cat furniture just to hide it away in an upstairs bedroom, how the tree looked was important. Most cat trees did not pass the aesthetic bar for entry into our house, and those that did failed the budget test.

Then one day recently, on my way to pick up vegetables at the farmers' market, I passed a small pet supply store that had some almost acceptable looking cat trees. A sign in the window read All Cat Trees 25% Off. I went in. The cat trees in the window were OK: nice gray-sisal-wrapped 4x4 posts, carpeted flat perches. One of the sales staff noticed my attention to the trees and, pointing to the back of the store, said, "We have some more trees in the back." I turned, and there it was, the very suitable cat tree. It had three round posts, about 6" in diameter, covered in deep red sisal, and three perches - two curved, one flat with sides - covered in carpet that did not look like a remnant so cheap that I would not use it on anyone's floor. And, at 25% Off, it no longer qualified as an "if I'm going to spend this much money on furniture, it had better be heirloom quality" purchase.

I didn't get Paul to the shop to second the motion until the following weekend; he said "aye," handed over the credit card, and it was done. The Hulk strong young salesman hefted the tree with one hand, and practically tossed it into the Saab; Paul and I together managed to drag it out of the car, up the front steps and into the house... with only one or two stops.

And the McKittens? They took their own sweet time deciding on the suitability of the tree. First they had to become accustomed to the new smell... from upstairs, beneath our bed. (That's where they usually go when anyone or anything large and unfamiliar enters the house.) When Sasha came out, making tiny "pick-me-up" sounds, I cuddled him to me and started downstairs. He was fine until he caught sight of the cat tree. Then my gentle, timid boy turned into a squirming mass of fur and claw. Climbing over my shoulder, he leapt onto the stairs and headed for safety.

Eventually, it was adventure-boy Sergei who made first contact with the tree. His tentative scratching apparently released the scent of the catnip that the cat tree maker puts behind the sisal post wrapping. While Sergei is not a fan of catnip, Sasha is. Once he caught a whiff of 'nip, he was on that tree, and was soon rolling around on the top perch, quite stoned and making little sounds that I interpreted as kitty giggling. Eventually, he fell asleep, and Sergei joined him. Once the boys were dozing, Miss Lyra took a test scratch of a post, then settled in on the upper cradle. And that's when I caught them with this rather dark, fuzzy picture... but that's all I've got for today.