Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Steam Punk'd

Remember my enthusiastic post about steam baking bread? Remember how excited I was to find a colander of the right shape? Remember what good luck I've been having on culinary projects lately? I'm afraid the steam-baking thing fits right into the developing trend.

First off, it turns out that I don't have the perfect colander. I have a gigantic wire colander that will only fit into one of my pots - the nonstick pasta pot (which actually Aaron's, and a gift from his parents, so I shouldn't mess it up). I'd actually thought about buying the larger-sized colander at Target, so I'm very glad I started small.

I should probably mention that I pretty much always have a tape measure with me, in my knitting-supplies bag.

But since I had a pot that fit, I decided to go on. I dumped a blueberry muffin mix, an egg, and some oil into a plastic bag, and squeezed all the goop together.

And here is where I learned:
a) It's really hard to carefully arrange everything over a steaming pot of water.
b) I don't have the perfect colander. I have a colander that slopes too much on the sides and has too small a bottom, so the bag kept drooping toward the water and the side of the pot. I don't know if this is a problem, but I didn't relish the thought of finding out. Remember, this project isn't supposed to leave any dirty dishes.

So I came up with a fix - moving the batter to three sandwich-sized bags. Amazingly, this more or less worked, and I accomplished it without making a mess.

Then it's just a matter of putting the lid on, and steaming until it's done (about 20 minutes, following the package's baking time). But - oops! - a lid for draining pasta doesn't hold in much steam. So I got to go rummaging through the Pots I Haven't Used Since I Moved part of the cupboard to find a really big skillet lid. No problem.

And here's the finished result. Three blobs of blueberry muffin. Only a little batter on the pot. Nothing melted. Nothing on fire.

Nothing completely cooked. There were still pockets of batter in the bags - I suspect it was where they were piled on each other, but I'm not sure.

What was cooked was tasty enough, if not pretty. I'm still on the search for the perfect colander/strainer. Then I'll look for the perfect pot.

Then I'll look for the perfect mix. I saw a beer-bread batter at Target. I hope I find the right colander soon.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Curds and Whey

When we visited the Cooley Family Farm, they served a tasty salad of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, courtesy of the Black Sparrow Pub. Since it's hard to consume a container of store-bought mozzarella before it goes bad, I thought it might be easier to make my own. (For those who are into literary analysis, we could bring on the foreshadowing here - note the past tense of "thought," and ask "is it ever easier to make something yourself?"

I'd bought Aaron a cheesemaking kit for Christmas, so I turned to its recipe for 30-minute mozzarella (the recipe is under the "more information" tab). Thirty minutes my hind end.

Three hours and a gallon of whole organic milk later, this is the result. The mozzarella resembles professionals' mozzarella cheese about as well as the stuff on a school cafeteria pizza. The little balls are more like cheese rocks, and don't have a lot of flavor, probably because I forgot the "add salt" part in my eagerness to bring the "knead piping hot cheese until it's stretchy" part to an end. I haven't tried the ricotta yet - there's so much vinegar in it that I'm kind of afraid to.

So here is what I learned from my cheesemaking experience:
  1. Hippie grocery stores are a lot more useful than the mainstream stores. I know I used to be able to buy rennet tablets and citric acid in the baking aisles, but couldn't find them in my local groceries. Since the nearby hippie store discounts milk for students, the trip there was probably a good thing, anyway.
  2. A gallon of milk requires a very big pan.
  3. A candy thermometer won't accurately measure below 120 or so. I wound up testing the milk like a baby bottle.
  4. I had curdling issues. The milk wanted to curdle long before I got to the 90 degrees the recipe calls for. But I wanted to stir it gently, to keep the heat even and so it wouldn't burn. I think this kept it from setting up into a nice firm curd once I added the rennet.
  5. Dogs like whey. Oddly, this is one treat that Oscar seems to like more than Max.
  6. There are many things that can go wrong with this easy recipe, and I think I found most of them. No matter how much I heated my cheese, it never got to a really nice, stretchy texture.
  7. You really need genuine butter muslin. Cheesecloth just doesn't do the job, especially for ricotta. A coffee filter is a bad idea for many reasons.
  8. My ricotta kept looking like it wasn't going to curdle, and so I kept adding vinegar. I cooked it about twice as long as the recipe called for, and eventually got some curdling. Now I wish I'd used less vinegar, or used lemon juice instead.
  9. The leftover whey from a gallon of milk also requires a really big pot, and a really big bowl to strain it into. I wound up throwing a lot of it away for lack of a place to put it. As I write this, I realize that I should have just poured it back into the empty milk jug. Oops.
  10. Dogs really like whey. Enough that they'll stand underfoot while you're trying to strain cheese. Max has a spiky hairdo now, and Oscar thinks Max is pretty tasty.
So I spent hours on a 30-minute recipe, used nearly every dish in the house, and didn't get to watch a bit of the Olympics.

The end result, while not great, is ok. If I can find non-ultra-pasturized milk in half-gallon batches, making my own small amounts of cheese may be worth trying again. The mozzarella made its debut today with my lunch. It wasn't great, but set off the amazingly delicious tomatoes from the Cooleys pretty well. Maybe tonight I'll see how the ricotta goes with berries.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pennsic Projects, Finished

I've finished (or mostly finished) some of the lingering SCA projects recently!

First is the Gunnister Purse, finally done. I finished the knitting last week while we were in Illinois, but the drawstrings and tassels have taken awhile. The drawstrings are fingerloop braids, which require a period of uninterrupted time - and I wound up doing two sets because I thought the first (5 loops, with a red one) were too reminiscent of sock monkeys. This 3-loop braid of brown and white looks better, and uses up the last of my brown yarn.

I modified the design just a bit. The original has a single drawstring; I added the second and the tassels to make it look a bit older, since I'm most likely to use it in the SCA. The original was found with a coin from 1690, which puts it pretty far out of the SCA period, but it's a nice example of early knitting, and seems to resemble earlier work, at least to my untrained eye. (By the way, here's a really great list of pictures and pages on early pouches of all kinds.)

Now my current knitting plans involve finishing projects. First, finishing some things for my Secret Pal - then going on to knock off some of the many works in progress.

I also finished a strip of tablet weaving that I'd hoped to have done before war. It's supposed to be a copy of one of the Snartemo bands, although now that the war's over I have second thoughts. (The "Advanced Viking Tablet Weaving" instructor said that many bands which were thought to be two-hole patterns have proven to be four-hole patterns with two threads rotted away. So I'll have to look for recent thoughts on these bands.) But one way or another, it's a nice looking band and easy to weave. I've used Louet Gems here, and wound up with a band that's about an inch wide.

It's going to be a strap on the water bottle Aaron made for me. I just need to figure out how to attach it and how long it needs to be, and turn it over to Aaron for a cork. Then I'll have a lovely (and slightly scary, thanks to the dog) water bottle that will keep me well-hydrated at events.

All future textile projects may be on hold for awhile. Tomatoes are coming in like crazy, and I'm learning that they can be hard to give away - everyone at work has a plant or two of their own. I blanched and froze a bunch of sweet corn last night, and tonight my attention turns to cheese and peaches. But I need to get back to tablet weaving, soon.


Hiking with my Hounds

A tired dog is a good dog. The VeryBadDogs enjoyed a trip to the park last night, in hope that they won't add Playing With Matches (Max already Runs With Scissors) to their repertoire of Very Bad Deeds. We made our first visit to Lafayette's annual Hike With Your Hound, sort of a doggie trade show-cum-fundraiser in Columbian Park, one of Lafayette's neatest recreational areas.

It's a popular event. We got there a little late, and encountered a huge line for registration. They tried to be helpful by having us fill out the forms while waiting in line, but most people weren't finding that very easy to do while holding dogs on a leash.

Just in front of us in line was Cheech, a puggle. A lot of people want to know what kind of dog Max is, and a lot of people guess puggle. Cheech makes that look like a pretty good guess.

When we registered, someone mentioned that all the dogs had been really good so far. Max broke that streak as quickly as he could.

Eventually I got the dogs registered, everything together, and we set off on our hike through the park. The plan was to go from booth to booth and learn about dog resources in Lafayette. They'd even put up nifty doggy factoids along the route.

And the dogs got free bandannas, so they could look spiffy for their hike.

Most of the stations were purely informative, but some were more interactive, like this obedience course from the Greater Lafayette Kennel Club. We didn't bother to try this one.

But Max found some of the information very interesting.

Some stations were meant to be fun, but I couldn't convince my guys to play. Neither one of them showed any interest in playing in a wading pool, or fishing tennis balls out of it.

On the other hand, Oscar liked drinking the pool water much better than the water dishes all along the route, and Max loved the "How many oyster crackers can you catch?" game. I'm pretty sure "all of them" is the answer he would've liked to give.

The game area is where we met Promise, an adorable girl who's up for adoption at the Almost Home Humane Society. She and Oscar got along really well, and it was very difficult to avoid coming home with three dogs. Aren't those ears wonderful? And that smile?

Speaking of doggie smiles, it turned out there were contests at the end of the hike. And there were even celebrity judges - the local weather guy, the mayor, and our local state legislator. This is a small enough town that these people turn up everywhere - especially Shelia, the state legislator. But I must question the judgment of our local celebrities, because neither one of my fine dogs won the "Best Doggie Smile" contest. Clearly they're blind, or biased against ugly dogs. (Ok, or maybe there were a lot of cute dogs there. Just maybe. The winner is a foster dog, so maybe his victory will prompt someone to give him a good home.) We were seriously outclassed in the "Best Trick" category - I didn't see the winner, but was impressed by the Yorkie who'd jump on and over his Golden Retriever partner.

Did all this lead to good dogs? They slept last night, curled up looking like sweet, calm doggies, until they woke up to get into the compost and drag corn husks all over the house. So far today Max has eaten a clothes hanger and a pencil. Clearly they're not tired enough.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

VERY Bad Dog

Oscar almost burned down the house last night.

I don't think this was his plan, but since my VeryBadDogs work pretty hard to live up to their name, I'm going to give him credit for the near outcome rather than his intentions.

Oscar's housebreaking is a bit uncertain. We don't exactly know how to fix this, because when he goes in the house he sneaks off to do it, so we can't catch him in the act. But this means that we have to react pretty quickly when he gets up in the middle of the night.

Last night I heard Ominous Oscar Noises, and turned the lamp on in a hurry. Too much of a hurry, as it turns out - I nearly knocked over the lamp (a gift from my mother, so I don't want it damaged) but managed to get it righted and rush the dogs outside.

When we got back in, Max started acting funny. I noticed the room smelled like candles burning or something - but it wasn't candles. It was my lamp. When I nearly knocked it over, I'd knocked the shade onto the bulb. So the shade had melted to the bulb, and was rapidly turning brown.

So Oscar narrowly missed surpassing Max in the Very Bad Deeds competition (eating Aaron's glasses is still #1), and that's definitely a good thing. I just hope he doesn't keep trying. I could use a good night's sleep.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Eating Locally

Aaron & I subscribed to our first CSA program this summer, and we've had a great time with all the mystery baskets of vegetables we wouldn't be likely to buy. We've found a whole bunch of ways to prepare greens (like the kale growing here); we've tried turnips and beets; and we're about to be nearly overwhelmed with tomatoes.

So we were pretty excited when we had the chance to visit the Cooley Family Farm and see where our food comes from. The Cooleys do an open house every year for their subscribers, so we got to taste all sorts of delicious things made with their produce, and see what's coming next.

(My apologies here to those of you who are from actual rural areas and aren't that fascinated by growing vegetables. Apologies also for the lousy cell phone photos - some idiot left the memory card out of the camera when she brought it to the farm.)

The Cooleys do a lot of their growing in these "high tunnels" - essentially plastic greenhouses. This is how they're able to offer strawberries in May (one of the best reasons to get a harvest basket!) and lettuce in February.

Right now, one tunnel is home to a whole bunch of tomatoes. I think most buyers will be canning these somehow, so it looks like we'll need to find a good tomato sauce recipe.

This is another tunnel, just waiting to be set up. It's amazing that something so small-looking can produce so much yummy stuff. But that's true of the farm in general; it's not that big, but a lot of people in town are eating very well from the fruits of their labor.

And it's a lot of labor. They're constantly planting new crops, and since they don't use pesticides or herbicides there's a lot of work to be done by hand. There are strawberry plants hiding in this row of weeds, and sooner or later one of the Cooleys (and there only four of them, if you count the infant!) will go through and pull all the weeds by hand, so we can have fresh strawberries again next spring. The farmers' market food is such a good deal!

Some of the work goes on all the time, but sometimes it has to be all done at once, and then they just hope it's enough. This is part of a year's supply of onions - they're drying now so they can be sold all through the winter.

The tour was both educational and delicious. We were able to walk along the rows of just-ripened raspberries, picking and eating our fill! We did the same thing with the cherry tomatoes. If there's anything that tastes better than sun-ripened and -warmed fruit, I don't know what it is.

(There was something of a downside here. I'd heard of people getting sick from eating too much fruit, but we'd never actually experienced it. Until now. But that kind of good is well worth the cost of a box of Alka-Seltzer.)

I don't like to use the phrase "too pretty to eat," but that almost applied here. Although we were invited to take what we wanted, I just couldn't bring myself to pick this tomato.

There's also the funky - these are tomatoes, not peppers.

And the fun - pumpkins for fall are just starting to grow.

A CSA program is sort of a gamble - you pay for everything upfront in winter/early spring, and then hope it's worth it. So you're sharing the risk with the farmer - although I know the Cooleys work awfully hard to make sure everyone gets their money's worth.

So now I have a reason to worry about the weather, because only if the rain levels are just right will they be able to cut a last crop of rhubarb. Rhubarb in fall is such a treat that I really hope we get the rain it needs!

And here's one more treat to look forward to - they've just started growing grapes. I tried local grapes last fall and they were nothing like the ones from the grocery store - very flavorful, but without being overwhelmed by the concord foxiness. We'll be resubscribing next year, so I'll be excited to see the grapes, and the strawberries, and everything else that's already growing for us. But for now, does anyone know what to do with a whole bunch of squash and Swiss chard?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Museum Piece

All of the tourist information at the State Fair reminded us that we hadn't yet seen the "Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting" exhibit at the Indiana State Museum, so we stayed in town an extra day to check it out. This may not have been the best use of our time. We were expecting - well, knitting - but mostly got weird modern art that was vaguely textile-inspired and overwhelmingly "ironic," as half the artists were careful to mention.

Some pieces were neat and encouraged some thought. Here's a dress made of nearly 900 cut-up dollar bills - the artist invites you to consider how it is that taking something of value, rendering it worthless, and throwing in a bunch of labor to create something totally useless can make a $20,000 piece. He's got a point there.

Other things were just neat, like these knitted coral snake skins. I kind of like the juxtaposition of fluffy and dangerous, although I don't think that's where the artist was going.

But hey, it's a museum. So the sock had a good time hanging out with the more hoity-toity stuff, pretending to be a museum piece (this is a lace design cut from a single piece of fabric).

And so did I. This is what I thought more of the exhibit would be - a piece on wartime knitting, where the artist invites passers-by to knit pieces to support troops or oppose the Iraq war. The panels in the back are knit depictions of photographs of wartime knitting circles, and the tablecloth has the patterns and some commentary printed on it. So I joined the exhibit and spent a little time knitting Afghans for Afghans while Aaron wandered the rest of the museum.

I didn't see much else, but stopped on the way out to take the sock's picture with the woolly mammoth statues. It may a different kind of wool, but perhaps there's some relationship.

Today we picked up two weeks' worth of held mail, and I had a pleasant surprise waiting for me. My secret pal has been on vacation, and sent me a "thinking of you" package. There's a Sudoku book, a pad of hand-stamped sticky notes with sheep and yarn designs, a cute little sheep figurine, and a postcard which suggests her vacation had precious little to do with knitting but was probably a lot of fun. Thanks, pal, and I hope you had a really good time!

Friday, August 15, 2008

At the Fair

We're about halfway unpacked from Pennsic, and Aaron's about halfway moved into his new apartment. But yesterday we didn't make any progress on either project - we went to the Indiana State Fair.

There's a SP12 Question about fairs, so this gives me a chance to be good and answer it: "Have you ever entered your knitting (or anything else) in the fair? Would you consider it?"

I've never entered anything in the State Fair, but maybe I should. At Indiana's, there are usually a few spectacular pieces, a lot of mediocre stuff, and some truly horrible things. Aaron & I like to amuse ourselves at the fair by finding the most dreadful piece in the Home & Family Arts building, but I won't share pictures of any of this year's candidates, just in case someone recognizes them. I'll just say that plastic canvas embroidery and seed bead work tend to yield some of the best bad stuff, although I think the Very Creepy Vest With Heads we saw a few years ago was "wearable art." It probably tied with the Princess Diana Memorial Tissue Box Cozy for the all-time weirdest, although the embroidered plastic-canvas soap dispenser cover may be the Worst Idea Ever. How can wet sticky stuff and yarn be a good combination?

Speaking of bad ideas, there were a few in other places. For example, Ball State University has a new slogan.

Is it just me? "As long as you redefine 'education,' you'll be pleased with what you get here." Does it make things worse that this is Dave Letterman's alma mater?

But you can't spend all day at the fair making fun of stuff, right? There was plenty of cool stuff to see, do, and eat. Soon after we got there, we discovered that UPS uses this little golf-cart truck for fairgrounds deliveries.

There was a huge Indiana tourism display along one street. The people of Vevay, IN had a fun contest where you could try to bounce (plastic) grapes into a wine glass to win a prize - and lots of helpful information about their upcoming wine festival. We didn't win, but I don't think the prize was very wine-related, so it's ok. Or is that sour grapes?

At the tourism display, I learned that the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods have established the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry dedicated to sustainable living. So they have beehives, organic crops, and ALPACAS!!!! I only knew St. Mary's as the place girls go visit when there's a math fair at Rose-Hulman - I had no idea that now they're doing all sorts of fiber-related stuff. They're going to have a fiber retreat in September, and I think I may try to go.

Who knew that there was a big Wizard of Oz festival in Indiana? My sock does, because it stopped to meet this bunch, from the Yellow Brick Road museum in Chesterton. It turns out that the Wicked Witch of the West is a knitter. I wonder how she blocks her knitting?

And speaking of "who knew," who knows what this plant is? It was on display in the garden outside the Agriculture & Horticulture building, and it's very cool looking, and that's all I know.

Of course, the best thing about the fair is the food. After years of careful study, Aaron, the socks, and I all agree that the Lions have the best roasted corn on the cob. The Kiwanis were selling corn at the Tippecanoe County fair, but they were boiling it. So now we know that fair corn is a once-a-year treat, best at the state level. We split all the other fair food we buy, so we can taste more things, but we always get our own ears of roasted corn.

There was also lots of food that you don't get to eat, like the giant pumpkin...

...and the giant cheese sculpture. 1,595 pounds of cheese for the curious, which means nearly 16,000 pounds of whole milk. No samples available, though :-(

Then there's the food you don't want to eat. The Hot Beef Sundae was this fair's other spectacular entry in the Bad Ideas department.

The fair offered some ideas for things I want to do, like this naturally dyed sock.

And there were examples of things I never want to do. These people may have the Worst Job in State Goverment - wrangling the poisonous snakes for the Department of Natural Resources.

There are four poisonous snakes in Indiana, and they were all at this year's fair.

Here's a bit of random cool stuff - sculpture from the sheet metal workers. These guys were spending their days helping kids rivet together tool boxes, which has to be the noisiest job at the whole fair.

And some less random coolness - the Circle City Sidewalk Stompers, my favorite clown band in the whole world. You can't quite see it in the picture, but they even have a funny face painted in the bell of their tuba. I've been watching these guys - or this group, at least - at the fair for as long as I can remember. Roasted corn and a clown band. That's a pretty good fair.