Friday, July 29, 2005

Fun with Faces

Through another blog, I found an interesting link to something called the Face Transformer. This is an interactive tool that lets you upload an image of a face, and apply transformations that do amazing things to it.

As an example, here's what I did. I uploaded this picture of me:

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Deer in the headlights - not my best look

and followed their instructions for cropping the image to my head, then marking the locations of the eyes and mouth. This is how they get the facial proportions right for the transformations they're going to apply, which amount to morphing your image with other images stored in their database.

Several of the transformations are intended to show how you look at different ages: baby, child, teenager. Others show you as different ethnic groups, such as afro-carribean, east asian, or west asian.

My favorites were those that transformed your image based on famous painters' styles. Here is how I'd look if painted by Botticelli, for instance:

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Is that really me?

Isn't that amazing? Hard to believe that's the same picture I posted above. I liked the Botticelli so much, I converted it into an icon-sized graphic to use as my profile photo here at Blogger. I also printed one out at about 6 1/2" x 7" as a picture for my husband to frame, as I'm not likely to see such a nice image of myself for a long time.

While you're at the Face Transformer website, you might consider participating in their experiments. The Face Transformer is actually a tool that the Perception Lab uses to create images for their experiments in how humans perceive human faces. They have a number of experiments in this perception right online for you to participate in. It's anonymous, and you're contributing to science from the comfort of your own computer chair. Check it out!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - and the Silver Lining

The Good:

My blogging has taken off like wildfire. I'm discovering it's a great way to communicate about what I'm doing. Communicating about my life helps me to really examine and understand myself in a way that I never have before. As a result, I feel that I'm getting more value out of the same sort of tasks and activities that I've always done.

Blogging is also turning out to be a great way to organize information. One of my newest blogs, Folkcat's Craft Library, is a case in point. The purpose is to create an ongoing catalog of the craft books in my personal library. Each book gets its own post, and with the help of Zoundry Blog Writer, my post editor of choice, each book that is still in print also has a link where the reader can purchase the book online. Since every post entry at Blogger can be a permanent, independent link, I will ultimately create an index page that sorts the books by category, and perhaps indices by title and author as well.

More Good:

My Cafe Press store has shaped up nicely. I'm pleased with how easy it was to configure my graphics and put them up on products. I've already sold just enough items to earn the fee for the first month, so it's already demonstrating potential to pay for iteself.

Blending from Good towards Bad:

Our bankruptcy hearing was this past Tuesday morning. It actually went quite well. Gryphon and I were calm and collected, and answered the judge's questions simply. There were no creditors challenging the matter, and the judge seemed satisfied with what he heard. We were done in about a half hour's time, and on our way.

The Bad:

Things turned bad when we got home. Our power was off. We've been behind for months, and have been on a payment plan meant to get us caught up eventually, but apparently we missed one installment. Gryphon says we never saw a formal "final notice" letter, so we're a bit annoyed and puzzled by this. Bottom line, it was one of the hottest days of the year so far, and the contrast between how well our bankruptcy hearing went and the shock of finding our financial situation in ruins at home really upset us both.

We stayed calm in the thick of the storm, though. We both have an ability to keep a clear head during an emergency and save the nervous breakdown for later. We started calling anyone we could think of who might be able to help us out. The utility company was demanding full payment of the past due amount, which was over $400. We had about $10 in the bank that we could spare.

The Ugly:

In my opinion, it's pretty ugly that I had to turn to my folks for help on this one. I am so grateful that they were able to pay the bill for us, but I'm 44 years old, for crying out loud. About to turn 45. And I have to go to mommy for money? My parents have little enough for themselves, without having to bail me and my husband out of things. It's also pretty ugly that the way we'd been handling the finances, Gryphon had full control of the paperwork, processing, and bill paying, and I really had no idea where we stood on anything. I absolutely had no clue we were that close to the edge on the power bill.

The Silver Lining:

The good thing that has come out of this nasty situation is that Gryphon, who has been struggling to handle the budget without my help, has come around and admitted that we need to work on it together, and that I need to be very, very involved. He wasn't up to the job alone, that's apparent from where it got to. In the last couple of days, we've been working together to give me more involvement on the matter of what money comes in and where it goes out. Things are very, very tight, and we have hardly a penny to spare, but we already have a sense that it will all get better if we can continue to work together on the budget, collaborating on the effort, sharing the load of the tough decisions, and coming up with creative solutions.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Pureed, Pickled, and Stewed (Contains 3 recipes!)

No, we didn't have a wild night out on the town. Here are the stories:

Pureed

The Carrot Soup I reported on in the my last post spent the entire night cooking on low. Seems that carrots take a really, really long time to slow-cook to a consistency that can be pureed with a stick blender. They did, eventually, get there, however, and I whipped them into submission along with the potatoes and garlic that they were cooked with.

At that time, I added probably a cup-worth of cauliflower florets, and a couple teaspoons of dill, as well as about 4 dashes of Pete's Red Hot Sauce. Not enough hot sauce to make a spicy dish, but enough to help bring out all of the other flavors. You wouldn't even know it was there if I didn't tell you.

After another hour on low, this was the result - a thick, creamy orange soup with chunks of cauliflower in it.
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Lightly sweet, oh-so delicious!

Nice thing about a Carrot Potato Soup like this - you can also serve it cold. Makes a great dish for the hot weather we've been having. I'm pleased with how this one came out.

The recipe, scaled down to fit a single crockpot:

Garlicky Carrot and Potato Soup

Ingredients:
1 lb. carrots, cut in 1-inch chunks

1 lb. potatoes, cut in 1-inch chunks

1 bulb garlic, separated in cloves and peeled

1 cup cauliflower florets

1 tsp. dill

Hot sauce to taste
Instructions:
Place carrot chunks in bottom of crockpot. Follow with potatos and garlic. Add water until vegetables are just covered.

Cook on low until carrots are fork tender. Using a stick blender, mix entire contents of crockpot to a smooth consistency. (You can also use a food processor or conventional blender, but the stick blender is less messy.)

Add cauliflower florets, dill, and hot sauce. Cook on low one more hour.

Serve hot or cold.
Folkcat's Tip: Sometimes an ingredient can make a huge difference in flavor without being noticeable as a flavor note itself. Case in point: the hot sauce in this recipe. Add it a dash at a time, stirring in well, and taste before and after each one. At some point, you'll realize that the flavor jumps from so-so to pow!, yet you would never know the hot sauce was there if you hadn't been the one to add it.

Pickled

This week at the Wilton Downtown Marketplace (our Farmer's Market), I picked up something I wasn't even looking for - pickling cucumbers. I have no fondness for pickles myself, but Gryphon loves them. A few years back, I used to pretty routinely make a recipe for refrigerator Bread n' Butter pickles that we got from a book called Lean & Lucious and Meatless.

I decided it would be a nice surprise for Gryphon if he came home from work and found that I had made a batch of pickles. I knew I still had the ingredients in the house. Big problem, though - the cookbook is still packed away somewhere, inaccessible.

Well, not so big a problem. I've gained a lot of confidence lately in my ability to figure out or make up a recipe, or adapt one to suit my needs by studying similar ones. So I hopped off to my favorite recipe website, RecipeZaar, and hunted up refrigerator pickle recipes.

There are a few to be found there. 238 come up on the search, to be exact. So I started popping the recipes up one by one to see what they were like. I eventually found a couple that seemed similar to the recipe I used to use, and I began adapting.

Here's what the resulting pickles look like:

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Tangy Yellow Goodness

I experimented a fair bit with the recipe. None of the ones I was adapting included turmeric, and I remembered that from my original. Also, this type of pickle typically calls for a lot of sugar. I chose to substitute Splenda to create a "sugar-free" version. I also cut in half the amount of sweetener I was finding called for in the recipes, using only 2 cups of Splenda instead of 4.

In the end, the proof of my experiment is in the tasting, and Gryphon has declared these to be a winner. Sounds like I got it right on the first try! Here's the recipe as it came out:

Folkcat's Refrigerator Pickles

Ingredients
2 lbs. pickling cucumbers
3 cups distilled white vinegar
2 cups Splenda
1/8 cup kosher salt
2 tsp. whole mustard seeds
3 tsp. whole celery seeds
2 tsp. ground turmeric
Instructions
Cut the cucumbers into slices, 1/4 inch thick. Place them in a glass container, large enough to hold them all with an inch or two to spare.

In a non-reactive pot, mix the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil.

Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the cucumber slices until they are covered. If you come up a little short, you can add a little boiling water to raise the liquid level.

Cover the container, and let cool to room temperature. Place in refrigerator and keep chilled.

The flavor develops over time, but Gryphon found these perfectly tasty on the second day. These keep well, too - I've heard some people say that, if they don't get eaten up, they can keep in the refrigerator for up to 9 months.
Folkcat's Tip: You can use this same brine mixture to pickle other vegetables as well. Try peppers, sweet onions, cauliflower, carrots, green beans...the list is endless! Check out the commercial pickles available in your supermarket to get ideas.

Stewed

Friday's grocery shopping showed that you can gain a lot in your cuisine if you're prepared to be flexible. I've developed a habit of looking at what I call the "distressed produce rack" in our local Market Basket Supermarket. This is where all the produce that's on it's last legs is placed, usually at a 50% discount. The items are still good, though they may be a little bruised. The catch is, you want to be ready to either use them or freeze them immediately.

On Friday, I looked at the rack and realized I was seeing packages of carrots and potatoes that looked pretty good. They were each about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds. And I'd been wanting to do a nice beef stew.

The brain went into gear. I bought a green pepper and some whole, canned, peeled tomatoes. I cruised the meat counter, and realized that the pre-cubed stew beef cost $2.99 a pound, while the same cut of meat as a whole roast cost only $1.79 a pound. Guess which one I bought? Not only that, but I had the audacity to ring the butcher's bell and ask him to cut the roast into stew cubes for me! And he did it!

I knew I was going to be improvising on this one. I didn't bother to look up any recipes for a guide. While at the Wilton Downtown Marketplace that afternoon, I also picked up a pound of fresh-picked green beans to add to the mix.

I spent time that night preparing ingredients; cutting peppers and potatoes into chunks; slicing carrots; snapping the ends off of green beans and breaking them into three (they were long ones!). The plan was that we'd set up the crock Saturday morning and let it cook all day, ready for a late dinner around 8:30 or so.

Here's how the stew wound up:
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Thick and Beefy!

And here's the recipe; some amounts will be approximate. I actually suffered from "eyes too big for the crock" syndrome again, and bought more than would fit in just the big one. I felt I had the right amount of beef, though, so I simply used about half of the vegetables. I'm not going to give this one in the traditional format; rather, I'll explain how I built it.

Chunky Crockpot Beef Stew
The method I'm going to describe will work in a 6 1/2 qt. crockpot using 2 lbs. of stew beef, cut in 1-inch cubes. Other ingredients that I used include: about 1/2 lb. of carrots, cut into slices; 1/2 to 3/4 lb. potatoes, cut in 3/4 inch cubes; 1/2 lb. green beans; 1 28-oz. can of whole, peeled tomatoes in juice; 2 cups of hot water with 2 tsp. of beef soup base added to make a broth; 1 bay leaf.

How I did this: Place the vegetables in layers, starting with the carrots, followed by the potatoes and then the green beans. You want your layers about one piece of carrot (or potato or green bean) deep. Place about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of flour in a large plastic bag; add the beef cubes and shake to coat them. Spread the beef cubes out over the vegetables.

Open the can of tomatoes. Strain the juice into the crock through your fingers, catching the tomatoes as they come out of the can and crushing them in your fingers before adding them to the crock.

Use your own favorite version of 1 - 2 cups of beef broth. I use Minor's Beef Soup Base; you could use homemade stock or canned, or even some bouillion cubes. Or simply add some hot water, counting on the other ingredients to be flavorful enough. Whichever liquid you choose, add it to the crock now. Finally, tuck in one good-sized bay leaf.

Turn the crock on low for 10 hours. After about 8 hours, check the pot and see how liquid the stew is. If it's thinner than you like, add some brown rice. Rice will effectively soak up about the same volume of water as the quantity of rice you add. For instance, if you were to put in 1 cup of rice, you'd reduce the volume of liquid by about 1 cup. Be cautious - it's very easy to over thicken the stew by adding too much rice, and then you start see-sawing back and forth between adding more broth, adding more rice...there isn't room in the crock to do that!

After the full ten hours, taste the stew and consider seasoning. For today's batch, I found I didn't need to add anything, even salt. Season with salt, pepper, or whatever else you feel it needs to suit your own taste.

Eat with some nice, hearty bread. Enjoy!

Folkcat's Tip: Learning how to "construct" a stew or soup in this way can help you to take advantage of unexpected specials at the supermarket. Be flexible, and you can save a lot of money while providing your family with healthy, nutritious foods. Be creative, too - instead of white potatoes, consider sweet potatoes or squash. Try zucchini or summer squash instead of green beans; consider turnips instead of carrots. Barley instead of rice would be a classic choice. Whatever choices you make, try to keep a variety of colors and textures to keep the stew interesting.

Ultimately, when you begin to understand how the ingredients in a recipe work together, that's when you can start to make smart choices for how to change the recipe to suit your own desires or the ingredients you have on hand. Do that enough, and your friends and family will start to think you're a kitchen wizard!


Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Double-Crockin' Again! and Somethin's Fishy in the Living Room

You know how they'll say that a person's eyes are too big for their stomach? Well, I'm coming to the conclusion that my eyes are too big for our crockpots! Once again, I have grossly over-estimated the capacity of our 6-quart crockpot, and had to split the recipe between that and our smaller crockpot .

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The Super Crock Team is at it again

The recipe this time is a variant of one I saw ages ago on a television show. It was a sort of New Age lifestyle show that didn't last very long. One day, they suggested a simple recipe of one pound each of carrot and potato, cut up and covered with water, with 10 bulbs (yes, bulbs) of garlic, separated into cloves. Boil this on the stove until the potato and carrot are tender, then use a blender, stick blender, or food processor to create a smooth, creamy soup out of it.

Gryphon and I tried it and liked it, though the garlic flavor was a bit too much for him. But we haven't gotten around to making it since that time, oh, about 3 or 4 years ago now. Until today.

I looked at a 3-lb. bag of carrots and said to myself, yeah, that's the right amount for the big crock. Then we picked up 3 pounds of potatos. What I failed to do was look at the combined size of the carrot/potato pile and say Whoa! That's too much! We could probably have done with about 2 lbs. of each instead.

Unfortunately, I still didn't consider this issue until I had already cut up all 3 pounds of potatos. So here we go - I took about 1/3 of the potatos, and transferred them to the small crock. Then I cut up the carrots and made my best try at getting about the same split. We decided to reduce the garlic amount to one bulb only, so I broke up and peeled that, and divided it between the crocks accordingly.

I started the crocks at around 6 o'clock. Or so I thought. Turns out that the small one wasn't plugged in. So the big crock got an hour headstart on high. I turned the big one to low for the next hour, and put the small one on high - and plugged it in! An hour later, I carefully considered how slowly the carrots would become tender, and how late this was going to be ready, and decided the better part of valor in this case meant putting both on low all night.

For seasoning, I'm planning to use dill. Pretty standard with carrots and potatos, so that's a no-brainer. I may add a bit of hot sauce for a little kick, too. Obviously, this recipe saga isn't over yet, so stay tuned for the results in a day or two.

In other news, it's been a while since my betta fish, Burgundy, went on to that great fish pond in the sky. We'd been considering moving Gryphon's betta from his bedroom (which can be pretty lonely with all the time Gryphon's at work) to the living room, where I can wiggle my fingers at him now and then and he can keep me company. We finally did that yesterday.

It's awfully hard to get a picture of a fish that comes out clear without using special equipment. Here's the best one I got. Officially, this little guy's got no name, but I am calling the folder for him in Adobe Photoshop Album "Betta Blue".

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Betta Blue looks fierce for the camera

Monday, July 18, 2005

Harry Potter, Pressing Matters, and Warm Weather Cooking

Shhh! We opened our mailbox on Friday, July 15th, and found a box from Amazon.com in it! Prominently marked "Please Do Not Deliver Before July 16th, 2005", nevertheless, there it was - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

I wondered if, being after 10:30 a.m. that we picked up our mail (the time in the morning that they promise your mail will all be in your post office box), they decided to get a head start on the next day's box-stuffing. At any rate, it was sort of a moot point for me, anyhow, because I was still plowing my way through the previous Potter book. I badly needed to re-read that so I could remind myself where we left our heroes before coming into the new story.

So, betwixt and between other activities over the weekend, I took moments here and there to read. Finally finished Book 5 yesterday, and began on "Half-Blood Prince." So far, I've only barely gotten Harry to Hogwarts, but it's proving to be an interesting read, and promising to be a darker story. I won't reveal any surprises to those who are taking as long or longer than me to read, but I will say, as always, that people usually don't turn out to be quite what you expected them to be.

There's a banner ad over on the side of this blog now. I know, I know, I don't like ads either. Trust me when I say, I'm not going to make this a regular haven for large quantities of them. The banner ad in this case is a link to Cafe Press, an online imprinting business that lets anyone set up, for free, a store of their own selling t-shirts, mugs, and more with their own graphics. You can visit my store, Folkcat Art, here. If you think that having a store like this of your own sounds appealing, however, I would be grateful if you use the banner to navigate there. Doing so will give me credit for referring you to them. Thank you.

I've been off the crockpot for over a week now. We've just been too busy, and I've been too durned hot! The last couple days, though, I began craving one of my old warm-weather classics - my own Macaroni and Tuna Salad recipe that I created myself. It's awfully nice to have something tasty and nutritious in the refrigerator, ready to be scooped out in small quantity as a side dish, or by the bowl as a lunch or light supper.

This is another dish I've always prepared by putting in "enough" of that and "about that much" of this, but I'm making an effort to nail this recipe down, too. Here's how I made it today.

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Folkcat's Macaroni and Tuna Salad

Ingredients:
1 lb. rotini pasta

1 bag Birdseye Baby Peas and Vegetable Blend frozen mix (contains baby peas, snowpea pods, baby corn, baby carrots) or use veggies of your choice

¾ cup mayonnaise

3 T. spicy brown mustard

2 t. dried basil

1 t. celery salt

1 7-oz. Pouch chunk white tuna

½ cup grated parmesan and/or romano cheese
Instructions:
Cook pasta al dente according to package instructions. Put frozen vegetables in pasta strainer in sink; drain pasta onto frozen vegetables. (This both thaws the vegetables and helps cool the pasta quickly.) Drain well so the salad won't be soggy.

In a large bowl, mix mayonnaise, mustard, basil, and celery salt well to make a dressing. Add pasta and vegetables and toss to coat thoroughly.

In a separate bowl, break up tuna into small, bite-size chunks. Add to pasta mix along with grated cheese, and mix until well coated.
Makes a great luncheon entree, or a side dish for dinner. Great to pack for brown bagging, too!

Folkcat's Tip: I haven't tried this yet, but I'll bet a salad spinner would make quick work of draining the pasta and vegetables.


Friday, July 15, 2005

I'm a Cool Summer Treat...

You Are Rocky Road Ice Cream
Unpredictable and wild, you know how to have fun.
You're also a trendsetter who takes risks with new things.
You know about the latest and greatest - and may have invented it.
You are most compatible with vanilla ice cream.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Life & Times of a Winged Neko?





Your Japanese Name Is...









Mayoko Konoe



Book and Film Chat

I've posted to Folkcat's Fiber Crafts tonight about attending a knitting group that's been started at the Toadstool Bookshop. There was knitting, of course, but there was also a lot of talk about books and movies.

Several of the knitters present also come to some of the Toadstool's many book groups, and much of the discussion revolved around recent and upcoming reading.

That sequed into the film versions of some of the books; and other films featuring the same actors; and upcoming movies of popular books, such as Memoirs of a Geisha. The film is due out later this year; I'm looking forward to that one. Lois (sp?), who works at Toadstool, brought around an advance publicity brochure that the publisher had sent out, and showed us some stills from the film. It looks like it's going to be every bit as beautiful as films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, or House of Flying Daggers. Memoirs of a Geisha is one of my favorite books, but then, I like all things Japanese.

Reading is something I get a bit conflicted about, and with all the chat about book groups tonight, I wound up thinking about it again, hard. As a child of two avid readers and book collectors, I was raised to feel it was possibly the most divine thing a person could do. As an adult, in reality, I seldom find time for it. I get a great deal of satisfaction out of reading a good book. But reading is something that feels like I have to make a great, clear space in my day to accommodate. When I cozy up with a book, I want to be able to deflect any distractions; I want to have all that I need at hand (drinks, kleenex, snacks), I want to know that I won't have to do anything else for a while. I want the time and space to really lose myself in that book.

These days, I'm doing so much stuff in general (see any or all of my blogs for proof!), that I keep getting to the end of the day and realizing that I didn't even think about taking time to read. Or if I did think about it, it felt like I couldn't spare the time from my other work.

I know, I know - I just have to find a way to make the time. I'm trying to. Right now, I'm anticipating the arrival of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in my mail box on Saturday, and I'm trying to prepare by re-reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I've made it about 175 pages into this 870-page tome. Will I finish before Saturday? I don't know.

It'd be easier if I didn't care so much about the crafting I do. I can't read and craft at the same time, that's the real problem. If I could, I'd be reading my way through whole libraries every year. I craft a lot, and I don't see myself doing less.

I keep trying to think of strategies for taking a reading break. Starting the day with reading doesn't work - Gryphon works second shift, and the beginning of the day is the part we have together. After he goes to work at 3pm, I spend my time running errands or doing household chores, or crafting. Somewhere in the evening there's time spent blogging. I just haven't figured out how to make myself find a stopping point in any of those activities where I can say, "Okay, time to read now!"

If anyone is reading this, and has a tip for how they make the time for reading, please feel free to click below and offer a comment. I'd love to hear what you have to suggest.

Meanwhile, if you haven't read any of the books or seen the movies suggested here, please consider checking them out. I enjoyed them, and I'm sure you will, too.


Monday, July 11, 2005

Did you get to have an adventure today?

Gryphon and I went wandering the world on Saturday. Normally, now, with a start like that, you would be expecting an immensely interesting story about amazing discoveries, fascinating locales, and treasures found. After all, I just wrote the intro line to a tale of adventure, didn't I?

But the fact is that what Gryphon and I did on Saturday wouldn't count in most people's books as adventure. We went to the store to pick up some prescriptions. On the way, we visited a couple of fabric stores so I could get supplies for some patchwork I'm working on. We stopped for hot dogs on the way home, then stopped at a farm stand at the west end of Milford to check out the produce.

The farm stand turned out to be next to a dairy farm with a wide-open cow barn that was roasting in the sun. The stench of fresh cow manure and urine was overwhelming. I don't know how this farm stand survives here, I certainly had no appetite for buying anything I wanted to eat under these conditions.

At the corner of the road where the farm stand was, we spotted a sign that said QUILT SHOP with an arrow pointing up the hill. On a whim, we followed it. And followed it. Over hill and dale, round curves and twists, all the way into Lyndeborough. No sign of a quilt shop. Asked at the Village Shop, and learned that we should have turned for the quilt shop way, way back near the beginning of this route. In fact, we should have turned back at the road that would have taken us straight home.

So we went back, and found the shop. Saw a Mourning Cloak Butterfly just before we went inside - my first confirmed sighting of that species. Shopped a bit, chatted with the shop owner, and went our way to the grocery store.

Hung out at home a bit after that. Then decided we wanted to go back to the hot dog stand for ice cream. The flavor of the month for July is S'mores, and I wanted to see how they did that. Plus, we hadn't gone out for ice cream at an ice cream stand this way in at least a couple of years.

It was delicious. We sat in the car because of the mosquitoes, and off to the north, beyond the trees, beyond the river, somewhere up Mont Vernon way or so, we could just see the tops of fireworks. When Bill finished his cone, he started the car up and we drove around North River Rd. to see if we could spot where they were and get a better look. We never did find them, but we wound up driving around the same place we'd gone for the quilt shop earlier.

Back home again, then, and that was our day. We both agreed that we'd really had a pleasant time.

So, no grand adventures. No major treasures. No earth-shattering new discoveries. We merely bummed around at our leisure and whims, with no deadlines, no expectations, and no requirements of the day. And we had a really, really good time.

You may not think what we did constitutes an adventure. I think it's all a matter of attitude. Even simple things on Saturday brought us pleasure. Even less than satisfying things - like the stench of fresh cow manure - didn't put a damper on the day. I think that's because everything we did felt like something we "got to" do, and not like something we "had to" do. Fill a day with enough "got to's" and it doesn't have to be very adventurous to start feeling as satisfying as an adventure.

Remember when you were a kid, and you did something really fun? If someone said "What did you do today?", you may well have said "I got to... <fill in fun activity here>!" "I got to ride my bike." "I got to go to the store with Grandma and I got to push the cart all by myself." "I got to have a popsicle from the ice cream truck."

Days that weren't so good were usually "Had to's". "We had to go to the dentist today, and I had to get a filling." "I had to stay home and help fold laundry." "I had to clean my room instead of going out to play."

I suspect the world would be a happier place if, at the end of each day, we all looked back and identified at least one thing as something we "got to" do. "I got to read the newspaper all the way through without interruption." "I got to see a pair of bluejays flying around the parking lot." "I got to hear a child laughing at the park."

Give it a try. I'll bet you can find at least one "got to" every day. And if that "got to" helps you end the day with a smile instead of a frown, then this blog post becomes for me "I got to help someone have a better day" instead of "I had to get these words written down to get them out of my head."

Thank you for that!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Cracker Barrel Part 2: How to Avoid the Shame of Cracker Barrel Biscuits

Cracker Barrel has such a reputation for serving good-old, down-home, southern cooking, that it's a real shame about their biscuits. Bless Their Hearts, they do their best, I'm sure. But as I mentioned below, their biscuits just don't measure up to my standards, at least. Rubbery, a little mushy, and just not flaky or tender at all.

Cracker Barrel could save themselves a lot of embarrassment if they used my recipe for biscuits. Only, I can't claim it as mine, because it comes from the side of a can.

What makes these biscuits is what's in that can. Bakewell Cream is a miracle. It can substitute for baking powder in any recipe (they have instructions on the can for that as well). But the real magic of Bakewell Cream is that it makes what are hands-down the most amazing biscuits in the world!

I first heard about Bakewell Cream from a friend a number of years back. She told the tale of an event she and her husband at the time attended in the South, one where most participants stayed in their RVs during the festivities. There was a potluck supper one night, and she dared, Yankee Northerner that she was, to bring biscuits.

Biscuits are the ultimate test of a Southern cook's skills. If you can't make light, white, fluffy, tender biscuits, you might as well move north of the Mason-Dixon line. The family biscuit recipe is guarded closer than the gold in Fort Knox, and a daughter can even have a hard time getting her mama to pass it on to her. So there was my friend, surrounded by Southern wives who had pride in their cooking and their biscuits - and her biscuits were being snatched up and devoured by their husbands like there was no tomorrow.

Apparently, not much was said about it that night, though I'm sure a lot of interesting conversations went on in the Southern RVs. It wasn't until the wee hours of the next morning that my friend started getting visitors.

She'd hear a timid tapping on the RV door. When she went to open it, there was one of the Southern wives, who would say "Good morning", then stutter and stammer a bit before shyly whispering "Could you please tell me the recipe for those biscuits?".

One Southern wife would leave; a few moments later, another shy "knock-knock" at the door, and a repeat of the above scene. Apparently, this continued on until most of the Southern wives had been to visit her. And I'm sure the ones who didn't dare show their faces at her trailer that morning, must have tried to get the recipe from the others later.

Given a story like that, I had to try the stuff, of course. I found a can at Shaw's Supermarket, and tried the biscuit recipe on the can. The results were astounding.

Never have I seen such high, puffy biscuits. The outsides were golden brown; the insides were white as the driven snow, tender, moist, flaky, and not the least bit mushy. The flavor was...heaven. Pure and simple, these biscuits were everything that biscuits were supposed to be, and nothing that they weren't.

Here, from the side of my can of Bakewell Cream, is the recipe. I suppose you could try it with ordinary baking powder, but I can't guarantee you'll get the same results. Consider yourself warned!

Bakewell Cream® Biscuits

Ingredients:
4 cups flour
4 tsp. Bakewell Cream®
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups cold milk
  1. Preheat oven to 475 F.
  2. Mix and sift dry ingredients.
  3. Add shortening and mix with pastry blender.
  4. Add milk all at once, and stir quickly with a fork. (Some flours may require a little more liquid to make a nice soft dough).
  5. Turn out on floured board and knead 5 or 6 times.
  6. Roll or pat to 1/2" to 3/4" thick. Cut with biscuit cutter.
  7. Bake at 475 F. for 5 minutes.
  8. Turn off heat and leave in oven for 5 to 10 minutes until golden brown. No peeking! You don't want any heat to escape from the oven for this step!
Place the biscuits into a basket lined with a clean kitchen towel and cover them to keep them warm. Serve immediately! Your guests will want more, and for those you like, you might want extra cans of Bakewell Cream on hand to give out - or maybe not - let them think you're a Biscuit Goddess!

Folkcat's tip: One of the secrets of good biscuits is handling the dough as little as possible. Ingredients should stay cold to keep the shortening from melting into the flour, which keeps biscuits from being flaky; kneading must be kept minimal to avoid working up the gluten in the flour, which makes biscuits tough.

Cracker Barrel Part 1: Leftover Style - Cracker Barrel Soup

As I mentioned over in my Pirate Treasure, Dirty Secrets and Electric Cucumbers entry at our geocaching blog, Gryphon and I had occasion to eat at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Derry, NH on Sunday, July 3rd.

This was our first experience with a Cracker Barrel, though we've heard about them frequently. Their hallmark is nostalgic goodies in the retail shop (everything from Abba Zabba Taffy to old-fashioned porch rocking chairs), and good old home-style country cooking in the restaurant.

The first plus is that the entire place is non-smoking. We were seated promptly by a friendly hostess, and left to peruse the long list of goodies on the menu.

Fried, battered, dipped, and smothered described many of the dishes. It was one of those cases where everything looked good. Finally, Gryphon settled for the Sunday special of boneless fried chicken breasts with two vegetable sides, and I chose the Chicken & Dumplings platter (3 sides AND biscuits).

To start with, just like every southern cook does, their menu raved about their biscuits. Now, I expect biscuits to be light, with a delicate, even flaky, moist crumb. And they should be puffed up sky high to boot.

Cracker Barrel's biscuits had a slightly rubbery texture to them, and an unpleasant mushiness to the tooth. I was amazed. Frankly, Kentucky Fried Chicken makes better biscuits - but then, based on what I tasted at Cracker Barrel, it wouldn't be difficult.

The Chicken & Dumplings were described as chicken and rolled dumplings boiled in chicken stock. Well, that's true enough. But it turns out, aside from a little gravy drizzled on top, that's all it was. Plain, naked white-meat chicken chunks. The dumplings, rather than being big balls of dumpling, were like little doughy slabs. Thick, malformed noodles, call them. Not the light, puffy, biscuit-like billows I am used to.

I was a little dumbfounded. All my life, chicken and dumplings has meant a rich, hearty chicken stew, with carrots and peas and other vegetables fighting for space in a tasty gravy, and big round dumplings perched on top. Granted, the menu hadn't specified anything beyond the "chicken and rolled dumplings boiled in stock". But I wouldn't have believed until I saw it that chicken and dumplings could ever mean anything less than the whole package.

Mind you, it was obvious that the chicken, the gravy, and even the dumplings were made of good, high-quality ingredients prepared with skill. But it was such a waste, making such good materials into something so, plain, humdrum, and boring.

For my side dishes, I chose cottage cheese, corn (2 safe favorites), and turnip greens. The greens were an experiment in expanding my culinary horizons. I have heard that it's kind of standard in southern cooking that greens of any kind are boiled to death, and that seemed to be the case here. There was a vinegary tang to them, and some saltiness from the ham hock that I presume was the source of the little bits of ham here and there. A worthy experiment - I don't regret getting them, but I probably won't go out of my way for turnip greens again.

So, here I was with this huge plate of food that I was less than thrilled with, and of course, the waitress comes over to ask "How is everything?" I couldn't fake it - I had to express my disappointment. Get this - she seemed a little surprised that I didn't care for the biscuits, but she absolutely agreed with me that she, too, would expect more from chicken and dumplings.

She offered to get me a different dinner, but Gryphon and I were between geocaches, and I really didn't want to take the extra time. The two of us had already started swapping pieces between our dinners - his fried chicken, by the way, was super - and there was such a huge pile of food that we weren't in danger of starving. I ate all my cottage cheese, too.

A short while later, she brought over a take-home package with five of the cornbread muffins in it, as a make-good for our disappointment. And a few minutes after that, the manager came over to hear about the issue, offer his apologies, and express his hope that we'd come again (we will, when we're in the neighborhood!). And when we got our check, we found that they had comped my dinner.

Meanwhile, there was still a huge pile of food in front of me. We decided to take it home - after all, there was a pretty good pile of chicken and corn there, and I could figure out something to do with the turnip greens...a soup maybe, I thought?

And I thought...by the time we got home, I had realized that every single thing that we brought home from my dinner (well, not the freebie corn muffins, but everything else) could go intoa a soup! So, the next day, I dumped the chicken, gravy, dumplings, corn, and even the turnip greens into the 4-qt. crockpot, added about 7 cups of stock made from Minor's chicken soup base, and a handful of broccoli florets from the freezer.

I checked the soup a while later, and decided it needed something else to fill it out. Browsing through the cupboard, I found an old box of Pasta-roni Angel Hair Pasta (what I used was with a herb sauce, but it's similar to the Primavera flavor shown here). I added the pasta into the pot, and held onto the seasoning packet in case it would be handy for spicing up the soup later.

An hour later, the noodles were plenty done, and I tasted the soup. A little on the salty side from the turnip greens, but otherwise, I decided it was complete in flavor and didn't need any more help.

I had a bowl of this for dinner today, and it was tasty! It's got me thinking a whole new way about eating out, I can tell you - anytime I'm less than satisfied with the recipe I'm served, it could very well become soup at home!
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Cracker Barrel Chicken Noodle Soup in the Crock

Here's a stab at an approximate recipe for what we're calling

Cracker Barrel Chicken Noodle Soup

Ingredients:
  • Approx. 1 1/2 to 2 cups leftover Cracker Barrel chicken and dumplings (chicken, gravy and dumplings all together)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cups leftover Cracker Barrel turnip greens
  • 3/4 to 1 cup leftover Cracker Barrel cooked corn kernels
  • 1 cup frozen broccoli florets
  • 6 - 7 cups chicken stock
  • Pasta from one box of Pasta Roni Angel Hair Pasta (or equivalent of your choice of pasta)
Place all above ingredients except pasta in a 4-qt crockpot. Turn on HIGH for 1-2 hours. Add pasta; cook on HIGH for an additional hour.

Even if you don't try this sort ofexact recipe out, I hope it encourages you to take a second look at your leftovers, and the odds and ends in your cupboards. Get creative about putting things together; use the kitchen tools you've got to meld together things you might not have imagined would work.

Folkcat's Tip: When trying to create a new recipe based on ingredients in your cupboard and/or leftover from other meals, test whether things are likely to work together by holding them together under your nose and taking a good whiff. Our senses of smell and taste are closely linked; what smells good together should taste good together. Use the same idea when trying to find new ways to spice a sauce or soup; open a jar of spice and smell it with the food you want to flavor. You'll know what works and what doesn't.