Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Things that make me smile

Part of the whole college experience is learning how to truly take care of your own damn self for the very first time.  We have to cook, not only the occasional snack or dinner but every single time our stomachs decide to empty themselves.  It's quite a shock to look around and realize that no one else is gong to tell you to go to bed, so you might as well do it yourself.

For my part I think I have handled this transition quite well. Which is due in large to my amazing Mother.  She was determined from pretty early on that her children were not going to be one of those ninnies that gets out into the world and realizes that they don't even know how to boil an egg.

So from early on we were trained in the art of day to day life.  We can all cook, (although for a long while there all my brother could cook was pancakes) and we all know how to properly keep a clean house.   If there was one chore that wasn't drilled into us it was laundry.   And even now it's my least favorite chore.   I understand that it doesn't take nearly as long as anything else, but I'm still tethered to the washing machine with a forty-five minute leash every time I use the darn thing.

Another facet of home life on which I got experience but still need practice is budgeting.  Last year I was quite good at only buying the necessities and even this year when I feel like my money is just slipping through my fingers like sand I still manage to leave within my means.  However every time I go to the store there seems to be one or two items that I decide I really don't need this week, maybe next week instead.

Well yesterday when the lovely 'she-who-has-a-car' offered to take me to the store I was finally able to get a few things I've been putting off.  And let me tell you, they sure do make me smile.

1. Pantyhose

 Chief on the list of things I've been putting off for far too long is pantyhose.   I threw away my two pairs at the end of last spring term and haven't gotten around to getting a fresh set until now.  I had actually run the last two pairs pretty full of holes but the kicker came when I wore them under my jeans for the survey oriented week of field school. (I was worried about ticks)*.  We didn't even do much and I couldn't touch the things without puffs of dust blooming in the air around my fingers.

The good news is that now that I have a new pair, and they're even black, so now I can go to church on Sunday with out feeling like a social pariah for not shaving my legs.  I want to look good and every things, but come on, it's stinkin' winter.

* ticks are the most disgusting and frightening bugs ever conceived.

2.  Apples and Bananas

One of the things that I prize most is the ability to eat something with out having to prepare it first.  Apples and Bananas fill this tender spot of my heart.  They're perfect because they take absolutely no effect and both are entirely portable when I'm in a hurry.   Unfortunately it has been nearly a month and a half since I have had either housed in my counter space.

It seems like every time I go to the store all they have is entirely green bananas and sad, sub-par apples, well finally they've put the good stuff back out and I can revel in the easy deliciousness that they bring.

Honestly, on the way home I was smiling and thinking "I have bananas again, AND APPLES!!!" I probably looked like a half-wit the entire way.

 3. Sticky rice and related essentials

If you've never tried sticky rice I highly recommend it.  It's a different breed of rice that must be soaked and steamed before it's palatable. I've grown up on the stuff its heavy involvement in my cuisine is almost a prerequisite.  Now there was an Asian market by my house that I hadn't tried before so I thought that I would go there.
Don these all look like things you want to eat?

I asked for Sticky rice, purchased the bag pointed out to me, and brought it home.   All was well in the land.

Except of course for the part where it wasn't sticky rice.  Instead it was a cruel, strange variety I had never encountered before and had no idea how to cook properly.

Long story short (It's too full of betrayal and intrigue to get into now) I haven't been able to get to my favorite market until now. I love this place because the wonderful lady runs it cares enough to put her rice into gallon bags for those people who just want to give the stuff the try.  She also has frozen kaffir lime leaves and chopped lemon grass in little bags for people like me who want these herbs on hand but don't need tons of the stuff at a time.

She's also started carrying thai hot peppers, and when  I saw them I had to grab myself a bag.  They're called for in so many south-east Asian recipes and I have never been able to find them before.

It's actually part of the reason I started growing Steve. I wanted to eat his babies so bad and I had no other alternative. (although he's only given me one pepper so far.)

You know I took a picture of it!
... his name was Steve

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chemo Caps

You might or might not be able to tell this from the singular picture of myself I posted there a while back but I am an incredibly short person.  (I don't know maybe you thought that both Josh and my average looking car were quite large).

My camera is getting repaired soon, I promise.
As part of this genetic shortness I don't weigh very much.  Normally this is pretty awesome.  I'm a size zero with out actually trying! (of course I have to get the pants hemmed in five inches afterwards). However, the requirement for Red Cross is a measly 110 pounds to donate, but I'm a whopping 30 pounds short so I will never be able to give blood.*

Although I think that the desire I have to donate is largely because I am unable to do so it is always disappointing to me when I see that sign up sheet and I have to slide it on by.

Perhaps as a compensation I always tried to donate other things (particularly when it means very little effort on my part).  I usually have long brown hair and about every four years I chop it off to send it to locks for love

Which brings me to the chemo caps I've started crocheting on my weekends.  I've done two and three quarters hats so far in the two weeks I've done it and it's super easy.  It only took a few hours each and I watched old cartoons and Star Trek (the next generation) the entire time.

Crocheting is something that I really enjoy and I've been doing it since I was little. 

Red is my favorite color, so I just love these accents
The grey one here is this surface braid pattern by laughing willow, featuring the camel stitch, which is a fancy variation of the half double crochet. I really love this stitch because it works up much thicker and springier than the typical crochet, and the hat I made myself is super warm.

The green and brown hat is the fishnet beanie by playing hooky designs.  I originally bought the pattern to make my brother a Christmas present year before last (red and black) but it's come back into so many uses (four hats= so many uses).  I really like how the brighter yarn looks like it's shining through the darker outer layer.  And I particularly like how the example hat on the site looks a little steam punk.

The pattern is also really well written so if you like anything from hooky designs I highly recommend it. 

Since all that I'm using for these projects are the left over yarn stashed in my closet the green yarn was something of a devil to deal with.  Last time I had used the green yarn I was foolish enough to pull from the inside so about a hundred feet from the end the entire thing imploded into a nasty mess that I had to unravel.

The dark blue hat is the elegant hat from Caron.  So far I have to say that I really just don't like it. The pattern works up really stiff and it expands in odd almost nonsensical places.  I actually started it before the fishnet beanie and I had to put it aside as it was starting to wear on me.
I'm disproportionately sad that I lost my red hook

One thing the pattern has taught me is that you can use a small piece of contrasting yarn to mark the beginning of your rows.  That may seem blatantly obvious but my mind was blown!

This is where I plan on sending the hats once I get enough scratch for postage.  The site looks pretty legitimate to me, but if you of you know someplace better let me know in the comments.

*When people find out my weight a surprising amount of them want to try picking me up. **

** Sometimes I let them, but it's always awkward.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sweet Sugar; A how- to

As I long as I can remember my mother has been making candy around christmas time.  The house would be filled with a hot sticky smell and Mom would be perched at our stove, mixing her delicious concoctions and sweating through her shirt. 

For a brief wonderful period  I was old enough to realize the greatness of this situation but young enough that I wasn't expected to help.  I would trapeze upstairs, watch idly for a moment as the older folk cut and wrapped the candy, and then slyly grab a piece or two from off the cutting board and then lilt back downstairs where my brothers were waiting with their own treats sweating in their fists.

Even when my sister and I were old enough to lend a hand the work wasn't that bad.  my mom would cut the caramel or the taffy and we would wrap.  Usually we were completely unable to keep up with her so she would pause and wrap once in a while herself.  Always ending up with the lion's share of the work.

Of course, being the wonderful woman that she is my mom did teach us how to make this goodness.  I can now sit over a hot stove and stir the caramel myself, and it'll taste just the same. Of course now that my palate is fully developed I don't really like caramel, or english toffy.  It all just tastes like browned butter to me.

However, there is one homemade candy that I still absolutely adore; vinegar taffy.  We never got as much of it because instead being limited by how much can fit in the pan at a go  (like caramel)  you were limited by how much you pull in a day.

Which let me tell you; isn't much.

Pulling taffy is also harder to master than mixing caramel.  The average person needs a lot more practice to get it down. Fortunately vinegar taffy wasn't just a 'birthday and Christmas' sort of affair.  So we as kids got to try it quite a lot.

 In my freshman or sophomore year of high school I also got it into my head that I wanted to own a candy store when I grew up.  This meant that I needed to start practicing right now in order to master everything in time.  I tried bon bons once or twice but came quickly back to vinegar taffy. I started selling it in my classes for a quarter a piece. Over the month an a half period before my Mom made me stop I think I made fifty bucks.

But more importantly I finally got it down.  Even now I can make perfect taffy 19 times out of 20.

What's the mark of perfect taffy you ask?

Well, interested reader, let me tell you.

Perfect taffy is evident when after you've finished pulling you can cut of a piece of the sweet sugar and it'll float in water. This is because the pulling process folds air bubbles into the mix and lightens the color and taste.  My mom likes to say that back in the day they could do this so well that when you cut the taffy you could see air pockets going through the pieces.

I still clearly remember one day when we were working with a rather finicky double batch and my taffy floated while my mother's didn't. I think I gloated about that one for a very long time.

Now to get down to the part you're interested in; how to make this stuff.

here's the recipe;  there are a lot of small variations out there but this is the one that's been passed down through my family. So it's obviously the best.
This is my recipe box, isn't it awesome?

Vinegar Taffy

2 cups of sugar
1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup of water
butter the size of one small walnut
1 teaspoon of vanilla.

put all the ingredients, excluding the vanilla, into a heavy-bottomed pan (aluminum is suppose to be the best for this).  Stir them well and put the pan over medium high heat.  At this point I also take out the vanilla and a glass of cold water and a spoon and set them beside the pot for the later use. I would also butter a couple of plates if I didn't have my demarle pan.

Don't stir it again.

use the sheen on the side of the pan to see how far it has gone down

Now wait idly by as it boils (it'll stink up the place but it is sooo worth it.).  It'll boil up a few inches, and then as it loses water it'll boil down again.  When it's boiled down about a inch and a half to two inches take the spoon and get a little bit of the taffy from the pot. Now drizzle it into the cold cup of water.

This is known as the cold water test and it's been used for hundreds of years to test the doneness of candy.  For taffy you want it to drizzle down in strings to the bottom  where they mostly keep their form but are not hard. Scoop the strings up and flick them (but not the spoon) gently against the side of the glass.  it should make little *ting ting* noises.

I also keep two or three glasses of water by the stove, because I usually end up checking too early the first time and then stand nervously by the stove waiting for a count of thirty before I try again.

When it reaches this point add the vanilla to the taffy and pour the mixture into a couple of buttered plates.

Don't scrape the pan.

Three Christmases ago My mother got me a couple of non-stick molds for my kitchen.  They're are super useful for everyday things but perform phenomenally well when it comes to candy.  If you happen to have them I suggest the flower one shown here.

I made a double batch by the way.
As the taffy cools pull the edges inward so that the entire thing looses heat evenly.  When it gets cool enough to touch you are ready to pull the awesomeness.  For vinegar taffy (unlike salt-water taffy) you do not butter your fingers.  If you do so it'll ruin the candy.

The next time I make taffy and there happens to be somebody else in the room I'll have them film this part so that you can see the exact motion that goes with it.

It's important to only touch the taffy with the tips of your finger and to add a slight twist of your wrist every time you pull.  Both of these things help to trap air into the taffy and to help it float later on. After those points it a pretty basic pull, fold, pull, fold motion.

The taffy will quickly turn from an amber brown to a butterscotch color and then a white.

yep, these sure get the job done!
I don't really have a time-frame for how long you're suppose to pull it but I usually just go until the taffy hardens up and becomes difficult to pull.  Sometimes if it's slightly underdone (and thus softer but more prone to sugaring) I just go until it seems like it should have hardened by then.

Now it's ready to cut!  regular old kitchen scissors would work, but I have this special bone paring scissors from IKEA that get the job done quite nicely. Occasionally your scissors will gum up but just run them under a hot tap and they should be ready to go again in seconds.  Put the pieces in a pie plate with powdered sugar. I just use the Demarle pan again though to cut down on dishes.

If I'm not making them for anybody else I don't bother to wrap them and just eat them strait from powdered sugar.  But in this case they were for a friends birthday party so I wrapped them in wax paper and put them in a plastic bag (I usually use paper bags but I didn't have any this time).

I had also borrowed the wax paper from somebody in my apartment complex so I made up a cute little origami box to put a few pieces in to thank them.

Somehow I forgot to save myself any though, so I might be forced to make another batch sometime soon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

the blinds are closed because it's dark out
This; is Steve. Steve is a hot thai pepper from Park Seed.  Which happened to be on sale last year when  when I got it into my head that I wanted something green in my dorm. I bought a bunch of fun herbs and about 25 pepper seeds for around ten bucks.

Steve and his siblings were sitting on the hot south facing window sill during my field-school days. I would water them in the morning before I left and around 6:30 or 7:00 when I got back in the evening. All I could really do for them was  hope that they survived.

Unfortunately everything withered except for one little dwarf basil and Steve.  They were just too little for the level of neglect I was forced to give them.

Steve spent the entire summer with me and in Vancouver, and then Burbank Washington. At the time I didn't know that I would be to bring my car south with me so for the entire summer he stayed in a little pot so that he could fit on my carry on bag on the way back.  Even after all this time he's still stunted looking.

sorry for the crappy pics,  I had to use a camera phone
Here's his old pot next to his current one.

When I brought him indoors with the frost last fall and he suffered from a pretty serious fruit fly infestation. Now several weeks after the infestation has gone  I'm fairly certain that I've watered him too much and he has gotten root rot.  The poor thing has just had a terrible life.

But he's a trooper and I think he'll survive until the local community garden opens up and I can put him in the stinking ground.

I know it may seem silly, but I have an emotional attachment to this plant, and every other plant I have ever grown.  I treat them as pets. I know that they aren't self aware, and they have no brain, but starting a seed indoors is almost like signing a contract.

You are taking them out of their environment to put them in your house. You are giving them a life  and taking that life in your own hands.  It is your responsibility to see that they are at the right temperature, lighting, and get the right amount of water because if  you fail in those responsibilities you are denying this plant the two things it desires; to mature and to propagate.

These desires are written into their DNA, and although they probably don't feel about them the same way  any conscious creature does, this is essentially what their entire existence is built up around. Their purpose in life (the life you gave them) is to live.

When I neglect a plant, whether indoor or out I feel like I am breaking this promise. As if I was lying when I put the tiny seeds into the damp paper towel and kept it on the underside of my internet router because that was the only warm spot in my entire dorm. Brought them into the world only to laugh and take it away.

If  plants had feelings (and awareness of their surroundings) I imagine that they would feel supremely betrayed.

That's why the two cantaloupe seeds I started for fun had to go in pots, and why I cried a little bit when I found out the verbena I had at home had fallen off the patio and had been completely forgotten about (I was also on my period, but let's pretend that didn't matter).  I held life in my hands, and let it wither.

Silly. I know.  But as I kid I was supremely uncomfortable with my emotions and plants were a safe thing to love.

Now to the reason for this post's title.

As with all things on the internet there is a forum for growing green things, and on this forum last fall there was a seed exchange specifically for peppers and tomatoes. I had one little packet kicking around that I was thinking of maybe kinda sorta trying to turn into something so I sent it in instead.

I got fourteen packets back.


Suffice it to say that this was absolutely awesome.

And there were even pepper species I had never even heard of before.  I felt like a kid on Christmas morning who woke up to find out that Santa Clause is real after all.

For a long while I was worried that there wouldn't be enough space to even try two or three varieties, but then I discovered the magic of community gardens  which are almost within walking distance.

I like the idea of being the hot pepper girl.  I like the idea of having a garden for the first time since one of the leaves off of my big sister's monster bean plant stuck to the back of my shirt and I nearly couldn't get away. And it is thanks to the good people at GardenWeb that I am going to get this chance.

I am very grateful to them.

Now all I need is a job.