18 March 2013

baby's first climb (and other spring break highlights)

we took a train from champaign to see chuck in chicago. after a scramble and a near miss, we're saved by a time-zone change! the train was so crowded, they bumped us to business class. we shared the car with 2 amish couples speaking their own version of german and reading racy fiction.

the hotel was beyond our means, and packed with film studies folk. among the trendiest of the academics, they are well dressed and popping open macbooks in any available inch of the hotel.

spending time with chuck is what it's all about.

lego studies were on the agenda, as was the lego store, just two blocks away.

somehow, we got bumped up again (at no extra charge) to a sprawling suite on the eighth floor--

lake view, two bathrooms, a kitchen, full-sized dining room, entry way, dressing room...ridiculous, but fun for a night. i was most impressed with the original, clean lines of the woodwork, the concealed brass hinges on the dressing room door...

original pancake house has the best potato pancakes, and the syrup bottle inspires this little ditty from cosmo:

the contemporary art museum, also a quick walk away,

features family day, kids making art, a telephone game (layered with complex political content), a mind boggling, photographic tapestry plus black and white. we took an unconventional route to millennium park, through the bones of the city, rather than strolling the shopping district. not on purpose, but maybe better, though it took a bit longer, and we were under a time crunch with a train to catch.

we shared mere moments basking in the magnetic pull of the bean before heading back to the hotel and off to the train station.

after a few days at home, we head out to meet friends from canada on a climbing trip in the red river gorge. for most of the kids on the trip, this was their first time climbing outdoors. cosmo had a chance to give it a try. he showed no fear as he scrambled up that cliff face and seemed happy as a clam on the entire hike. it was great to see matt and maceo in action, and to meet up with wendy!

this is the route cosmo climbed. the guides and other climbers called him a natural. though it was hard for me to watch at times, i was thrilled for him. he had a big grin on his face up there!

next we're in berea, visiting family. carl's brother never disappoints when it comes to food. this time, we all had a chance to participate. this is a zarangollo ravioli, with quail egg and salmon roe.

i finally decide to give knitting a try, urged by a friend to not put it off 'til my "autumn years," as i had been planning. it is much more difficult than i expected, it's going to take until my autumn years to gain any mastery over it, and, i think i need some coaching.

a walk to a nearby pub for a st.patty's day celebration with friends caps our spring break.

03 March 2013

sugar shack

it started as a "what the heck-- why not give it a try?" sort of project.  after returning from a lovely afternoon workshop at hinkle farmstead with cosmo, learning how to tap maple trees and boil down
syrup, i began gazing at the giant maple tree in our front yard with renewed interest. 

turns out, she's a sugar maple! and, she is HUGE. so i picked up a food-grade, five-gallon bucket, plus a small (2.5 qt) metal bucket at a hardware store. i was relieved to find i had a drill bit big enough to make a hole in the metal bucket, large enough to fit over the tap i took home from the workshop (also called a spile). then we found a good spot to tap the tree (cosmo helped me select it) and we drilled our hole. cosmo and i hammered the tap into the hole, hung the bucket on the hook and waited for the sap to start dripping.


the ideal temperatures for sap flow are nights in the twenties, days in the forties. we started getting exactly that range, and the sap was flowing. for days, weeks, we emptied our little bucket into our big bucket 'til we had 5 gallons of sap. then we boiled that down to about 1.5 gallons. after we collected 5 more gallons, we boiled that bucket down to about a gallon. we stored the jars of concentrate in the root cellar portion of our basement until we were ready to finish it.

yesterday, we combined the two concentrates and finished the syrup. all day liquid simmered on the stove, steamed up our windows, moistened the walls and sweetened the air. after returning from our evening walk to dinner and back, we started the final stage. we transfered the reduced sap to a smaller pan, filtering it through some clean felted wool, then started boiling non stop, and taking the temperature every 5 minutes.

unless you have a hydrometer, which measures the sugar content of liquids, the only way you know your syrup is finished is the boiling temperature. as the water evaporates, the boiling temperature increases. you will have about a 66% sugar content when the syrup is boiling at 219F (7 degrees above the boiling temperature of water). after nearly days of uneventful boiling, this last phase moves rather quickly, and you have to be vigilant to prevent you syrup from scorching (can you imagine the devastation, after all that effort?!). the guy who taught our workshop suggested gluing your shoes to the floor in front of the stove. that is pretty much what carl and i did. i kept sticking my mitt-covered hand into the pot with the digital thermometer to check the temperature. we have a candy thermometer, but it is not precise enough. "somewhat over 200" is too vague for maple sugaring. when we finally hit 219, we quickly removed the syrup from the stove and poured it through the felt filter again, into clean jars.

we ended up with 1 quart plus 12oz from 10 gallons of raw sap. we only expected to get about a quart, so we were thrilled! the finished syrup is dark, rich and delicious, in fact, after trying some on a stack of pancakes this morning, cosmo declared it the "best syrup in the world." time to go hug a tree.


23 February 2013

baby's first gif

as cosmo was building the x-wing fighter, he asked for photos to be taken along the way. then we made it into an animated .gif in photoshop.

as i type this, the star wars sound track blares from a boom box and my 7 year old pours over a complete visual encyclopedia of lego star wars figures.

14 January 2013

winter jewels

the weekend was devoted yeast breads and pomegranates. saturday i made a crusty dutch-oven loaf and a bunch of mini pizzas for dinner, then sunday i woke up and started seeding pomegranates.

didn't stop until the afternoon. faced with the rare event of pomegranate surplus, i decided to make juice, then pomegranate molasses from the juice. i know of at least one recipe that calls for it-- a lovely roasted red pepper walnut dip i attempted to mimic from monica pope's restaurant in houston. it's one of those pricey, seldom-used ingredients that i knew would be fun to make from scratch.

here are a few things i learned:

1. the best tool for juicing the pomegranate seeds in my kitchen is the food mill, with the finest mesh disc. someone on the internet suggested an old fashioned, press-style citrus juicer, which i have, so i tried it. it didn't work. and i really wanted it to work, because i did not want to separate out all those seeds from all those pomegranates. but that is what i, in fact, ended up doing. i'll be dreaming pomegranate seeds.  then we tried the victorio strainer.

works great for applesauce. not so great on pomegranates. i think i might need a grape spiral insert or something, cuz the seeds ended up jamming the mechanism. then we tried the food mill. bam! worked like a charm. since a little of the pulp does get through, i strained it again through some cheese cloth. of course, if you have a juicer, that might be the best option. i don't.

2. it takes about 6 pomegranates to make 1 quart of juice.

3. once your child lays eyes on a bowl full of those sparkling red jewels, freed from their restrictive membranes, pomegranates will become his absolute favorite fruit, and he will want nothing else in the world but pomegranate seeds. thus, you will most likely need more that 6 pomegranates if you plan on making a quart of juice in the presence of a child. 

4. it takes about 3 hours to cook one quart of juice down to 1 cup of pomegranate molasses. not the measly 70 minutes Alton Brown suggests. but it's worth it. this tangy ruby red reduction is to-die-for. color me very pleased.  color my kitchen bright red and sticky.

27 August 2012

lessons from foster kittens

it's ideal, really: we get the cats at the cutest, most entertaining part of their lives, then send them off to find their "forever homes." carl and i both think that "forever homes" sounds almost creepy...sort of like  the euphemism "putting to sleep," but we know that what the animal shelter means by "forever homes," is permanent adoption. They used to let people adopt the cats before they were spayed or neutered, and give them vouchers to have the procedure done for free once they were old enough. but they found that  even the free voucher wasn't enough to compel some folks to have it done, so now they won't put animals out on the adoption floor until they have been altered. so, they need foster homes for the kittens, until they reach an age and weight that will allow for the operation.

we aren't ready to have pets of our own yet, but we all love cats, so we decided to become a foster family. our first set were three boys, all orange tabbies. they were difficult to tell apart, but we found a few distinguishing characteristics, and gave them the names of the three youngest weasley brothers from the harry potter stories: fred, george and ron. these kittens were tons of fun, but they had some inappropriate suckling habits, presumably from being weaned too soon, which we found disturbing. it was a lot of work to care for them, and so much cleaning...but the biggest effort for carl and i is managing cosmo's treatment of them.

he is not mean to animals, he likes them, is interested, and generally sweet to them. but, he doesn't seem to always know the line between holding, and holding too tight, against the kitten's will until they start meowing frantically and struggling to get away. we found ourselves constantly correcting and scolding, and had to let some things go, and choose our battles.

our friend julie, who does a lot of kitten fostering, pointed out that it can be really hard for young children to understand what is appropriate with kittens, because they look so much like toys. they are small, adorable, and easy to manipulate (compared to adult cats, who typically don't put up with much). after some close calls, we learned that we really had to be present in the same room any time cosmo was interacting with the kittens. it gets tiring. between that and the constant cleaning, i was happy to seem them go when they reached 2 pounds.

a month later, i'd forgotten all the annoying parts of having foster kittens. cosmo and i responded to an email and headed for the shelter to pick up five kittens and a mama. these ones were tiny.

they could barely walk and seemed to be nearly blind. having the mama with them made it so much easier. she took care of everything, and we took care of her. for the first few weeks, all they did was nurse and sleep. they began to explore, one by one, and soon were wrestling and scampering all over the house, cracking us up with crazy antics, as kittens do.

cosmo has learned a lot about handling kittens, and knows what is allowed and what is not. but he still seems to have lapses in judgement, and we still have to keep an eye on him with the kittens. i have tried to get him to appreciate how interesting they are to watch. they do so many amusing things if left to their own devices, but he is unconvinced. his first impulse is always to pick them up. mostly, they don't mind, and i figure we are socializing them to be accustomed to children in their future homes.

the mama cat and the three boys of the litter have returned to the shelter. from what i understand, the kittens have already been adopted. we still have the two girls with us, but they will probably leave us this week. i'll be happy to have our house back, and to give it a thorough deep clean, but i think i will miss all the pitter patter and physical comedy. people usually imagine that we'll get too attached, and won't be able to give them up, but so far, we have not been tempted to keep any.

we have learned that we are not yet ready for permanent pets. we have also learned to let creatures into our home and into our hearts, and how to let them go when the time comes.

as a tribute to the latest batch, i present these portraits of the mewler family:
this is the stellar mama cat, trixie, and her daughter rita. rita is cosmo's favorite, and he refers to her as the "captain of the cuties." she is very social and adventuresome, and the smallest of the litter.

meet snape: the best at latching on, and the last to wean.

we call him zincy (after the element: zinc) a gorgeous cat, with velvety fur that matches his eyes.

here we have ginger, rita and pingu. ginger is very strong and looks like he will be a big cat. pingu has some unusual markings on her face. she loves the out of doors, and is also quite social and affectionate.

we tried to get a photo of cosmo with the whole crew, but trying to get them all together is like, well...like herding cats!