Tuesday, December 17, 2013

It was -2 F this morning. Did I tell you about the summer table?

It was -2 F this morning. That is about -19 C. Cold. Not super duper cold, I know, but cold. Lovely white snow, still fresh. Crusting over just a bit now, because of the good sunshine yesterday, but dry powder underneath. Sara will not go in it - as it is too deep for her - I think it probably puts a strain on her bad knee. Klinger is ok with it, but he has long enough legs. After a while, he isn't so happy in it, I think his webbed toes don't like the crunchy snow, and I also think it is cold for his feet when he isn't moving.

Did I tell you about the summer table? Notice the seque to a non-winter topic? It has a nice snowy top now. But here, let me show you what it looked like this summer.

There are two stories in this photo. I got the tiles in the give-and-take at the transfer station. Free. Too few to do a house project with. Nice tiles. So, I bought a bag of concrete and mixed it up. Then I laid some plastic down and used some cardboard scraps to make a mold. Put the tiles in the mold, and poured a little sand in between them. Pour in the concrete and tamp it down, and voila, I have a table top. A bit rustic, but perfect for an outdoor table.

The "happy" cup - isn't it marvelous? Just looking at all those (hand painted!) decorations and the joy in them is enough to make me a bit happy! And, it says, on the handle: "Thank You! Thank You!". I got it, for free, at the give-and-take.  Obviously a gift to someone in lieu of a thank you note. If it had been given to me, I would not have been able to bear parting with it. But, also obviously, for whatever reason, someone did not feel the same way. Perhaps there is more of a story there, who knows? It brings me a little sunshine when I use it, so there ya go - something good from it.

That same day, while photographing the table, I had a small visitor.
The photo quality is not the best - it is a phone photo. But, he sure was a pretty fella.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Canning the Wild Concord Grape

It was wild. Aha, oho, yuck yuck! Well, one thing for sure - it was purple. I had one hot spill. And, of course, I spilled it on me. It was HOT!  So, I simulated a full murder theater arterial blood splatter across the side of the kitchen. Fortunately, just my hand, thus the quick fling and spatter across the wall got it off me. But what a spatter! It stained the paint - there are now faint purple spots across the wall. I went to the sink and turned the water on cold, and stuck my hand into the streaming water. Nice thing that we get pretty cold water. One of the benefits of well water.

But it is sooo good. Or at least I think so. Someone thinks it has an "off" flavor - but I think it is either some medicine she is taking, or it is the result of "sour grapes" since I cooked it. It is tart - it is not super sweet, and it is full of the grape flavor. And, it is jam, meaning the skins are in so it has a little texture. Oh, and yeah, the occasional seed, too. Didn't get all the little buggers.

Getting the seeds out turns out to be a lot of work. The 1st recipe I found online called for slipping the skins off the grapes. I did a couple, and immediately said, "whadaffuq am I doing here? This will take FOREVER!" And so I didn't slip the skins. That batch turned out just fine - but I gave up trying to strain the mess through a colander - I would have been there until next year. No-go on doing it that way. So, I find a local hardware with canning supplies and a FOOD MILL.. That's a little hand-cranked doobee that has two wings or leaves that push the solids into a colander type straining surface. That worked. Amazingly well, actually.

Except it left a lot of the skins in the "dry" part, and it would have take "foahevah" again to get it better this way. So, the next batch? I slip the skins off the grapes as I process them. It take a couple of hours to do a few pounds, but it does find grapes that are wormy and would have passed my "eyeball" test while I was washing them. Slipping the skins means I cook the pulp, which contains the seeds, and the skins separately, at least for the first step. I puree the skins, and I put the pulp in the food processor after cooking them soft. The food processors breaks most of the pulp free from the seeds, and into the food mill it goes. A half hour or so later, I have half as much pulp, but mostly free of seeds. A few seeds snuck through.

Now I get down to the serious cooking. These grapes are tart enough I need some sugar. Not as much as most recipes call for - about half that. I test the results for pectin - to see if I need to add pectin. The 1st batch tests low. The 2nd batch test "medium". Either way I have to add some pectin. I tried adding some crabapples in the first batch - they didn't test high in pectin either! Must 'a been too ripe, idk.

So I add pectin, and can. Everything turns out real well with the jam. I take a jar to some neighbors - the lady I buy eggs from. They like it, so I think my taste buds are validated. It has the flavor of these Concord grapes. They are wild, so the flavor is not as rich as it might be - but it is still very good. And there is tartness to it. I like it.

We have a bunch of apples on our tree this year, too. Completely organic - they get NO attention from me. Which means they are pretty funky to look at. Scab, worms, black blight, you name it, it afflicts the apples. Most of these do not affect the taste, just the appearance and size. If you are willing to cut them up, they are extremely good eating apples. Kinda like a fuji - sweet, AND tart, with crisp, moist, firm white flesh. Not grainy or mealy, until they are really ripe to the point of almost over ripe. Actually, fully ripe with these apples IS over ripe for eating. Because they are tart, they also cook extremely well. They make a great applesauce, with no sugar added, and no spices added - just apples.

I can a couple of quarts - but this canning doesn't turn out as well. I have problems getting the applesauce jars to seal. I'll have to figure that out. Also, I read on one recipe that a little salt in the applesauce will make an average applesauce a superior applesauce. So I add a little salt to the 2nd batch. Ooops. A little salt was too much salt. Now it tastes, hmmm, just a little odd. Not bad, just not really as good, either. Shucks. Well - I guess I won't be sharing little jars of applesauce for Christmas!

Note - this was actually written in September - just got around to posting it here!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

FYI - merged my old Russia work blog into this one

For those of you who get notification of a new post, my apologies - you probably got a whole bunch of notices yesterday. I merged the content from my Russia blog into this one. No reason for me to write there any more - not working or traveling in Russia - but I didn't want to see it just wither and die. There are good posts in there.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Wild Concord Grapes

Wild Concord Grapes
In the spring, this year, the grape vines were optimistic. They had thousands of flowers and flower stalks. And, because I could see them, I was optimistic, too! I've been waiting for them to ripen all summer.

At first, I was a little disappointed. While the flower stalks had been very visible, I could
see very few grapes developing. As the summer went on, though, I found a couple of spots with a few green globes hiding under the leafy grapevine cover. I knew there would be more, as they like to hide. I kept an eye on those places, watching for when they would ripen.

Which is why I was surprised one day to smell the distinct heady sweetness of Concord grapes while passing another section of road with vines. The ones I had been watching were still green!

A few days later I had time to check the grapevines where I could smell them. I was rewarded with the sight of lots of ripe, purple-black grapes! Many were even too ripe, and some were drying and shriveling. This batch was perfect - days in the past! I guess this spot gets more sunlight than where I was watching them.

I got some time one morning to do some picking. Within a yard or so of where I first looked, I found a gallon or so of grape worth picking. Now, last year, I had to glean the whole area, all along the 2 mile stretch where I take the dogs running, just to get a few quarts of grapes. This year, I've already gotten almost as many, and I haven't moved more than a yard from where I first stood! And they are in bunches! The past couple of years, it was unusual to find a bunch with more than 3-4 grapes.

Taking them home, I wash and throw away perhaps a half-quart of trash. Another 2 quarts are 2nd quality grapes - good for cooking, but not that great for eating. I still have almost 2 quarts of prime table grapes.

There are still more, many more, and it is a challenge. On Saturday, I go out about 6:30 in the morning to pick. The dogs are happy to come with. No fox sightings, by the way.

Two years ago, this section along the road was mostly sumac. Four or five years ago, it was mostly open. The sumac came up, and it was beautiful. About two years ago, I started noticing the grapevine coming in as well. Last year, it was a nice balanced section of sumac and grapevine. The sumac created a perfect natural arbor for the grapevine. This year, the grapevine has overcome the sumac. I can still see some few red spires where the sumac berries poke through, but it is mostly grapevine.

The first section I picked, I did not penetrate into the thicket. This day, I do. Inside this leafy grapevine canopy is a green cavern. It is difficult to get around, due to the spiderwebs of grape tendrils, but a snip of the secateurs here, and another snip there, and I can manuever through. I spend 2-3 hours picking, and I get gallons of grapes. Perhaps 4 or so, probably about 6 pounds worth. And most of these are first quality grapes!

And all this is within 10 yards of where I started. I head on down to the other end of the dog run route, where I had been keeping an eye on some grapes. One section there is ripe. It is unusual, in that it is a red Concord grape. Mostly Concords are a deep purple black. These are quite red, instead, with a nice tartness to the Concord flavor. I get another couple of gallons there.

I have not even gone to a few of the other spots where I found grapes last year. But I've already created so much work for myself, I must be content! There are way too many to eat, so I will have to make grape jam! This creates more work for me when I should be focused on other things - but I will be happy when I have little jars of homemade grape jam to give for Christmas presents! 

Let's hope the jam gells! I cooked some up yesterday - just to test-cook the grapes. Good flavor, with some tart dryness to the flavor. With a little sugar, it should be very good! I ran the "candy test" on a frozen plate for pectin content, though, and it didn't gell. So I will add pectin, and hope I can get it to be more than juice. Keep your fingers crossed, and wish me luck!

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Mangy Fox

While I was in DC, excitement was happenin' at home. Early in the week the dogs started a fox, near the business storage sheds across the street. They hared off after him, naturally. Suzanne was walking them, and they didn't respond to her recall at first. But they didn't chase him far, I guess, before they came back. As Suzanne tells it, the fox ran into our own yard, and stopped at the top of the hill, just outside the dog fence. And then just stood there and surveyed the yard, as if it were his own.

As she described the fox, he was mangy, and thin, with a rat tail (no hair on his tail). Definitely not looking good. So she kept the cats in. The fox seemed to be hanging about, and she was worried about the cats - that he might be stalking them.

End of the week, and I come home. I'm willing to let the dogs out to seek fox. I have enough faith they will come home, and we don't want this guy hanging about. The cats are more outdoor than indoor, even though we make sure they are inside at night. Tommy cat is not happy staying inside, and Trina is more nervous than usual. Kept inside they would bug us. Too much nervous energy.

So, Thursday evening, and I take the dogs out fox hunting. We circle the edges of the back yard, then head across the street to the business sheds and the patch of woods behind them. Our usual run route passes directly behind this small patch of trees and shrubs. We see nothing.

Friday morning, and Tommy is jumping on all the bookshelves and whatnot with energy to spare. Trina I let outside, in the dog yard. She is reliable, and generally stays in the yard, and shows cautious fear appropriately, like for traffic, or strange dogs. Tommy, I know, will go across the street soon after he is let out. His territory is larger, and one of his fav hangouts is exactly where the dogs first flushed the fox. I take the dogs out, to "scope" the area. No sooner do I get outside, then Klinger sights something across the front yard and bolts. He is in full-on visual chase acceleration. Sara follows him, close behind. They have flushed the fox from the front yard - very near the side entrance to the dog yard, where Trina is.

I see a red blur escape across the road, in full flight, with the dogs close behind. I go to the dog yard and check on Trina. She is in quiet, cautious, attentive pose, keeping a small profile - so I know she had seen the fox. The dogs are stalled across the street, milling about. I get my bike so I can follow, and head across the street.

I don't get far. The dogs had lost the fox at the first storage building. They don't seem to have any idea where to head from here. But that is fine with me. My intent is not to catch the fox, but just to chase him away so he goes somewhere else to live.

Saturday evening, and we run another check, at dusk. Back yard, clear. Cross the street, and the dogs head straight for that first shed. I can see no likely entry or exit, no foxhole. The smell around and explore, eagerly. As I move farther down towards the other end of the shed row, I see a brown blur heading around the other end of the building. The dogs haven't seen a thing, so I round them up and go to the other side of the building and the big field there. They mill about again, very interested, but not really finding anything. I am quite sure the blur was the fox - it was the right size, but the light is failing. It is almost dark, and it is too dark to see color. Finding nothing, we head home.

On Sunday, we head out for our usual run, which, as I said, passes these places where the fox was spotted. I take the dogs around the back yard before we go, to run a fox check. We check the other places as we pass them, but turn up nothing.

On the way home from our run, a walker flags me down. He is eager to warn me of the "mangy fox, with a ratty tail" that he, and other guests at the hostel next door saw on Saturday. One hostel guest even left out a bit of hot dog for the fox to eat (oh, lord, some people are idiots about wild critters). He describes the fox as odd in appearance, unusually bold and calm ("like it was a pet"), and mangy. The description fits with Suzanne's. I haven't seen enough besides a blur to know anything myself.

So, all week I go out at least once a day on a "fox hunt". No further sightings, but the dogs are "critter alerting" in the middle of the night, every single night. I get up and let them out - no critters spotted. The cats stay in, mostly. I let Trina out, but she stays out a couple of hours, then comes back inside for the day.

If the fox is rabid, as he might be from the "bold" description of his behavior, he shouldn't last much longer than a week. So, on Friday, a week after I got in this, I run a fox check in the morning, then I let Tommy out. He'll come in for a midday snack, and we will close the door then. We follow this pattern through the weekend. On Sunday morning, I'm running the morning fox check, and I meet a neighbor who is about to walk her dog. She lives farther down the road, about half a mile from my house.

I tell her I've got the dogs out on a "fox check". She reports seeing a fox a few days earlier. The description is the same: mangy. I ask "rat tail?", and she answers "Yeah!". But this is farther down the road, so that is probably good.

On Sunday night, as Graeme is driving to work, he sights the fox - or one of a similar description: a mangy fox with a rat tail. By the way, a fox's fur is frequently poor in the summer, but a healthy fox would still have a good coat, and a full bushy tail. A hairless, ratty tail is unusual. Where Graeme has spotted the fox is closer to where the neighbor lives and spotted him. It is a little further down the road, but the road turns up the hill there, so through the woods it is about the same distance as the neighbor's house. Still less than a mile away, or maybe a mile. But it is a little ways, and hopefully enough. I'll continue to run fox checks before we let the cats out. There is a good side to the additional sighting: the fox is likely not rabid. There is a bad side, as well. He isn't that far away that he might not be at our house hunting. "Danger, Will Robinson, danger!"

Next week: Wild Concord grapes - an excellent year!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Pick a Peck of Poison Ivy

I start with the pre-exposure stuff, spreading it on my forearms and calves. I think about putting some on my face and neck - but I don't like having stuff on my face or neck, so I don't put any there. But it is designed to stop the poison ivy sap from getting to the skin. Long pants are next, and a long-sleeved t-shirt. No belt, nothing in any pockets. When I am done, the clothes will get stripped off in the laundry room and put straight into the washing machine. I set out two special soap formulas in the bathroom, ready for the washup after.

I continue gathering what I will use. The heavy-duty rubber gloves, the latex gloves to use as a glove liner, a second long-sleeved t-shirt to wear as a top layer, a cloth to tie around my head and cover my scalp, and to absorb the sweat. As I put my shoes on, I tuck my pants into the tops of the socks.

First, we have to do a small digression: the fox hunt for the morning. I'll post a bit about this in a few days. I take the dogs out to check the area around our house to make sure there is no fox close by. The cats want to go outside, and we don't trust the fox who was spotted recently.

The day is getting warm now. Back at the house, I put on the 2nd shirt. I make sure I've drunk some extra water, as I won't be able to do so as long as I work. On with the first gloves, and the 2nd pair. I tie on my headcloth, and I am ready to start:

picking poison ivy.

My European friends probably don't know what this is, but my American friends will know - this is nasty stuff. Not the plant itself, as poison ivy is simply an averagely aggressive vine, and rather pretty to look at. Nope, not the plant. It is the rash you get from touching it that is the pain in the ass. The vine releases plant oils when touched, and those cause severe rashes. Sensitivity varies between individuals, but the more you are exposed to it, the MORE sensitive you become. I get regular cases, usually mild, just from the animals strolling through the borders and hedges where the ivy thrives, and then coming home for me to pick up or pet. A couple of weeks ago I had a patch on my face, just in time to go down to D.C for a big trade show. Yucka.

Poison ivy loves the environment around here, and this has been a bumper year. I didn't get out early with the Roundup, so I have to pick it out of the flowerbeds and yard borders. Even when I go after it with the Roundup, I usually dress up something like today, although perhaps not quite so prepared. But even prepared, I may get some rash. We won't know for 3 days if I have managed to avoid it or not. It can take up to 3 days to start showing.

But I get a full bushel of ivy plants by the time I am done. It takes me over an hour, more like two. I am hot and sweaty before I am done. I have to avoid wiping the sweat off my face so I don't spread any of the plant sap on my face or get it in my scalp. I have to carefully pull up the vines by the roots, to get as much as possible so it does not just grow back when I am done.

I feel good when I am done, as I have a good haul of vines in the basket, and that means they aren't in the yard. It was hard work, but worth it. I did this the first year we were in this house, and I had kept it pretty clean with a little maintenance since, but for some reason, the ivy came back strong this year.

I pull off the heavy rubber gloves, and hang them on a fence. I set my digging tool next to them, and turn the sprinkler on them. (For those of you who don't know poison ivy, water dissolves the oil that causes the rash, but you have to wash for a good while. The latex gloves go in the garbage, and I strip down in the laundry room. The clothes go in the wash, and I head to the shower. The first wash is an application designed for poison ivy. It goes on without water, full strength, to help dissolve the oils. On top of that I use a paint-cleaning soap, which is also good at cutting oily stuff on skin. Then the shower. I spend a full twenty minutes in the shower, and hope that I've done enough to cut whatever plant oils got through all my protection! I've done this before, and still ended up with a rash! But, this year I was more thorough than usual, so we will see.

But I tell ya, there's a happy moment for the day! Picking a peck of poison ivy! Done!

Mon Sep-02-2013. Update. The preventitive measures were almost completely successful. I got a spot of blisters and rash in a few places, but in all cases quite small - like a small streak of blisters on my scalp, and a pencil eraser size blister on my ankle. So, no misery, (sigh of relief)!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The perfect days of winter

We are in the perfect days of winter. There is no time, in my mind, when winter is more beautiful.

A few days ago, we had a perfect snow. We got 6-8 inches of powdery, dry, fluffy, beautiful white stuff. Enough to cover everything in beautiful, pristine, white. But dry and powdery enough so that clearing the driveway in the morning was not super hard. We got the beautiful looks, but not so much work.

Add to that, we are in the days when we can see the daylight growing. Equinox was way back on Dec 21 or 22. We get a little more daylight every day. We have had about 50% sunny days, so I notice, very much, the longer days.

Additionally, the temps have been low enough to freeze the ponds, and keep the snow on the ground, but not so cold that it is a life threatening exercise to walk down the street. We've gotten some wind, which has added to the beauty of the winter. We don't have much snow, but it is cold enough that what snow we have is blowing and drifting with the wind.

Since we don't have so much, what we do have can be packed easily. The dogs and I went to a local trailhead today, and the trails were all packed for walking. Lovely!

Like I said: the MOST beautiful days of winter. Some sun, some snow, days getting longers, temps tolerable - not severe. Lovely!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A restaurant review for New Year's. I actually was at this restaurant about a month or two past. But, I needed to write a review for them, as they were awesome. And, VERY few restaurants make it into my "awesome" category. This was posted to Yelp.


There are VERY few restaurants in the world that get 5 stars from me. And, they won't necessarily coincide with your Michelin ratings. I look for exceptional quality, excellent taste, freshness, good quantity for the dollar, and a certain adventuresome quality. I like spicy, but simple flavors are good, too.

So, for instance, Marina's on Overton in Memphis, who specialized in a rotating Mediterannean cuisine (menu changed monthly) always did well. Under the original owners, they never served me a dish I did not like. Then there was a cinder-block crab bar in Maryland - where nothing was more than utterly blue collar plastic plate except the crab, in many glorious forms. By the bucket, or crab cakes, it was marvelous, and I could have it with a Yuengling, which is a very respectable beer, even for a lover of craft brewing like myself.

The exterior of "The Local Table" is unremarkable. What got my attention was a signboard outside that said "Local Beer Friday" - or something like that. I had a free Friday night, so I figured what the heck. Things had been going well the past month, and I deserved a reward. And, I got it, in spades.

The architecture and interior design of The Local Table struck me as a little odd at first - but it is what they could make out of converting a building from one purpose to another. You enter a narrow hall space, which opens up into a surprisingly large dining area and bar. While I prefer my space a little more personal and cozy, once seated, I realized the interior designer had done their job well. I was comfortable, and the lighting was good (not harsh, no glare, etc.).

The menu offers a good selection - some safer offerings along with stuff for the more adventurous. I picked the "Mini Crab Cakes" for an appetizer, and a pint of something from the tap. I think that first pint was a summer wheat offering. It was decent, but the crab cakes were a shocker. The crab cakes were small, but not "mini", and they were every bit on a par with that cinder-block bar in Maryland. Firm crab was the main ingredient, and I was a happy man!

For dinner, I had an old, old favorite of mine - Chicken Piccata. Now, keep in mind, I cut my culinary teeth on Chicken Piccata, at the feet of a teaching chef from Original Joe's in San Francisco. More than a couple decades ago, mind you. I have, since that time, usually avoided Chicken Piccata, as it is usually a disappointment to me. But, tonight, I was AGAIN pleased, and satisfied! Just the right amount of capers, only the very lightest breading, all made a pleasing lemony, LIGHT presentation where I could still taste the chicken. And, it was cooked properly, just enough, not overcooked and rubbery.

Oddly enough, it was when I tried the vegetable accompaniment that I realized the chef knew what he was doing - and wasn't just lucky with a couple of good recipes. I had spinach. It was simple, no fancy spices, just good flavor. It was only cooked JUST past the wilting point, and the stems still had firm and crunchy bits. It was perfect.

The real trial for me will be how well the other dishes do when I return. It is reliable quality that gets my all-time 5 stars, but the impression of this dinner could not have been better. Wonderful job, kudos to the chef, the owner, and the staff.

Oh - I only have one complaint, and one bit of advice. The thing that got me in? "Local Beers"? We need a little more variety. What was offered was good, and top quality, but not exactly my taste. Hmmm, pretty petty, in retrospect!  The chef is from the minimalist school of presentation, where beauty is more important than quantity. He still provides a decent quantity, though, and I like to be full when I leave a restaurant. He provided excellent and more than excellent presentation in the dishes I ordered, and respectable quantity. For my sake, I hope they continue to be mindful that quantity is more important to at least some diners, such as myself!