Saturday, February 7, 2015

Post Tidy Vacuum

Lagavulin and hipster ice 

It's been over a month now since we've reduced the amount of stuff in our house. Amazingly, it's still tidy around here despite both of us going back to our regular work schedules (and then some!), continuing Canine Circus School, and resuming exercise routines after the nasty colds both of us caught in January. Less stuff equals less stuff to clean and a place for everything. For our place, we can whip it into "company is coming!" shape in 15 minutes.

Because I knew that getting rid of stuff would create a vacuum that would pull us to buy more things, I decided that we shouldn't buy anything non-work related for a month so the house could equilibriate. The pull to buy things is huge right now, although it is diminishing as the month wears on. What do I want? A cast iron pan made in Portland that has milled cooking surface, stackable Japanese dishes that are uber modern and spendy, stainless steel chain mail for cleaning cast iron skillets and woks, a new fish spatula that's all metal, and a number of other kitchen things that I can't decide on. The boy is no help. He already cheated and bought gear to go crab catching ("it's for food!").

My urge to buy things was diminished when a Kickstarter campaign I joined months ago delivered the goods. I bought an ice cube maker, both spherical and cube, that makes crystal clear ice. Sure, I was called out for wanting hipster ice, but it's so pretty!

This time of year makes me restless, so I immersed myself in some kitchen experiments. The first was ginger beer using a ginger bug (the starter for the ginger beer). The verdict is still out on this one because I'm impatient and I drank 3 of the 6 bottles of beer I made already - they had little to no carbonation. I think I need to tweak my ginger beer recipe some more.

The second kitchen experiment turned out slightly better, although unsightly. After reading about Chad Robertson in Michael Pollan's book Cooked and trying bread that my friend made using Robertson's Tartine Bread, I wanted to start baking bread again, this time using Robertson's recipe.

With a dough hydration at a whopping 80%, it was the stickiest dough! It was so sticky that there was no need for a stand mixer since you stretch and fold the dough in the bowl while it's proofing. This dough required babysitting, especially since the recipe was fussy and I was unaccustomed to working with such a wet dough. Maybe if I surfed and meditated like Robertson I'd be more zen about the dough, but as the boy can attest, I was swearing up a storm whenever I had to interact with it. I was especially irritated when it was time to put the dough into the glowing hot Dutch oven. As you can see, it wasn't a clean release. I think it was when the dough plopped into the oven that I declare I was going to feed all of the bread to the dogs. Am I a little stressed right now? Perhaps, perhaps.

The boy intervened and insisted we let ugly loaves cool down and taste a piece before chucking it into the garbage (at this point, I thought that not even the dogs should eat it).

My, what an open crumb structure! It was delicious: slightly tangy (just enough to make it interesting, but not puckery), chewy, but not dense texture with a crackly crust. If I looked at the bread slice by slice, it was beautiful. When toasted, it was even better!

This week, I'm attempting the bread recipe again, but this time only making 1 loaf. And to prepare myself, I'll do yoga beforehand. Maybe that's the trick.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Vitamix Soy Milk Recipe

Soy milk, especially when it's  hot with just a hint of sugar, is my comfort drink. The stuff you buy from cartons is marginal and they are usually flavored and thickened. Any decent Chinese market sells fresh, and sometimes hot, soy milk from a plastic jugs, but it is still not ideal because of that plastic jug (landfill!) and because it isn't organic.

I've thought about buying a soy milk maker before, but it's such a specific machine and it would take up a lot of precious space. What if I could use what I already have, specifically my super duper Vitmix blender? Pickiness, not necessity, is the mother of invention in my world.

A little research showed that this has been done (and there's one baffling website where someone makes soy milk while wearing a bikini), and after a few tweaks, I made fresh, hot soy milk that tastes just like the stuff I love at Chinese breakfast restaurants. The best part is that if you have dried soy beans handy, you can make it in less than 10 minutes from start to finish. Even better, there isn't a pot of soybeans you have to watch and stir, you don't have to remember to soak your beans overnight, and there is no straining.

Start by boiling two cups of water. While the water is boiling, measure out 1-ounce of dried soybeans. Combine the boiling water and the soybeans into a Vitamix and mix on HIGH for 6 minutes (start the blender at 1, ramp it up to 10, and then flip the HIGH button). If you want to sweeten the soy milk, add your sweetener and blend for another 10 seconds. I added 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar to my soy milk, but I've also added maple syrup or just plain cane sugar. I've also added a pinch of salt, which is also very good.

Although the temptation will be to make more than 2 cups at a time, don't do it! The soy milk foams up as it blends, and there is plenty of clearance to prevent it from foaming over and out of your blender when you only do 2 cups at a time. Also, starting with boiling water is key since you want to cook the soybeans - I tried with hot water from the sink, and the resulting milk was disgusting because it still tasted like raw beans. 

If you don't have a Vitamix, any blender on steroids will do, like a Blendtech.

I love when I can figure out a way to make something I usually buy, and it is way easier than I anticipated. I've made soy milk the old fashioned way (soak beans, blend beans with water, strain, and cook the milk), and it was a mess and not worth the effort. However, I can boil water and weigh beans just fine, thankyouverymuch.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Tidy Mania

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday season and that 2015 is the best year yet! This year, instead of driving all over during the holidays, we stayed put. I wish I could report that we did wonderfully fun things like take an exotic vacation somewhere warm or kayak all over the bay, but we chose (and some of us grudgingly) to tackle some home improvement projects.

First up was managing our pesky kitchen pantry. That stupid Japanese tidy book convinced me that we lived in a hovel more so than watching a Hoarders marathon. The boy didn't know what hit him. Since we had company over, the house was clean, but I argued that our house was skinny fat. Just because it looked good on first glance, didn't mean that there weren't disgusting things behind closet and pantry doors. Faster than he could ask me to define skinny fat (a horrible term that implies skinnier people look better - so not true), he was installing new pantry drawers and I had dumped old flours, seasonings, and sauces. Now our two-feet deep pantry shelves are transformed into usable drawers where hopefully nothing will be forgotten due to never seeing the light of day. This was a much easier task, from my perspective at least, than weeding through our clothes, and I felt emboldened to continue tidying our closets and office room.

Several trips were made to the El Cerrito Recycling Center + Environmental Resource Center, the most wonderful place in the world for someone wanting to declutter with less guilt. I got rid of old office supplies, old clothes, electronic waste, kitchen tools that were redundant or not my style, and random memorabilia that had no place in the house anymore.

For those of you who live in the East Bay, East Bay Humane Society accepts donations of clean, used bedding and towels (and they are also walking distance to The Rare Barrel if you want to make an afternoon of it). Figuring out where to take used bedding instead of throwing it out was the hardest challenge. We had a ton of sheets that were ratty due to dogs and cats having claws. Out they went for a second life!

I even went through old photos and purged ones that were awful. Remember when you had to get film developed? You would end up with perhaps two good photos from an event, and 20 blurry photos. To add to the clutter, every photo developer offered 2 for 1 deals, so you'd get 40 blurry photos. So, yeah, although I initially thought it would be hard to throw away things that may have sentimental value, it wasn't hard to whittle down our photo collection and keep the photos that were truly precious.

The same went for old letters. I had saved old holiday and birthday cards and letters from friends, again these mostly were back in the olden days before email and Facebook. These items have served their purpose, although I did save a handful that I can use for blackmail. 20 years later, I do not need to know that my friend went to Costco or had coffee at so-and-so cafe. It's funny the things we hang on to thinking they have so much meaning.

Henslow shawl knit mostly in Sri Lanka

The tidying process also gave me a chance to unearth WIPs that needed finishing. I blocked and finished my Henslow shawl, a Wildcat Canyon scarf, and a ripple afghan that took me 4 years to complete!

Wildcat Canyon Scarf for Jen!

The never-ending ripple afghan has finally ended
I even had a chance to crochet some cool hot pads (Starburst Hot Pad), and I neglected to make one for myself. Once I finish some more tasks, I need to make myself a couple of them for the table.

Crocheted Starburst Hot Pads

In the office room, I had a box of vintage canning jars my MIL gave me. Among the odds and ends, for the box was full of lids jars that did not always match, I found a matching set of Triomphe canning jars in great condition. Fortunately, I had new gaskets laying around for them since Fido jars also use the same sided lids. Ta-dah!

Triomphe jars!

We also had time to experiment a bit with food and drink. The boy had picked our backyard plums last year and turned it into wine. We were skeptical that it would be something quaffable, and to our surprise, it was more than quaffable. It is delicious and it will be a good substitute for the gewürztraminers and edelzwickers I like to pair with spicy foods! So far, it's been aging for 6 months. I think it will be better in a few more months to smooth out the rough edges, but I'm happy with the finished product.

We also had a chance to play more with the extruded pasta press, this time making bucatini to pair with the last of our 2013 season tomato sauce. Man, that thing is fun! Expect to see more pasta posts soon.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thosai and Dal and Folding

I have finally made thosai (dosa) batter with the right amount of tang. What did it take? A trip to Vik's Distributors for skinless urad dal and short-grain parboiled rice and one foldable proofer. Realizing that the thing holding me back the most from thosai nirvana was the temperature of my kitchen, which is about 30 degrees cooler than a Sri Lankan kitchen, I broke down and bought the foldable proofer I've had my eye on for over a year. 

Why didn't I buy this proofer ages ago?  It can be used for bread, kombucha, yogurt, and anything else that needs a higher temperature than what my cold kitchen can provide. 

For some reason, until I saw how thosais are made, it didn't click with me that they were a fermented food product. It makes sense, since the goods ones do have a slightly sour tang like the best breads, but I never thought about it. Fermentation helps to make my favorite foods and drinks.

What I didn't need was a nonstick skillet. My cast iron skillet does the job just fine, and the more I use it, the more nonstick it becomes. Since I've been subjecting the boy to daily thosai and dal, the cast iron skillet is working out great. Nonstick skillets skeeve me out since I'm sure using one will result in my cat and dogs dropping dead from the fumes. I know there are so-called environmentally friendly nonstick coatings out there, but I don't believe it!

Although he won't come out and say it, I think the boy is sick of eating thosai and dal. Heck, I'm getting sick of eating thosai and dal, but I am still crazy about making it. My new goal, now that I have the flavor right for the thosai, is to make it paper thin. That has been much, much trickier, but luckily the dogs are happy to eat the thicker thosai frisbees. I know that I've been feeding them too much thosai scraps because as soon as they see me heating up the cast iron skillet, they come running and they don't leave my side until the last of the batter is used up.

Another impediment to my Sri Lankan cooking attempts, besides the cold kitchen issue which is now solved, is that I don't have a source of young curry leaves. The curry leaves I bought from Vik's were older and not nearly as fragrant as the ones in Sri Lanka. If anyone has had any luck growing curry trees in the Bay Area, please let me know! I know that I can buy the trees locally, but will they produce in my foggy neck of the woods?

Thanks to a David Lebovitz post, I started reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book on how to declutter your environment. My takeaway from the book is that I have been purging all my clothes and then refolding my shirts and pants so they face out like book bindings. This way, not only do I have much more room in my drawers, but I can pull out one shirt and not worry about a stack of shirts tipping over. I started going through all the boy's clothes and refolding them, much to his annoyance, but he does admit that it's easier to see what you own when you can see everything all lined up.

My other takeaway from the book is that OCD is a serious issue. I would hate to be the author because, let's face it, most of us are slobs. How can she go anywhere and face the chaos without breaking out in hives?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Cats and Dogs and Monkeys and an Elephant

Cat(s) on a Hot Tin Roof in Negombo

The worst part about traveling is that I miss my pets something fierce. Luckily, my cousin was keeping all of my beasts company, and he would periodically text me that everything was ok and they were having a ball without me.

Cute house dog on a coconut plantain near Negombo

The hard part about traveling to countries like Sri Lanka is being seeing so many stray dogs and cats in need of medical attention. Still, we did see many happy animals, and some of them were even cherished household pets.

Sri Lankan Sesame on the Negombo beach

I was on the lookout for the Sri Lankan version of Sesame, Mingus, and Greaseball. Thankfully, we didn't see any malamutes there. I think a malamute would die of heat stroke in Sri Lanka. We did spot a few GSDs and some GSD mixes, but not a lot.

Another cute house cat I bribed with chicken

In the city of Negombo, there is a spay and neuter clinic called The Hope Foundation. We stumbled into Lords restaurant (great food!), whose owners also run the clinic, and were handed brochures with their mission statement and the work they had done thus far to take care of the local animals. Negombo did have the nicest animals - at least by that restaurant. They looked well fed and clean.

A temple cat in Dambulla

Peaceful naps in the humid city of Tangalle

It's not like we don't have cats and dogs at home. You'd think by the amount of pictures dedicated to cats and dogs that I took during our trip that they were as exotic to me as elephants and monkeys.

This reminds me of the Australians (you know who you are!) being enchanted by chipmunks and squirrels in Sri Lanka. As I sit here typing, a squirrel is going past the telephone wires outside our house. They are no big deal to us! I consider them pests because they drop half-eaten apples on my dogs from at least 20-feet up in the trees.

A temple dog in Sigiriya
 Even when we ascended many stairs, there would be a dog or cat waiting at the top. They just hang out and enjoy the view.

Temple monkeys
Many of the templed also had monkeys who raided the garbage cans and the ate the offerings.

Fried fruit bat!
Fried bats were a disturbing sight along power lines. Poor, poor bats. The live bats gave me the creeps, but this is probably because they were larger than my cat. I was assured that they only ate fruit, but kept my distance and would involuntarily duck if one flew overhead.

If you squint hard, you can see an elephant

We did see one elephant in the wild in the Yala National Park. It made the post-park diesel headaches and the early morning trip worth it. This is the only elephant I've even seen that didn't have a chain around his foot or neck, and from what I could tell, he was relaxed.

On a totally different subject, I have a proofer box coming in a day! I'm hoping that my sad attempt at dosas can be remedied with this box, and I'm looking forward to better kombuchas and sourdough breads.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sri Lankan Family Dinners

Typical pot and stove set up. 

The most memorable part of my Sri Lankan vacation was cooking and eating in peoples' homes. Seeing how people operate in their kitchen was fascinating, especially when the kitchens were tiny. Mise en place is a given to keep everything neat and orderly. Watching more than one person cook in the kitchens (excluding us tourists) was fascinating because you could see how they flowed together - no bumping into each other, and oftentimes someone would know what to do without being told.

Mise en place is a necessity

For many of the family kitchens, smoke was the elusive ingredient that will be hard for me to recreate at home. Smoke permeated the curries and even some of the sweets, like the coconut treacle, since so many dishes were cooked in clay pots over wood fires.

Bright and cheery kitchen

Patterns start to emerge. Shallots and garlic are the base of most curries. Roasted curry powder is used for meat while unroasted curry powder is for vegetables. Eggplants and green beans are popular vegetables, and vegetables are usually stewed.

Giant machete blade used to slice the shallots. I passed on using it.

Since I had only had Sri Lankan food once prior to visiting the country, I thought the food would be like South Indian food, and some of it was, but there were differences that stood out: no basmati rice, no ghee (rarely any dairy used), red rice flour, string hoppers, coconut symbol, and coconut oil and milk for everything. Maybe these are all in Indian cuisine as well and I don't know enough about it to say one way or another.

String hoppers! We bought the press and steaming trays, so hopefully we'll have theses soon.

We've been trying to cook many of the foods we enjoyed in Sri Lanka, like the dal, pepper chicken, dosas (thoasai in Sinhalese), fried cookies, and curries. Although I really want to eat something else, I have a "use it or lose it" mentality, so we'll be eating at least a few Sri Lankan meals a week until we can nail some of the dishes we want to recreate.

Scraping coconut is a never-ending job. Grated coconut was used to make coconut milk.

The dosas have proven to be the hardest to make, but I had minor success with them two nights ago. Part of the problem is that it's too cold in our kitchen to get a rapid ferment, but I have a bread proofing box on its way to save the day (or dosas, if you will).

Our second feast

The closest Sri Lankan restaurant to me is 30-miles away, in a sleepy suburban town. I do want to check it out, and I shouldn't complain about the distance since it's in the same time zone as me. However, since the two of us are still cooking the food and we're armed with 3 new cookbooks we bought in Colombo, it will probably be awhile.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Dal, it's what's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (if you're lucky)

Ayubowan! ("Greetings!" in Sinhalese.) I'm freshly jet lagged from a long vacation in Sri Lanka, and having trouble deciding how to organize blog posts about our epic adventure. It was a food-centered tour, meaning that I ate and cooked my way through the country. Although I usually eat my way through new places I visit, I've never had a chance to cook in a foreign country, let alone in peoples' homes. "Epic adventure" doesn't even begin to cover this experience.

Why Sri Lanka? Why not? Because I didn't know much about the country, and because it was so far away, were huge reasons why I wanted to go. My main motivation for traveling is to be put out of my comfort zone and to experience things I'd never have a chance to do at home, like submerging myself into the Indian Ocean or eating/cooking with a Tamil family.

Typical example of a fancy Sinhalese meal. There were over 8 dishes!

Every day, I had some thing more delicious or exotic than the day before. I gained a new appreciation for dal, a humble dish that is sure to become a fast, after-work meal, and now I get the hype over fresh curry leaves. Before, I thought curry leaves were like bay leaves: they add a certain something although it's hard to pinpoint it's flavor. But now, my dal is distinctly lacking curry leaves! I've been reading up on growing a curry plant in our climate, and the results are promising.

I'm also missing all the fresh pineapple and papaya for breakfast. Usually, I'm all about the dark, leafy greens. I rarely eat fruit, but tropical fruit that at its peak is an exception. Papayas can be especially disgusting if not consumed when ripe, so I never eat them at home. Since I've been so good about eating fruit, I tried to continue the trend with an apple once home, but although it was a good apple, it still did nothing for me. Meh. Who wants to eat apples when the memories of tropical fruit still linger?

How to arrange your plate - rice in the middle, other dishes radiating out from the rice, and space in the 6 o'clock position for mixing and scooping the food up with your hands.

Eating with my hands is still something I struggle with, but this is from a gal who will eat chips with chopsticks if no one else is watching. I still hate touching my food in order to eat it, although, curiously, I enjoy touching food when I'm preparing it.

The boy and my father-in-law accompanied me on the journey, as well as 5 Aussies who make a trip to Australia very tempting indeed. So far, we've made dal, kokis (cookies that I'll post about later), and a very sad attempt at dosas, or thosai in Sinhalese. Seeing the foods prepared, and helping with the preparation, has made it pretty easy to jump into our kitchen and start recreating our favorite dishes. Why haven't I taken cooking classes abroad before? It's so much better than visiting a place, bookmarking my favorite foods, and then trying to recreate them purely from text and videos.

I miss swimming in the Indian Ocean.

If you'd like to see more pictures from the trip, I posted many of them on Instagram. I don't suggest following me on Instagram unless you want photos of my cat, my dogs, and food. You've been warned.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Smoked Californian Paprika

Inspired by Foodycat's smoked paprika post, some friends and I decided to try our hand at Californian smoked paprika in September, a time when peppers are cheap and plentiful. How hard could it be? 

The most time consuming part was slicing and seeding the peppers. Three of us had a station with a knife, cutting board, and a bowl. This was the most time consuming part.

The peppers were on smoked with dried rosemary branches, leftover from yard work, for about an hour.

Afterwards, I dried them in the dehydrator for half a day.

Post dehydrator, they went into the Vitamix. The end result is delicious! Some of the peppers we added must have been fiery hot because my lips go numb (and smokey) when I taste the paprika.

So far, I used the smoked Californian paprika in a moussaka - not quite traditional, I know, but it turned out fantastic despite me ruining the béchamel sauce. Did you know that the béchamel sauce for moussaka has eggs in it? In that case, is it even a béchamel?

I estimate that I have a year's worth of smoked paprika, which was exactly the plan. I split the 5-lbs of peppers with my friends, and it came to about $7 for my half. Not bad for organic smoked paprika! I should weigh the end results so we can do a real price comparison against the Spanish smoked paprika, but if you want a visual, I was able to fill a 1/2 pint jar.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fifty-Fifty, You Were a Good Cat

It's never easy to say goodbye, even when you know it's the right decision. Sadly, my little orange ninja  kitty, only 13-years young, left us a couple of weeks ago. I went to the vet because she suddenly wasn't walking right, and I left the vet 2 hours later, alone, sad, and stunned.

Orange kitties leave the biggest holes in your heart. I'm sure of it. Thank you, Fifty-Fifty, for schooling 3 dogs, for being a good sister to Greaseball (who we all know is a butt), for grooming the boy and me regularly at 2 AM, and for having the cutest, loudest purr.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Graduation Day!

Sesame and I completed Canine Circus School 1, and we're on to the next set of classes! My friends and co-workers have all been plied with cute pictures of my dog in circus school, and I'm sure they are keeping a lot of comments to themselves as they look at picture after picture of my dog doing tricks. Most people think I'm joking about the school until I show them pictures. Post pictures, the non-dog people probably think I'm crazy, but they don't know Sesame. When we don't train, play ball, or walk her, she drives us (Mingus and the cats included) batty with her demands for attention.

I think Mingus is starting to get jealous, so I've been trying to convince the boy that Mingus needs an education, too. Mingus has been auditing our practice sessions, and he knows a lot of the tricks now himself: circle, sit pretty, and stand.

So, in summary, I am a crazy dog (and cat) person who doesn't think she is crazy, and Mingus is homeschooled.


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