Thursday, September 25, 2008

Guest Blog : Summer Wrap-up: Frozen Treats

My favorite thing about summer in the Bay is the weather. One day your hybrid tells you it’s 94 degrees outside, the next evening you need to wear three layers to walk around Lake Merritt.

Even when my nose is frozen and my toes are frozen, there isn’t much better than a frozen treat to make any moment of the day better. But, did you know that only one frozen treat can officially call itself a Popsicletm? Are you up to date on the high technology that makes some of these treats possible?

To be fair, nothing can really compare to a sundae from Fenton’s, so I’ll just take that out of the running. This is a medium, by the way.

So after the aforementioned freezing walk around the lake, I got the great idea to have popsicles and we set out to the land of popsicles (aka Pak N Sav in Emeryville). I will admit that after the initial excitement, I got overwhelmed pretty quickly. Luckily, Kasha spotted the most perfect selection.

After packing up our treats, we discovered that not only were these not regular Popsiclestm but they were also quiescently frozen. Apparently there has been some innovation in the frozen treat manufacturing world. No, it does not mean they were gently crystallized in a library-like environment. Technically, “quiescent” means “in a gentle state”. Instead of being agitated to frozen perfection like ice cream, these bars are poured into molds and shoved in a freezer. The outcome is an odd consistency (kind of like frozen champagne, but no bubbles), but at the end of the day, it’s hard to beat a frozen root beer float.

Despite this, I’ve come to notice that a good number of folks in my crew have lactose issues, which would make it very difficult to enjoy my quiescently frozen confection of choice. Luckily, my second choice is dairy-free. Though Trader Joe’s offers four choices of Fruit Floes these days, I tend to go for the strawberry. I appreciate the chunks of strawberry and the sweetness. I will note that TJs (love you TJs) used to make a dark cherry variety that was my favorite, but those days are gone.

In doing a little research (local, international, internet), I found that no summer is complete without a Melona bar. Thanks to the Korean grocery around the corner from Kasha and Marty’s house, I got to try this Hawaiian gas station delight. In addition to a fun color and solid flavor, the honeydew Melona bar has a great consistency that allows you to form it into creative shapes with your tongue while you eat it. I would definitely buy one after school if they cost $1.25. I hear, though, that the Korean grocery has done some baiting and switching and there’s something non-Melona masquerading as a real Melona. Hi hater.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

turn of the season: medicinal pears

i had this idea while picking the pears at mom's house in mt shasta, and they have since ripened and been sitting in the refrigerator while i considered what it would take to actually get it done. i knew that i couldn't conceivably eat a box full of pears before they spoiled, and that i should probably can them, but i don't really like the taste of canned pears so i had myself a dilemma about what to do with them. the only real association i have with canned pears is that the woman i worked as a waitress for in high school used to feed her son canned pears when the seasons changed to prevent him from getting sick. i have no idea if her practice was based in any kind of medicinal tradition, but it made me think that maybe i should can the pears and make a kind of keep-you-healthy-as-the-weather-turns tonic with them. my recent experience with being sick last week cemented the idea. i figure, if biotech companies can genetically insert pharmaceuticals into our foods, why shouldn't i try my hand at it?
my approach is a little different. only because i don't have the tools for gene-splicing in my kitchen, yet. i called up my herbalist friend jonah and asked him about other plants that are traditionally used for the same sort of purpose: immune system boosting during weather shifts. he suggested elderberries and some warming things like cloves and ginger. i acquired some dried elderberries and stewed up a pot of them with water, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and a little honey - what could be bad? usually pears are canned in a sugar syrup, but that seemed both gross and unhealthy to me, so i hope my medicinal tea will work just as well. they say you can also just can pears in water, so i figure it'll be fine on the safety front if not the taste front.
i chopped up the pears into chunks that fit better into the randomly sized jars i have left over from other canning projects, and boiled them for a minute in the medicinal tea while steralizing the jars. according to the internet, canned pears need to process in their water bath for at least 20 mins, which seemed to work just fine - all the jars sealed tightly and are now ready for consumption when the weather turns nasty here in oakland. haha.
if you're one of my cold-climate-inhabiting friends who doesn't find that joke funny let me know and i'll mail you a pear care package. you'll have to do it before the weather turns, though, this is preventative medicine.

Friday, September 19, 2008

cards and birthday bacon

after a bit of a blogging hiatus due to an internet breakdown here at the house and an immune system breakdown that left me in bed on my birthday (boo), i am back with updates of my recent domestic attempts.
i've been experimenting with handmade cards incorporating fabric and thread notions. the first is a cutout of kalo (taro) the staple food and genealogical ancestor of the hawaiian people - which, incidentally they are trying to genetically engineer and patent right now. check it out here.
the second is an embroidery design i made for nia, marty's niece who i bonded with in oklahoma this summer. she wrote me a letter on her birthday, so i reciprocated the favor with a card on mine.
on the subject of birthdays, sele and i celebrated our joint birthday yesterday. she was able to get me out of the sick bed long enough to enjoy hot toddies and bacon-wrapped figs, which she boiled in a red wine, raspberry, black pepper reduction - fantastic.
the dragonfly quilt is coming along. i was finally able to break through my design-block with the help of a pattern found in unraveling the history of quilts and slavery, which i originally checked out of the library in hopes of learning more about the use of quilt patterns to deliver coded messages during the underground railroad, but the book did not, in fact, address that. the next steps will be to create some borders around what's there and collaborate with marty on adding payton's initials into the empty 8th square around the circle.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

fresh from mt shasta : pears and blackberries

i just returned from a visit to mom's house in mt. shasta where blackberries are finishing off the summer season in flourish. the bushes line the roadsides and people who live there must be sick of blackberries by now because the branches are loaded with overripe berries drying out in the sun. we picked our fill just a few steps down the road from mom's house and i returned with a tupperware full of them in the cooler of my rental car. they were really ripe, so i ziplocked most of them and stuck them in the freezer for future appearances in smoothies and ice cream treats. i kept fresh a select handful for marty's return from a staff retreat, and they found a place on the morning's cereal: which is indeed kashi brand. i figured i might as well give into the pressure since i hear about that damn cereal company every time i introduce myself to someone new - "kasha. yes, like the cereal. sort of"
mom made a lovely custard pie with blackberries on top. the custard was delicious and she said remarkably easy to make. the texture of the seeds was a little incongruent with the smoothness of the custard and flakeyness of the crust, so next time maybe cooking the blackberries into a sauce and blending them for the topping would be worth a try.
i also made out with a box full of pears from the tree in mom's yard. i'm planning to can them, but the ripe ones are going on a pear-hazelnut pizza for tonight's dinner. this is a pizza i've made once before in an attempt to recreate a really tasty pizza i had in honolulu - at, get this: california pizza kitchen. it was a pear, hazelnut, gorgonzola pizza and the flavors went so well together. i'm still a little squemish about blue cheeses, so i decided to forgo the use of gorgonzola in my re-creation. this morning i put together the pizza dough - since i always think about how i want to make pizza right at the moment when i actually want to eat pizza, not two hours ahead of time when i could be letting the dough rise. i used this recipe from bon apetite for the crust - very simple - and i used half whole wheat, half white flour. also, for those of you who, like me, often think of eating pizza when your stomach is growling (and you're not going to order it for delivery), here is a decent recipe for no-rise pizza crust.
the pizza turned out mighty fine, and i ended up adding some caramelized onions and garlic chicken in addition to the pears. i even got adventurous and tried a few tosses of the dough into the air while shaping the crust. no fatalities to speak of. although i've been tempted to invest in a pizza stone recently, the crust came out nice and crisp just baking it on my cookie sheet, and it made for great leftover lunch reheated in the toaster oven. toaster ovens are so superior to microwaves for that reason.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

boiled peanuts

in hawai'i boiled peanuts are a typical snack. you see them in bags in the produce aisle at grocery stores and in the refrigerated snack section in gas station convenience stores. apparently not so on the mainland. when i was last at home visiting my grandparents i raided grandma ho's recipe box and copied down some cards of recipes to take home with me. boiled peanuts was one. we found raw peanuts in the shell at the korean grocery behind our house, and i finally found time today to make some. i'm hoping to have some solid gratifying but not necessarily fat-inducing snacks around the house, and boiled peanuts are a great way to take the edge off my grouchiness when i start to get hungry.
here's what the recipe says:
1 lb raw peanuts, in shell
1/2 cup hawaiian rock salt
3-4 star anise
1 tsp sugari estimated on the poundage of the peanuts since i don't have a scale, and half a cup of salt seemed out of control to me - plus i'm not sure what they mean by "hawaiian rock salt." what i have is sea salt from salt pond on kaua'i and i figured that may be more potent than whatever they're referring to by "hawaiian rock salt," so i put in a small handful along with some powdered star anise since i couldn't justify the $6 whole foods wanted to charge me for 4 whole star anise seeds.
the recipe states to put all these things together in a pot "with water to cover" though as it turns out peanuts in the shell are stubbornly floatatious, so i'm not sure how you judge how much water you need to "cover" them. i put in enough to theoretically cover them if they weren't floating on the surface. you bring them to a boil and then turn down the heat to simmer, covered for 1-1 1/2 hours, until "tender but firm." they didn't look done to me after 1 1/2 hours, so i cooked mine a little extra and added some more water, which had boiled off during the process. they turned out the right consistency but could have used a little more salt.

Friday, September 5, 2008

utilitarian crafts: plant sling

i like to make pretty things for other people. when it comes to making things for myself they either need to be weird, like the bacon cups, or utilitarian - which is why i have about 20 different reusable shopping bags. the latest utilitarian need arose from the variegated spider plant living on top of our refrigerator that has been looking a little sad and like it might want more sunlight and some suspension. i've been eyeing a hook that's already in our living room ceiling and thinking about pairing the two for a while. i found this pattern for a hanging plant sling and decided to whip out the crochet hook and give it a try.i've never done doily-type crochet work. mostly my crocheting has been focused on such utilitarian projects as dish scrubbies made of tutu tooling, and rugs and bags made of recycled plastic bags or old fabric. what i haven't done is any sort of granny-ish lacy work. and i was hesitant to crochet a plant sling based on some gaudy ones i've seen, but this pattern is a pretty basic net and doesn't look over the top, so i tried it turns out that utilitarian projects are just not as exciting as pretty projects, so the plant sling has been sitting around in my purse and on the couch for moments when i'm focusing my attention elsewhere but could be doing something with my hands. i found time to finish it on the plane (my favorite place to knit and crochet) this weekend. i think if i were going to make it again i'd use some sort of twine or heavy string to crochet with - but i wanted to use up a ball of yarn i knew i'd never use for anything else. it worked fine it's just not as weight-bearing as it should be. so it turns out the variegated spider plant from the fridge is too heavy for it and its little spider plant cousin is going to get the seat of honor instead.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

on popcorn

i've always been a lover of popcorn. to the point where i actually brought along my popcorn popper to summer camp in 6th grade. a girl can't leave home without her favorite kitchen appliances. i learned the hard lesson that year that what goes to summer camp doesn't always return.
i went ahead and replaced that popcorn popper because i had always been nervous to pop corn using the stovetop method, and i'm not about to settle for the microwave. something about popping corn on the stove made me anxious - it seemed like a process you could easily mess up and burn, the way i still to this day can't reliably make rice without a rice cooker. it wasn't until studying abroad in the australian rainforest with a former hare krishna snaggle-toothed chef that i finally overcame my fear of stovetop popcorn making. the process turns out to be quite easy and unintimidating - there are a couple of factors to be aware of in making great popcorn and i'll detail them here for you along with some of my favorite popcorn recipes.
popcorn: the basics
my rule of thumb when selecting popcorn is: the cheaper the better. that's generally my rule with selecting most things, but in this case i actually find that i prefer cheaper store-brand popcorn over say, orville redenbacher's or anything like that. i like white popcorn over yellow, but that isn't always available and it doesn't make that much difference - i just tend to think white is crispier.
select a large preferably heavy-bottomed pot with a well-fitting lid. the lid can be the type with a hole for steam to escape, that's fine. if you happen to have a glass lid, even better, then you can actually see the kernels. pour some vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan. i recommend a high-heat oil like peanut or safflower (i don't fully understand the chemistry behind which oils work well on high heat and which don't, but i hear it's important). turn your flame on med-high and add 2-3 popcorn kernels, place lid on pot. these are your tester kernels and will let you know when the oil is hot enough to add the rest of the popcorn. i didn't actually adopt this tester kernel method until recently, but occasionally i had to sacrifice whole pots of popcorn because the oil temperature wasn't right and the whole batch didn't pop properly, so now i recommend it. swirl your little kernels around in there so they're coated with oil and let it sit until they pop. note: you're going to want to wait until all three kernels pop - because if you lift the lid after one or two have popped the third is sure to scare (and possibly burn) you. learned from experience.once all three testers have popped go ahead and add your whole batch of popcorn kernels. i stubbornly never measure these out and i always make more popcorn than i can possibly eat. for the purposes of this tutorial; however, i went ahead and measured how much popcorn i put in. in this photo i put in 1/2 cup of unpopped kernels and they resulted in - surprise surprise - way more popcorn than one person, even a person who desperately loves popcorn, could eat by themselves. so based on that i'd suggest making between 1/4 - 1/3 cup of kernels per person who'll be eating popcorn.
once these kernels are in the pot, place the lid back on quickly, grab the edges of the pot and the lid together with your pot-holder-protected hands and shake it vigorously up and down and side to side until all the kernels are coated with oil. they should start popping pretty immediately, and you're going to repeat this shaking-the-pot exercise regularly every 30 seconds or so to make sure you're rotating the kernels around and the unpopped ones are getting to the bottom and nobody's burning. don't be tempted to walk away from the stove - this is not the time. keep shaking the pot until the popping slows down, and (i'm borrowing from the microwave instructions here), listen for a space of 2 seconds between pops. i actually count aloud or in my head "one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand," like hide and seek. it's fun that way. when there is a two second space between pops turn your heat off. there will likely be a few more kernels to blow, so leave the lid on for a minute.get out a good popcorn bowl (i recommend one a bit bigger than the amount of popcorn you've made to give yourself room to stick your hands in and mix around) and once you're pretty confident the popping has ceased, remove the lid of your pot. now here's the key, in my mind, to good popcorn: wait for the popcorn to cool before putting anything on it. i know that you're excited about eating popcorn, and feel free to taste some kernels now, but do not be tempted to pour your butter on yet. i find that if you wait until your popcorn has cooled it will remain crunchy and not get soggy the way it does if you pour butter on right away. you can put the popcorn into the bowl at this point, and stick your hand in periodically to test if it's cooled down enough. it doesn't need to be cold, but it does pretty much need to be room temperature - if you taste the kernels you should be able to notice a distinct change in texture from kinda soft-warm popcorn to crisp cooled down popcorn. then you're ready for the fixins.while you're waiting for your popcorn to cool you can be preparing what goes on top. i really like to experiment with flavors in popcorn, for instance in the photos you see represented here i decided to try to recreate a recipe i had growing up in a cookbook called kids cooking: a very slightly messy manual. i loved this book, and it might have been part of my inspiration to experiment in the kitchen. in it were popcorn recipes including peanut butter popcorn (yea) and spicy italian popcorn. the spicy italian involved butter, black pepper and powdered parmesan cheese, which is what i decided to try to recreate because it involves popcorn and pepper, two of my favorite things. i didn't have any powdered parmesan but i did have a container of shredded parm in my fridge that's been seeing no other action, so i thought i'd try to melt it down with the butter and pepper and do it that way. i kind of knew in the back of my mind that that wouldn't work, but i tried anyway and ended up with clumps of crusty cheese - which i thought was tasty but not worth recommending. so here are some of my favorite, and tested, popcorn topping recipes:garlic-rosemary popcorn
this is a good one, whose credit goes to laura from college. she actually starts out adding finely chopped garlic into the pot with the oil and it seems to work for her, but i almost always burn my garlic that way. i suggest either: adding the chopped garlic and rosemary to the pot when your testers have popped and right before adding the rest of the kernels, or melting them down with the butter and getting the flavors in that way. amounts are basically to taste. i tend to think there's no such thing as too much garlic so i'll put in 3 or so cloves and an equivalent amount of (fresh or dried) crumbled rosemary, you may want to put in less if you're not snacking with garlic enthusiasts. these flavors are great together and this is a prime recipe to add nutritional yeast flakes to, if you're into that. more on that below.

buttery-maple-cayenne popcorn

this is my new favorite flavor. you'll melt down your butter (again, i always get the proportions wrong on butter : popcorn and inevitably have to melt down more butter) let's say you're using 1/3 stick of butter - which i think is likely to suffice for a large bowl of popcorn, but don't quote me on that. you'll want to melt it down and once it's in liquid form add a couple tablespoons of maple syrup (vermont maple, preferably!) and a pinch - or more if you're adventurous - of cayenne. stir together and drizzle this all over your popcorn.

salty and sweet popcorn
this is the less-natural, less spicy version of the above recipe. i'm not a big fan of adding sugar or salt to food in general, but this tastes so good that i make an exception. the credit for this recipe goes to kat from connecticut, who can make even microwave popcorn taste good with this combination. for this one you're going to butter your popcorn first and then add handfuls of sugar onto it and pinches of salt to taste. it takes more sugar than you think to get the right balance, so don't be alarmed. i usually try to do this preparation in a dark corner of the kitchen where my guests aren't going to see the amount of sugar they're ingesting - what you don't know can't hurt you. really, though - don't be turned off by my bluntness, it's damn good.

good ole nutritional yeast popcorn
i was raised on buttered popcorn with nutritional yeast sprinkled on top, and while i know that outs me as the child of some hippies, i have to say nutritional yeast is awesome. nutritional yeast, also called brewer's yeast, is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals, especially B-complex vitamins. some people say it tastes cheesy or nutty. according to wikipedia, "In Canada it has been known to be called "good tasting yeast" - for good reason. i love this stuff, it tastes great as a condiment on many things, and i have been known in my little-kid days to eat spoonfuls of it by itself, but nutritional yeast reaches the height of its potential on popcorn. just butter your popcorn as usual and toss a couple handfuls of nutritional yeast on top and stir around to coat evenly. so tasty. but, admittedly, an acquired taste that you can't really force on people. you either love it or hate it, so check in with your guests before smothering their popcorn.

word to the wise:
people love my popcorn. now that i've shared my secrets with you, marty says be careful who you make this popcorn for. it's that good.