Tuesday, September 27, 2011

She Can Be Taught

Continuing the theme of my last post, this is another test in my diet experiment. Laurie D of Food for Primal Thought generously provided a recipe for roasted vegetables in one of her recent entries, and I obviously decided to try it. 

She recommends using any kinds of vegetables. I ended up using broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, which were the only vegetables I had (other than the potatoes that I meant to add and forgot). I also added steak, which I had marinaded in a mixture of honey dijon and Italian dressing for the length of The Mummy Returns, then cooked in a frying pan. When the steak was done and the vegetables were chopped, I put them all together in a glass pan (thank you, Pyrex). 

I doused with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then put it in the oven at 350 degrees. After about fifteen minutes, I added parsley, thyme and oregano. I left it in the oven about five more minutes, I pulled it out and am now digging in, enjoying it immensely with a glass of sauvignon blanc. 

Next time I will experiment with different vegetables, because I honestly feel like I could eat any kind of vegetable this way. Thanks, Laurie! 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Quote Unquote Stir Fry

Lately I've been occupied by revolutionizing my diet. When I was a kid, we basically lived on ham steaks, Hamburger Helper, and spaghetti. (Love you, Mom!) This was totally fine, because I was a really picky kid. There was a period of a year, year and a half when I refused to eat anything but spaghetti and grilled cheese. (Slight hyperbole; or maybe not so slight. Ask my mom.) My mom was rarely experimental, from a combination of her own gastronomical upbringing, her work schedule, and her children's pickiness. When my dad and step-mom got experimental (they were from Southern and Italian households, respectively) I simply said no, or choked down one or two bites and mashed up the rest until it didn't look edible anymore.

When I got to college, and more specifically, when I moved onto campus my junior year, I began to see the eating habits of other people. It really hit home my senior year, when my roommates Chelsea and Mimi were both all about healthy eating (not that you're not, Kayla...<3). So I made some changes. I bought fewer frozen meals, started eating yogurt, took salads to Main Campus for lunch, cut back a little on my massive Mountain Dew addiction, etc. I started trying to cook more. Buuuut for the most part I stuck to simple stuff: pasta (and to kick that up a notch, I'd use alfredo sauce from the jar!) mostly, with some burgers and chicken tenderloins thrown in. I switched to turkey burgers, so I basically haven't eaten red meat for like two years.

Now, I'm not heavy (pretty much the exact opposite, actually), I don't really have any health problems, so this is all preventative, essentially. I'm trying to learn more about nutrition, and I'm trying to learn about cooking as well; what flavors go together, what are different methods of preparation, that kind of thing. I only just recently found out what broil meant.

Recently, however, I've undertaken two of the most radical changes to my diet ever: no more soda (goodbye forever, Mountain Dew!) and no more grains.

The former should be obvious. My boyfriend Andrew will tell you that the two leading causes of obesity in Amurica are soda and potato chips. The latter is slightly more complicated. It was brought to my attention by the recent wave of gluten-free everything, and by a close friend, Caroline, who along with her mother Laurie has a gluten intolerance. Laurie has a blog, Food for Primal Thought, where she writes about her gluten-free, primal diet lifestyle. The primal bit is a step I'm not taking (yet? haha) but her "Primal Wisdom" section intrigued me. The first myth/fact pairing claimed that grains, formerly thought to be a crucial part of the human diet, are in fact a very poor source of even the nutrients that they're touted for.

Laurie wrote about how giving up grains had relieved her from joint pain, headaches, and fatigue, among other things. My boyfriend's mother Deb has also almost completely eliminated grains from her life, albeit not because of a gluten intolerance. She told me the same thing: fewer headaches, more energy. This is what has attracted me. I get frequent headaches, and my energy level hovers constantly around low. It's also about spurring myself into exploration: if I don't give up the bulk of what I eat (pasta, bread), I'll never learn to eat or cook anything else.

So! I'm in the process now of finishing off the grains I still have (down to just some pasta), meanwhile trying to buy things to replace them. I've still got my chicken and turkey burgers, but I'm proud to say that I've been eating apples, bananas, salads, green beans, all that fun stuff. I've got celery (which I like to eat with peanut butter), corn, broccoli, cauliflower and cantaloupe, and carrots and cashews have replaced cookies and crackers as munching foods. It's definitely a start, and one that I feel pretty good about.

But the truth is I'm still scared of a lot of vegetables out there, and I'm scared of cooking them. So I was looking through a recipe book called College Cooking that Chelsea has to see what recipes looked good, which didn't have grains, or which I could take the grains out of, when I saw a chicken and broccoli stir fry. It had rice. Rice is a grain! But I decided to check it out, and it appears what white rice is generally considered gluten free, so I figured it was good, especially since I'm not actually gluten intolerant.

So I decided to have this chicken and broccoli stir fry for dinner, only I cheated and didn't actually stir-fry it--hence the quotes in the title. Here's what I did instead:

Chicken and Broccoli "Stir Fry"

I put two chicken tenderloins in a frying pan, doused them with soy sauce and sprinkled them with fresh ground black pepper and garlic powder (the original recipe called for pepper and chopped garlic, so I figured that would work). I put a little olive oil in the pan too, because the soy sauce started to smoke a little and I hoped the oil would keep it from burning. I covered them with a glass pot lid and turned the stove to medium heat.

For the rice I just used Minute rice, 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup rice for one serving. The directions say to bring the water to boil and then add the rice, but I put the rice in at the beginning and it was fine. I brought the rice and water to a boil, then covered and removed from heat, then let it sit to soak up the water.

For the broccoli, I had a small package of Green Giant frozen broccoli cuts that you can steam in the bag in the microwave, so that's what I did, just following the directions on the box. I didn't eat all three servings, obviously, so I just spooned out what I wanted and put the rest in a Tupperware container.

Once they all were done, I cut the chicken up and combined them! I put a little margarine in the rice to keep it from sticking, but I didn't need to add anything else. Can I say that soy sauce is like, my new favorite thing? It completely saturated the chicken while cooking, so the meat was super flavorful, and in the dish it rubbed off onto the rice and seasoned the whole thing. It was soooo delicious. I was super proud of myself, and it looked legitimate too. Check it out and be jealous:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Personal Liberties: Religion and Government

It's been a month since my last post, between vacations and new jobs--but now I'm going to update you all about my latest occupation. An election year is fast approaching, and it's one that honestly I'm pretty scared of. So, as my Facebook friends have already noticed, I'm getting into the game and trying to follow the current political atmosphere so that I can make the best use of my vote in November 2012.

As I told a friend who noticed my "sudden" interest in politics, it's less sudden than intermittent. It flares up with impending major elections, or when I start hearing things I don't like. A few months ago I got very riled up over the federal attack on Planned Parenthood. What really bothered me about that was that PP's detractors couldn't separate the institution itself from abortion. The fact that abortion counts for a mere 3% of Planned Parenthood's services and is privately funded, as per the Hyde Amendment, did not seem to count for anything. Planned Parenthood was doing nothing but abortions, and they were doing it with government money, goddamnit.

I could write a whole entry on the Planned Parenthood controversy and other efforts to undermine women in the U.S., but I'll get to that later. For now I'm just going to focus on the larger ramifications: if America is about personal freedoms, why are we fighting to restrict each other?

A big part of the problem is religion. The conservative Christian force is stronger than ever in Congress, and they seem determined to bowl over anyone who isn't part of the club. Now, I have nothing against conservatives or Christians personally, but en masse they can be very scary, especially when they seem determined to force their values on what is supposedly a free population. Just to provide some major examples:

The Ground Zero Mosque. Obviously a misnomer, but that's how the story has become known. It was not a mosque, but a Muslim community center several blocks away from Ground Zero that had a prayer center in it (whereas a mosque is strictly religious and does not include basketball courts). And yet we get comments like Sarah Palin's, "We all know they have a right to do it, but should they?" This is characteristic of the extremist-Christian expectation that other religions must walk on eggshells, even in a secular country. It is offensive to Christians to have a "mosque" so close to a place where a few radical Muslims committed a heinous act. Yet, when atheists take offense to a Christian memorial at Ground Zero, a governmental site, they are threatened with rape and murder by some very angry Christians. WWJD, huh?

To continue the above point, I move to presidential candidates Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Both are very devout Christians and Bachmann, at least, appears to have a fair amount of Christian compassion. She and her husband have served as foster parents, and own a mental health practice. Well and good for them. It's clear that their faith is a big part of their lives, and that's fine--but religion should never be the basis of a political argument or campaign. It is a violation of the separation of church and state in the Constitution. This is a known fact.

Yet Bachmann and Perry both persist in making it part of their political agenda. Gov. Perry, for example, has been quoted saying "We teach both creationism and evolution in [Texan] public schools." This is not strictly true, since that is, you know, illegal; but students are often encouraged to "critique scientific explanations, so it is likely that other theories, such as creationism, would be discussed in class," and creationist materials were submitted for approval by the board of education under the guise of "intelligent design." Fortunately, the board stuck with materials teaching only evolution.

Many extremist Christians will claim discrimination when "their rights are infringed upon"; but no one is saying that Texan Christians can't believe in creationism. The point here is that public schools are state-funded, and that the Constitution prohibits the mingling of church and state. This is not done in order to discriminate against Christians--it is to keep other religions or those of no religion from feeling discriminated against. It is this key idea that the extremists cannot seem to comprehend. Freedom of religion means that other religions have the same freedoms as Christianity, and that citizens have the freedom to choose their religion, if any. In the case of education, it is the responsibility of a child's parents and church community to teach religious tenants, not the secular government.

That is why Perry and Bachmann are extremely dangerous candidates. They don't seem to be able to separate religion from politics, or even to frame their values and ideas in a non-religious format. This is a crucial skill which they lack. Being a Christian and a politician is not impossible: Obama has attended the same church in Chicago for twenty years. But the US is not a theocracy, therefore it is imperative to phrase one's arguments outside of religious rhetoric. Tell your church that you went to law school because it was God's calling; tell the voters that it was just what you decided to do.

I would be scared to see a conservative Christian President who, like Bachmann or Perry, can't separate their religion from governance. Based on their comments, and the comments of their fellow conservatives, and as someone whose values are wildly different, I don't feel like the freedoms I enjoy--to have or not have a religion, to be independent of a man if I chose, to have an abortion if I needed it, to be protected by the law if I was raped, to have access to affordable health care, etc, etc--would be safe, simply because conservatives do not approve.

America is about "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Ours is far from a homogeneous culture, and I'm of the opinion that diversity makes us strong. Freedom has been the name of the game ideologically since the Puritans sought the freedom to practice their religion here. Now, however, the descendants of those and the other immigrants who landed here are trying to limit and restrict the freedoms of their fellow citizens, because they cannot accept that which is different. We cannot let that happen.

I'm a political idealist, as my boyfriend says; I believe the system can work. It just requires each and every person to exert themselves a little and take an interest in who is running the country. I've found two websites really helpful in keeping track of things. PolitiFact is a website that fact-checks statements made by politicians and pundits, which is a nice thing to have when people make all kinds of willy-nilly hyperbolic claims. POPVOX (or popular voice) is a new website that allows you to see what bills are in Congress right now and vote to support or oppose, then sends your vote and your comments to your representatives. I highly recommend both sites.

Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Success, Thy Name is Lamb Trenchers

I don't have much experience with cooking, or food in general, really. Let's make that clear. So when I did the grocery shopping for the party today, I was really glad to have my darling roommate Chelsea along. She has a long-term relationship with fresh fruit and veggies, which was really helpful.

Anyway, part of the reason I did the shopping for Saturday's party today was so that I could do a test run of one of the meat courses for the party: cubed lamb in bread trenchers. Another Inn at the Crossroads recipe, it's pretty simple. Just stick the lamb on skewers and broil them, with bread underneath to catch the drippings.

I had to ask my boyfriend's father what broiling was; and according to him, in the context of modern ovens, it just means using the top heating coil only. There was no pre-cubed lamb at the store, so we bought shanks and cubed them ourselves. This resulted in really small pieces, but this was actually favorable. It cooked through quickly, and was easier to chew. The bread underneath got a little toasted, but it remained soft and hot on the inside, and the juice! Oh man. The bread where the juice had dripped was amaaaazing, and getting a little bit of the bread in the bite with the lamb was phenomenal--and that was even without marinading or spicing the meat, which I had completely forgotten to do.

We had riesling with it, and dug in with our forks. We hollowed out the bread, and finished off the rest with oil and herbs. One benefit of the test run was definitely figuring out how much bread we'll need. The servings of lamb seem small, but there's going to be a ton of food at this party and I want everyone to be able to have some of all three courses, so the minimal serving is good (and actually probably more in keeping with recommended serving sizes, as opposed to American serving sizes). This loaf could definitely have been cut in half width-wise, in which case one loaf would have served four people--which means I'll only have to get two, instead of the four I thought I'd need.

Overall, this was way more delicious than I thought it'd be, so much so that I'm tempted to cook all my meat this way and eat it on bread every time. It felt so hearty, and with a smaller piece of bread and a small side I could see this being a much more interesting presentation of your average dinner. I am thoroughly thrilled, and I can't wait to make it for everyone on Saturday.

A Sigil's Worth a Thousand Words

The Game of Thrones costume party is a mere two days away, and I am pumped. I can't decide whether I'm more excited for the food or the costumes. Either way, one of my last preparatory crafts was to make sigil pins so we can better determine who is who.

A sigil is defined as "an inscribed or painted symbol considered to have magical power." In the book series, sigils are the banners of one's House; family symbols, essentially. The Starks have a direwolf, grey on white, the Lannisters, a golden lion on red, etc.

At the party we're going to have a direwolf (house Stark), Daenerys Targaryen, Robert Baratheon, Dacey Mormont, and Margaery Tyrell. So, those were the sigils I made.

I made them really simply, just using felt. I printed out pictures of the sigils and cut them out. I was going to use an xacto knife to cut them out, but the felt proved too much for it, so instead I traced the outlines of the sigils right onto the felt and cut them out with scissors. For the black animals, we ended up having to use white out because that was all we had, but next time I'd use a white colored pencil or something.

I took the widest and tallest to get the size of the pennants, and then cut those out in the appropriate colors in the same way. Then I used felt glue to put them together!

The pins that I got were craft pins that came with adhesive backs, so after the felt glue dried I flipped them over and pressed the pins on, adhesive side down, and tadaa! I think they look pretty great. I'm really proud of Baratheon (the stag on gold) and Targaryen (the dragon on black). They were a pain to cut out, but they look pretty ballin'.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tyroshi Honeythumbs

It has been awhile. I actually started getting crazy hours at work, so I was pretty well occupied! But now it's slowing down and I've got things to do!

So I've mentioned before the Game of Thrones costume party that I'm hosting (in less than a week!). But the party is not just going to be about the costumes. Martin is meticulous in his descriptions of food throughout the series, so the costume party is also a dinner party.

One of the desserts we have planned is Tyroshi honeyfingers. Tyrosh is one of the Nine Free Cities in A Song of Ice and Fire, and the exile princess Daenerys Targaryen spent time there during her childhood while running from the Usurper, Robert Baratheon.

I found the recipe on this fantastic blog, Inn at the Crossroads, which recreates the meals and foods described by Martin in great detail in the books. The recipe for the Tyroshi honeyfingers is here.

I used the modern recipe as opposed to the Roman one. Gotta love Roma, but they just didn't look as appetizing. So anyway, I started with the modern syrup. The ingredients were:

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • ⅓ cup good quality honey
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 10 cardamom seeds
  • dash each of ground clove and cinnamon
"Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and gradually boil until it thickens slightly." I ended up having not enough honey, and I couldn't find cardamom seeds at the grocery store. This proved to be a mortal error. The honey was overwhelmed by the water, and my guess (hope) is that the cardamom seeds are some kind of thickening agent. I don't know how thick the syrup was supposed to get, but it remained thinner than pure honey. It was also really, really sweet; too sweet for me. I think that was the clove. So for the purposes of the party, I will either let someone who has more experience with syrups and sauces make it, or we'll stick with plain old honey.

The batter was easier.
  • 200ml (6.76 fl. oz) warm water
  • 280g (9.87 oz) all purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons liquid vegetable oil + 2cups for frying
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon instant dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon confectioners’ sugar
  • A pinch of salt
Minus the part where the measurements were not in what's on my measuring cups, haha. Google fixed that, though. Instructions: "Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, then add wet ingredients. Cover with clingfilm and allow to rise for two hours."

I ended up watching the HP7.1 during those two hours, but that movie is longer than two hours, and I ran out of time before I had to go see HP7.2. I had to put the batter in the fridge overnight. It didn't hurt it, but I had to add two tablespoons of flour to soak up the yeast juice that continued to ooze.

Anyway, this morning I was ready to fry.

I got a big frying pan and poured 1" of vegetable oil in, as per the instructions. The cooks from IatCR recommended using a bag to pipe lines of batter in the oil to achieve a finger-like shape, so I'd bought a cheapie cake icing bag at Giant. The batter, however, is much runnier than icing tends to be, and it was determined to come out both ends. I ended up losing a lot of batter to the sink. Instead, I decided to use a regular old Ziploc bag, as per my childhood cake decorating. This was not entirely successful, though--the bag I had was a special Ziploc bag whose bottom expands to that it can be sat upright. Nice for storage, less nice for cutting a corner off for piping. I kept it pretty narrow by squeezing it as I piped, but I still ended up with honeythumbs instead of honeyfingers.

Next time, I'll just use a regular four-corner sandwich bag. Anyway. "Place the oil on high heat until hot, then turn heat back to medium." On my stove, after turning it down to medium, I turned it back up to medium-hot. My first two fingers burned because the oil was so hot, but when it got down to medium they took a long time to turn golden-brown. Somewhere in between worked nicely.

I dumped the syrup because I couldn't stomach it, and since I was out of honey, I dusted mine with powdered sugar and at them like carnival funnel cakes. They were delicious! You can even throw some maple syrup on them. The taste is reminiscent of a crisp Belgian waffle. And the nice thing is that even though they're fried, they're fried in oil, not fat, so it's not as...fattening.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Not Built in a Day

So it's probably safe to assume that if I'm writing a blog, writing is something I enjoy, yes? This is true. I'm a writer in my spare time, such as it is. As it would happen, I'm writing a medieval fantasy novel. This novel was begun in 10th grade biology when I decided that the four base proteins of DNA (Adenine, Guanine, Thymine, and Cytosine) sounded like cool names. Those four proteins became four witch clans, who rule each region of their country from their castles in the furthest corners.

Reading A Song of Ice and Fire has inspired me to work on the novel again, though they're not terribly similar. My craftiness of late has then also been directed towards some of the items and landscapes of my own universe.

Hence, my first original fantasy craft: a clay model of Cytosine Castle, set in the far north of my imaginary country, which the Clan of Wit and Knowledge calls home.

Oven-bake clay (I used the Sculpey brand, as per a number of blogger recommendations)
Aluminum foil
Small canvas board (for the base)
Spray adhesive (I used Elmer's craft adhesive spray)
Floral moss
Floral rocks
Dowel rods

Step One: cover your work area. I ended up with a combination of foil and paper towels down on the table. I started working on just the square of foil; there is some time required between each step, so you don't necessarily need to have all of your materials on hand, but it's nice to have them close anyway.

Step Two: build your castle out of foil. Oven-bake clay, especially the kind you bake at home, shouldn't really be thicker than 1/2 inch. The outer clay would become too brittle before the inner clay was baked through. Therefore, you first have to build a skeleton for your sculpture out of armature wire or something like aluminum foil. The foil was quick and easy; however, make it dense. I just kind of haphazardly crumpled up foil and left a lot of air in, which made it really difficult to keep shape later when I was smoothing sections of clay together.

Step Three: add clay. Work the clay in your hands until it's nice and soft, then roll into small sheets with the dowel rod, or any smooth cylindrical object. Cover your skeleton with the sheets and smooth creases by blending with your thumb and forefinger. Remember to keep the clay thinner than 1/2 inch. To make rolls, like I've used on the doors and the balcony, roll a chunk of clay out with your two forefingers, rolling on the fatter parts to even them out. For the cones, roll out as circular a sheet as possible, then pinch the center between thumb and forefinger and twist the remaining clay around. To make the ramparts, roll out a circular sheet and roll the edges up, then depress at intervals with a toothpick.

Step Four: bake the clay. Follow the instructions on your clay packaging. The Sculpey clay requires 15 minutes at 275 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1/4 inch of thickness. Even if your clay's a little thicker in some places, I would start at 15 minutes and check on it then. Allow to cool completely, ideally overnight to let it set.

I'm afraid I slacked on the process pictures for the next sections, so bear with me.

Step Five: paint. My castle is white with grey accents, and the stone is "flecked with black." I painted to these specifications as best I could.

Step Six: assemble. After the paint is dry, make sure your workspace is covered, and spray the canvas board with the adhesive. Set the castle/sculpture in its place on the board. Arrange the floral rocks and moss where desired, applying more adhesive as needed. I also drew a banner with the Clan's symbol on it; I glued a toothpick along the top of the banner, and glued this to a thin dowel rod cut in half. This was glued on the back of the board.

And voila! A castle:

This was a lot of fun! I hope to be able to play with the clay a little more, next time using a much more dense foil skeleton. I think that will help add a more authentic, solid look. I'm also going to play around with texturizing options. I used a toothpick to try and add some stone detail, but it would have been painstaking to go over the whole thing that way, so next time I will make use of a stamp or something similar. The coolest thing was the moss. Especially in the last picture, it really gives it an earthy feel, which is nice. Really completes the picture.