Friday, January 31, 2014

A transplanted Texan learns to deal with cold

I was born and raised on the Gulf coast of Texas. When I left Texas and joined the Navy, I lived in California for the better part of 13 years. Winters, for the most part, were mild, short affairs. Then I moved to Virginia, starting in the Southeast, and slowly moving North and West, to where I live now, where any further North or West will put me in another state. Winters here are particularly harsh, but they are definitely WINTER, and I've had to learn new skills to deal with them.

This winter has been particularly cold, with several mornings below zero, even before wind chill is factored in. My career doesn't allow me the luxury of snow days, and very often I'll spend part of the day working outside, especially when the weather is severe. I've just had to learn to cope, and I thought I'd share some of what I've learned

1. Try to keep your gloves warm. Specifically, don't leave them in the car overnight. Cold gloves will not warm up your hands until your hands warm your gloves.

2. Put your gloves on before your hands are cold. Normally, I hate wearing gloves, but thinking ahead is critical. Basic thermodynamics dictates that it's far easier to keep something warm that's already warm than it is to warm something up that's cold.

3. Cover your ears. Hanging off your head the way they are, they're easy targets for frost bite.

4. Wear a hat.

5. Dress in layers. Add and remove layers as necessary. You can work up a sweat, no matter how cold

6. Heat pumps aren’t effective in truly cold weather. If your house relies on one, you need to come up with an alternate plan to use instead of or to assist the heat pump, or your electric bill is going to go through the roof and your house will still be cold.

7. Your house is going to be cold anyway. Dress accordingly

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

You know you're getting old...

When you daydream about taking naps...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Memory loss is considered to be almost inevitable. I don't know if this is truly so, but I do know that as I've aged I have definitely become increasingly prone to forgetfulness. At one point the problem was bad enough that my (now ex-)wife insisted that I be evaluated for cognitive impairment. While I was waiting for that evaluation to happen, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I found two incredible tools in the battle to save my memory - both were books: Memorize The Faith and Where Did Noah Park the Ark. Of the two, it is the first that helped me the most. Memorize the Faith worked for me because it gave me meaningful exercises to cut my teeth on right for the beginning. The book expounds on the work of Thomas Aquinas, who in turn was relating the work of Cicero and the 'Memory Palace' technique of memory association. As a lover of ancient literature, I had encountered Cicero's exposition and techniques in the past, but didn't find them particularly useful. This book changed everything. The book starts by teaching one to memorize the 10 commandments - backwards and forwards, then moving on to the Sewen Deadly Sins, the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy and the Seven Spiritual Acts of Mercy - all things that I used to know, things I feel I should know, things I want to know and remember. Learning to apply the memory loci techniques to these short, obtainable goals, I gradually realized that nothing was really wrong with my memory - I just wasn't using it properly. The technique of the memory palace is scalable and modifiable as needed. I don't know that it's applicable to everything, but it's certainly applicable to a lot of things, and I use it almost daily. Last night, at RCIA, after more than a year since I last tried to recall the seven deadly sins, I was able to put myself back into my memory palace and recall them all. What the Ancients knew, that contemporary man seems to have largely forgotten, is that memory doesn't just happen - it's a skill, one that can be learned, developed, and honed. Memorize The Faith is very Catholic-centric, which for me is a plus. Where Did Noah Park the Ark, despite its title is more secular, but teaches all of the same techniques, and includes usable exercises as well. I give both books a hearty recommendation.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Spring with a vengeance

The very evening of my last post, "not feeling very well" turned into feeling downright wretched, and the next 36 hours or so left a great deal to be desired. That was no fun at all.

Meanwhile, Spring has arrived, not gradually, but all at once, and it's been borderline hot even. Spring of course, means planting, and planting I have done - not all of it yet, but some - mostly herbs and onions, but some greens as well. A frost is still possible, but really, I'm more worried about the lettuce bolting with the heat than I am about a frost.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Complexity of Food

Not much to write about this week. I haven't been feeling well, my work schedule has been demanding, and I've been helping my local Amateur Radio Club build up some infrastructure, so I haven't started anything new. Not starting anything new doesn't mean what it used to mean though - I whipped up my weekly batch of mayonaise, pickled some more carrots, and have been minding the sauerkraut. Spring has arrived early this year, so that means clearing debris from the yard, freshening up the compost piles, and some minor planting. No extravagant cooking though.

Last night, I was getting my grocery list ready for my next trip to the store, and I was struck by how complex food is, even when one is eating simply. I don't think that it occurs to many people when their food is mostly prepared for them by others, but as I go back to basics, buying only raw foods and prepare or process them myself, I've become aware of things that never occurred to me before...

Take potatoes, for instance. Potatoes are a simple and verstile food, suitable for a wide range of cooking methods. All potatoes aren't the same though - some are waxy, and some are starchy. I now keep a supply of at least three different kinds: Russets, Yukons, and Reds. To some extent they're interchangable, but they each excel in some culinary situation where the others simply make do - A russet is your standard baking potato, and I normally use yukons for roasting or mashing, and a red is wonderful boiled along with a pot roast.

Then there's cheese - some cheeses melt, others don't. Some are crumbly, and other want to be shredded. It goes on and on with all the other kinds of food there are. I'm no expert on the matter, but the adventure of discovering the nuances intrigues me.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sick children, but time in the kitchen

I didn't have time to write much this week. Both my kids got sick so I spent three of the past five days playing 'Nurse Dad'.

I did get to spend some time in the kitchen though and was able to break some new ground in my efforts at home-based food preservation.

Beef Jerky

Late last week, I bought a food dehydrator. Not a top of the line model, but not the bottom either. It's made of plastic, which doesn't warm my heart any, but I thought it would be a convenient vehicle for learning - removing some of the variables and ease the learning curve. There was never any question about what I would make first - beef jerky.

I've been wanting to make beef jerky for a long time, mostly just because I like it, but buying the stuff in stores is EXPENSIVE, making what was once a staple food into more of a luxury. Why it costs so much is even more of a mystery to me now than it was before. The process was simple: take a piece of beef - in my case, it was a piece of steak on sale at the grocery store for about $3.00, remove all visible fat and silverskin; slice it thin; marinate it for 24 hours; put it in the dehydrator for six or seven hours; enjoy.

The marinade I used was some apple cider vinegar, worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce, a dab of dijon mustard, red pepper flakes, kosher salt, black pepper, and some ground ginger.

The results were awesome. I brought some into work and it was devoured.

Queso Blanco

This is probably the simplest cheese there is. I made this attempt on a whim. I took the left over milk I had (my kids don't drink enough milk at my house to use up a whole gallon before it goes bad anymore) Some of it was skim milk and some of it was whole milk, all total, about 3/4 gallon and added a couple teaspoons of salt. I brought it up to 190 degrees F - precisely and slowly and then removed it from the heat, and then added the juice of 2 limes and 1/4 cup of white vinegar. I let it sit for a while - maybe 20 minutes. Looking at it, I wasn't sure I had accomplished anything, but I poured the mixture through a strainer lined with a tea towel, and sure enough there were curds. I let the curds drain for a while before squeezing them semi-dry and packing them into a jar. CHEESE! It's really great as a salad topper too.


I don't actually know if this is a success yet, but so far, it seems like it's working. I had two heads of cabbage, weighing maybe 4 pounds. I tried to shed them on my mandolin, but the cabbage thought that was hilarious. I ended up just using a knife. As shredded the cabbage into strips, I thew them into a bowl with some salt - 4 teaspoons total, but added a little at a time. When I was finished shredding, I squashed the cabbage down into the bowl with my potato masher and let it sit for a while. I came back a couple times and squashed it down some more, and mixed the shred up some. After about 30-45 minutes of letting it sit with occasional mashing and mixing, I packed the cabbage into jars (I don't have a crock). There was some liquid in the bowl, but not enough to submerge the cabbage in even one jar. My research was unclear about what to do in this case, since the cabbage is supposed to be submerged to properly ferment, so I added enough filtered water to fill the jars and submerge the cabbage and a little more salt - about a teaspoon per jar. I capped them loosely, wrapped them in towels and stuck them in the cabinets.

The fermentation process is supposed to take a few weeks at least, and it's only been four days. Every other day, you're supposed to squash the cabbage back down and remove any mold that forms on the surface. I've only had to squash them down once so far, and I was worried that by adding the water and more salt that maybe I'd messed things up. When I uncapped the jars though, the smell was distinctly krautish, and there were lots of bubbles on the surface which is a sure-fire sign that fermentation is happening. The cabbage doesn't look any different yet, so I really don't know if it's working or not. I'll let you know in three weeks or so.

More Pickles

Specifically, carrots. I made two batches with the help of my daughter: one sweet (for her) and one spicy (for me). Both batches are quick, infusion-type pickles, and both batches came out well. My daughter seems really proud of herself too, when she asks for a snack of her own special, homemade pickles.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Homemade Mustard - Powerful Stuff

Way back when, I used to work in a movie theater. In the quiet time between shows, my co-workers and I used to talk and a frequent topic was trying to solve life's little mysteries such as:

Why do boys' bikes have that bar across the top of the frame but girls' bikes don't? I actually figured this one out - it's because back in the early days of bicycles, when it was a common means of transportation, women wore long skirts, and the bar across the top would require them to expose themselves.

Exactly what is the purpose of a necktie? I don't know the definitive answer to this one, but my theory is that it was originally intended to hide the buttons. This theory is based on the observations that formal mens clothing (like tuxedoes) use double fronted shirts and/or stud, and cuff-links. Apparently, there was something unseemly about buttons in the old days, and they weren't supposed to show.

Why does mustard come in much smaller jars than mayonaise? I never figured this one out, and for thirty years or so it's been a mystery. One of my co-workers suggested that since mustard gas is poisonous, maybe large quantities of mustard are toxic. I never bought into that theory, but finally, I'm pretty sure I've solved the mystery - it's because real mustard is powerful stuff, and a little bit goes a long way. It comes in smaller containers because it's used in smaller quantities due to its strength, and the small container of mustard will last approximately the same amount of time as the big jar of mayo.

I figured this out, of course, by trying my hand at making homemade mustard. I did a fair amount of reading before I started, and it seemed pretty simple and straight forward. Mustard, the condiment, is made from Mustard, the seeds. The seeds come in three basic varieties: white (or yellow) which it the mildest; brown, which is hotter; and black, which is supposed to kind of rare and extremely hot. The seeds are soaked in liquid - water, wine, vinegar, juice, for a period of time, other spices are added, then everything is ground in to a paste.

Everyone knows there are some basic variations on mustard - American mustard is tangy but not hot, and is distinctively yellow. European mustards are more brownish, and may be hot, sweet, and frequently have wine and whole seeds in them; Asian mustard are yellow or brown, and tend to be very hot. As a kid, I just plain disliked mustard and only ate it if forced to. As I got older, I learned that mustard actually enhanced some foods, especially sausages, and I slowly grew to appreciate the palatte of available mustards and to seek out and try new ones. Although I really groove to hot peppers, I still don't like the hot Asian mustards.

What really got me interested in making mustard at home though, is my daughter. Although she doesn't like anything even remotely spicy as a rule, she LOVES mustard on her sandwiches. She started out with honey-mustard, but now loves plain American mustard. My standard mustard these days is the spicy brown kind, which she's still not really sure about though, mostly because the word 'spicy' in the name. When I told her I was going to try and make mustard, she was really intrigued, so I decided that my first mustard would be American style.

American mustard gets its distinctive yellow color from the addition of turmeric, which turns the pale yellow of yellow mustard paste nearly flourescent. You can of course make a pretty good mustard by mixing dry mustard powder with water, and adding whatever else you want to the mix, but that just wouldn't be the Luddite way, would it? No, I started with the seeds.

I got to work, adding a quarter cup of yellow mustard seeds to a canning jar along with a quarter cup of vinegar. I added a teaspoon of turmeric, salt, and pepper, closed the jar up, and shook it well. Then I put it on the shelf for a couple days, until I could get back to it.

As would be expected, when I got back to it last night, the seeds had soaked up nearly all of the liquid, and had swelled accordingly. I dumped the whole mixture into my blender, added a little water, and set my controls for 'liquefy'. I turned it off less than a minute later because there wasn't enough liquid, and the blender couldn't really do it's thing. It definitely was starting to look like mustard though - so I tasted it. Man, that was extreme! Besides adding some more water, I added a little more salt, and a teaspoon of sugar. The blender did it's thing, and turned the conglomeration into a nice, thick, mustard-looking paste. It was still super strong though, so I added a little more salt, some more sugar, and blended it again. The result was better, but still not right, and only marginally appealing. I was considering dumping the batch and starting over, when I noticed the open bottle of wine I had on the counter. What the heck? I thought, and added about a quarter cup. The result was still very strong, more runny than I like, but tasty enough to actually use, so I jarred it back up and stuck it in the fridge. I've got a couple pounds of Kielbasa waiting for it's date night with that mustard.

So, I've actually made mustard, but I don't really consider myself a mustard-maker at this point. The process definitely needs some work. I'm thinking that the next time I'm not going to soak the seeds in vinegar, but in either wine or water and see if that helps. I've also read that longer soaking or aging the mustard before putting in the fridge can mellow out the flavor. I'll work on this until I get it right, and post the results here. I will conquer mustard.

Next on the condiment trail is ketchup.