Monday, March 31, 2008

Home Improvements I

When we bought this house, there were two things that really sold it for us. First, it has just an amazing backyard. I love sitting in this room, looking outside, even in the winter.

Secondly, it had "good bones." Which means we like the layout of the house for the most part, but hated the decorating of the house. It has old carpeting. Lots of wallpaper. Some pretty hideous bathrooms.

For most of the winter, we have ignored it. Miss Thing's room was painted when we first moved in, as was ours (because Mr. H was concerned about his manhood being permanently sucked away due to the heavy pink walls and carpeting). We were also going to do the kitchen this winter, but decided to wait so we could save a little more. We made due with the rest of the house with the occasional spackling and 3 corner tear to the wallpaper. These, we said to ourselves, were to inspire us to get working on the house.

Yesterday, Mr. H had originally planned on working on the boat, but the weather was not quite warm enough. So instead, we through caution to the wind, got the living room primed and stripped wallpaper from the dining room. The dining room should be done by today or tomorrow, and then I get to work on the hallway wallpaper. The carpeting in the dining room is disgusting (especially so after spending the day soaking it with a vinegar solution from wallpaper removal), so we will be ripping up the carpeting and laying down hardwood in some form (I really love the concept of bamboo as a sustainable resource, but damn if it doesn't look funny).

The goal is to have all of this done in time for a graduation party in the late spring/early summer. Or maybe late summer. Since several of our friends are sailers, it's hard to throw a party when the weather is nice enough to go sailing.

I have never removed wallpaper before, but I have heard what a pain in the patootie it is. While it is time consuming, honestly, I didn't think it was that bad. If I could manage to peel the top layer off, getting the glue and backing off was fairly easy with a mixture of boiling hot water and vinegar. I took my time, trying to make sure I could get all the glue off, and trying not to damage the plaster. It appears that they did put a primer down before they papered, and I'm pretty sure that helped a lot. It took me about 5 hours to get through half the room. One wall came off like a dream, but the other ones needed a lot more time and care. I hope to get through the rest tonight. As I sit here and write this, I listen to Mr. H and Miss Thing peeling off wallpaper making happy cathartic noises, much like I did when I would sunburn and then peel the skin off. Quite similar really.

I'll scrape tonight again. Mr. H will sand down the walls and then paint.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Anise 1, World 0

I thought I would reflect a bit on my most recent holiday Feast.

Black licorice. I don't know anyone who likes it (except I think my mom likes it). I remember eating pizzelles that were heavy on the anise flavor and just gagging with disappointment that the crisp delicacy had been poisoned with that flavor. At one of my favorite college coffee shops, I used to pick the anise seeds out of the rock-hard biscotti that I would eat (one piece would last a whole week. I hope to write about that later). I still don't care for italian sausages that rely heavily on fennel seeds for flavor.

Then about three years ago, I bought a little french taragon plant, and I fell in love. For some reason, tarragon's mild anise flavor seemed so much more delicate, so gentle. Nothing at all like the harsh explosions from anise seeds. I started using it in everything. I made a tomato-tarragon spread that I use on bagels and crackers. People can't place the taste. (I even took the plant with me when we moved up here. It overwintered successfully, and I almost wept with joy - I hope it makes it to planting).

My secret mission for the past two years has been to try to make anise more accessible. My biscotti, although edible without a jackhammer, uses a mixture of anise, vanilla and almond. I couldn't think of it without the slight anise tinge. I experimented with springerle this past christmas season with a heavier anise flavor. Again, even those who profess not to like anise ate the cookies.

However, I have not been able to move past to fennel. Inevitably, someone sees it, and turns their nose up. Two years ago at Thanksgiving, I made a mixed greens salad with fennel, orange and onion. No one touched it (now, this could also be in part because I made WAY to much food. Two 15 pound turkeys for 12 people? WTF was I thinking?). I would buy it, and Mr. H would just shake his head.

"Trying again?"

"Hell yes."

I am happy to say, that this Easter, fennel won. I made a potato-leek-FENNEL gratin. And one of the cousins asked for the recipe. Now, you have to keep in mind that most of my family considers things that don't come with a powdered cheese sauce gourmet. And I don't mean that in a disparaging way, but more as a description of their context. I usually joke about the ingredients I'm sneaking into the meals. I love sharing things that my family hasn't seen or tasted before. I gave my step-mother-in-law her first taste of blood orange this weekend, and I just loved seeing her face at the different taste. Anyway, I digress....

The gratin was really tasty. Sure, you couldn't really taste the fennel that much. And it was covered in heavy cream and cheese. But the fennel DID add something to the dish, and I wouldn't leave it out...

Potato-Fennel Gratin (based on the recipe from epicurious)

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
3 chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only)

2 medium-size fresh fennel bulbs, sliced very thin
About 3-4 large red-skinned potatoes or other waxy potato, peeled, thinly sliced (2 lbs?)

3 cups grated Jarlsburg cheese

1 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
3/4 cup whipping cream

Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a large glass baking dish (mine was a little larger than a 13x9). Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add leeks cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Layer potatoes so they cover the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle layer with about 1/2 of fennel and 1/2 of leek mixture, follow with 1/2 of cheese (you're going to end up with about three layers - top layer being potato). Layer potatoes on top of the cheese, repeating the previous fennel, leek and cheese layers. Top with a layer of potatoes. I was dangerously close to the top of the gratin at this point, so I pressed everything down.

Heat cream and chicken broth and pour over potato mixture. The liquid will come close to submerging the top, but probably won't submerge the top layer. I pressed down the potatoes so they got some moisture on them, but wasn't terribly concerned. Several people had reported that there was too much moisture in the original recipe, so I cut it back and just kept an eye on it.

Bake for about an hour or so or until the top layer is golden brown. As it cooks, the potatoes should shrink a little, and the liquid covers them. If not, add a little more cream-chicken broth liquid to them. You don't want too liquidy of potatoes.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Happy Easter from the Fam-i-ly

My favorite christmas song describes a car crash of a holiday party. I wish I could re-write it for easter. There is definitely some car crash potential. Hopefully all will go well.

After hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is now time to host the next major holiday. I'm trying to keep the menu fairly simple, without sneaking too much weird new stuff into the food. We are going to deep fry another turkey, at the request of my father in law, but since I had already bought the ham at that point, we're going to do both meat groups.

I'm trying a couple new recipes that I'm eager to share, but I'll wait to see how they go over first. Below is the menu for Easter at our house..

In the beginning...
Deviled Eggs
Veggie Tray
Scotch Eggs

Sinking our teeth into it...
Deep fried turkey
Potato Leek Gratin
Tossed salad with Blood Oranges and Onion

Sugar High
Egg Cake
Easter Cheese

Bunny Cake

While I would probably fall into that generic pick-up line "spiritual but not religious," I do love a good holiday feast. More on the rest of the feast later, but one request this year was for an easter cake. The Marvelous Miss Thing had been prowling around Andersons admiring the half spheres of shortening-laden sugar all week. Egg cakes and bunny cakes called her name. I promised her a cake for easter (as if we need any more sugar in this house right now).

So above is a quick hustling together of an easter cake. I didn't have much time as I have other things on the menu, but he'll do. I made the frosting with a heavy whipped cream base, which although makes for a creamy and soft frosting, also means it's a bitch to frost with, especially with a chocolate cake. It's hard to tell, but I used my ball mold, so inside is a mountain of almond-flavored whipped cream. Some leftover fondant from another party makes the mouth, nose and teeth. Mr. H really emphatically believed that the bunny needed more anatomically correct eyes, but I told him to shove off, I had a turkey to deep fry and fennel to ponder.

Just for kicks, I'm going to submit the cake for the easter cake IMBB (is my blog burning?) at A Slice of Cherry Pie. Not one of my best cakes, but after nibbling on it for several days, it was super tasty.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Dissertation Scarf

The present for my dear advisor was completed. On time. Even in time to block it. Amazingly enough.

This scarf is officially known as the dissertation scarf because of all the similarities between this scarf and my dissertation. First, there are many flaws, but I pray that no one looks close enough to find them. Secondly, there are sections of it that I had to redo an ungodly number of times (I think that 11th repeat I knitted, ripped out, and knitted again 6, count it, S-I-X times). Thirdly, I put a lot of myself into it, and I'm darn proud of it. Fourth, they were both, at times, pushed to completion because of the hovering spector of my advisor.

Fortunately, I think she loved it. It's the perfect color her. It was a little longer than I had thought it was going to be, but all in all a beautiful piece of work. I found some beautiful engraved shell buttons to sew on the end.

Things I learned from this scarf:

1. How to use lifelines (thank you Emily)
2. How to troubleshoot mistakes. I learned how to fix dropped yarnovers and all sorts of errors.

Just one in a sea of many...

All the PhDs get to wear the red and grey robes, bachelor's and masters wear black. There were about 120 PhDs yesterday that received their hood with their diploma. I also got to see two of my previous students graduate with their bachelor's, as well as a very good friend of mine from my previous staff position at Big U.
My advisor (about 5 inches shorter than I am) managed to get my hood on even though I hugged her too soon. I cried. They called my name. I cried. I shook the hand of the president of the university, and I think I had snot running down my face when they took my picture. I txted Mr. H and waved to Miss Thing through most of the ceremony.

I think about 700 people received their degrees on Sunday. The stadium was packed. But now, it is done.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

No, I haven't abandoned this already....

It has been a busy week, too busy even to blog. I haven't cooked. I've barely knitted. I actually *gasp* worked most of the week on two very different projects. One academic related, one food related.

Tomorrow is graduation. I get a snappy hat and for once, my name called. I have informed most of my family (my parents, Mr. H and Miss Thing excluded) that they are not to attend, but rather encouraged them to watch the streaming video from the comfort of their homes.

After tomorrow, I am officially a PhD.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Bring out yer dead...

"Doktor Schnabel von Rom" ("Doctor Beak from Rome") engraving, Rome 1656 From en-wikipedia
Paul Fürst (after J Columbina)

The plague has struck our house. Truly. So far, I am the only one still left unscathed, but since Mr. H is scheduled to be gone this week, it is almost predestined that I will come down with it the night before he leaves. The Pitiful Miss Thing is starting to perk up slightly, but she is still running a fever, as is Mr. H. And of course, due to the weather, I can't run away and escape.

I am going to be wearing one the above getups for the next week to scare off this foo.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sick kid

I'm at home today with a Pitiful Miss Thing who decided at about 9:00 last night to run a 103 degree fever. Thursday is her favorite day to get sick, because Friday is just a little too soon to see a doctor, and by the third day of a fever which is usually when I take her in, it is Sunday, and there is no one who will see her. By the time we have spent 4 or 5 hours sitting an an urgent care, she will somehow become miraculously cured just as we finally get a doctor to see her.

This also means we have been cooped up at home for two days straight since yesterday was a snow day. Mr. H has been swamped with work this week so I rarely even see him come out of his office. And if he does, he has his stress hat on.

While I have an inferno child pressed up against me for the next 12 hours, I hope to get close to finishing the present for my advisor since graduation is next weekend! I have saved all my crafty karma from the past ten years to pull this one off. Under the care and advice of my highly crafty mother, I think I have several nice things planned, which I will share later since it is a gift. I hope I can pull this off. I have been so unsuccessful in the past. Feel free to sacrifice a small animal to the crafty gods for me.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

My first pate

There are a lot of people who don't like liver. I suspect it is because there are a lot of people who have never tried liver. As a child, I remember my irish-immigrant grandmother used to order liver and onions if available (that is, when we weren't eating at McDonalds which along with it's never ending supply of fish sandwiches seemed to represent to her all that was good with this country America). I remember my aunt making pate for special occasions - big bowls of the brown squishy stuff slabbed on crusty bread. All the adults ate it. I don't recall liking it back then, but I used to like the smell of it. Earthy and meaty.

Mr. H's grandfather used to make liver and onions as well, and regale with great horror stories of the smell of liver and onions in the house. I never thought it smelled that bad, but I always liked onions.

In Las Vegas one year, I ordered an appetizer of duck ravioli served on seared foi gras at Sensi (don't hate me for the foi gras). Mr. H recoiled at the idea, but I asked him to try one bite. His eyes lit up, and marveled at the texture and taste. He practically ate the whole thing. Over the next few years, I have gotten him to try pate as well. He likes it, kind of (grumpily mumbling "not as good as foi gras") and not enough to cook it at home, so when we had an improptu get together this weekend for a few friends, I ventured to make my first pate. I had it on good authority that at least one other person liked pate, so I was hopeful that it might get consumed.

It was fairly easy to make, and the liver did not smell up the house when cooking (one of my biggest fears. I was concerned that I might throw Mr. H into a full-fledged psychotic breakdown re-living childhood memories of beef liver). It was also well-recieved. I thought it had a bit more of a "liver" aftertaste than I usually like. Plus, it's so damn rich, you can't really eat much of it. The eight of us ate about a quarter of it. I split it into two crocks, so I hope to freeze the other one.
My final rating: Good, but I'm not sure it's worth the calories. So few people actually like liver, and many won't try it because it IS liver, or like my mom, can no longer eat liver due to health reasons. I have a reciped for a lentil pate that tastes remarkably like the real thing, so I'll probably stick to that from now on.

The original recipe came from Epicurious. The below contains my modifications.

Liquored up Pate

1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon minced fresh sage
1 tbls minced fresh parsley (plus some for garnish)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 lb chicken livers, trimmed (I wish I knew what you were supposed to do to trim the liver. That will be my next step)
2 tablespoons whiskey (because I didn't have bourbon)
1 tbls Port wine (because I have a whole bunch of Port)

Melt 1 stick butter in a large nonstick skillet over moderately low heat, then cook onion and garlic, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add herbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and livers and cook, stirring, until livers are cooked outside but still pink when cut open, about 8 minutes. Stir in bourbon and port and remove from heat. Purée mixture in a food processor until smooth, then transfer pâté to crock and smooth top.

Melt remaining 1/2 stick butter in a very small heavy saucepan over low heat, then remove pan from heat and let butter stand 3 minutes. Skim froth from butter, then spoon enough clarified butter over pâté to cover its surface, leaving milky solids in bottom of pan.

Chill pâté until butter is firm, about 30 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 2 hours more. Garnish with additional parsley. Serve with mustard, and those little french pickles.

Lessons from a Man-Scarf

I finished Mr. H's scarf the other day. It has been blocked, and he has even worn it (once).

Things I have learned from this scarf...
  • How to knit. At least, how to knit into the right hole (boy, that sounds perverted)
  • How to cable. Much, much easier than I thought.
  • How to weave in ends. There are a lot of stripes in the scarf, and I learned a lot of different techniques (aka - I messed around a lot) to weave in ends.
  • Some of the differences between good yarns and not so good yarns. This particular yarn was an alpaca blend and left fuzz everywhere. In addition, when wet, it actually smells like an alpaca.

A successful experience. I learned a lot. Mr. H is happy. I'm happy it's done. On the to next learning experience.