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Zoom Cooking with Amy

It’s such a privilege to be alive at the end of a day to watch the sunset, and I’m grateful for the gorgeous displays of alpenglow we’ve gotten to witness recently. I took a quick break between a zoom webinar and zoom cooking to step out on the deck and enjoy the last of it. Except for the company, it was the best part of the evening.

I’m not having a very good run of recipe selections, so I made Amy choose for next time. This week I selected Shingled Sweet Potatoes with Harissa. Amy said compared to the carrot noodles it was a 10 out of 10. My experience of it was more like a 4. I’m grateful to try a new recipe, anyway.

I loved the idea because the dish looked beautiful the way Molly Baz prepared it. I cut the recipe in half, and Amy made a third of it: hers looked beautiful too, but mine just looked interesting. Also I didn’t have pistachios so I used pecans.

I still haven’t learned the trick to cooking at altitude, after thirty years! Even though they were thinly sliced and baked at 400℉ for an hour, my sweet potatoes still had a stiff crunch. I hate hard sweet potatoes! I do! Also, they were a bit spicier than I could eat much of, so I microwaved my dish for a total of five more minutes and top dressed with some Greek yogurt. Those measures helped, but once you undercook a sweet potato it’s hard to get it right. The leftovers may end up as dog food, Wren loves spicy food, maybe from her New Mexico roots.

Amy’s looks like it ought to look. She used pistachios, and apparently black sesame seeds, and cooked in a little copper pot. She also didn’t baste every quarter hour as instructed, and said that’s why she got a crispy top. I think my problem was more the oven temperature at this altitude. IF I were to make this dish again, and I might for a dinner party, IF I ever host or go to a dinner party again, I’d bake it at 425℉. Even regular potatoes don’t bake like they do at sea level–I don’t know how much of it is altitude, and how much aridity. Everything’s a little quirky up here. At least I used homegrown fennel seeds, and they were the best part of the dish for me. Live and learn! I’m always grateful for Zoom Cooking with Amy, whether the food succeeds or fails it’s always a win for us.

Things We Never Knew

A photo from Singing Mountain Observatory just down the road from me on Fruitloop Mesa, four days ago. Thanks to George Dunham for permission to share his beautiful image of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).

I’m grateful for so much today, starting with the middle of last night. Just before I crawled into my cozy bed, for which I am always ever so grateful, I stepped outside on the deck with binoculars to see if I could see comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF). I don’t even need to know what that name means, except that I do know it was discovered less than a year ago as it approaches Earth for the first time in roughly 50,000 years. How exciting is that? I’m grateful for things we never knew.

Once I finally figured out where the Little Dipper is, which I never bothered to learn, it was easy to find the comet, and a thrill to observe it even though it was just a bright smudge in the dark sky through my birding binoculars. It will be another few days before it reaches its perigee, but it might be visible to the naked eye tonight in a dark enough sky. Last night, at 12℉ with a faint cloud cover, I didn’t stay out long. Talk about perspective though! I love the cosmos for putting me in my place.

I am little ashamed of myself that I boycotted the sciences in college because of judging the credit system to be unfair. It seemed wrong that should get three credits for three one-hour classes in English, and three credits for three one-hour classes PLUS a four-hour lab once a week in most of the sciences. I was also attached to what I knew, and I resisted the idea that in science, what we know changes constantly. I wanted to learn something and have that be that. That ridiculous bias faded through the years of simply living and recognizing the impermanence of everything, and now I kinda wish I had studied science more intensely. However, it’s been my hobby for decades, and one delight has been the night sky. For the requisite science course, I took Astronomy/Cosmology, which did not have a lab requirement, with a fabulous professor named Hans von Baeyer. I had a massive crush on him, and loved that he sent us out overnight to keep a star and planet log. I went with my new boyfriend and it’s one of the happiest memories of my college life, dozing and waking in our sleeping bags through the night to keep my log. I’m a fool for physicists still. Not the boyfriend, he was a sports writer who enjoyed a long career in that pursuit; I mean my crush on Hans and a couple of other physicists through the years.

I’m grateful that Wren had a rather uneventful vet visit today, with good heart and lung sounds, and the sad news that she is a little too chunky for her health. This did not come as a surprise, and it’s going to be hard to cut back on her treats, but she needs to lose a couple of pounds. She didn’t get even a tiny taste of the Sonic shake despite her best efforts at persuasion. She also has a little freckle on her belly that has been growing since I noticed it a few months ago. Dr. Emily measured it at 1.5 mm and told me to come back in six months or if it reaches 3 mm, whichever comes soonest. She mentioned the risks that come with anesthesia and didn’t want to do an unnecessary biopsy. So we wait and see, and hopefully it stops growing and is just a freckle.

And finally, after leaving out a dozen other quotidian things I’m grateful for today, I’m grateful for maybe the best loaf of bread so far. It freezes well so in the morning I’ll slice it and freeze half, and enjoy sandwiches and French toast for a couple of weeks.

Podcasts

I’m grateful for finishing this fun puzzle of Carmel, with all its miniature businesses, restaurants, shops, and homes, little people in windows, giant garden gnomes, and myriad other tiny details. It was challenging in a different way than the birds puzzle, and easier but not much. I’m grateful for puzzling friends and sharing puzzles.

I’m grateful for podcasts, of which I listen to quite a few when I’m puzzling. I listen to Lions Roar podcast, Upaya Zen Center podcast, NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”, Catherine Ingram’s “In the Deep,” and several others, including random recommendations from trusted friends, and one I stumbled upon the other day, The Brain Health Revolution podcast. This particular episode is a marvelous overview of research from 2022 including correlations between napping and dementia, cannabis use and cognitive impairment, and evidence that some people in a coma may be conscious–followed by a lively discussion of how we don’t even know what consciousness is. It’s a couple of neurologists, Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, with an easy way together, sharing their enthusiasm about the research in their fascinating field.

I’m grateful for the technology that allows me to have the world at my fingertips, from the laser cutters at Liberty Puzzles, to the digital opportunities for learning and growth.

The States Project

I’m grateful for a simple, delicious, white bean and artichoke heart dish garnished with feta, parsley, and paprika.

I’m grateful for the States Project. Their motto is “EVERYTHING WE CARE ABOUT STARTS IN THE STATES.” We tend to think that policies and laws that affects our daily lives happen in the federal government, but it’s just not true. The most important policies and laws are enacted at the state level, and the States Project works effectively to get candidates elected in critical state legislatures to protect human rights, the environment, and democracy. I was grateful tonight to zoom with my goddaughter Melody and her mother, one of my oldest friends, and the States Project came up in our conversation. Mel’s good friend Melissa Walker, a children’s book author, leads the Giving Circle arm of the group, and their data-based strategy successfully held or flipped several state legislatures in favor of the people of those states rather than rightwing extremists and conspiracy theorists. I was glad to be reminded of this powerful tool at our disposal going into the next election cycle, and encourage everyone to check out and contribute to their proven winning strategy.

Relaxing

Wren is as happy to see Dr. Leigh as I am. I’m grateful she works on a Sunday. Town was empty; there was no one at the gas station so it was easy to fill up. I’m grateful I can afford to fill up, and that I have a car to fill up…

I was so grateful when I first learned that relaxation is a skill that we need to practice. I’m grateful to have various means available to facilitate my relaxation practice, including a gentle chiropractor with a magic touch.

I’m grateful I could come home and relax with a quick pizza, small homemade crust from the freezer and some random toppings. I cooked down a dollop of plain sauce with a mix of dried herbs and garlic slices, sliced some red onion, martini olives, and the last of the summer’s spicy dill pickles, and topped with shredded mozzarella. Baked to perfection! After lunch I enjoyed a nearly perfect homemade creme brûlée, relaxing with a sense of great satisfaction that I finally ticked that recipe off my bucket list.

I spent a little time relaxing outside with the cameraphone, finally managing to get the moon halfway decently with iPhone alone. I’ve figured out the technique, and identified a challenge with rural living. I’m supposed to focus the camera first on a streetlamp, that’s what the tutorial said. My patio light isn’t bright enough or far enough away to lock the exposure and focus accurately to capture the moon when the lens is turned on it. There was a light cloud cover, which helped; the other night it was so bright the camera captured only a blinding white circle. I’m grateful I get to relax both outside and inside my house.

Relaxing after the moon shot with a bitters and soda, garnished with a slice of rangpur lime. I’m grateful this special little citrus fruit made it from Florida to my kitchen to remind me of the tricks our memories can play–you learn something new every day!

Sharing Recipes

First, get you one of these…

I’m so grateful to readers who want to know more about something I’ve cooked or baked. I love sharing recipes, both directions. A couple of friends wrote to me after receiving their holiday biscottis, saying almost word for word the same thing: “I love biscotti. And this is by far the best I’ve ever had.” One of them added, “Give a woman biscotti and she enjoys bliss for 3 days. Teach a woman to make biscotti and she will have a lifetime of bliss!” I immediately set out to create a biscotti tutorial, and here it is.

First, hightail it to King Arthur and get a biscotti pan. You might find one elsewhere but why not get the best. This takes all the suffering out of forming the initial loaf for baking. Then make sure you have a couple of not-so-usual ingredients, espresso baking powder and candied ginger. Here are the two I use.

I think it’s best to buy espresso powder rather than try to grind your own beans down small enough. This is made from organic beans powdered so finely that they readily dissolve, but if you like a bit of extra crunch you could grind your own.

Here’s my recipe, modified slightly from the original. For one thing, I put all spices in order of amount so that I can just set them all on the counter and run through my measuring spoons, saving the liquids for last of course. It’s simple because you just put all ingredients except the last three into the mixing bowl, mix on low til incorporated, and then whip on high for 90 seconds, which is just enough time to weigh out the flour. I do start by chopping the candied ginger smaller so I have that ready when it’s time to add flour and ginger to the ribbony batter.

The batter gets light and ribbony after whipping for ninety seconds.

Mix in the flour and chopped ginger on low until the flour is just barely incorporated, don’t overmix. The texture is like damp sand, but sticky. Here’s where that biscotti pan pays off. The original directions call for gathering it together with your hands and forming it into a loaf on parchment paper. In my experience with this dough, there is no gathering possible. I line the pan with a sheet of 9×13 parchment paper (and an aside, I used to think it wasteful to pay a little more for pre-cut parchment paper instead of the roll, but it is such a time and frustration saver). Then evenly dump the mixture into the pan…

…and gently press flat with your fingers or a spatula.

Bake in preheated 325℉ oven–and make sure that it’s been preheating through your whole mixing process–for 40-45 minutes. For me perfect is somewhere around 43. If you bake it too long or not long enough it makes it harder to cut later. Don’t turn off the oven! Once the pan is out of the oven, I lift the loaf out of the pan with the paper handles and let it cool on a rack for ten minutes.

Then you slice the loaf diagonally with a serrated knife into ¾” slices. I think it slices easier if you flip the loaf over onto the cutting board and cut across the smooth bottom rather than try to cut across the textured top. See what works for you. You’ll be making this more than once!

Slice slowly, smoothly, gently, don’t saw it like you might bread or pieces will break off. If the knife gets sticky from the ginger pieces, you can rinse and dry it partway through. No need to be too precise about the width of the slices, you’ll get about a dozen, plus a few shorter pieces from the diagonals at each end. Naturally, these are too small to give away so you must eat them yourself.

Lay out all your pieces on their sides, on a cookie sheet lined with 12×16″ parchment paper and put them in the oven. They won’t spread any more, so you don’t need to worry about spacing. I like to set the rack one notch above middle. Bake for 7-8 minutes then remove the pan, flip each biscotti onto its other side (except the corners, no need), and bake another 7-10 minutes. The longer these bake here, the crunchier the cookie. During this last bake, I melt the chocolate, but you can do it later. I’ve tried microwaving but did not get the consistency I wanted, so I do as the recipe suggests and melt in a stoneware bowl over simmering water–not boiling, and not touching the bottom of the bowl. You can use any kind of chocolate, but I prefer extra dark; it both melts better and tastes better than semi-sweet chips. Break it into bits and melt til it’s smooth and runny. Once the biscotti are out of the oven you can ice them any time.

Turn the biscotti rightside up on the cooling rack over the parchment paper they cooked on. (This is important, because once the chocolate sets and you put away the biscotti and the rack, you’ll have a bunch of chocolate drops on the paper that you’ll need to clean up. And by clean up, I mean eat.)

Using a teaspoon–the kind you stir ice-tea with–I drip one spoonful over the top of each cookie and let it drip down the sides here and there. Nothing fancy. You can use more or less chocolate than called for. Then, patience. Wait til the chocolate sets solid before doing anything else. This can take some hours, and will depend on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen. I’ve tried setting these out in the cold mudroom to speed up the set, but don’t like the result. You’ll know they’re set when the shine is gone. Best to leave them even longer before boxing, bagging, or tinning them, but certainly you ought to try one with a cuppa something hot at this point. And that, my dear, is how you make the best biscotti ever.

And now, Sandra, here’s the answer to your question, which motivated me to post the biscotti recipe today. Here’s how I made the fried grits.

I tweaked the basic recipe above, incorporating elements from the variations. I used 2 cups water and 1 cup milk, a large pat of butter, salt, and less than a cup of grits but not as little as ¾ cup. I poured the grits in slowly, stirring steadily, before the liquid boiled and stirred constantly after it boiled, for… awhile. More than five minutes, less than 15, until it was thick and smooth. Near the end I stirred in about a quarter cup of broken up white cheddar and cooked a bit longer til there was no crunch left. It was thick but pourable, and I poured out most of it into a glass container a couple inches thick, let it cool to room temp, and put it in the fridge. To fry, I melted butter in a small, non-stick Greenpan skillet, sliced the cold grits ⅝” thick, and fried on both sides til crispy. So simple, so delicious! I use only silicone tools on these expensive-but-worthit pans. Enjoy!

Learning Something New

In keeping with my word for the year, Curiosity, I tried a couple of new things today. Last night, I craved grits to go with the leftover Good Luck beans, so I cooked up a pot of Bob’s Red Mill grits with butter, milk, and a bit of cheddar in addition to the boiling water. Today I cut a slice of cold grits from the container and fried it in butter to go with more beans for lunch; I fried another with my dinner salad. It’s the most successful, and delicious, fried grits I’ve managed, and I think that’s largely due to finding the perfect way to cook them initially. I’m grateful for learning something new.

Another new thing I learned is how to photograph the moon with an iPhone. After Amy sent a video clip about it, I played around with the camera tonight until I figured it out. Unfortunately, by the time I got it, the moon had gone behind clouds, so I just shot Wren standing guard instead. But I know now how to do it, next time the moon peeps out from the clouds! I’m grateful for the village it takes to raise me, and for a camera in my pocket that I can also use to call for help if I ever need it.

Resting

I’m grateful for the mental exercise of this gorgeous puzzle that occupied my free time for the past ten days, a record long time from start to finish. It was so challenging in so many ways, and I’m finding it challenging even to write about it. I’ve taken a lot of pictures of the process, and noted my thoughts along the way, and I just haven’t found the hours it will take to do it justice in a post. But I intend to! I’ll have to start right after lunch to avoid getting to normal blog time and finding myself too spent to do it. Maybe tomorrow! I’m grateful tonight, after a full day, for resting.

Meanwhile, I’m grateful today for orchid blooms coming on again as they do each winter. Here’s one of the first, a little one I pulled from a pot it outgrew. I’d been saving this hollow log for months until the right orchid happened along. This looked pretty tragic when I put it in there, but it immediately revived and after only a few weeks in the log it started a flower spike, and has now graced me with its first blossom.

And, I’m grateful to have my desk back! I normally leave a puzzle up for a couple of days after I finish it, but it’s been ten days without my desk, and using the computer on the sideboard or my actual lap was getting uncomfortable. So after photographing each bird card in the puzzle this afternoon I broke it down. It’s very gratifying to spend time with all the pieces again disassembling the puzzle, remembering how puzzling some of them were along the way, recalling the satisfaction of finding matches, or simply delighting again in the whimsy pieces and the genus of the cut designer.

The Tropic Bird was one I gave a lot of attention to searching for its subtle colors. One thing I love about it and many others is how the bird is the juxtaposition of the image of the bird on one position with a whimsy piece of the bird in a different position; here, diving in the image, and rising in the puzzle piece. That’s just damn clever!

The Right Tools for the Job

I received a bamboo beaded curtain today for the pantry doorway. It’s an odd size, and in more than 25 years I haven’t been able to find an actual door for it. I used a blind for awhile but after a couple of times repairing the strings it wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. The beaded curtain isn’t the perfect fix because the strands are too far apart to really block daylight, which is important when pickling or simply storing home canned goods. I may need to buy a second one and install it a half inch to the side; or, I might find another solution to supplement the beads; or I might do nothing more. Either way, I’m grateful to own, and know how to use, the right tools for the job. I’m grateful, almost every time I do a little home improvement project, to the Colonel for teaching me to use tools, and the value of the right tool for the job. I’m grateful for this little Makita battery-operated drill/screwgun that’s served me well for many years. I’m grateful for my mother’s high-school ruler that I ran across deep in her old desk drawer some years ago. I’m also grateful for blue painters’ tape, and for the Trans Handy Ma’am‘s tips.

I stumbled upon her on Instagram and have joined her 143,000 followers. She’s been a burlesque performer for many years, but her day job has been in home maintenance. She offers basic tips with a side of compassion, and I’ve learned a few things from her, like how to use a piece of painters’ tape to measure and mark something for hanging on the wall, or in this case on the doorway. Most of her followers are women, many are single mothers, and many are renters. She focuses on the needs of this demographic, and often wraps her segments with, “And remember, you’re worth the time it takes to learn a new skill.”

Good Examples

I’m always grateful for lunch, day after day. Today I was grateful that some weeks ago I made and froze a batch of burritos, so that I could pull one out of the freezer and heat it up for a quick lunch in a busy day, and top it with fresh avocado, sour cream, and fermented hot sauce. I’m really grateful for avocados, and for having finally figured out that I only half-heard the admonition to not refrigerate them. You can’t refrigerate them before they ripen, but after they are ripe they’ll last a whole lot longer in the fridge than on the counter. Duh. Turns out I’m the last to know that trick! I’m grateful for taking a scheduled lunch break every day around noon, and giving myself a whole hour to chill out with making something (or heating it up), and sit down to watch an episode of Star Trek (whatever series I’m on, currently nearing the end of Star Trek: Enterprise). It’s a little ritual that gives me a nourishing break between morning and afternoon work or whatever else the day requires.

Today it required a trip to town to mail some packages, and interact with a surprising number of people, all of whom were unmasked and seemingly unconcerned about the rising ‘triple-demic‘ of Covid, flu, and RSV which is currently crowding hospitals across the country. Acute care and Intensive care units in Colorado are reported to be at 90% capacity right now, and pediatric units across the country are at or exceeding capacity. Health care workers are once again (still?) experiencing burnout and trauma. I can’t help that this information crowds my head when I step outside my comfort zone and see how regular people are ‘getting on with their lives.’

But I digress. I am also grateful for good examples. A friend recently set a wonderful example that I thought of today when I had to make an uncomfortable phone call to talk with a wood supplier about the size of the ‘cordwood’ he had delivered. I was able to navigate this conversation with kindness, respect, and grace, while explaining that while the quality of the wood itself was wonderful, the length of way too much of it was not okay. Below is an entire wheelbarrow load of ‘cordwood’ that was supposed to average 14″ long but measures eight inches or less. If this were the leftover dregs of four cords of wood, there would be no problem, but there is a huge amount of wood this size in every load I bring in. Instead of feeling grateful for each load I bring into the house and build into a fire, I was experiencing afflictive thoughts and emotions of resentment and even anger. I finally realized that I couldn’t go through the whole winter getting pissed off every time I handled the firewood, which is at least a dozen times a day–even more, given the small size and fast burn of this wood. I thought of my friend’s good example handling a situation in which she felt (and was) wronged, and I followed it. After girding my loins and opening a friendly conversation with the supplier, I was left free of the burden of resentment, and he was left able to acknowledge the wrong and assure me that it won’t happen next season.

Maybe they dumped a bunch of scrap wood on me because I ordered late in the season, and they figured as a woman I wouldn’t know the difference. Or maybe it was an honest mistake. Either way, I’ll burn through this wood knowing that I was able to set a good example for myself, planting the seeds of kindness, respect, and benefit of the doubt, instead of letting my old habits, attitudes, and tendencies determine my actions and scattering seeds of discord and anger all around.