Of Texas and Rebirth

Jump to Arroz con Pollo

With all this beautiful weather, the girls and I have been spending most of our time outside.  My parents live out in the country–it takes twenty minutes to get to the nearest town and we could walk to a large cattle ranch no matter which way we went down our road.  The road that their property abuts is fairly quiet, shaded by very old trees.  It’s so peaceful.  The girls and I walk down the road for about a mile on lazy afternoons.

I scrounged up some flower pots in my mother’s shed and bought some soil and seeds.  I decided to go with local flowers–bluebonnets, cockscomb, daisies, and cacti–in the hopes that eventually I will find a job and begin anew with a new apartment or house with a yard or patio in which to plant these flowers.  It was a lot of fun to plant the seeds with the girls, albeit rather messy.  We also planted the verbs and veggies we’d need for salsa.

By the time we were done, the girls thought it was a fabulous idea to roll and jump in the mud.  But such is the life of a parent.

We also caught a caterpillar munching on my mother’s roses.  I put it in a jar with a bunch of leaves, punched holes in the lid, and we watched the little guy munch away.  We also got to see what caterpillar feces look like.  Sadly, though, it seems the little caterpillar has passed away.  The girls wanted me to catch another one for them, but I didn’t want to negligently take another life.

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess Ēostre/*Ostara flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic peoples look up at the goddess from the realm below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I was to mixed up in my own depression, the girls missed out on Ostara and Holi this year.  So I’ve been trying very hard to make sure they get to enjoy Easter.  We still did some pagan things–coloring eggs, having an egg hunt, and talking about rebirth–but I also explained to the girls that some people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter.

And here, I must admit, it’s been difficult instructing the girls in two faiths.  They see similarities with Jesus and the Green Man, which makes sense to me as well.  But I do worry if it will make it difficult for them to understand what Jesus means to Christians.  Or maybe I’m just not explaining it right?

I’m finding symbols of crawling out of a destructive situation popping up in my life lately.

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph...

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph was taken during Kali Puja at Naihati, a town in West Bengal, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve had dreams where the Hindu goddess Kali, normally associated with death and destruction, has talked to me.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been leery of talking to “dark goddesses,” mostly because their destructive power is not something to trifle with.  But Kali was not telling me to go out and to destroy things.  In one dream, she was warning me about a great evil–a random guy I was having a conversation with in the dream.  In another, we were having tea at some random coffee shop, like a pair of old friends, and she was telling me how my situation (the husband/divorce issue, joblessness, isolation) is only temporary, like most things in this world.  Kali has appeared like a grandmother figure, as well.  After talking to some Hindu and pagan friends (and an anthropologist friend) about these dreams, which at first confused me, and doing my own contemplative introspection, I think Kali is telling me that some things must end for good things to begin.

Icon of the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ostara and Easter are both about death and rebirth.  Ostara is a Germanic goddess who is associated with the spring equinox.  She symbolizes the rebirth of nature after its death (winter).  Easter is literally about the death and resurrection of a god (Jesus).  Holi is also about the death and rebirth of the Hindu god of love, Kamadeva, who helped Parvati (of whom Kali is an incarnation) to marry Shiva (god of destruction and rebirth) at the cost of his life.


Arroz con Pollo

I grew up eating what my father refers to as “Texican cuisine,” or what many people call “Tex-Mex.”  One of my mother’s favorite dishes to cook was arroz con pollo.  I cooked it for myself during college, but stopped after about my third year of marriage because my husband wasn’t a fan.  Arroz con pollo, which means “rice with chicken” in Spanish, is pretty popular in Latino cooking and, like most Latino cooking, varies widely from culture to culture and family to family.

Arroz con pollo is one of those dishes that you can whip up to feed many people, and it requires very little work.  As with most of my family recipes, this is my best attempts to measure the palmfuls or shakes of the spice jar, so you may want to adjust the spices to suit your palette.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken leg quarters
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small tomato, diced
  • 1 cube tomato bouillon
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon cumin (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (more or less, to taste)

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  Add the chicken and fry it until it is completely brown on the outside.
  2. Remove the chicken to a bowl, set aside.  (Note, the chicken is still raw and blood may drip, so you want it in a bowl you can easily sterilize.)
  3. Fry the rice in the chicken grease.  Add the onion and bell pepper.  Fry, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender.  Add the tomato and fry a little bit more.
  4. Add the water, tomato bouillon, and spices.  Stir thoroughly.
  5. Cover and let simmer until the chicken is thoroughly cooked (about an hour).  The rice will cook before the chicken does, but it will not burn.  Stir occasionally while it is cooking.

Arroz con pollo goes very well with a fresh vegetable composition, like black bean salad, and homemade iced tea or horchata (or margaritas).

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Jump to Butter Rolls Recipe

Several things happened since my last blog post.  It got colder in Ohio, I’ve discovered that I have not outgrown my dependency on caffeine to be creative, the Super Bowl had the more-sexist-than-usual commercials, Charles Dickens‘ 200th birthday was a pretty big deal, and Starkitten demonstrated that she can write all her capital letters.

And since I’m currently caffeinated (so that I can try to churn another 3,000 words of creative prose in a few hours after posting this), I apologize if my post is too meandering.

The Super Bowl

I admit I do have a seething contempt for the New England Patriots and I hate the New York Giants as a matter of principle (but I also don’t let it get in the way of my personal relationships, so long as they are not playing the Saints).  But, even if I dislike the teams playing, I still watch the Super Bowl.  It’s one of the Great American holidays, right up there with Thanksgiving Day and Buy-Me-Expensive-Things (and maybe celebrate the birth of a God) Day.  I watch because the commercials are supposed to be entertaining and the halftime shows are always either extremely awesome or so terrible that it’s fun.  I think that’s why most Americans watch the Super Bowl, actually.

There were some hilarious commercials, but there were also a few political ones.  What really galled me were the growing number of sexist Super Bowl commercials.

Speed-dating babies?  Hyper-sexualized “naked” M&Ms (as if the Green M&M wasn’t enough)?  Those were sickening, certainly.  But they were nothing compared to the many women-as-nothing-but-sex-objects commercials.

There were the naked models (I have no earthly idea what a naked woman has to do with selling web space) and the cars-as-sexy-women–and that its okay to sexually harass a woman if she is beautiful–and the implication that a woman’s love is only physical in nature and can only be bought with overpriced flowers and perpetuating the social expectation that teenage girls have eating disorders.  These flowers, by the way, are grown in countries where the workers (usually women) develop diseases from pesticide exposure (including miscarriages), get raped by their superiors, and are fired, attacked, or even killed if they complain or try to organize a labor union.  This doesn’t just happen in South America, but also in Kenya (and maybe other countries).  I suppose here I’ll throw in my two cents about how much I hate cut flowers, and not just because they are a sign that the relationship is meant to wither and die.  If you want to get your significant other something for Valentine’s Day, don’t buy cut flowers.

But the sexism of the Super Bowl commercials this year was more insulting than usual.  Do the advertisers forget that women watch the Super Bowl, too?  Do they forget that women buy cars, trade on the stock market, manage websites, and, you know, do all sorts intelligent things?  I promise you, O Mighty Advertisers, the gray stuff between our ears does function.

I really loved the analysis of the commercials given on Jezebel.  The author’s conclusion says best all the things that are wrong with these commercials:

What’s striking about these ads isn’t their offensiveness, necessarily — let’s be honest, we’ve all seen worse. Especially in the case of Teleflora and Fiat, it’s their misguidedness, their commitment to appealing to a bro aesthetic even when studies make clear that this aesthetic dominates neither Super Bowl viewership nor purchasing. Leaving sexism aside, these ads were lazy, and they were boring, and they were outdated. Advertisers need to wake up and recognize that women are watching the game, and we don’t want more commercials about yogurt. We just want to be treated like who we are, which is actual people with actual brains who sometimes buy shit. While they’re at it, maybe advertisers should treat men like this too.

And that’s not even going into all the commercials celebrating only one kind of masculinity: that of barbaric, hulking, violent rage.  Do people realize that children see this stuff and it gets into their heads that this kind of behavior is okay (or that girls should all be straight women who marry this kind of man)?

I can only hope that enough buzz on the web about this kind of nonsense will eventually permeate the powers that be in the advertising industry and they’ll start making more intelligent ads.  And they can.

For instance, the Baby Darth Vader commercial appealed to the nerd in me.  But my absolute favorite was the Fat Dog commercial with the Tatooine cantina attache at the end (which references the Baby Darth Vader)–it won me with a great blend of self-improvement, cuddly dogginess, and geekdom.  You can’t go wrong there.

Charles Dickens Celebrates His 200th…  Only He’s Too Dead to Care

English: Detail from photographic portrait of ...

Charles Dickens - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

So why do we celebrate Charles Dickens?  Because he is one of those authors whose work is timeless.  Because he wrote on social conditions and the great Human Condition without being sanctimonious or pedantic.  And he is celebrated.  Pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of him or is at least familiar with his characters: Pip, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, and others.  Pop culture references them all the time.

The web has also been abuzz with commemorations of Dickens’ birthday.  There was a Google doodle in his honor.  The royal family in the United Kingdom made a formal celebration of his contributions to the literary world and social thought.

I suppose, as so many have said, the attraction to Dickens today is that, despite progress we humans have made in terms of social and political reform and technology, things haven’t really changed.  Most people can identify with Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol,” for instance.  Or have a skeptical view of the legal system such as Dickens portrayed in “Bleak House.”

Dickens was also a powerful advocate for education.  He believed that with literacy and education, people would be able to rise out of poverty and society would be all the better for it.  He was, however, not perfect.  By the tone of his writings, he was apparently intolerant of other ethnicites.  The classic example is Fagin, the Jew from “Oliver Twist.”  A lesser known fact is that he did change his attitude when called out on it, at least for the anti-Semitism.  Because of this, not everyone is a fan of his works.

But Dickens, like the Super Bowl, has a way of bringing people together.  Except on an intellectual level as opposed to an athletic/raw entertainment level.

Soaking up the Increasing Sun

The days have been chilly lately, but they were still sunny.  In the mornings, I’d pull up the blinds of the east-facing windows and open the inner front door, which also faces east.  I did this because I hate mornings, but something about the sunlight making everything feel warmer and brighter really did help my spirits.

And my Chihuahua seemed to appreciate it: he sunned himself like a cat all morning, each morning.  He became so spoiled that when we had our first gloomy day (yesterday, because it was going to snow that evening), he followed me around and kept scratching at my legs and trying to draw me to the windows.  I tried explaining to him that there was no warm sun that day, but he persisted.  When I opened the blinds for him, he glared at me like I ate the sun or something, and then snorted and walked away to hide in his bed.

The sunny mornings (and afternoons) were inspiring.  And not just for me.  The girls, who usually sit for maybe 15 minutes at a time to do something educational, would sit for an hour with me.  I worked with Sunfilly on learning to color in the lines.  Starkitten learned to write her capital letters and (I should have taken a picture of it) decorated a sheet of paper and wrote “I LOVE YOU” (I spelled it for her and the letters were jumbled together, but it was cute).  We then mailed it to her grandparents in Texas.

I think Dickens would have been proud.

Butter Rolls Recipe

Because it’s been cold, I’ve been trying to save on the gas bill by baking.  Baking serves two purposes: it makes food and it makes the house warm so the heater doesn’t have to kick on.  And electricity is much cheaper than natural gas here (I never used natural gas in the South, so I have no clue if the same relationship is true there).  I’ve baked enchiladas, fish, and breads.

I finally tried my hand at a rolls recipe that my little brother has been perfecting since before Starkitten was born.  He found it in one of our mother’s old cookbooks and tweaked the recipe over the years.  It’s simple, it’s buttery, and is just the kind if recipe Paula Deen would plagiarize (I am not implying that she has).  Here’s another interesting tidbit:  when we had that infernal (pun intended) heat wave in Texas this summer, he would cover the dough and let it sit in the sun outside to rise.  Those rolls, by the way, were the best he ever made.

Some tips to making yeast breads properly:

The yeast as it bubbles up. This is about as much as you'll want it to bubble before adding it to the dough. If it gets any more frothy, you've wasted your yeast.

  1. Don’t let the yeast sit too long in the prep bowl.  If it bubbles up too much before you mix it in with the bread, the yeast will have used up all its energy beforehand and won’t rise in the bread at all.  The bread will turn out hard and flat.
  2. Don’t let the bread over-rise.  It will loose some flavor.
  3. Yeast needs warmth to grow.  So if you’re in a cold house, turn on the oven before baking and make the kitchen warm and, preferably, set the bowl by a sunny window. Also, some ovens have a yeast-rise setting; if yours does, take advantage of it.

    The dough after it's been properly kneaded

  4. Knead thoroughly.  The kneading actually kick-starts the little yeast organisms by mixing them around and getting them access to new food so that they keep reproducing, which makes the dough grow.  Kneading also makes sure everything is mixed well and the bread will look and taste better.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/4cup of warm water
  • 1 package of yeast
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter

Here are before and after photos of the rolls when set for their second rise, so that you get an idea of how much they will grow.

Directions

  1. Mix the yeast, sugar, and water in a large mixing bowl.  Add in shortening, salt, and two cups of the flour.  Mix until it’s smooth and you can see the little bubbles forming inside the dough.  Remember to scrape the side of the bowl frequently.
  2. Put in another cup of flour.  You must do the mixing and kneading by hand, as the dough will be too thick for the average mixing machine to handle.  Add more flour once it’s all mixed if it’s still a little gooey, 1/2 cup at a time; the idea is to put enough flour in that the dough no longer sticks to your hands.
  3. Cover the dough and let stand 40 minutes.
  4. Grease a glass pan or something similar.  Take off pieces of the dough and roll them into sphere of roughly half the size you want the rolls to be.  Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and brush it onto the rolls.
  5. When finished, cover and let rise again for another 40 minutes.  Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and brush it onto the rolls again.
  6. Preheat oven to 375 ˚F.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown on top.

If you want to go all-out with the artery clogging, slice these babies open and stuff them with more butter when you eat them.  You can use this same recipe to make homemade hamburger buns; just make larger sized rolls.

These rolls also go great in the morning with some jelly and a cup of coffee.

The rolls fresh out of the oven and slathered in butter. Yummy!

Giving Birth to Light Part 2: Brigid’s Day

Jump  to Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

After enjoying five days of lovely weather (temperatures in the low 50s–that’s in Fahrenheit), and considering how I haven’t really adjusted to real “winter,” I must say I was excited to see an early spring in the forecast for Ohio.  And then I read that Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog, saw his shadow, indicating another six weeks of winter.

Closeup groundhog (Marmota monax)

A groundhog - Image by Eifelle via Wikipedia

I scoffed at the groundhog.  Surely, a professional meteorologist, like the ones predicting an early spring (thank you, global warming!), and who has gone through years of school and training in the natural sciences, would more accurately predict the weather than a two-hundred-year-old rodent that whispers to a man wearing a top hat.

Well, science be damned!

As I sit and type this, the sky is dumping confectioner’s sugar onto the countryside.  At least two inches of that cold white stuff that so enthralls my girls has fallen, and by the looks of things, it won’t be stopping anytime soon.  Even more annoying (and equally amusing), the local forecast for the rest of February has–you guessed it!–changed to six more weeks of winter.

I’ve been tempted to be the Southern redneck stereotype (which I do sometimes become in moments like this) and go out and shoot me a groundhog and cook it out of spite.  It would make for an amusing blog post, certainly, but it’s not very nice.  So instead, I just shake my fist at the squirrels dancing around in the snow, mocking me and my dreams of spring.

Well, we enjoyed the lovely spring-like weather while it lasted.

I hiked with the kids on the nature trail.  My husband took them fishing.  I was able to spend two warm, sunny afternoons sitting in the grass, writing.

Since Vasant Panchami and Imbolc, I must admit, I feel like I have been channeling the creativity goddesses.  Between writing and coming up with creative projects for the rest of the year (I have a fantastic king cake idea, if I can find the supplies I need), my mind has been churning along at warp speed.

Imbolc falls on February 1 or 2, depending on the Gaelic or neopagan tradition.  It comes from the Gaelic word meaning “in the womb,” as it refers to the start of the lambing season.  Imbolc traditionally honors the Celtic goddess Brigid (or Brigit), who is the patron of poets, blacksmiths, and healing.  In some traditions, she is also associated with apple blossoms.  She is also the goddess of wisdom, physical and intellectual uplifting (like mountains and learning or prophecy), and the home and hearth.  She also is the protectress of newborns; Celtic women used to hang crosses fashioned from apple or rowan branches over their babies’ cradles to invoke Brigid to protect their babies from harm.  In Irish mythology, she was also seen as a warfare goddess.

Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man f...

Another way Celt descendants celebrate Imbolc: Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man fighting Jack Frost. Imbolc celebration in Marsden, West Yorkshre, February 2007. - Image by Steven Earnshaw via Wikipedia

Brigid was so important to the Celtic peoples that, upon their conquest and subsequent Christianization, the Roman Catholic Church came up with Saint Brigid, who still possesses some of the qualities of her pagan counterpart.

One side of her face was that of an ugly old hag, and the other was that of a beautiful young maiden.  This was to signify her role in the transformation of winter and death into life and spring.  In the pagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc complements Samhain and signifies the lengthening days and nearness of spring.  Brigid is a personification of that.

Some traditions also referred to her as the Corn Bride or Barley Bride (“corn” in this case is the archaic word that really means “wheat” or any “grain,” as corn did not come to mean the yellow grain from North America until Europeans began to colonize it).  It was a reference to her role as a fertility goddess.  Additionally, since Imbolc falls at the end of the dark half of the Wheel of the Year (when the days are shorter, basically), the lunar month in which Imbolc falls is referred to as the Chaste Moon or Bride Moon (because the next lunar month is when spring starts and is associated with birth).

Imbolc altar

A neopagan Imbolc altar - Image by Christina's Play Place

I’m not sure how the ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc, but many Wiccans and neopagans generally celebrate by dressing a sheaf of wheat, corn, or barley in white lace and ribbons (like a bridal dress), laying it in a basket, and treating it like a baby or a doll bride.  At the end of the festival, they usually burn the sheaf for prophetic purposes.

I must admit that I have not done this, pretty much for lack of a ceremonial sheaf.  My tradition, instead, is to cook something where grains play a prominent role, to honor the Corn Bride, and usually with something white (like potatoes or fish or turkey), to honor the Chaste Moon.  I’d also prepare something that hints at warmer months ahead.  And, instead of invoking Brigid for prophecy, I usually invoke her for creativity (and when I was in college and law school, I’d also invoke her for educational purposes).  This I’d do by lighting candles during the dark of night and burning some incense that would remind me of the coming spring (like lavender, my favorite herb).

Sprouting Garlic

I was in a creative writing frenzy yesterday after my husband came home from work, but, naturally I took breaks for coffee and snuggle time.  During one such break, I noticed one of my globes of garlic had sprouted.  I took it as a sign from Brigid:  the white papery outside of the globe is like a bridal veil, and here is new life–hope–sprouting from within.  I’m not sure what it might be a sign of, but it was refreshing to see while happily writing.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

Since I’ve been experimenting various recipes from the newest addition to my cookbook library, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas (and, by the way, after testing so many recipes, I have found that I love this book!), I decided to try something that involves wheat and/or corn as a primary ingredient for my Imbolc dish.  I decided to go with this recipe, because it involves wheat (in the form of couscous) and corn.  It really serves 6, but since I was cooking it as a feast (translate:  I wanted leftovers for the next day), I was cooking it alongside some simple baked chicken.

The ingredients of this dish are more summery in flavor, but I wanted something that made me think of warm days (and, to be honest, I sorely miss Louisiana springtimes, which start in February and are sunny and florid).  What I love about this recipe is that it can be dressed up for any occasion.  In fact, I plan to make it for the Super Bowl, but I’ll be adding various cheese slices to the spread.  It looks fancy, so is a great dish for entertaining.  This can also be an eat-with-your-hands group dish.

Ingredients

  • 4 medium potatoes, any variety, or 2 medium-large sweet potatoes
  • Ranch dressing or vinaigrette
  • 3/4 cup couscous
  • 2 cups cooked fresh corn kernels (from 2 to 3 medium ears) or frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 1 tablespoon light olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • minced fresh parsley for topping (optional)
  • 1 red or green bell pepper (or half of each), cut into narrow strips (I diced mine, as my kids prefer them that way)
  • 1 cup baby carrots, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup black olives, preferably cured and pitted (I omitted these, as my kids are not fond of them; in my opinion, kalamata olives would work equally well)
  • 1 cup red or yellow cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 medium red tomato, diced)

Directions

Cutting the Potatoes

  1. Bake the potatoes until done but still firm.  When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into bite-size chunks and place in a small mixing bowl.  Toss with enough dressing or vinaigrette to moisten.
  2. Pour 1-1/2 cups boiling water over the couscous in a heatproof container.  Cover and let stand for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
  3. Combine the couscous with the corn in a mixing bowl.  Drizzle in the oil and toss well.  Season gently with salt.
  4. Mound the couscous mixture in the center of a large platter.  Sprinkle with minced fresh parsley, if desired.
  5. Arrange alternating piles of potatoes, bell pepper, baby carrots, olives, and tomatoes around the couscous mixture.
  6. Each person can make up his or her own plate.  Serve additional dressing or vinaigrette to drizzle on the raw vegetables as desired.

As you can see, it’s a fairly simple recipe.  The longest part is the baking of the potatoes, but you can shorten that time by opting to nuke them in the microwave.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

So my review on Nava Atlas’ cookbook is a stellar one.  Most of the recipes involve ingredients that are inexpensive and easy to find, even when you take into consideration that I live in rural Ohio, where eating tofu is equated with godless fascist hippie communism (I wish I were exaggerating).  The recipes are very simple, and she gives options and alternatives to many of the recipes, if you want to kick it up a notch.  She also writes to those who are new to vegetarian cuisine, sharing recipes and tips for adjusting away from meat.  And, as I have demonstrated in this and some of my other recent posts, it’s easy to build upon her recipes to add your own personal flair to them.

Dragon Hunting with a Side of Vegetarian Steakburgers

Jump to Portobello Burgers

Starkitten’s favorite game, since moving to Ohio, is dragon hunting.

When the weather is warm enough, we go outside with sticks in hand and bandanas on our head (Sunfilly calls them “pirate hats” and believes this is necessary attire for dragon hunting) and look for dragons.  We usually do a few ninja kicks and make some war cries, but sometimes we walk around wielding Lego-made lasers instead of walking sticks.  And sometimes we have shields made from toy box lids.

Starkitten usually tells us what dragons she sees or hears and whether they are good or bad.  For instance, Kitty Dragons are apparently very kind dragons.  Sun Dragons are good because they kill the Rain Dragons and Snow Dragons, which want to eat the house.  There are also Alien-Zombie Dragons, but Starkitten has apparently only seen them on moonless nights, and by the way she talks about them, I suspect they must be pretty scary.

Sometimes, if we are near a body of water, we also go hunting for murlocs.  This is especially true if we are fishing.  A murloc, in case you did not know, is essentially a fish-like humanoid from World of Warcraft, and not to be confused with H.G. WellsMorlocks (although in a critical analysis of each one’s mythos you could probably draw a few similarities, but that would be its own blog post).  Usually players in World of Warcraft kill murlocs to fulfill some kind of quest, and so they are seen as enemies.  Startkitten’s murlocs, however, are all good, and vary dramatically in colors, and so the hunting is more of an effort to catch one to play with.

I usually try to ask Starkitten to give detailed descriptions of the fantastic creatures she sees.  Was it large or small?  What color was it?  What color were its eyes?  Did it have any stripes, spots, or other markings?  Did it breathe fire or some other breath weapon?  Does it talk?  What does it like to eat?  And so on, fueling her active imagination.

While stargazing tonight, Starkitten told me she saw a Star Dragon in the sky.  It was so black that you could only see it for a brief moment against the velvet sky, and only then if you were using the telescope.  Its eyes looked like stars.  Apparently, this Star Dragon was a baby dragon.  And a baby murloc, also nighttime black and with starry eyes, was riding it.

Starkitten informed me that they were friendly and that she wanted to catch them to keep as pets.

“If you catch the baby dragon and the baby murloc,” I told her, “then they won’t be with their mommies.  They will be sad, and their mommies will be sad, too.”

Starkitten sat pensively for a moment, and then said, “Okay.  I want to play with them.  Then they can go to Dragon House and Murloc House and play with their mommies.”

“Let’s see if we can find some bad dragons to hunt instead,” I told her.  “Do you have your laser ready?”

“Yes.”  She showed me her Lego-made laser.

“See this telescope?  It’s also a special laser for shooting Alien-Zombie Dragons.”

By the time we came back inside, Starkitten was excitedly telling my husband how she and the baby Star Dragon and the baby murloc vanquished ten of those nasty Alien-Zombie Dragons.  I was, apparently, useless (as usual) when it came to dragon hunting.  I’d been eaten three times.

I love her imagination.


Portobello Burgers

The inside of the portobello gets a little hollow after it's been grilled, making it great for filling with something flavorful.

Speaking of fighting imaginary monsters and making imaginary friends, I recently experienced the wonders of a Vegetarian Steakburger.

One of my vegan friends once commented that portobello mushrooms are to vegans and vegetarians what steaks are to carnivores and omnivores.  So lately I’ve been eager to try some of this “vegetarian steak.”  I knew that people would grill portobello mushrooms for burgers, and so I decided to give that a try.  I made up the recipe below, influenced heavily by Louisiana cuisine.  The recipe calls for Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, which is a pretty ubiquitous spice blend in the Deep South.  You could probably find it easily in a grocery store or online, but if you cannot find it, you can mix something close to the same blend by following the instructions from his cookbook here.

Ingredients for the Filling

Grilling the filling in a frying pan.

  • 1 medium yellow onion, sliced into thin strips
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips or small cubes
  • 1 cup of frozen sweet corn
  • 1 tablespoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (add more or less, to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Ingredients for the Portobellos

  • 4 large portobello mushrooms, stems removed
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • water
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Grilling the portobello mushroom on a skillet.

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan.  Add all the onions and saute them until they are starting to get tender.  Then add the red bell pepper and continue to saute until all the vegetables are tender.
  2. Add the corn to the mixture.  Cook until everything is hot.
  3. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil on a skillet.  Add the portobello mushrooms and a few sprinkles of water.  Cover.  The steam should help soften the mushrooms.
  5. Flip the mushrooms over.  While the bottoms are grilling, sprinkle salt and pepper to taste on the tops.  When the mushrooms are tender, they are done.
  6. Remove from heat.  Place mushrooms on a plate, undersides facing up.
  7. Spoon some of the filling into the mushrooms, filling the caps.  Feel free to mound it up a little.  Serve on bread or a hamburger bun, with the same condiments you would use on a burger.  If you want to make homemade hamburger buns, you can try this recipe.

And now I understand why vegans consider portobello mushrooms “vegetarian steak.”  These burgers were absolutely amazing!  I fully intend to make this a regular menu item for our household now.

The finished product, served with cheese, tomatoes, avocados, and lettuce on sliced homemade bread, with a side of spiced pan-fried potato slices.

Giving Birth to Light Part 1: Saraswati’s Day

Jump to Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Jump to Punjabi Sweet Rice

Since I’ve been grappling with the “winter blues,” on top of the other stressful things in my life that are not made easier by said affliction, I began scouring the internet for ideas to pull myself out of this funk.  I stumbled upon this interesting article from DivineCaroline, which offered many good suggestions, including light therapy, exercise, and aromatherapy.  I realized that one of the reasons I’d been enjoying cooking beans and tacos is because the smell of these foods is a form of aromatherapy, letting my mind wander off to childhood nostalgia.  I also found that brightening up the house has been helping.

Yesterday had a particularly sunny afternoon.  It was a relief, because it’s been so overcast and gloomy for the past few weeks. I pulled up all the blinds on the west-facing side of the house to let in the light.  I can see a pond from these windows, and the way the sunlight reflected off the pond and bounced into the house just made everything seem warm and cheery.  I played happy music and danced around with the kids.  I let them play with brightly-colored paints and stickers and construction paper and hung their art on the walls to add color to the house.  And it seemed like the sun took forever to set, which was a beautiful feeling.

It gave me energy I hadn’t felt in a couple months.

Suddenly I found myself seriously working on some creative writing–a hobby I had not touched in years, except to flirt with, because law school had literally killed the artist/writer in me (that is, apparently, the sad truth for a lot of lawyers).  Being able to write, to create, again was a beautiful feeling.

Maia 20 Tau in Pleiades

The Pleiades - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night, we had a good half hour of a clear sky, with a very thin slit for a moon, so for the first time since we’d gotten a telescope (my husband received it as a prize from work around the new year), we were able to use it.  We zoomed in on the Pleiades and showed them to the girls.

The experience of stargazing with the girls, appreciating the awesome bigness of the universe, helped me to remember that my problems are so small and temporal in comparison.  After my husband took the kids inside for bed, I remained outside with the telescope, sitting on the frozen grass, listening to honking flocks of geese in their nocturnal southward journey, falling in love all over again with another one of my interests that I’d abandoned over the years.

One of the seven Pleiades in Greek mythology, and the brightest of the seven stars in the cluster, is Maia.  She is a gentle nurturer and mother of Hermes.  In Roman mythology, she became one of the Earth Mother goddesses.  In retrospect, it seemed fitting that I spent so much time admiring Maia as both the star and the goddess, with Saraswati‘s day on the horizon.

English: Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by ...

The Goddess Saraswati - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Saraswati, in Hinduism, is the goddess of wisdom, knowledge (both scholarly and spiritual), creativity, and the arts (visual, musical, and literary).   She is also the one who gives each person his/her essence of self.  She is the wife of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.  She is gentle, wise, and unmoved by material riches (depictions of her rarely show her wearing more than a couple gold pendants).  White geese and swans are sacred to her, and some Hindus believe that books are one of her embodiments (stepping on or destroying a book is therefore very offensive to Saraswati).  Colors associated with her are white, which symbolizes purity and simplicity, and yellow, the color of rebirth of the sun (the days are getting longer again) and the mustard plants that bloom during her festival.

Today is Vasant Panchami, the Hindu festival that honors Saraswati.  Since yellow is one of her colors, Hindus prepare dishes that are yellow in her honor.  They place books at her altar and academic institutions hold services to venerate her.  Children fly kites, filling the sky with color, bringing vibrant life to the dead winter skies.  Part of the purpose of these celebrations is to surrender oneself to nature, the rebirth of light, and the creativity associated with it.

It’s been way too cold here in Ohio to fly kites (although if we were still in Texas, it’s very likely many people would be flying kites today), with the wind chill being in the teens at best.  Instead, the kids and I focused on Saraswati as a goddess of knowledge and creativity.  We played some more with bright paints and construction paper, I wrote for fun, and then we played learning games.  Fortunately, the girls were already familiar with Saraswati, since she is included in The Book of Goddesses by Kris Waldherr, and the girls refer to her, along with Athena, as “school goddesses.”  And since Starkitten is already insisting that she is ready to go to school (despite being too young by a couple years), taking time to honor the “school goddess” was something she was more than happy to do.

Maia is the eldest of the Pleiades in Greek an...

The Goddess Maia - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Taking time to honor Saraswati seems to have helped me kick the winter blues.  Her holy day and her role as a goddess are both very similar to the Wiccan holiday that happens about this same time of year: Imbolc (Gaelic for “in the womb,” as this is the time of year when ewes are pregnant), which honors Brigid.  Brigid is a Celtic goddess of the home and the hearth (and fire in particular), but she is also a goddess of creativity–both in writing and in creating things (particularly smithing)–and healing.

It is quite fascinating that, as Diwali and Samhain are close together in time (and of course winter holidays like Christmas, Chanukah, Saturnalia, and Yule share the same general calendar time), so are Vasant Panchami and Imbolc.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if our ancestors were on to some Big Idea that has been lost to the ages as we have advanced technologically.  We get so lost in social obligations and material things that we have forgotten to pause and lose ourselves to nature every now and then: to the lengthening days, the budding leaves, the infinite vastness of the cosmos, the rhythms and cycles of the world around us… and all that they can teach us and inspire within us.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Even though we are sticking to the “mostly vegetarian” diet, my husband originally suggested that we should still eat something meaty and fun for holidays we observe.  But because Vasant Panchami is a Hindu holy day, and many Hindus are vegetarian as a matter of faith, I decided to make a vegetarian dinner.

I tried my first recipe out of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas for this occasion (learning new things for the goddess of knowledge), embellishing it a bit to fit Saraswati’s Day (woohoo for creativity!).  The recipe below is my variation to the recipe in the book.

Ingredients

Frying the vegetables and tofu

  • 1-1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large bell pepper, cut into short narrow strips
  • 2 large broccoli crowns, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white flour
  • 16 ounces baked tofu, cut into short narrow strips
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 6-8 saffron stems
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan.  Sauté the garlic over medium-low heat until just turning golden.
  2. Add the bell pepper, broccoli, and 1/2 cup water.  Cover and cook over medium heat, until the broccoli is tender-crisp.
  3. Use a little of the milk to dissolve the flour and mustard until it is smooth and flowing.  Stir into the skillet with the remaining milk.
  4. Add the tofu and saffron.  Cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Stir in the cheese and simmer gently until everything is well heated through.
  6. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Serve immediately.  It goes well served over rice or couscous and with a side of corn or sweet potatoes.

Even for a former carnivore, this meal was fantastic.  There were no leftovers.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet with Couscous


Punjabi Sweet Rice

For dessert, and so that we’d have an Indian dish to eat for Vasant Panchami, I scoured the internet for something appropriate and easy to prepare.  I found this recipe for Punjabi sweet rice on Food.com and adapted it.

You’re supposed to use basmati rice for this recipe, but we recently used up our last big bag of it that we brought from Dallas (where there is a huge Indian population and you can get basmati rice fairly inexpensively if you know where to look), and so I used standard American rice (I don’t know what kind it is, exactly, but it’s the common kind you can find at most grocery stores).  If you are cooking with something that is not basmati rice, you may need to add more water to the recipe and/or cook the rice longer.  I followed the instructions below, and my rice came out a little al dente.  That was fine for my family, but since others may want softer rice, I wanted to point this out beforehand.

A jar of ghee

The recipe calls for ghee, which is a sort of butter extract.  You may have to look in a specialty grocery store.  If you can’t find any ghee, you can get by with 2 tablespoons of butter.  You can also check here to see a list of other products similar to ghee, in case any of them are available in your area.  For instance, Kenyans make something called mwaita, which is made pretty much the same way as ghee.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 ounce cashews (or a couple handfuls) or some other nuts
  • 1 ounce raisins (or a couple handfuls) or some other dried fruit
  • 1 tablespoon ghee

Directions

Frying the rice in ghee

  1. Warm up the milk and pour in a small bowl.  Add the saffron.  Set aside.
  2. Melt the ghee in a medium saucepan.  Add the rice and fry it.
  3. Add the milk-saffron mixture, sugar, and enough water to cover the rice completely (I’d recommend you get at least 1/4 inch of liquid above the rice).  Cover and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.
  4. When all the water is absorbed, remove from heat.
  5. Stir in the nuts and raisins.  Serve hot.  Garnish with more nuts and raisins.

This was a fantastic dessert.  It was a little on the sweet side, but my husband, who generally dislikes sweets, really loved the sweet rice (he loved it so much, in fact, that I had to make a second batch to put in the fridge for him to take with him to work for brunch tomorrow).

Punjabi Sweet Rice

Light in the Tunnel

Jump to Taco Seasoning

I’ve been in a dark place the past couple of weeks.

It’s been the kind of stressful that killed every ounce of creativity in me.  At first, I didn’t want to even bring up to the blogging world that I’ve been stressed out, since it’s a depressing topic, but parenting isn’t always pretty (and neither is life), and since I’d said I was blogging about the good, the bad, and the ugly of parenting (yep, it can feel kind of like a Western film), I might as well be fair about it.

It’s difficult being a good parent when you’re preoccupied with something that’s incredibly stressful.  It’s even more difficult when you’re a stay-at-home parent, and so getting away from work (i.e. taking care of the children) is next to impossible.

A snow-covered world as seen from my back window.

I really miss that about working.  I could leave work and come home to the kids, or leave the kids by going to work.  If one of those was a stressful environment, the other offered respite.   And if both were driving me crazy, I was at least making money and so could afford to occasionally take off for a weekend with friends.

So all I could do was try to keep distracted: playing with the kids, reading something lighthearted, or watching comedies with my family.  Anything that didn’t give me time to myself to think, lest my stress affect me physically.  Of course, it didn’t help that this is the dark time of the year, and apparently I am sensitive to the day length.

At one point, I began to feel hopeless, and so I took time to read excerpts of The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard.  While he is the father of existentialist philosophy (questioning all religion and morality until you come to the conclusion that life is absolutely ridiculous), he basically says, “What the hell.  Take a leap of faith and believe in God.”  (Or, in my case, gods.)  It helped, if for no other reason than reminded me that nothing (not even horrible situations) lasts forever.  It gave me hope.

One night, Sunfilly kept having nightmares, and so I had Starkitten sleep with my husband on our bed and I joined Sunfilly on Starkitten’s twin bed.  Once I finally calmed her down and snuggled her back to sleep, I lay there, admiring how peaceful and angelic she looked.  Her sweet little face–even the way her lips move like she’s sucking an imaginary thumb–reminded me to be strong for her sister and her.

It also helped that, during these past couple weeks, we’d been surprised by small gifts from various friends.  Each one made my eyes well up from gratitude.  Each box was like a small piece of sunlight breaking through a cavern.  It was a cosmic reminder:  We are not alone in this dark path.

And so I found strength.

The Snowstorm

A pair of beautiful swans in the local pond.

A winter storm blew through here last week, bringing biting winds and 5 inches of snowfall.  Right before the storm, I spotted a pair of swans in a nearby pond.  I ran out to take some pictures of them, and then ran back inside just in time to gaze at big, fluffy snowflakes falling from the sky.

At one point, we had a couple days that were so cold we were excited if the highs hit the twenties.  The wind chill was in the negative teens.  I threw on my house slippers and a winter coat and ran out to check the mail (the mailbox is about a football field’s distance away from the house).  By the time I darted back inside the house, my nose, fingers, and feet were so cold they burned.  And so I learned the meaning of the phrase “biting cold.”  And also why people wear scarves.

A bunch of rabbit tracks.

After the storm passed, I made sure to take a few moments to appreciate the beauty of winter (instead of cursing it).  The local pond had frozen to a thickness that supported the weight of an average sized adult.  A couple people were trying to ice fish.  They did not have any luck, and joked that it was because we brought Texas “winter weather” to Ohio (in other words, it’s been too warm for winter fishing and too cold for normal fishing).  The pond was also covered with a thick layer of snow, which was a surreal sight.

Rabbit tracks around the trunk of an oak tree. There are bits of chewed-up acorn.

We took a stroll in a nearby forest and spotted rabbit tracks in the snow.  It looked like they were hopping from tree to tree, either looking for a burrow in which to hide or acorns to dig up (we did spot a few chewed-up acorns on top of the snow).

Here is the pond when it was frozen and covered with snow. For a point of reference, below is the same view of the pond during late summer (I took this photo in mid-September, when we first moved to Ohio).

Taco Seasoning

I love cooking with mixed beans. After I open the bags of various beans to make a batch, I pour the remaining beans into a large jar to make decorative layers like this. I'll mix them together when it's time to cook them.

When a person is depressed, comfort food does a lot for reviving one’s spirits.  Because I grew up with a lot of Mexican food (my father is Mexican and my mother learned to cook for my father), beans are actually one of my comfort foods (which is ironic, considering that beans give me uncomfortable gas).  And since we are eating a mostly vegetarian diet, beans became an easy main dish to prepare.

Beans store easily in the freezer.

I love cooking beans, because you can toss them in a large pot and cook them all day.  Whatever you don’t eat immediately you can divide into 3- or 4-cup portions and freeze neatly to save for later.  They are easy to thaw and can be used in a wide range of dishes (or as a side by themselves).  They are also incredibly inexpensive (cooking your own beans is four times cheaper than buying them canned).

I tended to make bean tacos.  I also made tacos with some leftover Christmas turkey that I’d frozen.  And, for variety, I tried using some Yves Meatless Ground in lieu of ground beef, and it made for some fantastic tacos (it’s also half the price of a pound of ground beef here in Ohio and much lower in its fat count).

I’ve been using the same taco seasoning I gleaned from my Buelita (a diminutive form of the Spanish word“abuela,” for my paternal grandmother).  Learning recipes from her was an experience unto itself.  She did not use measuring tools.  Increments were in palmfuls, or enough to coat two fingers or the food in the frying pan, or a just couple shakes of the bottle.  She just knew how much to put into a dish and relied on smell to get it right.  And I learned how to cook Mexican food from her.

Chicken tacos

NOTE:  I should point out that “Mexican cuisine” is a broad term.  It’s like saying “Indian cuisine” or “Chinese cuisine” or even “American cuisine.”  Mexican food varies between regions and ethnic groups.  Parts of my father’s family came from Veracruz and other parts had lived in Texas from the time when it was still a Spanish territory, and his side of the family is more Spaniard in ethnicity (we come from a line of disinherited nobility) than it is Mayan or any other indigenous tribe (although some indigenous Mexicans are in our family tree all the same).  So I have no clue how to correctly characterize the kind of Mexican food I grew up with (or if it’s just “Tex-Mex”), except to use “Mexican food” in the generic sense.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I bothered trying to measure out the spices that I used to make taco seasoning to help a friend learn to make something more authentic.  I’ve used this blend on a variety of taco “meats” (as mentioned above), and my family loves it.  You can always tweak the proportions, depending upon what flavors you want to enhance or subdue.

Ingredients

Yves Meatless Ground (above) and mixed beans (below) being prepared for tacos.

  • 2 tablespoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder (chipotle power, ancho powder, or any other chile works just as well–increase the amount if you want spicier food, decrease or omit if you want something milder)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mustard

Directions

  1. Mix the spices together and sprinkle over chicken, beef, beans, or whatever you’re using for taco filling.
  2. It tastes best if you sautee some onions first and add them to the filling, along with some chopped fresh cilantro.

One of the presents I received was The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas, which is apparently written for people who are transitioning into vegetarianism.  I’ll be trying out a few recipes, so I intend to post a review of that book shortly.

You can use the same blend for taco filling to make chalupas.

Tales from a Winter Trail

Jump to Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

The past few days have been strangely warm.  I mean “warm” by Ohio winter standards, as “warm” in Texas requires the threat of heat stroke.  “Warm” in an Ohio winter means the weather is above freezing–like a balmy 40˚F.

I think we have been adjusting to the cold, because when it “warmed” up to the low 40s, it felt nice enough to go for a hike.  (You have no idea how strange it feels to me to say that 40˚F is warm enough for hiking!)  We didn’t go far, but we explored the nature trail and a local pond and canal.

Iced over pondThe pond had iced over on the surface.  This was something I knew happened in colder climates, but I’d never seen something like it before.  It was strange, like the pond was dead.  I knew it wasn’t, but it sure looked lifeless.  No ripples, no fish jumping out of the water, no fowl landing on its surface.  We stood at the bank and stared at the dead pond.  I picked up some rocks and plunked one against the ice, to demonstrate to the girls what had happened to the water because it’s been cold.  This phenomenon was particularly fascinating to the girls, so we took the rest of the rocks and skipped them against the ice.  It became a game: who can make a rock skid the furthest down the ice.  It was almost like bowling with hockey pucks.

We also wandered along the Miami-Erie trail, which runs along Rapids on the Miami-Erie Canal(surprisingly) the Miami-Erie Canal.  Because the water flows more swiftly there, it had not frozen over.  Past one of the locks, under a bridge, was a rocky area where the water moved more like rapids.  We sat on a blanket near the bank and listened to the water rushing.  It was therapeutic.  Everything around us felt dead, but at least the water was still alive.

Some kind of dead polyphore

Some kind of dead polyphore.

With my handy mushrooming guide in hand (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms), I kept my eyes peeled for the few things that might be alive this time of year.  I saw quite a few mushrooms that must have grown in November or December but had been killed by the snow and frost.  They were shriveled and black and mealy, and some tiny insects and grubs were making a meal of them.  They made me reflect on the irony that saprophytic lifeforms like mushrooms (“saprophytic” means “feeds on dead or decaying matter”) also die and become food for something else.

Trametes versicolor

Turkey Tail Mushroom

I also spotted some turkey tail mushrooms (their scientific name is Trametes versicolor), a shelf polyphore that is pretty common in North America.  They are actually quite fascinating to observe.  When I was a child, I’d imagine that little animals or something fantastic as fairies lived off colonies of these mushrooms, sort of like a small city on a tree trunk.  Supposedly you can make a medicinal tincture out of them, but I haven’t found any literature (at least, from any legitimate source) that was particularly clear about what these mushrooms are used to treat, except that they treat something.  Maybe they are the cure for hypochondria?  (Well, apparently scientists are examining it as a possible treatment for cancer, but that doesn’t explain why a Google search for turkey tail results in all kinds of “Buy this cure-all mushroom pill!” articles.)

Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata

I also made note of some possibly poisonous mushrooms that seemed to have popped up and then started dying from the cold.  These are mushrooms in the Galerina genus.  I say possibly, because there are edible (and hallucinogenic) mushrooms that very closely resemble Galerina mushrooms, but only expert mycologists with some impressive laboratory equipment can discern the difference between them.  Even expert mushroomers (usually going for the hallucinogenic kind) have mistakenly ingested Galerina mushrooms, with deadly consequences.  Most mushrooming guides I’ve read strongly recommend against harvesting “little brown gilled mushrooms,” and this is the reason.  So, as I always do, I instructed my girls to not touch wild mushrooms unless I tell them it is safe.  This is one of the reasons why.

These mushrooms were growing off a sawed-off pine log. I believe they are also in the Galerina genus. They appear to be dying from the cold.

A junco in a dormant apple treeWe did see some dark-eyed juncos in the trees.  Juncos are in the sparrow family.  They were obviously frightened by our approach (and the loud laughter of the girls amplified by the echo in the dead woods and pond certainly did nothing to convince the little birds we meant no harm).

These adorable little songbirds were certainly a refreshing break from the dead world of winter.

Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

One of our New Year’s resolutions was to eat more vegetarian cuisine.  Not necessarily vegan cuisine (although we will eventually transition to a day of fully vegan, but I’m not a fan of things that are overly processed, either), and for now we’re still doing the eggs-and-dairy kind of vegetarian.  There are several reasons for this.  One is to save money on meat, which is becoming very expensive here (as opposed to fresh produce–and also so that we can afford more whole grain breads and fresh produce).

Another reason is for health: my husband and I have both been packing

Toddler breakfast

A balanced breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, various fruits, a half-slice of whole-grain toast, and yogurt. They have water in their sippy cups. Usually the kids don't eat everything (each girl has her own quirks), but this gives them some healthy options.

on the pounds and, instead of going on a fad diet, we are just going to change what we eat.  We figure it’s better to eat things that are not processed, have more fiber, and aren’t pumped with hormones and chemicals (as so much commercial meat is, unless you buy certified organic, which is expensive and hard to come by in rural grocery stores).  For the girls, we want to make sure they are raised with healthy lifestyle choices (as opposed to my upbringing–which was the same for a substantial number of Americans) and healthy lifestyle choices are best taught by example.

It’s also for environmental reasons: just consuming things that are more sustainable (like buying organic or locally grown) and don’t contribute to greenhouse gas, as cows do.  And for me, as a Wiccan who dabbles in Hinduism, it’s also partly an ethical thing (many Hindus and Wiccans/neopagans are vegetarian because they tend towards nonviolence and they see all living things as brothers and sisters under the divine).

That’s not to preach to you to make any lifestyle changes, but just to explain why we are aiming to eat 4 days a week of vegetarian or vegan.

This is a new thing for me, being a carnivore by nature.  It’s easier for my husband, who grew up eating a mostly eggs-and-dairy vegetarian diet.  So I’ve made a wish list of vegetarian cookbooks and found some interesting websites with recipes for those who are just starting down this path.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting.  One of my first endeavors was making a country-French-inspired scrambling of eggs and mushrooms.  It turned out to be a great success with my family.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve now made it several times.  When I serve it with a side of fresh fruit and yogurt, it fills up my girls’ bellies and provides a balanced breakfast.

This recipe serves 3.

The tomatoes have been sliced and the ingredients in the egg mixture are ready to beat.

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced or chopped (portobello would work best, but any kind will do)
  • 3 tablespoons parsley, dried or chopped fresh, and extra for garnish
  • 1 large tomato (or 1/2 cup small tomatoes), diced
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, shredded or grated, and extra for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a medium frying pan.  Add the mushrooms.  Sautee them until they are cooked (usually they will get tender and darker).

    Making scrambled eggs & mushrooms

    The mixture in the frying pan.

  2. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Stir in the black pepper, parmesan cheese, salt, and parsley.
  3. Add the egg mixture to the frying pan.  Stir frequently so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
  4. When the eggs are cooked thoroughly, remove from heat and serve.  Garnish with any combination of parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and parsley.

It goes well served with a side of fruit, whole grain toast, and yogurt.

Striking sunset over the ice

The sun setting over an icy, dead, wintry landscape.

Home Remedies Aren’t Always Hokem

Jump to Lemon-Ginger Tea

As I’ve mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been battling a nasty head cold, complete with headaches.  This has rendered me into something of a robot the past few days, just carrying out duties without much soul: wake up, take some Tylenol and hope it works, feed the kids, change the kids, put on something that entertains them (with the volume on low) and pull out some coloring books, cover head with pillow and clutch a box of tissues and listen to kids to make sure they don’t kill each other and hate the sun and sounds and pretty much the whole world, feed kids lunch, wipe them down, put them to nap and fall asleep with them, wake up, take more Tylenol, kill another forest via tissues, get dinner going.  Then my husband would come home, and I’d generally hide in bed right after dinner.

Not really a pretty picture, but at least the headaches aren’t as bad as they were yesterday, so it looks like I might be near the tail end of this.

But my first thoughts as I’d gotten sick were not “Woe is me,” but rather “I hope the kids don’t get this horrible cold.”  Of course, as a parent, I just don’t want my kids getting sick.

But there are deeper considerations.

English: Yokosuka, Japan (Mar. 28, 2003) -- Lt...

A military pediatrician checking her patient's breathing - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

First of all, it’s hard to care for a toddler (like Sunfilly) who can’t really express why she is miserable.  Instead, she will just scream and cry and be rather uncooperative with my inspection of her to determine what is wrong and help her be less miserable.  Secondly, the American Academy of Pediatrics has made recommendations against giving over-the-counter cold medicines to children under 6, and, generally, your pediatrician won’t prescribe any cold or cough medicine unless your child is pretty sick.  And, thirdly, a trip to the doctor with a sick kid in tow isn’t exactly cheap (at least, this is the case in the US, even if you have a good insurance plan–which we do).

Not to mention, sometimes germy kids share their germs with each other in that waiting room.  There’s nothing like bringing your kid in for a sinus infection, and then three days later she comes down with the flu or some other nastiness.

But this doesn’t mean that you just sit idly, let your child get sick, and think, “Hey, I’m just letting her build a great immune system.  Survival of the fittest baby!”

Well, you can still help her build her immune system, but there are things you can do to help her if she is sick, or at least to take preventative measures.  That’s right–what I’m talking about are home remedies.  It doesn’t mean tossing some bones, shaking a snakeskin rattle over your kid’s head and chanting in Sumerian.  Well…  I suppose you could still do that, if it floats your boat.

Eucalyptus tetragona, showing glaucous leaves ...

Eucalyptus is commonly used in cough suppressant lozenges and rubs - Image by HelloMojo via Wikipedia

But you’d be surprised how many home remedies–also known as “Old Wives’ Tales,” and don’t get me going on that  historical diatribe–turn out to be medically recognized, or even recommended.

Below are a few such medically-recognized home remedies (with supporting links).  Most of these are pretty useful for pregnant women as well, and certainly any otherwise healthy adult.  And here I’ll give the disclaimer that I am not a medical professional.  Please consult your doctor if you have any questions or doubts or if you are on any medicine or have some chronic issue.  Herbs can cause dangerous side-effects or trigger allergic reactions, so pay attention to how much you use.  And always employ common sense when you are sick, even if you’re using prescription medicine: if your symptoms get worse or don’t improve, you need to contact your doctor.  There could be something worse going on in your body.

The ingredients for chicken broth have just been put on the stove to cook.


Lemon-Ginger Tea

Cross-section of a relatively young ginger root

Ginger has many beneficial properties. - Image by Snarkmaster via Wikipedia

When I was pregnant with Sunfilly, I experienced a slew of illnesses you wouldn’t want to have while pregnant, like food poisoning and appendicitis.  I also had a nasty cold that was going around my law school at the time.  I couldn’t take any medication, since I was in my first trimester and thus very limited on what I could take.  What was doctor-approved was homemade ginger tea.  It felt amazing on my raw throat and helped clear my sinuses.  It was also very soothing for an upset stomach (a blend of sinus drainage and morning sickness).

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon of fresh ginger root, chopped finely or grated
  • 2 or 3 fresh lemon slices
  • 1-2 teaspoons of honey
  • 1 cup of water

Directions

  1. Bring the water to a boil.
  2. Add the ginger and lemon.  Cover and boil for another 2-3 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and allow to steep for another minute or so (depending on how strong you want it).
  4. Strain the tea and pour into a cup.  Add the honey.
  5. It may still be too hot, so check the temperature of the tea before drinking, especially if you are preparing the tea for a child.

Lemons are certainly rich in Vitamin C and may help boost the immune system, but there is not enough scientific evidence to quantify the extent, if any, of medical benefits in lemons.  I have found, however, that lemon in tea does wonders for a sore throat, which is why I include it in my health tea.

Hopefully you won’t be this miserably sick.  But if you ever are, seek comfort in chicken soup and some soothing tea.  If nothing else, it will give you warm fuzzies that will lift your spirits.

Kenyan chai with peda.

Ringing in the New Year

Jump to Black-Eyed Peas Recipe

Jump to Collard Greens Recipe

We spent New Year’s at home.  New Year’s Eve with toddlers sounds like it wouldn’t be very interesting, but you’d be surprised.

I made some homemade queso dip.  My husband made a spicy (yet kid-friendly) guacamole.  We bought some chips, some of those confetti bomb thingies, and pink champagne for grown-ups and sparkling grape juice for the kids.  And, because regular old New Year’s party favors are boring, I grabbed some Darth Vader party favors during my grocery run.  We all got buzzed up on sugary sweets and danced to one of the dance party games for the Wii.  As midnight drew near, we all donned princess dresses (even my husband threw on a wig and a cape for the kids’ amusement) and turned the party into a “Darth Vader princess New Year’s Eve dance party.”

We explained to the kids that we were going to cheer on the end of the old year, 2011, and the beginning of a new one, 2012.  We explained that some people refer to the new year as a “baby.”  Within the last few minutes of 2011, we turned on the TV and cheered with New Yorkers during the countdown as the ball dropped.

For New Year’s Day, we followed a blend of traditions.  From my husband’s Kalenjin culture, we follow the tradition of power-cleaning the house.  The belief is that by cleaning on New Year’s, you’re starting the new year off with a clean slate or a fresh start.

From Southern culture, we cook black-eyed peas and collard greens.  I’ll take a moment here to admit that it’s not really something I grew up with, as my Polish-Yankee mother and Latino father.  But I grew up in the South, and we’d usually visit someone on New Year’s Day, and they would serve us black-eyed peas and collard greens.  Black-eyed peas represent coins and the greens represent dollar bills–eating them together is supposed to bring wealth and prosperity for the new year.

A lesser-known fact about this Southern tradition is that it’s actually an ancient one.  The practice actually originated in ancient Israel as a Rosh Hashana dish (serving black-eyed peas with a side of something green), and when Jews immigrated to the United States in the 1730s, they shared this tradition with non-Jews, and it became a big hit.  This was true especially in the South, where it blended with soul food cuisine–adding collard greens and pork stock–to make it an absolutely fantastic culinary experience.

Veggies that go into black-eyed peas

Veggies that go into black-eyed peas

The black-eyed peas recipe I use was passed to me by a friend with Arkansas and New Orleans roots, although the recipe is more Louisianian in flavor.  Now that I am living in Ohio, I had the added challenge that such things as fresh black-eyed peas and andouille sausage are next to impossible to find, so I had to make do with canned black-eyed peas and kielbasa.  It still came out all right.

The following few days, as I’d briefly mentioned in my last post, we’d been trying to watch the skies for the Quadrantid Meteor Shower.  However, the only thing we saw falling from the sky was a bunch of snow.  Sadly, the clouds blocked out most of the stars.  And now, from my having been going out at 3 am in hopes of seeing a meteor so I could wake the kids and show them, I seem to have been bestowed with the gift of a nasty head cold.

What a way to ring in the new year!  [insert sarcastic face]  It has taken me three days to write this post because it hurts my head to look at the computer for extended periods of time.

Black-Eyed Peas Recipe

This recipe is very simple to make.  You can prepare it either in a crock pot or on the stove top.  You could even substitute the black-eyed peas for red beans to make red beans and rice.  In fact, this is the kind of recipe that you could set to cook and then go do other chores (like power-cleaning your house for New Year’s).

Ingredients

Black-eyed peas cooking

Black-eyed peas cooking

  • 1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight  (or 2 cans of cooked black-eyed peas)
  • 1 pound sausage, sliced into discs (preferably andouille)
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (this is a staple spice for all Deep South cooking)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • water

Stove-Top Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large pot with 5-1/2 cups of water.
  2. Bring to a low boil and reduce heat to simmer for 2 hours. Water should cook off and leave a thick casserole consistency.  (If you’re cooking with canned peas, cut the cooking time by half, or else they’ll get all mushy and gross.)
  3. Remove bay leaf before serving with rice and/or cornbread.

Crock Pot Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in crock pot with 2-1/2 cups of water.
  2. Put on low and let cook covered for 7 hours.  Check after 7 hours.  (If you’re cooking with canned peas, cut the cooking time by half, or else they’ll get all mushy and gross.)
  3. Stir and turn up heat and leave uncovered for last hour if consistency is too soupy.
  4. Remove bay leaf before serving with rice and/or cornbread.


Collard Greens Recipe

Ingredients

Collard greens cooking

Collard greens cooking

  • 1 bunch of collard greens
  • 2 oz salted pork
  • 2 teaspoons Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning
  • water

Directions

  1. Rinse the collard greens individually and thoroughly.  Trim off the stems, if desired.  Chop up the greens into strips.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized pot and fill with enough water to barely cover the greens.
  3. Set heat to low and cover.  It should take about 40-45 minutes to cook.  Once the greens start to soften, stir occasionally.  The greens are ready when they are rather soft and don’t taste bitter.

Don’t drain out the liquid; it’s jam-packed with nutrients.  Traditionally, people soak it up with cornbread or rice.

A Southern New Year meal

Christmas Leftovers

Jump to Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

Jump to Madras Hot Curry Powder

The week of Yule and Christmas ran by very quickly.  I was busy–as most people were–with cleaning and cooking and cleaning and cooking and enjoying time with family–and I had so many ideas of things to share with you on this blog.

And then today happened.

Snow Cat

Image by clickclique via Flickr

I was sitting down with a cup of coffee, watching after-breakfast Sesame Street with the kids as I groggily shifted into gear to complete all the chores on my to-do list, when I noticed the rain turning into some of that scary fluffy white stuff: snow.

“Oh lawks,” I groaned.

I had a list of errands that I planned to run tomorrow, but if it’s snowing, I didn’t want to be out in it.  I checked the weather forecast, and it said that it was going to be snowing off and on for the next few days.  And, like anyone who learned to drive in the South, the thought of driving in the snow scares the crap out of me.

I called my mother, who learned to drive in Chicago.  She helped me prepare for this frightening task:  “The ground isn’t frozen yet?…  Then you don’t have to worry about ice in the road until it gets colder.  Just keep a good distance between you and the other vehicles.  If you hit ice, turn your wheels in the direction of the spin.  Don’t brake on ice.  Before you hit your brakes, let the vehicle slow down first.”

So the kids and I put on our winter coats and headed out the door to run our errands.  Fortunately, the snow turned to rain and the drive into the nearest city (a good 40 minutes of driving on a sunny day) was uneventful, although longer than usual, because I drove slower.  This annoyed the Yankees greatly.

The challenge came when I had several places to drive to and it started snowing again.  We came out unscathed, but the snow started falling hard and even the Yankees were driving slowly.

Taken in Megeve, France

Image by Joss Dude via Wikipedia

I kept telling myself, “Breathebreathebreathe.  Drive like a granny.  Is that a polar bear?  Keep several car lengths between you and the next vehicle.  Slow down before braking.  Ice is everywhere and it’s out to kill you.  Don’t punch the accelerator like the Texan-in-the-big-behemoth-truck stereotype–there is no time to squish puny cars.  Drive slowly.  Remember to breathe.  Omigod what is all that white stuff and why does it hate me?!

It was hard to not think of C.S. Lewis‘ classic villain, the White Witch.  She was making all this happen and she knew I have a weakness for sweets.

I soon realized it was well past lunchtime (in a trip that would normally have been done hours ago), and so stopped between errands to pick up lunch for the kids.  No sweets allowed, lest they have been bribes from the White Witch.  But while sitting down at our table, Sunfilly demanded to take off her coat by herself, and in a rage at her stuck zipper, pulled at her coat before I could turn to help her, and broke her zipper.  I think the White Witch knew I was onto her.

I had to add one more stop to my trip:  a store to buy a new coat.

That extra trip to the store turned into going to three different stores, as I couldn’t find a coat that fit either girl at the first two.  All this while driving through crazy scary fluffy white stuff falling from the heavens.

One of the stores I wound up going to was the dreaded Wal-Mart.  Even though they didn’t have any toddler-sized winter coats in stock, I did what any good Southerner would do when the apocalypse dust is falling from the sky and bought a bunch of non-perishables.  I mean, after all, it looks like the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl again, and last time that happened, 49 of the 50 states suffered from the white apocalypse dust (remember Snowmageddon?).

So what should have been a two- or three-hour venture turned into a six-hour venture.  In the snow.  It was dinnertime when we arrived home.  And I needed another pot of coffee.

And did I add the kids didn’t nap?  Oi!

English: Small trees after heavy snowing.

Image by Emr via Wikipedia

There was silver lining.  In the sea of white that was now the farmlands I passed on the way home, there were many ponds, which have not yet frozen over.  In one of them swam a pair of swans.  I was in awe of their beauty, and even more impressed at how large they were.  I realized I never would have seen them had I stayed at home and hated snowy roads.

And I gained confidence in driving in the snow.  You see, by the time I got home, I realized I was driving confidently.  I wasn’t terrified anymore.

That being said, it was leftovers for dinner tonight.  And, as I had plans to write about so many other things that went on over Yule and Christmas, I felt that I could save it for next time, as my first time driving with my kids in the snow was a fairly frightening event for me.  (I had driven in Dallas snowstorms a couple times, when I was supposed to go to work.  I wound up calling in.  That is how much snow on the road terrifies me.)

But, as we all know, dealing with leftover turkey requires a bit of creativity, and so I figured I’d share tonight’s culinary creation.

Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

In short, we cooked a huge bird for Christmas dinner and I was running out of ideas for traditional ways to prepare leftovers.  And I was going through some serious curry cravings.

Here it is, while the curry paste is melting.

The ingredients I used were:

  • 3 cups of diced or shredded leftover turkey meat
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 cup turkey drippings
  • 1 can of carrots
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons curry paste

And for the couscous, which I served as a side, I used:

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons Madras hot curry powder
  • 1 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 can chickpeas

Quite simply, I diced/shredded (I really did a combination, depending on how cooperative the meat was) leftover turkey into 1-inch cubes and sauteéd it with some onions and olive oil in a large pan.  I’d saved the drippings from when I initially cooked the bird on Christmas, and so I added a cup of refrigerated drippings to the mixture, along with a drained can of carrots.

Contrary to how it may sound, turkey drippings aren’t that greasy, and it adds a nice flavor to the bird.  The drippings gel when refrigerated, and the gel is heterogeneous, with the fat forming a white layer at the top.  If you want, you can scrape that part off before using it.

Then I added a substantial amount of curry paste and stirred thoroughly.  (You can usually buy some form of curry paste at most grocery stores, usually in the Asian food section.  If you want to make your own, I recommend this recipe for Thai curry paste.  It’s rather spicy, so when I cook for the kids, I usually halve what the recipe calls for on chillies and excluded the shrimp paste/mountain sauce ingredient and it still came out great.)

Then it’s just a matter of cooking until everything is warmed up and mixed well.

This is everything but the actual couscous, waiting to boil.

For the couscous, when boiling 1 cup of water, I added 1-1/2 teaspoon of Madras hot curry powder, 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, and a drained can of chickpeas.  When the water was boiling and the chickpeas were cooked, I added 1 cup of couscous, mixed thoroughly, and let it sit (as you’d usually prepare couscous).

Madras Hot Curry Powder

To make the curry powder, you need:

  • 8 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 6 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • 4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 8 tablespoons peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves
  • 2 tablespoons ground cardamom
  • 2 tablespoons turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne (or less, depending on how much heat you can handle)
  • 1 Mason jar

Directions

  1. In a dry skillet over very low heat, place the coriander, cumin, mustard and fennel seeds. Roast the seeds gently, shaking the pan occasionally, until they begin to pop.
  2. When about half the seeds have popped, add everything else.  Continue to heat and stir gently until the mixture is hot.  Be careful not to burn it, though.
  3. Pour the mixture into a dry blender.  Grind into a fine powder.  You may need to pause, remove the blender from the machine, and shake it up to keep from clumping in the blades.  (If you have a lot of patience and want to do it the old-fashioned way, you could break out the mortar and pestle.)
  4. Wait until the mixture cools off, and then you can store it into an empty jar.

That’s all there is to it.

The end result was oh-so-delicious.

And at the end of the day, the snow turned to wind and rain.  So I scared myself onto the road for naught.  But at the end of it all, I had a story to tell, about driving through the snow for the first time and seeing swans for the first time.

I guess the snow isn’t all that evil.

English: Swans in the snow

I wonder what they taste like. - Image by Michael Preston via Wikipedia

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