Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lily Wallace's Gingersnaps

This time of year, I find myself poking around old cookbooks, looking for Christmas in the smell of cinnamon and ginger, the feel of crust and dough and the taste of molasses.  I found it here in this fuss-free gingerbread recipe from my grandmother's 1946 Lily Wallace New American Cookbook.  If your ingredients are at room temperature so that the butter is soft, you could easily make this without a mixer, though it's nice to have one when working in the last of the flour. 

Tasty, Christmasy, old-fashioned tasting, and would probably roll and freeze well if you wanted to slice and bake a batch at a time.  A lovely tea cookie.

(See my notes about making these crispy or soft, below.)

1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
1 cup unsalted butter (at room temp)
1 egg (at room temp)
1 tsp cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger (or more, if you like a strong ginger taste)
2 teaspoons soda
1/2 tsp salt (optional, my addition)

1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla

+/- 5 cups flour*
Sliced candied ginger (optional, for decoration)

Combine sugar, molasses, butter, egg, cinnamon, ginger and soda.  Mix well.  Add vinegar, vanilla, and flour one cup at a time, until you have a stiff, non-sticky dough. 

*The recipe just says "Flour to make stiff dough" without listing an amount, assuming that the experienced cook of the day would know what that meant and of course, have enough on hand.  I found 5 cups to be the right amount for a pliable and rollable non-sticky dough.  Use a little more for sprinkling when rolling. 

Roll very thin.  Cut with cookie cutter.  Bake in 325 degree oven, 10-12 minutes.  The yield for this recipe is about 72 1 1/2 inch cookies, or 48 larger cookies.

This makes a classic, gingerbread-tasting cookie that is easy to work with and would be a great recipe to do with kids.  Because I am a ginger fanatic, I would say that you could double the ginger in this recipe.  I also added 1/2 tsp salt. 

Experimenting with cooking times and resting times, I found that in my oven, 12 minutes bake time was perfect.  For crispy, gingersnap-type cookies, leave on baking sheet 2-5 minutes after removing from oven, then move to a cooling rack. 

For softer, gingerbread-type cookies, pull parchment off cookie sheet immediately and allow to cool on rack, or roll a thicker cookie to begin with.  Before baking, I decorated some with a piece of sliced candied ginger in the center of the cookie, some with a sprinkling of the ginger sugar at the bottom of the ginger jar, and some with a silver dragee in the center.  Did you know those things are made with real silver?  Weird. 

Easy, Cozy Braised Dishes for Chilly Nights

Here are a couple of recipes that are easy to prep ahead, throw in the oven and forget about, with lots of rut-busting flavor and cozy warm richness for cold nights.

The first is adapted from a classic from the old Silver Palate cookbook.  The original recipe serves 10, so I've cut it down for a more reasonable 4-5 portions, and used whole chicken legs instead of quartered chickens.  For two, you can make this recipe, bake half and put the other half in the freezer while marinating, or for a family, double it and freeze half. 

Big note:  you do want to start this at least the day before so that the flavors can sink into the chicken all day or overnight. 


5 lbs of whole chicken legs (4-6 legs)
1/2 head of garlic, minced or pureed, about 6 cloves
1/8 cup dried oregano
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper (approx 1/2 to 1 tsp salt plus 1/4 tsp pepper)
1/2 cup chopped pitted prunes
1/4 cup pitted Spanish, Italian or Greek green olives
1/4 capers with a bit of juice
3 bay leaves

Marinate for 8 hours or overnight
then add:

1/2 cup brown sugar, sprinkled over chicken
1/2 to 1 cup white wine

A few tablespoons of Italian parsley are nice to finish after baking.

1. Combine all marinade ingredients with chicken in a plastic bag, bowl or oven proof baking pan that will hold the legs in a single layer, turning now and again to make sure they are mixed and all sides of the chicken are coated.  

2. After 8 hours or overnight marinating, sprinkle the sugar and pour the wine.  Bake in a 350 degree oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting with pan juices (or not-- I didn't and it was delicious.) Chicken is done when juices run clear when the chicken is pricked with a knife or fork.  Don't be afraid to overcook. 

3. The original recipe asked you to remove the olives and prunes with a slotted spoon and serve the pan juice in a sauceboat, but I think you'll be perfectly fine just serving this out of the pan as we did.  Who needs one more dish to wash?  

The second make-ahead-and-braise recipe reminds me very much of a short-rib we used to serve at Tra Vigne restaurant, is pretty quick and easy to put together, and is made in one pan, in one day.  The Tra Vigne version was a 13 hour affair, brining, searing, smoking and braising, but I think you'll find this to be a deliciously easy substitute.

Serves 6

Olive oil
4 lbs beef short ribs
1/2 - 1 tsp Kosher salt
1/2 - 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 cups finely chopped onion
1/4 cup minced garlic
2 cups low-salt beef broth
1 cup dry red wine
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 cups chopped plum tomato or stewed tomato

Preheat oven to 300 degrees

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium high heat.  Swirl olive oil to coat.  Sprinkle the ribs with the salt and pepper and brown as many as will fit easily in the pan at a time-- don't crowd.  If necessary, brown in two batches.    When browned, remove all ribs to a plate.

Add onions and saute until lightly browned.  Add the garlic and saute for one minute.  Return the ribs to the pan.  Add the broth, wine, vinegar, sugar and tomato and bring to a simmer. 

Cover and bake for 1.5 hours or until tender.   If making ahead, cool slightly then refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.  If you have time to do this, the ribs reheat perfectly and are even more tasty. 

Skim the fat from the surface of the sauce mixture and discard.  Check seasoning and adjust salt and pepper as necessary. Serve the sauce over the ribs, or if reheating, reheat together and serve both on warm polenta or risotto, or with crusty bread and an easy winter salad.  


On Sunday, I prepped both of these dishes and made the ribs Sunday night and the chicken Monday night.  On Wednesday, I reheated the last rib with the sauce for lunch, and I do think it had more flavor (or maybe I was just hungry!) so I'd recommend doing both ahead if you think of it.  Since I already had the special ingredients, olives, prunes, capers, plenty of garlic, I have a second batch of chicken waiting for the next time I don't feel like cooking.


Don't Knock Yourself If You're Not Feeling the Christmas Spirit

Don’t knock yourself if you’re not feeling the Christmas spirit this year, or if you think that everyone else feels warm and fuzzy and hot-chocolatey already.  A lot of people aren’t there yet either. It’s not because the world is coming to an end (unless it is) or because no one cares anymore, or because the season is just about commercialism or because politics is messing everything up.

It doesn’t always knock you down like a friendly golden retriever. More often, it’s like a campfire in the dark: you have to protect it and blow on it, give it little bits of dry moss and tinder. It’s not about having a lot of matches or a flamethrower, it’s about a spark or two and a little bit of air at the right time.

Mike and I were at Whole Foods yesterday, and noticed as we arrived at the checkout stand that a line was forming about 20 feet away. It turned out to be a line of kids waiting for Whole Foods’ Santa. The cashier, a young woman with neatly described black Cleopatra wings at the corners of her eyes, and a surfeit of earrings, said jokingly, “Oh boy, crying babies for the next 8 hours!” We laughed and groused along with her about how kids who are afraid of fake Santas have every right to be. Then Santa arrived, and everyone sort of shut up about the whole creepiness thing, like we'd been caught talking behind his back. He looked like a naturally fluffy guy underneath, with a big, curling, gorgeous silver-white fake beard that rolled in tendrils down his belly, in a nice red velour outfit that wasn’t too cheap.

All the grownups turned to look and everyone smiled. The very first little girl, 3 or 4, was old enough not to be scared, and young enough to truly believe. She looked charmed—star-struck even, tucking her chin into her shoulder just a little bit to stave off the shyness she felt at being so overwhelmed by his wonderfulness. To her, he was really and truly magical. She appeared to be starting right in on her list, chattering away, tilting her head a little to look up at him out of the corner of her eye. The three of us at the checkout couldn’t stop sneaking peeks at her and smiling. Just now, writing that, the preciousness of that perfect, hopeful, believing little girl made the tears just stream down my cheeks.

That there is the currency of joy, my friends. That is what we are sharing.

I don’t know what touches your heart this time of year, but when it does, protect it, blow on it a little... and let it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Col. Lowell H. Landre, (Ret.), 1926 - 2011

My beloved grandfather's obituary posts tomorrow in the newspapers of the towns of his friends and relatives.  Modesto, Reno, Tahoe.

This is what it will say:

  Retired U.S. Army Colonel Lowell Henry Landre, 85, died in comfort at his home in South Lake Tahoe, California on the morning of November 22, 2011.  He was born in 1926 in Yakima, Washington, to Ralph Weston Landre, Sr. and Mary Josephine (Keesee) Landre.
  The Landre family moved from Washington state during the depression, seeking work in the fields and orchards of California.  From humble beginnings as migrant workers, the family later owned a beautiful home on Depot Hill in Capitola, California, and a restaurant on that town’s beachside esplanade. 
  Lowell graduated from Santa Cruz High School, Santa Cruz, California, in 1943, thereafter furthering his education at the Municipal University of Omaha in Nebraska, the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Air War College. He also attended UCLA, North Texas Agricultural College, the University of Texas, and numerous other civilian and military educational institutions.
  It was while attending UCLA that he met the love of his life, best friend, and wife of 64 years, the feisty and petite Rose Waszkiewicz, a proud girl of Polish descent, who had come to California from her hometown of Detroit, Michigan to work as a rivet-driller in the manufacture of airplanes for WWII. Rose Mary Waszkiewicz and Lowell Henry Landre were married by a Justice of the Peace in Wayne County, Michigan in June of 1945. They would spend the next seven decades traveling the world and raising their three boys, Lowell Dean, Lance Henry and Lee Raymond, together and apart, as the world’s battles shaped their lives.   
  Lowell served in such diverse locations as Indochina (before and during the Viet Nam war), Greenland, Puerto Rico, Panama, Japan, Europe, the Canadian Arctic Islands and numerous other classified locations.  He also served with the armed forces of other nations and had multiple tours in the former Fort Ord complex (Forts Ord and Hunter Liggett and the Presidio of Monterey), Fort Bragg, NC and Fort Benning, GA.  Among his awards and decorations, he particularly prized the Combat Infantryman badge and the Master Parachutist badge. 
  He also served as a senior military advisor to the Vietnamese city of Hué, nearly losing his life the night of January 31, 1968, when North Vietnamese troops broke a two-day holiday cease fire agreement and attacked the city during what is now known as the Tet Offensive.  The loss of many of his fellow soldiers, and the shocking civilian massacre in the city, affected him for the rest of his life.  Forever respectful of those who served our country and others, no matter their rank, he was a role model and mentor to his fellow soldiers throughout his military career and his life.  He will be greatly missed by the local veterans’ community.
  Between combat assignments, he specialized in military research and combat development. His duties in the military intelligence field and also in other classified postings required multiple linguistic capabilities.   Learning languages was a life-long passion for Lowell.  In addition to the English language, he spoke Russian, Vietnamese, Korean and Polish, and dabbled in many others.  He delighted in surprising people he’d meet with a short conversation in their native tongue, whether it was Spanish, Hungarian, Mandarin or Hindi. One of his great joys was relating these stories to his family.
  He retired from the U.S. Army in 1977 as a Colonel after 32 years of active duty in the U.S. Navy (WWII) and the U.S. Army.  He was a parachute and glider infantry soldier, leader and commander.  He received many U.S. and foreign decorations and awards and was wounded in combat multiple times.  Among numerous decorations and presidential citations, he was the recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for Valor.
  After leaving the military, Lowell assisted other military veterans with various governmental agencies.  He also researched and developed a comprehensive family genealogy spanning more than 400 years.  He was both an author and an artist.  He was a sports parachutist and pilot and a founding member of the Parachute Club of America.  A prolific and talented oil painter, he filled his home with beautiful images of the forests of the Sierra Nevadas, Bavaria, where he first learned to paint in a class offered for officer’s wives, and Alaska, where he and Rose lived for a decade while stationed at Fort Richardson. 
  Lowell had a soft spot for dogs of any shape or size and was never without a treat for them in his pocket.  He loved to laugh, and treated everyone he encountered with respect. He loved learning and was relentless in his constant pursuit of self-improvement.  He was a true gentleman and a consummate soldier.  Lowell was loved profoundly by his family, and was a beacon of strength and support.  Strengths and faults, successes and failures, there will never be anyone quite like him.  Dad, Grandpa, Great-Grandpa and Great-Great Grandpa, we love you more than words can convey. We will see your smiling face in every flower, every star, every sunset, and every wagging tail.
  Colonel Landre joins his loving wife Rose Waszkiewicz, who preceded him in death in 2009, somewhere in the stars overlooking us all.  He is survived by his two sons, Lowell D. Landre of Tennessee and Lance H. Landre of California; four grandchildren, Tamara Landre, Nicolle Landre, Laura Clendenning and Michael Landre; six great-grandchildren, Kayleigh, Jessica, Justus, Dylan, Conor and Casey, and one great-great-grandchild, Milo. He is also survived by his sister-in-law Shirley (Foote) Landre, widow of his brother Ralph Weston Landre, Jr., and their sons, Tim, Jon and Jeff, and their families. He was preceded in death by his wife, his youngest son, Lee Raymond Landre, his oldest grandson, Christopher Shawn Landre, and his canine buddy Murphy.
  Per his wishes, his ashes will be scattered at sea with those of the loved ones who preceded him.

Those wishing to honor Colonel Landre should reach out a hand to the next veteran they meet and thank him for his service, treat others with respect and kindness, and never, ever stop learning.

If it isn't clear to anyone who is reading this, I loved my Grandpa.  I was lucky beyond imagining that he was not only my Grandpa, but my friend.  We were so fortunate to have recognized that our time together would soon end, and we made the most of it.  There were times that he was my best friend, my only ally, and I his.  I hope that I have done justice to the great love I had for him, and the unshakeable faith he had in me, in this tribute. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Simple, Silky Butternut Soup

One butternut squash, halved, seeded, brushed with olive oil and roasted until tender in a 375 degree oven
+/- 1/3 cup Butter or olive oil
Chicken stock or water to thin, as needed
1 tsp sage
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
Nutmeg (fresh grated if available, to taste)
Salt to taste (gray salt if available)
Grated parmesan cheese as garnish if desired

There are a lot of ways to attack this, depending on your time limitations.  You can roast the squash ahead of time, refrigerate, and make the soup when needed, in small batches if you like, or put it together the previous day and season to taste as you reheat it. Give yourself about 2 hours to complete this recipe from start to finish if you are roasting the squash the same day.  You will need a blender or stick blender to produce a smooth soup.  This soup is also delicious cold, if your fall weather is as fickle as ours. 

Roast squash 1 hour, check for doneness and roast until very tender, approximately 1/2 to 1 hour more.  Allow squash to cool enough so that it's comfortable to handle, then use a large spoon to scoop the flesh away from the skin.  If you're roasting the squash ahead of time and making the soup the following day, refrigerate scooped squash in a covered bowl or zipper bag.

If making in a blender, combine squash with sage, pepper and nutmeg, adding stock as needed to reach the proper consistency.  Blend until smooth. 

(Note: be very careful when bending hot soups in a blender.  Put the lid on loosely, and cover with a kitchen towel to prevent spills and burns.  I recommend waiting until the squash has cooled just enough that it barely melts the butter.)

If serving later, refrigerate blended soup and adjust seasoning as you reheat the next day. 

If using a stick blender (a versatile, relatively inexpensive tool-- get one if you can), place roasted squash in a saucepan with butter or oil, and all remaining ingredients except salt, and blend, adding chicken stock to thin to the desired consistency, then season to taste.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hey, Zucchini Farmers!

It's that time again! The time when the residents of a certain small town lock their cars, not because they are afraid something will get stolen, but because their neighbors, who have a zucchini plant or two, will sneak a bag onto the front seat of any car that is left unattended!

Don't forget:
Zucchini Cheddar Breakfast Biscuits
Grilled, marinated zucchini (below) for an Italian Antipasto plate
and best of all: Zapples!

A zapple is what you do with a big, woody zucchini that's too big for any of the other uses, except maybe ratatouille (the diameter of an apple), peeled, seeded, cut into thick slices, and stewed with cinnamon, lemon juice and sugar. I tell you true, you can bake zapples into a pie, strudel or tart, and no one will know the difference. Also makes lovely zapplesauce and zapplesauce muffins. All courtesy of Andrea Chesman's great book The Garden Fresh Vegetable Cookbook.

To grill zucchini, eggplant or radicchio for antipasto, cut into manageable slices (for zucchini and radicchio, quarters lengthwise usually work, eighths for larger specimens. Thick slices for eggplant, also lengthwise. Marinate in olive oil and balsamic with a sprinkle of salt, grill until just tender, then put the warm vegetables back into the marinade to come back to room temp before serving. Salt more or add fresh chopped garlic or herbs to taste if desired.

Mike and I made some delicious burritos the other day with barbecued chicken, grilled zucchini, sour cream, homemade salsa fresca, lime and cilantro. We were using up leftovers, so we were both pleasantly surprised by how delicious our healthy meal turned out.

Berry Buttermilk Cake

This recipe is from the July issue of Bon Appétit magazine, originally for Blackberry Buttermilk Cake. I used blueberries and raspberries, as the blackberries from the garden have already come and gone.

If you read the comments on the recipe link, you'll see that there was a wide range of results, from overcooked to raw. I used a 10", glass-bottomed springform pan, set slightly higher than the middle of the oven. At 1 hr, the top of the cake did look quite brown, probably due to my poor positioning of the oven rack, so I covered it with a loose piece of foil, and it turned out just right when checked at 1:20.

As I sometimes (but not always) do when trying a recipe for the first time, I followed the recipe almost to the letter, including the double-sifting of the cake flour. (I did leave out the orange zest.) All ingredients were at room temperature. The sugar was a slightly coarser grain than my usual baking sugar, but as I said, it seemed to turn out just fine. The cake was moist and had a nice, creamy flavor, and the raspberries added just the right tang to the sweet blueberries. (About 3/4 blueberries to 1/4 raspberries).

When I do this again, I don't see any reason to use a springform, rather than the upside-down cake method (Plum or Pear) in a regular pan, as long as your pan is both wide and high enough to hold this amount of batter. A thicker pan will transfer heat more evenly than a thinner pan, so use a good quality cake pan.

I found the sequence below of, "Remove pan sides. Invert cake onto rack and remove pan bottom; peel off parchment." to be unnecessarily complex, not to mention awkward with a warm cake. (We had a bit of a fail on this part, which didn't affect the deliciousness.) Much easier to invert a single cake pan onto a plate, allow to cool further and remove, or, if you've used a parchment circle, cool, invert, de-pan, remove parchment. If you do use a springform, I'd recommend loosening the edge with a knife, then inverting onto a plate, then removing the sides, then the bottom, then the parchment, rather than trying to get a rack involved.

All that said, this is a very tasty cake. I may just adapt my normal USDC recipe and use sifted cake flour and buttermilk to get the flavor without the fuss.

Berry Buttermilk Cake


3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan and parchment
2 1/3 cups cake flour (sifted, then measured) plus more for pan
2 1/2 cups (10 ounces) fresh blackberries
1/4 cup plus 1 1/3 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
Powdered sugar (for dusting)
special equipment:

Use a 9"-10"-diameter springform pan

Position a rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350°. Butter pan; line bottom with a round of parchment paper. Butter parchment. Dust with flour; tap out excess. Arrange berries in a single layer in bottom of pan; sprinkle evenly with 1/4 cup sugar.
Sift 2 1/3 cups flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda into a medium bowl; set aside. Using an electric mixer, beat 3/4 cup butter and remaining 1 1/3 cups sugar in a large bowl at medium-high speed, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl, until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla and zest. Reduce speed to low; beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with flour mixture and beating just until incorporated. Pour batter over berries in pan; smooth top.
Bake until cake is golden brown and cake bounces back when pressed gently with fingertip, about 1 hour 25 minutes for a 9" pan and about 1 hour for a 10" pan. Let cool in pan set on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then run a thin, sharp knife around the edge of the pan to loosen. Remove pan sides. Invert cake onto rack and remove pan bottom; peel off parchment. Dust top generously with powdered sugar and let cool completely.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sheila Landre's Towel Manifesto

My mother asks that I post this as a public service announcement to all towel users, present and future.

An Expository Essay

These guidelines for towel usage will help you form good habits and save money in the future when you are in charge of towels of your own. There are many kinds of towels and each has its own purpose. Some require extra care and some do not. Some are more cost effective than others. Some have sentimental value to their owner and some do not. Some are disposable. Some last forever if properly treated.

Bath towels are decorative and useful. They are usually made of cotton terry cloth, come in several sizes, and are often purchased to match the decor in color and style. They are intended for public viewing as well as private use. They are meant to dry by absorbing clean water from human skin. Please do not mop the floor with them, wipe off hair dye, toothpaste or whitener, or bodily fluids with them.

Rinse all that off before you get to a towel so that you are merely wet. Then hang the towels neatly on the rack or a hanger to dry out for the next usage. Otherwise towels must be washed using extra soap, water, and electricity. Over time utility bills will increase as more and more towels are unnecessarily washed and dried. Eventually the towels wear out faster and need to be replaced.* Someone has to pay for these.

*Such worn-out or nonstandard towels may be redesigned as “Utility Towels”, used whole or subdivided, stored separately, folded to indicate they are no longer for use on human surfaces, and can be marked as such with an indelible marker. (See Paragraph 4. Use as an alternate to Paper Towels).

Kitchen towels serve a similar purpose and come in two categories: small towels for drying hands, usually terry cloth, and small towels for drying tableware such as plates, pots and pans and silverware. These are cotton or linen and are often decorative, even seasonal. Some households choose to use the same small towels for both hands and dishes while others differentiate. Each is used to dry plain water from surfaces. Dishcloths (sometimes called “dishrags”) are meant to be soaked in soapy water in order to wash dishes, etc. and countertops. They are then rinsed clean and hung by the sink for future use or put in the washer and replaced by a clean cloth.

Kitchen towels should not be used to wipe up spilled drinks or food, mop the floor, clean spaghetti sauce off the stove or jelly off children’s faces. Do you think somebody’s grandmother embroidered these things just so you could destroy them? If you want to clean up messes which might leave stains, use the dishcloth and then rinse it or use the paper towels (or utility towels) --that’s what they are for!

Modern paper towels --or “PT” not to be confused with “TP” (toilet paper) on a shopping list--come in a variety of configurations and absorbencies as well as with colorful decorations. They are meant to be disposable. Please fit the product to the need and do not use more than necessary. Paper towels now can cost nearly $3 a roll so why would you waste great gobs of them simply to dry your wet hands when there’s a perfectly good hand towel right there? And while you’re at it, why not hang the towel back up the way you found it? Paper towels are ideal for those little messes which are dropped on the floor, for cleaning jelly faces or the emergency bodily fluid situation. Don’t overlook the usefulness of a box of tissues or an efficient house pet to augment your kitchen towel needs. They come in a wide variety of sizes and styles.

Of course if you have unlimited financial resources your choices are broader. You may choose to use paper towels for all your cleaning and drying needs. You may not care if your best bath towels are stained with tomato sauce or bleached with tooth whitener. You may delight in washing every towel after every use and drying them until they are hot enough to burn your hands. You may enjoy the feel of masses of paper toweling soaking up water from your barely damp hands and then filling up the garbage can with their wadded masses. Some people find that very satisfying. Maybe you enjoy defiling your grandmother’s handiwork by using her lovely day-of-the-week tea towels as a mop. When you are calling the shots, that will be your choice.

Thank you for reading my essay on towels. I hope I have given you something to think about and that someday you will consider passing this information on to your children, grandchildren, other family members, and closest friends.

Happy drying!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Spent an afternoon catching some pretty light around the ranch.

The Moon's Twin

Where DOES the time go??

I have been doing a lot of reading lately, mainly Natalie Angier's The Canon: A Whirlygig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. A whirlygig tour, indeed! Whether you are a science-head like me, or just a fan of fantastic prose, this is a book worth reading. Ms. Angier has a flair for the alliterative and the poetic. Reading her paragraphs is like a hyper-speed Easter egg hunt. Just when you think you've spotted every pop-cultural reference and hidden couplet, you realize, in retracing your steps, that there was one more gem hiding in plain sight. Not only do I love the book, but the book makes me love and treasure science again. The wonder of childhood magnifying glass adventures is restored, and the magic of our world is made real again. Tall order, eh? Yes, and delivered with a bow on top in this fast-paced, fluid and compact volume.

Speaking of magnifying glasses, have you seen this piece about grains of sand? It makes me want to run out and buy a magnifying glass right now. And spend all day at the beach looking at sand.

(copyrightProfessor Gary Greenberg, SWNS)


I've just finished the chapter on Astronomy, and am headed into Geology (completed Statistics, Chemistry, Molecular and Evolutionary Biology and Physics). Here's something I've learned that you might not know either: at the center of the Earth, there is a moon. Rather, there is a dense, solid central core, made mostly of metals, about the size of our moon.

The original chunk was part of an orb that collided with the Earth in the early days of our planet's formation. In return for giving up a chunk of itself, this roller-derby queen of a planetary object lopped off a section of Earth that now floats in orbit around us, tethered by the gravity of our comparatively large mass, and the weight of our dense, metallic center. Like Shel Silverstein's Missing Piece, or the long-lost human halves in The Origin of Love, the pale, reflective, floating moon is doomed to circle its lost counterpart, held tight by its gravity, forever kept at a distance by its magnetism.

Isn't science beautiful?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Maryland Farmer

If you ever have the opportunity to watch the dubbed-for-TV version of Jackie Brown, get yourself a bowl of popcorn and prepare to crack up. I don't know who is responsible for the alternative language, but they must have had a great time. Still looking for the definitive list of all the substitutions.

Here are a few culled from the internet:
1. Mamajamma
2. Maryland Farmer (as in: Shut the farm up you farming Maryland farmer.)
3. Mud shoveler

These I managed to write down between belly laughs:
4. Melon-peeler (Picture Samuel L. Jackson saying, "You tell that farming melon-peeler I want my money.")
5. Motorscooter
6. Mortgage broker
and the mysterious
7. Mobyfinger
8. Snack was substituted for the s-word on more than one occasion.  (I don't want anymore of your snack, Mobyfinger!)

At Long Last

For all of you who have moved too far away to share this with me here in Napa. This is a little different from the original granola recipe I posted, but this is the real deal, brown-milk-making, addictive nuggets of molasses-y goodness that you know and love.

Auntie Tam's Molasses Granola

Mix together
6 C old-fashioned oats
1 C blanched, slivered almonds
1 T cinnamon
1 C unsweetened shredded coconut

*Melt together below ingredients and drizzle, stirring, into above
1/2 C brown sugar
1/4 C butter
1/4 C molasses, dark
1/2 tsp salt

1 cup raisins (or currants, or any other dried, unsweetened fruit)
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Oven 275 degrees, spread mix on parchment paper on deep-sided cookie sheet
or roasting pan (mine is 3-4" deep)
Bake for 30 minutes, stir
Bake for another 30 minutes
Stir in 1 cup of raisins, currants, dried blueberries, cranberries etc., and extra nuts if you like.
If necessary, bake for another 15 minutes, until evenly pale golden all over.
Cool completely and store in air-tight containers. Don't stir while cooling, as this is when the nuggets of molasses-covered goodies form.
I usually have to split the dry ingredients into two big bowls, as this makes a huge batch. Once the granola is in the pan, I also drizzle just a little more molasses in a thin stream across the whole thing to make sure there are plenty of nuggets. Iron and B vitamins! And deliciousness, of course.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Still Breathing

The soundscape at the winery sparkles with birdsong in the morning when I arrive. Mockingbirds, finches, acorn woodpeckers, yellow warblers, bluebirds, robins and assorted other peepers, cheepers and songsters throw their two cents into the mix.

Tiny gray and black, blunt-beaked birds pick through the cracks between the stones for insects and seeds. A tall heron occasionally strolls through the vineyard, and hawks and turkey vultures cast slowly looping shadows on the hills. Some days it's downright Snow-Whitish around here.

A pair of rosy-capped House Finches, in particular, has its nest in the joint of two beams under the eaves in front of my office window. This morning, as guests were arriving for the first tour, I could see one couple standing on the picnic bench on the patio, pointing at the nest. Three babies huddled inside, close enough that we could see them breathing. The nest seemed to be built at an angle, sloping towards us. That was when we noticed the two hatchlings on the ground below the nest.

One of the nearly-naked little babies was already a goner, but the other still gasped weakly for breath. I got a ladder while the gentleman who had spotted it held it in his hand to keep it warm.

Some of you may already have your wagging finger at the ready to scold us for touching baby birds, because everyone knows their parents won't accept them when they've been touched by a human. And you would be wrong. According to naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt, the author of Crow Planet (and probably many others) it's ok to quickly scoop them up and pop them back in the nest. Bird parents would rather have a live baby bird that smells funny than a dead baby bird. This doesn't mean that we should go around poking into nests and petting them, just that in an emergency, we'll likely be forgiven. (Having just finished the book yesterday, I was perhaps a bit overzealous in the encouragement of my accomplice.)

I'm ready for your second objection as well. Baby birds fall to the ground for a reason, and bird parents who can't build a proper nest for them don't deserve to reproduce. We should let nature take its course for the betterment of finches everywhere. On this count, it turns out, you may be right.

Within the hour, the poor, pathetic little thing was back on the ground. On closer examination, it appeared that the nest had been pulled or tipped out of position, its edge at a coy angle, like a lady's cloche hat. The three remaining hatchlings were clinging fiercely to the far edge, their half-bald backs pulsing with breath. And something else: they were twice the size of the two fallen young.

Holding the tiny, gasping creature in my hand, I realized that the parents were not just foolish birds who had built a faulty nest, but perhaps the intentional architects of this catastrophe. Three healthy babies, two weak ones. Without the physical strength, (or maybe even the ruthlessness) to pick the weaklings up and drop them elsewhere or push them out, they simply pulled at the nest's edge and let the rest happen as it would. And it did. The stronger siblings prevailed. I held the unfortunate thing in the warmth of my palm until I could find a small box so that at least it would have a quiet place to slip away. I heated a wet towel in the microwave and placed it in a zipper bag under the box for some warmth in the chilly office.

Defying Charles Darwin's tenets and nature's wrath, I climbed back on the ladder and tacked a few supporting twigs to the beams like a balcony railing, to keep the rest of the nest from falling completely. The three strong babies can relax their frantic grip and maybe get some rest. The finch-parents have returned to tend them without any visible fuss or dismay, and their remaining offspring may well live to breed next spring.

The warm, quiet little box sits on the desk next to mine. Inside it, the little bird is still breathing, still moving now and again, no longer gasping or writhing. This could be a sign of improvement or decline, it's hard to tell. Even if it recovers from this morning's ordeal, it is too small to survive much longer.

Having disturbed the natural course of events, I'm now left with the dilemma of what to do with it. Was it perhaps the wind, or the gropings of an unwelcome predator, that set the whole drama in motion, and not the will of wise birds? If it lives the remainder of the day, dare I slip it back into the nest?

I don't know the answer.


Update: Believe it or not, the little thing made it through the day and seemed to stabilize. Because it was still too weak to hold its head up to feed, I decided it was best to deliver it to the local wildlife rescue.

At the rescue desk, the veterinary nurse who accepted my little package said that they had received at least nine other little birds just as feeble and featherless that day, so it will be in good company. It's up to him/her now!