Thursday, May 29, 2008

Crouton in the back yard dirt hole.

The dogs insist on digging giant holes in the back yard, including in the middle of the lawn. Their purpose in digging giant holes? Well, to lay in them, of course. Duh.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Countdown to June 5!

Only a couple weeks left before I can buy some new clothes! Okay, granted, it's been great to see my credit card balances shrinking instead of growing, but I ask you, can prudence, thriftiness, and frugality survive this gorgeous seersucker suit currently on sale at J. Crew?:

Here's a close up of that gorgeous, slightly clever collar. Argh! The loveliness!

Isn't it so me? I can hear it calling: Inder, buy me! It's also saying, with a little bit of apprehension in its voice: You would never spill coffee on me on your morning commute, right?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Adventures in bread-baking.

Growing up, I learned to bake bread from the Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Espe Brown. As far as I remember, my mother used the basic whole wheat recipe, almost exclusively. Not only did it open to that page automatically - it wouldn't open anywhere else, the pages were so soaked in gluten.

"Bread is alive," Mom would say, wiping streaks of flour into her perpetually messy red hair, "like a baby in the womb, it's growing. Would you like to pat the baby?" My sis and I would gingerly pat the shiny, smooth surface of the kneaded dough. It did feel remarkably like skin - a baby's bottom, in fact. You had to admit, it was pretty spankable.

Before bread machines were even invented, we learned that fast bread is generally icky bread. Who were we to imagine that we could improve upon the slow, patient, carefully perfected processes of the past six millenia? To summarize:

Rule #1 of bread: Yeast is your friend.

Rule #2 of bread: It just takes a long time. Get over it.

Also, I learned that the Tassajara Bread Book was revolutionary in its insistence on rising a sponge before the first kneading, with only flour, sweetener, warm water and yeast. This gives the yeast a chance to really get going with their favorite ingredients before adding salt and oil, which retard the growth of yeast. I didn't realize at the time that this step is omitted in most recipes, which is generally fine for white bread, but a serious problem with whole wheat breads.

I love that the new edition looks just like the older one I grew up with, rough brown paper cover and all.

Much later, when I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, I made bread often, mostly on days I was studying or writing papers. If you're stuck at home all day anyway, why not bake some bread? I got excited about whole grains and started experimenting with using all whole wheat flour. However, without a little bit of white flour to "lighten" the loaf up, the Tassajara loaves came out of the oven looking more like building materials than bread. Dense and small, these loaves could double as hand-weights.

But, I asked myself, I regularly buy 100% whole wheat bread at the store that was light and fluffy. What am I doing wrong?

So I started experimenting, using more yeast and longer rising time. I stretched the four hour process into a six hour one. Sure enough, a lighter loaf! The longer you let the yeast work, the better your bread will be.

Then I discovered the benefits of elbow grease - kneading your dough vigorously for 25 to 30 minutes results in lighter, prettier loaves. This must be why peasant women always have strong arms (that and carrying buckets of water from the well, anyway). It's hard work! But worth it.

Since then, I've tried a few other recipes. For example, I tried the basic loaf in The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book. Eh. It didn't turn out nearly as well as my standard. Why? In my opinion, it's because Laurel does not call for a sponge. White bread doesn't need a sponge, but whole wheat bread really needs that extra boost.

But my bread adventures are by no means over. I am trying something new now - a starter. As we speak, my first biga is ripening on our kitchen counter. It has a post-it on it that says: "Do Not Disturb Me: I Am Fermenting." This is for an Italian country bread recipe in Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes from the World's Healthiest Cuisine. As far as I can tell, bigas are halfway between a traditional sponge and a sourdough starter. The process was developed after dry yeast became available in Europe - chefs were moving away from sourdough, but wanted something more flavorful than dry yeast alone. It is similar to the Polish or French poolish. It's a sponge (with dry yeast in it) that is allowed to sit at room temperature for a day or two and pick up some wild (sourdough) yeast. I can't wait to see how this turns out. Coming up: "Adventures in bread-baking, part II."

After that? True sourdough starter. "Adventures in bread-baking, part III."

Of course, I have to buy all new flour now, and glass containers to hold the flour in, because our flour stock was full of worms and I tossed it. No problem. But that whole episode did give me pause. I was reminded that, back in the day, this type of infestation would have been really devastating. You probably would've just sifted the maggots out and eaten the food anyway (Rebecca remembers someone in her childhood doing that - that's old school). I mean, there wouldn't have been super-cheap Whole Food bulk bins down the street to draw from. But don't worry, my inclinations towards traditional cooking and housekeeping methods don't go that far.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Freeze your grains. Trust me.

Yesterday was one of those days. I had to work late and missed Sacred Harp. And, according to Rebecca, it was, like, the best Monday night singing ever. Drat.

So I tried to drown my sorrows in cheese, focusing my frustrations on a giant vat of macaroni and cheese with Dill Havarti and Gruyere cheese.

At some point during this process, I discovered that our entire pantry was infested with grain moths and their nasty pink squirmy maggot-like larvae.

(Look, I pride myself on not being a super-squeamish girl, but you gotta admit, there's something primally disgusting about finding worms in your food.)

(Who knew this blog was going to be so disgusting, anyway? Seems to be my favorite topic.)

So, when I first saw worms in my lentils, I squealed and dropped the bag of lentils in horror. Steve wanted to know what the fuss was about, so he picked up another infested bag. Recoiling, he practically threw the thing across the room.

We spent the next half hour throwing away all of our bulk foods, while I overcooked the macaroni. Here's a sample of our conversation:

"Why do you have so many lentils?" Steve asked, throwing away the fourth bag of French green lentils.

"Haven't you heard? We're living in the end-times." I said. "I mean, duh. I'm storing beans for the impending apocalypse."

(Seriously, you can never have too many lentils. You never know what might happen. Lentils have seen me through some hard times. Supposedly, my parents were so poor when my mom was pregnant with me that, in utero, I largely subsisted on lentils and mung beans and rice.)

Steve washes his hands, with ritualistic fervor, for the tenth time.

"Eeeeeek!" I squeal, throwing another infested bag into the trash.

In the next room, the dogs cower under the dining room table, wondering what they've done wrong this time.

That was my evening. Thank goodness, the moths hadn't infiltrated the bag of all-purpose flour I had recently bought, and I was still able to make the roue for the mac and cheese. Whew! Life without cheese sauce? That would be bad.

So now our cupboards are completely bare except for canned goods, one bag of rice I bought two days ago, and one bag of flour I bought last week. Seriously.

Rebecca has finally converted me to Mason jars.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Playing with crayons at Zza's Trattoria on Grand Ave.

My take on Omie and Crouton, using stubby crayons on the paper tablecloth. As Steve always says (about himself, but it applies much more to me), "I do not render well." Still, who says they put those crayons out just for the kids?

Sorry for the bad photo (taken with my crummy cell phone).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Steve hates Omie.

Yep, it's true, folks. Sorry to say, Steve hates Omie. And the feeling is obviously mutual.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

How to express yourself through mix CDs.

It's that time again: I'm working on creating my next mix CD, which I will then give to anyone who is interested and probably quite a few people who aren't at all interested. I put an embarrassing amount of effort into this process.

Is a mix CD art? Well, not in itself. It's a compilation of other people's art. A mix CD is like a commonplace book. If your life were a film, a mix CD would be the soundtrack. Hopefully, a mix CD is an acknowledgment of the power of music in your life, and it's a snapshot of a certain moment in time.

Some thoughts:

  1. First, assess your emotional state. Everyone wants to make mix CDs in the throes of a new crush. Be careful! Trust me, you will not regret exercising some mix CD reserve at this vulnerable time. Consider keeping it light. Steer clear of the Carpenters, early PJ Harvey, the Cure, Ani DiFranco, and for heaven's sake, if you just met the guy, do not include "Be My Husband," by Nina Simone. This is for your own good.

  2. Open a new playlist (I use iTunes), and throw great tunes into the playlist as you think of them. I have many playlists going, organized along thematic lines. Back in the day, before Mp3 technology, I used to keep lists of great songs in my diary. It took a really long time to make a good mix back then. Although when you consider that I used to write first drafts of all of my papers in longhand, it doesn't seem so bad.

  3. What order should the songs be in? I usually start by picking the first and last songs in the mix. Some songs are just naturally good beginning songs, and some are naturally good ending songs. The first song is the most important on the whole mix. It should be upbeat, draw the listener in and hold their attention. Never start a mix CD with anything too quiet, weird, avant-garde, or laid back, or your listeners will never make it to song number 2.

  4. The last song on a mix CD may linger in your listener's psyche for hours after the CD is done, so choose wisely. Generally, a winding-things-down tune is the best.

  5. There are really no rules about what to include, although I often make up a few to keep things interesting. I generally do not use more than one song from the same artist in a CD. Often I even try to avoid using artists I used in the last mix I made. But you could use only one artist in a CD to good effect, making a personal "best of." Most of my favorite movie soundtracks are mostly one artist with a few rogue songs thrown in.

  6. Thematic mixes are super-cool. Songs about nature, songs about committed and long-term love, songs about robots, songs about cars, songs about money. I did a mix CD of songs about death once, and it was, by my standards at least, pretty upbeat. If you haven't guessed this by now, I'm not really a fan of happy peppy music.

  7. Within the CD, I try to group songs by mood, and then carefully arrange them for flow. Do not group all of the really sad songs together in the middle - your listeners will be too depressed to finish the CD. Unless you want your mix CD to be an indistinguishable solid wall of sound throughout, moods and tempos should ebb and flow.

  8. I spend weeks listening and experimenting with order. I generally make several "drafts" before releasing the final version. Okay, yes, I'm insane.

  9. Some thoughts on mood. You may be feeling really low, and you may be tempted to create a really sad mix CD. You know the one - the "Life is Meaningless and Love is Pain" mix. By all means, make the mix! It's probably just the catharsis you need! But please don't force it on your friends. Although obviously much better than unrelenting cheeriness, unrelenting depression is actually pretty boring. On the other hand, sadness at the suffering in the world tempered by delight in nature, good friends, and nostalgia for those trips to the lake you took as a child - now you're talking! A mix CD isn't just an opportunity to share some new artists with your friends - like good memoir, it should please the listener, and it should judiciously reveal something about your current emotional state.

  10. You're going to have to cull some songs that, however amazing, just don't "fit." This is why "drafts" are good. You'll be listening to the draft mix in your car (which is generally the best place for objective review), and a particular song will constantly jar your ear, or beg to be skipped. Remove it, even though you love it.

  11. Album art and a cool title are optional, but definitely enhance the experience.

  12. Disseminate widely.

  13. Don't forget to give me a copy.

  14. Because mix CDs are so personal, it's easy to get sensitive about them. Try to take it in stride when you find out that half of your friends never bothered to listen to the CD at all, and the other half skip over all of the songs in the middle. Remember, everyone has different tastes. Repeat after me: "Taste is subjective." Let's face it - making mixes is a fundamentally narcissistic passtime. No one else will love it like you love it. And that's okay.

If I had a CD changer - if I still had CDs - these would be the CDs on constant rotation: