Sunday, May 4, 2014

Budget Costume

I love having the excuse to dress up a little differently and bring some fun to the day.  I like deciding what to wear.  I like having themes.  I like putting everything together to get my costume set.  I relish, for just a while, in the attention that I receive when typically I'd rather be left well enough alone. I'd love having more than one holiday each year that gives a reason to dress up in a costume.  Basically, Halloween doesn't even need candy for me to have fun because I just want to dress up anyway.

However, sometimes having this great passion for costumes conflicts with my wallet's contents.  Or time constraints.  Or both.  So, sometimes I have to get a little creative.  I think I get some of the creativity from my mom.  I remember her having to paint faces, get different things together, and spending time getting us all ready to go trick-or-treating.  I think she would have been pretty impressed with my skills.  I seriously spent $2.  I spent a lot of time on it, so I can see that if you find your time more precious than your money, you may prefer to purchase a pre-made costume.  But I really think that the effort to get everything just right made it an even more enjoyable experience for me.

Here is what I used:

What it is: black lacy Dutch bodice
What I used: Black tank top, red ribbon, white lace and (unseen) nearly a million safety pins.
Cost: $2 (for the tank top, on clearance). The ribbon and the lace were in a box of trimmings that were given to me.

I basically spent time criss-crossing the red ribbon from the top to the bottom, pinning on the sides as I went.  I didn't have  sewing machine.  The lace went on the edges of the ribbon for accent.  It took a long time, but looked better than the picture suggests.

What is is/ What I used: White blouse (Actual shirt used not pictured.)
Cost: $0 -- from my closet

What is is/What I used: Black skirt (It could have been red, like many of the images depict; actual skirt used not pictured.)
Cost: $0 -- from my closet

What is is: Dutch apron
What I used: Short cooking apron, turned down to cover buttons
Cost: $0 -- borrowed from someone who made it for a pioneer trek

What it is/What I used: Black Mary Jane pumps
Cost: $0 -- from my closet

What it is: Red riding hood
What I used: Red hooded cape
Cost: $0 -- borrowed from a friend whose kid had used it for a different costume a previous year

What it is: Basket for goodies
What I used: Produce basket
Cost: $0 -- used a basket I have at home for my potatoes

What is is: Checkered cloth covering goodies
What I used: Checkered-ish dish towel
Cost: $0 -- borrowed from neighbor

Final Costume: Little Red Riding Hood

Any PG costume suggestions for Halloween 2014?

Avocado Potato Salad

I love potato salad.  What would life be like without this delectable dance upon my tastebuds?  It would be a sad, dark place I tell you.  I have a go-to recipe for my potato salad.  It is the same potato salad that my grandmother and my mother made, except that I add black olives to it as well.  That and I use vegan mayo.  This is typically what others expect when I bring potato salad.  But I have a confession.  Notwithstanding the undeniable awesomehood of this recipe, and the distinct happiness that it brings... sometimes I want something else.  *gasp*

I have been cooking different things to share with family, some of whom are vegan.  This has invited me to explore other options.  I try alternative recipes or ingredients.  I am also trying to eat more healthy choices.  I don't really succeed as often as I like, but I do keep making that effort.  So... as I was contemplating healthy alternatives that vegans could enjoy... I wondered what potato salad would taste like without any mayo at all. What if I just used avocado instead?  It brings creamy delightfulness to the table.  I tried it, and this is the result.  (Forgive the lack of photography skills.)

The recipe is a bit difficult to pin precisely, but it goes something like this:

10 baking potatoes, boiled, peeled and diced
2 avocados
juice of 1 lime
juice of 1 lemon
rice milk (enough to make smooth)
garlic salt
1 can olives, chopped lengthwise into quarters
2 C corn, cooked and cooled
8-10 green onions, chopped

I blended the avocados, juices and spices in my blender,  I used some milk to help make it smooth since the avocados were not completely ripe.  I poured this mixture over the potatoes, added the corn, olives and onions and mixed it.  I placed it in the refrigerator to let it cool and to allow the flavors to blend.

I was told it is a do-over, so we'll be doing this again.  I will probably experiment a bit with cilantro and/or chipotle on future attempts.  I liked it.  I liked that it was light and had some good alternatives.  I liked that it was a different flavor from my regular potato salad, to be used when a little change is needed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Shut Up Cookie Cheeks

Ever wondered what to do on a rainy Sunday evening in a distant city?  I learned to play a new card game.  It is called Cacheta.  It's Brazilian.  It's pronounced something like ka-zheh-tuh.  This was a little confusing for my poor ears (that don't comprehend Brazilian Portuguese)... because I keep trying to fit the sounds into boxes that I know.  Which happened to be Argentine boxes.  Which works, I guess, considering that they are at least neighboring countries. Callate.  (kai-zha-tay)  Galleta.  (gai-zheh-tuh)  Cachete. (kuh-chet-ay)  Shut up.  Cookie.  Cheek.  Luck would have it that the game has nothing to do with any of these things.

When describing this game, I've been told it sounds a bit like gin rummy.  I have no idea how gin rummy is played, but I liked this game.  Here's how it works.  You need a deck of playing cards (this could conceivably work with a face card substitute deck of cards, but we played with face cards).  Each player receives 9 cards.  If you choose to play with wilds (we tried both ways, and I enjoyed with far better than without), the dealer flips over the next card.  Whatever the card is, the wild is the next highest card.  (If it is a 2, the wild will be 3's.)

The object is to collect 3 sets.  The sets may be three consecutive cards of the same suit (such as queen, king and ace of diamonds) or three of a kind (such as the 4 of spades, hearts and clubs).  You must have three sets.  You pick up a card at the beginning of each turn, either from the draw pile or from the discard pile.  You end your turn by discarding one card from your hand.  You cannot lay your cards down until you have completed all three sets.

In the picture above, you can see three sets, the discard pile, the draw pile and the card that shows what is the wild.  I am a super compulsive person in some ways, so after I dealt 9 card to each person, I would flip the last card and place it under the draw pile, but still visible.  (You can barely see it in the photograph.)  This helped keep it fresh which card would be wild for the duration of the hand.

It doesn't require a lot of genius and is a simple way to pass an evening, like if the electricity goes out and you only have candles or if you're stuck indoors because it's really rainy outside or simply because you enjoy it.  I had fun.  Try it and let me know what you think.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bake, Baby, Bake

It took me three tries.  In fact, whether or not the third time worked was going to play heavily on whether there would be another try.  I know, I know... Thomas Edison and his hundreds of ways to NOT make a light bulk, but I am not one of those people who can have hundreds of ways to not make wheat bread.  Seriously, I wasn't inventing something, here, just trying to do something at home that thousands of other people have been able to do successfully.

My first attempt was a solid mass that never (EVER) rose.  It just sat there in its dough state, laughing at me.  It was supposed to be enough to bake two loaves, but it never amounted to that much dough.  I baked it anyway.... and it turned out to be an inedible (and ugly) brick.  Pure.  Absolute.  Failure.  It would have been a good door-stop, though.  Or an anti-theft device, if I had used it to fall from above if anyone broke into my house.  I'm pretty sure it would have knocked them unconscious.

My second attempt made more headway.  I think.  I used my grandma's recipe.  I did get two loaves out of it.  But alas, I still got bread that didn't taste very good or rise properly or make me happy in any other way.  Apparently it is also not making the birds happy because I don't think they've touched it.  But I really, truly did try.  I believe my problem was the timing of adding the salt, which may have killed the yeast.  Someone else suggested that it may be that I used powdered milk rather than fresh or canned milk.  A third person suggested that it was my general use of recipes as a list of suggestions rather than rules... but aside from the salt and butter being introduced at the wrong time (I read a line early in the recipe), I really had followed the recipe.  The last possible suggestion I received was regarding how much yeast I used.  I was told that wheat bread recipes typically call for more yeast than white bread recipes do.

That brings us to my third attempt.  This is what you need to know.  I ground my own wheat flour.  In my previous attempts, I used the white flour that I buy at from home each year and bring back with me... but after two failed attempts I bought cheap white flour at the local store instead.  I also bought shortening instead of using butter since the recipe actually says shortening.  So I scalded my milk, which was half powdered milk and half canned milk.  This was as much a concession to the person who told me powdered milk wouldn't work as me having only enough powdered milk to make half of what the recipe required.  I let it cool completely before I added the (local!) honey.  I doubled the yeast... forgive me, but I couldn't withstand another lousy bread experience.  IT HAD TO RISE.  I followed every other instruction, to the letter.  I even greased my bread pans with shortening like my grandma had done when I was a kid.  And it rose.  And it baked well  This is what came out of the oven:

They aren't precisely the most beautiful loaves ever created, but... look at them, they rose!

They were a bit crumbly, as far as bread is concerned.  But they were better than simply edible, they were good.  That, my friends, is sheer happiness.  After so much effort, I really really wanted bread that was more healthy for me and that wasn't lousy.  So hooray for wheat bread!  Now I feel free to make continued attempts and maybe tweak it here and there... like trying to make it vegan or multi-grain.  Wahoo!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Faith After the Fall

Perhaps my most unexpected and unequivocally “adventurous” adventure has been a skydiving experience not soon to be forgotten.

I acknowledge that most of my life is a fairly quiet one.  There is not much in my quotidian affairs that recommends me for public notice.  I like to read.  I am learning to crochet.  I eat tofu.  You can see why no major television company was riveted to a reality tv program featuring me.  As I waited on the phone to fix the mess-up on my booking to go skydiving – more on this in a moment – I was told by the on-hold marketing that this company was there for the “busy thrill-seekers.”  I thought for sure I had been placed in the wrong compartment.  Thrill seeker!?!  I think my idea of thrilling is when the third book in a trilogy I started two years ago finally comes out at the bookstore.

As it happens, the tickets were booked through an agency that caters to the whims of the brave, or insane.  They have all kinds of things.  Except for honest and respectable business practices.  Too boring, apparently.  I will not go into tedious details.  A word to the adventurous—when beginning some breath-taking experience like balloon rides or sky dives or bungee jumps, it is preferable to book directly with the company offering this.  You may even be able to negotiate pricing if you are doing a package deal or booking for more than one person.  But if not, avoid Adventure Outdoors/Thrillant/Spot Reservations.  Their Better Business Bureau grades are poor to miserable, which reflects how you will likely feel if you work with them.  Don’t begin your crazy, wild moment with a company that will steal your thunder before you even get there.

That being said, I did, eventually, get there.  I suited up and got inside a ridiculously small propeller plane.  We climbed and climbed, getting nearer to the clouds and farther from the fields and lakes below.  Then it was go-time.  Words fail to fully capture the experience.  As I was on the brink of jumping, my heart was racing.  I had not yet come to terms with my imminent and untraditional exit of the plane.  And then I was out of it.  I don’t think it was fear that I felt as I plummeted at a whopping 120 mph.  It was unbridled surprise.  I think I should have warned my instructor that I am reactionary in exaggerated levels.  I stopped screaming during free-fall – to catch my breath – and resumed screaming in full force until the parachute deployed.  But my mind didn’t stop processing or analyzing at any point.  I was falling, but I trusted my instructor.  I knew he know what to do and that I would be fine.  I felt…. Unencumbered.  Like swimming, except nothing like being in the water.  I was free.  I felt as if I were sustained, which was bizarre considering I was not.  I felt God’s watchful eye on me, in the middle of absolutely nothing.  It was unparalleled.

These are two shots showing the view from up there, while still plummeting.

Once the parachute was out, I felt at peace.  I looked around at this area, unresponsive to the commencement of autumn.  Green fields, azure lakes, clouds, buildings, extended horizons.  It was simply beautiful.

Touch down was blissfully uneventful.  Just a calm step out of the sky, at least for me.  There was a man on the ground, waiting for us, who quickly helped to anchor us and pull in the ‘chute.  Then I was home again, a little different than when I had left it.

Later, as I sat quietly reflecting, my mind made connections between this experience and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  There is still so much I do not know, but my skydiving experience illuminated some things for me.  I recognize that any parable, carried too far, stops being an effective comparison.  Nor can I claim full credit for the following parable, since I believe parts of it germinated in an institute class years ago.  But I do express sincerity in it.

In Spanish, “paracaidas” is a parachute.  Literally, it means stop-falls.  Not long ago, I compared the Savior’s Atonement to a paracaidas in a Sunday School class, because it is undeniably a stop to our fall, a stop the The Fall.  The Fall from the presence of God, when Adam and Eve partook of the fruit, and by so doing, initiated this life experience for the rest of us.  There must have been some trepidation for some of us, if not all, as we were launched into this mortality, away from home and away from our Father.  But from the very beginning, before we ever boarded the plane, there was a plan.  We didn’t have to do it alone.  Each of us came equipped with a parachute so that we could return home safely.  Some of us relish the sensation of free-falling, thinking little of how quickly time passes and how little time is left to deploy our parachute.  We flip and turn and spin.  Others are more cautious and quickly extend our arms and legs into the form we were taught.  Still others, perhaps, make no effort at all and tighten into a ball to plummet even faster.  Whatever we do, whatever we choose, we all still have a parachute and have the option to use it.  By the grace of God, we have been granted this gift.  We didn’t have to pack it.  We don’t even have to know how it works to be able to use it.  We can trust in Him that it is there and that it will work.  His grace, and grace alone, makes salvation possible to those who would otherwise die without it.  Yet we must choose to actively apply it.  We must pull the cord and allow His grace to protect us.  Once we do, beautiful vistas are opened to our view.  We can enjoy all the blessing He has prepared for us.  We have liberty to change course instead of simply falling.  And we can arrive safely home, into the arms of those who have been watching over us and waiting for our return.

Like I did that day, we can choose a tandem fall, connecting ourselves to the Savior and relying on His experience to guide and help us, to show us how to apply His Atonement by deploying the parachute.  And just like my experience, some of us will arrive home sooner than others and watch with care and excitement as our loved ones also arrive safely and happily. 

I know that this is not an exact explanation of the Savior’s sacrifice for each one of us.  But I know that it is His grace and mercy that call me home and guide me safely there.  I know that His grace is as freely available to those I love as it is to me, and to all of Heavenly Father’s children.  I am grateful for my agency to choose Him and His Plan and His Son.  I am grateful to that quiet moment when He opened my eyes to see Him near me and feel His love.  I know He uses my experiences to illuminate my mind and broaden my understanding.  I am grateful the Savior is my tandem partner and endures my screams as I learn to open my parachute each day.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Long Live Cranberries!

I love cranberries.  It is not clear what, precisely, has captured my love of these little red, tart berries... but I am pretty much a big fan.  I even like the music group by the same name, from Limerick.  I have affection for cranberry orange muffins, cranberry banana bread, cranberry cherry juice, cranberries for Thanksgiving, cranberry herbal tea... so it occurred to me that if I love them so well, maybe I should actually have some on hand, yes?

I tried two different methods, only one of which has photographs.  (Sorry, I forgot!)  I bought a bag of cranberries, since they were in season, at a local store.  These were washed and then put in a food dehydrator.  This can be done in an oven, as well, but as my sister-in-law actually owns a dehydrator we opted for that plan.  After we had already had them going for a while, we discovered that we actually needed to cut them or pierce them.  Some said we could have blanched them in hot water before we began, but we were beyond that already and decided to stick with the cutting part.  We did this and then returned them to the dehydrator.  Later we ended up with little pruned up cranberries, our very own craisins.  Note that you will get far less volume of cranberries than when you started.  Seriously, I thought the cranberry elves had come in and stolen some.  But it makes sense that as they dehydrate, they shrink.  An entire bag of fresh cranberries does not even fill up a sandwich size zip-top bag.

The end result was a bit tart.  We didn't use any sugar or anything in the drying process.  This is fine if you plan to use the cranberries in something that adds sweetness.  This is less awesome when you are adding the craisins to a salad, as they are undeniably tart, unless you go for that sort of thing.

The next attempt was freeze drying cranberries.  I googled freeze-drying, so I knew it would be important to have less stuff in my freezer as well as not constantly opening my freezer while the freeze-drying was taking place.  I don't have an awesome deep freezer, ladies and gentlemen, I've just got a standard freezer in my refrigerator unit.  I hoped that the week that I would be travelling for work would be ideal for freeze drying, so I bought a couple of packages of cranberries.  These were washed and left in the colander to dry.  Look at them, aren't they beautiful?

Then they were cut up thinly, as suggested by other bloggers.  Thin, here, is a subjective term.  I think I maybe got 4 or 5 slices on a single standard-sized cranberry.  Sometimes only 3.  After a while, you get to the point where you are a bit less particular about how thinly they are because you see all the cranberries that are left and you think you'll never be done.  Or at least you feel that way if you think like I thought as I was thinly slicing my darling berries.  This is how they looked.

Then, I spread my cranberry slices on pizza tins.  I felt that mine, having those little holes all over the surface, would probably help with the freeze-drying process.  I may be mistaken.  But it seemed like a good idea at the time.  An unexpected development with this choice was that as the cranberries froze and dropped their seeds, these fell through the holes and collected on the bottom of my freezer.  Someone had suggested taking out a few berries and leaving them on the table to test the done-ness of the process.  If they turned into a putrid moldy mess, the answer was they needed to stay longer.  I did this test, and although I didn't have a mass of cranberry goo on my counter, I didn't think they were done.  I left them in about a half a week longer.  This is the appearance of my cold little berry friends.

I am not entirely convinced that they were freeze-dried to perfection after that, but I needed my freezer space.  I put the cranberries in a zip-top bag and left these on my counter to be stored with the dehydrated ones and noted moisture collecting on the inside of the bag.  I think this means I failed.  Not willing to entirely lose the battle, I just closed the bag and threw them back in the freezer.  I am not opposed to trying again, but I think that this would be more effective with a deep freezer.  Or with a freezer that blows air like some ovens do, keeping the coldness rotating.

I am also up to other options of preserving cranberries.  Cranberry jam, cranberry syrup, cranberry fruit filling for mini pies... anyone have any suggestions?  Anything you've tried that has worked, or hasn't?  What are your favorite fruits to preserve?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Musical Happiness

Rodrigo y Gabriela.  Just the name of the artists brings me a degree of happiness.  I was introduced to the group through coworkers who loaned me their CD's.  They are, in fact, the artists on the first CD I bought for myself since... somewhere in 2006.  I enjoy the energy level of their music.  I enjoy the quality of their playing.  I love that I can't get offended by off-hand lyrics.  I love that they are the perfect music for daydreaming that I am a wonderful dancer.  

My sister-in-law had also come to know and love Rodrigo y Gabriela and employed their music in her workout routine soundtrack.  It is possible to say that *gasp* she was in love with them before I was.  She was a bit surprised that I didn't know of them sooner.  Latin music is a joy to my heart, so how had I been missing out for so long?  Beats me.

So I groove to their music on my mp3 player and daydream of awesomeness, until someone let me know that they would be playing in a nearby city.  Suddenly, I remembered being in high school and being told that No Doubt would be playing in a city near where I lived the same weekend I would have to be in that city... and being on my way to buy tickets when we discovered it was actually the following weekend.  This was going to be my FIRST EVER chance at attending a concert of this nature.  I felt giddy with the sheer possibility alone.  I deliberated on buying the tickets for a while, but... well... I really really wanted them and I thought it would be the bomb diggety.  So I got them.  My sister-in-law and I went.

It basically was the bomb diggety.

This is a picture of them.  Not amazing, as far as photographs go, but this is them.  And I was there.

AWESOMENESS.  That is what it was.  I was somewhat surprised at how much actual sitting  was taking place in the audience.  I had thought we'd be spending way more time on our feet.  I was a bit shocked at how many swear words came out as the artists talked.  But I loved the concert.  I even enjoyed the opening band.  I liked the concert so well that I bought a t-shirt.  It really was an super neat experience to be there and to feel the energy as they played.  I thought it was particularly awesome how the only instruments involved were two specialized guitars (on the CD's I felt like there were other band members playing accompanying instruments... but I was wrong.)  One of the coolest adventures I had in 2012 was going to this concert.  I have fun remembering it even now, as I groove out to Hanuman while I am driving down the road.  If you've never been to a concert, I certainly recommend the experience with a band you enjoy.