Sunday, February 22, 2009

Project 52 - Wk 7

We took a little field trip this week and ended up in a mini time machine. We'd heard there were still small meat markets nearby, in Wilber, Nebraska. Wilber is a charming little town that happily proclaims itself to be the Czech capital of the U.S.A. They host an annual festival that clogs the highways and swells the population of the area by thousands. Every one leaves with full tummies and lighter hearts full of music and ancestral pride.

Off "season" it's a modest little town with pretty facades and the most fabulously smoke scented air imaginable. Why? Well, Frank's Smokehouse is one reason. Close your eyes and imagine the best ever combination of wood smoke, cooking meat and spices and there you are. My apologies to vegetarians, this is carnivore country!

Although it's all about the meat here, there are some very cool pieces of kitchen equipment and that didn't come from some faux vintage kitchen kitch shop either. Check out that vintage coke machine. I'm guessing it's been in the shop for about 4o years. The old display cases remind me of the tiny general store in my grandma's little town when I was a kid. There's sausages of every description here, jerky, hocks... anything smoked you can imagine, I'll bet you'd find it.

We didn't get jerky this time, but we'll be back... this doesn't look anything like what's hanging near the check-out stand in WalMart. I don't think you'd see these guys in WalMart or Kroger either.

They also had some really good looking homemade bread and kolache. The smell of fresh bread and smoke in the air is almost criminal. I was wishing I hadn't just had breakfast when I spotted the kolaches. Kolaches? You never heard of kolaches? Fresh and still steaming up their bags. Almost made me wish I had a couple of kids at home to help eat up all the baked goods I wanted to buy. Not really, but almost! We did buy some smoked hocks (the Viking thinks it's time for some potato klub. We'll talk about that one later), some polish sausage, breakfast sausage, burgers and some Czech style potato dumpling that looks like a sausage thing to try. The butcher was cutting for fresh, gorgeous rib eye steaks for another customer, and we'll be back for some of those too!

One last thing that makes Frank's a totally unique little meat shop, is this little stash of hardware behind the register. At Franks, not only can you get meat and major sensory overload, you can also restock your ammo and buy a last minute anniversary gift for your man.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Splurging on Cats

We share our lives with four cats. Our oldest is either 16 or 18, we can't quite remember exactly when we got him. His name is Secret and there's a story that goes along with that. You'll meet Secret on another day. Then there's Franny, Shadow and Luna. Luna's the baby at only 4 years old. Since we've slipped from middle class (according to recent gov't figures middle class is a lower end income of $60,000 which we haven't seen since 2003) to lord knows what we are today, aisde from furry neon mice and catnip, the poor dears don't get too many extravagant treats. That changed today when the Viking got turned loose in a Super Target, on his own, for the first time!
Isn't this a fun kitty gym? It came in a small box and goes together like tinker toys. Shadow was sitting on the sidelines watching, silently snickering as only a cat can when watching clumsy humans trying to put something like this together.
Mere seconds after we put it in place, Shadow strolled over and hopped right it. She's usually the last one to get any treats and the first one to get clobbered, so I was happy she got to scent mark it first! She's very small and easily intimidated. The large red column hovers about half an inch off the ground, but she didn't care and settled right in. Secret made is way over and she stayed her ground, making him leave.
Next up was the most timid, Luna. She started at the far edge and sniffed her way around, investigating thoroughly. She discovered Shadow still inside ( see her gray back side in the cubby?) and she also backed off. Score again for Shadow!
Shadow eventually decided to give it up for a couple minutes and Luna thought she might try out the cubby. She tested it's stability with one paw tentatively touching the floor of the cubby. It swayed slight and she took off like a shot! We further embarrased her by laughing quite loudly.
Only Franny hasn't checked it out, she's too busy holding the bed in place. She's the Queen of the family, so who knows what will happen when she decides to use one of the perches as a throne. Today, they're all living like royalty, and thanks to Target, the Viking doesn't have to work 6 more hours to pay for it!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Spring Geese Migration

Spring is on the way! I saw two huge flocks of geese today, both heading north. I drive by a large rural pond on my way to work each day. This morning, the geese were in progress of just taking off as I went by. It was like being in a scene from The Birds. Amazing. Loud.

Then tonight, a second even larger flock was just passing over my home as I was approaching. There must have been thousands of them, hundreds of V formations in the sky. It's a wonderous thing to behold. This isn't my photo, but it could have been. I plan to have my camera out and ready to go on the seat beside me and maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll get my own shot to share. I love a sky full of flying Vs.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day! This lovely card is a 1907 Valentine postcard. The early 1900's were the height of holiday postcards with creative designs and original sentiment. I love the delicacy of this one. Although the celebration of a day set aside for love goes all the way back to medieval church celebrations (as it seems, all holidays do) the Valentine greeting card made it's first appearance in England during the 1840's.

By 1847, Valentines as we know them had jumped the pond and were becoming a successful business for Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts. She is credited for being the first commercial producer of embossed paper lace. According to a Wikipedia article on Valentines, Her father operated a large book and stationery store, but Howland took her inspiration from an English valentine she had received.

Victorian era lover's embraced Valentine cards with the same over enthusiasm they did any other form of art and design, if a little decoration is good, lots more is lots better! They produced some truly magnificent, frothy designs with romantic imagery of doves, cupids, roses, the works. They had breathtaking pop-up cards that are often replicated today.

When I was in grade school, in the 1960's, it was a tradition to have Valentine's parties at school. The American idea of fairness demanded that every child get a Valentine, to avoid crushing little 7 year old spirits. I really disliked giving Valentines to pesky boys, but at least it gave me something to do with the Valentine cards I really didn't care for!

We had fun parties thanks to lucky stay at home Moms who volunteered to be Room Mothers. My own Mom was always a Room Mother, and she did make sure we had fun parties at school with pretty treats. One of the best parts in my memory of Valentine's Day was getting to turn an ordinary shoe box into a magnificent, gaudy, flashy Valentine mail box. Some kids, without shoe boxes, used milk cartons. It didn't matter, they were all things of beauty. I wonder if kids still do that, or has modern life run right over that little joy and kids now have pink plastic mailboxes? Or worse yet, no Valentine's day parties at all for some politically correct reason?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. In years past, it's been relatively easy to overlook this date, especially since Lincoln's birthday and George Washington's birthdays got jumbled together into one observation, President's day, for the convenience of workers everywhere.

When did we become too busy, too modern, too thoughtless to allow for the recognition of these transcendent men on days of their own? When did the significant, but truly individual guidance of these men cease to have value on their own?

On this historical anniversary, take a moment to consider the life of Abraham Lincoln. He endures, not just for the way he met challenges in his career that had never before been faced. He endures, I believe, because we feel he remained like us; flawed but doing our best to forge ahead into the unknown, because to stop is unthinkable.

Look at this man, how a short four years of agonizing choices is plainly written on his face. The top photo was taken in 1861, thought to be the first photo of Lincoln as president. The second, taken in 1865, is the last known portrait before his death.

Today, spend a little time at the Smithsonian's online exhibit, Abraham Lincoln, An Extraordinary Life. Read some of the articles and commentary at CNN's From Lincoln to Obama pages.

Perhaps one day we'll recognize Obama as one of those better angels, that remains to be seen. It is enough today, to know that better angels of our nature have existed and will continue to exist, for humanity could not survive without them.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

A Sign of the Apocalypse

I know the end of the world is actually nearing. I have an undeniable sign. See, I love chocolate desserts. Pies, cookies, cakes, mocha, brownies, if it's chocolate it's my number one pick. It's been since Christmas that I really indulged my sweet tooth in a big way, so when I saw a recipe entitled Baked Fudge on Pioneer Woman, I was revved up and ready to bake. Tonights dinner was going to end in warm, gooey chocolately goodness.
I followed the directions to the letter. I am an experienced baker and frequently go off the recipe, but I could tell this was one that I needed to stick to closely. I made the thick fudgy batter and loved the deep chocolate aroma. I had the ramekins in the waterbath, just as I should. The idea of breaking through a thin shell of a crust, to delve into warm chocolate heaven was almost unbearable.

The kitchen filled with that heady unmistakeable smell of baking chocolate. I whipped real cream into soft clouds, imagining how the cool creaminess would meld with the warm chocolate. I made some decaf, and knew the weekend would end on a high note.

I carefully eased my spoon through the crispy layer of crust, carefully loading my spoon with rich, gooey chocolate. I made sure I had a little whipped cream, to tease the tip of my tongue. It was going to be wonderful.

It wasn't. It was, well, way too much chocolate. I thought I must be wrong, took a sip of coffee and tried again. Ugh. I really didn't like the texture of the fudgy part. And it was still too sweet. This can't be. So I decided maybe I could salvage the night by just eating the super thin layer of crispy crust. Two more bites. It wasn't working.

How could this be? I've made several of PW's recipes and been happy with them all. Sinfully pleased with her chocolate sheet cake. Happily surprised with her weirdo Bacon Wrap Appetisers. Totally in love with Pastor Ryan's Spicy Orange FGarlic Shrimp . But this, this was just not fair. PW... I counted on you.

pw baked fudgeI finished off the whipped cream, drank the coffee and called it quits. It was unbelievable. The one and only chocolate dessert that I have rejected in 50 years.
I guess it's really not her fault, but that only leaves one other option. The world is coming to an end.

Project 52 #5 Yipes Stripes

Zebras in Nebraska? In Beatrice,Nebraska? Yes indeed! I'm not a local, so I don't know why they're here, but they are here. Along with several bison, llama, elk and donkeys. Which just goes to show, never say anything is impossible.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Little Joys

This is one of the little joys in my life. Notthing spectacular but, it makes me happy. I like rocks. They're all over my house. One of the best presents I received for Christmas this year was a bag of rocks. Pretty fancy rocks, but rocks all the same. Well, actually, crystals to be more exact. This is a large quartz formation from Arkansas. It's about 4 inches across, with lots of personality. There's some points with rainbow inclusions, some so incredibly small they barely qualify as points and then there are chunky fingers that reach out to grab you. The cluster is sitting on one of my honestly antique books that I love. Enough of worldly doom and gloom. Go find something in your home that brings you a little joy; then come back and tell me about it.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Weird Word Wednesday Rutabaga

Today's word is not so much a weird word, as it is maybe an unusual word. I didn't think this was the case until yesterday when I overheard a conversation about making soup.

One cook insisted that no vegetable soup could be complete without rutabaga and the other had no clue what a rutabaga was. Certianly the use of rutabagas as food has fallen off as we are no longer reliant on only hardy root vegetables through out the winter, but to not know what this is at all?

So, if that could have been you, keep reading.

Rutabaga , (rōō'tə-bā'gə, rŏŏt'ə-, rōō'tə-bā'gə, rŏŏt'ə-) n.

In both senses also called swede, Swedish turnip.

1. A European plant (Brassica napus var. napobrassica) having a thick bulbous root used as food and as livestock feed.

2. The edible root of this plant.

So now you know what it is, you should also know that a rutabaga is one of the hardest substances known to cooks. Trying to cut this monster requires your heaviest chef's knife. And don't even think of trying to get away without peeling. It may be true that most of the nutritional goodies are in the peel, but it's not something anyone would want to ingest. Just trust me.

What do you do with it? Well, I do give in and add it in very small cubes to soup on occasion. Rarely. I hear you can mash it or serve it in a variety of tasty ways, in place of turnips. Since turnips aren't really in my daily recipe file, I'll take someone else's word for it.

I'm not advocating for rutabagas, but I do think people should at least know what they are.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Groundhog Day

Today is Groundhog Day and in the little town of Punxsutawney, PA, an oddball rodent has garnered our attention just long enough to predict another 6 weeks of winter. Of course depending on where you live, it might have been Gen. Beauregard Lee, Woodstock Willie or Staten Island Chuck doing the prediction. And you know what, according to records kept since 1887, the predictions are about 40% accurate. How’s your local meteorologist compare to that?

So, how on earth did civilized people in two countries come to decided that a groundhog would be the ideal predictor of weather? Did you even know that Canada also has Groundhog Day? Well, they do.

It seems that Groundhog Day stems from a Western European, probably German, tradition that timed the emergence of hibernating bears or badgers to the end of winter. If the day was sunny, there would be six more weeks of winter. As immigrants always do, they had to make do with what they found in their new homeland. With a shortage of bears, they settled on big rodents.

That’s one theory anyway. More likely in my mind is the correlation of Groundhog Day to the ancient pagan traditions of Imbolic and Christian celebration of Candlemas on Feb 2. The ancient church adapted many pagan celebrations into their calendar, simply because they couldn’t totally get the newly converted pagans to give up their parties! Feb 2 is the day dedicated to the Irish pagan goddess Brigid and also the day ancient Christians recognized as the purification of Mary, 40 days following the birth of Jesus. The symbols of both celebrations involve purification ; candles, spring cleaning, turning over the fields to prepare for spring, fire, hearth, cleansing of the body and spirit. Conveniently, this day also comes midway between winter solstice and the spring equinox.

So, in a round- about way, Groundhog Day is the perfect day for a funny, goofy celebration in the middle of cold, dark season that almost always lasts another 6 weeks, but reliably dissolves into spring.