Saturday, May 28, 2011

I've been to the Zoo!

  

  
There was a steam train! And naked mole rats! And baby turtles, and polar bears, a rhinoceros, a zebra and some otters and some other stuff!

The steam train was the main object of my field trip today. I went during my vacation week before last, and it was too early in the season for them to be running it. I was quite disappointed, and vowed that I would ride the tiny locomotive at the earliest opportunity. The very nice man at the ticketing booth told me they would start running it this weekend, so in spite of the chilly weather this morning, I got up and went off to the zoo.

At the ticket booth by the train station I asked if the next ride was the regular train or the steam train. I felt a little sheepish. No, it was the regular one, the Zooliner, said the ticket agent. The Oregonian would be another half an hour, he said, would I like to wait? I said yes, I only came to ride the steam train. Well, I think that's great! That one's my favorite too, he said. Nerrrrrddds.

By chance, I had arrived just in time to catch  The Oregonian's first run of the day. The Zooliner, which dates from some time in the early sixties I think, was already running. As they loaded it with passengers, I could see these two guys in stripey engineer's overalls messing around with the steam engine, which was parked on a siding. Once the Zooliner left the station, the engineers backed the steam train up to the platform. Sorry about the jiggly camera angles, there were a bunch of us milling around watching.

video

I hope the station attendant didn't think I was really annoying. I was the first person in line to board. Maybe the engineer's cap was a bit much? He's probably seen worse. One benefit of riding the first train of the day is that you get to watch the engineers perform a couple of maintenance tasks that aren't done at other times. One of those is sanding out the engine. They drive the train to a section of track with a slight downward slope, then blow a large quantity of (I think) steam out through the smoke stack while backing the train uphill. The steam essentially pressure washes the guts of the engine stack and flushes out all the accumulated soot and grit. They back it up the hill so that all that stuff will fall onto the tracks in front of the train rather than back onto the passengers. When they're done, the train starts rolling forward again. I didn't get a very good shot of it; it's quite dramatic, and I was too busy gawping.

video


The other thing they do is blow down the boiler. I imagine this serves a similar purpose, but for the tanks of water to make steam which powers the engine. Much of the Washington Park loop of the track is laid in close proximity to the sides of the hills, so they have to drive the train to an area that has a large ravine on the left side so they can safely vent the steam from the boiler.

video


After that, it's just a very pleasant little ride through the woods and around the bottom of the zoo. The last part of the track before the station is a miniature tunnel. It's probably only about 50 feet long, but there are no lights in there so you can see the reflection of the boiler flames coming off the bottom of the engine, and the smoke billows around the ceiling in this very spooky-cool way. Is a bit stinky though. If you want to get a good view of the engine working, I recommend riding somewhere in the middle of the train. If you ride right behind the engine, you have to stick your head way out of the car to see anything, which is frowned upon, and if you ride at the end of the train, you will be too far back. Sit in the middle, and you will get very nice views of the engine every time the train goes around a curve in the track. Also, the train stops above the rose test garden for a photo op, and you can get a re-boarding stamp if you want to get off and mess around in the park. Next time!
 
Of course, I did wander around the zoo for a while. I missed the naked mole rats last time, and it was a particular object of mine to see them. They are so beautifully horrid looking. Does anybody know if they even have eyeballs? And then there were polar bears, and the hippos, and a tiger, and african wild dogs, plus gazelles and bunches of things I didn't get pictures of. That'll teach me to wander off without a spare set of batteries for my camera.

Still, for me it was all about the little train. On Friday I heard somebody say that they rode the train for zoolights a couple years ago and didn't think it was anything to get all excited about. Dude. Some people are crazy, that's all I'm saying.

More pictures on my photostream!  

Friday, May 27, 2011

Spinach & Mushroom Risotto

  

  
I know I said I don't really like rice, and it is mostly true. I think of it as a thing that you eat with more interesting stuff. Risotto is not really just rice, though. It's a dish that calls for rice as an ingredient. Don't be put off because you find risotto on restaurant menus, it isn't complicated or difficult to make, and you don't even need special rice to do it. I know everybody says to use arborio or carneroli rice, but I read some instructions from a real Italian lady, and she said it doesn't matter. So I used sushi rice, and it turned out great. Also, it cooks faster than you would think. The whole recipe took me at most 45 minutes from "Oh what the hell do I cook?" to scarfing risotto while typing this post. This is a small recipe, good for a single-gal-sized dinner with a dab of leftovers in case I wake up ravenous at 4 AM. It happens.

a generous half cup of sushi rice
a cup of sliced brown button musrooms
2 green onions, finely sliced
butter and olive oil for frying
hot water and about 1/2 teaspoon broth concentrate
pepper
a pinch of fresh herbs, I used about 1 leaf of sage an an equal amount each of rosemary & thyme
a generous handful of baby spinach leaves
about 1 ounce of freshly grated parmesan

Put a kettle of water on to heat up while you chop the veggies.

Put about 1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil in a heavy skillet, and heat to medium. Saute the mushrooms and onions until the mushrooms loose about half their volume and start to look a little dry. Remove them from the pan.

If the mushroom goop in the pan looks pleasantly brown rather than burnt black, add another tablespoon of oil to the pan and dump in the rice. (If it is burnt, just rinse out the pan and start fresh.) Stir the rice around for one or two minutes until the grains start to get a little bit brown, then put the mushrooms back in. Pour in about 1/2 cup of hot water and stir it around quickly. Pour in another half cup when about 3/4 of the first round has disappeared. Add the broth concentrate somewhere around here. Keep stirring and adding water as the pan dries out. When the rice is about half cooked, add the herbs and pepper.

Eventually, a thick, smooth, sauce will develop around the grains and veggies. It's done when the rice is al dente. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the cheese and serve immediately.

Pointers:

1.  Keep the pan hot. The first cup of water should sizzle pretty vigorously in the pan. There should be continuous bubbling and stirring.
2.  As you cook, don't let it dry out completely. Let the sauce build up. The finished texture should be like a very rich savory porridge.
3. Most recipes call for stock, but I went with the broth concentrate because I could just drop the concentrate in the pan and add water as needed, instead of measuring out a pot of stock and then either having too much or too little. And having to wash another dish.
4. While the soup concentrate was an acceptable shortcut for me, anything but fresh cheese was not. The cheese contributes more to the flavor of the dish, and the stuff in the green can that goes on spaghetti does not taste the same at all. Also, fresh cheese melts and adds a creamy texture to the risotto, which green-can cheese, being quite dry, will not do.

I read about a dozen risotto recipes before making this. One thing I did not have was wine, which many recipes call for. It seems to be traditional to add a splash of a dry white in with the broth. Garlic is another common addition, but I just wasn't in the mood. Everything else is pretty much up for grabs. I read recipes with chicken, with asparagus, or fava beans, or broccoli, they had different sorts of cheeses, lots of recipes had lemon, and one that really made me think huh was a version with beets and sharp cheddar. I don't know that I'd like a cheddar flavored risotto, but I started thinking that pancetta or bacon and beets with some white wine and gruyere would be pretty nice. You can even make pretty decent vegan risotto, with a good vegetable stock. Just no soy cheese, for chrissakes, that stuff is so vile. If you go vegan, add a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt just before serving to give it the richness that real cheese would add.

  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I made this a while ago


The little pink bowtie, originally uploaded by Chinkypin.

I didn't put up any pictures of it at the time because I hadn't yet handed it over to the guy who asked me to make it, and then I kinda forgot. So here it is. It was a fun little thing, and I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. The bow is less than 4" across, which is bigger than I wanted it to be (it was for a baby), but the customer was satisfied, so that's fine. Lots more pictures on my photostream, including closeups of the little box, which I folded out of a Trader Joe's bag.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Did I tell you about my bicycle?

  


  
This is the first time I've had a bicycle since about fourth or fifth grade. It was a corporate holiday gift. Which is cool, in one respect, because who hasn't thought "boy I sure would like a new bike for Christmas!" at one point in their life? So I decided to be all Portland-y and keep the bike, instead of donating it to toys for tots (which was the other company-approved option), or trying to sell it on craigslist (not an approved option). I thought, "Great! Cheap transportation to places the buses don't go!"

Here's the thing- I'm naturally a rather timid and unadventurous person. So I've only ridden it 2.5 times. It came dis-assembled, of course, so it sat in Pete & Cynthia's garage for a while, until I finally asked him to put it together for me. Then I nearly crashed into the woodpile/hedge in his driveway the instant I first got on it. That was in February.

Then there was about one sunny day early in March. I rode it to Fred Meyer. In retrospect, this was a bad idea. It really was too nippy to be pleasant, and I was trying to figure out how to use the gears, and the brakes, and manage my satchel and bike lock. I felt like a tortise on a highway. The experience was unnerving, and made me start looking my gift horse in the gears.

It's awfully ugly, isn't it. It didn't come with fenders either, I had to buy those. And a lock, and a light, and a helmet... To tell you the truth, though, it's the ugly factor that has put me off the most. This is a town full of bicycle people, and I am a bit embarrassed to be seen on it. It's a perfectly good starter bike, as Pete put it. But really, if you're going to design the frame to accommodate a seat suspension, wouldn't it be best to, well, put the suspension in it? This feature has been pointed out to me as a glaringly silly characteristic by a couple of people who actually know about bicycles. Subjectively, it is just a rather inelegant machine. I don't know much about bicycles, but I know a good bit about ugly when I see it. So it sat on my porch for the last couple months.

But I'm on vacation, and have been doing lots of things all week that I don't usually do, so I took this thing out for a spin today. Here's what I think now:

1. It's still bloody ugly.
2. Don't try to remember how to ride a bike in less than perfect weather. No good will come of making the initial learning curve more unpleasant than it needs to be. By the end of my first trip to the store, I was freezing, and sweaty, and shaky-kneed nervous, and I still had to shlepp my groceries up to my apartment.
3. On a related point, don't make the initial attempt have an object other than tootling around. Today I gave myself the option of creeping around the block one time and then deciding that I didn't like it. So I left all the excess crap at home and wandered around in circles for about 45 minutes. It was pretty cool.
4. It's very possible to exceed the speed limit on downhill residential streets. This is scary, and a bad idea.
5. Whoever this thing was designed for, they were not shaped like me. And they must have a much more cushiony butt.
6. On the other hand, I have returned to the idea that maybe using a bicycle is a good idea, at least some of the time.

Over all, I'm not completely sold on bicycles, but now I can see that it is true that I ought to make sure that it isn't just this bike that I don't enjoy, rather than all bicycles universally.
 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Enough with the soup plate already!

  

  
I'm on vacation. I was thinking before this week started that I'd go to goodwill a few times. I want some new dishes. Not square ones, I've figured out that it's really hard to photograph a square plate up close without making it look super weird. And not green ones, because I like my food to have lots of green things in it, so green dishes usually look boring. Blue dishes always look nice, because there's really not a lot of blue food out there, but I've got blue plates already.

Maybe some oblong dishes, or triangle shaped ones? Purple would be nice... I don't think I want any of those things that look like they were imported by the cubic yard by a shady taiwanese businessman, but I think I want a bento box. And maybe some little-old-lady glass dessert plates, something that looks like a tea party.

But then the weather turned out to be totally fantastic, and I've decided that I can go shopping any old time. So I went to the zoo, and to Oaks Park, and the Rhododendron Garden, and dishes will just have to wait.

Meanwhile, I found this growing in my strawberry pot:
  
It's an oak seedling. There are no oak trees on my porch. Last fall, I received several visits from what I started thinking of as the Kamikaze Squirrel. I didn't want it to start thinking that my flowerpots were a good place to go rooting around, so I chased it off. I figured it would leave the way it arrived, by sneaking down the wall of the building, but no, it gave me this boogle-eyed look and did a belly flop off the balcony into the grass. Four stories down. I wish I'd gotten a video of it doing that, because it made a hell of a whomp when it hit the ground. And then the dumb thing came back the next week and did it again!

At any rate, I can't grow an oak tree in my strawberry bucket.




I also found these in my bag of compost-

They really were impressive. The big one was larger than my hand. Sometimes I wish I had the means to actually compost things myself, but then I realize that a) I am too lackadaisical, and b) I don't actually want to make myself odious to my neighbors. So I think I'll just buy a little compost from people who know what they're doing.


I've decided that annual plants are a nuisance. I think I'd better stick to perennial herbs, for the most part. As you can see from the picture at the top, my sage and rosemary plants are doing very well. I've also got a whole row of mints and strawberries that keep coming up with very little effort, although I couldn't resist starting some nasturtiums and pea plants. Maybe if I get very ambitious, I'll try to grow a blueberry plant sometime.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pad Thai

  

  
I think I don't like rice very much. Weird, huh? Ate it all the time as a kid, never had a problem with it. It's just that I'd rather eat noodles. I went to TJ's and looked at a pack of frozen pad thai, and then decided not to get it after I realized that it made no sense to pay 3 bucks for $1 worth of ingredients. So I looked at some instructions online, and I read the directions on the back of the noodle bag, and this is what I came up with.

1/3 packet of pad thai noodles

1/2 lb firm tofu
1 tsp sesame oil
1 T soy sauce
1 T fish sauce

1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp grated lemon grass
a shake of hot pepper flakes
1 crushed garlic clove
4 sliced green onions, both green and white parts together

about 12 sliced pea pods
2 T peanut butter
1 T sugar
oil for frying
cilantro, if you want it

Put the noodles in a heatproof bowl large enough for them to lay down flat and cover them with boiling water. Stir them around a few times so they don't stick together, then let them sit for 15 or 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, cube the tofu, and toss it with the sesame oil, soy, and fish sauce to marinate a bit.

When the noodles are pretty flexible, put a large-ish skillet on medium high heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of oil, and the ginger, lemongrass, pepper, garlic and onions. Stir them quickly until browned, then add the tofu and any liquid with it. Brown the tofu a bit, then stir in the peas, peanut butter and sugar. As soon as the peas go bright green, drain most of the water off the noodles and add them to the pan. Stir fry until the noodles are soft and translucent. Serve with cilantro.

Notes:

1. No lemongrass? Never mind. You can skip it or you can use the zest of an actual lemon.
2. Vegan? Just use soy, and skip the fish sauce.
3. The noodles cook amazingly fast, like, in about a minute. They will go gelatinous after that. Still tasty though.
4. The peanut butter makes the dish pretty sticky. You could use a handful of chopped peanuts instead, which I think is what you are actually supposed to do.
5. Keep the pan hot. Once you start cooking, everything should be in and out of the pan in rather less than 10 minutes.
6. Don't skip the sugar. I forgot it the second time I made this, and couldn't figure out what was the matter with it. The first time, I used palm sugar, because I happen to have some, but it doesn't matter what kind you use.
7. Remember, the veggies can be anything.

I was trying to think of other stuff that would be good in this. Scrambled egg and sunflower sprouts. Chicken, jicama and basil. Tempeh and bell peppers. That chinese marinated tofu with sliced baby zucchini and yellow squash. Pork and green apples. Shredded carrots and cabbage. Spinach and jerusalem artichokes. Or bok choi, or chard or chrysanthemum greens, or garlic tips, or or or or...ok, I'll calm down. Mostly I'm excited about the noodles. They were an unfamiliar food, and now I know how they work.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Frittata

   
  

  
I think that my love of potatoes is stymied by the fact that they take more than 2 seconds to cook. The other things I am culinarily obsessed with are sort of instant food- cheese, obviously. Eggs, which will be ready to eat if you just glare at them on a particularly warm morning. Bread counts, because even though it takes me 4 hours to make a loaf of bread, once it's done, for the rest of the week all I have to do is cut a piece off and, at most, drop it in the toaster. I have a better relationship with fruits than vegetables for the same reason. If you want to eat an apple, you just bite it. There's plenty of stuff you could do to it first, but that's all pretty much optional.

On the other hand, a potato is fundamentally an ingredient. No matter what, you have to make some substantial alterations to a potato before it's good to eat. Then once you've gone to the effort of dinking around with your spuds, usually what you end up with is a dish that is supposed to go with some other thing that you still have to make. I'm sort of creeping up on some solutions to my longing for potatoes. This is one that was worth repeating.

about 1 1/2 lb little potatoes, sliced thin
1 medium onion, sliced
about 1 cup broccoli florets, cut small
oil for frying

3 eggs
1 T flour
about 1/3 cup water
1 or 2 T olive oil
salt & pepper

about 4 oz feta, crumbled or finely cubed.

a few little tomatoes

Pre-heat the oven to 375.


Fry the onions over medium heat in a heavy bottomed skillet with a pinch of salt and a little oil. When the onions are starting to brown, add the potatoes. Stir them around a bit, add a couple tablespoons of water, and cover the pan. Turn the potatoes gently with a spatula every 2 or 3 minutes until they're about 3/4 done, then stir in the broccoli and cover again.

Mix the eggs, flour, oil, and salt & pepper in a bowl. Once the flour is well incorporated, stir in the cheese. By this time, the broccoli will have turned bright green, and you can pour the egg mix into the skillet. Poke the potatoes around a tiny bit to get the eggs & feta evenly distributed, then drop the tomatoes on top.

Finish by baking for about 20-30 minutes, depending on your oven and how cold your eggs were.

pointers:

1. Start by slicing the potatoes into a bowl of water. It will keep them from going brown.
2. Don't use reduced fat cheese. Bleck.
3. I used my enameled skillet for this because even though I love my cast iron pans, I learned back when I made bacon bread that iron can discolor onions. It made them turn a dark, inky, blue-green. Didn't affect the taste, but it looked very strange. It could be a reaction between the pan and the sulfur compounds in the onions, but  that's just a wild guess... Stainless steel would probably be fine.

I remember making frittata back at the deli. They never put anything except potatoes and onions in it, and I always thought it was the boringest thing on earth. I think it would be good with a little sausage and some peppers, with some other cheese, or you could keep the feta and put in olives and beets. I'll have to try the beet thing later, once I see some at the market that don't cost an arm and a leg.