Saturday, December 3, 2011

Listening to Whale Songs

I am listening to whale songs tonight. I read an interesting article on the Mother Nature Network recently, located here which asks for people to listen to the recorded whale songs to help scientists analyze and match up songs from Orcas and Pilot Whales in an attempt to determine the different dialects. Pretty cool, huh? It is part of a recent effort of scientists to use the help of the general public to analyze particular sets of data in a way that computers and the scientists themselves cannot. There is a good Wikipedia article on crowdsourcing and why it works quite well for different fields of study. An article over at ScienceDaily relays how a group of gamers recently solved a medical puzzle involving the structure of a retrovirus enzyme that stumped the researchers for over a decade. The gaming group solved the problem in about three weeks through a collaborative effort.

For me, helping out these different scientists helps me feel at least a little more connected to my own science background. I always intended to stay working in the Anthropological/Psychological/Arts fields, and this at least gives me a connection to helping with the research while still taking care of my family and teaching my children as well as the hundred other things I do in a day. Even if I never get back into the field of study I had started in, I can at least help science along in some fashion.

Right now you will find me listening to the chirps, burps, and screeches of various whales located here. I figure I am already listening to similar noises from my own mammalian offspring, so I might as well expand my range a little and help a group of researchers out. If you are interested in trying your hand at helping science along, try here at Zooniverse or here for a bird survey, or here for other crowdsourcing projects open to the public.

Why don't you give it a try too?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Incorrigible and Not A Team Player. Yep, That Is Me.

A few years ago, I participated in a dessert competition. Now, I'm not normally one for entering competitions unless I feel highly motivated to prove myself, or I really think I can win it. Overall, I'm not one to seek out a competition just for the thrill of it (unlike other family members). This is probably the reason I always hated team sports, but I digress. I know I am a good cook and baker, and I normally wouldn't feel any particular desire to publicly prove it. If it wasn't for one thing, and one thing only. I despised the person running the event.

I am not usually a vindictive person. Well, no more so than anyone else, I suppose. This person, however, had gotten under my skin in too many ways and for too long a period of time. She decided to hold an event within the organization we were involved in at the time solely for promoting herself. She was one of those self-important people who seems to enjoy lording their own lofty (usually perceived) position over others. Even when they really have no status to claim. She also turned out to be someone who liked to talk poorly about others behind their backs, yet was perfectly pleasant and rather friendly to that same persons' face. I am not sure what I ever did to wind up on the malicious side of her. I try to treat people with respect until they show they are not to be respected or trusted. I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt. Yet I also know that I have no tact, and often say things that people take poorly even if they are not intended that way. Maybe this was just one of those times. Or maybe she was just an unpleasant little person and jealous or feeling unconsciously threatened by me. I will never know.. At the time, this event seemed like she was attempting to make others look bad so she shone in the light brighter than any other people.

As a way to shine even brighter than the celestial bodies themselves, the theme of her event was determined to be "Angels," which really had not a single thong in common with the organization at the time except in a peripheral fashion. If you were to squint a lot. Needless to say, her decision to hold this event rankled me, and I decided to do something about it. Part of her event was to have a dessert competition, also under the theme of "angels," where the attendees would choose their favorite tasty delight. Hah! I can do this, I decided, with just a wee bit of mischievous calculation. I combed my recipes for ideas, and felt disgust and disdain over the very idea of an angel food cake or anything remotely of the sort. This sublime dessert needed passion, depth, and lust rather than the traditional image of the lightest, airy, confection.

Then it hit me. Devil's Food Cake. Only I would infuse the cake with the richest dark (almost bitter) chocolate flavor rather than the pale, flat flavor of many a Devil's Food Cake. Rather than any traditional icing, I chose the style of a German Chocolate Cake, with a rich toasted coconut and toasted pecan frosting, where the pecans had been laboriously sliced in the perpendicular to resemble an angel's wings. It was a stroke of genius. I wanted my audience to feel as though they were being corrupted by even tasting a morsel of my divinely inspired dessert. I wanted to show off what an awesome baker I can be. I wanted to rub her nose in it and steal some of the glory she was trying to take all for herself. I called it my "Fallen Angel Cake," and it was glorious.

As I walked up to where the event was being held, I apparently caught her eye. She had been unaware up until that point, that I would be attending. It was not my usual type of event to go to, so it was a good assumption on her part. However, as I said, I wanted to put her down a peg, even if it was just to make her uncomfortable by my presence. I wanted her to even *try* to argue that my entry could not be allowed because it didn't fit into her predefined idea of what was acceptable. As I told her about my lovely Fallen Angel Cake, I could see her struggling to find a way to deny my entry. Her better judgement (or the realization that I would probably shame her publicly in some way) won out, and my entry was approved. I am sure she felt I didn't have a possibility of winning, so what would it hurt?

Apparently the bulk of the attendees felt so enlightened and moved by my fallen angels' passion, they voted my dessert the most noble honor of best tasting at the event. The woman putting on the event who apparently had no sense of humor was deflated by the wicked temptation of my offering, to which I found myself the owner of the most fiendish satisfaction. It pleased me greatly to watch her have to publicly congratulate me (and give me a small token for a prize) for my winning delight. Her words came out slowly, as though having to pass over a great blockage in her throat (the crow, maybe?). I felt vindicated by my win, and pleased to have my skills in the kitchen justified and enjoyed. That afternoon, my greatest pride was not in bursting her well-filled bubble of hot air, but in the plate cleaned of all but a few crumbs.

What makes me recount this story to you all? Well, today is my birthday, and I felt the need to indulge in a little devilish sweet delight for my birthday cake. So I am making another Fallen Angel Cake for the family to enjoy with me.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Making a Simple Bone Broth

One of the best parts of cooking a turkey, duck, or chicken is saving the bones and cooking it down into a broth. I love the rich flavor this homemade broth creates, and I try to make a lot and freeze it for use later. It makes a great base for beans in the crockpot, the most awesome gravy, and is good to use in any recipe that calls for broth. Broth that you make yourself is more nutrient dense, and has only the ingredients that YOU put into it. Commercial broth often carries with it a high level of sodium; since salt enhances flavor, the commercial broths must be pretty awful without it! An added bonus is that the broth is super easy to make, and gives your body a readily available source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and trace minerals.

This bone broth is often made from the bones of a bird that was just eaten, and it is usually already seasoned so it needs little added to it for flavor. In my case today, I am using a chicken that we butchered and skinned about a month ago. Since it was skinned, it has none of that luscious skin and fat to protect the meat when baking and I felt it would be easier to boil it down for a nutritious and flavorful broth with a lot of chunks of meat in it. I started out with a whole chicken, and added the necks of two turkeys that we butchered for the holidays, as well as parts of the wings that were too awkward to keep on the turkey but had too much meat on to throw away.

Please excuse the poor photos, they were taken with my phone as I was in the middle of several things at once in a kitchen that boasts modern (1970's) lighting. Eventually I will work on taking fabulous food photos, but not today (or even tomorrow).

To start the broth, find the largest pot you can. Mine is an 8-quart pot I believe; the broth is still simmering on the stove so I can't easily check its size, sorry. Although I do have larger pots, this one is about the perfect size for making broth with leftover bones. Be sure to save the bones from your last fowl meal. They can be stored in a large gallon-sized Ziploc (or other brand) bag for a day or so until you are ready to cook them down. Put bones in the bottom of the pot and add water until about an inch (or two) shy of the edge of the pot. If you fill it too high, the water is likely to boil over. Add a splash of vinegar (apple cider is great for chicken), which will help to draw the minerals out of the bones. Turn heat on high, and let the bones come to a simmer. Once you have reached a simmer, turn down the heat just so the simmering is maintained. Be sure to check the water level occasionally through the day, and add more as needed to maintain the level above the bones.

I will often simmer the bones for at least 24 hours so the broth becomes as nutrient-dense as possible. A crock pot is a great way to make broth if you are going to be away from the stove for much of the day. This photo was taken as the broth was just starting to cool, so a little fat is starting to coagulate on the top. Once you have finished cooking the broth, turn off the heat and allow it to cool. Strain the bones out and compost or bury them if possible. If you are cooking a whole bird (like I am right now), pull the meat out and separate from the bones. This meat can be used for any chicken-based meal, or tossed back into the broth for a quick and nutritious soup with added vegetables. If your final broth seems too watery or takes up too much room, you can always reduce it by simmering the broth for a longer period of time.

Store the stock in glass jars for several days in the fridge or freeze for use later. Some people freeze it in ice cube trays so they can add them easily to any recipe for a boost of flavor.

Since this was an unseasoned chicken, I will eventually add some basic herbs and spices for flavor. Generally I will add what smells good to me at the moment, but a little sea salt, fresh ground pepper, thyme, and fresh garlic are my own absolute minimums for cooking a bird and its eventual broth. The flavors of the broth can be made as simple or as complicated as you like. This method can be used for beef bones as well, and also makes a fabulous tasting broth. What matters is that it is a simple and effective way to add a nutrient dense food to your diet, and it tastes good too!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Feeling Good

I am feeling pretty good tonight. When I started writing blog posts for NaBloPoMo at the beginning of this month, I wasn't sure it was a good idea. In the past I have had a hard time finishing projects when I feel overwhelmed or stressed, and this last two years has seen my stress level in the stratosphere on a regular basis. I was honestly not sure I would be able to mentally and emotionally be able to do it and I wanted to avoid the massive guilt trips I would give myself. Somewhere in there, that tenacious part of me decided it would be good for me to at least have a small creative output, even if it was writing rather than art. Unfortunately, I did not do my sketchbook challenge much this month. I am sad about that. I did a sketch, but it never really got off the ground past that.

I DID, however, manage to write every day. Which I am proud of. I even managed to put my introverted self out there a little more and try to promote my blog. At this point I think I am going to continue a daily post. It will keep me going and maybe I can even start fitting a little art in there as well on a more regular basis! So congrats to me and all of you who made their goals come true.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Everything Is Just Ducky, Thank You

There is something fascinating about watching ducks. They bob their heads to each other, wag tails, preen, and follow each other in a line often when going somewhere. They are so comical and LOUD, especially when hungry.

Every morning when I go out to take care of the animals (I don't do this myself, Greg and I work as a team), one of the first things I do is feed the ducks. If I am late, which they believe that anything past dawn is late, they start quacking louder and louder. It sometimes sounds as though they are about to storm the castle! By the time I head out with their food, they are quacking up a tremendous storm. They come running towards me, then as I pass, they start to follow. Sometimes I stop and turn around to take a few steps, just to see them scatter. They regroup and follow me again as soon as my back is turned. It is kinda cool to have such a following. Especially ones that give us such tasty eggs.

Speaking of eggs, their egg-laying behavior is a little different than the chickens. With our hens, I was used to them occupying one or two favored nests (out of more than four). They generally lay throughout the day, and it is rare to find eggs out of the nesting area unless some very young hen hasn't quite figured things out yet.

As for the ducks, they are a bit different. They tend to lay pretty much in the morning, although every now and then we get a random afternoon egg. These random eggs aren't even in a nest. I swear, it is as though the duck (the female specifically, also sometimes called a hen) is walking along, lays an egg, and keeps on walking as though nothing happened. They are often found scattered throughout the yard as well. The other ducks seem to be more civilized. They will go to their nesting area, lay an egg, then often cover it up again with straw. Something our hens (chickens) would never do. So, every morning I go hunting for the duck eggs, to make sure none get missed or accidentally stepped on. My runner ducks, when they are laying, don't tend to cover the eggs up, but they do make a nice little nest to lay in. I'm not sure if part of it is the difference is between the heritage ducks and the more commercial ducks, or if it is an age-related issue, or if some of the ducks just prefer to drop an egg wherever they are versus those that want to make a proper nest. Whatever the reason, they lead me on quite the hunt every morning.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sweet Carrot Casserole Cake

My Mother-in-Law loves the Carrot Casserole from Furr’s Cafeteria, especially during the holidays. She will order a large pan of it, and eat it over several days. I remember having a little taste last year when life was very hectic and we agreed to order food instead of cooking it like we normally would. It was horrible. Sickly sweet, and with a strange texture. This year when she ordered the stuff again, we decided to make our own version so the kids would at least have a healthier version to try.

After looking around the interwebs to see if someone else had come up with a clone of the recipe that we could change to fit our tastes, I finally found one that was close enough here. It is similar, but not quite the same thing. The one we came up with is still rather sweet for our tastes, more like a dessert than a side dish. If I were to make this as a side for our family again, I would probably just stick with the amount of agave used during the cooking of the carrots and omit the added sugar. We tend to prefer dishes that aren’t overly sweet, but I know that not everyone shares our tastes. So experiment and see what works for you!

I did a side-by-side comparison of the dishes so you could see how different they are. There are no ingredient lists at all for the “Carrot Souffle” from Furr’s, so I cannot speak to what it actually has in it. Judging from their ingredient lists of other dishes, I can believe it has 20+ ingredients, mostly chemical or preservatives. I am not entirely certain it even has carrots in it (and is the bright orange monstrosity on the left).

On the other hand, I know that ours does. I decided to call this a cake rather than just a casserole because its texture and sweetness really is more like a cake than a side dish.

This recipe makes enough for an 8 x 8” pan in the oven.

Sweet Carrot Casserole Cake

2-3 cups of cooked carrots (about 14 or 15 raw medium-large carrots)
1 ½ sticks of butter
¼ cup agave nectar (dark)
2 eggs, well beaten
½ cup sugar
3 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. baking powder

Shred carrots and cook in pan with the butter and agave until tender, caramelizing if you want. We prefer the fuller-bodied flavor that cooking them in a pan and letting them caramelize a bit creates, rather than steaming. You may need to cook them in a large pot or in batches, as it is a lot of carrots at first. Don’t worry; they will reduce in size quite a bit! At this point, you can put them in a food processor to mash them, or leave them in the shredded state. We left them shredded and the consistency ended up the same as if we had mashed them first.

Blend the eggs, sugar, flour and baking powder in a bowl. Combine with the carrots and pour into a well-greased 8 x 8 casserole dish.

Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce to 350 degrees and bake for another 30 - 45 minutes, until done.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I Have A Fat Toad in My Living Room

I never meant to have a toad. Truly. I have nothing against them, I think they are wonderful creatures and are encouraged to spend time in the garden eating bugs. I just don't want one in the house, and certainly not following me every time I make a foray into the kitchen.

Why on earth, would a toad follow me every time I go near the fridge, you wonder? Because this toad is actually a dog. My dog. He didn't used to be a toad. One might believe that a spell was cast upon him by an evil sorcerer. The truth of the matter is that while we were out of town several times over the last six months or so, my Father-in-Law fed him huge bowls of dry food, all the treats he could eat, plenty of dog cookies, and leftovers. He also was allowed to sneak into my In-Laws room and devour whatever food their dogs didn't finish. It isn't a problem with our other dog, he actually has some self-control when it comes to food and will eat a reasonable amount of food and then stop. My toad on the other hand, has no self-control.

He is a yellow lab, and Labrador Retrievers are well known to eat and eat like the piggies they are until they become big, fat toads. For years, we were able to keep our dog at a nice, healthy weight. We fed him a controlled amount of food every day, and if he had leftovers we adjusted his crunchies to compensate. When he would start to lose his waistline a bit, we would cut back a tad on the dry food. If he started to look a little too lean, we would add some dry food back in. It wasn't rocket science, and it kept him at a healthy weight of 85lbs or so for the last 8-9 years. He had nice proportions, and his head looked like it belonged on his body.

He now looks like a tick. Tiny head with a grossly fat body. I mean, his fat rolls have fat rolls. I am so disgusted with his status and health. He now snores, and grunts, and wheezes. His heavy breathing as he follows me around hoping for some food to fall has me not only revolted, but seriously tempted to buy a soft muzzle to keep him from eating anything I don't want him to. Greg has stopped me because he feels it would offend his folks too much. Truth be told, it probably would. I don't know what else to do though. I feed him a minimal amount of food, and try to make sure he doesn't sneak extra "snacks". When asked if he can have some dog cookies, I usually say no.

The weight remains with him despite my best efforts. Greg happened on a likely, and disgusting theory as to why. The food the dogs eat is a pretty good quality one, called Taste of The Wild. I would prefer to feed them a raw diet, but it isn't feasible right now, so the dry food is what they get. We were able to convince the in-laws to switch as well, on the theory that they would be feeding the dogs less on a higher quality diet. While that worked in our own home, it has not worked with my Father-in-Law. He still feeds his dogs heaping huge bowls of the stuff, so his dogs get obese as well. We think that there is so much protein still readily available in the excrement of the other dogs, that our fat toad goes out and eats it, and manages to keep gaining weight. Yes, we have seen him eat shite. As horrible as it sounds, it makes a certain amount of sense.

At this point all I can do is try to limit his diet, keep him from stealing food, and not let him outside for a long period of time. And I can hope that our living situation gets resolved soon so I can get my poor fat toad back down to a healthier weight before he dies of a heart attack trying to get his bulky ass off the floor.