Sunday, July 31, 2011

July Book Report: The Wives of Henry VIII

On the (long ago) recommendation of my friend Summer, this month I read the The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser.  A biography of - you guessed it - the six wives of Henry VIII.  Before reading this, I didn't have more than a perfunctory familiarity with Henry VIII or the Tudor dynasty and Fraser's approach of focusing on the women of the court provides a perspective that speaks more to the everyday realities than the politics of the era.  For me, these personal stories are infinitely more interesting and certainly inform the politics in ways that are ignored by recounts of battles and decries.  One theme that struck me as unifying these women, and really all women of their era, is their helplessness in the face of staggeringly high infant and maternal rates.  As Fraser concludes, the desire for at least one male heir (and preferably a backup as well) influenced not only the marriages of Henry VIII, but religion, war, and diplomacy.  This book is exceptionally well researched and provides a level of nuance that is difficult to achieve in biographies of women from so long ago. The prose is dense but compelling and I really enjoyed this book.  

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Foto Friday

Saturday July 23: Prickly Pear Margaritas are Delicious!!!

Sunday July 24: Crazy Large Flag over Gas Station 
Monday July 25: Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix + Fresh Blueberries

Tuesday July 26: Loving this Biography

Wednesday July 27: I adore the fabric store

Thursday July 28: New necklace 
Friday July 29: Movie at Outdoor Ampitheatre by the River!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fringe Benefits Giveaway! - UPDATED

Last night on the way home, I wanted to make something.  But I was feeling impatient and wanted something that I could finish in one night.  So I stopped by the craft store and picked up a few pendants and some chain.

I liked the rose gold and brass accents on these two pendants and I was able to find matching chains.  Put pendants on chains (All on sale!).  Add clasps.  3 minute necklace.  Yay!

But then I was ready for a little more of a challenge, so I made this cute fringe necklace that I had seen at a bit of sunshine.  It is just chain and jumprings.  It takes a little bit of time to make (I would say one rerun of The Office), but it is straightforward and pretty.

I liked it so much that I made an extra just for you!!!!  Well, one of you.  Leave a comment before Sunday July 21st at midnight central time to enter for your chance to win!

I remade the necklace and I like this version better, so you get to win it instead!  I've extended the giveaway until midnight on Wednesday August 3rd.  Just leave a comment to win!

Craft Blog Survey

There is a giveaway coming later today, but first I wanted to pass along this link to a survey about craft blogging:

It is for a thesis in English, so answer just a few short questions about your craft blog and help this girl get out of grad school!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pad Thai Triumph

I have tried many, many pad thai recipes in my cooking career.  Several of them, I suppose, I should have known wouldn't work out from the get go.  Ketchup is a somewhat questionable Thai ingredient.  I can never seem to get the noodles the right texture, the tofu chunks are too large, the overall taste is bland and we add so much sriracha that I may as well have just boiled up some spaghetti.  So this time, I was determined to figure out why I couldn't make this dish at home.  There must be a secret ingredient.  It turns out there are two.

Dried shrimp and tamarind concentrate.  We ate pad thai three times this month and I can confidently say that this recipe from Nongkran Daks is the best I've ever tried. She lists the dried shrimp as optional, but I went ahead and included it  when I made the sauce.  But first, you have to pound them up into a nice, fluffy shimp powder.

I did tweak this recipe ever so slightly.  I have never, ever had success with soaking my noodles in cold water so I soaked them in warm water for about 20 minutes.  I also couldn't find preserved radish - I do wonder if kim chi might work?  I'm not sure.  And the biggest change I made was replacing the shrimp and pork with tofu.  I like my pad thai vegetarian.

I tried several ways of preparing tofu for pad thai and this is my favorite.  It takes some extra steps, but the texture is perfect.  First, freeze a block of extra firm tofu and then defrost.  The texture will have become crumbly, sort of like ground beef.  Drain as much of the moisture as possible and then cook in a hot pan with a bit of oil until browned.  Do this while cooking down the sauce to the consistency of molasses.  (The best thing about this recipe is that you can make the sauce and soak the noodles ahead of time and then throw the pad thai together in just a few minutes.)

Once the tofu is browned, add the drained noodles you have been soaking and a bit of water.  Keep adding water and cooking it in until the noodles are the texture you are looking for.  This is the step that I have missed in the passed and the way to get perfectly chewy - not crunchy - noodles.  I've made this with and without the egg and it is good either way.  Then you toss with the sauce, mung beans, and some peanuts.  The key to keeping the pad thai from being too soupy (a common problem with my previous attempts) is to use this concentrated sauce and work in small batches with a hot pan.  Enjoy!!!

Think you have a better pad thai recipe?  Please link to it in the comments - I'm always looking to improve!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Foto Friday {16}

Saturday July 16: My favorite shoes 
Sunday July 17: World Cup Treat

Monday July 18: Ice Cream!!

Tuesday July 19: Thunderstorm

Wednesday July 20: Medusa Blesses our Servers

Thursday July 21: Out to Lunch

Friday July 22: Sewing Machine

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Grandma's Chicken Okra Gumbo

For Christmas 2008, I helped my grandma create a book of family recipes for each member of our extended family.  (I put it together using tastebook and would recommend it to anyone who is looking to make one.)  The recipe book catalogs a lot of my family's favorite recipes plus photos and stories with each of the recipes.  I love to flip through it and look at the pictures of my grandma from before I was born.  This is one of my favorites:

It and this story accompany the recipe for my grandma's Chicken Okra Gumbo:

"The Bankston family brought this recipe from St. Helena’s Parish, Louisiana, when they moved to McPherson in 1936. Zack Bankston [my grandma's father] grew his own okra. The President of the Globe Oil Refinery showed up when the okra was ripe. Arriving with his chauffeur, he went to the garden and cut his own okra. Arline Bankston [grandma's mother] went to home ec classes once a year at the high school to teach the girls how to make okra gumbo."

I know that many people think of sausage and seafood when they hear gumbo, but this is the one that I grew up with and the one that I love.  So at least once a summer, when the okra comes to the farmer's market, I make it just like grandma does.  I like that it feels lighter and showcases the okra more than most gumbos I've tried.  But if you wanted to add sausage, go right ahead.  Though, I draw the line at filé, filé tastes like dirt.

Grandma's recipe doesn't have amounts, cause she just knows how much is right.  So these are the amounts and directions that I use. By the way, if you get a hankering for gumbo in the winter, frozen okra works surprisingly well (and Grandma approves).

Grandma's Chicken Okra Gumbo
Yields: 6 servings

4 chicken thighs
4 cups okra, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 large onion, diced
1 large green bell pepper, diced
6 cloves fresh garlic, minced
4 cups chicken stock
30 oz canned tomatoes, diced
Small can of green chilis
3 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
Old Bay Seasoning, optional

1. Heat approximately a 1/4 inch of oil in the bottom of a large pot.

2. Heavily flour, salt and pepper chicken. Brown well and remove.  The flour remaining in the oil will act as a roux to thicken the soup along with the okra.

3. Leave oil in skillet. Add okra, garlic, onions, and peppers.  Stirring frequently, cook until onions are translucent and okra a little bit brown. [Grandma notes: "May be a little bit slimy - don’t fret!"]

In my experience, it is always slimy.  But, seriously, don't fret.

4. Add tomatoes, chicken broth, bay leaves, and a bit of salt and pepper.  Stirring to get any remaining brown bits off the bottom of the pot.

5. Add chicken, simmer 45 minutes.  [Grandma says 4 to 6 hours, but I'm not as good at planning ahead as she is.  We ate this at 9:45pm even only simmering it 45 minutes.]
6. Remove chicken and allow to cool about 15 minutes.  Shred and return to pot.

7. Taste for seasoning and serve over hot rice with a dash of tabasco.

It may not win any beauty contests, but it sure is tasty.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

July Baking Challenge: World Cup Pretzels

Pretzels are my all-time favorite ball park snack, so what better to make for World Cup Finals snacking?  I ate two of them over the course of the game (which I think shows great restraint) and managed not to inhale any with all the gasping and shrieking I did.  The game was fantastic - both teams played incredibly well and it was so close and exciting.  Teams coming seemingly out of nowhere to win it all is part of what makes international sports worth watching.  Congrats to Japan! 

But back to the pretzels.  I had planned on using a recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice but surprisingly, there was no recipe.  So I turned to Alton Brown instead.  The key to the pretzel-y flavor of pretzels is a quick float in a hot tub laced with more baking powder than you are likely to have on hand (so stock up).

I found the dough to be very soft and a challenge to roll, but once they puffed up in the pot you could hardly tell.  After just a minute in the water, the pretzels are removed and left to dry.  A quick egg-wash for color (and to help the sea salt stick) and into a quite hot oven for 15 minutes. 

The egg wash and hot oven make a deliciously crunchy exterior with soft, doughy goodness hiding within.  They are absolutely as good as they look, but they can be improved upon with this golden bowl of goodness:

To the German originators of pretzels, mustard is the proper accompaniment.  But to a kid at a ballpark, it's cheese sauce all the way.  So to bridge these opposing groups, I present my peace accord in the form of a cheddar-mustard sauce.

Cheddar-Mustard Sauce
Yield: 6 servings

1 tbs. butter
1 tbs. flour
1 c. milk
2 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 oz. velveeta, cubed
1 heaping tbs. grainy mustard
3 shakes hot sauce
1/4 tsp. salt

1. First we'll make a loose béchamel.  Melt the butter in a small sauce pan and whisk in the flour until it forms a roux, cook about 90 seconds.  Add milk while stirring vigorously to avoid lumps.  Bring to simmer, stirring occasionally.

2. To your béchamel, add the two cheeses and stir to melt.  Once your sauce is silky-smooth, add in the mustard, salt, and hot sauce.  Adjust all to taste.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Foto Friday {15}

Saturday July 9: Project in the Works

Sunday July 10: The start of a 10 minute long storm

Monday July 11: My owl keys make me smile

Tuesday July 12: Our one watering day a week

Wednesday July 13: Cheering on the US while working 
Thursday July 14: Daily Commute

Friday July 15: Suspicious Geoff

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lamb Vindaloo

There was no time for a better photo - it smelled too good!
The lamb vindaloo I made this week sort of fell into my lap (not literally, thankfully).  I had been thinking for a while about making something with the local lamb available at the farmer's market and when we went to visit this slick talking little seven year old charmed me into trying all of his family's jalapeno sausage and chutneys, then sold me a pound of lamb stew meat.  He concentrated so hard as he counted out my change.

So I had some lamb, but nothing to do with it when I came across this recipe for Chicken Vindaloo at Scarpetta Dolcetto.  The recipe was actually from  Madhur Jaffrey who has written several Indian cookbooks that I have considered buying, but I wanted to try a few recipes first.  The recipe mentioned that it would be more traditionally made with goat or lamb and a lightbulb went on.

This recipe was soooo good.  The lamb really held up to the mustard and other assertive flavors.  I'm sure that chicken would have been fine, but I think that the flavor of the chicken would disappear under the sauce.  The only downside of the lamb is that it required about an hour of simmering to become nice and tender.  But it was completely worth the wait!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Foto Friday

Saturday July 2: Twins

Sunday July 3: Mike's Fowlamo

Monday July 4: The only fireworks this year

Tuesday July 5: Nothing But Blue Skies

Wednesday July 6: Nearly Home

Thursday July 7: Seriously, Don't
Friday July 8: Painterly Plum

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Statistics in Seattle

As I mentioned, I spent the last half of June attending a total of 60 hours of lectures on statistical genetics.  I know, you're jealous.  Actually, it was a great workshop and I learned a ton about the underlying statistical models for the new types of data I'm dealing with in my postdoc.  Most of my modules were quite literally taught by the people who wrote the books on the subjects and I came away feeling inspired to work through a lot of the more challenging statistical papers I come across.  But enough about math, here's what I did on my weekends.

The weather was cool and gray the first weekend in Seattle (shocking, I know), but we headed to the Pike's Place Market on Sunday morning and made a brunch out of local fruit, coffee, pastries, fresh tuna poke, and piroshkies from Piroshky Piroshky.  Yum.

Less yummy?  The gum wall.  Yes, folks, each of those colorful dots on the wall and window ledge behind us is a chewed up piece of gum.  Gross, but oddly fascinating.

We took a ferry ride out to the island of Bainbridge where I had a serendipitous encounter at Churchmouse Yarns & Teas.  I fell in love with some wool yarn from Uruguay and decided to buy it as a memory of the trip.  As the woman was winding my hanks into balls, she mentioned that she still wasn't used to the cool summers since she had grown up in Lawrence, KS.  I told her that I went to KU and it turns out that her father is a retired biochemistry professor and close friends with one of the professors I worked for as an undergrad.  I had lost touch with him because he had moved away from Kansas after he retired, but she had spoken to him just the day before!  I gave her my contact info to pass on to him and now we are catching up via e-mail.  A small world, indeed - and full of Jayhawks!

The next weekend we had dinner downtown and headed up the Space Needle a bit before sunset.  It was a beautiful, clear day and we could see Mt. Rainier in the distance.

We stayed up at the top through sunset and it became quite cold and very, very windy.  

We drank coffee and chatted while night fell and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the city.

The next day, we went to the zoo!  I love zoos and I took a million pictures of all the different animals.  I'll spare you menagerie and give you just a picture of Denise and Laurel petting goats.

Also, us riding a dinosaur.  I'm not really sure why their was a dinosaur exhibit at the zoo, but I can tell you that having seen real animals all day, there were quite a few toddlers scared of the animatronic giants.

After the zoo, we had dinner with some friends and their very sweet cat in their gorgeous backyard that you can actually eat in, because it isn't 105 degrees and full of bugs (I'm not bitter about Texas summer, I swear).

Being nerdy anthropologists, we had to visit the Burke Museum of Natural History and Anthropology before we left town.  We were extremely impressed with their collections including

freaky giant bird fossils, 

amazing carved fish totems,

and fantastic dragon masks.

My last night in town, my friend MJ and I had dinner and then I got up the next morning for the long flight home.  It was a great trip, but I'm glad to be back.
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