Friday, December 26, 2008

Oyster Stew

Every Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember my family has sat down to a dinner of oyster stew. This year our family wasn't together for Christmas Eve proper. I phoned Mom to find out how to make it so I could share this annual treat with my co-conspirator. It turns out she uses a recipe from a Betty Crocker cookbook. All these years I assumed she had it memorized. The recipe I ended up using is an adaptation of that one and serves two as a first course. It tasted exactly as good as I hoped it would.

Oyster Stew

Gently examine 8-12 fresh oysters in their liquid for bits of broken shell.

In a small saute pan blend together:

  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • several grinds of fresh pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons of water to make a paste

    Stir in the oysters and their liquid and start heating the pan over very low heat. Continue cooking and stirring and add small amounts of water if the mixture becomes too thick.

    Meanwhile heat 1 1/2 Cups milk and 1/2 Tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan. Do not boil.

    When the oysters begin to curl around the edges add them and the cooked flour mixture to the hot milk. Stir in well to dissolve the flour gel and remove from the heat. Allow pan to stand for fifteen minutes off heat.

    To serve return to medium low heat and bring just to a high simmer. Ladle into hot bowls and garnish with a sprinkle of sweet paprika. Serve with crackers.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Big Five-Oh

Even though I stopped chasing numbers in respect to birding a few months ago I couldn't help but notice a little milestone yesterday. We braved some chilly wind and gray skies to see what was going on around Picnic Point. Along with lots of Tundra Swans, Common Loons, Gulls and an immature Bald Eagle, I saw my first Common Goldeneye. That species brought my total to fifty new ones in 2008. Just for the heck of it, here they are:

  • American Dipper
  • American Pipit
  • Baird's Sandpiper
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Canada Warbler
  • Canvasback
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Common Moorhen
  • Dickcissel
  • Dunlin
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Golden-winged Warbler
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Heermann's Gull
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • Lincoln's Sparrow
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Northern Shrike
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Olive-sided Flycatcher
  • Ovenbird
  • Palm Warbler
  • Philadelphia Vireo
  • Pine Siskin
  • Red Crossbill
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Sedge Wren
  • Semipalmated Plover
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Short-billed Dowitcher
  • Solitary Sandpiper
  • Stilt Sandpiper
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Tundra Swan
  • Vaux's Swift
  • Veery
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Western Grebe
  • Western Gull
  • Wrentit

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ripe Solanum Fruits

I posted a while back about a Solanum atropurpureum plant I'm growing. When fall arrived it responded to the cooler temperatures by stopping everything it was doing, including growing and ripening its fruits. On a whim I just moved it into the house. Light levels were drastically reduced compared to what it was getting all summer but it didn't seem to mind and remains a nice green color. But what's more, once warmed up the fruits finally resumed ripening. You can see here their resemblance to their tomato and pepper cousins. I'm told by the friend who gave me the plant last spring that they won't actually soften so soon I'll harvest some and remove the seed. Another good friend of mine is way into the Solanaceae so I'll mail some off to him to grow. Just for fun I'll hang onto the plant all winter if it decides to live that long and place it outside again next growing season.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Tundra Swans

One of the nice things about being relatively new to any pastime is the high frequency of new discoveries and experiences related to to it. I've been experiencing that in the realm of birding. As long as four months ago I started really becoming aware of the birds that just pass through my area seasonally from exotic locales. With shorebirds making their stops back then through the southward warbler wave to the recent influx of large waterfowl I've tried to keep abreast of new arrivals via posts on various message boards. Unfortunately free time that coincides with tolerable weather and daylight have been at a premium lately.

But today I finally got a chance to get out and look for one species that has particularly sparked my interest, the Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus.) The fact that these large, beautiful birds breed and summer--such as it is--at the northernmost reaches of North America and then migrate such a great distance to spend their winter on the more temperate coasts is amazing to me. I find it funny that I've been driving past them not much more than a block away for some time now but didn't know to look. It seems almost everywhere I look now there is something of ornithological interest and it doesn't even require travelling to exotic destinations, just a slight diversion from my beaten paths.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

New Camera....First Bird Attempt

I just took my first shot at photographing a bird with our new camera. It's an Eastern Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) in winter plumage on a feeder in my garden. Granted, it's an overcast day and I was shooting through double-pane glass and a screen, but it didn't turn out to horribly bad. I will admit to running an autofix filter on it with an image processing program. I'll be interested to see how this works in the field. I am not a photographer.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I'm thankful that both my parents are alive and in relatively good health. Many of my friends have lost one or both of theirs.

I'm thankful that my whole family will be together today. We've endured some tragedy together but right now life is good.

I'm thankful to have a co-conspirator to share all the adventures with, big and small.

I'm thankful to have the smartest and most fun friends a person could imagine. Too many of them are far away but thanks to the Internet, we can still reach out once in a while, and friends I haven't seen in decades are poppping up again.

I'm thankful for the people who have shared their knowledge and expertise this past year. My birding guides, yoga teachers and work mentors have helped me grow personally and professionally.

I'm thankful to have a good job with some fine people. I have fewer co-irkers than I did a year ago. It's a tough time out there.

I'm thankful for my own health and physical ability to get out and do almost everything I want to.

I'm thankful for access to high quality food, clean water and clean air; being near so many woodlands and prairies where I can go to recharge my spirit; having a sturdy, warm home especially now that winter is here; hyphens and semicolons, my favorite punctuation marks; the Internet, my primary source of useful information and conduit to distant friends; orchids and aroids that bloom and even the ones that don't; warblers, Diet Coke with Lime, sushi, comfortable shoes and good books.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's Quiet Out There

I went for a walk on Sunday, finally. It felt like ages since I've been outside except to go to and from the car at home and work. Not pleasant. The destination I chose was a county park I'd never been to before that had all the indicators of a place that would be empty. It's small, it doesn't have any amenities and it's not located close to any cities. It turned out to be a great choice.

Walking the trails the only sounds I heard were the thick layer of oak leaves crunching underfoot and distant farm machinery and highway traffic. Nothing obtrusive. Birds were really scarce. Except for a Downy Woodpecker and a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches working the same tree I didn't see much. It's Quiet out there. I actually heard the sparse dusting of dry snowflakes falling before I saw them.

At the top of a hill there was an open field and at its edge were some redcedars. One in particular was thick with blue berries that looked unreal next to the green and purple needles.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Back in an ancient period known as "the 80s" I was quite fond of a band called The Tubes. With songs like "Mr. Hate" and "Wild Women of Wongo" how could anyone go wrong? But hands down my favorite was "Sushi Girl." I haven't listened to The Tubes in years but I still recall their sensitive lyrics every time I get some sushi--just as I did this evening. Just a few blocks away there is a really good little sushi restaurant. I like to get carryout from there occasionally. It makes any day seem like a special occasion. On tonight's menu: Negihama-Maki (yellowtail and scallion), Kelsey-Maki (shrimp, green onion and hot sauce), Nigiri of Hirame(fluke), Hamachi(yellowtail again), and Tai (red snapper.)

It was SO good.

Sushi Girl
The Tubes

Skating down in Shinjuku
When I smelled love in the air
Rolling by the pagoda
The fragrance floats from somewhere

Will my Suki find me in time
Or will her sushi spawn
The odor drives me out of my mind
The scent goes straight to my prawn

Cherry blossom and rice
Su-su-sushi she’s so nice

Recklessly I order away
This one thinks it’s still swimmin’
Tail and fin she dives right in
Who could ever want more

Su-su-sushi (sushi girl)
Mushi-mushi (sushi girl)
Cherry blossom (sushi girl) and rice
Su-su-sushi she’s so nice

Su-su-sushi don’t you cry
Take you to the sushi bar and buy you some
Fillet and claw
Clam and tuna
Gonna eat it raw
She’s my my abaluna

Suck a tentacle dip it in sauce
Hot green root it sure is boss
My only vice is to slice it nice
And wrap it in rice—Oh, what a device

Su-su-sushi (sushi girl)
Mushi-mushi (sushi girl)
Cherry blossom (sushi girl) and rice
Su-su-sushi she’s so nice

Su-su-sushi (sushi girl)
She go mushi (sushi girl)
Cherry blossom (sushi girl) and rice
Su-su-sushi got that right tonight

Su-su-sushi (hot sake)
She go mushi (wasabe)
Cherry blossom (and rice) and rice

Saturday, November 8, 2008

One Last Time

Today was the last Westside Community Farmer's Market of the year. I really have a lot of respect for the vendors that come every week to offer up their goods. Despite the cold, wet weather there were a lot of smiles today. We only made a quick visit and picked up a few things.

My usual Saturday breakfast is some tasty baked good from the market, either a sweet something from one baker or a little fancy bread from another. Today I got a gorgeous brioche from Madison Sourdough. It was delicious slathered with raspberry jam I made with berries from the market. A cup of hot Magnolia Oolong tea from Teasource warmed me up nicely.

I also snatched up a bunch of "scratch and dent" tomatoes for a really good price. This vendor apparently has a pretty high standard for their regular tomatoes. Once peeled they looked great. As I type this they're simmering down on the stove to make a tasty batch of sauce. The house smells wonderful!

I'm going to miss the regular Saturday morning ritual of visiting this market. Over the years our attendance at the Dane County Farmer's Market--the big one--dwindled as it became more and more of a hassle to just go and buy things. That sort of destination event is fine for some people, which is obvious by the enormous numbers of people who visit it. But I'm grateful now to have a farmer's market that is close to home with ample, convenient parking. Spring can't come soon enough and this is one of the biggest things I'll be looking forward to.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


I was just struck by the colors of our weekly haul from the Westside Community Market. This is such a great time to shop the markets--as if any time isn't!

  • Winter Squash
  • Goat Cheese with Nettle
  • Cranberries
  • Eggs--white, brown and green!
  • Leeks
  • Radishes
  • Shallots
  • Yellow Onions
  • Fingerling Sweet Potatoes
  • Carrots--yellow and gold!
  • Bell Peppers--green and red!
  • Cucumber
  • Heirloom Tomatoes including Taxi and Green Tiger
  • Hot Peppers Including Hungarian Wax
  • Parsnips
  • Cranberry Bread--nom nom nom!
  • Pumpkin Crackers (not pictured)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Lily Pond and Conservatory

In the 1930s Alfred Caldwell designed a garden in Chicago dominated by a large central lagoon. It is called The Lily Pond and yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting it with friends. Extensive use of limestone shelf rock is meant to evoke a prairie river cutting through bedrock. A council ring, that icon of the Prairie school of landscape architecture, sits atop a small knoll giving views of the lagoon. The garden was a great success when it first opened but over the years bad redesigns and general neglect nearly destroyed Caldwell's vision. In 2000 an extensive restoration and reconstruction was begun. Now restored nearly to its original beauty--obligatory changes were made to accommodate ADA--the garden is a tranquil and apparently little known gem adjacent to the Lincoln Park Zoo.

We also made a visit to the conservatory in the park. I love conservatories. I still sometimes dream of having a nice stone house topped, at least in part, by a classical glass and metal conservatory where I can sit in the winter with my exotic plants and a good book.

A lovely statue in the pond of the Palm House

In the Fern House

A mass of some sort of maidenhair fern in the Fern House

In one of the houses a grapefruit tree and this sour orange were heavily laden with fruit

A beautiful pink Datura for my friend Wildetype--There was an even larger golden one nearby but the lighting was not good

Oh look! Wildetype has shown up to see the Datura. No, my mistake--it's a creepy geisha mannequin in the Show House.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Luxury Home vs. Rare Orchid: Who Wins?

We're all familiar with the story. Developer buys undeveloped land, rare plant or animal discovered, ugly battle ensues between environmentalists and in the end the rare plant or animal may or may not be saved for the moment. That's not what happened this time, according to a story out of

Builders of luxury vacation estates in Gloucestershire in England discovered the "nationally scarce" green-flowered Helleborine (Epipactis phyllanthes) on the spot where a 1 million pound (nearly $2 million US) home was slated for construction. After investigating the possiblity of moving the plants they decided to move the house instead.

It sounds like these developers, who apparently have a landscape and ecology manger, are a bit more in touch with the natural resources they're developing.

This isn't the first time nature has dictated terms at The Lakes. Nesting birds forced tree clearance to be postponed for months and a mature tree facing the axe will be protected after being identified as a probable bat roost.

A fence has now gone up around the rare colony [of orchids], which could become part of a nature trail.

Maybe it's easier to think this way when you aren't surrounded by a culture that believes in unlimited land resources.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Sideways Sun

I wish I could look forward to autumn more than I do. The season has a lot to offer with the striking colors of the trees and shrubs, the cool weather and more reliable moisture for my garden. But I can't get over the fact that, except for on the weekends, the sun is always right in my eyes for the brief time I get to see it. In the morning by the time it's higher in the sky I'm ensconced in my windowless office. When I escape at the end of the day it's right there shining in my windshield as I leave the parking lot. It just seems harsh. Still, I shouldn't complain--and I don't, really. Before long the sun won't even be up at all by the time I get to work and will be back below the horizon when I come home. Oh, well. It's been a great summer and will be again next year. If only it didn't seem so far away.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Summer's Morning in October

This morning I decided on the spur of the moment to check the Biocore Prairie for migrating sparrows since it's only a short distance from my house. Parking at Frautschi Point gave me a chance to walk through the woods for a while. At the point where the trail turned off toward the prairie I found a group of two or three tiny birds busily foraging in the trees right by the trail. Tiny birds = warblers! The closest I could come to an identification was to call them Pine Warblers.

Once I reached the prairie the view of the lake was wonderful. Unfortunately I had dressed for a more typical October day even though I knew it was going to be hot eventually. I didn't realize how quickly that would happen. After spotting a few birds I headed back to the woods to cool off. On the way I met a woman who was obviously a much more serious birder than myself. She asked me what I'd seen and I told her about the Cooper's Hawk, White-throated Sparrows and Pine Warblers back in the woods and the Cedar Waxwings and others I'd seen on the prairie and its edge. She seemed to think the Pine Warblers were odd but plausible and also mentioned seeing White-throated Sparrows and hearing Kinglets. We wished each other luck and went our own ways.

Photo Courtesy of Birdfreak.comBack in the woods I recalled what she had said and started to wonder exactly what a Kinglet looked like since I don't recall ever seeing one. Flipping to the relevant page in my field guide I got more than a little excited to see that the illustration looked very much like the little birds I'd seen earlier. By some miracle the mystery birds were still feeding in the same area where I'd seen them before and I had a great opportunity to watch them. I was soon 90% sure what I was looking at were Ruby-crowned Kinglets. It wasn't pointed out in the field guide, but I noticed the illustration showed black legs and yellow feet. Sure enough, these guys had them! Then, even as I wondered if they only showed their red crowns during the mating/breeding season, one of them hopped down on a branch by another and erected his ruby crown. Bingo! Now I was sure enough to add bird #224 to my Life List. (Ruby-crowned Kinglet Image Courtesy of

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Wisconsin Birdland

Today's edition of the local daily newspaper had a front page story on birds in Wisconsin. It touched on the importance of the state as a migration route and some of the things that have been and are being done to protect our resident and migrant species and their habitats. The article mentions a recent report from Birdlife International detailing the declines in many bird populations. I discovered BI only recently via The Scout Report. It's a rich source of articles on birds. Some of them are outright depressing, but they're interesting to read.

One of the birds in decline noted by the WSJ is the Red-Headed Woodpecker. When I was a kid I saw them often on the wooden telephone poles along the road. Only this summer when I got a glimpse of one flying over the highway as I rode along did it occur to me how long it's been since I've seen one. It saddens me to think such a beautiful bird might disappear forever, but it's happened before. (Image courtesy of

I've been reluctant to face the upcoming winter. It's a while off, but I've gotten so used to being able to just be outside--when it's light out!--that I'm worried about adjusting to the end of a great birding season. Maybe I'll spend some of my time looking into some concrete actions I can take to help protect, preserve and restore the species that need help.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

All About Sausage

For some inexplicable reason I like to pick up the odd vintage or kitsch cookbook that I run across from time to time. The graphic styles of bygone eras are often a treat to see and they also show how different food and entertaining have been in the past. A very good friend of mine knows of my cookbook interest and once gifted me with "All About Sausage" published by the Oscar Mayer company in 1973. It's enlightening, amusing and disturbing all at the same time.

Beginning with a self-serving glossary that manages to define even the most unfoodlike products they make into "sausage", the authors take us on a meatfest joyride. Stops along the way include party platters, breadless sandwiches and more ways to combine beans and weenies than you can shake a weenie at. My personal favorite is the Holiday Meat Tree. Correcting Mother Nature's oversight we are instructed how to compose a tree-like lump of twisted and folded luncheon meats pinned to half a bread loaf.

O sausagebaum, o sausagebaum! They leaves are pink and greasy.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Long Wait

One of my favorite species of ladyslipper orchids is Paphiopedilum malipoense. This thing grows in the rugged limestone landscape of western China where it enjoys alternating seasons of dark wetness and bright dryness. It also doesn't mind being chilly for a stretch which is good since my winter growing area regularly gets below 60°F. I've been in love with it ever since I saw my first one towering on a ridiculously tall stem that still seemed to set the flower apart with proper respect. And it's fragrant. The scent is reminiscent of dusty raspberries.

But the real kicker with growing this species is how long you have to wait for the flower once you've discovered a bud. I usually record when I first spot a bud down in the leaves of a Paph and when the flower actually opens. Of the P. malipoense I've bloomed the time elapsed has ranged from five to seven months. This one may be in bloom for Valentine's Day. But it's so worth the wait for this ghostly green beauty.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pipit If You Dare

Sunday I managed to drag the co-conspirator along on another field trip, this time to Zeloski Marsh. I had visited the place on a similar field trip back in July when I saw two new species, among them the beloved Dickcissel. This time, much to my surprise, I was treated to six species I'd never seen before including the American Pipit! Until yesterday I had no clue what a Pipit is. Going to my Checklist of Wisconsin Birds it's alone in a category by itself. The guy who spotted it said it caught his eye because "it flew like a Pipit." OK. I am really quite grateful to the leaders of these trips and the participants who share their experience and knowledge with greenies like me.

I've decided that what I like about this pastime is that at this point there is still so much more to learn and see. The continual joy of discovery keeps me excited about the possibilites in my next trip out.

On the way home we stopped at a place to get some picnic food and then sat for a while at Camrock Park where some American Redstarts were working an adjacent tree. I showed them proper appreciation.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Just" a Redstart

I did it today. Over my lunch hour I sneaked in a quick walk on one of my favorite trails by one of my favorite streams not really expecting to see any birds but clutching a pair of binoculars, nevertheless, since hope springs eternal(ly.) I walked for the allowed time in one direction and then headed back--in my office shoes, not a good idea. The only real activity was at one bend in the trail where the distinctive sharp chips of a small flock of Northern Cardinals drew my attention. Reluctant to hurry back to work I decided to watch them for a while and just enjoy the moment. Suddenly a quick flash of color as a smaller bird joined the scene caused me to raise my binoculars. After a glimpse of black and orange I thought "Redstart. Seen it."

I stopped and thought about it.

Way back, seemingly ages ago and yet just like yesterday, I started semi-seriously looking for birds in a real jewel of a natural area near my office that I've managed to not notice for over a decade. When I embarked on my own during last spring's warbler wave there was a memorable day when I spent a good amount of time on one of the bridges watching several Redstarts. At the time they were new, interesting and beautiful. Eventually I realized they weren't all that uncommon or hard to find. And then today, apparently, I arrived at the conclusion that they aren't as interesting or worthy of admiration as they were last spring. What a big mistake.

The American Redstart is a stunning bird. Both the male and female have wide yellow bands on the sides of their tails that remind me of the markings on military aircraft. When flitting from branch to branch in search of their prey they spread their tails and display these bands prominently. Consequently, they are easy to identify and fun to watch. I promise I won't just brush off a Redstart sighting ever again. And I also offer here a list of birds that, despite their "common" nature I truly love and always enjoy finding in the wild:

  • Gray Catbird - Dignified monochromatic feathers and a beautiful face

  • House Wren - Dynamite comes in little packages

  • Downy Woodpecker - I just find them charming

  • Black-capped Chickadee - All business and very much in charge of their space

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cockail Hour: Ginger Vodka

When I buy ginger I buy more than I need, grate up the extra and freeze it for future cooking. Some time ago I read that most of a ginger root's flavor is in the layer just under the skin. Having had ginger vodka beverages at the pan-asian restaurant that used to be down the street, I decided to try infusing my own vodka with the peels of a large ginger root. After over a month of soaking I strained the result, stored it in a small jar and tonight I fashioned a martini with the result. It's nasty. It tastes like cheap cleaning products smell. If I ever try this again I'll throw the peel away and use the flesh of the root.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tarte Normande Aux Poires

I must have expressed a proper interest when a good friend mentioned that her neighbor's pear tree was bearing right now. A bag of little, delicious pears appeared on our doorknob the next day. As usually happens in the cooler seasons when hearty or rich foods feel more appropriate I turned to Julia. Last year I finally broke down and bought volume one of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. The tart is made by partially baking sugar-coated pear slices in a short crust, adding a custard topping and completing the baking. Tonight we'll find out how it tastes.

I think most people forget three cooks worked on this classic cookbook. Perhaps it's because of Mrs. Child's later, greater fame as a television cook that she might be presumed the sole author. A few years ago I made the mistake of reading Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. I can't imagine what the movie version will be like--yes, they're making a movie based on a book that grew out of a blog that documented a young woman's year-long project of cooking every recipe in MTAOFC. Julia Child will be played by Meryl Streep. I'm not kidding.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

Here's a quick quiz: What time of year is ten times better than x-mas?

The answer is Tomato Season. I love it when the tomatoes start showing up at the community market. Sure, some arrive in late spring and early summer, but they just don't have the essential tomatoeyness of the fruit that hits the stands when the weather is just right. Something about the wet summer heat concentrates so much flavor in the good varieties. I eat tomatoes constantly from the time they show up until the cool weather sets in--which unfortunately seems to be right now.

I also like to try to capture that fantastic tomato flavor to carry over into my winter cooking. Last weekend my sister-out-law and her husband gifted us with a big load of a variety of tomatoes from their garden. I made a batch of sauce that ended up all going into a lasagna. Half of that was frozen for a later date. Some of the smaller ones were used in salads, on a pizza and even tossed into a batch of black fried rice.

This past weekend I shopped the market with a purpose in mind. I was going to prepare some tomatoes for winter with one of my favorite methods--oven drying. I started with a bag of what the vendor said were Spotted Romas. A quick Google hasn't turned up any information on that variety. To me they look like a cross between a Roma and a Red Zebra.

To dry the tomatoes I cut off the stem end and then sliced them lengthwise in such a way that the pulp cavities were most exposed. I then arrayed them on a jellyroll pan that I had lined with baking parchment. A drizzle of olive oil was hand-rubbed over the cut surfaces and a light sprinking of kosher salt followed. I finished by laying some stems of the thyme I grew this year over the tomatoes. The pan went into a 200°F oven for about nine hours. The come out not tough and leathery like the dried tomatoes you can buy in the store, but rather softer and more edible. After cooling I layered them with waxed paper in a zip-top bag, labeled and dated them (of course!) and placed them in the freezer.

This fall and winter these tomatoes will make appearances with pastas, on bruschettas or pizzas and perhaps even in grilled cheese sandwiches. The oven-drying concentrates their juices and increases their sweetness and flavor. It also lets me relive the zenith of the year.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Corn, Beautiful Corn

This year for the first time I've tried my hand at freezing sweet corn. Frozen bags of nibblets are fine, I suppose, but nothing can compare to the taste of fresh sweet corn in season. Last weekend and again this past weekend I purchased enough ears of bi-color corn to freeze three pounds of the stuff. I'm looking forward to pulling it out this winter for chowders and curries.

Here's how I do it: Peel of the husks and silk of twelve large ears of corn. Bring at least a gallon of water to a boil in a large pot and drop in a half dozen ears at a time. Set the timer for four minutes. After that time the pot will most likely just be returning to a good boil again. Remove the corn and drop it in a large pot or sinkful of cold water. Gently move around the corn to speed cooling. Repeat with the other six ears. Next place a thin cutting board in a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan that has sides to contain the juice. Place the sheet on a slightly damp kitchen towel to prevent it sliding around. Hold an ear of corn upright on the cutting board and cut the kernels off in strips. I find it works well to use an 8" chef's knife and grip it close up to the blade so I can brace my fingers of the knife hand against the ear of corn. Rotate the ear to the left cutting successive strips of kernels off. When all the kernels are off scrape the remaining milky liquid off the cob with the knife. Portion into freezer bags--2 cups is about a pound. Flatten the bags on the counter, label them including the date and place flat in your freezer. Enjoy this winter.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Grand Day Out

Holiday weekends are a time to relax, unwind and enjoy. I did that yesterday. I got a little stir-crazy. Today the co-conspirator and I hit the road for a grand day of hiking, birding and geocaching and now I'm pooped.

Our trip began at Governor Dodge State Park where no sooner than we had parked to discuss our first hike than the trees adjacent to the parking lot were alive with migrating warblers. It being the case that I suck at identifying any but the easy ones I'll just say they were the yellow and white ones. That should cover it.

Eventually we hiked a multi-mile trail to reach a cache high atop one of the rock formations in the park. It didn't look that high or that far from the distance, but apparently I'm not accustomed to either the heat or inadequate breakfasts or both. On the way we did see a Black-and-White Warbler--one I can actually identify.

A couple of cool but macabre sights were encountered on our hikes as well. Here is some sort of bug preying on a monarch butterfly caterpillar. I always check out milkweed plants for monarchs when I find them. I loved finding chrysalids and caterpillars when I was a kid and every time we'd pick the pods and release the seeds my mom would tell me how she collected them for stuffing in life jackets or some such thing during World War II. The other sad sight was a dead bird. In the middle of a trail we found some kind of flycatcher. It was incredible how tiny it was. Living and sitting on a branch they don't look nearly as small; the body was maybe only three inches long and it weighed next to nothing. It was a horse trail so I moved it into the weeds off the trail where it wouldn't be trampled. Poor little thing.

At one point the trail came right next to Twin Valley Lake and there was a Double-Crested Cormorant perching on a dead tree hanging over the water. It's not a spectacular or rare bird, but we spent some time looking at it and taking a few photos. I'm really thinking about getting some kind of digital camera/spotting scope combo or something easily portable. The problem, I suppose, with any hand-held solution would be holding it steady. There's not always a handy tree to brace against.

On the way home we swung by Spring Green for a late lunch at Culver's and to check out the wader/shorebird situation there. Why has Spring Green become a birdwatcher's destination? Because since the flooding way back in June way too many fields and front yards are still under water. I don't understand why; I thought the whole area was essentially sand. It's un-fricking-believeable. At one moment we're looking at a shallow lake bordered by stunted, ruined corn and a short drive down the road there's one of the healthiest looking crops of corn I've seen.

Tomato's Tough Brother

Like the tomato it's growing next to, my Solanum atropurpureum has started forming fruits. The family resemblance is undeniable between the flowers and fruits. But the resemblance ends at the leaves and stem. Unlike the tomato, S. atropurpureum is covered with thorns. Even the leaves have sharp, purple needles protruding stiffly from their upper and lower surfaces. I'm guessing that in the wild this plant isn't grazed much.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Sign of Summer's End

It's been no mystery to me that summer is winding to a close. Still, I was surprised to notice this little sign of the season's demise. What you're seeing here is the beginning of the formation of a bulbil on the leaf of the largest of my Amorphophallus bulbifer plants. A. bulbifer is a relative of the Titan Arum, Amorphophallus titanum that causes a stir among the botanically geeky any time one of them blooms somewhere.

Of the several species of Amorphophallus I have, I think it has the prettiest leaves. They're large, deeply-lobed and have a wavy pink edge. A. bulbifer gets its name from what I believe is a unique mode of reproduction within the genus. At the end of its growing season it forms a large bulbil on top of the point where its petiole joins the leaf blades. Smaller bulbils form at points along the upper side of the main veins of the leaf. A few that are just starting to form are visible here as the little green teardrop shapes. Once the leaf senesces the largest of the bulbils, which now look like rough little potatoes, can be stored and later planted to create new plants.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Guy Night!

And so it happens that a pretty good day ends with "Guy Night!"

The pretty good day consisted of spontaneously joining a Wisconsin Society for Ornithology field trip to Horicon Marsh and adding four five species to my Life List. (Yay!)

That was followed with work. You, know, "work" as in doing my job, just like I did yesterday afternoon. Never mind that it's the weekend. There are crises to avert! At least today I worked at home.

Having accomplished two missions and with a special dinner in mind, when Happy Hour arrived I shook up my own Vesper Martini with slight modifications for what I had on hand. Then I made dinner. The main course was something I'd been looking forward to all weekend--corn dogs from the "The Man Food Show" Episode of Good Eats with Alton Brown.

Man, they were good!! I had to add more flour than the recipe calls for to get a good coating of batter on the smoky all-beef franks. I also skipped the canned creamed corn and used the fresh, locally-grown sweet corn I purchased yesterday at the West Side Community Market. On the side? Baked beans, naturally. The dogs aren't pretty as is obvious here, but the taste more than makes up for it. The breading puffs up light and airy with a crispy crust. Even with a healthy coating on each weenie there was a lot of batter left over. I dropped some spoonfuls into the fryer and discovered it makes a danged tasty jalapeño corn fritter.

Could things be any better? Yes, of course. When I flipped around the channels to see what was on TV to watch while I enjoyed my guy food I came across a James Bond movie. Yeah, life is good.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Kitchen Away From Home

I don't know if this is normal, but when I travel I almost look forward to cooking in a new place as much as I do seeing the sights. As far back as 1996--sadly the last time I've traveled internationally; Toronto hardly counts--I was excited that one of the places we stayed in Provence had a rudimentary kitchen. We didn't delve to deeply into cuisine on that particular trip, but I do remember a farmer's market that I would love to return to.

On one camping trip two years ago the highlight was making a lovely burgundy beef in the dutch oven. It took hours, but what a wonderful, relaxing time sitting under the trees listening to the birds, reading a good book and watching a placid lake while I tended the coals and rotated the pot and cover. Only a couple weeks after that my co-conspirator and I were at a cooking class with Marcel Biró learning a bit of rustic Italian cookery.

And then there were a couple of memorable trips to New York where I had as much fun cooking for the parties our hosts threw as I did touring the museums. I love grocery shopping in The Village.

Now when we've visited coastal Oregon several times I've been grateful to have accommodations that feature a full kitchen. It's an added bonus that it overlooks the Pacific Ocean and some scenic offshore rocks. Each time we go we count the days we'll be there, list the various local seafoods we want to taste, and plan our shopping and cooking accordingly.

What would be my dream vacation? I have enough interests that I could stay entertained by a variety of things pretty much anywhere but Kansas. But if it came down to it that the only choice was to spend a week holed up in cozy accommodations with a well stocked pantry and some interesting recipes, I could have a pretty good time.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Big Two-Oh-Oh!

I did it. I got my 200th bird.

The sighting was sudden and unexpected, as I should have expected it to be. There we were last week on vacation in Oregon. I had rung up birds 195 through 199 pretty handily during the earlier part of the week. We were in what looked like a lovely meadow but which turned out to be a deeply fissured field of clay where walking was treacherous. Suddenly I caught a flash of red feathers in the dead trees at the edge of the meadow. (Pictured here sans bird) At first glance I thought it was a Purple Finch but as soon as I got my binoculars on it I could see it was too big and had a distinctive beak. It was a Red Crossbill. There were at least two at first but only one hung around long enough for my co-conspirator to confirm my identification.

Among the new Life List birds I added in Oregon were two especially cool species. One was found and identified when we crawled into a thicket to try to retrieve a cache that was blocked on the better side by the presence of other humans. Standing up in the thicket I was literally face to beak with a pair of very vocal and aggitated Wrentits! I took a quick look and got out of there quickly. The other especially interesting sighting was an American Dipper. It was bobbing around on the rocks in the Wilson River just upstream from the Tillamook Forest Center. We were able to watch it for a while as it moved from rock to rock and eventually into the stream where it caught something large and wriggling.

So, now what? I suppose I could set a new goal of 300. Doubtless if I keep up with the birding I'll reach that eventually. Maybe I'll make that the secondary goal as the 200 was, in all honestly, all along. For now the main goal will be just to get out and see as much of everything as I can.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Summer + Berries = Pie!

One of the million things I love about summer is the availability of fresh berries. This morning I ate half a pint of raspberries straight for breakfast. This afternoon I got ambitious and whipped up a blueberry pie. Only recently have I overcome the pie crust difficulties that suddenly arose over a year ago. A good friend--initials B.W., you know who you are!--has proven to be a true Prince of Pies. His advice has been most helpful. Buoyed by my return to competent pie crust production I attempted to make a lattice crust for the first time ever. It's a little crude, but I'm happy with the results.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Finally! Pancakes!

Yaaaaaaay!! There's finally a solution for people who can't manage to mix Bisquick® and its required liquid additives to make pancake batter! Now Shake 'n' Pour™ relieves lazy and/or ignorant cooks from dirtying a bowl and spoon while allowing them to throw more fucking plastic into the waste stream. Thanks, Betty Crocker!

I couldn't believe it when I saw the commercial. No, scratch that. I totally believe it. Making cooking less and less about effort, quality and flavor is what the world's mass food purveyors is all about. Need proof? The above-mentioned commercial was alternated with a commercial for one of those "you bake it" stores that sells frozen bread dough, cinnamon rolls, pizza crust dough. Yay again! This stuff is expensive for you what you get. And what do you get? A house that smells like you know how to handle yeast whether you do or not and enough palm oil to slaughter an entire troop of orangutans.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pickle Time!

These chubby beauties caught my eye at the Westside Community Market this morning so I just had to bring them home and introduce them to some brine. I've been wanting to make dill pickles for a while now and this desire has been encouraged by my co-conspirator. He wants to deep fry some. It sounds kind of hillbilly to me but he had them on a recent trip and swears they were wonderful. I've only had fried pickles once and they really weren't that great. It could be because they were pan fried rather than deep fried. Once these have soaked up some pickly goodness for a while we're going to crank up the fryer and find out!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Repellant Memories

My earliest memory of Raid Mosquito Coils is from a trip in my childhood to go camping with my aunt and uncle. In the evening when we'd be gathered around the picnic table playing cards my uncle would blaze up a few and set them around in an effort to keep our blood in our veins. Scents are tightly linked to memories and now whenever I get a whiff of these insect-repelling incense spirals I'm taken back to that time in a north woods campground. The other day I came across this box when I was looking for some protection in my own mosquito-infested garden. It's a vintage piece and I really like the style of the illustration. Even a sparse suburban concrete patio is paradise when there are no bugs! I believe it came from my co-conspirator's parents' house and that we acquired it when the house was sold and cleaned out. Inside the coils were still dry and when I lit one the old memories came back. And, much to my satisfaction, the legion of blood-sucking pests were kept at bay for as long as the smoke lingered.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dinner With Friends

Sadly, absent friends. Tonight's dinner featured calamarata brought to us all the way from Italy by good friends who were fortunate enough to spend an extended time there this spring. As you may guess by the name, calamarata is a pasta named for squid, as in calamari. It's a tube about 2cm in diameter and the same in length and resembles the sliced pieces of a squid's mantle used in so many tasty dishes. We served ours with a quick tomato sauce courtesy of Food and Wine magazine with the addition of *drumroll please* squid pieces! My co-conspirator didn't want to eat any of the bits with tentacles so I scored big time. It was tasty and, more importantly, reminded us of our friends who weren't with us.

In addition to the pasta main course, we put together a salad with local, organic greens and vegetables topped with a dressing of hazelnut and olive oils whisked with gold Modena balsamic and champagne vinegars. The hazelnut oil and balsamic were gifts from another good friend we dearly miss.

And if that's not enough, the croutons on the salad were from yet another friend. They were made with leftover rolls from his graduation party. Tomorrow he's going on a backpacking adventure and we wish him a good trip and a great time.

Thank you, to all our friends that we share our food and time with. It wouldn't be dinner without you!!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

More Birds!

Yesterday I was again reminded of the value for an amateur like me to go out birding with seasoned pros. I went on a public walk where apart from the two leaders I was the only guest. The walk was held by Jefferson/Dodge County Bird Walks and took in Zeloski Marsh. Only two years ago the marsh was a muck farm and the transformation since then has been spectacular. Right now there is a sea of flowers in bloom and the place is literally crawling with wildlife. As we walked along the old roads separating the impoundments at some times there were so many leopard frogs rocketing out of the grass at our feet I was afraid to put my foot down!

There were several birding highlights but for me the best were getting a really good look at my first Dickcissel and the opportunity to add the Great Horned Owl to my life list. When one of the guides pointed out the owl perching on a downed tree in the water my first thought was that it was a raccoon. It was huge! Flocks of Sandhill Cranes and a flyover by a flock of dozens of American White Pelicans were other particularly exciting moments.

The Dickcissel and Great Horned Owl brought my Life List count to 194! Back in December when I set my goal of 200 birds on the list by the end of 2008 I thought I was being somewhat ambitious. But with the assistance of the guides who have led the field trips I've joined I'm closer to that goal than I would have expected back then. Thanks, Brad and Nolan, for the tour of the marsh and also for your ongoing work in conservation and education!!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Something In The Bushes!!

As I put the wheelbarrow away after some light gardening today I spotted this critter in the Euonymus fortuneii 'Vegeta' that is overgrowing the compost bins. It's the pupa of some lepidoptera, which one I have no idea. The black and tan fuzz just above its last shed skin, I presume. I'm going to show it to my entomological consultant and see if he has a notion of its identity.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Local Food: Win Some/Lose Some

Tonight's dinner was delicious featuring almost all local ingredients. Especially delicious to me were the tomatoes drizzled with avocado oil. The oil was obviously not local but came complements of a dear friend who gifted my co-conspirator with a fabulous selection of oils and vinegars from Vom Fass for a special birthday. The entree was a spinach and blueberry salad with blue cheese and grilled chicken breast.

The chicken was the loser. Sadly it was dry and tough. It was inedible. I've ground it up in a food processor and added mayonnaise, onions, olive oil and herbs in an attempt to make an edible chicken salad spread. Tomorrow's lunch will prove whether I wasted my time or not.