Monday, May 25, 2009

Way Better Than Church

I wish I could spend every Sunday morning like I did yesterday. I visited Cherokee Marsh for the first time in quite a while and had an extremely relaxing and renewing walk. Maybe the world would be a better place if more people spent some time every week out in nature rather than cooped up in some building listening to a bunch of stories about how bad they are.

One of the first birds I saw was an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) nearly overhead.

Farther along, after seeing some Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypsis trichas) I spooked a frog who jumped out of sight right after I took its picture. I guess it was shy.

Passing through the oak trees on my way to the boardwalk I came upon an Eastern Wood Peewee (Contopus virens) singing its whiny call.

Down at the water I found most of the boardwalk has been destroyed so making that loop was out of the question. Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoenicius) were abundant and vocal.

Looping back through the woods to reach the other end of the boardwalk and the observation platform I ran into this little bigmouth, or I guess I should say bigbeak. He's a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) just like the ones in my back yard.

Only a few yards off the observation platform a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) flew in and stood around in the tall grass. They must have been pretty tired. This one yawned a lot and I watched it nod off several times.

In a nearby tree a Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) was singing loudly. This is one of only a few warbler species that nest this far south. Most of them just pass through on their way to the northern forests for the summer so one has to get out at the right time to see them.

I have a hard time with sparrow identification, but I'm pretty sure this is a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana.)

Heading back to the car I could hear several Red-eyed Vireos (Vireo olivaceous) singing their distinctive song. This one was generous enough to come down a little lower and pose for a picture.

To make the church-alternative complete I went to a good friend's home for breakfast. Waffles and orange juice--now that's my kind of Communion!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What Do You Do With a Half Gallon of Cream?

Last month at the Westside Community Market we ran into a friend of ours we hadn't seen in quite a while. She told us one of the dairies with a stall there was selling some close-date cream at rock bottom prices. We bought a half gallon and then set to work figuring out how to use it.

First, my co-conspirator used some to make a batch of a wonderfully rich vanilla ice cream that was swirled with dulce de leche. OK, that's three cups down and five to go.

For the next application I turned to one of my perennial favorites from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. There is a simple dish called Oeufs en Cocotte or Eggs Baked in Ramekins. First, you warm some cream in a buttered ramekin in some water on the stove top.

Next, break a couple eggs into the cream and spoon some more cream over the top and add a little pat of butter, as if it's not rich enough already.

Then put the whole thing in the oven until the eggs are just set. A little salt and pepper on top finish it off. It's so good! If you want to get fancy you can add herbs and various sauces but I like mine relatively plain.

Great! OK, now we've still got over four-and-a-half cups of cream left. Harkening back to my grade school days I recalled a time when the teacher showed us how to make butter. She put some cream in a jar and we passed it around the room, each of us taking turns shaking it as hard as we could. Eventually we ended up with a little blob of fresh butter. At the time I was too squeamish to taste it, though. Hard to believe, I know. Well, times have changed.

Not wanting to spend my whole weekend shaking a jar, I gained some help from technology. I allowed a cup of the cream to warm a bit. Placing it in the bowl of the stand mixer with the whip attachment and the splash guard in place I set to work. In only a short time I had whipped cream. Then the only job was to go to far! The butter quickly formed and started splashing the milky water that had been in the cream out of the bowl.

The next step required switching to the paddle beater and working the butter some more to remove more of the water.

After it looked like the machine had done all it could, it came time for some hand work. I added a small amount of very cold water to the bowl and kneaded the butter with a spatula to work out the milky water that had been in the cream.

I repeated this step a couple more times until the water stayed clear. Leaving too much liquid in the butter makes it go bad faster. Now I was left with a smooth blob of fresh butter.

Nothing left to do now but eat it! The flavor is very fresh and creamy, of course. In the end the last four-plus cups of milk were made into butter in three batches, only one of which was salted. The last, largest batch was made into little rolls wrapped in waxed paper and frozen. I'm thinking there may be some cupcakes with buttercream frosting in the future!

They've Moved In!

Last year I blogged about a wren house I made from a cigar box. For the last several days House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) have been singing in the garden. When I checked the gourd house I've had for years and the cigar box, both had nesting materials stuffed in them. This morning, as I enjoyed the garden for a while before work, it became clear that they've chosen the cigar box as their home. I welcome them and look forward to seeing some fledglings eventually!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Looking and Seeing

Last year I learned of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy. It's close to my office so it's a convenient place to stop and bird or hike or just hang out before or after work or over lunch. I especially enjoy taking my lunch to one of a couple of areas overlooking the prairies and listening to the sparrows and other birds while I eat. It's a great way to forget for a time what I have to deal with back at the salt mines. Right now the Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) seem particularly "present" at one of these spots. They're one of my favorite birds, proving that a close-up look at what we often mistake for "little brown jobs" reveals they are really quite pretty.

I was going to continue this post with some observations of the highly degraded condition of parts of this conservancy, but I just don't feel like dwelling on the negatives right now. Instead I'll let that simmer in the background and share a couple more images of wonderful birds that briefly visit on their way through to their breeding grounds at this time of year.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Light Supper

A roasted tomato stuffed with garlic, goat cheese and green onion, all local, mixed with panko, basil and thyme. The salad is all seasonal local greens with a champagne vinaigrette from Trader Joe's.