Thursday, February 18, 2010

I Am Unfamiliar With Alleys

In the town where I grew, there were very few alleys - in fact, the only two I can think of were downtown, not in residential districts.  In Hyde Park, on the other hand, alleys grow on trees.  Well, not quite, because it's entirely possible that the alleys outnumber the trees.  But perhaps I exaggerate.

In any case, I walked by this alley on my way between grocery stores (which, of course, means it's a Thursday) and snapped a picture of what I saw.  What intrigued me most was the cobblestone, another thing Appleton, WI is almost totally bereft of, with the exception of the street sandwiched between the block of downtown containing the hip university students' cafe, the imports store, and the ultra-expensive gourmet grocery store; and the ugliest parking structure I have ever encountered.  It's a treat - it looks like it belongs in Sarajevo circa the mid-1990s (if non-history buffs don't get my joke, let me remind you that Sarajevo was under continuous siege from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996...)

I believe I was talking about cobblestones.  You might recall that I've had a run-in with cobblestones once before and mused on it for a while - that street was paved over.  This one - this alley, to be more precise - looks like it will be around for a while.  What I particularly like is that it has begun, in a way, to meld with the nature around it.  There was a pond collecting in the left foreground (and on the sidewalk - I had fun trying to maneuver through that without soaking both feet) and as you look farther off, if you don't concentrate too hard, all those patches of water and piles of snow begin to blur together and, towards the "vanishing point" of the picture, it's hard to tell if the cobblestone has given away to a lake or if it persists until it reaches its outlet, whatever that may be (it's blotted out by the brightness of the sun).  I think the reason I took this photo - because sometimes I can't explain why I feel compelled to take a photo until well after the fact - is this cobblestone-water-ice-sun goulash which sums up what I actually like about winter.  That and the puddles of dirty meltwater which suggest that spring, my favorite season, is coming...

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Features

Observers with keen eyes will have noticed by now that a few news features have come to Tales From Second City.  That's what happens when you poke around through other people's blogs - you get all sorts of neat ideas.  So here are a few neat new features for your - and my - amusement and convenience:
- A blogroll, down at the bottom of the right column.  Here I've listed some of the things I read on a regular or semi-regular basis.  Quite the varied bunch, I readily admit!  Keep watching that space - I'll probably add some more to it in the future.
- New navigation links under the title banner.  "Home" will take you back to the blog's front page, and "Links" will take you to a page which summarizes the blogroll, plus a little blurb I've written about each of the links.  "About" is currently a dead link, but I will eventually write something about me and about this blog to put there.
 - Copyright, way down at the bottom.  After seeing a former roommate's blog with this Creative Commons widget on it, I thought it made sense to add it on, just to have all my bases covered.  If you blog and think you may want to exercise some control over your work, consider using a Creative Commons license.  Just click on the image or the text and you'll be taken to the site from whence it came, complete with an explanation.
 That's all that's new for right now, but if you have suggestions, requests, or other input, just leave a comment!

NOTE (17 Feb, 12:40pm): I've lightened up the background color from jet black to a dark gray in hopes that it won't be quite so hard on the eyes.  I'd appreciate knowing if you think it's an improvement or not.  I'm going to try it this way for a couple of days before I make a final decision.  Let me know your thoughts!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Culinary Adventures: Happy Valentine's Day!

I don't usually post twice on the same day, but what's Valentine's Day without a bit of chocolate?  At right is a modified sour cream cookie - this one with cocoa powder and chocolate chips, perfect for the chocolate lover that we all - well, most of us - have locked inside.  It's hard to keep the chocolate lover locked up on Valentine's Day, though, so let it out and make a batch of these cookies! (They're so good they speak to my inner chocoholic - and they're saying "Hey now, we may look like cow patties but we taste loads better.")

Technically speaking, this isn't a culinary "adventure" really, because this is a recipe I've done several times over.  It is unique in this respect, though: from start to last batch in the oven I managed it in 38 minutes, my best time yet.  Once the last batch comes out it'll be 50 minutes even.  Practice makes perfect - and speedy - but this is a painless recipe with a fluffy, chocolate-y result that will make you feel great, even if you're single.  Feeling brave, or craving chocolate?  Read on below for my recipe; try it once or twice, modify it, and make it your own!

James's Chocolate Sour Cream Cookies

1 c. sugar
1/2 c. margarine or butter
1/2 c. dairy sour cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
2-1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. cocoa powder
1 c. chocolate chips

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Soften the margarine or butter (you can partially melt it in the microwave, but there's no need to liquefy it), and then mix it with the sugar, sour cream, vanilla, and eggs.  This can be done by hand or with electric hand mixer, which yields a fluffier dough.  Next, mix in the flour, the baking soda, the salt, the cocoa powder, and the chocolate chips.  If you feel like adding some zing, grate some orange peel and add that too (warning: work intensive; will definitely hurt your speed).  Drop dough by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets and bake at 350 for 10 to 12 minutes.  Because of the cocoa powder the cookies won't really change color as they cook; they're done when a gentle tap on the top yields a firm (but not hard) cookie - still squishy/mushy and they need to bake longer.

To make the original recipe (Sour Cream Cookies, no chocolate), remove the cocoa powder and chocolate chips and substitute instead 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg (or more if you like your cookies with attitude).  These cookies are very forgiving and take to experimenting well - I'm going to do a ginger version at some point.

Enjoy, and Happy Valentine's Day!

[By the way, props to Life in a Cramped Kitchen, which gave me the idea of sharing this recipe along with the picture, since I normally tantalize with a picture but don't give out a recipe.  I'm just mean, I guess.  Check out LICK (hey, cool acronym!) for some great recipes and beautiful photographs.]

Nuns! Everywhere!

Well, perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but not by much.  Over the course of the weekend I have seen more nuns that I would have seen in months back up north.  And not all of them at church, either (some, yes, which isn't terribly interesting, so I'll leave them out of my account).

One in particular struck me.  I was at the local produce market picking up milk (because it's cheapest there, which still isn't that cheap - oh how I miss Wisconsin in this respect - but if you think I'm going to pay $3.99 a gallon at the grocery store you're crazy) and a few other things when there, by the windows at the end of the checkout lanes was a little, wizened nun.  She wasn't dressed like the stereotypical nun - you know, with the long flowing habit and the wimple (the starched white things that frames the face and holds up the veil); rather, she was wearing the same garb as Meryl Streep in Doubt (here), but with a much less prominent bow and no glasses.  This little old nun was presiding over a table of baked goods, about which other residents of Hyde Park (my significant other, specifically) had informed me.  I would have stopped by, but I was in a bit of a hurry to do the rest of my shopping and then return home to get some work done, so I didn't pause.  "But," I found myself thinking as I walked home, "why?"

I have no doubt that they're excellent baked goods - if sisters are selling things, you know they're good, because they wouldn't sell them if they weren't.  There's just something about the nuns - at least, those who are still alive - that makes me think of hand-crafted works of art.  After all, nuns were the ones who used to be responsible for embrodering altar cloths and vestments.  They used to be - and in some places still are - the only ones allowed to bake the host used in Catholic Eucharist.  And in the Middle Ages, some prominent women like Hildegard of Bingen were responsible for great works of art, like the illumination to the right (it's from the Liber Divinorum Operum (A.D. 1165), one of the several books Hildegard wrote - you can see Hildegard herself in the lower left-hand corner).  So it's certainly not fears of quality that made my shy away from the little table at the produce market.

Are we - am I - apprehensive of nuns?  We've all heard about the horror stories of the nuns who taught in Catholic elementary schools across the country up to the last few decades of the previous century and some of them taught my mother, so I heard stories from her as well as from society in general.  (If you haven't heard the horror stories I'm referring to, watch Doubt - you'll get some idea at least.)  And the figures clad all in black, nothing but faces and hands visible from under their robes, do seem somewhat intimidating.  But I'm not unfamiliar with that sort of nun.  Perhaps it was the Meryl-Streep-like garb - the blinder-like bonnet, especially - which unsettled me.  Perhaps that I was hurried.  Perhaps I wasn't sure I wanted to be seen consorting with a nun in public (but why?).  Perhaps any number of things.  What is most likely - and what I realized eventually - is that I anticipated needing to spend the cash I had on hand on groceries at my other two stops that afternoon, and didn't want to go up to the table, look over the baked goods, and then leave without making a purchase.  Even if the reason were my own tightness of budget, it would look like I was unsatisfied with the goods being offered, which would be rude.  And you don't want to be rude to a nun - for all you know, she might have a big yardstick under her habit to whip out and beat you with.  And we wouldn't want that, would we?  No, Sister.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Culinary Adventures: Fried & Fantastic

I know I'm not the only one who succumbs periodically to the deep and heart-wrenching desire for fried food, but even I am distressed by the fact that deep-frying in the home is not only difficult (special-equipment required), expensive (special equipment required - oh, and you go through tons of cooking oil), and dangerous (who wants to burn down the apartment building?  Not me.), which essentially renders fried food out of reach for those of us which cravings.

Except not quite.  All that above is referring to deep frying, which we know so well from McDonalds, KFC, and the host of other restaurants, chain and independent, that have arisen across the country to satisfy our deep and (if we have any dietary sense in our heads) guilty cravings.  But there are different ways to fry - one of which I'd like to share.  But first, the problem with deep frying:

The dilemma with deep frying is that in order to deep-fry, say, a piece of chicken, you need something big enough to submerge the chicken in hot oil in.  This is easiest with special equipment (here) which will set you back $24 at the very least, and more like $60-$70 is you want a deep fryer with features, like a timer.  If you don't feel inclined to splurge on a gadget you can, at least theoretically, deep-fry in a tall pot, but hot oil, whether in a deep fryer or a saucepan, is dangerous stuff.  And what do you do with all that hot, greasy oil once you've deep-fried that twinkie in it?  Make weapons of mass destruction out of it, that's what.

Or you could try things my way, which involves a happy coincidence and sudden, unexpected fulfillment.  Sounds much nicer than waiting for a deep fryer to show up at your door or trying to dispose of a gallon of cooking oil (hint: not worth it), doesn't it?  Here's how.

Last night, I was on the phone with my parents over the dinner hour and mentioned that I hadn't cooked anything, had no idea what I was going to do for dinner, and had just purchased a bag of rice (mundane, I know, but sometimes my mother and I talk about genealogy, so don't complain about that bag of rice).  My mother suggested I make rice, but throw a chicken bouillon cube in with it and have chicken-flavored rice.  Since I happened to have an abundance of chicken bouillon cubes and rice (as all apartment cooks should), I thought "well, why not?"  Answer: it's still dull.  So I steamed some mixed vegetables (yes, frozen from a bag, because I don't feel like shelling my own peas) and mixed them in.  Still boring.  So I ate about half and then put the rest in the fridge, thinking I would suffer it through it the following night, and let this be a lesson to me for thinking that a bouillon cube would solve all my problems.

As I was walking home from the university tonight, however, I had a thought.  I remembered seeing, when thumbing through one of my cookbooks a few months ago, a recipe for fried rice.  "What," I had wondered at the time, "is fried rice?"  So I read the recipe, and it made such an impression on me that I couldn't remember a thing about it as I walked home except that it required rice and eggs.  So when I got back home, I looked it up again and thought "hey, this is easy."  And this time I was right.

Now, it being a cookbook with gourmet (or perhaps gourmand) tendencies, it called for three different spices, a clove of garlic, minced shallots, and soy sauce.  I was in no mood to mince shallots (I don't even have shallots) so I scalped the recipe for its basic parts and decided to make my own, slimmed down version.  So I took out a saucepan (not a frying pan because this involves oil, which will spatter all over the stove-top in a frying pan, as I have found out in the past) and poured about three or four tablespoons of olive oil into it - enough to cover the bottom in about a third of an inch of oil.  Then I added garlic powder and onion powder and turned the heat on high.  In about a minute the oil began to spatter, so I took the rice out of the fridge (with vegetables still in it, mind you) and added it bit by bit into the pot.  I did get a bit impatient halfway through because I was so hungry and dumped the second half into the oil, but stirred frequently to make up for it.  Then, in a separate  bowl, I beat two eggs and added them to the whole mess.  Stirring frequently, the rice fried, the eggs scrambled, and the whole thing turned a lovely golden-brown.  I served myself some, added a little salt and pepper and, standing in stockinged feet in my kitchen, devoured it.  It was delicious.

The reason this works is because the rice is actually being fried in that little 1/3-inch of oil, because unlike a piece of chicken, it doesn't take much oil to submerge a grain of rice.  It also works because scrambled egg is absolutely delicious.  And it's worth remembering that I made the rice the night before with a chicken bouillon cube, which also added to the taste, and fried everything in olive oil, not canola oil as the recipe suggested.  But as you can see, it was quite easy.  So why not try it, and experience a little fried rice euphoria for yourself?