04 October 2015

Mostaccioli for St Francis of Assisi

October 4 is the feast of St Francis of Assisi, namesake of Pope Francis and probably one of the most popular saints even among those who aren't Catholic. He fasted strictly, so a big meal seemed out of place for his feast day, but I did want to do something special. I found several versions of a sweet known to have been St Francis' favorite, honey almond cakes called "mostaccioli." Matt and I were a little confused; isn't mostaccioli a kind of pasta? These definitely aren't pasta, but they are delicious and simple to make.


1/2 lb blanched almonds
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup honey
1 egg white
1/2 cup of flour (approx.)

Coarsely grind almonds in a food processor. Add cinnamon, honey, and egg white, and pulse together. Slowly add flour to make a thick paste. Knead together until stiff but smooth. Roll out to 1/4" thick and cut into diamond shapes, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches long. Lay diamonds on a greased baking sheet and let rest an hour and a half, then bake at 250 degrees F for 20 to 25 minutes, until the bottom edges are just turning golden. Leave on the pan for a couple of minutes to set, then remove to wire racks to cool.

I cut my diamonds on the small side, and it made about 24. Using whole wheat flour makes them more authentic to St. Francis' day,* but the recipe would work fine with all-purpose flour. The mostaccioli had a lovely, delicate flavor, and the ground almonds gave them a great texture. I'll have to make these again next year. And the food processor did most of the work! If you don't have a food processor (or a blender, which would work too), you could definitely chop the almonds finely by hand, and then mix everything together in a bowl.

*A brief lesson on flour, because I couldn't very well make that claim without going and researching it tonight: Ground wheat flour naturally contains all three parts of a grain of wheat: bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran contains fiber, some of the B vitamins, and iron; the germ contains protein, vitamin E, most of the B vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3s; the endosperm contains carbohydrates and trace amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals. The endosperm is white; the bran and germ are brown or brownish.

Sifting flour to make white flour by removing the bran and germ has been done since the Middle Ages, but only by the wealthy who could afford to waste them. (Removing the bran and germ meant that the wheat yielded less flour, plus it took longer to produce.) Because this sifted flour still contained the beta carotene-rich oil released from the wheat germ in the grinding process, the "white" flour was slightly yellowish. The advent of modern roller mills at the end of the 19th century, replacing mills with grinding stones, allowed millers to strip the bran and germ from the wheat before grinding the endosperm, thus producing truly white flour.

Over the course of the 20th century, flour producers began enriching their white flour, adding in vitamins to replace some of those they were removing with the germ. In the U.S., enriched flour contains added iron and the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid, and sometimes calcium. White flour can be found either bleached or unbleached in the U.S.; the brighter white of bleached flour is most often achieved by treating the flour with benzoyl peroxide, chlorine gas, or both.

White whole wheat flour is not a combination of white and whole wheat; it is ground from white spring wheat rather than the more typical hard red wheat, and has a lighter color and milder flavor more closely resembling that of refined white flour while still possessing its full bran and germ. (The grains I grind to bake with are white spring wheat and spelt, an ancient cousin of wheat.)

And that was not exactly brief! But hopefully you learned something useful or interesting; I really enjoy learning more about historical and modern food production.

01 October 2015

Sun and light

Today is gloriously sunny, with clear blue skies and no more snow expected until tomorrow morning. I love how the sun turns the snow-covered branches pink when it's at just the right angle on its way over the horizon. That's one nice thing about the sun coming up later and later every morning: I get to see the sunrise every day! 

Speaking of cheerful things, the power stayed on all night! No oatmeal cooking in the fireplace this morning. It's stayed on long enough this time that we're optimistic that it's on for good. I appreciated seeing that we did fine without power, but it's pretty nice to be able to turn on the bathroom light or open the refrigerator. And I'm grateful to be able to finally make stock out of Tuesday's chicken, which had been keeping cold outside in the slow cooker; the house smells warm and wonderful with that cooking away this morning.

A pleasant end to the first adventure of the winter; we're supposed to have slightly warmer weather and rain by Friday afternoon and Saturday, so I'd better make sure Little Bear gets plenty of time out in the snow today!

30 September 2015

Snow day

Cast iron cookware has vaulted to the top of my Christmas wish list, and wood heat—fireplace or wood stove—has been elevated from our househunting would-be-nice list to the not-buying-without list. I was so thankful for the fireplace today!

At 1:42 this morning, we (re)joined the ranks of the majority of people living outside of the city proper: the power went out. (As of noon today, at least 15,000 people were estimated to be without power.) Little Bear woke up twice, disoriented and upset because it was so dark, but we all stayed plenty warm through the night thanks to Matt's fire Tuesday evening. I got another fire started first thing this morning, and kept it burning until 3:30 or so this afternoon to keep the house warm as the walls slowly lost their retained heat; we lit another at bedtime tonight. It's only in the 30s outside, so it's not cooling down too quickly; we're sure thankful that's a positive 30 instead of a negative! All things considered, this definitely isn't the worst time to have lost power.

Work doesn't stop for a little thing like 12 to 15 inches of snow, so since the university is on its own power plant, Matt headed in to the office this morning. Thank goodness for a jeep with four-wheel drive! It really is beautiful outside, since someone else plows the driveway so I don't have to shovel. That's something else we will have to keep in mind, looking for a house: how long of a driveway are we (Matt + kids if I'm pregnant) willing to clear each time it snows?

So much snow. So so much snow. At least 12 inches fell here between Tuesday morning and first thing this morning, and it started up again later today... And we know other people who got more than we did, 16 inches or more in the same time frame!

The fireplace for heat, the sun for light; Matt went to the store on his lunch break today for extra batteries for flashlights, but it's bright enough in the daytime with the shades open. It's an odd thought that in situations like this, we're probably actually more comfortable than people whose lives are normally more convenient: we heat primarily with wood, so losing power doesn't affect that much at all; we aren't going to get too cold with three cords of split wood outside. We already haul our own drinking water, so we are okay on that, and we have quite the abundance of snow to melt and heat for washwater, flushing toilets, etc. I have found myself thinking wistfully of gas ranges and ovens, but I'm not incapable of making hot meals:

Chicken noodle soup for lunch today.

As exciting as cooking soup in the fireplace was, I'm suddenly developing a preference for wood stoves... it did work just fine, though. My parents' power came back on this afternoon, so we joined them for supper instead of trying something more ambitious in a skillet perched atop the coals, but if the power is out tomorrow morning I fully intend to make fireplace oatmeal. It might be a good idea to invest in a good unglazed cast iron Dutch oven that can sit right in the middle of the coals before the next big winter storm, just in case; that pot was big enough for soup for Little Bear and me, but it couldn't handle a full meal for the family.

Our power has been on and off since 5, on steadily since 9:30 or so; we'll pray that it stays that way now! It's been an exciting couple of days. If we lose power again by morning, though: oatmeal. We'll keep on making this an adventure.

29 September 2015

A snowy Michaelmas

Happy Michaelmas! St Michael sure heard from me frequently today; it was a good day to be asking his intercession, asking him to "be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil," what with more than ten inches of snow fallen so far, four power outages, and one downed tree (and more leaning) in the yard. I was so glad to finally have Matt safely home tonight! This probably isn't what Michaelmas looks like in most places:

That's our road. It's currently only navigable by sled or on foot—thank goodness we have another driveway joining a different, larger road! Even just pulling the sled, I had to keep going off into the ditch to get around or under leaning trees on our way to the mailbox this afternoon. Little Bear loved our walk; he very quickly learned to listen right away when I told him to "duck and cover," and he kept pointing out the bent-over trees, laughing when I walked into them because I was looking back at him, and going on excitedly about our "adventure." Kit was less than thrilled, but I was carrying her instead of sticking her in the sled, so she just buried her face in my shoulder and grumbled occasionally.

Today was my first really intentional, planning-ahead celebration of Michaelmas. When the power came back on after the first outage of close to an hour this morning, I decided to put non-electricity-requiring tasks on hold until I finished making dinner. I felt a little silly roasting the evening's chicken and baking the squash before noon, but when the power went back out around 2 and stayed out until 5:30, I was sure glad I'd done it.

Our feast day dinner:

Roast chicken with apples and onions, the Michaelmas recipe from Feast! Real Food Reflections and Simple Living for the Christian Year, by Daniel and Haley Stewart; my mother's butternut squash bake; and a blackberry cobbler. I've definitely never cooked with blackberries before, and I'm not actually sure if I've ever eaten them cooked at all; they don't grow here, but I bought a bag of frozen ones yesterday so that I could tell Little Bear the story about them that goes with Michaelmas.

Apparently it was common, once upon a time in places where blackberries grow, to make sure you picked your blackberries before Michaelmas lest they turn bitter. Sour? Bitter? One of those. Anyway. They would turn bitter, so the story goes, because when St Michael cast the devil out of heaven, the devil landed in a blackberry patch, which hurt, and in anger he spat on the bushes. Little Bear thought it a great story; Matt did a passable job of hiding his amusement at my attempt to explain the battle in heaven at a three year old's level.

People here tell stories about the September of '92, which was the only year in many people's memory that we got more snow at once (let alone in September!) than we have so far this year; in '92, we got 24 inches over three days, and much of the area lost power. I remember that timespan from a kid's perspective: snow far above my waist, digging huge tunnels that lasted all winter, a huge kerosene heater in the living room... As an adult and parent this time, my reaction is a little less "yay, adventure!", but I'm working on being as excited about it as I can for Little Bear. I'm glad that it's happening today, of all days, as an extra thing to make our first Michaelmas memorable.

So far tonight our power is still on, but from what we've heard it is out all over the area, even places closer in to town than we are. Looking out the window this evening, we could see one tree resting on the power line coming to our house and another larger one leaning over the line, so we will see if the power stays on all night! It flickered again here just now; we might wind up having a more "adventurous" night after all. The snow is supposed to keep coming until 6 am.

25 September 2015

Seven Quick Takes

Okay, so I said I'd tackle the encyclical Laudato Si this week and have thoughts today for you... Ha. Clearly, I hadn't attempted to read an encyclical since I was a college student. There is no such thing as "time to read a document requiring actual concentration" when I'm taking care of these munchkins all day every day. By the time they're both asleep for the night, there's usually something more time sensitive, like washing dishes or keeping the fire going, to drain the last remaining brain cells. So after two and a half days of picking it up whenever I had a spare minute, I've just now finished reading the introduction...

Keeping the fire going, time sensitive in September? 

Yes. That snow is to his knees, and it all fell today! I got stuck in the driveway this afternoon, arrogantly assuming that the jeep and I could easily handle 8-plus inches of snow despite not having the snow tires on yet... the undercarriage was plowing up snow, we slid into a trough when I tried to go from reverse to drive, and it took 4 Low just to get back into the garage. One of Matt's coworkers dropped him off at the end of the driveway, since I couldn't go get him from work; I guess we'll be taking turns with the snow shovel tomorrow. Hopefully the snow is done falling for a while! We've been waking up to low 20s outside, right around 65 inside as long as we had a decent fire going the night before. I'm pretty sure we've managed to keep the baseboards off so far, though I'll admit I bumped our bedroom thermostat down another notch this evening when it was getting too close. Matt had a fire going after supper, and I canned applesauce, so the apartment should be plenty warm.

Oops, rabbit trails. Very little brain. Back to the encyclical. My very first realization: this isn't new. So many of the people I've heard reacting, whether they agree or disagree, have been talking like Pope Francis is saying something radically new and different and no other pope ever has ever said anything ever about ecology, ever. The mainstream media, I can understand that from, but not educated Catholics; he begins by quoting four recent popes (Pope St John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Pope St John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) who all repeatedly expressed that humanity is failing at our responsibility to care for God's creation, and that serious changes need to be made in order to reverse the damage being done. Pope Francis is joining his voice with his predecessors; he's certainly not unique in expressing serious concern about the environment, humanity's role in shaping it, and the connection between our relationship with the earth and that with the poor, those most directly affected by negative environmental changes. I'll be interested to see if he continues quoting the other pontiffs.

Matt was expecting to be out of town for work all weekend, but the trip got cancelled. I'm super grateful to have him at home, with the kids and the snow and what all. Everything goes so much more smoothly with him here. But there would have been one tiny thing that his trip would have made a little easier: making meatless suppers both Friday and Saturday. We always do meatless on Friday, but because we're in the fall ember days, I've added Wednesday and Saturday this week. And he doesn't not want me to cook meatless, exactly, but putting together good satisfying meals with what I have around the house, since it's the end of the month and I'd love to wait until October to go shopping again? Well, it's definitely doable, but making grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly with Little Bear would be a lot easier. :-) So far it's been fine: cod, baked beans, and broccoli on Wednesday; a Dutch puffed pancake, scrambled eggs, and applesauce tonight... Tomorrow could get interesting, but the puffed pancake tonight was a gamble and they both wound up loving it, so hopefully I can come up with something that will be equally well received.

The fact that it looked rather like an octopus was trying to climb out of the pancake may have had something to do with its enthusiastic reception.

So distractible. Okay. So (still in the introduction), Pope Francis is listing off reasons why past efforts to find a solution haven't worked, and it's so easy to think that all of these other people have these problematic attitudes, but not me, and then boom, I'm reminded that yeah, he's talking to me too. He gives examples like powerful opposition, denial that there is a problem—I'm reminded of the 'Alaskans for Global Warming' bumper stickers you see around town—or indifference, resignation, "blind confidence" that technology will solve the problem. Wait. What? I had to read that last one over. What was wrong with looking for a technological solution? (I missed the "blind" the first few times, ironically). 

I grew up on Appleton's Tom Swift and the Asteroid Pirates, etc, Asimov's Foundation, watching Star Wars, Star Trek; in The Future (TM), technology can fix environmental problems, so what was wrong with looking for technological solutions to our present-day troubles?

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had my answer, calling Christians to "look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, 'learning to give, and not simply to give up.'" (Paragraph 9) Symptoms. That makes so much sense. You can't just ask "what is wrong?" without also asking "why?"; otherwise you aren't likely to find a real, permanent, working solution. I'm reminded of a photograph of an iceberg at my chiropractor's office: the part that you can see, the "symptoms," is only one small part of the whole chunk of ice. You can't get rid of an iceberg by chopping it off at the water line; the whole thing has to melt.

Moose season closed in our area this past Sunday. Matt had Monday off work, so since there weren't going to be any other hunters out, he took Little Bear out grouse hunting for the first time. It seemed like a pretty good bet that the grouse would all still be keeping to cover after the last few weeks of moose hunters tromping around, so Matt emphasized the "adventure" part over the "hunting" part as they were getting ready; coming home empty handed is certainly a part of learning to hunt, but 3 is pretty young to get all excited about hunting and then have to deal with the disappointment of not even seeing anything.

That didn't wind up being a problem.

They spotted a nice spruce grouse before they'd even made it all the way to the spot Matt had planned to hike, so that just made the hike that much lower stakes; the daily bag limit for grouse is 15, so if they got another, great! But they already had one to bring home, so Matt got to enjoy teaching Little Bear about hiking without caring quite so much about keeping a close eye out for grouse. He guessed they went a little over a mile, and Little Bear did great.

When they got home, Matt had Little Bear stay outside with him to watch as he cleaned the grouse; we talked about how God gives us animals for food, and we thank God for giving us good meat to eat and show God that we're thankful by eating it all and not wasting any. The following night, the grouse became a lovely pie for supper.

E is for... ember days. It worked out perfectly that Little Bear started working on the letter E this week, because I got to dovetail that lesson in nicely. E, 'eh,' egg; E, 'eh,' elephant; E, 'eh,' ember days.

Explaining ember days to the three year old was delightfully simple, and ridiculously complicated. "Ember days are for thanking God for the fall—"

"No, it's snowing. It's winter."

"You're right. Thanking God for the winter, and all of the good food He's given us to store up for the winter, and all of the other—"

"But not the grouse."

"Yes, God gave us the animals like grouse for food, remember? We show Him that we're thankful by not wasting any of the good meat."

"But we're not saving the grouse for winter. Because we eated it."

Have a good weekend. I'll keep working my way through Laudato Si, and most likely have more thoughts to share as I go. As always, you can find many more quick takes over at This Ain't The Lyceum; be sure to check out Kelly's rundown of the World Meeting of Families!

23 September 2015

Ember days and Laudato Si

It's that time of year again. On the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the third Sunday in September, we celebrate the fall ember days, when we mark the changing seasons by setting aside time to give thanks to God for His gift of the natural world, and to remember to use that gift wisely.

And oh my goodness, y'all, I think I finally 'get' ember days. We've been observing them for years, as far as the "marking the changing seasons" and "giving thanks to God for nature" goes. And four times a year, Matt and I go back and forth over why I'm making meatless suppers three nights in one week, and I eventually reach a point of "We're having meatless suppers because that's how you do ember days," logic which doesn't even satisfy the three year old. 

"And remember to use that gift wisely." Thundering herd of exclamation points. It makes sense now, having a penitential aspect to celebrating the change of seasons! If we were just thanking God for nature's bounty, logic would dictate a feast, not a fast. But it is in depriving ourselves of some of those good things that the ember days become a time of remembering to be careful stewards of what we've been entrusted with. Abstaining from meat provides us with the opportunity, each time we consider a meal or sit down to eat, to be reminded of what we're supposed to be reflecting on. Is it impossible to be mindful of responsible stewardship when sitting down to a meal with meat? Of course not! But the unusualness, in our house, of a meatless Wednesday and Saturday gives us pause: why are we eating this? Oh, right; ember days.

It's like the parable of the talents: use what you're given wisely and well, or you won't have it anymore. Each "wait, why is there no meat?" moment gives us a chance to remember that if we do not properly care for Creation, we are not going to continue to have all of the good things with which God endowed the earth. 

How appropriate that, on a day particularly set aside for thanking God for the bounty of nature and being mindful of how we make use of it, Pope Francis reminded us in his speech at the White House that "a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them" is demanded of us. He called Christians to "commit ourselves to the conscious and responsible care of our common home."

Coincidence? Maybe more like providence. I think this is an appropriate week for me to finally get my act together and actually read all of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si, not just a snippet here and there.

Even if you're not doing anything else to mark these ember days (and they're totally optional nowadays), consider taking a few minutes at some point Friday or Saturday to listen to Pope Francis' words or think about what "responsible care of our common home" means for you. I'll hopefully get some reading done and have more thoughts by Friday, and I'd love to hear your reflections as well!

21 September 2015

Salsa vibrante

The green tomatoes I picked up last Saturday were intended for mincemeat. Green tomato mincemeat. My mother and I love it... but we're the only ones in our families who do. Maybe I could have converted Little Bear; the boy did go through a phase of crying whenever there weren't pickled beets on the table for supper. But Matt isn't terribly fond of normal mincemeat, so a mincemeat made from green tomatoes was just too weird. After talking about it, and thinking about it, and getting busy and letting the green tomatoes sit on the counter all week and start turning yellowish, I gave up on mincemeat and turned to a more widely-accepted tomato use: salsa.

Salsa verde is supposed to be made with tomatillos, not sub-ripe tomatoes, but I don't think there's much risk of anyone mistaking my green tomato salsa for a proper salsa verde:

It's not exactly green!

Between the green-and-yellow tomatoes, the orange bell peppers, and the red onions, we turned out quite the colorful batch of salsa. About three pounds of tomatoes, two onions, and one and a half peppers yielded three pints to can, plus just about a fourth pint for the fridge. We kept it very mild so that Little Bear would enjoy it, and were fairly happy with how it turned out. It really isn't a tomatoey salsa, almost closer to a pico de gallo in texture and brightness (both in color and flavor!) Next time I will add at least one jalapeƱo, but we will still enjoy this batch. It turned out well for a first attempt!

Salsa vibrante 
6 1/2 cups cored and diced green tomatoes
1 1/2 orange bell peppers, diced
2 large red onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, diced
1/2 cup lime juice
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon oregano 
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper 

If you're going to can it, get your boiling water canner ready before you start making the salsa, so that the water and jars can be heating while the salsa cooks. I wound up with not quite enough salsa for four full pint jars, but prep enough jars for four or four and a half pints, in case you wind up with more (your vegetables are bigger, etc.) The water in the canner should come one to two inches above the top of the jars, and be at least two inches below the rim of the pot. Otherwise your stovetop turns into a lake... which it might do anyway, but hopefully not.

Combine tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic and lime juice in a large pot and bring to a boil. Stir in cilantro, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer five minutes. 

Using a canning funnel, ladle the hit salsa into the hot jars, making sure liquid covers the chunks and leaving 1/2 inch at the top. Wipe each rim clean before placing the lid on and screwing on the ring. Process jars in boiling water bath for 20 minutes (timing begins once the canner reaches a rolling boil; use these charts to adjust processing time if you're at a high altitude.) Remove jars and allow to cool undisturbed, checking to make sure they're sealed after 24 hours.

If you don't want to can it, you could certainly refrigerate and/or freeze the salsa instead. So far, we can vouch that it goes well with ham-and-egg breakfast burritos, chicken, and scooped up with tortilla chips!

(Recipe comes from this green tomato salsa by Ball.)