Category Archives: Environment

Loud Stomping


I woke up this morning to an irregular tapping and scratching on the roof.  I ran through my list of the usual suspects:  Rain?  Nope.  Roof rats again?  Ugh, I hope not!  Racoons?  Broken tree branch?  Alien space ship? The sound continued, surprisingly loud.  Curiosity finally spurred me out of bed and into shoes and coat.  As I rounded the back corner of the house, I had my answer.  It was a Steller’s Jay, hopping and pecking around industriously in the moss on the roof over my bedroom.  Such a loud stomping ruckus for a bird!

I have a flock of Steller’s Jays that live in my yard.  I suspect they nest in the rhododendron hedges as well as the tall pine trees.  They look like crows in blue jackets, and at least five or ten of them often strut and flit and chatter around the yard eating worms and doing whatever else birds do, very busily.

Steller's Jay

I’m not a lover of birds exactly and I only know that my blue flock is Steller’s Jays courtesy of my friend Linda, who identified them for me a few years ago.  But I enjoy their bright plumage and self-sufficiency.

I wouldn’t have said that spring is here.  It’s just as damnably grey and rainy as ever.  But maybe the jays know something I don’t.  Something has signaled the birds that today it is time to start picking at the roof moss and rootling in the rain gutters and they’ve been at it all day.

And while I was out there, I noticed that a few crocuses are up.  Crocuses aren’t so much a sign of spring as a reminder that eventually winter will be over.  There are stages to this thing and we’ve reached the last one.  The crocuses signal that we will need just a bit more endurance, but there is hope.



Somehow in winter I feel a bit less evolved, just slightly more instinctual.  I become a mouse tucked into my home of twigs and leaves, a she-bear asleep in my cave.  There is no logical reason that I should start nesting.  But I do.   I find myself stocking up a bit.  During these dark, wet days of winter, there is a deep, primal satisfaction in knowing that the freezer is full of meat, the crisper is rolling with potatoes and onions, and the cupboards are stocked with beans, grains, and pasta.  Instead of one chocolate bar, I have a stack of four.  It comforts me to know they are there.

Perhaps it is also the nesting instinct that motivates my annual post-Christmas organizing spree.   Maybe the winter solstice signals that it is time to reorder my nest.  I like to take a couple of days to putter around and weed out my old clothes for charity, go through my files, sort out the closets, organize the kitchen cupboards, and start the year fresh.  It does my orderly soul good to see the extraneous removed, and everything in its place.

While I was still in the midst of this ritual, I happened to read a blog post entitled Create an Organized Spice Rack: Check.   Is there anything more satisfying than a perfectly organized spice rack?  The little containers, the labels, the (mildly obsessive) linear beauty.  It got me thinking.  I’ve got a label maker, and I love an opportunity to use it.

My spices are in good enough shape for now.  But I was inspired to tackle my flour collection…pile…um…situation. What with one thing and another, I’ve got quite a few different sorts of flour.  I make various kinds of whole grain bread in the bread machine, for one thing.  So I’ve got the big glass containers of white and whole wheat flour on the counter.  And plastic containters of ground flax and gluten in the freezer.  And bags filled with smaller and larger quantities of assorted flour from the co-op.  I knew that I should be storing these better, but you know how it goes—a little rye here, a little buckwheat there…

My solution was to pull all of those bags out of the cupboard, get some mason jars out of their boxes in the garage, and when I needed a few more, like a crow venturing busily out seeking leaves to line my nest, I made a trip to the Goodwill, where mason jars go for twenty cents apiece.  I ran all the jars through the dishwasher.  Then I had the supreme satisfaction of dumping all of those little bags into jars, screwing on the lids, and labeling them to my heart’s content.  Rice flour, millet flour, spelt, cornmeal.

There were a few mystery bags, too.  What was the beige flour labeled only with item number 3366?  On my next trip to the co-op I discovered that 3366 is whole wheat pastry flour.

It is so gorgeous, that row of sparkly jars with their clearly visible contents.  Some went in the cupboard, the more perishable in the freezer, and it makes me happy just to walk by and peek in.  Now I’m thinking about a similar solution for the bags of legumes.

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A Green and Pleasant Land

Bed, Breakfast, and Happy Chickens

Before my trip to England, people warned me about the food.  The frequently repeated refrain was, “I had a wonderful time in England, but the food was AWFUL!”  They would then elaborate with stories of tough meat, mushy vegetables, and general blandness.

When I got home from England, everyone asked me, “How was the food?” A few without apparent expectations, but most with a raised eyebrow and a wry tone of voice.

I’ve heard the stereotypes, and I’ve also seen recent travel shows that describe a food renaissance in England in the last decade or so.

Salad with Goat Cheese, Beetroot, and Vinaigrette

My experience of British food was uniformly positive.  From start to finish, I was impressed by the emphasis on fresh local ingredients.  Different artisan cheeses and meats were featured in each location, and a lot of care was evident in  both the cooking and presentation.  The menus, even in the smallest village pub, used terms like local, farm assured, free range–and vegetarian options were well represented and clearly marked.

Artisan Cheese Board at The White Hart Inn, Winchcombe

After walking through pastures dotted with placid grazing sheep and cows all day, I had no qualms about the ethics of eating the local meat.

Grass Fed British Beef

And I was blown away by the layered and nuanced flavors.  Savory, rich, tangy, bright… all of the senses were engaged, and everything was perfectly balanced and plate-lickingly good.  I tried to taste the local specialty everywhere, and I was never disappointed.

Devilled Pigeon with Savory Mustard Sauce on Toast at the Royal Oak, Painswick

So I thought I’d share a few more of the many spectacular meals we had in that green and pleasant land, before I wrap up the posts on England and get back to the equally pleasant but more quotidian business of Seattle food.

Fish & Chips at the Mounts Inn, Stanton

Vegetable Curry with Rice and Papadum at the Royal George Hotel, Birdlip

Pork Tenderloin with Black Pudding and Apple Compote at the Royal Oak, Painswick

Goat Cheese & Vegetable Tart with Watercress

Pork & Stilton Sausage with Champs and Gravy at the White Hart Inn, Winchcombe

Jamie’s Italian in Oxford

Salad Nicoise in London

It’s good to be a sheep on pasture


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On The Other Side Of Lent

At Easter, one of my friends asked me what I planned to do about meat now that Lent is over.  “I don’t know,” I answered.  “I still don’t know what’s going to happen.”  I side-stepped the question, really.  With that group of friends, I could have talked the rest of the evening away on this one uncomfortable topic. 

I gave up eating factory-farmed meat for Lent.  I knew that I could do it for that limited time, and I hoped to use the time to step back and gain some perspective on the issue, but also to break the habit of saying yes, so I could start fresh. 

And I did it.  Given the fact that Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent anyway, I probably didn’t inconvenience Michael all that much more than I already would have.  Once or twice I did suggest an alternative restaurant, when he wanted to go somewhere where I knew I would crack, like Mr. Gyros.  He took it with good grace, and mostly, I was able to choose a non-meat alternative wherever we went, without undue suffering.  It turned out that when I stopped before automatically ordering the meat option, I usually ended up with something just as good.  Shrimp Tikka Masala, Veggie Pho, beans instead of chicken in my burrito—they all tasted just fine. 

Of course, I still ate meat at home, and at Michael’s house too, because I already kept both places supplied with ethically raised meat and eggs, so that was business as usual. 

It was at other friend’s houses, as I knew it would, that things got tough.  I just didn’t feel ready to declare myself, and didn’t know what to say if I did.  I was able to unobtrusively avoid the pot roast at one dinner.  Filling up on vegetables wasn’t so awful, really.  I fretted in advance of a dinner party a girlfriend gave.  Should I say something?  Should I just eat the salad?  Would she be offended if she noticed?  In the end, it all worked out fine and I had plenty to eat without calling attention to myself. 

But here I was, on the other side of Lent, without a time-limited resolution to fall back on.  So now what?  What happened next was this.  On the Monday after Easter, we returned from our weekend on the coast.  I dropped Michael off at his place, and picked up some take-out Pho on my way home.  With thin-sliced beef.  Oh, it was good.  I was off the wagon and it tasted great!  

Okay, I gave myself that freebie, but I still want to continue to avoid factory-farmed meat.  I’m willing to compromise to the extent necessary for good manners at friend’s homes, but I’m also going to speak up where appropriate and just explain that I’m mostly vegetarian now.  I’ll probably make the occasional exception at restaurants–let’s be honest here.  But I know what I want to do and I know now that it’s possible for me to do it.

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Straight From The Source

I can be impulsive at times.  I admit it without apology.  An idea pops into my head and the next thing I know, I’m up to my elbows in a new project.  This tendency is not exclusive to cooking by any means, but more often than not it does seem to involve food.  Most times, the Muse stays for a while, and then passes softly, harmlessly, curling away like fog on little cat feet to tickle someone else’s fancy, and lets me go–ideally without having bought a lot of new equipment. 

One evening last week I sat curled up on the couch, engrossed in a book called No Impact Man by Colin Beavan, when I read these words:  “So my friend emailed me her mom’s recipe, and I made it for the first time that night.  It’s the best.  I’d thought you needed some sort of machine to make yogurt, but no way.  You boil a quart of milk, wait until it cools enough to stick your finger in, mix in a tablespoon of yogurt culture, transfer it to a container and cover with a blanket, then wait until morning and—yippee—you’ve got yogurt.  Mix with honey.  Delicious.”

I stopped reading and gazed into the middle distance in wonderment. I eat a lot of yogurt.  How had I lived this long without making my own?  I liked the idea at once.  It would be economical, fresh and delicious, with no additives, no packaging, and I could use the dairy thermometer from last summer’s cheese making project!  Destiny had sent me a telegram and I hastened into action. 

After enough of these spur of the moment projects, I know that they are never quite as easy as promised.  I needed more information, so I did a quick Google search on “how to make yogurt” and gathered more details on temperatures, incubation times, and possible pitfalls before heading out to the co-op for supplies.

Fast forward to first thing on Sunday morning (by which I mean early Sunday afternoon) at Michael’s place.  I’ve gathered my milk, yogurt culture, thermometer, and heating pad.  I’ve also brought along my trusty copy of The New Laurel’s Kitchen, because for a project like this, it’s best to go straight to the source of all whole-foods inspiration.  

I carefully lay out my supplies like a scrub nurse before open heart surgery.  Michael has made a few Dr. Frankenstein jokes, but I can tell he’s getting curious.  He pokes his head into the kitchen periodically as I slowly heat up my milk, dairy thermometer hovering at the ready.  I heat, then cool, then stir in the culture before pouring the milk into containers. 

The nascent yogurt rests on the heating pad, tucked in snugly under its towel like a napping baby, to maintain a consistent temperature.  My sources warned against jiggling the yogurt while it was setting.  I mostly resist peeking and poking at it for the first 4 hours, the amount of time my package of starter culture says it will take for the yogurt to set.  I go for a run.  I retire to the bathtub with Laurel’s Kitchen and a glass of whiskey.  At the four hour mark, the yogurt is still not set.  Not at five hours, nor six.  I review the process, but can’t think of anywhere I’ve gone wrong.  I wring my hands a bit and consider throwing it out and starting over.  At seven, it’s finally beginning to set.  I go home and leave it to Michael to refrigerate the yogurt after eight hours of incubation. 

Monday morning, I get a text from Michael reporting that the yogurt turned out fine.  I stop by his house after dinner, and we share a bowl of yogurt, with a spoonful of blackberry jam and a handful of berries stirred in.  Delicious.  

Between us, we finish off the rest this week.  Studded with berries, drizzled with honey, and strewn with granola, this yogurt opens up a can of whup-ass and pours it all over the store bought stuff.  The last 1/4 cup becomes the starter for the next batch. 

Today, batch #2 of homemade yogurt sits incubating on my counter under its cozy towel as I go about my day.  I’m an old pro now.  It took no more than 15 minutes to prepare the yogurt.  I’ve allowed it a full eight hours before I start jiggling. 

Homemade Yogurt

  • 1 quart whole milk (low fat will work, but produces a thinner yogurt)
  • 1 package starter culture, or ¼ cup plain yogurt with live cultures

Heat milk slowly, stirring to prevent scorching.  When milk is lukewarm, spoon approximately ½ cup of the milk into a separate container and mix with the starter.  When milk reaches 180 degrees, remove from heat and cool quickly to between 105 and 112 degrees.  This can be accomplished by submerging the saucepan in an ice bath, and stirring the milk until the temperature has dropped sufficiently.  Add the starter, blending thoroughly. 

Pour milk into container(s), cover, and place on heating pad set to low.  Cover with a folded towel.  You may want to leave your dairy thermometer on the heating pad with the yogurt for a while to verify that the temperature remains a steady 100-105 degrees. 

Walk away and do not jiggle the yogurt for eight hours.  Jiggling results in a less firmly set yogurt.  At eight hours, check for desired consistency.  When the yogurt is set to your liking, refrigerate until completely chilled (probably overnight by this point).

Serve with fruit, honey, or jam. 

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