Sunday, August 08, 2010

I'm in the scorecard business again

Remember once upon a time I mentioned that I had a j-o-b? Most of the time the stress or worry from my job doesn't interfere with life outside the office (other than the fact that I telecommute). This week, though, has been a little different.

I picked up some new responsibilities at work recently. One is to propose and manage enhancements to a monthly scorecard, and the other is to actually OWN and manage the scorecard. Since the time I began working on the enhancements, the scorecard has gone to twice-a-month. Getting the scorecard published isn't particularly time consuming - oh, sure, at first it is because I'm learning all the ropes, but soon enough it'll be second nature. No, the real challenge about this scorecard is that even though we have a stated service level to get the scorecard published by the 10 calendar day of the month, in reality we are trying to get the scorecard published ASAP. Which means that as soon as all the data is ready to be validated, at least two people have to drop what they are doing and make this the #1 priority in their day. If there are errors, the developers have to make fixing it the #1 priority of their day. After it's been reviewed, then I have to review the scorecard and physically upload it to the appropriate directory, and then generate a scorecard communication and have it sent to the scorecard audience. And that becomes my #1 priority of the day.

So you guessed it: twice a month at least four people have to go through a scorecard fire drill.

My frustration is that ASAP isn't a service level. The 10th day...that's a service level. If we can get the scorecard published by the 5th day, or the 6th day, or whatever, then we should say so, and plan to that. There has to be wiggle room for correcting errors, and unanticipated delays, but from a business process point of view, this shouldn't be a fire drill.

And yet for some reason I've yet to fathom, we haven't fought back hard enough, or with the right arguments, to change the situation. And oh by the way this is not a customer-impacting event. There are others who depend on the information that is produced through the scorecard, but they can't really plan either because we produce it on a different day each month. There is a trust that develops when you bring consistency to a process. You can count on certain things happening at certain times. The garbage is always picked up Thursdays. Mail is always delivered by 5pm daily. Street cleaning is done the 2nd Wednesday of the month. And maybe it's just me, but how can I plan anything around a delivery date that changes for each cycle of an event? Does it do me any good if it's earlier? What if, as the recipient, I can't get to it until the 9th or 10th day anyway? Producing it on the 5th or the 7th doesn't do anything for me. Is the 10th day really the best service level? I don't know if we know that for sure.

I'm still trying to put together the right argument. This is helping.

And here's another bit: because of this self-imposed-by-the-team fire drill, I am probably electing to NOT take a planned vacation day Monday so we can "maybe" produce an update if a certain set of data is published because that certain set of data wasn't available to us in time for the fire drill. If we were marching to our original 10th day SLA, it wouldn't be an issue and we wouldn't have to do this twice. I'm still up in the air about Monday. I don't feel good about it, though, and I actually lost some sleep about it last night. It's been a very long time since that's happened.

What's special about Monday? Nothing, really, just an opportunity to spend some time with a couple of women I like and a road trip to the Outer Banks for the day. That's not really the point, though. More, the point is that this is a brand new (as of last week) set of responsibilities for me and I don't want it to fall apart the first time I take time off.

On the other hand, this isn't life or death. I think I'll take the vacation day as planned :)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Yogurt, Revisited

I think I finally got it! The last quart of yogurt I made (before I made the one last night) I shared samples with VaPurl and Knitstx (aka Vicki and Cheryl). So I only had a little left and was compelled to make more. Twist my arm. I had read on a cheese making website that recommends holding the milk at 185 degrees for 10 to 20 minutes for yogurt. even if you are using store-bought milk that's already pasteurized and all that. Apparently this process prepares specific whey proteins to help produce a thick gel. In most of my previous attempts there was no separation of the whey. Well, actually, there was once when I accidentally let the milk cool too much and heated it up again...

Well, sure, okay, let's try that, says I.

Wow! Whey! And the yogurt WAS thicker. And I decided that instead of pouring the whey off I'd drain it through LOTS of cheesecloth to achieve the good thick consistency I would LIKE to have once in a while. It's easier to use it with fruit when it's thicker, I think. Anyway, it's in the fridge. I think I finally have a winner.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Adventures in Old World Crafts Part 2

The arrival of a pound and a half of freshly shorn and processed 100% Cormo wool top from Juniper Moon Fiber Farm lit a small fire under my ass. This is not dyed fiber. It's a beautiful creamy, pale ivory. I watched this fiber get separated from it's collective owners in April, and eagerly awaited my share. While I do like the natural color, I will want to color some of it.

Enter the old world craft of dying fiber!

Oh, well, maybe not soooo old world, because I'm using acid dyes and cake decorator's dyes. If I were TRULY old world I would be using cochineal and indigo and brazilwood and dandelion. But not this time. Eventually, but not today. A girl has to draw the line somewhere.

Oh, the adventure of dyeing. I'll try to avoid all the obvious and not-so-obvious puns but you have to know they are there.

The first round was done with a product called iDye. It's a union dye, which means that it has combined the appropriate types of dyes for both animal and plant fibers. You can either use it on the stove top or in the washing machine. I used stove top. The dye pack dissolves in water, so you just drop the dye pack into a pot of water with 1/3 cup of vinegar, add the fiber, and heat to barely a simmer, then hold it at a simmer for about 30 minutes. Drain, wash the fiber, and hang to dry. You'll find, when you use this dye, that it doesn't "exhaust" the way other dyes do. That's because of the "union" quality. The animal fibers soak up dye meant for protein fibers, and leaves the plant dye behind. So there's this huge pot of colored water. It's confusing, especially after reading extensively about exhausting the dye, which means that all the color has been absorbed and leaves behind clear water. I really wanted to try some kind of tonal color. Among fiber enthusiasts it's referred to as tonal or monochrome, and there is subtle variation within the color, as opposed to a solid color with no variation. It can be very pretty. Yarn referred to as Kettle Dyed has this quality. I decided to start with Deep Orange and then over-dyeing for a very brief amount of time with Fire Red. I also chose to not pre-wet the yarn. Pre-wetting, whether you do so with or without additives, helps the fiber take up the dye. I had read that using dry fiber was one way to create more random variation in tone because the fiber will absorb the dye.

The thing with acid dyes is that the equipment you use cannot be used for anything else, ever. It has to be dedicated pots, stirs, etc. I used a cheap dark blue enamel-coated pot from Wal-Mart, like that granitware stuff. You don't realize how dark it is until you get it into a kitchen with poor lighting and dark, dark dye.

I wish for white enamel or stainless steel.

Results: more red than expected, but there was some orange observable. Let me tell you, too, that dye goes everywhere, and it looked like someone dyed. Ha ha. I couldn't resist just one.

Food dyes don't have the same constraints as acid dyes. They are non-toxic so it doesn't matter! Easier to clean up, too, actually.I have cake decorating dyes from a previous fascination with cake decorating. Problem was I had to make a cake in order to decorate it. Just for fun. So I had all these colors and who knew they were so great for dyeing fiber? It's pretty straight forward: mix up about a 1/2 tsp of concentrated food coloring with about 2 cups of hot water (hot helps it dissolve), apply to fiber that's been pre-wetted in a room-temperature 1:3 vinegar to water soup, gently squeezed and laid out on plastic, and then heat set in the microwave in what I call the 2 minute method: 2 minutes on high, 2 minutes wait, 2 more minutes on high, or 2+2+2. The colors came out beautifully. The execution by the dyer (me, and maybe the dyer should be executed but not today) is questionable but if I keep practicing I think I'll get it a little more finessed. I have lots of natural fiber, so I'll have lots of opportunities to practice.

I had Spectrum Gel Food dye on hand, and used 1 tsp violet for the purple, 1/2 tsp super rouge for red, and 1/2 tsp orange. Yes, I'm kind of into the red side of the color wheel. The first two skeins were my hand-painting experiment. You lay out your pre-wetted fiber and apply color to it. Sounds simple enough, and it really is. The trick is (a) deciding on your colors or color sequence and (b) mixing them up and (c) getting them where you want them on the fiber. I got (a) and (b) but (c) was definitely challenging. I've seen pictures of dyers using sponge paint brushes, and it seems like a good idea - a little more control. I might try that next time. So the violet was more royal blue than violet, which has given my skeins a somewhat patriot look, especially since I missed a couple spots. So the color sequence goes something like this: orange, red, tiny patch of white, blue, tiny patch of white, red, orange. The base fiber was bright white superwash (meaning it CAN be machine washed) wool that I spun and twisted into a 3-ply yarn. It's a sock weight yarn, but I wouldn't knit socks with it because of how I spun it. I would, though, do lace with it. I'll definitely add it to my current "sock blanket project." Or maybe I will defy convention and make socks anyway. Just for the helluvit.

The color is a little messy but I had fun with it and I learned some things. I made lots of notes.

I had leftover dye, and used up the orange and the red over-dyeing some ugly fiber, and the violet to over-dye a pale pink cowl that I knitted. The pattern is beautiful, and the yarn is gorgeous, but I don't look great with that much pale pink next to my face. It's just not me. However, that violet...that VERY BLUE violet, broke and the variation it created is not attractive at all so I'll have to run that one again. I'm wiser, now, and it won't take me two hours to decide my strategy.

Did I mention that I did this the same night I did the goat's milk yogurt? Man-oh-man I had some creative energy going. DH is in South Carolina for the week. Is there a connection? I'll let you decide. I'm thrilled that he'll be back Sunday night.

Update: I wrote this last weekend, and when I got the yarn wound into a ball, I decided that I hated it. So, I went back and dyed over it with blue. It's a little more monochromatic but it still kinda sucks. If I overdye it one more time it might become black-ish, which might not be such a bad thing. The yarn itself is pretty lovely, if I may say so myself, having spun and plyed it. I like how the orange and the red run together. I like how the purple/blues go, but I don't like how all three are co-existing, and therein lies my lack of knowledge in color theory. Yeah, yeah, I have the color wheel and I can figure out what is complementary and tertiary and secondary and all that. Values and tones and saturation...this is where I am weak. Ok. I get to keep working on it!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Doggie Pictures

Because they are cute, and they sleep cute.

Tasha, under my desk.

There's a dog here...

And she finally lifted her head when she heard the camera click.

Adventures in Old World Crafts Part 1

There is a certain satisfaction to engaging in crafts that might be considered "old world." They are the kind of crafts where you make a thing almost totally from scratch. I like making things that are commercially available but don't really meet a specific need. Too expensive, wrong style, whatever. And there is some other element I can't define, that is satisfies some elusive personal need. Sometimes it succeeds, like spinning. Sometimes not so much, like my latest foray into yogurt making.

I am not making yogurt because it's cost effective. It's not. Not even a little bit. I'm making it because my blood tests show that I have a significant sensitivity to everything cow's milk-related. Yeast is also a major player, but that's not really part of today's story.Sensitivity is different from an allergy. Allergy is immediate, sensitivity is delayed, and might be characterized as a "slow response allergy." Martin Healy, an Irish naturopath and acupuncturist, has written a couple of books about this.

First off, I wasn't able to locate any non-cow's milk yogurt at any of my local stores. Soy products are temporarily off limits until the middle of August so that wasn't an option either. You see my dilemma? I even went to the Organic Food Depot and they have everything BUT that. I learned later that I didn't look hard enough.

Back to the yogurt. First I went in search of a cow's milk-free yogurt culture. Custom Probiotics had one and I shelled out my earnings for a paltry amount of culture. Big bottle, tiny amount of...looks like very fine sawdust. It dissolves in liquid so it must not be sawdust.

Experiment #1
Get the goat's milk. I didn't order the culture until I knew I had a source. My good friend and fellow enabler VaPurl belongs to a CSA and obtains fresh goat's milk on a regular basis. She obtained a sample for me, 1 quart. Perfect. Fresh goat's milk has the most delightful taste! I was genuinely surprised at how wonderful and rich it was. Anyway, into my pot goes the milk, I followed the instructions from my yogurt book to the letter, added my culture, and popped it into my yogurt maker (really a yogurt hibernator...if it were really a yogurt maker it would heat up the milk and add the culture for me, dammit). Wait four hours. Check. Not set. Wait another four hours. Check. Not set. Wait another four hours. Check. Not set, but it was decidedly think. Kefir thick. Take it out of the yogurt maker, stir it, put it in the fridge.

Result: thick, lightly tangy in a good way, goat's milk. I wouldn't call it yogurt the way we all think of yogurt. But technically I guess it was because it had all those good live cultures. Very usable, though, and I put it on cereal, fruit, and added it to my post-workout recovery drink which made THAT taste like an creamcicle. Wow! Then I ran out so it was time to contemplate how to obtain more goat's milk.

Cost of 1 quart of goat's milk (not including the cost of the yogurt maker): $55.00

Experiment #2
I figured out that I could order a case of pasteurized goat's milk from Organic Food Depot. So I ordered a case of Meyenburg Ultra-pasteurized low fat goat's milk (cut me some slack, it's what they had). I have 12 quarts of goat's milk taking up space in my fridge. We'll be making cheese, too.

So, last night here we go. Milk in the pan, add 1/3 cup of dried goat's milk (to assist in thickening),heat it, cool it, add the culture, put it into the yogurt maker, wait ten hours. I learned my lesson the first time.

Result: thick, lightly tangy goat's milk. Same as the first time. I'm beginning to think that either I'm doing something wrong or my culture ain't for shit. I checked the temperature of the resulting "yogurt" and it was within specifications, so the incubator is okay. The only variable I really can't control is the culture. Everything was spotless clean, which is a rarity in this house but I was fanatic about the pot, the utensils, the incubation container, and everything used to make this stuff.

For Experiment #3 I will try using goat's milk yogurt from Organic Food Depot. Ah. Yes. When I was picking up my order I realized that they had this huge refrigerated room in the back of the store, not just the small wall of shelves for perishables. Then I found out that they carry goat's milk yogurt as a stock item. So I'll try using some of that for the culture this time and see if that works. If it doesn't, then it's me.

Cost of the second quart of yogurt:$38.00 At least the price went down.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Newport News to Baltimore, Train #94, Track 1

I really love riding the train. Today I'm taking my second ride, this time to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, or MSWF.

When I first heard about MSWF, I thought it was up on the Eastern Shore, and I thought it was...well...probably pretty lame and small time.

Little did I know.

This is a big deal, probably second only to the NY festival in Rhinebeck. Folks just call it "Rhinebeck." MSWF is alternatively referred to as just "Maryland Sheep and Wool." As in, "Are you going to Rhinebeck this year" and "No, only Maryland Sheep and Wool." Go figure. I know people who go to multiple festivals each year. I just go to Maryland. Although, if I were in the vicinity of one I would go. There are two other festivals I would like to attend, though, and are on my wish list. One is SOAR (Spin-Off Artists Retreat) in Portland, OR, and the big jewelry conference in Albuquerque, NM. Artistically, there's a great deal going on west of the Mississippi and another compelling reason, among many, to move back West.

MSWF ain't small time and is anything but lame. There are a couple hundred vendors spotting everything from raw fleeces to spinnable to fiber to pinning wheels to needles, yarns, dye supplies, and, yes, sheep and goats. There are herding demonstrations (missed it last year, WILL watch this year), Alpaca available to pet, Llamas too if you can get close enough without being spit upon. The angora bunnies are fluffy and adorable. And fast. Last year I helped catch an escapee. There are lamb kabobs galore and I can't bring myself to eat it. I'm not big on lamb anyway, and eating them during a sheep festival seems a little weird. Not wrong or right, just weird. For me. Y'all do what you want.

I cannot help but compare last year to this year. Last year: complete newbie, totally overwhelmed. Doesn't mean I didn't spend some money. I bought my first 3 ounces of merino/silk fiber and an awesome tote bag. I got home and realized pretty quickly that the only thing to do with that fiber was spin it...but with what? And so it began. First a spindle. Then a little more fiber. Then a new magazine subscription (Spin Off) and a bunch more fiber. Then a spinning wheel, then DH gives me three pounds of beautiful Gotland locks, and now I have to buy more tools to manage that (oh darn). It takes over your life. I was totally unprepared for how attending the MSWF would alter my world.

This year I'm a pro. Or, at least not a complete newb. I have a wish list of yarn and the hope that some of the big name yarns I want are marginally on sale through the larger vendors. It's mostly sock yarn because I dig knitting socks, and love using the thinner yarns. Why yes, I think I will get some spinning fiber. I've been saving up for this. I went on a yarn diet so I could splurge at MSWF. And I have a pantry full of yarn so I'm not exactly starving. I was only planning to get a couple of tools - a really nice Golding spindle, a pair of Signature Needle Arts knitting needles (or at least eye ball them, they look delicious). I thought about getting a Charisma print, they are so so so cute. And I want to test some of the spinning wheels. A wheel is not in my budget. Nothing that large is in my budget unless it washes and dries clothing.

Until last Saturday.

Knitters are enablers, and they love shopping vicariously. The very definition of a modern major enabler: Knitter. Spinner. Vicki. Probably crocheter too but that's a different breed we don't discuss.

Saturday was the Sheep Shearing Party at the Juniper Moon Fiber Farm. Shepherdess Susie has done an outstanding job of creating a relaxing, fun, and informal environment for us shareholders. I know that raising sheep and goats is serious business but when we all decend onto her farm you almost wouldn't know it. She smiles. She laughs. She invites you (insists, actually) that you remove your shoes before you enter the house. No sense in tracking sheep dip everywhere.

So,: Kent, me, Cheryl & Rick, Vicki and Cuin, Romelda & John...we're sitting around in our folding captains chairs, laughing and talking about everything, and somehow we get to the topic of drum carders. We're fiber freakazoids so this isn't exactly a stretch. Drum carder=expensive piece of equipment that brushes shorn sheep locks into beautiful spinning fiber...and no, you can't just use a hair brush BUT I TRIED. A drum card is to spinners what a pneumatic drill is to a mechanic. You can use a wrench, but the pneumatic drill is so much more efficient. Anyway, turns out Vicki is in the market for a "little" drum carder. Let's call. it a sporty little compact, like a Prius. We throw idea that around for awhile, and she says how the one she really wants is the Lexus. I suggest how it would be cool to have five or six people buy "drum carding shares" to make the price palatable and be able to afford that Lexus.

Vicki is a world class enabler. I am too. We do it to each other. I bought a netbook and she drooled, then bought a netbook. She had a wheel, and I drooled, then bought a wheel. this is the big stuff. Let's not even talk about the small stuff. I learned my skills from the Mother of All Enablers, my DH. "Of course you want that honey. Go ahead." "Just get the whole thing, no sense in paying more for bits and pieces." You know these people who encourage you to do it, spend it, grow it, make it, attend it. And it's fun, so I'm not complaining. Vicki got to see my maker in action. I am not complaining too much about the Lexus drum carder I will likely take home with me from MSWF. There are, in fact, more expensive drum carders out there, but a girl must draw the line somewhere, even this girl.

I bet I get to spend more time with Vicki. Because why buy it now when Erin has one?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Farm Day at Juniper Moon

I'm spending the day with Brandon and his siblings. Click the photo to see more, or go to Juniper Moon Farm "Farm Blog" for more unbearable cuteness. Disclaimer: This photo was taken by ShepherdSusie, aka Susan, the owner of the farm.

It's been a busy few months, and I vertigo for one of those months (just now recovered, thank you very much) so I'll get to updating this...oh, next week probably!

4.27.2010 Update: We had a great time! I have pictures of goats and lambs leaping and scampering and they are all on the other camera at home because I didn't rush to the computer with the CF card as soon as I got home. I went to bed.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When In Rome...or Greece, if you like

I procrastinated about this post. I've spent the last month thinking about blogging, what it is about, what it does for me, what my blogging might do for others. I have not led a unexamined life. In fact, I'm definitely guilty of over-examining. I don't know when it happened but sometime recently...a few years ago?...I lost my taste for over-examination. For taking stock every damn day of every damn thing. It's exhausting. I have better things to do with my time. I'm evolving into having a simply examined life. Because, let's face it, what is blogging? public. A form of exhibitionism. To paraphrase a much-maligned company's(1) catch phrase, What do you want to exhibit today?

(Why yes, today we have footnotes.)

Shall we put this into perspective? When we were smokers, DH and I would spend HOURS on the front porch talking. Smoking and examining, examining and smoking. And then analyzing ourselves and our motives, out friends and their lives and their motives. Almost daily.

We stopped doing so much of that when we stopped smoking. There was a catalyst, eh? And it didn't even hurt.

I should have made an outline to follow because, after stepping away for an hour to wind off some new yarn, have a cuppa Joe, and listen to DH explain the complexities of creating momentum against a soccer ball from within a minimum amount of space (he needed to think out loud to someone)...well, I sort of lost my place. Which is okay because there's a part two to my disjointed thoughts.

I have this friend. Let's call her Maureen. That's her name. No changing names around here to protect the innocent, and she's anything but innocent, ha ha ha. I asked Maureen why she didn't come read my blog very often. Apparently, I talk about fiber and knitting too much, two things she's not at all interested in. Ok. I hate Facebook, which is where she lives HER life, and probably wonders why I don't visit out there so much.

But this is sort of what led to a little recent self-examination; not about blogging per se but more about how we share our lives and at what point do we fall on our collective swords and follow our friends on Facebook and Twitter and their blog and the lot, as opposed to actually communicating with them on a one on one basis. But the question is more basic than that. Do I want to know the outer sheen of Maureen's life, as exposed and exhibited through Facebook where I can see that she has killed three dragons and is sending me a drink, and is going to go to bed now, or do I want to know what's going on in her heart and mind? (Answer: the latter.) I don't know if if you can really KNOW someone through Facebook. I guess it depends on what a person posts, but I dare you to have a long stream of ideas on Facebook. And don't get me started on Twitter. Life encapsulated in under 144 characters at a time. Now we can all submit our own soundbites to the world. Shit.

Lest my friends who use Facebook are offended or get defensive by my little rant: get over it. I am guilty of a little hypocrisy. "We all have our hobbies." I heard Shelley Binder(2) say that at the Hampton Roads Flute Faire yesterday and thought how wonderful a comeback it is and was determined to use it immediately.

Back to things. So here I sat, spinning quietly and thinking about whether I should expand my writing/ranting topics, or just STFU(3) and carry on. And I'm thinking about this fiber that I'm spinning that my friend Ashley gifted me. I don't know how I lucked into a friend as nice as she is but dang, she'd give you the shirt off her back if she thought you could use it. Anyway, she gave me this Superwash Merino top that she didn't care to work with. I think we have different spinning styles, her and I, so for me this was a nice, nice fiber to work with. I spun three bobbins of singles that I started plying as a sock/fingering weight 3-ply. I just wound off, a few paragraphs ago, the first 258 yards of this beautiful plied yarn.

Merino: wool from Merino sheep, very soft, not exactly cashmere but probably the most affordable of the yummy soft wools on the market.)
Superwash, or SW: a process that somehow changes the quality of the wool in such a way as to allow it to be machine washed. If you have something that is "machine washable wool" it's almost certainly been processed by what we fiber fanatics call "superwash." As a knitter there are minor trade-offs to using SW, as in: it doesn't felt so don't use it for felting projects, and don't expect to be able to join broken ends with spit.

Top: "Top" is the result of a fiber preparation that uses combs, very sharp spiky combs, to separate long yummy fibers from short not-as-yummy fibers from shorn wool. You've heard that "long-stapled cotton" is super soft. Long staples, or fibers, are soft no matter what the fiber. A basket of natural ivory colored wool top looks a little like someone's guts if they were fluffy and ivory-colored. I'm really not kidding.

And no kidding, I'm thinking about all this, including those definitions, as I'm spinning because my mind know...wanders. Not unlike this blog post. It's quiet, I'm NOT listening to the radio, DH is somewhere (doing robotics or across the room working at the computeror in the kitchen), and the only sound is the occasional screech of a YouTube video, the hum of his laptop fan, and the constant quiet swoosh of my spinning wheel. It's unbelievably pleasant.

And finally, after three bobbins of singles, I realized that spinning and knitting is such a big part of who I am right now that it would be insane for me not to talk about it. So is making jewelry and so is writing in this format. So is playing the flute, my very longest running habit. Every few years the primary focus of my obsessions changes but for now: fiber, flutes, silver, writing, pretty much in that order. There it is. For awhile, none of them had any prominence but I finally learned that taking care of myself meant engaging in these activities because they make me happy.

At the end of the day, isn't that what's important? Know thyself.


(1) no, not Toyota. Microsoft. Gosh, do they even still use it?
(2) Shelley Binder, PhD, University of Tennessee, flutist, recitalist,clinician; attended her master class at HRFF.
(3) "shut the fuck up"

Saturday, January 30, 2010


All that snow the forecasters have been suggesting we might get here in SE Virginia? We're getting it this time. Every time I look out the window, which has been frequently over the past few hours, I'm struck by how very white it is. And really it's more like shades of gray, but my brain goes "whoa, white." This is a stay-home-and-not-feel-guilty-about-doing-absolutely-nothing kind of Saturday. Nothing, that is, except for knitting, spinning, computing, blogging, drawing beads on little pieces of sterling wire, charging our respective portable media devices, watching movies, making soup, napping, reading, and paying the neighbor kids to shovel the walk every six hours so the mailman has a route to the mailbox up on the porch. $2 per boy (three boys) plus a cup of hot chocolate. Such a deal.

Through the back door to the back yard. The first view of the snow the dogs had.

I must tell you that the Camellia on the left looks like it's slightly taller than the Camellia in the center, but it really reaches as high up as the 2nd-story eve of the house behind it, and for perspective the fence there is about four feet tall.

The view from the front porch, and I admit that my first thought when I saw this car motoring along without it's lights on was "you dumb-ass, why are you out driving in this weather?"

View from the back porch to the back yard.

My cast iron rooster bell. I bought this years ago in New Mexico at a junktique store and I have a fondness for it whose origin is unknown and I can't shake. We took it down from it's post when the porch was rebuilt and haven't put it back up yet. The photo isn't turned the wrong way; the rooster is lying on the porch rail.

Them's the photos for now. More to come if I can find my boots to go wandering around the neighborhood.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Soupy Sunday

Not only the weather but in the kitchen, too. There's only one thing better than tomato soup and artisan bread for lunch on a blustery winter day. Today certainly qualifies as blustery. Windy, rainy, gray, and cool. I can't say cold because it's in the mid-50's.

What one thing is better, you ask? Homemade tomato soup and homemade artisan bread. And I haven't taken food pictures in a while. It is time.

I've really Martha'd myself. No, wait, to do that I'd have had to grow the tomatoes and sow the wheat. Never mind. I think I could probably do both these recipes in my sleep. I've made the tomato soup two or three times and it is simple. On the America's test Kitchen website, it's the "Creamy Creamless Tomato Soup."

The bread was even simpler, ingredient-wise, but sneaky. I tossed the first batch because it never rose. I'm almost certain that my yeast was old and dead. The second batch didn't rise as much as I'd hoped, but both times I felt the dough was just a teensy weensy bit too dry. The second batch rose (enough) after I let it sit overnight so I baked it this morning. Hmmmmm...the smell of fresh baked bread in the morning? There's no word for it, just a sound of drool.

Let's be clear: I do not have a professional oven with steam injection. My oven runs 100 degrees too hot, is a piece of crap, and I got this result anyway. It tastes as good as it looks. I started another one tonight. I can do this from memory. Well, mainly because I've prepared three in the last three days. A scale is very handy, and I added an ounce more water because I am convinced that the house is so dry the flour just needs that extra bit. Unlike the summer, Virginia does not have a high humidity problem and, because we have forced air everything, our abode is pretty dry. Nor-easter's not withstanding.

Both recipes (and the one for the croutons) are from the guys at America's Test Kitchen, aka Cook's Illustrated aka Cook's Country. I don't get what the difference is but the food is so good that I don't care. The soup is a little involved. It helps justify what we spend on kitchen equipment. In this case, dutch oven and blender. We simplified by using the stick blender which does a perfectly adequate job of whizzing the soup into smooth tomato-y perfection. I can't recommend the KitchenAid stick blender highly enough. There's a place for blenders, and a place for sticks. This recipe suggests using a blender, but using the stick leaves you with fewer dishes to clean, and I don't think it took any more time to get achieve soup smoothie.

Canned whole tomatoes (shocking, I know), white bread, onion, garlic, bay leaf, red pepper flakes, brown sugar (just a tiny bit), olive oil, chicken stock. That's it. We've used plain canned tomatoes, we've used tomatoes canned from a friends garden, and we've used a combination of canned whole and diced tomatoes. Someone had a hankering and we had what we had in the pantry. All of them were fine. In fact, in the first version all I had on hand were whole toms with basil. I plucked the whole basil leaves out but there was still a tiny bit of basil flavor and it was nice. We've used Pepperidge Farm country white, sourdough bread, and Inn Keeper's Whole Grain bread. I thought the whole grain bread would leave lots of seeds but they got whizzed, too. If you tasted them all side by side you could probably tell the difference, but I think it's probably marginal.

I cut the crusts from the bread thickly and used them for croutons. Toss with oil, season with salt and pepper, bake them at 400 for a few minutes until they look good and golden or dark golden, let them cool, serve with soup.

Almost No-Knead Bread
Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup

This looks like a fun project: Macaroon Knitted Purse

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Have some fun

I love this. Siraz: Is it a cheese? or a font? While everyone else is playing Bedazzled, I'll be over here playing this game:

And here's DH in his new extra-long stocking cap in Norview colors to keep you busy in case Cheese or Font is boring...