Thursday, August 27, 2009

Summer Doldrums.

I feel like I am floating amiss in the grips of the late summer Doldrums. If you don't know about the Doldrums, well, the Doldrums are the area around the equator (also known as the equatorial calms) that have a light and varied wind due to the heat at the equator. During the peaks of summer, the Doldrums wind dies down to almost nothing. Back in the cool old days of pirates and sailing, the Doldrums became notorious with sailors because of their periods of deadly calm. The area could trap ships for days or weeks on end. Boats would have to sit and just wait for enough wind to power their sails. They were powerless to move until enough wind came to fill there sails and propel them forward again. Thus, in colloquial usage, "being in the doldrums" refers to being in a state of listlessness, despondency, inactivity, stagnation, or a slump.

I am definitely in the summer doldrums.

It could be the heat. It is hot here in San Antonio right now. So, so hot. We are on our 58th day of temperatures over 100 degrees. There is no sign of it letting up, and I am tired of being sweaty. So while my inbox if full of emails hailing the "The Warm-up to Autumn" (Anthropology) and "Fall Shopping Lists" (Lucky Magazine) and "Our Fall Preview Event" (Gap), I still feel like I am melting in an inferno.

It could be work. This summer my office turned over 67% of our labor force. We are a five person staff and we saw three of the five leave. We hired two new people to serve in the management position. We also hired a fresh-from-college kid into one of the vacancies. So now I am the veteran employee, and essentially the only person with any historical memory in the organnization. Transitions in the work place are always tough. They are even tougher when multiplied by three. I find coping with the day to day frustrations of an all new team to be an all-consuming, and not in a good way. I know that time and patience will turn the situation around, but for right now, work is a bummer.

It could be I've just plain lost my mojo. My sewing mojo, my crafting mojo, and dare I say it, even my cooking mojo. Last night I attempted cappuccino creme brule for dinner club. It should have been easy, but it did not set right, and we had the hardest time melting all of the sugar with the butane lighter, so the sugar was grainy. Don't get me wrong, we all ate it anyway and the taste was good, but the overall product was just so "eh" (and it's such a shame, because I baked all the desserts in our china coffee cups and had such a cute theme of after dinner coffee going on).

Sewing is not going so well either. I have botched two projects I was really expecting to succeed with. The "Everybody's Favorite Claire McCardell" dress is going to have to change its name to the "ALMOST Everybody's Favorite Claire McCardell" dress. I just could not get the bust to fit correctly. More to come on that project. I am also working on the 1950's collar confection blouse, and experiencing the same bust fit issues. And I have a beautiful Liberty print of red poppies lined up, so I have to get my mojo back.

I know the summer Doldrums are not permanent. Like any good sailor, I just have to wait and let nature take its course. Until the winds pickup however, I will just be out here floating, waiting for the breeze to fill my sails so I can get back on my way.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A little pickling factory.

This weekend Sam and I became a little pickling factory. We pickled peppers. We pickled onions. And we pickled grapes. Yes, grapes. And they are good.

I have wanted to pickle for a long time. And Sam loves pickles. He actually loves them so much that Sunday, as we were cleaning up and jarring our pickles, he decided to drink some of the leftover brining liquid. It was a mistake which he promptly followed with several Tums and a Zantac. It turns out pickles are not the best food for a guy with stomach acid issues. However they are delicious, and therefore worth a bit of heartburn.

My kick into pickling action came last week at the bi-monthly dinner club. John and Lauren made the most delicious Potted Chicke Rillettes recipe that included no less than four sticks of butter. They served the dish with an assortment of pickles, including homemade pickled peppers. The peppers were delicious, and the perfect accompaniment to the rich chicken dish. Since Sam and I have about 4 lbs of peppers in our fridge courtesy of the summer CSA, the pickling commenced. I like to go all out when I try something, and I have been storing a few pickling recipes since last summer, so in addition to the peppers we also pickled red onions and grapes.

I found the pickled grape recipe courtesy of my favorite food bloggist, Bon Appetite columnist, and book author Molly Wizenburg (aka Orangette). Only this time the recipe was on NPR (is there any cool place that this girl isn't publishing?). It was in the archives back from 2007, and it is an editorial on pickles. Only not your normal pickles, exciting pickles like onions, prunes, and grapes.

I was further motivated, because I have actually had one, single, delicious pickled grape in my life. My sister Anne made Orangette's recipe this summer, and she fed me one succulent grape over my fourth of July trip. I was hooked. They taste like a slightly tart cinnamon treat. They are crisp, bright, and completely unique. Now Sam and I have three little jars of pickled grapes in our frige, on a shelf full of pickled produce. It is wonderful.

We have a lot of pickled produce to eat in the next few weeks, but already I am planning my next foray into pickling. Next up, pickling carrots. And Maybe okra. I have a lot of summer CSA okra in my fridge. Oh yes, and prunes. Is there anything that can't be made more delicious through pickling? Pucker up, its about to get real tangy around here.

Pickled Grapes
from Molly Wizenberg (aka Orangette) via NPR

According to Molly, "These may sound curious, but they're a real crowd-pleaser: crunchy, sweet and warmly spiced. The recipe is adapted from Susan Kaplan of Boat Street Kitchen in Seattle. I like these grapes best within the first four days after they're made, but some people like them even more after a week or two. Their pickled flavor gets stronger over time, and their skins will wrinkle slightly."

1 pound red grapes, preferably seedless
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 (2 1/2-inch) cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon salt

Rinse and dry the grapes, and pull them carefully from their stems. Using a small, sharp knife, trim away the "belly button" at the stem end of the grape, exposing a bit of the flesh inside. Put the grapes into a medium bowl, and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; then pour the mixture immediately over the grapes. Stir to combine. Set aside to cool at room temperature.

Pour the grapes and brine into jars with tight-fitting lids (or cover the bowl with plastic wrap), and chill at least 8 hours or overnight. Serve cold. Makes about 3 cups.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tubing is Texas Culture.

The United States if full of culture. I get so fed up with people that compare us to Europe and say that us Americans are nothing but a bunch of blah schmucks without original cuisine, art, past times, national attitude, or, well, or CULTURE . We have culture, and I think tubing proves it. I mean, floating in a truck tire inner tube down a spring fed Texas river with hundreds of other folks, all drinking beer...? It is as absolutely as culturally relevant as sitting in a Paris cafe smoking cigarettes. Yet somehow we all think of the French and their cafes endearingly, "Oh, those French, they have all this culture." It bugs me. And don't even get me started on the relevance of BBQ to culture. If croissants count as culture, brisket in a sweet-n-spicy sauce surely does too.

Last weekend Sam, my sister Claire, and my cousin Chrissie and I all hit the river for a healthy dose of Texas culture. We tubed. It was hot, it was a bit messy, and it was authentic. Yee-haw for my Texas culture.

Friday, August 7, 2009

My cousin is a size four.

My cousin Chrissie is tall and slender and lovely. That is why it is so much fun to go vintage shopping with her. She is visiting this weekend with my sister Claire and today we went down to Jive Refried, a vintage shop on South Alamo that features the funky and quirky, with the occasional gem hidden among the hoards of second hand goods. Chrissie scored three beautiful dress. Two need a bit of tweaking to bring them into her current style, but here are the "before" photos for you to admire. We will certainly post the afters if all goes well.

My sister Claire also has a lovely figure, different than Chrissie's and a little bit larger, but very attractive in vintage clothing. Sadly, she is not very interested in vintage shopping. She loves Anthropologie, and she likes to look nice, but she does not have the patience or the creativity to sort through the vintage racks looking for Anthropologie-esque originals. She was a champ and tried on a few outfits for me, but in the end she only left with a pretty bracelet, and no clothing.

I also ended up with a piece of clothing that I hope to convert into a smokin' top this weekend. I will certainly post if all works out. I hope it does, because how great is it to wear a one-of-a-kind piece of clothing? People stop you on the street and say "Oh I just LOVE your dress, where did you find it?" and you get to say "Oh this old thing, its vintage." And then they stair longingly for a moment and you get to relish the joy of having something totally original in this homogenized world. You just don't get that feeling with off-the-rack.

I love the floral pattern on this dress. I swear it looks like it could have come off the rack at Anthropologie (hear that Claire...?), except it only cost $15, and it is authentic, not a shameless reproduction. We are going to take these bat-wing, dolman-style sleeves up a bit so that they fall more like a cap sleeve. Isn't the print on this dress pretty? She wants to wear it with cowboy boots or leather sandals and a vintage belt (maybe with a vintage belt buckle) for that Austin-hip look. It is 100% cotton and lined, so I think it is a real steal. Man, I love living out my vintage fantasies through thin people.

This dress is damn near perfect. It needs a steam to get out some of the wrinkles, but otherwise it fits just as it should. In fact, it is a big snug. Poor Chrissie can't lift her arms over her shoulders (we asked her to fix her hair, but she couldn't reach it so Claire did if for her), but we figure you don't need to move your arms much if you look this good. The back scoops down into a low scoop that shows some shoulder blade. Very sexy. It was marked a size medium in the vintage store, but it only has a 26 inch waist, which measure a size 2 or 4 in modern clothing. I would call that a small, bordering on the extra small. It is a bit tight on Chrissie, but like I said, she looks so good that we all agree pain is beauty.

We are going to lop off the skirt of this 80s number and turn it into a 1950-ish pinup top. It has a boat neck in the front, and just wait until you see the back. It has a low, square-shaped scoop that shows off her shoulder blades. Again, very sexy. Plus, there is a giant bow back there that we are going to try and mend,to give it that little embellishment that says "sexy with a innocent twist." With some dark trouser or wide legged jeans and heels she will look stunning.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cake Balls.

In addition to bread and cheese on the patio, my fourth of July weekend in Colorado also involved a foray into the world of weird dessert baking, when my sister Anne and I undertook the blogtastic "cake ball" recipe that has been sweeping the Internet this year. Cake balls are odd little things, but strange in a tasty way. They are essentially the amalgamation of a good bite of cake, but all squished up into a bite sized package. In fact, cake balls are so ball-y that in a way it is almost as thought the cake has been pre-chewed for you. Yeah, I know that is not appetizing, but that is what I mean when I say that the cake balls are both odd and tasty. The little desserts were almost too moist, but at the same time they are full of frosting and covered in chocolate, so they can't be that weird. Also, they remind me of something a 1960's stay at home housewife would make to bide her time before her cocktail-hour martini, in anticipation of guests. It just has that casserole-and-jello-salad-era nostalgia to it. But maybe that's just me.

Most cake ball recipes you will find on the Internet call for a boxed cake mix and a can of frosting from the grocery aisle. To that I say, don't go there people. Don't even think about going there. Cake is simple, frosting is even easier, so do it from scratch. I put two good recipes below for your ease of baking.

And once the cake and frosting is out of the way, making the cake ball is, well, a piece of cake. Just bake a cake and let it cool. Whip up a batch of frosting. Then use a fork and break the sheet cake into crumbs and large chunks. Stir into frosting until combined. Using your hands or a cookie dough scoop, portion bite sized balls of cake mixture onto a baking sheet or plate and refrigerate or freeze until firm. The next step is where you can get creative. Dip the cake balls in melted chocolate or white chocolate. If you are fancy and experienced in candy-dipping, you might consider adding a bit of food-safe wax or shortening to help the chocolate coating dry smoothly like a truffle. You can top with sprinkles, nuts, candies, confectioners sugar, and even lollipop sticks.

When dipped, cool, arrange gracefully on a tray, put on your best string of pearls and your crisp hand-sewn apron, and serve. Preferably to yourself, bon-bon style. Enjoy.

One-bowl Chocolate Cake
from a Martha Stewart cupcake recipe

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
3/4 cup warm water
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons safflower oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners; set aside. Sift together cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Add eggs, warm water, buttermilk, oil, and vanilla, and mix until smooth, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl to assure batter is well mixed.

Divide batter evenly among muffin cups, filling each 2/3 full. Bake until tops spring back when touched, about 20 minutes, rotating pan once if needed. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium bowl, cream together the cream cheese and butter until creamy. Mix in the vanilla, then gradually stir in the confectioners' sugar. Store in the refrigerator after use.