Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Shools need Shills

Casinos, and less reputable organizations (like marketers), regularly employ shills: people playing the game not for fun, but to keep the game going if there are too few players, and/or just to ramp up players' enthusiasm. One could get into a heavy discussion of whether a shill is actually "playing" the game at all (the term shill usually implies playing with house money, not keeping any winnings), whether the presence of shills implies a metagame around the original game, etc.

But my question is this: if shills are effective enough that casinos use them, why don't we use them in classes?

Consider the (unsubstantiated - send me references!) truisms:

  • a few good students can enhance the learning environment for everyone else;
  • peer regulation is the most effective enforcement of classroom discipline;
  • students ask questions in classes that other students are asking questions in;
  • students won't do what you tell them to, but will model themselves after peers that they see as successful.

Imagine you could plant a student who would ask the poignant question of the day, who would patiently help the struggling student while you addressed the rest of the class, and who would be your eyes and ears in the back of the room. Imagine a student who could ask probing but answerable questions of the strong students, credibly asking for help.

Sure, some of these tasks could be done with a TA, but a shill _models desired behavior_, and the only person better than a shill would be an actual role model student. And there's not enough of those for every class. Maybe because not enough students had a shill show them how to be.

I just told my differential equations class to read a section in the book and teach it to me next time. Which they took as a joke, but might actually make a decent exercise. But it got me to thinking -- what if they _always_ had someone to teach to, asking all the right questions?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Baking: Rustic Cyprus-Style Herbed Olive Bread

Some people would enter the world of bread baking with a basic, classic recipe. Me, I started with Rustic Cyprus-Style Herbed Olive Bread from Nancy Baggett's (real name, I think not) book Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads, which I spied on Serious Eats.
True Story: I stopped my mixer while putting together the ingredients for this recipe so I could hear the radio. On the radio Jacki Lyden, of All Things Considered, was making bread with Nancy Baggett. Literally, I had JUST added iced water to the other ingredients AS Nancy explained to Jacki WHY the water needs to be iced. CRAZY.

Oh, yeah, and this bread is SO good. Think I can swing weekly bread baking?

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Spring = Pretty and weird

I've been given flowers recently. Daffodils from my grad student who's husband is allergic and flowering shrub cuttings from neighbors (for helping them move a piece of furniture.)

(You can just about see my cute elephant salt and pepper shakers in the background.)

I made chocolate cream cheese cupcakes, which were too salty, but still edible.

The shower is draining slowly and so when I wash my hair, there are strands remaining in the tub after the water drains out. The other day, the hair spelled my initials.

A pair of morning doves are trying to procreate on our windowsill. The first attempt sadly ended in disaster, with broken eggs on the ground. They are trying again, but seem to be having extreme difficulty figuring out how exactly to rebuild a nest. Not that their first attempt was nothing to brag about.

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Makin' Whoopie . . . Pies

David doesn't usually make culinary requests (though he does offer positive reinforcement for dishes he prefers, e.g., his enchiladas victory dance), but when he saw March 17th's Dining section of the New York Times aglow with an article on whoopie pies, he made an exception. Following the recipe accompanying the article, I made the chocolate cake/cookie thingies on one day and the "buttercream" filling on the following day. Is it really buttercream if there's no cream?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Covered in Bees

As we have discussed previously, we can all play a role in bee stewardship by making our backyards bee friendly.

I was reminded of this discussion the other day by a piece on the Pat Morrison show (direct link to RealPlayer presentation) on KPCC. Here's a summary of the piece. [I usually try to avoid wholesale copying of show information, but the KPCC website is not organized very well for linking to only one show or one portion of a show.]

Ah, bees -- nature's winged miracles, they keep agriculture going, they help us to sweeten our tea, and they're in big trouble - populations of honeybees have crashed. But in the nation's cities, urban beekeepers are working to bring back the buzz. Author Candace Sage and real-life beekeeper Russell Bates join us to talk about the incredible insects and about the rise of urban bee keeping here in Los Angeles.

* Candace Savage, author of Bees: Nature's Little Wonders
* Russell Bates, local urban beekeeper and a member of the backwards beekeepers
I found the concept of backwards beekeeping FASCINATING and if you're remotely interested in urban agriculture of any kind, this piece is worth a listen.

It inspired me to do a round up of bee-related posts. They fell into categories: explaining the issues related to bees, how to keep bees, how to help bees, what to do with honey, and what to do with beeswax.

Bee in Your Bonnet

Gristmill ties EPA to colony collapse.

Serious Eats explains how rising food prices are tied to the cost of renting bees.

Keeping Bees

Ask Metafilter has a number of informative discussions about bees. [Don't forget, with AskMeFi the good stuff is in the comments.] What is it like to live with bees?

Helping Bees

Re-Nest has also hopped on the bee bandwagon with a piece on What You Can Do to Help the Bees which includes some links to backyard beekeeping information, bee friendly plants for your landscape, and a few other suggestions. In fact, Re-Nest has been riding this bandwagon quite a bit this past year.


Serious Eats has a number of suggestions on what to do with honey.

Mind Your Own Beeswax

Re-Nest had an interesting suggestion: put those bees to work . . . making vases.

Ask Metafilter answered the question, "How do you make candles out of raw beeswax?"

Resurrection Fern's How to Make a Beeswax Garland via Whip Up.

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Friday, March 20, 2009


I went to the Monster Tomato and Pepper Sale at the Fullerton Arboretum this afternoon. If you're in the area tomorrow is its last day. It will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. I believe all the plants that are part of the sale are $2.50, but don't quote me on that.

I previously perused the PDF lists of tomatoes and peppers they would have for sale. On only the second day of the sale they were already out of the red pepper I had chosen, an heirloom variety called Topepo Rosso Red Italian which the list described as a pimento‐type pepper with thick, crisp, very sweet flesh; large yields; and short, compact plants. I wasn't really committed to pepper growing this year, so I didn't spend much time battling it out with the other pepper shoppers for the remaining peppers.

I picked my tomato poorly. For some reason I thought Moon's Super Bush was an heirloom variety, but the label at the sale said it was a hybrid. I really wanted to try an heirloom, so I went with my friend Bridget's recommendation: Cherokee Purple. According to the tomato PDF, this heirloom tomato plant is indeterminate, late season fruiting, and bears loads of 12 oz rose/purple, excellent tasting fruit with brick red centers which are perfect for slicing. On a lark I also bought a Big Rainbow. This heirloom tomato plant is indeterminate, late season fruiting, and bears sweet, beautiful, yellow/orange/ruby red, beefsteak tomatoes weighing up to 2 lbs.

We'll see if these tomato plants fair any better than the leggy tomato sprout I'm currently torturing.

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When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you eggs, make quiche.

This recipe is my hybridization of Joy the Baker's Creme Fraiche Quiche (found via Not Martha) adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook
and Tartelette's Bacon and onion tartlets from Design*Sponge's In the Kitchen With series.



Ham diced [I asked the deli for one 1/4" slice of smoked ham, no idea how much it weighed]
4 stalks green onion, sliced, white and green parts included
1/3 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed [I got mine at Trader Joe's]
6 large eggs
2 1/4 cups creme fraiche [scroll to the bottom of this post for more info on creme fraiche]
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup shredded Gruyere (about 4 ounces)

1. Put a baking sheet on a middle rack and preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Cook ham and green onion in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat for a couple of minutes, just to take the raw edge off.
3. Roll out pastry on a lightly floured surface into a 13-inch square. Because pastry sheets come out of the box in squares, it is easier to roll it into a larger square and then trim it into a round. Fit pastry into pie pan and trim the pastry so that just about 1/4-inch of puff pastry hangs over the sides.
4. Spread the ham, onion and parsley evenly over the bottom of the pastry.
5. Whisk eggs in a medium bowl until well combined, then whisk in creme fraiche, salt and pepper until just smooth. Pour filling into pastry shell. Sprinkle Gruyere evenly over filling.
6. Bake quiche on heated baking sheet until center is set (it should not jiggle when shaken), 45 minutes to 1 hour. Quiche will puff up while in the oven [SERIOUSLY, I used a 2 1/2 inch deep springform pan and this bad boy was at the TOP by the time it was done] and sink a bit once it’s out and cooled. Transfer to rack to cool to warm or room temperature.

My independent taste tester LOVED this quiche.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Container Garden: Supplemental Sunshine

Three weeks after planting, I feel like my seedlings should be farther along. They don't have their first set of "true leaves" yet and they look kinda pale. I think this might be a function of the relatively brief direct sun exposure they're receiving. I don't really have a better window to put them in. I could put them outside, but I'm afraid the wind and direct sun will kill them. So I've put a portable fluorescent light over them.

Previous container garden posts:

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bittman's Pantry Recovery Plan Update

I have a few updates on my attempts to conform my pantry to the New Year's edict of Mark Bittman, a.k.a. Mark Bittman's article, "Fresh Start for a New Year? Let’s Begin in the Kitchen," from Tuesday, January 6th's New York Times (Does that sentence immediately evoke the scene from The Royal Tenenbaums where Bill Murray's character testing Dudley with two sets of blocks says, "Make yours like mine"?). Thus far I have addressed my initial attempts regarding lemons & limes, bread crumbs, parsley & basil, beans, and vanilla.

Lemons & Limes

Citrus prices in North Orange County are crazy low, so replacing bottled lemon and lime juice is a very cost effective pantry policy. Well, it's a very cost effective pantry policy if you either use the juice right away or you have a storage strategy. In my previous post I mentioned Mom's method of freezing lemon juice in an ice cube tray. We're not big ice people, so I had to buy an ice cube tray. This was almost as challenging as finding vanilla beans. Eventually I found an ice cube tray at IKEA. Even then I couldn't find your standard cube-shaped ice cube tray, which has apparently gone the way of the Dodo. But shape snobbery aside, each compartment holds exactly 1 tablespoon of liquid, which is super convenient. I now have a reusable container full of frozen lemon fish and I just bought limes to make some lime fish.

Bread Crumbs

I dropped a couple of steps on this one. Bittman recommended toasting or browning in olive oil. I've just been freezing the ends of the bread loaves and running them through the Cuisinart with the shredding attachment (often after shredding cheese, which is a handy way to clean out the cheese from the Cuisinart). Well, honestly, I was toasting between the freezer and the Cuisinart, but then I forgot they were in there and nearly set the house on fire. So I started skipping that step and no one seems to notice the difference.

And I took Rebecca's advice and made The Flying Biscuit's mac & cheese recipe to show off my homemade breadcrumbs instead of hiding them in meatloaf. Three out of three independent tasters were impressed by the breadcrumbs on the mac & cheese - and that was totally without breadcrumb specific interrogation techniques.

Parsley & Basil
I used the last of my dried parsley and have switched to buying fresh parsley from Henry's until my container plant gets going. Any suggestions on how to quickly chop up parsley without getting too much stem? Or are parsley stems culinarily acceptable? I had to buy more dried basil as fresh basil is rather pricey around here. But again, my basil did sprout nicely, so I'm hoping for a home-grown source soon.

Most handy bit of knowledge gleaned from this micro-obsession: the conversion chart over at Spice Advice including one tablespoon of fresh basil or parsley is equivalent to one teaspoon of the dried herb.

I've had great success with The Flying Biscuit's White Bean Cassoulet recipe using dried white navy beans from Henry's. I've also had success making black beans and refried black beans from dried black beans from Henry's. I have yet to find a recipe using peruano beans. And I have an irrational fear of lentils. Anyone have any good recipes to help me confront that fear?

Most handy bit of knowledge gleaned from this micro-obsession: In a comment Rebecca suggested I check out Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone which includes cooking principles and general techniques for addressing vegetables. If you've joined a CSA this year, you need this book.


This has to be the change that caused the most significant difference (well, the basil and parsley plants aren't up and running yet, so we might have to revisit this in a few months). While the scraped vanilla bean in the NYTCCCs was effective, the difference between that and vanilla extract wasn't sufficiently significant to justify the effort.

But my cupcakes have never been so awesome. Not only did I do all the vanilla friendly stuff to the frosting that I talked about in my previous post, I also doctored the batter. I steeped half a vanilla bean in the milk required for the cake batter. I followed Terri's advice to put used vanilla beans in a jar with sugar and used the resulting sugar in the batter. And on top of all that I did like the recipe told me and added the seeds of half of vanilla bean. The resulting cake and frosting were noticeably more vanilla-y and got rave reviews from two independent testers.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Workshop Reviewer to the Stars

I took a a quilt class based on abstractions from photographs from a famous quilt artist, Katie Pasquini Masopust. Her publisher, C&T Publishing, saw my (other) blog post about the class and posted about it on their corporate blog.

The design they included in their blog post is the one David hung in his office.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

AA to the stars

stephenfryOh yes indeed Happy Pi Day. Und Alles gute zum Geburtstag, Albert Einstein, Schatzi Bob WiemanbobwiemanHappy PI day! Happy Einstein's birthday! Happy start of spring break! (Okay, that last one's probably mostly for me.) Still, happy day!

Yes, that's me reminding Stephen Fry of the important holidays today. I try to keep him updated on the important things, so he seems connected and "with it" on his various public appearances. I'm like his personal assistant.

Auto-update from stephenfry.com: Thank you, bobwieman, for twittering Stephen Fry. And thank you, readers of bobwieman, for reading about twittering Stephen Fry. In the interest of strict veracity, please replace "personal assistant" in the above post with "twittering stalker", and again, thank you.

Collaborative Short Story Robbed

Art Gallery Fabrics recently started a blog. To promote said blog they had a contest. To enter one had to post a comment containing the answer to the following question.

What was the most funny/weird situation that you have had at your sewing room when about to start sewing?
The two most funny answers would win.

No funny/weird situation had ever occurred in my sewing room when I was about to start sewing. That setup is just not very ripe for comedy. Reading through the first fifty or so comments confirmed my hypothesis. One consistent trend was the interruption of sewing initiation by pets, especially cats.

So I presented this conundrum to my brother via instant messaging. Over the subsequent hour or so, he and I composed the following story.

I was trying to perfect my curves following your Belle Epoque Garden quilt pattern when I heard a knock at my sewing room window. I opened the window to find three little green men who very politely explained that they crash landed in my backyard and, seeing my Bernina 440 QE through the window, knew I could help. In English punctuated with buzzes and clicks, they communicated that they travel by manipulating the Warp and Weft of the Universe (not to be confused with the Fabric of Time). But they took the wrong left at the corner by my local quilt shop, and couldn't find their way back to the wormhole (apparently, even if they're little, green, and have antennae, men still refuse to ask for directions). They begged me to sew a topological impossibility for them (Euler characteristic of pi) which, like piecing a Lone Star quilt, looks really complicated, but it's not so bad if you use Jan Krentz's strip piecing method. They said that if I sewed the topological impossibility for them, they could transport their broken spaceship home through the resulting wormhole and darn the hole in spacetime from their side.

I sat down at my Bernina 440 QE to start sewing the first set of strips for the topological impossibility together when I was struck by the idea that if I just made a few subtle tweaks I could alter the alien design so that it would not only function as a topological impossibility but would totally make the coziest, cuddliest, cutest throw pillow EVER! I knew I would have to break all the rules (quarter inch seam allowance be damned!). I would have to alter the design on the fly, right there, as I was sewing, because it was only at that moment that I would be able to keep the trick to its execution in my head. I dropped the presser foot and put my foot on the pedal. I could see it all laid out before me.

Then my cat Ripper (short for Seam Ripper) started batting the strips as they moved through the machine in his typical "one, two, THREE WITH CLAW!" pattern, taking the whole thing with the third strike. You see the pattern coming, and yet, it's always too fast to react to. Next he spied the pile of strips I had meticulously stacked in the order I had to sew them for the topological impossibility/coziest, cuddliest, cutest throw pillow ever. Thinking he could make them move like the strips I was sewing, he hopped onto the sewing table and scattered the strips everywhere.

The End

(This story is fictional. I don't own a cat.)


Sadly, we did not win. Whether this was because it was obviously fictional (which was not expressly prohibited by the rules), or because we were in the top 20 from which they ended up drawing two winners randomly, or . . . well all other possibilities involve speculating that someone somewhere could possibly not find this story HILARIOUS, I don't know.

Regardless, I enjoyed the creative process with Bob and hope we can parley it into some sort of short story writing career in the near future.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bittman's Pantry-atitis #5

As you might have noticed from my four earlier posts (lemons & limes, bread crumbs, parsley & basil, and beans), I've become a bit obsessed with Mark Bittman's article, "Fresh Start for a New Year? Let’s Begin in the Kitchen," from Tuesday, January 6th's New York Times. And what is #9 on his list?

OUT Imitation vanilla.

IN Vanilla beans. They’re expensive, but they keep. (If you look online you can find bargains in bulk, which is why I have 25 in my refrigerator.) If you slice a pod in half and simmer it with some leftover rice and any kind of milk (dairy, coconut, almond...), you’ll never go back to extract.
This seems to be a foodie must.

In the last few months, the blogosphere has been buzzing about homemade vanilla extract (which reminds me of a very special episode of Family Ties where an alcoholic cousin played by some famous actor visits the Keatons and drinks all of their vanilla extract, but I digress). Not Martha shared Chocolate & Zucchini's vanilla extract recipe which includes some excellent suggestions for the use of de-seeded vanilla bean pods as well as the first clear answer to the question: if I have fresh vanilla beans, why use extract at all. Bethany Actually posted beautifully photographed instructions for DIY vanilla extract which I discovered via Whip Up. Angry Chicken recommended Vanilla Review's more technical, less pretty vanilla extract tutorial.

Hunting the Elusive Bean

Sourcing vanilla beans has been the biggest challenge of all the Bittman Pantry Makeovers I have taken on. Re-Nest has an interesting post about fair trade vanilla. Long story short:
Currently, there is only one consumer-level supplier of Fair Trade Certified vanilla beans and extract in the United States, Frontier Natural Products Co-op.
A one pound bag of organic, fair trade vanilla beans will run you between $145.00 and $161.00.

The Henry's in Yorba Linda sells a 2 ounce bottle of Simply Organic vanilla extract for $4.99. Despite their wide array of bulk spices for sale, Henry's doesn't sell vanilla beans. Less surprisingly, Trader Joe's and Stater Brothers also don't stock vanilla beans.

The nearest local source I can find is the Whole Foods in Tustin, which is not very near. You have two vanilla bean options there: Whole Pantry (Whole Foods' brand) organic vanilla bean, one bean in their standard sized spice bottle or Spicely Organic's organic vanilla bean, in a cute little box. One of these costs $5.39 and the other costs $5.99. The receipt wasn't specific enough to determine which was which.

Here's some interesting information from the vanilla bean containers. From the Spicely Organic box:
Vanilla is used principally for ice cream, soft drinks, eggnogs, chocolate confectionery, candy, tobacco, baked goods, puddings, cakes, cookies, liqueurs, and as a fragrant ingredient in perfumery.
Who knew cakes and cookies aren't baked goods? Who knew chocolate confectionery isn't candy? And how much do I love that tobacco is on this list?

From the Whole Pantry bottle:
Whole vanilla beans have an intensely pure flavor. To substitute them for vanilla extract, simply slit the bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, and whisk them into batters or custards. (One vanilla bean equals about 1 Tbsp of vanilla extract.)
That parenthetical is in super small font, probably so people don't look at this sad lonely bean in a bottle for over $5.00 and do the math to determine that it is the equivalent of 0.5 fluid ounces. Simply Organic vanilla extract: $2.50/fl. oz. Cheapest vanilla bean at Whole Foods: $10.78/fl. oz.

Via Amazon you can buy 16 Premium Bourbon-Madagascar Vanilla Beans for $14.95 from JR Mushrooms & Specialties and they appear to have a free shipping deal presently. That works out to $1.87/fl. oz. without the shipping - which makes it even better than vanilla extract, if you're not hung up on fair trade-ness or organic-ness.

Vanilla Beans in Action

I substituted the seeds of one vanilla bean for the two teaspoons of vanilla extract required by the New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. This directly countermanded (I'm totally not using that word correctly - any suggestions?) the explanation offered by Chocolate & Zucchini for why one should bother with extract when you've got the bean:
Fresh beans need to be steeped in a liquid ingredient (milk, cream, syrup...) to release their flavor, so they can only be used in recipes that call for such an ingredient, like sauces, ice creams, or custards.
But here's the reasoning behind my transgression: this cookie dough DOES steep. It sits in the refrigerator for at least 48 hours.

For a slightly more appropriate test drive I made cupcakes not from a box. I used vanilla bean as Bake and Shake instructed in the cake recipe. Instead of using vanilla extract as called for in the frosting recipe I steeped the vanilla bean in the cream. To be more precise . . .

Quick Butter Frosting adapted from The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne (1961)
Yield: Frosts tops and sides of 2 9-inch or 3 8-inch layers - or about two dozen cupcakes.
1/4 cup butter, at room temperature
1 pound (3 1/2 cups) sifted confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 to 5 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean
A day or so in advance, slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. In a small container (I used one of the ramekins that comes in the chocolate souffles at Trader Joe's - it even has an airtight plastic lid!) submerge the vanilla bean in the cream. Cover and leave in the refrigerator until you're ready to make the frosting.
When you're spiritually and mentally prepared to make frosting, cream the butter. Take the vanilla bean out of the cream and scrape the seeds into the mixing bowl. Add about one cup of the sugar and the salt and cream well. Add the remaining sugar alternately with the cream, using enough cream to give a slight gloss and a good spreading consistency.

If you want to try a recipe that uses whole chopped vanilla beans check out Serious Eats' adaptation of Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich. The recipe also calls for golden syrup which we discussed in the comments to my very first post about making your own vanilla extract. Spooky, huh?

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009


A friend I met through the Flying Geese Quilters Guild raises free-range chickens at her home. Today we carpooled together to our guild meeting and she brought me a dozen eggs. Michael Pollan would be proud.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Container Garden: Parsley Problem Solved

Two days after my parsley propagating lament I took the parsley out of the cabinet to water it and low and behold . . . two sprouts!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Furrday: Porch Pooch

Izzy likes to lie out on the porch in the sun. This shot is of him waiting for me to get out his way to the patch of sun behind me.

This is him expressing impatience through refusing to look at the camera and yet he still loves me as expressed through tail wagging. And he still has hope that I'll move soon because he's still standing up.

Now he's getting ready to wait me out. And yet, as you can tell by the blurriness of the tail, he still loves me!

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Container Garden: Parsley Problem Solving

So I did some research on why my parsley isn't germinating as fast as the basil and tomato.

According The Weekend Gardener, the problem is that I am impatient. Parsley's approximate germination time is 21 days.

My lack of patience aside, from a discussion at the Garden Guides I culled a few tips. First, make sure you keep the seeds moist, but not wet. Second, keep them dark until the first few start coming up, and only then expose them light. This is allegedly because parsley is one of many plants whose seeds are inhibited by light. Dude, they're under a quarter inch of dirt? Is it SUNNY down there? And third, what I already did apparently to no avail: soak them overnight in water that starts out lukewarm. So other than drowning my seeds in wet soil and keeping them in a sunny window, they should be fine.

I have removed the parsley from the clam shell container it was in with the basil and tomato and placed it in a container which once held a pound of chili from Whole Foods. Separating it from the tomato and basil, which need really odd things like water and sunlight, will allow me to water the parsley less and hide it in darkness. I am now keeping my parsley in a relatively unused kitchen cabinet (right between my favorite blue bowl which I love so much I refuse to use it and the little metal trays that came with the toaster oven).

For additional parsley reading, I highly recommend an excellent article by John W. Jett from the WVU Extension Service. It includes the fabulous line, "Even today, the germination of parsley seeds seems a bit mystical." Indeed it does, Mr. Jett, indeed it does. By any chance are you related to Joan?

If you can translate from British, have a seed propagator, and are not easily intimidated, the Times (I assume, of London) Online has an intense article on how to spend all your time, money, and energy trying to grow parsley.

Previous container garden posts:

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Shaking the Foundations of Mathematics

So, I was reading The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan this morning. It can be a bit pretentious (incessant quote-dropping, referring to his main concept "the Great Paradigm"), but it also has brilliant descriptions. Descriptions of historical developments in mathematics, but also descriptions of the properties of numbers that are so fundamental that one forgets how fascinating they are. For example, he points out the somewhat magical evolution of numbers from adjectives ("your four sheep and my eight sheep make a flock of twelve sheep") to nouns ("four and eight is twelve").

As a result, I was thinking that mathematics was born from the idea that you could abstract numbers from things. That is, four sheep and four sheep makes 8 sheep, AND 4 stones and 4 stones makes 8 stones, and so you can use stones to count your sheep and all the adding and subtracting and whatever works out fine.

(Sarah: Why on Earth were you thinking that?
Bob: Oh, contemplating the foundations of math and what it relates to comes with the territory. )

But we don't know that adding sheep and adding stones always works out. We just know that it almost always works out, and when it doesn't work out, usually it's because we lost a stone or a sheep or something, and eventually they turn up.
The only way the stones and sheep (and therefore, ALL numbers) wouldn't really match up is if the amount of things changed while we weren't looking. If sheep were flickering in and out of existence. Ridiculous!
But of course, we don't know where the sheep are when we're a sheep short, we just usually find them later. But sometimes, we lose stuff and it just seems to disappear. And sometimes we find it again, but somewhere we definitely checked before. So maybe this flickering in and out of existence does happen.

(Sarah: Oh, it TOTALLY does.
It is an especially common phenomenon among socks.
It is an especially common phenomenon within dryers.)

What's more, I am a big fan of Dad's observation that "There are things that are true, and things that are false, and also things whose truth value is not so fixed. In particular, there are statements that are true if you believe them." (Don't believe me? How about "I can't do math?" I'm not saying disbelieving it will make it false, but you can't simultaneously believe you're incapable of it and do it, regardless of what "it" is.)

So what if the sheep and stones and keys and socks would flicker MORE, except that we BELIEVE in mathematics?

(Sarah: That's entirely true. If you don't believe in socks getting lost in the dryer, they won't be lost in the dryer. But misplace one sock and BELIEVE it got lost in the dryer and you will never pull a matching pair of socks from your dryer again.)

If so, the extent of things flickering in and out of existence is, like an inverse Tinkerbell thing, derived from people's innumeracy, specifically their failure to believe in the consistency of numbers. After all, when we say "hmm...I've got two more stones here than sheep...oh well, there must be two more sheep out there I haven't seen", then we go look for the sheep. If we just said "Oh well, more stones than sheep", we may never see those sheep again. And they might not even BE anymore.

(Sarah: You must post this discussion to the blog. I mean what is a blog with an INNUMERACY tag if no one posts about innumeracy?
It would be as though innumeracy doesn't exist.
It went the way of the sheep for which there are stones.)

In conclusion:

  • First, it's a good thing we are teaching kids times tables and stuff, because if we weren't, we could lose whole people (Amelia Earhart), whole ships (in the Bermuda Triangle), whole cities (Atlantis)...OMG, maybe we have!

    (Sarah: We totally did.
    No one believed a woman could fly around the world . . . and Amelia Earhart ceased to exist.)
  • And Second, this is a dangerously self-fulfilling thing. All the wrong answers from all the students aren't wrong in the sense that there's an objective truth they're failing to fulfill, they're wrong because we desperately cling to what we need to be right.

(Sarah: I had this dream last night where the I said, "I live in a constant state of the contingency of if-ness."
I'm not making that up.
It's totally true.
And then you started this conversation.
And my dream came true.
God, I have to start having more interesting dreams.
Bob: That is wild. And doesn't "contingency" mean "if-ness"?
Sarah: Which is exactly what I thought when I woke up.
Like word for freakin' word.
Bob: We're uncanny. Like X-Men.
Sarah: LOL
If only we were self-regenerating and our bones covered in Adamantium also like X-Men.
Gotta run.
Bob: ttyl)

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Container Garden: Seedlings Week 1

This is the state of (clockwise from top) the basil, tomato, and parsley I started from seeds a week ago. I sowed four seeds of each. The basil is batting 1000 (which means 100%, right? So why is it "a thousand"? I don't understand baseball statistics at all). The tomato only sprouted one seedling. And the parsley is a no show.

After about four days the tomato shot up so high it was squished up against the top of the clam shell container so I cut the top off the container. This kinda defeats the greenhouse aspect of the whole clam shell container, but it is still convenient to hold the paper pots. The Re-Nest example used the large dome plastic containers used to hold rotisserie chicken at the grocery store. I will spare you my anti-rotisserie chicken tirade. I wonder if I could have asked the nice deli folks to sell me an empty rotisserie chicken container.

On the other hand, the parsley has failed to make an appearance. I can't tell if this is because I killed the parsley or I have tardy parsley or maybe parsley is just pokey in general.

Previous container garden posts:

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Dinner: Really Old-Fashioned Marinated Rib-Eye

For ninth grade Latin class we had to do a project about life in ancient Rome. Latin and I were not friends. But for one brief moment, I shined. That moment was when I presented my class with a multiple course Roman dinner.

When I read Mark Bittman's article A Venetian Bath of Wine and Spice I was transported back to that moment. Reading the recipe for Really Old-Fashioned Marinated Rib-Eye I could recall the smell of red wine and cloves and nutmeg filling the refrigerator for days as we (me, my project partner Anna, and our mothers - who probably bore the brunt of this experiment) marinated enough steak for fifteen people.

If we were still in Bloomington, Indiana, I wouldn't have thought twice about making this dish. I would have immediately run down to Bloomingfoods, picked up some reasonably priced, local, organic, heirloom, free-range steak and started marinating. But life is not so simple here in North Orange County. Luckily this recipe was published shortly before Super Bowl Sunday. I took advantage of the reduced traffic to venture to thw Whole Foods in Tustin, ostensibly on a hunt for the elusive fèves. But then I saw the meat department and thought, "I can't remember the last time we had red meat." Not remembering what Bittman's recipe called for, I bought a pound of organic, free-range skirt steak instead of rib-eye. And knowing full well that the recipe called for "rich, full-bodied red wine, preferably Amarone," I went and bought a three dollar bottle of Trader Joe's Merlot (seriously, they have their own label).

I marinated the skirt steak for a full three days, as recommended. I should have known from David's complaints about the smell of the marinade that he wouldn't like it. I think I've discovered he doesn't like cloves and nutmeg. And he hates food that tastes of alcohol, like liquor in desserts. Not that the end result tasted alcohol-y. I just think he associated the end result with the smell of the wine in the fridge.

I wasn't in love with it either, but I definitely sensed the potential. With a juicier cut of beef and a wine with more nuanced flavor than grape grape grape (again, total flashback to the non-alcoholic spiced wine we made for the Latin project), this would have made a lovely winter grilled steak. It's a nice change of marinade from your basic steak sauce.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Dog Food: Homemade Biscuits

The third and final installment in my series about the three things our dogs consume: stuffed kongs, homemade food, and homemade biscuits. This time I describe our nine-year journey from Iams® Original Formula Small Biscuits to home baked biscuits.

Home Baked Dog Biscuits

Once Augie turned one we started on Iams® Original Formula Small Biscuits. This worked fine until we started adding two daily frozen peanut butter treats to their diet which turned Augie and Izzy into fat little spheres of fur with chubby little appendages. Instead of reducing the quantity of biscuits we gave Augie and Izzy we switched to Iams Weight Control™ Formula Biscuits. They're the same size as the Iams® Original Formula Small Biscuits. This way we could continue to use biscuits for obedience incentives without overfeeding. Between this, the switch to PB2 in their frozen kongs, and the substitution of vegetables for some kibble in their meals, Augie and Izzy got down to a lean healthy weight which they are successfully maintaining.

Kind of like my realization that crackers and cereal were the last processed foods in our pantry, last fall after we kicked the kibble habit I realized Iams Weight Control™ Formula Biscuits were the last processed food our dogs eat. Now, that fact alone did not motivate me to bake my own dog biscuits.

I already go to three different stores do do my weekly grocery shopping. When I have to pick up dog biscuits that adds a fourth store. Now that we've dropped the FURminator deShedding Dog Food Supplement from the menu, the only thing I need to buy at the pet store, other than biscuits, is a canister of multivitamins twice a year. None of the grocery stores around here carry Iams Weight Control™ Formula Biscuits. And even if I switched back to Iams® Original Formula Small Biscuits, the grocery stores sell smaller boxes at a higher price than the pet store.

Shopping convenience aside, this fall I discovered the new boxes of Iams Weight Control™ Formula Biscuits weighed less and cost more. Also David noticed the biscuits themselves had gotten thinner. This is a common tactic in all sorts of goods. Consumerist has dubbed the phenomenon The Grocery Shrink Ray and has a whole series of posts documenting the trend.

Leaning toward home cooking in general, shopping convenience, and Grocery Shrink Ray aside, the real catalyst to my adventure in dog biscuit baking was this gift from our very own Rebecca.

In our Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Solstice/New Years package from my fellow bloggers Bob and Rebecca, we received a Chef Fido Dog Biscuit Cutter & Recipe Kit.

Along with the double sided, dog biscuit shaped cookie cutter (complete with the capability of imprinting entirely redundant messages on your homemade dog biscuits), came four recipes.

So far I've only tried the recipe on the outside of the packaging.

Rover's Rewards adapted from the Chef Fido Dog Biscuit Cutter & Recipe Kit
3/4 cup hot water
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup powdered milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl pour hot water over butter. Stir in powdered milk, salt, and egg. Add flour, 1/2 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Knead 3 to 4 minutes, adding more flour if necessary to make a very stiff dough. Pat or roll to 1/2 inch thickness and cut out with Chef Fido Dog Biscuit Cutter. Place on a baking sheet covered with waxed paper or a non-stick baking mat. Bake for 50 minutes. Allow to cool and dry out until hard.

The recipe says it makes about 1 1/4 pounds of biscuits at a cost of about 25 cents a pound. I'm not sure how that math works out given that the flour alone cost $0.89 per pound at Henry's. And my first batch weighed in at 1 lb. 0.5 oz. The recipes inside make larger batches (allegedly 2 1/4 lbs, 1 3/4 lbs, and 3 1/2 lbs). They even have one that includes garlic. Why on earth would you want your dog's breath to be garlicky on top of everything else dog breath implies?

"Mmm . . . something smells yummy." Are the exact words David used when he came into the house while the dog biscuits were baking. We split one (which is SO much less gross than certain people who shall not be named eating commercial dog biscuits . . . or was it cat food . . . when they were little). Very wheaty. Like a super healthy Wheat Thin, but thicker.

David likes to break the biscuits in half so he doesn't overstuff the dogs while he bribes them into behaving during walks. These homemade biscuits break much more easily and cleanly than the Iams Weight Control™ Formula Biscuits. I attribute this to their natural ingredients as opposed to the construction waste filler I suspect commercial biscuits contain.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Dog Food: Home Cooking

The second installment in my series about the three things our dogs consume: stuffed kongs, homemade food, and homemade biscuits. This time I describe our nine-year journey from Iams® ProActive Health™ MiniChunks (which used to be named something less marketingish) to home cooking.


For many moons we fed Augie and Izzy Iams® ProActive Health™ MiniChunks. I don't know how we started with Iams, but I know how we ended.

First, Augie was a super picky eater. If I told you all the crazy stuff we used to do to get Augie to eat you would think I'm even more insane. When our dog walker in Maryland boarded Augie and Izzy for the first time and received the two page handout describing how to feed Augie and the required Special Plate, she intervened. When we got home she said, "You know, if you mix in a couple of tablespoons of wet food into the kibble, Augie eats like a champ and out of any darned container you have handy." So we bought canned wet food from Trader Joe's and mixed it into Augie's kibble. And he indeed started eating without any cajoling or special plate. And he licked his bowl clean, which was a first.

Then the big wet dog food recall happened. I asked our dog walker what we should do since we couldn't find any wet food to mix in with Augie's kibble. She said, "Just mash up some carrots." We said, "Dogs can eat carrots?" She said, "Yes, and peas." So we started making a mash of canned carrots and peas to mix into Augie's food. This worked just as well as the wet dog food, smelled less gross, cost less, and cut Augie's calorie intake - which was becoming an issue (see previous post re: fat little spheres of fur with chubby little appendages). As both Augie and Izzy were in need of an incredible weight loss program, we reduced the amount of kibble in each meal and made up the volume with a carrot, peas, and oats mixture (two cans of carrots and two cans of peas to one cup of oats plus a bullion cube dissolved in a half cup of water). The volume kept them full, but the reduced calories kept them lean. Both dogs seemed to like their food even more than before and they got down to their ideal weights and stayed there.

Then the big dry dog food recall happened. We started reading up on alternatives to the usual dog food. At that moment there seemed to be one of those Malcolm Gladwell tipping points and all my usual green news sources started talking about organic dog food. In my weekly Organic Consumers Association email I found this

One of OCA's Web Forum users posted the following topic: "I don't know if this is the right place to post, but my husband and I ATTEMPT to eat an organic diet... I want our husky to eat just as healthily. Before coming to the States, it was as easy to order online and lo and behold CERTIFIED organic dog food appeared on the door step. I've had no end of bother obtaining good certified organic feed for my dog... any ideas or help out there?"

OCA Response: Buying certified "USDA Organic" pet food is definitely a smart consumer choice. Conventional pet food contains everything from animals put down at animal shelters to slaughterhouse waste (including spinal columns and potentially diseased tissue). Conventional pet food can also legally contain fillers like newspaper and feathers. Organic pet foods have much higher quality. Because of a successful lawsuit filed against the USDA by the OCA and Dr. Bronner's relating to body care and other non-food agricultural products, pet food manufacturers cannot display the "USDA Organic" seal unless their products meet the same strict standards as organic food for humans. If you do not see the "USDA Organic" seal, you need to read the product ingredient label carefully to determine which of the ingredients are actually organic.

Apartment Therapy's green cousin, a.k.a. Re-Nest, or "Stop Consuming: Buy Green" as it is known around my condo, had a good question post "Looking for Pet Treat Recipes" (warning: corgi pictures!), which also conveniently links to two other AT articles on the insanity that is homemade pet food.

Lou Bendrick in his Checkout Line column for Gristmill, which scoffs at the greenwashedness of Re-Nest, had an excellent answer to a reader's question about whether their dog should eat organic.

So we tried an organic dog food, Merrick's Grammy's Pot Pie. It did not go well. If you saw The Exorcist, you get the idea of projectile vomiting. Now try projectile diarrhea. It was awful. And we tried soaking it and microwaving it and all sorts of other things to try to make it work for our dogs (we had invested a good $50 in a 30 lb bag). It wasn't happening.

At about the same time Augie and Izzy had a full dental checkup at our new vet, Founder Veterinary Clinic. The previously mentioned missing and chipped teeth the vet in Indiana had noted were just the tip of the iceberg. So while we saved up for some intensive canine dental work, the vet recommended we switch to soft food for both dogs.

Regardless of dental issues, Dr. Terifaj is a huge advocate for home cooking for dogs. Since we were already making the carrots/peas/oats mixture to mix into the kibble, it was just a small step to add chicken and rice. The big difference is that we also give them a multivitamin (which we get at PetSmart), a calcium supplement (which we get from Dr. Terifaj - at a very reasonable price), and an oil supplement. The multivitamin and the calcium supplement make up for the (probably spurious and insufficient) nutritional supplements the dry dog food manufacturer included in the kibble.

We had been giving Augie oil pills for his dry skin and fur for years. Otherwise he gets itchy and dready. Originally we gave him one Lipiderm with every meal. When we started home cooking we added a tablespoon of FURminator deShedding Dog Food Supplement to every meal for both Augie and Izzy. This proved REALLY expensive, though it did make Izzy sleek like an otter. So we looked at Dr. Terifaj's home cooking instructions again and saw that she recommended Udo’s Oil 3-6-9 Blend by Flora. That's pretty expensive too, so I found a supplement at Henry's that contained the same ingredients but was less expensive: Now Foods' Omega 3-6-9 (in fact, I take it too - it isn't sourced from fish so there's no mercury poisoning worries). We supplement that with a tablespoon of canola oil from the grocery store that is fortified with Omega-3 and -6.

We boil chicken thighs and strip the chicken off the bones. We use the water from boiling the chicken to cook the rice. We combine one pound of chicken, two drained cans of carrots, and two drained cans of peas in a large bowl. We use a hand blender to mash it up, but not to full puree stage. Then we stir in four cups of cooked rice and a cup of oats. We probably could mix in the vegetable oil at this stage, especially since we store the food in a tupperware in the fridge (with extra in the freezer). Working in bulk, we've gotten our dog food cooking down to one day every two weeks. Considering Augie eats a cup of food a day and Izzy eats one and a half cups a day, our freezer isn't overflowing with dog food. I imagine if you had a larger dog or more dogs, you would either have to cook more often or have a larger freezer.

As you can see from the picture at the top (which is the product of The World's Most Hurried Photo Shoot), Augie and Izzy LOVE their home cooked food. Now if only I could ramp up my gardening to include peas and carrots . . . and chicken?

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