Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Making Pasta by Hand

For Christmas this year my ever-thoughtful and darn-near-omniscient husband gave me a great set of pasta machines.  It was exactly what I wanted, and he had purchased them before I even knew I wanted them.  I guess all of the cooking and learning Italian and talk of my Italian grandmother tipped him off.

The first pasta I made was on Christmas day...a fettucini with red wine curry sauce.  The recipe was from one of the Italian blogs I follow.  If you're up on your Italian, you can find those blogs listed on my profile.  The dish was incredible!  When I was almost done making that first batch it occurred to me--I should have taken pictures to share with you--which I did remember to do with the second batch.

The recipe is very simple: for egg pasta (which we like better) one egg per person and 2/3 c. flour per egg and then some salt, olive oil and warm water if needed. For 6 servings one only needs 1/2 tsp. each salt and olive oil. For Semolina Pasta, 6 servings, use 4 c flour (about 1/3 of which should be semolina flour, but the proportion is very flexible), 1 egg, 1 tsp. salt, and about 1 1/4 c. warm water. (These are from "Lidia's Italian Table" but identical recipies can be found almost anywhere.)

Here's the beginning:  regular and semolina flour are in a mound with a well; the egg and water mixture is ready to be beaten and added.  As you can see, the batch I made this day was Semolina Pasta.

After adding all of the egg mixture into the well, you stir until it's all combined into a dough. 
Then you knead the dough until the gluten develops and it becomes smooth and shiny--maybe 10-13 minutes.  As my husband pointed out, everything up to and including kneading the pasta dough can be done in the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer with the dough hook or even a food processor, but I was going for the old fashioned traditional pasta-making experience here.  Grandma and her sisters didn't have a KitchenAid!

Next, you must rest the dough by wrapping it in plastic and leaving it at room temperature for an hour. (I didn't take a picture of that.)

The other portion of kneading, which lengthens and works the gluten so the pasta will hold together, is done with the pasta machine itself.  You take the dough and flatten it somewhat, then feed it through the pasta machine at the widest setting.  At first it tears and comes through unevenly, but after each feed through the machine, you fold the dough end to end and feed it through again (folded end first) at the same widest setting.  After about 7-10 passes through the machine, the dough begins to homogenize and look silky and feel quite smooth. 

At that point it's ready to flatten and shape.  This time, I was going for a thin spaghetti and flattened it to setting 7 (out of 8) on the dial.  So each piece is rolled through setting 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., and as it's rolled it gets longer and you have to cut it into sections and roll each section through the settings, and so on.
This looks like the last pass (below).  By the time I was done, that one ball of dough ended up being about 22 sections of dough, all flattened to #7.  While working with the other sections, you have to keep the dough covered, so I used waxed paper and layered them on top of themselves.

When all of the dough is the right thickness, then you cut.  It feels like reaching the finish line after all of the rolling. (See the waxed-paper covered sections on the counter to my right.)

Here's what I did with the spaghetti/angel hair pasta while I made it:  this is my clothes drying rack, washed up before becoming a spaghetti rack.  We cooked most of this that night, and that which we didn't cook went into a storage container and into the 'fridge.  I'm not sure I'd use the rack again; I think it would work just as well to make the spaghetti into those neat little nests on trays--and I could have dried it that way.
I've had a lot of fun making my own pasta so far.  But, it certainly isn't something you come home and do after working all day.  It's more like a Saturday or Sunday evening hanging out with family/friends in the kitchen with some wine and good music on, keeping tradition alive.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Still Life With Chickens

by Catherine Goldhammer

A memoir of her post-divorce transition with her daughter from a "McMansion" to a cottage by the sea, Goldhammer's diminutive volume is a very quick read. 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Feral Cats

In case you were wondering, I'm still here, plugging away. No disaster has befallen me or my family, it's just been a busy time recently.  Between work, home, feral cats, check-ups, and now a  lot of concern about hubby's 93 year old aunt, we've been extremely busy (a recurring theme, isn't it?). 

Speaking of feral cats, I have learned a WHOLE LOT about them recently.  After our sort-of decision to try to adopt the two Manx cats who have been visiting (we've vacillated a bit since learning how difficult it may be to actually get them to live inside) I went to the houses behind my across-the-street neighbor to make sure that the Manxes didn't belong to someone in that area, where I met a very nice lady named Dot who is also a cat lover.  Not only did she "know" the Manxes, she had also been feeding them and at least 5 additional cats who live in the woods adjacent to her house.  Dot's impression was that people drop off unwanted cats in the woods next to us.  Having four indoor cats herself, she was not in a position to take any more cats in, but assured me that the Manxes and several others were homeless.

Now realizing that we most likely had a colony of feral cats living among us, I've started researching and reading about them.  The trend these days is to trap-neuter-return (TNR) all members of a feral cat colony and then someone usually becomes the caretaker of the colony by putting out food and making a sturdy shelter for them.  One very interesting fact I learned is that in these shelters one should never put blankets, towels or the like because they mildew and become quite nasty.  Instead, the better bedding material is cedar chips, piled several inches deep, with a sprinkle of cat flea powder (other wood chips are ok, too).  Not only does the cedar deter fleas but the loose, deep material also allows the cats to burrow down and hollow out a nest which allows them to retain heat in the cold weather.

Until now I wasn't aware that there are dozens of groups all over the U.S. who sponser and/or operate TNR programs for feral cats.  One group with an excellent website full of resources is IndyFeral.  The foundational concept is that not all cats are alike and some are just not suited to living indoors, and this is not a reason to kill them.  They believe that there is good reason to neuter these cats so they don't overpopulate the area and also to avoid the many annoying behaviors associated with mating.  These cats really do well living in colonies with some human support, according to the many websites.  A group in San Diego also has a very informative website, here.  There, they have documented a 50% reduction in the number of cats caught and killed by animal control compared to the year before the TNR program started nearly 2 decades ago. 

So, for me, this kind of changes things.  I had a nice talk with a wonderful lady from a neighboring town who runs their TNR program, and although she didn't want to discourage me (she said), she thought it was highly unlikely that the Manxes would be tameable as house cats.  But, she was absolutely positive that the cats must be caught and neutered, and she was willing to help us, since her town is having a lull in complaints about feral cats right now.  Next week we are getting together--she's bringing the cat traps and will be making appointments for the neutering the next day (she's pretty sure we'll catch them in one night).  So, late next week I'm becoming part of the TNR group here.  It's funny how you can get involved in a project by caring about something, even when you didn't mean to take it all on!

I still want to see if the Manxes show any signs of being socialized in their past--maybe in just a couple of days they might warm up or something.  If not, we'll release them back to their colony, where they seem to be making out pretty well so far. 

So, I guess I'm becoming at least a part-time feral cat colony caretaker.  I think I'll get Dot involved...maybe if I fund a bunch of cat food she won't mind.  ;-) 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Notice: To Everyone with Spring Fever

Everyone is hereby on notice about making any and all declarations that "Spring is here" or saying anything at all relating to winter weather being "a memory." DO NOT DO IT. Don't even think it yet, much less say it out loud. We cannot risk even the slightest impression that we are baiting Mother Nature here.

You know how she is. She has to call the shots. She has to have the last word, and if she thinks you're pushing her--giving winter short shrift or being too ready for Spring, like wearing short sleeves or even leaving your coat in the car...WATCH OUT!

If she sees a sign that any one of us is not fully prepared for an Easter Day snowstorm, we'll pay the price. Easter is early this year, and wouldn't that be a fun and easy trick for Mother Nature to pull. If we're not all careful, there won't be any frolicking in Easter dresses or bonnets at an Easter Day parade for us; we'll be back wearing the boots and snowpants again. And poor Peter Cottontail will be forced to hop down a bunny trail covered with snow. And he has no boots!

So I beg of you, keep your face a little bit grim, don't say anything hopeful about winter weather moving out, and whatever you do, don't let on that you're starting to enjoy the weather or being outdoors once again. Please, our sanity depends on it!

Taken on my walk around the neighborhood on Sunday March 14.
I'm not sure what these white ones are...they're at hubby's house.
It's really hard to keep all of this under wraps when when such beauty abounds!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Little News

Tonight I'm more excited than I have been in a while. Here's why. In casual conversation with hubby, we talked about how neither of our two remaining cats (Tiger and Frankie--click "Cats" to see my recent cat history) seem to have any mousing ability whatsoever. I thought it was instinctive! Not!

We have let the two out to the garage on many occasions, and I had been hoping that the usual pre-Spring mouse population would be kept in check. However, last week I was made to jump out of my skin when I went out to the garage to leave for work and a big mouse hopped out of the birdseed bag on a face-high shelf about 4 feet from me and ran down a rake handle to the floor. (No, I didn't hop around screaming, but it did make me jump!) I haven't seen a mouse in the garage since I cleaned it several years ago and started having Storm spend time out there periodically.

ANYWAY, so when I mentioned that we might have to get a young female mouser, hubby right away suggested we might try to catch and tame the two Manxes I wrote about just below. They are such beautiful cats! And more importantly, at least one of them (recall, I don't even know their genders) has been catching voles out of my garden pretty regularly, I think. (The voles ate everything with a thick root 2 years ago but now the population is way down.) At least I have seen them hunting over in my gardens and one time I found a dead vole laid out in the middle of a section.

So, I'm starting to plan how we can do this, what we should do about taming them...keeping in mind that it may not be possible at all. Must keep that in mind. They may be too shy, they may not get along with Tiger and Frankie; they may not want to use the litter box; if one's a male he may spray; they may have an incurable disease...there are lots of things which could go wrong, but just the possibility is exciting to me!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Unusual Feline Visitors

Over the last few weeks, we have had the most adorable visitors to our deck. I had seen them around the neighborhood from time to time--they stood out because of their tails...or lack thereof, I should say. These two Manx cats appear to be feral--or at least they're very afraid of human contact.

So, I have fed them because they look to be alone and hungry. I can't tell their genders, but I have called them brother and sister (the sister having more black spots), just to have an easy way to refer to them.

I don't think any two cats would eat this closely unless they were from the same litter. (I'm inside, behind my glass-faced doors.)

"Brother" seems to me to have a thicker neck and mane...more masculine.

While it seems to me that "sister" could be pregnant, judging by her plumpness.

If they have kittens, I'll be doing my best to capture them and get them into good homes.

But at the moment, every time I'm here, I serve up some cat food and stand on the porch calling "Hey Manxes! Here Manxes! Here's some dinner Manxes!" They do not come when I call, but I have noticed that very soon after my car appears in the driveway they stop in to check the bowl on the porch. Maybe I am getting them accustomed to people, at least a little bit, after all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rant and Rave Wednesday

Ok, so it's Wednesday again, and although I've been through the ringer today, I'm joining Little Ms Blogger in doing Rant and Rave Wednesday. Here we go:

Rave: The weather is getting better and better day by day!

Rant: People who drive in the left lane just as slowly as those in the right lane. For miles and miles...

Rant: annoying lawyers who show off in front of their clients by objecting strenuously even thought they know my line of questioning is completely valid.

Rave: A full day's work with lots of good, solid ticks off your to-do list.

Rave: I was thrilled that one of my fellow bloggers became my (get this) eleventh follower. I spent months with 8 followers--and #11 is great!

Rant: So I had to go to the grocery store to pick up things for my party tomorrow and ended up having to pick up all those things we forgot to put on the shopping list last Sunday.

Rave: I got 2 things filed in court, drafted 2 other things, and finished up a major report from Sun-Wed.

Rave: It's Wednesday...only 2 days until the weekend!

Rave: Looking forward to having some of my old friends over to my house for a little get-together. I originally agreed to have a party for a friend for "PartyLite Candles" and since then, I've enlarged that to having a fun get-together with some friends from my last position at the hospital. Can't wait to see old friends!

Rave: it's been a rough week, but tonight I made a delicious turkey chili and some great Cosmos...feeling better already!!

That's about it for today, but it's late, so maybe I can add something tomorrow!

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Night Sky

One of my loves is astronomy. It continually amazes me to look to the heavens at night and see the stars and constellations, planets and their moons, comets, meteorites--there is so much to see! Even without a telescope or even binoculars, most of us can look up on a clear night and see the stars which have been there for generations. The constancy of it gives me great comfort.

But--I'm not writing about it here and now just to amuse myself. I bring up the stars because right now, from March 3-16, around the world, a program is underway to determine how well we can see the stars. Here's an article with an overview of the program, called "GLOBE at Night," from one of my favorite magazines, Sky and Telescope.

It's quite simple, and ingeniously so at that. Anyone in the world with an internet connected computer can participate. All a participant must do is to see the night sky and simply find the constellation Orion (there are diagrams and instructions for finding him on the webpage, link below) and determine his or her location by coordinates (several websites make this simple). Then on a clear night, each observer notes how many stars are visible in Orion as compared to some simple diagrams provided by the GLOBE at Night program.

The GLOBE at Night website explains everything quite well, and there are even student packets which can be used at schools to make the program a valuable educational experience. There are diagrams, etc. on the GLOBE at Night website, but here are a few photos to start you out. First, Orion is the star pattern to the left of the tree--

Below is a much longer exposure of Orion; see the distinctive 3 stars in a line, right around the middle? That's Orion's Belt. The large orangish star to the upper left is Orion's right shoulder, also named Betelgeuse.

And this is a little drawing I though would help illustrate how you get a warrior out of that star pattern:

So, will anyone help out with a cool, global program to measure the brightness of the stars? It really only takes a few minutes... and maybe you'll learn a little bit about the stars and the night sky which can stay with you forever!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Hello March!

There was quite a bit of moaning in the blogosphere (some of it my own) about how rough February has been. I agree with SMB that February is the hardest month to get through! I have long thought of February as the worst month of the year--notwithstanding that my sister's birthday is late in February (sorry sis, hope you liked your card!) But, we've made it through February 2010. I think that means that the whole rest of the year--all 10 months of it--will be easier to manage. Boy, do I hope so.

Over the weekend we had some fair weather; I got outside Saturday to rake some of my driveway back into the space which used to be my driveway... several piles of gravel and surrounding grass were displaced by the snowplow guys and had been resting on my walkway, in the lawn, and in the street. There was also evidence that my mail carrier is mad at me. I think she must have gotten her little truck stuck somehow, just off the pavement in what used to be the edge of my lawn. (This is a flat street next to a flat lot adjacent to a flat gravel driveway. I have no idea how someone would get stuck!) She left a very deep pothole by my mail box, and by the looks of it she spun and spun her wheel, in the process kicking out a pile of dirt onto the street. I'm kind of glad I didn't see this action--she'd be even more angry if I had laughed at her! I put the dirt back and covered it with gravel.

Sunday hubby and I took a good brisk walk all around the neighborhood. True, we were bundled up against the cold (it was partly sunny and about 40 degrees but there was a constant brisk breeze), but it just felt great to get outside and exercise a bit!

This morning it was sunny again and around 40 degrees, but there was something different in the air. It wasn't Spring, exactly, but it was something approaching the beginning of Spring. At 6:15 I awoke and was immediately confused by the brightness outside. The sun was just about to break the horizon, but it already seemed completely light out. I think it sneaks up on you this time of year, especially when you have the weekend (when I don't get up with the sun) preceded by almost a week of nasty weather (when you can't see the sun.) Looking at the charts, it seems that the last morning I would have been able to see the sunrise it occurred at 6:47; this morning it was 6:33! Suffice it to say, I was quite pleased!

Leaving for today's early morning school run, the air was filled with birdsong. At this time of year, even the flock of blackbirds, grackles and the like can sound good. It was as if some great doors had opened and let them all flood in! We have about half of the ground freed up from the snow right now, and the birds just seemed thrilled to hop around on it, finally. In an average year, the first influx of birds is a real sign that we've made it over the hump and we're gathering speed on the way down toward Spring. The birds seem to know. They're not going back to where they spent the winter. The birds say it's time for Spring.