Friday, June 29, 2012

How Dry Is It?

How dry is it in northern Illinois?

Pretty darn dry.  Last week I heard that we are six inches below average in precipitation this year.  Pair that with above average temperatures, and you have some crispy conditions.  This is the worst I've seen it in the eighteen years we've lived in this house.  While I am doing my best to keep my perennials alive and have deeply watered some of the younger trees, there are parts of the yard we have just let go.  The grass is mostly brown and dormant, except in the shadiest spots.  The ostrich ferns along the west side of the house (pretty much constantly shaded) are brittle and crumbly.

Sad, dying ferns

Even some of the weeds in the lawn are curling up and drying out.  When your weeds start to suffer, you know it's a drought!

Curling, wilting plantains.  Not sorry to see them go!

We need rain, and we need it now.  If I thought it would help, I'd do a little rain dance.  As it is, I'll just keep hoping.

UPDATE:  A squall moved through the area and gave us about twenty minutes' rain.  Whoo hoo!  Just the threat of my rain dance was enough!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hello Sunshine

Good morning, Sunshine!  Beccra over at TrueBlog! recognized me with a Sunshine Award.  Thank you, Beccra!  Beccra is an Australian transplanted temporarily to Louisiana.  Please check out her fun blog where she writes about "all things woolmerhof" -- recipes, travel, family -- and signs each post "Peach out ya'll."   

Luckily, as the recipient of a Sunshine Award, I don't have to make a public speech or anything, but there are still conditions.  The first one is not a hardship at all.  I get to recognize a few blogs that I admire and love to read.  I recognized some of my favorite blogs back in January with a Versatile Blogger Award, so I am spreading the joy to some newer favorites this time.

Here are three really creative, fun blogs that I try not to miss.  Please take a look.  I bet you'll like them as much as I do.

Flowers in the Window -- Even though Maggie lives in rainy England, her blog brings sunshine to my day with each new post.  Maggie is so fun and so talented!  She lives in Gloucestershire, so I love it when she takes her readers along on her walks.  She also quilts, crochets, collects vintage, and has an adorable dog named Spencer.  I especially look forward to her Sunday series, Spencer's Sunday Hats.

House of Hawthornes --  Pam is a fellow Midwesterner, an Ohio gal who loves auctions, garage sales, and shares her vintage finds with her readers.  She also throws in some gardening, pets, and life in general.  She has a fun sense of humor and a great eye.  Her photos are fabulous and you'll have fun reading, too!

The Polka Dot Petticoat -- The Polka Dot Petticoat almost always brings a shot of bright color with each post.  Who knew life in Alaska was so colorful?  Polka Dot (sorry, don't know her real name) is a fearless decorator -- who else do you know with a clementine orange bathroom? -- who also shares some of the beautiful Alaska scenery.  This blog is sure to brighten your day!

Looks a little like the sun, right?

The other obligation for a Sunshine Award winner is to answer the following questions.  So now you are going to know some pointless things about me that you never even thought to ask.

Favorite Color?  Well, that depends what day it is and what we're talking about.  I used to say blue was my favorite, but I have moved on.    I have painted a lot of our walls a soft green because it is so easy to live with, but I love the yellow of the outside of our house.  And one of my favorite color combinations is pink and orange.  I have an argyle sweater those colors and LOVE it.

Favorite Animal?  Easy,

Favorite Number?  Do people have favorite numbers?  I guess 13 because I was born on a Friday the 13th.  Bad luck for my mom maybe, but supposedly that makes it a lucky day for me.

Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink?  Another easy one: Diet Coke.  I have an addiction.

Facebook or Twitter?  Facebook.  I don't even understand Twitter.  Tweets -- what is that about?

Passion?  No single passion.  I like lots of things kind of equally -- knitting, crochet, gardening, cooking.  I guess I'm still looking for a real, all-consuming passion.

Giving or receiving?  Who is going to say "receiving"?  I mean really?  But I actually really do prefer to give.  I am more excited on the kids' birthdays for them to open their gifts than I ever am on my own.

Favorite pattern?  Um . . .

Favorite day of the week?  Friday, especially Friday night.  There's the (frequently disappointed) hope that the weekend will bring something fun.

Favorite flower?  Could you pick a favorite child?  Pansies are a long-time favorite, but I also like lilies for their endless variety, and I LOVE peonies and big fat windblown cabbage roses.

Here's hoping your day is filled with sunshine!
Two sunbathers in my yard this morning.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Taste of Scotland: Bannocks

with daughter in Forres, Scotland

My great-great-great-great grandfather, James, came to the States from Ireland, with his Scottish wife Catherine, in the 1770s. After some 240 years, of course, the Scotch-Irish blood in my veins is pretty well diluted by infusions of English, German, and who knows what.  Nevertheless, I feel some pull (probably purely imaginary) of the old sod on occasion.  I have only been able to visit a few times, but I can also connect through food.  I've written before about discovering the yumminess of freshly made shortbread during our visit to Holyroodhouse.  Another tasty treat with Scottish roots is bannock, an easy quick bread.

My recipe varies from a truly traditional Scottish bannock, or oatcake, in that it contains wheat flour in addition to oats.  This recipe is not original to me, but I have had it for many years and have no idea where I got it.  I wish I could claim that it had passed down in my family since my ancestor came over in the eighteenth century, but that simply isn't true.


1 1/4 cup flour
1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal (quick cooking also works)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup buttermilk

Combine dry ingredients, cut in butter.  Add buttermilk; mix lightly with fork until dough clings together. 

Turn out on lightly floured board and knead gently several times.  Pat out to make two 6-inch rounds.  Cut each round into 6 or 8 wedges.

Coat griddle or frying pan with vegetable oil or shortening.  Cook over low heat until golden brown, about 3 minutes.  Turn over and cook the other side until golden and the inside no longer appears moist.

I am linking to:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Light and Crunchy for Summer

Summer is in full swing here in Illinois.  We've been sweltering in the mid to upper 90s for about a week.  I know that is routine in many parts of the U.S., but here in northern Illinois, it's above average for June.

One nice thing about the coming of summer is that it's time for lighter foods. One of our favorites is Chinese chicken salad.  The name is no doubt completely erroneous -- the Chinese probably would deny all knowledge of this dish -- but it does have a little bit of an Asian flair.

This salad is easy to make, especially once the chicken is cooked and shredded.  If you want to make life really easy (after all, it is summer), you could make the dish with rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, but I have never tried that.  I stick with chicken breasts that I braise in a little water and shred as soon as they are cool enough to handle.

I prefer this salad as a combination of cool and warm ingredients.  When I assemble the salad, the cabbage is cold, the chicken is usually about room temperature, and the noodles and almonds are still quite warm.  You can have everything chilled if you prefer or if you want to prepare all the ingredients in advance.  It is important not to dress the salad until immediately before serving, however, or the noodles will lose their crunch.

Chinese Chicken Salad

4 cups (approximate) chicken breast, cooked, shredded
1/2 medium/large head cabbage, chopped
10 green onions, chopped
1/2 cup butter
2 packages Ramen noodles, crushed
1/4-1/2 cup slivered almonds

Dressing (whisk all together):
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 cup sugar

Mix chicken, cabbage, and green onions together in a large bowl. 

Melt butter in non-stick skillet.  Add crushed noodles and almonds.  Cook, stirring frequently, until nicely browned.

Add noodles to chicken/cabbage mixture.  Toss to mix.  Add dressing.  Toss to mix.  Serve immediately.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

No Need to Gild these Lilies

One of my husband's favorite expressions is "gilding the lily," so much so that it has become something of a joke in our family.  To gild the lily, of course, is to add something to an item that is already perfect.  Did you know the expression arises from a misquotation of a Shakespeare play?
Therefore, to be possessed with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
-- Salisbury in The Life and Death of King John, IV ii
double orange daylily

I really kind of like the original expression -- "to paint the lily"  -- but there's no going against all these years of misquotation.

The lilies in our yard this summer need neither gilding nor painting.  While maybe not perfect, many of our lilies are in glorious bloom right now.  There is always a period when the Asiatics and the daylilies are in bloom at the same time, a time of vibrant color in our garden.

I love lilies; they are so carefree.  The only problem I have with them is that almost all of my Asiatic lilies must be staked.  My yellow trumpets and pale peach lilies, for example, are giants, reaching four to five feet tall.  Even the shorter ones need to be staked though, as the weight of the blossoms will cause them to topple.  The only other work is entirely self-induced.  I deadhead my daylilies every single day.  Am I the only one crazy enough to do this?  I have old-fashioned varieties, so it does not encourage further blooming.  I just don't like the sight of the wilting blossoms.

I thought I would share with you some of the lilies in our yard.  If I showed one of each variety, this post would be much too long. This is less than half of the lily varieties we have.  (What can I say? I'm a nut for lilies.)  I wish I could tell you the names, but I have no idea. Many of them were hand-me-downs.

Linking to:

Bunny Jean's Decor and More Bunny Hop Party

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Four Square

Remember playing four square as a kid?  Or two square?  I don't actually have to remember that far back because we have a two square court painted on our driveway.  Our son used to love to play two square and would draw a chalk court onto the blacktop.  One day I suggested he paint one instead.  I guess that's a little atypical for the average home, but it provided lots of fun times, and we even repainted it after the driveway was recoated.  A couple of weeks ago, the son (now 20) and I played a rousing game of two square.  You won't be surprised to hear that I lost.  I mean, how hard is it for a 6'3" strong young guy to beat his middle-aged mother?  Not very.

The four square I'm writing about today, though, has nothing to do with asphalt and a rubber playground ball.  I want to show you the first four squares I have crocheted from the 200 Crochet Blocks book by Jan Eaton that I told you about in April.

They're pretty wonky because I haven't blocked them yet.

In 200 Crochet Blocks, Eaton developed a difficulty ranking system for the different blocks.  One hook is a beginner block, two hooks means some experience required, and three hooks is designated as challenging.  Two of the blocks I crocheted are very simple, one-hook-rated patterns -- the Openwork Square (#10 of the 200) and the Traditional Granny (#18).  The other two were a little more complicated.  Italian Cross (#24) is a two-hook pattern, and it taught me the puff stitch, which is really fun.  And Waterlily (#16), a three-hooker, is my first three-dimensional square.

Italian Cross puff stitches

I still have a ways to go on the quality of my crochet -- tension, even stitches, etc. -- but it's fun to learn new stitches and techniques.  I plan to eventually have enough squares to put together a throw for my daughter.  She is a fabulous knitter, but luckily she doesn't crochet, so maybe she will be a tiny bit impressed with a little blanket of squares.  After all, if I can't wow the kids with my playground two-square skills anymore, I'll have to take what little glory I can.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

It Came as a Rat, but Left as a Rag

Alfie is a very destructive dog.  We are always on the lookout for toys that can withstand his concerted attempts to destroy.  Kongs are good, Megalast makes a bone that holds up well, and there's always Nylabone, but he never gets to have any stuffed or soft toys -- you know, the cute toys that are probably designed to suit the owner more than to please the dog.

Recently, however, we were in a doggie boutique.  Not a clothes for dogs boutique, thank goodness, but one that carried high-end toys and treats.  The young lady in the shop managed to convince us that Mighty Dog Toys could withstand Alfie.  Her boxer, whom she assured us is very destructive, can't tear them up.  The toys come in a range on the manufacturer's "Dura-Scale."  The highest they carried at the boutique rated a nine out of ten, "extremely strong - extremely durable."  So we hopefully plunked down $25 for an "extremely durable" stuffed gray rat.  There was no ranking for cuteness, which I admit would be subjective, but this would not have been a nine of ten on that scale.  Still, it was stuffed.

Day One of the Rat

Alfie loved it!  He wasn't too willing to share at first, but then decided it was okay if we threw the rat for him to retrieve. He carried it around constantly the first evening, and even placed it carefully by his bed when he went to sleep.

still Day One of the Rat

Day Two of the Rat, stuffing on the floor

So the rat made it through the first night.  By the next day, however, the rat's tail was gone and its poor little ears looked chewed.  Okay, we expected the tail and ears wouldn't last, but it was basically still in one piece.  A foot went next.  Alfie worked hard to pull the stuffing out of the little leg and was quite pleased with his efforts. That opened the floodgates.

Alfie had broken the Mighty Dog Toy code.  He'd show them mighty dog!  On the third day, I watched Alfie gleefully pull stuffing out of the rat's belly and toss it aside to pull out another batch. Soon there wasn't much stuffing left anywhere in the rat, but our trashcan held a good bit.

While three days doesn't seem like much for a toy that tells you on its hang tag to "RETHINK DURABILITY," it's a record for a stuffed dog toy at our house, so I guess the Mighty Dog Toy hype had some basis in fact.  Still, we won't be buying any more $25 stuffed playthings.  Because while the rat may have been "extremely durable," Alfie is extremely determined, and he never met a stuffed toy he couldn't beat.

Death of the Rat, a mere shell of its former self

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Guy Fieri's Taj Maholla!

Finished dish on basmati rice
Are you looking for something new and different to do with chicken?  We eat a lot of chicken at our house and are always on the lookout for new taste sensations.  This chicken dish from Guy Fieri fills the bill.  I have made it a couple of times, so I naturally had to tweak it a little after the first try.

This recipe uses chicken thighs, so it is pretty economical.  Be warned, however, this is not a quick dish -- there are several steps involved -- but it is quite tasty.  Especially if you double the amount of spices as I do.  I use garam masala that I purchase at our local food co-op, so I can't vouch for Fieri's masala recipe. I serve the chicken over basmati rice for further Indian taste.

You can find the recipe here on the Food Network website.

Chicken thighs after baking, still on the bone

Boned and shredded chicken added to the sauce

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hooray for Yarn Swaps!

Recently Libby of Artistic Expressions by Elisabeth hosted a yarn and tea swap.  I think I was the first person to sign up -- a yarn swap, how fun is that?

Last week, my yarn arrived!  I was so excited, I opened the box immediately.  My package was from Libby herself, so it was extra special for me since I have been reading her blog for quite some time, and I knew it would be fabulous. I was certainly not disappointed.  Everything was wrapped in a fun print fabric, and she had written a note on a beautiful note card with one of her photographs on the front.  You see, Libby is one multi-talented woman.  She crochets, sews, and is an exceptional photographer as well.  You can check out her blog and her website to see her work.

My package contained a yarn that was completely new to me, Alpandina, an alpaca blend from Peru.  So soft, and what a wonderful, earthy color.  I have been wondering what to make with this special yarn, and I think I will make my first shawlette from a pattern on Ravelry.

Libby also included Twinings Earl Grey tea, and -- surprise -- a package of Meyer Lemon Moravian Cookies, a local specialty in her area.  They are absolutely delicious.  So thin and crispy, delicate and lemony.  Perfect!  They are very good on their own, but I'm thinking they might also go well with a little frozen vanilla custard.


Naturally, a yarn swap is a two-way street, and that is half the fun.  Even before I received the name of my recipient, Geraldine from Gege Crochet, I was planning what yarn to send.  I decided to send something truly unique, yarn from one of the Illinois Green Pastures Fiber Cooperative producers.  I headed to Esther's Place, a wonderful fiber arts studio located in a picturesque older house in Big Rock.  Esther's Place (named for a sheep) is a great spot to learn to knit, crochet, felt, spin, and pretty much anything that can be done with wool.  There is also a nice little shop with gorgeous roving and yarns.  It was really tough to choose the yarn, especially for someone I don't know, but I finally settled on a soft and fluffy yarn spun from the wool of Icelandic sheep, raised and spun at Red Brick Road Farm in Dixon, Illinois.  I really hope Geraldine likes pink!

This was the first time I have participated in a yarn swap.  Thanks, Libby, for hosting it!  It definitely won't be my last.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Pistachio Chocolate Curry Cookies?

Crispy version

Our son went to a residential high school about thirty-five miles from home.  The parents association hosted a dinner one Friday a month to give the students -- particularly those who didn't get to go home too often -- a break from cafeteria food.  Each month was a different theme.

One month was Indian cuisine, a chance for the many Indian families at the school to showcase their favorite dishes.  Knowing I couldn't compete with real Indian cooks, I scoured the internet for a dessert which would complement the theme that I could also make in bulk.

I found a recipe on Epicurious for Pistachio Dark Chocolate Crisps.  The crisps generated a lot of interest that night as people tried to figure out exactly what they were.  What they were was, in a word, unique.  A not-too-sweet combination of colorful nuts and bittersweet chocolate with a surprising touch of curry powder.

Cookie version
Recently, I made the crisps again and adjusted the flavorings to make them a little zippier.  I also worked up a less crispy, more cookie-like version.  I find it hard to spread the batter evenly with the crisp version because, let's face it, 1/8 inch is really thin.  That's why the edges of the crisps are so dark in my first photo.  The edges overcooked.  The crisp version is nice and crunchy, so I don't discourage you from trying it.  Just be sure not to get your batter too thin along the edges.

The flavor combination of chocolate and curry is intriguing.  I used 1/2 teaspoon of curry because we like the flavor.  If you are less adventurous, you might want to go with 1/4 teaspoon.  (The original recipe calls for only 1/8 teaspoon.)

For the original recipe, please click here to go to Epicurious.

Pistachio Chocolate Crisps
Adapted from Gourmet Paul Grimes, Gourmet  on

Crispy version, see how thin they are?
1/4 cup salted butter, softened
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
6 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon curry powder, depending on spiciness desired
1 large egg white
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup shelled, roasted pistachios, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Blend butter, brown sugar, flour, vanilla, curry powder, and egg white until smooth.  Spread batter evenly on parchment paper into a 12- by 10-inch rectangle (1/8” thick).  Scatter chocolate and nuts evenly over batter, then bake until golden brown, 15-18 minutes.  Transfer, still on parchment paper, to rack to cool completely.  Remove from paper, break into pieces. 

For a softer, more cookie-like version:

Cookie version, much thicker
1/2 cup salted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 - 3/4 teaspoon curry powder, depending on spiciness desired
1 large whole egg
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup shelled, roasted pistachios, chopped

Follow preparation and baking instructions as for crisps.  Cut into rectangles while still slightly warm.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Drifting in Vero

The older section is to the right.  The three-story building on the left is also part of the inn.  This picture was taken in 2010.
Sadly, they are replacing the wooden railing on the left-hand building with something that is more weatherproof.

In my last post, I wrote about the sea turtles who nest in Vero Beach, Florida.  Today, I thought I'd talk about where we usually nest when we are there.  The Driftwood Inn is our favorite spot to stay on Vero's Orchid Island.  Right on the beach, the original section of the Driftwood was built by an eccentric businessman named Waldo Sexton in the 1930s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It's a wonderful, quirky spot with bells, ironwork, salvage, and other odds and ends everywhere you look.  We first stayed at the Driftwood in 1995, so it feels a little like home to us.

Our favorite "room" is the Gatehouse, a free-standing structure with a private deck perched above the roof.

The Gatehouse

We have also stayed in some of the Cottages, which Driftwood lore says were fishing shacks that Sexton moved to the property initially for use as retail shops, later converted to guest rooms.

The Cottages, which run along the north edge of the property, seen from the deck of the Gatehouse.

Looking into Waldo's early in the morning.

The inn also boasts a very popular restaurant, Waldo's, named for founder Waldo Sexton.  On Friday and Saturday nights, it is almost impossible to find a parking place in front of the original building because both tourists and locals pack Waldo's -- inside, on the porch, and on the deck overlooking the ocean.  I have so many great memories of delicious meals at Waldo's.  My husband has long been a fan of their Cajun fish sandwiches while I alternate between chicken quesadillas and a fabulous hamburger with potato wedge fries.  I'm getting hungry just thinking about it!

Like any place on the beach, the Driftwood is not inexpensive, but the location and the charm keep us coming back.

Do you have a favorite hotel that calls you back time after time?

Waldo's back entrance with guest rooms above.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Where Sea Turtles Come to Cry

Vero Beach -- a charming town on Florida's Atlantic coast.  We have visited Vero pretty often over the past twenty years, ever since my in-laws bought a condo there.  We often used to go down on spring break, until the first child went to college and the kids' spring breaks no longer coincided.  When we started visiting in late May and early June, we learned that this time of year is turtle nesting season.

Early one morning several years ago, my daughter and I were walking along the beach looking for shells or whatever we could find.  Suddenly a woman who lived in one of the houses on the beach popped out from behind a row of sea grape and asked if we were looking for turtle tracks. We didn't have any idea what turtle tracks looked like.  She kindly showed us some tracks and a nest.  The tracks look a lot like tire tracks from an ATV, so we had possibly seen the tracks before and thought they were just tracks from the shore patrol.

She also told us that the female turtle cries as she lays her eggs.  (The turtles don't really "cry" of course, but their eyes do water in order to remove excess salt.)  After talking to the turtle lady, I was hooked.  I love to look for turtle tracks, especially early in the morning before the turtle patrol has come along to drive on the tracks and flag the nests.

Last week was a particularly good one for turtle nesting. Some mornings we spotted as many as six sets of fresh tracks. Florida's east coast is a popular spot for loggerhead turtles to nest although leatherbacks and green turtles also nest there. The female loggerhead turtle nests on average every two to three years, beginning around age 30.  She will nest an average of four, but as many as seven, times during a single season, laying 60-120 ping-pong-ball-sized eggs in each nest. Amazingly, the turtles return to the same beach where they hatched.  

They usually nest at night, so I have never seen the turtles themselves, but we may have seen one surfacing this year a little way off shore.  A brownish shape appeared a few times one day when we were in the waves.  (Need I say, it freaked me out?  I am nervous about living creatures in the ocean. Especially since someone was bitten by a shark in the exact same stretch of beach earlier in May this year!) 

The eggs hatch after about sixty days, and the tiny two-inch hatchlings make a nighttime run to the ocean.  Only one in a thousand of the endangered hatchlings live to maturity, so the females who crawl up on Vero Beach's sandy shore are real survivors.
A fresh nest and a flagged nest several days old.