Saturday, October 27, 2012

Pumpkin Festival

Pumpkins, pumpkins everywhere, and not a pie in sight!  Pumpkins have invaded the courthouse lawn in Sycamore, Illinois, so it must be Pumpkin Fest.  Each year right before Halloween, the town goes crazy for pumpkins.  Pumpkin Fest has all the usual small town festival trappings -- a big parade, a carnival, a craft fair, food booths, and actually it's not true about not a pie in sight because there is a pie-eating contest on one of the festival days.  The festival also has something a little unique (and my favorite part) -- a pumpkin display and contest which covers the courthouse lawn for four days.  Carved pumpkins, painted pumpkins, funny, scary, silly, ugly -- all kinds of pumpkins and jack-o'-lanterns.

Pumpkin Fest began in 1962, and the pumpkin display is quite a popular feature with local folks.  Parents bring their children to see the pumpkins, and I imagine many of them came as children themselves with their own parents twenty years earlier.

This section contained large groups of pumpkins from preschool and school groups.

There are eleven categories for the contest, five age groups, and first, second and third places, so there are lots of winners. The categories are Theme Pumpkins (this year's theme is "Happiness is . . . the perfect pumpkin"); Happy and Fancy; Weird, Ugly, and Scary; TV, Nursery Rhyme, News or Current Events (weird combo, huh?); Carved; Scarecrow; Youth Organization; Adult Organization; Family Entry; Adults -- Carved, Scarecrow and General; and Largest Pumpkin.  This year there were 1,146 entries and, since some entries contain multiple pumpkins, there are lots and lots of pumpkins.

I'm glad I managed to make it to Sycamore this year to see the pumpkins.  I have no interest in the other festival events with the big crowds, but it is fun to tour the pumpkin display. Even on an early Friday afternoon, however, there was a sizable crowd milling around -- young parents with strollers, some school-age children, middle-aged folks with or without grandchildren, attorneys taking a break from court, and a few elderly people walking carefully along the storm fences which enclose the display.  The pumpkins made me smile even as they made me a little wistful for the days when my own children were young.

The Big Winner

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rainy Days and Mondays

Front porch wreath, burlap wrapped for fall
Today I am relaxing and working at home on this rainy Monday to recover from a whirlwind weekend.  Both children blew through for a couple of days to celebrate the husband's birthday. When they are here, it's a firestorm of cooking, laundry, and activity.

Will we ever need to eat again?  Big breakfasts of sausage cheese balls, omelettes, and pancakes.  Lasagna stuffed with cheese and meat sauce.  An enormous dinner at the local steakhouse.  What a dinner that was!  I tried flaming saganaki for the first time and think I'm smitten!  For those of you who are unfamiliar with saganaki, as I was, it's a dish of fried kefalograviera cheese, flambeed in brandy and topped with lemon juice.  If only our waitress had been a little more exuberant with her "Opa!"

Just a sample of the leftover goodies.

And the baked goods, which are still around.  I had made shortbread, the daughter brought a coffee cake, I made a fresh apple cake for the birthday boy, then the son wanted chocolate chip cookies to take back, but he left behind the slightly overcooked ones, and I had a craving for chocolate haystacks.  I didn't use enough chocolate in the haystacks, but they are still pretty tasty.  Daughter took some of the cake, shortbread, and haystacks away, but there is way too much still here.  My waistline does not need this!  I'll have to try to get a little disciplined again before holiday feast time rolls around!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Scenes from My Ordinary Life

I haven't had a lot to write about lately, but I thought today I'd share a couple of images.

My office is a little cubby under the stairs, not quite as small as where Harry Potter had to sleep because there is a bay that bumps out and makes room for my desk.  I bought the desk around 1984 at a little hole-in-the-wall antiques store in Chicago called Clyde's.  It was painted red and black.  The top had been stripped, but the wood was badly stained, so Clyde had given up on stripping it and sold it to me for $50.  It's kind of small (only 42 inches wide) and one drawer is falling apart, but it's been with me a long time.  I feel kindly toward my old desk, and it fits perfectly in this space.  Plus the stained top doesn't bother me since I very rarely see the top anyway.  The little green table came from Ikea unfinished.  I painted it to match the fabric shades I made.  I'm glad you can't see how wonky and crooked the bias tape edging is on the shades.

Anyway, the point of this seemingly pointless story is not what my office looks like, it's the two windows on the sides of the bay.  Late this summer, gnats got wedged in the screens. Whether they got stuck there and died or simply came there to die, kind of like a gnat hospice, I don't know, but last week I was sitting at my desk, and two goldfinches* decided to snack on the dead gnats.  The birds clung to the screens and walked up and down, picking out the gnats as I sat a mere three feet away.  I had never seen anything quite like that.

*Update Oct. 24:  I've just learned from my very knowledgeable bird-watching brother-in-law that these are not goldfinches at all!  They are migrating yellow rumped warblers in fall plumage.  I'm glad to be able to correct my error.  The things you can learn by blogging!

The final image I thought I'd share is a sunset over the prairie.  Yesterday evening we were walking Alfie in the prairie as the sun went down.  The few clouds and jet trails made for an interesting sky.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Chicken Palaw to Fill a Bare Table

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life."  When Socrates said this, I doubt he was talking about my dinner table, but he might as well have been.  When I get too busy with work or home projects or whatever fills my days, sometimes the dinner table takes on a barren, forlorn look, as though nothing of value will appear there -- a mere baked potato, pasta with sauce from a jar, or take-out.  I can only take so much of this, however, before I crave "real" food.

Recently I've been busy moving furniture, painting, patching, ripping out carpet, and more painting.  After a while, though, a girl needs a good meal to keep her going.  So the other day I got the urge for Chicken Palaw, a recipe I copied out of Country Living magazine many years ago.  (Maybe I was inspired to cook this by those viewings of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, who knows?) As you can tell from the name, it's Indian influenced, but not really authentic Indian fare.  Still, it's quite flavorful and a change of pace for a weeknight dinner.

Chicken Palaw

From Country Living magazine

1 1/4 cups basmati rice 
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large carrots, cut in 1/8-inch julienne strips
2 whole boneless chicken breasts, cut in 2-inch chunks
1/4 cup apple juice
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons raisins
2 tablespoons pistachios
2 tablespoons sliced almonds

In heavy 5-quart stock pot, heat 2 quarts water to boiling over high heat.  Stir in rice and 1 teaspoon salt.  Return to boiling and cook, uncovered, 10 minutes.  Drain rice.

In same pan, melt butter with 2 tablespoons olive oil over low heat.  Spoon half of the rice into pan and press down with back of spoon to make a firm layer that covers the bottom of the pan.  Spoon remaining rice loosely on top, then top this with carrot strips.  Cover top of pan with linen towel and a tight lid.  Cook 35-40 minutes or until bottom layer forms a crisp, golden crust.

Meanwhile, in large skillet, sauté chicken in remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat until golden on all sides.  Add apple juice, spices, and ½ teaspoon salt.  Stir until chicken is coated with spices.  Cook, stirring frequently, until chicken is cooked through and liquid is evaporated, about 5 minutes.

To serve, in large bowl, combine steamed part of rice/carrots with raisins and nuts and toss to blend.  Top with chicken mixture.  Break bottom rice crust into pieces and place around the edge.

The rice base before adding the chicken -- rice and carrots tossed with pistachios, slivered almonds, and raisins.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Mrs. Haggard's Divine Coffee Cake

In the fall of 1981, Mrs. Haggard made the best coffee cake I had ever tasted.  I was in my first year of graduate school. Mrs. Haggard (did the woman have a first name?) was the wife of the department chairman.  The Haggards invited all the first years over to their home one evening early in the year to mingle with the faculty.  I was kind of nervous, and I don't think I actually talked to any faculty, but I did discover the most amazing coffee cake.  At the end of the evening, another student (Tracy) and I begged Mrs. Haggard for the recipe.  She very kindly sent it along with her husband the following week.  I have been making that cake ever since.  I expect Tracy, who was from South Dakota, probably still makes it too.  These days, my daughter is in grad school, and she bakes this cake for her friends.  It is always a big hit, and not just with starving graduate students.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake

1 cup margarine or butter
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup sour cream
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Cream margarine/butter and sugar together.  Add eggs and vanilla.  Mix well. 

Sift together dry ingredients and add them, together with sour cream, to butter mixture.  Beat well.

Spoon half of batter into a greased Bundt pan.  (If you do not have a Bundt pan, a tube pan will work.)  Add half of topping.  Then remainder of batter.  Sprinkle on remaining topping.

Bake at 350 degrees F. for 50-60 minutes.  Turn upside down immediately.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Fourteen New Crochet Squares

I have been a hooking fool, ya'll.  Since my last post about my crochet square project, I have made fourteen more squares.  This has become my evening relaxation -- sitting in a comfy chair, watching a movie, and crocheting a new square.  One evening last week, we rented "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" through OnDemand.  That was one of the most enjoyable movies I've watched in a long time.  I liked it so much that I watched it again the next day (and worked on another square!) as I was waiting for the carpet man to stop by for measurements.  Since I watched the movie, I have found myself thinking, "Everything will be all right in the end.  So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end."  Isn't that a comforting philosophy?  How intriguing to think about setting off on such an adventure when one is "elderly and beautiful."  If you have not seen the movie yet, I highly recommend it.  If you have, what did you think of it?

Here are my latest squares from 200 Crochet Blocks for Blankets, Throws, and Afghans by Jan Eaton.  One is even called Marigold!  Bear in mind, these have not been blocked yet, so they are a little curly and misshapen.

Top row: #80 Blocks and Shells, #31 Primrose Square, " 83 Diamond in a Square.
Bottom row: #100 Pastel Delight, #137 Criss Cross, and #113 Wisteria

Left column, top to bottom: #20 Colorful Bobbles, #149 Solid Square, # 87 Peony. Middle column, top to bottom:
#85 Lemon Stripe, #51 Bright Flower, # 78 Briar Rose. Right column: #209 Marigold and # 22 St. Petersburg.