Friday, November 29, 2013

Three Sweet Potatoes for Thanksgiving

Yesterday was, of course, Thanksgiving Day.  My sister Sue was the hostess for the big dinner; she made the turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy, and the rest of us brought the remainder of the meal.  I was in charge of the vegetables, which included the sweet potatoes.

Whenever this happens I end up frantically searching for a new sweet potato recipe.  I personally am a sweet potato purist; left to myself, I roast, grill, or microwave them and eat them with a lot of coarse black pepper and a little sea salt.  If I'm feeling really wild I add butter.  That's it.  For holidays, though, the rest of the family expects a more elaborate recipe - not marshmallows, thank goodness, but something sweeter than a straight yam.

Unfortunately, most of the yam/sweet potato recipes I've ever seen either contain things like cumin and chili powder, which might lead to rebellion when served with traditional turkey, or they're so sweet they make my teeth ache just reading them.  The sweet recipes also tend to run a gazillion calories per 1/2 cup serving.  A couple of years ago I saw a recipe that tried to cut the sugar by using orange juice rather than brown sugar or maple syrup as sweetener, but when I tried it, it came out soupy and rather tasteless.

This year I gave up and created my own recipe, and it went over extremely well with the crowd.  Roasting the vegetables and nuts brings out their natural sweetness and cuts down on the need for added sugar.  Mind you, it's still not exactly low calorie, but it uses no butter and a very modest amount of maple syrup, and the orange juice and pecans at least contain real nutrients.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Cranberries and Pecans

Serves 10-12

Canola cooking oil spray
5 lbs sweet potatoes or yams (I used a mixture of red yams, purple sweet potatoes, and white sweet potatoes for the taste and color contrast)
1 medium yellow onion
1/2 c pecans
1 c fresh or good quality bottled orange juice (I used Simply Orange)
2 tsp orange zest
1 c reduced-sugar dried cranberries
6 Tbl pure maple syrup
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Line two cookie sheets with aluminum foil; spray the foil with cooking spray.

Peel the sweet potatoes/yams and cut them into 1" cubes.  Cut the onion into large chunks (they will separate during roasting).  Spread the vegetables on the foil-lined cookie sheets and spray with the canola oil.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Roast until fork-tender, about half an hour.  (Yams take less time to cook than sweet potatoes; if you use both, put the yams on one sheet and the potatoes on the other.)  Add the pecans to the side of one sheet during the last 5 minutes of roasting.

While the vegetables are in the oven, put the zest and dried cranberries into the orange juice to soak.  When the cranberries have plumped up, put the mixture into a small saucepan with the maple syrup and cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently, until thickened. When the pecans are roasted, break them into chunks and stir them into the sauce.

Pour the roasted vegetables into a large bowl and toss with the sauce.

Spray a 9" x 13" baking dish with oil and arrange the vegetables in it.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue to bake for another 5 minutes.

"I yam what I yam and tha's all what I yam." ~Popeye the Sailor

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Cookie Legacy

Back at the beginning of this blog I posted a number of my mother's Christmas recipes here.  Apparently I forgot to include some of her most popular cookies, because now that she no longer has her recipe box, I've been deluged with requests from family, friends, and church member who hope I've fallen heir to it.  Here's one cookie recipe that's consistently in demand, even by people who don't realize just how simple it is.

Apricot Balls

2/3 c. sweetened condensed milk
2 c. shredded coconut
1 1/2 c. ground dried apricots
powdered sugar

Thoroughly mix the first three ingredients in a medium bowl.  Using a spoon or small scoop, form into 1" balls.  Roll the balls in powdered sugar and set aside to dry.  Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

Note: this is a very sticky "dough," but if it's too wet to handle, add a little powdered sugar to the three base ingredients.

“Eat coconuts while you have teeth” ~Singhalese proverb

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Return of the Prodigal Cat

As I mentioned in my last post, my cat Charlie went AWOL at the beginning of September.

He was out in the screened porch when a sudden thunderstorm blew in.  Either he was frightened by the loud thunder, or excited by something he saw outside.  In either case, instead of running back into the house (the sliding glass door was open), he pushed out one of the screens and headed for who knows where.  Since he is not an outside cat and we had a heavy rain that night, he apparently became disoriented and was unable to find his way back home.  Or maybe he just heard the call of the wild.  At any rate, he didn't return.

When I adopted Charlie I had him microchipped, and also subscribed to the "Home Again" service, which alerts other pet owners, vets, and animal shelters in the area to look for animals that go missing.  I reported Charlie's breakout and was able to download and distribute a "Missing Cat" poster with his name, photo, and description on it.

Over the last 2 1/2 months I received several phone calls about "Charlie sightings."  In one case I drove over to the block where he had been sighted and spent about half an hour wandering peoples' pitch-dark backyards with a flashlight, making the acquaintance of every rabbit in the neighborhood - without, however, locating my truant cat.  I had begun to fear that one of the local coyotes had eaten him for lunch.

Then one night about a week ago I received a phone call from a nearby vet's office.  Someone had found Charlie in a church parking lot and brought him in to the vet for a checkup.  The vet's staff scanned him for a microchip and contacted me immediately.

There's no place like home
Charlie didn't seem particularly excited to see me that night, but after I got him home he perked right up.  Oh, yeah, my dish - my box - my cat condo - my stuffed mouse - my MOM!!  Now he's back to following me around during the day and snuggling up at night.

Charlie definitely lost weight (and his collar and ID tag) during his adventure, but seems otherwise none the worse for wear.  I haven't let him back out on the porch yet, though.  I need to think of a good way to reinforce those screens before I can trust him out there without a chaperone.

"Every parent is at some time the father of the unreturned prodigal, with nothing to do but keep his house open to hope." ~John Ciardi 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Returning to Reality

Sue and I were very fortunate to have a wonderful, relaxing vacation in what must be one of the most beautiful areas on earth.  Unfortunately, things started going south as soon as we returned home.

Charlie's back stripes have darkened with age
The minute I got inside the door of my house, my cat Charlie started cussing me out for having left him alone for two weeks (never mind that my Dad loves cats and is the best kitty-sitter ever).  Two nights later he pushed out one of the porch screens and escaped.  He hasn't been back since.  I did have him microchipped when I adopted him and he was wearing a collar and Humane Society numbered tag, so I'm hoping someone will return him, but he's so easily spooked by strangers that I'm afraid he'll be killed by a coyote before that happens.  Fortunately we've had rain almost every day since, so he shouldn't be suffering from dehydration yet.  I've put up posters and the local shelters and vets have been alerted; keeping my fingers crossed.

Then the news came that one of my favorite cousins has died.  He had had cancer surgery and was feeling and apparently doing well, but it had metastasized (apparently without causing him pain) and that was it.  He grew up in Oregon and I in South Dakota so we really only connected during the last 10 years, after I moved to Arizona and he started spending his winters here, but he was a warm and funny person and I will miss him very much.

Finally, my mother's health has taken a sharp downturn over the last two weeks and yesterday she had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital.  Dad and I spent the whole day there while they ran tests; they kept her overnight and will probably be doing more today.  Back at the facility where they live, Dad has changed their level of care from independent to assisted living so he will have help with things like getting her up and dressed, but he's very worried that that won't be enough and she may have to go into actual nursing home care.  If that happens, I've told him he is welcome to move in with me, but since I only have one bathroom that may be a little tight.

Breathing deeply, trying to stay motivated.

"Fall seven times, stand up eight." -Japanese Proverb

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

By Train to Anchorage

We returned from Denali to Anchorage by double-decker train; the passengers sat on the top level and the bottom level was a dining car.  I had reindeer chili there for lunch; it was good, but the reindeer tasted much more like beef than I expected - I assumed it would be more like the deer my Dad used to shoot in South Dakota.

Photographically speaking, this was another day of vehicle motion, window reflections, and fellow passengers jumping in front of my lens.  Worse yet, I missed the two best shots of the day - a moose disappearing into the forest, and a skinny-dipper jumping into a river just as we passed.  (My guidebook for the area said the water there is about 45 degrees Fahrenheit this time of year - what was he thinking??)

We passed several homes where the owners have to either pack all their supplies in from a road that's miles away, or flag down the train that occasionally comes through to transport them into town and back.  I always used to think I'd like to retire to a cabin in the woods, but I was envisioning something a little closer to fast food and medical attention.

The weather continued clear and we were able to see Mt. McKinley almost all the way back to Anchorage, which is very rare.

"Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world." ~John Muir

Monday, September 9, 2013

Flightseeing in Denali

August 26, my birthday, dawned bright and clear, so Sue and I decided to splurge on a flightseeing tour of Denali in order to see as much as possible in the time available to us.  That meant we circled Mt. McKinley in a 6-passenger plane; because the day was so sunny, we were able to get really close to the peaks and see things that even most flightseeing passengers don't - but I'll let the photos speak for themselves.

Photography from a plane presents challenges I had not fully appreciated until now.  As with shooting from a bus, there's some window interference and the other passengers' heads, elbows, and other stray body parts to deal with, but where a bus will occasionally slow down for scenic locations, the airplane keeps whizzing on at high speed.  Not to mention the "holding the camera steady" problem when the pilot does a sharp U-turn so the passengers on the other side can see what you are trying to take a picture of.  And, of course, we had no time to fiddle with the camera settings for each shot, so the highlights are blown out on a lot of the snow.  Ah, well.  It was still a fabulous trip.

White dots on the lower right are Dall sheep

Group photo courtesy of our pilot

"Flying might not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price." ~Amelia Earhart

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Trip to Denali

After the ship docked in Seward, my sister and I boarded a bus bound for Denali National Park.  We were extremely lucky that the two days we were there were almost entirely sunny and clear; according to the tour bus driver, only a third of all tourists to this area ever get to see Mt. McKinley because it's usually hiding behind clouds.  Here are some of the shots I took on the way up - but the Beluga whales we saw in the Turnagain Arm were too far away to photograph well, and the black bear cub who thought about crossing the road in front of us changed his mind and shot back into the underbrush before I could get my camera up.  Please excuse the spots and reflections from the bus windows (and the occasional head that bobbed in front of me at the last minute).

The night before we reached Denali, the sky put on a spectacular Northern Lights show shortly after 2am.  We left a wakeup call with the hotel in case they showed again the night we were there, but the call never came.  Sue woke up about 3am and saw just a dim green glow on the horizon, so apparently the lights didn't feel like performing for us.

Failed "igloo" hotel

"To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world." ~John Muir

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Folding a Monkey

OK, Holland America is starting to scare me a little.

On my first cruise with them, a cute little animal folded from towels showed up at the foot of the bed every evening.  (I guess some other cruise lines do this, too.)  The towel animals were adorable, and different every night, and I thought, "how lucky we are to have such a talented cabin steward!"

By last year's cruise, a book was available to show interested parties how to fold 40 different towel animals.  I was tempted to buy the book, but really - I've only mastered 3 or 4 different ways to fold napkins, and I occasionally do invite people over to dinner.  Learning to fold towel animals would only make sense if I wanted to entertain and astonish overnight guests, preferably guests under the age of 10.  In the two years I've lived in this house, I've never had a single overnight visitor.  Plus, I was worried that buying the book would spoil the mystery of how the undoubtedly overworked and underpaid cabin stewards managed to pull this off in all of their cabins every single night.

This year, during our second at-sea day, the cruise line actually offered a seminar in how to fold towel animals.  I caved.  I went.  I bought the book.

I also took pictures.  See below.  I apologize for the heads in the way - people came really early for this so we ended up sitting fairly far back and I had to take some of the photos looking at the TV screens rather than the demonstrators.

"A towel animal is a depiction of an animal created by folding small towels. It is conceptually similar to origami, but uses towels rather than paper. Some common towel animals are elephants, snakes, rabbits and swans. 

"The exact originator of towel animals is unknown, but their popularity is often attributed to Carnival Cruise Lines.  The ancestors of the towel animals are perhaps handkerchief animals or napkin folds. 

"Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Disney Hotels and Holland America Line cruises will often place towel animals on a patron's bed as part of their nightly turndown service. Towel animals are also appearing in higher-end hotels and resorts such as Grupo Vidanta's Grand Luxxe Residence Clubs in Nuevo Vallarta and Riviera Maya." 

 ~Wikipedia entry for "towel animal"

Friday, September 6, 2013

Glacier Bay

If the rainforest near Ketchikan was an education in the many shades of green, Glacier Bay was almost equally full of blues. This was the coldest day of the trip, especially since a brisk breeze was blowing off the ice and the ship generated an additional wind while it was moving. The waiters served pea soup and hot drinks on deck around 11:00.

What I saw that you will not see:
  • The Marjorie Glacier calving. All the chunks it dropped were small, and by the time I saw them falling it was too late to capture anything but little splashes in the water.   Someone told me the way to catch them was to listen to the glacier groaning and figure out from that where the next split will be, but the sounds echoed around the cove too much for me to tell.
  • Puffins. Too small and too far away to show up on film. 
  • Whales. I figured you didn't need to see any more anonymous black fins. 
 Unfortunately, photos just can't show you how big everything actually is.  The glaciers are such immense walls of ice that it's hard to believe they are receding as quickly as they really are.

For scale, see large ship in right foreground

The brown dots on the rocks are sea lions

" One day's exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books. See how willingly Nature poses herself upon photographers' plates. No earthly chemicals are so sensitive as those of the human soul." ~ John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir