Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Best Broccoli Ever

Broccoli has a bad reputation.

President Bush (the first one) banned broccoli from Air Force One and the White House for the duration of his presidency, saying:

I do not like broccoli. And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli.  - George H. W. Bush
That was pretty bad press for the poor cruciferous vegetable (a family that includes cabbage and brussels sprouts, putting the sad members of the Brassica genus among the least favorite veggies on anyone's lists). "Even the president doesn't eat broccoli, Mom, so why do I have to?"

Recently, poor broccoli has gotten dragged into the health care debate in the United States, with a Supreme Court Justice comparing health insurance to broccoli:

Could you define the market -- everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food, therefore, everybody is in the market; therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.
- Justice Antonin Scalia

Do you see a theme here? The president's mother made him eat it. Justice Scalia is worried about people being made to buy broccoli*. Why is it that so many people hate broccoli and see it as something you eat because it's healthy food, and even then you choke it down reluctantly, probably smothered in Cheez Whiz? That's not fair to broccoli. Oh, and don't give me the old "I hate it because I'm a "supertaster" argument, either, because we found out at a science fair that Dave is a "supertaster" and he loves the hell out of broccoli.

Yes, broccoli is good for you. But why do so many maintain the belief that "good for you" and "tastes like crap" are synonyms? You've got goodies like folate, Vitamins K and C, fiber and calcium, all contained in a vegetable that looks like a tiny tree! 

"Broccoli Forest" Artist: Carl Warner
I found a way of preparing broccoli that might, maybe, be able to convert some antibrassicans into broccoli eaters. Voluntary ones. If all you've ever had is floppy, overcooked broccoli, then of course you hate it. Boiling or steaming the life out of something isn't usually putting it in its best light, you know?


Two heads of broccoli
One garlic clove, peeled and chopped
Some olive oil
Salt and pepper
A lemon
A handful of shredded parmesan

Preheat the oven to 425F. Nice and hot. Cut the broccoli into little florets, then toss them with the olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic. Dump it onto a baking sheet in a single layer, and then put it into the oven for 15-20 minutes. Check it after 10 minutes, stir everything around a little, and put it back in. You're looking for the point after the florets to start turning a little brown but before they get floppy. You should be able to get a fork through the stems, but they should offer some resistance.

Take them out of the oven and toss them with a little lemon zest (just a little) and a tablespoon or two of lemon juice, depending how lemony you want it. I juiced half a lemon into two heads of broccoli and it was too much. Let it cool a little before adding a handful of parmesan and serving it up.

If you hate broccoli because of its bitterness, this is a recipe to try before giving up on it entirely. Roasting at a high heat takes all the bitterness out of broccoli and adds a sweet, nutty flavor. The garlic and lemon and cheese just take it to a whole new level.

Try it, and then come back and tell me if you liked it.

*I know that's not the actual argument he was trying to make. I still think it's silly.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Saint Jean and Poutine

June 24th is a big day in Quebec. It's the "national" holiday, by which I mean it's recognized by the province, which considers itself a nation. Or something. I'm not going to delve into the deep political meaning of the day, because I don't want to get into a discussion of separatism and federalism and the language laws and the government. Simply stated, it's the feast day of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, or Saint John the Baptist, who is Quebec's patron saint.

Like all other summer holidays in North America, it is a day for grilling, beer, flags, and fireworks. And that's all that really matters. A day to get together with friends and family, enjoy the time off work, and have a couple of burgers and a Molson while kicking back and fighting mosquitoes.

That's what you do when you're in Quebec for the holiday, anyway. Far from home and without my fun and boisterous French Canadian family and friends, it's hard to really get the party on.

For my celebration, I had my morning coffee in my Quebec flag mug, and I greeted the cats in French for a change. They gave no sign, naturally, that they noticed the deviation from the norm. Instead of fireworks and beer, we had a day of Costco and laundry, and I popped over to Facebook a few times to see how others back home were celebrating. A day at the beach, hot dogs and champagne... even my sister, far off in Vancouver, draped a Quebec flag over her patio table for her coffee break.

I set things right in my home by having poutine for dinner.

Poutine, for those who don't know it, is pretty much Quebec's national dish. It's a delicious mix of cheese and french fries covered in a brown gravy. Not just any fries or cheese or gravy will do, though, and so making poutine here in the States is a challenge.

French fries are easy enough to get, and I sent Dave out to get some from Five Guys Burgers and Fries because they're the perfect poutine fries. They're equivalent to the ones at one of Quebec's best poutine makers, the fast-food chain La Belle Province. You're going to use these fries to sop up gravy, so they need to be soft enough to spear with a fork and flexible enough to curve into the corners of the bowl and get all the gravy. Five Guys gets it just right.

I have packets of poutine sauce, so I made a batch while Dave was off at Five Guys. It's just a basic brown gravy, nothing too fancy, but different restaurants back home have their own versions. I may try making my own one day, when I run out of packets, but I think it would be acceptable to use a generic "brown gravy" packet if necessary.

The hardest part to get right is the cheese.

Before you can even consider throwing some poutine together yourself, you will need to find the freshest possible cheese curds. Do not even think about using shredded cheddar or mozzarella, no matter what you've seen on the internet or tried in American restaurants. Ideally, you need "squeaky cheese". Curds so fresh that they squeak between your teeth as you bite into them. Unfortunately, that's not easy to find in my area, and probably not easy to find in much of the United States, but the grocery chain Wegmans sells a reasonable facsimile (right flavor, no squeak).

There aren't many Wegmanses around here, which is why I've never had the chance to make my own poutine before. Last week, though, the brand new store opened up in my neighborhood just in time for me to do this for Saint Jean! Hooray!

Admit it. You want some.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Playing with glass

I played with molten glass and I lived to tell about it! Look, here's proof!

Getting my glass all melty so I can work with it.

A good friend talked me into a Groupon deal at a glass art studio - a two-hour beginner class where we'd get to play with molten glass. Sure, I thought to myself, what better way to spend a hot Maryland summer evening than standing by a two-thousand-degree furnace and risking third-degree burns?

The class was at Lillie Pad Studios in Millersville, and I'm going to tell you about it, but please don't trust me to be giving you accurate information about the process! I was faint from the heat and scared to burn myself, and mostly only paid attention to the "how to do this and not end up in the hospital" parts of the lesson. The instruction was really superb and I should have been more relaxed and taken it all in, but I was such a chicken!

The instructors got us some molten glass to work with by collecting it on the end of a long metal pole called a punty. When it first comes out of the heat, it's the consistency of honey, so it's important to keep the punty spinning gently to avoid letting your glass ooze to the floor. I was told I have an excellent sense of gravity. I'm so proud!

We made simple paperweights, and the first step was getting some color into our pieces. To do that, we dipped the hot glass into little colored glass chips, and then put it back into the fire to let it all melt together. Some colors are opaque and some of them are translucent, and mixing them right can get a great layering effect.

Then we let the glass drip into sturdy metal molds and take a shape. It cools quickly enough that you only need to hold it in place for under a minute, but the important part is to keep the punty completely vertical, or you'll get a lopsided piece.

Once the glass was molded, we let it cool so the instructors could add more glass over the top of the shape, to make another layer. Then it was time to work the glass with some tools, to smooth it and prepare it to be chipped off the punty. We started with wet newspaper and our bare hands! Gravity pulls the glass downwards, and all we were doing with this step was keeping our hand under the dripping glass so it dripped into a roundish shape. With the punty constantly rolling, of course. I was petrified about this step, naturally, and focused so much on not burning my hand that I had a hard time coordinating the rolling part. The instructor stepped in and took over, because I couldn't keep the punty straight.

Of course, it eventually has to come off the punty! We used jacks to make a channel in the glass while we were spinning it, and slowly pulled the paperweight part away from the pole, leaving it connected by a dime-sized section of glass.

Using the jacks to get the piece away from the punty

Letting gravity flatten out the bottom of the piece

The pieces had to cool slowly overnight in a special oven so the temperature differential wouldn't cause them to shatter, so I had to wait to bring my paperweight home! Here are the final products from our group:

Mine is the monstrosity on the right!
It was a ton of fun, and it's a hobby I could see myself enjoying very much, if not for the blistering heat. I'm whiny when I'm too hot! I felt bad because a couple of times I couldn't handle standing in front of the glory hole (yes, that's the actual name for the furnace thing, and yes, I also giggled), and my instructor had to "take the heat" for me. I might consider going back for more... in the winter.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day

Certain moments have the power to shape you. I adhere to the belief that one's personality is already sketched in at birth, and that the experiences of one's early years serve only to fill in the picture, to add color and depth.

As you may have gathered, if you've read any of my blog, I'm sort of a geek. It took me a while to come to terms with it, but now that I embrace my geekiness, I realize that I need to thank my father for adding much of the shading and color to that part of my self.

It may have started even earlier, but my first geeky memory is of my father reading us The Hobbit out loud, making different voices for the characters, a few pages each night before bed. Yes, his Gollum sounded suspiciously like Grover, and his songs were a little off-key, but it didn't matter to me. When we finished the Hobbit, he read us the Lord of the Rings. I remember the apprehension I felt as the Fellowship entered Moria, and my sadness when Boromir fell. It was summer, and we were on a family vacation in a cabin in the Laurentians, when Theoden King defended Helm's Deep, and the Ents took Isengard. I read the books for myself soon after he was finished, and loved them even more. I didn't get all crazy and teach myself Elvish (Sindarin or Quenya), but so far, I have re-read those books at least twenty times. I know I'll read them again, probably another twenty times, and I look forward to reading them to my children someday. 

It occurs to me, now, that I've never sat down to watch the Lord of the Rings movies with my father. Maybe I should fix that sometime.

Thanks for your half of the geeky genes and the encouragement, Dad. Happy Father's Day.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cat tooth

This is a cat tooth.

Normally, one would find it inside a cat's mouth.

Obviously, this means the beasts have graduated from the level of "cat fight" to "hockey fight". I'll have to buy them little jerseys they can pull over each other's head. I hunted them each down in turn to play the "show me your mouth" game so I could figure out who's won a vet visit. Mojo was first, and he's easy - after months of pills and medicines and vet visits, he surrenders after only the most perfunctory of struggles and lets me check his mouth. He was fine, so Horton was next. Also a simple task, since he very much enjoys baring his teeth to bite my face off. I pissed him off, let him pounce, and quickly counted fangs before he made contact.

So, that leaves this furry Animal.

He hasn't been acting differently at all, so I'm incredibly surprised to find him shedding teeth. How long has he been in pain? How bad are the other teeth? It doesn't look like it broke off in a fight, because the edges are too jagged. I suspect that he inherited the same bad-teeth genes as his older half-brother, and will need some kitty dental surgery. 

I'm feeling so guilty about not bringing them to the vet more often, but they're healthy and happy and there was really no need, or so we thought. They're getting older, and we only recently realized that - Mojo is 12 and Animal is 11, which means they're considered "seniors" in the cat world. Like older people, I guess the health problems start to stack up as kitties age. We'll be doing regular visits to the vet now, for all of them, so we can hope to catch problems earlier and not have to resort to anything drastic.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Things.... in.... Spaaaaaace!

I like to get excited about space. Google can vouch for me: I have a gold Google News badge for reading 4 times as many articles about space than the average reader. It's just an internet badge, though, nothing I get to wear proudly pinned to a sash like a Girl Scout. Yet.

If only I was better at math, I'd have aimed myself at astronomy, because there are so many amazingly awesome things in space. And for once, I don't mean "awesome" as in "totally rad". I mean to say that space inspires awe. Mouth-hanging-open, mind-totally-blown, world-slowing-down awe. Can anyone look up into a starry sky and not feel like a tiny speck in a huge universe? Between Cosmos, Star Trek, NOVA, and televised Space Shuttle launches, a love of space was planted and nurtured in me well before I was out of elementary school. If I could have gotten away with it, I would have done every project, in every class, about Mars.

Part of what amazes me about space is the distances and sizes of things. How are we supposed to wrap our minds around the fact that we can fit over a million Earths inside the volume of the Sun? Venus is almost the same size as the Earth, and when it passed between us and the Sun on June 5th, this is what it looked like from our point of view:

Photo from a fancy NASA telescope

That little black dot on the top right is Venus. See how tiny it looks? Now here's the best part: it's still about 70 million miles from the sun! If it was right up against the sun, it would be too small to make out at all (not to mention completely incinerated). You can imagine that if you hollowed out the sun and started filling it with Venuses, it could very well take a million or more. And we live on a planet that's about the same size as Venus. In little tiny houses with little tiny yards where we can stand outside with little tiny telescopes and watch Venus travel across the sun, making us feel both completely insignificant and profoundly connected to it all.

I don't have a telescope, because I've always lived too close to big cities to make stargazing worthwhile, and because good telescopes are pretty expensive. So the best way for me to enjoy the transit of Venus across the sun was to find live pictures online. Someone posted a link on Facebook to a live Google+ "hangout" featuring Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer) and other space nerds, and hearing those guys get giddy and excited about what they were seeing, made me need to try and see something outside. The sun was setting, and it was mostly cloudy, but I saw some rays poking through the clouds and figured it was worth a shot.

Obviously, staring into the sun is horrible for your retinas, so in order to see the transit safely, I rushed to make a pinhole camera.

There are many how-to guides online, and they all follow the same basic pattern. I opened a cereal box and put a roughly-cut-to-fit piece of white paper on the bottom to give me a nice viewing surface. Then I cut two small rectangles out of the top of the box and taped the box back together to hold its shape. I taped some tin foil over one hole and made a tiny hole in the center. I didn't have a pin handy, so I used the lead from a mechanical pencil, which worked fine. Here is my gorgeous sun-viewing device:

So there I was, standing in my front yard with my back to the sun, one eye squinted shut and a tin-foiled Cheerios box held up to the other, while neighbors walked their dogs past me and wondered why I was peering so intently into my cereal. If I'd been able to see anything, I would have invited them to have a look, but the image of the sun was too small for me to make out the tiny speck of Venus.

I'd make a better viewer for next time, using binoculars and a filter, but the next transit of Venus isn't until 2117. The best I'll be able to do is convince my eventual grandkids that they should look up.