Blogging for Books: Knitting Block by Block, by Nicky Epstein

December 9, 2014

I love this book and anticipate getting a lot of use out of it.  In this very attractive book, Epstein presents a multitude of blocks ranging from the simple (stockinette, basket weave) to the three dimensional (textured flowers, Irish cables) to complex and delicate colorwork (leopard eyes, snowflakes, fair isle) that you can combine into an infinite number of potential projects.  She provides directions for a number of projects, from afghans to stuffed toys, but again, these patterns serve best as a template for your own creations.  At the end of the book she provides three very useful addendums:  edgings to pull the whole project together; attractive joinings; and miniature block pictures to copy and arrange in structural diagrams for project planning.

THIS BOOK PRESUMES A LOT OF KNITTING KNOWLEDGE AND A LOVE OF SLOW, INTRICATE WORK.  I WOULD NOT RECOMMEND IT FOR NOVICES.  Where I felt the book fell down was in providing help for those of us who have an artistic bent but lack an engineering one.  I am starting a baby blanket with embossed bunnies, and after struggling with my sample square I now understand the process, but it took lots of trial and error.  Epstein relies on illustrations and diagrams for explanation, but some words would help us verbal folk.  An explanation of how embossing works (an epiphany hit me mid-square–oh yeah, its’s the knit/purl textural contrast) would have saved lots of frustration.  A review of the basic principles of intarsia would have helped too.

Also, while there’s a useful page on gauge, Epstein provides no guidelines for calculating how much yarn one might need for a project.  I will have to ask at my friendly local yarn store.




maybe on 92?

November 25, 2014

Monsanto, Kraft, and their agribusiness cohorts dumped millions of dollars into defeating Oregon’s Measure 92, an initiative that would require labeling of GMO products.  When, on election day, the measure was trailing narrowly but still “too close to call” CNBC and other major news media were quick to pronounce it dead and bury it quickly, out of the public’s mind.

Not so fast.  The majority of the uncounted returns were from Multonomah County, which heavily favored 92.  When those returns were counted, 92’s margin of defeat was under 10,000.  (over a million and a half cast)   It then  came to light that 13,000 ballots had been rejected for lack of signatures.  According to state law, Yes on 92 could count those ballots if they were able to canvass door to door and verify the identity of the voters. AT THEIR OWN EXPENSE.  Which they did.  At the end of the counting deadline yesterday (Nov. 24) Measure 92 was behind by only 809 votes.  This is triggering an automatic recount the first week in December.

In reality, Measure 92 may well still lose.  It is rare that recounts, even in an election this close, change the outcome.  But even if they lose, the ridiculously narrow margin of defeat proves that Measure 92, or its equivalent can come back and readily win in 2016.  Several points worth drawing from this:

1)  Every vote counts!  All you cynical and lazy idiots who didn’t exercise your rights in this democracy go to the great effort of filling out your ballot and dropping it in the mailbox next time.

2)  A lot more education is needed.  Let me address a few of the misconceptions I’ve heard about GMO labeling–

a)  Mixing up GMOs and hybrids.  Look at it this way.  A labradoodle is a hybrid.  A poodle and a Labrador retriever are purposely bred to make labradoodles but left to their own devices, if put together in a room, they would mate anyway.  They are both dogs. A labradoodle is a hybrid.  A dog and a cat put together in a room would not mate, as they are different species.  A pussydog would be a GMO.  Similarly, a tangelo is a hybrid, a Flavr Savr tomato with a fish gene is a GMO.  A hybrid manipulates the rules of nature.  A GMO violates the rules of nature.

b)  GMO’s haven’t been proven to do any harm.  Well, neither had atomic explosions when residents of southern Nevada ran out to witness them, or DDT when children ran excitedly after the “fog trucks”.  Why wait twenty years for the ill effects to become evident?  As I stated in a) GMO’s violate the rules of nature.  This isn’t historically a good thing.  Plus, in that they change the genetic code, damage done by GMO’s cannot be reversed.

c)  Why bother with a law?  I only buy organic food.  This is perhaps the most insidious argument.  Folks, outside the Portland bubble not everyone has access to WHole Foods and New Seasons.  Besides, one of the main reasons for GMOS is that they make crops resistant to pesticides. GMO crops are pesticide drenched crops.  Why do you think Monsanto is in this game?  To sell pesticides, and the crops that require them.  To make the world’s agriculture their own profit center.  Pesticide pollution and the patenting of life forms, affects EVERYONE.    Studies show that eighty percent of consumers, even those regular Joes at Walmart, won’t buy GMO crops when so labeled.  Again, why do you think these corporations are running so scared?  Not because GMO labeling will raise prices for consumers, but because it will trash their corporate bottom line.

d)  Even if after listening to al  these arguments you still elect to buy wheat that’s been crossed with a fruit fly, Measure 92 won’t stop you, any more than fat labeling stops you from buying a bacon cheeseburger.  It   is a LABELING LAW.  Consumer’s right to know.  But Monsanto doesn’t want you to  know.  They don’t want you to know they may lose this election, either.

did you find everything okay?

November 21, 2014

I had two interesting encounters at Whole Foods this morning.  First, I sampled a taste of vegan gluten free dairy free fudge that was quite delicious.  When I told the person manning the sampling table that she beamed, and told me that chocolate made her feel good on both physical and spiritual levels, just the thought of all those healthy fatty acids and other nutrients entering her bloodstream and calming her brain.  Then while checking out, my cashier, a woman I see and chat with regularly at Whole Foods, leaned over confidentially and told me “let me tell you what’s going on with your bag” (a cloth bag I’d brought in)  She noted that all the items she’d placed in were fragile–beeswax candles, eggs, greens–and that she’d arranged them carefully, with suitable cushioning. She instructed me to treat the bag “with loving care”.

Now I could look at these incidents, like the chocolate, on two levels.  I could be bemused, and chalk up these anecdotes (just like the discussions on art and literature I’ve had with cashiers, or the woman at a cookware store who recommended that I knit  the oven mitt I was buying myself rather than purchasing it) to overeducated staff who are otherwise writing novels, playing in bands, blowing glass, or just graduated from Reed with a degree in philosophy.

All this may be true.  But I think of all the places I’ve lived outside the Portland bubble where people who check out your groceries or serve you coffee are regarded as a sub class, taking care of your needs but rarely, if ever engaging you as a human being.  They are always the other.  You can rest assured your paths will never cross outside of their place of work.  You won’t even find teenagers pouring your coffee or pumping your gas, because they are busy doing internships to get them in the right college and professional school (no degrees in philosophy there) so that they will never, ever do any work that could be classified as menial or service.
It makes me so thankful I live in Portland, where all work is respected and your grocery checker might live next door to you. Where work that is respected is done respectfully and with care, maybe even with passion.  As an underemployed wife and mother who is also a writer I know what its like to have the work you do so well minimized and disrespected.  I know that sometimes working with your hands can leave your minds free.  Plus, it may pay the bills when drumming in a band does not. I made sure to treat my fragile groceries with loving care.

wendy’s recipe file: barroto with kale

November 20, 2014

Who says risottos always have to involve rice?  Risotto requires a specific technique:  slow cooking grains while gradually adding liquid, so that the grain becomes creamy and flavorful.  This can be done with any grain.  They may not turn as seamlessly creamy as rice.  What they will do is maintain their own integrity, while still releasing enough starch to create a creamy sauce.  I had a glass jar of hulled barley languishing in my pantry, bought in a fit of enthusiasm and now in danger of going rancid.   So I transformed it into–BARROTO.


1 cup hulled barley (I did not use the pearled kind, which is more processed and lower in nutrients)

7-8 cups chicken broth (I like Imagine brand)

3 T olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 tsp dried thyme or 2 tsp fresh

1 bay leaf

1 large bunch curly kale, thick stems removed and torn in bite sized pieces

1 garlic clove, minced

1 Meyer lemon, both zest and juice

1 cup grated Parmesan

1/2 cup chopped herbs such as parsley, basil, and tarragon

1)  Toast barley on a rimmed baking sheet at 350 until lightly browned (watch carefully so it doesn’t burn).  Let cool.

2)  Put 1 T olive oil in a large saucepan.  Add onion, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until translucent.

3)  Add barley, 2 cups broth, thyme and bay leaf.  Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until broth is almost absorbed.  Continue to add remaining broth by cupfuls, stirring often, until barley is tender and mixture is creamy.  This will probably require about 50 minutes and 7-8 cups of broth.  When you are about ready to add the last cup of broth, add the kale along with it, and cover the pan until kale is bright green and just wilted.

4)  When barley is ready add cheese, chopped herbs, lemon juice and zest, and remaining olive oil.  Stir in well and cook an additional 3-5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Blogging for books: Tamales, by Alice Guadalupe Tapp

November 13, 2014

I’d never made a tamale before reviewing this book.  They fitted into the category of slightly intimidating “big food project”.  Ms. Tapp acknowledges this, and a major aim of her book is to demystify tamales for the mainstream cook.

She does an excellent job of this.  She explores tamale construction at the beginning and provides a standard recipe for masa.  Numerous recipes follow, ranging from traditional to “inside out”  (basically Mexican polenta with toppings) and even dessert.  All the recipes call for a short list of readily obtained, relatively inexpensive ingredients.  In fact, one of my only criticisms of this book is Tapp’s overreliance on prepared ingredients:  canned tomatillos and chiles, garlic powder, Accent.  I found myself chopping garlic and roasting poblanos because I wanted a more potent, authentic flavor.

I made four types of tamales in one gargantuan cooking session:  chicken and chorizo,; albondiga (not really meatballs but ground beef with a similar flavor profile); artichoke/cheese; and potato/poblano.  It was a frigid afternoon and my two daughters and two year old granddaughter helped.  We were up for a food project, which it was:  over four hours, including cleanup.  If you were more pressed for time, it would make sense to do some of the preparation the day before, and either assemble and steam the next day (or if that’s a work day, assemble day one leaving only steaming for day two).

I was pleased to discover that masa harina and corn husks are readily available in the supermarket.  I was not as pleased to discover how much fat (butter, margarine, or lard) went into the masa filling (3 cups fat to 12 cups flour).  However, it tasted good.  The masa recipe I used said it would make 24-36 tamales, but it ended up making over 40.  Perhaps the typical tamale is larger than our corn husks allowed.

The tamales were easy and fun to assemble, not at all intimidating.  It made for a fun group project.  Our entire nuclear family of nine made an appearance when they learned tamales were for dinner.  The hands down favorite was the artichoke?cheese, which merged seamlessly with the masa for a luscious morsel.  The poblano potato were excellent as well, benefiting from my fresh-roasted peppers.  The chicken/chorizo had a good kick to them, though the meat did not meld as seamlessly with the masa.  Same problem with the albondigas, which were pleasant but a mite bland.  We topped the tamales with homemade hatch chile sauce and salsa verde.  I’d canned those previously but there are recipes for salsas and other sauces at the beginning of the book.

Everyone ate heartily but we were still left with enough for my teenage son’s lunch the next day and three frozen full meals.  Not bad for an afternoon’s work


monday night class

November 6, 2014

Last night, while awaiting election results, I sat down to read The Sun magazine and found a series of interviews with Stephen Gaskin, famous for a traveling “meeting”  known as the Monday Night Class. Turns out the reason for the retrospective is that he had died recently, at the age of 79.

I attended a Monday Night Class in 1971.  I don’t remember what Gaskin said, though he was a charismatic type, and the comments in the retrospective reveal him as a thoughtful and perceptive giver of life advice, despite what he refers to in a later interview as “archaic hippyisms”.  What I remember is the reaction of the audience,  He may not have set out to be a prophet but he was received as one.  He could have been Jesus or Buddha up there, surrounded by such eager acolytes, so desperate to be swallowed up by the moment in a flash of enlightenment.  Everybody was hugging and kissing and practically speaking in tongues.  As for me, age 16, I found myself sympathetic, but utterly resistant to being swept up.   I felt uncomfortable getting so lovey-dovey with people I hardly knew.  I didn’t want to join the Monday Night Class.  I didn’t want to join anything.  The counterculture was my refuge from the miserable mainstream, but if I was such a lousy hippie, what hope was there for me?  I didn’t belong anywhere.  I went home and cried.

A boy I knew from high school followed the Monday Night Class out to California.  He returned a few months later, tanned and full of stories, and in a way, enlightened, like the way, in the Ten Commandments movie,  Charlton Heston returned from his encounter with the Burning Bush with his hair frosted.  I was most fascinated by a tale about his getting a penis sunburn while surfing in the nude. That spring, I went with this boy, John, and some other people for a weekend at a commune in Sperryville, Virginia, where we ran around without any clothes on.  John spent most of his time in a tent he shared with two other girls, Mary and Elaine, and a four year old child who had mysteriously materialized at our alternative school.  Rumor had it that he was Elaine’s child, born when she was 13.  I was very curious as to what exactly was going on in the tent, but I wasn’t invited.  So I wandered around.  I went skinny dipping in the creek.  I ate a chicken sandwich deliberately in front of a flock of chickens to see how it would feel.  I hung out at the general store down the road, where you could get an ice cream cone for five cents, with the perfectly friendly rednecks that liked to sit on the front porch.  They seemed very similar to the hippies at the commune–scruffy, no money–just sporting different hairstyles and using different intoxicants.

Stephen Gaskin was not a prophet, but he was a strong, independent personality, and a leader.  He went on to found The Farm, one of the more successful communes of that era, which eventually shed many of its acolytes, shifted to a nuclear family, conventionally capitalistic model, developed some successful businesses, and became a well regarded natural childbirth center.  I have no idea what happened to John, Mary, Elaine, or the nameless child. I recently read in Bon Appetit that the country store in Sperryville is now an artisan bakery.  There is no particular point to this story.  I am just stunned that so many years have passed.  I think that Gaskin, who, in one of his archaic hippyisms, referred to marijuana as “sunshine energy that God puts into a green plant”, and who spent a year in prison for growing the stuff, would be bemused by the fact, that as of today, it is now legal in Oregon.  If I attended a Monday Night Class today I would probably hug all those strangers.  What the hell. I am looser now, and more receptive to experience.  I’d have a good time, and not find anything to cry about, but I still wouldn’t run off to California.   Maybe I was a lousy hippie but a sincere one; I haven’t morphed into someone unrecognizable to my younger self. I still like skinny-dipping in creeks.  I am still an outsider,  an observer, but now I am comfortable with that.  I don’t expect to be wrapped in a bright white flash of enlightenment, no matter how entrancing that still seems.  The world that I see is an ever muddier nuanced shade of grey.

wendy’s recipe file: fresh date, almond and arugula salad with balsamic vinaigrette

November 3, 2014

This salad is a point of pride for me.  I once brought it to a Slow Food potluck.  This is no ordinary potluck.  There’s no pea salad or Costco lasagna; rather foodies compete for the most local, seasonal, and delicious item ever. At this potluck–with over one hundred attendees–the chairman of Portland Slow Food singled out “that delicious salad”.  I served it again at a Halloween party this past Friday it garnered many compliments and one attendee referred to it as “the best salad ever”.  You can substitute dried or fresh figs for the dates.  A quarter pound of prosciutto is another optional addition.


4 T balsamic vinegar

1 tsp Dijon mustard

12 T extra virgin olive oil

salt and fresh ground pepper to taste


10-12 cups arugula (usually readily available washed and bagged)

12 dried Medjool dates

1 cup roasted almonds (you can take raw almonds and toast them (carefully) over moderate heat in a dry pan)

6 oz Manchego cheese

1)  Make vinaigrette in a closed glass container; shake up.

2)  Place arugula in salad bowl

3)  Pit and dice dates: chop almonds into small chunks; grate cheese; chop prosciutto if using

4)  Add these ingredients to bowl, toss with vinaigrette and serve

say it like you mean it

October 29, 2014

I just saw the movie The Skeleton Twins (which has garnered pretty high ratings for an independent film) and wasn’t particularly impressed.  Nor was I super-disappointed; I was expecting mediocre and that’s what I got.  I was surprised at the particular form the movie’s mediocrity took, though.  I’d heard Skeleton Twins was a comedy; given that it begins with identical twins attempting suicide at the same time, I presumed a black comedy.  But it wasn’t a comedy.  Sure, there were a few quips and amusing moments here and there, but basically it was a banal drama, touching on not only suicide, but homosexuality, promiscuity, parental neglect, and pedophilia.  Any one of these subjects might have made for an interesting movie, if only they were explored.  Instead they were plot points, all surface, doing nothing to enhance or shake up the viewer’s prior assumptions. The only skeleton in this movie was the bones of the utterly commercial three act structure, as visible as if the film had been x-rayed.  The twins realize that despite not having talked to each other in ten years, they truly love each other!  Wow!  The sister who thought she was together isn’t nearly as together as she thought.  The brother who thought he was untogether is more together than he thought.  They ditch prior unsatisfying relationships, decide they want to live, and sail off into the sunset together  to watch goldfish swim around an aquarium.  (sorry to act as a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the movie).

I felt very similarly about the last book I read (book group, I take no responsibility)–Me Before You, by Jo Jo Moyes.  That was a banal drama about assisted suicide, and believe me, I could see the three act structure bones of the supposedly heartwarming, tearjerker movie all the way through.

In a Creative Writing class in college, I wrote a short story where a major character committed suicide, because that was the kind of overwrought drama, that, as a college student, I tended to insert into my writing.  My professor said, wow, your story was so good up to that point.  He said heavy bad things like that in a fictional piece need to earn their place in the story and suggested I read Lie Down in Darkness, by William Styron, about a young woman who commits suicide.  Later I learned that Styron actually suffered from severe depression.  It wasn’t an easy read.  It dragged me through the mud.  But I still remember it.

Believe me, I don’t think every book should have a heavy, depressing theme.  I am happy to read light, fluffy, funny books, or genre books where the blood and gore are, indeed, meant to be plot points. But I hate when the two are mixed. I agree with my former professor, heavy material should earn its place in the story.  I don’t like three act structures, I don’t like cheap redemption, and I don’t like fiction where it seems like the author sat at his/her desk and researched some problem or other, whether it be suicide or wife beating or whatever.   Good drama is a cry from the gut.  It is personal.  It is unpredictable.  it reaches into your hidden places and shakes you up and changes you.

Blogging for books: North, by Gunnar Karl Gislason and Jody Eddy

October 24, 2014

Nordic cooking is all the rage these days, a remarkable development for a region previously known largely for lutefisk.  Chef Gunnar Gislason’s Dill, which opened in 2009 in Reykjavik and has gone on to international fame, is a miracle of marketing as well as culinary skill and ingenuity. Take unusual items Icelanders learned to cook and eat simply to avoid starvation and celebrate them as exotic.  Throw in a healthy dose of molecular gastronomy (involving cooking tools unbeknownst to the Vikings, such as sous vide machines and immersion blenders) and–voila!–you’ve got cutting edge cuisine.

North is a visually stunning book.  The pictures of its huge and beautiful landscapes make it worthwhile as a travelogue alone.  The interviews with its rugged fishermen, farmers, and herders are fascinating and impressive.  I was particularly struck byfisherman Siggi Henningsson, who lives on the island of Grimsey, a three mile chunk of land on the Arctic Circle home to under ninety inhabitants, and  clambers down cliffs to retrieve seabird eggs.  AS a cookbook, though, North is more of intellectual interest than a practical guide. When testing recipes for North, I struggled with what to choose.  I wasn’t going to clamber down the cliffs of the Oregon coast to collect seabird eggs.  Nor was I about to prepare reindeer liver, fish smoked over four month old compressed sheep dung, herring ice cream, or lamb heart with heather and Icelandic moss.  And, as an opposite sort of problem, I didn’t own a sous vice machine, a kitchen torch, or a home smoker.

First I decided to make beer vinegar, an ingredient called for in many recipes.  Icelandic cooking derives from scarcity:  there are no citrus fruits, so vinegar of all kinds (cider, seaweed, pine tree, beer) provides the acidic kick.  There are fresh herbs, such as yes, dill, but not of the intense spices common in warmer climes.  Grains don’t grow (there’s limited rye and barley, and an ingenious “bread” made from dried fish), vegetables are limited to the root variety.  Salt is hand dried from the ocean.  The preparation of beer vinegar was simple:  pour some beer into a sterilized jar, cover it with cheesecloth to keep out particulates but admit natural yeasts, and let it sit for a few weeks.  When, after three weeks, white spots formed on the surface, I thought my experiment had failed, but no.  A re-reading of the recipe told me to “scrape off the white film that forms”.  So I kept doing that.

I decided to make “baked plaice, shrimp, roasted cauliflower puree, and salted almonds”, which sounded like a meal my family would actually eat.  My local fishmonger suggested Dover Sole in place of the plaice (a type of flounder unavailable on the West Coast).  The meal wasn’t difficult to put together.  The instructions were clear, and while it required a fair amount of chopping and prep bowls, was well in reach for the home cook.  I substituted canola oil for the rapeseed oil.  The recipe suggested cooking fish in a low-moderate oven on a cooking sheet with a sheet of plastic pressed into it (presumably to mimic a sous vide machine).  I was nervous chemicals from the plastic would leach out, so I substituted parchment paper.  It worked fine.  The shrimp sauce required an ample amount of beer vinegar, so I tasted it to make sure it didn’t taste moldy. It didn’t.  It didn’t taste vinegary either, more like warm, flat beer.

I plated the meal following the picture in the book.  It was delicious–mild and herby, rich with butter and cream.  The almonds, which I had been dubious about, added a lovely crunch, as did the raw cauliflower core garnish (I’d never thought to eat the cauliflower core before but Gislason uses every bit of every plant or animal).  The shrimp sauce was especially tasty.

OOps–gotta be honest.  I omitted the pterygiophores (the place where the fish fin connects to the body, suggested as a garnish).

I would recommend this book as an excellent coffee table choice for those interested in unusual cuisines and cooking experimentation.

Ecliptic Brewing: A Stellar Addition to the Galaxy of Portland Brewpubs

October 16, 2014

20141015_130815Most brewpubs are mainly about the beer.  Even if the food is quality, the menu usually revolves around standards such as burgers and fish and chips, perhaps some hearty short ribs brewed in ale. John Harris’ Ecliptic Brewing, however, is equally about the food.  Executive chef Michael Molitor is turning out food that is way more than an adjunct to its liquid accompaniment.

Harris is as passionate about astronomy as he is about beer.  He names all his beers after astronomical objects and personages, and he celebrates the Earth’s annual orbit around the sun with beer and food menus that change every six weeks.  Some recent standouts include:  salt cod and potato fritters that are refreshingly high on the cod and low on the salt; fried green tomatoes topped with bay shrimp salad; two wonderful takes on  chicken (a confit drumstick in sweet chili sauce and celery root salad, and a pan roasted chicken celebrating the culmination of the summer vegetable harvest, with corn, zucchini, and a red pepper vinaigrette); and perhaps my favorite, a luscious fig-pistachio ice cream.

A caveat on my beer comments:  my beer tastes are not particularly refined.  I am perfectly happy with a Corona with lime on a hot day.  That said, Ecliptic clearly produces finely crafted brews with character.  The flavors of all their beers are crisp and distinct, reflecting the often unusual combinations of malts and hops used in their production.  I especially liked the Procyon Pale Ale, relatively light (as I like it) but with a tasty caramel overtone.  The Oort Imperial Stout is coffee-brown, rich and creamy, almost like a dessert, which is probably why it pairs so well with the fig-pistachio ice cream.  You can even mix the two together for an ice cream float.  You can order a burger if you insist.

Ecliptic is located on the outer fringes of the Mississippi Street area, in a renovated auto body shop.  The spare gray interior provides a pleasant enough space to eat but does not hint at the culinary delights within.  In warm weather, there’s a garage door that opens to the outside and plenty of outdoor seating, albeit adjoining the parking lot.


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