Friday, December 28, 2007

potato soup, revisited

I returned home from my family's Christmas celebrations with a new digital camera, and I have been busy creating photo albums on Facebook with it ever since.

To see a Facebook album that describes this potato soup recipe in its entirety (photographs included), click here.

1. I had a bunch of potatoes that needed using up, so I made some potato soup this afternoon. Luckily I had some onions, too - courtesy of my last visit home to my parents. Normally I like to use leeks in soup, but onions will do in a pinch... (These ones were pretty small, so I used three.)

2. Peel the onions and chop them into large pieces.

3. Heat some olive oil (I used about three tablespoons) in a soup pot and add the onions. (Check out the neat spoon holder I got from Mom and Dad for Christmas (you can buy them at Lee Valley).)

4. Here's how many potatoes I used. Let's see... one, two, three... looks like there are eleven there. I don't normally cook a certain number - just as many as I have, or as many as will fit into the soup pot.

5. Remove any eyes from the potatoes (just snap them off), and wash them.

6. Chop the potatoes into large, uniform chunks.

7. I normally save cooking water from vegetables, and freeze it in canning sealers until I need it. Today I pulled four jars of frozen cooking water out of the freezer for this soup.

8. Defrost the cooking water for several minutes in the microwave, so that you can get it out of the jars. Alternately you could defrost the jars in the fridge overnight, or just use plain water for the soup.

9. Saute the onions until they are nice and soft - kind of like this.

10. Add the semi-frozen cooking water or broth to the onions, and heat until it's completely thawed.

11. Add the chopped potatoes and top up the pot with water until the vegetables are just covered.

12. Sometimes I cook the soup plain, without any seasoning. Today I felt like doing something a little more adventurous, so I pulled out some rosemary, ground cloves and ground cinnamon. I added about a spoonful of the rosemary leaves, just a pinch of ground cloves, and about half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. The smell of these particular herbs and spices always reminds me of Swiss Chalet dipping sauce, for some reason. Add the spices to the soup pot and cook, covered, until the potatoes are soft enough to break with a fork.

13. Once the potatoes are cooked, you're ready to puree the soup. Here's my usual set-up for the pureeing: soup pot, blender and a bowl for the pureed soup.

14. I puree the soup while it's still hot (not recommended, since it's a burning hazard - but I like to live dangerously...) Regardless of whether the soup is hot or cold, don't fill the blender jar very full. Completely cover the solid food chunks with liquid. You may need to use a bit of extra water by the end of the job - this particular soup took about another four cups of water in addition to the soup stock.

15. Just as an aside, potatoes are very starchy. Don't blend them too long or you'll get wallpaper paste instead of yummy soup. And rinse all containers immediately after using them, to make clean-up easier.

16. I always wait to add salt until after the soup is pureed. Today I decided to use up some special salts I've had sitting in my cupboard for over a year. The red salt is Hawaiian, I think, and the white salt is Italian sea salt. The grey salt is sea salt from Brittany. In the end, though, all I used in this soup was the red salt.

17. I usually add about this much [approximately 1 tablespoon of] salt to start with, and taste between additions. It's better to add too little rather than too much at a time! Trust your own tastebuds. This is the fun part. Stir the soup well between additions, and then taste it each time. Does it taste like soup that you'd gladly eat in a restaurant? Not salty enough? Add a little bit more salt, and repeat the entire process until it tastes just right.

18. Because I usually freeze most of my soups, I get out a bunch of canning sealers while the soup is cooking.

19. Fill the canning sealers with hot soup. If you're going to freeze the jars, don't fill them too full or the jars may break in the freezer.

20. Cool the jars in the fridge before putting them in the freezer. Each pint jar holds approximately one serving.

©2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Monday, December 17, 2007

insomnia

This story was originally published as a Facebook note on the morning of December 13, 2007.

A little comedic piece I started at approximately 3am yesterday morning...

10 things to do when you’re awake for no good reason in the middle of the night.

1. Lie in your bed in the dark, worrying about absolutely everything – from the woeful state of your bank account to the war in Iraq. This is an especially cheerful old-school pastime that is bound to entertain you for several hours.

2. Watch YouTube. (I would tell you to watch TV, but I don’t own one myself, and I’m going for a vérité feel in this piece).

YouTube has the added “really wake you up” benefit of requiring user-generated search-parameter input (i.e. you have to type words into the search field) – guaranteed to keep enough of your neurons firing to preclude drowsiness until at least 6am.

Another value-added perk of YouTube-watching is the ability to find several inane videos that you can then forward to all your Facebook friends.* (Yay FunWall and SuperWall!)

(*Warning: excessive use of this entertaining Wall-posting feature will quickly result in the LOSS of all your Facebook friends.)

3. While we’re on the subject of Facebook: It just so happens that FB is probably THE supreme insomniac diversion.

Start by spending an hour or two manually searching for long-lost friends who fell through your “Friend Finder” cracks.

Then browse a few hundred groups looking for ones you might like to join. Try to figure out if Facebook has a limit to the number of groups you can join.

(It does. And yes, you may consider that a dare.)

Troll your friends’ Fun- and SuperWalls for annoying chain letters, to forward to all the friends who haven’t already dropped you.

Play your next move in Scrabulous. Then start a bunch of new Scrabulous games when you realize that no one else is going to be playing their moves anytime soon. Try to figure out if there’s a limit to the number of Scrabulous games that you can have going at any given time...

5. Plow your driveway of newly fallen snow. I did not make that up. There is actually some f*cking idiot running a snowblower outside my window as I write this.

(Really. And it is 330am.)

This definitely falls under the “misery loves company” category of midnight diversions.

(I’m imagining a little “Misery” of my own right now – something along the lines of a Kathy Bates scene...)

6. Eat.

Forget anything you’ve ever heard about how consuming food in the middle of the night really packs on the pounds. I’m here to reassure you that food eaten between the hours of 2 and 5am has absolutely no calories.

Resist the urge to try new flavour combinations, however. Dipping those Ruffles potato chips into that half-empty jar of crunchy peanut butter is a recipe for gastric disaster. You’re already going to feel crushingly sleep-deprived at work later this morning. No need to add indigestion to the list of complaints.

7. Wake and dial.

This is a cheerful variation of the classic “drink and dial” activity – with the added advantage of sobriety.

Better yet, why not begin a fruitful career as a prank caller? Dial some random numbers and ask for their favorite sleep tips. Just be sure to press *67 first.

(I am currently giggling uncontrollably at the thought of calling up some poor schmuck in the middle of the night. Maybe sleep deprivation is not unlike being drunk, after all.)

8. Clean your apartment.You know it never gets done during daylight hours – so why not take advantage of this “found time”? Running the vacuum is guaranteed to endear you to your roommates and/or adjacent neighbours. (See item 5 on plowing your driveway, above.)

9. Experiment with “white noise”.

This is an especially worthwhile endeavor if you share a bed with someone who is still asleep – and snoring. Turn on the TV to a holding pattern or an impossibly high channel. Set your clock radio between stations. Lug that floor fan up from the basement and play with the speed settings.

How much white noise does it take to truly drown out the sound of a person snoring? And what kind of funky distorted noises can a snoring person make when a floor fan is positioned six inches from their face? On "high"? Oops! Did your companion wake up? Guess they’re not snoring now…

10. Write a list of 10 things to do when you’re awake for no good reason in the middle of the night. (Skip number four, and when people ask, say: "Whadya expect? It was the middle of the night! I was sleep deprived, okay?")

It won’t help you get back to sleep, but it sure is entertaining. Just don’t let your boss see the list – he or she doesn’t need to know much creative energy you’re pouring into useless pursuits, rather than channeling it into your job.

(If you’re a freelance writer, on the other hand, you have just come up with a new article to sell – which could be an effective solution to the bank account situation mentioned in item 1.)

I’ll close with my grandmother’s favorite bedtime mantra: 'Night 'night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.

(As a child I never knew what the hell a bedbug was. Apparently there is now a North-American resurgence of bedbug infestations, though. I just did a Google search on the subject of bedbugs. I do not recommend this as a pleasant insomnia-related activity.)

©2007 Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Sunday, December 16, 2007

my solstice prayer tree

My family will tell you that I'm not very traditional when it comes to Christmas decorating. Or maybe it's that I'm overly traditional: I'm not interested in the commercial "Christmas" we've come to know in North America since the advent of the Coca-Cola Santa.

I don't want garlands of artificial greenery with white icicle lights and tinsel. I don't have room for a Christmas tree, and I'm allergic to heavily-scented holiday candles.

I'm not a Scrooge. I just like to explore the sacred and pagan roots of this seasonal festival in my own way - and come up with decorations that have real meaning for me. Decorations that, more often than not, I've created myself.

Last Christmas - my first ever in an apartment all of my own - I settled on a potted rosemary bush and some small white paper snowflakes that I cut out one evening while listening to Christmas carols.

This year I've been so focused on some urgent projects that Christmas decorating almost didn't happen. I use the deep, eight-foot-long window ledge in front of my desk as a kind of seasonal altar, displaying random things - usually from nature - that appeal to me visually and symbolically.

When I returned to my apartment after house-sitting for most of the month of November, I put a simple wooden bowl and the shed skin of a snake on the ledge. The bowl symbolized the emptiness that I often feel at this time of year - as I wait to be filled with inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose in these dark days of December. The snake skin represented the new growth I desperately wanted to experience after searching unsuccessfully for employment for over three months.

Then one day while I was walking Jack the pug puppy, I glanced down at a four-foot length of branch that had been lying on the ground near my client's apartment building for several months. The branch was a favorite distraction of Jack's - he loved sticks, and often tried to pick this one up and "carry" it ("drag" is more like it) a few feet before the weight of the branch caused him to give up and move on to other, lighter conquests.

"That branch might make a nice decoration for my apartment," is what I thought to myself as Jack knawed on it for the thousandth time. I lifted it off the ground, and Jack was immediately delighted by this new activity. As I dragged the branch in one hand and Jack's leash in the other, we engaged in an impromptu game of "carrot on a stick" - only in Jack's case, no carrot was necessary. The stick alone was enough.

A couple of hours later when I finally carried the branch into my apartment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. I had an empty clay pot left over from an amaryllis that a former client had given me last Christmas; the pot was cheerily decorated with finger paints, courtesy of the client's daughter. The leafless branch, firmly planted in an assortment of stones and pebbles inside the pot, looked like a vision of November: black, wind-swept fingers scratching a dull sky.

I've always been drawn to Tibetan prayer flags. I can see them in my mind's eye, tied in clusters along pilgrimage routes, the prayers of the faithful carried to heaven by the winds that set the flags dancing.

I have a lot of prayers right now. I want to tie my prayers to my tree, and imagine the wind coming to carry my prayers up to heaven (or wherever God might be, since God definitely seems to be busy somewhere else right now).

The flags didn't get created immediately; in the meantime, I tied bits of natural-coloured wool yarn to the branches. This afternoon I was given an unexpected gift of free time, and I finally prepared my prayers - 30 words or phrases printed out on plain white paper. I crumpled the paper after printing it, to soften and give movement to my "flags." Then I cut the flags apart, and stapled them to my prayer tree.

I'm praying for good health, and abundance, love and creativity. I'm also praying for a deep, romantic love - something that I am sorely missing in my life right now.

I'm praying for meaningful work and overflowing energy; I'm praying for discipline, rest and sustenance. I'm praying for wisdom, courage and hope.

In this cold season, I'm praying for warmth - of the body, and also of the heart. I'm praying for joy and play and dancing. I'm praying for inner peace.

But most of all - above everything else - I'm praying for enthusiasm. It's one of my favorite words, from the Greek theos, or God. It literally means to be filled with God.

(And I do yearn to be filled with God...)

I'm leaving for my home town in a few days, to spend time with family and friends. When I return to my apartment at the end of December, I already know what I'll replace the prayer tree with. I have a box of paperwhites ready and waiting to be planted in the amaryllis pot.

(I will see green things growing as the new year begins...)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

vegetarian chili

I love my slow cooker. I got it at a church rummage sale, and while it may not be pretty (the exterior is harvest gold and beige, the crock dark brown), it's a great little workhorse.

I like to cook dried beans in my slow cooker, and chili is another favorite, because chili always seems to taste better when it's cooked for a long time. I've got a pot of chili simmering as I write this...

cooked beans (any variety, although I prefer milder beans such as navy)
1 large can crushed or diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons chili powder
3 grated carrots
salt to taste

If you want to cook the beans from scratch, soak 1 bag of dried beans in the crock filled with water for eight hours or overnight. I like to start soaking the beans first thing in the morning, then cook them as I sleep.

To cook the beans, drain off the soaking water, pick over the beans and discard any blemished ones, then fill the crock with water again. What I usually do is turn the slow cooker on high for a couple of hours (or until I go to bed), then turn it down to low so the beans can simmer all night. They will generally end up VERY soft and mushy (which I prefer. Don't like hard beans.)

Sometimes I leave the beans (especially slower-cooking ones, like chick peas) on high, and let the smell of them wake me up in the middle of the night, at which point I turn the cooker down to low. (And don't tell me that we have no sense of smell while we're asleep, as studies suggest. The beans ALWAYS wake me up when they need to be turned down...)

Drain the beans of their cooking water (some cookbooks recommend saving the "broth," but I find it hideous). Put all the chili ingredients in the crock, and simmer on high for two or three hours, or on low all day.

About the carrots: My mom always made chili with carrots. I don't know why. I don't always include them, but they add colour and more nutrients.

My favorite beans to use in this recipe are: navy (the small white beans that you usually find in Heinz prepared beans - they're nice and mild); black beans (they make me think of Carribean or South American stews); and pinto beans (if you puree the finished chili, you'll have some AMAZING refritos). If you really need to add kidney beans, by all means go ahead. I don't care for their tough skins, myself.

Store any leftover chili in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze it immediately to save for a future meal. Mmmm...