Friday, April 29, 2011

Ahhh...The Early Morning Sounds of Spring

The first time I ever came to Oregon was in April 1987. I was a flat-lander from the midwest.
My husband and I had three little kids and we came out to visit their grandparents and aunt and uncles.

We were quite in awe of Oregon in all it's springtime glory. The orchard blossoms were radiant in the warm sunshine and we thought it was the most beautiful place on earth.





Something very strange happened on one of the first mornings of our visit.
As I was sleeping soundly in my mother's spare room I had a strange noise invading my dreams. I couldn't wake up or shake it off. The noise just continued insistently droning on and on.




It sounded like a helicopter, a really large helicopter, like one of those Knighthawk things the military uses. And it was hovering over my parent's house. Right over my bedroom. Right outside my window. Hovering. It's blades beating the air so close to my bed. Droning on and on and on. And on.

Someone tell them to move out! Fly away! I'm trying to sleep!



Oh here! You can hear it for yourself! You can hear the sounds of the night helicopter that hovered over my bed in 1987. It still hovers over my bed today. Every April and May the helicopter comes back to drone outside my window while I sleep fitfully, waiting for dawn to completely light the sky and send the helicopters away.




When I woke that first morning in 1987 after the helicopter ruined my pre-dawn sleep, I went to my dad and said,

"Why? why? why was there a helicopter hovering over the house this morning?

Was it a search and rescue mission? Was there a small child lost in the orchard??

Was it surveillance? Is there going to be a raid??? Why didn't it go away??"

Dad said, "What?"

"Oh that! That was just the fans."







??????? Fans ??????










"Yeah, the fans the orchardists use on frosty mornings to protect the blossoms."


I had spent my entire life in the midwest and had never heard of any such thing as giant, gargantuan, fans that protect orchards on frosty mornings.

Now that I have lived here seventeen years I know very well what they are. There are hundreds maybe thousands of them in this valley. No one escapes the sound of their beating blades in the spring. You don't have to be in the middle of an orchard, like my parent's house was, to hear the fans in the dark before dawn. Recently when I was lying awake listening to the fans, I thought how many, many other people in my mountain community were doing the same thing. Of course we get used to them. But still, the first spring morning that the sky is clear of rain clouds and the frost threatens to burn the blossoms and ruin the crop, the fans come on. It's as much a part of life as the early morning twittering of spring birds.


The fans run on propane-fueled Chevy V-8 engines.
250 horsepower running full-throttle.





The purpose of the fans is to move the air, to keep the cold air from settling. They take the warmer upper layers of air to keep the frost off the blossoms.





Every orchard has numerous fans. So even if you aren't very near an orchard, you will still hear the collective chorus of them vibrating in the early morning.




This is their sound from a distance. Still loud.






Another thing used in the orchards on cold mornings is smudge pots.






The fuel oil burning smudge pots are placed at intervals in the orchard and lit when the temperature gets low. I have not seen these lit very many times because I do not have my eyelids open at the time of day they are lit. But I did see them during that first visit when I was craning my neck out the window of my parent's spare room, trying to locate the helicopter. Instead I saw the orange glow of many little fires all through the orchard.

I think I went back to bed and put the pillow over my head in terror.




There are a few different styles of smudge pot.





They don't use matches to light those babies.



So the next time you buy a domestically grown apple or pear and wonder why the price is what it is...think of this:

The farmer that grew that fruit may have spent $10,000 to $20,000 on a single night keeping the frost off the blossom that grew into that fruit.

(For you old timers- De ja vu much? Yes, this was a rerun. Please forgive me.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easy Oven Fried Potatoes

Here is a recipe for one of my favorite ways to prepare potatoes. It is also one of the favorite ways my family likes to eat potatoes. I love it because it is so quick and ridiculously easy to make. The family loves it because these potatoes are ridiculously delicious!

My "recipes" are sometimes more of a method than a recipe and that includes this one. This method can be tweaked, altered, adjusted and modified according to personal taste and cooking style. Increase or decrease the spices and the amounts of potatoes as you wish and they will always come out great.



Easy Oven Fries

Heat the oven to 450 degrees (or 425 degrees convection). Peel about six medium potatoes (or don't peel if you have nice yellow or red skinned potatoes and are feeling lazy or rushed) and cut into wedges or "fries". Try to keep the wedges the same size and thickness as much as possible so that they will bake evenly.

Put 1/2 cup of mayonnaise into a large bowl. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper.
Add any savory spices- paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, rosemary, chili powder, cumin, cayenne....whatever revs your engine. Experimentation is encouraged. For these potatoes I used 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder and 1 teaspoon of smoky paprika. Thyme and garlic would be delicious together as well as a garlic and chili powder pairing. Whatever combination you choose, keep the total amount to 1-3 teaspoons of added spice for 1/2 cup of mayonnaise. The potatoes can handle the spice.

Throw the potato wedges into the bowl and toss them around in the mayonnaise.




Spread the potatoes in a single layer on a greased baking sheet.



Bake in the hot oven for 30 minutes (20-30 minutes in convection), turning or stirring as necessary, until sizzling and browned.



Mmmmmm........
These are healthy potato fries. No need to ever eat the unhealthy, deep-fried in hydrogenated fake oil variety again. These oven fries will satiate the deepest potato fry desires.

The bonus is a variation- instead of using mayonnaise, use Dijon mustard! Or try it with sweet potatoes! Double mmmmmm.......

Monday, April 25, 2011

Post Easter Update

Pie in the Sky reader, Bill, asked to see a photo of my Easter bread, so here it is-

I made a sweet yeast dough from a Paska (Ukranian or Polish Easter bread) recipe I found on the internet. I added orange zest to the dough for another element of flavor. I also added dried cranberries and golden raisins. This loaf was large, at least twelve inches across, so baking it was tricky. I failed to bake it long enough so it was somewhat doughy in the thickest parts. It didn't seem to bother too many eaters because the whole loaf was gone by the end of the day. I served it simply with honey butter. Pretty much everyone thought the eggs were curious and strange. No one wanted to eat them but that's fine- they are going into potato salad tomorrow.



All of Holy Week was sunny here on the northern border of Oregon. It was the first stretch of sunshine we have had in months! It was not terribly warm- barely reaching 59 degrees most days, but everyone was happy to have the dry sunshine.

One afternoon driving through town, I noted how it only takes a day or two of the golden rays to turn gray winter into colorful spring.



The "town" of which I speak sits on the Columbia River, which is the border between Washington and Oregon. From that point (the river) to where I live on the lower slopes of Mount Hood, the elevation rises about 1200 feet. That elevation difference means that spring arrives in town about two weeks before it arrives at my house.


We are now back to the pouring rain with no end in sight. But seeing the colors of spring gives me hope that there will be an end to the April showers.

Someday.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Table

Are you cooking or baking anything special for your Easter celebration? Do you have any family food traditions for Easter?

This year we are treating ourselves to dinner out at an Easter buffet at a restaurant that serves up some wonderful spring-time specialties. There will be eighteen of us for dinner and it's nice not to have to do the dishes on a holiday for once.

In the morning we will be having an Easter breakfast at church before the worship service. In past years I have made hot cross buns but this year I am going to make Grandma's braided bread. I don't know that the Easter tradition of braided bread went any farther back than Grandma (Mr. D.'s mother) but she always made it for her Easter table. It was made with a sweet yeast dough that she braided and formed into a circle. She would nestle colored hard-boiled eggs into the bread before baking. As a young bride I thought this egg in a bread nest was kind of strange- I had never seen such bread before- but now I know that it is a traditional type of bread with variations in many European cultures. Grandma made it every year and traditions need to start somewhere, right?

I'll also be making our well loved potato, bacon and cheese quiche and an asparagus fritatta for our breakfast.

What are you making? I'd love to hear!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Lenten Rose

I've been nurturing this plant for about five years now, looking forward to a full bloom like this one.



I love the color. Perfect for a passion meditation on this Good Friday.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Morels

Look what our friendly neighbors gave us...


....This is only about one fifth of what the hunter picked.



A cold, wet Oregon spring is good for something.


And this is what I made with them.
In a delicious white wine sauce over pork chops for supper. 
These were the most tender, tasty mushrooms I have ever cooked or eaten.
It definitely pays to have them fresh from the forest floor.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Eviction

It's my spring break and my To Do list, as well as my Wish List, is long. We have been blessed with sunshine on these days off. Not warm temperatures mind you, but sunny skies. I'll take it without complaint.

One thing on my To Do list is to head out to my neglected pottery studio and evict the arachnid population that has taken over.

My poor neglected studio.


Remember what it used to look like?


I have only used my studio once since last year at this time when I participated in the local artist's Open Studio Tour. But I have not made one piece of pottery. I've been too busy making wedding cakes and pies. I did spend a few hours in this studio over the winter making the one and only, first time ever, acrylic painting that I entered into the gallery's Art Squared show. But that was it. The studio has been sitting cold and empty for a year.



Several times over the winter I've had to replace my windows that mysteriously keep blowing out. Some strange air pressure seems to occur during windstorms that pop the windows out onto the ground.



So now the studio floor is covered in leaves and debris that the wind has distributed. It gives the studio that real lonely abandoned feeling.




But worst of all are the spiders.
This happens every winter regardless of whether I am working in there or not but the webs are certainly much worse when I am not. They are everywhere, attached to every surface, every tool and book and piece of furniture. So my spring break chore is to evict the arachnid army that has encamped in my creative space.


So I drag out the powerful shop vacuum and eliminate the enemy, especially searching out all the egg sacks, some in plain sight and some hidden in crevices and under surfaces. Aren't you happy to hear all the gory details of my vacation activity?




The curious girls have to investigate what is happening in the usually quiet corner of the pasture.



A couple hours later and I am done. This is my studio, ready for some creativity.





Will I be able to finish the To Do list and get to the Wish List (which includes returning to my pottery wheel) before my spring break is over and the daily grind of life sucks me back?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Musical

This weekend we were at the theater to see this classic-




"THE HILARIOUS AND DELIGHTFULLY SHOCKING ROMANCE OF 7 EAGER BRIDES AND THEIR 7 MOUNTAIN ROMEOS"


 But we saw the small high school version...


And the kids did such a hilarious and delightfully good job that I was smiling through the whole thing.



Curiously, no matter how (slightly) imperfectly the lead actor sang his part, I could only hear Howard Keel in my head anyway- which made it great!



Every time my daughter Alyssa was on stage she was dancing and twirling too fast for me to get a clear photo of her, so I had to settle for this pose after the applause.
Since she is a senior in the final months of her homeschooling, this play was the last time we'll get to see her dressed up in petticoats and stage make-up for a high school production.  {{sniff}}

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Signs of Spring

It's the third weekend of April which means it's Blossom Festival here in the Hood River Valley. Blossom Festival is a special time that attracts tourists from all over the state to our little fruitful corner. Our valley is covered in apple, pear and cherry orchards and in April they are in full, fragrant bloom.

Usually.


For the second time in recent memory we have NO orchard blossoms during Blossom Festival. There is nothing. It's tragically sad. Especially for those people that traveled many miles to revel in fragrant blooms only to be disappointed by a still wintery landscape.

They should have called ahead.

Our spring has been cold and wet and many orchardists are even worried that their trees will have any fruitful blossoms at all. We shall see in the next few weeks.

I did find one of the most beautiful flowering trees in our town in full bloom today.

This flowering cherry in the parking lot of my bank gives a spectacular show for about two days then rains down petals to coat the asphalt in pink. Spring has arrived! Someone alert the apple trees.





Today was also the opening day for Little League Baseball.
All of us parents in the stands were cheering the fact that we were not sitting in the rain. Sun would have been nice but we were very glad to settle for dry heads. Our bums were dry only because we remembered to bring plastic to spread onto the wet bleachers.

I also went to the annual Blossom Festival plant sale to buy some shrubs for my church and found the whole place was a mud hole after yesterday's rain. I sank to my ankles with every step. Now I need to clean my suede boots.

Thus is springtime in Oregon!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Baby

...has a deep and abiding love for animals, especially doggies; has perfect penmanship; plays piano and baseball; has an extensive and carefully tended tractor and implement collection; is an excellent reader; and is well on his way to being over six feet tall.  He's not a baby any more. When did that happen?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Rambling

Tonight my youngest daughter said, Mom. You are slacking off on your blog. When she complains then things must be really slack.

I apologize but I just don't seem to have anything to say lately. (Mom. You always have something to say.) I don't know. I just have the Blahs. I'm waiting for spring to come for real. For the sun to shine on my skin and warm up my cold core. I want to drag out the wicker furniture and have school on the deck. To eat my breakfast in the breeze and watch the birds build their nests. Soon? Please?

In the meantime I'm meeting bride after bride. Baking sample cake upon sample cake. Taking notes on wedding cake designs but not translating any of them into actual contracts. I need someone to do all this paperwork for me. I don't much like paperwork.  Almost every single weekend this summer is booked with a wedding. That is good news and bad news. Good news because business is doing well, bad news because it means I won't have much of a tan by the end of the summer. I'm going to be baking in the kitchen instead of on the beach. I'm beginning to understand why the wedding photographers and caterers go to tropical places in February and March. I want to look for summer there too.




This is my kitchen at least four nights a week. And by nights I mean ten o'clock at night. Other bakeries make their products at four in the morning, but here it's late at night.


Next week we will be taking our spring break. We always take our spring break during Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Easter, well after everyone else has taken theirs. I'm hoping to scratch out some time during the break to evict the spiders from my pottery studio and warm up the wheel. We'll see if I still remember how to throw pots. Maybe then I'll have something to blog about.

Is it spring where you are?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Homemade Barometer

In my continuing effort to improve my performance as a homeschooling science teacher, the boys and I made a barometer.

It was quite simple, requiring only a straight sided jar, a ruler, a clear tube and some ABC gum.

(That's Already Been Chewed for those of you who were never a child.)

The making and using of the barometer was the easy part. Explaining atmospheric pressure was a whole 'nother thing.




In the end I found that so much explanation of the hows and whys of atmospheric pressure was not as important as simply using the barometer and seeing the correlation of its changes with the changes in the weather.

This was a good week to start since we are having the usual variable Oregon spring weather. Really any time in Oregon is a good time to observe a barometer. The weather changes from hour to hour sometimes. Weathermen here are challenged to make accurate predictions.

We've only been observing the barometer for three days and we've seen changes in it every day. The boys saw the measurement drop slightly from the first day which was simply overcast. Following the drop in pressure we had a day of steady rain and occasional snow flurries. That night Samuel announced the water level in the tube had increased and sure enough, the next morning we woke up to clear blue sky. These changes and correlations made the boys excited about continuing to use their barometer. They also want to get a real one for permanent use.

One thing I have learned is that the clear plastic tube we used for the instrument (I raided my fountain supplies in my studio) would work better if it was a smaller diameter. The water is only moving in 1/8 inch increments but would move more dramatically if the tube was smaller.

Other lessons that have come into our little scientific study include the use of record keeping for science or hobby and also a good vocabulary lesson. We talked about the Greek suffix "meter" in barometer, thermometer, odometer and speedometer.

All in all, a productive science week.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Slow Cooker Beef Stroganoff

Here is a real food recipe that is very traditional, economical and most of all delicious.

Beef Stroganoff is one of our family favorites and I make it often. When we have a freezer full of beef I will make the sauce in the classic way using a tender cut like sirloin or flank steak. That traditional preparation only takes about thirty minutes to make. Today I didn't have any steak but I did have stew meat. Elk stew meat (which tastes exactly like beef but is very lean). Stew meat is a tougher cut of meat (and thus more economical to buy) so requires a longer cooking time to tenderize it. Since we were going to be in town all day I decided to utilize the crock pot for a slow-cooked meal.


I want to show how this entree can be prepared in an all-natural foods kind of way, with simple ingredients, very economically. Prepared properly this dish has loads of flavor and there is no need to use processed foods like dry onion soup mix or seasoning packets or canned prepared sauces that inevitably have not-so-natural additives. It is easy to make delicious foods with traditional preparations like our dear departed grandparents used to.


Though I used my crock pot to tenderize the meat, I started the preparation on the stove top with my heavy skillet.

To begin, heat the pan and add a good fat like lard. When the pan is good and hot, add one pound of stew meat and sear the sides of the meat. Searing requires keeping the pan hot and patience. Don't overcrowd the pan since that will cool the pan and make it difficult to keep the temperature that will make a nice brown surface on the meat. If necessary, just cook half the meat at a time until well browned. You want an actual brown sear on the meat and brown goodness in the pan for flavor.




Next add one half of an onion that has been sliced or chopped. Or both. I couldn't seem to decide apparently. Also, if you have fresh mushrooms (I didn't) slice them and throw them in with the onions.
Lovin' the brown goodness in the pan. That is flavor baby!



Sautee the onions (and mushrooms, imagine they are there...) about five minutes until slightly softened. At this point add a tablespoon of minced fresh garlic. The garlic only needs about one minute in the pan.


The flavorful stroganoff sauce is made simply with beef broth, red wine and tomato paste.
Yes, red wine is the secret ingredient of all good cooks.
Sometimes they even put it in the food.

Haha!

Old joke.

{Ahem}

Never buy the bottles in the store labeled "Cooking Wine." Those contain vinegar not wine. Also, don't pour the good stuff (you know, the $10 wine) into your food. That only goes in your wine glass. The best wine to cook with is the cheapest "real" wine you can find, like that Two Buck Chuck there. I paid $2.99 for that large bottle of Cabernet which is probably cheaper than the vinegar that is labeled "Cooking Wine"! That's a delicious and economical way to stock the pantry I say. I'll get many cooking uses out of that bottle.

So first pour about 1/2 cup of the wine into the hot pan. You can use up to a cup of wine if you are feeling giddy. Let it simmer and sizzle while you scrape the browned meat goodness from the bottom of the pan and reduce the wine. This cooking process also burns off the alcohol while it imparts a delicious richness to the sauce. Really. Don't skip the wine.

Next pour in two cups of the beef broth and bring to a simmer.


One more element for flavor is tomato paste.



One heaping spoonful.

Stir this all together and season to taste with salt and pepper (about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper).




Since this is the slow-cook method, transfer the sauce to a crock pot and cook it on low for 4-5 hours or on high for 2-3 hours.  Your crock pot times may vary.



After the meat has become tender, thicken the sauce with equal amounts of butter and flour. About two tablespoons of each. Mix this together.....



....into a smooth paste.
Stir it into the sauce. It should melt into the sauce easily and thicken the broth into a nice gravy.




Yummy richness!




What is beef stroganoff (or elk in this case) without sour cream?
It's just not beef stroganoff.
Stir in 1/2 to 1 cup of sour cream right at the end before serving.



Serve over rice or buttered egg noodles and enjoy a classic, well-prepared, delicious, satisfying meal!