Sunday, April 29, 2007

JanKris Sparkling Almond

I recently mentioned to the Mister that we need to drink our sparkling almond, a statement which immediately evoked disbelief, "We don't have a bottle of sparkling almond," and then curiosity, "Why do we have a bottle of sparkling almond?"

We have a bottle of sparkling almond because we bought a case of unusual sparkling wines while we were in Colorado, and sparkling almond was something that we had not tried before. We have now. If you want to replicate the experience and JanKris Sparkling Almond is not locally available, (on-line I found only four purveyors, 2 in Colorado, 1 in Delaware and one somewhere else. It is not listed on the winery's current web site,) take a fine, pale, inexpensive sparkling wine and add a dash of amaretto (clear amaretto if such a thing exists). There is nothing wrong with a slightly sweet sparkling wine that smells like almond flavoring, and I imagine it is probably a much better accompaniant for wedding cake or many brunch items than finer champagnes, but pork and lentils are a bit much for it.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Fox Squirrel Habitat

The fat Fox Squirrels probably live in the Core Arboretum because of the arboretum's density and diversity of oak, beech and walnut, but the squirrels surely enjoy galloping among the bluebells, larkspur and trillium each spring.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

RIP Nibbles

A rodent with whom I interacted on a near daily basis died yesterday. Nibbles was a geriatric guinea pig living the good life in the basement wet lab absolutely pampered by our custodian. Nibbles was years and years old when she came to my co-worker years and years ago. Not surprisingly, Nibbles never endeared herself to me, because, well, Nibbles was an old guinea pig in a cage. Rodents that bite as pets in cages really don't do anything for me. Still, I am sad that Nibbles died before I had a chance to take her picture for the blog.

My colleague asked if we should have a memorial service and burial for Nibbles. I consented with the caveat I would unlikely keep a straight face.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Three Beaver at Once!

We have confirmation that our beaver is not just a transient, and is not alone.

Weekend of Many Rodents

Friday night the Mister saw "Our Marmot" who apparently survived last week's flood (all of the visible groundhog holes were far under water). Saturday we went botanizing to look at spring ephemerals (The flowers were gorgeous. I'm returning with my botany students in tow on Wednesday and hope to take photographs), and saw a groundhog near the interstate, a very fat fox squirrel with quite the foxy tail at Core Arboretum and an eastern chipmunk at the university forest. Sunday night we saw the beaver, suggesting that he, too survived the flood, although I was less concerned about him.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Rescuers: Rodent Movie

Following the tasty meal Friday night, the Mister suprised me with The Rescuers. The Mister was disturbed by the racial and regional sterotyping among the mice (and Bianca, the heroine is the whitest creature in the film), the physical comedy and goofiness that either didn't translate well to animation or hasn't aged well, and the overall darkness of the film, both in concept and animation.
I liked it. Partially I liked it because I remember loving this movie as a child. (I saw it in the theater with Ron Prewitt and my brother. As it came out in 1977 it may have been one of the very first movies I saw in a theater.) Partially because there are so many mice involved. Alas, I did not like it as well as I thought I would from my memories. The nostalgia didn't overcome the sterotyping, stupid physical comedy and overall darkness. The villian is also much too Cruella DeVille-like in action but not nearly as much fun. Barely recommended overall.

Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay

My first sip of Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay left me underwhelmed. I commented to the Mister, "Well, adding bubbles doesn't do a lot for a mediocre chardonnay." It was Friday evening, it had been a very long day to end a very long week and I was ready to sip something to celebrate the coming of spring (for the third, and perhaps last, time this year) and distance me from my poor lecture and my students' abysmal test performance. And, at first sip, the Banrock Station wasn't doing it.
The Mister and I then began to make fun of the color of the wine. Being 100% Chardonnay (but not claiming to be a blanc de blanc), the wine was much more yellow than the sparkling wine we usually drink. "That's mighty amber," commented the Mister. I disagreed, "It's pure yellow. Not straw or amber, plain pee."
"Liquid sunshine in a glass," the Mister responded.
Soon the pork loin he had been roasting was done and we were eating delicious food and laughing and chatting. Suddenly, the wine was not too chardonnay-ey or large-bubbled. It was just the right complement for a just right evening.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Squirrel Nutkin and Two Bad Mice

Beatrix Potter's work is delightful. I'm not sure what makes it so. Certainly the plots of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tale of Two Bad Mice are silly at best. The illustrations are charming. Altogether, though, the books (particularly when read in their little square book form), transcend silly and charming and are enchanting classics: the best rodent media I've read or watched so far this year.
Illustration from the original via The Gutenberg Project.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Roger Pouillon et Fils Rose

Money is not spent lightly in our household. Both the Mister and I are debt averse and feel something is amiss if we are not actively saving, whether on a grad. student or consultant income or something in between. I feel blessed to a have a partner with similar savings attitudes, and lottery-winning-lucky to have one who shares my splurging priorities as well as my savings priorities.

We splurge on travel, food, and sparkling wine.
Last night we dined at Cafe Cimino, a fabulous New American Cuisine/Italian restaurant in a small town that appears as dead as ours in central West Virginia. We'd been planning this meal for a while (it was a Christmas present/Valentine's meal) and thoughts of gorgonzola and roasted fennel kept me going through a gray day of grading. The waiter brought the wine list before the menus and seemed surprised when we insisted on deciding what we were going to eat before we decided on the wine.
Which, as it happens, was foolish, because we knew we were going to end up drinking sparkling wine. I ordered filet mignon with gorgonzola spinach, the Mister had a salmon/asparagus/goat cheese special. We shared the entrees as we always do. We feasted on a fabulous anti pasta platter beforehand. And we enjoyed it all with a bottle of Roger Pouillon et Fils Brut Rose Champagne. The wine was considerably more colored (and less pink-- more the rusty shade of an older pinot noir) than most champagnes we've had. Very dry. Very winey and very good. Worked with oily olives, salmon and steak, which is a tough combination.

I know that fabulous bottles of true champange don't come cheaply. But they make us happy. Someday we'll have maxed out a huge diamond engagement ring worth of great meals and champagne and I'll need to come up with another excuse (all the money we've saved by not having two cars is already going into the summer travel fund), but in the meantime, I'll look at my plain gold band engagement ring (which is what I asked for) and feel fortunate to be with someone who knows where sparkling really counts.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Marmot is Back

We spotted the woodchuck (Marmota monax) that lives by our creek yesterday. We hadn't seen "our marmot" since October (when this photo was taken) so we were unsure as to Mr. Marmot's success in hibernating. We only caught a glimpse, but it seems our marmot is alive and well and anxious to move under the deck when the Mister builds it someday. Hooray!

Monday, April 9, 2007

Murder in the Cathedral

I have no idea if anybody still performs T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, but if you have a chance to see a production, I'd definitely recommend it. If you can't see a production, the play makes a good read.
My first reaction to this account of the death of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Cantebury was that I need to know more English history, history of Christianity and history in general. Not that more history is needed to understand the play in particular, but most anytime I read anything historical, I realize how lacking my knowledge is. My second thought was that I don't like to read plays. Which was followed immediately by recollections of laughing hysterically the first time I read "Taming of the Shrew", whipping through "Waiting for Godot" in order to figure it out, and the excitement of "Arms and the Man" and Macleish's "JB". So it's more that I prefer to see plays performed (a good performance of Romeo and Juliet is hilarious, but I never read it that way), and I would like to have seen Murder performed.

At one point while reading I commented to The Mister, "I have no idea where this is going," to which the Mister calmly and correctly replied, "Becket gets murdered in the cathedral." Eliot does a good job of lulling the audience with a single view of a Beckett and the other characters, and then casting plenty of doubt (sometimes in the form of self-doubt) on their true motivations. When he turns the murderers into audience-addressing buffoons at the end, Eliot gives the play a post-modern edge (I hope I'm using that correctly, plant ecologist seldom deal in the post-modern intentionally) and attempts to force the audience to see themselves as part of the play and the events of history. It made me long for, dare I say this, Dr. Fair, my pompous junior year English teacher, to discuss it with. Dr. Fair did introduce me to JB, my favorite piece of religious questioning drama, and I'd like to compare the plays.

Another Man's Wife

The cover of Dallas Schulze's Silhouette Intimate Moments "A Family Circle" Heartbreakers collection title: Another Man's Wife, proclaims all of those affiliations, along with the caption "Widow in Distress" and the pop-up, "Prize Surprise! See Inside for Details." It's not particularly thought-provoking literature. In fact, I waited until I finished Murder in the Cathedral so this review wouldn't sit alone embarrassing me.
I buy up cheesey-looking romance novels at library book sales and read them for entertainment. Sometimes, as is the case with The Golden Unicorn (see January review) most of the entertaiment comes from mockery (what?, everybody was a murderer and really somebody else's father?), sometimes from crazy-wild escapism (every female wanna-be professor should read The Last Viking at some point), and on rare occasion from caring about the characters. Based on the very pink, very busy cover, I expected Another Man's Wife to be one of the former and was pleasantly surprised to find it one of the latter. Mind you, the book is still formulaic, the characters perfect, and the few plot twists absurd, but I cried about them, which means the writing is working.

My one analytical question: what does it mean that the subject of romantic fantasies are increasingly not vikings and pirates but rather men romantic because they are dependable fathers? Is stable reliability so rare as to be just the stuff of fantasy?

Note of amusement from Harlequin's disclaimer: [All characters], "are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author."

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Alternatives to prairie turnips

A bitter cold spell and currently falling snow (along with a trip to the nursery that sells local produce) remind me that even if winter is mostly done with us, the edible rewards of spring are still a ways off. For tribes on the Northern Plains, early spring was the starving time. April and May after a bad-hunting winter were the times to rely on old dry roots, primarily the previous year's prairie turnips (self-promotional segue-- I know a great dissertation in which you can read all about the importance of prairie turnips to people on the Northern Plains).

I can't recommend eating prairie turnips, but in my efforts to suggest seasonal vegetables, I offer two very different recipes that rely on stored vegetables.

Fabulous Baked Sweet Potato Slices

Sweet potatoes
Olive oil

Cut sweet potatoes into thin slices. Pour some olive oil on a cookie sheet. Run sweet potato slices through olive oil and flip (to get both sides coated with a very thin film of oil, alternatively you can lay the slices out and drizzle over the oil but they won't cook quite as evenly). Sprinkle with salt. Bake at 380 or whatever temperature you are baking something else at. Flip if you want. Take out after about 35 minutes.

The mister and I have several "converter" recipes: those recipes that convince dinner guests that they don't really dislike a vegetable they think they do. This is one of them. It's incredibly easy and incredibly good and super healthy, and pretty much nothing like mushy, super-sweet candied yams served with marshmallows at Thanksgiving.

Sweet potatoes grow well in many parts of the country, and this recipe is best with fresh out the ground fall sweet potatoes, from one's own garden or farmers' market. However sweet potatoes don't lose much in cold storage and April potatoes work just fine. Different parts of the country sell different types of sweet pototoes (and while sometimes labeled as "yams", none of them are true yams, which are a completely different African plant). While this recipe works with any of the types, the orangest ones contain the most of the anti-oxidants that keep sweet potatoes popping up on "super-foods" lists. Baked whole sweet potatoes are also highly recommended, but take well over an hour (they need to be over-baked to be good) and are not as good of gateway to the vegetable.

Chole Saag Sorta

1 onions
great spices*
a little oil
1 box frozen spinach
1 can garbanzo beans (chick peas)

Saute the onion with the spices. Add the chick peas and spinach. Cook until warm through.

*We make two different versions of this, one with chana masala (labeled as "spicy blend for chick peas" which contains coriander, salt, dry mango, pomengranate seeds, chili, cumin, mush melon, black pepper, black salt, fenugreek leaves, cloves, mint, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, bay leaf, cardamom, caraway and mace), which comes as a powder and should be added with the onions, and one with pani puri, which comes as a paste and should be added later. Pani puri has about as many ingredients as chana masala, but is dominated by mint, cilantro, tamarind and a little chili. You can add your own spices, just add lots of them.

I have always been a fan of fresh spinach, and in recent years a fan of lightly cooked fresh spinach (those recipes to come in spinach season), but Indian dishes were the first place I loved gloppy cooked spinach. Frozen spinach can only be used in places where the texture and color of the final product is not a main consideration. Given the dearth of available vegetables in this town this winter (not just in-season vegetables, any vegetables), I was grateful to discover a tasty healthy preparation using frozen spinach.

I make no claims on the authenticity of this as a traditional Indian dish. While not the same as choles or saags I've had in restaurants chole means chick peas and saag is spinach. Our household name is "Spinachy Goodness" but that refers to many things around here.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Distressed Skunk

So, it's not a rodent (striped skunks, Mephistis mephistis are their own family, Mephitidae, in Order Carnivora), but how could I not comment on this cutie in our yard? We are unsure why a skunk was hanging out in our yard at early twilight. We do know that while his back end looked like a creature in distress (it never picked up its white tipped tail or took full steps with the back legs), its front end continued with nose to the ground obliviously rooting for something. The Mister had photographic problems because of low light, but not because the skunk was running away. A naive neighborhood cat was tracking it and about to pounch then had an apparent flash of recognition and wandered abruptly the other way.
Skunks are way cool, but I hope not to see this one in this state again.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

No Rabies Shots

Please don't believe my April Fool's e-mails.

Tree Rats of Marshall

Yesterday I attended the West Virginia Academy of Sciences meeting at Marshall University in Huntington. Professionally, it was a big step because my students presented and I was the proud advisor, I had to pay adult prices for the first time ever, and I may have successfully networked with real botanists. Rodent-wise, it was a good day because the center quad of the Marshall campus was teeming with eastern gray squirrels. They were chasing each other and digging in the bulb beds and acting completely unbothered by the flow of students, much like campus squirrels everywhere. Or everywhere except the campus where I work, at which I have not seen a squirrel.