Oh hello! Thanksgiving, pressure canning, etc.

Hi! It’s me, Renae! I am still alive, still in California, still vegan, still cooking, still obsessed with wildlife. The only thing that’s really new is the pervasive feeling of being traumatized that I’ve felt since the election. I keep reading about these “fake news articles” that are apparently running rampant on the internet. Apparently it’s mostly a Facebook thing and I use Facebook so infrequently that I actually have no idea how to even SEE news articles in Facebook, but I keep hoping that maybe all news articles about Trump winning the election are fake news. Please tell me that is the case: please, please, please. But enough about that because I just can’t deal with it.

I’ve decided to write a post here today mostly because it’s raining today here in the Bay Area and I’m therefore not out hiking as I usually would be, plus I took a few pictures of my Thanksgiving table. We hosted Thanksgiving dinner here for our friends Brad and April, who moved to the area about the same time we did last year. I made:

seitan “turkey”
stuffing
mashed potatoes
gravy
green bean casserole
macaroni & “cheese”
cranberry relish
sauerkraut
bread

Here are some pics:

And Brad brought a really delicious sweet potato pie and brownies for dessert.

The “turkey”, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green bean casserole I pretty much made up as I went along. The cranberry relish was from Brooklyn Supper and was really good. The bread was the poolish-version ciabatta from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. The sauce for the mac & cheese was from Avocados and Ales. The “turkey” was pretty similar to the recipe for breasts of unchicken from The Homemade Vegan Pantry (which I love), but I pressure cooked it as a large loaf on Wednesday, then used Miyoko’s recipe for the yuba “skin” and baked it again Thursday afternoon.

The mashed potatoes were really random (well, as random as mashed potatoes can be anyway); Brad asked me if they had red pepper flakes in them, while saying they were really good. One of the random ingredients was a garlic-based spice mix that I bought from Garlic World while stopping in Gilroy one afternoon trying to avoid heavy Highway 1 traffic on the way home from Monterey, and which apparently contained red pepper flakes. And here’s a rough recipe for the green bean casserole for others like me who hate mushrooms:

Green Bean Casserole
2 lbs green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-3″ lengths
1 small onion, diced
2-3 stalks celery, diced
1 cup vegan chicken or veggie broth
3 Tbsp Ultra Gel
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 avocado
3 oz canned fried onions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the green beans. Cook until al dente, then drain and shock in cold water to stop cooking. Saute the onion and celery in some vegan butter or margarine until onions are translucent; set aside. Whisk together the broth, Ultra gel, onion powder, and garlic powder until the broth thickens. Mash up the avocado and add to the broth mixture and mix well. Stir in the green beans, onion/celery mixture, and half of the fried onions. Place in an oven-safe dish, cover, and bake at 375 for half an hour. Uncover and top with remaining fried onions, then continue to bake for 15-20 more minutes. I baked mine, covered, for half an hour, then cooled and put it in the fridge overnight so it only needed 15-20 minutes on Thanksgiving day.

Oh, and the stuffing was really easy:

Stuffing

1/2 loaf sliced whole wheat bread (about 10 slices)
1 large white onion, diced
4-5 stalks celery, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 Tbsp vegan butter (I used the vegan butter from The Homemade Vegan Pantry) or margarine
1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
2 Tbsp fresh thyme
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 1/2 cup vegan “chicken” broth + 1 tsp poultry seasoning whisked in

Chop the bread slices into cubes and spread out on a sheet pan. Bake in a 240-degree Fahrenheit oven for about 45 minutes or until dried out, stirring occasionally. Melt the butter or margarine over medium heat, then saute the onion, celery, and garlic until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the sage, thyme, and rosemary and cook another minute or so. Stir in the bread cubes, then add as much of the broth as necessary to soak the bread. Place in an oven-safe dish and bake, covered, at 375 degrees for half an hour. Uncover and bake another 20-30 minutes or until slightly crispy on top. Again, I baked mine, covered, for half an hour Wednesday night, then uncovered for half an hour Thursday afternoon.

I was so organized with my cooking and planning that I was able to go for a short hike Wednesday afternoon before it got dark, and on Thursday morning had a couple hours to just read and be by myself without running around like crazy. 🙂 Really all I needed to do Thursday was bake the bread (I had made the poolish the night before), set out all the appetizers, and re-heat everything. I am good at holidays!

I feel like every time I get around to making a new post I have a new culinary gadget to rave about. Last time it was my Instant Pot. This time it’s my pressure canner! A couple months ago I had 60 pounds of tomatoes I needed to can in one weekend, plus 10 pounds of beets, half of which I was planning to pickle. I’ve done 60 pounds of tomatoes in one weekend in a water bath canner before, but for some reason it was feeling really overwhelming that day and I made the somewhat impulsive decision to buy a pressure canner. It was enough of an impulse decision that I didn’t have time to Amazon Prime it, so I had to find one locally. The only Ace Hardware that had it listed in stock was in Oakland, so I drove out there and went looking for it in that store, but was unable to find it. I asked for help and was told they’d have to special order it for me. I was pretty annoyed I had driven out there for no reason AND I REALLY wanted the canner at this point so I sat in my car and tried to think who else might carry it. I thought of Bed, Bath, and Beyond and went to their website on my phone and was delighted to find that there was a BB&B TWO BLOCKS from where I was that had the same canner in stock! So I went over there and looked around for it. I didn’t see it there either and was feeling a little frantic, until I looked way UP and saw it all the way up by the ceiling. So I had to find someone to get a ladder and get it down for me, but I finally got what I wanted!

I don’t know that pressure canning tomatoes really saves time in itself: the processing time is much shorter than a water bath, but once you add in the time spent venting steam before you start, then getting up to pressure, and then coming back down from pressure (which you must do naturally), really you spend the same amount of time working overall. BUT I can fit a whopping 22 pints into my canner! So basically I can do the equivalent 3 loads at one time, which IS a huge timesaver. I’d have bought the pressure canner for that reason only. But what I’m really loving about it is all the stuff I can now can that I never could before: basically, non-pickled vegetables, beans, and soups. The same weekend I had 60 pounds of tomatoes, I also had 10 pounds of beets, which is a surprising amount of beets. I pickled 6 or 7 pounds (I love pickled beets!) and used a water bath to can them, but then I pressure canned the rest. (By the way, I used my Instant Pot to cook the beets before doing either – the beets are what’s in the Instant Pot in the picture above!) So far I’ve used some of the non-pickled beets to make an impromptu borscht.

As I mentioned on Twitter the day I canned the tomatoes and beets, the “problem” with pressure canning is there is all this time waiting for the canner to come up to pressure that ends up being devoted to drinking and taking pictures of cats, who think they are canning helpers.

So anyway, now I’m on a big pressure canning kick with the goal of canning a bunch of things I can later turn into dinner on very short order – such as during the summer when they days are so long I often don’t come home from hiking until 10 p.m. and I’m starving. I’ve been soaking dried beans and pressure canning them, which I love because it’s so much cheaper than buying canned beans AND contains no sodium or other additives. For some reason I find it immensely satisfying. Last weekend I bought 40 more pounds of tomatoes (which were somehow still in season where I live) in order to make tomato soup. I used this recipe from Common Sense Home, which said I’d get 4 pints out of 8 pounds of tomatoes, so I made 5x the recipe, expecting to yield 20 pints. I somehow ended up with 35 pints! I basically have a TON of tomato soup!

But it tastes great and is really versatile: in addition to serving as regular old tomato soup (usually with grilled “cheese”, of course), it makes a good base for a ton of other soups, and regular readers of this blog may remember how much I love soup.

I used a Victorio strainer to strain the tomato soup and ended up with a large amount of a really dry tomato peel/tomato seeds/celery/onion/parsley pulp/waste, so I spread it out on my dehydrator’s shelves (I used 8 of the 9 shelves) and dehydrated the “waste” overnight. When it was totally dry, I ground it up in batches in a coffee/spice grinder, and I ended up with a whole quart of what I called “tomato soup powder”, which will be excellent to add to soups, etc. (I had previously made a pure tomato powder doing the same thing with the peels and cores from tomatoes I had canned.)

Since I knew it was going to be rainy all day today, I had decided to dedicate today to making Vegan Dad’s pressure canner chili, although I ended up with 9 1/2 quarts instead of the perfect canner load of 7 quarts that Vegan Dad promised (probably because I was overly generous when measuring pretty much everything). (Because you can do two layers of pint jars in my canner, but only one layer of quarts, the maximum number of pint jars I can can at one time is 22, but only 7 quart jars.) No problem: while canning the first 7 quarts, I soaked some of the tons of dried beans I have waiting to can, and I’ll be doing a second canner load of the remaining chili, plus a bunch of jars of beans.

That’s most of the food news here, I suppose. In non-food news, the wildlife rehab gigs I have going on here are going really, really great. One of the two wildlife hospitals I volunteer at has actually hired me as a paid staff member! It’s just an occasional substitute animal caretaker position, so I’m not raking in big bucks or anything, but I was extremely flattered to be asked to do it and I’m extremely excited about the educational opportunities it affords. And I was just made a shift leader at the other hospital, which doesn’t involve a paycheck but will hopefully give me the opportunity to work even more closely with the technicians there and learn even more. I’m also working with many of the education animals at the smaller hospital, particularly with the raptors. This is one of my favorite pictures from 2016, not because I look good (I wish I knew how to use Photoshop and could Photoshop my hair into not looking stupid), but because my buddy Elvis, the peregrine, is in it. Mark, who took the photo at our fundraiser event, says you can tell from the picture how much Elvis loves me. I don’t know if “love” is the right word to describe Elvis’s feelings for me, but I hand-feed Elvis on a regular basis and we do have a special bond, one that I had to build with him. And let me tell you, it is REALLY cool to bond with a raptor, especially a more “difficult” species like most of the falcons. AND LOOK HOW HANDSOME ELVIS IS!!

I think I’m all typed out! If you want to know more regularly than once very six months if I’m alive and well, you can visit my photo blog, which I update daily.

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Zucchini Gratin, Lemon-Basil Seitan

Hello, I’ve missed you! I have recipes! With really, really, really bad photos!! In fact, the photos are so bad I’m ashamed of them, especially as someone who has urged you to keep up on my life if you’d like to by going to my photo blog, though I tell you the photos there are of a little higher quality. I’ve been doing a lot of things, and even posting regularly (though perhaps not as personally) on my photo blog, but I sure haven’t been posting here, have I? I’m not going to make any promises that I’ll be posting regularly now, but I did make a dish or two last night I liked enough to want to record, so here I am.

And what have I been doing with my time instead of cooking magnificent, blog-worthy food? A lot of wildlife volunteering, of course. I have regular shifts at two different wildlife hospitals here, which I absolutely love. It’s very interesting working in two very different places, and it’s going to be REALLY interesting in the next month or so when baby wildlife season starts. I have so much to learn, especially about all the non-raccoon and non-raptor species as well as the differences between Virginia and California species. I’m interested in caring for all animals, although both hospitals are aware of my special interest in both raptors and rabies-vector species and I’ve have started working with the education raptors (and other species) at one of the hospitals and have been handling rehab raptors at the other. California seems to be a lot more rehab-friendly than Virginia was and my volunteer work here has been my favorite thing about California. It’s really great.

My next favorite thing about California is NATURE. It took me a while to get used to the parks here as they are very different than Virginia’s parks, and arriving during the middle of summer AND a drought was probably not an ideal introduction. All the parks were dry, brown, hot, hilly, open, and apparently devoid of wildlife when I first got here. As it turns out, though, winter in California is a magical time. I despised winter in Virginia, but in California, everything turns green – and not just an ordinary green, but a GLOWING green – and thousands and thousands of raptors migrate through here: the parks have become extremely beautiful and I don’t know if there is just more wildlife this time of year or if I’ve gotten luckier, but I’ve started to see so many more animals that it may be even better than Virginia. Plus the weather is amazing: comfortable temperatures and NO SNOW. The San Francisco Bay area is a very populous, congested area, yet there are so many parks and open spaces, it’s pretty amazing. I typically go hiking several times a week and don’t repeat many parks all that often, and I have a thick folder full of used park maps, and there are still many I haven’t yet been to. Also, I stare at Google Maps a lot looking for green areas to explore, and yet, nearly every week I talk to someone who mentions some park I’ve never even heard of. It’s really pretty incredible. I LOVE it.

Last, but not least, is friends. I don’t have that many here, but some of my very old friends are coming to me. 🙂 Our good friends Brad and April moved to the Bay Area a few months after we did, which was SO GREAT. And at long, long last, Fortinbras has FINALLY made it back to California. He moved to LA just a couple of weeks ago. I wish he was closer, but LA is way better than Baltimore, and we are driving distance from each other, if not pop-by-on-a-whim close. He drove up here the week before last, which was the first time I’d seen him since I left Virginia in July. He’s actually the reason for my first recipe today because he bought a bunch of zucchini and yellow squash while he was here and we didn’t eat all of it, so a few were languishing in my fridge and needed to be used up. I’ll typically just lightly saute zucchini and top with a flavored salt, but though he’ll eat that, Mark tends to take only a few slices and I’m always harping on him about eating more nutrients, so last night I had a little more time for dinner preparations than I usually have and I tried to think of something different to do with the zucchini and squash that might appeal to Mark. I decided to make a gratin.

I’ve made gratins in the past, often relying on the gruyere recipe in Artisan Vegan Cheese, but I’ll be honest with you: I haven’t made fermented cheese since I moved. I keep wanting to and not finding the time. What I have been making a lot of, though, is various cheese recipes by Lacey at Avocado and Ales. Lacey left me a lovely comment on my last post so I checked out her blog and found she’s pretty amazing. (Lacey, if you are reading this, I tried to leave you a comment telling you that but I had issues doing so and I don’t know if you ever saw it.) So when I googled around for gruyere ideas and found a recipe (that I think was adapted from the original vegan cheese bible, The Uncheese Cookbook, which you would THINK a vegan of as many years as me would own but I for some reason do not), I took a tip from Lacey and replaced the acid with vegan lactic acid powder. I don’t think I’ve ever actually had real gruyere cheese if you want the truth, but I thought the resulting sauce was pretty tasty. Also, she didn’t write this particular recipe, but you should really check out Lacey’s recipes – I’ve quit buying Daiya mozzarella and just make her mozzarella, which I prefer, on pizza, and her vegan cheddar sauce is really great.

Anyway, on with the recipe:

Zucchini Gratin
Cheese sauce adapted from a recipe in the comments on this page, with inspiration from Lacey at Avocado and Ales

4 small or 3 large zucchini and/or yellow squash, evenly sliced
1 small yellow onion, sliced into half-moons
1 recipe vegan gruyere sauce (recipe follows)
1 cup bread crumbs
vegan parmesan, optional

Vegan Gruyere Sauce:
1 cup water
2 Tbsp tahini
2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
2 Tbsp flour
4 tsp arrowroot
1 1/2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp vegan lactic acid
1/4 tsp salt

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. If you don’t have pre-made bread crumbs, make some first so you can work with a dry blender or food processor: toast about 3 slices of white or whole wheat bread until they are quite dry, then roughly crumble into a dry blender or food processor. If you’d like, add some seasonings: I added a little vegan chicken broth powder, salt, and dried parsley. Process until you are left with small crumbs and set aside. Next make the gruyere sauce by placing all ingredients in a blender or food processor and processing until smooth. Pour into a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring until sauce is smooth and thickened. Set aside. Slice the zucchini or squash and the onion, then heat a little oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft, then add the zucchini and squash until they are lightly cooked. Pour the gruyere sauce into pan and mix everything up, then pour the mixture into a medium baking dish.

Sprinkle the bread crumbs on top.

If using, top with vegan parmesan. I just happened to have seen Follow Your Heart’s shaved parmesan for the first time the other day and bought it out of curiosity, so I used that, but I don’t generally buy or make vegan parm and if I hadn’t had it, I would likely have generously sprinkled Dragonfly’s Bulk, Dry Uncheese, which I always have on hand and use for all my powdered or sprinkly cheese needs, on top.

Bake for 20 minutes, remove from oven, and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

BAD, CURIOUS CATS!

They are so cute and SO annoying when I’m cooking.

Mark’s thoughts on the gratin? He liked it a lot. He declared himself a “foodie”, closed his eyes and said he tasted hints of “berry”. I said that was absurd, to which he commanded, “Silence! Do not contradict the foodie!” In a slightly less silly assessment, he said it was both creamy and crunchy and he enjoyed that dichotomy. He also ate all of what was on his plate and didn’t make a single complaint about the fact it was squash, which he ordinarily has very mixed feelings about. Success!

Mark suggested that I also post the recipe for the seitan I served, which I agreed to do because it gives me a chance to talk about my brand new Instant Pot, which I’m excited about. I’m a little late to the Instant Pot game, which is surprising because I love kitchen gadgets, but with my move last year to California, I spent the first half of 2015 purging as many material items as I could from my life and not buying anything. And the second half of 2015 found me needing to be extremely frugal because CALIFORNIA IS EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE. I’ve had my eye on an Instant Pot for a while, though, because although I managed to cram all my appliances into a kitchen that is much smaller than my previous one, several of them, such as my dough mixer and slow cooker, were inconvenient to use, and I had dreams of replacing the slow cooker and rice cooker with the Instant Pot to free up some space and make all of the appliances easier to reach and use. And then my stovetop pressure cooker stopped working properly – it would maintain pressure, but release a lot of steam while doing so. Now, I won’t lie to you: I probably just needed to replace the gasket, which would have been the cheapest solution, but I instead decided to take that as a sign it was time to indulge in the Instant Pot. And I’m really glad I did because I know it’s going to get a lot of use and now my dough mixer is going to be a lot easier to use from its new location on the counter. I had started getting back into baking a little bit when we first moved and I had some time (before I was able to start volunteering again), but I’d gotten pretty lazy about it partially because the mixer was just inconvenient to use. And another thing I’d been lazy about was buying and stashing a bunch of Gardein products in the freezer, which is NOT a frugal move. I should have been making my own seitan more regularly, but my preferred method for that was steam-then-bake and my slow cooker/steamer was also inconvenient to get to so I tended not to do it. Then I thought about returning to my previous favorite method of seitan making, which was pressure cooking, but my pressure cooker was getting on my nerves. ENTER THE INSTANT POT, in which I can steam OR pressure cook the seitan – though I’ll tell you now I’m pretty much always going to pressure cook it.

For pressure cooking, the Instant Pot is far superior to a stovetop pressure cooker, because you can set the timer and just walk away – in fact, I could leave the house if I wanted to. (And the weather in California is generally so glorious I USUALLY want to leave the house.) PLUS there is none of the really annoying “run cold water over the pressure cooker to bring the pressure down” nonsense I was always doing with the stovetop cooker. I’m not yet sure about making rice; I doubt it’s going to be easier or better than my high-end fuzzy logic rice cooker, whose place its taken on the counter, but I also didn’t get rid of the rice cooker and I intend to bring it out of the cupboard when I want to cook something in the Instant Pot AND have rice, which I think might be rather often.

Basically, though, I convinced myself I’m going to save tons of money on bread and fake meat by investing in the Instant Pot. Hopefully that’s true. I’ve already baked a couple loaves of bread – the bread crumbs in the recipe above? Made from homemade bread. I will also hopefully use the slow cooker feature much more often than I was slow cooking before because I am very often not home during dinner-making hours, usually coming home starving and throwing something sub-par together as fast as I can.

So that’s my Instant Pot story. If you have favorite Instant Pot tips and recipes, please share!

As for the seitan recipe, generally when I want to make seitan of any type, I’ll google Vegan Dad’s lunch meat recipe to get the basic ratios of beans/liquid/vital wheat gluten (though you’d think I’d have it memorized by now), then I season it however I’m in the mood for. Previously I would steam and bake as Vegan Dad instructs, but now that I again have a reliable pressure cooker, I’ll be doing that as it takes half the time and is in my opinion easier. Something that I’ve been doing for a long time is cooking large batches of dried beans and freezing them in 1-cup portions to be used for seitan down the road. I’ll be able to either slow cook or pressure cook these beans in the Instant Pot from now on.

Enough blather, here’s the actual recipe:

Lemon-Basil Seitan
Seitan adapted from Vegan Dad’s lunch meat; sauce lightly adapted from Epicurious

For the seitan:
2 cups water
1 cup cooked or canned beans (I usually use some sort of white beans but used canned Lebanese fava beans this time)
1/4 cup neutral oil
1 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp vegan chicken broth powder
2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
2 3/4 cup vital wheat gluten

For the sauce:
1 cup vegan chicken broth
zest and juice of one lemon
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 cup (lightly packed) basil, chiffonaded

To make the seitan, add all ingredients except the vital wheat gluten to a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Measure the vital wheat gluten into a large bowl, then pour in the liquid and stir with a wooden spoon, or just mix with your hands. Lightly knead until entirely mixed. Form the mixture into a log shape. Take a large piece of clean cheesecloth or muslin and roll the seitan up like a tootsie roll, tying the ends with kitchen string. Place in a pressure cooker and cover with water or vegan broth. (I used plain water but salted it generously.) After bringing up to pressure, cook for 50 minutes to one hour then release the pressure naturally. (I kept my Instant Pot in “Keep Warm” for 10 or 12 minutes, then moved the valve to “Venting” to release the remaining pressure.) After removing it from the pot, you can unwrap the seitan at this point, but let it completely cool before slicing or using. In fact, the seitan is best used the next day after firming in the refrigerator overnight, though you can use it as soon as it is cool.

For the Lemon-Basil sauce, slice as many pieces of seitan as you want and pan fry them in a pan large enough to accommodate them, then remove from the pan. In the same pan, pour a little olive oil, add the garlic, and stir a couple of times, then pour in the broth and lemon juice and zest. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until reduced to one half or one third of original volume. Add the basil and stir, then return the cooked seitan to the pan, coat with the sauce, and re-warm. Serve. I served mine with the gratin above and rice made with vegan chicken broth in the Instant Pot.

Boy, is this picture bad:

So there you have two recipes and an update on my life. If you are interested in seeing some GOOD photos, again, I refer you to renae.org, where you can also find my photo blog. I have a lot of super-exciting photos like this one:

and this one:

there. That’s all for now – I’ll try not to be a stranger. Leave me Instant Pot recipes. 🙂

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“Chicken” Pot Pie

I live!!! Were you wondering? The only difference is where I live. Can you guess where?

Yes, Mark and the cats and I have moved from one coast to the other. So I’ve been busy with THAT. I work remotely now (at the same job I had before), which is really cool. From my home office I have a view of the bay and San Francisco. I’ve started volunteering at not one but two wildlife hospitals, which I absolutely love, and I’ve been exploring a lot of the parks around here, usually in a rather fruitless search for wildlife, though I’m getting better at finding it. You can read – and SEE – more about my nature and wildlife adventures at my photo blog, which I’ve been a LITTLE better at updating than this one.

Now with food! The other day I went shopping at Trader Joe’s and decided to put together an easy pot pie for dinner, using TJ’s chicken-less strips, some frozen veggies, and TJ’s crescent roll dough (which I was pleased to find was vegan since they didn’t have any vegan pie crusts and I wasn’t feeling like making one). Well, Mark scarfed that dinner down and then tried to eat the half of my pie that I didn’t eat, although I said I was saving it for lunch the next day. Then we had friends over for dinner two days later that weekend for Mark’s birthday so I asked Mark what he wanted for his birthday dinner and he said, “MORE OF THOSE POT PIES!!!” So I doubled the recipe, swapped in fresh veggies for frozen, and made it again, and guess what else I did? I TOOK PICTURES SO I COULD DO A BLOG POST! Yeee-haw!!

This is a meal you can make as simple or as complicated as you have the time and patience for. You could make it entirely from convenience foods: store-bought vegan “chicken”, frozen veggies, and pie crust, or entirely from scratch: your own chicken-style seitan, all fresh veggies, and if you are a better person than I, a homemade crust. The pot pies I made for Mark’s birthday dinner were a hybrid. The quantities below make two 2-serving pot pies, although it’s easy to vary the size of the pot pies by choosing whatever baking dishes you have on hand. I made double this for Mark’s birthday dinner, which served four of us and left us with a couple extra pies for lunch the next day.

“Chicken” Pot Pie
adapted from Allrecipes.com

1/2 white or yellow onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup green beans, trimmed and chopped
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
1-3 Yukon gold potatoes (depending on size), chopped
12 oz vegan “chicken” strips (or reconstituted Soy Curls, or chicken-style seitan), chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 3/4 cup vegan “chicken” broth
1/3 cup unsweetened, plain soy or almond milk
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp vegan margarine
leaves from a few springs fresh thyme, or about 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp fresh or dried rosemary
black or white ground pepper, to taste
1 package vegan crescent roll dough (like Trader Joe’s brand)

I did a lot of the prep work for this the day before, chopping everything and storing it in the refrigerator. Here are the “chicken” strips and veggies, chopped:

I also pre-chopped the onions:

I used Trader Joe’s “chicken-less strips”. In fact, I think almost every single ingredient except the herbs (which I am amazingly growing) and the “chicken” broth came from Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s is the closest grocery store to our house, which is convenient because we are on an extremely strict budget these days.

Peas from Trader Joe’s!

The next day when I was ready to prepare the pot pies I did the following:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Put the celery, carrots, green beans, peas, and potatoes into a large pot and cover well with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Put the olive oil and margarine in a Dutch oven over medium heat. When the margarine has melted, add the onions and saute for a few minutes, then add the garlic and saute until the onions are soft.

Add the thyme, rosemary, and pepper.

Incorporate the flour to make a thick roux. Cook for a minute or two to take the raw edge off the flour.

Start slowly adding the “chicken” broth, stirring thoroughly after each addition of 1/4 to 1/2 cup.

Stir in the soy or almond milk. Here is the gravy after all the broth and the milk have been added. Remove this pot from the heat.

Brown the “chicken” in a large skillet. This step may be optional for some types of “chicken” and is personal preference, but at least for the TJ’s “chicken-less” strips, I preferred to do this. Note, though, that I skipped it the first time I made these pot pies and I got no complaints from Mark. Or myself.

Stir the drained veggies and the “chicken” into the gravy.

Find some oven-safe dishes that are a good size to bake the pot pies. I like making individual pot pies, although most of the pictured dishes are a tad large for a single serving. Divide the pie contents between your dishes. Remember that for the dishes pictured here, I had doubled this recipe.

Pop open the crescent roll dough package and use the pieces to form a top crust over each dish. Use a knife to create a few vent holes in each crust.

Arrange the pot pies on a large baking sheet and bake for about 45 minutes. When I doubled the recipe and baked all these dishes at once, I found I had to bake them a little longer. You want the crusts to be golden brown – probably even a little darker than they are pictured here.

I served this with homemade bread (I’ve been baking more than I was in Virginia!) and a fresh tossed salad.

This has been the first post I’ve made in months, and the first picture-heavy recipe post I’ve made in FOREVER, so that’s probably all the pictures I’ll bombard you with, but as I mentioned before, I have been sharing a few of my nature and wildlife photos over at blog.renae.org, so if you are interested in following my quest to find wildlife in the Bay Area, check it out over there. And hopefully I will be back here soon with more food. My current kitchen is small and features a stupid glass-top stove I don’t get along with, but working from home has provided me a little more leisure for cooking as I no longer have a commute, and we have to be very frugal to live here, so I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the kitchen. Mark’s been urging me to start posting here again, so perhaps this will be my comeback!

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Szechuan Soup

Wow…I made a draft of this post on May 12, and the only reason I didn’t publish it that night was I was too lazy to process the photo of the soup. Everything else was written. OK, in fairness to me, I have NOT been lazy; I’ve been very much the opposite of lazy. But I never found the time to deal with that one photo, which is ridiculous since I’ve processed hundreds of photos since then. If anything I’m even busier now than I was then, but I made the time to publish this now while tonight’s soup simmers. 🙂

So here’s my old post:
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I feel like on those random times I actually manage to post a recipe here lately that it’s always soup. There are a few reasons for that:

  • I love soup.
  • I’ve had to eat alone most nights this year and making a huge pot of soup is an excellent way for me to have a lovely dinner and then a week of lunches.
  • I love soup.
  • I eat dinner ridiculously late year-round but as I have this weird thing about not eating dinner when it’s light out, my dinner hour just gets absurd in the spring and summer, so I like eating something lighter like soup.
  • I love soup.
  • Also since it’s spring, I usually go for a hike after work and usually eat something to tide me over for a while before doing so, so when I get home for dinner, I don’t want a large meal.
  • I love soup and shouldn’t have to explain myself.

As I’ve mentioned, we are moving to California in a couple of months, and it’s finally starting to feel real. I’ve started cleaning out the house of things that won’t move with us so I can donate them. I also need to start cleaning out the cupboards so I don’t have to either throw away food or move it across the country. Tonight’s soup used up all kinds of things from the fridge and the cupboard! Cans of baby corn and young jackfruit I don’t remember buying, the remainder of a cabbage that needed to be used up, a random hot pepper I found, a zucchini that was on its last legs, the rest of an open jar of tomato sauce. And bonus: it tastes awesome! And very spicy, just the way I like it!

Szechuan Soup

1 onion, cut into half-moons, then cut into quarter-moons
6-8 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1-2″ of garlic, peeled and grated
8 cups vegan “chicken” broth
12 oz tomato sauce
3 Tbsp soy sauce
3 Tbsp Chinese black vinegar
1/2 cup soy curls
1 small can young jackfruit in brine, drained and shredded
1/4 cabbage (green, Napa, or Savoy are all fine), cored and chopped
1 cup baby corn, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1 medium orange hot pepper, sliced
Szechuan pepper, to taste

Heat some oil in a large Dutch oven, then add the onions and sauté for a few minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute, then add the broth, tomato sauce, soy sauce, and vinegar. Bring to a boil, then add the soy curls, jackfruit, baby corn, zucchini, and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer for an hour or until everything is cooked. Add the Szechuan pepper to taste.

I am nearly finished the Virginia Master Naturalist training. We had our last field trip this Saturday at Huntley Meadows; we learned about birds on the first leg and herps on the second. We saw a lot of cool stuff, including this green heron:

And LOTS of frogs; this is a green frog:

Also lots of turtles. This is a totally adorable baby snapping turtle, probably born in September of last year. He’s smaller than a silver dollar and SUPER CUTE.

Here’s a different baby snapping turtle with some chapstick as a size reference:

And here’s a sign of spring: red-winged blackbirds mating:

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Back to the present: I just got back from California; if you want to see some pictures from there, tune into blog.renae.org; I’ll be adding a couple every day this week.

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Black-eyed Pea and Barley Soup

I’m not going to be all conventional and apologize for not posting. LIFE IS BUSY. Sometimes overwhelmingly so. Anyway, here is a soup I’ve been making all year that I never get tired of. I’ve been making huge pots of it even when Mark is out of town (I’ve seen very little of him this year, sadly) because like most soups, it just gets better and better sitting in the fridge all week, and it’s pretty versatile, it’s hearty enough to be an entire meal, and I’m perfectly happy having it for lunch every day of the week. Which is especially good when Mark’s not around because I don’t always get around to making myself some fancy dinner, which means I don’t always have leftovers, and leftovers are what I have for lunch 95% of the time, so it’s been important to have a backup plan for lunch.

Another great thing about this soup is you can make it as my recipe states and it’s delicious as is, but then you can spice it up at the table, so if you have some diners that don’t like spice, they don’t need to add anything, while heat-lovers can add as much Tabasco and/or fresh-sliced jalapenos – both of which are great additions – as they like. Like almost every food I eat, I prefer it with fresh lemon juice squeezed over it, but again, you can control how much by doing that at the table. It’s also good with tomatoes in it: one thing you can do is make it as is and eat it like that a day or two, then add a can of diced tomatoes to it and serve a more tomatoey version of it the next day to change things up. You can also add greens, or maybe okra to make it gumbo-y – as I said, it’s very simple and therefore versatile.

And ANOTHER great thing about it is you don’t need to pre-soak black-eyed peas, so no need to plan ahead with this soup like you do most dried beans. It’s ready to eat in just over an hour, very little of which is hands-on time. It would also freeze well, although I’ve never done so.

Black-eyed Pea and Barley Soup
1 onion, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2-3 stalks celery, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 1/2 cups dried black-eyed peas
3/4 cup pearled barley
1/3 cup bulgur
10 cups vegan “chicken” broth
2 packets Goya ham flavor concentrate (it’s vegan, but it bothers you, sub some liquid smoke)
2-3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp thyme

Heat some oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat, then saute the onions, carrots, and celery until the onions begin to brown. Add the garlic and saute another minute or two. If necessary, deglaze the pot using white wine or some of the broth. Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil, then turn the heat back and simmer for an hour or until the beans and barley are soft. Remove the bay leaves.

In other news, sigh. I don’t even know where to start. Life is great, but there is a LOT of it! I’ve been taking pictures, of course, but instead of bombarding you yet again with a ton of photos, how about I direct you to my new portfolio site! Yes, after being hassled for years by Mark to create a portfolio, I finally did it. You can see it at renae.org. (Yes, between ieatfood.net and renae.org, I am very proud of my domain-buying skills 🙂 ). I also set up a photo blog that’s linked to from the portfolio; feel free to follow it if you miss me because I tend to do much shorter posts and therefore am there a little more frequently, though obviously I’ll be posting pictures and not recipes. Not that I seem to post many recipes here lately…

In addition to raccoons …

… and raptors …

… I’m going through the Virginia Master Naturalist program, which is great, but it’s yet another thing taking up my time. AND IT’S FINALLY SPRING!!! Which means I HAVE TO GO OUTSIDE ALL THE TIME. Especially right now because the bluebells are blooming!! I’ve got a few pics of them on the photo blog, but here I am reveling in their beauty Sunday morning:

I’m STILL keeping up with my Photo365 “one year of portraits” project – almost six months in! – hence the photo above. And others like this one in Shenandoah National Park last weekend:

And to hell with it, I’m just going to be ridiculously vain and share this picture I took of myself because I HATE pictures of myself, or rather I used to, so I have a hard time believing I can look so non-terrible in a photo. I must be an awesome photographer – I wish I actually looked like this picture, haha. But my self-indulgent Photo365 project has at least made me far more comfortable in front of the camera than I used to be!

That’s it for today. Farmers’ market season is rapidly approaching so hopefully I will be inspired to make a few more food posts in the upcoming weeks, although: LIFE. Baby raccoons, raptor chicks, naturalist projects and field trips, MOVING, UGH UGH UGH! I do intend to do my “vegan on safari” post here soonish, in tandem with a “gear to take on safari” post on the photo blog, so I’ll hopefully be back in this space soon!

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Spicy Bolita Bean Soup

Mark has been working in San Francisco and I’ve been having to eat dinner alone most nights. My Photo365 portrait project photo from the other night was this demonstration of what that’s like:

It’s a staged photo, which the discerning viewer can determine based on the fact that I didn’t bother pouring a glass of wine and I always have wine with dinner. But, with the addition of a glass of wine, that’s pretty much what it looks like. Perhaps I shouldn’t say I eat dinner alone, as I generally have company of a feline nature, but they aren’t a great substitute for Mark, who very rarely parades back and forth between my plate and my face while I’m trying to eat.

I do have a recipe for you though! I made this soup last week and it was good. It also required very minimal effort and the leftovers provided a very warming lunch for several days. I have a rather large collection of dry beans that I store and display in vintage mason jars, so sometimes inspiration for dinner comes in the form of staring at dozens of blue jars and picking one at random. I used bolita beans in this soup and they were quite good. Pinto beans are a common substitute for bolita beans, and I love pinto beans, but I think kidney beans would also have been excellent here. I also think next time I will experiment with using bulgur instead of the soyrizo, to get rid of the packaged food, and adjusting the spices accordingly.

Very prepared people will soak their beans – at least using the “quick soak” method – before cooking them, however, I am not always very prepared. I pressure cooked my beans for 23 minutes without soaking and they came out perfect. Sometimes if you don’t soak them before cooking, beans will end up kind of wrinkly, but these looked nice.

Spicy Bolita Bean Soup

1 small to medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
4-6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 links soyrizo, crumbled or grated
1 cup bolita beans, cooked (or canned)
1-2 chiles en adobo, minced + some of the sauce, to taste
2-3 Tbsp tomato paste
6 cups veggie broth (I used vegan “chicken” broth)
1 tsp Mexican oregano
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 cup frozen corn (fresh would be good too)
splash of apple cider vinegar
salt to taste

Heat some oil in a soup pot and saute the onions, celery, and carrot until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and saute another couple of minutes. Add the crumbled soyrizo and cook another few minutes, then add the beans, chiles en adobo, tomato paste, broth, cumin, and oregano. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15-20 minutes, then add the corn and simmer another 5 minutes. Splash some vinegar in to brighten it up a bit and, if necessary, add salt to taste. Serve with lime wedges.

So, yeah, about that photo project: I can’t believe I’m still keeping up with it! I never thought I’d be able to take this many pictures of myself, especially since I really hate the way I look in photos. But it’s been a very useful project: I’ve gotten better at editing in Lightroom, I’m forced to use my camera every day, and it’s actually kind of neat having a daily record of my life. I’ve been captioning the pictures with a small description of how the photo fit into my day. I’ve taken my share of quickie pictures standing in front of my bookshelf or in the back yard, just to get an entry out of the way for the day, but sometimes I stage goofy illustrations of my life like the one above. I use the cats as props WAY less often than I assumed I would, but of course they do make appearances…

Yesterday, the Mez and me.

Last week; on the way home from work that day I was thinking that I was drawing a total blank on ideas for that day’s portrait, then when Torticia pounced me as I walked in the door, I realized that was my picture. She stayed perched there the whole time I adjusted the tripod and set up the camera.

I do struggle for self-portrait ideas, especially when I can’t get outside, but the project has given me something to do that sort of keeps me from getting depressed about winter. Although time seems to fly on one hand and I can’t believe it’s the middle of February already, on the other hand, I’m just so tired of short, cold days. You know those bumper stickers that say, “I’d rather be fishing” or something like that? I was walking through my office today and I just suddenly wanted to slap a sticker on my forehead that said, “I’d rather be hiking”. I was just really annoyed I wasn’t on a trail somewhere. I really think I’ve become addicted to going to parks; I get all out of sorts if I can’t get out for at least a short hike AT LEAST once a week.

Between missing Mark and not getting to a park last weekend, I’m not in the best of spirits today. I can’t wait for the days to be long enough that I can hit a trail after work! The good news is we are getting there; the days are getting noticeably longer. I sometimes wake up before sunrise and hit a park before I go to work, which is a lovely way to start the day if I can rouse myself. And we’ve had a few unseasonably warm days here and there; if I can, I’ll sometimes go into work super-early on days I know are going to be extra lovely, and I’ll skip out early. One afternoon last week I went to the wildlife refuge and saw some eagles. This one is guarding his or her nest from a few hundred feet away. I didn’t see his or her mate, although often you’ll see them sitting side by side watching their nest. Rumor has it there are two eggs in the nest, so I’m trying to make it my business to get to the refuge as often as I can to stalk the parents before the US Fish & Wildlife closes a portion of the trail down again to protect the nest from people like me.

After helping raccoons and raptors on the weekends, I almost always hit up a park unless the weather is really bad. The other weekend I went to one of my favorite parks, Great Falls. I raged a little bit about the proposed price hike from $5 to the completely absurd $15 (seriously, WTF, NPS???) and then I bought an America the Beautiful pass which gets me entry to all national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges in the country for a year. Considering how frequently I visit national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges it doesn’t make sense for me NOT to have one. So I’ll be going to Great Falls frequently while I still live in Virginia even if they do triple the entrance fee.

If you don’t have an annual pass and the entrance fee at Great Falls enrages you, just go to Riverbend Regional Park, which is free, and hike into Great Falls on the Potomac Heritage Trail. It’s barely over a mile from visitor center to visitor center and it’s a lovely walk. Take your binoculars or super-telephoto lens because you can see the Conn Island eagle nest on the way. (This photo is unrelated to the Conn Island eagle nest, although I COULD dig up some photos of it if I were feeling ambitious.)

The eponymous great falls:

So that’s my update for now, and some soup. Coming soon: my long-awaited post on safari life for vegans and photographers.

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Zanzibar

Yes, I’m finally making time for my Zanzibar post! So when we left off on this African adventure, we were in the Serengeti, having the best time of our lives. Sadly we couldn’t stay there forever and the time too soon came for us to continue our journey. We boarded a tiny plane and flew three hours through a terrible storm that made a few passengers rather nervous (I thought it was kind of fun, although after nearly banging my head on the roof I did eventually concede it might be smart to put my seat belt on). Finally we landed on the drenched island of Zanzibar.

Our tiny, wet plane:

After waiting a long time for the rain to let up enough they could unload the plane of our luggage, it finally arrived (most of it sopping wet anyway) in the waiting area of the airport and we were met by our driver, who rowed drove us to our B&B in Stone Town. After unpacking and drying off a bit, the boys and I took a walk down to a bar on the water and had a drink while watching the sunset.

The next morning we did a walking tour of Stone Town, which I highly recommend if you visit as you’ll learn about the history and start to learn to navigate around. Our guide showed us Jaws Corner, where the town’s men drink coffee and sit around talking. It was named Jaws Corner after the film Jaws was shown on a TV in the square once.

We also toured the slave dungeon – Stone Town was the main slave port for all of the Eastern slave trade – which was extremely depressing.

There is a memorial outside as well.

We also walked through the colorful fish market (where not just fish but vegetables and spices and some crafts are sold).

One of the most charming things about Stone Town to me was the number of cats running around. Because it is a predominately Muslim area and many Muslims do not have dogs, many people have cats. Smucky had to admonish me for trying to touch them all because he said they could have diseases, and some of them did seem as if they could use a good bath, but I do love following cats around on vacation and playing cat paparazzi.

Another beautiful African sunset.

After a couple of days in Stone Town we embarked on the last leg of our trip, to a beach resort. On the way, we stopped for a spice tour – Zanzibar being renowned for its spices. The spice tour was interesting and I also recommend it as well. Here are our guides, cutting up something for us to taste or smell:

They made us wear silly hats they had made for us.

Finally we arrived at Unguja Lodge, where our room was amazing but missing a few walls! These were taken from the loft:

Even the toilet was missing a wall! (The shower, in another room, was also open and overlooked the ocean.)

You may be wondering, “Renae, if there were walls missing from your lodge, how did you keep the monkeys from coming in and stealing your stuff?” Good question. The bedroom (and bedroom only) was lockable and monkey-proof (provided you actually shut and lock the door), so basically you keep everything in there. Mark and I didn’t have any monkey visitors that I know of, but Smucky and Olivia did! Coming back from an ocean swim one day I passed Smucky and Olivia who informed me there was a swarm of monkeys ravishing their loft after making off with Olivia’s soap. “YOU’RE SO LUCKY!” I screeched, “Give me your keys!” And off I went to confront the monkeys, who absolutely did not care one iota about my presence. They continued to swing from the rafters and tumble around the bed and generally be deviously adorable like I wasn’t even there.

Here is our lodge from the outside. As you can see, as open as it is, you can’t really see inside, and no one can really get to them anyway: the perimeter of the property is guarded and the area in front of the beachfront lodges is really only accessible to the resident of that lodge.

Mark and I liked to sit on that bench above every night before going to bed and just listen to the waves, and every morning just after waking to watch the local women and children collecting shellfish while the sun rose.

Obviously we didn’t eat any of the sea creatures but Mark did befriend a sea urchin.

The lodge offered scuba diving tours. Smucky got certified before the trip but I didn’t, so I took a quick lesson in the pool and was approved to do a sort of tethered dive (a guide held my wrist the whole time). Scuba diving was actually a little scarier than I thought it was going to be. I had absolutely no qualms about jumping out of plane when I went skydiving – I jumped with no hesitation or fear at all; I simply found it not even remotely scary – but I unexpectedly freaked out a bit when we were in the pool practicing diving with the oxygen tank. I didn’t let on that I was freaking out because I like to play it cool, but when I went under the first few times I confess that I very suddenly realized HOW MUCH I LOVE AIR. SWEET, GLORIOUS AIR. But I passed the test and we were soon on a boat. After a 5-minute boat ride we arrived near a coral reef and pretty soon I was told to put my tank and mask on, place my hands around my head, and fall backwards off the boat into the water. One thing I’ll say for myself is that although unlike skydiving I was a bit nervous, but I also didn’t hesitate. My mother likes to say that I am a risk-taker. (I don’t think this is actually one of my mother’s favorite qualities about me, however…) The cool thing about being nervous about scuba diving is you are supposed to take nice, slow, long breaths, which coincidentally is very calming. So I just concentrated on breathing, which totally made me look like I was an ace scuba diver but also kept me from panicking about the fact that I was 11 meters below the AIR, WONDERFUL AIR.

I had earlier in the year purchased an underwater point-and-shoot camera specifically for going diving in Zanzibar, so taking pictures also helped keep me calm.

And yes, by the end of the dive, I was comfortable enough that I was disappointed when the guides told us we had to resurface. My certification is good for a year – it’s unlikely I’ll find myself with the opportunity to do so before then, but if I do, I will dive again.

Smark, on the other hand, wasn’t into the scuba thing, although he had a GREAT time snorkeling. I literally had to drag him out of the ocean while he was snorkeling – once to get him to eat lunch and once to save him from some sea urchins that were not nearly as friendly as the one above.

Anyway, back to the monkeys. Basically monkeys are hilarious, and super smart. While eating breakfast one morning we watched one wait until none of the lodge employees were looking, then scamper into and across the room, jump up on the buffet table, lift the supposedly-monkey-hindering lid off a plate of pastries, snatch a roll, politely replace the lid just as he found it, and nonchalantly walk back out the way he came. Unguja Lodge is totally awesome and I highly recommend it, but if you are afraid of or don’t like monkeys you may want to consider staying elsewhere…although I think monkeys are a fun fact of life on Zanzibar beaches everywhere. This is a red colobus monkey in a tree next to the lodge pool.

And this is a monkey just lounging about the place, not caring that I was a few feet from him taking his picture.

And then too soon, we had to leave Zanzibar and Africa. When we planned the trip, I thought that after traveling for nearly three weeks, we would both be very ready to get back home, however, although I missed the cats, neither Mark (who doesn’t like traveling quite as much as I do) nor I wanted to go home. If someone had offered to let us stay another two weeks, another month, we would have accepted immediately. We both LOVED Africa, much more than we thought we would. Here is the plane we boarded in Zanzibar that took us on a 20-minute flight to Dar es Salaam (a city which I think I’ll sum up by saying IF YOU THINK TRAFFIC IN LA OR DC IS BAD, TRY DAR. Dear LORD is the traffic bad there), from where we caught our flight back to Amsterdam and finally home. A rainbow appeared to try to cheer me up, but I really was very sad to leave.

So that was Africa. It is a goal of both Mark and I to get back there as soon as possible; Mark to teach children and me to help cheetahs and lions. In the meantime, however, it looks like Mark and I have other big things to plan and think about: in the next couple of weeks Mark will be moving to San Francisco to start a new job that he’s very excited about. I will join him later in the year, after most of baby wildlife season. So I will be alone quite frequently until then. Will I therefore have more time to update the blog, or will I find myself cooking less often if it’s just me? Only time can tell, I suppose. I will, though, be back soon with a final post on Africa in which I hope to cover how I survived there as a vegan (spoiler: it wasn’t hard), what I packed, including camera gear, and travel tips. And, uh, if anyone has helpful tips about cross-country moves and/or recommendations for Bay Area neighborhoods, bring them on!

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Teff Love!

I sure keep bombarding you with pictures of myself after swearing I wouldn’t subject you to the products of my Photo365 portrait project in order to not gross you out with my unphotogenic-ness. But I can’t resist sharing today’s portrait!

That’s right, Kittee’s completely awesome vegan Ethiopian cookbook Teff Love arrived in the mail today! Mine’s extra-awesome because it’s autographed, being as I was a tester. I will at some point soon do an actual review of it, but I can give you a mini-review now: IT’S TOTALLY GREAT, BUY IT NOW AND MAKE EVERYTHING IN IT. I’ve been making Kittee’s Ethiopian recipes for about a decade now; believe me, she knows what she’s doing. And Ethiopian food is the best food ever!

And yes, I’ve been remiss in making my Zanzibar post, and my Tanzanian food post, and actual recipe posts, but that’s because my life hasn’t slowed down very much for winter as I expected it to. In fact, there are possible life-changing things going on (no, I’m not pregnant; I feel like women my age can’t ever say their life is changing without people thinking they are pregnant). We’ve been traveling a bit.

Do you know where that was taken? Does this help?

Does THIS help?

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Happy new year!

Happy new year! I already did a recap on how 2014 was a great year for me; I’m kind of using the excuse of wishing all of you a happy new year to tell you about a great book I’m reading. You may recall that I mentioned recently that I’m applying for the Virginia Master Naturalist program in the spring and I asked if anyone had any book recommendations (by the way, thank you to Carolyn for suggesting field guides – something I need to get much better about doing). Well, I was nosing around Amazon looking for something “naturalisty” to put on my Kindle and I came across The Forest Unseen by David Haskell and it’s GREAT! Dr. Haskell is a biology professor in Tennessee who visited a small section (about a meter in diameter) of a nearby forest nearly every day for a year and recorded his observations about the life there, providing the reader with a bit of science behind it. I’m only 59% of the way through it but it just resonates with me. It’s one of the few times I’ve read a non-fiction book and thought the author would “get” me. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve read a lot of fantastic non-fiction books, it’s just that the view Dr. Haskell has of the world, and our role in it, although far more scientific than mine for sure as he’s far more educated than me, feels very much like my own. His writing style is a beautiful blend of poetry, science, and just a touch of whimsy. (“Whales move their tails up and down, rather than side to side, revealing their terrestrial ancestry. Mermaids, it seems, do the same.”) One morning I sat down to read while eating breakfast and in my half-awake state didn’t quite remember what I’d been reading, but I knew it was science-related and was for a moment confused to leap into a paragraph about the holy grail, until I read a sentence further and it all made sense:

The knight’s mythical quest led them to the blood from Christ’s wounds, collected in the grail by Joseph of Arimathea. The ticks are less selective about the theological pedigree of the blood they seek, and their quest ends with molting or sex.

Although he can get into minute details about specific organisms, he always explains its relationship to everything around it, as well as its relationship to the past. I particularly understood his passage about the golf balls, when two of them appear in his “mandala” one day and he wants at first to remove them because they are unnatural. But then he remembers that humans are animals and part of nature too, which is something I think a lot about. Is it really unnatural for us to produce golf balls? I mean, something in our nature drove us to do it! Which doesn’t also mean that I (or Dr Haskell) think that we SHOULD scatter golf balls throughout our forests; on the contrary, I think it’s an unconscionable thing to do, but I think it’s important that we stop thinking there is some big divide between the natural world and us. In fact, if we stopped thinking like that and starting feeling more at one with nature I think we’d all be less apt to destroy it.

I’ve just gotten to the day he visits the mandala following a hospital visit brought on by his reaction to finding a nearby stream raped of all its salamanders by fisher “poachers” stealing them to use as bait. Even I’ve never ended up in the hospital in similar situations (although if I really do make it back to Africa and fight poachers there I suspect there’s a good chance I’ll end up in the hospital due to a gunshot wound), but I totally understand the outrage he felt. And then he manages to describe how even in the hospital he could see the flow of nature all around him and goes on to talk about the plant origins of most of our medicines.

Anyway, it’s a great book, I very much recommend it, and if you read it I think you’ll get a feel for how I think about the world (albeit my thinking about the world being much less knowledgeable than Dr. Haskell’s!). I’d say it was exactly the kind of book I was looking for to get me into “Master Naturalist” mode, but honestly I had no idea a book so perfect for that would even exist! I mean, I also bought a biology text book, but though The Forest Unseen may contain fewer pages, fewer facts, and fewer diagrams, it has a message that I really want to receive. 🙂

In other Master Naturalist news, I was training a new volunteer at the Raptor Conservancy on Sunday and she mentioned that the way that she got involved with RCV was she had gone through the Master Naturalist program with another one of our volunteers a couple of years ago, so that was a funny coincidence. What’s more, I asked her what she had done for the volunteer component for the program and she said she had majored in environmental science and had thus done water monitoring for her volunteer work. I had always assumed I’d just use my wildlife rehab hours as my volunteer hours (and possibly pick up some volunteer work with bats as part of it), but since by day I’m a contractor for the EPA’s Office of Water, I’m kind of thinking maybe I should get into the same monitoring program she did. I did feel like my application for the Naturalist program was EXTREMELY wildlife-oriented, when of course there is so much more to it than wildlife – I could stand to be a lot more well-rounded, which is actually a big part of why I wanted to DO the program in the first place. And when people ask me what I do for a living I’m always, “I’m an EPA contractor for the Office of Water, but I do database stuff, not cool stuff out in the field.” I do really like my job, but I feel like it would be even more meaningful if I were also doing cool stuff out in the field. See, I feel like everything’s connected, just like Dr. Haskell explains over and over again.

So, yeah, new year’s. I can only hope that 2015 is as good to me as 2014 was. That’s asking quite a lot, considering there is little chance I’ll make it back to Africa so soon. And after all of the material things I accumulated in 2014 (all except the car were “for Africa”), I feel like I need to focus quite a bit on frugality in the upcoming year. But if I get to spend as much time outside next year as I did this year, and if I can devote even more time to learning new things and coming to an even deeper appreciation of the world around me and figure out exactly how I can best contribute to conservation of nature and wildlife, then 2015 will be a good year too. It’s starting off on the right note: we’ll be traveling to both Charleston and San Francisco in January, which I’m looking forward to.

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions because I think you can and should resolve to improve yourself any day of the year, but this year I made a resolution to drink more cocktails. That’s a good resolution, right? Although I’m a big fan of beer and wine, and I drink at least glass of wine a day, I very rarely drink hard liquor. In fact, the only times I ever drink hard liquor are with my father on holidays when he makes the two of us Manhattans, a tradition he picked up from his parents. But he makes it with a mix, which I think is silly, so this year I decided I was going to perfect a REAL Manhattan and to that end spent hours on the internet researching and bought a bunch of ingredients. I’m even planning to make – and can – my own maraschino cherries come cherry season! I also informed my father that we will be conducting ongoing taste tests throughout the year. In the name of science! We had the first taste test on Christmas when we pitted his whiskey and mix versus his whiskey and my bitters and vermouth. And the “real ingredients” won! I was biased, of course, but Dad was not. Mark participated but as expected had no opinion and after swallowing his Manhattans returned to his Bud Lite. The following photo was the one I used for my Photo365 portrait of the day and depicts the three of us just before tasting the “ingredients” Manhattan:

So that was fun and I look forward to more taste test trials with Dad in the future, although speaking of my dad, I would also like to make a small tribute to his and my mom’s dog. Their dog, Shannon, was a few weeks shy of 18 years old and was limping on Christmas. They were hoping he had just landed on it wrong and it did seem to get a little better the next day, but he quickly went downhill after that. Following a visit to the emergency vet, they think he may have developed a brain tumor, and a day later they made the painful decision to let him go before he suffered too much. I think by reading this blog, even just a post or two, you understand how much I love animals. Imagine all of the love you’d heard me express for animals, add it all up, and probably add some more in, and you might begin to understand how much Mom and Dad loved Shannon. So while I’m down here marveling over how great things are, my parents are suffering and that makes me very sad. My parents aren’t vegan or even vegetarian, but I assure you that the love and respect I have for animals comes 100% from them. We always had cats and dogs growing up and my brother and I were pretty much expected to consider them siblings. (Well, I’m not sure my father considered any of our cats to be our siblings, as he’s a dog person, not a cat person, but still…) My parents’ love of their pets shaped who I am today and I know how devastated they are. So here’s to Shannon, who led a full and happy life:

In more light-hearted news, Josiane said she’d like to see more of the self-portraits I’m doing for my Photo365 project. On the days I go for hikes – and so far the weather has been mild, allowing me to do so frequently – it’s easy: I jump in front of the tripod while taking a landscape shot. On days I can’t get out to hike (curse these short winter days), it’s harder to think of ideas. I’ve taken an awful lot of pictures of myself standing in front of my bookshelf. But some days I try to incorporate a theme that explains what I did that day. We had a Dogue Hollow Wildlife Sanctuary board meeting on Sunday afternoon so for that day’s photo I decided to demonstrate what it’s like working with raccoons, so here you go:

And with that it’s time for me to go find a cocktail and ring this new year in….

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2014

I don’t usually get all reflecty at the end of the year, but 2014 has been more of a year than most, I guess. It reminded me in a way of 2004, a year in which I received a second degree, got engaged, moved to a new state, got a new job (which I still have!), traveled internationally for the first time, and got married. Those last four things were in the same month! Likewise, 2014 saw me doing a lot of different things and fulfilling dreams.

The year began inauspiciously enough: shortly after we returned from Christmas spent in Charleston, SC with Mark’s family, Mark’s uncle was diagnosed with colon cancer. This has been the worst thing about 2014 and in fact whenever I think about how great 2014 was to me, I think about how hard it’s been for Mark’s aunt and uncle and the rest of their family. And in Virginia, the beginning of 2014 was so cold they had to invent new words to describe it, like polar vortex. I shoveled so much snow I felt like an honorary Canadian, although unlike some parts of Canada, the temperatures of the Mid-Atlantic fluctuate enough that even a foot or two of snow usually melts within a few days, so although I occasionally drove Mark’s Jeep instead of my snow-hating Miata, I did keep from going cabin-crazy and I never once missed any of my weekend volunteer work.

Right around the beginning of the year my volunteer work officially expanded to include raptors as well as raccoons. In addition to cleaning cages and exercising and feeding the raptors on a weekly basis, I help out with the programs to which we take our education birds on weekday evenings. I attended WAY more Cub Scout meetings in 2014 than I EVER thought I would!

The frigid bite of winter was offset a bit when I made the down payment for our trip to Tanzania in February. From that moment forward, I had warm, sunny Africa on my mind a good 70% of the time. I spent HOURS preparing. I pre-ordered a special lens for the trip and when it finally arrived, took every chance I could to practice with it on the wildlife I could find around here. Probably the highlight was the magical day I found these foxes play-fighting:

In February, I took my car – a 1995 Miata with 150k miles – into the shop for repeated alignments when it began pulling to the right and wouldn’t stop despite their efforts to diagnose the problem. My mechanic lent me his personal car – a 2004 Miata turbo with racing upgrades – one of the days he had my car as he was determined to solve the problem even though it doesn’t actually prevent it from being safely driven, and long story short, Mark bought the 2004 for me a couple of days later! As I was (and still am) extremely attached to my ’95, I never expected to get a “new” car, and especially not two weeks after buying a trip to Africa! And after years of poking fun at people like my brother, father, Fortinbras, and Mark for owning more than one car, I now own two cars. (I joke a lot about the luxury of having two Miatas – seriously, it IS rather convenient at times! – and the combined blue book value of the two cars is probably a third or less of the cost of most of the cars in my neighborhood, but I feel REALLY spoiled.) AND ONE IS A RACE CAR.

Spring finally arrived and was so welcome I spent every possible moment outdoors. I bolted out of the office every afternoon and headed immediately for a park. I luxuriated in fields of bluebells! I discovered tons of parks I had never had the chance to visit or never even knew about. I realized that as built-up as Northern Virginia is, we have an amazing combination of regional, state, and national parks and trails that kept me busy exploring night after night.

Spring never actually ended…the hot and humid summers this area is notorious for never arrived this year. Instead we pretty much had spring from April to September. I may not have loved it as much if we still had a pool, but as far as my nightly hikes were concerned, summer ’14 was AMAZING. It was like my reward for suffering through the brutal winter. I was in seventh heaven: every single afternoon saw me headed to a different park, hiking for miles and taking pictures, driving home with the top down as the sun set. We didn’t even go on a proper summer vacation and yet it was the happiest summer I’ve had for a while.

Mark and I discovered a mutual love of kayaking early on in the season and every weekend after I’d finished up with the raptors or raccoons, we’d rent a couple of kayaks and paddle for a few hours. Spending time on the water in that way only deepened my appreciation for the area we live in. I loved spending time IN the Potomac in addition to gazing down UPON it. Mark and I plan to buy our own kayaks for next season. Meanwhile, we introduced my brother to kayaking and he’d come down every few weekends throughout the summer to accompany us. I took Fortinbras kayaking for his birthday. We dragged Smucky out with us during his annual summer visit:

I started running, which is TOTALLY weird. I HATE running. Really hate it. But in an effort to get treadmill workouts over with faster, I started running for part of them. Eventually I gained enough confidence to do easy trail runs, which of course I prefer to being inside and as I mentioned, this summer was AWESOME for running outside, even if I couldn’t quite believe I was willing to risk people SEEING me attempt to run. I ran my first 5k this fall – by which I mean I ran 5k without stopping to walk any of it – and that feat was actually part of a 5-mile total run (it was not a race event; just me on the treadmill) I did in an hour. Honestly, out of all the stuff that happened in 2014, the fact that I RAN is to me by far the oddest. I’m not sure I’d have believed you if you had told me on January 1, 2014 that I’d be (mostly) running 4 to 5 miles at a time.

Possibly related, I lost weight. I don’t own a scale so I don’t know how much or what I started out at – I was never overweight but definitely weighed more than I did in college – but several people have TOLD me I’ve lost weight so I guess I must have. Well, that and the fact that I had to buy new pants, some of which are size 2 and still require a belt. 🙂

I switched from Linux to Mac which is another thing I’d have told you on 1/1/14 that I would NEVER do. It wasn’t due to frustration with Linux (which has gotten MUCH easier to use for personal computing over the years) but because I wanted to try Adobe Lightroom (so I guess it WAS therefore frustration that Lightroom hasn’t been ported to Linux), and also because I wanted the smallest, lightest, but still usable – including with Lightroom – laptop I could get to take to Africa and I just couldn’t find something that beat the 13″ Macbook Air or its outstanding battery life. As it turns out, I LOVE the Air. I thought I’d use it only for travel but as it turns out I haven’t even opened my Ubuntu Thinkpad or my work laptop since I got the Mac. I also LOVE Lightroom, although I remain deathly afraid of Photoshop. I’m slowly trying to improve my photo processing skills, which is an ongoing battle.

Then I WENT TO AFRICA, which was my favorite thing I’ve ever done, but my thoughts about that are too much for this post, so see the several previous and upcoming posts about that. I’ll just say it was phenomenally awesome. While there Mark and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary, which means we’ve been married for a DECADE, which is CRAZY.

I came home from Africa and found that winter had pretty much begun again in Virginia and I felt a little like the glory of the year was ending. The days are far too short – and often too cold and/or wet – for me to go to parks after work. And I had difficulty accepting the fact that when I DID make it to a park there weren’t any lions there. So I started a Photo365 project to try to inspire me to enjoy photography other than wildllife photography on the days I can’t get to any wildlife. I broadened the project theme to any portraiture (instead of my original theme of just self-portraits) to give me a break from taking pictures of myself if I happen to find a willing victim model some days, but 95% of the time it’s still going to be pictures of me, which is a bit hard to swallow because I almost universally look terrible in photographs. I didn’t have high expectations for my commitment to this project because I thought it was going to be pretty difficult to think of 365 ways of hiding behind a cat for a photograph ;). But then Mother Nature graced me with two consecutive weekends of very nice hiking weather and I managed to go for a hike every day of the last two weekends, which provided me the opportunity to take a few self-portraits outside, where I’m happiest, though there are no cats to hide my face behind. (Why, oh, why are there no lions in Virginia parks??) And I learned that I CAN actually take a picture of myself that I don’t hate, and I don’t even have to turn my back to the camera (although I liked this one and used it as this Saturday’s photo):

In fact, this weekend I ended up with way more photos than I needed for the project and I don’t really know what to DO with them. I don’t actually have a USE for a bunch of photos of myself. I guess if Mark and I ever get a divorce, I’ve got an arsenal of photos I can put on dating sites that might not make people gag, haha. The one above and the one below were taken Saturday in my favorite-place-that’s-not-Africa: Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which probably explains my easy smile.

Sunday I went to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR, which is just across the bay from and part of the same complex as Occoquan Bay. I don’t got there nearly as often because there just aren’t the same opportunities for wildlife viewing (although there are a LOT of migrating tundra swans there right now), but I’m so glad I went on Sunday afternoon because the lighting in the forest was GORGEOUS. This was the photo I selected for the project for that day:

… but I took several others that I don’t hate.

So I’m actually rather surprised by the “success” of this Photo365 project as I’ve gotten more comfortable in front of the camera – I read some articles on how to pose for portraits so I don’t always look like I have a double chin – and I’m being forced to get better at photo editing. Now that I’ve gotten a bunch of pictures of “Renae in nature”, I’m going to have to start coming up with more creative ideas for the daily pics, which is really hard because although I’m a LITTLE more at ease in front of the camera, I’ve learned that I look positively DREADFUL if I don’t smile in photos. Basically I can deal with the results if I’m flashing the camera my winning smile (haha), but other than that, I’m at a loss.

But enough about me. Those pictures of me don’t make me want to puke, which is nice, but look how BEAUTIFUL my walk was Sunday:

I feel like I’ve just spent a bunch of time gloating about how great my life is, and in a way I guess I have. But know how grateful I am for that, and how much I treasure and appreciate it. And to be fair, maybe some or even a lot of it is just having the right attitude. Maybe I could have found 14 paragraphs of negative things to say about the last year…though for this year in particular that probably would be hard – I WENT TO AFRICA! – but I’ve learned over the years how to concentrate on the good and the beautiful and not dwell on the bad and the ugly. I do feel like a particularly lucky person, though. A lot of this year has been characterized by my wishes coming true – some of them for material things (lenses! laptops! cars!) and some of them for more esoteric things. As a small example, last weekend I went to Prince William Forest Park and I saw but could not photograph a pileated woodpecker before he flew off into the deep forest. I only have one very blurry photo of a pileated woodpecker taken a couple of years ago. I mentioned to my father that I missed getting a picture of that bird and how BADLY I wanted to take one. Then this weekend at Occoquan, what does the universe deliver to me?

And did the universe stop there? No, the universe thought I might also like to see a fox since it can’t give me lions right now.

These were taken with a 50mm lens, which I mention to tell you how close he was to me. If you aren’t into photography, that means he was very close to me. 🙂

And maybe this post has been an explanation of why I so rarely updated this blog this year and when I do I usually don’t have recipes. GEEZ, I’m busy. Busy, but grateful. Happy holidays and a very happy new year to all of you.

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