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. ūüôā

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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Italian Pickled Peppers and Creamy Mayo-Free Coleslaw

I bought a pint of peppers at the farmers market that looked perfect for pickling (and no, I can’t stop thinking about Peter picking a peck of pickled peppers), so I made a simple quick pickle brine that included some of my potted oregano, figuring they’d be awesome on pizza. Plus, I’m a plant killer and the oregano is pretty much dead so I figured I might as well use what I can. (It’s a shame; it was a particularly potent variety and the plant smelled strongly of pizza – I was drooling when I bought it. Curse my black thumb.) Though I made it specifically for putting on pizza, I’ve been eating it by itself as a garnish with every meal I’ve had, even stir frys. Unless Mark is ready to harvest a bunch of the peppers he’s growing (he does NOT have a black thumb), I’ll have to buy another pint or two of peppers at the market this weekend. The brine gets spicy and delicious as well.

Italian Pickled Peppers

1 pint hot peppers, like peperoncini or wax
1 large shallot
2 or 3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
several sprigs fresh oregano
a few sprigs of fresh dill (optional)

Combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt and heat until just boiling (in a small pot or in the microwave), whisking to ensure the sugar is completely dissolved. Slice the peppers (seeded if you like) and shallot thinly. Smash the garlic cloves lightly with the side of a knife. Toss the peppers and shallots together to mix them up and put them into a pint canning jar with the herbs and garlic cloves. Pour the liquid mixture into the jar.

This had a good flavor a mere half hour later, but is really best after refrigerating for 24 hours.

A tasty garnish for just about any dish!

I had extra brine, so I added some olive oil, fresh herbs, and lemon juice and made a salad dressing out of it.

Here is a flatbread pizza sporting some of the peppers (and some basil that I haven’t yet managed to kill, mostly because Mark won’t let me near it):

Mark is a big mayo-hater, and although I don’t hate mayonnaise, I do consider it pretty unhealthy, so I usually do vinaigrette versions of salads that are usually dressed in mayo, and honestly, I think they taste much better that way. I don’t usually prefer dressings to be creamy, but this coleslaw recipe uses a little bit of yogurt for a hint of creaminess.

Creamy Mayo-Free Coleslaw

1 small head cabbage (green or savoy)
1/2 small onion
2 green onions, sliced thinly
3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp plain vegan yogurt
2 Tbsp canola or other flavorless oil
1 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp celery seeds

Grate the cabbage and the onion – I use a mandolin for this – and put in a large bowl with the green onions. Whisk together the vinegar, yogurt, oil, sugar, mustard, salt, and celery seeds. Pour the mixture over the cabbage and onions and mix thoroughly; I advise using your hands. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour to allow the flavors to blend.

Last night’s dinner, featuring the coleslaw (and you can see the pickled peppers, as well as some quick pickled carrots):

Mark spends about 10 minutes artfully arranging the food on his plate every night. He watches too much Gordon Ramsay.

Time for book and animal talk. Once again, I experienced a random segue from a fiction to a non-fiction book. Last weekend I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s about a girl who was raised with a chimpanzee as a sister until both she and the chimp were 5, and how this has impacted her life and that of her family. Confronted by some crows that the narrator is convinced are calling them bad names, one of the characters (who is vegan when he’s not “on the road” working for the Animal Liberation Front) responds, “Crows are very smart. If they say we’re idiots, we’re idiots.”

Well, I had already cued up Gifts of the Crow as my very next read, so I was about to find out just how smart crows are, if not whether or not they think we are idiots. Gifts of the Crow was fascinating; I read the entire thing while at Mark’s chess tournament. It’s very heavy on brain chemistry, so if you’re not interested in that sort of thing, it might not be for you, but I learned that crows:

  • Can talk.
  • If perched on a ledge from which dangles food on a long string, know to pull up on the string, making loops and stepping on them with their feet, until the food is hoisted all the way up.
  • Not only manufacture tools (the classic example is bending wire to make a hook), but will use items they previously proved unhelpful in other endeavors to assist making their tools – they are very innovative and can reassess the usefulness of tools in different situations.
  • Will place leaves over bread tossed from humans to geese, so the geese can’t find the bread and leave in frustrated confusion, at which times the crows feast.
  • Will chase squirrels into traffic during rush hour, then wait until traffic dies down to eat the dead squirrels.
  • Will pull the tails of dogs (tail pulling seems to be a favorite crow activity, by the way) to trick them out of their dog food, either by dropping food they have in their mouth, or by ganging up so that one crow distracts the dog while the other steals its food.
  • Are big “cachers” – they hide food and trinkets they don’t need right away – and if they notice a fellow crow watching them hiding their cache, they will fake the other crow out by stuffing the item into its chest feathers or in its beak and pretend to cache it in one location, but secretly hide it elsewhere later. Although they are also so smart that they know that other crows are trying to fake them out, so this is a vicious cycle. Moreover, if a crow sees another crow getting near its cache, they will make a distraction and retrieve the cache before the other bird can get to it…but only if the first crow previously saw the second crow see the first crow hiding it. Calling someone a “bird brain” is supposed to be an insult, but crows come close to OVER thinking things!
  • Can count, and understand that even if they can’t see something, it’s still there. Eight researchers in a blind tried to trick crows into thinking a field was safe to land in and not a single crow would leave their high perches until all eight people had left the blind and the field – even when the researchers left the blind in groups of random numbers to try to fake them out.
  • Learn from the mistakes of other crows. If a crow sees one of their brethren die or become injured, through misadventure or through human intervention, none of the other crows in the area will make the same mistake. Ever.
  • Remember human faces – for years. And they’ll tell all their friends if you are a good or a bad person. If you do something bad to a crow or a crow sees you do something bad to some other crow, that crow will harass you – forever – and so will others he knows. Crows who never even saw the original infraction will harangue you (proving crows have some sort of language they use to communicate with each other) even when the crow you originally slighted isn’t around.
  • Know what car you drive. Maybe you should just read the book for an explanation of that one, but yeah. They don’t just know your face, they know your car. And they’ll use your car as a vehicle to show their displeasure with you.
  • Remember and reward kindnesses in humans as well as meanness. Crows have been known to bring gifts – often some shiny, human trinket they’ve stolen – to people who have fed them or saved their life.

Basically, crows (and all birds in the corvid family, which also includes ravens, rooks, jays, magpies, and others) are ridiculously smart, rivaling apes and, in my opinion, some humans. In fact, I kind of think the only reason they haven’t taken over the planet is because they’re lazy and are just waiting for us to come up with all the technology we can. Crows don’t want to be bothered by discovering cold fusion for themselves. Once we’ve created everything crows think they need to rule the earth, I think that’s the end of us. To that end, I designed this t-shirt so when our new crow overlords arrive they know that I’m a sympathizer.

There were crows cawing nearby when I took that picture, by the way, although none stopped by. I’m sure they can read English, however, so they’re probably already putting word out that I can be counted on during the great crow uprising.

They are remarkable creatures and I hope to be involved in crow rehab in the future. First, though, the raptors…coming soon.

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Moroccan Meal: Carrot and Chickpea Tagine; Green Bean and New Potato Saute

I’ve realized I’m sad about my infrequent postings, if for no other reason than often I’d like a record of what I’ve made. Sometimes I want to repeat it and can’t remember what I did. I’ve been so busy that I haven’t spent as much time as usual cooking, but I am still cooking, and I’ve made some pretty good stuff, too. Instead of dismissing the idea I should do a post on it because I’m busy, or it doesn’t seem that exciting, or I’m tired, I’m going to just do it anyway. So with fresh resolve, I bring you a Moroccan meal of Carrot and Chickpea Tagine with Green Bean and New Potato Saute. Neither of these are original recipes. I decided to base the meal around the green beans I got at the farmers market so I hit the internet looking for ideas and came across a Moroccan recipe, so I went with that theme for the whole meal.

Smucky recently spent three weeks in Morocco, so I asked him to share a couple of his favorite pictures to give this post a more authentic Moroccan flair than my food probably will, so first let’s start off with the very handsome Smucky in front of a gorgeous backdrop:

He asked if I wanted food pictures and I said not necessarily, but when he sent me this one, it was so happy I had to include it.

Smucks apparently had an amazing time in the desert. He says I’d really like Morocco, so I guess I’d better put it on my list of places to go…

Possibly the greatest thing about Morocco are the GOATS IN TREES. That’s enough of a reason to go right there!

And now the recipes. We don’t do Moroccan too often, so this meal was a nice change of pace. If you make both of these dishes for the same meal, start the tagine first since it takes longer.

Carrot and Chickpea Tagine
very slightly adapted from http://moroccanfood.about.com/od/vegetarianmaindishes/r/moroccan_carrot_chickpea_tagine.htm

I’m not sure if it’s really a tagine if it’s not cooked in a tagine, but this was pretty tasty.

2 cups roughly chopped carrot
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp turmeric
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup vegetable broth
1 can chickpeas, drained
1/4 cup raisins (golden preferred)
chopped parsley

Heat some oil over medium high heat in the base of a tagine or in a large skillet or Dutch oven. Add all of the ingredients except the broth, chickpeas, raisins, and parsley and saute for a minute or two. Add the broth, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the carrots are somewhat tender. Add the chickpeas, raisins, and parsley and cook until the carrots are completely tender and the chickpeas are heated through. Serve over couscous.

Green Bean and New Potato Saute
very slightly adapted from http://moroccanfood.about.com/od/saladsandsidedishes/r/green_bean_new_potato_saute.htm

1 lb green beans, trimmed
1 lb new potatoes, chopped in half
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1/2 tsp gound cumin
1/2 tsp hot paprika or 1/4 tsp cayenne
salt to taste
chopped parsley

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Put the green beans in and cook until just tender, about 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge into an ice bath (or if you are lazy, run cold water over them in a strainer). Bring the water to a boil again if necessary, then add the potatoes and cook until tender. Drain and plunge into an ice bath (or run cold water over them in a strainer). Put some oil in a large skillet and add the garlic, cumin, paprika or cayenne, and salt, and saute for a minute or two. Add the green beans and potatoes and saute until heated through. Stir in the parsley.

Personally, I felt both of these dishes required a finish of lemon juice, so I served with lemon wedges. However, I pretty much think everything requires a lemon juice finish. I LOVE LEMONS.

My plate:

And this is Mark’s artfully arranged plate:

I’m going to talk about books – and music – for a little bit if you don’t mind. I know many of you are big readers like I am. So, Fortinbras was here the other day and after dinner I announced to him and Mark that I wanted to play my current favorite song for them and went over to my iPod and cued up Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata, which I’ve been playing over and over again. Well, within 10 seconds of my starting the song, both Fortinbras and Mark said, practically in unison, “Yeah, that’s DEFINITELY a Renae song!” Which I thought was interesting because for one thing they’d only heard a few notes and for another, it’s not like I listen to a ton of African music. But either there is some very predictable quality about the music I like or it’s just that there’s no one in the world who knows me better than those two.

Shortly thereafter I started reading Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead and for some reason I was reminded of Mark and Fortinbras immediately pegging Pata Pata as a Renae song, because I kind of immediately pegged Bird Sense as a Renae book. While 92.1% of the books I read are fiction (and yes, that’s a real statistic; I keep track), the non-fiction books I read are, I suppose, somewhat predictable. They are all science-related for one thing, if not physics, then neuroscience or biology, and I require good writing skills on the part of the author. (I can’t abide a poorly written book, no matter how fascinating the subject matter.) And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m obsessed with raptors. So a book using science to explain how it feels to be a bird? I’m all over it! I’m about halfway through it and it’s great, other than a few disturbing parts about various experiments, particularly those from a century or more ago. (Sorry, I just don’t think it’s cool to rip a bird’s eyes out to find out if it needs to see to fly.)

Here is a picture of a raptor, who is definitely using his eyes to stare me down. It’s an osprey. They always get pissed at me when I walk under their nest. They fly out of it and circle around me squawking.

I learned about Bird Sense by talking to one of the people handling the birds at the raptor safari I went to, when I rather uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with her and in the course of our conversation she recommended the book. Usually I’m super shy, but I’m learning to be less shy around rehabbers and other people I might learn from, and it always pays off.

Another interesting thing is Bird Sense referred to Thomas Nagel’s philosophical essay What is it like to be a bat?. That’s not too interesting in and of itself because it makes sense that a book about what it’s like to be a bird would make a reference to an essay about what it’s like to be a bat. But what’s weird is the book I read right before starting Bird Sense was Bright Lights, Big City, a TOTALLY different kind of book, which also referred to What is it like to be a bat?. I thought that a strange coincidence!

To bring it back around to music, my other favorite song right now is Pink Martini’s Sympathique, which I discovered when a few commenters recognized the qunioa salad I posted a few weeks ago as originally coming from China Forbes, the singer of Pink Martini. A strange way to find new music, but I LOVE the song (it’s also very much a “Renae song”) and I actually understand 95% of it (I refuse to look up the lyrics, but Mark likes it when I translate it as it plays), plus the “je ne veux pas travailler” sentiment is really fitting for me right now. I pretty much always want to dejeuner though!

How abouts I wrap up this possibly too-chatty post with some pictures from Occoquan Bay NWR, where I went to celebrate the solstice Friday?

Tree swallows:

This is not a great picture, but I find it amusing for some reason, plus I’ve never photographed a pileated woodpecker before so I kept it. (And it reminds me of Still Life with Woodpecker.)

Doe, a deer:


One of the creeks:

Well, je ne veux pas travailler, mais j’ai besoin d’argent, soooo je vais me couche…

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Feij√£o (Brazilian Beans)

I’m currently reading Heliopolis by James Scudamore. One interesting fact is that right before we went to Charleston a few weeks ago, I was reading The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (and by “right before”, I mean I read the last sentence as Mark pulled into the airport parking garage), and the main character’s name in that book is Ludo. Well, we’re gearing up to go to Charleston again in a couple of days – I may well be finishing this book at the airport – and the main character in this book is named Ludo. Okay, maybe not that interesting, but I thought it was a funny coincidence.

Another, perhaps more interesting, thing about Heliopolis, which takes place in S√£o Paulo, is this Ludo and his mother were rescued from a favela by a very wealthy family after his mother served the wife a humble but delicious meal of feij√£o. The wealthy woman asked how Ludo’s mother could possibly have made the beans taste so good when she could not afford to buy anything to season them with. Ludo later believes this impressive feat is what caused Rebecca to hire her as a cook, and subsequently the family to adopt Ludo. So basically Ludo’s life was saved (he firmly believes he would have died young, like so many others, had they stayed in the favela) by a bowl of beans. Beans, and other food, play a predominate role in the book: Ludo has inherited his mother’s love of cooking, and the types of food characters eat and enjoy is often used as a way to judge their character.

So of course I had to make feij√£o, right? Feij√£o just means beans. And after doing some research, I’ve found there really is no particular way you have to make or flavor them to make them particularly Brazilian, nor are there even particular beans you have to use. Really, you just pretty much cook some beans however you want and that’s feij√£o. I imagine it’s akin to saying, “I’m making some beans” in English. So I really don’t have an exact recipe for you, but that’s totally in keeping with the book: before she moved to the Carnicelli weekend farm – and even afterwards, when her access to ingredients was vastly improved – Ludo’s mother makes beans just however she can.

Pintos and black beans seem to be especially common, but any bean is okay. Pintos are my absolute favorite bean, but I decided to make black beans for a change. Here’s what I did, but definitely don’t copy me: do whatever you want with your beans!


1 cup dried black beans, soaked over night in cold water or speed soaked for one hour in hot water
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1-2 Tbsp bacon salt (Bryanna’s is not very salty; this would probably be way, way too much commercial bacon salt)
1 bay leaf
1/8 tsp smoked pepper
1 Tbsp vegan “bacon” bits
vegan broth to cover the beans
smoked salt, to taste
hot sauce, to taste
lime wedges, for garnish

Heat some oil in a heavy pot, then add the onions and garlic and saute until the onions are beginning to brown. Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the beans are soft (an hour to an hour and a half, depending on how old your beans are). Remove the bay leaf.

Serve with rice, drizzled with lime juice. If desired, top with hot sauce and/or vegan bacon bits. I also made some turnip greens and corn on the cob. I think Mark was worried when he saw the turnip greens (which I knew he would refuse to eat), thinking he wouldn’t get enough to eat. However, after his first bowl of rice and beans, a propos of nothing, he announced, “this rice and beans is so simple but so f’ing awesome!” He didn’t realize it, but that was the perfect thing to say. Then he excused himself to retrieve a second bowl.

To elaborate, Mark would like me to tell you that “Bac-o-Bitzzzz is the shitzzzz and Tabasco Sauzzzz is the bozzzz.” Also, he had some wine. He adds, “wine makes me shine!”

Mark has just instructed me to reverse engineer bacon bits, because I will then rule the world. He wants me to call them “Smark-o-bits”. He sure loves bacon bits.

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PopCo’s Let Them Eat Cake cake

Just before Christmas, Kylie sent me a book she thought I’d like, PopCo, by Scarlett Thomas. I finished reading it last night and was gratified to find a vegan cake recipe at the end, opposite a list of the first 1,000 prime numbers – a juxtaposition that as a vegan and a former high school Mathlete, I found delightful. Actually, the book sort of advocates veganism, and yes, the characters did eat the cake in the book. Naturally, today I had to bake the cake. Perhaps I’ll start a regular feature in which I cook from fictional books.

The book is British, so I’ll give you the original recipe, direct from the book, first, and then I’ll “translate” it for my American readers and add my commentary…basically I just measured everything for you after weighing it, although I will state that I much prefer baking by weight and I encourage you to buy a good scale if you don’t have one.

Let Them Eat Cake cake


2 oz ground almonds
6 oz self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
4 oz light muscovado sugar
150 ml corn oil
200-250 ml soya milk
zest of two unwaxed lemons
juice of 2 lemons
1 tbsp orange flower water
1 tsp natural vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees, or less if it’s a fan oven.

Grease a cake tin. A deep six-inch tin is good but any will do.

Sift the flour and the baking powder into a bowl and then add the sugar. Mix in the ground almonds and the lemon zest. Add the oil and the milk. Use slightly less liquid to make the end result for of a cake and less of a pudding. You don’t have to be 100per cent precise with the liquids in this cake.

Now add the lemon juice and mix in thoroughly. Add the flower essence and the vanilla extract and mix again. The result should look like a thick batter.

Pour into the cake tin and bake for about forty minutes. The outside should be brown and the inside very soft. Turn out, cool, and decorate with fresh mint leaves and strawberries.

Alright, now here is the recipe from my American kitchen:

It’s hard to find self-raising flour in America, so I’ve used all purpose and added additional baking powder and salt. Wegmans had muscovado sugar but it felt rock hard and not particularly fresh, and I figured it may not be super easy for Americans to find anyway, so you can substitute light brown sugar or turbinado sugar. The orange blossom water may be difficult to find. I found it in a Mediterranean grocery. If you simply can’t find it, you can try a few drops of orange extract, but be aware the orange blossom water has a floral component you will be missing. It is, however, a fairly subtle flavoring.

2 oz, or scant 1/2 cup almonds, ground (measure before grinding)
1 1/3 cup all purpose flour
heaping 1 Tbsp baking powder
heaping 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (unpacked) light brown, light muscovado, or turbinado sugar
2/3 cup corn oil
1 cup soy or other non-dairy milk (I used hemp)
zest of 2 unwaxed lemons
juice of 2 lemons
1 Tbsp orange flower water (also known as orange blossom water; can be found in Mediterranean and other specialty grocery stores)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Grind the almonds, pulsing to ensure they don’t turn to a paste.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl. If you don’t have a sifter, you can just use a strainer, as I’ve done here.

Add the sugar and almond meal to the bowl.

Zest the lemons; you can do this right into the mixing bowl.

Mix the dry ingredients together well.

Juice the lemons and set aside.

Measure the oil – I barely had the 150 ml I needed, but here it is in both American and metric sizes:

Add it to the bowl, then measure the non-diary milk.

Add the milk to the bowl and mix well. Then add the orange blossom water and vanilla extract and mix well again.

Grease a cake pan. I’ve used an 8″ square baking dish. I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen a 6″ cake pan.

Pour the batter into the pan.

Bake for about 40 minutes.

Let cool in the pan for 5 to 10 minutes, then place an upside down cooling rack over it …

… and invert. Let cool.

I didn’t have any fresh mint or strawberries, so I just topped with vegan whipped cream. Strawberries and mint would have been delightful though. Interestingly, Mark thought the cake smelled of strawberries, but in fact it tasted quite lemony, as you could probably have guessed from the ingredients list. It was very moist; I used the lower amount of liquid recommended and can’t imagine having used any more. I had it with tea, which was perfect, especially since I think a cup of tea was drunk on at least every other page of PopCo.

PopCo, with its emphasis on math (mostly as it relates to cryptology) proved to be an unintentionally interesting segue to my next book, which I’d been on the wait list for at the library and which finally arrived: The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, what with Dirac being a very mathematically inclined physicist. (Well, all physicists are probably mathematically inclined, but until he became enamored with relativity, math was Dirac’s direct calling.) This is a strange book for me to be reading because I very rarely read biographies. I find I simply don’t care enough about anyone to read an entire book about them. I largely prefer to read fiction. But from the reviews I’d read of this book, it’s pretty heavy on the physics – it was written by a physicist – which I like. And it’s been a strange reading year so far: exactly half of the 8 books I’ve completed have been non-fiction. Compare that to the 93.6% fiction (of 109 books) I read in 2009. I don’t know how I’m tolerating all these facts!

Speaking of the library, I also checked out Vegan Soul Kitchen. Anyone have any favorite recipes from that book I should definitely try?

And now, Brachtune takes a bath…

(She’d just finished yawning.)

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2666 Brussels sprouts

No, I didn’t buy 2,666 Brussels sprouts. What I did was read a book with 2,666 pages. Okay, not really. It was 898 pages and it was called 2666. I finished it a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with it, but it consists of five parts that are only loosely related. The third is The Part about Fate (Fate being a person) and it contains a character named Barry Seaman, who delivers a long speech that contains a recipe for Brussels sprouts. You read that right. So I decided to make those Brussels sprouts!

Here is the original, direct from the book:

I see lots of fat people in this church, he said. I suspect few of you eat green vegetables. maybe now is the time for a recipe. The name of the recipe is: Brussels Sprouts with Lemon. Take note, please. Four servings calls for: two pounds of brussels sprouts, juice and zest of one lemon, one onion, one sprig of parsley, three tablespoons of butter, black pepper, and salt. You make it like so. One: Clean sprouts well and remove outer leaves. Finely chop onion and parsley. Two: In a pot of salted boiling water, cook sprouts for twenty minutes, or until tender. Then drain well and set aside. Three: Melt butter in frying pan and lightly saute onion, add zest and juice of lemon and salt and pepper to taste. Four: Add brussels sprouts, toss with sauce, reheat for a few minutes, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with lemon wedges on the side. So good you’ll be licking your fingers, said Seaman. No cholesterol, good for the liver, good for the blood pressure, very healthy.

Now, I don’t know where Seaman got the idea his recipe does not contain cholesterol, because it certainly does, unless by “butter” he meant “vegan margarine,” which I doubt. My interpretation, of course, is cholesterol-free! The only change I made was the margarine, and dried parsley since I didn’t have any fresh.

Barry Seaman’s Brussels Sprouts with Lemon

2 lbs Brussels sprouts, cleaned and trimmed
2-3 Tbsp vegan margarine
1 onion, minced
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 tsp dried parsley (or a sprig of fresh, minced)
salt and freshly ground pepper

Wash and trim those sprouts.

Bring a pot of water to a boil then add some salt and the sprouts. Cook until tender (15 to 20 minutes).

Meanwhile, zest …

… and juice the lemon.

And mince the onion.

When the sprouts are tender, drain and rinse under cool water to stop cooking.

In a large frying pan or a wok, heat the margarine …

… then add the onions and parsley and fry for 5 minute or until soft.

Stir in the lemon juice and zest, salt, and pepper.

The toss in the sprouts and cook just until heated through.

I’m sorry I forgot to include my lemon wedge because it brightened up the plate, but here’s the meal:

What do I think of the culinary prowess of Mr Seaman? It was an okay change of pace, but I prefer my roasted Brussels sprouts, and I suspect Mark does as well because he didn’t eat as many as usual. But I still thought it was fun to cook from a novel. I should pay more attention to food in the books I read and try to recreate some fictional meals. You don’t usually get a character telling you exactly how to make a dish but it would be fun to make things up.

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Vegan Cocktail Weiners

The weekend before last, Mark and I went bowling. Bowling isn’t something we ordinarily do, but we thought it’d be fun. I kicked Mark’s butt!

Mark claims it was because I was “trained” in bowling, but the fact of the matter is that although I did in fact take both Bowling and Billiards as my gym credits in college, I had to cheat to pass bowling class. I suck at bowling. Also, bowling class was at 8:30 a.m., which is simply outrageous. At least Billiards was at 4:30, when the bar was open and I could drink beer during class.

Anyway, we went bowling, and we didn’t take any skinheads. After bowling, we wandered into a nearby Vietnamese grocery store because I had never been there. I was surprised to find a lot of frozen vegan “meat” there, some of which I purchased just for the novelty of it. One of the items I found was vegan cocktail weiners:

What’s more, vegan cocktail weiners are entirely borax-free!!

I know it may seem extreme to some, but Mark and I are both committed to a borax-free diet. So into my shopping basket this rare find went!

Apparently what you are supposed to do with cocktail weiners is mix together a jar of grape jelly and a jar of barbecue or chili sauce and throw in the tiny weiners, then cook, generally in a crockpot. I can’t stand bottled barbecue sauces to begin with because they are too sweet, so I can’t even imagine to what levels of disgust grape jelly would elevate it. Therefore I made up my own weiner sauce. (Apparently cocktail weiners are also sometimes called “little smokies” and though that nomenclature has its appeal, I’m sticking to weiner.)

I bought a pineapple (it’s my favorite fruit!) for our weekend-long party, but never got around to serving it. Oops. So I incorporated it into tonight’s dinner as the “sweet” flavor. If you don’t have a pineapple lying around, try agave nectar or brown sugar to taste for the sweetness.

Vegan Cocktail Weiners in a Spicy-Sweet Weineralicious Sauce

1/3 cup chili sauce
2 Tbsp prepared yellow mustard
2 Tbsp vegan Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 slices pineapple (fresh, frozen, or canned), chopped finely
sriracha, to taste
8 oz vegan cocktail weiners (try cutting up regular-sized vegan hot dogs if you can’t find these, maybe adding a little liquid smoke to the sauce)

Defrost the weiners if necessary. I put them in a pot of hot water and put a weight on them to submerge them. Within 10 minutes they were defrosted.

If necessary, core and slice the pineapple. I set it in a bowl so I can collect any juice that escapes; I poured this juice into the sauce pot.

Chop the pineapple finely; you should have about 1/3 cup.

Mark’s been complaining for a few years that we never have “normal” mustard. By this he means French’s yellow mustard. I love mustard and prefer a high class product. I recently caved in and bought him some French’s as a treat. Cocktail weiner sauce seemed like something that would call for French’s. Use whatever mustard strikes your fancy, and add it with all the other ingredients except the weiners to a small pot.

To my surprise, the cocktail weiners were individually wrapped like tiny little sausages; I had to pop them each out of their casing.

Add the weiners to the sauce:

Simmer over medium-low heat until the weiners are warmed through and the sauce is thickened.


Mark pronounced the cocktail weiners “strangely good”. I’d buy them again.

In other news, since I sometimes talk about books here despite the fact they are rarely considered food (except in Firmin, which, by the way, is a very cute book), I would like to announce that it is my opinion that Pride and Prejudice is improved greatly by the addition of zombies. Fortinbras brought Pride and Prejudice and Zombies down for me this weekend and I’ve been reading it along side the original, which I hadn’t read for many years. As far as I remember I was pretty ambivalent about P&P when I read it, which must have been in college because it has a price tag from my university on it. Reading the zombified version, however, I find myself constantly going back to the original to see if the non-zombie parts are really quite as ridiculous in the original and they are! The zombie version, which uses the original text for at least half of the wording, is actually much easier to read as they’ve tightened up the prose in order to fit the zombies in. Maybe it’s sacrilegious for an English major to prefer zombies to pure Pride, but it’s a lot more lively. Which is a funny assessment to make of the living dead, I guess.

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On Food and Cooking, and procrastination

I fully intended, I swear, to do a post on caring for cast iron for you this weekend. However, not only did we have company most of Saturday, it was – and still is – over ninety degrees here in Virginia! Which I’m loving: although I dress in black and to me every day is Halloween, I’m all about moving to the tropics. However, even the climate-control-loving Smark hasn’t been able to muster up the wherewithal to turn on the A/C in April, and it’s positively sweltering in the house. So slaving over a hot stove wasn’t something I was really looking forward to. Another cast iron post is forthcoming, but probably not until later in the week when the temperature cools down to a more seasonable – and reasonable – 65 or so.

In fact, I don’t have a recipe to share with you today. Did I even cook this weekend?! I don’t remember. It was hot, I know that. What I would like to share with you, though, is a recommendation for On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. Now, I read a lot; usually two or three books a week, but almost entirely fiction. I do tend to read cookbooks cover to cover as well, and I read a disproportionately large number of books about physics, but other than that I rarely read any non-fiction. I have been looking for years, however, for a book about the science of cooking. And have I ever found it! I can’t remember what brought it to my attention, probably a mention on a food blog somewhere, but I checked it out of the library and it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. It’s fascinating! It’s huge! I’ve mostly been skipping around reading a section here, a section there, instead of reading it straight through, as it’s enormous and very textbook-like, but I’ve been marking many pages that contain topics I want to more fully explore or that have given me ideas for experiments I can try. It’s not a cookbook; the only recipes it contains are a few fairly incomprehensible Medieval and other old recipes in sidebars that illustrate the history of an ingredient or technique. What it is is an encyclopedia of what seems like everything there is to know about food and cooking. The history of all types of food. How nutrients are absorbed in our system. The hows and whys of all cooking techniques. How yeast works…. I’m flipping through it now to glean more examples of the range of information this book contains and it’s just impossible to narrow it down. I just opened to a cut-out diagram of the molecular structure of a plant leaf. Now I’ve just flipped to a page containing the heading “Unusual Fermentations,” which leaves me in danger of abandoning this post to go read it, given my love of fermentation. (They don’t call me Renae Ferment√© for nothing. Okay, no one calls me Renae Ferment√©. But they should.)

When I ordered the book from the library, I figured I’d end up just skipping over the meat and dairy chapters. However, I actually found the dairy section fascinating. (I haven’t read any meat chapters.) Although McGee does not advocate the avoidance of dairy, he points out that it is unnatural for humans to consume the milk of other animals, and that relatively few people on the planet do or even can. He also says that the recommendation by the US government that adults consume a quart of milk a day in order to fulfill their calcium needs is foolhardy and the product of the US dairy council’s funding. He points out that consumption of animal protein increases the need for calcium (meaning vegans actually need less calcium than omnivores), and that although milk is a “valuable” source of calcium, it is “unnatural” and not necessarily the best source and that the best way to prevent osteoporosis is to exercise, eat a well-balanced diet low in animal protein, and to eat a variety of calcium-rich foods including dried beans, nuts, tofu, and various greens. The point I’m trying to get across here is that this book is a great resource for completely unbiased information about why a vegan diet can be healthier than others, and even provides support on the moral issues behind it (by stating that it is unnatural for humans to consume dairy products). Often the most easily-accessible sources of data backing up a vegan diet are pro-vegan websites, which detractors won’t accept as a source because they have an “agenda”. So if you are at all interested in backing up your claims that your vegan diet is sound from a completely unbiased source, try On Food and Cooking.

But that’s not why I sought out this book. I very rarely bring up vegan “issues” because my goal is to present delicious and nutritious food that just happens to be vegan in an effort to show it’s not weird. I’m mostly loving this book for all the chapters about foods I do eat…which is most of the book, because even if you are omnivore, most of your food intake should be grains and vegetables. Did you know that cashews are related to poison ivy and that’s why you never see them in their shells? Their shell contains an irritating oil and must be removed without contaminating the seed. This book is going on my wish list: it’s the type of reference you need to keep in the house; borrowing from the library isn’t going to cut it!

That’s really all I have to say. It’s still hot so I don’t know if I’ll do any real cooking tonight, so no recipes right now. But here are some pictures of Brachtune to tide you over. She spent hours outside this weekend, in the morning and evenings when it wasn’t quite as hot. She used to be very nervous outside and only make short excursions totally inspired by jealousy that Tigger (who LOVED going for walks) was out and she wasn’t. Lately it’s like she’s been possessed by the spirit of Tigger and is doing all sort of Tiggerish things.

I love watching her walk at eye level. She just has the cutest paws in the world.

I also love those dark rings around her eyes. She’s like Cleopatra.

Sunday I planted some herbs: spearmint (I got a big plant of this, which I’m calling the mojito bush), regular and Vietnamese coriander (cilantro), thyme, tarragon, mizuna, rosemary, and sage. The bay leaf plant is the only one I have left over from my previous herb pot that I didn’t kill.

I also got a rainbow chard plant, because apparently it’s easy to grow and it’s “cut-and-regrow”. For $1.29, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. The leaf in the picture is just 2 1/2″ long right now: so cute!

I have to wait a week or two to get the tomatoes, basil, and shiso, and for Mark to get his peppers. I’m accepting bets on how long it takes me to kill these plants. Mark’s giving me six weeks, which is generous of him. I really wish I were better with plants. I try every year and every year it’s just a slow decline towards a painful plant death. Oh well. I generally get at least enough use out of them before they die that they pay for themselves by costing less than I’d have paid for a bundle of the same thing in the grocery store…if you don’t factor in the $37 I spent on dirt.

So other than spending time outside with The Toonse and planting my doomed herbs, I mostly spent the weekend when not courting guests melting in my chair reading. Here was my view:

Or, another view:

(I still have tan lines on my foot from the sandals I wore in Australia.)

Oh, that’s right. I did cook up some frozen tofu for dinner last night. Except I’m one of those people who cleans up as she goes along when making meals and I kept grabbing the tofu instead of the sponge. I think you understand why:

Which is edible?! It’s hard to tell; I’m generally not a big fan of frozen tofu. I only freeze it when I have it and it’s about to go bad. And I only break it out on days when it’s ninety-two degrees out and there’s nothing else in the house to eat.

Right, well, another cast iron tutorial coming your way very soon – I promise.

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National Book Festival

Today Mark and some friends and I attended the National Book Festival, where they served free vegan beverages!

Water! I also enjoyed a Clif bar while I was there, but I had to supply that. Really this is just about the lamest, most obvious ploy to make yet another non-food post. I just wanted to gloat about meeting Sir Salman Rushdie!!!

I stood in line to have a book signed by him after he did a Q & A, which was very crowded and therefore extremely difficult to get photos of, particularly as a somewhat height-challenged individual. This is the best I could do:

He was smart and funny!

Immediately after the Q & A, we rushed over to the book signing line, although he wasn’t scheduled to begin signing for another hour. While I stood in line, sweating profusely in the extremely humid DC heat, I gave Mark my camera and let him go wander around taking pictures. While he was out doing so, he ran into Rushdie being carted over to the signing tent!! He got to shake his hand and take this picture! How fair is that?!

Just before Sir Rushdie’s Q & A, Neil Gaiman did a reading from his new book, The Graveyard Book. I consider Neil Gaiman to the The Nicest Person In The World. It’s also always a pleasure to hear him read.

I’m surprised any of the pics of him turned out, since I could barely see him either.

OK, I am DONE with non-food posts, I swear! In fact, I’ll have TWO food posts for you tomorrow. The pictures are uploaded and everything; but it’s too late for me to write them up tonight. And I just remembered I need to go crack and soak some soybeans so I can make tofu tomorrow.

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