Brachtune, a love letter

In the wee hours before dawn, many, many, many years ago, friends and I were sitting in the courtyard of their apartment building, quietly talking. Across the way, a single light was on in a building that backed to my friends’. The walls of the lighted room were painted red and there was an American flag and a Nine Inch Nails poster hanging on the wall. On the window sill there sat a cat. It was too far and too dark for me to make out anything but a cat-shaped silhouette, but I felt comforted someone else was up as late as us and that they had a cat, and I wondered aloud what the “flag people” were like.

About a year after that night, my roommate, Lisa, and I moved into the apartment complex across the street from my other friends. Tigger, still a kitten, moved with us. As we were moving things in, some guys came around and invited us to a party later that night across the way. So we went to the party, happy to already be making friend with our neighbors. As I was standing around the dining room, marveling that all four walls were lined with beer cans, floor to ceiling, Lisa came racing up to me from a hallway and told me I had to go into one of the bedrooms, where the “most beautiful cat” was hiding from the party. So I followed Lisa to the bedroom and you guessed it: red walls, a flag, and a NIN poster. And the most beautiful cat in the world sitting in the middle of the bed, seeming a little put out by the party but accepting pets from me and Lisa.

Some months later, the owner of the cat announced he was getting rid of her. I couldn’t figure out why, but begged him not to take her to the pound and instead took her myself, planning to find her a home. I quickly realized part of the reason he didn’t want her was probably because she was in heat, which was really pretty annoying. I also quickly found her to be very aggressive: she tried to kill our senior citizen cat, Eishel, and sparred with Tigger. This also made it hard to find someone to take her in, so I called some no-kill shelters, but I have this condition where it’s near impossible for me to tell a lie, and when I admitted she was aggressive, the no-kill shelters refused to take her. Eventually, although we didn’t want three cats, especially three that couldn’t get along, it became clear we were stuck with this beautiful but somewhat annoying cat, and I made an appointment to get her spayed.

I’ve often joked that the animal hospital got it mixed up and gave her a lobotomy when she went in for her spay, because Brachtune (by the way, the origin of her name is in this post) returned home a completely different cat. She was sweet and loving and not aggressive at all. Eishel was sort of ousted by Tigger and Brachtune and went to live with my parents, and I went on to spend 15 more years with Tigger and 16 with Brachtune, convinced I had the two most perfect cats in the world.

Regular readers know Brachtune’s been sick for a while. Like many cats, her kidneys started to fail, and she was hyperthyroid and anemic on top of it. She hadn’t been herself for a week or so and had stopped eating, so I took her in to the vet on Wednesday. After simply examining her, the doctor gave her only a couple of days to live, and after doing some bloodwork, urged me to delay no more than a day or two putting an end to her suffering, warning me her body was going to start to drastically fail very soon. So I took off work today and am spending all day with her, and am indeed watching her body shut down. She and Mark and I have to go to animal hospital at 7. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Part of the reason I loved Tigger so much was probably because I identified with him. Of the two cats I’ve had in my adult life, I think I am most like Tigger; our personalities were similar: independent, feisty, suspicious of strangers but fiercely loyal to loved ones, loud and gregarious at times but introspective at others. Convinced we’re always right. Proud, perhaps to a fault. Uncaring and largely unaware what other people think of us. A bit dual natured. Adventurous. Risk taking. Brachtune, on the other hand, is who I strive to be. It sounds corny, but I learned a lot from Brachtune, and it was mostly this: calm down and enjoy yourself. Love everyone. Tigger had a hard time making friends outside me and Mark, but everyone that met Brachtune loved her. She is just sweetness personified. Friendly, laid back, loving, affectionate, warm, caring…if everyone were like Brachtune, or even half as sweet as her, we’d have no wars. Tigger judged you. Brachtune only judges you on your propensity for petting her.

I just keep thinking a single thought: She’s too nice to die. I need her, true, but the world needs her. The world is a better place with her in it and will be missing something without her. She may have been small – by the end, tiny – but her value as a living being is so much bigger than her physical size. Sometimes it’s hard to see the good in the world around you, but Brachtune radiates goodness. I think it’s so hard for me to deal with because she was so happy, all the time, to be alive. I hate seeing life extinguished from someone who just enjoyed it so much.

Mark and I would constantly joke with Brachtune as she wedged herself between the two of us while we were watching TV or something: “Brachtune, cheer up. Why are you so depressed all the time? Why must you hold all your emotions in?” As she sat there purring like a machine and pawing at us if we stopped petting her for a single moment. Brachtune always seemed ecstactic. I think she may have had an MDMA problem. Except Brachtune didn’t need chemical bliss. It is just her nature to eminate – and soak up – love.

I have a favorite reading chair – regular readers have seen it in numerous photographs because Brachtune liked to share it with me – and I can be found in it almost every evening. When entering the sunroom where my chair is located, from the doorway at the opposite end of the room, Brachtune would saunter into the room, make eye contact with me, and start walking towards me, then start trotting, finally racing toward me at full gallop, holding my gaze the entire time, until she reached my chair and leapt onto my lap. I’ve tried and I can not think of a single more endearing thing in the world than the thought of Brachtune picking up speed as she got closer and closer to me. Every time.

A few years ago, Brachtune got underfoot and I stepped on her, breaking her leg. I felt terrible. The day I brought her home following her surgery, she was hopped up on painkillers and had to learn to walk with a pin in her leg, which had to hurt. I had to take her kitty carrier apart and lift her out of it because she couldn’t walk out of it. I did so and sat on the floor a few feet from her, feeling upset and hideously guilty. Brachtune looked me in the eye and dragged herself over to me, unable to use her hind legs, until she got to my lap, which she collapsed in, purring. I’ll never forget that. It’s rare you feel that loved.

But as much as she loves me, no matter how comfortable she was on my lap, or how fast asleep she was, or how long or short a time she’d been cuddled up with me, the second Mark walked into the room and sat on the floor, she’d bound up off my lap and race to him. Brachtune liked everyone, but she loved us, so much my heart bursts thinking of it.

Brachtune. Brachtunavitch. B-tune. The Toonse. Toonsie. Sweetheart. Sugarplum. Sweetpea. Dollface. Sweetness and Light. Lovebug. Purrbot. I love you and I miss you.

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French Onion Soup

Some months ago I made a French onion soup for Smark that seems to have made a much larger impression upon him than I’d realized. He’s been asking me to make him onion soup again for months, and although I’m usually very glad when he makes requests, I’ve been avoiding this particular one because I don’t remember what I did last time and was therefore unsure I’d be able to live up to his expectations. I’m breaking out of my cooking slump, though, and today felt up to the challenge. I wish I’d baked my own bread for this – I haven’t baked in several weeks – but maybe the fact that I didn’t will make the recipe more accessible to those who don’t bake bread. Caramelizing the onions for this takes a long time – I actually let them cook for two hours – but they can largely be ignored, so it’s not active time by any means. If you turn the heat up a bit higher than I did, you can caramelize them in an hour.

French Onion Soup

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 huge or 3 normal-sized onions, any kind, I used a mixture of white, red, and yellow, thinly sliced
1 tsp salt
4-6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 tsp thyme
2 Tbsp vegan Worcestershire sauce
2 bay leaves
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 cups vegan “beef” broth
crusty French bread, sliced (3-4 slices per serving)
melty vegan cheese, like Daiya, shredded
Dragonfly’s Bulk, Dry Uncheese Mix, if you have it on hand (and if you don’t, why don’t you?)

Bring a soup pot or Dutch oven to medium-low temperature and add the olive oil. When the oil is warm, add the sliced onions and the salt.

Cook the onions over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until they are caramelized and greatly reduced. Here is what their progression will look like:

Add the white wine, thyme, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves, and pepper.

Stir in the broth.

Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for half an hour. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler. Slice the bread into 1/2″ thick slices.

Pop the bread slices under the broiler for a minute and a half, turning half way through.

Ladle the soup into individual broiler-safe bowls. (If you don’t have individual broiler-safe bowls, just broil the whole pot and ladle into individual servings later.)

Float the bread slices on the soup.

Top with shredded “cheese”, then optionally sprinkle with the uncheese mix.

Broil for a couple of minutes – keep an eye on it, the broiler works fast and things burn very quickly and it will probably be no longer than two minutes., depending on your oven.

Serve on individual trivets or other heat-safe surface.

Don’t make the mistake I did and leave the room momentarily in the middle of dinner.

Mark rated this “totally awesome”. Apparently I did his memory of my first French onion soup justice. Whew!

Speaking of Daiya cheese, which is now available in the US at all (I’m told) Whole Foods stores, here is a picture of some mac and cheese made using it – a quick post-swim meal from earlier this week.

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Mustardy Creamed Onions

I don’t generally spend that much time on side dishes; I generally prefer my veggies as close to their natural state as possible and usually serve them steamed or lightly dressed in some manner. Sometimes, though, a recipe for a fussier side dish strikes my fancy. Here is my take on these Gratineed Mustard Creamed Onions from Epicurious. As it was just me and Mark, I halved the recipe and rather than broiling it, finished it off in the toaster oven so I didn’t have to heat the oven up for just a couple minutes of broiling.

Mustardy Creamed Onions

1 lb pearl onions
1 Tbsp vegan margarine
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
3/4 cup non-dairy milk
1 1/2 Tbsp cream sherry
1 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tsp grainy mustard (I used the balsamic mustard from Jes at Cupcake Punk.)
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste (I used white pepper)
1/4 cup vegan Parmesan or Dragonfly’s Bulk, Dry Uncheese

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add some salt, and then cook the onions (in their skins) until soft (the original recipe says 25 to 30 minutes; I think it was closer to 20 minutes for me).

Drain the onions.

Allow the onions to cool. Meanwhile, measure the remaining ingredients. (My milk is brown because I whisked the sherry into it.)

Melt the margarine over medium heat, then whisk in the flour, cooking for a minute or two.

Slowly whisk in the liquids, then simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until thickened, whisking frequently.

Meanwhile, pop the onions out of their skins.

Whisk the mustards, nutmeg, and salt and pepper into the sauce.

Add the onions and cook another 5 minutes.

Transfer to a small, shallow baking dish and top with vegan parmesan or uncheese.

Bake in toaster oven at highest heat for about 5 minutes or until bubbly and browned.

Serve!

This was good, despite it being a little annoying having to deal with the onions, which were a little too soft to pop out of their skins as easily as I remember it being when I’ve only cooked them for 5 minutes or so. Mark eats a lot faster than me and after he finished his, he was stealing onions from my plate before finally going to get seconds for himself. I will make this again, perhaps even for Thanksgiving. I might also experiment with different kinds of “cheese” for the topping.

Miss Brachtune has had a wonderful weekend, I must say. Uncle Fortinbras came down from Baltimore Thursday afternoon to go to a concert with us and stayed through to today. While Mark and I were at work Friday, Brachtune sat on Uncle Fortinbras’ lap all day, Saturday she spent all day sitting on Mark’s lap while he was working in his office, and today she spent sleeping on me while Fortinbras and I recovered from a late night by watching The Office all day. I don’t know what she’s going to do tomorrow when she finds herself without a lap for most of the day. She’ll probably spend most of it in the surrogate lap – it’s a pet bed I fitted with a heated cushion – I rigged up for her. Here are some pictures I took yesterday of her looking exceedingly cute in it.

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In which I talk about cats but not food

I was reprimanded for not having enough cat pictures lately … sorry.

I’ve just been so busy! But then I realized I had a bunch of pictures on my iPhone I’d been saving to share with you, all of cats. In fact, there were so many I’m going to make them their own post. Rest assured that I plan to have a food post for you later tonight or tomorrow, though, so if you aren’t among the cat lovers out there, you can sign off now and come back tomorrow for the food!

I took this series of pictures of Brachtune on my phone shortly after Mark’s birthday, when I was enjoying a slice of his birthday cake for dessert one evening. Brachtune was dining with me:

Suddenly, she approaches:

When she thought I wasn’t looking, she had a little snoot of the cake to see if it smelled like tuna:

And finally attacks!

I eat a lot of meals looking at this view, by the way:

In other cat news, this is the cat I’m going to have one day very soon:

His name is Nakata. I love him.

And okay, I’m not sure how soon I’m really going to have him because I must come up with an elaborate, foolproof plan for stealing him from my friends Dale and Nona, to whom he doesn’t even actually belong. They are long-term cat sitting him and another cat for a military friend of theirs. And his name isn’t actually Nakata. But get this: I fell in love with him on sight the first time I met him and immediately re-named him Nakata (from Bogey), which has been on my list of possible cat names ever since I read Kafka on the Shore. I thought the name sounded neat for a cat, especially since it’s the name of a character who can communicate with cats. Cool, huh? And I instantly decided that The Cat Formerly Known As Bogey looked like a Nakata. What I didn’t know at the time I issued this new name is that Nakata is actually from Japan! Nona’s friend rescued him when she was stationed there. Nakata is Japanese, like his name! NAKATA SHALL ALSO BE MINE. I feel I have a special bond with Nakata. He comes over to me and lies his tiny little head (actually, it’s quite large; he’s a substantially sized kitty) on my lap every time I am there! My heart, it melts.

This is the cat that really belongs to Dale and Nona, Pot Pie. She’s also super cute and I love her, but I’m not planning to steal her.

Finally, this picture is a year and a half old, but I mentioned in one of my recent San Francisco posts that I go looking for and chase around random and stray cats when I’m traveling because I really miss having a cat around to pet, and it reminded me of this cat I found at the beach last summer, lounging on a Harley. I really want to know if the bike belongs to the cat’s human:

There was also the time in New Orleans when Pig found a Siamese in a bookstore (you have no idea how much I love bookstores that have cats, by the way). Ended badly for Pig:

(You’d think I’d get kicked out of bookstores more often than I do…)

Finally, when I searched my galleries for those older pictures, I came across this picture, which made me mist up a bit:

I miss my handsome orange boy.

Right, well, time to hit Wegmans, make dinner, and make a post that’s actually about eating food, not terrorizing or stealing cats.

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A little about Szechuan eggplant, a lot about nothing

I’m popping in to say hi because although I don’t have much to share with you, I may not have a chance to post for a few days. So I took photos of the Szechuan Eggplant that Jes posted yesterday and I made for dinner tonight:

I liked it, but Mark emphatically did not. Actually, when I told him I was making eggplant for dinner, he promptly started preparing himself some soy nuggets, exclaiming he hated eggplant and wasn’t going to touch it. He did get very brave and snatched a piece off my plate to try…and immediately spit it out into the sink. So it MAY not be the dish for eggplant haters. Since I was cooking for just myself, I was glad how quick it was. I halved everything but the garlic and the Szechuan peppers, and since I didn’t have scallions, put about 1/4 white onion, chopped, in the wok about a minute before the eggplant.

In the same post, Jes mentioned that she was finding Roanoke a little too suburban for her tastes and that she often needs to get away to nature. Which reminded me of a “hike” I’d taken just the day before here in Northern Virginia. (I put hike in quotation marks because I realized I wasn’t having to put much effort into it when I came across a couple pushing their baby along the trail in a stoller.) Here’s Northern Virginia’s idea of nature, my friends:

That’s SO typical. Tree decimation is rampant in these parts.

In the middle of the woods, I came across this:

I feel like I should know what it is?

It’s also sort of discouraging when I’m tempted to listen to my iPod on the “hike” with the sole intent of drowning out the sounds of that delightful NoVA traffic I love so much.

On the upside, here are a few shots of nature not looking quite so infringed upon:

In cat news, Brachtune ran away Saturday night. Now, don’t be alarmed. She’s back home, safe and sound. But it was pretty rocky for about 20 minutes there after I finished making my last post here and realized afterwards that it was strange Brachtune hadn’t been on my lap while I was typing it, her chin on my hand as I type, drooling all over me and the keyboard. I searched the house and became a bit frantic when we realized she must be outside. (I later determined she must have snuck out about an hour earlier when I’d stepped outside for a moment.) It was dark, so Mark took the flashlight and started off looking for her (he later told me he thought about way Tigger would have run and went in the opposite direction), while I stayed near the house looking in the side yard, where she likes to sit and eat grass when she’s on her leash and we’re on the patio supervising her.

Not having any luck, I went back inside and searched even more thoroughly, getting a bit upset because if she was in the house and hadn’t heard me calling her, something was very wrong. Just as I was about to burst into tears with worry, I heard the back door open and a familiar meow: Mark had found her across the street, looking scared. Now, I don’t know what in the world could possibly have possessed a 17-year old cat, who probably has cancer, who’s wasting away (she’d down to 5 pounds), who’s currently battling a urinary tract infection, who is the sweetest little bundle of love and affection, and who prior to this year was too scared to try to go outside and if she ever worked up the nerve, would go about a foot and run back in terrified, to suddenly decide – in the middle of the night – that she wants to run away from home. She’s been wanting to go out a lot lately, but the vet said she’s not allowed, even on her leash, until she’s recovered from this latest infection and can get her shots. So we have to keep an eye on her when we’re going in and out, but I never thought she’d do this, and certainly never thought she’d take off across the street! Fortunately we don’t get much traffic in our neighborhood and none of our wild friends like the neighborhood raccoon were around. And fortunately Mark was able to find her when he did. But I think she must be crazy! And the next day? She was on her hind legs, pawing at the back door, reaching for the handle, howling piteously, demanding to go back out. Despite the fact she must have been terrified. Who is this cat???

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Spicy Peanut Eggplant

Apart from boxed macaroni & cheese and other “foods” of that nature, before I went vegan I knew how to cook exactly one dish: eggplant parmesan. I don’t even remember what inspired me to learn how to cook that, but it was my big speciality. Of course, it went by the wayside when I went vegan, and for some reason I never showed any further interest in eggplant. I think I over-eggplanted on the eggplant parmesan. It’s ridiculous to continue to avoid eggplant as it’s been 11 years now, although I don’t actually avoid eggplant, it just never occurs to me to buy it. That is, until I saw the adorable “purple pixie” eggplants at Wegmans last night. I should have taken a picture. They’re tiny and so cute!

I don’t know why, but I had decided I wanted to make something with the eggplants involving peanut sauce. Maybe because that’s the furthest thing I could think of from parmesan? At any rate, I got home quite late tonight and had a hunch that Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian would contain what I was looking for. I was not disappointed. It had exactly what I was looking for and what’s more, it was nearly instant: Cold Eggplants in a Spicy Peanut Sauce.

Spicy Peanut Eggplant
(lightly) adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian

10 oz small or baby eggplants, quartered or halved then cut into 2″ pieces
4 tsp natural peanut butter
4 tsp soy sauce
4 tsp vinegar
2 tsp Shaoxing (Chinese rice) wine (or try sake)
4 drops stevia (or 2 tsp sugar or agave nectar)
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp chili garlic paste
thumb-size piece garlic, grated
1 cube frozen cilantro (or a handful fresh, chopped)

Steam the eggplant pieces until tender. Jaffrey suggests 10-15 minutes, however, I checked after 9 minutes and mine were very over-done, so for particularly delicate eggplants, check after 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the remaining ingredients together in a small bowl. Toss with the eggplant and serve cold or at room temperature.

I realized I was going to have much more sauce than I needed, so I cooked a bundle of soba noodles to toss the leftover sauce with:

In cat news, Brachtune likes to sleep in my reading chair:

You are probably wondering why I never take any photos of Brachtune that don’t involve her lounging around in that chair. Well, the fact of the matter is, Brachtune spends a good 95% of her time there.

I spend a lot of my time there as well, such as right now. Since we are competing for the spot, Brachtune is currently standing on me and kneading at my stomach, which is cute but also annoying because she’s always messing with my belly button ring. This is what Brachtune looks like when she wakes up and realizes I intend to claim my chair:

And this is what she does to make herself as super-adorable as possible in hopes that I will change my mind:

It never works. I just scoop her up and put her on my lap and then she sits there purring and drooling all over me. And sitting on my arm when I’m trying to type…

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American-made Japanese-type American-style Pickles

I’m a big fan of tsukemono, or Japanese pickles. Actually, I’m a fan of pretty much anything pickles. But particularly Japanese pickles because they are often quick to make and quite tasty. I have a couple of tsukemono books and this recipe, from Quick and Easy Tsukemono, called Kyuri Amazu-ae, or Sweet Cucumber Pickles, is purported to be “a Japanese version of Western dill pickles”. It also says it reduces “spices and sourness”, although in my opinion, though it doesn’t contain dill, it tastes very much like an American pickle. And therefore happens to taste awesome.

I tripled the original recipe. If you want to just try it out before making a large batch, feel free to halve or third it.

American-Style Japanese Cucumber Pickle (Kyuri Amazu-ae)

15 Japanese-style cucumbers (small, thin ones with few seeds)
5 Tbsp salt (or 5% the weight of the cucumbers)
4 1/2 cups rice vinegar (I just used one bottle)
3/4 cup sugar
4 pods dried chili pepper
3 bay leaves
2 small sticks cinnamon
handful black peppercorns

If you have a scale, weigh the cucumbers. When I’m gathering weights for salt percentages for fermentation, I tend to use grams, although it doesn’t really matter what scale you use.

Measure salt in the amount of 5% of the weight of the cucumbers. (If you don’t have a scale, use the volume measurement above.)

Slice a sliver off the end of each cucumber. I did this on both ends, but mainly you’re concerned about the blossom end, which contains enzymes that can cause softening.

Slice each cucumber in half lengthwise.

Place the cucumbers in a pickle press if you have one, or a crock into which you can fit a plate and a weight.

Stir the salt into a cup of water.

Pour the water over the cucumbers.

Apply the lid of the pickle press and screw as tightly as you can. Alternatively, place a plate on top of the pickles and add a weight to press them down.

Let sit for 12 to 24 hours. The water level is higher because water has been extracted from the cucumbers.

Drain the cucumbers and rinse well to reduce saltiness.

Let the cucumbers dry.

Place all of the remaining ingredients into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer until the sugar is dissolved and then allow to cool.

Place the cucumbers into sterile jars and pour the marinade over them. Top off with water if necessary.

Refrigerate. The pickles will be ready the next day and keep for several months. The book says they keep several months at room temperature, but I would and do refrigerate them. The Japanese are fond of eating pickles with both rice and beer, and I can attest both are fine choices. I always add a tsukemono or two to my Japanese-themed meals. This particular pickle, however, is particularly fine with just about any meal and is shown here with the rather American veggie burger.

Now I’d like to share with you a great feature of the tsukemono book from whence this recipe originated:

I love their description of their German-style sauerkraut: “Versatile pickle you can fix with in ’emergency'”. It’s hilarious on so many levels. First off, what exactly constitutes a pickle “emergency”? I’d imagine it involves a friend unexpectedly showing up at your doorstep in dire need of a beer and pickle. What’s strange about this, though, is the books contains many – in fact, mostly – so-called “instant” pickles: those that are ready within an hour or so, all of which would be much more effective at relieving a pickle emergency than sauerkraut, which according to the book takes at least a week and according to me takes at least three weeks. Second of all, what does “fix with” mean? And thirdly, why is “emergency” in quotes? Mostly, though, I love this quote for introducing me to the concept of a pickle emergency, which is something I encounter a lot around here because we’re always running out of them.

In other news, Brachtune saw the vet today and I was extremely pleased to learn she’s gained half a pound. She still weighs half as much as she used to, but when you are six pounds, gaining half a pound in two months is GREAT, so I am very, very happy. For a kitty who is very close to or possibly more than 17 years old, and who might have cancer, The Toonse is doing very well. And therefore, here is a picture of her enjoying great dinner party conversation the other night, when I served an Ethiopian feast and managed to not take any pictures other than of the cat and my friends wearing tiny top hats.

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Almond Milk

I’ve switched lately from soy milk to almond milk. At first it was because Mark seems to prefer almond milk (he’s skeptical about milk in general), but now it’s also because almond milk is easier. Almond milk is not cheaper, unfortunately, but I’m willing to pay for the convenience. You do have to soak the almonds, so it requires planning, but if I soak the nuts the night before, I can quickly whip the milk up the next morning before breakfast, whereas with soy milk, because it needs to be cooked and then cooled before using, the only time I could make it during the week is in the evenings and sometimes I’d find myself out of luck at breakfast. It’s so easy to make it barely warrants posting here, but I’ll do so in the interest of anyone who thinks making their own non-dairy milk isn’t worth the effort.

Almond Milk
1 cup raw almonds
4 cups water
vanilla, to taste (optional)
pinch salt (optional)
sweetener, to taste (optional)

Soak the almonds in the water for 8 hours or overnight. I soak them right in the blender and stick it in the refrigerator. That way, when I make it, the almond milk is already cold and ready to use. I also don’t even bother measuring the almonds or the water; I plunk four handfuls of almonds in the blender and fill it with water up to about the 4 1/2 cup mark on the side.

When you are ready to make the milk, prepare the blender.

Blend for two minutes.

Meanwhile, place a strainer or nut (or okara) bag over a container that’s at least a quart.

Pour the almond milk through the strainer.

If you are using a strainer, press and scrape the almond meal with a spoon. If you are using a nut or okara bag, squeeze it tightly.

Remove as much milk from the meal as you can, then discard (read: compost, use for baking, etc.) the meal.

Pour the milk into a serving container that closes tightly enough that you can shake it. Add the optional ingredients if you’d like: salt, sweetener, and/or vanilla. I only use vanilla. Close the serving container and shake.

The only drawback of almond milk as opposed to soy is that it separates. I had to buy this plastic container that I could shake before serving instead of keeping it in my nice glass pitchers because it was too hard to shake it back together. Here’s what it looks like after sitting for a while. Just shake it before serving.

Other than the occasional use in bread baking, the only thing I really use any non-dairy milk for is cold breakfast cereal, which I eat most mornings, not because I love it (breakfast is my least favorite meal), but because I don’t function well enough before noon to make anything else. All bowls of cereal start out with a layer of Grape Nuts. Grape Nuts has been my favorite cereal since I was a child. I loved Grape Nuts and Brussels sprouts as a kid. If I could be guaranteed to have a kid as awesome as I was, I’d consider it!

Then I add a layer of some other hippyish cereal. Mark’s been eating hemp cereal. Once I read the advertising slogan, “Now with more twigs!” on a box of cereal I was eating. No sugary nightmares for me.

Next comes some sliced fruit and/or berries. Bananas and strawberries is a favorite.

To be enjoyed with a glass of orange juice and a book!

On Food and Cooking informs me that almond milk is the easiest-to-thicken nut milk, which has me thinking of other things to do with it. According to McGee, it makes a lovely pudding-type dish.

Did you notice the book stand in the photo above? I use it all the time.

It’s a Book Gem. When I’m traveling for work and eating many of my meals alone in restaurants, it’s my best friend. When Mark’s playing video games instead of eating dinner iwith me, it’s my best friend. When I’m on a plane or train, it’s my best friend. When I’m brushing my teeth, it’s my best friend. (I don’t waste a minute of reading time!) Basically any time you want to read hands-free, this thing is the tops. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I can’t be bothered to hold my book open at any time, even when I’m just lazing around in my reading chair. In cooler months, I just prop the Book Gem up on my leg, but when it’s warmer and I’m bare-legged, it’s uncomfortable to do so, plus I get weird marks on my legs. I’ve therefore been eying up this Thai Book Rest for a long time now, thinking that in conjunction with my Book Gem, I’d be the most comfortable (and lazy) book reader in the world. However, it’s made of silk and even if silk were a vegan product, it wouldn’t be a practical one for a book rest in my opinion. And it’s $38, which I find a bit extravagant. I tossed around the idea of making myself something like this, but as I have mentioned here, I am really, really bad at sewing.

However, after a brainstorming session with my mom via email this week, I got it into my head I was going to try to make my own book pillow, and when it all went pears (as I fully expected it to do), I planned to say the heck with it and throw away $39 on this non-silk book seat I found. Lo and behold, however, I managed to make a book rest without screaming, without crying, without cussing, without kicking my sewing machine, and without needing to kill anyone. Without, even, going to that horrible hell-on-Earth Jo-Ann’s, as I happen to have a large fabric stash from countless other projects abandoned in frustration and a couple of bags of polyfill from I don’t know what, but there they were. So it was free! I’m so impressed with myself!

I haven’t had much of a chance to use it yet as I just finished it up at 1 am last night (it only took a couple of hours, though), however, I can tell you that Brachtune doesn’t think much of it. She thinks the only thing that should be on my lap is herself. I think it’s going to work out very well despite Brachtune’s disapproval. Now I need to make a waterproof version for the pool! I spent many hours floating around reading last summer and intend to do so in complete comfort this year!

And finally, I think telling Brachtune how beautiful she is a hundred times a day has finally gone to her head. Brachtune is so vain she probably thinks this post is about her.

I came home the other night and found her admiring herself in the mirror, and she didn’t even get up to come greet me; she just went right on staring at herself. Which is unusual because most cats won’t look at themselves in the mirror – and I’ve never seen her do it before. But if I were as pretty as she is, I’d stare at myself in the mirror all day too.

Brachtune’s so pretty, oh so pretty…vacant!

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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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Easter “ham”

I foodically (what? it’s a perfectly cromulent word!) celebrated two holidays today! I made matzo ball soup for Passover lunch. I should have taken a photo, but I made it exactly as Isa directs in Vegan with a Vengeance. I’d never had it before, but it was good.

Then I was a day early, but I found myself in the mood to experiment with making seitan ham again, so I tried to make an Easter ham. It was a last-minute, throw-it-together sort of thing and I didn’t take photos, didn’t write it down, and didn’t think it would turn out well. However, it ended up being the closest I’ve gotten to a hammy taste, so I’m going to record approximately what I did. I’ll try to tighten the recipe up later and report back to you. Oddly, I think the breakthrough thing was an accident. When I went to add the liquid smoke to the pot, I thought for some reason it had the sort of cap on it that limits you to a few drops at a time and I rather rambunctiously dumped it in before realizing it had no such thing, and I added much more than I would ever have thought of using. I thought at first I had probably ruined the broth but I tasted it and it wasn’t bad, so I figured I’d try it. I think the smoky flavor is what made it taste more like ham to me. I have no idea how much I ended up pouring in there but I guessed two tablespoons below. It could well have been three or even four, though.

Seitan Ham

Simmering broth
7 cups water
1 cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp liquid smoke
1 large onion, chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried sage
1/4 cup nutritional yeast

Seitan
1/3 cup soy flour
2 1/3 cups vital wheat gluten
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
1 Tbsp smoked paprika (use sweet paprika or omit if you don’t have smoked)
1 1/4 cups water
1 cup ketchup

Bring all of the broth ingredients to a boil in a large Dutch oven or stock pot. In a large bowl, mix together the soy flour, vital wheat gluten, salt, pepper, and smoked paprika. In a large liquid measuring cup, whisk together the water and ketchup. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry and knead with your hands until all of ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Cut the resulting seitan mass into 6 pieces; shape each into a ball then flatten with your palm and place in the simmering broth. Cover the pot, reduce heat to medium, and simmer for an hour. Remove with a slotted spoon and pan fry or bake. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days in some of the broth.

I did manage to get a picture of the ham floating in the broth:

I don’t know that ham is often pan fried. I think it is ordinarily baked. But I was anxious to get the meal on the table so I just browned it a bit in my cast iron skillet.

I served it with some broccoli and cheeze sauce, corn, and some yeasted bread, because for me, Passover was over.

Tomorrow I may bake the leftovers for my “real” Easter dinner. If I do, I’ll let you know the results.

Mark really liked the ham. Although I asked him if he thought it tasted at all hammy and he said it tasted more like horse. I asked him when he’d ever eaten horse meat and he said once when he was young he said he was hungry enough to eat a horse and a genie appeared and granted him his wish and a horse appeared so he cooked it and ate it. And I said I didn’t believe that story because he doesn’t know how to cook. And so he said he microwaved it. And I asked how did he have a microwave big enough to fit a horse and he said it was a tiny show pony. I still think he might be lying though.

And another thing. When Peter Reinhart’s new cookbook comes out, don’t be afraid to make the cheese bread! I can’t share the recipe, but I made it using a mixture Follow Your Heart nacho and Cheezly mozzarella and it was AWESOME!

Also, my mom reminded me to tell you how Brachtune got her name. I know you’re probably sitting up at nights wondering. I didn’t name her. When I was in college, I rescued her from some neighbors who had her for a while, and because they were irresponsible college boys, no longer wanted her and were going to take her to the pound. They informed me her name was “Brocktoon” and said that it had something to do with Mr Belvedere, which I never fully understood. Although it was not my initial plan – I already had two cats – I ended up keeping her and as I had never seen her nonsensical name in writing, I had to make up a spelling, so I made the spelling Brachtune, figuring it looked vaguely German. People would often ask me what it meant and I’d have to say vaguely, “uh, Mr Belvedere?” One night, however, I had a party which an old friend of mine from high school I hadn’t seen in a long time attended. He asked the name of my cat and when I told him, he laughed and said, “oh from the Saturday Night Live skit with Tom Hanks! That’s hilarious!” Not only did he know what Brachtune was, he had a video tape of the very episode! Two nights later I was at his house watching The Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club! And it all suddenly made sense.

It’s on the Best of Tom Hanks SNL DVD, by the way, if you ever have a chance to watch it. It IS funny.

Also, since it is Easter, I will share with you a strange factor about my life. PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS MAKING ME DRESS UP LIKE A BUNNY. I DON’T KNOW WHY.

It started when I was very young. This is me and my godmother. I’m what, a month old?

Late-breaking addition from my mom:
I was then a bunny on what my mother said was my first Halloween, but as I was born on October 19, this was either technically my second Halloween or I was a very early walker:

I guess she meant my first Halloween dressing up. I guess I went as an infant for my first Halloween.

Then when I worked in the grocery store in high school, THEY made me dress up like the Easter bunny and walk around terrorizing small children. (There’s a sign for ham behind me, ugh!)

After a time, I just gave in. When a friend of mine asked me to be a bridesmaid, I insisted on hopping down the aisle wearing bunny ears. She vetoed that idea but I did get away with wearing them at the reception.

And this…I can’t even explain this. (Yes, that’s Fortinbras.)

Speaking of Fortinbras, wow, I had no idea you guys were going to want to start a Fort Fan Club! I shouldn’t be surprised as he is pretty awesome. He’s excited to make another post, possibly even next weekend, so keep your fingers crossed. We may have to nag him about it, though. You saw how long it took him to make his Christmas post. In the meantime, here’s one of my favorite pictures of us. We’re in New Orleans for Halloween:

I’m also fond of this one …

… though this one is a bit more typical:

Man, you want more pictures of Fortinbras? That’s a dangerous request. I have more pictures of him than I do of Tigger. I have more pictures of Fortinbras than I do all other subjects put together! But I think instead of digging up old photos, we should just implore ole Fort to make more guest appearances! He’s not vegan, but he’s always been extremely supportive of me, and in fact, he veganized ALL of the holiday foods he made to give away to friends and family just because he was baking them at my house.

And now I’m going to go celebrate my third holiday of the day: it’s Godless Saturday. I figure, since Jesus died yesterday and he’s not to be resurrected until tomorrow, we can all sin with impunity today! And with that, I’m going to go get another beer.

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