Sunday, January 8, 2017

Spinach artichoke dip … a warm treat for football playoff season or really any time of the year, especially during the winter

Over the past few years, in particular, I've been observing that right on the heels of the New Year's diet resolutions come the pitches and promotions for football playoff and Super Bowl treats. Personally, I tend to be one who goes for "moderation in all things." I've never been one to adopt a "paleo" diet or to eliminate sugar or grains from my diet. Just the same, I'm also not one to advocate for munching down on deep dish pizzas or bowls of guacamole. 
With my University of Utah Utes not in this year's playoff picture, I really don't have a favorite team, although I am more partial to Clemson for this year. My favorite post-season college football game is still the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

For those of you who are looking for a warm treat for tomorrow's College Football Championship game or just a treat that is always welcome, especially during the cooler months of the year, here is my spinach artichoke dip recipe. I've had a friend from the South describe it as, "Slap ya Mama good," and I hope you will enjoy it as well.

A quick word about artichokes - they are actually part of the thistle family and are native to the Mediterranean region of the world. They were actually part of the diets of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The artichoke was introduced into England in the 1530s and ultimately made its way to the United States during the 1800s, courtesy of French and Spanish immigrants.
By Jamain - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20737898
Spinach Artichoke Dip

16 ounce bag of frozen spinach, cooked and drained
One can (13.75 ounce) artichoke hearts 
24 ounces of cream cheese (use the real stuff, no reduced fat substitutes or the dip won't set up)
6 ounce bag shredded parmesan cheese

For this recipe, I use a 2-quart Pyrex casserole dish. 
Steps.
1. Cook and drain the spinach.I empty the bag of spinach into the casserole dish and heat it in the microwave until cooked. I don't add water - there is enough liquid within the spinach as part of the freezing process. I typically use a slotted spoon to squeeze out as much liquid as I can.
2. Drain the artichoke hearts and stir them into the spinach. If you purchased a can of whole hearts, you will need to quarter them. Also, be careful not to use marinated artichoke hearts. 
3. Add the cream cheese and parmesan cheese. I usually buy a 16 ounce tub and an 8 ounce brick of cream cheese. The main thing is to use the original cream cheese and not a whipped or reduced fat product.

 4. Stir everything together. Your mixture won't be entirely smooth at this point in the process, but don't worry. Just do your best to stir everything together for now.
5. Bake at 350ºF for 30-40 minutes. Stir the mixture at about 15 minutes into the heating process to make sure all of the ingredients are mixing together well.
6.  Serve with sliced baguette bread, crackers, pita chips, vegetables or any combination of these that you like.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A TARDIS for a fangirl

Here we are bringing 2016 to a close. I will use this post to feature one of my daughter's Christmas gifts. Over the past few years, she has become a bit of a connoisseur of British sci-fi series, specifically Dr. Who and Sherlock. 
Our 2016 summer vacation found us visiting several, okay multiple, quilt shops through the Midwest. The main purpose of these visits was to collect quilt row patterns as part of the 2016 Row by Row Experience. One of my favorite stops along the journey was New Ulm, Minnesota. This is a medium-sized town of about 13,5000 people in the south central part of the state. It was named after the city of Neu-Ulm in Bavaria, and its German heritage is still very evident today. In my October post, I related our visit to the Sewing Seeds Quilt Co. Our second stop in New Ulm was to The Thimble Box. They created a vertical row titled, "Home is Where Your TARDIS Lands." 
For those of you less familiar with Dr. Who, it is a British science fiction series that has been in existence since 1963. The central character, "The Doctor," is an alien time lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space in his TARDIS. TARDIS is an acronym for "Time and Relative Dimension in Space." The exterior of the TARDIS is a blue police call box. Its interior is larger than its exterior.
I have to admit that I have had a difficult time following the logic within individual episodes of the Dr. Who series. My daughter, however, has no problem following along and can easily fill in what I perceive to be missing aspects of the story line and logic behind them. Perhaps my trouble is that, for me, watching TV or a movie is an opportunity to work on a project - not an excuse to sit in front of the TV with the lights out in the room.
Here is a close up of the top portion of this row. It features a snail trail quilt block. The lettering on the top of the TARDIS was my first attempt at machine stitching letters. I took the advice of the ladies at the shop and drew the letters with a chalk marker and then stitched over the with a tight zig-zag stitch. From a distance, they don't look too bad.
Here is a quick look at the back of the row. The machine quilting was completed by Kerrie Curtis from Utah Valley Quilting. She did a great job of incorporating science themes into the sections of the quilt.
Here's a quick close up of the label at the bottom of the quilt. The borders of this label blend into the back of the quilt. Perhaps in a future post, I will share some of my strategies for creating quilt labels.
As the hours of 2016 wind down, here are a few verses from Lamentations to offer hope and a renewed perspective in the new year. 
This I recall to mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The LORD's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:21-23

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Christmas Candy Chemistry Part I: Caramels

I've often joked about someday writing a book called The Chemistry of Christmas. Many of the recipes I enjoy this time of year, mostly for candy, involve one or more aspects of chemistry. Even though "science" predominates with these recipes, the "art" of managing extraneous variables also plays an important role.
When it comes to candy making, some of these extraneous variables include the humidity in the atmosphere, the calibration of the thermometer you are using, the altitude, and even the rate at which you are raising the temperature. Another key aspect of candy making is to not substitute ingredients - for example using a low-fat substitute. The chemical structure of substitute ingredients will differ from the intended ones. As a result, the structure of the end product is unlikely to be what was initially intended.
Here are a few other tips related to candy making

  • Use a heavy-bottomed pot. It needs to be one that will hold all of the ingredients without a risk of boiling over. A heavy material such as aluminum also conducts the heat evenly during the boiling process.
  • Use a candy thermometer. We have had several through the years, and I currently use a digital one that clips to the pan. Yes, you can use the old-style method of evaluating how the mixture holds together in a cold water test. I prefer a more objective measure.
  • Make appropriate adjustments for altitude. Remember that the boiling point for water is 212ºF at sea level, and it boils at lower temperatures as altitude increases. The temperatures for candy types are based on temperatures at sea level. Boiling to the specified sea level temperature results in increased evaporation of water and an end product that is going to be harder than desired. Here is a table with some guidelines for making adjustments based on altitudes. I will say that, through the years, as I have used different thermometers, I have also made multiple notes on my recipe cards regarding the final temperature that produces a candy consistency that we like.

    STAGECANDY TYPEDEGREES FAHRENHEIT
    Sea Level2,000 ft5,000 ft7500 ft
    Soft BallFudge, fondant234-240230-236224-230219-225
    Firm BallChewy caramel242-248238-244232-238227-233
    Hard BallNougat, marshmallow250-268246-264240-248235-253
    Soft CrackTaffy, butterscotch270-290266-286260-280255-275
    Hard CrackToffee, brittle, lollipops300-310296-306290-300285-295

    • Do not allow your candy mixture to boil too quickly. This also alters the chemical structure and can allow crystals to form. You also run the risk of scorching your mixture and having it stick to the bottom of the pan. Use a medium low temperature and be patient as the mixture boils to the desired temperature. On another related note, don't decide to make candy if you are in a hurry to get somewhere else.

    This caramel recipe is one I acquired from a friend over 20 years ago. It is one we have enjoyed year after year. I hope that you will enjoy it, too.

    Ingredients:
    1 cup butter (just use the real stuff!)
    2 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
    1 cup light corn syrup (light in color not lite as in low fat)
    1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
    1 tsp vanilla

    Coat the pan you will be pouring the caramel mixture into using butter or a non-stick spray. (This is one case where a low-fat option is acceptable.) I have a 7 1/2 x 11 inch pan that I have used with this recipe through the years. A 9 x 9 inch pan would also be just fine.

    Melt the butter in a heavy 2-3 quart saucepan. Add the brown sugar and stir thoroughly, doing your best to ensure that the brown sugar dissolves into the butter. Stir in the corn syrup. Gradually stir in the sweetened condensed milk. Here is what the mixture will look like as it comes to a boil.
    Cook the mixture over medium low heat, stirring occasionally. Boil until the mixture reaches a firm ball stage. We have found that at 242ºF produces a caramel of the consistency that we like. Of note, we also live at about 4,500 feet above sea level. 

    Remove the mixture from heat and stir in the vanilla. I always like the sizzling sound as the alcohol burns off. 

    Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and allow to cool.
     When cool, cut into squares and wrap in waxed paper. Here is what our pan of caramels yields.
    The wrapping in waxed paper is my children's least favorite part of the process - probably because this is the task I assign to them. I tear off strips of waxed paper that are about 4-5 inches wide. I then cut the strips into thirds to get pieces the right size for the caramels.
    Let me know if you try out this recipe. Stay tuned for another "Christmas chemistry" post next year.

    Wednesday, November 30, 2016

    A few cheerful birds …

    Here we are closing out November and entering the Advent season. For this post I thought I would share a couple of projects that illustrate the close of fall and beginning of winter. These projects are from a block of the month series by Bonnie Sullivan called Bertie's year. In case you haven't guessed from the top picture, Bertie is the little bird that is featured in each of the monthly quilts. Each of the small quilts (only about 12 x 18 inches) in this series features a wool appliqué center surrounded by a pieced border of half square triangles. As you will be see in the pictures below, each quilt arranges the half square triangles in a different way to create different border patterns. 
    2016 has been my year to focus on finishing projects so these two were on my list to complete. I had actually purchased the winter-themed quilt pattern first and had even ironed the fusible web to the wool pieces over a year ago but had just never taken the time to fuse them to the background flannel and start stitching. Although this quilt was designed for January, I think it also works well for December. I added the tassel to the top of the bird's hat and sorted through my button jar for the red buttons. What do you think about the heart-shaped one? Here is an up close picture of this quilt.

    Here is the November quilt. I completed the wool appliqué part during our summer vacation road trip. For good or for bad, it took me until just after Thanksgiving to put the top, batting, and back together and then add some hanging tabs to the back. I love the little scarf that Bertie is wearing in this quilt.

    I'm going to keep this post short and sweet. Before I sign off, I thought I would share a few of the birds on my big Christmas tree. As I shared in last December's blog, our big tree has a bit of a "birds and berries" theme to it. Here they are along with their stories.
    This first little bird in its nest is one that my husband and I bought for our first Christmas tree in 1989. His tail has become a bit bent, but he still has his place on the tree.
    Starting in my teenage years, I began collecting Hallmark ornaments. Sometimes my collecting focused around a given animal, such as a seal, or a given series of ornaments. I dot believe this little partridge was part of a series. I think we just saw him and liked him and bought him. 
    Cardinals are one of my favorite birds. I love their bright red color and am of the opinion that you can't "not be happy" when you see one. A few years ago, I bought a cardinal ornament for an ornament exchange. I liked it enough that I bought one for myself, too.
    As we welcome the Christmas season, I pray that you will be of good cheer. Even though this isn't typically thought of as a Christmas-themed verse, these words of Jesus still reflect the cheer and comfort that only He can bring. Jesus alone is the one whose Advent can truly bring cheer and cast out fear.
    Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. Matthew 14:27 (KJV)

    Thursday, November 24, 2016

    Cranberries for Thanksgiving

    Happy Thanksgiving! I'm a bit slow getting anything posted this month. I hope that these cranberry sauce recipes might be useful as you make your final Thanksgiving Day preparations. 
    I've liked the taste of cranberries even since I was very little. My earliest encounters with cranberries were Alaska cranberries. These berries grow in the wild and are reported to have more anti-oxidant properties than the cranberries grown in the lower 48 states. We had  preserved some of these cranberries before we left Alaska in 1971. For several years, they were a part of our Thanksgiving dinners.
    Fast forward a few years to my middle elementary years when the Alaska cranberries were gone, and we had to make our sauce using the cranberries that you buy in the store. I will confess that even though I liked cranberries and cranberry juice, I did have to get used to the new taste. 
    Cranberries are actually grown across the acidic bog regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The species most commonly associated with Thanksgiving Day is Vaccinium macrocarpon. It is typically grown in the area highlighted in green below, which includes New England. In the United States, Wisconsin is the largest producer of cranberries, followed by Massachusetts.
    Regardless of the precise species of cranberry, it is grown on a dwarf creeping evergreen shrub. Although cranberry beds were traditionally developed in wetlands, today's methods of cultivation are engineered to support more precise engineering. Cranberries are harvested in the fall using a water reel harvester. The ripe cranberries actually float on the water. Here is a picture of a cranberry harvest in New Jersey.

    So, back to the recipes. First of all, is the recipe for traditional cranberry sauce. 

    12 ounce bag of cranberries (this is the typical size you will buy in the store)
    1 cup water
    1 cup white sugar
    Directions
    • Rinse and sort the cranberries - sometimes you will find some squishy ones that need to be discarded.
    • Boil the water and sugar together on the stove
    • Reduce the heat, and add the cranberries. Stir together until the cranberries begin to "pop."
    • The longer you boil the sauce, the more of a jelly-like consistency it will assume. You can take it off the heat as soon as the berries start popping or let it boil a few minutes longer. 
    Now for some cranberry relish:

    2 cups fresh cranberries
    1 whole red apple, remove the core. I will also cut it into slices.
    1/2 of an orange, include the peel. I will remove some of the white membrane and center core to help reduce the bitter taste. I will also cut the orange half into about 4 pieces
    1 cup sugar
    1/2 cup walnuts (optional)

    The directions are pretty easy - mix everything together in a food processor. I typically just add everything in order, pulsing the food processor as I go. Because the orange takes longer to get chopped up and mixed in, you could consider adding it first and chopping it before adding the other ingredients. I think I will try that approach next year.

    Enjoy! and have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

    Monday, October 31, 2016

    Projects for a plane ride and glimpses of Ireland

    Here we are at the end of October. I don't know about you, but it's been a full, busy month for us. Most eventful was our recent trip to Ireland. I presented some of my research at a scientific meeting there and decided that bringing my husband along would be a good idea. One of our sons is currently doing an internship in Germany so we had him fly over to tour the country with us after the meeting. Given that both my husband and I have ancestral ties to Ireland, we were eager for this trip.
    Many of you probably know that I'm someone who needs some type of project to keep my hands busy - especially when traveling. For this post, I thought I would share some of the wool appliqué blocks that I brought along for this trip. These blocks are part of a row that was created by Sewing Seeds Quilt Co. in New Ulm, Minnesota for the 2015 Row by Row experience. The 2015 theme was H2O, so this Noah's ark-themed row was quite apropos.
    As I plan for travel projects, I am now finding that I need to take into consideration the reality of my aging eyes. Even with bifocal contact lenses and reading glasses, I need at least some natural lighting to be able to do really fine cross-stitching. Fortunately for me, wool appliqué projects are airplane lighting friendly. Here are the blocks that will be included in this row.
    Of course, we need to start with Noah and the ark itself.
    Then we need to fill the ark with animals - two-by-two. Some giraffes. 
    Some flamingos. 
    Not quite sure how the whale was accounted for, but we will acknowledge him anyway.
    Next, we need a dove with an olive branch in her mouth to let Noah know that the floodwaters had receded.
    Finally, we have a rainbow as a reminder that God will never again destroy the earth with a flood.
    Now that you've seen how I spent my time on the plane, here's how I spent my time touring  Ireland (after the conference, of course). It's somewhat Ironic that my handwork project related to rain, yet we traveled to a country that was anticipated to be rainy and we never opened our umbrellas once. 
    This is some street art in Dublin. The picture on the left is an Irish wolf hound. These are HUGE dogs. 1916 was the year of the uprising in Ireland that ultimately led to its independence from the United Kingdom. We saw a number of exhibits marking its centennial year.
    Here is the Dublin castle. Dublin has a rather fascinating history beginning with the Celtic tribes, followed by Viking invasions, followed by the Normans.
    In the mid-1800s, Ireland was havocked by failure of the potato crops, a period known as "The Great Hunger." Many died from starvation, many died from disease, and many emigrated from Ireland in search of better opportunities. This figure is part of a memorial to the victims of the potato famine. It was a gift from Canada in recognition of the contribution of the Irish immigrants to the country of Canada.
     A visit to Blarney Castle.
     The autumn colors in Ireland were amazing.
    Yes, I did kiss the Blarney stone. I didn't realize I would have to hang over the top of the castle. For some reason I had thought it was down in the ground.
    Glimpses of the Irish countryside.
    An Irish traffic jam. The pink markings are "brands" to help tell flocks apart.
    The Ladies' Point. A look out spot along the Ring of Kerry. Queen Victoria visited this area during her reign, and her ladies-in-waiting were particularly enamored with this spot. 
    The beautiful Cliffs of Moher.
    The Celtic cross. I was able to learn a little about the symbolism within the Celtic cross. Although its exact origins are unclear, tradition suggests that St. Patrick introduced the addition to the ring around the arms of the cross. Initially, the ring was a symbol of the sun which was worshipped by the pagan tribes. The ring was later used as a symbol of eternal life through Jesus' death on the cross. 
    This concept of taking something once foreign and hostile to the gospel and giving it a new meaning and purpose is one that resounds through God's Word. In Paul's sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17, rather than berate or ridicule the Athenians, he acknowledges their religious nature, yet is clear in explaining to them who this "unknown God" is and the need for all to come to repentance. In Paul's second letter to the Corinthian church, he reminds them of their new identity in Christ and that the old things are now passed away. I'm glad for a God who doesn't leave us in the "old things," but delights in making us new creatures.
    Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 2 Corinthians 5:17

    Saturday, October 29, 2016

    How to smoke a tomato

    I realize that this is a bit of an odd title for a blog post, but I hope that you will enjoy the associated recipe. This recipe is for a great marinara pasta sauce that has been adapted from my Gumbo Shop cookbook. This cookbook features great New Orleans-style recipes, including ones for turkey sausage gumbo and creole. Of course, we include our own adaptations to make these recipes our own.
    This year, we've been enjoying a prolonged frost-free season here in the Intermountain West. This means that we continue to have tomatoes ripening on the vine. Of course, this, in turn, means that we need to find things to do with them. The other night, I went out and picked a nice bunch of them. I didn't have enough to put up in jars, but still needed to do something with them. I decided that this marinara sauce would be a great choice.
    This sauce features smoked tomatoes. We always enjoy an opportunity to use our smoker. The flavor that the smoking process adds to this sauce really gives it a nice touch. Start by peeling and coarsely chopping the tomatoes. 

    Here is the recipe. I am basing the amounts on what I am used today. You can size it up or down to suit your own needs. The main thing is that you divide whatever amount of tomatoes you use and smoke half of them. You will then adjust the amount of the other ingredients. 

    Here is a picture of the tomatoes I used - all peeled, chopped, and ready to go!
    Ingredients: 12 cups of coarsely chopped tomatoes, divided (You can use either fresh or canned)
    1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil
    2 cups chopped onion
    8 ounce package of sliced mushrooms
    2-3 tbsp minced garlic
    4 tsp salt
    2 tsp black pepper
    2 tsp dried oregano
    1 tbsp dried basil
    Meat as desired (sausage, chicken, and/or shrimp)
    Prepared pasta such as penne, rotini, or bowtie

    Step 1: Smoke the tomatoes. To smoke the tomatoes, spread them out on a baking sheet and place in a smoker or covered grill for 20 minutes. We used our smoker and set the temperature at 225. The goal isn't to cook the tomatoes but to impart the smoky flavor. Here they are in the smoker and what they look like after the smoking process.

    Step 2: Prepare the sauce. Saute the onions in the olive oil until they are soft. Add the mushrooms, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, and basil and cook for about 1 minute or until these ingredients have blended well together. Stir in the smoked and non-smoked tomatoes. Simmer to reduce the liquid a bit. about 20-30 minutes. This isn't intended to be a really heavy thick sauce, but I like having some of the liquid reduced. I also stirred in about 2 tsp of cornstarch that I had mixed in about 1/4 cup of reserved liquid from the non-smoked tomatoes to thicken the sauce just a little. This step isn't necessary, but is an option depending on your preference. 
    Here's a look at the volume of the sauce that we prepared. Yum! The capacity of this dutch oven is about 4 quarts to give you a reference.
    Step 3: Prepare the meat and add to the sauceFor the meat, you can use shrimp, chicken, or sausage or, perhaps, a combination. If using chicken or uncooked sausage, brown it separately before adding it to the sauce. We used our favorite, Chef Aidell's Cajun andouille sausage, which is pre-cooked; however, we also opted to slice the links into coins and brown them under the broiler in the oven. If using shrimp, you can cook them separately or cook them in the sauce itself. 
    Because we made such a large batch of sauce, we will be freezing some to use later. I wasn't sure how the shrimp and sauce would hold up through the freezing and reheating process. As such, we stirred the sausage into the sauce and then cooked a few shrimp to add to each individual serving.

    Step 4: Serve over pasta and enjoy