Thursday, September 11, 2014

On the topic of okra …

Okra is one of those foods which tends to draw dichotomous responses from people. They either like it or they don't. Then of course, some people aren't quite sure what okra is. Interesting enough, okra's biologic and geographic origins are uncertain as well.

Okra is regarded as an allopolyploid. To a nerd like me who likes genetics, this is a rather fascinating term. It essentially means that okra has sets of chromosomes that have most likely come from two different species. Because okra doesn't occur as a "wild" species of plant, scientists presume that it was most likely deliberately developed by people by crossing two other plant species - can you say genetically modified organism i.e. GMO? Descriptions of okra date back to at least 13th century Egypt. Too bad we don't have access to these early agriculturists' field notes.

As I mentioned, the geographic origins of okra are uncertain. Different sources have attributed the origins of okra to southeast Asia, western Africa, and eastern Africa. Regardless of its origins, okra plants spread across the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. By the mid-1600s, it had been transported across the Atlantic to Brazil as a result of the slave trade. The earliest accounts of okra in North America date to the 1700s, and by 1800, it was well-established in the southeastern United States.
Where okra is grown in the world today - didn't expect to see so much grown in Europe
Today, okra is a common food in many parts of the world including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Balkan states, and the Caribbean, as well as the southeastern United States. Although the leaves of the plant are edible, the most commonly consumed part of the plant is the seed pod. The seeds, supposedly, can be dried and ground into coffee. I'm not a coffee aficionado so I don't think I will be attempting to make coffee from okra seeds.
Okra pod ready for harvest 
The okra pod is mucilaginous, meaning that it is slimy when cut open. The "slime" also serves as a thickening agent for dishes such as gumbo. Typically, the pods are sliced into coin shaped pieces prior to being used in culinary dishes. They can be prepared in a number of ways including breaded and deep-fried in cornmeal; steamed; broiled; prepared in curries, soups, and gumbos; or stewed with tomatoes. 
Cut up okra pieces ready for stewing or deep frying
This year I decided to grow okra for the first time. I only grew two plants not being certain how much space they would consume in the garden. The plants haven't grown very big so we haven't had large numbers of okra pods to harvest. I have learned, however, that okra pods need to be harvested fairly promptly after they develop. Otherwise, the pods become tough and pithy. Based on the websites I have reviewed this year, the rule of thumb is to pick early and often. In general, the pods can be picked once they are about 3 inches long. Next year I think I will grow 4 or 5 plants to be able to have extra pods to harvest and freeze for later use.

As I mentioned earlier, okra is common in southeastern US dishes. Our family enjoys down home New Orleans style cooking, which includes dishes with okra. My husband and I have discussed the possibility of a "foodie" vacation to New Orleans. Until that time, we will continue to prepare and enjoy our own New Orleans style food. Here is a recent recipe that we used that included some of the okra from our garden.

Stewed Okra and Tomatoes
Ingredients (for about 6 servings)
2 slices bacon (we prefer pepper bacon)
1 small chopped onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Chopped okra (fresh or frozen) - we only had about 6 pods and would have used more if we had them
1 quart canned tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Chop up the bacon and fry in a medium-sized frying pan.
2. When the bacon is nearly done, add the chopped onion. Continue to sauté until the bacon is fully cooked and the onions are transparent.
3. Stir in the garlic and okra pieces. Cook together until okra begins to soften.
4. Stir in the tomatoes, juice and all. Simmer until mixture reaches desired consistency.
5. Season with salt and pepper to taste. You may also want to consider a sprinkling of cayenne pepper or some "Slap Ya Mama" seasoning to give it a little extra spice.
One of our favorite seasonings
Depending on how much okra you used, this can serve as a stand-alone side dish. Because we had less okra and more tomato, we served ours over rice. It made a great companion side dish for our New Orleans-style po' boy sandwiches with andouille sausage. Yes, we do like to eat!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Meet Marigold

As we close out the summer season, I thought I would share one of my recently completed  projects. This one involves a sheep named Marigold. Come to think of it, I'm not entirely certain whether one can truly "name" an object. At any rate, this stuffed, wool sheep has been named Marigold.

Marigold was a "block-of-the-month"-type project sponsored by my favorite local quilt shop, K&H Quilt Shoppe of Kaysville. About a year ago, I received the pattern to make the sheep. Each month thereafter for the next 12 months, I picked up the wool appliqué supplies to make a new blanket for Marigold. About this time, I can imagine thoughts of, "Seriously? She's talking about making wool appliqué blankets for a stuffed sheep." I do have to admit that, as I am writing this, the idea does sound a bit odd. I don't know if I can fault anyone for any eye rolling that may be occurring.

At any rate, I did have fun with this monthly project. The pattern for the sheep and blankets is from Buttermilk Basin whose designs have a folk art flair to them. I've recently acquired another sheep project kit of theirs and am looking forward to working on it during my upcoming fall travel season.

Here are some pictures of the blankets. As you can see, a number of them feature blackbirds. I've also enjoyed the seasonal features of spring flowers, summer watermelon, fall leaves and acorns, as well as candy canes for Christmas. This project has also given me some opportunities to develop some creativity in working with each monthly pattern. Typically, with wool appliqué, the idea is to select a thread that closely matches the wool fabric. In some of the blankets, I have opted to use a contrasting thread (note the black thread on the candy canes) or even just a darker shade to add a little extra accent. 
Fall-themed blankets for September, October, and November. I think my favorite is November's with the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality and the sheep.

Candy canes for Christmas time. Note the contrasting black thread on this one.

A cozy log cabin for cold, January days and a lovebird with a Valentine heart for February.

Bouquets of spring flowers for March, April, and May

Strawberries and watermelon for June and July

I typically tend to be one who likes to "follow the rules" with projects. I tend to find myself referring back to the teacher's example if I am taking a class to learn a new technique or begin a new project. I've actually had some fun challenging myself to think more creatively and to focus more on what I want my project to look like rather than what I think it is "supposed" to look like.

I should probably add a word about why the sheep is named Marigold.  In an previous blog post, I mentioned that our family acquired some adult sheep when we first moved to northern Utah. Among these names we gave these sheep were Rose, Petunia, and Marigold. I was in the quilt shop at the time that the shop owners were discussing what to name the sheep as part of the promotion for this project. As we were discussing a variety of different names, I proposed Marigold.

In the midst of this Labor Day weekend, I pray that you are experiencing a time of rest and renewal during these few remaining days of the summer season. For this post, I will close with a passage from Ezekiel which describes God's heart for bringing restoration to His people who had been scattered by the enemy. Although I am just sharing two verses here, the imagery in chapter 34 of God as the true nurturing shepherd to his people is amazing and can only inspire deep gratitude for a God who is ever seeking to bring deliverance and restoration.
For thus says the Lord God, "Behold, I Myself all search for My sheep and seek them out … I will feed my flock and I will lead them to rest, declares the Lord God. 
Ezekiel 34:11&15

Friday, August 8, 2014

More Summer Salads

Last August, I wrote about summer salads. It seems only fitting that I go for an encore this August.
This time of year, we seem to enjoy trying out different salads, especially ones that will last over several days. A few weeks ago, I tried out a new Greek pasta salad recipe, and we really enjoyed it. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how authentically Greek it is, but it does include some Greek flavors. 
In addition to the pasta, which is not Greek, the salad includes spinach, red onion, cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives, and feta cheese. 
Bowl of Kalamata olives
Kalamata olives tend to be one of those foods hat you either really like or really don't. They are typically preserved in wine vinegar and olive oil. They also contain polyphenol which gives them a slightly bitter taste. Kalamatas are a good source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and  vitamins C, A, E, and K. The majority of their fat is monounsaturated, also known as "healthy fat." 
In case you are interested, Kalamata olives are named for the Greek city of Kalamata which is located in southern Greece (see map). Kalamata's history dates back to Homer. Homer's writings mention a city called Pharai which was located where the Kalamata castle now stands. You can see the castle ruins in the picture below.

Note castle ruins on the hillside above the houses
Kalamata was actually fairly prosperous during the Byzantine era. The following is a picture of the Church of the Holy Apostles which dates back to the 11th to 12th centuries AD.

Getting back to the food …
Here is the recipe, which, of course, includes our modifications:
16 ounce box of pasta (I have used both radiatore and bow tie pasta)
About 1/2 to 2/3 of an 8 ounce bag of fresh spinach
2 cups of cherry or grape tomatoes (if I don't have fresh ones from the garden, I typically buy a container of Cherub tomatoes at the store)
10 ounce bottle of Kalamata olives (drained) Note: if you really don't like Kalamata olives, you could substitute black olives or even just omit them altogether 
8 ounce container of crumbled feta cheese
1 small, chopped red onion
Greek salad dressing (I like the Kroger store brand, but you can use whatever you like)
Salt and pepper to taste.

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Rinse well and allow to cool.
2. Coarsely chop the spinach. What you see in the picture below is a large serving bowl containing a little more than half of an 8 ounce bag of fresh spinach. It's really up to you how much you want to use.  If you look at the picture at the top, you can get an idea as to how this amount disperses through the salad when it is all stirred together.
3. Cut the tomatoes in half. You could leave them whole if you want. For me, cutting them in half avoids getting squirted when you stick your fork into one. In the picture below, you can see the container of Cherubs tomatoes.
4. Stir all of the ingredients together and add enough salad dressing to moisten everything. I typically start with about half of the bottle but then often find that I need to add more dressing before serving.
5. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sewing Online

For this month's posting, I thought I would share a recent online sewing project that I completed. In all honesty, the actual sewing did not occur online, but the process of receiving instructions over the course of about two and a half months did.

This online project or "sew-along" was hosted by Pam Buda of Heartspun Quilts. This past January, I had the opportunity to take a class from Pam (see my January 2014 posting). She shares my love of reproduction fabrics and prairie style quilts. When I learned that she would be starting an online "sew-along" this spring, I decided to participate.

The "sew-along" took place over about 10 weeks. Each week, we completed a new 3.5 inch quilt block or set of blocks that would be included in the project. We didn't receive a pattern of what the final quilt would look like. We just waited eagerly for each Friday to receive instructions for the next block or blocks. 

Week 1 began with just one single block - a square in square. It was easy to sew together, and I was restless to receive the next week's instructions. Here is the first block.

In the next two weeks that followed, we added two additional sets of 3.5 inch blocks. They are shown here on either side of the first block.

As the weeks went by, we completed half square triangles featuring different combinations of light and blue fabrics.

Then came some pinwheels and nine-patch blocks in reds and lights. (I love these classic blocks and the fabric choices that were part of the kit.)

By the end of June, we had completed a total of 49 blocks to be included in the quilt. We had to wait until the 4th of July to see how they would all fit together.

Once I had the final pattern, I began sewing blocks together into strips of seven blocks each. Here are two of these strips. Are you wondering what the final design is going to look like?
Here are two strips that have been sewn together. You can begin to see the pattern taking shape.

Here, at last, is the completed quilt top. I was quite pleased with the final design and have to admit that the blocks were organized in a pattern that I hadn't anticipated. I had tried different combinations of arranging them but did not come close. The one thing I did "get right" was to place the gold and blue square-in-square block in the center. My next task is to get this quilt machine quilted so that I can display it in my home.  
In case you are interested in making this quilt for yourself, kits are no longer available, but a list of the fabrics you will need is on Pam's blog. You can follow along with the weekly instructions beginning with her April 25 posting.

Just as we did not have the full instructions and vision for this quilt at the outset of this project, in the Christian walk, God often chooses not to reveal His plans in their entirety all at once. Our role is to follow in obedience by faith those instructions or plans that God has chosen to reveal to us at the given time. This faith is not fleeting wishful thinking but a confident assurance. As we continue in faith, He then reveals more and more, and the larger pattern becomes evident and is one that far exceeds our greatest expectations. The writer of Hebrews provides us with this perspective on faith:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Soup and Soccer

If you haven't figured it out by now, our family enjoys coming up with some rather quirky rationales for the meals that we prepare. While we are not exactly what one would consider a sports fanatic-type family, we do tend to use sporting events as opportunities to explore new cuisine.
My husband and I are also the types of parents who like to ensure that our children have opportunities to enrich their learning over the summer break. (Insert eye rolling here.) I decided that the World Cup provided a great context for a summer enrichment activity. 
Our daughter's initial task was to look up the three teams that the US played in the first round of the tournament. She then selected one of the three countries as her focus. Her selection was Portugal. 
Over the course of five days, she learned different aspects about Portugal. For example, on Day 1, she learned about Portugal's geography. Her "aha moment" was learning that Portugal was located in Europe and not South America. (Insert my eye rolling here.)
Other enrichment activities included learning a little about Portugal's history, its major industries, and its arts and culture. As it turns out, Portugal is noted for some impressive tile work known as azulejo. Here is a picture:
Her final learning activity had to do with, you guessed it, food. Her assignment was to learn a little about Portuguese cuisine and then find a recipe to prepare. She was told to keep in mind the availability of ingredients, the ease of preparation, and whether she would actually be willing to eat it. Her choice was a soup called Caldo Verde, which essentially means green soup. This soup is traditionally made with potatoes, collard greens or kale, and linguica sausage. Linguica sausage is made from pork and looks like a Portuguese bratwurst. 
We couldn't find linguica sausage in our local stores so we substituted chorizo sausage. It turned out great.

Here are the ingredients:
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium sized onion, diced
2 cloves garlic
6 potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 quarts water (I would imagine that you could substitute chicken broth if you wanted to. If you do, anticipate using less salt).
6 ounces linguica sausage, thinly sliced (as I already mentioned, we substituted chorizo sausage)
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
ground black pepper to taste
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound kale, rinsed and julienned

  1. In a large saucepan, cook onion and garlic in 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat until onion starts to become transparent. 
  2. Stir in potatoes and stir constantly for about 3 minutes. Pour in the water, bring to a boil. Allow to boil for about 20 minutes or until potatoes start to become mushy. 
  3. While the potatoes are boiling, brown the sausage in a skillet over medium-low heat until cooked through. Drain the fat.
  4. Use an immersion blender to puree the potatoes in the saucepan.
  5. Stir in the sausage, salt, and peppers. Allow soup to simmer for about 5 minutes.
  6. Stir in the kale and allow to cook until it is tender. I found that it took about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Add any additional seasonings to taste.
  7. Serve with warm, fresh bread.

Here is a picture of how we sliced the potatoes.
Here is a picture of how we chopped up the kale. The next time, I will probably chop it a little more finely. This was actually the first time I have used kale in a recipe.
We actually enjoyed this soup quite a bit and will be making it again. Now we will have to see what other types of international cuisine we wish to attempt in honor of the teams that are continuing on in the World Cup.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sewing at Sea - Part I

Just a few short weeks ago, I had the wonderful privilege of cruising to Alaska. For my husband and myself, this was a 25th anniversary celebration cruise. It also happened to be a quilting cruise. Cruising to Alaska was something we had talked about over the past few years but had never really looked very closely into the process until about 10 months ago. 
Our daughter is one who enjoys seeing cute animal pictures on Facebook. One evening my husband called her over to look at a picture featuring an Alaskan flat tire. Probably this one:
After taking a look at the picture myself, I responded with, "You know, I just got my new copy of Quiltmaker magazine, and they are sponsoring a quilting cruise to Alaska in June 2014. To make a long story short, after some investigating into cruise lines, ports of call, and pricing, we opted to go. Neither of us had been on a cruise before, and we had both decided that if we were to ever pursue a cruise, we prefer a scenic cruise such as one to Alaska over a Carribean cruise. Although I was born in Alaska, I hadn't returned since we left in the summer of 1971. We didn't visit places where I had lived, but I was excited about returning to my original home state just the same.
Although we were part of a group of quilters, and I had quilting classes during the times we were at sea, we still had plenty of time to enjoy the cruise together and to share some wonderful adventures at each of our ports of call. Because there is just too much to share in just one entry, I have decided to make this entry Part I.
Now, where to begin …
I'll start with the wool appliqué candle mat since that is the one project from the cruise that I have actually completed. The candle mat was designed by Margie Ullery of Ribbon Candy Quilts which is actually based here in Utah. One of my reasons for selecting this class was because the project had an Alaskan theme to it. This project features the forget-me-not flower, which is the state flower of Alaska. Forget-me-nots can be blue, purple, or pink, and these colors are featured in the project.
As you can see, the project began, as one might anticipate with appliqué, with lots of tracing, cutting, and securing pieces down. Rather than using fusible, we used freezer paper and glue sticks. This was the first time I have been successful using freezer paper for tracing and cutting appliqué shapes. 
 To get this project started, I centered the large blue forget-me-not on one side of the mat. I elected to complete one side first before proceeding to the second side for fear of losing small pieces.
Once the first flower was secure, I then proceeded with arranging the other pieces around it. I waited to add the yellow centers until I had stitched around the larger pieces.
Here is the completed project
The next project that I am going to share in this blog isn't so much of a "project" as it is a design practicum. I picked this class because it was a new technique to learn and was totally unrelated to the other classes I had selected. The title of this class was "Let's Get X-centric" and was taught by Anita Grossman Solomon from Manhattan. 
This class involved working with striped fabric to create some unique patterns. The fun part was that the techniques involved basic quilting techniques, namely working with half square triangles. 
For the purpose of this post, I won't go into the additional details of symmetric vs. asymmetric stripes or regular vs. irregular strip patterns. When we were talking about the possibilities of regular symmetric or irregular asymmetric stripes, I felt like I was back in school talking about  cardiac arrhythmias. If you are interested in learning more, here is a link to Anita's online course that includes the X-centric technique.
To make a long story short, the X-centric technique involves cutting identical squares from striped fabric and then making half square triangles with them. In this picture, if you look closely, you can see a faint black diagonal line running from the upper left to the lower right of the top block. This block actually has another identical block under it. You sew 1/4 inch from both sides of the black diagonal line and then cut the square in two on the diagonal line. When you press the two half squares open, you get a block that looks like the one in the lower right corner. The one in the lower left is identical to the one in the lower left, it is just reversed so that you can see the pattern that is created when you press the seams open.
Now for the next part, you take the two new blocks you created and line them up with the center seams matching. If you look closely at the top center block in this picture, you can see a faint black diagonal line running from the upper right to the lower left corner. You sew 1/4 inch from either side of this line and then cut down the black line. Now, instead of getting two identical blocks, you get one that is X-centric (lower left) and one that con-centrlc (lower right).
If you use a fat quarter with a stripe pattern, you are able to cut four identical 8 1/2 inch starting blocks which will result in two X-centric and two con-centric blocks. When you put the four finished blocks together, they look something like this.
I did another set of four blocks using a reproduction fabric. It was fun to see what this more modern pattern looked like when applied to an historic print. I liked it. 
Here is what this set of four blocks look like on the reverse. I like this pattern, too.
Now for a few scenes from Alaska. For this post, I will include some images from around Juneau, our first port of call, and Alaska's capital city. The fascinating part about Juneau is that you can't drive there. Juneau can only be accessed by air or by water.
The outing we selected for Juneau was a photo safari that included water-based and land-based routes. It probably won't be surprising to you that the water-based route featured whale watching. This is the season when the humpback whales are returning to Alaska. Here is the tail of one of the whales as it was diving down into the water.
The land-based route took us to the Mendenhall glacier. The picture really doesn't do it justice. The blue of the glacier is an absolutely amazing color that is hard to fully appreciate unless you are there.
After completing our photo safari, we were able to walk around Juneau for a while. We decided to venture away from the tourist shops to see what we could find. We enjoyed finding the St. Nicholas church which was established in 1894. What is particularly fascinating is that it was established after Russia had sold Alaska to the United States. The native Tinglit people were instrumental in establishing this church and worship services were conducted in the native Tinglit language.
As much as I love the mountains of the Intermountain West, Alaska's mountains have a mystique all their own. I loved their rich, rugged, purple color interspersed with the green of the trees.

As you can see from just these few pictures, Alaska's majesty is truly captivating. One of our favorite aspects of the cruise was sitting on our verandah and marveling at the beauty of God's creation and the privilege of viewing it. The psalmist spoke truth in declaring:
Great are the works of the LORD; 
They are studied by all who delight in them.
Splendid and majestic is His work;
And His righteousness endures forever.
Psalm 111:2-3