Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sewing at Sea - Part II

As I contemplate this post, it seems that a more apt title would be "Fusing at Sea." The actual sewing that I did on these project occurred after I had returned home. The focus of my efforts during the cruise was to fuse assorted small pieces of fabric together in an effort to create a larger, cohesive piece.
Both of the designs that I will feature in this post are from Ribbon Candy Quilts. Although I like to take advantage of the opportunity to develop new and different skills, I liked both of these patterns so much that I signed up for both classes. I really liked the idea of completing the Alaskan Sampler quilt as a souvenir from the cruise that told the story of the places we visited. The Wilderness Skinnie featuring the bear is just too cute to pass up.
The basic techniques are pretty much the same: trace, cut, fuse, apply decorative stitching either by hand or by machine. To be honest, the process can get pretty tedious especially when tracing, cutting, fusing, and then stitching very small pieces. Here's a look at some of my efforts in creating the Wilderness Skinnie. Take note of the wonderful batik prints that were used in this project. Also, note the odd-shaped pieces.
Fortunately, the pieces look much better when organized and fused down to the background. The pattern for this project is available online.
The project looks even better with the decorative stitching. Yes, I really did stitch around each of the individual flowers. I am looking forward to getting it back from the quilter.
I was absolutely thrilled to be able to take the Alaskan Sampler class even though it meant two class sessions (and several "open sew" sessions) of tracing, cutting, and fusing. If you are interested in the Alaskan Sampler, the pattern is available online. This project was designed to feature the ports of call for the cruise. This project also included some impressive batik fabrics. 
Here are a few close ups of the blocks that feature a ship cruising through Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska's state flag, and state flower. 

Other blocks featured an orca whale, a totem pole, salmon, hanging baskets from Victoria, a moose, and Russian nesting dolls. The nesting dolls were in reference to Sitka, the original capital city of Alaska when it was under Russian control.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn't get a chance to do the stitching until I returned home. I chose to keep things fairly straightforward by machine appliquéing each fabric piece using a blanket stitch rather than using a variety of stitches. This is also in part related to my confidence (or lack thereof) in using the decorative stitches on my machine. One of the key tips that I learned (and highly recommend) is to complete all of the pieces that use a given color together rather than switch thread color multiple times while completing any single block. Even though you just work with one color at a time, you do get the variety of switching back and forth between blocks. I will also add that the shapes can be somewhat of a challenge to navigate around while trying to keep the appliqué stitching close to the fabric edge. I also learned to adjust my stitch width for each piece. For example, I used a wider stitch to outline background mountains, and a much narrower stitch to outline the eyes on the totem pole.
I think that Sitka was my favorite port of call during the cruise. This town is so small that we had to take small tenders from the cruise ship to the docks. 

To gain a little additional perspective regarding the size of Sitka, here is a picture of the high school. Yes, this really is the high school. 
Here is a picture of the Russian Orthodox church in the center of town. It really isn't leaning. Perhaps we were leaning while taking the picture.
My favorite activity in Sitka was the raft tour which took us out to a volcanic island off the coast. We enjoyed some great wildlife sightings including this amazing group of a few dozen (yes, dozen) sea otters. At first I didn't see them because I thought I was looking at a mass of kelp floating along off the shore and was looking for perhaps one or two sea otters. After my husband got me to take a closer look, I realized just how many there were. Here is the picture:
We also saw gray and humpback whales as well as large quantities of puffins. Call me odd, but I think puffins are rather fascinating, and I was excited to see them. Here are a couple of them flying across the sea.
One of my favorite souvenirs that we purchased in Sitka was this Alaska-themed nativity set. I was intrigued with it for a number of reasons. First of all, I love nativity sets and enjoy collecting nativity sets from different regions of the world. Second, I love the wildlife of the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic. Thirdly, to me this set serves as a tangible reminder of the message of the Christmas story for all people. I am looking forward to displaying it this Christmas season.
In reflecting on the message of Jesus for all people, I will simply close with Jesus' words in John 10:10.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10

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!