Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Block Testing

During the past year, I've had the opportunity to be a quilt block tester for Quiltmaker magazine. I responded to a call for testers on their Facebook page, and then received an invitation to test blocks for volume 9 of their 100 Blocks magazine. I enjoyed the experience and agreed to continue for volume 10. Volume 10 was released just this week. Here is a photo of the cover. Since Quiltmaker is featuring a blog tour to celebrate the release of volume 10, I thought I would use the opportunity to showcase the fun blocks that I tested.
 Quiltmaker's 100 Blocks
Being a block tester means that you commit to testing about 12 blocks that will be included in the upcoming issue of 100 Blocks. You receive a new block pattern to sew and evaluate about every 1 to 2 weeks over about a 3-month period. You don't get to pick and choose what style of block you will receive, and you have to be willing to accept whatever pattern you receive. As someone who is particularly partial to traditional pieced blocks, I had to think about whether this was really something that I wanted to do or not. I also need to admit that upon receiving some of the patterns that I was to test, I wasn't certain if I would be able to complete them or not. Some of them required me to step out of my comfort zone and learn some new skills and techniques.

For each block, I will also link to the designer's webpage so that you can see some of her other designs.
I will start with the scrappy, pieced blocks. These include Starwash by Peg Spradlin, Chevron Squares by Amanda Murphy, and Butterfly by Jennifer Ball.

These next two blocks feature foundation paper piecing. If you look closely, you can see the small pieces that were included in each one. Both of these blocks are by international designers. The blocks are Coneflower Playground by Regina Grewe from Germany and Little Cottage by Kristy Lea from Australia.

I also received a couple of whimsical appliqué blocks to test. These included Lazy Days by Janet Maurer and Believe by Ann Weber

I enjoyed the light and dark contrast in these next four blocks. These are Throw the Bones by Diane Harris, Sewing Triangles by Cheryl Brickey, …and so on… by Kelli Fannin, and Windmill by Heather Jones


The final two blocks feature batiks. The first, Five and Diamond by Eileen Fowler is foundation paper pieced. The second, Half Moon Rising is by Kelly Eisinger. Both Diane and Kelly work for Quiltmaker magazine.

As a block tester, I have come to enjoy the anticipation of receiving new patterns and the challenge of expanding my skill set. As believers, we likewise can wait in eager anticipation of God's work in our lives as He continues to shape and develop us. This time of year, I particularly find myself reflecting back over the past 12 months and the many wonderful ways I have been amazed by God's goodness and blessings. I am also reminded of God's sustaining faithfulness and endless mercies. In this season of Thanksgiving, I wish you all a very blessed holiday.
The LORD's loving kindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Preparing for Black Friday and Gumbo!

Lest you jump to the conclusion that we have fallen prey to the uber-consumerism of the Black Friday craze, please rest assured that we have not. My preference is to remain as far way as possible from any retail establishment on the day after Thanksgiving. Over the past few years, I have come to enjoy Small Business Saturday, an emphasis on supporting local small businesses, but that is another story for another day.

As many of you are already well aware, our family loves to eat. Thanksgiving is one of our favorite holidays, and I truly enjoy the multi-day effort of preparing our family's Thanksgiving meal. One of our more recently acquired Thanksgiving weekend traditions is to spend Black Friday making gumbo with some of our leftover turkey.

A few years ago, one of my work-related trips was to New Orleans. I brought home a cookbook featuring recipes from Gumbo Shop, a rather well known establishment in New Orleans. I have to admit, we really didn't know much about New Orleans-style cooking, other than that it tastes incredible. We have come to enjoy several recipes from this cookbook, however, I think the turkey and sausage gumbo one remains our favorite. Here are a few things we have learned about New Orleans cooking as well.

Gumbo …
Although we often associate gumbo with Louisiana, gumbo is a dish that combines culinary traditions from French, Spanish, German, West African, and Native American cultures. Even today, different variations of gumbo can be found. Gumbo was first named in the early 1800s and was described as a thick soup eaten with rice. Earlier records dating back to the 1700s describe soups mixing cooked okra with rice to make a meal. At any rate, here are a few contributions from different cultural groups that are often represented in gumbo.

  • West African - rice and okra
  • Native American - filé powder and corn
  • German - sausage
  • French - tomatoes
  • Spanish - onions and bell peppers
  • Canary Islands - seafood and cayenne pepper
  • Caribbean - hot peppers

First you make a roux …
Although a roux is essentially a mixture of flour and some type of fat, it's also a rather interesting lesson in chemistry. This gumbo recipe calls for a roux made of butter and flour. We use a heavy-bottomed pan to melt the butter and then whisk in the flour. The consistency of the mixture will change as it is cooked. At first it will bubble, indicating that the moisture is being cooked out of the flour. Once the bubbling stops, the mixture will start to smell like popcorn, which means that the flour is frying. At this point, watch the mixture closely so that it does not brown too quickly. The goal is to get the roux to about the color or peanut butter. Here is a picture of a roux in its bubbling stage.
The Cajun holy trinity…
When speaking of New Orleans' cuisine, this term refers to a combination of onion, bell pepper, and celery. This combination of vegetables serves as a base for the gumbo as well as étouffée and jambalaya.

Filé powder …
Filé is actually an herb derived from dried leaves from the sassafras tree and was first used by the Choctaw Native Americans. The sassafras tree is native to the southeastern United States. Filé powder provides seasoning to the gumbo and serves as a thickening agent. Here are pictures of the sassafras tree and the filé powder. 

Turkey and Hot Sausage Gumbo
Prepare the turkey stock on Thanksgiving night after the dishes are cleared away using:
  • Turkey carcass broken into pieces
  • 3 quarts of water
Bring to a boil and then simmer together for about 3 to 4 hours. Strain the stock and set it aside until Friday morning. Also, set aside about 1 1/2 pounds of cooked turkey meat to use in the gumbo.

On Friday morning, the real work of cooking the gumbo begins. Here are the ingredients:
  • 1 1/2 pounds of cooked turkey meat
  • 1 pound of hot sausage (we like using andouille sausage, Chaurice sausage, a type of hot Creole sausage can also be used)
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp filé powder
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 tsp basil
  • 1/2 tsp sage
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups diced tomatoes (may use fresh or canned)
Slice the sausage into 1/2 inch rounds and spread on a baking pan. Place in a 400º oven and brown for about 20 minutes. Drain the rendered fat and set the sausage aside. Here's a quick picture of the sausage rounds with the turkey added on top.
Now it's time to prepare the roux. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Prepare a dark brown roux. During this stage, it's helpful to have someone tending to the roux and another chopping the vegetables.

Once the roux is the proper color, stir in the onion, bell pepper, and celery. Stir well, and cook until tender. From time to time, allow the vegetables to stick (not burn down) a bit and then scrap them up from the bottom of the pan. At this point, your mixture will be looking something like this:
Once the vegetables are nice and tender, stir in the garlic and cook for about another minute. Stir in the herbs and cook for another minute. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes, continuing with the sticking and scraping process. Don't these herbs look tasty? Given the number of bay leaves, this was a batch of herbs for at least a double batch of gumbo.
Slowly pour in the reserved turkey stock and mix well. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 30 minutes. Now the house is really starting to smell good.
Add in the turkey meat and sausage. Bring back to a boil and simmer for about another 15 minutes. Adjust the seasonings as desired. Serve over steamed rice.
This recipe is a bit of work, but so well worth it. Of course, if you aren't up to spending your Black Friday making gumbo, you can always come over to our house.