Vegetables, yarn, and yarns: all of my passions all in one place.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Caput Helianthus, Jeff Goldblum, and the Multi-Generational Blanket

There was triumph and creative energy. There were misplaced yarn-overs and gnashing of teeth, but here I am, at the end of July with a completed caput helianthus (code name: Blue Stardust Sunflower Hat). ON TIME. How about that?

I started out a little worried. The pattern ended up a lot more intricate than I originally thought that it would be. Though the individual rows had, essentially, a new repeat each time, the repeats were easy to memorize. However, they took a fair bit of maneuvering to accomplish, with knits and purls and yarn overs and knit into the back loops all over the place. It took several days just to get the cast on straightened out and lengthened to a respectable size. It was a top-down pattern, meaning the cast-on was only a few stitches that then had to be manipulated on double-pointed needles without twisting them to form a Mobius strip instead of a circle.

Because it was a hat and a lace hat at that, I didn't swatch, figuring a swatch really wouldn't tell me a whole lot anyway. I was worried that the hat would end up to0 small as I was knitting it (I'm a bit of a tight knitter), but when I bound off, it was the exact size of a small stocking cap. Though this meant it was not slouchy like the pictures, I was content that it would be wearable. If I'm not mistaken, this is the first finished object I've made that was mostly wool (the RH sock yarn is wool with a small amount of nylon). Thus, for the first time, my project required blocking to look "right." At the time of bind off, the  stitch pattern of the hat was sort of bunchy and the leaf-like portions overlapped each other just a little bit, which was not the case in the pictures either.

I plopped the hat into the bathtub in warm water and it just sort of bloomed. That's the word I would use to describe it. The yarn overs expanded in size and the hat with them. After I took it out of the tub (with care), Irolled it up in a fluffy towel to release excess moisture. Then I found a plate 10 inches in diameter and placed it on top of a smaller than 10 inch diameter bowl. The hat went over the plate so that its center sunflower filled the center of the plate exactly. That's where it remained until it dried out completely. The plate did it's work and the hat took on that flat-topped look just a little bit, providing a nice slouch. There was just one problem, the brim of the hat also bloomed, so that instead of hugging the head, it was wider than a head. It still worked as a hat, but lacked some of its former stability. This means that while it has a great slouch to it, the hat is a little precarious in how it sits on a head.

I pondered the impact of this development as my BFF/identical cousin Kristin made the drive from my hometown to Cleveland this weekend past to celebrate her birthday. The hat is her birthday gift this year. Over the course of the winter, she's picked up crochet and so, appreciates entirely the effort that goes into a handmade gift, especially a lacey one. Her trip kicked off with the big hat reveal.

The loose brim means that it will never give her hat hair, so she thinks it will all work out. If not, I have leftover yarn I can use to make a cord that can be pulled through the bottom brim eyelets and pulled snug.

We also feasted on carrot cake my hubby made to celebrate Kristin's birth + 28 years, visited the local zoo, and watched Jeff Goldblum movies from the mid-90s. We have a thing for Jeff Goldblum. And carrot cake.

While watching Jeff be the science nerd he always seems to be, we both crocheted. She's working on a scarf for her mother, and I, a blanket. It was the blanket sitting unfinished by the usual chair of my husband's grandmother after she passed away. I've figured out the pattern repeats (a varying number of double crochets) and started the process of taking the not-yet-half-a-skein-of-yarn-used-up blanket into a two-skeins-long blanket. It's a fun little pattern, and I like looking at where her stitches become mine. I didn't get the chance to know her very well in the short time I was with her grandson before she died. I feel like we're bonding in our own crafty way, across time, across dimensions, with our one crochet hook and four hands.

My advice to anyone who crafts: leave behind a partially-completed project if you can and make sure you have a loved one you've taught how to finish it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Cedar Point and Chayote Squash

The hot weather deflated kitchen productivity. When the heat index hit its peak, our new microwave became a real workhorse. Only discomfort and desperation could lead to meals like this:

(That would be a veggie dog pseudoburger.)

Despite this, we tried for a Cedar Point trip. The boy had never been and he's been making a fuss about it for months. It was just soul-crushingly hot. After a test run on the Troika that went rather well, I took him on Disaster Transport. This was not entirely because the line for this particular roller coaster is in an air conditioned building. Of course, I did not take into account that the boy is highly afraid of the dark. He refused to so much as open his eyes for the duration of the ride. I think I only succeeded in getting him on any other roller coaster because one of them had the word "dragon" in its title.

I failed to remember to photograph the necessary Cedar Point Potato Hut cheese fries, but I assure you, I ate them and they were as delicious as ever, faux cheese-like substance and all. After three go-rounds through Thunder Canyon that left me drenched through my cut-off capris, we ventured on to a few of the kiddie rides and then the trip culminated in a trip through Dinosaurs Alive!, which costs even more money that the entry fee to the park (fortunately, we had a discount).

I admit, however, that it did get rather impressive near the end, with a life-sized T-Rex and long neck (sadly, I'm not sure which species) and a big sand pit that the boy spent a substantial amount of time digging up a plastic fossilized dinosaur skeleton with a sand shovel and a wide paintbrush.

Eventually, the heat got the better of us and because the boy refused to ride any more rides, we left around 6 p.m. Sandusky has a Meijer and much more reasonable food prices, so we stopped on the way to the cleveland-bound highway. While there, I found this:

It's called Chayote Squash. This Mexican native vegetable looks like a pear and tastes a lot like a mild potato. It was a buck per squash. I plopped one in the cart just because I was intrigued. Back at home, I googled information on my hispanic find. One site said that it made a great side dish stir fried with apple cedar vinegar. An idea for a recipe began to creep into my head, as I wondered: I bet that would taste great if I swapped the apple cedar vinegar out for balsamic. I grabbed an eggplant fresh from the garden out of my fridge and got to work.

Balsamic Chayote and Rice
What you need:
1 chayote squash
1 large japanese eggplant
2 cups brown rice, cooked
1 can black beans
balsamic vinegar

1. Peel and slice the eggplant into thin slices width-wise. Then cut the squash into 1/4 in slices length-wise. They will resemble apple slices for pie.

2. Stir fry the eggplant and squash in a large skillet for 9 minutes. Add a good splash or two of balsamic vinegar. Top with thyme, oregano, and salt. Cook another minute or two. Add black beans and enough balsamic to just fill the bottom of the pan. Cook until beans are heated through, stirring occasionally.

3. Add the rice (it should be hot still from the cooker or the pan, whichever) and stir thoroughly, cooking an additional minute or two. Add balsamic to taste and serve.

It's a simple light dish with very few ingredients, but those ingredients pack a real punch. The chayote squash retains a very slight crispness to it that adds texture to the meal. Because it's so mild, it takes on all the flavors of what you cook it with, which really works well for balsamic vinegar.

Even the cat was intrigued.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Waiting is the hardest part...

Summer reading is progressing a bit more quickly now. I finally got through the rest of A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was right about sticking with it. Once I finally got into the magazine article framed as a story, I loved it. The eerie thing about it was seeing the inner thoughts of an obviously disturbed man and relating to them (but not the fact that he acts on them). The thing I love about Jennifer Egan is that she can delve into every character she creates and make them utterly human. Even a would-be rapist. Even a terrorist bent on destruction who takes up pedophilia (if that intrigues you, read Look at Me). There is always something redeemable in her characters and there is always something repugnant about them as well. This is what makes them feel like real people.

Egan also has a knack for seeing the future. She predicted middle eastern terrorists attacking on US soil. She predicted the invention of social media and the popularity of reality tv. In Goon Squad, she shows us another future, one that doesn't seem very far off. In it, cell phone products are advertised for babies too young to talk. Middle schoolers don't bother with full written reports in school, instead creating powerpoint presentations, as though this is the only sort of report they ever need to make use of. I wonder how long until these predictions come to pass. I suspect the next five years might not be a stretch. A month ago I went to my son's cub scout picnic and there were almost as many children playing Angry Birds on their parent's cell phones/blackberries as there were children playing on the jungle gym. (I find this sad but unavoidable).

I always leave an Egan novel having learned something about myself and the world. This novel did not disappoint, and every chapter held a new delightful surprise, a new complex character to analyze. I wish every writer put such care into every character. Even the colonel with a past of committing genocide and atrocities comes away with  depth and, oddly,  an aspect of like-ability.

From Egan, I moved on to Ha Jin's Waiting. I definitely made it through this one faster than Egan's book, but ultimately, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much. Don't get me wrong, Jin can put a sentence together and the book did win a National Book Award. It has merit, assuredly. I just couldn't help being a little disappointed in the female characters, who were far more one-dimensional than the male characters. The way the story progresses with these half-developed women and their less-than-respectful male counterparts left me wondering if the way the plot unfolded was making a statement  about the time and country in which the novel is set or if the author is just that incapable of seeing the potential strength in a female character. It did get me thinking, but the main character was such a jerk, I had a hard time seeing beyond it. The more he whined about his tenable position which, essentially, left him in possession of two women, the more I wished one of them would just push him off a cliff. In the end, this was a story about a man incapable of being content with his life, no matter what that life might contain. It's always about what he can't have. It's always about how long he has to wait to get it. This means, in the end, he's always waiting, but the things he's waiting for always means the destruction, death, or desolation of a woman in his wake. He passes himself off as noble, but really he's a prick who finds fault in the slightest imperfection. What's worse, he always seems to get what he wants, even if he doesn't want it by the time he gets it.

I'm not sure what to think about it really. The sentences were well-constructed, but it was a book that showcased a patriarchal society. I'm not sure I like what it had to say about that. And I don't like what it says about women.

These two books were very different and they were interesting to read back-to-back. Egan's characters are so rich that it made the Jin characters look cookie cutter. This realization is something I can use to make choices in my own writing to create fully formed characters, regardless of if they are central characters or not. For a writer, every book is also a lesson in writing: what to do and what not to do. I like to think I know more about both.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Yarn Stash Realization

My life is returning to a routine schedule. One where all of my free time isn't eaten up by thesis revisions, wedding plans, or weekly trips to Michigan. What this means: some time freed up to dedicate to reorganizing my stash.

My stash, who I am affectionately referring to as the "Acrylic Nightmare," has been in a pretty constant state of disrepair since thesis hours started in 2011. I have been adding to it but not subtracting. I have been incapable of turning down sales, clearances, and markdowns. I have purchased cheaply regardless of fiber content in a poor graduate student attempt to ensure my future ability to make something (even a less than ideal something) with yarn and sticks. I have overfilled the cedar trunk that housed the Acrylic Nightmare and desperately found empty boxes and totes in which to throw skeins, making sure to leave a cedar-protected place in the trunk for those few yarny purchases I have made with even a percentage of nonsynthetic content. I'm still not entirely sure where all that Red Yarn Super Saver came from. (I assume it was for amigurumi, as good yarn need not be utilized in the making of toddler and pet toys. They will not last long anyway.)

I found every box, every tote, and emptied all my yarn onto the living room rug. Then they were sorted by weight and fiber content, photographed, and put up in my ravelry notebook online. Then, the yarn I really love went into the cedar chest, the super saver went into a milk crate, and the rest ended up in a plastic tote that now resides in the bottom of my tiny bedroom closet. By the end of the ordeal, ravelry told me I have 73 separate entries in my stash (this counts two balls of the same dye lot as 1 entry), so I likely broke 100 balls of yarn. I did not count them individually. I didn't have the heart... or maybe the fearlessness. My husband took one look at that pile of fiber and laughed himself near tears. I apparently can never again pick on him for repurchasing the same book twice because he forgot he already had it. In the guy universe, this much yarn is just so much worse. I would argue, but I have six skeins of a marled pink bulky acrylic that equals over 2500 yards total. I can't say rightly what I was thinking there other than providing blankets to all baby girls born into the family within the next five years. Maybe ten.

I proclaimed myself on a yarn diet and then promptly purchased two skeins of RH stardust in the blue colorway. In my defense, it's for my cousin Kristin's birthday present and she picked the yarn. I'm making her a Caput Helianthus hat (pattern by Sara Morris at Rose City Knits). This is the pattern I won in the Hogwarts at Ravelry cupcake contest with my Raven Clawcakes recipe. I'm trying to work hard on it, as it needs to be done by the end of July.

But this is my vow: I will de-stash some of this stuff. No more new yarn until I've used up some of the old. By the next knitting blog, I hope to be if not done with the CH hat, then at least near completion. More than that, I hope to match up patterns I already own to some of yarn in the stash. If it happens to be some of that massive amount of acrylic, all the better.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Froth it Up

There were a number of kitchen gadgets I coveted when making up the necessary bridal registry, among these: a microwave that costs more than thirty dollars (and so actually reheats food in a time frame similar to package instructions); a decent iron (the cheapest one that target makes, oddly enough, does not really function well at doing anything but melt perler beads together); a food processor (still in search of a good one); etc. More than anything, though, what I really wanted was a milk frother.

Oh sure, I had grandiose visions of a fancy espresso machine that did it all, including the froth, for a great cappuccino, but the good ones tote price tags lacking entirely in affordability. I looked all over for a registry-bearing store that sold an old-fashioned stove-top milk frother to no avail. Target was a bust, as was Penny's, which surprised me given the sheer number of useless kitchen inventions I find when walking through their housewares department. Nevertheless, my search was for nought until I happened to check the Williams Sonoma website. In general, I don't often shop at Williams Sonoma because, as a rule, they aim for a clientelle with a higher price-point than I ever intend to fork over (as in, even if I had the money for it, I wouldn't want to spend the exorbitant prices of WS, i.e. I'm cheap).

However, there was no denying the stupendousness of houseware options on their website. They did not have a cooktop milk frother, but they did have a handheld one. Just heat up the milk, plunk in the Aerolatte and poof--frothed milk.

The first night it came in the mail, I immediately heated up some milk to make a frothed hot chocolate (it also claims to make a mean milk shake). I think I tried to extract bubbles from its bubbleless surface longer than five minutes for what the directions indicated was more like a 10 second process. Still no froth. Then I noticed a line in the directions. Apparently skim milk doesn't froth.

My solution was to instruct the husband that I was in absolute need of 1%, which he purchased without too much fanfare. I frothed some up in a cup and added it to my coffee. It looked like this:

Not too frothy, but at least it frothed. Then, the bubbles started disintegrating before I could even take a sip, which is when I had two revelations:

1. I forgot to heat the milk first and
2. I really don't like cow's milk anyway.

I took some almond milk out of the cupboard and put it in the fridge. When it came time for cappuccino, I heated up a bit of almond goodness occupying the very bottom of a drinking glass. Then, I frothed it right up to the top, added it to a half mug of coffee, and sprinkled on the cinnamon.

Here is a trendy coffee franchise cappuccino without the risk of having its employees, who have no idea how to make a decent coffee, destroy said cappuccino with grounds, burnt coffee, or pathetic foam. And with the delicate taste of almond milk replacing its weaker cow-based cousin.

I am the queen barrista of my own kitchen.