Monday, May 30, 2016

To Swatch or Not to Swatch -- the eternal knitting question

Okay, so maybe not eternal, but frequent and the subject of much debate.  I'm not sure that I can add anything new to the conversation, but as I become more experienced as a knitter, I do more research into techniques and fiber, and I pay more attention to the technical side of knitting -- how needle size and fiber content and ply affect stitch definition, drape, and gauge.  When I ran across this post from Love Knitting, I felt compelled to add my two cents' worth of input to the conversation.

While I see the value of a swatch, especially for a garment which needs to fit, I don't think that it is the be all and end all. It needs to be a guideline because a 4x4 inch square is only going to tell you so much.  If there is more than one stitch pattern involved, make a swatch for each because your gauge may vary significantly.

Washing and blocking the swatch gives you some indication of how much the piece might grow, but it doesn't tell you what the sheer weight of the fabric will do to your gauge or how long term wear will affect the item.

If it's a cowl or scarf or shawl, maybe I don't want to match the gauge in the pattern. Maybe I want something tighter or with more drape. I take it on a case by case basis.

When the gauge on a pattern matches the gauge listed on a yarn's ball band, I get a bit suspicious.  Did the designer really match the yarn's ball band gauge exactly?

The real reason for knitting a gauge swatch -- or otherwise determining gauge --  is that each knitter's gauge is unique.  And the knitter is not the only variable.  Needle material and shape, yarn weight and fiber content, and the combination of the two are all factors.  (Therefore, I'm not sure how much sense it makes to compare worsted weight knitting on square wooden needles to fingering weight knitting on round metal needles, as was done in the aforementioned post, unless it was to make that same point.)  In addition, each knitter's preference is unique.  You might get the recommended gauge and not like the fabric.  If so, find a gauge which gives you a fabric you do like, keeping in mind that it may mean making other modifications to the pattern (i.e. stitch count or yardage requirement) in order to end up with a pleasing (and properly fitting) finished object.

While I am far from an expert knitter, my advice is this: do what makes you the most comfortable and yields the best personal results.  Don't be afraid to experiment.  Realize that not all experiments will be successful.  Be prepared to try, try again, whether by ripping out and re-knitting or starting a new project.  Practice, practice, practice.  With or without a gauge swatch, your knitting will definitely improve with practice and persistence.

ETA: Shortly after I finished this post I came across Jill Wolcott's thoughts on the subject of swatching and wanted to include them because she has lots of interesting things to say about knitting.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A little snow

Front of the house


Path to the patio, under the grape and hop trellis

The patio, fire pit, and bird feeders

Back under the trellis

The fence is about six feet tall, so minimum three feet of snow on the ground in the back yard.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Food riff, aka "the egg thing"

The inspiration for this particular food riff (aka "the egg thing") came from this recipe:

I have made several variations (I rarely make something exactly the same way twice due to on hand ingredients, whim, etc.), and it is a grand and glorious thing, but it is rather labor intensive.  I wanted the same experience of essentially a meal in a slice  – potatoes, eggs, veggies – without quite so much work.

The first egg thing
Grease a 9x13 Pyrex pan with unsalted butter.  Don’t skimp here.  Make sure the pan is well coated.  None of this cooking spray nonsense.  Not only does the butter add a little extra savory yumminess, but it also makes the thing practically hop out of the pan, making it easier to serve and clean up afterwards.

Slice 3 or 4 fist-sized potatoes into ¼” slices.  I am a fan of red potatoes.  And I don’t peel them.  Use pretty much whatever potato strikes your fancy, although I wouldn’t recommend large “baking” potatoes.  Peel or not, as you prefer.

Line the bottom of the pan with the potatoes and sprinkle with a pinch of salt.  (If you grease the pan with salted butter rather than unsalted, skip the salt here.)

Slice up whatever other veggies you want to use.

The first time I did half a medium-sized onion, a small-ish zucchini (maybe 6 inches long), a yellow squash the same size as the, and a handful of small plum tomatoes, layering them over the potatoes in that order.  This last time I didn’t have yellow squash, and I added portabella mushrooms between the zucchini and tomatoes.  I think I sliced up a couple of shallots as well as a small onion, too.  I am a fan of sweeter onions, but any kind will work.  Scallions, too.  Or leeks.  I separated the onion slices into rings.

The layers shouldn’t really reach more than about halfway up the side of the pan.  (If they do, you’ll need more eggs and longer cooking time.)

I haven’t done a meat version, but adding cooked bacon or sausage or prosciutto or ham or pancetta could certainly be a happy thing.

Sprinkle some shredded cheese over the top.  I would say no more than a cup.  A light covering.  Not like pizza topping cheese.  I like to mix a bunch of cheese blends together – parmesan, asiago, romano, mozzarella, provolone, cheddar, Monterey jack.  You could crumble in some feta (and add some olives while you are at it – ooh!  and marinated artichokes – go for that Mediterranean feel) or add dabs of fresh ricotta.  (It’s not a recipe!  It’s a food riff!)

Beat half a dozen eggs together with a good splash of milk (I totally don’t measure – 3 or 4 tablespoons maybe?) and about ¼ cup of sour cream.  (I just scoop out a nice heaping tablespoon – flatware tablespoon as opposed to measuring tablespoon.)  I prefer light sour cream.  You could certainly use whole fat, but I would not recommend fat free.  Also, you could use crème fraiche instead if you like that sort of thing.

The main thing I learned from the quiche with has brown crust recipe is that the sour cream is key to helping the eggs set nicely.  That and beating them thoroughly to aerate them.  I beat with a fork for probably about 90 seconds.  An electric mixer can probably do it in half the time, but then you have to clean the electric mixer.  A whisk works, too.

Add salt and pepper to taste.  If you like herbs and/or spices, add them to the egg mix now.  I like some Bouquet Garni, Herbes de Provence, or an Italian blend.  Fresh basil, rosemary, tarragon, etc. are good, too.  If you like heat, add some chilies or red pepper flakes or a clove of minced garlic.

Pour the egg mixture over the layered potatoes and veggies.  They will not be completely covered.  The eggs will expand and mostly cover them as they bake.  If you are really concerned that there is not enough egg, beat up one or two more and add them.  (I did that the third time, and I don’t think that it turned out quite as well.)

Bake uncovered at 435 (yes, 435 – I like to add 5 or 10 degrees, might just be my oven) for about 35 minutes.  Maybe check at 30 minutes.  Inserted knife should come out clean.

Let sit for 5 minutes or so after removing the pan from the oven.  Cut and serve.

It reheats nicely or could even be eaten at room temperature.  I eat it as is, but you could top with more sour cream or salsa or whatever strikes your fancy.

Have fun!

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Since writing "real" blog posts has become daunting for some reason, I have started a tumblr blog.

Longer than a tweet, shorter than a blog post, but still something to say and share.
I'm still getting the hang of it, and the layout is a bit boring, but so far it's kind of fun.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year - Welcome to 2014

2013 was a busy year for me.  And an expensive year.  I did less of some things (reading and writing) and more of others (canning and knitting).  My activities were generally more, well, active, except maybe the knitting.  Knitting is a sedentary activity for sure, but I spent a lot of time knitting at the local yarn and fabric shop where I perhaps bordered on social, getting encouragement and soaking up inspiration and creativity from fellow knitters, which does wonderful things for the energy level.  But canning and cooking are decidedly physical activities.  And getting rid of stuff, which I managed to do a bit of, tends to be a physical activity.  Most physical of all is going to the gym and working with a trainer on a regular basis.  One of the handier side effects of going to the gym has been impressive relief for the muscular issues associated with the tendonitis in my right elbow.  Those issues kept me from knitting much at all in the last several years

The things I did more of have inspired me to continue to broaden my horizons in those directions.  The success of Project Homemade Homegrown Christmas has me plotting what to knit for gifts in the coming year (and they may not all be Christmas gifts).  I discovered that there are nieces with interest in knitting and cooking, so I am back to thinking about the family recipe cookbook project which has been dormant for quite a while.

I pickled eggplant as well as cucumbers, and there are jars of red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar fermenting in my basement.  The cucumber pickles are getting rave reviews, so I wonder what else I can/should pickle and ferment.

I added applesauce, tomato jam, carmelized red onion relish, and apple butter to my repertoire.  While I plan to make all of those again this year, the books those recipes came from have plenty of others which I want to try.

I dabbled a bit in baking -- oatmeal cookies, sea salted toffee chocolate chip cookies, and cheddar cheese scones.  Take note: warm cheddar cheese scones spread with homemade apple butter are the stuff of pure happiness.

The next few months will be about planning as well as doing, but I definitely want to keep up with the more active pursuits, so I don't know yet what will become of this blog.  It always seems like a good idea to record recipe adventures, but once I get caught up in the process, I have to pay enough attention to what I am actually doing that I don't take notes or pictures.  Once I am finished, I am often too tired to sit down and write about it right away, and the aforementioned lack of notes and pictures makes it difficult to do later.  I have considered a voice recorder, but electronics and food preparation don't necessarily get along too well, especially if there is a lot of liquid and steam involved.  Then there is the matter of transcription.  Maybe shorter posts.  I'll have to keep thinking about it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Happy 101st birthday, Julia Child!

“Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis. Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile, and learn from her mistakes.”

― Julia ChildMy Life in France

More Julia quotes here:

Monday, August 5, 2013

More Improvisational Cooking

If you are going to try cooking without a net (or written recipe), now is the time to do it.  Or at least now is the time to do it in the parts of the world where it is summer and there is abundant, fresh, local produce to be had.

Marketing departments want you to believe that summer is almost over so that you will stock up on school supplies and buy new fall (or even winter) wardrobes, but there are still almost seven weeks of official summer left.  Seven weeks!  And the end of summer actually means the height of harvest for some crops.

One of my favorite summer dishes is the delectably simple insalata caprese: layers of ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella, and leaves of fresh basil drizzled with a little something -- usually balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but I tend to just go with Kalamata olive oil and skip the vinegar, but each to his own.  I slice the tomatoes, grind just a little bit of high quality salt over the slices, and let them sit for a few minutes before I add the basil and mozzarella.  Tomatoes *love* salt, but just a touch.  Fresh, ripe tomatoes are delicious on their own, it's true, but a hint of salt really opens up the flavor without making them taste salty.  (Reading Salted by Mark Bitterman opened up a world of salt possibilities.  It's amazing how varied one little compound can be.)

I wasn't quite organized enough to make the mozzarella myself, so I bought it at the grocery store, but the basil and tomatoes came from local farmers.  As I was eating, all I could think was "When real food tastes this good, why did I ever eat processed junk?"  Sure, the industrial food is convenient, and I am quite certain that it is specifically designed to be addictive, but I also believe that real, fresh food (even if it is not necessarily local -- I do love avocados, which definitely don't grow around here) has the power to break that addiction.

But I digress.

This past weekend it was finally cool enough to do some canning, so on Saturday I stopped at a roadside stand selling pickling cucumbers, and yesterday I made pickles.  I had a good handful of fresh dill left over, and I bought a bulb of fennel at a farmers' market, so I decided to try an improvisational version of what I refer to as "green soup."  "Official" green soup is actually split pea, fennel, and spinach soup from Vegetarian Times.  I didn't have split peas or spinach, but I had a bunch of frozen summer squash I have been wanting to use up, so the recipe went something like this:

2 small leeks, halved, rinsed, and sliced crosswise, about 1 cup, maybe a little less
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
10 or so grinds each of salt and pepper
1 medium bulb of fennel, leafy fronds removed, but stalks included, 1 - 1 1/2 cups
4 containers mixed frozen summer squash, probably 5 or 6 cups
The handful of fresh dill left over from making pickles, chopped
Some other miscellaneous seasonings I thought would be a good idea - Sunny Paris and Pasta Sprinkle
Enough homemade turkey stock to cover the lot, somewhere in the vicinity of 4 to 6 cups

I used to be obsessed with measurements, but the more that I cook, the more I learn that it is about proportions and balancing flavors -- not to mention adjusting to taste.

I sauteed the leeks and garlic in a little olive oil for a few minutes over medium heat, adding the salt and pepper along the way.  The fennel went in next, and a few minutes later the squash.  I heated the turkey stock to a simmer before adding it to the pot along with the dill and other seasonings.  Then I brought everything to a boil and lowered to a simmer.  After about 30 minutes of simmering, I pureed the whole batch with the fabulous immersion blender and let it simmer another 30 minutes or so.

At the risk of sounding synesthetic, it *tastes* green -- fresh and summery and bright and naturally sweet.

After dinner last night, I have just enough to cover lunches for the entire week, and I think that I will try a different sort of topping or additive each day and see what happens.  Last night -- a few dabs of sour cream.  Today - magic cheese.  Tomorrow -- perhaps a squirt of citrus or some fresh tomatoes.  From there -- who knows?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Baked Potato Chips - A Moderate Success

I'm pretty upset by the defeat of proposition 37 in California, although given the legislative backlash I have been seeing, maybe proposition 37 had to be defeated in order to raise awareness and pave the way for successful legislation in other states.  I just hope that it comes back around to California, one of the biggest food producing states in the country, if not the biggest.  Where else would it be more important to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients?

Reading about how much money some giant corporations spent to keep people from knowing what kind of food goes into their food was the incentive I needed to finally kick some of my more tenacious junk food habits.  I have managed, at least in the short term, to give up two of my great loves: Coca-Cola and potato chips.

For the time being, the soda has been replaced by Poland Spring sparkling water with fruit essence.  It has zero calories and zero artificial sweetener.  I shudder a bit to think what has to be done to obtain "fruit essence," and Poland Spring is owned by Nestle, which actually spent more money than Coca-Cola to defeat proposition 37, so this is not a long-term solution.

Which brings me to one of the more alarming part about large corporations spending piles of money to defeat legislation which would hold them more accountable to their customers: brands that you think are at least close to doing the right thing are owned by these conglomerates.  For example, Kashi, a popular earthy-crunchy brand, is owned by Kelloggs, which spent more than half a million dollars in the campaign against proposition 37.  The fallout was unpleasant to say the least.  I used to use Muir Glen organic tomatoes on the recommendation of a source I trusted.  Turns out that Muir Glen is owned by General Mills, another heavy hitter opposed to proposition 37.

I now read labels not only for ingredients but also for corporate relationships.

Returning to my original point which was supposed to be about finding replacements for junk foods, I recently came across a recipe for baked potato chips, so tonight I decided to use what I remembered from the blog post I read (note to self: go back and find the source to give credit where credit is due) to try my own variation.

I chopped up two cloves of garlic and two shallots and combined them in a bowl with some olive oil and salt.  If you like pepper, add fresh ground pepper.  I sliced up two russet potatoes as thinly and equally as I could (which turned out to be not very equal and sometimes not very thin but was probably excellent knife practice all the same), rinsed and dried them.  Then I tossed them in the olive oil mixture until well coated and spread them out on two baking sheets.

As I recall, the recipe I read suggested about 15 minutes in a 400 degree oven, and here is where I ran into problems.  Since it has been a day somewhat fraught with user error, I probably should have known better than to try a cooking experiment.  I was clever enough to put the thicker slices together on one pan and the thinner slices on another, but I was not clever enough to remember that I put the thick slices on the rack above the thin slices, so when I would peek in the oven to check on the baking progress, I was somewhat mystified that the potato slices did not seem to be crisping, so I cooked them quite a bit longer than expected.  Well, the thin slices were crisping up just fine ... on the lower rack where I couldn't see them.  Needless to say, I ended up with some burned chips, but even most of the thin slices were still edible, and the thick slices were cooked all the way through.

I recommend upping the oven temperature to 425 or even 450 and make sure to check *all* of the pans in the oven when you think the chips are getting close to done.

Drain briefly on paper towels, sprinkle with topping of choice -- a bit more salt if needed, green herbs, or Parmesan cheese come to mind -- and enjoy!  I don't know how much healthier they are than their fried brethren, but at least this way you have more control over the ingredients.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Craving Summer, or Not Every Meal Can Be DIY

Even though it is not my favorite season, I think that I must be craving summer because lately I have been wanting to eat hot dogs and ice cream -- foods I associate with baseball, cookouts, and warm days.

Hot dogs are generally pretty far down the list of "natural" and "healthy" foods, and they certainly aren't something that is usually homemade, although they do give me ideas of making my own ketchup and relish, but sometimes happiness trumps healthiness, so off I went to the grocery store last night for hot dogs, buns, relish, and shredded cheddar cheese.  (Ketchup and mustard supplies were already adequate.)  Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), since hot dogs and buns both come in packages of eight, there is no longer a need for me to do my George Banks impersonation.

While I was there, I decided to pick up some of the new frozen Greek yogurt from Ben & Jerry's.  I didn't even look at the ingredient list or nutritional information.  Just plunked two pints -- one vanilla-honey-caramel and one raspberry-fudge-chunk -- into my basket and walked to the register without a backward glance.

The hot dogs were a thing of unnatural beauty.  While two heated up in the microwave, I lined two buns with a sprinkling of shredded triple cheddar cheese.  Once the hot dogs were nestled into their buns, I added a stripe each of dill relish, ketchup, and pub style Dijon mustard and chowed down while listening to the baseball game on the radio (one which had not been postponed due to snow).

I only tried the vanilla-honey-caramel flavor of the frozen yogurt.  It was okay -- a little tangy, a little sweet and not too much of either.  It certainly won't languish indefinitely in the freezer, but I continue to not understand the addicting attraction to Ben & Jerry's products.

It may still be chilly and gray outside, but last night I had a tasty moment of summer.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

On the collecting of music

I love music.  I grew up in a house of music.  I live in a house of music (sometimes very loud music).

I need to make another donation to the local classical music station because during the recent episode in Boston, the morning host promised to provide news updates when there was actual news but said that it was okay if we didn't want to listen to the constant barrage of coverage and offered a safe haven where we could listen to beautiful music.

Yesterday was Record Store Day, so I went to a local music store to see what collectible treasures there were to be had.  Mostly I was hoping for a copy of the Grateful Dead release to give to the other music listener in the house, but they were all claimed before I could find one.  (Hopefully, none of them are included in the hundred or so eBay listings which have since shown up.)  Luckily, the release will be available to the general public on cd at some point, and I find plenty of other fun things such as a Newport Jazz Festival recording and previously unreleased demos by Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.

The classical cd section in the store isn't very big, and the last few times I have looked there hasn't been much of interest, so I wasn't expecting much yesterday either.  Turns out I was in for a surprise.  There was a far better selection than usual, including numerous recordings and artists on my wish list.  And used CDs were buy two, get one free.  Not surprisingly, I came home with a bag full and, after the baseball game was over, spent most of the rest of my day in headphones.

The variety and intricacy and history of classical music never ceases to amaze me, not to mention the fact that a lot of it has survived hundreds of years, as have some of the instruments.

Did you know that Scarlatti composed 555 keyboard sonatas?  He didn't get started until he had turned forty, and he wrote them in twenty years.

Did you know that J.S. Bach, so famous for religious choral music, played in coffee houses?

Mistlav Rostropovich played the Duport Stradivarius cello made in 1711 and scarred by Napoleon Bonaparte when it was a mere century old.  Jacqueline Du Pre's Davidov Stradivarius, made a year after the Duport, is now played by Yo-Yo Ma.

And so on and so forth.  So many stories; so many pieces; so many performances and recordings.  Which to choose?

The digital age has done wonders for classical music, preserving aging recordings which only exist in libraries of one sort or another.  Sometimes the preservation is faithful to the original, and sometimes a remastering process is applied, with varying degrees of success.  The result is a list of choices which can be overwhelming.

While I am a huge fan of reading as research, in this case, I don't think that a book is really going to do it.  Sure, an expert can tell you which are the most famous or most loved or "best" pieces and performances, but everyone's musical palette is different.  You have to get in there and listen.  Find a good classical music station.  If you don't have one locally, there are many which stream live online (99.5 WCRB out of Boston is my favorite -- see above reference to the fabulous morning host) and make programs available after the fact. If you hear something you like, chances are there is a schedule online which will tell you the exact name of the piece, composer and performer.  There might even be a link to a recording you can download or purchase on cd (or even the treasured vinyl).

If you choose to go wandering through the online offerings, many at astonishingly low prices (for example, the voluminous "box sets" put out by, I don't recommend reading too many reviews.  Classical music enthusiasts tend to be vehemently opinionated and can get carried away harping on details which may not be apparent to a more casual listener.

The most important thing is to enjoy yourself.  Keep listening and trying new (to you) composers and performers, and you will learn what you like.