Country Roads, Take Me Home

We're back in WV, landing yesterday evening at Charleston's Yeager Airport. It's a quaint little airport with two gates and sits on top of a mountain, which makes take-offs and landings rather interesting. The flight was smooth, and we slept in a little late this morning to recover from the travel.

This morning, we cooked Eggplant Parmesan, Key Lime Pie, Texas Toast and a salad with olives and feta cheese for our neighbors since two members of the family were having surgery that day. We also made this meal for ourselves and Mark's parents, as it's one of our favorites, and you can never have too much eggplant. :) Update: They loved it, and so did we. Yay! :)

In the afternoon, we headed out to visit Mark's Dad at work for a tour of the Nicholas Energy surface coal mine. We saw the whole process from blasting to hauling to sorting and washing to loading and reclamation of the site. The equipment is enormous and in constant motion. The tires on the large trucks cost about $20,000, and they were about 20 feet in diameter. HUGE! Dad says that the roads seem to change every week so it can be quite a maze. We took some pictures from inside Dad's truck, since even though we were hazard-trained at the gate, we did not have hard-hats, blaze orange stripped shirts, nor steel-toed boots, all requirements for getting out of the car. They take safety extremely seriously there, and we could see why.

To help us stay awake and see the New Year in, we rented Whale Rider, a movie of a young New Zealand girl and her tribe figuring how to fit into the modern world. We really like it, but you have to be in the mood, for it can be a little slow at times. We also watched Finding Nemo, one of our favorites that we recieved for Christmas from Laura's parents. The animation is spectacular and totally believable, and the comedy is hilarious, with so many different characters and voices we can memorize and imitate for a few months at least. Happy New Year, everyone!

Posted by Mark @ 3:41 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Return of the King

After waking up to a slightly damp morning, everyone eagerly piled into the car for a trip to local San Antonio. As we traveled further south, we realized that the damp morning was due to a slow moving rainstorm headed south. By the time we got to the San Antonio Botanical Gardens there was a steady drizzle of rain. Not to ruin our day, a very nice lady in the botanical garden's gift shop gave us directions to local indoor attractions. Unfortunately most didn't open until 11am which gave us the opportunity to scour the ground for fallen epiphytes.

When I was growing up, my mom had a great collection of epiphytes, mainly bromeliads. One odd plant that we would always try to grow was Ball Moss (what we called baylee eye). They seem bland at first glance, but have beautiful little flowers and require little in the way of care or maintance - and since they have an affinity for oak trees, you can find them almost anywhere in central Texas.

While we were waiting for the Witte Museum to open, we saved several baylee eye from the inevitable fate of being mulched in the lawnmower. I highly recommend the Witte museum if you have childern- or just a facination with how the world works. There is a great treehouse sponsored by HEB which has daily experiments about science. My mom was excited to see an experiment about electricity which involved frying a pickle - I never knew that they would glow when electricuted from the inside.

As a break on the following day, we all geared up to watch the much anticipated Return of the King at our local big screen theatre - and we got a great seat right in the middle of the largest screen next to an Imax (earlier we had prepared my parents for the movie event of the year by renting the movie versions of the first two LOTR). Overall, it was everything we were expecting and so much more! The action sequences were phenominal, the story line was beautifully constructed, the scenery amazing, I could go on and on. I was very happy with the choices many of the characters made (can't tell more, can't spoil the ending, it is so hard not to)... and am looking forward to seeing the extended edition. Every time that we have watched the extended edition always outshines the onscreen version (expecially the second one if I may be so bold).

After the movie, I was in for a treat - not that I knew it. We headed into Austin to the famous Waterloo Ice House for my traditional Chicken Fried Steak and mashed potatoes with creamy gravy. Since I only get it twice a year, every time is a true treat, and especially in this case since it gave us all the opportunity to share our favorite moments from the epic LOTR (and ask Mark oodles of questions about what else happens, since he was the only one who had read the entire series). That had to be the best way to end a fabulous trip home.

Posted by Laura @ 8:30 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Half Price Sushi

One of the best parts about learning something new is being able to share it with others. My mom has always had to satisfy her sushi craving with a quick purchase of california rolls at the local Whole Foods. But today I showed her how easy it was to make sushi at home.

Fortunately, everything we needed was referened via our blog - I love that the Internet is "everywhere" :) We started with the basic california rolls - adding some avacado and some imitation crab meat for fun - and before we new it, we had used up 10 sheets of nori. One nice thing that Mom did, was to pile on the toppings high, but roll-tighten-roll. That tightening step really gave the rolls a great density so that all the fixin's won't come out.

While I was in Texas this time, I decided to go through my collected "stuff" from birth to now. Most everything I had from when I was in high school or younger was boxed away during the big transition to undergrad. I really enjoyed sharing my memories with Mark.

By the time we got though everything, we had stuffed animals ready for grandma to take to the younger grand children, things ready for Goodwill, books ready for other eager readers and nice organized boxes for the attic. To celebrate the cleaning extravaganza we went to Half Price Books, where we learned that now days only antique furniture sellers really use Readers Digest books because they look so pretty and that science fiction and westerns get the best deals at half priced book stores. Never the less, we had a good amount of credit to get me started on a new series by my enjoyable Recluce author, a cookbook for mom and dad on how to enjoy the taste of fried foods without frying, and a cook book for Mark on Turkish cuisine. I can't wait to check out the Half Price Books store in our area.

Posted by Laura @ 7:39 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Cooking for Christmas

Laura started the cooking yesterday morning by trying out two recipes for Coconut Macaroons, with the second attempt more successful than the first. They did not turn out exactly like store-bought macaroons, and we're not sure what we're missing to make them more crumbly. It is important to whip the egg whites until you see peaks, otherwise they mixture will not bind properly. The macaroons were very tasty and we hope to have a second batch soon.

Mark made two versions of Key Lime Pie. First, there was the classic Cook's Illustrated version, with 4 egg yolks mixed with lime juice, whipped topping and homemade graham cracker crust, and the second was from a bottle of lime juice with only sweetend condensed milk and Cool Whip as ingredients. After cooking them both up (well, only one, since the no-egg version required no cooking, an exhaustive taste test (Laura's family) reports that the simple no-egg off the bottle recipe is preferred, combined with the homemade graham cracker crust and lime zest. We've posted the combined recipe, enjoy!

For Christmas dinner, Laura's mom cooked up individual cornish hens, complemented with side dishes of baked beans, cooked cranberries, green beans, and mashed potatoes. Everything tasted excellent. One of the more interesting sides was Frog's Eye Salad, a recipe from Laura's Aunt Nancy. No real frog's eyes, just small pasta in cool whip and pudding with pineapple for taste. It's a real treat for dessert. Another highlight was Laura's grandmother's Cole Slaw, lightly made with cabbage and vinegar minus the usual mayonaise. It provided a great opportunity to use the food processor for shredding the cabbage. No one left the table hungry. :)

Posted by Mark @ 4:25 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Austin's Lights

Tonight we went to the Trail of Lights in Austin's Zilker Park. The displays were spectacular with exhibits from many local businesses. We saw a Disney village, the 12 days of Christmas and many other traditional holiday decorations. Some of the trees were the most beautiful lights there. And we had to find the Zilker Tree and go for a spin under the lights. Some pictures should be up soon.

We found a wonderful vendor of Kettle Corn, popcorn made in a large cast iron kettle and then seasoned with sugar and salt. Mathematicians that we are, we debated whether the popping distribution was normal or poisson. We're still not sure, but we found you can buy Kettle Corn for the microwave these days. Yum! And to finish the evening, we took a horse drawn carriage ride, Laura's first.

Also, we watched Freaky Friday, the updated version, good for a few laughs but nothing exceptional. And The Treasure of Sierra Madre with an evil gold-panning Humphry Bogart who gets his comeuppance. We discovered this movie is the souce of the classic line "We don't need no stinking badges!" It's amazing how much culture comes from these classic movies.

Posted by Laura @ 3:25 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Pizza and a few Movies

Today, we watched the "Hulk" and "Winged Migration". The Hulk was not as bad as we had been lead to believe by critics. The comic-book feel was definately there, with multiple screen shots and moving squares of action. It may not have been the huge blockbuster action everyone expected, but it was good for an afternoon adventure. Our favorite had to be Winged Migration, a documentary on birds, no special effects. It's much more exciting than it sounds. The close-ups of flocks was just amazing to watch; while there's no real plot, it is very visually stunning and should keep you occupied for a few hours. Don't miss the special features section of the DVD, showing how they achieved many of their shots.

We also set up Laura's Dad's electric locomotive with all 5 cars + caboose circling a small "german village" complete with miniature people and animals. We cranked the power all the way up to 11 and watched the train fly, I'm sure it was scarring the passengers as well as the townspeople ;).

While Laura and her Mom finished up last minute chrismas shopping, I was busy with Larua's Dad making crust for three pizzas. We used a basic yeast dough recipe and topped with mushrooms, green peppers and olives. One pizza we combined cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, and another used only shredded Queso Blanco cheese, a light Mexican cheese, for a very mild flavor. We found it works well to sprinkle parsley flakes on the cheese before cooking to add some color and variety. As a side, we infused some oil with fresh rosemary and used it to create some cheesy herbed breadsticks.

Posted by Mark @ 5:25 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Tooling around Texas

After a smooth ride to Austin, TX from West Virginia, we all greatly enjoyed a Tex-andwich, one of our favorite local Round Rock restaurants. We couldn't find much listed in google. Don't let the outside building fool you, this long time joint has the best sandwiches around! For comparison, the sandwiches are similar to those of schlotzsky's, round buttery circles of dough with piles of meat and cheese, but in our humble opinion Tex-andwiches are much better. Rumor has it that Tex-andwiches came first (Schlotzky's "Original" doesn't seem too original), but we don't really know. We hope they stay in business and keep making great sandwiches.

Posted by Laura @ 9:25 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Memorial for Marvin Hill

Last night, we attended a memorial for artist Marvin Hill, who passed away earlier this month. His work covered subjects from dreams to books to philosphy and always made me think. We're so glad to own a few of his pieces and to have been able to say hi to Wendy and Marvin at the annual Art Fair on the Square each year.

It was a service overflowing with their friends and family talking and remembering. The blockprint on the left is his "Self as Others," an image he had when was first diagnosed, of people he knew and admired tossing healing leaves into a river. I was asked to read this short quote, one of the more serious, as compared to the Mark Twain and Homer Simpson quotes, since his nephew and our friend Dave couldn't be there:

Want to know a simile for life and death?
Compare them then to water and ice.
Water binds together to become ice;
Ice melts and turns back into water.
What has died must live again,
What has been born shall return to death.
Water and ice do no harm to each other.
Life and death are both of them good.
- Han Shan
Posted by Mark @ 12:04 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

With a side of Potatoes

We'd been missing starch lately, so we satisfied our cravings this week with some potatoes for side dishes. Sometimes you can get 10 pounds of potatoes from the store for $3, and other times it's 5 fo $6. This was one of those good deal weeks on yukon golds. First up was Pommes Anna, an exotic sounding dish from an unknown country (please help us out if you know.) They are buttered layered sliced potatoes and they taste fabulous and very rich.

Second on our list was the Cheese Crumble-Topped Potatoes. This is a wonderful variation on basic mashed potatoes, topping them with breadcrumbs and cheese for a crunchy taste. Watch out for using too much bread crumbs, or the meal with be very dry. This could use some gravy or butter.

We finished of by making the Cook's Illustrated version of Oven Fries, which turned out amazing (as their recipes always do) but they were in no way healthy, so they may just be a one-hit wonder at our place.

Posted by Laura @ 9:36 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Eating at Firefly

We took the night off tonight and went out to a new spot, Firefly, so new it doesn't even have a website. It's on the corner of Farley and University, where Samantha's Cafe used to be, and before that the Sunporch Cafe, right next to Booked ... for Murder. We kept seeing the neon light beckoning to us as we took the bus home while it was under renovation, and finally gave in. Firefly is part of the Food Fight Inc. group of Madison restaurants, and serves new age Asian Cuisine.

Our appetizer was a great dish of Pot Stickers, and where most places serve soggy dough, these were crisp, almost baked, and much better. We'd love to have this recipe. :) For meals, our waitress recommended the Pad Thai, which we'd seen on the menu at Thai restaurants around town but never tried, so we gave it a shot. Turns out Pad Thai is spicy; it had been a while since we ordered food that made our eyes water, since we usually go for flavor over heat. Neither of us could finish it, but it was fun to try. Luckily, we also ordered the Vegetable Stir Fry with chicken, mild with a touch of ginger and garlic, which helped cool things down. I think next time we'll test out some of their classics, like chicken curry. It's nice to have another Asian food option so close, as it makes a good companion to Sa Bai Thong.

Posted by Mark @ 9:35 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Soup Week

After trying Campbell's Italian-Style Wedding Soup one week at the store, we thought it would be fun to make this soup ourselves. A few weeks later, the Penzeys spice catalog showed up (always a treat to read), and what should appear but a recipe for Italian Wedding Soup. We've tried two versions so far and are still working to perfect it. The first time, the spinach was overbearing, and we learned that 1 cup frozen spinach is about the same as twice as much fresh spinach. This time, I added a bit more orzo pasta than asked for, creating a pasta meal instead of a soup. So, make sure there's enough stock for your pasta, especially if you plan to store the soup for later, and try to keep the meatballs small.

It can't be soup week without two soups, so Laura made a wonderful version of the Mushroom Potato Soup, which we've updated online. It turns out Yukon Gold potatoes make for a much different and richer taste, and leaving out the milk or cream not only makes it last longer, but the taste is just about the same. I'm sure we'll return to this soup often when the weather is cold.

Posted by Mark @ 9:34 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Paper Snowflakes

Continuing our love of snowflakes, we started something this year that we hope becomes a christmas tradition in our family: the making of paper snowflakes to decorate our window. Each year, we'll start cutting and folding to create new designs and hopefully bring a white christmas. We've made about 30 so far, and still have some free space on the window. It's so relaxing to just stare at them and imagine what cuts to make next. We'll put up some pictures soon. It's good not to be shy about how much you cut; the more holes you make the better the image will look when unfolded. Also, if you want six clear points, you need to cut one of the sides away totally.

We found some simple instructions on-line for folding the paper. By dividing a standard sheet of paper in quarters first, you can get many more snowflakes, although it makes delicate cuts more tricky. Also, check out the instructions for Moravian 3D stars. My family has some of these for our tree, made my a friend when we lived in Pennsylvania, and I've always wondered how to make them. Now I know; this is definately something to try and make.

If you can't find some paper and scissors quickly enough, you can make a snowflake online using your mouse. You can email these to friends and also save them to either a JPG or EPS file (notice the pictures in this entry). How nifty is that?

Posted by Mark @ 4:13 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Casserole Week

Today brought the arrival of Cook's Illustrated, from America's Test Kitchen. If you're not watching this show or reading this magazine, you should be. They take a scientific approach to cooking, testing out 30 ways to make each recipe before perfecting it, and their step-by-step instructions are so explicit you don't have to know what you're doing. It's a great resource for learning how to cook, as they explain everything! We were lucky enough to be subscribed to the magazine by our Aunt and Uncle for our wedding shower, and definately plan on renewing it for next year.

We liked the look of the simple Eggplant Parmesan, but thought we could simplify it even more. We were in a hurry, so we used standard stuffing mix instead of waiting for bread to go stale and crust. Make sure to cut the slices thin, they'll cook much faster. As Laura's allergic to eggs, we only used the egg whites, and made up the different by a mixture of sour cream and milk, which worked just as well for us. Make sure it's liquid, or it won't stick to the floured eggplant slices. We decided to not rebake the eggplant in a casserole dish, instead we baked it for 10 minutes more, then served the sauce right on top of the eggplant and pasta. It tasted wonderful, crispy and light, and should last us a few days.

The second meal for the week was Mexican Beef Casserole from the Casseroles Cookbook published in 1975 by Southern Living (another cookbook we picked up at used bookstores around town). If you need to have a casserole, this is the place to look, with recipes for all types of meat, as well as vegetarian options. The Mexican casserole is another quick meal, made mostly from cans, that always turns out well. This time, we used pork, and it tasted great. Don't worry about going overboard with the cumin and oregano, it will all soak into the beans and tomato sauce. It does take about one and a half hours to cook, but the prep time is so small and it tastes so good that it's worth it. We served ours in soup bowls and topped with shredded cheddar cheese.

Posted by Mark @ 3:53 PM CDT [Permanent URL]