Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lightning Crashes

The first evening we were in Lexington, Kentucky, my husband went out and visited with other Masonic friends staying at the hotel. I took that opportunity to go out on the balcony of our hotel room and practice taking pictures of lightning. Now, have you ever tried to take pictures of lightning? Not an easy thing. First you have to figure out just what setting to put your camera on. Auto with flash? No good. Nighttime with no flash? Not much better. Ah ha, I’ve got it! Fireworks! Now, just where do I point the camera? And just when do I take the picture?

The storms have moved on, so it's relatively safe to go out and take pictures of the lightning.

Lightning is a difficult photographic subject as it is unpredictable both in location and timing. I solved this problem by simply clicking the shutter button as often as I could. The camera must also be held as steady as possible. Ideally, one would have a camera tripod handy. As I didn't, I used the balcony railing to keep the camera steady.

After uploading the pictures to my computer I was left with many duds, which were summarily deleted. Then I had to contend with the pictures that contained bright white blobs.

I used Microsoft’s standard photo software where I played around with the exposure settings, changing both the brightness and contrast settings until the bolt of lightning could be seen.

Still working on it...

A little closer...

And there we have it.

You can even come up with different versions of the same lightning strike, simply by changing the brightness and contrast on the photograph.


I have to say that I now have a much greater appreciation for those wonderful photographs of lightning that are out there.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

As Seen on Food Network

My faithful readers will recall that while I don’t necessarily have an aversion to eating at chain restaurants, I do prefer to frequent the independent restaurateurs. This is especially true when we are traveling.

This does, however, create its own set of problems. Will the quaint diner in the small town on route to our destination deliver an inspired meal or will we be ordering a side of gastric indigestion? Are we walking into a cheerful restaurant filled with delightful and friendly characters or a grease pit populated with angry naked mimes ? In short, just choosing a diner at random is a form of culinary roulette. Sadly, this dilemma is exactly why the ubiquitous fast food chains are so very successful. Like it or not, they promise consistency in the food, even if that means that the food is not going to be all that good or memorable. An interesting tidbit of information is that Duncan Hines of cake mix fame first made a name for himself by writing a book that recommended good places to eat for the wary traveler. Duncan Hines was a salesman who was apparently tired of stumbling into greasy spoon diners and began to take notes of the good places on the road to eat. Some time later he got the idea that others would appreciate his list and published the book Adventures in Good Eating.*

*The Foodie daughter requested that I expand upon the section about Duncan Hines.

Today we have the Internet and can research places to eat along the way and once we reach our destination. Restaurant reviews can help to guide the traveler to the best places to eat in a given location. Yes, this is a bit of work, but the results can be outstanding.

Case in point: my husband and I were traveling to Lexington, Kentucky for the annual Indiana Scottish Rite Council of Deliberation. While we could have made the three hour trip without stopping, I knew that this was finally the chance to try out a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky that I had first heard about on the Food Network show Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Bobby Flay had shown up to challenge Lynn’s Paradise Café owner Lynn Winter to a breakfast throwdown. Happily, Lynn rose to the challenge and won handily.

To my great surprise, I found that I had no trouble at all in convincing my husband to stop there for lunch on our way to Lexington. At that point all that was left to do was to print out a map from the Internet and plot our course there.

Lynn’s Paradise Café was everything and more that the Food Network had promised. From the moment we saw the colorful building and the full parking lot, we knew this was a place to be. A sign at the rear of the parking lot directed us to another lot down the alley. On our way we passed an empty lot with several signs warning that only their customers could park there and promising that all others would be towed. After parking in the correct lot we walked through the sweltering heat to get a taste of the food that was good enough to beat an Iron Chef.

Owner Lynn misses no opportunity to interject fun and color in and on the building.

Even the parking lot is decorated.

The entire front section of the building was dedicated to selling merchandise, most of it as quirky and eclectic as the restaurant looked to be. Everything from wacky hats to toys to gag gifts filled the area.

Did I mention eclectic? Lynn’s Paradise Café is all that and more. In fact, this place enthusiastically embraces eclecticism and takes it to a whole new level. An odd assortment of thrift store lamps grace nearly every table, with one even hanging upside down over a table like a pendant light.

Two large dead trees stand in the center of the space with colorful kites suspended in the limbs of one, while faux foliage winds among the branches of the other. Color, bright and seemingly chosen at random, is everywhere. Crossed mannequin legs, attired in various slacks, protrude from the wall above the windows and figures of animals pop up in the strangest places in the restaurant.

Surprisingly, given how busy the place was on a Thursday afternoon, we were able to be seated immediately, though our table was in the back corner near the restrooms. I’m afraid that my dear husband had to sit in the seat that afforded little view so that I could have the better seat. But such is the life of a blogger’s spouse.

Lynn invites guests to place a dot on the large map to show their hometown.

Well, my husband did get to watch people go in and out of the restrooms. Lucky him.

What a busy place!

The waitress arrived and took our orders for drinks: unsweet tea with a lemon on the side for me and a sweet tea for my husband, before leaving us to peruse the menu. The very first item on the “Breakfast and Lunch Specials” menu was one of the winning dishes from the Throwdown. Of course I had to have that. My husband also ordered the dish, though he later decided that perhaps he should have ordered a different dish so that we could have shared and compared.

After waiting a bit, watching the other diners and attempting to make some sense out of what is by its very nature nonsensical, our food arrived. The Bourbon Ball French Toast consisted of thick slices of cinnamon swirl bread, dipped in a vanilla nutmeg batter. That was grilled and topped with homemade bourbon vanilla custard, chocolate syrup, fresh strawberries, sugar spiced pecans and freshly whipped cream.

On second thought, we really should have only ordered one dish for the both of us. Each serving could have fed a small village. Oh my, no wonder this dish sent Bobby Flay packing back to New York City. This is heaven on a plate.

After eating all that we could, and believe me, we both tried, we paid our bill and left. We later realized that we had left a bit of ourselves behind as my husband left his IU ball cap at the restaurant.

Sadly, though I looked, I didn’t catch sight of the elusive owner while we were there. I was really hoping to meet this interesting woman. Perhaps we will return one day and try the other dish that beat an Iron Chef’s best dish.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Life on the New Deck
We just love our new deck. Unfortunately for us, the weather has not been cooperating and our time out there is necessarily limited. If it isn't storming, it is unseasonably hot and humid. All in all, not the best weather to be out in unless you absolutely have to be.

Minx wants to know why he can't go out on the new deck.

Look who I found out in the garden (and brought up on the deck for the family to see*). It's Yertle. We hadn't seen Yertle the turtle in years. I guess the deck construction brought Yertle out of hiding. Yertle is an Eastern Box Turtle.
*Please do be careful when handling wildlife. And dear Yertle was returned to the garden after this photo op. No turtles were harmed in the creation of this post.

Our Gray Tree Frogs have already found the new table and umbrella. I love these guys.

Isn't he/she adorable?

The new seating area is set up. A couple of the chairs from the new dining set flank the old garden swing.

This is a nice dining set and umbrella. I'm glad to have that umbrella in place, though. That 13-foot umbrella is heavy!

Aha! I found a way around our hot and steamy weather. I got up at 7 am the other morning and sat outside with my cup of hot tea and a book.

Late in the day I again went back outside and plugged in some lights and lit some candles. Nice.

Very nice.
Josh, you and your crew did a great job! Thanks.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Marilyn's Money Saving Meals

That Sandra Lee is one culinary genius.* Why, on this past Sunday's new episode of Money Saving Meals, Sandy proudly proclaimed that "the whole deal with Money Saving Meals is saving money." Wow, whoda thunk?

*Not really. See, that is sarcasm at its finest. For the record, I think that Sandra Lee is a charlatan who has managed to pass off odd food and seasoning packet combinations as being "super simple" and "smart" while cashing her big, fat checks at the bank.

Still, her misguided foray into nachos and salsa inspired me to try my hand at this "Money Saving" business. And I have to admit that I have learned a lot. But more on that later.

I have to admit that I didn't even pretend to adhere to Sandy's arrussippee for the Grilled Corn and Bean Salsa with Baked Corn Chips.

My family doesn't like beans, so that part of the recipe was out.

If presented with both fresh tomatoes and canned tomatoes for a salsa, fresh tomatoes are going to win every time with me. In fact, there is absolutely no comparison with the two.

I had no limes on hand, but I did follow Aunt Sandy's advice that I could use whatever I had on hand, so I used a lemon.

We absolutely hate cilantro with the passion of a thousand burning suns, so I opted to use flat leaf parsley (not flat parsley as Sandy likes to call it. Every time Sandy calls it 'flat parsley' it makes me think that fat Aunt Flo sat on the parsley and 'ironed' it.)

I had some dried Serrano chile from last year's garden on hand, so I used that instead of buying a fresh chile at my regular grocery store.

So let's continue with the program, shall we?

My ingredients for the salsa are:

1 oz. frozen corn (tossed with olive oil and chili powder and roasted in the oven for several minutes)

6 oz. grape tomatoes, diced

1/2 oz. red onion, diced

1/2 oz. green onion, sliced

1 tablespoon fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1/4 lemon)

1/2 teaspoon dried Serrano chile, minced

pinch Kosher salt

pinch black pepper

In direct opposition to what Sandy told us in her *cough* informative program, I found that white corn tortillas were only $0.88 for a package of 10, while the same company offered the same size and same number of flour tortillas for $1.88 at my local grocery store. And regardless of what Aunt Sandy tries to tell us, these two products are very different, and are not interchangeable.

Now, if you watched this particular episode, you would have seen that Sandy would have you cut a tortilla into eighths. Like this... Um, no.

Let's do this the smart way, shall we? Cut in half, and then in half again.

Then, after cutting each quarter into half, we have eighths. Simple, yes?

I absolutely refused to drag out the Pam(tm) to spray on the tortilla wedges. Instead, I used a mixture of olive oil and canola oil. I then sprinkled sea salt over the first batch. I mixed a bit of chile powder in the oil for the second batch before also adding salt.

And the best part? According to Simple Sandy's Shady Mad Math Methods, I don't have to count the cost of these extra ingredients because they were already in my pantry (and presumably free - I wish).

As usual, Sandy misses the mark. The prescribed cooking time was not nearly long enough. I solved the problem by placing the 'cooked' chips on a rack on the baking sheet, popping them back into the 400 degree oven for another five minutes before turning off the oven and opening the door. I let the chips sit in the oven for another ten minutes before pulling them out. The result? Crisp, tasty chips.

My salsa looks and tastes great.

Let's see what our Money Saving Meals gig has saved us: According to Aunt Sandy, store-bought salsa and chips (counting the entire bag of chips) is $1.00 per person. Silly Sandy claims that she was able to give us the 'same' thing for only 43 cents per serving. Please note that Aunt Sandy would also only be giving her guests eight to ten chips per serving. Generous, no? No, I didn't think so.
Now, my version breaks down like this:
Corn = $0.14
Tomato = $2.39
Red onion = $0.06
Green onion = $0.10
Flat leaf parsley = $0.02 (per a previous MSM episode)
Lemon juice = $0.13
Dried Serrano chile = free**
Salt = free**
Black pepper = free**
Total = $2.84 or $ 0. 71 per person.
**According to Aunt Sandy, food in my pantry is free. Funny, I seem to recall paying for that stuff at some point....
At any rate, I am a woman on a mission, so I am continuing on with my vision for this meal.

I wanted this to be a real meal, so I decided to include meat in the recipe.
Here I have 8 oz. of ground beef @ $1.02 and 1 tablespoon of homemade taco seasoning (free!)
I cooked the ground beef and then drained off the grease before adding the taco seasoning. Simple. Don't make me say 'super simple'. It's just not going to happen.

And now you know the secret of how I am able to figure out just what the costs of all of these ingredients are. I weighed everything and then used my mad math skills to find the exact cost of the ingredients. And isn't this a royal pain? Really, who does this? ...Er, besides the dedicated food blogger who only wishes to educate and amuse her readers? (yeah, that works...)

Now, as I meant for this to be a meal, I had also prepared the taco-flavored meat as well as the grated sharp cheddar cheese in addition to the tortilla chips and salsa.

My daughter and I are in disagreement at this point. She claims that I must count the dollop of sour cream in the final figures, but I say that since I had it in my refrigerator already that it counts as free (and we'll just ignore the fact that it is technically past due date, but still good).
The final verdict is that this was good, especially since I didn't even remotely follow Sandra Lee's recipe.
Now, for the price "savings":
According to Sandra Lee, store-bought salsa and chips would cost you $1.00 per person, while her Sloppy recipe would only put you back $0.43 per person. I guess that doesn't count the cost of the emergency room visit or the stomach pump.
My version (the salsa and tortilla chips) will set you back a mere $0.93 cents. Wow, I've saved you a whopping $0.07. Aren't you impressed?
Adding the cost of the taco beef and cheese, we come up with a total cost of (drum roll please...) of $1.34 per person.
What I have learned from this little experiment:
Sandra Lee is an idiot (funny, I already knew that)
Regardless of what you may have heard, fresh tomatoes and canned tomatoes do taste different. Who knew?
Sometimes it's about more than just the money.
Taste does matter.
It is a lot of hard work to figure out how much all of this actually costs!
If I am this worried about food costs, I'm not going to be inviting anyone over for food.
I really need to get a life (but then where would my dear readers be?).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Special Request

Special reader, Rosie Hawthorne, of Kitchens Are Monkey Business blog fame, liked the first picture in my last post, but suggested that I crop the picture further in order to enhance the effect. Is this what you had in mind, Rosie?

Great Spangled Fritillary on Gaillardia mexicana.

Ah, so this is what Rosie had in mind.

Credit Rosie Hawthorne with photo cropping credits.

The Gardens at Spring Mill

Our Master Gardener association sponsored a field trip this past Saturday morning to Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell, Indiana. Spring Mill, which is about an hour's drive south of Bloomington, is home to several caves and a stand of virgin forest. The park also has a Pioneer Village with a working grist mill and several log cabins nearby. Of particular note to our group was the period (mid-1800's) walled garden in the village.
Saturday promised to be a humid day with fog hanging in our neighborhood and around Lake Monroe. Rain was forecast, but not until later in the day, so we felt good about our chances at touring the garden this year. We actually had this tour set up for this time last year, but it poured that day, with flood warnings being posted.
After some miscommunication with the personnel at the park, we finally met up with our tour guide, a gardener/historical interpreter. An interesting aside is that she told us that the difference between an interpreter and a reenactor is that the interpreter can tell us where the parking lot is, where the bathrooms are and when the park closes, while a reenactor cannot. And now you know.

A Great Spangled Fritillary rests on a Gaillardia mexicana (Mexican Blanket Flower).

If you click on the picture, you can see that the bottom few feet of the corner of this limestone grist mill is worn. We were informed that the hogs (some 200 of them) who roamed this area used the corner of the building to rub their backs.

If you look carefully at the old steps up to the doorway to the mill, you will see short iron gates. These fences were short enough for people to step over, but too tall for the hogs to navigate, thus keeping them out of the mill.

This old building next to the garden is currently undergoing renovations. We have been assured that once the company doing the work is finished, it will look as if all of the elements were original to the building.

The gardener told us that while all of the plants inside the walled garden had to be historically accurate - that is, plants that were known to have been cultivated in Indiana in the mid-1800's. They are able to plant other species outside the walled garden.

Two Fritillaries play tag on the coreopsis (tickseed).

Please say hello to Pam, our lovely and knowledgeable interpreter and hostess.

Inside the walled garden.

Gaillardia mexicana.

I think I need to get some of these flowers for my garden.

An old rose grows against the wall.

Bachelor buttons grow on the end of one bed.

I love the curled tops to these garlic plants.
Most of the plants grown then and now were of use to the pioneers. Herbs were especially important, as they were used medicinally, as well as in everyday life. I found it interesting that culinary uses of herbs were often secondary to the medicinal and even household use (ie, aromatics, bug repellents, etc.) I have to believe that life would have been much easier then if only the food had been better tasting!

Up the hill from the walled garden is the herb garden. Here several varieties of basil and gourds grow, along with other herbs and vegetables.

This is the Garden House. Notice the moss and ferns growing on the roof.

The gardener had to put up the small picket fence after last year when Civil War Reenactors trampled her vegetables. War is heck.

On our way out of the village I just had to stop at the apothecary.

The water-run saw was being demonstrated as we returned to our cars. I really need to drag -er, convince my family to take a trip back down here with me sometime soon.