Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dueling with my Banjo

Allow me to introduce a very good enemy of mine.
Currently, its name is Ahem.
As in the answer to the question "have you practiced your banjo lately?"


Every day, my banjo lies in its case in a corner, languishing. After work hours are over, I glance from it to my instructional books and before the thought "I should practice now" fully forms, I instead think "I should edit that last chapter," or "I really ought to review that story a friend sent me," or even "I should organize my closet again. It's been a whole week since I did that."
And poor Ahem is left in its corner another night.
During the day, it sees the light while I lay it on the floor for the baby to bang on. He loves the shine of the brassy clasps on case, the twang of the strings under his little fingers, and he adores the horrendous, scratching din his nails make as he scrapes them across the banjo's rough head.
Other than that, Ahem is all but abandoned.

So why don't I play with it more often?
It's not that I'm trying to punish Ahem. It's done nothing wrong. In fact, it's a very good banjo; sturdy, holds its pitch, and it makes a nice sound.

Ahem isn't the problem. I am.

I started teaching myself on a very simple book and learned a few cords and enjoyed playing very much. Then I reached a new technique and realized I didn't have enough understanding of theory to learn the new skill. So I pulled out a different book, one with much more focus on music theory and banjo technique, and I was quickly overwhelmed. There was an abundance of information that I didn't yet know how to apply. The cords were much more difficult, and trying to contort my fingers into the tricky positions made me aware of just how clumsy and stiff my hands really were.
In the face of such a challenge, I was daunted and frustrated. So I panicked and fled, abandoning Ahem to its corner where it waits for me to regain my courage and attempt one more charge.

Enter YouTube, my newest side kick. Or, perhaps, my aged mystic master. Take your pick. Either way, YouTube's wealth of video lessons are a great help. Of course, the 'wealth' part can be a bit daunting. Just look up 'beginner banjo lesson' and see how many results you get.
Go ahead. I'll wait.
See? It's tough to know where to start.
I'm starting here.

Four chords and hardly any music theory. Basically, I'm going back to the beginning. And that's just the way it is.
I'll still be struggling through my theory heavy book- but as a supplement. Otherwise, I'll become swamped by the text and the real-life banjo will continue to gather dust alone in the corner. I need the theory if I'm going to be any good, but I need to put fingers to string if I'm going to bad. And, when becoming good at something, being bad at it first is an even more essential step than reading about it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Pasta Adventures

I'm given a lot of freedom in the kitchen here at the Nanny house, and the Boss-lady is an adventurous sort. This combination fosters an environment of experimentation, and leads to a few experiments that I would not have previously thought of doing.
Our biggest one so far has been Chocolate Pasta, or Pasta di Cacao.
If you too are a foodie adventurer, clink the above link for the recipe.

I sifted the dry ingredients together.

Then made a volcano on the counter out of them and the eggs, because that's the traditional way to do things.
It's also the messy way to do things, and my unpracticed hands couldn't manage to mix the ingredients together properly that way. I had to scoop everything up and dump it in a bowl to finish mixing.
The dough was also a bit too dry, so I had to add water a little bit at a time.
Once it was mixed, it was wrapped and set in the fridge to rest.
After nearly an hour of waiting, I took the lump of dough and separated it into flattened portions to roll through the machine.

I rolled each portion several times on each size setting, gradually forcing the dough into thinner and longer sheets. The first couple rolls were colored with a hint of panic, because the portions came out of the roller chunky, jagged, and broken. But we just kept folding and rolling and, eventually, each portion became smooth sheets of chocolaty pasta.

We cut the pasta sheets to fettuccine width.

And then we hung the cut strips to dry untangled on a wooden rack while I made the cream sauce and continued to cut yet more pasta.

And here's the final bowl of Chocolate Fettuccine, served with nutmeg cream sauce and my honey balsamic eggplant.

We had leftovers, and I wanted to use them for a kugel, but there wasn't quite enough for that.
Oh well.
It leaves me with aspirations for in the future and gives me a good excuse to make chocolate pasta at least once more.

A few weeks later, we tried our hands at herb pasta based on this recipe  from Ya a la Venta. We had no guide for the herbal addition.

I'll admit, I approached the task with more madness than with method, and some of the the sheets partly dried ever-so-slightly while we were working. And those sheets that did not dry were plagued with pockets of excess moisture from the sprinkling of fresh cut herbs.

As a result, they did not all roll well.
I had to roll them out by hand and those that still did not obey were double wrapped in plastic and chucked in the refrigerator before I lost my patience in a temper.

It turned into a rather Felix Culpa moment, though. The next day I pulled out the lumpy sheets of pasta, rolled them by hand, and stuffed them like gigantic ravioli. I boiled them quickly and then placed them in the oven at about 200 F to stay warm and to crisp. They were a little tough, but delicious. I'd do it again, but I'll treat my dough better to avoid the ravioli becoming tough.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Saint...Wait for it...

Cyril and Methodius Day!
Yes, I'm purposefully giving St. Valentine the cold shoulder because I'm single on Valentine's day. Oh, how cliche in my bitterness I am.
I'm not really bitter. Really. It's simply this: Valentine's is for sweet hearts. I'm not anyone's sweet heart. Therefore, St. Valentine's day is not for me. I'll stick with my ignored brethren, Cyril and Methodius. It's their feast day too, after all. But even in the Catholic Church their celebration is ignored in favor of the more popular St. Valentine.

Don't worry, boys. I gottcha.

There is a load of information on the net about them if you want to read it, so I'm just going to share the highlights.

They were brothers in Greece in the 9th century, when the schism between the Eastern Church and the Western Church was beginning to rip the two sides apart. Cyril and Methodius were Greek and they lived and worked in Constantinople before their missionary journeys. That would be used as a reason for some to distrust them, but they answered to Rome and worked under the authority of the Pope in Rome.

Cyril's given name was actually Constantine. He only took the name Cyril when he took monastic vows near the end of his life.

The two invented an alphabet and used it to translate and write down, for the first time in history, the literature of the Church into the vernacular language of the Slavs. They crystallized on paper the prayers, rites, and knowledge for an entire people in their own language. While giving them a way to understand the Catholic Church, they also gave the Slavic people a way to develop their own culture through writing. This same alphabet is the base for the modern Russian alphabet.

In 1985, Pope John Paul II titled Cyril and Methodius "Apostles to the Slavs" for their missionary work to the Slavic people, especially in Moravia.

Before they went to Moravia, however, they were called away from their monastery and their studies to work among the Khazars, a Turkic sovereignty in eastern Europe at the time. They later went to Moravia after the prince there, Rostislav, requested missionaries.

German missionaries had already been working in Moravia when the brothers arrived, but they had had little success. Cyril and Methodius, using their alphabet of the local language, employed a different tactic- they offered the liturgy in Slavic and were met with great success.

Anyone who has studied Catholic Church history and Liturgical history knows that it's always a big deal when someone uses the vernacular for the Mass or organized prayer for the first time. The German missionaries were duly scandalized and made a fuss. Cyril and Methodius went to Rome to give their account of the issue, and Pope Adrian II gave them his blessing and backing. Cyril died while in Rome, but Methodius returned to continue their work in the Moravian churches.

Because these brothers were born and raised in the Eastern arm of the Catholic Church, but worked and lived in obedience to the Seat in Rome, all while building up that same Church in a land which had never known Her before, we can look to them as a symbol of unity for our still divided Church today.
This is why I love them.
They worked within the Church to propel it forward to a new stage in world history. They were ridiculously brilliant since they were fluent in Greek, Slavic, the language of the Khazars; made translations on the Bible, Mass, Divine Office, and then some; and devised an alphabet. They managed to succeed in their work despite the other missionaries bungling things and getting in the way- oh, what an example in the modern work-place!

And they were brothers. The big sister in me finds that incredibly charming.

If you want to read more about these Saints, here are some sources.
Catholic Encyclopedia - This one touches on the struggles between Methodius and the German Church officials
Catholic Online - This one touches a bit more on the larger political issues the brothers faced.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Honey Balsamic Eggplant

Today, I present to you soft, buttery eggplant with a sweet tang. It's easy, scrumptious, and makes a wonderful accompaniment to so many dishes.

Plus, it's an entirely original recipe. I'm very proud of myself.

Honey Balsamic Eggplant
One medium eggplant cut into 4 or 6 long pieces. You can cut off the leafy top if you like.
Olive Oil
1 Tbs Honey
1 1/2 Tbs Balsamic Vinegar

Oven 450 F.

If your eggplant is a little old, soak the eggplant slices in salted water for an hour. This will draw out any bitterness.

Oil the baking pan with your olive oil. Line up the eggplant in the pan. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and honey in a thin stream. Rub it in with your fingers to coat the eggplant evenly. Bake until the flesh becomes buttery and the skin is crispy- about 30 minutes

We've had it with fettuccine and cream sauce; with a couple slices of a hard, nutty cheese and a hunk of bread for lunch; and, as shown above, with braised short ribs on polenta and golden brussel sprouts. I've also eaten the eggplant by itself cold as a snack. I love the softness of cooked eggplant, and preparing it this way makes it almost fluffy.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Adventures in Chayote

It was veggie week at work, and it was also the first week of meals since I started my job back in September that we didn't pre-plan the meals. Our only shopping tactic was to grab what looked good and made us want to eat it. In the end, this tactic led us to take home most of the produce department, including one of these little guys.


I'd seen them around the super market, chilling out next to the eggplant, but I had no idea what they were. Squash? Melon? Alien baby pods?
Looking at its mysterious form did not make me want to eat it, but it made my boss curious, so into our cart we chucked it, gleefully looking forward to cutting it up at home.
Well, she was gleeful. I was apprehensive.

When we got back to the house, I searched the internet for information about our green little friend. The ever-wise Web told me Chayote tended to be slimy and tasteless, while simultaneously telling me it was a delicious staple of certain ethnic cuisine. Conflicting information meant I was now devoted to finding the truth out for myself.
The simplest mode of attack was deemed best; an easy saute in oil and spices as inspired by Navy S. at Allrecipes. My method and measurements were a bit different from Navy's, but I think either way will give you a yummy snack or side dish.

Here's what I did.
Gather ingredients.
Olive oil.
Red pepper flakes
One fat garlic clove
Balsamic vinegar.
And, of course, one chayote.

Cut the chayote in half length-ways, and then cut the halves into 1/4 inch thick slices. Don't peel, but remove the seed.
Smash your garlic, then peel and mince it.
Get the oil hot in a pan, sprinkling the oil with 1/2 tsp each of salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes with 1/3 to 1/2 of the garlic. Use more spices if you're working with a large pan or if you really want some heat.
When the oil's hot, lay down 1/3 to 1/2 of the chayote slices in the pan. Scooching them close together is fine. Now, sprinkle the tops with sugar so that they are lightly coated, about a 1/4 tsp per slice.
Let it cook. Seriously, this will take a few minutes. Let them get bubbly and golden on the bottom before flipping. The sugar will melt and the pale green flesh of the chayote will turn slightly translucent as it soaks up the heat and oil. Do not flip a single slice until its entire surface has changed color. The chayote is a tough little squash, and you'll want to give it this time to tenderize.
OK. Now flip. The sugar coated sides are now caramelizing in the spiced oil. Give it another 4 or so minutes, staying close to see that nothing burns and so you can enjoy the mild, spicy-sweet smells streaming up from the pan.
Once that side is done, transfer from pan to plate and drizzle with a thin stream of balsamic vinegar.
Add some fresh oil and spices to the pan, and repeat with the rest of the chayote slices.
Gobble it up, dragging the bites along your plate to soak up extra vinegar and any sugary spices that may have fallen.

One chayote produced a surprising amount of food, and it wasn't slimy. I ate half with a salad for lunch and was happily stuffed. The taste is pleasant, but nondescript. Still, the plain-Jane chayote deserves a chance. And, while I wouldn't nominate it as the next big super-food fad, it does have good heath benefits with 17% of your daily value of vitamin C and 31% of folate.

The verdict: Yum.