Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A bit older and a whole lot of spoiled.

"Don't make plans!", Paul says each year around my birthday. In our relationship, I am the one who tends to plan things for us, so it has taken some getting used to over the years to let go of that role. But, at this time of year, Paul takes charge and he does an amazing job of it. Each year I tell him that it is ok to celebrate modestly and each year he assures me he celebrates it how he wants to. And, boy, he does not do it modestly!

To us, birthdays are the holiday most worth celebrating. Honoring the day you were born is a way of honoring your existence. Last year, I wrote about my mixed feelings on how much Paul spoils me on my birthday. I think I am getting better at letting go of that baggage and basking in the awesomeness of whatever that day brings for me. Between Paul, my family and friends, it is definitely a time of the year where I feel the love that surrounds me. It is a wonderful feeling.

So, on to the story of the day/s of my 33rd birthday:

My morning started by when I awoke and went downstairs to find a breakfast in progress, a bouquet of flowers and a lovely letter about Paul's plan for the day. He had planned a day around celebrating aspects of me and the things I love. Of course, that included a lot of food related things!

We started by baking cookies together. He knows how much I like to swap food and with the MPLS Swappers swaps on hold, I haven't had a chance to swap in a while. He had found a vegan cookie swap and signed us up. He had also picked a vegan cookie recipe and had bought the ingredients so we could bake them together. Later in the day, we took our cookies to a vegan boutique and swapped cookie for cookie. I can't say that I love vegan cookies, but the experience of baking with Paul and knowing that he really pays attention to what gives me joy was a wonderful thing.

After baking cookies, we set out for the Science Museum of Minnesota. I haven't been to the museum since I was a kid, which means I hadn't seen their new building. It is a beautiful space, with tons of exhibits to explore. We were there to check out the Identity exhibit. In keeping with the theme of the day, we learned about what shapes a person.

The museum would like for you to know that you are so smart!

I took many, many pictures of plates of food throughout the day, but chose not to post them. I never know if others like to look at pictures of plates of food as much as I do! Regardless, you should be assured that I ate amazingly well that day. We had lunch at Cafe Ena before the cookie swap.

After a stop home to meet up with my Dad, take care of the dogs and get dressed up, we fought the downtown sports and holiday parade traffic in order to get to Cosmos for dinner. In advance of my birthday, Paul had sent me a list of entree choices he had pulled from a few restaurants he was considering. I got to pick my entree without knowing the restaurant. I think we chose well! Cosmos was beautiful and we both had delicious meals that were just the right amount of filling.

Notice that I have a million wine glasses! I ordered one glass, but asked a few questions before making my selection. Our waiter took it upon himself to bring me tastes of a few other wines just to make sure I was happy with my choice. He had me tasting different wines with different parts of my meal. For someone who typically has had no more than a few sips of alcohol here and there for quite a few months, the wine had quite an impact!

Paul enjoyed his food, too. I shared some of my wine with him, which is how I think I shared my cold with him, too. Oops. That is not a very nice appreciation gift from me!

All of the stuff above took place over the weekend, with my actual birthday being a few days later. On my actual birthday, he made a wonderful curry dinner at home and gave me my gifts. His gifts were immensely generous and extravagant this year! I received an ereader mostly prompted by its usefulness on our upcoming international vacation. Paul and I are also taking an intensive cooking class together next month. And.....the gift that made my jaw drop....a VITAMIX! There have been many wonderful smoothies coming out of that blender.

Once again, Paul demonstrated that he listens when I talk about the things that make me excited. He notices the activities that I enjoy and figures out a way to tap into them. I am looking forward to learning and cooking and traveling with him this year. My partner is a keeper!

Friday, December 9, 2011

At long last: The Kefir Post

Well! It is about time! Kefir has become an omnipotent part of my life for the past 6 months so it about time I give it some space here.

I obtained a kefir grain from fellow MPLS Swapper and (now) friend, Holly, after the June swap. It quickly made itself at home and starting growing and growing and growing. For the uninitiated, kefir is a form of fermented milk. It is fermented using something called a grain, which looks and feels a bit more like squishy/rubbery cauliflower.

Here is what I have been doing to make my kefir: I place the grain in a canning jar along with my milk of choice. I have tried cow (various percentages of fat) and goat milk. I then loosely screw on the plastic canning jar lid. I found the metal rings weren't holding up well against the fermenting kefir, so I switched to the plastic lids that are made for canning jars.

After the loosely covered jar sits out for a day or two, depending on the temperature, I pour it into my ceramic strainer. I have heard it is better to avoid contact with metal when you are handling fermented foods, so I use my ceramic berry bowl strainer.

Sometimes the kefir is bubbly! The fermentation is also said to produce a tiny amount of alcohol.

Depending on what I am planning to do with the kefir and my desired consistency, I can use it as is or strain some of the whey off.

But, no matter what, the grains need to be put back into another batch of milk right away. Sometimes I rinse them between batches and sometimes I don't. The grains grow a bit bigger with each batch, which adds up quickly when each batch only takes 24-48 hours. This means that my kefir grain has grown to over 10 times the size it was when I first got it! The bigger the grains, the more milk they process, too! As my grains have separated, I have given some away to others and plan to give some more away soon. Fortunately, I have figured out how to "rest" it in the fridge for a break. I have definitely needed the break on more than a few occasions.

Kefir Cheese in straining (jelly) bag

Being able to control the consistency of the kefir by straining off whey has made it such a versatile ingredient. Leave it as is and you have a buttermilk substitute. Strain a little whey off and it behaves like plain yogurt. Strain a little more off and you have a mayo replacement. A little more than that and it can be used like sour cream. Keep going and it is a spreadable, tart tasting cheese. Plus, straining the whey off means you also have whey you can use!

Using whey is a new thing for me. I have greatly enjoyed the lacto-fermented carrots I made recently. Paul and I are both looking forward to making lacto-fermented pickles with our next cucumber crop. I have been poking around for other ideas, but I have to confess, most of the whey has gone into our compost pile. I am not sure how to use it in large quantities, so any suggestions you have are welcome!

The kefir-as-buttermilk substitute has opened a door to so many lovey baked goods. The yogurt consistency mixed with a little vanilla extract and maple syrup poured over granola has become a common breakfast. In the past month or two, I have made many modified versions of this baked oatmeal to use up kefir. The baked oatmeal makes for delicious leftovers. Sometimes I even reheat it and then pour some kefir over it. All of this kefir has been a delicious curse.

Here is a round-up of some recipes I know I have followed with kefir subbing in for the dairy products:

Cornmeal Buttermilk Pancakes (We have made this many times. They are great as cold leftovers with jam.)
Banana Blueberry Buttermilk Bread (I used frozen raspberries instead of blueberries and I didn't mash the bananas very thoroughly. Yum.)
Cranberry Buttermilk Loaf (I made multiple batches over Thanksgiving. This was delicious with frozen or fresh cranberries.)
Whole Wheat Apple Muffins (Made with apples my dad grew!)
Baked Oatmeal (Mentioned above. Play with the combination of fruit and definitely add in minced candied ginger.)

In the warmer months, I blended the kefir with all sorts of things to be eaten as smoothies or frozen into popsicles. I also tried mixing it with fruit and turning it into fruit leather in the dehydrator. That received mixed reviews.

I am looking forward to continued experimentation with this ingredient. In addition to the versatility and the tangy taste, kefir is purported to be full of great health benefits. A quick google search for "kefir" and "health benefits" brings up a ton of positive claims including that it helps boost your immune system and, in many cases, is easily digested by people with lactose intolerance.

Last but not least, if you are local to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and this kefir thing piques your interest, feel free to get in touch with me by email or through the comments. I would be happy to pass on a grain to you! Be warned, though, when I give a grain I call NO BACKS! Updated 3/30/15 - I no longer have any kefir grains to share.  Sorry!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Henry's Henry and Janes

Next up: Henry!

Henry is a month and a day old today, so he doesn't fit into these clothes just yet, but he should soon. I knit these before he was born, but only mailed them recently (I blame buttons. The buttons always delay delivery for me.). Friends Abby and Jeff waited until birth to find out if they have a son or a daughter, so I didn't know the name of the baby when I knit these. I was thoroughly amused when I found out they named him Henry. Why? The name of the vest pattern: Henry's Manly Cobblestone Inspired Vest.

I had yarn enough left over to make some matching booties for the vest.

The buttons for these came out of the stash. It is somewhat of a miracle to find a matching set of buttons in the jumble of buttons that make up my "collection".

Plus, did you notice? I have my very own labels! My friend Becky gave these to me a while ago and I finally remembered to use them. When I gave Holly Magnus's pants with a label on them, she joked that it was smart of me to do that so she can't take the credit for my work!

The yarn is a lovely, springy, hand-dyed cormo wool. I received this yarn as a gift from Susan at Juniper Moon Farm at the time where her farm was part Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm and part Hudson Valley Fiber Farm, so I am not sure who to attribute it to. I'll bet her current cormo is just as nice. The yarn arrived to help cheer me up during my moth fiasco. I've been holding on to it, waiting for the right project to come along. A knitter's baby is a deserving recipient for this special yarn.

Two asides:
First, I got to see Susan recently! She was in town on her trunk show tour. My mom and I met up at Amazing Threads to listen to Susan tell the abbreviated story of her fiber farming and yarn production journey. Susan is touring in support of her newly released Juniper Moon Farm yarn line. The yarns are all very nice, but I was especially smitten with Findley, the laceweight yarn. Merino and silk? Yes, please! Word is that a semi-solid Findley is on the way with the next season. Double yes.

Second, I am almost afraid to say it out loud, but I think we may have beat the moths. They are such jerkfaces and kept coming back. I went on an all-out assault mission over the last month (so. much. laundry.) and think I may have finally eliminated any spots that could harbor the vile pests. Luckily, the stash didn't experience much loss after the original discovery as I put it on lockdown. However, with dogs and a husband who didn't know better, the moths found other places to set up shop. It has been a long battle, since we moved these nasties from Boston with us over 3 years ago! Fingers crossed.

Welcome to the world, Henry! You have awesome parents, so let them get some sleep, okay?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Back to the knitting: Magnus' Pants

What is this jumbly mess of knitting? Pants! Baby pants, to be specific.

The side: Once again, I lucked out at Hunt & Gather when it came to finding appropriate buttons. These pants button down the side of each leg, so I needed lots of buttons.

The front: I chose brown for the front knowing that the little one who will wear these will likely be crawling by the time he fits into them.

The back: The pattern was designed with a big back pouch to house a cloth-diapered baby bum.

I knit them out of a cotton/modal blend yarn for ease of washing and for comfort. But, I knew they weren't going to stay up on their own due to cotton's saggy tendency. The drawstrings were added to the pants to take care of that. Also, I expect that the drawstrings will help to extend the fit of these as they can grow with him for a while. I hope my friend Holly's little Magnus gets some good wear out of these!

Friday, November 18, 2011

And then some.

Random outtakes from the rest of my time in Chicago...

I spent a few hours my last morning in town wandering around Millennium Park with Erin, my roommate from my first year of college, and her two little ones. We got along splendidly back then and didn't skip a beat this time even though our paths hadn't crossed since we met up in D.C. in 1998. (Typing that made me feel old!) It was a great coincidence that she had recently moved to Chicago. And, an even greater coincidence that she had found me on Facebook right before my trip. When I saw where she was living, I knew we had to get together to catch up. I'm glad we did.

The Art Institute of Chicago is pretty on the outside, even when everything is dried up and the fountains are empty. I'm sure it is pretty on the inside, too, but I didn't go in.

Downtown Chicago is full of many, many beautiful buildings. The Harold Washington Library was a particular standout one for me. Those gargoyles are immense!
Scoot scoot and some Italian Beef.

The L went right past where I was staying. I was level with it when eating breakfast by the big windows on the 2nd floor of the hostel. It made for interesting breakfast scenery and great white noise for sleeping. I've lived by a lot of train tracks in my life and find them really comforting. I am not sure everyone at the hostel feels that way, but I was glad to have it nearby. Elevating the train above the road makes for a really packed city with traffic below, then trains and then layer upon layer of buildings above everything else.

All of the density makes the city feel bustling and it makes the stretch of park the borders downtown feel really special.

The fall colors were wonderfully displayed throughout the green space with the tall buildings framing it on one side and Lake Michigan on the other side. The contrast was stunning.

Well, Chicago, thanks for the fling. I'll be back again.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Beckoning of Lovely, 11/11/11

On Friday, 11/11/11, this yarn, these needles and I headed over to the Bean. We had a date.

At 10:30-ish, this is what the area by the Bean looked like:

By 11-ish, this is what it looked like:

Then, at 11:11am, this wonderful lady walked in with her yellow umbrella!

We had all gathered to beckon the lovely, to make the most of our time here and to feel that we are all one...all sentiments from Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Beckoning of Lovely project. She has been at this bean-related awesomeness since 2008. If you would like to get up to speed (you totally should), you can watch the videos on her YouTube channel. The story starts with "17 Things I Made."

Every year since 2008 a group of people have gathered at the Bean and have made memories full of whimsy and joy. We sang happy birthday to someone who was having an 11th birthday, we witnessed someone getting engaged, we saw people get merried (no, not married, MERRIED!), we hokied pokied, John Green came, Nick Gage performed, we flash texted and so much more.

I've been watching the videos each year as they get released and when I realized I could be there for this last one, I jumped on the chance. Amy posted an invitation to the event along with a call for ideas related to the 11/11/11 (aka We Are All One) concept. I added my thoughts with this comment:
One thought that comes to my mind when thinking about the symbolism of 11/11/11 is knitting! For me, knitting is based on the importance of each individual stitch AND how those individual stitches come together to form something complete. In knitting, it is the accumulation of many, many individual stitches that creates a whole. Each stitch could stand alone, but it really gains meaning and a purpose when it interacts with the stitches around it. By connecting with the other stitches above it, beside it and below it, it becomes something greater than it would be alone. I may be a strong stitch, but together we are a warm sweater!
Knitting! Of course! Amy liked this idea and what started as a blog comment turned into me standing front and center casting on a scarf while Amy talked about what it is we will be making together. I am very thankful that she did the talking. It is hard to cast on, count stitches, not fall over from nervousness and talk coherently into a megaphone that is being oscillated by an adorable child! Here is what Amy shared with everyone:
Trinity's idea is to knit a scarf together, stitch by stitch, person by person. It will then be donated to the Red Scarf Project. The Red Scarf Project creates care packages and sends them to college students who have aged out of the foster care system. Each care package includes a handmade red scarf. So Trinity is starting the scarf right now... If you would like to add a couple stitches to it today, or be part of it later when it gets passed through the mail, meet her over by the Bean after this gathering. She'll be the one with the red yarn.
After the event, I hung around for a good long while chatting with people while they knitted a bit on the scarf. There were plenty of people who were interested in knitting on the scarf but didn't know how to knit. A few people gave their friends impromptu lessons and a few people tag teamed the knitting by swinging the yarn around the needle while I worked the stitches.

I have a list of knitters who will be taking their turn knitting a few inches on the scarf before sending it on to the next knitter. We are aiming to knit this scarf throughout the next year with the goal of having it to the Red Scarf Project by 12/12/12. I am looking forward to seeing the end result of our collaboration and hope the person that receives this scarf will feel the magic knit into these stitches. Thank you, knitters!

The event was recorded, so when the official video goes up, I will let you know. Until then, you should check out Beckoning of Lovely (The Movie), the film that was released on 11/11/11 after 3 years in the making. Be sure you keep an eye out for the red scarf in the movie. Coincidences like that rock my world! (UPDATE: Amy has temporarily removed the movie. She says it will be back and shinier than ever later on.)

And, last but not least, a huge thank you to Amy and everyone else who made the event happen and to the super rad ladies who sat near me, one of whom took the picture of me while I was casting on the scarf. You are lovely. All of you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Solo in Chicago

It has been far too long since I have been somewhere that is full of brand new sights and sounds and experiences. Paul and I are planning a big trip together but that won't be happening until February and I have been having a major traveling urge. February is getting closer but it still feels so far away that I had to do something little before then. So, in order to tide me over, a few weeks ago I decided to plan a solo trip to Chicago. Chicago isn't brand new to me since I have visited there a few times in the past when friends Mark and Jerri and Beth lived there and hosted us. I have been meaning to go back since we moved back to Minneapolis.

Even though the city isn't brand new to me, this would be the first time I would go to this specific part of Chicago and the first time I would be in charge of finding my way around. Chicago is a big enough city, that I could easily take multiple trips there without stepping in the same place twice.

There was a particular reason I felt compelled to go to Chicago on this specific weekend. More about that later.

Another appealing aspect of a trip to Chicago was the ease and affordability of it. I was able to get a wicked cheap Megabus ticket and a room at the hostel. The bus ticket meant I could sit back and relax in transit. The hostel reservation meant I would stay right in the thick of downtown in a place with a kitchen and companionship if I wanted it.

My first day was mostly spent in transit, but I did venture out in the evening. I found an amazingly quiet moment to check out the Sears Tower observation area. Well, truthfully it is now called the Willis Tower, but I haven't accepted that yet. I didn't realize how lucky I was to walk in and up through all of the waiting areas without having to wait in any lines. When I walked past the entrance on my way out of town, there was a huge line that snaked out of the building and around the corner! Lucky timing!

The tower now boasts a "ledge" which is a box that juts out and is completely transparent. It freaked the heck out of me as I am not fond of heights. This little girl was just sitting there calm as can be. Meanwhile, I couldn't make myself step out there. Not even with one foot. I leaned over to take this photo of the floor:

110 floors straight down. A box with big screw-looking things hold it up. No thank you!

Supposedly Giordano's has the best stuffed/Chicago style pizza in town. I was actually craving Neopolitan style pizza, but I figured when in Chicago, eat Chicago style pizza. I should have gone for the Neopolitan. That would have been a better modification of the when in Rome saying.

I got the mega-vegetable pizza and it still left my tummy feeling like it had a brick made of bread and cheese in it. Hopefully someone at the hostel enjoyed my leftovers.

The next day, something special happened. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow. Meet me at the Bean!
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