Rule of thumb: Planting Potatoes

dandelions blooming

Rules of thumb are common guides to navigating everyday life without having to refer to some authority. Wickipedia says the term is thought to originate with carpenters who used the length of the tip of their thumb (approximately 1 inch) as a handy – get it, handy – unit of measure rather than resorting to a ruler. In general, rules of thumb are principles with broad application not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. They are easily learned and easily applied for approximately calculating or recalling some value, or for making some determination.

Farmers have many rules of thumb.  One that I remember and invoked today was “Plant you potatoes when dandelions bloom in an open field”.  The logic is that the weather (and soil) is warm enough for the seed potatoes to flourish.  Why in an “open field”?  Because the soil near a foundation is warmer than the soil in a field and dandelions will bloom near a foundation days or weeks earlier than those in a open field where the soil will still be too cool.

These wizened things will sprout in several weeks and yield a nice small but nice crop of Russian Banana potatoes.

These wizened things will sprout in several weeks and yield a small but nice crop of Russian Banana fingerling-type potatoes.

Another Turn of the Page: Mad March Books

“By March, the worst of the winter would be over. The snow would thaw, the rivers begin to run and the world would wake into itself again.
Not that year.
Winter hung in there, like an invalid refusing to die. Day after grey day the ice stayed hard; the world remained unfriendly and cold.”      ― Neil Gaiman, Odd and the Frost Giants


Yes, I know it is April but this is the March list and it still feels like March here in Wisconsin. Gaiman’s quote described this year exactly. Winter is refusing to die. It snowed twice this month around here and more than that in other parts of the state, we just lucked out. This week, the weatherman has forecast 60’s and maybe a 70 by the end of the week and he better be right or there will be people with pitchforks and torches pounding on his door. Realistically we have no choice but to brew up some espresso and crack open a new book and hope that Spring is around the corner.

Here are the mad and crazy books our group enjoyed last month:

A Man called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012) 337 pages. A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (1998) 252 pages. One of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary was Dr. William Chester Minor. Not only a fine wordsmith he was also an insane murderer who sent his submissions from his cell in one of England’s harshest asylums, Broadmoor.

The Hundred-Year Walk : An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen (2016) 339 pages. Just before killing squads in Armenia slaughter his caravan during a forced desert march, Stepan manages to escape, making a perilous six-day trek to the Euphrates River carrying nothing more than two cups of water and one gold coin. After discovering his journals a century later, his granddaughter retraces his steps. A true story.

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron (2014) 336 pages. In this quirky, humorous novel, Ruddy McCann, an all-star football player destined for greatness in the big leagues, has a bad thing happen to him and he ends up as a repo man and part-time bouncer in the bar he co-owns. Oh, and he also hears dead people.

Driving on the Rim by Thomas McGuane (2010) 306 pages. An intimate view into the life of a man who crosses the class barrier in a small town in Montana.              

Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Frances Sharma (2014) 400 pages. In a seaside village in Trinidad, Marcia Garcia, a gifted sixteen-year-old seamstress, lives alone, raising two small boys and guarding a family secret. When she meets Farouk Karam, an ambitious young policeman, her life takes a major turn. Their courtship takes them through some historical events which threaten the secret Marcia harbors.

Great Leader and Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole his Way to Freedom by Blaine Harden (2015) 304 pages. The true story of how Kim Il Sung grabbed power and plunged his country into war against the United States while the youngest fighter pilot in his air force was playing a game of deception and escape.

The Fox and the Hound: The Birth of American Spying by Donald E. Markle (2013) 265 pages. A book about espionage during the Revolutionary War. A fascinating topic but kind of a slow read.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012) 313 pages. Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has terminal cancer. Then she meets Augustus at a Cancer Kid Support Group. He has come to support a friend but his and Hazel’s lives will never be the same.

Heaven’s Keep by William Kent Krueger (2009) 321 pages. In this, the ninth of the series, Cork O’Connor investigates the disappearance of his wife. This book is a major turning point in the series.

Used Book Sale Treasures

joyThis week is the big used book sale at our library. We posted about it in 2011. The Friends of the Library organize it and it is one of the biggest in the country. They advertise 100,000 books and stuff ( CDs, DVDs, puzzles, etc). This year that number is a bit lower, 90,000?, because of a lot of reasons. None the less, that is a LOT of books but if you dig around and take the time you can find some amazing treasures.

Before we went to the sale I mentioned to Curt that our copy of The Joy of Cooking (revised, copyright 1972) by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker was getting pretty beat up. We got it when we were married and have used it for a lot of basic cooking information, even how to set the table. But the spine is starting to split and it’s pretty spotted with grease and water and whatever else was spattering while the book lie open on the counter.

The Joy of Cooking (1972) pages 580-581

The Joy of Cooking (1972) pages 580-581

Amazingly, at the sale we located two newer copies in the cookbook section of the book sale. Note: Our book sale organizers put things generally into categories which makes it  a lot easier to search for a possible treasure. The copy we settled on was The All New, All Purpose Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker ( rev. ed. 1997) for $2.00. Both of the ladies have passed and Ethan is Irma’s grandson.books

The book is bigger in length and width and contains 1136 pages vs 849 pages in our old copy. The later book has a new illustrator and it seems like fewer illustrations. The older book had quaint illustrations and printed many more to explain a simple process. For instance like pouring the batter for a pancake.

3 steps vs 1 step

3 steps vs 1 step

It still has the chapter on setting the table but a nice addition in the new book is a section on eating with chopsticks.

All about table settings.

All about table settings.

The section on cutting meat goes on and on in the old book. Two full pages for each meat:  beef, veal, pork, lamb. The new book instead has one half page for each.

Bone structure and commercial cuts from a carcass

Bone structure and commercial cuts from a carcass

Finally some chapters have different headings but I don’t think this will cause us too many problems. After all I haven’t had the need to check for fritters or croquettes in quite a while, if ever.headingsSo that was our find of the used book sale. It is a beauty and we will have fun breaking it in, a few spatters here and few spatters there. But you’ll have to excuse me, there are a few other treasures in my book bag that I want to look through.

Let’s see, Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart, Taken by Robert Crais, The American Girls Handy Book ( Centennial Edition), Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Betty Crocker’s Bisquick Cookbook….



It’s April. It snowed yesterday. My daffodils that are trying to bud have quickly tucked their heads in. Today the sky was gray and it rained  because luckily the temperature got up to 34, barely. Tonight it is expected to go down to 23. Can this be Spring?

Well the goldfinch guys think it is. They are quickly changing into their Spring plumage in order to woo the ladies. I will trust them and hope for the best.finches

It must be working, that Lady Cardinal looks interested.

Tidying Up

I am usually accused of this when my Honey can’t find something. “Have you been tidying up again? I can’t find my <insert here whatever he is currently looking for>.” I have always bristled at this because yes, sometimes I do tidy up after tripping over shoes or boxes or piles of paper that haven’t been moved for 6 weeks but many times it is he who has put something away and merely has forgotten the location.

So about 2 months ago when I happened on this book at Barnes and Noble (where I had a 10% off coupon on top of the 20% off sticker on the book) I couldn’t resist.

The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up

Yes, “the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing” by Marie Kondo. Little did I know that this book was currently a big hit. I conveniently missed the #1 New York Times Bestseller sticker. Probably because the 20% off sticker had been stuck over it. In the beginning I thought it would just be a humorous read about someone with OCD who parlayed their condition into a profession and yes, it was that but as I continued to read, there were some interesting approaches to getting rid of a lot of your stuff and organizing the rest.

A lot of it had to do with handling everything. For instance start with your clothes. These get divided into sub-categories and the first is your tops. Find ALL of them and put them in a big pile. Then pick up each one individually and decide if it “sparks joy.” That is, do you like it and will you wear it again. For me, it was also, does it still fit. I tried her approach and like she said, the pile was huge and that was just my tops. Now the fear is, when you are done, will you have anything left? Surprisingly I had two grocery bags and one plastic garbage bag full of tops that I no longer wanted, fit into or wondered why I ever purchased AND I still had a lot left to fill up my drawers. Ms Kondo also gets into folding and organizing so you can find things but that is a whole other post. I kept going with my clothes, my pants (all of my pants), my underwear ( all of my underwear) my socks, (yes all of my socks).

Left: Bags of tops, shirts, etc. Right: pants

Left: Bags of tops, shirts, etc. Right: pants

I even got my Honey to go through his jeans, the too small, the too torn, the too old.

Denim on its way to a Church Youth project

Denim on its way to a Church Youth project

Now if you think this book is probably a boring read, you would be wrong. My first impression of this author being OCD was right. But put on top of that the sensibilities of being Japanese and you have some pretty amusing passages. Take this one on “Storing Socks”, remembering that her profession is organizing people’s stuff.

“I visited the house of a client in her fifties. As always I started with her clothes….when she pulled open her sock drawer, I could not suppress a gasp. It was full of potato-like lumps that rolled about.  She had folded back the tops to form balls and tied her stockings tightly in the middle. I was speechless.”

“Never, ever tie up your stockings. Never, ever, ball up your socks.”

“That’s right. The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest. But if they are folded over, balled up, or tied, they are always in a state of tension, their fabric stretched and their elastic pulled.  They roll about and bump into each other every time the drawer is opened and closed. Any socks and stockings unfortunate enough to get pushed to the back of the drawer are often forgotten for so long that their elastic stretches beyond recovery. When the owner finally discovers them and puts them on, it will be too late and they will be relegated to the garbage. What treatment could be worse than this?” – Marie Kondo, ‘the life-changing magic of tidying up’

Funny? yes. But when I looked in my sock drawer I found some pretty old, balled up, stretched out socks that Goodwill wouldn’t even want.They weren’t groaning or moaning but they were headed to the rag bag.

Once I got through most of my clothes I moved on to other categories and she tells you how to divest yourself of everything. CDs, DVDs, makeup, appliances, kitchen goods, spare buttons, warranties, unidentified cords, small change, greeting cards…nothing is overlooked. I decided I could never be as fanatical as the author but I did move on to magazines, CDs, and some books. She gets pretty ruthless with books but the librarian, booklover, book-maker in me couldn’t part with too many. Only one out of eight did not “spark joy” so many stayed on my shelves.

Three of five bags of magazines that went to recycle

Three of five bags of magazines that went to recycle

One important thing she tells you is once you have made your choices on what is going, make it go away. Don’t store it in the basement  “in case you change your mind”, you won’t and it just is taking up a different space. So my old magazines went in the recycle bin, the clothes went to the thrift store, the books got donated to the library booksale. Gone. Out of sight,out of mind.

Curt seems to have caught the tidying bug too because he has been going through his studio/workshop and has declared we will have a rummage sale this summer. So I started tackling my studio too. I think we will call our sale “Artists/Packrats Tidy Up”. So far, this is just two days of sorting. Onward!!

More magazines, yarn, roving, basketry materials

More magazines, yarn, roving, basketry materials

Picadillo Alfredo

Warning! This is an experiment.

The NY Times recently published a recipe by Sam Sifton for Picadillo which he calls the ultimate Cuban comfort food.  Picadillo is a sort of sloppy-Joe kind of stew made from ground meat (picadillo means mince), tomatoes, raisins, olives and liberally seasoned with cinnamon, cumin and other warm spices.  To my taste, it sounds like a Persian inflected dish (who often combine meat, fruit and spices) via Spain (remember, that Arabs held sway in the Iberian peninsula for nearly 700 years).  Mr. Sifton suggests serving it with rice.  OK, but I couldn’t quite get my head around picadillo as a stew.

Recently Jeanne made spinach enchiladas which were quite tasty.  Her enchiladas prompted me to think of picadillo as a stand in for the filling of an enchilada-like presentation.  Of course, I couldn’t follow the typical enchilada routine by covering the filled tortillas with a tomato and chili sauce as the picadillo has plenty of tomatoes in it already.  So, why not invert the order of things?  Enchiladas often have cheese in the filling so why not put the cheese on the outside.  But I didn’t want to just bury the tortillas in shredded cheese.  How about something creamier?  I’ve got it – Alfredo sauce!  I know, it’s not Cuban.  It’s not even Latino.  But it creamy cheesy good.  And you can buy it in a jar, ready to go.

For the picadillo I followed the NY Times recipe to a “T”, just cutting it in half to accommodate our more limited table (and so as to not have too much left over in case my experiment was a bust).


Ingredients (see NY Times recipe for complete list)

Minced garlic, diced Chorizo and chopped onion

Minced garlic, diced chorizo and chopped onion

Beef, tomatoes, onions, chorizo, garlic and seasonings saute away

Beef, tomatoes, onions, chorizo, garlic, raisins, olives and seasonings saute away

Fill tortillas with a geneous 1/4 cup of picadillo mixture

Fill tortillas with a geneous 1/4 cup of picadillo mixture

Put rolled, filled tortillas in a baking dish with a thin layer of Alfredo sauce underneath and a generous layer over the top

Put rolled, filled tortillas in a baking dish with a thin layer of Alfredo sauce underneath and a generous layer over the top

Sprinkle a light layer of grated cheese (I used a Mexican blend but cheddar would be fine).  Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350˚ F. for about 30 minutes or untll the Alfredo sauce is bubbly and lightly browned.

Not pretty but pretty tasty. A little garnish would have been in order but I forgot to take this picture until I was on my second Picadillo Alfredo.

Not pretty but pretty tasty. A little garnish would have been in order but I forgot to take this picture until I was on my second Picadillo Alfredo.

Not much to look at but pretty yummy.  I think the picadillo mixture could serve other purposes – maybe an Cuban sloppy-joe?

Another Turn of the Page: Those Who Read

“When I am dead, I hope it may be said: “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
Hilaire Belloc

redshelfThis is the report on our February meeting so naturally I started looking for red books, red shelves, red things…Valentine’s references of course. Once I had the shelf I just couldn’t resist the quote I found from Hilaire Belloc but then I thought who is this Belloc person? Seems that Hiliare Belloc was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. Well that surprised me, I’d have thought I would have at least heard of the man. The article I looked at also went on to say that, “He has been called one of the Big Four of Edwardian Letters, along with H.G.Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and G. K. Chesterton, all of whom debated with each other into the 1930s.” I certainly have heard of those writers so why not Belloc? For me, this man fell through the cracks, which makes me think how many other well-known writers of their time have disappeared from our/my attention? I proceeded to look into Mr. Belloc, who besides being an orator, writer, poet, sailor and political activist, was a satirist. Two of his best are “Cautionary Tales for Children” and “The Bad Child’s Book Beasts”.  His books are in Project Gutenberg so you can find them quite easily ( I have included links). As I read some of the poems I realized Hilaire was the Shel Silverstein or, maybe, the James Thurber of his day. Some are funny, some are droll – quick verses to enjoy.

So, where am I going with this, well right to another quote, this one by Frank Zappa, that I will paraphrase, ” So many authors, so little time.” Now on to the books my group enjoyed last month.

February161. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben MacIntyre (2012) 399 pages. This is the story of Operation Fortitude, which protected and enabled the invasion, and the Double Cross system, which specialized in turning German spies into double agents during WW II. This is how they deceived the Nazis into believing that the Allies would attack at Calais and Norway rather than Normandy.

2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980) 536 pages. This book has it all – medieval history, Gothic noir and a classic whodunit rolled into one. Warning, it is a very slow – however if you persevere, your time will be rewarded.

3. The Bootlegger by Clive Cussler, Isaac Bell series #7, (2014) 403 pages. It is 1920, and both Prohibition and bootlegging are in full swing. When Isaac Bell’s boss and lifelong friend Joseph Van Dorn is shot and nearly killed, Bell swears to him that he will hunt down the lawbreakers.

4. A Walk in the Woods : Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson (1997) 397 pages. This book describes the adventures (& misadventures) of author Bryson and his friend, Katz, on the Appalachian Trail.

5. The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon (2014) 304 pages. A fiction story based on the actual disappearance of State Supreme Court Judge Crater who was never found. Told from the point of view of the three women in his life, this book also is a historical depiction of New York City in the early thirties.

6. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012) 320 pages. A post-apocalyptic tale in which the world has been decimated due to an out of control flu and blood disease. Hig, who has survived the flu lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog. His only neighbor is a gun-toting misanthrope. As time goes on Hig feels he must fly out and see if anyone else has survived even if it costs him his life.

7. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1937) 297 pages. “This book is about two ‘pioneering French missionaries’ and their missions in New Mexico. The novel is based on the true life stories of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe and his companion, Joseph Projectus Machebeuf and their mission among the Mexicans and the Indians of New Mexico in the 19th century.” -Goodreads.  Considered one of Cather’s best.

8. The Light Keeper’s Legacy by Kathleen Ernst, Chloe Ellefson Mystery #3 (2012) 360 pages. Third in this enjoyable cozy mystery series, this one takes place on Rock Island, which is the farthest island off of the Door County peninsula in Wisconsin. Besides being a good mystery a lot of history of the fishing industry and the Potawatomi Lighthouse is included.

9. Kafka’s Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant by Kathi Diamant (2003) 416 pages. The author attempts to give insight into who Kafka was, particularly in his last year of life when he met and fell in love with Dora Diamant. That story only covers the first third of the book. Following Kafka’s death, we find out what happened to Dora as she travels from war-torn Berlin to a declining Russia and eventually to England, but not to safety.

10. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2014) 272 pages. A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. He never remarried after his wife’s death, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its unexpected arrival gives him the chance to make his life over.

11. Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey : the Official Companion to all Four Series by Emma Rowley (2013) 288 pages. Now that Downton series has finished its run you will want to pick up this book to learn how all that magic was accomplished. Perfect for the diehard fan.

It’s Sandwichtime!

Yesterday was a weird eating day. Curt took out some boneless chicken breasts to thaw for dinner. In the meantime we decided to go to a movie, Anomalisa. We had read some interesting things about it and it was one of those films that we knew would be gone in a week. Showings were at 11:45am and 4:50pm. We opted for the earlier showing since we also had tickets to a play in the evening. The play was at 7:30. Then my Mom called and asked if we could stop over to her apartment to do just a few simple projects.

All of this threw our eating schedule into the weirdness I spoke of. Since the movie was during our normal lunchtime, we ate some crackers and cheese to tide us over till after the movie. The movie got out around 1:30 so off we went to lunch before heading to my Mom’s place around 2:30. Left her place an hour later and did a couple of errands. By the time we got home it was 4:30. We usually eat dinner around 7:00 but we had the play at 7:30 so that meant eating earlier but no one was hungry. So more cheese and crackers and a glass of wine and out the door in time to get to the play. Once we were home no one wanted a big meal so we each found a few snacks.

Where is this all leading? Well remember those chicken breasts Curt was thawing out for dinner? They were still in the fridge this morning and they became lunch today. He first made paillards of the chicken by putting them between two pieces of wax paper and pounding them pretty flat. Then they were breaded with Panko bread crumbs and sauted. He baked two whole wheat “take and bake” rolls, and made a spicy sauce from mayonaisse and Korean chili sauce. tomat

Put those together with a slice of tomato, some shredded flat leaf parsley and curly endive, and we had a great lunch. Just like MacDonald’s spicy chicken sandwich or rather 100 times better.

Curt's spicy chicken sandwich

Curt’s spicy chicken sandwich

Watermelon what?

Every once in a while some food idea crosses my mind that I file for future reference but quickly forget about. Later something will poke my memory and that idea will resurface.watermelon-1

We were in the grocery the other day and the store had a special on mini-watermelons. I know, what am I doing looking at watermelons in the middle of winter. I know they come from somewhere in Central America and their carbon footprint is heavy, but they looked pretty good and the price was good so I bought one …. so much for eating local.

Anyway, I saw those watermelons and into my head pops the idea of watermelon steak. Huh?  Somewhere I had heard of such a thing and I thought it would be worth trying. If it didn’t pan out I figured at the very least we could add some to a salad or eat it fresh for dessert.

But, when I got home that idea of watermelon steak kept floating around in my head but I didn’t really know where to start so I did an internet search and, lo and behold, there are lots of sites that feature watermelon steak. Most referenced a restaurant near Boston called 51 Lincoln that seemed to have originated or, at least, featured a pan-seared watermelon steak as an appetizer or small plate.

If you have read our blog before, you know I’m always up for something different.  This watermelon steak, as imagined by 51 Lincoln and repeated by many other blogs, certainly was a strange sounding dish and one I wanted to try.

I spent some time scanning the many variations. Some recipes called for marinating the trimmed blocks of watermelon in cream sherry overnight or at least for several hours.  Some cooked the “steaks” on a grill or directly in a saute pan.  But in many the “steaks” were roasted in the oven for 2-1/2 (yes, two and a half) hours at 350˚ F.  I settled on a shorter marinade, 2 hours in the oven and a finishing sear in the saute pan.  Here’s what it all looked like.

Watermelon "steaks" marinating in sherry

Watermelon “steaks” marinating in sherry for 3 hours

Watermelon "steaks" seasoned with salt and pepper and a pat of butter and ready for the oven

Watermelon “steaks” seasoned with salt and pepper and a pat of butter and ready for the oven

"Steaks" after 2 hours at 350˚. Note that the color is still quite bright, even redder than the raw watermelon

“Steaks” after 2 hours at 350˚. Note that the color is still quite bright, even redder than the raw watermelon but without any sear

"Steaks" searing briefly in a skillet

“Steaks” searing briefly in a skillet

Watermelon steak appetiser

Watermelon “steak” served with an avocado, blood orange, clementine and tomato salad with feta cheese

Now, most of you would probably think (I certainly did) that after that amount of time in the oven the watermelon would be cooked to a mush.  But not so.  Remarkably the melon held up quite well.  It shrinks a bit but the color remains bright and the texture is transformed.  The melon was no longer grainy the way fresh watermelon is.  Rather it takes on a decidedly firmer texture not unlike the linear grain of fresh beef or raw tuna.

A strange dish but one worth trying, if for no other reason than to say you did.