Travel Tuesday: This is some hot stuff!

The chill in the air makes me long for some heat, so I thought I’d pull this out of the archives, a memorable trip from October 2014 to the home of the “finest condiment in the world.” Enjoy.

Dishing spicy details on ‘the finest condiment in the world’

Family legend posits that my brother once marveled about the business model of Tabasco pepper sauce: “I don’t know how they stay in business! One bottle lasts a lifetime!”

My family of origin doesn’t have a taste for hot capsicum peppers. I remember the Tabasco bottle in the fridge, the label faded and the top ringed with a dried spicy sludge.

We are outliers it appears.

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A tour of the Tabasco pepper sauce factory puts the fallacy of the rare need for the sauce to rest: Up to 700,000 bottles of Tabasco a day are manufactured here at Avery Island in southern Louisiana and shipped to 110 countries around the world. The stuff is even sold in gallon jugs! Among facts I learned on the tour was that residents of Guam are the highest per capita consumers of Tabasco in the world: “Islanders use it on everything: Corn flakes, popcorn, beer and local dishes.”

Hmm. Corn flakes. That’s Crazy Town. But then I have the taste buds of a Minnesotan, not a Guamish breakfast eater.

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I began to understand hot sauce had flavor not just heat when I moved in with my Beloved and Adored stepson a few years ago and learned we had to stock at least three brands of the stuff, some of it good for wings, some for Chinese food and some (lots) for scrambled eggs. My Beloved found six different flavors of Tabasco he couldn’t live without in the factory store today. We also tried Tabasco ice cream, and I discovered a cold food that left a hot sensation in the back of my throat.

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The factory tour was fascinating, if not complimentary to all things Tabasco. “It excites the appetite, promotes digestion and is pronounced, by connoisseurs, to be the finest condiment in the world.” But make no mistake, you of bland palates, Tabasco “is not a luxury” though it has a place on every dinner table: “A bottle lasts a long time. It is not intended to be poured on like ketchup–neither is salt to be used like sugar.”

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From garden to soup pot: Autumn lessons

Nothing transforms vegetables like roasting them in a hot oven. And a run through the blender. Gotta have the blender.

I’m obsessed with roasting vegetables. Thirty minutes in a hot oven brings out the natural sweetness of savory stuff in a way that makes you forget what you’re eating is good for you. And it’s so dagnabb’ed easy, too.

If you’re keeping track, you’re just now realizing you haven’t heard much lately from Minnesota Wonderer (or Minnesota Transplant, whatever she’s calling herself). Yup, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in insurance paperwork. Not for myself, Lord no, for various clients who require insuring (which is pretty much all of us, if you’re being legal or you’re just plain risk-averse). In any case, I haven’t been blogging.

Oh, and there’s this other big project I have on the horizon. By big, I mean ginormous. Like, the only thing bigger in terms of financial commitment and time frame would be having a child. But I’m not quite ready to share that project. When I am ready, you’ll hear about it, I assure you.

In the meantime, I took a breath from paperwork on Saturday, and I made a pot of soup. And it was some kind of soup. So I feel compelled to share. Just in case you, too, have a garden of junk peppers you’re considering letting go to Jack Frost.

Animal VegetableI’m reading this book, you see. In between paperwork and project planning and meal prep, I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The fiction author wrote this memoir with her husband Steven L. Hopp and her daughter Camille Kingsolver to share their family’s experience with eating local for a year, that is, consuming only food that was produced locally. That meant a lot of gardening, farmer’s markets and organic chicken. And no bananas or avocados.

Her premise is that locally produced food is better for the environment, society and the human body, and she makes her point in a pretty compelling way. I mean, I’m not going to become a gardener or make my own cheese, but I’m inspired to pay better attention to where the food I’m putting in my mouth comes from.

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So I paid a visit to a friend’s garden on Saturday afternoon and picked all of his overripe banana peppers (with his permission). Did you know those lime green peppers turn red after a while? Me neither, but they do. The sun was shining in a way that it might not do again for six months or more, and we haven’t had a hard frost yet this autumn. I also picked one — one! — red hot jalapeno pepper. While I was picking my way through the overgrown weeds, I spied a few red-and-green tomatoes, too. Upon inspection, I discovered they weren’t perfect but they were pretty much free of bugs.

Thus inspired, I dug through the crisper drawer and found a stalk of celery, a carrot, a half of a yellow sweet pepper, a half an onion and two cloves of garlic. I can’t vouch for their local provenance, but I’d already purchased them so I was wasting-not-wanting not.

roasted veggies

A little bit of chopping (a very little bit) left me with this pan of vegetables to roast. I doused them in olive oil, salt and pepper, set the oven to 425 degrees, and I headed for the shower.

spicy red pepper soupThirty minutes later, I dumped the whole mess into the blender, added a cup of water, a teaspoon or so of Better Than Boullion and a dash of tomato paste I saved from the previous day’s chili (that’s the cheap Minnesotan in me, I can’t throw away perfectly good food, even a tablespoon of tomato paste). Whirr, whirr, and I had the world’s tastiest, couldn’t-be-better-for-you Spicy Red Pepper Soup (all I needed was the one — one! — jalapeno pepper for the spice; I suspect jalapenos left on the vine this long might be hotter than the season’s early fare). I simmered it a bit on top the stove (just so I could enjoy the aroma, but it didn’t hurt to let it spend some time melding flavors). I added a bit more olive oil (because … olive oil! It’s good for you and tastes delicious, too). Then I ladeled it into a bowl, sprinkled it with parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper, and dug in. Wow, was it good.

So the lessons here are many:

  • Don’t believe you’re ever too busy to make dinner. It’s good for the soul and the body to chop and roast and be creative.
  • Don’t let an abundance of garden harvest go to waste. Think of a new way to consume it. Or invite a friend to scour for vegetable jewels.
  • Roasting and blending makes anything better. Sure, fresh is good, and who doesn’t like a good salad? Well, a lot of people don’t like salad, let’s be honest. But it’s harder to find soup haters. Smells good, warms the tummy, takes all the hard edges off produce. Roasted vegetable soup can inspire a lot of admirers. Get cookin’.

full on spicy red pepper soup

 

 

Throwback Thursday: One of the best things about autumn is the soup

Nothing like recycling a good recipe for Throwback Thursday, so today we’re praising soup. And kale.

I’m obsessed with kale lately. It’s so good for you! And sneaking some into your soup is a painless way to consume lots of it.

Which brings me to this recipe I first published Aug. 9, 2014. That was a tough month in Minnesota Wonderer’s life (I’m still not ready to tell the story of the Very Bad Thing), but the soup is a keeper, especially as fall approaches. Enjoy.

Lentil barley soup as comfort food

For some people, mashed potatoes are the ultimate comfort food. For others, spaghetti. My Beloved leans toward macaroni-and-cheese.

Honestly, forget food — what beats a glass (or two) of wine?

A Very Bad Thing happened a week ago. The story of the Very Bad Thing isn’t ready to be told yet. Or maybe I’m just not ready to tell it. But I finally had (took) a few minutes to myself today, and I decided to make something to comfort me.

It was a big pot of lentil barley soup.

Probably not the first choice of comfort food for, well, anyone else. When I told my Beloved about it, he was less than impressed.

Soup in general might be considered a comfort food, though probably not in August. Chicken noodle soup, though, ranks on the Food Network’s list of Top 10 comfort foods.

I, however, am not a big fan of noodles. And I don’t care if it’s August.

I ran across a big pot of lentil barley soup at Au Bon Pain the other day, and I thought, ahh, I could make that. And I could make it even better with a few mushrooms and some kale. Because mushrooms are comforting. And kale is good for you.

So I cleaned out the crisper drawer of my fridge, and I made a big pot of soup today. And it was delicious. And only 180 calories per serving, which is pretty darn good for comfort food. And it made me feel better.

lentil barley soup

Lentil Barley Soup

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3/4 yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  •  4 ounces mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 15-ounce can fire roasted tomatoes (I added a half of a leftover fresh tomato, too, chopped)
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons chicken base (I used Better Than Boullion brand)
  • 1 cup red lentils (they really must be the red ones, which break down better than green ones)
  • 1/2 cup barley (not the quick-cooking kind; the kind that take 50 minutes to cook)
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup kale, ribs removed and chopped

Directions:

  1. Warm the olive oil in a big pot; add chopped vegetables and cook a few minutes.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients except kale. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer an hour until lentils are essentially mush, thickening the sauce, and barley is tender.
  3. Fifteen minutes before the hour is up, add the kale.
  4. Remove bay leaves. Serve with a dollop of sour cream. Makes 6 servings.

Throwback Thursday: What baling hay teaches

Going back to school reminds Minnesota Wonderer of her uncle who’s worked in education for the better part of his career. September reminds me of harvest time, too (I no longer have a garden but I drive by those fields of bounty). So today’s Throwback Thursday post, first published Aug. 9, 2012, pays homage to both my uncle and a harvest. It’s one of my favorites. Enjoy.

What a perfect haystack means

Symbols remind us of what’s important. A wedding ring symbolizes a commitment. A lushly green, well-watered lawn symbolizes suburban perfection. A signed baseball symbolizes a brush with fame.

For my uncle, a perfect haystack symbolizes a summer’s work.

stacked hay final

A meaningful stack of North Dakota hay, circa 1965.

I recently found a black-and-white picture of the haystack in my uncle’s collection of personal photos.

“You’ve had this photo for 40-some years,” I said. “There must be a reason you kept it so long.”

“That hay stack represented a finished job,” Uncle Lee said. “I don’t get many ‘finished jobs’ in my line of work now.”

Nowadays, making hay is highly mechanized. Round bales, created by a machine, dot the rural landscape around the little town where I live on the outskirts of Chicago.

But a century ago, hay was cut with scythes and moved with pitchforks, and haystacks shaped like little houses were fixtures of the Midwestern landscape. Square balers mechanized the process in the 1940s. As the farming industry moved to a more corporate operation in recent years, large round bales have become more common.

The biggest advantage of small square bales like those handled by my uncle is that they can be moved by one person without a lot of machinery.

Square hay bales must be stacked in such a way as to shed moisture and prevent rotting. My uncle estimates his haystack probably had 2,000 square bales in it.

“I probably handled those bales six times each,” he said. “That’s why I was in such great shape! The knees wore out of my blue jeans from hiking up those bales. I could throw them like you couldn’t believe.”

As the saying goes, you make hay while the sun shines. One has to cut it, rake it and bale it first. “Dad [my grandfather] had a brand new baler at the time,” Uncle Lee remembers. “Then I’d go out and put ’em in six packs — that’s the first time I handled ’em. Then I’d pick ’em up and throw ’em on the hay wagon (that’s two), then stack ’em again on the wagon (three), bring ’em home, throw ’em down (there’s four, right?), then stack them like you see here in the picture.”

The stack in that picture symbolized a whole summer of work.

“Wait, that’s five times, I think,” I said.

“Then in the winter time, you have to feed the cattle – I had to throw the bales on the ground for the cows.”

Six.

“I like everything about cattle,” said Uncle Lee, who grew up and made hay in the western plains of North Dakota. “I enjoyed that part of farming. I didn’t like seeding or combining, but one of my favorite times of year was when we moved the cattle to summer pasture. All winter, they were cooped up in the barnyards, but in spring we moved them to the open fields. They were like little kids! They’d kick up their heels and hit their heads together, they were so happy.

“I still like cattle.”

Early on, Uncle Lee left farming because there was no money in it and embarked on a career in education. He started out as a social studies teacher. He worked his way into school administrationthe top of the stack, so to speak—favoring smaller school districts.

“That’s probably why I prefer rural districts,” Uncle Lee said. “North Dakota built my foundation. It was a hard place to make a living: It’s got a short growing season. It’s colder than hell. Sometimes it doesn’t rain. It can be a very lonely, lonely place.”

But he learned what hard work can accomplish.

And the picture of his haystack symbolizes it.

Throwback Thursday: When praying for the dog seems reasonable

It’s Throwback Thursday at Minnesota Wonderer, and today we’re grateful for an 8-pound miniature schnauzer.

Ten-year-old Chloe contracted pneumonia recently, and her very life hung in the balance for a few days. The vet recommended an overnight stay in an oxygen tent (to the tune of $1,000+), but we settled on a round of antibiotics and lots of pampering. She barely ate anything for a week (her weight dipping to a boney 6.8 pounds), and she started experiencing seizures again.

Her epilepsy, which was diagnosed a few years ago, had been under control with medication, but something about the pneumonia (breathing problems? stress of a visit to the vet? lack of sleep? antibiotics?) was causing breakthrough seizures.

Oh, God, not this again.

That was two weeks ago, and the good news is, she’s on the mend, but the whole experience reminded me of when she first started having seizures, which I recount in this post from Feb. 9, 2014.

A story about canines (both species and the teeth), Rimadyl and patience

Caregiving is stressful.

By telling the story below, I don’t mean to minimize caregivers of human patients who I realize most certainly are far more invested in their patients and the stakes are far higher. I can’t even imagine the stress of a someone whose wife has dementia or whose child is battling cancer.

The past 48 hours around here were tough in a much smaller, 8.4-pound way.

My dog (yes, this is a pet story — if you don’t like domestic animals, you’re hereby excused) had her teeth cleaned Friday.

Apparently, dogs bite when strangers stick their hands in their mouths (who knew?), so veterinarians anesthetize dogs in order to clean their teeth.

(Seriously? Dogs require dental care? Yes, I was incredulous, too. My miniature schnauzer had bad breath for years — literally years — and I came to love her stinky mouth. Yellow teeth? Who cares? She’s a dog, right? That’s what I thought until one of her teeth literally fell out of her mouth in my Beloved’s gentle fingers. It was so decayed, it was rotten. Rotten teeth, as it turns out, not only cause bad breath, they cause gum disease which can lead to terrible things like organ failure and death. It was clear my lame tooth-brushing routine was doing no good, and my sweet dog’s teeth required professional intervention. And so, D-Day, that is, Dental Day, came on Friday.)

She remained at the veterinary clinic all day. Anesthesia is serious business, you know. As this was the first time my dear Chloe was undergoing such a procedure, you can imagine the mess the technician found. Five teeth were so rotten they had to be extracted.

“How will she eat?” I lamented. Even toothless dogs figure out how to consume hard dog food pellets, I was told. Survival instinct, I guess. These creatures sometimes eat rabbit turds and lap up muddy puddles, so they’re not too discerning, I guess.

She was ready for pick-up at 5 p.m. and though she was generally listless, she looked OK. And her teeth were sparkling. I’m not kidding. They’re whiter than my teeth now.

I carefully listened to the after-care instructions, which included doses of pain killer and antibiotics and took her home. She sat on the couch with my Beloved and though she acted weird once, gacking strangely, we simply took her to bed as usual.

Then the horror began.

She started experiencing a seizure every two hours all night long. After the first one, I took her off the bed and put her in her kennel next to the bed, but I woke up every time her little legs violently pummeled the kennel from the inside.

You can’t stop a seizure. You can only speak softly and gently hold the victim (or, if they’re bigger than my little dog, get out of the way) while you wait for the gagging and the foaming and wide eyes and open mouth and kicking to subside. Forty seconds feels like 5 minutes. In the moments after the seizure, the victim still isn’t really there, looking spacy and stumbling around in a haze. I could only hold her sweaty body, feeling her racing heartbeat.

I’ve never had babies, so I don’t know what it’s like caring for a sick child through the night. But I can tell you caring for a sick pet is no walk in the park. Every moment waiting for another seizure was torture.

We stupidly followed the dosing instructions the following morning, giving her 25 mg of the antibiotic Clindamycin and 6.25 mg of Rimadyl, a pain reliever. The seizures occurred less frequently but did not abate.

I finally got in touch with the vet who assured me neither the anesthesia nor the medications could be causing seizures. She wanted to examine her and do more blood work (which they did only 24 hours previously before surgery), and she suggested maybe injecting an anti-seizure medication.

Great. I’d already paid $461 for the tooth cleaning surgery and $343 for the extractions. For that, my sweet little dog with bad breath had turned into a convulsing mess with sparkling teeth.

I should mention my dog continued to eat, drink, pee and poop as usual, so her systems seemed to operating normally except for the occasional brain reboot in the form of an ugly seizure. Seizures are caused by many real ailments and should not be left untreated (I am not a vet and I don’t play one on TV), but they also occur for unknown reasons, and it seemed clear the vet knew no more than I did. Like a lot of doctors, she wanted to do more tests and administer more drugs. Ugh.

Like all modern patients, we resorted to internet diagnosis, and we didn’t like what found online about Rimadyl. Correlation does not imply causation, but what’s the variable here? Chloe was perfectly healthy and seizure-free before surgery.

So we stopped the meds.

And Chloe slept peacefully through the night.

chloe in new bedThis morning, we gave her half the antibiotic and no pain medication. She was back to her frisky self, galloping around the house, bounding down the stairs and barking her obnoxious-but-joyful-to-hear bark.

She clearly was not in pain.

I share this story both as a warning (beware of Rimadyl) and as a lesson.

As I waited those long moments through Chloe’s convulsions, I reminded myself of the body’s power to heal, that time heals all wounds, that patience is a virtue. There was no other balm for this chaos and stress but to accept it and embrace it and move through it. My prayers were answered (yes, I wasted God’s time with the health of a dog — what’s time to an eternal being?). And I’m so grateful.

Travel Tuesday: Drink like a local

A health nut might say “you are what you eat,” but a well-seasoned traveler’s credo might be “eat where you are.”

Why eat a burger on the coast when you can enjoy fresh seafood? Why seek out McDonald’s in Tokyo? Why not try sausage in Bavaria?

Having visited some of these places, I will say definitively that travel has opened my eyes to great foods I might never have experienced without the long drive or a flight.

But eating where you are is also true of drinking, and it’s true when you’re close to home, too. When in Minnesota or Wisconsin, drink as the Minnesotans or Wisconsinites do.

skal crawl

Earlier this summer I enjoyed the Skål Crawl in Central Minnesota. “Skål” rhymes with crawl, and it’s Norse for “toast,” that is, the kind of toast that involves raising glasses, not burning bread.

The Skål Crawl, the first Minnesota wine, liquor and beer trail, offers a T-shirt and cool drinking glasses for those who visit Carlos Creek Winery, Panther Distillery and Copper Trail Brewery, all located in and around Alexandria, Minnesota. It was a fun way for a couple of couples to spend a day while quenching our thirst. And I’m a sucker for a “free” T-shirt (the crawl costs $15 and entitles crawlers to souvenir tasting glasses, the T-shirt and discounted tastings).

fawn creek

And, having spent a bit of time in the Wisconsin Dells recently, I discovered Fawn Creek Winery, one of nearly 80 wineries in Wisconsin. Breweries, I knew about (among other, I have actually visited and enjoyed New Glarus, a well-known craft brewery in southern Wisconsin), but wine? Who knew?

The tastings at Fawn Creek are free, but even better is the atmosphere. Tucked among the pines, the winery is a pretty place to spend some time, especially when one can enjoy wine, beer, too, and pretzels that are 15 inches across. Oh, and live music on the weekends.

What else is Wisconsin known for? No, not the Packers. Well, maybe sorta, if Packers make you think of cheeseheads. It’s the cheese! The brochure from the Wisconsin Winery Association suggests a cheese and wine pairing for every month of the year. Because wine and cheese are delightful when consumed together. September’s suggestion? Mead with cheddar and provolone. October? Try hard cider with cheddar and colby. Just makes you want to plan a themed trip, right?

Killing Monica doesn’t exactly kill it but it hits the mark

Would I have liked the book better if the title had been Amazing Monica instead of Killing Monica?

killing monicaNope.

The Monica in Candace Bushnell’s story is a fictional character (to be clear, she’s a fictional character in a book of fiction), so whether she lives or dies is of no consequence to my enjoyment of a book with my first name in the title.

Killing Monica was my trashy novel for the summer, and in a word, it was good.

About a third of the way into this book, I hated it. It read like a modern-day fairy tale only instead of a poor girl oppressed by her stepmother and forced to clean the fireplace while her Prince Charming roams the kingdom with her glass slipper, the protagonist was a victim of success, her cheating soon-to-be ex-husband and her very expensive shoes. In fact, I started dog-earring pages of Bushnell’s entirely implausible phrases and scenes. Like who pours themselves a “nice tall glass of white wine.” A “nice full glass of wine,” maybe, or maybe a character pours white wine into a milk glass, but wine glasses are not “tall.”

But I reconsidered when I read the book flap–I thought maybe Bushnell was writing something more semi-autobiographical (she created Carrie in Sex in the City), and I thought maybe she was trying to say something about feminism, pop culture and celebrity. I think she more or less accomplishes this, but I still wasn’t loving it (whatever Bushnell’s “trademark humor” is, I didn’t get it, but them maybe I’m too literal about tall glasses, too).

I hung in there until the bitter end and wow! Mind blown. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I found the ending to come out of left field and be very satisfying at the same time (even though Bushnell leaves loose ends all over the place).

For a trashy novel, it was definitely worth the summer reading time.