Friday, February 26, 2010

Making Milk Kefir

My latest kitchen experiment is making milk kefir. Kind of like a liquid yogurt, it's easy to make in a jar on the kitchen counter - no messing with maintaining a constant warmth like with yogurt.

All you need to get started are some kefir grains. I got mine by posting a request on my local Freecycle network, but they're also available via the Internet. Tomorrow, Oz-time, is my day to post on the SGF Co-op blog, so I've written about the kefir-making process. You can read about it here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Magnificent Mountains, Blue Water

I work on-call in the tourism industry. Right now, with the economy the way it is, corporate tourism is way down so I haven't been working very much.

But when I do get called, it's always interesting, and sometimes downright fun. Yesterday evening, I got to shepherd a group for a Sunset Dinner/Dance Cruise on Lake Tahoe's MS Dixie II. The Dixie is one of three paddlewheelers on the Lake. We left from the dock on the east shore, the Nevada side of the Lake, crossed the south end of the Lake to the west shore, into and around Emerald Bay on the southwest corner, and back.

The Lake is 12 miles wide - it takes 3 hours to make this particular cruise. On the south shore, the lakeside casinos are on the Nevada side of the state line bisecting the lake. Heavenly Valley ski resort rises from a small base area just a few blocks away, on the California side, to an immense basin above, with a ridge straddling the state line between California and Nevada. Skiers can choose between the California runs overlooking the lake and the Nevada runs overlooking the sagebrush valley to the east. Freel Peak, at 10,891 ft, is the highest peak in the Tahoe Basin. Beyond Heavenly's base, it catches the last rays of the setting sun.

It was a beautiful evening - cold, of course, but no wind. The Lake was like glass. Lake level averages 6,225 feet above sea level, but can change daily depending on the weather. Tahoe ski resorts measure snowfall in feet, not inches. Mount Tallac dominates the view to the south, the only major peak to rise up right from the water's edge. (Clicking on any photo will bring up a bigger view)

The Lake is 22 miles long. It's hard to judge distance looking across water, especially in the thin, high mountain air, but those snow-covered mountains on the north shore are more than 20 miles away. The deepest part of the lake is off the north shore. At 1,645 ft deep, Tahoe is the second deepest lake in the U.S; the tenth deepest in the world. It never freezes, but never really warms up either.

The last photo I snapped, before completely losing the light, zooms in on Cave Rock, on the east shore. This large tan rock formation (also visible in the photo above this one), the core of an ancient volcano, is easily spotted from just about anywhere on the lake. The Washoe Indians, indigenous to the area, consider Cave Rock a sacred site - their ancestors used the original cave for religious ceremonies. Much to their dismay, a highway tunnel was blasted through the cave in the 1930's; a second bore added in the 1950's. They have succeeded however, in getting the Forest Service to declare the rock off-limits to climbers.

Dark comes early in the wintertime. Time to go inside for dinner. Afterwards, as we head back across the lake towards the dock, the stars are out, magnificent as well.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

It's been more than 30 years since I got to see Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Many of my earlier adventures were cabin-fever relievers - excuses to get out of snow country, especially necessary by the time February rolls around. So I've seen Carnival celebrations a few other places as well, including the time I ended up dancing on a float in a parade in the Dominican Republic!

But money's tight these days. I haven't been able to go trotting about the globe for a few years now. Guess I'll just have to content myself with cranking up a Clifton Chenier CD and making Shrimp Creole for dinner instead.

I can't really complain though. The snow, at least here at the house, has melted and today was a beautiful day. I think I might even have gotten a bit of sunburn on my pasty white winter skin. We took the dog out for a few hours, across the valley, and hiked up and then along the ridge of Prison Hill. Sunshine, fresh air, a good workout with my sweetie - let the good times roll!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kitchen Alchemy

We've had some cold, drippy weather lately. The overnight snow melts, the ground is sloppy, and then freezes solid the next night. Every three days, repeat. Since I can't get outside much yet, I've been spending my days playing in the kitchen.

The gallon of apple cider I had fermenting on the kitchen counter never did settle out much. Weeks later, it was still bubbling away through the fermentation lock, and more than an inch of dead yeast cells had sunk to the bottom. So I siphoned the murky cider off, leaving most of the dead yeasts. After cleaning the gallon jug, I then put the siphoned cider back in and the plug back in the top. After another week, the cider had settled out nicely, and fermentation had finally slowed to a stop.

Up in the top cupboard, my vinegar jar was in fine shape: it smelled vinegary, had a nice healthy layer of mother on top, and a few dead layers had sunk to the bottom. I washed my hands well, then reached in for Jolene, the layer of mother floating on top of the liquid - a somewhat rubbery substance that collapsed into a thick slime when I dropped it into a clean bowl. I pulled a couple of dead layers out of the bottom and tossed them. I strained my fresh vinegar through a coffee filter lining a plastic colander while I sterilized a couple of glass bottles in a big pot of boiling water.

One bottle I've stashed up in the dark cupboard to let it mellow. The vinegar is quite sharp, so I want to see what letting it set does to the taste. The other bottle I started using right away, and I'm very pleased with it. I didn't pasteurize the vinegar before bottling. Mother may still form inside the bottles, but since there isn't much airspace I'm thinking it will take quite a while, if at all. I don't know if using vinegar with the live cultures is beneficial or not, but I kinda like having a backup mother source around in case something happens to this next batch.

After cleaning out the vinegar jar, I poured in the hard cider I'd also strained, then dropped in Jolene. The mother sank to the bottom, but should contain the live cultures needed to start turning this batch of hard cider to vinegar. Covered with cheesecloth to allow for the necessary access to oxygen, I put the fresh jar back up into the cupboard to begin its next transformation. It may not be gold, but it's pretty darn good.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Foster's Bighorn

Rio Vista is a little town in the Sacramento River Delta. Midway between Sacramento and San Francisco, halfway between I-80 and I-5, it's a place you'd come across only if you were exploring the secondary roads in this inland delta area. Rarely, the town makes the news when a wayward humpback whale happens to stray miles from the sea, upriver. Rescuers gather there to guide the whale back to safety. There's a monument to Humphrey down by the river's edge.

Rio Vista has another strange little attraction however - one not as readily noticed. On Main Street downtown is a little storefront saloon - its facade of glass bricks only about 20' across. Inside, the bar stretches the length of the long narrow room with high ceiling - room only for a row of bar stools and space to walk behind them. At the back, the room widens out a bit into a small dining room. But it's not the dark, claustrophobic room that has us standing, transfixed, open-mouthed, when we enter. It's the decor.

Bill Frates started out as a bootlegger in San Francisco. In 1931, after Prohibition ended, he moved to Rio Vista, changed his last name to Foster, bought a bar and cafe, and went into the legitimate liquor business. Running the bar provided enough money for him to pursue an expensive hobby. Bill Foster was a trophy hunter.

We take a seat at the bar, and order a round of drinks - a fair enough "price of admission" allowing us plenty of time to gawk at his collection on display. Up high behind us is a row of taxidermied heads of the world's ungulates - deer, elk, sheep, antelope. Underneath those are closely arranged framed black and white photographs encircling the windows - the hunter posing with various carcasses, a slip of white paper with typewritten caption accompanying each picture.

My sister and I check out the dining room in the back. The sights there are even more amazing, or maybe appalling would be a better word in today's sensibilities. We trade off photographing each other. At 5'6", I'm dwarfed standing under the head of an African elephant, mounted with ears and trunk fully extended. Even more fascinating, to me, is a wall plaque bearing the head of a giraffe on the other side. Still open-mouthed, below, my sister stands with her back to the bar area.

Back on my seat at the bar, I strike up a conversation with a local gentleman sitting next to me. He tells me his favorite thing in the place is the photo hung where the bar curves to meet the wall in the front of the room. I get up to check it out, leaning in to read the caption and studying the photo. I can't help thinking about The Thornbirds.

In the novel by Colleen McCullough, there is a gripping scene that always stuck with me. After a wildfire burns through the family ranch and the father, caught out in it, doesn't return, his sons set out to find him. One son, after finding his father's body, startles a wild boar in the brush. He gets off a shot as the animal charges, killing it, but in its momentum it falls on the son, killing him as well. In the photo before me (left, center, here. Check out the video link too, but first read to the end of my post), on the left side are the remains of a hunter - only a skeleton, leather boots, and his gun are left. At his head, on the right side, are the bones and rack of a bull moose. A hunter's nightmare, only this time, it wasn't fiction.

As I finish my drink, I gaze at the animals mounted in realistic poses behind the bar. A rather strange one, above the cash register, catches my eye. A small, burrowing-type owl peers out from what looks like a hollow of a tree. But I've never seen tree bark that looks like that - it looks like the gray, wrinkled skin of an elephant. Oh, no - he didn't! Did he? I've seen the carnage left after a skunk killed some of our ducks, then feasted on the tenderest parts. Could this really be a true-to-life depiction of an opportunistic little scavenging carnivore? The gentleman next to me confirms my suspicions, earnestly telling me it's something the management doesn't really advertise.

Ok, I've been a bartender. I've heard my regular customers telling tall tales to gullible tourists. It's a very common barroom occurrence. But I believe him. If you're ever in the area, check the place out (or click on through to the video on the Foster's Bighorn website, linked to above. Stop the video at 1:21 to see what I'm talking about, there, just left of center frame). Tell me what you think. Tree, gray mud, or is it elephant?