Pumpkin Cornbread

A couple of weeks ago, I wanted to make something that could bake along with the Honey Baked Lentils and could be eaten with them to add some Vitamin C to the meal to improve our absorption of the iron from the lentils.  We didn’t have any squashes to bake, but canned pumpkin is a staple in our pantry.  I also thought that cornbread would be good with the lentils.  Thus, this recipe!  I invented it by reading the cornbread recipe on the cornmeal box and substituting ingredients as I went along.  As is typical of my over-confidently adventuresome approach to cooking, I made a double batch…and it turned out pretty good.  The first batch had milk in it, but I realized calcium inhibits iron absorption, so the next time I tried orange juice instead and left out the egg.  Nicholas liked it so much he requested it for his birthday cake! Read more…

About those newsbots…

I received a skeptical query in response to my recent article “When Robots Write the News“:

C’mon, those were in spam? They were too grammatical. The ones I get are usually the first several words of one sentence and the next several words of another, without regard to grammar.

All of the text I quoted was lifted from spam, and all phrases placed next to each other in a sentence actually appeared in that order in the spam.  However, I did remove a few extraneous words and edit the punctuation to improve the effect.  Sentences that are together in a paragraph came from the same message but did not necessarily appear in that order.  There’s one exception: A woman found buried in sand in a bathtub has clinched the playoff. and “This man needs my handbags like trading one menacing existence for another,” she said. came from two separate messages, but the combination was just irresistable.

I do receive spam in which the random text is much more choppy and ungrammatical, but many of the spams I’ve been getting at work lately use longer phrases and string them together in a way that comes strangely close to making sense.

Our Green Christmas Tree

“How to have an enviro-friendly Christmas” seems to be a hot topic in the media this year, so I won’t bother with an extensive list.  I’ll just describe one idea that is, as far as I know, unique:

We don’t use a real tree as our Christmas tree, nor do we have one of those fake trees that comes in a box.  Daniel and I, with the help of former housemate Bill, made our tree in 1996 and have used it every year since. We just bring it up from the basement, wipe with a damp cloth, and decorate!  Here’s how we made it:

  • We made a cardboard pyramid by cutting a large box into 4 tall triangles and connecting them with gaffer’s tape.  Then we cut a square 2″ smaller than the base of the pyramid, pushed it up into the base, and taped it in place.
  • We took a bunch of the bright green plastic bags that the newspaper comes in, cut them lengthwise to make long strips, folded each strip in half, and cut a zigzag along the fold down to about 1″ from the outer edge, resulting in two pieces of skinny triangles hanging from a strip.
  • We glued the strips to the pyramid, starting around the bottom edge with the triangles hanging off, then another strip above that one with its triangles hanging down over the strip below, all the way up to the top. Okay, it took 3 jars of rubber cement, which produced harmful fumes and will not biodegrade–but it’s held up for 11 years so far, without repairs!
  • We filled a large steel can (from sweet potatoes) with gravel, hot-glued it to the square in the bottom of the pyramid, and covered it with a crinkled brown grocery bag to make the trunk.  This part did not last: We re-attached the trunk at least once every year for a while, then made a trunk from a small cardboard box and tried to crinkle the grocery bag such that we could pretend the box was round, and now have a trunkless tree just sitting on the table.
  • We attach the decorations with thumbtacks hidden under the “needles”.

The rubber cement and thumbtacks were the only supplies needed–all the rest was reused stuff!  Therefore, it cost less than $10 to make.

It’s kind of cartoony-looking, but we like it.  Its resemblance to an Icehouse pyramid has been noted.

(Sorry this article is not illustrated with photos or diagrams.  Someday…)

Another idea for an alternative tree: My parents have a brick wall in their house, on which they outline a tree using a tinsel garland, held by bent paperclips wedged between bricks.  They hang the ornaments the same way.

UPDATE: I later wrote a more extensive article on having an environmentally friendly Christmas!

Songs to soothe the savage baby

Nicholas had a very difficult first month: He wasn’t used to being in this world outside me, he didn’t understand the day-and-night thing, and when he was the slightest bit uncomfortable his immediate response was full-throttle shrieking.  One thing I learned during that month–which has proven useful ever since–is that singing may calm him, and even if it doesn’t it will improve my mood.  Oddly, I found that as a sleep-deprived, hormone-saturated new mother I was more verbally clever than usual and able to think up long strings of rhyming lyrics to fit familiar tunes.  Many other moms have told me that their postpartum minds were barely able to form sentences for basic communication, so I know that “Make up songs to sing to your baby!” is not very useful advice.  Instead, I’ll share the lyrics to the two songs I composed in that era that I remembered long enough to repeat and thus memorize: Read more…

Potato-Turnip Thing

This is a great side dish for any food that is dry and/or bland, because you can dredge that food in the excess oil, and it’s a healthy fat.  Add sunflower seeds, nuts, tofu, tempeh, or nutritional yeast flakes (huh?) to make this a main dish.  There are no measurements in this recipe because it’s one that I make when we have a bunch of potatoes and turnips to use up, which typically happens in the late fall after our farm share is over.

You will need:

  • some potatoes
  • some turnips
  • (optional) some similar vegetables, such as carrots and onions
  • a lot of olive oil–about 1/3 cup per quart of casserole dish capacity
  • some garlic–about 1-3 cloves per quart of casserole dish, depending on how much you like garlic!
  • some rosemary, parsley, and maybe a few other herbs (fresh or dried)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • at least one casserole dish or baking pan, with lid or foil to cover
  • a mixing bowl

Put oil, salt, and pepper in bowl.  Crush garlic and herbs into it.  Mix.  Let stand.

Cut vegetables into bite-size chunks.  For faster baking, make them no more than 1/4″ thick in one dimension.

Preheat oven to 375F.

Use a spoon to drizzle oil down sides of casserole dish and spread it over sides and bottom.

Put a handful of each type of vegetable into the dish.  Drizzle more oil on top.  Repeat until dish is full or all vegetables are used.

Bake, covered, until potatoes are tender–about 45 minutes.

See my ravings about kale for instructions on how to make a crispy, nutritious topping for this dish.

When robots write the news

Lately, my e-mail account at work has been receiving a lot of spam that consists of a block of text, a pornographic image, an ad for some drug, and then another block of text.  It’s become a routine yet surreal part of my day, being bombarded with porn while I’m trying to do my job.  But never mind the porn.  What fascinates me is the text above and below it, designed to get the message through spam filters.  It’s made from fragments of news reports, stuck together at random, often forming sentences that are grammatically complete but make no sense.  It reminds me of another routine yet surreal experience: being bombarded with news in some public place that’s full of TV sets telling one story while summaries of other stories scroll across the screen.  I try to focus on whatever I came there to do, but the endless barrage of words penetrates my consciousness.  Those big media corporations are doing some questionable journalism these days.  Their fixation on seemingly unimportant stories and the way they jump around from topic to topic makes me wonder if the broadcasts actually are being engineered by some nonhuman entity.  It sounds very much like the randomized text from the spam.  In a few years, the anchor-droids on FoxABCBS Newsfeed may be saying things like this:

The opening of new digital operating theaters at Mercy Sri Lanka won the toss and chose to bat first, shot 10-18 from the field and picked up the city of Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002 put to death by Marcus Junius Brutus and a flurry of fans who gathered scrutiny.  Another transcript of a Guantanamo Bay missing dog’s severed head, found by a 17-year-old girl, defeated Walter the Fifth of Brienne.  Read more…

New Realms of Reading

One day in August, Nicholas and I were walking past a pile of trash set at the curb in front of an apartment building when I noticed a huge anthology of “Peanuts” comics, clean and hardly used, on top of the pile.  I immediately grabbed it to take home.  Nicholas (age two-and-a-half) was very interested in these adventures of kids and a dog, and although he didn’t get all of the jokes, he generally understood the events.  We read from this book on the bus every day for a couple of weeks, returning to certain storylines over and over again at Nick’s request.  He soon noticed “Peanuts” in the comics section of my Sunday newspaper and began asking me to read those comics to him as well.

I’m surprised at how infrequently comic strips and comic books are mentioned as tools for teaching children to read.  It seems that a lot of people view comics as a dangerous distraction from “real” books–too easy to read or not serious enough.  But plenty of children’s picture books are easy to read and have silly or simplistic plots.  Nick is learning some things from being read comics that he hadn’t yet learned from being read picture books.  Read more…

Honey Baked Lentils

I’ve seen this recipe floating around vegetarian and thrifty discussions for the past year or two, but I didn’t get around to trying it until this past weekend.  It was delicious and very easy!  It will be ideal for us now that Daniel is working at home, because he can spend just a few minutes assembling it (or one of us could do that the night before) and stick it in the oven and go back to work, and dinner will be ready when Nicholas and I get home.  All the ingredients are shelf-stable (except the optional orange juice), so it can be a back-up meal when we haven’t gotten to the store recently.

To make 6-8 main-dish servings, you will need: Read more…