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Sunday 2017.12.10

California Wildfires Update

I wasn't sure when, or if, I'd get my web site updated today. Electricity is intermittent. When it is on, I have cable TV but maybe no Internet connection. Nothing is reliable now, except smoke and ash in the sky.

Thursday was not a pleasant day. The smoke and ash arrived. The winds had been blowing most of it off the coast during the early part of the week. Watching the graphic of the wind patterns on the Weather Channel was interesting. Again, the winds were blowing mostly toward the WSW, off the coast. But there was one little curve of wind blowing WNW, pushing smoke into our area. Here are a few pictures:

This is the area up along the tracks (you sometimes hear trains in my videos), looking east. You can see how orange the sunlight is and the haze in the background. That's all smoke.

This is the same area, looking west. At noon it looks like sunset outside. I went outside yesterday at 12:30 and the sun was barely visible. Some people get depressed with too much cloudy weather. I don't, but the smoke affects me. I want it to go away.

I thought about driving around to get better pictures, like up near the mountains, but there was so much smoke and ash in the air, I decided to follow the recommendation to stay in my home with the windows closed. I run a HEPA filter air purifier in the office throughout the day.

And this was what my car looked like this morning:

Thankfully, the air has been very dry. There is no dew to stick the ash to the paint. Even though we are being "urged" not to blow or sweep the ash off our cars, stairs, sidewaks, etc., I pulled out my Datavac Electric Duster. It puts out a good blast of air; so it took less than a minute to blow all the ash off my car. I wear an N-95 grade face mask so that I don't breathe in any particles.

Most of the time we are under a pall of smoke. There hasn't been much wind, which helps the fire fighters combat the flames, but it doesn't clear the skies of smoke. It just lingers up there, dropping ash. Some days are better than others. And looking out the windows, I see an orange sky and orange light from the sun. I am trying to be patient. The latest numbers on the nearest fire, the Thomas fire in Ventura, are 173,000 acres burned and 15% contained.

The electricity has been unpredictable. It was off during most of last night and this morning the power went off twice while I was updating this blog. I need to save my work after every sentence. I'm listening to KNX New Radio in Los Angeles on my crank radio as I write this.

Meanwhile, More Slow Cooking

As planned, I made the Beef and Mushroom Stroganoff in my Instant Pot. The recipe came from the book Slow Cooker 101 by Perrin Davis. I didn't agree with all the measurements; so I made a few modifications, which I often do.

This is definitely not the best picture I've taken of food. It might be among the worst.

I did have more of the stroganoff in the refrigerator and more pasta dough to make noodles. So the following day, Friday, I tried again. Maybe some foods simply don't look good in a photograph.

The second photograph is better, but it isn't beautiful. Would that picture inspire anyone to prepare this dish? I went onto the Internet to look at photographs of beef stroganoff. A few people tried adding a little splash of green — a sprig of fresh parsley, rosemary, or some broccoli — but the result was about the same. The food didn't look appetizing on the plate. So maybe you just need to know and love beef stroganoff to appreciate how delicious it is.

And I learned a neat little trick too. As mentioned in last Sunday's blog, when I ordered my Instant Pot I also purchased the optional glass lid. I wanted to see the food cooking inside. There is a little steam vent in the cover and it is the perfect size to allow me to check the internal temperature with my ThermaPen probe digital thermometer. Here is a photo:

The inside of the pot was maintaining 155°F (68°C). For fresh beef, not ground beef, the USDA recommends a temperature of at least 145°F (63°C). I was satisfied my pot was keeping the temperature above the safe cooking level for the eight hours this dish cooked.

And something else I learned: If I am going to do slow cooking, I had better do all the food prep — chopping, slicing, measuring, etc. — the evening before. Dinner wasn't ready until 7:00 in the evening.

Next up? I'm planning to use my Instant Pot's yogurt function to make my own Greek style yogurt.

Finally, Stroganoff or Stroganov?

Doing food research can sometimes be fun. Look up "beef stroganoff" on Wikipedia.org. You will find some informative history on the dish.

Wednesday 2017.12.6

California Wild Fires

There were warnings. The Weather.org web site said Monday night/Tuesday morning would be dry with strong Santa Ana winds blowing in Southern California. The danger for fire was high — and therefore there were fires. They are still investigating the cause, but often the fires are started by arsonists. They're a fact of life, like child molesters running for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Santa Ana winds are more common in October. It's odd to see them in December. Something else we can blame on global warming? They blow into Southern California from off the high desert, bringing dry air. Typically they're very warm, but this time it was the opposite. Last night the temperature was predicted to be as low as 32°F (0°C).

The location of the fires caused another problem. They burned beneath the high voltage transmission lines that bring us our electricity. When the fires affected the power, the grid automatically shut down some parts and that put us in the dark, even though we are many miles away from the fire.

Thankfully, I'm not without a few resources. I have flashlights because I kind of have a "thing" about flashlights. I have several, at least one in every room. I also have a wind-up flashlight. The spring runs a little generator inside to charge the batteries.

The pleasurable source of light was from my oil lamps. I don't require them often, but when I need them I enjoy using them. They emit a soothing glow.

And I have a wind-up radio too. That was how I learned about the fires on Monday evening when the power first went out. I listened to KNX News Radio in Los Angeles. The radio also has a solar panel on it. I can place it in the sun and the light will charge the batteries. I like feeling resourceful.

As for the outage, it was worst Monday night. Without electricity, my furnace would not come on. Ergo, no heat. My home didn't get too cold, 61°F (16°C). Off and on during the night the electricity came back on enough to occasionally heat my home and keep the refrigerator cold. I worried about losing the food in my freezer.

Yesterday the electricity was intermittent during the morning. By afternoon it seemed reliable again and it never went off during the night. If it had, my bedroom clock would be blinking the wrong time this morning, needing to be reset. The winds were mild last night.

The Santa Anas are expected to be strong again tonight. They can gust up to 70 mph. With power lines and poles already compromised because of the fires, the wind makes things worse. I'm ready with flashlights and oil lamps, should the power outages return.

I tried to write most of this blog yesterday morning. I saved my work at the end of every sentence because I didn't know when the electricity would go off.

Cooking Slow

I have a foodie web site and a cooking channel on YouTube, but there is so much I don't know about cooking. People with crock pots and slow cookers are well advanced over me. I'm a newbie in that realm.

The Split Pea Soup I made was excellent. My attempt at Beef Stew was a dismal failure. Although I managed to get an edible stew, I didn't like it. The vegetables were good — I like vegetables — but the beef was way too bland. I erased the video files from my camera and I bagged up the stew and put it in the trash. What did I learn?

First: I wrote to a cooking friend (she has a crock pot) and told her about my effort and failure. One point was the beef. The store had nice thick steaks on sale for about the same price as stew beef. Why not use a better cut of beef? Her explanation was that steak is steak and should be cooked as steak, grilled or broiled. It ain't stew meat. Use chuck. Fortunately, the store up the street has "boneless beef chuck steaks or roasts (limit 4)" on sale this week for $2.87 per pound rather than $4.99. That's almost half price.

Second: Don't move the Instant Pot after it is set up and cooking. The cord fits too loosely into the back of the pot. I moved the pot to do some photography and that loosened the plug. Because the front panel was facing away from me, I didn't see that the pot had turned off. It might have been off for about an hour before I discovered the problem and started it cooking again.

Third: Trust the pot. If the recipe says to cook on high for 8 hours, don't assume I know more than the pot does. Leave the lid on and let it cook for the full length of time.

I did find a cookbook of crock pot recipes. The first one in the book is a kind of beef stroganoff made in the pot. I love good stroganoff. I have a Beef Stroganoff recipe on this web site. My plan is to use the best from both recipes. For example, the book recipe doesn't say to serve the stroganoff over cooked noodles. I've always had it with noodles; so that's part of the plan. I need to wait though.

I had lunch with two friends on Monday. The girlfriend of one of them has an Instant Pot because he bought it for her a couple years ago. She found some plastic bag liners that fit in the pot. You cook in the liners, serve the food, and the pull out the liner to toss in the trash. No cleanup.

I really like that idea because the Instant Pot's stainless steel pot is a real pain to clean. It's polished steel rather than brushed. Every little discoloration stands out. I've tried soaking it with vinegar, rubbing with metal polish, even Bar Keeper's Friend cleaner. Nothing restored it to its like-new luster. I ordered liners. They're available on Amazon. A package of 50 cost me about $23.

For my own cooking I don't mind if the pan doesn't look like I just brought it home from the store. I have some cookware that I use solely for videos. In videos I want my cookware to look clean, like I take care of it. Most people probably don't mind that the Instant Pot looks discolored after several uses. It doesn't affect the efficiency nor the flavor of the food. But I'm not happy about it when I do videos.

And lest people think plastic is filled with all kinds of carcinogenic chemicals that will shorten my life span by at least 30 years, the information about the liners says: "FDA certified, NSF approved, KOFK certified and produced in an ISO 9001 environment." Of course, the conspiracy theorists will still say I'm playing with death in a crock pot, but I'm not worried.

I don't have Amazon Prime; so I wait longer for things to be delivered. According the their web site, the expected delivery will be after the sale on the beef chuck ends. So, buy the meat and freeze it. I'll be okay.

Sunday 2017.12.3

The Postal Person's Pledge

"Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays these couriers
from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

The pledge says nothing about being too lazy to put the mail in the truck. Case in point:

My Instant Pot from Amazon was "out for delivery" on Wednesday, or so said the tracking number. I was waiting at the mail boxes because the truck drove past my home without stopping. He usually leaves larger packages at my door. I told the driver it was supposed to be delivered today, "out for delivery," etc., and he said there were boxes he didn't load into his truck that morning. He'd do it tomorrow. No. Not good enough.

I told him I already started my prep work for a video that morning because the cooker would be delivered that day. I planned to use it the following morning so that I would be done making the food (split pea soup) early enough for the final photography. This is the time of year when the sun sets early. I shoot my photographs using natural lighting. The mail is delivered in the afternoon and that wouldn't give me enough time.

To be honest, I really like our postal delivery guy. He's pleasant and he does try to give good service (unless he can get away with something). He is young and he complains sometimes about his job. It's too much work. I don't mean to generalize about all young workers, but he does remind me of a problem we have here in the USA. Some young people — not all — aren't taught a work ethic the way we old-timers were.

It reminds me of a scene in one of the Absolutely Fabulous episodes. Edina is addressing her office assistant: "Bubble, what is it you do?" Bubble, with her usual vacuous expression on her face, says: "I don't know. Get paid, I guess."

Luis, that's his name, promised he would deliver my parcel later that day. During the afternoon a mail truck arrived with the package. Luis wasn't driving, but evidently he made arrangements for my box to be delivered. Thank you.

Split Pea Soup

The prep work I had started on Wednesday was a big pot of Homemade Chicken Stock. You can, of course, buy stock or broth at the grocery store. There are some decent brands, although I find the Swanson product to be a little too watered down. I almost always have homemade stock in my freezer. I freeze it in one-cup containers and then store the ice blocks in ziplock bags. It ends up looking like this:

I eat a lot of soup in winter and homemade stock is an excellent ingredient in many dishes. When I see a recipe or a video that says "Add two cups of water" I often wonder what would be a good substitute for the water. If it's a savory dish, stock often works better.

My supply of frozen stock was nearly depleted. There were only two cups remaining. I needed at least six cups for the split pea soup recipe. Thankfully I had plenty of chicken trim in the freezer. That, along with the usual mirepoix of diced carrots, onions, celery, and herbs made plenty of delicious stock. That batch yielded 17 cups of stock, and I have more trim to use.

And then I used the stock to make Split Pea Soup.

The soup was delicious. When I make it again, I'll use half chicken stock and half water. The soup tasted a little too much like chicken broth. I wanted the flavor of the peas to predominate.

Slow Cooking

Yesterday I tried using my Instant Pot as a slow cooker. It was my first attempt with that method of cooking and I tried to make make beef stew. My mom made beef stew, but I didn't have her recipe. So I combined a few recipes I found on the Internet.

After several hours the potatoes still weren't tender. I finally switched to the Sauté mode to heat the pot to boiling. After 10 minutes they were tender enough. I assume meats, especially chicken, cook well in a slow process, as do sauces. There is a "Meat/Stew" button on the cooker. It starts a timed pressure cooking cycle. Lesson learned.

Here is a photo of my beef stew in the pot before I started boiling it. (The glass lid is sold separately.)

I'll make this again, but I'll use the "Meat/Stew" function of the cooker. I now believe my mother made her beef stew in her pressure cooker. And I'll make it with lamb. Those of you who have read my blog long enough will already know I am not much of a beef eater. The flavor doesn't appeal to me. I prefer lamb.

As for slow cooking, I am still looking at recipes. Fans are beginning to share some recipes. That's good. They are giving me some excellent ideas.