Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Superior Vacation: Part One

Hello! The Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan seems pretty remote when you live many hours from it. We may have never gotten there, but then my sister moved to Houghton in 1984 to teach at Michigan Technological University (aka Michigan Tech). We visited her shortly after she was settled in and liked what we saw. She didn't last long - in 1988 she moved back to my hometown near Flint. But we continued to vacation up there.

In fact, for awhile we had a streak of going to the Keweenaw area at least once a year through 2008. (this was no small feat during the seven years that we lived on the East Coast). I told my husband it was time to start visiting other parts of the country, and we had a great time traveling west, south and northeast for our vacations.

But now the tide has turned - it was time to go back and revisit the Keweenaw area. So what follows is a bit of what we saw and did during a trip last week. There's no way this blog could recount all the scenery and history of this unique part of the state - what follows is just a brief summary!

Above, the Fish Basket food truck in Munising. My husband learned about this place on Yelp. Fresh-caught Lake Superior fish and French fries made to order - what's not to like? Fresh fish is a real treat, and we thoroughly enjoyed our lunch here. 

Our first stop to take photos of Lake Superior; taken at a roadside rest area off M-28 near Au Train. Not sure, but that might be Au Train Island off in the distance. 

Driving across the UP is a bit of a lesson in patience, as there's no freeways once you leave I-75 north of the Mackinac Bridge. Over the years, we'd pass the time by looking for various "landmarks" near the roads. As I'd said in the beginning of this post, it's been several years since we were last this way, so we were curious to see what was still around. 

Alas, the Laughing Whitefish market, down the road from a river of the same name, appeared to be closed. I hope that its sign, with its caricature of a laughing whitefish, lives on somewhere else. Love the name of the river, loved that sign!

Also gone was the giant cactus statue that stood out in the front yard of a house in the Marquette area. I suppose that the cactus went along with the Spanish-style exterior of the house, but both seemed incongruous in an area more known for woods, lakes and long, snowy winters.

Additions: a few more art galleries and studios here and there, and a number of traffic circles have been constructed in Marquette (to take the place of traffic signals, I think). Not really a fan of the latter, but it is what it is. A lot more chain stores in the Marquette area than there used to be too.

Finally we arrived at our destination, a Country Inn and Suites in Houghton. We can remember when this hotel wasn't even there. Since we'd been in the car for several hours already, my husband suggested walking to the downtown for dinner. It wasn't that far - about a mile - but since the hotel is atop a steep hill, the trip back from dinner meant going up that hill. No need for using the hotel fitness center's treadmill here! 

Spied this sign while in downtown Houghton:

A display of kayaks blocked part of the sign, which read "Houghton County Snowfall 286.6". That's a lot of snow, but not unusual for the area. My sister said that 299" had fallen during one of her winters there; folks said it might as well snow one inch more so they could say they'd gotten 300" of the stuff. But it was not to be. 

No sign of snow while we were there, of course - but also no sign of normal temps for the time of year. In fact, one day during our visit Houghton was just one degree shy of tying the record high for the date. It was in the low 80's during our stay, well above the norm.

Saw a number of boaters out enjoying the waters of the Portage Shipping Canal, a waterway that divides Houghton and the neighboring city of Hancock. Saw members of the Michigan Tech sailing club:

It looked like they were having a great time!

We hadn't gotten enough walking in while making our way up that steep hill back from dinner; no, the next day it was time to set out on foot again. This time, we were heading to the Porcupine Mountains Wildnerness State Park, near Ontonagon.

We've been to the "Porkies" many times before, and have hiked most of its 90+ miles of trails. But this jaunt would be just for fun. As it was going to be a hot, humid day, we planned on doing a short hike. Armed with water bottles and lunch (trail snacks from Keweenaw Co-op in Hancock), we set out toward the state park. As we'd done yesterday, we looked to see what has come and gone along the route. The biggest difference we noticed, besides a few more new businesses on the outskirts of Houghton, was the route changes in South Range and Ontonagon. Before, you drove through the commercial districts of both towns, now you drive past them if you're staying on the main road. Bummer - I always like going through small towns, just to see the houses and businesses there.

The Porcupine Mountains, at least, are the same: forests, rivers, hills, waterfalls, and the Lake Superior shoreline. The latter would be our destination for lunch.

A few pics:

We started out on the Pinkerton Creek Trail, which connected to the Lake Superior Trail. 

Lunchtime along Lake Superior. Although there were several cars parked at the Pinkerton Creek trailhead, we saw no other people on this hike. 

We returned on the same route we'd taken, which led to this photo of Pinkerton Creek:

Very typical scenery for the Porkies. I was glad Pinkerton Creek  had a footbridge for its crossing. I'd been on many a watery crossing in the park that involved stepping on wet stones or cautiously navigating on logs several feet above a river. I always feared falling off one of those logs; although I can swim, I didn't relish getting wet in my hiking clothes and boots. Thankfully, that never happened!

This day's hike was only six miles. Back when we were much younger, over 30 years ago, our hikes here were much longer distances and often included rugged terrain. We can still recall the Memorial Day weekend hike of 1988. Like this most recent hike, it was abnormally hot and humid, but that didn't stop us from hiking 16 miles. The excursion included going up to the 1,850 feet Government Peak, second highest point in the park. My husband's brother had come with us and he insisted after that climb that he would die of hydration. But he's still around. 

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park does have a few niceties that it didn't have in the earlier years of our visits: a bigger visitor center, a folk school, an artist-in-residence program (we saw past works from this program on display at the visitor center), and a music festival. But I don't think much else has changed over the years - it's still a great place to visit, whether you want a challenging hike or an easier one. Well worth the travel time from Houghton! (over an hour)

In my next post I'll talk about what we did on the rest of our vacation.   


Friday, September 15, 2017

Thrifty Acres: An Oldie But Goodie

Hello! I first did yoga in the mid-to-late 1980's, using a paperback book I'd gotten at a rummage sale. The book was already quite a few years old then. I don't recall why now, but eventually I stopped doing yoga, and so donated that book to a thrift store. 

Yoga's now become trendy, and so I come across books devoted to this practice quite often at secondhand markets. I've purchased a few of these books, and while they were nice to work with, I often found myself confused by the directions. And it wasn't always exactly clear what progress I could hope to make over time.  I missed the step-by-step instructions that were the foundation of the book I'd once had. 

Came across a copy of that years-ago yoga book at a fundraiser garage sale a few weeks ago, so I eagerly snatched it up:

Richard Hittleman's Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan. This book was first published in 1969, but my edition came out in 1973. Some reviewers on say that the book is still in print! 

The cover photo shows some color, but inside, demonstrations of the poses look like this:

That's right, all the poses were photographed in black and white - no color shots of the model clad in various examples of coordinated yoga clothes. No props such as straps or blocks either: you just stretch as much as you comfortably can. 

The program is set up in a progressive way, with each day building on what was learned on previous days. The photos of the poses, and the accompanying descriptions, are very helpful. To reinforce the lessons, every four days a review session is given.  There's also a brief essay at the end of each day's practice ranging from nutrition advice, to how to judge one's progress, and to how yoga can help arthritis sufferers. 

And how has this yoga work helped me thus far? Well, with my latest go-round of using this book - I'm on day 19 - I do feel less  "creaky" and more limber than I had before I started the routine. My back doesn't feel as tight. I've been sleeping very well too. So all in all, pretty good results in less than three weeks.

I'm glad I found this book again at that garage sale. Maybe I've learned a lesson: instead of falling for something flashier, stick to an oldie but goodie!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Eats: DIY Kombucha Tea

Hello! I'd been reading about kombucha tea lately, but didn't know much about it other than the various health claims (purported to be probiotic, anitbacterial, and more). Then a friend told me about purchasing the Sacred Springs brand at our local farmer's market, so I tried some from the vendor there. The guy was super nice and his ginger-flavored kombucha tea was awesome.

But was not awesome was the cost: I think around $4.00/bottle. The brands at grocery stores and health food stores are priced lower, but still not low enough to make buying kombucha tea a regular habit. 

So of course I investigated making my own, and came across this clearly-written tutorial.

According to the recipe, I needed to start out with a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), which I could have ordered online. However, my recipe also included a link for making my own SCOBY as well (the link is in the last line of the ingredients list). For this SCOBY-making step, I did need to buy some unflavored kombucha for making the starter tea, to go along with tea bags, sugar and water. For the tea itself, I used ordinary Lipton's since I already had a big box of it on hand, but opted for organic cane sugar(purchased for a reasonable price at Sam's Club).

You need a large, clean glass jar for making kombucha tea, as both the SCOBY-making process and the kombucha tea-fermenting step yield 8-10 cups of liquid. Fortunately I had 2 large jars, purchased years ago at a store-closing sale. (the recipe can be made in two smaller jars, or can be halved if desired). 

I think I jumped the SCOBY-making step a bit. The instructions say to let it "grow" to a thickness of about 1/4" thick. This is supposed to take 1-4 weeks. After 8 days, I looked at my SCOBY and thought it was thick enough. But you know how shapes look distorted under water? Well, that's what happened when I took my SCOBY out of the starter tea. It was probably closer to around 1/8" thick. However, I'd already made the tea base that, along with the SCOBY, would be set aside to ferment for 7-10 days to make kombucha tea. So I decided to go ahead with the fermenting step, figuring that the lesser amount of SCOBY would be okay for this first time around.

After seven days of fermenting were up, it was time to flavor/bottle/carbonate my kombucha tea. Flavoring options are included in my recipe, so I decided to go with the easiest one, which was to add fruit juice. I used R.W. Knudsen's organic black cherry juice. 

I've read that carbonation works best with the type of bottle that has a stopper that is clamped down with a wire mechanism. I didn't come across an inexpensive source for these bottles, but will keep on looking. In the meantime, I bought some plastic bottles with screw-on lids from American Science and Surplus's website.

The carbonation step takes 1-3 days, then the kombucha tea is refrigerated and ready to drink. The tea will keep for a month in the refrigerator. I decided to refrigerate my first batch after one day was up, since I was anxious to start drinking it. I liked how it turned out! It wasn't really fizzy, but I didn't care about that.

Okay, that's enough chatter about my first foray into DIY kombucha tea. As of today, I'm ready to bottle my 4th batch, so here's how things look:

Above, the fermented tea base, with the SCOBY on top (that lighter-colored blob). The glass jar is kept covered with a cloth napkin, but I took it off so the SCOBY would be more visible in the photo. Next to the jar is one of the bottles I use, and behind these containers is the tea base for the next batch of fermenting tea. 

Making kombucha tea is like using a sourdough starter (which I've also done): you have to reserve some of the fermented tea (before you add any flavoring to it) to use in making the next batch of kombucha tea. Thus, you make the fresh batch of tea and let it cool down before you're ready to bottle the fermented batch. 

My first two batches of kombucha tea were flavored with that bottle of cherry juice. But then I wanted to try replicating the tangy ginger flavor I'd enjoyed before. Again, I went for an easy way of adding this flavor: I peeled about 3" fresh ginger and placed it and 1/4 cup raw honey into my Vitamix along with 3/4 cup water. I blended this mixture until smooth, then strained into my jar of kombucha tea. It tasted great! I think this will be my go-to flavor. 

As with many DIY projects, there are various cautions involved in the making of kombucha tea. Contamination can be an issue if a bad SCOBY is used. The recipe I use has a page on troubleshooting typical SCOBY problems, the worst of which is mold. And of course, all kitchen utensils, bottles, jars, etc. need to be clean when going through all the steps in the process. But that is just common sense. 

To keep things straight, I keep a running list of when each step is completed (fermenting, bottling, carbonating). It seemed a little confusing at first, but I'm getting the hang of it. 

So far my SCOBY has been behaving just fine, so I will keep making kombucha tea with it. I don't know if I feel any different after drinking it for a few weeks now, but I like how it tastes, and I like the money I'm saving by going the DIY route.



Thursday, August 31, 2017

Get Carded: A Simple Card For A Not-So-Simple Event

Hello! Our daughter recently started a PhD program in chemistry. Along with picking a research group to work with and taking classes this semester, she is also a teaching assistant for two freshman-level labs and two corresponding recitation sections. (A professor supplied the course materials, but our daughter will be the instructor). She and her fellow first-year classmates did have TA training, but still, the thought of being in such a position would have kept me awake at night with anxiety. 

If our daughter had such anxiety, she didn't tell us, and texted after the first recitation that she thought it went well. It probably helped some that she had two years of STEM mentoring as an undergrad, a position had involved keeping office hours and running help sessions. So she already has some awareness on how to manage the academic needs of underclassmen. 

Nevertheless, we're very proud of the good start she's off to, and my husband suggested sending her a gift card to one of her favorite online stores. Naturally, I made a greeting card to send along with the gift card:

Materials used:
  • white card stock
  • portion of page taken from vintage chemistry textbook
  • patterned scrap from World Market shopping bag
  • "Congrats" stamped in brown ink on white card stock scrap
  • gold glitter washi tape
I could have made a fancier card, but didn't really feel the need to. Sometimes a simple card just seems right, and this was one such time. 

Our daughter appreciated the card and gift card. We were glad to "reward" her in this small way, even if it was with just a simple greeting card and small gift card.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Made It: Ye Olde Brick Path

Hello! There's a narrow strip of land - about five feet wide - on the western edge of our property that was a bit of a no man's land. When we first moved in, an assortment of weeds and tree saplings reigned in that space. I got rid of the saplings first, then pulled out the weeds. One particular weed, though, grows via runners, so it was very hard to eradicate. And the thinning out of the other weeds and mini trees caused the spread of lily of the valley. I like the scent and appearance of its flowers, but there was just too much of it growing in this small bit of ground. 

Over the course of our years here, I've gradually added some perennials in this area, but placed them close to the house so I would still have space to walk through. During the growing season, I'd gradually wear down enough of the weeds and lily of the valley to make a path of sorts, though walking on these plants stopped them from growing back.

Then it dawned on me: since I was beating down a path by walking on this strip of land, why not just make a real path? So earlier this summer I dug out a ton of weeds and lily of the valley. It was a bit laborious, but with the excess growth cleared away, that section of the yard looked better already!

Now, what to put down on my path to make it look more official? This would involve figuring out what type of paving stone to buy and how much of it to buy. But before I made a trip to an outdoor landscaping place, it was time to cut the lawn. This task included mowing around a semi-buried, two-brick-wide path someone had added to the park side. And since this path was right next to a large maple tree, it was difficult to mow around. So, time to kill two birds with one stone: remove that old brick path so it'd no longer be a nuisance - and use those bricks to make my new path!

And here's how it turned out:

To show you how narrow this strip of land is, the light green plants to the left are lavender I planted about a foot away from our house, while the feathery-looking greenery to the right is on our neighbors' property. But as you can see, a single file of bricks fit in well here. 

A couple of close-ups on the old bricks I dug up from the parkside and put in place to make the path:

There were a few of this brand, Bessemer Block, Youngstown, Ohio.

But mostly I had this:

Metropolitan Block, Canton, Ohio.

I looked online for some information on these companies. Bessemer Brick Company began in 1901 and was bought by Metropolitan Brick in 1917.  Metropolitan Brick was formed in 1902. 

Finding Metropolitan bricks is quite common; read here
to see where they were found by others (a brief history of the company is first, followed by the comment section where the finds are discussed).

I don't know if or where the bricks I dug up from the parkside had originally been elsewhere. I was glad to have had found just enough to make a nice little path. A couple of neighbors have complimented me on my efforts, which was very kind of them. My path is rather rustic in appearance, but at least that side of our yard no longer looks like a no-man's land!


Friday, August 18, 2017

Eats: My Favorite Salad Dressing

Hello! I eat salads throughout the year, either as a main course lunch or as a side to other meal components. But of course they taste the best during our local growing season. The produce looks as pretty as a picture then:

Above, my side salad includes leaf lettuce, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, red onion, radish and clover sprouts. I grew the tomatoes, cucumbers and the sprouts, while the other veggies came from the Farmer's Market. I'd started the tomatoes from seed; it's the Sweet 100 variety, very prolific. The cucumber came from a plant I bought at the Farmer's Market earlier this spring. The clover sprout seeds are from High Mowing, an organic seed company.

(Those nice slices of radish, cucumber and red onion are courtesy of this purchase, which I still love using as much as I did when I first got it). 

And lastly, my favorite salad dressing, visible as the pale yellow, thick topping. The recipe came from an Internet source, but I don't recall where now. 

Tahini-Ginger Salad Dressing (adapted from an Internet source)

2 tablespoons tahini 
Juice of one lemon (see note below)
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger (see note below)
2 teaspoons honey (see note below)
1/2 cup olive oil
salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste

The directions are merely one line: "mix all together in small bowl". However, I find the dressing mixes best when I blend the tahini, lemon juice and honey together first, then stir in the olive oil and seasonings. Store in refrigerator until needed (I use a glass jar). If using after being stored, stir a little first.

Notes: I don't always have fresh lemons on hand, even though I know they make a better-tasting juice than the bottled stuff. But it's the bottled stuff I typically use. My bottle of Real Lemon says that three tablespoons of their product equals the juice of one medium lemon, so that's what I put in the dressing. 

Could you use dried ginger powder instead of fresh ginger? I'm guessing you could, but here's a case where I've always used the fresh product when called for instead of subbing in its more processed version. I use a couple of tips to make handling fresh ginger easier: 

1. I cut it into chunks that'll work in my recipes
(smaller chunks for this dressing recipe, larger pieces for stir fry dishes). I cut it as is, no peeling done. I put the pieces in a quart freezer bag, then stash it in the freezer. 

2. When I need fresh ginger in a recipe, I just take out a chunk I  from that freezer bag. The peel cuts off very easily while frozen. For this recipe and ones that call for minced ginger, I use a grater (my Microplane grater does a great job), while the peeled chunk is still frozen. If the frozen ginger needs to cut into pieces instead, I set it aside for a few minutes to thaw a bit (or if in a hurry, I'll put it in the microwave for a few seconds). It's easier to cut if still a bit hard, rather than if thawed out completely. 

I suppose that fresh ginger loses a bit of its flavor if frozen first, then thawed out for use, but it beats the alternative: I'd buy a knob of fresh ginger and keep it in the produce crisper, only to have it go bad before I could use it up. 

Honey is messy to measure out, so I always just eyeball the 2 teaspoons needed for this recipe while squeezing or pouring it out of the bottle.

The recipe doesn't give the yield, but I think it makes around a cup. It can be scaled down, but I like this dressing so much I've occasionally doubled it. And why do I like it so much? It's a nice consistency: some dressings are so thin, they fall to the bottom of the salad bowl, while others can be thick and gloppy. This dressing seems to be just right. (note: it's a bit thick just out of the refrigerator, so I take it out to warm up a bit while I'm making my salad). And I don't know if this dressing is particularly healthy, but it tastes like it is. And besides tasting healthy, it tastes good!


Friday, August 11, 2017

Vivid Vacation #2

Hello! My husband and I had visited Pittsburgh's Phipps Conservatory (as discussed in this post) earlier this year, so I wasn't sure if I wanted to visit again so soon. However, our daughter was along for our recent summer vacation, so my husband thought she should see the conservatory for herself. Somewhat reluctantly, I agree, and as it turned out I was very happy we had gone. The special exhibit my husband and I had seen in March was very nice, but now in its place is "Super.Natural" by Seattle-based glass artist Jason Gamrath.

As you'll see from my photos, Gamrath's glass is stupendous, both in scale and in design.

Real orchids are beautiful, but Gamrath's orchids are just as breathtaking in their own right. 

A cluster of pitcher plants, one of many such groupings in the exhibit.

More out-sized flowers.

Giant water lily!

Another rendering of a carnivorous plant, this time the Venus Fly Trap. Thankfully, Gamrath didn't include giant bugs!

Daffodils aren't in season anymore outside, but in Gamrath's world they always will be.

A close-up of those gigantic daffs. 

Boisterous blue flowers. 

A darker shade of blue here.

More orchids. 

And more daffodils.

As you can tell, I thought "Super.Natural" was a great exhibit, and if you're going to be in the Pittsburgh area before November 6th, I suggest checking it out. If you like flowers, glass art, and oversized objects, you'll surely like Gamrath's masterpieces!

If you'd like to know more about this exhibit, go here.