Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Jan Hagels

Lemuel at The Greedy Maelstrom posted a Christmas musing that included a reference to a holiday cookie that I have made and loved since I was in high school. I have never heard of someone else being aware of Jan Hagels. Mine are immensely popular at holiday time. In our exchange of comments he expressed interest in my recipe. These go especially well with a nice, hot cup of tea.

1 c butter (2 sticks)
1 c sugar
1 egg, separated
1 tsp almond extract
2 c all purpose flour
1/2 c sliced almonds
1 tblsp sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon

1. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg yolk and almond extract, blending thoroughly. Stir in flour.
2. Turn dough into an ungreased 15 x 10 x 1 cookie sheet. Spread evenly to edges with a spatula.
3. Beat egg white until foamy. Spread evenly over cookie dough. Spread almonds on top. Combine cinnamon with 1 tblsp sugar and sprinkle on top.
4. Bake 25 minutes at 350° until golden. Cool pan 10 minutes. Cut into 8 lengthwise strips. Make 12 diagonal cuts to make diamonds.


Alphabet Meme

This has not been the best week so far, and I've been mildly depressed. Things are feeling a bit better this morning, but I still think I could do with a shot of fun. I first saw this meme on the blog of a guy who goes by the name The Persian. Here's my version:

A is for age: 49
B is for beer of choice: Killian’s Red. Especially good with pizza. But I'd really rather drink wine.
C is for career: Conservation Biologist working as a curator in a natural history museum.
D is for favorite Drink: Tea, especailly vanilla
E is for essential item you use everyday: A toothbrush
F is for favorite song at the moment: Vienen los Pajaros from the choral work Canto General. Poem by Paolo Neruda, music by Mikos Theodorakis
G is for favorite game: Sudoku
H is for hometown: Manchester-by –the-Sea, Massachusetts
I is for instruments you play: My nickname in college by a music major friend was atonality. I am totally unmusical.
J is for favorite juice: cranberry
K is for kids: None
L is for last kiss: Last night
M is for marriage: Married in Canada in August, 2003. But the 25th anniversary of our being together is next year.
N is for name of your best friend: Mel and Rick
O is for overnight hospital stays: Early 1970’s for anaphylactic shock following a bee sting. So now I do a lot of entomology- go figure.
P is for phobias: Drowning
Q is for quote: "What happens if I push this button?."
R is for biggest regret: I stuck with my last job for about 5 years longer than I should have. .
S is for self confidence Not much of a problem for me. I love what I do, and am reasonably good at it.
T is for time you wake up: 5:00 AM
U is for underwear: Briefs.
V is for vegetable you love: Sweet Corn
W is for worst habit: Procrastination
X is for x-rays you have had: Chest, arm, hand, head and dental
Y is for yummy food you make: Salsa. I’ve been blogging about making cheese lately, but we don’t yet know if it’s yummy or not.
Z is for zodiac sign: The hot half-guy half-horse with the bow and arrow.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More Adventures in Cheese Making

I tried my hand at cheese making again over the Thanksgiving holiday. On Thanksgiving morning, I tried a second mozzarella. This time, I did a better job at the initial filtration of the whey from the curds. I also kneaded it a bit more than last time. The result was an improvement over my first mozzarella. I served it to our Thanksgiving guests as part of a cheese tray for an appetizer.

My second mozzarella

I recently got a hard cheese kit as a birthday gift from my sister. I decided to give it a try on Saturday, and made a Gouda. This gave me the opportunity to learn some new techniques: adding a bacterial culture, using a mold, and pressing my cheese.

In goes the dried bacterial culture

Unlike mozzarella, you don’t start by acidifying the milk. You just heat it up to 90°F and add a small packet of bacterial culture. I was a bit surprised that you only let the bacteria act on the milk for about 10 minutes before adding the rennet. Adding the rennet involves the usual dissolving part of a tablet in water, then pouring that into the milk.

Adding the rennet

The milk is "top stirred" after the rennet is added. This involved placing the bowl of a ladle into the surface of the milk and stirring gently to prevent early separation at the surface. The whole thing then sits for a full hour (much longer than mozzarella) while the curd forms.

Top stirring

I was pleased that I got a good "clean break" on my first attempt at Gouda. By angling the thermometer into the curd and gently lifting, a clean break was reveled in the surface of the curd. Clear whey rushed into it- exactly they desired effect. The curd was then cut into cubes with a knife, and allowed to settle. Here is where I made my main mistake in the process. The recipe says to let the curds sink for about five minutes and pour part of the whey off (more about that in a moment). Had I waited longer than the recipe called for, I would have had a much easier time with this task.

A good "clean break." This means that the curds and whey have separated properly and I will be able to work with the curds as I continue making the cheese.

Gouda is what is referred to as a "washed curd" cheese. This process removes some of the lactose from the curds. After the curds settle, you pour off about a third of the whey. You have some water heated to 175°F sitting near by. Slowly and with plenty of stirring you add the water until the temperature of the curds comes to 92°. The curds then sit for 10 minutes, getting stirred every couple of minutes. By this point, the curds were sinking much more readily into the whey, and it was easy to pour off the whey down to the level of the curds. The washing step was repeated, this time bringing the curd temperature up to 100°. The curds were stirred periodically for 15 minutes and then the whole affair was placed in a sink filled with 100° water for half an hour.

Adding hot water to wash the curds

Letting the curds settle afater the second washing

The cheese mold is a plastic basket that gets lined with cheesecloth. After a final decanting of the diluted whey, the curds are quickly ladled into the cheesecloth. The cloth is folded up and over the top of the curds and 20 pounds of weight is added (the 2 bricks I used actually totaled 18 lb. 13 oz.). The cheese is pressed for 20 minutes, flipped and pressed for 12 hours, flipped again, and pressed for another 12 hours. Its then removed from the mold, unwrapped, and placed back in the mold unwrapped and un-weighted for another 8 hours. Finally, the cheese is plunged into brine for 3 hours. The cheese will now have to dry for 3 weeks. I will then have the option of eating it or waxing it and aging for several months.

Pressing the curds

The cheese is flipped and ready for a second round of pressing

The cheesecloth is off, and the Gouda is ready for three weeks of drying in the cellar.

What I learned:

First, hard cheeses are more time consuming than soft ones. That’s OK, at least assuming that the final product is decent. The process wasn’t terribly difficult, though there are a few steps that I’m sure I’ll get better at with practice and experience (cutting the curds, decanting the whey off of the curds). A good thermometer is essential. I think that I want a cheese press. They are not that expensive and have got to be a heck of a lot easier than messing with the bricks. I’d also like to purchase some annatto-based cheese coloring. The Gouda is very white, and that just looks wrong to me. I want to do more of this. My Christmas gift wish list is going to be very easy to put together this year.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Spo Collection

I mentioned in my last post that I had received a new shirt from the Spomeister. Pictures have been requested, so here it is:

And another original from this exclusive designer:

A happy Thanksgiving to all.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Vacation Wrap-up

Thursday we attempted a trip to Anza-Borrego State Park. We started out very early in the morning, drove up into the mountains and continued south to the historic mining town of Julian. Breakfast was in Julian, then we drove east (and downhill) into the desert. I was surprised at how dry the desert was- we stopped at a desert wetland (I know, it sounds contradictory) that was completely parched.

We started discussing where we might like to go for a hike, and it came out that we were both feeling a bit queasy. Leon was feeling worse than I was (my turn would come) and wanted to head back to the resort. We decided that we would stop briefly at the visitor center on the way out (among other things, you are guaranteed a clean restroom there). We did manage to snap a few photos near Font’s Point on the way out.

By Thursday evening, we were both feeling kind of green. Friday, we just hung out by the pool. Leon was feeling better (I was not), and strolled around Palm Springs photographing cycads. Dinner that night was just soup for me, but I started to feel better. After dinner we waited around for Spo and Someone to show up. They finally rolled in around 11:00.

Saturday the four of us spent together. We spent much of the morning poking around downtown Palm Springs and much of the afternoon by the pool. I was delighted to receive a Spo shirt as a birthday present. The fabric was some that I had found several months ago. It depicts a variety of insects along with killing jars and a notebook prominently marked "Entomology Journal." I knew that I wanted Spo to make a shirt out of it as soon as I saw the fabric.

Saturday evening we had a fabulous dinner at a fairly new restaurant called Copley’s. Fortunately, I was feeling sufficiently mended by then to have a full dinner (including cocktail and dessert). Crème Brulée figured prominently at dessert.

I’m typing this on the plane as we head home. Despite the damper on the hiking at the end of the trip, it was a great vacation. The weather was just about perfect. The hiking that we did get in was fun and beautiful. Getting to share hiking experiences as they happen in a Blog setting is a novel experience for me, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it. Most of all, I got to spend an entire week with Leon, and a few days at the end of the trip with some friends that we enjoy immensely and don’t get to see often enough. What more could one want in a vacation?

Friday, November 17, 2006

SciFi Meme

This comes via Altivo. Instructions for the meme are:

This is a list of the 50 most significant science fiction/fantasy novels, 1953-2002, according to the Science Fiction Book Club. Bold the ones you've read, strike-out the ones you hated, italicize those you started but never finished and put an asterisk beside the ones you loved.

I have maintained Altivo's convention of double starring particular favorites. I couldn't figure out how to make Blogger do a strikethrough, so ones that I didn't like are marked with a frownie.

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien*
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. Dune, Frank Herbert
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke**
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick*
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury**
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card :(
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin**
31. Little, Big, John Crowley*
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny*
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven*
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson**
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein :(
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks :(
49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

Like Altivo, I also noticed some things that I would have placed on the list. No Lathe of Heaven? No The City and the Stars? Oh, well, it's still a pretty good list. I was surprised to see that I had read just under half of the entries.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Horse Thief Creek

Wednesday’s hike took us to Horse Thief Creek in the Santa Rosa Wilderness via Cactus Spring Trail. I was looking forward to this hike in part because I have spent very little time in the chaparral ecosystems of southern California, and in part because we attempted this hike about three years ago and it rained. Rather than get cold and wet, we opted to get back in the car and drive to Idlewild. As the pictures show, this year the weather was nearly perfect.

Near the start of Cactus Spring Trail

Chaparral is a transition ecosystem between desert and forest. There are plenty of desert plants, like cacti and agaves, but there are also areas of open woodland dominated by piñon pine and juniper. Our route took us predominantly to the east. This made for some interesting viewing, because the south facing slopes on our left were dominated by the desert plants, while the north facing slopes on our right were, in places, fairly heavily wooded.

Woodland with piñon pine

The junipers were producing incredibly heavy berry crops. Martini anyone?

Looking east down the trail. The left hand, south facing slope is home to desert plants. The right hand, north facing slope has piñon pine woodland.

About a quarter of a mile down the trail, we encountered the remains of an old dolomite mine. We wondered why anyone would want to mine dolomite. The stone turns out to be very white, and shows up very well in the pictures. We guessed that it might have been mined for ornamental purposes. In the area around the dolomite mine, we found a beautiful purple penstemon. There was evidence of the plant elsewhere on the hike, but it had all gone to seed already. This is the only spot where we found it still blooming.

The dolomite mine


A bit further down the trail we found a dead tarantula. I was surprised to find one at this elevation- we were at over 3000’. There was very little invertebrate life on this trip. I did find a couple of banded-winged grasshoppers, including one with blue wings that I think is a new species for me. At one point, Leon noticed a cottony looking material on the pads of prickly pear cactus. The culprit is a scale insect, and one with quite a history. We crushed a bit of the fluff in some tissue paper. No, that isn’t blood in the photo. This scale insect produces a red dye called cochineal. Next time you drink a Snapple Strawberry-Kiwi, look at the ingredient list and think of where the cochineal came from.

Dead Tarantula

Prickly pear cactus pad with scale insects


The real goal of the trip was Horse Thief Creek. We knew as soon as we saw the valley that we were there, because the watercourse was filled with brilliantly yellow cottonwood trees. The guidebook suggested that this makes the area look like Pennsylvania. We were unconvinced, however it was quite beautiful. There was a fair bit of water in the creek, and some lovely pools. We were able to linger for a while in the woods by the stream before we had to head back. As is typical for us, we got back to the car just as the sun was setting.

Looking down into Horse Thief Creek

A small pool in Horse Thief Creek

Peaceful creekside woodland

We saw this acorn woodpecker in the failing light just as we were returning to the car.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Joshua Tree National Park

On Tuesday, we visited Joshua Tree National Park. We were concerned about both the hiking and the photography opportunities, as we were under very high winds and the whole area was experiencing a sandstorm. Early in the day, we decided that since we had a vehicle suitable for off-road excursions (Avis did not have a copmpact so they upgraded us to a Chevy Trailblazer) we would take the "Geology Tour" 4WD loop. We inquired at the ranger station and were told that the road was not recommended unless we had four wheel drive, and that the extension to Dillon Rd was not recommended at all unless we had a high-clearance vehicle.

Split Rock Picnic Area

Lunch was sandwiches at an established but scenic picnic area called Split Rock. We needed to take care that stuff was not blown off of the picnic table by the diminishing but still fairly stiff breezes. For the most part, we had the place to ourselves. There was a rather large and loud group of tourists that descended en masse for about 10 minutes, but things were fine otherwise.

Yellow Composites. The stink bugs were too small to photograph.

Sand Verbena

After lunch, we proceeded to the Geology Tour road. It starts off in a Joshua tree forest. Joshua trees are actually very large species of yuccas, and therefore botanically in the lily family. I love their otherworldly appearance. Like the saguaro cactus groves further to the east, they make for a desert with an open-woodland aspect to its structure. Not much is in bloom at this time of the year. In some areas, there were fairly extensive drifts of a yellow member of the composite family interspersed with blooming sand verbena. There was almost no visible insect life except for variegated skimmer dragonflies and a cute, tiny stink bug that was hanging out on the composite blossoms.

On the Geology Tour loop

At the south end of the Geology Tour loop, the road runs very close to the Little San Bernadino Mountains. We stopped to take a few photos. Here the road splits. You can continue back to close off the loop of the Geology Tour or you can take Berdoo Canyon Rd. and drive over the Little San Bernadinos to Dillon Rd., the route that the ranger warned us about. We, of course, opted to do just that.

Mojave Desert splendor from the crest of Berdoo Canyon Rd.

The first part of Berdoo Canyon Rd. is deceptively easy. You drive up to the crest on a gently sloping, if a bit sandy, jeep road. We stopped at the crest for more photos. Coming down the south flank of the mountains, the road becomes more and more challenging. Berdoo canyon is rocky, narrow and twisting. It’s also very beautiful, although I was the driver and did not take any photos. We ran into trouble once. Fortunately a young couple that had passed us at the summit was behind us and guided us through the difficult spot. They also informed us that this was the worst spot in the road, which encouraged us to press onward. Leon had to get out and guide me through tight spots a couple of times, and we had one close call. But it was surprisingly fun for someone ith no off-road vehicle experience.

Leon with Joshua tree

Today, more hiking. Our travels will take us out of the desert and into the mountains.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Food Campaign

Ur-Spo is having a Food Election. The candidates for appetizer are:

1) Shrimp and cocktail sauce
2) Vegetarian Spring Rolls and mustard dip
3) Salsa (Doug of Gossemer Tapestry’s recipe) and Chips

I'm behind in the polls. What to do? Kick my campaign into high gear, of course. People just need to know more about who I am and what my message is.

We start with beautiful, nutritious purple onoins.

Then we add piquant poblano peppers. Did you know that shrimp and cocktail sauce is Jack Abramoff's favorite appetizer?

Luscious red, ripe tomatoes. They used to be called love apples- they're better than V|agr/\.

Tomatillos, about to fulfill their destiny. Last year, Congressman Mark Foley brought vegetarian spring rolls and mustard dip to the annual congressional page potluck.

No other candidate packs the punch that we do. Note the responsible use of a protective barricade. Always practice safe spice!

A squeeze of lime, which unlike our competitors, does NOT oppose same-sex marriage.

And finally, our secret weapon. The other appetizers have never even heard of cilantro.

An appetizer to be proud of. Vote for me!!!

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El Orden de las Soledades

Con su espaciosa jerarquía
El orden de las soledades

Vienen los Pajaros
Paolo Neruda

With their spacious hierarchy
The order of the
wild and lonely places

The Birds Arrive
Paolo Neruda

On Sunday we took our first hike of the trip. Venturing to a more remote location than we are likely to get to for the remainder of our time here, we drove to the Orocopia Mountain Wilderness at the far east end of the Coachella Valley. To get to the trailhead, you have to drive about 12 miles south of Interstate 10 on an extremely bad dirt road. So just to begin the hike takes you way out into the middle of nowhere.

The trailhead

The hike itself begins by walking south along a jeep road (too sandy for us to drive on) that leads down the west side of a shallow valley. A series of low parallel ridges intersects the valley from the west. A series of canyons snakes back into these hills. The largest of these is called Red Canyon, for the dominant color of the rock formations. We chose the first canyon south of Red Canyon. It has no official name, and is referred to in our guide book as Parallel Red Canyon.

Near the entrance to Parallel Red Canyon

When you first enter the canyon, the sides are really just some low hills and the canyon in pretty shallow. About a mile up canyon, you encounter a dry waterfall. The right hand side of the waterfall in the picture looks like it’s made of cement. Actually, it’s the natural rock of the area, which includes lots of conglomerates- mixtures of various smaller stones fused together in a hard matrix. A close up view reveals pebbles that appear to have been mortared together. Leon believes that the mortar in this case is made of calcite crystals. The complex geology of an area like Parallel Red Canyon is described in John McPhee’s wonderful book Assembling California.

The dry waterfall

Conglomerate rock with calcite crystal "mortar"

Further up canyon, a small grove of palm trees appears. This is one case where knowing too much ecology can be detrimental to one’s enjoyment. The palms here are not the native California fan palms, but non-native date palms. They aren’t really a terrible ecological problem, but the salt cedar trees growing with them are scourges of the arid west. They can lower the water table and severely damage local ecosystems that depend on this water.

Date palm trees and non-native salt cedar. Thieves of water in a ravenously thirsty land

Beyond the palm trees, the cliffs really start rising up above the canyon floor. The geology becomes even more complex, as evidenced by the multicolored strata of the canyon walls. The darkest strata are pillow basalt, which forms under the ocean. This is pretty ancient rock that’s been moved around a lot by plate tectonics.

Complex geology. The pillow basalt is the dark area on the left side of the lower photo.

After a late lunch, we departed the main canyon, and hiked up a smaller side canyon. It was a good choice, in addition to splendid views we encountered interesting plant life, such as a strange desert milkweed, and other oddities like a balanced rock about five feet in diameter.

The entrance to the side canyon

In the side canyon

The white stick-like plant in the foreground is a strange desert milkweed.

Cool balanced rock

By the time we reached the top of the side canyon, it was nearly 3:00, so we turned around. The increasingly slanting light of the return trip offered some great photographic opportunities. We arrived back at the car just as the last rays of sunlight were striking the ramparts above the entrance to red Canyon.

Splendid views on the way out

Sunset and the end of the trail