Monday, September 26, 2011

A Reflection on Rain Drops

Outside a cold heavy rain is falling. It is dark, but only dreary if one chooses to see it as dreary. It speaks of rest and refreshment. Nature is slowly winding down as she prepares for her yearly rest and as she refills the reservoirs that were spent in the summer’s heat and drought. She lulls us on to join her. But we with our electric lights and our computers refuse her invitation. I often wonder if we are missing something when we refuse the invitation, something that would give us health of mind and body. The more I try to live according to the rhythm of the seasons the more I am sure that we are.

Productivity and efficiency have become modern day idols. We are like the people of ancient Israel who profaned the Sabbath with their incessant trading. “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale…?” Amos 8:5.  Only we have gone so far away from the Lord that we no longer even ask the question of when—our stores are open 7 days a week, sometimes even 24 hours a day, and 365 days a year. And we sacrifice ourselves and our fellow human beings on the altar of these false gods.

Perhaps the heaviness of mind and body that comes so naturally on a rainy day is God’s way of calling us back from the treadmill, slowing us down enough that we draw breath and see, if only for a moment, that life is so much more than our endless schemes and projects. Perhaps we can take a moment of stillness to remember that we are called into relationship with the Living God.

So drink deeply whenever it rains for however long you can spare and be refreshed like a lush, green plant growing and thriving in the rain.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

“Food in Due Season”—Swiss Chard

Swiss chard is one of my favorite vegetables. It is a type of beet that is raised for its leaves and stalks. I plant it in the spring for a continuous harvest throughout the summer and into the fall. It can also be planted in a greenhouse in the fall for a winter harvest.

If the green house is cold enough, the plants can then be transplanted in the spring and allowed to go to seed. Chard is a biannual plant. That means that its life span goes over two years. It must go through a cold period in order to go to seed. However, Ohio winters are too harsh for it to remain in the ground outside and survive. Chard will cross pollinate with beets and with other varieties of chard, so if you are raising it for seed only let one variety go to seed a year.

Chard is mild vegetable that works well in stir-fries and soups. Here is a soup recipe that I came up with from ingredients on hand and found quite tasty:

A Hint of India Soup

1 medium onion                                  2 T butter
8-10 Swiss chard stalks                       2 T oil
1 stalk celery                                       1 t turmeric
1 cup millet                                         ¼ t ginger
6 cups chicken broth                           1 T tahini (sesame paste)
Salt and pepper to taste

Remove the chard leaves from the stalks and set aside. Chop the stalks into approx. ¼ inch slices. Chop the celery and onions. Heat the oil and butter, add chopped vegetables and millet. Fry until millet is turning golden and vegetables are tender crisp. Add the broth, and spices. Bring to a boil. Cover, lower heat, and allow to simmer for 25 minutes. In the mean time, chop up the chard leaves. Add the leaves during the last five minutes of cooking. Adjust seasonings to taste.

I suspect peanut butter would work in place of the tahini. There is something about millet that calls for a hint of nut.

“The eyes of all look to thee, and thou givest them their food in due season” (Psalm 145 [144]:15).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Music as Music Was Meant to Be

One of the highlights of my year is going to the U.S. National Mòd, a competition of Scottish Gaelic poetry, storytelling, and song, which is held each September in Ligonier, PA. After an intense weekend of fellowship, friendly rivalry, storytelling, music, music, and more music, I come home feeling refreshed and enthusiastic, not just about Gaelic but about life. What happens at the Mòd that produces that effect?

Well the Mòd isn’t just a competition; it is a gathering of enthusiasts of a rather specialized subject. And though the competition is stiff, it is the enthusiasm for the subject that carries the day. That alone is something to be treasured. We all need enthusiasm, but enthusiasm in isolation is a rather dull thing. And competition without camaraderie might feed the ego, but not the soul.

There is also the pleasure that comes from live entertainment. The competitions are worth hearing in themselves. I always have a couple of non-Gaelic speakers with me. All of them have wanted to come back again. They even enjoy the story telling. Live entertainment has something that listening to a recording will never have: That is the presence of the person of the entertainer and a spark of interaction between artist and audience.

What I enjoy most about the Mòd is the cèilidhs, both official and unofficial. A cèilidh is a social gathering with an exchange of music and possibly storytelling and dancing. The music at the cèilidhs is good and the atmosphere is fun. Many of the songs people choose have choruses that the group can join in on. This is entertainment as entertainment was meant to be: alive, personal and in community. This is how human beings enjoyed music for thousands of years.

Today we can listen to what ever we want, whenever we want. Don’t get me wrong, I like to be able to do that. But in the old days when people wanted music they made it themselves, or gathered together with other people who made it. Perhaps the music wasn’t as good as a professional musician can make it, but I believe it enriched them in other ways that we are often missing in the modern world.

I think that is why I come home from the Mòd refreshed. Music always refreshes my mind, but music given and received in community with others—as music was meant to be—refreshes my whole person.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Easy Yogurt and Yogurt Cheese

I used to think that cheese making was some esoteric art that only the brave would attempt at home; but in the days before refrigeration, cheese making was a common household task. Soft cheeses are incredibly easy, delicious and versatile. The first cheese I ever made was a Middle Eastern yogurt cheese that a Jordanian friend told me how to make.

Here is all you do:

Take a quart of plain yogurt, add salt to taste if desired, place in a muslin cloth (a white cotton woven dish towel will do), tie it up into a bag, and hang it on the faucet in the kitchen sink over night to drain. The result is a soft spreadable cheese. Serve it plain or herbed with pita bread or crackers. Try it on graham crackers with a bit of jam for an instant cheese cake. Use it in recipes for a low fat alternative to cream cheese.

Store bought yogurt will do as long as you make sure that it doesn’t contain gelatin. Yogurts often contain gelatin as a thickening agent. The whey will not drain out of the yogurt if there is gelatin in it.

If you don’t want to waste the mineral rich whey, drain the yogurt into a bowl. Whey is delicious used in place of the liquid in breads and quick breads. I have used it successfully in place of buttermilk for pancakes and soda breads. Whey is acidic like buttermilk so it reacts with baking soda to leaven the bread for similar light and delicious results.

Do you want to start right at the beginning and make your own yogurt? That is almost as easy.

To make yogurt:

Heat the milk to 180°. This heating will help the yogurt to thicken properly. Cool the milk to 110°. Add live yogurt culture. You can use plain store bought yogurt for this if it says on the package that it contains live culture. Or you can buy culture packets for an initial batch and then use your own yogurt to culture future batches. Use ¼ cup of yogurt per quart of milk.

Let the milk stand undisturbed in a warm place or place in a thermos to hold the temperature. Most recipes say to let it stand around 8 hours, but I have had better results leaving it longer, between 16 and 24.

Homemade yogurt does not contain and thickeners or emulsifiers. Your homemade yogurt will likely be a bit thinner than store bought yogurt, especially if you are using goat milk.

The most important thing to keep in mind with yogurt or any cultured cheese is that you are working with living organisms that need certain conditions to grow.  The culture used to make yogurt needs a warm temperature to thrive. If the temperature is too cool the culture will not grow and you will end up with sour milk instead of yogurt. But too hot of a temperature will kill the culture. The ideal is to keep the milk between 90° and 110°. Cultures like this are called thermophilic or heat loving.