29 September 2010

Sharp-tailed grouse

Sharp-tailed grouse at Dinosaur Hill

Gene is in the second season of running a migratory hawk watch on Dinosaur Hill, to establish baseline data on migration patterns and the geography of the region. This has the potential to be a useful study, but it hasn't been done before, so every day brings new data and patterns. Many of the days are slow if the hawks don't cooperate by flying within eyeshot of his study area. Very, very slow. Some days the dinosaurs move more than the hawks.

Today Gene had an attractive female visitor to break up the monotony. Here are his photos of his encounter with a lovely sharp-tailed grouse.

Ready for her close-up through the telescope....

...and posing nicely for the camera alone.

Lovely plumage.

Clearly the grouse did not feel threatened by Gene' s presence.

I love this shot. You can see the edges of individual feathers.

Terrific camouflage.

Another person came by, and up into the pines she went.

Interestingly, she is not badly camouflaged here, either.
And here is some footage of her....

27 September 2010

Family recipe Monday: yellow trees, blue corn, green chile

November cottonwoods in northern New Mexico. Photo by Shirley.

Every time fall starts, I feel that I should be in New Mexico. For me, this place is the essence of the season. I feel more drawn to the blazing yellow cottonwoods than to any other fall color. It has been marvelous and restorative to move to South Dakota and have cottonwoods around me again. As I type, the cottonwoods in the yard behind us are positively glittering as the wind moves through the leaves.

Fall in New Mexico is also forever associated in my memory with the aroma of woodsmoke, roasting green chiles and baking blue cornbread. Blue cornmeal and fresh green chiles are not easy to find up here, so Tartan Girl brought some when she, Ralph and Shirley came up here earlier in the month for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. I used some in pancakes this morning and will be making cornbread with more of it tonight. She brought enough for us all.

Because it's fall, you see, and it's time for blue and green to go with the yellow.

Chiles are a staple of Southwest cooking. If a specific variety is called for in a recipe, take note. All of these recipes are specifically for green chiles. The heat and flavor vary tremendously. Most of the heat in a chile comes from the internal seeds and ribs. Take these out if you need less heat or if you don’t like their texture.

Chiles are more easily peeled if they are roasted first over an open flame or in the oven. The skins should be completely black. After roasting, place the chiles in a paper bag for a few minutes to let them steam, then slide off the skins under running water. Be sure that you keep your hands away from your face, especially your eyes, until you have finished handling the chiles and have thoroughly washed your hands. You may prefer to wear plastic gloves when preparing chiles. Or you may prefer to roast them in the traditional way, as described here. They can be canned or frozen after roasting.

New Mexico spoonbread

This recipe was developed by the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service in Circular 396, entitled Chile. I am still trying to find an online copy, which I have not done yet, but I have turned up a number of other NMSU Cooperative Extension Service circulars on the subject of chile.

1 #300 can cream-style corn
1/3 cup melted shortening
2 eggs, slightly beaten
3/4 cup milk
1½ cups cornmeal
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar (very optional)
1 4-oz can chopped green chiles
1½ cups grated cheddar cheese

Mix all ingredients except chile and cheese. Pour half the batter in a greased 9”x9” pan, sprinkle with half the cheese and chiles. Add remaining batter and top with cheese and chile. Bake at 400* F for 45 minutes.

A little minced onion added to the batter is good, too.

From The Best from New Mexico Kitchens, by Sheila MacNiven Cameron .

{Tartan Girl points out that sugar has never been used in her years of baking this, the amount of green chile is a minimum (more is always better), and the onions can easily be omitted. Shirley, on the other hand, always puts a rounded teaspoon of sugar in because the sweetness emphasizes the taste of the chiles. You'll just have to experiment for yourself.}

Directions for seasoning cast iron
Cornbread of any variety generally cooks best in heavy, seasoned  cast-iron pans or skillets. This isn’t an historic family recipe, but it gives good advice for dealing with historic family cast iron ware. Iron skillets are the anchor for many of the older recipes and can be almost immortal if treated well.

Put pan in wood fire to burn off grease and rust. As it cools, use wire brush or plain steel wool to clean. Smear inside generously with cooking oil and let stand at room temperature for a couple of days. Wipe clean with paper towels. Fill pan with potato peelings and water. Heat to a boil and simmer about 1 hour. Wipe pan clean after rinsing in plain hot water. Rub inside of pan with oil. It should be cured and ready to use. After each use, scrape pan with a metal spatula. Clean with hot water only. Dry with paper towels. Smear oil on inside of pan with paper towels. NEVER USE SOAP.

Back to the recipes: Spoon bread is more like a casserole or pudding than like a standard bread. The name comes from the need to eat it with a spoon. This is a cornmeal preparation that goes back a very long way in America. This particular recipe is almost a cornmeal souffle. It has to be served immediately, hot, puffed and fresh.

Buttermilk spoon bread
2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
1 T sugar
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
2 ½ cups boiling water
¼ cup butter
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup chopped green chiles

Combine cornmeal, sugar, salt and pepper. In a large heatproof bowl, combine boiling water and butter. As soon as butter is melted, whisk in cornmeal mixture and green chiles until no lumps remain. Cover and let cool to room temperature. Beat in egg yolks. Stir baking soda into buttermilk. When it begins to froth, stir into cornmeal mixture. Whip egg whites to soft peaks, then fold in lightly but thoroughly. Spoon batter into buttered 2 1/2 quart soufflé dish, then bake at 375* F for 45 to 50 minutes or until puffed and lightly browned. Rush to table and serve.

Corn stick pans go back to at least the 1920s. To give the sticks a nice crust, heat the greased pans first, then pour in the batter. Do not overfill the individual molds. These can be as plain or as fancy as you like; this recipe falls on the fancy side.

Regal cornsticks
1 cup flour
1 cup blue or yellow cornmeal
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cream of tartar
½ tsp salt
¼ cup milk
½ cup green chiles
1 cup sour cream
2 eggs, well beaten
¼ cup honey
¼ cup melted butter or margarine

Grease cornstick pan generously. Combine flour, cornmeal, baking soda, salt, cream of tartar, and dill weed. In a separate bowl, combine milk, sour cream, eggs, honey and butter. Add quickly to dry ingredients. Stir to just mix. Fill cornstick wells. Place in 350* F oven and bake 20-25 minutes. Makes 16 cornsticks.

Happy Monday, happy fall.

26 September 2010

Nebraska Saturday

Sod house, Toadstool Geologic Park, late September

I haven't said much about my class this semester, I notice. And that is an oversight. I plead exhaustion after a non-stop summer of moving big heavy things in all directions, but that's really no excuse.

We have a class in paleontology resource management, which I floated as a trial balloon last year and is now permanent. This is a class for teaching our students about negotiating the laws, rules and regulations of the various Federal and state land management agencies that deal with fossil resources on their lands. The idea is that our students get a chance to learn about the rules for monitoring and mitigating adverse impacts on fossil resources in the course of things like highway and pipeline construction, land management agency work, and field work in general. It was, the first time, a somewhat dry course.

This year things are a lot different.

This year, we joined forces with the staff and students at Oglala Lakota College and are focusing on one issue in depth: the plans to make what is now the South Unit of Badlands National Park into its own entity, a tribal national park under the aegis of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the National Park Service. For more information about this plan, check out the General Management Plan draft here.

It is a complex plan that restores a great deal of decision-making power for this land to the Oglala Lakota people at Pine Ridge Reservation, on which the South Unit is located. Our class--both SDSMT and OLC students--will be studying this plan in depth and writing a report on the implementation of it insofar as fossil resources are affected. For the Lakota, the historic, cultural and scientific landscapes are seamlessly one entity, and all these factors must be taken into account. We are using the plan and our response to it as a real-life, real-time text.

Yesterday, both groups of students traveled to northwest Nebraska to two key sites--Toadstool Geologic Park and the Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed site--to learn about land management decisions in the field, not in the classroom.

I think that we are starting to learn a lot more about each other, too.  
Farmstead, Toadstool Geologic Park

Part of the group starts to explore the Toadstool formations

OLC and SDSMT staff, faculty and students
The sign stating the main issue

New sign referencing the new law. It only took 18 years to get this in effect...

Looking back to the sod house from the cliffs

Q: Why is it called Toadstool? A: Just look....

....and keep looking all around.

The formations are very fragile and are eroding rapidly.

Vista with a far-distant train. We are all big-sky people out here.
This little gully is opening rapidly via erosion.

Track marks

The class in session in the best possible classroom

Fall flora

Rocks, with....

....rock wrens. A study in near-monochroamtic beauty.
The rock wren watching our group.

Bird silhouette.

Formations, Toadstool.

More formations.

Cottonwoods at Hudson-Meng.

Bison sculpture at Hudson-Meng.

One of our OLC colleagues showing his son the atlatl technique. Timeless.

The atlatl and spear targets at Hudson-Meng (lifesize metal bison cutouts).

The bison bonebed, now thought to be a butchering site.

Best sign of the day, from Hudson-Meng.

The atlatl crew continues to practice the ancient survival skills.

Prairie survivor at the Cookshack.

Another survivor.

20 September 2010

Family recipe Monday: Leaving September, and apples

Scarlet maples, Delaware Museum of Natural History

When fall hits out here in the Dakotas, it hits hard. A front whipped through over the weekend and brought the temperatures to near-freezing. I think that we'll see the end of the produce season up here soon. We are all hoping that we even have fall colors this year. Last year we had a freezing front and snow on October 1. There were no colors: the leaves froze while they were green and fell off the trees in huge clumps. Not the sight of which fall reveries are made. There is nothing like the blazing yellow of cottonwoods in the fall.

We are missing the colors of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast right now, so our thoughts are turning to the Pennsylvania Dutch apple recipes that are so good this time of year. These are classics, and not easy to find out here if you didn't bring a Pennsylvania Dutch cook with you. Fortunately, we covered this contingency.

Apple dumplings
6 large baking apples
2 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
6 T butter or margarine
¾ cup milk
1 cup sugar
2 T lemon juice
2 T butter
1 tsp cinnamon

Make pastry first. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt together. Cut in shortening until like coarse cornmeal. Moisten with milk, stirring with fork as little as possible. Roll into a rectangular sheet about ¼" thick. Cut into 6 squares. Peel and core apples and place one on each square. Mix ¼ cup of sugar with 1 tsp cinnamon. Fill center of apples. Use more sugar to fill centers if necessary. Make a syrup by bringing to a boil ¾ cup water, ¾ cup sugar, 2 T lemon juice and 2 T butter. Roll dough around apples and fasten by moistening edges and pinching them together. Place in large shallow pan. Pour syrup over dumplings. Bake at 450o for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350* and bake for 30 minutes.
--Dolly Shaffner Hess
Date on card: August 26, 1985

The only explanation I have for the spot on this card is the usual one: this is a sure sign of a much-loved and much-used recipe.

Brown Betty
Mix together in 10"x6"x2" pan:

3 cups chopped apples (peeled or unpeeled)
1 ½ cup coarse bread crumbs
¼ cup butter, melted
1 cup brown sugar

Sprinkle with ½ tsp cinnamon or nutmeg. Pour over top ½ cup water. Bake at 325* for 45-50 minutes.
--Dolly Shaffner Hess

Apple crisp

Place in buttered 10"x6"x2" pan: 4 cups sliced apples. Sprinkle with 1 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp salt, ¼ cup water. Rub together ¾ cup flour, 1 cup sugar, 1/3 cup butter and drop on apples. Bake at 350* for 40 minutes.
--Dolly Shaffner Hess

I will finish with my favorite September poem of all time. Loren Eiseley captured the bittersweet feeling of September on the prairies best of all. There was a trace of smoke in the air last night, and this poem can immediately to mind.

Leaving September

If I have once forgotten on this field
The long light of the dusk, or far away
The sheep on tawny grass, how stones will yield
Small bitter puffballs, or a cricket stay
To wring wry tunes from emptiness and dearth,
Let me remember; let me hold them now
Close to the heart--while I upon the earth
Am the stone field and pain the heavy plow.
Not in wide measures is the harvest culled;
Not by disaster nor by cutting hail
Is the loss seen, the grief is somewhat dulled--
Being done at last. Ours is a different scale--
Leaving September stars and a little smoke
And memory tight as a lichen to an oak.
--Loren Eiseley

Happy Monday.

13 September 2010

Family recipe Monday: let the canning begin: fruit preserves and butters

September cottonwood, Canyon Lake, 2008

Fall is galloping in on all sides up here, no doubt about it. We are digging out the recipes for canning and preserving fruit as the crop peaks and starts to diminish. These are the recipes that keep summer with us in the cold months. The wild plums, those that survived the hail, are positively shimmering, and the apples are ripening nicely. It may be a week until the equinox, but up here fall is in full force, never mind the calendar.

Migration is also in full force. Gene starts his fall hawk watch on Dinosaur Hill this week. The chipmunks and squirrels are agitated, seeking and carrying off as much food as they can. We got into a long discussion on Friday about hibernation and torpor. The little mammals have to conserve their energy in the cold months for all they're worth. As the light wanes, they race around to get ready for the long--but hopefully not final--sleep.

We'll get the fruit canning fully under way next weekend. It's a bit of a hassle now, but the jewel tones of the preserves in December will be all the more worth it.

The raspberries are at their peak or just slightly past it right now. Raspberries do particularly well in freezer preparations, as opposed to boiling-water canning baths which tend to destroy their delicate texture. Here are two recipes for that.

Raspberry freezer jam

3 cups raspberries, cleaned and picked over
5¼ cups sugar
2 T lemon juice
1 pkg. Sure Jell fruit pectin
¾ cup water

Put raspberries into a large bowl and crush fruit lightly with a fork or potato masher. Add sugar and lemon juice. Set aside to allow sugar to dissolve with fruit for 10 minutes. Place the pectin and water into a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil 1 minute until mixture turns clear. Pour over the raspberries and stir well for about 3 minutes. Immediately spoon into clean clear plastic containers, leaving ½" headspace. Seal with lids and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Freeze for up to 1 year. May be refrigerated for up to 1 month.

Red raspberry preserves
4 cups whole raspberries
Juice of 1 lemon
4 cups sugar

Place raspberries in kettle with sugar and lemon. Bring slowly to a boil over low heat, shaking all the while. Do not stir. Continue shaking pan and boiling for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand overnight. Freeze. Yield: 7 half-pints.

This is a Pennsylvania Dutch classic from Gene. "Smidge" is a great word. Interpret this amount as you will. Use the lowest possible heat and let it go as long as needed--this is ideal for a slow cooker, too. We have used this with the small wild apples up here with terrific results. This is the taste of fall. The fruit does not have to be perfect for this--we actually get our best results from the fruit on the ground.
Apple butter

For ½ peach basket of apples, peel, quarter and core apples. Put in oven at 200*. Add ½ lb dark brown sugar, 1 T cinnamon, ½ tsp allspice, smidge of clove (ground) or 1 whole clove. Allow to cook down. If not peeled, run it through a food mill. Let cook all day or longer.
--Gene K. Hess

Wild plum jelly

For wild plum jelly, I can't improve much on the slightly terse directions left to us by Gran Brooks. Plums are, or should be, loaded with natural pectin, though last year's needed a bit of pectin added. It was either that, or enjoy wild plum syrup all winter. If you are using wild fruit, I recommend simmering the whole fruit in a stockpot and then pressing it through a sieve to separate the juice from the pits and skins. Ignore any recipe directions that call for halving and pitting--these are tiny. Simmer the whole plums in batches of about 2 lb. Press the juice through a clean cotton jelly bag for greater clarity. For 5 lb. of juice, use 7 to 7 1/2 cups of sugar, and simmer for at least half an hour. Test the jelly on a chilled plate--if it does not set up promptly, add a little more pectin and keep stirring, simmering, testing and tweaking until you get there. You'll know it when you see it--it goes from a thick liquid to a soft jelly in a matter of seconds when it hits the chilled plate. It's magic. Wild fruits vary so much in sugar and pectin content, depending on the year and the weather, amount of rain, etc., that it's hard to give mathematically exact instructions. Follow standard canning directions. Wild plum jelly has an especially lovely color that shines out in Christmas gift baskets. The unsugared juice can also be the base for a great homemade wine. Or so I'm told.

Crabapples are falling all over the place right now. You can save and pickle them for a great side dish for the holidays. This is a very easy recipe with a great texture. The crabapples are preserved whole with no preparation other than a few tiny skin punctures (optional); you even get to leave the stems on. We have used any leftover syrup as a base for sweet-sour recipes of all kinds. It's that good. You can put the spices in a small muslin bag if you like.

Spiced crabapples
3 cups apple cider vinegar
4-5 cups brown sugar
1 t whole cloves
2 sticks cinnamon
4 pounds crab apples

Rinse but leave stems on crab apples. Do not peel, though you may wish to poke the skins with a small fork tine in 3 or 4 places to make sure that the syrup sets all the way through. Boil vinegar, brown sugar, cloves, and cinnamon together. Mix the spiced vinegar and sugar and returrn to a boil. Add crabapples to syrup and boil until apples are tender. Remove the fruit with slotted spoon and pack into hot sterilized jars. Pour in syrup. Seal. This recipe can be doubled.

Happy Monday, happy fall.

06 September 2010

Heroes: Mack Johnson and the Silent Wings

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mack Johnson, father, grandfather, draftsman, and family anchor. Today marks 108 years since he was born. These pictures you see above are a bit different from the usual family shots. They date from his work in WWII at the top-secret military glider facility in Lubbock.

Mack moved his family from Altus, Oklahoma, to Lubbock in 1937 to work as an architectural draftsman. He was self-employed in this field for the rest of his life, working literally up to the last week of his life at the age of 85. His astounding work ethic was typical of his region and generation. Mack was grateful for a job after the ravages of the Depression, and loved Lubbock and the opportunities it afforded him. He designed and built the family's house, was a pillar of First Methodist, and doted on his family.

We knew all of that. What we did not know (well, at least the grandchildren did not know) was that he joined the war effort at the outbreak of WWII as a civilian employee of the military. The U. S. Army Air Force set up a training and design facility in Lubbock, and most of the military glider pilots in the service trained there. Mack was too old to join the service at the age of 40, but not too old to help out as an employee.

Not a lot of people know about this operation, and even as a civilian employee he considered it wrong to talk about it, ever. Like many WWII, Korean War and Cold War workers, Mack kept the details of his wartime service to himself. I wish I had known enough to ask questions while he was still here. This generation has been notoriously difficult in the oral history interview department. Their patriotism did not include loose lips.

If you want to know more about the WWII glider program, check out the Silent Wings Museum at this site, housed in the original Lubbock Municipal Airport building.

Many of our heroes are silent. Happy birthday, Pop.

Family recipe Monday: let the canning begin: sweet pickles

It's not looking like the best year for the wild fruit--hailstorms and grasshoppers were our plagues of the 2010 season--but there should be enough for a reasonable run of plum jelly, apple butter and those decadent little pickled crabapples. I'll have the fruit recipes up next week. In the meantime, the cucumbers and squash are coming in nicely. Here are a few sweet pickle recipes from the files.

This recipe makes terrific pickles, but is a bit high-maintenance; it calls for reheating and repouring the pickling syrup four times. As always, be very careful when you are dealing with a hot sugar syrup. Do all your pouring over a sink with the pan tilted away from you. Sugar syrup burns are awful. With that caveat in mind, try this one out: the results are wonderful. I would let these stand for at least two weeks before opening, and a month might be even better for the flavors to mature.

Sweet pickles

2 gal. cucumbers, peeled and sliced

Put 1 pt salt over them and pour 1 gal. boiling water over them and let stand 1 week. Keep pickles under water. Pour water out and rinse jar. Pour another gal. of boiling water over them at let stand 24 hours. Pour off water and add a lump of alum (2 T) and boiling water again and let stand 24 hours.

Pour off and fix syrup:

4 quarts sugar
2 quarts vinegar
½ box pickling spices

Boil syrup for 4 minutes. Pour over pickles, pour syrup off and reheat and let boil 4 minutes. Repeat 3 more times.
--Mary Marcella Walker Brooks, Vada Brooks Johnson

Does anyone use alum in pickling any more? I remember it as a staple in my grandmother's pantry.

This was transcribed as written from Gran Brooks's penciled recipe notes. I use large white enamel stockpots for this kind of preparation. Obviously, Gran Brooks assumed that you know how to can these once they boiled for three minutes, no more no less. If you will be using them soon, they can be refrigerated; otherwise, crank up the canning gear.

Gran Brooks’s bread and butter pickles

25 medium cucumbers

Soak over night in cold water, next morning slice real thin but don’t peel and use 8 small onions sliced lengthwise. Cover onions and cucumbers with 1/2 cup salt and let stand 1 hour. Put into large kettle 1 quart vinegar and 2 cups sugar, 2 large T of white mustard seed, 2 large T of celery seed, 2 T brown ginger, 1 T turmeric and bring to good boil, turn cucumbers and onions into mixture and boil 3 minutes, no more no less.
--Mary Marcella Walker Brooks

Sweet pickles

6 cups white vinegar
3 cups sugar
3 cups water
1 gallon cucumbers soaked overnight in salt water (½ cup salt)

Next morning rinse cucumbers. In large pan mix vinegar, sugar and water. When mixed put in cucumbers and heat on low until cucumbers change color. Don’t boil. Pack in sterile jars and seal.
--Gene K. Hess

Happy, and sweet, Monday.

05 September 2010

A perfect week, part II: the Paleontology Research Laboratory opens

You may remember this....

We broke ground in April 2009 for a new paleontology building to house the collections, labs and offices of the Museum of Geology. For the next 16 months, we watched the hole being dug and then the building rising. We wore hard hats and slogged through the ice and mud to visit as it went up. We looked at it, and at our collections, and wondered if it would ever really be open. In June of this year, we started moving collections in.

On Wednesday, it became official. We cut the ribbon and dedicated the new Paleontology Research Center.

180 people crammed onto the plaza in front of the building, where we had seating for 75. (We TOLD them that there were a lot of people who had waited a long time for this....) The weather was perfect. The speeches were heartfelt. And the long, long journey to opening day was capped with a wonderful show.

Of course, now the real work begins, as we continue to move the collections as we develop new programs to take advantage of this rare opportunity. There is much to do. Today, however, we savor Wednesday's moments.

A good omen: a little Myotis bat joins the celebration.

Jim Martin: big guy, big scissors.

The Hoplophoneus skull plaque for the governor, prepared at the last minute. Beautifully.

Hard hats in April 2009...

...scissors in September 2010.

The poster for the event.

The crowd starts gathering.

The podium.

The dignitaries' chairs....

...and the dignitaries.

President Wharton speaks.

Jim Martin speaks and almost chokes up. He has worked tirelessly for this for 30 years.

Governor Mike Rounds speaks.

 Presentation of the plaque. Bet he doesn't have another one like this.

 MIchael Catches Enemy speaks eloquently on behalf of the Oglala Lakota.


...and the ribbon is cut.  

 Stay tuned for interior shots....