Friday, September 30, 2011

Minor Kitchen Crisis Averted

I was in the commissary today picking up a few items and as I passed the lemons, I thought, mmm, I want to do something with those lemons. They were so beautiful and yellow. I could taste them just by looking at them. What to make with them? The obvious choice is of course lemon bars.

When I got home, I started thumbing through my cookbooks. When exploring a new recipe, I always turn first to Joy of Cooking. Nearly every recipe in there works, even with substitutions, and most of them are fairly simple. But to my horror, there was nary a mention of lemon bars in this old standard!

I didn't even bother looking in Laurel's Kitchen or The Enchanted Broccoli Forest; lemon bars are far too decadent for these two cooks. My paperback copies of these cookbooks are stained, dogeared, and festooned with paperclips; the binding on my copy of Laurel's Kitchen long ago gave up so I hold it together with a big rubber band. (I heartily recommend both if you want to explore flavorful vegetarian cooking beyond beans and rice. The banana bread recipe in Laurel's Kitchen is the only one I have used for years.)

My French cookbooks (from Thierry Marx and Julia Child) of course have recipes for lemon tarts...but lemon tarts simply aren't lemon bars (besides, the French lemon tarts have their feet firmly planted in soufflé territory, which is definitely not what I want). I want lemon bars. You know what I'm talking about: tangy and sweet, sticky, just the right bit of crunch in the crust, lovely yellow color, all in one bite-size package. Nothing else would do for those beautiful lemons.

Of course this minor kitchen crisis was averted by a quick search on the internet. Lemon bars only involve half a dozen ingredients and about the same number of steps--no rocket science or graduate-level chemistry required. Still, I have only made them once before and I do like to work from a printed recipe.

Of course no cooking adventure undertaken in the Magic Kingdom is without crisis. While I may have found a recipe, I couldn't find any powdered sugar. I'm sure that I'll manage without it, just like I manage without the dozens of other food items that are impossible to get here. (Speaking of that, I do have to tell you that a Saudi importer has picked up a soy milk line from Europe so I can now get decently priced soy milk whenever I want, and one of the Saudi dairy vendors has come out with a line of firm, unsweetened, bioactive yogurt. Mmm. I eat some nearly every day.)

I figure all the challenges will make me a more flexible and creative cook.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Morals-Free Harridan

Oh, how I wish I could claim the brilliant title of this post as my own words. Unfortunately, I am far too consumed with the TFW of the Magic Kingdom and keeping my toy monsters happy to be able to muster and maintain such a razor-sharp eye on US politics. This opinion piece, written by Paul Slansky and posted on Huffington Post on 16 September, pretty much sums it up.

The Imminent Overness of Sarah Palin

The wild orgy of 9/11 porn that we've just endured -- with, to my awareness, nary a peep of "lamestream media" outrage about Congress's obscene indifference to the medical bills of the first responders (really, does even this get left to Jon Stewart?) -- marks the end of our having or wanting to hear about that horrific day again for a long, long time. Similarly, the extended wallow we're just diving into around the release of Joe McGinniss's brutal takedown, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, should at last burn people out on this morals-free harridan.
Just as Dan Quayle's introduction to the nation was immediately marred by the focus on his avoidance of Vietnam, Palin's was accompanied by widespread speculation about whether she was actually the mother of the child she claimed to have recently birthed, or whether the whole thing was a stunt designed to hide the fact that her daughter Bristol was an unwed 18-year-old mom. The point of that whole bizarre kerfuffle was that this woman whom most people had never heard of days earlier instantly gave off such a viscerally negative vibe that a large portion of the population was willing to believe her capable of such a grotesquely brazen deception. How laughable it is from this vantage point to imagine this "Snowbilly Grifter" -- as Wonkette so sublimely dubbed her -- being embarrassed enough by such a trivial transgression to go to the trouble of hiding it. (And, of course, the delightful proof that the child was, in fact, Sarah's was that Bristol was already expecting her own Tripp before Trig was born. So there, Andrew Sullivan.)
Always more a trashy reality star than a serious politician, her entire platform was Nixonian umbrage, but the Sarah Palin Show had something for everyone. The dismayingly expanding lunatic "fringe" identified with her braying rage, while the rest of us were simultaneously fascinated and repelled by her relentlessly deceitful jabbering. Even in politics, it was rare to find someone with such a compulsive contempt for the truth. But the act is stale. We're sick of it. And now we have new shows, starring new loons.
It's Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry who are being photographed fellating Iowa corn dogs now. Not only is Bachmann at least Palin's equal when it comes to proud ignorance, but she replaces those unappealing qualities of personal avarice and political indolence with the mesmerizing spectacle of outright batshit insanity. And that effeminate husband out there "curing" the hated gays promises much better entertainment than yet another teenage pregnancy and more rumors about drugs.
Meanwhile, Perry has anger plus a serious resume. While Palin quit being governor of a large but minor state after less than three years, he's run a large and major one for more than ten. Perry gives us Reagan and Bush combined, but with their efforts to hide behind avuncularity and goofiness abandoned. Really, why bother to pretend you're a nice guy when the audience is out there cheering for death? His viciousness is amped to naked bloodthirstiness. This man's not shooting animals from the air for some asinine notion of sport. Rick Perry enjoys executing humans, and he not only doesn't mind if you know it, he wants you to know it. If you're anything like him, he's definitely your guy. Giddily overseeing the killings of hundreds of humans -- guilty or not, who cares? -- he's even shameless enough to have claimed, in connection with his controversial efforts to mandate cervical cancer vaccinations, that "at the end of the day I am always going to err on the side of life."

So we don't need Sarah Palin anymore. After three years of overexposure to her tawdry toxicity, we know her too well, and our remaining schadenfreudal needs will more than be met by the cornucopia of damning nuggets Joe McGinniss has unearthed. He'll be gleefully sharing them all over the place over the next couple of weeks -- with Piers Morgan, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and lots more -- just as the question of whether or not she's going to run for president is finally going to have to be answered. The only surprise she could still have in her would be to say yes.
Not that she's about to disappear. For the next year she'll be blithering away about the campaign with all the other Fox fools. She'll be there "analyzing" Election Night results along with O'Reilly, Van Susteren, Hannity, and, one hopes, that consummate doofus Doocy. But that will kind of be that. We're bored with stupid and lazy now, and we're moving on to stupid and crazy.

Yes, we are indeed.

The U.S. Consulate in Khobar assists us expats in voting in national elections (I think we are on our own if we want to stay involved in state and local matters). Part of my daily news-gathering includes keeping up with the current circus going on in the U.S. because I do plan to vote next year. I am sure about one thing only: stupid and crazy feeds the news cycles but it is a horrific way to run one of the most important countries in the world.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Travels: Adventures in Iceland (OMG!!PONIES!!)

Rather than clog up my blog with tons of pictures, I put the best ones in a flickr stream (you can log in to flickr with a Yahoo or Google id). This post is the text that goes along with the photos.

On my second day in Iceland, a perfectly beautiful late summer day, I rented a bike from the hotel and toured around western Reykjavik. Marvelously maintained asphalt and gravel paths about 4 to 6 feet wide that are completely separate from the roadways crisscross the city. You can go just about anywhere on a bicycle. During my ride, I found a very large cemetery (Fossvogskirkjugarður) next to an even larger park and spent some hours exploring both.

That afternoon, an Eldhestar van took me to their farm located south of the tiny village of Hveragerdi, about 50 km southeast of Reykjavik. Eldhestar is one of the larger Icelandic pony touring outfits in Iceland offering guided trips of varying length and difficulty. The word Eldhestar means "volcano" (eld) and "horses" (hestar)--"fire horses" if you want a more colloquial translation. I had arranged to take three day-trips with them, returning each evening to the guesthouse at the farm (some of their other trips involved sleeping in camping huts in sleeping bags; not my thing anymore). The package included all meals, guided riding each day, and a room with a private bath. They were full days of riding too, with more than 6 hours in the saddle each day plus breaks and an hour for lunch. Believe me, that is plenty of riding each day. The cost was extremely reasonable given the high level of fun and adventure. The evening meals in particular are worth noting. The Eldhestar cooks turned out fabulous three-course gourmet meals made from very high quality ingredients. And every day after we returned to the guest house from riding, they had fresh coffee and cake still warm from the oven waiting for us.

The three days that I spent at Eldhestar rank amongst the best vacations I have ever had.

I set that sentence out by itself to make sure you got the point. I had the most wonderful time. Sure, I was stiff and sore in places I didn't even know existed, but that's what ibuprofen and yoga are for. I quickly forgot any little aches and pains once we got out on the trail each morning.

On the first day, we rode up into a geothermally active valley. On the second day, we rode down to the huge, flat delta of the Selfoss river. The weather the first two days was pretty nice, a bit damp and cloudy in the morning and breezy in the afternoon. On the third day, we rode up into the mountains over a huge waterfall to a natural hot pot. It was pouring rain all day, progressing from drizzle to deluge. In the mountains, the mixture of steam from the geothermal vents, mist from the waterfall, and rain and fog made the landscape alternately appear spooky and dreamy. The trail on the third day was so steep--at times the ponies were picking their way across very steep rubble slopes along a tiny little trail; sheer face to one side, sheer drop to the other, and all of it slick with rain--that I wasn't able to take as many photos on this last day as on the other two days. Still, I put up quite a few photos from each day so take your time browsing through them.

And each day we learned more about the natural wonder that is the Icelandic pony.

The horses live in open pastures year round. Each morning, the Eldhestar guides, 98% of which are young, fresh-faced German, Danish, and Icelandic women, drive a number of the ponies into the main corrals. There, they saddle up the ponies that will be needed for that day's rides. The saddles are worth a quick mention. If you are used to western riding, you would find the Icelandic saddles quite small. Icelandic ponies themselves are small--I rarely looked one in the eyes while standing next to it. They have extremely long, thick manes and tails. Here's an unusual fact: the coloration of the Icelandic pony has more variation than any other known horse population. They come in all color patterns--dark horse with a light mane, light horse with a dark mane, tan, black, pinto, chestnut, brown, white, grey, spotted.... And quite a few of the experienced riders noted how unusually close the Icelandic ponies get to each other, flank to flank, one's head over another's neck, even noses side by side. On the rides, it was not at all unusual for your pony to want to keep his nose inches from the butt of the pony in front of you. They just like to be near each other.

Eldhestar does a lot of business this time of year. On the three days I was there, there were on average 8 rides departing each morning, some only going for a half day, some not to return for a week, with group sizes ranging from half a dozen to more than 20 people. I got incredibly lucky and all three days my groups never had more than 6 people plus the guide.

Some ponies are frisky and need to go with experienced riders, of which there were plenty as Icelandic pony tours are one of the big tourist attractions, and some ponies are, well, kind of pokey. In fact, I renamed my first pony Mr. Pokey--he was given to me because I said I was inexperienced. I learn quickly so I got a slightly better one on the second day, but the real magic occurred for me on the third day. I renamed that pony Mistah Buttah. To explain that name, I need to give you a bit more Icelandic pony background.

All horses trot and gallop. But Icelandic ponies have an additional gait called the tölt. Most riders must be taught how to ride the trot; it is a hard and bouncing gait. But the tölt, my goodness, I've been in cars that didn't have that smooth of a ride. To put the pony into the tölt, you move your hands forward on the reins, sit back heavily in the saddle, and enjoy! In the tölt, the pony's topside barely moves. Your ass never leaves the saddle. Your feet don't get bounced from the stirrups. You sit up nice and tall and watch the scenery flow by. The tölt is a gait that can eat up the miles without much effort from horse or rider. Mistah Buttah's tölt was as smooth as....buttah!

In the tölt, both legs on the left side move, then both on the right, compared to the 1L-2R-3L-4R movement in the trot. A pony moving in the tölt reminds me of a windup soldier toy. The Icelandic ponies have particularly straight fronts because their shoulder blades point up more than back and they are also "cobby"--about as long as they are tall (think more square than rectangular).

You certainly didn't need to know anything at all about riding, but in my opinion it adds a lot to the experience--you are able to take longer rides, ride more lively ponies, and just get more enjoyment out of the riding itself. My own riding experience is not that extensive, but I do know how to follow instructions, and I think that I understand the basic concepts of handling animals. Everyone was given a short lesson in a fenced corral before setting off each morning: how to mount up, how to signal directions to the ponies. I'm not an expert by any means but I sure am hooked!

The guides were quietly competent (we had a pony injury the first day and a human injury the second day and each guide dealt with the fuckwittery calmly and efficiently). Most of the guides were college age, working at Eldhestar in the summer, not to earn money necessarily because they were paid a pittance, but because they loved the ponies and it was a great opportunity to be around them for weeks and weeks at a time. They were crammed into a giant dormitory with bunk beds and shared bathrooms--definitely as much an adventure for them as a summer job.

The different scenery on the three rides, the ponies, the fresh air, the great food, even the rain, all combined into one fabulous experience. I definitely recommend Eldhestar and I plan to return for even more adventurous rides!

The last few photos in the flickr set are from the few days I spent exploring the old city center of Reykjavik. I was quite impressed with the Hallgrimskirkja. The exterior of the church looks quite fabulous with sweeping concrete columns flanking the tower. I bought a ticket and went to the top of the tower but it was rainy that day and the photos are a bit disappointing. The interior of the church is amazingly austere but because it is lined with giant windows it had a light, airy feel even on that cloudy day.

Reykjavik has a few museums but, unusually for me, I didn't visit a single one. After my pony adventures, I was content to wander around window-shopping and people-watching and sampling the bland food. The puffin was the most exciting thing I ate after I left Eldhestar.

I can recommend the guesthouse I stayed in (Guesthouse Snorri). It is on the edge of all of the action, which is really only a 20-minute walk away. But that meant that at night, it was blissfully quiet. It is expensive, as is everything in Iceland, but it was well run, clean, and actually quite pretty.

I could have gone to see a glacier, geyser, or volcano... if I was willing to climb on a bus with 50 other tourists. After my disappointing experience in Burgundy with the winery tour, I am a bit hesitant to do the bus thing again. But I did talk to folks and read some brochures and my next visit to Iceland, and there will be a next trip, will include all of these things--on my own schedule. Iceland maintains more than 13,000 km of roads (one goes all the way around the island) and I was told by a German couple that spent several days on them before arriving at Eldhestar that they are in excellent condition. Renting a car is easy and encouraged for the more adventurous tourist. I plan to go during puffin nesting season and visit the nesting sites along the north coast, taking in a volcano and a glacier or two along the way!

And of course I'll visit Eldhestar and do more tölting on Icelandic ponies!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Toy Monster Update

I posted earlier in August about Mimi's toy training that went a bit awry. Not really wrong, exactly, just that as usual she takes things to absurd limits. In the process of training her to bring toys back to me coupled with better recall behavior, she became a Toy Monster. All she wants to do now is chase down toys and bring them back to me.

Upul, my houseboy, reports that Mimi is just as relentless about toys with him as she is with me. He said that she never stopped trying to get him to play with her. And she also tries to work him over with The Stare--he thought the staring/picking up the toy/dropping the toy/staring behavior to be particularly funny. He told me again the night I got home that he enjoys staying here with the dogs when I go out on leave because "it's always interesting"!

Back Home at CircusK9

No matter how long or short my travels, I'm always mobbed when I return home: Mimi sproinging repeatedly, Harry squeaking, Tsingy swirling in and out screeching (being partly deaf, she has a horrendously loud, offkey meow).

The greeting frenzy usually wears off in a few minutes and after a day or so, they all return to their normal routines.

Harry's had his dinner, his evening walk, and I'm home. All is right with his world.

Tsingy tucked into her cave bed--all is right with her world, too.

One of the most important events that happens after I return home is the making of the dog food. The dogs are still eating homemade dog meatloaf for their evening meals. They are thriving on the stuff: sleek, fit, happy. (Contact me if you want the updated recipe.) It takes about three hours from start to finish (washing veggies to storing the cooked meatloaf in containers for freezing), and I have to do it about every 3 weeks. But the commercial food options here in KSA are so dismal that I really don't have a choice.

The best part is licking the pan at the end.

Speaking of eating, I want to make a product plug. I don't do it that often, so just bear with me. You North Americans can pop into any number of big box stores or boutique shops to purchase a myriad of products for your pets: collars, leashes, toys, food, treats. I can't do that. And having items shipped to KSA is really expensive--if the company you are shopping with will even ship here; many don't. Then there are always concerns about what will make it through Saudi customs. That's why I was very pleased to come across Trendy Pet. They make light, strong, nicely designed frames to elevate feeding bowls. And they ship to KSA!

Harry's getting noticeably stiff these days and was having trouble bending down to his food bowl. Earlier this year I purchased two of their 10" tall, single-bowl stands. Harry loves his!

If you are in the market for this sort of thing, CircusK9 gives a big thumbs-up recommendation to Trendy Pet!

Travels: Iceland

I'm back from Iceland! I already know what you are saying..."Why Iceland?" For a number of perfectly good reasons. It's not Saudi Arabia. In fact, in terms of climate and culture, it's about as far away as one can get from the Magic Kingdom. It is green, wet, and cool, and populated by people who don't bathe in cologne, who think backpacks are the best way to carry one's stuff around, and who can't wait to get outdoors and do something. But Iceland is also geologically unique, a volcanic island that sits astride a tectonic plate boundary (the midocean spreading ridge in the North Atlantic). It is chock full of volcanoes, geysers, waterfalls, and glaciers. The ever practical Icelanders make full use of their natural, although certainly at times hostile, resources. From Wikipedia:
Five major geothermal power plants exist in Iceland, which produce approximately 26.2% (2010) of the nation's energy. In addition, geothermal heating meets the heating and hot water requirements of approximately 87% of all buildings in Iceland. Apart from geothermal energy, 75.4% of the nation’s electricity was generated by hydro power, and 0.1% from fossil fuels.
How about that math? More than 99% of Iceland's electricity comes from renewable sources.

Iceland has an interesting human history as well starting with the first settlements back in 874. It's a hard place to make a living. Even now after more than 11 centuries (!), there are fewer than 320,000 people in the whole country; about 180,000 of them live in Reykjavik and its suburbs. Iceland doesn't have really harsh winters because of the warm Gulf Stream waters but it is a harsh landscape nonetheless. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and geysers make for awkward neighbors. There are some trees in Iceland but they are few and far between (i.e., no forests). There aren't any big animals except for cows, sheep, and horses, introduced by man, of course.

I had some difficult arranging a hotel for my first two nights--every hotel in Reykjavik was booked solid. Who the heck were all these people visiting Iceland in late August? After watching people for a few days, I concluded that most of the tourists come from Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and then perhaps North Americans come in a distant fifth. A few Japanese were scattered about as well. I asked a Swedish woman why her countrymen and women would choose to have their holidays in a country so similar to their own. She said, well, culturally it's similar but the landscape is very different. A lot of them come to bathe and swim in the hot springs (I dubbed this the "sauna culture").

The country has no major industries or exports (can't export steam) except for tourism. The tourists come for the gorgeous scenery but also for inventively and playfully designed textiles, clothing, housewares, furniture, jewelry, and art. Iceland has a vibrant music scene as well. With all of the tourism focused on outdoor activities, there are several outdoor gear companies that make extraordinarily beautiful and functional outdoor clothing. And of course there are the woolen goods: sweaters, hats, dresses, vests, mitts, socks, scarves, blankets, and more. You can easily spot the items made with undyed wool in black, grey, white, and brown. After a while, I could see common decorative patterns and themes.

The food was nothing to write home about. In my opinion, it was typically bland Northern European variations on a fish and potatoes theme. I did try some puffin. And no, it did not taste like chicken. It had an odd texture like very firm seafood, kind of like a scallop but not as smooth. It wasn't gamey like pheasant nor meaty like herbivores. Grocery stores have a few extremely hard or sadly limp vegetables in limited supply; green vegetables and fruit don't comprise a large part of the Icelandic diet. They do grow and eat a lot of berries, though, which are probably the source of key vitamins. My favorite food discovery is skyr, a type of thick, creamy cow's milk yogurt.

One thing that did surprise me was how expensive Iceland is. On a scale of 1 to 10, this place is a 10. And I wasn't even paying for five-star activities and accommodations. I saw tourists spending money like mad on all sorts of luxury goods (i.e., things they didn't need to survive). Despite their recent national financial crisis, the Icelanders seem to have a pretty good attitude about it all. This was also the height of tourist season when they make most of their income for the year so the locals were at their charming, helpful best.

Like most Europeans, Icelanders put Americans to shame when it comes to language. All of them--ALL of them--speak excellent English as well as Icelandic and at least one of German or Swedish or Norwegian, sometimes all three. Swedes and Norwegians told me that they can sort of understand Icelandic but they can't speak it. I purchased a very funny tourist Tshirt which says in Icelandic, "I can't speak Icelandic": "ég tala ekki íslensku". Yeah, exactly.

So by now I'm sure you are saying, alright with the damned social studies lesson already, where are the pictures? For that, you'll have to check back soon! But I'll leave you with a few teasers.

Reykjavik. View looking northeast.

Bubbling hot pot; the hole is about 12 inches in diameter. The water comes out of the hole at boiling temperatures. The white bits are bacteria and mineral deposits. You can also see feathery green algae and farther away where it's a bit cooler, clumps of grass.

Icelandic pony.