Saturday, January 21, 2012

Adventures in the Kitchen

Friday morning greeted us with cloudy skies and a bit of rain, not enough to get the pavement wet under trees and cars, more like a very heavy dew. But moisture falling from the sky usually means something is up with the weather. By Friday afternoon, a front started sweeping down from the north bringing very cold winds and of course dust. Twenty-four hours later, it is becoming a proper dust storm out there--you can feel the grit on your teeth and in your eyeballs after just a few minutes outside.

A perfect evening for cooking. Inspired by the colder weather (certainly colder by our standards; I was lounging on the porch in shorts and a Tshirt two days ago; tonight I need long pants and a sweatshirt just to take the dogs out to pee), I decided to cook up some chicken in red whine.

I've been wanting to try cooking with my whine for some time but only recently have I gotten production organized to the point that I have extra bottles sitting around when I bottle the most recent batch, i.e., I usually drink it all.

I had set aside the last few inches of a bottle of okay red (I know how to make fabulous whine but I can't help experimenting with each batch and sometimes the results are less than fabulous) just for this purpose.

Saudi chickens are smaller than their US counterparts and not all of the chicken parts that you buy are very well butchered or cleaned. But I have found that one Saudi company in particular reliably produces good quality chicken parts--I usually buy the thighs or whole legs as I don't care much for chicken breast.

I took three thighs, ready after a lot of cleaning and rinsing and trimming (I'm very thankful for my ultra high quality kitchen shears; never skimp on good equipment in the kitchen), and browned them in liberal quantities of rosemary, basil, fresh ground black pepper, fresh ground salt, fresh chopped garlic, and olive oil. I then added the red whine, a coarsely chopped onion, and about two handfuls of baby carrots (I used the regular adult carrots in the dog food meatloaf that I made yesterday). The pot is simmering away as I write this.

I'm going to dress some fresh mixed greens (baby spinach, yum!) with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar and serve with my chicken in about half an hour.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Agility in KSA Week 11

The new Community Education session started this week and today was the first of ten agility classes that we will run until the end of March. By then, it will be getting too hot for the dogs to be working outside, even at 6:30 in the morning, so unfortunately, that may be all the agility we will do until next September.

Five of the handlers who took the class in the fall signed up again plus I managed to round up three new ones. Tomorrow is an Aramco holiday so a lot of people went OOK for the long weekend but this morning for our first class, JH and Aris and CJ and Webster both showed up along with new handlers HD with a "desert dog" mix Savvy and K with JRT Obie.

MH is OOK too so I had to run this class by myself. It took me three trips with my dolly to get the equipment down the hill to the soccer field but with plenty of willing hands pitching in at the end of class, we hauled everything up in one trip!

I spent my Christmas weekend building a pause table. I've built one before and knew that I had a good design to work from. But acquiring the materials to build it represented three trips into town over a period of about a month to different local shops--no such thing as Home Depot around here. These local shops are dusty, dirty holes literally crammed floor to ceiling with whatever goods they specialize in. A Saudi in a thobe, usually the owner or the owner's relative, sits at a desk near the front and directs a crew of small brown men who climb and crawl over the piles of stuff to get the items that customers want. No browsing shelves, no comparing prices, no selecting items for yourself.

The wood that is available to me here is extremely poor quality. I was looking for 1x1 strips to use inside the table to strengthen the frame but couldn't find any. I ended up getting "1x2" strips that had been ripped from larger boards. Unfortunately, the laborer who did the ripping didn't bother to rip the original boards down the middle. The "1x2" strips were randomly sized in all directions. I wanted to make the sides of the table out of 1x8s, a common board size in the US, so that without its PVC base the table would be the minimum 8 inches tall. The best I could find were two curved, knotty pieces of wood that were approximately 1x6 inches. The top was supposed to be made out of plywood. All I could find was extremely expense marine-grade plywood, not the cheap composite stuff. And I had to buy an entire 4x8 foot piece of it, although they did cut it down to size for me, sort of.

So this table was cobbled together out of semi-random bits of wood, none of which were true to size or straight. And I did this without a workbench or even a garage. Stubbornness is a great asset in such situations.

Look at this corner! What a mess. Fortunately, the really ugly bits are on the underside.

I managed to get some acrylic primer at another store. For the final color, I chose to go with high gloss fire-engine red spray paint because it was easier to apply.

Now for the top of the table. Rather than go with a rubberizing kit, which I could have ordered online, or with paint mixed with sand, I decided to put green astroturf carpeting on top. I had my mother pick up some at her local home improvement store and in the best of all timings, the package arrived on Wednesday. I spent my Thursday afternoon cutting then glueing then screwing the carpet to the table--just in time to use for class this Friday morning! You can see the results in the photos below.

Even though I had two new handlers, I jumped right into some interesting exercises. I set up a jump box (four jumps arranged in a square) with a curved tunnel and pause table arranged outside. I had my experienced handlers work their dogs straight through the box, practicing good body language so the dogs didn't take the off-course jumps, then I introduced them to the reverse-flow pivot or false turn to help their dogs to the correct tunnel entrance. I had the new handlers work one, then two jumps, starting them sequencing in the very first class!

Savvy, the "desert dog" mix is Saluki as well as lab and pit bull. Pit bulls are banned in KSA but there is a big dog fighting affair up north of here and they smuggle pit bulls in for that purpose. Puppies mixed with pit show up all the time, discards that escaped being used for bait. Savvy is a very cautious dog but her owner is patient and follows instructions well so we had Savvy jumping 4" jumps and even getting onto the table after just a few attempts. It's not right to take credit since HD and Savvy are doing all the work, but I am really proud that I am able to help all kinds of dogs and handlers be successful.

Since all the dogs were extremely quick to pick up the table, I next had them work two jumps and the table, first in a straight line across the box then in a curve.

CJ and her little star Webster. We introduced him to 4" jumps this morning. Doesn't look like he has any problems with that!

What a pretty sit on the table!

JH and her little OLD star Aris. She emailed me and MH last week to say that she was concerned that Aris had been acting a bit old of late (he has a bum hip and arthritis and we leave the bars on the ground for him). But he had plenty of pep in class this morning for the full hour and a half!

One of the new handlers K and her JRT Obie. He's a bit too focused on her hands but he had no problem with the jumps!

Nice table landing!

Savvy and HD.

Savvy began class a nervous wreck--worried about the crate, about all of the strange dogs, about all of the strange people. But once we got HD and Savvy going, they started having a grand time! You can see Savvy looking ahead to the next jump and to the table after that.

Another extremely positive training session for all the dogs and handlers, and two excited new agility converts!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Adventures in the Kitchen

Being sick is never fun. Last night the gombu moved from my throat to my head. I lasted three hours this morning at work (I spent the entire time running around getting some consultants set up) before stumbling home to sleep most of the day. The dogs have an infinite reservoir of patience for daytime naps and happily stretched out beside me.

After sleeping all day and taking some non-drowsy cold medicine, I was feeling a bit buzzy and decided to do some cooking. Fussing around in the kitchen is one of my favorite ways to relax.

Eggplants have always defeated me. They always have a bitter edge no matter how I prepare them. But at last I found the perfect way to manage them: a Middle Eastern eggplant dip called baba ganoush. It takes a bit of prep on the front end but you can make this as a side dish for any grilled meat, curry, or green salad.

Select some firm eggplants. Wash thoroughly and cut off the top. Slice the eggplants lengthwise into three or four slices no more than 1 cm thick. Drizzle them with olive oil (both sides). Now here's my twist on the recipe. Most cookbooks will tell you to roast the eggplants in your oven but I use my grill whenever I can so I roast them over a propane flame. This gives them a nice char as well as a tasty smoky flavor from my well seasoned grill.

The eggplant is done when the flesh begins to turn yellowish and smooth. It took me about 20 minutes to roast slices of four large eggplants on my grill on medium heat, turning frequently.

Let the slices cool then remove the flesh from the peel. If you have properly cooked the eggplant, you can separate the flesh from the rind with a spoon. Place the eggplant in a food processer.

Add fresh lemon juice to taste, and coarsely chopped, peeled garlic to taste. I used three large cloves for my four large eggplants.

Now here's the part that makes this dish really great for parties or potlucks: add a volume of plain, unsweetened yogurt equal to about half of the volume of eggplant.

Pulse until smooth.

Serve with whole grain crackers or bread or as a side dish.

What's not to love here? If you are a bit stingy with the olive oil and use low-fat yogurt, then the fat content doesn't have to be very high. You've added no salt or sugar. And eggplants have good fiber. Enjoy!

I'm eating my eggplant dip tonight with oven-roasted chicken and potatoes. Yum!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Catching Up

I was just sitting on my porch with the dogs, drinking a glass of whine (white flavored with powdered ginger; surprisingly successful), and enjoying the evening. It's nearly 80F here at 5pm although the sun is already below the western horizon. I've been wearing shorts and a Tshirt to walk the dogs for about a week now, mornings and evenings. Our winter came early this year and sneaked away without any notice. There aren't really four seasons here, but we'll be generous and call this spring.

I'm sick with the same gombu that I had in France last July but this seems to be a milder case. The symptoms are most consistent with a strep infection: persistent fever (can alternate with chills, how nice), difficulty in swallowing, swollen lymph glands, etc. I'm taking it easy this weekend. (And before you get all wound up, yes, I know, you aren't supposed to drink alcohol when you are sick but here in the Magic Kingdom we get to make up our own rules. So there.)

Kinky has made himself right at home. He and Tsingy are apparently going to maintain this detente for some time but at least they aren't showing overt aggression towards each other. If anything, Kinky tries his best to entice Tsingy down from her perch. I think he'd like to get close to her but right now she isn't allowing it.

In desperation, Kinky has turned to playing with Mimi. He has already learned to give Harry a wide berth at all times, which I suspect was due to a chomp Harry gave him one day last week. That's a fundamental rule of this household so the earlier Kinky gets in line, the better.

But back to the Kinky and Mimi show. He will flop down on the floor and start biting her rear feet and legs, but ever so gently. She will respond by grabbing his entire head in her mouth, or take darting nips at his neck. When she jumps back, he will scoot over and bite her rear legs again. This game can go back and forth for quite a while but usually ends when Mimi gets too excited and starts stepping on Kinky, which of course is no fun at all.

The dog training classes start up again next weekend so I should have more fun agility posts to write. I'm exited to see how this second session will turn out. I built a table so have a new piece of equipment for the returning participants. And I'm going to paint and prepare a plank that we can use to start teaching contact behavior. Of course, we have no contact equipment, nor do we have any place to put such things even if we had them. But that doesn't matter--it's all part of the challenge of doing agility in Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Meet Kinky Friedman

In mid-December, a very skinny orange and white tabby kitten started hanging out in my area of the Mango cluster-housing ghetto. He was loud and persistent and hungry. Because I am both stupid and soft-hearted, I fed him one night. And you can guess where that led. He showed up every night and started darting onto my porch every time I opened the gate. Not the best idea, I told him as I gently shooed him back out.

He wasn't feral--you can't approach or touch feral kittens. He hadn't been outside long because he wasn't torn up or scarred and wasn't really that dirty, mostly dusty around the edges. He looked to be about 10-12 weeks old, later confirmed by the vet. My guess is that he was abandoned.

I kept hoping that he would find another part of Mango to beg in but he kept showing up, surviving the gauntlet of feral cats, foxes, and dogs. On top of this, we were having a cold snap. So a few days before Christmas I decided to bring him into my house so I could figure out what to do next.

 Tsingy took one quick sniff at this stranger in the crate and ran upstairs to hide. The dogs were simply besides themselves with curiosity. I introduced the kitten to them that very night. There was a very hysterical moment, about 30 seconds long, in which the kitten was poised utterly motionless, back arched, every hair erect, tail puffed, making not a sound, staring at both dogs who were also utterly motionless (except for Mimi's tail) just a few feet away. In the end, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Quite the anticlimax. Kitten didn't run, dogs didn't chase. And that was it.

I have to give some credit to my dogs because I have no doubt they would happily kill any cat that they found outside. But once that cat is inside, well, their concept of pack is rather fluid. None of my dogs has ever known life without cats as part of the household.

I put the kitten in a very large dog crate with food, water, a cozy bed, and a small litter pan. And the next morning, I made an appointment at the vet. I wanted to make sure he was free of nasty things before he had any opportunity to interact with Tsingy.

Kinky in his dog crate.
Because we are only allowed to have two animals registered to one Aramco badge number, I had to find a "sponsor" for the kitten so that the vet could see him. I called up a friend from my dog classes who only has one dog and who isn't a cat person and thus is unlikely to get a cat in the future. She was more than happy to lend me her badge number and sign the form. The vet clinic is completely aware of how we multiple-pet owners manage to get around the system: Tsingy is on her original owner's badge while their new second cat is on the badge number of one of their friends. That's how the animal-owning community here in Dhahran makes it all work.

In the 24 hours between my call and the vet visit, the kitten fell horribly ill. Vomiting constantly, he became lethargic and wouldn't eat or drink. The vet didn't waste any time--he thought it might be kitty parvo, which is horribly contagious and often lethal. Kitten did not have a good prognosis. They whisked him off to kitty ICU and put him on fluids and antibiotics right away. There he stayed for five days. The vets called me with daily updates, even over the weekend. I told them, he deserves a chance. And if it was necessary to euthanize him, then he deserved to die with dignity and in as much comfort as we could provide. This is the least we can do for the least among us.

I spent the rest of that weekend cleaning my downstairs floor and everything kitten had touched with bleach. I was very worried about infecting Tsingy.

In the end, the vets decided that kitten did not have parvo (he tested negative for that and for feline leukemia) but instead had gotten an extremely nasty bacterial infection in his gut. He was a very sick kitten for several days.

In the end, he pulled through. The following week, I brought him back home, weak and much thinner. He spent a couple of days in the large dog crate until I could make sure he was able to properly use a litter box. He needed the extra rest, too. I would let him out when I was home in the evenings, much to Mimi's pleasure--she was fascinated by him. As the days passed, he became more active and curious about his surroundings and he got to spend more and more time out of the crate. His personality started to express itself. So he had to have a name. I chose to name him Kinky Friedman. Either by accident or birth he has a 90-degree bend at the tip of his tail (the kink). And it seemed to me that he had some sort of spiritual kinship with the famous Jewish cowboy/politician/musician, a feisty attitude and a love of life.

Mimi and Kinky.

During the past two weeks, Kinky's personality has really begun to shine. It's been a while since I had a young animal in the house and his energy is astonishing--and remember that I live with Mimi, the perpetual motion machine. Kinky, like Mimi, quickly figured out how to surf across the tile floor. The other morning, he gave one of his toys a big whack, took off and dropped into a slide, only to ram headfirst into the five-liter communal water bowl. Bong! It rang like a bell and a wave of water sloshed over the edge onto him. I laughed so hard I thought I was going to pee myself. Harry, being no slouch in the "I can get attention too" department, got up and brought me another cat toy. Logical, of course. If I was that amused by the stupid kitten playing with a cat toy, Harry wanted in on the action. I could only laugh harder.

Kinky has collapsed into a stupor from kibble gluttony but he can't drag himself away from the kitchen.

Tsingy has been the X factor in all of this--I decided that I would not keep Kinky unless I could get Tsingy to go along with it. Upon Kinky's return from the vet, Tsingy disappeared upstairs. She didn't eat, drink, or use the litter box for three days. I figured it wasn't very healthy for her to keep that up. So I changed the arrangements a bit. I set up Tsingy's food and water and litter box in her room and shut her up in there alone. And I set up a new litter box next to Kinky's dog crate. So there Tsingy sulked for a couple more days, deigning to eat three or four pieces of kibble (although she gobbled up the canned cat food I bought especially to tempt her). But at last she started to eat and use the litter box.

Group nap. Mimi usually takes the purple pillow but she was being polite for a change and didn't push the kitten off.

It has been a very slow process of integration, more difficult than my other experiences with introducing a new cat to an existing household. Tsingy is very stubborn and not at all happy about sharing space. But thanks to the blissful ignorance of kittens, Kinky blunders his way around ignoring her snits and snarls. Both litter boxes are in the office now, and Kinky has full run of the house. Tsingy is starting to resume her normal schedule. Kinky has claimed sleeping spots all his own and has his own routines. While these two cats may never curl up together in a patch of sun for a nap, I think that a general detente is being shaped.

I know this particular photo looks pretty tense but for the most part, the cats are ignoring each other.

So welcome to Kinky Friedman, the newest member of CircusK9!

Kinky lounging on one of the dog beds. He's got quite a tail (a kinkajou tail, to be exact; "kinkajou" is his new nickname) and you can see the kink a couple of inches from the tip.