Friday, July 26, 2013

Pork Chops and Savory Blueberry Chutney

It's been an unusually hot and dry spring and summer here in west-central Oregon. I'm terribly disappointed and am really looking forward to some rain. I hear it rains often here. I've yet to see it.

One side effect of the hot weather, besides my disgruntling, is that the blueberry crop ripened a bit sooner than usual, and, most interestingly, all at once. This means that the markets have been flooded with tons of cheap blueberries, all at their perfect state of ripeness.

I've been buying them up and washing then freezing them, because nothing will taste better than yummy blueberries baked into a cobbler in the depths of the grey, wet winter (which they say is coming, but I have my doubts...).

I usually eat the berries with oatmeal or simply right out of the colander after I've washed them. But I can only consume so many of them that way. I looked at the gallon of gorgeous blueberries in my fridge and thought, there should be something I can cook up with them now.

I'm not a strict vegetarian by any stretch, although I eat vegetarian, sometimes even vegan, around three or four nights a week. So that means I'm not a rabid carnivore either. In fact, I haven't eaten beef in six or seven months. I stick to chicken, pork, and the occasional bag of salmon or can of tuna. Just because I can, I always have some form of pork in the freezer.

I pulled out a couple of boneless pork chops tonight and decided that they would be delicious with a savory blueberry sauce. I checked out some recipes on the internet but in the end came up with my own.

Rinse and set aside two cups of fresh blueberries.

Coarsely chop half a large sweet onion and set aside. Finely dice three large cloves of garlic and set aside. Coarsely chop some fresh parsley to get half to one cup and set aside. Coarsely dice some fresh tomatoes and set aside or pour a can of diced tomatoes in a colander to drain (I used canned tomatoes, as I usually do, and they were perfect in this dish). Either way, you want about a cup of diced tomatoes.

Wash and pat dry two boneless pork chops. Drizzle olive oil on a plate and drag both sides of the chops through it. Sprinkle the chops with cayenne pepper and coarse salt on both sides. Pan fry the chops and set aside in a covered bowl to keep them warm.

In the same pan (don't clean or wipe it out), gently fry the onions until they begin to turn clear and golden. Add two tablespoons of honey, two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, the garlic, the tomatoes, and the blueberries. Reduce the heat. Stir frequently. Cook until the mixture becomes thick and the berries begin to open, about 10-15 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the parsley, and stir well. The sauce will be a pleasing dark purple color with bits of red tomato and green parsley bobbing about.

Spoon the sauce over the plated chops and serve with rice or grilled veggies.

In case you think this combination of ingredients sounds weird, keep in mind that the cloying sweetness of the blueberries is rounded out by the acidity of the tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. The honey is mainly to assist in carmelizing the sauce although it does add flavor and sweetness. In fact, this balance of sweet and acid is the exact definition of a chutney.

The cayenne pepper on the chops puts a nice edge on the flavor but this dish is not particularly spicy. You could use fresh-ground black pepper if you are wary of cayenne.

If you haven't tried making a chutney, this is an excellent starting point using seasonally fresh ingredients.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Getting Experience

One of the requirements needed to apply to all US vet schools is at least 300 hours of experience in a veterinary clinic or vet research laboratory setting. Most pre-vet students get that experience while in high school or as undergraduates so I'm pretty behind the curve.

This experience doesn't have to be paid work. In fact, something called "shadowing" is acceptable. To be a shadow, the pre-vet student arranges to spend time in a local clinic a few hours a week. The shadow is mostly supervised by a vet tech but may interact with a vet every so often.

This experience is also critical in meeting another strict requirement when applying to vet school: at least one letter of recommendation from a practicing vet.

It has taken me quite a bit of time to get a shadowing arrangement set up. Some clinics don't want non-employees in their facility. Some physically don't have the room. Some don't want the trouble of dealing with a potentially incompetent human in the mix. Others already have a full complement of three or four shadows.

The other issue I had to manage was finding blocks of time large enough to spend significant time at the clinic that would also work with my class schedule. For example, most surgeries, which are very exciting things to observe, are done in the mornings but my class starts at 10am for the next three weeks then shifts to 8am for four weeks after that so mornings are not really the best times for me, at least this summer (I have to factor in transit time to and from the clinic plus my biking time to campus).

I had a false start at one clinic that was in a town near Corvallis. I won't mention any details; you'll see why in a moment. The experience I had there in just two and a half hours was quite eye-opening on a number of fronts. I got to observe a BC get prepped for a neuter surgery, then observe the surgery itself (the prep took about 20 minutes, the surgery was over in less than two minutes). That was certainly exciting. However, this particular clinic was a mess. I could barely see any organization to the place, boxes and supplies stacked anywhere and everywhere. The place wasn't even particularly clean. After asking what I thought were innocent questions about staffing and shifts and such, it became clear that there was a lot of ill-will between the techs and the vets. Any time red flags start popping up within minutes of casual conversation, you know you have a dysfunctional organization. And then the vet, who had been sleeping in the back after working an early-hours emergency, stumbled out. He treated the techs so rudely and with such disdain that I was embarrassed to be a witness to it. It was unprofessional and petty. But like I said, eye opening. The smart student will learn things even from negative lessons.

I didn't call the office manager of that clinic back to discuss setting up a long term shadowing position. While I would no doubt learn many amazing things, I wanted to find a more positive learning environment.

It took me a while but I've managed to arrange to shadow at the clinic that I am using for my own animals. I'm very happy about this because I chose that clinic based on how I felt when I took one of the dogs there. At this point, I'm pretty picky about the clinic and the vet that I want for my dogs (the cat comes along for the ride). I had really good vibes the first time I visited this clinic. My first day as a shadow confirmed that my intuition was spot on.

On my first day, I got to observe two abdominal ultrasounds performed by a local mobile specialist, a problematic blood draw on a very sick dog, and a basic exam of a ferret (did you know that when you scruff them and let them dangle down, they go more or less limp?), and hold one large dog for a vaccination, hold a small dog for an ear clean and nail clip, and even interact (that is, speak to) two human clients. The last bit was particularly exciting because shadows are often not allowed to touch patients or speak to clients.

The clinic is well lit and spacious. There are a couple of nooks and back closets with disorganized junk in them but the space was mostly clean and organized. The two techs there that day were busy but managed to find time to give me little tasks to do and to answer my questions (I am trying to focus on observing but I can't help asking questions every so often). I even got to talk to the mobile ultrasound specialist for a bit to ask her about her business model (extremely successful, by all considerations).

Three hundred hours, accrued three hours at a time.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Summer of Organic Chemistry 3

I finished the first course of organic chemistry with a grade of B+. I was expecting better but I continued to make some trivial errors on the exams that cost me those precious points. Still, I shouldn't complain. That's a perfectly respectable grade for this difficult course.

The next course, another four-week slog, begins on Monday. No rest for the weary or the wicked. Maybe the good are resting well this weekend but who wants to be good?

On the bright side, I have ridden the frankenbike to campus every weekday for a month (a grueling 15 minutes there and 15 minutes back to my car on a nearly flat route). I have decided that the biking experiment has been successful enough for me to move to the next stage: getting a bike rack so I don't have to wrestle the bike into the back of the car every day.

After doing some research, I decided that a hitch-mounted rack was the best option so I'm having a hitch installed tomorrow morning. Today after the org chem final I went into town to check out racks at four local bike shops. I've already priced racks online but I wanted to see if I could get any deals locally. Plus it's good to see the products in the flesh, so to speak. In fact, because of what I saw today, I'm going with a platform style rather than the clip-hanging style. It seems silly to get a nice rack for such a crappy bike but I may upgrade the bike next year.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Gardening, Cooking, and Eating

The hippies that lived in this place before me dug several gardens out of parts of the front and back yards. I discovered that, near the back door, they planted arugula. I mowed the stuff three or four times before I realized what it was, then I realized that it came back even stronger after the mowings. So I harvest arugula a couple of days before I mow. This particular garden plot was reseeded with grass so I have to pick out grass stems and other bits when I wash it but it's worth it. Two nights ago I had salmon-from-a-bag (like canned tuna in texture and cheaper than salmon steaks) on a plate-sized bed of arugula dressed with homemade vinaigrette made from organic basil (more on this below), olive oil, apple cider vinegar, a couple of spoons of sugar (I know, some people think that sugar ruins a dressing; I think it adds a pleasing texture), and a generous grinding of black pepper. Yum!

I heard some botanist yammering on the radio about how certain plants release more phytotoxins when they are disturbed (i.e., bitten by an animal or, say, mowed). These phytotoxins can make the plant bitter and dissuade the animal from coming back again, but the chemicals are in fact what we like about bitter greens such as arugula. Simply by chance, I have been conducting my own experiment by regularly mowing the arugula plants.

During my exploration of the yard, I have also discovered a good crop of lemon balm. I think I'll try my hand at lemon balm pesto.

I discovered that we share the yard with three garter snakes, one large one, at least 24 inches long and about as big around as a large carrot, and two smaller ones about half its size. They look exactly like the snake in this link with a large yellow stripe down their backs. I've found at least two of their hidey holes. Unfortunately, Mimi found these dens as well and I've had some problems keeping her away from them. The big snake in particular is most interesting as two times now I've found it lounging on top of the newly revitalized compost pile. I've had to nudge it away so I can dump my bucket of tea bags and cilantro stems. I think it is hunting worms and possibly centipedes or roaches in the compost. The pile is very fluffy after I turned it and it is quite easy for the snake to get in and out of it. Garter snakes eat slugs so I'm being very careful when I mow. I want the snakes to continue to think my backyard is a great place to be.

OSU is a fairly typical ag or land-grant school in that there is a strong emphasis on sciences of growing food, whether in the ground or on the hoof. The university is located in the middle of Corvallis but is surrounded on the west by vast acreages of crop and pasture land. I bike through the university farmland every day. Bees and butterflies, mown hay grass, alpacas--lots of stimulating sights, sounds, and smells.

The crop science students maintain gardens and greenhouses and sell the produce in a building on campus. I ride past that building every day too. And on Friday, I had to stop when I saw the sign said "basil" and "beets". I bought two bunches of organic basil for $1 each and a bunch of organic beets for $2.

Beets. I've never been a big fan of beets. But really, I've never been a fan of the musky red cubes that come out of cans that most Americans think of when they consider beets. They are often served cold in a "salad". I'd rather eat snot.

I saw the sign and thought, now here's a chance to do something interesting with beets.

I hauled my prizes home and immediately went to the BBC food website, my current online source for interesting recipes. I've mentioned before that I am attracted to Nigel Slater's recipes and he came through once again. I found this recipe for lamb, bulgar, and beet patties with yogurt-mint cucumber dressing. I didn't have any lamb, and haven't seen any ground lamb in the store (it would probably be hideously expensive here) but I did have some ground pork. Lamb, pork--both are rich in fat and in my mind effectively the same when making this sort of dish.

The patties were absolutely delicious but the prep time listed in the recipe--less than 30 minutes--was terribly unrealistic. It took me an hour to prep everything and perhaps another 45 minutes total for the cooking (plus the hour the patties sat in the fridge and the half-hour to prepare the yogurt dressing). And I think that I am pretty darned efficient in the kitchen!

The magenta-colored patties would make a decent party dish as I ended up with around 30 of them. Plenty of leftovers for me. The sugar in the beets carmelized during the frying and baking, helping to stick them together. And two heaping tablespoons of dill? I was suspicious as this seemed a lot but it had to stand up to some other strong flavors. And that musky beet odor/taste was nowhere in evidence.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Summer of Organic Chemistry 2 Plus Musings on Returning to School

I read somewhere that one of the rules of blogging is to never apologize when you haven't posted in a while. Makes sense. Life happens. Sometimes the pace of the happenings gets a bit frenzied.

The second organic chemistry midterm was today. I didn't do as well as I had hoped but two of my four mistakes were preventable if I had checked my work more carefully. I still made a score above both the average and median scores, and my accumulated point total for the quizzes and two midterms remains in the grade range for an A. Not bad for my first technical college course in 21 years.

The subject matter itself is complicated. While my geology training allows me to visualize, and to some degree rotate, three-dimensional objects in my mind, which is a big help in organic chemistry, I am certainly no chemist. But so far our focus has been on alkyls and alkenes, molecules made largely of carbons and hydrogens (...hydrocarbons, get it?) so I find the material interesting as well. And science is science.

What do I mean by that? Well, most sciences are underlain by the same mathematical and first-order physics rules. And most sciences utilize patterns and rules and recipes to pose and solve problems. Once you learn those, you should be able to move around at the college sophomore level in most sciences. It's learning the exceptions to all those rules and patterns that takes you to the level of specialization in a science.

Organic chemistry is no exception. It is a foundation course, like calculus, that presents concepts and patterns that I will need later on in biochemistry. I never really understood the value of calculus when I took it lo these many years ago. It wasn't until I had to apply it when doing my dissertation research and later when working in the real world hat I realized how important it was. If I can do a good job now in organic chemistry, I can focus on the bio part of the biochemistry courses to come--my foundation knowledge will be solid.

I haven't written much about being back in school. The campus of a large university is not an alien landscape, of course. I spent 10 years as a student and much later another two working in that environment as an administrator. There's a rhythm that one quickly falls into when you spend your day in that academic bubble.

I overheard the instructor talking to a couple of other students yesterday and learned that what I suspected was right. A large portion, 30-40%, of students taking the organic chemistry sequence in the summer are repeats who are hoping to get a better grade the second time around. But some are taking it in the summer because it gets the equivalent of an entire year of coursework taken care of in 12 weeks; I suppose I fall into that category because organic chem is a pre-req for some other courses that I need. Still others choose to take it in the summer because they prefer the compressed format. The same material is covered in both the summer and the year-long deliveries but the daily schedule of the summer should, in theory, lead to better learning and retention. It's certainly a messy test of that theory for some of these people.

I am of course the oldest student, although there are also a handful of others who are older than the average 20 years. Not surprisingly, I am older than the instructor too!

I haven't met anybody yet. I am hoping to find a study partner, and possibly a potential lab partner, in the next session of the course, which begins in a couple of weeks, that is, find someone who passed this first four weeks and who is planning to continue on throughout the summer.

There are a few sadly stereotypical characters in the class: sorority girls; athletic types (both male and female); the usual motley back bench crew who come in late and sit in the back, probably to doze. My favorites so far are a pair of American-Asian identical twins. Twinning is rare in Asians, so that certainly attracted my attention. But these two young men are quintessential nerds. Skinny to the point of being gangly, a bit spotty, no tattoos, no "cool" branded clothing or shoes. I've never seen them apart, even on campus. In fact, I've never seen them open their mouths in class, even to each other. I guess they communicate with each other telepathically. I'd like to start up a conversation with them but I'm afraid that, like fawns, they would startle and run away if approached.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Fashion Accessory

Here is Mimi's new fashion accessory:

Yes, that's exactly what you think it is: a pink leather muzzle.

After observing her over the past few months, it's becoming clear that when out on walks Mimi is getting more aggressive and that her targets of choice are the other two dogs. Harry and Azza don't have to be doing anything in particular, although if Azza gets excited about something, that will usually trigger a bite from Mimi. Mimi has even bitten me when she can't get to the other dogs.

A lot of this is accelerated when Azza is present. When I was looking after Skeeter and walking just Harry and Mimi together, Mimi wasn't nearly as reactive.

Mimi doesn't behave this way at agility trials or classes. She moderates her biting at home (well, except for the recent crate incident but that was quite out of the ordinary). Last night, she and Azza were chasing one of the grass snakes that live in the back yard and I didn't see her doing anything to Azza (I made sure the snake escaped). When the doorbell rings, the dogs go ballistic but Mimi hasn't gone for Azza in that setting yet (Azza is usually diving for her crate anyway).

So the situation that seems to be causing the problems is having the three dogs on lead away from home, a situation that we find ourselves in 6 to 7 days a week!

It isn't realistic to continue to walk the dogs separately. I simply don't have that much free time.

I believe in training and I believe this can be fixed with training. However, I realized that I needed to break the cycle of the biting first. So I got Mimi a muzzle. And I figured that as long as I was going to go down that path, I needed to go all the way. So I got her a pink one.

She'd been wearing it for about five days before we had our first test of the thing. A man out for his morning walk passed us, said good morning. Azza got all wiggly and made some sort of noise. Any change in Azza's demeanor can set Mimi off and sure enough, Mimi launched herself at Azza's neck. I could hear her teeth clicking together as she tried to bite. The muzzle did its job. But it was kind of sad to see Azza flinch when she got poked from Mimi's leather-clad snout.

The next step is to work out a training program to replace Mimi's desire to bite with something a little more benign.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Unpackening

I'm still deep in the throes of unpacking all the stuff in my KSA shipment. There's at least two boxes yet in every room, nearly half a dozen still in the office. The garage has become a dumping zone for stuff I will either sell or don't know what to do with yet.

I have been greatly slowed down because, to my dismay, everything smells really bad, a toxic mixture of funk and cigarette smoke and slightly mildewy cardboard. I'm washing everything I can and putting the rest outside for a day or two to let the sun and fresh air defunk it a little bit. It's been super hot so I don't like to use the dryer much and that slows things down even more.

But I am making progress. I finally cleared away enough boxes to clean the floors yesterday. It's been more than a week since I last vacuumed and the animal hair dust bunnies were becoming enormous. I also mopped with Murphy's Oil Soap and the house still smells fresh.

Azza luxuriating on a nice carpet.