Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It Was a Natural Christmas

Before the holidays, my friend, Lenore, and I were out in the woods gathering greens and berries for our natural Christmas “displays.” We came back to our homes with arms loads of cedar, pine, soap berries, cherry laurel berries, smilax berries and possum-haw berries. And, I came home with the best of the best. An animal skull!! But my happiness was short lived when the family would not let me put it on the top of the Christmas tree.

After the holidays and the decorations stored, I decided to research my “find.”  Identification can be determined by several methods. The best way to identifying a skull to species is with the use of a dichotomous key. This tool allows a person, through a series of questions, to identify an organism to species by process of elimination. The questions are “either/or” (dichotomous) choices. These choices are arranged in “couplets,” or pairs of statements. From each couplet, you choose the statement that best describes the skull. This map will lead you to the name of the mammal or group of mammals or to another couplet. You have to have to patience to work through the steps in sequence until you have a tentative identification.

My photo
Internet photo

In my Master Naturalist classes, we used a dental formula - counting the teeth. Even though some of the teeth are missing in my skull I was able to determine this skull has 40 teeth, and so does a raccoon. The dental formula for a raccoon is 3 incisors, 1 canine, 4 premolars and 2 molars or 40 teeth. It is written as such:

Another way to tell is turn the skull over and look at the hard palate bone (the roof of its mouth). In a raccoon, this bone will go past the molars.

Raccoon palate

Raccoons are opportunistic omnivores with a very broad diet. Their diet consists of roadkill, insects, frogs, birds, snakes, small mammals, slugs, and earthworms. Some of their favorite foods are fruits and MY tomatoes. Omnivore
teeth. Their sharp-edged incisors and long canines look like those of carnivores, though the canines are not as sharp. The cheek teeth are a blend of herbivore and carnivore teeth - they do not have the tall, sharp points of the carnivore, but do have more groves and blunt points than herbivore teeth.

And, there you have it! Next time you find a skull, try using a dichotomous key and also a dental formula. The cat is getting suspicious and the family doesn't like the ickyness of a dead animal on the kitchen table, so I must dispose of the skull. Naw, maybe I will just hide it.)

Shameless plug here - a new Master Naturalist class is beginning at the Tyler Nature Center on February 23. It is sponsored by Texas AgriLife Extension Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife. Check out their web site:

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Holiday Hits

My grandchildren's day care closes when public schools are shut down so I HAVE to go babysit. And for the last two years I have taken care of the Goober and Sweet Baby Girl the week before Christmas. This year I planned ahead for those down times. You know, when they don't want to watch General Hospital with you. What's with that? So, I thought I would share with you some of the projects and some of the recipes that were a hit over the holidays at the The Jardin Encantado. Some of them may be one hit wonders.

Pumpkin Cookies
1 ½ cups creamy peanut butter
½ cup butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp orange gel icing (if you can’t find this use red and yellow food coloring)
4 cups powdered sugar
Mini pretzel sticks
Cream together peanut butter, butter, vanilla and gel icing color. Add the powdered sugar a small amount at a time. The mixture will become very stiff and difficult to mix. Use a spatula to combine any of the mix that clings to the side of the bowl. Roll 1 tbsp of the dough into a ball and make creases with the back of a butter knife on each cookie. The finishing touch is the pretzel stem. Refrigerate pumpkins until ready to serve. #1 son finished these off in 2 days.

Reindeer Cookies
One package Nutter Butter cookies
one large bag of M&Ms – this should have the right amount of brown M&Ms and red M&Ms (unless you are okay with other color eyes)
tiny twist pretzels
white frosting, in a tube or put some in a pastry bag.
Lay out the Nutter Butters on a tray. Take the pretzels and use the white frosting to “glue” the pretzel “antlers” onto the top of the Nutter Butter. While you are doing this, get your grandchildren to sort out the brown M&Ms and red M&Ms into separate bowls for the eyes and nose.  This may or may not go well.  Our large bag of M&Ms had EXACTLY enough brown ones for one bag of Nutter Butter cookies. I don't know how many M&Ms the kids ate. Use the frosting to glue down the M&Ms. Be sure to put the M side down. Ta, da!

Gardeners hand scrub

I used some small canning jars and filled them 3/4 full of sugar. I then added Dawn dish washing soap (the pink kind with Olay Beauty Hand Renewal in it) until it reached just below the bottom of the mouth of the jar. Stir the sugar and soap together….adding sugar a little at a time until it is a paste-like consistency. You don’t want it to be too runny! The light pink color looks so pretty. Add a ribbon or twine and a cutsie wootsie label. My friend, Lenore, wants me to make more.

Feet print reindeer
Card stock
Brown paint (I used finger paint. Next time I think I will use Tempra.)
2 googly eyes
1 small red pom pom
black fine point felt tip pen
Dip your grandkidlette’s feet into the paint and gently place them on the card stock being careful not to move them - the kids or the feet. Let dry - the paper. Wash the children's feet. Glue two googly eyes on the ball of the foot and the pom pom on the heel. Draw in black antlers. I was so hoping my DIL wouldn't notice the brown paint on the kids feet.

Santa ornament
The infamous salt dough ornament is resurrected for this project.
½ cup flour
½ cup salt
¼ water (a little more or less)
Knead until a stiff dough forms. Make an impression of your grandkiddo’s hand and using a knife cut around the shape. Be sure to poke a hole (for hanging) at top. I used a skewer. Bake at 200 degrees for 3 hours. Paint, seal and hang. The grands gave these to their parent for Christmas presents. Just what they wanted!

Christmas Simmer
3 tbsp cinnamon
2 tbsp cloves
1 tsp nutmeg - or one whole nutmeg
1 tbsp star anise - or two whole star anise 
1 tsp ginger
1 qt. water
Simply raid your kitchen cupboard to make this household potpourri. Stir all together and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Then simmer on lowest heat. Add water as needed. Christmas fragrance - it is a good thing!

Disclaimer: I am not a chef or trained cook but I do know how to boil water. Two of these recipes contain peanuts. If you are allergic to peanuts, do not eat them or the cookies. Please note that results may vary. If you dislike any recipe on this blog, you have obviously messed it up somehow.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Comfort is Served

It may be the harshest of seasons, but winter extends a warm welcome to those of us who would add a new entry to our collection of “feel-good” recipes. Just like the heat of the summer leads to sun-ripened tomatoes, cold weather is the promise of comfort food.

It is amazing that with the shifting of the seasons how we gravitate to the stove and oven to produce simmering soups or stews, fresh baked bread or an apple pie. All the warm fuzzies of comfort! In winter everything takes on a less urgent perspective. Now we have time for yeast dough to rise or the beans to bake.

Comfort food generally is food that often provides a nostalgic or sentimental feeling. The nostalgic element most comfort foods provide is either specific to the person or to a specific culture. Maybe that is why most comfort foods are served around the holidays bringing back memories of long ago times.

And, it seems to me, that comfort foods appeal precisely because they aren't everyday dishes. By keeping them “special”, perhaps we give them with the ability to surprise and delight us time and time again. The fear is that somehow these comfort foods will become causalities of our modern life.

Sometimes, comfort cooking can take some getting used to. We no longer live in a time where our routines revolve around the rhythms of the kitchen. You know. . get up, stoke the wood stove, put on a pot of coffee and start the biscuits. We all are busier than bees and sometimes our longing for comfort foods from our own kitchen is at odds with our needs for convenience and the demands of the clock. And, maybe that is not a bad thing.

Winter affords us the opportunity to dust off the bread pans, potato mashers, and crockery slow cookers – and press them into service as the days unfold. No, piping hot cocoa or hearty casserole fresh from the oven won’t make all the women strong, all the men good looking and all the children above average as they say at Lake Wobegon. But comfort foods sure are special and put a warm glow in our hearts, as well as our stomachs.