Tools determine Output

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Here’s a popular dessert in our house. It’s frozen cherries (but sometimes mango or peaches or berries) mixed with a little extract — usually vanilla but sometimes almond or hazelnut — and then blended with a mix of milk and half&half (or heavy cream) until smooth. Ish.

It’s not ice cream but it tastes like ice cream. It’s not sorbet but it tastes like sorbet. It’s sort of an ice milk, I guess? But it isn’t. What it is, is a dessert. We eat it straight out of the blender instead of letting it “set” in the freezer, because we find the setting process makes it disgusting. You eat this fresh or not at all.  You also eat the variants from time to time, too: peach cream where the peaches have been in the freezer too long; or where there’s not enough milk or too much almond extract. The balance is never exact.

But it’s dependent on the tools. Without the blender or the food processor, without the refrigerator, without the whole apparatus to harvest cherries in season and flash freeze them, without milk or cream, this dessert is impossible. It’s not a dish of Ancient Rome; it’s a dish of modern Americans looking to avoid too much processed sugar in their diets.

A makerspace can have a range of tools of all kinds — but without accurate measuring tools, all projects will be sort of sloppy (With accurate measuring tools, projects may still be sloppy, but that’s the choice of the maker). No sandpaper and no files? Projects wind up looking a little rough.  No paint or stain? Things look a little unfinished, more structural, with more emphasis on materials. No drills, no saws? — projects wind up being made of other things than wood.

Tools determine output. If your MakerSpace is producing projects with a lot of bent nails, you might want to take a look at how many hammers you have, and perhaps invest in some saws or drills.  Or maybe a sewing machine…

Or maybe an ice cream maker.

Cooking: Mariner’s Sauce


I’ve been doing some cleanup around the apartment during this Holy Weekend, and among the things I found was my grandfather’s recipe for Mariner’s sauce, or marinara.  My grandfather was a sailor, a chemist, a scientist, a navigator, and a talented cook. His neighbors thought he was a CIA operative, because he was so urbane and sophisticated, and regularly spent time in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or France or California or Texas.  He invented some of the earliest filters and scrubbers for the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants, and the royalties from those patents allegedly paid for his retirement for many years.  He worked for multimillionaire oil barons in the 1940s and 1950s, brewed explosive formulas for the World War bomb factories before that, and identified aspirin as a potential wonder-drug to his daughters in the early 1960s.  More

31 DoM: Cook a Magical Meal


Today’s 31 Days of Magic project, the last for me, is to cook a magical meal.  This project grew up out of Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery community, and I resolved to do all of the activities this month.  And today, I complete that process.

31 DoM: magical meal On the one hand, I can’t claim that spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce is particularly original. This isn’t a fancy meal by any stretch of the imagination. (To be fair, there was also salad, which I forgot to photograph).

But, on the other hand, it has three things going for it.  First of all, I was able to pull together this meal of several ingredients from what I already had in my kitchen, and some hamburger meat that I bought on my way home from the conference.  Which means that I’ve established Mise en place in my kitchen: there are things in my kitchen and pantry that I can turn into food in short order.  Second, thanks to the grimoire of Alice Waters, The Art of Simple FoodI know how to make meatballs in short order without thinking too much about the recipe or even looking it up.  I also know how to doctor this spaghetti sauce so that it reflects my tastes a little more than ‘straight out of the jar’.

And third, I was feeding a guest, a partner in the upcoming adventures of my life.  We reviewed the weekend just passed, and considered the ways that the next few weeks will be transformative in our lives.  And behold, even over a very simple meal, a happy fortune of the future is told.

Sometimes a meal doesn’t have to be any more magical than that.

31 DoM: Use a single herb/flower


For the 31 days of magic project today from Jason Miller’s strategic sorcery community I’m supposed to use a single herb or flower.  As a vegetable alchemist who makes his own plant spagyrics, I fully intended to get out my iron pan, my Weber grill, and cook one of the herbs that I need to reduce to white ash.  I have several I’m currently working with — lemon balm, rosemary, elderberry (although there are risks involved in burning off to ashes of such a strongly antibiotic plant, allegedly), and more.  I know from prior experience that a burn-off of even a relatively simple herb to white ash can take four to six hours.  I wanted to get started before I lost daylight, or I’d be up until all hours of the night — not something I can afford to do, usually.

Alas, it was not to be.  I had two errands to do on the way home from work, and by the time I reached home, the snows were falling in combination with rain. The driveway, where I’d set up my Weber grill — I mean, my athanor (it’s hard to maintain the formality of alchemical language sometimes) — was slick with something that wasn’t quite yet ice, but would be.  And I had three projects going already that I hadn’t counted on doing tonight — prepping for two big days at work on Wednesday and Thursday, and assembling a workbench in the basement for another project planned for a little later in these 31 days.

As always, though, in this series of posts I’m trying to point out the importance of Maker education in modern student experience.  More than thirty years ago, budget cuts and insurance issues closed many of the U.S.’s middle school shop classes and home economics programs.  Maybe as a child you hated these classes in cooking and sewing, and basic carpentry and draftsmanship; but in truth it’s where you learned a great many skills that are increasingly forgotten: how to measure in fractions, how to use a ruler, how to account for changes in weight and volume, how to estimate, how to sew (neglect not the robe, fellow magicians!), how to cook, how to manage a kitchen and pantry, how to operate hand tools and some power tools (including a sewing machine), and more.

At roughly the same time, cable television began infiltrating schools, as did testing. Students spent more and more time on abstract concepts, and less and less on real-world applications; and more and more time on video (and eventually video games), and less time reading.  Although this is not true everywhere in the U.S., and it’s not even true of every child in every part of the country, more and more students are passive or even resistant recipients of information that they are expected to put into their minds for the sole purpose of passing a test, and not for the purpose of living their own lives — building things, repairing or fixing things, using tools, and feeding and entertaining themselves at home.

And so here I am: no ability to roast an herb to a fine powder as I was planning (I almost blew up my kitchen once with an alchemical experiment; the sound of every glass in the kitchen rattling in its cupboard as the explosive burn-off of alcohol completed was something I don’t intend to forget — do not use your regular oven for alchemical calcination… stay outside).  And yet, I’m very much minded of the importance to work with a single herb or flower.  And to keep preaching the message that Making Matters — that young students have to Make in order to understand  That we must all Make in order to understand: what the hands do, the mind comprehends.  Otherwise, the information never really sinks in — for a magician, it’s as though your entire working is contemplation, that never manifests in matter.

And I have no herbs or flowers of any kind that aren’t currently allocated to projects.

But what about working with a plant?

I have an acorn squash.  I could work with that.  And so I turn to one of my favorite grimoires.

Not the Almadel.  Not the Clavicula Solomonis. Nor A True and Certain Relation of the doings one one Doctor, John Dee or whatever it’s called.

31DoM:  The Book of Sacred Law

The Book of the Law

No, I turn to Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food.  I love this cookbook:  The first two hundred pages or so are basic cooking techniques with a few key recipes: how to roast, how to broil, how to boil, how to poach, how to roast over coals, how to make vinaigrette and other essential sauces, how to make soup and pasta and polenta.  Rice and soufflés, custards and cakes.  It doesn’t cover bread, but for that I go to Tassajara.

Someone who mastered the teachings of this grimoire could teach anyone to cook.  Not for a restaurant, not for a glittering array of VIPs and celebrities, but for themselves. For friends, for family.  Thanksgiving dinner would never be a chore.  You would know what to do, when to do it, and how.

Page 324 covers winter squashes, including acorn squashes: cut in half, scoop out seeds and seed-flesh, turn cut-side-down in a roasting pan with a little grease (butter) or on parchment paper (messy), and bake in the oven at around 350°F.  How long? Until they’re soft and tender.  How long is that?

I have no idea.  It could be forty minutes, it could be an hour.  I sit with my acorn squash, I thank it for the sacrifice it’s about to make, and ask it to help feed me.  I also ask it to help me understand what services it provides to my body, and the risks and the benefits associated with eating it.

31DoM: squash

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And then I slice it in half.  I put them cut sides down in a baking dish and slide them into the oven. I set a timer on my phone for 50 minutes, and head down into the basement.  I have work to do, and I’m not going to sit around for 50 minutes staring at the computer. One of the prior tasks of the day was to visit the hardware store and the lumber yard. I have some 96″ 2x4s and some plywood in need of my attention.

The graffiti of previous tenants keeps me company as I cut two boards into four 36″ segments and two 24″ segments. Another two boards become 48″ segments as the power saw blade spins around.  As with cooking — do all the cutting first, and then do the assembly.  Maybe you missed a piece, and it’s important to pre-fit everything, or to get out a larger baking dish… which means more cleanup and more mess.  Be efficient.  Some more cutting — I mis-estimated… I need another 2×4.  . Tomorrow, after work.  Darn!

Put the power saw away, and get out the power screwdriver. Connect the 48″ boards on top of 36″ boards at right angles, one at the top and the other 6″ from the bottom.  Do that twice.  Attach the 24″ rails to the sides.  Square the work. Drop the plywood on top, drill it down.  Voila, work table!

The phone beeps.  I go upstairs, and I’m hungry. The squash isn’t quite cooked, but it smells delicious.  I make myself an omelette of feta cheese while the squash cooks another ten minutes.   Scrambling eggs? Easy. Thank you, Alice.  Crumbling up feta?  Easy. There’s a confidence here which comes from local adaptation to what is available.  Having a kitchen stocked with things I know how to make into delicious meals? Mise en place,  the cook or the Maker’s or the magician’s best friend.

31DoM: squashAnd I eat.  Squash first, because I’m working with a plant spirit here.   I scoop out the interior of the skin into a bowl. The Squash Spirit speaks to me, and tells me that I only need to eat half of the squash; this is a meal intended for two… and it reveals to me that my largest baking dish will suffice for a feast for four squash halves; and that grandmother’s serving bowl will display this yellow mush quite nicely. The flesh of the squash is delicious and tender, sweetened from the unsalted butter I used to grease the dish.  It’s filling, and fulfilling, and warm in my belly.  It’s good for my immune system, it tells me, because shortly after I finish eating it, I feel my heart warm up (right shape for it anyway) and my sinuses clear (prevents mucus build-up, apparently).  These are guesses, of course, because as near as I can tell, Acorn Squash is not one of the plants which alchemists have known from of old.  Maybe Jonathan Trumbull, the alchemist-governor of the Connecticut Colony, knew of it and worked with it.  But for now, it seems, this plant is saying, “I am a very satisfying meal after a hard hour’s work sawing and cutting and building.  I am a loving and no-fuss part of a meal for two, or a meal and a lunch for one, and I will make your heart happy and your sinuses clear… and in a few hours, I may open you up down below, and help you get rid of the crud you ate earlier today.”

That’s as good an answer as I’m going to get for now.  I save the seeds for the compost bin, which I’ll put out in the spring — because what I give back comes back, sooner or later; the skin too, for similar reasons; everything has its place, and there is no away to send it to.

For the Makers and for the teachers: this is the essence of what we’ve forgotten about.  It doesn’t all have to be carpentry and power tools and 3D printing and laser cutters. That’s flashy.  But the world needs cooks. This country needs cooks, and it needs more of them soon because of the double challenges ahead — the Mexicans who staffed America’s restaurant kitchens are going home to start up their own restaurants and flee our country’s growing immigrant paranoia; and the culinary schools are too expensive.  Teaching a middle schooler how to cook is a skill and a secret superpower (supper power) that can never be taken away.  If your school has a kitchen, you can empower children even on a very small budget, as masters of the knife, the stove, the oven and the pantry.  All it takes is a grimoire, and a single plant, to begin.

And that’s how you work with a plant on the first cold and wintry night in the weirdest January I can remember.


AoSF: Carrot Soup

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 I’m starting up a new series of blog entries here, to document my culinary experiments with Alice Waters’ cookbook, The Art of Simple Food. I have a few goals for this project. First, I’m hoping to learn some new recipes this summer for cooking, and I have some particular objectives: I want to learn to make some foods that are seasonally appropriate, that I like eating, and that can be grown in a New England garden.  I also have it in mind to develop some recipes specifically for festivals and work connected with my ritual practices.

Carrot Soup

Chopping Onion Soup turns out to be surprisingly complicated.  It’s a leftovers food, meaning that it’s generated from a lot of ingredients left over from cooking other foods.  For this recipe, I needed two and a half pounds of carrots, a couple of onions, and … a bunch of chicken stock.  I could have used vegetable stock, or beef stock, but chicken stock (from a chicken I cooked myself! — though this stock didn’t get made that long ago, as it so happens) was what I had.

The work began by chopping up this onion into tiny bits, and sautéing them for a few minutes in quite a lot of butter. I like the recipe so far! It’s a good thing that I’d already peeled the carrots, which was the most odious part of the work, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been ready in time.  The carrots — peeled and ‘coined’ into disks — then got cooked for a bit with the onions to help open them up and break them down.

I modified Alice Waters’ recipe a bit, by using my crock pot and borrowing a recipe suggestion or two on cooking times from the French Slow Cooker, a cookbook my mother got me when she got me a crock pot.

Carrot Soup

almost forgot to plug in the crock pot again this time.

All the ingredients, into the pot! And it’s a good thing I had that soup stock, because I started making the recipe because I had a lot of carrots that I wanted to use up… not because I wanted carrot soup. Alice Waters indicates that this recipe can be served hot or cold, but I think the presence of the chicken broth means that I’ll have to serve it warm, at least, unless the carrots leaven the presence of the animal fat somehow. She also recommends serving it with tarragon cream. What the heck is that?

I did have one accident in the course of prepping this soup.  I poured the cooked soup into my ancient food processor at the end of the process of making it, to puree the carrots and give the soup a uniform texture. But I poured more of the liquid into the bowl of the processor than I should have.  A good percentage of the liquid spilled out.  The result was a bit of a mess on the floor, and a ‘drier’ soup that I really intended to have. My friend Matt also said the soup was too salty.

Carrot soup - coldI liked the process of making the soup, and figuring out the proportions of salt, pepper and herbs before I lidded the crock pot to cook for a few hours.  But even more, I like the idea that this is going to help me figure out how to put more of the chickens I cook to work as a series of meals.  I like how the dinner from the roast chicken becomes the chicken salad for lunch and the stock for the soup the following day, and the separation of one meal’s leavings becomes the coagulation of two others.  It’s all very alchemical.

I don’t know if carrots have traditional planetary associations (Update: I checked, it’s Mercury) but given that the resulting soup is going to be pretty orange,  I’d wager that this soup is going to be suitable for Mercuralia and other feasts associated with Hermes.

AoSF: Sautéed Cauliflower


Sautéeing Cauliflower

I think I should chop the cauliflower finer than this… but it looks cool in these flat slices. Maybe fewer at a time.

   I’m starting up a new series of blog entries here, to document my culinary experiments with Alice Waters’ cookbook, The Art of Simple Food. I have a few goals for this project. First, I’m hoping to learn some new recipes this summer for cooking, and I have some particular objectives: I want to learn to make some foods that are seasonally appropriate, that I like eating, and that can be grown in a New England garden.

Sautéed Cauliflower

One of the things that I like about this cookbook is the way the first half of the book is ‘beginner recipes’ designed to teach techniques.  She suggested cutting the cauliflower in 1/4″-thick sheets, and letting it crumble a bit during the sauté process in just a little bit of oil.  I followed this direction … and… got these huge chunks of cauliflower that weren’t very easy to brown.  I also cooked them for the recommended amount of time, but I think I either need more time or more heat, because the browned parts were delicious, but some of the stems were a little tough.

I also added in a tablespoonful of the Salsa Verde I’d made earlier in the day (this was Sunday). The little bit of tanginess and parsley and salt was a delicious addition. I really enjoyed this dish, but — as i mentioned, I think I’ll have to chop up the cauliflower a bit more, although the brain-like texture of the cauliflower was visually interesting. It just didn’t brown up the way the recipe suggested. Next time, more heat or more time, possibly both.

Found in The Art of Simple Food, p. 119.

AoSF: Salsa Verde


Salsa Verde

One bunch of parsley from the grocery store fit in this tiny green ceramic box that I usually use for herbed butter.

I’m starting up a new series of blog entries here, to document my culinary experiments with Alice Waters’ cookbook, The Art of Simple Food. I have a few goals for this project. First, I’m hoping to learn some new recipes this summer for cooking, and I have some particular objectives: I want to learn to make some foods that are seasonally appropriate, that I like eating, and that can be grown in a New England garden. I don’t currently have a garden, but I would like to someday soon, and I would like to know what sorts of things I would like to plant in that garden.   Most of this is summertime cooking, though.  I also want to learn to make some dishes that are appropriate for cooking for myself, and having leftovers for lunches during school days, or for cooking for visitors to my house, because I want to start having more dinner guests for feast and festival.  Accordingly, here goes recipe #2:

Salsa Verde.

Alice Waters describes Salsa Verde as the green sauce common to Italy… and then goes on to explain that it’s made with a variety of herbs, but here we’re learning to make it with parsley. It’s not until I’m done making it that I realize… Oh. This is pesto. This is parsley pesto made without pine-nuts and without parmesan. And it’s delicious… But I go through the same process to make this as to make pesto.

It is not particularly complicated to make. Mostly, I loosely chop the parsley leaves, realize this is going to be a lot of work to do by hand, get out the Cuisinart, and add together the garlic, the olive oil, and the salt and pepper.  It’s delicious, of course.  I eat a small spoonful from the leftovers I can’t scrape out of the Cuisinart. And I put another spoonful into the sautéed cauliflower I made later as part of my dinner.

This is much easier to make than the cucumber salad, but it’s not a meal by itself — it’s meant to go on top of something else, whether vegetables or meat or fish.  An elegant and lovely dish, and apparently easy to make with rosemary, basil (pesto!) or other herbal ingredients.  I’ll make this again sometime, and I think I’ll try it with pork chops sometime soon.

Recipe is in Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, on p. 45, where it’s ranked next to the fool-proof method for making your own vinaigrette, and just preceding the recipes for aïoli (mayonnaise) and herb butter.  I’ve made both of those recipes before, and enjoyed them, but I’d like to master them this summer so I don’t have to keep looking them up.

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