Saturday, February 28, 2009

Turkish Ice Cream

Click on this video to see the Turkish ice cream vendor fool his customer:

A dozen or so of you will remember the strange and unique ice cream we enjoyed on our trip to Turkey. I have recently come upon the ingredients of that cold, but chewy and stretchy substance called dondurma in the Turkish language.

I was intrigued when first reading about it in the tour guide books preparing for the trip. They said it was stretchy, chewy, and so tough "you could tow a car with it". It is said you could eat it with a knife and fork and there are pictures of people jumping rope with it. Who wouldn't want to try this when reaching the exotic destination of Istanbul?

It turns out the secret ingredients, along with the traditional milk and sugar, are two items unknown to us in the United States. One is called simply gum, which is a resin from a particular pine tree grown on a tiny island in Greece. This resin, which is dried and ground helps elasticize the finished product, but also gives flavor. Some dondurma is made without gum if the flavor is not desired.

On a molecular level it is the polymers, which are long molecules with repeating units (think: beaded necklaces) that produce the stretchiness. Polymers make cornstarch a good thickener and cause gelatin to gel.

The second mysterious ingredient is called salep, which is a dried and powdered tuber of a particular wild Orchid plant grown in the mountains of south-eastern Turkey. Konjac flour is made from the orchid plant called Amorphophallus konjac. This plant can grow to six feet and “smells like a garlicky, decomposing elephant”—not at all like most orchids. One thing that salep and konjac do have in common, though, is that they contain the polymers called glucomannans. It is these polymers give the ice cream its entertaining stretchiness. Salep is believed to have several medicinal properties which makes eating ice cream in Turkey a necessity for many people. All Turkish ice cream is made with salep and the wild orchid is becoming so endangered it is illegal to export it. The decline is so great that environmentalists are now calling for a total ban on the use of salep in ice cream. However, some people from Turkey may be reluctant to give up salep, an alleged aphrodisiac. In fact, the word “salep” means “fox testicles,” apparently because of the way the orchid roots look. Harold Koopowitz, a retired ecology professor from the University of California at Irvine who is involved with multiple orchid societies, says that some people believe salep has medicinal properties. They make a hot drink with it in Turkey, he says, like the chicken soup made here in the United States.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Maine Bag Lady Hits Driver

I was tending to business, slowly pulling out of the local Dunkin' Doughnuts parking lot when... Wham! "What the ....? Did I hit a moose"? I caught sight of a human form sort of rolling away from the front of my car. With the intensity of the bang on the hood of the car, I thought it must be dead or at least go into convulsions and die right in front of my eyes. My thoughts immediately ran to 1. Where did it come from? 2. Will I lose the house and car having to pay hospital bills and a death and dismemberment judgement to its relatives?

As I exited the car I could see it was a middle-aged woman carrying several plastic bags of clothing and empty soda bottles. I asked, "Are you OK?" and her reply was, "No I am not OK... call the police because you are going to be arrested"!

Well, she was still standing, looking perfectly fine and I was not going to dial 911, which is reserved for life and death situations, of which now it was plain, did not apply (my car was barely creeping, after all). As I assessed the situation I came to the conclusion she was faking it, but I was still worried about the expense that might be involved in fighting an illegitimate injury claim. Inside the Dunkin' Doughnuts I asked the counter help if they could get me the non-emergency line to the police, which they did. After I made the call, 2 men sitting near the window in their coffee klatch spoke up to say, "We saw the whole thing, and she jumped in front of your car." "Have the police come in and we'll give a statement."

Waiting for the police arrival, I stayed under the overhang near the doughnut shop door, and the woman stayed in the morning drizzle in the parking lot muttering to herself. Further evidence to me that if she wasn't interested in coming in out of the rain, she was either a tough Mainer, or a little demented.

When the officer arrived, the first thing he said was "I wouldn't worry about this". What I interpreted him to mean was: "We know her and she does shit like this all the time". After taking my statement and hers, I suggested to the officer the willingness of the inside patrons to give additional statements to which he replied, "That won't be necessary". Which I heard as, " they know her too and she does this shit all the time."

As the adrenalin dissipated from my system, I checked my hood for handprint dents and I was ready to resume my morning when, there she was, this disgruntled bag lady, standing at the cross walk which I now had to cross. She waited and I waited. I wasn't taking a chance of a repeat performance and she looked poised to step out the instant I proceeded. After a long stare-down between us and traffic began to back up, she toddled across in front of me and down the sidewalk.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Shrimp Antennae Clog Portland's Sewers

I wanted to share some of the local news to give you an idea of what is different about New England living. This report from the Portland Press Herald: "The Portland Water District has had to clean out large clogs created by shrimp shells and antennas the past three weeks, said Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the district."
"Last week it ended up closing one of our new pumping stations at India Street," she said. "We had to go in and manually clean it out."

In new news about my job: "University of Maine System employees will not take unpaid days off this spring after all, university and employee union officials announced Friday". This means we have a reprieve from layoffs until after the end of the fiscal year in June. After July 1, re-evaluations of the budget may bring layoffs or furlows back to the table. This is my first experience working under a union and I have to say that for all the good unions did for workers in the early days, I think they may have outlived their usefulness. They have a contentious relationship with the university and I don't see significant improvements in working conditions or compensation than we would have without them. I think they are just a "middleman" siphoning off dues to support their existence. Some would argue that I am naive and might have been layed off by now if it weren't for the union fighting for my job. Poppycock, I say. I see no evidence they've fought for anything except my dues.

Another article in the newspaper informs us that the city of Portland (population 65,000) spends $30,000 on snow cleanup after each significant storm and employs 8o pieces of snow removal equipment. I would guess we have about 10 "significant" storms a year and $300,000 is no small sum to be laying out for infrastructure of a town this size.

The last few days have been above freezing (or at least high 20's) and I can't tell you how warm that feels after being down to 0 and below. I never thought I'd be saying sunny and 27 degrees is a beautiful day! It even rained this week and the sidewalks have lost their slick, ice sheet coating. There's still plenty of snow on the ground and it is not yet approaching what you would call spring. I also have new information about warming up our cars.... I am wrong about having to warm up our car in freezing temps. They say nowadays that just starting out slowly for the first 3 miles is all that is needed to warm up a car. This warms the drive train, wheel bearings, tires, and transmission along with the engine. If it is 20 degrees, let it idle for 30 seconds before starting out and for anything below freezing, let it idle for a full minute before starting out. This also saves fuel, emissions, and our precious money.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Life in a Maine Winter

Ok, so it's still cold. What else is new, right? It was -7 on the way to work and yes, my car temperature gauge registers the minus! We have to go out and start our cars in the morning to let the engine warm a little before starting off down the road. It is very hard on an engine to be put under load while cold before the oil has a chance to circulate and lubricate the cylinder walls. Some folks here have a remote start on their vehicles so they don't have to leave the comfort of the house to start the process. How much is that convenience worth in dollars? Just go out and pre-start your car every morning for 3 months, then let me know. When I mention remote-starters, Mainers reply "give me a break, we're Mainers and we're tough, just go out and scrape your windshield and start the damn car!" The auto-start system costs about $150 so I'll have to think about it some more since I'll hurt myself in order to save money.

After weeks and weeks of temps in the teens and zero or better (or worse) at night, we are slated to get our "January thaw" this week where it will warm to several degrees above freezing during the day. What a treat that will be. We may not even have to wear stocking caps and gloves!

I cooked the smelt last evening and boy, were they good. I expected a strong, fishy flavor, but they were mild and had nice firm white flesh. The three ways I tried them were breaded in cornmeal, panko, and almondine. The cornmeal was dry and not all that flavorful. Panko browns nicely and the fish had a nice crisp coating for a pleasant "mouth feel". The best by far was almond breading which let the fish flavor come through, but the added toasted almond was a sub layer of flavor creating more dimension than the other two coatings. Also on the menu was a pile of Maine shrimp, which are good sized and plump, sauteed in garlic butter... ummm. Michael brought a nice green salad with avocado, walnuts, Celery, and pear with his really good balsamic vinaigrette mixture. Rice pilaf and vinoh verde rounded out the meal and we were pleasantly full, but still cut into the fresh-baked golden apple pie he brought from Two Fat Cats bakery, a fine example of the baked goods available in a cold land.