Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A recipe for you

When I started this blog, I mentioned that I might include other things than jewelry-making. This week a couple of you have asked about my recipe called “Taco Rice” and I decided this was a very good time to expand my topics, maybe post a little oftener. Sharing some of my favorite recipes seems like a good place to start.

I love to eat, and generally love to cook, too. However, as Peg Bracken said in “The I Hate to CookBook” it is the daily-ness of it that can wear you down. To overcome that you need to have a selection of go-to recipes, dishes you can prepare without much thought, from ingredients that are easy to keep in the house, that taste good.

Taco rice may be the ultimate go-to recipe in our house. In some ways it's more of a method than a recipe. I'll start with the basic recipe – you can prepare this as is, following the recipe exactly and have a really nice supper. Then I'll let you in on the secrets, the ways you can adapt this recipe to fit virtually any situation. So here goes.

Taco Rice – 4 servings

½ pound ground meat

Garlic, onion, peppers – optional to taste

1 cup uncooked rice

1 can tomatoes

1 packet taco seasoning

About 2 cups water – depends on how much juice is on the tomatoes

Large skillet or everyday pan with tight-fitting cover


Sour cream or yogurt

Scallions/green onions/sweet onions

Shredded cheese

Other taco-style garnishes as desired

Drain the juice from the tomatoes into a measuring cup and reserve.

In your large skillet over medium high heat, crumble and brown the ground meat. When it is about half-cooked, add aromatics as desired. I always use garlic, sometimes onion or peppers if they are handy. I don't salt it because there is usually enough seasoning in the taco seasoning. However, you might want a little salt and pepper. Just be careful and taste as you go.

When the meat is completely browned, add the uncooked rice. Stir it around with the meat until it begins to look somewhat chalky and is coated with the pan drippings. Stir in the taco seasoning, then the tomatoes. If you are using whole tomatoes, crush them with you hands as you add them. If you are using diced tomatoes, just add them as they are.

To the reserved juice, add enough water to make 2 ¼ cups of liquid. Add this to the pan and mix thoroughly. Raise the heat to high to bring the dish to a boil. When it reaches a boil, cover, count to ten, and lower heat to a very low setting, barely simmering.

Now go away and leave this entirely alone for 20 minutes. Do not lift the lid to peek or see how it is coming along. After 20 minutes, check to see if the rice is tender and most of the juice is absorbed. If not, return the mixture to a boil, cover, reduce heat and let cook 5 to 10 minutes longer.

Top each serving with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt, some finely chopped scallions or sweet onions, and some shredded cheese.

A green salad and cornbread or tortillas are the perfect accompaniment.

So that's the basic recipe. But this is one of the most versatile recipes on record, and I'd like to share some of the variations that we love.

Meat: You can use any ground meat. Hamburger, meatloaf mix, ground pork, or ground turkey all work perfectly well. If the meat is very lean you may want to add a little olive oil to help it brown and to carry some of the spice flavors. Half a pound is just a guideline. If you like a meatier dish you can use more meat, but it really doesn't improve things that much.

But what if you are vegetarian? Well, you're in luck. You can substitute soy crumbles or cooked/canned beans (or a mixture of both) for the meat and the dish will be just as good – different but excellent. I would recommend that you saute the aromatics alone and then add the crumbles and/or beans with the tomatoes so they don't burn, but otherwise the preparation is just the same.

Tomatoes: When I first developed this recipe, over 30 years ago, I used plain label generic canned whole tomatoes for it and crushed them with my hands as I added them to the pan. Lately diced tomatoes have become widely available, and I have been using them most of the time. You can use salted or unsalted, seasoned or unseasoned, whatever kind of tomatoes you like. The whole tomatoes have more liquid in the can, while the liquid on the diced tomatoes is very thick, which is why you need to adjust the amount of water each time you cook it.

Rice: Any kind of uncooked unprocessed white rice works for this. I generally use medium grain rice, since that is my favorite. However, long grain, basmati, jasmine, sushi rice, even short-grain rice all work fine. Use what you like. Avoid converted or quick-cooking rices as they don't absorb the flavors as well. Short-grain brown rice could work but you would have to adjust both the liquid and the cooking time, and I haven't done that often enough to speak with authority on those numbers.

Taco Seasoning: What kind of taco seasoning to use? What kind do you and your family like? When I started making this I used the plain label generic taco seasoning. When that was no longer available, I used whatever was on sale, often McCormick. Now I get most of my seasonings from The Spice House, and I couldn't be happier. Their spice mixes are delicious, extremely fresh, and very economical. Check out their website for yourself.

Spiciness: Depending on the taco seasoning you used, the basic recipe is not particularly hot. If you want more heat, try using tomatoes with jalepenos, such as Rotel. Or you could saute a couple hot peppers with the aromatics. Or you could add a squirt of your favorite hot sauce like Sriracha. Or if some of you want heat and others don't, you can add hot sauce or sliced jalepenos to the toppings to taste.

Toppings: I like greek yogurt or plain yogurt and shredded sharp cheddar. You could use sour cream, full- or low-fat if you prefer or if it easier to get in your area. I use scallions, both the green and white parts, about 1 per person. Chopped parsley or cilantro are both good if you happen to have them on hand, and a fresh salsa is delicious, also if you have it on hand. And guacamole is always a luxurious touch on any Tex-Mex style dish.

Other options: If you want to sneak in some extra vegetables, it's easy. Corn, green beans, and spinach are all good. Just add them as you assemble the dish. They tend to absorb sauce and almost disappear, which may be helpful if you have fussy eaters. You can also add broccoli stems, finely chopped, and I promise your fussiest family member won't notice. The tomato and seasonings make its flavor blend in.

So there you go. If you have canned tomatoes, rice, taco seasoning, and meat or beans in the house, you have a delicious filling meal that takes about 10 minutes of preparation and less than half an hour of additional cooking. Winner all around.

Please let me know if you enjoyed this recipe, and if I should post some more. Thanks for looking. I'll be back later in the week with more jewelry, and maybe other things too, if you say you are interested.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Loops and Spirals - A Teaching Exercise

This week's challenge for me was to solidify my plans for a beginner class at the gallery that sells my jewelry. The owner was not very specific about what she wanted, so I thought for a while and gave myself several criteria for a successful presentation, and of course, class.
  • The project should teach a very basic skill set, easy enough for someone with no jewelry-making experience whatever.
  • It should fit in the timeframe -- quick enough that the students have something nice to take home, but enough substance that they can spend the whole class time working on it.
  • It should be an attractive finished product, something the students would be proud to wear.
  • Because it is being made in the gallery, it should incorporate supplies that the students can purchase there, i.e. gemstone beads.
  • Aside from the gemstone beads, the tools and materials should be very basic and, if possible, inexpensive without being cheap or tacky.
Because I feel very strongly about the value of practice and mileage in jewelry-making, I also wanted something that repeated the skills several times in the course of the class time.

The project I came up with is this set called Loops and Spirals. Basically the students will learn a wrapped loop and the simplest tight spiral. After making several wrapped loop/spiral dangles, they will make ultra-simple earwires and an ultra-simple pendant hoop to hold their beads. The cool thing is that the earring drops are interchangeable, so students could go home with several pairs of earrings as well as a pendant, depending on how quickly they get the technique. They also will be able to practice it several times, which is pretty much necessary if you want to make nice loops.

I made my first version with hardware store copper, very impromptu, and then this version in sterling with a lot more attention to detail so I could get the instructions exactly right. I will bring a sample of the instructions as well as the set to the gallery this week, and if they like it, we can hammer out the details. My thought would be to make up kits with 4 or 5 each of 4 or 5 kinds of beads, each kit the same. That way they could break up only 4 or 5 strands to make a bunch of kits that would still have a nice assortment of beads. I lean toward working with copper at first, but I'm not sure if copper earwires are a good idea so we'll have to discuss that, too. We also haven't talked about pricing, class size, all that. I have thought all that out and will have a pretty detailed bullet list of ways it could work.

Now for what I actually made -- I used 4 kinds of gemstone beads, 2 shapes of pink peruvian opal and 2 shapes of lapis nevada. The drops are made with 22g sterling wire, roughly 2" for each bead. I made 5 of each, 2 for earrings and 3 for the pendant. The earwires are 20g sterling, again a 2" length each. If you look closely you will see that the drop simply slides into place and falls into the bend behind the spiral at the front. This means that you can exchange a different drop onto the same set of wires. The spirals on the drops and the earwires are both decorative and functional, eliminating the need for headpins. The omega-style hoop pendant is made from 18g sterling. I slid the beads on in an order that pleased me. The top is very simple closed (not wrapped) loops to go over a cord or chain. I used a 3mm 18g jump ring to close and stabilize the top of the pendant. It will help it hold its shape and also prevent the beads from slipping off.

The tool list for the class will include round-nose pliers, chain-nose pliers, cutter, a pen and a wine cork as mandrels. Students who have only one pair of chain-nose pliers will have to share for two brief steps that use 2 pair of pliers (closing the loops on the pendant, opening and closing the jump ring) but that should work okay.

Now, my cheater alert -- I use step pliers exclusively for wrapped loops, wouldn't do otherwise. I like uniform loops, and that's how to get them. In fact, I almost never use my round-nose pliers any more. However, I'm not about to require students or the store to buy $15 step pliers when $4 round-nose will work fine for absolute beginners, and come in a starter set with a chain-nose and a cutter. Likewise, I use both chain- and flat-nose pliers, depending on which step, just because I've been doing this long enough to appreciate the difference in the way the different pliers bend the wire. But that is NOT necessary for absolute beginners, and there is no reason that they need the $150 of fancy Swedish ergonomic pliers and cutters that I use every day when for $13.99 they can get the whole set including a handy zipper case from Beadalon. By the time they wear out or break down, the students will know if they enjoy wire enough to get better quality tools.

How do you like this project? If you had never made jewelry, but were at a shop for a meditation class, would a class like this appeal to you?

Please share your thoughts, and meanwhile, don't forget to stop by Year of Jewelry and check out all the beautiful things my jewelry friends are sharing there.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Networks, Spirals and Triangle Beads

Social networking is a wonderful thing. This week, thanks to Facebook, I found a very helpful article on jewelry pricing strategies. Jodi Bombardier, the artisan behind Jewels by Jules, has built a wonderful site full of information and beautiful things. Please stop by there for a look. I also had a nice conversation with Camille Sharon, the artist whose Facebook tutorial got me started on the string art variations.

Because it was a fairly quiet week with little on my schedule, I was able to make several pairs of earrings in styles you have already seen, and then tried another variation on the couched beads technique. This time I made a pendant of 20g sterling with silver-lined blue #10 Miyuki triangle beads. Excluding the bail, the pendant is 2" tall by about 1 5/8" wide. The center of the spiral features a Swarovski crystal in a similar blue for a bit of sparkle. It is finished with my signature herringbone bail. Because this will be placed for sale at the same gallery that sells my chains, the bail is sized to fit either a medium byzantine or double spiral chain as well as a cord or ribbon.

If I make another version of this pendant, I will use a heavier base wire, maybe even as heavy as 16g, to give it more solidity. I would even consider hammering it a bit for texture and a more rustic look. As it is, it is delicate and open and that is nice, too.

Next week I'll be going back to string art with a couple of new ideas. If you came here from Jewels by Jules or from Camille Sharon's site, welcome, and I hope you'll come back for more. Don't forget to check out all the pretties at the Year of Jewelry, as well.

I always appreciate your comments and critiques. Thanks for looking.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Busy week (with earrings)

What a busy week this turned out to be. So busy, in fact, that I'm posting my item for Year of Jewelry a little late, although the earrings were done almost on time.

We spent several days during the past week watching and/or playing with Yosef and Shalom. I think it's just about my favorite thing. Yosef is big enough now that he wants to help, and I was able to find a way for him to help. With supervision he was able to run the Coiling Gizmo. He just loved that he was helping make necklaces. He has always been very interested in my jewelry, and it was a big treat for him to start being a part of it. When he is a couple years older, you better believe that he will get pliers and learn to make chain.

The first part of the week I made several more string art pendants and earrings. My biggest success was in finding a way to stretch the coil uniformly. I use a plastic card -- actually the Morningside College Alumni luggage tag that my college sent me -- slide it between the coil and turn to open it just exactly the right amount. What a useful gift! Thanks, M'side! I also tried some variations, with different degrees of success. I tried using beads as spacers instead of the coil. Unfortunately, the spacing of even very small beads was too open to make a nice looking weaving and the smaller the bead, the less depth to help hold the thread in place. However, the beaded examples did lead to this week's project, and probably next week's as well.
I'm calling them Widdershins earrings because the trick to getting the beads to set perfectly is to wrap counterclockwise. I suppose they could also be infinity or figure 8's or Kringle -- oh, that would be good. The core wire is 20g sterling, the beads are #10 triangle Miyuki beads in a green AB finish, and the wrapping wire is 28g sterling. The triangle beads align easily and have a hint of faceted sparkle, and I like that. Also, I have a bunch of them in boxes that I'd really like to use, so there you go.

Overall they are about 1 1/4" or 3 cm tall. Once I figured out what I was doing they went really quickly. These are actually the 2nd and 3rd ones I made. The first one was repurposed because by the second one the bead placement had improved so much.

I personally prefer post earrings to earwires because I have attached earlobes and don't like the way that earwires look most of the time on me. This is the 4th post earring design I've come up with this year, and I'm enjoying it very much. It was also nice to get back to working with silver. I have not used sterling for the string art pieces because of the tarnish problem. I know copper tarnishes, too, but it should darken to a nice patina that will be somewhat unobtrusive while the tarnished silver would just look dirty, and would be hard to clean with the thread in place. Or so it seems to me.

I guess I've been babbling, but I hope you like the earrings enough to allow me that. Be sure to check out everybody's new pretties at Year of Jewelry, and feel free to comment, critique, whatever, in the comments either here or there. Thanks for looking and see you soon.