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Lemon Poppyseed Banana Bread December 15, 2009

Posted by merp in Food.

I just checked: I have written only 3 posts on food in 2009.  Three!  And none of them were on food that I had cooked.  Disgraceful.

Admittedly, it was not until fall that I actually had any time to cook, what with everything, but since we’ve been settled in Durham, our kitchen has been quite lively.

One thing I’ve recently gotten into is inventing new quick bread recipes (or rather, dramatically modifying existing ones).  Turns out this is not at all hard, and I’m wondering why people don’t do this more often.  Why isn’t there already a buttermilk sweet potato banana spice bread recipe out there? I couldn’t find one, at least – but the combination works.  And why isn’t it obvious to put lemon poppyseed and banana together of in one bread?  I couldn’t find a recipe like that, either, but I like it!

Everybody knows that banana bread is the best way to use up overripe bananas (except for Pisco.  He says they are best stuffed into his Kong).  Bananas are great for quick bread because they’re soft, pulpy and moist.  The thing is, though, I don’t really like banana bread, or banana-flavored things, just bananas.  So I’ve been working on getting banana bread to taste less like bananas and more like other things.


Here’s my first attempt.  I took the basic banana bread recipe in Joy of Cooking, checked the proportions in a lemon poppyseed cake recipe and cobbled them together.  The poppyseeds give the bread the crunchy texture of a seed cake and add a touch of bitterness, and the lemon brightens up the flavor, both offsetting the mushy-sweetness of the bananas.

lemon poppyseed banana bread batter

Lemon Poppyseed Banana Bread
(heavily modified from Joy of Cooking‘s banana bread recipe, plus a little Mark Bittman)

Makes 1 loaf
Prep + baking = approx. 1 hr. 15 min.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together:

  • 1-3/4 c. flour (some of which can be whole wheat, say 1/4 to 1/2 cup)
  • 1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Cream together in a separate, larger bowl:

  • 1/3 c. margarine (trans-fat free, of course) or butter
  • 2/3 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. grated lemon rind (fresh or dried)
  • 1-2 Tb. lemon juice

Beat into the butter-sugar mixture:

  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1 to 1-1/4 c. ripe banana pulp (about 2 bananas, squished up with a potato masher)

Add the dry ingredients to the wet in 3 parts.  Then add:

  • 1/4 c. poppy seeds

Pour into greased loaf pan.  Bake 50 min. to 1 hour, or until knife or chopstick inserted into the center comes out clean.

lemon poppyseed banana bread baked


On Socks December 5, 2009

Posted by merp in FOs, Knitting.

As promised quite some time ago, I bring you sock laments and sock struggles.  But also a little sock-based joy.  Let’s start with some joy:

Provencal Socks [ravlink]

Pattern/Guidelines: Eight Stitches per Inch Socks, from Getting Started Knitting Socks, by Ann Budd, but with a 1+2+3+2 rib, just to spice it up a little. (top down)

Yarn: Knit Picks Felici, in Provence colorway (so soft)

Needles: #3, #2, and #1 dpns.

Time to finish: 10-14 days per sock, one in July and one in October.

Lessons Learned: Switching needles – that is, casting on at the cuff with the largest needles and finishing off the foot with the smallest – is the key to top-down socks for the curvy-footed.  And knitting with striped yarn is fun!

There are an awful lot of committed sock knitters out there – some who knit nothing but.  Socks are small and portable, they say, and knit up quickly.  And of course, the abundance of sock yarns in their fascinating,   luxurious, and referential colorways, and the profusion of clever and intricate sock patterns of every sort imaginable both inspire and feed this love.  They even claim that knitting socks is easy.  Would that it were so.

Initially, I was wooed, but skeptical.  Why would anyone  put their precious handknits on their feet?  And what madness compels a person to knit on size 1 needles?  Eventually,  I saw the benefits, in durability and custom fit – especially if your feet fall between standard sock sizes.

But what if your feet are also, apparently, grossly misshapen?  To be clear, I think my feet are just fine.  They do a good job of keeping me off the ground, and aren’t hideous at all.  It’s just that they are utterly unlike everyone else’s feet, or so I’m led to believe.

It was not until I finally invested in Ann Budd’s book, which provides an extremely helpful illustration of the foot proportions assumed for your typical sock pattern, given in percentages, that I understood the real nature of my sock-knitting woes, and could calculate the cure.  In shoes, I wear a U.S. women’s size 7.5W or an 8M – not that huge, really – but according to Budd’s charts, while the length of my sock should of course correspond to a size 7.5, the width of my instep would be that of a men’s size 13.  And my calf is off the charts, about 130% of a men’s size 13!

No wonder I had problems.

I believe my first attempt at socks were the Frankensocks.  Perhaps I thought these would be easier, with their unconventional construction.  ,The pattern is pretty cool.  But they didn’t come close to fitting, and I took unconventionality to new heights to make these work.  They do fit now, and I wear them as winter boot socks or slippers.  But they are ugly as hell.

Lesson learned: Sock patterns as written will always be too narrow for my feet, so alterations are inevitable.  But it could be worth it.

Attempt #2, On-your-toes-socks by Ann Budd [ravlink], was an anomalous success.  Knitted toe-up, I found I could expand the girth with increases at the ankle, inserting a couple of extra ribs.  At the end of my blog post, I asked “Now, will I find the reality of handwash-only socks so preposterous that I never wear them?”  Answer: No, I do wear them, but….

Lessons learned: Handwash-only socks are preposterous.  Never again.  And I’m not so sure about short-row heels – they leave holes. But toe-up knitting is awesome.

Attempt #3: In a burst of sock confidence, I immediately took on the ever-popular Jaywalkers by Grumperina (top down) [ravlink].

Utter failure.  I experimented with the stitch counts in wild and ill-advised ways to make them fit over my calves, and then they didn’t fit over my calves.

Lessons learned: Non-stretchy sock patterns?  Don’t even think about ’em.  Just turn and walk away.  Just because everyone else loves them only means everyone else has skinny calves.  (Slender.  Of course I meant “slender.”)  Also, top-down socks really are harder if you don’t know how it’s all going to pan out.

Attempt #4: So, OK, I returned to toe-up, but wanted a less holey heel.  Widdershins promised just that [ravlink].  I had learned my lesson about trusting sock patterns, so cast on more stitches than written.  But when I got to the heel, I had a different stitch count from the pattern, and was very, very, mathematically confused (easily done, to be fair).  Frustration, anguish and much internet research eventually got me through that heel, at which point I tried it on and discovered that I had knit it so tightly I couldn’t move my foot.

Lessons learned: A sock must be loose enough for you to comfortably wiggle your toes – you don’t want that much custom fit.  Also, cheap, splitty sock yarns are really irritating to knit.

A sock-free period elapsed, but I couldn’t let it go.  I WILL KNIT A SOCK, I declared on ravelry, picked out the most extravagantly stretchy sock pattern I could find, and cast-on with a solid, trusted name in sock yarns.

Pattern: Gentleman Socks, by Kristi Schueler (top down)

Yarn: Lana Grossa Meilenweit 100 Bosco

As I recall, I cast on for a men’s large at the cuff and then had to find ways to get the foot down to the width of a women’s large and what probably ended up being the length of a women’s small.  First attempt: humongo  foot.  Put it away for several months.  Frogged the foot.  Fixed it and made a second.  Ran out of yarn (the pattern does warn you that it eats yarn – it does). Improvised.

And voila!  Comfortable, machine-washable socks that fit! They only took me 10 months, completed in February 2009.

Lesson learned: Ok, you’re feet aren’t that big. And, I CAN KNIT SOCKS!

Then, and only then, did I permit myself to use handdyed sock yarn (and even then, sale-priced for clearance):

Mauve Knotty Socks [ravlink]

Pattern: Knotty or Knice Socks, by Chrissy Gardner (toe-up)

Yarn: Knit it Up! Squishy, in mod mauve

Isn’t it lovely?  It fits perfectly, too!  I decided to treat the magical expanding leg issue upfront and dramatically, gradually adding an entire column of cables front and center.  Unfortunately, there’s still only one, finished in June, and that took me three months.   I am very much looking forward to having two.

Lessons learned: Fiddly twisted-stitch patterns take forever.  But they sure are pretty.  Beautiful sock patterns, I am ready for you!

If you have read this far because you, too, have a Sock Problem, fear not and take heart.  Find a tape measure, a good sock book, and a calculator.  Summon patience.  And knit up some customized socks for those nonstandard feet of yours.  Your beautiful, warmed toes will thank you.

Button, button November 29, 2009

Posted by merp in FOs, Knitting.

I so rarely get these last little details done.  Loppem is now complete:

Good buttons are actually pretty hard to find.  Much thanks to Mickey who sent me a selection of buttons from Denmark!

I’m going to need to go out button hunting locally, soon, to finish up assorted holiday gifts.  Which are coming off the needles like hotcakes.  Or like something else more metaphorically appropriate to needles.

Masa Boats on the Prairie, and Other Pleasures of Champaign-Urbana November 17, 2009

Posted by merp in Blogging, Champaign-Urbana, Drink, Food, Gardening, Life.

As you know, the merp family has recently left Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, after 8 years for me and 6 for the Mr.  As a farewell and a guide for others – especially folks who might be new to the area – we had originally planned to to a series of  blog posts reviewing our favorite eating spots in town, the places we’ll really miss. But, to no one’s surprise but our own, I suppose, we ran out of time.  So here is our much more concise (though still pretty long) Culinary Pleasures of C-U list.


Champaign-Urbana is a fine place to live, a diverse and interesting community, but its vibrancy is often screened by a surface blandness. Significant swaths of that blandness are heartfelt and genuine, but there’s also much, much better here. A few of our picks are worth a stop if you’re in from out of town; some are good only in a relative sense, but if you’re living there, you’ll need them.

Favorite Restaurant All-Around: Radio Maria, 119 N. Walnut St., Champaign

This one is well worth a special visit if you’re passing through town.  A highly original menu of flavorful pan-Latin fusions, consistently careful execution, and fresh, local ingredients made it our go-to place for a nice dinner out.


Masa boat at Radio Maria

Their Sunday brunch is also fabulous – I (Tanya) nearly always get the masa boat (“cornmeal boat filled with scrambled eggs, goat cheese, mushrooms, zucchini, red bell peppers, and green onions; topped with chipotle salsa and served on a bed of black beans, house potatoes, and flour tortillas”).  There’s also an adjoining tapas bar.  Don’t miss the goat cheese and pumpkin seed sauce appetizer/tapas.

Escobar’s is a similar restaurant, arguably as good, also with an inviting Sunday brunch – their muffins are to die for, and their Guatemalan breakfast is pretty much my platonic ideal of breakfast.

Asian Food….

Believe it or not, Champaign-Urbana does really well with Asian food – our picks have real competition, and there are new places opening all the time.  The University’s student body is about one-third Asian/Asian American, and the local community has a larger Asian-descended population (proportionately) than Chicago – and by quite a large margin – and these communities are pretty well served now.  (‘Twas not always so.)

Favorite Korean: Goodfella Korean Bistro, 905 S. Neil St., Champaign

The Korean community in C-U is especially large and visible, and there are quite a few Korean restaurants to choose from.  B-Won and Yellowfin are fine and good, and Woori Jib is our favorite for a cheap bite in Campustown, but Goodfella gets our vote for a good dinner, goofy name notwithstanding.  The food is apparently North Korean in style, so although they serve all the basic Korean favorites, the sauces and flavorings are sometimes a little unexpected if you’re used to the more familiar South Korean recipes.  They do a good “Korean BBQ” at your table (bulgogi, kalbi, and a variety of other grillable items).  But most of all, they are exceptionally warm and welcoming, to Koreans and non-Koreans alike, and will always take the time to explain the menu.

Favorite Thai: Thara Thai, 912 1/2 W. Bloomington Rd., Champaign

Champaign-Urbana has three Thai restaurants, and Thara Thai is without question the best.  But, tucked away by the cheap motels and warehouses  near the interstate, you’d never know it was there if someone didn’t tell you.  Fortunately, a lot of people have been told, and it’s been thriving for several years now.  The Thai owner is friendly and gregarious, and the food is well-prepared and as spicy as you can take it.


Crispy tofu at The Wok

Favorite Chinese: The Wok, 703 Eastwood Dr, Mahomet

Mahomet is a bit off the beaten path, a small town about 10 miles west of Champaign.  It’s becoming more and more of a commuter community, but about the only reasons we ever had to drive out there were Lake of the Woods and The Wok –  which is right across from the giant chicken you can see from the freeway – you’ll see what we mean.

The Wok is a favorite with Chinese students at the U of I, and an entire wall is given over to a wonderfully comprehensive Chinese-language menu.  If you can order from that, do.  If not, of course there’s an English-language menu, but don’t hesitate to ask the owner for recommendations – she lives to be helpful.  The food is pretty much Taiwanese in style, and is consistently excellent, though the ambience is more in the styrofoam plate vein.  Be sure to get the crispy tofu.

Favorite Vietnamese: Xinh Xinh Cafe, 114 N. Vine St., Urbana

For most of our time there, C-U was without a single Vietnamese option. Now there are two. Xinh Xinh opened this year next to the Schnucks, finally giving Urbanians a source for pho and even banh mi. Things were a little uneven at first as things got started, but the last few times we went, everything was consistently good. Xinh Xinh seems to be keeping a steady stream of customers, too, partly due to the outgoing owner’s efforts to reach out to the community and even learn everyone’s name.  Hopefully this place is on its way to becoming a C-U institution.

Favorite Asian Groceries: Green Onion, 2020 S. Neil St., Champaign;
Far East Grocery, 105 S. Fifth, Champaign

Champaign-Urbana is full of Asian and international groceries of various persuasions; these were the two we frequented the most, and they are polar opposites.  Green Onion is Korean, also featuring a decent selection of Japanese foods, and was opened just a few years ago by a recent arrival from Korea with a very contemporary sensibility.  They feature some organic products and lots of ready-made packaged foods, and the overall atmosphere is very professional and clean.  There are also some Korean “deli” items made on-site (various kinds of kimchi, bi-bim-bap fixings, fried tofu, kim-bap/sushi rolls, etc.).

Walking into Far East, on the other hand, you suspect you may have stumbled upon a warehouse of illegal Southeast Asian imports, and that packets of dried tiger might lurk in a corner somewhere.  But they don’t.  It is a more-or-less legitimate business, profiled in this review, and has been there for years (though when we first came to town, they didn’t even have that, um, rustic-looking sign, just a door in a concrete wall).  It is by far your best selection of Chinese and Southeast Asian groceries.  And, not surprisingly, the prices are rock-bottom.



Favorite Tacos: Taco Loco, 523 W. Town Center Blvd, Champaign

Mexican, on the other hand, is not C-U’s forte.  Or fuerte.  There’s your usual array of U.S-style greasy-plate Mexican places, utterly unremarkable.  Chevy’s, a national chain, was actually the best Mexican in town.  Eventually, the Mexican grocery, El Charro (55 E. Green St., Champaign) opened up a little taqueria inside, and it’s pretty ok.

Within the past year, though, Taco Loco opened up, on the edge of the prairie, beyond the mall.  This is your go-to place for authentic, cheap tacos – two corn tortillas, a some cilantro, tomatoes and onions, and your choice of the usual assortment of meat choices, with one of three house salsas.  Nothing extraordinary, but very, very good – and tacos are only 99 cents on Saturdays.


BBQ at Black Dog Smoke and Ale House

Favorite BBQ: Black Dog Smoke + Ale House, 201 N. Broadway

Our favorite barbeque in town is, fortuitously, North Carolina style ‘Q. Yet another restaurant that’s opened in the last year, Black Dog stands out for putting their meat front and center. Unlike most of the other places in town, their sauce is vinegary, spicy, runny, and not particularly sweet – in other words, it bears almost no resemblance to ketchup and doesn’t overpower the meat. Their NC style chopped pork is good, but the brisket is not to be missed – it sports a flavorful, crisp smokey crust and is melt-in-your-mouth tender. And who can say no to the smoked potato? Black Dog is apparently starting to source its meat from Stan, our go-to source for local organic meat.

Favorite Frozen Custard: Jarling’s Custard Cup, 309 W. Kirby, Champaign

Well, actually, we never bothered to go to the other custard place in town.  Jarling’s is iconic.   Frozen custard is a Midwestern thing, similar to soft-serve ice cream, except much worse for you, and also much better.  Jarling’s is a place from another era, a summer hangout (it’s only open from March to November) for town and gown alike.

An unusually slow summer evening at Jarling's Custard Cup

Favorite Fish Sandwich: Seaboat

Anywhere else in town, ask for a fish sandwich and you’ll get fish encased in a thick, greasy layer of batter (Derald’s food truck has hands-down the best fish sandwich of this sort). Compared to that, Seaboat’s fish sandwich is nearly health food – but it’s also the best. Instead of a batter, their fish fillet has a simple, spicy breading, and it’s served on a wheat roll with lettuce and tomato. It’s delicious, it doesn’t fall apart when you eat it, and you don’t need to take a nap immediately afterwards. What more can you ask for?  Seaboat also does fried chicken and a variety of Southern sides.

Seaboat's perfect fish sandwich

Favorite Grocery: Common Ground Food Co-op, 1 Lincoln Square Village (Vine and Green, basically), Urbana

We both joined CGFC as soon as we got to town (through our membership in COUCH) back when it was a dingy (yet homey) little cave in essentially a church basement, almost entirely volunteer-run, as it had been for 25 years.  In the eight years since, we’ve both clocked hundreds of hours there, behind the register, inventorying stock, and, in Tanya’s case, serving a stint on the Board – all just a miniscule contribution to the collective energies of the co-op, which has blossomed, mushroomed and cauliflowered into a large, diverse, prosperous and now actually-visible community.  The co-op – still 100% member-owned and governed – now has an amazing professional staff and, as of August 2008, a beautiful new storefront in the Lincoln Square Mall in downtown Urbana, across from the Farmers Market.

The food is carefully selected for quality and sustainability, and much of it is local.  The co-op also offers classes on various food topics (canning, cheese-making, cooking on a budget, etc.), and organizes social events pretty regularly.  There’s a nice little deli now in the new store, and a comfy porch area for eating and sitting in warm weather.  Members can have direct input into pretty much any aspect of the co-op.  The prices are a bit on the high side (except for staples, which are deliberately kept low), but think of what you’re paying for!

Other Favorite Grocery: Urbana Farmers Market, parking lot of Lincoln Square Mall, corner of Illinois and Vine, Urbana

Every Saturday morning, May through November, everybody in Urbana walks their dogs and babies down to the parking lot of the Lincoln Square Mall to buy vegetables.  Ok, this is not true.  Not everybody goes.  The Merp family alone has missed countless market days in favor of sleeping in and eating pancakes in pajamas.  But it is always a good showing, of farmers and shoppers alike, a “see-and-be-seen” scene for the sustainable living set.


Triple S Farm's booth at the Farmers Market

In addition to farmers’ booths selling everything from peaches to mushrooms to honey, there are also bakeries, handcrafts, musicians, political and community groups, and occasionally the adopt-a-greyhound folks with their velvety dogs.  Farms of note include: Triple S Farm (sustainably grown meat and eggs – absolutely the best bacon you have ever had, and once you start buying these eggs, you’ll never go back, at least not willingly.  And Stan’s a great guy);  Blue Moon (one of the oldest organic farms in the area, with a wide selection – they source a number of local restaurants, too);  Prairie Fruits (goat cheese!  You can also enjoy gourmet dinners on their farm in the summertime); Tomahnous Farm (a smaller, family farm, also certified organic – don’t miss their local-variety strawberries in early summer!  Very small, slightly sour, but add sugar, perhaps make freezer preserves, and experience true strawberry flavor).

One of the best things about Champaign-Urbana is that you can get to know your farmers personally.  You’ll find that one is a friend of a friend; you can visit the farm; you can socialize with the chickens.  You’re food is that close.  For that matter, you can be your own farmer.

A Little Renaissance?

As you may have picked up from the above comments, eating in C-U has improved tremendously in the past 8 years.  We don’t have the statistics, but it would not surprise us if there are twice as many restaurants now as then, and certainly enormously more variety.  Organic farming has burgeoned and the Farmer’s Market has grown and thrived – in fact, it is probably outgrowing its space now.  And Common Ground, dependent on the commitment of its members for success, has shot through the roof.  It might not be an exaggeration to say that Champaign-Urbana is in the midst of a food renaissance.

But we’re gone now and have left these recommendations behind, soon to be obsolete.  To keep up with new developments, we recommend Lisa’s blog Champaign Taste.  She’s often first on the scene when a new restaurant opens, and is good about checking back later for improvements.

As for us, give us a little while, and we’ll report back on what’s good to eat in Durham.

Short, sweet, but not quick November 8, 2009

Posted by merp in FOs, Knitting.

One more project from my blog-free days to share with you:

Shetland Shorty, full

Pattern: Shetland Shorty by Gudrun Johnston

Yarn: Jojoland Quartette (20% cashmere, 80% merino wool)

Ravlink: merp’s Shetland Shorty

Time to finish: Oh, I don’t know, 15 months?  Like, a year and a quarter?? Worked in the last ends in late September. (On the plus side, it didn’t need to be blocked.)

I started this on a whim, thinking it would be a quick way to use up some stash yarn I hadn’t found a good project for, thinking it a somewhat unlikely garment, but really cute, so why not?  Since it would be so quick.

It took for.ev.er.

Here it is last summer, after a couple months of twiddling with it:

Shetland Shorty half done

Of course, it’s not like I plowed through with intensity of purpose or anything.  I found the stitch pattern fiddly and tedious – boring, yet I couldn’t quite knit on automatic, or bad things would happen. So I kept losing interest.

Also, I did the lace wrong.

Shetland Shorty close-up

I think the way I ended up doing the lace looks fine, but I’m pretty sure it’s not as written.  Something about the way I knit – apparently it’s called “combination knitting” – was very inconvenient to this lace pattern, and I ended up having to purl awkwardly in a way that’s upside-down to me (apparently, this would be “continental”).

Which is not at all to criticize the pattern.  I love Gudrun’s style, and her design and writing were both detailed and well thought out.  Though you wouldn’t necessarily notice it at first glance, the garter-stitch bands and ties are carefully shaped with invisible short rows, and everything works together beautifully.

Will I wear it?  Well, I still think it’s a cute design, even though it’s a little like wearing a bra on the outside.  It does add just a touch of warmth that will probably be nice to have over a sundress or camisole next summer.  And I love the yarn as much as when I first bought it on ebay on impulse.

So I’m basically happy to have it, but recommend the pattern reservedly, only to those with more patience –  or speed – than I.

Shetland Shorty mid

(Sorry for the lack of variety in poses.  It is hard to photograph yourself decently. Or indecently, for that matter, but I wasn’t going for that.)