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Monday, November 03, 2008

Halloween Redux, part four: jack o' lanterns

  jack o lantern group photo lineup by Steven Pitsenbarger

Thanks to Janet, Ian, Jill, MacKenzie, Donald, Helen, Bryan, and Steven for their creativity!

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:24 PM

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Halloween Redux, part three: pumpkin foods!

  fifteen inch long banana squashImage at left: fifteen inch, two dollar banana squash from Alemany farmer's market.

Dinner at my cousin's place was fabulous: he served a kabocha squash (the very dark, blue/green/black squash you see in the market, similar to hubbard but not as lumpy) that had been baked whole, pureed, simmered with coconut milk and mild curry spices, and then had more squash added later, so that the soup was thick and smooth, with chunks of firmer squash resting in it. It was soooo good! Rich, satisfying, and perfect for the cold, wet weather we have been having. (And vegan, which maximizes its perfection!)

I have been on a winter squash bender.

It's not like there is any lack of spring and summer food still available in this strangely warm, dry year. A week ago at the farmer's market, mounds of strawberries and plums confused what would have been an otherwise autumnal theme, with stalls filled with apples, winter squash, and persimmons.

Late summer is running especially late this year. My haul last weekend included: raspberries (three baskets for $8), red kuri squash (pictured below), banana squash (above), butternut squash, green beans, young red onions, cucumbers, pomegranates and fresh pomegranate juice, mixed sweet and hot peppers, sweet bell peppers, pluots (including the locally popular "flavor grenade"), guavas (!!), avocados, plums, limes, garlic, and a range of tomatoes, including some very intensely flavored, DEEP red dry-farmed tomatoes that make a heavenly, heavenly salsa.

For pumpkin carving at home, I had a simpler menu of pumpkin foods this year, to reflect the highly informal, spontaneous nature of the event. I still managed to serve four kinds of squash: long, yellow, orange-striped, ovoid delicata; kiss-shaped red kuri; pear-shaped, beige butternut; and yellow-orange banana. I baked all of these, halved and seeded, in casserole dishes with a bit of water in the oven for about an hour at 400 degrees Fahrenheit prior to adding them to the dishes below:

-Kopan pumpkin soup: a sweet and mildly hot soup of baked and pureed butternut squash, onions, chilies, cinnamon, and ginger root. It is an unusual way to have pumpkin, and is warming in several gentle, pleasant ways.

-pumpkin quesadillas: flour and corn tortillas filled with a sauté of sweet-hot peppers, onions, chunks of baked red kuri squash, cumin, cayenne, and basil. Served with homemade guacamole (this time just avocados, garlic, lime and lime juice), a salsa fresca (a chunky puree of dry-farmed tomatoes, onions, sweet-hot peppers, and red onions), and tortilla chips.

red kuri squash-pumpkin pie: a puree of delicata or butternut (one of each) with tofu, four pumpkin pie spices, succanat, and vanilla extract, served with whipped cream. This was an experiment: I usually make this pie according to this recipe, using a combination of honey and brown sugar. Succanat is basically evaporated cane juice, which hasn't been bleached or processed the way white and brown sugar have, and it has a lot more flavor of its own. It worked very well, and came out just as good as the honey/brown sugar combination usually does: the only catch was that the pies made with this recipe don't really have full flavor until they've had a chance to chill for a day, and I made these in the morning. They were okay that day, but have been fabulous ever since the day AFTER I had people over...

The delicata squash make a lighter colored, more delicately sweet pie; the butternut makes for a slightly redder, more classic "pumpkin" pie. I rarely use the classically round, orange "sugar pumpkins," just because these other squash are so insanely good.

As I am typing this, there is a spaghetti squash in the oven. Feign surprise...

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:14 AM

Halloween Redux, part two

  strangely lobed winter squashIt's been a very long week! In more ways than I can tell you... The festivities included not one but TWO pumpkin (jack o' lantern) carving parties, costume making, Halloween celebrations at work, Halloween wanders after work, dinners with friends, greeting a friend flying in from abroad, an All Souls Day party, and, coming up, a wedding reception.

I am so tired. But I am also very well fed.

Jack o' lantern: blow-by-blow.

first face of jack o lantern carved into strangely lobed winter squashsecond face of jack o lantern carved into strangely lobed winter squashthird face of jack o lantern carved into strangely lobed winter squashThe photos I am attaching here are of a three-faced jack o' lantern that I carved at my cousin's home. I had run out of pumpkins by the time I was supposed to go over to his house, and asked him to pick up something "strange" for me to carve. He and his friends found this enormous, irregular squash, which I suspect is a combination of blue Hokkaido and... an alien.

If you do a lot of cooking with squash, you know that some of these are just plain solid: you cannot actually get the stem center out, let alone hollow out much of the rest of the squash. Also, these types of green-to-white fleshed squash often have a lovely, sweet, melon-like scent, which is really pleasant.

I am a skilled pumpkin carver, but even I had a heck of a time getting the stem piece out of this squash. I had to carve out one of the mouths on a lobe and work my hand into the hollow of the lobe, and then work the stem out from beneath. (With my hand up past the wrist in the mouth of the lobed squash, I had to make jokes about obstetrics, were generally moaned over.) The clearance in the center of the squash was very limited, but each of the lobes had a hollow beyond the very thick walls of flesh that I was able to clear out enough so that a single candle could light all three lobes. (One of the nice things about making multiple faces on a single squash is that, if you happen to be a photographer who can take long exposures on your camera, you can have one or more of the faces pointed at your camera, and the rear faces pointing toward a nearby wall, where the rear faces will be projected in candlelight. It's a great effect!) Note that these whitish squash bruise easily: those aren't pen outlines around the cuts, but are bruises that the knife made by piercing the skin.

Aside: Yes, there are more photos from the carving at our place, but those haven't been shared with me yet.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:40 AM

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween Redux, part one

  Halloween Critical Mass, San Francisco, 2008So many rainstorms! Waves of rain are rolling in even now, soaking the garden. You can nearly hear the plants sighing happily. The storms posed quite a threat for Halloween - they put quite a damper on people's plans (ha ha - ouch! Sorry!). But there was a big, strangely warm and still break between storms, and it lasted just long enough in San Francisco for Halloween revelers to enjoy the gorgeous night for a few, relatively dry hours.

Halloween group of Antarctic researchers with local penguinsI had been working on a very warm, soft costume for a while, and managed to come up with an extraordinarily simple design which I was able to hand-sew in just two evenings. To coincide with a silly story I'm telling in the office (about my new space being as isolated as Antarctica), I decorated my office to look, well, Antarctic, and encouraged my colleagues to wear appropriate parkas. I came as a gentoo penguin. (I'll post more about the costume design some other time, if only so I can use the same principles in future costumes.)

Yes, I did write BART as a penguin. (Playing the commute straight while in costume is one of the more subversive joys in life.) Yes, I did walk to BART as a penguin. Yes, the group of school children waiting for their school bus did let me know that my costume was easy to figure out, especially the little boy who followed me half way down the block on the other side of the street, singing a song I didn't recognize and shouting "ba da da da da da da - PENGUIN!!!" with his fist in the air.

I was also impressed with the costumed turnout at work - much higher than I had feared - and the overall excellence of holiday-themed desserts that were entered into our office competition. (Your office didn't have a Halloween dessert competition? Well, it sucks to be you, doesn't it?)

While my train ride to the east bay had been devoid of decorå†ed adults, the BART ride back into the City was filled with costumed adults, many of whom were heading toward Critical Mass. Which I was also heading for.
Steven Pitsenbarger as Robot, San Francisco, Halloween 2008, photo by A.E. GravesI had gone out of my way to design a costume that was bike-friendly so I could ride in Critical Mass. I did this because of the clarity of the design that came to me, and not merely in rejection of the 'couples costume' which had been proposed to me by my partner: namely, that I be a large, cartoony hammer with a mean face, and that he be a nail with a sad/frightened face. [Insert your interpretations of our relationship here.] Once I made it clear that I was not going to participate in his suggestion, he was maniacally inspired to come up with a remarkable, nearly all metal robot costume. It took many days of looking for parts, and many more of assembling and testing. But his robot costume is a wild success. A stellar photo of Steven's Robot is featured here on, and made it onto the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle today.

We had a lovely time milling around and seeing all of the Massers in costume (and yes, I longed to ride); went on a long, gorgeous walk around the Ferry Building and Embarcadero; met up with Peter for dinner; waited for Alex, flying in from Okinawa, to escape the airport and catch up with us; hung out at Peter's place; scoped out some of the costumes in Peter's neighborhood... May I say here that any costume that can be described as "Sexy __________" or "Slutty __________" is painfully, painfully conformist and boring? I'm not saying it's not hot; I'm just saying it is BORING. For those of us who are not 'into' women especially. DULL. Please.

San Francisco Ferry Building and Skyline at night, Halloween 2008It was an absolutely gorgeous evening - everything was wet, reflective and shiny; people were merry; the air was fresh; the City lights were gorgeous; and it was possible for me to be comfortable in my very plush costume, but also warm enough for the folks in skimpy wear to avoid goosebumps as they rolled through town with their blinkies on "fast."

We skipped one party, failed to reach the host of another to be buzzed in, and headed home to be met by enthusiastic rainclouds. They had held off just long enough!

Special thanks to Peter, who provided us with refreshments, his restroom, a chance to freshen up, and space to engage in minor robot repair.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)5:50 PM

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!!

  jack o lanterns

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:30 PM

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Happy Halloween!

Jack-o-lantern group portrait by Steven PitsenbargerThe lovely image of carved, glowing Jack-o-lanterns is by Steven, and shows the results of our annual pumpkin carving party. Special thanks to all who came and carved: Ollie, Tim, Zoe, Larry (2 pumpkins!), Peter, Janet, Jill, Ian, Janae, Kathy and Jason.

Our dinner menu this year included:

-Pumpkin curry (really a combination of kabocha and delicata)(vegan)
-Pumpkin quesadillas (really a combination of butternut and delicata)(both lacto-vegetarian and vegan versions), on flour and corn tortillas, with a sauté of baked squash, sweet red and green peppers, garlic, and spices, served with guacamole and a choice of red or green salsa
-Pumpkin pie (butternut)(vegan)
-Blood orange tea (what a perfect name for a Halloween party!)
-olives (no eyeball labels required)
-cherry tomatoes
-Plus an array of treats that our guests brought: fresh mozzarella, crackers, sliced cheese, fresh papaya, chips, red pepper hummus, pumpkin ice cream AND lychee ice cream from Mitchell's (thank you Peter!), ginger snaps, several kinds of wine and beer, and other wonderful delicacies.

Arlene in costume as AutumnThis was the first year in recent memory that I had my Halloween costume ready PRIOR TO some ungodly hour of morning on Halloween. One of my enormously fun colleagues held a Halloween party on the Saturday night prior to this year's Wednesday Halloween, and so I had to actually PREPARE early.

I originally planned to be Totoro, the enormous, furry forest spirit star of Tonari no Totoro, the supremely delightful Japanese cartoon. A quick poll of the IT department at work demonstrated that current/modern IT people aren't in the same demographic they once were, and that I would have to spend a lot of time explaining my costume. Just the same, I went out and purchased enough fabric to transform myself into a large-headed, madly grinning woodland creature. With a ghost-bunny accessory made from organza and large googly eyes. I was *excited.*

Then the air conditioning system at work failed completely. It had been on the fritz for a long time, but the heat became even more unbearable than usual. And it occurred to me that I would spend all of Halloween lying on the floor and panting in my costume, moaning about death rather than being a bubbly, somewhat intimidating beastie.

So I decided to be Autumn. I planned out a dress (modeled after a favorite summer dress that no longer quite fits for some mysterious reason involving my chest circumference), purchased fabric leaves and fake fall leaf garlands from a craft store, and made my costume on the day of the party. The dress design failed almost immediately: I had failed to account for some darting on the dress, and my lack of formal sewing training quickly became evident around the collar... I tossed the failed dress mock up aside, and instead made a sort of leaf-covered bodice, which I could both tie onto myself and fasten to a bustier that contains me properly. I cut back some leaf arrangements and clipped them onto my head, sewed a leaf necklace onto some ribbon, draped the garland around myself, and I was ready to go.

Autumn is probably my least ambitious and most successful costume in years. The best satisfaction was that nearly everyone I encountered immediately knew I was autumn: women on BART, women on the Emery-go-round, my office colleagues, people on the street... I won praise from adults and small children.

As an added bonus, I won compliments on my current hair color from several people. :-) I don't know how many of you are old enough to remember this, but there was a color theory back in the 70s and 80s that there is a season (based on the four season system) that describes you, and you should wear the colors associated with that season. I had been evaluated as a "summer" at the time, and so was advised to wear a lot of lush, bright, fresh greens. I chafed under that designation, always insisting that I was a Fall, with periodic bouts of Winter. I think this is the costume (and hair color) that establishes me as a Fall/Autumn once and for all.

So, I think I learned a lot about costume concepts this year. In the future, I'll try to be more... direct.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

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