Thursday, February 4, 2010

Paint and Canvas

Some of the folks who know me are aware of the fact that one of the things I enjoy doing for grins and giggles is to paint. Abstracts, Landscapes, and the occasional still life are in the repertoire, while anything remotely resembling realism is left out due to sheer lack of ability or any sort of talent in that direction. While I'm no Salvador Dali or Michael Angelo, some of my abstracts and human figure studies would definitely rival anything put out there by Picasso. (Personally, I never understood Picasso's appeal - the man's work is horrid, and his main claim to fame is that people thought his human figures were Supposed to look like abject travesties!)

The photo that I've got up as my profile photo is one of my own paintings, done a couple of years ago in the space of about 15 minutes, on a whim. That's what I like about working primarily with Acrylics - the drying time is incredibly fast, so what would take several days (or even Weeks) with traditional oils can be accomplished in a matter of minutes - or perhaps hours, depending on the complexity and degree of layering in the painting - with acrylics. I can switch back and forth between Oil techniques and Watercolor techniques, depending on the effect I want to achieve. I can use both styles on the same piece of art if the mood strikes me to do so, or it's what I need in order to achieve a certain "feel." I don't think any individual completed painting has ever taken me more than 5 or 6 hours spread out over the course of a single day.

I go through phases, though, where I am extremely productive with the easel and canvas, and where my artistic muse seems to have flown the coop like an ill trained hawk allowed off the jesses for the first time. When my father's stroke originally occured, I was deep in the midst of a creative phase, and various pieces of art flew from my fingers as fast as I could set brush to canvas. Over the course of time during the intervening 3 years, that slowed to a piece every now and then. During the past 8 months, I've been in that uncreative lacking-the-muse downswing of things, and I haven't even gotten the easel out in most of that time.

I was sitting here a couple of days ago, and glanced over into the open closet of the office, where my unused canvases were stored. (And so were the paintings that aren't currently hanging on the walls of this house.) It got me to thinking about art, and painting, and using various forms of art as a means of stress relief. As I sat here thinking about it all, I came to the realization that as my stress levels grow my creative and artistic urges begin to fail, replaced by a sense of depression and apathy. The question to myself at this point: Do I work through the apathy, hoping that the stress relieving qualities of tranquil painting time will pull me out of it, or do I set things aside until I'm no longer feeling apathetic, depressed, and completely lacking in the urge to Create? I have yet to decide which route I will attempt the next time, but I do know that my creative juices are beginning to flow again and are fighting for release onto canvas and more writing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A recipe for disaster?

Yes, I'm one of those weirdo freak SCA geeks, that does a version of adult dress up as an excuse to party for entire weekends at a time. SCA, for those few who aren't familiar with it, stands for Society for Creative Anachronism - a C3 non profit group that is nominally "educational" if you happen to enjoy the middle ages and renfair type stuff. I wouldn't call it 'cheap' entertainment, simply because the collective cost for camping equipment, costuming, supplies, and site fees to attend functions can add up in a hurry. I guess I can't really call it "clean" entertainment either, in the strictest sense of that word - camping out for anywhere from 3 to 15 days at a time (the longer periods for some of the multi-kingdom, bring people from all over the world type functions such as "wars") while living out of a tent, doing all the cooking outside over a campfire or camp stove, not necessarily being at a campsite that comes equipped with hot showers.... isn't always the "cleanest" of pass times. It does, however, qualify for both "family oriented" (I raised my older daughter in the SCA) and "fun" (if you enjoy camping out, partying a lot, playing dress up in funny, out of date clothing, and taking time out of your regular life to momentarily live a fantasy of having been born in a different time.)

So just exactly why Do I do this thing that I do so regularly and have done for so many years of my life? Did I mention that it's Fun? Did I mention that I really enjoy camping, and some of the artsy/craftsy type stuff that I've learned from others in the group over the years? And let's not forget that - oh yeah, I Really enjoy the pure escapism from the hassles, problems, and stress of day to day life that going to SCA functions affords me an opportunity to experience. (Oh, and the heavy drinking, carousing all night with good home brewed beers and meads while we tell "no shit, there we was" stories, and watch the belly dancers until the sun comes up?)

Another thing that I've come to truly enjoy about my "adventures" in the SCA are the various competitions that get staged. Bardic competitions where the best singers, poets, and story tellers of a given area get together to see who can outdo everyone else. Fighting, both heavy weapons, simulating the sword and shield combat of the early middle ages (think King Aurthur Type)= and light weapons, simulating the rapier combat of the much later middle ages (think Romeo & Juliet type) conducted during the day to see who can defeat their opponents with chivalry and valor. (Not to mention stamina and a helluva strong arm!) Haflas exist for the belly dancers and drummers to show off their skills in middle eastern dance, entertaining the crowds with heady rhythm and scanty costuming. Arts and Sciences competitions abound for people to show off their handcrafts such as brewing, weaving, embroidery, and calligraphy. I take part in many of those competitions - dancing, bardic as both a singer and story teller, A&S as a brewer and weaver. I also take part - every now and again - in another favored form of competition within the SCA - COOKING.

The SCA is filled to the brim with a plethora of outstanding - perhaps even world class - cooks, many of whom specialize in either redacted recipes which originated in the middle ages or foods which can be cooked and served without any use of a modern kitchen and it's various time and effort saving appliances. Feasts within the SCA tend to fall under one of two categories: the outstandingly (and often Surprisingly) spectacular affair, filled with delectable delicacies of days gone by; and the shockingly (perhaps better termed horrifically) grotesque wherein the only truly edible things served are the bread and butter that start the "meal" - and which would often seem more in line with the idea of group torture than feeding the masses. Those of us who are cooks like to compete amongst ourselves as much as any other given sub-group within the SCA. Although our competitions tend to be a lot more Florid, and pose a greater potential for true disaster, in the form of mass exodus and backlog at the toilets.

I happen to have a function coming up in the rather near future (the beginning of April) which will include such a cooking competition. The rules are simple, but will pose a whole host of challenges. Campsite opens at 4pm on Friday afternoon of the weekend this takes place. Judging will be held at Noon on Saturday, as part of the luncheon for the officers for the area - those officers to be the judges. Entries will be blind judged - the judges will have no idea who entered, or which dishes belong to which entrant. The dishes entered can be from any time period, and any region - though considering the venue, there will no doubt be a preference for dishes which at least Appear to be somewhat medieval in context or form (ie, the ingredients would have been available and in use, even if not heavily or commonly, prior to 1600.) The difficult part: all prep work must be done on site, all cooking must take place on site, and no one gets access to the modern industrial kitchen that would normally be available on site - it all has to be done via camp kitchen. 3 Categories are available, with a minimum of 2 dishes being required from any entrant: Entree`, Side, Desert. Entrants are allowed to be as creative as they desire, so long as they provide at least 2 dishes, capable of feeding 4 to 6 (or perhaps a few more) people, all done on site. The only limitations are the imagination of the entrant, and what camp kitchen equipment they happen to have available.

Those who know me, know that I've been gifted with an extremely fertile and active imagination. Coming up with recipes off the top of my head has never been a particular difficulty for me, and the vast majority of them even turn out well when attempted. That leaves equipment as the only substantial challenge to overcome, and even that won't pose to intimidating a problem for someone such as myself, with my creative streak and cache of oddball friends who maintain arsenals of the unique and bizarre in cookware. The difficulty I'm facing isn't so much one of what To cook, as it is a problem of deciding which of a multitude of good ideas to run with. The equipment which I know I'll have available is somewhat limited: a portable, wood fired smoker which has sufficient capacity for 3 whole racks of ribs; a pair of 2 burner Coleman stoves, a single 3 burner Coleman stove; a varied assortment of pots and pans which I can scavenge from within the confines of my home kitchen; a large-ish (6quart) cast iron dutch oven; a Coleman "oven" box which fits over one of the 2burner stoves and will accommodate a single 9x12 rectangular pan, or a single 9inch diameter round cake/pie pan; and whatever utensils of the knife/spatula/spoon variety that I happen to need to scavenge from my home kitchen. Fortunately, I live only a few miles from the campsite where this function will take place, so it's only a few minutes drive to return and grab something if I happen to forget it. It also means that I live close enough to the site to leave most of the actual Food at home until it's time to start doing actual prep-work, thus utilizing modern refrigeration to preserve freshness (and hygiene)far longer than some of the other entrants.

I've been kicking around various ideas on what to prepare for this particular competition for a few days, now. I intend to place entries into all 3 categories, preferably as a cohesive set, rather than a mish-mash of oddities. I would prefer to use primarily fresh ingredients, though I'm willing to make certain concessions in that area to account for seasonality and availability of exotics.

So what will be on my menu, you might ask? Tentatively, I've decided on a few low-prep, relatively easy to prepare dishes, backed up by one or two more challenging recipes. I simply have to do a bit of testing over the next 2 months, to finalize my decision. First choice for an entree is roast venison tenderloin, cooked to a nice medium rare in the smoker, over a combination of hickory and cherry woods. If I find that venison tenderloin is going to be too difficult to come by, I can substitute pork tenderloin done over apple wood, or whole leg of lamb or kid goat done over a combination of apple and cherry wood. Whichever meat happens to be the final choice, it will be lightly seasoned with appropriate fresh herbs (which ones will depend on which meat is available) and then topped with a ginger plum sauce. My second choice for an entree is actually a fish entree, consisting of whole roasted rainbow trout stuffed with julienned fresh spring vegetables, garnished with a lemon pepper remoulade. For the sides, things become both more and less challenging. More challenging, in that there are only so many things one can do with a vegetable and it still be recognizable; less so in that tried and true well known favorites are always a big hit with a crowd. Some of the ideas I've been tossing around for sides include whole roasted baby red potatoes seasoned with garlic and herbs to compliment whatever I use to season the entree; proscutto wrapped aspearagus spear bundles; deep fried baby artichokes served with freshly squeezed lemon juice; and a simple tomato/basil/mozzarella salad with homemade vinegrette dressing. The deserts are where it's going to be truely challenging for me. What I'd like to do is a cake of some sort. The trick to that, of course, being adapting a recipe to work in the dutch oven. There are a couple of possibilities for that, the most workable of which is a Black Walnut Sour Cream Rum cake which I've won a couple of awards with in the past. If I want to go with something slightly smaller, but still on the difficult to execute side, one of my favorites is individually sized Raspberry Chocolate Lava cake with a Raspberry Wine Reduction sauce. On the simpler side of the coin, I'm liking the idea presented to me by one of my GBC friends (thanks Wing!) of a Honeyed Fruit Compote - preferably served still warm, over vanilla bean ice cream made fresh on site. (Which is actually doable, since this particular site has electricity available - meaning I could take, and use, the ice cream maker.)

Whatever my final menu decision happens to be, it will no doubt be challenging, entertaining, and delicious in it's results. That is, it will be all those things provided it doesn't simply turn into a recipe for disaster.