Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween - 2011

Saturday was our annual Halloween party!  We had a great time with friends, playing games and eating food.  I decided after last year to do another giant pot of chili as the main food dish.  It worked out great, and anything left over I’ll freeze and use over the next few months.  

As for the rest of the food…I tried a couple of new recipes.  The first one was a recipe for pumpkin cookies with white chocolate chips and macadamia nuts.  They were pretty good, and did not have an overpowering pumpkin flavor at all.  The recipe came from a magazine I got at work.  The second new recipe I tried was a version of white chocolate bark, made with crushed Oreos and candy corn – very sweet, but good!  I also made an old family favorite that has become a tradition for me every Halloween – Bacon-Wrapped Water Chestnuts.  They don’t really have a name, so I guess that’s what I’ll call them.  Normally, I just say those “bacon water chestnut things” – but somehow that doesn’t seem appropriate for a recipe title.  At any rate, here’s what you do:

Ingredients:
-          1 package of bacon
-          1-2 cans of whole water chestnuts
-          Barbeque sauce

Directions:
Cut the slab of bacon into thirds.  Cut water chestnuts in half.  Roll a piece of bacon around each water chestnut half and place in a glass baking dish.  Cover with barbeque sauce.  Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until bacon is cooked and sauce is bubbly.  Insert a toothpick into each bacon-wrapped water chestnut and serve immediately (although, be careful, these guys come out piping hot!).

Now, on to the costumes.  I had my costume planned a while back, and I thought Tom did, too.  I was a female version of the old McDonald’s character – The Hamburglar!
Rubble, Rubble!
Tom had originally planned on being The Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Unfortunately, the helmet proved troublesome to replicate.  So, we found ourselves rushing to put together a new costume for him just a few hours before the party started!  I think it turned out pretty well…we turned Tom into a Chia Pet!

Cha, Cha, Cha, Chia!
And, of course, we can't forget about The Cheat.  He was dressed up this year as a pirate...and I would say it suits him well.
MEH! ARRR!
I had my painted pumpkins all around the house, as well as a few other fall decorations.







Perhaps the best d├ęcor was a recent, more permanent change, however.  Tom recently decided to paint a “screen” on the wall where our projector shines.  I was not convinced that his was a good idea, but I think it turned out great!  Tom built a frame around it and we painted the wall around that.  He finished it just in time for the party!  Check it out:

Now it really looks like a home theater!
Tonight, actually Halloween night, we have some fun stuff in store for our trick-or-treaters.  We have a big trick-or-treating neighborhood, but it seems that most kids don’t actually make it all the way down to our end of the street.  We’re basically off the back entrance.  So, in an effort to lure kids, we have purchased the big, full-sized candy bars—AND we have a bonus bin of miscellaneous items they can choose from (most of which contains freebies from my brother—like the millions of yellow stress balls Tom got from him in our white elephant Christmas exchange last year!).  If we succeed, word will spread, and we will get lots of trick-or-treaters next year!  Wish us luck :)

The Northern Lights

From my understanding, the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are caused by the collision of charged particles from the earth’s magnetosphere and solar wind with atoms in the high altitudes of the earth’s atmosphere.  The earth’s magnetic poles guide these charged particles to the higher (and lower) latitudes, near the poles, where the auroras are normally seen.  When an energetic particle collides with an atom, the atom takes some of that energy and stores it, becoming an “excited atom”.  The excited atoms become “grounded” or return to their normal state by emitting a photon of light -- which is what we see in an aurora.  What’s interesting is that the color of the light emitted depends on the type of atom or molecule it came from.  Oxygen will emit green or brownish-red and nitrogen emits blue or red.  Combined, they produce a brilliant light show for anyone lucky enough to see it.  Green is the most common aurora color, and blue is the least common.  At 43 degrees north latitude, I feel lucky to see any color.

Last week, I saw the northern lights for the third time.  However, I’m not really sure the first time counted.  I was 11 years old, away for my first summer camp experience.  In the middle of the night, another girl and I got up to walk to the bathroom from our cabin.  On the way back, we noticed some light through the trees, which we assumed was lightning, and hastened back to the cabin not wanting to get rained on.  The next day at breakfast, the counselors announced that the northern lights were out the previous night and asked if anybody had seen them.  I could’ve kicked myself!

The second time I saw the northern lights, I at least recognized them for what they were.  I still describe this scene as the most amazing night sky I have ever seen.  We were camping in Manistee and went down to the beach at night (my absolute favorite thing to do).  As we crested the top of the sand dune that led back down to the beach along Lake Michigan, I took a survey of the sky before me.  To my left, the moon was setting--a large gibbous moon, with a few thin clouds around it illuminated with red.  I had never seen such a beautiful moonset.  Then I looked up above me just in time to see a large, streaking shooting star (the reason I come to the beach at night).  Finally, off to the right, the northern lights were softly glowing in the sky.  I didn’t know where to look!  But, I knew I had to keep my eye on the aurora, as it surely wouldn’t last too long.  It was mostly a greenish light that subtly danced in the sky a short while before fading away.  I was thrilled to have seen the northern lights and to have actually watched them this time.

The third time was just last week.  I was on my way home, driving in the car, when my dad called.  When I answered, he immediately asked me excitedly, “Are you outside right now?!”  No, I was in the car driving.  “The northern lights are out!!”  Sure enough, as I looked up out my windshield, I could make out the haze of red from the northern lights.  I immediately called Tom, and was home within a few minutes.  From my yard, I could make out a blanket of hazy red that spread fairly high in the sky, as well as streaks of green coming up from the horizon.  While I missed the brightest parts of the aurora, I was so excited to see them and to see a color besides green!  It is pretty rare to be able to see the northern lights this far south, to see them so high up in the sky, and to see some variance in color here.  I was ecstatic.  I wish that I could’ve taken a picture or somehow captured it, but soon after I got home, the red dissipated and the green faded shortly thereafter.  Nevertheless, some people more talented and prepared than I, did capture some beautiful images of last week’s aurora.  Check this out:


Friday, October 21, 2011

The Night Sky: Planets & Moons

This summer, I was not as diligent about getting out to view the night sky with my telescope as I was last year.  I realized that something was missing, that there was a reason the sky didn't have the same allure as before: Jupiter was not out when I could view it this summer.  Last year, I spent countless nights just staring at this beautiful planet and looking for its moons.  As fall arrived, Jupiter again appeared in my evening sky when I could easily spot it at a reasonable hour.  That was motivation enough.  I got out my telescope a couple times recently and was able to once again enjoy the splendor of this gas giant.  What’s more – I even found a better way to take a photograph through my telescope!  While not as nice of an image as you’d get from a “real” telescope or a “real” camera that could actually connect to it, I don’t think this is bad for a small point and shoot aimed carefully through a tiny eyepiece!  Here’s what I was able to get on the first night:
Jupiter and moons
   
You can see four of Jupiter’s moons in this picture.  These are called its “Galilean” moons, since Galileo Galilei was the one to discover them.  They are the four largest of Jupiter’s many (at least 64) moons and they are often visible right along with the planet through a small telescope.  It’s fun to see them all in a line.
Jupiter with labeled Galilean moons

Once I realized that I was getting better at using my camera through my telescope, I decided to turn my eye piece to the moon.  We had a waxing gibbous moon that was brilliant and splendid!  I learned a couple more tricks with my camera to capture some decent pictures.
waxing gibbous moon through small telescope
Waxing Gibbous Moon - 10/4/11

Several nights later I wanted to try some different camera settings on Jupiter, and here’s what I was able to capture.

Jupiter and Galilean moons through telescope

Jupiter and Galilean moons Callisto Io Ganymede Europa through telescope

Something in me just stands in awe when I realize I am staring at a whole planet, so far away, yet even some of its moons are visible.  It gives you a little bit of an idea of the sheer magnitude of both planet and moons.  You can't tell in the pictures, but through the telescope, you can actually make out some of the atmospheric bands around Jupiter.

For good measure, I captured some additional moon shots over a couple nights:

waxing gibbous moon through backyard telescope
Waxing Gibbous Moon - 10/6/11

full moon through telescope
Near Full Moon
Next time you’re outside on a clear night, don’t forget to look up!  If you see that really bright “star” rising in the east, it’s probably Jupiter!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fall Decorating

If you haven’t heard me say it before: Fall is my favorite season.  Particularly in Michigan.  I always feel the need to bring a little bit of autumn indoors with me, though.  I never feel the need to decorate for spring or summer, but I always feel the need for fall decorations and Christmas decorations.  This year, I got inspired from a friend to try painting pumpkins.  I normally have a good selection of pumpkins and gourds around my house, plus a cornucopia.  Typically, I will save a couple pumpkins to carve just before Halloween and turn some pumpkins and gourds into decorations like vases and candle holders.  Here are some fun examples of previous jack ‘o lanterns and decorations:
Who you gonna call??

Pumpkin-potted Mums!

Miniature pumpkin candle holders

My cannibalistic jack 'o lantern

My pretty white pumpkin!

My first swan gourd vase, with a gladiolus branch from the garden!

Cornucopia!

Pumpkin dip...in a pumpkin!
This year, however, I am going the painting route.  There is an AWESOME pumpkin patch near our house that has the largest selection of squash and gourds that I have ever seen.  To make things better, their prices are unbeatable.  I went crazy this year and stocked up on all sorts of weird things.  My painting and pumpkin decorating was varied and used not only paint, but also glitter and sequins.  Here are the various squash and gourds that will be adorning my house this month:

This year's swan gourd vase...with slightly wilted mums 
Look at all the variety!  Yep, I had fun!

These are my more Halloween-y pumpkins

My glitter girl pumpkin 
decorative patterned pumpkin

And this guy will be welcoming all of our Trick or Treaters this  year!
Some crazy weird pear/bowling pin shaped gourd...

Pretty, painted, patterned pumpkins

Craft time just wouldn't be craft time without sequins....

And the extras are all going into my giant vase for decoration!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Taste of Fall: Stuffed Acorn Squash

I am not a big squash fan.  Just the name of it sounds kind of gross.  Squash.  But, it’s supposed to be healthy and as a fall fanatic, something always draws me to the piles of squash at the farmer’s market.  Along with pumpkins and gourds, squash is a symbol of fall.  Usually I just use it next to my Indian Corn to fill my cornucopia.

However, in the past couple years I have started to branch out a little and have tried cooking with it.  I picked up an acorn squash at the store recently, and I have seen several stuffed squash recipes that sounded interesting, but of course I couldn’t find a recipe that was quite what I was looking for AND used the ingredients that I happened to have on hand.  So, I decided to make up my own recipe to try for dinner tonight.  Here’s what I did:

Ingredients:

1 acorn squash, halved and seeded
½ cup couscous
Chopped walnuts
Onion, diced
1 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
Garlic salt
Cumin
Cinnamon

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Place squash halves in a baking dish.  Place ½ Tbsp. butter and 1 Tbsp. brown sugar in each half.  Put in the oven to begin to bake.  Cook couscous according to package directions.  Once couscous is done, toss in some chopped walnuts and diced onion, then season to taste with garlic salt, cumin and brown sugar.  Go back to the acorn squash and mix butter (should be melted by now) and brown sugar together and spread around the edges of the squash.  Scoop the couscous mixture into the squash halves.  Cover and bake for an additional 45 minutes or until squash is tender.