Northern lights!

If you're eyebones are tired, try an audio version of this Northern Lights post instead!

Photo from by Christopher Picking, Wairarapa, North Island, New Zealand, Nov. 8, 2004

At 11:00 p.m. on a chilly night in November, 2004, I wearily navigated my way home from a downtown wedding, tired from the evening’s merry-making. As I approached a curve in the road by Northwestern University, something caught my attention: an unusual glow of palest green in the sky over the campus. Party lights?  It was awfully bright for that.  Were they filming a movie? Normally my curiosity might have ended there and I would have continued on home, but this light seemed peculiar and out of place. In a moment it occurred to me there might be a more cosmic explanation, and I had to find out what it was. 

I swung into a nearby parking lot, working to keep my eyes on both the pavement and the sky above, and made a beeline to the far end, closest to the lake.  My hopes grew. Finally, I yanked the parking brake into place, jumped out of the car, and my wildest hopes were confirmed: over the water hung a colossal expanse of eerie green light, and I realized I was seeing for the first time in my life … the northern nights!

this is what the green expanse looked like over Lake Michigan
Photo from by R.J.Drew,
Rosley, Cumbria Northern England, Nov. 11, 2004

The motionless blaze of green was suspended like ghostly glacier in mid-air far over Lake Michigan.  Directly above me, spikes of green light shot sharply skyward almost to a point, as though I was looking up into the center of a luminescent pyramid.  To the north, the entire horizon glowed as if strung from end to end with a curtain of soft green light. 

like peering up into a luminescent pyramid
Photo from by Carol Lakomiak,
Tomahawk WI, Nov. 07, 2004

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, rarely reach as far south as Chicago. But tonight a breath-taking display filled the entire sky!  I laughed and gasped in awe, almost weeping from the joy and excitement that welled in me at seeing the auroras for the first time, and with such intensity and magnitude. When I finally calmed down, I simply stared, barely blinking as the ethereal lights morphed slowly and silently around the cloudless sky. They were unearthly, and utterly beautiful--as enchanting as Christmas lights, as mesmerizing as a hearth fire, as peaceful as a sunset. I felt energized and tranquil, bewitched and humbled.

a curtain of green light in the skyPhoto from by Chris VenHaus, Wisconsin, Nov. 8, 2004

I wanted to call everyone I knew with the news of this awesome event. I fumbled for my cell phone and dialed a friend, sputtering into her answering machine that she had to go outside
right now to see what was happening. At almost midnight on a Sunday, it was understandable that she didn’t answer her phone and I decided not to make any more phone calls.  Then I looked around the deserted lakefront -- where was everyone? Didn’t anyone know what was happening out here?  Wasn’t it on all the news stations?  How come there weren’t crowds of people taking in this celestial magic! It felt lonely not being able to share the experience with anyone, even strangers. No one seemed to be aware of it. And what if I hadn’t seen the light above the campus? I might have missed them, too.

Auroras in Elgin, Illinois!Photo from by Andrew Gillespie, Elgin, Illinois, Nov. 7, 2004

The brisk November wind blew through my thin jacket, and suddenly I felt cold and vulnerable on that empty campus path.  I needed to change from my party clothes and high heels into something warmer and more suitable for skywatching. Reluctantly, I left the scene and drove home, my eyes half on the road and half glued to the heavens.  I jumped into jeans, gym shoes and my down coat, then cruised through the empty midnight streets to Lighthouse Beach to catch more of the show. 

RynnePhoto from by S. M. Rynne, Zion, Illinois, Nov. 8, 2004

The mass and streaks and curtain that had hung so still in the sky earlier had shifted into a lively dance of pale glowing ribbons rippling across the sky.  Thick, wavy streams of light pulsed from one horizon to the other. I half expected thunder to accompany the lightening-like flashes, but the turbulent geomagnetic storm was soundless.  I wrapped myself in a woolly blanket and lay in the sand for a better view.  For the hour I was able to stay awake and reasonably warm I scanned the sky intently, eager to catch every last flicker. In that time, only three other spectators appeared.  “Like a camp fire in the sky!” one of them exclaimed.  But within a few they left and I was alone again. Finally, the chill and weariness in my bones called more strongly than the fascination overhead.  I hated to leave while there was even a hint of light left in the sky, but I pulled myself away from the beach and drove home.

Woodstock, IllinoisPhoto from by John Carzoli, Woodstock, Illinois, Nov. 7, 2004

The next day I was bursting to tell people about the northern lights here in Chicago.  Most responded with a passive, “Oh really?”  Few had ever seen them, and almost none shared my enthusiasm.  I scanned the news sites and radio reports but heard very little being discussed about the spectacle I had witnessed. I was truly puzzled.  An eye-popping and very rare display of auroras dominated our urban skyscape all night long, and it seemed no one knew about it!  Except for amateur astronomers from around the world, who had already posted dozens of spectacular photos online

KeefePhoto from by Jodie Keefe, Waverly, Minnesota, Nov. 7, 2004

I shared the story with my boss, who was raised in northern Minnesota, and she was tickled to see my excitement, sheepishly admitting the northern lights were so common in her youth that she almost stopped noticing them. I tried to imagine growing up with such nighttime magic being considered utterly ordinary.

Photo from by Andrea Francis,
Macomb, Illinois, Nov. 7, 2004

Ancient scientists dubbed the phenomenon of the northern lights aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, and the Greek word “boreas” meaning “north wind.”   According to the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center, auroras start with a “coronal mass ejection” (CME)--a disruption on our fiery sun that blasts up to a billion tons of matter away from its surface.  This matter hurls through space on the "solar wind" at thousands of miles per second.  When it meets Earth's magnetic atmosphere, the resulting “geomagnetic storm” energizes particles and gases that glow green, red and violet – the typical colors of an auroral display.  Most auroras are visible closer to the north pole (and the south pole, where they are called aurora australis). Particularly powerful geomagnetic storms occasionally push the auroras to skywatchers at lower latitudes than normal. reports that the display I saw lasted from November 7-10, 2004 and was seen in every U.S. state except Hawaii.  Photos of the display are posted at Spaceweather's November 2004 Aurora Gallery. I’m still amazed no one I know, except my brother in Madison, was even aware it happened.

in Madison, Wisconsin
Photo from by Abe Megahed,
Madison, Wisconsin (downtown!), Nov. 8, 2004

A few nights later I caught the farewell display of that multi-night performance: a pink wash in the northern sky and a faint but unmistakable green glow over Lake Michigan.  I watched for maybe half an hour, sad to see them fading away but thoroughly uplifted and transformed by having seen them at all.  The thrill of that first spectacular show will live with me forever, and I hold out hope–with help from Spaceweather e-mail alerts – that I’ll see the northern lights once again over my hometown. Luckily, according to, the arrival of northern autumn signals that aurora season is underway.

And next time I’m waking
everyone up to tell them about it.

As always, feel free to leave a comment.

Chocolate and lazy churros.

Magazine Cuisine

Chocolate and lazy churros small
The tasty treats in the photo at left will, I hope, inspire you to read through my longwindedness--in which I publicly proclaim my anglophilism--until you get to the "Chocolate and lazy churros" part of this post.

I have a weakness for
British Country Living magazine. It is a beautiful oversized magazine with articles about actual country living. In the gorgeous British country. My personal dream come true. It has beautiful photos, uninterrupted articles (don't you hate when the last half of an article is buried in the classifieds at the very back of the magazine? I do), interesting recipes (with ingredients like "courgettes"), and the ads don't feel like ads because, well, probably because I'm a naive American who worships (almost) anything from Britain (is it England or Britain?) even their advertising. Ads for companies like Howdens Joinery Co., Quooker Taps, Billington's Sugar, Vale Garden Houses, and the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show beat the stuffing out of ads for those freakishly realistic looking baby dolls. I know that sounds snobbish! And anti-American, which I truly disdain. I love being American, and I'm proud of it. But when I'm reading this lovely magazine ... I'd rather be British.

So I occasionally pick up an issue (someday I'll get an actual subscription ... hint hint, Mr. Smith!), especially at Christmas time (which is quickly approaching, Mr. Smith!), when I want to lose myself in Britishness. The absolutely only drawback of this magazine is the recipes are in grams and liters (oops!
litres), difficult for a gal who loves to cook and wants to make "Sweet-sour rabbit with chocolate," but who lives in a pounds-and-ounces world. So after I bought my pretty green Escali Primo digital scale I quickly started choosing which British recipe I would try first.

BCL's chocolate and churros
I decided to pass on "Sweet sour rabbit" when I saw "Marinate the rabbit in the fridge overnight ..." Oh, actual rabbit, not rarebit. Okay, no thank you. Instead, I decided on "Chocolate and lazy churros" -- thickened hot chocolate accompanied by quick-fried tortillas. Clearly this is not a uniquely British snack. In fact, it's absolutely Spanish/Mexican in origin. But it kicks off the British edition of Someplace in between's Magazine Cuisine nicely.

Unfortunately, I didn't need my trusty Escali scale for this one, but I did have to consult the "ml" side of my pyrex measuring cup. SO British!

churros frying in the pan
I used a mere quarter inch of canola oil (the recipe calls for olive oil, but I worried that would be too heavy) to fry strips of both white and wheat flour tortillas. They took only about 15-20 seconds to cook on each side, so I couldn't be Facebooking or playing with the dog or watching episodes of "
Monarch of the Glen" while I was doing this. It was a pretty quick succession of plop (or place, to avoid splattering hot oil all over my hands), sizzle, flip, sizzle, remove. Repeat until desired number of tortillas have been fried. Truly easy.

churro closeup
Drizzle honey (plain old generic clover honey is fine) and cinnamon sugar, or just a dusting of cinnamon, on the hot fried tortillas. Voila! "Lazy churros."

making the hot chocolate
The "dipping chocolate" is hot chocolate made creamy and flavorful with evaporated milk and thickened with a tablespoon of cornstarch ("slaked in a little water"--how British is that!). I mixed evaporated milk and 2% milk about equally--I love evaporated milk, but hot chocolate made exclusively from evaporated would be too rich even for me. The finished chocolate is really like drinkable pudding that is creamy, thick, and downright luxurious. And reasonably low in fat, for hot chocolate.

Chocolate and lazy churros are a lovely mid-morning break!
The whole wheat churros were every bit as good as the white flour ones, although the white flour version tasted more like the real thing. The recipe calls for serving them plain but I couldn't resist the drizzle of honey and sprinkle of cinnamon.

dipping the churro into the chocolate
The test: does the dipping chocolate coat the churro? Yes it does!

empty chocolate cup
'Nuf said. Do try this on a chilly Autumn weekend. It's pretty fast and easy, and even the frying isn't as messy and oppressive as, say, frying doughnuts in 3 inches of hot oil. Enjoy!

Chocolate and lazy churros
From the April 2010 edition of Country Living, British Edition

Preparation: 5 minutes
Cooking: about 10 minutes

Serves 4
4 heaped tablespoons good-quality cocoa powder
750 ml whole or evaporated milk
1 level tablespoon cornflour (cornstarch), slaked in a little water
sugar or honey to sweeten
ground cinnamon to decorate


4 wheatflour tortillas, chapatis or pitta breads
olive oil for shallow frying

1. In a heavy-bottomed pan over a gentle heat, whisk the cocoa into the milk till it dissolves. Whisk in the cornflour. Bring to the boil, remove from the heat, then sweeten to taste and serve sprinkled with cinnamon.

2. Snip your breads into ribbons, about the width of your thumb. Fry in shallow olive oil until crisp and golden, then transfer to kitchen paper to drain.

Notes: I used half evaporated and half 2% milk for the chocolate. I used white and wheat flour tortillas for the churros and fried them in canola oil.

Feel free to leave a comment!

More pumpkin: Spiced dinner rolls.

Magazine Cuisine

It might seem excessive to serve pumpkin rolls with Harvest Pumpkin Salad. But not for me! These "Spiced Dinner Rolls," from the same issue of Victoria Magazine as the pumpkin salad, have a small amount of brown sugar as well as nutmeg and pumpkin pie spice, but they can swing sweet or savory. Savory or sweet. They work just as well sopping up bacon-flavored balsamic vinaigrette as they do smothered in butter and honey. Such versatility is handy in a bread! And pumpkin + bread = two of my favorite food experiences in one. Bonus: I've included the recipe below.

Pumpkin rolls ingredients
Just 1/4 cup of brown sugar gives these rolls the barest hint of sweetness. And of course there is the requisite canned pumpkin lending its lovely color to the kitchen on a cool autumn afternoon.

Pumpkin rolls 2
I thank the Yeast Goddess (and a sprinkling of sugar) for once again activating my expired yeast!

Pumpkin rolls proofed yeast
You'd almost think you were making a spiced pumpkin cake, what with the egg, heavy cream, sugar, nutmeg and flour.

Pumpkin rolls makins in bowl
The batter is such a pretty color. But it's very wet, so a good deal of flour must be added to get a workable dough that isn't too sticky.

Pumpkin rolls mixed together
This lovely orange-hued ball of dough has been kneaded to perfect elasticity and is ready to rise.

Pumpkin rolls dough ball
The recipe calls for rolling the dough into balls and placing each ball into the individual wells of a muffin tin. I don't have enough muffin tins to accommodate this in one baking, so I tucked about a dozen balls each into two round cake pans. The dough balls rose and puffed into each other nicely, and browned wonderfully in the oven.
Pumpkin rolls finished
What's the first thing you do with a batch of freshly baked pumpkin rolls? Split one open and let butter melt all over the warm insides! I love butter. Pumpkin + bread + butter = ORGANIC. Oh my. Well, you probably know I meant to type something else, but this is more or less an all-ages blog. (I did use organic pumpkin in this recipe.) After butter, try other toppings like apple butter, or cheddar cheese. But not at the same time. Although, wait ... apples and cheddar go well so I just might have to try them together. Any excuse to dig into those rolls! The "spice" is very subtle--they aren't overly pumpkin-pie-like. A nice complement to an autumnal meal whenever a warm (preferably buttered) roll is called for.

Pumpkin rolls apple butter

Spiced Dinner Rolls
From the September/October 2008 Victoria Magazine

Makes 24 rolls

1 cup fresh or canned pumpkin puree
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup warm heavy cream (110 degrees F)
1 package dry active yeast
4 cups bread flour, divided
1/4 cup clarified butter
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 egg
Walnut Caramel Butter (see for recipe)

  • In a small bowl, combine the pumpkin puree and vanilla extract; set aside.
  • In a large mixing bowl, stir together the brown sugar and warm cream until sugar is dissolved; sprinkle the yeast on top, and let mixture stand for 10 minutes.
  • Add 2 cups flour, pumpkin puree mixture, butter, salt, vinegar, pumpkin pie spice, nutmeg, and egg to the yeast mixture.
  • Using an electric mixer at medium speed, beat mixture until smooth. Stir in 1-1/2 cups flour to form a sticky dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead until smooth and elastic, adding enough of the remaining flour to prevent the dough from sticking to hands.
  • Place the dough in a large lightly greased bowl, and turn to coat. Cover with a clean kitchen towel, and let the dough rise in a warm place, free from drafts, for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
  • Coat 2 (12-cup) muffin tins with cooking spray. Punch down the dough, cut into 24 equal pieces, and shape each piece into a ball. Place each ball into a well of prepared muffin tin. Cover with the kitchen towel, and let rise 30 minutes.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Uncover dough, and bake for 15 minutes. Cool rolls slightly on wire racks before serving. Serve warm with Walnut Caramel Butter.

Harvest Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette.

Magazine Cuisine

See if you can believe this: pumpkin lover though I am, I've cooked with a fresh pumpkin only once in my life: bread-pudding stuffed pumpkin from a Victory Gardens recipe my brother Mark shared with me years ago. Then I managed to lose the recipe and haven't cooked with fresh pumpkin since, although I've used a good deal of the canned kind (thank goodness the canned pumpkin shortage is over!). Until last weekend, that is, when I finally tried "Harvest Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette" from the September/October 2008 issue of Victoria Magazine. (This recipe is not posted at the Victoria mag site, unfortunately.)

I've been drooling over the Harvest Salad recipe for two years: imagine seasoned (and
bathed in butter) baked pumpkin slices atop mixed greens then tossed with bacon/balsamic vinaigrette and sprinkled with toasted pecans. Gimme! Grocery stores around here don't generally carry small pie pumpkins (or "sugar" pumpkins) meant for cooking and eating, so when I saw them at a local garden center for $3 each I pounced.
Pumpkin salad ingredients
This is the first time I've carved a pumpkin in September, I'm sure of that.

Pumpkin salad punkin
I cut out the top, then sliced the wee thing in half. Oh, that fresh pumpkin smell really brings Halloween closer! I breathed it in for a few minutes, while visions of jack o'lanterns danced in my head. A bonus: these smaller pumpkins are much easier to cut through then thick carving pumpkins.

Pumpkin salad cut open punkin
I considered baking the seeds, but there's plenty of time for that come the end of October. That's another wonderful smell in the house--seasoned pumpkin seeds baking on a cookie sheet. One of my favorite scents of autumn!

Pumpkin salad punkin open seeds
Peeling wasn't too bad, but pumpkins certainly have tougher skin than apples or carrots. Our nice sharp vegetable peeler helped (I would not recommend a paring knife for this task), although the skin tended to fly off in big flakes all over the kitchen. It was messy but manageable.

Pumpkin salad cutting up
Now butter is melted with salt, pepper and garlic powder, then brushed onto the slices. Anything brushed with melted seasoned butter is, in my cookbook, destined to be delicious! I love butter, especially when it is melting onto something hot like rice, vegetables, pasta or homemade bread. As far as I'm concerned, butter is the elixir of life.

Pumpkin salad buttered slices
A simple vinaigrette of balsamic vinegar, olive oil (I used our favorite Lucini, one of the few real indulgences in our pantry--don't freak too badly when you see the price, it's worth every penny), chopped garlic, and crumbled crispy bacon is whisked together. In the future I might leave the bacon out of the dressing and instead crumble it over the dressed salad. The recipe also called for liberally dressing the greens in advance with the vinaigrette; I opted toss them with the merest drizzle--just enough to make them glisten and give them some flavor.

Pumpkin salad greens cheese
The fully assembled salad, if I humbly say so myself, was extremely tasty! The mix of flavors and textures worked beautifully together: warm, buttery seasoned pumpkin, bright tangy mixed greens, savory-salty bacon vinaigrette, crunchy toasted pecans.

Pumpkin salad day 1
Somehow the lightly dressed greens gave the whole dish a sophistication I don't normally accomplish (or even aim for) at home. We sprinkled parmesan cheese on top, but agreed it didn't really need the cheese. Which is saying a lot because we love sprinkling freshly grated parmesan cheese on just about everything. (We also love slicing it up and snacking on it while we're preparing dinner.)

Kenny gave his enthusiastic approval, too, saying that if we opened a restaurant this should be at the top of the menu. He's a generous and wonderfully willing culinary guinea pig! We probably won't be opening a restaurant, but we'll be eating a lot of pumpkin dishes--including this one--over the next few months.

Pumpkin salad day 2
It was equally tasty as leftovers two days later. And it was a delicious diversion from sweetened pumpkin recipes, although there will be more of those to come in the very near future! Next up, though: Spiced Pumpkin Rolls, also from Victoria Magazine.

Harvest Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette
From the September/October 2008 Victoria Magazine

Makes 6 servings

1 baking pumpkin, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-1/2-inch-thick slices
1/4 cup melted butter
1-1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
8 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 shallot, minced
6 cups salad greens
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup toasted pecans

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a large baking sheet.
  • Place the pumpkin slices 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk together the melted butter, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and garlic powder; evenly coat pumpkin slices with the butter mixture. Roast pumpkin for4 20 minutes, or until tender.
  • Using a food processor, mix together the oil, vinegar, remaining salt, remaining pepper, bacon, and shallot until well blended.
  • In a large bowl, toss the salad greens with 3/4 cup of the vinaigrette. Mound the greens on a serving plate, and top with roasted pumpkin. Drizzle the remaining vinaigrette over the pumpkin, and top with the Parmesan cheese and pecans.

Notes: I flipped the pumpkin slices about halfway through baking. I used precooked bacon, to save time (it toasts up nice and crisp in a toaster oven in about 3 minutes). I drizzled just a small amount of the vinaigrette on the greens, instead of using the 3/4 cup called for.