Thursday, October 12, 2006

Moneymaker #7,839

Note this day: the day that you read for the first time of a world-changing invention that will make me a rich woman and put my name on everyone's lips. Well, as soon as I line up an engineer, a whole lot of money, a manufacturer, and a distribution deal. Ahem. Any minute now. But here's the goods:

Mashed potatoes, apple pie, tomato sauce, roasted red peppers, peach pie, scalloped potatoes. Mmmm, right? All delicious, all economical, all fairly healthy (depending on who's cooking. If it's my brother, prepare to die very happily of a massive coronary. Mr Butterfat, he is.) But all of them would be a lot healthier if the fruits and vegetables weren't peeled. The peels have all the good stuff. But big tough peels are not the nicest thing to find in your mashed potatoes or your pie.

So, you know those wallpaper-scoring tools that you use when you're removing old wallpaper? Or those little gadgets that promise to cut through only one thickness of newsprint, to facilitate clipping articles that you will set aside and never send to anyone or, indeed, ever look at again? You know those?

Well, we need something along similar lines for peels. Something that will cut the peel into lots of tiny little pieces while it's still attached to the fruit or veg. I'm imagining something that looks a little like a palm sander, that you would rub over the surface of the fruit. That way, the peels stay on for their vitamin- and fiber-providing power, but no one has to chew through them.

Now the only thing is to come up with a catchy name that will sound good on late-night TV. Peel-olator... Fibro-tron... Fruita-max 3000...

Engineers and venture capitalists, please contact me for licensing and investment information. Don't let this amazing chance slip through your fingers! Once in a lifetime opportunity! The yard sale of tomorrow depends on the misplaced innovation of today!

Friday, September 29, 2006

Fuzzy Math: A Rationalization in Three Parts

Part One: Cheap Pants

I hate buying pants. I like *wearing* pants, don't get me wrong. It sure beats walking around only half-clad, and sometimes a skirt just doesn't do the trick. But for how difficult it is to find pants that actually fit me, you'd think my body was so freakish that people would gasp in horror and sympathy when I walked down the street.

Well. They might, but I've never noticed it, and I certainly don't feel like I have a freakish shape. I just can't find a pair of pants that feels the same way.

The effect of this situation is that I found myself the other morning realizing that I only own two pairs of pants: Jeans and Black. And of course, both were dirty. The days of summer-skirt-wearing were ending, and I needed a little wardrobe-development-expedition. Also known as:

[dun dun dun] Shopping. For. Pants. [tortured scream]

I girded my loins and set out. If I have time, I generally start at the bottom of the price-scale and shop my way up until I strike gold. Last time I shopped for jeans, I went to six stores, and probably tried on thirty or forty pairs. I ended up with some good jeans, but they were expensive (even if I didn't factor in the cost of all that time). Now do you see why I only owned two pairs of pants?

But today, somehow, the planets aligned and I found two pairs of jeans at the Salvation Army, for a grand total of $14.00. They're maybe a little more hootchie-mama than I was looking for, but not so hootchie-mama that everyone gets a gross little peek down my drawers every time I sit down. And they are actually the same length as my legs. In other words, unprecedented success.

Part Two: Luxurious Cookware

I've been wanting a particular pan for a year or so now. It's sturdy, thick-bottomed and great looking (and I bet it has a hell of a time shopping for pants too).

It can go in the dishwasher, it can go in the oven, and it has two loop handles, so it's easy to sling around and easy to store. And it's gigantic. I really like to make stew and meaty tomato sauce and braised chicken and stir fry, all of which are much better if there's enough very hot surface area to really brown the food, and not just make it sweat. Our existing large pan does have a lot of area, but it's not very thick, so there's only a six-inch circle of actual hotness in the center of the pan surrounded by a large, lukewarm doughnut-shaped territory.

So the new pan sounds great, right? Sounds like just the thing? How about for two hundred and thirty dollars? Still sound good? Yeah, that's why I've been dreaming about it and not buying it for the last year.

Part Three: Dubious Conclusion

But today, fresh from The Triumph of The Pants, I did a little math...

Two pairs of jeans that fit me: $68 each, $136 total
A just-adequate large frying pan: $85
10 morale-boosting fancy coffees because I'm chronically depressed by the quality of my cookware: $25

Total: $246

Two pairs of Sally Ann Special jeans: $7 each, $14 total
The Best Frying Pan Ever: $230

Total: $244

So, look at that! I can buy the pan and actually save two bucks! I think I'll treat myself to a fancy cup of coffee to celebrate.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Kitchen Brain

Food is one of my favorite things. I love to eat good food, I love to cook, and I even get a dorky little thrill out of grocery shopping. But food is not the only thing I like. There are things other than recipes, menus, and kitchen trivia that I want to store in my brain. So I made myself a whole separate brain that I can just set down and leave in the kitchen, to free up room in my original brain for some of that other stuff. It's like a room-specific pensieve (if you don't know what a pensieve is, then congratulations; you're not a huge geek, and here's a link if you're curious).

Since I'm not Dr. Frankenstein (Little Miss Frankenstein doesn't count), I don't keep my extra brain in a big jar of formaldehyde next to the toaster. It's more like a binder.

Here's what I have in there:

Dinner Ideas:
"What should we have for dinner this week?" is the question that no one wants to hear at nine o'clock on Tuesday night when it's time to make a shopping list. So The Brain has a list of things we like to eat. It makes planning meals feel more like ordering takeout, which is a task at which we're naturally quite gifted.

There's a page in there for all the numbers I can never remember: ratios of water to rice, quinoa, oatmeal, barley, lentils; how many cups of fruit fit into our big baking dish before the cobbler will boil over and start a fruit-flavored fire; what temperature is pizza temperature; how much rice makes four servings; stuff like that.

Shopping List:
In a pocket in the binder (so I can pull it out and stick it back without the tedium of wrangling rings) is a list of all the groceries we never want to run out of. I update the list every year or so as our tastes, budget, and eating habits change (the pile of twelve years of obsolete lists is a revealing survey). When I'm getting ready to go to the store, I look at the list, look around the kitchen, and see what's low or missing. Then I go over the menu plan we made for the week, and add meat, produce, and odd ingredients to the list. I used to make a shopping list from a master list without also planning menus, but I finally figured out that that's a good way to never run out of mustard and brown sugar and capers, but it's not necessarily a good way to end up with something you can actually have for dinner.

Easy Recipes:
If, upon an evening, I have a sous chef cooking, I can point him in the direction of the binder, and say, "It's all in there! While you cook, I'll be upstairs blogging about cooking." Gosh, which reminds me...


Okay. It's under control. The best laid schemes of cooks and sous chefs are often knocked awry by forgetting to defrost the day before.

Anyway, some people have an easier time than others deciphering cookbooks, and that is not enough reason for them not to cook. We have a few dependable recipes translated into English as actual human beings speak it, and they're in The Brain too.

The Section That Must Not be Named
Takeout menus. For when all else fails. They're stuffed shamefully into plastic pockets at the back of the binder, but they actually function more like a last resort than as an actual resource. Whenever I'm feeling doubtful about the success of a cooking experiment, I can reassure myself that whatever happens in the kitchen, dinner can still be piping hot on the table in half an hour. That usually helps me muster the courage to persevere, and we haven't yet had to throw dinner onto the compost pile and call in the pros. But there's always a first time.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Sex and Death in The Summertime

Fruit flies are a fact of life in summertime, and I'm enough of an uptight American that they really gross me out. I am not, however, American enough to solve the problem by refrigerating all of my produce. Tomatoes get mealy and wooly and mushy in the fridge. Peaches are meant to be eaten when they're ripe, juicy, sweet, and at body temperature. This is a family blog, or I would further explain how I feel about eating really excellent tomatoes and peaches. Suffice it to say that I'm actually blushing a little bit right now. See? American enough to be embarrassed by sensuality, but not American enough to stop.

Where was I? Oh, fruit flies. Right. There is a fruit fly trap that you can buy, which I did buy, which worked great. It works for a month, and it costs $7.00. Is freedom from fruit flies worth 23 cents a day? Is it worth $28 per summer? Well, yes, probably so. But can you do it cheaper? Yes! Definitely so! Read on!

The place I bought the trap describes the bait as "a vinegar solution." They would have been better off describing it as "a proprietary blend of acetic acid and other natural ingredients," because then it never would have occurred to me to make my own and save seven bucks.

I had a bunch of those disposable food containers that I think of as salad-dressing-size. They hold about a half a cup. I put a couple tablespoons of High Tech Fruit Fly Attractant (see above) in each container, covered them with foil, and poked a few fruit-fly sized holes in each foil lid. Then I strewed them about my kitchen and waited for victory. It worked like a charm. If I really wanted to prove it to you, I could take a picture of one of the traps that has what looks like about fifty little corpses, but it's really gross, and I like to have a pretty blog. So here's a nasty little drawing instead:

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Alchemy of Crap

There are two rooms on the main level of our house. The Food Activities Room and The Reading/Napping Room. There is no Peeing Room or Washing Room or Boot Room or Craft Room. I know. My life is unbearably difficult. Can you imagine the suffering?

Anyway, there are a lot of things that we find ourselves wanting to do down here that aren't strictly Food or Book Related, and in the interests of not living in a landfill, we have to figure out where and how to stash the things that we need and use, but that do not Strictly Belong. One thing we are blessed with is an embarrassment of bookcases. So my plan is to Turn Stuff Into Books.

I am a saver-of-containers. It's practically a diagnosis. I have containers that have gone through three moves without being used yet. I have containers that I bought at yard sales from former savers-of-containers who have wised up. Their mental health and profit=my growing collection! So I'm going through my containers, looking for the ones with the most book-like dimensions, and they are becoming Stuff Filled Books. They have labels on their spines, they blend into the scenery with all the other rectilinear objects, they will be easy to find when needed, and we don't have to exert ourselves running up and down the stairs all day (we might get all sweaty and die).

So far, I've made or planned:

First Aid Book (bandaids, rubbing alcohol, etc)
Mending Book (buttons, safety pins, thread, needles, scissors)
Sick Book (painkillers, antihistamines)
Candle Book (extra tealights, matches)
Cook Book (torn out recipes to try)
Toy Book (kid diversions)

My main dilemma now is whether I should shelve the "books" with similar content books (food with food, health with health), or in a distinct Books That Aren't Books section. Yes, I know. A real thorny one.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Orange Fennel Rye Bread

This is a dense, sweet, moist bread. It makes the most delicious toast I've ever encountered, but it's also good with an assertive cheese—strong crumbly cheddar, stilton, something like that. You can also make a fine sandwich with it. But it is not a sophisticated food. I bet it has never been made in Paris. This is a bread for homey meals eaten in the kitchen. But knock yourself out and cut it into toast points if you must. Maybe it's fantastic with caviar. Let me know.

I wrote it down first in 1994, and I know I got it from my mother, who I think may have gotten it from a Beth Hensperger book. How's that for responsible attribution?

1 package yeast
a pinch of sugar or a drop of honey
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup warm milk
1 cup orange juice (freshly squeezed is nice if you have it around, but weekday-breakfast-grade works fine too)
1/2 cup molasses
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2.5 teaspoons salt
1.5 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 cups rye flour
4 to 4.5 cups all-purpose flour

Combine the sugar, warm water and yeast in a small bowl. Let it sit for a few minutes, until it gets foamy.

In a large bowl, combine the warm milk, juice, molasses, oil, and by-now-foamy yeast mixture.

Vigorously mix the rye flour into the liquid above, until it's uniformly goopy and brown and looks just like... Well, never mind what it looks like now. It'll be handsome and delicious soon enough.

Add the all-purpose flour a cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon. Once the dough holds together in one big clump around the spoon (you might have used anywhere from 3 to 4.5 cups of flour), it's ready to be freed.

Dump the lump out onto a floured board, and knead it for 5 minutes or so. During this process, when it starts to stick to your hands and the board, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time.

Once kneaded, put the dough into a oiled bowl, turn it over to enrobe it in oil, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

Now it's Choose Your Own Adventure time. To continue baking, and be eating bread as soon as possible, go to item A. To go to bed and finish the blasted bread in the morning, go to item B.

So you want bread, do you? Alright. Put the bowl of dough in a warm place. Well, really, just not a cold place. The counter is probably fine. Is your heat working? Do you live in a tent in the Arctic? Does your air conditioning keep your house at penguin-friendly temperatures? Really? Are you Mr. Popper? These are some of the questions you must ask yourself when you make bread.

In an hour or two, the dough will have grown to about twice its size. Continue to item C for the exciting conclusion.

Stick the dough in the fridge and stumble to bed. In the morning (good morning!), bring it out and let it warm up to room temperature. It should have gotten about twice as big as it was last night. Continue to item C for the end of the adventure.

At this point, the bread's a bit big for its britches, so you can teach it who's boss. Whack it around until it deflates. Do NOT try this technique on your kids. If you do, they will eventually tower over you, scowl, and refuse to pay for your nursing home, and you'll be sorry. You do not have to worry about that with the bread.

Cut the dough in half (you're making two loaves). Pat the dough into roughly loaf-shaped wads, and place the wads in greased loaf pans. There are techniques and tips and gimmicks and tools that are involved in shaping dough into loaves. I'm not going to get into all that here, because this bread will either be delicious and wonderful, or delicious, wonderful, and perfect looking, and, well, what does it matter for humble bread like this? I'm sure Chef Google could help you with that, if you're interested and you don't know how.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, or "Regular." Okay, okay, I'll do some math... It's 190 degrees Celsius, or "Foreign."

Cover the loaves loosely with plastic wrap or a damp teatowel, and let them rise for 40 minutes or so, until they get about an inch taller than their pans.

Bake the bread for half an hour to 40 minutes, until they're nice and brown and sound sort of hollow when you thump them on the bottom with your fingers.

Let them cool for an hour or so if you can stand it, and then cut some slices, toast them, butter them, and make yourself some tea. Oh my. I think I might need another slice or two right away.

Note: If you need to, you can put the dough [back] in the fridge after you punch it down. Then, when you're able, punch it down again and shape it into loaves.

Breadsperiment? Experibread?

America's Test Kitchen is an admirable and useful endeavor. They are good culinary researchers because they are anal, comprehensive, energetic, and patient. I depend on them for foolproof recipes.

My own kitchen experiments are usually based on laziness, bad timing, the wrong tools, and last-minute ingredient substitution. Any minute now, the results of my latest experiment will be in and I will be able to report on how far you can abuse and misinterpret a bread recipe before you produce something really inedible.

The recipe calls for two rises. Since I started baking too late last night, I put the dough in the fridge for nine hours for the first rise instead of a warm place for one hour.

Also, I only have one loaf pan, and this recipe makes two loaves. So, half the dough gets treated right (knock down, shape, rise 40 minutes, into the oven), and the other half gets knocked down and put back in refrigerated exile. The good news is that only one loaf needs to be presentable (nice new neighbors), so the stakes are low for that second loaf.

I'll let you know...

Oh, it's good. It's so, so good. And this is the ugly stepsister loaf that had the extra visit to the fridge. Why do I not make this bread every week? Oh right. Lazy.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sweaty Mess 101

1. Walk home from work for the calorie-burning virtuousness.

2. Realize too late that it's hot enough to fry—um—tofu on the sidewalk (the egg thing's been done to death).

3. Meet a fancy aquaintance on the way home, and have a long, rambling conversation while dripping bodily fluids on the sidewalk (okay, mostly sweat) (okay, only sweat) (but still really gross! lots of sweat!)

4. Arrive home.

5. Lack the energy to mount the stairs, find a non-drenched shirt, and become a reasonably-attired grownup.

6. Remove shirt, replace with teatowel tied fetchingly around the bosom.

7. Being starving (see #1), eat ravenously and too well, still sweaty, and negate any benefit from previous exertion.

8. Decide that although the teatowel has its own sexy, rakish charm, a shower and clean clothes might be just the thing.

8. Have a glass of wine too many and start a blog.