Friday, November 30, 2007

Month: Over!

I did it! I posted every day in November, whether I had anything to say or not (maybe half and half). Now I have two things: a great sense of accomplishment, and no desire to do that ever again.

I'll be going back to my actual life for a while now. I'll see you again when I have something to say. My guess is, a couple weeks at least.

Delicious Home-Cooked Tofu. Really.

I like tofu, but I don't tend to cook it at home a lot because I've never found a way to get it as tasty as the restaurants do. Until now.

I could eat these like potato chips. And did, last night, as I was cooking, and spoiled my appetite. But I'm not sure it counts as appetite-spoiling if it's tofu.

1 block extra-firm tofu, drained, lightly pressed, and patted dry
3 tablespoons cornstarch
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons oil

Cube the tofu. Mix the cornstarch with salt and pepper to taste, and then dredge the tofu in it. Heat the oil in a large non-stick pan, and fry the tofu until golden brown on all sides. Make sure to leave space around the tofu cubes, so they can brown, and so they don't stick together too much. You may have to fry in two batches.

The tofu, once done, is crispy on the outside and soft and lovely on the inside. Add whatever sauce you like, a few vegetables and some rice, and dinner's done.

**Update, a week and a half later**

We've made this two more times since then, and made a few discoveries:
1) Making two-bite-sized pieces instead of bite-sized pieces makes dredging and flipping easier.
2) Leftovers are really good right out of the fridge. The tofu gets kind of dense and chewy. Mmm.
3) This works pretty well in the oven: 400°, twenty minutes, flip once. If you use spray oil, they end up much less greasy and only a little less tasty and crispy. Still good, and leaves less mess than frying.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I know it hasn't been proven dangerous, I just have a thing about avoiding injections of heavy metals, if at all possible.

Checking off the boxes on the flu shot form, I see the box that asks if I am allergic to thimerosal. My eyebrows must have shot way up into my hair, because a nice lady bustles right over to ask if anything's the matter.

ME: Is there thimerosal in the vaccine?
HER: It's just the preservative, nothing to worry about.
ME: What about the mercury?
HER: The wha? ...Maybe you should go talk to that lady.
OTHER LADY: Can I help you?
ME: Is there thimerosal in the vaccine?
OL:Yes, I think so. What's the problem?
ME:Isn't there a lot of mercury in thimerosal?
OL: No, no. Just a little mercury.
ME: (remembering when they shut down a whole building for weeks because someone spilled a tablespoon of mercury) Uh, I don't think I want...
THIRD LADY: Oh, today we're using the preservative-free vaccine. No problem. See the box?
ME: Whew. Geeze. Okay, stick me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Avoid the mall. Bake your presents.

I have a serious question for you. Do you want to make fancy iced Christmas cookies? Do you really, really want to make fancy iced Christmas cookies? If it sounds like something you would enjoy, then it's surprisingly easy and fun. If it just sounds like something you think you ought to do, it'll feel like plucking a chicken with chopsticks: annoying, fiddly, messy, and pointless. So if fooling with colored icing and squeeze bottles and sugar sounds like fun, read on. If you'd rather brave the mall on the Saturday before Christmas, then read a book or go drag racing or something.

When I made decorated cookies for the first time last year, it was easier than I thought it would be, and I didn't need as many specialty tools as I thought I would. The ingredients for the icing were easy to find--I saw them at both the expensive hippie grocery store and the soulless mega-mart (although I think the paste food coloring was only at the latter). The only special tools I ended up using were plastic squeeze bottles, which I would heartily recommend getting for this. They're less messy than a pastry bag or a ziplock bag with the corner snipped off, and the icing doesn't get a chance to dry out and get crusty as easily.

My favorite tip for painless fancy-cookie-making is to use a mix for the actual cookies. It's easy and predictable, it makes less mess, and one sugar cookie tastes just like another as far as I'm concerned. So, unless you enjoy that kind of thing, just get a few bags or boxes of mix and make the cookies the day before you decorate, so you can focus on the icing.

Tools and Supplies:
sugar cookie mix (plus whatever the mix calls for: water, eggs, butter, etc)
parchment paper or silpat sheets
cookie sheets
cooling racks
plastic squeeze bottles (one per color)
colored decorating sugar

Royal Icing Recipe
3 and 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons powdered egg whites or meringue powder
6 tablespoons warm water
lemon oil
paste food coloring

Combine the sugar, egg powder and water, and beat with a mixer for four minutes. Add a few drops of lemon oil. If you want two colors of icing, separate the icing into two bowls and tint each one. More colors? More bowls. Put each color of icing into a plastic squeeze bottle.

Where you want areas of solid color on your cookies, make outlines with icing. So, if you want to cover a round cookie in a smooth layer of color, just make a ring of icing around the edge. You'll fill it in later. It'll take a few cookies to get the hang of making a smooth line (you'll just have to eat the messy ones). It's easiest to get a smooth line of icing if you hold the tip of the squeeze bottle a little bit away from the surface of the cookie, and let a continuous rope of icing fall onto the cookie as you move the bottle and/or the cookie.

Once you've outlined all the areas you want to fill, let the icing get dry to the touch before filling in. For filling, thin the icing down with a little bit of water. This is where some trial and error comes in handy. You want the icing thin enough that a pile of it will spread out over the surface of the cookie, but thick enough that it makes a nice substantial layer. With that thinned-down icing in the squeeze bottles, fill in the outlined areas. If you want to add sparkly sugar, sprinkle it onto the icing before it gets completely dry.

Let the icing get completely dry before you stack the cookies. Even after it's dry to the touch, the icing is wet in the middle and may ooze if it gets squished. Once the icing's dry, and as long as the cookies aren't too thin or too gigantic, these cookies pack and ship very well, with enough wrapping and packing material. And they're tasty for days, at least.

Here's a place to buy squeeze bottles and meringue powder, in case you can't find them near you.

And here are some photos of the outlining-and-filling process.

And here is the most bizarre and varied selection of cookie cutters ever.

Update from Cookie Central:
Having just done my annual cookie-bake-athon-apalooza, I have some Real Life Tips:

Three bags of Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix, claiming to make 3 dozen cookies each, were accurately labeled indeed. I'm now the proud custodian of nine dozen cookies, plus one extra, plus the wee lump that was too small to be cut with my smallest cookie cutter, but big enough to get cooked anyway.

I started mixing the mixes at 5:30, and the last cookie came out of the oven at 7:30. If I were truly efficient, I could have harnessed the scraps of down time within those two hours like so much cookie dough, and cleaned up as I went. As it is, I only claim to work towards maximum efficiency, never to have actually attained it. The kitchen is a disaster area.

One mixing tip: the directions for rolled-out cookies call for one egg, one tablespoon of flour, and a third of a cup of softened butter to be added to the mix. Stirring the dough is way easier if you scramble the tar out of the egg and kind of hack the softened butter up into wads before you combine it all.

It turns out that parchment paper and non-stick baking mats are unnecessary. Every batch came off the ungreased pans effortlessly. Behold the power of butter.

Because Head of Dishwashing knows that I like to save these things, we had a freshly-washed plastic bin that originally contained a pound of baby spinach hanging around. Turns out, it's the perfect size for nine-dozen-plus-one cookies (I ate the wee lump—it was on the tough side).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sugar Now = Protein Then

On the morning of a workout day, I try to have an extra-good breakfast, so I don't turn into a pile of quivering jelly after an hour of hoofing and poofing. It usually works really well; I have some peanut butter toast or some oatmeal or an egg, and I'm good to go at the gym two hours later. Until today, when I learned a dangerous lesson.

It turns out that if you miss breakfast because of an early meeting, and then realize you're only half an hour away from serious exertion and haven't eaten anything, you can have half a cup of bad decaf and ten doughnut holes and it will work just as well. You'll leave the workout feeling fit and proud, and you'll still have a few doughnut holes left to help you come down easy off that sweet sugar high.

Of course, I'm now collapsed on the couch with barely the strength to blog, but that can't be related to the decisions I made this morning. No way. This is just my body's way of asking for fried chicken for dinner.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Shortest Memoir Ever

The Early Years
Plunge a knife deep into a new jar of peanut butter. Bring the knife (now thickly loaded) back up and watch as the thick, cloudy oil overflows, runs down the outside of the jar, over your fingers, and into a big greasy lake on the counter. Sigh, clean it up, and spend the rest of the month eating dry, unspreadable peanut butter.

The Resignation
Dip a knife timidly into a new jar. Stir it around half-heartedly. Spend the rest of month eating peanut butter that starts out runny, and slowly becomes more and more solid, until you get to the bits at the bottom that never come out.

The Innovation
Get out a fork. Dip it only an inch into a new jar. Mix the oil thoroughly into just the top of the peanut butter. Once the top inch of peanut butter is uniform, and there's no more streaks of oil, dip the fork in a little deeper and mix that top inch into the peanut butter below it. Once the top half of the jar is uniformly mixed, all danger of overflow is past. Switch over to a knife and stir vigorously until the whole jar is completely mixed. And then spend the month smiling as you make sandwiches.

edited to add:
The Final Solution
Start a blog, complain about peanut butter mixing, and wait for a friendly reader to tell you about The Peanut Butter Mixer.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Travel Cheese

The more I travel, the more I realize that preserving morale is vital. There are so many things that can erode a good attitude over a day of travel: bad food, uncomfortable accommodations, endless CNN, bad air, the same old stuff in Sky Mall, or worst of all, no Sky Mall at all. So it becomes extra important to make the things you do have control over as pleasant and streamlined as possible, to minimize the chances that you and your traveling companions will end the day sniping at each other and hailing separate taxis.

The food situation is primary. Not only will bad food or hunger make a situation more stressful, good food can go a long way towards making a difficult situation feel much more manageable. The difference between tasty snacks that will make you feel good and Scary Airport Food is the the difference between feeling like a human being and feeling like a disregarded piece of cargo. And now that the airlines no longer provide those compartmentalized meals, there needs to be a whole new strategy of Travel Foods. Buying stuff in the airport is a last resort, as far as I'm concerned, since it's always either too dry or too fried. So then, if you're packing food from home, what to bring? It should be non-perishable enough to survive the half-hour trip to the airport, the two hours spent in either the Stand and Wait or the Sit and Wait positions, and a few hours of air travel and plane-changing. So that's what, five or six hours? Too long for meat, too long for mayonnaise. Cheese to the rescue. Cheese, good bread, vegetables, and fruit. I'll help with the cheese:

Travel Cheese

sharp cheddar
cream cheese
garlic chili paste
lemon juice

Finely grate the cheddar. Mix it with the other ingredients, adding lemon juice gradually until it stops being crumbly and starts seeming spreadable. Then spread it on thinly sliced whole-grain bread. For maximum convenience, make a few sandwiches, cut them into quarters, and wrap each quarter separately in tin foil. This makes it very easy to grab just a little food without making a big production of it. Along with some carrot and celery sticks, you have a reasonable, tasty meal that shouldn't kill you. If you have a very long trip, you might try freezing the sandwiches before you set off, but the texture might get funky.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Soap Sack!

My skin is sensitive, inflexible, and petulant. These are not qualities I'd appreciate in a friend, but I just have to deal with it when it's my skin. The only soap it likes is Dove, which is great at home, since it's cheap and you can buy it anywhere, but when it comes to travel, it's a real pain. Slimy bars of soap are not easy to pack, and I'm too cheap to pack a new bar and just throw it away before coming home. So after years of trying various solutions (plastic containers, ziplock bags, and the cardboard box it came in), I discovered the perfect solution: a piece of thick, soft cotton muslin that used to be a laundry bag. I just wrap it around the soap and it keeps the slime from infecting all my other toiletries. The soap can dry through the cloth, and it comes off cleanly. When it gets too full of soap residue, I figure I'll just throw it in the wash. This might seem unbelievably trivial to some (okay, probably all), but my Travel Morale just went up about sixteen percent, which is worth noting.

Friday, November 23, 2007

How bad could it really be?


-Make Mark Bittman's flaky pie crust recipe the day before, shape it into a thick disk, and refrigerate it.

-When you're ready to roll it out, start by whacking the cold dough with the rolling pin, to compact and flatten it. This really helps keep the dough from cracking as you roll.

-It's surprisingly easy to make a lattice-topped pie.

-A whole lemon worth of zest, nutmeg, cinnamon, and two tablespoons of butter make very tasty additions to a granny smith filling (along with the normal flour and sugar).


-Accidentally broil the pie instead of baking it. The top crust will burn, the bottom crust won't cook, and the juices won't thicken. Despite all this, it will still be tasty and make a fine breakfast.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007: Discoveries

1. When you make a delicious brined turkey for Thanksgiving, and as a result the drippings make a really salty gravy, here's how to fix it: Get your brother in law to chop an onion, then caramelize the onion in two tablespoons of butter. Stir in two tablespoons of flour, then add two cups of water or other non-salty liquid. Add this onion sauce to the too-salty gravy. And then you will not only have better-tasting gravy, but lots and lots of it.

2. Holding a baby while you bowl with a wii may actually improve your game.

3. When you sing "The Wheels on The Bus" in Arabic, the wipers on the bus go swish swish swish just like they do in English.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Spirit walk with me. On Jet Blue.

So it used to be that you had to first find, then identify, then finally eat some hallucinogenic flora before wandering in the wilderness, waiting for the spirits to visit you with their messages of eternal truth. Now it turns out you just have to get in a big metal tube in the sky, eat some potato chips, and direct your attention out the right-hand window.

It was refreshing to hear the captain's excited announcement and watch a plane full of jaded travellers all raise their eyebrows, turn out their overheard lights, dim their individual entertainment screens, and lean and crane and peer, just to catch a glimpse of a slowly shifting band of lights. As I sat in my padded seat in the warm cabin, and pressed my forehead against the glass, I felt a bit of what it might feel like to see the northern lights alone, from a cold dark forest. There was certainly a feeling of communication, but I don't have any life-changing revelations to report. If I had to transcribe it, it would go like this:

"Don't go!"
"Oh, goodbye! Thank you!"

It was great. A gift. Thanks, captain on Jet Blue, for interrupting CSI Miami for that. It was so worth it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Funny Warm Lumps

Those bags of rice or corn that you heat up in the microwave are great for keeping your feet warm at night. They're also nice during the day, especially if you have a snug-fitting down vest. Just be aware that people might start asking, depending on where you're wearing your Corn Bag, when your due date is or how'd the cosmetic surgery go.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Maybe some nice hot cider for now.

The reason we like instant hot chocolate is that it's an easy way to get a drink that's hot, rich, and deliciously bittersweet.

The reasons we don't like instant hot chocolate are that when you rip open a foil packet, some vaguely chemical powder poofs out all over the counter, the water doesn't ever really mix with the powder, so you just get a wan brown liquid with powdery little BBs floating in it, and it never gets to be the right temperature in the microwave; it's always tongue-peelingly hot or halfheartedly tepid.

But these are things we've learned to accept about instant hot chocolate. They are the expected trade-off for convenience. They are not worth trying to overcome. For example, in an effort to melt the powdery BBs and get a smooth mixture, do not mix a bit of water with the powder and then heat it up in the microwave. You will overestimate the time needed, and when you turn back to the microwave, there will be a volcano worthy of a seventh grade science fair gushing out of your mug. I'm sure a physicist would have an engaging explanation of how so little liquid could make so huge a mess, but for now it's enough to say: Very sticky. Do not try.

The only positive note in all this is that if that was your last packet of the vile stuff, you now have a good reason to go out and get the real powdered chocolate and some actual milk, and accustom yourself to using a saucepan and a whisk.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Q and A: Stir Fries

Q: It would be most interesting to hear you address the topic of quick and easy stir fry sauces that can be made with plain (as opposed to pre-bottled) ingredients. Our stir fries tend to be fairly bland affairs (although we like the taste of plain veggies), and having a few recipes on hand to sauce them up would be swell. Since we eat gluten free, most of the bottled sauces available in the stores (like those yummy sounding peanut sauces) are either suspect or definitely off limits. But surely there's something simple we can make with rice vinegar and a little lemon, a little x and a little y...? Oh, and not too spicy, if that's in your repertoire.

A: Here are the things we do around here:

Saute ginger and garlic. Add coconut milk, fish sauce, and sugar (I also add chili paste, but with enough ginger and garlic, I think it would be fine without it).

Mix peanut butter, vinegar, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger. Add water to thin. Heat up carefully, or just toss with very hot vegetables.

Mix sherry or mirin, soy sauce, and rice vinegar. Heat the mixture in a pan, and add browned meat or vegetables. Heat thoroughly. Mix equal parts cornstarch and cold water, and use a tablespoon or two of that mixture to thicken the sauce. Add a drizzle of sesame oil. Once thickened, serve promptly.

Equal parts lime juice and fish sauce, plus sugar and minced garlic.

A note about sugar, salt, and fat: One reason all those bottled sauces are so delectable even though they don't have many high-quality ingredients is that they're packed with sugar, salt, fat, and often MSG. When you're making a sauce from scratch, you can use fresh garlic and ginger and top quality oils and vinegars, which will be delicious, but even so, don't leave out all the salt, sugar, and fat. Just a bit of each will enhance the fresh ingredients and take your sauce from ho-hum to oh-yum (heh). And remember that lots of things (mirin, fish sauce, soy sauce, coconut milk, peanut butter) may have a good amount of salt, fat, or sugar in them already. So taste it!

And now, to answer the question that you didn't ask: Another good way to boost flavor is by browning your vegetables and/or meat, a direction that's thrown around a lot, but is badly explained by most recipe-writers. So allow me to ramble on and on: For best possible browning, the first and unavoidable step is to get an excellent pan. My best friend in the kitchen is this giant, expensive, fantastic pan. I've used it almost every day in the year since I got it, which works out to about 57 cents per use so far. So, if you put fifty cents in a jar every time you want to brown something, make paella, sautee a ton of vegetables, or cook 12 slices of bacon at once, you'll have enough money for an excellent pan in no time.* The two things that make it so fantastic are its even heating and its huge surface area. In a normal pan that doesn't cost as much as the rent in my first apartment, only the middle of ever gets really hot, the edges are always cooler, and when you dump in a bunch of vegetables, a thin pan cools way down and your food ends up piled in a steaming heap. This is not browning.

This is browning: add a little fat to a giant, thick pan, and let it heat thoroughly . When one piece of food sizzles instantly when you throw it in, it's ready. Throw in just enough meat or veg to make one sparse layer (cook in batches if necessary). The pan should sound like an enthusiastic, sold-out stadium from a few blocks away (SHAaaa!). Meat will stick to the pan but if you just leave it there, it will develop a nicely seared surface and release when it's ready to be flipped or stirred. Watch carefully: adding the food will cool the pan down a bit, but a thick pan will heat up again quickly and start to smoke. Turn it down just enough so the food keeps browning but not smoking too much (a wisp or two is to be expected). Stir to brown the chunks on as many sides as possible. If the bottom of the pan starts to get lots of dark brown stuff building up on it before the food's all browned, keep it from burning by deglazing: add a splash of liquid (maybe 2 tablespoons) which will sizzle, boil furiously, and loosen the brown stuff, which you can then mix into the food. The bit of liquid will cook off quickly in a large, hot pan, and then you can keep browning. When vegetables are done, they will be crisp-tender and juicy, with a few dark brown spots on each piece. Meat is done when it's as cooked as you like it, with some dark brown spots. Set the browned food aside. Clean the pan by deglazing it with a quarter cup of liquid. Pour that liquid, with all the tasty brown bits, over the browned food. When I make stir fry, I brown the vegetables and meat separately, set them aside as they're cooked, make the sauce, and then add the food (and any deglazed liquid) to the simmering sauce and serve it when it's all hot through.

*A much cheaper pan option is a cast-iron pan, which many people swear by (hello, favorite sibling!). In my experience, you have to do a lot of frying in fat to keep a cast-iron pan in great shape. I'm not a fat-free cook by any means, but I don't use tons of oil when I sautee things, and I cook a lot of beans and tomatoes. My giant cast iron pan was not too happy about it. And for something that heavy and large, I want to be able to use it for everything. The other drawback, in my experience, was that I could never get the entire pan evenly hot. This could be just me. If you have doubts about throwing lots of money down on a pan, it's worth trying cast iron first.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Shameless Ploy

As we learned yesterday, I am running out of steam only halfway through the post-every-day month (known to you hip young people as NaBloPoMo). But now, in a move I would energetically encourage in all my readers, one of you has sent in a couple of requests. This nice fellow, whose nom de nephew is Funky Man T, has some cooking questions:

"First, it would be most interesting to hear you address the topic of quick and easy stir fry sauces that can be made with plain (as opposed to pre-bottled) ingredients. Our stir fries tend to be fairly bland affairs (although we like the taste of plain veggies), and having a few recipes on hand to sauce them up would be swell. Since we eat gluten free, most of the bottled sauces available in the stores (like those yummy sounding peanut sauces) are either suspect or definitely off limits. But surely there's something simple we can make with rice vinegar and a little lemon, a little x and a little y...? Oh, and not too spicy, if that's in your repertoire.

"Second, I am never happy with my otherwise delicious pots of stew or chili after they've been frozen. In the lamb stew we thawed for dinner last night, for example, the potatoes and carrots had gone from firm to mealy. Since I don't remember my mother's frozen entrees tasting like this, I'm wondering if I'm doing something wrong in the freezing process. Is there a right way to freeze and/or defrost stuff? Does it matter if the stew is still warm/hot when you put it in the freezer? Does it matter whether you patiently let it sit and defrost slowly as opposed to hungrily nuking or boiling it? Does anybody know what I'm talking about?"

These questions bring up several interesting issues. First, can I now rely exclusively on my readers to provide topics for me to write about? Like the Magic 8 Ball, I'm thinking that signs point to yes. So get cracking. Second, can I also rely on my readers to actually provide content about these topics? Again, I'm optimistic. So, weigh in, people. I know for a fact that I have many readers for whom food is a pet topic. I won't call you out by name, but L? G? J and N, C, N, D, A, anyone? You know who you are, and so do I.

I'll blather on, but you people, chime in too! Together, we can solve these dilemmas! Stay tuned for my answers. Your breath, it is bated, I can tell.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Here we just call it bacon, eh.

What do the Scottish call scotch tape?

What do the Brazilians call brazil nuts?

What did they call old-style numerals back when they were new?

What do you call a cold hot dog?

These are some of those eternal dilemmas that are best left unsolved. But one is a dilemma no longer. A tepid frankfurter is just a dog. Or, if you want to be more specific, a dog of no particular temperature. And Tepid Frankfurter would be an awesome band name.

[Hey, I said I'd post every day in November. I didn't say you'd like it.]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Things a Cardiologist Once Told Me

My favorite thing she said was that supraventricular tachycardia is a benign condition. She said it several times, and it never got old. Another thing that I liked the sound of was, "Your EKG is perfectly normal." Here's the other highlights, as remembered, paraphrased, run though my brain a few times, out my fingers, and onto the keyboard. Some things may have been altered in translation:

"Up with His Highness Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany!
Down with Jaime Summers!
Now allow me to clarify: You should really avoid running like you're trying to catch the bionic woman. You'll never catch her, and sprinting that hard seems like it might bring on episodes of tachycardia in your case, especially if you're a little dehydrated. Stick with the sensible, non-delusional exercise, and keep on marching up and down hills like you're the Grand Old Duke of York. He would have made a great personal trainer if he hadn't died in 1827. Pilates is good too, even if His Highness never did it.

"If you do have another episode that doesn't end by itself in a minute or two, there are a few ways you might be able to stop it. Try taking a breath, holding it in, and then bearing down and straining hard. We in the medical field call this the PoopFace Maneuver. Or the Valsalva Maneuver. One of those.

"It's not much fun to plunge your head into a bucket of cold water, but it involves a lot less paperwork than going to the emergency room, and it might work just as well. The more parties you go to where there's bobbing for apples the more convenient this will be. You could consider keeping your bathtub full of cold water and apples all the time, both for impromptu parties and the occasional cardiac symptom. If you're having cardiac symptoms more often than you're having parties, call the office and make an appointment. Then we might want to think about putting you on some medication.

"Another thing that might stop an episode in progress is mashing your finger on one of the carotid arteries on either side of your neck. One or the other. You can try both, just for heavens' sake, not both at once.

"If none of these work to stop an episode of tachycardia, and it's gone on for 15 or 20 minutes, come to the emergency room. Come quicker if you're also having other symptoms, like dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, or excessive sweating. You do not need to come to the ER if your only symptom is excessive sweatiness. In that case, just take a bath. Apples optional.

"You're probably just fine. We'll call you if there's any irregularity in the echocardiogram. Otherwise, see you in three months for a follow-up!"

On the whole, I was very impressed with everyone I saw there (the nurse practitioner, the med tech, and the doctor). The only time anyone missed a beat was when I was making my follow-up appointment and had to explain to the receptionist why I thought February 14th was an appropriate day to come to the cardiologist.

They were all so nice and friendly, I'm inclined to take them something for Valentine's Day, but I guess I probably shouldn't bring them decadent bon bons. Maybe slices of beet cut into heart shapes. Healthy and festive! Everyone loves a nice beet slice.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Harnessing procrastination for good!

Well, it had to come to this. It was inevitable that after posting every day for weeks, I'd run out of steam eventually. Thank goodness for the internet and amusing things to link to. This might only be entertaining to the nerdiest among us (I find it even more addictive than the regular internet), but give it a shot. It's charitable, educational time wasting. The site gets advertisers to pay per click, and the goal is to define all kinds of obscure words correctly. The more words you get right, the more money they send to UN food aid. Win/win. I cannot stop playing. Last night, in a team effort, we got up to a score of 49. There was lots of guessing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Pound-Foolish Oatmeal Bath

Reusing ziplock bags, hanging laundry to dry, brown-bagging your lunch, and avoiding the coffee shop are all sensible ways to save money and resources. But unchecked, penny-pinching can become an addiction, and the things that used to give you the Cheap Thrill just won't be enough any more. You find yourself doing cheaper and cheaper things, just to feel normal. Until one day, it just goes too far. The key to staying in Frugal territory and not straying into Bonkers is noticing when this starts to happen.

When you use commercial oatmeal-bath powder, you're surrounded by a soothing, milky liquid that'll make your skin feel like a well-bathed baby's. With homemade oatmeal powder, you'll find yourself sitting in liquid that looks too much like an excellent source of fiber to be something in which you should be bathing. And the post-bath aftermath is not pretty. Homemade oatmeal powder does not gracefully leave the tub with the bathwater. It settles to the bottom and stays there, lumpily. Once the tub is drained, it looks like the closet floor when the cat's mad at you. And just-post-bath, when you're all warm and pruney, is not an easy time to muster bathtub-cleaning energy. All this for a savings of (I'm guessing) seventy five cents per bath. So, learn from my experiment. Don't make your own unless you're dedicated enough to the idea to get an industrial-strength oatmeal pulverizer. And if you do, let me know so I can borrow it. I'll trade you some decrepit plastic bags, a cheese sandwich and some cloth napkins that are only a little stained.

Monday, November 12, 2007

If you ate nothing else, it might feed you for a week.

I once volunteered to make the food for a gallery opening, and that's when I learned that cooking without a recipe might be fine for every-day cooking, but it is difficult to multiply into large quantities. How much is "some" times ten, when you're grocery shopping? How much is "until it seems right" when you're cooking huge amounts? So, when I had a chance to try some bulk cooking, I figured I should do some research, take lots of notes, and if it turned out well, I'd have something for future reference. So I made four lasagnas, and they did the job. They went together pretty well, they froze beautifully, thawed and baked well, were tasty for dinner, and even made a good midmorning snack the next day. That's pretty close to my mother's and my definition of the perfect dress: one you can wear, sleep in, and wear again.

So, tasty? Yes. Healthy? Could be worse. Convenient? Very: cook once, eat four times. Easy? It's all relative. But for a make-ahead, one-pot, protein-vegetable-starch meal, it's not bad. If you want less fat and salt, you could make your own thick white sauce with evaporated skim milk, flour, and butter. If you want it more proteiny-vegetably and less creamy-carby, I bet you could add more chicken, more carrots, and more mushrooms. There's already plenty of spinach.

Vast Amounts of Chicken Vegetable Lasagna

Makes 4 pans of lasagna. Each pan serves 4 with a side dish, 3 with nothing else.

20 ounces fresh mushrooms
2-3 cups grated raw carrots
2 large onions
1 head garlic
1 one-pound box De Cecco lasagna noodles
2 cups grated reduced fat 4 cheese Italian mix
3 split chicken breasts (one and a half chickens' worth)
32 oz frozen spinach
3 15 oz jars alfredo sauce (you will have some left over)
1 tsp each thyme, basil, and oregano

Take the spinach out of the freezer and set it aside to thaw. Cover the chicken breasts in water and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, until just done, about half an hour. Remove from broth and let cool. Cut each breast in half (so the shreds aren't too long), shred the chicken with your fingers and refrigerate it until assembling the lasagnas.

Wash the mushrooms and carrots and peel the garlic and onions. Chop the onions and garlic, slice the mushrooms and grate the carrots. If you have a food processor languishing in the cupboard, this is the recipe it's been waiting for.

Get out your most giant skillet or frying pan. As you cook each vegetable, stir in plenty of black pepper and a little salt (the commercial alfredo sauce is pretty salty already). Saute the grated carrots in a little olive oil until they soften and the liquid evaporates. Set them aside. Saute the mushrooms in a little more oil until their liquid cooks off, and set them aside. Squeeze the spinach to get rid of the extra liquid and chop it. Saute the onions and garlic in olive oil until they soften and smell good, and then mix the spinach in. Add thyme, basil, and oregano to the spinach mixture, and saute it until the liquid cooks off. Set the spinach aside. At this point, you can refrigerate all the cooked vegetables and chicken and assemble the lasagnas the next day. Or just forge ahead! Just tidy up the kitchen before you do, so you have room to work.

Cook the lasagna noodles in lots of water until they're just bendy, but not soft enough that you'd want to eat them. Depending on the size of your pot, you might want to cook them in two batches so they don't stick together too much.

Set out 4 pans, and gather all the cooked vegetables, the jars of sauce, the cooked noodles, the chicken, and the grated cheese. Divide the chicken into two bowls, since there'll be two chicken layers.

put into each of the four pans, in order:

1/4 cup sauce in the bottom
2 noodles
1/4 of the spinach/onion mix
1/4 of one bowl of chicken
1/4 cup sauce
2 noodles
1/4 of the carrots
1/4 of the mushrooms
1/4 of the other bowl of chicken
1/2 cup sauce
2 noodles
1/4 cup sauce
1/2 cup grated cheese

Preheat to 400. If cooking immediately, bake 30 minutes, uncovered. Using disposable paper pans? Bake on a cookie sheet.

Wrap well and freeze. Thaw in fridge 20-24 hours. Remove from fridge and preheat oven to 400. Bake, covered in foil, for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake 20 minutes more, or until brown and bubbly.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cheaper than those fancy Ant Farms

Five years after we said goodbye to our sweet cat (nothing more horrible than that ride home from the vet's with an empty carrier), we decided that we're ready to move on. We got a pet! And just so it wouldn't be lonely while we're gone during the day, we decided to get two more to keep it company.

Although, they're actually not so much pets as captives, and I didn't realize we had them until it was too late. They're lady bugs, and they're sealed between the window and the plastic film we just put up to try to stop the cold breezes that flow from around the frame. I figure they'll either make a different tableau vivant of suffering every day until they finally succumb and make a tableau mort, or else they'll find it the perfect environment to raise a thousand little baby lady bugs (which might properly be called... girl bugs? young lady bugs?). I'll let you know if we spend the winter watching our window fill with drifts and layers of red-orange crawling things. On the positive side, they'll probably increase the R value of the window by quite a lot.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bipedal Avisual Communication Techniques

I don't like the talking to strangers on the phone at the best of times. I'd much rather write or talk face-to-face. With writing, you get to think about what you're saying, and make sure it's really what you mean. With face-to-face talking, you get to use body language and facial expressions, and you get to see the other person's too (it is true that I've found myself gesturing into the void while on the phone, but I do realize that the other person can't see me. Usually). On the phone with strangers, I feel like I'm trying to do sign language blindfolded, and only using my feet.

And another thing I don't really enjoy is dealing with the health insurance company. I'm always sort of afraid that I won't be able to find the secret number and the right code and then they'll just say, "Right. Now you've done it. We're breaking up with you. You owe us sixty-five thousand four hundred twenty-two dollars and thirty-four cents for all the medical care you've ever gotten and some you haven't. Payable immediately. No credit cards."

So, right there are two things that tend to cause me anxiety and increase my heart rate. Therefore, it really was funny that I was on the phone to the strangers at the health insurance company, trying to find out the name of a cardiologist that I could talk to about my heart condition. You know, the heart condition that makes my heart beat really really fast sometimes. Maybe this is really some kind of exposure therapy. What doesn't kill you makes you... anxious. I think that's how that goes.

Thanks to another Medical Friend and some blatant name dropping (of her name, by me, to more Strangers On The Phone), I have an appointment next week with our local rock star cardiologist. Moral of the story for this week: make friends with Medical People. It's possible that I would have gotten right into the ER and to see the rock star with no intervention, but as I said, I don't plan to repeat this experiment. So we'll never know.

Friday, November 09, 2007

I put the... um... tack in tachycardia!

If you ever have a choice to make, I recommend going to the emergency room while everyone else in the area is watching a much-anticipated sporting event. Five minutes after walking through the doors, I was being handed a hospital gown. It's possible they let me in so quickly because my heart rate was 203 and had been for half an hour, but I think it was the game. It also didn't hurt that the friend who brought me in did a little restrained waving-around of medical credentials and an understated display of Doctor Lingo.

Adenosine, delivered through an IV, is what they use to slow down your heart. It took me from wappawappawappawappa to bubgub, bubgub, bubgub within five minutes or so. During those minutes, I had a sensation (that some people both pay and line up for) that the top of my head and the bottom of my stomach were moving rapidly away from each other. And I didn't even have to strap myself into something called Invertigo!! or The Superdooperlooper!!! to do it. And health insurance will probably cover my experience. I hear they've mostly stopped paying for roller coasters, cheap bastards.

So they took a couple of EKGs and some blood, left me hooked up to some monitors and a saline drip, and things quieted down (by this time, the Chief Foot Squeezer and Director of Hand Holding had arrived on his appointed rounds).

Half an hour later, the adenosine jitters (new band name!) had worn off, I was feeling normal again, and my pulse was stable. The doctors and staff all went off to other crises, and Our Medical Friend took off too, having helped me eavesdrop on all the technical conversations people were having about me around my head. I had some time to look around and get a little bored, and I realized why they put all the monitors up behind the head of the hospital bed, where the patient can't see them. One, it's easier for the staff to see. Two, it reduces the chance that wiseacre patients will try to mess with the results. By craning my head back, and looking at the monitor upside-down, I could see the various displays: heart rate, respiration, and a third thing we never deciphered. The device that monitors breathing shows your inhales and exhales as ups and downs on a chart in real time, so it's a bit like having an etch-a-sketch that you can control with your breath. You could draw... a mountain. Or a... mountain range. A plateau, perhaps. I decided not to tempt fate by drawing anything on purpose, but I did make a passable silhouette of the Himalayas by giggling about the possibilities.

Two hours later, we were debating whether or not, "I'm hungry and bored!" was enough of a reason to push the Nurse Call button. We decided not. So the Brow Soother just sidled over to the nurses' station, and, as he put it, "I was a real jerk. I made a big stink about how this service is appalling, and who do you people think you are, and Do You Know Who I Am."* Guaranteed results, every time. After his chat with The Ladies In Smocks, he reported that the blood tests were back and the doctor would be in any minute.

Well, allow me to translate. Any minute = a very specific minute, actually. It's a minute at least three-quarters of an hour from now. So we settled in again and got some ill-fated crackers out of the vending machine. I'm usually a wholehearted proponent of the five-second rule (clinical debunking or no clinical debunking), but I had no problem overruling it when the emergency room floor was the floor in question. Unbidden, images of diseased bits of other people hitting that floor swarmed into my head. Luckily, my Personal Attendant was there to throw away the crackers and hand me some hand sanitizer. A floor-related bonus: they gave me free socks so my feet wouldn't touch the floor when I used the Portable Facilities for Invalids. I'm usually a good reuser/recycler, but those socks hit the trash as soon as I took them off.

During this lull, the Much-Anticipated Sporting Event ended. I know this because we could hear the chatter at the nurses' station (apparently the guys in X-Ray were watching the game. They would have the best AV equipment, I suppose). I also know this because in my hospital room, on the other side of the curtain from Club Anna, there entered a man who thought he might have had a stroke, but didn't want to miss the end of the game, so he waited to come in. I wanted to go throttle him, but I was tied down by all my wires, and anyway, he might have just had a stroke. Not nice to kick the Unseen Roommates while they're down.

They dealt with him (he sounded like he'd be okay), sent him off for further tests, and I got a new Unseen Roommate. This one was a 96-year-old Italian man who was having complications from diabetes. He couldn't hear very well, he couldn't speak English that well, and the nurse who was trying to talk to him had a New England accent so thick you could stand a spoon in it. I was trying to think of the Italian for, "does your stomach hurt" and "do you check your sugar regularly," which I had no chance of doing. I would have been more help translating what the nurse was saying into Very Loud Middle-American English (I minored in it in college). The most Italian I could think up was "Buona fortuna, signore!" which I did not end up having the nerve to yell out from behind my curtain as he was wheeled away for more testing.

Finally, the doctor came back and gave us the reports and the official diagnosis: Supraventricular Tachycardia (words so long, spell check gets nervous). All the blood tests came back normal, but I forgot to ask what it was they were testing for, so while the doctor apparently got some helpful information, all I know is that I am normal in several unspecified ways. I can't think what they might be. I did get the important stuff, though. They told me that my heart is healthy, just a little differently constructed than most, and I should see a cardiologist who can do more tests (the constant refrain of the ER). The tachycardia episodes can be controlled either with taking heart medicine forever or, if that doesn't work, they can send a photon torpedo up through my artery to my heart to zap the offending cells. I'm pretty sure it was a photon torpedo. Something aggressive and fancy sounding, anyway. Between the two options, I'm really hoping the cardiologist recommends some yoga and a positive attitude. But I'm not holding my breath (I heard that was bad for you anyway).

And then I was discharged and we were free to go. In five minutes, we went from a brightly-lit hospital room, surrounded by beeps and chatter and hurrying staff, to walking home alone down the quiet, dark streets of our neighborhood. Four blocks later, we were back in our kitchen where the same mail that had been on the table at noon still was and the crock pot had dinner ready. The only thing that reminded me of what I'd been doing for the last three hours was that I kept finding more sticky monitoring patches to remove from my body. When they monitor you, they really monitor you: arms! legs! belly! chest! Four days, two showers and a bath later, I'm only 94% sure that I got them all.

*Anyone who knows The Brow Soother knows I'm kidding, but on the off chance I have any readers I'm not related to, he's polite to a fault, and would no more raise his voice to a pack of friendly nurses than he would willingly drink a giant mocha-hazelccino with caramel and extra sprinkles. That's my drink.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


The Plan:

7:30: "Time for breakfast! Tra la!"
-Whole Grain Toast, Peanut Butter, Marmalade, Tea

12:30 "Oh Boy, Lunch!"
-Vegetable Soup, Toast, Cheese

7:30 "Dinner's Ready!"
-Sweet Potatoes, Chicken, Chard

The Reality So Far:

7:30: "Time for breakfast! Tra la!"
-Whole Grain Toast, Peanut Butter, Marmalade, Tea

10:30: "My stomach is digesting itself from the inside!"
-Two Pieces of Cold Vegetable Lasagna, Eaten Out Of Hand Without Benefit of Utensils

Apparently they mean it when they say muscle burns more calories than fat. And apparently, my muscles like pasta. Only two hours till lunch!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Standards: Down. Spirits: Up

So, usually I "entertain" you with hilarious tales of tedious kitchen tasks, but please bear with me through a temporary change in programming:

How to Get Good Takeout

Did you know that those hot roasted chickens in the grocery store usually have the time they were cooked printed on their price tags? I didn't. Did you know that someone thinks it's a good idea to cook a chicken at noon and leave it in the warming case until seven forty five? I didn't know that either, but luckily I learned both these things tonight before I made the final call on Which Chicken Shall Be My Chicken, and so I was able to chose a relatively sprightly one that was cooked at six. And we ate it! And I feel less hungry! Hooray!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Unnatural Carrot Manipulation

So, say you scrubbed a whole bunch of carrots for the crock pot (dinner) and a pot of soup (lunch). And say there was one left over and it got left on the counter. Say you saw it there later and didn't really feel like getting a whole ziplock bag out just for one measly carrot. And say it stayed there for two days. It would be pretty floppy, yeah? Yeah. Very floppy. So floppy, you could roll it up into a spongy orange spiral. And then you could hold the spiral closed with a rubber band. Wouldn't you then wonder if you could rehydrate that rolled-up carrot, so it would be crunchy and carrotty but still all curly? Wouldn't that possibility open up a whole new world of wacky vegetable garnishes? Yes. You would and it would.

Unfortunately, I have to stop you in your tracks right there. No more building castles in the sky with manhandled carrots. It doesn't work. You might put the rolled up, rubber-banded carrot in a bowl of water overnight, but all you'd find in the morning would be an indignant (if crisp), straight carrot, lying next to a bowl of water and a discarded rubber band. But comfort yourself with this: when you get a motion-activated video camera with slo-mo playback, won't a repeat of this experiment be fun? And also, if you and your crime-fighting partner find yourselves trapped in mortal peril with a floppy carrot and some water, and MacGyver has already knocked himself out with a contraption made of a post-it note and some ham, I'm sure you can think of a way to harness the Escaping Power of The Root to free yourself. Good luck.

Monday, November 05, 2007

If I blog it, maybe I'll do it.

The problem is: if there's no predictable, tangible consequence for not doing something or reward for doing it, it's likely I will not do it. It's not that I confidently decide that it's not worth doing, and free myself from the task altogether, it's more that I think it should be done, it's just not important enough to do This Minute. So I'll do it Some Day. And here, fill in your own platitudes about This Minute being all we have, and there's no such day as Some Day. I know, I know. So, if nothing else helps, maybe the internet will. Time for some embarrassing true confessions.

There are clothes in my mending heap that have been there for ten years. Many of them only need buttons or hems.

We moved here a year and a half ago and there are still boxes I haven't unpacked. I have rooted through them once or twice, looking for things, but they are still there, lurking and glowering.

There are plants in nursery pots in the back yard, staring longingly at their future dirt, trying to grow some sort of ambulatory bio-mechanism, so they can just plant themselves already.

I have a huge pile of papers that has been through three moves. The category? Not Trash, Not Urgent, To Be Gone Through.

However, in the "I'm not so bad" category:
1) We have no cats. Not even one, much less the 47 you might guess.

2) I brush my hair at least every (other) day, so I don't ever give the crazy-lady-unintentional-dreadlocks a chance to get established.

3) I own many hats, but none of them are made of foil.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Curry, Improved Upon

I was going to be so scientific. Hypothesis, experiment, analysis, new hypothesis, new experiment, conclusion. Well. I got most of the way there, and then my second experiment was a little more experimental than I expected. But the results were happy, if not suitable for peer review. Now, I can comfortably say that not only do I expect this recipe to work as written (probably), I can assure you that if you add an unexpected two hours on the "keep warm" setting at the end of the total crockpot time, and dash in the door at an hour you thought would be well into the post-dinner period, just pick up with the recipe as if it were all going to plan, and it will still work (definitely). Good old crock.

Crock Pot Thai Chicken Curry

4 chicken thighs with bones and skin (skin optional. I couldn't find any skinless with bones )
5 carrots, chunked (2 cups)
5 small potatoes, chunked (3 cups)
2 small onions, chunked (2 cups)
1 can coconut milk
10 very thin slices ginger (ginger doesn't break down as much as you'd think in the crock)
8 whole garlic cloves

Mix up seasonings in a bowl:
3 T green curry paste
1/4 c fish sauce
1 T sugar
2T flour
a frozen pepper puck

Mix up seasonings, and set them aside for later. Put vegetables and coconut milk in crock pot. Lay the chicken on top and set it for 5 hours on low. After 4.5 hours, come home. Start the rice cooker and turn the crock pot to high. Lift out chicken and scoop out veg with a slotted spoon. Heat up the bowl of seasoning mix in the microwave. Mix it into the curry. Microwave the veg to get them hot again and put them back in, and cover. If you want, mix some freshly steamed or nuked vegetables into the curry (scallions, peppers, green beans, peas, broccoli, asparagus, etc). Debone and de-skin and de-knuckle the chicken, and cut it across the grain (so you don't get long straggly stringy chicken wads). Lay the chopped chicken on the curry. Mix gently and serve with rice.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


Homemade biscuits should be better appreciated for the efficient happiness-delivery vehicles that they are. They make the house smell wonderful, they're decadent enough to be special, and with small variations, they can make breakfast, dinner or dessert feel like a celebration. And, most importantly, they're easy. It only takes about half an hour to make them with things you tend to have hanging around already (or, if you don't bake much, you only need to buy flour and baking powder once to have many, many potential batches of biscuits in the house).

They're also adaptable to the whims and ingredients of the moment. You can temper decadence with virtue (an approach that, I admit, usually makes my chin go up and my eyebrows go down) by adding chopped dried fruit, wheat germ, and/or whole wheat flour. You can make regular cut-out biscuits, or add a little more liquid, skip the kneading and cutting, and make drop biscuits. You can use all different kinds of fat, which will change the texture, but they will still be biscuits, and therefore still delicious. I, personally, have used butter, chicken fat, pork fat, and bacon drippings (and I once read a recipe which mentioned bear fat). When you buy happy meat and organic butter, it seems ridiculous to pour one cup of organic free-range animal fat into the garbage, just to pay three dollars for another cup of organic free-range animal fat.

The drawbacks to biscuits are two, minor, and now, solved. They are:

1) Biscuits are best eaten within hours of being baked, so trying to be all labor-saving and baking up a big batch doesn't work that well.
2) Which recipe among thousands of vastly varying recipes is the One to Use?

Problem one solved: after cutting out all your biscuits, bake what you think your family will eat over the next four hours, and freeze the rest. When you want biscuits again, stick the frozen, cut-out biscuits in the oven at 400° for 20 minutes. I know that this works well with biscuits that are an inch thick and two inches square when raw. Results may vary if you make thicker or wider biscuits, or if you make cute shapes with protruding bits.

Problem two solved:

While I'm an improvisational cook, I'm usually a by-the-book baker, because I never feel like I understand the physics involved well enough to improvise. But yesterday, googling around for a recipe for spicy, cheesy biscuits, I was getting unsatisfactory results, so I gave up, pooled the all of the internet's various opinions and my own experiences and prejudices, and came up with this recipe. It resulted in the best biscuits I can remember eating since the after-school "biskies" my mother would make when I was in elementary school and we lived on Dairy Road (our garage was built of stone and seemed ancient to me. I remember being pretty convinced it was an ancient relic of the dairy our street was named for. I realize it was maybe too conveniently car-sized for that to be true). Anyway, in honor of that house, my mother, and dairy products in general:

Dairy Road Biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick cold butter
3/4 cup cold 1% milk

Preheat the oven to 400°. Mix the dry ingredients together. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients in pats, and then attack it all with a pastry cutter (one of those many-wired tools that looks like a cross between a whisk and a horseshoe with a handle). Some people use two knives for this, some love the food processor, and you can please yourself. Just get it so that the biggest pieces of butter are the size of a bean, and most of them are smaller. Pour the milk into the bowl, and quickly and lightly mix it until it starts to cluster together, with a few stray crumbs. Turn it out, crumbs and all, onto a floured board and pat it into a rough rectangle that's about two inches thick. Fold it in half and press it down to two inches thick again, patting and poking here and there to help it keep a square or rectangular shape. Do this three more times, for a total of four fold-and-flattens. Now flatten it even further, until it's about an inch thick.

Now cut it into biscuits. I just use a sharp knife and cut it into 2" squares, but if you want to cut it into little shapes with cookie cutters, that would probably work too. Whatever method you use, don't saw or twist, just use a firm, definitive downward motion, so that they rise right. Using cookie cutters does have the benefit of leaving you with odd shaped scraps, which can be baked along with the cute shapes and will then need tidying up, which is a duty that traditionally falls to the cook. And sometimes it falls to the the cook along with a cup of tea and a catalog filled with more cute cookie cutter shapes, and the circle of life continues.

If you want to freeze some to bake later, do that now before the butter starts to warm up. Stick the to-be-postponed biscuits on a wax-papered plate or cookie sheet in the freezer. Once they're frozen solid, put them in a freezer bag.

To bake them now, put the biscuits on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes or so (another reason to love biscuits: they're self-greasing!). Once they're done, you can turn off the oven and hold them in there for 10 minutes or so, or until you're almost ready to eat. In the cooling oven, they'll stay hot and keep getting crispier. Out of the oven, they'll just begin their quick trip first to coldness, then to dullness, and then to staleness. Holding them in a basket and a napkin is a good option for during the meal, but the longer you do that, the more they'll steam themselves out of crispness.

Gosh. I sure went on and on, didn't I? Kind of makes it look complicated, doesn't it? Here's the short version:

Preheat the oven to 400°. Mix the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter until the largest pieces are the size of beans. Gently stir in the milk. Turn it out onto a floured board and knead briefly. Roll out to 1" thick, and cut into biscuits. Bake 15 minutes.

That's more like it.

Friday, November 02, 2007

In Search of Delicious Convenience

If you cast your gaze upwards a few jots and read the tag line of my blog, you will see that I am on a never ending quest, which tends to lead me towards ever more delicious foods, but I do have a simultaneous, although secondary, culinary goal on my quest. That secondary goal is efficiency.*

With my desire for efficiency in the kitchen comes an interest in the innovations of the comestible-industrial complex. Too busy to slice your own cheese? They have made slice-like units and wrapped them individually in plastic for you! Too busy to slice your own cheese AND too busy to unwrap those tediously packaged slice-like units? Let the power of the aerosol can assist you! Too busy to make pudding or mashed potatoes or pancakes or tea? Just add water to this powder, and something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike** your requested food will rehydrate itself before your eyes!

Most of these convenience "foods" are chock-full of preservatives and various derivatives of Scary Robot Corn. But a select few are actually (surprisingly) close to their agricultural origins. Instant mashed potatoes, for example, are an acquired taste by themselves (a taste I admit to acquiring during my hot lunch days at Johnson Elementary), but they can be a handy ingredient, and don't have any fake additives, if you buy the right kind (it's in the hippie section). Dehydrated garlic is only, exactly that. It's the dried red pepper flakes of the allium family. None of these things can compete head-to-head with their fresh selves, of course, but if they're not the star element of the meal they make a reasonable substitute.

Instant mashed potato:
invalid food
soup/stew thickener
base for fish cakes
with a roasted chicken from the grocery store, better than pizza delivery

Dehydrated garlic:
sauteed greens
pasta/pizza sauce

Those are all good, sensible uses for convenience ingredients. But you know, you never learn as much succeeding as you do failing. Or at least, once you've failed, you have a sense of how far is Too Far, and you can start retreating until you get back to Delicious. In the interests of educational failure, I pushed my luck and made Asking For Trouble Stew. My goal was stew with no browning, no chopping, and no stirring. I bought pre-cut stew meat, dehydrated garlic, dried onion, and canned tomatoes. And for once, I got the meat at the We Hate Animals grocery store, instead of the We Pat Them On The Head Before We Kill Them store. It seemed disrespectful to use beautiful, healthy meat in a dish I was pretty sure wouldn't be delicious.

2.22 lbs stew meat
2 cups cooked potatoes, leftover
28 oz diced tomatoes
1/2 cup water
2 tsp minced garlic (dried)
1 T chopped onion (dried)
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp rosemary, crushed
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt

Dump everything into the crock pot. Set it to 6 hours on low. When it's almost done, turn the heat to high and skim the fat. Mix the fat with a tablespoon of flour, mix back into the stew to thicken it. Let it simmer until it thickens. Still not thick enough? Remove and puree the potatoes and mix them back in.

And here are the notes I made after I ate it:

if you're not browning or chopping, stack the deck in your favor in other ways: bones, connective tissue, fat, whole spices, flavorful liquid (not water)

Don't use:
lean, pallid meat and water

skinless chicken thighs, short ribs, oxtails, neck bones
wine, stock, tomatoes
peppercorns, bay leaves, cardamom pods, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds

So the next week, I made black beans with smoked pork neck bones. Much better. Still no chopping or browning. Full report tomorrow.

*Although you'd never guess it after reading that first sentence. Hey, I just finished Pickwick Papers—it's soaking in. Next, I suppose I should self-prescribe some Old Man and The Sea.

**hat tip to another dear departed master of the ridiculous run-on sentence, before whom we all must bow.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Every Day. Every. Day.

In the interests of adding another thing to my To Cringe, Put Off, And Feel Guilty About list (some people call it a To Do list, but I find that a bit optimistic), I'm planning to post daily in November. We'll see how long this lasts, shall we?


Doesn't that count for today? No? Well then, a bit about dinner. It was one of those good news/bad news kind of meals. Here's the transcript:

Him: What's for dinner?
Me: Crock Pot Curry
Him: Oh boy! Curry!
Me: No, no. Crock Pot Curry. Lower your expectations.
Him: Oh. Is it bad?
Me: Well, the good news is, it was educational, and I gained valuable crock pot experience.
Him: Hmm.

Lessons learned:
1) Don't waste a perfectly good Pepper Puck in the Crock Pot. All it added was a negligible amount of fiber and a sort of a puce color.

2) Crock-potted chicken does not hold up to stirring of any kind. It surrenders into stringy mush at the first sign of a spoon. If you want to thicken and season and make other desperate attempts to salvage dinner, remove the chicken before you address yourself to the remaining glop.

3) Four scallions and a green pepper, chopped and sort of steam/sauteed go a long way towards making puce chickenmush seem edible.

4) Add more curry paste. Add more fish sauce. Add more sugar.

5) Watching The Amazing Mrs Pritchard as you eat, while anti-social and not recommended as a permanent policy, does save you from having to look at the stuff.

6) It worked. I'm neither hungry nor poisoned.

7) Coming in the front door at 7:30 to a house that smells like dinner is ready makes an awful lot of this worth it.