Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cooking Class, Part V

I had my last cooking class on February 23, and we learned the mother sauces. This alone was confusing to me because we then took the mother sauces and made small sauces. Mother sauces are also called grand sauces, and are used to make the small sauces. Or, in other words, small sauces are derivatives of the mother sauces. According to my notes (which were confusing enough in the hand out, and somehow not improved by my additions), the mother sauces consist of Bechamel, Veloute, and Espagnole. We also learned a Ragu, Hollandaise, and a caramel sauce (which is decidedly not a mother sauce, but was wonderful). We ate sauteed chicken breast with Robert sauce (which, as far as I can tell is a Veloute), salmon with sauce supreme (which I originally thought was a mother sauce...I mean, it's called "supreme," but it's actually a Veloute), steamed seasonal vegetables with Mornay sauce and Hollandaise sauce (Mornay sauce is a Bechamel with cheese added), and linguine with a Ragu sauce.

I was not moved by the Ragu sauce. Like I said in Cooking Class, Part I, I already have a pasta sauce that we all really like. However, the Ragu was served on fresh pasta, which was very good. Additionally, with the exception of the Ragu and caramel sauces, you can't save these sauces--they don't reheat well. So you have to use all of them, or toss them. This, I consider to be an annoying state of affairs.

I really liked the Mornay sauce. It's a cheese sauce, so what's not to like? But it somehow managed to not be heavy. As in, I didn't feel my arteries clogging. Although, I'm pretty sure if I made it on a regular basis, they would.

This morning I tried to make Hollandaise sauce. It was sort of a lot of work, because you steam the eggs, so you have to keep whisking ALL THE TIME because otherwise, it starts to cook like scrambled eggs. Also, we didn't have cayenne pepper, so I used ground pepper. Cayenne would have been better, but Captain America didn't hesitate to eat it all, so it must have been fine. And this is the first recipe I've ever made where, when I got to the part that says "salt and pepper to taste" I actually thought it needed salt and pepper. Maybe I'm becoming the world's slowest foodie!

I put my Hollandaise sauce on poached eggs and toast, which Captain America helped to make. I have an electric stove, and our burners turn themselves on and off. I learned in class that this is because an electric stove is trying to think, and it thinks it's maintaining the temperature you want, whereas on a gas stove, you can actually dictate what you want. (It was nice to learn this, because I had been thinking that there was just something wrong with my stove.) I have always preferred cooking with gas, and my house has a gas hot water heater and a gas dryer, so why it has an electric stove, I have no idea. At any rate, my egg poaching style is never going to make it to the cooking channel, as I spent a few minutes yelling at my boiling water. Poached eggs are supposed to be cooked in a slow boil. But when your burner thinks it can think, this is really hard to manage.

Okay, for Hollandaise sauce, you need:
3 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 sticks butter, melted
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste (or vinegar)
salt and cayenne pepper to taste

Here's what you'll do:
Combine the eggs and cream in a heatproof glass bowl or the top of a double boiler. Stir with a wire whisk until well blended. Then you can put this pot over the double boiler. The water in the double boiler should not touch the bottom of the pot containing your egg yolks.

Stirring eggs constantly, bring the water slowly to a simmer; do not let it boil. This is the part that is a lot of work: if the water is too hot, your eggs will cook too quickly and will start to look like scrambled eggs. This is bad! So, if, like me, your water gets to hot because your burner thinks it has a brain, immediately pull the egg pot from the double boiler and whisk like crazy (so yes, now you'll be standing in the middle of your kitchen whisking eggs, while swearing at the pot of still boiling water on your stove for not doing what you told it to do. It's a good thing that the only people ever in my kitchen this early in the day already think I'm a little nuts!).

Continue to stir and warm the eggs until they are thickened and the consistency of very heavy cream. The eggs should lighten in color, and should taste like a cooked egg yolk.

Now, add the butter, a little at at time while stirring constantly. I added my butter in 1/4 cup increments, and this seemed to work fairly well.

When all of the butter has been added, add the lemon juice (or vinegar) a drop at a time and immediately remove from heat. This seemed like a very silly step to me. You're adding butter to make the sauce thicker, and lemon juice to make it thinner. It seems to me that you could just stop adding butter when the sauce was as thick as you wanted it to be, but I'm not sure if the acid in the lemon juice is also doing something useful. So I added a little lemon juice, and removed the pot from the heat. Then season with salt and cayenne pepper to taste.

You can let this pot sit in a hot/warm water bath, which is good to know, because it is very hard to make poached eggs (or anything else for that matter) while you are constantly whisking something.

The sauce turned out just fine, but like I said, it was a lot of work. And it called for two sticks of butter, so I'm not sure how often I'll repeat it. Oh, and if you're interested, it's supposed to serve six. Captain America and I put it over four poached eggs and toast, and still had some left over.

One other thing we learned in class pertains to that gross skin that cream sauces sometimes form. You can put a piece of saran wrap on top of the sauce (as in literally touching the sauce, not on top of the pot) and this will act as a false skin, and prevent the gross one from forming. I think in class, they even had the pots over low heat like that, but I would worry about melting the plastic. I'll let that be your call.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Someone who is angrier than I am?

The other day, I was driving to my cooking class (somehow a weekly class has taken over my life), and I saw a bumper sticker that said:
(if only)

I had to think about this one. Who would have the killing curse on the back of their car? I mean, drivers in California can be pretty annoying, but I've never actually wanted to kill one. And, if I'm the one reading the bumper sticker, aren't I cursing the owner of the sticker?

And what was up with the parenthetical "if only" bit. Is that a wish that Harry Potter's world were real (I'm pretty sure Universal has that under control), or is that a wish to be a witch or wizard?

The real kicker of this whole thing was the other bumper sticker on the SUV: Official Handbell Transport Vehicle.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Cooking Class, Part IV

On Tuesday, February 16, I took the fourth cooking class in the series "Getting Started in the Kitchen." This time, we learned roasting, broiling, and grilling, and were taught how to cook citrus herb roasted chicken, roasted rosemary potatoes, grilled steak and vegetables, and basic creme brulee. I came home smelling like a campfire.

I have not actually tried any of these recipes yet, but I was very excited to learn how to make a roasted chicken. I've never made a roasted whole bird, but now I feel confident that I'll be able to! Everyone always says, oh, it's so easy, and while I would agree that the demonstration didn't seem hard, it was definitely more involved than just taking the bird out of the plastic and sticking it in the oven. An "easy" recipe to me involves a) stuff I've already got, and b) fewer than 5 steps. This recipe has eight steps based on how it's written out, and calls for 10 ingredients. This does not exactly equal "easy" in my world.

The Oven Roasted Lemon Herb Chicken serves four, and you get to use your convection oven, if you own one! Preheat it to 350.

For the herbed butter, you'll need :
6 tablespoons softened, unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all of these ingredients in a bowl.

For the aromatics for the chicken, you'll need:
2 springs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 lemon, quartered
5 garlic cloves, crushed

For the chicken, you'll need:
1 4-5 lb whole chicken (big surprise!), which has been rinsed, cleaned, patted dry, and had the giblets removed (here's the other reason I've never attempted to make a whole bird: giblets)
salt and pepper to taste

Here's what you're going to do:

Wash the chicken under cold running water, drain and pat dry with paper towels. Season the inside cavity of the chicken with salt and pepper.

Gently loosen the skin of the chicken by sliding your fingers between the skin and the flesh. Don't get too close to the neck, though, or else all of your herbed butter will melt out. Now, rub two-thirds of the herb butter under the skin of the chicken.

Stuff the cavity with the aromatics. Rub the outside of the chicken with the remaining herb butter. Truss the chicken with kitchen twine. This is the part that will really make it look like you know what you're doing! Cut off a really big piece of twine, like a yard or so. Our chef, Katherine, said that she likes to just tuck the wings under the body, like the chicken is relaxing back in a chaise lounge. So do that, and then you're going to start with the middle of the twine at the neck (does this make sense?). You're going to wrap the twine down along the each side of the chicken, and then cross it under the legs, then wrap it around the legs, and tie it in a bow. If that's not clear, c'mon over to my house and we'll try it together!

Now, place your trussed chicken on a roasting rack, over a parchment or silpat lined sheet tray (I have yet to purchase parchment paper or a silpat--I'm pretty sure these are just convenience items and aren't actually necessary).

Roast the chicken for 50 to 60 minutes, uncovered.

The chicken is done when the bird is pierced in the thickest part of the thigh (not touching the bone), the juices run clear, and the internal temperature is a minimum of 165. The maximum internal temperature for a moist bird is 175.

Remove the chicken from the oven and loosely tent with foil. Let stand for 10 minutes before carving.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How you know you're not actually a foodie...

In my cooking class on February 16, we did a salt tasting. I was pretty excited about this, which is surprising, because I don't actually like salt that much. But we used to get a catalog for a company called Napa Style, and the owner was always lauding the value of gray salt. It seemed like really expensive, discolored salt. I couldn't figure out why this was the ingredient to distinguish a great kitchen.

And I still can't. Technically, we didn't test gray salt. We had iodized salt, kosher salt, Hawaiian salt, and Cypress lava salt. Our chef said that the iodized salt had the "saltiest" taste, but I'm pretty sure they were all salty. The Hawaiian salt was red because it was infused with clay. Why, exactly, would I want to eat clay? It probably would have looked fancy on top of something, but all I could think about was my blood pressure. The Cypress lava salt was black, because, guess what, it was infused with lava. Infused with lava. Yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm good without that in my diet.

If I hadn't been looking, and if they had all been ground up to the same consistency, I would have never known the difference. As it was, iodized salt was, well, iodized, and kosher was kosher. The Hawaiian salt was the chunkier and the hardest of the four we tasted--I felt like I was chewing rocks, and the lava salt kind of looked like shale. It had interesting mineral patterns, but it was a little creepy to eat. I felt like I was forcing myself to try to digest dust or something.

Apparently learning to cook and becoming a foodie are not the same thing.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cooking Class, Part III

On February 9, I took my third cooking class in the series "Getting Started in the Kitchen." This time, we covered saute, fry, and stir-fry. We learned to cook Peppercorn steak, Shrimp and Vegetable Stir-Fry, Pan Fried Chicken, and Deep Fried Cherry Fritters. I came home smelling like McDonald's.

The Shrimp and Vegetable Stir-Fry was my favorite dish of the lesson, but I thought Captain America would enjoy the Peppercorn Steak, so that's the one I made first. We don't eat a lot of fried food, so I'm not likely to try the Pan Fried Chicken. The Deep Fried Cherry Fritters were good, but I don't own a deep fryer (okay, why does fry and fryer have a y, but fried does not?). Also, I'm not convinced they were actually better than desserts that I'm good at making that don't involve 375-degree oil sitting inches from my skin. And in case you don't already think I'm weird enough, my sister and I were the two kids at parties who picked the skin off of their KFC, insisting that it was like eating a sunburn. If that thought doesn't make you want to try some of my cooking, I don't know what will!

Oh, and one other thing! I asked why you put salt in baked goods, and I got a less than satisfying answer. Apparently salt helps bring out the flavor of other ingredients, adds a savory "hit," and is sort of a preservative (as in salted butter). The last bit I already knew. In the fourth class, we had a salt tasting and further established that I am not a foodie, but I'll blog about that later. Nonetheless, I'm still not convinced of the salt thing. Especially since I read that if every American reduced their salt intake by one teaspoon a day we would no longer have a high blood pressure problem. I love things like that. Also, if every American took the stairs instead of the elevator/escalator we wouldn't have an obesity problem. First, I don't go to work to sweat, and second, I'm pretty sure I'm not contributing to the obesity problem. Or the blood pressure problem, for that matter. At any rate, I'm still dissatisfied with the salt situation, so I think next time I'll ask what happens to the recipe if I omit salt.

Alright, sub-rant finished! On to what I actually cooked. Tonight I made my husband and sister Sauteed Pepper Steaks with Brandy Cream Sauce. Except celiac-sister can't have brandy, so we used white wine. Apparently red wine would have worked, but it would have turned the sauce pink (I am always asking the celiac questions in class...there is no point in my learning to cook something if I can't feed my sister, because sooner or later she's going to want to know what I've learned, and if family is visiting, she'll be over for dinner, too.)

I have got to learn to tell a story in a straight line! During dinner, sis and I were joking around, and I commented that it wasn't so much that I hadn't considered dropping a bit of flour into a recipe, it was that I was afraid of our mother! And then I added, I know that thought's crossed your mind once or twice, too, and she said yes, but that there was no killer ingredient to do me in. Somehow that's funnier when I'm telling my sister all of the things she can't have.

Alright, now I'm really going to move on to the recipe. It serves four.

What you need:
4 New York Strip Steaks, about 8 oz. each
1/4 c black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/3 c brandy
1 1/2 c demi glace (concentrated veal stock)
1 c heavy cream
salt to taste

What you do (and what I did):
Pat the steaks dry with paper towels.

Place the cracked peppercorns in a dish. Press the steaks into the peppercorns to give a light coating on both side. Or, if you're like me and not a huge fan of peppercorns, and are not entirely convinced that you actually need 1/4 c, I had Captain America grind a bunch of pepper onto a plate. It kept him busy for a few minutes, and our steaks weren't overly peppery.

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat, then add the oil.

Arrange the steaks in the pan and saute them until they feel slightly resistant when you press on them, about 3-5 minutes per side for medium rare. Remove the steaks to a serving plate and cover with a foil tent to retain the heat.

In class we learned this little trick for determining doneness. Shake out your non-dominant hand. Touch that meaty spot at the base of your thumb. That's rare. Touch your pinky to your thumb. That's medium-rare. Touch your ring-finger to your thumb. That's medium. Touch your middle finger to your thumb. That's medium well. And if you touch your pointer finger to your thumb, that's well done. Except this doesn't work if you lift weights because your hands are too strong. So no one in my household can help me test doneness. I thought about asking one of my coworkers if I could touch her hands today, just to get an idea, but I thought somehow that was a bad idea, even if I explained why I wanted to.

I think my steaks were fatter than the ones we used in class, because we did the tented thing, but I still had to put them in the oven for about 10 minutes, at which point the potatoes got cold, so it wasn't the biggest success of my culinary career, but the steaks were good.

And now let me tell you what you're going to do with all of the other ingredients.

In the same pan used for the steaks, over low heat, saute the shallots for 1 minute.

To keep the alcohol from flaming (which is a very bad idea unless you have a very good hood system), remove the pan from the heat and add the brandy. Or in our case, wine.

Return the pan to the heat and bring to a boil, scraping up all of the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Reduce the brandy by one-third.

Add the demi glace and the heavy cream. Simmer for another 2-3 minutes or until the sauce has thickened slightly. Next time, I think I'm going to add the cream and then the demi glace, because the demi glace does this somewhat frightening melting thing, and I was worried it was going to burn and turn awful before I could dump in the cream and stir it. Adjust the seasoning and remove the pan from the heat. I didn't add any salt. I think the demi glace was salty enough. And if you don't keep stirring, the sauce will get a thin film on top--this is a cream sauce we're making.

Serve the steaks topped with the sauce.

A steamed green vegetable like asparagus or green beans makes a nice accompaniment. Like I said, we did potatoes. I thought Captain America would like that. And sis made a salad. All in all, it was a good meal, but my timing was a bit off, and I think I'll try to find thinner steaks next time. Also, between the demi glace and the steaks, it was a little expensive. But I did buy my demi glace in a gourmet store. I was there; it didn't contain gluten. 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cooking Class, Part II

My second cooking class occurred on February 2, and was called "Getting Started in the Kitchen II--A Basic Pantry Plus Moist Heat Cooking". We learned how to make poached salmon with basil sauce, beef stew with vegetables, braised pork, and port poached pears. I did not find the poached salmon to be an improvement in any way over the steamed salmon, and it seemed slightly more complicated, if only for the fact that I don't have the right equipment at home. I actually already had a beef stew recipe that I was comfortable making, and that Captain America enjoyed eating.

I did try the Mediterranean Style Braised Pork, and Captain America declared it the best meal I've made yet. Unfortunately, it is not a gluten-free recipe, as you bread the pork. I asked, and Katherine Emmenegger, the chef, said that if I was going to use gluten-free flour, to use brown rice flour. I don't own that, and I'm not sure if my sister does either, so if I make it for her, we might just be using Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Flour and hope for the best.

I made the whole recipe because I figured Captain America would like it, and while it serves 6, we're big eaters in my house. So here's what you need:
3 1/2 lbs pork shoulder roast, rinsed and pat dry (if you've seen Julie & Julia, you'll know that this helps the meat brown)
1 c all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil (apparently grapeseed oil has a high smoke point, and is therefore less likely to burn. Katherine only recommends using olive oil for dipping, as it has a low smoke point, although she did say that one could mix it with another oil--such as grapeseed--and raise the smoke point)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 lbs large yellow onions, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
3 lbs medium-sized Roma tomatoes, washed, cored, and quartered (Captain America does not like tomatoes, but he ate these anyway...they must be okay when served more or less stewed with pork and onions)
1 c vegetable stock
2 sprigs rosemary, washed (I couldn't find fresh rosemary, so I used seemed to work out just fine).

Season the pork with salt and pepper. Dredge in the flour to coat. Katherine says it flavors the meat better to salt and pepper the meat, although some recipes say to mix the salt and pepper in the flour. I guess, do what you want!

In a large roasting pot (they used a Dutch oven in class, which I HAVE to get because it can go from the stove-top to the oven!!), over medium high heat, heat the oil. Sear the pork on all sides to a golden brown, and transfer to a platter.

Add a bit more oil to the pot if needed (we were taught to drizzle it down the sides so it warms up slightly before reaching the bottom). Saute the garlic and onions until lightly softened, about 5 minutes. As an aside, my pot wasn't big enough to cook all of the meat at one time...I should have also cooked the onions in parts. Oh well!

Return the pork to the pot, and scoop some of the onions on top (see, if I had cooked my onions in parts, I could just say, dump the other onions on top). Add tomatoes, vegetable broth, and rosemary.

Cover the roasting pot and place in the oven (did I even bother to tell you to preheat it to 350? No, of course not, since I didn't cook mine in the oven. If you're cool enough to own a Dutch oven, preheat your oven to 350). OR, you can leave on the stove on low heat. OR, you can make it in the slow cooker, but you'll still need to sear everything on the stove first, and I don't know how long it will need to be in the slow cooker.

After your 2 hours or so is up, remove the meat from the pot and let stand for 15 minutes. This is supposed to make it easier to slice, but I thought it just made our meat less hot. So next time I might skip this. At any rate, serve with the tomatoes and onions. It helps to scoop the tomatoes and onions out with a slotted spoon. Otherwise you'll get a lot of broth.

I did not make the Port Poached Pears with the pork recipe, but you could. This will give you something to do for two hours. Okay, it won't take the full two hours, but either way, here's what you need:

This recipe originally served 8, with each person getting a full pear, but Katherine suggested serving everyone half a pear, and slicing it almost to the end of the skinny part, and fanning it out, so it displays nicely. I'll give you the recipe for 8, but when I did it the first time, I quartered the recipe, and the second time I did some guesstimating. Don't tell Captain America. He doesn't like it when I make stuff up in the kitchen. But there's no raw eggs or meat involved, so it's not like something might end up undercooked. So how badly could this really turn out anyway? And you serve it with ice cream, so if you really mess up the pear bit, you'll still have ice cream! Yay!

Okay, on to the recipe, serving 8, as it was written (well, of course I'm going to editorialize this. This is Virginia's Rants, after all).

You'll need 8 pears, washed, peeled, and cored from the bottom, and a quart (or any amount you want) of vanilla ice cream.

For the poaching fluid, you'll need:

6 c of port. In class we used Quarles Harris, but I couldn't find it so I just used the least expensive port I could find. I figured we we cooking with it, not drinking it. Although Captain America thought he'd try it, and he declared it terrible. I think he may have spit it out. It was that bad. But the dessert was good.
1 c sugar, or to taste (that's all me. I added sugar after the pears are the part below when we're making syrup. Maybe if I had used better port, I wouldn't have needed to add sugar, but I have quite a sweet tooth, so who knows.)
1 c water
1 cinnamon stick (apparently you can't use ground cinnamon, as it will make a slimy mess. I have not tried this out. I don't want a slimy mess for dessert. If you happen to live near a Henry's, in their bulk spices section, you can buy just one cinnamon stick, and it will cost you about $0.15.
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
4 black peppercorns

In a deep pot, bring all of the poaching fluid ingredients to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, making sure all of the sugar is dissolved.

Bring the poaching fluid to barely a simmer (yes, this is repetitive). Add the pears and cover with an inverted plate to keep them submerged below the surface of the poaching liquid.

Poach for about 15 minutes, or until tender.

Transfer the pears to a platter and cool to room temperature.

Remove spices from the poaching liquid (I can never find my peppercorns, so they just stay in there. It's like a little adventure for whoever gets a bite of one!). Increase the heat of the poaching fluid and boil it until it is reduced to a light syrup consistency. This is actually what the directions say, including parentheses: (This takes approximately 30 minutes, and it is totally worth it!)

Cool syrup to room temperature.

Cut the pears in half and fan them on dessert plates. Serve with a scoop of ice cream, and drizzle some of the port sauce. Try not to lick the pot in front of any guests!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Things that make me really annoyed

At least once a week, Captain America and I come home to find that some real estate agent has left some random flyer, or pad, or other piece of junk attached to our front door. This makes me so angry because I don't want their crap! And we have a perfectly good real estate agent who helped us find this house, and who isn't annoying us, to whom we'll go if and when we decide to sell this house.

I saw the lady leave the flyer on our door today and I thought about asking her where she lived so I can go leave random things at her house. But Captain America said to stop being so mean. I'm being mean? I'm not leaving stuff people don't want at other people's houses!

I suggested we get a sign that says "no solicitors," but Captain America laughed in that way that means, that's not happening. Apparently that would make us the neighborhood assholes. And we wouldn't get any Girl Scout Cookies.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Ill Fate of Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day used to be my favorite holiday. I'm not kidding. Even when I was single, I loved it. I loved all of the cute little candies, and the sugar cookies with pink sprinkles. I loved sending Valentines. Sending a Valentine was a really easy way to tell someone you cared about them with none of the worry of looking dumb, or saying the wrong thing, or finding out that the feelings aren't mutual, even if they were just friendly feelings and not romantic feelings. I mean, no part of that little Pooh image threatens anyone, and on the inside of the card you just write something simple, like "have a great day!," and yet, you've clearly thought about someone. I've never disliked a Valentine I've received, and while I suppose there are people who do, well, that just seems very much not in the spirit of things.

I thought it would be useful to read up on the history of Valentine's Day. It's actually Saint Valentine's Day, which I knew. The story I heard was that St. Valentine would leave bags of gold at peasant girls' houses so they would have money for a dowry and could get married. I didn't see that in the wikipedia listing, but maybe I just didn't get that far. The wikipedia article is actually remarkably boring. Here's what I did get out of it. There were multiple Saint Valentines, and the Catholic Church decided that it shouldn't be a religious holiday anymore because nobody can actually remember what St. Valentine did. And apparently, Saint Valentine's Day had nothing to do with romantic love until Geoffrey Chaucer came along and wrote about love birds in his Parlement of Foules. I've never read that one. Chaucer is tough.

Then I scrolled down a bit more and the article talks about how Valentines became increasingly popular in the 1800s, and how fancier ones had ribbons and lace and such. Making home-made Valentines sounds to me like a good way to relieve the boredom of long winters. (I mean, the rumor is February was made the shortest month just so we could get it over with sooner).

**Spoiler Alert**

I actually made my husband a home-made Valentine this year...sort of. It was kind of a scrap-booking type kit, but I had to arrange it (there were lots of options, this was not exactly paint-by-numbers), and add the photos, and write a note. It was actually enjoyable and relaxing. But if I was going to make a Valentine for everyone I cared about, it would quickly become a very stressful project. Which is decidedly not the point.

Despite my general enjoyment of Valentine's Day, I do not enjoy the commercial mess it has become. Restaurants are crowded, roses go up in price, and I don't need to a holiday to justify eating chocolate. Captain America and I are going to see Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers at the Old Globe on Valentine's Day. I've never seen or read the play before, so don't ruin it for me if you have, but from what I understand, romantic is not exactly the adjective to describe it.

That's okay. Because you know what is romantic? The fact that Captain America vacuums. Besides the fact that there's nothing hotter than a handsome man doing housework, a clean house=a happy wife, a happy wife=a relaxed wife, a relaxed wife=...well, you can see where I'm going with this.

This year, I am clearly uninspired to participate a whole lot in Valentine's day. I'm not sending out Valentines, and I'm not sitting in crowed restaurants. I don't care if I get a dozen roses or a box of chocolates. My sweetie and I are going to spend the day together, which is good enough for me!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The joys of reading a good book

I have been reading "City of Thieves" by David Benioff. It's the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who gets arrested in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1942, when the city is under siege. Instead of being executed, he is paired up with a young man who has been arrested for desertion from the Russian army. The two of them must find a dozen eggs for the general's daughter's wedding cake. Based on those few sentences, the premise seems pretty weak, but it actually works.

The story is told as if this was Benioff's grandfather's experience. The first few chapters were a little awkward for me to get through because the of the voice used in telling the story, but after I was able to pick up that rhythm, the story flowed very well. It's more like a coming-of-age story than a war novel. I listened to an interview with Benioff, and he actually considered a number of other cities that had been under siege at various times in the past before picking Leningrad.

The novel has a number of very good lines, but the following struck a chord with me, although, to tell the truth, I feel like I've heard it before. Lev, the seventeen-year-old, and Koyla, the deserter are walking through Leningrad at night (for which they needed a special pass) and they hear someone playing the piano. Lev comments "Music was an important part of my childhood, on the radio and in the concert halls. My parents were fanatic in their passion; we were a family with no talent for playing but great pride in our listening."

I think this resonated with me for two reasons. First, most people I know have something they really enjoy, but that they could never actually do well. My generally mild-mannered husband will yell at the television when his team misses a pass or in any other way plays poorly. I always thought this was funny behavior. I mean, they can't hear him, so what's the point of yelling? And if he could be playing better than the professional athletes, wouldn't the teams have hired him? Of course, my husband knows he can't play that well. He just gets really frustrated when the professionals make mistakes.

This really isn't any different than my emotions about reading: I cry when a beloved character dies; I worry over what will happen next, even if I've read the book before (seriously, I've read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood prince at least three times, and every time Malfoy immobilizes Harry and then breaks his nose on the train, I worry that this time, Tonks won't find Harry).

My second attachment to this line has to do with my own limitations. I would love to be a writer. I have a number of ideas rolling around in my head, but when I start to jot them down on paper, they all seem a bit trite. I realize I should probably just keep going and see if I get better with practice, or with some editing help from my friends, but I feel rather like I already know I'll never be as good at this as a number of my favorite authors. This thought isn't depressing, as much as it makes me wonder if I should bother trying at all, or if that time would be better spent reading works and authors I love.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cooking Class, Part I

There are a number of things about which I've been meaning to blog, and my cooking classes are among them.

My mother and sister bought me cooking classes for Christmas. I've spent the better part of my adult life complaining that I don't like to cook and that I don't enjoy it. I've discovered that I do, in fact, enjoy cooking. What I don't enjoy is having to do it at night, after having worked 8+ hours. While I don't have a physically strenuous job like Captain America, I do have one that is mentally taxing. Which means that when I get home from work, I really don't want to think about following a recipe.

Unfortunately, Captain America and I have to eat every day for the rest of our lives. Is that intimidating, or what? I don't get food bored; I get cooking bored. Growing up, I don't remember a huge variety in what we had for dinner from one week to the next. We probably had pasta once a week, pork chops once a week, chicken maybe twice a week, and my mother seemed okay cooking this week after week after week. I probably complained sometimes (in fact, I'm sure I did...I HATE peas, and after all, what kid doesn't complain about their parents?). But I don't remember feeling any monotony in our diet.

Then I grew up, graduated from college, and lived on my own. And I had to actually prepare what I was consuming. As far as I'm concerned, cereal=dinner. Captain America tends to disagree. Add to that the fact that we're fairly frugal people (and don’t eat out all of the time), and my repertoire of about six meals was quickly becoming pretty dull. And I was getting totally bored preparing them. I wasn't bored with eating them, but I was starting to think along lines such as, well, it's a shame I can't buy 700 lbs of broccoli and chop it all now. Poor Captain America tends to tolerate my lack of culinary originality pretty well, but I was beginning to feel like a fairly lousy wife. I was grumpy that I had to feed my husband, you know, food, every day.

(Just to set the record straight, Captain America is not a "you're the wife; you do the cooking" sort of guy...he does his share of cooking, too.)

So my mother and sister found Great News, which is located just down the street from us, in Pacific Beach. I called them up and spoke to a very friendly lady whose name I've forgotten. I told her my concerns, and what I was looking for, and she reassured me that the classes will teach not just what to do, but also why, which is the big question for me. I can follow a recipe; I just don't know why I add both salt and sugar to things. Yes, I get that it's chemistry; I just don't know what the two ingredients are contributing, and why they're important.

I signed up for a series of five classes called Getting Started in the Kitchen. I was a little concerned because they are not hands-on, but so far that hasn't been a problem. I am not necessarily a hands-on learner. If you can show me the correct way to do something and tell me why, as long as I've got it written down, I'll probably be okay. I know this doesn’t work for everyone.

The first class was nearly two weeks ago, on January 26. This was the class in the series that I most considered not taking, as it was subtitled "A Basic Pantry plus Moist Heat Cooking," and we were going to learn how to make spaghetti with basic tomato sauce, steamed fish with basmati rice, and steamed asparagus with shaved parmesan.

The chef, Katherine Emmenegger, showed us how to make all of these things, and then we got to sample them. We also got a packet with all of the recipes. I'm not sure I'm going to keep the tomato sauce recipe, since I already have a really good tomato sauce recipe that was my mother-in-law's mom's, but it was really nice to learn how to make a tasty meal with simple cooking. I really wanted to learn how to make steamed fish because about half the time I try to bake fish it comes out too dry. As it turns out, you just stick it in the steamer basket and put a lid on it. This is exactly what I would have done without the class, except I was too worried I'd be poising us. I mean, one usually bakes fish at what, 350 or so, but boiling water is only 212. Those aren't exactly close in my book. As it turns out, though, it doesn't really matter. I've made the steamed fish with asparagus twice, and everyone has survived both times.

Katherine told us to always cook with Charles Shaw wine. She said never use "cooking wine." That's good for me because we always have some Two-Buck Chuck in the house. Yup, we're classy like that.

The fish is actually served with a roasted tomato, olive, and caper sauce. It's sort of like a tapenade, if you added roasted tomatoes.

So here's how to make the Tomato, Olive, and Caper Sauce. The recipe calls for 1 1/2 lbs of Roma tomatoes, and says it serves 6, but I've found that about 1 tomato per person works out pretty well. You'll also need olive oil, salt and pepper, garlic, green olives, Kalamata olives, and capers.

Core the tomatoes (which basically means just remove that little brown spot where it was attached to the stem. I had originally feared that this would be more along the lines of coring an apple, but it's not at all.), and slice them in half. Coat them in olive oil (1/4 of a cup if you're making the full recipe) and salt and pepper to taste (that is about my least favorite direction ever). Place the tomato halves face down on a baking sheet and place in the oven, at 350, for about 25-30 minutes.

In the mean time, chop up 12 green olives, six Kalamata olives, and one tablespoon of capers, and finely slice four garlic cloves (if you're using the full recipe). Put all of this in a bowl and add the tomatoes when they're done. Mash the tomatoes and mix everything together.

Also while the tomatoes are roasting, you can start the Steamed Fish. Because we're apparently serving six, you'll need a carrot, an onion, two garlic cloves, a cup of white wine (Katherine said to use sauvignon blanc, but all we had was chardonnay. No one seemed to care), a quart of water, and six 6-oz fillets of a cold water fish (I've been using salmon. I'm pretty sure this is a cold water fish, but either way, it seems to work just fine).

Chop up the veggies (okay, as a total aside, why do we spell veggies with double-g when the word vegetable only has one?) and put them in your wok (or any other big pot into which your steamer basket will fit) with the wine and the water. Bring this to a boil, and then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 10 minutes.

Here's what I did. First, I steamed the asparagus until it was a nice shade of green. Then I put it on one of my fabulous ugly brown plates from the 1970's, topped it with another fabulous ugly brown plate, and put it in my now-off oven to keep it warm while I steamed the fish. The tomato stuff is fine at room temperature. The directions say to steam the fish for about eight minutes, citing the rule of thumb: 5-7 minutes per inch of thickness. That's it! It was really easy. The only thing that bothered me was that we used a carrot and an onion, but it was never meant to be eaten. And I didn't think I could save it for vegetable stock because my fish had been sitting in it, and I'm not sure how long fish-flavored water can be kept. Captain America suggested that it's often the case with better cooking that many ingredients are just used to flavor the food and not actually to be eaten.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Saving the Planet

I have recently become moderately obsessed with becoming a "greener" person. I think I've posted about this a couple of times already. One thing I'm trying to do is reduce my use of plastic, specifically one-time use straws, or the plastic that wraps toilet paper (remember when Costco used to wrap their toilet paper in paper? Why did they change?).

I am frequently at odds with my own environmentalism. I can buy Seventh Generation toilet paper by the individual paper-wrapped roll at Henry's, or I can buy significantly less expensive plastic-wrapped toilet paper by the plastic-wrapped bundle at Costco. (I can apparently buy a cardboard case of Seventh Generation from, but hubby hasn't given the approval on the four rolls of Seventh Generation sitting under the bathroom sink.)

If you've been paying any attention to the news, you'll know that Americans are getting less healthy. Obesity aside, there are a number of other health issues that have been on the rise, more or less since the industrial revolution. Like asthma and cancer.

I have a lot of allergies. All to things like animal hair and pollen, thankfully, and none to food or medicines. I've often wondered how this happened. Based on my admittedly hazy understanding of natural selection, it would seem that someone with allergies, say 10,000 years ago, would have been a less desirable mate than someone without allergies. And following that unscientific logic to it's natural, but still unscientific conclusion, it would seem that allergies would thus be eliminated from the gene pool.

Unless they're not genetic. (I'm not going to try to figure that one out here, or in any future posts. You're on your own with that.)

Or, if allergies have grown as we've been introduced to increasing numbers of pollutants. The same would make sense of asthma or cancer (although I think 10,000 years ago, something else would have killed a person before the cancer could. Like a saber-tooth tiger.)

Am I more likely to get cancer than my great-great-great-grandmothers? Probably. How much of that is due to the fact that I'm also more likely to live longer and how much is due to the fact that there's a ton more pollution now than there was 200 or so years ago?

And this is seriously where I run into environmentally-minded conundrums. If I start buying Seventh Generation toilet paper, which has a smaller environmental impact than the toilet paper sold at Costco, somehow I doubt that this action alone is going to reduce the chance of me developing cancer (after all, I grew up drinking the tap water in New Jersey). This isn't karma we're talking about.

So I'm left to wonder, is it worth it? Is my health, and that of my husband, going to be significantly, or even moderately, improved if we make extra efforts to be green? Of course we're going to recycle. Of course we're not going to dump our extra paint into the sewers. But if other assholes out there are driving Hummers and leaving their lights on when they're not home, how much of a difference is it going to make if I use Dove or organic soap?

So as not to leave everyone in a doom-and-gloom state of mind (which would be awful of me, especially since one of my new year's resolutions is to be actively happier), I'm going to make a proposal. I'm not turning this into a eco-blog, but I will post green changes that I'm making, and perhaps they will inspire you to make the same changes. Or at least to think about your choices. And you can let me know of any green changes you're making in your life, and I'll write about those too. And maybe we can make the world a little bit of a healthier, better place.

And so, to start off, my newest change is to use old-fashion wooden pencils rather than plastic pens. Other than signing legal documents and writing on Ziploc freezer bags, I'm hard-pressed to think of a situation where I'd actually need to use a pen. And I might even have one or two "nice" pens that can be refilled rather than just thrown away (yes, I realize I still have to do something with the cartridge). Of course, you'll still find me writing in pen; I own a ton of them. I'm not going to not use something I already own, but I'm also not going to buy any new ones.

So that's my relatively easy change to help reduce the amount of plastic I throw away and help save the polar bears.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Today I went to give blood at the San Diego Blood Bank. Actually, they came to me, or at least to my work.

I made sure I had a hamburger yesterday so I wouldn't be anemic (I've never been anemic, but you never know). My iron was shockingly high for a woman--at least that's what Shirley, the nurse helping me, said. You have to be 12.5 to donate. I was 16.5. Whatever that means.

And then Shirley started asking me about my international travel in the past three years. Apparently when I was on my oasis trip in Egypt last year, we drove through an area (I think we actually stopped) that has a known risk of malaria. So she said I couldn't donate. I said "Ever?" and said, no, I could actually donate after it had been a year.

We returned from Egypt on February 21, 2009. Today is February 3, 2010. So on February 22, or in 19 days I can donate blood again. Apparently I'm still a carrier for malaria. Of course I don't want to donate blood and make a sick person worse. And I don't want to donate blood to have them reject it (while it's in me, at least I can use it). Nonetheless, you'd sort of think by now I'd have some symptoms of malaria. Or someone I come in contact with a lot would.

If anyone was going to catch malaria from me, it would be my sister. She catches everything. And she hasn't had malaria. (touch wood)

Being rejected sucks. Even if it's for a good reason. Like malaria. But it's making me feel pretty grumpy. So I'm issuing out a warning: don't tick me off for the next 19 days, or I might breath on you! Or something! How do you even catch malaria, anyway?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How is this News?

I have my Google Alerts set to the company for which I work. The theory is that Google will tell me whenever my company shows up in the news. I do this because I think it's important that I know what's going on with my company outside of my little cube, and because, in my head, this will provide me with more-or-less updates as to what's going on in my industry without being inundated with the amount of updates I would receive if I had something more vague like "wireless" set as a Google Alert.

Up until now I have avoided naming my company because I'm just not sure that it's appropriate to do so in my blog, as my blog, in general, is not about my company, or my industry.

However, today my Google Alerts popped up this article about my company. You don't actually have to read it. It says that my company is possibly in merger talks with some other companies in the industry. This notion comes up every few months. Apparently my company is eternally in merger talks, or else reporters for the wireless industry occasionally get bored and want to spread gossip.

This article is a whopping five paragraphs and contains only 154 words, including the title and the author's name.

And it sites either 1) the New York Times, or 2) generally known stuff about my company.

I don't know about you, but this doesn't sound like news to me. It sounds like the world's shortest research paper.

I could do that for a living. It would be a helluva lot easier than what I'm currently doing, I could do it from home, and I could probably save a lot of brain function, since I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have to think.

If this was something I read in the San Diego Union Tribune, I would have commented that this is why print media is going out of business. But this article was already on-line.

Good Grief!