Monday, December 31, 2012

Home Improvement Holiday

Since I wasn't going anywhere for Christmas, I decided I might as well use the time to get some things done. So this past week I've painted the bathroom, organized the garage, and even bought (and put together) a bed frame to get the mattress off the floor.

the garage - before
The garage was officially a Christmas present from my brother. A present I suspect my dad had a lot to do with.  (My father has been over here three times to measure the garage and sketch out potential layouts since I bought the house.)  It needed to be done. I don't have a lot of stuff, but what I did have was just accumulating in piles along the walls, since I didn't have anywhere to put it.

the garage - after. It doesn't look like much, but it's really a big improvement

Now I have pegboard on the back wall, the pile of leftover bricks has been moved out of the way, and it looks more like a garage and less like an abandoned prop room. The nicest part about this was I didn't really have to do anything beyond move bricks and sweep up sawdust. My father and brother did the rest. My kind of project.
The other big project was repainting the master bath. I've been planning to change the color since I bought the house. It was a muddy brown, really, really dark and way too much. Last month I got a bunch of paint chips from the home improvement store, taped them to the walls, and decided on a color I liked. Four days ago, I bought a gallon of "Sigh" (a very pale blue) and painted one wall.
I hated it. It looked like breath mints.
Still, I was going to get this done. My backup plan was to paint it the same color as the bedroom: beige - boring but bearable.  I bought a gallon of that and covered up the breath mint wall. It worked. 
So I've spent the last three days working on the bathroom. It's more complicated than it sounds because it has three doors, a shower stall, a window, a vaulted ceiling and lots of little corners that have to be taped off before painting. And have you ever tried manipulating an eight foot stepladder in a shower stall?  

Dad helped the day before yesterday, but it needs another coat before it's done. So I'm hoping I can bribe him into coming over and finishing the job. I've got everything I can reach, but I need someone tall to get the last two and half feet.

Then, I can put the towel racks back up, put the ladder back in the garage, rinse out the paint brushes, sweep the floor, wash the shower stall and collapse on the sofa with champagne, Chinese food and the feeling of a job well done.
Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Thanksgiving Soup

The cold arrived last night! Which means it is the perfect weather for Thanksgiving Soup.

Some background: my family doesn't usually do a traditional Christmas dinner. Thanksgiving is the traditional meal of the year and Christmas is whatever Mom feels like making.  But this year, because both my brother and father were out of the country for Thanksgiving, we went the full turkey, stuffing and cranberry route. 

So today, my family's traditional post-Thanksgiving meal is on the stove. I must be clear: I have never made this. This is my dad's recipe and none of us are allowed to do anything. So all I can really tell you is what I have observed.

  • There are no measurements because this is very loose recipe, based on how the cook feels that day and what is in the pantry. The goal of this soup is to use the leftovers, not to go to the store.
  • Cooking times are approximate, because this soup cooks while you are reading the newspaper, surfing the web, raking leaves, walking the dog, or what-have-you. Put the soup on the lowest heat possible and just let it go. You only have to pay attention to it towards the end.
After Thanksgiving dinner, put the turkey carcass in a pot with drippings from the roasting pan and just enough water to cover. Simmer (covered) for about an hour, maybe two, until every last scrap of flavor has been removed or the post-dinner movie is over, whichever comes first. Strain to remove the bones and put the broth put in the refrigerator - have the kids do the dishes.

The next day, after coffee and the paper, chop up some veggies, (usually the holy trinity of onions, carrots and celery)  and put them in the bottom of a 6-8 qt dutch oven with some olive oil. Cook over medium heat until the onions start to wilt.

Decide on the character of the soup: aka "Fun with the Spice Rack". Dad is fairly traditional and sticks with bay leaf, parsley, maybe some sage, but has been known to experiment with soy sauce, chilies, lime juice, cinnamon and curry powder. Truly, it's however the spirit moves you. Put the spices of choice in with the veggies and saute for a few minutes, until everything smells good.

Get out the broth out of the refrigerator and take the fat off the top.  But the broth into the soup pot with the veggies. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes or so.

The big decision now is whether or not to put rice in. If there's a lot of liquid, some rice can add body to a fairly thin broth. Another option is to thicken the soup with leftover stuffing.  If you decide to use rice, make sure the rice is cooked before proceding to the next step.

Clean out the refrigerator. Chopped turkey, leftover mushrooms, stuffing, whatever you have that you think will work well in the soup. Put into the soup and simmer on low for about 15 to 20 minutes. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. (A squirt of lemon juice can add a nice note of brightness about now.) It is now ready to serve.

This soup says holiday to me just as strongly as fruitcake and eggnog, and is very warming after a morning raking leaves.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sunny Christmas Eve

I've lived my entire life in warm climates.  I learned to ski on water. I threw my first snowball on vacation when I was 36 and I have never shoveled snow.

So when I think of Christmas, I don't think of snow on fir trees or trying to stay warm. My memories are of blue skies and sunshine. Today, all my windows are open to let fresh air into the house and it's a glorious day to be outside.

So I'm going out, to enjoy the weather. Merry Christmas, or Kwanzaa, or Hanukkah, or Solstice or whatever it is you celebrate. I'm going to take a tip from Mr. Minchin and have a long lunch with my family.

White Wine in the Sun - Tim Minchin

Friday, December 21, 2012

I'm on vacation!

It lights up too!
Now I can go shopping!

Seriously, I have the problem recipient.
He's an awkward size, so clothes are not an option (you can only buy someone so many scarves)
He's not into sports. so I can't get him team jerseys or anything like that.
He lives in Asia, so any electronics, movies etc I can buy here won't work on his machines/current.
He doesn't read (for entertainment value anyway) and his hobby is rowing.
And whatever I buy has to be portable and go through customs.

The way I see it, my options fall into two categories:

1. Buy something that can be consumed during his visit. One of those novelty popcorn tins, a bottle of wine, beef jerky. (and before you say chocolate, he's not into sweets) or

2. Wacky presents. Something completely off the wall. Last year, my father gave me a glow in the dark jellyfish paperweight, which turned out to be the thing I never knew I wanted. (Really, it's very cool.) But truly wacky presents are hard to find, and you run the risk of "what the #%$ is this?"

So I'm going to be drifting among the shelves for the next couple of days. Any suggestions will be gratefully received.

Friday Fun Video
Not to add any more pressure, but what are your plans for New Years? I'm thinking potato chips and champagne.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cranberries in a Slack Oven

One of the reasons I look forward to autumn is fresh cranberries.  When I was a kid, sweetened dried cranberries (now available everywhere) did not exist. So I still get a little anticipatory charge from seeing the bags of  fresh berries in the stores every autumn, and I still pick up a few extra bags to throw in the freezer. Just in case I want to make something with cranberries after the holidays are over.  
Aren't they gorgeous?
This is not a particularly healthy recipe (unless we count all the Vitamin C from the berries) but everyone needs an easy holiday dish. This takes about 5 minutes of hands-on effort, one hour of cooking time and one pot. I found the recipe in a book on colonial cooking, and like cranberry sauce today, it was recommended as a side dish for roast birds. "Slack" means an oven that isn't very hot.

Cranberries in a Slack Oven
  • 1 pound fresh cranberries
  • 2 cups brown or white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brandy
1. Spread the cranberries in an iron skillet that has a cover.
2. Crumble the sugar over the berries, cover the skillet and place in a slack oven (250 degrees) for one hour. The berries pop in the heat from the oven, the juice combines with the sugar and makes a sauce.
3. Remove the lid and pour brandy in the skillet. Stir and serve.
Just a glass to encourage the cook
You can use white sugar instead of brown, or a combination of the two. I like using brown because the molasses in it adds some depth to the flavor. But if you want a prettier, brighter colored sauce, use white sugar.
The amount of sugar can be played with. I like a fairly tart sauce, so I used a pound and a half of cranberries to 2 cups of sugar.
I used Grand Marnier (the orange flavor goes well with the cranberries) but any decent brandy will do. You can also fancy this up by adding orange zest to the recipe, but it seems a shame to make it more complicated.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What can we do?

Everyone is talking about the massacre at Sandy Hook ElementarySchool last Friday, and rightly so. It boggles the mind that someone would attack defenseless children. But it was not the only tragedy that happened that day. It wasn't even the only attack on schoolchildren.

A man in China attacked schoolchildren with a knife on Friday. Twenty two children were wounded, and many are in critical condition.

The United States gets most of the press, but this kind of violence is more common, and more international than people think. This article may remind you of how widespread the problem is.

Why are we shocked? As President Obama said in his speech last night, we've had an attack of this sort every year of his presidency. It happened under Bush, and it happened under Clinton. This happens all the time, and you think we'd be used to it by now.  But of course we're not. The real horror would be "getting used to it."

What can we do? Many of these attacks are perpetrated by the mentally unbalanced, like the man who shot up the movie theater in Aurora. But there are the religiously motivated, the politically motivated, and combinations of all of the above.

We could start by looking for sanity markers. But then there's another problem. How can you lock someone away who hasn't done anything? The Aurora shooting, Columbine, Sandy Hook, the Norway attacks, the guy who tried to bomb Times Square, all of these were done by people with no prior offenses. Can we take away someone's freedom because there is a chance that they may hurt someone?

We live in a more dangerous world than we like to think. How do we protect ourselves and those we love? The automatic reaction is to clamp down, to tighten restrictions, to build a fortess. I don't want to live with that mentality, living in fear of my neighbors and what tomorrow may bring.  Living in fear actually promotes violence. Fearful animals attack more frequently, because they see anything new or different as dangerous.

Trust promotes trust. True, it leaves you more open to attack, but it also makes it less likely that anyone will see you as a threat. Trust isn't easy. It takes a lot of work. But trust and empathy make more things possible than vigilant defense and a determination not to be taken advantage of ever will.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Cards

Oldest mass-produced Christmas Card - circa 1843!
I love letters.

E-mail does not come close to the thrill of getting a real letter or postcard, something with actual stamps on it. A letter that a friend of mine took the time to write and put in the mail means something to me. A letter is a gift, in and of itself, even if the news is boring. 

I try to keep up the habit of writing letters. I'm far from perfect, and I don't send nearly enough, but I insist on sending Christmas cards. Electronic cards are ok, there are some beautiful ones out there, and it beats being forgotten altogether, but I'd rather get a real card. 

And aren't the cards themselves fabulous? Small pieces of mass-produced art. Who wouldn't love getting one of these in the mail?

Very 50s - I can see my grandparents sending this card

I love how it looks like an ornate paper cutting

a minimalist aesthetic - for your more design oriented friends

I love the idea of this one - very clever


Friday Fun Video
Not your average Jingle Bells.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Learning to like cauliflower

For years, I have disliked cauliflower. It was either crumbly waxy stuff with a cabbage-y tang lying forlornly next to a bowl of sour cream dip, or rubbery salty stuff on a steam table. It didn't look or taste like anything I wanted to eat and I avoided it. It was the type of food people serve because "it's good for you" and because you can't make a dip tray with only carrots.
Then my mother discovered Indian cooking. In particular a roast cauliflower and potato recipe that was fiery but fabulous. And because it had been roasted, it had texture, unlike the horrible steamed to death stuff I remember from the school cafeteria.

Oven Roasted Cauliflower
Below is a suggestion for a spice mixture, but if you don't like/have fennel seeds, use whatever spices you like. I've used cumin seeds, garam masala, powdered garlic, red pepper flakes, etc. it's really quite versatile. But remember that whatever spices you use, they must to be able to stand up to the cabbage flavor of the cauliflower.
  • 1 medium head  of cauliflower
  • 2 Tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • red pepper flakes (to taste)
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil


1. Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Use 1 Tablespoon of olive oil to coat a roasting pan or baking sheet.
3. Cut the cauliflower into bite size pieces.
4. In a large bowl, mix together the spices and the rest of the olive oil.
yummy spices!
5. Add the cauliflower to the spice mixture and toss to coat.
6. Spread the seasoned cauliflower on the prepared roasting pan and put in the oven to roast for about 20 to 30 minutes. It should be nicely browned.

 This can be eaten as is. It also works well with leftover chicken or steak mixed into it. I like putting a big dollop of plain yogurt on it. I think that pomegranate seeds would add a sweet crunch and be pretty too. Toasted walnuts would be a nice touch. This stuff is versatile.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas Decorations

I don't usually put up a Christmas tree.  It's not that I have anything against trees, but one bedroom apartments don't have a lot of room for that kind of thing.  So I have been practical, mistletoe in the hall, a wreath on the door and poinsettias on every flat surface. Festive on a small scale.

But now I have a house.

A mostly unfurnished house. The sensible thing to do would be to save my money and put it toward something I really need, like a desk.

I can live without a desk.

So this past weekend I blew my budget on a pre-lit, seven and a half foot tree. (It was on sale. I'm not totally crazed.)  But a tree needs ornaments, and while I've been collecting them for years, I only have about 15, not nearly enough to deck out a tree.

So I put the Christmas music on and got out my cookie sheets.

The flecks of coarse salt make them look specked.

These are made from salt dough, (follow the link for the recipe) which is astonishingly easy. Flour, salt and hot water. You can use coarse salt, like I did. Regular salt will give the dough a smoother texture. They can be painted, molded, covered with glitter, wherever fancy takes you. I'm more of a minimalist, so I just painted them with an egg wash (1 egg whisked with 3 tablespoons water).

Harder than it looks: I'm right-handed, but I can't focus the camera with my left
The egg wash makes the ornaments brown and gives them a slight gloss, otherwise they're just a dull whitish grey. And don't forget to put holes in the ornament before you bake! If you don't, you're going to need a drill, these things are hard.

Once they are all baked and cool enough to handle, get the yarn back from the cat, who has appropriated it for her own use.

Get your own yarn - this is mine.
Thread the ornaments on the yarn, cursing yourself for not making the holes bigger, and voila!

 A plate full of cookies, ready to go on the tree.

Merry Christmas!

Friday Feel Good Video
Fortunately, my cat hasn't found the tree interesting.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Pickled Turnips

I love pickles.  It runs in the family. My father and I are both pickle fiends and are known to bring home intriguing jars of pickles from far-off places, or just the grocery store. My mother just sighs and makes room in the refrigerator. Pickled okra, green tomatoes, kimchi; we are always interested in a new pickle. Our most interesting current find has been jalapeno bread and butter pickles - the jalapeno moderates the sweetness.

Pickles add zing to otherwise boring recipes, they cleanse the palate with a refreshing burst of tartness and they are wonderful, if a bit drippy, to snack on.

There's a local Turkish restaurant that I love, Istanbul Grill & Deli, and the plates always have a garnish of hot pink pickle. I never knew what it was (other than delicious) until I stumbled on David Lebovitz' wonderful cooking blog.

Two pounds of turnips, and one beet

Those beautiful, crisp pickles are turnips!  And the recipe is amazingly easy.  So if you want a crisp, garlicky pickle, something to counteract all the traditional sweet, heavy, holiday fare we get this time of year. I recommend these highly.  Plus, they are an amazing shade of pink. How festive can you get?

Pickled Turnips - recipe from David Lebovitz

  • 3 cups water
  • 1/3 cup coarse white salt, such as kosher or sea salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup white vinegar (distilled)
  • 2 pounds turnips
  • 1 small beet
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

1. In  a saucepan, heat about 1/3 of the water. Add the salt and bay leaf, stirring until the salt is dissolved.

Dissolving the salt
2. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Once cool, add the vinegar and the rest of the water.

3. Cut the turnips and the beet into batons, about the size of French fries. Put the turnips, beets, and garlic slices into a large, clean jar, then pour the salted brine over them in the jar, including the bay leaf.
The beet is in the middle, under the bay leaves
4. Cover and let sit at room temperature, in a relatively cool place, for one week. Once done, they can be refrigerated until ready to serve.
Pink! Really the camera does not do the color justice, they are more vivid than they look here
Storage: The pickles will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator. They should be enjoyed within six weeks after they’re made.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Your opinion is important to us...

Yesterday, I was making a purchase at the drugstore and they asked if I had a membership card. I said I didn't, they scanned a card, gave it to me and told me to register it when I got home. When I got home, it went into the recycling bin, just like it has every time I've bought something there.

I get emails asking me to rate my customer service experience every time I buy something online. The local restaurants have phone numbers at the bottom of the receipts, asking me to call in and take their customer service survey.

Every time I buy something in person, I have to tell the people at the cash register:
  • I don't have the store loyalty card, and I don't want it, thank you
  • you may not have my phone number
  • or my email address
  • or my zip code
  • I don't have the store credit card, and I don't want it, not even for 15% off my first purchase
I understand that customer service is an important part of a business, and the best way to find out is to ask the customer. But it has gone beyond asking and become pestering. I can't even avoid this by shopping online, because once they have your email address, they ask you to rate your purchase. Amazon and eBay give you a handy 1-5 star rating system, but won't accept the ratings until you type in a comment. I have nothing to say.

Occasionally, rarely, I want to give feedback. Last year I had a long (13 hour) layover, so I booked a night at the airport hotel. The night arrived, something happened with the airlines and the line to get into the hotel was out the door and down the hall. It was crazy. The hotel staff managed it beautifully. So when I got the inevitable customer service email I wrote a glowing review. I felt they deserved the praise.  Then I got an avalanche of emails: like us on Facebook, rate us on Yelp, join our customer loyalty program, on and on and on.

It made me regret saying anything at all.

Does this actually improve customer service? Or just fool companies into thinking they are?

Friday, November 30, 2012


This Friday, I find myself with nothing to say. It happens. So instead, I give you this very sweet little video.  It's about as girly as it gets; you have been warned.



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Soup Season

Summer lasts a long time in southeast Texas (about 6 months) so a lot of the time, my cooking is ingredient assembly, like salad. It's just too hot to do much else. But it's finally cool enough for one of my favorite things: soup.

Is that an anti-climax? It shouldn't be. Soup has a lot to recommend it. It's a wonderful way to use lots of vegetables, it's an economical use of leftovers, and (as long as you aren't loading it up with cheese and cream) it's low in calories. It tastes good. Plus there's nothing quite as soul satisfying as sitting inside on a cold day with a hot bowl of soup.

In the words of Lewis Carroll:

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Soo - oop of the e - e - evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!


Chipotle Pumpkin Soup
or what to do with that pumpkin you bought in October

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1-2 chipotle peppers (canned in adobo, 1 for mild, 2 for spicy), chopped
  • 8 cups chopped, cooked pumpkin* (1 7-8 pound cooking pumpkin to yield 8 cups cooked pumpkin, or 3 15-ounce cans of canned pumpkin)
  • 4 to 6 cups chicken stock, depending on desired thickness and how thick your pumpkin purée is (use vegetable stock for vegetarian option, can sub water for some of the stock)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano or 1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
  • 2 teaspoons salt, more to taste
  • 2 Tbsp lime juice
  • Toasted, shelled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • Cilantro
  • Creme fresca, creme fraiche, sour cream or yogurt
 *To cook fresh pumpkin, use a good cooking pumpkin (i.e. sugar pumpkin, fairytale pumpkin, hubbard, or kabocha pumpkin), cut in half, scoop out the seeds, place the pumpkin cut side down on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 350°F for about an hour, or until soft. Scoop out the pumpkin flesh or cut away the skin.

cooked pumpkin - look at all the liquid that's come out!
 1. Heat oil in a large pot (8-quart) on medium high heat. Add the onions and cook for 3-4 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic, cumin, and chipotle, cook for 1 minute more.

Onion and chipotle pepper

2. Add the pumpkin, chicken stock, oregano, and salt. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, partially covered.

oven roasted pumpkin
3. If you are working with raw pumpkin seeds, now would be a good time to toast them. (If your pumpkin seeds are already toasted, skip this step.) Just spread them out in an even layer in a frying pan on medium high heat. Stir with a wooden spoon while toasting, until the pumpkin seeds are fragrant and are lightly browned. Remove to a bowl.

4. Remove the soup from heat. Working in batches of 2 cups each, purée the soup in batches, holding down the lid the your blender tightly while puréeing, and starting on a slow speed. Return the puréed soup to the pot. If you have an immersion blender (surely the best kitchen invention since the electric toaster) you can purée it right in the pot.

5. Add lime juice. Adjust seasonings to taste, adding more salt, cumin, oregano, or chipotle to taste. If the soup is too thick, add more stock or water to desired consistency.

Serve with toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas), crema fresca drizzled over the top, and chopped cilantro.
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Texas Renaissance Festival - Final Weekend 2012

Welcome back! I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving, or just a good weekend. I was lucky enough to have both. Thanksgiving was a potluck at my friend Vero's house. I brought dessert and she very kindly kept all the pie, whipped cream and chocolate mousse I made (actually insisted on keeping) so I didn't have any leftovers to worry about. Yay!

This weekend was also the last weekend of the Texas Renaissance Festival. I haven't been in years and it was too lovely a day to stay indoors - so off I went.

The Green Man
Everyone has their favorite thing about the festival. For some it's the performers:

Sholo, the Nubian -  barbarian love poetry
(Kipling's "The Female of the Species" among other things. Great voice.)

Stick juggler

Pirate magician

For others, it's the games
Test your strength

Target practice - with oh-so historically accurate paintball guns
Some people even like the food

and don't forget the turkey legs!

I did it all. It's my kind of fun: I love jugglers and magicians and really corny jokes. I got my tarot cards read (the cards say I think too much), tried my hand at the longbow (I should stick to typing) and had meat on a stick. But all in all, my favorite thing is the people watching. RenFest brings out every type of costume imaginable, even those that don't really go with the theme. Darth Maul was there, as was a lady in an 18th century powdered wig, and even a ancient Greek warrior. It's weird and mixed up, but it's a lot of fun.

Texas woodland Greek
You can't see it too well, but he's wearing mistletoe on his codpiece - oh, for a telephoto lens!

None shall pass

The Cthulu Choristers - They sang a rousing rendition of "Oh Come Let Us Abhor Him."

The Blue Faerie

What? You've never seen a man walk down the street with a drink?
One of the wedding chapels (they have four, but this is the prettiest)
She looked so sad - I gave her a dollar