Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Summer Salad #5: No Cook Supper

Kind of a no-brainer recipe today. It’s too hot for real effort. 

I saw these in the grocery store last week and had to buy them.  I love these things. These are one of those canned foods that are actually good for you, high protein and full of Omega threes. A little high in sodium, but nothing’s perfect.

My mother always referred to these as “your father’s cans of smelly fish”, and they are. . . aromatic, but good things often are: garlic, onions, Indian food.  People pay a lot for cheese that smells like feet, and there is a Chinese delicacy called “stinky tofu” that is supposed to be as good as it is smelly. 

Kippered herring is not as smelly as caramelizing onions, and since they are already cooked, they make for a really fast dinner. In this case, under 5 minutes.

Tomato & Herring Salad
Slice a tomato or two. Open the can, drain it, and flake the fish onto the tomato.  Drizzle a little olive oil, sprinkle some vinegar (acid is key), and dinner is served.  You don’t even have to add salt, since the fish is salty already. If you are feeling like a tiny bit more effort, toss some parsley on it, but if you don’t have it, don’t bother.

This and a glass of wine made for a nice light supper, with only one plate to wash and no heating up the kitchen. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

An Embarrassing Way to Meet the Neighbors

It's hot out. 

I know this. I'm prepared for it. I don't go outside in the middle of the day. I wear sunblock and sleeves. I drink a lot of water.  That doesn't always help.

As you know, I'm trying to work more exercise into my life. Last week, I decided to ride my bike around the neighborhood, nothing too crazy, only 30 to 40 minutes. I waited until 7, so the sun was lower in the sky, the heat was dissipating and things were going fine. 

Until I reached the gate. 

My house is in a gated community, and the gates close at 7 pm. If I had been able to pedal right up to my house, I think I would have been okay, but I had to stop to punch the code into the gate. And when I stopped, the world blurred and I fell over. 

To be clear, I didn't faint. I was conscious, but incredibly dizzy. I knew I was overheated, so I just lay there for a bit, focusing on breathing. Some of my neighbors came by in a car, and asked if I was okay (obviously not) but I said I just needed to get to my house and cool down a bit. I struggled to my feet, pushed my bike through the gate, and collapsed a second time. 

Another neighbor, who was out trimming his yard, saw me fall and brought over a bottle of Powerade. Together, they got me into the car and drove me the half block to my house, while someone else walked my bike over. The Powerade and the rest helped me recover enough of my manners to thank everyone and promise that I would not go bike riding again until it was cooler. Like October.

Only later, after a cold shower and change, did I realize that I'd really banged myself up when I fell. I have bruises on my legs from the curb and all sorts of scratches from the juniper that I collapsed into.

Be nice to your neighbors, and careful in this heat! 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Summer Salad #4: A Salad of Green Things

Every once in a while I read a fashion blog written by a woman who lives in England. She's been talking about leather t-shirts and summer sweaters. I don't know whether to be reassured that the entire planet isn't melting, or to resent her for living somewhere where summer evenings can actually be chilly.  

Instead, I've focused my energy on finding ways to trick myself into feeling cooler. Like salad. 

Cucumber, mint, avocado and lime
I found this recipe a year ago, when I was looking for something refreshing to serve with a roast chicken.  This really is wonderful, crunchy (cucumber), cool (mint), creamy (avocado), a little salty (feta), and the lime juice ties the whole thing together.  Actually, feel free to increase the lime juice, I doubled it and it did not overwhelm.

Okay, it's not the prettiest, but it tastes really good.
This is a wonderful thing on a hot day, and unlike lettuce, it doesn't wilt!

Cucumber, Avocado & Feta Salad
  • 2 large cucumbers
  • Salt
  • 2 ripe avocados
  • 1/2 cup chopped mint
  • 2 Tbsp lime juice and zest of 1 lime
  • 4 ounces feta cheese, diced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Pepper to taste 
  1. Peel the cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut cucumbers into 1/2-inch pieces and put in a colander. Generously sprinkle with salt and let sit in the sink for 30 minutes to drain. This will prevent your salad from getting watery. Quickly rinse and blot dry with paper towel.
  2. While cucumbers are draining, dice the avocados into 1/2-inch pieces and put into a salad bowl. Drizzle with lime juice and toss gently.
  3. Wash and coarsely chop the mint.
  4. In a bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons lime juice and lime zest to make dressing.
  5. Add drained cucumbers, mint, feta cheese and dressing to the avocados and gently combine. Add pepper (or lemon pepper) to taste. Cover and let stand in refrigerator for about 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Grocery Store Discoveries

Maybe it's because they are the workhorses of the food world, but grocery stores don't get a lot of love. People get all excited about craft beer, or the boutique cheese they found at the farmer's market, but few rhapsodize about the place they buy peanut butter and milk.

I'm genuinely fond of mine. It doesn't have everything (no store on earth can do that), but it has a broad produce section that includes daikon and dragonfruit in addition to staples like apples and cabbage. I couldn't do without it.

So this post is about wonderful things I've found at my local HEB.

SoftSoap Wild Basil & Lime Handwash
I usually prefer unscented soaps; scented soaps often remind of candy mixed with fruit salad. But this stuff is enough to make me reconsider. It's herbal and citrusy, and the scent doesn't last for long, so it's a refreshing little burst of scent, but you don't have to live with it all day.

Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas

These are wonderful. Crisp, sweet, but not overly so. One of these is a lovely little snack with a glass of wine or an cup of tea. But they are made with olive oil, so napkins are a must. They come in almond, Seville orange, cinnamon, and rosemary & thyme. Almond is my favorite.


On sale this weekend. Aren't they gorgeous?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Living with other people

This post is a response to my friend Leslie's post on Communal Living. Check it out here.

I lived in a cooperative house (a commune by another name) during my last two years of University.  There are good things about living as a group:
  • There are other people around to help with big chores; you may even be able to swap, so you never have to vacuum/wash windows/clean the oven again.
  • Food, rent and other costs can be shared
  • There’s usually a shoulder to cry on if you've had a bad day, or someone to celebrate with if you've had a good one.
  • You almost never have to eat alone, unless you really want to. My fondest memories about the co-op are all about dinnertime conversation.
  • Because there are other people around, it's more interesting; there are more points of view, different topics of conversation, etc. which is very helpful if (like me) you sometimes have trouble getting out of your own head.
On the other hand, living together means you have to deal with other people and their foibles. For example:
  • The hippie chick who insisted that flea collars were poison, and fed her cat garlic instead. This did not work, and we had to have the hall bug bombed. (She tried burning sage to encourage the bugs to leave. Oddly enough, that didn't work either.)
  • Sharing the cooking means someone, at some point, will make a meal that includes everything you hate or are allergic to.
  • On the other hand, you’ll have to cook around other people’s prejudices: the multiple stripes of vegetarian, no gluten, no dairy, ...
  • Jerks who would spill things and then leave it (instead of cleaning up) because it’s X’s job to clean the kitchen.
  • Loss of privacy. Yes, I did come home at midnight. No, it’s none of your business why.
  • Security. More keys means more people with access to the house. I've had female roommates give their boyfriends keys and ‘forget’ to tell the rest of us. It is alarming to have a drunk man show up in your house at two in the morning the day after they've had a fight.
  • Over-sharers. I’m not a prude, but I don’t want to know about your new girlfriends skills in bed.
  • Noise. There is always someone who likes music that sounds like two chainsaws mating on a chalkboard.
A lot of this can be alleviated by having a well-thought out rules. The Big Bang Theory has an epic roommate agreement that goes into unbelievable detail, from thermostat settings to what they are going to do if they ever develop super powers or discover time travel. 

 I know it sounds ridiculous, but having lived through a couple of epic fights about thermostat settings, I can sympathize.

Now, all of the above, I can handle.  But what isn't covered by roommate agreements, unfortunately, is users and manipulators.

We had a manipulative guy living at the co-op my second year, let’s call him Dan.  Dan made it his mission to piss off as many people as possible, while simultaneously being just charming enough to squeak by.  He played people off each other. He got other people to do his chores. He even managed to get other people to pay his rent.

By the end of the year, just saying his name was enough to stop a conversation cold.  We ended up having an inquiry by the governing board because we tried to throw him out and he protested unfair treatment. I went to visit a year after I moved out, and there was a sign on the door: If you see Dan call the police! Don’t talk to him! DO NOT LET HIM IN!  

The problem is that it takes a while to identify the Dans of the world. They don't have tattoos saying "emotionally unstable, manipulative user. Do NOT engage". Life would be much easier if they did.  If I could come up with a foolproof way to spot the Dans, I might be up for up for communal living again, but one Dan was enough.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tomato Tarte Tatin

This is so pretty.  I wish I liked it.

It's not bad, but ... Have you ever tried a recipe and immediately thought "This needs something?"

My first thought on tasting this was this really, really needs beef. I think it would be a wonderful side with a nice chunk of rare steak, but it just doesn't stand alone. At least not for me.

If you want the recipe, it's at a beautiful blog called Manger. Even if you don't want the recipe, check it out, it's gorgeous.

If you do make this:
  • I'd reduce the amount of sugar. I find it a little sweet.
  • Like any fruit tart, this creates a lot of liquid. You will be tempted to pour it off before turning the tart out of the pan. Don't.  The tomatoes will shift and you will have to redistribute them all, which is hot and picky work, almost guaranteed to result in burnt fingers.

Monday, July 14, 2014

French Film

Because it is Bastille Day I'm going to talk about some small gems from France.

Isn't Netflix the greatest? I've been a fan of French cinema for years, but it has always meant driving to small, out-of-the way theaters, with blink-and-you've-missed-it show times. Assuming they come to Houston at all. But now if I get a craving to see life in a foreign language all I have to do is find a strong wi-fi connection and a comfy chair. 

Aside: It is a matter of extreme frustration that even though I live in the 4th largest city in the US, many films (particularly art, independent, or foreign films) simply aren't released here. Hey film distributors! The people in the center of the country want to see things other than Transformers and Glenn Beck being a loon.

One of the things I appreciate about French Cinema, is that there are real roles for women over 40. They are even (gasp) the lead! In this vein I give you Haute Cuisine and Queen to Play.

Haute Cuisine [Les Saveurs du Palais] is about the personal chef of the François Mitterrand. There is no real plot, almost nothing happens. It's basically a character study of a strong-minded and talented woman practicing her art. Sometimes she has to deal with people who don't (or can't) appreciate her work, dietitians don't know anything about food so they just make blanket decrees (no sauces!), and other chefs whose focus is on competition and not on the food. But the ones who do get it, these people make up for the idiots she has to deal with along the way. I loved this movie. I loved her style, her steeliness, her obvious pleasure in what she does, and her refusal to let idiots stop her. 

Queen to Play (Joueuse) has a chewier storyline and the always charming Kevin Kline. It's about a working class woman who, on a whim, takes up chess, and the consequences of her growing obsession with the game. I, personally, do not play, but it's movies like this and novels like The Flanders Panel (great read!) that make me want to learn.

Both are in French, with subtitles, so if reading dialogue bothers you, then you will have to find other movies. But I really hope you give them a chance. A show does not have to feature killer alien robots to be a good time. That being said, I am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, because it looks like my kind of silly. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Am I a Girly Girl?

Today, for the first time in my life, I was called a "girly girl".

I've been called a lot of things in my 35+ years: studious, nerd, weird, dependable, bitch, funny, but "girly girl" is a new one.

Apparently "girly" can also mean "skank"
Aren't I a little old to be called a "girly girl"?  I don't know if there is an official cutoff date, but it seems like an odd thing to call a fully grown woman with mortgage payments.

What is 'girly' anyway? And is it a good thing?  According to Wikipedia: "Girly girl is a slang term for a girl or woman who chooses to dress and behave in an especially feminine style."

I grew up when "girly" wasn't fashionable. It wasn't forbidden, (there is photographic evidence of ruffled outfits in the family album) but it wasn't encouraged on the level it is today. My mother would never have dressed me in a "princess" t-shirt, even if they had been available. Being 'girly' just wasn't cool. 

The image of the 'girly girl' is not just feminine, it is a heavily juvenile version of femininity. It is a version of femininity that is all ribbons and bows, beruffled, bedazzled, and of course, pink. It implies a lightness, a frivolousness of temperament, that can be taken for stupidity. (The movie "Legally Blonde" is a 90 minute joke about this image.) I work in design engineering in an environment that is 90% male. This is not an image I want to project.

I'm not trying to hide my femininity or pretend that I'm a man. I love pink. I keep perfume in my desk. But I'm not 6 years old. I think it should be possible to dress like a woman and still look like an adult.  

Actually, the dress below is something I would love to have. The Marquise de Pompadour, (definitely a woman who knew how to use her charms to her advantage) managed to put together an outfit that is literally covered with flowers, bows, lace and ruffles, but which doesn't make her look like a child in the slightest. Admittedly, fashion has moved on, and I don't live the kind of life this garment is suited to, (Nor does anybody - can you imagine trying to board a plane in it?) but isn't it a marvel of a dress?

The most feminine dress I've ever seen.
For more practical examples, look at Diane Von Furstenberg and Zooey Deschanel. Both have very feminine styles, and they both look like grown ups. (Zooey is modeling her own line, which I wish had longer skirts - mini skirts aren't very office friendly, but I knit pick.)

I know the person who called me "girly" was not insulting me. She meant well, (and thank goodness my boss didn't hear her) but I want to be a woman, not a girl.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fig and Prosciutto Tart

Tarts are one of my favorite things to cook. Particularly savory tarts, because they make such wonderful leftovers. A slice of leftover tart makes a very tasty (and pack-able) lunch.  

For July 4th, after the bratwurst with hot mustard and sauerkraut (because tradition must be observed), I tried out this recipe for a savory tart. If you read it through, it's really just a fancy open-face ham and cheese sandwich. It's a little unusual in that it uses fig spread, so there is a touch of sweetness to it. But since many of the other ingredients are salty, the fig works to balance the flavors.

This makes a lovely light(ish) meal with a salad and glass of wine, and also works as an appetizer. 

  • I was unable to find a real fig spread, so I used a fig and lemon jam. The main flavor of the jam was fig, so I thought a little lemon wouldn't hurt.
  • The recipe has you pre-bake the tart shell. I did this, and the edges came out a little overly crisp. You may want to either skip that step, or reduce the amount of pre-baking time.

Fig and Prosciutto Tart

·         ½ medium red onion (sliced thin)
·         1 sprig thyme
·         1 T. olive oil
·         1 t. balsamic vinegar
·         Salt and pepper to taste
·         1 sheet puff pastry
·         3 T. fig spread
·         3 ounces Serrano ham or prosciutto
·         4 ounces Manchego (sliced thin)
·         2-3 T. chopped toasted walnuts

1. Over low heat, sauté onion and thyme in olive oil 7-10 minutes or until lightly golden. Add balsamic vinegar and stir to coat for one minute. Remove from heat. Remove thyme sprig and season with salt and pepper to taste

2. Using a sharp knife, cut a one inch border around the pastry sheet.  Lay out puff pastry on a greased baking sheet or parchment covered baking sheet.  Prick the sheet at ½ inch intervals.  Bake crust for 10 minutes.

3. Spread crust with fig paste. Cover with prosciutto, followed by manchego slices. Top with onions and sprinkle evenly with toasted walnuts.

4. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes or until golden. Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs if desired.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Back to work

The Monday after a holiday weekend is always a bit of a let-down.  Everyone is present in body, but it's going to take a couple of days before the mind gets back in gear.

So, to ease everyone into the week, a reminder that it is the simple pleasures that make life worth living.

Happy Monday!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Patriotic Fruit

Happy Independence Day! 

If you're not American, pull up a chair anyway. We're happy to share.

My lunch - an experiment that I have high hopes for.
I'm not expecting much sleep tonight, my neighbors proved over New Year's Eve that fireworks are very much their thing. So I'm going to have a good lunch and a nap, before I settle in for an evening of explosions.

I found starfruit in the grocery store and couldn't resist. I think the last time I had them I was 13. Unfortunately, I forgot that the best thing about starfruit is the shape. Ah well, at least it's pretty and very holiday appropriate. 

Happy July 4th!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Museum Visit: Museum of Natural Science

For my birthday two weeks ago, I took myself to the Museum of Natural Science because they have some unique special exhibits this summer, and I couldn't pass them up.

Exhibit 1: The Magna Carta
This was a letdown. It’s hard to make a 13th century Latin manuscript interesting, even if it is one of the founding documents of Western civilization.  I fully appreciate the Magna Carta’s importance. It was (and is) a big deal.

But a creased document in Latin is not that enthralling an exhibit.  The curators have tried. They have filled the exhibit with stuff about life and times in Medieval England.  How did people live, what was chain mail, what was the Magna Carta written on (vellum) and how did they make the ink (oak gall).  There are interactive displays that invite you to link chain mail, make rubbings and lift a lance. There’s even a bit on the Bayeux Tapestry (the subject of which predates the Magna Carta by quite a lot, but whatever) My issue is that the exhibit is geared towards 10 year olds.  Something I wish I’d known before I bought a membership to the museum to see it.  

Trivia Question: Which King of England signed the Magna Carta?
Answer: Trick question! John affixed his seal to the document, but no king (or queen) has ever signed it.

For me the best part was actually outside the exhibit, where the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts was giving demonstrations.  I had a good discussion with them about modern fencing, vs actual fighting, types of swords, benefits of particular blades, Japanese steel, etc.  I’m such a romantic.

Exhibit #2: Bulgari
This is the 4th major jewelry exhibit I’ve been to at the Natural Science Museum. I’m not complaining, but It seems like an odd match. What does jewelry design have to do with Natural Science?  Shouldn't this be at the Museum of Fine Arts?  (Which, incidentally, has significantly cheaper entrance fees?)

Wow.  Bulgari does not do subtle. If you want pearls to go with your twin set, go to Tiffany’s.  If you want white diamonds set in platinum (so appropriate, so tasteful, so dull) go to Cartier or Harry Winston. Bulgari is about color.  It is easy to see why Bulgari is a favorite of fashion and movie editors, it’s big, it’s bold, and it photographs beautifully.  

These are watches - the watch face is in the snake's mouth
The exhibit is set up as a timeline, taking the viewer through Bulgari’s history. From the beginning (when they sold silverware), the switch to jewelry and the company’s association with the movie industry: Italian (50’s) and American (60’s). There are diamonds, of course, but they are used to frame and set off the colored stones. Bulgari’s designers of the 70’s and 80’s had an amazing sense of color. There are some gorgeous enameled sautoirs and collars, with colors that carry across the room.  

The display was thoughtfully set up, so that many of the jewels can be seen from front and back.  Real fine jewelry is just as finished on the reverse, and this stuff is beautifully made. There are also a few “interactive” displays, with a motion sensor that triggers the display when you approach the case.  I loved the one that looks like a drawing of a swan, then as you get close, you can hear wind and the feathers blow away, revealing a swan-shaped brooch.

There’s also a special room set up for Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari jewelry, again using an interactive approach, with a photo “album” and pictures that appear on the wall as you turn the pages.  

One of Taylor's jewels
All in all, not a bad way to spend a birthday.