» Archive for the 'Foodlike Things' Category

What’s the draw of brightly-colored frostings and cutesy sprinkles?

Friday, August 14th, 2009 by kara

Let’s talk about those wonderful, colorful little sugar cookies sold in supermarkets, coated with 1/4″ of frosting and covered in seasonally-color-coordinated sprinkles.  Also, the teeny, ‘two-bite’ brownies and muffins and carrot cakes which beckon to us from inside their sterile plastic clam shells stacked neatly on the baking racks near the deli.

What exactly is their draw?  I’m asking because I’m frustrated–and I’m also completely addicted to them.  If it’s got any color frosting on it, I’m intrigued.  Add the incredible lure of non-pareils, jimmies, sprinkles, colored sugars, cinnamon red hots, teeny marzipan fruits and even those little edible silver balls that look like BBs, and I’m purchasing the item in question.

But the weird thing about store-bought baked goods that are decorated in frostings and gewgaws is that they are usually devoid of taste.  I just bought some festive little cupcakes from my favorite supermarket (Super Target, duh), which easily expressed half their bulk in red and white frosting and little red, white and blue star-shaped sprinkles.  The frosting was sweet, as expected, and the little stars were kind of tough as well as kind of sweet.  The cake of the cupcake was dry and somewhat coarse, as if the batter had been beaten too long, or maybe had too much flour.

I contrasted these festive little tarts with the banana bread muffins I’d just made earlier that day, and was struck by the difference in taste and quality.  My banana bread muffins were really wonderful, moist, sweet and just the right texture–springy and chewy but not tough or dry at all.  The muffins were hugely better than the little cupcakes, so why didn’t I want them rather than those sad, tarted-up little pretenders?

Is their draw solely in the cosmetic appeal of the frosting and sprinkles?  Spraying air freshener and Pledge around your home makes it smell better, but it doesn’t actually clean anything.  And I know women who ‘frost themselves’ with makeup and hair treatments, and men who ‘frost themselves’ with sporty automobiles and cologne, but they don’t actually taste any better once you metaphorically bite into them either.

Is it because food made by someone else has an air of mystery and is thus more appealing?  My friend Karen says that her husband makes her the BEST peanut butter sandwiches.  She can stand right alongside him and make the same sandwich that he does, and his will taste better.

As a prep cook in my teenage years, I’ve experienced this.  All day long I worked with food, all different kinds of food.  At that time I was obsessed with corned beef, and could probably eat a whole roast by myself if given the opportunity.  But part of my duties as a prep cook was to roast all the meats used for sandwiches and salads that day, and frequently I’d chuck two or three corned beefs (beeves?)  into the oven along with turkeys, chickens, and whatever else we were serving later on.

After roasting and cooling, I’d slice the meats and package them appropriately.  And after handling all that meat every day, it didn’t take long before corned beef in its ‘unrefined’ state lost its draw for me.  BUT if one of the up-front cooks made me a sammich of corned beef and spinach or romaine lettuce on a croissaint with a side of those wonderfully crispy plank fries, well, then I could be persuaded to eat!

I think that having someone else (ANYone else!) fuss over our food makes it more appealing, even if it doesn’t actually taste any different.  Cooking or baking for someone else is a way to nurture them and show caring, and the more time and effort that goes into the dish, the more appreciation we have for it.  An obviously homemade peanut butter cookie with crosshatches in its crispy top from a fork always tastes better than a bar cookie made from a similar recipe.

I guess we can conclude that “caring” is the super-secret special ingredient in home-made food.  Doesn’t it feel good to do something nice for someone you care about?  So go ahead and indulge someone today by making them something special!  Here’s a cute trick for creating little nummies that look special without spending a whole lot of time on them:  Use packaged brownie mix, prepared frosting and sprinkles to create frosted brownie cookies.  You end up with something that feels very celebratory and indulgent without the effort and fuss that would accompany, say, cut-out cookies.  Enjoy!

Late-night olive craving denied

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009 by kara

So late last night, I got home from work and fed/watered/pottied the dawgs and settled myself down in front of my computers for a little Facebooking and WoW’ing, and all of a sudden I realize that I want OLIVES.  All kinds, and lots of ’em.

This isn’t an unusual craving, although I haven’t had it for a while.  I usually prefer to eat them with my fingers from a little dish, with a side plate of Carr’s Table Water crackers and some cheese, and sometimes I’ll have this combination as a meal.

But I haven’t been to the grocery store for a while and haven’t bought any olives lately.  That’s okay–they’re like a staple.  Everybody’s got olives!

I toodle out to the refrigerator and discover that my entire olive stock consists of four pimiento-stuffed Manzanilla and six of those darling little Niçoise olives.  They’re darling, and I love them, but I was actually HOPING for about a pound of Kalamata and a whole can of extra large pitted ripe olives.  I made do.

And yes, olives are on the shopping list, and yes, I’m actually GOING TO THE STORE TODAY.

Dogs love food, but food doesn’t always love dogs

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009 by kara

Most dogs love to eat, and most dogs will try to eat anything, including some things that aren’t technically food.  As an example, our houseguest, Rocket, just ate my used Breathe Right nose strip yesterday morning.  I noticed that he was chewing determinedly on something, but he didn’t have a toy or anything else suitable for chewing in front of him.

When I investigated by swiping my finger around the inside of his mouth, I found a portion of the plastic bands and some of the chewy adhesive ‘cloth’ that binds the strips to the nose.  Since they’re small and flexible, I retrieved what he hadn’t swallowed, and knew that I’d have to watch him to make sure he could get rid of the rest of it.

It’s accepted (hopefully for obvious reasons!) that dogs shouldn’t eat non-food items like socks and furniture and nose strips, but actual food is a little trickier.  Because dogs are willing to eat pretty much anything people have the misconception that it’s safe to feed them anything, including spoiled food and stuff that we eat regularly.

With regard to ‘dog food’, food that is prepared specifically for the consumption of dogs, we must think about two properties:  The QUALITY of the prepared dog food, and the INGREDIENTS.  We as American consumers have an inordinate amount of trust in commercial manufacturers, believing that capitalistic companies motivated by profit (greed) would never sell us a product which contains less-than-wholesome ingredients.  For human food and products, we rely somewhat on governmental agencies to evaluate and police products (peanut-butter-flavored salmonella, anyone?) but the agencies established to control the quality of animal feed isn’t as comprehensive.

If you’d like to learn more about dog food and what goes into it, go to Sabine Contreras’ website and prepare to be shocked and horrified about what you may have been feeding your dog. The pretty pictures of happy dogs eating nutritious-looking food on the bag often belies what’s inside each and every piece of kibble.

After you’ve learned more about evaluating the ingredients of your dog’s prepared food, there’s more to consider in terms of your dog’s tolerance for those ingredients.  Some ingredients like BHA/BHT are a no-brainer–we wouldn’t want to eat an unstable chemical used to preserve food, so we wouldn’t want to put that in our dog’s dish, either.  But something like corn is pretty harmless, right?  Not to some dogs.  Corn in any form is difficult, if not impossible, for dogs to digest, and many forms offer no nutritional value at all.  At best, it’s a cheap filler and binder in dog foods that increases the bulk of the dog’s stool.  In other words, feed your dog a food with corn as one of the main ingredients, and you’ll be picking up way bigger poops because the dog will just excrete whatever it can’t ‘use.’

At worst, your dog may be allergic to corn, and feeding your dog a food with corn in any form (whole-grain corn, corn meal, corn siftings, corn syrup, corn gluten meal, etc.) can cause him to suffer allergy symptoms like ear infections, skin irritation and hair loss, or more severe symptoms like diarrhea.

I had never encountered a problem with food allergies until our English springer spaniel, Riley Newton, joined the family in October 2006.  He seemed to be a very hairy dog with ‘gooey’ ears who shed an amazing amount of hair and made constant soft-serve-type poops.  As it turns out, the high-quality kibble that he and Belle were eating contained chicken and wheat, which are on the list of common food allergens for dogs.  Changing Rye’s food to a limited-ingredient diet containing only duck meat and potato cleared up his ears, his incredible shedding, and firmed up his stool.  Now I’m very careful to feed Rye things like vegetables and fruits as treats, and I avoid heavily processed foods and treats which may contain common allergens.

Since I’m a lazyass and a terrible dog mother, I haven’t done any real analysis to determine what exactly Rye is allergic to.  Instead I avoid anything which may contain the four common allergens:  Wheat, corn, beef and chicken.  Since our other three don’t display any symptoms of food allergies, they eat a less-expensive but still high-quality kibble.  And no one gets table scraps!

So that’s dog food, in particular.  But what about giving your dogs bits and pieces of foods from your own kitchen as a treat?  My kids like to gather around me when I’m chopping veggies, just in case I drop something or feel generous enough to treat them with a sample.  But there are some foods that dogs should never have, even though we humans can tolerate them without a problem.  Recently I learned quite a lot about foods which can harm dogs while I was researching an article for a rescue group’s newsletter.  I’m going to copy and paste it in here.  Please bear in mind that I’m not a nutritionist, and that I’m not a doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV, so if you see something with which you disagree, remember that this is not a comprehensive list and that I’m not always right.  I’m just a concerned dog mother who wants to share this info with everyone.

“Human Food No-Nos,” by Kara DuLac-Shields  Copyright 2008-2009

We love our dogs, and as a way to express our love for them, sometimes we give them bits of food as treats.  However, “food does not equal love,” especially for dogs.  Many foods that we as humans eat without even a second thought can be toxic for dogs, for a number of different reasons.

We need to remember that our dogs are very different from humans physiologically.  Dogs are generally smaller than us, they have different teeth, different body chemistry, and far shorter digestive systems from us, which make some human foods dangerous for dogs.

For example, you and I could go to the bar and choose to have a beer–or several beers, and some chicken wings, and cheese sticks, maybe smoke a few cigarettes, and then we could take some aspirin when we get home.  One beer, or even several beers, might make us feel bad the next morning, but it’s unlikely that a healthy adult could die from drinking a beer.  Likewise, the chicken wings and cheese sticks wouldn’t kill us immediately, although we would be healthier if we avoided them.

But for dogs, even a small amount of alcohol could prove fatal, by depressing their central nervous system and putting them into a coma.  Likewise for tobacco–although dogs don’t often smoke, they may eat your cigarettes or chewing tobacco, and the nicotine is out-and-out poisonous.

And the bones in the chicken wings could splinter and cut your dog’s digestive system, or even become lodged in their intestines, which are much smaller in diameter than our own.  The cheese sticks have a high fat content, which can precipitate a disease in dogs called pancreatitis, which can cause death.  And then there’s the aspirin–while it might relieve pain for a short time, it could also eat a hole through the delicate lining of the dog’s stomach.

Not many people would take their dog to the bar and set it up with a pitcher, the munchie sampler and a Tiparillo, but consider what you toss to your dog as a treat in your own kitchen.  Be diligent in even reading the ingredient labels of the food you give your dog–even harmless-looking stuff like baby food can contain onion powder, which is toxic for dogs.  We are two very different species, and therefore have different dietary needs.  So in order to show our love to our four-legged kids with tails, we do need to say ‘no’ occasionally, just like any responsible parent.  Check the list below for some doggie dietary no-nos.

Fruit, Vegetables & Nuts:

Avocadoes: The avocado fruit, pit, and plant/tree are all toxic to dogs.  Hopefully you don’t have a guacamole fan.

Broccoli: Although your dog would have to eat a wagon load of broccoli to experience problems, it can be toxic in large quantities due to a compound called isothiocyanate, which can cause gastrointestinal irritation.  Just make sure broccoli makes up no more than 10% of your dog’s diet.

Grapes & raisins:  Have an unknown toxin which causes kidney failure in dogs.

Onions & garlic:  Contain thiosulfate (garlic in far lower amounts than onions) which destroys red blood cells & causes anemia.  This also builds up in the dog’s system, so even if they only eat a little bit at a time, repeated ingestion can result in toxic levels.  Humans have the necessary enzymes to break down thiosulfates–dogs don’t.

Tomatoes: The stems and leaves of the tomato plant are especially toxic, containing a lot of oxalates, which cause bladder stones.  Some have also attributed cardiac problems to the tomato itself, which is a member of the nightshade family.

Pits/seeds:  Most fruit pits contain a form of cyanide, although the flesh of fruits like apples, cherries, and peaches themselves are great snacks for dogs.  Pits can also cause intestinal blockages.

Mold/Spoiled food:  Mold and food-poisoning pathogens can be harmful to your dog.  Even though they don’t often suffer with food poisoning symptoms because their digestive systems are so much shorter than ours, it’s best not to take chances.  Don’t give your dog spoiled food–in short, if you won’t eat it, your dog shouldn’t, either.

Mushrooms: Wild and domestic mushrooms can be toxic for your dog.  There are very few types that are completely safe, so it’s best just to avoid them.

Nuts:  Macadamia and walnuts can cause weakness, muscle tremors and paralysis, so avoid them.  However, other nuts like peanuts (which is actually a legume and not a ‘tree nut’) and Brazil nuts can be healthy for your dog, in moderation.  Brazil nuts actually contain selenium, which is a vital nutrient for both your dog and you.

Persimmons:  Can cause intestinal blockage.

Potato peelings, green potatoes, green tomatoes, and rhubarb leaves: Contain oxalates, which can harm the nervous, digestive, and urinary systems, causing bladder stones.  And  by the way, rhubarb leaves are toxic no matter to which species you belong!

From the Spice Cupboard:

Nutmeg: Affects the nervous system and can cause hallucinations, seizures and death.

Salt, Baking Soda, & Baking Powder: Too much salt can damage your dog’s kidneys.  And in large amounts, they all can unbalance your dog’s electrolytes, leading to muscle spasm and congestive heart failure.

Xylitol: Damages the liver and kidneys and even a tiny bit can cause liver failure, resulting in death.  Keep your dog out of your purse and away from your sugar-free mints and chewing gum!

Yeast dough:  Can ‘rise’ in your dog’s digestive system and obstruct or actually rupture the stomach or intestines.  Fermenting yeast also produces alcohol, which can lead to alcohol poisoning.

Meat, Fish, Dairy:

Eggs:  Raw eggs can cause Salmonella poisoning.

Fish: Some raw fish can also cause salmonella poisoning;  raw salmon can cause “salmon poisoning.”  It can contain a parasite which hosts rickettsia, a bacterial pathogen that can sicken or kill your dog if the infection isn’t treated with antibiotics in time; tuna fish contains a lot of mercury, a heavy metal that also accumulates in fatty tissue, so large amounts of tuna should be avoided.

Bones:  Most bones should NOT be given (especially chicken or ‘spare rib’ bones) because they all can splinter and lacerate the digestive tract, or pose a choking hazard by becoming stuck in your dog’s throat.  They’re not all bad, though.  Appropriately-sized bones do offer valuable minerals and nutrients, and chewing on a hard object like a bone will clean your dog’s teeth and strengthen their jaw muscles, as well as provide entertainment for your dog.  If you do want to give your dog a bone, make sure that you have a large-enough bone like a beef knuckle that your dog can’t swallow whole, and always supervise your dog’s chewing, because there’s always a possibility that a piece of bone could splinter.  Also be aware that raw bones can harbor bacteria like salmonella, which is more a threat to humans than to dogs.  If you want to cook your dog’s bones to reduce the possibility of culturing bacteria, do so by boiling them rather than baking them, which tends to make them brittle.

Dairy Products:  Beware of fatty dairy products like butter and cream, which can precipitate pancreatitis.  In a less-serious vein, some dogs can also be lactose intolerant, which leads to gas and diarrhea, but for  50% of dogs, small amounts of yogurt, cheese or cottage cheese can be nourishing.

Fatty Meats:  Again, fatty meats have the capacity to induce pancreatitis.  Avoid them.

“The Finer Things in Life:”

Alcohol:  Wine, beer, tequila, Nyquil, doesn’t matter what kind–any form of alcohol can lead to coma or death.

Hops plugs:  Used in beer making, hops plugs contain whole-leaf hops which bear resins, essential oils, phenols, and nitrogenous compounds which can cause abdominal distension and pain, tachycardia and death.

Chocolate:  Although your dog may tell you he LOVES chocolate, it doesn’t love him.  Chocolate contains caffeine and an alkaloid compound called theobromine, which act as a cardiac stimulant and diuretic.  That is, they speed up your dog’s heart and make him whiz too much.  In large-enough amounts, chocolate can lead to dehydration, seizures, and death.  White and milk chocolate have the lowest amounts of theobromine, and baker’s semisweet chocolate has the highest.

Coffee/tea/soft drinks:  Are all hazardous due to their caffeine content.  Remember to dispose of your coffee grounds and tea bags properly, too–dogs can sometimes have a strange attraction to stuff like this.

Cigarettes/Cigars/Chewing Tobacco/Nicotine Patches/Nicotine Gum: Nicotine is an alkaloid poison, toxic enough that it’s used as a pesticide.  It’s poisonous to everyone, not just dogs–when humans get a dizzy rush and faint nausea on smoking their first cigarette, that’s a mild case of nicotine poisoning.  In dogs that have ingested enough nicotine, the poison can paralyze their diaphragm (breathing) muscle and cause cardiac problems, up to heart failure.

NSAIDs/Aspirin/Ibuprofen:  In large doses, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can cause ulcers, and damage kidneys by reducing blood flow to vital organs.  Administer these to your dog only on the advice of your veterinarian.

Tylenol/Acetaminophen:  Should NEVER be given to dogs or cats.  Causes severe tissue damage to cells, and dogs and cats don’t have enough of the liver enzymes necessary to effectively break this chemical down into its harmless components.

Human Vitamin Supplements: Many vitamins manufactured for human use contain levels of nutrients and minerals, particularly iron, which are too concentrated for dogs to digest safely.  They can cause kidney failure and liver damage.

If you’re ever in doubt about a food treat, don’t give it to your dog.  And if your dog gets hold of something bad, call the ASPCA’s Poison Hotline at (888) 426.4435.








MinuteRant: Quality of commercial tuna declining?

Thursday, June 25th, 2009 by kara

Is it just me, or is it getting more and more difficult to find a decent can of tuna lately?  It seems that a few years ago, you could open up a can of ordinary tuna and see recognizable FISH flesh, not just mush.  Now, if you buy anything less than albacore tuna, you have a can of what looks like pureed fish mixed with water.  Hard to drain, no recognizable texture, kinda repellent.

So is it just me?  Was commercially processed canned tuna always like this?  Or has the quality fallen off in the past decade?  And if so, why has it fallen off?  Have there been changes in the handling methods that degrade the quality of the tuna, or is it just poorer quality meat that’s making it into the cans?

I admit that lately I’ve been springing for the more-expensive “albacore” tuna simply because it still looks like fish when it comes out of the can.  *sigh*

I made risotto! And it was GOOD! I ROCK!

Saturday, March 7th, 2009 by kara

Rick and I like to watch Chef Gordon Ramsay abuse his supplicants on Hell’s Kitchen, and one of the staple dishes on that show seems to be risotto, which many of the contestants seem to have problems preparing. Apparently if you can’t cook risotto by the time you get to compete on Hell’s Kitchen, you should just go back home and go to bed permanently.

Rick insists that I’m a fabulous cook and that I should open a restaurant.  One problem with that idea is that I’m a huge lazyass, and restauranting takes a heckuva lotta energy.  Other than that, I also tend to doubt my own capabilities.  Take risotto, for instance:  I’ve never made it and was uncertain if I could prepare it successfully.

Since I’m working until 9 p.m. tonight, I decided to fix a big lunch for the Pumpkin and myself.  I need hot food at least once a day, otherwise I feel malnourished and deprived.  Even if I’m doing nothing more than munching on appetizers all day long (i.e., at a Super Bowl party or other festive gathering), I NEED at least one of those appetizers to be a hot dish.   A hot meal for lunch would be very satisfying, so I marinated some boneless pork chops in a mesquite-lime marinade (thank you, SuperTarget!), sliced some Roma tomatoes–and then I got daring and decided to fix risotto.

I dragged out my trusty “Joy of Cooking” and propped that beast open on the counter, set about sautéing onion and parsley in olive oil and butter, and went from there.  You can look up risotto on your own to see exactly what I did, and in the process I learned a lot about cooking rice gradually in an uncovered pan.

I followed the recipe to the letter (except for the 1/2 cup of white wine at the beginning–we don’t HAVE any white wine, we’re Kool-Aid drinkers, and the current flavor is grape, which I didn’t think would work well with the onion and parsley) and learned that much of cooking risotto is being patient and adding the liquid slowly, waiting for the rice to absorb the stock (bouillon) cup by cup, as you diligently stir.

On the show, Chef Ramsey seems particularly incensed by sticky risotto, which is caused by overcooking.  The exact, correct state of done-ness has a narrow margin of error–take the rice off the heat too soon, and it’s watery and unsatisfying.  Let it simmer too long, and you end up with a glutinous mass that won’t ‘flow’ on the plate. I think the key to getting the risotto to the proper creaminess is to keep in mind that after you simmer the rice in chicken stock (or bouillon, in my house), you’ll be adding grated parmesan cheese to it as a finish, and the parmesan will soak up some of that liquid–so you have to stop simmering a little before you’d ordinarily WANT to do.

I ALMOST overcooked it–I’d gotten it to the point where it seemed perfectly creamy, mebbe just a touch too much so, and removed it from the burner.  Then I remembered the Parmesan, and had a bad couple of seconds while I stirred that in.  Thankfully, the Parmesan had just enough liquid to allow it to be incorporated and melt nicely without binding everything together like wallpaper paste.

Rick and I had a lovely lunch, and I’m feeling pretty pleased with my bad little self.  I can cook!

Oh my GAWD do I hate my cooktop

Saturday, December 27th, 2008 by kara

I didn’t choose the appliances that are currently in my kitchen. That’s nothing new: I haven’t chosen the appliances in ANY of my kitchens so far. I’ve always just lived with the appliances that were there when we moved in. The difference between our previous houses and this current one is that I just haven’t had a tremendous problem with the kitchen appliances until we moved here. We haven’t had the luxury of renovating our kitchen to our own tastes yet, but I’m REALLY looking forward to doing that now.

In our last house (aka “The Beautiful Little House in Saline”) the kitchen had been newly renovated by the previous owner, probably to make it easier to sell when she found a larger place. She was not a kitchen fan, however, so everything was very gently used. That definitely worked for us!img_1967There’s a picture from when we were looking at the house. Please note the high chair is NOT ours. 🙂

The kitchen was beautiful, with like-new appliances and more custom cabinetry and storage space than any other kitchen I’ve ever seen. It was a great layout with lots of counter space and a built-in, Corian-topped bar, which allowed me to be very productive, plus it boasted a really nice gas range. I grew up cooking on an electric range/oven, and frankly, the idea of natural gas and pilot lights frightened me at first. After I’d had a chance to use a gas range, I understood its superior performance for cooking. Immediate heat, and immediate LACK of heat–you can control your cooking temperature much more efficiently with a gas range than with an electric range, which has heating elements that heat and cool slowly, which must be figured in to your cooking time.

Plus, if you want to get fancy-shmancy and do something like ‘roast peppers until blackened’ you can do that over a gas range without having to go outside and uncover the grill. We hosted more get-togethers in the Beautiful Little House In Saline than anywhere else.

So, yeah. If you’ve not figured it out by now, I REALLY miss that house and its kitchen.

Fast-forward to the current day, and our current house. It’s not bad, really, but it’s not great like the Beautiful Little House in Saline. It’s got a huge, amazing yard that’s already fenced, on a dead-end street with mature hardwood trees in the front yard. It has 2 1/2 bathrooms which is absolutely vital for me, and really nice for guests. There’s a rec room downstairs with a fireplace and laminate wood flooring with a walk-out slider to the backyard, which will be fantastic for entertaining, once I get it whipped into shape.

But there’s no hardwood floors hiding under decrepit carpet for an instantaneous and INEXPENSIVE UPGRADE here, no almost-new kitchen appliances, and sadly enough, no huge, horsetrough-sized 1960’s bathtub. It’s only taken Rick and I the purchase of three houses, but I think we’re really beginning to understand what’s really important to us both in terms of home features.

When we bought this house, we bought it for the location and for the yard, and the rec room and all the bathrooms. We knew there’d be things that needed to be redone, like the french doors to the backyard deck that were hung incorrectly, and now are warped and harder to open and close than someone else’s bank vault, and the tired-ass carpeting that really needs to be ripped up and replaced with hardwood flooring…and the kitchen. We knew that we’d like to remodel the kitchen in whatever house we bought, unless of course we lucked out and found one in which the previous owner had already done that.

So we accepted that we’d have to live with the older-but-still-perfectly-functional appliances until we could get some money together to design our own kitchen.

But that won’t be happening for a while. The fridge is new, so I can’t complain about that. The dishwasher is old and noisy, and not very efficient, with weirdly-sized racks that fit none of our drinking glasses. I’m considering using my former boss’ tip for breaking dishwashers to try to get a new one courtesy of our home warranty. He shared this one day while we were talking about our old dishwasher back in Highland Township. He said “If you really want to break it completely, make a pan of lasagna, eat half of the pan, then leave the other half in the fridge, uncovered, until it dries out completely. Then put it in the dishwasher without scraping anything out. Apparently, this will kill the dishwasher, breaking the impeller or something else that’s really expensive, and it will be less costly to just buy a new one.”

I said “You speak of this as if from personal experience.” He just said “Yep. Dried lasagna is hell on dishwashers.”

But the dishwasher is not that important to me. We usually run it at night when we’re going to sleep, and the noise is actually a pleasant mask for drowning out incidental sounds that might keep us awake.

The stove, on the other hand, is a problem. it’s my biggest bitch and I’m certain that Rick is very very very tired of hearing me swear and cuss it out every time I use it. It’s a Whirlpool RF376PXDZ 1 with a Ceram by Schott cooktop. I do have to admit that the ceramic solid surface is much easier to clean after a boil-over, which is fortunate–because I have so goddamned many boil-overs with this range. The heating of the burners doesn’t seem to be consistent or even predictable. If I put a pot of potatoes on to simmer for mash, it takes for-freaking-EVER for them to even come to a boil, and then when I try to turn them down, there is no setting low enough to keep them simmering without boiling over. Dammit. I AM NOT A NOVICE. I KNOW HOW TO BOIL POTATOES FOR MASHING.

And if I’m trying to heat broth for making gravy? Can’t get it hot enough. Same for stir-frying–you’re supposed to get that oil hot before you even put food in the pan–but it takes forever to get it hot enough and I never seem to wait long enough, so it’s more of a stir-simmer.

But on the OTHER hand, if I’m making rice pudding? Which requires a hellaciously long simmer at a very low heat? This stove will burn that shit EVERY time. I don’t think it’s my cookware, because all my pans have flat bottoms, which is a prerequisite with this cooktop.

In fact, I just downloaded the manual for the stove, and it says “Cooking on the ceramic glass cook top is almost the same as cooking on a coiled surface units, but there are a few differences:

The surface unit will glow red when it is
turned on. You will see the element cycling
on (glowing red) and off – even on HI
setting -to maintain the proper tempera-
ture setting you have selected.”

Okay. That explains a lot, the whole ‘element cycling on and off’ thing. This is one of those computerized ‘advancements’ which are supposed to do half the think-work of cooking for me, “to maintain the proper temperature setting you have selected.” Wait a minute–I selected the number on the freaking dial–that should either be low, medium, or high, or various settings between those intensity ranges.

If I set it on “HI” I want that puppy to heat up and stay heated up. If I turn it on “MED” I want it to STAY on MED. There’s no temperature dial on those knobs–I didn’t expect it to be keeping track of the actual TEMPERATURE of the element. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’M the person operating the stove and cooking the food–isn’t it MY job to monitor the temperature, and adjust the damned knob accordingly??!? No WONDER the bastardly thing isn’t working right! It’s trying to THINK for me!

*Sigh* Gimme another quality gas range, which will allow me to set the height of the flame–and keep it right there for me.

And yes, I do have control issues–why do you ask?

Bah. Dammit. Turkey THAWED, for once.

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008 by kara

Okay, you’ll love this: You’ll remember from previous posts how much trouble I have de-freaking-frosting a frozen-freaking-turkey in time to prepare it, right? I bought Rick a 20-pound turkey as a Christmas present (he really LIKES turkey) and wanting to be PROactive instead of REactive, I put the damn thing into the fridge a week ago. On the bottom shelf.

And because turkeys in my refrigerator NEVER thaw, I didn’t bother putting the dang thing on a plate. It just plunked and skidded on the bottom shelf of the fridge, where I assumed it would remain FROZEN just like the last two have done, until I took it out the day before preparing it to thaw it in a cold-water bath.

Yep. You guessed it. Checked it this evening, and the damn thing DEFROSTED. All over the bottom of my refrigerator. SHIT.

You should know that ‘cleaning the refrigerator’ is one of my least-favorite activities. It’s tied for first place on that list with ‘having a gynecological exam’ and ‘dental work.’ Why? I don’t really know, because it’s not as germ-laden as picking up dog poop in the backyard, nor as cleaning the bathroom. I just HATE IT. Don’t know why. So I wussed out and cleaned the fridge using a bunch of Chlorox wipes and paper towels. I know I should have used hot soapy water with a little bit of bleach, but screw it. I am lazy, and proud of it. And yeah, now the turkey is sitting on a serving platter. Better late than never, I guess.

More yeast-bread whining

Saturday, December 20th, 2008 by kara

My Wonderful Pumpkin is champing at the bit for me to cut this loaf of freshly-baked banana bread:

Freshly-made banana bread

Mmm. Look at that thing. That is a loaf of steamy, hot, banana-y goodness right there. Still too hot to slice, because I just took it out of the oven. The Pumpkin’s gonna have to wait a few minutes.

That’s how we sold our house in Michigan, by the way. Every single time we had a showing scheduled, I’d run through a do a quick cleaning, and then I’d bake something. Sometimes the baking was nothing more than a casserole dish of apples, Splenda, cinnamon and butter, thrown into the microwave for 10 minutes and allowed to stew. Then after the showing, I’d come home and dish them up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top and enjoy dessert.

But the banana bread…oh, the banana bread. Heavenly. Does anyone out there NOT like banana bread?? Anyway. The woman who was looking at our house was pregnant, and when she encountered the heavenly scent of freshly-baked fruit loaf, she was hooked. Was that wrong of me? >:)

She even mentioned it at closing: “You know, that banana bread…that was pretty cruel to do to a pregnant woman.” Hmm. That WAS cruel of me. I should have sliced some for them and left it on the breakfast bar with some honey butter.

But if I can make such a celestial loaf of banana bread, WHY can I not make a simple loaf of yeast-risen bread?? Arrgh. I’m going to go make a tuna sandwich and see how well tuna and banana get along.

My turkey is still frozen. As usual. Dangit.

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008 by kara

And sooo Thanksgiving is here again, but as per usual I have a huge turkey in my refrigerator that is not thawed yet. What a surprise. What a change from the normal status quo. NOT.

I love fixing Thanksgiving Dinner. Yes, I DID capitalize ‘dinner’ because Thanksgiving Dinner is iconic, it is a special dinner loaded with meaning for probably everyone in the United States. It’s actually pretty simple, too, compared to some meals. Maybe it just seems more impressive due to the size of the turkey and the amount of mashed potatoes. (Large amounts of food can be mesmerising to me.)

And this year, even though we’ll be away from our families for the holiday (again), we’ll actually have some company. Rick’s coworker Sterling is on call and he’ll be staying here to do his duty while his family visits relatives elsewhere. It will be nice to have someone to spoil along with Rick this holiday. Told Rick to let Sterling know in no uncertain terms that he will be expected to play lots of board games because there aren’t a lot of card games that work with three players. Parcheesi, here we come!

But before the Parcheesi comes the food. That turkey is 20 pounds of joy, frozen joy, to be accurate, but foodie joy none-the-less. I pulled it out of the freezer on Sunday evening, and just like every year before it, it’s still pretty stiff. I think it’s because I’m so paranoid about germs and food safety that I keep my refrigerator VERY VERY cold. Ice crystals do form in milk and iced tea if they’re allowed to sit long enough in my refrigerator, and that’s on the top shelf. I’m guessing that it’s not very far away from the temperature range in the freezer, so even though it’s not 32 degrees Fahreinheit in my fridge, it is cold enough to slow down a thaw. I’ve waited DAYS for a freaking Gladware container of soup to thaw, so you’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now.

But NOOOOO. Come tomorrow morning, along with making the biscuits and the pumpkin pies for Thursday, I’ll also be dunking my turkey in a cold water bath in the sink, hoping against hope to get that little bugger bakeable by Thursday morning. I shoulda known better. I shoulda just come home from the grocery store and chucked that plucked little monkey straight into the fridge. A week in there should have done it.

A turkey that’s even partially frozen will take a lot longer to cook, ya know. Ask our good friends from Ann Arbor, when we had a ‘holiday dinner’ a couple of years ago. Breads, veggies, taties, gravy, pies, everything was done at 7 p.m. except the turkey–even though it had been in the oven for most of the day. Finally I gave up and just started carving from the outermost regions and left the deeper breast meat intact, and flung the carcass back into the oven while we munched on the carved bits.

Cheezwhiz. Maybe I should go get my hairdryer out…no, no, NO, I KNOW that the hairdryer doesn’t work for this. It’s too boneheaded an idea to work, anyway. I might, however try throwing it in the microwave on defrost for a couple of hours tomorrow. BTW, if you DO use the microwave to defrost your turkey, PLEASE make sure there is no metal in the carcass before doing so. Some turkeys have metal clamps to hold their little leg stumps in place, and I guess that there can be metal bits in pop-up timers, and we all know that microwaves and metal are not friendly toward each other.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a little excitement and you have an extra turkey waiting in the wings, go for it. Take pictures and send them to me. Video, too, if you’ve got the capability. We can submit it to America’s Funniest Home Videos and YouTube.

The rest of our menu will include biscuits, asparagus pan-fried in bacon drippings, cornmeal stuffing with celery and onion, and pumpkin and apple pies. Something I’ll be doing differently this year is making my own pie crust. I hope they turn out tender and good, because I’d hate to experiment on Rick’s friend with something as CRUCIAL as pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. But piecrust is almost on par with a loaf of plain white bread–it’s simple and I SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO IT DAMMIT. Yeah, piecrust is up there, but maybe it’s not quite the white whale to me as yeast bread.

I’ll cheat, though. I have a couple of coupons for refrigerated pie crust, so if my own is really inedible, I’ll just throw together another pie with that. I’ll let you know how it all turns out. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving!

Learning to cook and bake with Norma

Thursday, November 20th, 2008 by kara

My mother Norma started me off in the kitchen when I was 8 or 9 years old. Her own mother was very capable in the kitchen and for better or worse insisted on doing everything herself, so my mother and her sister Laurel (better known as Aunt Corky) never got any practical cookery experience while they were growing up. This would come back to bite my mother in the ass, because when she married and left home to start her own household, she’d have to learn how to cook while she was on the job.

Norma was fond of saying that when she and my father first married she was so inexperienced in the kitchen that she “couldn’t boil sh*t for a tramp.” She was exaggerating to be funny and to make her point, that she didn’t even possess the most rudimentary kitchen skills. She managed to teach herself how to cook and bake, but it took quite a while and during her learning curve she had to cope with lots of beginner’s level problems which made life that much more difficult–needlessly. At that point, while she was sweating through the basics, she decided to prepare her own children thoroughly for life out of the nest, so she made sure that we all knew our way around the spice cupboard early in life.

(Apparently my brother did not receive the same level of preparation as did the rest of us girls. One Thanksgiving afternoon when he was living in Arizona, he called home to ask what kind of turkey he should buy to prepare for dinner that night. After explaining that it would take three days to thaw the damn thing, much less prepare it, I think he settled on turkey lunchmeat and instant mashed potatoes with canned gravy.)

My mother had a rare, dry sense of humor, and she practised her wit on all of us kids regularly. Most of the time it was cool to have a mother with such a weird sense of humor, but when she was teaching me to cook it was occasionally frustrating. When I was preparing something I hadn’t done before, I’d ask her “how long do I fry this/cook this/beat this?” she’d reply “Until it’s done.” I thought she was being funny or just trying to annoy me by not answering my questions, but in retrospect I can see that by not answering my question directly she was teaching me to pay attention to the food I was preparing. When I watched it carefully, I could see when it was underdone, when it was done perfectly, and the exact point at which it became overdone.

She taught me to observe my results and to learn as I went along, just like she did, but she did me the favor by starting me out early, before I had the pressure of providing food for my own family. I followed her example and learned to cook, preparing new dishes along the way with an eye on nutrition and frugality. She ended up as an accomplished cook who could also can and preserve foods that she’d grown herself. If there was something she didn’t know how to prepare, she’d learn.

But for all her hard-won expertise, she still had her bugbears, one of which was my grandmother’s recipe for Butterscotch Pie. This pie is essentially a homemade, cooked butterscotch pudding in a pastry crust, with a meringue crown. The recipe itself is only a list of ingredients for the pudding filling–no instructions for what to DO with all those ingredients. That obviously wasn’t a problem for my grandmother, who’d been preparing that pie for special occasions for years and years, most likely from memory.

When I was a child, I remember coming home after school to the heavenly scent of this wonderful, salty-sweet pie cooling on the countertop, honey-like drops of syrup bubbling up on the crown of meringue. It was always such a treat to have her make this pie, and for a while it seemed she’d make it without a special occasion–with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the butterscotch was runny, sometimes it might seem almost curdled, and other times the texture was perfect. It always TASTED fabulous, however, no matter how it looked.

When I think back on it, I realize now that my mother was practising making this pie so she could reliably make it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and other special occasions. I think she first began to make this pie just after her mother had died in 1974. Just like any other time when we think we have plenty of opportunities to say the important things or ask the important questions, my mother probably hadn’t asked Grandma how to make the pie. After all, Grandma just made it herself for all the appropriate occasions, so there was no need for my mother to know how to fix it. So Mom had to figure out on her own the proper cooking time for the pudding filling, learning as she went. And like her mother, she kept those steps in her head.

My mother died in 1995, taking lots of important information with her. I still miss her and so often have thought of questions that only she can answer, some as small as “how do I put together these ingredients to make this pie?” and some as large as “what was your father and mother’s childhood like?” And I can’t tell you how often I’ve regretted not asking them. Along with that mysterious pie recipe, I have family pictures of people I don’t recognize and possibly have never even met, and my mother is the only person who could have told me who they were. It’s too late now, by far, but as I’ve discovered, regrets last a lifetime.

That's my Grandma's handwriting, yo!

I’ve kept that same recipe card for Butterscotch Pie, written in my Grandma Mae’s handwriting, and although I’ve not used it yet, I really do want to learn how to make it. I know the logical step is just to gather the ingredients and start experimenting like Norma. Someday I’ll do that, and through trial and error I’ll figure out how to combine these ingredients into that heavenly pie. And even though I don’t have kids to whom to pass this recipe along, I’ll write down the steps and I’ll share it with whoever wants to make it. Hopefully they’ll taste the love that’s such an important ingredient, even though it’s not written on the card.