Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Here is the result of all my wrapping!

It really is greater to give than to receive - I can't wait to see the reactions to some of these presents. Looking forward to hauling half of these to the in-laws later today, and the rest to Montreal tomorrow!

I've got my coffee (the good stuff - Starbucks Verona), my cats, and my sleeping husband... I'm chatting with my bro online and watching the snowflakes outside. This is a great Christmas morning. I'm off to the kitchen to make breakfast in hopes that the smell of bacon will wake my sleeping man. Because if it doesn't, I'm just eating all the bacon. :)

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Our mailbox fell off its post.
So we fixed it.

While I'm amazed as always at the versatility and usefulness of duct tape, I think we'll be buying a new mailbox after Christmas, lest the neighbors think we're rednecks.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

My Christmas gift to both of my grandmothers this year will be tins of homemade cookies. They keep telling me they don't want or need anything, but everyone likes cookies. Mom told me that Grandmaman's favorite cookies are pecan cookies, so I did a little hunting for a good recipe online, and came up with these "wedding cookies". They're traditionally an almond-based cookie, but I substituted toasted pecans and they turned out wonderfully. I'm transcribing this recipe into my book immediately so I don't lose it!

Mexican Wedding Cookies (with Pecans)

1 cup butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp cold water
2 cups flour
1 cup crushed toasted pecans
powdered sugar for dusting

Toast the pecans by putting them in a single layer on a cookie sheet or pie pan, and baking at 350 for 8 minutes, stirring them at the halfway point. Put them in a large ziplock bag and crush them with a rolling pin, or do what I did and put them in a cup and smash them with the end of my smallest metal measuring cup. I guess you could dump them in a food processor, if you have one of those. You want them ground pretty fine but with bits big enough to give a crunch.

Cream butter and granulated sugar, add vanilla and water and mix well. Add the nuts and flour, mix until blended. Chill 30 min in the fridge.
Preheat oven to 350F.

Roll dough into balls and then squeeze into crescents (you can leave them as balls if you want) and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 15-20 minutes at 350, then move to a rack to cool. When cool, dip the tops in a bowl of powdered sugar. This makes about 4 dozen cookies.

And they're so cute!

I absolutely loved these. I want to make a second batch for myself but I'm getting tired of all the baking, and I also know I'll be eating a ton in the next week, with the special Christmas Eve dinner I'm making, Christmas dinner with the in-laws and then with my Mom... so I'll skip the cookies for now. But I'll be baking these again in the near future, I think.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Ants go marching two by two, hurrah

More like marching by the dozen. Sigh. We have ants. I thought it was a summer problem, but I'm learning. Another issue with old houses, I guess.

Usually we'll see one or two scouts, and squash them before they can report back to the mothership, and that'll be the end of it. But sometimes we'll find a bunch of them trying to eat a dead bug we hadn't noticed, or a kibble that Mojo flung across the floor. I'm doing my very best to keep the floor swept and washed, and the counters clean, but sometimes it's not enough.

The exterminator guy who came out to help us with the bees, mice, stinkbugs, and spiders (we live in a forest, apparently) told us to use this Terro liquid ant bait, because they will eat it and bring it back to the nest, and kill off the colony faster. You put a couple of drops on a little square of cardboard and put it in their path so they'll smell it, and then they go for it like sugar. It works really well, but the first thing that happens is it attracts more ants, so what started out as a dozen is suddenly a hundred, and it freaks me out. Look at this!

I'm not afraid of them, but seeing so many of them makes my skin crawl, makes me think maybe one got in my hair or my sock or is crawling in my ear! My instinct is to spray Raid all over and make them instantly dead, but the exterminator said it's a quick fix and won't really take care of them. Plus I don't like spraying Raid around the cats, where they'll get it on their paws and lick it off.

The bait stuff does work - within a day or so we're down to seeing only a few dozen ants, and within a couple of days they're gone. I wonder if we'll ever be completely rid of them or if this is just something we need to get used to.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's for Dinner - Baked Ziti

Ok, I'll admit it, it was baked shells. I didn't have any ziti.
Easiest thing in the world, not sure why I've never made this before!

1 box medium shells (I used whole wheat)
1 jar pasta sauce of your choosing
1 small (15oz?) container of lowfat ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella (I used part-skim)
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
pinches of oregano, black pepper

I cooked and drained the pasta and then added the jar of sauce - I used almost all of it because I didn't want it to end up too watery at the end. There's maybe a 1/4cup left in the jar, back in the fridge. I dumped the ricotta into a bowl and mixed in a third of the shredded mozzarella, some fresh black pepper, and some oregano, then I stirred the cheese mixture into the pasta and poured it all into a baking dish. I added the breadcrumbs to the remaining mozzarella, added some more oregano and pepper, and then sprinkled that over the top of the pasta.

After baking it at 350 for 30min it was bubbling and perfect. I considered putting it under the broiler to brown the top more, but I was too hungry to wait.

This one's in the "make it again" pile. Yum.

Lunar eclipse

I set my alarm to 2:45 a.m. last night so I could get up and witness the total lunar eclipse, because the little girl in me who wanted to be an astronomer is not quite completely dead. I wish I could post some pictures, but my dinky little camera would not do it justice at all.

It was beautiful. By that time it was nearly complete and the moon was a disc of copper with a white crescent edge. It was a perfectly clear night, with bright twinkling stars surrounding the moon - absolutely gorgeous. I love watching the night sky any time I get a chance, and an event like this was not to be missed. I keep thinking I should go camping out in the wilderness somewhere so I could really see the sky and enjoy it properly, maybe get a telescope to get closer to the moon.

Did I mention I was watching the eclipse in my jammies, lying on my bedroom floor with a cat on my feet, looking up through the skylight? How great is that?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Chicken Soup

Chicken soup is a necessity. I can't tell you how distraught I've been, unable to make my husband chicken soup when he's sick. I mean, I heat up Progresso chicken noodle in a bowl for him and can even give him crackers with it, but it's not homemade and therefore will not miraculously bring him back to health after the first bowl.

Mom gave me her recipe - or at least the list of ingredients and vague instructions that passes for a recipe in our world - but I tried a couple of times and it wasn't very good. I used chicken legs as instructed and was grossed out by the marrow sticking out of the bones and the fat floating around in the pot, and after all that work it didn't even taste chickeny enough.

This time I had a picked-over chicken carcass left over from a previous roasted chicken dinner, and I decided to dump it into a pot and make soup out of it. Not much wasted if I failed, right? Also, I called Mom and had her walk me through some of it. Chicken carcass, a cut up onion, and 8 cups of water into a pot, and boil it for an hour or two on a medium setting. With a couple of bay leaves and some thyme.

Now - and here's the part I don't understand - I had to add a whole bunch of chicken flavored stuff (in this case, Bovril) to make it taste enough like chicken soup. And I don't understand that. Surely, these chicken concentrates, liquid or powdered, were made from chickens. I have, and am boiling, a chicken. So why is my chicken not enough to make the soup chickeny? I'm hoping someone smarter than me can figure this out and explain in the comments. People make stock and broth from chickens, don't they?

After deciding the broth was chickeny enough, I pulled out the bones and strained the soup into a big bowl to get all the floaty bits out. then it went back in the pot with some chopped carrots and celery and I let those cook while I cut up the little bits of meat left over from what I'd pulled off the chicken before boiling it. Cooked some rice separately to it wouldn't get mushy, and then mixed it all together to produce a very yummy soup.

I'll be trying this again, probably every time I have leftover chicken bones to play with. But if anyone can solve my "why am I adding chicken flavor to chicken" problem, I'd be grateful!

Friday, December 17, 2010


So it turns out our house was insulated by monkeys.

By which I mean that the people installing the insulation did so with a similar level of skill as would be expected from a group of monkeys given the appropriate materials and let loose in the attic, not that we've discovered that there are simian corpses filling the spaces between the walls.

It's an old house, and it's a big house, so I'm not surprised that the BGE bill is higher than we were used to at the townhouse, but the problem is the bill is higher and the house isn't warmer. An energy audit showed us that the attic doesn't have enough insulation, and there's also a crawlspace under the house where the insulation was put on upside-down and isn't doing its job very well. Hence my suspicion of a monkey work crew. We're wearing slippers and flannel PJs and wrapping up in blankets and cats on the couch, but we're going to need to tackle the insulation issues sooner or later. My husband thinks he can handle the part under the house once he does a little research on the topic, but we'll need expensive pros to do the attic, which sucks. Apparently because of the shape of our attic, we need special "blown" insulation, not the pink fluffy sheet kind. And you need a licensed pro for that sort of thing, no chance of making it into a DIY project. Which is fine, really, because I think we've got enough of those lined up for now anyway!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I stopped at the library before work because I ran out of stuff to read on my lunch breaks and the hospital newsletter isn't terribly entertaining material. The woman who greeted me at the counter had very long and very festively red-and-green airbrushed fingernails, on which I complimented her before she disappeared into the back room to get the books I had on hold. Her colleague overheard my compliment and chimed in to say that she'd love to have long nails but hers keep breaking because her skin gets so dry - apparently this is a common problem with librarians, because they handle so much paper?

Oh, I feel your pain, I tell her, because my lab work has me washing my hands dozens of times a day, leaving my skin dried out and chapped, especially in the winter. But I discovered the perfect hand cream last year and haven't had dry hands since! So I pull my little silver tube of hand cream out of my purse and show it to her. By now we've drawn a small crowd. I have three librarians leaning across the counter, and a woman behind me in line sneaking up to listen in. Ooooh, say the librarians, in harmony. My hands are inspected by all these sets of eyes and judged to be sufficiently smooth-looking as to be an endorsement for said cream. One asks to smell the cream. I hand the tube over to the woman who appears to be their leader and much sniffing ensues. The name of the cream gets scribbled in Sharpie on a Post-It pad and stuck to the computer monitor for reference. I tell them where to get it at the Columbia Mall, and I'm pretty sure that as I exit the library, a librarian shopping expedition is being planned for after work.

That totally made my day.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lemon Sugar Cookies

I signed on for the cookie exchange at work this year, and while I first had crazy dreams of complicated fancy cookies, I ended up being realistic about my time, energy, and skills, and went with lemon sugar cookies. I used the Food Network recipe for Lemon Volcano Cookies, but tweaked it a little by adding a half teaspoon of lemon essence to the cookies, and upping the lemon zest content by a pinch or two because a teaspoon seemed like nowhere near enough. Oops, upon reviewing that recipe it appears I also missed the vanilla completely. Well, no matter, they turned out great anyway. The only real hiccup in the process was the lemon sugar - after refrigerating the cookie dough and trying to cut it into slices, the lemon sugar was falling off, so they didn't keep that nice lemon-sugar "crust" like in the Food Network photo. I didn't pulse the zest and sugar in a food processor as instructed, I just smooshed it all together with a fork, so maybe that's my problem.

I did remember to use my KitchenAid mixer this time! Cookies are so much easier when I've got that thing doing all the hard work!

In return for giving my coworkers batches of these lemon cookies, I got snickerdoodles, flourless peanut butter cookies, cherry almond cookies, and adorable little sandwich cookies with a chocolate filling. Like tiny, tiny, Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies. Mmmm.

Jen's Library: Objects of Our Affection...

Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family's Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time, by Lisa Tracy

Everyone has stuff. Some have a lot more stuff than others, and the stuff can be very hard to get rid of because if you're like me, and like the author, and like most people, you attach a story to most things you own. This is the stuffed animal your grandfather gave you for Christmas when you were five. This is the picture frame you bought in Paris. This is grandma's teacup collection. Everything connects you to a person, an event, a memory, and this makes it hard to give anything away, even when you're overwhelmed.

This is a non-fiction book, where the author digs into the history of her family by looking at the stuff she's left with after having to empty out her mother's home when she dies. Her mother had to do the same when her mother died, and so on - it's a process than never really ends, and leaves you with so many questions about what's worth keeping and for what reasons. It was fascinating, for me, because her family was military and moved around a lot, and she thinks that's why her family in particular was so reluctant to give up their furniture and china and such - it was the only constant they had from place to place. She's got furniture from Thailand, photographs from the civil war, all sorts of neat antiques with almost-famous origins.

Now, that doesn't apply to my family, but we do like our stuff. When I moved out, I brought some things with me that kept me connected with home. And I have so many things here that carry memories. I'm not quite a packrat, and I'm not a candidate for those hoarding shows, but I do accumulate stuff.

I have some of my Grandmaman's fancy teacups on a shelf in the living room. I really need to display them better. Every single time I would visit her, we'd have tea and she would read my future in the tea leaves left in the bottom of the cup. When I was old enough, she started letting me choose from her fancy cups instead of using mugs, and I remember being so happy to be allowed such a huge honor, and being terrified to break something. And she let me choose my favorites to bring with me when I moved down here to the States! How am I ever supposed to get rid of those? I can't!

I have beside me on my computer desk a metal tin that once contained a dozen Cadbury Flake bars. It might be the one I picked up on my trip to Wales to visit my uncle and his family in 1994, or it might be the one I bought on the Stena Line ferry to Hoek van Holland when I was in Europe with Dave and Marketa in 2005. Hard to let go of either, because just looking at them takes me back there. I have to hold back from telling you all about those trips, because all the memories are floating around in my head and my instinct is to keep writing until it's all out. but I'll spare you.

Anyway, this book got me thinking a lot about how much our stuff can mean, and how important it is to learn your stuff's stories before the people who can tell them to you are gone. It was fun to read, and even more fun to walk around the house later and think about how I would explain to an outsider why I have this or that, and what it means to me.

Christmas decorating contest at work

My hospital gives out annual prizes for the best-decorated department, and for the best-decorated department door. It's not much, maybe $50 to spend on a pizza party for the department, but it's still a ton of fun to waste a day or two gluing sparkles to your door instead of working. Everyone gets really into it, gluing all kinds of things to their doors - last year the blood bank had a cardboard chimney on the door with stuffed Santa legs sticking out. This year, the Transport department is allegedly showing off a 3-D carousel with flamingoes, bears, and penguins... I have not yet confirmed this rumor but I'll head down there Monday to see it with my own eyes.

The deadline was getting close and nobody was feeling into it this year, so I went to the bosslady with a cute and lame idea, and she told me to go for it. She gave me the bottom half of the door, because she wanted the top half to do something else she was thinking about. I bought a giant roll of shiny silver wrapping paper to wrap the entire door, so we could have a festive base to work from. That was the hardest part because you really need two people, preferably tall people, to hold up the paper and tape it in place - luckily there are some tall people on evening shift who I recruited through begging. Then I taped my wonderfully lame idea in place and called it a night. Actually, the taping took me about two hours. I kept poking my head into the blood bank to ask if I was needed for real work, but they kept telling me all was well, so I kept taping.

Here's the door:

See how I used the hospital's name for a subtle kiss-up effect? That's how you get points with the judges! Either make them go "awww" or poke them in their hospital pride. Like I said, cute and lame. I like it. Cutting out those letters was a ridiculous pain, and I had to stick them on by putting tiny little rolls of tape on their backs, so the tape wouldn't show. The big letters are cardboard cut outs, and I wrapped them with another metallic paper.

On top the writing says "we dedicate our work to the men and women of our armed forces and their families." Santa later acquired a small American flag to hold.

It's not much, but it was fun to do.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Prep 2010, Part 2

We got the outside lights up last weekend and I never got around to taking a picture until tonight. So here you go:

Of course, I picked a cold and windy day to stand outside on a ladder and fight with tangled strands of LEDs, because I'm a sucker for punishment. There were a few hooks up already, but after hooking the lights up they seemed to sag too far down, so I added a few of those removable 3M hooks to hold the strands up in the middle. I think the previous owners used velcro to put their decorations and/or lights up, because there are small velcro squares stuck around the front bay window and along the roof of the porch. Maybe we'll look into that for next year - it would be a good way to put a garland around the window. But is velcro strong enough to hold lights up?

I used LEDs for the little shrub, because it's so dried out I was afraid of starting a fire if I used regular bulbs. The big old-fashioned lights went along the porch roof. I considered winding them around the two supporting posts too, but it got complicated and the strands were just a little bit too short to do it right, so instead I just doubled back and ended up with two strands along the edge.

Of course, that was when I discovered that the extension cord we had was the kind with only one outlet at the end, and I had two strands of lights that needed plugging. Thank you, Target, for having all your outdoor extension cords on clearance! I picked one up for $6 and it has three spots at the end. So next year I can add even more lights! I don't think I'll ever create a LED wonderland in the front yard like some others in the neighborhood, but I would like to put more effort in next year. Because Christmas lights are just so pretty.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tackling some book reviews

I'm not a professional book reviewer. I want to make that very clear from the start - I have no idea how to really review a book other than to talk about it and tell you if I liked it. When I read "real" book reviews in any publication classier than People magazine, they seem art-critic-y to me, using a set selection of big words (why are all novels compelling?) and talking about the author's incredible insight. I'm too old for book reports and I'm not going to start dissecting novels for hidden meaning in metaphor or anything fancy like that, unless I get really carried away.

But I read a lot. Can't help myself. I am always carrying a book around, resulting in my buying purses based on their ability to fit a decent book in their compartments. Not just a paperback, either! I'm talking thick nonfiction hardcovers, the kind that could take out a mugger if I swing it right.

Given that I read a lot, I find myself enjoying a lot of books and wanting to share them with people. And I read a lot of odd nonfiction books that people wouldn't necessarily jump on at a bookstore, and when I love them I want to help other people discover them. So, I will begin putting book reviews on my blog, by popular request. Only one person has requested it, but she's popular, so it counts.

I'll get started on some reviews this weekend, because I have two books to talk about already.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Christmas Prep 2010, Part 1

Today was Christmas tree day!

I finally resigned myself to the reasonable and sensible option of an artificial Christmas tree, and we bought one this morning at Target. I love real trees because that's what I grew up with. But with the inevitable vicious needles stabbing me in the feet for three months after Christmas no matter how much I vacuum, the need to crawl underneath the branches to water it, keeping the cats from drinking the tree water, and the giant welts on my hands and arms each year from my evergreen allergy, it made sense to make the switch.

We found a 7.5ft fir tree, pre-lit with white LEDs, for a pretty good price. There was one I liked a little more at Lowe's but it didn't seem like the extra $100 was really worth it, so this one is what we came home with. Those things are really expensive! Happily, it assembled really easily, unlike some other artificial trees I've seen. It came in three parts with the branches all folded up on hinges, so you just pop the three pieces together and then drop the branches and start fluffing them up so they look good. That part was rather tedious, but the result was a good-looking tree.

Out came the red unbreakable ornaments (with three cats, glass ornaments are asking for trouble) and the angel tree-topper. We then started adding all our special ornaments. I collect ornaments when we travel, so we've got dozens now from all our adventures, and I love having them on the tree to look at and spark so many happy and funny memories. Some are too fragile for me to feel comfortable displaying on a tree the cats might climb, so I'll need to find a shelf and an ornament display tree for next year, so they can finally come out of their bubble wrap.

Here's the tree:I'm really happy with how it looks. The tree skirt is adorable, but usually has a cat on it. Whether that adds or detracts from its adorability is up for debate and depends on whether the cat is attacking ornaments. Speaking of ornaments, here's a close-up:

In this one you can see the mini-cowbell from Switzerland on the bottom left, Big Ben a little ways above it, Dutch clogs from Amsterdam at the top, and two corks - the one on the left is from a bottle of wine we shared in Rome, and the champagne cork at the bottom is from the day Dave proposed, in Montreal. See what I mean about the memories? Almost every ornament has a story, and that makes the tree so special to me. I wish I could tell them all, but people get bored.

The problem with the tree is that we couldn't put it in the family room where we normally watch TV, because it wouldn't fit. So we needed another tree. Luckily we had a mini-tree from last year, and we decked it out with bells and bows and sat it near the TV so we can feel Christmassy while we lie on the couch.

Tomorrow we will tackle the outdoor decorating. We have big plans!

Christmas Cookie Extravaganza!

Today was Cookie Day 2010. An event of near-epic proportions. A day which leaves us covered in flour and buzzing from the sugar high.

We get together at my mother-in-law's place in December every year so we ladies can bake cookies while the menfolk wrestle with the assembly of the Christmas tree. This year there may have been some actual wrestling with the strings of lights, because I heard some muffled cursing and then some muffled electrical engineering brainstorming to try and get them to work. They figured it out, though, because in the end there was a fabulous decorated (and lit) tree to admire over eggnog and cookies. And we ended up with a LOT of cookies!

We started by making the oatmeal chocolate chip craisin cookies I've already talked about. There is debate among us whether they should rightfully be allowed as Christmas cookies, but since everyone loves them we definitely had to make them. After that, we got down to the difficult one - the shortbread cookies. The recipe is a very old one from a Five Roses cookbook my Mom's probably had since before I was born. We always made them for Christmas, with Mom doing the dirty work of mixing and rolling and cutting, and us kids going wild with sprinkles and colored sugar. I always end up in the "Mom" role when we make them on cookie day - they say it's because I'm better at rolling them out, but I suspect they just want to play with sprinkles. :)

The first batch, though, didn't turn out quite right. The recipe instructs the baker to knead in flour until the dough "just begins to crack". Well, I learned tonight that it is a damn fine line between "beginning to crack" and "falling apart into cookie dust". Some of the first batch was salvaged and we were able to cut out shapes with the cutters, but after one cookie sheet's worth I just rolled the remaining dough into lumps and added sprinkles and hoped they'd taste better than they looked. This was the result:

Cookie fail! They taste ok, so it's not a complete loss, but considering how pretty these cookies are when we do them right, I was frustrated with myself for misjudging the flour. I started over with a second batch and they were perfect. I think I need to make these more than once a year so I can remember what "just beginning to crack" looks like.

The third cookie of the night was the peanut blossoms. I'm not a huge peanut butter fan but everyone else loves them, and there would be a riot if we skipped these. My favorite part about these cookies is eating the Hershey's Kisses that are left over.

Friday, December 03, 2010

What's for Dinner: Cheesy Garlic Scalloped Potatoes

So sue me, I'm tired of mashed potatoes. I even tried jazzing them up by stirring in onion dip last time, and while it was tasty, it was still mashed potatoes. The magic is gone, and I think I need to see other potatoes for a while.

New mandolin slicer + bag of potatoes I refuse to mash = scalloped potatoes!
I guess it could also = chips, but I wasn't in a deep-frying sort of mood.

Cheesy Garlic Scalloped Potatoes

One onion, diced
3 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp flour
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed but left whole
3 cups milk
2 cups grated cheddar cheese plus a little extra
7 potatoes (because that's how many it took to fill my big bowl)

I peeled the potatoes and ran them through the mandolin slicer without hurting myself, which is an accomplishment. I want to buy a chain mail glove to protect my clumsy hands, but for now I went slow and used the special food holder that comes with it, and the only downside was the 7 small chunks of wasted potato from the bit that stays stuck in the holder.

I sautéed the onion in butter until it was soft, and then whisked in the flour with some salt and pepper, and let it get brown. Whisked in the milk and then let it come to a bubble, then added the garlic cloves and then eased up on the heat and let it simmer a while to thicken. I had to keep whisking occasionally to keep stuff from sticking to the bottom. Once that looked ready, I fished out the garlic cloves, and then stirred in the cheese.

I sprayed a baking dish with cooking spray and then poured some of the sauce into the bottom to coat it. Then I layered in the potatoes, taking much more care than I should have, because it really doesn't matter. But I did it right this first time, overlapping the slices slightly till I had a whole layer, then pouring sauce on it, then another layer, etc. I had three layers by the end, and then I topped it all with the rest of the sauce and some extra grated cheese. Popped that in the oven at 350 for 40 minutes and it was perfect.

Next time I'll probably just throw all the potato slices into the sauce and pour the whole mess into the baking dish, because the layering doesn't matter and you can't even see it except for the top layer, and that was covered in enough cheese to camouflage it anyway.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


We had a bunch of students come visit the blood bank today, on a "career exploration" field trip to the hospital. High school students, I assume, but I'm getting worse at judging the ages of the young as I'm getting older. Which is depressing, if I stop to think about it. So I won't.

Normally the boss lady takes them around and shows them the workings of the blood bank, but she was in a meeting and we were caught off guard with only a 15-minute warning before the youngsters' arrival. So the job was handed to me, in that everyone else basically claimed "not it" and disappeared.

I really enjoyed giving them a tour and teaching them a little about blood banking and transfusions, and how important the work is. I explained about blood types and why O is the universal donor, and I explained what the different parts of blood (platelets, red cells, plasma) are used for and why. I told them about quality control and attention to detail and why that's so important in a lab. They asked a bunch of good questions, and some of them were taking notes - I've never seen anyone in the other groups bother to take notes! At the end of it, the teacher caught my eye and told me I did a great job, and I should consider teaching. If only she knew how often it crosses my mind!

I've thought about teaching, but I'd never make it as an elementary or high school teacher, and I'm not sure I have the right stuff to teach college science classes. But I know medical technology stuff pretty damn well and I'd love to share that with students entering the profession. It's not out of reach - the main reason I haven't pursued it as a career is because I want to get some experience in this field before I presume to know it well enough to teach it. Also, I think I might need a master's degree, which is a big deal and not something I can tackle right now. But maybe I'll look into it a little more seriously. Or at least consider tutoring students in the field, as a start.

I just love knowing stuff, and helping other people to also know that stuff. Honestly, this may be a little dorky, but one of the things I'm most looking forward to about having kids is teaching them stuff and watching the light bulb go on above their heads. That little moment of understanding is what it's all about. I'm even looking forward to helping them with their homework. Except the math homework, which can remain securely on Dave's list of responsibilities, because there is no way I'd be of any use dividing fractions.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Project: Bathroom Fan

Our house is weird. It's an old house, with a slightly-less-old addition, and it's got a whole lot of quirks we're still figuring out. The addition was mostly done by the old owners, by which I mean the work was done by them, and these folks were not exactly licensed professional contractors. So we keep coming across little surprises, which is both frustrating and entertaining. We got a home inspection when we bought the place, so nothing is dangerously wrong. Just several "WTF" moments as we're trying to fix things.

Our heat is "Hydronic" baseboard heat, which, according to Dave, is supposed to be awesome and efficient. I just find it effective and loud - the baseboard heaters start clicking and pinging every time the heat switches on, which is annoying, but they heat the place up quickly and that is extremely important for someone like myself who could probably get frostbite on my toes in June. The heaters, though, are mostly on outdoor walls. Or, at least, on walls that were outdoor walls before the addition was put on, which leaves us with a kitchen and several bathrooms without any heat. They accounted for this problem by putting combination light/fan/heaters in the bigger bathrooms, and wall heaters in the small ones. The kitchen is open enough that the heat from other rooms manages to warm it up fairly well, except that the floor always stays cold, and I will put in a heated floor someday, mark my words. Anyway, the heater in the main bathroom died the first time I tried to use it, which was, of course, on a cold day.

At first, Dave tried to fix it. So he carefully took apart the old fan to see what could be salvaged. Unfortunately, nothing could. A new fan was ordered online, and we waited. Of course, at this point, there is a big round hole in my bathroom, and I can stare up into the attic every time I pee. Ever taken a shower and been worried about bats coming down from the attic to freak you out? I have! No, there are no bats in the attic. That we know of.

We had to cut power to the bathroom so Dave could work on it without getting zapped, but that turned out to be easier said than done. The breaker labeled "hall bathroom" cut power to everything except that fan. So I stood by the exposed wires with a multimeter while Dave stood at each of the breaker boxes (we have three) and flipped switches. We set our phones to walkie talkies so we didn't have to yell, and since we were doing this anyway, I decided to turn on all the lights upstairs and run around with a nightlight to test plugs, so I could find out what all those unlabeled breakers controlled. So he'd flip a switch, and I'd test the wires with the multimeter, then zip from room to room checking what lights were off and which plugs were dead. After forty minutes of this adventure, we determined that neither the breaker box in the laundry room or in the family room contains the breaker for the fan. We found the breakers for lights in the master bathroom, plugs in three bedrooms, and the fridge and dryer, but it turns out that the breaker for the hall bathroom fan was in the third breaker box, in the garage. Beside the ones for the garage door openers, the pool lights, and the workbench plugs. We laughed. A LOT. And Dave has vowed to track that old owner down and have him committed.

The next day, I came home to a brand new, functioning, bathroom heater. It's great, and not just because it keeps the bats out of the bathroom. It warms the room up quicker than I expected, and isn't any louder than a small hair dryer. It's going to be nice to have shiver-free showers for the rest of the winter!

This morning, I took a shower, and completely forgot to use the heater. I am brilliant.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What's for Dessert: Pumpkin Bread Pudding (and Maple Whiskey Cream Sauce)

For Thanksgiving (American-style) this year, I was assigned the task of bringing dessert. Not yet feeling a mastery of pie crusts, I was at a loss for interesting and tasty ideas. Until the Food Network rescued me. I was watching a special Thanksgiving episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay, in which the Pioneer Woman challenges him to a five-course Thanksgiving dinner cook-off. I've been following her blog for a few months now, which is why I was interested in watching in the first place. On the show, Bobby Flay made a pumpkin bread pudding for dessert, and it looked incredible. So I thought I'd give it a shot. I put the recipe together over a couple of days to save myself some stress.

A couple of days ago, I made pumpkin bread using my friend Tasha's recipe. It really is the best pumpkin bread I've ever had, so even if you're not going to make the whole bread pudding thing, at least give this bread a try. And read her blog sometime - she's got some great recipes on there. Lucky for me this recipe makes two loaves, because we couldn't help ourselves from slicing into one of them that night when it was still warm from the oven. I think I'll be making mini-loaves to give away to co-workers for Christmas this year. Plus extra for me.

Last night, I made the Pioneer Woman's Maple Whiskey Cream Sauce. I had to ask Dave to pick up some bourbon for me, because it's not generally something I'd have in the house because we're not big drinkers (especially not bourbon or whiskey). Actually, I asked him to bring me a bottle of Colonel Kwik-e-Mart's Kentucky Bourbon, but he couldn't find it and brought me Maker's Mark instead. I considered leaving the booze out, but she raves so much about it on her blog that I decided to stick to the recipe, at least the first time. It turned out so incredibly good. It took ages to thicken up and I gave up and decided to let it cool in the fridge while it was still fairly liquid, but when I pulled it out today to use, it was exactly the right consistency. I stirred it to check, and then I used the spoon to see that it had exactly the right flavor, too. I want this sauce on everything now!

This morning I got up early and cut up the bread into little cubes and toasted them in the oven while I was watching the Macy's parade. Then I followed the directions from Bobby Flay's Food Network site, skipping the sauces and substituting my own fabulous fresh pumpkin bread. I tweaked the recipe a little, using 1.5 cups of light cream and 1.5 cups of 1% milk, instead of the 2 cups heavy cream and 1 cup whole milk he calls for. It just seemed too heavy for me. And since I don't have fancy-schmancy real vanilla beans lying around, I dumped in a tablespoon or so of vanilla extract.

I served it tonight at Thanksgiving dinner, with a drizzle of the sauce and a blob of whipped cream. Fantastic. Really. My mother-in-law has decreed that this shall be a new Thanksgiving tradition, so you know it's got to be good. We split up the remaining bread pudding (and sauce) so everyone could bring some home! I give full and grateful credit to Tasha, Bobby Flay, and The Pioneer Woman... I just assembled it all!

GPS perils

The scene: Baltimore. Driving home.

It's about midnight, and we're leaving the underground parking garage. Dave says he's pretty sure he knows how to get home but since we get turned around so often in that Inner Harbor area we may as well turn on Garmy (our Garmin GPS), just to help get us back to the highway. As usual, she takes a few minutes to locate suitable satellites for navigation, so we're driving slowly in the direction we think we need to go, while we wait for her. Then she speaks! In 0.2 miles, turn left! Hooray! Electronic guidance! We turn. She says to stay on this road, then turn left again. I'm a little tipsy from the good wine at dinner, but I'm pretty sure that's taking us away from 395, which is what we wanted. So I poke at the little "next" button so I see what her plans are for us, and it just gets weirder. She's having us make a bunch of turns on streets I don't recognize, and it doesn't look like she remembers that 95 exists.

I mention this to my chauffeur, and he suggests that perhaps we have not entered the right destination. I check, and yes, I've hit "home". It's possible that we've set somewhere else as "home" by accident, so I start from scratch and type in our whole address, and ask her to please recalculate. By now, we're somehow on 83 and going the wrong way entirely, and I'm starting to freak out.

She recalculates, asking us to "please drive to highlighed route". But... we're on a route, why aren't you calculating from where we are? It's your job, stupid machine! Recalculate, damn you! Our little car icon is clearly on 83, but the pink line of our calculated route is off to the right on a service road. She seems incapable of understanding and accepting that we were on 83. So Dave calmly (he's always calm, I don't know how he does it) takes us off at the next exit, and Garmy starts with her dozens of turns on strange streets. Why doesn't she want us to take the highway? Why does she keep making us take these stupid little streets all the way to Columbia? It makes no sense! Hyperventilating! Stabbing angrily at Garmy's buttons! Tantrum beginning!

Then I hear the lightbulb go "ping" over Dave's head.

He instructs me to go to "settings", where I could probably improve the situation by taking Garmy out of pedestrian mode. Which he had set her to when we were walking to the restaurant. And forgotten about.

I guess she was trying to protect her pedestrians by keeping us off 95. Stupid computers, doing exactly what we program them to.

In other news, I now know that I can walk home from Baltimore.

Kittens and their adorable destructive powers

As I type this, I have a Horton smooshed up against my butt as he tries to subtly push me off my chair so he can sleep properly sprawled across it.

But when I first got up this morning, he was fast asleep in one of his other favorite spots, the fluffy bathmat in the Kermit bathroom. For those of you not in the know, our hall bathroom has a green tub and has been christened the Kermit bathroom, or sometimes the Frog Room. But I digress. Horton was sleeping thusly:

Which of course got my "awww" instinct activated, making me reach out to pet him. Just try and tell me you don't want to pet him. You'd be a liar. After a moment or two of contented purring and vicious biting (simultaneously, as usual), he rushed off to the hallway to suck on his teddy bear, leaving me to notice the art project he'd been working on overnight.

This is why I never bother to buy the expensive paper towels.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Symphony of Lights

Tonight we met up with some folks to celebrate a friend's birthday by going to see the Symphony of Lights in Columbia. It's an immense display of Christmas lights along a mile-long pathway in a park, and you drive through it and marvel at the pretty colors. It's a big annual event and the proceeds go to Howard County Hospital. We actually got to walk through it because it's the opening weekend and we were part of the "Dazzle Dash" - yesterday they had a race, and today was just a walk, but we still got to wear numbers pinned to us like marathoners. It was a lot of fun! We've driven past it dozens of times in the years I've been living here, but we've never actually gone to look at the lights. Walking through was nice because we were up close. Some of the displays even move!

It was cold and my feet are tired, but it was a good night for a good cause - doubly good, if you include the birthday!

They were playing happy Christmas music during the pre-walk festivities, and I ended up frantically calling my Dad. Why? So I could tell him that Christmas has officially started and I win because I heard Feliz Navidad first. It's a silly thing that started a few years ago, where whoever hears the song first on the radio or at the mall "wins" and calls the other to tell them. Sadly, anticlimactic this year because Dad couldn't hear the song in the background noise and so was a little confused when I called to tell him I won. Oh well, when he got it, he laughed, so it's all good.

May the Christmas season begin!

What's for Dinner: Baked Potato Soup

When I first came across this recipe, it called for actually baking the potatoes and scooping them out to use in the soup. While I'm sure it gives the soup an extra kick of authentic "baked potato" flavor, who has time to bake a bunch of potatoes, only to gut them and turn them into soup?

Baked Potato Soup

3lbs potatoes
1 medium onion, diced
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
4 cups chicken broth (one of those recloseable boxes)
1 cup cream or half-and-half or whole milk
1/2 tsp thyme
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese, plus some for garnish
Note: the sharper the better, as is always the case with cheddar cheese
1 cup sour cream, plus extra for dolloping on top later
Bacon bits or bacon salt (optional)

First you boil up the potatoes so you can mash them. They cook faster if you cut them into smaller chunks. When you can stick a fork through the pieces, drain them and dump them in a big bowl and mash them roughly. You want to leave them chunky, for texture. I normally don't even use my potato masher, I just go at them with a fork. Don't add butter or cream or anything.

Next, fry up the onion with the butter in a big soup pot until the onions are soft, then whisk in the flour and let it brown a bit while you keep frantically whisking it. Then, still whisking, start adding chicken broth slowly. Start by only adding about 2 cups, then add the cream and the thyme and let it heat up until it gets frothy from the cream boiling, then turn down the heat. Stir in the mashed potatoes and blend them gently into the soup. Don't whisk them in or you'll break up all the chunks and it won't be as good. At this point, if the soup is too thick, add more broth to thin it out. I dumped the whole box in this time figuring I'd be fine, and ended up with a really thin soup, so I stopped and cooked up 3 more big potatoes to mash and add to it. Since this takes a lot longer, I recommend starting with less broth at the beginning and adding more as needed.

When it's time to serve, stir in the cheese so it melts - if you use normal cheddar you'll have an orange tint to the soup. Then you can stir in the sour cream.

When you serve this it's fun to add a blob of sour cream and a bit of cheese to the bowl, making it look all restaurant-fancy. I also cooked up bacon for bacon bits the first few times I made this, but I since discovered Bacon Salt in all its glory, and now I sprinkle that over the soup instead. I suppose you could use chives instead, if that's your thing.


I had to work a couple of Saturdays and Sundays this month - more than usual because a coworker went on maternity leave and left us with a dozen weekend shifts unmanned. It's not so bad, because there are enough of us that we each had to pick up one extra day and we were covered. Also, her baby is adorable and so I forgive her for wanting to stay home and be with it and stuff. Normally, when nobody is having babies, I work every seventh weekend.

I don't enjoy my working weekends and holidays because they're always day shifts, meaning I need to be there (and preferably awake) by 7am. So I need to be up by 5:30am. Compare this to the normal noon start to my shift, and my alarm clock's usual setting of 9am. It wouldn't be so bad if I was able to get some sleep the night before, but I'm a nocturnal creature and I usually have to take an over-the-counter sleeping pill to help knock me out early enough. Otherwise my internal clock doesn't hit "bedtime" until midnight at the earliest. Of course, the side effect of this is a groggy morning and blinky drive to work during which I am thankful I'm nearly alone on the road.

Despite my sleepiness, my journey to work these past two weekends has not been grumpy, because I drive east and my timing has been just right to catch the sunrise. I know that a sunrise looks essentially the same as a sunset, but it feels different. There's something very calming about seeing the light return to the sky, and watching the clouds go from pink to peach to butter to blue.

I totally slept in this morning, though.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What's for Dinner: Jen's Spaghetti Sauce

Let me first say that my Mom makes the best spaghetti sauce in the world. Anyone on either side of my family would shove aside any other family member to get to it. As is usual with Mom recipes, there are no measurements. I learned to copy this recipe by watching her closely and figuring out what a "half a palmful of thyme" means. The scientist in me does not like this sort of measurement - what if you have tiny hands? Luckily, my hands are carbon copies of my mother's, so our measurements work out great. I suspect this is also a sneaky way of ensuring that nobody else but us ever gets this recipe exactly right, so everyone has to keep coming to us for the world's best spaghetti. I can only hope that I have a daughter who inherits my hands, or the secret of the sauce dies with me. And in fairness to Mom - I tweaked it and made my own version. I will try to write out a recipe so you can try to make it, but please know that it's a very "fuzzy" recipe that never comes out the same way twice.

And yeah, I'm bragging about my fabulous sauce because I love it to death, but I know it's not everyone's favorite. It's not made with fresh garden tomatoes or anything, and I know that fancy pro chefs would cringe at it. But it tastes so damn good to me that I frankly don't care. I could eat this three or four times a week for months and never get sick of it. Provided there was garlic bread available to soak up the extra sauce, of course.

Jen's Spaghetti Sauce

3-4 sweet italian sausages
1/2 pound extra lean ground beef (this is really flexible - add more if you like it meatier, less if you don't, but DO get the extra-lean because you're getting plenty of fat from the sausages)
5 cloves of garlic
2 28-oz cans of tomato sauce or tomato puree
(have an extra one on hand in case you find the sauce too thick after you add the meat)
Big palmful of oregano
Palmful of basil
Half palmful of thyme
Generous amount fresh ground black pepper

First I snip the sausages into pieces with scissors. I cut them fairly small, ending up with 8 pieces from each sausage. I fry them up until they have a nice brown crust. They don't need to be cooked all the way through at this point, because you're going to simmer them in the sauce for a while later. I put them aside to drain on paper towels, then brown the ground beef. I make sure to season the beef well with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, I've dumped the cans of sauce into a big pot and added my spices. I use a garlic press for the garlic, but I suppose you could chop it fine if you prefer. Now, the spice measurements are tricky. I basically cup my palm and pour a whole bunch of oregano into my hand from my huge Costco-sized jar. Dump that in, and then do the same with slightly less basil, and then half as much thyme. This is also where you'll want to pull out your pepper grinder and grind some coarse pepper into the mix. As much as you think you'll like - it's never the same twice, which is part of the fun!

I set the heat on low for the sauce and then dump in all the fat-drained meat and stir it all in. That simmers for at least an hour, but I usually leave it for about two on the lowest heat that keeps it gently bubbling. Oh, and keep the lid on unless you want a red-spotted kitchen. A splatter screen works well too. After about an hour I taste it and make adjustments. If it's too acidic, I am not ashamed to say that I add a little sugar. It doesn't usually need it, but I found last time that when I used puree instead of sauce, it was more acidic for some reason. Maybe it was a different brand that made the difference, I'm not sure. Let your tastebuds guide you.

When I'm finally starving and going crazy with the super smell of my kitchen and desperate to eat, I check the sausage chunks by pulling one out and cutting it in half. If it's still pink in the middle, it's got to keep cooking.

I know it's "spaghetti" sauce, but I don't think we've ever had it with actual spaghetti noodles. This needs a big noodle. I love it with rigatoni, but penne or rotini do pretty well too. Anything with ridges or spirals to really hold the sauce. You will also need pasta bowls. Big ones. Oh, and some wine.

This recipe obviously makes a ton of sauce, because my mother could only teach me to cook for a vast crowd. So, have some tupperwares handy to freeze the extras. It freezes very well and keeps for at least 4 months in the freezer... we've never had it last longer because we eat it before then.

Great day

I just had a great day off. Well, except for the horrible migraine (with bonus nausea) that sent me back to bed for an hour this afternoon. The Advil worked pretty quickly and the cats were merciful and left me alone for a while, so I was able to rest in the dark until the pounding stopped.

I got the kitchen cleaned up, down to washing the floor and the sink. I got some dishes and laundry done, and tidied the bathrooms and bedroom. I can see the floor and the counters now, which is a huge improvement. Granted, when it came to papers and receipts, I mostly just made nice piles instead of going through everything and filing it away, but at least the piles make me look slightly more organized. I got a few things crossed off my very long to-do list and then I went to the mall.

I was only going to the mall for a quick errand, not even for myself, but once I was there I couldn't help myself. It was as close to deserted as the Columbia Mall ever gets, so I wandered around and popped into a bunch of stores. I think I walked the length of the mall three times. I scored a great pair of pants from the sale rack at The Limited, which means I can now toss my old pair I've been wearing long past its prime. I was on the hunt for some comfy/cute brown shoes to wear for work, but I didn't have as much luck there. It was still fun to try on shoes, though - I'm such a girl. I checked out nail polish colors at Sephora, went into Bath & Body Works to sniff their new scents (meh), and found a watch I liked at Fossil and will be asking Santa for. I went to Occitane and used the demo of their shea butter hand cream, which is the best hand cream in the whole world, and considered buying the foot cream because I could probably use it. But I'll wait for the after-Christmas sales, because I cannot justify spending $20+ on a small tube of shea butter cream for my feet. I stopped in at Starbucks for a mocha and lamented for a moment that they no longer make the Espresso Truffle I loved so much last year, but I stopped lamenting when I got a sip of my mocha, because it was delicious. There was Christmas music playing everywhere and they were setting up the big tree in the center of the mall, and people seemed to be in a good mood all over the place. It was great!

Then I went to the library to return my half dozen books and pick up a half dozen more. I am so weird in the library. I get all impulsive and start grabbing every book I think might be interesting. Oh, that looks good. Oooh, I like that author, is that new? And one of these... and this one... and as usual I end up leaving with more books than I am likely to be able to read in the time allotted, but I can renew them all online if I need to. Which I will.

Should I start doing book reviews on my blog? There's no way I'd find time to do them all, but maybe for the ones I really enjoy...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Love this song!

I want to share this song with as many people as possible. It's not generally a style I'm attracted to, but her voice almost literally gives me chills. I can only find a live version from YouTube to share, but I recommend finding the album version on iTunes or Amazon or wherever you like to pick up music.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What's for Dinner: Onion Chicken and Balsamic Sauce

I set out to make an apricot chicken recipe I often make, and decided at the last minute to change it up. See, the original recipe calls for caramelized onions, to which you add some apple cider vinegar and let it reduce. I didn't feel apple-cider-vinegar-y, so I got out my bottle of good balsamic vinegar and added a dash to the onions. And it smelled so good I decided to wing it and make a whole balsamic-based sauce for the chicken, apricots be damned!

Onion Chicken and Balsamic Sauce

2 chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium onions, sliced thin
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 Tbsp honey
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, plus about 1 Tbsp to add to the onions
1/2 tsp ground ginger (I suspect fresh would be even nicer)
2 medium garlic cloves, chopped fine

Extras: olive oil, flour, salt & pepper

I cooked the onions in olive oil until they were brown and soft, then I added a tablespoon or so of balsamic vinegar and let it cook for a couple of minutes until the strong vinegar smell cooked away. I set the onions aside.

I seasoned the chicken bits with salt and pepper and then dredged them in flour and dumped them into the pan with a little more olive oil. I browned them nice and good on one side, then flipped them and kept browning, and then just stirred them around till they were cooked through. My chicken always takes longer to cook than the recipe books imply, leading me to think I'm doing something wrong or buying mutant chickens. Anyway, the cooked chicken got dumped in with the set-aside onions.

In a glass measuring cup, I stirred together the honey, chicken broth, balsamic, garlic and ginger, and then whisked that into the pan with the browned stuck-on chicken bits. I let it cook for about 2 minutes and it thickened up just a little. Then I poured it over the chicken and onions and served it all over rice.


So good, in fact, that Dave has already requested we have this again. He asked hopefully whether I remembered what I put in it, and so I ran here to get it all down before it's lost forever. Unfortunately, it smelled so good and we were both so hungry that we did not stop to find my camera. It tasted better than it looked, anyway, so you're not missing much here...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What's for Dessert: Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Craisin Cookies

Note: edited to correct amount of butter!

These are currently my favorite cookies. Make them. You will not be disappointed. If you are disappointed, mail them to me and I will eat them.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Craisin Cookies

1/2 cup room temp butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup regular sugar
1tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1tsp baking soda
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups oats, either quick-cook or old-fashioned (uncooked, of course)
About a cup of chocolate chips
About a cup of Craisins (dried sweetened cranberries)
Also: A gallon of milk - because you'll want a glass with your cookies later. You shouldn't make these if you're out of milk, because you'll regret it. I speak from experience.

Crank the oven to 350F. Cream the butter and sugars, then mix in eggs and vanilla. Sift all dry ingredients together (or be lazy and stir them in a bowl with a fork, like I did) and then add them to the sugar mixture, half at a time. It will be pretty thick at this point. Add the oats and stir them in. This is the point at which I wished I'd remembered I have a KitchenAid mixer in a cupboard, because my arm was hurting. This is a very hard batter to mix well by hand! Stir in Craisins and chocolate chips. Use as many as you think you need to have a few in each cookie. I ended up using about 3/4 cup of each for this batch because it seemed like enough, but I've used the full cup in the past with no problems.

Drop the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet in tablespoon-sized blobs. Leave a little room for them to expand, but you don't need much.

Bake them for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown. Because I'm paranoid that my oven is crazy, I started peeking at 8 minutes. 10 minutes was definitely the "done" point for my batch.

Let them sit on the cookie sheet for at least one minute before taking them off to cool or they will crumble apart. Unless you want them to crumble apart on purpose because the broken ones have no calories, in which case you should remove them immediately.

This recipe makes 4 dozen. But you should double it. Because they disappear fast.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Understaffed at work - and why it matters to you.

So, so, so, so tired.

We've been working so short for so long at work and it's really wearing me out. We're understaffed, and someone's been off sick for a month, so we're trying to run things with too few people. We're doing a damn good job of it, but it's exhausting everyone to their limits. Everyone is getting progressively more tired and cranky, myself included (hell, myself's probably the worst one).

I hope it ends soon, but the heart of the problem is never going to go away. It's only going to get worse. Nobody is entering the lab profession because they don't know it exists and medical technology programs are being shut down in schools everywhere. A massive number of seasoned techs are approaching retirement and there are nowhere near enough new graduates to fill the vacancies. You'd think this would mean we're in huge demand, with hospitals offering bonuses and juicy salaries to the relatively few techs out there, trying to entice them. But they're not. Everywhere, everyone is trying to run their lab with fewer and fewer people, cutting costs as much as possible.

This article (worth reading in full) from the American Association for Clinical Chemistry has some statistics about the shortage.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006 there were 167,000 practicing clinical laboratory technologists, and a projected need for 21,000 more by 2016. “However, in 2005 only 2,079 people graduated from accredited programs, the number of which keeps shrinking,” explained Susan Gross, MS, MT (ASCP), Senior Supervisor, Clinical Laboratory, Chemistry/Toxicology at San Francisco General Hospital and the University of California-San Francisco. “In 1975 there were 709 clinical laboratory science programs with 6,121 graduates; in 2005 there were 232 programs and 2,079 graduates”

The lab is important. So important. Most medical decisions are made based on lab results, and without techs there to run the instruments and read the slides and count the cells, you don't have any results. We are the ones telling the doctors whether you have strep throat or the flu. We see the bacteria and white cells in your urine that tell the doctor you have a UTI. We're the first to see the leukemia cells in your blood. We make sure you have compatible blood available in case your surgery gets complicated.

I know some of my friends reading this blog are also medical technologists (or clinical laboratory scientists, depending on where you're certified). Please get out there and talk about the profession. Sign on at Labs Are Vital and get involved. Tell people who we are and what we do and why it's an important job. We don't have anyone out there fighting for us and singing our praises, so we'll need to start doing it ourselves if we ever want any sort of respect and recognition.

From this American Society for Clinical Pathology article about their Wage and Vacancy Survey:

Exposure and awareness of the laboratory profession has had an effect on recruitment. A recent survey by the Coordinating Council on the Clinical Laboratory Workforce showed that of 4,500 students enrolled in a clinical science program, 75 percent were not even aware of the profession until after high school.
I personally didn't know it existed until after my first University degree in a different field. I am sure that there are hundreds of other students who are like I was, loving science and the medical field, but not wanting to be a doctor or nurse. Someone needs to tell them there are more options!

I'll get off my soapbox now. I promise I'll go back to posting recipes and projects this weekend.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Things that Horton will eat

I love Horton, my little murder kitten, despite how he keeps trying to kill the other cats, squeaks at our bedroom door all night, and generally gets himself into a lot of trouble. He was a tiny runt of a thing when I adopted him at the shelter, and he's stayed very small, which I think has given him a feline Napoleon complex. He's got redeeming qualities, though - he's loving when he wants to be, and he is painfully cute when he's sucking on his teddy bear. He runs to that bear several times a day and kneads it and sucks on it and fluffs up huge while he's doing it. His tail gets puffy when he's happy - how odd is that?

His health problems have caused us a lot of grief, between his broken hip that left him with a limp, and his massive emergency surgery for urinary crystals, (shout out to the fabulous emergency vet on rte 40!) With his kidney problems, he's supposed to be eating special food, so we can avoid further medical interventions. Except that he's an unruly brat who wants to eat everything but what he's supposed to. For example:

  • Banana bread (but hates bananas)
  • Pumpkin bread (will also eat the batter)
  • Milk from my cereal
  • Water from the bathtub faucet
  • Bugs (mostly chews and spits out because they're wiggly, but at least he disables them)
  • Grapefruit (will attack me for it)
  • My spaghetti sauce
  • Garlic (toxic to cats, so I don't let him eat it, but he will fight to lick my hands if I've been chopping garlic)
  • Petals that fell off the tulips Dave got for my birthday (those didn't stay down)
  • Butter
  • Raw chicken
  • Cooked chicken
  • Pepperoni
  • Ice cream
  • The other cats' indoor-formula food, no matter where we hide it
  • My perfume (licked off my wrists)
  • Tufts of fur/hair/fluff found on the carpet (I have to be careful when brushing him or he will try to eat all the fluff I take off him)

I'm not sure how his ancestors survived long enough to breed. But I'm glad they did.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Biometrics day - update

Easy peasy. There was nobody else ahead of me so I was able to walk right in and get everything finished within about fifteen minutes. It was a nondescript little storefront in a strip mall, with the unhelpful words "application processing center" on the front door.

Step One: Surly government worker checks my ID, stamps my paperwork, and hands me a clipboard. He instructs me to fill out the demographic info and bring it to the next guy.

Step Two: Fill out demographic info and bring it to the next guy.
Step two-and-a-half: Cry inside at the weight I had to put down because it's a crime to lie to the government.

Step Three: Next guy wipes down my fingers and smooshes them onto a glass panel and my fingerprints appear on a screen. My right ring finger was a rebel and required three smooshes before giving up a decent print.

Side note: my fingerprints are pretty. I wonder if I can get "prints" of them enlarged and framed as artwork.

Step Four: Take off earrings and glasses, tie back hair, and sit unsmilingly for a photo. They say you can't smile because they need the photo to be identifiable through face recognition software, but I think it's because these employees have forgotten what smiling is and it would confuse and frighten them.

The end. As usual, I stressed out over nothing. The next part is waiting for our summons for an interview in the Baltimore office, where they will determine that we're actually married because we, you know, love each other and stuff, and I'm not just some foreign hussy marrying an American dupe so I can get a green card. No idea how long it will be until the interview, unfortunately, but I'm hoping it's before our first anniversary.

Biometrics day

Today I will be fingerprinted and photographed and put into a database. I am doing this because it's the next step in the green card process. I'm nervous about getting there on time so I want to leave very early, just in case we get lost or hit some traffic or can't find parking. In big BOLD letters on my appointment notice it says that failing to show up for my scheduled appointment will be considered as abandonment of the petition. I'm sure they won't tear up my paperwork if we're a few minutes late, but I feel like these folks have complete control over whether I get to stay, and what if we get an asshole who's having a bad day and wants to spread his misery around? I've encountered those everywhere - I'm just hoping everyone we deal with today got up on the right side of the bed.

The entire process is very stressful. It's a whole lot of paperwork (in duplicate or triplicate) and waiting, and confusing instructions. I understand the need for the background checks and the fingerprints, but it makes me feel like a criminal. It doesn't help that the document I received allowing me to travel freely while my case is pending is called "Advance Parole". At least I don't have a parole officer or an electronic ankle bracelet tracking my movements. I promise to be better at "parole" than Lindsay Lohan.

Oh well, whatever it takes to be able to stay here with my husband and not get my ass deported back to the Great White North. I just hope they don't implant a microchip in my skin...

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Recipe Fail - Honey Cinnamon Muffins

I'm not going to post the recipe because I'm still not sure how I botched these, and I don't want someone out there to make bad muffins and blame me.

I've made these before and they were delicious, but this time they got crispy and burned very quickly. Did I copy down the recipe wrong, or is my oven too hot? Or is it because I used our CSA honey and it's cursed?

My husband enjoyed eating the burnt offerings for breakfast today, which is sweet of him. But I'm going to try them again next weekend and use an oven thermometer to see what's going on. The oven is a near-antique wall oven and I think its temperature sensor is broken. There's a... thing... on the inside of the oven wall, which I suspect might be a sensor of some sort. If I knock it while putting something in, it shrieks. Just before sticking my muffin pans in, this happened, so maybe I messed something up, but I've also noticed that my oven tends to cook things faster than it is supposed to, and I need to keep a closer eye on things near the end of the cooking time.

My stove has issues too - the rings stay so hot for so long that even after I've turned the heat off, water will continue to boil for several minutes. It makes me nervous to try anything fancy that would require good heat control.

One of my long-term hopes for this place is to get a new stove and oven so I have something better to work with.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Our first CSA experience

I like to cook. You may have gathered that. I have a hippie foodie friend (love ya, Tasha!) who kept telling me about something called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. She sent me the website a while ago and encouraged me to look into it, for reasons of fun and health and the environment. Essentially, the idea of a CSA is a farm selling "shares" of produce to consumers who either get stuff delivered or pick it up at a convenient spot. You get a selection of whatever's in season, usually in a basket or cooler. Some farms are more fruit-heavy or veggie-heavy, some farms offer extras like bread and cheese and eggs. Either way you're getting very fresh, locally-grown food, and you're helping encourage and support local farming. The only negative side is that you get whatever they're sending you, and you don't get a choice about what's in your basket (although most places advertise that they're accommodating for allergies), so you may end up with a huge pile of kale you don't know what to do with.

This year, settled into the new house and feeling somewhat housewifey, I thought the fall might be a good time to try this out, because we could do a shorter session (8 weeks), and see how we liked it. I split a share with my mother-in-law because it seemed like too much food for just the two of us, and she was also available to pick up our shares on Thursday afternoons.

We weren't all that impressed, which is unfortunate because I think this is a great idea. The experiment did get us to try new types of vegetables (mostly squash), some of which we liked. It was a good way to learn new recipes and broaden our horizons. But sadly the quality was inconsistent. Many times the apples looked like they'd been used as tennis balls, and some of the tomatoes and squashes molded or rotted after two days. This was an organic farm, so I expected our produce to look less than perfect, but pesticides aren't what prevent bruising and rotting, so I"m not sure what was going on.

Do these look like healthy carrots to you?

The strange part was that their farm stand at the farmer's market seemed to have much nicer stuff than what we were getting. We should have complained earlier, I guess, but we kept thinking it would get better. The bug-coated kale and rotten-on-the-inside nectarines were the last straw, though, and we had to say something. The underside of the kale leaves seemed sandy to me and so I tried to wash them off, only to discover that the "sand" was a layer of aphids. And not washing off easily, either. I was going to make kale and potato soup out of it but I got nauseated thinking about little green aphids swimming in the bowl. The guy at the stand the next week was kind enough to offer us a "refund" by letting us take stuff that would cancel out the value of the kale and nectarines, but still. We won't use that farm again. Especially when they got all snotty with us when I posted a less-than-stellar review of their CSA on that website.

I want to try again with a different place next year but I'm nervous. We'll see. Spring shares mean salad greens and berries, so maybe it'll be worth it.

What's for Dinner: Pâté Chinois (Shepherd's Pie)

I'm not sure why it's got such different names in English and French. I like to think that it originated with Chinese shepherds and so we've both got it right. Either way, it's one of my favorite examples of cold-weather comfort food, and one of the easiest to throw together. My recipe is really simple, and I will eventually start tweaking it to add different seasonings and vegetables, but for now it's still appreciated every time I make it so I hesitate to play with it.

6 to 8 meduim potatoes (plus butter, and a dairy-based liquid of choice for mashing)
About a pound of ground beef
A packet of powdered beef gravy
One small onion or half a big one
1 can corn
1 can creamed corn

Peel, chop, and boil up the potatoes for mashing. Then, obviously, mash them. Use milk or cream, whatever you like better, but definitely toss in some butter. Everything is yummier with butter.
Dice the onion and fry it up in some butter (see - yummier!), set it aside.
Brown some ground beef in a pan. The amount is up to you - I used about a pound of it because that's what I had. Season the meat with salt and pepper, and when it's all done, mix a couple teaspoons of powdered beef gravy with about a 1/4 cup of water and stir it into the meat. Mix the onion back in.

Pour the meat into a baking dish*. Spread it around to get a nice even layer. Add the two cans of corn and spread that around. Use a big spoon to plop a scoop of mashed potatoes every couple inches across the top of the corn - you can't really spread very well because the corn is squishy and you'll make a mess, so the trick is to use smaller scoops of potatoes and try to cover a lot of surface with well-placed blobs. Then you spread the tops of the blobs so they all connect, leaving you with a smooth potatoey surface. Which you can then poke at with various utensils to make it look pretty (I used a fork and made lines). It's important to spread the potatoes to the edges to "seal" everything, otherwise you'll get meat juice bubbling up and it might make a mess.

Into the oven for about 30 min at 350. The top of the potatoes should get the slightest bit brown and will be firm when you poke at it.

And when you scoop some out to eat it, it will be delicious.

*I used an oval Corningware casserole dish, but a lasagna pan would work pretty well too. I like my shepherd's pie to be thick, as opposed to all spread out in a flatter pan, so I usually use smaller dishes with higher sides. If you're using a flatter one, check the oven often, because you won't need to leave it in as long.

Monday, November 01, 2010

What's for Dinner: Chicken "Parm"

Well. You learn something new every day.

I haven't been grocery shopping so we're down to frozen pizza and other boring emergency foods, none of which appealed to me. I had chicken and marinara sauce and thought "hey, why not try making Chicken Parm tonight? I have chicken and parmesan!"

Except that upon closer inspection of, oh, every recipe I could find, Chicken Parmigiana is sneakily not made with parmesan cheese, despite the fact that its name totally sounds like parmesan. It needs mozzarella, which I sadly did not have on hand. So, I pretended like I'd never seen the recipes and forged blindly ahead with total disregard for the rules.

I took two thin chicken cutlets and salted and peppered them, then flopped them around in a bowl of breadcrumbs to which I'd added some oregano and garlic salt. I heated up some olive oil in a pan, waited for it to get ridiculously hot (that's the trick to good breaded chicken cutlets - extreme and ridiculous heat), and fried the chicken till the outsides were nice and crispy brown. Then I moved them to the oven in a glass baking dish in a little pool of marinara and left them at 350 for about 10 minutes. Then I sprinkled grated parmesan on top, ground some fresh pepper onto the cheese, and gave them another 5 minutes. I served them with a side of whole wheat spaghetti and Bertolli sauce (Marinara with burgundy wine).

Verdict: yummy! I'll definitely try this again. I know it wasn't really chicken parmigiana, but who cares.

We were starving and so I didn't take time for photos. Sorry, gentle readers, you'll have to use your imagination until I make it again!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Project: Halloween

It's Halloween! There are dozens of little kids in our new neighborhood, and I'll be stationed at the front door all night to hand out candy to the vampires and princesses and Transformers.

I carved a small pumpkin to put out front, just to make sure kids know this is a house worth stopping at. I think he's adorable! He needed a friend, so I used an acorn squash and made him one. Can't wait to see how they look all lit up tonight!