Friday, December 30, 2011

Gingersnaps

I can't decide whether or not I like gingersnaps. I usually pass them over for almost any other kind of cookie, but this time around I made a huge batch of them to give away as gifts and found myself really enjoying them with my coffee.


Gingersnaps

1 cup sugar (plus more for rolling cookies)
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
3/4 cup shortening
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg

Combine the dry ingredients, then cut in the shortening to make coarse crumbs. Use your hands to break up clumps if necessary. Stir in the molasses and egg.

Shape the dough into small balls (1 inch diameter) and roll in sugar. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 350F for 10 minutes. Remove them from the baking sheets immediately and cool on racks. Makes about 4 dozen.


These are very snappy gingersnaps. They're very spiced and very crunchy, so I think they are wonderfully paired with tea or coffee. I have a feeling that the smaller you make the balls, the snappier your cookies will be, so don't go too small or they may be inedible.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Canadian Food Memories

Have a good look at the picture below and tell me what you see.

If you said "macaroni and cheese", you're way off. And you're not Canadian.

We're talking about the blue box of goodness here. Kraft Dinner. Skinny macaroni and that packet of frighteningly orange "cheese" powder, a staple of my childhood. I ate so much of this stuff that I should be a lot more yellow by now from all that dye. I burned out on it near the end of my teens, pushing it to the "starving and in a hurry and I can't find anything else" category of foods, but I used to ask for KD for supper. With hot dogs cut up in it. And not with ketchup. I don't care what the Barenaked Ladies tell you, that is not a thing.

They have almost the same stuff here, but it's not quite the same. The box is different, and it changed its name when it crossed the border, but even the taste isn't right. I've found that the American doppelgangers of my favorite childhood foods are always just a little off. They look similar enough to inspire some excitement as I pop open a bottle or tear open a box, but then I'm left with a sense of emptiness when they don't live up to the dream.


These are cans of Alpha-getti and Zoodles. You don't know what these things are unless you grew up in the Great White North, and if this is your story, I am sad for you. They are alphabet or animal noodles in a tomato sauce, and they made it possible for a whole generation of Canadian schoolchildren to learn to spell with their dinners or have hippopotamuses for lunch. After moving here, I had an unhealthy craving for Zoodles, but couldn't find them at the grocery store. I decided Spaghetti-O's would be a reasonable substitute, since O does indeed belong to the alphabet. And I guess if you had a great imagination, they could be interpreted as rolled-up armadillos and this fit into the Zoo family in a pinch. But no, they didn't quite taste right. Actually, they sucked. I do not like Spaghetti-O's!

America's got plenty of awesome foods and I'm not wasting away for lack of tasty things to eat, but sometimes, when I'm tired, or home sick (or, for that matter, homesick), I crave a familiar taste of home, and the stuff here just can't give that to me.



Dear family: send Zoodles.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Maple and Cinnamon Glazed Carrots

Vegetables are a challenge. My husband prefers them in salads, raw and crunchy, but I get bored with having a little salad with every meal and I want to change it up with fun recipes. I had a ton of carrots hanging out in the crisper, so I typed in "carrot recipes" and started the hunt.

Maple and Cinnamon Glazed Carrots
(Modified from Emeril Lagasse, Food Network website)

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced on the diagonal (1/2 inch thick)
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tbsp orange juice
2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt

Mix everything in a small pot and bring the liquid to a boil. Let it simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until you can poke through the carrots with a fork and the glaze has thickened. If the glaze is getting too thick before the carrots are done, add a little more water.

The cinnamon and maple, together, really made this incredible. Sweet and spiced and warm and wonderful. I'd have never thought of using cinnamon on carrots, but I'm suddenly having a hard time imagining eating carrots any other way, at least for a while!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Far from home, far from the family traditions that make Christmas a comfortable and predictable holiday, and far from the snowy Montreal winters, it's always hard for me to find the right state of mind to enjoy the holidays here. But we're building our own traditions and finding our own comforts in Christmas, and I'll get there.

I miss the chaos of the family around Grandmaman's table, and the ceramic Santa boot filled with toothpicks for the olive-and-pickle plate that was always my job to fill. I miss the men of the family taking turns and stepping up to fill the fake scratchy beard and old Santa suit that Grandpapa wore to hand out presents. Even when we were all too old for Santa, an uncle or cousin would dress up and sit by the tree and call out the names on the gift tags, adding in a Ho Ho Ho here and there for good measure. I remember the Christmas decorations that would come out of the tissue paper every year - the ceramic angel in the green dress, holding the candle with the world's tiniest light bulb at the tip, and the plastic houses of the Christmas Village, with their warmly-lit yellow cellophane windows.

That's gone now, but I know it lives in the memory of all my cousins as vividly as it does in mine. One cousin has the Santa suit, and wore it to a party this year, being very careful not to damage it, because he knows it will be used in the next generation of Christmases, as the cousins all grow up and have our own families. I'm homesick, but I'm homesick for the past, which I can't have back.

This year, my husband and I had a wonderful Christmas Eve, with a crackling fire, lap blankets made of purring cats, and It's a Wonderful Life on TV (again). Snuggled with my man by the fireplace, laughing at Horton fighting with the shredded wrapping paper, I managed to find the Christmas spirit I'd been missing. We played some old-fashioned Quebec Christmas music, the kind I used to cringe away from with embarrassment when Mom played it, but secretly have always loved. We had a great meal and exchanged presents on Christmas Eve, making it our own little Reveillon, even though we didn't have the huge chaotic family to go along with it.

We'll be at my in-laws today, enjoying their family traditions and their welcoming warmth, and it's going to be a merry Christmas. It's my nephew's very first Christmas, and I can't wait to find out, thirty years from now, what little things he will remember about the family Christmases we'll be sharing, and what he will want to carry on with his own family.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

In Preparation for the Possibility of Meeting Wil Wheaton

I'm going on a cruise early next year, and I've learned that Wil Wheaton will be in attendance as one of the performers/speakers/entertainers. Maybe he makes balloon animals?

When I was younger, I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation all the time, and I had a big crush on Wesley Crusher, because he was a geek. He was cute and stuff, which was not a bad thing in my pre-teen eyes, but he also managed to keep saving the Enterprise by being all smart and nerdy and that was what I loved. And he never got enough credit for it either. Patronizing, eye-rolling, "shut-up-Wesley-ing"adults never giving him any respect, those bastards. I could sympathize.

Then, I'm sorry to say, I grew up and left Wesley behind. I sure hope he got over it. He wasn't on TV any more, and I had other things to do and other nerds and geeks to crush on. Many years later, in a fateful email, I was sent a link to a review of a Star Trek episode, written by Wil Wheaton. And so help me, I clicked it. I read the review. I devoured it. I looked for more. I laughed. I cried. Mostly just laughed. This guy, this Wil Wheaton dude - he could write! And I found out he'd been blogging and writing books and stories, and of course I had to investigate.

He's talented. If you haven't read any of his stuff, I encourage you to go check it out, because you won't regret it. His writing is familiar and unaffected and real, and he should probably be getting more recognition for it. He's just... this guy. And he does stuff, like real people do. And he writes about it. I'm not sure why that's so amazing - TV people are people too - but it's really great to see that this guy who played a nerdy kid and got a lot of shit for it has grown up into a talented and geeky adult with a huge fan base. And I absolutely love reading his blog and I get grumpy if he doesn't post for a while.

So, when I found out he's going to be on this cruise, I was really excited. Maybe I'll get to meet him! Oh God, wait, that means I'll have a chance to be a blubbering idiot fan-girl and make an ass of myself.

I will try not to giggle like an excited schoolgirl if I see him, and likely fail miserably, so when it happens I will turn to my husband and say "Why would the monkey even say that"! I will instruct him to laugh as well, to help with my cover. I guess we should probably come up with a joke that would have a rude talking monkey punch line, in case Wil is intrigued by our laughter and wants in on the joke. Why a monkey? It's always a monkey.

Even if I don't get a glimpse of him at a cruise event, or I do and then embarrass myself by being a twittery wreck, I'm looking forward to hearing him speak or read or perform in a jug band, or whatever his plans are to entertain the masses. It'll be a little slice of geek heaven for me, and I can't wait.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Prize Shortbread Cookies

I'm not sure which prize they won, who won it, or when, but this is my family's Best Christmas Cookie. Mom made these every year, even when she was exhausted and threatened not to, because we all love them so much.

Prize Shortbread
(From Five Roses Flour "A Guide to Good Cooking")

2 cups flour
1 cup soft butter
1/2 cup icing sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp nutmeg*
*Freshly grated nutmeg is so much better, but regular ground nutmeg from the spice aisle will be ok.

The recipe in this book is very clear about using a wooden spoon, and I don't know why. I've never dared to try a plastic spoon or (gasp) my Kitchenaid mixer, because I feel I should obey the book. So, start by finding a wooden spoon.

Stir sugar and egg yolk into the soft butter, then stir in salt and nutmeg. Add the flour, a quarter cup at a time, until the batter is too hard to stir with the spoon. I usually hit this point at about 3.5 cups. Dump the batter out onto a floured counter and knead gently while adding more flour to the dough by hand. Keep drawing flour in by kneading until the dough just begins to crack*. Roll the dough out with a floured rolling pin to about a quarter-inch thickness and cut into shapes with cookie cutters. Decorate with sprinkles or colored sugar if you want to. Bake at 350F for 10 minutes on an ungreased cookie sheet. Look for the edges to start browning the tiniest bit - that's when they're done.

Move them to a cooling rack immediately, but be careful, they are very fragile. Pushing them off with a spatula is usually better than trying to get anything under them on the cookie sheet.

This recipe will get you about 3 dozen cookies, but it depends on how big a cutter you're using.

These will fall apart in your mouth and taste like buttery heaven.

*It has just occurred to me that I should have taken a picture of this step, because what the heck does "beginning to crack" mean to someone who hasn't done this before? It shouldn't be so wet that it sticks to everything, but it shouldn't be so dry that it flakes as you roll it. I'll take pictures next time and add them!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

We knew we'd be in for a lot of work when we bought an old house. An old house whose first owners thought they were the world's best DIY home renovators and who played very funny tricks with wiring and insulation and lights, and whose most recent owners didn't care enough to maintain their beautiful yard, deck, and pool. So every project we take on, to try and make the place a little better, has ended up being much more of a challenge than we anticipated, thanks to the DIY surprises. I'll admit, being genetically predisposed to pessimism, I get discouraged pretty easily. We keep ending up with several half-finished projects because we need to stop and buy new materials, or get an expert in to help, and of course, everything costs money.

I was in a funk about the siding guys delaying and half-assing their work, and I felt like we'd never be rid of them. It was a very long week, with several people coming in to give us estimates on new floors and some drywall work, and the roofing guy pulling off the skylight to repair a leak. Mojo's "elimination" problems still weren't going away, and I felt like anyone coming into our home would smell it and think we were disgusting people with too many cats. Watching the numbers add up, seeing the wood scraps falling into my family room through the open skylight, and hearing Dave on the phone with the insurance company to try and get the contractors moving again, I was completely depressed.

And then, something happened.

I turned on the TV, with a fluffy Mojo in my lap, and found It's a Wonderful Life playing.

It was the scene where George meets Mary in their new house for the first time. I can't find a clip online to share with you, but this is a YouTube version of the whole movie, and the scene is at the 1-hour mark.



A transcript, in case you're not able to get the video going:
CLOSE SHOT –– George enters. The house is carpetless, empty –– the rain and wind cause funny noises upstairs. A huge fire is burning in the fireplace.
Near the fireplace a collection of packing boxes are heaped together in the shape of a small table and covered with a checkered oil cloth. It is set for two.
A bucket with ice and a champagne bottle sit on the table as well as a bowl of caviar. Two small chickens are impaled on a spit over the fire. A phonograph is playing on a box, and a string from the phonograph is turning the chickens on the spit.
The phonograph is playing "Song of the Islands."
Mary is standing near the fireplace looking as pretty as any bride ever looked. She is smiling at George, who has been slowly taking in the whole set-up.
Through a door he sees the end of a cheap bed, over the back of which is a pair of pajamas and a nightie. Ernie exits and closes the door.


MARY (tears in her eyes): Welcome home, Mr. Bailey.
After that scene, it's harder for me to hate our wonderful house. After all, it's home. It's got character and potential, and it's in a great spot with kind neighbors. I'm here with my husband and our cats, and it's not the end of the world if some rooms are half-painted and the carpets are dirty and worn through and the bathrooms are cold. Any kids we may have won't care about any of that, because it'll be home.

I admit, I'm not usually good at seeing the bright side of things. That's always been my biggest struggle. But I'm making up a little note for my fridge that says "Welcome home, Mr. Bailey" and I will try to let it remind me about what really counts.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Blood bank lesson: blood group antigens

I've been at the new job for a week now, and I'm thinking it's going to work out. I've been asked what exactly I'll be doing there, and I would like to explain, but first you'll need a blood bank lesson or two.

You've got stuff on your red cells. They're little nubbins of proteins and sugars, and we blood bank types call them antigens. They're genetically determined and you inherit them from your parents, so what's on your red blood cells will be a mix of what's on your Mom's and on your Dad's. You're probably familiar with the A and B antigens, since they determine blood type, and the D antigen is the one that makes you "Rh positive". Those were the first ones discovered, a long time ago, and since then there have been dozens more, if not hundreds, added to the list. Scientists, having a deep-rooted need to sort, classify, and name everything, have sorted, classified, and named them all. For some people, these antigens become an issue.

When you get a blood transfusion, you're exposed to a mix of antigens from the donor's cells, and your immune system might decide to make antibodies against the ones it's not familiar with. The same thing happens in pregnancy, because the baby's cells will have some antigens from the father's side, which the mother's body has never seen. There's no guarantee that you will develop an antibody if you're exposed to something new, but once you've made an antibody, we have a problem.

Let's say you get a blood transfusion from someone who's got the Kell antigen on their cells. It's a common one - about 90% of people have that one. If you're in the 10% of people who are Kell-negative, you might make an antibody in response to your exposure. Next time you go to the hospital and need a transfusion, the blood bank will find the antibody in your blood when they do a "type and screen". Once they've done their investigative magic and figured out the identity of your antibody, they will have to find you some blood that doesn't have the corresponding antigen on it, because now that you've got those antibodies in your system, if you see the Kell antigen again, your antibodies will destroy those transfused cells and all the red cell guts will be free in your blood and that's a bad thing.

How do they find the Kell-negative blood for you? With antibodies! There are commercial preparations of purified Anti-Kell (and anti-pretty-much-everything) that the blood bank can buy and use to test blood units. So they'd take a little drop of cells from the donor units, and mix them with this antibody solution, and see if the cells clump up. If they do, the cells are positive for the Kell antigen, and you can't have those. The ones that don't clump up are safe for you, because if this Anti-Kell solution doesn't clump up the cells and destroy them, neither will the Anti-Kell you've got floating around in your plasma (the liquid part of your blood).

Recap: Blood group antigens are on your cells. When you're exposed to a foreign antigen, you can make an antibody that will remain in your plasma, which can make subsequent exposures dangerous. Blood bankers use antibody solutions to test blood for specific antigens, when necessary, to be sure to avoid that situation.

Questions from the class?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dessert - Smores Bars

I was asked to bring a dessert to Thanksgiving this year, and since I was informed that there would already be two varieties of pie attending the party, I opted against adding to the pie pile. I briefly considered making the pumpkin bread pudding that I made for last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s a very long process, and one of the aforementioned pies was of the pumpkin variety, so it seemed wrong to overpumpkin everyone with a second gourd-based dessert.

My final dessert choice? Smores bars. My coworker brought these in a few months ago, and they were so good that they disappeared almost immediately. She gave me the recipe and I hadn’t had a chance to make them yet, so this was the perfect occasion.

Karen’s Smores Bars

2 packets of graham crackers*
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
2 tbsp sugar
Pinch of salt (If you are using salted butter, skip the extra salt)
3 cups milk chocolate chips
miniature marshmallows (I used half the 10.5 oz bag)

* The graham crackers I bought were in a 14.4 oz box and inside they were split into 3 small packets, so I used 2 of those. It added up to 36 squares, but this is a flexible enough recipe that there's probably a margin of error built in. If your crust isn't holding together, add more butter, and if it's too gooey, add more crackers.

Line a 9x13 baking dish with a layer of foil. If you don’t do this, you’ll have a hell of a time trying to cut the bars later.

Melt your butter in the microwave. Crush the graham crackers in a food processor (break them up a little by hand first, or the processor might choke) with the sugar and salt, then stir them into the bowl of melted butter. Press this gently into the foil-lined pan to make an even crust. Bake it at 350F for about 10 minutes, and let it cool. Meanwhile, melt the chocolate chips in a double-boiler (or in a microwave, if you’re impatient, but be careful not to scorch the chocolate), so you can pour the chocolate over the graham crust. Sprinkle a layer of mini marshmallows over the chocolate, then put it under the broiler for a minute or two so the marshmallows start to swell up and brown just the slightest bit. Be very careful and watch the pan during this step – it’s a very fine line between golden-crusted marshmallows and charred ones.


Put the whole thing into the fridge to chill completely, then when you’re ready to cut it into bars, take it out and let it sit at room temperature for a few minutes. The colder it is, the harder it is to get through the chocolate layer. Lift the bars out, using the foil, then use a big knife to cut them into small squares – I didn’t let mine warm up for long, so it was hard to cut. If you’re cutting them cold, be careful and remember you’re working with hard chocolate: lay the knife across the top and rock it back and forth with a little pressure until you get fractures in the bars and pieces snap off, instead of really trying to “cut” them.

The graham layer is crumbly and the marshmallows are sticky and the chocolate gets all over your fingers, but damn, this stuff is good.


Baking - No-Knead Dutch Oven Bread

Bread! Glorious bread!


It has always seemed to me that baking bread is a special category of baking reserved for the talented elite among us. This, pastry dough, and cakes from scratch, all belong to graduate-level baking: difficult, requiring effort and concentration, and taking much longer than you think it should.

Well, with baking bread from scratch on my 30 in 30 list, and the year coming to a close, I had no choice but to try. And I cheated a little bit. Just a little. I found the world’s easiest bread recipe. It’s a yeast bread, but with no kneading required, and it’s baked in a dutch oven instead of a loaf pan.

Here’s the recipe, which I got from the Steamy Kitchen blog, who got it from elsewhere:

3 cups bread flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast*
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups warm water

Just mix all the ingredients together in a big bowl, cover, let it sit overnight in a warm place, and it’ll puff up full of bubbles and smell nice and yeasty. Flip it out onto a floured countertop, and then shape it into a ball with either your hands or a big spoon or spatula (make sure your shaping implement is wet or things will get real sticky real fast), folding the edges up over the middle. Dust a tea towel with more flour and put the ball, seam-side down, into the towel, cover it up with the rest of the towel, and let it hang out on the counter for another two hours.

Your oven and pot need to be really hot from the start, so sometime during the two hours, put your pot in the oven and crank it to 450F to preheat. You will need a good enameled dutch oven type pot for this - check that what you're using can go to 450F, because not everything can. Take the hot pot out when it’s ready, plop the dough ball into the pot and wiggle it so it sits well, and put it in the oven, covered, for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, take the lid off and give it another 15-20 minutes – you’re looking for the crust to get crusty and brown-gold. The website I linked to says the internal temperature should be 210F when it’s done.

Wait for it to cool – and good luck waiting, because the smell will drive you insane and you’ll keep coming back to poke it and see if it’s cool enough to eat yet. It makes a delicious squishy loaf with a thin crunchy crust, and it absorbs butter beautifully.

I’ll be baking bread often, now that I know how easy it is to do. I might even try a more complicated bread, with kneading! I need something for my 31 in 31 list, right?

* I bought regular yeast, because I don’t know the first thing about yeast and didn’t actually realize there were different kinds. Well, I know there are different kinds – I studied microbiology, after all – but I didn’t realize the grocery store had two different products, an instant and a not-instant. I used the regular yeast in this recipe, which meant that I had to “proof” it before using it. I followed the instructions on the packet and mixed my yeast with warm water and a little sugar, then let it sit for a few minutes to see if it would bubble. It did, which meant the yeast was alive and farting out CO2 like it’s supposed to, so I added that bubble sludge to the flour and just subtracted that amount of water from my total.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dear lard, I found the perfect pie crust!

I'm bad at pie.

Crusts are not easy to get right, and I've been trying to match my Mom's perfect pie crust for years with no success. It's delicious and flaky and so good that I actually want to eat the sweet curve of crust left on the plate when the pie is gone.

Her secret, besides the traditional dash of love, is Tenderflake lard. It's a Canadian thing, and I've never found it here in the States, which makes me sad. Can someone ship me some lard, please? I did try using a different brand of lard here, but it was all wrong and I couldn't even roll out the dough because it was so sticky. Oh, how I sobbed that day, rolling pin hanging from my dejected hands as I stood, flour-dusted, by the sad lump of goo on my kitchen counter.

Crisco does a decent job in a pie crust. I've used it a few times now and it passes for edible, and I can make it work, but it's not a crust you'd want to eat on its own. At least not when I make it. I get a good shell to keep the pie filling in place, and that's about it. So sad.

I've also used refrigerated Pillsbury pie crusts in a pinch, and they're almost identical to the Crisco ones, but with a lot less work, so I'm a big fan. Yeah, it's cheating, but it results in faster pie.

This week, when I went grocery shopping, I picked up some refrigerated pie crusts. Feeling a little cheap, I decided to save 23 cents by buying the Giant store brand instead of the fancy Pillsbury stuff. Some things are just as good in generic form, and some are horrible, but I'm learning where I can cut corners to save a little... as it turns out, this is a situation where being cheap paid off.

I cut out the circles necessary for the pot pies I was making, and saw that I had leftover crust. Why waste crust? I spread some butter, sugar, and cinnamon on the remnants and popped them into the oven on a cookie sheet just for the hell of it. 15 minutes later they were golden and tasty-looking, and I found myself taking a bite far before they were cool enough to comfortably do so. Golden pastry has that effect on me. It was flaky. It was delicious.

It was Mom's pie crust.


I don't think I could have told them apart in a blind taste test.

I ran to the fridge, huffing and puffing not from exertion but from the pain of having a second much-too-hot wedge of sugary crust stuffed in my mouth, and checked the ingredient list on the box. Lard. Sweet, sweet lard. I almost died. I called my Mom to tell her. Really.

I think I will buy a dozen of these and keep them in my freezer, because if they are discontinued I will die.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What's for Dinner - Individual Chicken Pot Pies

I winged it on this one. I've been seeing chicken pot pie recipes on my Food Network shows, and I had a fabulous chicken pot pie for lunch at Bob Evans a while ago, and I really, really wanted to make some myself. I browsed around a little bit for a recipe and didn't find one that fit the ingredients I actually had on hand, so I improvised a whole lot and crossed my fingers.


Chicken pot pies

1 chicken breast
1 small onion
1 cup frozen veggies (I used a peas & carrots mix)
2 small potatoes
1 cup chicken broth (have more on hand, in case)
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter
poultry seasoning
1 clove garlic
thyme
bay leaf
salt and pepper
refrigerated pie crust


I rubbed a chicken breast with "poultry seasoning", which is a blend of marjoram, sage, thyme, rosemary, black pepper, and nutmeg (nutmeg? really?), added a little salt, and then baked it in the oven at 350 until the thermometer told me it was done. When it was done, it got chopped and shredded.

I diced a small onion and a garlic clove and sauteed them in butter in a pot until they were soft, then I added the 2 tbsp of butter and flour and cooked that for a minute or two until it started to brown a little, and then I added my chicken broth. I peeled and diced a small potato, and added the cubes to the broth along with about a cup of the frozen veggies, then I added salt and pepper, some thyme (somewhere between a pinch and a dash, I guess) and a bay leaf, and the shredded chicken breast, and let it all simmer for a while to thicken up. After about 15 minutes, it wasn't thickening to my liking, so I decided to add mashed potatoes to the mixture.

To speed things up, instead of boiling potatoes on the stovetop, I peeled and chopped a second small potato and put the pieces into a glass measuring cup with enough water to cover it all, and nuked the cup on high in the microwave for about 3 minutes. They were fork-tender after their spin in the microwave, and I drained the water, mashed them quickly with a fork, and added them to the pot.

Once I was happy with the thickness, I spooned the stuff into my two smallest Corningware dishes (16-oz) and topped them with pie crusts. I cheated and bought the ready-made refrigerated pie crust, because I have still not honed my pastry skills enough to present a pie I'm proud of. One rolled-out crust, cut into two circles to fit over the tops the dishes, was plenty to work with, and even gave me some extra crust to cut into pretty shapes to decorate my pies just like the fancy TV chefs and the glamorous food photos in Good Housekeeping magazine.

I put the pies into the oven on a baking sheet in case they bubbled over, and baked them at 425 because the box told me to. It took 20 minutes for the crust to be cooked and golden and crispy.


Honestly, they were a little big for individual servings, but we ate them all anyway. They were super freaking delicious and I'm so proud of myself for making it up as I went along. This, of course, means that it will probably not taste the same if you follow my recipe, or if I make it again next week, but that's just how it is.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What's for Dinner - Creamy Mushroom Chicken

Sometimes I feel guilty for making something easy using a can of soup or some other Kraft or Campbells product. I feel like I'm cheating, like it's not really cooking, and I think the Food Network is to blame. I need to stop watching those Next Iron Chef shows where they work from such complete scratch that I wouldn't be surprised to see them kill their own chickens for authenticity and freshness.

You know what? Some damn tasty things have been made in casserole form with cream-of-whatever soups, and I'm ok with that. Yes, I'll make my own chicken stock or pasta dough when I have time, but sometimes I want to make it easy.

Creamy Mushroom Chicken

1 package button mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons butter
Olive oil
1 can cream of mushroom soup
3/4 cup chicken broth
Flour
Salt
Pepper

Fry up the mushrooms, onions, and garlic in the butter until they're soft, then set aside.

Mix some salt and pepper into a little bit of flour in a bowl, then dip the chicken into the mixture to coat it. Brown the chicken breasts on both sides in some olive oil, them remove them to a baking dish. Put the mushroom and onion mix back into the pan, add the cream of mushroom soup and the chicken broth (pour the broth into the soup can and stir it to get all the mushroomy goo out), and stir until the soup stops looking like goo and starts to look like soup. Pour the soupy mixture over the chicken in the baking dish, and then put the whole mess into the oven for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. After 30 minutes, check the chicken with a thermometer - once it's done, add some shredded mozzarella cheese to the top of the chicken breasts and put it back in for another 10 minutes.


This was delicious over rice, but next time I will cut up the chicken into small pieces before cooking it, both to reduce cooking time and to make it easier to eat. More mushrooms would also be a great idea - one package didn't seem to be enough, but maybe it's just because we love mushrooms.

Also, I keep forgetting that I have these wonderful Le Creuset dutch ovens of various sizes that I could be using instead of transferring food back and forth between skillet and baking dish. Maybe I need to just leave those suckers on the counter so they're in my face.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Complementary Brownie Preferences

You know how some people only like the squishy middle part of the brownie pan, and some people prefer the edges?

I woke up and found my brownie pan looking like this:


and I giggled and knew I married the right man.

The edges are the best part anyway, so I don't know what he's thinking, going for the middles. Crazy!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Baking - Cranberry Orange Bread

This is my Mom's recipe and it's so good I recommend you double it right away because you're not going to have enough! This makes one loaf, 8 mini-loaves, or 12 small muffins.




Cranberry-Orange Bread



1 cup fresh cranberries, cut in half
1/4 cup sugar

1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp shortening
1 tsp fresh orange zest (one large orange should do it)
3/4 cup orange juice
1 egg

Grease a bread pan or muffin/mini-loaf pan, and preheat the oven to 350F.

Mix the cranberries with 1/4 cup sugar until they're well coated. This mitigates their tartness and helps them not to sink to the bottom of the bread.

Mix the dry ingredients (including the non-cranberried sugar) in a large bowl, then cut in the shortening until it's all in tiny crumbles. Make a well in the middle and pour in the juice, egg, and zest, then mix until everything is wet - don't overdo it. Add the sugared cranberries and blend them in well, then pour into your baking receptacle of choice.

A loaf will need 40 to 45 minutes, my mini-loaves only took 20. Not sure how long muffins would take, but I'd start with 15 minutes and check from there.

Notes: I didn't get much more than 1/4 cup of juice out of my orange, since I don't have a juicer thingy - I was stabbing at the orange halves with a fork and squeezing them to death to get some juice out and it didn't go very well. Sadly, the OJ in the fridge was very expired, so I just made up the difference in liquid with plain water and hoped for the best. It turned out really well - still tasted plenty orangey.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

What's for Dinner - Pork chops, apples, and onions

Because I still work evenings, I need to get dinner figured out pretty early to avoid having to come up with a plan at midnight. Depending on what I'm making, I'll prep everything in the morning or I'll thaw stuff overnight, leaving me with only the cooking part to do once I get home. I don't mind so much having to cook late at night, but thinking is always a problem after a long day, and I hate having to come home and decide what to feed us.

So I reached into the freezer before shuffling off to bed around 2am, and pulled out two ziplock bags with fleshy pink frozen meat inside so I could leave them in the fridge overnight to thaw. I always buy the boneless, skinless chicken breasts at Costco and freeze them individually for easy portioning later, and that is what I thought was in those bags. I had a plan for a lemon garlic sauteed chicken breast dinner, and I was quite pleased with it. Lesson learned: label freezer food. Seriously. Because examination of the thawed meat at midnight after the following long day at work revealed pork chops. Eight teeny tiny thin pork chops.

Now what? After a moment or two of grumpy pouting because I couldn't make the dinner I wanted to, I threw together a new plan.

I peeled and cut up two apples, put them in a covered bowl with about a quarter cup of apple cider, and put them into the microwave for two minutes so the apples would get soft. Meanwhile, I fried up the pork chops in a pan with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and put them aside when they were done. Next into the pan went half an onion, sliced really thin, with a bit more oil and a dash of thyme. When they were soft, I put in a small bit of flour and stirred that around for a minute before dumping the apple cider and soft apples in. The pork chops and their juice went back in too, and I stirred it all up and left a lid on it with the heat all the way down for a couple more minutes before I called it ready because I was hungry.


It turned out pretty good. It got the husband's thumbs-up and there were no leftovers, so either we were starving or it was decent. I thought it was a little on the sweet side and I think I'll add some apple cider vinegar if I do this again. I probably should have gotten the pan hotter and done a better job browning the chops so they'd look nicer - this meal wasn't very photogenic!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

New Job, part 2

Apologies to my readers for not giving you anything all week. I'm often saying that there need to be more hours in a day so I can get everything done that needs doing, so I will use the free hour from the Daylight Savings fall-back to feed my poor little blog.

I've got a few book reviews to cover, and a project or two to write about, but I've been too stressed to focus on writing. I told you a little while ago that I'm going to be moving on to a new job and leaving the hospital behind. That was a hard decision, and one that I wavered on. My coworkers were very sad to hear I was leaving them, and I don't think it was all selfish sentiment from knowing they'd have to fill in all the gaps in the schedule. From the day I gave my notice, they've been trying to talk me out of my decision. They didn't use any arguments I hadn't already wrestled with, but hearing them from other people made me very nervous that maybe I was making the wrong decision.

Manufacturing? Really? Sitting in a quiet lab all day with almost nobody else around, running the same few tests over and over and over? I'm so used to doing four things at once and having to keep on top of everything; will this be too much of a change for me? Will I be bored? Lonely? The group of people I work with in the evenings now is really fabulous and I know I'll miss the goofy fun we have between crises. And I'll miss the high I get from zipping around and managing a situation as it tries to spiral out of control, and knowing at the end of the shift that my work contributed to a patient living another day.

But I'm so stressed out right now. And the stress from the actual work, while it will never go away because of its nature, isn't the problem. It's the little things. The doctors calling us liars when we say it'll take half an hour to thaw plasma. The all-caps emails CC'd to my supervisor threatening to "write me up" if I forget to staple paperwork one more time. The resistance to change and growth I encounter from so many people who tend to react reflexively by putting band-aids on problems instead of thinking about the causes and trying to eliminate them at the source.

I guess I take it too seriously. If I was able to disconnect a little more and just go to work and put in my hours and go home, maybe I'd be happier there. But I can't do that. Everyone who works part-time says it's a lot easier to care less when you're not there every single day, and maybe they're right but I can't afford to drop to part-time right now. So I spend more time at the hospital than I do with my husband all week, and I'm invested in that lab and I am so frustrated that it's not as great a lab as it has the potential to be.

I love my coworkers and they're all good techs. The hospital is growing and changing and it's exciting to be a part of all that. My supervisor is great. But somehow, we find ourselves griping and sniping and sabotaging each other out of stress when we should all be patting each other on the back and busting with pride at how awesome we all are for keeping the place running with fewer people and resources than we should have to. There are no fingers to point - everyone is guilty and everyone is a victim. I suspect it's a similar story in every hospital lab in the country, because we're all underrecognized and understaffed and the work is so draining.

So I need to step back. I feel like this job is like a boyfriend with potential - if only he'd apply himself a little more! But the relationship is toxic in its current state and it's time for some space. I'm not happy, and I need a break.

Making the decision was hard. There was no counter-offer from the current job (HR policy), but it's not even about the money. I made list after list of good things and bad things and there were so many unknowns, and every five minutes I'd talk myself into or out of staying, over and over. I might get bored. I might come crawling back in a few months. But in the end, I need to try something new so I can preserve a little sanity. I can't go to part-time work, so I need this new job. And maybe I will fall completely in love with it and never want to leave.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Project: Windshield Repair

What do my windshield and Charlie Brown have in common? They both got a rock for Halloween.

I heard it hit, and at first I thought I got away without damage, but then I noticed the big, fat, round raindrop perfectly centered on my windshield. It was starting to rain, so I didn't think anything of it until the wipers slid over the spot without moving the drop. Great. It was only about a half inch in diameter, but windshield damage can spread pretty quickly, and replacing the whole thing is so expensive.

I picked up a windshield repair kit, because I figured if it works I'll save money and if it doesn't I'll only be out about ten bucks, so it's worth a shot.

It's a kit with a small tube of resin and an apparatus to help you apply it to the crack or chip and put pressure on it to remove air bubbles. It's a neat little suction-cup assembly with a hole in the middle, which you're supposed to center over the damage - very hard for me to do effectively because of the location of the chip. I was climbing in and out of the car and onto a step-stool to try and get it exactly centered. The instructions with the kit include step-by-step pictures, and are very simple to follow.


Because of the shape of my car and the shortness of my arms, I couldn't reach the middle of the windshield to actually do the repair, so I had one foot barely hanging onto the step-stool, one leg flung onto the hood, and my body leaning heavily onto the windshield, with one hand holding the instructions and the other trying to do all the work. Note: a Google image search for "woman on hood of car" will not give you an accurate idea of what happened in my driveway this afternoon. It's not bikini weather, for starters.

Anyway, after squeezing the resin into the tube and tightening it to apply pressure, and then loosening it to release air bubbles, the chip didn't look any different to me, so I repeated the whole process again, using a little more resin and readjusting the positioning of the suction cups. After the second round, it looked like the resin had filled the hole, so I moved on to the finishing step - pulling off the device, applying a drop of resin directly to the area, and then smoothing a plastic film over it using a razor blade. Then I moved my car into a sunny spot for a while to let it set. The directions say you can also buy a UV lamp to use in "curing" the resin, but I'm betting that the late October sun, despite having little warmth, has enough UV left in it to do the job.

The result: the bullseye is still visible. I'm a little disappointed, although I'm ready to admit it may be my fault for not doing it right, and a lot of the customer reviews on Amazon say that it took more than one try to get it done. It looks better, in that the center chip seems a little less obvious, but if I run my fingernail over it I can still feel it. Since we'll be getting to freezing temperatures really soon, I want to be sure it's repaired well enough to withstand the repeated freeze-thaw cycles it's going to go through, and stand up well to the snow brush and ice scraper. I might try another round of repair next weekend if it's sunny again, but it's getting late and there won't be enough sun for me to keep going today. My main concern is to prevent cracks from radiating out from that spot and forcing me to replace the whole windshield - and I can't tell if what I've done today will be enough.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

6th grade

An elementary school friend recently found and read my whole blog and posted a really nice comment on my Facebook page.
still the same great writer trapped in a nerd's body as you were in 6th grade!
That made me smile, and also made me think back to my sixth-grade self and what she'd think of where I ended up.

Who was I back then? Teacher's pet, nerd to the fourth degree, and a fashion sense to rival Steve Urkel's. Attending my tiny school, with the giant lunch tables that folded in half and lined the gym walls when we weren't having lunch - and the best lunch was always hot dog day, where you gave the teacher your hot dog money on Monday and you'd get a pink construction-paper ticket on Wednesday to exchange for a hot dog and a carton of milk or purple juice. I remember the legendary kickball games with the occasional loose shoe flying over the fence, and the dodgeball games where everyone wanted this one girl on their team because she'd had her growth spurt much earlier than the rest of us and she could palm that giant red boingy ball and whip it at her victims' heads with a remarkable accuracy. Do they still make those balls? I want to get one and bounce it on concrete for the memories.

I couldn't quite call them the good old days, because I was fighting depression even then, and being a dork does make you a bit of an outcast. So young, the girls formed their groups and decided who to exclude, and no matter how I tried I never figured out the magic words that would let me in. Luckily, I had other fantastic dorks with me so I was never really alone, and I am profoundly grateful for those people and sorry that we didn't stay close, because now I wonder what our friendships may have become if we'd tried harder. But Grade 6 is the end of an era. We're hugging and saying goodbye, headed off to high school, and circles are split up with the wedges headed off in all directions. And at that age, you don't know what's coming, you don't know how important those lessons are that you're learning. I didn't know that my family was falling apart, and I didn't know how dark some of my future years would be. The bliss of ignorance.

I wanted to be a writer. Also a marine biologist and an astronaut and a doctor, but always, always, a writer. Plenty of teachers drenched me with praise and encouragement, but I never believed that I was good enough to write. I'd read some of my favorite novels and be both moved and depressed by how wonderful they were - there's no way I could compete with such brilliance. And if I'm not going to be good enough, why try? I know now that such thoughts are just depression trying to keep me from making any effort, and that getting good enough takes practice, but I wasted a lot of years refusing to try for fear of being mediocre.

I think my sixth-grade self would be happy with where I am now. I'm not Dr Jen, space-dolphin biologist, and I'm not a published writer, but I'm married to a wonderful geek, I have a small circle of solidly nerdy friends, and I've come a long way in seeing the good in life. I think she'd also be disappointed to learn that I'm no longer making it a point to have my socks match my sweaters, but I'm comfortable with that.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jen's Library: The Lost Art of Reading

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time
David L. Ulin

This is a short book. Which is good, because it's so easy to be distracted when you're reading. More and more, we're reading online, skimming novels on our little phones, clicking links and losing that sense of being totally immersed in a book.

The author, a former book review editor for a big newspaper, found that concentrating on reading was becoming more difficult, as was tuning out the buzz of the wired world and getting deeply into a book, and this book is an expansion of an essay he wrote on that subject.

He's not anti-technology at all - he has an e-reader and uses it - but he feels like the connection between the writer and the reader is fraying because we're drifting away from good writing and good reading as we shift to a way of life with shorter attention spans. Some authors are using new digital media as a way of enhancing their work, and he gives them praise, but they're in the minority. It's his personal opinion throughout this book - he doesn't pull up citations and tables to show you how the world is changing, and while he's clearly lamenting the loss of connection with literature, he's not yelling at those damn neighborhood Kindles to get off his lawn.

As a person who has always loved books, I can relate to his sentiment. I nearly always have a book with me. I bring books on vacation. I won't buy a purse until I've tried stuffing a normal hardcover book inside, to see whether it'll fit. The damp scent of old yellowing paperbacks makes me happy. My home is filled with books and it physically pains me to throw any away. I find it strange to see someone reading Pride and Prejudice on an iPhone, although I can understand the convenience factor.

Like Ulin, I have noticed my shortening attention span and it bothers me. I've been avoiding reading fiction because I find myself bored, flipping ahead to get to the point. But the point isn't the point - reading is about the trip, and that's getting harder for me to remember. So I've been eating up nonfiction, reading too quickly and not retaining nearly as much as I'd like, because I don't have the time and attention and energy to absorb a good novel and all it has to offer. And that's what Ulin is getting at with his book.

Maybe I'll ease back into fiction by rereading a favorite or two.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Filing cabinet!

Neither of us is very good with paperwork. We get as far as opening mail, paying bills, and making haphazard piles of receipts and warranties here and there, but it's always a struggle to find something we're sure we've seen recently. Getting all my stuff in order for my green card application was a nightmare because I don't have a good system. I've got two expanding file folders, a little portable file folder, and some of those Rubbermaid bins with inserts to make them into filing drawers, but I don't have a filing system.


Craigslist recently provided us with a nice 4-drawer filing cabinet similar to this one and we've been making decent headway against the mountains of paper. The goal is to have a small accordion folder with the most current stuff handy, and to use the filing cabinet for the more long-term papers, like medical information, taxes, warranties, and old school transcripts.

Now we need to decide how to categorize everything. One drawer each, and then a joint drawer for the house and car and cat stuff? Straight-up alphabetical from the top down? Luckily all the hanging files are easy to move around, so we're starting by just filing it away for now to get it all off the counters and coffee tables, and the rest can come later. I'm excited about having one central location for all the paperwork, because it should cut down on the panic attacks I get when I can't find my social security card or marriage certificate for something important.

Unfortunately, I think we both have a tendency to keep things "just in case", which helps us accumulate much more paper. It's hard to know what I need, though. Do I need my old tax returns from Canada? I haven't filed taxes there since 2007. How many months or years worth of utility bills do we need? Should we keep any from the old address? How about my copy of the lease from my first apartment in the US? I don't know why I would need it, but it seems too important to toss. There are some sites I've found that help you figure out how much to keep, but I find myself disagreeing with them and wanting to err on the side of caution. Maybe that's a habit I need to break?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jen's Library: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

If you've ever learned anything about cell biology, cloning, or vaccines, you should know Henrietta Lacks.

She died young - only 31 years old - of invasive cervical cancer. She left behind a husband, five young children, and a small slice of cancer cells that would end up living longer than she ever had a chance to.

When she was treated at Johns Hopkins, in 1951, her doctors took a biopsy of her tumor. Researchers soon found out that her cells would multiply indefinitely, defying the normal rules of cell division. Usually, a cell divides a finite number of times before dying, which is why we age. Cancer cells tend to ignore this rule, dividing as they please and becoming mutated and unrecognizable versions of their former selves. For years, cell biologists had been trying to create cell cultures - vials of identical cells that they could keep alive and use for research, because standardization is so important. To be sure the results are reproducible, everyone needs to be able to start with the same materials. Henrietta's cells, which became known as the HeLa line, finally gave the scientists what they needed.

Sadly, the Lacks family was completely unaware of the cell line and its contributions to biology. A poor black family living in Baltimore, they didn't have money to go to doctors themselves. Their mother's cells are patented and being sold from lab to lab, all without the family's knowledge or prior consent.

Rebecca Skloot is a reporter who decided to explore the HeLa story and get to know the Lacks family. This book is a fascinating look at HeLa's contribution to modern medicine and genetics research, along with the evolution of medical ethics since the 1950s. I'm embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about this woman. I'm glad this book came out and brought her out into the light so everyone can read about her.

If you're in a scientific or a medical field, you need to read this. And if you're not, you should anyway.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mojo Update part 2

Mojo handled his day-long trip to the vet like a champ. He was a little dizzy and stoned from the anesthesia they used to keep him still for the procedures, but he was back to eating and meowing and demanding a spot on my lap that night.

We got good news and bad news. The good news is, nothing is wrong with him. The bad news is, nothing is wrong with him. The Xrays didn't show any blockages, stones, tumors, or other issues with his urinary tract, so there's no good reason for him to be peeing everywhere. The paws don't seem to have any sort of rash or irritation on them, so there's no good reason for him to be licking them furless. There is absolutely no physical, medical reason for him to be acting like he is.

And I'm delighted, really, because it means that Mojo is fine and doesn't need surgery for bladder stones, and he's not blocked up and in pain from a tumor somewhere. I am very relieved to find out he's healthy.

The flip side of the news, though, is that he's peeing on things and licking his paws off for reasons nobody can understand. Did we upset him somehow? Why is he so anxious and intent on peeing on any shopping bag I leave on the floor for more than a minute? Why does he groom his paws until he's pulling his fluff off?

The vet recommended some medication to ease Mojo's anxiety, so we got a prescription (filled at the human drugstore) for amitryptiline, a tricyclic antidepressant that's used a lot as an antianxiety medication. It's not too expensive, which is a relief. We've only been giving it to him for three days so far, and I can't say that he's doing anything differently yet. He still licks his paws a lot, and we try to stop him when we notice it, but he's acting exactly the same. He hasn't peed on anything since his vet visit, as far as we know, but I've been a lot more careful about leaving pee-on-able things around. Maybe I'll give it a week and then give him a test - a canvas shopping bag on the floor in the foyer.

I'm keeping a close eye on him for side effects. Lethargy, changes in appetite, and loss of coordination are all reported problems in cats taking this medication. Can someone please tell me how to note "lethargy" in a cat who sleeps 20 hours a day?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jen's Library: The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels -- A Love Story
by Ree Drummond

I am a big fan of Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman. I forget who was the very first to clue me into her existence, so I'll fling out a blanket of thanks towards all my friends in hopes that I catch the right person with it.

I started poking around her website to try out her recipes, which she writes out in hilarious detail, with step-by-step pictures so newbies like me can figure out what we're doing. So far, the few recipes I've tried have worked out great, and I intend to tackle her famous cinnamon rolls one of these days, but I think I'll need an entire team in my kitchen to pull it off. She's also got sections on her blog about photography, home-schooling her kids, and my favorite: her life on the ranch. If you ever have a wedge of free time, pop over to her website and start reading through her "Confessions" section. She's a very engaging and entertaining writer and you'll probably get hooked like I did.

On top of her profuse blogging, she's managed to write a book. Well, three, actually, if you're including her cookbook and her children's book, but I haven't gotten to those. And I think she's got a show on the Food Network now. Which I can't watch because I don't have cable, but maybe it's on their website?

Her "memoir" is a lot of fun. Black Heels is her story about her transformation from ditzy LA party girl to a ditzy ranch wife after she meets and falls in love with a very stereotypical cowboy. Well, ok, not ditzy, but she's got no problem making fun of herself and she comes across as a real person, whose fluffy love story is really fun to read. Falling in love and leaving the old you behind to try on a new version of yourself is something I can connect with, even if my move and transformation wasn't as dramatic, and my telling of the story wouldn't be nearly as engaging as Ree. I'm not saying this book is great literature, but if you've got a rainy weekend to kill, give this a shot. It made me smile and I kept flipping pages to see how it ended, even though I already knew they finished off happily ever after.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kitchen ants

We have ants. I haven't counted them but I'm going to say we have a billion ants. They're coming out of the walls in the kitchen and they're pissing me off. Two weeks ago we had them crawling along the tops of the cabinets and making their way to the pantry, where they found some spilled vanilla and a sticky bottle of balsamic vinegar to snack on. Not my idea of a well-rounded lunch, but I'm not an ant. With much cursing, I sprayed to get rid of them and then proceeded to wash or throw out all the food that was in that section. Luckily, most of it was in jars or bottles and was salvageable, but my chocolate bars had to go because the bastards got in under the wrappers. The Caramilk that Mom brought me on her visit had to be trashed, and that is a tragedy.

A few days later, they came back, on the other side of the kitchen, sending out scouts to look for more Caramilks (you're out of luck, bastards, it was my last one) on the counters. This time, because part of their trail went along the floor, I used a bait trap and they were gone in two days.

We called Bug Guy. I don't even know what his name is, because he's Bug Guy to me, a sort of insecticidal superhero who will come and rescue me from creepy crawly things. He came yesterday to have a look at the firewood we got recently, because it was swarming with what we feared were carpenter ants, and we weren't sure if we should put any of it in the shed or near the house. We were lucky: they were only citronella ants, nothing to worry about, thank goodness. He tossed town some bait for them and then tossed more all around the house to kill all manner of critters before they can get inside, so we should have a less buggy winter.

What's great about Bug Guy is he teaches us while he's here, so we don't have to call him as often. You'd think it's a bad business strategy but I suspect he gets tons of referrals from happy clients and it all works out for him. For example, he taught Dave how to differentiate citronella ants from carpenter ants, so next time we think we may have carpenters, we can use that test to decide whether we need Bug Guy's help. And for the kitchen ants (odorous house ants), he didn't spray inside the house. He could have, and the ants would be dead, but the colonies would still be alive in the walls somewhere and they'd bust out again eventually. Bug spray is apparently one of the worst things you can use when there are ants inside the house, because you'll separate ants from their colony and they might go make a new colony and then you'll have two. There were no ants around when he came through the kitchen, but he told us to use liquid ant bait next time we saw them and put it across their tracks so they can bring it back to the reproductive ants hanging out at home (barefoot and pregnant, one assumes - do ants have kitchens?) and kill everyone.

So, irony being what it is, the ants came back out to play several hours after Bug Guy left. I followed his instructions and dripped liquid bait where I saw them congregating, and hopefully it's going to work. I'm grossed out by the idea of using this stuff in my kitchen, because I've used it before and it attracts more ants at first. So what was a dozen or so ants exploring the countertop is now a hundred or more hanging out at the bait droplets and chowing down. I realize that it's a more effective way to kill them, but it's really gross and depressing to have a mob of ants on the counter behind the coffee pot, even if you can delight in their imminent demise. The take -home lesson:

How to get rid of house ants:

1. Buy Terro liquid bait. They sell it at Home Depot, Lowes, and online, and I saw it at Target during the summer but they didn't have any this week. Terro makes all sorts of other products, including traps, but the bottle of liquid bait is the cheapest and easiest way.
2. Follow the ant track back to its source, or as close as possible. Where are they going into the wall? The bait will attract more ants, so it's best to place it close to where they're starting from so you aren't overwhelmed by the increased number of ants roaming your kitchen.
3. Put some bait across their track and the ants will stop and eat it. Check back periodically, and add more bait if they've eaten it all. Within a day or two, you should see the number of ants drop significantly, and then they'll be gone.

The bait comes with little perforated cards and the instructions say to put a drop of bait in the middle of the card and place the card on the floor where you see ants. Bug Guy says to ignore that and just make a thin line of bait along the ants' trail so they can line up at it like a trough - more ants get to eat, more ants bring poison back home. If the ants are on the wall, like mine were, you can just squeeze the bottle at the wall and let a few drops drip down.


I baited them yesterday, but I didn't put enough out, so when I came out this morning they had scouts all over the counters and cabinets, looking for more. I added more bait to the original spot, close to where I saw them going into the wall, and I squashed or vacuumed up all the strays. I'm hoping that they're gone by tomorrow.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jen's Library: What I've been reading lately

I've had a lot of chaos hovering over me lately, what with the hurricane cleanup, kitchen ants, a sick Mojo, long days at work, and new job prospects, so I've been slacking on my book reviews. I've still been reading plenty of stuff, just haven't found the time to write about any of it. I tried to keep a list going so I wouldn't forget everything, and I'd like to come back and talk about at least a few of these later, when I find more time. What say you, readers? Are there any of these you'd like me to tell you more about? I think I missed a few, too... I wish the library's website kept a list of all the books I've checked out, so I could keep track.

Straight Dope
by Cecil Adams

The Lost Art of Reading by David L. Ullin

Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned about Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

Dancing Barefoot by Wil Wheaton

Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

Mother of My Mother: The Intricate Bond Between Generations by Hope Edelman

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What's for Dinner - Ham and Cheese Chicken Rolls

I decided to get fancy and take things a step or two beyond shaking and baking my chicken.

Ham and Cheese Chicken Rolls

3 big chicken breasts
6 slices deli ham
1/2 cup shredded swiss cheese
1/2 cup milk
2/3 cup breadcrumbs
1 tbsp oregano
Garlic salt
Pepper
Salt
Toothpicks

Prep your dipping station by filling a bowl with milk and another bowl with a mix of breadcrumbs and spices. Use as much seasoning as you want.

Butterfly the chicken breasts (here's an excellent how-to from Good Housekeeping) except keep cutting so you end up with two thin halves, instead of stopping most of the way and then spreading it out. This way you will get two wide, thin pieces of chicken out of each breast. Pound them flat if their thickness is uneven. Now you have six flat pieces of chicken.

Salt and pepper them a little, and then lay a slice of ham on each, sprinkling some cheese on top of the ham. You can use sliced cheese too, but I only had a block of swiss, so I shredded it. Works ok either way, but I suspect the rolling is easier when the cheese is shredded. You need to start at one end and roll the chicken as tightly as you can, keeping the stuff inside. It's not easy, because the ham keeps trying to slide out the other side while you're rolling. My end result wasn't as gorgeous as I'd have liked, but with repeated pokings I finally got a roll of chicken with the ham and cheese mostly inside. Use toothpicks to hold the rolls closed - it won't hold completely but it'll do. Dunk the rolls into the milk and then into the breadcrumbs. Roll them around really well, and use your hands to pat breadcrumbs onto every possible surface.

Put the coated rolls onto a greased or nonstick baking sheet (you want one with a lip, because the cheese will ooze), seam-side down, and bake them at 425 for 30 minutes.


Remember to pull out the toothpicks before you eat the chicken!

Honestly, I think this would have been just as good if I'd butterflied the breasts most of the way and just put the ham and cheese inside like a sandwich. The rolling was a pain and I ended up needing two toothpicks to keep most of them closed. I guess if you get good at it, the end result looks all fancy and awesome, but mine was meh. Next time I try this I'll make them ham and cheese chicken "sandwiches" and see how it goes.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Mojo Update

Something's still up with Mojo.

He's acting mostly normal, maybe just chatting a little more than average, but something's off. He's still peeing on things, although it's gotten better since I've started being really careful about leaving things on the floor or on chairs. He's gone back to licking his paws raw, just when the fur was starting to grow back. He also suddenly started liking canned cat food, but only the salmon variety so far. He pushed Horton away and gorged on it last week, surprising me - he never ever eats anything other than his cheap kibble, because he always sniffs new food and walks away without registering it as something he should eat. We've tried canned food before, and we tried switching everyone over to expensive cat kibble when Horton started having urinary issues, but Mojo refused to eat it. So the fact that he's suddenly open to new foods concerns me a little. Maybe the tooth decay makes it hard to eat the kibble? But I've also seen him eating his kibble this week, so maybe not.

We've got an appointment at the vet early next week, to bring him in for Xrays and a tooth cleaning. We'll have to leave him there all day, poor little guy, because they need to sedate him and then keep an eye on him while he recovers.

I wish cats could talk so I could ask him what's wrong and where it hurts, so we can help him feel better.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

New Job

Well, I've gone and done it. I gave notice to my current employer and I'll be moving to a new job at the end of November.

It's been a long time coming. Evening shift isn't making me happy. Getting home at midnight and trying to figure out what to eat is no fun. I can't take any evening classes at the library or community college, can't call Mom until the weekends, can't ever go out to dinner with friends. I'm tired of being out of step with the rest of the world.

The new job is further away, but it's a day shift with no weekends or holidays ever, a lot less stress, and the lab has windows. This is a big deal to us lab rats, who never see the outdoors. It's a recorded fact that every lab tech ever, upon the arrival of the staff for the next shift, will ask what the weather's like out there. It's not just small talk - we have no other source of information about what's happening in the outside world. I'm pretty sure that we'd keep working through the apocalypse, not realizing that there were rivers of flame coursing through the streets, because we're so sheltered in our hospital basements. Well, we'd know when the next shift called to say they couldn't make it.

I'll be stepping away from patient care and moving towards reagent manufacturing with the American Red Cross. I won't be getting blood ready for surgery and I won't be trying to identify antibodies in patient plasma so I can find them compatible units. Instead, I'll be taking those plasmas with antibodies and purifying them so the antibodies can be used in reference labs for blood bank testing. Very different, and I am a little nervous about getting bored and missing the rush that comes from knowing I just helped keep someone alive, but I think the lower stress will be healthier for me.

I'm terrified at the prospect of being the new girl again and having to start over with a new group of people and a new workload, but this has to happen. I love most of the people I work with at the hospital, and that made it into a very difficult decision for me, but in the end I knew that if I decided to stay, I'd be staying for other people, and not for myself, and that's not a good enough reason to turn down this opportunity. I'm done with being exhausted all the time, so I'm going to try something new and hope it works out.

And if it doesn't, well, there's pretty much always a position open at the hospital for me to go back to, even if I need to start over with something part-time.

Monday, October 03, 2011

What's for Dinner - Cheesy potatoes au gratin

I do not use my mandoline slicer enough. That thing is so damn cool, making those perfect little slices. Since I bought a huge bag of russet potatoes on sale last week, I figured it was an ideal situation for scalloped potatoes.

I more or less followed this recipe on allrecipes.com for Creamy Au Gratin Potatoes. I bumped up the serving size to 6, because I wanted to use up more of my potatoes, but that was dangerous because I had enough sliced potatoes to get right up to the edge of my baking dish.

For simplicity's sake, here's the ingredient list along with my inevitable tweaks. This will make enough for either an 8x8 dish or a deep pie plate, which is what I used. Technically 6 servings, but it's so delicious you're realistically looking at 4.

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes

6 russet potatoes, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 tsp thyme
Salt and pepper
2 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk plus a little more
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
Bacon salt (just a smidge)

I used less milk and less cheese than the recipe calls for, and I added thyme, garlic, and bacon salt. I would have added actual bacon bits but I didn't have any bacon in the house (a problem which will be corrected on my next grocery run). The recipe, as written on the allrecipes site, seemed a little bland without any seasoning, so I figured I couldn't go wrong with garlic and thyme. The recipe also had me putting the raw onions between potato layers, but I figured cooking them first would have a better result.

Soften the onions and thyme in a small pat of butter on medium heat and set them aside. Peel two garlic cloves and smash them flat with a knife so all their guts are hanging out but they're still more or less holding together. Melt the butter over low heat and whisk in the flour to get a nice silky sludge - cook that for a minute or so until it changes to a golden color, then stir in 2 cups of milk and your garlic cloves, and cook, whisking like mad, for a few minutes until it thickens up. Take it off the heat, add salt and pepper, fish out the garlic cloves with a slotted spoon, and then stir in the grated cheese.

Set the oven for 400.

Peel, then slice the potatoes with a mandoline slicer, or with a knife if you're a masochist. Generously grease the bottom of your baking dish with butter or a cooking spray, and layer some potatoes in. Add some of the onions on top, then a little sauce, then more potatoes. Keep going until you're at the top of the dish, then pour as much of the remaining sauce over the top as you can without making a mess. Press down on the gooey mess with your hands to force the sauce between the layers. If you've been adding sauce as you layer, you may not need to do this part.

If your sauce has thickened up too much while you were peeling and slicing your potatoes, just whisk in a little extra milk.

Sprinkle a little bit of bacon salt over the top layer and then add a small handful of grated cheese, then put the baking dish on a cookie sheet to catch bubble-overs. Put that into your oven for about an hour - pull it out after that long and check it with a sharp knife. If you have to force the knife through, put them back in for a while. If the knife goes through the potatoes with only a tiny bit of resistance, they're done.


Let everything sit and cool off a little once the potatoes are cooked, because that will let the sauce thicken up a so the potatoes hold together better when you scoop them on to a plate.

I just now realized this is very similar to the "Cheesy Garlic Scalloped Potatoes" I posted about last year, but I already took all this time to write it out, so it stays. For some reason, the Blogger search doesn't always pull everything up, so when I searched for "potatoes" to see if this was a repeat, it didn't turn up. I only caught it because I decided to edit my old posts to add a "potatoes" tag. Oh well. At least my spices were different this time, and the cooking time and temperature were different because I used a smaller dish, making a taller stack of potatoes. Does that make it different enough to count as a new post?

Sunday, October 02, 2011

What's for Dessert - Apple Crisp

Full credit for this recipe goes to the Five Roses Flour cookbook, "A Guide To Good Cooking". Mom gave me this book when I moved out, and I am delighted to have it, because she used it a lot and it's familiar and comforting, down to the rusty spiral binding, the missing back cover, and the dog-eared and sauce-spattered pages. She has a newer edition for herself now, but I love this old one.

It's McIntosh season again, so for the past week I've been eating two apples a day. They are, hands-down, the best apples in the world and I challenge anyone to prove me wrong. They're tart and crunchy and juicy and perfect. They are apples. The absolute essence of apple. When you buy something apple-scented, it doesn't smell like a damn Golden Delicious or Pink Lady. It smells like McIntosh, King of Apples.

Since I haven't quite mastered pie crust yet, I threw together an apple crisp last night so I could enjoy my apples in a warm cinnamony medium.

Apple Crisp

Topping:
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup flour (the book specifies Five Roses All-purpose Flour, of course)
1/4 tsp cinnamon
*The book also says to add 1/4 tsp cloves, but Mom never did and so I don't, either.

Cream butter and brown sugar, then add spices and stir in flour until you get a crumbly consistency.

This amount of topping is just enough to cover an 8x8 apple crisp.

The recipe then says to cover your casserole dish with an inch-tall layer of any fruit "prepared in the usual way", which I think is hilarious. Obviously a good homemaker knows exactly what to do with various fruit so make them crisp-ready. By this definition, I am not a good homemaker, but at least I can figure out what to do with apples. I always just peel them, cut them into large chunks, toss them in the dish with a few tbsp of sugar and a sprinkle of cinnamon, and then layer the topping over them. To simplify:

Filling (This part is NOT in the book)
5-8 apples (depending on size)
2-3 tbsp sugar
cinnamon

For an 8x8 pan, I needed 7 apples, but they were on the small side. Use your judgement. Don't fill it too full, because the apples will give off liquid while they cook, and it will start to bubble over. Give yourself some space. Also, leave your apple chunks pretty big, because they break down in the heat and if you start out with small pieces you'll be left with applesauce under that crumbly topping.

Bake at 350F for 35-40 minutes.



My picture isn't very good because the light in my kitchen is lousy for photography, but here's the finished crisp in all its yumminess. I would have taken a picture of it in a bowl, covered in ice cream that's slowly melting and dripping down, snaking between delicious golden mounds of soft apples and crunchy topping, but it seemed a little pornographic.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

What's for Dinner - Fancy Schmancy Chicken Salad Sandwiches

Rotisserie chickens are awesome. I've been picking them up at Giant on the occasional Friday because they have a 2/$10 sale and it seems like a pretty good deal since I can get two or more nights worth of dinner from one chicken. While they're really tasty (as long as you don't accidentally pick up the "Chesapeake" version, covered in nasty Old Bay seasoning), they're often a little on the small side, so you have to pick over their selection to find one with a decent breast. And now, they raised their prices. Now it's 2/$11 all of a sudden and I'm irritated. I know food prices have been going up all over the world (grocery shopping back in Canada last month was a shock) but I hate paying more for stuff "on sale".

So now I go to Costco for my rotisserie chicken fix. Not only are they cheaper, at $4.99, but they're considerably bigger. And delicious.

Oh wait, you probably want to read about the chicken salad I made. I'll get to that.

Fancy Schmancy Chicken Salad Sandwiches

Breast meat from one rotisserie chicken
One rib of celery
Sliced almonds
Dried cranberries
Pinch of thyme
Salt and pepper
Mayonnaise

This makes enough filling for 4 sandwiches, assuming your chicken is well-endowed in the breast area.


I pulled the two breasts off my rotisserie chicken and cut the meat into small pieces. That was the hardest part, because I had to keep elbowing three cats off the counter. Then I chopped the celery into thin slices, and tossed it into a bowl with the chicken and a handful of almonds and craisins. I didn't measure them, I just put some in until it looked good, but I think 1/4 cup is a reasonable approximation. I added some salt and pepper and a pinch of thyme, and then put in a dollop or two of mayonnaise. Different people have different opinions on how squishy and mayonnaisey chicken salad should be, so the amount is up to you. I like it to be wet enough to hold together, so pieces aren't falling out of a sandwich. Also, I love mayo, so I usually add just a little more than necessary.

I let it sit all day, covered, in the fridge, so the flavors could get friendly. It ended up really good and I'll be trying it again. The craisins made it a little bit too sweet, so I'm either going to add less next time or try adding something acidic to counter the sweetness. A few recipes I've seen call for lemon juice or white wine vinegar, maybe I'll try that.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mojo

Something is wrong with our dear Mojo.

A couple of months ago, he started peeing in places that were not his litterbox. There was a spot on the carpet, which we cleaned up, but then he started seeking out other things to pee on - plastic bags and canvas shopping bags being his two favorites. Maybe he's commenting on my sub-par housekeeping skills and peeing on things he wants me to put away?

The vet suspected a UTI and gave us a round of antibiotics and a cortisone shot - I'm still unclear on what the cortisone shot was for, but I wasn't at that vet visit so I only got the information secondhand. It helped a little, in that his pee stopped being dark and stinky, but he was still peeing on anything I left around too long. I have to be very careful with laundry, blankets, and shopping bags, and make sure they're stashed away quickly. Then we noticed that he was missing fur on his paws - I thought it was a toe tumor at first because this squishy pink blob was sticking out of his paw, but when I looked closer I saw it was just a naked toe. Naked cat toes look very out of place sticking out of a mound of white fluff. And there were also naked spots up his front legs like he'd been pulling all the fur out. His skin is so incredibly pink under that fluff!

Back to the vet, who gave us a second round of the same stuff. This time the cortisone shot was in case there was an allergy or skin irritation causing the hair loss. The fur is growing back but the pee issue isn't resolved. It's frustrating, because I feel like my house smells like a crazy cat lady house, even though we have only three cats and stay on top of the automatic litterbox so it's always very clean for them. He peed in the front closet and it seeped into the hardwood floor, and despite my attempts to clean it up using baking soda, oxyclean, vinegar, and Pine-Sol (all in different attempts), I feel like it attacks my nose as soon as I open the front door. Other people coming in have said they don't notice it, but I think they're just being nice.

It's possible that it's psychological - cats are prone to anxiety and the peeing and fur-eating might be a manifestation of stress - but in that case, I'm not sure what we'd do. Get him on anti-anxiety meds? Regular cat massages and spa days? We give him plenty of attention and love, and I can't figure out what we may have done to stress him out, because our normal life hasn't changed much recently. The vet said he'd explore a couple more physical possibilities first, like checking for bladder stones or tumors, and maybe some dental work because he noticed a decaying tooth, but it's possible Mojo is just stressed out. I hope it's not wrong that I'm hoping it's something physical (and minor!) that we can actually fix. I worry that the food we have him on isn't healthy enough for him and might be causing urinary issues, but he won't touch any other food at all. We've tried fancy expensive ones, canned ones, even tuna, and he doesn't seem to recognize it as edible.

His current run of antibiotics has a few more days to go, and if he's still having problems we'll have to bring him back in. Expect an update soon. If I forget, somebody post a comment asking me to get my act together and tell you more about Mojo, ok?