Sunday, July 31, 2011

Jen's Library - Big Green Purse

Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World
by Diane MacEachern

Oh, book sale finds, how do I love thee.

I have several awesome friends who are, to varying degrees, into the green, organic, and local food movements. I found this at the big Bethesda book sale in the spring and thought it would make a great gift for one of them, but then I ended up reading it first because I couldn't help myself. The best part is, none of these friends would be offended about receiving a used book as a gift, so I'm still in the clear. :)

I'm no economics pro, but I can grasp the concept that demand will drive supply to a certain extent. If everyone stops buying products with purple dye #230 in them, manufacturers will respond by taking it out of their product so they can continue making money. Consumers influence the market - look at the availability of gluten-free products at the average grocery store today, when only five years ago someone with celiac disease had to go to specialty stores to find a candy bar they were allowed to eat.

Big Green Purse looks at our spending power and how we can try to use it for good, shifting slowly towards having more choices in organic, fair trade, and local products, and having those products more accessible and visible where we shop. It's split into chapters about different products, like produce, clothing, and cosmetics, along with explanations about what all the different labels and certifications really mean. There are a lot of tips to help you avoid being "greenwashed" (the author's term) by manufacturers and marketers who put "natural" and "environmentally friendly" labels all over their products, hoping to suck people in. These days, more people are interested in making better choices for the environment, and lots of companies are trying to make themselves seem as "green" as possible so they can ride that trend and get people buying their products. A lot of that labeling is meaningless, though, so you've got to do your research before you shop. She gives lists of examples of products and companies she recommends as being legitimately green, along with some which are not, because she encourages her readers to contact those guys and urge them to take some steps towards green-ness.

My problem with organic stuff is that it's expensive. I'm terrible, I know, but if I have to spend twice as much for an apple with no pesticides on it, forget it. I'll wash the stupid thing and get on with it, ecosystem be damned. And I know that's not very nice of me, because I should be caring more about the planet I'm living on, but if I went totally organic granola with my grocery shopping, I'd go broke quickly. Buying more of it would be good because it would be sending a message, however tiny, that people want organic stuff, so slowly and surely, prices would start creeping downwards... but it's hard for me to do that when the price of food keeps going up and the "greener" options are inevitably more expensive.

I decided to start with coffee. After reading the chapter on coffee growing, I figured that I could make the sacrifice and spend a little more on coffee in order to try and help save some rainforest. I'm only doing it for the tree frogs. The book says to look for "shade grown" coffee, because that farming method does the least damage to the ecosystem, but I haven't had any luck finding that at the big grocery stores, so I went with organic and fair-trade-certified coffees as a compromise. I have tried two so far, and I liked one of them a lot, so switching to that brand wouldn't be a terrible sacrifice for me. I can post coffee reviews if anyone's interested!

I don't see myself shopping for organic hemp t-shirts, or boycotting Hershey bars because the cocoa beans they use weren't grown in an environmentally friendly way. But maybe I'll try using fewer household cleaners, buying recycled aluminum foil, and growing more of my own veggies. Baby steps.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


I got jam in the mail this week! How cool is that?

There was a giveaway on my pal Tasha's blog, and I won homemade jam! A jar of 3-berry jam and a jar of blueberry-lime jam arrived this week in a shredded-paper-filled box which the cats have adopted as a new nap space.

Seeing those cute little jars really makes me want to learn canning. Not just for jam, but for sauces and soups and all sorts of things. I have a finite amount of freezer space and it would be great to be able to have shelves full of tasty homemade things I could pop open when I needed them. The trick is avoiding botulism.

Anyways, back to my jam review.

It was awesome. I was sad that I didn't have any english muffins handy to slather with tasty jam, but the week-old multigrain bread toasted up pretty well and I jammed the heck out of it, over a thin slick of butter, and it was so, so, so good. I opted to start with the blueberry-lime - a little more limey than I expected, and also not as tart as I expected. Not sure how both of those things managed to be true, but there you have it. The jam will not last, because it will be devoured. And I really need to buy english muffins.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lessons in cleaning

My house has been in a much messier state than I'm comfortable with, but we've both been working longer hours than normal and our past couple of weekends have been busy with outdoor jobs, so I'm trying to give us a little slack. With all the undone housework building up and starting to annoy me, I finally snapped this weekend and got into a mild cleaning frenzy. Sadly, even with the frenzy, which you would think would help push me to get it all done, there's still a bunch left to do. I think we bought more house than we can handle, but hey, I'm still learning. At least I'm keeping us supplied with clean dishes to eat off of, and clean clothes to wear, even if we have to grab them out of the dryer because I forget to fold them and put them away.

I scrubbing-bubbled the tub and shower, scoured out the toilet with the teflon-laced blue goo, and wiped down all the counters and mirrors. One of the sinks was draining slowly, so I pulled out the stopper thing and cleaned all the soap scum off of it, but even with the stopper completely out it wasn't draining well. So I got the plunger. Anyone who is smarter than me or has tried this before can start laughing now.

I lined the plunger up with the drain in the slowly-swirling water, steadied myself, and plunged one short and powerful plunge. One, because that's all it took to get a jet of nasty black soap-scummy water shooting out of the overflow valve, covering the counter, the mirror, and parts of myself with icky, slimy, gunk. I am very glad there was nobody around to see the look on my face when it happened.

Good news: the sink is draining fine now.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Farm Stand

I've been trying to get to the local farmer's markets so I can get fresh yummy produce and support local agriculture, but working a non-standard schedule like I do makes it hard to manage. Most of them run a few hours a day and are mostly after normal people get off from work, so from 3pm-7pm or so. Only one market is both open on the weekend and close enough to be reasonably accessible, and they only have a handful of vendors and not a lot of choice. Last time I was there, only two stands had veggies! One was coffee, one was cheese, and one was baked goods, all of which are great but not what I was looking for.

My mother-in-law recently introduced me to a farm stand near where she lives. I'm unclear on how the setup works but I think they get deliveries every morning from several local-ish farms and this place sells everything under one outdoor roof. I was happy to see that they are open almost all day, every day, so I can get to them before work if I want to make the round-trip in the morning, or I can visit any weekend. The selection was great, and the prices were reasonable. We got a monster cantaloupe, which we split, for $4.25, and I got a remarkable amount of green beans for $2.50. The "jumbo" cantaloupes at the grocery store are about $4 on sale and are half the size of the one we bought, and nowhere near as tasty. When we split up the melon and I brought home my half in a plastic container, it was amazing just how much melon was in that melon. I needed one of my MIL's biggest Tupperwares to fit it all in!

The real score of the day was the "seconds" table, where they had baskets of fruit and veggies lined up for quick, cheap, sale, because they had spots or were funny shapes. A couple things looked pretty sad, but I picked up a basket of potatoes for $2.50 and later compared it to the 5lb bag of red potatoes I had just bought the day before at Giant for almost twice that price (on sale!).

There was garlic hiding in there too! Bonus! I only had to throw out two of the big potatoes because they were too far gone, and I did have to chop black sections out of a couple of others, but in all, this was a fantastic deal. I used the big ones first and left the small ones on the counter for about a week, during which Mojo enjoyed sitting on them and trying to hatch them. I wanted a picture of him doing that, but every time I brought the camera in he jumped off and scattered his potato eggs all over the kitchen. Maybe I need to get a basket. But he'd just sit in that too.

Don't worry, I washed off all the cat-butt germs before I ate them.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Let the Grilling Begin!

I was tired of our backyard whining all the time about all the other neighborhood backyards and how they were so awesome and their owners let them have grills. Forget telling it that it's not mature enough for one yet, it doesn't even have a comfy deck or a working pool - backyards are notorious for not listening to common sense arguments.

So we bought a grill.

Of course, as for most purchases made by this household, extensive research was necessary before committing to grill ownership. Charcoal or propane? How big? Do we need a side burner? We checked out Consumer Reports (I highly recommend it for pretty much everything) to get an idea of what to look for in a good grill, but we also checked out the customer reviews on various websites, because while Consumer Reports does a good job testing things, a lot of problems only arise after you've owned the product for a while, and we wanted to know about them. And yes, some of the reviews are lame or obvious fakes, but I like to learn that the paint flakes off after a month of use, or that the knobs broke off in the first year, or that the grill bars are spaced just wide enough to lose a hotdog through. Those things are important!

We chose propane, because while we both love the taste of food grilled over charcoal, it's really too much of a hassle. The heat-up time and the cool-down time add too much time to the grilling session and would get to be annoying. We may still go get a small charcoal grill, one of those Sputnik-looking ones on spindly legs, but for now we like the convenience of being able to shut the gas off and not worry about the grill when we're done. We also skipped the side burner, because we're never going to use that. We have a stove. Maybe someday, in a power outage, I'll regret not having a burner on the grill, but I doubt it.

Did you know that the home improvement stores indicate grill size by the number of hamburgers you can fit on them? Seriously, I couldn't find a "square inches" measurement anywhere. The one we ended up with was right in the middle at a hamburger rating of 36. And the nerd in me was frustrated that we weren't given a value for the surface area of a standard burger patty. How can I make an educated decision if you refuse to educate me?

There's a new "Infrared" cooking technology that is all fancy and popular right now. From what I understand, it's sort of like having an oven instead of a grill, because it uses indirect heat. It's supposed to be better at keeping food from drying out and it prevents flare-ups and it is apparently the height of awesome, especially for steak. We looked at a couple and decided it wouldn't work for us, because we like food to be charred and crispy sometimes, and the infrared technology keeps the flames completely away from the food. They're hidden under a metal sheet in most models, so it really is like having an outdoor oven, and while I'm sure it makes some great food, the expense didn't seem worth it for me. This was a situation where Consumer Reports was loving these products, but the customer reviews gave a clearer picture. Yes they're great for what they are, but if that's not what you want in a grill, you'll be disappointed.

We ended up with a Weber Spirit E-310. Webers are more expensive but they have a very good warranty and they're not famous for nothing - the difference in quality was obvious when we were checking them out at Home Depot. The grates were heavier and well-made, the shell was sturdy and solid, and the grill seemed stable when we tried to wiggle it. It has only one usable shelf, because Weber decided to put the starter and knobs on the other shelf instead on the front face of the unit like many other models choose to do. That's the only irritating thing about it so far. We've grilled steak and hot dogs and it's done very well.

There's a rotisserie attachment we can buy, which is battery powered and will let us cook a couple of chickens in this thing, and I'm tempted. But I think we'll just play with the grill surface for a while and see how it does with chicken and sausages and burgers first. And I get to play with marinades now! I was forbidden from marinating anything we cooked on the Foreman grill because it would stick, so now I get to go nuts and marinate everything!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Backyard frog sanctuary

It ain't easy being green, but several dozen little frogs are making it work and hanging out every night in our backyard by the water-filled pool cover. One of them surprised me by using his little suction-cup froggy toes to climb the sliding glass door.

Isn't he adorable? I stood there squeeing over the little dude for a good five minutes, and he just sat patiently. He was quiet, but his buddies out in the yard were making a racket - it's amazing how much sound can come out of such a tiny creature. I should try and record the frog symphony one night and share it with you.

I desperately want pet frogs now, except that Dave reminded me I'd need to be feeding them live bugs, and that's just not going to happen. I'll have to be satisfied with our backyard amphibian wildlife refuge. Last year we had tadpoles in the murky pool-cover water, but this year we haven't seen any, probably because we're trying to drain it regularly, mostly to keep mosquitoes from breeding there. My legs can attest to the fact that we're not doing much to hurt mosquito population growth. Maybe we need to attract more frogs so they can eat more mosquitoes. Do frogs eat mosquitoes?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What's for Dinner - Smoked Gouda Mac & Cheese

I started with a Food Network recipe and played around with it a little, as usual. The comments section on the website hinted at the recipe being a bit dry, so I tried to fix that with more liquid and cheese. And then I added bacon, the king of meats. Here's the final list of ingredients I ended up using in my version:

1 box medium shells
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
2 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup light cream
1/2 pound smoked Gouda cheese, grated (not sure how many cups it made, I just used half of the one-pound block of cheese)
1/4 cup grated monterey jack cheese (because I had extra and figured hey, more cheese can't hurt)
6 slices bacon
Salt and pepper

Fry the bacon really crispy - it's for making bacon bits to add to the mac & cheese.

Get your noodles boiling while you make the sauce: melt the butter in a pot until it's frothy, and whisk in the flour. Cook that for a couple of minutes until it darkens a little, then whisk in the milk and cream. Keep whisking so nothing burns, and let it bubble for about ten minutes, until it thickens up. The recipe said to stop when the sauce was as "smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon", so I was dunking a wooden spoon in it every couple of minutes. I'm sure I looked like a dork.

When your wooden spoon test is positive, celebrate by dumping the grated cheese into the pot and pulling it off the heat. Keep whisking! Your whisk will become unwieldy due to the glob of cheese that is sure to form inside it, but smacking it against the pot and/or poking it with your sauce-coated wooden spoon will help. Add some salt and pepper.

Add sauce to noodles, or the other way around, in a casserole dish. Then stir in the bacon. Mmmmm, bacon. I was going to add a breadcrumb topping but didn't have any left in the pantry, so it went into the oven naked. After 20 minutes at 375F, it was bubbly and smelled great!

Alas, my tweaks didn't quite save the recipe. It was good, but still a bit dry and not as cheesy as I'd hoped. The smoked gouda didn't melt well at all, leaving a chunky sauce instead of the creaminess you'd expect from a mac and cheese dish. Next time I'll try using smoked cheddar instead, because I liked the "smokiness" (and the bacon! Lord, did I love the bacon!) and I want to give it another shot. Why is it so hard to find the perfect macaroni and cheese??

Jen's Library - Songs of Distant Earth

Songs of Distant Earth
by Arthur C. Clarke

Ah, another dip into classic, comfortable sci-fi.

In this world, Earth has been handed a death sentence, so "seedships" are developed to bring humanity to habitable planets and keep us from extinction. The thing is, technology is always advancing, so some of the last ships to leave are faster than the old ones, and so we get a situation where a ship whose crew has witnessed the actual destruction of the planet arrives at a colony that was established with one of the first ships ever to leave Earth - so early that people didn't travel, only their DNA did, and they were built from nothing when the ship landed, in a sort of "Genesis Project".

You've got one population on an eden-like planet, who have never seen Earth and only have a few bits of literature and art to show them where they came from, and one population from the difficult last years of Earth's existence. Drama ensues! The actual story is a little weak, in my opinion, and my favorite part has always been the interesting ideas on what our future might hold and what we might do once our planet's demise was inevitable and predictable. What will our "end days" bring? Chaos? A scientific surge and a desperate attempt to get Man out of the solar system? A rush to religion or a retreat from it? Clarke covers this well despite being a little heavy-handed in moral judgements on humanity.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Public Service Announcement - Blood Donation

You need to donate blood.

Blood is, so far, not something we can manufacture in a lab. We've come a long way in reducing the need for blood transfusions, with new surgical innovations to minimize blood loss in the operating room, and drugs to help a body boost its own blood cell production, but in the end, many patients can only be helped by a blood transfusion.

When your bone marrow stops making new cells, because of disease or because the chemotherapy for your cancer has killed your production system, you need a transfusion. If you have a clotting disorder or you've overdosed on heparin and are at risk of bleeding to death, you need a blood transfusion. If you're having heart surgery, you need a blood transfusion. If you've been in a crash and you left half of your blood at the scene, you need a blood transfusion. If you're born premature because your mother's antibodies were attacking your blood cells in utero, you need a blood transfusion. If your peptic ulcer, colon cancer, or intestinal polyps have been bleeding undetected, and you're fainting because your hemoglobin levels are so low, you need a blood transfusion.

At my hospital alone, we're transfusing almost 700 units of blood, platelets, and plasma every month. And that's with careful guidelines in place to make sure only those who really need this blood are getting it. We hold a blood drive every two months, and we rarely collect over 30 units of blood. The American Red Cross donor centers do better, but sometimes it's hard for them to keep up with demand. Right now levels of all Rh-negative blood are so low that we may have to contemplate putting off some surgeries in case we can't supply the blood the surgeon needs.

I know some people have moral issues with the Red Cross, specifically with their deferral of all male donors who have had sex with other men. Excluding gay men from the donor pool is not a decision that I personally agree with, but I don't think that my dislike of the Red Cross' rules should be enough keep me from donating blood and helping someone. I can show my disagreement with that rule in other ways, so why boycott the Red Cross and refuse to donate, when my blood might make a difference?

I'll be wandering the hospital today, trying to encourage nurses and doctors and everyone else to roll up a sleeve on Monday for my hospital's blood drive and give an hour of their day and a pint of their blood for someone who needs it. It's a thankless job - most people try to avoid eye contact and I end up feeling like a telemarketer. But in the end, every person who shows up to donate is a hero, so I'll put up with the discomfort and do my part to help get people giving.

Please donate. Anytime. Whatever your blood type. You can find donor centers and blood drives near you with this link, and you can learn more about blood and the donation process here. Please share this information, because the need for blood is constant - and every donation helps.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

First Tomato!

Well, even if it's the only one I get, I suppose this means I can call my attempt at vegetable gardening at least a minor success. I went out to check on my plants this morning, hoping they weathered last night's storms without too much damage, and I saw red! And not the kind that means I was angry!

Aww, look, he's blushing!

So I picked him, because I was so excited about his not being green anymore and I decided that blushing tomatoes belonged in the kitchen.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have left him there to set an example for his peers, because he's the only one out of several dozen cherry tomatoes and half a dozen big tomatoes that has shown any indication that they want to ripen and be eaten. Precocious little guy. I will reward him by having him for dinner and delighting in his deliciousness.

This used to be a seed! And I helped make it into a tomato!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Homemade Spinach and Basil Pesto

Well, what better to do with tons of basil?

I keep forgetting we have a food processor. I've not yet decided if I forget about it because I don't use it, or I don't use it because I forget it exists. Chicken, egg, who knows. Luckily it does exist (conveniently, in my kitchen), so I was able to pull this together today. I suppose this may be possible to achieve in a blender, but I think the risk of complete liquefaction may be too high.

Most pesto recipes call for pine nuts. Pine nuts are expensive and I don't really like them anyway, so I went with walnuts instead. Go, omega-3s!

Spinach and Basil Pesto

9 oz package of baby spinach leaves
1 cup of basil leaves
4 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup of walnuts
2 tbsp good olive oil, and keep more on hand for later
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt

Toast the walnuts in a pan or in the oven and crush them until they're almost a powder. I put them in a ziplock bag and rolled a coffee mug over them a few dozen times.

Mince the garlic and saute in the olive oil for a couple of minutes. Toss in the spinach leaves and let them wilt - you don't want to cook them much, just get them wilty and soft. Dump it all into the food processor. Add the nuts, cheese, and basil, and pulse until they turn into mush, then add the lemon juice, salt, and some pepper, then pulse a bit more while adding a drizzle of olive oil until you like the consistency. I found I needed about 2 extra tbsp of olive oil, on top of what I cooked the spinach in. I also needed more salt, but I'm leaving the recipe at 1/2 tsp because I'm not sure how much more I added. I just sprinkled more on with the salt shaker and pulsed the processor a few times, until I was happy with the taste.

I took the advice of some online friends and froze most of my pesto in an ice cube tray. Once it's solid I'll move it to a ziplock bag and keep it in the freezer until I want to use some.

My pictures didn't turn out well, so I'll leave the green creamy deliciousness to your imagination for now. It's pretty, and very, very green. When I use some in a pasta dinner, I'll make sure to get a decent picture.

Jen's Library The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee

In my many years of indiscriminate binge reading, I have come across a number of non-fiction books that I think everyone should read. This book is getting added to that list. In pen. Underlined.

Cancer is terrifying. It's our own bodies, out of control. Nobody is immune to cancer - given enough time alive, pretty much everyone will develop a tumor of some sort, and that's a very unnerving thought. You will get cancer. If you can avoid heart disease and diabetes and keep yourself away from car crashes and shark attacks, you will be rewarded, someday, if you live long enough, with cancer. While we've come a tremendously long way in diagnosing and treating cancer, we haven't come that much closer to winning our war against it, and that's what this book is about.

The author is a doctor and a cancer researcher, and he has set out to describe Cancer's life story, from the first descriptions of cancerous growths in old Egyptian texts to the latest interferon treatments, and he does so in a way that the layperson can wrap his mind around. It's fascinating, horrifying, and inspiring, to read about the rise and fall of radical treatments, the leaps forward in fundamental research, and the strength and struggle of the millions of patients dealing with their cancers over the span of medical history. It's a good balance between the science and the humanity of the disease: molecular and genetic breakthroughs and the early rise of breast cancer awareness campaigns and patient advocacy groups.

Like I said, it's on the must-read list. Cancer has touched someone in your life, or it will, and this is its story. Know the enemy.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011


A coworker brought in some basil for me today. I'm telling you, the bone closet in the blood bank never smelled sweeter than it did this afternoon. It tickled the noses of everyone who stepped through our door today and confused a whole lot of people.

There is so much basil. I think she cut down a basil tree.

Because there is so much basil, I was compelled by forces outside of my control to stop at the store for tomatoes and fresh squishy mozzarella. I honestly think that in high enough concentrations, basil achieves sentience and mind-control and can coerce its unsuspecting victims to purchase gobs of Italian food products. I stayed strong - I avoided the aisle with the imported balsamic vinegars and extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oils. This time.

What's for Dinner - Lasagna

It was nearly an all-day project. Yet, despite knowing it would tie me up for the last half of the day, I pulled out my Kitchenaid mixer and started making a batch of pasta dough for my first ever made-all-by-myself-totally-from-scratch lasagna.

For the pasta, I stuck with the same recipe I used for my ravioli, but stretched it out even thinner, to level 7 on the pasta roller. My goal was to make a multilayered lasagna with paper-thin sheets of pasta: a lasagna soft as butter that you could melt through with a fork. Mom generously gave me her awesome lasagna recipe to work with, and as usual I played with it a little, getting something different but delicious. I hope she doesn't mind!

2 big cans of tomato sauce
1 small can of tomato sauce
1 small can diced tomatoes
1.5 lbs ground beef
1 1/2 tbsp basil
4 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp oregano
1 tsp thyme
4 medium cloves garlic
1 large onion, diced
1lb mozzarrella cheese grated
15 oz 4% fat cottage cheese
15 oz ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

For the meat sauce, I started with about 1.5lbs of lean ground beef, which I browned in a pan with 2 chopped garlic cloves, the diced onion, and dashes of pepper and salt. I drained off the fat and put in a huge pot, adding the cans of tomato sauce (and diced tomatoes) on top and setting the heat on low. The basil and oregano I used came straight from my garden - I used about a dozen chopped basil leaves and half a dozen sprigs of fresh oregano (I tore the leaves off). This step went rather slowly because I kept stopping to sniff my herbs. I added sugar, thyme, and two more garlic cloves and let everything simmer for an hour or so to get delicious.

I grated the mozzarella and set half aside for the topping. The rest went in with the ricotta, cottage cheese, and parmesan, mixed up with a generous crunch of black pepper, and then the cheese layer was ready for...


Spread a glop of sauce onto the bottom of the baking dish, then a layer of noodles. With my fresh noodles, I needed two noodles per layer because they were very wide, but if you're using boxed noodles you'll probably need three or four, depending on how wide your dish is. You'll want a little bit of overlap so it all holds together. More sauce. More noodles. Some cheese mixture - drop blobs onto the noodles with a spoon and then spread gently with your hands, or you'll tear the noodles. More noodles. Sauce. Noodles. Sauce. Noodles. Cheese. You see how this goes. I ran out of noodles early and had to pause assembly while I made up another batch, and even with the extra noodles I didn't reach the very top of the baking dish! The very last layer was heavy tomato sauce covered with the shredded mozzarella.

*Note - fresh pasta sucks up a lot of liquid, so use more sauce than you think you should. I used what I thought was way too much, and it ended up being nowhere near enough. Use a lot.

Into the oven, 350F for 40 minutes. I covered it in foil, then pulled the foil off at the end and switched on the broiler to brown the cheese on top, because browned cheese is happy cheese. Then - and this is important - I let it sit on the stove for half an hour. If you cut into it too early, it will fall apart on the plate, but if you can be patient and wait a little, you'll get a nice block of lasagna instead of lasagna soup.

This is what I had for dinner, after all that work.

It was wonderful. The fresh herbs made a difference, and I'm glad I added some diced tomatoes (not in Mom's original recipe). In fact, I'm doubling the diced tomatoes next time I make this. I'm also going to try making the layers even thinner, and I'll make a ton of pasta to be sure I have enough! Also, more sauce. Because otherwise, what will the garlic bread soak up?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

What's for Dinner - Simple Garlic Beans

I bought some gorgeous yellow beans at the farmer's market, and ate the first half of them that day, roasted in the oven the same way I love my green beans. They were, as expected, delicious. But for the second half, I wanted to try something different.

I washed and trimmed the beans, cut the big ones in half, and then piled them in the little steamer basket insert I have for one of my pots. I let them go about ten minutes so they were soft enough to poke through with a fork but not completely floppy. I could have just boiled them but I think they retain more vitamins this way, so I figured I'd make the effort for my health.

When they were done, I put them aside and dumped out the water, replacing it with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and one minced garlic clove. I cooked the garlic for a minute or two until it browned just the littlest bit, then I added the beans back in and stirred them around for a minute. I added salt and fresh pepper, and finished them off with a tiny pat of butter because I couldn't help myself.

OMG yummiest thing ever. I wish I had more beans.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Jen's Library: Dilemma

Dilemma: A Priest's Struggle with Faith and Love
by Albert CutiƩ

I remember hearing about this guy a couple of years ago. A charismatic, popular Roman Catholic priest, called "Father Oprah" by some of his fans because of his talk shows and his desire to help the average Joe with his problems, was "outed" by tabloids a couple of years ago when it was discovered he was seeing a woman. Now he's written a book about his life with the Church and his gradual disillusionment with the establishment, and that last bit struck a chord with me, so I picked it up.

He is extremely clear, through the whole book, that his faith in God has not wavered since his childhood aspirations to serve Him as a priest. He entered into the Church, wanting to bring the message of God's love to everyone who needed it, and as he spent more and more time "in the system" he realized the hypocrisy and coldness and exclusionary nature of the Catholic church was not something he was comfortable living with. To a certain degree, yes, it had to do with his falling in love with a woman and feeling that it was not right that the gift of marital love, which he considered a gift from God, was considered by the Church to be incompatible with preaching the word of God.

He left the Roman Catholic Church and is now an Episcopal priest, married and raising a family while continuing his ministry, and he's much happier for it, despite the pain and difficulty of leaving the institution he grew up loving and believing in.

I'm not going to go into a huge religious debate here, because I don't claim to have all the answers or even educated opinions on everything. I don't consider myself religious - I joke that I'm a "catholic" in a superstitious way more than anything else. It's a very touchy and emotional subject for many, on which I have vague and disjointed thoughts, and I've had some serious issues with the Catholic Church myself, which is why I haven't really been involved with it since my childhood. There's a dire need to adapt to reality, and I think that until that happens, the Church will keep losing members. Contraception, homosexuality, women, and celibacy are hot-button issues within the Church, and having the wrong opinion will keep you down, so you can't corrupt anyone with your ideas and make the Church look bad. It's not about faith, not about God, but about the rules Man has made about who's allowed to be close to Him. And a lot of those rules piss me off. Father CutiƩ feels the same way about the need to adapt - I can't express any of it nearly as well as he did, and I know I'm not doing him justice with this sad little review, so if you want to get his point of view, get reading.

Project: Fireplace doors

We have a gorgeous family room with a gorgeous, massive stone wall rising up to meet the 20-foot ceiling and dominating the whole look and feel of the space. I absolutely love that wall. The wall also houses a beautiful fireplace, which we used a few times over the winter. Here's a look at the wall. It's a shot from Animal's growing modeling portfolio. Beautiful, right? It's where we hang out every night, where we eat dinner at our TV tables because we're not real grownups yet, and it's our favorite room in the house.

The problem with the fireplace, besides the ugly mesh screen, was that it wasn't quite constructed right. We decided we wanted to add doors to the fireplace to make it look pretty, and when we had someone come out to give us an estimate, he told us the chimney part wasn't wide enough for the size of the firebox, which is why we'd been having so much trouble with smoke blowing back into the house. The solution was to close it in with doors and to make the opening smaller, so the ratio of opening to chimney would be better. Here's the before photo:

A big hole in the rock wall, where we burned stuff.

Here's the after picture:

The contraption across the bottom of the doors is a fancy fireplace thing called a grate heater, which lets us keep the doors closed with the fire going while a fan inside circulates the air out to us to keep us warm. This eliminates the problem of all the warm air in the house rising up the chimney and leaving us huddled in blankets wondering why we're cold by the fire. It was a lot more expensive, mostly because we needed to upgrade the glass in the doors to something called pyroceramic glass, which can withstand the intense heat from the enclosed fire. We still have the option of leaving the doors open and the fan off, and just having a normal open fire, so we can enjoy the festive crackles and sparks. But because this room has such high ceilings and only a 5-foot section of baseboard heat, it's a very cold room in the winter, so having this grate heater will make a world of difference and will make it that much more fun to hang out in that room and watch TV.

It's 90 degrees out today, so we won't be testing it out for quite a while, but I think it improves the look of the room and I'm really excited about it! Can't wait to have it in action next winter!