Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Out of Commission

Hurricane Irene whipped through Maryland this weekend, and our place, like so many others in the area, is still without electricity or phone service. A huge pine tree uprooted and hit the house in the middle of the night when the winds were at their worst, glancing off without inflicting too much damage except for where it tore off the gutters and ripped the electrical wires right out of the wall. There are some dents in the roof, some interesting curves in the siding, and a whole lot of tree in the side yard, but there doesn't seem to be any major structural damage. At least we've made the neighborhood smell piney fresh.

BGE is taking forever to get around to us and our downed wires, which surprises me considering we have electrical wires on the ground. No, they're not live, but if a BGE tech switches the neighborhood back on before they get our wires fixed, we could start a fire. I seriously hope the line crews are all talking to each other and can get this done right, and quickly. The latest we got from them was a reassuring "we hope to have most areas restored by Friday". Thank goodness we have generous neighbors and family who are letting us use their freezers and showers. We were able to save most of our frozen food by getting it into my brother-in-law's spare freezer, but the fridge food couldn't be salvaged. Our insurance will cover the cost of replacing it, but I hate having to throw out brand new, unopened food. What a waste.

I'll have some pictures up soon, with a more detailed account of the Irene adventure.

Friday, August 26, 2011

My friend Leila and the fight of her life

"Jenny, I had a seizure."

Her email says to call her as soon as possible, so I do, not even waiting to get home, not walking out to the parking lot where my cell phone might have a bar or two of service. Just grab my work phone and dial, long distance be damned. She's not the type to get dramatic about serious things, and from the terseness of the email, I know it's serious. Serious enough, as it turns out, to bring her to Johns Hopkins a for a consultation with a neurosurgeon and a neuro-oncologist. Her appointment is next week, and she needs a place to stay, a staging ground for the first battle of this war on cancer, and there was no way in the world I could say no to her. I just hope that my home is comfortable enough for her and her family. I need to wash some blankets for them, I need to clean the kitchen.


Everything is ready, and they're here. Big hugs at the door. They're so tired. I've never met her sister before but she's wonderful. She's going to be vicious against this tumor, I can tell. She's got names, numbers, appointments lined up with everyone who is anyone in neurooncology. It's a tense night, though, and I can see that Leila is scared. I wasn't going to go with them to Hopkins in the morning but I ask if she wants me to call in sick so I can be with her and all she can do is nod and bite her lip, and I hug her so hard and I don't want to let go. How dare this happen to her? Cancer has no right to hurt her, to scare her, to threaten her.


The doctors are kind and the best in the world. They have decided that surgery has to happen, as soon as possible. Next week. It's growing, and it needs to be stopped. Everyone is optimistic about the surgery because the tumor is in a safe, quiet place in her non-dominant hemisphere, and her language, coordination, intelligence, and personality should all be spared. Thank goodness. The MRI images are up on a glowing screen, and the neurologist scrolls back and forth, back and forth, showing us all of its dimensions. She asks him which colleague he would want in his brain if it was his tumor, and he only hesitates a minute before giving us a name. Within ten minutes, this world renowned neurosurgeon is in the room talking to Leila and making arrangements. He's not the one we came to see, but he's more experienced, and none of us want a beginner to work on this case. He looks like Bill Nye the Science Guy. He makes a rocket science vs brain surgery joke in reference to Leila's physics degree. I like him.


It's a beautiful day. A gorgeous sunny day, and she's on a cold table, under bright lights, with her brain exposed under the hands of a surgeon. It's obscene, to have horrible things happen on pretty days.


Surgery was a success. She's still herself, answering questions and then demanding answers of her own. Did they get it all? Were there complications? What grade is it? Define this enemy so we can fight it. I can't get to her while she's in the hospital and I feel guilty, but I'm at work at my own hospital's blood bank where we're down two employees and trying to keep our own patients alive, and the visiting hours are short and impossible for me to make use of. Her sisters are with her, and they are keeping me up to date. They're not giving her enough pain medication, not giving her anything for sleep, for anxiety, because they are waking her up for a neurological exam every hour or two and the drugs might mask complications. It's barbaric. You were inside her head. You cut through her skull. Let her sleep. Let her heal. She will need her strength to fight.


She's out of the hospital so quickly I think it can't possibly be safe, but she will sleep better, eat better, here. The verdict is in and it's a terrible enemy to be fighting, a Grade 3 astrocytoma. Hard decisions must be made about how and where to start the next steps. Now comes the radiation, the chemotherapy, the nausea, the weakness and the wigs. But who can she trust with her life, with her brain, her mind? There are so many drugs, so many new clinical trials with so many risks, and so many experts willing to take her case. How can a person make this decision?


I have known and loved this woman for years. We went to school together and we've always stayed in touch. She's 31 years old and speaks three languages, plays the piano, and has explored a dozen countries in hiking boots by day and 4-inch heels by night. She loves horseback riding, French literature, Sex and the City, and ballroom dancing. She wrote a mystery novel and is editing it to submit it for publication, and she's supposed to defend her thesis in November for her PhD in nuclear physics. She has never said no to any crazy adventure. She's loud, sexy, and unapologetic, and charms her way into and out of all sorts of trouble. And now she's fighting for her life, because some tumor decided to make itself comfortable in her beautiful brain.

I'm sad. I'm scared. I'm angry. I know it's nothing compared to the amplified emotions she and her family must be feeling, but she's been at the back of my mind since that phone call and I know that I will think of her every day now as she fights this astrocytoma. Fuck cancer. It's not fair.

She's trying to raise funds through an online program called FundRazr, to help pay for the medical treatments that are not being covered by her insurance. I'm sharing the link here not necessarily in hopes that you will donate, but in hopes that you can share the link with others and help her that way. She has also started a blog to tell her story, and I think you should read it. Please share it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tomato tasting

Independent sources agree: my tomatoes are delicious.

Don't even ask me how he got the thing up there to snack on it - that tomato was on a very low branch and already had bites taken out of it, which is why I left it there. I thought maybe leaving one ripe, accessible tomato on the vine would keep the critters away from all the other ones. Mr. Squirrelly over here has ruined that plan with the super-squirrel strength and coordination needed to hoist a huge tomato up onto the deck.

Squirrels are why I can't have nice things in my garden. The bird feeder was wrecked in a day, and the pretty painted birdhouse Mom gave me has suffered significant roof damage from squirrel attacks. I'm glad we have the fence fixed now, because it'll keep the deer away from my veggies, but the bunnies and the squirrels are sneaky little enemies. Unless I go to the trouble of building a wire cage around everything, I think I'm stuck with cute, fluffy, tomato poachers.

Nobody is bothering much with the cherry tomatoes except us humans, so I think maybe I will stick with those next year. They are delicious, and if I pick them before they're completely ripe, they're mostly flawless. The big tomatoes, on the other hand, are all getting bites taken out of them, or splitting at the seams.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Great East Coast Quake of 2011

Ok, so it wasn't much of an earthquake. I have only experienced a handful of tiny earthquakes in my lifetime; usually just strong enough to make me wonder if someone bumped against my desk. Things might wiggle and sway the tiniest bit, but I've never witnessed pictures falling off walls or anything that dramatic. So, to a person whose general relationship to the ground is a stable one, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake is a serious thing.

I was having lunch at Panera Bread with a work friend, when the table started to wiggle a bit. I looked underneath the table to see if she was waggling her foot and making the table shake, but I didn't see anything. When it didn't stop, I looked again and was about to tell her to quit shaking the damn table, when the table started to shake. Like we were having a seance and the spirit was present and pissed off.

We both grabbed onto the sides of the table and sat there with wide eyes, staring at each other, very confused and a little freaked out. People started running outside, and I think I saw one Panera employee lunge towards the bagel bins to hold them in place, just in case. That's Employee of the Month behavior, right there. You could hear the earthquake, too - I don't know how much of it was the shockwave and how much of it was the rattle of the furniture and the building itself, but there was a low rumble that built into a rhythmic, train-like sound while the cutlery bounced on the plates. The shaking didn't stop immediately, which gave us enough time to come to the realization that sitting directly beside a huge storefront window is probably number 1 on the "avoid during an earthquake" list, and so we got up and moved towards the middle of the restaurant.

Once it was all over and we could confirm that the shaking we still felt was coming from our own adrenaline-filled bodies, everyone was buzzing and nervous and frantically texting and dialing to reach their loved ones. I tried to reach my husband but my phone wouldn't connect to a network, which was the same problem everyone else was having. He turned out to be fine, as did we, so it seems silly to make a big deal of the event, but I was scared when it happened. Scared and confused, because I didn't know what was going on. The building was shaking and my brain did not know what to do with that information, which was probably why all I could do was grab the table and stare.

I think earthquakes have to be, on a primal level, among the most terrifying of natural disasters. The ground, that stable, solid thing you're always on, and that holds everything up, is suddenly moving under you. Rivers and oceans are unpredictable, weather can change in an instant, but the ground is not supposed to move. It was a visceral squeezing fear with a feeling that something very wrong was happening, and this was a wimpy little earthquake that has the West Coasters laughing at us sissies. This was enough to make me decide that I do not like earthquakes. I think I'll try to stay away from the Pacific Rim.

Doe, a deer! Actually, several!

I absolutely love coming home to a scene like this.

Mom and three babies, just hanging out in my front yard and eating some of my weeds. The littlest one was curled up and comfortable and let me get in for a close-up. Mom was over to the side watching me very carefully, but none of them seemed too afraid of me.

Itty bitty Bambi!

Friday, August 19, 2011


He was just a tiny beige blob of fluff, but he was feistier than his brother, who would cower in fear as he was repeatedly pounced on, and so I picked him. I first thought he was a she, because it's so hard to tell when they're so small and when you know so little about kittens, so I picked out Tia as a perfect name. A subsequent discovery of boy bits resulted in a seamless name change to Tio.

He didn't purr as a kitten. It's like nobody ever showed him how. But he was loving, sleeping on my bed when he felt like it, and head-bonking me as often as he could manage it. Mom was good enough to let me bring him home when I moved back in with her. She didn't want pets, didn't want to deal with the mess and the trouble, but I loved him and she loved me, so he stayed. Everyone ended up loving him, of course. Even those who would never admit to being "cat people". It was impossible not to. He grew from a spiky, twitchy kitten into a big lounging Garfield of a cat who had his own spot on the couch and would sit and glare at you if you dared to put your butt where his should be.

He had no sense of space whatsoever, and thought that he could fit into any box, bag, or bowl that he came across. He'd wedge a paw and half his fluffy butt into an egg carton and look as you as if to say "what? I fit just fine. Screw you." The dryer, Coke 12-pack boxes, stew pots, anything was a cat bed. He loved shoeboxes, especially the ones that were just too small for him, so he'd ooze over the top like a fluffy muffin. We took to leaving one on the kitchen table like a centerpiece, because he would howl and cry if his box was ever missing.

He watched hockey with us, curled up in his spot on the couch or on my brother's recliner. I think he was a goalie in a past life, because he loved swatting balled-up paper missiles out of the air when we tossed them at him. When I'd get ready for late class in the morning, I would turn on PBS for the kids' cartoons, just for easy background noise, and Tio came running every time he heard Clifford The Big Red Dog come on the TV. I swear he was watching it, too. Oh, and the restaurant scene in Men in Black, where the jeweler's cat meows - it freaked him out every time because he kept trying to figure out where the strange cat was hiding. No other cat noises from TV commercials ever got that reaction from him, but the Men In Black cat always did.

He loved tuna. We discovered his love for it when Mom was making a tuna sandwich and Tio tried to climb her for a taste of it. So, being a good cat-mommy, she bought him some tuna on sale at the grocery store, he refused it. Only the expensive albacore tuna packed in oil for our Tio; otherwise, he tried to bury it like it was poop in his litter box. He did that to everything he didn't like. If he sniffed my nails after I painted them, he would try to bury them, too. Whatever it was, he'd position himself over it and swipe one paw at the table or floor over and over, occasionally looking back to see if the offending item was buried under the imaginary litter yet.

We played hide and seek a lot, with pouncing. I'd hide around a corner and then just as he was coming to get me I'd pounce on him and he'd tear off down the hall and turn around a corner, to wait and do the same to me. He'd bring you his rattle mouse if he wanted you to throw it, but he'd only bring it part of the way back before dropping it for you, always just out of reach. The stinker. And he loved to transport socks around the house. Folded, balled-up socks - he would carry them like they were kittens, and move a pile of them from one place to another. He always helped us change the sheets on the bed, by getting in between the layers and batting at them viciously. But when it was time for sleeping, he would make his rounds and make sure everyone got a little Tio time before they fell asleep.

I believe he loved all of us equally, but he really became Mom's cat when I moved to the states. I wanted to take him with me so badly, but he was already a middle-aged cat who didn't like change, and the immigration mess was hard enough to figure uot without worrying about bringing an animal across the border. Besides, I knew how much he meant to my mom and my brother, and it didn't seem fair to hurt them and traumatize Tio, so I said goodbye and left the country. He always remembered me when I visited, though, sniffing me once to confirm my identity and then flopping over for the required belly rub. Seeing his connection with Mom every time I visited helped me feel better about leaving him. Those two shared a wavelength and it was special. He sat with her while she had her morning coffee, coming right up to her face for nuzzles and bonks and kisses. He splayed himself over anything she tried to read, begging for attention. We joked that he was asking "attention me!" and we did, always.

He would have been 12 years old this fall. He had a seizure last year, and recovered, but he was never the same. He had some digestive issues, and he was always sick and seemed to be in pain. They couldn't find anything wrong with him, and it wasn't fair to let him keep on fighting through misery so he could have those few moments of love in between. It was a hard and brave decision for Mom to make on her own, and I think she did the right thing. It's very hard on me that I didn't get to say goodbye, but life isn't always fair that way.

I'll miss you, Tio. I hope you get to be a goalie on one of heaven's cat hockey teams. I'm going to give Animal, Mojo, and Horton a can of tuna - the good stuff - in your honor.

Can I give blood?

Another blood post! I'm really trying to increase the percentage of posts about the lab tech life, because I know some of my regular readers are interested, and I also think it's important to boost awareness about the profession.

I think I've mentioned this before: I am the hospital's recruiter for our regular blood drives. This means I wander the hospital, clipboard in hand, and ask people if they would like to make an appointment to donate blood. Some people avoid eye contact, as though I worked for that irritating booth at the mall where a young employee chases you down with hand lotion samples. Made with real Dead Sea kelp! Some people will answer me with a shake of the head and little more, but often I will hear reasons why they cannot or will not donate.

Some people are afraid of needles. And you know what? I don't push them. A fear is a fear, and I'm not going to get aggressive and call them sissies (well, ok, it depends how well I know them) because they have a terrible fear of needles. I sometimes take a second and reassure them that it's not painful beyond the hemoglobin check, for which they prick your finger, and the insertion of the needle in your arm. Once it's in, you don't really feel any pain. But if you're going to faint or scream when the needle comes at you, then you've got a good excuse to not come by. Maybe send a friend in your place, though? One who's not a chicken? I kid, I kid...

A lot of people say they'd love to donate but they just got a piercing or a tattoo. The rules were fairly recently revamped on that front, so if you had the work done in a state where tattoo parlours and piercing shacks are regulated, you're good to donate immediately. If unregulated, it's a twelve-month wait before you're allowed to donate again. The wait is because of the risk that you may have been exposed to hepatitis through used equipment, and twelve months is long enough for you to have gotten sick and found out about the exposure, or for the virus and/or antibodies to be present in your blood so they can show up when it's tested.

Travel is another big reason for deferral. You need to wait twelve months after visiting any area where malaria is endemic (normally present), which, unfortunately, is a whole lot of fun places to visit, including a lot of Asia, Africa, and Central America. So that Caribbean cruise to Mexico will take you out of the donor pool for a year.

Note: these criteria apply to the United States, more specifically the American Red Cross eligibility criteria. I do not claim to be an expert on these rules, so please refer to the ARC website for clarification. There's a phone number you can call if you have more specific questions.

It might happen that you study these rules carefully and decide you're eligible, and you show up to a blood drive, and a Red Cross employee tells you that you are actually ineligible. Maybe they're right, maybe you overlooked something. But they're human too, and there are a lot of rules to keep straight, and it's possible that they're wrong. Take the example of a person with a chronic medical condition, like Crohn's disease. The website says that well-managed chronic medical conditions, in general, are not reason for donation deferral. It's possible that a medication you're taking, or a medical procedure you've had recently, is what's actually taking you out of the pool, but maybe the Red Cross tech has never encountered Crohn's before and is trying to err on the side of caution.

This happened to a friend of a friend who had donated several times in the past with no problems, and I was asked what he should have done in this situation. I would have asked to speak to a supervisor and to see the eligibility criteria and I would want to know what about my condition made me ineligible. Was it out of possible risk to the recipients of my blood or was it because of apprehension about what a donation would do to me, someone with a chronic condition? Either way, I would have pressed the issue a little, because I know how valuable a blood donation is. It might make sense, if you're encountering problems like this, to try donating at a blood center instead of a random blood drive, because you're more likely to have access to a supervisor there.

So, go read the eligibility criteria! Get educated, and go give some blood!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Blood Bank Regulars

Someone mentioned to me that I need to post more about work and the blood bank, so I'm going to try. I'm not sure what people are interested in, and I don't know how technical to get before they give up and get frustrated and go look for videos of cats on Roombas instead, but I'm going to start somewhere and hope that people comment to guide me.

We have regulars at our blood bank. Safe in the basement of the hospital, where all good med techs belong, we crack jokes about them needing loyalty cards - get a punch for each unit of blood transfused and the tenth unit is on us. We never see the patients - we get their blood, type it and check for antibodies, crossmatch some suitable units from our supply, and send the blood up to the infusion center, the emergency room, or the hospital floors. But even without meeting these patients, we get to know some of them, whether we want to or not, especially those who have chronic conditions that bring them back week after week for scheduled transfusions. Or those with "problems" that make it hard for us to find them safe and compatible blood - when we see an order print down in the blood bank, and we recognize the name, it's not usually good. Impending doom is probably how I'd describe the feeling.

Like Mrs. B, who's up to 550 units over her lifetime and still going strong. She has a bleeding disorder, and her own body can't keep up with the blood loss, so she comes in for weekly transfusions. Because of all of these exposures to foreign blood, she's developed a couple of antibodies, and because of the specific ones she's developed, we need to get her special compatible units from the Red Cross. Sometimes she has a bad bleeding episode and comes in through the emergency room because she can't wait until her appointment, so we always make sure to have at least two units aside in the blood bank, tagged with "Save for Mrs B", so that in a crisis we can at least get her started with something while we get more shipped in from the Red Cross.

Or Mrs. M, who has such strong auto-antibodies that her cells clump together as soon as they come out of her body into a specimen tube, making it impossible to discern her blood type. We have to give her Type O blood because we just can't tease her blood type from her cells and plasma. We tried asking the nurses to preheat the specimen tubes and to bring them to the blood bank on a warmer or in a cup of hot water, but even that hasn't been enough to fix the problem.

One of our regulars passed away recently, and it depressed all of us. We'd been supporting her through regular transfusions for over two years. Over the course of those years, she developed more and more antibodies, making her case a complex one requiring a few hours of work from a dedicated tech each time she'd come in, and specially-typed units from the reference lab at the Red Cross for transfusion. We'd all grumble when we saw her orders come across the printer, and argue a little over who worked on it last time and whose turn it was, but we were all glad to be doing something to help this woman enjoy more time on this Earth with her family. Hearing that she was never coming back was a little hard on all of us.

We don't always find out what happens to the patients, because of privacy rules. Sometimes we suddenly stop seeing a patient, and we don't know if it's because they got better, got transferred, or passed on. It's very hard sometimes to have worked hard in the blood bank to help keep someone alive, and then not know if it succeeded. But by the time you start worrying about it, another patient comes in, so you just keep going.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jen's Library: In The Devil's Garden

In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food
by Stewart Lee Allen

Oh, how I love these "history of this or that" books. If there is a book on display at the library, and the cover declares it to be a history of some random object, process, or concept, I will pick it up. I've rarely been disappointed.

In The Devil's Garden covers the history of foods that have been forbidden at one time or another to certain people. Let them eat cake! The author has playfully split the book up into seven parts, for the seven deadly sins, because, after all, if something is forbidden it's generally because someone has decided it's bad for you. The distinctions don't always hold up, because there's a lot of overlap between the sins. Depending who you are, eating a "Trojan Pig", a whole roast pig stuffed with other meats and sausages, can be both gluttony and blasphemy. Incidentally, I am adding "successfully constructing a turducken" to my list of things to do before I die.

The book covers everything from the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden (which, by the way, was not likely an apple - the Christians threw an apple into the story to discredit the sacred fruit of the Celts), to the cultural and religious taboos against eating pork, cows, and dogs. Roman feasts, Aztec human sacrifice, and absinthe - the book is a little disjointed because there's no clear beginning or end, and he jumps from one food to another, sometimes bringing up the same food twice in different places, making it hard to keep track of everything, but it's definitely entertaining and I'd recommend it if you're looking for a lighter non-fiction book. Splitting it up into sections like he did makes it easy to put down and pick up again later. My only major complaint is the lack of references. There's a bibliography but no foot- or end-notes, so you can't easily track down where he got all his information. I'm a stickler for knowing where the facts are coming from.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shift of Perspective

I enjoy stability. I like routine. A schedule. A plan. I like knowing what is expected of me, where I'm supposed to be at what time, and what I'll be doing there. I don't go so far as to declare Tuesday night meatloaf night for all eternity, but I like knowing I will come home on Tuesdays, check email, and then cook dinner while watching bad TV.

Things are changing at work, and it's forcing me to reset my comfy routines. For over two years, I was working a split shift, where I came in at noon and covered the day shift during their lunch breaks, and left at 8:30 pm after covering half of the evening shift. I loved it because I never had to wake up before the sun did, and I had time in the evening to cook meals more involved than frozen pizzas. But things change, and that position no longer exists.

In December, the decision was made to split the blood bank off from the core lab and staff it separately with two dedicated blood bankers on the evening shift, because the workload was getting to be unmanageable for just one tech. At the time, the evening shift techs, who are generalists trained in all areas of the lab including the blood bank, would rotate stations in the lab and find themselves in blood bank, helping me, one week a month. Unfortunately, because of staffing problems, the reality was that I was often completely alone in the blood bank, trying to do too many things at once, and having difficulty getting anyone to come back and help me because they were also busy and usually short a tech or two thanks to people quitting or calling out sick. I don't hold it against them - everyone was trying to do too much with too little and that's why this big decision was made, for the good of the lab and for better patient care.

We used to have a handful of specimens for the blood bank each night, but as the hospital grew, so did the workload. The emergency room is incredibly busy, labor and delivery is churning out 3 or 4 babies a day, and surgeries are happening later and later into the evening, so having two people in the blood bank all evening makes a lot of sense, and will be better for the hospital and for the poor techs staffing it!

When the change was announced, they asked me if I would go to evening shift, but it wasn't really a choice. My split shift was going to disappear, and the only spot open for me was the new full-time evening shift (created by yanking my shift over by three hours). I considered other jobs, and even applied for a couple, but in the end I decided I am comfy where I am. I like the work, I like the location, and I like most of the people I work with. A day shift position became available and I could have applied for that, but with those hours, there would have been an even bigger adjustment to make. So for better or for worse, I moved to my new shift this week, dreading it because of the disruption of my daily routines. How will I come home and cook at midnight? Will I ever see my husband? I will work all that out in time. I've got plans to use the crockpot more often, or leave casseroles in the fridge with instructions for my man to stuff them into the oven before I get home. Maybe I'll get more housework done in the mornings now. I just need a little time and it will all smooth out.

Yesterday was my first shift, and I am now sure that I made the right decision. It may be rocky for a while as I figure out what to do with myself all day, but the evening shift techs hired to work by my side are excellent techs with more experience than me, and they're also great women I can get along with when we're not busting our butts trying to keep people alive. Also, I had forgotten how much fun the other evening shift people are. This will all work out.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What's for Dinner - One Pot Mac and Cheese

It has happened. I have found the perfect mac & cheese recipe. I thought for sure it would take me several years of recipe testing before I finally stumbled on the cheesy holy grail, but this recipe fell into my lap (well, my Gmail chat window) recently and I am happy enough to end my search right here.

Like the caramelized onions, this recipe comes from someone's blog. This is One Pot, Stove Top, Creamy Mac and Cheese from White On Rice Couple, and they completely nailed mac & cheese. I'm talking out-of-the-park, 110% deliciousness here. I could decide to never try another mac and cheese recipe in my whole life and would likely not have any deathbed regrets.

The magic? Cooking the noodles in the milk. Genius! It keeps things super creamy, and it also keeps cleanup easy since you're only using one pot. They warn you to stay nearby and stir constantly, and I will back that up. I let it sit for 30 seconds while I grated cheese, and got a layer of scorched milk - it happens quickly and you need to stay around and watch. My only change to the recipe was my noodle choice - I went with mini spirals because they were adorable. I needed to add more milk near the end, because the pasta soaked a lot up, but that may happen with any noodle type, I'm not sure. I love their recipe, because it's so flexible. Need more milk? Dump it in. Cheese? Whatever you've got, nobody's here to judge you. I used a mix of one part asiago to three parts monterey jack, and it was perfect. I'm actually nervous about changing up the cheeses, because this combination worked so well!

Making it superperfect, though, was a simple matter of adding caramelized onions to the bowl. I suspect bacon would have a similar effect.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Four Leaf Clover

I have never had a difficult time finding four-leafed clovers. I don't understand why they're considered to be so rare and mysterious. I just look down into the grass, and there they are, waving at me with their supernumerary leaves. It's truly a gift. One summer, while I sat in a soccer field with a book trying to avoid the lame activities of the day camp I was coerced into attending, I found dozens of them, and pressed them all flat in a big poetry book so I could keep them forever. I had plans to try and preserve them somehow but never got around to it, and as time passed they got brittle and started to crumble. There's a moral in there somewhere.

I found a perfect specimen in the lawn of our new house before we moved in.

I'm not sure whether the little guy brought us good luck - with all the crises and issues we've had here so far, I could accuse it of being a bad luck charm, but the fact is we've been happy in this house despite all the work and frustration, so I can't say we've had a horrible time of it. Maybe the clover didn't bring us good luck so much as dilute the bad.

I found a fresh one today, and I gave it to a friend who needs it more than I do. I hope that passing it on will help retain more of its lucky properties, and she'll get the full benefit of the clovery magic.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Caramelized Onions, Crockpot-Style

Caramelized onions are incredibly delicious. All sweet and squishy and tasting nothing like the crunchy raw onions they come from. Food chemistry in action, people! But they take a while to cook properly. And a lot of stirring. I am too lazy to bother with that process most of the time, so I rarely eat caramelized onions.

This is where my crockpot saves the day.

I found this great recipe on a blog called Island Vittles, and I am never going back. To the old way of making caramelized onions, I mean, not to Island Vittles. I'll probably go back, it was a nice blog. :)

The idea is to dump approximately a ton of sliced onions into a crockpot, add some butter and olive oil and maybe some thyme and pepper if you're so inclined, and let it go until the onions are soft and brown and perfect.

I ended up needing about 6 hours on high, with a stir break every few hours. The liquid buildup from the sweating onions was significant, so somewhere around the five hour mark, I took off the lid, tipped the crockpot a little, and spooned out some of the juice so I didn't end up with onion soup.

I mixed some of the finished product into some mac and cheese (awesome), and froze the rest for later.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Instinct in a crisis

When faced with people who are grieving, bewildered, or upset, my instincts go straight to food. I must feed these people in their time of need. Maybe it's a learned behavior, but it's so ingrained that it's almost completely automatic. You are crying. I will make you banana bread.

A good friend is going through some very bad things including a terrifying surgery, and some of her family is staying at my house because I couldn't let them all pay for a hotel when I live so close to the hospital and can offer them a comfy bed, free internet and TV, and three purring cats. When I learned that they were coming, I went to the grocery store. Yes, I also cleaned the bathrooms and got the extra blankets out, but the food was so important. Unfortunately, they are the type of people who have no appetite when they're under stress, so I'm at a loss. I'm becoming a pushy European grandmother, offering them food every hour or two, trying to get them to eat. Maybe just a smoothie? Nothing? Well at least let me show you where all the food is in case you change your mind later... and of course if I hear you rustling in the fridge I will come running and assemble that sandwich for you. The words "you need to keep up your strength" actually found their way out of my mouth. I am 30 years old and I have evolved into a bad cliché.

Food is comfort. Food is love. I'm not sure how else to be helpful.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Tomato update

My tomato plants are enormous.

Also, I desperately need to weed that garden and get the Gaillardia staked up, but that will be a task for next weekend.

I wasn't expecting these tomato plants to get so big, and the cages I bought are much too small to properly support and restrain them! They're also much too close together, which means that finding and picking the ripe tomatoes is a bit of an adventure. I've had some stinkbug issues, but they seem to only go after the leaves and the ripe tomatoes, so picking the tomatoes just as they're starting to blush has been working well for me. I go tomato picking with a paintbrush to flick away the stinkbugs, because it still completely freaks me out to touch a bug.

Here's my current tomato supply:

My husband has claimed these particular tomatoes in the name of salsa, which he will make tonight.

I've been counting and weighing my tomato harvest since the very first cherry tomato came off the vine, because I'm a dork like that and I want to see how much money I'm saving by growing my own veggies. I grew these from seeds, not from starter plants, but I suspect that once I factor in the cost of the special seed-starting soil and the little pots, it would have been just as economical to buy little seedlings and start from there. But I did this for the challenge of growing something edible from a seed, and I succeeded and I'm proud of myself.

What's for Dinner - Chicken a la Provencal

This is a slightly modified recipe from a cookbook lent to me by a good work friend. The cookbook is Super Suppers Cookbook by Judie Byrd and it's supposed to be full of recipes to be made ahead and prepared later when time is short. While the recipes were tasty-looking, most of them didn't have any instructions for freezing or reheating, and they didn't give you an easy guide to scaling up the recipe to make a bigger batch for freezing. I did copy out a few recipes from it that I want to try, but if you're looking for a big-batch cook-and-freeze cookbook, skip this one. I'll be posting a giant cookbook review soon to go over the 5 cookbooks I've recently read.

So. On to the recipe. I figured it was a good one for dinner and I'd try freezing the leftovers for fun and see how it turned out. Stay tuned for that in a week or two. They call it "Chicken a la Provencal" but I'd call it balsamic chicken and peppers with oregano. Or something else equally descriptive and unpretentious. Don't you like knowing exactly what you're getting in a recipe? I had more chicken to use up than the recipe called for, so I scaled everything up a little bit and ended up with:

5 chicken breasts pounded flat
1 red and one green pepper, cut into thin strips
1 onion, sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp basil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
olive oil
salt and pepper

I salted and peppered the chicken, then dropped the flattened pieces into a pan (in two batches, because I didn't have room) with some olive oil and cooked them until they stopped running pink juices. About 5 minutes per side, but it will depend on how flat you smashed them. When the chicken is done, remove to a plate and then cook the cut veggies and spices with some more olive oil until the onions soften and brown a little. At that point, stir in the balsamic vinegar, then put the chicken and any juices back into the pan and mix everything up a little to cover the chicken. Put a lid or cover on the pan, and let it simmer on a lower heat for a couple of minutes.

This was fabulous. I didn't have high expectations when I started, but the oregano and garlic and balsamic vinegar made the veggies incredible, and the chicken picked up just enough flavor from the balsamic dunk at the end. I served it with roasted potatoes, but I think I'll do mashed next time.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Delicious Smoothies

Since I don't yet have any canning skills, I need an alternative use for squishy fruit. I've started buying the big yogurt container instead of the little four-packs, because it ends up being cheaper and produces less waste. A week ago, when I was spooning out some yogurt into a little plastic container for my lunch, I spotted a smoothie recipe printed on the foil lid of the yogurt. It was pretty generic, along the lines of:

Pick a fruit juice.
Pick a fruit.

1 cup Dannon Light & Fit Vanilla Yogurt
1/2 cup whatever juice
1/2 cup whatever fruit (fresh or canned)
1/2 cup ice cubes

Pulverize it in a blender and enjoy a smoothie!

I did so for dessert later that night, using strawberries the first time because we managed to get almost all the way through the Costco package before they got squishy and unappetizing, and I really didn't want to waste them. My juice was a cranberry-raspberry blend. It turned out great!

Next time I tried blueberries and peaches, with plain yogurt instead of vanilla, and the same juice. I should have stuck to vanilla yogurt, or at least added honey, because it was too tart. Also, the blueberry skins stayed very visible and stringy, and I didn't like that. Next time I use blueberries I'll try blending them first, before adding the rest.

I've been serving up the smoothies in coffee mugs for sipping, because I don't have straws around. It would be neat and fancy if I had big milkshake glasses for these, but they taste just as delicious in a mug, trust me.

My latest concoction was banana and cherry, and at this point I'm not bothering with a recipe any more. I dumped in a few ice cubes, a banana, a dozen or so pitted cherries, a teaspoon of honey, a big dollop of plain yogurt, a drop of vanilla extract, and a splash of milk at the end to thin it out a little. Yummy.

I'm told that if you use frozen fruit, you can skip the ice cubes, so I'll be experimenting with that soon. I have a bag of blueberries in the freezer that were too soft to snack on - I was going to dump them into muffins, but I'm sure they would be happy in a smoothie too. I'll also buy some frozen orange juice so I can add it to my smoothies by the spoonful when I want a citrus kick.

I'm a smoothie addict now!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Jen's Library - The Book Of Awesome

The Book of Awesome
by Neil Pasricha

I read a lot of odd blogs. Some of them are nerdy and full of graphs, some of them are about disastrous cakes, cats with poor English skills, or people questionably dressed at WalMart.

I'm not sure when or how I stumbled onto 1000awesomethings.com, but I did, and my life is better for it. This guy uses his online existence to celebrate all the little things that make life awseome. It's so easy to pick out all the irritating things in your day, and so easy to overlook the small moments of awesome, so I'm glad this guy has decided to remind us about just how many things out there can make you smile if you take the time to notice them.

This book is pretty much the blog in print form - dozens of one-or-two-page mini-essays about individual awesome things.

Like being home sick from school (or work) and watching The Price is Right. Peeling an orange in one long strip. Hitting all the green lights in a row. Finding there's just enough milk left for your cereal. All little, silly things, but they're like little presents and they can really make you feel awesome.

I was reading it at work, and as usual, my nosy coworkers asked what I was reading. Usually my answer leaves them shaking their heads and thinking I'm a dork, but this book got them all interested. "What kind of awesome things?" they asked. And so we talked about our own little moments of awesome, which in itself made for a moment of awesome. Very meta.