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

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 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

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

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

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.