Monday, October 31, 2011

Well, that was a big bag of fail

I got cobs of popcorn from my CSA last week, and I was very excited to make some.  One of the workers at the stand showed me how to get the kernels off the cob.  I couldn't wait to taste some local, fresh, popped sweet corn.

I took the kernels out--I read that you can pop the whole cob, but that the kernels stay on the cob after, and that's not how I'd like to eat popcorn.  So I took them out, and picked out all of the bits of the dried cob that came off with them.

I popped them on the stove (I could get a popcorn popping container for the microwave, but I do like it on the stove).  I heard some kernels popping, but then. . .nothing.  Then I smelled something burning.  Argh! So I took the pan off the burner, and this is what I had.

I still have two cobs; I'll ask what I should have done differently.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

NO. NO. NO. NO.



This is not the flower box the squirrels tore up.

This is not a picture I should have been able to take on October 30.  I had to skip out on a Jack-and-Jill wedding shower last night because of the weather--it was sleeting and snowing and pretty windy, and traffic was crawling at 40 miles per hour.  Which was just fine with me--I'm not a fan of getting killed because other people shrug off hydroplaning--but still, I was never going to make it to the place, which was an hour away from on a clear day with little traffic. 

Now, I am sure this will melt off later as they (and by "they" I mean meterologists) are talking about temperatures getting up into the 50's later this week, but. . .wow.  Actually, it will go away today because it will be in the high forties but still.  Wow. 

I shudder to think what other people in the state are going through--some parts were supposed to get something like 6-12 inches.  In October.  And thanks to a lot of downed trees (the leaves haven't yet fallen, so there was a lot of heavy, wet snow not just on the branches, but on the leaves), there are a lot of people without power.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Biscotti

I made biscotti last week, though I don't think it came out as good as it could have.  I think it needed more anise extract, although the recipe I used called for only one tablespoon.  I think next time, I'll add more.  I brought some to my parents' house on Sunday--my mother had made some homemade soup, and was quite happy to take the biscotti.  She likes it a lot, and she and my father said said father could taste the anise no problem.  Ha! So there, you doubting voice in my head!  (But checking out this woman's biscotti, and all I can say is that I am not worthy.)

 I'm not sure if I should only toast them lightly or toast them until they are very crunchy and hard.  The biscotti I've had before I started to make it was more of a dunking cookie; you were supposed to dunk it in your coffee or tea.  And, I later found out, sweet wine if you rolled that way.

I am not entirely confident in my cookie-making abilities--really, my baking prowess is limited to bread, sour cream coffee cake, and chocolate fudge cake.  I made biscotti last November and everyone seemed to like it but . . . well, let's just say I won't be satisfied with my biscotti until a Sicilian grandmother declares it delicious.

Now, here's a fun fact: twice-baked breads/cookies like biscotti trace back to Roman times.  Pliny the Elder (according to Wikipedia, anyway), said that twice-baked goods could last for centuries (no, they really can't, and yes, I think he was exaggerating).  I do think that twice-baked goods are the basis for the Dwarf bread that Terry Pratchett writes about, with the crucial difference that twice-baked goods--or at least, the biscotti that I know today--are edible and delicious.  (You don't know about Terry Pratchett?  Good lord, you must read his stuff, he is a riot! OK, I will stop putting my dorkiness on breathtaking display now.) 

Roman soldiers and people traveling on long journeys took twice-baked goods with them, as they did have a long shelf life (though not centuries).  I'm doubting that the troops were dunking almond flavored biscotti in their cappuccinos (since coffee was not in Europe at that point) or mugs of sweet wine, though.  I think they were probably eating savory twice baked breads.  Though it would be quite a statement to pack what we know as biscotti today.  I am not fighting a war or marching on any cities unless we have a supply of good biscotti.  And Chianti! My God, not the swill you sent with us last time.  And for the love of all things holy and profane, would it kill you, Emperor to send us to places that grow and use some herbs? Do you have any idea what it's like to eat food without any decent herbs?  What do you think we are, uncivilized? I may be a soldier, but I do have taste buds.

Me, I like biscotti because it's very easy to make, it is sweet but not overwhelmingly so, and it is just perfect for a hot drink like coffee or tea.  It also does last a long time.  But not centuries.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pickled Daikon

I left my coat at my friend Steve's house on the day I went to bring him some of my CSA share.  I went to pick it up last week, and he cooked a delicious stir fry dinner with a side of curried spinach and lentils.  It was very good. 

Steve shredded and pickled the daikon I gave him and gave me some to take home.  It is fantastic, and apparently, quite easy to do.  I'm going to have to try this at some point. 

Daikon is one of my favorite radishes.  Well, next to the watermelon radish, which is just so pretty how can you not use it?  But daikon is wonderful.  It's not as spicy as most radishes, but it still has a bit of a bite.  When I lived in Japan, it was a staple.  I would eat pickled daikon all the time.  You'd eat it grated or finely sliced to balance some oily dishes like tempura, or diced and placed in nabe (hot-pot) dishes, or sliced and included in salads (very refreshing).  It is also a staple in oden.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Debauched squirrels and a happy brunch

Look at that table!
This weekend I had a lovely brunch at my friend's house.  She made a frittata (I've got to try to make one of those), a beautiful salad with dried cranberries, pumpkin spice bread and apple and cranberry compote.  Our other friend brought apple cake so I was pretty much on a sugar high.  We meet for brunch every three to four months or so, and alternate homes.  It's nice because we can relax and let our hair down.  This past weekend, they showed remarkable stoicism in the face of my venting about a petty but frustrating situation I've been having to deal with for several months now, and that came to a head last week. But what really set me off that day were the filty rodents in my neighborhood.  It's always something small that sets people off, I suppose.  (Look, I'm going to blame them for my stress level.  Because squirrels are probably the most annoying animals on the planet on a good day.)

Be glad this isn't a pic of the squirrels.
I have three window boxes on my balcony.  I planted some inpatiens in them and they were looking beautiful all summer.  It really was a nice little place to sit and relax.  Problem is, I would come home every so often and find clumps of dirt on the balcony floor from the squirrels digging through the boxes.  Then, about a week and a half ago, I found one of the flowers torn out of the middle box and on the floor.  Flipping squirrels, I thought.  They are just awful digging around for acorns and bulbs.

So there I was, on Saturday morning, on the phone with a friend of mine, confirming what time I'd be at her place (we were going to another friend's home for brunch).  I looked out of my slider towards the balcony and saw two squirrels in the middle window box, digging up dirt, then tearing out another plant.  And then. . .and then. . .

Well, when a boy squirrel loves a girl squirrel very, very much . . .


"Hey," I said to my friend.  "I have to get off the phone.  There are two squirrels fornicating on my balcony."


Yes, it was a very interesting morning.  Though a fantastic brunch.  Be very grateful that I posted pictures of the delcious meal instead of the squirrels.  (I didn't take pictures of the squirrels, no worries.  I did chase them off my balcony, though.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Food disasters into triumphs

So, I did this years ago, long before I set up this blog, but it's a good way to illustrate my point.  I was having some people over for dinner--it was a small party, and I was going to have several different offerings, buffet-style, for people to take.  It was pretty eclectic.  One of the dishes I was going to try and make was eggplant pesto lasagne.  (This was before I started growing herbs and freezing pesto in cubes; I had a packet of the pesto mix onhand.  Hey, I'm not proud.)

But then, drat it, the lasagne noodles didn't cook well.  Or, I should say, I did not cook them well.  The ends got stuck together, parts were uncooked and other parts were al dante.  It was a mess.  And yet I had this eggplant and pesto and a half-hour before people were supposed to come.  And it's not as if I could get away with chucking this dish; I needed this to make sure that everyone would have enough to eat.  So, I figured I'd cobble something together and if it was awful, I'd have a funny story to share.

I cut out the hard and gluey parts of the noodles and tossed them.  I cut the noodles into squares, diced the eggplant, and stirred them together in a bowl.  I took the packaged pesto mix, made the pesto, and then grabbed a handful of either pine nuts or walnuts (I can't remember which), ground them in a mortar and pestle I used to own (thanks to a gift certificate to Crate and Barrel I got one year--I was very hopeful that I would make pesto in that.  No, I never did and I ended up donating it to a white elephant fundraiser).  I mixed the ground nuts with the pesto sauce, added some garlic powder, tossed this with some grated cheese, the eggplant and the noodles, and I baked it. 

I figured no one would really like it.  I was all set to apologize for it.

To my shock, it was the most well-loved dish of the whole party.  Everyone inhaled it and wanted the recipe.  I'm not shy.  I told them it was originally a disaster in the making.

Now, I suppose if I was going to share What I Learned from That Day, I could tell you that you should make lemonade out of lemons or make the best of things.  But that's not going to be my chirpy advice (because I really hate chirpy advice, for one thing).

Nah.  I'll just tell you that if you're doing something and it looks like it's going to be a big bag of fail, to not panic.  The world won't end if it doesn't turn out well, and you'll have a funny story to tell.  (If the people around you never let you live that down or are nasty to you about it, then I'd suggest you jettison them and consider it a good tool to see who the, um, tools in your life are.)

And sometimes, it does turn out well. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Might be time to make a switch

So, by now we've all heard the news that Bank of America is going to start charging customers $5 a month for debit card fees. . .because they aren't making enough money.  I promised myself I wouldn't editorialize (much) on this blog, so let's just suffice it to say that I don't think the people who are in C-level positions at large banks are in danger of facing foreclosure.  (Well, not anymore at least, for Bank of America.)  They are doing just fine.  They will survive without our $60 a year. 

There are ways to avoid these fees, first of all.  They are not practical for everyone (for example, some people's situations may make it difficult or impossible to maintain a minimum balance), but if you can do them, you'll be able to avoid them.

But--maybe you are not confident that you'll be able to make these steps.  Maybe you don't care--maybe it's the principal of the thing.  You want to tell the bank to take their fees and . . . anyway.  You want to Make a Stand.  (Look, I'm all for that.  I joined my credit union when I saw how much Big Bank, Inc. was charging me per month.  It was obscene.)

You can switch to a bank or a credit union that will not charge you this fee with a clear conscience. Promise!  But. . .there are some things you have to keep in mind before you go switch to a credit union or a small, local bank. 

Another thing: try to make sure that when you use your debit card, you do so only in ways that will not incurr other fees.  I'm part of a credit union through an old job (huzzah!) and I'm extremely lucky in that my credit union will reimburse me for charges I incur at out-of-network ATM's.  However, I still take pains to use ATM's in my network because I swear that one day, they will drop that benefit.  Things are tough for everyone.  I'm just sayin'.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Small world and online personnas

I went to see my friend Steve yesterday.  Steve runs World of Okonomy's Blog, which I had added to the blogroll.  He's an excellent cook and a very talented photographer, so you'll see some fantastic recipies and beautiful pictures of the end result. 

I knew about his blog since he started it, and I check in regularly, though I lurk and I don't comment.  Just think, OOOHH PRETTY FOOD.  We hung out yesterday--I had a bunch of stuff from the CSA that I knew I wasn't going to have time to cook before my next pickup (long story; this will be more of a baking week than anything) and Steve, being a dedicated cook and a faithful vegetarian, would welcome the rainbow chard and kale and daikon and delicata squash.  Would my vegetables become famous?  We'll see. . .(no, Steve, I swear it's not a requirement).

So we were poking around in an old timey general store near his home (actually, we went to several places--they Wayside Inn Grist Mill, the Wayside Inn (that's Longfellow in the picture, I snapped that in the garden of the Inn), the old schoolhouse nearbyMartha-Mary Chapel (which has been in several films), and the very old-timey Wayside country store neaby, where I got a huge bottle of anise extract (which will be great since I will be baking biscotti).  If anyone who's reading this finds themselves west of Boston, in the Sudbury-Marlboro area, you should check these sites out.  The Grist Mill is still a working mill; they grind the wheat the Inn (a nonprofit) uses in its restaurant and sells in its gift shop.  It's a beautiful area, one of those hidden gems that first-time visitors don't often know about.  Well, readers, if you are a first time visitor to Massachusetts, make the trip out there and buck the trend.

Turns out, Stephen saw I linked to him, read the blog, liked it, but had no idea that the Pamela who wrote it was the same woman he knows in real life.  We had a good laugh about that--I figured he had known exactly who it was.  Then again, this joint is a very different thing for me, so . . . I guess I can see why he wouldn't make the connection.

Small, funny world we live in, eh?

Edited to add: I completely forgot to mention Steve's homemade apple crisp, which is what will happen when I write before the bleeding sun rises.  I forget things.  Anyway, it was divine.  He sent some home with me.  I would have taken a picture to show you the deliciousness, but alas, I have already eaten it.  For breakfast.  (WHAT. Is that bad??)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Scaling back

It's been on my mind, this tendency of people to try and save money by buying things or recreating more expensive things, or getting them for free by spending 70-plus hours a week clipping and organizing coupons.

One way I save money when it comes to stuff like convenience foods is to scale back what I eat.  No, I still eat a lot.  Ask any friend or coworker, they'll tell you that I'm quite the grazer.  But there are some things that I just plain refuse to buy, or only very rarely buy.

First, breakfast tends to be basic with me.  It's either eggs or an omlette with toast or an english muffin, or oatmeal with either some honey and cinamon or frozen fruit stirred in.  That's it.  I used to eat a lot of cereal--and I confess to the odd craving for it occaisionally still--but a container of quick cooking oats will last a lot longer than a box of cereal, and it's less expensive per serving.  And eggs--well, they taste good, they're ready pretty quickly, and they have a decent amount of protein in them.  I don't tend to get too hungry later if I have eggs or an omlette for breakfast.  (Especially an omlette; I tend to go a little crazy with the vegetables and herbs with them.)  So I do not get why you'd make fake Grape Nuts or fake cereals or whatever.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Captain Obvious tells you how to save money

Don't buy this.  You'll save $5M.
Not that anyone who reads this blog is in any danger of buying these things.  However, the infamous Olsen twins backpack (mentioned below) got me to wondering what else is ridiculously expensive out there.  So I Googled.  Now I need therapy.  Because, wow. 

Don't buy a $39,000 backpack.  At $39,000, it is not practical.  Even if it's in black and goes with everything you own.  It is not practical to pay $39,000 for a backpack unless it can open up a wormhole in the space-time continuum, allowing you to go back and invest in IBM and sell it at exactly the right time.  Then you could make your money back and then some.

Don't buy an $8,700,000 car.  That is just stupid. 

Men, don't buy diamond-studded Nikes.  They cost $218,000. Again, stupid.  And frankly, tacky.  Although they are probably more comfortable than these shoes for women for $86,700.  Stupid.  And by the looks of these, rather uncomfortable. 

Dolce & Gabanna put out sunglasses that retail for $383,609.  Do they look like $383,609 worth of cool?  I think they look like $383,609 worth of stupid.  As in, "no matter how much I paid for these things, I cannot quite justify the stupid in making this decision.  Hey, why do I have to declare bankruptcy?"  Maybe you don't want to buy those.  Especially if you tend to drop, scratch, break or lose your sunglasses like I do.  I think the $5 Walgreens special work just fine.  Unless they can see into the future, don't buy these. 

Paying $6,000 for a shower curtain is also a bit. . .foolish.  Even more foolish is buying something like that and then complaining about how broke you are. 

Perhaps don't pay $400 for a pair of socks.  They go on your feet, for God's sake.  You get foot sweat on them.  Go to Target.  Get your socks there.

While we're at it, let's not pay $400 for flip-flops.  They are flip-flops.  Enough said.

Paying about $5,000,000 for a gold toilet is also stupid.  Think about what you do with toilets.  It's a toilet. EW.  (Also, you should refrain from paying $30 a roll for toilet paper.  Again, think about what you do with it, it's toilet paper, ew, etc.)

You're welcome.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Paring down

Graham Hill's TED Talk about living in small spaces is making its way around the internet--a good friend sent it to me and I've seen it featured on The Simple Dollar.  I have thoughts.  Many, many, thoughts.

First, the idea is a good one.  Pare down your belongings to only the things you use and love.  Get rid of a lot of the extraneous stuff and consider living in a smaller space.  (Though I have to say, the small amount of square footage that Hill decided to not to buy is worth more than my condo will ever sell for, but that's another post.)

However, the designer in Hill kind of overtook things and he showed how they tricked out his place, making everything automated and fold away and he could still have it all--beds for guests to sleep in, seating for ten dinner guests, a large screen to watch movies and shows on.  I mean, it was great, and it is a wonderful way to do your place if you have the money to create that and maintain it (it's ironic that this was presented in a way would lead you to think this is for the very affluent), but I am here to tell you that you can still pare down and live in a small place without those bells and whistles.  Though you will have to give some things up.

Friday, October 7, 2011

I'm going to be Captain Obvious here, but I don't see what was so good about the old days

You can get all kinds of interesting and free ebooks at Amazon, so if you have a Kindle it can be a real journey into the classics, quirky-how to's and ebooks uploaded by new authors.  I am a history dork so I got one on Medieval life, I got the Art of War (because every CEO seems to love that book and I cackle evilly at the thought of these guys trying to tough it out in battle, especially in Sun Tzu's lifetime--I don't think these guys who buy $6,000 shower curtains would actually deal well with every day life of 1,000 years ago, let alone war), and The Prince, to name but a few.  This is like when I go to the library and just browse; I will come home with the most eclectic and weird collection of books ever. 

I also got The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Francis Child.  It was published in 1832.  Amy Dacyczyn had talked a little about this book in The Tightwad Gazette.  I saw it on the free offerings for Kindle and I figured I'd get it because not only does it tie in to this humble little blog, but it feeds into my history dorkiness.  I like learning how ordinary people lived day-to-day in different times. 

So far, I'm a couple of chapters in, and it reinforced my idea that people who look back at the old days and go on about how these simpler times were best are completely clueless.  I don't think some folks get just how hard life was.  And this book, in its blithe way that takes these hardships for granted (in that they are hardships the way colds may be a hardship to a very advanced civilization in the future) showcases how difficult life could be.

First of all, Child talks about cholera.  OK? The woman gives some home remedies to relieve the symptoms of cholera.  That illness is unheard of in industrialized nations today, but it was a real possibility back in 1832. 

She also talks about what to do if you cut yourself--and how to prevent mortification of wounds.  And by mortification, she doesn't mean embarassing them, or whipping it.  No, she's talking about them putrefying.  Rotting.  Becoming gangrenous.  (She also doesn't mention washing with soap or water, and I'm not sure if it's because handwashing and germs were not really known, or if the water was bad.  Either way, wow.)

So--look.  This was a real risk back then.  Real enough for her to mention.  Can you imagine any book of home remedies touching upon what to do to prevent gangrene, and how to tell if your wound is going in that direction?  I don't think any of us would really know what those signs are. 

So I'd like to take a minute and, instead of looking back with rose colored glasses, look around me with some measure of appreciation.

Antibiotics.  Yay, antibiotics! If it weren't for you many of us would be dead from a cut or infection.  Yes, antibiotics, I do love you.

Ibupropherin and other pain relievers.  Before aspirin, you were kind of our of luck if you had a headache or a backache.  And no, just resting wasn't an option unless you were wealthy.

Indoor plumbing and a clean water supply.  Oh, lord.  CHOLERA.  Need I say more?  Also? Things like composting toilets sound all good and nice and green until you realize that before there was a concerted effort to create santitation systems and root out corruption, poor neighborhoods in places like New York City were knee deep in squalor and filth because of the fact that people only had public latrines to use, and the city never, ever cleaned them. 

Cold medicine.  Yes, I know, they don't cure colds, but it's easier to get the sleep you sorely need when you can breathe.  I'm just sayin'.

Modern medicine.  Yes, it keeps us away from our natural selves.  But the maternal death rate during labor was very high.  It was not uncommon for children to die in infancy, and many of the surivivors to die in childhood.  Also, please see "mortification" above. 

Readily available soap.  There are people who make their own soap, and they do seem to enjoy it, but back then, it wasn't a hobby, it was a necessity.  And you made your own lye with ashes from your fireplace.  Good for reusing and recycling, but kind of hazardous when you think of what lye is.  Also, if you had kids, probably anxiety inducing (see above).  Also, very time consuming.  You could spend a lot of your time making soap.  And it's not like this stuff was particularly gentle on your skin.

Ready made clothing.  Yes, we can romanticize making our own clothes, and it's quite rewarding to do it, but can we please get real?  There's a difference between making something because it's fun and you're feeling creative, and being charged with making clothing for your entire family. 

Food.  Seriously.   Look, I love gardening and local food, but I've always been clear about how I'd starve if I had to rely on my own abilities to feed myself.  One bad season and you were in deep trouble.

OK, those are just a few things that I'm liking about the modern era.  Any other things you all like about this modern life of ours?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bad advice

Ever since the midden hit the windmill in the economy three years ago, I've heard the same refrain from pundits--be grateful for your job! Show up early! Stay late! Come in on the weekends! Be a producer! That way, they say, you won't get fired or laid off.

Let me tell you a story. 

A few years ago, I had a job that I'd been working at for a year and change.  I brought in money (even though I wasn't expected to in my first year).  It wasn't millions of dollars, but it wasn't just a few thousand.  I got consistently good feedback (and in writing) from my bosses.  I enjoyed it, I worked hard at it, and I went above and beyond.

I got laid off anyway. 

The people I worked for and with were livid.  It was nothing personal, it was just the economy, they had to cut, etc.  I was the last one hired, and the I was person who was the newest to this particular field.

I'm not telling you this because I'm bitter--I still hold great affection for my former colleagues (the ones who remain there and the ones who were let go in subsequent layoffs).  But this is a huge reason why I think this advice is just plain bad.

I'm not saying that anyone should slack off on the job or spend all day surfing the internet or generally be a jackwagon in response to the bad economy.  But I do think it's a bad strategy to use all of your time and energy working extra hours at a job where you might get laid off anyway. 

No, my advice to anyone in this economy--or in any economy, really--is this:

Work hard during your normal work hours.  Do the absolute best job you can do because you want to take pride in your work and you want to have a good reputation.  Build good relationships with your coworkers.  If you have to put in extra hours once in a while for a project, then do that, but unless you're getting paid hourly and/or overtime, don't make a habit of this.  What will happen is that you'll be expected to produce that same amount of work, cover the same amount of hours.  You'll be taken for granted, and no, it does not guarantee that you will keep your job if or when layoffs come.  Your boss will probably notice that, but their boss, and their boss's boss, and the executives of the organization, won't. And they won't care either way.  So just bust your butt during normal working hours, take on extra stuff if you can manage it, but don't work extra hours.  Don't run yourself into the ground as part of a campaign to show slavish devotion to your employer in a bid to not get the ax.  Your boss will be grateful and appreciative of the good work you do, and will do what they can to reward you (unless they are jackwagons).

Instead, network and keep your ear to the ground for other opportunities.  If you work in a specific field, get to know other people in your field.  Stay current on what's happening in your field.  And maybe you should explore other fields of work--start talking to people who do other jobs and learn about those jobs, what it took to get them, what they entail, and if they'd be a good fit for you.  (This is useful no matter what kind of work background you have.)  If you absolutely feel like you must work all the time, then get a second job if you already have a full time job and/or a job with set hours, and stash that money away.  (This isn't the case for everyone, and ironically, it's the underemployed shift workers who could use a decent second job, a big emergency fund, etc.)

Obviously--build your emergency fund.  Get as much in the bank as you can.  You know the news stories about how people aren't spending as much and it's hurting the economy? Boo hoo.  You don't owe any business your money, and if the economy is dependent upon us running ourselves into personal debt and buying stuff we don't need, then we're in bigger trouble than we think.  (Besides which, what was actually hurting the economy were things like banks selling their debt on the market, banks pushing bad loans, declining paychecks, um, layoffs, etc.)

So save up a huge emergency fund if you can  (I know some people are making minimum wage or just above it, so your mileage may vary with this).  It's great if you can get enough together to cover your expenses for a year (ten months at least), and if you can cut your expenses down a lot.  This is will take you a while probably--most of us aren't making a lot of money to begin with, and rents, mortgages, gas and food take a huge bite out of our paychecks.  Do what you can to build this up, and don't beat yourself up if you're not seeing a lot of progress right away.

Here's the thing: you never know when the ax will fall.  So prepare for that, mentally and financially.  And don't beat yourself up if you can't because holy moly, it's not like the majority of us are making six figures and have no expenses.

OK, four people who read this blog.  What would your advice be?  What have I missed?  Because I know I've missed a lot.