Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dessert FAIL

This is what happens when you don't actually check your measurements.

Let me back up.

I had some friends over for dinner on Sunday.  I made this fish dish for them, as it's easy, the broth is great for dunking crusty bread in, and it's healthful.  But I needed a dessert.

I had rhubarb in my freezer from my garden.  I thought I'd make a pie, forgetting that pie crusts and I are not friends.  I made one pie successfully, and that was after attempting the crust three times.  I was not successful this time--I tried to roll the dough onto the pin to bring it over the pie plate, and it would split and break.  I'd have a patchwork pie at that point and it wouldn't cook well.

So I figured I'd make rhubarb crisp.  I had a recipe for apple crisp and I thought I'd just use the rhubarb in the apple's place.  And it all was going so well, except that it called for a half a cup of butter.

Half a cup, not half a stick.

By the time I realized what I did wrong, it was almost done and had dry flour patches on the top.  So I took another stick of butter, cut it into small cubes, and dotted it on top of the crumble and let it bake.  As you can see, that was a bad choice.  I went from "dry flour patches" to "greasy butter puddles."  Why yes, I think my future as a baker is assured, if your aim is to torture your guests.

So I ran to the shops and got some frozen apple blossoms (little individual pies/tarts) and baked them for my friends.  They were quite good.  When they complimented me, I said "I bought them myself."

I guess I'll have to take a weekend to practice making pie crusts.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Quick random question for you all

I will be posting an epic food fail tomorrow, promise.  But I wanted to park this here and get your thoughts.

Last week, I had my furnace filled up with oil.  I keep the temperature low--around 60F (about 15C I think)--when it's just me.  Still, last week was one of the coldest weeks we had and I was feeling it.  There are a lot of modern conveniences that I don't think I'd let go with good grace.  I'm not talking about cell phones or even computers (though I love online banking, it has saved my bacon).  I'm talking about things like electricity and central heat.

I left the house today with my dinner simmering in the slow cooker.  I drove to work--it's under ten minutes from the place where I'm renting, though likely 45 minutes to an hour if I had to walk it.  We have working traffic signals and my office is climate controlled (albeit it always tends to run cold, even in the summer).  Still, it's a comfortable life.  Despite me not having cable or watching TV these days, despite me never owning a smartphone, I'm living better than royalty if you look at the standard of living of the majority of people who ever lived.

How do you think you'd cope if what happened in India last year happened here, and we had a massive blackout?  Do you think it would really mess with you if, like in other places in the world, there were almost regular blackouts or only sporadic electricity?

I think I wouldn't deal well at all, myself. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Friday blogaround

Since so many folks like cats doing funny things. . .
Hello and happy Friday!

I took a look at the search terms that led people to this blog.  Here are the more interesting ones:

Hot soup storage containers
B├ęchamel vegetable lasagna
Cats doing funny things
Funny pictures of a lazy person
Homemaking essentials
Lebanese red lentil soup recipe
Marbella chicken using boneless

Okay.  Here's what people are blogging about this week.

First, a shameless plug: I have a guest post up at Food Stamps Cooking Club.  Please go check it out!

Apartment Therapy brings you your domestic squee with Ten Tiny Houses.

Donna Freedman has some tips on eradicating your debt from the holidays.

The difference between mindfulness and frugality through buying used. I think these are good things to think about if you aren't struggling and need to clarify what you're doing; I also think that if you're really strapped for cash the whole thing is moot--you're just trying to scrape by.

Doggone Thrifty has 25 fun ideas for winter that won't cost you.

Oatmeal bread. YUM.

When old bills come back to haunt you. Yikes.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Being positive versus positive thinking and starry-eyed claptrap

I'm re-reading Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich.  I like this book because it helps me to remember the difference between being positive and being foolish (and foisting that on everyone).

She talks about some of the positive thinking out there--the insistence that all you need to do in order to achieve health, wealth, or happiness is to visualize it, the victim-blaming that people engage in when someone isn't successful (her experience with breast cancer was particularly illuminating), and the often tyrannical insistence that corporations have in employees showing "positivity" which, apparently means, being absolutely giddy at the prospect of going to work.

The thing is, positive thinking got morphed into something unrecognizable and obscene.  I don't want to trash the very idea of it--I think that being upbeat, putting your game face on, and knowing when to stop complaining is a good idea.  If you're always complaining and never have anything good to say, people will tend to avoid you.  It's one thing to roll your eyes with a friend over something that is exasperating you (be it a jerky boss or a terrible ex or a current love's terrible ex or your awful neighbor or your job situation), it's another thing to carp on it endlessly and to revisit it every time you have a conversation to the exclusion of everything else.  It's exhausting to be around someone who never has a good thing to say about anyone or anything.  Years ago, I worked with a guy who only complained about things--nothing was ever good, people would offer to help him and he'd refuse (and then complain about the thing he had refused help for and say no one was helping him). It could be a mild, breezy sunny day outside and he'd complain about skin cancer or the city or the people who walked to slowly when he was trying to get to work. After a while, no one wanted to work with him.  It was exhausting to be around him.

Yes, I know.  Venting is good for you.  But sometimes people stop venting and they start feeding into it; it becomes a self-perpetuating thing.  And it's tiresome.

Also, if you only think bad things will happen to you, if you only see the worst happening, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Why bother trying, or taking opportunities right in front of you (or that friends and colleagues offer you) when you know it isn't going to work?  When you've decided that the entire world is against you, you're going to prove yourself right.

However, there is a difference between keeping some perspective and being self-aware and being stupidly positive and optimistic.  Optimism is a great thing, as long as it's based in reality.  Being sure riches will just come to you is stupid.  Being sure you will get your dream job is dumb unless you're taking active steps to get there.  And then, quite honestly, you also need a dose of pessimism.

Yes. Pessimism.  I love pessimism.  It is not exactly negativity.  When I was laid off, I was optimistic.  Not that I would get a job in my field--though I did everything I could to get one, not that I would make more money than I made at my old job--though I did everything I could to try and make that happen (it didn't, by the way).  I knew I would be okay because I took a few days to freak out, get my head together, and figure out what resources I had and what I would do in the worst-case scenario.  I knew I would be okay.  I didn't know for sure that I would get a job in my field, getting paid what I got paid before.  I was realistic.  I wasn't exactly pessimistic about my chances, but I had some pessimism.  I knew I had gotten laid off when thousands of others in the region had also lost their jobs, when hundreds in my field (and with more experience) were looking for work.  I had to embrace reality. I had to develop a Plan B and a Plan C and decide when I would do it.  I didn't spend time complaining outside of one or two short gripe sessions, though I wanted to. Here's a confession to my friends who were amazed at how positive I was during that time: there were days when I was really, really bitter about the layoff.  But I couldn't afford to bathe in that, I had to put my game face on.  I had to use all avenues open to me.  If an employment agency I tried to work with was clueless, I didn't spend all my time complaining about then and write off all employment agencies, I worked with other agencies.  If one prospective employer was stringing me along, it irritated me, but I didn't throw up my hands and decide that I wasn't going to try anymore.  I kept working my contacts, applying for other jobs in other organizations, setting up informational interviews, and basically doing everything I could to get employment.  People were helpful--when they see you doing everything you can and you don't trash any suggestion they have, they tend to be more receptive to helping you.

Sometimes, in the quest to avoid negativity, people eschew pessimism and any sort of critical thinking--and in some organizations, pessimism and critical thinking is actively discouraged.  This can be disastrous.  If you don't have anyone looking for the weakness in a plan, things will not go well when the plan falls through.  If you don't have anyone looking at what could go wrong, you can't plan for it.  That's not asking the universe to send negative things your way, that's being clear-eyed.  When I thought of the possibility that I would have to go for jobs that may pay less, and that may not be in the field I'd been working in, I wasn't being negative or pessimistic.  I was being realistic. And so my optimism wasn't "I will be working in my dream job!" My optimism was "I'll be okay.  I'll get through this.  I'll survive. I have friends and family and colleagues who want to help me.  I have skills.  I will do what I have to do to keep myself solvent, and I'll learn what resources are out there in case I can't find any work at all whatsoever and I run out of savings.  I will be okay." I knew I would be okay because I knew what the worst case would be, and I planned for it.  I wasn't thrilled about it, but I was okay.

You have to have a dose of pessimism to have any sort of realistic optimism.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

South Indian Red Lentil Curry

I got the book The Indian Slow Cooker, which has been pretty brilliant.  If you're looking to introduce some new recipes to your repertoire, this is a good book to get, especially if you like spicy food and if you are looking for more vegetarian recipes (though there are good meat recipes as well).

What I like about this particular cookbook is that it provides a good variety of things you can make; there are a lot of bean dishes that actually taste good (I'm sorry, but all too often, urging people to eat "rice and beans" is sentencing them to a gluey, tasteless mess).  I've made moong dal in the slow cooker with good results.  I've also made South Indian Red Lentil Curry (pictured) which uses coconut milk.  Which is pretty darn close to bacon in making everything taste good.  If you want to go meatless or cut down on the amount of meat you eat, or if you just want to try something new, this is a good resource.

Some of the things the author asks you to get may seem onerous if you don't live in an area with a large South Asian population and the attendant grocery stores (if there is an Indian grocer near you, definitely check it out.  And get a samosa.  Those are from heaven).  You can find many of those spices--albeit in smaller quantities and for more money--in a grocery store, but if not, you can order them online.  The beans that the recipes call for do tend to be found mainly in South Asian grocery stores.  We do not typically eat black lentils here, or skinned an split yellow lentils, or black chickpeas (with the skin on), etc.  But again, you may be able to find a source that you can order them if you like, or you could probably replace the beans with a reasonable substitute.  Red lentils cook down to a very creamy consistency and could probably be swapped out for other skinned, split lentils if you want.  

This dish took about seven hours to cook--I used a timer from the hardware store to have the slow cooker go on at 11:00.  It was very, very good.  I was looking forward to leftovers.  I froze some of them so I wouldn't gobble them all down at once.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Friday blogaround

It's bigfoot! No, probably just a raccoon.
It snowed last night.  Not a lot, but enough for me to have to shovel the driveway and clear off my car.  I saw some tracks in the yard and the driveway and took a picture of one.  I think they may be raccoon tracks.

So, what's been happening around the internet?

Well, the CDC has some advice to keep from contracting or spreading the flu.  Let's follow this advice!

Bryallen has some advice on how to save. 

Judy makes a good point that if you don't use something, getting it just because it's free is still a waste.

You, too can make homemade pickled cabbage

Mother Connie is back posting--yay! She wants to know what you bring to potlucks.

Nicoleandmaggie list their favorite cookbooks.

Greg over at Club Thrifty talks about what he would have done differently in college when it came to his financial life.  Ha! Join the club! Well, what's the saying, Greg? Ah, youth, it's wasted on the young. . .

The Frugal Path talks about the pros and cons of living with your extended family.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Meritocracy vs. personality

One thing I'll give Businessweek, they're at least being honest.  There's a very popular trope that you need the skills and the resume and the ability to get good jobs.  But that's naive. You also need to "fit in," and to be "our sort," whoever that may be.

To a certain extent I understand this.  You want to be able to get along with the person who will work for you, you want them to get along with the people they will be working with.  That is important, and there are some folks who may not be a very good fit at all personality wise.

However, there are things that I find very unappealing about this.  First, the "good fit" tends to look like everyone else and have a similar background to everyone else in the office.  So if you're a different race, ethnic group, or maybe if you're a little too blue collar or a little too foreign or a little too country or a little too urban, you're simply out of luck.

“A lot of times, cultural fit is used as an excuse” for feelings interviewers aren’t comfortable expressing, says Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resources and Management. “Maybe a hiring manager can’t picture himself having a beer with someone who has an accent. Sometimes, diversity candidates are shown the door for no other reason than that they made the interviewer a little less at ease.

I also think that this also can encourage some really terrible behavior.  One person in the article said she hired someone as a manager, and that "it created a lot of tension because he didn’t fit in. People tried to alienate him because they weren’t interested in him as a friend." You know, I get not gelling with the boss, I get not really cottoning on to a coworker or a supervisor or an employee.  But if people aren't going to show a supervisor the respect that is due their position, and if they are going to engage in mobbing behavior, they're the ones that need to be fired.  If a supervisor is going to be nasty to someone they don't like, or cut them out because they don't see them as a friend, they are unprofessional and a liability.

Here's the thing: I want to know that a new hire will act appropriately in the office, be professional, be courteous and respectful, and do their work.  I don't have to like them.  I've worked with and for people I didn't particularly like (and who didn't like me) but we were there to work, not hang out over beer.   I've also worked for people I liked but who were terrible managers.  That was just as awkward.

I am not against being friends with coworkers, or hanging out with them after work, or anything like that.  I am not against having a close-knit workplace (though when people start leaving, it's a morale killer).  But I think it's dangerous to expect that everyone should be down with that or that everyone has to be the same.  The first priority when you go to work is to, well, work.   Don't hire my new bestie forever, hire someone who can do the job and who is respectful and courteous.

What do you think?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday blogaround

We've got a nasty flu outbreak.  Boston declared a public health emergency, it's gotten so bad.  Donna has some tips about where you can find an affordable flu shot if funds are tight.  I urge you to get one if you can. The CDC has some other tips to help prevent catching the flu.

The Frugal Student Teacher had an idea about creating a zombie apocalypse pantry challenge.  So far, it's been a riot.

Jenn talks about the skills she learned in 2012, and the skills she'd like to learn in 2013.

Bryallen gets some found money.  I get weepy and nostalgic over Tesco's. Sniff.

Sometimes you do have to spend some money to get good quality. Unlike the Frugal Fairfielders, I'm fine with two-buck chuck wine, but I must caution you that I have the palate of a barbarian, so what do I know?  If the cheap wine doesn't taste good to you, it is definitely a waste of money to buy it.  If you're like me, you're not really going to be able to tell.  However, if I was going to make wine jellies, you bet I'll get the cheap stuff.

The same goes for cheap hotels.  Sometimes they are cheap because it's off season and/or they want to bring in new business.  Sometimes they are cheap because they are terrible, infested hovels. (Happy Anniversary, Holly and Greg!)

Frugal Living UK plans his garden.  And lo, his post reminds me that gardens should not be all vegetables, all the time.  Flowers are good to have, too.

Judy has some questions about regifting versus donating.  As long as the thing ends up with someone who will use it, it's all good. 

OK, everyone.  Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Food as a flashpoint

To many people, food becomes a battlefield.  Is it organic? Is it local? Is it vegan? If it's meat, is it grass-fed? Free range? Low fat? Low carb? Atkins? Paleo-diet?

To some people, food is medicine.  To others, it's a sign of someone's morality or health. It does seem to be quite a battlefield to some folks.

I am here to tell you: Food isn't a battlefield.  It should not be a battlefield.

To me, food is joy.  Food is a symbol of hospitality. Of friends and family gathering. Of sociability. I'm not going to complain if a guest is vegan or vegetarian, kosher or halal, or cannot physically digest things like wheat or dairy, or if they're diabetic and I need to be careful about carbs and sugar. I'll just serve them things they can eat and enjoy their company. (Just make sure I know about your food restrictions beforehand.)

Maybe it's because I didn't like anything as a kid--I'll pretty much try anything now (as long as it isn't a small bug.  A large sea roach, like lobster, is a-okay with me, though). I will not look down on pork rinds (I had them for the first time in Thailand of all places AND OH MY STARS THEY ARE DELICIOUS). I won't look down on vegetarian/vegan meals (look, we all need to eat our vegetables, and a lot of those dishes are quite tasty).  I will not look down on tofu (which, once I had it prepared properly, was delicious).  I will not look down on things like black-bean brownies, which actually have a rich and sweet flavor.

I also won't look down on anyone who won't eat certain things for whatever reason.  (Just don't look down on me for eating them.)  Kosher or halal? Cool.  MORE BACON FOR ME. (I did seriously ask for and got bacon for my birthday once when I was a kid.) Vegetarian or vegan? Fantastic! I can make vegetarian cassoulet or ratatouille.  Locavore? Hey, have I got some home-grown squash for you.

What is food to you?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My sewing trainwreck

So, my project has been. . .interesting.  In the off sense of the word.

First, it had been a while since I used my sewing machine (moving and working a lot will do that) and so I had to reacquaint myself with it.

Second, I am very bad at sewing straight lines.  Or, I should say, they are straight (they don't curve or anything like that), but they are more diagonal.  So a 1/4" hem goes from 1/4" to 1/8".

Third, in my last sewing class, I showed a talent for breaking needles.  I still don't know how I got that particular superpower.

Also? My thread got stuck in the bobbin housing and I couldn't get it out.  My sewing teacher was able to.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The uses of etiquette

 Granted, I know I get curmudgeonly about people romanticizing the past.  And with good reason.  However, there are things that I think were useful and good.  Etiquette was one of them.

I am not talking about WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON'T KNOW WHICH FORK IS THE FISH FORK YOU TRASHY PLEBE?  Etiquette can be--and often is used as--a way to assert dominance over someone and to bully people.  (One man held a door open for me and, after I thanked him, barked at me that PEOPLE DON'T APPRECIATE NICE GUYS LIKE ME, YOU SHOULD BE GRATEFUL THERE ARE STILL GENTLEMEN AROUND. Um. Um. Okay. I'm grateful the security guard at the desk there has taken note of your trainwreckiness, mister.)

Every country and culture (and time period) had different versions of etiquette, and they all made sense at the time--basically, it was supposed to make social interactions easy, cut down on awkwardness, and make it almost a ritual to take people's feelings into consideration.  It can get out of control--see the sniffing over fish forks--but the spirit of etiquette is basically to reflect the values of the day (see the Horrible Histories video to see some insights to ancient Rome) and to be considerate of other people.  Every era also had people who bemoaned the lack of manners and looked back with rose colored glasses at the past.  You will not see me doing that here.

But there were traditions that I think would be really useful if they came back with a modern twist.  The thing is, in our culture, we would side-eye them for encouraging drama.

Here's an example: the funeral wreath.  You'd put one on your door when a loved one died; I read that it often meant their body was laid out in the house (probably being waked for three days).  If someone did that today, no one would know what it was, and the few people who knew about it would probably think the person who hung it was being dramatic or didn't know what it was for.  But it had a very explicit purpose--it would broadcast a very clear statement to travelling salespeople and visitors that you were really not up for company.  That you were not going to be open to a sale, that you would likely not provide the most sparkling of social company.  It was a keep out sign to anyone wanting to do business and a "please be patient with me" sign to those who were going to socialize.  It was basically, fair warning.

Black bordered stationary served the same purpose.  The short, perhaps almost curt thank you note would be understood since, well, the black border served to remind the receiver that you just suffered a loss and you were not up to more than a few lines.

Thank you notes? Well, it lets the giver know that you got the gift.  Yes, if your Aunt Tootie sent you a check she'll know you got it once you cashed it, but it's nice to acknowledge before you cash it that yes, you got it, and yes, that was very nice of her to do that for you.  Some people get stroppy over email versus snail mail versus texting--well, technology changes the culture and the way we do things.  If the giver is your grandmother, send a hand written note.  Can't hurt.  But acknowledge it so they know you got it.

Letting someone know if you'll come to a party? Well, they'd like to plan how much food to get.  Sometimes I forget that I didn't RSVP (my apologies, friends!) so I'm not saying I'm any better than anyone else. But people want to know so they can plan how much food to get, how much wine to get, and depending on who's coming, what kind of food to get.

Opening doors? Well, if you've had a door slammed in your face, you know how awful that is.  But here's where I'm one of those unbearable modern women--I think whoever is closest to the door should hold it open for the person behind them (as long as they're just a couple of steps behind them), regardless of age or gender.  It's just nice.  If a man is a couple of steps behind me, I hold the door open for him.

There are some things that are expected in some places that are seen as weird or even rude in other places.  In some regions of the U.S., it's more common to chat up people you don't know than in other regions.  In some places, it's not actually a thing to say hello to people you do not know by sight.  Neither is bad objectively; what's annoying (and kind of rude) is casting judgement on people who grew up with one tradition that you didn't grow up with.  Culture is a varied thing to behold and experience.

Having said that? I will not be offended if you are full at my dinner parties.  Please do not make yourself vomit. And feel free to get up to use my bathroom.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

Well, 2012 is over. It was a good year .  I moved, went through seven shades of holy heck in my closing but have enjoyed living closer to the ocean.

I am trying to get my sewing skills up to par and I will continue with that this year.  Otherwise, I will keep my resolutions to things I know I will succeed at: sleep in on the weekends, hang out in my pajamas, drink lots of caffeine.  You get the drift.

Maybe it's my age and the age of my cohorts, but a lot of us were not really raring to go out and hit the party circuit on New Year's.  For whatever reason, it often is the one night where I'd rather stay in. However, I did go out last night, as my friends had a party and I hadn't seen them in several months.  It was a lot of fun, and it was good to see everyone.  There were some folks whom I haven't seen in (it seems) a dog's age.

Now that the long, cold months of January and February are upon us, I have to think about having a party to liven things up.  That's when I want to socialize, when there is no pressure.  Maybe I will have a "come in your sweat pants and fuzzy slippers" party or a "wear a funny hat party".  Or I'll have "bad seventies horror movie" day with showings of gems like Night of the Lepus.

I hope you are all doing well and that you had a safe but wildly exciting (or wonderfully lazy) New Year's Eve, and that your 2013 is filled with good things.