How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

From the Dark Side of the Fridge – Planning Your Valentine’s Dinner

I’m all about getting dinner on the table quickly and without fuss or muss. So you’d think my idea of a nice Valentine’s Day dinner would be to go out, and indeed that is just my idea of a nice Valentine’s Day dinner. However, if I’m going to do something nice for The Beloved Spouse, it won’t be to take him out for dinner. It’s not that he doesn’t like going out to restaurants. He just really likes my cooking, drat him. It’s a case of what Peg Bracken wrote in the “I Hate to Cook Book,” about your basic husband. “He’s not going to want to take you out for enchiladas if he knows he can get good enchiladas at home.”

Note – the above quote was written in 1960 or so, when women were expected to be the primary cooks in the household and going out was a very special occasion. It still holds up no matter the gender or marital status of the primary cook and primary eater in a given household. And, alas for me, the primary eater in my household knows he can get good enchiladas here. It’s become the running joke whenever I make something particularly good, meaning he has one less reason to take me out, which I’d generally rather do. As much as I love good food, cooking it is not my favorite thing to do.

DinnerPlatesWine

A nice romantic dinner of something not fish or steak

But pleasing The Beloved Spouse is a preferred activity and fortunately for me, there are a number of great classic dishes that are insanely easy to do. It makes sense. The best food is all about playing up the basic elements, not smothering them under a host of spices, herbs and other ingredients. Take sole, or fish, meuniere. If you remember the film Julie and Julia, the scene where Merrill Streep as Julia Child is in tears of ecstasy while eating a fish being fried at the table. Sole meuniere is the dish and it takes no time and almost no effort to make.

You take a filet of a white fish – tilapia works great here, or even real sole, you dredge it in flour, salt and pepper, then sauté it over medium high heat in melted butter until the flour is golden brown, then serve right away alongside some steamed vegetables and a salad. You can add a lemon slice if you want to get really fancy, but I don’t. Make your salad before you start the fish, then prep the veggies for the microwave and press the start button about the same time you start cooking the fish. No sauce, no nothing, just a light, tasty fish and a couple tablespoons of butter, which if you consider the rest of the menu, isn’t going to add that much to your waistline. Besides, this is a special occasion dinner.

Or one of my personal faves, steak, salade, frites. Or steak, salad and fries. This is a bistro classic that is wonderfully delicious, even though I generally substitute oven-fries for the classic French fry. You don’t even need sauce, although I do like to chop up the leaves off a couple stems of tarragon and mix it with a generous spoonful or so of mayonnaise while the oven is heating for the potatoes. Crank your oven on to about 475 degrees. Cut a potato – or two if they’re small – into wedges about 1-inch wide. Plop those on a cookie sheet, dribble  just about a large spoonful of oil over it all (not olive because that doesn’t handle the high heat well), shake some salt and pepper over everything, and mix it all up until the potatoes are completely covered with oil. Then spread them out on the pan and put in the oven for about 10 minutes. Make your salad – just lettuce, some radishes, oil and a splash of vinegar with salt and pepper. After 10 minutes are up, turn the potatoes over, then put them back in the oven for around 10 minutes or until they’re cooked through.

Then get good, thin-cut rib-eye or New York steaks – boneless. You can buy a thick-cut one and cut it in half horizontally, but that’s a bit more work. After the potatoes have been turned, take your heaviest fry pan, put it over high heat and let it get hot. Sprinkle a pinch or two of salt over the surface of the pan, and lay in your steaks. Take a deep breath, kiss your sweetie, and turn the steaks, two kisses if you like them more done. Grind some pepper over the cooked side, flip the meat again, then once more and dinner is served. If you didn’t do the tarragon mayonnaise above, you can sprinkle some crumble blue cheese over your steaks. Or not.

Pick a nice chardonnay for your fish or your favorite red for the steaks, light the candles and you’ve got easy-ish romance. Or you can go out to eat.

 

Essays, general essay

Stray Thoughts – Media Literacy and The Measles Outbreak

Think media literacy is a snooze as a topic? I know most of you do. Last year, I couldn’t get anyone to nibble, bite or even yawn. But if you know some kid who has the measles right now, a lack of media literacy is probably why that kid got sick.

Why? Because the hysteria over vaccines is being fueled by a lot of bad information based on what people want to believe about certain big bad guys, never mind that the science behind the issue pretty much doesn’t hold up. In short, a lot of folks preferred to believe actress Jenny McCarthy rather than a host of scientists and doctors that has repeatedly pointed out that the measles vaccines save lives, over a million a year, globally, according to the Wikipedia article on measles I read (you do have to scroll down to the photo of the guy who invented the vaccine to find the citation, but it is footnoted).

Photo courtesy The Centers for Disease Control

Photo courtesy The Centers for Disease Control

But this isn’t about stats and whether Big-Pharma doesn’t care about our children or whatever. It’s about the damage that can be done when a rumor gets going fueled by bad science and suspicion of large institutions. In this case, parents noted a coincidence – their kids were exhibiting signs of autism shortly after receiving their measles vaccination. It was happening often enough that doctors did, in fact, start investigating.

According to several of the sites I looked at there were two scientists Dr. Mark Geier and his son Davd Geier who did several studies that did show a link between the vaccines and autism. Problem was, and this was repeated over and over in the articles I read, the studies were faulty. They used bad data, didn’t interpret it correctly, in short, it wasn’t good science. Hey, these things happen. But worried, distraught parents began to panic and then an attractive actress gets on a major TV show and, boom, it’s been proven that vaccines cause autism.

Yet, just because something says it’s a scientific study, doesn’t mean it was done all that appropriately, that people didn’t make mistakes, that it was even scientific in the first place. And unfortunately, there is good reason to be at least moderately suspicious when it looks like something is going to benefit the person or institution touting it.

Finally, there is something called confirmation bias that we all fall prey to – we tend to believe news that supports what we already believe or want to believe. For example, if I read a study that “proves” eating donuts will make me skinny, never mind how many pounds I’ve gained eating donuts, I’m going to wave that study like a flag and keep on eating donuts, never mind the tons of evidence that says otherwise.

Parent devastated by a diagnosis of autism want to believe in a bad guy and, hey, Big Pharma – the companies that have already shown a tendency to prefer profit over their customers’ well-being – makes a perfect target. And if the scientific community says there’s a problem with that belief, then it’s because they’re conspiring with the bad guys. It’s all too easy to believe that and decide not to vaccinate your kids. And now we’re dealing with outbreaks of a potentially deadly disease that is entirely preventable.

Fortunately, we haven’t lost any kids. Yet. But with 600 cases reported last year, and over a 100 just this past month, it’s entirely probable we will. About .01 percent probable. That doesn’t have to happen. But it’s going to take a lot more rational adults learning how to interpret the information they get from TV, from blogs, from whatever in a way that appropriately separates the nonsense from the facts. It takes media literacy and 100-plus sick kids is why you should care about it.

I’m participating in a LinkUp/blog hop, with the below fine blogs – please check them out:

http://morselsoflife.com/

http://www.simplelifeofafirewife.com/

http://www.ourtableforseven.com/

http://mycurrentnewsblog.com/

http://www.justanothermom.net/

http://www.beingfibromom.com/

 

The Sewing Report – Not Quite in Stitches

20140830202938257I have always wanted to write about sewing mostly because it has always been one of my passions. I love looking at patterns and fabric and trying to imagine how this style would work with that print or whatever. But I’ve always faced one major obstacle – I’m actually not a very good seamstress. My topstitching is routinely crooked. Corners bulge and facings are in continual rebellion as opposed to laying flat, I don’t care how carefully I understitch and iron.

But inasmuch as my lack of skill has never stopped me from  tackling projects I probably had no business taking on, there’s no reason it should stop me from blogging about it, either. So consider this blog more of a cautionary tale – a lesson in what not to do.

Like me assuming that just because I see a picture, I can recreate the garment. In this case, I saw a jacket in a drawing from Art In Dress (1922) by P. Clement Brown. The version I saw is copyrighted, so I can’t show it here. Also, there’s a nasty racial stereotype in the picture that’s a sad reminder that it wasn’t all that long ago that such images were considered acceptable. We are making progress. Really.

The jacket is a loose, flowing one, with a contrast lining and collar. What makes it especially cool is that the contrast also forms a shawl down the front, and the pocket, also of the contrast fabric, folds back over the shawl and is attached to the front. The skirt in the drawing is shown as your basic plaid walking skirt.

Except that I really didn’t want another skirt. I have tons of them and don’t wear them that often. But I also had this gorgeous white, black and gold plaid somewhat loosely woven with nubby yarns, and a tighter woven black with gold and white horizontal stripes. And I had a lot of the plaid. So I decided to make a skirt, too, and use the mainly black piece as the main body of the jacket. Only I’d have to cut it crosswise because horizontal stripes do not make a Margaret Dumont body look good.20140831095820125

Now, keep in mind, I write a murder mystery series set in the 1920s. So I get the clothing. I just didn’t start collecting patterns and the like until I grew the aforesaid Margaret Dumont body. So the straight lines of the era aren’t just interesting to me from a historical standpoint. They look good on me. Which is why I found another skirt that I liked better than the one in the book. Again – copyrighted drawing and I don’t want to compound the sin because I didn’t buy the pattern. I just drafted one based on what I saw. The skirt has a front flap that forms an oversized pocket, and while I couldn’t see how the original design was put together, it wasn’t too hard to figure out.

Funny thing was, I decided to make a trial version of the above outfit out of some green printed corduroy that I’ve had hanging around for-freaking-ever. Plus I had yards of a lavender mystery blend with embroidered jacquard that was lightweight enough to make a lining. I mean, I’m more or less adapting a basic jacket pattern, I’d better try it out before cutting into the good stuff.

Well, it really wasn’t that hard. I made the skirt front in three pieces – the top, cut long enough to form the pocket; the bottom, which had a button tab along the center and was drafted significantly wider than the top to create the gapping side pockets; and a facing for the bottom that was as wide as the bottom, but long enough to form the pocket bag with the top piece. I gathered that piece onto the front and voila – gapping side pockets!20140831095917559

The jacket was crazy-making, but still straight forward, except for those wrap around pockets. I finally decided to hand-sew those onto the jacket. Big mistake. They tore off almost immediately. Argh. Now I have to re-sew them back on.

The finished product is in the photo below. That’s Bertha, my dressmaker’s dummy. She’s also above in the header image. And I liked the result so much, I did something else with the plaid.

The final result on Bertha

The final result on Bertha

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

From The Dark Side of the Fridge – Tacos, Gringo-Style

Please do not look for any recipes here. I don’t generally use them. The point of this little blog is to share process – because you can get dinner on the table a lot faster if you don’t follow recipes. And I’m all about the fast, healthy(ish), cheap and it had better be tasty.

Man, I was exhausted when I got home last Thursday from a day of errands and chasing dollars. The Beloved Spouse wasn’t feeling much perkier, either. A lack of funding and an attempt to eat healthier ruled out dialing for dinner. And the pound of ground beef we had was frozen solid, too. So what to do?

The gringo-style of tacos dorados that my mom served me when I was a kid. Some of my Latina friends serve these with the ground beef fried in the taco shell. We always just sauteed the beef separately and just called them tacos. It actually comes together pretty quickly. The one downside is the clean up factor – it does make a mess.

I popped the frozen block of ground beef into the nuke-o-matic and used the defrost setting for the whole one-pound. I don’t like defrosting my meat all the way this way because you usually get cooked bits and that’s not tasty. But since my microwave defrosts things in stages, I let it go for the first round or so, then started pulling off thawed meat and putting it in the frying pan. I also put the remaining frozen block in the pan and got it all going over medium low heat.

I know, I know – you’re not supposed to cook meat that’s still frozen. It steams it and/or dries it out, depending on who you’re reading. Well, pshaw, pshaw. When dinner needs to get onto the table, I’m not waiting for things to thaw out slowly or in the nuker. I push the thawed bits to one side of the frying pan, center the part of the pan with the frozen meat over the flame and scrape off the browned bits, then flip the frozen piece, breaking it up where I can. And that’s what I did this time, using the times the frozen meat was cooking to chop the bejeebers out of an onion. Note to Self – do up video of how to chop an onion for this blog.

The magic of a rib rack for draining taco shells

The magic of a rib rack for draining taco shells

Once the meat was mostly thawed and partly browned, I added the onion and about a tablespoon full of ground cumin and a quarter to half teaspoon of cayenne. Second Note to Self – do up video of how to measure into your hand. Got all that stirred up and put on low heat to cook through and stay warm. The Beloved Spouse chopped up some lettuce, pulled the shredded cheese from the freezer, sliced some black olives and dished out some light sour cream. We also usually do up some tomatoes, but this time of year, there aren’t any good ones to be had. These all went into little dishes. See what I meant about the mess?

But that’s only the beginning of the mess. Now, I did use the nuker to thaw my tortillas since these are very handy to buy in bulk and keep in the freezer. Dried them off with a bit of paper towel that I later re-used to drain the oil. We have a small rack that makes draining taco shells really easy – it’s actually a rack you use in small BBQs to hold ribs. I put that on a cookie sheet, paper towels underneath, and get the small fry pan ready with a couple tablespoons of oil. Basically, you want to be able to cover the tortilla. IMG_20150108_185539080

Once the oil is hot, slide the tortilla into the oil, let it soak just a nano-second, then pull it out and flip it. Give it another nano-second or two, then fold one edge over to make a half-moon shape. Flip again, then pull the shell out of the oil and drain on paper, a lint-free towel or a rack. Depending on how many of these you’re doing (we did seven for the two of us), alert everyone that dinner is two to five minutes out and see to it that someone has set the table. Or you can before you start the tortillas. We put about a third of the meat in a bowl, reserving the rest for a taco salad at some later date (boy, will that make that dinner easier), then put spoons in all the fixings so we could stuff our tacos to our respective preferences. Dinner landed on the table in just a little under 30 minutes, and that included time to take the photos.

And then we collapsed. The mess waited.

Essays, general essay

Stray Thoughts – On Being Grateful

I’m participating in a Gratitude Circle via EveryDayGyaan.com – and actually couldn’t think of a better way to start this more personal blog that I’m doing. 

ClydeInRepose

Clyde – our remaining dog – is still kicking and making us laugh

I’ve been doing a daily spiritual journal for a couple years now – not because I’m holy, but because I’m so not – and part of that has been a quick list of things I’m grateful for.

But over the past year, I’ve noticed something odd about my little gratitude list. It’s as likely to contain the things (and, okay, people) that are driving me nuts as it is all the good stuff. I started the list to remind myself of all the good things going on in my life. So why did all this icky stuff start showing up?

I, at first, suspected it was a way of trying to re-frame the negative. A way of coping with all the aggravating things my beloved spouse was doing, with the aging dog who was no longer housebroken, the sibling who treated me like crap and the check that refused to show up when I wanted it. And to a degree, it is a way of doing that.

But it’s also about finding the blessings in those things that don’t seem much like blessings. My mother’s poor health kicked up last fall right as I was getting ready for a presentation at a conference. I’m not at all happy about my mother’s suffering, but I have to concede that it took my mind off the presentation just enough that I didn’t worry about it and I probably gave a better presentation as a result.

At the very least, reminding myself to be grateful for those of my family who are making me crazy reminds me that I do love them, even if I’m not all that wild about their behavior at the moment.

Yes, I'm grateful Dorothy Parker kitty likes hanging around on my desk and knocking stuff off.

Yes, I’m grateful Dorothy Parker kitty likes hanging around on my desk and knocking stuff off.

This has been a year of loss for me, losing the one dog, losing an identity and the blog that went with it. But the blessing has been that I’ve been more or less forced to re-direct my energies toward my first love: writing fiction. Better yet, the current climate in the publishing biz makes it not only possible, but desirable for me to take full ownership of my work, along with the responsibility to get it out there.

So, yes, I have a great deal to be thankful for, even if at first look, it doesn’t seem that way.