Thursday, December 22, 2011

SoCal Snowman

B12 appears to be key to my ability to get things done. I've been sluggish again, but after my B12 shot Tuesday (and 3 allergy shots and my final Hep-A booster wednesday - just call me pincushion girl) my energy levels have recovered a lot. I was productive at work, ran errands, went to the gym, ran more errands and ... built a snowman!

Snowman made of 3 Japanese paper lanterns

I had intended to make a globe snowman ala Emily Henderson on her Secrets from a Stylist holiday special. I was at Cost Plus World Market picking up a couple last minute gifts when I saw 3 globes, very small, that I could use to make an 18" high snowman for about $50. Then I noticed the paper lanterns and a lightbulb went off in my mind. I already had a very large and a rather small Regolit lantern from IKEA (probably $10 for both). For another $7 I picked up a medium sized lantern. I already had a 10' string of no-heat LED lights. The existing outdoor lights on a timer had one more plug location available so I set to work.

The hardest thing was finding the small lanterns that had slipped to the bottom of my hoarder pile in the patio closet rather than being in the box of electrical and lighting supplies. Putting it together required a pair of needlenose pliers to slightly bend the internal frames for better attaching the balls together, and the twist tie that came on the LED lights to secure the attachment points. And one tiny picture hook.

This could be put together more carefully, but I need to finish wrapping gifts and packing. Oh, and sleep. With more time, I would take more care with the connections and use white lights instead of multicolored, leaving none outside the snowman feature. Maybe put on a scarf or something. It would probably be less unwieldy to thread the lights thru the, well, lights with two people working on it, and probably take 10 minutes or less with everything laid out. But this is what I got done in about an hour (including the scavenger hunt) and I'm ridiculously proud of it. Happy Holidays, Enjoy!

Hanging lit up Snowman made of 3 Japanese paper lanterns, slightly lower view direction

Monday, December 19, 2011

il communication

First, Please can we put the crossbars back on capital i's? They aren't serifs, but structural to avoid confusion with a lower case L. My title should read "il communication" with capital I, but looks like "Two communication" that way, so I had to uncapitalize a name. It makes me want to cry.

But not to cry as hard as the Kim Jon-Il mourners I heard on NPR. Two seconds of that and I was wondering if they'd hired paid mourners. That was some over the top wailing. Or perhaps, it's unseemly to be seen dry-eyed there today, and it's a political necessity / safe practice to out weep your neighbors. Possibly, their culture of grieving is much different than what I'm used to, making the tears seem crocodillian. Now who fills the power vacuum? And how soon until they provoke a war?

Well, I need to do laundry, grout some kitchen tile, clear out some bulk on the DVR, and want to read a new Lorelai James novel (extra, extra spicy she is). How well can I multitask?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Serve Myself

The last post had the unintended consequence of my getting a Christmas present of "Serve Yourself", a cookbook for one. I'm really excited to try it, but tonight, I'm going with tried and true, which is to say, pizza.

Homemade pizza got a lot easier once I realized you can make it on nearly any bread. I like making bread, but pizza dough has always been unnecessarily time consuming and complicated for my tastes. Not worth the effort. I've tried other things, cooked and fresh. My mom used to do little pizzalike things on english muffins. While great for little kids it felt like cheating, and not big enough for toppings. Plus, I rarely keep them on hand. I went to a funky little bar and restaurant in Corning NY that served lunch pizzas on a tortilla. This was game changing for me. I prefer a thin crust with many toppings and to realize I could just throw down some stuff on a tortilla (I keep a stash in the freezer, often) meant I could have pizza anytime.

But what to throw down?
I keep a stash of shredded cheese in the freezer, (Usually mozarella, sharp cheddar, Trader Joe's parmesan, and sometimes crumbled feta or a round of goat cheese) so that's taken care of.
I usually have some form of tomato sauce, or pesto, for the base.
Options: Spaghetti sauce (the meatless ones last a very long time in the fridge) or a little tomato paste to which I add stuff if available: Bruschetta spread, or an olive tapenade (more TJs), chopped sundried tomatoes, a spoon of pesto or fresh basil. Any or all of these things will jazz up the sauce.

The top can be anything. I love me a good sausage-mushroom-pine_nut- artichoke pizza, but can also go to town with blanched broccoli, olives, avocado, or ham or bacon (the pre-cooked bacon works great), banana peppers, or whatever happens to be fresh from the farmer's market or in my fridge or freezer. I've been known to top it with a chiffonade of basil or arugula (especially an avocado pizza) after it's removed from the oven. The one I'm finishing now had minced chili pepper from my neighbor, mixed in with sundried tomatoes, olive tapenade and Prego. I topped it with my last two slices of ham and Jarlsberg, which I'd rolled up and cut into wheels, then some mushrooms, because most food is better with mushrooms, IMHO. I topped with 3 more cheeses, and baked it.

Baking temperature is another key. It's almost impossible to bake a pizza at too hot a temperature. I used a 475F oven tonight and it wasn't quite enough given that I cooked it on a thin Al baking sheet. I don't bother with a pizza stone figuring it'll take too long to pre-heat, and I like my cookie sheet pizza sufficiently well. A 500+ pizza oven will cook pretty fast, so watch for it and use protective hot pads and things, but see how much better it is when the temp is cranked up.

I'd show you a picture of my pizza, but it's almost all gone now. Urp.

Because I was also messing around with baking a pumpkin and roasting pumpkin seeds tonight, which killed time between the steps, I made my own dough. I make it up as I go along because, as I said, most bread like substances will work. Tonight I used a couple small scoops (coffee scoop sized) of semolina flour, half a tablespoon of yeast, a splash of water, and enough warm water to make a paste. I let this sit, covered for a few minutes, then mix in in a dash of salt, and bit of sugar and a drizzle of oil and regular flour until it's not sticky. (For some reason, most pizza dough recipes use oil, so I went with it.)

Rising. This is where most pizza dough recipes go off the rails for me. I'm too impatient for my dinner to wait up to 1.5 hours to raise dough. My cooking class even suggests resting the dough for 24 hours or more to get it really stretchy. That would be fine if I made a bunch and stashed it in the freezer, but I was working from a clean bowl here. This month's Cook's Illustrated had a hint for proofing/rising dough in a warm damp place: put the dough bowl in the oven over another dish; pour 3c boiling water into the dish and shut the oven. Well, I had a giant pumpkin headed for my preheated oven, so I improvised. I had a little metal bowl with my dough in it. In the manner of a double boiler, I picked out another bowl that would serve as a base, and poured less than a cup of boiling water into it and covered it with a silicone lid for a while. When the lid gathered up some condensation, I moved the lid to the dough pan, blew across the hot water and made sure it had cooled to a touchable temp, then stuck my covered dough bowl over it. With the breadmaker yeast (couldn't find any other kind in a jar), and this warm environment, my bread raised nearly double in 20 minutes. So roughly 40 minutes after walking in the door, and one hacked up pumpkin later, I was ready to make my pizza. Roughly a half cup of flour(s) gives enough for a thin crust pizza for 1-2 people.

Honestly, I started using the semolina flour when I bought some for another baking experiment, then didn't have masa for a flatbread recipe in "Big Small Plates" that I'd had fun with. That recipe is:
1 c flour
1/2 c masa harina (or semolina...)
1/2 t ground spice (toasted cumin or caraway or...)
1/2 t salt
1/2 t finely ground black pepper
1/2 c + ~2T water, as needed

Mix all the dry ingredients. Start working in the water until dough is moist but not sticky. Let it rest, covered, for 30 minutes. (This relaxes the flour so you can roll it out.) Divide the dough into 8 pieces, and roll out each like a tortilla on a floured surface until quite thin. At 475 F, Bake 1 or 2 at a time for 60-90 seconds on a baking stone, or if using a baking sheet, 2 minutes then flip and cook another 1 minute until they're all made. At this point you can use them for anything, including little pizzas cooked also at 425 for 3-5 minutes.

This recipe was the inspiration for my dough - I top my dough raw, although I'm thinking the center would be better if I precooked it a tad or cooked it hotter or on a stone. I figured adding a little yeast wouldn't hurt things, and if I didn't want to wait for it to fully rise, I'd have a flatbread thincrust pizza and be perfectly happy. And I am perfectly happy with how tonight's pizza turned out.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Three Cheers for Microwave for One

There's an internet fascination this week with "Microwave for One", but I've been giving it some thought, and have wound up being really annoyed by how it is being portrayed.  First, the cover:
S. Allison with puffy curly hair leaning on an old school microwave
Stylistically, there's a lot of mocking potential.  I get where this is coming from. With the image quality and the hard to miss hair and plaid shirt, It's really hard to see if she has a lovely smile or not.  The microwave is seriously Old School.  The production values look a little on the slim side compared to these days where anyone can self publish and make something that looks 10 times the quality. 

The problem is, the derision goes deeper than the surface of a not-quite-hip 80's look and not so subtly reinforces the notion that adult women who don't have a man are sad, pathetic creatures to be pitied. Some non-trivial listmaking group even listed it as "the worst/saddest book of all time".  Which might have been ok had they actually acquired and read a copy, but they admit they did not.  All they had was the poor quality image and snarky Amazon reviews to go by.

But this book is from 1987, people, and that attitude was horseshit then and it's deeper, stinkier horseshit now.  I haven't read the book either, but if real publishers can make horseshit assumptions about an old book and, worse, mock the author, I can make the opposite assumptions with as much validity and give her some props.

I'm here to stand up and cheer for Sonia Allison.  "Microwave for One" was probably one of the (if not the) first cookbooks aimed at Independent Women With Jobs who were Comfortable With New Technology.  How cool is that?  (Very, in case you were tempted to answer wrongly.)  Back in 1987, women were finally getting into the business world in significant numbers.  Women were getting divorces to get out of awful marriages that they'd have stayed in even a decade earlier.  Women had the option of being less defined by their husband, husband's career, and their children and being defined by what they could do for the world at large, if that's how they wanted to work it. Not to diminish the choice of being a mom and housewife, it's just not everyone's bailiwick and for the first time, large numbers of women could realistically choose to either not be a mom, or put off being a mom and find herself first, and not be considered a total freak.   (Then again, maybe I spoke too soon, because here it is 2011, and people still think an independent woman is a lonely freak.  Hence this blog post.)

But even single women setting the world on fire gotta eat and almost every cookbook in the world is geared toward feeding 4-6 people per recipe or meal.  I know, I've tried to find books just like MFO, and they are not thick on the ground. For an independent young woman, probably living in a tiny city apartment, a 4 course meal for 4 is a waste of time and money.  Few people want the same thing for dinner Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, if  they had the wherewithal to even make a full meal after work on Monday.  If there isn't a cookbook out there, you have to make everything up on your own, and I can tell you from experience that it's a hassle and takes a lot of time and energy to figure out.

(sidebar: The microwave would be handy for reheating dinner 3 times, I suppose. Even today, most people reheat with their microwave rather than cook.  It's another example of a revolutionary advance that everyone can see should be awesome, but we only use it to about 10% of its potential.)

Ms. Allison saw the potential in microwaves and in a growing audience.  Who better than an independent woman with a small place and lots of demands on her time to use a time and space saving kitchen appliance to craft a nifty meal for herself.   If you're going to set the world on fire, you need proper nutrition, and Ms. Allison was there to help you out.

Maybe this touched a nerve because I've been thinking I could write a great cookbook on how to cook for one.  I cook for one because I live independently, not because I'm lonely; I'm betting Ms. Allison was the same.  She put her book out there because she had good ideas for healthy, timesaving meals that young women and men, or the recently divorced could use to chart a course that hadn't been charted before.  The derision behind the mocking is frightening with its persistence and intensity into this day and age. Can't we move past the notion that single women are lonely old spinsters who need to be pitied?  I kind of don't want to think about how much kinder people would have been if her image showed a more classic beauty, either. Pretty please, with sugar on top, let's grow the hell up!  Instead of mocking someone who is probably a lovely woman, if not a beautiful one, let's celebrate the accomplishment of a talented, motivated woman who embraced new technology, figured it out, translated the old patterns into new, and gave the world of independent working women something they/we could use.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

I'm edging up on 40 pretty quickly, and it occurred to me that while my mom has been cooking gourmet meals since she was a teenager, I usually cook for one and don't really know any of the classic family recipes and am not adept at cooking for any sized group. At grandma's house for thanksgiving, I tried to remedy that. It helped that grandma was sidelined by arterial blockage - significantly remediated by the first stent as of this Tuesday. My mom and I cooked the dinner.

I still don't know for sure what she puts in the mashed potatoes. It's a butter and milk mix of some sort. The turkey is easy-ish. Thaw it in a tub of water, clean out the cavity and double check it- this one had a bag of gibblets, a bag with the neck in it on the other end, AND a bag of gravy helper. Next year, it might come with free wi-fi. Put it in a floured baking bag after dumping garlic salt and pepper on it, tie closed, and bake per directions on the turkey wrapper. We stuffed celery and onions in on the bottom this year, and that added good flavors so I recommend that too. This method makes a solid B to B+ turkey. If you want an A to A+ turkey, brine, smoke, fry, or magic your bird however you like, but if you want easy and forgiving, garlic salt and baking bag.

I made the cranberry relish. Having made it almost annually since college, it went smoothly, if sloppily. Sloppy because we used a manual grinder that dripped juice all over (we caught it and it was delicious). The grinder gives the relish a really delightful texture I prefer to a food-processed version, but it's really the taste of the cranberry-orange-celery-pecan mix bound in orange jell-o that's the star. For a really close flavor analog, get the Trader Joe's Cranberry Orange Relish and mince up some celery and pecans to mix into it. Or just eat it plain. Or over ice cream. It cost's more but it's easier and delicious.

Which rather leaves the stuffing. My mom makes GREAT stuffing. If you've eaten it and somehow thought it was vegetarian, you should stop reading now. If you've eaten it and want to know the general gist of how it's done, here 'tis, after the jump.