Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Bottom of the Barrel

In an attempt to save money, I have vowed to not buy new groceries until I have used up the old. I also want to get rid of all meat in my fridge so I can embark more firmly on vegetarian pursuits. This first meant eating a lot of turkey bacon sandwiches. (I only eat pig bacon if it is prepared for me at restaurants or a friend's house and there is no turkey alternative.) And now, I have used up the last of the chicken breasts.

I bought this bag of frozen chicken breasts a few months ago after I first moved in, which I think goes to show how little I eat meat even without consciously cutting it out of my diet. I used it to make chicken tikka masala and probably some other things that I can't recall. (The chicken tikka masala was delicious! I bought a jar of masala sauce from Trader Joe's, so don't think I'm so skilled yet as to make it myself. That comes later.)

There are a lot of odds and ends in my cupboards right now. Half a serving of couscous, some brown minute rice (I hate brown rice, but I'm trying to eat it since it's allegedly healthier than white), a can of tuna, some pasta... There was a box of Tuna Helper that I discovered has zero nutritional value, so I added peas to it in an attempt to add some fiber. I also learned that after dining on dishes like couscous and fresh vegetables, something like Tuna Helper is pretty disgusting and unsatisfying. But it fed me for two days, and it was free from my mother, so I can't complain. I just won't ever buy it in the future.

There was also a can of cream of chicken and mushroom soup. A light bulb went on over my head as I was taking stock of my dwindling, well, stock, and I decided to thaw the remaining three chicken breasts in the fridge and bake them with the can of cream of chicken and mushroom soup, then pour the whole thing over brown rice. (It helps if I mix something like a sauce into the brown rice. Then it doesn't taste quite so awful.) I didn't realize it would take two plus days to thaw chicken in my fridge. What the heck!? So I ended up baking it only half-thawed, and I am glad I made the effort to de-ice the chicken. It turned out more tender than it has in the past when I baked it frozen. It also took less time to cook.

My next dinner project may simply be pasta with Parmesan and a side of vegetables. I need to do something with that couscous, as well, but I'm not quite sure what. I do have a decent selection of spices I can throw at it, and perhaps mix in some broccoli. It sounds a little bland, but when one is scraping the bottom of the barrel, one has few choices. (Hence the Tuna Helper.)

I ate the last of my instant oatmeal packets a few days ago, and the last of my cereal yesterday. So today for breakfast, I fried an egg, sprinkled cheese on top, and put it on a slice of artisan bread. Pretty tasty and very satisfying. When I have more time, I will have to make pancakes. I have two boxes of pancake mix, pumpkin and whole wheat. I was thinking I could also use the pumpkin mix to make something like a pumpkin sugar cookie, but I have yet to work out the recipe. I've probably eaten enough cookies this month to last me the entire winter, between treats at work and home baking projects, but I am really curious about the prospect of pumpkin sugar cookies. They sound tasty!

Monday, December 27, 2010


My latest kitchen dilemma has nothing to do with food. I have ants! At first, I walked in one morning to find literally a pile of hundreds of dead ants in the corner on the floor. I have no idea what killed them, but I assume the apartment complex sprayed for bugs at some point, and that's what did them in. I swept them up, checking for survivors (there were two), and dumped them in the trash, making a mental note to keep an eye on this corner.

The next night, there hundreds more, some dead, but most of them forming a raid on my cat's food dish! They were all over the dried food and working together to carry off little bits that Memphis had left behind on the floor. (He isn't a messy eater, but he isn't perfect.) Admittedly, it was a little funny to watch these tiny creatures heave-hoing the kibble back to their next when it obviously wasn't going to fit through the tiny crack in the wall through which they were pouring. However, I was also appalled. My poor kitty! If they were so hellbent on his food, how soon would they move on to mine?

I sprayed the bulk of the ants (away from Memphis' food dish) with some multi-purpose cleaner that is made with cedarwood and sage, which they didn't seem to like as most of them died and the rest fled in a panic. I posted about the ants on my Facebook, and got some interesting advice from friends that I mostly put into use.

One woman suggested that I sprinkle the area with baking soda. She said that it gets on their fur and when they go back to their nest and try to clean it off, they kill themselves. Yes, we both admit it's pretty morbid, but since I had baking soda on hand, I gave it a try. I don't know if they killed themselves with it, but they certainly didn't seem to like it, either, when they once again marched out from their little crack.

Another friend related that he once heard ants don't like toothpaste, and since I also generally have toothpaste in my cupboard, I put a tiny bit on the end of a butter knife and tried to seal the crack with it. The ants most definitely did not like that! They stopped pouring in, and for a day I only saw a few adventurers. Seriously, these things have grit. I have much respect for my tiny enemy. (I assume, after all, that when the ground started to freeze, they had the tiny foresight to move their colony indoors. Clever, but not going to work, fellas. Not if I have any say in the matter.)

I had another suggestion that I put down a dryer sheet, which I would have tried had I owned any. The only thing close that I have is a sac of lavender, which I don't think is going to do much given that lavender is found in nature where ants also live.

All of these tricks seemed to be doing a decent job, but I suspect in the end I was only killing off the weak and making the colony stronger because new ants kept coming, marching over the bodies of their fallen comrades. (Cat food must be tastier than I thought!) So I called in maintenance. I was concerned about chemical sprays because I don't want Memphis (or myself) getting poisoned. The first guy to come caulked up the area in hopes of sealing their way in. (This ended up doing nothing.) The second guy, the bug expert, brought “traps” into which he squirted a clear gel that he told me contains pheromones to attract the ants. (He used the “traps” so that Memphis couldn't get it on his paws.) The ants eat it, become poisoned, go back to their nest where they die and are eaten by their fellows, poisoning them in turn and on down the line until, hopefully, the colony is wiped out.

The ants certainly seem to be going nuts for this gel. They've actually pushed up a corner of the linoleum to get at it! Apparently that was easier than pushing through the caulk, which is what they were doing at first. I feel bad taking out an entire colony of ants – I try not to step on ants on the sidewalk, or any living creature, for that matter – but I simply cannot share my kitchen with them, the cheeky moochers. They should have done what ants normally do in winter, though admittedly, what that is, I am not entirely sure. I'll have to look it up online later when I have more time.

There are other bugs in my kitchen that I noticed soon after moving in. I looked up pictures of roaches, and these bugs don't really resemble them. They do scurry like roaches, so it's possible that they are a breed I simply can't identify. I've seen a big one in my kitchen and a smaller one in my bathroom. They like to hang out in the cupboards and on the ceiling. (Memphis climbed up on the refrigerator once to attack the one on the ceiling.) I only ever see one at a time, but I assume there are more somewhere. I need to take a picture of it so I can take it to the landlord.

I've never had problems like this with an apartment before, but this is also the first cold winter (California winters are not what I'd call cold) that I have rented an apartment, and bugs do move to where its warm when the weather turns cold. I don't begrudge them this natural instinct, but I do feel a need to defend my food – and my cat's food – from them. I prefer natural substances, like baking soda, toothpaste, and cedarwood oil, but I guess the little pheromone gel isn't too awful since the ants eat it, thereby disposing of it (along with themselves). If I were ever to buy a home and attempt to guard against insect intruders, I would definitely look into orange oil. I don't know if they have that in Michigan, but I always saw ads for it on TV in California.

Well, hopefully we'll be back to more pleasant topics next time. And I'll be sure to keep everyone posted on the War on Ants.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Variations on an Old Theme

I've never been very good at making grilled cheese sandwiches. I don't know what it is about them, I just find them to be a bother. Could the bread be too thick? Or is it that the tomato I like to add gets too slimy and won't adhere to the melted cheese? Whatever the reason, it was quite the revelation a few years ago when my brother showed me how to make a quesadilla. My technique was further refined later by the Trader Joe's of Daly City's demo station where I learned it was much easier to spread half the tortilla with cheese and salsa and fold it in half than to use two tortillas and worry about one sliding off during the flipping process.

Even better, a former roommate who is half-Mexican introduced me to the burrito. She showed me how to fold them (which took a good deal of practice) and then crisp them in a frying pan so that they wouldn't fall apart and the cheese would be all melted and gooey. (This process helped me appreciate the crispy goodness of cheese that has melted out of its carby confines and fried itself on the pan. Tomatoes are also pretty tasty this way, and I am tempted to one day just sautée some cheddar and diced tomatoes. I think it'd be yummy.)

What I now make for a healthy and filling quickie meal is a culmination of all of the above. First I take a whole wheat tortilla and spread fat-free refried beans in the center, spoon on some salsa, then sprinkle on the cheese. I know that it's easier to fold a tortilla once it has been heated briefly in a microwave (don't have one), oven (takes too long to heat up), or a pre-warmed frying pan (which I usually have going on medium for the crisping process anyway), but I have never actually done this unless I was thawing the tortilla prior to building the burrito or quesadilla.

I try to keep the ingredients as centrally located on the tortilla as possible so that I can fold in two sides, then fold the other sides over so everything is tucked in and compact. After it's all snuggled together and doesn't look too badly that it's going to fall apart, I gently place the burrito into the frying pan that has been lightly spritzed with cooking spray, folded side down. This will keep it from coming open while it's being warmed (and gooey) on the inside. Once the underside is slightly browned and not going to come open, I flip it over and brown the other side. After a few more minutes voila! Tasty food! If I have sour cream on hand, which isn't often, I will add a dollop to finish off the dish.

Between the whole wheat tortillas and refried beans, these puppies are packed with fiber! Fiber is my new friend because I had two grandmothers with heart problems and diabetes attacks me from both sides of the gene pool. Fiber is supposed to lower the risk of diabetes, and with my sweet tooth, I probably need all the help I can get.

Obviously there is a lot of protein in this meal, as well, with both beans and cheese, which is why it's so filling. I find the slight sweetness of the tomatoes in the salsa mixed with the above two ingredients to be most satisfying! Tomatoes also help fight cancer, another monster I am on the lookout for because my father had it twice before passing away at 58, and I never want to go through that if I can help it.

So there you have it, a compact, balanced food that is good for your heart and your health, and that you can eat with your hands. I am always sure to at least keep tortillas and cheese in my fridge so I can make a super simple quesadilla in a pinch, but it's better to have salsa on hand, and best to have a can of refried beans in the cupboard, too! Naturally some rice could added for a side dish, or guacamole (also super healthy) could be piled on top, as well. I tend not to go all out on meals if it's just myself, thus this burrito is perfect for me with its various ingredients. (I am also a fan of casseroles, but they tend to be lower on the health benefits.)

An amazing variation of the traditional quesadilla I had during a tasting at work was made with the same whole wheat tortilla, but thinly sliced gruyère – it's a hard cheese – with even thinner slices of fresh pears and balsamic vinegar. It sounds fancy, but it super easy to make! I just told you how. They're great appetizers at a party if you cut the finished product into thin slices. The pear gets soft, bringing out its sweetness, and mixes well with the balsamic and earthy or nutty taste (depending on the age) of the gruyère. Goes very well with wine.

So, today's lessons? Tortillas and cheese are both very versatile foods, and I'm going to get diabetes some day unless I eat gobs of fiber.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Support Your Local Library

After spending twenty minutes with the defrosters on full blast, I managed to chisel my car free from the ice and snow. There were a few casualties. The outside door handle on the driver’s side no longer works, the rubber on one of the wipers came loose, and I broke my ice scraper. The neighborhood road that I took was hard-packed snow and quite slick, but I made it to the library! For being a small branch without one Jane Austen novel, they were well supplied with recipe books. I narrowed my choices down to these three:
I was a little surprised to find chicken broth in the listing of ingredients for some recipes in The New Vegetarian Epicure. Of course it lists it as “vegetable or chicken broth” (there’s even a recipe to make your own vegetable broth), but the very mention of chicken broth seems out of place to me in a book that hopes to be the new Bible for modern vegetarian cooks. Still, there are quite a few simple recipes that I would like to try, like the pumpkin flan which had me sold. The recipes are divided into seasons, starting with spring, and multi-course meals rather than just dishes, though, of course, you don’t have to follow it to the letter and may mix and match. You know I will!

The Skinnygirl Dish has a pleasantly chatty tone, and Ms. Frankel shares a number of personal stories that are easy to relate to (snagging a man with baked chicken, for instance). Also included are handy how-tos, such as how to boil an egg, and how to boil water (“seriously,” adds the author). I’m joking around a little here. There are tons of far more useful how-tos and a lot of useful “oops moments” that will probably serve me well. (See my first two blog entries.)

This isn’t a vegetarian cook book, but there are tons of recipes that don’t call for meat, and I could modify a few (though I don’t think I can fake a baked chicken for any one). Like most recipe books I have seen, this one is divided into times of day: breakfast, lunch, dinner. There are also sections on snacking, drinking, and eating dessert. I’m pretty happy with this book. I think it’s going to really help me out on my new cooking excursion.

The third book, The 10 Things You Need to Eat, has me really excited! I don’t want to spoil anything, but I was surprised that couscous didn’t make the list. Quinoa (keen-wah) did, and that is on my grocery list for the next shopping trip. During a tasting at work we once had a great salad made with organic red quinoa, chopped cucumber, diced tomatoes, feta cheese dressing, and crumbled feta cheese because the dressing wasn’t flavorful enough. Delicious! I must re-create this salad.

If you haven’t heard of quinoa, it’s pretty amazing. One of the world’s perfect foods. And I don’t say this because it’s tasty – it’s a complete protein. 10 Things tells us that “one cup of quinoa is packed with about as much protein as four eggs,” pretty much an essential for a vegetarian diet. Further, two cups contains your daily fiber quota. And with a salad like the one mentioned above, it’s easy to eat two cups of quinoa in one sitting.

10 Things isn’t strictly vegetarian, but only one thing on the list used to have blood flowing through its veins. There is just one thing on the list that I have never eaten, and I am anxious to give it a try. Though I have had all of the others, there are some that I really don’t know how to cook with, so the prospects abound and I can’t wait to get started!

But before I make another trip to the grocery store, I need to eat up what I bought last time. This means cleaning out the cupboards time! I noticed that my vegetables were getting a little wilted, so I chopped them all up – orange bell pepper, cucumber, and grape tomatoes – and mixed them in with a pot of couscous tossed with a little Tuscan Italian dressing. Very colorful, and very tasty!

Later, I think I will treat myself with a small dish of pumpkin ice cream. I love the fall!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I've Got a Bean to Grind

I learned to drink coffee in Japan. Until that time, I was more like my mother, preferring unsweetened and unsullied by milk tea, and I was very excited to try the teas of Japan. Harder than it sounds. The Japanese have this silly notion that Americans drink coffee. And only coffee. So wherever I went, I was offered coffee.

“No,” I’d say. “I would really like some tea.”

“But you’re American,” they’d invariably reply. “You drink coffee.”

It didn’t matter how I tried to explain to my Japanese hosts that I really do prefer tea, and rarely, if ever, drank coffee. They would smile and nod, assume I was only being polite, then pour me another cup of Joe. And so, in order to be polite, I choked it down with the two sticks of sugar they usually provided automatically and no cream. (I shudder at the memory.)

Upon my return to America, I surprised my near-and-dear by starting to drink the stuff voluntarily, though I followed my father’s example of cream and sugar.

On a trip to New Orleans sandwiched between my time in Japan and now, I was delighted to be introduced to a local favorite, coffee with chicory. The exotic brew has a beautiful deep rust tinge and a sweeter taste than straight up coffee. I fell in love. When we stopped into an A&P (exciting in and of itself because I'd only ever read about them in short stories in college), I happily bought a bag of ground coffee with chicory to bring back with me to Michigan. Few at home shared in my love affair, but that just meant more for me.

Naturally, this bag ran out, and I mourned its loss for some time. Until one day, after I had moved to California and was browsing my local Cost Plus World Market, I saw a display with boxes of beignet mix and tins of ground coffee with chicory. What was this?? The labels read “Café Du Monde,” the famous French Market café. I’m sure I squealed as I snatched up a tin and skipped to the register. (I had actually already bought a box of their beignet mix during a trip to Michigan where I was floored to find it at Meijer. Meijer may also carry the coffee with chicory. I haven’t run out yet, so I haven’t checked.)

A year or so later, I again came across coffee with chicory packaged by another company: Trader Joe’s. But I have to say, I was very disappointed. I had been hoping for some time that Trader Joe’s, usually specializing in the odd little exotics, would start carrying it, so perhaps I was so let down because I fell from such a great height of excitement. Really, it’s not that good, and I have cautioned many newcomers to the brew around the sample table. Everyone I spoke to that was like me, had had it in New Orleans and was anxious for the nostalgia, agreed. It’s pretty bad.

I don’t normally steer people away from my beloved Trader Joe’s, but if you live in an area with a Cost Plus World Market or a Meijer, go there and buy the Café Du Monde brand. You can also buy directly from their website, though I am a fan of supporting local businesses when I can.

Some “exotic” coffees that I  do recommend at Trader Joe’s are the piñón (pine nut) and peaberry. The piñón, surprise surprise, has a bit of a nutty flavor that I find to be a nice change from the usual bitterness of American coffee, and the peaberry, more rare so it isn’t always on the shelf, is pleasantly sweet.

Call me a newb, but the best coffee I have ever tasted was during my trip to Italy. Coffee follows pretty much every meal, and I went to bed at night with a little cup of espresso in a happy tummy. (Caffeine doesn’t keep me awake. I actually find it calming.) I have not drunk espresso in America, and I don’t plan to. I don’t think I could talk my mouth into accepting it after two weeks of the sweet syrupy goodness that is Italian espresso. (Okay, maybe syrupy is a bad word, but it definitely is thicker than what passes for coffee here in the US.)

I have read that the machine the Italians (and probably other Europeans) use to make the myriad of café delights has been deemed unsafe and illegal in America due to its certain capability of blowing up. (Think about it. High pressure? Steam?) Thus, American coffee cannot be the same as its European cousin. Also, the reason our coffee is so often described as bitter is because we burn it. If you’re going to make coffee, get a French press. Seriously! World of difference.

So, although I still revel in a good cuppa tea and even have an entire drawer devoted to it, you will still often find me curled up in front of my computer, typing up a new story or working on my novel, with a steaming mug of caramel colored kōhii, because I am American with an Italian ancestry. Salute!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Veg-ing Out

I’ve lately made the decision to eat mostly vegetarian. I am not becoming a vegetarian. This is an important distinction because there are many types of vegetarians, and I am none of them. For example, there are some people who simply do not like the taste of meat. Yes, I’ve met them, and they’re mostly men, interestingly enough. I do enjoy the taste of meat. (Though I should point out that I was raised largely without red meat, so giving it up isn’t a stretch for me. I think there are one or two recipes calling for beef in my recipe collection and I’ve never made them; most I have modified for chicken or turkey.)

The most common variety of vegetarian is what I personally term the ethical vegetarian. They’re the people you are probably most familiar with who roll out the statistics on turkey slaughter every Thanksgiving and remind you that every bite of meat you put in your mouth was once alive. Okay, not all of them are that pesky, but you get where I’m going with this. These vegetarians object to the inhumane treatment of animals raised to be our dinner.

The extreme version of this would be vegans, which I can never be because I like fruit. I am told that True Vegans do not eat honey, but they must eat fruit, and even organic fruit is brought about through the use of enslaved honey bees that travel with their keepers to orchards etc all over the country. So if the point of veganism is to live off of only plant products and not animal products, how can a True Vegan justify eating fruit? No, seriously. I want comments!

And I’ve got news for all of these people: plants are also alive. They are born, mature, bear young, and scream and bleed when you harvest them for your salad. My father, who was once a master gardener and raised flowers and vegetables for as long as I can remember, taught me that plants respond to affection. They like hearing the sound of a calming human voice. Which scared the dickens out of me once when I awoke alone in the house to hear men’s voices coming up from the basement. We were growing tomato plants from seeds and Pa had turned on NPR to keep the babies company while he was at work. But I grew up with plants as fellow living companions, just like our cats, dogs, rodents, and goldfish.

You know that apple that is so perfect, you will fight the tree to pick it? Do you hear the cry of agony from the mother once it’s finally yours? No? Well, I don’t hear the moans of the farm animals while they’re being “harvested” either. This isn’t to say I support the unethical treatment of animals that is our meat industry. But I do support local farms that raise their animals organically and free-range. (Incidentally, free-range chickens are never vegetarian. They peck at the ground and eat grubs. Just a heads-up.)

So why am I starting to move away from meat and towards vegetables? Because I only have two pairs of jeans that my fat ass will squeeze into, and I can’t afford to buy a new wardrobe. (Nor do I enjoy being a size 16 when a year ago I was a 12.)

When I based my diet around meat, I would have a chicken breast for dinner, sometimes with a side of noodles, and call it good. Or just the noodles! Lunch or breakfast might have been three slices of turkey bacon with mayo between two slices of white bread. (I’ve since switched to whole grain.) Or a bowl of cereal and a PB&J. Where are the vegetables in all this? The fruit? I’ll tell you: in the grocery store. I may have had a few frozen bags of peas or a can of corn in the cupboard, but mostly for peace of mind, not for consumption.

I spent a summer in Japan while I was in college, and my diet there was built on grains and vegetables with the occasional fish and sometimes beef thrown in. Granted my main mode of transportation was my bicycle, but I’m sure the diet was key to helping me lose those thirty pounds while I was there.

Similar situation when I first moved to California. I got around via my own two feet because I had sold my car to help fund the move, and the Bay Area has fantastic public transportation. I also vowed to eat healthier, and I succeeded for the first year and a half. The rest of the time was largely stress eating. No kidding, one week I ate nothing but milk chocolate macadamia laceys dipped in cookies and cream ice cream. It was divine, and went straight to my hips.

Now that I’ve put back on the weight, my knees hurt, and I find myself unable to run up three flights of stairs period, let alone without panting like I used to. So, in an effort to get healthier and thinner (I will fit into those skinny jeans again, damn it!), I am centering my diet on beans, whole grains, fresh vegetables, and fruit.

The internet has been a great resource so far, and some of my friends have volunteered their favorite recipes and cookbooks. (I still need to make a trip to the library. I love libraries, and I will never give them up in favor of my also beloved computer.)

I realize the following recipe has salmon in it, and I do take issue with our fishing industry that is destroying the world’s oceans, but baby steps. Also, having made it, I think I can totally leave the salmon out next time – there’s enough going on.

Salmon Chickpea Salad
(also obtained from Cloverleaf and also modified)

1 can boneless skinless salmon
1 can chickpeas (fyi aka garbanzo beans) drained
1 cup cherry tomatoes halved (I used grape because I didn’t see cherry)
1 sweet yellow pepper (remember that orange pepper from last time?)
¼ cup low fat Italian dressing (and that Tuscan Italian dressing?)

I also chopped up some cucumber since I still had some from the Salmon Cucumber Couscous. See, with all those veggies and the chickpeas, we don’t really need the salmon. Now I know. And knowing is half the battle. You could throw all kinds of vegetables at this thing and it would still be delicious! It’s great room temperature or chilled, and it is both filling and satisfying.

And for the record, since starting this new diet adventure a couple weeks ago, I’ve already lost seven pounds. Skinny jeans, here I come!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Where there's smoke...

Tuesday’s dinner was modified Salmon Cucumber Couscous, a recipe I got from this site. (Yes, it’s Canadian. Sometimes I listen to streaming radio out of St. Johns, Newfoundland & Labrador, and the Take 5 ads for Cloverleaf piqued my interest.) It’s modified because I a) did not purchase Cloverleaf brand salmon, b) used whole wheat couscous which is possibly different from conventional couscous, c) used an orange bell pepper because I love them (my mother informs me I inherited this from my father) and they cost the same as the red variety, and d) used Tuscan Italian dressing because I have another recipe that calls for dressing and I didn’t want to buy two different bottles because I normally don’t eat salad that is not topped with ranch dressing, and I thought the Tuscan would be a good compromise.

In short: play with your food! Or rather, recipes are more general guidelines and don’t need to be strictly adhered to if you don’t have the budget for it, or simply don’t care. (Or you don’t live in Canada.)

This actually went off pretty much without a hitch. It tastes great, is extremely healthy minus the mercury in the salmon, and there are plenty of leftovers! It has, however, reiterated to me that I either need to get a proper mixing bowl or start tossing things in a spaghetti pot (I have two of those now).

After dinner, of course, comes dessert! Yes, I know I said I’d make the gingerbread cookies in the morning, but a few things came up, okay? Schedules were made to be broken. (See above note on recipes. Minus the bit about Canada. Canadians aren’t required to stick to schedules either.)

Still lacking a microwave, I again stuck the stick of butter in the oven to soften it, but this time I put the temp on 250. Because gingerbread dough needs to chill in the fridge for an hour, there is no point in wasting the energy to preheat the oven so soon. (My apartment is freakishly warm enough without the oven adding to it. Seriously, I talked to the landlords and it’s a mystery them, as well!) I guess I neglected it too long; there were two little puddles on the bottom of the oven when I checked on it. I don’t like putting tableware that is older than me and was given to me my grandparents when they bought a new set directly in the oven, but that is what I did to melt the butter in my little Corelle “mixing” bowl. It still took a dang long while to get to a mashable consistency!

Speaking of butter, why on God’s green earth is a pound of butter $3.29?? I guess I just never paid attention when I bought it with my groceries before, but when I picked up the lone package as my sole purchase, it’s a good thing I brought along an extra “just in case” dollar.

Okay! With dough properly chilled, I rolled it out with my trusty Name Your Poison highball while the oven preheated. As I laid the cut cookies out on the cookie sheet (pizza pan) I noticed something rising through the burners of the stove. *sniff sniff* Aw, crap. I opened the oven door and a cloud of smoke billowed out. Would that be the butter drippings from earlier?

About this time, I found myself cursing the state of Michigan for its lack of a requirement that all rental properties contain a fire extinguisher. (California has this requirement!) I turned the overhead fan on high and checked the living room for smoke. It hadn’t reached there yet, but it was only a matter of time, and I did not want my smoke alarm going off at 10pm, so I opened my living room window, which, for reasons completely unknown to me, always sets my dear, sweet cat Memphis on a crying fit.

So there I was with eyes stinging, smoke swirling up through the burners on my stove, cutting out gingerbread cookies, trying to distract my cat and not piss off my neighbors. Also, it was 21 degrees outside with snow on the ground. (Though honestly, I didn’t mind the cold air. Remember I mentioned that my apartment is freakishly warm?)

In the end, there was no fire, the smoke eventually dissipated, Memphis calmed down and took a nap on my bed, and the cookies turned out just fine. I sure hope everyone appreciates what I went through for them this year. And I chose to bake cookies as presents because I thought they’d be easy. Hah!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Warm in December.

As I walked home last evening from work, I noticed that the snow was gathering like white sugar in the cracks of the pavement. I was finally in the mood for my favorite season: baking. Since I just moved back to Michigan from California, leaving all cookware but a spaghetti pot, a baking sheet, and some fist-fulls of mismatched dinnerware behind me in foggy San Francisco, cooking in my new kitchen is always an adventure. In an effort to save money, I have vowed to only buy what I need when I need it. However, the need usually arrives halfway through a recipe, so I've been forced on many occasions to improvise.

Today, I decided to bake sugar cookies. The grocery store where I work got in a new holiday item this year that I could not pass up. It's a sugar cookie making kit complete with colored sugar sprinkles, icing, baking mix, and three cookie cutters, a snowman, an evergreen tree, and a star. Normally I prefer to bake my cookies from scratch, but I know I can't buy all the ingredients for even sugar cookies plus three cookie cutters for only $3.99! And remember: I'm trying to save money. So I bought it (well, actually, my mother inadvertently bought it for me) and today was the day to give it a try.

First things first, preheat the oven and spray the cookie sheet. Check! Next, cream together one egg and 2/3 cup softened butter. Uh-oh. My butter is kept in the fridge and is as hard as limestone. And have I mentioned that I don't own a microwave? Well, no problem, the oven's heating up, so I'll just put the stick of butter in there! It mostly worked. I removed the very drippy stick just as it was about to start falling apart like Senator Kelly in the X-Men movie. I tried cutting off my 2/3 cup with a butter knife (which I had to wash beforehand because I was fresh out of clean ones - I think I own four), but it only went squish. So I took out my one lone Oneida sharp knife that my mother gave me after I moved and used that. (The butter still went a little squish.)

So I got the butter and the egg in my pint-size mixing bowl (mixing bowl is at the top of my To Buy list) and began creaming. Only the butter wouldn't cream. The inside was still solid. I let it sit a moment while I continued on with my directions. I was supposed to flour a surface area on which to roll out the dough. Another hiccup. I didn't have any flour.

Sighing, I looked at the clock and saw that it was only half past noon. I had to work at five, and I had wanted to have the cookies done before then so that I could try to mail them out tomorrow or the next day to my friends for the holidays. I was pretty darn sure that I could not fake flour (though if anyone knows how, let me know!), and I had a list of other things that I had wanted to pick up for some new vegetarian recipes I want to try out this week, so I threw on my jacket, grabbed my re-usable grocery bags and toddled across the parking lot to the grocery store. (I live less than a five minute walk from my job. Very convenient!)

About halfway there, I realized that I forgot my carefully written shopping list. Curses! I didn't want to go back through the cold just for that, even if it was two minutes. Well, I reasoned, I remembered the main things, and whatever I might forget, I'd be back again at five and could try to bring it home with me then. So I continued on my way for my meager ingredients and was back home before one. (And as it turns out, I remembered all but one thing on my shopping list. Point for me!)

On my triumphant march home, I remembered something else I didn't have, something that the grocery store didn't carry: a rolling pin. Luckily, my mother showed me a trick years ago to remedy this. Just use a smooth, round glass instead. And praise the spirits of Winter, I have one! (But only one. I should probably add "rolling pin" to my To Buy list.)

So the cookies were made, cut out, and the first batch was put in the oven. I set the timer for eight minutes, and the cookies came out beautifully. I put in the second batch which I had ready on another cookie sheet sitting on top of the stove. I closed the oven and went to set the timer. Problem: the oven door wouldn't close all the way.

I live in a 500 square feet apartment. The kitchen is a good enough size for one person (I've had worse), but there isn't enough room for the dishwasher the landlord had promised me (I opted not to get the roll-away, because I couldn't figure where to keep it), and apparently it also isn't large enough for a full size oven. I knew my oven was small - the stovetop only has one large-size burner that just barely fits my Meijer clearance tea kettle - but it isn't even large enough to fit your basic, average, everyday cookie sheet? The first cookie sheet I used was from Ikea and more square (I used it previously as a pizza pan, which I think technically it is), and seems to be the exact size of the interior of my oven. But it had still warm cookies on it, and I was on a time crunch! So the second batch of cookies was baked with the oven door partially open and the timer set for a few minutes longer.

When the timer went off, I cautiously opened the oven door (all the way) and peeked inside. They weren't done. In case they weren't being cooked evenly all over, I flipped the cookie sheet around then put it back in. I didn't know how much longer to cook them, so I turned the oven off and decided to let them sit and see how they were after a few more minutes. There is a lesson I've recently learned after boiling down a pot of spaghetti and losing half the noodles that I should ALWAYS set a timer. I wouldn't say my mind wanders, but...

By the time I remembered the second batch of cookies, they were a little overdone. Yeah, so they were a little crispy, so what? I tried one, and still tasted fine, so I went ahead and decorated both batches of cookies and set them in the fridge to be packed up tomorrow and sent off to their new homes.

But before I locate my nearest post office, there is tomorrow morning's project: gingerbread cookies! I've never made gingerbread cookies. I have maybe half a dozen boxes of gingerbread baking mix in the cupboard from work (don't ask) and I've only ever made it into cake form. So wish me luck and pray I remember to set the timer!