Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Belated Christmas Cookies

Between being busy and fearing to gain weight, I didn't bake any Christmas cookies this year, but the fruit on my lemon tree is almost ripe so I may have to make a post-Christmas batch of these.  This is another recipe that my mother has been making forever but she doesn't remember where it came from originally.

The squares taste almost like little cheesecakes when first baked, but as they chill the lemon flavor becomes more and more pronounced.  I also like to freeze some of each batch and eat them before they are fully defrosted.

Lemon Custard Squares

1 can Eagle brand milk
1/2 c lemon juice (at least part of this should be fresh)
1 tsp grated lemon zest

Stir together until thick and set aside.

1 1/2 c flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 c butter
1 c brown sugar, packed
1 c oatmeal

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Cream together the butter and brown sugar; add the flour mix and the oatmeal and blend until it reaches a crumbly texture.

Grease an 8" x 12" pan.  Pat half of the crust mixture into it firmly.  Spread on the filling.  Top with the remaining crust crumbs.

Bake 25 minutes; cool on a wire rack before cutting into squares.  Store in the refrigerator.

"I believe that if life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade... And try to find somebody whose life has given them vodka, and have a party." ~Ron White

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas in the Garage

A massive cleaning binge, a space heater, and a tree - and it worked so well that some attendees want to come back for all our big family holidays:
The Garage
The Food
The Family

Happy Holidays to everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Very Long Coffee Break

Last night was the December meeting of our book club.  We ate at Los Sombreros, an excellent, authentic Mexican restaurant in the East Valley.  (Fabulously fresh guacamole!)  The woman who suggested this month's book also selected the restaurant to stay with the Hispanic theme.

The book we read was Bitter Grounds, winner of the 1998 American Book Award.  The author is Sandra Benitez, who was born in El Salvador but attended high school and college in the United States.  This is the sort of novel that's generally described on the jacket as a "sweeping multi-generational epic."  It follows six Salvadoran women through the turbulent period from 1932 to 1977.  Three of the women are mother, daughter, and granddaughter of a poor peasant family; the other three are mother, daughter, and granddaughter from a family of wealthy landowners.  During the course of the book their lives intertwine ever more tightly, with ultimately tragic consequences for all of them.

What I liked: the characters were well-drawn; the language was beautiful and evocative; the plot was at times intricate but never confusing; and I learned much more than I had previously known about the culture and history of El Salvador.  What I didn't: when I have spent 444 pages, 45 years, and three generations with people I like, I prefer a happy ending.  Yes, the grim resolution was probably more realistic than a feel-good finish, but it left me feeling exhausted rather than satisfied.  Read this book when you are in the mood for Literature rather than escape.

"You say, but for the golden hope of coffee
few men would get ahead.
I say, when the people harvest,
all they reap is bitter grounds."
~Sandra Benitez, Bitter Grounds

Thursday, December 15, 2011

All This and a Baby Giraffe

You wouldn't think two people who live in the Phoenix area would need any additional exposure to desert flora and fauna, but today my sister and I went to see the Living Desert Zoo & Botanical Garden in Palm Desert.  The Living Desert is a linked series of gardens and habitats for plants and animals from the deserts of North America and Africa.  Their animal hospital (which we got to tour) also does animal rescue and rehabilitation, and several groups of school children joined us in the amphitheater for a show by some of the resident birds and beasts.  A tram is available for those who don't feel up to the walk, and food is available at three cafes on site.  Unfortunately, the cold weather and the time of day meant that quite a few of the animals were taking naps in various caves and burrows, but here is some of what we did see (straight from the camera):

Cool place. We just missed the jaguar's annual physical in the hospital - and the cheetah had its root canal last month - but the goats in the petting zoo were happy to see us.

It really is "all happening at the zoo."

“Despite all their flaws, zoos wake us up. They invite us to step outside our most basic assumptions. Offered for our contemplation, the animals remind us of nature’s impossibly varied schemes for survival, all the strategies that species rely upon for courtship and mating and protecting the young and establishing dominance and hunting for something to eat and avoiding being eaten. On a good day, zoos shake people into recognizing the manifold possibilities of existence, what it’s like to walk across the Earth, or swim in its oceans of fly above its forests—even though most animals on display will never have the chance to do any of those things again, at least not in the wild.”~ Thomas French, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Playing Hooky

Yes, I know, Bad Blogger this month.  Between getting ready for Christmas, lining up new clients, and planning for the first vacation I've had in over a year, I've really let things slide.

I feel a little guilty about the vacation, since I ought to be staying home and saving money, but I've actually already paid for most of it.  About two years ago I bought a block of timeshare points for Barry and me; I thought a resort apartment would be the perfect vacation venue for him because it would involve a minimum of travel, we could minimize expenses and calories by eating breakfast and lunch in, and he would be able to swim and work out (his favorite leisure activities).  Alas, he decided he didn't want to do anything that so closely resembled his (if not my) everyday life, and the points remained unused.  They expire next month, so I finally decided not to let them go to waste, and my sister and I are spending this week in Palm Springs to use most of them up.

Because I'm providing the room and driving my car, Sue is paying for the food and entertainment.  So far we've shopped the Cabazon outlet malls, visited the air museum and the art museum (Andrew Wyeth exhibit this month!), taken the tram up to what's still snow country, and eaten in a succession of fabulous restaurants.  Some of the foodie highlights of the trip have been the 3-course prix fixe dinner at Zin American Bistro (best mushroom soup and aioli ever), the bouillabaisse at Pomme Frite, and the buckwheat crepes at Zini Cafe Mediterrano.  At night we're working our way through a bottle of wine, a block of fudge, a box of popcorn, and the stack of chick flicks we brought along.  We've already watched Chicken Run, Saving Grace, Starman, and Julie and Julia, with Shakespeare in Love to follow.

Of course, this is not an entirely non-working vacation.  I still have two online classes running (winter break starts next week) and I'm uploading blog posts for my real estate friend.  Still, I'm seeing something other than the inside of my house and someone else is cleaning the apartment and cooking a lot of the meals.  A week of this and I will feel recharged and ready to go back.  Maybe I'll even be able to get back onto a more regular blogging schedule.

If not, Santa may be leaving a lump of coal in my stocking this year.

"A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you've been taking." ~Earl Wilson

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Six Degrees of Linked In

A while back, when I was seriously looking for full-time work, I took a friend's advice and joined Linked In.  Supposedly this would allow me to connect with all the high-powered people in my background who were panting to find me a new job.  Sadly, the high-powered people in my background are now mostly retired or dead, and the few that are on Linked In don't want to be bothered.  I haven't deleted my profile, though, because it has allowed a few old friends I'd lost touch with to find me.  Now, however, it's starting to weird me out.

One of the features of Linked In is that it sends you little messages asking whether you know certain people and would like to connect with them.  Usually the software's rationale for recommending someone is pretty clear - that person is a former co-worker, for example.  I was startled a couple of months back when my former brother-in-law popped up at the top of the list; I hadn't heard from or of him in about 20 years.  I can understand why the algorithm made the connection, though; we're the same age and went to the same high school and the same college.

This week the recommendations have been a little creepier.  One is a woman from my book club.  The club is the only connection I'm aware of between us and that isn't mentioned in either of our profiles.  I guess you could say that we are both adjunct university faculty living in the Phoenix metro area, but we work for totally unrelated schools, teach completely different subjects, and live on opposite sides of the Valley.  The other recommendation that startled me is my cousin who lives in Scottsdale.  She and I are related through our mothers, so we've never had the same last name; we aren't the same age, never went to any of the same schools, and our career paths had nothing in common.  We were both born in South Dakota and now live in Arizona - is that enough for the software to theorize a connection?

My best guess is that Linked In uses an algorithm based on "six degrees of separation" and is checking for friends of friends of friends in its records.  Somewhere in the murk of the Linked In database is a friend of my cousin who also knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows me.  I hope.  Otherwise, Big Brother may actually be watching.

"A fascinating game grew out of this discussion. One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth—anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances." ~Frigyes Karinthy, Chain-Links

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Not the Pilgrims' Scalloped Corn

This year was my sister's turn to play host for Thanksgiving.  I spent a good chunk of yesterday helping her clean house (I WILL expect payback at Christmas).  This morning I made scalloped corn, my contribution to dinner.  My version takes longer than recipes using canned cream corn as a base and it doesn't have the richness of those with heavy cream as a thickener, but it has an intense fresh corn flavor that had all the relatives asking how I made it.  If you're in a hurry you can use frozen corn instead of fresh, but it's not quite the same.

Beth's Scalloped Corn

7 ears of fresh sweet corn, husks and silk removed
1 tsp flour 
1/2 c plain light soy milk (yes, regular milk would work, too)
2 scallions, including greens, chopped
1 1/2 Tbl melted butter
1/2 cup crumbs (I used Ian's Whole Wheat flavor Panko crumbs, available at Sprouts)
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the corn kernels off the cobs and set aside.

Then, use a small knife to scrape ("milk") what's left on the cobs into a saucepan.  Whisk in the flour and 1/4 c of the milk.  Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture has thickened. Microwave two cups of the reserved corn kernels for two minutes on high.  Add the cooked kernels and the other 1/4 cup of milk to the mixture in the saucepan and stir together.  Use a stick blender, food processor, or regular blender to puree until smooth.

Add the puree and the chopped scallions to the remaining corn kernels and stir together.  Taste; adjust the flavor with salt and pepper as needed.  Pour into a 1-quart casserole (not greased!). Stir together the melted butter and the crumbs.  Scatter evenly over the top of the corn.

Bake 30-35 minutes at 350 degrees.  Serve warm.  Serves 6 normally or 9 on Thanksgiving when 20 other things are being served.

Variation: Add 1/2 cup of chopped yellow pepper before pouring into the casserole.

"The Indian Corn, or Maiz, proves the most useful Grain in the World; and had it not been for the Fruitfulness of this Species, it would have proved very difficult to have settled some of the Plantations in America. " ~John Lawson

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Going Pro

I've actually had lots of things to blog about over the last week - our latest book club meeting, a new split pea soup recipe, my dilemma over whether to buy new windows for the house - but no time to do it.  I've been busy finally getting my professional act in gear.

Although I've been an independent contractor in the web and graphics design business for most of the last 6 years, the preponderance of my work was for a single client.  The work from that direction has been drying up, though, and it's time for me to become a real freelancer.  That means buying my own domain for my online portfolio, updating my resume, printing my own business cards, putting together sample contracts and invoices, and setting up appointments with several prospective clients - plus telling my previous "boss" that our relationship is changing.  Fun (and not-so-fun) stuff.

While uploading my portfolio files to my new domain yesterday I realized that it doesn't have some of my best recent work on it, so today I'll be revising the website.  I hope.  I'm on the fence as to whether I should just rebuild it from scratch.  My previous host was my Internet ISP; they provided free personal webspace for email clients, but didn't allow it to be used for business.  That meant I could use it to display my work but not to actively solicit clients.  This is probably the right moment to say, "Show me the money!"

Next step: call my accountant and see what I need to do to keep things straight from a tax perspective.  More not-so-fun stuff - but when I'm all done I should have the pleasure of choosing my own clients, preferably all within easy commuting distance.  I'm starting to feel like a real grown-up.

"The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps. " ~Robert Benchley

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hot Stuff

When I was a little kid, my Uncle Gilbert used to occasionally make pork sausages in his basement.  Sausage production was a real event; it took several people to feed the ingredients into the grinder, make sure the casing didn't prematurely detach from the stuffing nozzle, and tie off the individual links as the forcemeat filled the casing almost to the bursting point.  I've never really understood that saying about laws being like sausage in that "it is better not to see them being made" - when I was six or seven, watching Uncle Gil and his sausage crew in action was my idea of a good time.

Since I started cutting the fat in my diet I've almost stopped eating pork sausage.  Generally I substitute Jenny-O's Italian-flavored ground turkey in spaghetti sauce, breakfast casseroles, etc.  However, their Italian flavoring is similar to that in sweet Italian sausage, and every once in a while I want hot Italian sausage instead.  Today I was in the mood for scrambled eggs with hot sausage, so I took some plain unflavored ground chicken and kicked it up a notch.  If you don't like your sausage quite this hot, cut back on the pepper or add more ground chicken.

Hot Italian-Flavored Chicken Sausage

3/4 lb unflavored ground chicken (or turkey)
1 1/2 tsp fennel seeds (preferably toasted*)
1 Tbl finely chopped garlic
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbl chopped fresh parsley (or 1 tsp dried)

*To toast the fennel seeds, heat them over medium low heat in a non-stick pan, shaking frequently, until they become fragrant and just start to brown.

Mix the ingredients thoroughly until the herbs and spices are evenly distributed throughout the ground chicken.  Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes so the flavors have a chance to blend.  Use as you would any bulk sausage - or, if you want pseudo-links, wrap individual "sausages" tightly in plastic wrap and poach them in boiling water.

"I used to help my granddaddy make sausage. He would mix it up in a cleaned-out washtub with his hands, no gloves. Man, if we did anything like that today, they would jack the jail up and throw us under it. " ~Jimmy Dean

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Unsolicited Testimonial

I grew up in the days before sunscreen was invented.  The little girl in the Coppertone logo was still toasty brown, lifeguards all wore white streaks of zinc oxide on their noses, and some young women smeared themselves with a vile concoction of iodine and baby oil to achieve skin like that on a rotisserie chicken as quickly as possible.  SPF was not yet even a gleam in someone's eye the summer I ruined my skin forever by taking a job detasseling corn.

To explain, I must digress for a moment and discuss the sex life of corn.  (You may wish to send small children from the room.)  Much of the corn grown in the Midwest is hybrid - that is, a cross between two different types of parent corn.  The farmer plants several rows of "mother" corn - the plants that will actually bear the ears of corn - then a couple of rows of "father" corn - the plants that will pollinate the mother corn - and so on throughout the field.  When the wind blows, the pollen from the father corn will waft across the mother plants and fertilize them, and the resulting ears of corn are hybrids.  BUT...corn plants are bisexual.  For all the ears of corn to be hybrid, the farmer must somehow ensure that the mother plants don't fertilize themselves.  Enter the detasselers.

The part of the corn plant that carries its pollen is the tassel at the top (it looks like this).  To perform the corn equivalent of a vasectomy, the tassel must be removed from the plant before it matures enough to release its pollen.  Unfortunately, this process cannot be (or at least has not been) mechanized.  Human beings must walk through the field, or ride through it on platforms pulled by tractors, and snap off the tassels by hand.  The tassels won't break off if they are too green, and even if they aren't the detasseler must use just the right combination of upward pull and wrist motion to make them part company with the parent plants.  Since the corn plants do not all mature at once, detasselers must comb through each field several times to remove all the problematic tassels.

Of course, the period during which the tassels are at peak removal condition is fairly short and the cornfields are large.  The farmer I worked for had two detasseling crews who walked the fields (tall guys) and two who rode the platforms looking for the tallest tassels (girls).  At the beginning and end of the season, one walking crew and one riding crew worked from 6AM to noon and went home; the second walking crew and riding crew worked from noon to 6PM.  The next day the crews switched shifts.  During the peak season, the morning crew came back at 6PM and worked for another couple of hours.  It was grueling physical labor.  At 6AM the plants were still covered with cold dew and the wet leaves slapped us as the tractor drove down the rows so we were drenched and shivering before we'd gone more than a few feet.  By noon the temperature was over 100 degrees and the dry leaves were slicing us instead (think large paper cuts).  We couldn't really get a good grip on the tassels wearing gloves, so we used our bare hands, which ended each day covered with nicks and cuts and stinging from sap.  At the end of the summer the farmer thanked me for being such a hard worker and told me I could come back the next year if I wanted to.  I declined.

Although I have skin that usually tans instead of burning, 6 straight hours a day in direct sunlight with only a hat for protection was too much for it.  I burned, I peeled, I ended the summer approximately the same color as an old leather saddle - and my skin has been paying for it ever since.  I've always had freckles, but that winter several of them joined hands under my left eye to form an ugly blotch that's been there ever since, and in recent years additional patches of sun damage have started to show up on my cheeks and hands.  A few years ago the spot under my eye had grown so large and dark that I consulted a dermatologist about it.  (Even under makeup it's so visible I've had strangers ask me how I got the black eye.)  He prescribed a tube of bleaching cream that cost over $100 and didn't do much to help.

Now for the unsolicited testimonial.  I've used Clinique makeup all my adult life, so when they recently introduced their Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector lotion I thought, "What the hell," and gave it a try.  It's expensive, but considerably cheaper than the prescription cream, and it works much better.  It's supposed to be applied twice a day, but because I'm a stomach sleeper and don't want it smeared all over my pillowcase I've only been using it in the morning.  It comes with a "progress tracker" card on which you mark your darkest spot's darkest tone before starting to use the product; this enables you to see whether you are experiencing real improvements.  The literature says to expect a 1-2 shade visible improvement in your designated dark spot after 4 weeks.  After 4 weeks, using the product only half as often as I was supposed to, I realized that the very darkest part of my under-eye spot had lightened by 4 shades, and the other patches on my face have noticeably faded, too.  This stuff is fabulous.  I'm hoping if I keep using it that eventually under makeup the bad splotch will just look like a normal dark under-eye circle rather than a shiner.

Sunburn is very becoming, but only when it is even - one must be careful not to look like a mixed grill. ~ Noel Coward

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gearing Up For Christmas

Despite the fact that I've inhabited each of my homes an average of only 3 1/2 years, I go into every move swearing that it will be the last one, and I take at least a year or two to arrange and decorate everything exactly the way I want it.  In fact, we were still making changes to our last house after 6 six years of living in it.

This time, though, I'm working a lot faster because I'm on a deadline.  This year I am the host for Christmas dinner for our Phoenix-area family members, and I want everything done before the horde descends.  Unfortunately, that will entail more effort than I had originally expected.

One of the reasons I made the large bedroom in this house into the office and used the dining room table as my desk was so that when I host a dinner party I can shuffle the computer equipment into the closet, center the table in the room, bring out my Grandmother's oak chairs, and voila!  Instant formal dining room!  I can easily seat 10 in this space - 12 if I place the table on the diagonal - and hosting our family generally means feeding 9 or 10 of us.  Piece of cake.

The flaw in this plan: This year my cousin Stan's two children and their spouses will be joining us, making the total number of revelers 13.  I cannot squeeze 13 people into my faux dining room.  I suppose I could put four of us in the kitchen, but that defeats the goal of everyone eating together.  On to Plan B.

This house originally had a double carport rather than an enclosed garage.  The previous owners converted the carport to a garage about a year ago.  It has sheetrocked and textured walls painted a bright white and it has ample lighting.  With the addition of a small electric space heater and a decorated tree, it should be an acceptable temporary dining room on Christmas Day - a little like eating in  a church basement.

Of course, I've been using the garage as the staging space for my unpacking, so the half not occupied by my car is full of empty cardboard boxes, plastic tubs full of old records, and miscellaneous items I haven't found a home for.  In order to use the garage as the dining room for Christmas, I need to clear most of that stuff out of there and paint the ugly grease-stained light green floor some more attractive (and garage-appropriate) color.  I can actually throw a sheet of plywood and a long tablecloth over the plastic tubs and use them as a serving table, but everything else has to go.  Suddenly the two months until Christmas look pretty darn short.

Excuse me, please; I need to go to the U-Haul box exchange website and offer my leftover packing materials to the world.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Drama on the Dance Floor

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that Dancing with the Stars is one of my favorite TV shows, and I've already written that one apparent reason for its success is that it's a beacon of politeness in a world of surly reality shows.  That theory was definitely put to the test this week.

During this season, official show bad boy pro Maks Chmerkovskiy has been paired with Hope Solo, a professional soccer star.  Hope is tall and athletic, with an amazing body, but she's also a self-professed tomboy without much patience for learning the grace and sensuality that the show's judges expect from female contestants.  This Monday chief judge Len Goodman came down particularly hard on Hope's rhumba performance (which I thought myself deserved criticism for being too flat-footed), and Maks exploded, going so far as to suggest that it's time for Goodman to retire.  He publicly apologized on the Tuesday night results show, but the damage was done.  Maks and Hope were one of the two couples at risk for elimination this week.

That means one of two things: either ABC was so annoyed by the incident that they put the couple under the red spotlight as punishment, or the fans were so annoyed that they voted for others in droves.  Either way, Maks had better watch his mouth, or next season's show may have a large, Maks-shaped hole in it.

"It's becoming clearer and clearer that Maks is all about Maks and his star partners are nothing but window dressing.  Maybe this explains why he's never won on this show." ~Lenni G., guest blogger for

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vegetables Shaken and Stirred

This week our local Sprouts had good deals on eggplant and zucchini, so last night I made myself a giant batch of ratatouille.

According to Merriam-Webster, the name "ratatouille" come from two French words, one meaning "to shake" and the other "to stir."  Ratatouille does take a considerable amount of shaking and stirring, not to mention chopping, but it tastes delicious and can be eaten alone or combined with eggs (think omelet or quiche filling) or pasta.  Ratatouille also freezes well if you have any left over, but I can generally mow through an entire "10 side dish servings" batch in about three days all by myself.

Note: I use less olive oil than is traditional in this recipe, but you need some to contribute to the final flavor.  If you just can't stand the taste of olive oil you can try peanut oil instead, but...your loss.  By all means use fresh tomatoes instead of canned if you can find really good ones, but remember - if they don't smell like tomatoes, they won't taste much like them, either.


1/4 cup olive oil
1 large eggplant
4 medium zucchini
1 1/2 large yellow onions
1 green bell pepper
1 can (14.5 oz.) fire-roasted tomatoes
2 Tbl chopped fresh basil
2 Tbl chopped fresh cilantro
Pepper and salt to taste

Roughly chop all the vegetables, starting with the eggplant.  Put the eggplant in a large colander; salt and leave to drain.  After the other ingredients have been prepped, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 3 quart saute pan or large skillet and saute the zucchini for 5 minutes.  Add the onions and green pepper and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Heat 2 more tablespoons of olive oil in another pan and saute the eggplant in it for the same 15 minutes.  Add the sauteed eggplant and the remaining ingredients to the pan containing the zucchini mixture; if your skillet is not big enough to hold everything, use a large saucepan instead.  Cook over medium low heat, stirring frequently, until the flavors have blended but the vegetables still retain some color and texture - about 30 minutes or a little longer.  (If overcooked, the ratatouille will still taste OK but it will be brown and mushy - Not A Good Thing.) 

Refrigerate at least an hour to give the flavors more time to meld.  Reheat before serving.

Linguini: Hey... Why do they call it that?
Skinner: What?
Linguini: Ratatouille. It's like a stew, right? Why do they call it that? If you're gonna name a food, you should give it a name that sounds delicious. Ratatouille doesn't sound delicious. It sounds like "rat" and "patootie." Rat-patootie, which does not sound delicious. 

~From Ratatouille, the movie

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Planting Time

In the Phoenix area, planting a garden in the spring is a fruitless enterprise - literally.  Tomatoes and peppers, for instance, won't set fruit when the temperature is too high, which generally means any time between May and September here.  Many local gardeners, therefore, consider fall the high season for planting.  Today I had to drive to Scottsdale for my semi-annual dental appointment, so I stopped on the way back at my favorite nursery to buy a couple of flats of herbs and vegetables.

As I've mentioned before, my mother always had a large garden when I was a child, and I've continued the tradition whenever I've lived in a house with a yard.  Even in New York City I had a small herb and flower garden outside my first (garden-level) apartment, and a pot of chives in later, higher living spaces.  My irrigated pots at our previous house here were finally putting out clusters of assorted chile peppers and overflowing with oregano and thyme just when I had to leave them behind.  Of course I moved into this house at the end of July, when planting anything would have been insane, even if I hadn't been fully occupied with work on the interior of the house.  So, I was happy when the hot weather finally broke this month and I could start to think about gardening again.

Fortunately, this house has irrigated planting beds that are just begging for new foliage.  The one by the front stoop is empty except for a single forlorn cactus and the one to the left of the back porch has been overrun by useless and not very attractive myaporum that I intend to uproot tomorrow.  This gives me plenty of room for roses in front and herb and vegetable plantings in back of the house.

Today I bought a couple of tomato plants (a mainstream Better Boy and a multicolored heirloom), a mini red bell pepper, a hot red pepper plant, salad greens, Swiss chard, oregano, parsley, chives, basil, thyme, cilantro, a small bay tree, and lavender.  I intend to start them in pots in the screened back porch and transplant them to the planting beds when they are a little larger and can better withstand the onslaught of the hungry local rabbits.  (The jackrabbits here are large enough to leap rabbit wire with a single bound.)  I also got geraniums and petunias for pots on the front stoop; let's hope the bunnies here aren't hungry enough to eat them despite the strong smell.

As soon as I've planted all this stuff I'll go back for the roses - but that may be a couple of days from now because one of the local Greek Orthodox churches is having its annual Greekfest this weekend, and I may be too busy chowing down souvlaki and baklava to worry about gardening.

"I never had any other desire so strong, and so like to covetousness, as that one which I have had always, that I might be master at last of a small house and a large Garden."  ~Abraham Cowley, The Garden, 1666

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yearning for Tuscany

This week I watched a TV chef make cannelloni from scratch, and it put me in such an Italian mood that I dug out my copy of Under the Tuscan Sun and reread it one more time.

Frances Mayle was a respected poet, travel writer, and university professor when her long-time marriage fell apart and she decided to rethink her life.  She and her new Significant Other, Ed (last name not disclosed), bought and spent the next several years restoring an ancient stone farmhouse in Tuscany.  The name of the house was "Bramasole," an archaic Italian word meaning "yearning for the sun," and Mayle, who lived in San Francisco, felt that a little more sun was just what she needed.  Under the Tuscan Sun is the story of rehabbing the house, but it also includes Mayle's ruminations on the meaning in houses, why people travel, and how a culture is reflected in its cooking.  Her observations of the Tuscan scenery, food, and neighbors are so tactile that when I visited Tuscany for the first time a few years after this book was published, I felt as if I were coming back to a familiar spot.

 Hollywood made this book into a movie starring Diane Lane in 2003, but I couldn't bring myself to go see it.  The previews made it look like a banal lonely-woman-meets-Latin-hunk love story, sans Ed, and Lane looks (and sounds) nothing like the soft-spoken Georgia-born Mayle, who I met in 1999 at a book signing for her sequel, Bella Tuscany.  For me, one of the charms of the book was that Frances and Ed were already in love when they bought the house, and the travails of rebuilding it brought them closer together when it could just as easily have destroyed their relationship.

My only issue with reading this book again is that now I feel the urge to unearth my pasta machine and make some of that from-scratch cannelloni myself - or maybe Mayle's recipe for Wild Mushroom Lasagna.

"What is this thrall for houses?  I come from a long line of women who open their handbags and take out swatches of upholstery material, colored squared of bathroom tile, seven shades of yellow paint samples and strips of flowered wallpaper.  We love the concept of four walls. 'What is her house like?' my sister asks, and we both know she means what is she like." ~Frances Mayle, Under the Tuscan Sun

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Baking Season Begins

Although we're still experiencing 90 and 100 degree days here in the Phoenix area, mornings and some evenings are finally cool enough for serious cooking and baking.  My new oven seems to run about 25 degrees cooler than the last one I had, so I'm trying to adjust to that.

When my sister and I were children, one of the books our father used to read to us was about a squirrel who liked to bake for his friends.  I don't remember the plot of the book or even the squirrel's name, but I do remember that he made lemon muffins with hazelnuts which sounded absolutely delicious to me.  I've never tasted a commercial lemon and hazelnut muffin, and my own experiments in that direction have so far failed to produce the bright, tart lemon flavor I've been hoping for, but since I now have my own lemon tree - and a nearby grocery story that carries chopped hazelnuts - I'll keep experimenting.

In the absence of a successful muffin recipe, this morning I made these lemon and blueberry scones for breakfast.  The blueberries are the stars here with the hint of lemon in a supporting role; for a stronger lemon flavor, add some fresh lemon zest to the dough.

Lemon Yogurt Scones with Fresh Blueberries

2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons cold butter
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
1/4 cup Eggbeaters egg substitute (or 1 beaten egg)
6 ounces Yoplait lemon burst yogurt

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.  Cut in the butter.  Add the blueberries, egg, and yogurt and blend to make a very soft dough.  Form into rough 2" balls (they should look like drop scones) and place them about 1 1/2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet.  Bake for 10-12 minutes until the scones are puffy and golden.  Eat warm with butter or cool on a wire rack.  Makes about 9 scones.

If you want a sugar crust on the scones, brush the top of the dough with milk and sprinkle with sugar before baking.

"Live long and eat muffins." ~Jackie at

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Heiress

Last night I watched The Heiress, a film based on the Henry James novel Washington Square.  Directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia DeHaviland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson, this was perhaps the saddest movie I've ever seen.  It wasn't the classic Hollywood tearjerker, where the main characters were doing well and would have continued to do so but for an unexpected event that interrupts their lives.  From the moment we meet Catherine Sloper, the socially inept heroine of the title, and her rigid, controlling, perfectionist father, we know that things are going to End Badly.  Despite brief glimpses of hope in mid-story, the trajectory is almost entirely downward, and I was dry-eyed at the end because the final tragedy was so inevitable.

In brief, Catherine's father (Richardson) has never forgiven her for not being the reincarnation of her deceased mother, a brilliant, beautiful, charming and talented woman.  He ignores his daughter's frantic attempts to win his love and approval and undercuts her self-confidence at every turn.  When she is courted by the poor but gorgeous Morris Townsend (Clift), he does his best to destroy the relationship, finally telling her she is such a nonentity that no man will ever want her except for her money.  Shattered by this cruelty, Catherine tries to repudiate the inheritance from her father and elope with Morris, only to be rejected by him in turn once she is no longer an heiress.  The rest of the movie is Catherine's revenge on the two men who have killed her innocence.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is the question of Dr. Sloper's motives for rejecting Morris as a suitor.  On the one hand, he seems to want Catherine to marry and marry well, so she will appear "normal" to others and also have someone to protect her (he's sure she's too incompetent to manage alone).  On the other hand, he's also convinced that no one will marry her except for her inheritance, which would seem to eliminate everyone he would consider a suitable husband from consideration; if that's so, why not accept Morris, who if he is a fortune hunter is also doing his best to make Catherine feel cherished?  Perhaps the doctor's real concern is not for his daughter, but for the money he has earned through hard work and careful investing.  Deep down he may feel it's better for Catherine to remain single forever than for some undeserving scoundrel (and any man interested in Catherine must be an undeserving scoundrel) to enjoy her inheritance after their marriage.

Richardson is absolutely chilling as the disdainful, rejecting father, and DeHaviland is superb as Catherine.  I was a little surprised that she was cast as a character who is repeatedly referred to as plain; despite the best attempts of the hair and makeup people, no one with her huge, expressive eyes could possibly be considered plain.  After seeing the film, though, I understand perfectly.  Very few actresses have the emotional range needed for this role, but DeHaviland was perfect as the shy girl in love, the tormented victim in the moment of rejection, and the implacable woman bent on justice for her wrongs.  She won the 1950 Oscar for Best Actress for this movie; well, duh.

Aunt Penniman: Can you be so cruel?
Catherine Sloper: Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters. 

~The Heiress

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Southwestern with a Twist

It's a long story - I won't tell it here - but this month our book club didn't have a book to read.  Several of us got together anyway just to socialize.  I would have gone even if I didn't like the other members because the meeting was at Z' Tejas, my favorite Southwestern restaurant.  It's a chain that started in Texas and has four locations in the Phoenix area, but they're all on the eastern rim of the Valley so I almost never get there any more.

The Paradise Valley Z' Tejas, where we met, is in a mini-mall complex, but the decor is much more upscale than that implies, with brick and copper slate tiles on the wall and quirky modern lighting pendants over the bar.  They serve an assortment of premium margaritas, live music is available Thursdays and Fridays, and the appetizers are half-price during happy hour.  When the weather is nice (as it was when we were there), seating is open on an outside patio screened by plantings from the parking lot and cooled when necessary by overhead misters. The waitstaff are cheerful, well-trained, and attentive.

Although Z' Tejas calls itself a Southwestern grill, its offerings range from Catfish Beignets to Wild Mushroom Enchiladas to Grilled Miso Salmon.  Last week we had the fabulous Grilled Shrimp and Guacamole Tostada Bites for an appetizer and as an entree I ordered the Smoked Chicken Chile Relleno, which is stuffed with an unusual combination of chicken, pecan, apricots and raisins and drizzled with a green chile and picante cream sauce.  All the meals start with a cast-iron skillet of moist and delicious fresh-baked cornbread, and those who still have a little room left for dessert can choose from Ancho Fudge Pie, seasonal fruit cobbler, the cheesecake of the day, or the chef's special, always a surprise.

I've never had a bad meal at a Z' Tejas or even a mediocre one, and the prices are very reasonable for the quality of the food and ambiance.  It's probably just as well that I don't live closer to one; if I did, I'd eat there far more often than would be good for either my waistline or my budget.

"...the origin of the name is a story that varies depending on who's telling the tale." ~The Z' Tejas Story

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Charlie Trotter Takes on the Dummies

Browsing through the cookbooks in the local library this week, I happened across Gourmet Cooking for Dummies and was startled to see that the author is innovative Chicago chef Charlie Trotter. I've seen Charlie on TV a number of times, and I was frankly skeptical that he could "dumb down" his recipes enough for an average cook.  I checked the book out but expected it to be so full of esoteric ingredients and complicated procedures as to be virtually useless.  Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised.  This is possibly the most accessible gourmet cookbook I've ever read.

The book starts with a brief discussion of the differences between regular cooking and gourmet cooking - in short, better ingredients, more interesting flavor combinations, and more attractive presentation.  Trotter also discusses the must-have and nice-to-have equipment for gourmet cooking and the gourmet staples to stock in one's pantry and refrigerator.  Later sections of the book cover cooking techniques; choosing produce, meat, and seafood; making desserts; and building a complete gourmet menu.  Resources include buying guides for gourmet food products and equipment, suggested food and wine pairings, gourmet restaurants to visit for "research," and other helpful books on food and wine.

The language throughout is clear and direct - this may be due to co-authors Judi Carle and Sari Zernich - and many of the recipes are much easier than I had anticipated.  In addition, Trotter encourages his readers to innovate and explains how to successfully substitute ingredients if they don't have everything for a given recipe on hand.  The heat wave has finally broken here in Arizona  (this Thursday was the first day this fall my air conditioner didn't run at all), so I'm ready to fire up the stove and the oven and try the yummy-looking Caramelized Onion Tart with Sweet Curry Crust or the Grilled Beef Teriyaki with Sesame Seeds and Spicy Soy Mustard.  Who knows - if these recipes taste as good as they look in the color photo inserts, I may finally commit to spending the four hours it takes to make beef stock from scratch.  Since the price from Amazon for this book is only $13.99 new, I've already ordered a copy of my very own.

"Despite its bare-bones demeanor, Trotter's book stands equally alongside the works of Julia Child and James Beard." ~Library Journal review of Gourmet Cooking for Dummies

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Into the Closet(s)

I've mentioned before that I really dislike housework. One reason I like living in a small house is that it requires much less cleaning than a large house. I read a book a few years ago about "making your house do the housework," and although I don't remember all the advice it contained, I've been doing my best to organize this place so the ongoing maintenance is minimal.

As part of that process, today Dad and I are going to replace the flooring in the bedroom closets. Both bedrooms are carpeted, and carpeted closets are a pain in the you-know-what. The carpet traps lint and fallen buttons and is almost impossible to vacuum because of the tight space and the hanging clothes on the lower bars. Maybe this is just a personal fetish, but I've replaced the closet carpet with hard flooring in most of the houses I've owned over the years. This time I found some realistically oak-patterned vinyl strips that match my furniture on clearance at Lowe's, so we're going to install that.

Originally I was just going to cut out the carpet, tear up the pad, and slap the self-adhesive vinyl down on the underlying cement slab, but then my father (a stickler for doing things right) got into the act. So now I have some real oak thresholds to step down between the carpet and the vinyl, and we're going to rip off the mop boards in the closets and reinstall them after we've put down the new flooring.

I've already put up racks in my bedroom closet for shoes, purses, hats, and necklaces. The closet in the room I use as my office houses a wine rack on one wall and an office-supply organizer at the back; Dad will be building bookshelves on the other wall next week. By the time we're done, the closets will look better than some of the actual rooms in the house. And I will be able to clean the floors when they need it with a quick once-over with the whisk broom.

Weekly maid service would be better, but I'll take whatever small victories I can achieve in the war against housework.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Diet Diaries

Normally when I live alone (which I did for most of my adult life) my weight is stable because I follow the cardinal rules that weight loss guru Paul McKenna says naturally thin people observe: I eat only when I'm hungry, I eat what I'm hungry for, I pay attention to what I'm eating, and I stop as soon as I start to feel full.  Over the past two months, in fact, by following this routine I've lost the extra weight I gained while living with my parents and stabilized at my previous poundage.  That's in the normal zone for my height, but to reach my ideal BMI I still need to lose another 15 pounds, and it's not happening.

I think the problem is a habit I picked up while living with Barry - one last snack before bedtime.  This is usually in response to mouth hunger, not stomach hunger, but if I don't eat something I can't sleep because I'm lying in bed obsessing about food.  The diet literature I've read doesn't agree on whether evening eating is a good thing; some authors say late night snacks don't digest well and go right to the hips and stomach, but Weight Watchers says four hours is the longest one should go without eating (while awake, of course) in order to keep hunger under control and prevent food binges, and I go to bed more than four hours after supper.  I'm hoping the answer is not to stop eating before bed but to control how much I eat then.

I'm going to start tracking what I eat during the day.  Then, when the nighttime munchies attack, I'll know how many calories I can afford to ingest.  This will also give me an incentive to stop eating sooner at supper to be sure I have a few calories left for the end of the day.

A few years ago I was on the Weight Watchers online plan (trying to get rid of the eating-with-Barry weight) and the whole "planning what to eat for the entire day in advance" thing was a real pain.  I hope that adopting just the tracking system will make me more aware of what I'm eating and let me shave the 150 calories a day that will lose those 15 pounds over the next year.

"My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four.  Unless there are three other people."  ~Orson Welles

Monday, September 26, 2011

Kitty Cannabis

For Rusty's first Christmas with us, my sister Sue gave her a blue fake-sherpa catnip mouse about the size of a newborn kitten.  The mouse, which also had a rawhide tail and a goofy felt face and ears, quickly became known as BooBoo the Big Blue Mousy.  Rusty is always deeply suspicious of new things, so she detoured around BooBoo for a couple of months before finally checking him out.  Then she seemed to decide he was actually her kitten; she carried him everywhere, slept with him, and washed him whenever she took a bath herself.  She was an abusive mother, though; every once in a while she kicked the crap out of him.

When Tom and I would go on vacation and leave her with a kitty sitter, we would return to find her sitting with BooBoo on our bed, as if she were saying to him, "It's just us now, kid.  Stick with me and I'll take care of you."  Once when we boarded her at the vet's we sent BooBoo along and he didn't make the trip home; I rushed back to the vet immediately to retrieve him and avoid a feline meltdown.

Over the last couple of years her attachment to BooBoo had faded and he'd become just another one of her toys.  Listening to her wail earlier this week, though, it occurred to me that she might welcome his presence again for a couple of reasons - as an old buddy to snuggle up to and as a conveyance for the cat equivalent of medical marijuana.  I dug BooBoo out of the toy basket, cleaned him up a little, rolled him in the freshest catnip I could find, and gave him to Rusty.  She grabbed him and started washing, and was quiet for the rest of the day.  I've been renewing the catnip whenever she gets a little whiny and the whining stops immediately.  I check under the bed occasionally and they're cuddling as if she'd never turned her fickle back on him.  Apparently he's once more her BFF.

Our current vet, Dr. Hauser (please, no Doggie Howser jokes) told me that all I can do now is try to keep Rusty as comfortable as possible for the weeks or months left to her.  I guess that means I'd better lay in a substantial supply of catnip.

"A cat doesn't know what it wants and wants more of it." ~Richard Hexem

Sunday, September 25, 2011

More Time Travel

I've mentioned before that I'm fascinated by books and movies about time travel and alternate universes, and why not?  Look back at your own life.  Isn't there at least one decision that, had you chosen differently, would have sent your life in an entirely different direction?  My own life has at least four pivotal points that could have turned me into someone else.  I'm not inventive enough to imagine the entire cascade of events that could result from taking a different path, but I enjoy reading or watching the products of those who are.

Perhaps my favorite "what if" movie is Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow.  Paltrow plays Helen Quilley, a worker bee at a London PR firm who is fired at the beginning of the film.  She returns to the Underground station to take the train back home.  At that point the movie splits in two and shows us what happens if she does and doesn't catch that particular train.  In one version she slips on board at the last possible second; in the other, the sliding doors close in her face.  After that the two versions of her life are entirely different - or are they?

Even in the scenes where she is supposed to be depressed and downtrodden, Gwyneth Paltrow is luminous, and the writers did an amazing job of showing us the two alternate realities while keeping us clear on which one we are viewing at a given time.  The end of the film is probably the reason the movie doesn't get better ratings from most reviewers; one of the timelines has an unhappy ending, and the other is hopeful but ambiguous.  Of course, hopeful but ambiguous is probably the usual outcome in real life, too.

"There are two sides to every story. Helen is about to live both of them the same time." ~tagline for Sliding Doors

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Past Time

My Maricopa county library card expired while I was in the middle of my move and I wasn't able to renew it because I didn't have any proof of my current address.  Now that I'm more or less settled I need to take a utility bill with me to the nearest branch and get a new card, but for the time being I have been re-reading old favorites from my personal library.  The latest is Time and Again by Jack Finney.

I've always been fascinated by the possibilities of time travel and alternate universes, and Finney is possibly my favorite author to deal with these issues.  Time and Again was written in 1970 but is still absolutely current because, unlike many time travel novels, the action almost all takes place in the past - in 1882, to be exact.  The protagonist, Simon Morley, is an illustrator who feels out of place in his own life.   Despite a flourishing career and a beautiful girlfriend, he yearns for a slower, gentler era - and then he meets a scientist whose unique theories allow him to sideslip the timestream into the past, where he finds the real girl (and life) of his dreams.

One of the unusual features of Time and Again is that Finney has included actual Victorian-era photos and etchings of (supposedly) the people Simon meets and the places he visits during his trip to late-nineteenth-century New York City.  Ice skaters in Central Park, the Dakota apartment building, Trinity Church, the future site of the Empire State building - here is how they looked in 1882.  The real historical events in the book, such as how funds were raised for the erection of the Statue of Liberty, have also been meticulously researched.  My guess is that Finney would have taken a trip to 1882 in a heartbeat had anyone offered it to him.

Read this book and you'll want to go there, too.

"Go back to a wonderful world and have a wonderful time doing it!" ~New York Times review of Time and Again

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Collecting Antagonism

It never fails.  I move.  I get a new phone number.  I get more calls for the last X holders of that phone number than for me.  The most amazing phone call I ever got for a previous number-holder was the attempted collect call from Barbados from the person's grandmother, after I had had the number for over two years.  Who would move and leave their granny in the dark for that long?

My newest phone number is apparently associated with three deadbeats.  Fortunately I was able to speak to live human beings about two of them and put an immediate stop to the annoying calls.  The third collection agency, however, was a horse of a different color.

Every day the phone rings.  A recording (they rotate the recorded voices) tells me the name of the person being hounded and says to hang up or disconnect if I am NOT that person.  So I do.  And another call rolls in the very next day.

Up till now the number of the collection agency was blocked, but today their name briefly appeared on the phone's display.  I looked them up online and called the "Contact Us For Immediate Attention!" number.  The woman who answered was in Kansas City, but I'm surprised I didn't melt the receiver in her hand long distance.  I don't believe they'll be calling again.

I understand the need for collection agencies.  I understand that automated calls allow them to be more efficient.  What I don't understand is how they can tell hapless victims of misdirected collection attempts that hanging up will discontinue the harassment and then keep right on calling.

At least I know who they are now.  One more call and they'll be hearing from the Better Business Bureau instead of from me.

"Creditors have better memories than debtors." ~Benjamin Franklin

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sending My Iron On Vacation

Because the bed in my new house is smaller than the one I had before, I had to buy all new bedding when I moved.  The comforter and its matching bedskirt and pillow shams came stuffed into a giant ziplock bag and emerged covered with wrinkles.  At the time my iron was still packed in an unidentified box, so I made the bed with the new bedding and hoped the wrinkles would shake out over time.  They haven't.  The thought of removing the bedskirt from under the mattress and wrestling my overstuffed comforter on and off the ironing board - or dancing around the bed with my iron and its too-short cord - has kept me from dealing with the situation.  Until now.

Yesterday I bought a bottle of Downy Wrinkle Release.  I've never used it before but it looked as if it might be the answer to my wrinkly bed, and it was.  I was amazed by how quickly and easily the wrinkles vanished after relatively few squirts of miracle spray.  I expected a nasty chemical smell but didn't get that, either; the aroma is really quite pleasant.  I now have wrinkle-free bedclothes and am planning a Wrinkle Release assault on my favorite linen shirt.  If it works as well on that, I may permanently retire my iron.

Too bad none of the miracle wrinkle removers for human skin is this fast and effective.

"Age does not bring you wisdom, age brings you wrinkles. " ~Estelle Getty 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Going Bananas AND Nuts

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a huge fan of bananas.  Once in a while they taste great.  A banana a day would be disgusting.

For some reason, though, my body has a tendency toward low potassium.  I always know when I'm in the problem zone because I start having leg cramps and the middle toes on my left feet curl under and lock there (painfully).  Time to eat some dates - or a banana, which is usually a lot cheaper.

I finally found a way to eat bananas that makes them tastier and increases their nutritional value.  I split them lengthwise and spread the halves with a little peanut butter (preferably chunky).  Potassium and protein, all in one package.

Now I just need to find a way to make beets palatable...

"On a traffic light green means go and yellow means yield, but on a banana it's just the opposite. Green means hold on, yellow means go ahead, and red means where the hell did you get that banana at ... " - Mitch Hedberg

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Positive Setback

Today I paid my first full-month electrical bill for the new house.  Ouch.  The fact that the bill came bundled with the notice of a pending rate increase added insult to injury.

The rate plan I'm on charges peak rates from noon to 7pm weekdays and off-peak rates (much cheaper) the rest of the time.  I've been doing my best not to use much energy during peak hours.  I wash dishes, do the laundry, clean the house, watch TV and cook during off-peak times.  I even try not to switch on the lights until 7pm.  However, I can't shut everything down.  Since I work at home, my computer and its friends the modem and the wireless router are usually on all day long.  Air conditioning is the major energy user, though, especially since the Phoenix area just sweltered through the hottest August in recorded history, and September is shaping up to be more of the same.

My sister is an electrical engineer who works for the local power company, and her answer to the heat pump's drain on her bank account was to put in a set-back thermostat.  During the summer she runs the air conditioning full blast all morning at off-peak rates until her house could almost be used to hang meat; then it shuts off for most of the afternoon, turning on again in time to cool down the house (if necessary) before she returns.  Often the house is so cold by noon that it's warmed up just enough to be comfortable in the evening, and she claims to save a bundle during the summer.  I haven't found a set-back thermostat yet that will work with my heat pump, but I'm sure I can with just a little more online research.

I'm not positive that I can follow her strategy precisely; as cold as her house sometimes gets, I might go into hibernation around lunchtime.  Still, if by installing a set-back thermostat I can save even $20 or $30 during the hottest and coldest months, I can stand a little temporary discomfort.  Over the long run, my bank account will certainly thank me.

"And God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected. " ~Spike Milligan

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Greens without Guilt

Tonight I made a spinach and cheese omelet for dinner and I didn't rewash the pre-washed spinach.

This may not seem odd to you, but in the past, every time I decided not to wash already-washed greens, a little voice in the back of my brain (it sounded suspiciously like my mother) said "You don't know whether they really did a good job!")

This week, though, I was catching up on magazines I didn't read during the move, and one of them was a past edition of Chef's Illustrated in which the kitchen staff reported on testing the bacteria count of various pre-washed greens before and after rewashing them.  Their conclusion: Rewashing the greens actually introduced contamination.

What a relief.  If the scrupulous staff at Chef's Illustrated couldn't improve the cleanliness of salad greens by rewashing them in their professionally cleaned kitchens, I certainly can't.  In the future I'm going to blithely throw those pre-washed greens into the salad bowl or the cooking pot without a second thought - or perhaps with a sense of relief.

Salad "freshens without enfeebling and fortifies without irritating." ~Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Bracing for More Loss

The first eight years I lived in New York, I was in apartments that didn't allow pets.  It was the longest period of my life without a cat, and I was suffering serious fur withdrawal by the time I married Tom.

Tom was also a cat lover.  According to his younger son Jeff, before his parents' divorce, Tom spent every night watching TV with Jeff's cat Inky curled up on his lap.  That ended with the marriage, since Tom's first wife retained custody of both Jeff and Inky.

We were both pleased, then, when our then-landlord finally caved and agreed to let us adopt a cat if we would increase our damage deposit.  We immediately started making the rounds of the local cat shelters.  I saw several cats I would gladly have taken home, but Tom was much more choosy.  Finally we visited a cat store only a few blocks from our apartment.  They specialized in purebreds - I fell in love with the fluffy, friendly Scotch Fold kittens, although not with their price tags - but the rear of the store housed several rescued street cats.  I yearned for a big old tom who reminded me of my long-dead Sunny, but the shop owner told me that he was totally feral and they were negotiating with a farm owner to take him.

The next cage over held a half-grown orange kitten.  When the shopkeeper took her out and handed her to Tom, she snuggled closer and stared up at him with adoring eyes.  He immediately said, "I like this one.  Let's take her."  And we did.

Rusty's prior owner had apparently trained her with a heavy hand before throwing her out; she shrank from being petted and (after that first day) struggled every time we tried to pick her up for the first two years.  She stayed strictly off the furniture for months until we convinced her that we wanted her to share the bed and the sofa with us.  Over time she bonded with us so well that she throws a major fit whenever I leave her, even with the most indulgent kitty-sitters in the world.

I was upset last week when Rusty started bumping into things, and even more so last Friday when the vet confirmed that her eyesight is gone.  She doesn't have cataracts, her irises still respond to light, and the retinas and blood vessels in her eyes still look fine, but the vet threw cotton balls in front of her face and she didn't even blink.

Today the results of her blood tests came back.  Her kidney function has been gradually declining over the last couple of years; apparently it's grown much worse since her last tests in April.  She's also developed high blood pressure.  Both of those things have probably contributed to her loss of sight.

The vet says that most cats who lose their vision adapt pretty well after an initial period of confusion, as long as no one switches the furniture around.  Given Rusty's age and her kidney condition, though, she probably won't be with me much longer.

Queen Elizabeth II of England referred to the 1992, the year her favorite home burned, as her "annus horribilis;" this is shaping up to be mine, not to mention poor Rusty's.

"Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet."  ~Colette

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Back to the Vet

For the last few days Rusty has been wandering around the house howling for no apparent reason.  I've offered her food, water, treats, a clean box, love, and the porch, to no avail.

Tonight she walked around the kitchen bumping into furniture and walls as if she couldn't see them and then she retreated under the bed.  I can't get her to come out.

I'm calling the vet the first thing in the morning.  I hope this isn't the beginning of the end, but my poor baby is 15 years old, which definitely puts her into the Senior Cat category.  Keeping my fingers crossed...

"If there is a heaven, it's certain our animals are to be there. Their lives become so interwoven with our own, it would take more than an archangel to detangle them." ~ Pam Brown

Monday, August 29, 2011

An Instant Classic

Last week I finally got to watch The King's Speech, which won last year's Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.  I hesitated about reviewing it because I may have been the last person in America who hadn't already seen the film, but I enjoyed it so much I can't resist raving about it.

As you probably know, the movie is the story of George VI's struggle to overcome his speech impediment, culminating in his live radio broadcast to the people of Great Britain announcing the start of the Second World War.  Hearing this summary of the film I had assumed that he took the lessons specifically for the purpose of readying himself for this important speech, but in fact he had started them years earlier while still the Duke of York.  Even then he had been expected to speak in public as one of the representatives of his father, George V, and every attempt plunged him deeper into anger and depression.

The speech instructor is played by Geoffrey Rush, one of England's great character actors (probably best known as Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) who is also one of the film's executive producers.  I would have expected him to walk away with the movie, and he does do a marvelous job, but Colin Firth more than holds his own as the royal stammerer.  He is completely believable as the shy, tongue-tied Duke with hidden reserves of anger and strength.

The rest of the cast is also wonderful, particularly Helena Bonham Carter as the Duke's wife Elizabeth and Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop.  The two little girls who play Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret are gravely adorable, especially when giving the royal wave alongside their parents.  The costumes and sets are terrific, too; I loved the seedy Harley Street office-cum-apartment where Lionel Logue, the speech therapist, lives and works, and the catty portrayal of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson is amusing and, if true, very enlightening.  If you somehow missed The King's Speech when it was making the rounds of the theaters, rent it now; you won't regret it.

Hear the actual speech by George VI:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mainlining Fashion

Last week I finally gave up and hooked up the cable box and the TV.  I still have a lot of other equipment that's lying in the bottom of the entertainment center with its loose wires waving pathetically in the air, but at least I'm no longer cut off from TCM, Masterpiece Mystery, and my guilty pleasures, What Not to Wear and How Do I Look?  If you've never seen either show, their premise is that some hopelessly unfashionable (usually female) person is ambushed and made over by professional stylists.

Although I suppose I'd be mortified if my friends and family actually turned me in to the fashion police, I can't help fantasizing about someone offering me a free trip to New York or LA, a new wardrobe, and a fabulous makeover; I think I could manage to overcome the initial embarrassment after receiving The Full Treatment.  Well, maybe I'd be scarred for life by the sight of my rear end in the 360 degree mirror, but at least I'd emerge from the experience with better camouflage for all my lumps and bumps.

Since I'm unlikely to be rescued from fashion failure by Stacy and Clinton or Jeannie Mai in the flesh, I do try to benefit from their electronically delivered advice.  Over the past few years I've stopped wearing baggy giveaway T-shirts unless I'm refinishing furniture or painting walls.  Since I can't find pants that fit off the rack, I found a tailor who can alter them appropriately.  I've even made my makeup brighter to counteract my fading tan.  I still need a personal visit from Ted Gibson to magically improve my hair, but maybe if I keep watching the shows I will eventually see a style that's right for me and that a local stylist can replicate.

I must admit, though, that I don't want to invest too much money in a new and improved look.  If I manage to lift my look completely out of schlumpiness all by myself, I'll never get that professional fashion ambush.

"The finest clothing made is a person's skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this." ~Mark Twain

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A New Low in Cat Pampering

Because this is Arizona and the climate is very dry, I try to drink a lot of water every day.  I even take a glass of water to bed with me in case I get thirsty during the night.  (The glass sits on the nightstand, of course; it doesn't actually join me under the covers.)

While Rusty and I were staying with my parents, she apparently noticed this phenomenon for the first time and decided to help herself to a drink.  She hopped up on the bed, strolled over to the nightstand, and stuck her snout into my glass.  At first I tried to shoo her away when she did this, but she doesn't really drink enough water, so I finally started putting two glasses on the nightstand every night - a plastic tumbler with a cover and a straw for me, and a short wide glass for Rusty.

So now we're in our new house and I've been using a styrofoam cup for Rusty's nightcap, but I leave the glass there all day for her, too, and it looked pretty scruffy.  I scouted around the house for another short fat glass that I don't normally use, and there it was - an orphaned highball glass that had originally been Tom's.  Its partner broke several years ago while being washed and I never replaced it.

Voila: I now have one of the few cats in the entire world - if not the only one - with a Waterford crystal highball glass for a water dish.  (No spoiled cats in this house, oh, no...)

"I tell my wife that you can't spoil a cat. That's the way they are supposed to be treated and anything less is unacceptable." ~Robert Megee

Monday, August 22, 2011

Armed and Ready to Dice

I have some important milestones coming up over the next couple of weeks.  I will have owned my house for a month.  I will be trying to ignore another birthday.  And I will have been blogging for an entire year (didn't think I could do it, did you?).

To celebrate, I've been buying gifts for myself and the house.  Most of them have been little things like a tumbler to replace the one someone dropped and broke and a spoon rest to keep the cooking surface of my smooth-top range clean.  A few have been bigger - a second-hand lateral file for my business records and a dishwasher (this house didn't have one) that was on final clearance because it was a discontinued model.  A few days ago, though, I bought myself an expensive present at full price, something I almost never do; it's a beautiful set of Wusthof kitchen knives with a sharpener and a wood block.

I've never owned really good knives before and I can already see that I need to be retrained.  "Razor sharp" appears to be an understatement; if I continue to chop, slice, and dice with my usual vigor, I could easily amputate part (or all) of an important finger.  Yes, I keep my fingers bent under when I'm holding food with them, but the chef's knife in this set could probably take off an entire knuckle without half trying.  Time to sign up for the Basic Knife Skills class at the local Sur la Table.

On the other hand: Barry was always trying to convince me that I needed a large shotgun for personal defense when he wasn't around, but with these knives in my kitchen, I have all the deadly weapons that I'll ever need.

"At the root of many a woman's failure to become a great cook lies her failure to develop a workmanlike regard for knives. " ~Robert Farrar Capon

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In Praise of Straw

Have you ever moved into a new home and found relics left by the previous owners?  Over the years I've seen everything from cleaning and gardening equipment to a sofa sleeper, old clothing and bath soap abandoned in the rush to vacate the premises.  The previous owners here left behind a coffee table, a tea cart, and, yes, a sizable stash of cleaning products, including an authentic straw broom.

I can remember my mother using a straw broom when I was a small child (for that reason it's the type of broom I grew up thinking witches ride), but she switched to synthetics early on.  I don't recall ever owning a real straw broom myself; I assumed because the straws were uneven to start with and more liable to break than synthetic bristles that it would be more likely to leave dirt behind and wear out more quickly.  For a while I even gave up brooms entirely in favor of a Swiffer.

Yesterday, though, I grabbed the left-behind straw broom more or less at random and used it to sweep the tiled bathroom, hallway, and kitchen, and I was amazed at how effective it was.  It removed dust from the corners better than either a Swiffer or a synthetic broom, it didn't have any static issues, and the sweeping actually took less time than usual.  I believe I'm going to hang on to it and put my old synthetic broom out in the garage sale pile.

I guess sometimes progress isn't.

"A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners.” ~Irish Saying

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Make Mine Macy's

For many years Macy's has been my favorite department store.  We didn't have one in the town where I grew up but I was familiar with the flagship store as the terminus of the annually televised Thanksgiving Day parade, and I paid it a visit as soon as I moved to Brooklyn.  During the time I lived in New York City I also shopped and loved Bloomingdales, Lord and Taylors, and A&S, but Macy's was always The Best - partly because it was (and is) the world's largest department store, crammed with Great Stuff; partly because of The Cellar, a basement full of more fabulous cookware, dishes, and gourmet food that any specialty kitchen store; and partly because their salespeople were always well-trained, knowledgeable, and (oddly enough in New York) polite.

Now that I am in Arizona I am shopping in mall-based Macy's stores.  They are smaller and less well-equipped than The Mother Shop but I still adore them.  Last week they were running their annual home sale, so I visited the nearest outpost (the store in Arrowhead Towne Center) to browse.  Because some of my stemware had been broken by the movers, I headed for the section of housewares dedicated to china and crystal, where an employee named Lynda immediately asked me if I needed help.

I suppose I could have told her I was looking for Waterford wineglasses, but I was still hoping to find them for half price on E-Bay, so I said I was just looking.  She moved with me as I wandered through the department, chatting idly but not pressuring me in any way.  Then I saw a sale sign that made my heart beat a little faster.

Several years ago I fell in love with Mikasa's Italian Countryside pattern of everyday china.  I asked Barry for (and received) a starter set for my birthday that year, and I've been adding bits and pieces ever since.  This year I had been thinking of buying the salt and pepper shakers to sit on the table in my new kitchen, and lo and behold, Macy's had the pattern on sale with some seriously deep discounts.

I turned to Lynda and asked whether the store had the salt and pepper shakers in stock.  After ransacking the display area to no avail, she checked the inventory records and discovered that three sets were supposedly lurking in the storeroom.  She headed back there to search for them.

The minute she was gone, the thought crossed my mind, "Maybe I should have asked her about a butter dish, too."  So I was blown away when she emerged from the storeroom with the salt and pepper shakers and a butter dish.

THIS is why I love Macy's.  Who else hires telepathic salespeople?

"Here is a simple but powerful rule: always give people more than what they expect to get." ~Nelson Boswell

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My New Favorite Farmers Market

One of the ironies of life is that everywhere I lived in New York City, I was within walking distance of an awesome Farmers Market, but now that I live closer to actual farmers, the Farmers Markets are few and far between.  Most of the Phoenix area Farmers Markets are also seasonal, closing down completely for the summer months.  I was thrilled, therefore, that my new home is within easy reach of a Farmers Market that was open yesterday despite the heat.

The market is located at the Citadelle Plaza in Glendale, a few miles east of my house, and it's open every Wednesday from 5 to 9 pm.  This week the booths included bakers, a beekeeper with about 20 different types of honey, organic greengrocers, a vendor of frozen wild-caught Alaskan seafood, and a rancher selling free-range local beef and lamb.  I bought locally-pressed olive oil infused with basil, beautiful organic tomatoes, and a fresh loaf of bread containing figs, walnuts, and goat cheese.  My sister bought a pear and blue cheese loaf, and some gorgeous round red Comice pears from the same grower who had provided them to the baker.  Great stuff.

Today I had a big lunch, so for dinner I sliced one of the tomatoes and drizzled it with the olive oil, cracked black pepper, and sea salt.  I followed that with a bowl of Imagine Sweet Pea soup garnished with carmelized onions, a chunk of the bread, and a glass of red wine.  Absolutely fabulous.  Next trip I'm thinking of springing for some of the homemade pasta and a few baby eggplant.  I have this recipe for pasta with eggplant, lamb, and goat cheese...

"Farmers markets are green shoots coming out of the gun. They represent hope and they need to be cultivated." ~Jerry Brown

Monday, August 15, 2011

I'll Never Be Hungry Again

Some of you may recall that I scored a giant bag of cheap books at this year's VNSA book sale.  With all the upheaval this spring and summer, though, I just finished reading through the lot.  The last one was The Hungry Years by William Leith.  This is an autobiographical book by a British journalist who claims to have been addicted, at one time or another, to nicotine, alcohol, sex, and practically every drug known to man.  The Hungry Years is the story of his struggle with food addiction.

At the beginning of the book Leith is on his way to interview Dr. Robert Atkins, the low-carb diet guru.  He reviews his past misadventures with eating and dieting and hovers between skepticism and an intense desire to believe that The Atkins Diet is The One that will finally help him conquer his weight problem.  Part of the diet's attraction for him was the idea that nothing was wrong with him; the extra poundage was all the food's fault.  After finally meeting Atkins (shortly before his death), Leith did in fact go on the diet and lost a significant amount of weight.  He became such a convert to the low-carb way of life that he even proselytized his own parents.  At this point I was expecting Leith to end the book with a ringing endorsement of Atkins and a commitment to avoid the evils of carbohydrates for the rest of his life.

He surprised me, though.  Although The Atkins Diet allowed Leith to keep his eating in check, his other addictions started to spiral out of control.  He eventually had to admit that the problem was indeed in himself and sought professional health.  By the end of the book he was eating normal amounts of normal foods including carbohydrates.

Leith's writing style is sharp enough to draw blood.  (I winced at his description of the heavy person's decision to start wearing his or her shirts untucked as "Going Floaty.")  The good news: after reading some of the author's descriptions of his insatiable binges, you may never want to overeat again.  The bad news: after reading those passages, you may never want to eat again.  An interesting book, but one I will probably recycle to the VNSA next year.

"My hunger frightens me.  The fatter I get, the more I want to eat.  The fatter I get, the more comfort I need." ~William Leith, The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Super Maid

OK, I haven't been blogging this week because I've been exhausted after several hard days of unpacking and cleaning, but strangely, I wasn't doing it at my house.

This week Barry finally moved into his new home, and a couple of days before he called and asked me whether I would help him unpack.  I interpreted this to mean "assist him to unpack" and said sure.  He offered to pay me.  I said that wouldn't be necessary.  Then he started talking about how much his back hurt and how large piles of unopened boxes would stress him out and I understood that he was really asking me to unpack everything for him.  And clean up afterward.  And then help him clean the friends' house where he's been staying for the last  few weeks.

One of the stresses in our relationship was that I like my things to be neat and well-organized, and so does Barry, but he's not willing to do any of the work to keep them that way.  He apparently expected brownies to clean up after him every night.  No matter how many times he whined because he couldn't find something, he either wasn't willing or wasn't able to pick a designated spot for the item to live where he would always be able to locate it in the future.  If I put something of his away, fine, because I remembered where it was, but if he dropped anything at random it was lost indefinitely and somehow that was All My Fault.

Sorry, I didn't mean to rant.  The point I was going to make here is that when Barry needed someone to organize his new life and at least start him out with a clean place, he knew exactly who to ask - Ms. Obsessively Neat.

So far I have been able to unpack and arrange about 90% of everything he owns, and his friends' house is as clean as I can get it without shampooing the carpet.  One more day of the blitz and I should be done.  Of course, his new house has three times as much closet and cupboard space as mine, so that made the whole process go much more swiftly - my infamous "treat this closet as a jigsaw puzzle" skills were not required; I was able to more or less shovel everything into a reasonable logical spot.

Maybe that's a job opportunity I've been overlooking - helping new residents and seasonal visitors to unpack, for a price.

“The time to enjoy a European trip [or a new home] is about three weeks after unpacking.” ~George Ade