Monday, January 31, 2011

A Fictional Funeral - Or Is It?

When I find an author I like, I hunt down all of his or her past works and anxiously await the next new book, so I'm amazed that I missed the release of the latest novel in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series.  Of course, Ms. Bujold has spent the last few years writing about other universes - the last all-new Vorkosigan book came out in 2003 - so I had begun to think she was abandoning the saga.  Last week, though, I stumbled on Cryoburn in my local Barnes and Noble at 50% off.  It had to come home with me.

Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan meet in Shards of Honor, and its sequels follow their family - particularly their son Miles - for the next 40 years.  The series has often been described as space opera because it's situated in a future that includes wormhole-traveling spaceships and exotic genetic engineering, but that's too simplistic.  The novels are fun and action-packed, but the characters are fully realized and most of the plots also force the reader to think about ethical dilemmas.  What is the meaning of honor?  When, if ever, is military action justified?  If human cloning becomes commonplace, what should be the responsibilities (if any) of the cloned person toward the clone?  Cryoburn explores the ethics of cheating death through cryostasis, and at the very end the author kills off one of the central characters in the saga.

Cryoburn is probably not the best starter book for the Vorkosigan series; although Ms. Bujold provides enough backstory to keep new readers from being lost, the death at the end will not have the resonance for them that it has for long-time fans.  For me, though, the last chapter was so devastating that I've been sniffling on and off for the last two days.  I know that's ridiculous - I can pick up the book where the deceased appeared for the first time and start our relationship all over again whenever I want - but the character was so well conceived and developed over the course of the books that I feel as if I've lost an actual friend.  Either Ms. Bujold has a fabulous imagination, or she's actually a time traveler earning a living by reporting future history.

"If you're trying to take a roomful of people by surprise, it's a lot easier to hit your targets if you don't yell going through the door." ~Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Warrior's Apprentice," 1986

Sunday, January 30, 2011

One Potato, Two

The firm that landscaped our backyard installed two giant self-watering urns for flowers, but the hot Arizona summers kept killing off everything we planted there.  This year we got smart and put in herbs, which are flourishing despite (or perhaps because of) the heat.  I also planted some Swiss chard last fall with this soup in mind.  We had it for lunch today after the latest chard harvest.

Although I used to make potato soup with ham and heavy cream, once we decided to start eating healthier food I looked for a lower-fat alternative.  This recipe was inspired by one of the Olive Garden's soups but uses Italian-flavored ground turkey instead of pork sausage.

Potato Soup with Turkey and Greens

4 potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
1/2 pound Italian-flavored ground turkey (I use Jennie-O)
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth or bouillon
1/2 cup dry white wine
Pepper to taste
2 cups Swiss chard or spinach

Peel and thinly slice the potatoes; set aside in a bowl of hot water to soak.  Heat the olive oil in a stockpot and cook the onion in it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent.  Turn up the heat; add the ground turkey and brown it.  Drain the potatoes and add to the pot along with the broth, wine, and chard (if using).  Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through.  About 5 minutes before the soup is done, taste and add pepper (and some salt, if you absolutely have to) as desired and the spinach (if you are using it instead of chard).  Makes about 6 bowls of soup.

"What was paradise, but a garden full of vegetables and herbs and pleasure?  Nothing there but delights."  
~ William Lawson

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Comfort Food? Not So Much...

The latest season of The Biggest Loser is well underway, and we've been watching it every week.  This Tuesday the contestants faced a truly diabolical temptation; two at a time, they were shut for several minutes into a room lined floor to ceiling with their favorite foods.

The foods fell into two general categories: overloaded with sugar (chocolate cake, monkey bread) or overloaded with fat (fried chicken, monster cheeseburgers, pizza, ribs).  Interestingly, some of the dieters said they had previously found these foods irresistible, but after several weeks away from them, found their sight and smell repulsive.  This confirms some of the information found in a book that everyone concerned about nutrition should read -  The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by  David Kessler, M.D., former head of the Food and Drug Administration.  I mentioned it briefly in an earlier post, but I'd like to give it a longer plug now.

Barry and I found out about the book late in 2009 when we saw an interview with Dr. Kessler on PBS in which he discussed his own past problems with eating and the addictive qualities of fat, sugar, and salt.  Intrigued, we read The End of Overeating and were appalled by the extent to which our natural appetites have apparently been subverted by the food industry in this country.  Barry in particular has a strong dislike of being manipulated, and The End of Overeating clearly demonstrates that those who process the things we eat have manipulated our taste buds at least as thoroughly as their advertising agencies have managed our expectations of food.

The bad news: some foods containing high levels of sugar, fat and salt hit the pleasure center of the brain so hard that they override the body's natural feeling of satiation and we continue eating them long past the point at which we should feel full.  The good news: as with any addictive substances, we can "kick the habit" with healthier food choices.  Except for a few lapses over the holiday season, Barry and I have been doing just that for the last year, and for the most part we are no longer tempted by foods that are dripping grease or coated with sugar.

Except...I don't know whether I could have turned away from all the plates of macaroni and cheese in The Biggest Loser's temptation.  That alone is enough to make me believe that Dr. Kessler is correct about the addictive qualities of fat.

"Kessler identifies the cues that lead to overeating and offers some simple, practical tools to help control one's impulses." ~Booklist

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Coming to a Boil

The first office I worked in after college had what was then a fairly common caste system; managers and senior employees didn’t have to make coffee at lunchtime or for our breaks, but underlings did.  We rotated according to a strict schedule.  Some of the others so resented the task that by the time it was my shift, the pot was practically black with residue.  Since a clean pot makes better coffee I would grimly scrub it out, but by the time my turn rolled around again it would once again be filthy.  After a couple of promotions, I was overjoyed to be removed from the rotation and I never had to make office coffee again - until my current employer moved to our latest location.

Now we have not one, but two coffee machines, and no one assigned to make the coffee.  The first person who wants a cup each morning makes the initial pot; after the carafe is empty again, it stays that way until someone else cracks or my boss goes looking for a likely victim.  Fairly often, the person who cracks is me.

In the bad old days I would have been angry about this, but I’ve mellowed with age.  I now consider brewing office coffee a matter of survival rather than status.  If I make the coffee, it won’t be as pale as dishwater or strong enough to trot a cockroach on.  I also do my best to scrape the accumulated crud out of the inside of the glass carafe so the coffee won’t have a nasty bitter aftertaste.  I’m not quite desperate enough yet to start buying fresh beans out of my own pocket, but I may yet come to that.  The main thing holding me back is the knowledge that the better the coffee is, the faster that damned pot will empty.

“I believe humans get a lot done, not because we're smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.”  ~Flash Rosenberg

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wok This Way

Normally I try to shop for a week's worth of food at a time, but sometimes I overestimate how many vegetables we're going to eat.  Because of that I always keep a package of tofu on hand for stir-fry.  This doesn't pretend to be an authentic Asian dish, but it's low-fat, relatively low-sodium, tastes good, and is flexible enough to use up whatever leftover veggies are lurking in the refrigerator.

Tofu Stir-Fry with Soba Noodles

1 bundle (about 3 ounces) soba noodles
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 scallions (green onions) cut into 1/2 inch slices
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into small strips
1 cup sliced fresh or soaked dry mushrooms
1 cup chopped celery or fennel
2 cups sliced bok choy or cabbage
1 12-ounce package extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
Pepper and (if necessary) salt to taste

Cook the soba noodles according to the instructions on the package; drain and set aside.  In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, hoisin sauce, brown sugar, cilantro, ginger and garlic; set aside.  Heat half the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat.  Stir-fry the vegetables in batches (about 2-3 minutes each), removing when crisp-tender.  Add the rest of the oil as needed.  When the vegetables are cooked, stir-fry the tofu briefly.  Add the sauce and stir until the tofu is coated with it and the remaining sauce is slightly reduced.  Return the vegetables to the wok and add the noodles.  Stir until all ingredients are coated with sauce and heated through.  Eat immediately.  Makes two substantial servings.

Variations: Add red pepper flakes for more zip.  If you don't want a vegetarian dish, add chicken, small shrimp, or lean pork, or substitute one of them for the tofu.  Experiment with exotic mushrooms, water chestnuts, and bean sprouts.  If you don't care for the flavor of buckwheat, use udon rather than soba noodles, or omit the noodles and serve the stir-fry over brown rice.

"As long as there's pasta and Chinese food in the world, I'm okay."  ~Michael Chang

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dreaming of the 80's

Last night, to celebrate finishing all the homework I had to correct, I sat down to watch a movie with Barry. He had filled our Netflix queue with horror movies and film noir but said he was in the mood for something more light-hearted, so before he could object, I popped one of my favorite chick flicks into the VCR.

American Dreamer is part spy thriller, part alternate life fantasy, and part slapstick comedy. It was released in the same year as Romancing the Stone and probably aimed at the same target market. JoBeth Williams stars as Cathy Palmer, a housewife who wins a trip to Paris in a writing contest.

The beginning of the film is a little uneven; Williams is not entirely believable as a downtrodden corporate wife, and the physical comedy in the cooking scene with her two sons is a little forced, but she and the movie both hit their stride in France. On her first day there she’s hit by a car and regains consciousness thinking she’s Rebecca Ryan, the Modesty Blaise-like heroine of a series of suspense novels. She collects, in turn, a designer wardrobe, Rebecca Ryan’s glamorous apartment, and Alan McMann, whom she mistakenly identifies as Dmitri, Rebecca’s beloved (but gay) sidekick. Alan (played convincingly by Tom Conti) is actually the son of Margaret McMann, the author of the Rebecca Ryan novels; he initially assumes one of his friends has hired Cathy as an elaborate practical joke. As bizarre incidents pile up, he decides that she’s mentally ill instead – and then people start shooting at them, and all his assumptions fall to pieces.

The supporting cast includes Giancarlo Giannini as a prominent French politician, James Staley as Cathy’s clueless husband, and Coral Browne, priceless as Margaret McMann; the plot takes some interesting twists; and the whirlwind tour of early 80’s couturier fashions is fabulous. I’m only sorry that my VHS tape is so old it’s really starting to look faded. Fortunately, Paramount recently released the movie on DVD in its original widescreen format; I may ask for it as my Valentine’s Day present this year. After hearing how loudly Barry laughed at Alan McMann’s increasingly desperate attempts to maintain his grip on reality, I think I have a good chance of getting a new copy.

“I drink to Rebecca Ryan! She's the first real woman I have met in all of France.” ~Russian ambassador, American Dreamer

Friday, January 21, 2011

Back in the Soup

Since we're back to eating right, I made Barry's favorite soup for lunch.  This is just about the only vegetarian meal he's not only willing but eager to eat.

Vegetable Soup with Millet

Cooking spray (like Pam)
1/2 cup chopped onions
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup carrots, peeled and sliced
1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic
3 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon vegetable base
1 can fire-roasted tomatoes in juice
1/4 cup hulled millet*
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 cups chopped mushrooms**
Pepper and (if necessary) salt to taste

Spray the bottom of a large saucepan or Dutch oven with the cooking spray.  Add the onions, celery, carrots and garlic; cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften and the onions start to turn translucent.  Add the remaining ingredient except the pepper and salt.  Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally; after 10 minutes, taste and add the pepper and optional salt.  After 25 minutes, remove the bay leaf and serve.  Makes about 4 bowls.

*If you don't like or can't find millet, substitute 1/4 cup pearl barley, orzo, or rice and adjust cooking time according to the directions on the package.

**Try cremini mushrooms, or dried wild mushrooms hydrated in low-sodium beef broth.

"It is impossible to think of any good meal, no matter how plain or elegant, without soup or bread in it. " ~M. F. K. Fisher

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Groping in the Dark

Last night we watched the latest movie Barry had ordered from Netflix, Dark City.  It was released in 1998 while Titanic was still hogging most of the available theaters and didn't make much of a splash then, but has gone on to become a small cult classic.  The version we saw was the director's cut; it's had the original opening voiceover removed, as well as some of the other changes originally insisted upon by the studio.

One of the reasons the film didn't do well when first released was that New Line Cinema marketed it as a horror movie.  It's actually a postmodern science fiction/fantasy/mystery pastiche.  The lighting and set design are low-tech but gorgeous, producing a noir atmosphere halfway between that of an Edward Hopper painting and Bladerunner.  Some of the costumes and special effects appear to have influenced the later Matrix films.  Rufus Sewell plays John Murdoch, the bewildered hero, and Keifer Sutherland, William Hurt, and Jennifer Connelly also turn in fine performances.  The plot line, which includes serial murder, telepathic powers and mysterious aliens, is fascinating but secondary; I thought Dark City was really about the meaning of memories and whether they define our humanity.

The director's cut DVD includes several special features, the most interesting of which is a series of interviews with the author, directors, screenwriter, Roger Ebert, and a couple of psychiatrists about what the filmmakers were trying to do and how well they achieved their objectives.  I've watched a lot of "The Making Of..." clips, and this was by far the most detailed and informative I've ever seen.  It made me want to study the architecture of Sir John Soane and read Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Dr. Daniel Schreber so that I could grasp all the deep inner meaning embedded in Dark City.

This movie will definitely leave you thinking about the nature of reality and what it means to be human.

"The only place home exists... is in your head." ~Dr. Schreber in Dark City

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Pity Party Is Over

OK, I've recovered from Monday's downward spiral.  My weight was down two pounds this morning, I finished grading half the final projects yesterday, and Barry is even in a better mood today.  I'm also willing to believe he deflected the compliment about my dancing because he wanted the other woman to feel better about being a beginner rather than to denigrate me.  His comment just caught me off guard and hit me squarely in the middle of a major insecurity.

I've mentioned before that I was a very uncoordinated child.  I was also pigeon-toed and my ankles turned in.  I wore orthopedic footwear until junior high; even today the sight of black-and-white saddle shoes gives me chills.  I took tap, ballet, aerobic and modern dance, karate, judo, and fencing lessons to improve my grace and coordination.  Then I smashed both legs in a car accident and walked like an arthritic penguin for years.  My orthopedic surgeon originally told me that I'd probably be dragging my now shorter right leg behind me for the rest of my life.  I religiously performed every strength and flexibility exercise I knew for 10 years before I was once again walking without an obvious limp.  I still have some residual pain in cold, damp weather, knees that won't let me ski or play racket sports, and toes with no feeling, but when I relearned to walk I paid particular attention to improving my balance so that my ankles no longer pronate.

Because of all this, compliments about my dancing mean a lot to me, and when Barry stamped on one the clumsy, pigeon-toed five-year-old inside me burst into tears.  I believe I've calmed her down, though, and today I'll be drinking my coffee out of this mug:

"Other people and things can stop you temporarily. You're the only one who can do it permanently."
~Zig Ziglar

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Scales of Judgement

Last night I felt really depressed.  It was one of those days when all the little things piled up.

The holiday season is well over and I still haven't put away all of the decorations.  Ghosts of Christmas Past, anyone?  Plus, during the stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas I ate too much and too much of the wrong stuff, so my pants are getting tight.  I knew I should have taken those goodies to work a little earlier...  I went a month without stepping on the scale because I knew the news would be bad.  As if avoidance solves anything.

On the job front: Lately the automatic scheduling software at the school I teach for has been doing odd things.  Part-timers like me are supposed to be limited to 4 classes at a time, but I was up to 5 for a while.  Now it wants me to teach grammar classes (which I don't enjoy) instead of web design (which I do).  Boo, hiss.  And speaking of web design classes, two sections of mine ended on Sunday so I have all their gigantic final projects to correct this week plus the usual weekly assignments from the other classes still in progress.

Relationship issues: Bear-y (I'm using that spelling on purpose) has been very grouchy for the past few days.  He fell and bruised his tailbone on the tile in our bathroom.  Now he's acting as if the sky has fallen because he didn't feel fine the next day.  Even though he admits it only hurts when he sits for a while, he's outraged that he still feels any pain at all and is using this as an excuse to avoid most of his usual chores and be waited on hand and foot.  I was horrified when he fell and I sympathize with his pain, but nobody cut me any slack after I cracked my tailbone in a skiing accident; I borrowed a rubber doughnut to sit on for six weeks and sucked it up.  This snarly attitude on his part may be partly responsible for the next incident in my litany of complaints.

Normally Barry and I take group dance lessons on Monday.  We've been taking them for several years from the same teacher, so we're repeating some of the sessions.  Because I follow well, the teacher usually uses me as her partner to demonstrate steps for the others.  Yesterday a new student told me that I dance beautifully.  Before I could even open my mouth to say "Thank you," Barry said, "We've had the class before."  Thanks for the support, cupcake; would "Yes, she does" have been too much of a stretch?  Okay, this is probably just one of those Asperger things, but that doesn't make it feel any better.

And, of course, this is the anniversary of my husband Tom's death.

The responsible adult way to have coped last night would have been to cook an excellent low-calorie meal, jolly Barry out of his bad mood, post something on my blog and then settle down to correcting that mountain of homework.  Instead I spent the evening ignoring Barry, playing mindless video games, and inhaling an entire bag of chips.  Can you spell "self-destructive?"  (At least it was a small bag of PopChips instead of a giant bag of Doritos with extra cheese, and I did the laundry in between games.)

So today, in a fit of remorse, I stepped on the scale (up, of course), ate a Spartan breakfast, and started grading final projects.  I'm a fourth of the way through them and taking a break to decide what kind of a salad to make for lunch.  This afternoon, if I'm feeling really masochistic, I may balance my checkbook.

I'm feeling a little better after venting, but venting won't make those extra pounds go away.  I'm hoping at least part of the weight is water retention due to the salt in the chips.  Back to the daily weigh-ins, at least for a while, I guess.  Maybe it's time to re-read Pollyanna, too.

"Concern should drive us into action and not into a depression. No man is free who cannot control himself. " ~Pythagoras  [Just like a man to offer unwelcome advice!]

Sunday, January 16, 2011

If Life Gives You Onions...

Barry and I both really like French onion soup, but since we started cutting the salt and fat in our diet we haven't been ordering it in restaurants.  Most of them use too much salt and the blanket of cheese draped over the top, while tasty, really ups the fat and calorie count.  In addition, melting the cheese under a broiler can heat the soup bowl to volcanic temperatures, so the diner can easily burn his or her tongue or fingers.  For a while we were eating canned low-sodium onion soup but it didn't have much taste; others must have thought so, too, because the local stores have stopped carrying it.  So, here is how I've been making our own onion soup.  It relies on slow cooking and good ingredients for flavor, so don't try to rush it or use cheap, tasteless Swiss cheese.  This recipe makes two appetizer-sized servings but can easily be doubled or quadrupled.

Caramelized Onion Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil (butter if you don't like the taste of olive oil)
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 cups low-sodium beef broth or bouillon
2 tablespoons dry red wine
1/2 teaspoon brandy
1/8 teaspoon thyme
Pepper and (if absolutely necessary) salt to taste
2 thin slices French or Italian bread
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup shredded Jarlsberg or Gruyere cheese

Cook the onion in the oil or butter over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until it first turns translucent and then starts to turn golden brown.  This should take about 20-30 minutes to develop the best flavor.  Then add the broth, wine, brandy and thyme; simmer gently for another 20-30 minutes until the liquid has reduced by about 1/3.  Taste after 10 minutes or so and add the pepper and optional salt.

While the soup is finishing up, toast the two slices of bread.  Cut the garlic in half lengthwise and rub the surface of each slice of toast with one of the half cloves.  Place the toast on a microwavable plate.  Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the grated cheese evenly on each piece of the toast.  Microwave on high for 15-20 seconds until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

Ladle the soup into two bowls and float a slice of cheesy toast on each.

"I think that women just have a primeval instinct to make soup, which they will try to foist on anybody who looks like a likely candidate. " ~Dylan Moran

Friday, January 14, 2011

Better Times in Tunesia

Pictures from our day in Tunis:

"Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower." ~Hans Christian Andersen

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Come Again To Carthage

Right after I quit my last insurance job, before we knew that the economy would tank and Barry would not be able to sell his house for two years, Barry and I and another couple took a Mediterranean cruise - our last big vacation.  One of the stops was Tunis, in Tunesia.

I can't say that I'd ever had a burning urge to visit Tunis, but it was one of the regular stops for that particular cruise and I didn't mind visiting the site of ancient Carthage, even though all the ruins to be seen there now are artifacts of a later Roman settlement.  Barry and I rented a cab for the day.  The approved-for-tourists, almost-English-speaking driver took us to the approved-for-tourists ruins, an approved-for-tourists restaurant for lunch, and an approved-for tourists shopping area in the old town during the afternoon.  We had an unexpectedly lovely day.  We toured the small but well-arranged museum at Carthage, wolfed down our perfectly grilled fresh fish and astringent local white wine at noon, and bought two small stuffed camels (toy, not real) for Barry's granddaughter after the proprietor of the curio shop took us up to his rooftop for a panoramic view of the city.  The weather was gorgeous, warm and sunny with a breeze from the sea, and the older part of town, although crowded with souvenir stalls, was self-consciously charming in whitewash and turquoise accent paint.

Our cab driver kept up a running commentary on how safe Tunesia was compared to some of the other countries in the area and what a bargain it was for tourists.  We agreed that it seemed peaceful and friendly, but once back on board the ship and out of earshot of the locals, we commented on the incredible number of police we had seen during the day.  The presence of a cop on almost every corner gave the city something of the air of an armed camp.  We agreed that the area was peaceful because the locals didn't dare be anything else.

Apparently we were wrong.  We watched the news tonight of riots in Tunis in shock.  Let me be clear; the police we saw there looked more SWAT team than Andy Griffith.  No one would go up against them lightly.  The residents of Tunis must be very desperate and very determined.  Already 40 of them are reported dead.  We hope the government is able to settle their grievances without resorting to slaughter, and that our helpful cabbie and cheerful waiter and chatty toy seller are all safe tonight.

"In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea banks, and waft her love
To come again to Carthage."
~William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

When I lived in New York, I worked for several years in 7 World Trade Center, the first building to go down on 9/11.  It was across the street from the rest of the Trade Center, connected by a pedestrian bridge that looked like a giant gerbil tube.  A small Devon & Blakely sat at the foot of the building that directly faced 7 World Trade, and I occasionally stopped there on the way to work to pick up one of their fabulous sugar-encrusted cranberry scones.  Warm with real butter - ecstasy!

We don't have a Devon & Blakely in Phoenix, so now when I'm hungry for scones I make them myself.  I've tried to develop a version that's as good-tasting as D&B's but not quite such an indulgence.  That means I make them much smaller than the D&B scones and usually leave off the sugar coating - but feel free to add it if you want to.

We normally don't buy flavored yogurt any more, preferring to eat low-fat plain yogurt with real fruit instead, but it does work beautifully in this recipe.  We think the subtle fruit flavors eliminate the need for jam or jelly.

Orange Yogurt Scones with Dried Cranberries

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

If the dried cranberries are extremely dry, plump them up by soaking them in orange juice for about 15 minutes.  Drain before using.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.  Cut in the butter.  Add the cranberries and mix well.  Add the egg and yogurt and blend to make a very soft dough.  Form into rough 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.  Cool on a wire rack.

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

Update: I believe Devon & Blakely uses fresh cranberries in their scones, which makes their sugar crust almost mandatory.  I use dried cranberries because fresh ones are available in this area only a few weeks every year, but they are quite a bit sweeter than the fresh berries.  If you prefer a tarter snap in your scone, try chopped dried apricots, dried sour cherries, or frozen cranberries instead.

"I want to work on some more complicated baking... and it would be interactive!" ~ Lisa Loeb 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I Love Lawrence

This week TCM showed the 1931 film Friends and Lovers, and Barry, who loves old movies, recorded it with our DVR.  We watched it last night.

The rather forgettable plot of Friends and Lovers revolves around two English soldiers played by Adolphe Menjou and Lawrence Olivier who fall in love with the same (married) woman.  This film is obviously quite an early talkie; the sound quality is terrible, and Erich von Stoheim, predictably playing the villain, has not yet learned how to inject emotion into his Peter Lorre-like voice.  Lili Damita, who went on to marry Errol Flynn several years later, is not very well cast as the female protagonist.  She's perfect as an icy femme fatale, but in the scenes where she is supposed to be a soul writhing in torment she looks more as if she's worried that she left the water running in the bathtub.

The redeeming virtue of this film (at least for female viewers) is Olivier.  He was 23 when this movie was shot, and gorgeous - all big flashing eyes, wide shoulders, and wavy hair.  Sigh.  He had only been making films for a year (this was his fourth), so some of his gestures are still a little too stage-actorishly large, but who cares?

In short, Friends and Lovers is more a historical curiosity than a classic, but it's only 68 minutes long and worth a look if you are interested in Olivier's early career.

"Acting is a masochistic form of exhibitionism. It is not quite the occupation of an adult." ~Sir Lawrence Olivier

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dancing in the Dark

This weekend Barry and I went to a ballroom dance with friends.  The wife of the other couple told us she's in rehearsal for an upcoming tap and jazz dance show.  She just bought new tap shoes and attached the taps she's had since the age of 12 for luck.  For one insane moment I considered getting back into tap myself, but then I flashed on one of my past performance traumas and the urge died a horrible death.

I was in my 20's and still living in South Dakota.  I was dancing in a chorus line as part of a charity show for the local Girl's Club.  The grumpy little director and all the costumes came from New York.  I was in two numbers.  In the second dance I wore what looked like a backless red satin swimsuit held up by a single length of ribbon around the neck.  The style of the "dress" meant I couldn't wear a bra underneath; I suppose I could have invested in a pair of pasties or at least used band-aids, but that just didn't occur to me at the time.  You see where this is going, right?  The night of the first performance, I was on stage, doing my thing (to "The Stripper," OF COURSE) when the strap broke.

Fortunately we were dancing with one arm up in the air and one held straight in front of ourselves.  I clamped the straight-out arm to my side, and when we all turned to dance toward the right wing, I just kept going and whisked myself off the stage.  The person who had been next to me cleverly moved over to fill up the gap I had left and all was well (except my blood pressure).  When the show had finished its run, I reviewed my previous performance experiences and decided that not only was I not destined to star in the revival of A Chorus Line, but I should also confine my solo dancing to aerobics class.

So far that decision has served me well.  A part of me is a little envious of my friend's excitement over her upcoming show, but I'm going to take a deep breath and just let it go.  Why tempt lightening to strike a third time?

“I wish I could blame it on the choreography, but it's not a musical. I just had a clumsy moment.” ~Delta Burke

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Support Your Local Library

Because I am a voracious book reader and buyer, I was inundated with e-mails from Amazon and Barnes & Noble before Christmas pushing their electronic book readers, the Kindle and Nook respectively.  I know that many hard-core readers are switching from paper to e-ink, but I can't quite bring myself to do that yet.

Some years ago I read an essay by Isaac Asimov explaining why he thought reading on computers would never replace books.  Unfortunately, the essay isn't in any of the books I own or our small regional public library, but I think I still remember most of his arguments.  A few of them are outdated.  One was the inconvenience of hauling around a large electronic device.  Computers are much more compact than they were at the time he wrote his objection, and entry-level e-ink readers now weigh less than a pound and can easily be carried in a normal-sized purse or briefcase.  Asimov's insistence that computer reading would inevitably lead to eyestrain is also no longer valid due to the printed-page look and lack of backlighting in black-and-white e-reader screens.  I don't remember whether he thought getting enough digital reading material would be a problem, but the explosion of e-publishing, including that of free public-domain works, should ensure a plentiful supply for even the most demanding reader.

So why am I still hesitant to make the switch to e-reading?  Because, like Asimov, I love the look and feel and smell of a real book.  In my own collection I have a few beautiful books bound in soft real leather with gilt-edged pages and sewn-in silk ribbon bookmarks; now, those are BOOKS.  But I love even my battered old paperbacks with the broken spines, crumbling covers, and yellowing pages.  They all have that faint but unmistakable aroma of paper and ink.

It's the same smell - with the addition of old leather -  that can overwhelm the senses in a large public library.  I'll never forget visiting the main reading room of the British Library; I stood there for several minutes just inhaling.  Browsing for reading material in a library is also a different experience than browsing online; not as efficient, maybe, but much more sensual.  Yes, you can see the covers of books online at and maybe even read sample text, but that's not the same as being able to pluck a promising book from a shelf and flip through it at random.  Over the years I've read many books that I never would have searched for online just because I was attracted by an unknown author's name or a witty title or the unusual lettering on the spine.  I've always considered libraries to be essential elements of civilized societies.

My mother applied for my first library card when I was in kindergarten.  I've had a public library card everywhere I've lived since then.  I have one now, even though half of the floorspace in our local library is given over to computers, and a stack of library books is on my desk even as I type.  I'm worried that some day e-reading will kill off not just books but libraries, and the loss of those quiet cultural havens would be a tragedy.  (At least, they were quiet before people felt free to shout into their cell phones in them.)  Even if I eventually buy a Kindle or a Nook or an e-reader of another stripe, I will continue to buy hard-copy books and visit public libraries as long as they are available.  I hope you will, too.

"A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins."  ~Charles Lamb, Last Essays of Elia

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christmas with Pyewacket

One last holiday movie review!

Tonight for the first time I watched the 1958 Bell Book and Candle, starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, and Elsa Lanchester.  It qualifies as a holiday movie because it starts on Christmas Eve and continues over the next few weeks.  Other than that, as Stewart's character says about the club the characters gather in, "It seems more like Halloween than Christmas."

Novak's character, Gillian Holroyd, and her family are practicing witches living in New York City.  When Shep Henderson (Stewart) moves into their building and Gillian realizes his fiancee is a woman she detested in college, she casts a spell to take him away from her.  I can't say too much about the rest of the plot without spoiling the story, but the storyline is not the only reason to see this film.  The sets are terrific, particularly the art gallery Gillian runs and the beat club where the witches and warlocks hang out (the film was nominated for a Best Art Direction - Set Decoration Oscar), and the dialogue is loaded with witty zingers.  The cast is full of famous and talented actors having a good time with the material, and cat lovers will also enjoy Pyewacket, Gillian's Siamese familiar, who plays a vital role in bringing the two main characters together - twice.

I'm glad that TCM decided to dust off this classic.  It's not full of deep inner meaning, but it is a lot of fun.  Even though it's not a traditional holiday film, I think I may make it part of my holiday traditions from now on.

"Merle Kittridge: Are you trying to say you're... *jilting* me?
Shepherd 'Shep' Henderson: W-well, that's a very heavy word, Merle. It's a very heavy word. Let's just say that we're... uncoupling."

~Bell Book and Candle 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Licensed to Baffle

One of the great things about living in Arizona is that we get to keep the same license plate numbers for as long as we own our cars.  That's a big help to those of us who have difficulty remembering numbers.  In addition, the cost of personalized plates is very reasonable, and the state has a great website that lets owners renew their registrations quickly and easily.  For this reason, so-called "vanity plates" abound here.

A lot of these personalized plates mean something important to their owners but qualify as puzzles for the casual observer.  Yesterday I sat behind one at a stoplight and spent several minutes trying to decipher it.  The plate said DOOHBOY.  As some of my younger friends say, WTF?  I couldn't decide whether it should be read as:
  • Do, oh boy! or
  • Doughboy, or
  • Do'oh! [as in Homer Simpson] boy, or
  • Do HBO - why?
I suppose it could also combine the owners' initials in some way.  Who knows?

I guess I always thought the purpose of a vanity plate was to broadcast a message to the rest of the world, but maybe not.  Maybe it's the car accessory equivalent of one of those printed affirmations people carry in their pockets or their wallets.  I'm clinging to that explanation because otherwise I'll have to admit that I am totally out of touch, and I was hoping to avoid that for at least a few more years.

"EEEEEK" ~License plate on a driver's education vehicle

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Lotta Apricots

Today I took the remains of my holiday baking spree to work.  I had a plate each of banana bread, gingersnaps, peanut butter fudge, and these, which disappeared more quickly than anything else.  Amazingly easy and delicious, too!

Apricot Cookies

2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk*
2 cups coconut
1 1/2 cups ground dried apricots**
powdered sugar

Mix the condensed milk, coconut, and apricots.  Form into balls and roll them in the powdered sugar.  Let the cookies air dry until firm.  Store in the refrigerator.

*You may need slightly more milk if your coconut is too dry.  (A can of sweetened condensed milk usually holds one cup.)

**This time I ran out of apricots, so I used 1 cup of dried apricots and 1/2 cup dried cranberries, which was good, too.

"Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap. " ~Barbara Jordan

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Another One Bites the Dust

I don't usually make New Year's resolutions. Stuff happens. Why set myself up for failure?

Despite this, during the latter part of 2010 I resolved to go through all my bookshelves before the end of the year and weed out the books that I will never read again.  Well, my bad, I didn't make the deadline.  At the time I set the goal I didn't know that we would be spending two weeks traveling to and from Omaha, or that my teaching load this winter would be much heavier than usual.  In the past I would have beaten myself up about this.  Now, however, I'm just going to push back the due date.

I believe in deadlines, but I believe even more in setting priorities.  Donating unused books to a charity will be a Good Thing, but no homeless orphan will freeze in the Phoenix streets because I didn't do it last month, and if our bookshelves are full to bursting, they have very little visible wood that needs dusting.  Instead of pawing through my stacks of books I helped Barry's older daughter set up her new computer, played with his grandchildren, entertained our friends, and gave timely feedback to my students on their homework - even Better Things.

Sooner or later I am going to have to thin the ranks, though, because I'm not buying any more reading material until I have room for it on our existing shelves, and my favorite authors aren't going to stop publishing just because I'm not in the market for their work.  I'm just not sure whether that should be considered a resolution for this year or for this decade.

"I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."  ~Anna Quindlen, "Enough Bookshelves," New York Times, August 7, 1991

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Face that Launched a Thousand Websites

My new laptop arrived late this afternoon and I've been installing and activating software ever since.  The one piece I haven't played with yet is the facial recognition application. Supposedly it will eliminate the need for me to enter passwords for my computer and most of the websites I use that require them.  That would be a good thing because (theoretically, at any rate) malware will never be able to snatch my passwords from the cookies on my hard drive, but I'm a little leery of the technology.  If I wear my glasses during the initial setup, will it recognize my face when I'm wearing my contacts?  What happens if I change my hairstyle or color?  Is the software smart enough to know it's my face with or without makeup on?

My old HP had fingerprint recognition software that was also supposed to do away with passwords, but I was never able to use it.  Like the fingerprint recognition locks on the storage lockers at Universal Studios, the software could never read my prints.  Maybe I spend so much time on the computer that I've largely worn off my ridges and whorls; they're hard even for me to see.  I have higher hopes for the facial recognition software because  I've reached the age when my face is acquiring ridges and whorls rather than losing them.

"If God had to give a woman wrinkles, He might at least have put them on the soles of her feet. " ~Ninon de L'Enclos

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The War of the Roses

We've had almost a week of unusually cold weather in the Phoenix area. Local newscasters have reminded us every night to cover sensitive plants and leave our faucets dripping so our pipes don't freeze. Today was a little warmer, though, and it's the last official day of my winter teaching break, so I trimmed some of the trees in the back yard.  I know that pruning plants in cold weather can be damaging so I left the overgrown bushes alone and concentrated on removing the dead fronds from our pygmy date and queen palms. I did, however, cut back the roses.

Our rose bush is a John F. Kennedy hybrid tea that was flowering enthusiastically up until the recent cold snap.  It should be cut back at least a couple of times a year to keep the canes from becoming too long and thin.  Unfortunately, Barry never wants to prune while it's blossoming, and the only times it's not are the hottest part of the summer and the coldest part of the winter, when pruning puts the maximum amount of stress on the plant.  This means that every year we argue over when to cut the bush back; I think Barry would really prefer never to cut it back at all.  However, the rose is planted in a large urn rather than at ground level, and the top leaves were starting to threaten the eaves outside our bedroom window.

Today, then, when Barry went off to play pickleball, I put on my gardening gloves and picked up my shears and cut the rose bush down to size.  The weather is supposed to be a little warmer for the rest of the week and I plan to throw a blanket over it tonight to lessen the shock.  It should live; it's several years old now despite this cavalier treatment.  Still, I think this spring I'll start pruning it on a more appropriate schedule regardless of  Barry's protests.  The roses are so pretty I want to give the bush the best possible chance at survival.

"I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall."  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Thoroughly Stewed

Our New Year's Day party is over, and the stew was a big hit.

Here's how I would usually make it for just the two of us:

Beef Stew for Two

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1/2 onion, cut into chunks
2 or 3 large carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
1 stalk celery, chopped
1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
Two large russet potatoes, cut into 1" cubes
1/2 to 1 pound leftover pot roast (see yesterday's post)
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 cups beef stock or bouillon
1 tablespoon Better Than Bouillon vegetable concentrate
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter or heat the oil in a large dutch oven.  Saute the onion, carrots, celery, and mushrooms over medium low heat until they are softened and fragrant.  Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for about a half an hour until the potatoes are thoroughly cooked and the flavors have merged.  (If I am making this with raw meat instead of leftover pot roast, I brown it separately with a little garlic before beginning the rest of the process.)

Update: add additional water as needed.

Here's what I did today:

Beef Stew for Twenty

1/2 cup butter
3 onions, cut into chunks
3 pounds of carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
1 bunch celery, chopped
1 pound sliced white mushrooms
1 pound sliced baby bella mushrooms
4 garlic cloves, minced
8 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1" cubes
12 pounds pot roast with cooking liquid, prepared per yesterday's recipe
1 cup dry red wine
4 cups beef bouillon
1/2 jar Better Than Bouillon vegetable concentrate
4 cups water (to slightly dilute the concentrated cooking liquid from the pot roast)

I sweated each type of vegetable separately to develop the flavor more deeply.  I ended up using my 16 quart stockpot and my large dutch oven for the stew because the volume was too great for the stockpot alone.

The knot in the middle of my back just reminded me (dummy!!) that I could have sliced most of those veggies with my mandoline instead of chopping them all by hand.  Sigh.  Maybe next year.  For now, I'm going to put my feet up and take a nap.

"For the millions of us who live glued to computer keyboards at work and TV monitors at home, food may be more than entertainment. It may be the only sensual experience left." ~Barbara Ehrenreich