Monday, February 28, 2011

Happy Cooking

One of our local PBS stations recently starting airing reruns of the charming series Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home.  I've always been a big fan of Jacques Pepin, and after watching a few episodes of the shows he filmed with Julia Child I finally bought and read his autobiography, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen.

Jacques Pepin was born December 18, 1935, in a small French town, second son of a cabinetmaker and his wife.  His mother was the backbone of the family - a small, energetic woman who kept everything together after her husband was drafted in World War II and later made the family's modest fortune by buying, rejuvenating, and selling a series of ramshackle restaurants.  Jacques learned his love of food and cooking from her, but at the age of 14 started an apprenticeship at a fine restaurant that was his first step toward becoming a chef and, eventually, a celebrity.

This book is a remarkable collection of the author's childhood memories, gritty stories of working in the kitchens of sometimes capricious and sadistic chefs while learning his trade, and modest accounts of his eventual success.   Family photos are included.  Recipes with special meaning to him are sprinkled throughout.  His tone is as engaging as I would have expected from his work in TV, but also astonishingly open and thoughtful.  This man doesn't just cook; he thinks, deeply and about many different things. 

This was a thoroughly satisfying read about how one becomes not just a chef, but a mature and delightful human being.  I recommend it even to those who don't like to cook.

"Well written, funny, sad, informative, and always enchanting." ~Anthony Bourdain, after reading The Apprentice

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Real Men Do Eat Frittata

Yesterday our friends Pat and Larry hosted breakfast for 14 people, including us.  They put on a great-tasting spread, including apple-cinnamon French toast with melted honey butter, homemade rolls, pastries stuffed with almond paste, and an awesome sausage and egg casserole, plus bloody Marys, mimosas, and coffee.  We stuffed ourselves but ate hardly anything for the rest of the day to make up for it.

We haven't had a brunch party ourselves for a while, but when we do I usually serve these.  They are my adaptation of a breakfast casserole recipe I originally saw in the late Gourmet magazine.  ( says it came from Bon Appetit in 2000, but since I subscribed to Gourmet then and never read Bon Appetit I believe this is an error.)  I use different cheese and less jalapeno liquid because I thought the white cheddar in the original version was overwhelmed by the pepper flavor; sun-dried tomatoes that have not been packed in oil to keep the fat content down; and muffin pans rather than a rectangular baking dish because small individual frittatas are easier to serve and eat than messy slices of a large eggy hot dish.  I've also cut one egg so the recipe fits nicely into 24 regular-sized muffin cups with no leftovers.

Jalapeno and Sun-Dried Tomato Frittatas

Canola oil spray
1 pound extra-sharp cheese, grated (about 4 cups) - I like horseradish cheddar, jalapeno jack, or aged asiago
1 cup chopped drained pickled jalapeño chilies from jar, and 3 tablespoons of the pickling liquid (set aside)
3/4 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes, preferably not oil-packed
1/2 cup (packed) chopped fresh basil (if I can't get fresh I use frozen basil cubes from Trader Joe's)
17 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Spray two 12-cup muffin pans with canola oil.  Sprinkle cheese evenly over the bottoms of the muffin pans.  Sprinkle chilies, sun-dried tomatoes and basil evenly over the cheese. Using an electric mixer or stick blender, beat the eggs in large bowl until they are pale and slightly thickened, about 8 minutes.  Beat in the reserved jalapeño liquid.  Divide the egg mixture among the muffin pans.  (A gravy ladle works well for this.)

Bake frittatas until firm, about 10-15 minutes.   Cool slightly.  Can be served warm or at room temperature.  Makes 24 individual frittatas.  Good with turkey bacon on the side!

These freeze well so sometimes I will make the full recipe just for us and freeze them in small batches.  Microwave when you are ready to eat.

"Omit and substitute! That's how recipes should be written. Please don't ever get so hung up on published recipes that you forget that you can omit and substitute." ~Jeff Smith

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Silent Night (I Hope)

Today is a day of rejoicing here in Arizona - or at least in our bedroom.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Barry has been wearing a CPAP mask for his sleep apnea for about a year and a half.  While the machine has definitely reduced his snoring and helped the quality and quantity of his sleep, the mask itself has been a constant source of irritation - rubbing his nose, shooting air into his eyes, and making noises like a heavy surf at Big Sur.  Of course the machine was free from the V.A., so Barry has been reluctant to complain for fear it would be taken away and given to some more grovelingly grateful recipient.

Recently, however, the friend who originally suggested the CPAP to Barry mentioned that Medicare pays for a replacement mask every three months.  Barry immediately ordered a new mask from the V.A. and it arrived today.

Lo and behold, this mask has a forehead adjustment that the old mask did not.  After about ten minutes of fiddling with it, we were able to fit the mask to his face firmly but comfortably.  No more pressure on his nose.  No more gusts of air on his eyelids.  No more (I hope) bitching and moaning about the evil CPAP mask.  Because the seal is secure, this mask even makes less noise than the old one!  Hallelujah!!

Now if only we could do something about the cat's snoring problem...

“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone.” ~Anthony Burgess

Friday, February 25, 2011

The First Sign of Spring

I once read that spring cleaning had its origin in two related facts: 1) when houses were heated by burning wood or coal, by spring the walls and contents were dingy with smoke, and 2) as the days grew longer and the sun shone more brightly, the smuts of winter became blatantly obvious, until appalled homeowners finally launched massive orgies of cleaning.

Well, the official first day of spring is a long way off, but my teaching workload has lightened up and I've finally shaken off my cold, so I did half of the spring cleaning today.  I dusted, mopped the tile floors, disinfected the bathrooms, reorganized the master closet and the office, watered the plants, and did all the laundry.  Tomorrow I'm going to be busy elsewhere, but on Sunday I'm going to vacuum the bedrooms and thoroughly clean the kitchen.  Now, this may sound like a regular weekly cleaning to you, but I only move all the heavy furniture in search of dust wallabys, wash the dust and grease off the dishes and doodads that sit on top of the upper kitchen cupboards, and run the self-cleaning cycle on the oven a few times a year.

Even though I'm not finished, I already feel as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.  All those little undone tasks have been lurking at the corners of my mind, sneering and daring me to give up, oh, sleeping as a hobby to get them finished.  So now I can sneer back: ha, ha! nasty tasks!  Begone and take your guilt trip with you!

I think this is the real reason for spring cleaning: homeowners everywhere gaining enough extra energy from the spring sun to tackle the chores they've been putting off through the dark, vitamin D-deprived days of winter.  No wonder early people worshiped the sun.

"My second favorite household chore is ironing.  My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint."  ~Erma Bombeck

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fantastic Cartoons

Tonight we watched Barry's latest Netflix pick - the 1940 full-length animated classic Fantasia.  If you've never seen it, the soundtrack of Fantasia is a lush classical music concert performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski.  Most of the visuals are Disney cartoons "suggested" by the music.

I last saw Fantasia about 30 years ago and I vividly remembered the Mickey Mouse version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the hippos frolicking to Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, and the illustrations to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, but I had forgotten much of the rest of the film.  In particular, I had forgotten (or not noticed the first time around) the richness and detail of the animation.  While not pretending to the photorealism of Avatar and its ilk - these are supposed to be cartoons - almost all the animated scenes have fully realized "sets" with gorgeous colors, layers of depth, and atmospheric "lighting."  The artwork is still fresh and beautiful; only the elves, fairies, and other semi-human characters look a little dated, being obviously children of the 1930's.

I was surprised to realize how much my own art has been influenced by Fantasia and its Disney siblings.  Here's a screenshot from a Flash animation I did a few years ago:

With longer fins, my tropical fish could have been some of the synchronized swimmers who perform to Arab Dance from Tchaikowsky's Nutcracker Suite, and my merperson is clearly related to the centaurs in the sequences set to the movements of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.  I suppose I'd rather have the denizens of Fantasia lurking in my subconscious than, say, the characters from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; I just hope the ever-vigilant Disney lawyers don't decide to sue my socks off.  (My socks are about all they could get.)

Back to the movie, though - if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it for all ages with the possible exception of the penultimate Night on Bald Mountain sequence, which may be too intense for small children.  Disney also released an updated IMAX version of the movie in 2000 that I haven't seen yet; I understand it's even bigger and better, although frankly that's a little hard for me to believe.

"What you're going to see on the screen are the designs and pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds and imaginations of a group of artists. In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians, which I think is all to the good." ~Deems Taylor, introduction to Fantasia

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Look Back

Dick Francis, British jockey-turned-author, died on February 14, 2010, at the age of 89. Although I already owned 40 of his books, I was sorry that no new ones would be forthcoming, so I was delighted to find a back issue I hadn't previously read at the VNSA book sale on the day before the first anniversary of his death.

My late husband Tom had met Dick Francis at a book signing about 10 years ago and said that he was a very small person and seemed extremely shy. I expected small, but I was a little incredulous about the shyness. Francis had been a fighter and bomber pilot in WWII as well as a steeplechase jockey, so his bravery in the face of physical danger was unquestioned; maybe he just wasn't easy around other people, although his former position as jockey for the Queen Mother's horses indicates he had at least some social skills.

Francis took up writing after injuries forced his retirement from racing. The plot of the average Francis novel is fairly predictable: the intrepid hero (usually tangentially involved with horses and always speaking in first person) stumbles across a mystery that others are desperate to conceal. Despite personal and professional problems and at least one obligatory scene in which he is physically menaced or tortured by the bad guys, he eventually solves the mystery and frequently ends up cementing a relationship with an attractive woman he's managed to meet and woo during the quieter passages of the book.

You may be wondering, if the books are so predictable, why I own so many. The thing that makes the novels more than formulaic - and that made him the only three-time winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar award for Best Novel - is the research behind them, much of it done by his wife Mary and his son Felix. Are you interested in photography as a profession?  Read all about it in Reflex, possibly my favorite Francis novel.  Don't understand how merchant banking works?  Try Banker.  Want to know the ins and outs of life as a glassblower? Check out Shattered.  I enjoy being immersed in the details of a strange new world every time I pick up a Dick Francis mystery, and even though the general shape of the plot is familiar, I very rarely can predict all its interesting twists and turns.

I also like the typical Francis hero - a pretty modest, average-appearing guy who exhibits wit and strength under pressure.  In fact, I think this is the person Tom expected to meet at that book signing and probably did without knowing it.  After all, the typical Francis hero is unassuming on the outside; the brains and bravery are invisible until a crisis calls them forth.

"The world has lost a champion on the racetrack, in the air in defense of freedom, and on the page in defense of intelligence, honesty, and decency. RIP Dick Francis. Your race is run, and you done good." ~Larry Thornberry, from his obituary for Dick Francis in The American Spectator

Monday, February 21, 2011

An Avalanche of Lemons

At one time, large tracts of the greater Phoenix metro area were covered with citrus (mainly lemon) orchards.  The orchards are long gone, but some of the old trees linger in the yards of homes built in the 1960's and 1970's, and the streets in subdivisions like Sun City were deliberately lined with decorative orange trees, the fruit of which is sold to marmalade manufacturers. Residents of the newer portions of town have been planting new citrus trees, too.  The flowers have an overpoweringly sweet aroma in the springtime, and the trees themselves are beautiful when covered with orange or yellow fruit that contrasts with the dark green leaves and trunks painted white to avoid sunburn.

One of the many things I didn't know about citrus before moving here was that it matures in the winter.  Depending upon the species involved, the fruit ripens somewhere between late January and the beginning of April.  This means that we are now smack in the middle of harvest season, and all those tree owners are trying to give away their fruit.

A large healthy citrus tree can produce a truly amazing crop.  Barry and I have one little immature lemon tree in a pot, but many of our friends have large lemon or lime trees and my parents' home has a grapefruit tree, a lemon tree, and two orange trees in the backyard.  This means we are being inundated with free citrus - not a bad thing, given its price in the supermarket, but just how much lemon juice can one couple consume?  We've been able to keep up with the orange and grapefruit donations, but not the lemons.  I've started refusing further lemons myself, but Barry keeps bringing them home; he just can't resist free food.

I've made lemonade.  I've frozen as much lemon juice as I can put into the freezer.  I'm preserving a few lemons in salt for a Moroccan chicken recipe I have.  I'm poaching wild salmon and serving it with lemon sauce.  I'm garnishing everything I can think of with fresh lemon slices.  And still the lemons roll in.  Most of my remaining lemon recipes are for desserts, which I've been trying to avoid.

Please complete this sentence in a totally original way: "When life hands me lemons, I make_______."

“For mad scientists who keep brains in jars, here's a tip: why not add a slice of lemon to each jar, for freshness?” ~Jack Handy

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hooray for Sunday

I don't say enough good things in these posts about Barry, but I deeply appreciate him every Sunday morning.

Sunday is the day I have to post all the study materials for the upcoming week in my online classrooms.  It's also the day I finish grading any of the students' midweek assignments; since a couple of them every session have tardiness issues, virtually every Sunday has at least a few items waiting for me.

I get up somewhere between half an hour and an hour and a half before Barry does.  Sometimes I fix myself a cup of coffee or tea first, but usually I dive right into the schoolwork.  By the time Barry rises I've made substantial inroads on my workload and I'm ready for breakfast (or, depending on how late we slept in, brunch), and Barry obligingly serves it.

Barry is a good cook but doesn't enjoy cooking, so his willingness to make breakfast for me every Sunday morning is very endearing, and he's been trying to stick to our resolve to eat right.  Sometimes he makes hot cereal or whole-grain waffles.  Today he scrambled eggs with fresh mushrooms and served them over half an "everything" bagel thin, with half a grapefruit picked yesterday (from my parents' tree) on the side.  Good stuff.  Just what I needed to get me over the hump of grading the last few final projects awaiting my attention.

I love Sundays.  And Barry.

"There is no spectacle on earth more appealing than that of a beautiful woman in the act of cooking dinner for someone she loves." ~ Alice Adams [but the spectacle of a handsome man in the act of cooking breakfast for someone he loves is right up there!]

Saturday, February 19, 2011

An Early Night

Getting up early to make a birthday cake + overeating + dark rainy day + correcting Web Systems finals =


“No day is so bad it can't be fixed with a nap.” ~ Carrie P. Snow

Friday, February 18, 2011

Angelic Birthday Cake

As I mentioned before, yesterday was my Mom's birthday.  Tomorrow the members of our immediate family (Mom, Dad, my sister Sue, Barry, and I) are going to her favorite Mexican restaurant for lunch and then we're going back to Sue's house for coffee and birthday cake.  I'm making the cake - at Mom's request, a white angel food.  Instead of frosting it, I'm pureeing unsweetened frozen strawberries and whipping just a little cream with vanilla extract and a touch of sugar for the topping.

Angel food cake is a little out of style, but it's very low in fat.  This is the recipe that Mom always used; I'm not sure where she originally got it.  All the sifting in the first step helps keep the cake light.

Angel Food Cake

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Measure and sift together three times or process in a food processor, then set aside:
1 cup sifted cake flour
7/8 cup sugar

Meringue base:
Measure into a large bowl:
1 1/2 cups egg whites (room temperature)
1 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Beat the meringue ingredients together with mixer at middle speed.  Gradually add 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time.  Beat 10 seconds after each addition.  When all the sugar has been added, turn the mixer to the highest speed and beat until the mixture is firm and holds stiff straight peaks.

Sift the reserved flour and sugar mixture about 3 tablespoons at a time over the entire surface of the meringue.  Fold gently together.  Repeat, occasionally scraping the sides of the bowl, until the flour and sugar mixture has been entirely incorporated into the meringue.

Pour into a tube pan (don't grease it), being careful not to stir the batter.  Once in the pan, cut through the batter 5 or 6 times with a knife to break any air bubbles.  Bake 30-35 minutes or until done on a lower oven rack. (Test for doneness by inserting a wooden skewer halfway between the inner and outer walls of the pan; the cake is done when the skewer comes out clean.)  Cool upside down on a cooling rack for at least an hour before removing from the pan.  Cut with a serrated knife to avoid mashing the cake.

"Birthdays are good for you.  Statistics show that the people who have the most live the longest."  ~Larry Lorenzoni

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Slogging Through the Blog

This update is brought to you by the words "ennui" and "phlegm."

Reveille: For the last two mornings, the cat has not whined for breakfast; she's gagged.  You know, that horrible, hacking, "I'm about to throw a hairball" sound?  In my ear.  Before dawn.  Time to see the vet.

The cold: My other symptoms are all gone, but I have some lingering chest congestion.  The cat is probably complaining in her kitty blog about her owner's horrible, hacking, "I'm about to throw a hairball" cough.  At least Barry believes I'm past contagion and is abandoning the futon tonight.

The grading: I'm working my way through the final projects from my last two classes and some of them are amazing.  Unfortunately, I can't tell by looking at a couple of the others that the students even took the course I teach.  In my experience, this means they've spent the semester buying completed assignments online or copying from friends, and when they finally had to produce original work - surprise! - they hadn't learned enough to do so.  Discouraging.  Pause to beat head against wall.

The dancing: We have one final dinner dance tonight to wrap up the Valentine's Day celebrations.  I'm always leery about dinner dances: if we eat too much we're too sluggish to enjoy the dancing.  At least I've learned to wear dark colors in case I accidentally flip part of the entree into my lap.

Family: Today is my mother's birthday.  My sister and I are taking her and Dad out to dinner this weekend to celebrate.  I offered to make the cake.  I only hope everyone will be willing to eat it after realizing that I have hairballs.

"My dear doctor, I am surprised to hear you say that I am coughing very badly, as I have been practising all night." ~John Philpot Curran 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Heroic Sock Puppets

Tonight I had hoped to watch the hour-long Nova special on Watson, the Jeopardy-playing supercomputer, but for some reason our local PBS station isn't airing it.  Instead Barry and I watched his latest Netflix pick, the 2009 animated feature 9 (click on this link to see a trailer).

When Barry selects a movie he hasn't previously seen, neither of us knows what the result will be.  That's because he won't read the plot summary for fear it will ruin the film for him.  I think he just goes by the category it's in, the title, the rating (if it has one), and possibly the actors.  He hadn't realized that this was animated and was briefly disgruntled by that, but only briefly.

9 had its genesis in an animated short created by writer/director Shane Acker when a student at UCLA; the short was included as a special feature on the DVD.  Both versions of the story take place in an alternate universe, on an Earth where the Industrial Revolution went farther than it did here, and all life was destroyed by machines during the equivalent of our late 1930's or early 1940's.  The only survivors are some of the predatory machines and a small band of rag dolls cleverly constructed from scraps of burlap, camera lenses, and miscellaneous bits and pieces of hardware and sewing supplies.  Who created the rag dolls and why?  Can they survive the depredations of the mechanical villains, or even defeat them?  What is the meaning of the mysterious talisman discovered by the hero, 9, when he is first "born?"

The animation in 9 was astounding, the moody atmosphere and "lighting" outstanding, and the little dolls sympathetic and believable characters - it was nominated for six different animation awards - but I'm not sure who the target market for the movie is supposed to be.  The plot summary makes it sound like a children's film, but it is emphatically not that.  The rating is PG-13 for some pretty harrowing violence, and I would definitely not recommend the movie for pre-teens or younger children.  I'm not sure I'm old enough to watch it myself.

"I wouldn't want to be a sock puppet in a post-apocalyptic world; would you?" ~One 9 animator to another (in one of the special features on the DVD)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gringo Food

Last night Barry asked me to make chili for supper.  In keeping with our resolve to eat healthier food, I revised my chili recipe last year to include more vegetables and ground turkey instead of ground beef.  The result is higher in fiber and lower in fat, salt, and (surprisingly) sugar than what we were eating before.

Southwestern Gringo Chili

Canola oil spray
1 chopped onion
1 chopped green bell pepper
1 hot or 4 mild roasted green chile peppers, chopped
2 minced cloves garlic
1 pound ground turkey (Italian flavored is best, but plain is fine)
1 tsp dried or 1 Tbsp fresh oregano
1 Tbsp chili powder (adjust to taste)
1 cup beef broth or bouillon, low-sodium if possible
1 cup tomato or V-8 juice (I usually use the low-sodium versions)
¼ cup red wine (optional)
1 can fire-roasted tomatoes (I like Muir Glen No Salt Added)
1 can kidney beans (without added sugar)
1 can black beans
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
Black pepper and (if necessary) salt to taste

Spray the bottom of a large Dutch oven or heavy saucepan with oil.  Cook onion and bell peppers over medium-low heat until softened.  If possible without crowding the pan, add the chiles, garlic, turkey, oregano and chili powder; otherwise, remove the onions and peppers first.  Brown the turkey.  If you removed the onions and peppers, add them back into the pan.  Add the broth, juice, wine, tomatoes, and beans.  Simmer for about half an hour, until flavors are blended.  If the chili is too thick, add more broth or juice.  Add the corn and cook for another five minutes or so.  Taste; adjust the seasonings if necessary.  Makes about six servings. 

Variations: Top with chopped raw onion and a small amount of grated cheese before serving.  Make leftovers into taco salad for lunch by serving slightly warmed chili on a bed of lettuce; garnish with salsa, a little grated cheese, and chopped black olives.  This chili also freezes well for future use.

"If there is any doubt about what the Mexicans think about chili, the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, published in 1959, defines chili con carne as (roughly translated): 'detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.'” ~Linda Stradley

Monday, February 14, 2011

Deja Vu All Over Again

Last night Barry and I watched The Forbin Project, a 1970 science fiction movie about a colossal defense computer (unimaginatively named Colossus) that becomes self-aware.  The movie has a few interesting twists, but for the most part the plot could be predicted by anyone who ever read Frankenstein or saw 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I think this film is probably most noted as containing the break-through role for Eric Braeden, the German-born actor who went on to TV fame as Victor Newman in The Young and the Restless; here he plays Dr. Charles Forbin, the creator of Colossus.

The section of the movie that is the verbal equivalent of ominous music in the background is Braeden's early speech about the potential of Colossus to solve the problems that have plagued humanity since the beginning of time.  Colossus will be able to do this, he maintains, because the computer is incredibly fast, incredibly powerful, and (dum, dum, dum) able to learn on its own.

OK, so tonight we're watching the PBS News Hour, and they're showing a clip of correspondent Miles O'Brien challenging Watson, the new Jeopardy-playing supercomputer.  The story included a speech by an IBM representative about Watson's ability to learn and adapt based on experience, and how computers like this will be able to help solve the problems that have plagued humanity since the beginning of time.

Dum, dum, dum...

Miles O'Brien included a meant-to-be humorous reference to 2001 in his report.  It wasn't as funny to me as it would have been before last night.  The Forbin Project is scarier in retrospect than I originally thought.

I will definitely be watching the full one-hour show about Watson scheduled for Wednesday on Nova.

"I am a machine vastly superior to humans." ~Colossus, The Forbin Project

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Scrimmaging for Books

Yesterday Barry and I set new personal records for partying.  In the morning I attended a clothing party hosted by a friend of mine.  Other friends held a pre-dance dinner party late in the afternoon.  Then we attended the Valentine ballroom dance I mentioned in an earlier post, and finally a birthday party for three people we know.  We ate a lot of things we shouldn't have, including two pieces of cake each, and didn't get home until after midnight.  Barry pretty much crashed today, but I had a different kind of party to attend.

Today was the second and last day of the annual VNSA Book Sale, an institution in the Phoenix area.  Held in a cavernous building on the Arizona State Fairgrounds, it's an opportunity to load up on used and remaindered books for very little money.  The books are displayed on tables and shelves and in boxes, and the shoppers come equipped with bags and boxes and rolling carts and lists of things they're looking for.  Shopping carts are available inside the building and many people fill them up.  Particularly on the first day of the sale, the multitudes of book buyers are aggressive and acquisitive.  The second day is slightly less crowded because the books have been picked over, but those that remain are half off the already low prices; this brings out the high-volume shoppers. 

Attending the sale requires special defensive techniques.  The ability to loom slightly can discourage crowding, but if that fails, keeping one's elbows slightly cocked can help defend one's feet and ribs.  Today, however, even looming and cocking didn't keep an absent-minded woman from ramming me with a shopping cart in front of the science fiction section.  Fortunately I had my purse on one side any my tote bag full of books on the other to act as bumpers.  I ended the day unscathed with a mixed bag of hardcover and paperback books for only $19.50.

Only once did I try taking Barry with me to the sale.  The huge building and determined crowds sent him into full-fledged Asperger mode.  His initial panic attack turned into rage.  I prefer to draw a veil over the remainder of the day, but I'm still surprised we weren't cited for reckless driving or killed on the way home.  Now I go alone and try to bring back at least a couple of souvenirs for him.  This time he graciously approved the Freeman Dyson book I bought for him, although he was less pleased with the only calculus book I could find.  Ah, well, it only cost me a dollar - a small price to pay for peace on the home front.

In any case, I have a sack full of new books to explore.  Good thing I've managed to make some empty space on my bookshelves.  Maybe if I finish weeding out the books I don't intend to reread, I can volunteer to work at the VNSA sale next year.  The money from the sale goes to worthwhile causes, and the volunteers get first pick of the merchandise.

“Reading is a means of thinking with another person's mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” ~Charles Scribner, Jr.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Evolution of Zucchini

For the two years that Tom and I lived in Manhattan, we were within a long walk or a quick bus ride of Angelo and Maxie's.  It was one of my favorite steakhouses because of the fabulous zucchini sticks, rolled before frying in some heavenly combination of herbs and spices.  I usually ate so many that most of my steak had to be carried home in a doggie bag.  After we moved here I looked for a replacement and found it in a zucchini fritter recipe that involved beer batter and deep-frying.  (Really, is it any wonder my doctor wanted to put me on Lipitor?)  When I retired my deep-fryer last year, I also filed the fritter recipe away and started preparing zucchini like this:

Sauteed Summer Squash

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 onion, roughly chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, cut in 1" squares
1/2 green bell pepper, cut in 1" squares
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 medium-sized zucchini or yellow crookneck squash, sliced
1 large tomato, chopped
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 teaspoons dried rosemary leaves
2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
Pepper and salt to taste

Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  Add the onion and peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened.  Remove the vegetables from the pan and add the zucchini and mushrooms.  Saute until almost completely cooked.  Put the onions and peppers back into the pan and add the remaining ingredients.  Cook, stirring frequently, until the tomato is heated through.  Serve at once.

"Tomatoes and squash never fail to reach maturity.  You can spray them with acid, beat them with sticks and burn them; they love it." ~S. J. Perelman

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Getting the Cold Shoulder

Over the last five years Barry and I have come down with our few winter colds simultaneously, usually after spending time with one of his grandchildren (most kids are little germ factories).  This week, however, I seem to be hatching one by myself, and Barry's hypochondria is running wild.

In a way this is very relaxing.  Since he doesn't want me contaminating anything he eats, he's been doing all the cooking or taking me to restaurants.  Today he did the laundry himself so I wouldn't infect his clean clothing.  He's even been feeding the cat, although I heard her sneeze tonight, so she may have picked up her own upper respiratory ailment.  Other manifestations of his fear are less welcome; he's sleeping on the futon in the front room and trying not to get within three feet of me.

I'm pretty sure these precautions are useless since from what I've read, a cold sufferer is most likely to pass the virus on to others in the two or three days before the symptoms appear.  If he's going to catch this cold from me, he's probably already incubating it.

I just hope that he'll either start sniffling or decide he's safe before Saturday night.  We have tickets for an early Valentine's dance and we won't be able to waltz three feet apart.

"A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold. " ~Ogden Nash

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Making the Grade(s)

Two of the Web Systems classes I teach are ending on Sunday.  That's the day the students should be handing in their final projects - complete websites built with quite a bit of JavaScript.  Grading their final projects can be a hair-raising experience because I need to finish within a week, but I always look forward to them anyway.

One or two students will probably do the bare minimum (or a little less), building strictly utilitarian sites with two or three pages.  Those are easy to grade because I have no difficulty seeing whether they included all the elements required by the assignment.  On the other hand, a few students always turn in designs that are completely over the top, full of stunning visuals and complicated code.  Some of them are very talented graphic artists; others have been IT professionals for years and could probably teach the class better than I do.  Those projects are much more difficult to evaluate but they're also much more fun.  I'm always awed by their creativity.

Some of the students build sites for their families, their hobbies or their businesses.  Others set up sites for a friend, their church, or a deserving charity.  I've seen a stunning portfolio for an online comic book artist, a quirky Renaissance Faire-themed site, and an online ordering facility for a seafood restaurant, complete with photos that made me ravenous.  This time I have an extremely varied group of pupils; I can hardly wait to see what they come up with.  I'm going to consider their websites as a veritable wealth of Valentine's Day presents, just for me.

"Home computers are being called upon to perform many new functions, including the consumption of homework formerly eaten by the dog."  ~Doug Larson

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Peachy Keen

Mangoes were on sale at the supermarket this week, so I bought a couple to make this zingy salsa.  I'm using a hot pepper from our own plants, which just produced a second crop.

Peachy Mango Salsa

1 ripe peach or nectarine, diced*
1 ripe mango, peeled and diced
½ cup diced onion
1 minced green Serrano pepper
2 Tbsp diced red bell pepper
1½ Tbsp fresh lime juice
Salt to taste

Stir together in a bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving for flavors to blend.  Serve with baked pita chips or as a side dish with pork, chicken, or fish.

*If peaches are out of season, use a second mango instead.

“Salsa has now passed ketchup as America's favorite condiment. Isn't that amazing? You know it's bad when even our vegetables are starting to lose their jobs to Mexico.” ~Jay Leno, on the Tonight Show

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Worse than a Rooster

When I adopted my cat Rusty 14 years ago, I tried for the sake of her teeth to feed her nothing but dry cat food.  However, the rescue organization I got her from had been giving her the canned stuff and she went on a hunger strike whenever I cut it off completely.  Eventually we compromised; she got all the dry food she could eat and half a can of wet food a day.  I fed her the canned food at night so she wouldn't wake me up in the morning on the days I wanted to sleep in.

That worked well until a couple of years ago when she started having trouble with her teeth and gums.  The vet gave me a kitty toothbrush but I wasn't able to use it; I need all 10 of my fingers.  Rusty also wouldn't drink the water additive that was supposed to protect her mouth.  The vet again suggested an all-dry diet, but you-know-who refused to eat it.  Eventually I gave up and resigned myself to spending more money on oral surgery for my cat than for myself.

Last year she went through a phase where she stopped eating dry food entirely and started dropping weight with alarming speed.  I tried to wait her out, assuming that sooner or later she would give up and resume eating the kitty kibble, but I was wrong.  After she had lost 2 pounds that she didn't have to lose, I started feeding her an entire can of soft food every day - still at night.  Unfortunately, she wouldn't eat it all because it would go stale before she finished it.  In addition, by the time I fed her every evening she was so hungry that she would bolt her supper and, all too often, throw it right back up.

Now I'm feeding her canned food twice a day, thinning it with hot water, and she's eating it without gagging.  She's even started eating dry food again.  As a result, she's regained some of the weight she lost and is more active than I've seen her in years.  All good, right?  But...

Now she expects breakfast to be served every morning, and she isn't necessarily willing to wait for it until we're ready to rise.  Much as I love her, I don't appreciate her whining in my ear at a quarter to six when I wasn't planning to get up until eight o'clock.  Barry, who needs more sleep than I do, appreciates it even less.  We've tried shutting her out of the bedroom (she howls outside the door), feeding her again before we go to bed (she's still ready for breakfast at dawn or a little before), throwing pillows at her (she dodges and continues to whine), and ignoring her (I can do this but Barry generally cracks); I don't know what else to try.  Of course, she's a pretty old cat, but she's in such good condition that she could be with us for years, whining all the way.  Maybe we'll have to lay in a stock of earplugs.

"After scolding one's cat one looks into its face and is seized by the ugly suspicion that it understood every word. And has filed it for reference." ~ Charlotte Gray

Saturday, February 5, 2011

When Glasses Don't Help

My grandmother's brother Clarence was known to one and all as Shorty, partly because the immediate family contained two other Clarences and partly because he was, well, short. His wife was a highly intelligent woman who had been a schoolteacher before their marriage. This is their wedding picture:

(Wasn't he a hunk?  And doesn't she look like someone who would have whacked rowdy students across the knuckles - or some place more sensitive - with a heavy wood ruler?)

Aunt Amelia is something of a legend in our family because she lived to be over 100 years old and stayed mentally sharp until the very end.  Unfortunately, her bright mind was trapped in a progressively failing body.  Once a voracious reader and a passionate fan of the soaps on TV, she lost first her vision and then her hearing.  She could still speak but had no way for others to communicate with her.  Her death was the proverbial "blessed release."

Aunt Amelia has been on my mind today because yesterday was Barry's annual eye exam, and not only are his cataracts worsening, but he also may be developing glaucoma.  He needs further glaucoma testing at the central VA hospital in Phoenix, but if the results are positive, the corrective surgery for his cataracts will be indefinitely delayed.

Barry already has damaged hearing; when he was in the Army, a grenade simulator tossed too close to him literally blew him off his feet and permanently affected his ability to hear high-pitched sounds such as bird chirps, appliance beeps, and many women's voices.  He relies on facial expressions, body language, and some limited lip-reading to get through conversations and we almost always have the captions on when we watch TV or a DVD.  I'm worried that his worsening vision is shrinking his world even farther.  He's already stopped driving at night; what will he have to give up next?

As I said, I keep thinking of Aunt Amelia.  Barry's still a long way from her condition, and I really hope the ophthalmologists at the VA can keep him that way.

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." ~George Orwell  

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Congenial Dinner

This week I bought a package of spicy bulk chicken chorizo at Sprouts, and just watching the news about the winter storms in the rest of the country convinced me to make some of it into this comforting lentil stew.

Lentil Stew with Chicken Chorizo

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1/2 pound bulk chicken chorizo
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth or bouillon
8 ounces (1/2 bag) lentils
1 large bay leaf
15 whole cloves
pepper and salt to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and cook the onion and carrot, stirring occasionally, until they soften.  Crumble in the chorizo and brown it.  Add the broth, lentils, bay leaf and cloves.  Skim off any foam that develops.  Simmer until the lentils are fully cooked, about 30-40 minutes, adding more water if needed.  About halfway through the cooking time, taste and add pepper and, if necessary, salt as desired.

This recipe also works with canned lentils (shorten the cooking time accordingly).

“Lentils are friendly—the Miss Congeniality of the bean world.” ~Laurie Colwin

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Breathless in Bed

One of the many things I didn't know about Barry when I first met him was that he has sleep apnea.  If you've never slept with someone who occasionally stops breathing, I can assure you that it's very exciting - in a bad way.  Fortunately we have a friend with apnea who uses a CPAP machine at night, and about a year and a half ago he convinced Barry to ask for testing at the V.A., where as a veteran Barry would be eligible for a free machine of his own.

The sleep test verified what I already knew - that Barry stops breathing several times every night, and even when he does breathe, his oxygen intake is often restricted.  The good news is that the V.A. gave Barry a CPAP.  The bad news is that the V.A. gave Barry a CPAP.

As soon as Barry began using the machine his snoring decreased dramatically in volume and frequency.  In addition, he stopped having the nightmares about being attacked that had plagued him for most of his life.  Apparently they were an unsuccessful attempt by his brain to say, "Danger, Barry!  Wake up because we can't breathe!"  Using the CPAP he is more refreshed after fewer hours in bed and less likely to need a nap during the day.  Barry will never be a morning person, but with the aid of the CPAP he no longer wakes up feeling exhausted and paranoid.  

He almost didn't use the machine long enough to realize its benefits.  Barry's CPAP came with a "full face" mask (covering both nose and mouth) that looks like this.  The masks come in three sizes - small, medium and large - with adjustable forehead and mouth straps, but they have no way to compensate for faces with differing topography.  Since Barry has a rather high-bridged nose, the mask rubs there and shoots air onto his eyelids.  He wanted to give up on it until I bought a fabric sleep mask he could wear underneath the CPAP mask to shield his eyes and cushion his nose.  That helped him initially fall asleep, although if he woke up during the night he usually had to remove the CPAP mask in order to resume his slumber.  Eventually his skin started to break out from the sleep mask, but by then he was used to the noise of the machine and his nose was more accustomed to the pressure, so he was able to put up with the air on his eyelids.

The bad news?  When Barry snored all night, I knew right away when he stopped breathing and could prod him awake if it went on for more than a few seconds.  Now he sometimes breathes so smoothly that all I can hear is the "whoosh" of the air from the machine.  Is he still breathing?  Has he stopped?  Should I poke him and risk an explosion, or leave him alone and trust the CPAP to do its thing?  Maybe the real answer is to trust the CPAP and ask my doctor why I'm awake in the middle of the night.

“The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald