Sunday, October 30, 2011

Unsolicited Testimonial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gearing Up For Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Drama on the Dance Floor

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vegetables Shaken and Stirred

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

~From Ratatouille, the movie

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Planting Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yearning for Tuscany

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Baking Season Begins

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

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

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

Lemon Yogurt Scones with Fresh Blueberries

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

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

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

"Live long and eat muffins." ~Jackie at

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Heiress

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

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

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

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

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

~The Heiress

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Southwestern with a Twist

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Charlie Trotter Takes on the Dummies

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Into the Closet(s)

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

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

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

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

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