Saturday, March 24, 2012

Button Day, Big Time

When I was working full-time in insurance, every couple of months I scheduled a "Button Day" to go through my closet and pull out anything that needed dry cleaning, alterations, or repairs.  The little repairs, like shining shoes and sewing fallen buttons back on, I handled myself; I dropped off more serious cases at the dry cleaners, shoe repair shop, or tailor, as appropriate.

Since I've spent the last year working from home, I haven't bothered with Button Day.  Who cared whether my T-shirts were spotted or my jeans held closed with a safety pin when no one saw me for days at a time except the cat?  I managed to pull myself together occasionally to run errands in public places or meet clients face-to-face, but my wardrobe was starting to look like the poster child for deferred maintenance.

However, on Monday I'm starting a three-month contract position working 5 days a week at the clients' office, with a chance they may eventually hire me for a permanent full-time job.  Showing up as Raggedy Ann's mother is not an option, so I've spent the last several days shining and sewing and ferrying stained pants and creased jackets to the cleaners.  I've done some personal maintenance, too, since I was way overdue for a professional haircut, root touch-up, and pedicure.  Tomorrow I'll have my car washed, vacuumed, and filled with gas and I should be good to go, for a while anyway.

Better schedule next month's Button Day now for the items I snag, scuff, or drop food on between today and then.

“The first thing any comedian does on getting an unscheduled laugh is to verify the state of his buttons.” ~W. C. Fields

Friday, March 23, 2012

Senorita Bandita

Last week I checked out an e-book from the library that appeared, from the description and the cover art, to be a Kathleen Woodiwiss-like bodice-ripper.  I was in the mood for a little light historical romance, but that's not what I got.  Bandit Queen by Jane Candia Coleman is the fictionalized autobiography of Pearl Hart, the only woman known to have held up a stagecoach, and "light" is definitely not the appropriate adjective for it.  Gritty, maybe.

Pearl left her well-to-do Ohio family to elope with Frank Hart, an abusive professional gambler.  She ran away from him once - all the way to Arizona - but he eventually found her and she didn't escape again until after she had given birth to two children.  Her life as a single mother in the Wild West grew progressively harder.  Eventually she parked her son and daughter with her widowed mother in Ohio, and when her mother and both children fell ill, she agreed to help a friend rob the stage so she could afford to return home to help them.  The feminist diatribe she delivered at her trial in her own defense is a matter of record, and one of the reasons the author decided to write this book. Pearl was the first woman incarcerated in the Yuma penitentiary, where she was raped by a guard and used the incident (and the ensuing pregnancy) to blackmail her way out.

This is the story of a woman who made one bad decision after another - not romanticized, not apologetic.  Well-researched and sadly believable, it was a good read, but not a happy one.  I suppose this could be considered an object lesson for anyone in a bad relationship, but my advice would be not to read it if you are already a little depressed.

"The world perishes not from bandits and fires, but from hatred, hostility, and all these petty squabbles." ~Anton Chekhov

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Damn Those Trade-offs!

A major project I've been working on for one of my clients is winding down, and with it a good chunk of my income, so I've spent the last couple of weeks prospecting for another job, and (if I pass the background check), I've just landed one.  It's a 3-6 month contract with the possibility of permanent employment.  The downside: a 40-hour work week, with all the work to be done at the client's office.

This is a fairly significant downside.  I will have to give up dance lessons, singing in the choir, working out with my sister, and helping my parents with transportation and various projects except on the weekends.  No occasional afternoon naps with the cat, either.

On the other hand, I will be able to cut back to teaching one online class at a time; afford a landscaping service for the overdue trimming of my fruit trees; eat out much more often; and possibly hire a professional cleaning service once or twice during the contract.  Best of all, I will be able to enjoy the cruise this fall without agonizing over every extra cent I spend; I may even be able to take a break from teaching while we're gone.  A real vacation - what a concept!

That's assuming, of course, that my prospective employers aren't deterred by the two supposed closed tax liens on my credit record - one lien that was filed in error, twice, for money the IRS agrees I didn't owe.  Sigh.  I miss the good old days when it was possible to get a job without having my credit history and urine analyzed.  Note to self: avoid poppyseed bagels for the foreseeable future.

"Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sanctifying Leftovers

I was amused earlier this year by a restaurant menu entry for shepherd's pie that ranted about the difference between REAL shepherd's pie (with lamb) and COTTAGE pie (with beef).  It reminded me of other foodie fights I've seen over what types of fish must be included in bouillabaisse, whether duck or goose is necessary for a bean dish to qualify as cassoulet, and if the inclusion of raisins in Irish soda bread mysteriously transforms it into "tea cake."  In all cases, at least one side of the argument states categorically that members of the group which invented the food in question always cook it THEIR way.

Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps shepherd's pie got its name because someone used lamb in it, and Irish cooks without access to raisins made their soda bread without them, but I know many people born and raised and taught to cook in Ireland who always make their shepherd's pie with ground beef and their soda bread with dried fruit.  I've also eaten several very different versions of cassoulet and bouillabaisse prepared by native French cooks who learned to make the dishes while growing up in their native terroir.

Here's my theory as to what has happened:

Back in the days when most people's access to cooking equipment and ingredients was limited and standardized recipes were not yet even a gleam in Mrs. Beeton's eye, they made do with what they had.  They learned to cook by watching others and by experimenting.  Soups and stews - including the sacred bouillabaisse - undoubtedly started when someone threw all the leftovers lying around the house into a single pot and then added some seasonings to meld the flavors together.  Over time, people grew used to certain combinations and started to believe they were the only proper versions ("That's how Mom used to make it!"), overlooking the fact that the village down the road did things a little differently.  The divergence undoubtedly grew greater as the access to ingredients expanded.  Baked goods probably underwent a similar process.  Italian bread, for instance, traditionally didn't contain salt, but that wasn't because Italian bakers didn't like the taste of salt in their bread; it's because salt was in very short supply.  I'm sure some Italian bread now does contain salt for the flavor, the longer shelf-life, and the ease with which salt can currently be obtained.  Does that make it no longer Italian bread?  Even when it's made by Italians in Italy??

I've been musing about this today because I'm making myself shepherd's pie tonight in honor of St. Patrick's Day, and although I did splurge on ground lamb for it, I normally make my shepherd's pie with extra-lean ground turkey to reduce the fat content.  Does that mean I'm going to start calling what I usually make "turkey-herd's pie?"  I think not.  And let's not even start on what vegetables should or shouldn't be included.  Any purists reading this will just have to agree that we disagree and turn the other way while I dump a few leftovers into the pot.

"When baking, follow directions.  When cooking, go by your own taste."  ~Laiko Bahrs

Friday, March 16, 2012

Best Soda Bread EVER

My husband Tom was very proud of the fact that both his parents were Irish immigrants.  He regularly visited the aunts, uncles, and cousins who still lived in Ireland and actually started the process of applying for dual citizenship, although he died before it was completed.  Naturally we always made a big deal out of St. Patrick's Day.  We had soda bread for breakfast, attended the local parade and/or an Irish music concert, and scarfed down shepherd's pie or corned beef and cabbage for dinner.  (The parade here in Phoenix, by the way, is a real hoot because half of the marchers are dogs from the local Kennel and rescue clubs.)

For the first few years we were together I made the soda bread from his Aunt Alice's recipe, which was good but tricky - if I wasn't extremely careful, it was more like a raisin-studded rock than a real food.  Then my friend Kathleen Batkiewicz brought some of her Irish mother's soda bread to work and I begged for the recipe.  This is the best soda bread I've ever tasted - so good that I've never been tempted to fiddle with it in any way.  So here is the one, the only, the original recipe for:

Mama Hession's Soda Bread

4 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 c. raisins
1 Tbsp. caraway seeds
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 c. buttermilk

Butter and flour a 9" square cake pan (1 1/2" or 2" high).  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix all dry ingredients; add buttermilk and eggs.  Grease your hands with cooking oil and use them to mix everything thoroughly.  Pour the batter into the pan and bake for one hour; if the top starts to brown too rapidly, cover with aluminum foil.

CRUCIAL FINAL STEP: Store with aluminum foil and a wet towel on top to keep the bread moist.

I'll be making a batch this evening.  The only question - should I share this with anyone else in honor of the holiday, or just live off yummy soda bread by myself for the next two days?

"The immigrant's heart marches to the beat of two quite different drums, one from the old homeland and the other from the new. The immigrant has to bridge these two worlds, living comfortably in the new and bringing the best of his or her ancient identity and heritage to bear on life in an adopted homeland." ~Irish President McAleese

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spring Has Sprung

Spring may not officially begin for another 11 days, but we made it through February without a killing frost and practically every flowering plant in the greater Phoenix area is already in bloom.  My neighborhood is permeated with the smell of citrus blossoms, and the oleanders in my yard are looking good:

"The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size." ~Gertrude S. Wister

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Counterfeit Chicken

Since my first attempts at modifying the KFC Original recipe were not entirely successful, I've been trying different tweaks and think I finally have a good end product.  To cut down on the fat and sodium I'm baking the chicken, reducing the salt, substituting Egg Beaters for eggs in the dredge, and eliminating the brining and the MSG.  To add some of the extra umame that the MSG provided in the original recipe, I increased the amounts of herbs and added a little thyme to the list that Todd Wilbur used.  Here's the result:

Faux Fried Chicken

Vegetable oil spray 
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp ground black pepper (preferably tellicherry)
1/2 tsp dried savory
1/2 tsp rubbed dried sage
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp dried marjoram
1/4 tsp ground thyme
1/4 tsp onion powder (NOT onion salt)
1/8 tsp garlic powder (NOT garlic salt)
1/16 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup whole wheat panko crumbs
1/2 cup Egg Beaters egg substitute
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and spray a rimmed cookie sheet or shallow baking pan with vegetable oil.  In a small bowl, mix the herbs and spices.  Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to pulverize the mixture.  Pour into a gallon sealable plastic bag; add the crumbs and shake until thoroughly blended.

Pour the Egg Beaters into a shallow pan.  Pat the chicken pieces dry.  Roll one piece of chicken in the Egg Beaters and then shake it in the bag of crumbs.  When it's coated with seasoned crumbs, place it on the prepared pan.  Repeat with the other pieces of chicken, one at a time.  Bake.

After 10 minutes, check to see whether the crumbs are getting too brown; if so, cover loosely with aluminum foil.  Continue to bake until an instant-read food thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken reads 165 degrees (the temperature will go up another 5 degrees or so after you take the chicken out of the oven); how long this will take depends on how large the pieces are, but start checking when they've been baking for 15 minutes.

Let rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

"What is sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander but is not necessarily sauce for the chicken, the duck, the turkey or the guinea hen. " ~Alice B. Toklas

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Paris Pastime

You already know I'm a sucker for stories about time travel and alternate universes, so I'm not sure how I managed to miss the release of Woody Allen's 2011 film Midnight in Paris.  I finally got to see it on DVD last night.

Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a successful screenwriter working on his first novel.  He and his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdam) tag along with her parents on her father's business trip to Paris.  Gil is in love with the city even before he arrives; apparently he read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and had the same reaction to it that I did - wanting to visit via time machine.  He is swept away by its charm and historic associations.  Inez, on the other hand, is more interested in the shopping, partying, and an old friend (a self-proclaimed expert on practically everything) who is a visiting lecturer at the Sorbonne.  As Inez goes dancing without him, Gil roams the streets at night looking for inspiration for his book, until he discovers an amazing secret: at midnight in Paris, for anyone who wants badly enough to visit the past, magical transportation is available.

Barry, who told me about this movie, complained that it was a rehash of Purple Rose of Cairo, and it's true that one of the main themes of both films is "the grass is always greener..."  Purple Rose, though, was more of a straight comedy; Midnight in Paris is a love letter to a wonderful city and its unique history.  If you've never been to Paris, the little cinematographic travelogue at the beginning may be enough to convince you that you should see it in person at least once before you die.  Even if it doesn't, the story was entertaining enough to win Allen a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  If you haven't seen it yet, check it out soon.

"That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me."  ~Adrianna, a character in Midnight in Paris