Food overload

The trash gets picked up on Wednesdays in my neighborhood, so this morning I wheeled my big tote to the curb loaded down with heavy, dripping bags of rotting food from my own refrigerator. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and may Demeter have mercy on my soul. It was a very bad week for wasting food in my house.

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

I let my Bountiful Baskets get away from me, faithfully picking one up every week for three weeks in a row even though I still had produce piled all over my counters from the weeks before. I gave some of it to my neighbors and I did prep a lot of it into usable ingredients so I would have them available for cooking … but somehow the cooking part just didn’t come together before things started turning slimy and spotty. Which reminds me why I’ve always been leery of fresh food: It just doesn’t last that long. Not long enough, anyway, for me to 1) figure out how to use it and 2) get motivated to do so.

When I told a friend once that I like to cook, her first question was, “don’t you end up wasting a lot of food because you live alone?” I thought it was an odd query because why would my living alone make any difference? No, I told her, I am pretty good about using what I buy. And I always have been, for the most part. But every so often, my ambitions get ahead of my appetite, and much waste results.

I recently learned that food waste decomposing in landfills is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is a likely contributor to climate change. I don’t want to participate in that slow-motion catastrophe any more than I absolutely have to (and unfortunately, we all have to), so I’m thinking about getting a composter for my kitchen scraps. Maybe one like this, which is off the ground to keep the dogs from scrounging through it.

compost-bin

Tumbling Composter from Home Depot.

For all the peels, pits, rinds, seeds, soft spots, and other food scraps that I put in the garbage every week, this just might make a difference.

My fridge is now cleared of all but a few hardy veggies with long shelf lives, and my counters are mostly visible again—although I do still have a big jicama bulb and several pounds of blue potatoes from my basket that I am not sure yet what to do with. I didn’t get a basket this week, and won’t get one next week. I’m waiting to go grocery shopping until the last egg, the last carrot, the last drop of milk, and the last piece of bread are all gone. And then I’m going to be more careful about how I stock my kitchen.

food-dont-waste-it

This World War II-era propaganda poster is still good advice today.

 

La cucina dell’amore

Finally, I have found a recipe that I would, without hesitation, employ to seduce someone with a home-cooked meal. Didn’t get the chance to use it this Valentine’s Day, but maybe next year!

Amid all the online clamor about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie premiere this weekend, I came across a cookbook called “Fifty Shades of Chicken.” Truly, it redefines the “food porn” genre with both its language and its photography. It is intended to be a parody of the best-selling book, so the overwrought writing style is similar (or so I understand; I haven’t read any of the books in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy and don’t plan to see any of the movies made from same).

50-shades-chicken

Its Amazon listing includes a sample recipe for Dripping Thighs (if this and other highly suggestive language offends you, don’t click any of the links in this post and definitely do not watch the video on the book’s website), which I made tonight.

The chicken thighs are baked after being bathed in a sticky, sweet, savory sauce of onions in reduced white wine seasoned with cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, enriched with butter, and sweetened with honey. This unusual flavor combination is an over-the-fence home run. I regret that I had but a single stomach to devote to the meal, it was so very good. My reaction while eating it was not unlike Julia Child’s when she first tasted Sole Meunière.

If you’re nervous about clicking through to Amazon or the book’s website, here is the recipe. We can call it “Seduction Chicken,” if you prefer.

Ingredients
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, patted dry with paper towels
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tsp plus pinch coarse kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 c white wine
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs honey

Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the chicken, garlic, 1 tsp salt, and pepper together.
  3. In a small saucepan, simmer together onion, wine, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and a pinch of salt until most of the liquid has evaporated, 15 to 20 minutes. Add honey and butter and stir until butter is melted.
  4. Spoon the mixture over the chicken and toss well. Spread thighs, onion mixture, and any juices onto a baking sheet. Bake until chicken is no longer pink and onions are meltingly tender and caramelized, about 25 minutes.

I had a 2-pound package of chicken thighs, so I doubled the recipe, but otherwise made it as written. I found that “simmering” the sauce on low heat won’t get the job done in 15 or 20 minutes; you’ll need to either raise the temp to medium-high or wait a whole lot longer for the wine to reduce. Also, I was a little worried about the onions burning at 450 degrees, so I turned the oven down to 400 halfway through and they were not really caramelized but were definitely “meltingly tender.”

I’ve made some mighty tasty dishes in my day, but this one is miles ahead of all the rest. I can hardly wait to start working my way through the entire cookbook.

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

I got several plump zucchini in my CSA basket this week and, as some of you know, I cannot abide squash of any kind. I considered whether to give them away or throw them away before deciding to get some use out of them, so I used them for knife practice. I julienned them, then brunoised them. I focused on keeping my fingers away from the blade (100% success), making uniform pieces (eh, not so much, but I’m getting better), and increasing my working speed (really no success at all there; I’m a plodder, but at least I never cut myself).

Once the zucchini were all so nicely (if not perfectly uniformly) diced, I thought that I ought to do something with them. If that something involved butter and garlic, I was pretty sure I would be able to eat it and like it. So I made this, which is the first recipe I have ever created and written, all by myself, from scratch, start to finish.

Rotini Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Ingredients
2 Tbs olive or avocado oil
1 Tbs butter
6-8 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 medium zucchini, diced (about 4-5 cups)
1 large sweet onion, diced (about 2-3 cups)
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
16 oz rotini pasta, cooked according to package directions
1/2 c basil pesto
1 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 c fresh basil chiffonade
 .
Preparation
  1. Preheat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high for 5 minutes. Add oil and butter and heat until butter foams.
  2. Add minced garlic and cook for 30-60 seconds until fragrant but not browned.
  3. Add diced zucchini and onion, stirring well to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring every several minutes and lowering heat as needed to prevent scorching, until all the water evaporates and the mixture begins to brown. You can keep cooking it until it’s dark brown and fully caramelized, or stop when it’s just partially browned. Up to you.
  4. Boil the pasta to your preferred softness. Scoop out a cup or so of the pasta water before draining. Drain the pasta and place in a large warmed serving dish.
  5. Add the zucchini-onion mixture, pesto, Parmesan and basil to the pasta and stir to combine. Add reserved pasta water as needed to loosen the mixture.

I topped this with some small shrimp, which I sautéed in butter for a few minutes and sprinkled with garlic salt while cooking. I poured the leftover butter in the pan into the bowl of pasta before serving, which gave it a nice, glossy finish.

I thought it tasted absolutely amazing—if you cook zucchini long enough, it essentially disappears, and that is fine by me!

The story of us

We hold our dogs so close that parts of ourselves overflow and fall directly onto their furry heads. So when we look at our dogs we see our worst sorrows, our greatest joys and the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name. The story of our dogs is the story of us. ~ Will Kearney, “On Losing a Dog”

This quote is from a story about a man and his dog, a German Shorthaired Pointer named Dutch. The man is the author’s brother, James. I was moved by this account of love and loss, both for how it mirrors my own and how it doesn’t.

Like Dutch, my big dog Ruby lived with me for the best 10 years of my life before I lost her to hemangiosarcoma in 2007. I’ve said many times, on this blog and elsewhere, that she was the best dog in the world, as is every well-loved dog. Raising her well, giving her a good life, and caring for her to the end are among the best things I have ever done, and I will always be grateful that she was my dog.

Ruby_kiss_2003

Me and my big dog.

Kearney says of his brother, “When Dutch died, so did the some of the best parts of James. But before Dutch died, he gave all of the best parts of himself to James. It’s a painful trade but it’s one James, I and you never regret.” On this point, we differ. Ruby changed me profoundly for the better as she, too, gave me all the best parts of herself. And the best parts of me that she drew forth are still vibrantly alive, buoying me up through tough times. She gave me all she had, and I honor her gifts every day. I share them with my little dogs now, as well as with my friends and family and the world in other ways.

The little dogs, too, give me their best, and loving them keeps my heart open and warm and pliable even when it has every reason to shrivel up into a cold, bitter lump of nothing. Hey, I’ve been single for a long damn time, and while that has its advantages, to be sure, it does not foster open-heartedness as a general rule. I know that I cannot survive without an open heart, so in this respect my dogs are my lifeline.

little-dogs

Me and my little dogs.

People have always said that the greatest thing about dogs is that they love us unconditionally. I don’t think that’s true, actually, because I don’t know that animals actually feel what we call love. But I know that people do. And I think the greatest thing about dogs, and all pets, is that they allow us to love them unconditionally. The best human-animal bonds allow us to be who we were born to be: open-hearted, loving, understanding, trusting, patient, kind, and most of all, fully present. Most of us are too afraid to love other people that way, but we can love our animals that way because they place no barriers between themselves and our affections for them. Imagine how the world might change if everyone allowed themselves to love and be loved this way, sharing with one another “the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name.”

“My dog does this amazing thing where he just exists and makes my whole life better because of it.” ~ Found on various internet sites without attribution

I’ve had separate conversations recently with a very dear friend and with my mother, both lovely women, to the effect that their greatest contribution to the world is simply to show up and be themselves because that, in and of itself, is a gift that the world needs. My mother, in particular, feels on some days that because she has such limited mobility since her stroke that she doesn’t have much to offer the world anymore. But in fact, her mere presence is a tangible thing, strongly felt by family, friends and strangers alike—in exactly the same way that her Golden Retriever’s presence is felt by and influences everyone with whom the dog comes in contact.

My mom and her dog, Sunny.

Mom and her dog, Sunny, who makes her laugh.

Sunny has no agenda in her interactions with the world; she takes people just as she finds them and loves them all the same. All she has to offer in any interaction is only herself, and nearly everyone she meets finds that to be not only sufficient, but actually quite delightful. My mother, too, is finding that all she has to offer now is herself, and well into her seventh decade of life she is learning, I hope, that this is and has always been enough.

Whether your pet of choice is a dog, a cat, a hamster, a rabbit, a horse, a python, or any other sentient creature, this is the simplest and yet the most profound lesson that our animals can teach us: Be present. Be yourself. Be.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

The daily news is so full of shootings and other atrocities nowadays that I can hardly tell one from another. Consequently, I can’t muster up much in the way of grief or outrage for most of these incidents no matter how close to home they hit or how high the body count is or how horrific the details might be. I just don’t have the emotional energy to spare, I’m afraid. The last ghastly incident that really hit home for me was the shooting at Sandy Hook school.

The recent events in Paris, however, have struck a chord in me that has my jimmies more rustled than they’ve been in at least the past two years.

Twelve people were shot and killed at a French newspaper called Charlie Hebdo, ostensibly by Muslim militants who were angered by the newspaper’s satirical writings and drawings about the Islamic prophet Mohammed. In solidarity with those who were killed, including four editorial cartoonists, many writers and illustrators and ordinary people across Europe and around the world are taking up the slogan “Je Suis Charlie (I Am Charlie).”

As a former newspaper reporter, I suppose I could be expected to stand up for my fallen brethren in support of their ironclad ideals of freedom of speech and to applaud and admire their courage to lampoon all that is sacred to, well, almost everyone. Charlie Hebdo, so the line goes, was an equal-opportunity offender of every class, culture, creed and religion. Their cartoons aimed at Islam, in particular, are said to be scathing and often scatological. I wouldn’t know, since I don’t seek out this particular form of commentary. In fact, until two days ago, I had never heard of this publication and probably never would have if they hadn’t been so brutally thrust onto the world stage.

I have a lot of swirling and conflicted feelings about this incident that are difficult to sort out into straight lines.

While I recognize the need in free societies for publications like Charlie Hebdo that are not afraid to pull the tiger’s tail and publish words and pictures that others find too taboo to touch, I also don’t appreciate that sort of content. I would never seek it out, and I resent being pushed to inadvertently participate in this trampling of Muslim sensibilities by other news outlets that are publishing some of the controversial images that Charlie Hebdo did. I appreciate the news outlets that are declining to do so despite being called cowards by some of their readers.

Paul Farhi (“News organizations wrestle with whether to publish Charlie Hebdo cartoons after attack“) writes in The Washington Post:

Neither the New York Times nor The Washington Post has ever published the Danish or French cartoons, and both indicated Wednesday that they don’t intend to.

The Times’ associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, said his paper doesn’t publish material “deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.” He said Times editors decided that describing the cartoons rather than showing them “would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.”

Similarly, The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, said his newspaper avoids publication of material “that is pointedly, deliberately, or needlessly offensive to members of religious groups” and would continue to apply those principles in the wake of the Paris atrocity.

The New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, in a blog post, only tepidly supports her employer’s decision not to publish the images (“A Close Call on Publication of Charlie Hebdo Cartoons“):

[NYT Executive Editor Dean] Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression….

Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”

Sullivan concludes, “The Times undoubtedly made a careful and conscientious decision in keeping with its standards. However, given these events—and an overarching story that is far from over—a review and reconsideration of those standards may be in order in the days ahead.”

The Guardian also declined to republish the cartoons (“The Guardian view on Charlie Hebdo: show solidarity, but in your own voice“) and said in an editorial:

The key point is this: support for a magazine’s inalienable right to make its own editorial judgments does not commit you to echo or amplify those judgments. Put another way, defending the right of someone to say whatever they like does not oblige you to repeat their words.

Each and every publication has a different purpose and ethos. Charlie Hebdo is not the Guardian or the New York Times, nor is it the Daily Mail or Private Eye. The animating intention behind its work was to satirise and provoke in a distinctive voice, one that would not sit easily in other publications.

New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks (“I am not Charlie Hebdo“) notes that even if you claim to be Charlie (or at least share its ideals), “Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.”

When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

But after a while that seems puerile.

A commenter on this story called all American media cowards and hypocrites, saying, “Your case would have been far stronger had you compared the courage of Charlie Hebdo with the cowardice & appeasement of American media. This very newspaper will not publish satirical cartoons commenting on Islam even as it will freely analyze, say, The Book of Mormon. The most galling example is that Comedy Central has censured South Park’s satire on Mohammed, in which Parker/Stone examine the lengths their station will go to self-censure. As soon as “Revolution Muslim” threatened death to Parker & Stone for the episode, Comedy Central responded by heavily censuring & ultimately removing the episode. So in a show that freely satirizes Christians, Mormons, Jews & everyone, somehow Muslims are forbidden—It’s not out of delicacy or political correctness or being respectful or disrespectful. It’s out of cowardice, appeasement & moral weakness.”

Jennifer Schuessler (“Charlie Hebdo Attack Chills Satirists and Prompts a Debate“) writes in the New York Times:

But amid all the “I Am Charlie” marches and declarations on social media, some in the cartooning world are also debating a delicate question: Were the victims free-speech martyrs, full stop, or provocateurs whose aggressive mockery of Islam sometimes amounted to xenophobia and racism? ….

Mr. [Tom] Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter said that when he posted some of what he called Charlie Hebdo’s “ugly, racist” covers in a show of solidarity on Wednesday, he got a number of emails from cartoonists challenging the decision.

“Some people questioned such work as simply cruelty hiding behind the idea of free speech,” Mr. Spurgeon said.

Rabbi Michael Lerner (“Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy“) writes in the Huffington Post:

the media has refused to even consider what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded.

To even raise this kind of question is to open oneself up to charges of not caring about the murdered or making excuses for the murderers. But neither charge is accurate. …

“But they ridicule everyone’s religion, not just the Muslim’s, so isn’t that fair?​” we are reassured. But the reassurance isn’t reassuring. That they ridicule everyone is exactly the problem—the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone. … So let’s call demeaning speech, including demeaning humor, what it really is—an assault on the dignity of human beings.

And finally, here is cartoonist Joe Sacco’s response to the shooting (click image for a larger version).

sacco-on-satire

Surely we can do better by one another, and we at least ought to try because we really are all in this together.

Extremism is extremism, and murder is murder that cannot be “justified” by religious beliefs. By the same token, racism, bigotry and bullying are disrespectful and abusive no matter what religious or ethnic group is the target—or the source, either, for that matter.

That is why I am not Charlie. I don’t stand with those who mock and belittle and attack others simply because they can, yet claim to be valiant defenders of liberty and freedom. I believe in respect and kindness toward all and in promoting what you love, not bashing what you hate.

 

Pretty shiny things

Back in the 1980s, my mother went through an extended Pretty Shiny Things phase. She had a magpie’s eye and a curator’s taste for the bright bauble, and she collected some of the most beautiful things: precious and semi-precious stones of all kinds, set in jewelry or carved or cut or made into a fetish or just raw from the ground. Her collection was extensive and impressive; she could have opened a small museum.

At Christmas, she gifted me one of those baubles, what is called a dinner ring (or a cocktail ring, or just a right-hand ring) that consists of 25 tiny diamonds and rubies set in a kind of a spiraling bun in a 14K white gold setting.

Pretty, right?

Pretty, right?

She knew when she gave it to me that I already wear a ring on my right hand and that this is not my preferred jewelry style.

It has a super-high profile and a setting that is likely to catch on everything.

It has a dauntingly high profile and a spiky setting that is likely to catch on everything it touches.

She said she hoped I would be able to convert it into currency at the going rate, and produced a jeweler’s appraisal from the time of sale (30 years ago) that set the ring’s replacement value at a smidge under $2,000.

You will soon see why I don’t feel the least bit nervous about telling the internet that I am keeping such mighty bling in my house.

I took the ring to the widely respected Big Time Jewelry Store in my town, where the certified gemologist (or whatever) told me he would appraise it for a fee of $125. I asked him if he would consider buying it from me at that time. “We don’t sell used jewelry here,” he sniffed. “We might take it off your hands for scrap.” The going rate for gemstone and precious metal “scrap”? About $75. The stones themselves, being so small, are essentially worthless, he said.

Another, um, “jewelry dealer” in town, the kind who has sturdy bars on the windows and doors of his incredibly shabby shop and who wears a large handgun on his belt during business hours, told me that the typical jeweler’s markup on materials is 1000%, and proved it by weighing the ring. It came to about 1/10th of an ounce, and the original appraisal valued the gold alone at about $350 at a time when gold sold for less than $400 an ounce. So the gold was actually worth about $35 then, and about $150 now, which is what the guy offered me because he, too, regarded the gems as entirely worthless. I took my ring back and went on my way, more than a little bit miffed. He suggested that I go see a guy he knows who consigns jewelry. “Tell him I sent you,” he said.

I am not sure if that route is any more attractive than what the Big Time gemologist had suggested, which was to sell it on Craigslist or eBay. “Seriously?” I asked him. “This is how reputable people dispose of quality jewelry now? Really?” All he could say was, “that’s what I’ve heard.”

What I learned from this is that a jeweler’s appraisal is useful solely for insurance purposes, and that the only way I (or anyone else) could hope to convert this ring into significant currency would be to pay to get it appraised, pay to add it to my homeowner’s insurance policy on a rider, and then report it stolen or lost. Which, besides being terribly expensive, would be outright fraud, of course. And that is not my style at all!

So instead, I shall add it to my own collection of Pretty Shiny Things, many of which are also gifts from my mother. Perhaps someday I’ll have the opportunity to get the stones reset into another style of ring that is more to my taste, just as she has done with some heirloom pieces that were given to her. In the meantime, it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, just like the woman who gave it to me.

 

New year, same old me

I’ve been living with myself long enough now to know at least one thing for sure: I suck at keeping resolutions. Especially those that involve weight loss and/or dieting and/or exercise. So let’s just dispense with the “new year, new me” nonsense forthwith because that is not happening.

new-year-new-me

However.

I do have some plans for 2015, a few modest ambitions that may redound to my greater good if executed properly. A little determination, a little luck, a lot of persistence, and possibly by this time next year I’ll be able to pat myself on the back for all I’ve accomplished.

On the professional front, my single goal for the year is to grow my existing revenue streams and develop new ones. Business Management 101, in other words. I figure I need between 6 and 10 new steady clients to keep me in the black. I know that doesn’t sound like very many, but real estate photography is kind of a big-ticket item. The key word here is steady; I need clients who can consistently give me three or four jobs a month. I have some ideas about how to find them. We’ll see how it goes.

On the personal front, I am leaning toward leaving Weight Watchers soon because it makes no sense for me to pay $42 a month and not follow their plan. I don’t have a backup plan, though, and I don’t like what I’m seeing in the mirror lately.

watching-my-figure

On the domestic front, I gave myself a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated for Christmas and my plans mostly involve cooking: using my new KitchenAid stand mixer, developing my knife skills to the point that I can make a decent tournée, learning how to make the five “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine (Béchamel, Espagnole, Hollandaise, tomate and velouté), and perhaps figuring out how to make decent beef and chicken stock (I’m not interested in ever making veal or fish stock). I would also like to try making bread, although for some reason the whole yeast thing kind of intimidates me. I definitely plan to keep getting my CSA box every week and sharing it with my neighbors because the only thing I enjoy more than eating is feeding other people—which is really saying something, considering how much I do love to eat. ;-)

If I were going to make a resolution, it might be to figure out how to balance my passion for cooking with my desire to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. I’ve heard rumors that such a thing is possible, but I remain skeptical.

never_trust_a_skinny_cook

And finally, on the spiritual front, I plan to appreciate my life, exactly as it is right now, and remember that every day is a gift. As my boy dog ages into his teens and my parents pass the midpoint of their 70s, I realize that we don’t have all the time in the world ahead of us anymore. No one does, of course. This world and this life deserve my attention and my appreciation minute by minute and day by day. That’s the only way to make the passing years mean anything at all.