Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I'm all about this Lemon-Lager Chicken from November, Ellie Krieger's Sweet and Spicy Grilled Cheese on really good sourdough, TechGirl's Turkey Chilli, and the Halibut with Coconut-Red Curry Sauce (I used grouper instead of pricey halibut) were all wonderful new additions to my treasured recipe collection.

And, should the winner of this year's crown be unable to fulfill her responsibilities or be caught posing nude with penguins or whatever, I'm sure any of them will step up to Recipe Of The Year status. 'Til then, Roasted Vegetable-Rosemary Chicken Soup gets the scholarship and the gym membership and the other fabulous bennies of being Recipe Of The Year. It's fabulous and it was my first and best recipe of 2009.

2009 in General
It's easy, especially for my Eeyore-tendency self, to think that the pay cuts and the foreclosure signs and the FLOODS here in Atlanta earned 2009 a kick in the ass on its way out.

And yet.

The US inaugurated our first African-American president. You may agree or disagree with his policies, but the fact remains that this was a history-making event. [And yes, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, which seems rather premature to me but peace was, frankly, lacking this year]

Sully! Chesley Sullenberger averts disaster and lands his passenger-laden plane in the Hudson River. I mean, I can barely parallel park.

Octuplets are born. And thus, a nursery becomes a giant Whack-A-Mole, which God never intended. Go ahead and flame me, I said it.

Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff went to jail. And not, unlike certain pedophile movie directors, in a Swiss chalet.

The Governor of South Carolina went "hiking." Because that's what those crazy kids are calling it these days.

Passengers overpowered a terrorist bearing explosives on a flight. So now we scan and bag our own groceries, bring our own bags to the store, AND tackle evil-doers in mid-air. We do it all!

It may not have been introduced this year, but I discovered Behr Paint + Primer in one. Where have you been all my home-owning life?

President Obama tells America's school children, via televised message, to work hard and stay in school. Thousands of parents yank their kids out of class that day in protest. I swear to God this is true.

Taylor Swift rises to astounding popularity. Do I think she's a musical genius? No. But it's refreshing to see a young woman rise to such great heights in the entertainment world without flashing her chamber of secrets every time she exits a car.

Facebook! 2009 as touted as "the year your parents join Facebook", but I like to think of it more as the year your way-cool aunt joined Facebook. Besides reconnecting with old friends, I've friended old acquaintances that I never knew all that well. Weird, but very cool. And I got the best message recently, from a college friend saying "You have no idea about this, but advice you gave me in college changed my life and I've pursued a career of social justice ever since." WOW.

Glee glee glee glee glee!!! I adore this show! Although my high school choir had a bitter middle-aged choir director nothing like Will Schuester, and we tended to sing more about sunsets than bust out Kanye. And speaking of busting out, click to CHECK OUT Mercedes singing "Bust Your Windows."

Glee In Real Life - who didn't love Susan Boyle singing "I Dreamed A Dream"?

My older niece came out with the statement "Ice cream helps me with my anger issues." Me too, Cutie.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Why Fish? Why Seven? Why Now?

Maybe it's my stage in life, maybe it's having lost my grandfather last month. For whatever reason I'm really feeling Italian lately - and not in a nasty, stereotypical "Jersey Shore" kinda way.

Hearing no other ideas from the household peanut gallery it was time for a somewhat-traditional Italian Christmas Eve. My 80-something grandmother (she was married to her two-years-younger second husband for years before he found out her age, so I'm not telling) seemed to be a good source of info, so I gave her a call from the car.

[Side story - both of my grandparents could not - simply could not - understand this "being allergic to shellfish" business. As if I made it up. As if God would exempt me for the sake of heritage. As if it were some trendy malady and I'd hopped on the bandwagon. Remember the scene in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" when everyone freaked out about the boyfriend being vegetarian, and the aunt said "It's OK! I'll make lamb." That, but "shrimp."]

Me: I'm picking up fish for dinner tonight. What side dishes are traditional?
Grandmother: It's the Feast of the Seven Fishes. That's a lot of food, Steph. Who had room for side dishes?
Me: Fair enough. So what did y'all used to have?
Grandmother: Smelts. Shrimp, of course. Usually some tuna. Baccala*, which your aunt adored. My father loved spaghetti with anchovies, or sardines - you're probably not going to make that one, I guess. And he always had to have scungilli (eel). You could do something easy, like flounder. And of course we had all the other stuff that goes with it.
Me, fingers crossed: Other stuff?
Grandmother: You know, the vegetables.
Me, finally getting somewhere: Really? What did you have?
Grandmother, thinking.... : The usual stuff. Potatoes, I guess. Nothing fancy.


The DeKalb Farmer's Market is an amazing, thriving, international foodie paradise with a lot of things I've never heard of and can't pronounce and would love to try. And on Christmas Eve, if you were in the fish section then chances were good your last name ends with a vowel. An immediate community bonded; there was recipe talk, antipasto ideas, complaints about Aunt Rose, Aunt Mary, Uncle Sal, etc.

I will, at some point, post the recipe I made up for dinner tonight. I'm going to enter it in a contest, and to be eligible it has to be unpublished (yes, even on my own blog).

And the answer to the questions.... why fish, and why seven? It appears no one knows for certain. There is a theory that the idea comes from the Seven Hills of Rome - um, there's fish in them thar hills?? I don't get it. There is another that it's rooted in the traditions of Catholicism, which I don't understand well enough to detail.

This much I do know. Whether your December tradition is calamari or grilled pork or take-out, tradition matters. My grandmother's memories of her own childhood holidays, then sharing them with her children and grandchildren, are giving her comfort now. My grandfather's two biggest concerns with me were that I would forget I was Italian and/or turn Republican. And he may have considered those the same thing, Rudy Giuliani nonwithstanding.

The fish was on the table. And it was, if I say so myself, pretty darn good. And steamed veggies on the side - nothing fancy.

*Baccala is salted cod. Starting at least four days prior to serving it has to be soaked - with the water changed every six hours - to get the salt out. One of my friends once said it was something you would take to war as a physical weapon, a threat, and - if absolutely necessary - food.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

OCD Eggs

Meaning, of coure, Off-Center Deviled Eggs. CLEVER, no?

My BFF has been known to call my cell, from the grocery store, as she debates one cut of meat vs. another. She can cook, but doesn't get the same enjoyment from it that I do - and after knowing her for (gulp!) nearly thirty years, this is how it is.

So the latest question from my burgeoning-with-child friend was "There's a right way and other ways to hard-boil eggs, right? And how do I get the yolk in the middle and not off to the side for when I make deviled eggs?"

You know what? She's right. There's more to boiling an egg than just boiling water.

The part about keeping the yolk in the middle? EASY, and probably not what you were expecting. The day before you're going to cook them, take the eggs out of the carton and replace them, on their sides, in the carton (or in a casserole dish). You won't be able to close the carton. Keep them on their sides for 24 hours before cooking, and you too will have Martha-esque yolk-in-the-middle eggs.

And of course, that really only matters if you're hard-boiling.

Don't boil the water first. Put a single layer of eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water; the water level should be about an inch above the eggs. Add one teaspoon of baking soda to the water, which will help make your eggs easier to peel. Bring to boiling over high heat - crank that flame up!

Once boiling, reduce the heat immediately so that the water is just barely simmering. Cover the saucepan and set the timer for 15 minutes. Let them cook undisturbed.

When 15 minutes is up, run cold water over the eggs. You're done the hard-boiling part.

To be-devil the eggs-

6 hard-cooked eggs
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tp prepared mustard
1 tsp vinegar

Halve hard-cooked eggs lengthwise and remove the yolks gently.

Place yolks in a bowl and mash with a fork. Add mayo, mustard, and vinegar; mix well. If desired, season with salt and pepper. Stuff egg-white halves with yolk mixture. If desired, sprinkle with paprika.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

C is for Cookie

Holiday baking starts today. In an obvious attempt to ruin my life and my happiness my doc has put me on a gluten-free trial. It's not going all that well (I'm a SMIDGE cranky), and for darn sure I'm not going to inflict this on anyone else. In fairness, though, quinoa pasta is actually pretty good. And my lifeline, since this Italian girl ain't no way giving up pasta.

So this year's baking (being given away, with some held out for Sweetie) is decadent. Dark chocolate, intense vanilla, creamy fillings, the works. Cookies are not health food.

These are seriously rich; I can't eat more than one or two (honest) at a time. As crisp, flat cookies they don't ship well (too fragile), so it's best to keep them at home. And easily accessible.

Brown Sugar Ginger Crisps
November, 1989 (Bon Apetit or Gourmet, can't tell from the ripped-out magazine page in my recipe binder)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp anilla
1/2 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger (3 oz)
1/4 tsp ground ginger

Perheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together flour, bakng powder, and salt. Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Beat in yolk, vanilla, and gingers.

Add flour mixture and mx at low speed until just combined.

Drop heaping teaspoons of dough about 3 inches apart onto ungreased baking sheets and bake in batches in middle of oven until golden, 13 o 15 minutes. Coool cookies on shets on racks 5 minutes, then transfer with a metal spatula to racks to cool completely.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Waiting Until The Last Minute

'Tis Thanksgiving. And I'm in danger of losing my foodie cred because I'm not racing around with a turkey baster in one hand and the second of 8 sticks of butter in the other.

A variety of issues and events are keeping me out of the kitchen this year. I'm not entirely happy about it, but as long as Sweetie and I are healthy and together for the holiday, the rest is just details.

If you're looking for a spot of color among the table to break up the tan turkey and white potatoes and creamy green bean casserole, this is terrific. It's even healthy, and it can be thrown together at the last minute (which this is).

Cranberry Applesauce
Serves 4

Four peeled, cored, chopped apples - good saucing apples include Fuji, Golden Delicious,
1/4 cup of fresh or frozen cranberries
3/4 cup of water or apple juice (about a small juice box)
1/4 cup of sugar - start with 2 tablespoons, and add more if necessary. Alternative sweeteners (agave, Equal, etc.) can be used instead, just sweeten to taste.
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat 15 - 20 minutes, or until apples are soft and cranberries have released juice. Allow to cool - during cooling, taste to check sweetness and add sugar (by the tablespoon) if necessary.

When cool, puree with in a blender or with a stick/immersion blender. For chunky sauce, simply mash with a fork.

This recipe can be easily doubled or tripled if you're hosting a large crowd.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Big Reveal!

Remember the Goodwill projects? Here they are in their sorry "before" condition.

THE VASES - $1.50 each, photographed here in the designated "spray paint area" of the yard. And the $3 chair. Is there any finer indication of quality craftsmanship than duct tape?

Because spray paint is magic, the vases all match. Because Michael's prints 40% off coupons, there is fallish stuff in the vases. The black & white photo on the wall is one I did years ago, and the bronze baby booties were my grandfather's.

The desk chair... oy! I wouldn't touch the original seat with bare hands. I gloved-up and got rid of the duct tape, original hardware, and that god-awful seat. After cleaning up the frame (Method wood cleaner is amazing stuff), I gave it a few good coats with Krylon spray paint in Khaki. Then I picked up a fabric remnant and some batting and went nutty with the staple gun for the seat. The photo above is in our dining room, and not the guest room where it will live. We were having dinner guests and needed the extra chair.
I'm not 100% sold on the seat fabric - I'm still debating about the accent colors in the guest room, so it may change. Next up I think I'm going to paint the guest room bookcase from its current black to the same Khaki to match. It'll be the third color in 18 years for that bookcase, what a trooper!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Little Different Tailgate

I'm making this up, of course. I've never been to a tailgate in my life, mostly because neither my childhood gymnastic meets nor my oldest niece's soccer games seem to have tailgating parties attached.

But beer and football go together, from what I understand. Much like beer and baseball - I've never cared for beer (and me in a sorority, back in the day!). Yet whenever I go to a Braves game, beer it is.

A little late for Oktoberfest, but this Lemon-Lager Chicken recipe was just wonderful. My beloved Trader Joe's has non-beer people like me covered by selling single bottles for $1 - $2. I mean, we like the recipe but we don't six-pack-in-the-fridge-for-months like it, you know? I made this last weekend when I was a Tasmanian Devil of a house project - recovering chairs, moving around the decor, you name it. Fortunately this is EASY - dump the marinade ingredients in a ziploc or glass dish with a cover, give it a little time with the chicken, and cook. Done.

If you don't have grilling weather just pop these under the broiler. We sauteed broccolini and garlic as a side dish, which was terrific. Some roasted butternut squash or sweet potatoes would be a good choice, too. The leftovers were great tossed in a spinach salad.

Lemon-Larger Chicken
Cooking Light, 2005

1 cup lager (such as Budweiser)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (pricey - I used bottled)
3 TBSP soy sauce
1 1/2 TBSP olive oil
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
2 tsp chopped fresh oregano
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper (seriously? Who measures freshly ground pepper? Four or five twists of the pepper grinder - close enough)
2 tsp honey
1/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce (2 shakes if you don't want to dirty the measuring spoon)
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 6-ounce boneless skinless breast halves

Combine all ingredients except chicken in a large (1 gallon) ziploc bag, or glass/ceramic dish with a cover. Blend. Add chicken. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.

Remove chicken from bag and discard marinade. Grill or broil, approximately 5 minutes per side.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What's In Store

What does "November" mean? For starters, it means that the Christmas displays in the stores are looking tired and dusty after being up for the past 3 months.

For another, people start to reminisce about the year that isn't finished yet. Something about a crispness in the air makes people nostalgic for two weeks ago.

And of course, the predictions for 2010 start rolling in. - and I love the name of that site and can't believe I just found it - has released their foodie predictions for 2010.

"More creative snacky things" - YAY! I adore snacky things! 2010 sounds fantabulous already. [settles happily into sofa]

"Sharing is the key" - yeah, Sweetie. Slide a li'l of the cheesey dip and other snacky-treats right here. That's the ticket.

"People are looking for edibles they can trust" - um, is this new? Not in this house, it isn't.

"Fried chicken is the new pork belly" - the hell? Will people trade in fried chicken futures on the stock market (or whatever)?

Oh, good heavens - I just read the description under this little factoid and it used the words "undercooked pork fat." Let's go back to "creative snacky things", shall we?

"Putting in good additives instead of taking out nasty ones" - new healthy benefits to cocktails? You have my attention.

Buzzwords for 2010: Neapolitan pizza (oooohhh, yes!). Lamb riblets (are they small lamb ribs? Small lambs?). Made-to-order ice cream (they already sell "dark chocolate with more chocolate," don't they?). Backyard and rooftop beehives (intentionally? Are the bees plotting against us?). Chefs turned butchers (if you really want a big sharp knife in your hand, best to direct that energy toward being a butcher).

Hmmm.... made-to-order ice cream....

Friday, October 30, 2009

Urban Fairy Tale

Nothing makes you feel older than seeing the incoming rain and immediately thinking about its effects on your arthritis. I nearly checked myself in at the Sunrise Assisted Living Center up the street after work. Mmmm, pudding...

And then I started to wonder, will I be able to do crafts when I'm really living in one of those places? Crafts seem to be big there. And I can't do them now.

Since my doctor's office is too swine flu'ed up to work me in (and I don't much care to bring my otherwise-healthy self into a lobby-sized petri dish of flu germs, anyway) I turned to the Knower of All (Google) to see how I could help myself out. The anti-inflammatory diet helps (even more so when I stay on it), the yoga and swimming help, but it's time for a new arrow in the quiver.

Know what the first piece of specialized equipment to pop up was? I shit you not, it was a gun with a palm trigger instead of a regular, finger-pulled trigger.

Yup. Think on that for a minute.

So now I'm imagining some sort of terrifyingly simple and deadly Fisher Price-like contraption with a little button that says "shoot" or "fire" or whatever. I don't have issues with mature, responsible gun ownership. But if you're unsteady with the hands, I've got to wonder why why WHY you'd be shooting a gun, and who thinks that's a market that really needs to be tapped.

I mean, I wanted something along the lines of scissors and paintbrushes and a way to get the !@#$!ing gas cap off without pliers. But I guess "everyday activity" means different things to different people.

And the corollary to this, of course, is that I work with the disability community and I know people who do the most amazing things despite significant physical barriers. And I'm all "WAAAAAH, my hands are crampy!" They really are. OY, the rain!

Like today, for instance. A woman at the train station, in a wheelchair, was having a rough time of it - including her shoe falling off. Her upper body movements were not easily controlled, and she was going to need some help.

So I walked over and asked if she'd like a hand. Even with the hat and the new haircut and the scarf, I knew that smile. "K____? Is that you?" I asked. She said yes and we had a few minutes to chat.

Then I put her shoe back on her foot and we both left to start our weekends.

So even in the heart of downtown at rush hour, it's possible to play Cinderella and recover a lost shoe. These crappy hands are good for something after all.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The $25 Oatmeal Cooker

Giving in to peer pressure usually ends badly for me. And by "badly" I mean it involves painful and expensive (but trendy!) footwear, a hair color not found in nature (at least not outside the exotic bird kingdom), an insufferable concert or a wildly creative explanation/apology.

And so it goes again, if with a little less drama since I'm Old Enough To Know Better.

"I couldn't live without mine," they said. And "Don't know what I'd do without one." And "Really? You don't have one? And you said you.... cook?"

So I bought a slow cooker, formerly known as a crock pot (Crockpot?). For years I resisted - it seemed like such a throwback, such a Grandma thing to have, such an Add-A-Can-Of-Campbells'-Cream-of-Anything. My friend Black Sabbath Kevin (not either of the other Kevins) once said, "My Mom said I should get one of those. For what? I can turn it on in the morning and, when I come home from work, the water is boiling?" Exactly.

But there are cool and sassy-looking slow cooker recipes these days, and even the crockery looks better and less Community College Art Class. More expensive models have high-tech looking settings besides "plugged in" and "not."

But alas... almost everything I've made has tasted like watered-down crap (which, I guess, is better than full strength). The most recent disaster was Tortilla Soup. I had thought that maybe, maybe, MAYBE a recipe with a processed sauce would help. Possibly that was putting too much of a burden on ten ounces of enchilada sauce, I don't know.

Sweetie reduced the soup some to concentrate the flavor, and I'm going to make sweet potatoes, halve them lengthwise, and top them with the fetched-with-a-slotted-spoon soup solids - black beans, corn, shredded chicken, and diced tomatoes WHICH SHOULD HAVE MADE A VERY TASTY SOUP. So at least it's salvageable, possibly even better news for my ego than my pitiful food budget.
I'll give it this, though, the slow cooker makes terrific, creamy steel-cut oats. So easy, so inexpensive, and one batch lasts for several days. Steel cut oats look a little gravelly when raw, but cook down beautifully - and as a whole grain, they are tremendously healthful. Even more so since there's no sugar added to this recipe. The original recipe called for 1 full cup of dried fruit, which would be way too sweet for me.

Let's get interactive, Stinkycheesers. The slow cooker and I are at a non-breakfast impasse at the moment, but perhaps we can find some common ground. What do you make in your slow cooker that you LOVE? What tricks and tips can you offer? Does it maybe sense my reluctance to commit? In the name of Suze Orman, please tell me there's something else I can do with this contraption besides make a wonderful breakfast!

It doesn't get easier than this, y'all.

1 Cup of steel cut oats (most inexpensively purchased out of a bulk bin at a healthfood store or even Whole Foods)
4 cups water (or one quart of unsweetened vanilla almond milk - I tried it in this week's batch and it's really good, although I'd never drink almond milk)
1 cup (or less) dried fruit
Combine all in slow cooker. Cook on low for 4 hours. Serve or keep in refrigerator.
Some good combinations -
Dried apples, cinnamon, and top with walnuts before serving
Dried blueberries and/or chopped dried apricots, ginger
Dried cherries and/or dried blueberries, and top with almonds before serving

I have my doubts about using dried mango or pineapple - if you use either, consider going down to 1/3 cup since they're both high-sugar.

Stay tuned - my domestic endeavor that's going better than slowcooking is refinishing. Two projects in progress - a $3 Goodwill chair, and these $ Goodwill vases. The "before" shots below, taken outside in our Spray Painting Field.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tat, as I mentioned, does not consider herself to be domestic.

Know what? I'm not, either. Outside the kitchen I take a museum approach to the domestic arts, both visual (decorating) and performing (!#$!@ing ironing!). And by museum approach, I mean I look and appreciate others' advanced skills but don't actually participate.

Not that I haven't tried. And in a remedial way I can pull some of it off - assuming, of course, that getting paint color right on the fourth or fifth try counts as "pulling it off." In fact, it really was a museum approach when it came to painting our living room. We were at a party at the home of an interior designer, agreed that we loved her paint, and asked her for the details. Done.

After that I'm a little lost. We visited another friend recently who did AMAZING things with her new house. It's bold and creative and it all works perfectly together. I'm envious of people who can look at an empty space and immediately know that it needs columns, a vintage telephone, and a big-ass bird cage.

For some reason I'm nesting in a huge way and I'm tearing this house up with an orbital sander, drill, screwdriver, and multiple cans of spray paint. Things are definitely looking different and - hopefully - better. Heaven knows I'm trying.

So I've been thinking about gifts lately; the talents we're given with the intent to share. Cooking is one of my gifts. On occasion it is truly shared as a gift, as when I made six or seven sour cream poundcakes for my poundcake-loving friend's 40th birthday party. He recently married a wonderful girl who is blessed with an artistic eye, excellent taste, and the ability to make a house a home.

Chef Nancy once said, when I invited her over for lunch, that she rarely gets invited to anyone's home for a meal because people are intimidated by the idea of cooking for someone who cooks professionally. "How surprising!" I said as I ladled soup and sliced cornbread.

Know what? I'm terrified to have my friend and his wife over, even though she has become a good friend, too. They like us just fine, friend has certainly seen our home at its low points, and my lack of window treatments (how do people DO that???) will not change her opinion of us one iota. I need to get over it. Just as soon as I do something about these windows... and the garage sale coffee table... and....

Sour Cream Poundcake

This is a classic poundcake. It's wonderful served with fresh fruit and/or fruit syrup... or on its own.

1/2 cup butter
3 eggs
1/2 cup dairy sour cream
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1. Allow butter, eggs, and sour cream to stand at room temperature 30 minutes. Really. Have I yet made you jump through hoops? No. This is an important part of good poundcake prep.

2. Grease and lightly flour an 8x4/x-inch or 9x5x3inch loaf pan; set aside. FYI, keeping an old-fashioned powder puff in the flour canister makes this a breeze.

3. Combine flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.

4. In a mixing bowl beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Gradually add sugar, beating about 10 minutes or until very light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Add eggs, one at a time, beating 1 minute after each addition and scraping bowl frequently.

5. Add dry mixture and sour cream alternately to beaten mixture, beating on low to medium speed after each addition, just until combined. Over-mixing will lead to a less tender poundcake. Pour batter into prepared pan.

6. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 60 to 75 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gimme Some Sugar

Well, someone in Atlanta pissed off Mother Nature and she took her revenge. Flooding - and two years ago, drought. And when I was looking for someone to clean the gutters (24 inches of rain is a terrific way to find out if it needs to be done), I came across an ad that mentioned "French drain cleaning," which sounds really personal.

No progress on home maintenance and I'm working frantically on a Federal grant application for work, so I've been a smidge remiss wth updating stinkycheese. Oh, and I'm totally obsessed with home decor and furniture refinishing right now and it's more time-consuming than I realized. I'm the Martha Stewart of Spray Paint these days and I have fawning blogger-girl-crushes on Centsational Girl and whoever writes the DIY Showcase.


As mentioned earlier, Tat has a terrific opportunity to start from scratch and assemble a basic kitchen. Hair stylist, pinup model, tattoo afficionado - she really doesn't describe herself as "domestic." But we all gotta eat - even pinup models - and she wants to be able to throw something together without being dependent on the Lean Cuisine selection.
She asked for a What Tat Needs For A Basic Kitchen writeup, and here 'tis. I'm pulling pictures from Target because they're nationwide and usually have some very affordable options. If you have a Bed, Bath, and Beyond in your area, that's also a good choice and they constantly have 20% off coupons out there.


What's the deal with the "Gimme Some Sugar" title? It's this - get a 4- or 5-pound bag of sugar (or rice or flour or whatever) from the grocery aisle. You need to make sure that the handle(s) of whatever you're buying are firmly attached, so before you buy anything put the bag of sugar in the pot or pan and see how secure those handles feel.

Also, while you want pieces that have a nice heft, you don't want anything so heavy that you're in danger of dropping it while it's hot. My still-battlescarred dogs would agree. You also want a nice thick bottom on both a skillet and a saucepan. A thin bottom will scorch your food, and it will burn on the bottom and still be cold/raw on top.

A word about lids - clear glass or plastic lids steam up in half a heartbeat and, at that point, they're no different from a regular, opaque lid. Plus they're a pain to clean. Just sayin'.

A small skillet (about 8 inches across), also called a saute pan, is essential. You know, I use mine so much I may get a second.

Non-stick is often easier for cleanup; non-nonstick will give a better, browned crust if that's what you're looking for. Cast iron is probably more maintenance than you want to do if you're a casual, I-just-wanna-eat cook.

Expect to spend between $15 and $30 for a good one. DO NOT cheap out on a no-name non-stick skillet at Family Dollar or Big Lots, because the non-stick coating will, sooner or later, flake off into your food. The one pictured, which may be the one I have, is the Farberware 8" Professional Skillet for $16.99.

What can you do with one? They're perfect for fried or scrambled eggs, a hamburger, a pork chop or chicken breast, cooking some chopped veggies. If you cook for a one-person household, you've got to have one.

A large skillet - same as for the small skillet, and it's terrific for stirfry or making taco meat or a nice big piece of fish, but you don't need to spend the money unless you frequently cook for 3 or more people or cook extra to freeze. If you almost always cook for one, the purchase can wait.

A saucepan - also, as a guy on Amtrak once realized, called a "pot." These are perfect for
boiling water for rice or pasta, making hot chocolate, heating up tomato sauce or canned veggies.

My medium-size saucepan is a 2-quart, and it's the one I use most often. My li'l one-quart is fantastic for my new carb-conscious serving sizes of pasta, making oatmeal, or heating up soup for one. Be sure to get one with a lid so that you can trap the steam and cook faster.

Some lids have steam vents. Isn't "don't touch a hot pot on the stove" about as basic as it can get? I mean, my dogs know that - even the dumb one. And yet, what would you do with a steam vent? Poke it open and closed when it is clearly so hot it's producing steam. No thanks. You can just rest the lid mostly-on-but-a-little-offset to release steam.

Casserole dishes don't have to be for "one can of Campbell's Cream of Some Icky Stuff" dishes. They're for (yay!) baked mac & cheese, lasagne or ziti, and can even do a small roast (2-pound turkey breast, for example, or a small ham).

LEARN FROM MY MISTAKE and be sure to get one with handles! My very chic white casserole dishes are beautiful but terrifying when trying to get them out of the oven.

Searching Target's website for "casserole" brought up some really pricey options, and some less expensive ones that I wouldn't recommend. But searching for "Pyrex" brought up this terrific option for all of $8.50. I still have and use my grandmother's Pyrex dishes.

And a search for "Corningware", another have-it-for-life company, brought up this very nice 4-quart casserole; be careful with Corningware, though, because of the handle issue.
We're not going to get into baking or anything fancy just yet. There's a whole lot more on the market, but if you want the bare essentials, this is it.

As for gadgetry, most of which I'm pretty sure doesn't require pictures -

  • At least one wooden spoon. They never get hot and they don't scratch non-stick.

  • At least two pot holders - your mileage may vary, but I can't get a good grip on anything with those sheets of silicone, no matter how cute they are.

  • A decent chef's knife - it will be labelled "chef's knife" and it should be very, very sharp. It's actually more dangerous to cut with a dull knife, since you apply excessive pressure to it and can't control it. These can quickly get expensive, and I say they're worth every penny. I also like this Oneida knife, and its li'l buddy - $19.99 for the set. But if you have the funds and want to get a really good knife, go for a Santoku like this Henckels for $29.99.

  • A cutting board - never, ever, ever cut on glass. Spring for a bamboo cutting board; it doesn't have to be one of the ten-pounders, either. We have at least 4 in the house, and I use the little (4" x 6") quite a lot to slice one tomato or some herbs or strawberries or whatever.
  • A digital meat thermometer - tremendously important, especially if you're new to this world of "food" and you're afraid you're going to kill your dinner guests with improperly cooked food (I swear I still feel that way about canning - "Merry Christmas! It's botulism - I made it myself!"). The $10 to $15 you'll spend on one of these babies will be well, well worth it. And hold onto the card that says pork should be X degrees and turkey should be Y degrees and so on.

  • A few glass or metal mixing bowls - plastic can hold odors and stain (yes, I mean YOU, spaghetti sauce). If you go with metal make sure it's weighted at the bottom, or else you'll give it a stir and send it flying across the counter. From, um, what I've heard.

  • Measuring cups and spoons

  • Grater - I can't find mine on the Target site, but this is close - mine doesn't have a little boxy-thing on the top and for darn sure it wasn't pushing $20. It takes up much, much less room than a box grater, and I've been known to put mine on top of a saucepan full of pasta and drain the water into the sink. I LOVE things that have more than one use!

  • If you don't have one on your stove, a kitchen timer is essential. Many a would've-been-terrific meal took a Hefty vacation after someone said "Oh, I'll just remember to take it out in 45 minutes."

And since I PROMISED a recipe, and the sugar title has me in a mood for dessert (like I need any prompting) here 'tis:
Hazelnut Crinkle Cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 11-ounce jar Nutella (also known as "nectar of the gods" or "chocogasm")
1/4 cup shortening (butter or Crisco)
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup chopped, toasted hazelnuts
2 cups finely chopped hazelnuts
Powdered sugar
Stir flour, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl - set aside.
Beat Nutella and shortening. Add sugar, beat until fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs - beat until combined.
Alternately add flour mixture and milk. Str in 1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts. Cover and chill at least one hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Shape dough into 1- or 1 1/2-inch balls. Roll in finely chopped nuts, then roll in powdered sugar. Place 2 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 - 10 minutes, or until cookie surface has cracked and set.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stuff. Good stuff.

Tat, who cuts my hair (I'm naturally highlighted, of course... yeah), is broadening her cooking horizons. Namely she took a crack at making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, just 'cuz she's bold and sassy and reckless like that. Go, Tat!

She asked if I talk about What To Buy, and Where. LOTS of people, she told me, have no idea what kind of cooking basics and accoutrements and accessories they really need to get started. This was a really good point, and not just because she was waving a razor around my head.

So on the right-hand side, we have a new "Equipment" label - click on it, and you'll be treated - dazzled! - to a few previous ramblings about buying this versus that.

And coming up soon, we'll do The I Don't Really Cook But Want the Option kitchen and the I'm Getting the Hang Of This kitchen. Links, pictures, the works.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Road To Hell Is Carpeted With Gooey, Yummy Sandwiches

For real.
For months now I have embraced the whole foods, mindful eating, focus-on-being-healthy-not-on-losing weight thing. And I've lost 15 pounds, with 10 more to go.

Then I went on vacation and embraced the idea of incorporating... a little indulgence. A teensy snacky-treat in my day. Half a spoonful of ice cream to sate the Ice Cream Monster.

In one week:
Chicken marsala
Brownies for breakfast
Several mojitos (not for breakfast)
Salt water taffy (a New Jersey specialty)
Butter pecan ice cream
French fries
White pasta and lots of it (it's cultural. They made me.) In fact, this whoooole Greek Chicken and pasta dish is compliments of Peter's Diner somewhere in South Jersey. It is large enough to be controlled by the moon and, presumably, would slosh over the sides at high tide.

Regular stinkycheesers are thinking, "But you just got that ginormous windfall of farm-fresh veggies! THAT must have gotten you back on track."

You would think so, right? And to his credit, Sweetie did make homemade tomato soup that was virtuously fresh and packed with lycopene and all that.

But what goes with tomato soup? GRILLED CHEESE. And now I'm hooked on sourdough and melty cheddar. Re-hooked, actually. Relapsed. Mmmmm, cheese....

Ellie Krieger's Sweet and Spicy Grilled Cheese

2 tsp canola oil

1 red onion, finely diced

3 oz sharp Cheddar, thinly sliced, divided

8 slices of whole-wheat bread (although sourdough really, really makes a grilled cheese)

3 oz pepper-jack cheese, thinly sliced, divided

1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced

Heat oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Lower heat to medium; add onions and saute, stirring, until edges are brown. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place 3/4 oz. Cheddar on one slice of bread. Spread 1 TBSP carmelized onions on top of cheese, then top with 3/4 oz. pepperjack. Top with 1 or 2 slices of tomato, then another slice of bread. Repeat with 3 other sandwiches.

Spray a nonstick skillet with cooking spray and heat until hot. Flip when browned on the bottom (you knew that already).

Sunday, August 23, 2009



It's like Christmas in July! From our friend's large garden/small farm:

Tomatoes (big)
Tomatoes (teensy)
About 5 dozen eggs (she has chicken coops)
A big bucket o'herbs
Isn't it gorgeous???
Sweetie was running some errands north of the city, and stopped in to visit a friend. She was planning to go on vacation and said she didn't want the garden's goodies to go to waste while she wasn't there. A thank-you note is seriously the least of what we owe her for all this farm-fresh yumminess.
To be honest, it was more than we could eat, too. So we shared the gift with Cutie and her parents. Thank goodness we did, because it turns out only one of the five of us likes eggplant, and that drove Cutie's dad to find a palatable recipe for it.
I'll be darned - it turns out I can eat eggplant after all without puckering up my face or dying or anything! These were actually very tasty - Cutie, Cutie's Mom, and I all had our doubts and we're all converts now. I can't tell you that I'd eat eggplant any other way, but I would be happy to eat these again.
Cutie's Dad's Eggplant Croquettes
2 eggplants, medium, peeled and cubed
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs (if you have plain, just add some dried basil, oregano, and rosemary)
2 eggs, beaten
2 TBSP dried parsley (optional)
2 TBSP chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
1. Place eggplant in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on medium-high 3 minutes. Turn eggplant over and microwave another 2 minutes. The eggplant should be tender; cook another 2 minutes if they are not.
2. Drain any liquid and mash the eggplant with a fork.
3. Combine cheese, egg, parsley, onion, garlic, and salt with the eggplant. Mix well.
4. Shape the eggplant mixture into patties. Heat oil in a large skillet. Drop eggplant patties into the skillet one at a time. Fry each side of the patties until golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Local Color Tour - Everything Else

After completing the most important parts of trip preparation - asking Mom to bring her famous cream cheese brownies and my grandfather to make me chicken marsala - I made the long, long, loooong-ass drive from Atlanta to Cape May, with a welcome stop at College Buddy's house in Virginia and an unwelcome meeting with North Carolina's Finest about their secret traffic laws.

College Buddy and I weathered classes and finals and being RA's back in the day. I'm hoping we can close the circle by arranging a marriage for my niece and one of his sons. That's a sign of quality aunt-ing right there, isn't it? Anyhoodle, we had a terrific dinner at Kahill's in the South Hill area of Virginia. It pays to know locals with excellent taste, and few things are as uplifting as catching up with an old friend. I highly recommend all of the above.

Cape May, NJ is quaint and lovely and annoyingly quirky with its liquor laws. It had simply never occurred to my drink-with-dinner family that there would be dry restaurants - indeed, an entire dry side of the cape (if I understood correctly). Nothing makes you feel like a lush like trying to decide if you should walk out of a restaurant because they don't have wine... but then, nothing makes you feel like you come by it honestly when it's your own mother saying resignedly "Well, we can leave here and get a mojito."

Mom rocks. She made the brownies, too.

Godmother's, Cape May

Meh. The food was OK - not outstanding, but OK - but we did not care for the snippy hostess and lackluster service. This Italian girl expects more from a New Jersey Italian restaurant.

The Lobster House, Cape May

For our Nice Dinner - we showered after the beach and everything - we went to The Lobster House. This is the first time in my life I said "OK" when the hostess said "the wait is currently an hour and twenty minutes."

The Lobster House compound includes a restaurant, raw bar, takeout shop, cotton mill, Li'l Lisa's Fish Slurry plant (that's for you Simpsons fans), gift shop, ballet studio, bar, gift shop, preschool, etc. It's effin' HUGE.

**Name drop alert** And on the night we were there, Ann Hathaway - last season's funniest SNL host, in my opinion - was eating one table over from us.

The food was amazing. My huge portion of salmon was absolutely perfectly cooked, as were the garlic green beans on the side. Mom and Sis were perfectly happy with their shellfish extravaganzas. It's pricey but worth it.

Pop-Pop's House

And then... oh, then... it was off to spend a few days with my grandfather. A first-generation American, polio survivor, and cook- and vegetable gardener-extraordinare, the man can put together a meal like nobody's business.

I had really hoped to get his recipe for chicken marsala. Of course, "recipe" is a rather loose term where my grandfather is concerned. A little of this, a splash of the other, some time in the pan. Oh, and half the discussion (his half) was in Italian, which I don't speak.

He asked when he had last made me chicken marsala. "When I was in college and you were still living at the old house," I said. Well, he informed me, that was the last time he had made it. Whatever - it was terrific. Best as I can tell, you saute some onions, then dust some chicken thighs with flour, salt, and pepper and saute them in the pan. Then add mushrooms and a little butter, some more flour, and some marsala. Mangia!

We did genealogy, we visited my Aunt Jackie, we ate, we ate, and we watched Lawrence Welk. I was privileged to attend his monthly high school class reunion luncheon with him. Monthly because "who can wait a year at our age?" and lunch because "who can drive at night at our age?" THANK YOU, class of 1938, for the warm welcome and showing the rest of us how it's done!

And on the way back, College Roomie did an impromptu re-arranging of her evening so that we could experience some fine dining at the Richmond, VA Cracker Barrel together. No sarcasm there - I love high-falutin' restaurants with famous chefs and innovative dishes, and I love Cracker Barrel. And Roomie really did make extraordinary schedule adjustments so that we could spend time together.

Some trips are about exploring new places. This was the "These Are A Few Of My Favorite People" tour, and it's just what I needed.

As vacation was vacation from lots of stuff - work, daily routine, healthful eating - here's our energizing breakfast, courtesy of Mom. She's justifiably famous for these brownies amongst family friends. The only thing preventing me from whipping up a batch of these right now is that it's Ramadan. "Wait," you're thinking, "she's Methodist." Yup, but we don't keep sweets in the house so I'd have to bring them to work, and my assistant is Muslim and is fasting all day for the next month. Totally rude to bring snacky-treats into the office right now.

Marble Squares

1 6-ounce package of cream cheese

1/3 cup sugar

1 egg

1/2 cup butter

3/4 cup water

1 1/2 ounces squares of unsweetened chocolate

2 cups flour

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1/2 cup sour cream

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 6-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips (or dark chocolate)

1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Combine cream cheese and sugar in a small bowl. Add egg and mix well - set aside.

3. Combine butter, water, and chocolate in a small saucepan. Melt chocolate, stir well, and cool. Set aside.

4. Stir chocolate mixture into sugar and flour. Add eggs, sour cream, baking soda, and salt - mix well. Pour into greased 15 1/2" x 12 1/2" jelly roll pan. Spoon cream cheese mixture over chocolate batter.

5. Drag a butter knife through the batter several times to marble the brownies. Sprinkle with chocolate chips (were there ever more welcome words in a recipe than "sprinkle with chocolate chips"?).

6. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 - 30 mnutes, or until wooden toothpick inserted in the center (NOT through a chocolate chip) comes out clean.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Local Color Tour - Gaffney, SC

I'm trying not to lose too much time on the road, so this will be quick. I'm en route from Atlanta to Cape May, NJ for a Girls Beach Weekend with my Mom and sister, then scooting over another 50 miles to visit my grandfather.

Part of the adventure, I've decided, is to do my best to eat at non-chain restaurants on the trip (please disregard the fact that I'm using the free wi-fi at Panera at the moment). Lunch was at Clocks Restaurant, in Gaffney, SC.

They did not take the obvious/Hitchcocky route with an all-clock decor, thank goodness. You know, when you look at a menu in the South and see fried pickles, pimiento cheese sandwiches, three different types of barbecue sandwich, and fried green tomatoes, you think "These folks take their Dixie cookin' seriously."

About the last thing I would've considered is "Man, they have GOT to have some terrific Greek food." No idea if it's terrific, but to my great amazement they had a lot of it listed on the next page.

When you eat a good barbecue sandwich there should be a little sweet (molasses), a little sour (vinegar and tomato), a little spicy and a little smoke. What this sandwich did - and I have no idea how - was smell like hot dogs. I tried it anyway (I LOATHE hot dogs) - it first tasted honey-sweet, then syrupy, then sourdough-ish, then a kind of chemical/liquid smoke kinda thing was going on.

A shame, because I wanted to like it. The fries were amazing and the service friendly. They even took the extra step of double-bunning the sandwich - there were two bottom-bun-pieces stacked one on the other, so that the sauce wouldn't soak through the bun. GENIUS.

Thoughts while traveling:

A radio station in South Carolina advertised "Rock Star Dentistry" and promised an unparalleled sensory experience. For real? Because would totally do the drive for a chocolate-pedicuregasm that left my teeth clean. Weekly.

Holy moly, I really am eating nuts and berries. My car snacks are strawberries and almonds.

I've been working on my genealogy for a while and have come across some people that I suspect are relatives who I've never heard of. I'm going to ask my grandfather about them while I'm there, and suspect it's (another) branch of the family that no one's talking to for reasons I'm not yet old enough to know (I'm 40).

My friend in Virginia said there are very few restaurants in the small town where he lives, so I'm glad I've embraced the adventure. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Really, really local and seasonal produce

So far? Seventeen tomatoes in various stages of tomato-ness; anywhere from "it's defintely a little green orb" to "just cut out the bad parts, it'll be fine."

Mmmmm, LOVE the smell of tomato plants!

Squash blossoms too numerous to count, and five jalapenos. I'm hoping the blossoms will lead to actual squash (or cucumbers, or watermelon - I'm not picky. In fact, I'm still in shock that these little beings are the green I've always heard that these "plant" things should be).

See the black center in the blossom? That's a bumblebee.

As much as I want to pull and use veggies from my own yard, I'm OK with not getting a big haul. It has been really cool to watch these babies grow.

But if I do get to cook my very, very own food, then - even though I don't have an Alaskan river teeming with salmon running through my Georgia garden - I'm making this yummy and SO easy dinner with my peppers and tomatoes. It's fantastic with corn on the cob.

Salsa-Roasted Salmon
Eating Well Serves Two - cookbook

1 medium plum tomato, roughly chopped
1/2 small onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and quartered
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
1 teaspoon cider vinegar (plain white vinegar will work just as well)
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt (a few shakes of the shaker - it doesn't have to be exact)
2 - 3 dashes hot sauce (like Tabasco or Texas Pete)
8 ounces center-cut salmon fillet, skinned and cut into two portions

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Place tomato, onion, garlic, jalapeno, vinegar, chili powder, cumin, salt and hot sauce to taste in a food processor. Process until finely chopped and uniform [Note - you can make the salsa the day before and store it, covered, in the refrigerator]

3. Place salmon in a medium roasting pan; spoon the salsa on top. Roast until the salmon is just cooked through, 12 to 15 minutes.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So You Think You Can't Cook

Now that "So You Think You Can Dance" and "The Biggest Loser" exist in my world, I'm going to have to drop my whole snotty "I don't watch television" thing. Because I do. Pathetically, I try to be home to wave the rabbit ears and that stupid digital TV converter on my 19-inch TV (color, thankyouverymuch) for either of those shows.

I always tune in to SYTYCD around Episode 4, after all the annoying audition footage - you know, where the white Rasta guy calls his dance genre "classical jazz with a touch of hackysack" and then alternates between stylized hopscotch and snow angels (sans snow).

If you haven't seen it - young dancers are randomly paired and assigned a dance genre and choreographer. This is about as "random" as being tapped for a Presidential cabinet post. The dancers practice cute while they're being filmed, then they perform for the judges and America and the voting begins. To the best of my knowledge felons and immigrants are permitted to dial-in for their favorite.

So in honor of showbiz, a ham sandwich with a fancy French accent.

Croque Monsieur
Cooking Light

4 1 1/2-ounce slices French bread
4 teaspoons honey mustard
6 ounces reduced-fat deli ham, thinly sliced
4 1-ounce slices reduced-fat Swiss, cheddar, or fresh Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fat-free milk
3 large egg whites
Cooking spray

1. Cut a slit in each bread slice to form a pocket. Spread 1 teaspoon honey mustard into each bread pocket. Divide ham and cheese evenly among bread pockets.

2. Combine milk and egg whites in a shallow bowl, stirring with a whisk or fork. Dip sandwiches, 1 at a time, in a milk mixture, turning to coat.

3. Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add 2 sandwiches, cook 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Repeat procedure with remaining sandwiches.

Monday, July 13, 2009

25 Random Food Things

Yup, stealing this from Facebook...

1. I have never used tarragon because of a recipe my mother made - only once - that dredged Cornish hens in a small garden's worth.

2. Nor have I ever had a 7&7 since one fateful night in college. A similar story, but, you know, way different.

3. Chef Nancy made our wedding cake (red velvet) as her gift to us. She walked into the reception site with an actual bucket full of cream cheese icing and instantly attracted admirers and new friends.

Had I known how effective that was, I would've brought a giant frosting-bucket to high school on occasion. What could it hurt?

4. Just to keep it real in my first-ever garden, the oregano and thyme are already a distant, dusty memory. My tomato, squash, pepper, and okra plants are still (God willing) thriving despite my Touch Of Plant Death.

5. I was surprised to read that in Italy people generally don't eat fish and dairy together. I can't stand to have them on the same plate and thought that was yet another quirk of mine (OK, it is) but apparently there's a cultural angle to it also.

6. From the moment College Roomie told me that as a child she once turned the beaters on and lowered them into the full mixing bowl, requiring ceiling replacement in two rooms, I knew we'd be forever friends.

7. It's the seaweed. I've tried and tried and tried to like sushi and I just can't get there.

8. My latest food-crush is coffee ice cream. I don't care who knows it, we're not sneaking around. We're out and we're proud.

9. We don't have cable so I've never seen the Food Network or any of these "celebrity" chefs.

10. That's not true - I was babysitting Cutie and, after her bedtime, clicked through channels and came upon some very cool cake decorating show that required fine arts degrees, architects, engineers, etc. Utterly captivating.

During a break a breathy voice said, "Food Network... after dark." Reflexively I turned the volume down - Cutie is only 8 - then I was all, "Is this food porn? I swear that cake looks like a castle. I'm pretty sure it's a castle...."

11. That's not true #2 - at the gym one time I saw 5 minutes of some "Half-Assed Homemade" show with a kitchen fembot. Apparently picking up a rotisserie chicken & salad at the supermarket, and adding your very own salt & pepper touch to the meat, qualifies for a cooking show.

We're not getting cable.

12. Courtesy of my aunt I own a cookbook autographed "Happy Cooking!" by Jacques Pepin himself.

13. Every summer - and that fateful day is just around the corner - I put up homemade bread & butter pickles. You have NO idea how much I hate this task (I'm sure I'll elaborate on it soon). What's to love about your house smelling like boiled vinegar? For years my mother talked about how good Grandma's pickles were, and I figured I'd go ahead and learn since Grandma's standing-for-hours-in-the-kitchen days were over. It is a testament to how much I love and owe my mother that I do this every year.

14. At a business lunch I tried to fork a crouton and it went flying off my plate and landed on the salad plate next to me. I turned to its owner and asked if he'd like a crouton - he declined. Well fine, I said, but I won't offer again. Great way to start a meeting.

15. My biggest leap of culinary faith was making Black Bean Soup (recipe onsite) despite having never had black beans before. Apparently I'm just that susceptible to online yummy-noises from cooking communities.

16. If you make sugar cookies and forget to add the sugar they take on a flat biscuit/cracker quality. Not that I recommend it.

17. Sweetie and I, who love a good gourmet restaurant, will happily dine at Cracker Barrel every time we get the chance.

18. It took me years to learn how to make decent scrambled eggs. I could make homemade doughnuts, homemade bread, brie-en-croute, etc. and everyone was on their own for eggs or they weren't gettin' any.

19. I've tried Vosges and Scharffenberger and other insanely-expensive chocolates, and I still say Ghirardelli beats them all. [Note that I haven't tried John & Kira's myself yet, but have heard wondrous and amazing things...] I highly encourage anyone else to take this experiment on in the name of "science."

20. Sweetie doesn't care much for chocolate desserts, which is really the only reason I ever explored fruit-based desserts, which I have come to love. I did raise an eyebrow, though, about the "meh on chocolate" thing - seemed suspect.

21. Sweetie also took me for my first and only fishing experience. Fortunately it was a heavily-stocked trout pond, so after only 3 short hours of fish flinging themselves toward my hook ("Over here! Swimmy-swimmy! I'm swimming slooooowly just for yooooou!") I managed to catch something. Even better, they did all the messy stuff so that we could just come home, dust it with cornmeal and toss it on the skillet.

He hasn't wanted to go back.

22. For a Yankee native I've developed quite a taste for fried green tomatoes, barbecue, biscuits, and - under certain conditions - black-eyed peas.

23. I'm trying to avoid painting my guest room. Isn't this list supposed to be 30 or 50 items long?

24. My mother-in-law had the only brunch wedding reception I've ever been to for her second wedding, and it was fabulous. Why don't more people do fancy brunches?

25. Back in my business travel , pre-Katrina, pre-9/11 days, I used to go to New Orleans every so often. I always had to pack a jar of peanut butter in my suitcase because I'm allergic to shellfish and I swear even the restaurant bread baskets had lobster paste or something in them. Legendary restaurants all around and my foodie self with a jar of Jif.

Feel free to add your own list!

Friday, July 10, 2009

How are you keeping it? Good-good?

I never could master the Liberian handshake. Granted, I don't really have anyone to practice with who knows what it is - it's kind of a slide/snap maneuver, your hands have to be really dry, and you should've been practicing since shortly after birth in order to master it by adulthood. So my chances, I'm guessing, are pretty slim.

It was July 18, 1989 when I returned from six months in West Africa. For my 20th birthday two of my friends took a treacherous cab ride to the American Embassy compound to buy me a bag of frozen strawberries at one of the few supermarkets in the country. Perhaps you know they're not native to the tropical rainforest, but in case you didn't - they're sooo not. Pineapple? Mango? Coconut and banana? All you want. No strawberries. Also not easy to find - ice cream, but they did it. Ann and Denise, I'm still grateful and amazed that you went to all that trouble!

There's coffee, though, and coffee trees smell nothing like coffee. They have the most gorgeous blossoms and a heavy, sweet but not cloying smell. Whenever we went by them all I could do was close my eyes, breathe deeply, and hope and pray to remember the moment.

Why did I stop eating red meat in Liberia? Two words - no cows.

What we did have was chicken, rice, dried fish, palm butter, scorching-hot peppers, rice, chicken bouillon cubes, rice, rice, various types of bread, rice, fresh fish (if by the sea), shortening (instead of butter/margarine for the bread), "bush meat" (whatever unlucky critter ended up in the stew pot), rice, palm wine, plantains, Spam, rice, greens, and rice.

All served on a bed of rice.

School - I was at a university - could not open without electricity, which ran for 3 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the evening. However, when the generator conked out again after having spent 5 days raised from the dead to open school, life and the semester went on undisturbed. And dark at night.

When coming back from Cote d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), our intent was to walk the 8 miles from the military checkpoint at the border to the next town. But a car came along and picked up the four of us. What would they have done without us sticking our flashlights out the windows to light the way in the absence of headlights?

During the school year I lived on campus and not at the missionary compound. The cafeteria served bread - like a thick shortbread, or sometimes cornbread - for breakfast and dinner. There would be a thick pool of heavy margarine, or a smear of Crisco, on the plate as a spread. The Americans would often bring peanut butter into the cafeteria.

At lunch we stood in line to get a bowl of rice. Then we stood in another line for soup, which in the US we would call a stew. There were several different colors of stew, each with a hint of red from the palm oil. I'm sure they tasted different, but I could never taste anything except the AAAAAAAAGGGGHHHH of peppers.

Did I mention I looked terrifically thin when I got back to the States? Suck it, Atkins Diet.

The American professors had apartments on/near campus. When one of the professors went back to the States for a few weeks she allowed us to use her home - and at that point I cooked an entire four-course meal for seven on a hibachi with no refrigeration and one knife, thankyouverymuch. YES. Do I feel any conflict now with my nifty collection of multi-functional kitchen accoutrements? Well no, not until this minute... hmmm..... well, I'll say this - standards are higher in the US as an adult than they were in Liberia (or anywhere) as a college student.

Sweetie mentioned recently that if we're going on a trip there's sure to be a Stephanie-developed checklist of Stuff To Bring. And I can't tell you how difficult it was to get used to a much more laid-back way of traveling. Specifically, when do we leave? When the bus is full. If a big group comes by tomorrow and buys tickets, we leave tomorrow. Otherwise, no. How long is the trip? Depends on if it's rainy season or not. Depends on if the military checkpoints lets us pass. There's no way to know. Now put your head back on your canteen and go to sleep.

And throwing ourselves on the mercy of strangers to take us in whither we landed just blew my mind. But you know, what a wonderful thing - to fling one's self on the wings of adventure and be confident of a warm welcome. It never, ever failed to materialize - a safe, dry place to sleep.

Fufu is boiled, pounded cassava root. Women young and old sit outside with their pot of fufu-in-process and the pounding stick and they pound all day. ALL DAY.

Tastes like wax.

Cassava fries, though, aren't bad.

Liberia is a tribal country. You can draw all the lines you want to around a map, but patriotism is tribe, not country. Every tribe has its specialty industry, and the Mandingo tribe made incredible bread. Like French bread - crisp outside, fluffy inside, perfect with (I'm not kidding) Laughing Cow cheese, which you could buy one wedge at a time on the street in the capitol.

Going to Liberia when I was 19 made it really weird to say "I'll just have a beer." In college - where I had been a mere 60 days previously - there's so much faux-drama and secrecy and posturing about alcohol that it was other-worldly for it to be a non-event to have a Club beer. Which, by the way, I've never liked, but sterilizing your water gets old pretty fast and makes bottled beverages much more appealing. I've never cared for soda, either, but orange Fanta was my best friend for a while.

It's also how I knew I had malaria - I was at the market and spit out my Fanta saying it had "gone bad." It can't. The soda was fine, it was me that wasn't doing so great. And that's really all I remember until about 5 days later when my fever broke.

Palaver is a highly civilized concept. To palaver is to peaceably discuss an issue, for as long as necessary, until a workable solution can be reached. In small villages issues are not put to a majority vote - because if 51% support an idea, then you have 49% of your village unhappy with it. One imagines a leader doesn't sleep well that way, and probably not much of the citizenry, either.

There is also a wonderful dish known as palaver sauce; I'd be happy to share the recipe but I can't find kpon leaves or plato greens anywhere and doubt they're much available. Sadly, due to the absence of worlor seed, I won't be sharing the worlor sauce recipe, either.

The bananas I've had in the states have, frankly, fallen short of what I've learned a banana can be. Head out of the gutter, please. In West Africa they were small, creamy, and intensely flavorful. If you have the opportunity to pick up some red bananas they most closely approximate what I had available (really available, like "dropping off the tree").

One of my favorite dishes was Groundnut Stew. Groundnuts are known as the States as peanuts. This wonderful dish is cleverly served atop rice.

From the Phebe Cookbook, written by the folks at the Phebe Hospital compound - and by all means, take advantage of the supermarket and its selection of natural peanut butter!

Groundnut Stew
1 pint (2 cups) roasted peanuts
2 lbs. chicken or beef
1 bouillon cube (chicken or beef) - check the label to see if it's gluten-free, if that's a concern
Tomato paste
1 medium onion
1 TBSP butter (optional)

Season meat with salt and pepper. Let stand for a while.

Cook meat on medium heat until partly tender. Pound peanuts in mortar until like butter. Add 2 cups sterilized water to peanuts. Strain through a sieve. Pour the liquid into a pot with meat. Add a little tomato paste to give color. Cook until as tender as desired (approximately two hours).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Now? Not Yet?

[Note: This is a Michael Jackson-free post. Who cares what a food blogger thinks about Michael Jackson?]

Despite my resistance and disbelief and foot-dragging refusal, time marched on and I turned 40. So here's my question - am I old enough to be crotchety? I would LOVE to tell these young'uns to pull their damn pants up, that flip-flops are not appropriate office attire, and a faux-hawk looks completely ridiculous. Real mohawks look only slightly less ridiculous, but at least the person committed to it.

Once I've had some time out of the sun and a refreshing iced tea I still know that droopy pants and flip-flops and bad hair are UGH, but I'm a lot less likely to say so.

The same heat that is bringing my brown-eyed Susans to bloom and (hopefully) makes my vegetables grow is also driving me away from the kitchen and out to the grill. Last night I had the thrill of making a bruschetta with tomato, basil, and oregano from my own garden, and using it to top grilled chicken and zucchini. YUM. I'm really hoping these vegetable plants decide to help me out by, like, producing something edible. I've got 3 kinds of tomatoes, okra, yellow squash, jalapenos, and herbs going - we shall see.

The grill is a godsend in the heat, not in the least because Sweetie likes to tend the grill while I sit inside in the air conditioning and sip iced tea or a nice Pinot Grigio.

Grilled Herbed Pork Tenderloin
Cooking Light, 2006

1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves - yes, fresh
1/4 cup fresh sage leaves - yes, fresh
1/4 cup fresh orange juice - bottled is fine
2 tbsp honey (the recipe calls for 1/4 cup, which I found much too sweet. Your mileage may vary)
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 tablespoons grated lemon rind
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil - I'm not really sure what it is besides something that would take up even more space in my cabinet. Regular vegetable oil is fine.
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 (1-pound) pork tenderloins
1/4 teaspoon salt
Cooking spray

1. Combine first 9 ingredients - oregano through garlic - in a blender or food processor. Process until almost smooth. Pour mixture into a large heavy-duty zip-top plastic bag. Add pork to bag and seal. Marinate in refrigerator 2 hours, turning bag occasionally.

2. Prepare grill.

3. Remove pork from marinade. Discard marinade.

4. Place pork on grill rack coated with cooking spray. Cover and grill 25 minutes or until a thermometer registers 160 degrees, turning pork after 15 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Be Zucchiniful and Multiply... A Little

Funny thing about gardening – it’s a problem to do it poorly (our usual dried flower arrangement out front in the flower eternal-rest bed), and a problem to do it prolifically (zucchini). I love Mary’s “Darwin Garden” term – it's a tough world, and the only survivors are the ones who fight for it.

After last year’s stunning success with a basil plant – it produced basil! – I confidently aimed higher this year. Yup, I bought another basil plant. Plus two tomato plants, an jalapeno (bush? shrub? It doesn’t look vine-ish… should it? Have I messed up already?), and actual living thyme and oregano.

Lessons learned thus far:
a) It’s probably much easier to get a pre-made tomato cage around the plant when it’s small, and not when it’s 3 feet tall and bearing fruit. And hopefully not pointless.

b) Plants need water. Not that I didn’t already know that, but a trip out of town with no rain reinforced the lesson.

c) One thyme plant doesn’t produce a heck of a lot of thyme. I probably need several.

d)You can spin yourself into a tizzy with this organic thing. I was trying to buy organic seeds, but then I realized I’d plant them into soil I know nothing about and they’d be watered with rain in one of America’s worst air-quality cities. Then I stopped thinking about it altogether, hummed a happy tune, and focused on sending cheerful, leaf-affirming thoughts to my fledgling tomaters.

e)Tossing the grill cover on the basil plant – and leaving it there – makes for an unhappy plant.

f) In fact, it may not be a great idea to keep a super-hot grill near the plants at all. Hmmmm…..

One thing I stayed away from was the afore-mentioned zucchini, which produce like the rabbits of the vegetable kingdom. Two reasons – first, there are just two people in the household and we can only eat so much of any one vegetable.

More poignantly, what if it died? Could my self-esteem handle not being able to grow zucchini? It’s like not being able to grow dandelions in the middle of the lawn. I think it would have unpleasant emotional consequences.

For those of you blessed with an abundance of zucchini, a) call me, we’d be happy to take some off your hands! and b) two unusual recipes to use it up are below. I’m not a huge pineapple fan, but I like this bread.

Zucchini-Pineapple Quick Bread
Cooking Light

Yield 2 loaves
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
2 cups sugar
2 cups grated zucchini (about 1 1/2 medium zucchini)
2/3 cup canola oil
1/2 cup egg substitute
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 (8-ounce) cans crushed pineapple in juice, drained
Baking spray with flour

1. Preheat oven to 325°.
2. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups, and level with a knife. Combine flour, salt, and next 3 ingredients (through ground cinnamon) in a large bowl, stirring well with a whisk.
3. Beat eggs with a mixer at medium speed until foamy. Add sugar, zucchini, oil, egg substitute, and vanilla, beating until well blended. Add zucchini mixture to flour mixture, stirring just until moist. Fold in pineapple. Spoon batter into 2 (9 x 5–inch) loaf pans coated with baking spray. Bake at 325° for 1 hour or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pans on a wire rack; remove from pans. Cool completely on wire rack.

Zucchini-Chocolate Cake
Cooking Light

I've never made the glaze, so I'm not vouching for it. Also, if you think this is a great way to sneak veggies into kids and they just won't notice something green in their chocolate cake, well, good luck with that. At age 4 it didn't escape Cutie's notice that there was something going on with this cake that she wasn't used to seeing. She ate it and she liked it, but she has always been a good eater (particularly of dessert).

Cooking spray
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup (4 ounces) block-style fat-free cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup fat-free buttermilk
2 cups shredded zucchini
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

3/4 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
8 teaspoons fat-free milk
2 tablespoons semisweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°.

To prepare cake, coat a 12-cup Bundt pan with cooking spray; dust pan with 1 tablespoon flour.

Place sugars, cream cheese, and vegetable oil in a large bowl, and beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended (about 5 minutes). Add eggs and egg whites, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Lightly spoon 2 1/2 cups flour into dry measuring cups, and level with a knife. Combine 2 1/2 cups flour and next 5 ingredients (2 1/2 cups flour through cinnamon) in a medium bowl, stirring well with a whisk.

Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir in zucchini, 2/3 cup chocolate chips, and nuts. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350° for 1 hour or until a wooden pick inserted in cake comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack; remove from pan. Cool completely on wire rack.

To prepare glaze, combine 3/4 cup powdered sugar and 3 tablespoons cocoa in a small bowl; stir with a whisk. Combine milk, 2 tablespoons chocolate chips, coffee, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract in a 1-cup glass measure. Microwave at medium 45 seconds or until chocolate melts, stirring after 20 seconds. Combine powdered sugar mixture with chocolate mixture, stirring with a whisk. Drizzle glaze over cake.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Not THAT Kind of Blood Orange

My brand-new salad craving is heightening my fear that turning 40 will make me a Responsible Adult. Or, at the very least, cement my Old Enough To Know Better status. I'm filing for an extension since I'm clearly not ready.

Or perhaps it's just a continuation of the "sashaying to the beat of my own accordion" that I've pretty much always done. At least my newfound obsession, the dark chocolate covered pretzels at Trader Joe's - is keeping a sense of normalcy.

Over the weekend I threw some fish on the grill and made this tasty salad. Two things to work around - a) oranges and asparagus are generally not in season at the same time - sliced apples would work much better than the dry, styrofoam-y oranges I was able to get, and b) how the hell do you "shave" asparagus? They're skinny spears. You have to hold onto them somewhere. They're floppy. For the life of me I couldn't figure out how to pull that off without also pulling off a layer of skin.

Our chopped asparagus salad turned out just fine. The dressing is terrific. Thyme, which grows in my herb garden, substitutes just fine for tarragon, which I didn't plant.

Shaved/Chopped Asparagus Salad with Orange-Tarragon Vinaigrette
Vegetarian Times

1/3 cup raw hazelnuts or almonds
1 large shallot, peeled and minced (3 TBSP)
3 TBSP white wine vinegar (or regular white vinegar)
1 TBSP chopped fresh tarragon leaves (or thyme)
2 tsp. orange zest - about 1 orange
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
7 TBSP olive oil (I used 5)
1/2 pound fresh asparagus (8 to 10 medium-size spears)
6 cups mixed spring greens
2 navel oranges

[If using hazelnuts - preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place hazelnuts on baking sheet and toast 15 minutes, or until skins darken and split. Rub nuts between two towels until skins come off. Cool, then coarsely chop]

1. Whisk together shallot, vinegar, tarragon/thyme, orange zest, and mustard in bowl. Whisk in oil. Season with salt and pepper. I didn't whisk, I just combined everything in a cruet and shook it.

2. Peel asparagus into long, thin strands with a peeler. Then e-mail me a video about how you did it.

3. Toss with greens in bowl.

4. Peel oranges with knife, removing white pith. Slice between membranes, and cut orange segments directly into salad, letting juice drip into bowl. Toss salad with nuts and 3 TBSP dressing. Serve remaining dressing on the side.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Easy-Peasy (Hold The Peas)

Y'all, we went to the most amazing wedding over the weekend - it was like having a walk-on part in a fairy tale.

Besides "Steph and her Sweetie had a terrific time at the beach wedding", that statement also means "she hasn't cooked much." Seriously, I came home Sunday night - after Sweetie surprised me with a trip to the spot where we got engaged and later married - to no food in the house and not much time to cook, anyway.

Everyone flies on a wing and a prayer at some point. I'm still trying to eat really healthfully, and this has been "throw it in a skillet and hope for the best" week.

Substitute "baking dish" for "skillet", and we have last night's super-easy, quite yummy dinner. Knowing full well there was nothing in the fridge, I stopped by the supermarket on the way home and got one tilapia filet ($1.50) and a small head of broccoli. I may have to do that again...

Baked Tilapia and Broccoli
4 Tilapia filets (to serve 4 - I just did one since Sweetie wasn't home for dinner)
2 cups broccoli, carrots, and chopped shallots (again, adjust according to how many people are eating)
1 lemon
Cooking spray or 1 TBSP butter
Old Bay seasoning

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray baking dish large enough for fish and vegetables. For easier, though not environmentally-friendly, clean-up line the baking dish with foil and then spray with cooking spray.

Place filet(s) and vegetables in baking dish. Sprinkle with lemon juice and seasoning. Dot with butter if using; if not, mist with cooking spray/olive oil.

Bake at 375 degrees for between 12 and 20 minutes. Fish will be opaque and will flake easily with a fork when done.

This could not have been easier and was way tasty.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Dreadmill

Dear Women's Magazines -

In some ways, I'm atypical. I haven't eaten red meat since 1989, I do not see the big deal about SNL's Kristen Wiig, I don't have cable TV.

But in a lot of ways, I'm more like the mythical Everywoman that you claim as your audience . I have the following: a job that has its good points but could be better; more Stuff to Do than Stuff-Doing Time; ten-ish more pounds to lose; two dogs and a husband who all seem to like me well enough on most days (and vice versa).

On behalf of those Everywomen, I gotta tell ya - I'm not down with everything you're spewing at me every month. Some of it is on the money, some of it we have some common ground, and the rest - honestly, either I'm doing this all wrong, or you liiiieeeed like a tobacco exec at a Health and Human Services hearing.

"It's Easy to Work In Exercise During the Day"

I'm willing to meet you halfway on this one. I take all 20+ flights of stairs down to the cafeteria every day at work. And when I can, I exit the train one stop early and walk the rest of the way to my office - and have for the past year or so. Honestly, I do feel better and am more productive when I pull it off, and it's not that big of a deal timewise.

But I didn't lose any weight that way. It's just not enough to make an appreciable difference. Over the past two months I've dropped somewhere around 8 pounds, and I'm literally swimming my butt off. Figure a 15-minute drive to the gym, a solid 30 minutes of swimming (assuming I don't have to wait for a lane), another 45 to shower, dress, and dry hair and the drive home. That's a full hour and a half of non-work time that I had to scrape together out of my already-busy day. It's worth it and it's do-able, but "easy"? No.

Find An Exercise You Love To Do - And DO IT
We're in sync on this one. I like walking, but don't usually have the 3+ hours it takes to burn off as many calories as I need to burn. And finding comfortable sneakers for my extra-wide, flipper-like feet is no easy task. But put me in a pool - where footwear isn't required and flippers are a definite advantage - and I'll stay there for hours. I still get on a treadmill every so often and do weights; swimming, for all its benefits, doesn't build bone density. So in the past two years on the dreadmill, nothin' much. Two months in the pool - weight loss.
Which reminds me.... parents, you might want to try to steer your kid towards an activity they can do for life, like tennis or running or golf. I was a gymnast, and I assure you no co-worker has ever said, "You know, there's a balance beam and a springfloor at the park up the street from me. We should meet up for some tumbling sometime after work" or "You look like you a vaulter - are you interested in joining the company gymnastics team? We kicked Xerox's ass at the corporate Olympics last year."

"Getting in Shape Doesn't Have to Cost Any Money"

In theory, true. I'm sure there's someone out there who gets a charge out of running up and down their house's stairs and hoisting bags of flour or full suitcases or whatever around as weights. And I've heard good things about those $15 fitness DVDs, but my 19-inch TV and playful golden retriever (who does doga on my mat) make that impractical in this house. For those of us who live in the real world - one that has, like, weather - we need a gym.

My costs so far, for an 8-pound loss - I'm not including food, because I mostly shifted around by putting the $ I used to spend on cheese and crackers and Smartfood popcorn towards edamame and strawberries:

* Two athletic Reebok bathing suits - $70 + tax (on sale at Dick's Sporting Goods}

* One pretty bathing suit that proved shockingly and embarassingly inadequate for a good backstroke push-off - $30. I guess I'll bring it to the beach this weekend

* Swimming Cap - $15 (plus the deep conditioner from the two months I swam without one, and the haircut, and the damage to my highlights....)

* Sneakers for my impossible-to-fit, extra-wide, flipper-like feet for land workouts - $80

* Swimmers' shamwow-like super absorbent towel - $10

And keep in mind that I already had a yoga mat, gym bag, extra hair dryer, gym membership, etc. We have a terrific park near the house and I happily go walking there - but not when it's pouring rain (almost every day this month), not when it's over 90 degrees, not when Atlanta's air quality is "unhealthy for every non-cockroach living being" (daily from June to mid-October), and not when the pollen drifts obscure the walking path (March and April).

One free source of inspiration was watching The Biggest Loser. Those folks didn't just show up at the gym and go through the motions - they busted it, they threw up, they sweated through their clothes, they cried, they cursed their trainers. Honest to God, I think of that when I start slowing down on my laps and feel like it might be OK to stop before hitting my goal. And I keep going.

"When You Make Healthful Substitutions, You'll Never Miss Snack Food"

F-you. Seriously. DO NOT tell me that a crunchy carrot stick is a "great substitute" for potato chips. That's insane. What kind of half-wit confuses the two? I happen to love berries, but I'm not so clueless as to notice they're not covered with chocolate.

And the verdict is...
I'm renewing my subscription to Weight Watchers magazine (terrific recipes) and I'll still pick up the occasional copy of Self and Fitness.

Here's the thing - I go to church every Sunday. And the message does not change, ever - in my house of worship, it's "love thy neighbor as thy self" and "follow the Ten Commandments" and "your marriage and your family are important" and "it is impossible to have earned the mercy we are shown, it's a gift." In the past ten or more years that I've gone to the same church, same message. The people who went there 50 years ago? They heard the same thing, every time.

But I need to hear it every week, because it's hard to do and it doesn't mesh with everything I see around me. Same thing with my health - there are no giant billboards advertising carrots the way there are for soda and doughnuts and fried chicken. I need to read the stories every month of someone who lost weight and kept it off to remind me that it can be done.

So dammit, you've got me for a good $10 per month. Just add that to my tab above.

Well played, editors. Well played.