22 October 2009

Gardner Dude (GD)

Life continues to be a bit on the wild side. I've cooked, I have photos, but it's just the matter of finding the TIME to put them up. I could do them at the shop but I will admit that I don't care to try and do cut and paste with the laptop versus the desktop. Silly, I know, but I seem to develop Gorilla Paws at times like that and end up spending more time mating various expository phrases together than actually sucessfully manuvering the computer to do what I want it to do.

At this point, I suppose I should do some kind of self-inspirational thing about how I will not be beaten by a silly little piece of technology, but it's early and I haven't had coffee yet, so...no.

Along with life, my mother has added a couple new wrinkles to the daily goings-on of the Cyber Hermit. Long story short, she and my father had used the same gardener for about 15 years. Gardner Dude came over to the US with barely anything and knocked on our door one day asking for work. My dad agreed and thus the relationship was born. Since then, GD has managed to build up a small landscaping business that employs mostly friends and family.

He's still been working for my mom since my dad's death but things seemed to be slightly off-kilter. Sprinklers would break...a lot. Mom would request things be done and they would...six weeks or so later. GD would appear only to drop off workers who spoke no English (hence Mom could not communicate with them about what she wanted done since her kids speak Spanish but she does not) and then disappear. She would make comments about how his rates seemed to be going up or he seemed to be charging a lot but she would never send the statements so we (me or my brother) could see them. We had a feeling it wasn't good but, without proof or tangible documentation, we couldn't really do anything except urge her to look finding another company to replace GD.

Then GD started getting creepy. He has asked my mother to give him $60,000. Not loan. Give. As if the audacity of asking her for $60,000 wasn't enough, he apparently just figured she would gift it to him. He's also made several comments about how my father "wanted GD to have the house". You know, maybe I've got rose-colored glasses on, but I'm reasonably sure that my father would not have said, "Hey, GD. When I die? I want you to have the house. I'm sure my wife won't mind handing it over and moving out" which is pretty much GD's line of inquiry when he brings up that comment.

This week, he hands my mother the bill for the month's worth of services. He didn't build any planters to rival the Tower of Babel. He didn't excavate, remove and replant the rows of avocado trees on the property. He didn't buy the parts and reinstall an entire sprinkler system. He or his employees spent probably an hour or two there each week either mowing, weeding, or trimming the flowers and bushes on the front walk.

For this, he wants to charge her $7000. SEVEN FRAKKING THOUSAND DOLLARS. A bill that is written out on a piece of paper with no itemization as to tasks done or time spent; no receipts for any supposed supplies bought. Just "Here's your bill. I'll stand here and wait while you write the check." You know, this is one of the times I actually regret a little bit that I live across the country. Why? Because it prevents me from KICKING HIS ASS.

I just...I cannot understand for the life of me how people apparently choose or decide it's a good thing/an okay thing (or whatever you want to call it) to take advantage of the elderly. He's had a relationship with my family for fifteen years and now that my mom is alone, GD apparently decides it's fitting to start soaking my mother for extra cash. Greed is mind-boggling.

My brother and I have stepped in at this point. We gave my mother a written statement to hand to GD, letting him know that the bill would not even be looked at for potential payment until he provided all documentation to justify what he claims is owed and faxes it all to us. When presented with this statement, GD told my mother it would take "at least two weeks for him to find all this but he'd settle for $500 right now". I then spent yesterday calling landscape maintenance companies and setting up appointments for them to go to my mom's house and give her an estimate on the work she wants done.

And because we don't know if my dad ever gave GD a key as well as the asking for large sums of money and creepy comments about how GD is supposed to have the house, we had my mom change the locks on the house yesterday.

So, way to go, GD. Way to make an elderly woman who has been nothing but nice to you feel upset and afraid, and have to call her children crying because she doesn't know what to do and is worried what will happen if she doesn't pay the bill. Hope you've got enough other properties to make up that $7,000 you were trying to get my mother to pay you. There is a silver lining in this; however, it's for me and not you. I will get to smile over the phone when I call you up and tell you that your services are no longer required and that you are never to darken my mother's doorstep again, and you'd better just deal with it. Because, in the words of the Incredible Hulk:

"Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

28 September 2009

Like a slightly befuddled, chubby phoenix, it rises from...something

Gah. Almost an entire month went by. I have lots of pictures on my ancient digital camera (hereinafter known as, I think, the ADC or the Brontosaurus) of recipes and such. There has just been a lot going on and...brain hurty now.

First, my mother. My brother and I have been working her towards moving and she's begun the process of clearing out stuff from the house minus the bulldozer we thought about sending to her. I mean...wow. She and my dad lived in this house since 1974 so there is, er, quite the accumulation. I'm pretty sure any joke about Jimmy Hoffa and his potential whereabouts has a punchline regarding some room in my mom's house. During our phone conversations, I have asked at least once during the conversation "Mom, do you even have any idea what is in Closet X?" (or Drawer Y...Filing Cabinet Z...the rafters of the garage...so on and so forth)

The latest parental experience was that her landline was broken for two days. I normally call her every night but wasn't able to until the second day. At that point, I get recordings of some lobotomized phone company employee saying, "The party you are trying to reach is not answering and this call will be disconnected." This continues for four hours. My brother can't reach her, either.

Cue visions of my mother lying somewhere on the floor unable to reach help and sounding uncomfortably like that woman in the "I've fallen and can't get up" commercial. Not to mention that, with no landline, she has no access to Life Alert...if she was even wearing it (another story for another time).

Now, I'm ten hours away at minimum - depending on when I could get a plane flight. My brother is ninety minutes away. He's getting into his car at 10 p.m. to make the drive to my mom's house when she finally calls his cell phone to tell him about the landline. Apparently, the magical phone fairies were going to fix it.

No. I'm not kidding.

Long story short, Mom was made to call the phone company to get the phones working. Mom also now has a new cell phone that she WILL FREAKING USE versus simply ignoring the one that was in her purse.

And my brother and I are exhausted.

Moving on...when you run a business and hire a 17-year-old whose stated hero/idol/I-wanna-be-just-like-her role model is Paris Hilton? You're in for interesting times.

We've had a couple no-call/no-shows with the following lecture of when you're supposed to be at work by 11, it helps if you actually get up before 11; take a note. Several interesting stories about tickets for speeding, getting caught in the parking lot of the mall in the wee hours "doing nothing", etc.

Plus, I've been working a lot more hours there in addition to my regular job, which can make for a grumpy hermit sometimes. But, seriously, for the love of toast, if you don't want to work anymore, at least have the courtesy to give some kind of notice rather than just completely stop showing up and not returning any phone calls. Paris Hilton shows up to the opening of a fricking envelope.

People. They make me crazy.

28 August 2009

Roasted Tomato Soup

I flove tomatoes. My husband, unfortunately, thinks they are of the devil and quotes George Carlin anytime I try to feed them to him in any form other than a sauce or salsa - basically something that contains large chunks of 'mater is not for him. Therefore, I don't make this soup very often since it makes a lot and it's only me that will eat it, but it tastes so good when I do.
(recipe from Tyler Florence via Food Network)


2.5 lbs fresh tomatoes (I use a mix of whatever is at the store and looks good)
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 small yellow onions, sliced

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 quart chicken stock
2 bay leaves

4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, optional
3/4 cup heavy cream, optional
Madeira sherry, optional


Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Wash, core and cut the tomatoes into halves. Spread the tomatoes, garlic cloves and onion slices onto a baking tray. Drizzle with 1/2 cup of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, or until carmelized.

Remove roasted tomatoes, garlic and onion from the oven and transfer to a large stock pot. Add 3/4 of the chicken stock, bay leaves, and butter. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until liquid has reduced by a third.

Wash and dry basil leaves, if using, and add to the pot. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup until smooth. Return soup to low heat, add cream and adjust consistency with remaining stock, if necessary. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

I like making this soup first of all because I think it tastes much better than any tomato soup you could buy on the market *and* it allows me to control what's going into it - including salt. I also like making it because there is just something so comforting about watching a big pot of soup come together bit by bit and turn from dark red to almost pale pink after adding the cream; and smelling it as it cooks? Yum.

Using the immersion blender helps take care of any large pieces of skin or pulp as well as blend the tomatoes with the garlic and onion. You *could* squeeze the pulp out of the tomatoes before you start but I generally don't. Sometimes I've strained the soup after blending it to remove any larger pieces of skin/pulp or tomato seeds but I don't find it necessary. I like a more rustic feel to the soup but you could do it if you don't care for the texture of the occasional piece of tomato skin or seed.

The addition of cream changes it into more than just tomato broth. It gives an added weight on the tongue that is much more velvety and smooth than a broth would be; it helps eliminate some of the acidic nature of the tomatoes. I also like using the shery for just a little bit of bite. It blends well with the cream and tomatoes and leaves a nice aftertaste on the tongue - kind of an extra layer of flavor you're not expecting and are pleasantly surprised by it.

I don't have an exact measurement for this; rather, I pour a little bit at a time and let the soup continue to simmer over low heat until the sherry is blended and then taste, adding more salt and/or pepper if necessary. Once I was out of sherry and ended up using some Absolut Vodka in a pinch and that also worked well. I guess you could call it a cousin to the Bloody Mary :).

This soup is great with some nice crusty bread smeared with butter or some Wheat Thins and sharp cheddar cheese.

14 August 2009

I haz(d) a plan!

I write on occasion. Nothing much and now mostly just stories for friends using characters from old gaming sessions or jumping off from crackfic we wrote years ago. A scene or a snippet of conversation will pop in my head and I'll play around with it for *mumble*years*mumble* until I have something I think is worth sharing, and then I'll send it to that person for their birthday or whatever. Because I write at the pace of a glacier melting during the ice age, I try never to promise anything by a particular date. Bad writing karma.


I had this story I was working on for a dear friend. Known her for years, gamed with her, wrote with her through thick and thin. We haven't written together for a long time but we still haz friendship :). Anyway, I'm actually going along very well on a story I'd been thinking about for a long time - a kind of "what if we really were bastards and did kill Kenny?" kind of thing. *rubs hands together*

I start working on it and I'm about 25 pages in when my brain suddenly decides to hijack the proceedings with one wee little thought: "Hey, self. Did you ever wonder how Person X got from Point A to Point B?"

Me: "Well, yes. But I'm over here with Person Y right now."
Brain: "OK. That's fine. You stay over there but I'm going to go jaunt over this way now."

Where does that leave me? 3,845 words (and growing) about a whole 'nother character on a completely unrelated topic!

My friend. She sucks. And it's all her fault.

But I love her anyway.

12 August 2009

Maximus is not amused

There are some days where it quietly, gently, ever-so-subtly goes to hell. Then there are days where you walk in and the moment you do, the shit misses the fan and hits your face.

This day was just...weird.

I came into work, unlocked the room that needed said service, and then opened up my office to boot up my computer and check whatever e-mails came in overnight from desperate students. But soft! What light on yonder phone blinks? It is my voice mail!

I punch in my code and I hear one of the professors telling me that it's now 11:30 at night and he's going to bed. Would I be so good to call his house at 8 a.m. to wake him up?

There is not enough coffee in the world to make that request make sense. I probably stared at the phone for about thirty seconds thinking, "The hell? No wife? All your alarm clocks were stolen? Did I sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night?"

The answer to all three questions pretty much being "no", I called, let the phone ring twice and hung up. The professor in question called back to tell me his wife beat me to it.


Then I faxed over new business card requests to our PR office to have them approved. I got a call from the fax-ee telling me that I should scan and e-mail instead since that is free and their fax cartridges cost money.

Ooooookay. So, it's really not a fax. It's just a fax-shaped paperweight?

After that, the Student Who Makes and Cancels Appointments called to set up another appointment. It's like my own personal Groundhog Day.

The kicker for the day was when my husband forwarded me an e-mail with a letter attached. This letter was from a New York law office and told us that we must immediately (a) change the name of our coffee shop and (b) immediately desist from offering live music under our current name or they're going to sue us. Apparently, a 40 seat coffee house in the South is competition for a club in New York. The mind, she boggles. The eyes, they roll. The check, it goes to the lawyer.

Now I'm going to make a rather LARGE drink and hope that I don't choke on an ice cube or slip on a banana peel or something that would really make the day complete.

07 August 2009

In Memoriam - Two Years Later

This is probably my favorite picture of my Dad. He's got his dog who adores him (and he adores her) and he's on one of his many motorhome trips.

He wasn't a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination. He was always ready for play sometimes to the detriment of work. He kept some secrets that have those he left behind still puzzled two years later. But he loved us. That was never in doubt.

Two years on and the most immediate, sharp pain of his death has muted but looking at the picture still brings tears to my eyes and I have to clear my throat before I can pick up the phone when it rings at my desk. When death is sudden, it's almost like someone has pressed "pause" on your relationship with that person. You keep waiting to finish; finish that conversation you started, the phone call...something to create some type of closure that you can use to mark it as "the end". Doesn't come, though, and you're left in some kind of holding pattern. There are times I call my parents' house just to hear his voice on the answering machine. I still expect him to call me for my birthday, and the first time I addressed a package solely to my mother felt alien and just plain wrong to me.

We've all worked on picking up the pieces. My mother has made great strides in some areas, yet remains (as I've said) aggressively passive in other areas of her life. I finally finished college and marched through the line to get my diploma while holding the above picture in my hands instead of having him watching from the audience. My brother has become a sort of financial advisor to my mother and supplies visits from the nephews. His favorite granddaughter got married to the young man he liked so much. The first great-grandchild arrived this year.

I call her every night as I have since the day he died and talk to her for however long she wants. Some times it's only a few minutes and other times it can be an hour or more. We talk about what she did that day, what she's watching on TV, church and, of course, about my dad; especially around this time. She wants to be with him and I remind her that she will be. She wants to know when and cries about why can't it be now and I have to tell her I don't know why, trying to reassure her in all my imperfect, linear understanding of God and his existence and plans outside time and space.

When I spoke at my dad's memorial service, the thing I kept coming back to was his gift of hospitality, his generosity of heart. Those were the memories people told me about as I was writing my eulogy and those are the memories spoken of when I run into friends of his these days. As far as legacies go, I think it's a good one when you're remembered with smiles and laughter.

Tonight I will press "play" for a little while. I will sit out on the back porch with a drink and tell him how Mom is doing and she will make that trip to Alaska, how his grandson thought he'd found the woman of his dreams, how his great-granddaughter is almost four months old, and how I love him and miss him.

I love you, Dad. See you tonight.

28 July 2009

Curried Pineapple Banana Bread

(recipe courtesy of closetcooking.blogspot.com)

I loves me some bread. I also like to bake it. However, although pie crust is my nemesis, bread can be fickle for me. Therefore, I generally tend to stay with batters and mixes versus yeast, rising, et cetera and so forth. I saw this bread and though it looked good. I love pineapple and bananas and the thought of curry intrigued me, so I saved the recipe and recently tried it out.

Each set of ingredients makes one loaf.


1 cup flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons curry powder
3 ripe bananas (mashed)

1/2 cup butter (melted)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 cup pineapple (I used Dole pineapple tidbits)
2 tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix the flour, baking soda, salt and curry powder in a bowl.

3. Mix the bananas, butter, sugars, egg and lime juice in another bowl.

4. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet.
5. Mix in the pineapple and coconut.
6. Pour the batter into a greased 9x5 inch loaf pan.

7. Bake until a tooth pick pushed into the center comes out clean, about 60 minutes.

Unfortunately, I have an ancient digital camera and the picture of the finished product is not as sharp as I would like it to be. Let me point out, however, that the bread itself is YUMMY. It's very moist, almost cake-like. For anyone who thinks the curry sounds weird, it hits your tongue in a way that's very similar to cinnamon. The curry powder combined with the sugar and the banana registers as much more of a "sweet" heat than a "hot" or "spicy" heat like it does in more savory dishes. In fact, if I didn't know I'd put curry in the batter, I would have thought there was cinnamon in the bread instead.

This would also be good toasted on a rack in the oven for a few minutes to dry it a little bit and give it a little crispiness on the outside, then buttered. Or, as a dessert (again toasted) with some vanilla ice cream on it.

This will definitely go in the keeper file.

18 July 2009

Gimpy the Eighth Dwarf checking in

Once again, my klutzy side has decided to share itself with the world. Bleah.

When I was training and fighting, getting injured was just part of the deal. Bruises, bloody noses, black eyes...all part of the plan. The credo in the gym was the bigger the bruise (or other injury), the sexier it was. (You should see my Self-Portrait of Hematoma. Rooooowwwwrrrr!!).

One of the things I did while cutting weight was to ruck. In other words, I took an Army pack, shoved two 20-lb bags of kitty litter into it, strapped that puppy on and hiked 10-12 miles while wearing layers of workout clothes and sweats. This occasioned comments ranging from "hardcore" to "My god, I always knew you were insane."

On one of these walks, I had barely gotten started when I tried to step to the side of the road, misbalanced and fell. Hard. Trust me when I say that 40 pounds of kitty litter increases your downward velocity like a mofo. However, I couldn't just go straight down. No. That would be too easy. Instead, I rolled my left ankle over so far that the ankle bone met the pavement before the rest of me.

Sitting on the ground, multiple thoughts ran through my head, but they all centered around a few key points: (1) Owwwwwwww!!!!! (2) I'm tough. I'm a fighter. I can take this. Pain is weakness leaving the body. (3) Owwwww!!!!!!...with a few swear words thrown in. (4) Pain is weakness - dude, this hurts! (5) Swear some more. Finally dragging my thoughts out of their cyclical nature, I used my cell phone to call the Spousal Unit and ask for a ride home.

Which brings us to now; almost a year later. I've had my fight and retired due to a long-term back injury, but I like to try and keep somewhat active and fit. Thus, I run/walk quite a few miles each week. On Thursday, I wasn't looking forward to the treadmill and thought I'd go for a walk/run for about five miles; walk some of it and then do sprints/cooldowns on the way back. Easy. Done it a hundred times before. It'll be a nice change of pace.

Yeah. Sometimes I should just stick with the plan.

I made it 2.5 miles out and turned around for the home stretch. I've got my track pants on, black sleeveless top, my old Navy cap...feelin' good, feelin' sexy, feelin' oh-so-very good. Which, looking back, really should have been my first clue something was about to go wrong. The universe likes to give me the middle finger at times like these.

I'd gone about three miles when suddenly...cue the ankle totally collapsing again and I go down (coincidentally, about a mile from the first incident). Suddenly, I'm sprawled over a busy intersection at a time approaching rush hour for this town. And did I mention I'm bleeding? That sleeveless top that I was feeling oh-so-sexy-and-good in? Didn't exactly save me from the marriage of asphalt and skin.

I managed to roll myself out of the road much like I imagine a salmon flops around when it's trying to hurl itself upstream and get upright. Running is out of the question. Walking normally may happen at some point but not before the general population of my town that travels this road daily around this time will get to see me limping like Igor trailing after Dr. Frankenstein. There was even an "M" word coming out of my mouth. It just wasn't "Master".

I've got road rash, various scrapes and small divots all down my left arm (but the tat is fine!). Also, my ankle once again looks like it's swallowed a tennis ball and I'm trying to find shoes that I can wear to work that allow me to wear an ankle brace underneath. I tried treadmilling yesterday and got about a mile before I said to myself, "Self, a strong work ethic is fine; admirable, even. Gritting your teeth while you injure yourself further is something the natives refer to as 'stupid'. Perhaps we should stop this for now."

"You think?"

"Does the universe need to flip you off again?"

"Um, no."

*look around furtively* Stupid universe.

Excuse me. My ice pack is calling.

09 July 2009

Chicken Chimichangas, Part II: The Filling

So, to briefly recap...first we made the tortillas (which turned out wonderfully) and now we're on to the filling for the chimichangas. This recipe also had the option of adding refried beans to the chimichanga by spreading them on the tortilla before adding the chicken mixture but I chose to forgo that step.

1 small onion, chopped
2 1/2 cup chopped cooked chicken

1 tbsp oil
1 1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups salsa
1/2 tsp cumin
1 pinch salt

1. Saute onion and garlic in oil. Stirl in salsa, spices, chicken and salt. Cook until heated through.

2. If using, spread about 2 tbsp of refried beans on each tortilla then add about 1/2 cup of the chicken mixture. Fold like a burrito and secure with a toothpick or metal skewer.

3. Spray all sides with cooking spray and bake at 400F for 20 minutes (until golden brown) OR fry in a small amount of olive oil until brown on both sides.

4. EAT!

OK, first? Yum. Realllly good eats :).

As far as the folding went, I found it worked best if I laid the chicken filling down a line in the middle like the picture above, leaving some room around the edges. I took the top part of the tortilla and folded it over the chicken like I was starting to roll a cigar. Then, I folded the sides in towards the middle to create the beginnings of a tube shape. Then I folded the "tube" over.

(And how many times can I say "folded" in one paragrah?)

I didn't really need the toothpicks or any kind of skewer. As long as the tortillas aren't overstuffed, the mixture won't come out the sides or anything like that and the edges all meet, so there is a solid seam all the way around the chimichanga. I also chose to bake them in the oven rather than deep frying them; personal preference :).

The cinnamon may sound kind of odd but go with it. It will smell almost sweet - like baking sweet - when you're heating the chimichanga filling or they are cooking in the oven. When you're eating them, the spice translates into heat more than sweet. It adds another layer to whatever salsa you may have used and feels warm on the back of your tongue.

These were very tasty and kept well over the two-three days we ate them as leftovers.

03 July 2009

Chicken Chimichangas, Part I: Homemade Tortillas

I love Mexican food - the more authentic the better. It's sommetimes hard to find the good stuff but we've managed to scope out some of the more "local" joints versus the ones that serve more Americanized versions of Mexican food. In between, I work on increasing my own repetoire. Something I hadn't really tried to this point was tortillas. For some reason, the making of them reminds me of my one true nemesis of the cooking world - pie crust. I cannot make a decent pie crust to save my life. I think tortillas seem similar because there is resting and rolling and such involved - similar to pie crust. But then I saw this recipe and the idea of tortilla-making suddenly seemed, well, simple. The only real difference I found was the use of shortening versus lard.

Flour Tortillas (makes eight 10" tortillas)

2 cups flour
1/4 cup shortening
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 to 3/4 cup warm water

1. Whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder.

2. Cut in the shortening until mixture resembles course meal.

3. Add warm water a little at a time, until mixture forms a soft dough without being sticky.

**Here is where you want to be careful. Don't just pour water in thinking all that flour will absorb it. Keep adding slowly and then knead the forming dough until all the water is absorbed before adding more. It's kind of like making risotto. As the liquid is absorbed, you add more. Same idea here. If you do add a little too much, keep working the dough gently. It may seem a little sticky at first but it will largely disappear with some patient kneading.

4. Knead until smooth and elastic. Roll into 8 equal size balls and cover with plastic wrap. Let rest for 30 minutes.

5. Roll each ball out on a lightly floured surface until very thin and about 10" in diameter. Layer them between sheets of plastic wrap and let rest for 10-15 more minutes (or until you are ready to cook them).

6. Place in a dry (no oil please) non-stick frying pan over med-high heat for about 1 minute on each side. You know its read to flip when it starts to puff up a bit.

7. Wrap with a tea towel while you are cooking the rest, so they don't dry out. Serve warm.

These were wonderful. They were pliable enough to roll into chimichangas with a nice, chewy texture. They also were good as soft tacos or just warm out of the pan with some butter or some butter/cinnamon sugar.

But since we're talking about chimichangas here, we'll get to that part next :).

28 June 2009

Italian Casserole

I made this on one of those nights when I came home and wondered exactly what the heck I was going to do for dinner. It's not haute cuisine (or hottie cwi-zee-nee as my husband likes to pronounce it), but it's tasty and can be ready fairly quickly with minimal ingredients and minimal mess.

The evening's guests of honor:

It's one pound of regular sausage, a box of pasta, a 32 oz can of crushed tomatoes and a 2 cup size bag of cheese. I like buying the sausage "plain" as it were and adding my own spices to control both the flavor and the heat rather than buying the "Italian" sausage links. The pasta is whatever will hold the sauce so I will usually go for radiatore or something with ridges, and the cheese is just whatever grabs me. Mostly it's mozzarella or a mix of mozarella and parmesan, but I have made a Mexican version of this with sharp cheddar and sharp cheddar/queso fresco.

Brown the sausage in a pan and add whatever spices follow along with the theme. If I'm making an Italian version, I'll usually throw in some salt, pepper, oregano, and just a touch of cayenne for some added heat. I just season to taste and the heat level my family is comfortable with. If I'm making a Mexican version, I will usually throw in some cumin and some chili powder as well; again, tasting as I go to make sure that nobody will (as Lisa Simpson says) "see through time".

As the sausage is cooking, I also get my pasta water started and my pasta cooking. Once the sausage is all cooked and the spices have been added, open up the can of crushed tomatoes and pour them in. I will sometimes add a few teaspoons of sugar to this to cut the acidity of the tomatoes (the Spousal Unit doesn't do so well with that sometimes). Stir to combine and let heat through. Mmmmmm...

By this time, the pasta should be ready. Go ahead and drain it and either dump it into a bowl or into a 13x9x2 casserole dish already sprayed with Pam. Add the meat/sauce mixture and stir to combine. Now comes my favorite part. Break out the cheese!

Put it in the oven at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes or so - give or take on whether you like your cheese melty or more brown and crispy on the top with meltiness on the inside. And...voila! Dinner.

The SU instantly liked this and has requested it nearly weekly ever since. He prefers the Italian over the Mexican but I like both. I've also played with adding veggies to it such as crimini mushrooms or zucchini that I've cubed or cut into small matchsticks. I'll cook the sausage first and then saute the vegetables in the drippings left over before adding the sausage back and then the crushed tomatoes. It adds more "good" filler to the casserole and I can cut down on the pasta used. I've also used ground turkey, but if I do, I try to get at least the 85/15 version so it's not quite so dry as the 90/10 can be.

Plus, you know, there's cheese. You can never go wrong with cheese :).

26 June 2009

The child is becoming the parent

Am tired. Am so very, very tired. (Started with a typo of "I'm tied". At least then, I might be able to be stuck in a dark closet somewhere where no one could find me and I could at least sleep!).

The usual suspects are still making me tired: working at my regular job plus learning the opening business of our restaurant so I can come in on Saturday mornings and allow the Spousal Unit at least one day where he can sleep in past 5:30. I'm getting there - the lunches and dinners are easier somehow and I don't know why. I can make lattes and coffee well enough but I have to think about the breakfast items a little longer, be a little more deliberate whereas the coffee drinks are, mentally, much more of a 1-2-3-done kind of deal.

The thing that is really exhausting me, though, is my mom. I knew there would be caretaking involved when my dad died in 2007 simply because my mom has never really been on her own in her entire life. She met my dad when they were 14, she went straight from high school to nursing school to marriage at age 20. Then, through a combination of my dad's own particular issues and her acceptance of them, she learned basically nothing about the requirements of running a home and paying bills beyond the basics of groceries, laundry, cleaning, etc.

Now, before I go any further, I need to express a caveat for myself if nothing else. Those things she did all through my growing up years and working as an OB/GYN RN on top of it were important things. I am utterly grateful to her for them. But the fact remains that there was a lot she was very content to let my dad take care of and was largely an observer of life in general.

While she's certainly made fantastic strides in learning how to deal with things like taxes, home maintenance, et cetera, she is still remarkably, almost aggressively, passive about her own life. My brother and I work on making her get out of the house for something besides a grocery or post office run, but since he is an hour away and I am across the country, it is unfortunately easier for her to ignore our efforts than we would like.

I think she gets that we are wise to her attempts to be a hermit so now things have turned to matters of her health. She sees a doctor every few months for bloodwork, checking up on her diabetes, etc. However, she also has a host of other symptoms that are worrying: random vomiting with no apparent trigger, bowel issues, incontinence issues, and sleep issues. It took me a few months to get her to mention these issues to her doctor at all after several iterations of this basic conversation:

Me: "Mom, make a list of these things. Take it to the doctor and ask him the questions."

Mom: "Well, it's just stuff. It doesn't happen all the time/it went away/other random excuse."

Me: "Mom, take the list to the doctor. Ask him the questions. I will call you after the appointment. If you didn't ask the questions, I will call your doctor and have this conversation with him."

The latest struggle has been over her potential sleep apnea. The Spousal Unit has it so I'm familiar with the signs and she has many of the same symptoms; has her whole life. I can remember her snoring like a house afire from the time I was a wee hermit. I finally got her to agree to ask the doctor about it, telling her that the CPAP device had helped with the SU's sleep, memory issues, fatigue, etc; all things she was experiencing. What does she tell the doctor?

Well, my daughter thinks this might be what I have but I won't wear a CPAP.

Cue now-slightly-bigger hermit banging her head against her desk in frustration. When I talked to her on the phone, I wanted to say, "So, you'll bitch about this ad nauseum to me but you won't do anything that could take care of the issue and improve your quality of life?" What I did say was, "You know, mom. That's your choice. I think you would be much happier getting a full night's sleep but obviously that's up to you."

Because, really, short of hogtying her to a bed and supergluing a CPAP to her face? There isn't anything I can do. And that's probably one of the hardest things to deal with as this one-eighty from child to caretaker-parent continues to take place. As a former health-care provider, I know she cared deeply about her patients and their care. She would fight doctors if she felt what they were doing was incorrect, not enough, or that they weren't providing a high enough standard of care. But, as herself, as a 70-year-old woman mired in depression who has just...given up, she doesn't care enough about herself to fight for the things that could help her.

It's so frustrating to watch this. Both my brother and I are physically limited in what we can do based on time and distance. Plus, she is not at a stage where we feel we can or should make decisions for her living arrangements and care that force her into a situation she is not ready for. That will only serve to alienate her and make her feel like we're trying to push her off somewhere where neither of us have to deal with her anymore. But, dammit, it's so frustrating to be constantly met with a wet blanket of learned helplessness that she stays in because it's comfortable and it's what she knows. "No, I won't..." is her mantra. Won't learn how to hit "reply" on an e-mail (so she reads e-mail only and that took a year to get her to do), won't listen to voice mail on a cell phone (so don't bother to ever call it), won't ask her doctor for tests or help in diagnosing issues because "they go away", won't get estimates on work because she "doesn't know how to do these things" and continually tries to put these things off on me or my brother...but refuses our help if we offer it in the first place.

I am...emotionally drained. But I can't give in. I need to keep calling her every night to talk to her because I'm pretty much the only human interaction she has during the day besides the drive-thru clerk at McDonalds or the cashier at the grocery store. I need to keep trying to be there for her because there is going to come a time where she is no longer able to be on her own, to keep the house up, to take care of herself and will need the resources of both myself and my brother to help her move on to that next stage.

But it's hard.

19 June 2009

Chocolate Stout Cake with Bailey's Cream Cheese Frosting

I used to bake a lot when I was younger but I'd moved out of the realm of desserts and much more heavily into dinner-type foods and more savory dishes (e.g. appetizers) before my last break from cooking. However, I still like to bake and when I saw this recipe, I knew I had to give it a try. Chocolate and beer! What's not to like?

(recipe from Closet Cooking)


1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1 cup stout (such as Guinness)

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 cups all purpose flour

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

2/3 cup sour cream


1. Melt the butter in a sauce pan, remove from heat and let cool a bit.

2. Mix in the stout and cocoa powder.

3. Mix the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.

4. Mix the eggs and sour cream in another large bowl.

5. Mix the stout mixture into the egg mixture.

6. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet.

7. Pour the batter into one or two greased and parchment lined circular cake pan(s).

8. Bake in a preheated 350F oven until a toothpick pushed into the center comes out clean. If you bake it in a single pan then it should take about 40-50 minutes. If you bake it in two cake pans then it should take about 20-30 minutes.

**The batter itself is fairly loose. It's not a particularly thick batter like you might think considering the quantity of dry ingredients. I found it worked better if I popped open the Guinness, poured approximately half a cup into the measuring cup and then waited for the head to subside a bit before pouring the rest.

Since I had made cakes before in these particular pans and had not used parchment paper when it was called for (since the cakes had turned out fine), I didn't this time, either. When I make this cake again, however, I will definitely use the parchment. The cake itself is moist. Very moist. And it sticks to the bottom of even a non-stick, greased cake pan. I lost a little bit of the first cake to the pan and the other layer, even after cooling, was still somewhat firmly attached to the bottom of its pan and I had to coax it out. Heeeere, cakey-cakey. Good cakey-cakey. Who's a good cake now?

Yeah, okay. So I didn't just put Guinness in the cake!

Bailey's Cream Cheese Frosting Ingredients:

4 ounces cream cheese (room temperature)
1 cup confectioners sugar
3 tablespoons of Bailey’s Irish cream


1. Mix everything.

**On Closet Cooking, the picture is of a single layer cake. I, being me, which means not wont to entirely follow directions sometimes, decided I would make this a two-layer cake and doubled the icing recipe. Still not enough. There was about 1/4 to 1/3rd of the cake in back that was not iced on the outside (there was icing in between the layers, though). That, combined with an almost overly moist cake that added crumbs to my icing was a bit...annoying, shall we say? Still, I managed to get most of it iced and put it in the fridge to set up a bit.

Finished product? Duuuuuuuuude. Even with setting up in the fridge (which can sometimes dry cakes out), this cake was still soft and spongy. You could definitely taste the Guinness. Combined with the unsweetened cocoa, it made for a more earthy taste than I might have thought, but it was leavened by the sweetness of the icing. The confectioner's sugar and Bailey's cut the slight bitterness of the Guinness and the cocoa and stout helped make not the icing not so sweet, which it might have been with a lighter cake both texturally and taste-wise. I will definitely be making this again.

15 June 2009

I, Cattius

I'm not entirely sure how I got my husband to agree to a cat - much less two. Maybe I was especially cute and winsome that day...or maybe he was tired of hearing me bang on about it. Our neighbors' cat was the feline version of Ma Duggar and so our neighbors were constantly putting up signs about cats being free to good homes. I'd had several pet cats while growing up and missed them. My husband, on the other hand, had grown up in a pet-free household and, up to that point, seemed to have been determined to keep it that way.

But there we were...summer of 2001...in our neighbors house, looking at the kitten I'd chosen and named Munchkin since she was the runt of the litter. While we were sitting in the living room with Munchkin, her sister (then known as "Ziggy") came gamboling out as fast as her six-week-old legs would carry her like she scented chum in the water; or, more likely, a potential soft touch. She ran up the Spousal Unit's leg, turned around and planted all four legs firmly on his thigh. Her tail quivering like some kind of furry flag, it was as though she was announcing "I claim this one."

Eight years later, we have this:

That would be Munchkin - all 15 pounds of her - giving me her usual barely patient glare. I'm firmly convinced that Munchkin means "Soul of Ennui" in some language. However, my husband would swear it means Bitch Kitty. I'd never hear a cat complain until we got her. It was bizarre. Instead of a sweetly questioning meow or the occasional pitiful vocalization, we are regaled with complaints on a regular basis. God forbid the cat food in her dish isn't up to her freshness standards because you will hear about her displeasure. Even if it's three in the morning, you will hear from Her Majesty.

(It's at that point the Spousal Unit and I play a half-awake game of Rock/Scissors/Paper to find out who has to get up and kick the cat's ass this time.)

Curious Grace (the artist formerly known as "Ziggy") is on the right. That would be her come hither stare, which is meant for my husband and my husband only. To her, I am the Other Woman. We (my husband and I) sit and watch TV at night. We hold hands...we snuggle. Gracie can't stand this. She is firmly convinced that if she can just muscle in between us, she can show my husband the Error of His Ways and Their Love Will Be. This usually involves one of two tactics:

1. She will sit on the floor in front of our recliners and stare at us. We're not just talking your average kitty notation of the goings-on. Oh no. This cat does. not. blink. She's worse than Max Von Sydow in that movie about Jesus they show every Easter. As she sits there, unblinking, you can clearly see a thought bubble forming above her head as she stares at me. There is one word in that thought bubble and it is "Bitch".

2. The Death Ray Stare (tm) apparently not working fast enough for her, Gracie's next tactic is to play Stealth Kitty. I guess in her world she's slyer than James Bond and more invisible than the Stealth Raptor built by the Chief's crew on BSG. However, her version of stealth leaves something to be desired. First, she will jump up on the end table by my recliner. From there, she will leap to the top of my recliner while I'm sitting in it. Because nobody is going to notice another 15 pounds of cat essentially leaping on to their head. She'll lay up there for a while and then eeeeeeeever so slowly start inching down the recliner towards our joined hands so she can leap over them and try to lay on the Spousal Unit's chest. (At which point the Spousal Unit generally shoves her off him with the verbal notation that I was here first and there is no contest. Awwwww, my hero :)).

Some days, I just gotta wonder what I was thinking.

13 June 2009

Sweet Potato Fries

I love sweet potatoes. But I rarely find recipes that aren't full of brown sugar this, marshmallow fluff that and just...eeeuw. Too much sweetness. It's like a pumpkin pie casserole on steroids and my tastes tend to run more towards mixing the natural sweetness of the potato with something a little more savory. Hence today's experiment.

The jumping off point was ourbestbites.com. Since I hadn't been cooking regularly for a while, I wanted to get some ideas as to time and temperature. First I peeled the potatoes and cut them in half, then made multiple slices from the halfs before finally making matchstick pieces (or as close as I could) from them:

Once they were cut, I put them in a bowl, poured about two to three tablespoons of olive oil over them and tossed them until they were coated. The spices in order of appearance were salt, pepper and cumin - probably about two teaspoons of salt and pepper and close to a teaspoon of cumin. You can't really tell it's cumin in the picture but it is (still figuring out the camera options):

After mixing it all up with my hands to make sure everything was distributed, I put them potato pieces on a baking sheet sprayed with Pam:

I started the temperature at 425 degrees and let them cook, checking on them on occasion to make sure nothing was, you know, burning uncontrollably. At the 20 minute mark, I went to flip them over and noticed there was a good deal of browning already taking place - perhaps a bit too much. I flipped the fries over and lowered the temperature to 400 degrees to finish the cooking process, letting them go for about another 15 minutes. The end result?

They were more...roasted than anything else. I liked the taste and the consistency - some light crunchiness/firmness on the outside and a soft inside, but they weren't really what I was looking for in terms of being a sweet potato fry. I would definitely up the ante on the spices. More salt, more pepper and look at some dried herbs or even some parmesan. I might also experiment with cooking them at slightly different temperatures by going a little lower and slower with one batch and then upping the oven temp with another batch to see how they compare. Overall, though, they made a pretty good accompaniment to a broiled steak and a green salad.