Friday, May 28, 2010

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Funeral for a Friend

A friend of ours died the other day in a tragic accident. Tonight, we are attending a "celebration of his life". In other words: a wake, big party, a bash, which is exactly what he would have wanted because he was always the life of the party. I wanted to bring something to the family, so this morning I made a sour cream coffee cake, which has kind of turned into the thing I make when people die. I first made it about twenty years ago when we lived in Mangowood and a neighbor's brother died. My neighbor's father loved it so much, they brought a piece on the plane ride home for him to enjoy as dessert. I got the recipe out of my Kitchen Aid cookbook and bake it in a Bundt pan. I also replaced the sour cream with low fat yogurt with no discernible difference in taste. I hadn't made this cake in a long time, but when a neighbor's father passed away a couple months ago, I decided to make it again. Unsure if my memory of it was as good as I remembered, I cut the cake in half and kept some at home to try. Still delicious and moist and it kept good for days. I got a nice call from the family, thanking me for the cake. Leslie said "we were out most days and it was nice to come home and have a little something sweet before we went to bed." Food and funerals seem to go together and although there is nothing to lessen the pain when a loved one dies, we still need to eat. This cake, filled with cinnamon, nuts and butter, is comfort food in the best sense of the word. You don't have to wait for someone to die, however. Bake one now and bring it to a friend to enjoy together.
Sour Cream Coffe Cake
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup chopped nuts (I toast them first)
3 cups All purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
Combine brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts in small bowl. Set aside.
Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into mixer bowl. Add butter, sour cream and vanilla. Attach bowl and flat beater. Turn to Stir Speed and mix until ingredients are combined, about 30 seconds. Stop and scrape bowl. Turn to Speed 4 and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Stop and scrape bowl.
Turn to Stir Speed and add eggs, one at a time, beating 15 seconds after each addition. Increase to Speed 2 and beat for 30 seconds.
Spread half of batter in greased and floured 9x13x2" pan or 10 inch tube pan. Sprinkle with half of cinnamon-sugar mixture. Spread remaining batter in pan and top with remaining cinnamom and sugar. Bake at 350 for 50 to 50 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Turn out of pan and cool.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Blue Pot Stickers

A couple of years ago, I planned on getting some beautiful glazed pots from Vietnam, to place by my front door. They were expensive- probably $300-$400 dollars each, but I could never decide on a color and they were heavy, etc... Flash forward to 2010. $600 to $800 seems like a lot of money to spend on pots in this day and age, so I decided to re-use some tall clay pots I already had. While my initial urge was just to spray them and be done with it, it was more of a process than that. First, I pressure cleaned them. This ended up being a project because the pressure cleaner we got from my brother in law didn't work. My husband assured me it just needed a part. We got the part. It still didn't work. I was chomping at the bit to re-paint, but my husband promised to bring home a pressure cleaner from work. It arrived. As he was demonstrating how to use it (it started with a yank like a lawn mower) it ran out of gas. Finally, after gas was purchased, the pots were cleaned. Personally, I think this step could have been skipped, but whatever. I let them dry, then primed them with spray primer. Let the primer dry, then sprayed them with the glossy blue color I had picked. Let the paint dry (4-6 hours), sprayed again and again until they were sufficiently covered. Voila! They were ready for the big Dance Party we hosted for Rachel's 13th Birthday and the family party the next day. Are they as beautiful as the glazed pots from Vietnam? No, but they only cost $30 vs. $600, so I can live with that.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Not All (Cotsco) Buys Are Created Equal

Do you have a Cotsco card? I do and make the pilgrimage once every couple months. While it may be tempting to buy everything you need at these discount stores, not everything is a great deal. For example, did you know paper products are more expensive at Cotsco? And, even if you get a great deal on cereal, if half of the box goes stale, that's not really a bargain. I was happy to learn from an article on MSN Money, that most of the items I regularly purchase are some of the best deals in the store. Wine, for example. I always buy wine for parties at Cotsco because it's so much cheaper AND if you don't use it all, you can return it. Actually, all alcohol, including beer and the hard stuff, is 35% lower than at other stores. If you know what you like, you can find it here for cheaper. Otherwise, they have some wines listed with Wine Spectator points (a good way to gauge) if you want to try something new. Meats are wonderful and inexpensive here; I can get two flank steaks for the price I would pay for one at the grocery store. The tiger shrimp and salmon are also delicious, but if you're not going to use the meat or seafood right away, you need to have freezer space. For a quick, easy dinner, pick up the rotisserie chicken for $4.99. Staples like milk, butter and eggs are also good deals at Cotsco. Two things I almost always get (for Sunday sauce) are Italian sausage and Parmesan cheese, because the quality and price can't be beat. One item I've never gotten at Cotsco (but may start) is prescription medications. They are up to 50% less than your local pharmacy! You can't beat that. Since my prescription needs to be filled monthly, that means my pilgrimages would have to be once a month. The only bad thing about Cotsco is I can't get out of there without spending a bloody fortune. I think that's because when I only go every couple months, I feel I have to make it worth my while. If I went monthly, I would spend more wisely. Besides that, I can't get enough of the free lobster spread. With some sliced jalepenos and hot sauce on club crackers, it's the bomb!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Writing as Therapy

In a recent post I spoke about pens. How it was important to have a good one and how I was going to try and find replacement cartridges for a pen I liked. I've been looking without success, in places like CVS and Target. I guess I'm going to have to break down and go to an Office Supply Store, not my favorite place to shop. I like shopping at places where I can multi-task shop (like Target), not stores with one specific focus, where I feel I end up buying huge quantities of items at high prices. Anyway, I digress.

The pens reminded me of writing and how I try to write (journal pages) everyday. I've had a diary since I got one as a birthday gift when I turned 13. I started writing in it immediately and it's such fun to go back and read my thoughts as a 13 year old. I kept that diary, writing in it off and on, until I went away to F.S.U. when I was 17. When it was full, I started a new diary and wrote in it ferociously during my two years away at college. I tend to write most during painful or difficult periods. My freshman year, I lost my virginity and lived blocks away from where Ted Bundy killed two students (on the same night), hence the prolific pages. When I've been busy or happy, I tend not to write as much. I remember starting a new diary when my daughter was a year old and the beginning went something like: "I'm so sorry I haven't had a chance to write in so long because A.J.'s done so many cute things in the last year." I then went on to list names she had for things (like mmm-ba for her bottle) which I never would've remembered if I hadn't written it down. Writing has been therapy for me; I always feel better after I write. If it's a bad time, I can vent. If it's a good time, I can record it for posterity. The blank page is like a silent (and cost-effective) therapist.

About ten years ago, I started writing "morning pages", a suggestion from Julia Cameron's book for sparking creativity "The Artist's Way". Morning pages are three pages of writing, done long hand and stream of consiousness, first thing in the morning, to clear your head for the day. Recurrent themes that come up cannot be ignored when they are written down, so when I had written "I don't think I want to be married anymore" for the umpteenth time, it was black and white evidence that could no longer be ignored. It took me five years of that, before I actually got divorced but the seeds started somewhere in my morning pages. A word to the wise: Hide your words of wisdom from prying eyes. Keep them in a safe (and secret) place.
One problem with writing is I've always wondered what will be done with my diaries and journal pages when I die. Luckily, that's a problem I won't have to worry about. At least not for now.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Upsides to the Down Economy/ In Defense of the Train

A couple of weeks ago I took a train from Charleston, South Carolina (where my sister Kelley and I were visiting our brother and his wife) to Miami. Other than the early departure time (5 a.m.), what a pleasant experience! We arrived at the Amtrak station thirty minutes before departure and waited for the train to arrive. There were no hassles with security, no need to count ounces of liquid or limit carry-on, no waiting in line and showing your ID ten thousand times. We boarded and were greeted by a porter who showed us to our sleeping car. We stored our luggage, climbed into bed and went to sleep to the gentle chugging of the train. We slept until the porter knocked on our door for breakfast, three hours later. We walked to the dining car, where we had a good breakfast (an omelet with real eggs, a biscuit and coffee) and a delightful chat with a woman who was a mathematics professor at University of Florida, and her son. She had taken the train from Philadelphia and said she loved it because she was able to get so much work done and it was such an easy way to travel.

Amtrak was organized in 1971 by the U.S. government to provide intercity train service; it connects 500 destinations in 46 states, as well as Canada. Train travel, besides being a hassle-free way to go, is one of the more environmentally-friendly modes of transportation, generating less carbon dioxide than car or air travel. Despite all these pluses, the U.S. has one of the lowest intercity rail usages in the developed world. Why? Perhaps, in this time where everything moves so quickly and instant gratification abounds, train travel seems sort of an old fashioned mode of transport. Indeed, I kept flashing back to images of 1959 and North by Northwest, my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie, where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet (and hook up) on a train.

Eve Kendall "It's going to be a long night."

Roger Thornhill "True."

Eve Kendall "And I don't particularly like the book I've started."

Roger Thornhill "Ah."

Eve Kendall "You know what I mean?"

Roger Thonhill "Ah, let me think. Yes, I know."

There was no evidence of Cary Grant on the train (although there was an adorable guy with his young son), but plenty of evidence that I will be choosing Amtrak again. At a time when airlines are nickle and dime-ing passengers for every single item, we paid $140 for our ticket and that included our meals (breakfast and lunch). We were able to spread out, read the paper and watch the world go by from our window. So next time you travel, consider the benefits of riding by rail.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Persian Chicken Kabobs

Last night, I made my Aunt Emma's Persian Chicken Kabobs. It's a simple grilling recipe made with chicken breasts, that is healthy and delicious. I used chicken breasts from the freezer that I'd gotten at Cotsco. Chicken breasts are easy, very versatile and a good source of protein but they can be expensive, so Cotsco is a great place to get them. They also sell them in marinades, which makes them even easier to just throw on the grill, but making your own marinade isn't that hard and is, of course, fresher. You can also control the amount of sodium that's in it, which is sometimes a problem with bottled marinades. Making the job even easier is my Ulu, an Alaskan knife a friend gave me for my birthday that I love! According to Wikipedia, the ulu is an Inuit all-purpose knife used for skinning animals, cutting hair and trimming blocks of ice to make an igloo. It's also the perfect tool for chopping herbs, so I used it to chop the mint for my recipe. I served my Persian chicken with veggie skewers and couscous, an easy and nutritious meal. I cooked the veggies separate. You could replace the couscous with rice pilaf or make it with grilled pita bread, and hummus or yogurt sauce, to make a yummy sandwich.

Persian Chicken Kabobs

4 chicken breasts, cut into 1" pieces
2 tsp salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp dried rosemary leaves, crumbled
2 large cloves crushed garlic
1/2 tsp hot red pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

Marinate chicken in combined ingredients for a few hours or overnight. Put chicken on skewer, alternating with green or red pepper, quartered onions and quartered tomatos. Grill over low coals (or medium heat) until done. Baste while cooking. Can also be used for chicken wings, legs and thighs.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Make Your Garden Work for You

Today I cut my first gardenias of the year! When I was in a parochial grade school, May was the month to celebrate Mary and there were always lots of gardenias around her statue in the classroom. Gardenias are lovely to look at and even nicer to smell. As I walk around my garden, I realize everything I plant has to meet one of two criteria: 1) It must be attractive and/or 2) It must provide something to eat. The last trees I have planted have been: star fruit, lychee and avocado, all fruits I enjoy. The wildflowers I planted (just because they are so darn pretty) have finally sprouted, my pineapple is starting to grow, and I have lettuce and radishes sprouting in pots. Yesterday, since I had no gardenias, I cut some pentas (butterfly plants) and a rose as a decoration for Mother's Day. On the table, I also had some little vases filled with herbs. They not only look pretty and smell good, but I can also use the herbs in my cooking, or dry them for later. To dry herbs, I put them in the microwave on a plate, cover them with a paper towel and nuke them for a minute. I keep zapping them until they are dry and then, when cool, store them in glass jars. I leave them whole, so when I crush them for recipes their oils are released. The microwave method works best for herbs with more water in them, like basil or oregano. Thyme and rosemary can just be hung and dried in your kitchen. My point is, make your plants work for you! Don't plant anything that doesn't serve some purpose, even if it's just to get the butterflies into your yard.
To alter slightly the quote by design guru William Morris:
"Have nothing in your garden that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Maybe Money Can Buy You Happiness

"Check out what Pure Joy looks like!" Jerry Maguire

For me, pure joy looks like the record player I got for my birthday. Not my original gift, the turntable with no speakers my husband bought (that would have come in handy if I decided to moonlight as a D.J.) but the one I bought, after I took his back. It even kind of looks like my old one, which I must have gotten when I was about 13. The first record I played on that one was Elvis's Flaming Star, so I pulled it out and played it to christen my new record player. There is something about playing a record that is a different experience than popping in a CD. Number one, you're more engaged in the process, taking the record out of the jacket, placing it on the turntable, moving the needle in place on the record. I had to explain to my stepdaughters how the big grooves indicated the beginning of songs and you could move the needle to a new song, as opposed to hitting "track". When one side has finished playing, you have to physically turn over the grooved, black disc to hear the other side; while it's playing, you have this massive (compared to Cd's)album cover to study. The photo, the sleeve jacket (which might have lyrics printed on it, or more photos) and the back, showing the songs on the album and other albums available by the artist. It's just more of an Experience in general and I couldn't wait to take that trip down memory lane. So, I went through my Elvis albums, and then came Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, which I discovered the summer Elvis died. For some reason, a couple weeks ago, I remembered a Dan Fogelberg album (Captured Angel) I had listened to in high school. I pulled it out, put it on the record player. and with the opening chords of the first song (Aspen) I was transported right back into my Junior Year at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy. It felt fresh and innocent and quite lovely, in a melancholy kind of way. I've gotten Elvis and Bruce Cd's over the years to duplicate my old albums, but I hadn't listened to this album since high school, so it was an undiluted, pure experience of time and place. They say scents transport you back in time more than anything else, but even if sprayed Emeraude around my room, it couldn't have taken me back any quicker to being sixteen, than listening to this album again. I got the CD for a road trip to South Carolina, so now my high school memories have gotten mixed up with my middle aged memories. Will I listen to Dan Fogelberg when I'm 80 and remember this time in my life when my two worlds collided? Who knows. All I know, is that this particular purchase has brought me pure joy. Maybe money can buy you happiness. That reminds me, I haven't listened to Hard Day's Night in a while. Help!

"These days are just like you and me." Dan Fogelberg

Monday, May 3, 2010

Upsides to the Down Economy/ A Few Good Pens

Today while I was writing my three journal pages (The Artist's Way), I didn't like my pen. It kind of stuck to the paper, so I switched pens. A good pen can make a big difference when you're writing. I remember when Pilot first came out with their fine-line pens. I loved my skinny, purple Pilot pen and wrote about it's virtues in my diary. Mike Love (of the Beach Boys) later signed an autograph using that same exact pen. Anyway, I switched to a smoother flowing pen and was only in a couple paragraphs, when it ran out of ink. What to do? Get another pen of course, but what about the old one? Throwing it out is the first solution that comes to mind, but is it the best? I throw out one little pen, you throw out one little pen and pretty soon, we have a whole landfill full of little pens. When I was in catholic school in fourth grade we had to write with fountain pens because there was a nun there who loved fountain pens and taught penmanship. Penmanship- remember that? At any rate, we bought a fountain pen and then bought cartridges to refill them with, when they ran out of ink. I don't think I'm going to go back to fountain pens (which had the unfortunate habit of leaking all over our white uniform shirts) but I did buy replacement cartridges for my favorite ball-point pen. One small thing to save a little money and prevent one more little pen from ending up in the landfill. Write on!