Sunday, December 18, 2011

Food, Glorious Food

I love all things food: planning, cooking, eating, discussing. Where does this come from? I know people who gag at the thought of eating anything green and would rather write punitive sentences on a blackboard with squeaky chalk (how dated is that?) than eat something new or unusual.

Parents have a lot to do with it.  When I was growing up mealtime often held surprises, especially on weekends when Mom and Dad would introduce a new or unusual recipe. There was something about a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon that would inspire Dad to buy a bag of clams, and whip up his specialty, Manhattan clam chowder. Then there was the first time they made Cuban black bean soup, replicating a meal they'd enjoyed on a trip to Puerto Rico. It was rich and hearty, garnished with chopped hard boiled egg and onion. A fresh lemon slice lay on the bottom of the bowl, a wonderful tart surprise that added zest and character to the soup when discovered. Oh, and the paella! We would make paella from scratch, a family affair because the chopping and dicing and sauteing was labor intensive. My parents weren't wealthy, so the saffron was a big deal and I have no idea how they came up with the chorizo.


Moules Frites at Leons de Bruxelles
And that's continued with my family. An appreciation for good food has been passed on to my kids who have always, even when young, appreciated flavor and texture. When they were 10 and 12 we went on a very special trip to France, celebrating my parents' 40th anniversary.  The only (and I mean only) place the children wanted to eat was at Leons de Bruxelles, a chain that serves buckets of mussels any way you like 'em, accompanied by a pile of crisp french fries (moules frites). It was almost frightening, how many mussels they could tuck away.

Now that we're on a fixed income, I've created a personal challenge. It goes something like this. First, there's a budget. According to the USDA, the October 2011 average moderate weekly cost to feed two people was $130.00. This is well above the thrifty level of $89 and comes to just under $20/day. My challenge is to match this amount. But there's more, which has to do with quality.  The meals have to be fresh, healthy and delicious, so most processed foods are excluded. I'm not a big fan of them anyway, but have been known to fall back on a jar of spaghetti sauce or a can of Progresso soup. And trust me, I'll never make my own tomato paste and think the convenience of store-bought chicken stock is a bargain.

Here are a few strategies:
  • Review supermarket flyers and shop the specials. This week Publix has fresh salmon on sale for $7.99/pound, which is a really good deal. We love salmon, so that's on the meal plan.
  • Get multiple meals out of one.  This is easier to do with a family of two, when that roast chicken easily turns into chicken salad or soup and marinara sauce can be doubled and frozen.
  • Plan ahead. Know what you're going to buy and how much it will cost.
  • Don't skimp on quality. If you need to buy saffron, go ahead and do it. Just know that another meal is going to compensate for the luxury.
  • Know what you're spending.  I'm setting aside $130 each week that is just for groceries. It isn't used for paper or cleaning products or anything else you might find in the supermarket.
  • I rarely shop with coupons, preferring to buy the almost always less expensive supermarket brand. I'll use coupons for products I regularly use, but that's about it. Shopping the specials and BOGOs are usually a better deal.
  • Breakfast and lunch is included in the budgeted amount, but I don't really plan them. I just know I need to have the goods on hand to throw them together. Dinner is really where my head is at.
Here's an example of a low-cost but delicious and healthy meal I made last night.  It was split pea soup, and the recipe was modified from one I found in The Eat-Clean Diet Cookbook by Tosca Reno. It's a great collection of recipes I just discovered a couple of months ago and is well illustrated. Here's the modified recipe:

Ingredients

  •  2 cups dried split peas
  • 12 cups water
  • 4 bay leaves
  • Sea salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled/chopped
  • 4 ribs celery, trimmed/chopped
  • 3 large carrots, peeled/chopped
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 lb cubed cooked smoked ham steak
  • Lemon wedges
Instructions
  • Cover dried peas in large saucepan with 12 cups water. Add bay leaves and sea salt. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside. 

Drained peas and bay leaves
  • Heat olive oil in a large heavy pot (dutch oven) over medium heat. Add onion, celery and carrots. Saute until onion is translucent.
  • Add chicken broth, 2 cups of water, peas, thyme and bring to a boil.
Bring to a boil
  • Add the ham, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours. Remove bay leaves
  • Remove about two cups of the soup and place in a blender. (try to avoid the ham chunks, but it's fine if a few end up in the blender) Blend until smooth and add back to the soup.
  • Serve in soup bowls. Squeeze fresh lemon juice on each bowl of soup. 
  • Serve with french bread or garlic toast.
Dinner is served!
This made at least 4 or five servings, so now you know what I'm having for lunch today!

Are you interested in joining me on this cost-controlled culinary journey? I'd love to hear how you manage your food budget - let me know.

Bon Appetit!



    Friday, December 9, 2011

    What's bugging you?

    Bill and I will celebrate 40 years of marriage in June. Imagine that!


    Together we've endured personal challenges and tragedies and celebrated successes. We survived the Raising of Teenagers, which coincided with the Uprooting of Family to Move Overseas. We've climbed great heights (literally) in the Grand Canyon, where I learned of Bill's fear of heights. We've navigated the Amazon Jungle and learned to ski at somewhat advanced ages.

    But the latest challenge blind-sided us.

    Living together 24-7 takes a certain skill set with which we were unequipped.

    Bill beat me to the "at home" punch, having retired a couple of years ago. He developed his own routine, which I kind of had an idea about, but wasn't sure. I knew it involved daily trips to one or more supermarkets, as he planned meals each day. I suspected he took a nap each afternoon (evidence: messed up pillows on bed) and didn't shower until right before I came home from work (evidence: wet hair).

    So I invaded his world, and needed to be careful about not screwing with his routine.

    However.

    Not surprisingly, I have opinions about certain things like household planning and personal hygiene. I think it's especially important to get up and get dressed, say before 9:00 am. I also think it's important to have a meal plan for the week and shop only once, thus saving on gas $$, not making last minute impulse purchases, and knowing what time and resources are needed for the evening meal. And I don't understand naps at all. I like to save it all up for night time.

    Here's what's happened. I've pretty much taken over the meal planning/cooking and I think he's OK with that. In fact, I think he's relieved. We still share some of it, but for the most part it's my gig. And I love to cook good food, and missed doing so when he was handling it, so this is working out well.

    I've found that sometimes the day does get away from me, and it's 2:00 or so before I get into the shower. How does this happen? I'm not sure, but I'm working on it, 'cause I feel like I'm falling down the slippery slope of slovenliness when it does. (I think those days may have something to do with this blog...)

    About naps? I gave up on that with Bill a long time ago. His metabolism is foreign to me. I could no more sleep in the afternoon (unless sick or depressed) than fly to the moon. But he loves his naps and they make him a happier person.

    But there's something else.

    For the past 40 years one or both of us have worked, so we shared maybe 14 hours a day, and around 8 of them were spent sleeping. The remaining 6 were easily consumed by the miscellany of daily life - child rearing, chores, creating and consuming meals. You know - the stuff lives are made of.

    And now we've discovered we have little irritating habits that annoy each other.
    Some background: It's important to understand that we (me especially) are masters at passive aggressiveness. I may have even perfected it into an art, so you might never know whether a slammed kitchen cabinet is unintended or a backdoor punctuation of my pissy mood. Sarcasm is my next best weapon, and has been used to great and hurtful effect. Bill, on the other hand, simply retreats into solitude when he's bothered by me or anything/one else. It takes real effort to get at the source of his malcontent. 

    This Thanksgiving when the kids were home, Julie was talking about how she has the same tendency. I'm sure she learned it from me. Anyway, she said she's been making a real effort to be open and honest about what's bothering her, and enjoys not being annoyed all the time. How novel! I liked the concept.

    So when I realized that Bill's habit of leaving used toothpicks around the house (I know: EW) made me want to scream, I tried the new approach. "You know, I hate picking up your toothpicks. Would you please throw them away?"  And guess what? He said "Sure - no problem."  Eureka! It works!

    By the way, these are awesome toothpicks*
    It not only works, it's contagious.  The other day I was cleaning out the refrigerator and pantry and had filled the trashcan to overflowing.  Bill walked in, saw it and said "Hmmm...you do that a lot and it really bugs me."



    And I thought - he's absolutely right. I know he'll empty the trash, so I just keep jamming stuff in there til the top won't shut.  No more.

    (Do you think he knows I do that dishwasher thing too?  That's when you open it to put in a dirty dish, realize everything is clean, and shut it quickly, leaving it for the next person to empty. I just wish there were a way to make that green light go on again. Is it just me?)

    Oops

    So what's this all about? We're learning to live with each other (with great thanks to Julie), something we haven't done full-time, in 40 years. Old dogs/new tricks: lots of fun!

    *Here's what's great about the toothpicks, aka Doctor's BrushPicks.  They have a tiny little brush on one end for whooshing between your teeth. It actually feels good! (Just don't leave them lying around)

    Wednesday, December 7, 2011

    Please explain why healthcare is linked to employment....

    Why should the level of my healthcare, and its cost to me, be employer-based?

    If I were a conspiracy theorist (some days I have that tendency) I could easily think that employer sponsored health insurance was a corporatist plan to keep employees tethered to jobs.  I might imagine that this linkage makes workers less mobile; less likely to move from job to job in search for the most rewarding position, the perfect fit for them.


    I might even think that support for this crazy theory is found in the widespread corporate opposition to single payer (read "portable") healthcare.  Taking it one baby step further, I could imagine that describing single payer healthcare as socialism, is a carefully crafted scare tactic designed to keep us exactly where we are.

    Stuck.

    If, on the other hand, I did some research, I'd find that while it's true that employer sponsored health insurance limits worker mobility, and forces many to stay in jobs they would otherwise drop like bad habits, this system started during World War II, to offset wage controls. Companies couldn't offer competitive wages, but they could provide healthcare benefits. This was hugely successful and the process was cemented in 1954 when the IRS decided that employer-paid health insurance premiums were tax exempt.

    Game. Set. Match.

    Another reason the very appealing conspiracy theory doesn't hold water is that corporations aren't especially thrilled with escalating insurance costs. They are either forced to cover the increases to compete in the recruitment marketplace or pass them along to employees, who take a dim view of pay cuts.

    In fact, there's a sad little chart on the first page of this report, produced by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It shows that between 2001 and 2011, health insurance premiums for the average family increased 113% from $7,061 to $15,073. Holy Moly!  Employers and employees have shared the increase, and neither are happy. At the same time, incomes have dropped significantly: Median family income in the US has decreased 7% since 2000, after adjusting for inflation.

    I challenge anyone to convince me that in the US, where we often outspend other industrialized nations in healthcare by 2:1  or more, with outcomes that are the same or worse, but seldom better, our employer-based healthcare system is worth salvaging. Apparently we spend about 18% of GDP on healthcare and no other country approaches that level of spending. I dug up some info from 2009, provided by PBS, when we were only spending 16% of  GDP on healthcare. The chart below lists countries in ascending order of World Health Rank (according to the World Health Organization):

    The US was 37th in World Health Rank, yet we spent well above the others. The only country that came close to our spending is Canada at 10.1 % GDP. (And you know how we feel about Canadian healthcare.) But hey, at least we're well ahead of Turkey!

    Our healthcare costs more than anywhere else, the quality is only slightly above average, we have millions of uninsured and underinsured in our country, neither employers nor insureds are happy with with the situation.

    So....who, in this whole mess of employer-linked healthcare insurance, benefits from the status quo?

    Oh.
    Right.





    Wednesday, November 30, 2011

    There are places I remember (Part I)

    You know how in guided meditation the instructor often encourages you to envision a place where you can relax?  Does everyone have at least one of those places?

    I do.

    It's more complicated than relaxation, but my place is significant; it has contributed to my sense of who and where I am in the world. I think of it often and fondly.

    When I was about three years old, my family started spending summer vacations at the now infamous Jersey Shore. Every year from then until I graduated from college, we rented a cottage in the tiny town of Harvey Cedars, on Long Beach Island, which is 18-miles long and a few long blocks wide. LBI has been described as "Six Miles At Sea", but that's really stretching the point. It's a barrier island just north of Atlantic City and east of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which are 1.1 million acres of preserved land in a State more commonly (and incorrectly) known for industry, pollution and urban decay. Surprised? Most are.



    Long Beach Island is an anachronism, a throw-back to the 1950s where summers are filled with sunshine and boogie boards (unless a wet and windy nor'easter settles in for the long haul) and smell like tropical sunscreen, and chain restaurants are outlawed. One of the best parts about LBI in the summer is that people go there to play. Parents, children, grandparents, lovers - put any on them on a beach with a bucket and a shovel, or maybe a kite or a Frisbee, and watch what happens. Pure unadulterated joy.


    I live in Florida now, and let me tell you, the Gulf can't compete with crashing Atlantic waves, breezes redolent with salt and seaweed, and water so cold it can make your ankles ache. Mostly it's about the waves: in my mind a beach doesn't really count if the waves dribble in like afterthoughts.

    LBI inextricably links me with memories of family and friends and life's little turning points.

    My father was an avid fisherman. He'd be up at dawn to go surf casting, and often came home with a bucket of dinner. I can hardly pass a sand-spiked fishing pole without thinking of him.


    He got us all to enjoy fishing with him, and every summer we looked forward to renting a shallow water, flat bottomed boat called a Barnegat Bay garvey, for the day. We were fishing for fluke, but often hauled up nasty squawking sea robins or (eek!) sting rays.  It was always an adventure, punctuated by faulty engines, sudden rainstorms and yacht-sized wakes which would invariably make my mother shout at us all to "sit down and hang on tight!"  Great fun.

    In the early spring, when I was 15 or 16, my sister, Linda, and I combined our babysitting earnings and drove from our home in central Jersey to Ron Jon's Surf Shop (the original, I might add. Not some Florida wannabe) to buy a surfboard. Here's Ron Jon's back then:
    Over the next few years the surfboard, a Duke Kohanamoku affectionately referred to by all as The Duke, provided hours of excitement and fun (and not incidentally, a great way to meet boys). It was very long and heavy by today's standards, blue with a single skeg and no sissy ankle strap.

    On that day, though, we were very board-proud, driving north on the Garden State Parkway with The Duke strapped to the roof of the car. Cool doesn't begin to describe how we felt.

    Fortunately, I don't have to dig too far back in my memory to conjure up The Duke. He has taken up permanent residence in the crawl space under my mother's house on LBI, and gets hauled out about once a year for grandchildren to paddle around on. He's covered with sand-gritted caked-on wax that's probably 40 years old.

    Speaking of 40, when I turned that age and The Duke was around 25, we were vacationing on LBI. The kids were young - 5 and 7 - and I told Bill the only thing I wanted for my birthday was to ride a wave with The Duke. Bill, God bless him, carried that hunk of a board the 2 excruciatingly long blocks to the ocean and - I paddled out. The waves sucked, and so did I, but it was worth every moment. (although Bill may have another opinion).

    Life's a Beach, and tomorrow I'm flying to LBI for a twixt-holiday visit with my mother and brother. Stay tuned for Part II.

    Tuesday, November 29, 2011

    What does the rest of your life look like?

    Almost two years ago, when Bill and I first considered life after 9-5, we engaged the magical power of The Google in a search for 'how to' resources. We stumbled upon the  North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement (NCCCR) at UNC in Asheville and signed up for a weekend seminar.
    Do you see an oddly coincidental theme here? Isn't it uncanny how all our roads seem to lead to Asheville? Sometimes you just have to accept what's right in front of your face.
    The seminar is called Paths to Creative Retirement and is available twice a year. We attended in the spring of 2010.

    NCCCR at UNC Asheville

    What we hoped to find was a template for retirement, a step-by-step guide that would help us avoid the pitfalls. Face it, we're over-achieving baby boomers, and we wanted to do this thing right.

    That's not exactly what we got.

    We were looking at retirement as a cut-and-dried process, something you might plug into project planning software (that would be my influence) and come out with a plan, complete with dependencies, gateways and milestones.



    The seminar was more introspective, and helped us understand how each of us uniquely hope to spend the rest of our lives and what kind of roadblocks we might face. It sounds corny, even self-evident, but after the years many of us devote to career-building, money-making and child-raising, what's important when that's stripped away isn't always obvious.

    Here were some take-aways for me:
    • Finances were not discussed in depth. This actually made sense since attendee demographics covered a broad range from those who will (or are) reliant on Social Security for income to some who were without a financial care in the world.
    • Despite the financial disparity, we shared much, and it underscored for me the commonality of the human condition. A sense of security, well-being and life-purpose are universal needs, regardless of career achievements, awards and degrees.
    • Of the couples that attended, many were dragged there unwillingly. They either thought the seminar was a waste of time (and money) or didn't want to deal with the issue of retirement. (Retirement = getting old = dying). By the end of the weekend, most had changed their minds.
    • Retirement isn't the end of anything - it's the beginning of a new adventure, akin to graduating from college, getting married or starting that new job.
    • We began relationships with people who are interesting, curious about life and fun. We look forward to continuing those friendships.
    Of note: one seminar attendee, Elizabeth Pope, was a free-lance writer for the New York Times, and she subsequently published an article describing the experience, Boot Camp for the Retired or Soon to Be. It's an accurate article that cites some valuable resources, and profiles one of our new friends, Dorothy Butcher. Read and enjoy.

    In an earlier post, I listed things that are important to me and Bill as we plan the location for our next stage. Most of this came from discussions sparked by that weekend in Asheville.

    You might say (and I will!) that understanding your passions and incorporating them into your life shouldn't be postponed as some sort of bucket list.  This isn't a luxury or an indulgence. If we spent more time along the way crafting the life we need and want, maybe major changes wouldn't be so stressful.

    Given the current financial climate, I know many folks are in survival mode, living from one paycheck to the next and hoping that the next crisis isn't just around the corner.

    That's doesn't preclude dreaming, planning and setting goals. I believe if it's important to you, and you can envision it, you can usually make it happen.

    What does the rest of your life look like?

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011

    Reality bites

    My Perfect Monday was followed by a dash-of-cold-water Tuesday. If I believed such things, I'd say it was some sort of cosmic score-evening, but I don't so I guess it's just the way things happen.

    I went to the dentist to replace a 14-year-old crown (which had been installed by a dentist in Minnesota during summer hiatus when we were living in Hong Kong. I should feel lucky it lasted that long, since his dental practice didn't, having crumbled  under subsequent insurance fraud investigations. Life is funny.). Although the slightly worn, teen-aged crown looked ok, underneath lurked decrepitude and decay. So adolescent! Major dental work is scheduled, and I can't think of a worse time for this. Damn it all, anyway.

    So I did the best thing I could think of, which was get down in the kitchen and cook.  I put on some favorite tunes (garage punk and bluegrass work well here) and turned the volume up high (to 11, for that extra push over the cliff  -  bonus points for the reference) and started mincing beef for Bolognese Sauce.  Or should I call it Blogonese??

    The recipe is from Alice Waters, and is in preparation for kids arriving at all hours on Wednesday. Julie should get in around 6 and Will closer to midnight, so hunger will be assuaged, regardless of the time.

    Here's a link to her book, The Art of Simple Food. The pages are increasingly food-splotched, which means it's one of my favorites. (Note to self: must do a blog about favorite cookbooks. Think about yours - I want to know!)

    It calls for mincing the beef to a 1/8" dice, which to some might be considered tedious, but today had definite therapeutic value.

    Below you will see the veggies and herbs, artfully arranged and photo-ready:

    Thyme, carrot, bay leaves, celery, sage, onion, garlic
    And here are the meat contributions, including minced bacon (which I substituted for pancetta), beef and pork:

    Pseudo-pancetta, minced beef, pork

    The glass of wine was the first of several, since the Novocaine had worn off and I was no longer in danger of chin dribble. (Novocaine always makes me crack up thinking of Dudley Moore in the goofy coffee shop scene in "10")

    Important note: Alice (we're on a first name basis now) says to saute the meat until "a nice chestnut color", which sounds and feels close to burnt to me. Do it anyway!  It brings richness and depth to the sauce.

    I tried to capture the color here, but it looks more like corned beef hash. You'll have to trust me on this.



    While the veggie, herbs and meat simmered and infused the house with comfort food aromas I sipped more wine and let Bill convince me that it's better to fix the bad tooth than face the alternative.

    Bed time came early.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    A perfect day

    Monday was awesome. At 7:15 am I got on my


    and went to the gym where I had a kick-ass session with my trainer. Today was lower body: quads and hamstrings. Lots of dead lifts and presses.  We wrapped it up with 125 jackknife abs. It was killer but really got the endorphins racing around.

    Breakfast was a protein shake with fresh mango. Scrumdiddly-umptious! Before I showered Bill and I spread Suwanee River pine bark mulch in the back garden. I was not a pretty sight, but the garden is.

    Just because it was such a beautiful morning, I took a few more garden pictures. Enjoy.



    And here's a cute little lizard friend peeking out at me. (He must have thought he was invisible)



    I was a little tired after lunch (I did get up at 3:30 am because, well, for no reason at all) so I took a catnap and awoke to hear a story on NPR about a family-owned furniture manufacturer in Lincolnton, NC  that is reopening before Christmas. They had sold out to a larger company when competition with Chinese manufacturers became too fierce and the new owner shut down the factory. My big takeaway from the story was a quote from the re-hired HR manager. She remembered the former owner saying that when you treat people well, everything eventually ends up OK. (I may have horribly misquoted her - Go have a listen yourself. It's wonderful)   It's a concept that all companies, particularly one with which I'm very familiar, would do well to incorporate.

    After my brief rest, I got started on Thanksgiving meal prep because for the first time in over 10 years, I actually have the luxury of doing this.  


    Pumpkin Pie


    OK, I am physically incapable of making a decent pie crust (but my friend Andrea says she has a foolproof recipe from her grandmother, and I'm going to give that a try.) For today, I proudly declare my crust is courtesy of Marie Callender. I promise my next crust will be from scratch. But the pumpkin custard filling recipe was quite good, thanks to allrecipes.com, and I think I made it even better by adding freshly grated nutmeg. If you don't have a nutmeg grater, by all means consider one. The difference in quality and intensity of flavor is huge. Mine, pictured below, wasa gift from a friend 25 years ago in Minnesota, and it's still doing it's grindy-gratey thing.


    It's called Nut Twister which I really appreciate.
    (Great stocking stuffer!)


    Pumpkin pie before baking (Thank you, Marie)

    Cranberry Fruit Compote

    This was so easy but the ingredients are all wonderful (except for the mountains of sugar, but I'm not sure how you can serve cranberries otherwise)

    I love cranberries in their raw crimson beauty:


    Here's a link to the recipe, from the November Good Housekeeping.  It combines cranberries, sugar, apple, walnuts, raisins and lemon and orange zest (plus the juice).

    Orange and Lemon Zest

    When it was all done, it looked like this.


    I had to taste it (several times), and it's a lovely amalgam of sweet and tart, with the walnuts for crunch. The citrus adds a nice zing.

    Monday ended when I met my friend Andrea (of pastry recipe fame) for drinks and nibbles at Rumba Island Bar & Grill. I had a margarita or two and the oysters bienville, which were pretty good, for being so far from New Orleans. I left my phone at home, so unfortunately, no enticing food pics.

    All in all, a perfect day.

    Monday, November 21, 2011

    Bill's Reconnaissance Mission

    In the summer of 2009, Bill flew to Asheville. We had done some homework, and felt that, on most counts, the area fit the criteria described in "If you could live anywhere at all...."  More on that later. He rented a behemoth of a car and set off to get the lay of the land. He had scheduled appointments with a few realtors to see some properties he had found on the Internet, but mostly he wanted to get a feel for the place.

    Asheville, NC
    At first, he had some trouble getting his bearings, but eventually sorted out the different outlying communities and looping highways. (Mental note: Don't leave home without a GPS)

    He looked at gated communities (no thank you) and lots with incredible views and price tags to match. He found some affordable houses at the top of steep winding roads and others in the middle of nowhere. There were new subdivisions with flashy 'welcome centers' and fixer-uppers in Asheville proper. None of that clicked.

    Then he met with Heidi King of Greybeard Realty in Black Mountain, a few miles east of Asheville. He had contacted her about a house listed with Greybeard, but eventually they talked about building from scratch.  She took him to a small subdivision just outside Black Mountain being developed by (surprise!) her husband, Richard.  The 18-acre subdivision, StoneCrest, has around 15 lots, and all were still vacant. A few had been sold.

    Here's something funny we've learned about building/buying a home in North Carolina. It's all about the view, but the locals say they like to look up at the mountains. Out-of-staters tend to buy places where they look out or down at surrounding mountains. This is very beautiful but impractical for getting in and out, especially when winter does its icy, snowy thing or if there's an emergency. Or both. It also adds to the challenge of construction (read $$$). So, Bill was very happy to see that StoneCrest is situated at the foot of Allen Mountain, with lovely views, looking up at surrounding mountains.

    Here are a couple of photos of StoneCrest:



    Sidebar story, which Bill won't appreciate: He arranged to meet Richard King at the development the next day to discuss lot availability. Bill arrived early and found himself backing down a steep hill in his giant rental car ... and subsequently into a ditch. A very deep ditch. The meeting with Richard did not begin well, but it did have a happy ending because the car was hauled out of the ditch and Bill returned to Tampa with a lot of ideas (Follow the link. You'll be glad you did), most of them about building a house in StoneCrest.

    We returned to NC together and Bill planned a day where we retraced his steps (without any of the getting lost parts), ended up at StoneCrest (but not in the ditch), bought the lot and answered the question "Where?".

    Saturday, November 19, 2011

    Best Kitchen Gadget Ever

    A couple of months ago, before I knew I was on Imapp's hit list, we had an office potluck lunch. Julie, the office organizer extraordinaire, rounds everyone up for these things a few times a year. This year she also provided one of the best contributions to the feast: a couple of chickens cooked onsite in her counter-top rotisserie. The aroma of roasting chicken wafting through the office that morning was fabulous. Every one of us was a Pavlovian case study.

    And Julie was a living infomercial. The chicken as delicious to eat as we all hoped, and a few of us went right out and ordered tabletop rotisseries.

    I am no newcomer to kitchen stuff.  Here are a few:

    The slow-cooker and I have had a rocky relationship. The convenience is the best part - throw all the stuff in the pot, turn it on, go off for the day, and come home to a lovely simmering stew.  There are a few snags. I have several slow-cooker cookbooks, but after cooking any assortment of ingredients for 6 hours or more, every meal tastes very similar.  Do you agree there's kind of a re-heated leftover taste to crock pot meals?  Which then makes eating the leftovers really undesirable.  Then, and I feel really bad about this, I thought things might change if I replaced my perfectly functional but stylistically-stuck-in-the-80's crock pot

    with a brand spanking new cooker,one that looked more comfortable in my stainless steel and faux granite countertop kitchen.


    I had trophy-wifed my crockpot!  Not only that, but I soon realized that the functional drawbacks of the original cooker (everything tastes like leftovers) were not resolved by my shiny new appliance. There's a lesson here,  and I'll leave that up to you.

    I have an Acme juicer, which gets pulled out every couple of years when I go on a juicing binge. It's neither the most nor the least expensive, but it does the job.
    It makes an annoying high-pitched racket while doing its thing, but does manage to suck out every bit of liquid from carrots, beets, apples, etc. (In fact, that's my favorite juice combo, enhanced only by some fresh ginger root. Yum!)

    My Cuisinart food processor is a workhorse. I use it often, but hate cleaning the parts, and am fearful of that really sharp blade.

    And there's my bread machine; which mostly rests peacefully in the pantry, but doesn't hold a grudge for being ignored. It still produces darn good bread on command.



    But, oh, the rotisserie.

    It's a Ronco, and a small one. If I were to do it over, I'd get the bigger one, which they say will roast a turkey up to 12 lbs.  Imagine that! I'll probably upgrade one of these days.



    Side note: I'd been on the trail of the perfect roast chicken recipe for years and thought I had found it in Alice Water's "The Art of Simple Food". 

    The recipe is so good, you might want to follow this link and give it a try yourself. (Or buy the book. It's one of my go-to cookbooks. She shows true respect for fresh ingredients, with preparations that are elegant in their simplicity.) In addition to the lovely fresh herbs and garlic she recommends tucking under the skin, there's one important step in the roasting. I think it makes all the difference. Half way through, you turn the whole chicken over. This lets the juices seep back through the chicken, keeping it succulently moist and flavorful.  I'll never roast a chicken in the oven another way.

    However.

    As long as my rotisserie continues to do it's rotational magic, I'll never roast another chicken in the oven. Picture chickens roasting on the spit in the grocery store. Same idea, same redolent aroma, and those chicken juices run through and around the bird. The fat drips off and the skin is crispy-golden. It's a wonderful invention that makes over-done, dried chicken a thing of the past.

    But wait! There's more!

    I've also used it to roast a boneless leg of lamb (which I had first marinated in red wine, garlic, rosemary and olive oil)  I put tiny potatoes on the bottom so they cooked as the lamb fat dripped on them.  Okay, this is NOT a low-anything meal, but it was darn good. Here's a picture:



    Pork tenderloin and kielbasa (on skewers) also works well. I'm beginning to think an old boot with the right marinade wouldn't be half bad. The appliance also comes with a basket, which I haven't used. They say you use it to cook shrimp or fish, stuff you wouldn't put on a spit or skewer. I imagine roasted veggies would work well too - carrots, zucchini, onions, mushrooms.

    Hmmm - I think tonight's dinner menu is taking shape.

    Bon Appetit!