FREE time

So.  Where I live, it snowed today.  A lot.  In fact, it is still snowing as I write this.  The roads were terrible, and half of our buses were forty-five minutes late.  My 20 minute commute was a cool 50.  We really shouldn’t have been in school today.  (After all, is this not why we have snow days–to date unused–BUILT INTO our schedule?)  But we did.  And I was pretty crabby about it.

But about half way through the day, when it became apparent that this was, in fact, the snow storm predicted and not some silly, little flurries to tease us in mid-March, my principal sent an email to the staff that said, effectively, “The roads are garbage.  As soon as the kids are gone, get out of here.”

I listened.  I packed up my stuff before I went out to bus duty.  I cancelled my voice lesson for tonight on my way out the door.  I drove myself home.  Fortunately, I drove home between gusting snow showers, and made it home in decent time.  I dug myself a spot to park in the building parking lot, parked and headed in.  Ready to snuggle in for the night.

It was only 4:11.

Being home by 4:11 is unheard of in my weekly grind.  I have other commitments that keep me away from home.  I stay late and get stuff done at work.  I go to the grocery store and run errands.  I go out to dinner with friends.  I don’t roll into my apartment for the night until after six.

And if I do, my time is allotted.  I have forty-five minutes between commitments and I have to get these six things done.  But tonight, I got home, and I had four and a half unaccounted hours at my disposal.  FOUR AND A HALF HOURS! That’s like half a day of work! And, because I’d come straight home, I still had energy to do more than throw myself on the sofa.

I had legitimate free time, and not “free time” in the not-at-work-sense, but FREE time–time that was not committed to any activity in my mind.  Outside of Saturday morning, this is an extremely rare occurrence in my life.  I tend to allocate time in my head, even my free time.  Things like, “I really need to clean the bathroom,” or “Oh, I can run to the bank then,” tend to crowd my existence.  But not tonight.  The roads weren’t bad, but there was no guarantee how long that would last.  I couldn’t go anywhere but home.  I had time. FREE time!

Well, what like any self-respecting Midwesterner presented with a snowstorm, naturally I had to make chili.  But unlike my usual, get-this-done-because-I’ve-only-got-an-hour weeknight speed cooking, tonight, I had FREE time.  I cranked up my Partridge Family Pandora station (it’s been my jam, lately), and started cooking.  With FREE time, cooking in my kitchen becomes a major production.   I use my stirring spoon as a microphone, and the big kitchen window is my audience.  (My neighbors always keep their blinds down.  But if they ever open them, they’re going to see a crazy girl singing with great conviction to their backyard.)  I also dance around like I can actually dance.

To be clear, I am a terrible dancer.  I am self-aware enough to know that, while I am good at a great many things, dancing is not among them…but this doesn’t stop me.  In my kitchen, I have no one who can tell me I can’t. (Willful self-delusion is a powerful thing…) Believe me, in my head, I am awesome.  I can bust a serious move.  (Reality is different, but there are no witnesses…and if a tree falls in a wood and no one hears it, does it really fall?)

As I write this, my candles are lighted, the chili is simmering on the stove and that warm, savory spiced aroma drifts past me.  I have a glass of red beside the computer.  King Harvest is rocking “Dancing in the Moonlight.”  The snow is blowing around outside while my radiators wheeze like tea kettles.  It’s a good moment to pause and savor.  This is what winter is all about.  This is what it is to have FREE time.

If you’d like to try out the rocking vegetarian chili (don’t worry–there’s no tofu here!), you can check it out here or check under the “Recipes” tab.  

Bake it off

There’s always that one person.  You know–the one who insists  on doing it the long way.  You know them, because they’re the one who would rather spend twenty minutes trolling around the grocery store looking for something rather than ask someone who works there where to find pizza sauce.  Or the one who spends twenty-five minutes doing math longhand because it’s “just too much trouble” to get out a calculator.  The person who still has a Rand McNally Road Atlas.  Like I said.  You know the one.  And I’m here to tell you…

…I’m that one person.

I’m sure there’s some really smart, psychological reason probably linked to when I learned to walk or the fact that I refused to eat peas until I was 20, but I prefer to think it’s because I’m a rebel.  I have to go my own way–march to the beat of my own drummer.  Put the wind in my sails and sail off toward the horizon.  It’s all very romantic and much more dramatic than, say, potty-training.

So, tonight my old, Watch-Me-Be-Difficult self did it again.  I decided to bake this peanut butter, chocolate chip bread I found on Pinterest to take into work tomorrow.  I got the stuff, pulled up the recipe tonight and it told me to use…an electric mixer.  Now, I do (somewhat begrudgingly) own this pretty hip, 1949 handheld mixer that weighs about a ton, but I will be honest with you.  The prospect of cleaning the darn beaters means I avoid using it for anything short of meringue.

So when this recipe suggested I use a mixer for a quick bread, I instantly decided that a spoon would be fine.  I have this one wooden spoon I got at a garage sale when I was fresh out college.  It’s a great spoon–it looks like it’s about a million years old, it has a nice long handle–and it is my official “baking spoon.”  So I got out the Baking Spoon, laughed in the face of this recipe, and stubbornly insisted on blending peanut butter, brown sugar, and two eggs by hand.

Well, I can tell you it worked just fine.  It took maybe three extra minutes, but I don’t care.  My friend, Kelly, has this spoof on the Taylor Swift song “Shake If Off” hanging in her kitchen, that popped into my head as I was mixing this batter.  I’ll be diplomatic and say that T. Swift is not exactly in my top ten favorite artists of all time…or any time…but tonight, after successfully defeating a “mixer only” recipe, I found myself literally dancing around my kitchen singing,

“Players gonna play, play, play, play, play…And haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate…but I just bake it off, bake it off!

 

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Behold! The Spoon of Victory!

Mug selection matters.

Saturday mornings are one of my favorite times of the week–even more than a Friday afternoon.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, pulling out of the school parking lot after work of Friday is a great feeling, but I’m tired.  The day was long.  Often, I’m on my way to somewhere else from there–meeting people for dinner, running errands.  Fridays are still full of responsibilities to other people and things–all of which I value, but are still draining when you already feel like you’re running on empty.

Saturday mornings, on the other hand, are all mine.  They have acquired a certain quiet ritual that I cherish in the hustle and bustle of the week.  I don’t set an alarm and wake up when I wake up (I usually don’t make it past 7:30 or 8, but it’s the principle of the thing.) I shuffle my pajama-clad self into the kitchen wearing fuzzy periwinkle slippers, and make coffee.

Somewhere in the past year, coffee has morphed from “Just Keep Me Upright” lifeblood to a sacred rite of the weekend.  I now associate it with having enough time to be inefficient and unproductive.  Making that pot of coffee is allowing myself the luxury of a slow waking-up, not knowing what I want for breakfast and having the time to just think about it for a while longer.  My theory is this philosophical shift happened at some point when I rebelled against the world of travel cups and the constant rush of my life, and stubbornly decided I was only going to drink coffee if I could drink it out of a real mug.

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Mug selection is a very important part of the process.  The Saturday morning coffee mug must be carefully selected based on several factors:

  1. Thickness.  The optimum thickness of a mug’s sides varies depending on how warm/cool my apartment is.  I’m very particular about how quickly my coffee cools to be the “right” temperature.
  2. Volume.  Am I doing bills and balancing my checkbook? I want a little mug, so I can get up for lots of breaks.  Am I hunkering down to start a binge read of The Lord of the Rings? I need a big mug so I don’t have to leave my snuggle-y nest unnecessarily.
  3. Holdy-ness Value.  This is an absolute imperative for any mug that earns a place on my shelves.  Each mug must be evaluated for how it feels when you wrap both hands around it and let the coffee’s warmth seep into your fingers.  (This is especially important in the dead of winter.)
  4. Intrinsic Nerd Appeal.  In case you can’t tell from the picture, my coffee mugs have a definite leaning toward a certain Mary Tyler Moore-vintage “je ne sais quoi.” This standard of selection is heavily influenced by what old T.V. shows I’ve been chain-watching lately. For example–The Bob Newhart Show?  Definitely the orange flowers.  Golden Girls? Give me the Florida mug, no question.

Now, to be clear, I don’t stand around for more than a minute choosing what mug I want on a Saturday morning, but it is a little, lazy joy that is special to weekends and, for me, coffee.  It a little gleeful moment when I indulge ridiculous, romantic fancies.  And I like it that way.  My life is better and richer for those moments.  The me that gets poured out all week long gets filled back up a little bit with each steamy cup of coffee drunk from a silly, secondhand mug with avocado-colored flowers.

So make yourself a pot of coffee this weekend.  Choose your mug for its holdy-ness value.  Slow down.  Breathe.  Let yourself be refreshed.

That time Easter Dinner went on a cleanse…

Easter is a big holiday–it is the cornerstone event of all of us who are Christian.  We will all get to church extra early this morning to try to find parking spots and squeeze into packed pews to greet people we see every week and those we’ve never met before, and together we will celebrate the Resurrection together.  Well, this will happen, my friend “Ryan” claims, until his punch card system for High Holy Day admittance takes off.  Basically, if you don’t go enough times the rest of the year (i.e. enough punches on your card), it’s standing room only for you.  I say that kind of defeats the whole “Jesus died for everybody” thing which is kind of a big part of the Gospel.  He just laughs and says but then we wouldn’t have to leave so early on Easter and Christmas.

And then there are all the food traditions associated with Easter.  (Holidays, in my mind are all together lovely if for no other reason than the special food that goes with them.)  The Greeks roast lamb on a spit (though, in all fairness, Orthodox Easter isn’t for another month yet,) the English get out their lamb and mint jelly, all the Italians I know get out the REALLY FANCY cookies (the Italian bakery down the street from me makes this one that looks like a basket and has an actual hardboiled egg baked into it…), and in my family, we eat ham.

My family doesn’t actually have really strong food traditions with Easter, which is interesting, because we have really strong food traditions for everything else under the sun (including birthdays–three of my brothers have asked for lasagna for their birthdays every year for at least the past decade…)

This year, our Easter food game plan will again be in flux.  My mom is doing some fancy cleanse which takes out all of these things for like a month and then you slowly re-introduce them to accomplish…something.  (I don’t know.  I just run because I like food too much…)  That means, no grains.  No dairy.  No sugar.  No legumes.  (It’s kind of like going kosher and doing Lent at the same time.  I did not point this out to my mother.  I don’t think she would have appreciated it.)  Anyway, we had to get creative with the big family Easter meal.

And, of course, yours truly stuck herself squarely in the middle of the planning.  For example–how do you make mashed potatoes without milk?  Add the potato water–it should do the same thing.  Not quite the flavor, but that’s okay.  Just put the butter on the side and let everyone (who is not cleansing) put it on themselves.  I talked my mom into doing pork tenderloin and sauerkraut instead of ham this year (because it’s more flavorful, I said.  Because isn’t sauerkraut supposed to be super healthy for you because of pickling properties or something, I said.  Really, I just like pork tenderloin better than ham…)  I am also bringing a bunch of new asparagus to roast in the oven with olive oil and sea salt (two great seasoners blessedly not taken off the list.)  I’m also hoping that peas don’t count as “legumes” because they will look so pretty on the plate and they go well with potatoes.  Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about dinner rolls–you can’t eat hot cross buns when you can’t have flour.  We’ll just have to abstain this year.  I did go rogue on one point though–I made a lemon cake for the non-cleansers in the family, because, well–it’s lemon!  It’s so springy and yellow and citrus-y!  And we had to have some dessert.  It is Easter, after all.

So, really, not too shabby, all things considered.  It will be bright and festive.  My siblings and I will gather around my parents’ table, and we will talk about growing up memories, like we do on every major holiday.  (And because it’s Easter, we’ll pay homage to the time when my folks’ old golden retriever, Gracie, once ate my entire Easter basket–basket, grass, foil, everything–in her puppyhood.)  We will gather.  We will break bread.  We will celebrate.

He is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Happy Easter.

Impressive Enough

“So, do you know any good dessert recipes that aren’t very hard?”

My roommate (as in “person I share living space with,” not “my soulmate friend with whom I share everything”) walked out of her bedroom and began the conversation without preamble.

I looked up from the solitaire game I was wasting time playing on my phone.  “What?”  I know lots of easy dessert recipes–Rice Krispie treats, blonde brownies, the lemon depression cake that is currently cooling on the kitchen table because am taking it to Easter dinner tomorrow–but the way she states the question makes me think that these would not meet her standards.

“I need a dessert–for tomorrow–I mean, I could make brownies, but those would be too easy, and I’d screw up cookies…” she trails off.

My first thought is, How do you screw up cookies?  You have to sit around forever making all the batches, sure, but they aren’t hard.

My second thought is, Ah, I get it now.

It was the not wanting to take brownies (let’s be real–a party favorite all the time, every time) that tipped me off.  It means that unspoken end to her question “Do you know any good dessert recipes that aren’t very hard…” is actually “…but still impressive so everyone will think I am amazing in the kitchen?”

There is only one contingency my hermit roommate would have for needing an impressive looking dessert–and that is that she must be going over to her fiancé’s parents’ house for Easter dinner tomorrow.  My roommate is not much of a cook, and she has been dating her future husband for over two and a half years, so it surprises me that she’s still trying to keep up the façade around his parents.

Apparently it’s still a thing, though, because the next thing out of her mouth is, “What about a cheesecake?  That’s not hard, is it?”

“Weeelll,” I begin noncommittally, “It’s not really hard–it’s just time consuming.  And expensive, because you have to buy all the cream cheese.”

“Huh.”  This is clearly not the answer she was hoping I would give.  “But what about one of those pudding-y ones?”

“Well, sure,” I agree (what else can I do?  She is clearly determined to have her cake and eat it, too, so to speak), “I mean, if you get one of those Jell-o box kinds, sure.  That’s easy.”

“Okay,” she walks back into her room.  (My roommate is like this.  Conversations begin and end without reason…)

She is apparently going with the Jell-o cheesecake idea because twenty minutes ago her fiancé appeared.  Apparently, they are adding Butterfinger to it.  I know this, because my roommate was telling said fiancé that he should have gotten a bag of the mini-candy bars rather than six full-size ones, because the big ones are more expensive.  He is insistent that he looked and this was the only choice.  (I’m sure he’s right because many Easter Bunnies were hitting all the big box stores and grocery stores today…)  And I’m guessing these bars are to be crumbled, because I’m sitting in the living room, and I’m nearly positive I’m listening to somebody beat those candy bars into bits with a rolling pin.

But I digress.  The whole conversation–needing something “fancy” but “easy”–seems a little absurd to me.  I like to impress people with my skills as much as the next girl–but if you’re going to be impressive, I always think “from scratch.”  Of course, I also think, “If I’m trying to impress the family members of a man I like, I’m sure as heck going to make something I’ve done right before.”  But what do I know?  Maybe this is why I’m the single one in this apartment…

I like people to enjoy my food, but I’ve never really worried about if people thought it was “good” enough.  I figure if it tastes good, if people eat it, if I can make it without going crazy trying to get it right–then it’s good enough.  If people sit around the table a little longer because of it–Mission Accomplished.  I’m not sure if this attitude makes me apathetic, a total egotist, or just a girl with a healthy self-image, but I do know that it means I made a lemon depression cake because yellow and citrus make me think of spring, and I’m not worried.  Because a good cake is always “impressive.”

 

Captain Kitchen (or, Kitchen Geek-dom)

For the first time since moving back to the U.S., I am going on a proper vacation next week.  I’ve been  away several times over the past few years, but mostly I’ve just been going to visit friends where they live–super exciting places, like Boise…or Huntsville…or Columbia (MO, not SC.)  Not exactly what one may call “tourists hot spots.”

Don’t get me wrong.  It was great visiting all my sundry friends in all their sundry new homes, but I am ready to leave my car in the driveway, my practicality in my classroom, and go on a real vacation.  And next Monday, I’m doing it.  I’m getting on a plane and I’m flying someplace WARM to do nothing for a whole glorious week.

Needless to say, in my zeal to make my Next Week as stress-free and idle as possible (save swimming, reading books of fluff, and getting a sun tan), it has made my This Week pretty hectic.  School is rough–the kids are climbing the walls and it is a constant battle to keep them even marginally engaged (Guess who’s giving every class an assessment this week?). Then, in addition to all the normal things I do “of an evening,” I’m running weird, pre-vacation errands (Such as, but not limited to, hunting all over the place for a beach bag smaller than Texas that costs less than one million dollars.  Going to the scary tanning booth so I can have some sort of a base so my natural alabaster doesn’t turn to fire engine read in the tropical sun.  Trying on ever sandal ever designed…)  I am also trying to clear out my refrigerator.

As I’ve mentioned before, I work hard to try to avoid throwing away perfectly good food because I forgot about it and it went bad in my fridge.  I’ve been doing a pretty good job–making the stuff I buy, eating what I make, and so on.  So when I made up my list of “Things to Do Before I Leave” I flippantly added, Clear out fridge.  It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?  Three simple little words.  Something I do all the time, right?

Wrong.

What I now know is that I’ve never actually had to clear out my fridge since I made this resolution of mine.  I’ve pared it down, sure, when I was going to be out of town for a few days, but I’d always leave a chili or a stew or a pasta sauce that would be good when I got back.  This is the first time I’ve actually (completely) cleared it out.

And it’s hard.  It’s hard because I’m determined not to waste food.  I’ve had to get creative (what am I going to do with that half-bag of spinach before it gets slimy?  What am I going to do with two random little zucchinis?)

I have made (I am ashamed to admit this) a list of the meals I’m eating between now and IMG_0525when I leave.  I have legitimately done this. I actually mapped it all out.  This list is now hanging on my refrigerator in case I try to “go rogue” and make something I don’t need to before the other stuff is gone.  I wrote down everything.  I included when a friend of mine is buying lunch this week because he lost a bet over March Madness and the friend I’m meeting for dinner because I actually have a night free. I have (since taking a photo of this list) decided to make a chili to use those peppers and zucchini–because I can freeze what I can’t finish.  I’m actually contemplating making a grilled cheese sandwich to use up the last of the shredded cheese and the loaf of bread.   I am trying to eek out my coffee to make it last until I leave so I won’t have to leave perfectly good beans to go stale in my absence. As I write all of these things, I’m becoming increasingly overwhelmed by my own geekiness.

I am actually concerned about this.(I mean, a list?!)  I actually took the time to think all of this through.

Yes.  I admit I probably taking it a bit far, but I don’t think what I’m doing is bad.  I’m kind of proud of myself for using forward planning and trying to be a good steward of my few resources. I feel accomplished that I can make the puzzle fit together.  I’m like the superhero of Kitchen Conservation.

Just call me Captain Kitchen–defending refrigerators everywhere from the dangers of mold…Okay, wait.  Stop.  That’s taking it a little far, even for me.  Let’s just leave it with the fact that I made a list…

 

Kitchen Renegade

I like cookbooks.  A lot.  As in, I actually read them, cover to cover, for fun.  As in, I own 44 (I literally got up from this computer to count them), and I have cooked multiple recipes out of 34 of them (I also just counted that).  As in, one of my favorite parts of the week is sitting down with a stack of randomly selected cookbooks to pick recipes and make my grocery list.  As in, I have been known to check cookbooks out from the library. On purpose. 

Most of my cookbooks are finds from bargain bins, community book sales, and charity shops.  Nearly all of them had previous owners, and I think I only paid cover price for two.  Like many things in my life, I believe in recycling.

Whenever I go to a Goodwill, I always make sure to do a flyby of the cookbook section.  I like reading the titles and seeing what’s there.  You tend to see a strong representation of cookbooks from last year’s diet “miracle” (Atkin’s, South Beach–I’m sure the Paleo collection will be in season in the next year or so…) and there are always at least four copies of that Oprah cookbook, In the Kitchen with Rosie.  (I guess every person in America must have owned at least five copies in 1998.)    Through my perusal-ing, I have gathered that, in the early ’80’s, people believed that the secret to healthy living was removing all the fat from all the things (titles along the line of Feed Your Family the Fat-Free Way, and Living Healthy: Old Time Flavor without the Fat).  It was also widely accepted, apparently, that it was only a matter of time before microwaves completely replaced the traditional oven (There is usually an entire shelf dedicated to things like Microwave Miracle!: 101 Microwave Oven Recipes for the Modern Cook).

I usually end up leafing through the oldest cookbooks there, myself–the ones from the ’60’s and ’70’s.  I like getting the window into a world that is so different than my own–a world where kids still took homemade birthday treats to school, getting together with friends meant someone was going to “entertain,” and Betty Crocker’s marketing team had not yet convinced America that from-scratch cakes are so much more difficult and complicated than ones from a box.  (They aren’t, incidentally.)

The recipes in these faded books are a lot better, by and large, than their modern counterparts.  I think it’s because when these cookbooks were written, people still, well, cooked.  Today, most cookbooks have recipes that call for about a million ingredients, at least a dozen of them impossible to find if you don’t live in one of the Food Capitals of the World (New York, London, Paris, L.A.), let alone Smalltown, America.  I mean, you can only cook recipes out of a book like Plenty (a truly beautiful cookbook–it’s like food porn) if you have about three to four hours, decent skill, a professionally outfitted kitchen, and access to some crazy ingredients.  And that book was a New York Times bestseller–a bestseller! I’d wager this cookbook sits in cabinets all over America with pristine pages while their owners eat Chinese take-out for the third time this month. 

Most people I know maintain diets that include a significant amount of restaurant food (be it from fast food, delivery pizza, or sit-down restaurants) supplemented heavily by premade food that we just heat up (chicken nuggets, burritos, frozen pizza, pre-portioned frozen dinners).  We live in a culture where we watch other people cook food on television while we pull the plastic film off the top of a Lean Cuisine.  We, as a culture, honestly believe that cooking is a thing reserved for professionals, retirees, and rich women with nothing better to do.

Let me say that in another way:

We have bought into the lie that cooking–the act of going into your kitchen and making something from scratch–is a luxury the average American can’t afford. 

That doesn’t sit well with me.  It bothers me that we think we’re “too busy” to do something that makes us so fundamentally human.  It bothers me that we’ve let marketing campaigns convince us that we “can’t possibly” make a pizza by ourselves or that we’re “too busy” to make chicken noodle soup that doesn’t come from a can.  I think we’re better than that.  I think I’m better than that.  I think you’re better than that.

So prove the marketing people wrong.  Take back the kitchen from the people on T.V.  Be a renegade.

Cook dinner tonight.

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