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Successful Jambalaya!

March 9, 2011
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Yeah! My first attempt at jambalaya was actually a success!! (Yes, I am surprised.)

I surfed the web for recipes, read at least 15 of them (on Food Network and elsewhere) and this is what I ended up with:

Mardi Gras 2011 Jambalaya

Here’s the “recipe”:

Peanut oil (I used about 3 tablespoons, 1 at a time)
14 oz. Hillshire Farms Turkey Smoked Sausage, cut into generous bite-sized pieces
2 cooked skinless chicken breasts (left over from last night’s store-bought Albertsons rotisserie chicken), rough diced
1-1/4 white onions, diced (the recipe called for 1 but I had 1/4 left over so I used it)
2 stalks of celery, diced
1-1/2 c. bell peppers (I used frozen red/yellow/green combination)
3 garlic cloves (I put them in whole but I probably should have minced them)
1 28 oz can of San Marzano peeled plum tomatoes
Fresh ground pepper
2-1/2 c. chicken stock
1 box Zatarain’s Jambalaya Rice

(I forgot the bay leaf! – I chose not to add shrimp)

I sauteed the cut-up sausage in 1 T peanut oil, removed it, added a little more oil and did a quick saute on the chicken just to give it color and some extra flavor. After I removed that, I added a little more oil and cooked the onions, celery, peppers, and garlic (with some fresh pepper) until the veggies were cooked down a little and had the beginning of some color. I put the sausage and chicken into the pot.

I then added the tomatoes (which I had diced and removed the stem end and sort of squeezed a little because John does NOT like big chunks of tomato in his food), poured in the bag o’ Zatarains seasoned rice, added 2-1/2 cups of chicken stock. I brought the pot to a boil, turned the heat down to a simmer, put on the lid and let it cook. Of course I had to check it a couple of times and stir it to be sure the rice wasn’t sinking to the bottom. When I deemed it to be done, I turned off the heat and let the pot sit on the stove for about 15 minutes.

Et voila! Jambalaya! and it was really good!! I didn’t add any extra salt although I put some Mrs. Dash Original Mixture on mine because I like the flavor. I didn’t add any hot sauce (I know, I know) because I wasn’t sure how “hot” the Zatarains would be. John and I agreed that next time some nice toasty crostini will be good with it, but net on balance, it was yummy and I’m happy. (And yes, the recipe feeds at least 6 so we have left-overs!)

Mardi Gras & Lent

March 8, 2011
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Because my husband John is a direct descendant of Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, who was responsible along with his brother for bringing the Mardi Gras tradition to Louisiana, it seems fitting to make a special effort this year to celebrate the season with proper Lenten dishes.

Tonight it will be a version of jambalaya (sans the shrimp because I don’t eat shellfish) – more details to follow on preparation as it gets closer to cooking time.

I found some very interesting Lenten (no meat dishes) that I’d like to try:

Spanikopita: A favorite of mine and super-easy to make.

Kasha Varnishkas: Another favorite and again, very easy to make. Definitely Food of My People.

Stifado (without meat):  I’ve never made this so it should be… interesting

Mesir W’et (Spicy Lentil Stew): Never tried to make it so it should be a good challenge. I have made the spicy butter before and it was very good.

I’ll use vegetable stock instead of chicken stock — and I might even make my own… we’ll see…

The Fish on Friday problem is easy to solve – SUSHI!!!

Cupcakes

March 7, 2011
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As noted below, I’m totally addicted to cooking shows, including Cupcake Wars. Although I have always been intimidated by baking cakes (why do MY cakes stay stuck to the pan–and yes, I know about Baker’s Ease) but not by pies (bah, dough is EZ). However, I decided that I would overcome my fear and try baking cupcakes.

The first serious batches I did were this past January for my mother’s 87th birthday. At her request, I made Red Velvet (she’d never had it and wanted to know what it was like) and Gingerbread (my personal favorite). I learned some valuable lessons:

(1) Red Velvet turns a Completely Unnatural color when you’re making the batter. And it gets everywhere. And it turns your tongue red. I’d much rather have Devil’s Food without Red Dye #5 and my mother agrees.

(2) Putting that dollop of frosting on cupcakes is NOT as EZ as it looks on TV! I ended up doing a traditional sort of swirled frosting which the guests liked but I longed to produce Professional-Looking Just Like on TV cupcakes. At least they tasted good! (For the record, I used a traditional–yes boxed–gingerbread mix, added some stuff, and voila! Cupcakes!)

Oh, side note. I am pretty much incapable of following a recipe without changing something. I can’t help it. I’ve tried, honest. That said, we saw a recent episode of “Avec Eric” (dear heaven that man is GORGEOUS and he can cook!) in which he made a stunningly simple and beautiful Boeuf Bourgignon. I told John I would fix it and believe it or not, I would NOT alter the recipe.

“Good,” he said, “because if you did, I would have to divorce you. That would speak to a Very Unappealing Level of Pretension.” (I think he was kidding but I’m not gonna risk it…)

John and my dearest friend Sharon (who is an amazing chef in her own right) agreed that noodles would be better than rice. (I actually prefer rice to noodles in general, but I defer to John and Sharon because they are much much much better cooks than I am!)

But back to the cupcakes…

Over this past weekend, I really really wanted something sweet but alas, the last 7 oz. of semisweet chocolate bits had gone into some spice/oatmeal/raisin/coconut cookies (check out the recipe on the Duncan Hines Classic Carrot Cake mix). No, it doesn’t call for chocolate chips but I thought they would be good and they were, although we agreed that next time I’d make the muffins instead.

So, no chocolate chips and no desire to spend time with baking chocolate, sugar, vanilla, yada yada. AHA! I had some Betty Crocker Carrot Cake mix (yeah, I know but it was on sale for $1.69 and I didn’t feel like spending $3.69 for the Duncan Hines.)  Whoo hoo! I also happened to have a container of Albertson’s Cream Cheese Frosting in the cupboard.  Trust me, it’s gooooooooooood! I had to add more clove, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg to the mix but they were good with and without frosting.

Feeling confident, I decided to make some cupcakes for John’s co-workers. The first guy said his favorite cake flavor is strawberry. Okaaaaay. Not my fave, but hey, I wasn’t making these for me! I found one of Paula Deen’s recipes but decided not to go to quite that much effort mostly because I wasn’t sure that I could pull it off, what with it being a cake ‘n all. I bought Betty Crocker Strawberry cake mix and Albertsons Strawberry frosting. (I had suggested some flavor combinations and the co-worker said that strawberry/orange sounded good.) I was going to garnish the cupcakes with orange zest until I realize… AHA! A perfect opportunity to go to Kake Kreations and get some supplies including a cupcake/cake carrier, an offset spatula (for John), some fun baking cups (I got Elmo ones and Hello Kitty ones for future use), and of course Pink Luster Dust!

Instead of 1-1/4 cups of water, I used just short of 2/3 c. of freshly squeezed orange juice and a little bit of Grand Marnier, then completed it with water. No other changes.

They baked up perfectly in 15 minutes and I let them cool COMPLETELY. (I discovered that putting cupcakes I THOUGHT were completely cooled into a container results in slightly damp cupcakes in the morning. While it didn’t mar the flavor of the newest batch of carrot cupcakes but I would have preferred a slightly fluffier consistency. Lesson learned.)

I got up early this morning to apply the pink luster dust but sadly I realized I did not have the correct brush (you need a fan brush) and I couldn’t get the !$!$#!@ lid off the tiny little container. It wouldn’t turn and it couldn’t be pried off so I had to send the cupcakes to work without that extra sparkle.

I know. I should have done photo-documentation on all this. Next time.

Food Competition Shows

March 7, 2011
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A veritable cornucopia of culinary offerings last night!

First, America’s Next Great Restaurant

I gotta say that Joe’s “Saucy Balls” sounds like a totally great idea (not to mention, it has a catchy name…)

Sandra‘s “Limbo” idea is cute and timely but it sounds like a lot of work, with a lot of potential for mixed up orders. “Oh, I didn’t want THAT… I wanted THAT…”

Fran‘s “Sports Wrap” has a catchy name but I think it’s a lot more West Coast and Florida than NYC and Minneapolis where you aren’t gonna necessarily want a cold wrap on a cold day.

Sudhir‘s “The Tiffin Box” – OMG I will sooo go to this restaurant but someone please get him to change the name to “Tiffin” – single-word restaurant names are much better IMO.

Stephenie‘s fixed-calorie idea is very good, and if she added a delivery service, I think she’d have a major hit (esp. if she could deliver lunches to offices)

Eric‘s “Meltworks” – I really like this idea esp. if he serves soup in the fall and winter in the Minneapolis and NYC stores. However, I wonder how he’ll maintain lower costs with some of those pricey cheeses. (And thank you judges for NOT choosing Mr. Yeah-I-Have-Four-Restaurants-But-I-Want-More… with YOUR money!)

Alex – “Hard ‘n Soft Tacos” – John liked this one (me not so much). I do think the name should be “Hard ‘n Soft” – what I liked about him (and I think the judges did too) is that he’s savvy about the business and very flexible.

Gregory & Krystal – “Hicks” – They have got to get rid of that awful disgusting picture they were using in the promo. I think the idea is cute and could work, especially if they make eating messy food fun!

Jamawn – “W3’s” – I like him (so do the judges). I have never eaten chicken ‘n waffles but John assures me they are heavenly. (Hey, Jamawn, how about a saffron-flavored waffle with chicken curry on it…)

Marisa – “Wok” – Wow. That’s original Not. I live in Los Angeles. There are fast-food wok places on every corner. Not to mention she is a total b… you know. She is going to be totally bossy and not respect whoever ends up working for her. Judges, what WERE you thinking? (Actually, if she wants to hook up with a fellow um Very Strong-minded Woman… who is actually a great cook she should call Lisa Garza… how’s THAT for a segue into…)

The first episode of “Chopped All-Stars” (and no, there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes here…)

We had the aforementioned Chef Lisa plus Chef Brad (the tall cute one who didn’t quite have enough charisma for the little screen), Chef Debbie (I like her but she’s not really brilliant IMO), and the remarkably talented Chef Michael who is so over the top (sort of like a young Harvey Fierstein who can cook). Michael is playing for the Jed Foundation.

Here is Ted Allen’s blog about the episode. How very Lisa to focus on HER specialty (deviled eggs) instead of what was in the basket! On this segment, we were introduced to a few specialty items like

karela (aka bitter melon); in two words, Must Blanch.

fregola (aka couscous) – I knew that’s what it was from the way it looked, sort of like Big Israeli Couscous instead of tiny little couscous

(We didn’t think paneer was all that exotic because we eat it, and while I have never had goat butter, I know that goats give milk so it stands to reason it could be turned into butter…)

I wanted Brad to win but I’m happy that Michael won and that Lisa did not. (And before anyone says, “But she had this awful life and is a self-made woman,” I refer you to Dani Johnson. No, I’m not a follower but she seems like a very very down-to-earth person who has been there and hasn’t forgotten.)

Next week: Anne “Guy Fieri’s Twin Sister”  Burrell, Robert “Ok, I’m not really a knight” Irvine, Duff “Heh, yep I’m classically trained” Goldman, and the fairly annoying Claire Robinson.

Did I mention that I love cooking shows? (Did I NEED to mention it?)

Jane Austen Made Me Do It!

March 1, 2011

Well, actually my dear friend Marlene strongly suggested that I do it (which is often the same as making me do it!) so I entered the “Jane Austen Made Me Do It” short story contest and through that I met Laurel Ann Nattress and through her, I was introduced to all sorts of Austeniana. In a time of tweets, twitters, and l33t sp32k, what a pleasure it is to meet people who speak in Entire Well-Crafted Sentences AND who Read Real Books. /swoon

The current activity underway is the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge. To that end, I have committed to viewing seven films and reading at least four books, to wit:

“The Cookbook Collector”
“The Three Weissmans of Westport”
“The Third Sister”
“The Annotated Sense and Sensibility”

Much fun should ensue, not to mention it will be excellent inspiration for me to continue writing in this genre, wherein I feel a great kinship with the intrepid women of Hampshire!

Familial Obligations

January 4, 2011
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Shortly after making my post on January 1, I got a phone call from my brother that my mother (who lives about 2 hours south of me) had fallen and dislocated her shoulder.  She was on the way to the ER so I was on standby to drive down there to take care of her when she came back from the hospital.  A couple of hours after the initial call, I hugged my husband and headed down the freeway on the first day of the new year.

Needless to say, I was pretty miserable. What a way to start what was going to be the “best year of my life” (so far). Where was the gift in this situation? It has taken me a couple of days to figure this out…

(1) My mother didn’t die and didn’t break anything. Thank heaven, she is very bright (whoo hoo Stanford grad, no less!), very competent and very stubborn, all good things to be when one is elderly.

(2) Because it was New Year’s Day, the traffic was light.

(3) This has been an excellent lesson in patience and has caused me to think about what parents did for us when we’re children: bathe us, change our diapers, cook for us, drive us around, make sure our shoes were tied and we are wearing sweaters.  When the time comes to return the favor, how many of us think, “Who can I hire to do this?”

(I should clarify that my mother has a dislocated shoulder which was put back in place in the ER–and she said she has a new-found respect for football players who have shoulders “popped” back into place now! She is only disabled at this point by the fact that it was the right shoulder that was dislocated and she’s right-handed, of course.)

Taking care of our parents may make us feel like the world has turned upside down. We’re may find ourselves being angry at them and scared because we’re seeing their vulnerability and irritated at the interruptions in our “normal” lives instead of patient and compassionate. We may not want to be reminded of the inevitabilities in life and we may panic when we begin to wonder who will do the same for us when we’re where they are. For many of us, our parents are probably pretty embarrassed by the need to ask for help at such a personal level (I know my mother is because she hates being a burden).

What I have come to realize is that this is unique opportunity to say thank you with the gift of time and caring, a chance to repay with actions rather than words or cards or gifts.  It’s also a very interesting chance to understand some elements of our personal “operating system” and to see the source of some of our rituals. (My friends always laugh at me because I can’t stand it when people stack dirty dishes to clear them from the table; turns out that my mother can’t stand it either!)

On a very practical note… if your parents are elderly and live alone, be sure that they have an envelope containing all the important medical information (doctors’ contact info, list of  medications, allergies, etc.) It should be  securely taped to the refrigerator and clearly marked “Emergency Medical Information.” The paramedics who attended to my mother said that she had some of the best documentation they’d ever seen and they were very grateful for that. (Hey, technical writers never die…)

OK now for something a little more cheerful… STANFORD WAS AWESOME! (Women’s basketball AND men’s football!) Hopefully, Oregon will add even more luster to the glory that is the Pac-10 (yeah, I know it’s more like the Pac 13-1/2 but old habits die hard!)

2011 – Day 1

January 1, 2011
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It’s a beautiful day here in Los Angeles. Cold (by Southern California standards – it’s 45) and no rain until later today. (We’re a little water-logged but nothing compared to Brisbane, so no complaints.)

The coffee is brewed, the Florida vs Penn State game is on, and the day is full of good intentions (Get to Level 30 on my new warlock – check)

There is a mystique about certain days of the year. Birthdays, Mondays, first days of a month, and New Years days (yes, plural… calendar, Chinese, Jewish [Sundown, Sept 28] – so many chances to “start fresh.” My very wise and dear friend Mary Kirchoff (Life Patterns Coaching ) proposed a wonderful way to approach 2011 by making it the Best Year Ever.

Bah, you say? How can you know whether it will be the Best Year Ever? You can’t. But that’s not the point. The point is that none of us know for 100% certain about tomorrow but we can enter today with intentions and commitments to approach the day in positive ways. Ok, you can ponder that at your leisure . . .

About 6 weeks ago, my now-previous employer decided that my services as a writer were no longer needed. It came without warning but these things happen to everyone and there’s pretty much nothing to be done except leave the building and move on. I respect the documents I signed so if you’re expecting me to say all sorts of bad things, sorry to disappoint.

This was obviously (at least to me) a sign that it was waaay overdue time to focus my efforts on my own writing. I have been writing in other people’s worlds for a couple of years and while I definitely enjoy it (and hope to continue doing it), it means I’m not working on my own stuff. (Pay no attention to the time spent leveling my new warlock on WoW! Working on the house is “legal” or at least socially acceptable and desirable…)

In pursuit of freelance writing projects, I came across Suite 101. This looked really cool! Make Money Online Writing for Demand. This is what I’ve been doing for years (not the online part, but for all sorts of employers and clients.) The graphics are appealing, the pictures of contributors show smiling people, the topics included a number of things about which I have written in the past and could write about now. The site’s mission statement said, “At Suite101, our principal focus is our commitment to supporting freelance writers.” I clicked on Apply Now and filled out the little form.

A couple hours later I got a rejection notice.

Reasons: My excerpt sample lacked

* reasoned, well-executed articles that carry an argument, make a statement, inform, amuse or otherwise provide value to a general audience
* excellent command of English language usage, grammar, and spelling.
* appropriate level of education and/or experience.

I was stunned. I had read a number of the sample articles and they were not academic papers by any means (which doesn’t mean they were bad.) My sample was definitely conversational with parenthetical phrases which I guess were indications that my command of English wasn’t excellent. And one of the more confusing… my excerpt didn’t show appropriate levels of education and/or experience.

Then I realized that because there was no place to include a resume or credits list, the “managing editor” (sorry but I don’t know his/her name) had no way of knowing that I’ve been doing this kind of writing for um a year or two. (My bad – I should have included a link to this blog!) My spelling and grammar? It’s English. Good English but… it’s not CANADIAN English. Yep, Suite101 is a Canadian site. Which probably means that my writing was not “rigourous” enough for our Northern neighbors. (Note to self: always, always check “About Us”!)

I responded to the rejection notice as politely as I could, made a few suggestions (like … oops I mean “such as” changing the “minimum of 200 words” to something a bit more helpful, like the ability to attach a file with a full article). And yes, I confess I did put a slightly sarcastic note at the end that perhaps I should have written about hockey…

On the other hand, I did enter a contest on another site (write a 100-word opening paragraph to go with a photo) and dug out a short story which had excellent–as always–edits from my good friend Julie Dean Smith (the fantasy writer, not the mystery writer). I’m going to enter than one in another contest as soon as I do more work on it (like figure out how I want it to end!)

So that was the lead-in to the First Day of the Best Year Ever. I’m looking forward to the adventure of putting my writing out there, doing more of the freelance writing I’ve been doing for a while already, figuring out whether I really am going to write a novel, and of course, working on the house, doing a lot of crafts projects (knitting, quilting, inventing cupcake flavors, learning to make frosting flowers, eagerly anticipating the baseball season, and playing WoW.