Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Grad School Gourmet Cooks Dinner

I don’t have a lot of time to peruse the internet in search of good foodie blogs, but every week Saturday rolls around and I stare at my empty fridge wondering what to make for dinner. There’s always that one day where what’s in the fridge doesn’t sound appealing at all, but nothing else sounds good either.  On these occasions, I fantasize about my perfect go-to food blog.  It would be titled something like, “the Grad School Gourmet” and it would be full of quick, easy, cheap, one pot recipes proportioned for one or two people (or that keep a long time).  It would offer ways of spicing up left overs to make them more appealing after a week of eating the same thing.  It would have great tips about buying fresh fruits and vegetables and KEEPING them fresh.  It would offer advice about what’s available when with appropriate recipes so that the food I cook could mirror the type of local produce available for that particular season.  It would have suggestions for cheap, delicious wines.  Basically, it would offer tips, tricks, and recipes for satisfying my expensive palate on a tight budget. 

The more I think about it, the more I’m thinking I should probably START that blog myself, but I don’t know if I really have the know-how to be an expert on being a budget gourmet.  Most likely, someone has already gotten there before me and I just haven’t figured it out yet.  If you know of a great blog, send it my way in the comments.

I love to cook, but I generally cook from recipes.  When you’re cooking for one on a tight budget, there isn’t a lot of room for experimentation.  Failure means 20-30 bucks and a weeks worth of meals literally down the drain.  Tonight, however, I rolled up my sleeves, did a little (safe) experimentation, and I’m really proud of the recipe I created.  I call it:
Chef Elizabeth’s Moosey-Beardy Pasta Salad 
(because it's loosely based on two recipes: one from the Moosewood cookbook and one from James Beard.)
You need:
1 package orzo pasta (if you’re very adventurous, or like your pasta to taste like cardboard, you could use whole wheat or spelt orzo to make it healthier)
1 cucumber, peeled and  chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 large fresh tomato, diced
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 15 oz can chick peas
1 package feta
Optional: pitted kalamata olives, quartered

For the dressing:

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon of salt
Freshly ground black pepper (every recipe says “freshly ground” but I’ve done some actual taste testing and it REALLY does make a difference.  Invest in a good pepper grinder.)
A pinch of oregano

1.  Whisk together the ingredients for the dressing and set aside to get all delicious and flavorful

2.  Cook and drain the pasta according to the directions on the package. (note: orzo is a sticky little mofo so make sure you stir it once or twice.)

3. Chop up all your vegetables (while the pasta is cooking) and drain the chick peas.

4. Combine the pasta, vegetables, olives, and chick peas in a large sealable container.  Stir in the dressing.

5. Crumble in the feta cheese  

6. Seal up the container (or cover it with saran wrap) and put it in the fridge to cool for an hour or more.

7. Serve and enjoy all week long!  (Yields approx. 1 truckload of pasta salad)

Serving Suggestions:
(since we're imagining this is a post from my imaginary food blog, serving suggestions are critical!)

For vegetarians (or people who don't like to cook meat):
Serve with a green salad tossed with a pesto vinaigrette (equal parts pre-made pesto and red wine vinegar)

For Carnivores (and people who need fewer carbs)
serve as a side for chicken sauteed with lemon and rosemary.  Later in the week, try topping it with scallops cooked the same way.

Wine Recommendation:
Serve with a dry white wine.  I suggest Torrontes, an Argentinian grape that is generally both tasty and cheap.  Look for Uma-- it’s a wine seller out of Mendoza, Argentina and I’ve never had a dud bottle from them. Uma Torrontes runs about $8 here in Austin.

Happy Cooking and Happy Eating!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Singing All the Verses

I heard an interview with Bruce Springsteen recently.  He was talking about singing “This Land is Your Land” with Pete Seeger at Obama’s inauguration four years ago. There was some worry that the song would be too long, and someone suggested cutting the verse about standing on breadlines, thinking it might hit too close to home, after all, this was a celebration:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people,
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if,
This land was made for you and me.
--Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land

But Pete said, “No, we have to sing all the verses.” 

Pete Seeger was almost ninety years old when he sang “This Land is Your Land” at the inauguration.  He was over ninety years old when he marched with Occupy Wall Street protestors, singing and waving his cane in the air.  He’s been alive for almost a century and he’s still out on the streets singing all the verses.  That’s what I admire about Pete, he sings all the verses all the time.  He doesn't seem to get tired, and he's good at teaching his listeners the words so that we can sing along.   I’m not sure anyone could do what he has done, but I hope that if I’m still around when I’m ninety I can say that I tried. 

Sometimes listening to Pete’s songs makes me unbelievably sad.  Fourty, fifty years and we’re still making the same mistakes.  Pete’s still singing the same songs.  When I was little, my parents had a bootlegged copy of a concert Pete gave with Arlo Guthrie at Wolf Trap Farm Park in 1976, and I loved those tapes.  I have such clear memories of singing with Pete's voice from the back of our van.  It's still almost impossible to resist the urge to join in when he asks for harmony and starts shouting the words over the sound of the banjo, the band, and the audience already singing along. I can still sing most of the words to all the songs Pete and Arlo sang, and the frightening thing is, they’re still relevant.  Pointless war, hopeless mistreatment of the environment, disregard for human life, these are the themes that run through Pete Seeger’s music and Woody Guthrie’s words.  It takes an amazing amount of courage and perseverance to continue singing all the words when all the evidence points to the fact that people just aren’t listening.  Perhaps we’ve just not sung loud enough or long enough yet. 

I hold Pete Seeger up as an example of a person who practices what he preaches, who lives the way he would like others to live, who has amazing patience for teaching, and infinite capacity for learning.  So if you’ve been wondering why I constantly reference Pete Seeger in talking about justice and social change, it’s because of this: Pete Seeger sings all the verses.

 Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Shenandoah singing "This Land is Your Land" 

(This isn't the concert at Wolf Trap, but it's from that tour)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

On dropping the extra weight.

It’s Thanksgiving which means a) everyone’s obsessed about food (with good reason I LOVE Thanksgiving) and b) everyone’s obsessed about weight.  I’ve been finding “tips for losing weight fast” all over the place, and after reading yet ANOTHER top ten list today that had the same useless recommendations (crunches are NOT the solution to all my problems tyvm) I realized that I probably could write my own top ten list, and it might be more useful than those canned magazine suggestions. 

First, a confession.  The summer after I graduated from college I weighed 170 pounds. According to those annoying charts, I was actually bordering on obese for my height.  I felt horrible about myself.  Then one day I looked in the mirror and realized that all the things I hated about my body were things I could change.  For the first time, I got really serious about the dieting. I spent the summer with my family as my coaches and cheerleaders, really working on losing weight, and in the end, I dropped almost 30 pounds.  I’ve kept that weight off for three years now, and I’m actually still losing weight (much, MUCH slower.  I have dropped five pounds over the past three years, but they were a hard-earned five pounds.)  Having actually managed to make a lifestyle change,  I feel like I actually have some advice to offer if you’re looking to lose weight permanently yourself.  These ten points are NOT tips for quick weight loss, they’re ideas that you might take into account as you begin to create a lifestyle change for yourself.  These have worked for me, and I hope you find them useful:

 1.  DON’T DEPRIVE YOURSELF.  It’s in all caps for a reason.  For me, diets never work.  I feel like I’m punishing myself and just end up craving horrible things (even the piece of chocolate cake I actually hate) just because I’m not allowing myself to eat them.   Instead of completely cutting out anything sweet, I keep a bar of dark chocolate or a box of ginger snaps in the house and an hour or two after dinner, when the sweet craving sets in, I have two squares of chocolate or two cookies and a cup of hot tea.  It makes me feel like I’ve had desert, satisfies my cravings, and allows me to stick to the diet plan I have.

2.  Don’t buy bad food.  If you have it available, you’ll eat it, so don’t tempt yourself, don’t buy it. It’s as simple as that (but not really.)  As a rule, I don’t allow myself to go to the grocery store when I’m hungry.  It helps me resist buying the bag of chips or the delicious slice of carrot cake.

3. Cook your own food.  If I cook it, I know exactly what goes into it.  I try to limit the amount of meals I eat out (and here I’m counting everything I don’t prepare from scratch.)  This is EXTREMELY hard to do when you’re busy, so here’s a place I find ways to cut corners: In the summer I eat a lot of big salads that make me feel full, but are quick to make.  In the winter when I’m craving comfort food, I make a huge pot of soup and supplement that with the occasional treat so I don’t feel I’m constantly eating the same thing. 

4. Find the exercise you enjoy.  If you enjoy it, you’ll do it.  I do a combination of yoga and jogging.  The yoga builds muscle and flexibility, the jogging is great cardio (and I can motivate myself by thinking of it as “outside time” rather than exercise time).  If you’re trying to lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you take in, so make it easier for yourself by finding ways to make the calorie-burning endurable.

5. Kick-start by going no carb.  I started my diet regime with two weeks of absolutely no carbs at all: no fruit, no starchy vegetables, nothing.  I dropped a lot of weight quickly and it got my confidence up.  If you’re having trouble starting, try this, THEN focus on changing your lifestyle and habits to keep the weight off and continue dropping pounds. 

6. Set a non-weight-related goal.  I have a mantra I use when I exercise.  It reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing.  Don’t lose weight to lose weight lose weight because....(fill in the blank)

7. Eat right.  Learn where the calories are hiding in your foods.  Don’t trust things that claim to be “low fat” or “low sodium.” Often, they compensate by adding more of something else equally unpleasant.  Read labels.  When I started I had no idea how many calories were in the food I ate, so I started keeping a food diary and counting calories. It was hugely frustrating, but it taught me some valuable lessons.  For me, counting calories didn’t actually help me lose weight (I felt like I was depriving myself) , but it did help me educate myself so I could be successful later. 

8.  Get a hobby  I eat when I’m bored, so if I keep myself occupied, I feel less hungry.  You can also try keeping snacks like raw almonds in the house to combat the urge to snack on something less healthy.  A friend of mine goes about this differently.  She set a rule that she’d never eat after 9pm and she sticks to it.  For me, with my insane life, that’s not a reasonable rule, but it works for her. Both of these strategies are about finding constructive ways to combat the urges and cravings that are just a fact of life.

9. Stay AWAY from the scale.  I DO NOT weigh myself every day.  My weight fluctuates by as much as 5 pounds daily.  I tend to weigh myself once a week and this gives me an idea of the general trend (am I gaining, losing, or maintaining?) so that I can adjust my habits accordingly. 

10.  Create your own top ten.  What works for me might not work for you. For me, as long as I’m exercising, I generally maintain weight, so I can afford to be a little lax about the food I eat.  I do some form of exercise every day, even if it’s just 5 sun salutations or 10 minutes of different kinds of sit-ups because I find it’s easier to maintain my exercise regimen that way. I mix up my daily routine with short-term challenges (the 40-day challenge is an example of this) and reward myself at the end (not a food reward of course.)  If your weight is more dependent on your diet than your exercise, your top ten will look different from mine.  Know what the challenges are for you and find reasonable ways to combat them.  The trick is not to go on a diet, but to create a lifestyle change.  It’s the only way you’ll actually keep off the weight you’re losing. 

So what are your top ten weight-loss strategies?  Leave some ideas in the comments so I can benefit from your wisdom.  After all, my list is a constant work in progress.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"It's not for Women"

 Dr. Pepper has just rolled out a new ad campaign aimed to get men drinking their new diet soda.  The tag line?  "It's not for women."  The ad opens with a mock scene from an action movie, a high-speed chase through jungle.  The male lead turns to the camera and says "Enjoying the movie ladies?  Of course not, cause this is for men."

Now, I understand that this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but something in my gut clenched tight when the man on the screen to a big swig of Dr. Pepper and then claimed "Keep your romantic comedies and your dainty soda."  I'm a woman, and yes, I drink diet soda and I watch romantic comedies.  I also watch action flicks and I have been known to claim that the 'goodness' of a movie is directly proportional to the number of explosions and high-speed chases it displays (whether or not these are directly relevant to the plot).   So what would that man have done if my answer to his question had been "yes, actually, I LOVE this movie."  Does this make me manly?  Are women only allowed to live in pink houses, watch romantic comedies, and drink diet soda?  I thought we were past this.

Is this a sexist campaign?  Yes, definitely.  Should we, the feminists of the world "Get the Joke" and shut up, as the Vice President of marketing suggests in this article?  (forgive the mediocre writing, this was literally the only article with any substance to it that I could find)   I'm not sure if I should be disparagingly amused, or grab my torch and pitchfork.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Closet Makeover

It's that time in the semester when the academic work starts piling up.   Add to that a high school theatre conference and an inconvenient car accident, and I am suddenly buried under mountains of work.  What does this mean?

Organization Tiem!

See, I joined this site called pinterest and there are tons of crafty people on there with interesting ideas for organizing spaces.  I ended up making a list of things to do and re-do around the apartment, and the closet happened to be the first thing on the list.

So before we get too much further, the before pictures.  Witness the horrifying horribleness of my closet!  (and this is cleanish)

This is a shelf which started as t-shirt storage and became "what can I throw here" storage

And in my defense, Gus (my cat(  has this weird facination with shoes.  He likes to sleep on them, hence the nest-o-shoes.

So, a few things had to be done.  The T-shirts needed to be contained in something.  I have a bunch of scarves that were mushed up in my Ikea hangy bag that needed a space of their own, and the shoes needed a method of containment (although it was very important that there still be a few available for Gus to sleep on)

So a trip to target, a little driving of screws, and some re-organizing, and here is the finished product:

Target was having a sale on plastic hangars, so I spent all of $2 to buy a whole bunch, and I replaced all the wire hangars in my closet.  It felt it bit fussy, but it makes the whole thing look so much cleaner.  And now hopefully my clothes will stop falling off their hangars.

Here's the solution to the T-shirt problem:  A basket!  And instead of shoving all the scarves into a bag, they're now hanging very prettily on their own little plastic hooks.  The best part about this is it will leave absolutely no damage on the walls (hopefully)
I'm especially proud of my shoe solution.  A teeny shelf!  It actually took less time to build this than it did to re-hang all the clothes in my closet.  Now I know exactly where everything is, I can see it, and The most commonly worn shoes are on the floor (where Gus can sleep on them)

So that's the great closet makeover.  All in all it took maybe an hour, tops (not counting the target run, which always takes longer than it should).  Next I'm tackling the couch and general "living room" area, which will involve a little more diy-ing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Driving West (or Breaking News: Tractor trailers are more annoying than slow snow drivers.)

I have just completed a 2 day drive from Austin to Phoenix, and survived.  Truthfully, I don’t think the question was ever, “Will I survive this trip,” but rather, “Will my cat survive this trip?”  Thankfully, Gus seems to have arrived in Phoenix sane and healthy.  He didn’t escape, he didn’t get indigestion from the change in water, and he doesn’t seem to be horribly traumatized from spending two days in a cat carrier.  He’s settled in to life at home nicely and life for him is more or less back to normal.  I, however, am still recovering from the unique frustration of driving long distances.

It’s amazing the sorts of things that bother you when you’re behind the wheel of a car.  There’s something about cars that tend to turn humans into raving axe murderers.  The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked in a small repertory theatre in Maine and one of my many jobs was to show cars where to park in the tiny, un-lined parking lot.  This was an eye-opening experience (to put it politely).  I even learned a few curses I’d never heard before.  Once patrons got out of their cars, they were lovely people, but behind the wheel they were all rabid lunatics.

The same can be true of people driving on highways for long stretches, particularly in the Southwest where you can go for hours and feel like you haven’t moved.  The scenery doesn’t change much, and after a few hundred miles, one cactus looks very much like another cactus.  You can set the cruise control to 80 and just drive.  It causes a certain zombie-like tunnel vision.  Anything that disrupts this rhythm becomes the enemy, turning normal human beings into horn-blasting, wheel-screeching psychopaths.

Nothing causes this transformation from reasonable person to asylum inmate more efficiently than a tractor trailer.  No matter what your speed is, tractor trailers seem constantly to drive 15 miles below it.  If you’re going 80, they’re gong 65.  If you’re going 45, they’re going 30.  It doesn’t make much sense.  Surely there’s a point at which everyone can drive at the same speed?  The really infuriating thing, however, is that these gigantic trucks constantly feel the need to pass each other.  It invariably only happens on two-lane highways where you can’t possibly get around the incredibly slow trucks driving side-by-side because really they’re both going 65 (even though the speed limit is 75) but one decided the best way to compensate for his feelings of inadequacy by passing the other.  The major problem here is that it requires you, the innocent bystander, to slow down, possibly even (horror of horrors) reset your cruise control at 60 for 20 miles while you wait for the truck in the left lane to finally decide he has enough room to pull in front of the truck in the right lane.

On this particular trip, the problem was compounded by The Construction From Hell.  Every 85 miles or so, like clockwork, there would be “construction.”  This means that all the cars on the highway have to funnel into one lane and reduce their speed to 35 for about 2 hours so that four guys can stand in front of an idle backhoe wearing ugly hats and drinking coffee like they’re in some lame college frat.  These are arranged by some diabolical power to occur about 10 minutes after two trucks have completed the 2-lane pass, giving you just enough time to get back up to 80 so that you can slow down again.  It’s infuriating. 

I seem to have survived the ordeal just in time to fly to Merida, Venezuela for a 3-week trip (which will no doubt be the subject of its own blog entry at a later date), and that really is swapping one frustration for another.  I suppose it’s the destination that really matters, though, and in both cases, the destination is well worth the inevitable frustration of getting there.

To those of you who are traveling, be safe, be happy, and if you can't enjoy the journey, enjoy the destination.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Half Jew Celebrates Passover

When I am asked, “Are you Jewish?” I usually say, “I am culturally Jewish.”  I come from a household that is half Jewish, half Christian, and mostly Atheist.   I grew up celebrating both Jewish and Christian holidays, and for the first several years of my life I didn’t quite understand the difference between Judaism and Christianity.  One famous Chanukah, I asked my parents if I could say the blessing as we lit the candles on the Menorah and promptly thanked God for the Baby Jesus. 

Since then, I’ve managed to get the two straight and my Jewish heritage has become quite important to me.  Perhaps it is a way for me to connect to my grandfather who died when I was quite young.  Perhaps it is because I spent a lot of time living in places where I was the closest my friends and classmates came to a “real” Jew... whatever the reason, I tend to find myself called upon to be “Jewish” at least one or two days out of the year, generally around Passover. 

This year, the Day of Jewishness was Tuesday, April 19th, the first day of Passover (the night of the 18th was the first night).  On that day, I participated in a Seder and a half (the half was a presentation I gave in a class), told a story about Chelm, and danced the horah.  I said blessings and sang songs in hebrew.  I even cooked a potato kugel from scratch (in spite of the 95 degree weather).  I always feel slightly uncomfortable, slightly guilty, wondering perhaps if I am appropriating a religion to which I have no right.  But then I find myself surrounded by first-timers singing Dayenu IN HARMONY and something inside me rejoices.

There is something beautiful about Passover that calls me to be Jewish for a day.  After all, the service starts with the words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”  Every year I find myself at this table.  And every year I find myself wondering if I am disgracing my ancestors by only claiming “Jewishness” a few short days out of the year.  Probably so.  And yet I cannot quench the desire I feel year after year to return to that hope of Passover: Next year in Jerusalem.  Next year may all be free.