My Best Tips

06/27/2011

good-- but not my best tips

Urgency Day 59

500 Things Item 437: Cake Decorating Kit

  • History: Before cupcakes, there were cakes
  • Value: $39.99 (in 1996 dollars)
  • Parting pain: None
  • Un-possessing: I hope my young friend Tony wants it. He’s just starting his culinary adventures.

A long time ago, my college roommate called me Suzy- there’s-a-product-for-that.

She observed my utter conviction that, if there was a need:

  • Teeth to be whitened
  • Clothes to be brightened
  • Hair to be heightened

American chemists could R and D a solution, and American commerce would offer it up for my convenience at some price ending in 99.

What surprises leap out here? That I, The Downsizing Crusader, was once such an enthusiastic consumer? That the enthusiastic consumer has gone on a downsizing crusade? Or that I was once a girl called Suzy? Flip a coin, should you have a three-sided one. It all shocks the h-e-double-toothpicks out of me.

Life’s a hoot, ain’t it?

Many many people are doing more with less these days, either out of necessity or conscience or both. I love, for example, using plain old—and best of all, cheap! — white vinegar to clean and degrease my kitchen. It works better than any chemically spray, and did I mention it’s cheap? On the days I can’t leave the windows open to clear the vinegary fumes, I bake something yummy smelling.

I suspect my boys are supportive of my downsized cleaning efforts.

Interestingly, baking is one area of my life that has gotten more complicated not less. As a gluten-free baker, I now require a pantry full of intriguing little bags of flours and starches to concoct delicious treats, where I used to need only plain old—and best of all, cheap!—all-purpose flour. Sure, I had a few other dusty bags around such as whole wheat flour or the occasional box of cake flour, but mostly all I needed was AP flour to turn out yummy smelling treats.

TIPS:  Did you know you can make an excellent substitute for cake flour using cornstarch? Just add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch plus enough AP flour to measure 1 cup and whisk. I adore handy substitutes! I also add 1 tablespoon of plain white vinegar to 1 cup of milk to make buttermilk.

A very streamlined life: Brought to you by plain white vinegar.

But I say, out with unnecessary complications! And since my baking has gotten more complicated by dietary necessity, I want to eliminate all the fuss and falderal around it I am able.

So, I am downsizing this under-used Martha Stewart cake decorating kit, complete with tips, and pips and detailed instructions for making my cake-baking life really complicated. I did use the pretty paste food colors it came with, well some of them. I remember they gave the frosting  kind of an off-flavor. Something not correctable with a bit of plain white vinegar.

And when you search “white vinegar” on Miss Martha’s site? One thousand fifty-four results.

Plain white vinegar: At the heart of many a happy kitchen.

And it makes a great baking soda volcano, too.

sunny enough to banish winter (photo: W. Skalij)

Urgency Day 169

500 Things Items 328-30: Brown Duds

  • History: From my brown period
  • Value: Didn’t wear enough to warrant costs
  • Parting Pain: Better in theory than practice
  • Un-possessing: Donations

In continuing my series of colorful clothing cast-offs:

The Y-slot of ROY G BIV

Yellow. Recently, I have been singing the praises of something very very yellow indeed: Meyer Lemons. Here’s what I encourage, maybe courteously insist, you try: Meyer Lemon Pizza, very appropriate for happy hour. Still with me?

You will need:

  • Your favorite pizza crust
  • Olive oil
  • Some good goat cheese
  • A handful of Kalamata olives-pitted and sliced
  • 1 Meyer lemon– very thinly sliced
  • Fresh rosemary- chopped
  • Balsamic vinegar to garnish

Instructions:

  • Bake the pizza crust according to the package directions. You’re looking for thoroughly warmed, but not crisped.
  • Remove warmed crust from oven, and reset oven to broil. Move oven rack to highest position.
  • Top crust with some olive oil, smeared dollops of goat cheese, the sliced olives and very very thin slices of the Meyer lemons. Trust me here.
  • Sprinkle generously with the fresh rosemary.
  • Pop under the broiler and watch carefully—you’re looking for bubbly cheese but not burnt crust.
  • Remove when it looks fabulous to you and serve in small wedges with a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar. (I used fig balsamic a friend had given me. I hope you have such a friend.)

OH MY GRAVY! (For fans of the Cowboys on The Amazing Race) Even the 18-year old Self-Contained Unit agreed.

But I really don’t think this would work with a regular lemon. The difference is the slight sweetness of the Meyers, which are a hybrid of lemons and mandarin oranges.

Wow. When is happy hour? Meanwhile, back in my closet…

The role of yellow will be played by the color brown. You see, I don’t really wear yellow, but I love wearing brown. Love love love. As my sister once observed, “The brown clothes get really excited when you come in the store, Suz.”

I guess there is a world of sad brown clothing out there, since I don’t shop anymore.

And now I have accumulated a disproportionate amount of brown clothes to dispossess. Clothes I have loved loved loved. In the past.

The times, they are a-changin’.

Did you know Daylight Savings Time begins in a couple of weeks? I was horrified to discover this. Not because I’m not looking forward to more sunlight; I am! Our Chicago winter included a very satisfying blizzard, but in that time, we averaged only 8% of the available sunlight. Even for a devout nester, that’s not enough sun.

So why the dismay over the approaching time change?

Simple, bad timing. It happens to coincide with a trip. I will lose an hour with my family. And then after the 13-hour trip home, springing forward will mean we lose an hour of travel-recovery. It works that way, right? Time is relative, as is time with relatives.

But the clouds will part and the angels sing, when I make them that amazing lemon-yellow pizza.

You can bet I will be wearing something brown.

just not these


Fridge Friends

02/01/2011

insight or insult

Urgency Day 199

500 Things Items 286-290: Fridge clutter

  • History: On the spectrum of empty to expired
  • Value: I think I will muddle through with anchovy-less Caesar dressing
  • Parting Pain: Only from the jar-cleaning chore
  • Un-possessing: On the spectrum from recycle to trash

We all have too few refrigerator friends.

You can be sure this is not meant as encouragement to load up on goofy refrigerator magnets. It is meant as encouragement to have more friends you would allow to poke around in your refrigerator without asking first. Somehow, in the HGTV years, we’ve gotten away from this.

What are we afraid of? Embarrassment over the expired jar of mint jelly from last Easter? Apparently, yes. I know this, because I have a family member (who will go by the obfuscating alias of Ronna) who grimaces every time I, her beloved baby sister, go into her fridge.

Look, I feel like I am providing a service, a service which some people pay bi-weekly for, when I notice an obviously toxic product(s) and clean out this fridge clutter. It’s not judgment: it’s tidying up!

Okay, toxic is a bit strong. How about blechy?

I first used the phrase “refrigerator friend” years ago with my friend Elizabeth. Smart cookie that she is, she caught my meaning instantly, and we’ve been happy fridge friends ever since. She’ll go into my fridge; I’ll go into hers. Who worries about embarrassment when BOYS ARE HUNGRY!

What really got me thinking about embarrassing fridge clutter was my friend Kara. Kara is studying to be a nutritionist and is asking for observations about her friends’ eating habits. As a devout label-reader, I was delighted to apply her professional scrutiny to my kitchen. Turns out, I could use some. I found a bit of fridge clutter in my fridge. Some really really blechy fridge clutter.

Where are Ronna and Elizabeth when I need them?

The Self-Contained Unit knows the culinary epitaph I hope to have earned:

“She was as frugal with leftovers as a French farm wife.”

What does it say about me, then, that I was praying that blechy tube of anchovy paste had expired?


recipes for reduction

Urgency Day 284

500 Things Items 214-15: 2 lbs. of Recipes

  • History: Years of clipping, copying and even some cooking
  • Value: A few meals, a few mishaps; much mind-changing
  • Parting Pain: None, and I hope no future regret
  • Un-possessing: Recycle bin

It’s become a cliché:

If you haven’t worn it in a year, get rid of it. Here’s a variation to try:  If you haven’t cooked it in a year, get rid of it. The recipe, that is.

Back in June, I reported the weight of my 6 recipe albums. Albums, not cookbooks:  My scrupulously organized, individually-sheet protected, lovingly annotated, ridiculously cumbersome collections of printed recipes and clippings which Paul and Sam know I will risk life and culinary limb to rescue in a fire.

26.2 pounds.

In June, my recipes weighed 26.2 pounds. On November 6th, they weighed 27.1 pounds. This is not a sustainable trend.

Last weekend, while watching old movies (It’s a Wonderful World with Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert) and sports (I finally like that punk, Landon Donovan), I spent about 8 hours pouring over my recipes. I had one goal in mind: reduction. I intended to be ruthless, to trim the fat—so to speak—in my culinary collection:

  • Just because Gourmet magazine no longer exists doesn’t mean I have to be its archivist;
  • Old splatters and smudges wouldn’t tug at me;
  • Achingly seductive food photos? Well, let’s just say it’s much easier to stare them down on a full stomach— which I happily maintained the entire time.

The only things off-limits were family recipes. And they weigh a combined 1 ounce, not counting the 12 ounce one from “Grandma Nestle Tollhouse.”

Easiest category to reduce: Beef

And not simply because of my recent adoption of a vegetarian diet; I am still feeding 2 carnivores. Even when I was eating beef, we didn’t eat that much of it. I’ve saved a few classics such as beef stew, pot roast, and Mom’s vegetable beef soup— my family’s traditional Christmas Eve supper. But even conjuring them now doesn’t make me salivate. I think I really must be shifting taste-gears.

Most difficult category to reduce: Mexican

Didn’t I read recently that Mexican cuisine has overtaken Italian as the one most preferred by Americans? [Is anyone else seeing the irony?] Besides being delicious, Mexican recipes are fantastically adaptable for our resident meat and plant eaters.

Don’t downsize the frijoles!

Someday, I hope, I will have a laptop in my kitchen. Then I can simply log on to Kara’s An Hour in the Kitchen for the recipe I want to prepare. No sheet-protected paper required. And I know I really should scan my recipes and put them all on a flash drive. They would certainly be safer from Devastation and would definitely be less burdensome—at least after 26 pounds of scanning was accomplished. Someday, probably, this will happen.

The final reduction came in at approximately 210 recipes, or 2 pounds of clippings plus the weight of sheet protectors. It feels liberating, similar to the culling I’m doing of my kitchen tools, not to mention the rest of my stuff. Streamlining, simplifying, downsizing to what I truly use and value.

Recipes, it seems, are a lot like clothes: we use 10% of them 80% of the time.

So why do I still have 25 pounds of recipes?


Coyote Conundrum

10/10/2010

 

In Suz's Happyland, goats are free to eat my hair.

 

Urgency Day 313

500 Things Items 185-86: 2 more kitchen tools– a zester and a corer

  • History: Before I discovered microplanes and coring using a knife
  • Value: I prefer my microplane and knife
  • Parting Pain: Zip
  • Un-possessing: Donation or gift

I’m letting you in on a secret: “Udi’s” is a password.

If you are following a gluten-free diet, I really hope no further explanation is required. If you know a gluten-free practitioner and want to make their eyes glaze over in lust, say it: Say “Udi’s.”

Every restrictive diet has one product that makes the whole thing doable. Atkins had bacon and lots of it. Dairy free has So Delicious ice creams. Gluten free has Udi’s bread.

Udi’s bread mimics a loaf of wheat sandwich bread so deliciously, the Self-Contained Unit—a self-described artisanal bread snob—will choose it over gluten-filled options on hand.

Between a well-stocked grocery store and the internet, it’s never been easier to follow an alternative diet. My heart breaks for people with serious allergies who can’t even be in proximity of their triggers. But for people like me, who use nutrition to mitigate the symptoms of other conditions (such as my arthritis), eating conscientiously requires very little additional effort.

In fact, when I see some people struggle with their particular dietary requirements, I wonder if there are other issues, such as a lack of real commitment. When we moved to Naperville, Sam’s friend Pete-o called himself a vegetarian. Under Pete’s eating plan, I think a lot of Americans are vegetarians. He exclusively ate french fries, white bread and desserts.

He has since given up giving up meat.

Meat. I’ve never particularly struggled with being an omnivore. I’ve said it here before, I subscribe to food writer Michael Pollan’s philosophy:

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

That seems the most reasonable expression of moderation I’ve ever encountered. It emphasizes a plant-based diet, but doesn’t forbid meat. Or chocolate, my deal breaker. But meat, though not emphasized, is not demonized, like say high fructose corn syrup.

Two nights ago, my relationship with meat changed.

GRUESOME STORY ALERT:

If you eschew National Geographic specials featuring top-of-the-food-chain antics or were determinedly absent when your high school English  class discussed Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, skip ahead to the all-clear signal,

BACK TO SUZ’S HAPPYLAND.

[FYI: I would be skipping ahead, if it weren’t my story.]

For those still with me, here goes.

Recently, it’s been unseasonably warm in Chicagoland. My brother-in-law John is visiting from Scotland, here to run the binary Chicago Marathon, 10-10-10. We’ve been ruefully observing the heat, trying not to make too many global warming jokes, and enjoying at least one perk: sleeping with the windows wide open.

Two nights ago, a blood-freezing scream woke me out of a deep sleep. Paul and I sat straight up, hearts pounding, listening for whatever would follow. It was quiet for a few seconds, long enough to calculate that it had been some sort of animal and there were no more details to really absorb. Paul and I settled back down, but within moments we were driven out of the bed to the front window. There was some sort of odd, repetitive noise coming from very close by.

My first instinct was to look down the driveway toward the street. Nothing. But Paul, behind me, said, “It’s a coyote.” He was standing in the middle of our front yard, illuminated by the street lamp. And hearing our whispers, the coyote turned his head and looked right up at us. His left front paw held down his prey, as he methodically tore it up and ate it. We had been roused by the crunching of bones and smacking of lips as he ate a bunny 15 feet from our front door.

 

Just doing his or her job.

 

I now knew the terrified scream that had awoken us was from a rabbit. We had heard that scream another time, at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Our niece Erin was touring Chicago with her orchestra students from Virginia, and we met them for a walk around the famous landmark. As we wandered through one of the exhibit houses, several boys from her group came running up to us, imploring her to come see the hawk eat the bunny out in front of the exhibit. “No thanks, guys,” she grimaced. Their brief exchange gave me the time to process that the shrill cries I had vaguely been aware of were coming from the rabbit as it was hunted and killed. This is primal sound, of terror and incredulity and helplessness.

Last night, Paul was in the city being support staff for his brother’s marathon run. I was a little apprehensive but pretty confident I wouldn’t have to experience a Wild Kingdom repeat without my Eagle Scout. Apparently, however, our yard is now this coyote’s preferred hunting ground.

Whereas the first incident had taken place at an hour I will concede to these nocturnal activities, 4:00 a.m., the second occurred at 1:20 a.m. It involved neither a bunny nor an hour late enough that I had confidence all the neighbors were bedded down and had retrieved the family pets that have outdoor privileges.

I am fairly certain this time the coyote caught a cat.

I suppose it is an uncomfortable stretch for many people to extrapolate from this probably mundane scene of survival (well, the coyote’s survival anyway) to my subsequent decision to stop eating meat. Here are my dots, connected as best I can:

For me to eat meat, animals have to be slaughtered; by and large, this is not done in a humane way which minimizes the animals’ fear and pain; for myself, I can no longer justify eating in a way that requires this kind of suffering. I’ve heard the death screams. They’re awful.

I hold absolutely no grudge against the coyote. Zip zilch nada. And don’t worry, I’m not proselytizing. From start to finish, this is personal.

BACK TO SUZ’S HAPPYLAND

So there it is. Like I said, it’s never been easier to follow alternative eating plans, and I’ve already successfully eliminated much dairy and all gluten from my diet. From now on, though you’ll find a lot of delicious ingredients on my Udi’s, my BLTs will be made using “Smart Bacon.” That really is the name for vegan bacon. Smart bacon.

For Atkinites and vegetarians, it all comes down to bacon.

Just one more thing: I have my niece Laura to thank for her timely recommendation of Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet. If making these changes interests you at all, this is a much better source of information and recipes than the celebrity association would typically suggest. Thanks, Laura.


Orts

10/06/2010

 


Tidying up before The Feast

Urgency Day 317

 

500 Things Items 176-184: Kitchen Scraps

  • History: Had a need, bought a thing
  • Value: Esp. well-used, Pyrex bowls and loaf pan
  • Parting Pain: None- I love more room in the cupboards
  • Un-possessing: Donations

IT’S FALL!!

Cue the Linus and Lucy theme and hand me a “wet sucker,” because I’m jumping in the nearest pile of leaves.

I love fall. No make that,

I LOOOOVE fall!!

Here are ten random things that are better about fall:

  1. Apples—real ones with a few brown spots and no shiny wax, from the farmers’ market or better yet, U Pick ‘em apple groves
  2. Chill in the air so you need…
  3. Sweaters, the cozier the better for sitting around…
  4. Fires—in a fireplace or a campground or a backyard fire pit
  5. Orange, brown and red after the silly day-glo colors of summer
  6. Leaves turning orange, brown and red and…
  7. Falling leaves swirling in the wind like disoriented flocks of birds
  8. The woodsy, fecund smell of fallen leaves and (probably illegal) leaf burning in backyards
  9. Pumpkin patches, the more Sincere the better
  10. Anticipating the holidays which is always way better than the holidays themselves

And, of course, stews and soups and chili, oh my. Seasonal cooking is always appealing, but for me, never more so than in the fall.

Last week, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman chronicled a week he spent cooking just for himself and mostly using pantry staples. His piece, The Pantry Diaries, got me thinking about the need to go through my own pantry and stock up on the fall staples I would be turning to again and again in the coming months: beans, pastas, canned or boxed tomatoes, broths, tuna and artichokes packed in olive oil, brown rice and lentils. I love how these satisfying ingredients are also some of the most frugal.

So, I’ll be watching the grocery store fliers for sales on these items to bolster my supplies; asking my friends who shop with an eye on the final cha-ching to alert me when they see these things go on sale where they shop; and organizing my recipes to accommodate autumnal flavors.

But I realized that by stocking up, even in this reasonable way, I am not, strictly speaking, adhering to my downsizing project.

For all my affection for the season, fall is not usually associated with downsizing. In fact, it’s usually the harbinger of the traditional more-is-more bacchanalia of the holidays: From waistlines to wasteful spending, everything seems to expand between now and the January 2nd reckoning.

I began to wonder if it were possible to introduce a hint of reduction to the season of expansion. I wondered if I could actually decrease something about my kitchen a mere 50 days before the feast, the iconic feast, The Thanksgiving Day Feast, which I am happily hosting this year.

I curiously extended the challenge, and I smugly accepted the challenge– but of course.

Here’s my list of downsizeables, culled not from my basement but from my hard-working kitchen:

  1. Terra cotta garlic baker
  2. Set of 3 measuring cups shaped like teacups
  3. 2 nesting Pyrex bowls
  4. Decorative bowl
  5. Set of wooden salad servers
  6. 2 baking sheets
  7. Broiler pan and tray
  8. Loaf pan with removable drip-pan liner

(Eight lines totaling twelve tools. Nine discards were due today to stay on track.)

Most of this collection are duplicates– suspiciously unnecessary purchases made through the years. A few were gifts (I hope you still love me, givers). The broiler pan was in the oven when we arrived with the one from our old house. (Oops.) If anything else needs explaining, just ask.

I’m confident The Feast will still be delicious.  I suspect I could do this several more times with no impact on my cooking. Hmmm. Another challenge?

Fall is here, and I am rejuvenated.

Isn’t it ironic that fall puts a spring in my step?

Urgency Day 355

500 Things Item 142: Mega Ball Ice Cream Maker

  • History: Gift from Central Virginia
  • Value: Potential unrealized
  • Parting pain: It’s going to a very worthy home
  • Un-possessing: Re-gifting to Northern Virginia

The often drawn out process of recognizing that you need to give up dairy is similar to the familiar 5 Stages of Grief—shock, anger, denial, bargaining and acceptance—with a special, um, action-packed lingering on the denial into bargaining phase:

Okay, if I only have a little whipped cream on my strawberry sundae, that won’t hurt. Right?

And then nature adds a wallop of “regret” to the whole process. Or processing.

A long, long time ago, a very special person made an observation to me that changed my life:

“Maybe you’re such a bitch, because you don’t know you’re lactose intolerant.”

(cue rim shot) And she was right.

I often compare the dramatic improvement in mood and well-being I felt after eliminating dairy from my diet to the abrupt snapping open of a window shade. The sunlight flooded in and everything was so much clearer to me. Oh, how I wish I could have gone through the horrors of high school not strung out on dairy. It still would have been horrible, but I could have handled it so much better.

And I wouldn’t have contributed to The Horror. As much.

My friend Elizabeth is very knowledgeable about the dairy issue. Her lactose-intolerant boys will not be inflicting the same random acts of dairy-terrorism that I perpetrated. Nor do they suffer tasty-frozen-treat deprivation: Their mom makes The Best peach soy ice cream In The World. On our recent trip to Virginia, Elizabeth contributed this amazing confection to dinner one night. I managed to serve the tiniest portions I could reasonably get away with to preserve more for my later enjoyment.

See, I really was wired very badly long ago.

Elizabeth and my friend Sydney are two of my very truest and dearest. They share being the moms of collectively five of Sam’s little brothers; possess keen eyes for spotting imperiled turtles in the middle of roads; and can turn a batch of homemade cupcakes into a party—or a wedding!—with boys and turtles all safely tended.

They are also the yin and the yang of dairy consumption.

I am fairly confident that Sydney would believe that her life had ceased to be worth living, if she were told she could no longer enjoy milk.

And think of the poor turtles.

Several years ago, Syd and her family gave my family a fun gift: A Mega Ball ice cream maker. Unlike those fancy electric ice cream makers that you plug in and they do all the cranking for you, The Mega Ball requires some effort. But it makes a clever game of it by having the churning result from rolling this device around on the ground. The churning becomes entertainment. As the box exclaims, it’s even “Fun for campers!”

Hey! We like fun. We like camping (theoretically, anyway). We like rolling stuff around as much as the next family. Just one small problem: I don’t Got Milk.

I wish I had been clever and thought to try The Mega Ball with soy milk or rice milk. It just never occurred to me. Instead, The Mega Ball has sat neglected in my garage. Nothing says I can’t dust it off now and start having fun making alt-milk frozen treats. But, hopefully with Sydney’s understanding, and– since it’s for her fellow boy-mama-ing/turtle rescuing friend Elizabeth– maybe even her blessing, I’m downsizing The Mega Ball back to Virginia.

Here’s hoping that two boys plus one great soy ice cream recipe plus one Mega Ball is a formula for some good times and a whole lot more awesome lactose-free treats.

And no lactose-laden regrets.


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