Saturday, December 29, 2007

Holiday conundrums

Why does it take four days to put the Christmas decorations away when it only took two to put them in place!

And, my storage closet must be akin to a Tardis because when I haul out all the containers to store the decorations, the pile of boxes looks bigger than the inside of the closet, and I know they fit in there!

This is where that Christmas village starts looking less and less attractive. The longer it takes to wrap and pack up houses and accessories for storage, the more I question why I'm doing it. Good thing there's eleven months to forget the misery before I haul it out again.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

It's Christmas -- someone in the house is sick. As usual.

Let me tell you, there is NO WORSE way to wake up in the middle of the night. The sound of my husband upchucking slowly pierced through my sleep addled state. So I got up, stayed with him, got him drinks of water and generally did all the steadfast wife stuff (only once retreating to the other bathroom to be a little sick, myself -- sorry, it got to me). Finally, his stomach calmed down and he could get to sleep. I will make him stay in bed and ply him with Gatoraid and 7-Up as soon as his stomach will take it. He's probably dry as a prune after that bout.

I knew one of us would end up sick before New Year's Day. It always happens. We had conscientiously Purell'ed ourselves after every foray out of the house, wiped down shopping carts with wet wipes, stayed far away from anyone with as much as a sniffle. All to no avail. At least 75% of the last 15 Christmases, and all of the last five, one or both of us have been sick.

I hoped that after we retired it would be easier to stay well. And, all through the year it had been. No colds, no sore throats, no stomach viruses. Since I wasn't spending my days anymore sitting in the cubicle next to the guy with two small children who seemed to be peerless germ factories (infecting his wife, him and then everyone they contacted!) it had been easier. Husband's been home full time since spring, and managed to get through outpatient hospital visits this summer without catching something, a feat in itself.

I must have gotten cocky. Now, I just have to keep Lysol-ing the bathroom and pray it doesn't find me next. But why oh why do we have to be sick during the holidays?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Holiday homeowner curse redux

The garage door opener finally died completely and the repair guy just left after relieving me of $50 for the parts alone, plus installation. Let's see.......December 19th. Right on schedule. Nothing in my house breaks except near a holiday.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cookie Avalanche

Christmas is a perfect excuse to exercise my love of baking and of feeding people. So, for the last fifteen years at least, I have been making up holiday cookie baskets for my neighbors, the mailman, the trash guys (the best way of guaranteeing good service from public works - schmooze them), my hairdresser, the lawn guy, etc.

These aren't the usual six chintzy little cookies in a cellophane bag with a bow. Oh, no, I make lots and lots of cookies. LOTS. I baked for two solid days this weekend. There were chocolate chip, oatmeal chocolate chip, spritz (in four flavors), molasses, chocolate sour cream drops, lemon-raspberry, pecan sandies, snickerdoodles, thumbprints, oatmeal raisin. There were probably more, but I'm so tired my memory is starting to go. Then I wrap up 4 or 5 dozen of them per gift bag. It's probably several pounds of cookies.

And they're all good. I personally taste test them. (Can't let inferior merchandise go out, can I?) So, between all the mixing and baking and testing by the end of the baking weekend, I can't stand the smell of sugar. I roasted a chicken for dinner and all I could think was "Oh, thank heavens the kitchen doesn't smell like COOKIES!"

Everyone seems to enjoy them. Sometimes I get requests - my neighbor likes brownies, so I did a pan of them for him last Christmas. I included chocolate fudge with the cookies boxes for my hairdresser and her business partner this year and mentioned that the candy may get too soft at room temperature and may need to be refrigerated. They responded, "Oh, it won't last that long."

I just added two new neighbors to the cookie list this year. One couple moved in two doors down last spring. The husband has health issues and they have been having some bad times. It really seemed to take the wife aback that someone she only speaks to at the mailbox and waves to as she drives by would do this. It's such a little thing, it amazes me that people are grateful for the gesture. The new neighbors in the house behind mine will get their first holiday cookie drop tomorrow. I think they're Muslim, but a good spritz cookie is ecumenical.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christmas candy fiasco rescued

Well, I was trying to make fudge, but I just may have invented the home-made Three Musketeers. I called Mom for her Million Dollar Fudge recipe, and evidently I misunderstood the amount of marshmallow cream to use because the fudge turned out light chocolate and soft and spongy, instead of the usual dark chocolate and smooth and fudgy. And tasted only of marshmallow cream. Too raw and rich. What to do? Because I have a lot of money sunk into this 9 x 13 pan of chocolate marshmallowy stuff.

I let it set in the refrigerator while I did two batches of spritz cookies (which turned out very well) and then cut it into 3/4" cubes. By this time the flavor had mellowed and tasted like the filling of a Three Musketeers bar. I ate another one this morning and the effect is more pronounced. So today I will go to the grocery and get some dipping coating, half white and half chocolate, and make fancy dipped candes with nuts and coconut and chopped pecans on the top and everyone will think I am a master candymaker, when all I am is a person who obviously can't transcribe a recipe!

Wait, wait, an addendum: My mom made the fudge yesterday and it didn't set up either (it NEVER fails for her, what the heck?). She couldn't sleep, so got up in the middle of the night and tried to dip the candy cubes like I also thought of, and it didn't work. The candy just melted into the dipping coating. She didn't freeze the fudge centers, though. So it may just work if you freeze them first.

However, she did come up with a solution. She put the cubes of too-soft fudge back in a pan, melted in another 12 ounce package of chocolate chips, and then beat in 3/4 cup peanut butter. The fudge then set up and looked properly chocolate-ty. I tried this too, and am waiting for the new pan to cool. It looks like it will work. It's also the most chocolate thing you ever tasted.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

My Christmas Village needs zoning restrictions

Well, folks, I've done it again. The world's most complicated Christmas decoration has been installed. I'm talking about my Christmas village. It takes up four shelves, a round table and the the writing surface of the secretary desk in the foyer. The round table sits under the shelves, adjacent to the secretary desk, so all six vignettes flow together. The secretary desk surface was this year's addition. I need to enact some serious expansion restrictions; there's nowhere else to go in the foyer, and when I suggested expanding to the shelves in the living room my huband just rolled his eyes.

This village started with a three ceramic houses from the Bi-Lo grocery about 12 years ago. They were about 8 inches tall, lit by a night light bulb, cutely detailed and on sale for $3.99 each. I bought them and set up a little mini-scene on the television cabinet with quilt batting for snow. Addictions always start small.

After Christmas I bought a fourth house at the Bi-Lo on a clearance sale for even less money. The next year the village had four buildings and some small pine trees from a Colony 21 store in the mall that specializes in these miniatures. The year after that I bought a set of carolers and a tiny park bench.

After that, well, it just got nuts. I now have fifteen buildings, from a church to a town hall, a community Christmas tree, a statue in the town square, two bridges, two skating ponds, farm animals, a Christmas tree stand, postmen, rock walls, a train track, cars, street signs, villagers - everything from a produce seller to a street sweeper, a lighthouse and a wharf!

The wharf was the most inspired addition. I saw a lighthouse at Wal-Mart and had to have it. Then I had to work it into the scene. So, I took three layers of foamcore board and made a base which steps down to the seashore. It sits on the round table under the shelves. The top of the slope has a gas station and a house (I say it's the lighthouse keeper's cottage). On the bottom at one side is a marina and at the other is the lighthouse. The wharf stretches out from the marina and has two small ships tied up. Workers roll barrels and carry bags from the wharf up the hill. An old sea salt sits on the marina porch and tells tall tales. There's a creek that drains into an inlet at the seashore with a frozen skating pond and a stone footbridge on the path from the house to the marina. Up by the gas station, the harbor master is helping some children make a snowman while an SUV is filling up at the pumps (ha ha, couldn't help it) and the greengrocer has set up a produce stand. He is filling the bins while his assistant argues with a chef about the produce.

Every part of the village is filled with little scenes like this, each one with a story. That's the part I love about it. It's not just a bunch of ceramic figures. As I put it together each year, I can vary what the citizens of my little world are doing. There are always some constants. The farmer is next to his barn, tending his cattle, the carolers are at the community Christmas tree next to the church, and three little boys congregate outside the high school, balancing their books on their heads and goofing off.

I can add street barricades and make road construction if I want. I can vary if the ambulance is in front of the hospital or on the road. The Pepsi delivery truck may be parked at the drugstore or it may be at the gas station. The vacationing couple with binoculars is at the inn out in the woods this year, but next year they may stay in town at the hotel. The raccoons are getting into the trash cans beside the brick barn, but they've gone to the farmhouse before.

It's all great fun. Every year I start browsing at the Ace Hardware to find a new addition to the village. Since there's no more room for building, I find new small accessories to create more detail. This year, I found small woodpiles, perfect for the farmhouse yard, and snow sleds which I leaned against the buildings near the front porches. It always snows in my village at Christmas and now the kids can go sledding. The boys next to the high school also now have bicycles to ride.

But the finishing touch came not from accessories I can buy for the village but from my sister-in-law's gift. She found a Christmas tree ornament at Hallmark of a Santa in an old Woodie convertible. He now sits at the railroad crossing on Main Street, waiting for the train to pass.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Why I hate car security systems

Through circumstance, we have ended up with the second car parked in the driveway under a car cover. This is not optimum, just required for the time being. This car wasn't being driven much anyway, so we parked in on the side of the driveway under the oak tree and I bought a cheap (read, not waterproof) car cover to keep the bird offerings and tree drippings off its paint.

Bad car owner that I am, I don't check on it much, just leave it sitting there under its gray cover. So I've let the battery run down --- twice. (So sue me.) I found it was dead the second time when I went outside Sunday to retrieve some CDs from the 10-disc changer in the trunk and there wasn't power to eject the CD holder from the changer. So, Monday afternoon (AFTER having a flat tire on my other car and the garage door opener acting up again (see previous post) -- great car day!) I stripped off the car cover to put the trickle charger on the battery and found both front windows rolled down. The day after a rain. Rats. No apparent cosmetic damage to the interior thanks to the shelter of the oak tree, but now the passenger window switch doesn't work right.

Now, when I covered up the car, the windows were closed. I would be willing to swear to it. So I scratched my head and tried to find out what happened. I asked my husband for the keys (it's his car, nominally) which he keeps on the security system remote keyring. After the charger had run awhile, I started the car after dinner and let it idle in the driveway. It was OK: "Fresh Air" was on public radio and the heater worked just fine, so it was quite cozy. I mean to drive it today when I go to the bank, and since wasn't sure how the buttons worked on the remote, I looked it up in the owner's manual. The writing wore off the remote years ago, so you have a large gray button and three small black buttons, all the same size.

That's when I found out that you can roll down the front windows with the remote. WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO DO THAT? My husband carries the remote in his pocket, and at least twice a week sets the car alarm off by leaning on it and accidentally depressing the remote control buttons. It seems that last week, he leaned a little too long on the button and rolled down the windows. Which I couldn't see because of the car cover. Which allowed the rain to come in and wreck the power window control.

Oh, yeah. The remote also allows you to turn on the dome light. Which I also wouldn't see under the car cover. Which might explain the low battery.

As of today, he has a new keyring.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I sure must like my dentist, I drive two hours to see him

And why do I drive two hours to the town where I previously lived to see the dentist I started with in 1983? Because, if you manage to find one medical professional that you don't want to strangle you are very, very lucky and should reward that luck with fidelity.

First off, I speak from experience. I tried a local dentist. He installed a crown that is still sensitive to pressure four years later. Sooner or later I'll have to have the thing removed and replaced, at my expense. Another dentist stopped half way through a root canal on my husband and ejected him from the office with the explanation that he couldn't finish it and my husband needed to find an endodontist. Without even referring him to a specialist or another dentist. A real sweetie, that one. His current dentist can't seem to get the novocain injected in the right place to actually numb the tooth. Ever had a root canal without the proper anesthesia? You don't want to.

Physicians? Not much better. My last internist had the personality of a doorstop. He probably said three words to me during an entire physical exam. The doctor before that could get through a consultation and examination without once looking you in the eye. And that was after you finally got out of the waiting room, where there were always 15 or 20 people ahead of you. She never kept to any schedule, and I suspect she double-booked regularly. The one before that prescribed Zantac for two years without bothering to investigate what actually was causing my stomach pain (turns out, it was gallstones, but he never thought to check, I guess).

So when I stumbled on my current dentist (who happened to be located about 1/2 mile from my old house) and found he was competent, talented, up-to-date, innovative and kind to boot, then and there I decided unless I move to the West Coast or something, I'm sticking with him. The last three moves have taken me farther and farther from his office. It's a two hour drive now. But I still make the trip.

Now, the trick is to find a general practice doctor that lives up to my dentist's precedent. I have an appointment Thursday with my husband's GP, who seems to be an actual human being. The doctor doesn't know what a recommendation that is.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Let there be Christmas!

Ok, "White Christmas" was on TV last night. It is officially the Christmas season. And it's fine with me. I love that movie.

I freely admit that, except for "It's a Wonderful Life", "White Christmas" is the motherlode for schmaltz and corn. But I don't care. Everything about it is perfect, from Rosemary Clooney's velvet voice to Danny Kaye's goofy dancing. And when Bing sings the first line of the title song, when everyone's on stage and the snow is falling, if you don't melt into a warm sentimental puddle, there's something wrong with you.

Now, if they'll just play Alastair Sim's "Scrooge", I'll be one happy girl.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The holiday homeowner curse

Well, Thanksgiving has come and gone (and left a pound or two behind, soon to be joined by its Christmas cousins) and, as night follows day, I didn't get through the holiday without something trying to break at the house.

You see, I have a curse on my household. If something is going to break, it will only do it on a national holiday. This curse has followed me through three houses. Septic tank backs up? On December 23, of course. Refrigerator dies? December 24. Washer drain floods the crawlspace? Thanksgiving day. Heat pump dies? New Year's day. Flooded basement? Martin Luther King Day. Air conditioner bites the dust? Labor Day (an anomoly -- the curse likes cold holidays). I have had roof leaks, plumbing leaks, dead cars, dead appliances. This of course in addition to the other annoyances like being sick as a dog with the flu or something very like it the last two Christmases running. Some years I just want to jump straight from Columbus Day to Fat Tuesday and skip all the winter holidays entirely.

I didn't move the car out of the garage from Wednesday morning (turkey pick-up) until Saturday afternoon. We were having Thanksgiving at home and I'm not a crazy woman. By Wednesday afternoon the local talk radio station was reporting two mile long traffic backups on the interstate through town. I was snug at home and very happy to be there. But by Saturday I hoped that the road madness had subsided and needed to run a few errands. So, I loaded my car and hit the garage door opener button. The door glided open smoothly. I pulled out of the garage, fastened my seat belt and tapped the door opener button again.


Irritated, I pushed it again. Maybe the battery was getting weak. The door did a little jerk-jerk-shudder and the light on the front of the opener responded, with its three-quick-blinks signal, meaning that something was keeping the door from closing. Grumbling, I put the car in park, unfastened the seat belt and jumped out of the car to check whether a leaf had blown in and blocked the path of the safety cutoffs at the bottom of the door.

They were clean. Nothing was on the threshold in the path of the beam. The stupid thing just wouldn't work. I hit the button on the wall. Jerk-jerk-shudder-blink. Then nothing. Well, this is just peachy, I thought. I was dressed to go out and wasn't in the mood to drag out the stepladder and diagnose a cranky Sears garage door opener. (And, did I mention that the ceiling in the garage is almost ten feet tall? So it's WAAAAY up there.)

I'll deal with it later, I decided. I'll just unlatch the door from the traveler, lower it by hand, and lock it -- OH RATS! Why won't the garage door lock? The old wooden door had undergone some warping / shrinkage / sagging / whatever and now the lock bars won't align with the holes in the latch. A quick check revealed that the bars are guided at each side by a bracket attached to the door with two screws, one in a hole and the other in a slot. If I take out the screw in the hole, I can slide the bracket on the slotted screw until the bar will align with the latch. A quick trip to the tool box for a screwdriver, and the door is locked. Finally, I'm on my way.

Two hours of TREMENDOUSLY HORRIBLE traffic later, I returned home. So much for subsided road madness. Time to dig out my work clothes and tackle the garage door opener. I cleaned, I lubricated, I dusted, I poked and prodded. Nothing. Jerk-jerk-shudder-blink. This opener is DOA. I decided to at least fix the lock properly, so I got the drill and reinstalled the screws into the guide brackets on each side.

I stared malevolently at the frozen traveler on the overhead bar and pecked petulantly at the control button. Didn't help, just made me feel better. Well, at least the door was disconnected and locked. I could use the side door to go in and out, and leave the car in the driveway until Sears sent a repairman. . .

Suddenly, the opener shuddered to life and the traveler glided down the rail and clicked into the catch on the door. What the heck? I knew it was nothing I had done, but don't look a gift horse in the mouth etc. etc., so I unlocked the door and grabbed my car keys so I could put the Subaru safely in the garage. Except now it won't work again.

Time to take a break. I went into the kitchen and got a Diet Rite, my drug of choice. Leaning on the counter, I considered what could be wrong. Whatever it was, I probably couldn't fix it. I returned to the garage, deciding to disconnect the door again, hoist it by hand and put the car in from the impending rain. Just for giggles, I gave the opener another push. AND IT OPENED. And closed again. And opened again. Just like it should. Just like it had never stopped working.

It's now Monday and the garage door opener is still fine. It's just playing with my head.

To quote Charlie Brown, "I can't stand it. I just can't stand it."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The birds that work for Merry Maids

There I was in the "computer room" (third bedroom for the rest of the world), me on the laptop and the husband on the other computer with the 28" flat panel monitor (I ain't lyin', people, the thing looks like a drive-in movie screen) comparing the virtues of Fuji's itty-bitty camera with the other itty-bitty cameras -- besides, of course, that Overstock has it on sale and he has a 10% off coupon. I look up and see that two streaked sparrows have lit outside of the window, clinging to the brick, and have methodically begun to pull down spiderwebs and clean all the bugs and spiders out of them. Yum, yum. They're even reaching behind the shutters and cleaning all the webs out of the cracks.

This of course is a great service to me, since the one thing I can state about my house is that I have more spiders per square foot on this quarter acre than any other property I've owned. Well, I've also got gnats in the spring, but that's more of a regional thing -- anyway, I hate, hate, hate spiderwebs in the corners of the windows, and the way I clean them is to hold onto the tippy-end of a broom handle and try to fish them down while standing on the ground. Because ladders are pretty much a no-go with me. Too old, too clumsy, too fat. No. Just no. So anything that gets me out of this job is a Martha-Stewart-worthy very good thing. They finish with the third bedroom window and flit away, hopefully to the kitchen window because there's some really big webs in that one.

Besides being a great service, this is good because we, the cat and I, like to watch birds and lately I've been feeling guilty about the feeders in the back yard. Not about having the feeders or the cost of filling them, but about the fact that a hawk has scoped out my yard and figured out I have a higher than normal bird concentration. I've seen him circling and I saw him get one sparrow (on my patio, no less). He actually flew into my sliding door yesterday morning while I was sitting 6 feet away from it reading the web news. Scared the spit out of me -- made a huge bang. He was unhurt and flew away to perch in the dogwood and shake his head a little, like what the heck was that?

It's a bad thing to put the birds in danger's way just because we like to look at them, but I have to give the little feathered critters more credit. They've not been as plentiful in the last few days, like they know even with the veritable Shoney buffet out there it's not a safe place. We should probably put the feeders away for a month or so and let the hawk find another hunting ground. Hawk's gotta eat, but I would rather not have a relationship with his dinner.

In the meantime, the birds can check out my front porch light. I must have 20 pounds of bugs in there.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Tale of a shoe

No good deed goes unpunished. I start back on my morning walks and am rewarded with a blistered heel. What the heck is going on here? I have worn this style walking shoe since 1988. There was a short gap where they were hard to find (but then I discovered online shopping!) and they always fit the same. The last pair I ordered to replace the worn-out (or, in my words, the well-broken-in) tan ones I had relegated to garage cleaning and outdoor work seemed just a little, well, short. I wore them on jaunts to the grocery and such to soften them up. They still seemed maybe a little smaller than usual. Shoes always stretch, I told myself, and these always have.

So, I donned them this morning and drove to the park. About three laps of the park later, my left heel is starting to smart. I make it several more laps, and call it a morning. Sure enough, when I get home I have a doozy of a blister on the back of my heel and my toes feel scrunched. Have my feet grown?

In a word, nope. I had them measured at the shoe store today while on the hunt for a new pair of walking shoes and they still size out at a healthy 11B. So why are my new size 11 walking shoes short now? And why are my other new size 11 dress shoes and loafers just fine? Why can't we have consistency?

Let me tell you, finding size 11 shoes is no picnic any day, and certainly not where I live. If you wany any variety and selection you are forced to do mail order. Sites such as Zappos do provide the service of user reviews, which give you an idea of how the product is going to fit and perform, but shoe fit is so personalized you can't tell until you order them and try them on. And return them and swap them. Over and over. To illustrate how often this has to happen, my husband calls the UPS the "shoe delivery man". Ouch.

Today I went on a flesh-and-blood shopping trip (as opposed to my usual point and click in my jammies shopping trips) and finally found some walking shoes I hope will work. It must be something about walking shoe construction nowadays but all the 11's seemed short. I needed an 11 1/2. Hah! Try finding that. Most of the shoe store clerks blush and avert their eyes when you ask for an 11. It seems that they get just one pair of each style in an 11 and they go fast. Meanwhile, multiples of 7's and 8's are languishing on their shelves. It's a fact that women's feet are trending larger. The stores should stock accordingly.

My solution wasn't optimal, but it will probably work. I bought, gasp, a size 12. Admittedly, it was a very skimpy size 12, more like an 11 1/2. They have enough room for my toes and won't cram my heel back against the shoe. They're also the size of canoes. And they're white. I kinda hate them. But if they will keep me from blisters, I'll wear them.

As white and canoe-sized as they are, these sneakers were head and shoulders about the other shoes I saw, appearance-wise. It's probably the most telling statement I can make to reflect my age when I say, when did all the athletic shoes get so butt-ugly? Color combinations I swear they told me in home economics class didn't go together. And not just two colors. Three or four, with swooshes and silver piping and mesh and funky spring heels and flared soles that look like hooves. And a lot of technical-sounding hoo-haa about ergonomic research and energy return. It's a shoe, people, not a rocket to Mars.

Remember when sneakers looked like Converse Chuck Taylors? With that flat rubber sole and the little circle patch on the side its only ornamentation? Of course, Chuck Taylors are all spiffed up nowadays; they have one with a double upper, which looks like the shoe ate another shoe, with two sets of laces and everything. Another one has a cluster of three eyelets at each spot where there's usually one. Kind of looks like the suckers on an octopus tentacle.

I didn't need any of that. I just need consistently fitting support for pounding around the park, not shoe bling. Like my new big white Nurse Ratched shoes. Thank God I have no vanity.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

I don't have dinner parties, I feed people

If you come to my house for a meal, don't expect fancy. Which is not to say that you'll ever be presented with a paper dinner napkin at my table. I just don't believe in it. You'll have proper table linen, and you'll be eating off the Spode plates with a nice glass for your iced tea or whatever. I just don't get all formal about it. If it's only one guest, we'll probably be eating in the kitchen.

Our good friend came by the house for dinner last night. This guest proved problematical when it came time to plan the menu. He's limiting the carbs for medical reason. But he's a real meat and pasta person. Not big on the vegetables. Never met a bean. A hunk of meat and a baked potato suited him just fine, or anything with tomato sauce.

So what could I make last night? I had some lovely steaks, so the "hunk of meat" portion of the menu was set, but what for a side dish? All my America's Test Kitchen cookbooks called to me from the shelf, but I was stymied at every turn. Potato galettes? Nope. Glazed carrots? The honey nixed them. Something peas or corn? High carb vegetables, can't do that. Zucchini? I can't do that, too much zucchini this summer. Ditto tomatoes. Not sure if he eats squash, not sure I can eat beets. The friend won't eat beans. The greens were looking a little sad at the grocery. My husband is not a fan of cauliflower. Rice is out, although the arborio has been whispering "Risotto, risotto" to me from the pantry for weeks.

This was all so much easier when I could make the friend a big pot of pasta and we'd all go into a carb stupor after dinner.

Finally I settled on broccoli. Steamed, with balsamic-basil vinagrette sounded temping, but I wasn't sure. Certainly steamed but how to dress them for a picky eater? Of course, cheddar. A wonderful, silky cheese sauce. For my money, you could put cheese sauce on a brick and make it palatable. I rounded it out with a garden salad with lots of peppers and mushrooms and carrots and tomato. The guys drenched it with blue cheese dressing (evidently, fats aren't a problem) and I wrinkled my nose and reached for the lite ranch.

But, I couldn't help wondering, why does the idea of cooking for someone, even a friend we've know for 30 years, send me into a paroxysm of worry? Preparing food for someone is so personal, so intimate, that it feels easy to screw it up. You are preparing nourishment for their physical bodies, and hopefully giving them pleasure and warmth and welcoming. If all goes well, they leave your home feeling cared for, catered to and coddled. It's a big undertaking. But it feels so nice when it works.

I especially like to make dinner for our male friends who are single or employed away from home and travel a lot. I honestly don't know how these guys don't come down with beri beri or something, the way they eat. They seldom or never cook. One single guy met with the realtor in her office when he sold his last house, and when she asked if it had a gas or electric range, he didn't know! I'm not kidding here. The only food I've ever seen in his kitchen is a bag of Pecan Sandies. Another one eats every meal in a restaurant - breakfast, lunch, dinner. His range was broken for a year and it didn't impact him at all.

The friend that was here last night is working 100 miles from home and living in a rented apartment during the week. He usually gets home on the weekends, but recently, work has been 10-12 hours a day/7 days a week. It made me feel good when he said that was the best meal he'd had in a month.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Avian Subsidy Program

I like birds. Always have. I have had pet birds (don't right now because of the feline queen of the house -- she's an indoor only cat and locking up one excitable heavy-on-the-hunting-instincts cat with a poor terrified caged bird 24/7 doesn't seem fair for either of them). So, I feed outdoor birds and create the all-birds-all-the-time channel outside the sliding door for the cat and myself. In our house, each window is a different cat-TV channel for her to watch. The chipmunk channel is out front. Danger-speeding-cars is on the bedroom window.

This bird-feeding stuff is great in theory but the suckers are eating me out of house and home. If I've let the feeders run out, the chickadees will sit in the top of the dogwoods and cuss me out while I fill them. Of course, the chipmunks and the gray squirrels are contributing to the speedy depletion of seeds, but the birds do plenty of damage. Especially the mourning doves. I must have 20,000 living in my trees alone. And the goofy things can't find a better place to nest than the grapevine wreaths on the front and back porches. I had three nests this year. But that's another post.

Anyway, all the birds in bird-dom are out back gorging on free seeds. Well, they're seed-eaters, that's the plan. But along come the woodpeckers, and that's where I get cranky. These are bug-eating birds, darn it. So why are they eating my expensive black oil sunflower seeds? Because they're lazy, that's why. Nature loves a mooching opportunity. And not just on the feeders. I had a red-headed woodpecker wolf down half a suet cake in one sitting. But what can I do?

For now, I just suffer the cost and keep filling the feeders. But, the more I feed, the pushier they get. This morning, I looked out the bedroom window to see a downy woodpecker clinging to the side of the window and industriously pecking on my brick house. Was this a protest action? A couple of the feeders are empty. I better get out there before the natives get restless.

Monday, October 29, 2007

And why is this blog called "It's the cat's house"?

So now you know. Meet the queen of all she surveys, her royal highness, hunter of crickets, the master moocher.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Musings, culinary and otherwise

Just cleaned up the kitchen, again, after dinner (Sisyphus and that rock have nothing on me - nothing more inevitable and repetitive than washing dishes) and am contemplating the success of the last meal. Win some, lose some.

First off, although you can get some great recipes from America's Test Kitchen (ATK) on PBS, don't be seduced by that public television imprimatur into thinking that all their recipes are going to be healthy. We're talking butter and cream in serious rotation here. I don't know if they're worried about their cholesterol levels, but brother, they should be.

The recipes looked promising. Scalloped potatoes, how can you mess that up? Four pounds of russets, heavy cream, onions, garlic, cheese. What's not to love? Well, the onions and the garlic were NOT GOOD IDEAS. They hijacked the dish and carried it to a place were the potatoes didn't have a chance. And all that cream? Not enough Tums in the western hemisphere tonight for the way I feel.

I got seduced by a new recipe's charms again. Nothing wrong with the way I make scalloped potatoes. Been making them that way for 40 years. They're good. But I read cookbooks like other people read novels, and sometimes I fall for their siren's song. Christopher Kimball sure looked like he enjoyed them on the ATK video. But, it's like my Mom says, every time they take a bite on these cooking shows it's like they never had food before. I'm still not convinced that ATK isn't getting a kickback from the garlic grower's association. They put the darned stuff in everything.

Now for the success: They have a mean recipe for pie crust and I just had a piece of absolutely grand apple pie. The crust has, believe me, sour cream in it. It also has 16 tablespoons of butter, cold, cut into cubes. That's TWO STICKS, people! Good grief, why wouldn't it be good? I hope Vermont has adequate ambulance service; Kimball is going to need it if he keeps cooking this way. Anyway, with half Granny Smith apples for texture and half Gala for sweetness (didn't have Golden Delicious in the house) precooked to soften them and immerse them in cinnamon and sugar, that was some good eats.

Then, back to the kitchen to clean up..................

I have to tell you, that smooth-top electric range irritates the crap out of me sometimes. Cleaning that thing is half my after-supper work. You can't just wash the darned thing, oh no, you have to buy special ceramic range top cleaner, and you'd better buy it, because for some reason almost nothing else (except maybe a sharp paring knife, scraping gently -- but I didn't say that) is going to get boiled-over pasta or splattered and burned-on tomato sauce off the ceramic surface. And the paper towels -- I go to Sam's Club and buy the nine roll packages now because I run through them like water. I didn't buy three rolls of paper towels a year before this range came into my kitchen. The only way to use that ceramic cleaner is to dump a glob of it on the range top and start scrubbing with the paper towels, changing them frequently. You don't need to buy the expensive ones, the cheaper and more abrasive the better. Burned on potato starch does not give up easily.

Of course, the only other option here would have been to buy the old-fashioned coil eye ranges. This benighted place doesn't have natural gas service. I would give something critical to get a gas stove. I learned to cook on them and electric ranges make me crazy. You can't just set the burner to a temperature. You sort of choose a temperature continuum. Suppose you adjust the knob to about 350 degrees. The heating coil is going to cycle, don't you know, so it's actually more like 350-370-360-340-320-310-330-350-370-340 and so on. On/off/on/off/on/off/on. This gets especially critical when you want to get a pot of soup barely simmering. The temperature fluctuates so much it becomes almost impossible.

My idea of internet porn is the Thermador website. If you cook any at all, tell me you haven't just stared slack-jawed at those gorgeous appliances. Pity that their ranges cost as much as my entire kitchen remodel did. So I'm stuck with Whirlpool. But I have lusted in my heart for those stainless steel beauties.