Food and Drink

Read-Fried Potatoes

According to our father, one of my sisters, as a teenager, made the best fried potatoes he’d ever eaten. The secret? She would let the potatoes brown until they were just thiiiis close to burning, which meant they came out perfectly, deliciously crisp. Here’s how she—and perhaps others of us in the family, who are certainly not going to admit who I am—does it:

Peel and slice however many potatoes seems about right for the number of people you’re feeding. Go ahead, toss in one more—these will be so good, people are going to take second helpings.

Chop an onion, or two, or half of one, depending on your taste.

Heat oil in an iron skillet.

Toss the potatoes and onions into the skillet, spread them around, turn the heat down to medium.

Sit down at the kitchen table with whatever book you are currently reading. Resume reading until you begin to smell potatoes on the verge of burning. Finish paragraph, mark place in book, put it down, stir potatoes.

Repeat as needed, until chapter is finished and potatoes are brown and crisp on both sides. Salt to taste (the potatoes, not the book) and serve.

See? So simple anyone can do it. There are, however, a couple of important secrets to success.

One is careful selection of the main ingredient. Oh, don’t worry about the potatoes. Red, russet, large, small, peeled, unpeeled—it doesn’t really matter. Whatever you have on hand will work just fine.

No, what you have to choose wisely is the book. One with especially long paragraphs can be a problem. Even worse is a gripping mystery or thriller, especially if you’re near the end, and in just two or three more pages you’ll uncover the murderer or the hero will escape and succeed in saving the free world, and you just can’t put it down. Right and justice may prevail, but that’s small consolation in exchange for a skillet full of charred potatoes.

A deeply emotional story has its pitfalls, as well. Say the long-lost lovers have just been reunited, or the almost-villain has just redeemed himself with a noble self-sacrifice and is breathing his last, and you are reading as fast as you can, with a lump in your throat and a damp wad of tissues clutched in your hand. Even if you manage to come up for air and another tissue in time to keep the potatoes from burning, there’s a serious risk of them turning out soggy and oversalted as a result of overflowing tears.

The second secret is, no matter how exciting a scene you’re in the middle of, put the book down while you attend to the potatoes. Continuing to read while you stir might seem like a good idea, but like so many other methods of multi-tasking, it is less efficient than it seems. For one thing, you risk spattering hot oil all over your book or e-reader. Too many little blobs of grease on the screen, and not only is it hard to make out the words, but the device might not respond to your finger-swipes when you want to turn a page. (Please don’t ask me how I know this.) And you don’t want to be that library patron—the one who returns books splattered with yellow spots and smelling like the kitchen of a fast-food restaurant that barely passed its last inspection.

Besides, with your attention on your reading, there’s a good chance of serious stirring errors. Either you’ll miss half of the potatoes and burn the others—in which case you might just as well have sat at the table and finished the chapter. Or you’ll stir too forcefully and risk knocking the hot skillet completely off the stove. Then you’ll not only have a mess to clean up, but you might get a serious burn. Even worse, if the iron skillet falls on your foot you’ll end up with broken bones and have to be taken off to the emergency room.

If that happens, you’ll get no potatoes. Although, while you wait for the doctor, you will have plenty of time to finish your book.

Categories: Family, Food and Drink | Tags: | Leave a comment

Better Living Through Technology

Science and technology have given us innovations like self-driving cars, the ability to peer into deep space, and 3D printers that can create everything from toys to body parts.

This is all very well and good. But why can’t some of those brilliant scientists and engineers devote a fragment of their attention to little day-to-day things? Here are a few inventions I would like to see that would make life just a tiny bit safer or more enjoyable.

A container for leftovers with a pop-up sensor to warn you when the contents have been in the fridge long enough to contain microbes that are unsafe for human consumption. The more sophisticated version might even be able to search scientific archives online and alert you that whatever is growing on that leftover lasagna might be a previously undiscovered life form.

A cup for hot chocolate with a device—maybe a little mesh insert somewhat like a tea strainer?—to keep marshmallows at the bottom of the cup. Then you could save that extra sweetness for last instead of slurping it first and leaving the rest of the cupful to taste disappointing by comparison. You’d avoid the telltale marshmallow mustache, too.

A miniature water heater for that sprayer at the dentist’s office that the hygienist uses to rinse out your mouth. Surely a couple of engineers with sensitive teeth could figure out a way to get rid of that awful jet of cold water. And while they’re at it, they could do something to warm up the air from that evil dryer nozzle.

Eyeliner and mascara applicators with extra-short handles for nearsighted people who have to get within a couple inches of the mirror to put their makeup on. As a bonus, these could be sold with little face masks to keep your breath from fogging the mirror and also avoid those pesky nose prints on the glass.

Hats for sun protection or warmth that stay on in the wind but don’t squash your hair until you resemble Donald Trump in an overcrowded elevator. Maybe something like a construction hard hat, which has an inner ring you can adjust to fit while the actual hat sits away from your head? Oh, wait—I’ve seen myself in a hard hat. Maybe this concept needs a little more work.

A fitness/diet tracker programmed not just to nag you about steps and calories but to tell you warmly, at random intervals, “You need a reward. Go sit down and have a brownie.”

Inventions like these would truly use science and technology for the betterment of humankind. Nobel committee, please take note.

Categories: Food and Drink, Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | 1 Comment

Cookie’s Chuckwagon Blues

This is not exactly a sad country song, but it probably qualifies as a cowboy’s lament. With thanks (or apologies, whichever is more appropriate) to Nancy, who started it.


Cookie’s Chuckwagon Blues

With my chuckwagon and my old Dutch ovens,
I’ve cooked a lot of years out on the range.
But I don’t know about these modern cowboys;
Their ideas of grub is passing strange.

Tex won’t eat no more of my hot biscuits
Because his diet now is gluten-free.
He has a rice cake with his beans and bacon.
Cowboys sure ain’t like they used to be.

Slim is munching carrot sticks and celery.
“I got too fat,” he tells me with a sigh.
“Why, I can’t even see my own belt buckle,
Until I can, it’s no more apple pie.”

High cholesterol is Shorty’s problem,
So now he don’t eat butter, eggs, or lard.
He says, “Trans fat is gonna kill ya, Cookie.
Better buy some olive oil, old pard.”

“More beans,” says Joe, as he comes back for seconds,
And it reminds me of the good old days,
Until he adds, “I need to eat more fiber.”
Whatever happened to old cowboy ways?

I miss the days when me and this old wagon
Served cowboy grub as good as grub could git.
But the day some cowpoke asks for tofu burger,
That’s the day I tell the boss, “I quit!”

Categories: Food and Drink, Just For Fun | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Losing One’s Composure

Suppose, theoretically speaking, a person decided to wash the pots and pans from last night’s spaghetti dinner the following morning, and that person had an appointment so she was in somewhat of a hurry.

Yes, she should really have done the dishes the night before, when the plates and glasses and such got run through the dishwasher, but after a busy day capped with guests for dinner, she was tired. So the pots sat patiently on the stove overnight, which gave them a chance to bond fully with the bits of spaghetti sauce and pasta starch clinging to their insides.

This person first moved the composting bucket from the sink to the counter so she could fill the sink with hot soapy water to soak the pots. This bucket, a handy-dandy object she had made herself by cutting off the top of a square plastic laundry soap container, holds about a gallon of vegetable peelings, fruit rinds, egg shells, and such. It was full. And yes, she should really have taken it out the night before.

While the pots were soaking, the person opened the dishwasher, pulled out the top rack, and began to put away the clean dishes. Moving quickly—she had an appointment, remember—she reached up to put some glasses into the cupboard, pulled her arm down, and caught the composting bucket with her elbow. It promptly tipped itself in precisely the right direction to regurgitate its contents over the edge of the counter into the dishwasher.

The person responded with colorful language, including a word or two that some of her grandchildren would be shocked to know she knew.

Picking strawberry tops, carrot peelings, grape stems, and blackened banana peels off of cups and glasses that were clean and gleaming a moment earlier wouldn’t really have been so bad. But the fact that they were garnished with little worm-like spaghetti remnants and leftover sauce made the chore somewhat less than appealing.

Oh, well. If one is going to dirty a bunch of dishes in one fell swoop of a misplaced elbow, at least it helps to be efficient enough to do it when they’re already in the dishwasher. And if one is going to dump scraps out on the compost pile to return to nature, it probably doesn’t hurt to have them well mixed ahead of time. The person even managed to make it to her appointment on time, leaving a reasonably clean kitchen behind her.

And thankfully, no one was around to hear the colorful language, even though it was completely understandable. Nor would we want to further humiliate this person by revealing her identity. The whole experience, after all, was already decomposing.

Categories: Food and Drink, Odds and Ends | Tags: | 3 Comments

Pepperoni in the Rain

If you’re having a tough day, there’s nothing like listening to sad country music to make you feel better. All your real-life troubles take on a new perspective after 15 or 10 minutes of listening to variations of, “You’re gone, and I’ll never get over it, and I’ve been here in the bar drowning my sorrows for 13 years now, but I still can’t understand why you left me.”

Then there are the times when real life just begs to be a sad country song. The other night, for example, I got a phone call from a family member while she was “delivering pizzas in the rain.”

With a line like that to start with, the rest of the song practically writes itself:

Since you left with all our money
All my luck went down the drain.
Now I’m out in my old pickup
Delivering pizzas in the rain.

My only hope is that one evening
When that phone begins to ring,
I will hear you ask me sweetly
For “a large with everything.”

With my heart as extra topping,
I will rush it to your door.
And the only tip I’ll ask for
Is to see your face once more.

Now, that’s extra cheese.

I don’t know about you, but I feel better already. Except for a slight craving for Canadian bacon and black olives.

Categories: Food and Drink, Just For Fun | Tags: , | 2 Comments

“Just Like My Mama Used to Make”

Biscuits for breakfast. Light, flaky, and fresh from the oven. Covered with sausage gravy. Paired with scrambled eggs. With butter and honey melted deliciously into them. Or even—my personal favorite—with peanut butter and homemade chokecherry jelly.

It’s a great idea. So great that, visiting my parents this week, I decided to surprise them one morning with baking powder biscuits. They would go perfectly with the leftover sausage gravy, made for supper a few days earlier by my sister the excellent cook.

In my somewhat misplaced enthusiasm, I overlooked one inconvenient detail: baking powder biscuits are not one of my kitchen accomplishments. Mine tend to melt in the mouth like, say, week-old sourdough bread. Or hockey pucks.

Up early in the quiet of my parents’ kitchen, I browsed through the recipe books. I found the perfect biscuit recipe, taped inside the back cover of one of the books. It was in the handwriting of my sister the excellent cook. How could I go wrong?

I mixed up the biscuits, following the recipe precisely. I spaced the biscuits far enough apart on the pan so they had room to rise. I preheated the oven and put them in.

When I took them out, they were only a little larger than they had started. They were slightly brown on top and very brown on the bottom. Their texture might politely have been described as “firm.” The only thing “flaky” about them was my unreasonable optimism that this time would be different from all the other times I’ve ever made baking powder biscuits.

My parents ate the biscuits and politely said they tasted good. Which, actually, with the sausage gravy, they did. No surprise there. The gravy, remember, had been made by my sister the excellent cook.

We agreed—my parents out of polite pity and me out of desperate grasping for excuses—that the problem had to be the baking powder. Sure enough, the expiration date on the can turned out to be six months ago. That was close enough to plausible excusability for me. At least this time; it didn’t necessarily explain why I never can seem to make baking powder biscuits as well as my sisters, my father, or my mother.

Then my mother said, “But why didn’t you just use Bisquick? That’s what I always do.”

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: , | 6 Comments

You Never Miss the Water Till the Well Runs Dry

There’s nothing like knowing the water is shut off to make you immediately thirsty. Fortunately, today’s shutoff wasn’t an emergency, so we were prepared. The full pitcher, kettle, and assortment of water bottles on the kitchen counter ought to give us more than enough water to drink until the well is back in operation. (Of course, drinking all that water has inevitable consequences, but no worries—we have containers of water for flushing, too.)

Actually, the well hasn’t run dry. The pump has run out of oomph. Not surprising, when you consider that it’s been working away quietly and reliably for four decades. This morning, in a scheduled end-of-life intervention, it pumped its last drop. The well guys are out there right now, pulling pipe and checking for leaks and redoing wiring and whatever else goes along with replacing a pump in a well that nobody has paid much attention to for forty years.

This morning, in the shower where I usually think most of my great thoughts, I was thinking grateful thoughts about the luxury of having water that pours lavishly over my head at the turn of a faucet. Washing the breakfast dishes while the water was still running, I couldn’t help but notice how many times I turned the faucet on and off to rinse each plate and cup and handful of utensils.

I like to think I’m not a water waster. When I was growing up (fair warning: here comes a “walking to school in the snow, uphill, both ways” moment), scrimping on water was a necessary habit. Our farm had plenty of well water, but it was both destructive to pipes and dreadful to taste buds. I used to feel sorry for the cows, who had no choice but to drink the stuff.

In the house, we had water of excellent quality but limited quantity. It was hauled from the town of Winner, 20-odd miles away over first dirt, then gravel, and eventually partly paved roads. As far as I know, the man who delivered it made his living with his water truck. Every so often he would drive into the yard and back up beside the house to refill the cistern.

That cistern was absolutely forbidden territory to us kids. Its round steel top, maybe eight or ten feet in diameter, stuck up a few inches out of the ground, just right for sitting on or walking around the edge of. We were not allowed to do either. This rule was strictly enforced, as we were quick to explain to cousins and other visitors. I remember occasional reminders to “Stay off the cistern!” being shouted out the kitchen window. I don’t think any of us ever even thought about going so far as trying to open the lid.

I found it fascinating, then, that the water guy was so nonchalant about doing exactly that. The lid was a round metal cap perhaps 18 inches across, in the center of the cistern. He would pry it open, plop the end of his hose into it, and open the valve of his water tank. We weren’t allowed close enough to see it—to this day I have no idea how deep that cistern was—but from a safe distance we could hear the water gushing.

While I assume the water guy made deliveries on a regular schedule, every now and then we would run out of water. This meant a phone call and a dry wait until he could make it out with a load. It was always a relief to see his truck coming up the lane.

All these years later, I suppose I take for granted the fresh, pure water that pours out whenever we want it. Today, though, I certainly don’t. With the faucets all dry, and people I don’t know doing things I don’t understand out at the well, it’s a good day to stop and think about what a luxury that water really is.

Categories: Food and Drink, Remembering When | Tags: | 3 Comments

Everyday Earth Days

Did you do anything special in honor of Earth Day this week? I didn’t, really, unless you count having leftovers for lunch.

I never even thought of this habit as environmentally friendly, until after lunch when I heard a radio interview about wasting food. So now I can pat myself on the back for avoiding food waste, when all this time I thought I was merely avoiding cooking. I can even feel proud of my extra commitment to saving energy. Not only do I practice efficiency by cooking once and eating twice (or three times or sometimes even four), but sometimes I save even more energy by refrigerating, microwaving, and eating the leftovers in the same bowl.

Overall, I do live a fairly “green” lifestyle. Almost every week, for example, I dutifully haul my reusable bags off to the grocery store. And at least, oh, half the time, I even remember to take them into the store with me instead of realizing when I get to the checkout that the bags are still in the back seat of the car.

I don’t buy snacks in single-serving packages. You can’t imagine how eco-friendly and virtuous it feels to buy M&M’s by the large 12-ounce bag instead of in those plastic-wasting little bags.

I don’t pollute the environment with toxic cleaning products, because I hardly ever do any cleaning. And when I do, I generally use plain water, because either I can’t find any cleaning products, I’ve forgotten to buy cleaning products, or it’s been so long since I did any cleaning that the cleaning products in the cupboard have all evaporated.

I don’t waste resources on lawn care. First of all, I generally don’t apply fertilizers and weed-killers. Second, I do very little watering. This approach not only conserves water and keeps potentially harmful chemicals out of the environment, it also means the grass doesn’t grow very well. As a result, I save even more energy (my own and the planet’s) because I only need to mow the yard about once a month.

I don’t buy bottled water. With rare exceptions; I have to admit we did buy a case of 24 bottles back in February. We were traveling, forgot to fill our reusable water bottles, and stopped at a store to buy a gallon. We found that a) they didn’t have water by the gallon and b) buying the 24 bottles on sale was by far the cheapest option unless we wanted to consider getting lite beer. I’ve felt guilty ever since we walked out of the store with them. This week, thank goodness, we used the last bottle. It was a weight off my environmentally-conscious conscience.

And that reminds me of an environmental irony I noticed recently. That icon of green living, a little hybrid car, was parked in front of an office building. The back cargo area was filled with cases of bottled water.

I bet there was a single-serving bag of M&M’s in the glove compartment, too.

Categories: Food and Drink, Living Consciously | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Discounted Seniority

Last week I heard a talk about “how not to grow old.” The speaker did a nice job of presenting a lot of the standard advice: stay active, eat well, continue to learn and keep your brain busy, enjoy the moment, and so on.

I have to admit, though, that I listened with a somewhat cynical ear. As several older members of my extended family have discovered over the past few years, some of the not-so-great aspects of aging tend to whack you upside the head regardless of your best efforts with yoga, vitamins, or positive thinking. Besides, the speaker seemed two or three decades too young to be an authority on the topic. Either that, or the advice she gave was really working well for her.

One tip she offered did catch my attention. Never ask for the senior discount, because it means you’re thinking of yourself as old.

What she didn’t say was how to respond if someone else, who apparently thinks of you as old, offers you the senior discount.

I do know one response that, based on personal experience, is probably not recommended. I was traveling with my daughter and her friend, who were both 20 at the time. We stopped at a motel in Dillon, Montana. When I raised an eyebrow at the room rate quoted by the nice young man behind the desk, he quickly added, “Of course, you might qualify for a discount. Do you belong to AAA? Or AARP?”

Shocking myself as much as I did him, I slammed my hand down on the counter. “That’s an insult! Do I look old enough to be a member of AARP?” And I went off on a rant about senior discounts, and how rude it was to assume that people qualified for them, and I’m not sure what all else. In my defense, it had been a long day of driving and I was tired. Besides, I was joking—mostly. Meanwhile, the two pretty young women with me were cracking up in a way guaranteed to embarrass any nice young man who just might have been hoping to impress them. When the poor guy gave me the final room rate, he was very careful to explain, “And this is the Triple-A discount.”

Perhaps it wasn’t one of my finer moments. Especially since nowhere in my rant did I reveal that, as a matter of fact, I was 52 and thereby officially old enough to join AARP had I cared to. If, by chance, you are reading this and you are a man in his early 30’s who worked at a motel in Dillon, Montana, 12 years ago, please consider it my public apology.

In the decade since, I’ve become a little more relaxed on the topic of senior discounts. I have even—please don’t tell anyone—occasionally gone so far as to order a meal from the senior menu. I don’t do it easily, though; there’s always an inner dialog first. It goes something like this:

Inner Voice A (the frugal one): “The senior menu is cheaper.”
Inner Voice B (the health-conscious one): “The smaller portion on the senior menu has fewer calories.”
Inner Voice C (the logical, practical one): “Why don’t they just include those smaller-portion meals on the regular menu? Lots of younger people would probably like to order them.”
Inner Voice D (the one who’s the real me): “Chronological age be damned. I am not now, I never have been, and I never, ever, ever will be old enough to order off the senior menu.”

Most of the time, I end up listening to Inner Voice D. But at least I don’t let her slam her hand on the table and shout at the waitress.

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: , | 3 Comments

And the Beet Goes On . . .

Last month, on the NPR program “Here and Now,” a chef named Kathy Gunst gave one of the most effective sales presentations I’ve ever heard. About beets. I was listening in the car, and by the time she was finished with a 10-minute interview, I was ready to drive straight to Safeway, buy a bunch of beets, take them home and cook them.

In spite of two facts: a), I’m really not excited about beets, and b), I’m definitely not excited about cooking.

How did she get me so excited about a fat red vegetable I don’t even care about? She used six tools to create an unbeetable way to sell an idea. Here’s how she did it:

Stay UpBeet. I don’t care much for beets, but Kathy obviously does. Her enthusiasm about them was genuine. The energy she gave off was contagious and let even a lukewarm beet-eater like me “Catch the Beet.”

Beet Your Own Drum. Not once during the program did I hear Kathy say “you should” or “you need.” She didn’t tell us that we ought to like beets or why; she just talked about what she liked about them.

Lay Down a Beautiful Beet. This was radio, remember. All she had to work with was words. And yet she used words to appeal not just to our ears, but to all our senses. She described the flavor and texture of beets in specific terms and made them sound delicious. She talked about the different colors of beets—not just red, but orange and yellow and white. She described slices of the different colors arranged on a platter so vividly that I could see it.

Don’t Beet Around the Bush. Kathy was direct and clear when she talked about the nutritional value of beets. They contain B vitamins, fiber, folates, anti-oxidants, and all sorts of other stuff that’s good for us. She gave us the basics in a way that was easy to understand and remember.

Keep a Simple Beet. On the rare occasions that I catch part of a cooking show, I am usually daunted by their elaborate recipes and complicated processes. Half the time they use ingredients I’ve never heard of, can’t spell, or have no idea how to pronounce. Instead, Kathy made cooking beets seem easy. Just roast them—which is simple and also keeps in the nutrients and enhances the flavor. Even better, it makes them easy to peel. Just put on disposable plastic gloves or stick your hand inside a plastic bag and rub the skin off. No mess, no staining, no sweat. She made it sound so easy even I could do it.

Know How Long to Let the Beet Go On. Kathy was brisk and packed a lot of information into her presentation. She focused on the right sized bite for the time she had. She said her say and then Beat It. She didn’t let the Beet Go On, and On, and On.

Since this presentation was so effective, did it work for me? Well, sort of. Even though I was tempted, I didn’t drive to the grocery store and buy some beets. However, I did get excited enough to look them up.

And Kathy wasn’t kidding about the health benefits. Beets are great food. In fact, according to one account I found, they might even be great medicine.

In a small rural hospital in Siberia, during a blizzard, a doctor had to do emergency open-heart surgery on a middle-aged man. The surgery went well, but the man needed blood transfusions and the hospital’s supply of blood was gone. Blood donors couldn’t get to the hospital because of the storm. The doctor took blood from every possible donor on the hospital staff, including himself. It still wasn’t enough. At last, in desperation, the doctor caught sight of an orderly going past the OR with a food cart. On it were bowls of borscht—beet soup. The doctor knew his patient was close to death. There was nothing to lose. He grabbed the food cart, hooked up an IV, and transfused the patient with borscht.

Miraculously, the man started to recover. After a week in the hospital, he went home, and he has gone on to lead a healthy, active life. He has just one small problem.

Every now and then, his heart skips a beet.

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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