Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cooking With Jayne

I never learned how to cook when I was growing up. I wanted to learn, but my Mom shooed me out of the kitchen every time I asked to help. Mamaw, my paternal grandmother, would let me mix things if I asked, but it didn't really teach me anything about cooking. There was no Internet - for me, anyway - and I didn't dare just start messing around in the kitchen, for fear of setting the house on fire.

At university, I could make mac and cheese, or frozen pizza, or a bowl of cereal. Otherwise, I ate out at a school cafeteria (or, if I was really lucky, Taco Bell!). It wasn't so bad - I lost 25 pounds my freshman year, mostly because I was getting exercise for the first time in my life (walking up and down the highest point in central Kentucky 2 - 4 times a day) and because I couldn't afford to eat more than one real meal a day. After university, living on my own, I made anything out of a box that had explicit directions on the box and didn't require anything more than pouring one thing into another thing and cooking it on a burner for a few minutes (and I still managed to screw it up half the time) - or spaghetti. 

The first thing I ever really cooked was a turkey for a Thanksgiving with friends. I have no idea why I decided to do it, but I did, and the directions on the package, and the Internet, were explicit: it came out perfect, and I made a turkey almost every year after that, even if it was just me. Given how easy I discovered Stove Top stuffing was to make, and how much I love it, I was content to eat turkey and stuffing for a week.

In my late 20s, I complained in a rare phone call with my mother about my lack of cooking skills, noting that I have no idea what it really means to even sauté something, how I don't know how to buy fish, let alone cook it, and on and on. She said I should buy Betty Crocker's Cookbook. She ended up buying it for me for Christmas or my birthday (probably for both, since they are just three weeks apart). And she was right: it was the perfect book to use to learn to cook. At 30, I moved to Austin and it became my cooking bible. It still is - I use it not only for meal ideas, but also with other cookbooks, when those others don't provide enough detail on how to prepare something (for instance, when the direction is "roast the such-and-such before mixing", I had no idea what they meant by "roasting").

I didn't get a microwave until I was in my 30s - another gift from my Mom. And I rarely used it. I used it for popcorn, for the most part. I think I was afraid if I started using the microwave to cook, I'd never stop - and never learn to really cook. 

While I was in Austin, I got the best cooking advice ever while having lunch with a woman I was woo'ing to give my project money; in her spare time, she taught cooking classes, and her favorite was a class that catered to divorced and widowed men. I told her I had no idea what to cook, that I looked at recipes and they just seemed completely overwhelming. We were eating at one of my favorite restaurants, Mother's -- which is also one of only two vegetarian restaurants I've ever liked -- and she pointed to my plate and said, "You like to eat. Start with just two things you like to eat together, and make that. Keep it simple." And she was right: you don't need to make a five course dinner - a two course dinner can be just dandy if it's prepared well.

Once I figured out how easy it was to steam veggies, I steamed my favorite vegetables two or three times a week. The microwave started getting used more - for re-heating leftovers, which I always had, cooking for one. 

In Germany, I was introduced by the man that became my husband to Maggi, a German brand of dried spices that you combine with cream and pour over meat, potatoes or noodles. Maggi is to German cooking as Campbell's cream-of-whatever soups are to Southern and Midwestern working class cooking: fantastic short-cuts to more-than-decent meals. I realize that last sentence makes the heads of foodies explode, but there it is. Throw in some green beans and or onions and or mushrooms during the baking process and it's even better.  

I definitely prefer baking meat and steaming veggies - or throwing everything into a crock pot - than any other form of cooking. It wasn't until 2004 that I learned how to cook brown rice properly (thank you, Internet), and I still get any kind of rice correctly made only about 50% of the time. Frying is too hard. I have yet to fry anything properly and have pretty much given up on it. I also can't fry fish - I have messed it up three times now, so I bake it, period. I can sauté meat and veggies in a sauce, but almost always end up over-cooking one or the other. I leave the grilling to Stefan, though I torment him with new ideas and food he doesn't like ("Here, honey, grill this egg plant for me.") Even with my various cookbooks, I couldn't cook at all without the Internet - I often have my laptop in the kitchen while I cook, for easier referral.

I don't cook at all like my mother or grandparents, except when it comes to a Sunday roast. I don't know how to fry chicken (and my husband doesn't like such anyway - he doesn't like anything still on the bone - but he does really like Shake and Bake!) and I don't know how to cook chicken and dumplings (he doesn't like that either, actually). I use various herbs and spices when I cook, something my mother or grandmothers never do, as they flavor everything with pork or other meat (and I don't eat pork). I love things in a cream sauce, something I never grew up with. I love trying to cook Asian food, and my resolution for 2013 is to try to cook some Middle Eastern food. Unlike when I was growing up, I don't have meat at every meal - and as a result, meat has become a more special event than it was when I was growing up, helping with my budget and health, and also making me really enjoy a meal with meat more than I ever did before.

Another thing that has helped me become a better cook has been cooking while camping. We camp while motorcycle touring, and cook via a one-burner back packing stove that has two settings: high and off. Being able to cook on that has made me a far better cook at home. It's super easy to sauté veggies - yes, we eat veggies while camping. I don't at all understand why people buy those crap MRTE (meals ready to eat) at REI or Bass Pro Shops or wherever for camping. Instead, just buy some Farm House flavored rice or pasta, particularly the ones that don't need milk (although, if you have a cooler bag, you're all set to have some milk), take some oil to substitute for the butter, and you can buy the ones that are in a cream sauce as well. Buy a can of tomatoes or green beans at a gas station convenience store when you stop for gas and throw that in there as well. Or buy the fried chicken breast at the same gas station convenience store, take off the skin (and, if you're me, eat it while you cook), take the meat off the bone, cut it up and throw that in there as well. Learning just how easy it is to have a good meal while camping - not that we don't still sometimes just buy a couple of cans of ravioli - has made me a much better cook at home.

What I still don't know how to do: to easily cook any kind of burrito or enchilada. I can cook those things, and they are really good, if I do say so myself, but they are sooooooo complicated - I really don't like using four pans to cook something, but I can't seem to find any other way to do it. I also don't know how to cook a really great homemade pizza. What I make I like okay, but it's not anything I crave - I cook it more as part of an ongoing quest to try and try again.

I'm not a great cook. I think Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay would run screaming from my house if they were served a meal here. I get it wrong - a lot. But at 46, I can, at last, walk to cabinet and the fridge, and pull together a meal that has at least three food groups in it and that's more than edible. And that's a huge accomplishment.

Also see:

Jayne's crockpot pumpkin soup

Crockpot garlic veggies - something missing?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Evolve or become irrelevant

A followup to my blog the day after the election, will the GOP wake up now?, where I noted how extreme Republicans have become, so much so that people like Dick Lugar aren't welcomed in it anymore:

There are so many topics that I cannot understand for the life of me why they have been branded left-wing. All of the following should never have become politicized in the sense of one party saying such is "good" and the other saying such are "evil socialist plots." These are the kind of topics that everyone except the most extremist among us should be supporting, in principle (I understand approaches can vary):
  • science 
  • fossils 
  • bicycling 
  • solar power 
  • the right to choose an abortion OR to carry a pregnancy to term without the government interfering in either of those choices 
  • birth control use and access
  • public school funding and the vital importance of quality public education
  • public university funding
  • wanting clean air and water for *everyone*
  • growing food in your yard
  • climate change is happening and is exacerbated by human activities
  • access to affordable, basic health care, particularly preventive care
  • Pell grants
  • equal pay for equal work
  • consenting adults having sex
  • adults forming families
  • social security
I get why various aspects of foreign policy, labor relations, trade, how to structure social security and taxation are politicized, I do. But the aforementioned? I don't get it at all. Being against those things is... well, it's ridiculous. Really, it goes against what the GOP says it's about. How can you be the party that is against government interference, but want the government to decide when a woman should or should not carry a pregnancy to term? Or want the government decide which adults may, and may not, get married and form families? How can you be the party of personal responsibility but think access to affordable, basic health care, particularly preventive care is socialism? How can you be the party of business and innovation and be against SCIENCE?!?

Ben Stein was on CBS This Morning last Sunday, was doubling down on the Republican Party stance, saying it's just that the Republicans need to do a better job of selling their "values" to Latinos, blacks and women in order to get back in power. You would think the extremists in his party calling him too "moderate" would have gotten his attention, but, apparently, he still doesn't get it. So let me try:

Dude, you are never, ever going to convince women that they should allow the government to limit their access to birth control or abortion. Never. You are never going to convince women that the government shouldn't be working to ensure equal pay for equal work. Never. You are never going to convince women to support a party where your rock stars call them "sluts." Never. You are never going to convince most 20 and 30 somethings that they should stop caring about the environment, stop supporting gay marriage and stop taking Pell grants. Ever. You are never going to get back into the White House if you stay so freakin' anti-science, denying the age and origin of fossils, plate tectonics, and evolutionary biology - and saying things like "legitimate rape" doesn't cause pregnancy, or that pregnancy resulting from rape is actually a "gift from God."

I dig your rhetoric about personal responsibility and working hard in order to get wealth - but when I see massive tax breaks for extremely rich people and companies that are making record-breaking profits, when I see CEOs getting payoffs for leaving a company while the pensions of the rank and file are called "excessive", when I see that the number one reason for personal bankruptcy in the USA is health care costs, it's really hard for me - and millions of other voters - to take your rhetoric seriously. You need to be walking your talk. 

Republicans, you can be conservative without being stupid. Read up on Eisenhower, at the very least. Try some Barry Goldwater as well.  

Moderate Republicans - you have just got to be out there, surely. Take your party back! Talk about how you do support science, you do not believe that President Obama is a Muslim nor a socialist, you believe the government should stay out of bedrooms and women's medical decisions, and you want to see public schools succeed - and then offer fiscally-conservative ideas about taxation and conservative ideas about foreign policy (which would lead to LESS wars, not more of them).   

Also see white guy Eric Garland's excellent letter-to-a-future-republican-strategist-regarding-white-people.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Jayne's Crockpot Pumpkin Soup


2-3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 apple, peeled and diced
2 cups fresh pumpkin  (the smaller the pumpkin, the better the taste)
1 tablespoon sage leaf
2 celery sticks, diced
3 cups chicken stock
salt & freshly ground black pepper

up to 1 cup cream (I think just 1/2 is really all you need if you want to use cream at all)
2 teaspoon thyme
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoons minced garlic


Scrub whole pumpkin under water, removing all dirt.  

Cut up the whole pumpkin into pieces that will fit into your steamer pot. Using a spoon or an ice-cream scooper, take out all the seeds and stringy insides. Separate seeds for roasting later.

Rinse pumpkin pieces under running water, and then place into your steamer pot.

Steam pumpkin pieces for 20-25 minutes.

Remove pieces and let them cool for 10 minutes (otherwise, you will burn yourself). Remove skin, or, scoop out softened pumpkin innards (these should scoop out very, very easily after steaming). Puree.  Empty into a large bowl. Use 1 cup of chicken broth to rinse out residue from blender and pour into same bowl. Put aside.

Dice and steam carrots, celery and apple together, about 15 minutes. Puree together. Add to bowl with pumpkin. Use 1 cup of chicken broth to rinse out residue from blender and pour into same bowl or crock pot.

Melt butter and saute onion together, about 8 minutes. Puree. Use 1 cup of chicken broth to rinse out residue from blender and pour into same bowl or crock pot. 

Pour all ingredients, including herbs, but NOT the cream, into the crock pot. Stir. Cook on high for two hours, stirring every 30 minutes. Pour in cream, change temp to low, cook for one more hour.

Season, to taste, with salt and pepper.

Divide soup among 4 soup bowls and serve immediately.

Kinda based on this non-crock pot recipe and many others.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Will the GOP Wake Up Now?

It's hard to believe that, back in the 1990s, when I was volunteering with the California Abortion Rights Action League, that we used to talk about supporting Pro-Choice Republican candidates. It's hard to believe because, now, they don't seem to exist.

In 1992, I was preparing to vote for my first Republican ever: Tom Campbell, who was running for Senate. I decided that it was more important to put a Pro-Choice Republican in the Senate than it was to vote for my party, because I was seeing a disturbing new trend in the GOP, one I wanted to nip in the bud. I thought he would represent California well on other issues too, and be a darn fine Senator. But I never got to vote for Campbell, because instead, the GOP chose extremist Bruce Herschensohn - and so, when the election came around, myself and many others voted for Barbara Boxer, who remains in the Senate to this day.

As I posted to Facebook last night, when the GOP leadership decided John Huntsman, Orrin Hatch, Ben Stein, Christie Todd Whitman, Dick Lugar and the like were all too "left wing" or "cooperative," they doomed the Republican party to failure. Don't get me wrong: I've had some choice words for Ben Stein when he comes on TV, especially when he says things like that people who are unemployed just aren't trying hard enough. But I respect his economic expertise, and the others have been statesmen and Americans before they've been Republicans, and I have really, really liked that.

I actually WANT a viable second, even third party - I might not ever vote for such, but I know such would make Democratic proposals better, and would introduce ideas that would give the American people even more options for success. Our country needs a diversity of ideas!

But, instead, the GOP is the anti-women party, the everyone-that-disagrees-with-me-is-a-socialist party. Instead of focusing on proposals that would improve our education system, the GOP works to defund it and calls the teacher's union a terrorist organization. Instead of focusing on jobs, they work to keep women from having access to contraception and gay people from forming legal families. Instead of saying, "Here's some proposals to make health care reform better," they say, "Let's dump it!"

David Horsey in The Los Angeles Times nails it in this commentary today:

A pragmatic fiscal conservative with an enlightened view of immigration and a tolerant attitude on social issues could do quite well... All the obstructionism and all the weird rhetoric about rape and birth control and birth certificates ultimately hurt the Republican cause. 

Wake up, GOP. Dump the rhetoric of fear and hate. Stop being the party that is against science. Stop being the party against infrastructure. Stop being the party of anti-government paranoia. Stop being the party against women. Stop being the party that believes the more wealthy people are at the top of the economic scale, the better off everyone is. Stop trying to take away women's access to birth control.

Right now, there is NO welcome mat in the GOP for single women, college-educated people, gay people, Atheists, people who aren't white, people under 40... as said, "Obama was reelected by a coalition representing what the United States is becoming." And you are ignoring many of the people that make up that coalition. You are marginalizing yourselves. You are making yourselves irrelevant. 

You are the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower. Act like it, and a future election could be yours.

Update: Meghan McCain @McCainBlogette just tweeted: "Keep calling people like me RINO's and see how many elections we keep winning.” She said in less than 140 characters what I tried to say in my blog.