Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sin upon sin upon sin

In which I confess a near occasion of sin. I’m having a conversation with a friend. She asks me if I can still remember the seven deadly sins.

JS: Do you remember the seven deadly sins?

Me: Yes, I do. I went to Catholic school. Surely we memorized them along with Baltimore Catechism #2.

JS: Of course you remember them. Tell me what they are. (She’s calling my bluff. I know them.)

Me: Okay.

            (1) Avarice. That’s #1.
            (2) Sloth. See, I told you I remember them.
            (3) Lust. (I’m beginning to slow down.)
            (4) Fortitude.
            (5) Unsportsmanlike behavior.
            (6) Clumsiness. (I’m biting bits of skin off my chapped lips.)
            (7) Failure to comply.

My snide companion smirks. She smiles knowingly, ever the smarty pants.

JS: You’re wrong, of course. Lust is not one of the seven deadly sins.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Beef Bourguignon Soup

Proving my point . . . yes, I am cooking. A house guest is arriving chez moi tomorrow and I need to have food around. For as long as I can remember I've wanted to have incredible food readily available in my kitchen. I want to open the refrigerator, look in the pantry and say, "Oh my, we probably need to eat something. Let me see what I can find. Oh, voila!" It should look effortless and only I will know how I worked to achieve this seemingly effortless and totally delicious food. It's like creating the equivalent of ramen noodles that Julia Child would make.
 
So I tried yet another soup recipe, this one from a blog I follow called Café Sucré Farine. The blog is in French but I quite adeptly translated it for you. (Lies! Such an intriguing name but the blog is in English and it's really a great blog, full of reliable and delicious recipes.) You can find a link to the blog on the right in my list of favorites.
 
This recipe was a bit tedious--all that chopping of beef and vegetables into 1/2 inch dice. I'm lazy but I did it. And it was worth it. I cooked the soup exactly according to the recipe and it's fabulous. Not as heavy as traditional Beef Bourguignon but intensely flavored. The beef is so tender, so loveable that it could appear effortless. Only you and I will know.
 
All credit to the Café Sucré Farine for the recipe and the photo.

Beef Bourguignon Soup
 
3-4 thick cut slices applewood smoked bacon, approximately 4 ounces
2 tablespoons flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds stew beef meat, cut in ½-inch dice
1 medium onion, chopped in ¼-inch dice
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups good quality dry red wine, a little more than ½ of a 750ml bottle
6 cups beef stock
4 medium fresh thyme sprigs
1 large bay leaf
4 tablespoons pesto, prepared or homemade
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 stalks celery, diced into ½-inch pieces
8 medium carrots, peeled and diced into ½-inch pieces
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons butter
8 ounces cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
½ teaspoon kosher salt
 
Cook bacon over medium low heat until golden brown and crisp, but not hard. Do not overcook. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Remove half of the bacon drippings and set aside.
 
Combine flour, salt and pepper in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add beef and toss with your hands to coat.
 
In a large Dutch oven or heavy duty pot, heat bacon fat over medium high heat until hot, but not smoking. Add ½ of the beef and spread out to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook, undisturbed until the beef is golden brown on the underside, about 5-7 minutes. With a large metal spatula, flip beef to uncooked side and cook until second side is golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon to a clean plate. Add the rest of the bacon fat to pot. Heat until hot, add remaining beef and repeat cooking process as directed above.
 
Once second batch of beef is browned, return first half of beef to pan. Add onion and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add tomato paste and 1 of cup wine. Bring to a boil then lower heat to maintain a low simmer. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally to loosen brown bits from bottom of pan. (I like to use a thin bladed metal spatula for this.) Simmer until most of the wine is absorbed, about 20 minutes then add the remainder of the wine and simmer until almost completely absorbed .
Add the beef stock, thyme, bay leaf, pesto and brown sugar and return to a boil. Reduce to a low constant simmer, cover and cook for 1 hour or until beef is tender. Remove bay leaf and thyme sprigs.
 
Add celery, carrots and potatoes, cover loosely and cook till tender, about 20-25 more minutes.
 
While vegetables are cooking, melt butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. When butter is bubbly, add mushrooms and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally until mushrooms are golden brown, about 10-15 minutes. Add mushrooms and bacon to soup and stir. If soup is too thick add a bit more stock or water. Taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper, if needed.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Pesto Chicken Soup

The way I see it I have two choices: (1) change the title of this blog to Grousing + Praying, or (2) start posting more about cooking. I've heard the people and I'm not going to ignore the groundswell of public opinion; no longer can I turn a deaf ear to the outcry of the masses. Okay, I'm grossly exaggerating. The masses are approximately two readers, give or take one or two. But trust me, I really appreciate both of them. One of them is a student in the far outreaches of Russia who is trying to learn basic English. That alone is a frightening thought. The other is a person in solitary confinement in a prison for the criminally insane. No offense, criminally insane person--I totally believe that you were railroaded by the system and that your mother really was put into the wood chipper by Martians. It has been known to happen.

So in an effort to salvage the title of this blog, I am actually posting a recipe. Tada. I found the recipe on Pinterest and tested it, exactly as written. It really is simple and it really is delicious and it really works well with just five ingredients. Perfect for a cold winter Sunday evening.

All the credit goes to Gimme Some Oven for both the recipe and the photo. Thanks, Gimme, it's a keeper.

5-Ingredient Pesto Chicken Soup

4 cups good-quality chicken stock (I used Penzey's chicken soup base)
3 handfuls (about 3 cups) fresh spinach
2 cups cooked chicken (I poached chicken breasts in the stock, cooled slightly, chopped, then added to pot with the other ingredients) 
2 (14 ounce) cans Great Northern or cannelloni beans, rinsed and drained
1/3 cup pesto (I used the refrigerated pesto from Trader Joe's)
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
 
Stir together chicken stock, spinach, chicken, and beans in a medium saucepan. Cook over high heat until the soup reaches a simmer. Then reduce heat to medium, stir in the pesto, and let the soup continue to simmer for 2 minutes.

Serve warm, topped with Parmesan cheese.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Taking chances

I've just started reading a book on memoir writing. The author stresses the need for a writer to take chances, to be unafraid of criticism or offending people, your basic “let 'er rip” philosophy. I realize I can be very biting, borderline cruel in my criticism of some people. That’s not nice and I try to keep those evil thoughts to myself. But I don’t hesitate to make fun of myself. I thought of a piece I wrote that More posted on the online version of the magazine several years ago. I got some creepy responses and because the staff at More was horribly uncommunicative, when I finally got their attention I asked to have all of my work pulled from the magazine’s website. There was nothing smarmy about the piece I wrote; actually I was making fun of myself, of my naiveté.

So. . . ? Should I take a chance and repost it here? I did post it on this blog several years ago and it didn’t blow up in my face. At least I can control what is here, as much as anyone can control what is on the Internet. I know I’m delusional. So, just to honor my "craft" I’m taking a chance. Here it is:



Yesterday I needed to go to the local office supply store to get a three-ring binder for my French class, an errand that normally wouldn’t have much potential for getting me in trouble. Before I left the house I was reading a magazine article about stimulating creativity. One of the recommendations in the article was to do something out of one’s comfort zone, do something unusual and observe all the unfamiliar details. Motivated by the recommendation in the magazine, in a noble quest for creativity, and with feigned confidence, I left the office supply store and walked halfway down the tired little strip mall, heading for Night Dreams, the adult toy store, something far, far out of my comfort zone. Don’t be coy—you know what that is. I’m an old Catholic grandmother and even I know what it is.

I thought I knew what to expect at the adult toy store. Last year I was invited to one of those silly home parties where instead of selling Tupperware they sell vibrators. Before bringing out the merchandise, the hostess made us play inane, slightly bawdy games in order to get everyone relaxed and giggly, probably in hopes of increasing sales. A saleswoman named Candie speed talked through a description of her wares and passed things around the room for all the women to examine. It was like playing hot potato. No one kept anything for long, but quickly passed each item to her neighbor. Maybe it was supposed to be amusing but I hated the plastic penis party. It reduced a bunch of middle-aged women to junior high girl awkwardness. Sorry, I don’t mean to be disrespectful of junior high girls—they probably would have been totally cool with the whole experience. But if nothing else, it was my introduction to the wacky world of vibrators, leather thongs, and all sorts of things that bump and grind in the night. Still, being in a friend’s living room with a group of women did not prepare me adequately for the full-throttle experience of sauntering alone into a sex shop.

So yesterday I boldly ventured forth in the name of creativity. As I passed Starbuck’s on my way to Night Dreams, an overweight, unshaven foreign man with heavy chest hair who was drinking espresso at an outside table with another man looked at me, grinned, and said “hellooooo” like he knew exactly where I was going. My confident veneer was cracking.

I should have called the hello man’s bluff and ducked into the Jenny Craig weight loss center next to Night Dreams, but I wasn’t thinking fast and my boldness had not entirely evaporated. Yet.

There were a couple of mannequins in bondage and discipline outfits in the window, but for the most part the front of Night Dreams is covered with paper to conceal what’s inside the store. I entered and avoided making eye contact with the other people in the store, just stayed focused on the array of products on display. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a big burly man only a few feet from me and I wondered why he was looking at the merchandise in the women’s section but I had no intention of making idle conversation with him.

Although there were three clerks working in the store, thankfully it was a young woman who walked up and offered me assistance. She was dressed in black leather, heavily tattooed, and heavily pierced. The other two clerks were young men, also dressed in black leather, heavily tattooed, and heavily pierced. Perhaps they were required to dress that way to promote the corporate image.

I asked the helpful sales clerk about a product whose packaging claimed that it received a rave review in Oprah’s magazine, said it was the “Rolls Royce” of those things. Oprah uses these and she admits it?!!! I wasn’t exactly sure what it did, what features a shopper would find useful, so the nice bondage and discipline clerk explained it to me in specific gynecological detail. Being a confident woman and a savvy consumer, I looked down at the floor and said, “Oh, okay, I see.” I still don’t understand why one needs to have an appliance that changes color and what’s with all the cute little bunnies and butterflies? And I kept thinking about my experience with men and realized if I did buy one of those things surely it would soon move to another state just to get away from me. The devices looked formidable enough to call a taxi and head for the airport on their own power.

The clerk left me alone so I could browse through the store at my own pace. There are devices for men to use alone, devices for women to use alone, devices for couples, for groups, for people of any sexual orientation, for people with a wide variety of kinkiness. I really don’t know what people do with all of those devices but I didn’t have the nerve to ask the clerk about them and, having heard all the public health messages about safe sex, I didn’t want to touch anything without protection. Any vestige of boldness gone.

You can believe one of two things: (1) that I bought something and I would never admit it, or (2) that I completely chickened out, thanked the nice young lady, and promised her I’d think about it and get back to her. Take your pick.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Resolution fail

Forgiveness, tolerance, patience, compassion, trust. It’s six days into 2015 already and I’m here to report to you that I have failed miserably. Perhaps this should hold the record for the shortest time ever from launch to fail for New Year’s resolutions, hereinafter referred to as NYR.

Caveat—I don’t perform well when anyone gives me responsibilities or creates any expectations of me. Apparently that includes me having expectations of my own behavior. My rejection of authority includes myself? Lord, help me. I make myself dizzy just thinking about it. It’s like thinking about eternity. The thought of eternity used to keep me awake all night when I was a young Catholic girl. Just how long is it? And now it’s the thought of me rebelling against myself. Where does it begin; where does it end?

So when I made the NYR and promised myself that I would be a kinder person in 2015, I was doomed to failure. Who started this doggone tradition anyway? I reject NYRs and all they stand for. Furthermore, I renounce every NYR I ever made and I call for the people to stand up and revolt. Stupid hippie, just sit down and eat your yogurt and be sure to throw in some organic flaxseed meal.

Note that my water supply switched from Falls Church City water to Fairfax County water in 2014. I suspect some sort of conspiracy that is affecting my thought process. Don’t even think of uttering the word senility to me.

Abject failure. It would be nice if I could really go for it and be a full-blown bitch. Sorry, it’s just ugly cranky unkindness. A real bitch would have done it with much more intensity.

I would like to give you details, dear readers, perhaps a more coherent explanation of how I failed. Nope, not going there. Suffice it to say, there’s a certain person in my life who tries my patience. I wanted my reaction to change. It didn’t change.

Could I have promised to lose weight or to exercise more? I wish I had—that would have been so much easier. But I would have blown that too. It snowed overnight. It’s cold and gray and just too wintery for me to have one iota of discipline. I shoveled out my car today so I could move it for the snow plow to clear out my space. My broom handle totally snapped off. It was a crisis. While moving the car I noticed I was driving by the grocery store. Sad grocery store—the floors were wet from the sloshy boots and there were few people in there. So I felt obligated to buy some Talenti vanilla gelato and some crispy brownie things. The crispy brownie things were on sale. It was the least I could do.

So . . . what to do about the NYR fail? After grousing about the situation for a couple of days and beating myself over the head about it, I realized I was repeating the same mistake I always make when faced with a dilemma. I try to think it through and come up with a reasonable solution. I rehearse conversations in my head and obsess about what I’ll say and do the next time. Silly girl! That hasn’t worked in the past, why do I think it will work this time? So I reeled myself in and said, “Lord, I screwed up again. My way isn’t working. Can I just give this back to you? I’m praying about it but remind me that your way is always better than my way, your solutions are always much better than anything I could devise. So, sorry, I failed. I’m giving it back to you. Phew. Thanks.”

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Luddite

Is there a feminine version of the word Luddite? Can I perhaps be called a Ludditress? Or a Ludditienne? It’s an ugly word and I don’t think I can fancy it up. Luddite/Cruddite—it’s one of those words that sounds like what it’s describing.

In today’s vernacular, a Luddite is a person who is behind the times, slow to adopt technology, or perhaps even verging on being openly hostile to technological advancements. (Wikipedia says the word is used as “a derogatory term applied to anyone showing vague technophobic leanings.”) My son said he thinks I’m a Luddite. My daughter wasn’t there when the word was uttered, but I’m sure she would agree. Hell, I agree, except I don’t think being a Luddite is all that bad.

A hardcore Luddite would not be writing on this computer, not posting on a blog, and not using the Internet. But I just used the Internet to do a little research. Wikipedia—frighteningly, the fount of much knowledge—describes Neo-Luddism as:
 
. . . a philosophy opposing many forms of modern technology. According to a manifesto drawn up by the Second Luddite Congress (April 1996; Barnesville, Ohio) Neo-Luddism is "a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age."
 
Wow, they have a manifesto and they even had more than one congress. For people who espouse simple living without technology, they got pretty organized in their leaderlessness. I wonder if they have a database. While the simple living thing is appealing, as I read more I began to be less and less attracted by Neo-Luddism. Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) is a Neo-Luddite and some of them believe in using violence to achieve their goals. Okay, back away from this idea quietly and no one will get hurt.

So forget the Neo-Luddite thing—I’m simply a person who has not adapted well to technology. I do love air conditioning, electric washing machines, and gasoline-powered automobiles. I have a regular wired telephone in my house and a cellphone. It’s a flip phone and it works just fine to call people on my limited calling plan. How many ways does a person need to communicate? In person works—a nice face-to-face conversation is lovely. For now the U.S. Postal Service is still delivering mail. Telephones work just fine to have a conversation or even leave a voice mail message if necessary. I send e-mail and I’m on Facebook. I don’t twitter, instagram, or text with various devices. I read books that have paper pages because I love the feel of a real book.

I admit it—I do have vague technophobic leanings. Not because I eschew technology but because change is coming too fast for my brain to absorb and it all confuses me. All those lights and buttons and things making strange noises. Devices have gotten smaller and smaller at the same rate my eyesight is getting worse. Is it a coincidence or conspiracy?

At worst, my kids have become frustrated with me. They live in a different world than I do. On good days they are more patient, though rarely amused, with my obsolete communication skills. They say it would be so much easier if I would just text them. I want to hear the sound of their voices. When they were babies there were no such devices. Can I tell them that I gave birth to them and I think I’ve earned the right to hear their voices instead of getting a text from them? Probably not. So call me a Luddite.

I need a new printer. That’s all the technology stress I can handle this year. Maybe one day I’ll get some sort of iPhone, some gadget that has “the” apps like GPS and things that track your calorie intake and tell you what time the next flight leaves for Bora Bora. I want to go to Bora Bora—I don’t know where it is or why I want to go there but it sounds like a place where I might fit in better. They are probably living in caves and eating what they kill. In Bora Bora I probably wouldn’t be a Luddite.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can't see the forest for the tree

So I dashed into the military surplus store today to finish up the last of my Christmas list. Of course I do my Christmas shopping at Ranger Surplus. They sell things I never imagined I could buy and I have a vivid imagination. Where else can you buy Russian pea coats, baby camo, gas masks, stun guns, and everything for the suburban survivalist?

I found exactly what I was looking for—why should I ever be surprised?—and headed for the cashier at the front of the store. In the back corner of the store, several people were engaged in a very heated argument. I wasn’t close enough to hear what they were saying. There were two employees at the cash register in the front—a sinewy heavily tattooed older dude, and a baby-faced tattooed younger dude. (I pulled down my sleeve to hide my own feeble tattoo, shamed by its size and lack of color.)

Older dude says, “They’re doing it again, the same old argument they always have.” And he explains to me that they are arguing about whether or not there is sound when a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it. I ask if they are kidding.

Younger dude says, “No, they’re serious, ma’am. There has to be a sound because sounds create vibrations. Vibrations are vibrations, whether anyone hears them or not.”

Older dude says to younger dude, “Oh, come on! Someone has to hear it for it to be a sound.”

And the two dudes continued the argument. So now there was an argument in the front of the store and the back of the store, both on the same unsolvable puzzle.

As I got to the door, I turned back to them and said, “Merry Christmas. Can you be satisfied knowing that this question will never be answered?”

“Merry Christmas, ma’am,” they said in unison before resuming their argument about the tree falling in the forest.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Acceptance without understanding

You do realize, don’t you, that I write this blog for myself, as a way to work out things in my feeble brain? I’ve been sitting by a fire, talking to God, listening for God, holding my aching head. And crying.  

Once again I am reminded of the need to accept what is, to accept God’s will in my life, even when I have absolutely no understanding of the why. There are so many whys. God must be tired of me. I ask Him why, why He keeps taking away people and things I love. Is it His plan to strip me down to nothing? No response. I ask Him why a certain person in my life (unnamed to protect the clueless) behaves toward me the way he does.  The answer I get is that it’s not about me, I’m not the center of the universe, have compassion. I ask Him why I’m alone, and He doesn’t respond. I ask Him why, when I try so hard, why . . .  Even I get sick of hearing myself whining. 

I know there are Bible verses that address this very question but I’m not in the mood to look them up. My head hurts and reading Scripture makes me cry more. I love the Lord, I believe, I believe. I know that He has it all in control, that everything will make sense eventually. Even the painful things that tear me apart now won’t matter at the end of my life. But when I’m hurting here and now and my patience is running thin, I need to be reminded. It’s one of those times when I want God to come and sit beside me on the couch, in front of the fire, and patiently explain things to me again. Yet again. I’m a slow learner when it comes to the inscrutable ways of God. Sometimes I just need Him to be a bit more scrutable. (Apparently scrutable is not a real word—why not? Just another one of my why questions.)

I know that all things work for the good of those who are called according to His purpose. I don’t have to look up that one—I know it’s in Romans somewhere. Like I said, I’m feeling too lazy, too much of a headache to look it up. I trust that it’s true but it doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with it sometimes. I don’t think God is saying that all things are good. No, not by any stretch of the imagination. Death, disease, war, mayhem, cruelty, and heartbreak suck; they are just part of the whole enchilada called the human condition. God knows that this enchilada sucks (even though He probably would not approve of my language—sorry, Lord). What I need to be reminded of is that those things, those wretched human things that suck, don’t matter in the long run. Where I struggle is seeing past today, seeing past the pain of this flawed humanity to the greater glory of God. In the end, none of it will matter. What matters is that God is God and I’m not, He has a plan, and in the long run, when I’ve slipped out of this mortal coil, I’ll get it. But now, while I’m still in the mortal coil and I don’t get it, I want Him to tell me why.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Day zero

This was the day. Today I had my dear cat, my darling girl, put to sleep. It was gentle and quick. She was so beautiful lying there after her last breath, the stress and pain were gone from her body. My heartache is too raw today, the house too empty. I will process all of this in time.

Funny how my life has been so steeped in grief. I’ve been grieving the death of my father, the murder of my brother, and the death of my dear Mike. And now I add Miss Kitty to the mix. I’ve been going to a grief support group and doing a lot of reading on sorrow and healing over the past couple of years. There are still more questions than answers. It probably will always be that way.

On this sad, sad day, there are two things that I have seen clearly for the first time.

One is the realization that I have held God responsible for what happens in my life—I shake my fist at Him and ask Him how He can allow such terrible things to happen. Yet, I go to this same God for comfort, I trust Him to carry me through this tumultuous life that He brought about.

My second thought is that today is the day Eva died. Tomorrow will be day one, one day after the day she died. I’ll take it one day at a time.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Dying on a cold cloudy day

Everyone has the right to die in their own unique way. The day is cold and damp, nothing but deep clouds in the sky, not even a hint of sunshine. And Eva spends nearly all of her time resting on her bed with the heated throw to keep her warm. Her body seems to be shrinking before my eyes. She eats little—some rice cooked in beef broth, a little mango yogurt, a few slivers of deli turkey. She drinks a few sips of water. And I keep the death watch. I get up in the middle of the night to check on her, to take her to the bathroom. I don’t sleep much. Even in the middle of the night I usually find her awake, sitting up in her bed, staring vacantly into the darkness. She may acknowledge me when I ask how she’s doing but she turns from me if I try to hold her. She is in her own world it seems, retreating into something that is beyond my understanding.

But it has been her life, and now it’s her death. I don’t own it. The only input I have is how I care for her, how I try to honor her journey. It’s breaking my heart to know that today, tomorrow, soon her final day is coming. I will miss her.

Eva is 17 years old, rather old for a cat. She is beautiful, even still, even though her body is failing fast, I still see that beautiful kitten, that young wild girl in her face. I won’t let her suffer. When the time comes, I will do what she would want me to do. She will tell me when it’s time or she will simply die on her own. I am cherishing these last days while at the same time I am steeped in deep sorrow. My girl, my companion for so many years. . .