On the Tenth & Eleventh Days of Christmas

I did exactly what I said I would. Well, almost exactly. I went to my Happy Place grocery store. I made the French onion soup. I spent hours in my kitchen creating a mess and yummy food at the same time. I did dishes and dishes and dishes. I did laundry. I was disgustingly domestic. Liberated Professional Me hated me.

But I didn’t make the lasagna until the Eleventh Day. It was a new recipe, supplied by Tyler Florence via the internet. I had first made my college professor-cum-friend’s pecan shortbread bars, taking care to heed warnings about bubble-over and the dangers of burning sugar smells. I managed to get the bars done with neither of the offenses happening… not even a drip of sugary goodness anywhere. Then it was time for the lasagna.

That bubbled over. At first it was just a few drips on the bottom of the oven. Then there was some smoking. Huh. Okay. Happens. I turned on the vent and opened a window. Then I shoved a sheet of aluminum foil onto the bottom of the oven– more to save myself the trouble of having to scrub out blackened beef and sausage and cheese juice than anything else.

But seemingly within moments, I looked up and the house was full of the haze of lasagna smoke.

Say, who was it who decided that every room in a house has to have a smoke detector?

Three dwellings ago, I learned a great trick: when your kitchen capers seem to go slightly awry (or your oven revolts), dampen a washcloth and put it over the smoke detector. Use a rubber band if it’s mounted on the ceiling.

I cannot tell you how often that little trick has come in handy.

I scurried around the house, climbing various chairs/stools/ladders, covering the smoke detectors with damp washcloths secured by rubber bands. I turned on ceiling fans. I opened every blasted window despite the January air. I even opened the back door, risking the possibility that an alley rat would smell dinner and come to check it out. Which sounds like a Disney movie, but is definitely not.

Meanwhile, let me be clear: nothing was burning. The lasagna was fine. My cooking was not in question. (I would be insulted if it were. I never burn things. I am very proud of that. For some really, really stupid reason.) It was just the drippings on the bottom of the oven that were smoking up the joint. Seriously smoking up the joint. Like, it was pouring out the oven. Next thing I knew, I was pacing around with a wet towel, flapping it in the air, trying to clear the air. Anybody walking by outside would have seen it.

I heard sirens.

Oh, God. Ohhhh, please don’t be coming to my house because some neighbor thought I might be burning the place down. This will be the third time in as many dwellings that the fire department will have shown up.

In my defense, the first time was because my downstairs neighbor had “fallen asleep with a pizza box in the oven,” and I was the one who had called the fire department. It was the night I moved in. I personally think he was smoking more than a pizza box. Who puts the box in the oven?! Jackass.

The second time was because my carbon monoxide detector went off at 3am. Odorless, colorless. Clueless. I had to call.

Fortunately, the sirens passed me by. I live near two hospitals and several main roads, so sirens aren’t unusual. These guys definitely sounded like they’d been coming for me, but happily, no.

I wound up having to turn the oven off 15 minutes before the lasagna was supposed to be done. I settled for letting it sit in there with the door closed but without the recurring flame of gas fueling the mess. Forty-five minutes later, I was halfway inside the thing, trying to scrub it out, because I had remembered that my brother-in-law’s cousin and her boyfriend were coming for brunch the next morning and I had a frittata to bake, and I didn’t want to smoke them out of the house.

I literally had my head in the oven.

Which accomplished exactly nothing. There was still a thin layer of blackened lasagna juice covering much of the bottom of it.

Everything in the house smelled like smoke. Even the cat smelled like smoke. I googled “how to clean a gas oven without chemicals,” more because I didn’t have any chemicals handy than because I was concerned about my brain and lung function. I found  a trick using baking soda, salt and water. I’m supposed to leave that paste covering the insides of the oven overnight and then scrape it all up, along with the blackened lasagna juice, in the morning.

I wonder what smoked frittata is like.


On the Ninth Day of Christmas

You know it’s getting cold when I start fantasizing about food. I become a glutton of comfort, googling recipes for soups and chili and (as I said in my last post) lasagna. And this year, my new thing: brunch. Since I work nights and weekends, seemingly interminably, it occurred to me that brunch might be the better way to host and exorcise my cooking demons. Bonus: you’re practically required to drink before 5pm when you have brunch.

“Brunch has been a Thing for ten years,” Joey told me from Brooklyn when I declared my 2013: Year of the Brunch intentions via Facebook message to the Ohio 5. I could almost hear his boredom. I could almost hear his eyes rolling. Joey is one of those people who is always snapping pictures of his food and posting them on social media. Which I only do very occasionally.

“I know it’s been ah Thing,” I told him. “But this year it’s my Thing. And don’t start telling me how passe’ I am, or it’s no brunch for you!”

I am collecting recipes from all over the place… instructions for strata (the plural of which, I’ve decided, should be “strata” – if it isn’t already), frittata (which is just fun to say), quiche, and my sub-obsession: savory cheesecake. I had a slice of one on the Disney cruise a year and a half ago, and zowee, was it unexpectedly delicious. Rock shrimp and caramelized onion.

Also? There is virtually no difference between strata, frittata and quiche. Mostly the divisions come in crust vs. no crust and method of prep (frittata is commonly cooked on the stovetop before being transferred to the oven).

Saturday I’m having my brother-in-law’s cousin and her boyfriend for my first brunch. I think I’ve settled on a veggie & sausage frittata; clementine, fennel & arugula salad; and pecan shortbread bars for that. Plus the obligatory mimosas and Bloody Marys.

Today I shall go to my Happy Place grocery store, which is 30 minutes from the house, and I shall stock up on a bunch of stuff I need/want in order to cook as I wish. It’s been a little while since I did this, indulged in a full day’s cooking (not baking). The plan for today is French onion soup, which takes four hours, and maybe one of the lasagna recipes. In between, I’ll be cleaning like crazy, because it’s been a while since I did that, too. And I just might have some classical music playing throughout.

You may think I’m a sucker for indulging my senses. You’d probably be right. But if they weren’t meant to be satisfied, we wouldn’t have them. The poor cavemen didn’t know what they were missing. Fortunately, we have evolved.

Question: do I have to get out of my warm, cozy lounging-around clothes to go to the store?

Hello, Gorge-ous.

I am totally gorging on Fall.

Which is probably why I’ve gained three pounds. (I don’t actually believe it. I’m suing the scale for accuracy. Tomorrow it will tell me something completely different. It lies. And confuses the cat when she steps on it. And sometimes inexplicably switches from pounds to kilograms. But mostly it lies.)

I will admit: Fall is my favorite season not least because of the comfort food it brings. Apple cake, mac & cheese, pots of soup, Crock Pot creations, potatoes (damn you, potatoes – I wish I knew how to quit you), and various hearty types of fare have come out of my kitchen in recent weeks. I am ardently, if breezily, badgering a coworker for her incredibly rich lasagna recipe, having realized that the one I grew up with is disappointingly inauthentic and blah. (My grandmother was 100% German, for cripe’s sake. Her parents came off the boat in 1914 and her mother never left the house after that. Who told her she knew how to make lasagna?) The trouble is, I love to cook, and I cook for the week on my days off, but then even if I only make two entrees, I wind up with too much food because it’s just little ol’ me around here. And sometimes I don’t eat what I made because I have dinner with Jack or Ali on a night off, or I’m not in the mood to eat what I made and I have to get out of the basement where I work, so I go down the street to fetch something instead. Plus, one cannot make individual servings of tomato basil bisque, or beef stew, or casserole. I share what I cook sometimes, but then the trouble with that is that the recipients share back, sending me home with meatloaf or pasta.

And then there are the yummies from other establishments, like pumpkin spice lattes and hot cocoa from Starbucks. They’re usually way too sweet for me and I hate drinking my fat intake (I’d rather save the fat for chewing), so the lattes are skim and I skip the whip every time, but the hot cocoa cannot be compromised.

Do not. Compromise. The cocoa.

And then… there is the bounty of Thanksgiving. This is a bounty I’ve missed out on for years because I’ve had to work. But this year, I’ve just learned, I will be off on Thanksgiving. And the heavens opened, and a chorus of chubby little cherubim with dark meat turkey legs in one dimpled hand and bowls of homemade stuffing in the other dimpled hand sang “hallelujah” around the gobs of grub in their cheeks.

"I wonder if we'll have broccoli in butter sauce." -"Yeah, or green bean casserole. I love that stuff."

(Then, out of nowhere, my father swooped in and gave them searing looks for singing with their mouths full. He would have done it for singing at the table, too, but cherubim don’t have to sit at a table to eat. So instead they got looks for not sitting at the table to eat. Even though they have wings and they float on clouds and the tables would fall through the clouds, so that’s totally unfair, Dad.)

Point is, this is the time of year when I fantasize about stuffing. I could go into some warm and glowy homespun story about the tradition of stuffing-making in our family; the recipe and the way everyone contributes, but I’ll save that for a time closer to when we’re actually making it. This year, my father’s older brother and sister-in-law are hosting Thanksgiving, so I won’t be contributing, but Christmas will be at my parents’ house right after they move back from Florida to commence retirement (yes, they are moving out of Florida when they retire) and it will be on like Donkey Kong.

I have Christmas off for the first time in years, too. Cue seraphim covered in cookie crumbs.

"Behold! The kingdom of the Lord is at hand! Not that hand, THIS hand. Put some of those butter cookies in it. They're... uh, they're for the baby Jesus. Yeah."

I’m indulging in other signature Fall experiences, as well; cuddling up in my big fleece robe or under a blanket on my huggy couch, watching some scary show or a feel-good movie, or reading a book. Grinning like a sappy fool at pictures of Twin Nephs in the pumpkin patch. Breathing deep the scent of burning fireplaces in crisp evening air, or of comfort-scented candles. Pulling the covers up over my head and sleeping a little longer. Sipping big red wines instead of chilled white ones. And staring at clear blue skies with changing leaves below them, trying to gauge exactly when the colors at the nature trail will peak on a similarly crystal-skied day before losing their leaves in a single rainstorm, and whether it will coincide with my days off so I can go take pictures like I hope to do every year, but never can because I always miss the prime conditions.

Maybe I’ll actually walk a good chunk of the trail while I’m playing photographer. I’ve got at least two holidays full of stuffing to prepare for.

My Crock Pot Tried To Kill Me.

I love to cook. It’s one of my simple pleasures in life– finding ingredients that will work together and make some yummy deliciousness. And as much as I’d like to say I’m a gourmet, I’m not. I have a couple of gourmet tricks and meals up my sleeves, and if I can find the ingredients, I can follow any recipe. But most of the time I’m a simple food girl or a comfort food girl.

That means the Crock Pot is sometimes my best friend. So you can imagine my surprise the day it tried to kill me.

The Crock Pot lives on top of my kitchen cabinets. There’s nowhere else to put it, so it adorns the upper realm of the kitchen alongside vases, serving trays, a few baskets and a terra cotta wine bottle chiller. If I want to use it, I have to climb up on my little step ladder and haul it down. It’s a full-sized thing, hefty enough to be a slight, but not daunting, challenge for a girl like me to pull down from over her head.

That’s where things went terribly awry.

One day a few months ago, as I was pulling it down from its perch, the glass lid, rimmed in chrome, slid off the top. Before I even saw it, it had struck a hard blow right at my face. The rim slammed with all the lid’s weight behind it at a diagonal, hitting me in a line that ran from the bridge of my nose under my left eye and down across my cheekbone.

Okay, OW.

Ow ow ow ow ow.

*Shake head*


Dazed and waiting for my vision to clear, I put the rest of the Pot down on the counter and carefully climbed down from the step ladder. You know that smell that you smell sometimes when you get bopped in the kisser? It’s a funny, fleeting smell…. I can’t describe it. It’s like your nose goes haywire trying to figure out what it ever did to earn such a beating. Anyway, I smelled that, and my sinuses cleared out, presumably running for cover. The little birdies that were circling my head (between stars) pointed and laughed at me in their high-pitched voices.  I looked around to figure out where the lid had gone, and whether it had shattered into sharp and deadly pieces.

I could feel the flesh under my eye puffing up already.

Oh, well, this is fantastic. I’m going to have a black eye. From the Crock Pot.

I checked in the mirror on the freezer door – a leftover from my college years when my roommate Beth had put it on the freezer in our campus apartment. She left the mirror (which she had decorated back in high school with painted-on hearts and her completely inappropriate nickname for a guy she had a crush on) to me when she graduated, and I’ve always kept it on the freezer. I guess it’s supposed to make me confront myself if I reach for ice cream. Now I think it’s weird when other people don’t have mirrors on their freezer doors.

Mirror, mirror on the fridge... how is my suborbital ridge?

Anyway, I looked in the mirror. Sure enough, the bruise was already forming, swelling up a bit just under my left eye socket.

I reached into the freezer and grabbed a chicken cutlet.

What? I didn’t have any ice.

And no, this is not the first time I’ve used a frozen chicken cutlet to tend to medical needs.

Walking around with meat on my face and little tweety birds still circling above me, I tried to reason out exactly how to explain my injury to concerned co-workers and others. I had visions of strangers passing me and glancing worriedly… of co-workers whispering to each other in their cubicles or sending each other computer messages as they cast furtive looks in my direction.

And me, smiling awkwardly, flustered and redfaced: “Oh, no. It wasn’t what you think. It was my Crock Pot.”

Yeah. That’ll fly.

Fortunately, the bruise somehow skipped the black-and-blue stage and went right to the yellow-and-green stage. That’s much easier to cover with makeup, so I didn’t need to offer what was sure to be considered a lame explanation for what was clearly a case of domestic violence.

And wasn’t it?

Today, I have once again climbed up the step ladder to fetch the Crock Pot from its perch. It’s too hot to turn the oven on, so this is the best option. But every time I use it now, I’m very careful to make sure I keep a check on that rogue lid. It’s one thing to die alone and not be found for days. It’s another thing when the cause of death was a Crock Pot.

I mean that’s just dumb.

Though I am thinking about getting a Salad Shooter. For self-defense. In case I’m ever attacked by a vegetable.

Look at all those attachments. They must be silencers.

Domestic Bliss… and Its Cousin, Adulthood

Company’s coming. You know what that means: a mad dash to clean every inch of your abode and wash the sheets and towels so the guest has fresh stuff to use. Also some errands and pantry/fridge stocking. Thanks to your chronic employment and your friends’ looming arrival hour, you have exactly eight hours to get it all done, shower, dress appropriately and go pick them up. It’s domestic servitude writ large.

For me, it also meant a limb-threatening tug of war with the vacuum as I tried to install a new belt, having broken the other one weeks ago when I accidentally sucked that long string from the ironing board cover into the brush.

This was a ridiculous scene, I don’t mind telling you: me on the floor, trying to figure out exactly how to position the vacuum so that I could access its moving parts and struggle mightily to stretch the new belt into position without, of course, breaking any other component of the vacuum. Red-faced and tight-lipped, I pulled the band, twisting myself to see what I needed to see while the lighter end of the vacuum banged around until I wrapped my legs around it to hold it steady.

I nearly broke two fingers and my stereo, but I got it done.

And then I got to vacuum the entire place at once, without using the little upholstery attachment to spot-clean, as I had been doing for the last several weeks since the belt broke and I hadn’t found a replacement.

And it made me so happy.

Which is sort of sad.

I remember very well the occasion on which I knew I had unquestionably arrived at that point in life in which household goods and services replace things like CDs and movies on the list of most desirable gift items. It was Christmas, 2002, and my most prized gift was a gift card to Bed Bath and Beyond, with which I could go get new couch pillows.

My little sister, who was 12 at the time, could not understand why I was so happy with this gift. She had declared me old back in 1998, when I turned 21 and had to pay bills. This display of Christmas joy at the idea of new couch pillows was all the more grist for her mill. “You are a loser,” she tells me often. This is what it’s like being the oldest when there’s a 13-year span between you and the baby of the family.

Last month, my 34th birthday was greeted with a bevy of gift cards to that same big box store, this time so I could buy new Calphalon cookware and some energy-saving curtains and rods. And I was once again so thrilled with the windfall that I couldn’t contain myself. I had happily compared cookware brands and styles online before the big shopping strip, debating between the Calphalon hard-anodized 8-piece set and the Emeril hard-anodized 10-piece set (which is a trap, as I recall, because two of the pieces are utensils). My brother-in-law, who never buys anything without fully researching it through Consumer Reports, weighed in with his assessments of the pros and cons of each. I hemmed. I hawed.

When the day came to shop, I hemmed and hawed some more, standing in the cookware section and grilling the 20-year-old sales associate on why they didn’t have the Calphalon hard-anodized 10-piece set. This was because I had forgotten it was an 8-piece set, which I was staring at right then.

He was very polite about my memory loss, probably figuring it was because I’m old. Brat.

Called me “ma’am.”


Box of (clearance priced!) Calphalon cookware safely in my cart, I blissfully perused the window treatments for my energy-saving curtains and the rods on which to hang them (also clearance-priced). When I checked out, I had saved somewhere around $300 thanks to all those gift cards, the clearance sale, and two of those 20% off coupons they’re always sending in the mail.

Two! They let you use two at the same time! One of them was expired, and they still took it! Score!

Oh my God, this is what excites me these days. My little sister is right. I’m a loser.

To date, the cookware has been used several times, but the curtains and rods are still in their packaging. Since company’s coming, I’ve had to figure out where to hide them so they’re not unsightly in their pile where I’ve left them.

Next grown-up purchase: a drill to hang the curtains. It’s gonna be awesome.

...and the Heavens opened, and my 8-piece Calphalon hard-anodized cookware was revealed. A chorus of cherubim and seraphim sang out their glory.