More cheap eats

Food’s been on my mind lately. Like, a lot. I mean, thinking about food is kind of a normal state for me anyway, because it’s amazing. Seriously. Like if I have someone spend the night with me I wake up and my thought process is: “Are we gonna have sex?” immediately followed by, “ What am I gonna make for breakfast?” So for me to be thinking MORE about food than normal, is, well, somewhat excessive.

Still, there are reasons. I’ve just moved to a new city and have yet to find a job, so I’m hemorrhaging money, and eating on the cheap without having to ingest sadness every day means getting creative. Since my new life involves a car and I also have nowhere to be most days, I’m not walking the 6 miles I used to average in New York just handling my daily business. I would bike more, but the bloody movers broke the shifter on my commuter bike and I frankly haven’t got the money to fix it right now, so I’m driving more and moving less.

And then there’s the stupid injuries: my rotator cuff has been crap for the last, um, forever, and then I gave myself plantar fasciitis trying to do speed training with my running. So now I can barely walk, I’m afraid to go to the gym because I can’t think of anything I can do that won’t hurt me somehow, and while I’ve started swimming a couple weeks ago, even that I can only do properly with one arm. All of which means I haven’t worked out properly in over a month, and I’ve gained at least 10 pounds since the move. And none of my pants fit me, which makes me nervous about interviewing for new jobs too.

So yeah, food has become one of the few things I can control, and I’m doing my best not to eat total crap so that I can feel better and maybe get back to fighting weight. Been doing a lot of fish when I can, since frozen filets are pretty cheap – yeah, you can taste the frozen and it’s less than ideal, but it makes me more motivated to play with preparations. Baking it in parchment has been my best approach, and pretty much anything I put in there has turned out good: teriyaki sauce, shallot and balsamic vinegar, shallot and dill with lemon slices, it all comes out pretty good. And when you serve it with rice the excess sauce soaks in and gets extra yummy.

I’ve also discovered the joy of roasting sweet potatoes. See, I only bought cookie sheets about 6 months ago; I had previously only baked in a large oven-safe skillet, so now having new tools means there’s new things I can do with food! The trick with the sweet potatoes is to slice them not too thick (I just do fat rounds, maybe 2/3 inch) and coat them with oil so that they get a nice crisp outside and all the sugars caramelize and yum. Not such great luck cooking in bulk and storing them, since they do get soggy. But I shall continue on and see what works.

My most useful thing, though, has been my “tuna sauce.” I like eating canned tuna – it’s super cheap, good for you, lots of protein and not a lot of fat, so it definitely fits my needs right now. But plain tuna is not very delicious, and it sort of defeats the purpose to throw a giant dollop of mayonnaise in there. Instead, I’ve come up with a great “vinaigrette” treatment that satisfies my palate. If your knife skills are good or you are patient, it works fine by hand, but it’s a whole lot easier in a food processor.

  • 2 roma tomatoes
  • ¼ red onion
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • ½ apple
  • ¼ cup raisins (I like the golden ones)
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar (don’t use the good stuff, this has enough sweet to it so you want the tart factor. Red wine vinegar would probably work fine too.)
  • 2T olive oil
  • 1t salt
  • 1t pepper
  • ½ t cayenne pepper

I like it best when the onion and garlic are minced finely and the tomato and apple are chunky. Add or remove ingredients at will. Shredded carrots would probably do very nicely in this also. It will seem like too much seasoning but once the tuna is added in it becomes balanced. I usually do 2/3 cup in a whole can of tuna. I find it keeps well in the fridge, and the flavors start to meld nicely after the first hour. After the first day the raisins plump up too!

In the meantime while I eat healthy I’m working on all kinds of rehab so I can get back to physical activity. But that’s another post for another day…

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getting back into the swing

I’ve been trying really hard to be active and get myself into shape this month – part New Years resolution, part forcing myself into a routine since I’m not employed, and part making sure I get enough exercise to keep my mental health doing what it should. I was hoping I would drop 5-10 pounds in the first month as a great self-esteem boost and mental jump-start (and you know, it wouldn’t suck to fit into some of my clothes again), but my weight hasn’t changed a bit, although I suspect part of that has been some muscle development. Also, the last time I did this I went from drinking heavily several times a week to not drinking at all for a few months, and I imagine that had a lot to do with my drastic weight loss 2 years ago. Still, the thing that’s getting me is how NOT in-shape I feel considering how much I’m able to do.

Case in point: I’ve been trying to run or climb or at least do something active every day, and the main side effect is that I am simply exhausted. I am ready for bed every day by about 7pm, I feel sore somewhere pretty much all the time, and I find myself having to take rest days, which is something I never really did when I was younger. Am I just getting old? Because here I am, totally able to run between six and seven miles without feeling like I’m going to die, and in my mind that means I’m in good shape, right? Except that I feel like it takes me days to recover from that.

And I love being active and how it feels for the next several hours after a good run, where I feel like I have more than ample energy to tackle whatever challenges are going to come to me that day, except then I poop out by early evening. At what point can I just work out and not feel like a zombie by the end of the day?

I always thought that unless you were trying to be super-extreme or hurting yourself, that doing what your body lets you do means you aren’t working out excessively. I’m starting to wonder if that is true. I suppose it’s possible that I’ve been over-ambitious in my workouts, but it just doesn’t feel that way when I’m doing them. I went from going 3-5 miles once a week to going 4-6 miles about 3 times a week, but I’m not doing interval training, I’m running at what feels like an easy pace, and I make sure never to run two days in a row. And my pace has improved a ton in this time too, so it’s been exciting to watch my progress. Same with climbing, where in the span of a month of really working at it, I’ve gotten almost to the level I was climbing at my peak 18 months ago. I just, you know, would love to not be super-tired every day.

For now, I’m just trying to be conscious of the progression and I guess I need to wait till I’m solid enough that I’m not worn out all the time. Making sure I’m not running or climbing on consecutive days is a smart move, and I’m trying to do only one ambitious run per week, with the others being either short easy runs, or on a route with hills but not more than 3-4 miles. With climbing I’m also trying to be smart – only one power day per week, one endurance/technical work day, and then one day of core training until I can get my abs and lower back where they need to be for me to not worry about hurting myself. And then I guess a rest day every week is something I need in my routine as well. I’m hoping the tired thing will start to fade in the next week or two as my body adjusts to doing some kind of exercise every day. Meanwhile I’m just going to keep plugging at it, drinking lots of water, getting lots of sleep, and trying to eat well to make sure my body has everything it needs to adjust to a better, more fit way of being. Cross appendages that the rest of this month is somewhat less painful as I get this sorted!

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Talkin’ ’bout a resolution

I suppose if I’m going to talk about New years Resolutions, I’d better do it now while it’s still a reasonably appropriate topic of conversation.

Most of us do it every year, whether it’s during the winter holiday season, or our birthday, or whatever time of year one sits back to take stock and evaluate where one is headed and what might be improved upon. We may not make formal resolutions, just plans in the backs of our heads that are easier to ignore if they don’t get made good on. For several years running, I had just one resolution: to not suck and be awesome instead. I still like that one, and I try to do it every day.

I’ve got the standard ones of wanting to get healthy again, to make my body stronger and eat better (and lose a few pounds so i look better in my clothes, natch), but aside from my perennial I’ve only written down two resolutions thus far. The first is to find a new job, at a place where people don’t regularly say, “Oh, she doesn’t work here anymore, she’s so lucky she got out of here.” The other one is to kiss more people, because kissing is just delightful. Still, there’s another one that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and I think it’s time to commit it to (virtual) paper and make it real.

Last year one of my projects was to try and be more happy. It’s so easy to think about how you will be happy if X, or you’ll be happy once Y happens, and I decided that it would be more effective to stop waiting for things to happen and just try and be happy. Shockingly, it worked, and people saw me happy and were happy to be around me, and then I was even more happy! (Kind of like a potentially nauseating self-powering machine, but with hugs, so you don’t mind.) It didn’t hurt that I was working a job that I was good at, and where my coworkers were vocal about their appreciation for my work, but even so it was often very stressful and unpleasant and demoralizing, and without my work toward happiness, I might have had a wretched year.

But now that I’m again looking for steady work, I find myself in an all-to-familiar space of waiting for something to happen before I can do or be.. whatever the next thing is. This is pretty much the story of my entire adult life. I can’t take that trip to meet up with my twenty-some online friends (or travel, or anything else) because I’m in graduate school and lack the time and money. Then, I’m putting everything on hold until I can earn enough money to be secure with rent and have disposable income that I can spend without guilt. When I moved in with my parents to take care of some family business, it was I can’t date until I leave here and start my “real life.” And here I am and I’m almost 40 and all my friends have not only started their real lives but are well ensconced in them, and I’m trying to convince myself to be a hermit?

I mean sure, going out costs money, but New York is full of cheap things to do. Go peruse Time Out New York and look for one of their features on cheap and free date ideas. And I fail to believe that this is not true about other cities. You may have to be more creative, but that’s part of the fun. For example, this week I’m having some friends over to watch a couple movies, and I’m cooking food (which will give me several days of leftovers to eat) and they’re handling the booze. It’s a ten or fifteen dollar outlay for a great night with people I love. That’s worth it to me. Yesterday I also had friends over, although in that case said friends did the cooking – even better! Being poor does not mean being a hermit, or making your friends buy you things.

Similarly, yes I should be spending as much time as possible in a constructive manner, finding myself a job and getting things settled with school and making sure I’m not missing any steps toward my future career goals. But if I do only those things to the exclusion of taking care of myself, I’ll be in no shape to tackle them as well as I would healthy and happy. We make time to work out, right? Because it’s good for your physical and mental health. Well, having a social life is also important for mental health, and for maintaining a support system so that when shit really does come down, you have one to call upon if need be.

So in order to further my project of being happy, I’m resolving to quit deferring my life and live in the present. My life has been happening while I kept waiting for the next step, and if I keep going like this, I’ll get to whatever end goal I set for myself and find it empty because I have no life. I have wonderful friends, I am a great catch for whatever wonderful person eventually comes into my life romantically, and I deserve to have as much fun as a person can have. I’m still working on all kinds of things, but my life doesn’t start when I get to the destination, my life is the journey, and I want to be able to look back on it with pleasure.

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Took a long time to come

It’s a new year, people all over the world take are taking stock of their past 365 days and deciding from there what their next 365 should be. Me, I’ve had a whirlwind of a week since last Friday, when I was informed that my company’s owners had chosen to let me go. By Monday, I had mostly come to terms with the knowledge and was comforting my friends who were stunned by what they had just been told. Still feeling the remnants of the cold I had been given for Christmas, I found a party dress in the closet and my long-unused stash of sparkly makeup, and headed out to a girlfriend’s apartment for a casual New Years Eve shindig, humming The Zombies’ “This will be our year” and carrying a bottle of champagne.

I told myself I’ll refuse to look miserable, that I want to ring in the New Year lookin’ hot, with a sexy dress and great friends and comfortable shoes. And frankly I’m not miserable. I was miserable in my job, and now I’m free of all that.

We drank, snacked, danced, enjoyed a midnight champagne toast before crawling out the window onto the roof to watch fireworks, we played silly board games and got a little too wasted and stayed a little too late. At the entrance to the subway I stood kissing a boy before going home to crawl into my bed and pray the hangover would be minor.

For all that I should be upset about being newly unemployed yet again, for all the crippling self-doubt that rears up on a regular basis (maybe even daily), I have hope today. That is the gift I woke up with, my happy new year. I have hope that I will have an even better job, where I will be happier and better paid, or at least far less annoyed on a daily basis. I have hope that people still like to kiss me and that many more will wish to do so over the coming weeks and months. Ironically, in the job I worked up to this week, I didn’t have that hope, and I only got it back when they fired me. (Jerks. I poop on their heads!)

So really, I’m better today than I was yesterday, than I was last year. And that’s a pretty great place to be.

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Duck revisited and redeemed

Some meals are great ideas and turn into learning sessions with mediocre results. Last night, I got lucky, and hit myself a home run. [Going to finish this one when there’s not an approaching ginormous storm, but leaving my notes up so they don’t get lost]

 

Marinated duck breast with olive oil, duck fat, poultry seasoning, garlic, lemon zest, and salt and pepper

 

one sweet potato, two white potatoes, half a butternut squash, 2 large cloves of garlic, sliced, half an onion, finely minced, olive oil, duck fat, generous splash of chicken broth, three handfuls of dried cherries, sage, salt, poultry seasoning and garlic powder at finish

 

1.5 cup red table wine, 1.5 cup chicken broth, 3 mushrooms sliced, 1-2 oz. chicken liver, minced, 1/2 tsp corn starch, handful of dried cherries, another 2/3 cup broth 

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Experimental cooking weekend: Roast duck and duck stock

One of my dearest friends is a medical student, meaning she has even less free time than I have. Last year she faced the same problems I did with trying to eat healthy without sufficient time for cooking. We made a pact this summer that we would get together every two weeks and cook a feast that would feed us both for at least a week. Sad to say this weekend is the first time we’ve been able to make our schedules match to do so, but we’re both excited. As the weather has turned, it is the perfect time to make my famous chicken paprikash.

The best paprikash I ever cooked was in Athens, Georgia around 2007. I had a quart of duck stock in my freezer, left there by a generous and enterprising friend who had made it from the carcass of a duck roasted at our lovely foodie-centric house, and I thought it would make the paprikash more delicious. It did, but I was not able to take the duck stock with me when I moved across the country that year, and I have wanted to get some ever since.

Stock has been a mission of mine since I got the slow cooker, and I’ve been assiduously saving all the vegetable trimmings from everything I cook so that when it is time to cook down some bones, I have things ready in the freezer. Turns out making stock is harder than it looks though, so my previous efforts have been kind of meh. This time I was going to do it right.

This meant using a whole bird carcass, and not one that had already been destroyed by slow cooking, so I found myself buying a whole 5lb. duck Friday night. Once I got out of class on Saturday, the excitement would begin.

I plopped the duck into my giant paella skillet, shoved into its cavity a quartered lemon, a head of garlic with the top cut off and torn into 3 pieces, and a quartered onion. I added a few sprigs of thyme I had dried a couple weeks prior, and stuck it all in the oven at 425. I had already decided to save the breasts so they could be cooked to medium rare separately, but Dad advised that they would be easier to remove if they were parcooked, so after about 30 minutes I took the bird out and got to hacking.

I’ve never broken down a whole bird before, so I wasn’t even definite where the breasts were, let alone how far they extend. (After discussing this Mom and Dad have decided I need to own a copy of The Joy of Cooking, which I will gladly accept as this year’s birthday gift.) Anyway, I blindly hacked, the meat was nowhere near done so I might as well have done it with an uncooked bird and saved myself the danger of cutting in a 400-degree pan, but I emerged with two plump and relatively undamaged breasts, now hanging out in my refrigerator for as-yet-unknown future plans.

Bird back in oven. I had scored the skin with a knife and there was a huge pool of duck fat happening in the bottom of the pan, which is a good thing, but it didn’t render out of the skin as quickly as I hoped. After an hour the meat thermometer said the thighs were definitely done (if not overdone) but they were neither brown nor crispy. In the future I think I would cook this longer at a lower temperature to render more of the fat, and maybe broil the thighs to make sure they are nice and browned before serving.

I also realized on removing the bird that I had forgotten to salt and pepper it before cooking. This is not the first time I’ve made this mistake, I’m sad to say, but at least it’s one that can be remedied on the plate, as opposed to putting too much of something in there.

I let the bird cool on the chopping block for a bit and readied the crock-pot. I also poured the duck fat into a container to be saved in the fridge, because omg delicious! I now have a pint of solid rendered duck fat hanging out waiting to be a delicious base for so many future foods. I got to work on the bird, and hacked out wings and thighs, getting myself thoroughly greasy and messy in the process, and not worrying too much about any meat left on the bones as they would just add to the deliciousness of the stock.

For the stock I broke up the duck carcass so the whole thing could be sure to stay underwater, and threw in the neck and giblets that had come inside the bird. I added my frozen trimmings of onion, garlic, celery, carrot, celeriac, and I’m not sure what else, and threw in the onion and lemon that had been inside the bird while roasting, as well as another 1/2 head of garlic,another carrot, some thyme, parsley, and a bay leaf. This time I remembered salt, and put in a couple handfuls, and some peppercorns. I poured in probably 3 quarts of water, and put the crock-pot on high.

The aroma in my apartment this morning was heavenly. My cat agreed. I may have been over-ambitious with the amount of water, so I decided to cook some of it down in a saucier to reduce it by half, after pouring it through a strainer to get rid of the bits of bone, veg, herbs, and spent meat. Also, one of my cookbooks said that while the meat is no longer delicious after making stock, it’s still great to give to the pets, so I have a very spoilt and happy cat today. I just hope all the meat she’s enjoying doesn’t backfire on me!

So, lessons learned:

  • The fatty duck skin means longer, low-temp roasting
  • Pierce the skin more than you think it needs
  • Might as well just take off the breasts before cooking, it will be easier
  • Don’t forget your salt and pepper!
  • Eat the roast garlic from inside the bird, because it is gloriously good
  • When carving the bird, poultry shears are probably a good thing to own
  • For stock: remember to throw in some herbs as well as veg for a good flavor
  • Water’s high specific heat means a lot of it takes a really long time to heat up, so cook it hotter and longer than you would expect to in a slow cooker
  • Don’t use more water than is necessary to just cover the bones and veg, or stock will be weaker than it needs to be

Now I’m excited to have so much great raw material to use in future cooking projects, and I can’t wait to have some delicious chicken paprikash tonight, with a duck stock base!

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This is not a cooking blog: in which I talk about cooking extensively

(Yes, it’s been a million years since I wrote last. Trying to remedy that but it’s a busy life I’ve got these days. We’ll see.)

I decided last year that my best life solution was to become a physician assistant and stop being broke. Which as a plan is great and all, but it requires going back to school, and said PA programs require science classes no more than 5 years old. Since the last time I took a science class was literally 20 years ago, I find myself back mixing with undergraduate students, peering through microscopes, and taking tests on anatomy and DNA replication and chemical reactions. On top of my full time job, I don’t have a lot of spare time these days, what with the one day off a week to clean and handle the bills and do all the cooking for the week.

Last year I ate too much crap and fast food, got stressed out, didn’t exercise enough, gained weight I didn’t want to have, etc. This semester I vowed would be different. I bought a slow cooker and have been making large meals on the weekend so I have things to eat throughout the week that are still delicious and not entirely unhealthy. I also learned that my cooking habits are completely the opposite of how one cooks the things that are cooked in a slow cooker, so I’ve been doing a lot of learning and eating a lot of imperfect meals. I think exactly one dish has come out great, and that was the rice and lentil pot that I often make on the stovetop, but everything I make gives me at least one more piece of information to file away so next time the food is better.

My goal is never to make the same mistake twice with my food. I assumed that this would mean I would quickly be making phenomenal dishes after mastering one or two little tweaks to make it amazing. Turns out even if I don’t repeat mistakes, there’s an almost infinite number of ways one can screw up dinner. (And when what you’re cooking is going to be dinner for at least a week, the stakes are worse.) But I’ve been lucky, and most of my mistakes haven’t made the food taste bad, so I’ve been eating it anyway.

Since I bought the slow cooker, I’ve managed to screw up (or cook, depending on your perspective) pork shoulder, chicken thighs, chicken soup, beef stew, jambalaya, and even little things like hard boiled eggs. Last night mom was saying I should keep a journal of my attempts and mistakes, so I figured it was time to get writing again. Maybe my mistakes will save someone else from creating the same pots of glop I’ve been eating for the past couple months, and will help me remember what not to do next time I’m making something that turned out poorly before.

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