Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Osso "Buko" and My 4-Hour Chef Experiments

So I've taken on a challenge to read 100 books this year, which is nothing really extraordinary for me, and to keep track of what I read, which is almost unheard of, because I generally consume books the way I consume potato chips--in unrecorded binges. Can't eat or read just one, and eat and/or read (the two activities not being mutually exclusive, you understand) so fast that I don't remember how much I've read or eaten. In one rather memorable all-day reading binge I read 8 romance novels. Not that I ate much that day, and I don't think I even got out of my pyjamas, but you get the point.

Speed reading classes are something I've never felt I needed.

After reading The 4-Hour Work Week, and trying to read The 4-Hour Body,both by Timothy Ferriss, I reserved The 4-Hour Chef from the library. It being a new book by a very popular author, it took nearly three months for my name to come up to the top of the list. It was worth the wait, if only to finally find a cookbook that understands that a beginning cook doesn't necessarily want a book that tells her to go out and buy thousands of dollars worth of top-of-the-line equipment (can't afford it, and wouldn't spend the money on it if I could), or that uses ingredients she's never heard of (I will try ONE new ingredient once in a blue moon). Especially if the new ingredients are expensive, which they almost always are.

Some reviews on Amazon pan this book because author Timothy Ferriss put a whole section at the beginning discussing meta-learning. And he's undeniably self-centred and somewhat boastful about his many feats of said meta-learning. If you have a linear brain, and you only want to learn how to cook, do yourself a favour and just read the much smaller section on basic domestic cooking. But he says that at the beginning of the book, so no-one really has an excuse to pan the book because they have to wade through a lot of preliminary material before they get to the meat. Personally, my brain is (very) non-linear, and I found the material rather fun to read.

The book has five sections: the aforementioned introduction to meta-learning and domestic cooking, a section called "Wild" on catching, cooking and killing wild foods which I found interesting and informative, although I doubt I'll ever eat crickets, a "Scientific" section, where he goes in to some of the science of food and the lessons are experiments, and a "Pro" section, which will take you from the level of good domestic cooking to the next level.

I've read through the first section, glanced at the last three, and am going to work through the domestic cooking section, recipe by recipe. Monday we had Osso "Buko". The word "Buko" is in quotations and misspelled, I believe, because real Osso Buco is an Italian dish that uses veal shanks, not lamb. Which is fortunate for my family because my ex doesn't like veal, and my daughter won't eat meat unless it's pasture raised, which lamb is. So we had lamb shanks, and I had two willing tasters other than myself.

The recipe calls for cooking in a dutch oven, which I don't have, so I put it in the slow cooker for 8 hours instead. It worked, but next time I make the recipe, I'll use less liquid. There was a lot of juice in the pot when done.

The verdict?

Ease of prep: Very
Cost of ingredients: About $35 for six servings, but that's only because lamb isn't in season right now and I didn't have white cooking wine in my pantry (I do now)
Number of ingredients: 4 + pantry staples
Taste: "All right"

It should be noted that two out of three testers weren't feeling particularly well tonight, so "all right" might actually be a ringing endorsement. That being said, the cost will prevent this from being served on a regular basis at my house, but I wouldn't hesitate to try the recipe again if I got a deal on lamb shanks. It's a good trick to have up my sleeve for a "formerly" hard to cook ingredient that I actually like to eat. Below is the recipe as I actually cooked it. If you want to see the original, you'll have to read the book. :)

Osso "Buko"

6 lamb shanks (the book called for four, but the grocery store had packs of three...)
3 large carrots
2 cans of plum tomatoes (the book calls for a specific kind, which I couldn't get)
white cooking wine
garlic powder, EVOO, salt & pepper

Scrub the carrots and cut off the tops and bottoms. Snap in half and put them in the bottom of the slow cooker. Put the lamb shanks on top. Add the cans of plum tomatoes (next time, I'm only going to add the juice from one can, though) and poke a finger into each tomato to release the juice. Add enough cooking wine to bring the liquid up so that it covers 1/3 of the shanks (I went for half, and as I said, it was too much). Sprinkle 1 or 2 three-fingered pinches of garlic powder over the food (I always go for more garlic than a recipe calls for, and I haven't been disappointed yet, unless it was because there wasn't enough garlic). Drizzle 1 "glug" (about two tablespoonfuls) of EVOO over the lamb, 2 three-fingered pinches of kosher salt, and one three-fingered pinch of pepper, or the equivalent in milled pepper. (I don't know where my pepper mill wandered off to...)

Cover. Cook on low for 8 hours. Put on plates. Eat. Burp. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Have You Eaten Yet?

If I told you there was one simple habit that could help you maintain a normal weight, improve your relationships with your children and significant other, improve your kid's grades at school, decrease their chances of becoming alcoholics, drug addicts, or jailbirds, and that would save you money and possibly time to boot, would you want to adopt that habit?

I'm sure you would. Especially since there is such a habit, and it's actually not a difficult one to put in place.

And that habit is...

Ta da!

Eating family meals together. At home.

Really. I've read research that makes all of the above claims about family meal times, and more.

The "food is just fuel" idea is big in some circles, and it may be true, but meals are not just for fueling up. People aren't cars--we're social animals who need regular time to connect with those closest to us. And in pretty much every culture that's ever existed, that time to connect has been at meals.

I lost that sense of connection for a while. In my teen years, the members of our family went every which way, and we no longer ate together as a unit. When my kids were young, we did eat meals together, because my husband cooked, but except for a few specialist meals (meat loaf and fried chicken, mostly) that I learned as a child, I couldn't cook. When I moved out on my own, over seventeen years ago, meals became things I gulped down out of takeout containers, or cooked up in the fry pan. Except for fried chicken, I very rarely made the effort to cook anything good.

Then just over a year ago, I made a startling discovery. I had cooked something nice (I don't remember what it was) on a night that my ex came home late from work. (He's a teacher, and the drama club coach.) Feeling a bit sorry for him, and lonely to boot (I really don't enjoy cooking for one), I invited him for dinner.

His normally grumpy self disappeared as soon as his stomach was full of food. We had time to talk about our days, and about the kids. He actually expressed appreciation for something I'd cooked.

I decided that night that I'd cook regularly for him and me (the kids are in their twenties and old enough to fend for themselves now). And I've found that all of the above claims about family meal times are most likely true.

My kids, of course, are long past the formative years--they're now functioning adults. But they did grow up eating family meals, and they did grow up without becoming alcoholic drug addict cons. In fact, the two oldest are university grads, and one is in seminary. My youngest, being severely disabled, is of course not of that level, but he is generally well behaved, which is not necessarily the case for all of his peers. Not that I can prove it was the family meals that did it, but they almost certainly were at least a small factor in their current success.

But the more recent benefits are manifold: I have saved money, and I've decreased my eating out. I have lost over 20 pounds in the last year, and have maintained that weight loss. My ex and I have better communication, which means fewer misunderstandings about our family's insane scheduling needs. And he increased my spousal support to cover the cross of the groceries, without complaint!

I've also increased not only the number of dishes I can cook well, but the number of flavours I enjoy eating. For example, I never really felt the need or desire to try Mexican food. Then I came across a recipe for chicken tacos done in the crock pot that met all of my criteria for "new recipes I'd like to try" (those criteria will come later), and I thought, "I'll try it!"


Now it's a standard go-to recipe.

I do have criteria for recipes:

1) They should have a limited number of ingredients.
2) Prep time must likewise be limited.
3) Cooking time must be longer than 2 hours (because I'm usually out of the house between 3:30 and 5:00, and dinner is generally scheduled for 5:30, because that's when I'm ready to eat it...) or total prep + cook time must be less than 30 minutes.
4) Ingredients should be known to me, and not terribly expensive.

Chicken tacos in the crock pot met all of those requirements except the last--I'd actually grown up to be 51 years old without ever having sour cream on anything! I wasn't particularly fond of taco seasoning, but I had eaten tacos before, at Taco Bell, under pressure from my ex who DOES like Mexican (as do the kids.)

That was the tipping point--even if I wasn't sure about the recipe, it would be something that would at least be appealing to him. We had it. I loved it, he liked it, and it was super, super easy. So I've made it again, and the ingredients are now staples in my pantry.

So, here's the recipe:

1) Layer 2 or more boneless, skinless chicken breasts (I prefer at least 4, for leftovers) in the bottom of your crock pot.

2) Dump a jar of prepared salsa on top.

3) Add a package of taco seasoning (I use reduced salt).

4) Mix that stuff up, put on the lid, and turn the crock pot on low for 8 to 10 hours.

At supper time:

1) Chop up tomatoes, shred lettuce and cheese, and put out taco shells and sour cream. (You can heat the shells if you insist, instructions on the box).

2) Transfer the meat to a bowl, and shred with two forks. Mix in the sauce from the pot.

3) Call your family to the table, put the tacos together, and enjoy!

The leftover meat keeps well in the fridge for a few days, and tastes even better the next day.

I haven't tried it yet with boneless, skinless thighs, but I wouldn't hesitate to use them instead of breasts if they come on sale.

What I've found out this past year is that meals are important, even for the single person. This coming year, my goal is to cook three times per week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). That will give me leftovers for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. My ex cooks for me on Sunday.

I started off last night with another standard go-to meal: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and mixed vegetables. It only took me longer than 30 minutes to make (I have the prep for this down to a science) because I added an apple pie to the mix. But knowing in advance what I was cooking, I was able to get the papers delivered earlier, and I put supper back to 6 o'clock, so I had the time to do it all in one go. Like many of the recipes I have tried, the apple pie recipe wasn't exactly up to my standards, but it's almost there, so I'll play with it a bit, then maybe post it. :)

Oh, and how do I do fried chicken? I was going to say simple, simple, simple. Then I started to write out the instructions, and found out that it's simple mostly because I've been doing it since I was a kid, and that the instructions are more involved then I thought they'd be. I will post them, hopefully with pictures, in the near future because it's my most used recipe. The technique requires a bit of explanation, though because I don't always use a deep fryer, and I have a couple of tricks that ensure both safe cooking and enjoyable results every time. Plus, I want to do the pictures. (And it gives me a reason to have fried chicken again, not that I need one...)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Five By Five

My daughter started somthing a few months back that she calls "Five by Five." I don't know whether she thought it up herself, or whether she found it on some other blog on the internet. Basically, you choose five big goals and work towards them for the next five years. If you're interested, her goals are posted here.

So I thought, that sounds like a good idea. I've been working (very slowly) towards my Day Zero goals, and I've got a bunch of other things on the fire, but five big goals in five years seems to me to actually be something I can acheive, and that will bring some order to my chaos, and keep me from going off in too many directions at once. So I sat down and thought about which five goals I wanted to acheive, and it was actually easy to choose. Readers of my blogs will hardly be surprised, in fact. I've been working towards these goals all along, and have made significant progress. But having the five down as my main focus for the next five years, and regularly reviewing my progress will, I believe, help me to acheive them.

So, without further ado, I present my own Five by Five:

Goal Number One: Have An Awesome Living Space

At some nebulous point in the future, I would love to own my own house or apartment or something, but right now I'm living in the same place where I've been living for the past sixteen years: in a two bedroom townhouse in a co-operative housing development. I like it here. The place I'm in is rent-geared-to-income, for which I'm profoundly grateful. We have a maintenance company to do the plowing and shovelling (a huge bonus this past week!), and I can, within limits, decorate and paint the way I want. Actually, I have almost no limits with regards to painting and suchlike, as long as I restore the unit to pastel colours before I move out, and pay for any paint that's not a pastel shade. But as I said, I've been here sixteen years, and I'm not likely to move out within the next five, so...

I'm going to fix up the place. Actually, I have been. I've cleaned up a lot of the clutter, and I had my son paint some of the downstairs and the staircase going up, and then I asked for and got new carpetting on the stairs. I haven't had carpet on those stairs in about five years--it wasn't in great shape when I moved in, and the cats destroyed what was left, so I took it out.

I got new flooring in the bathroom, too, and the toilet has been restored to working order.

These minor things are big to me--I'm a lot happier in a place with working plumbing and nice floors!

There's still more work to do, especially in the basement, but little by little, I'm reclaiming my space and making it beautiful.

Goal Number Two: Be A Bestselling Fantasy Author

It's my dream. It's been my dream since I first started writing fantasy seriously, twenty-four years ago. And with the boom in self- and e-pubbing, it's a more realistic goal than every before. Yes, I know there's a lot of self-pubbed crap out there, but I've come to the conclusion that self-pubbing is perhaps the only way I will get my stuff published.


Well, I wrote this novel during this past year. I originally had no intentions of publishing it, but the darn thing started to grow on me, and by December 1 I realized that I had a viable story here, and that with a lot of revision, I might actually have something that I would be proud to show to other people. But...

It's a fantasy romance, not in itself a hard sell, I think, but the main characters turned lesbian on me halfway through the month, and one of them happens to be Snow White. Yes, she of Disney fame.

I could, I suppose, try to sell it to a publisher of queer literature, but the sexual orientation of the main characters isn't one of the themes any more than Snow White's vegetarianism is, it just is, and I'd like to try for a wider audience. And if I sell to a queer pub, what then of my main series (which I am determined WILL see the light of day!), in which the hero is unrelentingly hetero, and the heroine is bi, and is in love with (and ends up marrying) the hero?

Besides, self-publishing seems like a challange that I'd like to take up. So I'm going to do it. This year.

And I'm going to keep writing and publishing until I reach my goal of being a best-selling fantasy author, because that's what I want to be.

Goal Number Three: Fit & Fabulous, Baby!

I'm fifty-two years old, and I'm likely into the latter half of my life. And I've come to realize that if I don't do something to regain at least some of the vigour of youth, that I'll be spending far more time in pain and poor health than I want to.

I want to be fit so that I can walk trails I haven't walked in years (or at all), and so that I can travel. I want to be healthy so that I'll be able to keep up with my grandchildren and maybe even my great-grandchildren, when and if they arrive.

In the last month, I've had allergy testing, an optometrist's appointment and new glasses, two dentist appointments, and a bladder check-up by a gynecologist. Still to come: minor surgery to repair a bladder problem. My blood pressure, cholesterol readings and other indicators are all normal, with the exception of my BMI, which I'm working on. :)

And I want to be fabulous--well dressed and stylish, because I've spent most of my life as a frump and I'm tired of it!

Goal Number Four: Financial Freedom

I'm in debt over my head. At this point, I'm carrying more than forty thousand dollars in student loans, a car loan, and minor credit card debt. I'm in arrears on my housing charge.

I hate it!

I've made big strides here in the last little while. My income is stabilized. It's not excessive--it's not even enough, many months. But it's stable, so I can budget.

I've been keeping track of my expenses and income since the beginning of the year. I'm almost on top of my bills. I'm paying a little more than just the interest on my student loans, so at least they've stopped growing. My housing arrears will be paid off in September, my car loan in March of 2014.

I even have a savings plan, modest though it is!

Goal Number Five: Cross Canada Road Trip

This is the one that I had left to choose. All of the others were pretty much a given.

I chose a cross-Canada road trip because it is my firm belief that it's important to see one's own country before one goes galavanting around the globe.
And I do live in what I consider to be the most beautiful and diverse country in the world, though I do understand that others may disagree! Yes, I want to see London and Paris and Mexico and Cuba and Australia and New Zealand and parts of the United States and other places in the world, but I want to see as much of Canada as I can first.

And if I'm going to do that I'm going to start by seeing places within driving distance that I've never seen before. I live within driving distance of thousands of tourist attractions, and I'm sure I've not seen even close to half of them!

So there it is: my life plan for the next five years. On with it!