The Challenge: Day Three, Part Two

So far for The Challenge, we’d done an Asian-inspired menu and a midwestern/comfort food menu. For day three, I thought a nice Southern meal would be in order: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread, greens, corn on the cob, and fresh fruit. I took off to Costco to pick up a package of chicken legs, as that’s my favorite piece of the chicken when it’s fried. My mom’s too. In addition, roasting up a couple of legs and throwing them into the mix with the chicken carcasses waiting patiently in the freezer plus some vegetables makes a damn fine stock.

Once back, I poured some more formula down the tube, and not half an hour later realized that I would not, in fact, be able to eat dinner. Nor would I be able to prepare it. My only thought about that time was that it would be a fine thing indeed to crawl under a rock and die to get the pain to subside. Instead, I gave the menu over to my mom and she agreed to stand in for me – a very good thing, since one of my sisters and her boyfriend had agreed to come over for dinner.

Boots kept me company while I spelled out the menu and sat in the recliner thinking about heart attacks, death, and other assorted cheery things.

My mom got right into the kitchen and started rattling some pots and pans. The first thing that had to be started was a soak of the chicken in some buttermilk for a couple of hours. This is classic Southern preparation of fried chicken, and always the way I prepare it.

She broke out her favorite – and she swears, the best – recipe she had for cornbread. Or, in this case, johnny cakes. One sign that you’re looking at someone’s well-loved cookbook is the presence of handwritten notes in the margins.

Thoe ingredients were prepped and waiting their turn.

A few ears of corn on the cob were shucked, and the potatoes peeled, cut, and put on the boil.

It was then time to rescue the chicken from its swim. The oil was heating, and the chicken was pulled from the buttermilk, tossed with some spices, and then dredged in flour.

From there, the chicken went into the oil, which was now nicely heated to 350 degrees.

After about 15 minutes or so, the cast iron skillet went into the oven with a bit of oil to heat for the cornbread mix. Once out, the batter was turned out into the pan, where the edges started immediately sizzling.

Things were coming along nicely, including the chicken.

And finally, dinner was served.

The diners enjoyed it quite a lot, as you can see from the before and after pictures.

I wish I hadn’t been struck by the gastro gremlins. It’s been a long time since I had real fried chicken.

So, what’s our breakdown?

Chicken legs – 0.28 x 5 = 1.41
Chicken breasts (boneless, skinless) – 1.325 each x 2 = 2.65
Corn – 1.00
Cornbread – .80
Beans – leftover from day one = 0
Potatoes – 1.00
Fruit (mixture of watermelon, canteloupe, peaches, grapes) – .60
Tomatoes – .20
Buttermilk – 1.00

Total this meal: 8.66
Total per diner (4): 2.17

There were some leftovers, which were eaten by my mom and by one of the boyfriends, who received a doggie bag as he was not in attendance.

The meal looked delicious. Too bad I missed out on it.

Medical malfunction

Bet you thought I’d given up on the old challenge after just two days, eh?


No, I encountered an issue with my body not working the way it’s supposed to work. Day three saw a visit to the farmer’s market to pick up a few things and to see what the place was like mid-week. The morning was brilliant, sunny, and slowly warming into our usual mid-90 degree weather. I even took some pictures for those who don’t have the opportunity to visit. Before leaving, yours truly poured a cup of formula down the old tube: fast, calorie-laden formula.

After running a few more errands and returning home, though, things went rapidly south. Another round of forumla in the afternoon, and at around 3:30 I was stricken with yet another episode of that horrible burning, painful sensation around my sternum and into my abdominal area. as an added bonus this time, it was also painful to breathe, and for a few moments I actually considered having someone take me to the ER. Heaves, vomiting, pain, and sleep followed, in random and repeating order. That night, I had to go to the NOC to repair something, and had my sister drive. I managed to barf at the NOC and on the way home, although the latter was dry heaving. Painful. Another trip to the NOC was required at about 4:30 in the morning, and for that I drove myself – but also managed to do some more dry heaving after returning. Thursday, things calmed down again and I got a little soup down.

Today? A trip to the doctor, some samples of Prevacid, and we’ll see. If this doesn’t work, it’s going to be a trip to the GI for them to scope me, which will be just as unpleasant as everything else related to this cancer business.

However, I am catching up and will have updates a bit later today. My biggest problem right now is that I’m having trouble tasting anything, so all this soup tastes like just so much of nothing…

The Challenge: Day Two

“What are we doing tonight?”
“Tonight, we make soap.”

Not really, although I’ve thought that making soap would be an interesting thing to try. No, tonight was a return to a more down-home type of meal: pot roast.

Pot roast is really a classic no-brainer kind of meal. As an added bonus, it can be cooked in a single pot, if you have the right kind of pot. Of course, you need the right kind of roast, too.

Traditionally, pot roast is made with the tougher cuts of meat, because these are the cuts for which the process of browning and then braising is really made. Turning a not so tender cut of beef into something tender enough to cut with a fork is a terrific endeavor.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I picked up some boneless chuck roasts at Costco on the recent foray into the wilds of warehouse shopping. Two per package, about 2.5 pounds each: perfect for a comfort food kind of night. Add in some real whole grain bread, freshly baked, and you could almost imagine it was a cold winter’s day instead of a 90-degree sauna outside.

To begin any good pot roast, if you have the time, browning the meat is essential. If you don’t have the time, and you’re doing this in a crockpot/slow cooker, it will be just as good, but there’s something about that sear…

Where was I? Oh yes: first steps. Browning the meat in a good solid pan. Cast iron works well, or, if you have one on hand, an enameled cast iron dutch oven is even better. Seasoning the meat before browning is definitely in order. Some people like to go nuts with this, but for me, simple is better: salt, pepper, a slight touch of cumin. After being seared in a couple of tablespoons of canola oil, the meat is removed and some onions (Vidalia around here, as they’re in season) and a peeled and cut carrot go into the pot to saute for several minutes until soft but not mushy. After that, deglazing the pan. Since we’re keeping things simple for purposes of The Challenge, I elected to go with beef broth. Normally, I might use a combination of beef broth and a medium bodied red wine. After scraping up the fond (those are the browned thingies on the bottom of the pan after you go through this searing process), the beef went back into the pot, right on top of the onions and carrot. I added more beef broth until the liquid level was about halfway up the side of the meat.

The searing isn’t perfect on the ends, no. But the beauty of this is that is doesn’t have to be. Since most roasts are oddly shaped, getting a good sear on the maximum surface area possible without spending a ton of effort in the process is the goal.

Lid on, and it’s into a 250 degree oven. For hours. The lovely thing about braises is that you get to throw everything together, put it in, and then leave it mostly alone. I turned the meat about every hour, and about half an hour before it was done, tossed in some potatoes and a couple of carrots.

Another half hour or so, and the end result is ready to come out of the oven.

In the midst of all this, I also made some whole grain bread. The problem with most “wheat” bread is that it’s really just white bread with a little wheat flour tossed in. This is not horrible – I am, after all, a huge fan of just about any kind of bread, white included. However, my sister had requested something healthier but suitable for sandwiches. Ask and ye shall receive.

The dough is whole wheat flour, sunflower seeds, walnuts, honey, salt, and a touch of olive oil. And yeast, of course. Halfway through the first rise, it looks a little rough.

After stretching, shaping, and set for the second rise, though, things are looking up.

Into the oven, out of the oven, out of the pan: nothing but cooling rack.

The crust is not rock-hard, and the loaf gives a bit when pressed, just like a regular old sandwich loaf. A taste tester took over after the bread had cooled a bit. And because everything tastes even better with butter…


Gratuitous closeup.

Put it all together, and you get something that looks like this, if you were dining outside.

So what’s our cost breakdown for this hugely satisfying meal?

One 2.5 pound boneless chuck roast – 6.78
Carrots – 0 (leftover from the salad makings last night)
Onions (2) – 1.50 (higher than usual prices at the little produce place nearby)
Potatoes – 2.00
Beef broth – 1.10
Wheat flour – .80
Honey – .20
Olive oil – .25
Sunflower seeds, raw – .50
Walnuts – .50

Total this meal: 13.63
Total per diner (tonight, not including leftovers): 3.41

The leftovers for this will last a couple of days, so the actual price per diner will be significantly less than the first round indicator.

Leftovers, you say? What can you do with pot roast leftovers?

Beyond just eating more of the meat and vegetables with a slice of buttered bread, there’s nothing like a good roast beef sandwich on homemade bread with a little horseradish and perhaps a slice of red onion (or vidalia) and fresh tomato, sprinkled with some freshly ground black pepper. If you were someone unlike me who was currently eating sandwiches, that is.

The Challenge: Day One

Grilling and barbequeing are not the same thing. Not here in the South, at least. Grilling is cooking foods directly over heat. Barbeque is done over indirect heat (with or without smoke) – the “low and slow” you hear so often, especially during Food Network’s annual grilling week when the phrase is repeated ad nauseum.

Tonight, we grilled. The thought occurred to me a couple of hours before grill time that Mother Nature was not going to cooperate, as a huge storm blew through. But, the skies cleared somewhat and the rain stopped, so I got to play with fire after all.

What was on the menu? I’m so happy you asked.

Tonight’s dinner was grilled chicken with a hot and sweet dipping sauce, corn on the cob, basmati rice, fresh green beans and fingerling potatoes, and salad. The corn was the last four ears from the bushel or so we purchased at the farmer’s market, as the rest was shaved, baked, and frozen. Another bag is in order, I believe.

The chicken was marinated in a very simple paste. To start, some black peppercorns, garlic, a touch of salt, and coriander were pounded together.

Having suitably bashed about those things – a mortar and pestle is wonderful for excising stress – I added the paste to some olive oil and honey.

The chicken (five thighs, two boneless, skinless breasts) went into the marinade for about an hour and then on the grill.

A quite nice char on the outside and wonderfully moist meat on the inside was the result of this effort. To go with the chicken, a dipping sauce made with cider vinegar, sugar, salt, garlic, and red pepper flakes. This was doled out in individual bowls to those eating, and would be just as great with pork. My mom, sister, and her boyfriend all tasted the sauce with their fingers but without food, and all made the same face that said, “I’m not eating that!” After tasting it with the chicken, however, they changed their tune.

The aforementioned beans, snapped and ready for cooking.

Yes, there is a lot of salad dressing in a lot of bottles in this house. I’d like to make some for the salad eaters to get them weaned away from the bottles. As I am not currently eating salads, I’m leaving them to their devices (for now), and then will slowly start replacing the bottles one by one. A delightfully insidious plan, don’t you think?

This entry only covers dinner, because – I’m ashamed to say – that’s all I ate (besides a small bowl of grits earlier today), and not much of it. To forestall the nagging that will no doubt ensue, let me say that I will be having some formula directly after I finish this entry, and then another in a few hours.

However, let’s get back to The Challenge. As you can see from the photos, we had quite a spread tonight. There were four of us, as our fifth was being hermit-like and elected not to join us to partake of some nourishment. Even with all this food, though, the price per diner was quite small.

Chicken thighs – .4033 each x 5 = 2.0165
Chicken breasts (boneless, skinless) – 1.325 each x 2 = 2.65
Rice, basmati, 1 cup uncooked (assuming 2 cups/pound) = 1.00*
Corn on the cob – .324 each x 4 = 1.30
Beans, one basket = 1.00
Fingerling potatoes = 1.00
Salad (three servings) = 1.20**

Total for the meal: 10.1665
Total per person: 2.54

* The rice was purchased in a 10 pound sack from Costco some time ago, and the pricing is lost to history (or until the next time I go out there). Since that is the case, I did the next best thing and looked up a 10 pound sack of the same rice at Amazon.
** The makings for the salad came from various places, but both the tomato and the cucumber were from our farmer’s market excursion.

There were leftovers as well, so some was packed for my sister’s lunch tomorrow at work and some sent home with her boyfriend. A very satisfying, tasty (and nutritious!) meal for four. I’ll have to work on nutrition breakdowns, I suppose.

A word about breakfast and lunch: I’m working on this. I’m not a big three-squares-a-day kind of person myself, and my mother doesn’t like to eat when she first gets up. My sister has Food Issues, but will take leftovers for lunches and likes turkey sandwiches. So I’m trying to get something together that will address all these things. The first step? Making some real whole grain bread tomorrow, suitable for slapping some lunch meat on, surrounded by lettuce, condiments, fresh tomatoes…mmmm. Baby steps, right?

Self-imposed exile

I spent my Saturday in a bit of a self-enforced “vacation” day. That is to say, I did virtually nothing work-related all day. Since Saturdays are historically slow support days anyway, this is not a huge blow to the ticket system, and although there are always numerous systems-related things I need to get done, nothing so urgent that it couldn’t wait a day. And since my right hand (wo)man is going on vacation this coming week, better for me to take that break now.

Instead of working, I spent the day out and about. First up: the local farmer’s market.

For those who may be here but who have never visited the market, it’s not really a “market” like they have in some cities, with multititudes of booths and a tremendous assortment of good. This is, after all, Jacksonville. However, there is a good opportunity to get some great produce, and you might just find yourself holding up a strange vegetable and asking yourself just what the heck it is.

I went to the market with my mom, as she wanted some silver queen corn, and a lot of it. She likes to shave and freeze it, for those dead of winter nights when you need a touch of summer in mind. This allowed me to introduce her to some things that she’d never seen before in their unprepared state (and in some cases, had never seen before, period): jicama, chayote, yucca, tomatillos, cactus, dried chiles like guajillos and chiles de arbol, tamarind pods. Of course, there were all the other things we know and love, too: tomatoes, beans, canteloupes, vidalia onions, mangoes, papayas, cherries, and quite a bit more.

One of the best things about going to the market is that you can ask the seller exactly where the produce originated. The corn? Ocala. The watermelon? Jesup, Georgia. The beans? Lake City. I can’t think of anything we saw that actually came from this city other than the shrimp ($6/pound, head on), which was from Mayport. I stuck my head in the guy’s cooler to give it the smell test, and it was like breathing in ocean air: fresh and briny, so we picked up a pound as it was only going to be us for dinner.

The rest of our haul:

Clockwise from the left, we have fresh snap beans (pole beans), over a bushel of silver queen corn, raspberries, sweet potatoes, fingerling potatoes, and sugar plums.

Left to right, we have pickling cucumbers (as my sister ate the last of the bread and butters last night and made a request for more), canteloupe, raw orange blossom honey, regular cucumber, fresh vine tomatoes, mango, and blueberry honey (from NJ).

And some cherries.

Missing photos: the shrimp and the watermelon. All of it is fresh, all of it smells wonderful, and it’s dirt cheap – the most expensive thing we purchased today was the corn: $12 for that huge bag. The honeys were $5/each, and the rest? So inexpensive as to be laughable. The only thing we missed were the peaches. We arrived at around 10:30, but because the market opens at 6 AM, the peaches were long gone by the time we arrived. Next time, an earlier visit is in order, to ensure we’re able to get some of those. I was tempted to buy a 30 pound bag of vidalias, and bunches of chiles, but decided that I should figure out a place to store them first, then bring them home. For the purposes of our Challenge, the market will work out well. Since we’re heading into high summer, it’s a great bounty to be had, and if you’ve not checked out your local market, you should.

Next up? A trip to St. Augustine.

Continue reading Self-imposed exile

Claves a la victoria

That means “keys to victory” for those of you who don’t habla. It could also mean that you’re watching too much Copa Mundial.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been waking up off and on (more on than off lately) in the early morning hours with a horrible burning sensation around my sternum. With or without puking, it typically goes away within a couple of hours.

Not so yesterday, where it last well into the night. About noon yesterday, if I’d not known any better, I’d have thought I was suffering a heart attack because the pain just would not go away. But I wasn’t, and it did, eventually. However, it also resulted in a grand caloric intake of one cup of formula. Today, faring slightly better with no food to speak of yesterday, I’ve managed three cups. Which is likely more calories than I usually take in by mouth, so that’s good, but which means no solid food today, so that’s bad.

The dietician thinks it is likely reflux, but it’s quite strange: I don’t eat for a few hours before going to bed, and when I do wake up with the pain, it’s always a few hours after that. So we’re talking about six hours, generally, between the last time I eat and when the pain starts. It only happens after I’ve gone to bed (no pain any other time), and it’s still happening even though I’ve added a couple of pillows to raise myself up a bit so as not to lie entirely flat – visions of my recliner-sleeping days, although not such a severe angle.

This brings us around to adding yet another doctor visit next week. I really have to get my cholesterol checked again, since I’ve not been taking the lipitor since last year, and we’ll have to see about this reflux issue. It’s a strange issue, and only really started in the past couple of weeks – coincidentally, when I started eating out again, and usually after a certain combination of foods. We shall see what happens as we move into The Challenge and the eating out takes a back seat to eating in.

Speaking of eating in, I’m pushing around ideas in my head about things to cook. If you have any special requests, feel free to send them along or post in the comments. I’ll see what I can do.

And yes, I am working at taking care of myself. The lectures, they don’t stop…

For Saturday: a trip to the farmer’s market and a journey to Le Creuset, as I could really use a dutch oven (French oven, I suppose, since it is, after all, Le Creuset). Braising, you know.

Change of plans

Instead of taking up The Challenge on Sunday the 18th, we’ll begin on Monday the 19th. This is due to a pending daytrip out of town for me. Since that daytrip will involve good quantities of food prepared by someone else and will not involve me returning until late that night, there will be no cooking here that day.

On the other side of things, I had an appointment with one of my ENTs Tuesday, and the results of my latest biopsy: nothing to see here. More granular tissue and chronic inflamed mucosa. At its most basic, it’s scar tissue. I also have a swollen area on the right side of my tongue that’s a bit painful, but which is likely due to all the eating (because I tend to eat on that side of my mouth, given the handicap on the left side). We’ll have to monitor that, of course, just like we monitor everything else.

I’ve been pretty well fatigued lately, with a distinct lack of motivation to do the things I need to do. El doctor told me that I am likely on the verge of clinical exhaustion, because even though I feel relatively well (relative to where I was, anyway) I am still recovering from major medical trauma, so I am trying to live the way I used to while ignoring/disregarding the limitations that still exist. I couldn’t very well argue with that, since I know it to be true. The prescription for that is rest, calories, rest, nutrition, and oh yes, rest. Today I was almost completely unproductive, but now after a bit of rest and some food, I am once again ready to work – but I am going to try and limit what I’m doing this evening.

What food you ask? Earlier today, grits, formula, ice cream, formula. Tired of formula, I hauled myself up to Biscotti’s again, where I know the menu and know there will always be something I can eat. Sweet potato-roasted red pepper soup (which I am going to try to recreate in the next couple of days), tuna tartare with anchovy crostini (didn’t eat the latter, because I still can’t really eat crunchy bread), a capuccino, and a peanut butter mousse mini. Not a bad way to break the monotony of formula, and plenty of calories. I’ll be there tomorrow night as well, to meet up with a couple I met on one of my trips. Nice pair, those two.

And there you have it. All the current dirt on your favorite cook. Lucky you.

Taking the plunge

After some discussion with myself – I talk to myself quite a bit, and it’s probably the reason I don’t speak as much to other people as they might like, something my very dear friend has chastised me for in the past day or so – I’ve decided to take The Challenge. This is also after some back and forth with the person who proposed it, with the ground rules previously discussed in this very space.

We will kick things off on Sunday the 18th. This will give me a few more days to get some planning in. Last week, I did some comparison between Publix and Costco, and of course, buying in bulk really does save quite a bit in the wallet area. If you’re really serious about saving a few bucks, a membership to one of those warehouse places like Costco, Sam’s, or BJ’s will pay for itself in no time.

Before I get started on some of the comparisons I made, though, an observation about “popular” cuts of meat. Flank steak, in particular. It’s amazing how much this cut costs these days now that everyone and their brother has decided it’s the latest in thing. Last year, pre-cancer, we did a cookout at my mom’s place. One of the things I made was a rubbed flank steak with several different sauces. I can’t recall how much that cut cost at the time, but I’m sure it was not the 5.69/lb I saw at Costco. Publix had no flank steak that was not already wrapped around something the day I went. By the way, one of those sauces – which got great reviews from the guests, including my (now) ex’s parents – was a peach-bourbon sauce. I’ll have to see if I can dig that one out of my brain again, because that was quite good. The blueberry wasn’t bad, either.

As usual, I digress, and will do so a little more. The ex before last and I actually got the Costco membership and used it mostly for paper products, laundry stuff, and so on, and not so much for food – at least not frozen/refrigerated items, as the fridge in the apartment where we lived was not as large as it could have been. We also ate out quite a bit because we both worked quite a lot, and the things we cooked tended to be rather uninspired. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. Certainly nothing worth blogging about.

When I found myself alone again, I found myself in an apartment with a single person’s fridge: small. Once again, not suited to storage of the bulk-type packs of food that required freezing or refrigeration. When the cancer diagnosis and all the assorted treatment came – surgery, healing, radiation and chemo, more healing – and I landed in my mom’s house so she could care for me, I really couldn’t have cared less about what the fridge could hold, as I was in no condition to wonder about it, shop for anything, or eat anything.

But now…these days, with two fridges and a freezer available, and a FoodSaver at my disposal, it makes it easier to be able to pick up those bulk packs of frozen or refrigerated items and not have to worry about how they will be stored. Your mileage may vary, as you may not have the luxury of the storage space I have available to me. Do what you can with the space you have, though. In the end, it will be worth it.

Now, on to our little excursion to compare some prices that I’d never really paid attention to before.

Continue reading Taking the plunge

Sunday dinner

Rosemary-lemon roasted chickens, roasted red potatoes, sauteed zucchini and vidalia onions, corn on the cob, and fresh honey-wheat bread. A dear friend brought along some northern-style baked beans that were quite good. A nice change of pace from the traditional southern style beans, which have both molasses and (generally) brown sugar in them. Naturally, I have some pictures.

About two hours before dinner, I had a pre-dinner warmup.

This is because my weight is now under 110. 108.5 the other day, 110 today on the oncologist’s scale, 109 on the lab’s scale. If I were bolder, I’d take a photo of my midsection, to let you see how many ribs you can count.

This is one of the two chickens I roasted. We wound up two people short, so ended up with an entire chicken left over. I broke it down afterwards, and tossed both carcasses into a freezer bag to make stock later.

The cavity is seasoned with salt and pepper, then stuffed with half a lemon, a sprig of rosemary, and a few crushed garlic cloves. The outside is seasoned again with salt and pepper, and under the skin is a butter compound with finely chopped rosemary, salt, and pepper – not too much on the rosemary, since it can be rather overpowering and I wanted to balance it with the lemon. The butter is to keep the skin and the meat moist during roasting. About 40 minutes in, I tossed some quartered new potatoes in the bottom of the roasting pan. You can see a couple of stragglers in the photo.

More important than both of those, though, is the bread. I love to make bread more than anything else in baking. It’s so simple, and yet so hard to get right. We begin with just two types of flour, salt, water, honey, and yeast.

The sponge is first.

The flour mixture goes atop the sponge, and then is covered for about four hours to ferment.

During that time, the sponge breaks through the flour mixture.

After the final mix of the dough, resting, kneading, rising, kneading, and rising again, the dough goes into the pan and then into the oven. The top is misted with some water as it goes in to give it that nice crust.

No one could wait before the first slices were taken from the loaf, so I have no photos of the entire loaf itself.

I’m incredibly pleased with the crumb on this. You can see the specks of wheat. The top crust was firm and crispy, while the inside was moist, with a fine crumb and that wheaty, heady aroma so familiar to everyone. The bread is not overly sweet, as it does not have a ton of honey in it, yet it is not overly sour from too much wheat: a great balance struck here.

Dinner was not until almost 8, what my friend calls Manhattan-style dining. Since most of the dinner guests are early risers with real jobs, I’ve decided that from this point forward, dinner really should be earlier than 7:30 or so. This is also for slightly selfish reasons: it takes me so long to eat that by the time I’ve finally finished, everyone else has already finished, enjoyed some after dinner conversation, and is ready to go home. Earlier dinners mean that I’d be able to finish and then join in on the conversation so as not to miss time with my friends and family.