All posts by Annette

A sleep, not so sound

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had trouble sleeping. That’s an all around problem: not only have I had trouble getting to sleep, but also trouble staying asleep. This leads to a rather vicious circle, really, since I will eventually get to sleep, then wake up a couple of hours later, feel like going back to sleep, and then have issues falling back into slumber. It can lead to some rather interesting days if the previous sleeping sesssions have been particularly bad, as it’s a bit akin to sleepwalking through a fog on a path that isn’t very well lit. Most of the time, I can get about four hours or so of actual sleep – even though it may take me six to get there – and that will be fine for me.

I’m not entirely sure just when it all started. I know I’ve never been much of a sleeper, unlike my siblings, who would happily sleep their way through a dozen hours. There is no real rhyme or reason to the cause: it isn’t dietary, it isn’t stress, it isn’t any strange phobia. I can say that throughout radiation and chemo, I slept longer and better than I can recall ever sleeping. Not that I would want to have that be my method of getting decent sleep time in, mind you – certainly that would be a bit of an extreme just to gain a few hours of naptime. but it does solidify for me the thought that to get a “normal” sleep, I have to be totally exhausted. Once that exhaustion is assuaged, though, my sleep pattern goes directly back to what it was.

Someone once asked me if I dream at all when I sleep. Sure I do. My sleeping dreams, like my waking imagination, are quite vivid and I do recall most of the details. The same person asked me if I had nightmares on a regular basis. No. It’s quite rare that I’ll experience a nightmare, in fact. So my insomiac-like behavior can’t be blamed on that, either.

Right now, I can feel myself reaching that point of exhaustion that might actually allow me to sleep through the next five or six hours with minimal interruption. My eyes are crossing as I type this, and I have to close one eye in order to finish. Since the work I was doing (moving two gigantic accounts between servers) is completed, this is as good a time as any to test just how tired I am and just how quickly it will take me off into downy sleep.

Chef, make me a menu

I’ve been asked to do up a small menu for a spa to serve to clients of theirs who buy a particular day-long package, which includes a light lunch. So I’ve been turning over ideas in my head, wondering what to feed people who are in the midst of massages and facials and the other assorted activities people get to enjoy when they fork over good money to be pampered.

In general, when you see things like this, the meat of choice is usually chicken. There is a reason for this: chicken is generally nonoffensive, almost everyone eats it (unlike pork or beef), and it’s versatile enough to be adapted into a number of dishes that do well as make-ahead items.

The staff wants a tasting of the dishes, of course, so they can decide what to serve their guests – who would refuse free food?

Grilled chicken with a pomegranate-black pepper glaze
Chicken roulade with feta and spinach
Curried chicken salad
Cobb salad with blackened chicken (although this one gives me pause because of the bleu cheese in the dish, since they’d need breath mints afterwards)
Roasted chicken with a cherry sauce

To go along with these, it would usually be something light – mixed greens with a variety of homemade vinaigrettes and fresh fruit, or if the main dish has a green component, just the fruit.

I was also watching Paula Deen this afternoon after returning from the doctor, and she was working with a ham that must have weighted north of 20 pounds. That got me thinking about the thick, boneless pork loin chops I picked up the other day (and which I still need to vacuum pack) and what to do with them. The first thing that popped into my head was a stuffed chop dish – cornbread and apples, specifically, then topped with a maple glaze. Sounds delightful to me.

I’ve also been told to come up with dishes that are low-fat and low-cholesterol. My entire family has cholesterol issues, a lot of which is simply due to the hereditary influences, and most of the adults take some sort of cholesterol-reducing drug(s), my mom included. The side effects of some of those drugs though, can be harsh, and it would be nice if at least the immediate family could do something on the dietary side to help out the hereditary side. Since a friend of mine insists that she wants to lose a few pounds, such a menu would be good for her as well. The dishes above would all work well for that, along with fresh veggies and good oils in the cooking.

Culinary adventures. Gotta love it.

Another day, another biopsy

Today I had another followup visit with my ENT, who did the surgery on my tongue and neck. That’s the thing about cancer – it’s almost like a lifetime of followups after treatment, although the span between followups gets longer and longer as you go along.

Within the past couple of weeks I noticed a bump on my tongue, near the back. It isn’t painful in and of itself, but it rubs against the back of my palate, which makes that spot red and sore. Since my followup was coming, I made a mental note to ask him about the bump while he poked and prodded,

He looked at it, gave it a poke (which didn’t hurt), and said it looked like a granuloma – a benign tissue growth that occurs due to trauma/healing. But, naturally given my recent history, we had to have a sample to send off to the pathology lab.

People think of “a sample” and think it’s just a minor thing, a piece of flesh to be passed along, and off you go. Would that it were so easy. Would you like a step by step? Sure you would.

First, in my opinion, pain in the mouth is the absolute worst. I’ve had knee injuries, wounds that required debriding to remove gravel and clay, pulled muscles, and so on – the consequences of an active and athletic life. But I’ve always disliked dental work in general, and then this cancer business demonstrated to me that for me, my opinion is spot on about pain in the mouth area.

So, first we get a spray of a numbing agent on the tongue. This is just to help calm things when the doctor then pulls out the syringe of novocaine. The needle is a small gauge needle, but that’s no consolation when you get injections directly into the tongue in multiple places. Since my tongue (still) has not fully healed from radiation, this results in multiple bleeding areas as it’s still very sensitive.

Then, we wait a few minutes while the novocaine kicks in. During this time, they gather their rather scary-looking instruments, the bottle to hold the samples, and, in my case, lots of gauze to blot the blood. Also, swabs, peroxide, and silver nitrate (used to seal the wounds).

The samples. I believe I mentioned way back when that the first biospy I had to endure led to a second biopsy because that doctor did not take a large enough or deep enough sample for the pathologist. This ENT, however, is much more thorough, and took half a dozen samples, all of which were pretty substantial (remember, here, that “substantial” means a few centimeters – they’re not cutting out huge swaths of tissue). I looked at them after the tech sealed the bottle and the biohazard bag, and felt good about there not being a need for another round of samples this time. He was rather surprised when we told him we had to go through it twice the first time, and said that we’d make sure it was a one shot deal this time.

After the samples, quite a bit of blotting, since by this time, my mouth is full of blood. A few swabs of peroxide, and some dabbing of silver nitrate, and that’s it. I was left with a foul-taste in my mouth – since my taste buds have been back in fairly good operation since about a month after treatment ended – and quite a bit of spit and more blood. Just as with the dentist, time to spit.

And with that, we were done. I have to go back next week for the results from the pathologisst and what our next step will be, whether it’s benign or more serious. The ENT says they can use the laser to shave down the bump and excise it, and I’m all in favor of that, as it’s the same procedure I went through originally. The lack of stitching on the wound once the surgery is completed with the laser is, in my opinion, an excellent thing. Not just because it means one less visit into the mouth, to remove stitches, but because the post-surgical swelling and healing makes a big difference in how much tissue is present as healing progresses – after all, my tongue looks like it’s missing only a little less than a quarter of its original size despite the fact that almost half was removed. Bonus.

So we’ll see wha we have here and move on. Just like always.

To write, perchance to not edit

A bit of a metaphysical chat with a friend tonight, touching on the topic of writing.

I always wanted to write. Since I was young, my head has been filled with the byproducts of an overactive imagination. For the past dozen or so years, I’ve been carrying around ideas that would, were they to be formed, make themselves into novels.

So why, one might ask, do I not write? Good question, and one I ask myself over and over as I berate myself for not doing just that.

My internal editor will not shut its yap. I hear that little voice saying the same things over and over: that writing stinks. That piece is too private, too personal. That section over there is an idea that’s been rehashed forever, can’t you be original?

And there is the other side of writing, too, the side that wouldn’t be for publication necessarily, but is more an exercise to stretch one’s wings, to let the words flow about whatever topic is uppermost in the mind. A friend of mine tells me that I’ve not posted anything personal in some time, and this is true. Even my insertion of some personal details in the midst of a larger post are incidental. That same little voice yammers about how personal stuff should remain just that way, how deeper thoughts on subjects make me sound like a pretentious git, and how someone else has already said it – better – before I ever got to it.

So what’s the solution? Hell if I know. I’m just typing a stream of consciousness thing here, trying not to edit as I go along. It’s incredibly difficult, and for someone like me who is generally in control all the time, frustrating not to be able to control this as well. At times it almost feels like a failure of character not to be able to spit out the things that are stuck in the brain cells under my skull. I feel like I am awash in words that will never be written, in things that will never be said. I can’t decide if that’s a trgedy or a blessing.

EVOO, anyone?

I’ve a friend who kids me that I’m a huge fan of Rachael Ray. This is our little inside joke because I believe Rachael Ray’s evolution as a tv host has turned her into a loud, spastically gesticulating freak of nature.

In the past, she was not like this (Rachael Ray, not my friend). In her previous incarnation, she was calm, didn’t pepper her speech with idiotic and repetitive phrases (as much), and actually made food that had some thought behind it. I’m not against the 30 Minute Meals (30MM) philosophy entirely. There is, after all, a time and a place for everything. I’ve always thought her 30MM were generally lacking a well-rounded nutrition level, but this is often what you get when putting something together very quickly – and it beats ordering a pizza or grabbing a greasy burger, although those also have their time and place. Overall, in the past, it was not unpleasant to watch RR demonstrate whatever it was she was making during that particular show.

Now, however, it’s an entirely different story. I’m not sure if her fame has gone to her head or if someone at Food Network told her to take it up a level, but she is a screeching harpy now, giggling inappropriately, gesturing with every single word she says, and generally being quite ordinary and uncreative with the meals she demonstrates. That she has four shows in rotation on FTV at this time does not help matters: her exposure level is akin to that of a camera with its shutter left open for an overextended period of time, resulting in a whitewash of what the picture was supposed to be.

I was watching the Next Food Network Star, and in one episode, they took a contestant to task for repeating several stock phrases. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll be saying the same thing to Emeril and his “Bam!” or to RR and her “Yummo”, “How cool is that?”, or the worst, “EVOO – that’s extra virgin olive oil.” Memo to RR: if you have to tell people what it stands for every time you say it, then don’t bother saying it in its abbreviated form. Just say extra virgin olive oil and move on. And why must everything be fried in extra virgin olive oil? An even more important question is why RR insists on frying naturally greasy items like bacon and sausage in extra virgin olive oil. My mind tries but fails to understand why this is necessary. Her culinary disintegration is apparent in the things she prepares these days, as if the well is running dry. Beyond her increasing reliance on burgers of all types, and her “stoups” – a not quite a soup, not quite a stew, but entirely stupid idea – and her total lack of any vegetable product in quite a number of her later recipes, there are some eye-poppingly horrid creations. This is one. This one, however, is worse (and, I will note, something that contains exactly zero veggies on the menu, opting instead for mac and cheese, hot dogs, and caramel popcorn-covered ice cream balls for dessert). We won’t even go into her too-cute-for-words naming conventions for her recipes. Calling something “Micro-way-cool Bacon and Green Beans” is not cool. Unless you’re a 30-something woman with a cooking show trying to act like you’re still in your late teens or early 20s and showing off just how clever you can be. Her alcohol consumption on her other shows, particularly on Inside Dish, can be appalling, especially when it seems she is soused to the gills, as she appeared to be on the ID episode with Morgan Freeman.

It’s a shame, really, as I used to appreciate what RR did to get people who might not have been cooking into the kitchen to at least try something, even though I have to gnaw my lip when she says just eyeball everything or repeats for the millionth time that she doesn’t bake (would this be because you hate to measure things, and baking takes measurement in order to be successful?). Now, though, she’s ranking right up there with Sandra Lee and her Semi-Ho dreck. I’d say I have hopes RR will turn herself around, but with the direction FTV is taking toward entertainment over actual cooking, I’m not holding my breath on that.

Let them eat steak

Easter dinner. For years, it has always been ham. Now, I’m as big a fan of pork as the next person, but sometimes you have to break out of the mold. I had intended to grill some filets for the fam, but came across some lovely ribeyes and decided to go with that instead.

Resting after a touch of seasoning.

Closeup, just to get the drool going.

The steaks sizzled as they went on the hot grill. After the first flip, nice grill marks going.

Not too many minutes later, ready to be served to the hungry guests.

I even managed to get a shot of the first cut of one of the steaks, before it vanished.

I wasn’t quite as lucky to get a shot of the zucchini gratin before they started digging in. Yes, gratin again. They love it. I even managed to eat a few slices of zucchini, yay!

A fresh salad, baked potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, and onion confit rounded out the meal. A fine time was had by all. Now to plan the next menu – filets, for real this time – before someone heads out of town for a week to heed the siren call of work.

Houston, we have confit

After a long day yesterday delivering ribs, sauce, and pickles to those in need, I decided to start some onion confit in the slow cooker.

What’s a confit, you may ask? Excellent question. A confit is simply a preserve, and can be done with just about anything from duck to melons to onions. For savory items, the confit is done using fats. In our case, the fats were butter and olive oil.

Why a confit, you may ask? Another excellent question. Well, why not? Another tasty goodie to tempt the people around me can’t be bad. Besides, there’s no doubt in my mind that onion confit would be great with some grilled filets, or atop some toasted bread with gorgonzola. Or brie and some thinly sliced tart apples.

But I digress. On to the photo show.

This is how it all started.

A four quart slow cooker on high, four giant mutant white onions, quartered and sliced, 3/4 of a stick of butter, and whatever olive oil was left in the bottle (probably a little less than 1/4 of a cup, and definitely something that went back on the shopping list). I stirred all this together and slapped the lid on. About half an hour in, I stirred in about a tablespoon of dark brown sugar and let it go with the lid off for a couple of hours.

Two hours later, not feeling well and ready to grab some sleep, I turned the slow cooker to the warm setting and put the lid back on.

After some sleep, but with a strange case of indigestion – strange because it’s not like I eat anything other than formula for the most part – I got up, turned the heat back on high and left the lid partially off to help along the evaporation. Fourteen and a half hours in, we had this.

I’d been stirring it every so often, and at this point removed the lid entirely to continue the evaporation. A little more than 18 hours later, the finished product.

All those onions reduced down to two pints.

Taste testers judged it delicious, still with an onion-y flavor, but not overly sweet.

I’ve decided that for the next batch, I’ll fill the cooker, let it reduce for about 30 minutes, then add more onions. With about two to three hours of refills, the finished product will be the same, but will fill more than two pint jars that are going to disappear very quickly.

Down for the count

Maybe not.

Yesterday I smoked yet another batch of ribs and used my poolish for yet another ciabatta attempt. I was feeling a little off throughout the day, but brushed it off as nothing too serious, as everyone has those kinds of days.

But after pulling the ribs off the grill – done to perfection, I might add, and looking great when I sliced off a couple for my mom – I was suddenly gripped by the worst nausea I’ve experienced since I ended treatment a little over four months ago. The smoky smell of the ribs was aggravating it, and people who know me will tell you how rare it is for me to be made ill by the smell of food (when I’m not undergoing radiation and chemo, that is). Fortunately, I still had some compazine on hand, so crushed that and poured it down the tube along with some myquil. A little later, I finally drifted off the sleep. And that was good.

The bad part was my dough. Stuck between the first rise and the split/shaping/second rise, it remained on the kitchen counter, continuing to swell and rise. At 3 AM some asshat sales droid called my phone, and, awake, I decided to take care of a little business. On my way down the hall, I popped into the kitchen. The dough had risen to about 8x its original size, lying there with a reproachful look under the plastic wrap, reminding me of why it isn’t good to get sick while there is bread to be made. I ignored it and went back to sleep. This morning, my mother mercifully scraped it into the trash. Another poolish is in order today, to begin yet again.

I had thought initially that I was catching whatever my sisters had last week, as they both came down with a rather nasty bug, but things appear to have settled this morning. At a minimum, I don’t feel like I’m constantly on the verge of puking right now. This is also good, as it means I might be able to get another bread try in, pack some pickles, and carve some ribs for a delivery I was supposed to make today but which will have to wait until tomorrow. But it will still be delicious to my hapless victims, I’m sure.

Once ciabatta is mastered, it will be time to try baguettes and french loaves, now that my pans have come in. I had toyed with trying to make both freeform on the baking stone, but realized the spread might get a little out of hand. Who wants flat bread that isn’t meant to be flat? Appropriate tools were in order.

All in all, yesterday wasn’t a complete waste, but by the end of it, it surely felt that way. C’est la vie.

Best laid plans

Two nights ago, I was supposed to feed some people a nice dinner. Alas, events conspired against me. A geek’s job is never done, and instead of listening to the hiss of grilling meat I was listening to the a/c units and servers at the NOC as I replaced someone’s primary drive and restored their files. That is not exactly an even trade. The window of opportunity for dinner passed, and will have to await my mom’s return, since she is currenly visiting King Tut – or at least some of his stuff.

Yesterday, I was planning on making some more poolish to continue my ciabatta experiments. Alas, events once again conspired against me as I worked on yet another server issue that took most of the day and a lot of the night. The things we do to get things set up to try new applications…

Today? Yet another crazy workday. Too little sleep, too little food both yesterday and today, no cleaning done, no end of quarter paperwork mailed. We joke around here that Tuesdays are our Mondays, because Tuesdays are always busier and weirder than any other day. This week has been filled with Tuesdays.

But I believe it is time to throw together some poolish to get that fermenting. Tomorrow is a brand new day, after all, and not every day can be insanity demonstrated.

Bread and wine

Or, more accurately, bread and pickles.

I love to bake just as much as I love to cook. Some people may think the two are the same thing – after all, you throw some ingredients together, heat it or cool it, and then you eat it, right?

Wrong.

There’s a saying that will tell discerning readers (or eaters, for that matter) a thing or two about the difference: cooking is an art. Baking is a science.

There’s a reason for this. Baking in general requires fairly exact proportions in order to come to an end result that is actually edible. Anyone who has accidentally dumped too much salt into a cookie recipe will know how things can go terribly awry in baking. With cooking, most mistakes are recoverable – that is, mistakes can often be worked around or dealt with in a way that still leaves you with something to eat.

Where is this all leading? Bread, of course. My favorite thing to bake and my favorite baked good to eat. In the past, I’ve generally done what most people would recognize as loaf-type breads: cinnamon-raisin, with or without the raisins, whole wheat or honey wheat, and so on. The doughs for these breads are firm and easy to work with. Having made all sorts of loaves before I went in for surgery last year, I wanted to try something different this time around. Something I’d never done before, with a dough type that I’d never handled. I chose ciabatta: a wet, sticky dough that requires some care in handling in order to get a good crumb (the inside of the bread, where all the holes are). Anyone who has eaten a sandwich on loaf bread knows that the holes are very small and very consistent. Not so on wet dough breads like ciabatta. The holes vary wildly throughout, and the bread itself feels airy when held: light in the hand, with a nice crust.

Since I am the adventurous type, I dove right in. After all, flour is cheap, and if the end result is awful, it goes into the trash and a new batch is made with an eye toward improving whatever went wrong the first (or second or third) time.

The bread begins with a starter dough. The first dough is made and then left to ferment anywhere from several hours to overnight. There are two options: a biga and a poolish. The latter is looser than the first, more liquid. Since my goal was experimenting with very loose, wet dough, I went with a poolish to begin. The poolish is mixed and then left at room temperature for 3-4 hours. Once it is bubbly, it goes to the refrigerator for anywhere from several hours to three days, to be pulled out about an hour before use. This is my poolish after about 12 hours in the refrigerator:

It is very wet, loose, and sticky, and goes into the second dough mixture. Working with the finished dough was quite interesting, and difficult. The idea behind this type of bread is not to “degas” the bread. The bubbles in the dough are what will form the crumb and give the holes discussed up above. After a couple of folds and resting periods, the dough was split into three loaves, stretched a bit, and folded again, then allowed to proof again. Once that’s completed, it’s baking time. The bread was baked directly on a stone, and cooks very quickly. The loaves took about 12 minutes each. You’re supposed to allow the bread to cool for 45 minutes before cutting, but there had to be a sacrificial loaf. This was the first cut – well, technically, it was the second, as my mom scooped up the first cut, slathered some butter on it, and ate it.

While I am not displeased with my first effort – the bread smells terrific and, according to the first taste tester, is delicious – I can see some room for improvement. The crumb is nicely developed, but could go a step or two further.

The irregular holes can be seen, but I’d like them to be larger and would like there to be more of them. I believe this is either the result of insufficient kneading or of losing too much gas during the folding processes. The dough is rustic, but I’m not thrilled with the folds I got, as there is a pronounced seam as well. Next time, I think I’ll do two slightly larger loaves rather than three smaller loaves. On the plus side, the dough is airy and the loaves are light. The crust is nicely formed and browned, courtesy of the steaming in the first few minutes of baking. So I’m going to tag this one as a partial success and continue to experiment with this dough. This first round will go well with Wednesday night’s dinner: filet mignon with lump crab and a bernaise, roasted asparagus with balsamic vinegar and parmigiano-reggiano, and spinach au gratin. I know, two greens in one dinner, but they were requests, and who am I to turn those down?

Aside from the baking experiment, I also made some pickles.

From left to right, those will be: sour garlic pickles, “firecrackers” (courtesy of Alton Brown), and bread and butter chips. The firecrackers just call for baby carrots, but I found some sweet peppers at the store, so I tossed a few in with the carrots after cutting a slit in the side of each one. I made the pickling mixture for each one, and poured it over the goodies in the jars.

Clockwise from the top, those are the firecrackers, with a few dried chiles added after the jar is filled, the bread and butter chips, and the sour garlic pickles. I would have liked to have done spears for the last, but was unable to find some decent sized cukes that would have been suitable, so chips again. Maybe as we get into the season we’ll have better luck with that. The pickles were all cooled to room temperature, then lidded and refrigerated. As with most pickled items, these will no doubt get better as they age, but I’m going to have my tasters sample them Wed. night. There will be plenty of pickles around here down the road – I’m a huge pickle fan, and not just pickled cukes – so I’ll be able to do my own tasting 24 hours into a pickle at some point. I’d like to do a pickle of other veggies, like a cauliflower and red pepper pickle, maybe with some red onion. I think that would be rather tasty.

Tonight: a fabulous dinner. I’ll definitely take a couple of pictures of this one for your viewing pleasure.