The gall of it all

As faithful readers of this blog know, my eating habits are, shall we say, a bit off-kilter. This is through no fault of my own, I assure you. Being on the cancer diet for nine months has a way of taking the punch out of you a bit. I’m trying, though, to eat by mouth as much as possible, and my recent round of weight loss is directly attributable to that: nothing through the feeding tube+small amounts of food by mouth+a body still recovering from the ravages of cancer and the associated treatment = weight dropping like a stone in water.

So it was back to the old feeding tube for me, for use a couple of times a day. Lately, that has become three times a day because the weight continues to slowly come off the frame. And I’m trying to stick to that, if only to get my mother’s nagging out of my ears.

But a funny thing happened on the way back to normal, a trip that looks as if it will not be ending anytime soon. And I don’t mean funny ha-ha.

I’ve mentioned the hideous burning pain I’ve felt occasionally in the past month or so, that feels like it’s going to finish what the cancer itself could not, complete with nausea, vomiting, and the desire to just curl up and pull a rock over my head. Unfortunately, that pain seems to be coming much more often now and staying longer, like some freeloading bum of a relative who just wants to hang out on your couch eating all your chips and drinking all your beer while monopolizing your television and leaving the seat up on the toilet. This last round began on Friday and lasted into Tuesday morning, where it finally dissipated into a lingering nausea. It was bad enough to cause me to miss the first home preseason game – the first football game I would have been able to go to in a year. None of that is good. No, not good at all.

Saturday, with wave one behind me and with wave two upon me, I finally croaked out to my mom that perhaps a visit to the gastro people was in order. After all, a person can’t go on like this, and I certainly can’t afford to drop more weight. At 106 pounds, I weigh less than I weighed throughout high school (110), and I’m bony enough without calling more attention to all the sharp angles. But with this sort of pain gripping me, it’s almost impossible to eat or pour something down the tube, because it comes right back up.

So they wanted to give me an appointment for a month from Monday, the day we called. My mom pointed out that this was in fact no good, and I told her I’d be dead by then if this kept up. A few moves from point to point on the phones in the doctor’s office, and we found ourselves with an appointment for Wednesday. Hooray.

When we finally got in to see the doctor after waiting around for an hour, and after he told me how much better I looked now than I looked when he put in my feeding tube almost a year ago (thank you, now that my skin isn’t being burned off by radiation, I suppose I do), and after I described the symptoms, the first words out of his mouth were, “Do you still have your gallbladder?”

Now, I never really thought about my gallbladder. Who does? It’s not as if it’s the first thing on my mind. “Gee, I wonder how my varoius internal organs are doing this fine morning?” But he’s a gastro guy, and it’s like me diagnosing a technical issue I’ve seen a thousand times before when someone describes their problem: I’m sure that my symptoms clicked for him the same way someone’s email problem would for me. And naturally I have my gallbladder still, since my surgeries were for tumor removal and tube fitting. But perhaps not having it would be better. As he explained it, people who are not nutritionally functional for an extended period of time and/or who lose weight rapidly in a short period of time – like, say, oral cancer patients who have been having a formula fed to them through a tube directly into their gut – are at risk for impaired or reduced gallbladder functionality. It gets “sludgy”, stones build, and then when that person does start eating real food again, the efforts the gallbladder makes to do its normal job create the pain that makes the person wish they were dead.

When I was younger, and all through high school, I never had any broken bones. Never required any surgeries. I had injuries, of course – it’s next to impossible not to with all the activities I was involved in and how reckless kids tend to be with their bodies. But throughout it all, if I got banged up, I healed and moved on, and I never had anything particularly serious other than a bad case of bronchitis, laryngitis, colic, and dehydration (all at once) that landed me in the hospital in the ICU for a few days the year after I graduated high school. I seem to be making up for all those missed opportunities now: a cancer diagnosis, two surgeries, two hospitalizations, two months of radiation and chemo, and a tube to get calories, all in the span of a year.

Before I chalk another surgery on my scoreboard to remove another piece of me, we have to go through some tests. On the 5th, I’ll be returning to the outpatient center – which is where all my PET scans have been done, another of which I had Thursday, and during which I asked the tech to be on the lookout for my gallbladder during the CT part (it was hiding, so no news there) – for an ultrasound, followed an hour later by a HIDA scan. Like the PET scan, the HIDA uses a radioactive tracer. Unlike the PET scan, where you have to wait about an hour before the scan, for the HIDA, images are taken at specific intervals as your body deals with the tracer. The test takes about two hours. That will be yet another in a series of unproductive daytime hours for me, I can see that already. After that, it’s back to the doctor later in the month, to discuss the results and where we go from here.

One of the questions I’ve been amusing myself with today is about the potential surgery. It’s done as laparoscopy, just as the tube placement was. Which leads to the inevitable question: since I have a hole in my abdomen where the tube is placed, will they actually be able to blow up my abdominal area without me leaking the air out? Or will they have to slap a piece of duct tape around the hole? Inquiring minds want to know.

Signs of the times

Someone left a comment in the Savannah entries about that fuzzy plant: a chenille plant. Thanks very much for the information. I can say with some happiness that it has not been at the forefront of my mind, so I’ve not been dreaming of strangely-colored fuzzy caterpillars while I pondered the genus of that plant.

A piece of of spam in my email – 136 out of 138 new messages in that particular mailbox were spam – had the subject “Better life, well-alphabetized”. That brought a smile to my face and reminded me of the very strange family from The Accidental Tourist, bettering their life by alphabetizing their canned goods.

And a few signs that say perhaps charitable donations of dictionaries are in order:

“Congradulations Class of 2006” – on a church marquee. This stayed there almost the entire month of June.

“We celebrate our dependance on god” – the same church, switching to a strange patriotic-type message for July.

“OPEN DAILEY SALES” – a small place I pass on trips to the NOC. According to the painted sign on the building, it’s an auction house.


Wednesday night marked the last of the speeches my sister had to prepare and give for her speech class. I didn’t mind the speeches, particularly. I certainly didn’t mind cooking for everyone who showed up to be part of her required audience.

Earlier in the day, I’d decided that I really would prefer not to run to the store for anything, so rooted around and cleared out the pantry a bit. We were a bit disjointed Wednesday evening; people were drifting in at various times, making a true sit down meal impossible. What’s a cook to do when work beckons?

Brown sugar and cumin grilled chicken.

Some green beans and black eyed peas.

Plum and peach salsa.

The peach ice cream I’d made the other day turned out quite well indeed, and that was available for dessert. One of my sisters also had a cappuccino with me after dinner and after the speech. While I’d thought there would be quite a bit of leftovers, since one of the boyfriends said he wasn’t going to eat, we only had a single chicken breast, a bit of the sides, and almost no salsa left over, as he changed his mind and everyone had a decently sized portion. Except me, of course.

Continue reading Speechifying

The Challenge: Day Thirty

And so we come to the final day of The Challenge. Before we get into that, though, a little catching up is in order, to fill in the gaps left by my slack updates.

Thursday night was speech night: my sister, who is taking a speech class, needs a captive audience of at least five people to hear her speech on whatever the topic happens to be. The speech – and the audience – have to be taped. We’ve been through a number of these this semester, and each time, our routine is pretty much the same: speech, then dinner, prepared by yours truly. This time, though, since we are in the midst of house-hunting, and since we wanted everyone’s input on this one particular house we’ve been considering, we all piled into a car and headed over to wander through it. I imagine that was quite a sight for people in the neighborhood. Earlier, my mom and sister had picked up the makings for tacos, so I did not have to cook anything and was able to work work work until it was time to go see the house and have dinner. This was a good thing, as it happened, as we’ve been quite busy lately and there’s always something to be done. Once we returned from the house viewing, I warmed some tortillas on the griddle and we all sat down to eat.

Well, more accurately, they all ate, and I had formula. That was, I think, the only thing I’d had to eat that day, which was probably a mistake. Later that evening, I had another excruciating round of heartburn or reflux or whatever the hell it was, with a round of puking as a weird bonus session. This lasted into Friday, and since I was in no condition to cook, the fam fended for themselves. I had been planning to head to the NOC to set up a bunch of servers, but wound up hanging around the house, working off and on, and sleeping quite a bit.

When Saturday rolled around, I felt a bit better, and headed to the NOC to get the servers up and racked (taking someone along with me to do the lifting, since I’m still not quite as able as I’d like to be). There were half a dozen servers to set up, and Wendy’s was calling our name, so dinner was uninspired. At times, it must seem like feeding a little baby when I eat: one and a half chicken nuggets and some fries was what I managed. Plus some formula. Everyone swears that one day I’ll be able to eat like a normal person again, but some days it seems that goal gets further and further away.

And that brings us to Sunday, which was supposed to be a speech day, but turned out not to be, since my sister needs to do a bit more research before she’s ready. Still, just about any day is a good day to cook, and I did just that after we’d been out looking at more houses and lots.

Oh, on a side note: the canning operation of the tomato sauce seems to have gone very well once I got the canner to coooperate.

The white residue is from the vinegar I added to the water to help keep the cooker from discoloring. Nothing serious.

Sunday’s menu: roast beast…I mean, beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, and two sauces: a horseradish cream sauce and a mushroom sauce with wine (Zin, in this case). I was going to make rolls, but by the time we returned from the house hunting, there wasn’t room in the schedule.

The beef. Eye round. Isn’t it pretty?

Bathed in dijon mustard, salt, pepper, and garlic.

Into the oven it went, starting at 425 for a bit, then lowering to 375. In the meantime, some starchy goodness. That’s a reflection on the top there, not some creeping crud I decided to feed to people.

Just as at weddings where you’re supposed to have something blue, we needed something green with our dinner. Peas, please.

Sliced mushrooms, a little wine, some beef broth, salt, pepper, flour, and water, and presto! It’s a sauce. Or gravy.

Everyone started eating before I got a picture of the table, but that’s the way things work out sometimes. Besides, I was making the gravy that’s in the foreground from the drippings of the roasting pan. Nice, thick, deep gravy.

A sample plate. The white stuff is the horseradish cream sauce. A major hit with everyone, and quite simple to prepare, really.

And how did the beef turn out? Fabulous.

While we were in Publix, the peaches looked and smelled very good.

I decided to make some peach ice cream. The peaches had to be peeled, diced, and soaked for a bit in lemon juice and sugar.

Some egg, sugar, cream, milk, and the juices from the peach bath were mixed and dropped into the ice cream maker. The peaches went in for the final 5-10 minutes of the churn. How did it turn out? That, my dear readers, will have to wait until tomorrow when the ice cream is fully frozen and gets a good taste. Although sample tasting – for quality control purposes, of course – indicates that it will be just fine…

Our totals for the evening.

Beef (eye round): 13.32
Potatoes: 2.29
Peas: 2.00
Sauces: 2.43

Total meal: 20.04
Total per diner (5): 4.00

There were leftovers as well, and since Monday is probably going to be busy for all of us, those will likely serve as at least lunch. Now to come up with a menu for Tuesday’s spech night.

Getting sauced

In a good way, of course. What do you need in order to make good, homemade sauce suitable for pasta or pizza?

A bunch of tomatoes, for one.

Core them.

Blanch them.

Shock them.

Peel and seed them.

Chop them. In batches, if you’re making a huge amount of sauce as I did today.

Then some garlic. About three heads (not cloves!), chopped.

Onions are good, too. Vidalias especially. About three and a half large onions, chopped.

Spices, oil, and wine.

And some tomato paste.

Sauce is so easy to make. In the winter, use canned tomatoes. In the summer, fresh.

Step one. Saute the garlic, then add the onions and some salt, cooking for about 10-15 minutes until the onions are medium-soft.

Step two. Add the tomato paste and some spices (oregano and tarragon, if you’re us). Cook until the tomato paste begins to brown a bit.

Step three. Add a touch of red wine vinegar and some good red wine, raise the temp a bit to get a good simmer going. Tomatoes need alcohol to release certain chemical compounds, and this will enhance the flavor of the dish. Most of the alcohol – never all of it – will burn away when you raise the temp. Not into alcohol, or have someone with special needs in that department? Skip it. It will be fine. After reducing it a bit, lower the temp and add the tomatoes and the juices.

Step four. Give it about 25 minutes or so, stirring it often.

Step five. Break out the blender. If you can find your immersion blender, that would be easier. Alas, I can’t find mine. Puree the sauce in batches. Like chunky sauce? Be sure you’ve chopped things in fairly bite-sized pieces back at the beginning, and only puree as much as you need to get the consistency you desire. We like smooth sauces, so all of it gets some blender time. If you’re using a blender, take out the insert from the top and cover the hole with a dish towel. Only fill the blender to a max of half the container. Do not ignore these things! If you do, you’ll be cleaning tomato sauce off your ceiling.

Step six. Return to heat. Add pepper and basil (fresh or dried).

Step seven. Jar it. Be sure to follow the rules for canning tomato-based products and sauces. Wipe the rims. Use fresh lids and good bands.

Step eight. Into the pressure canner. Of course, if yours is like mine, it will refuse to cooperate, and there will be no pressurized canning, only spitting and frothing by the canner, with no lift of the weight gauge. Bummer.

I gave the gauge a knock to see if it would manage to lift off. That appears to have done the trick, and we’re under pressure and counting down the processing time. It was a fun day, working on this in between bouts of working on real work, and it will be nice to have homemade sauce available for something that requires it if the mood strikes us just right.

The Challenge: Day Twenty-Nine

We’ve reached the penultimate day of the challenge. It’s taken longer than 30 days to complete this challenge, but no one is counting, really. And what have you learned, Dorothy? Or, rather, what sort of tips have you come up with after all this?

1. It would be easier if everyone was sort of on the same schedule. Not just daily life/work schedules, but eating schedules as well. It isn’t so difficult to work around schedules when the time difference is within a smallish window – an hour or two. But when the difference is several hours, or when someone isn’t eating at all, it’s much harder for the home cook to make dinners that consist of things that aren’t just stuffed into a crockpot – or for people to avoid those salt-laden, junky prepackaged foods.
2. It’s a good idea to plan meals in advance. Deciding at the last minute on what’s for dinner often results in too many trips to the store. Planning allows you more time to spend finishing the cooking so you can enjoy the time with family and friends.
3. Going hand in hand with that: it’s a good idea to keep the pantry well-stocked with certain basic, non-perishable items. I’m not talking about Sandra Lee-type nonperishables, either. I’m talking about real food. Chicken stock (if you’re not making it yourself) comes immediately to mind. Pasta (again, if you’re not making it yourself). Canned tomatoes. Rice, several types if you’re into that sort of thing. Flour (all purpose will do; if you bake often, obviously you may have other types on hand). Dried or canned beans. Honey. Soy sauce. A variety of spices.
4. Learning to balance the likes and dislikes of everyone who may be joining you for dinner can be trying sometimes, but the end result is worth it.
5. Buy in bulk. This probably goes without saying, but in conjunction with number two above, this can save you some cash if you plan ahead, as you’ll be less likely to make an impulse-type purchase of something you can get more cheaply in bulk (like, say, deciding as you’re off on one of those quick trips to the grocery that you might as well go ahead and pick up a pack of three boneless, skinless chicken breasts while you’re there instead of planning your trip to the warehouse).
6. Trying to cook everything, from scratch, in a short period of time – like a couple of hours – is unlikely to be practical if you’re recovering from a major medical issue. Pace yourself.
7. Get honest feedback from your eaters and take it for what it is: constructive criticism. This will improve your cooking.
8. If you’re trying to feed your eaters some kind of special diet (lowfat, low-cal, gluten-free, or whatever else), do a little research and be creative. Just because someone wants to eat lowfat doesn’t mean you need to feed them no fat, and if you try, they’ll probably revolt.
9. On that same subject, remember to break out of the special diet mold from time to time. For a reasonably healthy person who is trying to eat lowfat, the occasional steak here and there isn’t going to kill them.
10. Have fun. Think of yourself as an artist with a palette of food available to you. Eating healthy home-cooked meals is not only possible but could be one of the best things you’ve ever done for youself and those you love. As an added bonus, it can also be done quite reasonably, budget-wise.

Monday, my plan had been to get the lawn mowed and then make my tomato sauce. One out of two ain’t bad. After finishing the lawn duties, I was whipped, so took a brief nap, and then had to come up with something for dinner, as no one around me had any suggestions whatsoever as to what they wanted. So, as usual, their personal chef came up with the menu: orange-glazed chicken, rice pilaf, corn on the cob, and broccoli with (lowfat) cheese sauce.

The chicken was seared and then put into the oven, where it was glazed a couple of times with a mixture of orange marmalde, soy sauce, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and dijon mustard. Sounds like a strange combination – it sounded strange in my head, to be sure – but it worked quite well.

Yours truly managed to grab the handle of the large stainless steel frying pan after it came out of the oven. Not bright at all. Fortunately, it appears my reflexes are still quite fast, and I let it go instantly. No blisters or anything popping up on my hand, thankfully.

I was quite pleased with the meal, and even more pleased with the cheese sauce, as I’d not been sure how that would turn out, since I was trying to make it lowfat.

The totals:

Chicken (boneless, skinless breasts, 6): 12.30
Rice: 1.97
Broccoli: 3.98
Corn: 2.00
Cheese sauce: 1.49

Total for the meal: 21.74
Total per diner (6): 3.62

Since it appears that I can only do one rather intensive activity per day, Tuesday will be sauce day. I also need to plan some menus. Planning is definitely key, and something I’ve been a slacker on throughout this entire challenge. Thursday will be another largish gathering for dinner, as will Sunday.

A friend pointed out to me in email (to which I have yet to respond, because I can be so horrible at keeping up with correspondence – sorry, Julia!) that I might want to consider this challenge for other seasons as well. After all, summer’s bounty only lasts so long, and the other seasons will give me other challenges and afford me the opportunity to make other kinds of dishes. Now, we don’t really have “seasons” down here as in other places. It’s summer for a long, long time, then suddenly it’s 30 degrees out for a bit, and then we’re into spring, warming up rapidly to another round of summer. Still, the produce tends to know when it’s fall, and even though at least one of my diners has something against braises, those are perfect for long winter days and nights. That same diner has something against soups as well – maybe she’s just not a winter type of gal – but a nice big pot of spanish bean soup with ham and some crusty bread can be just the ticket on a cool fall/winter evening. I may continue indefinitely with the costing per meal and per diner as I’m able, just to see what differences there are between what we eat when the produce breaks in a giant wave on the farmer’s market and grocery store and what we eat when the tomatoes are out of season (or hothouse tomatoes) and suddenly the Vidalias are gone for another season. It should be interesting. At least it will be to me.

Football season is here! About damn time…

Casual day

Food-wise casual, that is.

I had big plans for Sunday: get up, cut the grass, shower, head to the farmer’s market and Costco, hit Publix for the other things we needed, then get a big batch of sauce going for canning.

It didn’t quite work out that way. For some reason, after getting back from the beach Saturday evening, we all had difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep. I held off on cutting the grass since everyone else was still sleeping when I got up, and instead, headed out to the farmer’s market for a few things.

I love living in Florida during the summer, blazing heat and all.

Since Sunday was the first preseason football game, I decided that guacamole and pizza should be the fare of choice. My intent was to have the sauce made and do some pizza dough. Alas, my energy was flagging, so it was jarred sauce and readymade pizza shells for us tonight. Not bad, but for some reason, the Boboli shells always feel greasy to me. This may be because they are in fact greasy. But they still have a decent taste. Not homemade, but good enough in a pinch.

Guacamole is remarkably unphotogenic.

Pizza toppings look much better.


One sister’s pizza.

Mom’s pizza, BC (before cheese).

My other sister’s pizza, fresh from the oven. She likes her toppings on top of the cheese, so they can get crunchy.

Football on, pizza smells wafting through the house…felt like fall, except that it was 94 degrees outside at 8 PM. Two weeks to our first home preseason game. Can’t wait…

Dining seaside

Saturday, we – my mom, my sister, and I – went to the beach to visit with some friends who have a house that bumps gently against the dunes. The house is glorious. They’ve done quite a bit of work on it, and even added on to it. The second story facing the beach is almost entirely windows, and overlooks the water.

The menu:

Homemade hummus
Homemade pitas
Shrimp two ways
Broccoli-two cheese casserole
Tomatoes with fresh basil and balsamic vinegar
Deviled eggs
Fresh breads (baguette, olive-basil, and rosemary)
Pineapple upside down cake

Creamy hummus.

Pita dough, cut and ready for rolling.

The first couple of pitas were sacrificial as I got the hang of making them. Once that round was over, though, the rest turned out very well indeed.

The casserole, before the topping mixture.

And after.

Mom’s famous pineapple upside down cake.

We packed all that up, along with a very good bottle of wine, and made our way to the shore.

I always wanted to sail…

This is what a nicely done appetizer plate of hummus and pitas looks like.

And this is what happy people look like when they’re sitting out on a deck on the beach with that nice plate.

I had a cut on the tip of my middle finger on my right hand, probably from the server I was setting up in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I didn’t notice it until I was making the marinade for half the shrimp and was squeezing some limes and lemons. Ouch. Half the shrimp was boiled, half sauteed after being in the marinade.

Eventually, you have to put everything together. Shrimp and deviled eggs.

Broccoli casserole, hot and bubbly from the oven.

Tomatoes, sliced, with basil picked just that morning, dressed with balsamic vinegar.

Warm, sliced bread.

The long view.

Al fresco dining on the deck.

Action photo. Photo by me, action courtesy of Mother Nature and the relentless attack on the shore by the waves.

Look to the west.

You’ll see the sun set.

The beach will empty of people.

But the moon will keep you company.

Back on the deck, we enjoyed some dessert.

And after a bit more visiting, we said our goodbyes and headed home, pleasantly full and tired. Too tired to sort through the photos afterward and post about it, in fact.

Meat and potatoes

“You know what I really want right now?” asked my sister the other night, still wrapped in her towel and dripping from her shower. “Fries. Real fries.”

I’ve never worked in a fast food joint, so I’ve never had the opportunity to ask people if they wanted fries (or anything else, for that matter). Usually, this is always the way it is: people tell me what they want and I make it.

We had some potatoes on hand, leftover gravy from steak night, mushrooms, and ground beef. Hamburgers and handcut fries it was.

I cut the fries and soaked them in a bit of salty water, set them out to drain, and then fried them in batches.

Get a couple of hamburgers going, break out the gravy, toss some mushrooms in, throw some fries on the plate, and you have dinner. Except my sister, who doesn’t like gravy because she’s weird, so her burger was segregated from the gravy burgers.

No green stuff with this meal. Meat and potatoes all the way.