Category Archives: The Challenge


What the back forty looked like in January (and actually, for almost the past two years):

And now:

We had every intention of leaving the back wild, but last season found that weeds had completely overtaken one berm where wild blackberries were growing (not an easy task), that dog fennel and other weeds were running rampant, making it impossible to get to the wild blackberries anyway, and that we wanted, instead, to put the orchard out in that spot instead. At the very far end, somewhat behind that tree dead center in the photo, is another berm where blackberries are still going strong, and behind that is more wild area that will stay that way. For now. We had our tractor guy come out, mow, and then take down the berms and give us some leveling of the ground back there. Thus far, we have two almonds and a peach tree. Next weekend, we’re heading to the nursery for some citrus trees. Toward the left side of the picture, between the pine trees and the neighbor’s fence, is where I envision the bee hives going at some point.

It’s all very much a work in progress, as it always is. But spring is here – finally – and that means some serious gardening. How serious? Let’s just say that today alone, I popped about 50 plants into the frames out front, in addition to what we’d already put out there. More to come…

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.

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…

The Challenge: Day Twenty-Eight

We finally got to bring mom home from the hospital at 5:30 Tuesday evening. After being up all day Sunday, not sleeping at all that night, taking her to the hospital at 5:30 AM Monday morning, spending all day at the hospital with her, finally getting home at 10 PM, then foolishly working into the wee hours and not getting nearly the amount of sleep I needed Monday night..well, I was tired yesterday. Waiting for the doctor to get his ass to see her and sign her discharge papers (since if she left without it, her insurance would not pay for any of it) was maddening, since it meant I really couldn’t do anything that required me to be out as we had no idea when he’d appear and we’d be able to get her home. But this is the way things go sometimes.

Once we managed to get her sprung from the hospital, it was time to decide on dinner. After all, she’d been on liquids only Monday after surgery (even though we cheated and brought her some of that bread you saw in a previous entry when we brought in the cucumber-avocado soup), and Tuesday’s hospital food offerings weren’t exactly haute cuisine. We had some steaks left over from the boneless whole ribeye I’d cut awhile back, so that was dinner: grilled ribeyes, along with mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, sauteed onions and mushrooms (baby bellas and button), and a gravy I made in the pan used to saute those onions and mushrooms. A fine meal.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Monday morning, bright and early – ok, early, but maybe not so bright – my sister and I took mom off to the hospital. A very, very brusque woman at the surgical checkin desk grabbed up a clipboard and then instructed us and another woman (and her husband) to follow her. We were stuffed into a semiprivate room on the wing, and the two ladies were told to change into those ever-so-lovely and fashionable gowns. And brown booties with no-skids on the bottoms, so they wouldn’t fall and break their heads or anything else.

Then, we waited.

Continue reading The Challenge: Day Twenty-Eight

The Challenge: Day Twenty-Six

It was pasta night at the old homestead. If I were some inane host on FoodTV, I’d start in on some story about having a movie night and how Goodfellas is one of my favorite movies (it is, actually) and try passing off some horrid combination of flavors as a meal as I yammered away incessantly using stupid baby-like talk and waved my arms around like I was landing a plane.

Fortunately for all of us, I am not one of those hosts. Instead, I’ll just give you the lowdown on the meal.

My plan for the day was to make some baguettes, make the sauce, make some tofu meatballs, and then make the pasta. The “real” meatballs, as you noticed, were already made and they froze very well overnight.

As plans go, it wasn’t terrible. The day, however, did not cooperate as well as it could have. A few people got their sites hacked, there were questions to answer, one of the servers has a primary drive dying a slow and painful death and we had to plan for emergency migrations from it, my tube is just killing me the past few days, and I ran out of gas a little after 3 this afternoon and had to shut down for about half an hour for a nap. Oh, and in the midst of dinner prep, we had to go look at a house, so this introduced another kink in my plans and between fatigue and pain I was a tad stressed in getting dinner completed.

Even with all this, though, I did manage to get everything done except for making the pasta. Luckily, I’m the planner, and I had emergency backup pasta on hand.

The sauce I would judge: excellent. I think it could be used interchangeably on pizza and pasta, and I plan to make a large batch and can it. The meatballs: fabulous. The combination of meats and the seasonings in them give them a great taste. The baguettes: fair. They were in the French style, so were thinner than the usual baguettes you might find at Publix. We also ran into a multitasking problem because the pasta water was boiling over furiously while the bread was under the broiler (smeared with roasted garlic butter, thank you), so the bread got a little crispy. Still edible, though. Our vegetarian friends loved the tofu meatballs and there were a few left over, so we sent those home with them in some sauce. Fresh strawberry ice cream rounded out this meal.

In the foreground are the tofu meatballs, at the top the meatballs made of a mixture of beef, veal, and pork. At the left is some freshly grated parm-reg. In the middle are the split and broiled baguettes with roasted garlic butter and at the middle right is the great homemade sauce. At the upper right is some multigrain spaghetti (Barilla, if you’re interested).

Gratuitous happy cat photo.

Your cook, tired and in pain, but happy that everyone enjoyed the meal.

Our breakdown for tonight’s meal:

Pasta (store-bought, multigrain): 2.99
Meatballs: 3.15
Bread: 1.40
Tofu meatballs: 2.99
Sauce: 2.17
Ice cream: 2.09

Total meal: 14.79
Total per diner (6, with leftovers): 2.47

Pasta is cheap, cheap, cheap, and would have been even cheaper had I made it fresh. We did uncork a bottle of wine, as well: Chateau Lamargue 2003 Costieres de Nimes Rouge. Quite good, with cherry aromas and a smooth finish (although my sister disagrees with me on the latter, and since I only had a taste and she had a full pour, she may be right).

A good dinner, with good company, at a good price. What more could one ask?

The Challenge: Day Twenty-Five

Thought I’d given up on the last of The Challenge, eh?

Fat chance. I do try to finish the things I start, after all.

Today I was to start the paperwork for prequalifying for a loan so I can find a house – or, rather, so when the right house finds me, I’ll be prepared. My uncle’s cousin is doing this for me, so of course we decided to feed him.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

Our trip to Savannah interrupted my lawn mowing schedule, so some of the weedier grass was coming up around my kneecaps, and it was time, as they say. I felt pretty good about it this morning, too: it only took just over an hour for me to cut the lawn (with a break), and then another 20 minutes or so to trim (after about a 40 minute rest, that is). According to the weather dork, today was supposed to be cooler. Ha! By the time I finished with the lawn just after noon, it was already in the mid-90s. We ended up at 96 today. There’s nothing like Florida in the summer. Or winter. Or spring or fall.

Anyhow, after I rested a bit and showered, it was time to head to the NOC to set up a couple of servers that arrived late yesterday. The newest – and last, for this cage – rack is now in place and waiting. That’s a good thing, because racks eight and nine are almost filled. This will give us room for another 24 or so servers. I’m hoping that the NOC guys get our new cage built quickly. At the rate we’re adding servers lately, this rack will be full before too long. It’s strange looking at all the gear in the cage and thinking back to when my then business partner and I started the company. At the time, we figured if we had a server or two and they paid for themselves, that would be enough. After two months, we were already so busy that she became the first fulltime employee of the company and quit her day job. And now, here we are, over 200 servers later. The partner is gone, off to pursue non-techie interests, and the past couple of years have been interesting (in the Chinese curse sense), but I wouldn’t trade any of it for a regular job working for someone else.

Since I had to make a stop at PetSmart after leaving the NOC to pick up some hairball gel for the little furry ones, I decided to cruise by Yoshi’s (or at least where Yoshi’s used to be) to see what was going on with that space. The sign that was up about some sushi place coming soon is gone, but I do see that there is work going on inside to renovate the place. There is another sushi place across Baymeadows as well – it’s been there for some time, even while Yoshi’s was open – so it’s a little surprising that one sushi place would close with another poised to take its place rather than the space turning into a restaurant offering another type of cuisine.

For dinner we elected to have shrimp, rice pilaf, broccoli, and sliced tomatoes. Simple, summery, and nothing too elaborate because yours truly is dead tired from all the physical labor today. I’m hoping that one day I’ll get my energy stores back in order so that typical activities don’t wear me out quite so much.

The shrimp was marinated in lemon juice, soy, honey, red pepper flakes, grated fresh ginger, garlic, and a bit of olive oil. I let that sit for awhile as I prepped everything else, then sauteed them in three batches in a touch of olive oil. “Batches?” you ask. “We don’ need no steekin’ batches!” Well, you do, really. Sauteeing the shrimp – or any food, for that matter – in batches allows you to maintain a steady temperature in your pan. In addition, overcrowding certain types of food in your pan will result in steaming that food rather than sauteeing it. This is fine, if steaming is what you’re after, or if you don’t mind how soggy some foods can get (or how mushy shrimp can get). But it wasn’t, in this case, what we were after, and the sauteed shrimp turned out quite well. The rice was once again pilaf with shallots and parmesan, as the people who are eating it around here have decided they really like that version.

So what’s our breakdown?

Shrimp, 2 pounds: 13.40
Broccoli, on sale at Publix: 1.99
Rice: 1.50
Tomatoes, vine-ripe: 1.50

Total meal: 18.39
Total per diner (4): 4.60

I will also add that the meal was very nutritious, with almost no saturated fat and the entire meal was low in calories. It also tasted quite good, from what I could taste. Admittedly, my portions were kiddie-sized and I had some formula afterward, but the other folks enjoyed it and ate the rest of my servings.

A do-nothing day

Last night, after our fabulous dinner party, I took a friend back to her place – her car-ma was apparently not good Monday, as she had both a flat and something preventing the car from actually starting, so we’d sent Gabrielle to fetch her for dinner (because people have to eat, and especially eat my cooking!), and we couldn’t very well make her walk home. When I returned to the homestead, my mom informed me that she’d made an executive decision: no mowing the lawn for me on Tuesday, and no cooking either. Tuesday was to be a rest day for me. I objected a bit, but I was plenty tired, and when Tuesday rolled up, even more tired. The exertion over the weekend and into Monday night caught up with me.

So I did a bunch of “real” work, some paperwork, and generally tried to relax. But I felt (and feel) antsy, for some reason that I can’t quite touch. I think that it’s probably because my brain is working away like a frenzied, overcaffeinated squirrel. This makes both my sleep and my waking hours restless, as it’s difficult to turn things off and veg out.

What’s on my mind? All sorts of things.

Italy. For some reason, Italy has moved into the first spot of places I want to visit. It has been in the back of my mind for years (I used to think my ex and I would be going), but recently moved into the forefront. Maybe it was the brush with mortality, maybe it was just the general thought of it, or maybe it’s something else, like leftovers from watching the World Cup finals, but I’ve set a tentative date of 2009. We’ll see how that works out.

Business(es). I have two more brands that I want to launch, in the same arena as my main business. One site is about ready to shove out the front door, and the other needs just a little tweaking and it’s done. Really, the only thing left to do is set up a merchant account for each and make the sites/ordering systems active, as I’m sure they’ll eventually reach the level of the flagship brand with a little pushing. I’m not sure why I just haven’t finished this yet, but I should probably set a firm date for those, to get them going. After all, diversifying is what I always preached to people when I was a stockbroker, and the same rules apply here, too.

Business(es), the food version. I’ve been trying to come up with a good name for a food business, and I’ve started researching the requirements for packaging food here in Florida. One of the first things I need to do is take the Food Manager Certification test, to get that out of the way. The certification is good for five years, and someone is required to hold that certification for just about any business that deals with producing food other people will be eating. All the other rules and regs I’ll have to research and then I’ll have to put together all the paperwork that goes along with starting a business, of course, but I don’t mind that sort of thing. I keep wondering just how some of these people who open restaurants get the money to do the renovations and keep themselves going while they build their business. I also wonder why so many restaurants tend to serve the same type of menu if they’re aimed toward the middle class market. I notice this here, but also in other cities I happen to visit, like Savannah.

Food, in general. Speaking of restaurants, and skipping over (for now) the wisp of desire I can feel deep down to open one, why is it that the serving portions are so damned huge these days at most restaurants? People are getting fatter, and at least part of that is because of the portion sizes when eating out and the fact that most people were lectured when they were growing up to clean their plates. There’s no reason to be part of the clean your plate club. Now, in my time BC (before cancer), I could have stood to lose about 10 pounds or so, but I can honestly say that even then I was usually unable to finish most of the dishes I was served when dining out because they were just so freaking large. What we really need is something between the plate-big-as-your-head restaurant and the look-we’re-so-stylish-and-classy-our-portions-are-the-size of-your-pinky restaurant. And if that sort of place could serve something that wasn’t the same as any other restaurant, so much the better.

Food, selling it. One of the issues I have at the moment is that I really don’t measure anything except when baking. this means that I’m going to have to experiment a bit and write down whatever is going into the mixing bowl or pot so we can find the best combination and so it can be recreated consistently for sale. For the pulled pork I made, I did actually write down the ratios, and that turned out pretty well. Of course, there will have to be successive tastings by my core group of tasters, and I imagine I’ll need to farm out some of that to other people to have as many opinions as possible while narrowing down the choices to whichever one winds up with the most fans. Then it will be time to find a commercial kitchen (since you can’t package food for sale in your home kitchen in Florida) or a copacker (a business that will take your recipes and pack them for you, in their own commercial grade facilities so you don’t have to have any), have a lab verify the ingredients and give the nutrional value, and so on.

Food, cooking it. I’d really like to get my schedule sot of back on track so I can consistently do the things I’d like to do in addition to working, like baking bread on a regular basis, experimenting with making pastas, making sausages, doing some canning, and so on. I also need to really work on making menus in advance so I can ensure I have things on hand for at least a couple of meals. After all, we don’t live in the days where a daily trip to the market is required, and with a little planning, this would save me some time, not wreck my schedule during the day, and would allow me to be more productive with all the things I’d like to be doing in addition to the day job. I have to admit all of this is probably going to be the most difficult for me, because of my incredibly odd sleeping habits and my tendency to decide at the last minute what the menu will be. Right now, for instance, I have no idea what’s going to be on the menu for Wednesday – today, as I type this – but I should. In fact, I should know what’s on the menu for Wednesday through Saturday. But I don’t. When I think of it, I’ll let you know.

There are some other things floating by, as well. I’ve another PET scan scheduled for the end of August. I’m almost able to open my mouth widely enough to get the Therabite in so I can start using that to help stretch my jaw muscles. I need to do some laundry. I feel a bit sick to my stomach right this instant. I need to increase my calorie intake in a serious way – I weighed in at 107 before the Savannah trip, weighed in at 106 this evening when I went to Publix for some heavy cream so I could make some ice cream, and won’t be able to make it through mowing the lawn if I don’t have enough in me. The problem is that most of the time when I eat, I feel sick. At least I don’t have that horrible reflux as long as I take the Prevacid. I need to find a house to buy, as I won’t be buying the one we’re in right now. I need to head to Costco to replenish the bulk items. I need to finish the remainder of the quarterly paperwork and get it out the door. I have a couple of servers coming in that need to be set up, and I need to order up some gear for our expansion at the NOC. And so on. A million things make their way through the rivers of my brain…

The Challenge: Day Twenty-Four

In the throes of temporary insanity – no doubt caused by excessive physical exertion and exposure to sunlight over the weekend – I decided it would be a fine idea to cook for people on Monday night after we returned from Savannah. At first, it was supposed to just be a couple of friends of the family. That expanded to include our landlords from the old place, my uncle’s cousin, my sister and her boyfriend, my other sister and her boyfriend, and I talked another friend into coming as well. The boyfriends didn’t show, but we still had ten people here for dinner.

As a refresher, the menu.

Citrus tilapia with a quartet of salsas
Lemon steamed broccoli
Roma tomatoes stuffed with zucchini, criminis, and gruyere
Creme brulee with fresh fruit

The bread did not make the party, as I simply ran out of time between having to run out to the farmer’s market and then run out to Publix. But that wound up being ok.

The farmer’s market was the first stop, as I needed quite a number of things: tomatoes, zucchini, jalapenos, red and green bell peppers, mangoes, pineapple, limes, lemons, and peaches. All told, the haul from the farmer’s market was about fifteen bucks – because we bought an entire box of mangoes for six bucks! I needed more ramekins for the creme brulee, since I’d never needed to make brulee for a dozen people before, and it simply would not do to have someone go without. So I took myself out, picked those up, and then stopped at Publix for the rest of what I needed: tilapia (picked up 11 filets), red onions, romaine, carrots, eggs, cream, milk, broccoli, cheese, and a couple of other things that I’m no doubt forgetting. The bill there was $51. Our total bill for all the food for ten was $61.

The tilapia. The red stuff is sweet (not smoked) paprika.

Two of the four salsas. This is, on the left and right respectively, pineapple and mango.

The other two. On the left and right respectively, we have peach and orange.

The makings for salad.

The tomatoes, stuffed, and just out from under the broiler.

Everyone ate – some going back for seconds – and we had a few filets left over that went home (along with some of each of the salsas) with a couple of the guests, since no one around here will eat leftover fish.

And then it was time to make some coffee (capuccino for some) and break out the brulees. I had directed my mom to make the custards while I was working on the salsas earlier: a vanilla bean brulee, with the scraped vanilla bean cooking with the custard ingredients, then fished out before the custard was ladled into ramekins for baking. They’d been chilling out for awhile, and made their entrance after dinner. Here, the sugar sprinkled atop each one is being caramelized with a hand torch by yours truly. My sister Gabrielle took the remaining photos that appear here.

Aubrey, acting as my sous chef, sprinkled powdered sugar on each ramekin after I stopped playing with fire.

We then topped each brulee with a sliced and fanned strawberry, a few blueberries, and a sprig of mint.

Gabrielle told me to pose with one, so I did.

She then managed a very arty self-portrait.

We then passed them out, and people seemed to be enjoying them.

As well as the capuccino.

Just chilling. Aren’t they cute? They just had an anniversary last week, 25 or 26 years together.

All in all, another very successful dinner engagement. My only wish – and this is something I’ll be looking for as I hunt for a house – is that we had a larger dining space to put a bunch of people.

As I noted above, the total cost for this meal was $61, which brings our per-diner amount to just $6.10. We would have dropped down a bit further had the other people who should have been there shown up. The most expensive ingredients were the cheese (Gruyere), and the eggs and cream needed for the brulee. Still, not a bad total for a meal with a salad, a main and two sides, and a dessert.

The Challenge: A break

What happened to days 24 and 25?

Illness. I ran out of Prevacid, alas, so day 24 opened with me being horribly sick. All. Day. Long. That’s no good, and makes for no eating, no cooking, and no being in a good mood. Day 25 was a wash, but I did recover by not eating a thing the day before and almost nothing on day 25. Go me.

On the plus side: we got the results of my PET scan from Monday. While it is still not negative, the activity continues to decrease. This means we’ll have to have another one in a couple of months. But it also means that we’re not seeing any increased activity and that we’re likely healing up very well. That’s good news.

For The Challenge: it’s on hold for this weekend, and I think I’ll just call days 24 and 25 do-overs, as we used to do as kids. My mom, aunt, and myself are now in Savannah. But that’s another entry.

Questions, questions…

Random questions from people who are stumbling across this blog, and answers from yours truly.

Have you considered putting up some forums?
No, I haven’t. I know it’s hard to carry on conversations in the comments, and it would be easier to have ongoing discussions (and ask questions of me) in a forum, but for right now, this is what’s available. I’ll consider it, though, as I do get that question pretty regularly.

Can you plan out some menus for me?
I can’t even plan menus to feed my own family, friends, and assorted guests, because schedules are so fluid around here.

Could you do it if I paid you?
That’s flattering, but not at the moment.

What’s your food philosophy for this lowfat menu creation you have going right now?
As you’re aware, family and friends have requested lowfat menus, and of course the challenge is for nutritious menus, which should not be laden with fat. I suppose at its most basic, my intent is to create food that people like, bearing in mind their particular requests as much as I’m able. Right now, that would be lowfat menus that taste good. This is not the same as no fat. If you’ve ever seen that Low Calorie Commando show on FoodTV, you can see the rather extreme substitutions the host goes through to eliminate almost every bit of fat from whatever it is he’s making, and that’s not what interests me. It is perfectly acceptable and reasonable to include small portions of things like real butter in cooking. The things I’m doing are not ultra lowfat, but neither do the menus include entire sticks of butter in their creation. Moderation in this, as in all things, and balance are the keys.

Have you seen that show Top Chef, or Hell’s Kitchen? What’s your “signature dish”?
I’ve seen episodes of both, yes, although I’ve not watched any of the new season of Hell’s Kitchen. I don’t really have a signature dish per se: I like to cook a wide variety of things, and luckily even my experiments turn out well. I don’t lean toward too many fussy type dishes. I mostly like to make food that people could make themselves if they were so inclined.

Would you consider opening a restaurant with the appropriate backing?
Maybe, but I think I’d probably not be an active worker bee in the kitchen. Designing a menu? Sure. Actually working the number of hours in the kitchen a restaurant would require if I were the chef? No. I’m simply not physically able to do it, as much as I hate to actually admit that, and I have no idea when (or if) I ever will be. I would not be averse to doing other things related to a restaurant, though.

Any progress on putting together your own prepackaged food items?
Not at the moment, but I really haven’t put any effort into it right now. My available time is limited, and I do have a primary business to run, so this is playing second banana for now. It would be nice, though, to be able to break into it.

What’s your favorite food to eat?
All time? Good lobster, simply prepared, with drawn butter. These days? Ice cream. In my dreams right now? A double cheeseburger. With fries.

If you could go anywhere and do anything right now, what would it be?
I’d move my family to the Italian countryside, own a small vineyard, grow grapes, make wine, and cook for people.

Have you ever had any formal culinary training? If not, do you plan to?
No and no plans at present. I had given some thought to the latter, but if I were to do that, I’d like to do it right. That would involve leaving town for awhile and would also involve a lot of time, neither of which is practical. I’ll remain self-taught for now.

Last (and certainly least), a question contained in an email from an anonymous person who seems to be one of those random people who thinks everyone else should be as bitter and nasty as they are: What makes you think you’re qualified to give anyone any advice on anything, especially cooking or making menus or how to eat on the cheap and what makes you think anyone would be interested in a book by some amateur like you anyway?
I never claimed any qualification other than being ready, willing, and able to take up the challenge presented to me, with both the rules and my role clearly defined. So I do what I can to take up the reins where others can’t because of their limitations (time, availability, ability) or inclination (because a lot of people read about subjects they would never themselves do). The latter is why books written by amateurs in specific subjects can be interesting and popular: many people will never be able or willing to go live in a 200 year old farmhouse in Provence for a year, but Peter Mayle and his wife did just that and it makes for good reading. Most people would never take on the task of cooking their way through a famous cookbook, but someone else did. Besides, I figure that doing things like this really annoys joyless, humorless people for some reason…