Category Archives: The Challenge

The Challenge: Day Ten

What do you do when you’re up until about 5 AM, fall into bed for a few restless hours, get back up at 9, work awhile, get ready to go to physical therapy – an appointment you thought was next week – go to physical therapy, and then need to cook dinner for a crowd?


Last night I and into the morning I was forced to deal with an assclown of the very first degree. At about 5 AM, I finally escaped for a few hours of much-needed sleep, but didn’t sleep well at all. Not because of any physical ailments (the Prevacid seems to be working pretty well after all), but because my mind kept turning over all the things I needed to get done and how much time was wasted on this guy’s asshattery. So after a few episodes of fitful dozing, I gave up and got up and went back to work.

The physical therapy is (of course) to build strength and flexibility back in my left side, which is becoming an issue as I am more active now. Unfortunatey, I did not discover that the appointment was for today rather than next week until last night. And since the appointment was in the middle of the day, it put a crimp in all the other things I wanted to do, like make bread and pickkles and chicken stock. It also presented me with an issue about dinner: I figured I could get done with (painful) therapy, hit the grocery store to find something suitable for the gang, put it all together, and get everyone fed.

And that worked out pretty well, all things considered. I found some huge boneless pork tenderloins – Carolina hogs! – at Publix on sale (1.99/pound), picked up a bag of yukon golds, some hearts of romaine, and some peas, and headed back to the homestead. Figuring I had about 20 minutes or so to grab a nap, I set my alarm and hit my bed. Then I do something I hardly ever do: I slept through my alarm. And no one woke me up. What did wake me was my sister setting the temp on the oven, which makes a soft beeping noise.

Up and at it. I rubbed the tenderloin – almost 9 pounds! – with some olive oil, then with salt, pepper, and garlic. A very simple preparation. That went into the oven and I started chopping the salad items and peeling the potatoes. A little late start on dinner, but well worth it.

The tenderloin, resting.

While it was resting, I whipped up a pan gravy. Tasty.

The vegetables, minus the rinsed lettuce, since my sister was a slacker.

Time for dinner.

Having a good time. Wish you were here.

After dinner, we were looking over the pears that were left from the last foray at the farmer’s market, and noted that some of them needed to be used, pronto. One of my sisters asked me to flame them. I, never one to pass up the opportunity to play with fire, agreed. My other sister managed to get a photo of the dying flames.

They also requested bananas be added to the pears, so naturally, that’s what I did.

Suitably stuffed, and packed off with leftovers, people went happily along their way.

The breakdown.

Tenderloin, 8.93 pounds – 17.77
Romaine – 2.99
Yukon golds – 4.99
Peas – 1.05
Salad stuff (carrots, tomatoes, cukes, onions, all from the farmer’s market last time) – 1.00
Dessert – 2.40

Total for the meal: 30.20, with leftovers
Total per diner (6): 5.03

Did I eat? Yes, I managed some peas, a little bit of potato, and a little pork, the latter two of which were covered in gravy to make it easier for me. I skipped the pears and had ice cream alone.

The Challenge: Day Nine

Success is measured in centimeters.

Well, it is if you’re a recovering cancer patient with jaw muscle issues that prevent you from opening your mouth very widely.

Today – another lovely day in paradise, with dark clouds looming on the horizon, promising us our daily deluge – was a return trip to the dentist. People who have gone through radiation to their mouth and throat have to be particularly vigilant about dental health. Some of this is due to the non-eating during treatment and afterwards, and some is due to the reduced salivary function, which normally helps keep teeth bathed. While some people have teeth yanked before going into treatment, I did not, and I’m pleased to say that my dental health is still good, all things considered. Today was a return trip to see if we could do the cleaning we were unable to do last time because they couldn’t get their instruments in.

We could. And we did. For the first time in a year, I went through a cleaning. Painful, to be sure. But clean. People like me have to go every three months instead of every six like regular people, but if it allows me to keep my choppers, I’m all for it.

So, an unqualified success on that front.

Eating, however, remains elusive and rather puzzling.

There are a myriad of issues surrounding cancer: diagnosis, treatment options, the actual treatment itself, recovery in all phases of life, from eating to talking to even walking around and being able to care for yourself. Right now, the single largest issue for me has to be eating. I am simply not hungry most of the time, which contributes as much to the weight loss problems as the inability to eat does. However, I’ve found that at time, when I do manage to get something down, it’s like eating Chinese food – even after having a bowl of soup and some ice cream just a short while ago, for instance, I’m still hungry. Part of this is because I’ve not really been eating by mouth the past week and it’s always better to really eat and get the motions going rather than use the tube. Part of this is because when I do eat by mouth, I’m not able to eat high bulk items or items from the high fiber group as I simply cannot eat them with my current limitations, and thus not able to feel “full” when eating more liquidy type things. And part of it is the tasting issue, because when you can’t taste much of anything, it’s damn hard to work up enthusiasm to eat. It’s a bit of a conundrum.

Fortunately, I’ve dug around in my books and found this, which we had picked up between surgery and radiation/chemo, since we knew eating would be quite the adventure. I’ve also found this and this. I’ve been leafing through them for inspiration, much the same way I look through any cookbook. Hopefully something will come together and get me back on track here.

For the others: they had to fend for themselves tonight. I spent a lot of time after the dentist dealing with the bank who handles my business account, as that’s been a complete nightmare for the past three months, and talking with the manager at a branch of a competing bank, trying to decide whether to go ahead and change banks. And taking a nap, which I apparently needed since it lasted almost two hours. No breadmaking, no pickles, no chicken stock, but since the bread only take about three hours total including the rising times, I’m considering tossing it together tonight. Tomorrow, though, after a run to Fresh Market for some bulk whole wheat flour, those projects will begin, as will prep for dinner. One sister has requested a low fat menu, with a salad, and a steamed veggie of some kind (or some other preparation that won’t rob the vegetable of its nutrition – what does she think I’ve been making?), so I need to come up with something for that.

Your regularly-scheduled Challenge update will recommence tomorrow evening.

The Challenge: Day Eight

Eating is such a funny business sometimes.

I’ve been reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There’s a great deal of (expected) vilification of agribusiness and the manner in which animals are raised to produce food for those higher on the food chain – namely, us. These are necessary things, to be sure, and certainly there are arguments to be made on either side of the fence one happens to be. However, to many people, one of the more interesting things is going to be the question Pollan raises at the very beginning of the book: the question for most people thess days is not what can we have for dinner, but what should we have. Because these days, we can have just about whatever strikes our fancy at a given moment, like lobster – but should we eat the lobster from the live tank at the local supermegamart, or, like Whole Foods, should we protest the treatment of those lobsters by not purchasing them (even though I personally think this decision by WF is probably motivated at least as much by economics as it is by animal welfare, if not more)?

Anyhow, the reason this comes to mind is that today was another non-eating day for me. Formula, ice cream, and soup only, please. I also spent most of the day working on business-related things, like doing some work at the NOC, running to the bank, the PO, handling some paperwork, and so on. Around 4:30, it occurred to me that the natives would probably like something to eat, so I asked the standard question: what would you like for dinner?

Fortunately for me and the work I still needed to get done, tonight wound up being leftover night, with the remainder of the leftovers put to good use by those with jaws that actually work.

Total cost for dinner: 0

Instead of cooking, I did this between the other things I needed to get done.

Cookie porn!

Nice and chewy.

Total cost to make a couple dozen or so cookies: 2.15

They’ll vanish pretty quickly, I imagine.

Tomorrow: bread. Pickles. Chicken stock. And figuring out what to make for dinner, since the schedules of everyone that usually eats the dinners I make are going to be hectic, my own included.

The Challenge: Day Seven

Mother Nature can be a real bitch sometimes.

On Sunday, like on day one of The Challenge, Mother Nature decided that rain would be a very good thing to bring to us. Generally, this doesn’t bother me – after all, it is that time of year here, between the dryness of what passes for spring and the almost-scheduled nature of afternoon thunderstorms in the heart of summer. Our rainy season, if you will. Sunday, though, it rained almost all day long. Some drizzle, a deluge, a steady stream: we had it all.

What this meant, of course, was that it was impossible to get grilling. Instead, I had to adjust to do all the cooking indoors instead. This is not a big deal, really, but it made for a bit of a logistics issue – and made me think that I could put two stoves to use without any problem whatsoever.

We start with what my mom told me were short ribs, but which wound up being even better: boneless pork loin ribs. I rubbed them down with a slighter sweeter mix than usual.

I didn’t get around to making pickles, but I did make some more bread, which was met with good reviews by the crowd.

The bounty from the farmer’s market, tossed with some olive oil, salt, pepper, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and some oregano, ready to hit the oven under the broiler. The grape tomatoes were not added until the last couple of minutes of cooking, as otherwise they’d have turned into mush by the time everything ese was done.

The chicken soaked for about an hour in fresh lemon, lime, and orange juices, along with some fresh ginger. The shrimp had their giant heads pulled off (and the veins, in these large shrimp, pulled right out, so deveining was a snap). Half the shrimp was reserved for the boil with copious amounts of Old Bay, and the other half went into a mix of fresh lime juice, honey, red pepper flakes, and olive oil. The ribs and the chicken both went into the oven at the same time, as they would take about the same time to finish. Once those were out, the veggies went in and the corn was tossed into some boiling water.

It looked something like this when set up buffet-style for everyone to fix their plates.

Roasted vegetables, homemade cocktail sauce, vine ripe tomatoes, chicken.

It wouldn’t be complete without the corn.

The shrimp.

It was quiet for a bit as everyone dug in. Yours truly had more formula and a couple bites of vegetables. As everyone finished and headed back out to the porch to digest, I thought it might be nice to do a little something with a couple of the pears we’d picked up. What to do, what to do? Since we couldn’t indulge our firebug side with the grill, I did the next best thing.

Sauteed pears, flambeed with rum, served with ice cream. We love fire around here.

I thinly sliced a couple of pears, then sauteed them for a few minutes in some butter and light brown sugar. A shot of rum, and they were set aflame. Once plated, they were topped with a scoop of ice cream and the remainder of the pan sauce drizzled over it all. The only thing missing was a fresh sprig of mint for garnish.

This went over very well with everyone who tried it.

So, you ask, what’s the cost breakdown for this feast?

Ribs – 13.73
Chicken (boneless, skinless) – 10 x 1.36 = 10.36
Zucchini – 1
Grape tomatoes – 1
Squash – 1.80
Red peppers – .66
Lemons – .50
Onions (Vidalia) – .33
Onions (Red) – .50
Large tomatoes – 1
Mushrooms – 1.80
Corn – 2
Pears – .50
Shrimp – 20
Ice cream – 1
Rum – .90

Total meal: 57.08
Total per diner (10): 5.71

There were leftovers, as well.

All of which goes to show that you can feed a good number of people, well, for a reasonable price. You can even serve dessert to those who have room for it…

The Challenge: Day Six

Today, another visit to the farmer’s market. This time, though, with certain requirements in mind, as Sunday will bring a larger number of people together here for sun and supper: if everyone shows up, we will have a nice-sized group of ten.

The answer: the cost to purchase items at the market that are tasty, nutritious, fit in with meal planning, and will last awhile.

The question: what is $51?

Now, $51 would get dinner for two at a midlevel restaurant around here (without drinks or tips), with an appetizer, main, and perhaps a shared dessert. What we picked up today will feed many more people for more than one meal. I kept meticulous track of each dollar spent this morning, and the tab came exactly to $51. The most expensive item was of course the shrimp ($7/pound, $20 for three pounds, head on, fresh from Mayport).

A closer look.

Cucumbers, green tomatoes, vine ripened tomatoes, lemons, grape tomatoes, shrimp, asparagus (from Colombia), pears.

Starting from the middle top, we have summer yellow squash, zucchini, spring onions, a five pound bag of Vidalia onions, carrots, giant ripe tomatoes.

Once again, from the top, we have mushrooms, plums, bicolor corn, celery, red peppers, cucumbers, avocadoes (from the last trip).

And of course, a closer look at the shrimp, which are huge.

The cost breakdown for all of this:
Red peppers – 3/$1
Cucumbers – $3*
Squash – basket for $2
Lemons – basket for $2
Grape tomatoes – pint for $1
Carrots – bag for $1
Green tomatoes – basket for $2
Plums – basket for $3
Zucchini – 3/$1
Vidalia onions – 5 pounds for $2
Ripe tomatoes (large) – 2/$1
Asparagus – bunch for $1
Celery – bunch for $1
Bicolor corn – 8/$2
Ripe tomatoes (regular) – basket for $2
Pears – basket for $3
Spring onions – 2 bunches for $1
Mushrooms – box for $2
Shrimp – 3 pounds/$20

Total shopping: $51

* A note about the cucumbers. They were priced at 6/$1. The woman then said, you can have all of them for $3. Since it’s time for some more pickling, I said sure, and took all that she had. People better be eating a lot of pickles around here in the coming weeks…

Now, having shopped for tomorrow, what on earth did we eat today?

I had formula. And ice cream. But I don’t really count here, as those are not “real” food for the purposes of this challenge. My mom and sister polished off the leftover chicken, roast, potatoes, and whatnot from the past couple of days.

Total eating cost today, two diners: 0

It doesn’t get much cheaper than that, I suppose, and is a very efficient use of the leftovers.

Now let’s turn our attention to Sunday, including a menu for ten. First up will be some swimming and sunning for those who are able. For me, swimming is of course out of the question, due to the nice sized hole in my midsection. Yours truly will once again be relegated to kitchen and grilling duties, but this is not a role to which I object.

I’m planning to make some chicken stock – hence the celery, which no one will eat but which I do use in stocks. Other items destined for the stock pot with the chicken carcasses and some roasted legs: onions, carrots, and various spices. The stock will have the fat skimmed from the top after it’s drained and cool, and then will be frozen in half cup and cup portions, ready for use in anything that requires it. I’d like to do this on Sunday, but it might be adding too much to the list, so may be reserved for Monday, when I want to try making some English muffins and perhaps get the starter going for baguettes.

The menu
Citrus grilled chicken
Grilled short ribs
Boiled shrimp with Old Bay
Grilled shrimp (marinated in lime, soy, honey, and ginger)
Grilled vegetables
Corn on the cob
Basmati rice
Fresh pickles
Fresh bread (whole grain and white/wheat)

The chicken will marinate in a mixture of fresh lemon and fresh lime juice, with a splash of orange juice and some finely grated ginger before going on the grill. The ribs will be rubbed down and grilled over direct heat – no smoking for these. I made the guacamole tonight, and if it lasts through Sunday afternoon to the gathering it will be a miracle. I’d like to do something with all those pears we got today, like make a pear tart, and I’m hoping they’ll be ripe enough for that by Sunday midday.

The beauty of this sort of menu is that it doesn’t really take a lot of prep beyond throwing together the marinades. Most of the time spent on the food preparation will be waiting: waiting for bread dough to rise, waiting to pull the meats out of their marinades, waiting for the food to be cooked.

It should be fun, and there will, as always, be plenty of food. So, if you’re in the mood for a little swimming, a little sun, some good company, and some good food, stop on by.

The Challenge: Day Five

Recovered from the stomach issues that left me immobile, I headed to the doctor for a consult on this business. To start, we are trying Prevacid, once a day, capsule. They make a dissolving tablet as well, which would have been a fine thing indeed, but alas, no samples were available of that. Instead, regular capsules that, when opened, reveal a bunch of tiny pellets of the drug. I took a deep breath, then took a mouthful of water and poured the collection in. It took a bit to get them all down, but down they went.

I’ve also been rinsing with chlorhexedrine gluconate, to try and rid myself of this stuff on my tongue. It isn’t doing much for that, but one thing it is doing is killing my taste buds. I noticed the past couple of days while getting some soup down that it tasted like nothing. So I thought this evening, after setting up a couple of servers at the NOC, that perhaps something a bit spicier was in order. This would test the drug and test the taste at the same time. There’s nothing I like more than multitasking.

So I took myself off to Tijuana Flats after finishing up. I’d not eaten anything thus far, and was on the edge of hunger. Dinner: blackened chicken burrito. It came with chips, and I told myself I’d try one or two of those as well, with some of the sweet chile sauce (Mae Ploy) I like so much.

I removed the filling from the tortilla. It looked good. It smelled good. It had been forever since I’d had it.

And I couldn’t eat it.

It appears that one of the other side effects of this rinse is to make the mouth quite a lot more sensitive to things. Like spices. I love spicy food, and can stand quite a high level of heat. But not today. Blackened chicken is, to me, quite mild, relatively speaking, but one small bite set my mouth on fire. The chips were out of the question.

I went to my emergency fallback dinner.

Total cost for dinner: 7.00
Total per diner (1, who couldn’t even eat the majority of it): 7.00

Bummer. Especially since it means yet another day of virtually no calories at all.

The Challenge: Day Four

Some of us went struggling into day four, still bound by gastro demons and heaves that seemed like they would never end. I spent most of the day dozing off and on and working when I could. As I’d eaten nothing much the day before and nothing at all this day, I wasn’t feeling particularly up to life. Still, life does march on.

With some compazine and dramamine in me, and the pain beginning to fade, I got a little bit of soup down the hatch. I still wasn’t feeling at all well, but wanted to make sure that others were eating. As it happened, my mom had taken matters into her own hands and fixed a plate.

More fruit, salad, cheese, and roast beef, with freshly ground black pepper over it.

Total cost: 2.07
total cost per diner (1): 2.07

And me? About half a cup of soup and an equal part of water. It was not a shining example of how to eat in a day. But by the end of the evening, things were looking up and I was feeling (almost) human once again.

The Challenge: Day Three, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

Thoe ingredients were prepped and waiting their turn.

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

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

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

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

Things were coming along nicely, including the chicken.

And finally, dinner was served.

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

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

So, what’s our breakdown?

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

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

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

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

The Challenge: Day Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gratuitous closeup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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