The Reluctant Cook: Thursday nights in Jenworld

Part of an occasional series about cooking from scratch even though I hate to cook…

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for at least a year knows what we here in Jenworld always eat  for dinner on Thursday nights.

Tex Mex.

Yum.

Tex Mex is one of the major food groups here in Jenworld, along with chocolate, pasta, and au gratin. (Bonus points to anyone who can combine two or more food groups into one perfect food.)

This is such an ingrained habit that pretty much every Thursday afternoon, there’s a conversation that goes like this:

Girl child, “What’s for dinner?” [pause] “Oh wait, it’s Thursday. Never mind.”

Even though we call Thursdays Nacho Nights, really, we eat all kinds of Tex Mex — nachos, tacos, enchiladas, and more. The basis for our meals is pretty much always slow-cooked beans.

Slow-Cooked Beans

Up until recently, I’ve cooked our beans on top of the stove; however, I just got a slow cooker, which has utterly revolutionized how I cook beans. Here are both cooking methods, starting with stove-top:

  • Either the night before or first thing in the morning, soak some beans in water in a heavy pot. (We cook in this.) The type of beans you use is up to you, but some good option are kidney, pinto, scarlet runner, and black. The amount you cook is up to you, but about 1/2 pound will feed all of us with plenty of leftovers. Start with 6-8 cups of water and be prepared to add more regularly.
  • A few hours before you want to eat, bring the beans to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook until the beans are done. Check regularly to see if you need to add water. (This is very important, because you don’t want the beans to burn.)
  • About a half hour before you want to eat, add a little salt, a dollop of olive oil, and any other flavors you like. We like a little garlic, maybe a little crushed red pepper, and maybe some minced onion.
  • If you’re using a slow cooker, all you need to do is throw the beans and water in, turn the thing on, and walk away. You don’t need to soak the beans first and you probably won’t need to add water throughout the day, but you’ll still want to check on occasion, just to make sure. I tried this for the first time last week and it was so easy that I can’t imagine doing it any other way. As far as I’m concerned, our new slow cooker will pay for itself just by making our Thursday nights easier.

That’s it. That’s all you do. Super easy, eh? These beans are awesome on nachos, in tortillas, as a side to tacos… you get the idea. I also like them mixed with brown, wild, or black rice for lunch.

You know what’s a yummy addition to this meal? Tex Mex pot roast!

Tex Mex Pot Roast

This is Pete’s creation and one of my favorite things is when he makes this on Sunday afternoons. He’ll start early in the afternoon and the smell of spicy beef fills the air for hours.

  • Heat oven to 350F.
  • Several hours before you want to eat, brown a pot roast on all sides in olive oil in a Dutch oven/heavy pot. (Like the one I linked above.)
  • Add Ro-Tel or salsa or a little water and some spices to braise the meat, plus any additional spicy spices (yes, I know I’m being redundant) you think would taste good.
  • Cover the pot with a lid and stick it in the oven. You’re going to braise the meat for hours. About two hours in, flip the beef over. DO NOT cook at a higher heat — you need a low, slow cooking time for this. The braising will tenderize a tough cut of meat, but it’s a slow, patient process.
  • This could also be done in a slow cooker, but it’s going to take longer than two hours — in my slow cooker, my options are 4 and 8 hours. You can’t sear the meat on all sides on the slow cooker, but Pete and I debate the importance of that step anyway. Lazy cooks (like myself) can just skip that step.
  • Pull the meat out when it’s pretty much falling apart at the cellular level. Shred it and add it to tacos, tortillas, enchiladas, etc.

You could also substitute a pork roast for a beef roast and have a damn fine meal. In fact, I encourage you to give that one a try. Unfortunately, both of our girls have sworn off pig after an encounter with a particularly adorable Babe-esque creature (complete with wagging tail), so I don’t cook pork products as often as I think I should be.

[And all of my Jewish readers just shuddered. Sorry folks.]

I could eat slow-cooked beans and this Tex Mex pot roast and be happy about it. As it happens, while we have the beans every week, the pot roast is maybe a once-a-month thing. If we have some chicken left over from an earlier dinner or in the freezer, we might add that to our Thursday night dinner instead.

Other important additions to Thursday night dinners in Jenworld:

  • jalapenos – Pete goes through quite a few of these every week. We grow them fresh during the summer and then the rest of the year he gets them from the grocery store. They’re super cheap — usually well under $1 each. The important thing is to wash your hands well after cutting them because the pepper’s burning capability will linger for hours. Trust me, you don’t want to touch your eye or some other body part with jalapeno pepper juice on your hands, so scrub with the diligence of a surgeon.
  • cheese — Duh. Au gratin is one of our favorite food groups here in Jenworld. The easiest option is to buy bags of shredded chedder or Tex Mex blend cheeses, but that’s more expensive. The cheapest option is to buy big blocks of cheddar and use a box grater to get your cheese on.
  • salsa — Whatever you like, however spicy you like. Pete goes for medium-to-hot, depending on the brand, while the girls and I abstain.
  • rice — If you’re having beans, rice is a nice accompaniment, especially since beans and rice make a complete protein. We like brown rice with our Tex Mex, but will occasionally have wild or black rice as a way to mix things up.
  • other veggies — It depends on what we’re eating (nachos vs. tacos, for example), the season, and even our moods (sometimes, veggies are just too damn healthy), but some old standbys are corn (either fresh or frozen, never canned), onions and green/red peppers (Pete eats this, while the girls and I gag), chopped mushrooms (great in cheesy quesadillas), and chopped tomatoes.

So that’s the primer on Thursday nights here in Jenworld. I know that many of y’all have your own Tex Mex traditions, so please share the culinary yumminess with the rest of us.

Yum

My friend Maura recently went on what I would consider to be a dream expedition: She and her family went on the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour in Vermont. She kindly agreed to report to all of us about her adventure. 

(All photos below are courtesy of Yahoo Images and were chosen by Jen.)

Hello Jenworld inhabitants. Jen is hosting me today so I can tell you about my experiences at the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour in Waterbury, VT.

My husband and I chose to vacation in Vermont, as this was our first vacation with our infant daughter and Stowe seemed to have a lot of family friendly activities. We both (all?) enjoyed the trip immensely and Ben & Jerry’s happened to be one of our many eating-related stops.

Someone, I forget who, told us that when you arrive at the factory, you should buy your tickets first and then look around the grounds second. These were sage words, as we arrived at 3:30 and they were selling tickets for the 4:20 tour. After buying our tickets, we proceeded to the gift shop, where my husband scored a Life is Good t-shirt with the Ben & Jerry’s logo on the back. We then headed outside, where the line for the scoop window was rather lengthy.

More and more states are listing calorie counts next to the menu items, but if I’m having Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, it’s a treat, so let’s not ruin it with talk of calories, okay? The Scoop Shop had a Mini Vermonster on the menu. It’s a bucket (with a handle and everything) consisting of four scoops of ice cream, hot fudge, four additional toppings of your choice along with a whole brownie, cookie and then banana topped with whipped cream and sprinkles. This bucket of deliciousness will run you 4,000+ calories but that did not deter a group of ladies from ordering one (per person). [Jen’s note: The original Vermonster has 20 scoops of ice cream, plus even more toppings, and comes in at 14,000 calories and 500 grams of fat.]

After getting through the line for the Scoop Shop and enjoying our treats, it was time for our tour to start. We were first treated to a brief moo-vie that detailed the history of Ben & Jerry. After completing a $5 correspondence course through Penn State University, they then set up shop in Burlington, Vermont and operated a single-location store that enjoyed a lot of local success. Apparently one of the events that helped the company gain national fame was when their mobile store (the Cow Mobile), caught fire outside of Cleveland and made national headlines as the Ben & Jerry’s Baked Alaska. (This happened in 1986 and I have no memory of it. I guess that makes me young?)

We then proceeded to the area where all the ice cream making equipment was housed. I was surprised by how small the actual factory was, considering I feel like I’ve seen Ben & Jerry’s ice cream all over the country and in parts of Canada and Mexico. They weren’t making ice cream that particular day but they were giving the equipment a thorough scrubbing, so that’s encouraging! From there, we went to the best part of the tour — the samples!
How it works is that you sample that day’s flavor — for our day they were serving Late Night Snack (which was partially inspired by Jimmy Fallon). It’s a vanilla-based ice cream with a salty caramel swirl and fudge-covered potato chip clusters. I encourage you to go out and buy some right now. It was rich but subtle and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

On our way back to the car, we visited the flavor graveyard (we also stripped the baby down to her diaper and fed her some carrots and a bottle). All of their deceased flavors have tombstones with a funny quip about why that particular flavor was retired, for example:

Finally — because I took my sweet time actually writing this post — I can inform you that Ben & Jerry’s just came out with a new flavor, Schweddy Balls. This is a spoof on the Saturday Night Live sketch with Alec Baldwin, Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer. It’s a vanilla ice cream with a hint of rum, fudge-covered rum balls, and milk chocolate malt balls. I haven’t yet tried it but I’m looking forward to it, if only because I have a crush on Alec Baldwin. (And by eating this ice cream, this will somehow bring us closer.)

Should you ever find yourself in the Stowe/Waterbury area of Vermont, I highly recommend the Ben & Jerry’s Factory tour. (And my thoughts are with the people in that area who were affected by the flooding from Irene.)

Jen’s note: Thank you Maura! Okay, so I’m ready for some ice cream. What say we have a Jenworld field trip up to Vermont?


Knee-capped

Guess who’s having knee surgery?

Yep, it’s true. Last week’s MRI showed that I have definitely a meniscus (cartilage) tear in my right knee. I went to the orthopedic surgeon yesterday and my only real option is for him to go in there and clean things up a bit. Surgery is tentatively scheduled for Friday the 30th. Afterward, I have to rest and heal. I won’t be allowed to do any exercise at all for two weeks.

Two weeks, y’all. Fourteen days without exercise.

Sure, I can (and will) do core work and use my dumbbells and whatnot, but I won’t be getting any cardio during that time. Cardio is how I deal with stress and calm my brain, yo, so it’s a pretty important part of my day.

The bigger issue is my future as a runner, which is very much up in the air. The doctor will be removing the damaged part of the meniscus, which will be about one-third of the cartilage in my knee. That’s a lot. Replacing the cartilage isn’t something that’s done — and believe me, I asked the doctor if it was possible — but it is possible that I’ll have to have total knee replacement surgery in 10-20 years. It all depends on how I take care of my knee after surgery.

And no matter what, I’m still going to have some knee problems after surgery because I also have osteoarthritis. Running is very hard on knees anyway, but it’s worse if there’s arthritis and/or missing cartilage.

My doctor told me that officially he’d like for me to give up running and walking and to focus more on biking and swimming. Unofficially, however, he understands my love of running and knows that if someone were to ask him to give up his sport of choice (mountain biking), he would be really unhappy and would probably ignore that directive. And in fact, he has a patient who is about my age, is a runner, and who had the same surgery, and this patient has thus far continued running. (If my doctor were less honest, he would encourage me to run, thereby insuring that I will need a knee replacement, which would then help fund his next mountain bike.)

So, the plan is to get me through surgery and then rehab my knee in physical therapy with an ultimate plan of allowing me to run again. I’ll have to rest fully for the two weeks post-op and then do a good job with physical therapy. After that, we’ll have to see. I should be able to run shorter distances, but I’ll definitely have to cross-train in between and rest my knees as much possible. (So, biking and swimming.) (Gah, swimming is so boring!) (Do any of you folks have suggestions about waterproof music options so that I can have tunes while I lap the pool in a state of ennui?) Whether or not I’ll ever be able to realize my dream of running a half marathon is very much up in the air. It’s possible I could train for one and one only, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

One factor that contributes to all of this is my weight. Being overweight is hard on one’s knees and is definitely part of my particular knee health equation. I have lost some weight, but I still have quite a bit left to lose. Luckily, every 10 pounds I drop will greatly reduce the pressure on my knees and also help with the osteoarthritis. (Perhaps I should post copies of my MRI on the fridge and in the pantry as reminders every time I reach for a snack.)

And yes, I recognize that all this is an FWP. I am fully aware that other people are going through far worse things and that this is really only a minor inconvenience. I’m not actually upset about the surgery or even how this changes my running. It is what it is and I’m not going to fret (too much). (Remind me of this zen-like thinking in a few weeks when I’m rehabbing and cursing furiously over being cooped up at home.)

Poison ivy

Given that yesterday was a somber anniversary, I had originally planned to write something serious and reflective for today. But then by evening, I was actually a bit overwhelmed by all the coverage and thought perhaps y’all might be ready for some smiles too. I mentioned on Facebook the other day that the more stressed I am, the more shallow I get online and it’s true. Faced with reminders of September 11, 2001, I wanted to do was peruse shoes online and watch TV sitcoms.

So today I’m going to tell you a story that is lighthearted and perfectly illustrates why I should never be trusted with anything that could hurt myself or others.

First off, a week or so ago, I posted this on my personal Facebook page:

Early this morning: Grace, “What do you think would happen if you set styrofoam on fire?” Me, “I don’t know, why don’t we try it some time?” Pete, “Uh, we’ll all die from toxic fumes.” Me, “Never mind.”

One of my friends commented:

Where’s your sense of adventure? Just have Pete do it outside, and the toxic fumes will dissipate to the neighbors :-)

I said:

I’d be all for it, but would probably only accidentally poison myself. I guess I should blog about the time I foolishly gave myself poison ivy through unconventional means…

Naturally, I’ve been encouraged to share this tale of folly with you all, so that you can go about your days, secure in the knowledge that you could not possibly be as stupid as I am on occasion.

Back when we lived in Old Jenworld, I was constantly waging battle against poison ivy.  There was one spot in particular where it always cropped up — the area between our driveway and our neighbors’ driveway 20 feet away. Between the two was a hedge and plenty of other shrubs and trees.  And poison ivy. Lots of it.

Actually, the poison ivy problem was over on our neighbors’ side. They were lackluster gardeners at best and once let their grass get so tall that other neighbors called the city department that enforces these sorts of things. I’m not talking about grass that was a foot tall. Oh no. This stuff was savannah height — entire herds of lions and wildebeests could have hidden in our neighbors’ front yard. This slatternly approach to yardwork also included dealing with poison ivy when it popped up in their yard. Which it did, regularly.

This family had a daughter the same age as one of my girls, so one day when I walked over to collect said daughter from a playdate, I was standing in the neighbors’ driveway making chitchat with them when I looked over and noticed poison ivy in the area between their driveway and mine. It was also right next to the garden gate the girls had been running back and forth through. I pointed out the poison ivy to the neighbors, then took my child home and gave her a Silkwood shower, on the likely chance that she had run through the poison ivy while playing.

Weeks later, I was once again retrieving a child from a playdate and noticed that not only was the poison ivy not gone, but it had spread further. I once again mentioned it to our neighbors. They never dealt with it. In fact, over the years — years, I tell you — the patch got larger and larger. It got to the point that I wouldn’t allow my girls to play in the yard next door because the stuff was everywhere.

Because of the apparent neighborly efforts to encourage poison ivy to grow wherever it wanted, the plant felt free to attempt to colonize my yard too. When I saw the familiar leaves-of-three, I dealt with it immediately. I’d get a plastic grocery bag and put it over my hand, glove-like. I’d pluck the offending plant with my plastic-encased hand and then use my other hand to pull the bag closed, knot it off, and then toss it in the trash can. And then I’d go inside and scrub my hands with the same attention to detail as Lady MacBeth, only my line was, “Out, damned plant oil!”

In 2005, at some point early in the summer, I somehow allowed a single poison ivy plant to escape my killing clutches. It spread and spread willy-nilly until I was faced with an actual patch of the stuff. For some reason, I felt that pulling it by hand would be too much work, so I set about looking for a non-toxic, non-chemical way to deal with it. And somewhere online I read that pouring boiling water on poison ivy would kill it dead. I now know that it does, but there’s a caveat:

Never, ever pour boiling water on poison ivy.

Let me repeat that for you in a very loud, stern voice, so as to make my point:

NEVER, EVER POUR BOILING WATER ON POISON IVY.

I went out there with a gallon or two of boiling water and I poured it onto that patch of poison ivy. Almost immediately, steam rose from that spot and engulfed me. Steamed that was infused with poison ivy oils.

Several days later — on the day we were leaving for vacation, in fact — I woke up and discovered a rash on my chest. Within a couple of hours, it had spread to my arms and lower abdomen. By that night, I had a rash from my neck to my wrists to my ankles. By the next morning, it was blood red.

And we were in the car heading north toward Boston.

Now let me stop here and ask you a question: When something goes wrong with, say, your kids, your dog, or your significant other, do you haul them off to the doctor/vet that day? But when something goes wrong with your very own personal body, do you wait days, weeks, or even months to get it checked out?

Yeah, I thought so.

[Side note: Speaking of waiting far too long to deal with medical issues, I did have the MRI on my knee and it confirmed that I have a cartilage tear. I’m seeing an orthopedic surgeon today to find out what’s next. And by what’s next, I guess I mean what kind of surgery and when and how much TLC I’m going to need from Dr. Pete.]

Here’s the thing about poison ivy: It spreads via oil, so until you wash that stuff off your skin, you risk sharing the love with other people. Once you break out, however, you can roll around in a three-way or whatever and no one else is going to get that rash. (They might get another kind of rash, but that’s a different story…)

So I did what I do best and that’s ignore my health. I should have gone to an urgent care place and gotten whatever drugs and ointments prescribed to me, but instead I coated myself with calamine lotion and went about my vacation. Surprisingly, I didn’t itch too much.

I just checked our photos from that trip: There are none of me. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Either I never once handed Pete the camera or the ones that did get taken showed too much of my horror movie rash.

Luckily, I got plenty of photos like this one:

My rash lingered for several days, then faded away. Since then, I’ve been especially wary about poison ivy (hand picking only, thank you very much) and haven’t gotten it again. We moved two years ago and our new neighbors are much less slatternly in their approach to yard care, so I haven’t had so much as a single leaf of the dreaded leaves-of-three in our new yard.

I can’t possibly be the only person who’s done something so incredibly foolish, am I? What have the rest of you done that will show me I’m not alone?

Cubed

A friend of mine blogged about how she now works in cube-ville but hasn’t actually decorated her box yet. It occurred to me that perhaps she needs a little decorating help, so I put together some ideas for her.

Dear Patience,

I know you are a woman of discerning taste, so my first thought is that you could keep things simple, like this:

I’m not sure which I like more, the welcome mat or the flowers.

Or maybe go for understated elegance:

But perhaps that’s not cozy enough. Would you rather go with a British club look:

This is an elegant look, for sure, but if you start hanging out at the old money country club on the edge of town and start hobnobbing with the blue bloods, then I’m sorry to say that our friendship is over. I just wouldn’t be able to keep up and, frankly, wouldn’t want to.

I seem to recall that you’ve tried yoga at least once (or maybe you just mocked someone who does yoga), so I thought I’d put together a simple, natural theme for your office:

If that doesn’t keep you all zen-like during your next two hour conference call, I don’t know what will.

Speaking of long-ass work phone calls, perhaps you should keep some reading material handy, just in case you get bored:

I’m guessing you’d go with the New York Times and I think that would be an excellent choice.

Or if boredom is a real issue, perhaps you could add some entertainment:

But you know, maybe you want to be friends with everyone in your office, which means you’re going to want to have the coolest cube in the building. In that case, what you need is a full-on tiki bar:

If you stock good brands and stay away from the cheap crap, I’m guessing you’ll be the most popular person in the office. Provide some snacks too and you’ve just guaranteed your next promotion.

At Christmas, I’d like to see you get into the holiday spirit:

And if you’re worried about alien abductions, my friend Jenn has the perfect suggestion for you:

But the fact is, you might want to make your work home a calm environment, one in which you can hide and work in peace, but no one will be able to find you, in which case, I suggest this:

These are just a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing. If you need any back issues of Martha Stewart Living, let me know and I’ll hook you up. Good luck with the decorating.

- Jen

Myth, magick, fantasy, and crappe – part 2

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post about a catalog called The Pyramid Collection:  Myth, Magick, Fantasy & Romance. I had quite a bit to say about that catalog’s offerings, as some of you might remember.

The newest catalog arrived in the Jenworld mail box over the weekend and it’s like Christmas came early, y’all, because the U.S. Postal Service pretty much hand delivered to me a fully-written blog post.

Here’s a screen shot of the main page of the website:

I’m not sure why that black velvet cape is included in that group of costumes, because clearly the theme of the photo is Disney on Ice. As in, Pirates of the Caribbean on Ice, Black Swan on Ice, and Moulin Rouge on Ice. Oh wait, maybe that cape is an apres-show cover up?

Unlike the catalog I received last year, this year’s is less about witches and Renaissance faires and more about hookers and prostitutes, with a smattering of call girls. The sub-theme is fantasy and role play — ah yes, costumes for hookers. All of the following will be available to you during your next visit to a Nevada bordello:

Hooker as Saloon Madam — For the client who watched “Gunsmoke” as a boy and had fantasies about Miss Kitty. Boot spurs available upon request.

Hooker as Robin Hood — Well thank goodness the hat is included, because the look was incomplete without it. And while the client is being hypnotized by the red feather, the hooker can pocket his wallet in her handy-dandy money bag, which is clearly labeled in case she thinks it’s for holding other things that I’m not going to mention here because my daughters will be reading this and I’m already pushing the envelope quite a bit.

Hooker as can-can dancer — For the client who’s a 19th century Francophile with a penchant for unfiltered cigarettes and absinthe.

Hooker as Little Red Riding Hood — For the client who fancies himself a Big Bad Wolf. Granny costumes available upon request.

In this fantasy bordello, there are theme rooms too:

This is the Hobbit room, complete with moss on floor for extra cushioning. Just in case.

And the Chronicles of Narnia room, complete with an ice queen. Due to PETA’s interference, lions are no longer available.

Moving along, there are some other choice costumes for your at-home enjoyment:

That’s totally bondage on the top, goth fairy on the bottom, bitches. It’s a hard look to pull off, so NO.

No. I will not wear a map of my circulatory system. (And is that a blood clot down by the knee?)

And no. Just on general principle.

Definitely no. Crotch-length is never good. And the detachable sleeves are just bizarre. What? It’s okay to have your hoo-ha and bosoms hanging out, but upper arms are verboten?

My eyes! They’re burning. Definitely a no.

Forget crotch-length, that’s more like fallopian-length. Hellz no.

Corset. Flounces. Uterus-length. Spider web capelet. Pfft. That’s what Pete calls “Saturday date night.”

I’m kidding. That one is freaking me out. Y’all know I’m not fond of spiders. Definitely a no.

[I showed Pete this last part and he seemed to think the costume was fine. In fact, he told me to “Go for it.”]

Okay, now they’re just fucking with me.

I don’t care how many gemstones you hot-glue on, Lucite is NEVER an acceptable material for shoes. No. Non. Nein. Nyet.

I tried to  find one item, anything, something that I  could conceivably buy and, alas, I was unsuccessful. (And no, Pete’s not getting the Spider Woman costume. He’d do well to do some reading on Black Widows as a cautionary tale.) So it was with great delight much regret that I recycled the catalog. I thought about asking them to take me off their mailing list, but then imagined the sad looks in your faces when I told you that there would  be no more reviews, and decided to just stay on the list. For your sake.

If any of you have bought anything from this catalog, I’d love to hear about it. Go ahead, share with the rest of the class.


1 Score

score [skohr] noun – a group or set of 20: about a score of years ago.

~

20 years ago today:

~

As you know, Pete and I have been greatly amused all summer by the Bloggess’ post about big metal chickens. To understand the rest of this post, you MUST read the original big metal chicken post.

For our anniversary, I got Pete this:

I stuck a label on it that says “20 years is small metal chickens.”

I put the chicken on Pete’s computer this morning and left for my run, snickering to myself about how surprised he’d be when he saw it and how clever I was.

When I got back from my run, Pete was in the kitchen. He didn’t say anything about my cleverness. Hrmph, I thought.

I went to check the computer to see if he’d even turned it on this morning and discovered this on MY computer:


It says “Knock Knock.”

Well played, Pete, well played.

So now we have two small plastic chickens.

BEST. ANNIVERSARY. EVER.