Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Backup Meal

It's the bane of every cook's existence - the bombed recipe.

It doesn't matter whether the dish was the result of human error, equipment failure, or mismatched palettes.  There's a sad plate of food in front of you that is completely inedible.

I like my steak medium well, but even I know this is a crime
These lost meals can be hard to cope with.  You've spent money to purchase ingredients, invested time into creating the recipe, and used energy to prepare it. All to have it go right into the trash can.  

Mike and I have found we have a poor response to these hiccups - 
go out to eat.

It seems like an easy solution.  Your stomach is already growling, you're irritable and stressed, and you certainly don't want to start another meal from scratch.

Dining at restaurants, of course, is a hard hit to your wallet and waistline.  And this certainly isn't a feasible solution when you enjoy experimenting with recipes frequently.

A savvy and budget-conscious cook needs only one weapon in their arsenal to combat the disaster recipe blues:

The Backup Meal

The backup meal is easy and painless to whip up and enjoy as you avoid looking at the carnage that is your kitchen.

This meal will save you money if it prevents you from stress eating at a restaurant.

This meal will probably not be a culinary delight, but it will do the trick of making sure bellies are full and your wallet hasn't been opened.

As a kid, my mother diplomatically handed me a jar of peanut butter if I turned my nose up at her offerings.  It's a good concept - use what you already have on hand.

With a little effort, these staples can be turned into a meal in minutes:
  • Frozen pizza
  • Eggs 
  • Canned or frozen fruit / veggies
  • Bread and cheese for grilled cheese
  • Jarred spaghetti sauce and pasta
  • Sandwich meat
  • Canned soup
  • Veggies and minute rice for a quick stir fry  

Eggs are my default meal.  I try to gear our recipes to have leftovers, but if dinner and lunch go up in smoke, I grab out my carton of eggs.  With little effort I can turn these golden gems into omelets, mini soufflees, or scrambled eggs.  Easy to add chopped up sandwich meat, shredded cheese, or diced veggies. 

There are no end to combinations here to fit your tastes and dietary needs.  The key is to make sure these things are on hand at all times so they can be called on short notice.

This is something we're still working on.  I don't often buy premade meals but if having a $7 frozen pizza in my freezer prevents me from spending $30 at a restaurant, then that's a good deal.

What are your backup meals?

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain (review)

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain is one of those books that has the rare quality of being hilarious, intelligent, and decadent all in one sitting.

I picked up Medium Raw at the Atlanta airport after some hideous adjustments to my travel schedule.  I was tired, had dined poorly that day, and needed a laugh.
Bourdain’s snarky wit came to the rescue. 
Funny thing though, I never really liked his show.  He was forever going off to places I would never go, eating things that were made of goodness knows what, and describing taste experiences I could never have.
This, of course, is the allure of his show.  I just never got into it.  Though to be fair, I always like his “bad boy” personality better than any of the glossy Food Network stars.
Medium Raw continues Bourdain’s flair for gripe, pointed criticism, and wicked humor that started in Kitchen Confidential.  This is actually the first time I’ve read Bourdain’s work, so I cannot comment on how his work has evolved, only to guess that his TV show, second marriage, and daughter have mellowed out this former drug addict a touch.
Bourdain’s style of writing is like gumbo – it’s spicy and meaty. It comes from rustic origins but it’s been polished over time.  There’s a little something for everyone.

There’s many favorable points for this book, humor being the biggest selling point.  I audibly cracked up several times over Bourdain’s adventures.
But the thing I love the most is Bourdain’s astute acknowledgement of the economics of food.
This is a man who knows and freely admits he has eaten some of the most incredible food offerings in the world – which come with a price tag most of us would gag at and food waste that is appalling.
He is keenly aware that the average Joe and Jane are just trying to get food into their kids’ bellies, not serve up a gourmet delight. That access to better food is hindered by dollar signs. That the state of mass farms and the meat industry are a serious problem. That the allure of food porn splashed on air and magazine covers is likely contributing to our complicated relationship with food.
Bourdain’s outsider perspective and working class roots honors the typical American and their routine experiences with food.  This is not a guy who grew up with steak tartar and vichyssoise, even though he offers enthusiastic descriptions of food I will never afford to look at.
Highlights of the book:
Virtue (Chapter 6) – in which Bourdain champions for basic cooking skills to be taught in schools to everyone.
Lust (Chapter 8) – short vignettes of Bourdain’s most heavenly food experiences.  I have never had pho before (a Vietnamese soup) but he had my mouth salivating.  His description of pain raisins and butter in Paris is particularly intoxicating.
Meat (Chapter 9) – a defense of our American right to eat beef untreated with ammonia and a call for better practices in the meat industry
Lower Education (Chapter 10) – a devilish ploy to shield his daughter from the evils of McDonald’s marketing and food
Swearing – This point actually endears Bourdain to me, but if you can’t handle a George Carlin-style voice punctuated with every swear word imaginable, you will be offended.  However, if you take pride in your colorful vocabulary, then reading Bourdain is like sitting in the bar next to your favorite drinking buddy. 

Writing Style - Amongst the salty language are lush descriptions of food, people, and places.  The book is infused with exotic passages, colorful imagery, and sharp intelligence.  Mix that with his deep cynicism and you find yourself needing a reprieve from the book at times.  You may need to take a little time to digest in between some chapters and recover from sensory overload.  

Chapters 12-18 – In which Bourdain runs attacks and praises on various food celebrities.  The problem here is that one’s interest wanes considerably if you don’t know who Alice Waters or David Chang is.  This section is clearly targeted at “the people who cook” portion of the title than those of us everyday foodies.

The Final Word
This was an excellent buy.  I purchased Medium Raw from $17.11 (with tax), which is much more than I would normally pay for a paperback.  However, the entertainment value was markedly high and the book saved me amongst dismal travel conditions. 

Its price has also been slashed by the amount of people I've loaned the book to.  Mike snatched it from my hands before I was even done with it. The book was then sent to my mother-in-law, who is a female version of Bourdain.  And she has instructions to turn over the book to my brother-in-law when she's finished.

I believe in setting a good book free for others to enjoy :)

What are you reading?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Make Christmas Cost Less

Halloween hasn’t even come and gone and the Christmas decorations are already starting to crowd out ghostly masks and candy corn.

That got me thinking about Christmas this year and what we were going to do to keep costs low.  There are a lot of gifts you can create just with your own time and energy.  We did breads, candy, and cookies last year.
While Christmas and unchecked consumerism still bothers me, gift giving is one tradition that won’t be disappearing in our respective families any time soon.  The nice thing is that everyone is scaling back and having more open discussions about their needs instead of wants.
As you look ahead to your Christmas obligations, keep these strategies in mind :
Anticipate Travel Expenses 
 Most of us fall into two camps during the holidays.  We either must A) travel or B) host. Each involves its own set of expenses, from extra food and heating, to gas and hotels.  Don’t forget about taking off work too.

I doubt I’ll take off any work (I already get the 24-25 off) so that’s not an issue.  But we do have to think about how many days we’ll be out of town, if we need someone to check in on the cats, and if we’ll be crashing on anyone’s couch.
Plan Ahead 
Start making decisions now about how you are handling gift giving this year.  Do you need to discontinue giving gifts with certain friends?  Do you need to encourage the family to go to a drawing or children-only system?  Do you need to set aside extra time to make handmade gifts?

Mike and I are doing baked goods again.  That means that I’m looking at recipes and aiming to test any new ones by Thanksgiving.
Make a List  
Last-minute purchases can be disastrous for any budget.  Whether it’s a gift you forget, unexpected supplies need, or overlooking expenses like work parties, make sure you’ve anticipated these otherwise they can add up quickly.  

Each year my company does a potluck and Mike and I intend to host our own holiday party with friends.  I’m not anal enough to plan out menus at this point, but I have recognized that December is notorious for extra food purchases.
Spread It Out – This is a common piece of advice, but it’s worth noting each time.  I’ve never seen much sense in trying to purchase gifts all in one pay cycle.  Give your budget some breathing room.  

With baked goods, it’s easy to stock up supplies months ahead of time.  My biggest thing will be to test recipes ahead of time.  I plan on making my November weekends (which are miraculously all free!) a bake-extravaganza.

What are you doing to keep costs low for the holidays?

Monday, October 17, 2011

5 Halloween Movies I've Never Seen

The funny thing about being a film teacher is that people are flabergastered when you haven't seen a particular movie.  Doesn't matter whether it's obscure, a genre I don't like, or has an actor I detest - there's always indignation when I haven't seen something.

This always amuses me.  While some people consider themselves well read, I would call myself "well watched."  But I admit there are noticable and large gaps in my film viewing experience. 

With Halloween around the corner, I've been thinking of horror films that I really should watch.  The problem is, I don't care of horror films - I simply get too involved. 

I'm the girl who jumps, screams, covers her eyes, and punches you when she get scared. 

This actually makes me an ideal person to watch a horror movie with because I can be tormented through the whole thing, which is another reason I avoid them.  

Here are the top 5 horror movies that I've never seen:


The Exorcist

Friday the 13th / Nightmare on Elm ST (aren't they the same plot anyways?)

Rosemary's Baby / The Omen (I'd also ask the same question of these two)

Any George A. Romano film

Before you reach through your computer screen to shout your protests at me, all is not lost.  It's not like I've never seen a good horror film. 

I've viewed Carrie, Saw 1, The Shining, The Sixth Sense (albeit the first time last week), The Haunting (both the 1963 and 1999 versions), The House on Haunted Hill, Alien and Aliens, Frankenstein (1931), all the major movies by Hitchcock, Fire in the Sky, Resident Evil 1-4, Deliverance, Silence of the Lambs, and Poltergeist.

So tell me - am I missing out by not seeing any of these?  Are there some that I missed? 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More Testing Required

So my doctor's appointment this week didn't advance my situation much. 

We are still pursuing either polycystic ovary syndrom (PCOS) or Cushing's as the culprit of my health issues.  The bloodwork I did last month is insufficient to say whether I have one or the other.

Over this next month, I will be doing three additional tests:
  • 24-hour urine collection (yes, all of it)
  • 2 midnight saliva swab (back to back)
  • 1 Dexamethasone suppression testing

That last one involves taking a steriod at night and then getting blood drawn in the morning.  You can get an idea of what each is looking for here.

We'll be discussing the results at my next appointment in mid-November. It takes that long to run all the tests - they have to be done in a specific order and some are processed up at Mayo.

That's really all the more I know.  Even if these new tests give us a better indication of what I have, there is additional imaging testing after that for final confirmation.

At this point, it's just nice to have this process started. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Solon Langworthy House (review)

The Solon Langworthy House sits atop the bluffs in Dubuque in a historical neighborhood perfect for a casual stroll.  The bulk of the house was built in 1848 but the bed-and-breakfast wing is from 1870.

The first thing that impressed us about the B&B was the absolute sense of privacy.  You have your own entrance into the house, a keypad for coming in afterhours, and no check-in.  We never met our hosts - their only evidence was the fresh breakfast items set out in the morning.

The entryway is painted a warm orange and you immediately notice the stellar wood floors.  On the right - a case of DVDs and popcorn is available.

We booked the Deluxe Suite, which included a bedroom and very large bath.  Here Mike points out the bed in case you missed it.

The bed, with an iron frame I'd like to steal, is lush with a down comforter and cozy sheets.  At left, the cabinet has a TV/DVD, which is playing classical music upon your arrival to greet you.  Mike gives a thumbs up to the french doors with privacy curtains.

My favorite part was the bathroom!  This is an outstanding combination of vintage and modern - right up our alley. 

The main draw of the room?  This soaking tub with jets.  I need one of these stat - so jealous!

The whole suite is tricked out with very thoughtful decoration - someone on staff has a good eye for design.  This basin sink is exquisite.

I don't know whether this light is period authentic or a replica, but it's a fun detail without being kitschy.

Whenever we travel, we check out B&Bs online but we're always turned away by the hideous designs.  Because most are in historic homes, they go with an "interpretation" of that era, which usually ends up being an abundance of doll house colors and lace.  So not romantic.

Maybe that works for older generations, but we late 20-somethings want a more modern ambiance.  Solon Langworthy delivers this to a T.

The kitchen (again private) is a cute nook across from the room.  Breakfast is self-serve, with fruit, yogurt, toast, coffee/tea options, muffins, and a waffle machine.

Again - love the aesthetic - so inviting.

I imagine that some people may find self-serve breakfast offputting - something about wanting service.  Personally, I liked it.  I didn't have to bother anyone or worry about bumming around in my sweats.

Everything about our visit was peaceful.  The house has a calm energy that's infectious.  I could easily imagine myself curling up with tea and reading for hours in any number of corners in the house.

The price for the suite on the weekend is $145 a night, but it drops down to $99 during the week.

One thing to keep in mind about B&Bs is that they are typically more expensive than a chain hotel.  But think about what your fees are paying for:
  • Added sense of privacy
  • Personalize attention
  • Quality breakfast
  • Historic lodging
  • Supporting small business
The price does make this a special treat, but that's only appropriate for what you are getting.  I can't imagine trying to turn a profit in a place like this, particuraly in an older residence that requires specialized upkeep.

We would definitely come back here for another rest.  The Solon Langworthy House sets the bar pretty high for any other B&B we go to! 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

An Anniversary in Dubuque

Mike and I shared a wonderful 10-year anniversary weekend in Dubuque recently.  Despite being in the throes of a sinus infection, I had a relaxing time.  We kept some costs to a minimum while letting ourselves be free with the pocketbook on others.

And before getting into this, my apologies for the photography - it's pretty clear which photos were taken off of my little Casio and which are products of Mike's Canon. 

Dinner at L. May Eatery

Despite our numerous visits to Dubuque, we don't do much eating there.  I found this restaurant while searching online and liked their menu selection.

7-grain bread with a garlic/sun-dried tomato butter - Mike ate both our slices due to my oat intolerance :(  The salad, however, had a wonderfully refreshing citrus vinaigrette.

For the man of the hour, lobster lasagna - it was gone in about 4 monstrous bites

For the lady with the stuffy nose, a simple tomato, basil, mozzarella pizza with balsamic reduction.  Barely shown in the red dish  - scalloped sweet potatoes that were wonderfully spicy - must figure out what was in it! 
The food was outstanding!  We had not had a good meal on that level for some time (restaurant options in Cedar Rapids are pretty mediocre).

Being our anniversary dinner, we didn't put any checks on our tab.  L. May is the kind of place where if you are careful, you can walk out with a stuffed belly for around $35 for two people.

But if you were us that night and order two beers, a martini, lobster pasta, pizza, an extra salad, scalloped sweet potatoes, bread pudding AND a brownie, you will easily double that with tip.  

We had no regrets :)

Fenlon Place Elevator

This is one Dubuque curiosity we've driven by many a time but hadn't checked out.  It's called a funicular railway and it claims to be the shortest and steepest one in the world. 

We paid a whopping $4 for the two of us to make a round trip.  It was hardship I tell ya ;)

View going up ...

View looking down ...

At the top, we were rewarded with gorgeous views of the city and the River.

Shot Tower

Another unique landmark along the riverfront is the Shot Tower.  A relic of the lead industry at the turn of the century, the structure stands awaiting restoration from the city.  Mike enviously pondered the excellent views that surely could be seen from the top.

Stone Cliff Winery

I'd seen Stone Cliff wines at HyVee numerous times but hadn't been brave enough to commit to a whole bottle.  So we made the trip to their tasting room (bottom right), which is located in a historic brewery. 

Most wineries offer a tasting where you pay $5 to sample 5 wines.  It's a great way to try a variety without paying for a whole bottle.   

Between the two of us, we sampled virtually all of Stone Cliff's offerings.  We also got appetizers to serve as a light lunch.

We quite enjoyed the wines.  Smooth without being fussy - simple flavors that linger on the palette.  There's something very Midwest about these wines.

The price is a bargain - their most expensive bottle is $12!

We made it out after a total of 10 samples, two appetizer, and two bottles of wine for home (a cherry and semi-sweet red) only $40 in the hole.

This ended up being quite the inexpensive outing, given that our bed-and-breakfast was free (review here).  All in all, we spent just over $150 for two days out of town, including gas, food, and wine.  

It was a relaxing and unhurried trip - precisely what we needed.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Busy October Ahead

My October calendar is about to explode, seriously.  Usually it's the summer months that are jam packed, but this haunted month has a full schedule ahead.  A snapshot of the upcoming weeks: 

UNI Homecoming
Going back to Cedar Falls is like a mini-reunion with my college mates.  We only get to see each other a handful of times during the year, and this is a great excuse to catch up.    

We're splitting a hotel with another couple to keep costs low and we're all so pinched it's easy to suggest inexpensive places to plop down for a beer.  We're also getting reduced price tickets for being marching band alumni. 

Midwest Popular Culture Association Conference
To keep up with my academic research, I am presenting a paper at this conference.  It's great to exchange ideas and gain some professional development.  It's also something that goes on my resume and shows Upper Iowa I'm serious about my field of study.

I'm focusing on the movie "Doomsday" and its lead female character (source)
Located in Milwaukee, this trip is definitely a splurge.  I already paid my conference registration fee, but we need a hotel for 2 days, gas to drive the 10-hour round trip, and then food.  Working on planning the trip down to a T to avoid as many extra costs as possible. 

Back to Teaching Film 
Toward the end of the month I'll returning to teaching another Movies course in Waterloo.  I'm finalizing the syllabus this weekend and I'm excited about changes I've made to the structure of the class. 

First time I'm teaching Star Wars (IV) - should be interesting (source)
We have good friends in Dubuque who throw a huge Halloween party every year.  Last time they smoked a whole hog and had adult apple cider waiting for everyone.  Mike and I don't have many opportunities to be social around here, so it's nice to get out of town and hang out with people we've known for a long time.  We're not really into costumes, but I'll be whipping up some ghoulish treats to share.

Rocky Horror Picture Show
Last year I was a RHPS virgin.  I'd never even seen the film before - I know, the shame.  It was a blast going to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City and I can't wait to go again now that I know what to do!  I definitely want this to be a yearly tradition.

Wow - that's a lot!  I'm hoping I can keep up with it all, but might as well cram in all of the fun stuff before the Arctic chill descends.

Do you have any plans for October?