This is not a country-and-western song (yet)

January 15, 2010

OK, that header is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the last time I posted something that ranged as far as I think this post will I got a rather snarky note from someone suggesting that I had put far too may topics in one blog post. I suppose he was trying to educate me on blog etiquette, but hey, that’s the way my days go. If yours don’t, I’m a bit sorry.

If I were going to do a post about cancer or some very serious topic, I probably would restrict it, narrow it a bit. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to do that, but I’m getting readier. But when I’m writing about life in the country, I think it should include all the wildness that goes with life in the country. If I throw in a little technology or other stuff, well, for me, that’s life in the country, too.

But I just wrote him back and said I’d add trains and pickup trucks and maybe I’d have a country song. If you’re not a David Allan Coe fan (or a Steve “?” who actually wrote the song), you probably won’t get that.

However, there are no trains and pickup trucks in this post. And no Mama, either. She died more than a decade ago, which is a little startling to recognize, frankly.

I went to town today. I really hate doing that, but I had reasons I had to go, and I knew if I put it off any longer, I’d forget them.

I stopped on the way in at the feed-and-seed in Toledo to get Ben two new work shirts. He hinted strongly a couple of weeks ago that he needed them and suggested I check out the Carhardt’s at this store. Well, Carhardt doesn’t seem to manufacture any “work shirts” with a zipper closure, as I found out with the assistance of a nice young clerk who offered to order for me anything I couldn’t find on their shelves. So I got him two hickory shirts (that funny blue and white striped cotton cloth that only serious workers wear). He was very happy, even though the same nice young clerk told me he couldn’t pre-wash them for me to get the itchy sizing out. “It never hurts to ask,” he said.

From there I went on to Newport to the public library to try to get some books I need. I ordered two.

Then I went down the street to the Visual Arts Center. They’re setting up a display of Lincoln County authors to run for about 6 weeks starting in February, and they actually asked for some of my books to a) display, and b) sell. Of course I accommodated them. I’m not sure what books have to do with visual arts, but anyone who wants to sell my books will get my cooperation.

From there I meandered through town to Freddy’s. I got a few groceries (and a couple of puzzle books-I’m out of Crostics). I didn’t get all I should have because I frankly blew off the need to make a list. I did get the critical stuff–two pounds of butter (I was down to only three pounds in the fridge and getting nervous), some ground beef (currently in a pot of chili waiting for us to be hungry), some yeast (I used the last of my non-fast-acting yesterday), some Pepsi (Ben was down to only a can or two), a new block of Bandon cheese, some of Kroger’s outrageously good bacon, some Jimmy Dean sausage for Sunday’s guest breakfast of biscuits with sausage gravy, an “Oregonian” newspaper. . .this list is depressing me a bit as I write it, but you should know I have copious quantities of salad stuff, vegetables, several kins of fresh fruit, and homemade bread already at home.

Then I went across the highway to the liquor store, but I got sidetracked by the fact that there was a Radio Shack next door. So I went there first, bought some batteries to try (saving me a trip to Home Depot in Corvallis which is an hour plus the other direction). Then feeling adventuresome, I bought a Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse to go with my new computer. I’m determined to get rid of all these fricking cords. If anyone out there knows a reason I shouldn’t use this keyboard or mouse (or Maxwell batteries for that matter), please write ASAP. I haven’t hooked it up yet.

Now off to the liquor store for scotch, brandy, and various tobacco products. While there I learned the names of the various clerks that frequently wait on me. I asked because sometime this week it occurred to me that I didn’t know them after years of interaction. I thought that was a bit sad, so I set out to remedy it. In return, Joe, for the first time, called me by what he thinks (based on my debit card) is my first name. I liked that.

Then I pulled into Burger King for a Whopper Junior with extra pickles. This is not food exactly, but it’s closer to it than the 1000-calorie options they prefer to sell, it only cost $1.00, and it kept me from passing out before I got home.

Then to the bank to deposit three small checks, one book-related, one utility refund, one brandy rebate–total under $50.00, but I’d been carrying them around for some time because it’s a lot of trouble to go to the bank. They don’t give me enough deposit slips with my checks, so at a certain point, I have to park, go in, fill out a counter slip, and so on. I am offended by the counter slip that says something like “To serve you better in the future, please use your preprinted deposit slips that come with your checks.” That’s like salt in a wound. I would if I could.

Before I even went to town, I finished Jon Raymond’s short story collection Livability. Whew! What great stories. Read this one for sure.

Then I made about my fifth call to the manager of the Marylhurst bookstore. One of the professors there shot me a note last week to let me know they were down to only one copy of my book and needed some more. But since the prof isn’t paying the bills, I feel a little odd just sending them and thought I should talk to the manager first to confirm. But I’m about to give up.

OK, this is what a day in the country looks like. I’m going to go eat some chili. If there are typos here, I’m sorry, but I’m too tired (the main side effect of going to town) to go look for them.

I just finished reading “The Crying Tree,” and I have a few words to say

January 13, 2010

Actually, I’m reconsidering this as I write. What I was thinking about saying sounds a little mean, even to me, so I think I’ll just say this: It’s a first novel and it got finished and published, two pluses right there. It’s a decent read. I would probably consider reading another of Rakha’s books when she publishes one.

It’s unfortunate (for comparison purposes) that I just finished Prince of Players, a rather extraordinary biography of Edwin Booth. Ben’s been going through some old books, and he came down with this one in his hands. “I know you like Shakespeare,” he said (this is somewhat typical of his perception of my engagement with literature), “so you might find this interesting.”

Booth was the older brother of John Wilkes B., whom every Anerican older than 35 has heard of (somewhere in there they quit teaching American history, or at least the unexpurgated version of it). But few outside the realms of literature or drama have heard of Edwin. Yet in his day he was the premier American man of the classical theater. He had a career that spanned decades, and even in his waning days could draw crowds who brought their grandchildren to see the “great man before he died.”

This book was fabulously engaging. I’m sure it’s many years out of print (one of the advantages to hanging on to a lot of old books is that you never know when something will tweak your fancy, or tweak someone else’s), but if you can find it somewhere, I give it five stars.

But I’m afraid The Crying Tree suffered a bit by comparison. Dang it, I said I wasn’t going to be mean, but Rakha dragged out a lot of cliches to assemble into a plot. If you didn’t know very early in the book that the son was gay but nobody else seemed to know it, you just weren’t paying attention. She also relied very heavily on physical description of her characters, which I didn’t care for at all. That may be a personal prejudice, but I find myself often not caring what someone looks like (unless there is some gross deformity that has an impact on the action), and all those print dresses and ravishing locks really slow the action down. A man making a joke about his thinning hair tells me a lot more about the man than someone pointing out that the man’s hair is thinning.

But it was a noble effort, and I’m willing to give her another chance. She’s very young and can only get better, unless the success of this book convinces her that she’s already cracked the code. Which, IMNHO, she hasn’t.

On a lighter note (well maybe not lighter but more cheerful), I talked with an old friend last night, an Army buddy of Ben’s. We haven’t spoken for months and months, but we had a terrific visit. He said he went this year to a 101st Airborne reunion and took my book of poetry with him. When he got his five minutes in the spotlight, he read the assembled three of the Vietnam poems in the book. He said a 93-year-old man cried because “someone got it.” Made my night. . .

And I got a note from a professor at Marylhurst noting that the bookstore was down to one copy of my book and I should get them some more. I will do so.

Kitchen essentials for baking, first go

January 9, 2010

I’ve just spent the fall and the first half of the winter exploring baking. For those of you who don’t know, I do most of my cooking (and virtually all of my baking) on a wood-fired cookstove. So I don’t do anything that’s too fussy about temperature. If I hit it within 50 degrees, it’s good enough most of the time. But that has nothing to do with the contents of this message. It’s just a little contextual note.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are certain things that no baker should be without. I’ll enumerate at least a few of them here. Others may occur to me later, so I reserve the right to add to the list.

1) A pair of clean hands. There is nothing so useful in baking as the ability to handle and manipulate your dough with your hands. No bread machine, dough hooks, or any other mechanical contrivance are half as useful.

2) Dough cloths. These are plain white fine-woven cotton towels at least 30 inches square. In my childhood they were called “flour-sack” towels. The weave is fine enough to hold flour, but the flour sinks into it. This lets you work your dough on a floured surface without getting an excess of flour. Good ones are hard to find, but Lehman’s Non-electric Catalog has a 10-pack for about $20. Nobody really needs 10 of these, so split a pack with a baker friend of yours. But they are essential for working good bread, pie crust, or pastry. Forget the Tupperware or other plastic stuff. Trust me. You need these. You don’t even have to wash them every time you use them. Just shake them out well.

3) Waxed paper. This is what you wrap dough in that has to sit. Don’t use plastic wrap. The waxed paper breathes a little but doesn’t let things dry out. It’s kind of the Debbie’s Little Green Bags of baking.

4) A flat grater. The first time I found a recipe that called for me to grate the cold butter into the flour before working it with item number 1 on this list, it was like the heavens opening up and a big beam of light falling on my head. Why, I wondered, has no one ever thought of this before? A bazillion recipes call for cutting the butter into little chunks, flattening them with your fingers, then cutting them into the flour with a pastry cutter or a pair of knives. Grating through the large holes of a flat grater achieves the right effect with about 1/10 the effort. Kudoes to whoever thought this one up.

5) A large assortment of mixing bowls, glass or stainless steel, in as many different sizes as you can imagine.

6) A large assortment of measuring utensils–cups in stainless (for dry measurement) amd glass (for wet measurement), measuring spoons from a minimum of 1/4 tsp. to 1 Tbspn. I have several sets of dry-measure cups, and glass cups from 2 oz. to one quart.

7) A good conversion chart. It’s tough to remember when you’re adjusting on the fly whether it’s three tspns or four to the Tbspn . Same with Tbspns to the quarter cup. Hit: One is three and one is four, and if you forget, look at your butter wrapper and all will become clear.

8) Lot of baking pans and dishes. Again, use only glass, cast iron, or stainless steel. I confess I use a very good grade of non-stick cookie sheet for a variety of things. But no Teflon. If you want non-stick, look for anodyzed metal like Calphalon. When using glass, most recipes recommend that you adjust the temperature downward by 25 degrees, but since I’m working within a very flexible range to start with, I usually ignore that. I work with a cool, medium, or very hot oven. I don’t do souffles. . .

9) Good knives, and lots of them. Ben introduced me years ago to the Chicago Cutlery classic walnut series. They are simple and elegant in appearance. They are a fairly stainless high-carbon steel that can be brought to a razor’s edge with a good steel or stone. I’m lucky enough to have a husband who appreciates my cooking enough to keep them very sharp for me. I do know how to do this myself, but I try to hide that fact,

This feels like a good place to quit for the time. If you have any issues, ask me a question and I’ll at least make an attempt to justify my position.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have owned a bread machine, a food processor, and a blender. I never found anything that I could do with them (with the exception of frozen margaritas) that I couldn’t do with my hands and manual equipment. And the manual equipment is a heck of a lot easier to clean, When I realized I really liked margaritas on the rocks better than frozen margaritas, that was the end of my mechanized kitchen.

“No-knead” bread, as Lee requested

January 9, 2010

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve spent some time finding a version of “no-knead” bread that works for me. Lee asked for the recipe, so I’ll provide it here, but I’m going to have to do another post about proper kitchen equipment. At least that’s what I see coming as I write this. If I combined the two it would be hopelessly long.

Here is a caveat–every flour reacts differently to liquid and yeast. Part of my adventure this winter has been finding a mix of stuff that really works for me. You might have to adjust things if you’re using different flour or like your bread made with milk instead of water or so on. But here’s the basic recipe for two nice-sized loaves:

2 cups White Lily bread flour

2 cups hard-wheat (gold Medal, house brand, etc.) flour

1 generous Tbspn regular yeast (not fast-acting)

1 generous Tbspn salt (kosher or sea salt preferred)

2 cups lukewarm water, about 110 degrees

Whisk together the flours, yeast and salt. Forget the sifter. A whisk works much better. Pour the dry ingredients into the water in a large bowl and stir with a spoon until there are no dry spots. The dough will be VERY sticky and a little lumpy. Cover (but don’t seal–I prefer a cloth towel) and let rise in a warm place for at least two hours and as much as five hours. I generally find that three hours is sufficient.

Put a baking stone on the oven rack in center position and preheat it to about 400 degrees (More about baking stones in the next post). Put a heavy pan in the bottom of the oven to preheat (I use an old broiler pan I scored somewhere).

When the dough has risen to your satisfaction, prepare a pizza or bread paddle by covering the area on which you will place your loaf with corn meal. Divide your dough into two pieces. Sprinkle your work surface with flour, and shape half the dough into a loaf–round, oblong, whatever suits your fancy–and place it on the corn-meal covered portion of your paddle. Let the loaf rise about 40 minuts. Slash the top with a razor blade or very sharp knife in several places. You will repeat this process with the second half of the dough after you’ve put the first loaf in the oven.

Slide the loaf from the paddle onto the preheated stone in the oven (this is what the corn meal is for–it works like ball bearings), and toss a cup of hot water into the heavy pan on the bottom of the oven. Close the oven door immediately to capture the steam. Bake for 35-50 minutes (depends on the size of the loaf) until the top is golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped with your fingers.

Tear off big hunks and slather with butter. (This last step is optional and only for true hedonists. We generally slice ours after it has cooled slightly.)

Lee, I hope this works for you. I have about 8 different flours and ground meals in my pantry at the moment. All White Lily is too fine in texture for me for most breads (although that’s all I use in pastries), so I mix it up. If you don’t have “bread” flour, you can add a Tbspn of gluten for each cup of flour to get the same effect.

The staff of life (that’s “staff,” not “stuff”)

January 8, 2010

OK, I trimmed my nails, so the typos should be fewer and farther between.

I’m sneaking a few minutes away from important stuff I should be doing just because I enjoy sitting in my warm kitchen (fire’s been going for hours) smelling yeast bread dough rising for baking later tonight.

We’ve been eating mostly homemade bread lately. I adapted a recipe from several “no-knead” ones that appeared a year or so ago. It makes two good-sized loaves, takes five minutes or less to prepare, 2-5 hours to rise (I find that 3 hours is generally plenty), and comes out of the oven with a crust that snaps and throws crumbs everywhere when you cut into it. Ben loves it. I have to make two loaves because the first one is generally gone about an hour after it comes out of the oven. It toasts up on our little camp toaster to a crunchy golden color. The toast crackles when you bite into it. Hungry yet?

I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately. There’s so much being written about how many of our health ills are tied to processed food. One of the best things about being retired is having the time to mess around with strictly fresh stuff. And in addition to the health benefits, you get to smell real smells and taste real tastes without the chemical enhancers.

From time to time I’ve purchased convenience items. I’m thinking now of the pre-cut hearts of romaine chopped up into little pieces, that sort of thing. Then I read that all these processed greens are washed in chlorine bleach since the bacteria scares of a couple of years ago. It doesn’t seem to interfere too much with the flavor, but it effectively removes most of the food value. So now I buy heads of greens and wash and tear them up myself. Afriend showed me how to keep them fresh for what seems like an inordinately long amount of time, so it’s not as onerous as it sounds. And it keeps its fiber and vitamin values.

It’s almost time to shape my loaves of bread, so I’ll sign off for the moment.

Dell, redeemed

January 4, 2010

Redemption is a wonderful thing, in literature as in life. Despite my rather bitchy post last evening, today Dell, or more specifically a rather great technician, redeemed the company, so I feel obligated to make note here.

It took an hour or so on the phone with India, but my new wireless printer is up and running. Thank you Amit. I asked them to give you a bonus. . .

I thought I had waited long enough to not be hanging on the bleeding edge of technology, but alas, I was mistaken. However, all is right in the world now. I’m gradually shedding cords and assorted paraphenalia. My desk is a little more orderly, me new computer is still most excellent, and my printer works. It is unfortunately not a candidate for the 12-volt conversion that lets me run my DSL modem/router without the generator, but that’s OK. I don’t print that often anyway.

The stew is simmering on the stove, and the first of two loaves of our favorite bread is on its second rise, so dinner’s not far off.

This bread recipe (as I’ve adapted it, at least) is seriously simple and fabulously superb. I don’t know if it would cook as nicely without the serious heat generated by a wood oven, but by golly it works for me. There’s something soothing abaout eating bread still warm from baking with a lot of melted butter dripping from it, and we’re doing so almost every day right now. You know the expression “make hay while the sun shines”? Well in this house, it’s “make bread while the sun isn’t shining and let the other fire go out so the house stays below 85 degrees.”

I’m committing what some would probably consider the ultimate sin tonight. I cut up most of a piece of superb round cut as thick London broil to make the stew. I found a little local farm that sells pasture-raised beef, so we’re trying some. The hamburger is flavorful, virtually no shrinkage, less than 7% fat. When I cut into this steak, I just stared. I haven’t seen beef that color in a butcher shop in years. My mouth is watering just thinking of it. I saved a little to make minestrone later this week with some home-canned tomato sauce, but most of it we’ll just inhale tonight.

OK, enough, I’m out of practice at this. Ciao.

Happy New Year, Dorrie, wanna banana?

January 3, 2010

That subject line won’t mean anything to anyone but me, but that’s OK. Something about 2010 just took me back about 40 years, and it conjured up memories of a friend long gone. So it’s a bit by way of being a salute to the past.

I brought this all on myself complaining early in December that we were about 20 inches short of our average annual rainfall. Didn’t have an effect immediately, but the last few days of the year struggled to make up for the earlier dearth of dampness. The river is about as high as I’ve seen it this year. It finally has stopped raining an inch-plus a day and the river is dropping a bit, which is fine by me.

I’ve got last night’s leftover bean soup warming on the woodstove and will go eat some shortly. There’s still fresh bread from yesterday, although it’s not quite as fresh as it was yesterday. Brenda found a great fast yeast bread recipe mid-year. I’ve been fooling with it a bit, and it gets better each time I make it. No pain, no hassle, just good, crusty staff-of-life stuff.

I think I could live on bread and properly cooked potates. Must be the Irish in my background.

I love winter. The woodstoves are going all the time and it’s tough not to just go cook something.

I’m off now, so the best to all of you reading this for the New Year. More anon.

Dell support sucks. . .

January 3, 2010

That’s probably not totally fair, but it’s an accurate reflection of what I’m feeling at the moment. I just hung up after being transferred three times to a “printer specialist.” When I inquired of the last person if he was a “printer specialist,” he said no.

I just bought a new laptop and a new wireless printer. The laptop is fantastic, hooked up without a hitch, and even transferred my files correctly after I got smart and read the instructions instead of winging it. The wireless printer is another story. It’s very handsome, and if I ever get it totally functional, I may even like it.

I should have been warned. Dell has called at least twice wanting to send someone out to hook it up for me. My first reaction: If it’s that complicated, I probably should just send it back. If I don’t get it working correctly by Tuesday (garbage day, when I can recycle the packaging), I probably will send it back.

But for tonight, I’m stuck talking to people in India (I think, I suppose it could be Bangladesh or somewhere else in the area, I’m going on accents here), and it reminds me of when I last worked for Intel and at 7 p.m. our in-house support switched to a team in India. When I heard the technician, I usually decided that whatever it was could wait until morning. I needed correct answers, not just answers.

Here this, technical companies of the world: If you have a happy customer, they’ll spread it among a few friends. If you have an unhappy customer, they’ll tell everyone who will listen. So I’m blogging about this. I’ve e-mailed Dell tech support to see if someone will actually contact me and not just send me an automated list of suggestions. I’ll update you later.

Today. . .Don’t want to get out of the habit

December 29, 2009

Sitting here wishing I had a) trimmed my fingernails and b) got things cleared away enough to use a regular mouse. I hate those little slide pads, and Windows 7 seems to keep making decisions about what it thinks I want to do. But I’ve been reluctant to disassemble the clutter of old computers that eats up my upstairs desk until I was sure everything was working, Tomorrow I’ll try to set up the new wireless printer. Then I might get my office back.

English-style meat pie in the oven, and I’ve 15 minutes or so before I have to go feed the fire. Ben’s good about keeping it fed, but when I’m baking I prefer to do it myself. I don’t know if the English actually eat anything like this or not, but that’s what we call it–meat and veggies baked in a crispy crust. I learned it from a crazy woman who grew up in Corvallis but learned it from her English mother-in-law. Oops, there’s the bell.

OK, to quote Tom Paul Glaser, I’ve “put another log on the fire.” The pie is starting to look pretty darned good and smell even better. So I’ve a few more minutes, anyway.

We’ve had some pretty massive cold weather. The Big Elk froze clear across for the first time in about 35 years.

The plus is that we keep both fires going pretty much all day, so I’ve been doing a lot of baking and roasting–breads, pies, a standing rib with roast potatoes yesterday, piroshkis on Christmas Eve (a bit of a tradition in our house), cinnamon rolls, blah, blah, blah.

I must admit I’m very partial to being retired. It suits me. And I got an order for four more of my books today, which suits me even better. . .;^}

But now I need to go drool around the kitchen and set the table. Ciao.

Ahem. . .Anyone still out there?

December 28, 2009

I’ve been flirting with getting back to this log for some time, and I always put it off for another day. But here I am.

I suppose I’m here at least in part because of a certain renewed confidence in my ability to manage computers. I defeated Microsoft’s attempts to squash me today (at least so far), and I feel a little rhapsodic.

I bought a new computer. I’ve been putting it off for years because I didn’t want to deal with Vista and it really fried me to contemplate paying extra money to have someone “downgrade” my computer to an OS that worked. But then Windows 7 was released, got pretty good press, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. The machine wasn’t supposed to come until January, but Dell cut their assembly time in half (or else they got a shipment of parts early) and Fed-Ex cut their delivery time in half, and my new machine arrived midday on Christmas Eve, a gift from Santa.

Last night I was wishing I had stood it a little longer.  As is my wont, I leaped in with little regard to manuals, instructions, pre-planning, and so forth. So I spent a couple of hours backing up old files to CD for transfer, fingers crossed the whole time. I dealt with file protection issues and waded through them. Then I booted my new machine and went through the setup and stuff only to discover that I couldn’t just load my files from CD. I suspect it has something to do with the shift from a 32-bit OS to a 64-bit OS. So I started over, actually following the instructions from Windows 7 on moving files.

It was less arduous that I was afraid of.

Then I got surprise number 2. There’s no e-mail program on Windows 7. So, fingers crossed, I loaded an old version of Outlook and–voila!–my contacts and e-mail archive appeared exactly as they had before I ran them through Windows 7’s little file transfer utility.

But I had a few permissions problems. MS has done a good job of trying to hide from Joe User anything that might be of any use to anyone, but I ferreted out the files I needed, gave the system permission to let me screw with them, and my problems went away. At least for now. All in all a satisfying evening.

So here we are coming up on 2010, and I haven’t posted anything since mid-2008. There are lots of reasons for that, some of which may appear in subsequent posts. But there appear to be a few stalwarts still looking for me to speak, so as the New Year approaches, I’m going to resolve to try to do a little better this year.

Here’s the Cliff notes version of 2009:

In February (pretty much on my birthday) I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I got to spend several months poisoning my body with yew extract and a platinum compound. Then I got to spend several more months letting my body recover from the abuse. If the truth be told, it’s still recovering. As I read somewhere recently, chemotherapy is useful, but it’s highly toxic.

On the plus side, I just got a clean bill of health at my 6-month post-chemo checkup. If I can maintain that condition for only 2.5 more years, I’ll be considered officially cured. This oddball apparently comes right back or it doesn’t come back at all.

In June I published my first book. That was pretty exciting. I spent the late summer and fall doing a variety of readings at some fairly prestigious venues (did you know people actually pay other people to come and read to a third group of people?). The book has been well received, so I’m working on a second collection.

Those two things pretty well ate up 2009. I can’t say too much about the second half of 2008 except that I think my brother’s death hit me a little harder than I thought it did.

But at any rate, I’m going to try to write here a little more often. And I have to type another sentence or two because my “word count” on this just hit 666 and I don’t want to leave it there. . .

Happy New Year to all, and the best to you in 2010.


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