Monthly Archives: July 2009

Meet (the real) Granny

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This is my grandmother (and my brother, who, though not entirely irrelevant, you can ignore for the moment).  She is one of my heroes.  The oldest daughter of 5 sisters (they also have an older brother), she grew up on a large farm in rural Florida during the Depression and World War II.  She’s raised sisters, children, grandchildren, and just welcomed her first great-grandchild (don’t worry, not mine!) into the world.  She’s lived through a lot, put up with even more, and is still the sweetest human being I know.

Her younger sister, Sharon.  Look at that attitude!

Her younger sister, Sharon. Look at that attitude!

She’s never known what having money felt like, though if you ask her she’ll tell you she’s never wanted for anything, either.  Living on a farm meant you always had plenty to eat, acres and acres of playground, and if you needed a new dress, you just made one from an old flour sack.  After my grandfather got out of the navy, he worked for the telephone company, and was president of the workers’ union.  When they were on strike—sometimes for 6 months at a time—my grandmother managed to provide for her family of five with just her salary as a part-time school board administrator.  She’s held my grandfather’s hand through months of a terminal illness, seen her children through marriages and divorces, and hasn’t missed a single grandchild’s birthday or graduation.  She is amazing, plain and simple.

And good Lord, can the woman cook.  I mean, damn.  Paula Dean is my grandmother incarnate (sans the heart attack hamburger).  In the fifth grade when we had to write an essay about our favorite restaurant, I wrote about my granny’s kitchen.  I’d take her cooking over the fanciest restaurant in Baltimore any day of the week.  She’s the one that taught me how to really cook.  Good ingredients and fancy techniques are all well and good, but they won’t get you there.  It’s all about soul, and taste, and intuition.  If a recipe calls for a teaspoon of salt but it tastes like it needs two, then, gosh darnit, put two in.  That steamed broccoli looks lovely, but it would taste even lovelier with a dollop of butter on them.  And cheese grits aren’t cheese grits unless there’s “enough cheese to choke a goat” in them.

For Christmas this year, my grandma gave me a booklet full of handwritten recipe cards, full of the things that defined family dinners at her house: squash (cooked in bacon grease, of course!), potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and banana pudding.  They’re less recipes than they are guidelines, with instructions like “add butter until it tastes right” or “cook until done”.  They would be useless without years of experience in the kitchen to know what “tastes right” is, or what “done” looks like.  Nonetheless, it is, without a doubt, the best Christmas present I’ve ever gotten.

One of the recipes is a family trademark, saved only for special occasions (usually when I come home to visit): fried ribs.  Yes, it’s a heart attack waiting to happen, but I don’t care.  If I died eating one, I’d die a happy woman.  No one I’ve ever met outside my family knows what a fried rib is, so I thought I would enlighten ya’ll.  Don’t eat them every day, but you should definitely give them a try.  I’ll do my best to translate the original recipe into a photo essay that you can actually follow, but will also include Granny’s recipe at the end, because her advice is sound.

First, the meat.  Pork ribs, please; this ain’t Texas.  Get the butcher to slice them individually, if you can.  You can do it yourself, but it’s a lot less work if you get them to do it. Sprinkle them with tenderizer and let sit for a few hours. Then wash them, pat dry, and chuck em’ in a bucket of cornmeal, salt and pepper.  It should look something like this:

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Those are my brother's hands--told you he wasn't entirely irrelevant!

Those are my brother's hands--told you he wasn't entirely irrelevant!

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Throw the ribs a batch at a time into some hot peanut oil (well, don’t literally throw them, as you might regret it).  I have no guidelines for temperature, but you want it to be pretty hot—I’m guessing around 350 degrees?  At any rate, you want it to look like this when the ribs are in:

notice the presence of cast-iron--I promise I wasn't trying to be stereotypical, it just...happened

notice the presence of cast-iron--I promise I wasn't trying to be stereotypical, it just...happened

Tip: Fry these outside to keep your kitchen from overheating and smelling like McDonald's!

Tip: Fry these outside to keep your kitchen from overheating and smelling like McDonald's!

“Cook until done”, approximately 7-10 minutes, then pull them out of the oil and let drain.  Start another batch, because you’ll need a whole bunch of these babies to satisfy everyone.  Guaranteed: the first batch will be gone before they get to the table.

Enjoy!

Enjoy!

Granny’s Recipe directly transcribed:

Pork ribs—I usually get them cracked at the store (that’s cut almost through each rib)because I can’t cut them anymore.  Also I like baby back—more expensive but more tender.  If I use just Pork Ribs I put tenderizer on them for awhile.  Wash and let drain, then salt.  Mix self-rising meal and pepper (you decide amount) in gallon bag or bowl.  Shake ribs in bag or dredge in bowl.  Put enough oil in deep skillet to cover ribs, heat, put ribs in and fry.  Fry until they are nice and brown—make sure they are done.  Guess someone will have to do a taste-test! Wait, wait, one’s all you need to test!

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Birthday Pie

It’s been awhile, especially considering that my hiatus came so soon after starting a blog.  I’ve been on vacation in the Land of No Internet for the last month, so I didn’t get a chance to post much while I was gone.  I’ll have plenty to talk about—and lots of pictures to share—in the coming weeks, but today I have more pressing matters to discuss.

Today is my roommate Lauren’s birthday.  Lauren is an awesome roommate.  Not only does she share my love of Arrested Development and all things NPH, but she made me the most spectacular green stegosaurus cupcake cake (a la CakeWrecks) for my birthday.

See, it all started as a joke.  There are 5 people that live in my house, and I try to bake a special birthday something for each of them.  So when I facetiously asked who would be baking my birthday cake this year, Lauren piped up and asked me what I wanted.  Big Mistake.  I said I wanted a dinosaur cake (because I’m five, and also because it was the most ridiculous thing I could think of at the spur of the moment).  Then a few days later I happened to be at the Museum of Natural History, where I snapped a picture of the stegosaurus skeleton and sent it to Lauren, “just for reference”.   Anyway, to make a long story short, I came home one night to find this masterpiece waiting for me in the kitchen.

Best. Birthday. Ever.

Best. Birthday. Ever.

So how could I possibly let her birthday pass without something equally as delicious to celebrate the occasion?  Cakes, cupcakes, and cookies are all manageable, and I have tried and true recipes to make sure that any request will not result in a birthday disaster.  But nooooo.  It was payback time.  Lauren likes pie.  Never mind that the one pie I have ever made (strawberry rhubarb—and sorry, no pictures, I was too embarrassed to take any) was nothing more than a gloppy mess that overflowed in the oven.  I can also say quite authoritatively that rolling out dough is not my forte.  I can’t seem to get it both flat and large enough without making a horrible, sticky mess that has to be scraped from the counter in pieces.

But Lauren wanted pie, and I was bound and determined to give it to her.

I started with Deb’s pie crust tutorial from smittenkitchen.  Because it is July in Baltimore, and my house is 100 years old and has no A/C, I left the dough in the fridge overnight (as opposed to the recommended 1-2 hours), just to be on the safe side.  I also stuck my largest cookie sheet in the freezer when I put the dough in the fridge.  When it was time to roll out the dough, I pulled the cookie sheet out, flipped it upside down, and rolled out the pie crust on that—the cold surface seemed to keep my crust in tact far better than the warm countertop.

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I wrangled the bottom crust into my 10-inch pie plate and stuck the cookie sheet back in the freezer while I pre-baked the bottom crust and mixed up a peach-blueberry filling (I also splashed in some cognac just for good measure)

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Then I pulled the cookie sheet out of the freezer, rolled out the top crust, and put the whole shebang back in the oven for about half an hour.  The end result:

mmmmmmmm, pie!

mmmmmmmm, pie!

It certainly won’t win any prizes for prettiest pie ever made, but the crust was nice and flaky (and in tact!), and the filling was quite tasty without being overly sweet.  I’ll count it as a successful pie making attempt, but I think Lauren’s stegosaurus still takes the cake (ha, ha) this year.

Happy Birthday, Lauren!

Happy Birthday, Lauren!

Peach-Blueberry Birthday Pie:

Use your favorite double pie crust recipe; first-timers might find smittenkitchen’s Pie Crust tutorials helpful

Filling:

6-8 ripe peaches, peeled and diced

½ cup blueberries (can be adjusted according to taste and/or amount of filling needed)

½ cup flour

¼ cup sugar

2tbsp Cognac

Make pie dough according to your favorite recipe, and let rest in fridge for several hours.

Meanwhile, mix the filling ingredients together, give it a quick stir, cover and let sit while you wrangle with the dough.

Roll out bottom crust and place in pie pan (most crusts have a high enough fat content that the pan won’t need to be greased).  Poke a few holes in the crust with a fork, cover with foil, and bake in a 300oF oven for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and let cool.  Bump the oven temperature up to 375o and let it preheat while you finish making the pie.

Pour filling into the baked crust, roll out the top crust, and cover the pie.  Crimp the edges to seal (neatness makes for better pictures, but it doesn’t affect taste—trust me, I know). Cut some pretty shapes out of the crust to decorate, or you can be lazy like me and just make a few vents to let the steam out.  Return to the oven and bake 30-45 minutes until crust is browned.  Serve with homemade vanilla ice cream to cover up the ugliness of the pie crust, or serve plain, confident in the beauty of a warm, flaky crust no matter what it might look like.

Enjoy!

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The Recession Special: Hobo Tuesdays

In keeping with my theme of branching out, I’ve decided to start actively participating in this World Wide Web thing.  I mean, the interwebs and I go way back, but until now it’s been a one-sided relationship; it gives and gives and gives, and I am content to take, but never return the favor.  What’s the weather going to be like today?  Have any celebrities died recently (too soon for that one?)?  What is the airspeed velocity of a coconut-laden swallow?

Well, Internet, in the interests of preserving our relationship, I’m going to start giving back.  And what better way to start, than by posting about making cheap food?  Michelle over at Thursday Night Smackdown has a genius monthly contest called Hobo Tuesdays, whereby participants try to cook a meal as cheaply as possible (under $5 for 2 people, or under $10 for 4) according to that month’s specified theme.  Official rules can be found here.   This month’s theme was picnic fare.

As a graduate student on a (very) modest budget, I am all about the cheap food.  And with a lot of hungry friends, it pays to be able to find cheap recipes with a few clicks of the mouse.  I thought I’d do my part to improve the odds of finding said recipe and submit a cheap-ass recipe to the blogosphere.  So for all you grad students out there, this one’s for you:

Tabbouleh: refreshing, delicious, and cheap!

Tabbouleh: refreshing, delicious, and cheap!

This is a great summer picnic meal—it’s easy, fast, super cheap, and doesn’t need to be refrigerated.  It also makes a metric shit-ton of food—we fed 8 hungry students on this batch, but it could have easily fed several more if they weren’t the kind who stuffed themselves on free food in the hopes of being able to skip the next meal and save some money.

I didn’t really follow a recipe with this one, I just tried to replicate the flavors of tabbouleh salads that I’ve had before.  One thing that always really bugs me about using grains, though, is that they are often not seasoned properly.  I find that if you cook pasta, couscous, or bulghar with seasoning in the water, it really makes a difference, so I tried it here and it definitely beats your average tabbouleh blandness.

12oz Bulghar Wheat ($3.59 for 18oz = $2.39)

1 ½ cups boiling water

1 Lemon, zest and juice ($0.50)

2 cloves of garlic (pantry staple)

2 large-ish tomatoes  ($1.50 at farmer’s market)

2 cucumbers (2/$1 at farmer’s market)

4 Green Onions ($0.75/bunch at farmer’s market)

6-8 Mint leaves (from herb garden = free!)

3-4 sprigs Parsley (from herb garden = free!)

Salt/pepper to taste

Place Bulghar, lemon zest/juice, and chopped garlic into a large bowl (you may also want to sprinkle in a little salt).  Add boiling water and stir.  Cover and let sit while you chop the rest of the vegetables.  Cut the tomatoes and cucumbers into bite-sized cubes, chop the green onions (white and green parts), mint leaves, and parsley.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  By now the bulghar should be done—all the water absorbed—and reasonably cool (doesn’t have to be cold, just not boiling hot).  Add in the veggies and stir it all up.  Adjust the seasoning to taste, and pack it in your picnic basket.

This most certainly benefits from some fridge time, and gets tastier the longer it sits.  However, since there’s nothing in it that will spoil, you don’t need to worry about keeping it cold if you actually do take it on a picnic.

Total Cost: $6.14

Cost/person (8 people): $0.76 = WIN

Thanks for playing.  Internet, you’re welcome.

mmmm, mmmm good!

mmmm, mmmm good!

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Meet Argentina

Don't let the cuteness fool you: he is nothing but trouble

Don't let the cuteness fool you: he is nothing but trouble

This little bundle of trouble will probably crop up occasionally on the blog, so I thought I’d go ahead and get introductions out of the way.  Argentina, Internet.  Internet, Argentina.  Argentina is lazy, aloof, and absolutely adorable: in other words, a cat.  I’m slowly training him to be a lap cat, but for right now the corner of my desk is about as close as we can get.

Can you tell he belongs to a grad student?

Can you tell he belongs to a grad student?

Wanna know why his name is Argentina?  Well, see, Argentina loves the great outdoors.  This is his favorite hobby:

Also known in some circles as "fluffbutt"

Also known in some circles as "fluffbutt"

Argentina loves the great outdoors.  Loves. It. Wants to be a part of it so badly that he’ll sit at the windows for hours and chatter with the birds.  Sometimes the urge to go outside is so consuming that he will sit by the door and howl unconsolably.  This prompts a rousing rendition of “Don’t Cry For Me…”, hence the name.  I guess that makes me Eva Peron.  Or Madonna, but I think I prefer Eva.

Since he is quite insistent on his desire to explore the Great Outdoors, and I am equally insistent that the Great Outdoors in Baltimore is nothing more than a back alley with rats bigger than him (and he ain’t small), we’ve had to compromise.

Crazy Cat Lady? Oh Yeah. I'm there.

Crazy Cat Lady? Oh Yeah. I'm there.

I think he’s happy.  I’m happy. The neighbors get a good laugh.  What more can you ask for?

I wish I had this life.

I wish I had this life.

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Summer Picnic in the Rain

Last night was a great night.  I actually left the house and went downtown on a day other than Friday or Saturday!   My housemates and I packed a gourmet picnic and headed downtown to the Inner Harbor for a free showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The setup is pretty sweet: the movie is projected on a giant screen behind the American Visionary Arts Museum, which butts up against Federal Hill.  It’s like a giant ampitheatre, with people sitting all the way up the slope (which is pretty steep–we kept sliding off our blankets, and eating was quite an adventure).  The movie was just as good as I remembered from my childhood, and the rainstorm that passed through almost as soon as we unpacked our picnic didn’t dampen our spirits–just everything else!  We opted to stick it out, and were glad we did; the rain passed fairly quickly and the show got underway only a couple of minutes late.  We didn’t even notice we were wet–it was a warm night, and wine has a tendancy to warm you up.

One of the challenges of the evening was to have a completely free, yet entertaining and enjoyable evening.  The movie was free (of course) and the museum was actually open and admission was waived for a few hours before the movie started.  We packed a picnic to ensure that we didn’t have to buy dinner, but the challenging part was to make good food using exclusively things we already had in our kitchen.  I had to improvise a bit, but everything turned out really well, considering the constraints.  The menu?

Curried Chicken Salad

Curried Chicken Salad

Orzo salad with pesto, mushrooms, and tomatoes

Orzo salad with pesto, mushrooms, and tomatoes

Berry Tart

Berry Tart

Everything was delicious, if I do say so myself.  I made the chicken salad with poached chicken breasts, nonfat yogurt, a couple of ribs of celery, and some curry and tumeric powders.  I also threw in some frozen peas for good measure–I don’t know what made me do it, but I’m sure glad I did!  For the vegetarians in the crowd, I made some orzo, which I mixed with a pesto (basil from my very own herb garden!) and some chopped tomatoes and mushrooms.  Finally, the crowning glory of the evening (as evidenced by the fact that that’s the only thing that didn’t have any leftovers to bring home…) was the berry tart.  It’s essentially lemon bars, only I didn’t have any lemons but I did have some strawberries and blueberries that needed to be used before they went bad.  The crust is a double batch of shortbread–I figured for a picnic it needed to be substantial enough that one could pick it up and eat it without worrying about getting blueberries all over one’s shirt.  De-lish.  I would definitely recommend the cheap-o gourmet picnic + campy movie + summer thunderstorm as a winning combination!

Finally, I will leave you with a parting shot of sunset at the Harbor: it almost makes me think Baltimore actually does deserve it’s comical “Charm City” monniker.

I really do love this city!

I really do love this city!

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Staycation

A few years ago, I had an internship at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot. I also spent many a lunch hour out on the Mall amongst the tourists and the monuments. But eventually, my lunch became more interesting than the memorials, and the tourists with cameras were more annoying than the pigeons. It’s a shame, really, because they (the monuments, not the pigeons) really are pretty cool. I know it would be more interesting to have pictures of a trip to Australia or Bermuda, but in case you haven’t picked up a newspaper lately, we’re in the middle of a recession. So I opted for a “staycation” this year. I took the day off work yesterday, grabbed my camera and my socks to wear under my sandals, and rode the train into DC for a touristy diversion.

In the interests of being as touristy as possible, I started with the Mall. We have the Washington Monument:

This isn’t the original Washington Monument, you know. There’s one in Baltimore—not quite as tall, but designed by the same architect—that was erected several decades earlier than this one. You may be able to see a line in the picture where the color of the blocks changes; that’s where construction was stopped for about thirty years during the turmoil of the Civil War and ensuing national financial woes.

Then we have the War memorials: first, World War II and then Vietnam.

Both are beautiful monuments, but I dislike the World War II memorial, because it seems like it’s more of a celebration of victory than a reminder of the tragedies that wars cause. There’s something about walking along an endless wall of thousands of names, each name attached to a family that suffered a loss because of a war. It is both simple and profound—there’s no sound of water to drown out your thoughts, no quotes to read that suggest the necessity for the destruction of war, no statues that celebrate the involvement of troops from all states and on two fronts. Just a list of names, your thoughts, and glimpses of your somber reflection juxtaposed against all those names, begging you to never let something like this happen again. Revisiting the memorials through the eyes of a tourist helped me remember that.

Now, on to happier thoughts, shall we? How about…Dinosaurs!

Or Flowers!

These orchids are from the Botanical Gardens, a new find for me. It’s right next to the Capitol Building, and has plants from many different climates from all over the world. If flowers (or ecological imperialism) are your thing, you should totally check it out.

And finally, Art!

Can you guess what this is? It’s one of my favorites, tucked into a back corner of the National Gallery of Art. Here’s another hint:

Give up?

It’s Seascape at Port-en-Bassin, Normandy, and, like Seurat’s more famous A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, is an example of pointillism, which I find fascinating. It makes me want to pick up a paintbrush and start experimenting. Maybe I, too, will define an iconic artistic movement. Or not. Baby steps, people.

That wraps up my whirlwind tourist experience. There’s only so much you can cram into one day.  Twelve hours wandering around the Mall with a camera around my neck left me feeling more cultured. And more sunburnt. If I were truly a granny, I would have remembered the sunscreen, right? Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

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