Five Reasons Why I Can’t Wait for Fall

Oh, hi. A very busy summer (that was free from major travel and still flew by in a haze) is about to make way for the crisp temps and colorful leaves of fall, and before you know it, we’ll be complaining about snow and longing for the time where you couldn’t spend three seconds outside without pouring sweat glistening. To remind myself of why all seasons are great (and I’d therefore never want to live in Southern California), here’s a list of what I’m anxiously awaiting to enjoy once the temperature drops.

Running in the chilly temps. So I’m not an avid runner, but I especially hate running when it’s hot. And that includes in an “air-conditioned” gym.  Perfect for me is somewhere between 38 and 48 degrees.  Running pants, long-sleeved tee over a tank, cotton gloves and a stocking cap, and I am super comfortable.  Aside from the fact that I’m attempting to run.

Cold-Weather RunningFull-bodied reds. In the summertime, I love the light Pinot Gris-es (how does one pluralize that?), the Vinho Verde, yes, even some pink bubbles from time to time. South-American reds are just too heavy to sit around and sip, especially if you’re outdoors. Bring on the chilly temperatures, bring out the deep, earthy reds. But I still have a little time to finish out my chilled whites.

Red wine pouring

Crock-Pot cookin’. I’m not sure why this appliance gets grounded from May until September in my home, but it does. During winter months, however, it’s in heavy rotation as I whip up soups, chilis, sauces, broths, and once in a great while an entire chicken. And yes, if the recipe doesn’t call for slow cooking, I improvise anyway.

It’s all about flavor-melding.

Now that I work from home again, I plan on subsisting on soups for most of my lunches until early May.

The art of watching football. I’m a baseball girl by breeding, and I have failed to learn all of the rules behind (American) football. The flags-on-the-play annoy me, as does the fact that NFL players who play for at least four years have an average life expectancy of 55 (okay, maybe “annoys” is a bit weak there). Still, the act of watching a Saints game at home while the aforementioned Crock-Pot percolates or heading out to a fun sports bar in my Drew Brees jersey for a bloody Mary and some camaraderie is distinctly fall and always fun.

Watching the Saints game

Boots. My snow boots are plain but solid, reliable, and have been around since late 2008. Kind of like  Rachel Maddow (what?) Wearing them means it’s snowing outside, which I don’t love, but I do love my leather black or brown boots, suitable for wearing with jeans or along with dresses and tights. First, however, I need to find where I’ve stored them…

Riding Boots

Of course, there is still Labor Day weekend, the unpredictable weather of September and early October complete with the occasional 95-degree day, and perhaps one more needed pedicure.

And before you know it, we’ll all be stressed out about our holiday shopping.

If you live in an area that gets below 50 degrees, what’s your favorite thing about the fall?

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The Secrets of an Extended Stay

Well, well, well, I got a new full-time job. It’s exciting and new, but strangely familiar, as I took a different — hopefully better — gig with my old company (1997 – 2008) and will report to one of my former bosses. Even more flattering? The Cincinnati-based company recruited me from Chicago, which means they really value my skills but also means I will be frequenting the Queen City more often than I used to.

Which is fine.

I like it here, I have friends here from years past, and the beers are cheap.

I’m here right now for a month and am staying in an Extended Stay hotel. It’s clean, it’s close to the office, and the shower’s water pressure is surprisingly satisfying. And yet, I must admit, it’s a tad depressing. There are fellow business people here, but also people who appear to be shacked up indefinitely. I saw one room from the parking lot where a mother and small daughter had evidently hauled in in a wire shelving unit to hold piles and piles and piles of clothes.

Sigh.

Here are other things I’ve learned in my 24 hours here:

1. Bring or buy your own coat hangers. My room had four. For a place that charges by the week.

2. You might want to bring your own towels. This isn’t the Ritz. Ditto body wash, hair dryer, shampoo and conditioner. This isn’t the Hampton Inn.

3. A ‘fully equipped kitchen’ means one skillet, one pot, two plates, a small fridge, a sink no bigger than the one on airplanes, bowls large enough to hold one Frosted Mini-Wheat, no oven, and a colander.

3a. If buying wine for said small fridge, get screw-top, because there isn’t a corkscrew. And snag a wineglass or two if you’re particular about such things. I? Am not.

4. Go ahead and bring/buy some: dishwashing detergent, Clorox wipes, paper towels, hand soap (for the kitchen if not the bathroom as well).

Now, I’m not sure how many people use the ‘fully equipped kitchen,’ but it was important to me.  It’s not healthy to eat every meal out, nor is it economical for my company. And I figured my new/old job in my new/old city (temporarily) would be a good chance to kick off on achieving my new/old body. When I left Cincinnati in 2001, I weighed about 15 pounds less than I do now. If I keep up this impressive 15-lbs-per-decade pace, I will not be living my Golden Girls life to the fullest.

So I swung by Trader Joe’s last night after checking in and picked up some provisions. Fizzy water, tea bags, wine (see above), raw oatmeal. And for dinners I aimed for simplicity. Tonight was veggies stir-fried with a touch of curry sauce served over Quinoa.

And this feast came after a lovely walk in the park. Oh yeah. Also on the ‘pro’ side of this Extended Stay hotel? It’s a five-minute drive to a beautiful park with a 2.6-mile jogging loop that provides dusk-time glimpses such as this:

And a visit with this little guy:

So it’s not all bad. I’m excited by the prospective challenges of my new job, I look forward to some time spent with long-distance friends, and while I miss Chicago, maybe I’ll be looking a little bit trimmer when I return. Just in time for lake season. (Note: I go to the lake like once a year).

…and the Other Gold (In Which I Wine and Dine with my Oldest Friends)

“I never had any friends later on, like the ones I had when I was twelve…Jesus….does anyone?”
–Stand By Me

Last weekend, I trekked down to suburban St Louis (technically Southern Illinois) for an all-too-brief mini-reunion with my oldest friends. Some exposition: I met Rebecca on the first day of kindergarten in 1979; I linked up with Karyn and Emily in Jr. High band (they played clarinet, I trombone) at some point in the fall of 1987. I met all other members of the gang in the interim. Our friend Callista lives in Swaziland, Africa, and was therefore unable to zip to Illinois for a weekend, but the rest of us met up for laughter, food, wine, and Erasure-soundtracked dancing.

So, yes, I’ve known all members of this 8-gal posse for at least 24 years. Ooooof. Is that really possible?  Not that we’ve aged so much since meeting, but that we remain so close-knit despite the miles, the life shifts, and the simple reality of the human condition.

It’s especially amazing considering I moved away from these fine ladies in the summer of 1988, when my Dad took a job in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A transplant to the buckle of the Bible Belt immediately before beginning high school?  Seemed like an unmitigated tragedy at the time, but I quickly took the Girl Scouts’ advice and made new friends while keeping the old.

I kept in close touch with my StL-area gals despite the lack of email, the expense of long distance, and the scarcity of visits. We made mix tapes. We wrote actual letters. We talked when our parents allowed. And I have never taken their friendships for granted.

Anyhoo.  Last weekend. Our friend Mike (one of the honorary male members of our gang) joined us as the founder of our feast. He and his wife are both professional chefs and split time between Dubai and Dallas, Texas (I’m not sure how they tell their differing homelands apart).

Mike prepared pounds and pounds of beef tenderloin along with cod for the non-red-meat eaters (i.e., me).  He also made simple preparations of interesting produce that allowed the flavors to shine. Mike introduced us to the wild world of gourmet salts, treated us to Hungarian dessert wine, and reminded me how I tried to cheer him on at a seventh-grade track meet. (He still placed last, but I refuse to believe this was my fault).

Rebecca’s girlfriend Lori, shouldering (literally!) four lbs of beef tenderloin

Mike cooks while Nicole looks pretty

My enviable plate (clockwise from left: roasted Jerusalem artichokes, cod, artisan bread, spaghetti squash, Brussels sprouts, green salad. Melange of mushrooms in the middle (prepared as a topper for the tenderloin but I partook of a taste)

Not bad for a bunch of late-30-somethings

Dance Party USA, proving that some things never change as you age

Our little group has always been, and always will until the end.  It’s a blessing to have a group of friends that has known you forever. And thanks to my geographical upheaval at age 13, I actually have two. This is something for which I will always be thankful – I know it doesn’t happen for everyone.

‘Hoppy’ New Year (In Which I Cook for Good Luck)

Eating black-eyed peas with rice (also called ‘Hoppin’ John’) on New Year’s Day is a tradition among Gulf-Coasters; it’s said to bring prosperity and luck in the new year.  It’s yet another tradition in my family as well, as both Mom and Dad have Southern roots (Mom was born and raised in New Orleans, Dad was born in Mississippi and then relocated to a town north of NOLA before high school).  So I spent much of this afternoon smelling the unmistakable scents of black-eyed peas (the legume, not the Fergie, who probably smells of Electric Youth perfume, urine, and Jack Daniels) simmering on the stovetop.

Sometimes, in prior years, I forget to secure my BEPs in advance only to discover the stores are out of all varieties – canned, dried, what have you. This year, I had a bag of the best kind – Camellia brand – sent to me lovingly by my cousin.  How lucky for me! Indeed, just thinking about cooking up a pot is already working for me.

I also had a challenge because I wanted to make a meatless version. The old-school recipe uses ham hocks for flavoring, and I haven’t eaten pork in 3-1/2 years.  My Mom’s new take on the recipe employs a smoked turkey leg for the seasoning meat, but I’m trying to avoid eating too much poultry as well.  So after a good 30 minutes of Internet research, I found this vegan recipe that sounded like it contained enough seasoning to be tasty. I had to deviate a bit (which I typically don’t like to do on the first go-round of a recipe) due to some ingredient constraints.

I started by soaking the peas for several hours. This is a controversial practice but I typically feel it can’t hurt if one has the time.   Added them to a large pot with water and spices (thyme, a bay leaf, oregano).  I also added some veggie bouillon cubes for added flavor (and sodium – boom).

In a separate skillet, I sautéed what’s known in New Orleans and beyond as ‘The Trinity,’ or minced onion/celery/bell pepper.  Similar to mirepoix (just swapping the bell pepper for carrots), this trio of veggies provides the base for many Creole dishes.  Garlic got added a little later. (No jalapeno as the recipe called for because I didn’t have one.  I also used green pepper instead of a mixture of yellow and orange).

Once the veggies were nicely browned and tender, they  got added to the peas. At this point I added more basic seasoning – sea salt, ground pepper, Sriracha, crushed red pepper.

And last, as per the recipe, I added a cup of brown rice right into the simmering pot. Mom always cooks the rice separately and dishes out the Hoppin John over it, but even she said the traditional preparation calls for it to simmer together. And hey – it saves washing another pot.

End result – while I slightly missed the flavor and texture of the meat, this was a worthy (and healthier) substitute. Which is damn good, since I’ll be eating leftovers for days.  So thank you, Vegan Chef!  I will be back.

Finally, the accompaniments.  Typically one serves collard greens, which my palette can take or leave and they didn’t have any at my neighborhood market anyway. Corn bread or muffins are also a popular side, so I cheated with a box of Jiffy, which needs only one egg and one-third of a cup of milk.  And why there’s my trusty polar-bear Coca-Cola that helped me along today with its sugary high-fructose-corn-syrupy goodness.  Side note: I just learned from Real Simple that it’s better if you let ingredients come to room temperature before using them for baking.

And so I did just that. Voila. 

And in unrelated news, here is one final holiday tradition to leave you with that I forgot to share last week.  Every time I head home for Christmas, Mom has outfitted my bed with this decades-old Christmas Fozzie Bear, accessorized with a New Kids on the Block button.  Just ’cause. Happy 2012, everybody!

Trading Turkey for Toast (In Which I Ask if ‘New Traditions’ is an Oxymoron)

Webster’s defines ‘tradition’ as ‘an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior’ or ‘the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.’  Indeed, I just began a post with ‘Webster’s defines,’ like a bad fifth-grade report on gravity (though my elementary-schoolteacher Mom points out that these days, kids cite Wikipedia).

Tradition is most prevalent during the holiday season – what side dishes you eat for Thanksgiving. Where you hang the stockings.  What family member will always be late and therefore shouldn’t be counted upon to bring the appetizers.

As things change in my family – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse – we have found it necessary to alter our traditions.  After my brother passed away in 2004, we shifted the time and place of our Christmas – instead of spending Christmas morning in Northeast Ohio, we opened presents Christmas Day evening in suburban St. Louis. It was a way to all be together at Christmas but around different scenery that didn’t remind us so viscerally of who we had lost. Five years later, enough healing had occurred that we returned to Northeast Ohio for a Christmas-morning gift exchange (but in the living room instead of the den).

This Christmas holiday, my Dad is the interim rector in charge of celebrating services the local Episcopal Church. This means, among other responsibilities, that he’ll be officiating at four services – 5:00 pm, 7:30 pm, 10:30 pm, and 10:00 a.m. – in observance of Christmas Eve and Day. It also means my favorite carol, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ is the recessional (the walking-out, end-of-service) hymn tonight, but I’m sure that is just a happy coincidence and not at all a case of musical nepotism.

So instead of Christmas-morning festivities, we’ll open presents in the early afternoon.  And instead of turkey or crown roast accompanied by a nice Pinot Noir, we’re having a Christmas brunch with mimosas and Bloody Marys.

For my contribution, I’m making two casseroles that Molly and the rest of the ‘Chill’ gang (a/k/a my high school BFFs) have politely eaten before.  One is my friend Hillary’s ‘overnight’ blueberry French toast containing such healthy ingredients as cream cheese, maple syrup, and roughly 37 eggs (before-baked view  shown below):

The other is a Southwestern Brunch Casserole from my favorite cookbook of all time (the recipes are relatively simple and always reliable):

And here’s a look at it, pre-baking (and pre-addition of tomato slices and paprika).  A little light reading off to the side there was provided by the Akron Beacon Journal, former stomping ground of my favorite author, Chuck Klosterman (how’s that for a digression):

Mom is making a winter fruit compote, which will be topped with ricotta, honey and almonds:

And we’ll be rounding it off with some turkey sausage links and cranberry bread.

But the point I wanted to convey here (and managed to wait until the penultimate paragraph) is not to make people hungry.  It’s to say that even as some of our traditions, travel destinations, and participants change, others hold true.  I’ll tell Mom I have a gift receipt for something before she even opens her present.  Dad will have silly esoteric gift cards on the items he’s wrapped (one year, all presents were ‘from’ new U.S. Cabinet members; the next year, all presents were courtesy of obscure New Orleans Saints players). A particular Mannheim Steamroller song will play that we all love to hate. Mom and/or I will quote Sesame Street’s Bert and ask for a ‘scissor’ to assist with a particularly snug bow.  At some point, an Old Fashioned or three will be consumed. A fire will crackle. And we will feel lucky to be sharing the holiday together. God bless us, every one.

What are some traditions your family shares, in the holiday season or otherwise?

Leftover Veggie Soup (In Which I Try to Make My Late Grandmother Proud)

Mr. Glib and I have done a fair amount of entertaining in these waning days of summer. I hosted my book club, then we hosted an ill-conceived but well-executed Sunday Funday following my office party (which went, oh, until 4:00 am). Then Cody had a guys’ night of steak and lobster. And in the meantime I’ve made a few meals for ladies’ lunches and friends who would appreciate the drop-off of a home-cooked meal.

The net result, other than a few extra ell-bees around my thighs, is a surplus of leftover vegetables. Sunday morning, I woke up early and was determined to use them before I’d have to pitch them. Pitching them … WASTING them … would make my grandmother, a consummate child of the Depression, exceedingly disappointed, were she still around to know.

My maternal grandmother, Mamere, recycled long before it was cool or anyone used the word “green.” She kept her air conditioning at 80 degrees when she wanted it really cold. Hell, she didn’t even have A/C until the mid-80s and she lived her whole life in NEW ORLEANS. But she wasn’t cheap, per se; she just appreciated the value of things and would never waste a morsel of anything (or take anything for granted). But her character in its totality is a story for another day.

So I consulted my newest and largest cookbook – below – to see how to build a base for what would be an “all kinds of almost-rotting vegetables” soup. Looks like all I needed was broth, onion, salt and pepper, and olive oil. Check, check, and checkity check.

Here’s what I pulled out of the fridge: scallions, celery, broccoli, carrots, a smidgen of red pepper, and radishes (which I didn’t use).

I also found the innards of some grilled potato skins and leftover spicy green bean almondine (!)

I had a not-entirely-ancient onion, which I chopped up most of. I used my favorite knife, which cost $19 at Ikea. I typically think you get what you pay for when it comes to cooking equipment, but this knife has stayed sharp and awesome for more than a year. Those Swedes are on to something.

I often use a tip I learned on Veronica Mars – keep a spoon in your mouth when chopping onions to avoid tearing up. Pay no attention to the fact that I was cooking today on five hours’ sleep and zero showers.

I sautéed the chopped onion in a bit of olive oil with celery and a couple of garlic cloves that were seriously past their prime. Oops. A modified mire poix (or, as they say in New Orleans, “holy trinity.”)  The bell pepper would come later.

I had exactly one cup left of barley so tossed that in after five minutes or so of sautéing. “Fields of Gold” played through my head (“upon the fields of barley…”), only to be replaced with the immeasurably inferior “Kiss Me” (“out of the bearded barley…”).  Note my beloved “Cook” cutting board from my cousin @blathering.  My friend Taylor – husband of DIY blogger extraordinaire Molly –  initially thought it spelled another word that starts in “C” and ends in “K.”  I can be irreverent, but not in the kitchen, folks.

I had two already-opened boxes of chicken broth (as Mamere would scold, “Good night!  You fiend!”)  so I dumped both of those in.   I also threw in about a cup of leftover chicken meat (and the carcass pieces).

Next, after adding the rest of the vegetables, I added some red wine (leftover, again), a bit of water for consistency, and some of that green-capped awesome hot sauce whose name I cannot pronounce because I’m an ugly American.

Heirloom tomato for good measure…


And stir stir stir with some freshly ground salt and pepper and dried oregano. It made a metric crapload.


So now I have lunch for the week (for me and a couple of friends) and for dinner tonight. And you know, it was fairly tasty. Maybe it was the hot sauce, maybe the chicken marrow, or maybe, just maybe, the knowledge that I saved my psyche from tossing cups of old veggies down the disposal.

Stir frys, soups, frittatas?  What’s your favorite way to use up random leftovers?  Or do you make your depression-era relatives cry as well?