Monday, January 24, 2011


Photo update! Here are two panoramic pictures from my winter trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Click to make them big!

Red Rocks Canyon

The Grand Canyon with view of the Colorado River

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Inch by inch

It's the coldest day of the winter so far. To distract myself from the fact that I can't walk outside without losing feeling in my ears, I've been reminiscing about my garden. Just looking at these pictures is making me feel warmer; I hope they'll help you too.

This was the first year that I was able to have something resembling an actual garden. Because I live in the city, I did the whole thing in pots, with the help of a fantastic book on container gardening that I would highly recommend to anyone looking to start a similar project. Most books on container gardening assume that you're doing flowers and don't provide any advice on growing anything edible. I did plant a few flowers, but mostly I was interested in growing veggies and herbs, and this book was a great reference.

In the spring, I started with a few terra cotta pots of herbs on the first-floor deck, just off the kitchen for easy access.

left to right: cilantro, parsley, parsley, lemon thyme, rosemary, and lavender
As the months progressed, I added a few more herbs (mint, regular thyme, tarragon, and chives), and some snapdragons for color.

These were all started from seedlings, so I guess you can say I cheated a little. But the sunflowers I did from seeds, and they were extremely happy on my third floor deck, which faces southwest and hence gets a ton of sun. I just love sunflowers; they always make me smile.

I also did the shell peas from seeds, and these were far and away the most satisfying to watch. I started them inside in a little nursery container on my kitchen windowsill...

...then moved them outside to a proper container with lots of trellising once they were big enough. I fear that they were a bit overcrowded, but they managed OK.

There weren't quite enough to make spring pea risotto, as I was planning, but they did taste lovely in a light tomato cream sauce with mushrooms and fresh whole wheat pasta from the Italian market.

I also grew tomatoes and basil, of course, those home-gardening staples. The basil I bought at the garden center, but the tomato seedlings were a housewarming gift from my real estate agent and her boyfriend, who maintain what can only be described as a rooftop jungle of tomato plants. The basil was especially happy on the third floor, basking in the sun and producing enough bounty to keep our freezer stocked with several month's worth of pesto.

But nothing was as happy as the habeƱeros. I started off with one measly three-inch-high seedling and ended up with a bumper crop over over fifty peppers.

They were so spicy that even Michael couldn't stand to use more than half of one to flavor an entire dinner. After quickly calculating that, at this rate, we would both be well into our retirement before using them up, we gave them to the cook at the pub on the corner to see what he could do with them. This turned out to be a really smart move. He made an insanely good batch of sweet-hot pepper jelly, part of which we served in our Thanksgiving meal, and the last of which is going on a baked brie later this afternoon.

Another big winner was the green garlic, which is so ridiculously easy to grow that it's a wonder I ever bought garlic shoots. Here's how: Take a head of garlic. Break it up into cloves. Push each clove root-side down into the soil. Don't worry about spacing them evenly or burying them too deep. Wait about a week. Snip off the green parts about an inch above the soil. Make green garlic soup with new potatoes. Feel happy.

I cut all of them over the summer and pulled up most of the cloves, but left some in the pot to go dormant over the winter. If all goes well, I'll have full heads of garlic, as well as more garlic shoots, in the spring.

I'm also overwintering some of the herbs on our windowsill in the kitchen. They're quite dried out by this point, and I fear that they're dead, although Michael (not generally known for his optimistic outlook or his knowledge of gardening) assures me that they've merely gone dormant. We'll see come spring.

We'll also see the results of my fall bulb planting frenzy, for which purpose I re-mulched the tree box on the sidewalk and tore out the plants in the window box. On a side note, I really should have been more careful with what I planted in the window boxes; I think I kinda forgot that plants, you know, grow.

Anyway, in their stead, I planted bulbs for purple and white crocuses, since they start coming up in the very early spring, right around my birthday. I also planted bulbs for purple hyacinths and for daffodils, to give some color contrast. I can't wait until they start sprouting --- not only because that will mean that it's spring again, and not only because that will mean that it's my birthday, but because it will mean that the damned squirrels haven't eaten them all.

Bonus video! John Denver on The Muppet Show, singing "The Garden Song." Aww!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

TTPMO: Kitchen unitaskers and the people who think they need them

I was in a reputable national-chain housewares store the other day, and in my search for a set of airtight containers in which to store my rice and beans, I found myself confronted by what can only be described as a Wall of Gadgets.


There's one of these in every reputable national-chain housewares store, and even in some not-so-reputable or not-so-national ones. They are in. They are hip. They are, by and large, a useless waste of space.

So yes, okay, everyone needs kitchen tools. You've got to have your wooden spoons, a nonstick spatula or two, a set of measuring cups. But the rest of it? I mean, have you seen the sort of crap they're trying to sell?

Take this thing, for example. It's an avocado pitter.

Don't ask me why someone would need a tool that is designed specifically for slicing an avocado. I don't know (though it is described as "sensational" on the website). But you can own one for the low low price of $14.95, and then it can sit in your drawer, unused and forgotten, until that one afternoon you decide to make guacamole, at which point you can't find it anyway because it's wedged in the back of the utility drawer, between the garlic press and the corn-on-the-cob holders.

Speaking of garlic presses, they're also on my list of "kitchen unitasker gadgets that everyone thinks you need but you really don't," and they provide the perfect opportunity to define what I mean by "unitasker." Here, have a look:

What makes this a unitasker, obviously, is that it does just one thing. It mashes garlic. (In fact, it mashes garlic into an unrecognizable paste that hardly can be said to resemble the original product, but that's another story.) And that's all she wrote.

But, you object, most things in the kitchen just do one thing. I mean, spoons are only for stirring, and knives are only for cutting --- aren't those unitaskers too? Well, no. Spoons are for stirring, but you can stir anything with a spoon. And knives are for cutting, but you can use them to cut a huge variety of things. Unitaskers are different: they only do one thing to one type of thing. Put differently, kitchen unitaskers match one verb with one noun. A garlic press is only for pressing, and it only presses garlic. You just can't use it for anything else. (Well, maybe Play-Dough.) An avocado pitter is only for pitting, and only for use with avocados, and you can't use it for anything else. Spoons and knives do have their own proprietary verbs (stir, cut), but you can match these with any number of nouns.

With that in mind, consider the peanut butter knife.

They're calling it a "multi-purpose spatula spreader," but we're not fooled. Any time you have to add the words "multi-purpose" to the name of a kitchen gadget, you've already lost the unitasker battle. This thing is sold under the pretense that it's all you'll ever need for making peanut butter sandwiches. You can spread your peanut butter and jam with the broad side, and then you can cut the sandwich with the serrated side. Ingenious! Except that you already have a butter knife and a regular knife in your kitchen, which do the job just as well, and these jokers are trying to get you to cough up an extra $40 just for the novelty factor. Thanks but no thanks, guys --- keep your unitasker (and your pyramid scheme) out of my kitchen.

And that's not all. There are little silicone cups you can use to poach eggs. There are apple slicers, and onion slicers, and egg slicers, and pineapple slicers, and mango slicers (note: these are all different tools). There's a little hand-held guillotine thingie that's designed only for snipping the lids off of soft-boiled eggs, which is currently at the top of the running for Most Useless Unitasker 2011. There's even something called The Bacon Genie, about which the less said, the better.

My point is not that these things are useless. I'm sure that they all do their respective single jobs very well. My point is that you just don't need them. Take the panini press, for example.

I bet it's great at turning out pressed sandwiches. (It's also great at being expensive and taking up lots of counter space when it's not in use, but that's another story.) And it would be great if you worked a little café or something where there's no stovetop. But you don't work at a little café, and you do have a stovetop, and you can get exactly the same effect by heating two frying pans and nesting them with the sandwich in between. (You do have two frying pans, don't you?)

To generalize, what really pisses me off about these dumb little single-use gadgets is that everything that you can do with them can be done without them. Need to mince herbs? You could get an herb mincer! Or you could just use your knife. Need to chop nuts? Yes, you could get a nut chopper! Or you could probably just use your knife. Need to cut the kernels off of an ear of corn? Don't look now --- there's a corn stripper! (Sounds deliciously dirty, doesn't it?) Or you could really just learn to use your damn knife. And while you're doing that, you could try tucking your fingers back so that your fingernails protect your knuckles from the blade, and throw out that stupid finger guard.

Now, don't get me wrong. I really like some of these gizmos. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I even own some of them. (Not the avocado pitter.) But what really pisses me off is the attitude that leads to their existence. It's the people who think that the more of these you have, the better cook you'll be. Whoever dies with the most, wins!

I can't currently find the words to express how insanely stupid this attitude is. But I did once, a few years ago, while on line at the omelette station at a friend's bridal shower. The cook was frying onions (badly, I should note) and chatting with the women ahead of me on line. "You know what makes a great cook?" he asked, and then answered his own question: "It's the tools. You see this frying pan? It's a great frying pan. It's really the tools that make the chef."

I didn't say what I was thinking, since I knew better than to start a row with some idiot CIA-dropout line cook working the brunch shift at a bridal shower. But if I weren't the meek, well-raised young lady that I am, I would have said, "Really? You think that if you can't cook, you'll get better if you have a better frying pan? You think that what makes Thomas Keller a culinary genius is that fact that he has the right knives? You think that there are kitchens full of two-star Michelin chefs moaning about how they could have gotten another star if only they'd used the right brand of food processor?"


As Alton Brown likes to say, there's only room for one unitasker in my kitchen, and this is it:

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Saturday morning muffins

It was snowing when we woke up this morning, so we decided to make a breakfast treat: blueberry muffins.

The setting:

The wet stuff (melted butter, soy milk, one egg):

The dry stuff (flour, a bit of cornmeal, sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, salt), plus blueberries:


I honestly don't know why we don't do this more often, seeing how ridiculously easy they are to make. The batter comes together in less than the time it takes to heat up the oven, and then you can just pop them in and ignore them for half an hour or so.


The hardest part by far is waiting five minutes for them to cool after they come out of the oven.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


It's the beginning of a new year, and that means that it's time for a little self-reflection here at IPoL headquarters. I've been doing this blog-a-day thing for two months now, and I've learned a few things that I'd like to share with y'all.

First, on the whole, I've enjoyed it. It's been a fun challenge to come up with something to post every day. Sure, some days have been easier than others, and some posts have certainly worked better than others, but generally it's been a good experience. I've also noticed that it makes me look at the world a little differently. I'm no longer just experiencing things as they happen, I'm also constantly observing and culling for shareable bits and putting together post drafts in my head. It's a new way of looking at the world, which I sort of like, but which I also sort of need a break from.

That leads me to my next point, which is that I don't plan to keep it up. I gave myself two days off this week and it was really nice not to have to worry about finding time to get to the computer to bang out a post. I enjoy blogging, but I will probably be a more sane person if I only do it once or twice a week or so, and not every day. Though there's something quite thrilling in seeing my post dates marching forward, one day at a time, the overall pacing is just a little too fast for me. I like doing posts that are a bit longer and more involved, and it's hard to do that under this kind of time pressure.

Third, I've had a bit of chance to think about why I'm doing this. Why bother blogging at all? Do I really think that anyone is interested in my incoherent ramblings about this and that? (Okay, anyone other than my mom.) There are a lot of strange, pedestrian, small-minded blogs out there --- a curious click on the "Next Blog" link at the top of this page once led me to a site that chronicled all of one woman's shopping trips, including how much she spent out of her pocket versus how much she saved with coupons. Seriously. But do I really think that what I'm doing is any more interesting, or less inane, than that? Well, no. No one should be any more interested in my Thanksgiving menu than in her most recent trip to CVS. Then why do it?

The answer is remarkably simple: I do it for me. I don't particularly care if anyone ever reads what I write here. Really, I don't. What's important to me is that I have some space to express myself, to do a little writing that isn't related to work, to try out ideas in way that has some kind of published finality and also some kind of you-won't-find-it-if-you're-not-looking-for-it privacy. If anyone else finds this stuff amusing or entertaining or thought-provoking, that's a bonus, but it's not the point. I do seem to have somehow attracted one follower (Hi, follower! Glad you're here!), but otherwise I am not holding out any hope of more than, say, a dozen people ever taking more than a passing interest in this tiny corner of the web.

And that's fine with me. I just like that I have a tiny digital room of my own, and I intend to keep inhabiting it whenever and for however long the spirit moves me.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Zoom and doom, part 3

It's gonna be a happy new year after all.

After a little too much research and less-than-calm contemplation, Michael I decided that our time and sanity are worth more than a few hundred bucks --- especially since those bucks are attached to a brand-new zippy red car with a sunroof and a smile. We took the final offer from the dealer and signed the paperwork this afternoon, and finally can put the whole sorry incident to bed. Phew!

Now all I have to figure out is what to name it. Suggestions?