Thursday, February 24, 2011

Made My Day: Singing Mike

Yes, I'm blatantly stealing the "Made My Day" idea from Emily.  It's a good idea.

coffee, coffee, coffee
coffee, coffee, coffee
Mmm, coffee
Today I went to the dentist* and then treated myself with an extra-shot large latte** from the Byerly's*** Eagan Caribou.

There was an Asian gentleman behind the counter who looked familiar. And honestly I was afraid my  brain was pulling an "all-Asians-look-alike" trick on me.  But then he seemed to look at me like he knew me.  Which was enough to convince me that he was likely the same person I had seen before.

Me: Did you used to be at the Burnsville location?
He: Yes
Me: You sang me a song there.
He: Do you want another song?

And then he sang me another song.  A completely made up one.  This time about being Amy and getting extra caffeine.  Totally made my day.  And the last time I ran into him, I was super crabby.  He got rid of the crabbies then, too. I think the song last time was about my mocha.

There's been some chatter lately about how "happy" posts (see here and here) make people depressed. Well, that may be. So this post isn't intended to bring you down.  It's intended to show that every once in a while one runs across something that just makes things a little brighter.  These serendipitous finds are the things I find make life feel well-lived.

 I completely understand how a singing barrista could be the most annoying thing ever, so now you know to watch out if you frequent the Eagan Byerly's. So if you  run into Singing Mike you should know he has a nice voice, doesn't sing for very long, and doesn't sing for everyone.  Also, he asks if you want a song.  It doesn't seem like he'd be offended if you declined.

But really, who doesn't like an improvised song with their coffee?

* No cavities
**I (heart) caffeine!
***For those of you not from the Twin Cities area, Byerly's (and Lunds) is a local high-end grocery store chain that conveniently has Caribou Coffee shops located inside the stores. Also, Caribou is basically a MN Starbucks.  I just want to ensure we're all on the same page.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ah...I feel so much better now

This past week was my week to cook.  While looking unsuccessfully through the spice cabinet for marjoram to complete the spice mix for the Quinoa, White Bean, and Kale stew* I was making, its disorganization caused me quite a bit of trauma: shifting spices from one side of the cabinet to the other caused bottles to fall to the counter below; my husband proudly presented me with bottle of garam masala wherein I reminded him I was looking for mar-jor-am; and all in all a great deal of time was wasted looking for something that wasn't in the cupboard.  As I announced before walking out of the kitchen, "This is unacceptable."  And then I walked away, took several deep breaths, and calmed myself before returning to the kitchen.

For the record, both of us are responsible for the disarray in the cupboard.

Look at this cupboard.

 And this bookshelf.

Clearly, change is needed.  I set off on a quest for organized space.  The first step, empty of the cabinet and bookshelf of everything.  Then, get rid of anything excessively old.  Then, return items to what will now be their rightful place.

You want to know what's frightening?  Well, okay, not as frightening as the fuzzy yet oozing glop of blackish green stuff at the bottom of the refrigerator, but still a wee bit disturbing? Opened bags of chocolate chips that are two years past their sell by date.  What kind of monster doesn't use all the chocolate chips?

While the chocolate chips were clearly the greatest offense, they (unfortunately) were in good company.  There were unopened containers of spice mix two and three years past their sell by dates.  Unmarked containers of caked solid spice something-or-another.  And duplicates, duplicates, and more duplicates.  Four containers of chili powder, three bottles of ground cumin,  two bottles of rosemary leaves and one bottle after another of well-aged spices.  And zero containers of marjoram.

I sorted. I tossed. I re-arranged drawers. I made labels and placards.

Now we have an alphabetized spice drawer,

Space in the cabinet,

And a well-ordered pantry

But still no marjoram.

Regardless, tonight I will sleep the sleep of success.  Isn't a well-ordered space calming?
*1.  I've had it now A) without fennel in the spice mix and b) with garbanzo instead of white beans and without marjoram in the spice mix. Both versions were very tasty.  Add a crusty rustic bread and you're set.
2. Many thanks to my siblings-in-law, CMT & HET V**, for making it the first time I had it and for leading me to the recipe.

**D'oh. Corrected.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Way to our Hearts is through the Kitchen

About a month ago Jon, my husband, and I made ravioli using the ravioli press I had gotten him for Christmas. We like to cook together.  Our kitchen time is excellent bonding time. However,  four words pretty much summed up the endeavor: It was a disaster. That might be a bit of exaggeration, but...

Careful, the filling will ooze into
every nook, cranny, and gap
Neither of us had mastered the use of the pasta machine.  By adding too much flour and overly working the first quarter of the dough we ended up with pasta crumbles. Well, fine, we needed to use some dough to clean the machine anyway.  Our technique improved with the second and third quarters of the dough, but we let the fourth quarter get too dry and once again we were left with crumbles.

It was relatively easy to use the ravioli press, except for the ravioli filling oozing out all over the place.

Three hours later we had 26 filled ravioli. After all that work, they were only okay.  The filling was kind of bland, though the sauce made up for it, but certainly nothing that would merit that sort of effort again. The whole endeavor left room for improvement.  Lots and lots and lots of room.

Our filling tasted a lot like this.
At least we made better sauce
It should be said the relationship part was not a disaster.  That part was fine.  It was the edible results of our attempt to make ravioli that was the disaster.

So, we come to this weekend.  Our first pre-Valentine's day weekend as a married couple.  We like to cook up special dishes for ourselves and weeknights simply are not conducive to dinners that take several hours to prepare. So we decided to make it a weekend of high-effort meals.

Earlier in the week, Jon had mentioned we should make cheesecake.  We decided on an old favorite, the individual chévre cheesecakes with raspberry sauce from the Lunds and Beyerly's magazine. Though I don't make cheesecake very often, when I do I'm struck with it's simplicity.  In many ways one of the easier desserts to make.

Add dollops of filling, fold lengthwise, seal, and cut
With a dessert idea well in hand, we had to figure out what to have for the main course.  We really like homemade pasta and felt that we should attempt to improve our previous efforts.  We bravely set forth on another ravioli making quest.

Instead of a plain cheese filling, we used ricotta, spinach, onion, and Parmesan filling on the Cook's Illustrated* website, along with directions for filling ravioli by hand.  In addition to CI, I looked through Epicurious and other websites for instructions on rolling out pasta.

Fresh tomato sauce, boiling ravioli,
simmering raspberry sauce
It seems our biggest problem was over-rolling the dough.  The pasta maker instructions seemed to imply we should send the pasta through multiple times per setting.  Other sources said to roll the dough through the widest setting, fold, and re-roll a couple of times and then run the dough one time through each of the incrementally narrower settings.

Anyone have more fresh pasta making advice?

Net result?  Fantastic. Much less labor intensive than we thought and much more successful.  We were even able to freeze a bunch of the ravioli for a future meal.  There's still room for improvement.  I think I over-boiled the ravioli and we definitely didn't get them drained enough.  Still, we were rather successful and had a perfectly wonderful dinner.

Apparently I didn't make enough cinnamon raisin biscuits
Sunday morning brought us cinnamon raisin biscuits with powdered sugar frosting.  If one wanted to be fancy, I suppose one could call these scones, but they're not.  These were fluffy and light with that melt in your mouth tang.  I'm still leery of making classic biscuits, but these seem to turn out successfully almost every time.

If you must know, lunch on Sunday was quesadillas using up the leftover fajita fixings from earlier in the week.

Sunday night we prepped a pan of lasagna for Monday and made Beef Wellington for dinner.  Both recipes are from the 2009 Cook's Illustrated Cooking for Two**.

There was a remarkable amount of cooking and spending time together in the kitchen over the weekend.   It gives us time to tease each other, discuss random topics, calm ourselves, and laugh. AND LAUGH A LOT. It gives us time to learn together - about something new and about each other.  It allows us to be gently taken to task for our various tendencies - me for my perfectionism (you see the purple ruler in the picture, right?); he for focusing on only the current instruction.  It gives us time to share memories of our past.  It gives us time to make our own memories and traditions. It gives us time to be a couple and revel in each other.

By Monday we were off to work, flush with weekend success. The pre-work exchange of Valentine's cards was followed several hours later by lasagna, garlic bread, some wine, and more cheesecake.

What says love better than 70% cacao on a cheesecake on a plate stolen from Mom's kitchen?

*Yes, I too have some issues with Cook's Illustrated marketing tactics and their excessive amounts of emails.  I will say that I emailed them asking only to get the newsletters and not the advertisements and they complied.

**The Cooking for Two series is great for small households - main courses of 2-4 servings, suggestions for using up ingredients, plus all the cooking instructions and product recommendations CI is known for.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Wallow with a purpose

Emily just wrote a great post about choosing to remain positive.  And I have two add-ons:

  1.  If you're going to whine about something, whine with a purpose.  Note what's wrong, provide a potential solution, and move on.
  2. Always do your best, strive to provide others with more than they ask for.
I'm going to be the first to admit, here and now, that I am guilty of failing to do both these things.  All too often it's comforting to sit and whine about things that are bad. Sometimes we need to acknowledge the bad things and just be lazy -- to wallow in a pit of despair. But I find myself frustrated with those who make this their default attitude.

Speaking of a "Pit of Despair", The Princess Bride conveniently provides us examples of both add-ons.
He's only mostly dead

Now when Inigo and Fezzik found Wesley dead in the Albino's lair they could have just stayed laid their heads down, wailed their hearts out,  and given up.  But no, they threw Wesley over their shoulders and hauled ass over the Miracle Max's.

Sure they had no idea if they were going to be successful, but they didn't let defeat and despair get them down. They bemoaned, noted the problem, and acted on a solution.

And over at Max's. Sure, Valerie had to convince Max to take on the commission, but eventually Max took on the job. What did they do at the end? They coated the pill with chocolate because "The chocolate makes it go down easier." Max and Valerie could have just given Fezzik and Inigo the pill and told them to wait 15 minutes, but they took the extra time to coat it with chocolate.  They went above and beyond.  They didn't have to.

Lately, it seems like I've been surrounded by people who purposely do the least possible and bitch and moan their way through life.  I really try not to be that way.  As Emily so eloquently put it, I try to "Buck the F@ck Up." Hopefully others will, too.

Be positive
Find solutions
Add a little extra

I'm just saying.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cells Have Families, Too

I often find it difficult to read non-fiction.  I read to be entertained and while I'm quite fond of knowledge and like to learn about new things and go into greater depth on topics, book-length exploration nearly always defeats me.  The opening pages grab me, express their theme, and then spend the next several hundred pages defending the theme.  This is all well and good, but where's the drama, the suspense, the romance, the mystery?

Not so with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot's book of the history of the cell line (known as HeLa) grown from a biopsy of Ms. Lacks cervical cancer tumor. I love good mystery and suspense stories and this book is one of the best I've recently read.

This is not to imply this was a sensationalized story. If anything, Ms. Skloot writes of the experiences of the scientific/medical community and those of the Lacks family in an un-biased, fact-based manner.  Skloot's depiction of  her experiences with the Lacks family and the history of the cell line is not dissimilar to a fictional detective uncovering the clues to a crime.

Briefly, in the early 1950s Henrietta Lacks was treated in the black ward of Johns Hopkins hospital for cervical cancer.  As part of her treatment, a biopsy was taken of the tumor.  Some of those cells made their way to a researcher who was attempting to find a way to grow human cells in culture.  Cells from Henrietta Lacks's tumor were the first to grow successfully in a culture medium, eventually commercially, and have been used to help test the polio vaccine, study chemotherapy treatments, and evaluate the effect of zero-gravity on human cells.  This cell line is still alive today and the weight of all cells grown since Lacks's death weigh more than she did in life many, many times over.

Through grit, determination, and likely a stubborn streak a mile wide, Skloot is eventually able to interview many of the living members of Ms. Lacks's family. Skloot's quest to meet the family and the family's quest to understand the role of Henrietta's cells in modern science frame the narrative. Yet, this is an entirely human story, full of the failings and successes, strengths and weaknesses that fill the book of humanity.

Even the first passage I marked indicated it was the human story that captured my attention.
As one on of Henrietta's relatives said to me, "If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that's dishonest.  It's taking away their lives, their experiences, and their selves."
And the lives of Henrietta's offspring are not pretty. One of her sons ends up in prison for murder, one daughter must fight off a cousin-rapist, another dies in an institution.  Henrietta's early death leaves her offspring motherless and lost.  They face the ravages of life and respond with human fear and anxiety.  This book is about the pure humanness of the Lacks family.

Yet, the rest of my markings indicate there was something else that caught my attention.   There are myriad ethical dilemmas throughout this text.  While Emily's post focuses on the ethical dilemmas of scientific/academic research in a capitalistic, for-profit world, the passages I marked reflected my agitation the state of medical ethics, how the researchers were simply following the status quo.

For better or worse I've taken a lot of philosophy classes and many of them have included the readings of Immanuel Kant who posits that the Categorical Imperative form the ground work of universilizable ethics:  In essence only do something if that something won't screw up the world if everyone else does it, too.  For example, you shouldn't steal because if everyone stole, the world of commerce and personal property would implode.  The second maxim goes like this:
"The rational being, as by its nature an end and thus as an end in itself, must serve in every maxim as the condition restricting all merely relative and arbitrary ends." (Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals)
Or, each person is an end in and of him/herself, of infinite value, and should not be used as the means to achieve some other purpose.

Or, the exact opposite of what the scientists working with the HeLa cells did.  Without any sort of compensation the medical/scientific community used Ms. Lacks's cells, her family's cells, and the bodies of innumerable others as a way to propel their own advancement and to promote their own self worth while simultaneously negating the worth of those they studied.
A report from Science asked Southam (medical researcher) why, if the injections (of HeLa) were as safe as he swore they were, he didn't inject himself.
"Let's face it," Southam responded, "there are relatively few skilled cancer researchers, and it seemed stupid to take even the little risk."  
However Southam was more than willing to inject others, without their knowledge, with these cancerous cells. When this situation finally came to the attention of the University of the State of New York Board of Regents, the defense boiled down to "If the whole profession is doing it, how can you call it 'unprofessional conduct'?" Over and over Skloot finds evidence where the medical community, following their own norms disregarded the value of their human subjects in pursuit of "the answer."

Granted one can argue, quite extensively I'm sure, about whether or not Henrietta Lacks's cells are human and should therefore not be treated as means to an end.  Regardless, one can certainly appreciate that people, even if they volunteer for studies, should be informed of the (potential) content of what goes into their bodies.  Researchers should give those they study the same respect and regard they give "the answer" they are searching for.

 Skloot has done a wonderful job of showing the individual, the family, the humanity behind HeLa-derived advancements. She provides honor and shares the value of the Lacks family.  Honoring the HeLa cells with humanity, humility, and honor.

Monday, February 7, 2011

I Love Books

I love books.  A lot.  In fact, probably more than a lot. One could say I'm completely enthralled with books. Though I cannot remember a time when I didn't read, I have two very specific memories of reading firsts.

Who Will Help Me?

I remember sitting in my parents' living room reading, (or maybe "reading") The Little Red Hen, one of the umpteen bazillion Little Golden Books* I had as a kid. I was sitting on the green couch, occasionally calling out to my mom** in the kitchen to tell me what a particular word was.
Me: Mom! What's r-e-a-p?
Mom: Reap
There was such satisfaction in reading the book myself; not all that dissimilar than the Hen's satisfaction in eating her bread herself.

I also have a faint, but stirring recollection of receiving a copy of Little House on the Prairie as a gift and the thrill (THRILL!) of getting a whole grown-up book to myself.  I was on to the big leagues. I now had a thick book like my parents read.  No more Little Golden Books for me.  

My first novel
That first novel created a habit that continues to this day.  I read, and read, and read.  I, perhaps like other bibliophiles, can't tell you what it is I like about reading.  I know it's not simply the escape, the sense of language, the art of story, or the sense of community. Books help make up my essence.

I've spent a lot of time mulling over how I want to share the books I read with others.  As a kid I read constantly, but could barely provide the three book reports per term  required in one of my grade school language arts classes.  I still hate writing book reports.  To me, they take the fun from reading the book.   The intrinsic motivation to read is lost; no longer am I reading for myself and my enjoyment and betterment. Instead  I'm reading for someone else, proving that I am, in fact, capable of reading comprehension.  All this to say that I have no desire to write book reports. For the same reasons, I have no desire to write book reviews.  I'm never quite satisfied with my finished product in that respect.

My ponderings have lead me to a solution that I quite like.  Upon finishing the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I realized the themes that kept me reading were quite different than the theme that arose from the passages I marked while reading.  Therefore, as I write about the books I've read, I'll write about what kept me reading and what caught my attention while I was reading. Hopefully, this will also encourage me to mark the passages I find interesting as I read the book. All to often I find myself enthralled with a passage only to keep going never to return to a fascinating section.

Why do you love books?
I'm looking forward to what these two methods of evaluation illuminate.  I often find to hard to determine what it is about a book that I enjoyed or disliked.  Even now, Watership Down is sitting abandoned while I finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and started The Serpent's Tale. Perhaps (with the aid of a spreadsheet?) I'll be able to determine what I think makes a book readable.

 - - - - - - - -  - - - - 
*The old, hard cover Little Golden Books are also good for building roads and castles for toy cars and tractors.

**I haven't verified this story with my mom, but since she has no memory anyway, she wouldn't be able to confirm or deny it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cat Tracks

Lately, I seem to be a bit obsessed about a cat.

This cat's path takes it  through the visitor parking area at work,...

...across the median sidewalk,...

...past my parking space,...


...and off towards the dry ice factory.

I spend a lot of time thinking about that cat. Perhaps even an absurd amount of time.  I've already admitted I'm a bit obsessed about a cat I've never seen.  I have to wonder at the cat's story.
  • Is it male? female? old? young?  
  • Why, with wind chills in the -20s F (-29 C), is the cat out and about?
  • What color is it?  
  • Is it someone's pet?  
  • If it's someone's pet why in the world does it have to be out in the cold.
And kitty is obviously cold. If you compare the image below to the "classic" paw print, you can see the cat is practically walking on it's tip toes.

On the other hand if the cat is out and about, maybe I don't need to worry about it.  Assuming that this cat like most cats is a creature of comfort, it wouldn't be wandering if it didn't want to.

But really, what I like about this cat is that I'm aware of it.  Too often, especially when it's cold, we tend spend our outside time bemoaning the elements and not seeing anything.  One of my challenges for this year is to be more aware of the things around me.  I tend to live in my head and over-think things.  At least with this cat I'm over-thinking something outside my head.