Friday, September 15, 2006

Taking Wing

Today was Diane's last day at the hospital where I work. She's off to head the open heart unit at Duke - hooray!!! It's a huge step into the big league for her. She so deserves it and I am proud of her (not that I had anything to do with it, mind you!). But I, along with her co-workers upstairs, am going to miss her bouncy, sweet, and smart, smart presence big time. Sniffle, sniffle...

Have fun, Diane, and keep in touch!

North Chuck Follies

I knew there was a reason I didn't want to live in North Charleston.

9/24/06 P.S. Sorry, the article this links to has been removed from the Charleston Post and Courier site. The article included a video from a police camera unmistakably showing North Charleston ombudsman James Bell keying the rear door of a North Charleston councilman's SUV. You just gotta love the South Carolina Lowcountry!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Up To My Ears In Catalogs

I think I will never again order merchandise over the phone or Internet.

From late 2004 until April of this year, I was able to wear scrubs to work. How wonderful! No dry cleaning bills, no pantyhose, no high heels, no tight waistbands...I could go on forever! But then my manager/friend, Diane, recommended me for another position - which was offered to me and I subsequently accepted with very mixed feelings. I would make more money (yippee!) but I would have to give up my scrubs (wah!).

So I searched through my closet for clothes that still fit me and would be suitable for an office environment. :-( Finding just a few outfits that fit both criteria (when am I going to land a job that pays $150k with a jeans-only dress code?), I decided to go online and buy some clothes from TravelSmith. What a mistake! I sent back most of what I ordered because it: a) didn't fit, b) was the wrong color, or c) looked like hell on me.

I'm just sure that TravelSmith has lovely clothes - for someone. If not, how can they afford to take all that merchandise back and pay for the shipping as well?

How else can they afford to send out all of these wretched catalogs I've been getting for the last five months? And not only have I been receiving TravelSmith catalogs, but also catalogs from companies that I've never heard of in my life. I've just spent the last forty five minutes on the phone with ten different companies who thought they had hit the mother lode when TravelSmith sold them my information. Ha! I've foiled them! I've given them strict instructions to remove my name from their mailing lists, and forbidden them from selling my information to any other companies.

Now, if only I could figure out how to remove my name from the lists of the companies to which they've already sold my information before that next batch of catalogs arrives...

Monday, September 04, 2006

This One's for Jessie

Rachel Ray makes this in 30 minutes, chopping and all, but if you aren’t Rachel Ray, use a helper for chopping!

Stovetop Vegetable Lasagna

1 lb curly pasta (campanelle or cavatappi by Barilla)
1 10-ounce box frozen chopped spinach
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium zucchini, halve lengthwise, then thinly slice into half moons
12 cremini or baby portobello mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper
1 roasted red pepper, drained, pat dry, quarter lengthwise, then thinly slice
2 Tbsp butter
2 rounded Tbsp flour
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup milk
1/2 tsp. grated fresh nutmeg, eyeball it
1 1.2 cups part skim ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus some to pass at the table
1 cup fresh basil leaves, about 20 leaves

Boil pasta to al dente; reserve a ladle of hot cooking water before you drain pasta.

Microwave spinach, wring out in kitchen towel.

In deep skillet with 2 tbsp. olive oil, cook zucchini and mushrooms for 2-3 minutes
Add onions and garlic to pan. Season all with salt and pepper.

When onions tender in about 5 minutes, add defrosted spinach and roasted red peppers.
Don’t overcook the veggies.
Transfer veggies to a dish, return skillet to stove.

Add remaining 1 tbsp. olive oil and butter.
When butter melts, add flour and cook a minute or so, then whisk in stock and milk.
Thicken the sauce for 2-3 minutes, season with salt pepper and nutmeg.
Slide vegetables back into sauce.

Place ricotta in large shallow bowl and add the ladle of starchy pasta water.
Stir, then add couple handfuls of grated cheese.

Drain pasta and toss with cheeses.

Add 1/2 the vegetables and sauce to pasta and toss.
Tear or shred basil and toss into pasta.
Adjust seasonings. Top bowlfuls of lasagna with remaining veggies in sauce and pass extra grated cheese at table.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Friendly Torture

Anyone who’s ever had physical therapy for a shoulder injury will feel a sense of déjà vu when they read what I am about to write.

I don’t wear my Danskos any more. They’re – sorry, Kath – butt-ugly and not even all that comfortable. In fact, for me they’re downright dangerous. Once, I twisted my ankle playing kickball out in the cul-de-sac with the grands (I know, operator error – no, make that absolute stupidity). The last time I wore them was just before last Christmas, when I slid down a couple of steps at a fashionable hotel in downtown Charleston, attempted to catch myself by grasping onto the polished brass handrail, and landed on my knee. I couldn’t tell which pain was the worst - my pulverized knee, my overflexed ankle, or my bruised ego.

It turns out that all of those were only temporary. My shoulder, however, was not so lucky. After that fateful day, my right shoulder grew alarmingly more painful. When I finally realized my shoulder was not going to heal on its on (but why not? I’ve always healed on my own before!), I tried Aleve and physical therapy – the Aleve had no effect and the physical therapy just about killed me. When I asked her for a little stronger pain med, my internist referred me to an orthopedist.

Having worked in healthcare for some time now, I know there are progressively more aggressive steps that a physician must take before arriving at the decision to operate on a patient. So I wasn’t surprised when the ortho guy stuck a screwdriver-sized needle filled with cortisone into my shoulder joint. Unbelievably, the shot didn’t hurt nearly as much as I expected, and the long-standing pain in my shoulder went away.

For a week, that is. While we were together in Alaska, the pain was pretty bad but Kathie warned me big time against shoulder surgery. On my return to Charleston, then, I tried acupuncture by a chiropractor, who only seemed to be interested in my bra size. The pain getting worse by the day and my shoulder starting to freeze up, I gave in and visited the orthopedist - who agreed it was time for surgery.

Tomorrow morning, it will be four weeks since my arthroscopy, which was done at an outpatient surgery center. The surgeon reattached the avulsed labrum to my glenoid using a scope and tools inserted into four small holes through my flesh, and he removed a lot of scar tissue (the freeze-up factor). Three and a half hours after start of surgery, daughter Jessie drove me home – loaded up with post-op instructions and prescriptions for Lortab and four weeks of physical therapy.

That very afternoon, I visited the physical therapist, Barbara*, who had treated me before. Thanks to the nerve block that caused my entire upper right quarter to feel as if it belonged to a marionette, Babs was able to manipulate my arm and shoulder like a Gumby’s. All the while, she chatted about schools and kids with Jessie. I listened to their chatter, happy as a clam, as my rubber band arm was stretched and folded every which way. After about forty five minutes, we scheduled a return visit for the next afternoon and left for home.

The next visit was much different. The nerve block had worn off and my shoulder had started to freeze up again. Daughter Kelly had driven me this time, and the two girls chatted about their mutual alma mater while Babs proceeded to attempt snapping my arm off at the shoulder. Of course, she let up if she noticed a sharp intake of air on my part, but this time I left the gym with a fierce resolve to avoid at all costs experiencing that kind of agony again.

So for the following two days, I lay on the floor in my bedroom and constantly stretched my shoulder and arm in every direction and as far as I could. The pain med helped a lot and I thought I made a lot of progress. Babs thought so too at my next appointment, but proceeded to torture me shamelessly anyway – all the while yakking merrily with Kelly.

After four weeks of hearing about Babs’ children, their school, their homework, her husband, her husband’s business, her family, her in-laws, her in-laws' farm, her intra-family Clemson-USC rivalry, and every recipe she’s ever tried in minute detail (seriously, I can tell you that she uses a third of a cup of sugar in her peach cobbler – or was that in her chocolate chip cookies?), I finished my course of therapy two days ago. Babs and I agreed that I would give her a ring if my shoulder started to freeze up again.

I have not stopped stretching since. Anyone need a used pair of Danskos?

* name changed to protect the not-so-innocent

When Food is More than Food

What does it mean that Patty sees me as an adventurous cook? Could it have to do with my being a mountain climber? Or does it come from the state of Patty’s Charleston kitchen, a hodge podge of what’s been given to her or something she needed to buy for the moment. Patty was not an adventurous taster while she was growing up. How does a child get to adulthood eating only peanut butter and macaroni? What did she want me to cook on her first day home after brain surgery? Mashed potatoes! Perhaps the reason I feel a compulsion to cook when I visit Patty on the Charleston side of the country is this -- it’s what our family used to do in the 40s and 50s before families scattered around the country, a time when we gathered for a whole day.

Ray and Kathie on the farm in 1946

Ray, another near twin, and I would both say our first food memories started with Becky, our baby sitter and a wizen, eccentric, story telling woman who stayed at our farmhouse during the week when we were 5-6 years old. Postwar Kentucky was a depressed area and our father had gone to Ohio for work. Mother was teaching in a one room school house, and Becky filled in taking care of us kids. I mentioned Becky to The Mother tonight and her first words were “Do you remember how she would pour the bacon grease in her plate and sop it up with a biscuit?” Followed, of course, by smoking a hand rolled cigarette. Until electricity came to the farm, meals were cooked on an oil burning stove and ice blocks delivered from town chilled the ice box. We had a smoke house as well as a cold cellar dug into the hillside to keep the canned goods over the winter, a cow, pigs, chickens, and a walnut tree behind the barn. Ray and I would sit under that tree with our hammer, cracking open the walnuts, unaware we were in the middle of a planting of Jimson weed -- a hallucinogenic plant -- grown for sale to pharmaceutical companies. We let the adults have the fried frog legs from the back pond, and it wasn't easy to eat our chicken friends beheaded for dinner.

Grace, the maternal grandmother, lived over the hill on the outskirts of Vanceburg, Kentucky, an Ohio River town. She cooked until she died in 1968 on a wood burning stove - baked and everything without temperature regulation, low, medium, high, or anything. I can still smell the toast from the oven. I remember Aunt Eloise for her chicken and magical lemonade. Aunt Thelma - her two inch high biscuits. But best about our family gatherings was the cousin pack -- Gary, Pruet, George, Kathleen, Georgie, Tootsie, Alan, Shirley Ann, Doris, and LeeAnn. In those pre-television days we played, swung on the front porch, caught lightning bugs, gathered around for stories from Jacob, our Appalachian storytelling grandfather, and checked out Uncle George’s pornography magazines and short wave radio.

Alice, the other grandmother, had no signature dish, but I recall one Thanksgiving at Alice’s house in the late ‘40s our father was excited about having lobster! Lobster in Kentucky, how did they do that? A strange Thanksgiving food, unless you take into account that side of the family had all immigrated from New England.

We had many years of family gatherings in Kentucky, but our father never found the steady work he’d had during the war at Pratt and Whitney in Hartford, so he moved us to Ohio where our only family was Aunt Jeanette, Uncle George -- and three cousins! More cousins! We still had family gatherings, time to play with cousins, but the food was not memorable. Neither Mother nor Jeanette were exceptional cooks but in about two years grandparents Alice and Raymond moved to our village, and we had gatherings for another 2-3 years until Raymond suddenly died. From then, the gatherings were no more and the family began to scatter. The cousins have lost touch. Grace’s turn of the century house was demolished to make way for a freeway. Alice’s elegant home on the Ohio River has become run down.

Our feasts have moved to San Diego and Charleston where the real chef of the family is Michael, Jessie’s husband. If you can’t get to Charleston, call him and he will give you an entire menu including directions on how to cook everything.

As for me, cooking is like being back in the chemistry lab except I can get out a beer and put some music on the Bose. With some family coming, it’s like those days more than a half century ago.