Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bicycle Riding Update

I'm sure you're all sitting around asking, "Is Janine still riding her bike to work? That crazy kid!"

It turns out I'm riding it as much as possible, and my fitness level on the bike is improving. The first time I rode to work on a bike, I burned a little over 300 calories, and that was just on the way there. Now I burn between 150 and 180 on that same trip. Mind you, I now ride a newer bike that probably operates more efficiently, but I am still moving my big butt and a contraption 5 miles. So I like to think I am improving my endurance. Hills that I found challenging at first seem easy to me now.

By the way, if you wonder how I know how many calories I'm burning, I wear a Polar F4 heart rate monitor. Fantastic gadget!

I am also trying to ride the bike on minor errands, like that trip to the grocery store on the way home from work. I had to run that exact errand today, and I found myself thinking, "It's extra gas to go out of the way right now--WAIT--I'm on a bicycle! I'm not using gas--I'm just using ME power! Plus I can have a little bit more at dinner because of the extra calorie burn from the 2 more miles!" I'm so queer. I actually do have such inner monologues.

Yes, I do arrive at work in the morning with a little bit of a sweat-on. It dissipates fairly quickly in the air conditioning, even in these dog days of summer. If I have a day when I really need to look prissy, I have to drive. I'm grateful that I live and work in the city and my commuting distance is reasonable. All in all, I am truly enjoying this change in my lifestyle. I feel great, and exercise is easier when it's simply a functional part of my day, not a chore that looms before me each morning.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Tomato-Potato Bake. A Semi-Success.

I don't even bother with fresh tomatoes when they're not in season, but I make up for it in the summer by eating them nearly every day. I don't even bother with trying to think of innovative ways to eat tomatoes--give me a tomato sandwich slathered with mayo every day for a whole summer and I won't complain. They're just that tasty.

I made this dish last summer and it came out smelling and tasting okay, but the potatoes were undercooked and not the right type--I used waxy ones and not floury ones. So I made some changes this time around. I used russet potatoes and I partially cooked them first by boiling them for about 20 minutes. Then, I let them cool, peeled them, and sliced them.

I made a bread crumb mixture of one slice of whole wheat bread, 1/4 cup of grated special blend cheese from Nick's Produce, and some fresh ground pepper, and set it aside. I picked a handful of fresh basil from the yard and saved that in a little pile. Then, I sliced two big tomatoes and 2 big potatoes into 1/4" slices. Finally, I thinly sliced a small onion.

I sprayed an 8" square baking pan with non-stick olive oil spray. Then I layered the tomatoes and potatoes in alternate rows, sort of fish scale style. I don't think it much matters how you alternate them. Over the maties and the taties went a scattering of onion slices, fresh ground pepper, 1/4 cup of mozzarella cheese, and a sprinkle of the bread crumb mixture. Now, I scattered a layer of fresh basil leaves, and then I repeated the taties, maties, onions and mozzarella again. Toppped it with the remainder of the breadcrumb mixture, and popped it in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes.

It looked and smelled great! In the interest of creating something healthy, I chose low fat cheese and didn't add any fat to the recipe. Next time I make this, it will have some taste improvements:

There's not enough fat in this recipe to carry the flavors. I would drizzle some olive oil over it before baking, add some garlic, some salt, and maybe use a stronger flavored cheese than mozzarella, like even a full-fat sharp cheddar. The texture and look and smell were all wonderful. It was completely edible and reasonably yummy--the flavor just fell a bit short. But this blog is all about success, failure and learning. And trash talk and gossip.

Despite the dinner being less than perfect, we were not deterred from eating the whole thing, so no food was wasted at our house tonight. I'll just up the workout next time, so I can up the fat and flavor.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hot Peppa Jelly, Baby!

My neighbor gave me a huge pile of very hot banana peppers. I have never made pepper jelly or any jelly before, so I got busy on the internet and found a bunch of recipes. Had to buy some pectin and had no idea where to look for it in the store, because I'm not even sure what it is. It's magic jelly juice, I think.

First, I cut the tops of the peppers, de-seeded them and scraped out the membranes. I did the same with one sweet bell pepper. I did not wear rubber gloves when I did this, because I was like, "Rubber gloves are for pansy-asses!" A little while later, I absentmindedly rubbed an itch on my nose. My left nostril is still burning as if I rubbed some sort of flesh eating acid on it. So trust me here--wear the gloves.

Put the rough chopped peppers in the food processor with a cup and a half of cider vinegar and processed until the peppers were quite finely minced. Then I dumped that mess into a big sauce pan with 6 1/2 cups of sugar. I thought that seemed like a LOT of sugar, but apparently it's not. Especially since these peppers are not at all sweet, and something had to go in there to counteract the fire.

Then I just let it go to a boil, like a big cauldron, for about 4 minutes. I then added a pouch of Certa brand pectin. I had no idea if this was enough, because all the different recipes and directions I read had conflicting information. But it looked different when I added the stuff. It suddenly began to look like jam, which excited me to no end.

One more minute of boiling, then I ladled into sterile jars. Then I put the sealed jars in a big pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Now I'm waiting to see if it actually sets up and gets thick. Again, not sure how long it's supposed to take. I have a good feeling about it, though. And I had a little taste of it before I put it in the jars and it was yummy!

P.S. I'm adding this later. After a couple of hours, the pepper jelly firmed up beautifully. It's the perfect consistency. I wish my whole life was like that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Facebook. I don't get it.

Ages ago, and for some reason I truly can't recall, I signed up for Facebook. Now the Facebook people won't leave me alone.

I get all these emails from people who want to be friends with me. Most of these emails come from people whom I already thought I was friends with. Then I have to go to the Facebook place, sign in and say that, yes, I will be friends with So-and-So. I guess I'm wondering why So-and-So can't just email me directly to confirm our friendship, which I thought had been previously established anyway. It's all very confusing.

I also get things that say "Mr. So-and-So thinks that you and Miss Thus-and-Such should be friends." Excuse me? I am very adept at picking my own friends. Besides, maybe I have a very good reason for avoiding Miss Thus-and-Such. Maybe she annoys me.

And then the other day I got one that said "Miss Whatsy-Whoosit wrote something on your wall." Then the email proceeds to tell me what she wrote on my wall. So why bother with the wall? if you're going to telescope it to me in the email? Plus, I went to Facebook and can't even find my own wall. Somebody please tell me how to find my wall.

Yes, I know I sound like Andy Rooney with this rant. I promise you I say all this with a smile. But I'm also going to take my Facebook thing down, if I can figure out how to do it!

Saturday, July 19, 2008


This past spring, Ellwood Thompson's was giving out these little seedling kits for herbs. It was just a 1 1/2" pot, some seeds, and this pellet that swelled up and turned into soil when you added water. From that teensy kit came about 8 nice bushy basil plants! I eventually transplanted them to my front yard and they have thrived!

The basil was getting all tall and leggy, so I really hacked it back and decided it was time for a big batch of fresh pesto. I had the last bit of the gorgeous expensive Frantoia olive oil that Andy bought on Amazon.com when he had insomnia. We also rode our bikes to Nick's Produce and bought some pine nuts and some lovely cheese. Mani Mouris, the owner, makes this special blend of grated cheese. I'm not sure what's in it. I just ask for the special blend. It gives me a false sense of being in the know.

The smell of a big colander of basil is intoxicating! I spend a long time picking the leaves off, and discarding the flowery parts--they're a little bitter. Then really give it a good wash, like 3 times over.

I dry roast the pine nuts in a pan to get a little toasty flavor, then take them out and cool them before I add them to the rest of the stuff. You can use other kinds of nuts, too. I have made pesto with almonds and I made a really great pesto one time with pecans.

I use a food processor to make my pesto, but if you've not yet been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century and you don't have a food processor, a blender will work, too. Even a mortar and pestle will do the trick.

I cram the basil leaves in first, pulse a few times to reduce their bulk, then add the other ingredients.

I don't measure anything, I just go by look, consistency and taste. I used a generous amount of garlic in this batch--about 6 cloves. You don't need to chop it up much. Then I used about a cup and a half of the cheese, then about 3/4 cup of pine nuts. I add the olive oil as I am processing, and I stop adding oil when the pesto is thinner than a "paste" but thicker than a "sauce." I like to call it gloppy. Lastly, I process in the juice of half a lemon. This adds a barely discernable tart note and helps keep the pesto from oxidizing.

I think the flavor of fresh made pesto bears absolutely no resemblance to that salty crap you find in jars at the grocery store. Plus, when you make fresh pesto with such lovely ingredients, you must do it justice and eat it at the optimal time, which is right after you make it. I will use leftover pesto as an ingredient--like in soup or on pizza--but with pasta where it's the star of the show it has to be lip-smackin' fresh.

Now, if I were a really perfect girlfriend, I would have made fresh pasta today. But perfection is so boring, and trust me, it's difficult to maintain. So I just used some penne rigate we had in the cupboard.

Talk about a taste explosion! I was going around imitating Gordon Bass, exclaiming, "MUTHER. OF. GAWWD." We made lots of moaning sounds when we were eating it. If anybody had come to the door, they'd have thought we were having an afternoon shag!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Potato Salad with Peas, Onions and Roasted Peppers

Today is my company picnic, and I am making this lovely French style potato salad to bring. This is a departure from the mayonnaise or sour cream based potato salads that you usually see, and I love it.

Roast a red bell pepper. I do it in the oven. Just place it whole under the broiler and turn it occasionally until all the skin looks black. Then take it out, seal it in a plastic bag and let it sit for a good 20 minutes. Then peel it, discard the peel and dice the yummy roasted flesh. You don't have to be persnickety like me and roast it yourself. Alternatively, just buy some roasted red peppers in a jar--they are really easy to find and work well for this salad.

Take one dry quart of little red skin potatoes and chunk them up. Put them in water and cook them until they're tender.

Thaw a cup of frozen peas. Let's reflect on frozen peas, shall we? You simply should not be without them. They are an invaluable ingredient in your kitchen, they are wicked cheap, and they taste nearly as good as fresh picked. Plus, if you have had oral surgery and need an ice pack for your face, a bag of frozen peas is the ideal thing to use.

Take about half a medium purple onion and slice it very thin.

Those are the main ingredients, now the dressing:

Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, maple syrup and whole grain mustard. I don't measure, but in this picture there's about 1/4 cup of olive oil and about a tablespoon of everything else.

Whisk it together. You'll find that the maple syrup and mustard are fabulous emulsifiers, and the dressing stays nicely blended.

While the taties are still warm, toss everything together. I love to eat this at room temperature, but you can chill it and let the flavors meld for a while.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

This is our harvest.

I haven't got much to brag about in the gardening department! Just one lone roma tomato and a deformed jalapeno. Maybe I have enough here to make a bowl of salsa for my Barbie doll.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tomato Time

Is there anything quite like a tomato sandwich in the summer? On lightly toasted bread? With thick slices of sweet flavorful fresh tomato? And the juice sort of runs down to your elbows when you take a big hungry bite of it?

I stopped at this little produce shack on Highway 301 on my way back to Richmond today. She had bushels of tomatoes out in front, but just one bushel of tomatoes by the checkout in the back that were about a dollar more per pound. I asked what the difference was and she told me the cheaper ones are from South Carolina and brought up here on a refrigerated truck. Wrong! Mustn't refrigerate tomatoes. Kills the flavor.
So I paid more for the local ones and dwelt on my little lesson learned. Just because it's by the side of a country road, sitting in a basket in the sun, doesn't mean it's local or fresh.

I'm going to bake a loaf of bread this weekend and we are going to eat tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches. Actually, I like to eat this stuff called Vegenaise. It is every bit as fattening as mayonnaise, but it's made of vegetable fat. It tastes fantastic! And no cholesterol. But lots of delicious calories.

It's more expensive than mayonnaise, but you're supposed to make up for that by using it in moderation. I know--hilarious, right?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Calgon, Take Me Away.

This morning was the beginning of two weeks of theatre camp, way out in the country at Historic Hanover Tavern, the original home of Barksdale Theatre. We spent two hours (which felt like 10) winging it with the 20 kids because a storm last night had knocked out the electricity. I sure hope it's fixed by tomorrow, because I might have to poke my eyes out if it's not.

The kids are very cute. This is little Sean, going into second grade in the fall. Doesn't he look like a pistol?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Black Bean Lasagna

My cute and funny friend, Georgia Farmer, gave me this recipe for Black Bean Lasagne. It's supposed to be made with lasagne noodles, but we have this huge stack of wheat tortillas, so we're using those instead. We tweaked the sauce a little, too, by adding a spicy salsa. This lasagna was so damn delicious. This really should make 6 servings, but we went for the more popular four glutton sized servings. I'm taking leftovers for lunch tomorrow and I'm living for the moment.

Preheat the oven to 350.

4 burrito-size tortillas

1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
2 jalapeno peppers
Cool, peel, and dice.

*If you can't be bothered by all that, you can buy roasted red peppers in a jar, and you can use canned jalapenos, but it won't taste as good. The smoky taste of the roasted peppers is a key element.

1 medium purple onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds

Drain and dice one 28-oz. can of plum tomatoes. Heat in a medium saucepan. Add one 7-oz. can of Herdez Salsa Mexicana. Add the previously mentioned roasted and sauteed ingredients along with:

2 1/2 cups cooked black beans
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
zest of one lime
1 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground coriander

Heat the sauce through and set aside.

Make the cheese filling:

8 oz. grated extra sharp cheddar
1 cup whole milk ricotta
1/3 cup of Crema Mexicana ( this is like Creme Fraiche. You can substitute sour cream if you can't find Crema Mexicana).
Mix this all together.


Spray an 8" x 8" square pan with olive oil spray.
Sread 1/5 of sauce on the bottom.
Layer like this:
tortilla (cut it up to make it fit), cheese mixture, sauce
Do this 3 more times, then top with 1/2 cup grated parmesan

Bake for about 45 minutes, let cool for 10 minutes if you can stand to wait (we couldn't).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Our Athletic Prowess

My 49th birthday is next week. Good gravy. How did this happen?

My excellent boyfriend got me a new bicycle and gave it to me early. I'm pretty jazzed about it. It has more speeds than I know what to do with! And it's a lovely pearly yellow color that just happens to match my backpack. And my dining room. Matchy Matchy Poo Poo.

So now Andy's riding my old bike--the one that keeps getting a flat rear tire. Yesterday we went on what we considered to be a colossal bike ride. We rode 22 miles--all the way to Midlothian and back. Well, at least I made it back. Andy got a flat tire, of course. I forged ahead alone, and came back in the car to rescue poor Andy, whom I found wandering along Forest Hill Avenue with a blank expression on his very pink face, poor dear.

We both felt a great feeling of accomplishment for our feat of strength and endurance. I was a piece of rubber for the rest of the day! The only thing I could summon the strength for was to lift a glass of chardonnay.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I'm too tired to give this post a clever headline

Why am I so tired, you ask? My cat Maggie has this new thing she does; when she's bringing an animal into the house, she does this whimper-meow sort of noise that she doesn't make any other time. So I always know when she's bringing in the kill, and her little announcements can cut right through a sound sleep.

Last night it was a mouse, and it wasn't dead yet. It wriggled out of her jaws and darted under a piece of furniture in the living room. A piece too big to move. I tried to scare it out with a broom, opened the front door so it could run to freedom, tried everything I could think of at 3:45 a.m. No mousie. So I went back to bed, figuring one of the cats would catch it, and I'd deal with it in the morning.

As soon as I was nodding off to sleep again, Gilda (other kitty)jumped up into my bed with the mouse and started to chase it around ON MY BED. I managed to trap the poor thing under a dishtowel and scoop it up and fling it to safety outdoors. Jesus.

I'm switching the pet door to the "out only" setting tonight. They'll be able to go out but not come back in. Then the Merry Murderesses will just have to play with their victims outdoors whilst I catch up on my sleep.