Post #549 Lettuce Play

September 25, 2017 at 12:05 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Guess what this post is about?

I saw this cartoon on FB a few days ago and it got me to thinking about lettuce.  You know, there’s a ton of different kinds of lettuce, but I’m not going to go into them in this post because as I thought about lettuce, the first thing I thought about was salad.  Once I started thinking about salad, I started remembering some humorous things about it.

My first ever memory of lettuce as lettuce, per se, was on burgers.  Mom always made our hamburgers the same way when we were little.  Two slices of Wonder Bread, a smear of mustard, a slice of cheese, three pickles chips, the burger, a slice of tomato, and some lettuce.  I loved the flavor combination of mustard, pickle, lettuce, and tomato so much that for years afterward, I would eat that on toast, sometimes with a slice of cheese.  Even as not-so-long-ago when I was in working in Sri Lanka, I’d ask the cook in the cafeteria to make a lettuce-tomato-and-cheese-on-toast sandwich for lunch about three times a week.

I don’t recall eating salads when we were very young, but I have a vivid memory of a neighborhood friend in South Carolina who had taken a cucumber from his fridge and shared it with me.  We must have had salads often enough for me to recognize what the heck a cucumber was when I was four.  We left the skin of and he’d take a bite, then I’d take a bite.

But the meal where lettuce figured in heavily and remains a lifetime favorite started as a very young kid.  Tacos!  Love the heck out of tacos.  We’ve been eating tacos for decades and a bunch of different forms, but my favorite will always be the one from my youth.  A soft-fried corn tortilla with plain salted browned and drained hamburger topped with shredded sharp cheddar cheese, ripe juicy tomatoes and shredded lettuce.  My mouth is watering now.  My father, mother, and sister would put tabasco sauce on theirs, but that hurt my mouth so I seldom did that.  My younger brother did the same.

One time when I was a teenager, we had tacos again.  It was inevitable parts of the filling fell onto the plate.  I’d always just scoop ’em up and put them into my next taco.  One time though, with overfilled tortillas and feeling lazy, I left all the lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and hamburger that fell out on the plate.  Looking at it, I realized it was all the fixings for a salad.  So I tossed some extra fillings onto my plate with a little salsa fresca and ate a salad.  About five years later, taco salads became a popular thing and I figured I’d lost a chance to become a bazillionaire.

When I was a teenager, we barbecued every weekend.  It was a big production and lots of dad’s marine friends would end up out at the house turning the whole thing into a pot luck.  Steak, chicken, beef roast, sometimes fish, the protein changed each week, but the sides were nearly always the same.  We’d have a big bowl of potato salad (which I sneered at), a tossed green salad, grilled corn on the cob, and sometimes fire roasted potatoes.  I usually was in the kitchen putting all the stuff together.  One day, the girlfriend of one of the marines volunteered to make the salad.  I didn’t pay a lot of attention to what she was doing.  Salad was salad – lettuce, cucumber, celery, onion, tomatoes.  In our house, it didn’t change much.  Her salad was amazing!  I asked her later what she did to it and her secret?  Salt and pepper.  Just salt and pepper sprinkled onto the veggies.

One of my best friends ever in my whole life invited me to a new restaurant in our home town.  Keep in mind, this town was small and isolated by the Arizona desert.  So the new restaurant that was making waves at the time was Wendy’s.  I know, but it was a small town, just one McDonalds at the time.  So my friend invited me to go to Wendy’s to have a salad.  At the time, Wendy’s had an open salad bar with minimal choices.  But they did have two kinds of lettuce!  Standard iceberg which was grown in the area and everyone ate, and Romaine which stayed fresh and crispy for so long.  I built a towering salad that from that moment on I named my BLT salad.  It had a base of lettuce, a ton of tomatoes, some sunflower seeds, a generous handful of cheese, croutons, and vinaigrette.  We sat and ate our salads, and for dessert, she had a chocolate frosty, and I had another bowl of salad.

When I first moved to the DC area, I was sharing an apartment with two other guys who happened to be in the Navy.  We portioned out our household tasks and I was nominated “cook”.  Which wasn’t a problem for me.  I asked them what they liked to eat, and planned meals accordingly.  They had said they like salad, so I made a big bowl of what I called “garbage salad.”  Everything that didn’t go into the garbage went into the salad.  It had every fresh vegetable I could find plus seeds, hard boiled eggs, cheeses, croutons, herbs.  It was a masterpiece.  It was one I learned to make while living with my sister when I was in college.  So along with the baked chicken, fresh biscuits, and steamed potatoes, this huge bowl of salad sat on the table like an ornament.  I started with a bowl of salad.  Once that was done, I ate a single piece of chicken and a biscuit, then had a little more salad.  The other two plowed their way through the rest of the chicken, most of the biscuits, and the potatoes.  The salad stayed untouched by them.  I didn’t think anything of it.  They were probably full, or not in the mood for a salad.  The next night, I made dinner and put the salad back on the table.  I again helped myself, but noted they didn’t eat any of it.  So the next night, I freshened the salad with more lettuce and a few more veggies, but it was getting a little weathered.  Again, they ate plenty of everything else, but no salad.  I shrugged, tossed the rest of the salad, and stopped making them unless I wanted some.  And even then, I only made enough for me.  So we go along a few months, and they come to me one weekend afternoon to discuss food and meal planning.  Mostly, they were wondering why I never made salad anymore.  I was gobsmacked!

“You guys don’t eat salad.” I said.

“We love salad.” they replied.

“So why was that when I put it on the table neither of you touched it?”

“You put things in there that we don’t like.”

“Like what?”  I listened and checked my mental list.  “So basically, you want a bowl of lettuce?”

“That’ll work.”

I started putting a bowl of lettuce on the table and they started eating it.  A lot.  I eventually expanded a little to Cesar Salad, Wedge Salad, and Chef Salad and those were acceptable, too.

I’m going to close with a story from a comedienne from back in the 90s.  She was cleaning out her fridge and found a lime.  She stared at thinking, “Hmm, I don’t buy limes.”  Then realized it used to be a head of lettuce!  I’ve had heads of iceberg lettuce shrivel and dry up on me, too.  So Fun!

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Post #548 What a Week!

September 11, 2017 at 1:11 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Today is the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on NYC and the Pentagon on Sept 11, 2001.  It feels like the culmination of a lot of bad events.  Hurricanes Harvey and Irma slamming Texas and Florida.  Hundreds of thousands of people without power, shelter, or food.  Animals wild and domestic left to fend for themselves.  Earthquakes and wildfires, floods, it seems like everything that can go bad has and all within the last week or so.  It’s overwhelming.

We want to help.  We’re human beings and we want to help others.  But it seems like too much is going on.  How do you prioritize?  Given limited resources, and feeling the pull from a dozen different disasters, how do you choose?  If you put your dollars or time in one area, then another more needy area comes up, how do you handle it?

First, you handle it by reminding yourself that no one can do it alone.  You help when and where you can, then you trust others to help.  You don’t beat yourself up.  How you make your help available is entirely up to you and no one else.  Well, maybe your significant other and family, but that’s all.

Second, you do what you can when you can, and find ways to extend that help.  Buy products to put in donation bins.  Buy products whose manufacturers or sponsors are donating proceeds to help the tragedies.

Third, remember that whatever else is going on, life goes on.  Your life goes on.  Your responsibilities don’t change.  You have to pay bills, go to work, play with the kids, walk the dogs, and make dinner.  And sleep.  And enjoy yourself.

Here’s an allegory.  Last Thursday, I made dinner for Partner/Spouse and I.  I’ve been a big protein/starch/veggie man since about the first grade when we learned in the early sixties that your plate had to have all three to be healthy.  So, since I was also working on a story (which I started writing on this weekend), I was making one of my favorite easy dinners.  It really is amazingly easy.  All you do take two cups of stuffing (mix or not) and put it in a glass baking dish.  I use whatever dish will hold the protein well.  I was making chicken, leg and thigh quarters.  I used an 8×8 dish and sprayed it with cooking spray so nothing would stick.  I added a cup of chicken stock and stirred it around.  I oiled the outside of the chicken so it would brown well, and ground some sea salt/jalapeno pepper mix we have over the top.  I wanted the chicken to taste zesty, but the stuffing to stand on its own.  I covered it with aluminum foil and put it in a 375 oven for 90 minutes.  The last 30 minutes will be uncovered so the chicken will brown nicely.

I’ve made this dish probably 50 times before.  It’s one of my quick go-to meals.  The stuffing will turn in a bread pudding due to the chicken juices so no gravy is necessary.  The chicken will be crispy and well seasoned and taste delicious.  Throw in a salad or some other veggies and it’s done.  So this night, I decided to roast some Brussels sprouts for me, and fry some okra for him.  The chicken and stuffing stayed in the oven until minutes before hitting the table.  I’d looked at it a couple of times, and the stuffing looked odd, but I wasn’t too troubled by it.

I set the table and got everything ready.  The okra was bubbling and crispy.  The Brussels sprouts were steaming and toasty.  The chicken and stuffing smelled incredible.  I deftly moved one quarter to my plate without burning my fingers, then looked at the stuffing.  And stopped.  The only cooked portion of the stuffing was what was directly under the chicken.  The rest was brown as leather and turning to dust.  I’m not kidding, when you touched it with a spoon, it went to powder.

So I warned him to eat only the part under the chicken which had absorbed the chicken juices and was “normal”.  More than a bit tough, tho.  I cut into my chicken and raw juices flowed over my plate!

“Stop!”  Luckily, he hadn’t started cutting into his chicken yet.

So, we both ate a ton of veggies, a little bit of stuffing, and this!

We don’t do desserts in our house very much.  But I had all the ingredients for cocoa fudge brownies, and nearly a full jar of raspberry preserves (not jelly or jam) and on a whim, I made raspberry swirl brownies.  It was easy, and as it turned out, necessary.  I won’t reiterate the recipe for the brownies since I’ve blogged about them several times.  So with that recipe in the pan, I dotted the batter with several teaspoons of the preserves and used a spoon to swirl them into the batter.  Then I added an extra five minutes to the cooking time to account for the extra moisture from the raspberries.  So by the time dinner was done, we were full.  We only had a couple of brownies each.

So how is this an allegory for disaster assistance?

My goal was to feed my family.  Admittedly, a small family, but keep it in scale.  Dinner was destroyed.  I still don’t know what exactly happened.  I’ve tested the oven and the temps are correct.  You’d think that 90 minutes at 375 would cook a whole chicken much less two legs and two thighs.  It apparently overcooked the stuffing.  The chicken was completely thawed out.  It’s a puzzle.  But rather than make us wait another 45 minutes for the chicken to cook and to make up a pot of rice only to let the okra go soggy and slimy and the sprouts to go mushy, we did what we could.  We ate most of the stuffing.  He ate all of his okra while I ate nearly all of my sprouts.  And we had a couple of slices of bread and butter.  Then the brownies.  And it was all good.

When faced with the overwhelming, just do what you can with what you got.  I’m not making light of everything that’s been happening, but I’m also not kicking myself for not doing more.  No one else should either.  You do what you can.

Post #547 Travel Tales – Bujumbura

September 4, 2017 at 1:06 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

It’s been a long time since I wrote about my travels and the foods I enjoyed, and for whatever reason, I got to thinking about one of the African cities I spent a few weeks in during the early part of the 2000s.  My two teammates and I had a short trip to Bujumbura in the Republic of Burundi at the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika.  I’m not going to say much about the details of the trip, partly because time has clouded some of those details, but also because I’m not certain what details I can share without getting in trouble.

During the time we were there, the civil unrest that typified the country and was centered around the capital city was in full swing.  As Americans with quasi-diplomatic status, we were under a strict curfew.  Wherever we were at sundown, that’s where we were staying until sun up.  So it was best to be back at the hotel by sundown.  Additionally, we weren’t allowed to use any vehicles except embassy vehicles, so if we wanted to go anywhere outside of work, we had to either walk, or schedule a driver.  Apart from that, it was pretty easy work.  We were there to replace the computers and train the staff.  There were four computers, one and a half staff, one part-time officer,  and the place closed at noon.  We were on our own during the afternoons.  There were three of us.  I could have done the job by myself.

The hotel were at was very nice.  It had its own restaurant, a wonderful garden and walking trail, a large pool, and wildlife walking the grounds unconcerned.  We saw mostly birds, but once in a while there was a mammal of some kind causing a stir.  We were there during the Spring, so the temps weren’t outrageous.  We were treated well.  Since we were in the center of the city, there were several places to go eat and have a drink if you knew where to go.  Sundown was fairly late, so the curfew was seldom an issue.  The city’s power grid went down around 11pm, but the hotel had its own generator.

Breakfast was easy at the hotel.  You just had to make sure you gave yourself enough time in the morning.  It was mostly bread and fruit, right up my alley.  Lunch could be problematic.  There were no restaurants nearby, and the closest store of any kind had only raw ingredients.  One time, I bought a small bag of pistachio nuts and spread them over a desk while I worked and munched.  I ate probably five before I saw a small green worm inching out of the bag.  I’m not afraid of eating bugs (as many long time readers of this blog will know) and The Rule (see post #3) makes certain I don’t turn up my nose at anything.  However, I will say that I prefer my bugs to be cooked.  So I swept the nuts into the trash along with the worm, and went hungry for the afternoon.

There was a restaurant directly across the road that billed itself as a Chinese restaurant.  I was a frequent visitor, although the whole team went often.  It was standard fare, but cooked in a manner that was familiar yet unique.  I’m sure it had to do with the type of fresh ingredients that were available.  They had one dish that once I tried it, I was sold on it, and it was the only thing I ordered from there after that.  It was called Beef with Three Onion and it was served with rice.  But it was so much more than that.  In its basic form, it really was thin slices of beef and three different kinds of onions, but its flavors went so far beyond that.  The sauce was thick and deep and rich.  The beef was aged perfectly and cooked to just the right point.  Even the rice was cooked to a point where every single grain stood on its own.  Everything together was sublime.  It started with caramelized onion slices, then the beef is cooked in them.  Just before serving, whole scallions are stirred into the pan so they just wilt then the whole thing is placed over rice and topped with french fried onions.  If you’re wondering how I know this, it’s because since then I’ve played and tested and recreated this dish on my own so that it tastes and looks like what I remember.  Everyone I’ve served it to has liked it, too.

There were places outside of our area to go to and the officer we worked with made sure that he took us to several of them.  One particular Saturday late afternoon we spent on a mountainside at a restaurant veranda eating pizza and watching the city.  We weren’t too worried about the curfew since we were with the officer so we got see the beginning of a spectacular sunset.  The pizza was really good.  It was hand tossed, irregular shaped, and grilled over an open flame.  I had a cheese and prosciutto pizza but everyone else got adventurous with their toppings.  The mozzarella cheese was fresh made and delicious!  And anything grilled over open flame when done correctly is going to be good.

Eating at the hotel restaurant as often as we did, we got to be friendly with the staff.  They loved us, of course, because we tipped.  And they got to practice their English skills.  From them, we learned about a local specialty called banana wine.  We talked about it at work and the locals there praised it, while the Americans were mixed in their reactions.  Eventually, one of my team found out from one of the hotel staff they his grandmother made the stuff, so my teammate ordered a bottle, and overpaid, of course.

Banana wine, as near as I could figure out was mashed banana with a little water added then placed into sealed bottles and fermented for a few weeks.  I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I never asked because when the bottle showed up at our table, it contained some of the vilest concoction I’d ever seen.  It looked evil, and smelled worse.  And for the first time since I’d named it, I told The Rule to F-off.  I wasn’t drinking it, I wasn’t tasting it.  My other two team members each poured a small glassful and sampled it throughout dinner, but there was still plenty left in their glasses and in the bottle by the time we’d cleaned our plates.  Eventually, the guy who’d bought the wine donated it to the servers at the restaurant.  You’d a thought we just gave them Christmas!

After that, the already great service we’d been getting was turned up several notches.  Whatever we ordered came fresh, hot, and plentiful.  The hotel chef was a good cook, but he knew his audience and kept the standard fare.  Burgers, fried chicken, etc. and the inevitable french fries.  They had higher scale entrees but we were more interested in saving money so we seldom ordered them.  About the third time we were eating dinner at the hotel, one of the team asked for some ketchup for his fries.  I don’t always use ketchup on my fries so I didn’t ask for any, and the other guy didn’t hear or didn’t care.  BUT,  when the server brought out the ketchup, it was in a very small metal dish, and was a scant tablespoon in volume.  I mean, not nearly enough to dress the fries on the plate.  So, the guy who ordered it dunked one or two fries into his ketchup, when the other team member asked if he could have some.  The small amount of ketchup swung to the other side of the table where it disappeared.  The second guy, with no thought whatsoever, demolished the ketchup forthwith, even to the point of wiping the small metal dish clean with his finger and wiping it onto a fry.  The first guy who had actually asked for the ketchup but never ate it remained silent, although I saw his eyebrows go up a bit.

So the next night, we’re at the hotel restaurant again.  I’ve ordered a pizza, and the other two have ordered their meals.  The one guy asked for ketchup when he ordered so it came with his dinner.  Without a word, the other guy reached out for it, whereupon the first guy clamped a strong hand on his wrist.

“Order your own,” he said in a calm, deadly voice.

I, naturally, snorted Pepsi out of my nose.

PS – One other story I wanted to relate but isn’t food oriented.  The first day we were there, we were introduced to the Marines guarding the post so they would know who we were, and that we were part of their responsibility for a few weeks.  They immediately asked us if we had any old clothes we were interested in donating to their cause to take care of locals.  A couple of days later, we were riding to work and going through a large crowd of people.  My eye kept getting pulled in one direction but I couldn’t figure out why.  Then, I figured it out as we were passing a kid about 12 years old.  He was wearing a tshirt from the college I graduated from.  I recognized the colors which is why I kept looking in that direction.  On our last day there, I handed over every piece of casual clothes I had except what I’d be wearing home.

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