Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Dinner, Valerie-Style

Thanksgiving is here, and now that I'm Suzie Homemaker herself, it means it's the first Thanksgiving ever that I get to host!

My mom and her boyfriend came bearing furniture this Thanksgiving, and in return, I fixed dinner for them to eat upon their arrival. Since my idea of dinner is usually a few cubes of cheese and a carrot, this means it's time for more of Valerie's Adventures in Cooking!

I acquired almost all the food I needed for free from the rejected produce at the store --mushrooms, green beans, potatoes, green onions, a pie pumpkin, and cornmeal (ground from whole corn by a resourceful coworker) all came my way just in time for Thanksgiving! About the only thing I needed to buy were the dairy items and ingredients for cranberry sauce.

I started my preparations early, since, with my predilection for dawdling, I knew I'd be rushing around trying to do too much at the last minute. So on Monday night, I cooked my pumpkin. The instructions I found online said I should cook it in a steamer basket. I don't have a steamer basket, so I just put it in the bottom of the pot and hoped for the best. Which probably was for the best, since our 2-quart saucepan (the biggest one we have) was just barely big enough to fit the pumpkin by itself. It turned out fine. I roasted the seeds and, because they seemed a little underdone, left them in the oven while it cooled down. I also left them in the oven overnight. And most of the next day. Oops.

Next on my agenda was pumpkin pie. I don't really like pumpkin pie, but since divine providence had dumped a pumpkin into my lap, I figured I should make good use of it. Since I was only planning to make a small pie, I had some leftover pumpkin which I used for pumpkin cookies. I made the dough on Tuesday night, and baked the pumpkin pie and the pumpkin cookies on Wednesday. Both seemed to come out splendidly, though I had to stab the pie a few times to make sure it was done. Smoothing the surface over again with a knife did not work as I had hoped.

Thursday - that's Thanksgiving, folks - was crunch day. Bright and early at 8:00, I powered into action, checking my Facebook, getting distracted by the attic that I can't get into, and shopping for ladders on Craigslist. A few hours later, I made the cranberry sauce. 2 cups of cranberries, 1 apple, most of one orange, and chop in the blender. A few bits of spoon for texture. Oops.

Following the cranberry sauce, I took a break, but soon was ready for the meal's crowning glory—cream of mushroom soup. Lacking light cream, however, I was obliged to make half & half of mushroom soup instead. It should taste the same, right? The recipe only said the mushrooms should be "thinly sliced." It didn't say "diced," but while they were cooking, it became obvious that the pieces were much too big to fit onto a spoon. At that point, I learned the fine art of cutting your mushrooms into smaller pieces with scissors while they're cooking!

Since my recipes are from a website, and I hadn't printed them, I had to bring my computer out into the food prep area, which meant I had the perfect opportunity to listen to Internet radio. I turned the dial to a dance station and had a grand old time spinning around in circles on the delightfully slippery living room floor and attempting to learn how to moonwalk. Oh, yeah, I also eventually got back to the cooking and had an equally grand time snapping green beans to a techno beat. This was after I extricated the beans from the cheesecloth I had washed them in. Well, most of them. Some were entangled beyond the point of rescue. Important Lesson: Using cheesecloth as a substitute for a colander isn't as brilliant an idea as you might imagine.

When Mom called saying she had arrived at her hotel, I went into overdrive, trying, as expected, to do too much at the last minute. I nixed my plans for oven-roasted potatoes, seeing as I don't like them, and Mom had been snacking in the car all day and wasn't very hungry. Anyone want 6 potatoes? In record time, I whipped up some cornbread batter. I rushed around the house, frantically clearing things off the dining room table. I changed into my cute autumn-themed skirt just in time to let my guests in the door. (The skirt stayed on for all of 5 minutes, since I put on jeans to lug the furniture into the house and didn't change out of them again afterward. But at least I made a good first impression.)

And, after a rousing game of Yahtzee, dinner was served. In spite of the lack of prep space and the minimal presence of suitably sized cookware, dinner went off without a hitch. Everyone loved everything! Seconds were had. Pie was consumed. Plates were cleared and the guests were shooed, and Thanksgiving came to its end. I feel almost let down that this was less a cooking "adventure" than a cooking success.

In case you are new to this blog and wondering why the big deal about Adventures in Cooking, complete with the wacky's a sort of theme I started and abandoned back in 2007. Here are links to a few more Adventures in Cooking posts:

Italian Mushrooms
Spinach Cheese Squares
Pasta Primavera

Monday, November 22, 2010

On Case

Everyone knows how to capitalize a sentence. You put the upper-case letters at the beginning of the sentence, and the lower-case letters after that. You capitalize first letters in proper nouns and acronyms, and if you're writing in a text-based conversation, you capitalize when you want to yell! Simple. (But should you really capitalize a sentence fragment? Hmmm....) However, the rules for capitalizing proper nouns are no longer as hard and fast as (I imagine, since I haven't done any research on this) they once were.
In recent years, I've noticed some unique capitalization schemes for company names. In terms of corporate identity, the way a business' name is capitalized says something about its values and intended image. While this is great for setting businesses apart and giving them that unique touch, it makes uptight rule-followers such as me a little uncomfortable.

So bear with me while I drag you into my internal debate about the rules of capitalization. After all, when I'm lying awake at night thinking about this matter, I want to make sure that I'm not alone.

First off, there's the issue of all-lower-case typesetting. You see this in electronic messages a lot, because, frankly, when typing fast, and especially when typing on a phone, making capital letters is a big hassle. I've seen it in poetry, because poetry is art, and in art, anything goes! I've seen it in graphic design, and I like it, because I think it helps balance out text which, when capitalized, would look a little heavy on the left. But is it really all right in a business name? Let's take a specific corporation as a case study (get it!?).

innocent drinks, a natural beverage company in the UK, has taken the lower case to a whole new level (get it!?). Not only is their name uncapitalized, but so is every heading on their website! Using all lower case makes them seem super cute and...well, innocent. I daresay that's the exact kind of image they were going for. But it also makes communicating about them quite difficult. For example, when I write, "innocent drinks," am I referring to innocent drinks, the company, or am I referring to guileless beverages in general? Oh, the confusion! And just look at the beginning of this paragraph! In order to conform to their strange capitalization preferences, I had to start a sentence without a capital letter! Horrors! Before I have a nervous breakdown, I'd better move on to another topic.

Such as the good old ISP, America Online. Oh, wait. They're not an ISP any more. In fact, they're not even America Online any more. In 2006, America Online officially changed its name to AOL—which is in itself a bold move that states, "We're so awesome, we don't even need words to support our acronym. Our acronym is big enough to stand on its own." A few years later (perhaps even this year?) they changed their logo in the craziest way, uncapitalizing the O and L and adding a period at the end. In my book, that means their name should now be pronounced "owl," but they still refer to themselves in text as AOL. So what are they? Owl(period) or AOL? Does capitalization affect meaning, or am I just trying too hard to create order out of chaos?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A journey of scientific and etymological discovery (with cookies!)

In my hometown of The Midwest, everyone refers to carbonated beverages as "pop." In my current town, The East Coast - and apparently most everywhere else in the country - they call them "soda." When I first came here and found my colloquial vocabulary such a source of endless amusement to the residents of my new home, I adapted to the common usage and never gave the issue much thought—except to occasionally revert to using the word "pop" during socially awkward moments in order to get a laugh and a conversation going.

But today, my curiosity came out of the woodwork while I was making peanut butter cookie dough—of course an activity having nothing to do with carbonated beverages. However, the connection was made because of a fortuitous cooking disaster. Ever since my cornbread failed to rise a few days ago because of being made with 6-years-expired baking powder, my mind has been attuned to leavening agents. So, naturally, I was prepared to pay a little more attention to my baking soda than usual. Baking soda. Sodium bicarbonate. Carbonate(d) soda?

Because I love to be distracted and work on anything but my actual work, I decided now was the time when I absolutely must learn how beverages actually become carbonated, and whether that has anything to do with why they are called "soda." I'd always kind of imagined the carbonation process was similar to how vegetable oils become hydrogenated—which, now that I think about it, is also a bit hazy to me! The Internet was not particularly helpful to me in my search—I know now that carbon is added to liquids under pressure, which enables it to dissolve. But I do not know how that feat is accomplished, nor do I have any idea what it has to do with soda.

Feeling unsatisfied, I have jumped to my own conclusion. Several histories of the soft drink industry indicated that the first carbonated beverage was "soda water," so I assume (without any factual data to back me up) that other carbonated beverages which came after were logically referred to as flavored soda water, or soda for short. But the question still remains: why is soda water called soda water? According to Wikipedia, soda water is thus named because sodium salts are added to it to make it taste more like naturally occurring mineral water. Webtender even goes so far as to say that the specific sodium salts added are sodium bicarbonate.

Ah, baking soda.

And I have come full circle, to peanut butter cookie dough. Which I totally deserve to eat after conducting all that grueling research.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Making my voice heard--by griping in an obscure blog in a shadowy corner of the internet.

I yielded to the pressure and did vote this election, but I'm not proud of myself for performing my civic duty. I don't feel like I've protected my rights by exercising them. In fact, I feel rather dirty about the whole matter.

I didn't have a good solid reason for voting as I did--I made sure I had a fundamental grasp of the issues on the ballot, but as for choosing between candidates...well, I basically did what the Washington Post and one school board advocate outside the polling place told me to do. I am ashamed that my mostly uninformed decision could have an impact on the way my country is run.

I've never been enthusiastic about voting. Politicians are nothing to get excited over when every elected official is basically just a middleman standing between me and the issues I really care about.

Sometimes I wonder what our founding fathers were smoking when they decided a representative democracy was the way to go. Maybe relying on politicians to make decisions for us was a sensible option when half the population hadn't gone to school and news took months to travel the country, but in an era when information is everywhere and communication is no object, why are we still letting an elite handful run the show? Why is the popular vote still looked on with such suspicion? Why, when we want anything accomplished governmentally, must we have to jostle for the attention of an overworked legislator--when his decisions are influenced less by our heartfelt pleas than by which corporation financed his campaign? Why are we still allowing progress to be stopped cold by something as silly as filibusters? And whose idea was this ridiculous 2-party system, where every few years, the newly arisen majority party makes it its mission to undo everything the former majority party did for the last few years?

I would ask another rhetorical question, but I think that tactic is growing old. Instead, let me resort to exclamation: Let's come to our senses and learn to embrace initiative and referendum! It's time to dispense with the red tape and start making things happen!

Or am I oversimplifying things? Undoubtedly.

But still, there must be a better way. I'd propose one, but it would never make it through Senate.