Thursday, July 28, 2016

Valerie's Adventures in Cooking: Sweet Potato Kale Gratin

While visiting a farmer's market over 4th of July weekend, I ran across a vendor who was selling damaged produce at 50% off. Never one to resist a good bargain, I stocked up on all the vegetables that actually meet my dietary restrictions, one of which was a lone sweet potato.

Today, only 3½ weeks after purchasing the sweet potato, I got around to actually cooking it. Normally with a sweet potato, I'd slice it up, dip it in oil, and bake it, in the hopes that it would turn into sweet potato fries (usually it turns into sweet potato mush with crispy edges, but a girl can dream), but I have a bag of heat-and-serve sweet potato fries in the freezer, and I have confidence that those would taste better than any fries I could ever whip up myself, so it was time to try a new recipe: Sweet Potato & Kale Gratin.* Who's ready for an Adventure in Cooking!?

Sweet Potato & Kale Gratin (VAiC Style!)


  • 3 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (Well, you already have a problem, because your lone sweet potato is only 6 ounces. Decide to just make a third of the recipe and round out that first pound with a regular potato.)
  • 1 large bunch (about 1 lb.) kale, tough stems removed and leaves torn into bite-sized pieces (A third of a bunch = well, just about all the kale you have—how convenient!)
  • 1 c. shredded Parmesan cheese (Lacking parmesan cheese, think back to another similar recipe you found that used white cheddar. You don't have that either, but you do have yellow cheddar, which is basically the same, right? Right! One third of that is...ah...we'll figure that out later!)
  • 1 pint heavy whipping cream (Who keeps whipping cream in their house!? Plan on using a single-serving tub of yogurt instead, until you open it up and realize it's actually sweetened vanilla yogurt. Not going to fly. Instead, get out the last packet of dried milk in your pantry. It will have to do, even though the creator of the recipe is quite adamant that you only use real whipping cream).
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg (Nutmeg sounds gross in a gratin. Leave that out.)
  • 2 tbsp. Organic Valley salted butter, cut into small pieces, plus more to grease baking dish
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Steam kale for about 3 minutes, or until wilted, in a large steamer basket set over boiling water. Nonsense! Dump that kale in a 2-qt casserole dish, pour some water on top, and microwave for 2 minutes! You just saved a minute! Pat yourself on the back. Squeeze out excess water.
  3. Place half of the potatoes in a greased 9 x 13 baking dish. Since you have drastically reduced this recipe, 9x13 is going to be far too much. You can do it in that same casserole dish you heated the kale in. You just saved yourself from washing a dish! Pat yourself on the back.
  4. Top potatoes with kale, then top kale with half of the cheese. Since you haven't actually measured out the cheese, just grab handfuls of it and sprinkle it on until it looks nice. Misread the previous instruction and top the potatoes with only half the kale. Place remaining potatoes in dish and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese (another generous handful). Top the whole pile with the other half of the kale.
  5. To make the milk substitute for whipping cream, pour most of the packet of powdered milk in a bowl (no need to be precise here; you never are) and dump a little water on top. Whisk together until it looks approximately like the consistency of whipping cream. Taste-test. Wow! It's super-sweet! You didn't remember that milk was so sugary!
  6. Whisk together the "whipping cream", extra salt to counteract the sweetness in the milk, extra pepper to do the same, and pour over casserole. 
  7. Dot with butter. By dot, I mean haphazardly cut a few chunks out of a lump of margarine that's been sitting in your fridge and wipe them clumsily on the kale, wishing they would be a little less attached to the knife. While you're wishing, wish you could use all of the margarine because you hate having partially eaten sticks of shortening lying around, but refrain because your cheese choices have already raised the heart attack quotient of this dish by at least 4 points.
  8. Cover baking dish with aluminum foil (haha! this is where using the casserole dish really pays off! You can just cover with the lid, and save a big old sheet of foil! Pat yourself on the back.)
  9. Decide that since your casserole has turned out pretty deep, you might want to cook longer and at a lower temperature. Reduce oven to 350 degrees.
  10. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove casserole lid and bake for 25 minutes more, or until potatoes are tender and cheese is golden brown. Allow to sit 15 minutes before serving, preferably while taking your obligatory photos.

The verdict:

Surprisingly good for an Adventure in Cooking! The potatoes turned out mostly tender, the watery milk mixture mostly evaporated away to an ideal thickness, the sweetness of the milk mostly wasn't noticeable, and the kale that I accidentally placed on top didn't burn but turned nice and crispy and delicious. In fact, my least favorite thing about the product of this Adventure was the one thing that was by design from the beginning: I wasn't really crazy about the sweetness of the sweet potato paired with the saltiness of everything else. It's a good thing I had to use a regular potato, because that enabled me to have at least a few bites that weren't sweet.

*The original recipe was found on the Oh My Veggies blog.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Racerback ≠ razorback

Usually I wait until I have several peeves all bottled up inside me before letting loose with a critical blog post on how not to use the English language.

But this time, the need is dire, and the critical post is coming right now, with only one case on the docket: razorback vs. racerback.

Racerback is a common term used to describe the backside of a certain style of tank top: to wit, one that is basically open around the shoulderblades, with just a thin strip of fabric running up the spine. I hear that this style of tank top (or swimsuit) got its name from competitive swimmers (i.e. "racers") who need to have a full range of motion for their scapulae.

The above pictures are racerback tops. Do you know what they are not? Razorback tops. 

I see the word razorback being thrown around all over the internet to describe this style of tank, from eBay to any number of fashion blogs. But they are all wrong. A razorback is a type of hog. It is not a type of shirt.

Please stop using it that way, and let the pigs keep their title!

two feral pigs in a grassy area

Monday, July 18, 2016

Welcome to my house

Most of those who read this blog will be invited to see its interior at some point. But the best time to see a house is right after its occupants have moved in and everything is willy-nilly, right? I wouldn't want you to miss out on that experience, so let's waste no time in going on a virtual tour.

Starting with the light-filled, maple-floored living room. 
The living room is the heart of any home, so we put extra effort into making it a warm and welcoming space. To create a harmonious atmosphere, we outfitted the (free! Thanks, Craigslist!) couches with mismatched slipcovers. The brown one is an especially nice touch, contrasting beautifully with the plethora of white and tan dog fur that has already made its home there. In the background, you can observe a traditional Chinese watercolor, partially obscured by an upside-down wardrobe. This piece of modern art symbolizes the struggle that faces so many individuals today—having too many clothes and not enough closet space.

As you look closer, you'll see we have adorned our furniture with a variety of useful items, ranging from a blender (always a good thing to have in a living room) to a box of home fixtures and fixatives, which will surely be put to use sometime within this century. 

One of the most useful things a home can have is a handyman, and you can see ours really showing off his skills on the couch. Notice the positioning of his feet. He has carefully arranged himself so as to avoid the second-most useful things a home can have: a dog. This dog (look closely, he's camouflaged by partially burying himself in the cushions) might look peaceful and asleep, but under that calm exterior, he is hard at work, busy shedding as much fur as possible over the beautifully contrasting slipcover we already mentioned.
Now on to the bedroom. Unonpened boxes dominate the decor here, but a keen eye may be able to spot the bed, which still lacks a frame.

Next to the bedroom is the closet/dressing/activities room, which has been designated as the place where everything other than sleeping shall occur. Contrasted with the spartan bedroom, it may look cluttered and chaotic, but believe me, it has a place for everything, and everything's in its place. Except for that second wardrobe in the living room. Where ever are we going to cram that?

On to the bathroom. This one features the spray bottle of ammonia that I was using to clean the reusable furnace filter. Sadly, years of cooking grease seemed to have coated that as well, so eventually I gave it up for lost, its only legacy being the clods of gunk that ended up adhering to the walls of the bathtub.
Next we visit the guest room, which is the tidyest and most Zen-like room in the house. Naturally, it goes unused as we can't have guests while the rest of the house is in such chaos, but sometimes we like to come in here just to enjoy a space that isn't cluttered with detritus and dogs.
The kitchen is one of the features of the house that always impresses visitors, as it was recently remodeled with a real tile floor, warm honey cabinets, and a cute backsplash over the sink. You can see that it has black granite countertops, which are what house-flippers put into a house when they want it to look posh. When I was house-shopping, I learned to associate black countertops with a property that was all show and no substance. Consequently, every time I look at my countertops, I have flashbacks to all the times I wanted to buy a house but it had been superficially altered to fetch an excessive price...oh, wait, that was this house too. These countertops are a constant reminder of how I bought in to the cosmetic housing sham. How could I have sold out my principles for a tiled kitchen and a polished wood floor!? Why, oh, why, didn't I place more value on the age of the appliances? Whyyy —Oh, wait, we're on a tour. So, yes, looking at this cute-as-a-button kitchen, you might notice the dishwasher whose front panel is removed, because I can't for the life of me figure out how to hook it up. I went out and spent my hard-earned cash to replace the travesty that was the original dishwasher, and still can't get the new one to function! Why, oh, wh—oh, right. Tour.

Let's look at the basement, shall we? As I mentioned in my last post, it has the distinction of being finished. But not in the sense of actually being finished, since it has become the dumping ground for all the furniture we don't know what to do with. 

See that open door? That leads into the room we have designated the storage room, where still more chaos reigns. 
At least we got a bookshelf in there to help the room get organized—No thanks to the unusually low ceilings, which forced us to return the first free bookshelf we got back to the curb.

The basement also has this blurry room, which will eventually be less blurry and will replace the guest room we have upstairs.
An unremarkable second bathroom, except to the spiders and cave crickets, which seem to think it's the best room in the whole house! Thank goodness there aren't any of them in this picture, or I'd be squirming in disgust rather than writing this pleasant description.

The basement also lures you in with a second kitchen. Don't be fooled by the shiny black oven—this kitchen is actually unusable as a kitchen because the oven's console is burned out, and we will eventually be hauling it to the trash without replacing it. But in the meantime, it makes a handy shelf for storing laundry products...
Because the laundry room is configured so that you can't fit any shelving into it, and your only storage is a couple of milk crates hung from the walls. It also has no lighting, which is why there is a table lamp on top of the dryer.

I've heard from certain musicals that the very beginning is a very good place to start, but I have turned that rule on its head by making the first thing you see in real life into the last thing that you see on this tour. (It's cause I wanted to save the best for last...don't quit now!)  
On the home's exterior, you can observe such marvelous features as the white add-on mud room, the bay window, the porch swing that came free with the house, and, what's that shadowy shape off to the left in the foreground? Let's take a closer look!
It's... a peach tree! Or maybe an apricot tree...or, in any case, some kind of fruit tree. Settling into this house has been a series of unpleasant surprises, but this arboreal beauty is probably the nicest thing home ownership has thrown at me. A free supply of future fruit? Don't mind if I do!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Home Making

I purchased my house on June 10, and a month and some change later, I am still sleeping on the floor, and my basement looks like a war zone. I didn't really think it would take this long to get settled in, but I guess I've really only been actually living here for a total of 15 days. 

Instead of actually getting down to business and tackling one of the 22 items on my ever-growing House To-Do list, I thought I'd take this time to share some insights and stories!

Let's begin with the biggest irony of my whole house-buying saga. One of my dreams has always been to eventually live on my own (or with my significant other) without the need for roommates or renters. In all my 10 years of being an adult, this has never happened (except for very brief periods during which I was searching for roommates or renters), but I always imagined that buying a house would enable me to achieve that dream. Originally I picked this house (and overpaid on it) because it had a finished basement with a separate kitchen. I planned to rent out the basement until I had saved enough money to live completely alone. But with everything being broken and way more expensive than I ever imagined, now I'm forced to live in it alone until I have spent enough money to fix all the things that are preventing me from renting it out.

People ask me when I'm going to have a housewarming party, and my answer is: Haha, good one! Maybe when I stop feeling this crushing sense of futility whenever I walk through the door! That should be sometime within the next 10 years!

There is a lot to be done. A lot. It's overwhelming. It's disheartening. It provokes me to wonder if buying a house was the worst decision I ever made. But there are a few things about it that feel good—like unsubscribing from all my housing searches. I had housing searches saved just about everywhere you can imagine: 21 altogether, on 6 different websites. I have been getting a big kick out of deleting all of them, one by one. Take that, Zillow! I don't need you any more!

I also really enjoyed placing my first online order to be shipped to my new address! Haha! Using only one address line and no apartment number!? My life hasn't been this easy since September of 2015! 

Speaking of easy, let's talk about the things that make even the worst tasks a piece of cake!

Remember when I proclaimed my love for degreaser a few years ago? Well, when I moved into my new house, I found most of the kitchen surfaces absolutely caked with grease from what was apparently decades of constant frying (my theory is supported by the two – two! – discarded woks I found while cleaning various areas of the property). My beloved citrus degreaser didn't do anything to lift the mess. But then a coworker tipped me in to using ammonia. I already have ammonia (I use it for laundry odors when the fabric can't be bleached), so I gave it a shot. Wow, the grease just vanished without a trace! With ammonia by my side, I nearly suffocated learned that my bronze cabinet handles were actually pewter. Amazing! I don't think I'll ever need to purchase degreaser again!

While the best degreasing product was the least of many things I was wrong about regarding homes and homebuying (and I'm sure I'll be happy to tell you all about them in agonizing detail in future posts), one thing that I was right about, I predicted around this time last year: that I would either live on a street that I used to live on, or live in a house that looked just like a house I used to live in. As a matter of fact, I accomplished both. The house that I bought has the same floorplan as the house that I lived in on 53rd Ave (more or less—that was only for 6 months in 2007, so the details are a little hazy), and it's also on 53rd Ave! It's good to know that I can be right about the things that really matter.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ode to a toaster oven

My pride and joy, respectively
If there was ever an underrated kitchen appliance, the toaster oven is it.

People have toasters, and people have ovens, but not many people (at least by my perception) have toaster ovens.

I calculate this by the health of the toaster oven resale market. My toaster ovens are always breaking, and I routinely get like-new replacements from Freecycle or the thrift store at prices ranging from zero to eight dollars. Apparently lots of people have toaster ovens they never use, and the secondhand ovens are not in very high demand.

I, however, adore a good toaster oven. So much more versatile than a regular toaster (try cooking your mozzarella sticks in one of those pop-up contraptions!) and so much easier to use than a regular oven (say goodbye to the 10-minute pre-heat!), the toaster oven is like a godsend for someone who consumes lots of leftovers and hates it when they're soggy. Since I've been head of my own household (about 2010), I've gone through around three of them. I even donated one to my office because the microwave just wasn't meeting my standards. Now that I've moved into a home with rentable space, I acquired another one to keep downstairs for guests (in some alternate future where the basement is clean and livable).

I might be the world's foremost toaster oven evangelist! If you are one of the unenlightened who have not yet experienced the joys of owning their own multi-purpose toasting device, come join me in my always-crispy bliss! I can probably even get you a free unit on Craigslist.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Less is More: On having short hair

In December, I lopped off my long, luscious locks in favor of a layered bob.
How I looked before my last major cut
How I looked shortly after it.
Now this is certainly not the first time I've gone for a dramatic chop—it's actually the fifth, which means I've been following an extended grow-cut cycle for pretty much my entire life, and I've got it down to a science. But strangers don't know that, which might explain why everyone in the salon watched in shock and awe as my lengthy tendrils hit the floor, and the stylist asked me if I was sure what I was doing. And this was actually the shortest my hair has ever been before a major cut! I remember the last time I did this, I also got major backlash from those who preferred my hair long.

People seem to take great stock in long hair, as though its loss is an affront not just to its owner but to the entire world. As though you're a traitor to womanhood if you don't have a waterfall of keratin cascading down your shoulders at all times.

There seems to be a downright stigma against short hair. Sure, there is something to be said about the labor of love that is long hair. A person who spends hours a week caring for her tresses is a person who cares about her appearance. A person whose hairstyle is by nature low-maintenance could be interpreted to be a person who's just lazy.

But the ironic thing is that I think I look prettier with short hair. It has natural body and bounce, which it lacks when I wear it long. With my short hair, I wash it (don't even bother to use conditioner), towel it dry, brush it, and then ignore it while it air dries. Periodically I might fluff it with my fingers if I think about it. I spend all of five minutes a day on my short hair, but it generates compliments like it was created by an entire team of stylists for a Vogue photo shoot! I never heard a peep about my hair back when I was blow-drying it for 30 minutes a day. No one ever had anything nice to say about the elaborate updos that are the one thing I miss about having long hair. There was a time in my life when ridiculously long hair was a source of immense personal pride. But those days are long past, and short hair apparently suits me.
How my hair basically looks now.
Once the dust settles from my big move and I'm ready to focus on my style again, I plan to try out an even shorter hairdo. And then after that ... ? Will I ever grow my hair out again? Do I have anything to gain by dangling a foot or more of easily-tangled tresses from my cranium? Would I be better off sticking with the style that not only requires almost no work to maintain, but also seems to meet with the most critical acclaim?

My last dramatic chop was my fifth, but could it be my last? [Insert stirring music here.] Only time will tell.