Sunday, May 20, 2012

Remembering our oldest

Bernice in 1998, not long after we brought her home.
Sadly, it has been over a year-and-a-half since I have posted to this blog, and even more sadly, the subject of my last post is also the subject of this post. We had to euthanize our beautiful first baby, Bernice, on May 17 due to cancer. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make in my life, and one that pains me like nothing else. Having to put down a friend who brought so much love and joy to our lives, who was like our baby instead of just a pet, was a terrible process to watch, and even though we thought we were ready, nothing could prepare us for it. Because for all the talk about the benefits of in-home pet euthansia, it doesn't really lessen the emotional price paid – it does, however, make us feel better that she could be at home and in the most comfortable and loving setting possible when she left us. If you own a pet and you want there to be no surprises at the time you decide to euthanize him or her, send me a message and I'll give you a few tips that will help you understand it and hopefully help it hurt less when it comes time for you to do it.

We're now starting to work on healing and remembering the happy, healthy dog who would have done anything for us: protect us, love us, entertain us, make us crazy, and yes, even die for us. She would have done so without even blinking had the occasion called for it. We didn't always give her enough credit because she did some really silly things, but inside, there was a very, very smart and sensitive brain that understood much. Over the next couple of months, I hope to continue to post here (even though I haven't in such a long time) as a means of catharsis and healing.

We adopted Bernice from North Shore Animal League shortly after we moved into our first house. We had long talked about adopting while living in our apartment, but our complex did not allow pets. There were plenty of people in the complex who had them, but we didn't go down that road – we just decided to wait until we could have a home with a nice yard for pets to run and play in, and plenty of interior space as well, so that any pet we adopted would feel comfortable. We knew that we wanted to adopt and not buy, because we believe strongly in giving homes to underprivileged animals rather than supporting industry operations that only exist to make the owners wealthy and often turn out dogs with breeding issues leading to reduced healthiness and lifespan. We had also agreed that we wanted a girl, and that we preferred a medium to large dog.

When we visited North Shore, there were a number of dogs, but one caught our eye right away. A mixed breed hound, she was a bit timid, but very friendly when we greeted her. We liked her a lot. She was very docile and just wanted love. Her name was Shadow. We looked around some more, and there was another dog not far from Shadow's cage who was also very friendly, but who was more much more animated. Her name, according to the plate on the cage, was “CuCu.” We weren't sure how to pronounce it, but we had an idea. We looked around some more and had narrowed our choices to Shadow and CuCu, based on sheer observation. But we needed to interact with them in the play area to really be certain.

As we were observing some of the other dogs, a shady-looking character of twenty-something entered the pen area. We eyed him cautiously and moved away from his direction. Shadow approached in her timid way, and he talked to her; she walked away. However, as he approached CuCu's cage, CuCu began barking wildly and showing all her ferociousness. She threw herself at the cage gate. He began to move away, but she was done with him. He was trouble and she would not be satisfied until he was gone. We looked at each other at the same time and said, 'yep, she's the one.'

We asked the person in charge of the cages to let us have a few minutes in the sitting area with CuCu. She let her out and brought her to us bucking and charging, and at that point it became very clear what her name was supposed to be, though she was the victim of an illiterate employee: CUCKOO. As in crazy. As in unpredictable. But irrepressibly adorable. One ear up, one ear down. It was her trademark. We loved it. We loved her.

As we began the check-out process, we learned only a little bit about CuCu. They didn't know much about her past, or her exact age, but they did know that she had already been adopted once, and was returned (the vet would later give us her estimated age based on her teeth and other traits). She was not fully potty-trained. We couldn't understand who would return her. Sure, she was a handful, but she was so smart and so beautiful. We were appalled. How could someone return her?! Those people will never know what a wonderful, wonderful opportunity they missed.

As we took her out and toward the car, she bucked forward. She resisted the leash. She turned somersaults and rapid-fire 360s. She was ecstatic to be free, but a little too ecstatic. We could hardly get her the 75 feet from the door to the car. She was exactly what we were after.

We had some ideas for names, and she certainly would not be left with the insulting “CuCu.” The one that fit her perfectly was Bernice. Bernice, as in Bernice Clifton, of Designing Women. Crazy, whacky, goofy; but smarter than she lets on. Clever, funny, and loveable. She was all of those things and more. As we took her home, she was all over the car. Panting, sitting, raising a paw and slapping us with it, licking, nibbling, couldn't be calmed down. She was just so happy to be free of the pound.

And then we were home.

While the dog got used to her new surroundings and to us, and as well, because she wasn't fully potty-trained, we would need to have her stay in a cage during the first couple of weeks while we were not in the house, or while we slept. We had already purchased a large cage and had it set up in our bedroom, which was spacious enough to easily accommodate it. As we prepared go to bed, we entreated Bernice to enter the cage. She wasn't having it. She had just been freed from a cage; she damn well would not be going back in one. No, no, no. We begged, we pleaded. She was not about to.

We had placed a plush new towel as a blanket for the bottom of the cage, and were discussing how we could get her to go in. We couldn't understand why she wouldn't want to go in; this cage was much nicer than the one at North Shore, and the blanket was clean and comfortable. So, what could we do, we reasoned. Maybe she'd come in if we held a treat though the back.

With Jess standing by ready to close the door to the crate, I held the treat through the back bars. Bernice put her only her head into the crate and sniffed, but wouldn't step foot inside. She was interested, but she wasn't going to be taken for a fool. She repeated her head-in motion; this time, she lingered just a little longer but again, she pulled away. She came around the back side of the cage to investigate how she could get the treat from me, but was discouraged and confused as to why I wouldn't just give it to her.

“C'mon, Bernice,” I entreated, “take the treat!” As much as she wanted it, she wanted to stay out of the cage more. At this point, a light went on in my head. Brilliant idea, brilliant! Maybe if I put the treat at the verrrrry back of the blanket, just dropped it through the bars and stepped back, she wouldn't see it as a trick. Oh, yes, this was genius! I gingerly placed the treat through the bars and it landed at the very back of the blanket. I stepped away. She put her head in again, but yanked it out quickly and galloped around the cage to the back, where she went down on her front paws with her butt in the air and cocked her head. The tail went side to side in a slow sweep. In a split second, she ran to the front of the cage, grabbed the blanket in her teeth, pulled it to her, snapped up the treat, and ran like hell out of the room. We looked at each other, and practically at the same time, said, “we're in big trouble.” And we couldn't stop laughing.

It would be the first of many instances that Bernice showed the genius she possessed under that goofy exterior.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Let them eat cake


So, today was the 12 anniversary of the day we adopted Bernice, our oldest dog. As such, we decided to make a cake and have a little celebration. Jess keeps all these dates in his head, and I don't know how he does it. At any rate, I had told Jess that I was really jonesing for some good devil's food cake. So he suggested that I make that for today's celebration. Good idea, but my problem is that I am particularly finicky about chocolate cake, and I didn't want to waste time on a cake that I didn't just love. That's a tall order, because I also am finicky about frosting. I don't like most frosting. It's not made like it used to be, and most of it just doesn't taste that great. I was looking for frosting like my mom used to make for birthday cakes. I remember it was called buttercream, but I've tried a lot of buttercream frosting recipes and didn't like them.

At any rate, I found a recipe for the cake that sounded good and I adapted it with some ingredients from other recipes that also sounded good. And I found a recipe online for a buttercream that sounded like it could be good with a little modification.

Well, the cake batter tasted good when it was ready to be put into the pan, so that was a good sign.

After baking it, I made the frosting. I was so happy when it turned out exactly like it was supposed to. After frosting the cake and letting it rest for a few hours, it was time to celebrate. And celebrate we did, because this was a fabulous combination that was moist, very chocolate-y, very dense, and had a terrific frosting. Exactly what I wanted. Now the question: what am I gonna do with all this cake tomorrow? Jess and I don't eat bad stuff like this as a rule.

So here's what I did:

Devil's Food Cake

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
3/4 cup strong coffee (hot)
1/2 cup boiling water
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened, plus extra for greasing pan
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
3 large eggs, room temp
1 tablespoon molasses
1/2 cup sour cream (I only use Breakstone's)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, grease three 8-inch cake pans with butter and line bottom of each pan with parchment paper round, or grease one 9x13x2 pan with butter. Combine chocolate and cocoa in medium bowl; pour boiling water and hot coffee over the chocolate and whisk until smooth. Sift together flours, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl.

Add butter to bowl of stand mixer and beat at medium-high speed until creamy, about a minute. Add brown sugar and beat on high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Stop mixer, scrape down bowl with rubber spatula. Increase speed to medium-high and add eggs one at a time, beating 30 seconds after each addition. Reduce speed to medium; add sour cream, molasses and vanilla and beat until combined, about 10 seconds. Stop mixer and scrape down bowl. With mixer on low, add about one third of flour mixture, followed by about half of the chocolate mixture. Repeat, ending with flour mixture; beat until just combined, about 15 seconds. Do not overbeat. Remove bowl and scrape bottom and sides of bowl with rubber spatula and mix gently to thoroughly combine.

Pour batter into pan, or divide batter evenly among cake pans if using round pans. Smooth batter to edges of pan with rubber spatula. If baking 9x13x2 cake, place pan on center rack of oven. If baking three 8-inch cakes, place two pans on lower-middle rack and one on upper-middle rack. Bake until skewer inserted in center comes out clean, 20 to 23 minutes for 8-inch cakes, or 26 minutes for 9x13x2 cake. Cool on wire rack 15 to 20 minutes. For round cakes, run knife around pan perimeter to loosen. Invert cakes onto large plate; peel off parchment, and reinvert onto lightly greased rack. Cool completely before frosting.

Wonderful Buttercream Frosting

(Make only 1/2 this recipe for a 9x13x2 cake)
1 cup shortening
1 cup butter, softened
8 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup heavy whipping cream or half & half

In a mixing bowl, cream shortening and butter until fluffy. Add sugar, and continue creaming until well blended. Add salt, vanilla, and 3/4 cup whipping cream. Blend on low speed until moistened. Add additional 1/4 cup whipping cream only if necessary. Beat at high speed until frosting is fluffy.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentines Day Eve Dinner

I have one word for it - incredible. More to come.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rufus Wainwright plays the Bardavon Opera House

It was a magical night at the beautifully restored Bardavon Opera House in downtown Poughkeepsie as Rufus Wainwright took the stage with nothing more than a grand piano and two guitars.

As charming as he is talented, Rufus greeted the audience and got right to business singing Beauty Mark, an homage to his mother, Kate McGarrigle, from 1998's "Rufus Wainwright" album. He very touchingly thanked the audience for their concern for him (Ms. McGarrigle, a noted singer herself, recently died from cancer).

His performance was moving; simple yet dramatic, minimalistic in terms of accompaniment but richly complex in melody.

Unlike some of his prior works which feature complex orchestration, the material he performed at this show was acoustic; less complicated, yet totally riveting. Throughout the evening, the audience marveled as he developed an elegant set of vocal tapestries, such as a hauntingly beautiful performance of The Art Teacher, featuring accompaniment on french horn by Louis Schwadron of the band Sky White Tiger that had opened the evening's show. (Those whoops you hear at the end of the number would be myself and our friend Jeffrey. We were a bit out of control, but it was terrific.)

The audience was entirely captivated, and during one set, where he played 4 different pieces from his newest work, "All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu", he asked that we not applaud after the individual pieces because they needed to have silence between; but then he jokingly encouraged us to applaud during the pieces if we wished. And just as requested, one could have heard a pin drop during the fleeting moments between the pieces (though no one would have dared drop one). Only after the fourth piece was completed did the audience offer its rousing approval.

Wainwright was particularly complimentary of his mother this evening and spoke of recording some of her songs in tribute to her. As he began to perform one particular number, he spoke positively of recognizing her presence in the wings, and he jokingly spoke as her telling him, "don't f*ck it up."

He also spoke of his musically talented father, Loudon Wainwright III, as well as his childhood spent in school in nearby Millwood and how performing at this particular venue was really performing at home.

The richness of such songs as Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk from his 2002 album "Poses" were not lost with this acoustic performance. He still manuevered every brilliantly composed twist and turn of the melody with dead-on accuracy - truly impressive. It was as if he was toying with us, much as one dangles a cut crystal before a window, painting the room with vibrant, playful color.

The end of the initial performance came all too soon. I was disappointed that he hadn't played an acoustic of Natasha, one of my personal all-time Rufus favorites from "Want One". The numbers he did play from that album, Vibrate and Want, were a bit more suited to his acoustic performance than Natasha, but I was hoping.

He was quite particular about the numbers he did play, even eschewing a couple of different numbers in tribute to his mother that he said just "weren't there yet" and that he couldn't perform them and do them justice. As I am sure the rest of the audience would have agreed, we didn't think that possible, but Wainwright is one of those people who is very demanding and largely critical of himself and his performances. Not that he should be, because his compositional and vocal styling prowess exceeds that of practically any musical performer out there today, but it is what makes him such a talent.

During the encore, after a playful protest, he performed his much-requested cover of Hallelujah, which he claimed would be one of his last live performances of the song (in fact, his third-to-last, I think) for quite some time to come. It was terrific.

Equally impressive was the final number of the encore, Les Feux d’artifice t’appellant (Fireworks Calling You) written for his opera "Prima Donna" that will be premiering in London shortly. Knowing that the audience was hanging on his every note, and approaching a quiet area in the piece that might have otherwise been mistaken for the end, he lifted his finger to his lips to discourage the audience from applauding. They dutifully complied, and the piece came off flawlessly.

This being my first live Rufus experience, I can only now understand why our friend Jeffrey is willing to travel all over the place to see him. Riveting. Truly remarkable. And many other adjectives.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Do those Debbie Meyer Green Bags work?

I know, this has been a burning question for many of you. Do they work? They're so expensive. Is Debbie Meyer just a charlatan?

Well, here in my test kitchen, I have been using the bags for about a year and I will tell you what I have found.

The bags are absolutely terrific for considerably lengthening the life of citrus fruits, delicate leaf herbs, green vegetables like broccoli, and carrots.

Ever notice that within a few days of being left out on a countertop, your lemons or limes will turn brown, and putting them in the vegetable drawer of the fridge doesn't do much for them either? A Green Bag can keep them nice for 2-3 weeks.

Broccoli turning yellow or brown at the tips of the florets before you can get it used? In a Green Bag, I can make whole broccoli last 2-3 weeks.

Big pain: do you buy cilantro, dill, rosemary, mint or parsley to use in a dish, only to go back 3-4 days later and find it brown and slimy? In a Green Bag, I can make these last 2 weeks.

Oh, and for can actually keep tomatoes in them for quite a lengthy period, just on the countertop (don't refrigerate tomatoes, ever).

Bananas turning too quickly? They market the bags as the answer, but the problem is, most people need their bananas to ripen because they are shipped green to the store or gassed with ethylene to bring them to yellow when they aren't really ready inside yet. At any rate, I don't find them very useful for bananas, the skin tends to stay pretty but the inside continues to soften, in my experience.

Now, the commercials or the box would have you believe you can extend life to 30 days. Not my experience, Debbie. And honestly, I would feel a little weird using something that old. But for these aforementioned items, the bags do work well.

Two things you have to be diligent about: 1) moisture is the enemy of the bags and will cause them to fail. You must thoroughly dry whatever it is you're putting in the bags. I sometimes even go so far as to put a paper towel in the bag with whatever it is I'm storing, and I also check the bag for moisture regularly and dry it if it occurs; and 2) you don't seal these bags, as you might be inclined simply press all the air out and fold the top down over itself and lay it in the drawer or on the counter. Don't seal it with ties or a sealing device. The ethylene gas being produced by the food as it ages needs an escape, albeit a minor one.

Okay, so here are some things that the bags don't work well with, in my experience:
1) Basil. Basil is ridiculously tender, and if you buy bunched basil, it is usually dirty, so you have to wash it. It is then tough to dry, even with a salad spinner, and dry is the key. Don't waste your money if you're thinking you'll buy the basil for one night to make whatever dish, and then make pesto a week later when you have time. Your basil will have turned by then, just like it would in any bag. As any good Italian mama would tell you, "you gonna make your pesto immediately with whatever you not gonna use in your dish, and you gonna freeze it until you're ready for it." (By the way, if you want a tip on the best jarred pesto ever made, you'll find it at Oliviers and Co., but it ain't cheap. It is, however, the best pesto short of Mama Leoni making it fresh for you, and people will notice!)

2) Celery. The trick to lengthen the life of celery is to thoroughly dry it, cut off bottom and top, and roll it up in aluminum foil, sealing both ends very tightly. It will keep for several weeks this way. The bags can't keep it fresh this long.

3) Cut peppers (such as green peppers). While you will be able to keep whole peppers for about 7-10 days longer than you would normally be able to, cut peppers won't work. Slimy in no time, just like any other method of storage.

4) Cut vegetables. I would attribute this somewhat to the moisture issue, but the fact is, cut vegetables just have a limited shelf life, because they have been cut. You won't get the much additional life out of using the bags on them to justify it.

Now, about the expense: it depends on what items you use them for and your usage patterns of those items as to their worth. My bags have paid for themselves because I regularly use cilantro, thyme, rosemary, green or red peppers, dill, chives, mint and broccoli and so I don't have to pay for a new bunch every time I make a dish with any of these in it. I also reuse the bags, washing them with only a single drop of dishwashing liquid and rinsing them thoroughly, then drying them gently and letting them finish drying by standing them over an upright paper towel holder or a glass turned upside-down. You can reuse the bags up to 10 times each, so say the instructions, but I probably reused mine only five times before retiring them or getting them so slimy as to not want to reuse them.

So, there's the answer to the burning question you most assuredly wanted to know!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

When did I become my grandmother?

I'm wondering when this happened. I am pretty much a traditionalist when it comes to Thanksgiving. My mother was to a degree, but she would always play around with some element of the dinner (or in her case, luncheon) and do something different with vegetables, dessert, et cetera. Maybe it was because she did this any number of times and missed the mark with whatever the "new" item was that I became annoyed with it and decided that my Thanksgiving dinner was not some experiment.

I don't like turkey that much. I eat it once or twice a year, and I can enjoy it then, but that's enough turkey exposure for an entire year. And I am not too fond of it as leftovers, no sir-ee. My mom could make a million things out of leftover turkey. Not me. Get it out of my sight after dinner and don't make me look at it again for another year. Maybe my mom's abuse of turkey leftovers drove me to the point I'm at today.

Stuffing is hotly debated. Some people like it with white bread, some with cornbread, some with oysters, some with chestnuts, some like it only from the bird, others would never stuff their bird. Well, I was raised on pan stuffing, not from the bird. I never much cared for it because it was usually too dry. My trick was to drown it in gravy. When in doubt, cover any food with fat and it will taste better. Of course, there's also the safety issue of stuffing the bird, for those people who don't belong in the kitchen in the first place. Cooks who know what they are doing wouldn't make the mistake that causes the bacterial issue that the media has hyped into such a big deal.

Jess grew up on stuffing from the bird, and convinced me that I should do that the first year we were together. I did. it's fabulous. It's moist. It's loaded with flavor from the bird. It's a hundred times better than pan stuffing. There are a couple of rules to know: #1, you don't stuff your bird until moments before you are ready to put it into the oven, and #2, you don't give the stuffing time to cool before you stuff, because the stuffing needs to get hot enough to kill anything that may be lurking in it, and cooling it won't help in the heat department. Oh, and #3: the stuffing has to reach 165 degrees or else it's not safe. If it doesn't reach 165, then take it out and nuke it until it does. It won't hurt it.

My sister-in-law makes chestnut stuffing, and I also really like that. I don't make it myself, and I don't remember liking anyone else's chestnut stuffing. Hers is the best. She'll be bringing it this year, yay! Oyster stuffing? Yuck. Cornbread stuffing? C'mon, stuffing is dry enough without making it with cornbread. That was just invented by someone who ran out of regular bread and happened to have cornbread on hand. Not for me.

I don't like sweet potatoes that much either, and the only way I'll eat them is like my grandmother made them: candied, but with sauteed pears and apples. Obviously, it was the apples and pears that got me past the sweet potatoes. But I want sweet potatoes with apples and pears on the Thanksgiving table.

Potatoes and gravy are also a must, and I make them every year. I make them and don't let anyone bring them, because, once again, I rarely eat mashed potatoes, and when I do, I want them to be fabulous. Not too many people I know make fabulous mashed potatoes. Even fewer make fabulous gravy. But I do, and I won't apologize for it.

Now when it comes to vegetables, many people will split camps and say that there isn't really a standard vegetable for Thanksgiving. I say that green beans are it. Now I might do variations on them (like my friend Brad's recipe that uses dill and water chestnuts - yum) but they are always going to be on the table, and if any other vegetable shows up, it won't be because I made it.

Bread is also one of my requirements, and by bread, I mean homemade rolls. Almost all my aunts and both grandmothers were all about the rolls, and so I was spoiled growing up. We never ever had anything but homemade bread on the Thanksgiving table. The smell of the rolls baking as we came through the door was like something out of an old cartoon, where you floated on air following the scent through the house. And loads of real butter to go with, because a good roll is about half roll and half butter. Maybe 3/4 butter and 1/4 roll. Again, put fat on anything and it will taste better.

Finally, dessert. While I have evolved from pumpkin pie to pumpkin torte, it's another one of those only-once-a-year tastes that I want on the Thanksgiving table but don't ask me about it anytime after. Hmmm, so maybe pumpkin torte isn't traditional, but the pumpkin is. I hate pumpkin pie. The bottom crust is typically clammy and limp with moisture, the pumpkin is almost always over-spiced for my taste (because I generally loathe cinnamon and almost everyone uses too much) and the only way it can be choked down is buried - and I literally mean buried - in whipped heavy cream. Don't give me that Reddi-Wip crap, because it's wuss cream. Too light. So I make pumpkin torte, which is much lighter and fluffier and doesn't taste, well, so pumpkin-like.

Now I may occasionally make another dessert for the people like me who aren't big fans of pumpkin. In this year's case, it's baked chocolate custard. Well, not actually baked, but pressure-cooked. I learned the trick from our friend James, who taught me about Cuban flan made in the pressure cooker, and I will never go back to making custards in a water bath and separate ramekins! Love you, James! You have saved me hours of frustration, you will never know. (And that's not the only reason I love you.)

Once the dinner is made tomorrow, I'll see if I can't get Jess to take a few shots with his new fancy-schmantzy D300S and post them here and on Facebook.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone. Hope yours is just like you like it. Mwah.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's a cruel, cruel summer...

Summer is done and fall's chill is in the air. The days are markedly shorter; mornings are later to have the sky fully lit, evenings are sooner to make the sun disappear. The cold wind is blowing the sunshine right out of the sky.

It's cruelly ironic that, all summer long, the weather was so cool that the tomatoes didn't produce flowers like the should so they didn't fruit well. About three weeks of very warm temps finally pushed them into production, but most of the new fruit that has set will never mature and ripen since temperatures are back down into the 60s at night.

So, two weeks ago I gave up on the fact that I was going to get any appreciable crop of tomatoes and went to the farmer's market down the street. I bought a large box of ripe tomatoes and slaved away an entire Sunday making 19 pints of salsa.

In the past week, though, some of the biggest tomatoes in my crop began ripening at a very speedy pace, and today, there are 18 very large tomatoes sitting on the counter. Had I only waited, I could have made the salsa from my own tomatoes. But now that I've made it, I'm loathe to run through the whole process again, because it is an onerous task. And by onerous I mean that I was so put off by making this year's batch that I said I wasn't going to make it next year. And here I'm thinking about making it again THIS year. Of course, if I do make it again this year, I'm almost certain to never make it again it after that. And if I don't make it, all these tomatoes I've slaved over go to waste. It's infuriating.