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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Massage/Good Riddance Day

Today is apparently Good Riddance Day. It's been going on for a few years, although I did not know about it. You can take tokens of whatever you'd like to say good riddance to, and shred/burn/destroy them. Obviously, I am amused by the timing, and may do a belated burn when I get back to Ithaca.
Continuing with the pampering theme, I got a massage today. That was probably more useful than Good Riddance Day. It was extremely helpful. Even without recent events, my body has become a mass of sore areas due to my various old biddy recurrent aches and pains. As always, I told myself that I need to get massages more often. This time I'm going to make it part of my New Year's Resolution and make it a habit. Yes, some of you have told me this in the past and you were/are totally right. Thanks for not giving up on pushing me outside my comfort zone and old habits. I know it takes me a while, but ever so often I do take your advice, albeit belatedly, and remember what you told me years before.


Before (wacky hat)

I'm visiting Missy in Sacramento. Today we went to the mall and decided to get makeovers at the MAC counter. I've never had a makeover before, and haven't bought any makeup there, although I had heard good things. It was an interesting, and expensive, experience.
Although you would not know it to look at me, that does not mean I don't own any. Back in high school I was a big fan of goth-pale foundation (complete with a full coat of powder) and eye-makeup in bright 80's colors. Fortunately, there is little photographic documentation of this. Nowadays I still love to buy the cheap stuff but only use it occasionally and minimally. It's kind of like very expensive adult crayons. I like the colors and the textures. Ever so often, I realize that I might save money if I just bought the good stuff, in colors that work for me, and actually use it rather than doing lots of small impulse purchases.
My makeup skills have not progressed since high school, although I have learned a bit of discretion since then, and, more importantly, am much lazier. Today, I wanted to get some makeup that looked good on me and learn how to put it on properly. Some of you are probably cheering, after years of telling me that I needed to do this, and some of you are probably saying "Huh - Old Biddy owns makeup?"
It was a pampering experience, and just what I needed. After priming, painting, concealing, powdering, misting, and sealing my face with a massive plethora of products, I was fully shellacked and my complexion looked way better than I had anticipated. My inner goth chick was very impressed, even though the look was substantially less pale than normal. I purchased a subset of it, because it did look nice, and one of my new years resolutions is to put more attention to my appearance. (Yeah, shallow, I know...) Anyway, it did look very nice. Missy kept commenting on it. I felt like it was a bit over the top, but it was pretty subtle.

I did not tell the saleslady that I was just involved in a breakup. That would be like telling the car saleperson that I was having a midlife crisis. I am sure that lots of makeup is sold under these circumstances. In terms of self-administered therapies, it was somewhat expensive but healthier than too much booze, and probably not as healthy but more effective in the short term than exercise.

After (note - I am not wearing mascara or lipstick)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Return to sender: email to cowdude

I am doing much better now. It's a lot easier now that I have closure, and it also helps that I have been hanging out with my family and CA friends. I am sleeping and eating normally. I've been waking up at 5 AM with mind racing, but subtract out the mind racing part and that is just me, still on east coast time and is pretty typical when I travel to CA. I brood sometimes, but a lot less each day.
I wrote back to cowdude. Part of me wanted to do the cool aloof email - "Thanks for letting me know, have a nice life", and part of my wanted to something more in tune with my honey badger side "Thanks for finally telling me, asshole - bye. By the way, you weren't that good in bed..." His email was not nearly interesting enough to submit it to "Crap Email from a Dude" so I won't bother with that, although it is tempting.
Since cowardude actually had the temerity or cluelessness to write that he didn't know where his email left us, I decided to clue him in. I had a long boring plane flight to ponder my message, so it went through many iterations. It was an aloof but obviously pissed off masterpiece by the end of the flight, but later that night I modified it a bit from its aloof perfection, so a bit more hurt showed through. I won't post it here, but basically I thanked him for his honesty and said that after a month of keeping my distance I wanted to give him my side of the story. I told him that I noticed him pulling back in November, and eventually pulled back myself and mostly gave him his space since I didn't know what else was up in his life. Since he had alluded to his actions being out of character, I wrote that yes, it was out of character for him, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt rather than pester him or break up with him through some electronic means (intentional dig there). I told him that it hurt me greatly that he cut off all contact with me with no explanation and made me realize that whatever else was going on in his life, our relationship was not that important to him.
I then went into nice mode and told him that I had enjoyed his company, and left the option open of being platonic friends, if he was so inclined. I do not think I will hear from him again.
On a better note, I did have a few pleasant distractions during this time.
To the man sitting next to me on the flight: Thanks for asking if I was going to school back east, even though you do use probably use a variation of this line often. It did cheer me up. I'm sorry for then subjecting you to several hours of me fidgeting, sighing, writing, and rewriting.
To the merry couple at the baggage claim: Thanks for showing up in full Santa costumes (both of you!) with your dog in the cutest little reindeer outfit. It was truly an epic win. I wish I had taken a picture so I could post it here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Email from cowardude, full story and the temporary return of breakup blog

Caveat: I don't normally blog about my relationships other then to mention that person in passing, but make an exception during/after a breakup, and even then I try to keep it mostly about my own feelings and responses. I do this because I find it sort of therapeutic. Also, I am much better at putting my thoughts into writing than in conversation. You can read it or not, as you see fit. These sorts of posts are usually left up for a while and then removed.

As I alluded to in previous posts, I hadn't heard from cowdude, now rechristened cowardude (thanks Missy!) in more than a month, other then a cryptic text message and birthday card. Once I realized that something was up, every week or so I'd call and/or send an email, but heard nothing back. At first I figured that something was up with work (things had been stressful there and were getting more so, plus it was nearing the end of the semester) and I know he tends to hide from the world and get very focused on work. I figured he would come up for air eventually and gave him his space. It was out of character for him, and I was puzzled. As time went by, though, it was more than could be explained by that excuse. I brooded and fretted, and realized that things were over, and that even if he didn't break things off, he was an asshole and not someone I should waste my time on. He did not make this easy, though, since and he had cut off all contact my only options were impersonal ones like email (which I didn't think he was checking, and there's no way I was going to send something like that to his work address), voice mail, letter, or text message. I decided to send a letter at the new year, if it came to that.
As I was boarding the flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco, I received an email from him. In it he stated that he had been under a lot of stress in November and December and had been extremely anti-social to friends and family, and hadn't checked his email in more than a month. During this time he realized that my birthday was coming up and that we hadn't talked in a while, and wondered why, and realized that he just hadn't felt like talking to me. This led to some reflection about our relationship and he realized he just "wasn't feeling it", which surprised him since it didn't make a lot of sense to him and he hadn't realized it before. He said that he didn't know where this left us (uh duh!!!) but that he would leave that up to me, and wished me well if he didn't hear from me.
Anyway, even though the message and the content didn't surprise me, the timing really sucked. I could do nothing on the flight but brood, compose my response to him, and read a novel that had seemed promising when I bought it but turned out to be really depressing. I couldn't call my friends, I couldn't call cowardude and call him an asshole, I couldn't cry, I couldn't exercise or burn off nervous energy, I couldn't throw stuff without causing a TSA incident, I couldn't take a bath or go on a cleaning frenzy. I could get drunk but I don't enjoy being drunk while flying, and it would've been expensive.
I did a lot of second guessing of my own actions during this time, and throughout our relationship. I was already well into brooding freakout mode by my birthday. If I had realized he wasn't checking his email at all I would've skewed more heavily towards calls. I don't think it would've changed anything - if it delayed his self-realization that would've actually been bad, but perhaps if I'd pestered him with lots of voice mails it would've gotten me some closure sooner. Or not.
I had judged him to be someone who was honest and direct, and who would tell me in a timely manner if he wanted out, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt for a long time. I knew about his tendency to hide from things on occasion, and that it had caused problems in other areas of his life, but did not realize that it could override the better aspects of his personality. I am definately better off without him, but it still hurts.
I spent yesterday visiting with friends and family, and it cheered me up immensely. Thanks to all of you for your support!
In a strange turn of events, I had made plans with T to have lunch yesterday. It was nice, and surprisingly normal, even under very weird circumstances. It was also a reminder that life goes on and things get better. In an even stranger turn of events, he had a relationship end recently under very similar circumstances, right down the the cryptic text messages and our relative inaction to the situation. (He was the one left wondering, not the one who disappeared.) So we commiserated about the whole weirdness of it all, and compared notes. (Take home message - be wary of people who are overly private about things that are completely non-sensitive bits of information.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies (according to CI)

I'm breaking the rules here a bit and posting a CI recipe that I've made before, because I'm trying to get into the holiday spirit and y'all really really needed to read a chocolate chip cookie recipe. Also, I'm posting it because I find it easier to look up recipes on my blog than to track down where I put the paper copy.
Anyway, CI calls them "The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies". They don't usually use superlatives, but in this case is warranted, as is the extra work.
There is a secret ingredient, sort of - browned butter. There is also a somewhat unusual mixing technique - you whisk the melted butter/sugar/egg mix for about half a minute, then let it rest for a few minutes, then repeat the cycle several times. Then you mix in the flour and chocolate chips, and bake the cookies one tray at a time. The other secret technique is to be really careful not to overbake these, although they still taste fine if you do. They come out nice and chewy and have a delightful carmelized flavor. I don't make chocolate chip cookies very often, but these are what I make if I want the archetypical chocolate chip cookies.

Chocolate Chip Cookies, a la CI
Makes about 30 large but not gigantic cookies

14 tbs butter, divided
3/4 c brown sugar
1/2 c sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 3/4 c flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 c chocolate chips
3/4 c nuts (optional)

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 375F. Line 3 cookie sheets with parchment paper or foil.
Mix flour and baking soda and set aside.

Heat 10 tbs butter in a skillet until melted. Continue cooking over medium-high heat, stirring, until it is golden brown and has a nutty aroma (1-3 minutes). Watch it carefully because it can get burnt very quickly.

Transfer butter to bowl and add remaining 4 tbs butter. When all butter is melted, add sugars and salt and mix. Add egg and egg yolk and whisk until all ingredients are blended, about 30 seconds. Allow mix to rest for 3 minutes and then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process 2 more times. The mix should be smooth and glossy. Stir in flour mix and then add chocolate chips and nuts.

Using a tablespoon, scoop out dough onto cookie sheets. Bake 1 tray at a time for appx 10 minutes, rotating halfway through, until cookies are golden brown and puffy The edges should be set but the centers are still soft. Watch them carefully since there is about a minute between underdone and crispy. Cool cookies on wire rack.

You're welcome.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Department Holiday Party/Chocolate Truffles a la CI

Some of the grad students decided to form an official chemistry department grad student organization. The main goal seems to be "MOAR FUD + BOOZ PLZ" That is an oversimplification, of course. Their goal is to have more social events, with food and booze, and more food (preferably bagels + cream cheese) at seminars, and they have been pretty enterprising in working towards this goal, fundraising, and making their funds stretch as far as possible.
They convinced the department to let them take over the organization of the holiday party and upped the amount of food that was purchased by supplementing with funds from their beer-mug sales. They also only ordered main dishes. To further increase the amount of food, they added a potluck component to it, as well as a best dessert competition. Many chemists like to cook, so it's not hard to convince us to bring something. Perhaps due to the dessert competition, there were a lot of desserts, as well as plenty of side dishes. They tried to hit up some of the faculty for booze funds - I'm not sure how successful they were at that, but they did convince me to contribute booze for the eggnog. They manned the alcohol table and set up a donation jar to collect money from their compatriots. One of them stopped at Trader Joe's when she was home at Thanksgiving and picked up a lot of "Two Buck Chuck" of various varieties, and charged a nominal fee to do a wine tasting/drinking. They ended up making money on that for their future events. (Note - we don't have Trader Joe's around here so not everyone knew how cheap it was. It's hard to find wine here for less than $7/bottle, even bad wine.)
I won the dessert competition. The voting may've been a bit skewed since not that many people voted but there was an enthusiastic contingent from my group. Anyway, I made dark chocolate truffles using a recipe from the latest issue of CI. They weren't perfect, due to some liberties I took with the recipe, but they had very good flavor. Anyway, without further ado, here's the recipe.

CI's Chocolate Truffles

12 oz bittersweet chocolate
2 tbs corn syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 tbs butter, divided into 8 pieces

1/4 c powdered sugar
3/4 c cocoa

Melt chocolate carefully in the microwave. Heat cream in microwave until it is warm but not hot. Add corn syrup and vanilla to cream and then stir it into the chocolate. Mix until blended and then add the butter one or two pieces at a time. Mix until blended.
Line a 8" x 8" pan with parchment paper and spray lightly with vegetable oil spray. Spread chocolate in pan and let it sit at room temperature for a few hours. (The slow cool will prevent the truffles from being grainy.) Place pan in fridge for a few hours, then cut into 64 1"X1" pieces.

Mix cocoa and powdered sugar and then roll the squares into balls and roll in the cocoa/sugar mix.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sugared and Spiced Nuts

My neighbors Rick and Kate had a party and I needed to bring an appetizer. Rick and Kate could be Martha Stewart's long lost twins. Their parties are pretty impressive, so I wanted to bring something tasty. Besides, I have a certain reputation to uphold amoung my neighbors. (That would be the reputation as a good cook, not the reputation as someone who gets drunk off her ass, which has also happened at a few parties. And let's not even mention the crazy cat lady reputation...)
I love to eat appetizers, but I don't have a go-to recipe. Asparagus wrapped in proscuitto works pretty well, but I brought that last time they had a party. I decided to play on my strengths and bring something sort of desserty that I didn't have to assemble immediately beforehand. I opted to make candied nuts. The added advantage is that I wouldn't have to buy anything since I always have nuts in my freezer. A quick internet search led me to Smitten Kitchen, as usual.
This recipe uses a mix of sugar, salt, cinnamon, and smoked paprika. You could use cayenne pepper instead of the paprika, or add a little of both, which is what I did, or add your own favorite blend of spices. An egg white is beaten with water, then mixed with the nuts. The sugar and spice mix is then mixed in and the nuts are baked. I added a little bit of vodka to give a little more liquid to give an even coating. I figured it would evaporate faster than if I'd used more water or egg white.
It was very easy and I got a nice, fairly even coating. After half an hour in the oven, the coating was nice and dried out and the nuts didn't stick together too badly. I let them cool and then stored them in a Ziplock bag. Once they had cooled, they were very tasty and addictive. I recommend you don't leave them lying around unless you have a fast metabolism or have a lot of people living in your house.
If I were making them again, I'd use less of the sugar coating (maybe 1/2 - 2/3) and decrease the amount of cinnamon and increase the amount of savory spice. I took most of them to the party, where they were all eaten. I saved a few for myself,and they are tempting me more than they should. Anyway, they're a winner and I will probably add them to my Christmas cookie and treat repertoire this year.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What I got for my birthday...

a partial and somewhat strange list, in no particular order

shrimp and grits and coconut chocolate banana cream pie - thanks Chris!
snow on the ground - thanks Mother Nature!
one freshly killed dead cardinal and world class playing with dead prey exhibition - uh, thanks, Lucy?!?!
a happy birthday song on my voicemail from a classroom of 4th graders - thanks Missy and co!
flowers - thanks T, a nice surprise but WTF?!?
a home depot gift card - thanks, Dad!
an owl T-shirt and the best card ever - thanks Missy and Kadin!
no card, phone call or email - thanks for nothing, and WTF, cowdude?!?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


I got a call from a florist today saying that they had some flowers for me but didn't want to leave them outside since it near freezing. I almost told them they had the wrong number since I have never ever received flowers from a florist.
Anyway, a few possibilities about the identity of the sender crossed my mind, none correct. The flowers were from none other than T (who, for the new readers, is my ex, who never did this when we were dating.)
Um, WTF?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Approaching 43

All I want for my birthday is a snow day, or at least a few inches of snow.* The latter may happen, although the former seems unlikely given the mild fall we've had this year.
As was the case with Thanksgiving, this is the first one in a few years that I can relax, work-wise. It's a good feeling. Last year I was coming off the NSF proposal/equipment installation and was still completely fried. The year before there was the looming layoff AND an interview on my birthday. Two years ago we had a first set of layoffs at my former company.

*I lied. For my birthday, I'd also like to know WTF is up with cowdude. This should not have to be something that needs to be a birthday wish, however. Two weeks ago he stopped answering my emails and calls. In a text message on Thanksgiving, he'd said he'd had a really rough two weeks. That is all I know. I hadn't done anything out of the ordinary. I know that there were some ugly politics going on at his work, and when things get stressful I know he needs lots of space and doesn't like to talk about it, so I've been keeping my distance. I'd assumed that if things weren't working and he wanted out, he'd let me know, but I think I may have been wrong. I'm not as in touch with my inner honey badger as I should be, so I'm biding my time and stewing and assuming that we have broken up, rather than being proactive on it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Black beans and rice

So easy, and so good. It's basically the recipe on the back of the can of Goya black beans, without the MSG. If I had known it would taste so good I would've tried it sooner.

1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans black beans (don't drain)
1 1/2 cups water
1 tbsp dried oregano
2 tbsp vinegar

1 cup rice, 2 cups water

Start cooking rice.
While rice is cooking, saute onion and bell pepper in olive oil until somewhat softened. Add garlic and saute until aromatic (30 seconds). Dump in beans, water, oregano, and vinegar. Bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve with rice. (I like to mix them together so that the rice has a change to absorb the bean liquid) You can also use it in burritos.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Something in the water, part 2

I just realized that there is a mini baby boom going on within the department. Just about every married guy that I know whose wife is under 40 is expecting a kid. Granted, it's not a huge number, but given the apparent fertility enhancing effect here I am glad that I am a dried up old biddy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

It's back: Painting boondoggle, Ithaca version!

I like to paint. At my California house, I'd painted every single interior and exterior surface at least once. Since I moved to Ithaca, my painting urge has been largely silenced by the fact that my house is painted fairly innocuous, tasteful shades of beige chosen by someone with better taste than me, and my experience painting the garage traumatized me. Nevertheless, I eventually started getting the urge. Innocuous beige is ok in most rooms, but I have different ideas for the bathrooms.
The downstairs bathroom is my first victim. Generic beige just didn't suit it. After somewhat less deliberation than usual (it's a lot easier to select a color for a room with no windows), I selected a mid-tone shade of plum and started painting.
After getting used to painting at my old house, it was a joy to paint the walls here. Even though I was doing semi-gloss in a dark color and didn't prime, it went on very smoothly and quickly and I probably could stop at one coat, if I were so inclined. Of course, I'm a little bit obsessive-compulsive, so I put on a second coat anyway. The bathroom is now the the same color as blueberry ice cream. It's a bit darker than I expected, but the room was cave-like even when it was beige. I may put a bigger light in over the mirror to brighten it up.
One reason I like to paint is that it requires just enough concentration to help me clear my mind of worries. I painted the exterior of my house after T broke up with me, and I found it very helpful. Unfortunately, as soon as I was done the layoff saga began. This time around, it was a distraction from brooding about cowdude and what to do there, but unfortunately it was a small job so it didn't give me enough of a break to be effective.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

More random old-biddy musings

We've had a very mild fall so far. Apart from two dustings of snow and a few cold days, temperatures have been above average. I alternate between being in denial about winter and looking forward to it.
My older cats are nowhere near as delusional. Rugrat and Luna won't go out when it's colder than a typical CA winter day. Lucy is young and feisty and has no such issues. She goes bolting out the door at full speed even when it's below freezing. I am curious to see what she does when there is a lot of snow on the ground.
The neighborhood bear is back, about a month later than last year. It knocked down a bunch of bird feeders and pooped on the neighbors' deck. So far it hasn't gone after my sewer cap yet.
I am looking forward to being able to relax over thanksgiving. I haven't been able to do so for the last two years. Last year I was working on the NSF proposal, and two years ago everything was up in the air with the layoff.

Pseudo-Indoor Pulled Pork, CI version: Better Living Through Chemistry

Today's CI experiment is indoor pulled pork. One of the great surprises to me when I moved to NC was how much I liked the local NC cooking, particularly the pulled pork and the okra. I'm not a huge barbeque person - I don't like ribs, I have to be in the right mood for barbeque sauce, and I was mostly vegetarian back then. Nonetheless, NC-style barbeque and I got along just fine. Pork is slow roasted, shredded and then seasoned with a vinegar sauce. There is no nasty ketsup or heavy sugary sauces involved.
I've been making my lazy old biddy pulled pork in the crockpot. I get a lean pork loin roast, rub it down and then cook it up in a bit of cider or beer and a drop or two of liquid smoke. It works ok and is pretty lean and healthy. The only problem is that it's just too lean and doesn't really go well with NC barbeque sauce. I wanted to test the CI recipe to see if it justifies the extra work or not. It was a good project for a Sunday afternoon.
The CI recipe relies on liquid smoke, and a lot of it. The pork is brined in a salt/sugar/liquid smoke mix, and then coated with a paste of dry mustard with more liquid smoke and rubbed with smoked paprika, sugar, salt, and pepper. It is then baked, covered, for 3 hours. The cover is then removed, the liquids drained off, and the pork returned to the pan and baked some more to dry it out and give it a crust. That's the theory.
In reality, it was fairly warm today so I put the pans on the grill. I know this sort of defeats the purpose of indoor pulled pork, but I wanted to take advantage of what is probably one of the last warm days of fall. I also used more meat, simply because a 10 lb shoulder roast was all I could find at the store, and it was sort of fatty. I used about 2/3 of it and had to use an extra pan.

Indoor/Outdoor Pulled Pork

Meat n Brine
1 "Boston Butt" roast, appx 5 lbs
1 cup table salt
1/2 cup sugar
3 tbs liquid smoke
4 quarts water

Wet Rub
1/4 cup dry mustard
2 tsp liquid smoke

Dry Rub
2 tbs smoked paprika (use regular if you don't have it)
2 tbs black pepper
2 tbs sugar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper

Slice roast in half at lengthwise so you have two flatter pieces of meat. Trim off most of the surface fat. Combine brine ingredients and heat until solids are dissolved. Add pork and brine for 2 hours in fridge.

Combine dry rub ingredients and set aside. Make a paste from the mustard, liquid smoke, and enough water to make to make a smooth paste.

Preheat oven or gas grill to 325F

Remove pork from brine, dry with paper towels, and coat with the wet rub and then the dry rub.
Line a roasting pan with foil. Place roasting rack in pan and put pork on rack. Cover with parchment paper and then cover pan tightly with foil. Plare meat on rack.(The parchment paper keeps the acidic mustard from eating holes in the Al foil. Who knew?!?)
Bake for 3 hours at 325. (I gave mine about 2 hours since my grill was a bit too hot. It was already pull-apart tender at this point) Remove foil and parchment paper and carefully drain cooking juices into a fat separator. (Either I didn't seal my pans well enough or the grill dries things out more. There was only fat. The cats were very interested in it) The meat was pretty tasty at this point, especially the greasy crispy end pieces I sampled. Return meat to oven and cook until it is browned and the internal temperature is at least 200F. CI says 1 1/2 hours, but it seemed done after about 30 minutes.
Remove meat from oven, place in bowl and tent with foil for 10 minutes. Pull apart with two forks and remove fatty pieces. Stir in some of your favorite BBQ sauce and enjoy.

It was very tasty, and very greasy. Fortunately, the vinegar sauce helps with that. I know that fat is necessary but this was excessive. I drained about a cup of melted grease off, plus there was all the fat that I cut off beforehand and all the fatty pieces that I picked out. When I make it again I'll try to get some meat with less fat. (I didn't have much selection today since most of the meat counter was filled with turkeys.)
The flavor was great - smoky and almost bacony, with a good outer crust and moist insides. Anyway, I made a simple non-authentic NC vinegar sauce (3/4 c rice vinegar, 1/4 c water, 1 tbs brown sugar, a pinch of red pepper flakes and a squirt of sriacha hot sauce) which tasted quite good on it.
So the take-home message is will I make it again? Probably, if I need it for a party or special occasion. It was a lot of work, and pretty messy. For more routine cooking, I may try using some of the tricks on a leaner cut of meat and cooking it in the crockpot. The crispy crust bits are tasty but not necessary for me.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More from the CI Experiment: Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Back at my former job, there was a cafeteria. Every week or so, they made roasted brussels sprouts. I don't know the exact secret, but I think they cooked them slowly. It stunk up the whole upper floor as all the sulfur compounds got cooked out of the sprouts. Keep in mind that the cafeteria was next to the chemistry lab, so it's not like weird odors were that unfamiliar. Nonetheless the brussels sprouts were very tasty.
I haven't had much success making them at home. They always came out overcooked. So I was intrigued with a recipe from CI. There is no secret ingredient this time, just a secret technique. The brussels sprouts are put on a baking sheet and covered with foil and steamed for 10 minutes, and then the foil is removed and the sprouts are allowed to roast. Without further ado, here's the recipe. You can make less if you want.

Roasted brussels sprouts
2 lbs brussels sprouts
3 tbs olive oil
1 tbs water
Heat oven to 500F and put rack in uppper half of oven. Trim brussels and cut in half. Toss with oil and water. Place cut side down on rimmed baking sheet and cover with foil. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the foil. Roast for another 10 minutes or so until they are cooked through and are nice and roasty on the outside.
Add salt and pepper to taste, or add your favorite toppings.

This worked pretty well. They were cooked though and not too burnt on the outside. More importantly, they didn't take that long and my whole house did not smell like sulfur. I'll definitely make it again. Nonetheless, they weren't as good as the ones from the cafeteria.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Honey badgers in grad school/the old biddy honey badger speaks

We've had a epidemic of stressed-out students. They're crying at the drop of a hat and taking off without telling their advisor that they'll be out. I can guess at some of the causes (second year stress, job search stress) but I don't think I know the whole story.
As a result, my boss (G), our sabbatical visitor (C) and me are having lots of old fogie/biddy conversations about "back in the day", i.e. when we were in grad school in the early 90's. I haven't been doing this long enough to know if the students are really that different or if I am just looking at my grad school experience with rose colored glasses, since I did have a relatively easy time of it, and was in one of the top groups in the world for my subfield. However, I think the biggest issue is that we have a few students who aren't in touch with their inner honey badger yet, and they're the ones having issues.
Grad school is not for the faint of heart or easily discouraged. One must be sort of like a honey badger in that regard. You have to be determined to get through, you have to be somewhat thick-skinned, and there are times when you can't let the minor and not so minor setbacks get to you and just keep working and powering through. So what if you don't catch the cobra - go eat a few mice while you regroup and keep trying for the big game.
When I was in grad school the whole group was a veritable den of honey badgers, and our advisor was a total honey badger himself. Of the people who left the group without graduating, most had adequate chemistry skills but none were honey badgers. There were a few assholes in the group, but it was mostly just determined people. There were times that we clashed with each other but apart from the few major assholes it was usually done and forgotten very quickly. In a way, it was a relief to be surrounded by other honey badgers. Perhaps not coincidentally, a disproportionate number of my groupmates from that era have gone on to do very well for themselves.
Keep in mind that when I describe someone as a honey badger, I am using grit and determination as my main definition, not being an asshole. There are some honey badgers who are assholes, and more who aren't.
There are some honey badgers here in G's group, but I'd like to see more of it. I'm not sure if this is related to the way that the millenials were raised, with grade inflation, trophies for participation, helicopter parents and less freedom to fail and learn from the experience.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I could've had a V8!

Today's Cook's Illustrated (CI) recipe is minestrone. It's from the January 2010 issue, which is especially good and has at least 5 recipes (out of 8) that I have tried or will try. Like most CI recipes, it's been optimized and there is at least one trick and weird ingredient. Today's tricks are brining the beans overnight, boiling them vigorously to get a nice thick broth, and removing the veggies after sauteeing them to keep them from getting too mushy while you boil the shit out of the beans. Today's secret ingredient is V8 added towards then end of cooking.
To make a long story short, it was ok but nothing to write home about, so I won't post the recipe. The tricks and V8 did work well, so if I make minestrone again I'll do that but use a different base recipe.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Something in the water

There must be something in the water in the chem department. There are a number of professors who are >80 years old and still going strong. My office neighbor is 83 or 84 and still comes in 6 days a week. His wife also works in the department, and around the same age. Upstairs there is another emeritus prof who still comes in most days. There's also a 90 year old and 100 year old, although the latter is actually retired and moved to Florida.
Whatever it is, I hope I get its benefit and enjoy many years of old biddydom. I can't guarantee that I will want to work past normal retirement age, but who knows. Perhaps that is the secret.
It may be a good place to get old, but it's seemingly dangerous to be a student here. In the time that I've been here there's been a death by fire, several by falling into the gorges, a couple of fatal alcohol poisonings, a car accident, and several deaths by natural causes. There haven't been any suicides, but there was a spate of them right before I got here. The email letter of condolence from the university president is an unfortunately frequent occurence. It seems like a lot more than I remember from grad or undergrad days, although the size of the student body is somewhat larger.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Beef Stew/November Gimmick

November is National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo) and No Shave November. Nanowrimo is off the table this year, since I am barely blogging or emailing anyone and get tired just thinking of writing a novel. As for No Shave November, I think I'll pass but many guys around here are starting their winter beards. My gimmick for November is to cook recipes from Cook's Illustrated (CI) and blog about them.
I've been subscribing for years, and I have the cookbooks and use them often. But somehow I rarely get around to cooking the recipes from the magazines, even though they usually come out really good. It's not that I don't want to, but there's a disconnect between my bathtime magazine reading and my dinnertime cooking. When I search for recipes I tend to go to the cookbooks or internet, not the magazines. My plan is to cook one or two recipes per week until I get tired of doing so.
The first recipe I tried was beef stew. Now, I've never been really pleased with my attempts at beef stew. I found them bland and runny. The Cook's Illustrated recipe claimed to get around the first problem with judicious use of glutamate containing ingredients like tomato paste, salt pork and anchovies - blech! The second problem was solved by a combination of flour and gelatine. I used my judgement and tweaked the recipe a lot. I added a lot of mushrooms and dash of soy sauce, which should add glutamates, and left out the tomato paste, salt pork and anchovies, as well as the pearl onions. (I have nothing against tomato paste but didn't have any lying around.) So anyway, without further ado, here's the modified recipe.

Old Biddy's Beef Stew with Wine and Mushrooms
3 lbs beef, cut into 1 - 1 1/2 inch chunks (I used precut stew meat but CI recommends a chuck roast)
2 tbs olive oil
1 onion, quartered and sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 lb root vegetables, cut into 1/2" slices (I used parsnips but carrots would work fine)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup flour
2 cups red wine (I used burgundy)
2 cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1 lb red potatoes, cut into 1" pieces
12 oz mushrooms, quartered (I used baby portabellas)
2 cups frozen peas
1 packet gelatine, softened with 1/4 c cold water
salt, pepper and soy sauce to taste

Preheat the oven to 350F and put a rack in the middle. In large dutch oven (no, not THAT kind of dutch oven!), brown the beef. You should split it into two portions and use about 1 tablespoon olive oil for each batch. When the second batch is done, dump in the onions and root veggies and cook until the onions are soft (several minutes) Add the garlic and saute briefly until aromatic (30s), and then add the flour. Stir until the flour has coated the meat/veggies (30s) and then add the wine and broth. Bring to a boil and add the bay leaves and potatoes. Cover and put it in the oven. After about an hour, add the mushrooms. Cook for another hour or so until everything is soft enough, and then remove from the oven. Place pot on stove and bring to a simmer. Add peas and gelatine. Cook for 3 minutes or so until peas aren't cold and the mixture has thickened slightly. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and a dash of soy sauce.

Anyway, it smelled really good while it was cooking and did not disappoint me - it was everything I was aiming for, flavor and texture wise. It was very thick and had a nice beefy/winy flavor - sort of like beef burgundy. The beef was nice and tender and stringy in that tasty stew way. I probably could've added the potatoes later, when I added the mushrooms. They got really soft and fell apart, but it did help thicken things.
Next time I'll use more mushrooms and root veggies, and I'll probably make it on a slightly larger scale since it came out so well and makes prime leftovers.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Just in time for Halloween..

I didn't intend to do a special Halloween recipe post, but it just sort of happened. Last night I decided to make some sesame cookies, so I did. That's not really the blog-worthy part. I made the dough, rolled them into logs and rolled the logs in sesame seeds. Along the way I began to notice something funny. Totally without intending it, I was making cat turd cookies. Granted, the color was wrong, but the shape and texture resembled cat turds rolled in kitty litter. They did not look like that in the recipe, but I guess I made them longer and skinnier. And I have three cats, including a very constipated one, who coincidentally had to go to the vet today. And for the vet visit I needed to take along a stool sample. So at the end of the evening I had a large bag of cookies that looked like cat turds, and an actual small bag of cat turds. I wasn't too grossed out to eat the cookies, but if I make them again I am going to shape them into balls, and skip the sesame seeds.
Anyway, since I am sick and twisted and happen to know that one of you lives with a bunch of evil cats and is having a halloween party, I decided to share the experience. So, if you should decide to make cat turd cookies for a Halloween party, take the above recipe, skip the anise and add a spoonful or two of cocoa, roll the cookies in sesame seeds, and bake. Serve the cookies on a plate covered with sesame seeds for the ultimate in gross looking party food.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Beet Craving

When I was a kid, my mom used to keep canned beets in the cupboard. Ever so often, usually at night, she would announce that she had a beet craving and open a can and chow down. I have no clue why she'd get beet cravings - perhaps a mineral deficiency? I can't say I get cravings for canned beets, but I do take after my mom and like beets.
There are several simple and foolproof ways that I prepare them.

Easy pickled beets
Peel beets and slice in half. Set them flat side down on the cutting board and cut them into very thin slices. Add balsamic vinegar and stir so that all the beets are coated. Store in fridge at least a day. Stir once or twice if you remember. The beets will tenderize up a bit. They are tasty by themselves or on top of a salad. Drizzle some of the beet flavored vinegar over the salad for added tastiness

Roasted beets
I never made these until last night. They're actually very easy. Wash beets well and trim off all but an inch or so of the greens. Place beets on a piece of foil and seal it up into a packet. Stick it on a cookie sheet and roast them in a 400F oven until they are tender - maybe an hour or so, depending on the size of the beet. Allow to cool and then remove skins (you may want to use a paper towel to do this so you don't stain you fingers.) Eat them as is, use them in salads or serve with flavorings of your choice.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Linguine with Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, Lemon, and Garlic

I originally wasn't going to blog about this recipe, since it's pretty simple and straight out of the Foodie, Formerly Fat cooking blog. It's one of those alchemical recipes in which the final dish is a lot greater than the sum of its parts. Garlic and cherry tomatoes are sauteed, and then broth, lemon juice, and basil are added. The sauce is then mixed with linguine. It was originally from a diet cookbook, but trust me - I will never make it when I am seriously dieting, because I can't stop eating it. There's something about the lemon that really makes it taste great. Anyway, without further ado, here's the recipe. I upped the amount of tomatoes and basil and decreased the amount of pasta relative to the amounts given here. If I am unable to resist its charms while I am on a diet, I will cook precisely one serving of pasta and mix it with the entire amount of the sauce, or have lots of dinner guests so that there are no leftovers.
Without further ado, here's the recipe. There are some nice pictures on the link if you are so inclined.

Linguine with Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, Lemon, and Garlic
1 lb of linguine
4 garlic cloves
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup broth (chicken or vegetable)
Juice of one lemon
1 lb cherry tomatoes (or grape tomatoes), halved
3/4 cup fresh basil


Turn on the heat under a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, in a frying pan heat the oil, the garlic (crushed and minced), and the tomatoes. Saute gently over medium heat. When the pasta is just about halfway cooked, squeeze the lemon juice into the frying pan, add in the broth, and then toss in the basil. Stir to combine.
Under-cook the pasta just a tiny bit and toss it into the frying pan and allow it to soak up the liquid in the pan.
Serve hot with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

Parking Pass Ponderings: Getting in Touch with my Inner Slug

I finally got a permit to park close to the chem department. This is a huge deal. Parking is tightly enforced and many spots are off limits even on nights and weekends. Due to construction they were only letting faculty purchase the better parking permits. As a result I was parking in the free lot, which was about 3/4 mile away. I liked the walk, which is quite pretty but hated the inconvenience, both not having my car close by and also having my overall commute time be about an hour per day (more in winter). The unexpected outcome was that it wrecked havoc with my exercise schedule and I gained weight. Why? I'm still not entirely sure. As far as I can tell it's a lot of little things. The gym was on my way to the parking lot, so that should've been good. The 1 1/2 mile walk every day certainly did help mitigate the fact that I wasn't working out, but it had the side effect of making me very hungry, more so than could be attributed to the walk itself. To go to the gym it became a question of lugging my gym bag, backpack, and lunch bag to and fro, and what to do with my wallet and computer when I was at the gym, and by 7 pm I'm usually cranky and hungry and want to go home. The preferred option was to go around 6:30, right before I turned into an evil hungry slug, and then come back to lab, finish stuff up, and then go home. However, making a separate trip, then coming back to lab, then going home, meant that I was walking almost 2 1/2 miles not even including my workout. Regardless of whether I worked out or not, I was crazy hungry by the time I got home, and usually long before then. Although I knew that these things were playing a role, most of the time I assumed that it was my work schedule or general laziness and old age that were making me not want to go to the gym.
The construction was finished and they started letting people on the wait list buy passes. I did not hesitate and got mine immediately. As if by magic, all of a sudden I started going to the gym again. I don't get crazy hungry late in the day, either, although it's only been a few days so it may be coincidental.
If I had been able to buy a permit when I first got here, I'm sure I wouldn't even be questioning my motives, but the irony of buying an expensive parking pass and replacing my daily walk with a somewhat more intense workout 3 or 4 times a week doesn't escape me. But whatever - honey badger don't care.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

2 +1

When I was thinking about getting another cat, I read that it was a bad idea to have odd numbers of cats, since they pair up and one ends up as the odd cat out. I fully expected this to happen with Rugrat and Lucy, but didn't think that Luna would mind being the odd cat out, since it would mean that Rugrat would pester her less.
However, this hasn't really happened. The cats spend most of their time divided into a group of 2 and a loner cat, but the composition of the groups is really fluxional. In general it's about equally divided between Lucy and Luna or Lucy and Rugrat, with a smaller portion of time spent as a group of three or with Lucy off on her own.

Reflections on Fall, part 1

We've had a mild fall so far. It's been warm - in the 60's and 70's during the day and in the 50's at night. Yesterday it was in the low 40's and rainy, but we still haven't gotten the first frost. Luna and Rugrat are still California cats at heart and refuse to go outside when the weather starts to resemble a California winter day. Lucy, aka Ithacat, does not have this problem.
My yard is full of creatures, both little and big. There is an abundance of squirrels, chipmunks, mice and voles. Lucy caught 3 last weekend. I don't know if she caught anything this weekend, since I've been keeping the door closed. Yesterday I saw a large fox in my back yard, perhaps attracted by all the small critters. It looked at me and then took off into the woods. There are larger animals too. The geese are back, and the turkeys come through every morning. Last weekend there was a deer out back, and I'm waiting for the semi-annual bear announcement from my neighbors.
There is a odd symmetry to the colors outside, In spring, white snow gives way to yellows - daffodils, forsythia, etc. Then come the purples and reds - lilacs, peonies, and roses, as well as green everywhere. As summer shifts into fall, the yellows and whites make an appearance again in ragweed, wild asters, and falling leaves, until it all fades into the grey-white of late fall.

Ithaca Apple Festival

Ithacans are fond of their festivals. In general, there is a theme, but it's also an excuse for food, shopping and people watching.
This weekend is the apple festival. This is the first festival that I've attended twice - I guess I am well on my way towards being an old timer (as well as an old biddy).
Anyway, the apple festival features apples + tasty calorie-enhanced apple products, wine and cider, and a large number of non-apple food vendors. There are also arts + crafts + gifty stuff for sale, and a few carnival rides for kids.
I went with some of the grad students last year. It was a picture-perfect fall day - clear and crisp and not too cold. I bought a peck of apples and some cider, and had to haul it all up the hill.
This year I went with cowdude. Unfortunately, the weather was not so cooperative this time around - 40F with wind and rain. Did I mention that it's been in the 60's or 70's for the last few weeks? Needless to say, no one is acclimated to the cold yet. We walked around and checked it out, and I bought apples. Despite the cold, it was still very crowded, and the lines at the really popular food vendors (hello, pumpkin funnel cake, where have you been all my life?!?!) were way too long. It was dinner time anyway, so we opted to go eat at a Mexican restaurant across the street and get out of the cold.
It's slightly warmer today. I may have to go back and get that pumpkin funnel cake, after all.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Honey Badger vs U R Doin It Wrong

As some of you know, I'm all about the internet honey badger meme now. It started off innocently enough - a nature video redubbed in a much more amusing way. I got a good laugh out of it. The basic premise is that the honey badger is pretty fearless in going after its prey, except that the following phrases are used - "Honey badger don't care. Honey badger don't give a shit/fuck." Etc Etc. (Don't make me describe it, just go watch it in all of its silly glory.) Later, they brought up the meme over at The Pursuit of Harpyness, as a sort of shorthand for fighting for what one wants/standing up for oneself/not backing down/not worrying too much about the opinions of others. Then I was hooked. I need to get in touch with my inner honey badger. The honey badger is currently sharing the post of my spirit animal with cats and owls.
Of course, in 2011 America we don't need any reminders to be self-centered or agressive, but that's not why I like the honey badger meme. As women, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, AND get a lot of pressure from outside, to do things a certain way, be a certain way, live our lives on a certain timeline, not be too agressive, not be too passive, etc, etc. Most of you probably know what I mean. I am going to call this U R Doin It Wrong. We get this in pretty much every facet of our lives, and it's hard not to internalize it, even if you're a cynical old biddy like me. To this I say, "Honey badger don't care."

Heavy Cream Two-fer: Chocolate Chip Scones and Cream Cake

One thing that's nice about living in upstate NY is that milk and cream are a lot cheaper than in CA. A gallon of milk is around $2. A quart container of heavy cream is $3.50-$4.00. I don't buy it often, but decided to get some for baking.

Biscuits and scones can be made with a mix of cream and butter, rather than all butter. This seems to be common in older recipes. I've never tried this before but now that I can get cream cheaply I decided to try it. I made some scones using a recipe from my favorite cookbook.

Chocolate Chip Cream Scones

2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp sugar

4 tbsp cold butter
1/2 c chocolate chips (or currants, raisins, crystallized ginger, or blueberries)

1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 c heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425F
Combine flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add butter and cut into small pieces (the size of a pea or smaller). Add chocolate chips (or other chunky ingredients) and then add egg and cream. Mix until barely blended, and then transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead it briefly until it just starts to for, a rough ball. Shape it into a ball. At this point you can roll it out and cut it, but it is easier to just put it in a greased round pie or cake pan, flatten it out, and then cut it into 8 wedges. Transfer wedges to a cookie and bake until golden, about 25 minutes.
The scones came out well. They were tender, flaky, and had a delicate flavor. Were they better than scones made with butter? Not really, but they were just as good. I felt like they stayed fresh a bit longer, but that might've also been due to the egg.
I liked the recipe better because I found the slightly wetter dough to be easier to work with. As some of you know, I'm not all that good at making biscuits, pie crusts, etc, because I did not grow up in the South did not grow up eating them because my mom also lacks the biscuit gene. Any tricks to make the process easier are fine by me.

The second recipe I tried was a simple cake. Unlike the scone recipe, this one uses no butter at all. Eggs are beaten, sugar and vanilla are added, and then the dry ingredients and cream are added in portions, alternating between dry and wet. I followed the recipe, except that I added extra vanilla and about a teaspoon of almond extract. I also ran out of flour, so I was a little bit short on that.
The cake puffed up nicely and turned golden, but then deflated when I took it out of the oven. I suspect that the right amount of flour would help. Anyway, OM NOM NOM! I didn't share the first cake with the grad students. It's more like a pound cake than a typical layer cake, and is kind of dense, but it's nice and moist and has a very pure, clean flavor. It was even better the next day. It would be absolutely divine with strawberries and whipped cream.
I made the cake again. This time I doubled the recipe, used the proper amount of flour, and sprinkled slivered almonds on top. It did not deflate this time, and was a lot lighter, more like a traditional cake, but was slightly drier. I may lower the amount slightly the next time I make it. The almonds tasted really good on top. This time I shared it with the students.
This experiment reminded me that in baked goods, butter does impart a flavor, and at times this may detract or distract from the flavor of the item. In addition, extra eggs are often added to provide moisture and emulsifiers, and they too impart a flavor. It reminded me of when I was a little kid - I didn't like anything that was too eggy and buttery (I hated pound cake, believe it or not.) I will definitely try more cream-based baking in the future.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In memory of a former colleague

Today I got an email from a former coworker of mine 'A', telling me that his wife, 'B', who was also a coworker, had passed away last month. He said that they were married recently, and have a 3 year old daughter. She was 49.
They were both extremely private people, and he didn't give any details, and I did not find any in the obituary listing. I do not know how much of the secrecy was inherent in B's personality, and how much was due to them starting their relationship when they were coworkers and A was possibly still married to someone else - I suspect it was a bit of both.* Our former company was a bit of a fishbowl in that regard and I can totally understand the need for secrecy. Even after they had both moved to Southern California, they did not let it slip that they were together, and the first official mention that they were together was in the email telling me that she had died. I'm not one for wearing my heart on my sleeve, but that in itself makes me profoundly sad.
It is kind of weird to write about someone who was so private and whom I did not know well. I worked with B for several years, but I did not know her that well. I always assumed that she was several years younger than me, based on when she graduated and the fact that she looked younger, but today I found out she was actually seven years older than me. She had a dry sense of humor, and managed to stay out of the office politics with grace and dignity. Her death hit me hard, even though we hadn't spoken in several years.

* I've got good old biddy relationship radar when it comes to speculating on people's love lives, but I deliberately turn it off and keep my mouth shut when it comes to people who are friends first. Although I know this often leads to relationships, I turn a blind eye and resist the urge to gossip simply because back in the day it used to piss the hell out of me when people assumed that my male friends and I were sleeping together.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remnants of Lee Twofer: Chocolate Chip Coffeecake and Rice Pudding

On Wednesday afternoon and evening we got hit with the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. It wasn't too bad here in Ithaca - there was flooding in the low-lying areas, and Cornell was closed on Thursday morning, but we got off really lightly compared to surrounding areas.
Anyway, it was dumping rain when I went home Wednesday night, and my fridge/freezer/cupboards were abnormally empty. Having a sore back for a week and a half folllowed by a trip to CA apparently had cut into my grocery shopping. I opted to go right home instead of going to Wegman's, since that area seems to flood.
Rainy or cold weather makes me want to cook, so I decided to bake a chocolate chip coffeecake for the students. I had in mind something like the Hobee's blueberry coffeecake, but with chocolate chips. I used a recipe from Smitten Kitchen. It was pretty simple - a sour creme coffeecake batter is layed with a mix of chocolate chips, sugar, and a bit of cinnamon. I was lazy and didn't separate the eggs, but other than that I followed the recipe.
It came out pretty well. My sense of taste is off due to a cold, and perhaps I was still imagining the really cinnamony Hobee's coffee cake, so it seemed chocolately but somewhat bland to me. If I make it again I'll add a lot more cinnamon. The students really liked it. They're an easy crowd, but this was definitely above-average to them. When I bake with chocolate I don't always share with them, so perhaps that is the reason for the compliments.
I also made some diet rice pudding. This one is a winner, even to my malfunctioning taste buds. It assumes you don't have any leftover rice on hand. (I rarely do since I don't cook it often) If you do use leftovers, skip right to the second step.) Here's the recipe, adapted from one I found on the internet.

Old Biddy's Diet Rice Pudding

1/2 cup short grain rice
2 cups water
2 cups milk
Splenda and vanilla (to taste)*
Raisins (optional)

Cook rice in water until all water is absorbed. Add milk and simmer on low heat until thick (about 30 minutes) (If you're going to use sugar and/or raisins, add it with the milk)*. Stir occasionally. Transfer to bowl and let it cool for a few minutes. Add in Splenda and vanilla.
Mmmm mmm mmm - so creamy! The texture is great. I'm not crazy about the artificial sweetener, though. Even so, it didn't last long. When I make it again I'm just going to use an absolute minimum of sugar. Continuing on the more spice theme, I'll probably add come spices (cinnamon + nutmeg, or throw a chai teabag in there while it cooks)

* I think that 1/3 to 1/2 cups sugar ought to be about right if you are going to use sugar rather than splenda.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Old Biddy Speaks: Facebook Ex-etiquette

Dear Facebook Ex's who happen to be named T,
If your ex posts a completely innocent picture of a raging waterfall near her office, do not try to be funny and make a snarky comment asking if I am sorry I left California. I happen to love the water, and the waterfalls and gorges, but I am not going to stoop to a Facebook debate with you. Anyway, I can only conclude that you are one or more of the following things
a) trying to be funny but sounding like an asshole
b) have a completely CA-centric view of the world
c) are secretly pissed off that I am happy here and/or are trying to stir up Facebook drama
In any case, I do not do Facebook ex drama, at least not on Facebook itself, so I am channeling my inner honey badger and not giving a shit.
But for future reference, here are Old Biddy's Rules for Facebook Ex-etiquette.

1. Defriend the person immediately, even if you are going to try to still be friends in real life. It's just TMI and Facebook stalking fodder at first, anyway. I should've done this, and will do it for future exes, if necessary.

2. If you don't want to defriend each other, use some discretion in what you write on their Facebook page. Write nothing and like nothing at first. Later you can use your judgement, but be forewarned that anything the least bit snarky/assholish/just plain weird will be subject to discussion.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Blogging from a Train: Dinner with T

I’m a train going up to Sacramento now. It’s a little slower than driving, but cheaper than a rental car and I can goof off and blog.
I had dinner with T at his new house last night. I was sort of nervous, but in a different way than usual. In the past I was nervous that it would be weird or emotional. This time I wondered if perhaps we were just going through the motions and it would be better just to skip it. However, it was ok. It was nice to see him, and good to catch up, but I did not feel sad, melancholy, or annoyed with him afterwards, so that’s a big and positive change.
T looks a lot older now, and is balder and greyer. (Just an observation – I look older too and I’m fatter so I shouldn’t really be too snarky here.) Although he was in good shape, I didn’t feel attracted to him, so that was good too. And, unlike before, I didn’t really give a damn whether he was attracted to me or not.
He bought a fixer upper a bit over a year ago, and has been fixing it up very slowly. I am very amused that it’s taken him WAY longer to finish his bathroom remodel than it took me. He is a bit less smug and overconfident about remodeling projects now. It made me really glad that I opted for the new monster house rather than the fixer upper in Ithaca, and was glad that I could afford to do so there, when I could have never afforded it in the Bay Area without having to do a really long commute.
We talked a lot, but, as always, we didn’t talk about our current love lives. If he had asked, I would’ve told him about cowdude, but he didn’t ask. I did mention cowdude several times in the course of the evening in other contexts (‘my friend’) – if T read between the lines he might figure it out. Yes, T and I are both avoidance masters in that regard.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t know where things are going with cowdude, but he has really helped me get over T and I am extremely grateful to him for that.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hella easy crock pot burrito chicken

Today's recipe is that much sought after but rarely achieved combination of extremely easy, healthy, cheap and tasty. I've made it twice in the last few weeks. It comes out a lot more tender in the crockpot than when I've cooked it on the stovetop. It's good in burritos or by itself with a side of beans or rice.

Crock pot salsa chicken
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/2 jar of your favorite salsa (I like the green kind)
any other seasonings you want

Cut chicken into large chunks. Put in crockpot. Add salsa.* Cook for about 4 hours or until chicken is soft and cooked though. It will be almost pull-apart tender.

Makes about 4-5 servings. Keeps well for tasty leftovers.

You don't need to cover the chicken with salsa - it will be too watery if you do. It's not a problem if it is, but I'd rather save some of the salsa for the burritos.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Irene and Ilene/Old Biddy is old

As you may know if you've been watching the news, Hurricane Irene and an earthquake passed through the east coast this past week. The earthquake was more of a curiosity than anything else. The interesting thing is that they can be felt from much greater distances here, due to a lack of fissures in the earth to dissipate the force. So it's not unusual that people in Detroit felt an earthquake in Virginia, but it is highly unlikely that people in SF would feel a similar sized earthquake in LA.
Hurricane Irene took aim at the I95 corridor. I'm not a big fan of hurricanes or tornados - I kind of prefer natural disasters for which I don't get advance warning. We're far enough inland and north that there isn't much danger of us getting anything hurricane force, but we do get the edges of things that hit Boston or NYC. Fortunately for everyone, Irene did not hit with nearly the force that was anticipated. At the moment we're getting a lot of rain and wind. I'm using it, and my sore back, as an excuse to be lazy.
I am getting old. I have noticed that if I run hills or do a vigorous downhill hike, I am prone to tweaking my back later that day or the next day. It's not a problem if I just run flats, but here in Ithaca that pretty much limits me to the track or the treadmill. I did it on Monday, and then retweaked it worse on Friday. It hurt to walk and I had a pronounced lean to my left. So in my case, Hurricane Irene really should've been called Hurricane Ilene.
Cowdude and I were supposed to go to the New York State Fair yesterday. Due to my trip to CA later this week and the bad weather today, yesterday was the only day we could've gone. (Cowdude may have to do booth duty there next weekend.) I was really looking forward to it because I like state fairs, and because I was curious to see Cowdude in his element. Unfortunately, walking long distances and sitting for long periods was not in the cards yesterday. So Cowdude came to my place instead and we had a relaxing evening and waited out part of the hurricane. He gave me an extremely good massage and popped my back, which got rid of the lean and a lot of the pain.
While I welcome the massages, at the moment I'm not crazy about this getting old business. I like the wisdom, maturity, and better financial situation, and I accept the wrinkles, slowing metabolism, and grey hairs as part of the process, but I really don't like the aches and pains. Between my bad knees, carpal tunnel syndrome, this back thing, and the tendinitis in my shoulder,* I can't swim, run, play soccer, or do certain yoga/pilates/weight training exercises. Not coincidentally, I have gained a few lbs since moving here, and feel like I'm in a catch 22 situation where I need to lose weight to help with the back/knee issues but that is a lot harder with most of my preferred exercise options not possible at the moment. I was in a similar situation before and immediately after my knee surgery. It's too early to tell, but I hope that physical therapy will help to at least get me back into the pool, which was what helped me to get over the hump and get back in shape after knee surgery.

*Note to the unaware: All my health complaints are due to exercise or work. None are from lying around being a slug. Not that it matters one way or another, but sometimes I wonder how I would be physically if I had not exercised very much after childhood and not stayed in the lab after graduation. I suspect I would have be less physically sore but might be more at risk for heart attacks, diabetes, etc. So it's dammed if you do, damned if you don't.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hands Pants Syndrome

Dear Freshman Guys of Cornell,
Please keep your hands out of your pants while you are walking around North Campus during daylight. You will not impress any women that way. Really. If you need to adjust your trousersnake, at least put your hands in your pockets or do it from the outside of your pants.
Old Biddy

Classes start today, and so North Campus is once again full of freshmen when I am walking to the parking lot in the evening. For reasons I do not fully understand, there seems to be an epidemic of guys walking around with their hands in their pants/shorts. Really. Now I am an Old Biddy, but I am also a veteran crotch watcher and certified kilt inspector, so I know this is a new thing. The question is why. Is it related to the cut of this year's fashions? Have they perhaps been watching "Jersey Shore" too much and picking up bad habits from it? Is the class of 2015 especially well-endowed? Is there a new, highly itchy STD going around? Are they copying famous rappers even though they are a white boy wearing pants which are in no danger of falling down? Inquiring minds want to know, but in the meantime, please keep it in your pants, and keep your hands out of there.
I am apparently not the first person to notice this, as a quick Google search informed me.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Late Summer Musings

I've only experienced one Ithaca fall, and five Boston falls, but in my limited experience there isn't an extended "Indian summer" phase like there usually is in CA. Of course, it is quite possible that I just didn't notice it, since I am calibrated to think of even the slightest shift as a change in season.
In any case, it feels like fall now, even when we get a fairly warm day. We had a few weeks of relatively hot weather in July, but then something shifted about two weeks ago and it started feeling like fall. The air is different and I can see the leaves turning at the top of a tree outside my office. Classes start this week.
It has now been a year since I first started corresponding with Cowdude, although there was a month in there when we each assumed the other wasn't interested, due to one of my messages getting lost in cyberspace. I am not sure how a year in cowdude/old biddy time translates into normal couple time, so it's hard to calibrate. I like him a lot, but the schedule/distance thing sucks at times. We need to have the "where is this going" conversation soon, preferably before the semester gets too crazy. I'm still in that intermediate zone emotionally and am in no hurry, but it would be good to figure out if we are on the same page or not. In any case, I trust him and don't think I'd bear him any ill will if we want different things.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dear Talbots: Thank you

Dear Talbots,
Today I received your catalog in the mail. Although I am a bit too young, too cheap, and too much of a slob to be part of your core target audience, I do occasionally frequent your store due to the fact that there isn't very much good shopping in Ithaca and when you put stuff on sale you don't mess around. I appreciate that. I also appreciate the fact that you actually put pockets in skirts, and carry larger sizes.
Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were some models in there who were larger than a size 2 and some who were older than me. Note to all retailers - this did not make the clothes look any less attractive, and did not make me any less likely to buy them - probably the opposite. Models do not need to be size 0 to model clothes. As with all your other clothes, I will wait until it's on sale and then buy it, but that's just me. Keep up the good work with the catalog models.
Old Biddy

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


You can't change thermodymanics - it's the law. You can, however, add a catalyst to lower the activation barrier and speed up the reaction. I've spent my career looking for new kinds of catalysts for chemical reactions.
It also works with cats. Rugrat is still playful but at age 14 the activation barriers have gotten higher, especially during the winter. I bought lots of cat toys, but she wasn't interested. She was so bored that she would yowl for attention at random times and would watch TV whenever it was on. With the advent of spring the yowling ceased but she was still bored.
With the advent of Lucy, however, that changed. At first, she just watched Lucy play and run around. After a while, though, she started to join in. Toys that were not interesting to her before suddenly became the most interesting things in the world. This led to a few skirmishes, when Lucy would chase after the toy at full speed and get a little too close for comfort. Ultimately, though, that became part of the game, and gives Rugrat an excuse to swat Lucy and chase her under the couch. Luna's more consistent with the toys - things that were interesting before are still interesting, but she too likes to chase Lucy and let her know who's boss. For her part, it's all a big game to Lucy.
Anyway, I had expected Lucy to keep Rugrat entertained, and for them to be buddies, but I hadn't expected her to be as much of a catalyst as she is.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Crankypants August continues

If the Discovery Channel can have "Shark Week", then I'm going to claim Crankypants August, because I am sort of cranky these days. I could've have used those extra few days of vacation last week but instead I got fussy lab equipment and 'memory leakage' in some of the software.
Anyway, I'm cranky at my lab equipment, and at lab equipment, software and computers in general. It needs to work, but right now too much of it doesn't. None of this is my fault, but I tend to second guess myself nonetheless. It tends to go in phases, and at the moment it is acting up, which makes me write cranky blog posts. Consider yourself warned. I may delete some of the posts after a few days, and will not publicize them on Facebook unless they're funny.
Anyway, I am cranky at T. This is unusual since I haven't wasted any energy being cranky at him in a while. However, it is Crankypants August so my tolerance is low. I am tired of having T tell me all summer via IM that he's been meaning to call me. The first few times it didn't make an impression, and I didn't comment one way or another on it. After all, I haven't called him either and I don't plan to. But now it's starting to piss me off. He's welcome to call, but if he keeps telling me that he's been meaning to without actually calling it starts to make me feel like this is some sort of obligation that he doesn't really feel like doing and/or he is trying to make himself feel like he is such a nice guy for staying in touch with me. Last year he did a few courtesy calls, but I think they were strictly that. When the calls went to my voice mail and I called back later, I inevitably got his voice mail and no return call. I suspect this is more of the same, but there is no reason for it. I'm 3000 miles away and I have moved on, but nonetheless I don't like feeling like I'm the courtesy/obligation call.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

F*&K You New York Times "Trend" articles

Dear Parents of College-Bound High School Students,
For the sake of your own sanity, I recommend avoiding reading any NYT trend pieces about what extreme measures prep school kids are taking to get into college.
Old Biddy

Dear everyone else who does not make >$500,000/year,
Avoid all the NYT trend pieces about what really rich white people in Manhattan are doing. It will make you all ragey.
Old Biddy

Don't get me wrong, I like to read the NYT, especially on-line or when I can get it for free on campus. I know they cater to a mostly NYC, mostly financially secure crowd. But do we really need more front page trend pieces about how rich people are spending their money? I'll use high school kids and their parents as an example, since I am far enough removed that it is easy to see the irony in it without getting jealous or freaked out. There are similar trend pieces for single people, retired people, etc. There are elements of truth in it, but it may not be particularly widespread. Unfortunately, it's like rubbernecking a train wreck, and I inevitably read them and feel sort of dirty afterwards. So I am channeling this into blog fodder. Anyway, back to the mythical NYC prep school kids. Their parents are now sending their kids to camp via private airplane, hiring pricy tutors for their kids who are already going to pricy prep schools, or arranging super-duper extra special summer activities for their kids to improve their chances of getting into college, usually with the help of counsultants who will arrange things for a fee.

In the typical article, 90% focuses on the expensive activity and why people think it's necessary, and 10% is about how not everyone can afford to do this and 'maybe' it's not really necessary. It's so far over the top that it's usually comical, at least to an old biddy who doesn't live in NYC. For instance, in the article about the kids going to summer camp via private planes, one parent interviewed complained about how pervasive it was and how that completely ruined the summer camp experience, and then in the next line, the article said they now send their kids to camp in Europe. Uh WTF?
Summer camp is one thing, but articles about the college admission process must freak out parents of high school students. Apparently, hiring tutors for 15-20 hours/week is quite common* even for kids who are doing well, as is paying counselors to help with the essay or arrange for extra-enriching summer activities guaranteed to increase your chances of getting into Harvard or one of my fine alma maters/employers. Apparently, the days of working a typical summer job are over, and even the cushy internships at your parents or parents' friends investment banking firms aren't helping your chances. (No surprise to the latter part.) Once again, a token paragraph or two is devoted to 'maybe this is not necessary', including quotes from college admissions people, who, quite shockingly, suggest that this is not necessarily any more helpful than a summer job at an ice cream place or doing sports.
Uh duh - I'm sure these things look better than just spending all summer hanging out at the mall, but they don't necessarily look better than working a regular summer job to save money to go to college. But if I were average suburban middle class parent with a kid in high school, I might be freaking out. So avoid the NYT until your kid is in college.
I think that the New York Time should hire me as a writer and I will do smack-downs of their trend pieces. My first one will take on the college admission process. Here's a basic synopsys.

Parents of High School Kids Need to Chill Out
by Old Biddy, Ph.D.
If your kid is in a good high school, either public or private, and has great grades and test scores, and has suitable interests/hobbies outside school, they will get into a good college. They may not get into their first choice, or your first choice, but they will still get in somewhere good. The extra tutoring/admissions counselors/summer activities 'may' help a little bit for one or two schools, or it may not, but it's not going to make or break their chances, because, shocking as it may seem, not everyone can afford to do these things and college admissions officers actually know this. Shocking as it may seem, they may not even want to admit a whole class full of rich kids from Manhattan. Your kid might get a leg up over another rich kid from Manhattan who spent the summer at the Hamptons tanning, but it's not going to guarantee anything against the applicant pool as a whole. Your kid might actually have a better chance if you moved to Kansas or Montana and sent them to public school.
If your kid does not have great grades or test scores, here's the good news. They may still do very well in life. The not so good news is that college is actually a lot harder than high school, so you may not be doing them any favors if you pull too many strings and get them into a really competitive school.

Stay tuned for when I take on other types of NYT trend pieces.

* We get a lot of kids from NYC here and apparently the private tutoring is really common. A lot of them automatically hire a tutor now instead of going to office hours or waiting to see how they're doing in class. It's good for the grad students, since they can charge big bucks for this, but it is a step change from when I was in school and everyone just went to office hours for free.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cranky Feminist Biddy*: WTF Smurf Edition

Dear Missy and Lee,
Please forgive me for subjecting Kadin to a little bit of extra feminist commentary on the Smurfs bedtime story. I apologize for any delays in the onset of sleep but stand by my message.
Old Biddy

For the rest of you who haven't been paying attention to the upcoming Smurf movie and marketing onslaught, count your blessings. Anyway, Missy and Kadin are visiting. Kadin got some new story books tonight, including the Smurfette book. I happened to read it to Kadin tonight, thinking it would be mellow nightime fare full of blue gnome like creatures bumbling around. But no, it's more like a Smurfized version of Adam and Eve, with a few extra Adams, more sexism and a makeover thrown in for good measure. The (male) Smurfs were living in a state of grace, getting ready for winter. It was a veritable sausage fest. The evil wizard created a female pseudo-Smurf (aka Smurfette) to make them fall in love with her and lure them all out so he can catch them. Smurfette looks like the other smurfs but has frizzy black hair. They let her live in their village and even help her paint her house purple but she doesn't really fit in and they think she is too bold. After her various plans to lure them to the evil wizard fail, she tries to flood the Smurf village but gets trapped in the deluge. The Smurfs save her and she begs their forgiveness. They magically transform her into a real smurf and give her a major makeover in the process. She becomes sexy and blond, with Barbie hair and a cuter dress and some kickin' heels. Then they all fall in love with her and the senior Smurf comments that maybe the solution is worse than the problem. Do 4 year olds really need messages like that? Upon some advanced interwebz surfing I verified that this is indeed the same plotline in the older version of the Smurfs, and it even resulted in the term "the Smurfette Principle" being coined. That was 20 years ago. Not much has changed. It's not like the Smurfs are some classic tale, or Hollywood never rewrites plot lines to make their product more marketable. A little modernization would've been in order here. How about approximately equal numbers of male and female smurfs, or even genderless Smurfs, doing their thing and outsmarting the evil wizard?
Prior to that, we had watched some stupid cartoon show in which the main plotline was the evil villain was ruining guys' reputations by saying they really had female names or wore pink socks. I apologize for the non-age appropriate show choice - I should have stuck with shows I recognized.
Anyway, I'm always an outspoken feminist old biddy, but I just finished reading "Delusions Of Gender" by Cordelia Fine so I was still fired up from that. I won't do a book review here, but one of the issues that she addressed is that we don't live in a gender neutral society, and little kids are exposed to a lot of messages about the differences between men and women, and what is expected for each gender, and that influences their behavior and personality from a very early age. With this non-controlled environment, it is hard to know what is hardwired and what is programmed. This is of interest to me, partly because I have had to deal with a lot of veiled sexism during my career, and partly because it seems like the world that little kids are exposed to is even more gendered than it was when I was a little biddy. Meanwhile, us adults are bombarded with books like "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" and scores of neurological studies ("neurosexism") which may or may not be any more predictive than measuring someone's brain size and using that to predict intelligence, but are nonetheless hyped by the media and used to justify all sort of things.
I won't claim to be free of gender bias - like all of us, I am a product of the times as well as my upbringing and experiences. Hell, I probably even talk to my cats slightly differently since they are females and not males. I'm not a neuroscientist and do not know if men's and women's brains are really all that different or not. However, I do know that I have no patience for shitty sexist drivel like the tale of Smurfette.

* First in a series of many

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gang of Three

While I was out of town last week, the cats bonded with each other quite a bit. The older two, especially Rugrat, will even initiate playing with Lucy. Rugrat has copied Luna's habit of pretending to be annoyed but then coming back for more tormenting. As for Lucy, much of the time she prefers their company to mine. In this and other regards she is more similar to Luna than Rugrat. I'm not entirely surprised - at the SPCA they predicted this would happen, based on their observations.
I'm still the wrestling buddy, though, since the older cats don't really want to roughhouse. This is entertaining when I am awake, less so when it's 5 AM and am awakened by Lucy chewing on my elbow.

Better living through chemistry: corked wine edition

What to do about wine that had got that musty bad cork odor? In the Old Biddy household, this is rarely a problem, since I only drink box wine and wine with screwcaps, and even when I don't, the quality control on "Two Buck Chuck" is pretty good, at least with regards to the cork problem.
However, if by chance you have a pricy bottle of wine that has gotten corked but you really want to get your drink on instead of returning it to the store, you can take advantage of some simple chemistry.
Take about a square foot of saran wrap and ball it up. Shove it down into the wine bottle. Let it sit for a while while you drink a different bottle of wine. The saran wrap is polyethylene, which is got a huge affinity for trichloroanisole, which is what causes the corky smell/flavor. The trichloroanisole will get absorbed into the polyethylene. Then, pour the wine out and drink it. It may not be perfect, but it will usually taste a lot better, especially since you've already started drinking.
I like this trick, mainly because for a large part of my career I have been making polyolefins such as polyethylene, and spend a lot of time thinking about them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Naked math dreams

I had that dream again last night, the one where I'm out in public doing something completely normal, like getting coffee with a coworker, and I am completely naked. Sometimes there is a reason for it in the dream, like it is too hot outside, but other times I am just naked for no apparent reason and belatedly realize that I have no clothes on and this is not a good thing. The ending is always the same - I just act like nothing is out of the ordinary and hope that people don't notice, and then I wake up.
Another recurring dream is the college math class dream. This is the one where I have signed up for some advanced math class and either don't go and don't do the homework, or, more commonly, I don't even realize I am supposed to be taking it. Once in a while the dream varies and it is some class other than math.
I never made the connection until now. It's not about math, or nudity. I don't have particular hangups about either. I suspect it has something to do with worrying about being caught unprepared.
I feel like my brain moves slowly sometimes, and I have forgotten a lot of what I learned in college or grad school. Perhaps this is the reason for the dreams. I felt it acutely last week at the conference, although it was more in my head than in reality.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lucy update, 5 weeks

I've had Lucy for 5 weeks now, including the week that I was off at the Gordon Conference. Luna and Rugrat are pretty much used to her by now. They gang up on me to get them to feed them, eat from the same bowl and sleep on the same bed, not get too bent out of shape if Lucy runs up to them at full speed or sniffs their butt, and Rugrat and Lucy will play together occasionally.
When I got back from the conference, it seemed like Luna and Rugrat were less clingy than they usually are after I travel. What's more, it seemed like they had bonded in my absence.
I think they have benefitted from having a buddy. Rugrat is a lot less bored, and has stopped watching TV in favor of watching Lucy. That is good - although soccer games are good healthy entertainment for a cat, I can't say the same about "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." Luna is more active now, and her digestive issues and eczema have cleared up.
Lucy is a very high energy cat, and is fond of racing around the house at full speed, doing the spiderman walk along the sides of my bed, playing with her cat toys, jumping up in the air, chasing flies, play fighting with me, and going outside. All this exercise has left her a lot more muscular than when I first got her. She's pretty smart, and has figured out how to open the screen door quickly, no matter how tightly I shut it. She is affectionate, and will lick my hands when I am petting her or sleep next to me, but is not a total snuggle fiend like Rugrat.
I am very glad that I got her.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Old Biddy Speaks: Gordon Conference Etiquette

Dear graduate students and postdocs,
If by chance you are fortunate enough to attend a gordon conference and there are lots of other grad students from your own school there, do not spend all your time hanging out with them. It's not the ACS meeting. Make an effort to meet students from other schools and the more senior scientists who are attending. You don't have to hang out with them very much, but it is a valuable networking opportunity and you should make the most of it. You will be seeing these people at conferences for the rest of your career, and who knows when they will be interviewing you, reviewing one of your papers or proposals, etc. A little chit-chat will go a long way, even if you don't think it's someone influential or interesting.
While we're on the subject of etiquette, it's also bad form to skip some of the talks, even if you're hungover and would really rather sleep in. Exceptions will be made for work-related things like phone conferences, but if you're a grad student you may not have too many of those. Again, this is not ACS. People do notice if you're not there. Look around - your more senior colleagues are staying out as late as you and are still going to the talks. Believe me, it takes much longer to get over a hangover and sleep deprivation when you are an old biddy.
I know these things are kind of non-obvious and very different from the ACS meeting. I'm not sure I would've known them as a grad student, which is why I am giving you the benefit of my wisdom.
-Old Biddy

I'm back from the Gordon Conference now. For those of you who aren't scientists, the Gordon Conferences (GRC) are small, subject specific conferences. To foster discussion and interaction, attendance is limited and there is only one session going on at any time. Typically, there are talks in the mornings and evenings, and you have the afternoon free to sleep, do other work, get exercise, or socialize. Regardless of the subject matter, GRC's are a great place to meet new people and catch up with people you already know.
Over the years, my favorite GRC (FGRC) conference has changed somewhat. It used to be very difficult to get in as a grad student or postdoc. There might be only one or two students at the meeting. Other GRC's had more space, so some senior grad students or postdocs could attend. Usually only one or two people per group would attend. I went to one as a senior grad student and it was a very valuable experience. A friend from another group went, and we managed to meet most people there, even though we did mainly hang out with the other students. In recent years FGRC has been able to include a few more students and postdocs.
To give more students a GRC experience, a few years ago the GRS's were started. These have a similar format but are geared towards students and postdocs. They typically take place before or after the main GRC, and some of the students attend both.
This year, there was only one GRC going on at the conference site in Newport, so the organizers could let in more people. So the conference had twice as many people as the last time I was there, which was the year with the lowest attendence. They let in a lot of the people from the GRS, which is fine in theory. However, they did not take this into account when budgeting for beer and pizza, so all of us old biddies and fogies didn't get enough and that made us cranky and start reminiscing about the good old days.
Seriously, my liver and my waistline are grateful for the fact that, unlike in previous years, I did not get unlimited pizza and booze. And the good old days were not perfect - it's nice to have students there and not just see the same people every year. However, I did feel like there was something lacking. At first I thought that maybe the conference had just gotten too big, which is probably true, and that I had gotten antisocial in my old age, which is probably also true. But I was doing a better than average job of meeting new people and networking, so it wasn't completely pervasive. Upon talking to other attendees (including students) about it, I realized that it was mostly a problem of critical mass. So many of the student attendees knew each other, either from grad school or the GRS, that they tended to stick together in larger groups into which it was hard to make headway if by chance you sat down at their table at lunch or were hanging out at the poster session. Students who were there by themselves or with one or two of their compatriots tended to mingle a lot more than those who were there with a whole contingient of their buddies. If I were in their shoes, I'm sure I would do the same thing.
Although I did notice the students swooping in and taking all the beer and pizza, I actually didn't notice whether they were all there for the talks, especially since there were whole herds of them I didn't meet and hardly saw, but one of the students (who'd been helping the conference chairs with the cleanup, organization for next year, etc) mentionned it.
Yes, I do realize this whole post makes me sound like a cranky old biddy!