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random musings of a crazy cat lady

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.