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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Honey Badger Meets Chicken Marbella

Like the honey badger, I had never heard of chicken marbella until recently. Apparently, it was a staple at the Silver Palate restuarant in NYC, and it's the 30th anniversary of the publishing of their cookbook. As a result, I started hearing about it at the various cooking sites I frequent.
I'm pretty sure that I've never had it. If I did, I would remember it. Chicken is marinated overnight in a combination of vinegar, oil, garlic, prunes, capers, green olives, and oregano. It is then topped with brown sugar and white wine and baked. You had me at capers, prunes and olives. I saw a blog post over at Bloatal Recall (go there for pics and fun commentary), which convinced me to try it, but the reviews over at Epicurious are what convinced me it's a winner before I had even tried it. Like the honey badger, chicken marbella really don't care. Scale up the recipe, scale it down, use chicken legs, breasts, with or without bones or skin, cut it up or not, tweak the ingredients, marinate it one day, two days, or freeze it in the marinade. Chicken marbella don't give a shit. It's all good. I was impressed by the number of people who make this all the time, and who've made it for really huge parties and weddings. Numerous people said that it tastes even better after a day or two, which is key for me since I like to cook larger quantities and package it up for the week. The only key thing is to marinate for at least a day.
I used the following recipe (adapted from Bloatal Recall). I used boneless skinless chicken breasts and marinated for two days, since I got home too late to cook it last night.

Yield: 6-8 servings

4-5 lbs of your favorite chicken (I used boneless skinless breasts)
1/2 head garlic, minced
2 tablespoons dried oregano
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste ( you might want a tiny bit of salt, but I left it out.)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup pitted prunes (a.k.a dried plums)
1/4 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/4 cup capers with a bit of juice
3 bay leaves
1/2 cup brown sugar (use a 1/4 - 1/3 cup if you want it less sweet)
1/2 cup white wine
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley or cilantro (optional - I skipped it)

1. In a Ziplock bag, combine chicken, garlic, oregano, pepper and salt to taste, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice, and bay leaves. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight. Rotate the bag and mix the ingredients a few times. It's more like a paste than a juicy marinade.
2. Preheat oven to 350F. Arrange chicken in a single layer in one or two large, shallow baking pans and spoon marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle chicken pieces with brown sugar and pour white wine around them.
3. Bake until done, basting frequently with pan juices. Chicken is done when it hits an internal temperature of 165F and juices run clear rather than red when pricked. Mine took about 45 minutes.
4. Serve with sauce. Many reviewers recommended rice or something else to soak up the sauce.
OMG! This stuff is the bomb! Sweet, savory, salty, relatively diet-friendly, and easy to make. I'd cook it for my regular weekday dinners or even for a fancier occasion such as a date or a neighborhood party.

Monday, January 30, 2012

An odd olefactory reminder

The emeritus prof's office next to my lab is still drying out, not very quickly. They've had fans going for the last 2 1/2 week with the door open to my lab, but nonetheless it got moldy/mildewy. The carpet got washed with a cleaning solution a few times, and once it had dried down and the disinfectant, book and mold smells reached an equilibrium I was greeted with a very odd sensation. My lab now smells like cowdude's apartment. Smell is the most primal of the senses, and it is kind of unnerving.
Cowdude's apartment had a moisture problem, which he battled unsuccessfully for a while before getting a dehumidifier, hence the disinfectant, which is presumably the same kind they used in the prof's office.
I have been in a pretty good mood overall. Work is going well, I like my new office, and my diet is going well - somewhat slow but steady. And yet, last week, before the weird olefactory reminder, I occasionally felt bouts of anger towards cowdude, usually late at night, after a good and busy day. It was sort of unexpected and probably just hormonal. I remember experiencing something similar towards T after I had moved to Ithaca and had some distance and clarity on the situation. The difference is that this is a month, rather than a year later.
Fortunately, this had subsided by the smell started wafting into my lab, but I was still annoyed to be still grappling with reminders mental and olefactory.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Flood/New Office

Two weeks ago I was home on a Sunday afternoon, cleaning my kitchen floors, when I got a phone call that the lab had flooded. I went in. A heating pipe above the lab had burst and sprayed water all over the place. Once it was plugged up, a second pipe burst across the hall and flooded the office of an emeritus professor. There was about a 1/2 - 1 inch of water on about half of the fifth floor. Miraculously, none of the equipment was damaged, although some of the floor tiles took a beating and the prof's office got it pretty bad. The water dripped down to the floors below. My office escaped relatively unscathed, but Chris (our sabbatical visitor) wasn't so lucky. His office got pretty wet.
The rest of the fourth floor was empty-it got a bit wet but it was not a big deal. Due to some faculty leaving and others moving to the new building, there is some empty space in the department. A prof and his group were slated to move to the fourth floor, but they hadn't moved yet. For that reason, Chris and I were going to have to move offices anyway. We were unofficially slated to move into a pair of offices at the other end of the hall, but that was still up in the air. Sometimes the department gets a little bit weird about office assignments, and the new office was a lot nicer and bigger than my old one (it had been a prof's office rather than an admin's office). When my boss had suggested it as an office for me a year and a half ago, the answer was an unequivocal no.
I didn't go all honey badger about the flood. I didn't really need to, since the equipment was ok. However, I did put a bug in the ear of the facilities guys that it would be nice if Chris and I could move offices ASAP. I don't know if that was what did the trick, or the fear of me going retoactively honey badger about it, or if I have more influence with the space committee than I used to (thanks, Pete!), but like magic we got approval to move down the hall. Within a few days we had moved over. I'm in the larger office and Chris is in the outer office.
I like it a lot. The faculty offices are pretty large compared to other universities I've been at. This is one of the smaller ones, but I still have a ton of space. The offices at my old company were ok, but we typically shared them with at least one other person, or had cubicles. An office of that size would've probably housed three people, possibly four. As it is I have lots of file cabinets, a counter-like are by the window, a big desk, a blackboard and a table for discussions with students, and it is still not particularly full. It is odd, and nice, to have such a large space. I have definitely moved up in the world.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Confessions of a warehouse club addict

I have a confession to make. I love warehouse stores. This traces back to when I was in high school and Price Club (later Costco) opened up a store in Sunnyvale. Man that was a big deal. I used to go with my mom when I was home from college and she would buy me supplies like 6-packs of socks and underwear and towels. It was very exciting. There was always someone in the dorm with a membership, so we'd go there to stock up for parties. That was exciting too.
When I moved back to the Bay Area the same Costco was conveniently on my way home from work. Life was good and I got in the habit of going there every few weeks. Although you may think it's weird for a single person to buy stuff there, well, that is true. Nonetheless, I know lots of single or childless people who frequent Costco. Anyway, I had to learn what I could get away with buying in bulk, and what I couldn't.
When I moved to Ithaca I had major sticker shock over the cost of groceries here. This was not helped by the absence of Trader Joe's and Costco. I tried for about a month and then gave in and joined Sam's Club, which is about 45 miles away. That was ok for the occasional trip to get staples, but it couldn't compare to Costco and it was inconvenient.
Fortunately, the other player in the warehouse club arena, BJ's, just opened up a store here in Ithaca. This is a damn good place to open one, and not just because I'm biased. Although it's a bit of a liberal hippie college town, Ithaca is a town of people sorta like me and we love love love the big box stores, and there were no warehouse stores in a 40 mile radius.
It opened this weekend, although the grand opening isn't for a week. I went there today and it was quite busy by Ithaca standards. Unlike Costco or Sam's Club, it makes no pretense to supply businesses. There's a more upscale mix of products than Sam's Club, and it is smaller than the other two. Prices are somewhat higher, but nonetheless I think that it will still be cheaper once I factor in 3 gallons of gas. I will more than make up my membership fee in yogurt alone. I am happy to be able to do my yogurt/lettuce/cottage cheese/cat litter run on the way home from work. I will still spend too much money at Wegmans, but if it keeps me out of there once or twice a month, it will be a good thing. I've never really figured out how to avoid temptation at Wegmans.
My real confession is that at the moment I have memberships in Sam's Club, BJ's, and Costco. Don't ask. I had to renew my Costco membership last year so I could spend a large rebate. I'll remedy that this summer when my Costco and Sam's Club memberships expire.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Carrot cake with coconut milk

Although I'm on a diet, I still bake occasionally. This week it was my turn to bring the birthday cake to group meeting. I asked the birthday boy if he had any requests, and he asked for carrot cake.
Carrot cake is not the most interesting thing to make, so I decided to mix it up a bit. I was inspired by my brother, who made mashed potatoes using coconut milk instead of milk + butter. I wondered if I could do the same with carrot cake. Sure enough, there were already some recipes online, including a relatively low fat one in which all of the oil is replaced by coconut milk, and a more traditional, high fat one in which some of the oil is replaced. I opted for the latter recipe.
As I learned when I was baking with heavy cream, the choice of fat has an effect on flavor and texture. Coconut oil is higher melting point than vegetable oil, so food baked with it will have a less greasy mouthfeel/texture. Normal carrot cake is made with only vegetable oil, which is a liquid at room temperature. The cake made with the mixture of oil and coconut milk was tender and less greasy than normal carrot cake. It had a very nice texture. I could smell the coconut when it was cooking but couldn't taste it in the final product. Even though I couldn't tell that it was coconut, the cake tasted somewhat different and better since the vegetable oil flavor was less pronounced.
The cats were a bit too interested in the coconut milk. Lucy got into it when I wasn't paying attention, and drank quite a bit of it. Fortunately, she didn't have any ill effects other than being completely lazy the rest of the evening.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dutch Oven Love: Braised Pork Chops with Apples, Rum and Cider

Back in the 80's, my mom picked up a bunch of Le Creuset cast iron pots at garage sales and proceeded to use them for almost everything, with the significant exception of everything else that was cooked in her electric skillets. My brother and I weren't foodies back then so we just thought these were very heavy, useful orange pots, rather than heavy, useful, and very expensive orange pots. Once we were adults we realized that they were expensive, and my mom was probably benefiting from peoples' wedding gifts that sat unused.
Around this time, everyone else realized that they were expensive, too, so my mom was not able to find any at garage sales for many years. Eventually I realized that I was just going to have to spend the money and buy new ones. By this time it was possible to find knock-offs at Costco, Sam's Club, etc. I bought a medium and a large round "french oven".
Naturally, once I had purchased mine, and moved across country, then my mom began to find them at garage sales again. She found a 9 1/2 quart (e.g. massive) dutch oven and a 5 quart "buffet casserole" (low pan with lid). They weren't officially part of my Christmas present, but I was more excited about them than anything else. She mailed them to me and they showed up this week. (The last part of the trifecta is a massive porcelain casserole dish from Williams Sonoma. It's still in transit.)
It is rather unfortunate that they showed up now that I am on a diet. Nonetheless, I can still find plenty of uses for them. Since I've never had a nice oven safe low pan with a cover, I tested that first.
I pulled out some center cut pork chops from the freezer and looked to see what else I had in the house that wasn't too fattening. The pork chops were boneless, center cut ones and had no visible fat. I'm sure I would've turned them into leather with any other cooking method, since that's what often happens when I cook pork. I used a recipe for braised pork cops with apples that I adapted slightly.

BRAISED PORK CHOPS W/ APPLES (and rum, and hard cider)

Serving Size= 4-6. Active time= about 10 minutes. Braise time= 15 minutes.
* 1 tbsp unsalted butter
* olive oil
* 4 thick cut pork chops (I used center cut ones. I'm sure it would be tastier with bone in ones)
* 2 teaspoon cinnamon
* 1 teaspoon cumin powder
* salt/ pepper
* 5 apples, sliced into wedges
* 3/4 cup dark rum
* 1/2 cup hard cider (the recipe called for regular cider, but this is what I had)

1) Preheat oven to 350F.
2) In a deep oven-safe pan (or dutch oven) over high heat, warm butter and olive oil (to barely coat bottom of pan).
3) While pan is warming, prepare the pork chops: Wash and fully dry the meat. Coat evenly on both sides with cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper. Carefully place meat in pan and sear both sides until thoroughly browned; about 4 minutes each side. This seals in the pork chop juices and allows you to properly continue the braising. Do not be afraid to really brown the chops in this step.
4) Remove the pork chops from pan and reduce heat to medium. Deglaze by adding rum and scraping bits that have stuck to the pan up and into the rum. Add cider and apples. Braise the apple wedges in the juices until they are limp and have absorbed some juice; about 4 minutes.
5) Return pork chops to pan and move apples around the meat to cover sides and top (some may remain under the chops).
6) Cover pan and place in oven for 10-15 minutes until pork chops are juicy and succulent and liquid has reduced and holds a sweet, thick aroma. Serve with the apples crowning the meat and the sauce all around.

Anyway, I must say that this is a definite winner, and I'm not just saying it because I'm on a diet and everything tastes good. I'm also not just saying it because it's cold and snowy out and I was craving something warm and flavorful after a week of salads and cottage cheese, or because they have rum and hard cider in them. These really were a winner. Despite the questionable choice of boneless, lean pork, they were moist and relatively tender, perfectly done, and had great flavor from the apples and cinnamon. I used less fat than it suggested (maybe 1.5 tsp total) but that was almost too lean. Most of the alcohol boiled off during the braising so it didn't taste boozy. When I make them again I will probably use a bit more butter and add a bit of salt prior to putting it in the oven. If you're an onion fan, you could add a sliced onion in along with the apples. Or you could add a little bit of bacon. I'm sure that would be epic.
I served them with some quinoa. The original recipe suggested pairing it with polenta, which would probably be even better, but the quinoa was ok too.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

You know you want it....

I had a run of amusing blog posts the last time I was doing online dating. I'm over cowdude enough to want to meet guys again. I'm gearing up to get back online and will document the more blog-worthy events.
I'm not quite there yet, though. This has nothing to do with cowdude - I want to focus on getting in shape for the next month or two. This is not because I think it will make much of a difference in anything other than my confidence - if anything, I need to meet guys who are not hung up on 10 lbs one way or another. However, I have limited bandwidth and right now I want to use it to get myself into a good diet/fitness routine before I start getting distracted by other stuff.
Nonetheless, I have started checking out online profiles, etc, so the amusing blog posts will start early. Today's gem comes from Craigslist. It was from Mr. Perfect, who searching for Ms. Perfect. He had a big long description of himself and his exemplary personality, and a similarly long description of what he was looking for in Ms Perfect. At the very end there was a short statement that he is currently separated and was completely over his wife. Nice way to show your good character, dude. I saw the post last night and started writing this post. Tonight when I went to add a link, it was gone. Hmm I wonder if his wife saw the post....
In all seriousness, I know that there are some people who are just slow about paperwork and who may be completely ready/are at complete liberty to begin dating again. I'm not trying to snark on them, and I should perhaps try to find out the situation before throwing them out with the bathwater. But I suspect that people in that situation will described themselves as divorced (at least in the online profile category), and it's the newly separated/perhaps not even separated folks who will say that they are separated.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cowardude postmortem

I am mostly over cowdude now and am in good spirits. As some of you pointed out, deep down I wasn't all that serious about him either. I liked him and enjoyed his company, but in retrospect I was the one who was putting in most of the effort in keeping things going. That should've been a red flag right there. But it was sort of comfortable and non-threatening, and I let it progress instead of being more proactive.
He did email me back as I was taking the train back from Missy's. He had a knack for catching me in transit. He didn't really say anything new, except apologize and that he had told me as soon as he could, and that he had disappointed several other friends/family members during this time. It did help me gain closure to know how completely fucked up he acted to everyone and that this was not just some messed up breakup strategy directed at me. After a few days, I emailed him back and told him that it was a relief to have closure and not to wonder anymore, and wished him well. I do not think I will ever see or hear from him again.
I wish that it had ended in a more normal way, and I wish I had been more proactive all along, but at the end of the day I am sort of glad that I took the moral high road when I could've easily and rightfully ripped him a new asshole.
At this point, all I can do is learn from it and move on. I'm going to try to be more proactive and true to my inner honey badger. I'm also going to trust all of my intuitions more, not just some of them.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

geek not Geek

For most of my life I think it's pretty fair to say that most people would identify me as a geek or nerd. I grew up in Silicon Valley and also lived there as an adult. As a child my dad taught me how to program in BASIC on a Commodore 64. As a teenager I put together computer (from kits, admittedly) and repaired homemade lab equipment for the undergrad physics labs. I have a Ph.D. in a scientific field from one of the ubergeeky schools, and completely blended in there. Indeed, by chemistry standards I probably am more geeky than average. As an adult I have spent my professional career working with other scientists, engineers, and programmers. Heck, I even called my other blog "Recipe Geek" before I merged it back into here. The main thing that I have learned from my experience as a geek is that they come in all types, ages, occupations, genders, colors, etc. It's more a state of mind than a set checklist of traits.
With the arrival the internet, blogs, and Facebook, I have been inundated with references to Geek culture and what it is and isn't. Suddenly I am not a Geek, for I have only an average level of reverance for Star Wars and Star Trek, and am not into computer games or making fun of people who aren't that smart. I'm not a rabid atheist and even if I was you wouldn't hear about it on Facebook, and, most importantly, I hate the sexism and privilege prevalent on so many Geek sites. (Sorry, Fark, I'm talking to you, amoungst others.) Rather than being a general term used to refer to smart people in various fields who may be somewhat socially awkward, or may just be really into something, it's now seemingly used to a much smaller subset of people who are into computers and electronic gadgets, spend lot of time on the internet, and subscribe to a certain worldview.
Why does it matter to me? I'm not the geek squad police, to say the least. At the end of the day, though, I see a certain stereotype developing, and I don't like it because it's not me, and I don't want people to assume that it is.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Years Resolutions 2012

I don't always make New Year's resolutions, but when I do I fail spectacularly.
OK, enough Dos Equis man jokes. Sometimes I make resolutions, sometimes I don't. The diet and weight loss ones usually fail, but I'm ok at keeping more general ones, even exercise ones, as long as there is a central theme.
This year, the overarching theme is to be nicer to myself, physically and mentally. The specific details may vary throughout the year. At the moment, my goal is to get back in shape physically* and get my honey badger mojo back in all other aspects of my life. It has been pretty good overall but took a bit of a beating during the cowdude incident.
Anyway, I joined a new gym. This even involved spending money. The Cornell one was just too crowded and smelly and the equipment was in poor condition.** As a result, my workouts were shorter and more infrequent than they should've been. The local fancy gym just opened up a new location near campus. It's got tons of nice new cardio and weight machines, space to do my physical therapy exercises, and (very importantly) lots of stations on the tvs on the cardio equipment. It also has non-students to talk to. I'm not a chatty person but was missing having people my own age to exchange pleasantries with at the Cornell gym.
As another manifestation of my resolution, I've resolved to be less tight-fisted when it comes to spending money on being nicer to myself. This is not really about clothes or shopping, at least not at the moment. It's more about things like getting the gym membership, getting massages occasionally, or actually taking more vacations this year. I've always been frugal, although not consistently so, but my time being unemployed had left me too cheap for my own good, on occasion.
So anyway that's my resolution for the year.

* Of course, losing weight and looking better is also goal but I'm making it I won't bore you with that. If you want a virtual workout buddy or diet buddy, I'm your biddy buddy and we can converse by other means, but I won't blog about the specifics unless there is another reason to do so.

** even some of the students aren't too fond of the on-campus gym. There were some at the new gym last night, and one of the grad students in the group splurged for a one-month membership at the downtown, fancier location. The offshoot of this, and the transient nature of the academic community, is that gym membership policies are very different here. Initiation fees are pretty low (I paid $10) and it's month-to-month. Short term memberships are available for not too much more than ongoing ones, and lack the initiation fee. This is all very different than back in the Bay Area.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Control Freak

It may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you that I am a control freak at work. Then again, maybe it doesn't. Nonetheless I don't remember being one in my previous job. It helped that my former coworkers were pretty competent, to say the least.
I knew I'd be a control freak about my robot. I didn't realize I'd turn into a control freak about all the other instruments in the room.
It didn't start out that way. The first instruments arrived, were set up, I got trained on them, trained the students how to use them, and then tried to become somewhat hands off. This failed miserably at first. I have difficulty ignoring anything that is in my lab, but was just enough hands on to feel annoyed by it but was not hands on enough to prevent the inevitable problems caused by carelessness. Thus commenced a long and annoying bout of troubleshooting, punctuated by the arrival of two more pieces of equipment. I won't bore you with the details, I was a very cranky old biddy for a while. Eventually I got everything up and running.
During this time, I had a conversation with my boss. He knew I was frustrated by things and suggested that I let the students take full responsibility for the non-robotic equipment. I did and felt a lot better and had more time for chemistry.
You can probably guess where this is going. Yup. When I got back from vacation the fussiest of the instruments had been allowed to run dry. I started to troubleshoot, and then realized that it was completely fucked up that I was even considering doing this on New Years Eve. Anyway, it will take a bit of troubleshooting and I am pretty annoyed. I had debated taking the instrument off-line over vacation, but the student who's in charge was around wanted to use it. I don't like being a control freak, but the alternative is still a pain.