Apr 30 2009

The Swine Flu

I got a call from a concerned Pops and Mo yesterday, wanting to know if I was aware that swine flu has hit the Bay Area.

Yes. I’m aware. I went through a period of kind of freaking out about it, made a checklist of things to buy, read all I could about it, and ultimately calmed down. In 1918, which was a terrible flu pandemic, the mortality rate was 2.5%. In other words, most people didn’t die. Swine flu is, so far, doing an even worse job of killing people who are in good health and receiving quality care. (This is a very interesting article tackling the discrepancy between deaths in Mexico and deaths in the U.S., with the final conclusion that the swine flu is either highly virulent or spreads easily, but probably not both.)

So my top priority is being prepared to treat a mild flu case at home, so as to avoid overburdening a stressed medical system. I’m stocked up on electrolyte drinks and over-the-counter cold/flu medication for both children and adults. I also bought surgical masks and gloves, but I don’t think I can get Sam to wear them on the train. He has agreed to wash his hands upon entering the house, and I’m doing the same when we get back from the park and shopping trips.

I’m kind of sorry now that Robin is weaned. When he was sick in Reno breastmilk was the first thing he could keep down. Plus there’s the whole system where antibodies can be shared through breastmilk. But there we are.

The worst-case apocalypse pandemic scenario is not so much that everybody drops dead and the bodies pile up in the streets, but that enough people are badly ill that hospitals are totally overwhelmed, nobody goes to work, basic services like water and electricity go out, and we get about six weeks of post-Katrina style anarchy. It’s really hard to be prepared for this. Because we live in an earthquake-prone area we try to be prepared for 72 hours without water or electricity: I, quite fortunately, recently won an emergency preparation kit from Wendolonia.com, which is even now winging its way towards me, and on top of this we have some basic stores of water and canned goods and first-aid supplies.

But six weeks and 72 hours are vastly different critters. We just can’t plan on staying inside for six weeks. What I really want to buy for the worst-case scenario—the single piece of equipment that would keep us safest throughout a long emergency situation—is a gun.

I know my liberal family is probably gasping in horror at this, and believe me, I’m aware that having a gun in a house with small children introduces day-to-day risks much larger than the risk of fending off looters in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. But responsible storage (keeping the gun and the ammo locked up in separate safes to which only we have the combination) can largely eliminate those risks, and a gun would protect us in all kinds of long emergency situations, from pandemic to devastating earthquake/tsunami to zombie attack to Peak Oil.

It’s something we’re thinking about. And meanwhile, we’re washing our hands a lot.

Updated to add: A lot of people seem to be worried about the effects of swine flu on the economy. I think it’s only fair to note that I dropped $120 at Rite-Aid on my huge bag of anti-swine-flu supplies. They were decked out to capitalize on this thing too. They had a big shelf of flu meds and Airborne/immune boosters out front and center. Smart of them.

Apr 30 2009

What’s for Dinner

Another light box this week, I think because of the nuts. We got walnuts again, a big bag of them, along with strawberries (yay!), lettuce, asparagus, carrots, chard, a bulb of green garlic, and two shoots of what look like young onions.

We at the strawberries last night for dessert and this morning for breakfast. Last night we also had halibut steaks, pan-seared and finished in the oven, served with garlic-anchovy butter, and green beans on the side. I liked the fish okay but Sam and Robin were really enthusiastic. Unfortunately halibut is expensive: I was so distracted by the fact that it was deeply on sale, a discount of $5 a pound, that I sort of failed to notice it was still really expensive. So I don’t think we’ll be having a lot more of it. Still, since it was an indulgence I’m glad the boys liked it so much.

Tonight we’ll have penne with chard and leeks in a walnut cream sauce, and I’ll also pick up everything I need to make a quick asparagus carbonara after we get home from house-hunting tomorrow night. Saturday I’m out with friends, so dinner will be take-out or scrounged from the fridge. Sunday we’ll have another roasted chicken because I’m out of stock, with a salad of the veggies that are left.

Monday I want to try this recipe for chicken giouvetsi. It’s chicken two days in a row but I don’t think Sam will mind. (Yes I did just discover the Closet Cooking blog, why do you ask?) And Tuesday I’ll set aside as Leftovers Appreciation Night.

Apr 30 2009

Short Sale Strife

Yesterday my debit/credit card was stolen. I left it in an ATM and when I realized this and doubled back, it was gone. I called the bank immediately and they canceled it, but not before several fradulent purchases had been made.

Also yesterday I had sort of a testy conversation with our real estate agent, who in general we like. Unfortunately the High Street offer has fallen through, due to complicated and annoying circumstances. Basically there are two different banks holding mortgages on the property, and they cannot agree on terms between themselves. The second bank wants five thousand dollars more than the first bank is willing to give them. If it was only a matter of increasing our offer by five thousand dollars, we would simply do so. Unfortunately any amount we offer goes through the first bank, and no matter what our price is, they are still only willing to pass a set amount to the second bank.

What the second bank wants is an extra payoff, one that won’t show up on escrow or on the sales records. This is illegal and basically constitutes tax fraud—because the payment doesn’t show up the sales record, the house isn’t taxed at its full value—but according to the listing agent, the other people who have made an offer on the property are willing to do this. So, they are probably going to get the house, even though our offer was for a higher amount.

This is not why my conversation with the realtor was testy. She worked hard on the deal, calling both banks directly to negotiate, and we’re grateful for her efforts even though they proved fruitless. She’s testy because we now want to look at a house in the same area that’s being offered at half the price of the High Street property. It needs some obvious repairs (it has scuzzy carpet and some damage to the interior walls) but if there’s nothing structurally wrong with the place (which is something we’d only find out after doing our own inspections) it would be an amazing deal. It’s also a bank-owned property rather than a short sale, so presumably it’d be a lot easier to buy. Of course this would cut our agent’s expected commission in half, which is why I think she’s unwilling even to look at it. Meanwhile I’m antsy because properties at similar price points have shown up on the MLS and been snapped up before we had a chance to see them.

I’m not the first to observe this, but the real estate agent system is truly effed up. When the person who is supposed to be representing your interests has every personal incentive to inflate your offers and steer you towards overpriced properties, that’s effed up. I can’t help but think that this system has contributed to the housing bubble: how many people were counseled by their agents to buy properties that they couldn’t comfortably afford? Our agent has a maxim she likes to trot out about “buying the most house you can” and every time she says it I just nod and smile, because it’s not in my interest to pick a fight with her.

But yes, we’re going to see the $75,000 place on Friday (along with a few others), even though our agent got kind of passive-aggressive about it on the phone (lots of little comments about how we “really need to focus” and she’s been “disappointed that our time hasn’t been put to better use”). Thanks, hon! We are focused. We’re focused on homes that will save us money, not the ones that will pad your commission.

Whether it had anything to do with arguing with our realtor and stressing about our stolen ATM card or not, last night I was struck by a splitting headache. In fact, I don’t really know, but I’m going to call it a migraine because it was centered sharply behind my left eyebrow and accompanied by a strong desire to lie down in the dark. Sam was really great about keeping the boy distracted while I did just that. All night.

Anyway, I hope today is better than yesterday.

Apr 29 2009

Oh! Another Thing About Robin

I just thought of something else funny/weird/sweet about the boy that I’ve never posted here. Sometimes when he wants to cuddle he’ll come up to me and push aside some of my clothes so that he can lay his cheek on my bare skin. He’ll do this with whatever’s handy: if I’m sitting down and wearing a skirt or a dress, he’ll push it up and lay his cheek on my thigh; if I’m wearing a shirt he’ll pull it up and cuddle against my side; but his very especial favorite cuddle to get is the one where he’s sitting in my lap and he can lay his cheek against my chest. If my top’s not low-cut enough for him to get some good skin-to-skin contact he’ll tug it down first. I think I know why he does this—skin-to-skin contact provides an oxytocin rush—but it’s still a funny little quirk.

Apr 29 2009

New Words

Robin now says “wheeee!” when pushed on the swings or going down the slide. He also says “mmm-MAH!” when giving kisses, which he does frequently, both directly and by proxy. What I mean by the latter is that he’ll often come up to us with a stuffed animal (or sometimes the fuzzy pig slippers that The Anti-Sara gave him) and press them into our faces while making the kiss noise. He isn’t satisfied until we kiss them back.

He can also imitate most of the animal noises in his talking farm toy, and when we make the sounds he can press the right (corresponding) animal.

He’s working on “hi!” and “bye.” He never says “bye” but he knows what “bye-bye” means: sometimes he’ll wave if he doesn’t mind leaving or being left by the person in question; otherwise he’ll start crying. He usually only says “hi” when Sam gets home, but then he’ll run to the door gleefully shouting “hi dada!”

I never get a “hi, mama!” He still almost never says “mama” at all—only when he’s tired or or hurt or wants something. It’s obvious that daddy is a source of fun and excitement, while mommy is the source of comfort and solace. And most of the time I’m just there, so there’s no need to refer to me by name.

Most of what he says is still baby babble, but he understands quite a bit. He can follow simple instructions, like “bring me your plate” or “give that to your Daddy,” and yesterday at the park when I asked him if he wanted to swing, he turned at once and trotted off to the swingset.

But his best new trick isn’t linguistic, it’s his “jazz hands.” When he likes the music he’ll start dancing by waving his hands around in the air. It’s unutterably cute.

Apr 24 2009

Baked Cheesy Pasta with Ham and Peas

I don’t have a picture to show of this because the entire contents of the baking dish were gobbled up pretty much as soon as it came out of the oven. I thought I’d post the recipe because it’s one of the few I have that’s really mine—it’s adapted from a recipe for baked macaroni & cheese that I found online somewhere, but my methods have evolved a lot over the years that I’ve been making this.

This is obviously a high-fat dish. You could try using low-fat cheese and skim milk, but I wouldn’t expect it to taste very good. Instead I just like to think of this as an indulgence, something I don’t make very often but fully enjoy when I do.

You need:
Pasta. Not a whole pound of it—about 12 ounces. I use whole wheat penne because I can never find whole wheat macaroni. You could certainly use regular macaroni if you aren’t on a whole-grain kick like me. Or you could use shells or whatever. I think the penne works well though, and I find the Whole Foods whole wheat pasta to be really very tasty.
Cheese. Definitely a base of cheddar, but you can also add other kinds if you want. A big spoonful of sour cream makes a nice touch too. You want about two and half cups of grated cheese (including the sour cream if you’re using it). I generally just buy a good-sized hunk of cheddar and use it all.
One egg.
Two cups of milk. I was thinking last night that I’d like to try using buttermilk next time I make this. It might make things tangy and nice.
A small onion, or half of a big one, chopped up.
About 3/4 cup of frozen peas.
Some chopped ham. I go to the deli counter and ask them to give me one quarter-inch slice of whatever sort of ham looks nicest. Then I cut it up into quarter-inch cubes. If I were going to make a vegetarian version I’d probably just leave the ham out. I mean you could try baked tofu or something, but I don’t know that it would get you much. Maybe you could use another veggie, like cauliflower.
half a teaspoon of dry ground mustard. I will probably leave this out when I try making it with buttermilk.
salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Set a big pot of water on the stove to boil. Grease a large baking dish. When the water is boiling, add your pasta and a tablespoon of salt. Stir it up and let it boil, stirring frequently, for 7-8 minutes, until it’s about half cooked.

Meanwhile whisk your egg and milk together. Add the mustard, about a quarter teaspoon of salt, and several grindings of pepper. Stir it up. Add the cheese too and stir it in.

Add some olive oil to a skillet, heat it up, and sauté the onions until translucent and just starting to brown.

When the pasta is half-cooked, drain it and return it to the pot. Pour the milk and cheese mixture over the pasta and stir it together. Add the onions, ham, and peas. Turn out the whole mixture into the baking dish. Try and get most of the pasta submerged in the liquid. Some of it will stick out and that’s okay.

Bake it for about half an hour, until the pasta’s fully cooked and the cheese on top is starting to brown. Let it cool for a few minutes before serving.

Apr 22 2009

What’s for Dinner

Our box seemed light this week, to be honest. We got a thin bunch of chard, a bunch of small and skinny carrots, a bunch of radishes, a bunch of asparagus, one stalk of green garlic, two leeks, a bag of baby lettuces, and a bag of walnuts. I think I can use up everything but the asparagus and the nuts tonight, in a chard frittata and a big salad.

Tomorrow I guess Robin and I will have fish sticks, and for dinner we’ll roast the asparagus and serve it alongside a wild rice salad with celery and walnuts.

I think we’re doing more house-hunting this weekend so I don’t want to plan meals I won’t be around to cook. I guess the next two dinners will be “something with fish” and “something with pasta,” though. I’ll have to see what’s in at the fish counter and browse some recipes. I think the pasta should be whole wheat penne baked with ham, cheese, peas and egg; it’s been a while since I’ve made that and it’s tasty, and feels more virtuous than macaroni and cheese even though it hits a similar comfort-food spot.

Last week we ended up having orange-glazed chicken breasts with steamed zucchini one night, and then the next night I mixed up the leftovers with some brown rice and sauteed onions. Sam liked it a lot more than I thought he would! I think he likes chicken more than I do—I tend to think chicken is kind of boring. Maybe if I get a chance on Sunday I’ll roast a chicken, and make stock from the bones.

Apr 16 2009

Handsome Boy

Okay, you people don’t really care about pictures of pie. You want pictures of little boy! Luckily Sam just uploaded dozens of them to his Flickr account.

Here’s Robin in close-up:

Here he is running around and being a goofball:

Here he is on the slide:

Look at that soft baby skin:

And we’ll leave you with this:

There, that should hold you people for a while.

Apr 15 2009

What’s for Dinner

The highlight of last week’s dinners was certainly the agnello all’araba from The Silver Spoon cookbook—lamb cubes roasted with onions, honey, saffron and other spices. (I used honey that Sam’s dad harvests in his own backyard, from his own bees.) It wasn’t especially picturesque—just looked like brown lamb cubes in a setting of yellow onions—so I didn’t take a photo, but Sam raved about it and Sam is generally pretty taciturn about these things.

I did take a picture of the pie:
pie It wasn’t the most beautiful of pies (the strawberry juices overflowed the crust and made the oven smoke) but you can’t tell that when it’s cut up and plated, and it tasted great. Sweet-tart and flaky and yummy.

Sam liked the pie. But his highly approving reaction to the lamb made me think that maybe I should do like that one chick did with Julia Child, or that other chick did with Thomas Keller, and dedicate myself to the mastery of a certain cuisine via an iconic cookbook: in my case, Italian cuisine and the Silver Spoon cookbook.

And then I realized there’s over 2,000 recipes in The Silver Spoon, and it would take me about ten years.

And anyway, if the idea is to dedicate myself to a certain cuisine that will satisfy my husband’s hunger on some kind of a deep genetic level, then I should really be going for Arbëreshë recipes. Because Sam isn’t Italian, exactly: his family is Arbëreshë, Albanian by way of Italy. Trouble is, I don’t think there are any Arbëreshë cookbooks.

Maybe I should collect one. If you’re reading this, and you’re Arbëreshë, and you have an old family recipe, will you please think about sending it to me? If I put in online or even someday in a book, I promise I’ll credit you.

The other thing that happened last week: while I was at the farmer’s market buying things for Easter dinner, I saw a produce stand where they were selling stinging nettles. And I decided I had to try cooking with that shit! Once you boil them, see, they stop stinging. And they’re like a superfood, loaded with nutrients and antioxidants.

Unfortunately, my recipe for ravioli buried in stinging nettle broth wasn’t all that tasty. So no recipes or pictures on that one. Instead, feast your eyes on this:


Oh yeah. That’s spaghetti carbonara with real guanciale. What’s guanciale, you say? Why, guanciale is a cured pig’s cheek.

That sounds disgusting, you say? Oh no. Spaghetti carbonara is a big favorite of ours, but we generally make it with bacon. Bacon is, obviously, delicious, but authentic carbonara is apparently made with guanciale. I’d read this before. So when I walked out of the farmer’s market holding a bag of stinging nettles, and my eyes settled on a storefront emblazoned “Boccalone: Tasty Salty Pig Parts,” well. I had to check and see if they had any guanciale.

And they did. And it was delicious. Even better than bacon.

The other thing that I made last week, that was particularly good, was the false mahshi. It’s kind of an autumn recipe, but Sam said he liked it even better than borscht. (Even though I used sirloin tips instead of rib-eye like the recipe calls for.) With the beets and the red-dyed rice it was really pretty. I tried to take a picture, but the snapshot doesn’t really do it justice:


And I did cook the squid, and it was alright but not spectacular: I braised it in red wine and tomatoes and served it over spaghetti, but Sam and I both agreed that we’d rather have had pasta puttanesca. And Robin wouldn’t touch it.

Well. Anyway. Today in our veggie box we got a bag of baby lettuces, a bunch of asparagus, a bag of small potatoes, a bunch of chard, a bunch of radishes, several green garlic stems, two leeks, and a sweet bunch of thin, delicate new carrots.

Tonight we’re having creamy spring asparagus soup (I’ve already made it, and it’s tasty), with a salad of the lettuce, radishes, carrots, and green garlic dressing.

Tomorrow another veggie dinner: garlicky chard (using the last of the green garlic) and boiled potatoes with butter and dill. That’ll leave only one leek to deal with for the whole rest of the week.

I honestly don’t know what I’ll do with all the freedom; I think I’ll take each day as it comes. Stay tuned for more thrilling updates throughout the week!

Apr 8 2009

What’s for Dinner

Last week’s meal plan didn’t go so well; the pissaladière was a big hit as usual, but we had more leftovers from the pasta-with-greens-and-white-beans than I expected, and then for a couple evenings I was just disorganized with the shopping: so I didn’t make half the things I wanted to make. I did get all the veggies except the potatoes and the chard used up, though.

In this week’s box we got more of that Russian red kale (last week’s mystery veggie); a bag of mixed lettuce; a bunch of chard; a bunch of collard greens; a bunch of radishes; three slender leeks; two green garlic bulbs; a bunch of pencil asparagus; and a bag of fingerling potatoes.

Tonight we’re finally getting around to having that false mahshi (using both last week and this week’s chard, and I’ll probably substitute the leeks and the green garlic for one of the onions. I’m also using sirloin tips instead of rib-eye, because have you seen how much grass fed rib-eye costs?). Tomorrow Robin and I will have a salad (involving lettuce, radishes, and some left-over green goddess dressing) for lunch, and for dinner we’ll have garlic-roasted potatoes and pan-seared asparagus.

Friday lunch: leftover mahshi, if there is any. For dinner I want to try a recipe that came in the box, for sweet potatoes braised with apples and greens (I’ll use the kale and the collards).

Saturday will be about dying eggs, and prepping for Sunday night’s dinner. I don’t know that we’ll do much for Easter this year; Robin’s a bit young for a formal egg hunt, but we might hide some around the apartment. In some past years I’ve gone to the Easter service at our Unitarian church, but Sam’s not enthusiastic about it, and to be honest I don’t really even know how one goes about attending church with a toddler.

Anyway, we’re not having anybody over for dinner, but I still want a celebration-of-spring type meal. I’m thinking:

sorrel soup (recipe from the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market Cookbook)
agnello all’araba, or “arabian lamb” (recipe from The Silver Spoon cookbook, a wedding gift from my sisters-in-law which I’ve been meaning to delve into more. The recipe basically involves lamb cubes roasted in a mixture of onions, honey, saffron, cumin, ginger, and stock, with almonds and olives and cilantro added at the end).
fava beans, boiled and buttered
strawberry rhubarb pie

I can make the pie and the soup on Saturday. And something quick and easy for us to actually eat on Saturday, like maybe pasta puttanesca.

Monday I’m sure we’ll have leftovers. And Tuesday, if the leftovers haven’t run out, maybe I’ll take another stab at cooking squid. You shall not escape me so easily, o cephalopods!