23 April 2010

It's party time!

The weather finally doesn't suck, and it's time to go outside with your drinks and snacks and invite some people over. I love outdoor parties, but I hate being stuck in the kitchen while my husband yucks it up with our friends. So, I put out some red and white wine, an infused vodka and some tonic water, and a couple of easy hors d'oeuvres that I can make before the guests arrive so I can put my feet up when the party starts.

Walnut-feta spread (inspired by Moosewood Lodge in Ithaca, NY)
8 oz. feta cheese
1 large garlic cover, peeled and roughly chopped
1/8 cup walnuts
1 tablespoon milk
Generous handful of fresh oregano (or 1 tsp. dried oregano)
Generous handful fresh parsley
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Olive oil
Directions: combine garlic and walnuts in food processor 30 seconds. Add cheese and milk, process until mostly smooth (there will be some lumps from the walnuts). Add herbs and cayenne, process again until thoroughly blended. Transfer spread to a small serving bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with grilled bread, warm pita bread, hearty crackers, or any other dipping carb!
* * * * * * * * * *
Tuscan white bean dip
1 can cannellini beans
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
½ teaspoon olive oil (optional)
Salt and crushed red pepper to taste
Directions: place all ingredients in food processor and blend until smooth. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve with your favorite dipping carb.

16 April 2010

the rental car adventures, part 1

I am standing in line waiting to claim the economy rental car I have reserved online. I have been awake since 4am and have been flying for five hours, and the perky, overly-gelled clerk has a voice that carries throughout office, which I do not at this particular moment happen to find charming. I try not to groan every time I hear him shout out “Hey there, sir! Welcome to Enterprise!” to the next customer in line, none of whom look to be hearing-impaired. I have never had such little fun acquiring the symptoms of a hangover.

When it’s my turn in line, I try to match his perkiness and fail miserably. I mean, it’s not his fault I am totally wasted from the day’s travel, and being serious never seems to go over well with the service folk. They just get cold and defensive. So I’m trying to seem like more fun than I actually am, and after an awkward beginning, he gets back to his salesman script. “Oh, you’re in luck, ma’am, I’ve been authorized to give you a free upgrade to an SUV today!!!!!” Dear Enterprise: Do you think I want to drive a vehicle the size of a city bus in an unfamiliar place when I requested the smallest car on the lot? I mean, really, why would you assume that everyone would drive a small houseboat on wheels if only they could afford it? My eyes bulge as he offers it--the gas prices! The damage to the planet!

The secret’s out–I am decidedly not fun. I try not to sound too desperate as I beg for the tiny, tiny car I requested. And the final verdict is in: I will be receiving a Chevy Cobalt, which is also, supposedly, a “free upgrade”. It’s small enough, so I decide not to belabor the point, but . . . has anyone out there ever requested the subcompact and actually received it? I have not. What I get is a family-sized sedan that reminds me of my Grandpa’s car. The Cobalt is a bit better–about one size bigger than I had wanted. But I just don’t get this game they have to play. Do they even own the Chevy Aveo they teased me with on their website? And does anyone really buy this “free upgrade” schtick? If so, they must be the same people who actually believe that Kohl’s department store is having an amazing this-weekend-only sale RIGHT NOW. And also last weekend. And, come to think of it . . . oh.

Perky Clerk takes me around to look for damage to the car–is this really my job? I just want to sit down, really. So I walk around the car with him, feeling stupid and wondering if I should make a show of looking for things, you know, just so he knows he can’t mess with me. Too tired. Don’t bother. He gives me the key after I confirm that there are four tires and doors on the thing, but I realize after he’s gone that he hasn’t bothered to show me anything useful, like how to open the trunk so I can put my luggage inside. The latch is apparently hidden behind a little plastic door low on the dashboard. Clever. Too clever for me for about four minutes of feeling up the molding and randomly pulling on things. I’m like a creepy prom date with this car and we haven’t even left the parking lot yet.

Did I mention how red this car is? Because it’s not just red. It’s burn-holes-in-your-retinas red. I am accustomed to driving a sedate, very small dark green car at home, so I may be paranoid, but I’m pretty sure everyone is staring at me with their mouths open as I slowly putter past them. I slowly putter because I am in an unfamiliar city driving an unfamiliar car, and also because it is a Chevy Cobalt, not exactly made to go from 0-60 in three seconds. The color is racey, but the ride is decidedly clunky and labored. It’s OK little car friend, I feel that way right now, too.

It’s good to test all the important stuff right away on a car and get it out of the way, and as I drive out of the Port Capital (Port? Where, in Ohio, is there need for a port?) Airport, I get to do exactly that as the gray sky turns dark and sprinkles turn to a “where’s-my-ark” deluge. The windshield wipers only work at warp speed, which is fine as long as you can ignore that loud scraping sound every time the rain lets up, and it and the turn signal levers are reversed from my car at home, so I am signaling a lot for no reason and occasionally squinting through the rain-soaked windshield.

The other bit of excitement is that apparently the headlights don’t turn off immediately when you think you have turned them off and stopped the car–they fade out gradually over the course of a minute or so. This is not uncommon, but because I do not have this feature–and because I do not want to have any pricey disasters on my tight schedule and budget–I worry that I have not properly turned off the headlights and that I will deplete the car’s battery when I stop for a coffee. So I get back into the car to stare at the dashboard and feel it up a little more. Satisfied that I have, indeed, turned off the lights, I get back out and stand in front of the car, staring at the lights like I have never seen such a beautiful Christmas show before. When the lights finally go off, I walk with purpose, head held high, past the gaggle of middle-aged women watching me from the front window of the coffee shop I have come to patronize.

10 April 2010

Hot and Sour Sickie Soup

I hate getting colds. Now that I live in Colorado, I seem to get at least two every winter. Conventional wisdom prescribes chicken soup, but I always find myself craving Chinese Hot and Sour soup—the kind that makes you sweat and makes your nose run—it cures so many ills. I can breathe better, my throat feels better, and the happiness temporarily distracts me from my complaining. The problem is, when I am sick, I rarely want to leave the house, even just to go down the road and get this miracle cure at my favorite take-out Chinese place. And I don’t think my neighbors should be subjected to the sight of me in sweatpants and an oversized, cat fur-decorated sweatshirt from my undergraduate days. So I present to you (with some help on measurements from Rachel Ray,

Hot and Sour Sickie Soup

8 cups water or broth of your choice (veggie, chicken, beef…)
3 Tablespoons of Sriracha or other garlic-chili sauce
2 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons grated ginger

Vegetables and tofu or meat of your choice
2 packages ramen or equivalent amount of other noodles (vermicelli, linguine…)

Sautee vegetables and tofu in 1 tablespoon of canola or peanut oil (I always start with onion, carrot, bok choy, and mushrooms). When veggies are soft and tofu is getting lightly browned, add all the broth ingredients, stir well, and bring to a boil. Add noodles and lower heat to medium, cooking according to package directions.

When the pasta is al dente or to your liking, turn off the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of lime juice. Serve with Kleenex near.

03 April 2010

A Reader's Guide to Rock Springs

In January of 2006, I was invited to present my educational research at a conference in the romantic Rock Springs. I had mixed feelings about this. For one thing, giving a presentation requires a modest amount of preparation on my part, and preparing a lecture makes me squirm like a five-year-old with a plate full of overcooked lima beans to eat before bed. But I thought it was a good way to make nice to my employer, so it was settled. I was going to Rock Springs, Wyoming. In January.

I packed up my 1997 Saturn and headed on my apprehensive way. The weather was fair in Greeley,Colorado, but I have long known that the weather in Wyoming can transport one into a different realm, a realm in which you really wonder whether or not you should have updated your will before leaving the house. "Does my husband know which cat food to buy if I'm not there?" "Do my parents know I love them?" These are the kinds of questions that often run through my mind as I approach Cheyenne.

The weather actually remained fair all the way to Laramie, where I managed the first mountain pass without incident. I was mentally high-fiving myself for my great luck when WHAMMO!--I ran into a thick wall of snow. Now, I've driven in my share of white-outs, but this was really the most dramatic loss of visibility I have ever suffered. I even lost sight of the big, heavily lit back end of the semi truck I had just been tailgating. I considered pulling over, but had no idea where to park. Instead, because I didn't feel I had a choice and because I am stubborn, I had to tap into a new set of senses to make my way through the blanket of white fuzz.

For two hours, I drove mainly by feel and sound, searching for the rumble strips they put in every few feet on the shoulder of the road. I knew it was wrong, but the vibrations were reassuringly familiar, and I figured it was the only proof I had that I was still on the road, albeit the area on which I was never meant to drive. Thankfully, the road almost never curved, but when it did, I could tell only by the fact that I had to turn the wheel to stay on the rumble strips. As you can imagine, I had to go something like 25 mph to pull this off. And for some illogical reason, I sat bolt upright in my seat, leaning forward and craning my neck over the steering wheel, as if somehow I'd be able to see through the solid mass of snow if only I wasn't so near-sighted. It was exhausting.

Miraculously, this weather all seemed to come to a rather sudden end just as I reached the outskirts of my destination. I was starting to wonder how I would know where to get off the highway, and there it was, the otherworldly clearing up ahead: Rock Springs, Wyoming. It is possible that no one in the history of the world has ever been, or will ever be, as happy to reach Rock Springs, Wyoming as I was that afternoon. I had originally planned to go straight to the conference upon my arrival, but after that drive, I decided the only thing to do was check in to my room, find the nearest liquor store, and drink heavily while enjoying VH-1 tributes to rich people and the 80s. This, I believe, is a more typical reaction upon reaching Rock Springs, Wyoming.

Rock Springs is located near some pretty important sources of oil, and many of my adopted neighbors at the EconoLodge I would call home were renting their rooms by the week, working in the oil fields all day in Rock Springs until whatever they did there was finished, then moving on, like nomads, to the next ecological nightmare. They were rough dudes, and I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a little awkward around them in the motel lobby, where they were sucking down the free coffee like it was their lifeblood.

But the morning I planned to drive home (I totally killed at my presentation--all 12 people clapped), I needed those rough dudes. It was -30 F. My car would not start. Logically, I knew that I just needed to wait until things warmed up a bit, but I was ready to get home, and I experienced a mild sense of panic at the thought of being stranded in Rock Springs for any portion of the day. I called the roadside assistance service that comes with my cell phone plan, but I couldn't make them understand where I was. So, not many people vacation here in Rock Springs, then?

I went into the lobby of the EconoLodge, chocked full of oil rig workers filling up on free breakfast before their grueling days, and I asked at the desk for help jumping my car. I stupidly had no cables, and apparently, neither did anyone who worked there. Ugh. I stood in the middle of the room in a daze, my slightly frozen brain struggling to make sense of the situation. Just then, a particularly gnarly looking gentleman approached me and said something. I couldn't really understand him, what with the mouthful of banana-walnut muffin, so our conversation was peppered with many "what?"s on my end.

Eventually I found myself bringing him and his friends to my car to look at the sad spectacle. Before I knew it they had pulled their truck around and gotten out industrial-size cables to attach to my engine. It took ten solid minutes for them to get my car started, by which time I had developed a full-body shake in the cold (they seemed completely unaffected by it), and I thanked them so profusely that I think I made them uncomfortable.

When my car, cranky and rather inconvenienced by the whole experience, finally started, I floored it and never looked back. That was the end of the weather-related incidents--although it was cold, and for many miles my car couldn't reach speeds higher than 35mph, there was no snow the entire day. I saw the scenery I had missed two days earlier, and it was flat and brown. I do not think I will attend another conference in Rock Springs in January. But I am now a big fan of the oil rig workers.