Wannabe kitchenista

9 12 2011

Let me begin this post by stating that I am not a cook. I can count on both hands and both feet the number of times I have actually cooked (not an exaggeration). It is one of those endeavors that I wish I had the patience and skill to do. My mother was a wonderful cook. Both of my sisters seem to enjoy the task as well and are good at it. I have cooked so little that I can actually remember almost every attempt in the kitchen. Yes, I have had some successes. I make a crazy-good basil pesto (and lots of it) every year. (Last year’s posting on making pesto, along with the recipe I use, is here.) My cooking repertoire now includes a wonderful pesto chicken dish and my go-to grilled chicken dish with mustard and tarragon (courtesy of Martha Stewart). I can add my friend Barbara’s Baked Cranberry Orange Sauce to that tiny list of culinary accomplishments. It shouldn’t surprise you that my idea of a great (solo) dinner is a well-made sandwich—wheat bread, light on the mayo, turkey and cheddar cheese, with potato chips shoved in for texture—although a bowl of Cap’n Crunch is a close second. If it weren’t for Michael’s kitchen skills and cooking patience (aside from that one incident where he inadvertently poisoned me one Thanksgiving with a partially cooked ham), I would still be eating 10 for a $1 chicken-flavored ramen noodles and burned biscuits. (Did I mention how much I love 90-second rice in a pouch and Bird’s Eye Steamers?) Below are my top five memorable moments in the heart of the home.

1) Steak & Au Gratin Potato Dinner
Picture this: I am a college student, still living at home. My mother, sister Debbie, and her husband Bill are visiting relatives in Georgia. Kelley and I are left to fend for ourselves. My dad is working the 4-midnight shift as a Customs Inspector at the port of Brownsville, Texas. I decide that dad needs a good home cooked meal and I’m just the chef to do it!

I decide he needs a manly dinner—steak and potatoes. I’m assuming we already had these ingredients in the pantry because shopping in a grocery store was a foreign concept to me (and it kinda still is). As a rookie in the kitchen, I do not know how long it takes to cook a steak. Al Gore hadn’t yet invented the internet, so I didn’t have a recipe site to double check. I can’t ask my mom or sister because they’re out of the state. I can’t call dad to ask him because that would spoil the surprise. Dad doesn’t get home until 1:00 a.m. I start cooking at 9:00 p.m. Yes, you read that right. Four hours before he will arrive home from work.

I start the steak at 9:00 p.m. and continue to warm it up, over and over and over (and over) until he comes home. Can’t have steak without potatoes, right? I raid the pantry and discover an au gratin potato mix. It calls for x amount of butter and I decide (as if I possess years of culinary know-how to deviate from a tried-and-true recipe) that x amount of butter doesn’t look to be nearly enough. I add double that (or maybe it was triple?). It officially becomes the worst au gratin potato dish the world has ever seen. To this day (honestly), I cannot look at nor eat au gratin potatoes. They were that bad. Paula Dean might have eaten them, though—the gal does love her butter.

I hear my father’s car in the driveway and run to greet him. “Dad, Dad, Dad! I made you dinner.” He looks at me suspiciously since he has only seen me in the kitchen when I’m passing through it. He sits down to the seven-times-warmed-up steak (think shoe leather) and the butter-overdosed au gratin potato side dish. After the first bite, he gingerly asks, “umm…when exactly did you start cooking the steak?” I’m sure after I went to bed, he probably ditched it and headed for the Raisin Bran.

2) Some Kind of Pie
After perusing some magazine of my mother’s, I decided I was going to make a pie. I don’t remember what kind of pie it was, but I do remember my attraction to it—it was garnished with beautiful fall leaves hand cut from pastry dough. I spent an interminable amount of time cutting out the leaves and fluting the edges of the pie crust top and bottom. I was exercising my creative muscles, but it was exhausting. Then I read how long it took to bake—45 minutes. 45 minutes? Are you kidding me? I don’t have the attention span to wait that long. I remember running to my mother and begging her to watch it for me. What a saint she was…come to think of it, I don’t remember cleaning up the mess I made, either. I do remember that it was quite a lovely pie visually. And isn’t that all that matters, really? A for effort!

3) Rice Krispy Treats
When the recipe for rice krispy treats calls for butter, use it. Do not try to use I-can’t-believe-its-not-butter because it is not butter. Trust me on this. If you do, your treats will be swimming in a sludge of yellow liquid when you take them out of the oven. No one will eat them. Your boyfriend will laugh at you. You will never make rice krispy treats again.

4) Roasted Vegetable Soup
A few years ago, I decided that I would surprise Michael by cooking dinner (it always surprises him when I cook, so it’s a predictable reaction). It was winter, so what would be a better dish than a hearty bowl of soup? I proceeded to pick out the most complicated recipe in one of the many cookbooks I collect. (Don’t you judge me; I’ll get around to them some day.) Roasted Vegetable Soup. This complex recipe (I’ll bet it was one of Martha’s) required a trip to the grocery store, where I discovered that red and yellow peppers are not cheap. I loaded up on red, green and yellow peppers, yellow squash and green zucchini, onions and tomatoes. I roasted all the vegetables and then made the soup. It took forever. Remember, I’m now in Virginia, so I couldn’t beg my mom to finish it for me this time. Michael came home and was drawn in by the wonderful scent wafting from the kitchen. He settled down to a heaping, hearty bowl of soup and proclaimed it a winner, gushing and complimenting me on the dish. Devoid of expression, I announce that he will never have this dish again. Ever. So he better enjoy the leftovers.

5) The Ole Meat-and-Cheese-on-a-Toothpick-in-a-Grapefruit Appetizer
Some of you are old enough (go ahead, admit it) to remember the 70s and the meat-and-cheese-cube-on-a-toothpick-stuck-in-a-grapefruit appetizer. I realize this doesn’t entail any cooking, but I clearly remember making this kitschy appetizer. I remembered one time my younger sister and I asked if we could have a party. At the time, she was in junior high and I was in high school. We got permission and one of the appetizers we made was the skewered grapefruit sculpture. The property we lived on had a grove of grapefruit, orange and tangelo trees, so obtaining the base for this delectable was as easy as stepping out the back patio and plucking one! Tiny half inch cheese cubes stacked with ham slices (or was it dad’s bologna we raided?), then skewered on a toothpick and stuck into a large grapefruit—how retro! (As I’m reliving this memory, I’m half tempted to host a “back to the 70s” appetizer potluck just to see what my guests bring.)

AN ADMITTED BIBLIOHOLIC
In my career as a graphic designer, I have designed the covers and interiors of more than 50 books, both hard and softcover, on a wide variety of topics. I am also an admitted and unashamed biblioholic. I love books. I love well-designed and well-written books. Coffee table books, fiction, non-fiction, reference, graphic design, photography, art, craft, gardening, travel, poetry. All have their own sections in my library. On more than one occasion I have bought a book simply because of its beautiful design and compelling photography (one such book is a photo essay about octogenerians).

So despite my clumsiness in the kitchen, I adore a beautifully designed cookbook. And for some reason, cookbooks always end up on the extreme bargain tables, therefore I have amassed quite a collection of them. I love the more contemporary look of food photographs today and love perusing blogs by cooks who are both great in the kitchen and at photographing their dishes. I think it’s partly due to the styling and texture in the photographs that I am drawn to food photography as of late. I love the idea of being a great cook—they make it seem so effortless and so rewarding. It is a creative endeavor that also melds all of the senses.

POTS AND PANS AND GADGETS GALORE
I love the gadgets, pots and pans and the multitude of serves-only-one-purpose items that cooks covet. I drool over the Williams-Sonoma catalog. Last year, my friends Gina, Karen and Rob gave me a beautiful white KitchenAid mixer for my birthday because I had once said to Gina, “if I had one of those, I know I would be baking. I just know it.” I’m happy to report that it has been used several times. The first time it was used, Gina and I baked (way too many) Christmas cookies for her friend who is serving in Afghanistan. I recently used it to make pumpkin bread (yes, it was edible). For my birthday this year, Michael bought me a mini-pie maker. It has since produced four chicken and pesto pot pies, as well as cherry and apple pies. We’ll make a (mini) baker out of me yet.

IF-IT-DOESN’T-HAVE-FREEZER-BURN-THROW-IT-IN-SOUP
On Monday night, I decided to clean out the freezer and anything that didn’t have freezer burn (boy, were there a lot of bags that fit in that category!), went into my no-recipe-soup, which I like to call “If it doesn’t have freezer burn, throw it in soup.” Via telephone, my sister Debbie was my sous chef, advising me to throw in rice, a can of diced tomatoes and various spices. It was quite tasty and Michael consumed two bowls of it when he got home from work.

I am a Restaurant Impossible junkie (even if I think the two-day, $10,000 budget, and Chef Irvine’s overly dramatic demeanor is a bit much at times). I love watching Chopped, Cupcake Wars, Giada at Home and The Next Food Network Star. Watching those shows makes me want to learn how to really cook. I would love to immediately know what to do when I’m handed a basket containing boxed mac & cheese, gummi bears, canned cream of mushroom soup and string cheese.

But most of all, as a lover and maker of images, I love looking at simple, contemporary photographs of food. So, when I helped my friend Barbara decorate her Thanksgiving table this year, I offered to bring some backgrounds and set up shots of some side dishes that she had prepared in advance. Check out her Holiday Pumpkin Cookies recipe here. Her husband, Bill, is in charge of making the annual ever-changing pecan pie. This year’s concoction is Pecan-Bourbon Pie with a Touch of White Chocolate. Since this dessert is created sans recipe, he can’t really share his formula with you, but you can read all about it here.

FYI, for those of you who don’t already know it, Barbara’s father, Johnny Garneau, invented the salad bar “sneeze guard.” Yes, it’s true, and you can read all about it on Barbara’s blog here.

I always approach my photography with a graphic designer’s eye. I believe that is evident in my photographs—whether I’m photographing people, flowers, landscapes or something edible. Composition remains my main priority, no matter the subject. If you can hone just that one skill in photography, the rest—lighting and post-production—will follow. I don’t know where learning food photography could possibly take me, but it’s a lot of fun when I have a chance to do it. Who knows? It just might inspire me to spend a bit more time in the kitchen, camera nearby. Michael might just get that roasted vegetable soup one more time.

Photos © Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.





Lilytopia 2011

28 05 2011

From the Lilytopia signage:

About the Designer: This breathtaking exhibition of lilies was created by Dorien van den Berg, the famed and world-inspired designer from The Netherlands. Dorien was born in The Netherlands and at the age of fourteen was introduced to flower exhibition at the renowned Keukenhof, The Netherlands. She was inspired by these shows and focused her studies on horticulture. She traveled the world and learned different flower arranging styles in Brussels, Vienna, America, Japan and other countries. Years of experiencing different cultures and learning new flower arranging styles have made Dorien what she is and what she creates today. For Longwood Gardens, she carefully selected materials and lily cultivars that create a design that balances color, texture and form to transform the Conservatory into a true LilyTopia.

Lilytopia 2011 showcases over 11,000 cut lilies and 1,500 calla lilies. Learn more about Lilytopia behind-the-scenes in the following links:

http://www.marthastewart.com/270900/lily-glossary?video_id=0

https://longwoodgardens.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/countdown-to-lilytopia-2011/

Photo © Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.





Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus)

31 01 2011

I force paperwhite bulbs every year and always forget about their scent—when they begin to bloom and I haven’t noticed yet, I walk around the kitchen and living room and ask myself, “what is that smell?” You’d think I’d learn! I kind of have a love/hate relationship with the smell. It’s okay when you get the first whiff of it, but I made the mistake of moving them from their usual place in the kitchen (which I rarely inhabit) to a table in the living room (where you’ll find me if I’m not in my studio). And I’ve had a mild headache ever since doing so. Wonder why? I’m tempted to call it a day (or a bloom) and pitch them, but some blooms haven’t opened yet and I just can’t bring myself to interrupt the blooming process, obsessive gardener that I am.

I just read a post on Margaret Roach’s blog, awaytogarden.com, about paperwhites and the trick to keeping them from flopping over (gin, vodka or rubbing alcohol). She also mentions that adding a few drops of bleach might limit the strong scent (if you find the scent offensive, that is). Margaret was the first garden editor of Martha Stewart Living magazine. Go check out her blog—it’s wonderful!

I also learned something from the reader comments: Brent of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs says that the Israeli hybrids are the ones that “stink.” Most likely mine are the ‘Ziva’ hybrid that dominate the market for forced bulbs. He recommends one of the newer Israeli introductions, ‘Inbal,’ which has a nice fragrance. I’ll look for that hybrid in their catalog—but it’s still so convenient to get my $5-after-Christmas-sale-deal at Target, complete with the pot and growing mix—despite the stinkiness. I’ll just keep them in the kitchen again next year.

© Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.





Redux x 2: Still unidentified blue pinwheel thingie

7 04 2010

Previously posted in March 2008

I photographed this same type of flower a few years ago (see link here), and I still haven’t been successful in identifying it. I think I’ll take a print to Green Spring Gardens and maybe they can identify it (since they’re the ones who grew it). In the link I just provided, you’ll read my father’s take on the origin of the flower. It was quite involved (he had extra time on his hands, apparently), but still didn’t really identify the flower.

FYI—in reference to my father’s note about not pronouncing the “h” in “herb”—no matter how often I tell him that it’s usually the British who pronounce the “h” in “herb,” he still thinks that’s the only way to pronounce the word. He even points out that if Martha Stewart says it like that, then it must be right. (He says that if “erb” is correct, then we should also say “umongous,” “uge,” and “erbert oover”—as in the name of our 31st President). I’ve done the research and actually—both pronunciations are correct (although he will never agree). Most Americans say it with a silent “h.” Some pronounce the “h” if it’s a person’s name, then don’t when referencing the green stuff. I’m taking a poll, here and now. How many of you pronounce “herb” with the hard h? And what is your reasoning for doing so?

An aside: While searching “pronounciation of the word herb,” I found a synopsis of one of Alexis Stewart’s (Martha’s daughter) radio shows. In it, Alexis says that her mother pronounces it incorrectly and goes on to explain her mother’s reasoning. (Martha and my dad—separated at birth—who knew?). An excerpt from that review is below. I am not responsible for the terrible practice of not capitalizing the first word of each sentence, nor the positioning of the period outside the quotation marks, nor the lower-casing of Martha’s name. I know better than that. I’m hoping the practice of lower-cased i’s and names is simply a phase bloggers are going through, although I sincerely doubt it. What can I say? Aside from the “Great (H)erb Debate,” I am my father’s daughter.

then alexis said that martha says the word “herb” incorrectly. martha pronounces the “h” and claims she pronounces the “h” because, after all, people pronounce the “h” when they say the name herbert, so why shouldn’t they then pronounce the “h” in the word “herb”.  alexis added that trying to explain to martha why her pronunciation is faulty is like playing tennis with a hopelessly bad player – there’s just nothing you can do about it.

If everyone in America was forced to buy the book(s), The Mac is Not a Typewriter or The PC is Not a Typewriter (excellent little books by Robin Williams—the author, not the actor), we would all be (grammatically and publishing-wise) better for it. I imagine Ms. Williams could retire early if that transpired. I know I could finally stop losing sleep over all those excess spaces after periods and misplaced punctuation.

FYI, contrary to the popularity of the practice, you should only put one space after the end of a sentence before beginning a new one. In covered-wagon days, there were proportional typefaces, and every letter and punctuation mark occupied the same width, so two spaces were necessary to make the sentence break clear. These days, the tap of a keyboard spacebar yields 1.5 characters; plenty for spacing before starting a new sentence. Save those extra spaces for other paragraphs—recycle! Old habits are hard to break. I came from the era of typewriters and had the “two space rule” drilled into my head. Then I entered the world of desktop publishing with my very first Mac. If I can break the habit, so can you. Really. Give it a try. Pretty please? It’s the right thing to do (although you may have been blissfully unaware until just now).

And remember, this rule includes just one space after any punctuation—quotation marks, exclamation points (which my father abhors, but that’s another posting), as well as the oft-used periods.

One comment in a forum on the subject of space after periods signed his letter, “Just say NO to Double Spacing!—brought to you by PADSAP (People Against Double Spacing After Periods).

Whaaaa? There’s a club for people like me? Where do I sign up? Hey Dad—maybe we can get a two-for-one membership.

© Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.

pinwheelthingie





Blue pinwheel thingie, redux

6 04 2009

I photographed this same type of flower a few years ago (see link here), and I still haven’t been successful in identifying it. I think I’ll take a print to Green Spring Gardens and maybe they can identify it (since they’re the ones who grew it). In the link I just provided, you’ll read my father’s take on the origin of the flower. It was quite involved (he had extra time on his hands, apparently), but still didn’t really identify the flower.

FYI—in reference to my father’s note about not pronouncing the “h” in “herb”—no matter how often I tell him that it’s usually the British who pronounce the “h” in “herb,” he still thinks that’s the only way to pronounce the word. He even points out that if Martha Stewart says it like that, then it must be right. (He says that if “erb” is correct, then we should also say “umongous,” “uge,” and “erbert oover”—as in the name of our 31st President). I’ve done the research and actually—both pronunciations are correct (although he will never agree). Most Americans say it with a silent “h.” Some pronounce the “h” if it’s a person’s name, then don’t when referencing the green stuff. I’m taking a poll, here and now. How many of you pronounce “herb” with the hard h? And what is your reasoning for doing so?

An aside: While searching “pronounciation of the word herb,” I found a synopsis of one of Alexis Stewart’s (Martha’s daughter) radio shows. In it, Alexis says that her mother pronounces it incorrectly and goes on to explain her mother’s reasoning. (Martha and my dad—separated at birth—who knew?). An excerpt from that review is below. I am not responsible for the terrible practice of not capitalizing the first word of each sentence, nor the positioning of the period outside the quotation marks, nor the lower-casing of Martha’s name. I know better than that. I’m hoping the practice of lower-cased i’s and names is simply a phase bloggers are going through, although I sincerely doubt it. What can I say? Aside from the “Great (H)erb Debate,” I am my father’s daughter.

then alexis said that martha says the word “herb” incorrectly. martha pronounces the “h” and claims she pronounces the “h” because, after all, people pronounce the “h” when they say the name herbert, so why shouldn’t they then pronounce the “h” in the word “herb”.  alexis added that trying to explain to martha why her pronunciation is faulty is like playing tennis with a hopelessly bad player – there’s just nothing you can do about it.

If everyone in America was forced to buy the book(s), The Mac is Not a Typewriter or The PC is Not a Typewriter (excellent little books by Robin Williams—the author, not the actor), we would all be (grammatically and publishing-wise) better for it. I imagine Ms. Williams could retire early if that transpired. I know I could finally stop losing sleep over all those excess spaces after periods and misplaced punctuation.

FYI, contrary to the popularity of the practice, you should only put one space after the end of a sentence before beginning a new one. In covered-wagon days, there were proportional typefaces, and every letter and punctuation mark occupied the same width, so two spaces were necessary to make the sentence break clear. These days, the tap of a keyboard spacebar yields 1.5 characters; plenty for spacing before starting a new sentence. Save those extra spaces for other paragraphs—recycle! Old habits are hard to break. I came from the era of typewriters and had the “two space rule” drilled into my head. Then I entered the world of desktop publishing with my very first Mac. If I can break the habit, so can you. Really. Give it a try. Pretty please? It’s the right thing to do (although you may have been blissfully unaware until just now).

And remember, this rule includes just one space after any punctuation—quotation marks, exclamation points (which my father abhors, but that’s another posting), as well as the oft-used periods.

One comment in a forum on the subject of space after periods signed his letter, “Just say NO to Double Spacing!—brought to you by PADSAP (People Against Double Spacing After Periods).

Whaaaa? There’s a club for people like me? Where do I sign up? Hey Dad—maybe we can get a two-for-one membership.

© Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.

pinwheelthingie