Proof that I am not a total failure at gardening

This morning an amazing thing happened. My peace lily plant, which has been living a very droopy existence since I got it last year, sprouted a single bloom.

That plant has looked like it was headed for the trash about 50 times, but I couldn’t give up on it. Like so many other things, I needed to prove that I was capable of keeping a houseplant alive. Especially one that so many people had assured me was impossible to kill. Well I’m here to tell you people, you can kill a peace lily – in no time at all. This sucker needs to be watered several times a week, and it needs to be very close to natural light. It’s nothing like the philodendron in our living room that we couldn’t kill if we tried. Once I found the lily a place near a front window and watered it (somewhat) regularly, it hung on. But it never looked good.

I think the real reason I don’t want it to die is that it came from a funeral. My best friend’s brother died in a horrible accident last summer, and at the end of that stunned weekend they were left with a huge hole in their hearts and about 2 dozen houseplants. So I hauled that peace lily back to Iowa and promised to give it my best shot.

So here it is spring, after a painful winter, and that gangly plant has not only hung on, but decided to bloom. I think I needed that little flower more than I realized.

My first time! (making risotto)

I am a huge foodie, and the older I get the more geeky I get about it. Every restaurant gets a thorough evaluation, whether I’m actually there to review it or not. It’s gone way beyond copyediting menus to things like making my tablemates feel guilty that they don’t know what arugula is. But if I’m gonna take on the calories (and you know I will) I want to at least know what I’m eating, where it came from and how one could possibly make a tiny cup of chilled rice pudding so incredibly good I could drink it.

However, when I get in the kitchen myself I instantly lose interest in cooking something that is a) meaty or b) hard to make. I just don’t have the patience for really involved recipes. The last time I cooked something that took 2 hours (an incredibly rich vegetable pot pie with saffron cream and homemade pastry from Barefoot Contessa) I immediately got bronchitis and laryngitis and was sick for two weeks. Mike is the patient baker. He loves anything he’s never made before. We are kitchen opposites for sure.

So one of those dishes I avoid like the plague is risotto. I’ve heard all kinds of things about how you have to stir it endlessly, keep adding broth, pray it doesn’t burn and then about 10 hours later you have….rice. Awesome!

But I saved a risotto recipe from a random issue of Rachael Ray’s magazine because it looked so lovely. (And by the way, I’m not sure what possessed me to buy a Rachael Ray magazine in the first place, except that I did spend a few months of my unemployed life watching at least 4 hours of Food Network a day. I don’t dislike her, I’m just overwhelmed by her). Anyway, it’s a creamy risotto with peas, parmesan and a little breadcrumb crusted on top. Last summer I had a similar version at a random cafe in Aix-en-Provence that was so incredible I could have licked the plate when I was finished proving to everyone French that Americans really are like that. So I knew the work could pay off, and I finally decided to try it. After a particularly stressful day it work. It seemed like it would become a total disaster, but I’m happy to report that risotto is not actually that hard to make and only took me about half an hour. Whew.

I even had an old chunk of parmesan in the fridge which I burned about 150 calories shredding. It was totally worth it.

Sweet Pea Risotto Gratin
Adapted from Everyday with Rachael Ray

10-oz. package frozen baby peas, thawed
6 c. chicken or no-chicken broth
5 tablespoons butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 pound arborio rice
1 c. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 c. plain dry bread crumbs

Puree half of the peas in a food processor (I used a blender. I hate cleaning all the food processor parts).

In a saucepan heat the broth and keep it warm. Grease a 2-court casserole and set aside.

In a large saucepan heat 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium. Stir in the onion and cook until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the rice and stir well to coat the grains with butter. Add 1 cup of chicken broth, lower the heat slightly and stir until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth in half-cup increments, letting the rice absorb the liquid (about 3 minutes) after each addition, and stirring almost constantly until the rice is cooked, 20-25 minutes. The finished rice will be creamy but firm to the bite.

A few minutes before the risotto is done, stir in the pureed and whole peas. Turn on the broiler.

Remove the cooked rice from the heat and stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and 3/4 cup of cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Stir the remaining 1/4 cup of cheese and bread crumbs together. Transfer the risotto to the casserole dish and top with the bread crumb mixture. Place the dish about 6 inches from the heat source and broil for 6-8 minutes or until the top is golden.

Disecting women’s magazines

I’m a late arrival to jezebel.com, but I’m enjoying the feature where they take a women’s magazine cover and rewrite the cover blurbs. I thought it was interesting that they picked on Marie Claire, which Brianne and I agree is one of the better mags out there. But if you take the snark with a grain of salt it’s all pretty funny.

My personal favorite is the one that says “a writer lost 3 pounds, it only took a year”. That story got a huge eye roll from me because while I liked the concept (can you just stop fretting about food and actually lose weight?) I can in no way relate to someone who freaks out over 3 pounds. Take that times ten and then we’ll talk.

Also, you should definitely click on this link.

(Not) Beef Stroganoff

I really don’t miss gnawing on beef cubes. But I do miss my dad’s beef stroganoff (minus the mushrooms, of course).

This version is adapted from Campbell’s Shortcut Stroganoff. I can part with a lot of the foods I grew up with, but cream of mushroom soup has been a major holdout (yes, I am strangely picky and like mushroom flavor but not actual mushrooms). So, I give you my version of beef stroganoff, minus just about all the things that make it original. But look at it! It’s a fine substitute, I think.

(Not) Beef Stroganoff

1 T. olive oil
1 package Morningstar Farms breakfast sausage (or your favorite)
1 can Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup (I have found the store brand is NOT the same here)
2 c. no-chicken or vegetable broth
2 T. Worcestershire sauce (not vegetarian, but OK for fish eaters)
3 c. egg noodles
1/4 c. half and half

Heat soup, broth, Worcestershire sauce and egg noodles in a deep skillet over medium-high heat until it starts to boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook about 15 minutes or until noodles are soft and sauce is thickened.

While that’s cooking, heat oil in another pan over medium. Drop in your sausages and cook until heated through and slightly brown on both sides. Chop them into fourths.

Turn off the heat on both pans. Add the half and half to the noodles and stir. Then mix in the sausage pieces.

To make it meaty:
You know, the beef cubes.

Throw a bag of Steamfresh in the microwave and you’ve got dinner in less than half an hour. That’s my kind of dinner.

Back of the pack

This morning I ran four miles. Without stopping. That was a pretty big accomplishment considering that I haven’t run much at all since the snow started three months ago, that the gray sky and cold wind made me want to get right back in my car, and mainly that I wasn’t sure I would ever be a runner again after I had back surgery last year.

But somewhere around the two-mile mark I started to feel like I might make it to a 5k, and that would be just fine with me. And then I just kept going. I even felt like I could have kept running after the four-mile mark, but I didn’t want to push my luck.

Out of nowhere I crossed over to that bizarre point when running actually feels good. It’s so easy to forget that point exists, but it does. Otherwise no fool would be a runner.

Running, for me, is hard for all the same reasons other people list. It is especially hard because no matter how hard I train, no matter how much I weigh, no matter how much I spend on shoes or how loud I crank my music, I am slow. People who appear to be much older, barely shuffling, and carrying on entire animated conversations pass me. Asthmatic people could kick my ass in a race. People in the 70-year-old category beat me in the Living History Farms race last fall. And people, I’m 27.

I never advanced past C team in high school cross country, except for one junior varsity performance in which I was something like 47th out of 50. I improved my times, I got stronger, but I never ever saw the front of the pack. I never even saw the middle.

That’s not an easy pill to swallow for someone who’s a perfectionist-overachiever. Usually if I’m not good at something, I just don’t do it. But I guess I am drawn to the solitary activities like running, hiking and yoga in which you can challenge yourself to get better. You never have to shoot the winning free throw, you just have to knock a few seconds off your last time. And dear god keep me as far away as possible from the mean sports, like dodgeball. I just don’t have the aggression (or the arm) for it.

But even though I am embarrassingly slow, I can’t stop running. Something always brings me back to it. It’s like I need to prove to myself than I can do this because it’s so hard and because I’ve never quite mastered it. I need to be a runner, even if it means bringing up the rear every time.

When I read Runners World, which in my opinion is one of the greatest magazines out there, I simply cannot relate to the 80 percent of writers they have that measure their mile splits in the 6s and enter races on a whim to wind up in 3rd place. Do they make 364th place medals? Maybe the real question is, what reward is there for being a slow runner?

I guess it’s just something you have to do for yourself in the name of character development or muscular thighs. And you do meet some fabulous people who are also puttering along in the 11-minute wave.

Not too long ago there was an article in Runners World about a guy who was the worst one on his college cross country or track team, and I loved it. The guy had no regrets about joining the team and setting himself up for humiliation. He did it even though it was that much harder for him than any of the natural athletes who did do well. I’m not that brave, but I will keep running – for my health, for my stubbornness, for my 364th place medal.

Missing Blueprint

I was thinking today, for the millionth time, that Blueprint was pretty much the best magazine ever. It started off on shaky ground – I don’t remember loving the first issue I saw. But it hit its stride and vaulted to wow, this is really good to oh my GOD how can a magazine be so clever and pretty and crafty all at the same time??

I tore out so many pages and posted them on my office idea board that there was hardly anything left at the end of the month. And what did I pay for this subscription? $6! Never was there such a bargain.

I think I loved it because it treated me like the woman I was. Feminine but not too girly, crafty but in a perfectionist way (I have no use for robot dolls, I need curtains and A-line skirts!), a foodie who’s capable of more than mac and cheese. Blueprint expected me to have my shit together and go from there.

Now we are left with the Bluelines blog, which is lovely, but not enough. And even though I was told I would get a subscription to Martha Stewart Living I didn’t even get that. They mailed me a $10 check instead.

My magazine shelf still runneth over, and I think some of you share the same problem… But it still feels like there’s a hole. Martha – why?

Chocolate Crinkles

Warning: Do not inhale the powdered sugar.

These cookies are amazing. They have a texture somewhere between cookie, brownie and chocolate cupcake. And they’re way easy to make.

Chocolate Crinkles
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

4 eggs
2 c. granulated sugar
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled (I used 4 of the already melted packets)
1/2 c. cooking oil
2 t. baking powder
2 t. vanilla
1/2 t. salt
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. sifted powdered sugar (for rolling)

In a mixing bowl beat eggs, sugar, chocolate, oil, baking powder, vanilla and salt with an electric mixer (or be old-school like me and do it by hand).

Beat in flour, 1/2 cup at a time until combined. Dough will be really soft. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours or until dough is easy to handle (or be impatient like me and pop it in the freezer for an hour).

Shape the dough into 1-inch balls, roll them thoroughly in powdered sugar and place them 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheet. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes or until edges are set and tops are crackled. Transfer to a rack and cool.

For giant cookies:
Make 2-inch balls and bake for 13-16 minutes.

Reggie

Reggie and me, we didn’t always get along so well. This is our story.

As soon as I got my first job and apartment in 2003 I wanted a dog. I missed having a warm body to curl up inside the crook of my legs, especially during cold Iowa winters. I’d always had a little dog at home – first a miniature schnauzer and then a Boston terrier. So that’s what I imagined myself getting. Little dogs, little poops. Unfortunately, my apartment, and the next one, didn’t take dogs.

But then Mike came along and my dog fantasy became our dog fantasy. He grew up with a black lab and couldn’t picture a day at the dog park (that’s the “dp” in our house) without a thigh-high mutt in tow. He was also adamant that we get a rescue dog. So while we were living in different states for nearly a year we planned our eventual life together with a middle-sized rescue pup in it. We even picked out a name, Reggie, after the Des Moines Register, the newspaper where we both worked when we met. Reggie was gonna be awesome.

A few months into our cohabitation we finally decided we were ready for dog ownership. We scoured the Animal Rescue League Web site a few times to see if our Reggie might be there. Then one day we finally took the plunge and went in person. After pet sessions with a couple dogs that just didn’t seem quite right, we almost gave up. But someone told us there were a couple ARL dogs at a nearby pet store, and we headed that way. I think we knew right away which one was our Reggie.

She was medium-sized, mega affectionate, brown eyed, floppy eared. A little ragged and dirty, but in pretty good shape. She drug us all over the pet store the next day while we piled our cart with everything a spoiled dog could ever need. And when we took her home and let her into our huge backyard she seemed right at home.

The adventure started right away. Most of the dogs’ cages at the ARL warned of kennel cough, but Reggie seemed to be free of it. We also didn’t notice that her scar from being recently spayed was getting infected. Within 24 hours she began coughing and vomiting pretty much constantly. We took her to the vet, who pronounced her one sick puppy. High fever, respiratory infection, open wound. After dropping something like $250 on that visit we took her home, overwhelmed. As we were about to leave her alone in her kennel, wearing one of those horrible Elizabethan collars to keep her from licking the oozing wound, she looked at us with the saddest eyes. I think we humans were both near tears.

Thankfully she got better, but she was a different dog. With her energy back she ran wild, tearing out blinds to see through the front windows, peeing on furniture, chewing shoes, digging holes under the fence. And she absolutely came undone when we left her alone. Twice left at the ARL, she was understandably anxious about separation. Would we abandon her, too?

When I took her for walks she nearly ripped the skin off my fingers pulling. So we got a Gentle Leader. She constantly jumped on me, and with her strength and sharp nails, would leave long scratches and purple bruises down my legs. So we taught her to jump straight up instead of straight at people. She found out how to dig under the fence and escape the yard. So we patched it over and over and over. After a while, owning Reggie was painful and exhausting.

Believe me, I think of myself as a big-hearted person (maybe too big sometimes) and still I was ready to send her straight back some days. She made me absolutely furious. She’s everything I’m not – a natural athlete, bursting with energy, easily social with other dogs. I’m mellow, low-energy, independent. I love my alone time. I just didn’t understand her.

The incidents came, one after another. The broken glass incident, the spilled coffee, the bloody toenail, the time she jumped out of a fast-moving car, the time she locked me out of my car on a hot summer night at a gas station in the middle of Missouri on a Sunday night and began honking the horn at me. I could go on. She tested my patience like a kid with ADD. She howled endlessly when we left her alone, that deep, guttural yelp she gets from her beagle blood.

But we steeled ourselves. This was what we wanted so badly, after all. And she was so cute in her Halloween costume, so proud of her speed at the dog park as she smoked every pup in sight, so cuddly at night. She loved us hard. She literally laid on us to sleep. She didn’t know anything about personal space. Maybe she thought if she gave us any, we were bound to leave.

Getting her to the dog park or to a local doggie daycare were the only ways we could burn enough of her energy to see a remotely relaxed dog at home, so we tried to keep up. There were plenty of vet appointments. The time she ate a whole box of heartworm medicine. The time she ate an azalea leaf. That sort of thing.

I didn’t want to admit it, but the truth was that Reggie was not the dog I wanted. She was the dog I got. And everything inside me fought her at every turn – why can’t you just be normal?! I didn’t like what she brought out in me. The fear that if I were to have a child that wasn’t everything I wanted someday, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I wouldn’t be strong enough. I was probably going to be a bad parent.
So I stuck with her, partly because she needed me and partly because I needed her to teach me that I could handle this.

I don’t know that we ever had a breakthrough, per se, but we have come to an understanding. I accept her for the crazy dog that she is and she licks me when I’m down. I let her run, she naps all afternoon. We’re still working on the part where a guest comes over and she plows into them with her full body weight. Where is Caesar when you need him?

The incidents will always be there, but they are growing fewer as we learn each other. Something in me had to change for us to work out, and I think it has. It’s the kind of patience no one can teach you. If it’s in you, it will take a Reggie to find it.