Tag Archives: home

I am obsessed with my slow cooker

A slow cooker — also known as a crock pot (a trademarked name often used generically, like kleenex or xerox) — is an electric cooking pot that sits on the counter and cooks slowly. Duh. Originally developed by the Naxon Utilities Corporation of Chicago, with the delightful name Naxon Beanery All-Purpose Cooker, the pot got very popular in the 1970s, when many more women began to work outside the home (it was sadly renamed the crock pot at this point).  The pot cooks at a very low heat over a long period of time and it was popular with the career gals who could just chuck some raw meat and veg in there with a bit of liquid and come home 8 hours later to find — voila! — a lovely stew. This is how it works: a heating element heats the contents of a ceramic pot to  79–93 °C (174–199 °F). The vapor produced at this temperature condenses  on the bottom of the lid and returns to the pot as liquid. The liquid transfers heat from the pot walls to its contents and distributes the flavours.

I don’t recall why or when I became interested in the slow cooker. Maybe I happened upon a recipe that intrigued me. Maybe it’s because my Italian gas stove is hopelessly unregulatable and it’s impossible to cook things slowly — the temperature is either ‘inferno’ or ‘off.’ I didn’t grow up around a crock pot so that’s not it. And by the time I started wanting one I was already working at home where the need for a kitchen appliance that would miraculously make dinner with very little input from me was far less pressing than when I was commuting 50 kilometres to and from work every day. So that’s not it either. Whatever the reason, a couple of years ago I got interested enough to idly cast my eye about in search of a crock pot each time I visited an electronics store. Guess what? You can’t get a crock pot here. Which seems nuts because it would seem to perfectly marry the Italian love of hearty soups and stews that are simmered all day with the economic reality that is forcing more and more women to work outside the home. But no. No crock pots in Rome.

Having run out of electronics stores and my idle interest having been stoked to a by the seeming impossibility of attaining its object in situ, I turned to Amazon UK. Within three days I had the cooker in my hot little hands. It wasn’t long before I was obsessed.

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Tonight’s dinner: ‘Roast’ chicken with caramelized onion gravy.


Here’s what I have made so far:

Oatmeal and amaranth porridge with fruits, nuts and almond milk: The name of this dish basically gives you the recipe. Put all of that stuff in the crock pot (minus the almond milk, which you add in the last hour) and go practice tap dancing alongside You Tube videos for 3-4 hours.  I’ve always hated oatmeal even though I know it’s supposed to be good for me. This version is a bit gloopy — I probably cooked it too long — but very tasty mixed with lemon yoghurt.

Chicken adobo with smashed sweet potatoes — Bung 2 pounds of chicken pieces into the crock pot along with a load of sliced onions, minced garlic and a couple of bay leaves. Add a cup of coconut milk and two tablespoons each of rice vinegar and soy sauce. Watch three movies on Netflix and enjoy the national dish of the Philippines.

Sauercraut and pork shoulder roast: Salt and pepper the roast and spread it with a mustard-mayo blend. Place the roast on a bed of (drained) sauercraut and go read a book and nap for 10 hours. Fantastic.

‘Roast’ chicken: Throw a few garlic cloves and a half a lemon in the cavity; squirt some lemon on the chicken and salt and pepper. Add 1/2 cup water or stock to the pot. Go lie on the couch and eat bon bons for six hours. I am making this as we speak. Okay, you do miss the crunchy crackly skin you get with a real roast chicken but, on the positive side, it won’t dry out like roast chicken often does. Bonus: this chicken makes its own gravy.

Caramelized onions: Slice up four onions and throw ’em in with a stick of butter. Go to bed and sleep le sommeil des justes. Twelve hours later, wake up to an amazing smelling house and a pot of lovely, sweet onions which, although they may not pass muster with the strict letter of the law element of the foodie brigade, do NOT involve the 90 minutes of stirring, heat adjusting and peeling even more onions because you’ve burned the first batch required to caramelize onions the regular way.

Bacon jam: This one involves a bit more work because it involves browning the bacon and sautéing onions and garlic before throwing them in the crock pot with cider vinegar, maple syrup, brown sugar and black coffee and going off to watch Gordon Ramsay videos for five hours. Then you have to whiz it up in the blender. The finished product is a bit weird, but not unpleasant. C’mon, it’s bacon! It reminds me of this classic Friends ep. I think bacon jam would be great on crackers with crunchy peanut butter or maybe on a burger with cheddar cheese.

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This is what bacon jam looks like when it’s cooking.

The Upstairs Vegetarian is unimpressed with the decidedly meaty nature of my experimentation. I have promised to test out some veggie thing or other at some point — apparently you can even make bread in this thing.

That bacon jam sounds good to me!

That bacon jam sounds good to me!

 

Broke(my)back Mountain

On the second of July I broke my back. Here’s how it happened. I was in the park with The Morgster (henceforth known as ‘The Assailant’). It was about 10 am and I hadn’t had my coffee. I add these two details because, as anyone who knows me can attest, I am pretty useless before noon and quadruply so without coffee coursing through my veins. And by the way, I was looking at my phone, not paying attention to what might be transpiring around me (Kids! Let this be a lesson to you: Don’t text and walk!). What was transpiring was that Morgan spied a dog with whom he did not see eye to eye. He lunged and because he was on the leash and I wasn’t paying attention, I lost my balance and somehow ended up flying through the air and landing flat on my back in a ditch. At which point Morgan abandoned the argument with other dog and trotted over to sit down next to me like a little gentleman.

Who me? I wouldn't hurt a fly!

Who me? I wouldn’t hurt a fly!

Morgan — sorry, The Assailant — is not a large dog and this was highly embarrassing. Or it would have been  if I had been able to form one coherent thought beyond OWWWWWWWW!!!!! There was a guy hanging out nearby with his own dog and he came over right away to see if I was okay. I quite literally could not speak since the breath was completely knocked out of me. I waved my hands around a bit in an attempt to indicate that I needed a minute. Once I got my breath back I knew that there was no way that I was going to be able to get up on my own. But the nice man stayed with me for the 30 minutes and two false starts it took him to get me to my feet. He asked if I wanted him to call an ambulance but because I am an idiot and had forgotten the first law of back trauma, which anyone who has ever seen even one episode of Emergency knows by heart: don’t get up and don’t move, I insisted on walking myself home. Fortunately, home was just across the street. I’m not sure how I made it: my ears were ringing to beat the band and I could barely see for all of the stars flashing in front of my eyes. Naturally, The Assailant took this moment to have a poop. I’ll go back and pick it up later guys.

Once I got home I flopped down on the couch and passed out or fell asleep because the next thing I knew it was several hours later. The pain was almost unbearable and there was no way I was getting off that couch. I called the Upstairs Vegetarian at work and she came home right away. Then came the ambulance.

That was amusing. In walked a couple of burly fellow, not unpleasing to the eye. They tied me to a plank and then argued a bit as to how to get me downstairs (I’m on the first floor — second if you’re used to American floor counting). They decided not to risk taking the 10 stairs to the lobby and propped me up in the tiny elevator, plank and all, like a flatpack Ikea bookcase.

We went to Salvator Mundi, a private clinic which is nearby, well-known to me and air-conditioned, a key consideration given the extreme heat we’re experiencing this summer.Also, a friend of a friend works for an orthopedic surgeon there. I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t put on the siren, a very familiar sound in the streets of Rome so how come my injury didn’t make the grade? Once I got there, everything happened pretty quickly (another reason I chose the private clinic): X-ray, diagnosis, bill paying. I had broken two vertebrae: the L2 and D12 for those of you who take an interest in such things. I was to spend three weeks completely immobile in bed, after which I could be up a few hours a day as long as I sported a horrifyingly uncomfortable metal brace. If I was lucky and did as I was told, I’d be good as new in 3-4 months.

The UV buggered off to Canada for hols almost immediately but fortunately my cleaner and dog walker (who are married to each other) were able to move into her place upstairs so that they were on hand to take care of the two dogs (The Assailant and his gun moll, the UV’s dog Reina) and me. In fairness to the UV, her buggering off was planned before my fall occurred, she was only gone two weeks and she has been looking after me ever since her return.

When one faces a prolonged period of invalidism, it is only natural to fantasize about all of the things that can be accomplished once the drugs kick in and it no longer feels like you are going to die from pain every time you take a breath or move a muscle. Or at least that’s what I reckoned. Here’s what I hoped to accomplish: write at least 100 pages of my novel (didn’t Marcel Proust and Frida Kahlo get started this way?); work out my finances; figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Here’s what I actually got accomplished: watched the first two seasons of Orange is the New Black; watched all seven seasons of Parks and Recreation (Please and Thank You); read a 700 page book on Gabriele D’Annunzio; had many naps. I also got pretty good at the bed pan and managed to — sort of — keep my sense of humor. I was even able to do a bit of work by propping the computer against my knees and using an external keyboard balanced on a couple of pillows at my side. I’d claim patent pending but the setup gave me carpal tunnel so there are clearly a few kinks yet to work out.

And how was your summer?

And how was your summer?

The memory of the pain has started to fade a bit and I’m back on my feet for at least part of the day. I’m pleased it wasn’t worse, which it might have been given the fact that I am super clumsy and have the bones of a sparrow. I’m sad that I missed most of the summer but, as people have told me, no one has been going out and having fun because it’s about a million degrees outside. I haven’t noticed much remorse on the part of the dog.

Morgan and Hugo

My dog Morgan loves to be the centre of attention. He adores having people make a fuss of him. At the dog park, he is certain to greet all of the people and to give each of them ample time to admire and pet him while he rubs against their legs like a cat (one of his many nicknames is ‘Morgan the kitty-cat.’). Or if there are people sitting at one of the picnic tables in the dog zone, he jumps onto the table and starts licking their faces or poking them with his paw if they are not sufficiently awestruck by his cuteness. When I have friends over, he basically goes from lap to lap. After his big sister Lula died a few months ago, I was afraid that he would be distraught, as Lula had been when her brother Shipy ran away several years ago.

Morgan and his big sis

Morgan and his big sis

And he was distraught (and for several weeks he did this thing of sitting in front of the bookcase where I put her ashes and staring at the urn for moments at a time). But it didn’t last long. To be honest, I think he was actually pretty happy not to have to share the spotlight with Lula anymore. The problem is that he no longer has her to play and hang out with 24-7 (which is precisely the number of hours of the day and days of the week that he needs to be entertained). Which leaves me to be chief playmate.

If I happen to be sitting at my computer — as I usually am — he sits next to me and looks at me with intense doggie concentration until I react.

Play with me now!

Play with me now!

If I don’t react fast enough he starts to whine. If I’m on the couch he goes to his toy box and pulls out the toys, one by one. He also spends a lot of time staring out the window at his friends playing in the park. And whining.

What am I missing out there? Everybody's having fun but me!

What am I missing out there? Everybody’s having fun but me!

So you can imagine my delight when he started to bond with one of the stray cats who hang around our building. There are about five of them — brothers and sisters whose mother was hit by a car. They are about a year old. One of them is particularly friendly and handsome and this fellow has taken a shine to the Morgster. He runs out whenever we come by, often accompanying us on our walks. The dog and cat sniff each other’s bums and sometimes engage in a bit of good natured wrestling.Morgan and Hugo check each other out.

Morgan and his cat friend check each other out.

I’m not quite ready to get another dog and, even though I’m not much of a cat person, I was pretty happy about the idea of bringing home a buddy for my pup. Woohoo (I thought)! The whining ends here.

I got in all the gear — hot pink cat carrier, bowls, food, a very cute kitty litter box (I know that sounds weird but this one has cat drawings all over it) — and set off to bring Hugo (which is what I named him) home with the assistance of the Upstairs Vegetarian.

The Rolls Royce of kitty litter boxes

The Rolls Royce of kitty litter boxes

Hugo did not like this plan AT ALL! After several attempts, which featured lots of banshee-like crying and scratching, we got him into the carrier and then into the apartment. Thus ensued ten minutes of pure bedlam: more banshee shrieks; Morgan chasing the cat and jumping all over him. Hugo was terrified and Morgan was protecting his territory like the little alpha dog drama queen he is. We finally opened the window and the cat jumped out to freedom (I’m on the first floor; it’s an easy jump). I guess it was not to be. The interesting thing is that by the next day all was back to normal. The two still play together and Hugo still comes with us on walks. I’ve been advised to put some cat food on the window sill and see if he comes inside to check it out but I fear that once an outdoor cat, always an outdoor cat.

Hugo!

Hugo!

Christmas in Philly

A few days ago, I went downtown with Brother David and family to check out the Christmas lights. We started at Wanamaker’s, one of the first department stores in the US. The store was founded by John Wanamaker in 1861; poor guy was at a loose end having been rejected by the Union Army due to a niggling cough. John was quite the innovator: he invented the price tag and Wanamaker’s was the first US department store to feature a restaurant, electric lights, telephones and those pneumatic tube things that department stores once used (and still do in many parts of Asia) to move around money and documents. At one stage, Wanamaker’s Crystal Tea Room could serve 1 200 people and roast 75 turkeys at a time. Other fun facts about John Wanamaker: he financed the campaign to have Mother’s Day recognized as an official holiday, a contribution that is recognized by a plaque across the street from the store. And during World War I, he publicly proposed that the United States buy Belgium from Germany for the sum of one-hundred billion dollars as an alternative to continuing the war. Hee.

The mighty Wanamaker's eagle ©rakeman.

On December 30, 1911, John Wanamaker & Co. opened its flagship store just around the corner from Philly’s flamboyant City Hall. The 12 story, 1.89 million square foot building was dedicated by then-president William Howard Taft, an indication of what a big deal it was. Wanamaker’s was built in the “Florentine style” with galleries and murals and a 2 500 lb bronze eagle acquired from the St Louis World’s Fair. For years, “Meet me at the Eagle” was the social equivalent of “Let’s do lunch.” Wanamaker’s also installed the pipe organ from the World’s Fair, at the time one of the world’s largest. But it wasn’t grand enough so the store hired some organ builders and expanded it until it was the largest operational pipe organ in the world with 28 000 pipes. The stories-high atrium display of Christmas lights was first unveiled in 1957 and it’s been running every year since then. We used to go every year when I was little and it hasn’t changed much. The Sugar Plum Fairy and Frosty always make an appearance as does Santa in his toy train. The whole show, which lasts maybe 15 minutes, ends up with some rousing Christmas music courtesy of the world’s largest pipe organ. For decades, the narrator was well-known Philly newscaster John Facenda. He was supplanted by Julie Andrews in 2005, the upstart.

Santa's Christmas train

Frosty before the meltdown

Wanamaker’s closed in the 1990s and was replaced by various other stores — Hecht’s Strawbridges, Lord and Taylor’s and, finally, by Macy’s in 2006.

Our next stop was Dickens’ Village on the third floor of Wanamaker’s. This set piece, which tells the story of the Christmas Carol, dates to 1985 and originally belonged to Wanamaker’s archrival Strawbridge & Clothier’s. Like Wanamaker’s, Strawbridge’s was taken over by NYC interloper Macy’s in the mid-2000s. Boo.

No one loved poor little Ebenezer and he had nowhere to go at Christmas. No wonder he was such a holiday-hating grouch.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, Ho Ho Ho.

The meager holiday repast of those goody-goody Cratchitts

Scrooge decides to make a change, starting with the man in the mirror.

The Comcast Holiday Spectacular dates to 2008. It’s shown on the largest 4mm-LED screen to be found in the world. I have no idea what that means. I just know that it takes up a whole wall of the Comcast Center’s atrium at 1701 JFK and it looks to be in 3-D. The 15 minute show runs from Thanksgiving until New Year’s and includes bits from the Nutcracker, performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet, a dizzying sleigh ride through the snow, some boogie woogie tap dancing and a bunch of cute kids singing. And then it snows inside.

The Mural Arts Project started in 1984 as a part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. The purpose was to get graffiti gangs to use their talents for good instead of stupid. Mural Arts offers programmes for prison inmates who receive a stipend to create murals for schools and community centres around Philadelphia. It also offers opportunities for individuals recently released from prison through a re-entry programme. Mural Arts has produced 3 000 murals so far. We saw a handful and they are marvelous. Topics are pretty wide-ranging as you can see below. They do a trolley tour of the highlights in the warmer months and I plan to do that the next time I’m here.

This dramatic mural is located in the parking lot behind a Subway sandwich shop.

Soupçon

I love soup. Especially this time of year. During the winter months, I make soup as often as I can – usually of the chicken persuasion. Here’s what I do. I throw a couple plugs of butter and a couple glugs of olive oil into a big pot and saute some chopped up garlic and onion. Then I throw in some chicken bones and let them cook in the butter/oil mix for a minute or two. I flip ’em around a couple times. Then I throw in a bunch of water and cook the bones for as long as I can stand it. The longer you cook the bones, the richer the broth will be. Just keep adding more water as it boils away. After a few hours, it starts smelling so good you think your head is going to explode. By the way, if you don’t happen to have any chicken bones lying around idle, you can throw a whole chicken or chicken parts in the pot and boil them up. But you’ll need to take them out again once the chicken is cooked, remove the meat and throw the bones back in the pot for more cooking. The meat will go either tough or stringy if it’s cooked too long. Throw the chicken back in when you’re nearly done with the process (after you remove the bones obvs).

The other day I was feeling like some chicken soup. As luck would have it, I did have some bones lying around idle so I put them to work. I cooked those bones for eight hours and the broth was super rich and delicious. My default when making chicken soup is to throw in whatever is in the fridge that runs the risk of going bad if it doesn’t get cooked immediately. That’s why this is known as Ruth’s Sell By Date Soup. The other day, that was some cut up pumpkin and mushrooms. After they had cooked for awhile, I whizzed the soup up with my fave kitchen toy and threw in some precooked chicken and a couple of cut up sausages. Soo good. So so good.

Nevertheless, I had made way too much as usual and, as much as I love the dogs, I felt bad wasting the leftovers on them. I felt that they would not have shown the proper appreciation and, with a soup this good, I wanted the acclaim.

Whaddaya mean no chicken soup for us?

So I took it to the home of The Upstairs Vegetarian. I knew that her mother and sister were visiting and they are far more sensible than she in the eating department, being happy carnivores. The soup, as expected, won much acclaim from the mother and sister. The Upstairs Vegetarian, however, was not amused. She challenged me to make an equally rich broth, using only vegetables. So that’s how I spent yesterday evening.

Roasting vegetables always seems to intensify their flavour and so I hit on the idea of roasting my ingredients before putting them in the pot. A short Google later, I learned that about a billion people had thought of this before I had. But anyway. I roasted carrots, eggplant, a red pepper, celery, zucchini, onions and a head of garlic in olive oil. Threw in a bit of balsamic vinegar for good measure. When the vegetables were very soft and almost caramelized, I stuck them in the pot with some veggie bouillon and cooked them some more before running them through the Mouli grater, which is my second most favourite kitchen toy.

The Lazy Cook’s (second) best friend

The great thing about the Mouli is that, since it leaves behind all the solids, you don’t even have to peel things like garlic. As noted previously, I am very lazy. It also dispenses of the stringy bits from celery and seeds if you’ve not been too careful when cleaning the red pepper.

The soup was great. And yes, very rich. I bet it would be even better if I added some chicken and sausages. I’ll try it out on The Upstairs Vegetarian tomorrow and will let you know how that goes.

Rich roasted vegetable soup. 

Bill’s Jubilee Restaurant

My family has been going to Lake Naomi in northeastern Pennsylvania for decades. Dad used to visit friends there when he was young and we rented a place for years until my parents built a small cabin in the 1970s. The Pokes, as we call the 2 400 mile² escarpment (6 200 kilometres²) better known as the Pocono Mountains, have an unfair reputation for cheesiness, being known for such things as low-end honeymoon resorts with heart-shaped bathtubs, Ye Olde Gifte Shoppes specializing in candles and Christmas, outlet malls, and most recently, gambling. They are also home to important ski resorts, lush woodlands, rolling hills, lakes, rivers, every imaginable outdoor activity, and, of course, Bill’s.

Lake Naomi today (with various small relatives in foreground blocking view).

But let’s start at the beginning. In the late 19th Century, Thomas Miller, a businessman from Easton, started purchasing land in Tobyhanna Township. An avid outdoorsman, Miller was attracted by Tunkhannock Creek, as well as the area’s virgin forest. Frank Comfort Miller, Thomas’ son, hoped that the beauty of the area would prove an attraction for rich city dwellers and in 1888 he opened the Naomi Pines House. Excerpts from the brochure describing the summer establishment paint a swell picture: “Several large springs are … bubbling up from the earth at a temperature of 9 degrees above freezing. This spring is particularly noted for its medicinal properties. Oh, broken down constitutions, nervous people, dyspeptics, those afflicted…come drink of this water and be cured!”

Room and board were $8.00 per week.

A few years later, Thomas and his brother Rufus created Lake Naomi by damming Tunkhannock Creek and started an ice business: the Pocono Spring Water Ice Company. The lake occupies 27 acres with over 3 miles of shoreline. The ice was harvested in December and hand-sawed into huge blocks, each weighing about 350 pounds. The blocks were stored in an icehouse ready to be loaded into boxcars bound for Philadelphia. Thick layers of sawdust insulation could preserve the ice through the following summer. Ice was harvested from the lake until about 1920.

As rail and automobile transport improved, people began arriving at the Lake in greater numbers. In 1902, the first bathing beach was created and lots were subdivided and sold for summer cottages.

The Naomi Pines House was a landmark until it was destroyed by fire in 1949. It was winter and the lake and fire hoses were frozen, making efforts to fight the fire futile. The site remained empty for a decade until a new highway (Route 940) provided the stimulus for redevelopment.

In 1960, Harry Eberhardt built the Lake Naomi Motor Lodge on the site of the Naomi Pines House. A typical post-war motel, it had 6 units in front, 6 in the rear, and an owner’s apartment. A small restaurant was added to the motel a year later. In 1988, the motel was torn down to provide more room for the restaurant, known since 1968 as Van Gilder’s Jubilee Restaurant. Bill’s.

Van Gilder's Jubilee Restaurant

When I was growing up, Bill van Gilder was the Breakfast King of the Poconos. A classic diner, complete with gum-cracking waitresses who called you ‘honey,’ the Jubilee just kept getting bigger until it eventually supplanted the motel from whence it sprung, in the meantime giving birth to a fine backroom lounge area known as ‘the Pub in the Pines.’ If you got to the restaurant before 9 am you could have a double order of eggs, pancakes, bacon, scrapple (It’s like cotechino minus the casing) and sausage for a couple of bucks. That didn’t happen with us much but it was nice to know that the option was there. Aside from breakfast, Bill’s was mostly a sandwich and burger place. The Super Burger Platter was particularly memorable (it came with everything). Meatloaf and hot turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy. Roast beef dip. We used to sit at the counter and eat the world’s best strawberry pie.

It's not strawberry pie, but Bill's rice pudding is awful comforting if it's comfort food you're after.

Today the counter is gone and so is Bill. He took off with a waitress in the 80s and started up another place down south somewhere. A while later he apparently killed himself. But his estranged family held onto the Jubilee and over the years it has done very well. The menu has gotten a bit panino/rib/wing/fruity cocktail heavy but you can still get the Super Burger, the meat loaf and the hot turkey sandwich. We were there last Wednesday (Mexico Nite!) and Thursday (Wing Nite!) and could hardly get in the door.

We asked the lady at the next table, who was sharing a bucket (literally) of Thai wings with some friends, what time she’d gotten there and whether the place had been crowded when she’d arrived. After offering us some wings, which we swiftly accepted, she explained that when they’d arrived about 5 the place was already starting to fill up. ‘It’s Wing Nite!’ she explained. ‘But whatever. We’re just happy that people keep on a’ coming. We want this place to stay open forever.’  Amen, sister.

12 sticky sticky chicken wings for $6.95 plus some free green stuff? Must be Wing Nite at Bill's!