Greasing the Wheels

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Scrap Exchange Retail Store

Enough stuff for everyone -- The Scrap Exchange Creative Reuse Center

One of the few blogs I read fairly regularly is Get Rich Slowly. Unlike many blogs that have posts that sound like they’d be good when you see the title but in fact have almost nothing to them when you actually read them (a problem I also have with most magazine articles), Get Rich Slowly tends to have very thorough articles, usually on interesting topics. It also has tens of thousands of readers so most posts get between fifty and 150 comments, which offers an interesting range of perspectives on the post.

There was a guest post a while back that I liked a lot called “A Crash Course in Financial Freedom.” The author was giving a rundown of what she’d say about financial freedom if she had only ten minutes to talk. (Random aside: I have to say that after giving a Pecha Kucha presentation, ten minutes seems like a great luxury!)

Item one on the list was “Save” and item two was “Give.”

As I said, I liked the post, and I decided to check the comments to see what other people thought, and was interested to note that many of the comments dealt with the “give” admonition, with quite a number of commenters saying that people who are in debt shouldn’t be giving any money away, that anything they give away moves them further away from achieving their financial goals. Some people saw the advice as coming out of the author’s own religious beliefs and felt it was inappropriate for an article purportedly dealing with personal finance.

I didn’t find the advice at all inappropriate, and in fact that was one of the reasons I liked the post so much.

The post was not about how to have as much money as you possibly can, it was about how to achieve “financial freedom.” People who think those are the same thing are missing the boat.

In my opinion, unless you can freely give money away, without any expectation of receiving something in return, you have not achieved financial freedom. Because if you are not able to let go of your money, it is exerting control over you. If something is controlling you, you are, by definition, not free.

Personal finance writer Suze Orman talks about how giving money makes you open to receiving money, that the first payment you make every month should be to someone unrelated to you with no expectation of getting anything back for it — money freely given with no strings attached. (For an alternative perspective, I will say that my father the CPA is decidedly not a Suze Orman fan, he thinks things like that sound like a big crock of do-do. Though I think he might come around if he watched the “Can I Afford It?” segment of her tv show. I love that part!)

A friend of mine says her mother calls this “greasing the wheels of the universe,” so that’s a phrase we’ve been using a lot around here lately.

Giving money away helps create positive energy with your cash flow. You need to have money moving in and out of your life and you need to recognize the pattern — money comes in, money goes out — without getting too hung up on either end of it. If you try to hang on too tight, or if you spend it or give it all away without letting any of it stick around for a little bit, you disrupt this pattern. It’s all about finding the right balance. I believe that consciously giving money away injects conscious energy into your cash flow pattern and helps you achieve a healthy balance. (And I have a feeling that my father would feel about that statement pretty much as he does about Suze Orman — he’s not a big believer in the karmic implications of spending patterns. But that’s okay, I’ll talk about it anyway.)

It’s the end of the year and nonprofits everywhere are sending out end-of-year appeals, hoping to make their annual budgets and get what they need to keep on keepin’ on.

I tend to give money away throughout the year, but I also do some year-end donations. I usually give to environmental groups like the Eno River Association and my friend Bethanie’s organization Wildlands CPR. My friends at Stone Circles need a little extra help this year, so I gave to them earlier in the year when they sent out a special appeal. Most of my extra charity money goes to The Scrap Exchange, because I know it will be well spent doing things that no one else does, or could do, or would even think of doing. (You do what? With what?)

Obviously everyone’s circumstances are different and many people are struggling just to get by. But I think if most people look around, they can probably find someone worse off than they are. Giving money away is a tangible means of expressing gratitude for what you have, and recognizing that while your life may not be perfect, there are probably things about it that are mostly okay. Giving helps you appreciate what you do have instead of focusing on what you don’t.

So in this last week of 2010, I encourage everyone to take a small step toward financial freedom by giving money away. It can be a dollar or a thousand dollars, to an organized charity or an individual in need. How much and to whom doesn’t much matter, what matters is that you do it.

And if you can’t think of anyone you want to give money to, feel free to send some to The Scrap Exchange. We’ll put it to good use.

Happy New Year everyone, and best wishes for a propserous and productive 2011.

Egg Nog

Monday, December 20, 2010

I was going to post my reading list a few weeks ago but then I got busy again and never got around to it. But if I had, one of the books listed would have been The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book. This is a UNC Press title that caught my eye while I was working on their database, and then I ran across it in a used bookstore when my parents were in town in October and picked up a copy.

The reason I was interested in it in the first place was mainly for the last chapter on housekeeping and home remedies. (I make homemade cleaning products and am currently interested in historical trends in housekeeping; more on that coming soon…)

But I decided to read the whole thing, not just the last chapter, and it’s pretty interesting. I learned some history that I probably should have known in the first place but didn’t — like for instance that Arlington National Cemetery was built on land that belonged to the family of Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary Custis, who was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson through her first husband, who was raised by George and Martha Washington after his father died when he was an infant. The land was basically taken from them during the Civil War, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court and the Lee/Custis family prevailed, but by that time there were 40,000 graves on the property so they didn’t really want it back. (I used to live across the street from Arlington Cemetery, so I think this was especially interesting to me.)

One of the things that’s kind of funny is all the asides about who was who and who they were related to — everyone is related to everyone else and half of the people have the same name, so even if you wanted to, I’m not sure you’d be able to keep track of it. It totally reminds me of Florence King in Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady talking about her Grandmother tracing the family’s genealogy, that’s all I kept thinking of.

Um, okay, this is fascinating. What does it have to do with egg nog?

The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book has a recipe for egg nog that the author said was really great, and it called for brandy rather than bourbon, which is what I usually see in egg nog recipes and I don’t particularly care for bourbon so the idea of making egg nog has never appealed to me. But for some reason this recipe sounded really good and I decided I would make it for the Scrap Exchange Holiday Party.

So I made it last week and it was AMAZING.

I can totally see why there are commercial versions of egg nog, but I think it’s basically a Chips Ahoy thing — chocolate chip cookies are so good that people tried to figure out how you could have them all the time without having to go through the trouble of making them, and they did come up with something that can technically be called a chocolate chip cookie, but it’s really not the same thing. Eating a Chips Ahoy cookie is nothing like eating a homemade chocolate chip cookie, and drinking commercial egg nog is nothing like drinking the homemade version.

Homemade egg nog is definitely worth the trouble.

It does have raw eggs in it, so I made sure I warned people of that, and I got the eggs from the farmer’s market figuring I’d be less likely to kill anyone that way.

It was a little bit of a tough sell in the beginning — I’d ask people if they wanted egg nog and they’d decline saying they didn’t like egg nog. When I told them it was homemade, they got interested, and once a few people tried it and tasted how good it was, it started going fast. (Though maybe that was just me standing there drinking all of it, I’m not sure.)

I looked at a bunch of different recipes and they’re all similar, though with slightly different combinations of alcohol (bourbon, whiskey, brandy, rum) and milk (cream, milk, half-and-half). I think it probably doesn’t matter that much, you can adjust to suit your taste and any of them will be good.

Here’s the recipe from the book.

Mrs. Letcher’s Egg Nog

Mrs. Letcher’s Egg Nog, made with whatever kind of milk, requires black rum and ripening. This latter technique, practiced in Mrs. Tyree’s time, was one of the keys to the best-ever eggnog made by an uncle of mine; he left it outside, covered and isolated on an upstairs porch “as long as the people will stay away.” Instead, leave this five days or so in the refrigerator, where it mellows; the alcohol preserves the eggs and cream.

[original recipe from the family notebook]

Beat the yolks of 10 eggs very light add 1 lb of sugar — stir in slowly two tumblers of French brandy — 1/4 tumbler of rum — add 2 qts new milk — & last the whites beaten light

[standardized and tested version of the recipe, from Anne Carter Zimmer, the book's author (and great-granddaughter of Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis Randolph Lee).]

10 eggs, separated
2 c. sugar
2 1/4 cup brandy
1/4 c. + 1 T dark rum
8 c. (1/2 gallon) milk or part half-and-half, part cream

Beat the egg yolks until light then stir in all but 1/2 cup sugar. Add liquors and milk, taste, and add part or all of reserved sugar, according to sweetness desired. Beat egg whites until light and fold into nog. Ripen (see above). Makes 4 to 5 quarts.

My friend Cathy made egg nog for her office party a few years ago and I remembered her saying it was great so I also got her mom’s recipe and that calls for folding in a pint of whipped cream in the end. I did start to do that but decided it was going to be totally over the top so I just put in a little bit and called it a day. Here’s the Karr family recipe:

Holiday Egg Nog

12 (pasteurized) eggs
1 and 1/2 c. sugar
1 qt. milk
1 qt. half and half
2 c. whiskey
1 c. rum
1 pt. heavy whipping cream

–Separate eggs.
–BEAT egg yolks with 1 c. sugar until very light.
–BEAT egg whites until very stiff. BEAT in 1/2 c. sugar.
–Combine yolks and whites, and BEAT thoroughly.
–Add milk to eggs and BEAT thoroughly.
–Add half and half and BEAT thoroughly.
–Add whiskey and BEAT thoroughly.
–Add rum and BEAT thoroughly.
–WHIP cream and fold in gently.
–Ladle into containers making certain that froth is evenly distributed.
–Store in a cool place at least one week.
–Shake well periodically.

I basically followed the instructions from Cath — I beat beat beat everything (I do not have a stand mixer; I used an electric hand mixer) and it was very light and fluffy. I beat the egg whites until I could hold the bowl upside down and they wouldn’t fall out. (My mom told me when I made an angel food cake for her birthday that this is the general guideline for beating egg whites stiff. For anyone who’s never done it before, just so you know, it takes a long time to beat egg whites stiff — maybe 10 minutes. You go for so long with nothing happening that you wonder if your eggs are defective and it isn’t going to work. But eventually they come around.)

For the milk/cream, I used 6 cups of whole milk, 2 cups of low-fat (2%) milk and 2 cups of light cream, and for the liquor I used 2-1/4 cups brandy and 1/4 cup dark Jamaican rum.

Note that it requires a really big bowl for mixing. I happen to have a giant bowl; not sure what I would have done if I didn’t. Having something to put it in is also not something to overlook; I poured into an empty plastic gallon jug I had around, and glass milk bottles I held onto from my recent milk purchases.

I made it on Tuesday and served it Friday night. I do think sitting a few days makes it much better. And it was really good.

Eating Down the Fridge, December Edition

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

…or, in my case, Eating Down the Freezer.

I decided it’s time for a serious eating down the fridge project. I have stuff that’s been in the freezer forever and there’s no room to put anything new. I really need to get rid of some of it. Seems like a good project for the end of the year, in time for a fresh start for a fresh new year.

So the goal is to not buy anything that will end up in the freezer, and to make sure that every day I eat at least one thing that has been languishing in the fridge or freezer for more than a month. (I’m still buying perishables and other fresh stuff, I just need to make sure I work the stuff that’s fallen off the radar screen back into the mix.)

On Monday, I made pizza with dough and sauce from the freezer — though it hadn’t been there long, so that wasn’t much of a victory — and instead of buying fresh vegetables to use as toppings, I used frozen spinach (which I’m not actually worried about using, I always have that around and go through it regularly) and a vegan sausage that had been there for almost a year. So that was a little bit of progress at least, I got one thing out of there.

For breakfast on Tuesday, I had scrambled eggs using one whole egg and one egg white left over from last week’s cookie recipe, along with goat cheese that I bought a few weeks ago, and spinach from the freezer. I made biscuits and used up the last little bit of gravy that I’d saved from my fried chicken, which was in danger of becoming a mystery item. (There was just a tiny bit left but I love milk gravy and I hardly ever have it so I was hoarding it to have with biscuits when I found time to make them.)

Still in the fridge are vegetables and gravy from the pot roast, plus now the pizza from last night.

The main problem in the freezer is the numerous quarts of stock (shrimp stock, made from shrimp shells left over after eating shrimp in something like Hot and Sour Shrimp), and then a bunch of different soups. So I think I’m going to be eating a lot of soup for the next few weeks. And also making some muffins and quickbreads with the random leftover bits of fruit and cooked vegetables that are hiding out there in the deep freeze.

Then I can start filling it up again!

In the meantime, here’s the recipe I use for pizza dough and sauce. It’s really easy to make your own pizza, and the recipe is cheap and makes a lot, so you can make it all up and freeze individual pieces and have your own little frozen pizzas, or you can cook half and save the other half for another round of fresh hot pizza later. And if you can use up leftovers from the freezer as toppings, that’s even better.

These recipes are from The Pizza Book by Evelyne Slomon, which my dad bought for me a long time ago at a used bookstore, it has lots of good stuff in it. I think it might be out of print now, it came out in 1984.

Basic Pizza Dough

1 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast
3 to 3-1/2 cups all-purpose white flour
1/2 tsp salt

1. Pour the water into a medium-sized mixing bowl and sprinkle in the yeast. Stir gently with a fork until the yeast has dissolved.

2. Add 1 cup of the flour and the salt. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Add a second cup of flour and mix well.

3. Measure out the third cup of flour. Sprinkle some over the work surface and flour your hands generously. Remove all of the dough from the bowl and begin to work the mass by kneading the additional flour in a bit at a time.

4. Knead in the flour until the dough no longer feels sticky and your hand comes up clean when you push the heel of your hand into the dough and leave it for 10 seconds. (Approx kneading time: 5-10 min.).

5. Lightly oil a 2-quart bowl with vegetable oil. Roll the ball of dough around in the bowl to coat it with a thin film of oil. Tightly seal the bowl with plastic wrap to seal in the moisture and trap heat.

6. Place the bowl in a warm, draft-free place (e.g., gas oven with a pilot light). Let the dough rise for 30-45 minutes or until it has doubled in bulk.

7. Punch the dough down, remove from the bowl and knead lightly for 1 minute.

8. Pat or roll the dough into pizza, or let it rise a second time if you would like a more refined crust

Basic Pizza Sauce

1 can of whole tomatoes (2lb 3oz), packed in tomato puree or juice
1 tsp dried basil, dried oregano, or dried marjoram
1 garlic clove, peeled, crushed, and minced
2 Tbsp tomato paste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
salt (if needed)

1. Pour the contents of the tomato can into a 2-quart, heavy nonaluminum saucepan and coarsely crush the tomatoes with a fork or your hands.

2. Add the herbs, garlic, tomato paste, pepper, and salt.

3. Bring to a bubble over medium heat, stirring to mix the seasonings.

4. Cook, uncovered, stirring from time to time, for a minimum of 15 minutes and a maximum of 1 hour.

The sauce will keep for about a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen for up to 4 months. [Note: You can cut it in half and still have some left over if using one full recipe of dough. It makes a lot of sauce.]

To assemble and bake the pizza, you should preheat the oven to 500°F. (The oven needs to be VERY hot when you put the pizza in, it needs to cook almost instantly.)

You should pre-cook the dough until it’s just starting to turn brown, then take out and put on the sauce and toppings, then back into the oven until the cheese (if you’re using) is melted and turning brown, or until everything else looks hot hot hot and just cooked through.

A Roast in Every Pot

Thursday, December 2, 2010

So in May of this year I was suddenly possessed by the desire to cook pot roast. I have no idea why. I’ve never made a pot roast in my life and as I recall, pot roast was one of my least favorite dinners growing up.

But I started thinking about it and it was one of those things where once I started thinking about it, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea. There’s a recipe in Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham that looked easy and then I happened to find myself at King’s and they happened to have a nice looking chuck roast for not that much (I don’t actually remember how much it was, just that it was less than it seemed like I would have thought it would be) so I got it.

But it was the end of April and all of a sudden it got really, really hot. And I’m not going to make pot roast when it’s really hot, you have to make pot roast in the winter, it’s one of those things you eat to warm you up. You don’t make it in late spring in North Carolina. And then I woke up from this pot roast dream and was like wait what was I thinking? Cooking meat is a mess, I don’t need four pounds of beef in my house, and I don’t even like pot roast. And it’s a thousand degrees.

So I put the chuck roast in the freezer to be dealt with later.

And later happens to be now, because my freezer is so packed right now I can’t even find things in it, and I decided I need to start getting rid of things before I can put anything new in there. And the four pounds of chuck roast ended up first on the list of things to get rid of.

So earlier in the week I was again trying to figure out what I was thinking with the pot roast idea, because it’s not like you get a little bit of food when you make a pot roast, it’s not like making scrambled eggs or something, you eat it then you’re done. And I’m talking to some friends and ask if they want pot roast, I’m going to make it and I know I’ll have some left over because I have this giant piece of meat. They’re like sure, we’d love pot roast.

So I make the pot roast and it was SO GOOD. Holy cow it was really good.

It was so good that I don’t really want to give any away. And now I feel like a bad person for offering food to people and then wanting to keep it for myself because it was better than I thought it would be. Doesn’t that sound horrible? I know I said I’d give you some food but I thought it would be bad but it turned out that it was actually good so I’m just going to keep it for myself. So sorry.

And it didn’t actually make as much as I thought it would. (I didn’t make the full recipe, just used the one potato I had along with a few carrots and an onion.) Or maybe I was really hungry or something and I ate a lot. (I actually did have a problem when I was looking at it, that I was like how do I know how much to eat? Usually I make two or three servings, so I eat half one night and half the next. How much is a serving of pot roast? How do you know?)

So anyway, I think I’m going to have to suck it up and give it away, because I said I would, and I don’t know if this qualifies as a cheap recipe, and it’s definitely not healthy, but I’m giving it to you anyway because it’s pretty simple (and is presented in exacting detail for anyone like me with limited pot roast experience) and was really good. And you get a lot of gravy, which you can eat with rice and noodles after the meat is gone. And it will warm you up, and the weather is cold, so it seems like a good idea.

Pot Roast with Vegetables and Gravy
from Learning to Cook with Marion Cunnigham

Pot Roast
4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
4 to 5 pounds beef chuck roast, with or without bones
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup water, or more
3 bay leaves
3 medium-size yellow onions
6 carrots
5 medium-size russet potatoes

Gravy
1/4 cup all-purpose white flour
1 cup water
Cooking liquid from the pot roast
salt and pepper to taste

Browning the Roast
Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of the salt and 1 teaspoon of the pepper on all sides of the meat.

Pour the vegetable oil into a large heavy-bottomed pot, one with a lid, and tilt it around so the oil coats the bottom. Set the pot over medium-high heat and let the oil get hot. To test, hold the palm of your hand about an inch above the oil, and if it feels very warm, the oil is hot enough. Set the meat gently in the pot and turn the heat down to medium.

After about 5 minutes of browning the roast on one side, lift it with a fork and check to see if it has turned a rich brown color on the bottom. If not, let it cook another few minutes and check again. When it becomes a mahogany color, turn it over and let the bottom brown, then turn it again to brown the sides.

Braising the Meat
When the meat has browned on all sides, insert a meat thermometer into the center of the roast not letting it touch the bone, add the water, and crumble the bay leaves into the pot. Put the lid on the pot and turn the heat to medium-low. The roast will take about 1-1/2 to 2 hours to cook.

Check the roast from time to time as it cooks to make sure the liquid in the pot is gently bubbling. If it is bubbling too rapidly, turn the heat down a bit; if it is not bubbling, turn it up a bit. Also, make sure that there is at least 1/2 inch of liquid in the bottom of the pot at all times. If not, add 1 cup of water.

Preparing the Vegetables
While the meat is braising, peel and quarter the onions.
Peel and cut the carrots into 2-inch lengths.
Peel and quarter the potatoes.
Before adding the carrots and potatoes, season them with the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper.

Adding the Vegetables and Finishing the Roast
When the roast has cooked for 1 hour, add the onions, carrots, and potatoes to the pot, spreading them around so they sit alongside and on top of the roast. Cook, simmering for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, check to see if the roast is done. If the temperature is at least 180°F, it is done. If not, cook it another 20 minutes or so and check again.

Serving the Pot Roast
Once the roast is done, use a large fork to lift it out of the pot and onto a cutting board. Transfer the vegetables to a warm serving platter and cover with foil. Set aside the pot with the cooking liquid which you will use to make the gravy (recipe follows).

Using a large sharp carving knife, cut the roast into 1/4-inch thick slices. Discard any bones. Arrange the meat on the center of the platter with the vegetables surrounding it. Cover the platter with foil and keep warm until you have made the gravy and are ready to serve the meal.

Making the Gravy
Put the flour and water into a 2-cup jar, screw on the lid, and shake for about 5 seconds. If you don’t have a jar, mix them in a small bowl with a fork or whisk.

Set the pot with the cooking liquid over medium-high heat (don’t worry if there are small bits of vegetables in the pot) and reheat until the liquid begins to bubble gently.

Add the water-flour mixture and stir with a wire whisk for about 1-1/2 to 2 minutes, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a thick soup.

Seasoning and Serving the Gravy
Taste, and add salt and pepper to the gravy, about 1/4 teaspoon at a time, until it is well seasoned according to your personal taste.
Pour into a small bowl or gravy boat and serve hot with the pot roast.

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