grumpy about the construction project (random moments in a life of mayhem)

Everything is happening fast. The crew got enough demolition done to lay down floor joists for the addition’s first floor, and then before I could even take a photo of that skeleton, they had the subfloor in. So the space that used to look like this —


looked like this after about a day of work:


Wow. Just like that, it’s all covered up. Erick seems to be demonstrating the wide sitting stance in tae kwon do. Then they framed up the exterior walls for the first floor of the back corner of the addition.IMG_9500 IMG_9503IMG_9506 IMG_9510

You can see the framing for the small windows that’ll sit on either side of my new range in the last pic. It’s all being done so smartly. We still aren’t living al fresco, because no existing exterior wall has yet been torn out. I think they’re planning to finish the new exterior first so our existing home will never be fully exposed to the elements. I had expected it to look more like a gaping two-story hole covered in plastic sheeting. Instead, the plastic sheeting is inside. IMG_9554

They put that in to separate the work space from our living room, which will be untouched. It keeps out most of the construction dust. The plastic is taped in place and held up by extender rods, like shower curtains on end. The opening is some funky tape-on zipper system, so that closes right up whenever you want. It’s great, but now I’m worried about looking in the kids’ stuffed animal bin. ET might be hiding in there.

Our kitchen, which used to look like this… IMG_9018

now looks like this:


Which I consider to be quite an improvement. We’re eating in our makeshift kitchen in the basement, which isn’t so bad. It’s a bit like being in college again.


Except for the fancy gas grill we invested in, which is perfectly fine for cooking gourmet food. Like bacon.


That’s the kind of food we’re eating now. Bacon sandwiches on hamburger buns are the new normal. I think I’ll continue the trend even after my kitchen is done. And, if I use slices of raw eggplant instead of bread, I will finally be paleo and grow strong cavewoman muscles.

We’re trying to keep things as clean as we can in the spaces we’re living in, but it’s been a struggle during the heart of demolition. I feel a sort of muck in my eyes when I wake up. Demolition dust is like ghost smoke, it just goes everywhere no matter how hard everyone tries. The guys put down some thick paper product on the floors to protect them, taping it in place carefully up the stairwell. It turns out the paper is harder to clean than just mopping up the floors at the end of each day after the crew heads home. More importantly, our wee dog was a brat about the papered stairs. She wouldn’t go up or down them. She’d just whine at either end hopelessly until someone came to retrieve her. So annoying. After only a day we asked if the paper had to be down. Erick the boss said no, so I said great, we’ll take it back up over the weekend and I’m sorry you did the extra work. I felt so bad. The guys nodded quietly and said sure. But at the end of the day they had quietly and neatly taken up the paper for me, without any fuss at all.

I hate it when people are thoughtful and nice. It makes me feel like such a grumpy shit.

Why can’t I be like that too? Instead, I’m just feeling crabby and tired on this Monday morning. The kids are hating all over me about the renovation. Every single morning, Jesse wakes up whining loudly. “UUUUGH. WHY??? Why do we have to renovate the house??? Why are you taking everything away from me?” She keeps going, even as I heat up the oil on the hot plate to cook her blessed FISH STICKS for breakfast. Nick has been chiming in too. “Mommy? Can they put the rug back on the stairs? Then it will be soft when I fall.”

I’ve had some low points too.

One day we forgot to leave the kitchen door unlocked. When the crew arrived at 7:00 am (uuugh), they couldn’t get in the house so they rang the bell. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs in the t-shirt and shorts I was sleeping in. Dan and Talon were standing at the door. They saw me and some strange look passed over their faces before their polite smiles came on. “We are soooooo sorry to wake you up! We could just wait if you want. Seriously, we can just wait outside until you’re ready for us to start. Soooooo sorry.” I shrugged to myself about why they were feeling so bad until 30 seconds later, when I walked into the bathroom and happened to see myself in the mirror. GAH! I jumped back in terror. Eyes half swollen shut, skin splotchy, wild bed-head sticking up all over the place. I was probably drooling. I looked insane.

Another day I was taking a dump on the basement toilet, which is located on the same exterior wall as most of the demolition and rebuild. As I sat, bits of plaster and dirt rained gently down on my head. I almost cried.

But I know it’s all in pursuit of a good first-world cause. Someday soon, I will see my crazy-ass morning face in a beautiful master bathroom mirror that I don’t have to share with the kids (I think), and I will sit my ass on a pristine new toilet to poop.

grumpy about good wine

I found a good-looking bottle of wine at Whole Foods a day or two ago.


What a great name. When I say it, I want to stand with my chest puffed out, my left arm akimbo, my right foot forward and my right arm extended before me, my right hand open and palm up. “ZOLO!!” As I announce it dramatically in my velvet-festooned pantaloons and princess-puff sleeves, my dimpled fedora flies off my head.

This is (or was, until about 8 o’clock last night) an UNOAKED chardonnay. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded like some filtering must be involved to take the oak out. No. Google this and the winos get all uppity, but when you dig through the rubbish to the sort of information dummies like me need, it turns out not to be complicated. An UNOAKED chardonnay is not aged in oak barrels. That is all. But I guess “unoaked chardonnay” (no autocorrect, no no NO I don’t mean unbaked) sounds more wino-ish than “stainless-steel-vat-aged chardonnay.”

Unoaked chardonnay is better for the world environmentally, because you don’t have to cut down oak trees and ship oak barrels hither and yon to winemaker’s abodes. That’s so awesome. Zolo is proud of being environmentally thoughtful, which is why flying-hat man declares right on the front label that this wine is “sustainably farmed.”


I’m really glad that I could buy this sustainably farmed, sustainably unbaked (damn you, autocorrect, damn you; fine, you win), good-for-the-environment wine.

Thank goodness they were able to ship it to my Whole Foods here in Wisconsin.


grumpy about school lunches

I complain a lot about sending lunch to school with Jesse. Next year I have to start doing it with Nick, and I’ll no doubt complain twice as much. I can’t spare myself this hassle by doing hot lunches through school lunch programs, for two reasons. One, Jesse’s got the whole food allergy thing going on (eggs). Two, school lunches kind of suck, and my kids are pretty spoiled and picky eaters. Not picky like they have limited palates (except Nick is struggling with veggies), but picky like they know that a lot of food sucks and fresh homemade is almost always better.

So even if Jesse didn’t have a food allergy, I’d rather pack her lunch and have her actually eat it, than have her sit staring glumly at her school offering and having to choose either to choke that shit down or to be hungry for the next 3.5 hours. That’s why Jesse gets homemade. She’s off the tacos I used to have to send (homemade tortilla cooked in the morning on a cast iron skillet, BAM). Now she’s on to pork barbecue sandwiches. Every few weeks I boil up a pork shoulder with a bunch of herbs and vege until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender, and I shred and freeze it. I drop a frozen lump into a little container each day and it’s defrosted by lunchtime. I also bake homemade hamburger buns and freeze them. Wrap one in aluminum and it’s defrosted by lunch. A separate little container of barbecue sauce, and usually a side of canned peaches, and lunch is a wrap. Trader Joe is Jesse’s peach brand, and not the little snack cups with extra sugar for kids. She likes the fancy ones that come in halves in a jar and cost four times as much. I can’t really complain about it, because she’s right — they taste better. Or sometimes I’ll cut up some melon or a mango, or if they’re available she loves a handful of cherries. If I’m in an extravagant mood, I bake cupcakes and freeze them, so I can drop one of those in her lunch box too. It takes me a good 15 minutes to put her lunch together, and some mornings it feels like a lot of time that I could be spending in better ways, like lolling on the sofa, checking the weather on my iPhone as I mainline a cup of coffee.

I swear I’m not a food over-achiever. It’s just that I’ve had to pore over so many labels to look for eggs in ingredient lists. After you’ve read a thousand labels on packaged foods, you sort of lose your taste for them. The ingredient lists are usually so long, and most of the items aren’t things I comprehend. What exactly is hydroxylated soy lecithin, or sodium stearoyl lactylate, or calcium propionate, or azodicarbonamide? How do I determine if they’re derived from a chicken egg? Why do they have to be conjoined in bread? Maybe it’s all as innocent as dihydrogen monoxide, but I don’t really want to spend the time finding out. Better to just bake my own bread (flour, salt, yeast, water, sometimes sugar and butter). No mystery in that, unless you want me to wax eloquent about the mystery of how yeasty FARTS can make a bit of flour and salt into such a miraculously tasty and addictive simple carb. (I love that I feed my kids yeast farts. If I use honey, I can say with a lot of pride that I’m feeding them yeast farts and bee barf. All natural.)

I may get grumpy about doing lunch for the kids, but I shouldn’t. I’m grateful that I can afford to make them lunches out of the foods they choose and enjoy, that I have the time to do it, that I’m pulled together enough to do it. Not everyone has these luxuries.

The front office ladies at Jesse’s elementary school have a reputation for being pretty grumpy. A lot of people find them off-putting, stern and even rude. I admit I found them to be aloof and sometimes odd at first, but I’m not one to judge someone else’s grumpy. These women work in an open space through which every human entering and leaving that school building must pass. They also deal with kids ranging in age from 4 to 10.  It cannot be pleasant.

Over the years, I’ve hovered enough to see through the stern facade and observe the abiding kindness they feel for the kids who come through their work space. Once in a  while, I’ve caught pseudonymous Linda feeding kids in the morning. She sits them down near her desk and pulls something out of her drawer. She’s nonchalant, low-key, dry. She would never want a child to feel ashamed of this situation. She’s told me in rare moments of candor that some kids come to school hungry, having eaten nothing for breakfast, and sometimes nothing since their (free) school lunch the day before. There’s no knowing if it’s poverty or neglect. Doesn’t matter. Linda takes care of it, best she can. Her simple kindness breaks my heart, because she takes no pride in it (just the solace of knowing a child is less hungry) and because I wish there were no need of it.

It’s hard to accept that hungry children exist in my neighborhood, in this first-world nation. I can’t think about it too much, else I’d be crying all the time, as I am now. As the school year winds down, I find myself asking what becomes of these children during the summer, when there’s no Linda to look out for them, no one to see their hunger and answer it. And what the hell am I doing about it? Nothing, of course. Shedding tears and little else.

Ten years ago, I would have been filled with a hopeless rage in the face of this, mostly directed at myself and fueled by a stream of negative emotions — self-loathing, disappointment, shame, responsibility. Because everything is my fault. I still have that range of feelings, but I’m less hopeless about it all. Years of therapy with Jesse, who shares these tendencies, have helped. Rationally, I know it’s not my fault, and I know I can’t fix everything, and it would be pathetic indeed if I let my hopelessness stop me from doing one little useful thing. So I’ll try to do that, just a little useful thing for a hungry kid here and there as we wind through summer, just like Linda. I’ll probably be grumpy about it, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Grumpy about non-stick cooking

Non-stick cookware is one of those modern amenities I really can’t live without. But I’m wondering if I should learn to do just that.

I like to have really high-quality (aka expensive) non-stick surfaces. They ought to last longer, according to all the reviews, which means their toxic coatings are leaching ever-so-gently into the foods I feed my kids, which is much better than a fat poisonous dump.

I’m gentle with my non-stick pans. I use special sponges. I use low heat. I have special coated tools. But somehow my nonstick devices always, always, always gather scratches quickly, and they disintegrate quicker than anticipated every time. I noticed a new gouge just today in my fry pan. Why? Whence cometh the gouge?


He is an obstinate man. He answers my dramatic incredulity with quiet and peaceful indifference.

“Oh my god Anthony why is the empty pan on the burner and it’s set on high???”

Eyebrows up. “Oh. Is that a problem?”

* * *

“Why are you using a KNIFE in the non-stick pan, Anthony??”

“I’m being careful.”

* * *

“Anthony!! Are you scraping the rice out of the rice pot with a METAL SPOON??”

Silence and a “caught me” sidewise glance. “Yeees, but I’m being gentle. See?” (Waves spoon cheerfully in air)

* * *

A victim pan:


See those horrible scrapes and dents? Shaking my head unhappily.

As for the new gouge I noticed today. Hmp. Anthony used the pan this weekend. I don’t know how he does it but he’s a non-stick brute.

Well. Nick’s grilled cheese sandwich will just have some extra bits of plastic coating in it, right? It’s the new normal. Meanwhile, I should start boning up on properly seasoning my cast iron pans.

Grumpy about dieting – day 3 (soooo hungryyy)

Today was a 500 calorie day. I woke up anxious about it, but after my delicious breakfast of milky coffee and an orange, I felt good.

I had a late morning snack of dried seaweed. Turns out the margarita I had last night wasn’t sitting well this morning. The salty seaweed did the trick.

For lunch I had a salad and half an apple. This is what a 110-calorie salad looks like.


Contained in that mixing bowl are precisely the following items: 100 grams of romaine; 1 ounce of mushrooms; Half a grated carrot (1 oz); 1 oz of roasted chicken breast; a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar; the juice of half a lemon; and my hopes and dreams for a smaller, more healthy me.

Let me interrupt myself here to point out how disturbed I was a few weeks ago to discover that my flexibility had improved to a point where my belly fat is actually impeding me from sitting on my butt with my legs stretched out and bending over my legs as far as I’d like to. I plan to hold that image in mind in low and hungry moments.

Here’s what a 200-calorie dinner looks like.


That’s 2 ounces of flounder fried in a bit of olive oil and a couple hundred grams of roasted butternut squash. No butter or sugar. I made do with hot sauce.

It’s water now until tomorrow morning.


Grumpy about dieting – day 2 (binge day)

So today was the eat-what-you-want day on my strange diet, which seems to be called variously the alternate-day or intermittent or fasting diet.

I think I’ll call it the ON-OFF diet or the binary diet or the bipolar diet. Yesterday I survived on 500 calories. ON, zero, depressed. Today I was free to eat what I want. OFF, one, ecstatic.

It’s taken just one iteration of this two-day cycle for me to realize that I won’t ordinarily be treating the eating day as a BINGE day.

I woke up this morning and took the dog for a walk and shoveled a couple inches of snow off the driveway. Normally this would be a great low-stress way to wake up and jump-start my body and get the blood flowing. But today on a deprived stomach, the shoveling was grueling — not in a muscular or aerobic way but in a blaaaaah-feed-me-Seymour way.

I headed in and found Anthony arranging a small feast for himself at the table. I also feasted. I had a banana immediately, and coffee and milk, and some avocado left over from making Jesse’s lunch guacamole, and a large piece of French bread with some butter, and two small chicken sausages, and finally a small tortilla I made with the scrap of dough left over from making Jesse’s lunch tortilla. I’m not sure I remembered everything.

Ugh. It was a lot. Anthony and I were both weighed down.

Then Nick wanted Bruegger’s bagels for lunch. What the heck, I thought, I’ll go with it. It’s my binge day! I got the western egg sandwich, so that would be some raw peppers and onions and an egg and cheese and sausage on a sesame bagel. A lot of food, given my breakfast. My carb meter was bulging.

Dinner time came along and my gut was still satisfied. I was feeling dehydrated so I had an orange, and then I scratched my head about dinner. Remember the chicken and veggies I roasted for dinner last night? We threw the leftovers in a pan with a jar of pasta sauce and boiled up some penne. Grate some Parmesan, done. But the pasta — on top of what I’d eaten earlier, it seemed like a lot of carb even for me. On a whim I looked up the calories in pasta. Yikes. It seemed a shame to waste yesterday’s virtuous deprivation on a bunch of boiled wheat, so it was easy to cap myself at a cup of pasta and a bunch of chickeny vegetable-laden sauce.

I’m vaguely disgusted by today’s carb fest. I normally eat more vegetables. But here’s the thing. I put everything that I wanted in my mouth today and then some. I’m not supposed to count calories today but out of curiosity I roughly calculated my intake. Even if I have the celebratory margarita i’m planning to have when I’m done here, my caloric load for the day won’t go over about 2200, mostly because I didn’t pig out at dinner. Add that to yesterday’s 500 and I have a daily average of 1350 calories. That’s a good, reasonable number in light of today’s excess.

Grumpy about dieting – day 1 debrief

I made it through a 500 calorie day. Well, I haven’t quite made it yet, I still have to get the kids to bed. But I didn’t fail on calories. My eating went like this:

coffee with a little milk in it.
A pinch of shredded lettuce left over from making Jesse’s school lunch.
Lick my fingers where a little yogurt got on them.

In other words, nothing.

a banana at 11:00.
3 slices of deli ham (about 2 ounces) and half an apple at 12:00.

In other words, not nothing, but pretty close for someone who hasn’t eaten anything yet.

This plate of food, which contains about 200 calories.

Half of that is steamed cauliflower. The other half is a mix of carrots, onions, and celery that were roasted with a chicken.
The red stuff is Cholula sauce, which I poured on like gravy. Why not.
Hidden under all that fiber were 2 very paltry ounces of roasted chicken breast. See if you can spot the meat in this close up.


I still felt hungry when I was done, as well as bloated. But I wasn’t shaky anymore. We all went to tae kwon do after dinner. It was a tough class, but it’s no surprise that a hard workout made me feel stronger. I smell funny though. Hopefully that means some of my fat is purging out.

We got home and the kids wanted a snack. Ice cream for Jesse, yogurt for Nick. I had saved calories for an orange as my last hurrah, and as a result I didn’t stare at the kids with beady eyes while they ate. Instead, I stood at the sink and snarfled my orange like a rabid maniac.

All in all, a successful day that didn’t suck so bad. I have to go take a shower now to get the orange juice out of my hair and off my face. In about 11 hours, I get to eat.

Grumpy about dieting – day 1

I just put myself on a diet. I need to lose about 25 to 35 pounds, depending on how much muscle mass I have under the blubber. I am chiseled under there… so maybe I’ll only need to lose 25.

Here’s a news flash:  Carla is grumpy about dieting. The very idea of dieting bothers me. As Jesse’s therapist Dr. Abrams once put it, the best way to keep your weight in the right place is to eat the right amount of food for your body. You’re not dieting; you’re just eating the right amount. Duh. Why aren’t I capable of that anymore?

I’ve only ever “formally dieted” once before, just after Anthony and I agreed we’d try to make a baby. I was about 20 pounds overweight, which I hadn’t really realized until then. Being of advanced parental age and all, Anthony and I felt that we needed to be super fit so that we’d be younger in body than the years that had passed us by. We called it “getting in fighting shape for parenthood.”

Also I lost weight and got fit because Anthony didn’t believe me when I told him I was ready to get knocked up, and I thought this would convince him.

I couldn’t really blame him for being skeptical. In my late 20’s, if Anthony made hints about children, I’d say things like, “If you want offspring, you must obtain a womb in your body.” I’d place my hands on my gut and add, “This womb is not open for business.” (I’ve said it before and I can’t say it enough times: it’s a miracle that Anthony didn’t dump my bitchy ass.)

One day in our early 30’s, we were watching the news and saw a piece about eight Ethiopian siblings, ranging in age from infant to early teen, who had lost their parents to famine or war. Anthony sighed longingly and chatted innocently about how we had the means and stability to provide a home to a family of kids like that, so that they wouldn’t be separated. Yikes. He wanted eight children? Nah, he actually wanted a couple of his own genetic spawn. Still, the newsreel conversation was  when I realized I was denying something very important to him, and even if I wasn’t sure about kids, I was perfectly willing to fulfill my man’s need for paternity. So then I’d say things like, “If you really want to have children, then as your wife I am the appropriate means by which you can make this dream come true. My uterus is open for business.”

Despite this warm invitation, Anthony insisted that I never, ever get pregnant unless I myself wanted kids. Being old school and all, it mattered to him that the decision be based on my wishes alone. My body, my choice – that old-fashioned, long-forgotten idea.

I got to 37 and suddenly I wanted kids. There’s no explaining it, and I’m not the first woman to go through this transformation. But no matter how much I assured Anthony that I meant it, he would say things like, “You’re lying. You don’t want to have kids. You’re only willing to get pregnant because you love me. That’s not good enough.”

(I think it’s been several months since I wrote about how much I adore Anthony. Have I recently mentioned what a perfect human being he is?)

His argument really rattled me, because it was impenetrable. So I decided to convince Anthony by going on a WeightWatchers diet and getting down to my high school weight and size. I’m still not sure if it was the actual weight loss, or the tortured and martyred way I dieted, that sold Anthony on the idea that I really, really meant that I wanted to have a baby.

I was the grumpiest dieter I’ve ever met. I grumbled and whined my way through meal after meal. I hated every minute of it, counting points, weighing food, calculating point values for the food I made, using my cheating points, figuring out how much food I had to give up so I could go to the bar and drink. It took about 4 months of nearly-daily deprivation and hunger and data management, and I was down to my goal weight. Then 6 months later I was pregnant and on my way to my current, solidly overweight, middle-aged mom’s body. (Anthony has joined me in this body-image journey, though to a much lesser extent.)

I can’t stand it anymore. I’m supposed to be better than this. I take meds to control high blood pressure. Both sides of my family have extensive histories of stroke, heart attack and heart disease. Being overweight is like smoking, it’s just an incredibly stupid place for me to be. I’m too heavy to run without hurting my knees, and I long to run again. Yadda yadda. But I can’t do Weightwatchers again. It doesn’t work with kids and little time to measure and weigh and all that. I can’t count calories for a normal weight loss number. 1200 calories takes thought and planning to work out, unless I eat frozen meals out of a box, which I don’t.

Enter my friend Ken, who just told me about intermittent dieting, or alternate day dieting. Every other day, eat 500 calories. On the off days, eat whatever you want. It makes so much sense for me on a lot of fronts. There’s no day-after-day endless grind like in WeightWatchers – every other day you’re free. It’s really hard to eat two days’ worth of food in one day. Counting 500 calories is, like, half the effort of counting 1200 calories, duh. After a 500-calorie day, one has strong incentives not to over-eat too wildly on the eat-what-you-want day. It’ll teach lessons about not over-eating day after day, and taking light days to make up for heavy days. And, as Ken points out, it makes you feel virtuous.

Ken is a statistician with a very large and well-utilized brain. He writes textbooks about SAS, which is a statistical modeling software system package thingy that people like Anthony, my economist husband, use to manipulate data and reach big conclusions going well beyond my housewife pay grade. Check out Ken’s blog post about how he SAS’ed his weight loss.  When you plot your weight loss and rolling averages using SAS, you can say things like this: “The lubridate package contributed by the invaluable Hadley Wickham contains functions to make it easier to use dates in R.” (Pinch your nose tight while you intone the sentence aloud, and it’s even better.)

Whoa. Anthony and I are IN. We started this morning.

It’s been six and a half waking hours and I’m already in a living hell of hunger.

I “ate” coffee with skim milk for breakfast. The quarter cup of milk I put in my coffee used up 25% of my caloric allotment for the day! That’s so wrong! I wonder if I can find the milk equivalent of diet soda. While I ate nothing, I fed my kids yogurt and chicken sausages and cereal and fish sticks (don’t ask, the fish sticks are a Jesse thing) and slices of french bread. I put together Jesse’s school lunch — a freshly made tortilla, frozen black beans and chicken (they’ll defrost by lunch time and taste super fresh), salsa and lettuce and smashed avocado —

Oh my god, just from typing this I’m salivating wildly and suffering gut pain —

and some canned peaches for dessert. I couldn’t help myself – I stuffed the 2 calories of shredded lettuce that didn’t fit in Jesse’s little container into my mouth. Aaaah, so tasty for breakfast!

Around 11 a.m., Nick had his snack of a banana and some juice. By then, my hands were shaking so bad I thought I was having a seizure. I realized I was acting like a dog, drooling as I stared at Nick eating his banana in that totally disgusting way that 5-year-olds eat bananas.

For lunch, Nick got naan and an apple and some turkey balogna. I ate 3 thin slices of deli ham and a banana. Nick didn’t finish his naan. I glared at it; my hand reached out for it. But I successfully got it into the garbage before my mouth sucked it in.

Next my starving hands prepared dinner. I chopped veggies and dropped a whole chicken on top of them in a pot, with herbs and such, and I threw that in the oven to roast at a low temperature. The kids can eat that for dinner while I crouch on the floor next to them waiting to catch food droppings.

Actually, I think I’m going to eat 2 ounces of chicken breast and half a head of steamed cauliflower for dinner, plus a few carrot slices and onions. Maybe a couple leaves of lettuce. That will max out my 500 calorie day. I’ll still be ravenously hungry, but I can console myself by keeping in mind that tomorrow I can pig out.

My family is going to have to tolerate a whole lot of grumpy, because I’m going to be hungry every other day for a few months to come. But as I sit here ruminating on my situation, I’ve had a small epiphany. I think we can all rest assured that the massive fibrous vegetable loads I put down at dinner on the diet days will fuel some pretty fierce gaseous anomalies. I think the dutch ovens I can unleash on my kids may well bring enough good cheer into my world to offset the dieting grumpies.

Grumpy about green beans for dinner

When we first joined a CSA (farm share organization) three years ago, there was a tremendous summer drought. Our CSA, Wellspring, didn’t have a lot of irrigation capacity then, so some boxes were sparse — still delicious and eye opening, but slim pickings. I contributed half of my labor hours that year on a green bean picking day. They were such sad plants, despite the passionate farmer’s best efforts. I hunted and picked for 3 hours up and down rows of bean plants, and I only harvested about a brown paper bag’s worth of beans, most no bigger than a mid-size earthworm. That week each member got about 20 tiny green beans, enough for me to hold in one fist. It was hardly worth the backache.

This year I have green beans coming out my ass from just 2 weeks of Wellspring boxes. I could fill 3 gallon-size ziplocks, right up to the zipper. I scratched my head this afternoon. What to do with all these green beans? I do try to use our farmshare boxes fully. It seems a shame to buy something I’d prefer from the grocery store, when I’ve already paid for the box. But this is a lot of green beans. It’s as bad as growing zucchini. What do people do with all this green bean action?

Then I had the “ding dong” epiphany: HENCE GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE. Until today, I’ve considered this to be one of the more revolting food concoctions, involving canned green beans and canned tomatoes, and maybe a can of cream-of-something soup. Why would anyone do that to a delicious vegetable that you can steam and color up nicely with just a bit of vinegar and sesame, or maybe lemon and pepper? It’s a perfect lickety-split vege.

But I saw the light. I needed to make a casserole to unload these beans; that would use up tons of them. Five minutes was my limit for recipe-surfing. I found nothing tempting, except the idea of doing something akin to a gratin. I ended up making a green bean casserole that was incredibly delicious, despite appearances. The bechemel was made with yogurt. How cool is that?


We supplemented it with some fixings — crumbled Italian sausage (sun-dried tomatoes and basil), avocado, and heirloom tomatoes. Better looking, and now a pretty complete meal that was second-helping-worthy (or in Anthony’s case, seconds-and-lick-the-plate-worthy):

dinner plateUnfortunately, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to replicate this business. But for posterity, here’s my best guess recipe and how-to, in case you have an uncontrollable desire to make a green bean casserole and you’re out of ideas:

Chop an onion (farmshare!) and some uncured fresh garlic (farmshare!) and saute them in olive oil. Salt and pepper. After a little while, leave them be on low heat, and meanwhile clean up mounds and mounds of green beans. Cut them in half and dump them in a buttered casserole dish. Fill it up.

Tell your child for the 80th time today that you will not re-install the fighting game on his iPad. Take deep breaths and try not to burn or cut yourself on anything.

Dump the cooked onions into a bowl. Drop a couple tablespoons of butter into the same saucepan to melt on low heat and then add a couple tablespoons of flour. Make a rooo. Roux? I’m not sure how to spell it.

While this is going on, say “yes” when your husband suggests he go out and grab some fresh chives and oregano from the front yard. Bite your tongue when he comes back with what looks like the grass clippings for the entire front yard. Chop up a ton of chives and oregano and dump them in the bowl with the onions.

Tell your son that you still can’t play with him.

Grab the quart of plain yogurt, because you’re out of milk. Spoon a bunch of that into the roux. Whisk away and wonder if you’ve used enough, and then add some more. Maybe half the tub or thereabouts. Whisk and whisk. Watch it get thinner as it warms, and have mild feelings of anxiety about whether this is all a waste of time and will turn out to be totally disgusting.

Watch with satisfaction as the sauce thickens again after a few minutes. Wonder what to do for the next few minutes while it simmers and thickens some more. Aha. Dump the bowl of onions and chives and oregano over the green beans and moosh it all together. Suggest a potato to your husband. Accept the potato he selects and dice it into very small pieces. Throw that in with the green beans.

Work your way around your husband as he tries to put tacos together for the kids, who will hate the casserole even though the smell of its components is making them act like rabid, starving, evil Tolkien creatures.

Grate the large-ish piece of mild cheddar cheese you found in the fridge, but not all of it because we need some for the kids’ tacos. Check the sauce for thickness and decide it’s done. Throw in most of the grated cheese. Suddenly remember it needs to taste like something, so add a teaspoon or two of ground pepper, a good big pinch of salt, a small pinch of cinnamon, and many shakes of Cholula hot sauce. Oh, also a spoonful of brown mustard, the kind with little bits in it. Stir that all up and then pour it over the green bean/onion/potato pile and stir it all together, then sprinkle the last of the grated cheese over the top. Put it in the 350-degree oven for what ends up being an hour and a bit.

Clean up a little and then realize you have time for a quick run to Trader Joes for milk, so that Nick will be able to have his cereal in the morning. Start to scheme during the drive.

Arrive at Trader Joes and decide to jazz up dinner a bit. Grab a bag of avocados, some raw sausages, Parmesan, and a bag of fine bread crumbs. Rush back home and grate some Parmesan, mix it with a big handful of bread crumbs, and toss that on top of the casserole, which still has half an hour to go. Squeeze the sausage meat out of the casings and cook it with some Cholula, breaking it up into bits. Chop some tomatoes and avocados.

Dinner time!

For better or worse, this is how Anthony and I usually cook, which means sometimes the food is really spectacular, and sometimes it’s spectacularly bad, but at least it’s never the same twice.

Grumpy about bread


I made this bread. Isn’t it pretty? I’ve always enjoyed making fresh bread, all the way back to college. I used to make bread from various whole grains, dense and hearty, and I thought it was cool to give little loaves for gifts. One day Anthony told me, “Carla. You should stop making bread.” Why? I asked. “Because your bread sucks.”

I felt like my Anthony, who can be quite subtle, was gently trying to let me know that my bread sucked. It was kind of humiliating, but in my heart I knew that the cannon balls I generated were more like dog treats than human food. I stopped baking bread for many years, but the siren song of yeasty gluten has always called my name.

About 7 years ago, I was thumbing through Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and found his easy French bread recipe. It used a food processor — power tool! — and Bittman claimed it was easy and amazing. He was right. He referred back to an earlier book, The Best Bread Ever, by Charles Van Over, who was an early champion of food processor bread. I got that and went technical for a while, and discovered that with my Cuisinart I could make bread that even people other than me liked.

And of course, now that I’m finally good at bread, everyone says it’s bad for you. Until last year, I thought “I have wheat belly” was a euphemism for “I just ate a great meal.”

The bread in the photo is a super easy Cuban bread recipe from Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads. It’s a beginner bread that makes you look like a pro. In my opinion it won’t come out right by hand or in a stand mixer; you don’t get the same artisanal chew and flaky crust. Someone asked for the recipe and someone else suggested I post it to my blog. I’m not sure if they were joking. Anyway, I’ve never been good at following recipes, and there’s a loose art to baking bread, so here’s how I do it, best I can relay.

Dump into a large food processor:

3 cups bread flour (you can add a handful of oats if you want some extra crunch)
2 tsp instant dry yeast (or one packet)
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp sugar

Pulse a couple times to mix. Now run the machine non-stop while pouring in about a cup of water, ideally warm (120-130 degrees) but it doesn’t have to be. The exact amount will depend on your local weather conditions. Here in dry Wisconsin I usually need about a quarter cup more.

Add enough water for a loose ball to form. It’ll roll around and around on the blade with a few boogery trailers chasing it in the bowl. You might have to hold the machine still on your counter (say things like “whoa Nellie”). Check consistency. It should be sticky and soft, like something you don’t want to knead by hand. If it’s too wet, add some more flour. Run the machine for about 45 seconds.

Oil a large bowl and dump the dough in. Let it rise to double, about 20 minutes to an hour, depending on how warm the air is. Then punch it down good (aggression reduction opportunity) and shape into a ball. I don’t even use a surface, I just dip my hands in flour and go at it. Place the ball on a parchment-lined baking sheet, sprinkle the top with flour, and cut two deep slashes (about 1/2″ deep) to make an “x” on top. Put a shallow pan of warm water on the bottom shelf of your oven. Put the dough pan on a middle shelf. Now turn on the oven to 400 degrees. The bread will rise and bake as the oven preheats. How cool is that? Bake about 45 to 50 minutes, until it’s nice and brown and thumps on the bottom (or stick it with a thermometer- look for 205 to 210 degrees in the center). Cool on a rack. For best results, wait at least 2 hours before cutting it.

(Cold location suggestion: preheat the oven to about 125 degrees before putting the dough in, for better results).