Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"I tromped through the pumpkin patch"

The SO and I don't have any kids, that hasn't stopped us from getting into the spirit of Halloween by carving three jack-o-lanterns. Yes, three. As in, we have more jack-o-lanterns than people living in our home.

But we didn't set out to do that. It started innocently enough--I was at the produce stand and found a nice, big standard pumpkin, paid my $5 for it and brought it home to set outside until the SO said it was time to carve. In the meantime, I saw a website with all these really cool designs on it. That's when I saw a Jack Skellington pumpkin (from Nightmare Before Christmas, in case the name's not coming to you immediately). Ooh, I wanted a Jack jack-o-lantern! And that's when I remembered seeing several white pumpkins around. So we we back to the produce stand but did not find the right white pumpkin for the job. So we got this sort of peachy-colored pumpkin. The next day, we were visiting the SO's family and spotted a white pumpkin. So, suddenly, we had three pumpkins to carve. Uh-oh.

I was smart enough to get a pumpkin-carving kit that comes with all sorts of handy little tools. They helped out a lot. But these oddly-colored pumpkins (likely squashes or squash hybrids) were a total pain to gut. The peachy one might've been a hybrid with a spaghetti squash, because what came out of it looked like wet orange pasta. Yeah, it was really fun separating the seeds.

But we got them all gutted and carved and even got a big bounty of seeds. I've never toasted seeds before, but toasted some on the advice of a friend. I washed them and placed them on a greased cookie sheet (I used butter). I stuck them in the oven on the top rack at 375 degrees for just five minutes. Then I sprinkled them with salt and cinnamon and placed them back in the oven until I heard a couple of them pop (about 20 minutes or so). I didn't use a lot of cinnamon, so it's not overpowering--they're still sufficiently savory with just a little added punch. UPDATE: I tried a different recipe with seasoned salt instead, baked at 300 for 45 minutes and I'm a lot happier with the way those turned out. The ones baked at a higher temperature got a little too papery.

So that was a nice way to get a little something out of my decorations. I wish I could salvage the meat but I got a small eatin' pumpkin for that purpose.

Oh, and the other two pumpkins? The peachy one is The Pumpkin King and my orginal pumpkin is Oogie Boogie. We're very proud of our little pumpkins.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Apple-anche part deux

So what did I do with my bounty of apples? In exchange for washing as much of the black spots off as possible, I promised the SO something sweet. So I consulted my collection of cookbooks for some inspiration.

First, I found a recipe for apple pie with dried sour cherries. Perfect, I thought because I have some of those cherries in the pantry (the SO didn't like them as well as he thought, though he does like the sour cherry drink). But I'd forgotten that they had the pits still in them. Next.

Then I found a recipe for a simple apple pie. I've never made a pie and certainly not a pie crust in all my life, but how hard could it be? I perused the ingredient list and compared it to my pantry.

Uh-oh. I was down to maybe half a cup of sugar. I don't know when that happened; I never use it. So this recipe was going to require a trip to the grocery store. Okay, I thought, I can do that. So I read the rest of the recipe. The instructions were for a food processor. Not only did I not have one, but I was in no mood to figure out how to do it by hand. Next.

By this point, I'd consulted a Gourmet cookbook, some other fancy cookbook and a couple of vegetarian cookbooks. It was time to pull out the Bittman. How to Cook Everything. (I don't yet have the vegetarian version, but I'll get it soon.) There was a nice, simple apple crisp recipe that was not only easy to make, but required no run to the grocery store. I used light brown sugar (so as not to overpower the apples) instead of white, added a teaspoon of ginger to the apples, and skipped the coconut and nuts. And I made a fabulous dessert in less than an hour, including prep.

Unless I count the apple prep. Here's where I admit I'm a cook, not a chef or a baker. There's a lot of technique I don't know, a lot of gadgets I don't have (aside from the aforementioned food processor). The apples? They needed to be peeled and cored. I have a corer. I've had it for years and never used it until now. So I got that. It's the peeling part. My "logical" mind decided that since I use a corer to core, I'd use a peeler to peel. Yes, I used a peeler (some might call it a potato peeler) to peel my apples. Like, 15 apples. Even while my hands were cramping up, while the peeler would sometimes slide right over the apple peel, it never occurred to me to step back a moment and think about how one might best remove a peel from an apple. Or even to reach back in my brain to remember how my grandfather peeled an apple with a paring knife--in one long piece.

Oh, well. The point is that after about, oh, half an hour, I got the apples peeled and ready for baking. And the apple crisp was delicious.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Trader Joe's Nashville opens October 31 November 7

Update: Two commenters note that the actual date Trader Joe's is scheduled to open is November 7, not October 31. I suppose someone at the Tennessean was just as eager as the rest of us for this store to open!

The Tennessean reports today that Trader Joe's will open a week from today on Halloween November 7 (the original story has been updated). And that customers who line up before 8:30 to get in (the store opens at 9) will be entered into a drawing for a goodie bag.

Previous news reports indicated that TJ's won't be selling wine (including the famous Two Buck Chuck) since Tennessee's liquor store lobby laws prohibit grocery stores from selling wine and spirits. But reports have been that the grocery will not take up the entire building (abandoned by Wild Oats) and that a wall will partition the store from the space next to it. There's still hope that TJ's will open a wine and liquor store in that space, but no one knows and TJ's ain't sayin'. Those of us who know the building well know that the two separate doors used for the Wild Oats make it very easy for there to be two separate entities (much like Midtown Wine and Spirits has its separate beer and tobacco store under the same roof).

I can't get off work next Friday morning, but I plan to brave the crowds and check out TJ's at some point next weekend!

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Whole Truth

There's been a lot of discussion lately on "sticky prices." Essentially, when the price on a good goes up, it tends to stay there. Whereas some companies (mainly large ones) kept their prices down during the recent spike in fuel costs, others had to pass those along to the end user. But now that fuel prices have lowered, it's very likely that the prices won't follow suit. I'm curious to see how that will affect long term demand for those products. Several of the items I buy went up in price and I'll be keeping a sharp eye out to see if they'll come down. Many of the fresh items I buy likely will (those prices vary quite a bit anyway), but the bread that I eat for lunch every day, the salad mix I buy... I wonder. I doubt they'll surprise me by adjusting back down.

I went on what is just typically a once per month outing to Whole Foods yesterday with all that in mind. Someone in their marketing department has been paying attention to all the chatter about the place earning its nickname "Whole Paycheck" because there were several stickers around the store that listed the WF price with a comparison price from other chain grocery stores. Considering my grocery list is usually pretty short, I have good knowledge of the individual prices of the items I buy. And the labels at WF are correct on the ones that I noted.

For example, the 5 oz. Earthbound Farms box of salad is $3.99 at Harris Teeter. A 5.5 oz. box of the comparable private label salad mix at Kroger is $4.49 (recently increased from $3.99). That's a dollar of savings (sacrificing half an ounce of greens) by shopping at Whole Foods instead of Kroger. I needed more than just 5 oz. of salad this week, though (the SO will be eating salad with me this week and for some time in the future) so I got the big 16 oz. box of private label greens at WF for just $6.98. That's a good value in comparison. The WF prices on Amy's Organic and a few other frozen foods were also comparable or less than Kroger or Harris Teeter. Same goes for the Roland roasted walnut oil that I buy. And organic grapes were actually cheaper than standard grapes at Kroger (just $2.99 per pound!).

That's not to say I didn't drop a fair chunk of change. The real reason Whole Foods gets so much of my money is that they just have a great selection of food that's impossible to find anywhere else in town. I still haven't gotten the hang of making my own very delicious tofu nuggets or the lemon roasted carrots they have on the hot bar, so I dropped a solid ten bucks on prepared food. And *mumble* on various snack foods. So for those reasons (and that it's not super convenient for me to go to Whole Foods), I will still have to limit my trips to once or twice a month. But at least there's no reason to feel really guilty about going.

Friday, October 10, 2008

An apple-anche

As much as I'd like to say that I haven't posted this week because I haven't eaten, that's just not true. However, I am desperately trying to consume about 1200 calories a day (or less--yeah, right). At that rate, I'll meet my weight loss goal of four pounds (two pounds per side) about a month. A joyless month.

Yes, many birthday celebrations and trips to Seattle and New York all finally caught up to me. Two weeks ago, I could wear my jeans, but not sit down in them. Today, I can't wear them at all. I don't have the time, energy or cash to buy new ones, so I'm having to diet. It wouldn't take a month if I actually exercised but I'd rather subsist on nothing but salad than exercise.

Anyhoo, I have to say that this season's McIntosh apples are helping me along. They're huge and beautiful and tart and sweet all at the same time.

I've also come into a bounty of a hodgepodge of local orchard apples. I don't know quite what they all are; a friend of mine got them from a friend of hers who owns property that was once a (I suppose) a commercial orchard. There are at least four different types in the bunch.

Problem is, they're covered with these black splotches. They're not spots, really. They don't permeate the skin. And they're not dirt, either. I don't know what the splotches are, but I can tell you that they're incredibly hard to wash off. Steel wool's barely touching them. Baking soda, a rough rag, and elbow grease seems to work, but man does that ever suck. Because I have about twenty apples and I have thus far cleaned about two of them. And I'm really only trying to get them clean enough to peel!

My plan, though is to get them clean eventually (I wonder how many calories I can burn scrubbing these things? Enough to earn a piece of cake from the freezer?) and make them into something delicious. Over at Tupperware Avalanche, Nicki made some applesauce, but I don't love apple sauce, so I'm trying to think of something else. Unfortunately, aside from quick breads and boxed cake mix concoctions, I'm not much of a baker. However, in one of my giant recipe books, I found something that involved apples and dried sour cherries. Seein' as how I bought the SO some dried sour cherries that were a bit too dry and sour for his taste, I think we may have a winner. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The mystery of the chocolate bakery cake

A friend of mine bought me some cupcakes from local bakery Sweet 16th to help celebrate my recent *mumble*th birthday. Included in the bunch was a chocolate cupcake with cream cheese frosting. The cake was moist yet fluffy with a deep chocolate-y flavor but not too sweet and not too rich. Excellent.

But it made me wonder (aloud, as usual)--if a bakery can make good chocolate cupcakes, why is it that most chocolate cakes are so terrible?

Maybe terrible is too strong a word, but my observation has been that they're bland and (worse) have the consistency and texture of a cheap sponge. Not fluffy and dense like a white cake or even a cake made from a box mix.

So since I was thinking aloud at this point, another friend asserted that it was because chocolate cakes freeze differently than white cakes. White cakes stand up better to the freezing process, but it changes the texture (and in my opinion, the taste) of a chocolate cake. And that most commercial bakeries, because of volume do make cakes ahead of time and freeze them. But their cupcakes are usually fresh.

This makes a lot of sense logically, but I wonder about the chemistry? physics? behind this theory. Is it the baked cake that is frozen or the mix? What happens in that freezer that makes such a difference? Google has been no help...anyone have some science knowledge to pass along?