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nostalgic for bad weather
april 12, 2003
This past Monday, April 7, Mary started her volunteer work at the hospital where she's receiving speech therapy, in the hospital gift shop.
The shop is located on the first floor, and in fact is right past the entrance's sliding glass doors (which can be parted by people in wheelchairs with a palm push against a low-set metal plate at the side of the doors).
It's a small shop, about the size of an apartment bedroom. They sell magazines, the morning newspapers, stuffed animals, a variety of snacks (potato and tortilla chips, cookies, candy).
The proprietor is a really nice black, middle-aged lady who gave Mary a hug her first day.
At this point, Mary is in charge of ordering inventory. Later on, as she gets more used to the routine, she'll operate the cash register.
Mary volunteers there two days a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, an hour each morning.
It's a good opportunity for her to interact with people she doesn't know, to where she's forced to engage in 'spontaneous speech'. Her work, besides helping the hospital, helps Mary in her continuing recovery from the stroke she suffered almost a year ago.
She was understandably nervous her first day. We had just received the May-June issue of Cook's Illustrated, so I suggested we pick out two recipes from the magazine, and after her first day on the job drive out to a nearby Central Market, purchase all the ingredients for the meals, and cook the first meal that evening, as something to look forward to. She liked the idea.
Cook's Illustrated is a bi-monthly magazine that strives to be the Consumers Reports of cooking. Each issue features about half a dozen dishes, which the recipe writers make a number of different ways, adding or eliminating ingredients, using different cooking methods, to arrive at the perfect method of preparing that particular dish.
We decided to try Chicken Enchiladas, and Spaghetti Bolognese, from the current issue.
Most recipes aren't that good. I don't know why that is, but it definitely is. They don't look as good as their photograph, don't taste as good as their description. This is such a widespread phenomenon, it has to be that a lot of recipes get written just to complete a cookbook, or a magazine. If we buy a cookbook and one recipe out of the hundred in the book is worthwhile, I'm happy. If, as rarely occurs, four recipes out of the hundred are great, that really is a cause for celebration. The only cookbooks out of the hundreds we own with that kind of batting average are Paul Prudhomme's first cookbook, Louisiana Kitchen (which actually has about ten recipes worth making, a phenomenal amount), Haydock's Oriental Appetizers, and Classic Deem Sum, and The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook.
We had previously tried two other recipes from Cook's Illustrated, both for the recent Christmas visit by Joe, Mary's dad.
Spaghetti Carbonara turned out really well. It had just the right balance of smokiness and creaminess. Veal Picatta, on the other hand, was too lemony, not that noticeable at first, but cloying after several forkfuls. But a problem like that with a recipe is easy to adjust.
Central Market is a great place to shop. They have the widest variety I've ever seen of fresh produce, imported butters, rare meats; the freshest seafood in the city, including a dozen varieties of live clam, each variety in its own bubbling aquarium, hundreds of different bottles of olive oil, truffle oil, marinated vegetables, and on and on. But they are expensive. Since their halibut, for example, is so fresh, we don't mind paying a little extra, because it isn't possible to get halibut that good anywhere else, and I'd rather get excellent halibut at an extra two dollars a pound than so-so halibut at a little less. Where you notice the extra cost the most is in the produce department. Central Market sells sugar cane, and by that I mean the actual canes of sugar, looking like bamboo in their bin, the sugar still raw within each cane. I don't remember how much a cane costs, but it's probably worth it. Yet, when you get to the more common types of produce, vegetables most people buy for their evening meals, you are paying a premium for nothing extra. For example, when we went there this week, corn on the cob was selling for two cobs for a dollar. That's high. The corn was identified as "California Corn", which is absurd if the state of origin is meant to justify the price, since most corn comes from California anyway. I can go to a regular supermarket, such as Albertson's or Kroger's, and get anywhere from six to ten ears of California corn for a dollar. But I don't mean to criticize, beyond the point that I have. Central Market is great, and I highly recommend it. We were able to get, for our two meals, some fresh pancetta (an Italian meat cut from the belly of the pig), and dried porcini (cepe) mushrooms, which aren't generally available elsewhere.
Now I'm going to digress (or digress further). I want to talk about the increasing trend towards self-service in supermarkets.
At Central Market, when you buy produce, you put it in a plastic bag, then bring it over to one of numerous scales throughout the department, weigh it, enter the four-digit code associated with that vegetable or fruit (the code is displayed above the item's bin), a wide tape scrolls out with the item's name and your selection's price, based on its weight, sticky-backed, which you then press against the side of the plastic bag.
It's not immediately apparent that's what you're supposed to do when you select a couple of artichokes, there really aren't enough signs in the produce area explaining that's the procedure, but once you realize how it works, it's really not that bad.
At Kroger's, though, they've instituted a new 'feature' called U-Scan.
What this means is, instead of waiting in a traditional check-out line where you load your purchases up onto a black moving belt (remember when a store clerk used to do that for you?), and the check-out clerk waves each item's bar code over a glass-topped bar code reader, sometimes several times, all the while complaining over her shoulder to the grinning clerk behind her that Debbie isn't back from her break yet, which is going to throw everybody else's break off; with U-Scan you get to do all the check-out work yourself (next Kroger's will have us doing the store's inventory-- everybody show up at six a.m., and bring your own pencils).
With U-Scan, you go to a separate area of the store's check-out line, take your items one by one out of your cart, wave it over the bar code reader yourself, then place it on a large circular tray.
A little background on Kroger's.
They're a large supermarket chain in the United States. Their reputation is gradually going downhill. There are two major supermarkets in our small town right now, Kroger's and Albertson's (there are a couple of others, but we never go to them, so I'm not counting them. However, a Super-Target is opening here this fall. The bulldozers are every day clearing a wider and wider area of flatness across the dirt and white rocks). We go to Kroger's for their produce, which is better than Albertson's, for their nonperishable items (ketchup, Kleenex, kitty litter), because their aisles are better laid-out, and for Mary's prescriptions. We go to Albertson's for their meat (I can't tell you how many times we've gone to a Kroger's, and not just the one in our town, bought some meat, brought it home, unwrapped it, and found it was rotten. Kroger's has some advantages, or did until it installed U-Scan, but never, ever buy meat from them).
Now, if you truly had an option at Kroger's between going to a regular check-out clerk or using U-Scan, the arrangement would not be that bad. (Most customers line up their cart at the traditional Someone-Else-Scans lines). But what Kroger has done, to force shoppers to use U-Scan, thinking of their convenience rather than their customer's convenience (always a bad idea), is to keep nearly all the traditional check-out registers closed, as if everybody is out with the flu, so that if you choose to have a 'professional' scan your items, you have to wait, no exaggeration, half an hour.
So a week ago, metal-meshed cart full of non-perishable items, but absolutely no meat (see above), and after having waited fifteen minutes at the end of a long line, with little progress, we allowed ourselves to be persuaded to try U-Scan.
The first problem we encountered is that the U-Scan bar code readers are extremely unresponsive, so that we had to wave each item over the glass plate a dozen or so times before we'd get the beep. We had about fifty items in our cart (lots of cans of cat food). I could see already this was going to take a long, long time, much longer than if we had stayed in the winding line for a traditional check-out.
The second problem was that the wide, circular tray we were supposed to place each item on after it was scanned was apparently weight-sensitive, to discourage theft, so that if the precise weight of an item wasn't placed on the tray within a few seconds of its being scanned, the register accumulating price totals froze, and a middle-aged woman, who acted like any action of hers was justified as long as the trains run on time, would run over yelling, "You're doing it wrong! You're doing it wrong!" Kroger's, in effect, has turned the customer into a disobedient child.
It took twenty minutes of waving products repeatedly over the bar code reader, and waiting for the register to be reset, and arguing with the middle-aged woman as to whether or not a particular item had already been properly scanned, before we finally finished, added to the fifteen minutes we had already waited in a regular line.
At Albertson's, where you're still checked-out by a human, the same amount of groceries takes about five minutes, and you get to talk about how unpredictable the weather has been lately.
So although we used to spend about one hundred and fifty dollars a week at Kroger's, we no longer buy anything from them. All of our business goes to Albertson's now.
End of digression.
We made Cook's Illustrated Chicken Enchiladas Monday night, and it was a lot of fun preparing it together, but it wasn't any good. It had that same cloying aspect we found with the Veal Picatta recipe.
Tuesday, we tried their Spaghetti Bolognese recipe, and although it wasn't cloying, it wasn't that good. Part of the recipe calls for ground beef, veal and pork to be simmered in milk, a traditional Italian method of keeping meat tender, which was interesting to do, but the finished result, despite the pancetta and porcini, was bland. Too bad.
But their Spaghetti Carbonara recipe had been good, so we're still hopeful.
Wednesday, we bought two live lobsters after speech therapy, steamed them that night, and Thursday grilled some lamb chops, serving them with a tossed green salad (iceberg, romaine, arrugula, endive, dandelion leaves), and some noodles.
Sometimes simple is better.
I've started a new short story, in the early morning hours, coffee and cigarettes and light bulbs, kittens angling their asses at my face, a compliment in the cat world, clumsily stepping their paws onto the black keyboard, creating audible dings and yyyyyyyy, which opens with a man hiking just below the tree line in the Montana mountains, the dying of the day and the start of rain necessitating that he find shelter in the mountains for the night, on a rock ledge about a twenty foot climb above the trail. I'm at that point in the story where I'm still trying to get the opening scene right. To set the mood properly, what should be mentioned first in the opening sentence, the fact he's in the mountains, or that rain is falling? It's a lot of fun.
After that, I want to write a story (which will probably grow to a novelette), about a man alone on a boat off the coast of southern Florida, who picks up a drowning woman, and is forced to take refuge on a mangrove-choked island during a sea storm.
So although the weather outside our windows is beautiful, blossoms and bird-chirpings, yellow sunlight on stone, my recent story ideas are all about thunderclaps, rain drumming against sleeping bags and boat decks.
I'm nostalgic for bad weather.