Monday, January 20, 2014

Don't have time for much, but...

Have you ever seen anything so freaking sexy in your life?  No?  Then you haven't lived for over 20 years with steam radiators hissing and spitting clanking in the middle of the night waking you up and leaving you either gasping for air in a sauna or layering on the socks in an icebox.  I love old world and old school and Charming Suitor and I are committed to keeping many of the quirky original details of this home.  But the old heating system had to go, and these monstrous babies are my new favorite thing, and they haven't even been turned on yet! When we got home last night and went downstairs to look at them, CS and I danced a jig, and spun around the room like Anna and the King of Siam, and whooped and hollered and smooched.  And then one of the Matts came downstairs to do his laundry and caught us, so now we are officially Mr. and Mrs. Landlord Crazypants.  And we?  Don't give a flying fig.  When they actually make the shift from the old boiler to the new furnaces we may explode in joy.  

And just wait till Spring when we add on the air conditioning compressors and don't have to install the usual five window units, we may actually lose consciousness.

T-minus eleven days till I turn in the new book, so back to the grind.  

Yours in good taste and imminent central heating,
The Polymath

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Hello Chickens!  Have you thawed out yet?  I almost have feeling back in my toes.  Polar vortex, who knew?

Time for a brief update on the goings-on.  Firstly, want to thank everyone for their warm thoughts and reviews of Out to Lunch.  It is so gratifying to know that people are loving it as much as I love having written it.  If you have read it, and loved it, I hope you'll help me out by posting a review on Amazon or Goodreads (and be sure to friend me while you are there), recommend it on your Facebook or Twitter, pin it on Pinterest, and for sure, just tell your best pals to pick up a copy!   Social media and word of mouth are all the difference for a writer like me, and know that I am eternally grateful to all of you for helping me out.  If you have a blog, and want to do an interview with me, just holler!

This is even more important because my lovely publisher just signed me for two more books!  This is in addition to next year's digital cookbook and novel, so I'm one super employed Polymath over here!

The new novel is called Recipe for Disaster, and merges two of my favorite things, cooking and home improvement!  That's right, for those of you who loved Room for Improvement, my current heroine is a house flipper whose life gets turned upside down, and is forced to figure it all out while living in the ruin of a house she's currently renovating.  While there she comes across the journal of the home's original cook, and uses it to teach herself how to cook, and how to live.  It is fun and funny with some great twists and turns.  And it is almost finished.  ALMOST.  Its due to my editor Feb. 1, which is why you are likely to not hear a whole lot from me until then...

But while you are missing me, I have a favor to ask.  Since the upcoming cookbook (more on that in February) will include some of the "lost recipes" from previous novels, I hope you will take this time to perhaps revisit some of my older books (or visit, if you've skipped one along the way) and let me know if there are dishes mentioned that didn't get recipes included that you want!  I've already had a request for the Mea Culpa Muffins from Good Enough to Eat, and that one will go in for sure, so go back to those books and tell me what you want to know how to make for yourselves.  When I'm back in February I'll be pulling together the full list of recipes, as well as having a very fun contest for naming the cookbook, the prize is going to be a combination of some fun kitchen gadgets, signed books, AND....I'll name a character after you (or after someone of your choice) in the next novel!

Pantry dishes continue with success, so far just riffs on the previous meat/bean/grain stewlike soup, not anything new to share there, but it is going well.

And finally, the renovation update is...not much.  We are awaiting permits, which means all we can do is continue to work on the HVAC system, and pictures of ductwork is not exactly sexy.  But it does continue to move along slowly but surely, and you can bet you'll hear from me when the new furnaces go in!

And finally, for those who want to come see me and get a book signed:

Wednesday Jan 15, 5:30 pm:  The Standard Club  tickets and information here  TICKETS

Thursday Jan 16, 6pm:  Boelter Superstore, Milwaukee, WI  reading, signing, cooking demo  Free Event  All my Wisconsin peeps, please come say hi, bring your pals, its going to be a fabulously fun night!

In the meantime, I'm back to the grind to finish up the new book, and hope you'll come say hi over at Twitter or Facebook for the next couple of weeks while I don't have time to post here.

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Recipe or Receipt 1

Hello Chickens!  I hope you are surviving the cold.  I effectively haven't left the house since last Friday.  Because it is ridiculous here in Chicago!  I'm sorry, -45 windchill?  Really?  Go home, winter, you're drunk!

 I work in my living room, so I'm one of the lucky ones.  My poor Charming Suitor had to brave the cold to go to work yesterday.  Of course his office has central heating so he wasn't freezing his little tushie off all day, wearing double layers and huddled in front of two small electric space heaters.  You want to know the happiest sound in the world?  HVAC guys in the basement running ductwork.  We are two weeks out from hopefully getting this place efficiently and effectively heated, and I'm really ready to never hear the hiss of these radiators ever again.

There is actually only one thing I'm going to miss about the old heating system.  Radiator tangerines.

If you've ever read MFK Fisher, and if you haven't you should, she describes a sublime solitary method of eating tangerines in her Paris flat.  She would peel and segment the tangerines, placing the segments on sheets of newspaper on top of the radiator for a couple of hours.  Then she would place the paper on her windowsill, allowing the segments to chill.  The skin gets thin and crispy, the juice inside sort of swells up and gets sweeter and juicier, they get weirdly more tangerine-y.  I remember the first time I read her method, the description of eating the segments alone in her flat while reading, it just sounded like the most romantic bit of food voluptuousness ever.  And the first time I tried it, over 20 years ago, my first winter in this house, I realized why she loved it so much.  The simple ritual, the brightness of the citrus in the doldrums of winter, the pleasing snap of the skin giving way to the cold fruit within, the fact that it is a pleasure without guilt, the subtle scent they release into the stuffy closed-in winter air, radiator tangerines are a gift.  And I will miss them.  But I'll miss them with warm toes and without being swaddled in layers, so its a tradeoff I'm willing to make.  I will probably be tempted to replicate them in a low oven, and if I do I'll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, being locked down as I am, yesterday was the perfect day to begin our pantry/freezer dinner project!  I certainly wasn't venturing out in this Polar Vortex or whatever they're calling it just to go to the grocery store.  Technically this would be our second such dinner, but Sunday night's feast of frozen chicken schnitzels with frozen peas and the last 1/4 bag of Tater Tots (don't judge, tots are delicious) was satisfying and well rounded, but not exactly inspired or a recipe.

I've decided to call this series Recipe or Receipt.  When I make something from the bits and pieces I'll either post the recipe so you can riff on it, or I will post a picture of the receipt from the take out we ordered when it tasted like crap.  Because I'm pretty sure that some of it is really not going to be delicious, despite my best efforts.

Yesterday the freezer unearthed a pound of ground beef from the quarter cow we invested in last year, and the rind of a large chunk of parmesan cheese.  I peeked at all the "best by" dates on my canned goods, and found 2 cans of black beans that were nearing theirs, and a large can of peeled cherry tomatoes that was already technically past its prime.  Some green lentils I don't even remember buying (you know, the ones behind the brown and black lentils I do remember) and some barley.  A box of beef stock.  An onion on the counter that is moments away from sprouting.  We don't use a lot of ground beef in this house, burgers maybe only a few times a year, mostly in the summer, and a couple vats of winter chili are about the extent of it.  So you can imagine our shock when the 1/4 cow in addition to providing some great steaks and roasts, turned up with nearly 50 pounds of ground beef.  We gave ground beef to everyone.  When people came for dinner, their little take home gift?  A pound of meat.  And still, our freezer holds more packages than I care to think about.   So it only made sense to use some in the first Recipe or Receipt outing.

And the result was?


Sort of halfway between a really thick soup and a stew, it was a more than decent way to beat the cold.  Was it the most delicious thing we've ever eaten?  No.  CS proclaimed it delicious, but he was very hungry, I put it solidly at very good, the difference for me being will I crave it specifically or just be happy to see it again if it appears.  Would I leave the house in the Polar Vortex to buy the ingredients to make it?  Nope.  But I would order it if I saw it on a menu, and will likely try some variations on the theme with fair regularity this winter.  It made the house smell good, and was good for us, hearty and filling.  The beans, lentils and barley keep it healthy and add fiber.  The meat was just enough for flavor, but not so much that it made it heavy, and browning and draining before adding it to the slow cooker kept the fat low.  Tomatoes gave it some much needed acidity and brightness.  And the parmesan rind gave it depth of flavor and umami complexity that kept it from being boring.  I would have loved a bit of fresh chopped parsley or basil, but had none.  The best part was really that it made enough for dinner and for us to both have it for lunch today, and I neither had to leave the house or spend a penny.  And the recipe seems endlessly adaptable to whatever meats, beans and grains you may have lying around.  If you try your own combination, let me know how it turns out!  I think it would be even better with sausage meat...

Pantry Stew with Lentils, Beans and Barley

1 onion, chopped
1 T canola oil
1 lb ground beef (or turkey or sausage meat or anything else from the freezer)
2 15 oz cans beans, drained and rinsed
½ c dried lentils (or any other small dried bean or pea)
½ c barley (or any other grain, rice, farro, wheat berries)
1 28 oz can tomatoes (whole, chopped, diced, or puree, whatever you have)
48 oz stock (beef or chicken)
pinch red pepper flakes
1 large piece of parmesan rind
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in nonstick pan over medium high heat.  Sauté onions till golden brown, put in slow cooker.  In same pan, brown the beef well, and drain off excess fat and juice, add to slow cooker.  Stir in drained and rinsed beans, dried lentils and barley and stir till well mixed.  Add tomatoes with their juices and the stock and stir till combined.  Add pinch of red pepper flakes, tuck the parmesan rind down into the mix and season well with salt and pepper.  Turn slow cooker on high and let cook for 4 hours.  Remove and discard the parmesan rind.  Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.  Serve hot.

How are you all staying warm these days?

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2014 Non-Resolutions

Hello Chickens!  Welcome to 2014.  And the month of writing the wrong year on checks.  I've already done it twice.

I hope your New Year's festivities were wonderful, and that you are surviving whatever your local version of this weather is delivering.  We are hunkered down here at The Castle, having returned a day early from the wilds of McHenry in light of impending snow dump.

Many people are posting and discussing "resolutions" right about now, sharing their plans for shedding weight and eating healthy and exercising and organizing their lives and keeping their homes spotless and being better people.  And on the flipside, many are posting their vitriolic hatred of these same self-defeating resolutions, or their mockingly achievable resolutions "take more naps, watch more TV".  Whichever camp you fall into, I don't think any of us can escape the way a new year makes you think a little bit about long range planning.

This year that is especially true around here, since much of our life is now consumed with the scheduling of construction and projects.  Later this week I will post an update on that with some awesome pics, but suffice it to say, we are very much thinking about the road ahead!

Charming Suitor and I aren't much on the whole "resolution" thing.  We agree with the camp that thinks making grand pronouncements about personal changes you want to make can be a little bit intimidating and ultimately unachievable.  But we do believe that it is possible to make series of small changes along the way that make your life better.  So while we would never say on Jan 1, as so many do, "We will exercise EVERY DAY!", we do indulge ourselves in committing to being active together as much as we can.  We talked about this last year at this time, and have succeeded in maintaining our once a week tennis lesson together, and the occasional visit to the gym for treadmill time together.  Is it as much as we wanted to try and do?  Of course not.  But our tennis is improving, which made us play more over the warmer months.  We now have those once weekly lessons on the permanent schedule, and we are both enjoying it and making it a livable habit.

We committed to low carb, healthier eating, and for the most part, we have succeeded in sticking to this.  We are better about sticking to the low-carb than the healthy part some days, but that is a big step, and we don't beat ourselves up when our version of low carb involves a prime tomahawk steak the size of our heads served with buttered broccolini.

This year we want to build on both of these, re-committing ourselves not just to tennis, but to more physical activity in general.  Towards this end, we set aside space for an exercise room in the construction plan.  Often we find our inability to get to the gym in the evening after CS gets home is the weirdly daunting task of getting out of the house and driving the 2 miles to the gym, battling the post-work gym crowd.  Especially when the weather is crappy.  We hope that having the equipment here and supporting each other by doing it together will make it more of a habit.  We aren't expecting to do it every day.  But even if we do it once a week, that is a step in the right direction.

We have to stick to the low-carb thing due to my diabetes and our desire for CS to not join me in that particular endeavor.  So when we looked at the changes we wanted to make food-wise this year, for me it was about three things.  I want to spend less money on food, and throw away less spoiled food.  We definitely fall into the trap of overbuying, and food waste bothers me a lot, since I am both grateful to have the abundance we have, and always aware of those who do not.  Also?  I want to be a little more creative about everyday cooking, since I think often when we succumb to the ease of take-out or are a little more indulgent that we should probably be on a weeknight, it is because we are bored of the "usual suspects".  And since we have undertaken a massive financial commitment to this house, reducing spending is very much the name of the game for the foreseeable future.

To combat both of these things, we have decided to try and do two dinners a week out of the freezer and pantry.  There is no need for us to be hoarding a zillion kinds of dried beans and grains, they are good for us and can be used in myriad ways, and we need to start getting creative about incorporating them into our diet.

We have a massive chest freezer in the basement, chock full of delicious proteins, and often we either forget they are there, or don't remember ahead of time to thaw them out.  But we need to remember that our freezer isn't a cryonic facility protecting these meats for a future cure, we need to eat them so that they don't go past their prime.  Nothing made me sadder this year than finding a horribly freezer burnt whole duck in the bottom of the freezer that needed to be tossed out.

In a perfect world, my spring cleaning, which always involves a massive pantry-purge that makes me terribly ashamed, will become both easier and less wasteful.  I'm sure that there will be weeks we won't succeed, but I think the goal of twice is reasonable.  After all, we do try to cook dinner at least 5 nights a week, and are pretty successful with that.

So, stay tuned, because I really hope that one of the side-effects of this "waste less, spend less" project will be that I will be inspired to create some new recipes that I can share with all of you!  In the same way that joining a CSA forced me to invent several new ways to enjoy Swiss Chard, I'm hoping that rediscovering the treasures I've forgotten in the pantry and freezer will keep me on my toes.  Sort of a year-long Chopped episode, but hopefully without any scary ingredients.

That is the extent of the non-resolutions we made for this year.  Small, baby steps.  The kinds of little changes we hope just become habits that we keep.

What resolutions or non-resolutions did you make this year?

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath