Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mother: Locked Out. Baby: Home Alone.

When I was in my mid-twenties and my daughter, Emily, was six or seven months old, we lived in an older ranch-style home with my sister, just the three of us. I was a single mom, working part-time, and my sister was a full-time student. There were usually a couple of days a week when I wasn't scheduled to work and my sister was at school, leaving my daughter and I home alone.

motherhood, single parent, baby girl, locked out, home alone
Me, with my sweet girl, Emily

One such morning, I put Emily down for her nap and I got ready to hop in the shower. I don't know what drew me outside into our backyard at such a moment, as I was barefoot and had on nothing but an old threadbare, almost see-through bathrobe - maybe I thought I should turn the sprinkler on to water the grass while I was showering, I can't remember - but out I went. The kitchen door that I exited through had a pane of glass in the upper half and a door knob that locked and stayed locked unless the button was twisted to the unlocked position. I was usually pretty diligent about checking to make sure I unlocked the knob before going out, but this particular time the realization that I had neglected to do so occurred to me at the same moment the door swung shut. I grabbed at the knob, but it was too late; it was shut and it was locked. Immediately I started to panic.

motherhood, daughter, baby, parenting
Little Em - home alone

This was back in 1980, long before we carried cell phones with us everywhere, long before I had even heard the words 'cell phone' strung together. There I was with no shoes and, to put it mildly, feeling a tad vulnerable in my flimsy bathrobe. Although I knew that I had tightly closed and locked all of the other doors and windows (being the paranoid person I was) I just had to check in case I had forgotten this once. I felt like a character in a bad sitcom as I tried to be stealth moving around the house, praying that no one would see me. We had lived in the house only a few months and I didn't know any of my neighbors, but even if I had I would have been mortified to go to one of their houses to ask for help while wearing a nearly transparent bathrobe. (Have I mentioned that my bathrobe was old?)

After confirming my worst fear - that I was locked out and my baby was locked in - my panic started to increase. I began worrying that my daughter would wake and start crying for me and even if I could hear her, which I couldn't at that distance, I would be unable to get to her. I knew my sister would not be returning for some hours and nobody else was expected. I did the only thing I could think of: I busted the window out of the back door. I'd be lying if I said that the experience of purposely breaking out a window didn't make me feel a little dangerous. I don't remember what I used to break it, probably a rock or maybe my thick skull, but I do vividly recall the horror I felt as I smashed the glass and watched it spray across the kitchen floor inside the house. I had bare feet which meant I had to walk across the glass-strewn floor once I got the door opened, and then there was the painstaking clean up required so my daughter, who was in the crawling stage, wouldn't get cut. I had visions of her little hands being pierced by or embedded with tiny shards of glass that might be left behind. I have always hated the uncertainty of cleaning up broken glass. It's impossible to be sure you've got everything picked up.

motherhood, daughter,baby,parenting
In the infamous backyard

Once I re-entered my house (finding my daughter still sleeping peacefully), I put a square of cardboard in the broken window to keep the bugs out, then called a friend who came over to help me install a new window in my door. And fortunately, I managed to clean the kitchen floor sufficiently as Emily never suffered any injuries from broken glass.

I have thought of this episode often down through the years. It closely mimics a classic bad dream. Something akin to walking down the street naked, or finding yourself using a public restroom that has no walls or doors, situations where you feel physically, and therefore emotionally, exposed and vulnerable. (Those are classic, aren't they, or am I the only one who has these dreams?) Anyway....

Before my husband and I moved last year, our house had a front door with a knob lock with the same "feature": it stayed locked unless you twisted the button. Instead of a knob on the outside, it had a lever-style handle that you pushed down with your thumb. I never, ever, pulled that door shut behind me without pushing on that lever to make sure that it was unlocked. And every time I did, I remembered this episode. Even if only for a nano-second, the image of me standing outside that locked back door after realizing what I had done, practically in my birthday suit, flashed through my mind. You just don't forget things like that.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Surprise Lily: Garden Growing

In the middle of July, my husband and I were so surprised to see a stalk pop up in our flower bed among the azaleas, right outside our living room window. It may have been there last year, too, but if it was we didn't notice it. We've only lived in our home a year, but I think we would've seen it even though we were experiencing the nightmare of moving in 100 degree heat with a crew of movers that included one or two thieves (don't get me started!).

Such a funny looking plant, with nothing but a tall, thick stalk and a large bud at the top that began opening up to reveal clusters of pink petals inside.

I have seen this plant before in Sacramento. My husband and I used to admire them downtown, in the area where we lived. They would pop up suddenly in the middle of summer in dusty unirrigated beds beneath the large elms that line the streets. They looked so out of place, but were such a pleasant surprise. Apparently somebody else thought so too, at one time, because one of the names given the plant is 'surprise lily'. 

Another name I have heard is 'naked lady', which causes the middle-schooler section of my brain to giggle. I wasn't sure this was the case, but I just couldn't bring myself to google on 'naked lady'. Who knows what the search engine would have come back with, and I just didn't want that in my online search profile, if you know what I mean. So I did a round-about search ('lily stalk with no leaves' did the trick) and found that the true name is Lycoris squamigera, a plant in the amaryllis family.

Isn't it pretty? The blooms opened one or two at a time and the whole show lasted about a month, from start to finish. I call this next shot 'post-menopausal naked lady'. 

Awww... poor thing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Healthy Sandwich Recipe (who says I can't cook?!?)

Some days it can be difficult to write anything terribly interesting. Those days can sometimes lead to a post about food, a favorite subject of mine. 

This probably doesn't qualify as a recipe, per se, but I am so in love with this sandwich I just have to share it, even though it really is just your basic sandwich. Total calories falls around 500, and since this is all I eat for lunch (no added chips, etc.) I feel pretty righteous. I can't survive the afternoon on just a couple hundred calories.

Of course, using great ingredients is key. I love Rudi's honey sweet whole wheat bread, Inglehoffer honey mustard, and Hain safflower mayonnaise. (I'm beginning to sound like an ad, but I've tried a lot of breads and condiments in my day, and these are my favorites to-date.)

Okay, let's skip to the meat of the subject, so to speak. Whole Foods carries packaged carving board-style lunchmeat that doesn't have any preservatives in it. I also get packaged pre-sliced cheese (Swiss works well), which makes the construction easy. But the piece de resistance is the sliced apple, usually Fuji. I have used pear also, which is equally tasty.

I am starving right now, as I write this, and it's almost lunchtime. My crystal ball tells me this is in my future....

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How a 4 Pound Chicken Changed My Life: Epic Tales from the Kitchen aka Recipes to Avoid

Oh alright, it didn't really change my life, but a 4 pound roasting chicken brought me to my culinary knees the other night, revealing yet again just how much I do not know about the power of poultry when mixed with electricity.

I don't cook a lot. I will have bursts of enthusiasm about getting a homecooked meal on the table, but it usually wanes just about the time I could become dangerous. (My husband is fabulous about picking up take-out on his way home from work.) But since I had been lax about cooking for much too long, the other day I forced myself to the grocery store, looking for inspiration. As I made my way to the back of the store, the meat counter came into view and I picked up vibes coming from the whole chickens. Yes... roast a chicken, throw in some fresh vegies - think of the leftovers! That was just the ticket. A sense of calm came over me. I was mistress of my menu.

Fast forward to 5:00pm and I've got a chicken in the fridge, but nothing else going, not even a hot oven. Even though I'm not sure I have enough time (we usually eat on the early side of the evening) I am committed to getting this chicken on the table, so I barrel ahead. I look up "roasting chicken" on the Food Network website and the Barefoot Contessa comes to my rescue. She proposes that I rinse, salt, grease and stuff a halved lemon into the chicken's cavity. I ignore her roasting instructions because I have got the Mother of All Ovens in my new kitchen, which allows me to program the entire event until I have drilled down to what color the bird's eyes were. I take the temperature probe and expertly stab it into what I think is the exact right spot in the bird and pop the other end into the outlet inside the oven. I sense that, for some reason, I am exuding an arrogant confidence that I silently admit I have not earned. But, what could possibly go wrong short of under- or over-cooking the bird?

Twenty minutes later, my husband has come home and immediately comments on the heavenly aroma coming from our little free range princess roasting in the oven. Right about then I notice that the glass inside the oven door has gotten cloudy so I can't see what's going on anymore, but I don't think much of it. Then the room starts to look a little foggy. Still basking in the glow of my husband's admiration, I nonchalantly suggest we open a few windows. The fog builds and I start to get a little nervous. Trying to hide my increasing panic, I decide I just have to look inside the oven, but I stand back a bit as I open the door (I remember enough about high school science to know what oxygen does to a fire). Fully expecting flames to come shooting out, to my immense relief all I got was a blast of smoke. I could hear the smacking sounds of something splattering everywhere inside the oven, as if I had just dumped a cup of cold water into the hot, greasy roasting pan.

Finally, the inevitable happens: the smoke detector starts screaming.  With fingers stuck in my ears, I reach over and quickly turn on the vent by the stove, then hustle over to the sliding door and throw it open even though it's 100 degrees outside. There is absolutely no breeze, so I grab a little fan and turn it on. My husband turns on the overhead fan in the living room. The smoke detector finally shuts up, and shortly after that my oven beeps letting me know the temperature inside the bird has reached the desired level. Although it seems a bit premature to me, putting my trust in my deluxe oven and my instincts as a cook, I open the oven door, smoke and steam blinding me, and remove the chicken. I was so sure of myself that I even turned the oven off and closed the doors and windows.

Several minutes later, however, I begin doubting the doneness of the chicken. Reason has caught up with me and I realize that there's no way it could be cooked thoroughly after such a short time period. I cut into the area between the thigh and the body (in the spot where the thermometer had been), and to my disgust I find bloody meat. By now, the oven has completely cooled and I have seen the carnage inside caused by the offending lemon. After all this, there is no way I'm going to eat raw chicken. I could nuke it so we can eat, but come on... you don't nuke a Whole Foods chicken that has been "certified to the Global Animal Partnership's 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program"! Irritated and mumbling obscenities at the bird under my breath, I turn the stupid oven back on. Before throwing Princess in again I decide to cut my losses and yank out the lemons, but the damage has been done.

Not surprisingly, because the oven is such a mess, once it reaches a certain temperature the whole smoke-billowing-out routine starts up again. Knowing what is to follow, my husband and I immediately throw open all the doors and windows, but because the room hadn't completely cleared out from the first round, the smoke detector goes off without delay this time. Since our roof is not removable, there is nothing more we can do so we wait it out. Finally, the fans start to clear out the particulate-filled air enough so that the screaming stops (the smoke detector's, not mine), but the room remains thick with smoke and chicken fog. The smell in the air is no longer all that appetizing. Our eyes are watering and our ear drums ache.

After another 30 minutes, we miraculously had a cooked chicken - and even more miraculous was the fact that it wasn't overcooked. It was just right, although, after all that it had no discernible lemon flavor. Well... whatever. Princess was on the table and disaster had been averted.

After dinner, I faced the greasy oven racks and roasting pan with a heavily-soaped scrubber and determination to never stuff poultry with citrus again. Fortunately, I thought, the oven has a self-cleaning feature so I would be able to avoid having to clean the inside by hand. Easy, right? Wrong. Here's a tip: when your oven has been heavily spray painted with grease and lemon juice, use a little muscle to wipe as much off as you can before hitting the self-clean button. If you thought about it, you could almost question the usefulness of the self-cleaning feature in the first place, but I digress....

Once the cleaning cycle started, we heard all sorts of strange noises coming from the oven; kind of like an airplane taking off. I was praying that the installation had been done properly last year when our kitchen had been remodeled. My husband and I began discussing the need to have a fire extinguisher or two around the house. The realization that we didn't currently have one on hand, as our oven was groaning to reach 5,000 degrees, made us a little edgy.

We eventually accepted that the noise coming from the oven was "normal", and although smoke continued to billow from every crevice, we had made our peace and retreated to our recliners to pray, watch a little TV, cough and dab at our eyes. We had no choice but to sit enveloped in a San Francisco-style fog that was beginning to feel homey. It had even crept down the hall creating tendrils reaching into every bedroom. I knew we were going to sleep that night with the scent of roast chicken in our nostrils.

Finally, by 10:00 that night, the oven beeped and fell quiet. No fire had erupted and we were grateful. I crept over and cautiously opened the oven door, expecting a gleaming, clean oven. Instead, black ash and what looked like an extra layer of black enamel covered the sides and bottom, and the glass in the door looked like someone had thrown black paint on it; dried, blackened drips covering every inch. 

Days later, with muscles in my arms aching, I finally got the oven as clean as I was able, which is to say it has about 90% of it's former spiff and shine and that's good enough for me. My husband had volunteered part of an evening and together we had scrubbed, scraped and sweated - me scrubbing with both hands together, practically lifting myself off the floor trying to put more muscle into it than I have. When all else fails, throw your weight into it, I always say. It's got to be good for something.

I am thankful that my husband remains in charge of preparing Thanksgiving dinner. I shudder to think what Armageddon-like scene would follow if I was left alone with a 24 pound turkey. I am obviously way in over my head.

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