Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cooking Minus X

My 17-year-old daughter cooked for the family last night. Earlier in the day she'd given me a list of ingredients to pick up for the meal she planned, but either I misread her list or I messed up on a few of the items. Rather than have me run back to the store to get the right ingredients, she decided to be creative and try substituting the wrong things I had bought. She was making a vegetarian dish mainly of grilled vegetables, and in this case the substitutions worked brilliantly. We all enjoyed the meal and complimented her on her originality.

I start out with that story to lay the groundwork for the story of the week before, that followed more or less the same script, but with a difference, as you will see if you stick with me to the end. Here's how it goes: Daughter decides to create a culinary treat for the family, but this time it's brownies, something she's often made before to universal acclaim. So she's mixing things in a bowl and has come to the part where she's supposed to add the eggs to the mix, but when she opens the fridge, she sees we have no eggs. The time is late in the evening -- too late to pop next door and borrow some from the neighbors. No one feels like driving to a 24-hour grocery store, either. But it's okay, she says -- she'll just Google up a recipe for no-egg brownies. And sure enough, with a few simple clicks on the keyboard, she's got her recipe, which she follows carefully, step by step. The familiar, delicious aroma of brownies baking fills the house; our mouths are watering with anticipation. The timer dings and she takes the brownies out. The 20 minute cooling time seems to drag on forever. At last the time comes for her to cut the solid panful into 12 square pieces for us to eat. She takes out the Teflon knife, draws it across the surface and presses down...and can't make so much as a dent. It's hard as concrete. She switches to a sharp bread knife, but that's no better. She thinks maybe the middle might be softer than the edges and tries to pull up a piece from the center with her fingers, but can't break off so much as a crumb. The only things in danger of breaking are her nails.

At this point she has to concede that the no-egg brownies are a flop and there's nothing to do but throw them out. She takes a spatula and attempts to dig down under the brownies to pry the whole sheetful up and dump it as a unit, but it's as if the brownies are welded to the bottom of the pan. Nothing gives. I suggest we put the brownie pan in the sink, fill it with hot water, and after it's been softened that way, dump it all down the disposal. We try that, but after 5 minutes of running hot water over it, it's still a solid un-budge-able mass. By this time it's after 11pm and we're done wrestling with it. We leave it soaking in the sink overnight.

The next morning we come down to the kitchen to deal with it once and for all. Now it's just barely soft enough for me to work the spatula against one side and get enough leverage to lift up the undivided mass of brownie. After much applied force, it finally rises up and away from the bottom of the pan as a single heavy slab. We're all doubled over with laughter at this point. I'm telling my daughter the best thing to do is to send that recipe to a manufacturer of industrial supplies; they could use it to create a new, ultra-strong building block that comes with its own super-bonding mortar!

I started with the good-substitutions story so that it's clear that I don't blame my daughter for the brownie fiasco (she is generally an excellent cook, and that's not just my opinion, nor is it even an in-the-family opinion). Nor did I want anyone to come away with the idea that I think substitutions are always bad. I'll let my daughter have the final word on the meaning of this episode: You make the best of what you have. Sometimes it works (vegetarian mixed grill, yes!) and sometimes it doesn't (unless you're trying to create your own ship's anchor from a brownie recipe). One needs to be fearless in the attempt...and have another dessert waiting in the back of the fridge.


Update to Wedding Gifts, Parts 1 and 2: My cousin's wedding in Texas last Saturday was beautiful, fun, moving, everything a wedding should be. But my solution to the present conundrum -- to send them an Amazon gift certificate -- which seemed so versatile and well suited to the situation (that is, after every single item on their registry had been purchased) proved to be less than perfect: The email never arrived! Fortunately, I had enclosed a note with our card to let her know to watch out for something from Amazon coming to her inbox, so she did not have to wonder whether I had simply decided not to give a gift. Once it was clear that it had vanished into cyberspace, I was able to have Amazon resend it, and the second time the email came through without a hitch. And the newlyweds are, as predicted, happy to have it.


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on May 28, 2010.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wedding Present, Column #2

In last week's column I asked for your help in choosing a wedding present for my cousin and her fiance, who are getting married tomorrow (May 22) in Texas. I listed four choices from their registry but said I'd consider off-registry ideas as well. I thought I'd get 20 or 30 emails in response and would simply report the totals at the end of this week's column, which would mainly be about something else. However, I was surprised to get 58 responses, and more than enough feedback to take up a whole column. Apparently, this is something many of you have strong opinions about! I had no idea it would be such a hot-button topic.

First, to the numerical results:

Coming in first place, with 10 votes, was the Martha Stewart Cutlery Set. (There were also 3 votes that specifically went against this item, or more accurately, against Martha Stewart herself, but I did not deduct any points for negative votes.)

Second, only one vote behind, at 9 votes, was the set of Pilsner beer glasses.

Third, with 8 votes, was money -- that is, cash, a check, or a gift card.

Fourth, with 5 votes, was the toaster oven.

In a tie for fifth place, at 3 votes apiece: the cordless hand vac, versus something else from the couple's registry other than the 4 options I listed. For example, someone said, "Buy them extra dishes from their china pattern. Dishes break. Also, if you want to invite more than 10 dinner guests, it's good to have more than the typical number of plates shown on the registry." Someone else suggested buying more pots and pans than requested, and a third vote went to a collection of practical kitchen things from the registry, such as potholders, dish towels, and small hand utensils.

The total number of votes for sticking to the registry was 38 out of 58, or 65 percent. People like using a registries because you know the couple won't have to return duplicates of anything. "Just give them what they want!" the pro-registry side writes. If it's something they will use everyday, they will think of you every time they use it. They won't re-gift it to someone else or let it sit in a closet until it finally goes off to Goodwill.

Now let me get to the 35 percent of you who hate registries. In a nutshell, registry gifts are: unimaginative, unmemorable, impersonal, and just plain boring. Many of the votes for cash or a check contained some version of this comment: "Why buy them something that they've picked from a registry? Just give them the cash and let them spend it themselves." The argument for gift cards instead of cash is that the couple must actually go out and buy themselves something with the card, but with a check, they might just spend it on their utility bills. You do want them to get themselves something nice, something they'll take pleasure from owning and using in their life together.

Seventeen of you, however, argued that a wedding present should be some special item that the guest chooses for the couple, thoughtfully, lovingly, as a token of your feeling for them, perhaps to become an heirloom to be passed down from generation to generation. Since people took the time to send in their creative ideas, I thought I would list all 17 of them:

- a work of art by a local Cleveland Park artist
- homemade cookbook with old family recipes
- 2 votes for a silver picture frame from Tiffany's
- a ceramic pitcher
- a unique serving dish
- an antique or unique piece of tableware from the Opportunity Shop in Georgetown
- a beautiful wooden cheese board
- a wooden box or bowl
- silver serving pieces
- a set of Wusthof knives (better quality than the Martha Stewart knives, according to Consumer Reports)
- a portable grill
- a picnic basket with nice, reusable plastic ware and a ground cloth
- a weekend stay at a romantic B&B or a dinner for 2 at a fine restaurant
- beer of the month club membership (since we know they drink beer, evidenced by the request for the Pilsner glasses)
- a unique or artistically designed vase or bowl
- a donation to a charity in their name

Some of the messages told charming or instructive stories about wedding presents given or received. Here are three of them:

"We were given a set of ceviche serving bowls, with handles in the shape of porcelain fish. The only trouble is my husband is severely allergic to fish. The bowls really aren't practical for anything else. I think they may have come from a shop that imports handmade goods from Latin America, no chance of returning them. So they sit, never used, on a back shelf in my pantry."

"I remember one gift, an unusual vase. I know my wife's friend took care in picking it out, but it just wasn't our style. But we knew of another couple getting married, and we thought they might like it. Just as my wife was carefully packing it up in bubble wrap to send to them as a wedding present, I noticed that on the underside of the vase, engraved in teeny-tiny lettering, were our names and our wedding date. Yikes! What a mistake that would have been! It's the registry for us from now on."

And here's one that explains why a set of knives might not always be a good choice for a wedding present:

"When my daughter married a man of Chinese descent, a friend gave them a gorgeous antique knife. I thought it was stunning, but my daughter's new in-laws were HORRIFIED. In the Chinese culture, a man and a woman are tied together -- symbolically -- by a red thread. A knife would imply a severing of that thread. The friend is a great person, but the in-laws will never get over this gift!"

Thanks to all who took the time to send me your thoughts, arguments, pet peeves, and deep-seated beliefs on this topic. And now...drumroll, please! The result: I decided to go with the second-choice winner, the Pilsner beer glasses. They look pretty in the registry picture. And when it's hot in Texas (when isn't it?) a cold brew is refreshing, served in chilled glasses. So this morning I went back to the registry, prepared to click and send. What I found was this: "Item Fulfilled." Rats! On to the toaster oven: Fulfilled. The Martha Stewart knives: Fulfilled. Even the hand-vac! And everything else, fulfilled, fulfilled, fulfilled. Lucky couple. But now what? Suddenly I see the virtue in the number three vote getter, the gift certificate. To my mind the most practical one is from It can be used for anything at all: books (always useful for grad students), electronics, housewares, you name it. Problem solved, and I don't even need to worry about shipping, as the gift simply shows up instantaneously in my cousin's inbox. Just to make sure she doesn't miss it, I'll tuck a copy of the printed order form inside the lovely, handmade wedding card I'm bringing with me to the event.

I'm sure she'll love it.


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on May 21, 2010.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Vote for the Best Wedding Present

In my last column in this space I mentioned that I’d be missing my kids’ school fair next Saturday to attend a cousin’s wedding in Texas. Now I’m thinking of what to get the happy couple. To make the process less of a guessing game for family and friends, they’ve set up registries at two different department stores. Some people object to being given a list of material desires, but I’m not one of them. I’m perfectly content to let them clue me in on what they can use as they’re starting their life together. They’re both grad students at the University of Texas, on a tight budget. Their wish list has nothing of the outrageous or extravagant about it; in fact, it’s a plain and practical list of kitchen implements and dining accessories. I just don’t know what to pick, so I thought I’d ask your opinion.

But before I present the choices, I need to explain why I’ve waited until a mere eight days before the wedding to get around to this task. I wasn’t always such a last-minute giver. A long time ago Bill and I were actually quite speedy present-pickers, responding soon after the arrival of the engraved invitation with the purchase and shipment of the object of choice. We changed for a reason. Three reasons, actually: Not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES, we sent a gift to a couple whose wedding never occurred. One of those times the cancellation call came just two days before the big event was to take place. And I do mean big: that one was to be held at a cathedral, followed by a 200-guest reception at a fancy New York hotel. All three times we had the gift sent back to us, which meant we had to mail it back, or haul it back to the store ourselves to get a refund. Now I know I shouldn’t complain too much of the inconvenience to us. Of course we’d far rather deal with the nuisance and minor expense of a store return than see a friend go through with a wedding that she (in two of the cases) or he (in one case) had come to see as a grave mistake.

However, after the third such incident, we decided it would be worth our while to defer the present-choosing process until after the marriage was on the books. According to Miss Manners, there’s no etiquette violation in waiting. So I was planning to stick to my policy of no presents till the couple had actually said I do, but then I woke up this morning with the sudden realization that … they had! That is to say, they are already legally husband and wife. I don’t know why, but I forgot that fact, announced some months ago in an email to all family members. We can thank Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and stepped-up immigration checkpoints for this wrinkle in the story. My cousin’s fiance is Canadian, and for the past few years he’s been working in Texas and traveling regularly back and forth between Montreal, where his parents live, and his home in Austin. The trips, which used to be fairly smooth sailing, had lately become an ever-worsening hassle, involving lots of waiting in lines and line-by-line scrutiny of his documentation. At some point he and my cousin decided it made sense to have a quick civil ceremony, to give him the friendlier standing of the husband of a US citizen, if not yet a citizen himself. They saw no profit in waiting until May 22 for this relief. That means that the ceremony at this event is actually going to be a re-enactment, a speaking of vows for the poetry and symbolism of the words, and for the enjoyment of the audience. The legal significance has been taken care of.

So there’s no chance that the marriage won’t happen, when it already has. And no need for my usual let’s-wait-to-see-if-it-falls-apart hesitation. That wake-up thought sends me straight to their registries, only to discover there’s very little left to buy. Hmmmm. Now what do I do? Usually when I wait until after the wedding is over, I have something in mind that I know that the couple still needs. In past weddings, the couple has been local, and I’ve been to their house and have a sense of their tastes and interests. Although I feel close to my cousin, I have always seen her at family gatherings on the east coast, never at her home in Austin. So I’m left looking over some very humdrum but practical items on her list. Nothing here speaks to me, saying, “This is just the thing for them!” Or “Wow, they’ll love this!” Here is what I see, followed by what I think:

o The Black & Decker Convection Toaster Oven. Sure, every couple should have a toaster oven. But could there possibly be a more boring gift?

o The Black & Decker Platinum LinX cordless hand vac. What this says to me is that it’s dusty in Texas. But would they interpret the gift as a subtle hint: “I think you need to clean more” ?

o A set of Pilsner beer glasses. Does it say that I think they sit around and drink beer all day?

o The Martha Stewart 20-piece collection of fine cutlery, in a nice wooden countertop display block. Sharp knives. From the collection of a convicted felon. Is this really the best symbolism for the start of a life together?

So you see my dilemma. Perhaps it would be best to ditch the whole registry approach and try to come up with something original, something that speaks to my own appreciation of them as a couple, but not so original that they’d feel stuck with it if it wasn’t to their taste. Something returnable, that is. I welcome your thoughts. Just drop me an email with your vote: alllifeislocal at fastmail dot net. You can vote for any of the four registry choices or suggest something new.

I’ll let you know next week how the votes came down, and what I did. I’d like to promise to follow your votes -- but I'm afraid that's too much of a commitment for me.

Posted on the Cleveland Park Listserv, May 14, 2010.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Grocery Heaven Is Here

I have been to the new Georgetown Safeway
and I am here to sing its praises. After closing for a year-long renovation/total rebuilding, the new store is now open for business, and boy has it won my business! It's everything I want from a grocery store, except Costco prices. (But then, that really would be asking the impossible, wouldn't it?) It's big, but not overwhelmingly so. It's got everything I put on my shopping list -- even some obscure items I would have bet I'd never find. And it's good looking -- by which I mean it's not the ugly concrete box we've all come to expect a large store to be. From the street it appears appropriately sized for the neighborhood and inviting to pedestrians as well as drivers. The two-level parking lot is nicely tucked around the back and underneath the building. Inside, it's clean and logically laid out. I had no trouble finding things, but even if I had, during this first week, there are greeters and guides standing by the front door, ready to take you around and personally escort you down the aisles until you arrive at your destination. (Well, I'm sure that won't last, but in the meantime, it gives a certain Japanese Zen-like quality to the shopping experience. Enjoy it while you can.)

Actually, I didn't require a guide. I was happy to wander around, making each new discovery on my own. There's the bakery with a bay of lovely loaves, enticingly arranged. Next, the patisserie, where I was encouraged to sample the cakes and confections. The young man behind the counter earnestly assured me that there was a chocolatier on site at all times checking the equipment so that the temperature of the chocolate remains constant. I tried a dark chocolate pretzel that came from some famous chocolate pretzel maker in Pennsylvania. (I pretended to have heard of it, because I didn't want to disappoint him.) I wandered past the sushi bar and was tempted for a minute to take a seat at the counter and have a California roll, but I couldn't spare the time, not if I wanted to tour the aisles and aisles of wine offerings. Nor did I have time to enter the separate, climate controlled, ultra-high-end wine shop, where the hundred-dollar-a-bottle-and-up wines are stored with special care. Next time, perhaps. Same for the sit-down Starbucks cafe. I finished up my tour with a dash through the frozen foods section, but soon realized there was no need to move so fast; for the first time in a grocery history, I felt no need to rush through the chill-zone. With these new energy-saving freezer cases, there's not even a nip of frost leaking out into the air. No wishing for a sweater for this part of the trip. Though I didn't have to rush to stay warm, let hastily finish off my virtual tour with a quick mention of the full-service pharmacy, the florist shop, the deli counter, the cheese offerings, the produce departments (organically grown and not) and the multiple places to buy different kinds of prepared dinners (I may never cook again!).

And now to the checkout. In this first week, when it's bumper-to-bumper shopping carts all up and down the aisles, I assumed that the checkout couldn't help but be slow. Pleasant surprise: It was actually pretty zippy. They've got all cashiers working, with ushers to steer you to the shortest line. There are self-checkout cashiers for those adept at doing their own scanning and bagging. (One day I'll get the hang of that!) I'm definitely going back soon.

I expect to be a weekly customer, until such time as Cleveland Park gets its own upgraded, new and improved supermarket. (Why don't we have such a thing already? Hmmm....I don't think I'll get into that, lest I be accused of sneaking an editorial into what's supposed to be my quirky-cute column on life in the city. But I do need to toss out this observation: That a store of this size and scope can be designed to fit in comfortably, even charmingly, into a low-scale historic neighborhood, without causing traffic backups or any other widely-feared effects. Go take a look and see the example in action yourself.) I digress. I didn't mean to talk about anything but this Safeway. There's one thing I'm sure my single readers will want to know: Is it still the "Social Safeway"? Yes, and now more than ever, it lives up to its reputation. You can linger over the melons just as you did in the past, waiting for that someone of your dreams to seek your counsel on the question of firmness and ripeness. But now you have other choices as well: Looking to meet a hiker? Hang out at the trail mix bins. Or find a fellow caffeine addict at the Starbucks. Wait for a wasabi lover at the sushi bar. You get the idea. (And if you do find your soulmate while shopping at the Social Safeway or in any other consumer-related excursion, I'd be interested to hear your story, perhaps for a future column. Bill and I met at a Safeway -- in a manner of speaking. But that's a story I'm saving for another column, perhaps sometime in October, around our 22nd anniversary.


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, May 7, 2010.