(The Blog Formerly Known as "Countdown to 30" and "30 is the New Twenty")

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Rachel Ray Cooking Debacle of '08: Or How I Learned Not to be a Slave to Recipes

I used to be a big fan of Rachel Ray. Let me emphasize used to be. Not anymore. What I liked about her was how she cooked very simple meals that anyone could make and you could make them in a short amount of time, too. I thought it was cool how she wasn't a professional cook and seemed to have come out of no where to have her own show on the Food Network and her own syndicated talk show. I thought of her as a modern day Martha Stewart. That is, before I attempted one of her recipes. She ain't no Martha.

I was watching her one day on the "Today Show" and she made a baked white pasta dish. It looked so easy and combined some of my favorite foods: spinach, mushrooms, garlic and pasta. I decided that I would cook this amazing dinner. I didn't copy the recipe down while watching, so I stopped by Border's and copied it out of her new cookbook. Yeah, I admit, that's a bit ghetto, but I was not about to spend $30 on her cookbook (at the time I didn't have Internet at home and this seemed like a simpler solution). As I wrote down the recipe, I was a bit puzzled at some of the quantities. Two pounds of spinach? Six cups of Mozzarella cheese? Two cups of Parmesan cheese? It seemed like a lot to me, but I figured she has to know what she is doing. I am a mere novice in the world of cooking.

After a trip to the grocery store and $30 later (What? She said this was a cheap meal!), I was ready to cook. The meal was supposed to only take me 30 minutes to prepare. I spent 30 minutes chopping up spinach and the entire clove of garlic. I actually only used a pound and a half of spinach. The colander was over flowing with spinach. Anymore just seemed like too much. I made the sauce, an easy white sauce, that ended up being a bit on the runny side. I don't know how, I followed her recipe perfectly. I decided to move on to the pasta part. Another 30 minutes passed as I sauteed the garlic, onions and mushrooms and wilted the spinach. Next I broke up the no bake lasagna noodles and threw them into my giant skillet. Another plus of this recipe is you only use one skillet. Amazing. I poured my runny sauce onto the pasta and dumped all of the cheese on top. Something didn't seem right. The ratios seemed way off, but I put the skillet into the oven for another 30 minutes. In the process of taking the skillet out of the oven, I managed to burn my hand badly. My own stupidity, of course. I grabbed the metal handle without a pot holder. Damn you, Rachel Ray! I ran my hand in cold water and cried. I felt like a cooking failure and possibly might have a severe burn, all because of Rachel Ray and her ridiculous recipe.

At this point, I had wasted 90 minutes cooking an "easy" pasta bake. I had feelings of hate building up for Rachel Ray and her perkiness and too tight tops. I was tired and my hand really burned. I felt like one of Oprah's fans who thought that Beloved would be an "easy" read. I was hoping that it would be a wonderful meal. That would be the one saving grace for the meal. It wasn't. Due to the massive quantities of dairy, it was extremely rich. Not in a good way either. With every bite, there was a half a pound of spinach, cheese, and garlic. It was not delish. It was edible and just ok.

All was not lost. I swore to myself that I would never, ever make a Rachel Ray meal again. It was not as simple and fast as she made it seem. I also learned that sometimes you need to go with your gut and not use massive quantities of spinach because the recipe says so. After this incident, I have been very leery of recipes. In fact, I decided to make my own pasta (not using a giant skillet) bake without a recipe. It turned out much better than Rachel's, took a shorter amount of time to prepare, and was a lot cheaper. For the cost of Rachel's pasta bake, I can make three my way. Take that, Thirty Minute Meal Queen!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Summer Vacation Recessionista Style

Next weekend I'm mini road tripping back to Minneapolis for my summer vacay. Exotic, I know. I am really excited. I'm going to see my grandparents for a couple of days and my friend, Christine. I haven't been back to Minnesota in six months. It will be good to see my grandparents. My grandpa recently had a pacemaker put in and is doing pretty good. I am hoping to help them out. If they'll let me. They never do. They are really independent (and in their 80's) and about the only person they let do anything for them is my dad. My dad doesn 't mess around and for some reason, they really listen to him (more than I do). Christine and I are planning on going to one of my favorite places in Minneapolis, Elsie's. They have the best waffle fries ever and bowling. The perfect combo. I am hoping to go to the Unique Thrift store in NE, too. It is my favorite thrift store. They have them in Chicago, too, But, in Minnesota there's no tax on clothes! Woo-hoo. I am really hoping to avoid going to the Mall of America, aka the Black Hole of Death. It sucks the life out of me.

I feel like I am ready for another vacation. I know I just had a mini one for my birthday, but I am having a hard time dealing with tourists from Iowa and whiny children with American Girl dolls at work. I know, I know. I am a seasoned retail veteran and should be immune to stupid customers. Afterall, I worked at the Mall of America for three years of a perpetual white trash fest. My new store is not as bad as MOA, but my sanity is hanging by a string. Hopefully, a long weekend will do the trick.
I am not at the same level of craziness as MOA, and I remind myself of this on a daily basis, Towards the end of my tenure at MOA, I had to sit in my car and listen to music to pump myself up to enter the mall. Thom Yorke's solo album, "The Eraser" was my CD of choice. I would roll down my windows and listen to "Black Swan" on repeat. The stares I got from the tourists, made me chuckle. Most of the people would hurry past and grab childrens' hands. What was the crazy girl doing? Some days not even the music would do the trick, then I resorted to a pep talk a la Stuart Smalley. Other days a coffee from Starbucks helped. I developed an addiction to Chili Cheese Fritos. Looking back on this, it's hilarious, but at the time it was quite painful. I was really angry. I am not even close to that level and wisely schedule more days off more frequently. It keeps my sanity in check. Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, here I come!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The MS Read-a-thon

I have to admit, I picked up a horrible habit in college: speed reading through books. I don't know how to simply read at a leisurely pace. I still whip through books at lightening speed and in the process do not enjoy the book and at times miss important details. It's a habit I am determined to break. Back in college, this was almost a necessity. I took full course loads of 16-18 credits every semester and being an English major meant crazy amounts of reading. It wasn't uncommon for me to read 150 pages a night for one class. I forgot to mention that I am and always will be a big procrastinator. That probably didn't help. After college, I had a hard time reading for enjoyment. It took me about three years to actually read for fun. Then, I started Grad. school and the speed reading started up again. I have a hard time doing book clubs because I slip back into my old mode of speed reading and procrastinating. It's time to break the cycle. No one cares that I can read a three hundred page book in two days. I am not eight years old reading eight books a month for Book-IT (I had to get my cheese personal pan pizza!) I am not participating in a summer reading program where I read 120 books in a summer (true story). I am going to stop this. I'd like to read for fun and take my time. It isn't the MS Read-a-thon. With that in mind, I am starting my own summer book club a la Oprah. First up, A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Death Wand

My dad has always been a big supporter of safety. As a kid, my dad had a huge list of items/ activities that might end in loss of limbs or a lawsuit. These included sparklers, home pyrotechnics displays, swimming pools (in his backyard), trampolines, pogo sticks, firearms, skate boards, powder puff football, and pumpkin carving with sharp knives. When I was a teenager, he became obsessed with concert safety and fires. After the Great White fire fiasco, my dad was always asking me about my concert going activities and if I learned where the fire exits were located at the venues. Mosh pits were also a frequent inquiry. He wanted to make sure I wasn't a part of them at shows. He was very concerned with the ventilation systems at venues, as well. His Fourth of July fireworks safety lectures are legendary and can be summed up with "leave the fireworks to the professionals. Don't mess around with that crap!" To this very day, I don't know how to operate a chipper shredder or a snow blower because they are dangerous. I had to wait until I was 12 to learn how to operate the riding lawn mower. That was a huge ordeal with lots of lecturing on safety and using the lawn mower only under his supervision until I was 14.

My dad gave me has trusty Weber grill because "he doesn't want to mess around with that" anymore. There was no fire safety lecture or anything. In fact, he bought me an electric fire starter, so I wouldn't have to use lighter fluid. I thought nothing of the electric fire starter because my dad and my grandpa have used them since the beginning of time. I just assumed they had to be safe, since my dad is Captain Safety. My friend, Steve read the back of the package and discovered that the electric fire starter, aka the Execution Wand or Death Wand heats up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit! That doesn't sound very safe. I was shocked that my dad would use something like that. On top of it, you can't leave it in the grill for longer than 10 minutes because the Death Wand will melt and might cause an explosion. Yikes! I want nothing to do with it. Where do you put the Execution Wand when you remove it from the grill? On the grass or on the concrete or a plastic patio chair or back in the house? Not to mention we would have to run an extension cord from inside the house to the backyard. I could just see my backyard engulfed in flames or someone (probably me) would trip on the Death Wand and take off a layer of skin or lose a foot. Not a good idea. I think I'll stick with lighter fluid and matches. That is at least self contained and doesn't heat up to hell-like temperatures. The only way I would go near the Execution Wand is with a hazmat suit and four Ove-gloves on my hands. It's just not a good idea. The packaging had a warning to keep it away from children. Only kids? How about everyone?
I think my Dad should have to undergo some safety class after using something as dangerous as the Death Wand. Maybe next year for the 4th of July, I'll buy my dad some fireworks, so he can put on his own display. After all, that can't be as hazardous as the Execution Wand.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Bob and Willie

The Marcus Amphitheater before the show (Taken from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

For my dad's Father's Day and Birthday present, I got us tickets to Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson at Summerfest in Milwaukee. What made the concert even cooler was my dad and I saw Bob Dylan ten years ago almost to the date for my 21st birthday. Let me just say, that this concert was even better than ten years ago. Bob still has a good voice, despite what others had told me. I heard his voice was shot, but that wasn't the case this past Wednesday. As for Willie, I really didn't know what to expect. I admit that I am more of a Bob fan than a Willie fan. The concert was absolutely amazing from start to finish. I think it has to be one of the best concerts I've ever been to. How could it not be with two of the biggest musical legends of all time performing?

Willie performed first. I was really shocked that he started promptly at 7:30. He played non-stop for the next hour. His voice still sounds the same and he has an incredible amount for energy for someone in their mid seventies. He played all of his hits: "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys, "Georgia on my Mind," "On the Road Again," "Whiskey River" and "The City of New Orleans." It was classic Willie wearing a bandanna, braid, black t-shirt, and jeans. He is an amazing performer. The musicians he had backing him were awesome, too. I was really impressed with how laid-back and himself Willie was. He really looked like he was having a good time.

Bob took to the stage with a dramatic entrance: a black stage and an announcer announcing him and all of his reinventions from over the years. He also had a black backdrop the projected black and white images throughout the show. This is not the Bob Dylan I remember from ten years ago. Ten years ago, it was very simplistic: Bob, his guitar, harmonica, and a stool. This time Bob really kicked it up a notch, it was two hours of rock and roll Bob. He only played the guitar for two songs (and it was an electric guitar) and the majority of the time he played the keyboard (yes, keyboard. I didn't know he even played the keyboard). Of course, he also played the harmonica. He had two guitar players , a bass player, and a drummer backing him. He did a good mix of his old songs with his new. Highlights included: " Like a Rolling Stone, "It Ain't Me Babe,"I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," Desolation Row," "Stuck in Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," "Hwy. 61 Revisited," and the very last song of the encore was my absolute favorite Bob Dylan song: "ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER!" I just about crapped in my pants. It was the best version I have ever heard, too. Despite the rock and roll sound, it was still classic Bob Dylan. He wore a black suit with a black shirt and grey piping down the side of the pants, and a black cowboy hat; he had limited interactions with the audience.

I felt super young at this concert. I would say the average age of the concert goers was 55, but there was also a lot of twenty to thirty somethings and families with young kids. It is great how Bob and Willie really transcend generations and appeal to people from six to seventy.

My dad really had a great time. He actually enjoyed Willie more than Bob. My dad is sort of a Bob Dylan purist and likes it better when it's just Bob, his guitar, his harmonica, and a stool. Although, he did enjoy the Everly Brothers style of 50's rock.

All in all, an AMAZING show. If you ever have the opportunity to see either one of these legends, you should go. They will not disappoint.

I feel fortunate that I've had the opportunity to see one my favorite musicians of all time, Bob Dylan twice. I have so much more respect for Willie Nelson after seeing him. He is an amazing musician and person. And Bob, is always Bob. Both of these musicians have been able to stay true to themselves and not sell out. They are huge Icons in the music industry. It takes a lot to impress me ( I am a bit of a music snob), and Bob and Willie left me in awe. They are truly national treasures.