Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cast Iron: A Seasoning Revelation

There are plenty of tutorials for cast iron care across the internet, I'm not going to re-invent the wheel here. I had a great system for caring for my cast iron pans, and they have lasted me for years, and will likely get passed onto my kids.

But when switching away from paper towels, I had a few hiccups in my system. I used to wipe the vegetable oil onto my cast iron with a paper towel, and though it gave me lint issues, it was how I was taught and I didn't know a better way. I tried to delegate one washcloth to being soaked in oil, but it got black and I put it in the pile with the dirty towels to get washed. Then before it got washed, I needed to season my pan again, and I ended up with three different cloths that were saturated in oil and nothing would clean it out. Worse, they had mingled with the rest of the towels and I have a bunch of towels that still don't absorb very well due to the grease content. (Cleaning those is a project for Future Heather.)

Insert some brilliant soul on the internet and a light bulb in my brain.

I now keep a small jar on the counter with 1/4 inch of vegetable oil and a dedicated pastry brush (not a silicone one, an actual bristle brush). Any time I heat a pan up, I brush on a thin layer of oil to melt into the pores, and it keeps my pans nicely seasoned. I can also make a point to concentrate on problem spots, as needed. Because it's so easy, deep-TLC days are fewer and farther between, which is also nice.

The best part? I have one pan that I keep less seasoned, so I can leach extra iron out of it as I am prone to iron-deficient anemia. This is the pan that I use for acidic foods and things that will require scrubbing no matter the seasoning level. This brush-on seasoning process actually helps me keep this pan at a minimum level of seasoning, so I can get maximum iron leaching without letting the pan get TOO abused. I call that a win!

Limiting disposable products in your home

I grew up in a house with paper towels, disposable napkins, disinfectant cleaners that were different for every project and every room, paper plates for busy weeks/camping/picnics, and lungs that burned for most of my childhood and early adult years.

Last year, Mr. Moon and I didn't buy a single roll of paper towel, didn't use disposable napkins in our home, and gave away most of our cleansers to Freecyclers and roommates as they moved. Our last move, the only cleaning products we took with us was a box of borax and a bottle of vinegar (though to be fair, we were out of baking soda and needed to pick up more). How did we do it?

Cloth Napkins: I had snagged a few from various restaurants through the years, and I picked up a few more at thrift stores because they matched my kitchen. With the kitchen on one floor and the TV room where we ate most of our dinners on another, we had a basket of cloth napkins in both locations for any time we needed them. Typically, we would use a napkin for a few meals until it actually got something more than crumby/buttery fingers and a drip or two of sauce on it, then toss it in the laundry.
* Tip: Don't buy the shiny-texture napkins that restaurants use, they're actually TERRIBLE as napkins, probably in part due to fabric softener. Get some that feel like an old-fashioned handkerchief or a set of bed sheets. Wash the napkins with the sheets, not with the rest of your towels. Towels = linty badness on your napkins!
Kitchen Towels: This actually required a basket system and a few trial-and-error moments. First step was reserving the towels that match my kitchen decor for hand towels (though I'm known to wipe super-messy hands on them while cooking, and that's cool too as long as I save some nicer ones for dinner parties). But for cleaning, Mr. Moon had a couple towels that were ripping down the middle, so I cut them into 5x8 rectangles and used them for messy jobs. We had three categories of towels here: Hand (pretty) towels; "messy" jobs like wiping down the counter and stovetop; and "yucky/gross" jobs like anything involving the floor, scrubbing puddles of grease from our roommate's experiments in deep drying, or pet disasters. That last one was also full of cloths that would work on the Swiffer and its off-brand replacement, for mopping the floors.
*Tip: If you're going to cut up old towels, take the time to finish the edges. I regretted not doing that to mine, and they are being retired and turned into some other projects much sooner than they would have needed to be otherwise.
If you don't have old towels to cut up, do one of two things:
1) Get some cheap washcloths from Big Lots/outlet stores or even thrift stores. You're not looking for cushy thick quality here, the scratchy terry actually works MUCH better for cleaning than the thick soft stuff; or
2) Go to a restaurant supply store and get "bar towels."
Whichever you choose, use them for cleaning the same way you would paper towels. I found that relegating some to super-dirty jobs from the start was great, and color-coding helped me remember where everything went, but invariably a "not too messy job" cloth would get worn and stained and get downgraded to a "gross jobs" cloth (sometimes after it was the closest one in an urgent situation). So don't get attached to a color coding system if you can avoid it.
* Tip: Keep these cloths readily available! When your soda spills on the rug, you don't want to be digging through the back of a cabinet for the bin marked "yucky jobs." You can be a little more patient digging for a hand towel after washing your hands if you're limited on space.
Bathroom cloths: I know I just said not to color code if you can avoid it, but it was only half true. Have a different set of cloths for the bathroom! Kitchen towels can get grease on them which makes it difficult for them to absorb water as easily. Plus, even if I "know" the towels are getting cleaned and hopefully sanitized when they get washed, I can't quite get past the idea of the soap scum from the tub or the splash water from the back of the toilet being used to wipe down my kitchen counter where I prep my food. So, get a different set of cloths for your bathroom, and wash them separately from your kitchen towels to avoid grease contamination.
*Tip: These cleaning cloths really don't need to be folded. Get a bucket or basket that will fit under your sink or wherever you want to store them for easy access, and just toss them in from the laundry basket when they're clean. Saves time! Though it doesn't save space, so if space is more of a priority than time, by all means, fold them.
Reusable menstrual products: This is a soap box for a different day, but I gave up disposable menstrual products at age 22. Looking back, I dearly wish someone had told me when I was growing up that there were other options available to me. I got rid of a lot of physical pain caused by the chemicals in the disposable products, and I've never once regretted the decision. There is plenty of information on this topic throughout the internet, if you're ever interested in doing some research. One major bonus, besides the physical and environmental factors: In my poorest moments, I have never once dreaded the expense of a visit from Aunt Flow. /soapbox.
* Tip: Get a lingerie bag and put it inside a tiny wastebasket with a lid, next to the toilet. Use this for your used cloth menstrual products (and cloth wipes if you care to use them). At the end of the week, you can zip up the bag and toss it in with your regular wash, and they're all self-contained for easy sorting.
Handkerchiefs: I actually started using these as an actor at the Renaissance Festival, but they stayed in my costume box for the longest time. In his bachelorhood, Mr. Moon stopped buying tissues separately since toilet paper works just fine, and at some point tissue boxes fell off my list of household necessities for the same reason. But invariably, a purse-pack of tissues gets mangled and lost super easily, and the middle of a funeral or onset of allergies is NOT the time to discover a baggie full of lint in the black hole that is your purse. Here come handkerchiefs to save the day! Even when they're a bit linty from the bottom of your bag, they will catch a sneeze or the occasional drip of coffee just fine. I usually get ones that are a bit smaller than the stuff I get for napkins, but the fabric qualifications are the same: easily washable, absorb quickly. When cold season comes around, I end up either designating one for watery eyes and the rest for the drippy nose, or stick to the opposite-corners method and switch pieces when it gets too icky or at the end of every day--whichever comes first. Not really any more gentle on the nose than tissues despite what Miss Manners would like to believe, but my hands stay cleaner and one hard sneeze doesn't spray paper pulp all over.
* Tip: I use an old cigarette case to keep at least one of my handkerchiefs lint-free in my purse. I seem to end up with a collection of them outside that one, but at least I always have one that looks a little nicer (and is folded nicely) in a pinch.
This is Part One of a series of posts. Check back for Part Two!

These are just my methods, but I know there are other ways to limit disposables in your home. Do you have any other systems and storage tips? Have you reduced your dependance on disposable baby wipes and care to share your ideas with the rest of us?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Restaurant Review: Jefe, Lake Oswego, OR

Jefe is a Mexican-style-inspired restaurant in Lake Oswego, just south of Portland, OR. This is Mr. Moon's new job, and in support of their "soft opening"*, I went with one of our Boy Scout buddies and my Blog Buddy from (with her aforementioned twins and her hubby who is Mr. Moon's childhood best friend).

* A "soft opening" is when a restaurant opens their doors for the first time, but doesn't announce it. It usually means that they'll get a few tables in, usually family and friends of the owners and employees, and whatever neighborhood folks have noticed there are people being served inside. The purpose is to work out the kinks of service, try out recipes and test the Point of Sale system as well as the staff in action. It's usually followed within a couple of weeks to a month with an announced "GRAND OPENING," complete with banners and advertisements and the whole 9 yards.

Let me sum up: The owner is a local celebrity considering the number of local restaurants he has opened, made popular, and subsequently sold to move onto the next project. He said this is the biggest soft opening he's ever had, and that was 2 hours into it.

But now for the details!

Given the clientele, the menu features a low-carb menu, lots of side options (nothing automatically comes with rice and beans!), and a craft cocktail menu. The atmosphere is upscale-casual, so jeans-to-cocktail dress are are all acceptable but a tux might be over the top. When you enter the restaurant, they have a host stand taking names and seating people, a booth-style seat for those awaiting a table, and you are facing the front of the bar. To one side of the bar is a cocktail-table area, high seats and a counter around a fireplace; the other side is a bit larger, with two rows of booths down the center and the walls (and a couple tables with chairs, for those who prefer--great for wheelchair accessibility). The center booths are easily extendable into tables for larger parties, and the wall booths are deep with privacy curtains in between as well as at the end of the booths! It's all dark woods and rich fabrics and lusciousness, complete with a "wall" made of tequila bottles and chandeliers over every table.

At 5:40, Boy Scout and I showed up and had the struggle to find parking, it was that backed up inside. The parking lot is small, but I expect that Jefe and the as-yet unopened frozen yogurt place next door will be the main businesses whose customers will be parking there at night, so it might not be a huge problem once the construction vehicles are out of the way.

We got inside and requested a table for "6, but two are 2-year-olds." We were told an hour, as long as we wanted a booth and not a table with high-chairs (which was actually perfect--their 4-person booths leave plenty of room for 4 adults and 2 kids, or even 6 adults if everyone gets reasonably cozy). Boy Scout and I went over to Starbucks to grab a coffee and headed back. It MIGHT have been 10 minutes, but our table was ready!

Let's ignore the fiasco of not realizing that the Twins & Family were waiting for us in the parking lot while we waited for them at our table. The server assistant (the industry term for Bus Boy) was fantastic with water refills, and grabbed our server for us when we decided we would like to order drinks and an appetizer while waiting for our friends.

The Service: Friendly, reasonably attentive, and the fact that they were CRAZY BUSY was barely a blip on the radar except for...

The Timing: It was as expected. Honestly it's not something I would even include in a star-system rating, given the circumstance. I will say that our entire meal took 3 hours, and that the kids were understandingly restless but remarkably well-behaved for the duration.

The Food: Of course I'm going to focus on the food above the beverages, it's a restaurant and I'm a chef. We started with an endless supply of house-made corn tortillas, which kept the twins occupied and generally satisfied while we waited for our dinners. We also started with a dish of ceviche. I admit I haven't had this before, I understand it's a dish of "raw" fish that is served mixed with what is basically a pico de gallo--fresh salsa. The fish is "cooked" or gently pickled in an acid. This ceviche was decidedly delicious, with fresh tomatoes and garlic and cilantro mized with shrimp and baby scallops. I admit I had a piece of shrimp with a bit of shell attached to one side, but here's the deal: I will happily accept a missed piece of shell stuck to my shrimp for the knowledge that the kitchen staff is dealing with fresh, unshelled shrimp! (Caveat: I HATED peeling shrimp in school, and I didn't miss it. I will give bonus points to any restaurant that commits to the practice long-term, as it indicates a commitment to fresh from-scratch foods.)

For entrees, our table had the pork tamales with "whole grain rice" and one of the beans (I forgot which one was which!), and it was fantastic. Hot, not too spicy, but everything was flavorful. Similarly, the enchiladas with whole grain rice and another style of beans, really flavorful and my favorite part was they weren't drowning in sauce. These plates were big enough to pick a bit off for the little ones among us without anyone going hungry, but still mild enough that the twins could eat them.

The Boy Scout had clam tacos for the obvious sex joke and because they looked damn tasty. The clams were great, and they were piled high with toppings on those house-made corn tortillas, though the cole slaw could have been a little spicier. I ordered off the Low-Carb menu, partially to see how it all came out and partially because the Carne Res (Car-nay REEz) looked fantastic. Despite the fact that I was asked how I wanted my steak cooked, my medium-rare meat was cooked decidedly well-done. I can't say it was bad, though! The meat was tender and flavorful, had a great sear on it, and was in edibly-sized pieces. It was sitting on a bed of grilled onions that were caramelized enough to say so, but still held their shape and a texture to die for. The peppers were almost invisible, but were definitely adding flavor. The mushrooms were a perfect balance of cooked, seasoned, with a little crunch to them. I don't know what the cream sauce was, it wasn't spicy but it looked like it could have been--whatever it was, IT WAS AMAZING.

The plating of the tacos was inviting, and I know this is weird but at REALLY liked the almost pasta-bowl shape of the dish in which my steak was served. The tamales and enchiladas were a little more lacking in visual appeal, but the quality of the food definitely made up for it. Actually I guess I can't say "lacking" so much as they were not plated as "fancy" as the tacos and steak were. There seemed to be a dichotomy of some dishes being fancier than others--which could really be a selling point! I just can't help but feel that those two dishes were stuck in "smiley face" land, with two sides as "eyes" and the main dish as a great big smiling mouth. I'd like to have taken some pictures, but it was a bit too dark to get any clear pictures with my phone, and my digital camera is still packed somewhere!

I heard a couple people mention they were disappointed with the serving sizes of the side dishes being sold separately for $4.50. Mr. Moon said this is something they talked about at the end of the evening, and portion sizes/prices will be adjusted pretty quickly here.

The Drinks: Being allergic to grapes, I didn't try the house red wine myself. However, I will say that the colour was rich and the smell was divine, and the Boy Scout said it was fantastic, nice and spicy (with the caveat that he usually drinks boxed wine from the convenience store, due to the budget of being a college student ;). Still, for $7 for a glass of wine, it was a generous pour and a good value.

The first drink I had was the Ave Maria: It has rosemary-infused tequila. Served "frozen" over a mixer of crushed ice, it was refreshing and balanced with the rosemary on the front end but a pleasantly sweet (though not overpowering) aftertaste. I really thought the drink was too classy and pretty-looking to have been served in the mixing glass. I literally couldn't SEE my drink, and only know that it was a gorgeous colour because I poured some out to look.

I ordered a Burro de Moscow, which was vodka and lime with house-made ginger beer and some bitters I've never tried before. I was disappointed when my drink came it was decidedly short on ginger beer, but halfway through my drink it was discovered that the drink I was given was NOT in fact the Burro de Moscow! Apparently there was a mix-up on the drinks, and I do hope that whoever was supposed to get the original one ended up with whatever they ordered. We're still not sure what I got, but I'm guessing a Casa Maragarita and whatever it was, it was tequila and lime without being too sweet--so I'm guessing they're not heavy-handed with the simple syrup. The Burro de Moscow that eventually showed up was very gingery on the front end, delightfully lime-sweet in the middle, and the carbonation left almost nothing on the aftertaste to muddle up the food flavors. A GREAT palate cleanser between courses, our even just between bites to cut the richness.

The Spanish coffee was a bit... raw tasting. Not caramelized enough, and no toasted cinnamon and nutmeg that are the core of the drink. The sugared rim was washed away by the whipped cream melting down the side of the glass. The cinnamon whipped cream, however, was fantastic! Mixed in, it really helped to make the coffee a little more palatable.

In Conclusion: I'll be back! A second review is in order to see how the pacing works out when they work the kinks out of the system, but the food and beverages are worth a second trip by themselves. I think there needs to be a bigger range of spiciness to the dishes, or else they need to supply a house-made hot sauce for adding some flavor and kick. Frankly I'm hoping for the second option, because given how awesome the rest of the food was, whatever they come up with for a hot sauce would have to be amazing.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Food Storage: We Are Ready for the Zombie Apocalypse!

I admit with only a little shame that I am a food hoarder. I have, over the last year, increased my food storage supplies such that if I were to be unable to acquire new foods suddenly and had to live off what I currently own, we would be OK for a while. Fresh foods are currently limited, and we would have to start getting creative rather quickly, but the dry goods would last for weeks.

I'm not ashamed of it because we do actually USE all of the foods I have stored, in a First In/First Out method whenever possible, and with the exception that we have more of it than is reasonably easy to store it's not been an issue. Well OK, I also have stored the very foods I am trying to cut down from our menu plans, which means that the length of time these foods would be getting stored increases. And yet in the grand scheme of things, these are not "bad" foods--brown rice, dried beans, whole grains, and some canned goods that (ignoring the health implications of the cans themselves) are low in sodium and lack any added sugars.

The reason I am ashamed of it is because when we were food-banking regularly, I felt compelled to get more of these items of which we already had plenty. At one point we had over 22 pounds of dried pinto beans, and I would literally shake with the anxiety and effort to leave them behind. I've spent so much of my adult life (and realizing more and more of my childhood as well) being financially insecure, that I have a deeply-seated fear of starvation. I know the tipping point was the night at my one and only "my own apartment" that I ate ramen with spaghetti sauce for the third meal in a row because I was unemployed and had no food stores and no cash. Emergency food distributors in the area required proof of income or lack thereof, required you to be on food stamps, required you to not own a car, or whatever it was that disqualified me despite being broke and unemployed and on the verge of homelessness. I had only been fired after foolishly mismanaging my money, and didn't qualify for help.

And so it is with some understanding yet great pity and trepidation that I look at the food stores of my future in-laws. They have foods that are so processed my brain fails to recognize it as food, and I have a sort of mental hiccup when trying to figure out what to do with it. While I can tell you that I have 18 pounds of pinto beans and 3 pounds of black beans and what is probably the equivalent of 15 pounds of brown rice in a few different varieties, they had no idea that they have over 30 (and possibly over 50) boxes of cereal in their garage, and put cereal on the shopping list. While organizing their pantry, we threw away 9 bottles of BBQ sauce that had been opened, said "refrigerate after opening," and had been labeled with use-by dates of 2010 and earlier. Their obsession with food hoarding and "getting a good deal" does not extend into a mentality that allows the food not to spoil.

It is my and Mister Moon's responsibility to sort through these food stores. I think given the in-laws' penchant for giving to charity, and the obsession with "getting a good deal," it will be easier for them to accept that changing their diet means getting rid of these foods and giving them to the local food bank, than it would to throw away the unopened yet expired food. Even if I KNOW the food bank will throw it away.

The hard part of this is that I would prefer to keep an updated list of the food stores in the house. Every time we finish something, mark it off. Every time we buy something, write it in. For one thing, to replace all this food would be easily $5000--which should be something claimed on the list of assets with the home owner's insurance, the same as a $5000 piece of jewelry would be, and the same as the value of our clothes is. Additionally it would allow us to check the food stores while making a grocery list, without having to wander around the house digging through things to see if we're out of something.

I was going to say this isn't a system I'm even sure I know how to implement, but it occurs to me that I used to have a running inventory system when working as a kitchen manager. I took a full inventory monthly then (and twice weekly of perishable goods), and it wouldn't take much to do it at home and keep a printed copy of the last inventory where we can write notes. Even if we only took a dry-goods inventory every three months, it would be better than nothing. I have plenty of restaurant food inventory guides at my disposal to use.

So here's a discussion question for you, readers. How much food do you have stored in your house? If the apocalypse happened tomorrow or you had an injury and couldn't acquire more food for a while, how long could you survive, even if you had to get creative with food combinations? Do you have some sort of inventory system to avoid buying duplicates of existing items?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy;

for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another." - Anatole France

First there was packing, then moving, and the last 10 days have been a trial as half the time I spent in New York and the other half I spent wishing I had moved some things and not others. The packing process got so crazy that I didn't quite think everything through, because every time someone came over to help I wanted to give them something to do. It resulted in a few things--like the cleaning towels!--getting moved and promptly LOST.

I am struggling with the fact that I didn't pack so many of my own belongings. Things got moved that weren't ours and had to be brought back. I have no idea what is in what boxes for half of what I own, so I can't even find a lot of things. It's making me very anxious. My first goal has been to just accept it as a state of being. I'm anxious. Recognize it, acknowledge it, accept it. I'm frustrated. Same process.

Then I get to start looking at whether I can fix it and how. The HOW is easy: Put our hands or at least eyes on the contents of every box at home and in storage, and either unpack the contents or repack for long-term storage. I can't fix it right now, because there are more important things. But rather than "can't," I tell myself that I am CHOOSING other priorities over the anxiety-borne desire to know where everything is and have it in place RIGHT NOW. It's a difficult sell because I am not choosing the tumultuous and chaotic lifestyle that we're living right now, but I console myself with the fact that it's temporary. I must say I've handled the constant changing of plans very well, partially due to recent practice and partially because I went into the situation knowing plans would have to be fluid. It's a plan, not a stone tablet.

And temporary it certainly is. Mr. Moon got not just one job but TWO this week on our unscheduled trip for interviews, and the two jobs sound as if they are willing to share him. He's planning on doing the two-job thing as long as possible, whether the schedules start to conflict, he becomes overworked, or his father's health becomes a deterrent. He starts Monday, we move the last of our belongings and our cat on Sunday after we recover from expected hangovers. A going away party on our favorite drinking holiday of the year? What can possibly go wrong??

Friday, March 2, 2012

Moving meal plans, and being gentle with myself

The packing process is really testing my commitment to eating whole foods, and not eating out. I decided -- ahead of time! knowing this would happen! Yay forethought! -- to do the best I can, and not to beat myself up over my food choices between this past week and this next one. Also any time we are away from wherever our kitchen is set up. Once moved completely and not bouncing back and forth between Portland and Seattle, I will make an effort to do better.

In the meantime, I think I've been doing very well. We have a meal plan set up and all the dry ingredients necessary for the next few days' meals. The kitchen being trashed on Wednesday so that I couldn't even make myself lunch, I went to Chipotle--besides being a not-so-guilty pleasure, at least most of what they have there is natural and organic. The ingredients are identifiable, at the very least.

But we got back on the home-eating bandwagon as soon as that evening and have been doing very well since. I'm proud of us. As much as I feel like we're eating out OMG ALL THE TIME right now, the fact that it's still less than 1/3 our meals is a testament to the good habits we have formed over the last year or so.

I still struggle with a low appetite and maybe that's going to be something with which I struggle my entire life. At the very least, I'm developing good coping mechanisms. I eat better when I don't eat alone, so if I focus on feeding other people, I can eat with them and be OK. The meals where my partner is at work/away I try to keep it super simple, and super easy. Anything dippable is pretty much my focal point: Hummus and artichoke tapenade with pita and carrots, nacho toppings in a bowl (what we call "lazy nachos", using tortilla chips), mushroom & liver paté with crackers and veggies.

Sandwiches seem to be a weak point for me--they seem like they should be easy, but more often than not are just overwhelming. Possibly because it's shoving my entire meal into my face with every bite, and my lack-of-appetite wiggs out. I need to eat HOW much?? Dips&Dippers I can stop eating as often as I need to take a break, and when I'm done I can just put it all away. Or portion out tiny portions and go back for seconds as needed. What I call "pickle plate" has been a fan favorite for a while, when we have good cheeses and when I still had my sister-in-law's awesome spicy pickles around. Pickles, olives, cheese, pickled/smoked fish stuff, smoked sausage maybe... Whatever you have in your house that you'd throw on a veggies/cheese/pickle plate for a party, just make a smallish one. Delicious.

Do you struggle with a lack of appetite when you eat alone? Just forget to eat? Have blood sugar problems or small children that often need quick and easy or small, frequent meals? What strategies have you developed for managing?
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