Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Let’s Talk Turkey – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

With Thanksgiving practically upon us I thought it might be a good idea to talk about turkey. We’ve all heard the stories, and maybe even been party to, some of the turkey disasters that can befall the hapless Thanksgiving cook.  I’m sharing mine (starting with the bad and ending with the good, because I really like to end things on a positive note), and I hope you’ll share yours too. 
The Bad:  The first time I ever cooked a turkey was for a friend’s graduation party.  I was 18 years old and the oven at home was out.  My mom dispatched me and the turkey (which was her idea to serve) to another friend’s house where most of the party prep was going on.
I had no idea how to cook a turkey, but I wasn’t going to let that slow me down.  I decided that turkeys were basically just large chickens (at that point I didn’t have much experience cooking chicken either) so I would treat it that way.  My mom always bought the boneless, skinless chicken breasts, so I decided that the first order of business was to skin the turkey. Yeah.
Have you ever attempted to remove the skin from a 20 pound turkey?  You can cancel your gym membership if you’re going to make that a habit.  I enlisted my friend’s brother (who didn’t know how to turn on the oven) to help me, and we basically engaged in a tug of war match until the turkey was skinned. 
After we skinned the turkey I proceeded to wash it, using dish detergent, because I’d heard you were supposed to wash meat before cooking it.
I’ll be honest.  I didn’t try any of that turkey when it was finally cooked.  I was pretty sick of dealing with it by then.  People said it was good.  I suspect they were being polite. 
After that turkey fiasco I swore off cooking turkeys for a while.  But then my job gave everyone a turkey as our Christmas bonus is 2005. That was the year that my sister, my best friend, and I were renting a house together. 
My best friend and I decided to brave cooking the turkey. This time we knew not to skin it.
My mom has always cooked a turkey by smearing it down with a mixture of mayonnaise and mustard (about 2/3 mayonnaise and 1/3) mustard, sprinkling it with salt and pepper, and covering it with aluminum foil and pouring a little water in the bottom of the pan.  It sounds disgusting, but it’s actually pretty good.  It’s not my favorite way to prepare turkey, but it’s good.
It also sounded relatively foolproof.  Except for the fact that we had just moved in a week before and didn’t have a fully stocked kitchen.  We didn’t have mayonnaise, and we didn’t have aluminum foil, but decided that neither were terribly important. 
We were wrong.  We ended up with an extremely dry turkey that tasted more like burnt mustard (gross!) than turkey. 
Once again, I swore off cooking turkeys for a while.  I decided to learn from the pros.  I asked everyone who ever served a delicious turkey how they did it, and took copious notes.  I filled up an entire notebook with notes on how to cook a turkey. 
The Ugly:  My parents went out of town, and my husband and I came to take care of my grandparents (maternal grandmother and paternal grandmother and grandfather).  I decided it would be nice to make a big turkey dinner.  They liked it when I cooked for them, and my parents could have leftovers when they came home.
I used a combination of techniques I’d picked up from various people and the turkey was delicious.  The only problem was in carving it.  I’d never carved a turkey and neither had my husband.  None of my grandparents were up for carving it.  So hubby and I basically executed the poor turkey.  It didn’t even resemble a turkey when were finished “carving” it. 
My grandparents all giggled about it for weeks, and insisted on pictures of the carnage.  At least it tasted good!
At Thanksgiving the same year we were facing the same problem.  Hubby, my sister, my best friend, and I were all standing over the turkey (holding various carving tools) each arguing as to why we should NOT be the one to carve.  We all agreed that something didn’t look quite right already and none of wanted to be the one to execute the turkey.
Finally, another friend, Cathey, (who is much older and wiser) arrived.  She started laughing hysterically as soon as she came in the kitchen.  She said the four of us looked like we weren’t quite sure the turkey was dead and were planning to kill it if it moved.  It was also upside down (still not sure how I managed that one), which was why it looked a little off to us. Cathey carved the turkey, which was delicious.
The Good:  I have two favorite ways of cooking whole turkeys now:
The Cosmopolitan Turkey:
Stuff the turkey with a mixture of cranberries, chopped granny smith apples, and chopped onion, mixed with a about a tablespoon of butter.  Salt and pepper the turkey and pour vodka over it.  You want a little vodka pool in the bottom of the pan. Cover and bake according to the package instructions for the weight.
The Drunk Buttery Turkey:
Coat the inside of the turkey with butter and stuff with chopped onions mixed with butter, parsley, salt, and pepper.  Generously butter the outside of the turkey and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and parsley.  Pour in white wine and cognac (about 2/3 white wine and 1/3 cognac). Once again, you want a little pool of liquid in the bottom of the pan.  Cover and bake according to package instructions for the weight.
Both of these recipes are great with turkey breasts, which you can easily fit in a large slow cooker.
We’ve also learned to designate someone else as the carver.  Last year we asked a friend who was coming to come early and carve the turkey. 
So what about you?  What are your turkey disaster stories?  Or tried and true techniques?  Do tell.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Number 2 – Donated Blood

There was a blood drive Monday at the Red Cross office, which is right across the street from my office.  I hadn’t donated blood in quite a while because my doctor told me to hold off until after my second MRI results.  Since the results were good, I was given the all clear to donate again.  I’m O Positive, which they say is the most commonly requested type, so I feel really bad if I don’t donate as often as I can.

So I decided to donate blood Monday as the second thing in my 31 Things project.  According to the Red Cross’s website, one blood donation can help save up to three lives.  Not bad for less than an hour and a couple of needle sticks. 
I went a little before noon and didn’t have to wait at all.  The people taking the blood were extremely nice.  They even put a blanket over my arm so I wouldn’t see anything because I do alright as long as I don’t see anything.  The building is small, so everyone donating blood is pretty close together, which is nice because you can concentrate on chatting with the people around you instead of the needle. 
They also had cards you could write to military personnel, if you chose to, while you were having your drink and snack after your blood donation.  I thought that was just brilliant on their part.  You’re sitting there anyway, why not make the time count? 
On a personal note, my blood pressure and hemoglobin were better than they’ve ever been, which was nice to know.  All in all, I called Monday a good day.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Number 1 – CPR Saturday

Yesterday was the first day of my 31 Things Project.  It was also CPR Saturday in our county.

The local fire departments and EMS teamed up to offer free adult hands-only CPR at almost all of the local fire departments.  All you had to do was show up, and they’d teach you how to do the chest compressions.

My husband has wanted me to learn this for a long time.  He was working yesterday, so I asked a co-worker to come with me.  She agreed, so we went and learned the compressions.  They were sending free kits (including a practice mannequin and DVD) home with anyone who would agree to teach five people.We decided to share a kit since we can come up with five people with just our other co-workers. 

It’s much more physically demanding than I realized, and I’m not very good at it, but at least I know something now.  And I can practice on the mannequin.  I still wouldn’t be the first choice for CPR, but as they told us yesterday, any CPR is better than no CPR. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Thirty-One Things This Holiday Season

Have you seen the movie Robin Hood with Russell Crowe?  If you haven’t, you should.  It’s a great movie.   If you’re a huge Russell Crowe fan (like me) it’s an amazing movie.  It also has a really great line (that I unfortunately couldn’t find a youtube clip of) where Russell Crowe (as Robin) is talking about the need to pay something back.  He says something along the lines of, “We can’t repay our good fortune with bad grace.  It invites darkness.” 

I think there’s a large amount of truth to that.  Call it what you will – paying it forward, giving back, karma, sharing blessings – whatever you may choose to call it.  I think there’s a need to share and contribute to the good.  

That’s one of the things that I love about this time of year.  We’re getting really close to the time when people are more generous and try to be nicer than usual to others.  You just hear so many great stories about people being kind around the holidays.  Now, I know some people say that it’s terrible that it takes the holidays to bring out the good in people, and I think they’re right to a degree.  After all, the holiday season is short.  Hopefully we’re all being nice for more than about six weeks a year. 

It also seems like being kind just comes very naturally for some people.  My husband is one of them.  He automatically holds doors for people, helps them with packages, things like that.  It doesn’t for me.  I have to constantly remind myself not to just bulldoze my way through the day.  It takes conscious thought, which I realize is not an excuse.

Then you come across things like this blog that I found last year.  It started off as an ordinary guy, around my age, wanting to make the world a little better place for his baby.  So he set out to do 366 random acts of kindness in 2012.  The acts were varied and included things like shoveling snow, donating blood, and donating to and raising awareness for various causes.  Whenever you’re feeling bad about humanity, read through the archives.  You’ll feel a little better. 

When I got the news about my hepatic adenomas shrinking I really felt like I’d dodged a bullet or been given something of a second chance.  That news lifted a huge burden, but it was a burden that I wasn’t carrying alone. My husband, my sister, my best friend, one of my transport friends, my boss, my co-workers, one wonderful nurse in the radiology department, and a few other people have been incredibly supportive and kind. 

All of that being said, I feel like I need to do something.   So I came up with the idea for 31 acts of kindness, or good deeds, (I don’t think what you call it is that important) this holiday season.  I’m 31 years old, and December has 31 days, so it works in my mind.  I’m also a deadline oriented person, so saying that I will accomplish them between today, November 16, 2013 (which, coincidentally, is my parents’ wedding anniversary) and December 31, 2013, means that I will actually do them instead of just having another good idea that comes to nothing.  It’s just how I function.  Telling all of you also gives me some accountability. 

I have a few things in mind, and actually did my first one today (posting about that tomorrow), but don’t have all 31 planned.  So if you have any ideas, or want to share what you do, I’d really love to hear about it.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Difference One Centimeter Can Make

I went for my follow up MRI to check the status of the hepatic adenomas on October 25th.  I tried really, really hard not to dwell on what the results might be.  Worrying and obsessing (even though I excel at both) doesn’t change anything.  We also had a lot of other things going on; Halloween, a trip to Indiana to see my in-laws, and visits with friends.
Yesterday I had the appointment with my doctor to get the MRI results.  At first, the MRI report said that there were no significant changes, and there was talk of scheduling a consultation with a surgeon (which I absolutely do not want) but then the nurse read me some of the measurements, and they were smaller.
We asked the doctor about that, and he said that a different radiologist had written this report, so there was some confusion as to which mass was which and how they’d been measured.  He called and spoke with a radiologist and compared the MRI from six months ago to the one from two weeks ago, and it turns out that the three problem (biggest) masses have all shrunk!
In April, the largest mass measured 5.6 centimeters at the largest point, now the largest mass measures 4.6 centimeters at the largest point.  I never would have thought that one centimeter would be the difference between jubilation and despair.  The biggest difference that one centimeter makes is that now they’re all below five centimeters, which is typically the cutoff at which surgery becomes more and more of a necessary evil.
I’m not home free yet, but things definitely seem to be improving.  I have to go for another MRI in six months to make sure things continue as they are.  The risk of the masses rupturing and bleeding is still there, but is lessened as they become smaller and smaller.  I still have to avoid hormones, soy, blood thinners, and any trauma to my right side.
We had a very long talk with the doctor, and came to the consensus that being conservative and taking a wait and see approach is still the best option.  Clearly, what I’ve been doing is working to some extent.  The surgery carries a lot of risks, and because this problem is so rare there are a lot of unknowns about what happens five, ten, fifteen years after the surgery. Having found myself of the generation of women who are finding out what happens after the prolonged use of birth control pills, I’d rather not be part of the test group for finding out what happens after this surgery. 
I need to continue to lose weight.  I’ve sort of fallen off the weight loss wagon lately, but my doctor says that losing weight will help no matter what happens.  I’m definitely keeping up my acupuncture appointments.  After all, the acupuncturist was the first person to make the connection, and I really think the acupuncture has contributed to the shrinkage.  So for the next six months, I will continue with acupuncture, make better (soy free) food choices, try to exercise more, and hope for another centimeter of shrinkage because one centimeter can make a world of difference.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

You Might Be A Crazy Cat Lady If...

Hi, my name is Danielle, and I’m a crazy cat lady.  There. I’ve said it.  I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with being a crazy cat lady.  Someone has to be, right?

And I really, really love cats.  I’ve had them my whole life.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I might have ended up on a doorstep someplace if my parents’ cat hadn’t approved when they brought me home.  Fortunately, he decided I was tolerable.
For most of my life, we’ve had more than one cat.  They’re kind of like potato chips; you really can’t have just one.  So it seems normal to me to have a multi-cat household.  I’ve grown accustomed to the raised eyebrows and dropped jaws when people find out we have four cats.  (I’d like to take this opportunity, however, to point out the cats will never ask for their own bedroom, to drive the car, or to go to college, they don’t need braces or glasses, you never have to take them to soccer/ballet/piano lessons, and when they hit puberty, you get to spay or neuter them.  Just saying.)
I will admit that if it weren’t for my husband being the voice of reason, the cuteness of cats, and the sometimes terrible, terrible stories that accompany them would probably lead to me having a lot more than four cats.  We’re well-matched in that way, I guess.
I recently found out that my husband apparently harbors a secret fear that my crazy cat lady status may one day drown out his voice of reason when we had this conversation:
Nick: "Do we have a new kitten?"
Me: "No. Why? Do you want a new kitten?"
Nick: "NO! Are you sure? I must have dreamed it, but I was sure I saw a new kitten running around our house, and when I tried to catch it you said, 'Oh, don't worry. That's Pistachio, our new kitten.' We really don't have a new kitten?"
Me: "Of course not. I at least tell you before I bring home a new fur kid. Do you think that dream means you want a kitten?"
Nick: "NO!" while giving me suspicious looks and glancing around as though as he half expects to see a new kitten.
We really don’t have a new kitten.  Honestly, I haven’t even been pestering him with stories of one particular kitten in need of a home.  I’m not sure where that all came from, except that I must be an even crazier cat lady than I realized.  You must be a crazy cat lady if your husband dreams of you bringing home a cat, right?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Easy (Lazy) Slow Cooker Chili

This isn’t a made from scratch recipe, but it is delicious.  I’m all in favor of made from scratch recipes, but sometimes the reality is that they’re just not possible. 
Does it seem to you that your obligations, appointments, social engagements, etc. are never spread evenly throughout the month, but instead are all in the same week or three to four day period?  This certainly seems to happen around our house!  Last week was our super busy, this is when everything is happening week.  Some of what we had going on was fun stuff (pumpkin carving!) so I’m definitely not complaining, but it still made for a busy week.
Busy weeks call for fast, easy dinners and this one definitely fits the bill.  My friend Crystal and I carved pumpkins Wednesday night, so I wanted a dinner that wouldn’t require me standing over the stove.  It was also very cold Wednesday, so chili just seemed perfect.  Here’s the recipe:
½ pound ground beef
1 onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 banana pepper, chopped (optional)
1 packet taco seasoning
2/3 cup water
chili powder and cumin to taste
2 jars (24 oz. each) pasta or marinara sauce
2 cans (15.5 oz. each) pinto beans, drained
2 cans (15.5 oz. each) kidney beans, drained
1 can (14.5 oz) tomatoes with jalapenos, drained (any type of canned tomatoes will do, this is just what I had on hand)
1 can (15.5 oz.) garbanzo beans, drained
1 cup water
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin
A few sprinkles of black pepper
¼ - ½ tsp red pepper flakes
Brown ground beef with pepper(s), onion, and chili and powder and cumin to taste.  Add taco seasoning and water.  Simmer for about five minutes.
(Make ahead tip:  do this part the night before, and you can just put everything in the slow cooker in the morning.  Or make a double batch of this and freeze half of it until you’re ready for chili again.)
Place beef mixture and all remaining ingredients in a large slow cooker.  Cover and cook on Low for 4 – 6 hours.

Sometimes we serve this over rice or macaroni noodles, and usually top it with cheese, sour cream, onions, etc.  We opted to forgo the rice or noodles in favor of saving time, but we topped it with cheese, sour cream, chopped onion, and diced avocado.  It was delicious!  This chili re-heats well, so the leftovers are great for lunch the next day.