Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Brown Bagging It and a Meditation on Ramen Noodles- Our Newest Food Group.

I work the night shift, and I bring my food in with me. Around me, the people I work with, order from Jimmy John's, from Suraj, and
- if we are close to payday- from P.F. Chang's. I do not see how they can afford it, since most make less than I do, but every night the delivery men come down the hall and leave a trail of forgotten nachos and fried rice in their wake.

I never order out, and I rarely go to The Cafetorium of the Big Hospital across Church Street anymore. One cannot escape from there for under six dollars. Six dollars will almost buy 2 gallons of gas!

It is not easy to succeed at brown-bagging. Many make the mistake of bringing food they are not enthused about eating at home. Virtue Foods. Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches, cottage cheese with pineapple. A carton of yogurt. Food that will not appeal at midnight when they are starving. Then one hears the Eternal Lament "I brought my dinner-But". And here comes the delivery man. Again. The yogurt is forgotten in the Unit refrigerator. Or it is left in the car until it rots.

One solution is to bring in pasta with a delicious sauce and cheese. Pasta so good that those who ordered out wish it was their meal.

"I want to eat at your house", they say when they see and smell the orzo with a sauce of sauteed zucchini,onion, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. (Pictured above) Pasta will not break the bank, though fresh zucchini and good cheese might. And have not strapped for cash families always depended on macaroni and cheese?

Not anymore. I read of Senate Hearings held in the past two weeks on the plight of middle-class and working families trying to get by. A teacher- her salary cut and her benefits pillaged- testified she fed her family ramen noodles. They were all she could afford. I mentioned this to one of the nursing technicians I work with. She is one of the working poor.

"My kids like pickle juice on ramen noodles", she told me.

I wonder what place pickle juice has among the food groups. Probably a vegetable, according to the Republicans, corporatists, and oligarchs who now run this country and to whom teachers and public sector workers are no better than serfs.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Scrambled Eggs with Cheese and Salsa

Meals cooked between one twelve hour night shift and the next need to be simple, and done in under ten or fifteen minutes. I have two hours till I drive downtown, and this is what I cooked. Two eggs scrambled, with salsa and crumbled cheese whisked into the eggs, and more salsa as a condiment. I used the Fuz brand Queso (Mexican cheese) that I bought at K and S World Market over on Charlotte and my own home made salsa, but you could use grated Monterrey Jack and store bought salsa. But the queso is so much better. I think you should seek it out at the Supermercado or ethnic stores. In Nashville you will not have to look far, since one in every ten Nashvillians is Hispanic. And another thing about the queso- it is cheap. Two 12 oz rounds for five dollars.

Simply whisk two eggs, a small handful of grated or crumbled cheese, some Adobo seasoning, and two or three tablespoons of salsa and scramble till creamy. Top with more salsa. An avocado would go well with this, and some pomegranate juice mixed with the juice of two key limes. If I had had some home fried flour tortillas, I would have put the eggs on them, but alas I ate the fried tortillas when I came home this morning.

A final note on the queso. It has a nutty taste, like a combination of feta and Monterey Jack. It crumbles, and resists melting.

One final note: Avocados are half the price at K and S that they are at Publix. So are the Honey Mangoes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ratatouille- For the Cook with No Time

These photos show Ratatouille, a stew of tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini, used as a condiment on pasta, as an omelet filling, and cooked into scrambled eggs. Good service for a dish meant as a vegetable side.

I did not use a recipe to make Ratatouille. The concept seemed obvious once I knew what vegetables went into it. And it did not suffer from my lack of directions.

After the fact, I went to Julia Child and to Richard Olney, to see what they recommended.

Happy are those fortunate enough to make their avocation their vocation. They have time. They can saute each vegetable separately. They can layer them perfectly in a casserole and be confident enough to serve it to a Frenchman, knowing he will not despise it. I have little time. I work, and my avocations get what I can chisel out of tiredness and a few hours. I envy people with time, and if I live to 65 I may finally have some. Until then I will make Ratatouille my own way, for I consider it good.

My Ratatouille does not go in the oven. It is stewed in a heavy pot on top of the stove for two hours until the vegetables melt together. And every day the left over sits in the refrigerator makes it taste better. Then I add it to everything. I put it on angel hair pasta, grate some Parmesan over it and carry it in to work. I look forward to it all evening.

The only vegetable I cook apart is the yellow onion, for one of my laws of cooking is to never add a raw onion to anything except salsa and salads. Saute the onion in olive oil. Sweat it with some sea salt and tend it till it is soft and golden.

I do not salt my zucchini or my eggplant either. I do not jail them in a colander waiting for their wateriness to seep away. Extra juice in the stew can be reduced later on the stove top.

1 eggplant

3 small zucchini

1 large yellow onion

3 or 4 cloves of garlic

1 big bell pepper, any color

1 28 oz can diced tomatoes- I use Muir Glen Fire roasted

1 1/2 tbs red wine vinegar

Sea salt to taste

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Herbs de Provence

Olive oil- enough to saute the onions and a tablespoon or so added to the stew.

I have already told you what to do with the peeled, diced onion. When it is sauteed add it to the pot. Add the tomatoes, the seeded pepper(diced )then the diced eggplant and zucchini. Add the olive oil, the herbs, and some sea salt. Salt to taste and keep tasting, for this dish is improved by salt. Add the vinegar and the diced or crushed garlic cloves. Bring to a boil for a few minutes over medium high heat ,then reduce to low medium and cover the pot. Let it stew for at least 90 minutes, though 2 hours would be better. Then if there is too much liquid, take off the pot lid and let it reduce itself for a few minutes over medium heat. Or you could drain it off, reduce it in another pan and add it back to the stew. Do not throw it down the sink. If you have a beagle, he would like it. And do not forget to taste as you go along. For more salt, perhaps for more herbs.

This recipe will serve a small table full of people, or one person for at least four days. Grilled lamb chops or roast chicken would be good with it, for it is a country dish from Provence and the South of France.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Bonnaroo Effect

Pity the poor Head Nurse, or Nurse Manager or Associate Manager or whatever we call them these days. He or she has no easy job. What a temptation it must be to hide in the office, dodging e-mails and phone calls and pretending not to be inside when the pounding starts on the door.

Perhaps six of your nurses are pregnant. They will be on family leave over Christmas. You cannot fill their slots. Perhaps thirteen of your nurses are divorcing. That means bad moods, bad attitudes, court dates, husbands taking off with the kids, personal days, sick time- No wonder managers dream of opening a bed and breakfast or buying a winery.

And those new graduates you hired last year? The ones who did not get accepted by nurse anesthetist school? They are quitting. To go "prn". "I want to work when I want to work", they tell their nurse manager defiantly. They are young. They can buy their own insurance , they say. Why work for a lousy $25 an hour when they can make $35 prn. And next year when summer rolls around they will be able to do what they want with their friends.

I call this "The Bonnaroo Effect".

It happens in the first year of practice when new nurses learn that they are now expected to put the patient and the hospital's needs above their own. On holidays. On weekends. They will not be going to the Country Music Awards. They are not going to Bonnaroo. They are not even going to get to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This they find out eight months in advance when the Nurse Manager posts the holiday rotation. And this will not be just for the next year. It will be for as long as they stay a hospital nurse full time.

So- many quit, line up three PRN jobs and flit from shift to shift, hospital to hospital. Disengaged mercenaries. Guns for hire dressed in scrubs. "I don't give a damn", they say " I am just prn".

And so it goes.

I understand this. I have had the same feelings myself. But I, after 40 years, have earned the right to work when I want. Have these young people? Why did they choose nursing, a calling that demands human sacrifice? Did they not know what they were getting into? Did they think the sick go into suspended animation at night and over Thanksgiving?

I guess there are some things they do not teach in nursing school anymore.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Wrong End of the Turnip

I went to the Nashville Farmers' Market Sunday morning after work. The market was not officially open till 8 am, but there were stalls already manned and ready to sell. Local tomatoes had yet to come in, but there were enough squashes of every size, shape, and color to reach to the moon and back three times. One grower tried to sell me a yellow and green acorn shaped squash that looked like a gourd. I told him so.

"It's good grilled, " he said. But when I asked him what it tasted like to make it stand out from the others, he shrugged. "It tastes like zucchini".

At one stand I saw 2 African-American men buying a sack of turnip greens. A three foot sack. I hope they enjoyed them, though I must add that the charms of turnip greens are lost on me. I prefer turnips. The roots. Purple and yellow and mashed with butter. But in Nashville,they are the wrong end of the turnip.

One can find mashed turnip recipes, or receipts as the old timers used to call them, in the ring binder Junior League cookbooks of the South. Mashed turnips, sharp cheese, bread crumbs, and butter. With emphasis on the butter. I guess we would call them gratins, but the less pretentious just call them casseroles.

When I bought 5 small turnips at the Farmers' Market yesterday, I planned to cook them as Richard Olney did by his recipe in "Simple French Food". But then the Muse of Cookery came to me, and I improvised my own casserole, using Gruyere cheese as Olney did. I told a friend who is always looking for vegetable recipes about my success.

"Put it in your blog", she said, and so I will.

Turnip Casserole

4-5 small turnips

3-4 tbs heavy cream

1/4 stick butter, or more if you prefer

1/4 cup Panko or other dried bread crumbs

1/3 lb Gruyere cheese, grated

1/4 teaspoon Herbs de Provence

Sea salt to taste

2 eggs

Peel the turnips. Then either dice them or shred them through the julienne disc of a food processor. Put them in a saucepan with enough lightly salted water to cover, and cook them over medium heat till they are just soft. Drain them well, for turnips are watery enough without adding more liquid. Put them in a bowl. Sprinkle with the Herbes de Provence. Add the grated cheese, then taste to see if salt is needed. Now melt the butter and add it along with the heavy cream. Stir in the eggs, then pour the mixture into a medium casserole dish. Sprinkle the top with the bread crumbs. Bake at 350 F for 30-35 minutes.

This would be a good side dish to accompany chicken, turkey, anything. I will have it tonight, re-warmed with my "Oxtail stewed with White Grapes", a recipe collected by Elizabeth David in "French Provincial Cooking".

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Dawn clouds and Jet trails- Sunday June 13

A warm, humid morning here in Nashville. These photos were taken from the Harpeth River Greenway. I think jet trails can be as beautiful as clouds. And as evocative. They speak of journeys and leavings and returns. And then they fade to common day, until the evening when they return bringing us home or taking us to places we have never been. Thoreau would have hated jets, but I believe he would have stood in wonder, baffled by mystery of their passing.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Orchids for the Masses.

I do not know how it is in other parts of the country, but here in Nashville ,Moth Orchids, or Phalaenopsis have become supermarket throwaway plants like poinsettias. They are meant to look graceful and decorative for a few weeks, then as they shrivel or go out of bloom, they end up in the waste basket- for cultivating them might be too much trouble.

I have bought several of these orchids, kept them through the winter, then sent them out to the humid breezes of my southern porch. Drenched and drained, and allowed to keep their roots airy, they thrive and re-bloom. Every month I fertilize them. They vacation from April till frost in mid-October. Yet, had I followed the advice of the grower-seller, I would have thrown them out too. For these orchids do not like their roots confined in a plastic pot inside a clay pot without a drainage hole . Nor do they like having three ice cubes tossed into their pot each week onto their tender tropical roots.That is what the cultural directions that came with them said to do. Pay the 9.99 for the orchid, smash the clay pot if you can't wiggle the plastic pot out. Then leave them in their clear pot or put the in a fancier pot with great drainage. Water them generously every one or two days. Get water on their leaves and let them summer on your shady porch.

I love Phalaenopsis because of their sunset colors. They have faces, like pansies, and I think of them as tropical pansies at a fiesta, dancing to mambo or salsa as they sway in the wind.

But growers will not leave well enough alone. Kroger had a new shipment over the weekend, and they were bright blue. They were spray-painted just like the blue poinsettias I saw at Christmas, with their leaves dusted with glitter. Pure kitsch. Imagine going out to your garden and spray painting your Iceberg roses blue. Nature has never allowed a blue rose. Some might question your taste. Would you spray paint a daffodil?

Someone will buy these but I think they will not last long. Flowers want to breath. How can they breathe if they are coated with paint?

Hour of the Nurse- Musings

Between six and seven in the evening they drive en masse into this city. Nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists- a great army of hospital people. Many commute in from Bellevue, south of the city, and as they do ,I drive Route 100 or Route 70. If one is going to wreck one's car, or someone else's, this is the place to do it, for you will soon be surrounded by these Good Samaritans. I have driven up on two wrecks out here in my years of commuting, both heavily attended by nurses who live across the road or paramedics starting a shift. I drove up on one last summer near the Catholic Church. A teen girl driving down 9 mile hill was t-boned by a senior of great antiquity. This grand dame totaled the girl's car and her arm. It is not a leap to say she should not have been driving. The young man who first checked the woman and found her unharmed told me he found something else- a note taped to the steering that read "Remember to turn on the lights". Perhaps a reminder to look both ways or stop when a sign says to would have worked better.

The hour of the nurse in the morning is seven to eight, but those of us driving home are more leisurely in the morning.When I walk into the Belle Meade Publix every other person I see is wearing scrubs. Some of these will be people from my old job, and we will have a brief reunion. Others I meet only there. Many commute an hour from the provinces. And that is now a trek so costly, I wonder how much longer they can afford 2 dollar avocados and golden mangoes. I have friends who chide me for shopping upscale. They want me to join them at Walmart, even though nurses still make a decent wage. Yet recently I met a young nurse who had to leave her Rust-Belt city where there were no jobs. And another young person who sent out 50 resumes and never had one bite until he took a job in corrections. There are boom and bust cycles in nursing, but this is the first time I have seen so many new nurses stymied. Few hospitals want to hire new graduates. We old ones should be able to step aside, but who can now afford it? Old truisms can die. "You are a nurse. You can always get a job', I used to hear. We need to remember that all experienced nurses were new once. We Boomers will not last forever.

And one last thought off topic- the passing of the 13 year cicadas, most now corpses, dessicated in the heat. Even my beagle ignores their remains, since they are no longer juicy. I miss them. I miss their ghostly hum heard at great distance across the hills. Oh well. Now we must turn our thought to freon, and hope we have enough of it. And we pray for the courage to open our Nashville Electric Service bills. The day we will open them, our collective screams will be louder than any noise the cicadas could make.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Manna from Heaven- A Beagle's Tasty Adventure

The beagle who lives with me has a gargantuan appetite that I thwart daily. When I go to work, I must barricade the under sink cabinet, or come home to find coffee grounds and avocado pits and butter wrappers and shrimp shells dragged around my apartment. How much blame the Shih Tzu shares for this I do not know.

I came home last week to find 5 pounds of sunflower seeds on the living room floor. I did not know sunflower seeds were a laxative. I do now, and I keep them in a beagle proof box.

Every now and then the dogs are welcome to an aerial snack such as a fat house fly. But in the past three weeks the Great God Pan has heard the prayers of hungry dogs in Middle Tennessee. He rains down crispy snacks out of the humid air onto sidewalks and grass. At least for a few more weeks. To my beagle, the 13 year cicadas are caviar. They are living ,buzzing, truffle-ish morsels free for the taking. Never has my beagle been more enthusiastic about his bathroom breaks. He even loses focus on what I want him to do, seduced by the dying buzz of the goggle-eyed red-eyed swarm.

All this plenty! Just for him! He does not know that the feast will end. Being a dog ,he will not live to see another hatch in 13 years. I may not live to see it either. So I let him enjoy the moment. These halcyon days when food falls from heaven. It is a Jubilee-

Thursday, June 2, 2011

When Flower pots are the only earth you own-

For many years I kept a large garden. It started as a front yard cottage garden enclosed by a picket fence. But each year it grew bigger until I no longer took pleasure in it. A joy in spring, it was a burden in August, consuming too much water and energy.

The garden writer Joe Eck wrote that gardens should offer peace and repose. My garden did not.

I had set out benches and chairs, but as soon as I sat, I jumped up ,for something always needed to be trimmed or propped. And though the garden was enclosed, it was never private.

When my roses bloomed, and before the Bradford pear darkened everything, my garden was a seasonal spectacle. The Perennial Plant Society toured it. A local gardening show on PBS did a segment on it.

Now the only earth I garden in is the potting soil in my planters.

And yet my small and shady porch is a joy, and my everyday retreat. I sit and I do not have to get up, for little needs doing. And this garden is mine alone. No one sees me there. Planters of begonias and hanging orchids block the view in. But I have a fine view out- I watch the barn swallows in the evening, and as I write this I see a red-tailed hawk high up and circling, circling.

For my garden harks back to our earliest gardens, walled and secret, and kept to replenish the spirit and the senses.

Never would I discourage the new or young gardener from planting roses or a perennial border or whatever dream garden they want. But if they asked my advice, I would tell them to keep their garden small. Remember that what we plant in a delightful frenzy in April will have to be cared for in the brutal, humid, rainless
Southern summer. Let your garden be a labor of love.

And never, ever plant a Bradford Pear.