Monthly Archives: February 2012

Thrift. Again.

February's grocery receipts

I’m almost afraid, superstitiously, to bring this subject up. Last fall, I was just starting to try to keep track of Where The Money Goes and blog about it, when my mother was suddenly hospitalized.

Ah well. You can’t stay keyed up to cope with a crisis forever. It’s too exhausting. So, here on the extra day of February, a week into Lent, I’m going to make another try at figuring out if there’s any padding to trim from our food budget.

That’s harder to judge than you might think. I totaled up what I spent on groceries in February, leaving out nonfood stuff and things I bought to donate to the food bank, and it comes to about $390. Is that good or bad? Well, I consulted the USDA monthly estimates on what it “should” cost families of different sizes and resources to provide a month worth of meals, and I’m still not sure.

On the one hand, there are two people living here, me and my husband. So that means I should use the “Family of 2” estimates, right? Well, not so fast. Paul rarely eats lunch at home; on his teaching days, he has lunch in the faculty cafeteria, and this semester he squeezes in Wednesday dinner there, too, before teaching his evening class. So I should decrease our estimate to take that into account.

Well, yes – but what about the times our son comes over for dinner? On a typical week, we have three people, two of them grown men, dining here several nights. Gotta increase our estimate. So we should spend less than the USDA two-person estimate on food, and also we should spend more.

My plan – and I hope it doesn’t get interrupted again – is use March as the test sample. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be keeping records of who eats which meals here, and probably of what we eat. By the end of the month, I ought to learn that (a) we’re wildly extravagant or (b) we’re thriftier than the thriftiest mommy-blogger on the Internet or (c) we’re nuthin’ unusual.

186 cookbooks, and nearly all of them are good

It’s rare for a cookbook to bring me to tears. Tonight, one did.

I decided to try Lamb Do Piaza from “One-Dish Meals of Asia” by Jennifer Brennan. Brennan explains helpfully that “do piaza” translates to English as “two onions”, or perhaps “twice as much onions” (as meat).

In any case, onions are one of the major ingredients. You need to cut some thin slices to fry until they’re nice and brown for a garnish at the end; but mostly you need to chop, and chop, and chop. And yes, you will cry about it. The onion fumes will get you.

Starting to brown the onion slices

Once you get done chopping, though, it’s surprisingly simple. Cook the chopped onions for a while until they’re thoroughly soft – I kept them on low heat with a lid on the pan, and they still nearly scorched. (But almost-and-not-quite scorched is tasty.) Then brown the meat, cook a couple of cloves of garlic and a few peppercorns and whole cloves* briefly, add a little salt and water, and let it stew for most of an hour. Check from time to time and add more water; it will try to burn.

* (Use whole spices here – they keep their flavor during the long, slow cooking in a way that ground pepper and cloves can’t.)

Yogurt, browned onions, tomatoes

When the meat’s tender, add a little tomato sauce and cook another fifteen minutes or so. Then garnish it with some yogurt – I used whole milk Greek yogurt – and the browned onion rings (remember them? You made them back at the beginning of this recipe) and some chopped raw tomato. (I used grape tomatoes. It is February, after all, and they come closer to tasting really tomatoey than anything else I can get right now.)

The garnishes make for an unusually pretty stew, and they also lift the taste from Pretty Good Ordinary Stew to Delicious!! Meal. So I wound up with tears of pleasure, mixed with tears of frustration.

Because I don’t think I can get rid of this cookbook either. And I’m not sure if that’s really great or maddening.

Point of view

What you see depends on where you’re standing. But you knew that, right?

I’m fascinated – like many other people – by the Heian period, a thousand years ago in Japan, partly because it’s so strange, so remote from life as I live it.

Now, it was a terrible time and place to be poor. (When has it ever been fun to be poor?) But if you were a member of the nobility, especially if you spent your time at the capital in the Imperial court, your life revolved around elegance, fashion, style. Women took great care with their clothing – layers and layers of multicolored robes chosen for seasonally suitable themes. Their greatest pride was their long, long hair, as long as they were tall. Men and women alike put hours of thought into perfumes and poetry to help them succeed in their love lives. One of the world’s great novels, the Tale of Genji, came from the Heian court; so did one of the liveliest books of trivia ever written, the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Elegance and beauty were everywhere.

And it was a world of grimy, sickly people. Both in the Tale of Genji and in historical fact, people died shockingly young. (Sei Shonagon thought she was old at thirty.) One reason for perfume was that various taboos kept people from bathing very often; Sei Shonagon tells us how amusing it is to see people’s clothing move as the fleas underneath jump around. (Not that anybody, anywhere a thousand years ago was able to come near the levels of health and cleanliness that we take for granted.) If we could be suddenly transported into that world, we would probably be horrified.

It must have been a little like a lifetime in high school, too. Nothing mattered more, it seems, than who you were in love with, what clique you belonged to, and how fashionable your clothes were. (Probably that’s because the average age was so pitifully young.)

And yet, it remains endlessly fascinating, this shadowy world of women swathed in layer on layer of carefully matched silks, peeping out from behind screens to glimpse their strutting menfolk perform elegant dances, brooding over the perfect wording of a poem to send as a reply to their latest admirer or to show their wonder at the season’s beauties.

(Images are from the Tokugawa Art Museum’s Handscroll of the Tale of Genji, on Wikimedia Commons. The scroll was painted around 1030 A.D. – when the Genji was a new story, written only about thirty years earlier – and is in the public domain because of age.)

Weekly Photo Challenge: Indulge, take 2

You know, I would feel very indulged if I could spend time every day looking at sights like this…or this…or this.

Maybe, come spring, I should spend some time (well. A lot of time.) tweaking my little corner of the planet so that anyone who wanders past can feel similarly refreshed.

(Oh, yes, I am definitely going to the Philadelphia Flower Show – just the other side of the Delaware River – week after next…)

Weekly Photo Challenge: Indulge

There are a lot of ways to picture this week’s Photo Challenge.

I’m going with this bee happily indulging herself with wisteria nectar. (The photo was taken in my mother’s back yard in April, 2006.)

Scorched earth? (52 books / 52 weeks)

Review – Wormwood Forest,
a natural history of Chernobyl,
by Mary Mycio

A keeper? Oddly, I don’t think so

If you’re over 35, you probably remember. The first vague news stories about high radiation detected in Sweden; the realization that something had gone horribly wrong somewhere in the Soviet Union; eventually, the terrifying story of how a nuclear reactor not far from the Ukrainian city of Kiev had exploded, showering the surrounding area with killer radiation. Among other aftereffects, the disaster at Chernobyl helped to bring down the Soviet system, quickly followed by the fall of Communist governments all over eastern Europe.

That was over twenty-five years ago, back in 1986. What sort of wasteland surrounds the evacuated, still-radioactive section of Ukraine and Belarus by this time? Is it a moonscape of crumbling buildings and skeletal dead trees, where no living thing walks except the handful of people who keep tabs on the sealed reactor core?

Well, no. It’s radioactive, yes. Not a safe place to raise a family (though apparently some aging Belorussians have refused to abandon their homes, and still live there). Full of towns slowly falling into ruin. But far from dead.

Instead, human withdrawal has turned the area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant into an unintended wildlife refuge, green and teeming with animals of all sorts. Mary Mycio tells us how local experts showed her around the abandoned flourishing new forests (an unnerving experience punctuated by dosimeter checks; but without radiation detectors, only the strangely misshapen pine trees would show that something’s very wrong.)

Wormwood Forest has a surprising story to tell, one that’s well worth reading. I’m glad I read it; if I didn’t have a space problem, I would keep it; but I don’t think I’ll need to come back to it. Out it goes – but if you come across a copy, this little book is worth your time.

First day of spring. Now.

I took this picture five minutes ago.

Spring’s here.