Thanksgiving chicken

Lesson 2: Roasting a chicken requires you to truss.  And trust.

To kick off our first holiday season in our new home, J & I hosted a “Pre-Thanksgiving Day” dinner with some friends.  I wiped off the dust collecting on my Martha Stewart ‘Cooking School’ book (I could have sworn Martha had a disapproving glint in her fixed smile on the cover).

With the added pressure of cooking for about 10 people, I jumped forward to Chapter 3.1 on making a “Perfect Roast Chicken.”

Remove giblets and liver from cavity.  Gross. Rinse chicken thoroughly inside and out.  I felt like I was oddly rinsing a headless 4 lb baby.  It took major restraint not to squeal aloud in disgust.

Trader Joe's free range chicken... now trapped in the pan

Once the chicken was patted dry, I stuffed their ‘cavity’ (the large gaping hole) with rosemary sprigs, quartered lemons, and chunks of garlic.  Simple enough.  With some assistance from a friend (my impromptu sous chef), I slathered on melted butter and olive oil on the chicken.  Think poultry day spa rub.  Salt and pepper with abundance.  I even tried to be fancy and stuff some extra rosemary herbs under the skin.

Upon consulting with Martha, she then said it was time to ‘truss the chicken.’  What the hell did that mean?

Trussed Chickens

After many unsuccessful attempts to ‘truss’ (tie up) the chicken legs, I finally got the string to hold.  It didn’t help that my string wasn’t long enough.  I then rested the chicken rack atop a bed of a potato medley, chopped onions, and carrots.  Pop them in the 450 degree oven and about an hour later…

Thanksgiving Roasted Chicken

One of my finest culinary achievements thus far!  Thank you to Martha and the holiday season for inspiring me to return to the kitchen.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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breaking the perfectionist

Perfectionism is a cruel trait to have inherited.

It’s a debilitating disease that cleverly disguises itself as being meticulous, competent, and confident.  The desire to always be right and flawless comes from the root of fear.  The fear of failure.

The attempt to write this novel has proven to be an eye opening experience on how perfectionism has ruled my life, for better and for worse.  As a writer and English major, I’ve learned over the years that there a few crucial stages in the writing process: the brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, and the revising stage.  My writing process may be a bit different from others. I’m the sort of writer who tends to edit as she writes – even at this very moment.  In writing, the idea is for words to convey a message and to be succinct.  This is more so in poetry, with the drastically shortened length, than in any other written form.

That doesn’t sound so bad, at first glance.  Editing your writing is a good process.  What you end up with is a good solid piece of text, with all of the excessive words, articles, and sentences cleanly omitted and deleted.  Trimming the fat.

But what happens when internal editing is all you do?  When focusing on finding the “right words to say” prevent you from using other words or ideas?  Creativity is stifled.  When creativity is halted, for fear of failure or being wrong or not being good enough, what happens?  Nothing happens.  Nothing gets written.  Nothing never gets the chance to even become a something.

Over the past years, I’ve had many fleeting ideas of stories, poems, and articles.  Those ideas eventually collect dust or lie around incomplete because I either grew dissatisfied with the beginning, decided I didn’t have enough skill, or became discouraged with not “having the right words.”  I definitely had a problem, but it wasn’t the problem that I initially thought. My problem wasn’t that I couldn’t write well, or that I wasn’t competent (though I certainly entertained those reasons at that time).  My problem was that I was afraid to fail.  So much so that I gave up even before I gave myself a chance.  I naively believed that if I prevented failure, I was still in the safety zone.  I could still feel good about myself because I haven’t failed yet.

The real failure is not even trying.

With this novel writing challenge, mistakes are encouraged.  Expected, even!  And that’s okay, so long as you WRITE.  It was such a radical way of approaching writing for me, that I was hooked on the idea.  The emphasis is on the act of writing, not on the quality of writing.  And here’s the key behind the success of NaNoWriMo – If the pressure of writing a great literary piece of work was lifted, quantified instead of qualified, would it encourage people to write?  If mistakes are a key and expected part of the writing process, what wonderful things will this freedom allow you to write about?

Taken from Nanowrimo’s FAQ page:

Q: If I’m just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother?  Why not just write a real novel later, when I have more time?

A: 1) If you don’t do it now, you probably never will. Novel writing is mostly a “one day” event. As in “One day, I’d like to write a novel.” Here’s the truth: 99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. It’s just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put away all those self-defeating worries and START.

2) Aiming low is the best way to succeed. With entry-level novel writing, shooting for the moon is the surest way to get nowhere. With high expectations, everything you write will sound cheesy and awkward. Once you start evaluating your story in terms of word count, you take that pressure off yourself. […] There will be much execrable prose, yes. But amidst the crap, there will be beauty. A lot of it.

**

It’s week 2 in this writing challenge and I am at 3,603 words. I’m still behind, but that’s okay.  I’ve written far more words than I would have in this month otherwise.  Much of it is quite awful.  But that’s still okay.  Learning to break my perfectionist habits is going to be a much longer process than the span of this month. And even when I complete this writing challenge, mistakes and all, it will still take a lot of “unlearning” to translate the acceptance of failure from the novel into other aspects of my life.  But through this writing process, it’s definitely a start.  And starting, as I’ve come to realize, is a much better approach to life than stopping.

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week 2 of writing

2572 words.

47,428 more to go.

This is a lot harder than I thought.

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black cloud

I’m in a foul mood today.  No thanks to the stress from my & J’s family situation with the engagement ordeal.  A lengthy phone call with my mom earlier this afternoon (possibly mixed with a heavy dose of caffeine this morning) only fueled my grudge against the world.

Today’s entry is devoted entirely to things that piss me off.

– adults who act childish, knowingly or unknowingly.

– people who cough/sneeze without covering their mouths.  It’s flu season, cover it!

– men who disgustingly stare.  Anyone ever tell them it’s NOT attractive?

– when a person chooses a bathroom stall RIGHT next to mine, when there are countless of others to choose from.  Hello, personal space?

– indecisiveness and fickleness.  ESPECIALLY when it’s at the expense of my time and energy.  No, I will NOT humor you or be a “good sport.”

– solicitors at my door.  NO, I do NOT want the Mercury News.  *slam.

– people who ask “how are you?” but don’t really care to listen.  Don’t ask and I won’t waste my breath!  Thanks.

– being tricked into feeling guilty for something that’s not my fault.  Parents are really good at this.

– doing something for the sake of doing it, or “tradition” or “that’s just the way it is” without real knowledge or explanation of purpose.  That drives me CRAZY.

-caring/worrying over things that I don’t have control over nor should spend time on.. but I still do anyway.

 

Bah humbug.

 

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french press & novel writing

This Sunday morning was filled with determination.  I woke up and decided on two things – 1) to break in my new Chambord French Press coffee maker and 2) to write a novel.

The latest addition to my kitchen, thanks to the World Market.  The box states that it is “probably the best way to brew coffee.”

French Press

Coarse ground coffee from Trader Joe’s.  It was fun learning how to use the grinder machine at the store.  Another FF (fabulous frugal) tip: spend $5 on a can instead of $3 for a cup!

Trader Joe's Smooth & Mellow

Pour hot water in and let steep with the coffee grinds for 4 minutes.  Press, pour, and inhale deeply.

steep

Enjoy in a colorful mug.  A writer’s warm and tasty companion.

coffee and a book

2) The Novel

Coffee mug in hand, laptop switched on, and a good hour of stalling, I finally work up the nerve to sign up for a NanoWrimo account.  With November 1st as the starting point of National Novel Writing Month, participants from all over the world are challenged to write 50,000 words (175 pages) in 30 days.  30 days of high pressure, crappy, and spontaneous writing.  Why am I willingly putting myself through such a painful literary experience?

– I think of stories ideas that never quite make it to paper or print.

– Knowing how I tend to start things and leave it hanging.  I will be forced to start and finish.

– The focus is on quantity, not quality of writing.

– It’ll be another wonderful to-do crossed off my list

– It sounds so ridiculous and crazy, that… why shouldn’t I?

The count so far: 743 words.  30 days left to go.

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one step at a time

Finishing Medal

Finishing Medal

Months of training on the track, surprising myself by actually feeling the urge to run, and staying consistent with my pace finally led to completing last week’s San Jose Rock and Roll Half Marathon.

13.1 miles in 2 hours and 42 minutes!  This coming from a person who was NOT A RUNNER until 2009, who struggled through her first 5k just seven months ago, and who never thought she could push herself this far physically & mentally.  I was proud of myself – not just for the race, but for the months it took to get me prepared to even do it.

And here’s what I learned from my newfound “runner’s status” – it really is all in the mind.  Though it does take some level of physical endurance and fitness to run, I believe 90% of it came from sheer determination and discipline.  Unlike most of my other challenges, I wasn’t trying to deal with another person or circumstance.

With running, I was battling myself.  Do I stop at mile 10 because I’m truly tired or because my brain is telling me I’m tired?  Do my feet really hurt, or am I imagining it so I can stop?  And am I going to give into any excuse my mind can wrack up?  Deep down, do I want to stop because I can’t handle it or do I want to keep going because I HAVE to?  Those were the questions that I faced EVERY TIME I ran.  Even on the marathon day itself.

It’s scary, but enlightening, to realize how much influence your mind has over your body. I’m starting to believe that this sort of thinking – positive thinking according to The Secret – may be the next crucial area to train myself in.  Who knows what more I’d be able to accomplish if I can overcome my internal critic and skeptic?

“Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired in the morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”

– George S. Patton, U.S. Army General, 1912 Olympian

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schooled by Martha

Lesson 1: Choose your kitchen companion wisely.

This is a classic case of life imitating art.  Or to be more accurate, life that imitates art imitating life.

After watching Julie and Julia, the film based on the stories of writer/aspiring home chef Julie Powell and the famous Julia Child, I felt invigorated.  Eager to write, blog, cook, and eat all at the same time!  Just as Julie Powell was inspired to go through Julia Child’s entire cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the film inspired me to also be ambitious in the kitchen.  A week later, one purposeful trip to Border’s with a friend led me to purchase Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook.

Browsing through all of the glossy covers of grinning Food Network stars, unknowns, and cheesy titles (e.g. The Cooking Bible), I found there are two types of cookbooks: 1) Ones with only recipes, 2) Ones with recipes and cooking techniques.  There are far more “recipe” cookbooks than there are “comprehensive and technique” cookbooks.  Most already assume that you know the basics, something that I did not have. Others, like Julia Child’s and the popular  Joy of Cooking, seemed intimidating and looked like encyclopedias – not too appetizing.  However, like Goldilocks who found Baby Bear’s porridge to be just right, I discovered that Martha’s book had everything I was looking for: a credible author (alright, so the lady embezzled.  That doesn’t discount her culinary and creative talents!), diagrams and descriptions of basic things like herbs, cookware, and cuts of meat, how-to lessons (I never truly learned the proper way to chop onions, to “sweat” them, or even how to blanch vegetables!), delicious recipes, and all complemented by gorgeous step-by-step photos.

I thumbed through the Basics chapter, and then worked my way into the first culinary challenge:

Chapter 1.8.  How to make vegetable pureed soup

My vegetable of choice – the lovely butternut squash.  Slightly sweet, creamy, and a beautiful orange color.

Split the butternut, scoop out the seeds, salt and pepper, and roast in a 375 degree oven for 40 minutes.  These things are not only hard to cut, but I felt clumsy trying to de-skin it after I took it out of the oven.  It didn’t peel off as easily as I had hoped and I lost precious chunks at the hand of my knife.  *sigh

The “proper way” to chop an onion is NOT EASY.  This is my unimpressive attempt.  Note the irregular dice.

Letting the onions, garlic, and pear “sweat” in butter and medium heat.  I learned that the purpose of this is to extract the flavor, in addition to cooking it.  I later added the chunks of roasted butternut and chicken broth to simmer.

A few minutes in the blender and a beautiful orange colored puree emerged.  In less than an hour, J and I enjoyed our freshly made butternut soup as a healthy appetizer.  It tasted way better and heartier than the kind I buy at Trader Joe’s.  Why buy canned when you can make your own?  Excuse the “velociraptor” style arrangement of the pear slices.  I still have some presentation skills to learn. There is, in classic Martha Stewart style, a garnish chapter somewhere in her book.

My goal is to be able to get through at least 1-2 “lessons” a week, eventually gleaning and utilizing all of the techniques she covers.  And just like Julie Powell, I plan on capturing this personal project via my blog.  Please feel free to post any tips or words of encouragement as I fumble my way through the culinary world.  Cooking School is in session!

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