Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Leftover Project

Since my youth, I’ve been a rabid collector of recipes. Even after the big purge we conducted before retiring and moving back to the U.S. from Germany, I still have a tall stack of cooking magazines, three shelves of cookbooks, and two full-to-bursting binders, one labeled “Recipes I’ve Tried,” the other, “Recipes I Want to Try.” These contain new and old magazine clippings, my own notes, many recipes downloaded from the internet, and a few precious treasures – recipes written out by hand, from friends who’ve generously shared their specialties. Recipes are like stories, I think, meant to be shared and passed on.

My literature professors told me, way back when, that it’s not only the writer who creates a story; no, the reader also contributes to the experience and meaning of the story. So it is with recipes; the original, published recipe is a starting point, but the cook who tries it adds her own spice, his own tricks, and creates an interpretation which may be just as sublime, if not more so, than the original. And what a great use of the internet, when people share recipes, adapt them, and pass them on. As a nation, we need more competent home cooks educating the next generation about real food. Our industrialized “food” factories spend millions pushing their lab-concocted, chemical-laced, toxic “food-like substances.” (Thank you, Michael Pollan. Have you read his books? You should.)

But I digress. The purpose of this blog is to explore the challenges and adventures of (early) retirement. Well, one of the challenges is definitely money. It just ain’t rolling in the way it used to, and I need to be more careful, more mindful of what and how I spend. An avid home cook, I enjoy trying out new recipes and new ingredients. But I tend to get a bit greedy and unrealistic, making more dishes that we can consume, and throwing away good food. In fact, the Sunday clean-out of the fridge was part of my regular routine during my working years. I’d wince as I dug my way to the back of each shelf and found containers of once-delicious food, now past its prime and perhaps fuzzy with mold. What a waste! And considering how many of our own citizens, not to mention people in other lands, don’t have enough to eat, how can I justify cooking huge quantities of food just to amuse myself, and then throwing it away?

So, as part of my campaign to become a more conscious spender, to avoid clutter and superfluous stuff, I’m also committed to reducing my food waste – really, to eliminate it altogether. But – until I master the art of cooking exactly two portions of every dish – what do I do with the leftovers? When I was working five days a week, I could simply pack up leftovers for lunch – problem solved. Now that we’re retired, I have the gift of time. In fact, I never feel more retired that when preparing a hot lunch to eat at home. What a luxury!

So, henceforth I shall endeavor (Doesn’t that sound grand?) to repurpose leftovers whenever possible, making creative dishes out of what’s already in my fridge and on my shelves, rather than face again the chagrin of the Sunday fridge purge. And I’ll share my best results here with you, and ask you to do the same. If you’ve shared a recipe on your own blog or another forum, please link! Thanks much.

Here’s my first recipe: Spaghetti Frittata!Recipe #1 in the Leftover Project

I first tasted one of these prepared by Patrick C., a creative and knowledgeable cook who lived in Aviano, Italy, and had learned some local tricks. When I make pasta, I often end up with too much – I’m greedy that way. So today I had leftover spaghetti with homemade basil pesto – having purchased a beautiful, big bundle of basil at the Proctor Farmers’ Market. Also lurking in the fridge were four big mushrooms starting to go slimy, half a green bell pepper, half an orange one, part of a sweet onion (a benefit of living in Washington – Walla Walla sweets!). I diced those up roughly, along with a tomato, which I first seeded and squeezed a bit. Into the pan (a cast-iron skillet) the veggies went, along with a bit of olive oil. I sautéed that on medium high heat until the veggies had released their liquid and dried out a bit – about five minutes. You want your frittata filling to be fairly dry – too much veggie juice would result in watery eggs, blech! I seasoned that with salt & pepper. Next, I layered on top of the veggies enough leftover spaghetti with pesto to cover the veg by about an inch. Then I whipped up eight eggs and a glug of milk – about ½ cup. A bit of salt & pepper went into that as well. Follow your own taste on whether to add salt and how much, but I find unsalted eggs to be not so delicious.

Finally, I sprinkled a generous handful of grated Parmesan cheese over the top – a good ½ cup. Now I let it cook a bit, less than five minutes, on medium heat until the eggs were beginning to set up on the bottom. I lifted the mess with my spatula from time to time to let the wet eggs run underneath – like you’re supposed to do for a French omelet, to hasten the cooking of the eggs. (And because it makes me feel important)

Finally, I popped it into the oven at 375 degrees F. for about 20 minutes. What you’re looking for here is the point where the top of the frittata is set and puffy, so give it a pat. You’ll feel it jiggle if it’s still liquid in the middle. Also, if you slice into it and liquid seeps out, back into the oven it goes! You don’t want to overcook the thing, just cook those eggs through.

Et voilà! Or however you say that in Italian. Frittata is a great way to use up leftover pasta and veg, or just veg, or veg and protein, such as ham, shrimp, salmon, chicken… And a frittata tastes good cold or at room temperature and makes a great take-along lunch. So – another leftover saved and transformed into a new and tasty dish!

small frittata slice

Looping Back

It’s funny how one thing leads to another. Recently, my laptop died – something had gone wrong with a start-up program and, lacking a CD drive, the machine had to be sent back to the manufacturer for re-installation of the faulty program. Alas, this meant that many files and programs were wiped away, cast into oblivion. The “customer service” person I spoke to in some faraway foreign land read to me from her script:

“Before sending in the computer, Ma’am, we recommend that you back up all files.”

“Well,” I replied, “I can’t start the bloody computer, so how could I possibly back up my files?”

“Oh, well – nevertheless, we recommend that you do that. It’s what we recommend.”

Sigh.

Anyway, one of the lost programs was Microsoft Word; since my computer runs Windows 8, I have no choice but to pay about a hundred bucks every year just to write and to save what I’ve written, assuming that I continue to use Word. One hundred smackers! Well, it turns out that there are other options. After much grumbling about corporate greed, I downloaded OpenOffice. Allow me to sing their praises for a moment – huzzah for OpenOffice! A free word-processing program that can open Word files that would otherwise be denied to me by the Microsoft gatekeepers – what a lovely gift!

Anyway, realizing that I’d been foolish and lazy about securing backup copies of my writing, I set about recovering many bits of a novel in progress, some of which I’d written out longhand in various journals throughout the last five years.

I’m a great believer in the therapeutic value of keeping a journal. The kind of grumbling, grousing, musing, imagining and navel-gazing that goes on in my journal would bore the most loving and patient listener. But I’ve had so many “Ah-ha!”moments while reflecting in writing, especially during difficult times. People pay a therapist good money for the kind of insight that we can get from writing out our thoughts, dreams and troubles, with no audience in mind but ourselves. Patterns emerge, vital questions arise, and we can try out answer after answer until one finally rings true.

And I truly believe that there’s a power in declaring one’s intentions, in detail and in writing – “putting it out there in the universe” so that our heart’s desires can begin to manifest in our lives. Yes, it sounds a bit woo-woo, but in my experience, writing about my goals is a big step toward achieving them. For example, during the last, unhappy years of my previous marriage, I wrote in detail about the kind of life I wanted and the partner I wanted to share it with. Et voilà! I now have the freedom I longed for, the time I need, and the most wonderful partner to share this new life with. Is there some cause and effect at work here? Well, knowing what I want and where I’m headed certainly helps.

But I digress. In order to piece together the missing bits of this novel in progress, I looked back into my old journals, going back to the last few years of the aforementioned unhappy marriage. I skimmed through three volumes of determined declarations, tearful regrets, and then reread the joyful beginning of my current relationship with my now-husband. Wow! Even more than photos ever could, the words scrawled in hurried, careless cursive on those pages took me right back to my sunny backyard in Germany, to hotel rooms and waiting rooms and train compartments where I planned a better future. Reading those pages, I relived those painful endings and joyful beginnings. A lot of what I wrote was repetitious, and a lot was bluster, a way of propping myself up with firm declarations at a time when my life was resting on a wobbly foundation. It did me good to revisit that not-so-long-ago version of myself. I wish I’d been a better journal-keeper back in my 20s and 30s, but my 40s and 50s (so far) are well documented.

An important part of this journey of reinvention, of crafting a new life after retirement, is remembering who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do – long ago, and recently. There are threads running throughout the narrative of my life, and reading through those old journals reveals the strongest, brightest threads (dance, the joy of movement, the importance of creative self-expression, the love of reading), as well as the tangled threads that have tripped me up again and again (impatience, being judgmental, procrastination).

How about you? Do you keep a journal? Has recording your life’s journey helped you? Do you ever revisit those pages you wrote long ago?

Back to school?

back to school

Today, one of my favorite fashion bloggers, Une Femme d’un Certain Âge, wrote about the back-to-school period as a time for returning to routine and order. http://unefemme.net/2014/09/la-rentree.html Or perhaps I should call her a blogueuse, since she so often writes about French flair. Anyway, la rentrée (“back to school” en français) is indeed a time when we pull ourselves together after summer’s messy, relaxed respite; we make plans, set goals, and start the new year. Because, let’s face it – when your life moves to the rhythm of the school year, New Year’s Day falls when those school doors open after summer break. Until now, my life has moved to this rhythm, whether as a student, the mother of one, or a teacher. I’d trip gaily down the school halls wishing colleagues and students a “Happy New Year,” which was probably pretty annoying. There was something comforting and optimistic about this time: fall sports, homecoming, golden autumn afternoons, and lots of interesting people to talk to, both students and colleagues. The work load was not yet too onerous, and we were mostly glad to be together. And that atmosphere of cheerfully working toward a common goal, of starting over fresh, is one that I’ll miss.

But now I’m retired, and this is my first non-rentrée. Today the children of Tacoma started their school year, bless their hearts. Yesterday, D and I helped our sister-in-law haul boxes to her new classroom. She’s an accomplished theatre teacher at a local elementary school, which was still undergoing major renovations the day before school opened. Workers of all sorts were climbing ladders, installing floors, ceiling tiles, lights, plumbing, and spreading fresh topsoil out front. It’s going to be a lovely new addition to the school building when they’re done, but Oy vey! Can you imagine all those children running through that muddy topsoil on the first day of school?

Now, I’ve never taught elementary school, but I felt relaxed and at home toting boxes through the halls of this unfamiliar building. Odd, isn’t it? Elementary schools are such cheerful, welcoming places, especially in the fall. Colorful artwork on display, little tables and chairs arranged for group work, shiny playground equipment… I would have felt at ease pitching in and getting right to work – until thirty-plus little people gathered around my desk, clamoring for my attention. OK – never mind.

The flip side of “back to school” was that panicky, sinking feeling I’d get during the last few weeks of summer break. Wait! I’m not ready yet! I haven’t had enough time to be myself! I don’t want to be Ms. S. again! Summer break was the only time when I could sink into my own rhythm, follow my own inclinations, without those school bells marching me along. In summer I could wear whatever I liked, rather than what was expected of a woman in my position. (And teachers have a pretty lax dress code. I’d never have made it in a profession that required suits.) I could eat when I was hungry, and sleep until I was good and ready to get up – heaven!

Well, this newfound lack of a set schedule is both a blessing and a challenge. I’m finding that, if I allow it to happen, my days become just as filled as they ever were with errands, appointments – just no more teenagers to deal with, unless they’re serving me coffee. (God bless the baristas.) So my new challenge in retirement is to enjoy and profit from this atmosphere of “back to business,” this fresh start, by establishing my own goals and rhythm.

You know what? I think I’ll go back to school, but this time as a student. Not literally, at least not yet; rather, I’m going to focus some of my newfound free time on learning things that I’ve long wanted to learn, but never found enough time for when I was working. I want to learn

  • how to speak Spanish
  • how to play the guitar
  • how to cook fish – without overcooking it
  • how to paint with watercolors
  • how to publish an e-book
  • how to scuba dive
  • how to plant a veggie garden in raised beds
  • how to become a fitness instructor

What a great school year I’ll have – all my classes are electives! May all you teachers and students have an enjoyable and productive school year. Go learn something new!