Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Oh, I Don't Know What to Title This One. Happy August First, I Guess.

Overheard at My Sister’s Baby Shower:

On a handmade stuffed “Fuggly” doll: “Does that thing come with rolling papers?”

On something his mother did to make him blossom: “Stuff Miracle Gro suppositories up my butt.”

On politics, in mixed political company: “I ran for city council, and I LOST TWICE! Because everyone in my town is a FRIGGIN’ REPUBLICAN!”

On our scintillating assortment of games: “No, I don’t really want to play.”

On the Fuggly doll again, while sitting next to my Grandma: “I used to smoke a LOT of that stuff!”

Grandma, on the range of baby gifts: “Socks, again?”

Later in the evening, at our second event of the day (I know! It’s like the life I always wanted was finally delivered), I saw that another partygoer had brought a black bean and corn salad. Immediately, I grew clammy and agitated. This was not part of the plan. And when we deviate from the plan, things happen in my cranium that are just not pretty. Brain cells start smashing into each other like mini car wrecks, and dials and meters are just spinning wildly like in every movie about a nuclear plant about to melt down. You see, we had all arranged, via email, what each guest would contribute. Marty had the bacon covered in cheese, Ed had the cheese and pea pasta salad, and some people I don’t know brought the dilled cheese curds. (Are you sensing a theme here?) And I, Jess Riley, was slated to bring the black bean and corn salad to tickle palates and alleviate any cheese-related binding.

People, this is my signature dish. Katherine Hepburn had padded shoulder pads. Audrey Hepburn had pearls. I have black bean and corn salad and very regular BMs.

Immediately, I tried the competitor. And I’ll admit no shortage of smugness in my voice when I told my new BFF Michelle (Hi Michelle!) that the non-Jess Riley salad was mealy and bland, whereas mine was crisp, juicy, and swimming in enough garlic to leap from real life to film and kill Gary Oldman in every copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula ever made.

I fielded numerous requests for the recipe, which I fake-modestly agreed to share. So I present to you, dear readers, for the first time ever: Jess Riley’s Secret Signature Summer Salad & Salsa. Delicious with Tostitos Scoops. Dangerous competing with my version.

Serves: Oh, I don’t know, depends how piggish everyone is.

The Players
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1 ½ cup frozen sweet corn kernels
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 orange bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
½ medium red onion, diced
3 green onions, chopped (thought you might be tired of “dicing” by now)
2 ripe but firm avocados, diced (again with the dicing)

The Brine
2/3 cup fresh lime juice
½ cup olive oil
4 large cloves garlic, minced (smaller than a dice!)
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
dash cumin

In salad bowl, combine beans, corn, tomatoes, avocado, bell pepper, and onions. Toss gently until the mixture resembles a Benetton ad from the eighties.

In a small jar with tight-fitting lid: Mix lime juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, and spices. Cover and shake until everyone’s getting along swimmingly.

Introduce the brine to the players. Refrigerate overnight, bring to the party, peel off the cover to release a garlic-scented cloud, sit back, drink a margarita, scratch a mosquito bite, and collect the compliments like trading cards. Pretend to be modest, and tell them Jess Riley sent you.

I have a lot to learn about food photography.

(Jason's comment: "It looks like someone ate a bunch of jellybeans and barfed.")

Meanwhile, back at the monarch ranch:

As of today, I have released 4 fluttery, delicate monarchs into the sunny skies. 3 were girls, and 1 was a boy. And guess what? Now I have empty nest syndrome! Well, it’s not empty nest so much as “Empty Giant Mesh Bag” syndrome. Here’s Darcy, all grown up. I almost hit her with my car a few hours after I released her. She really should fly a little higher. Fly to the light, Darcy! Find Carol Ann! Fly to the light!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Randomness! How it Burns!

Zowie, lots of things have been happening! This is going to be another hodge-podge post, because there are simply too many activities orbiting my head all at once.

We were in Minnesota earlier this week for Jason’s grandmother’s funeral. She was a lovely woman and I’m sad I didn’t get to know her better.

When we stopped to refuel on the way home, I was accosted by an adolescent waving a five dollar bill, loitering outside the service station: “Ascuse me, Ascuse me, ASCUSE ME, I lost my ID. Would you buy me a pack of Newports?”

Come on, kid. I look like a cross between Gidget and a librarian from the 1940s. I was in a 4-H club, Brownies, and the parish youth choir as a child. I wear sensible shoes, carry an insulated lunch cooler to work, and bring my own canvas bags to the grocery store. A pack of Newports for a minor…What do you think, Einstein?

I also left my wallet at a Boston’s restaurant in Minnesota—containing my driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards, and the all-important discount club card for my grocery store. Luckily our server found it and raced to the parking lot to give it to us before we left.

Alas, not every human does the right thing (shocking, no?). An eleven year-old boy in my city had set up a lemonade stand to raise money for a camping trip with his grandparents. Unfortunately, a bully came along and shoved the young entrepreneur off his chair, punched him in the face, and stole the boy’s lemonade money as well as his wallet, which contained his student ID and library card. You’ll be glad to know police have arrested the 17 year-old perpetrator and charged him with robbery and physical abuse of a child.

I’m not even going to comment on this one, because I’m dying to know what all of you think.

The coming weekend is packed with my sister’s baby shower and a going away party for good friends. I KNOW I’ll have some dishy blogging material next week.

Update on book-related items: Riding with Larry Resnick has officially entered the production pipeline! Next phase: copyediting.

Update on the Monarch Ranching: We have eight lovely chrysalides! My wine rack has been recommissioned as a chrysalis staging platform. Aren’t they purty? They’re like melon jellybeans with gold trim. And from these little alien beans will hatch adult monarch butterflies, probably by Monday.

The ones that look like wedding favors were moved from their original inconvenient locations. Indeed, you CAN move a chrysalis...who knew?

Welcome to the Jungle! This is my backyard.
Learn to live like a chick-adee, and you won't go far.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Think about this the next time you chew a hangnail

So July is almost over already. Can you believe it? And you know what that means…it’s time for the mid-summer caterpillar project report.

This is Steve. He enjoys eating, pooping, and white water rafting. Most summer days you’ll find Steve at the beach, or clinging to the underside of this leaf.

This is Darcy. She’s fond of masticating, defecating, and scrapbooking. Though she’s only a week old, Darcy is already looking forward to being a mom someday, laying over 500 eggs on milkweed across the county—perhaps two of which will actually survive to become monarchs. Ah, it’s rough, the life of a butterfly-in-training.

The highlights reel:

1) Even faced with a bounty of available leaves, three will cluster on one leaf, battling over it like toddlers. (They actually rear up and head butt each other. It’s quite amusing.)

2) Because they are eating machines that quickly outgrow their own skins, they molt five times before forming their chrysalis. After each molt, they lie very still for an hour, then turn around and EAT THEIR OLD SKIN. Apparently, this little crumple of old cuticle is delicious, because I actually saw one little guy sneak up behind another that had just molted to poach the newly-shed skin.

Is that gross or what?

They’ll be butterflies in roughly two weeks. And then I can stop shaking my fist at them, saying, “All this cleaning of poop and disgusting skin eating better be worth it!”

It’s been interesting, but never before has the lack of an eight year-old in my life with whom to share such a project been so apparent. And that’s as good a segue as anything, so here’s the news I’ve been sitting on since January: I’m going to be aunt for the very first time in approximately one month! My younger sister Maddie is expecting a little boy, and we are positively bubbling with excitement here at Casa de Caterpillar. I am already stockpiling gifts for the little guy, who—if he looks anything like his parents—is destined for years of running from girls on the playground. Here’s a picture of Maddie and me on vacation in Bayfield, Wisconsin:

Oh wait! That’s not us. Let me try this again.

Isn’t she adorable? I must really love her to post this picture, in which my upper arm threatens to hold us all hostage with its ginormitude. I believe this is the shot in which I am about to launch into a vigorous rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot.” And judging by the red in my eyes, I look possessed enough to sing it in Latin, backwards.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

OCD: My Funny Little Lifestyle Choice

When I was a child, I had a fever. No wait, that’s Pink Floyd. Let me start again.

When I was a child, I would watch my mother meticulously plan each week’s menu, and then develop her entire shopping list around the menu’s necessary ingredients. Her weekly meal-planning usually included sensible family-pleasers like tacos, spaghetti, chili, and fish sticks and fries, but occasionally Shit-on-a-Shingle would rear it’s ugly ham-studded head, or once in awhile Sweet and Sour Pork would crash the dance, the bane of my youthful existence.

This past spring, in an effort to improve my diet and become more organized, I adopted my mother’s weekly menu development strategy. Unfortunately, I was unable to sustain this military level of meal-planning precision, and suspended the practice after a few weeks. But lucky for you, I just found an old menu from this era on the desktop of my computer. It is from the week of March 19, 2007. Let’s begin, shall we?

Menu, week of March 19, 2007

Monday: Spanish rice & beans with black bean & mango salad (chips & sour cream)

Oh, ampersand, will you marry me?...I love you almost as much as I love ellipses & parentheses (& that’s no lie!) …Chips & sour cream is in parentheses because while they are not the star players of this dish, they nonetheless serve an important supporting role in this cast of disturbingly detailed characters. OCD? Frequently, and often!

Tuesday: Omelettes with cheese, chicken for J, diced red pepper, green & red onion, broccoli … Side: hash browns, salsa, hot sauce

Don’t you think it’s magnanimous of me to allow J to eat chicken instead of his usual isolated soy protein and MDF meat substitute? I’m rather impressed with myself. And striking a mighty blow for control freaks everywhere, I even had the foresight to identify which specific condiments to place on the table. Next time I’ll make sure to include salt and pepper, because deviations from the menu carry a stiff and brutal penalty that even Russian prison guards speak of only in hushed, fearful voices.

(Author comment: the omelettes turned out like rubbery, parched tortillas cooked by Satan himself on a grill that can vaporize water three continents away, but the hash browns, doused in ketchup and S & P, were edible.)

Wednesday: Italian rice-a-roni with garbanzos…side of broccoli & steamed carrots

Dear Readers, I’d like to introduce you to my impression of an Institutionalized Meal Fit for a Child with an Undeveloped Palate. We have our fiber-rich protein, our starch-from-a-box, and our vegetables--steamed for vitaminy goodness and chock-full of necessary bodybuilding nutrients. Add a glass of milk and what else do you need to enjoy this fully complete and balanced meal, other than a tongue with damaged taste buds?

Thursday: Pasta with pesto, artichoke hearts, peas, teeny red marinated red pepper strips, & pine nuts; side of leftover scones, garlic toast/bagel/bun, Cabbage

Ah, the scones rear their crusty little heads again! What I particularly enjoy about this day’s menu is my specification for “teeny red marinated red pepper strips” (red is listed twice, in case I missed it the first time). Also, there is an opportunity for improv! Granted, the choice offered (toast/bagel/bun) bounces among three carbohydrate-rich members of the Bread Group, but still! Rigid me of the parsimonious sphincter is offering a choice! I marked this event on the calendar.

Cabbage, with a capital C. So cheap. So stinky. So obviously leftover from my St. Patrick’s theme meal it’s a crying shame.

Friday or Saturday: Fettuccini alfredo, peas, garlic “toast”

Toast is in quotation marks because clearly, by “toast” I mean “clown car.” Also, it’s the end of the week. I am no longer even able to commit to a day on which we will sup our alfredo, peas, and garlic “toast.” I have even built room into my plan for what will surely be my disinclination to cook one more day after such a whirlwind of culinary feats. Do you smell the faintest whiff of fecal matter? You should, because this is anal to the tenth power.

Easy dinner/lunch: Pizza or veggie burgers with corn

Look, an EASY dinner/lunch! It’s dunch. It’s linner. Also, another real-live choice! Pizza OR veggie burgers. For two adults who regularly eat like toddlers being raised on a commune in upstate New York. Now, with corn!

There. Wasn’t that delicious?

Moving on, here are some summertime lessons recently learned:

For the men: When standing next to a low table buttering hot corn on the cob, perhaps it’s not the best idea to be wearing only loose-fitting boxers and a T-shirt.

For the ladies: If there is a dead earwig in the bottom of the toilet bowl and you are of a squeamish persuasion, flush before doing your business. Nothing gives you the Heebie-Jeebies like a cold drop of earwig water splashing up on your buns.

And finally, an update on the monarch wrangling: I now have a full baseball team of caterpillars munching away on milkweed in my bathtub. Nine of them. Nine caterpillars!!! Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom has commandeered the tub. Their little jeeps are leaving black tire tracks all over the porcelain, but thankfully, I have Advanage miracle cleaning fluid to remove them.

You wouldn’t believe how much those little caterpillar dudes can poop. Yesterday I was outside rescuing a few more from a predatory wasp eager to make them an easy meal. Last night, I wept for the mangy, paralyzed squirrel that crawled beneath our front porch to die. When will it end, this urge of mine to save all wildlife? I guess that’s what you might expect from a girl who pecked the back of her own neck with an index finger to fertilize the chicken eggs she was perching on. (Sorry. You'll have to scroll down one entry for this story. My technology skills...they are lacking.)

PS: photos of the bebeh butterflies to come. They like to hide beneath the leaves (making photography somewhat challenging); plus, they’re so small right now that every time you jostle the leaves some of them dive off, suspended by a microfilament of bebeh monarch string. But I shall try again as the cuties grow. You’ll just have to take my word for it that 4 of them are in the 95th percentile for height and weight among 72 hour-olds.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Another Fourth of July Blown to Shreds

I must confess, I’m a little hung-over today. Last night a friend took us out on his boat to watch the fireworks, where I battled valiantly against both a swarm of lakeflies and sobriety. I’m pleased to announce that I emerged the victor in both cases! Hurrah!

When I was a kid my family watched the fireworks at Lakeside Park in Fond du Lac. In a portion of the park called “Supple’s Marsh,” to be more precise. Who thought it would be a good idea to lure station wagons loaded with families to a mosquito-infested wetland to watch the fireworks? I suspect the OFF! corporation was behind that decision.

I remember how the traditional sparklers, the color of gold, sparkled in a much more satisfying manner than the colored jobbies, which half-heartedly fizzled for all of three seconds before winking out in a disappointing fuzz of smoke. Buying those sparklers (and if we were lucky, smoke bombs and bottle rockets and those weird expanding snake pellets) was the highlight of the summer.

And halfway into the fireworks, Dad would always make us pack up the car so we could leave early to "Beat the rush." I would peer miserably through the back window of the mini-van, watching the Grand Finale grow smaller and smaller on the horizon, giving pitiful play-by-play updates as long as I could: "That one was like a weeping willow. Oh, wow, you can almost see them over those trees ... they're still going ... " (ten minutes later) ... "Still going. I think this is the Grand Finale ... no wait, they're still going ..."

The other day at Target I saw a boy, maybe around ten, begging his mother to purchase a prepackaged assortment of fireworks. “It’s only $9.99!” he said earnestly, studying the assembly of shrink-wrapped bliss, calculating its thrill per dollar value. At the time I wanted to say, cynically, “Hey kid, how about I just light up a ten dollar bill for you? Would that work?” I was tired of kids lighting smoke bombs in the neighborhood, staining our driveway green and sending our dog into frenzied fits of anxiety. I was tired of the Fourth of July even before it began. In fact, I was tired of it last year, when we stayed home and went to bed as the fireworks were just beginning. Later, we’d heard there had been a stabbing among the crowd assembled to watch the show and I thought, (somewhat smugly), “See what happens when you go to the fireworks? I’m glad we stayed home.”

Now, if the stabbing had been fatal, I would have thought, “Oh, that’s horrible! See what happens when you go to the fireworks? I’m glad we stayed home.” I’m not a heartless monster, after all.

But when I look back at how the Fourth of July used to electrify my inner pyromaniac, I understand. It’s a ritual of childhood. It’s a family-bonding activity, if well-supervised by an adult or guardian. And if you’re lucky, you might end up with a cautionary tale to tell your son Timmy when he begs for the $9.99 fireworks at Target: the one about the reckless kid in the neighborhood who blew his right thumb off lighting an M-80.

And now for something completely different!

Guess who laid a bunch of eggs in my garden? No, not Hilary Duff. A monarch butterfly! In the milkweed patch! And now guess who’s going to try raising them in a caterpillar cage in the house so the birds don’t eat them? No, not David Spade. Me! I am! This will be a fun little experiment, won’t it? I’m already tracking the progress on my calendar, with “Hatch” scribbled on July 7 and “Pupate” scribbled on July 22nd.

(I know, I know. I’ve put my application in, but the wait to Get a Life is like, six months or more.)

This would be a fun activity to do with a kid. Kinda makes me want to rent a preschooler for a few weeks.