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As I finish off the leftovers of our dinner last night, I wonder if anybody is in need of a good, quick, stovetop mac & cheese recipe. I wouldn’t call this gourmet, since it doesn’t include chopped apples and wine or some such. But the addition of Dijon and use of a good quality block cheese pretty much raises this to the standard of side dish for a nice dinner, in my opinion. I am still a novice cook so I have hardly any truly original recipes. For this I combined a few different recipes and tested it with different cheeses to determine our favorite. The recipe comes with a 100% satisfaction guarantee: if you don’t like it, you win an all-expenses-paid trip to my house, where I will show you how to make the recipe properly, since you obviously didn’t do it right on your own. ;)

Edit: I’ve made this again and have downgraded the serving sizes. It really only serves 3 if the third person is a small child.
Stovetop Macaroni & Cheese
Serves 2 generously as an entree; 4-6 as a side
2/3 cup evaporated milk
1 tsp. Frank’s hot sauce
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. salt plus more to taste
1/2 lb. elbow macaroni
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
8 oz. extra sharp white cheddar, preferably Cabot, shredded

1. Bring 2 qts of water to boil in a Dutch oven. Add the salt and pasta, and cook til al dente. Drain and return to pot over low heat; add the butter and stir til melted.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together the evaporated milk, Frank’s, Dijon, pepper, and a pinch of salt to taste.
3. Add the milk mixture to the pasta; let come to a simmer. Slowly add in the cheese, one large handful at a time, stirring until it is all melted. Taste and season if necessary. Serve. (I don’t think the texture suffers when it’s served leftover the way some stovetop recipes turn hard and dry.)

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Except to Heaven, she is nought;
Except for angels, lone;
Except to some wide-wandering bee,
A flower superfluous blown;
Except for winds, provincial;
Except by butterflies,
Unnoticed as a single dew
That on the acre lies.
The smallest housewife in the grass,
Yet take her from the lawn,
And somebody has lost the face
That made existence home!

Emily Dickinson

When a mud dauber nest appeared in the corner of our porch over the weekend, my husband and I made plans to hit it with some Greased Lightning (in our experience, a serviceable small insect-killer). We assumed it to be a wasp or hornet nest; I had forgotten that wasp nests looked like honeycombs, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hornet’s nest. Before doing the deed today, I suddenly recalled something called a mud dauber, considered the mudlike appearance of our nest, and went a-Googling. Good thing; by my research I have saved many a mud dauber’s life and thrown into jeopardy, I hope, many a black widow’s life. Mud daubers are not aggressive or overly defensive of their nest, rarely sting except when handled, and their prey is spiders! Black widows were mentioned among their favorites on the extension websites I read. So we will keep our mud daubers for now.

Summer is my least favorite season and will remain so as long as I live in the South. I do appreciate watermelon, and farmers markets, and… maybe some other summery things I just can’t recall at the moment, but the fact is that our summers are hot, humid, and long, and we don’t have sprinklers to play in anymore. A consequence of my low threshold for being hot all the time is that my passion for cooking cools tremendously during the summer, when we keep our house quite a bit higher than standard room temperature to save on the electric bill, and turning on the oven never helps it feel more comfortable. To try and overcome the disinclination to do anything that exacerbates the heat (and thus makes me cranky), this summer I intend to explore the vast territory of salads and sandwiches. The potential for either goes far beyond a Caesar or a ham-and-cheese, and both require little to no oven use. The past two summers (the only in my history as a housewife) I wasn’t very innovative with meals; I was a bit too fixated on keeping grocery costs down by working from the pantry and not buying much produce. I was as a result turning on the oven to braise tough meats (cheap year-round), or serving tuna or pasta salad a little more often than anyone should have to eat them. This time around I’m going to use my brain and take advantage of the benefits of a well-stocked pantry (thanks Southern Savers), which means I have more money to spend on produce and fresh sandwich fixings.

One obstacle I’ll have to overcome is a chronic inability to have ingredients for salad on hand, starting with the lettuce. It only recently dawned on me that when you buy a head of romaine ($1.79) rather than those stupid 6 oz bags of pre-cut salad ($2 on sale, which is the only time I buy them), the difference in yield is at least 3:1. Way to finally do the math, dear. In my defense, I was unaware that there WERE heads of romaine at Publix; I’d only seen the super expensive hearts of romaine packages (3 thin and shabby looking hearts close to $4) and overlooked the blissfully dark green romaines and lovely red leaf lettuces, which didn’t even begin to turn reddish brown around the edges after one week in my fridge. I spend maybe 15 minutes washing and drying the whole leaves, then rolling them up in a kitchen towel and putting the whole bundle in an open plastic bag in the crisper. Then the rest of the week, I enjoy the convenience of a bagged salad, so that preparing a side or appetizer isn’t like another dish needing attention while I’ve got things to watch on the stove (I’m a bad multi-tasker and only have so much counterspace for prep work). That, obviously, can be applied year-round.

During the summer, we always have some sort of tomatoes on hand, and as long as I keep some interesting nuts and seeds around, with dressing that completes a very basic side salad. I also want to try some entree salads besides our staple, Cobb (though I want to know, can you really get any better than avocado AND bacon AND hard-boiled eggs AND blue cheese all on the same plate?), and I need to get up some kind of repertoire of flavorful dressings. I have a blue-cheese dressing with buttermilk that is to die for, but sometimes we want something lighter, and we haven’t been too impressed with my simple vinaigrette attempts so far. It’s probably because I don’t exactly splurge on my vinegars and oils. (Though I have officially placed Crisco Olive Oil on the Do Not Buy Even If Free list.)

If I am to make our bread for sandwiches, the oven will have to be on at least a couple times a week. I am determined to master ciabatta (promising steps were taken toward this goal last week) and the money saved by making our own bread is significant, so this is a non-negotiable. With rustic breads, baking several loaves at once to store in the freezer is not really an option because it fairly ruins the crust you work so hard to get. (If there is an option of which I’m not aware, DO enlighten me.) I’ll make the most of this by using the oven for other things while it’s on, e.g. roasted garlic and croutons for salad that night. Or dessert. I can always justify turning on the oven for a dessert.

Another category of oven-free meals I intend to make lots of is Thai curries. We love them with plain old chicken and occasionally shrimp, and even keeping them on the conservative side of the spice scale they pack in lots of flavor. Then each of us can customize spiciness with Sriracha. I made a large batch of green curry paste that turned out very well, and should provide plenty of curries before I have to make it again (it was a 2-hour ordeal because of the plethora of ingredients combined with the fact that my knife skills are nonexistent). Curries are fast and basically a one-skillet meal, plus mindless rice, and fewer dishes means less time cleaning up in a hot kitchen. And if I don’t like cooking in a hot kitchen in the summer, you can guess how much I like cleaning up after myself in a hot kitchen. So that’s my game plan. What are your favorite summer dishes?

My name is Laura, and I have a fear of appliances large and small. I am sure I will die by electrocution while vacuuming, or (pertinent to today’s topic) start a fire by mishandling the exhaust duct of a dryer. True, many people run their households less fearfully than I do and are still alive to continue scaring me with their relative recklessness, but my paranoia persists.

After a neighbor had a dryer fire last year (two doors down; we had just started to smell the smoke and wonder what was up when the fire trucks started coming in), I have been on the lookout for any signs of lint blockages in our own machine. I’ve been seeing less lint on the pull-out lint screen, and thought that possibly things were taking longer to dry, so I was forced to confront my fears of the dryer in general, solely to settle the much larger fear of an actual fire starting in our house.

First, I had to consult several “how-to” guides online. Unfortunately none of their exhaust ducts looked like our set-up, which turns out to be flexible foil prone to breakage and not recommended by one website. It is also way too long for the space and so it snakes around itself behind the machine, which I also read was not recommended. Okay then. The how-to’s all talked about unscrewing the duct from the machine, which seemed straightforward. Also I was to unplug the machine from its huge outlet. This scared me for some reason. It actually scared me to pull the plug out of the wall and see how huge the prongs were. Imagine what the amount of electricity running through that thing would do if it came into contact with a living person…!

At least now I could not possibly be electrocuted. I stared down at what looked a shiny, oversized colon and took a deep breath. Oh yes. Not only was my mission to clear out any lint stuck in the duct, but I had to vacuum the horrendous mess of dust that had accumulated under and around the washer and dryer. My airway already felt scratchy and irritated, so I ran for the OSHA-approved respirator mask I got back when the swine flu hype was everywhere. It helped.

lauravader
Yes, I was in fact nervous. About cleaning the dryer.

I went to remove the flexible duct and was surprised to find that it was not attached to the appliance by screws, or by anything. Just tenuously perched over the hole. I briefly wondered what I would do when I was done cleaning it. But in looking down the duct with a flashlight, I was happy to discover a sizable ball of lint, as well as what was causing the rattling noise in back of the dryer: sunflower seeds. Maybe a small handful of them. These would be about 4 years old minimum. Cleaning all that out was very satisfying, but trying to push the dryer back into place without the duct falling out of the hole it was never attached to…not satisfying.

With a load of clean laundry sitting in the washer and not getting any fresher, I hastily consulted the collective expertise of the Puritanboard (did you know Puritans were appliance experts?) and received a prompt answer from our own Lauren’s husband, who, on the Handy Around the House spectrum, is as far as possible from yours truly. I was enlightened and emboldened by Vic’s succinct explanation of what needed to be done; I went to Home Depot and procured a 4-4 1/2-inch dryer duct clamp. Within 15 minutes (and only that long because I have two left hands even with a screwdriver) the problem was solved and the dryer has been happily humming away all afternoon. I have to say I am quite relieved to have that chore out of the way. Next up, and far more intimidating: cleaning the refrigerator coils…

For a while I had been thinking of writing something about the connection between experience in homemaking and the difficulty or ease of hospitality, but before this weekend I felt wholly unqualified; we had only “had over” immediate family and maybe two friends on a handful of occasions, never for more than a couple of hours. When a good friend of my husband’s came on pretty short notice for a three-day visit last week, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed everything from the preparatory cleaning and planning to the visit itself. It was interesting; I was aware of being solely responsible (with my husband) for the comfort and well-being of his friend during his time here, and I thought I would have to restrain myself from excessive anxiety that he was uncomfortable due to some oversight on my part, because that’s one of the more charming aspects of my personality. Ha. It was likely due to the guest’s kindness and good nature that I was at ease instead, even when the chicken refused to finish roasting and I had to pull it out and poach the pieces separately…but that’s another story. Weirdly enough, sometimes I “forget” I am an adult, and married, and no one else is ultimately responsible for what goes on in our household. Having a house guest sort of made me feel like I was all grown up all of a sudden.

At the very least I now know experientially the relationship between showing hospitality “without grumbling” and having some level of general confidence and competence in keeping house. When you factor into normal routines the (probably inevitable) pressures when a guest is on his way, it is a huge advantage to know how to plan meals and to have some sort of mental checklist for preparing the guest room and rest of the house. I have only lately been aiming to keep our home close to “visitor-ready” all the time; not so much because we are apt to have unexpected visitors but because I realized that it’s just stupid to let some parts of the house get messy because no one sees them but me. Aiming for the standards I would have for a visitor helps—and I’m not sure what to think of the probable vanity underlying such a standard. I’m inclined to be pragmatic and say that if it helps me keep my house clean, welcome, vanity! Ahem. At any rate, the fact that I had begun implementing this in our guest/game/spare room about two weeks before my husband’s friend decided to visit helped quite a bit in my preparations. Sometimes I’m so used to seeing a pile of papers or books that need to be put away that my eyes simply begin to gloss over them. But it’s funny how your vision “improves” when you learn company is coming. The baseboards suddenly look dirtier, the relatively organized stack of coupons looks out of control, and you realize your dinner repertoire presents about three options for both guest-worthy and foolproof meals.

Simple thoughtfulness and application of the second great commandment—what would I like to have done for me and not done for me as a guest in someone’s home?—certainly go a long way. Without it a perfect host will be like a “clanging cymbal.” But unless I ever become wealthy enough to have maids and a chef to cook us fancy French dinners every night (which I’m not sure I would actually enjoy), I think it is right and worthwhile to expend effort improving in such mundane areas as cooking and cleaning. Are they really so mundane when they make me more ready and willing to serve my family and friends out of my home, and when they are a so large a part of true homemaking?

Last year my mom passed on some nice decorative curtain brackets with all the requisite hardware, and I bought some coffee-colored curtains in hopes that we could block out some of the intense sunlight and heat coming through our bedroom during the day. I never got around to putting them up, and upon experiencing our first 80 degree day yesterday, I remembered this project. Problem is, I’ve never put up curtains, save for a very easy tension-rod setup in the kitchen. So I’m reading a tutorial and I think I’ve got it, except there’s one very tempting shortcut I wonder if I could get away with. There are already rather large holes someone before us used for installing their curtain brackets. I was planning to take the screws I have to Home Depot, get some plastic wall anchors that fit, and put them in the existing holes. But there is only one hole on each side of the windows, not two aligned vertically, as my how-to articles say I need and like my brackets allow for.

If I already had an awl (whatever that is) or a drill, I’d go ahead and make new holes for the wall anchors. But I don’t, and I was sorta hoping not to have to buy one. Can I get away with either a) letting the brackets rest on only one screw or b) using something else to create a hole in the wall? I’m thinking probably not. If it came to it I guess I could borrow a neighbor’s drill. . .

Post-Home Depot Update:

Good news and bad news. Bad news is, as always, I made the guys at Home Depot laugh. I mentioned how the previous renter’s holes in the wall were still there, and wondered if I could just scoot my drywall anchors in there? To which came chuckles, and something like “No way, and you should really spackle and —– them before long.” I forget what the second term was. I vaguely know what spackling is. Anyway, the GOOD news is that I got my drywall anchors, and I *don’t* need a drill to get them in! So I will make two new holes on each side of each window and hopefully have our curtains up today! Next project will be to find a nice duvet cover, because part of what made me wait so long to do this is the horrendous fact that our summer comforter is also dark brown. I like being reminded of coffee, and I like certain shades of brown, but moderation in everything. . .

Platonically but sincerely,
Laura

So I made a 100% whole wheat bread today from Artisan Breads Everyday, and it is fabulous. I never thought I would say that. I used a white whole wheat flour from Trader Joe’s (many people speculate that their house brand, at $2.99/5 lbs, is milled by the same people who provide the same flour for King Arthur Flour, who charge upwards of $5/5 lbs). White whole wheat, according to Reinhart, is “slightly less bitter” than traditional, or red whole wheat. I think he understates the matter. A few years ago I tried a whole wheat bread and it rose like a brick and tasted not much better. I haven’t had the courage to try again until now. This bread tastes great in its own right. As a 100% whole wheat bread, it is miraculous. And I am told that using a bit of vital wheat gluten will make it rise better and have a more open crumb. I would be content to eat this bread as it is for the rest of my days, but I have to say I am curious how much better it could get with that ingredient, so I am now on a quest to find it.

So a couple hours ago I became overwhelmed with disgust at the dust and hairballs visibly lurking under and around the keys of my laptop. We have a cat and she sheds year-round, and we like most humans produce a fair amount of dust. I use my laptop often and even when closed, it is not airtight, so after about a year of frequent use it has become really, really gross. I started picking at the dust between keys using my fingernails and had some luck. Then I picked up a credit card and had much more luck, swiping the edge along each row and between the keys vertically to gather the little balls of dust and cat hair at the end of each row and pull them out. This task gave me that excellent sense of satisfaction which only certain tedious and disgusting cleaning tasks can do, and I picked up steam. Somehow in zealously running the credit card along the bottom of the space bar, I disabled it. Ohnowhatismyhusbandtowhomthislaptopbelongsgoingtosay? I took a swig of cranberry green tea—that wondrous elixir of encouragement—and decided to pry the key off to “check it out.” Never mind that I did not know what I was checking out or what it should look like. But in five minutes after a successful Google search, I had FIXED it! I who am handicapped in the area of tools and handymanship beyond belief. The rubber cup in the middle of the key had detached from its place and was keeping the spacebar from fully depressing the things that make the computer make spaces. So I applied a small amount of glue from a generic glue stick, held it on for a minute, and let it rest an hour before reattaching the key (which I didn’t even need directions for, it was so simple). Hurray for a spacebar restored to health.

Also, a recipe for cranberry green tea. Makes about 5-6 servings, unless one’s husband guzzles half of it in one evening after working out.

1 can Old Orchard (not necessary to be brand loyal, but theirs is GOOD) 100% cranberry-raspberry juice concentrate
2 c. + 1 1/2 c. filtered cold water (separated)
5 bags green tea
1 Tbsp. honey (optional)

Heat 1 1/2 c. water to just under the boiling point (or around 190 degrees) in a small saucepan or kettle or whatever. Once there, steep the green tea bags in the hot water for 3 minutes. Discard bags and stir honey if desired into brewed tea.
Meanwhile, dump juice concentrate into a medium pitcher (this fills up maybe a quarter of our gallon-sized one). Pour in the 2 c. water, then the tea. Stir to combine. I’m sure there are many scrumptious variations that more creatively inclined readers may try, and they are required to share them with the recipe’s uncreative author.

P.S. Welcome to the Twilight Zone. I see you all have already gathered to congratulate me on my birthday…again…*screams*

Today has been a slow cooking kind of day. I made chicken stock for the first time since fall, so that we can have Thai chicken soup tomorrow. Funny thing is, I’ve never been that motivated to make from-scratch American chicken soup, and when I’ve tried it hasn’t been the greatest. But a spicy Thai chicken soup is much more interesting to me.

I also made stromboli for tonight. In the pizza dough, I swapped out a quarter of the bread flour for white whole wheat, so we will see whether we can tell the difference. I’ve made this recipe several times before. It is slow and easy, and quite tasty. Today I applied a trick I learned from Peter Reinhart’s book, the stretch-and-fold technique, to make the pretty sticky dough much easier to handle. As I was sending the recipe to someone who requested it, I did a search for videos illustrating this technique, and guess who should appear? None but Peter Reinhart himself. One would think he would outsource his instructional videos, or just not make any in favor of letting people buy the book to find out more—but he makes them himself. This is compelling. I am further drawn, as Heidi so aptly put it, to be his bread disciple. And now I have found a video he made to demonstrate shaping a boule, which I am still having trouble with. Oh joy.

With resources like The Fresh Loaf (where actual expert bakers, as well as very experienced home bakers, hang around and delight in answering stupid beginner questions) and instructional videos by Peter Reinhart (himself!!), reasonably committed culinary autodidacts can learn a lot—and that while listening to beautiful Handel arias.

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