17 August 2015

Four Score

When I turn 80, throw me a party. Invite my friends, invite my family. Invite the neighbors from down the street, invite the painter and the real estate agent. Invite my step-daughter, and convince her to fly in from California for the weekend. Invite my secretary and tell the theater director that it's fine to bring the playwright along.

Hire a square dance caller, get a band. Don't be surprised when the fiddle player knows some of the guests. Convince everyone that they really can do the Virginia reel, even if they don't know left from right.

Find a BBQ joint that caters, but make extra salads for the vegetarians and for the people who want something other than baked beans. Put up a tent in the field, and fly bandanna prayer flags all around.

And don't be shy about asking people to help: she loves to bake, and she loves to order people around, and she's a whiz with a tomato salad in the heat of August. And she'll deliver a box of pimiento cheese sandwiches the day before, which you'll need, because you'll have forgotten to eat lunch.

Order me a birthday cake, but don't try and put 80 candles on it. And have some grab and go brownies (for the people who like chocolate) and lemon cake squares (for the ones who prefer something a little lighter). And late at night, after most of the guests have gone home, you'll move all of the candles to one table, and you'll sit there eating the homemade chocolate chip cookies that one of the guests brought, while you kill all the open bottles of wine.

Remember to take some pictures, but if you forget, other people will.

It'll be a blast.




Lemon Cake Squares (from Moky's Black Book)


Ingredients
  • 6 T. butter (3/4 stick or 3 ounces)
  • 1 c. + 2/3 c. sugar (divided)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • grated rind of one lemon
  • juice of one lemon
Directions
  1. Preheat oven to 350F. 
  2. Cream butter and 1 c. sugar. Stir in eggs. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt, and stir into creamed mixture. Add milk and lemon rind and mix until well combined.
  3. Pour into a greased and floured 9" x 13" x 2" pan (or better yet, line the pan with a parchment sling). Bake at 350F for 25 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, combine lemon juice and remaining 2/3 c. sugar. Spoon over hot cake, and return to to the 350F oven for another 5 minutes. Cut into 1" or 2" squares while still warm.

15 August 2015

Pie, Pie!

What you're going to say is that you don't bake. Or you don't know how to make pie crust. But it's easy! It just needs force of will. You want it, you make it.

The plums and the raspberries cried out "Pie, pie" this weekend at the farmer's market. We bought a bunch of little yellow and little red plums and a half pint of raspberries, and I came home and made some pie crust. Instead of a pie pie, it seemed to me that a galette would be better. And, it's easier! And it doesn't need a pie pan.

Just do it. Use the recipe I posted on this day in 2008. Use 2 cups of flour; you'll have extra dough which you will roll out, cut in strips, douse with cinnamon sugar, and eat like cookies as soon as they're out of the oven and cool enough to handle.

For the galette, roll out a rough 12" disk on a sheet of parchment - there's no need to worry about the edges, but try to make it more or less round. Transfer it to a baking sheet and trim back the parchment. Whack up some fruit into a bowl and toss it with a little sugar and some pie filling enhancer (a fabulous product from King Arthur). Dump the fruit into the middle of of your sheet of pastry and spread it out, leaving 2" clear at the edge. Fold the edge over and pleat it as needed to fit neatly into a rough circle. Dot the exposed fruit with butter and slam that baby in the oven. 40 minutes or so at 400°.


How hard was that?

07 August 2015

The Travels of Boo Boo Bunny

The day we dropped the girl off at camp, I helped her unpack and made her bed and together we realized that she'd forgotten her stuffed bunny. She was noncommittal about it, I'll be okay, but the next day I brought the bunny into my office thinking I'd mail it. Then I had second thoughts and chose not to mail it, not wanting her to feel embarrassed at the receipt of a babyish object.

Camp was going swimmingly. We got chatty funny letters to Mom and Dad - one of which probably caused a postal employee to dig out the high intensity lamp because she wrote the address in orange ink on orange paper, but it arrived eventually.


She was signed up for two back-to-back sessions at the camp - and because there was to be a dog and pony show on the last day of the first session, Daddy and her grandparents were going to drive out for the day, visiting day, if you will. The night before that, I left my office, got to the subway stairs, thought about the bunny in my desk, and continued home.

At home, there was a letter. Note, please that it was addressed to Mommy and Daddy.



Mommy. I need booboobunny right now. I haven't needed him before now, but I really need him. I just miss him, you, and daddy. I miss my kitties too. And my hammies. Please send him now. Please. I need him.


Oh my heart.

I looked at my husband, and he looked at me, and so it came to pass that at 5:30 the next morning, we found ourselves driving into Manhattan to pick up Boo Boo Bunny so that Daddy could deliver him to camp.


03 August 2015

My Blue Plate Special

When I first heard about Blue Apron, I was intrigued - partly because back in the carefree days when we had no kid there was a company called Impromptu Gourmet that sold dinner kits, chef-designed do-it-yourself dinner kits, in the refrigerated case of upscale grocery stores. I'd bought one one day, and locked my husband out of the kitchen, and presented him with a really stellar meal a half hour later. A little internet sleuthing reveals that I served up Charlie Palmer's Crisp Duck Breast with Pomegranate Molasses Glaze, Duck Leg Confit, Cipollini Onions & Toasted Couscous.

That company doesn't seem to exist anymore, probably because their business model wasn't right - it was good for the customer who wanted to do something special on the spur of the moment, but I would think it was damn near impossible to coordinate perishable supply with unpredictable demand.

In the past couple of years, a few new companies have sprung up, providing the same kind of dinner kits, but on a subscription basis. That makes it a lot easier to predict demand, so they can tailor their supply chain and have everything come out even at the end.

Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Plated and their investors see ample opportunity to carve out their own place within the industry by offering recipe kits filled with healthy, sustainably farmed food for less than the cost of buying the ingredients on your own. And that's without factoring the savings in time, they say.

A friend of mine has been using Blue Apron for a while, and really likes it. One of Blue Apron's marketing schemes is that they reward existing customers with a meals to give to friends, and through her generosity, we got to try out the service. And then I forgot to cancel, so we paid for a second week of meals. That was last summer. A couple of weeks ago, they sent a "hey, try us again" email and I got sucked back into it.

It is distinctly amusing. A box shows up with - really - all the ingredients you need for three meals for two people. Well, all the ingredients except salt, pepper and olive oil - which you have, right? And you need pots and pans. And knives. But all of the grocery shopping is done for you, and lots of the ingredients are portioned out. A quarter cup of heavy cream, in a wee bottle. A couple of tablespoons of flour in a tiny plastic tub. A small plastic bag with just the right amount of panko. The vegetables are not prepped, but you are given just enough - one onion, a sprig of tarragon, a handful of fava beans, 2 ears of corn, 3 kinds of exotic mushrooms. No need to buy a whole bottle of balsamic vinegar, or a kilo of israeli couscous.

It's up to you to do the cooking. If you're reasonably skilled in the kitchen, it'll be easy - I got a dinner of breaded chicken breasts and a corn/cucumber/tomato/arugula salad on the table in 45 minutes.

Dinner, on the table in 45 minutes. #blueapron

A photo posted by @magpiemusing on


If you're a novice cook, the instructions are pretty good, and include color photos so you have an idea about what you're doing.

There is zero food waste - though there is a prodigious amount of packaging. Remember all those tiny tubs and wee bottles and small bags? And everything shows up in an insulated bag with two large ice packs inside a cardboard box.

The service seems fairly priced: three meals for two is $60 - which includes shipping - so it's $10 per meal. Yes, the pasta with tomatoes and mozzarella we made last night was less than $20 for two people, and because we cook a lot we have a pantry full of stuff that can be turned into cheap meals. Still, $10 per person is cheaper than going out to almost anywhere I'd care to eat, and the results are damned tasty. And it gets you out of the same old rut.

I did choose to do it while the child was away...she would have eaten the chicken but not much else. [There's a family plan which looks like the food is a little more kid-friendly.]

We did the three meals on consecutive nights, but the FAQs say the ingredients should be good for a week. I can imagine that a fridge full of very specific ingredients could be a bit onerous and guilt-inducing in the I have it, so I have to use it way that a CSA can be oppressive.

In short, I have really mixed feelings about Blue Apron. No time to cook? Skip it. Can't justify the $10/person and all of the packaging waste? Skip it. No sharp knives or desire to cook? Skip it. If you're adventurous, craving novelty, and bored with all of the things you usually eat, you might really enjoy it. I even ate mushrooms last week, and liked them.

30 July 2015

PSA: Scope Update

By Pulmonological (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsYou probably don't remember this, but back in 2009, I had two colonoscopies in one summer. And because the pricing was radically weird, because one of them happened in the hospital and the other in the doctor's office, I had to write about it. Go on, read about it. Come back when you're done.

A couple of years later, Elisabeth Rosenthal (a writer for the Times) started a series of investigative articles about medical care pricing, called Paying Till It Hurts. Her first piece was about ... colonoscopies, and my expensive hospital based scope made it into the second paragraph. It is probably the last time I will be on the front page of the New York Times.

Sometime last summer, I got a note from the gastroenterologist reminding me that my five years were up and it was time for another. Oh the joys!

I duly scheduled an office visit, and had the scope, only to be told - when the propofol wore off - that I needed to have another in six months. So, if you're keeping track, this is four colonoscopies in about five years.

Since 2009, the Affordable Care Act has come into play, and my office's insurance carrier has changed, and my co-pays and deductibles have skyrocketed. But at core there's this: the doctor's office charges some wackadoodle number, and gets paid a negotiated rate. So, as a public service, and to aid in transparency in health care costs, here are the prices for my four colonoscopies:

#1 - 2009 - in the hospital

Charges billed by doctors and hospital $9,143
Amount paid by insurance $5,743
Co-pay due from me $125
TOTAL PAID TO MEDICAL PROVIDERS $5,868

#2 - 2009 in the doctor’s office
Charges billed by doctors and lab $5,323
Amount paid by insurance $2,923
Co-pay due from me $30
TOTAL PAID TO MEDICAL PROVIDERS $2,953

#3 - 2014 - in the doctor’s office - diagnostic
Charges billed by doctors and lab $9,022
Amount paid by insurance $2,812
Co-pay (deductible) due from me $1,243
TOTAL PAID TO MEDICAL PROVIDERS $4,055

#4 - 2015 - in the doctor’s office - screening
Charges billed by doctors and lab $7,711
Amount paid by insurance $3,995
Co-pay due from me $75
TOTAL PAID TO MEDICAL PROVIDERS $4,070


So what have we learned? In five years, the contracted rate for a colonoscopy at the medical practice I visit has gone up by a third (from $3K to $4K). What else? Even though the Affordable Care Act and the insurance companies make a distinction between a diagnostic colonoscopy and a screening one, the doctor ends up getting paid the same amount. Screening scopes are supposed to be covered in full under any ACA compliant insurance; diagnostic ones are subject to deductibles and co-pays and what not, so the patient ends up paying more. [I'm not sure why both #3 and #4 weren't coded as diagnostic...that may have been a coding error. However, since I'd met my deductible by the time #4 rolled around, it may not have made much difference in my co-pay.]

The issue of medical billing, and the prices paid, is an interesting one, which is why I am putting this out there.

If you too are interested, the New York Times series spun off into a Paying Till it Hurts Facebook group - "a forum for conversation, analysis and insight into health care pricing and costs in the United States".

And, by the way, I'm fine. I just seem to have a propensity towards polyps.

24 July 2015

There Is No Horse But Polo

The girl is off in the woods with a bunch of other girls, and I am amusing myself by mailing things to her. It might be my favorite part of having her gone; as we all know, I love mailing oddments and notes.

So far, this is what's been sent. I wrote her a card, on Tuesday, the day before we dropped her off. I rambled on about the weirdness of writing to her during the day on Tuesday, when I was going to see her that night, and knowing that she wouldn't get the note until Thursday or Friday. Yesterday, I mailed a little game from the crazy Danish store near my office. Next week, I'll get Amazon to ship out a book called Nimona that got a wonderful review in the New York Times.

My favorite, though? We confiscated her cellphone before we left her in that other state, and I stole a photo off of it - she'd taken a picture of a horse, looking completely demented, and has had it as her screen background.


I transferred the picture to my phone, signed up for a postcard app, and for $1.99, mailed her the picture with a with a note from the horse.

I can’t believe you left me for another horse. Is his name Sheldon? Feh. There is no horse but Polo; there is no darkness but ignorance.  You’ll come back to me so grateful for my strength and elegance; so delighted by my feisty demeanor. See you soonest. Love, Polo


If she didn't think her mother was nuts before, this will seal the deal. Unless, of course, she thinks Polo is cleverer than he really is.

22 July 2015

What The Parents Do When The Kid Is Away

We dropped the child off at camp today. It took an hour and half to get there, because she was not interested in dawdling. It took us three and a half hours to get home because it was a beautiful day and we stopped for lunch in one little town and stopped for ice cream in another little town and detoured to Goshen, NY to bear witness to the impending dismantling and "renovation" of the Orange County Government Center.






I'd never seen it before. Yes, it's stark. But it's set back off the road, behind a scrim of carefully placed trees, in a lush lawn. It's got movement about it, in the articulation of volumes, varyingly stacked and shaped.

Curiously enough, one of the first places I lived - though I don't remember it - was a Paul Rudolph building: the Married Student Housing at Yale, also known as the Mansfield Apartments. I was a toddler there, it's where my little brother was born, and my mother used to talk about the fact that there was no place to leave a stroller when you came back with groceries and had to climb two flights of stairs to your third floor apartment. But that didn't stop her from appreciating the building and its big windows, and every time she visited New Haven, she liked to detour past it and marvel that she'd lived in a building by Paul Rudolph.

History is important. Public history is even more important. Telling stories, remember buildings, these are the things that make us human. I'm glad for the detour - I don't know what is really going to happen with that building, but I know that I've seen it and that kernel of witnessing is important to me.