Friday, October 30, 2009

An Undomesticated Halloween

Aside from dressing up as an over-sized M&M and eating tons of candy, my favorite thing about Halloween as a kid was eating homemade roasted pumpkin seeds.

Until recently, I was always too timid to turn on the oven and try this out for myself. When Avo carved the pumpkin Wednesday night, I summoned the courage to roast the seeds (instead of tossing them in the trash like I usually do). In case you're wondering, here is how you do it:

How to Roast Pumpkin Seeds

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Dig out the innards of the pumpkin. Search for the seeds. Don't be timid. Once you get over the initial "ick" factor of having your hands covered with pumpkin pulp, it's sort of fun.

3. Toss the seeds -- and any leftover muck -- into a colander and rinse will cold water.

4. Spread the seeds in a single layer on baking sheet and toss with oil (canola will do). Coat lightly and sprinkle with salt.

5. Bake for 25 minutes or until nicely toasted. Let them cool and then store in an air-tight container. You won't be keeping them for long since they're too yummy to resist!

It's a good idea to make them a couple of days before Halloween since once the candy comes out, all bet's are off and nobody will be interested in the seeds -- no matter how good they taste.

And if you want to get really fancy about it, you can toast pumpkin seeds with sugar and spice or curried pumpkin seeds.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Cooking Emergency

Many people I know -- including Avo, Dori, my dad, and my brother -- find cooking relaxing. It's the perfect antidote to a long, stressful day at work (or in my dad's case, a long, relaxing day of horseback riding and dog walking).

Me? I almost had a nervous breakdown yesterday trying to make broccoli soup. I am not exaggerating. Let me explain.

I was halfway through Giulia Melucci's recipe for Broccoli soup when I realized I hadn't yet added the 1/4 cup of cream required. I scanned the directions, but didn't see anything specified about when to add the cream.

Take a look for yourself:

Giulia Melucci's Broccoli Soup


1 tablespoon butter, plus another for finishing (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
cups broccoli florets
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 cup cream
1 lime, juiced


1. Melt the butter in a large heavy pan over medium heat, add the onion and carrot and salt. Saute until soft, about five minutes.

2. Add the broccoli, stir to coat, then add the chicken broth and cumin. Raise the heat to medium high, bring to a simmer, return heat to medium and cook until broccoli is very soft, about 15-20 minutes.

3. Puree the soup in a food processor, or with an immersion blender. (My preferred method, so much easier than transferring to a machine, if you don't have one, you should.) You might want to add another tablespoon of butter here for a richer soup--that's not where I'm at today but I think it's a good move. Add lime juice and a few grindings of pepper and your virtuous meal or first course is ready.

Perhaps a cooking pro would innately know when to add the cream, but I'm still a novice. Panicked, I e-mailed Giulia, whom I met recently after stalking her on Facebook. My broccoli was already pretty soft and I was ready for step 3, but I didn't want to proceed without the cream. What to do?

Things were rough going before they took a turn for the worse. I realized with horror that the cream leftover in the fridge from when I made my parents chocolate mousse a week and a half ago had curdled. I'll spare you the description, but it was not a pretty sight.

I hurried out in the rain and stopped at several bodegas before finding one with cream. Would Half and Half do? I wondered.

Still, no word back from Giulia, so I made a move and dumped in 1/4 cup of cream.

The next challenge was transferring the soup into the food processor since -- no surprise here -- I don't have an immersion blender. In fact, I don't even know what an immersion blender is. It sounds like some sort of SCUBA gear to me.

I poured the entire pan full of soup into the food processor before noticing that the soup was seeping out onto my kitchen counter.

By this point, I was dripping sweat into the soup. Taking a deep cleansing breath, I mopped up the mess and managed to salvage some of the soup. Good thing I moved my laptop off the kitchen counter before this step!

I tried the soup and it's pretty tasty (I didn't add lime to it). But I'm not sure it was worth all of that stress. And I realize now that Avo is probably sick of broccoli dishes -- especially since I just made orecchiette and broccoli with walnuts yet again!

Maybe one day I'll find cooking relaxing. But for now, I'll stick with Tension Tamer tea.

Update: I heard back from Giulia who was baffled by my message. "What cream? I didn't say to add cream, did?" Apparently, she made the soup with cream last week, but this week, she cut the cream and added lime. All that stressing for nothing! Well, not nothing -- I have the soup to show for my efforts, and it IS nice and creamy. I'm just pleased that I knew better than to add the lime to the cream. "You've got natural instinct," said Giulia. Well, I'm getting there.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

If I Can Cook, So Can You

For the first time in my life, I am experiencing the satisfaction that comes from having a refrigerator full of food that I made.

In addition to the hummus and Ful Mudammas that I made recently, I also have leftover orecchiette with broccoli and walnuts (yes, that's my favorite dish lately). I felt amazingly satisfied watching Avo pack lunch with food that I had prepared. It sounds corny, but it feels good to nourish the people you love.

I was planning to make Giulia Melucci's broccoli soup and Dori's moujadara (bulgar & lentils) today, but Avo said we should work our way through the food in the fridge.

Since it's raining out and I've already bought some ingredients, I may go for it anyway. I can't believe it might actually reach the point where Avo will have to tell me to take a break from cooking! Boy, have times changed.

Mujadarra can be made with either rice or bulgar. Here is Dori's recipe, which she made up herself:

1. Saute a thinly sliced onion in about 3-4 T olive/safflower/veg oil over med-low heat til carmelized (not burned), about 15 minutes.

2. Add in ... a cup each bulgar/lentils (you could do 1/2 cup lentils, too, which might be better)

3. Add in about 2-1/4 cups water (maybe 2 cups if 1/2 cup lentils; I just kept watching and adding water as needed at the end) and bring to a simmer, cover and cook for about 20 mins. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Yesterday, while walking through Prospect Park, I ran into two fellow moms I know from the neighborhood. We got to talking about cooking and they both confessed they've fallen into the old mac and cheese/chicken nuggets routine for their kids.

I started telling them about my recent experiences cooking and they seemed impressed.

"Seriously, just six months ago, I didn't cook anything. If I can cook, so can you!"

Suddenly, I'm like a recent convert to the gospel of home cooking. I want to share the good word with everyone.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My First And Last Recipe Exchange

Call me a dork, but I'm sorta excited that my friend Sam invited me to join her e-mail recipe exchange.

Yes, I realize it's a chain letter, but at least there is no financial scam involved. The goal is to get lots of new recipes, which sounds like fun to me.

Here's the deal:

You email a favorite, easy recipe to the first person on the list, move the second person up, put your email address in their place, and then send the email out to 20 or so of your friends. If no one breaks the chain, you’re supposed to get 20 recipes sent back to you.

I quickly sent out my recipe for my new go-to recipe Orecchiette with Roasted Broccoli and Walnuts.

Most of my friends e-mailed back immediately politely declining. Apparently, these e-mail recipe exchanges are quite popular and they've already received a ton of these requests. But, it's a novelty for me since nobody has ever asked me before -- until now, I wouldn't have had a recipe to contribute.

Luckily, a couple of people have taken pity on me and though they declined to officially participate, they've passed on some fave recipes.

Here is one I'm looking forward to trying:

Terry's Ful Mudammas (Broad Beans in Sauce)


• 2 cans (15-ounce each) cooked fava beans

• 6 cloves garlic, or to taste

• 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

• 1 Tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed

• 1/4 cup olive oil

• 1 1/2 Tablespoons parsley, minced


1. Press the garlic cloves through a garlic press into a medium bowl.

2. Mash the garlic and salt together.

3. Next, add the lemon juice, olive oil, and parsley to the garlic mixture and combine thoroughly.

4. Drain the beans well, rinse, and put beans into a large pot over low heat.

5. Add garlic mixture and stir with a wooden spoon to combine thoroughly.

6. Serve warm with the garnishes arranged on a platter.

In fact, I'm heading out now to buy some fava beans. I'll let you know how it goes.

And I promise not to send out anymore e-mail chain letters! I don't want to test the bonds of friendship any further.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sex and Housework

Pick up that broom if you want some action in the bedroom. According to today's Wall Street Journal, doing housework helps your married sex life.

The new shows that for husbands and wives alike, the more housework you do, the more often you are likely to have sex with your spouse.

Earlier studies have hinted at this connection for men; the sight of a husband mopping the floor or doing dishes sparks affection in the hearts of many wives. But the more-housework-equals-more-sex link for wives, documented in a study of 6,877 married couples published online recently in the Journal of Family Issues, is a surprise.

Scrubbing the floor is no aphrodisiac, and seeing your spouse doing it usually isn't either. "My husband loves doing laundry, yet I don't get any thrill out of his doing it," says Chicago writer Julie Danis. And "I don't think he thinks it's sexy when I go around gathering the detritus of his daily life."

But for some high achievers who take a "work hard, play hard" approach to life, researchers say, working hard in one domain produces more energy for others. The study also found a correlation between hours spent on paid work and the frequency of sex in marriage.

"Rather than compromise their sex life" because of time demands at work or at home, "this group of go-getters seems to make sex a priority," says Constance Gager, lead researcher and an assistant professor of family and child studies at Montclair State University, Montclair, N.J. The study doesn't measure what proportion of spouses fall into this group, but she believes "they are on the leading edge of couples we expect to see more of in the future."

Many husbands and wives I interviewed offered an additional explanation—that housework may be a proxy for a general willingness to invest in shared interests, a symbol of commitment to home and hearth. Perhaps "working on the same task … makes the couple remember why they married—to be on the same team, to build a life," Ms. Danis says.

Maybe there's a connection between this study and the other study I wrote about recently which suggested that doing housework produced the same level of the feel-good hormone serotonin as being in love.

On the downside:

The study defined housework as nine chores: cleaning, preparing meals, washing dishes, washing and ironing clothes, driving family members around, shopping, yard work, maintaining cars and paying bills. Wives in the study spent an average 41.8 hours a week on these tasks, compared with 23.4 hours for husbands—a split that is fairly typical, and often regarded by wives as unfair. However, the effects of any fairness concerns among wives weren't measured in this study.

Let's hope that word of the study inspires husbands to do more laundry.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Unexpected Delicacy

Remember when I was obsessed with Mark Bittman's 101 Simple Salads for the Season? It was fun working my way through Bittman's list, but then the season changed and I moved on to heartier fare.

Although I won't be able to get all of the fresh produce required for the 101 Salads, some of the salads can work even in Autumn. In fact, brussels sprouts are generally better this time of year.

70. Shred brussels sprouts in the food processor, preferably with the slicing disk. Toss with vinaigrette and crumbled bacon.

On Sunday night, Avo tried out the recipe, adding his own twist. After shredded the sprouts and frying the and crumbling the bacon, he threw them both in a wok and stir fried them. He tossed the mix with a vinaigrette dressing and the result was surprisingly tasty. Then again, anything tastes good with bacon.

It re-heated amazingly well for lunch yesterday.

Since Ruby is home sick and I strained a muscle in my back, I don't plan to do much cooking (or cleaning) today. But Avo is excited to make a meat lasagna when he gets home tonight. Can't wait.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kasha Spells Comfort

It's been a dark, rainy week here in Brooklyn. Just the right weather for comfort food.

And when I think "comfort food," I think "kasha varnishkes."

Never heard of it before?

Kasha is toasted hulled buckwheat and varnishkes is the Yiddish term for farfalle or bow-tie pasta.

It's a classic Eastern European dish that was imported to America (and, in particular, the Lower East side), by Russian Jewish immigrants (like my grandparents). Even though I was a picky eater as a kid, I had no problem finishing off a plate of my mother's kasha varnishkes.

Then, in my post-college years in the East Village, I regularly ordered kasha varnishes at Ukrainian restaurants like Veselka.

So now that I've become a bit more comfortable in the kitchen, I thought it was time I see if I can make the dish myself.

People are very passionate about their kasha varnishkes. When I posted on Facebook that I was making them, old friends came out of the woodwork to announce that it was their all-time favorite dish.

My idol Mark Bittman wrote about kasha varnishkes in The New York Times:

To make a completely authentic dish, you must cook the onions in chicken fat. (You can use olive oil, but it’s not the same.) You can buy chicken fat, but it’s easy enough just to save the excess fat from a few chickens that you are using for other dishes and freeze it. When you have about a cup, cut it up and cook it over very low heat until the fat is rendered and the solids crisp up (save those solids, and eat them on crackers). Onions are never better than when cooked in chicken fat.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any chicken fat, but thanks to Avo, I had fresh chicken stock to cook the kasha. You can't have everything!

Kasha Varnishkes
(adapted from Mark Bittman)

3 cups chopped onion
3 tablespoons neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn (not olive oil!)
1 egg
1 cup kasha
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock
1 to 2 tablespoons butter (optional -- I skipped it)
1 pound of farfalle (bowtie pasta)

1. Put the onion in a large skillet with a lid over medium heat. Cover the skillet and cook for about 15 minutes, until the onion is dry and almost sticking to the pan. Add the 3 tablespoons oil, raise the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring, until the onion is nicely browned, another 15 minutes or so.

2. Meanwhile, beat the egg, then toss it in a bowl with the kasha. Put the mixture along with some salt and pepper in a heavy, large, deep skilled over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until the mixture smells toasty, about 3 minutes.

3. Turn the heat to a minimum, carefully add the stock, and stir once. Cover and cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes (it took me much longer because my stock wasn't entirely defrosted). Turn off the heat. Stir in the onion, taste, and adjust the seasoning.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. When the kasha is just about done (or is already resting), cook 1 pound of farfalle pasta until it's tender, but not mushy. Drain it, reserving some of the cooking water. Use a fork to toss the pasta with the kasha and onions, adding some butter (if you want) and enough of the reserved cooking water to make the dish a little creamy.

The steps are simple enough, but it was hard for me to manage the timing of it all. Also, I realized too late that I don't have enough covers for my pans (so I used a large serving plate instead).

My other mistake -- I forgot to reserve some of the cooking water from the pasta and didn't add butter. So the result was not as creamy as Bittman recommends, but it still hit the spot.

Avo, who has never been a fan of kasha varnishkes, said that mine was even better than Veselka's. It would have tasted even better if I had made a pot roast and gravy to serve with it!

As if that wasn't enough comfort food for one day, I went ahead and baked oatmeal cookies (without the chips) with the kids.

A very comforting day!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More Deep (Funny) Thoughts

Way back in June, I shared some of my favorite quotes about housekeeping. It was so much fun that I'm doing it again. Enjoy!

Housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?
- Phyllis Diller

Housework, if you do it right, will kill you.
- Erma Bombeck

Housework is the only activity at which men are allowed to be consistently inept because they are thought to be so competent at everything else.
- Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Housework is what a woman does that nobody notices unless she hasn't done it.
- Evan Esar

I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.
- Joan Rivers (see above picture)

I think housework is the reason most women go to the office.
- Heloise

There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse.
- Quentin Crisp

Now I better go make the beds and do the laundry.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dinner for the Folks

Thanks to everyone who voted in my "What Should I Make My Parents for Dinner?" poll.

The resounding winner was: Chicken cutlets. Reservations came in a distant second. I'm glad to see you've got some faith in my new cooking abilities.

My parents arrived at our apartment Monday morning. As usual, they were early -- so early, in fact, that I hadn't yet arrived home from my work shift and food shop at the co-op. I finally showed up lugging two big bags of groceries, including ingredients for the big dinner I had promised them.

After months of reading about my cooking, my parents wanted to actually witness my domestic transformation for themselves -- and taste my cooking.

I had prepared the menu in advance:

White bean puree with baguette
Arugula salad with cherry tomatoes and crunchy sprouts
Orecchiette with Roasted Broccoli and Walnuts
Chicken Cutlets
Chocolate Mousse

Nothing so overwhelming I would get performance anxiety. In fact, I had already tested all of these dishes except for the Chocolate Mousse.

Since I had never hosted a dinner party before, it was intimidating enough cooking for six adults and two children. My parents are not gourmands and I felt confident they would be impressed with nearly anything their darling daughter prepared. But my brother, Steve, is an experienced cook who has strong opinions about food. I didn't want to disappoint him or his lovely wife, Francesca (what was I thinking cooking pasta for a real Italian?)

I cheated on the bean puree by defrosting the white beans and garlic I cooked last week. But when I tried to puree them in the food processor, I couldn't get it to turn on. My mom helped me transfer them to the blender, but the frozen bean block seemed jammed the blender.

My dad got the bright idea of using a potato masher to puree the beans.

"Don't panic. Improvise," he wisely advised.

Since my dad likes to be busy, I assigned him the job of chopping garlic for the pasta dish. It was a father-daughter bonding moment!

For my birthday on Friday, Dori gave me Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. How did she know it was just what I wanted? I left her a phone message detailing my b-day wish list! She also came through with a bar of Mast Brothers chocolate, which is worth the outrageous price tag (especially when it's a gift).

I relied on Bittman for my chocolate mousse recipe:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (or use chips)
3 eggs, separated
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract


1. Bittman recommends using a double boiler or a small saucepan over low heat to melt the butter and chocolate together, but I cheated and used the microwave. Just before the chocolate finishes melting, remove it from the stove (or microwave) and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth.

2. Transfer the chocolate mixture to a bowl and beat in the egg yolks with a whisk. Try not to nibble at it too much. Refrigerate.

3. Beat the egg whites with half the sugar until they hold stiff peaks but are not dry. Set aside. Beat the cream with the remaining sugar and the vanilla until it holds soft peaks.

4. Stir in a couple of spoonfuls of the whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it a bit, then fold in the remaining whites thoroughly but gently. Fold in the cream and refrigerate until chilled. If you are in a hurry, divide the mousse among 6 cups, it will chill much faster. Serve within a day or two.

Top with Whipped Cream and shaved chocolate if you like (I like!).

"It will take forever by hand. You can beat from today 'til tomorrow and it won't work," said Mom as she watched me try to complete step 3. She took control and starting whipping with the hand blender. Still, it wore out her arm pretty fast.

"The cook book said this would be easy, but this is a pain in the ass!" I said.

"That's why I don't make stuff with peaks," my mom said.

Meanwhile, my dad urged Ruby to join me in the kitchen.

"Watch your mom, so you can learn how to cook and you won't have to start a blog about cooking when you grow up."

Ha ha.

Ruby watched closely as my mom instructed me on how to fold the chocolate (I don't even know how to fold clothes!).

Then, I got the inspired idea to serve the mousse in the champagne flutes we got from our wedding registry.

"Well, even if the rest of the meal is a disaster, at least you've got the dessert down," said my dad.

Just about then I realized that the one table cloth I have was too small for the dining room table once it's opened up to seat so many people. Also, I didn't have enough cloth napkins and chairs for everyone. Oh well. I took my dad's advice and improvised, rather than panicked.

The meal was prepped and the table was set by the time my brother and Francesca showed up, but I was still in serious denial about the chicken cutlets. I hadn't thought through how I was going to cook up so many in my small kitchen.

Luckily, my brother, a musician and high school English teacher who spent his post-college years working in various kitchens, is handy with a frying pan.

I felt like a little kid again having my big brother come in and save the day.

We knocked out the (perfectly tender) chicken cutlets just in time for Avo to walk in the door. I handed him a glass of wine and we all sat down to a lovely family meal.

And what do you know? It was delicious.

But tonight I'm making my parents take us out to dinner.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Hot Men Do Housework

Why is it newsworthy when a man does housework?

Nearly every day, there seems to be an article profiling yet another hunky Hollywood star who -- gasps -- helps out around the house.

Most recently, Clive Owen, bragged about his housekeeping skills.

"I do my fair bit of chores," says Owen, who has been married since 1995 and has two daughters, 12 and 10. "I'm very hands-on when I'm home. It's not alien to me to be washing up and doing the laundry."

And not long ago, Eric Bana declared housework the ultimate "aphrodisiac." The "Time Travelers' Wife" actor revealed the way to win a woman's heart is by keeping a clean home.

I'm good around the house. I'm not stealing my wife's thunder, but I do clean. Housework is a bigger aphrodisiac to women than a set of abs, I've found!

Are these proclamations designed to drive women to buy movie tickets or to bug their husbands to help out around the house?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

How to Do Laundry

Do I really have to separate colors when I do laundry? Generally, I toss laundry in and wash in cold. The process is easy, but the results are mixed at best.

Now The New York Times weighs in and it turns out that separating colors before washing really does make a difference. Cheryl Mendelson, author of “Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens," shares her tips for keeping clothes looking bright. Don't ask me how she managed to write a 416 page book about doing laundry! Seems my time might be better spent by doing laundry rather than reading about it.

Keeping like-colored clothing together maintains its brightness, Ms. Mendelson said. She recommends separating clothes into five categories: whites; lights and almost-whites (yellows and whites with prints); brights (reds, oranges and light blues); darks (purples and blues); and blacks and browns.

Sot now I'll feel guilty when I don't sort by color. Maybe my family will just have to accept their drab clothing.

Read the article for yourself.

How many of you separate your laundry before washing? And what do you do about plaids?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Pot Lucky

Until recently, nothing struck fear in me as quickly as two simple words: POT LUCK. Just the thought of a pot luck made me cringe and cower.

For a non-cook like me, a pot luck was just an opportunity to apologize.

"Sorry, I didn't have time to cook, so I picked up these bagels."

"I tried to make cookies, but they burned."

It go so bad that I would either refuse the invitation or take credit for someone else's dish.

"Oh, you like the chicken salad? Thanks, I made it myself."

But now that I have sort of learned how to cook, I've had enough with lame excuses.

So when my friend Amanda invited me to her synagogue's pot luck in honor of Sukkoth on Sunday, I jumped at the chance to show off my new skills.

The only problem was that after a morning spent at the Atlantic Antic and then Ruby's swimming class, I had less than an hour to whip up something marvelous.

Here's what I came up with:

Orecchiette with Roasted Broccoli and Walnuts
(from Real Simple)

12 ounces orechiette (3 cups)
1 bunch broccoli, cut into small florets
1/2 cup walnuts, roughtly chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Kosher salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup grated Parmesan

Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Reserve 3/4 cup of the cooking water, drain the pasta, and return it to the pot.

Meanwhile, on a rimmed baking sheet, toss the broccoli, walnuts, oil, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Roast, tossing once, until the broccoli is tender, 18 to 20 minutes.

Toss the pasta with the broccoli mixture, butter, and 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water (Add more water if the pasta seems dry). Sprinkle with the Parmesan before serving.

I finished just in time to hurry over to the Pot Luck only to find I was the first one to arrive.

When I presented my dish to the pot luck's organizers, I was overcome with pride at how far I have come in my quest to become domesticated. I am beginning to see myself in a new light. Apparently, I am the sort of person who cooks orecchiette with roasted broccoli and walnuts for a pot luck.

I tried my best not to judge my fellow pot luckers who contributed store-bought hummus and Pepperidge Farm cookies.

The only bummer was that my dish went so fast, Avo never got a chance to try it.

But he'll have a chance on Monday when I re-create this dish for my parents. I still need a main dish to impress them. Any ideas? Take my poll above or post your own suggestions in the comment section below.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In Love with Housework?

When I started this blog six months ago, my intention was to write about my hapless attempts to learn to cook and clean. Recently, I have been devoting my efforts almost entirely to cooking (much to Avo's chagrin).

Why? Cleaning is pretty boring and writing about cleaning is even more boring (unless you're writing about the political and personal issues involved in cleaning as in the recent anthology, Dirt, edited by Mindy Lewis).

Occasionally, however, I will continue to update you on cleaning-related issues and news. For instance, I just read about an incredible study -- or rather, I should say that the results of the study strained incredulity.

According to the study of 2,000 Britons, who were quizzed by cleaning materials firm Vileda, cleaning 20 minutes a day produces the same level of feel-good ­hormone serotonin as a new love.

And the reaction applies to both men and women, reports The Daily Express.

Psychologist Donna Dawson said: "It's the same feeling as sharing that first kiss. It make us feel good about ourselves."

The study also found that mopping was people's favorite chore.

Seriously? If cleaning produced the same level of serotonin as a first kiss, people would scour their floors a lot more. Personally, I can't stand mopping.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hamburger Helper

When I recently told my friend Katherine that I didn't know how to make hamburgers, she responded with a look of shock (and disgust?)

"I am a strong believer that everyone should know how to make a few things: perfect pancakes, an excellent chocolate cake and a good burger," she said.

How could I admit that not only do I not know how to make a burger, but I also can't make perfect pancakes or an excellent chocolate cake?

"I pride myself on my burgers," said Katherine, who is not one to brag.

I had recently botched turkey burgers and clearly needed help in the burger department.

"Do you have any idea why my burgers turned out so badly?"

"You know what your first mistake was? You made turkey burgers. Turkey burgers never taste good," said Katherine. "For good burgers, use ground chuck. Lean meat won't make a good burger."

Clearly, Katherine has strong opinions about her burgers. She is equally passionate about her choice of buns. Her preferred brand is Matthews All-Natural Hamburger Buns.

I was thrilled when Katherine took pity on me and volunteered to teach me how to make burgers last Thursday night. Believe it or not, aside from the turkey burger fiasco, I have never made burgers before.

While our kids played not-so-quietly in the other room, Katherine, a high school English teacher, gave me a private lesson in making a good burger:

1. Use a cast iron frying pan. It is crucial to have a pan that is very hot.

2. "It is very important to be gentle with the patty. If you manhandle the meat, the burgers will be tough." (it's hard to keep a straight face when talking about "manhandling the meat.")

3. Don't worry about making perfectly shaped patties.

4. "Keep it plain and simple. It's all about the meat." (no need to add eggs or bread crumbs).

5. Salt the burgers lightly when you put them in the pan.

6. "While they're cooking, don't touch the burgers. Let them do their thing."

For medium rare burgers, estimate 4 minutes a side. For more well done burgers, let them fry for 5 minutes a side.

"While the meat is starting to cook, take out the buns and pour yourself some wine," Katherine said.

Sounds good to me. She sure is a good teacher!

We uncorked a bottle of red and savored the wine while the burgers sizzled.

If you're not sure if a burger is done, cut into one. If it looks like it's just been shot, let it cook some more.

About 45 seconds to one minute before the burger is done, throw on some (creamy) blue cheese so it will have time to melt. Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce (and the mustard and onions too).

After we plopped the burgers in their (non-toasted) buns, we realized that we hadn't thought about any side dishes or appetizers. The end result looked awfully forlorn all alone on the plate (see above photo).

And wouldn't you know -- my kids refused to take a bite.

I, on the other hand, gobbled down my burger without any hesitation. It was delicious.

Thanks, Katherine. Everyone needs a friend who can teach her how to make a good burger. When's our next lesson? Pancakes or chocolate cake, perhaps?

UPDATE: After reading this article, I no longer have any desire to make (or eat) burgers.