Hearty skillet recipe

During my one-year internship, when I lived alone in an apartment, I invented a recipe that was cheap, easy to make, satisfying, and easy to rewarm as leftovers. Somehow, this recipe became a default family lunch for snow days. Even if I had to walk a mile in the snow to the grocery store for two or three ingredients, I did so willingly because we all like this lunch.

Here are the ingredients for my recipe: One box of macaroni and cheese (which will require some butter and milk), one pound of cooked meat, half an onion chopped, half a bell green pepper chopped, two cloves of garlic diced, one can of diced tomatoes (14 ½ ounces), one small can of mushroom pieces, two teaspoons chili powder, 1 ½ teaspoons Italian seasoning (or half a teaspoon each of oregano, parsley, and thyme), and half a teaspoon of cinnamon.

Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions on the package. While waiting for the water to come to a boil, chop the vegetables and cook them in the skillet in two teaspoons of vegetable oil or melted butter. Add the tomatoes, mushrooms, meat, and spices. Stir occasionally. When the macaroni and cheese is prepared, add it to the skillet. Stir and bring to the table.

My usual meat for this recipe is diced summer sausage. We receive summer sausages in gift baskets every Christmas, and summer sausage on crackers is appealing for only a few consecutive evenings. Many other meat choices are possible: cooked chicken, diced; cooked ham, diced; ground beef; hotdogs or bratwurst, sliced; or just about any other leftover meat found in the refrigerator. Fish (at least canned tuna) does not go well into this recipe. A meatless version could easily be made with a cup of beans or corn in place of the meat.

This is a hearty meal that is easy to prepare. I’ve doubled it when my children had friends over to play in the snow. The leftovers store well and are easily warmed for a meal later in the week. J.

Strive to be…

I have seen a clever saying: “Strive to be the person your dog thinks you are.” While that would be good advice for many people, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a dog; I have two cats. I don’t know if I should strive to be the person they think I am. Sometimes they think I am a piece of furniture. Sometimes I distract them when they want to sleep, and sometimes I sleep when they want to be distracted. I provide them with food and water, and I clean their litter boxes. If it wasn’t for that, they might not notice my existence at all.

I do not need to strive to be the person they think I am. I already am that person. They see me as a bundle of contradictions. I leave the house for hours at a time, and always at the best times for getting a few naps. Then I sleep through the best times for exploring the house and having fun. I prepare food and eat food off of surfaces so disgustingly dirty that I won’t even allow my cats to walk across those surfaces. I spend long periods of time staring at objects in my hands instead of batting those objects across the room and then chasing after them. When they want to greet me in a natural way, I turn them around so their heads are facing me.

Maybe I should strive to be the person my cats want me to be. It would take effort, but I’m sure it could be done. I would have to develop ESP so I would know, without having to look, that their food dish was nearly empty, and I would rush to fill it again. (“Nearly empty,” by the way, is defined as, “the bottom of the bowl is visible in at least one place.”) I would walk around the house every hour flushing all the toilets so they had a ready source of fresh drinking water. I would open the windows every day. (The air is always fresh and near the ideal temperature every time I open the windows, so why don’t I do it more often?) I would let the songbirds into the house so the cats could play with them instead of just watching them through the screen. I would stay home every day, take frequent naps, and be ready to play at night. I would help them figure out how to catch that red dot of light that bounces around the walls and floor and never seems to stay captured, no matter how cleverly they trap it with their paws.

No, I will never become the person my cats want me to be. They will never understand that my hours away from the house somehow make it possible for me to put food in their bowl. They will never convince me that the best conversations are not conducted face to face. But we seem to have a working relationship, and that may be what matters the most. As in so much of life, vive la difference! J.

 

The sense of scents

Dogs and cats rely on the sense of smell far more than people do. In fact, people often overlook the importance of scents, because we pay far more attention to what we see and hear and touch. Being blind or deaf is a serious problem, but not being able to smell seems to make very little difference to a person.

Our awareness of scents is often more subliminal than direct. When I was in college, the psychology professor described how she had struggled with depression in her college days. While she was enduring several weeks of depression, she had classes in a building with fragrant flowers blooming outside. Even years later, she reported, smelling that kind of flower made her feel a twinge of depression due to the olfactory reminder of her college darkness.

On a recent Saturday a member of my family was preparing food right after breakfast to cook in a slow cooker, and my thoughts drifted to the Thanksgiving celebrations of my childhood. Soon I established the connection—my mother made a stuffing with onion and celery that she chopped on Thanksgiving morning, and I believe that was the only morning of the entire year that she chopped those vegetables. She often cooked with them, but usually she only chopped in the afternoon. Smelling chopped onions in the morning immediately evoked my memories of Thanksgiving mornings from years ago.

The mind can work the opposite direction as well. I was driving to work a couple of mornings ago, listening to the classical music station, and a piano piece started to play. Instantly I thought I smelled faintly the aftershave lotion that my uncle used to wear. My uncle taught me how to play the piano when I was a child. I had not remembered the scent of that aftershave lotion for years, but a piano piece on the radio brought it to mind.

Early this year, I took my family to one of those towns where people have restored the old buildings to make the town look like it was more than a hundred years ago. The restaurant where we ended up having lunch was in one of those restored buildings, and it had a wood-burning fireplace. The entire south end of the town was permeated with the odor of the burning logs. Days later, when I was looking at pictures of the same buildings, I smelled the wood smoke again, and that happened several times over the following days whenever I had reason to glance at those photographs.

I know that I am highly sensitive to scents as well as to sounds. I haven’t had trouble with migraine headaches lately, but when I did struggle with migraines, I usually knew one was coming because I became even more sensitive to odors. What a woman considers an appropriate amount of perfume can send me into a coughing fit that makes me have to leave the room. If one person has spent time with another person who smokes cigarettes, I can smell the smoke in that person’s clothing even if the other person didn’t smoke in the company of the first person. I am not fond of the odors of plastics and other chemicals—I’ve never understood the attraction for some people of a “new car smell.” I would far rather breathe the air of a farmyard or a zoo, odors that other people find offensive but I find mildly comforting.

The sense of smell is more a part of our lives than most people realize. Much of the taste of food and beverages comes from the odor, which is why food tastes different to a person whose nose is congested. Odors can be a warning of danger, such as smelling fire in a house or smelling gasoline in a car. Odors we do not consciously notice can still influence us, as is the case with pheromones, which can attract one person to another person although neither person knows why. When people shop for a house, they can be influenced positively or negatively by scents; some homeowners cook a batch of chocolate chip cookies when they know that a prospective buyer will be visiting.

Near where I work is a vegetarian restaurant. Some days when I walk by, they are cooking onions, caramelizing them for soups or sandwiches. I cannot smell onions being cooked in that way without thinking of pork chops the way my mother used to prepare them.

What scents carry the strongest memories in your life? J.