Thursday, February 17, 2011

Grandpa's Eulogy, By Lisa Last

(This is the rendition that was played during the Military Funeral Honors.)

Robert Joseph Last, Bobby, Bobby Joe, Bob, Robert, Dad, Uncle Bob, Grandpa, Grampy, G-Pop, Boompah, Great-Grandpa, Great-Great-Grandpa -- Some of the many names for one extraordinary man.

Son, brother, husband, father, uncle, life mate, friend.

He played many roles and wore many hats - all of them cocked to the right.

He was hard working, fiercely loyal, a true gentleman. Proud, honorable, but never thought he was better than anyone - only better looking.

He always thought of others before himself, but nothing came before family.

Loved by all, admired by many, envied by some. Good natured, soft spoken, always had a kind word, a life lesson or a story, usually over coffee, dinner, a car ride, or during a no-holds-barred game of Scrabble or Chinese checkers. He was even known to cheat on occasion.

I knew him first as my Grandpa Bob. When I think of him, my first thought is of his magic incantation for changing the stop lights to green.
*Red Light, Red Light, Turn to Green. Puff. Puff. Puff.*
If it didn't work the first time, we'd chant the magic spell even louder. Then we'd close our eyes and clap our hands. There were a million variables; time of day, geography, wether or not we were on a hill. Regardless of how many times you had to chant, it always worked.

He wasn't of large stature, but he was a mountain in my eyes from my earliest memory. As I got older (about 5 or 6), my hero worship transitioned into infatuation. I wanted to marry him when I grew up. Somehow, I even managed to get Grandma Ruth's blessing.

I remember spending the night when he worked for the airline, and getting to stay up late watching TV until it was time for him to go work the night shift. He'd let me help pack his lunch in his black metal lunch pail with the noisy handle. Right before he walked out the door, he'd warn me not to tattle to my parents for letting me stay up. It was our secret, and he didn't want to get into trouble.

I never tattled.

I remember going out to eat sometimes. If the waitress refilled his water without being asked, or brought extra napkins, or asked if he wanted anything, he'd nudge you and wink, whispering conspiratorily something like, "I think she likes me." Or, "She's sweet on your ol' Grandpa," or, "I get special treatment here because she thinks I'm cute." And who wouldn't invent a reason to be around him? I can't think of a single soul.

I remember listening to him play the harmonica, smoking his pipe, going to church, and telling stories. There was always a story. It didn't matter how many times you'd heard it before, when Grandpa told a story you paid attention. Or you kept asking questions until he lost track of the original story and moved onto some other story.

I can't help but think there are at least a million stories I never got to hear. I know there are a lot of stories I want to hear a million times. I take comfort in wondering what stories he's telling now, and to whom.

He has reunited with those who have gone on before him. They've prepared a place for him and have been anxiously awaiting his arrival with great joy and anticipation of all the stories he has to tell.

As quoted from the No Sorrow To Die poem by Amelia Barr -
"Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die."

Grandpa loved life and lived it to the fullest.

We love you, Grandpa.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Cake makes everything better

.... or so I'm told.

I don't have much of a sweet tooth, which is actually beneficial since the BF is a diabetic. But the other night I was watching Jim Gaffigan on Comedy Central, and he reminded me that I really do like cake. So, rather than go through trial and error creating one from scratch (gasp!) I cheated and pulled out the box of Betty Crocker Gluten Free Yellow Cake Mix. FYI -- the picture on the box looks positively sinful. But here's where my lack of baking skills got me in trouble...

For some reason I assumed because the box showed a delicious looking frosted cake, that the cake mix actually came WITH frosting. For those of you who don't know, it most certainly does not. Generally rectifying an oversight like this wouldn't be an issue, but it wound up turning into a crisis that took hours to solve.

I remembered reading somewhere that Jello brand pudding was gluten free, so I started clearing out cupboards in search of pudding to top the cake. I found only 2 boxes of Safeway brand (wheat starch), and 1 box of Jello sugar free fat free. OK, there's a possible back up, but who wants sugar free fat free pudding with their yellow cake? I set it aside and continued my search.... I found a bajillion boxes of various fruit flavored Jello gelatin, 2 containers of French Fried Onion Rings (???), 2 boxes of Progresso Bread Crumbs in Italian and Parmesan flavor (???!!!), several cake decorating items, and FINALLY..... a container of Betty Crocker Dark Chocolate Fudge frosting in a can. I'd remembered reading that Betty Crocker has gone gluten free with all of their cake frosting, so the happy dancing commenced.

So now I'm irritated that I have all of this glutenous stuff in my kitchen a year later, and thrilled that I can now frost my cake. I decide to go on a kitchen decontamination binge to get rid of All Things Gluten so I don't have to look at them ever again. But... just to be safe, I check the can of frosting for an Use By date or something, because I honestly have no idea how long it's been hiding in the recesses of the pantry.

Wheat Starch. It turns out my can of frosting is over 2 years old. Of course it is.

I've actually gotten to the point where I no longer question why anyone puts wheat starch in anything. Twizzlers, for example. Certain salad dressings. Seasoning mixes. Canned soups, broths, bouillon. Toothpaste. Mouthwash. Lipstick. Vitamins. Obviously I need to quadruple check everything I come in contact with, and just when I think I've gotten the hang of this whole gluten free thing the rug gets pulled out from under me again. But I keep chugging. What other choice do I have?

Then, just before I'm about to burst into tears the little light bulb goes off in my head.... I have chocolate chips! Nestle Toll House semi-sweet morsels which I know for a FACT are gluten free. And once upon a time I had a recipe for a chocolate chip glaze that I'd used to frost a cake once or twice before.

Thank GAWD for the internet. It turns out that with a little sugar, butter, milk and vanilla extract I could melt down some chocolate chips and make....... FROSTING!

It's darker than the stuff from the can, and will most likely be richer as well. I'm still too chicken to try it yet, but here's what it looks like.

I love that my impatience waiting for the chips to melt created that nice stippling texture on top. Wish me luck!

Monday, June 28, 2010

I beg your pardon, I never promised you an herb garden...


It would appear that I have one anyway. My darling boyfriend (who is the most amazing man in the universe; ask anyone) stopped by a stand run by this old guy outside of David's Market last week and on a whim picked up four Genovese Basil plants. He came home and told me about it, and suggested that we go back the following weekend and I could pick out some others.

Now, for those of you who know me know that I have the WORST black thumb. Seriously. Anything that I've ever tried to plant or cultivate has died a slow, painful death right before my eyes. The only exception is the lucky bamboo that was a birthday present from my siblings. I've had that thing for probably 7 years, and it's only JUST now starting to look a little sickly. I found out that the average lifespan for this particular type of bamboo is only 2 years, so I must've been doing something right. :)

My mother has her own herb garden, and on occasion has saved me some dried sprigs of basil, oregano, rosemary, and even shared her tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers when they were in season. I'm always been grateful, and because of her I'd also learned that home grown herbs are the absolute BEST to cook with, bar none. That being said, I've never seriously considered growing my own simply because I didn't want to waste the money or the time to wind up killing something that could very easily be used by someone else.

Well, last weekend that decision had been made for me. And to top it off, he also harvested some leaves from a couple of the plants and left the cuttings in water on the counter. Right where I prepare all of my food. I started trying to think of various ways I could incorporate the fresh basil into whatever I was making Every Single Time I was in the kitchen. Finally, after two days I'd cracked. I chopped up the fresh basil and sprinkled it over a tossed salad.

Oh. My. Gawd. The flavor completely permeated the salad. You could even taste it through the dressing! It wasn't overwhelming, but you could definitely tell it was there.

Then, yesterday morning, amidst no small amount of discomfort, I tagged along for another trip to the herb stand. I was completely blown away at the different varieties of plants that were on display! Not thinking, I left my darling at the table and went to the far end to read the labels on different pots.

Lemongrass: used in a variety of Thai cuisine; has cancer combative properties; wonderful in soups, stews, teas and to give any and all of your meats that subtle citrus flavor.

Chives: a memeber of the onion family; just cut some sprigs up and sprinkle on potatoes, mix with sour cream or anything else that would benefit from the sweet onioney taste.

Cilantro: also known as Chinese parsley; used in a variety of Mediterranean and Mexican food; the seeds are called Coriander and when ground to a powder it is called Cumin, the predominant seasoning in taco mixes; the leaves are the main herb used to give salsas their flavor.

Aloe Vera: the only naturally occurring source of vitamin B12; the gel has antibacterial and antifungal properties; used to treat a multitude of mild inflammations including burns, scrapes, cuts, sore throat, toothaches, intestinal inflammations and the like; also has moisturizing and healing properties good for a variety of skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and sun damage.

Where I'd acquired this information I couldn't tell you. But with each and every plant I had pointed out, as soon as my back was turned it was being loaded into our bag. It felt like Christmas!

Not long after we got home, he left again saying he had to pick up a few things for work. I laid down for a nap. When I woke up, he was just coming home and had bought a flower box to plant my herbs on the porch, along with 2 more pots for the lemongrass and the aloe vera plant.

Now I'm finding excuses to to go outside and look at my pretty herbs. And fight the fear that they'll be dead in a week.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Update -- It was awesome (of course)

However, after all of that blustering I did previously about seasoning mixes and how "careful" I usually am, I did the unthinkable. Normally I create my own cajun/creole seasoning -- Thank you, Emeril! -- however I didn't have the allotted amount of one ingredient. Rather than mixing it up with what I DID have, I cheated and grabbed a premade mix hiding in the back of the spice rack.

You see where this is going, right?

Today I feel like I've been hit by a truck. :(

Not all companies list gluten ingredients on their labels, but I should've known better regardless. I'm SO pissed at myself today.

Now I've got this big batch of red beans and rice that's too hot for my roommate to eat, apparently has gluten so I can't eat it, and JP isn't a fan of beans. *sigh*

I'm going to play it safe with something simple like Pigs in a Blanket tonight.

And no, I don't mean hot dogs wrapped in dough. Obviously I can't eat dough or even most brands of hot dogs. I didn't know that the rest of the country called those hot dog thingies Pigs in a Blanket until I was in my early 20's. For the life of me I don't understand why anyone would go to the trouble. Isn't that what the bun is for? But I digress....

The Pigs in a Blanket that I'm referring to is the Hungarian style of stuffed cabbage rolls. God bless my very European family. We are a bunch of crackers. :) Of course, I'm a gluten free cracker! Ha!

Basically this is just ground meat mixed with rice (I usually add onions and peppers too) wrapped in cabbage leaves and braised in tomato sauce. Super easy, and VERY gluten free.

I don't know how much I'll feel like eating it, but at least it'll be there should the urge strike.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Today's forecast is sunny and hot, with a side of food coma....

I absolutely LOVE toiling over my food.

90% of the meals I create are something that takes all day (or several days) to prepare. And I don't think I'm giving myself too much credit by saying that most of my food winds up tasting as good as, if not better than anything you could order in a restaurant.

Sometimes I think I actually like preparing the food better than eating it. In fact, it's not unusual for me to be so busy in the kitchen cooking that I forget to eat. I honestly suspect that I'm the only person on the planet who has that issue.....

Back when I could still eat wheat I would make my own pasta from scratch while my homemade spaghetti sauce (fresh roma tomatoes, y'all!) would simmer in the crock pot. I might be a food geek. :)

One of my favorite things to cook involves complex varieties of meats, beans and vegetables.

Tonight I'm making Cajun red beans and rice.

Now, most people would see the title and think that beans and rice are a relatively simple mix, and they would be correct. But add in a little imagination and an infinite amount of inspiration (thank you, internet) and you have the makings of culinary genius.

First, I have the beans which usually require soaking for a few days. Since I slacked off on the soaking regime earlier this week, I "quick soaked" them in my crock pot for about 2 hours. Genuine Louisiana red beans are a different variety of beans than your average kidney beans. I just had to use what I have on hand, which are the kidneys. The beauty of beans is their ability to be substituted. Ah, how I love beans!

Then it's time to scour the cupboards and the fridge for the vegetables to enhance the beans. I used celery, onion, bell pepper and garlic. (Some recipes call for carrots, but I'm not a fan so I left them out.)

Most beans credit a lot of their flavor and texture from some kind of fat, and my favorite thing to use is pork, either bacon and/or sausage. This time I used half a pound of bacon and half a pound of andouille sausage. (For those of you that don't know, andouille sausage is a spicy Cajun sausage that's a staple for Louisiana cooking.) I'm a nut for sausage. I absolutely love sausage and can't ever get enough of it. Beef sausage, chicken or turkey sausage, pork sausage, sweet, mild or spicy, smoked or flavored sausages with sun dried tomatoes and sweet basil; you name it.

Next I'll scour recipes to get an idea of what seasonings I'll want to use. I don't ever follow recipes because I'm a control freak and when it comes to seasonings and spices I like to "follow my nose" rather than someone else's. Also, I abhor measuring and only do it when absolutely necessary (ratios of water to rice, for example.) I have a few favorites that I like to have in bulk. Fresh garlic is a must, and most of the time if I cook with garlic I'll use it towards the end of cooking because it retains its *bite.* If I want something to have a garlic flavor during cooking, I'll use garlic powder to start, and finish with fresh minced garlic. Garlic never goes bad in my house because I used it for just about everything.

Cajun seasoning is also a "must have" for any Louisiana soul food cooking, but a lot of pre-made seasoning blends contain gluten as an anti-caking agent, so I need to be careful. Also some cheaper sausages contain gluten as a filler, so reading labels has become second nature to me. When in doubt, I consult Emeril. :)

Into the pot I have bacon, andouille sausage, bay leaves, oregano, garlic powder, Cajun seasoning, Celtic sea salt, black pepper, white wine, cider vinegar and a few shakes of tobasco sauce. I might cut up some tomatoes later on to throw in just for the heck of it. We'll see... :)

The mouthwatering aromas are already wafting throughout the entire house, and I have at least another 6-8 hours to go before I'll be ready to serve.

Let the suffering commence....

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pandora's kitchen

So today we had dinner with JP's aunts. They invited us for dinner since we hadn't hung out with them in months. They are actually second cousins, but it's easier to just call them aunts. They're relatives on his father's side.

Anyway, women in the restaurant business, you'd think they'd know about dietary restrictions. And they do, to an extent. His one aunt is a diabetic. He is also a diabetic, although not to the extreme that most of his family is. I give myself 50% of the credit; he deserves the other 50%. He eats remarkably healthy for a middle aged man (oy, who feels old?) Part of that is because I take a LOT of responsibility in meal planning. And it's a challenge between my Celiac disease combined with his blood sugar "ish." And who doesn't love a challenge?

Celiac disease, for those of you that don't know, is an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks itself as a result of some kind of catalyst. With Celiacs, it's from this lovely little protein found in wheat, rye and barley called GLUTEN. Gluten is a very elastic molecule that gives bread its "stretch". Gluten, by itself, is not harmful. Not to be confused with a "food allergy," Celiacs do NOT have anaphylactic shock (life threatening), but rather the body produces antibodies that attack healthy tissue as a result of a catalyst, which would be gluten in this case. For Celiacs, the antibodies attack the intestines which interfere with nutrient absorption. The level of sensitivity and severity of the reaction vary from person to person, which makes this particular autoimmune disorder so difficult to diagnose.

A large majority of Celiacs have emotional roller coaster issues once they've been informed of their condition. Others, like myself, come to this conclusion independent of a medical professional, and discover their "sensitivity" completely by accident. Fortunately for me, my grandfather was diagnosed as a Celiac over a year ago, so I was "vaguely" aware if the genetic predisposition, as well as possible symptoms. Once I started noticing suspected symptoms, it wasn't a HUGE leap to conclude that gluten might be the culprit.

Anyway, there are those that give a crap about my dietary restrictions, and those that think of it as a "minor aberration." For instance, I don't have a moment's worry about going to my mother's house since I know she is well versed in what I can and cannot eat. I wouldn't think twice about visiting my grandparents, since my grandfather is a Celiac, and I'm reasonably sure their house is relatively gluten free. I doubt seriously my daughter would even unwittingly cook anything that would in any way create the potential of an adverse reaction, even though her entire household can consume gluten worry free. My boyfriend, no problem with gluten, would check almost instinctively before allowing me to consume anything that would endanger my comfort or health. Then there's the REST of the families.....

For the last few days I've been having what us Celiacs refer to as Food Panick. That's where you're simultaneously excited about the prospect of going out to eat somewhere and terrified that you'll eat something that will make you sick. Now, I used to chortle at other Celiacs for their Food Panick, feeling very superior in the excessive care I take in Making Sure I do NOT consume gluten in any way, shape or form. HA ha hahhhh! Food Panic was an affliction of the Less Informed, and my entire family KNEW that I could get DEATHLY ILL if I was even exposed to this poison-otherwise-known-as-gluten! They all CARED! They all LISTENED!

Then I had this enlightening conversation with my father a couple days ago; referring to our Pennsylvania excursion in the near future: "You'll just have to pack whatever you CAN eat; we'll all be having our bacon and eggs for breakfast, and you'll be eating your gluten-free stuff."


Ok, the PA trip is 6 weeks away; no need to overreact. Perhaps he just wasn't paying attention. No biggie. I can deal. I'll bake myself a loaf of bread and take it with me. Whatev. Right?

But it's been almost a YEAR. Everyone in the family knows that I can't eat gluten; how can you NOT know what it is after 8 months? 8 FRIGGIN' MONTHS?!? Not an issue. Everyone has their own lives to deal with; other stuff going on. I'm not the center of the universe (whine!!), other life events take precedence. I'm OK with that.

So in the midst of my Food Panick, my boyfriend's aunts invite us over for dinner. In case I've never mentioned it, I love my boyfriend's family. They're my "idea" of normal. Sure, they have their drama, but it is in No Way even close to the extreme that comes from MY side. They renew my belief that people, as a whole, are normal. Not normals in a milktoast kind of way, but in a "as seen on TV" kind of way. Mostly boring with a little hokey thrown in to keep it interesting. I love them. In a way that's impossible to put into words. Totally. Completely. Unconditionally. They'd have to decide to be TONS crazier than my family (not gonna happen) before I even thought about disliking them even a smidge. Impossible. I love them. Period.

So we go to his aunt's house for dinner. They're both there with the Yorkies (pocket dogs.) We have pot roast smothered in gravy, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, mashed potatoes, garlic bread and lemon cake with butter cream frosting. Now, for those of you that do NOT know what gluten is, let me inform you that it's a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gravy is made from flour, which comes from wheat. I can't eat that. Hollandaise sauce is mainly a butter sauce, however the instant stuff is made from wheat starch. Cake, as you know, is made with flour -- which comes from wheat. Buttercream frosting also has wheat starch in it. My dinner, for the most part, consisted of mashed potatoes and plain asparagus. Thank you, and goodnight.

My boyfriend was "this close" to walking out and rescheduling dinner. I spent the entire night feeling like the most high maintenance, pain in the arse person on the PLANET.

Good times were had by all. :)

Next time, I'll plan ahead.

But I'm feeling slightly more justified in my Food Panic over our PA trip in May.