Saturday, January 16, 2010

Buon Appetito!

This week, my brain got it into it’s head I wanted, nay, NEEDED to cook Italian. Where this came from, I do not know. I am not Italian. I have never been to Italy. I am not planning a trip to Italy. I own no Italian clothing. Apart from pizza, tomato sauce and lasagna, I have never cooked any Italian dishes. And seeing how Roxie the Diet is still around (and doing quite well—12 kilo down so far) it is not as though I have been eating much Italian food. (Roxie, she does not like the pasta). Nonetheless, somehow, from out of nowhere, the obsession emerged. Must. Cook. Italian.

Okay, I can go with this. Unlike the other nonsense my brain comes up with (running half-marathons, knitting sweaters), this could even be fun! Then, I looked over my schedule and realized that, nope, my brain had done it again. I had absolutely no time to do a meal. I tried to reason with my brain—immediately post-year- end is just not the right time for an accountant to be entertaining. Perhaps when things are a bit more calm? Like after I retire? My brain was having none of it. Must. Cook. Italian. it repeated. What’s a girl to do? I gave in. I invited some friends over for Shabbat dinner (“why waste perfectly good guinea pigs or rats when you have friends to test shit on”, that is my motto) and started to plan a menu.

My menu planning requirements were as follows:
1) All recipes had to be kosher or kosher-convertible.
2) As one of my guests is a vegetarian, it had to include vegetarian-friendly dishes.
3) The food had to be stuff that I could eat during the week without killing my diet.
4) No minestrone soup. I do not care how authentically Italian minestrone soup is. I hate it.

I was assisted in my menu planning by another one of my guests, Lydia. Lydia lived in Italy for a year back when she was a student. As such, Lyvia had eaten actual Italian food, cooked by Italians, in Italy. This makes her an expert. Between help from Lyvia, my beloved Moosewood cookbook , the Web and some random but useful suggestions, I decided on the following line-up:

First Course: Antipasti and Hallah (I was going to make focaccia as well, but seeing how I had a grand total of four hours to prepare everything, I realized that this was not going to happen).

Second course: Roasted Red Pepper Soup

Third course: Salad

Fourth course: Chicken Cacciatore, Eggplant Marsala, Pasta and Green beans

Fifth course: Tea and cookies

Why so many courses? Because that is how it is done in Italy. Each meal lasts approximately a year. That…and every single dish includes bottles and bottles of alcohol. I suspect that Italians go through life in a state of constant feeding and mild inebriation. Sounds fun, no?

There were a few preparation snafus. Mid-chicken cacciatore preparation I discovered that the white wine I had in my cabinet was a muscat, and not the dry white wine the recipe called for. I ran to the mercolet (mini-market) downstairs where I found them about to close. Fortunately the register was still open and they had semi-dry white wine in stock. I figured that would work. Then, the eggplant marsala had me worried. After I added the sherry, the dish took on a distinctly unappetizing aroma. I was in a panic. What was I going to feed the rabbit? Had Moosewood steered me wrong? As per the recipe instructions, I waited until the very end to add the garlic and, like magic, the dish started to smell like something one would actually want to eat. Finally, the whole wheat spaghetti I prepared was not so tasty to begin with. Then it proceeded to dry out on the plata (electric hotplate one uses to keep food warm during Shabbat) and as its grand finale, just as I was about to serve it, the Pyrex exploded. Apparently, “do not put a hot Pyrex dish directly on a marble counter top” is a good rule to live by. Alternatively, the rule could be “do not try to serve happy-clappy, new-age and rather disgusting whole wheat pasta at an Italian meal, lest one anger the gods of Italian cooking and they aim a divine lightning bolt at your kitchen”.

In the end, I have to say that the meal was quite a success. My trusty lab rats and I stuffed ourselves silly after which we lolled about on my couches, munched on cookies and tried to explain to one guest how, exactly, a guy keeps a woman’s feet warm. In the end, we decided that we would wait a few years until he was a bit older, and then Lyvia, as the elder of the group, would sit him down for a conversation about the birds and the bees.


Of everything I prepared, the red pepper soup was the only item made from a recipe billed as low calorie. Despite this, it was tasty. The original recipe is here; my enlarged, meat-meal-ready, and annotated version is below.

Roasted Red Pepper Soup

12 red bell peppers
8 black peppercorns
Whatever amount of dried thyme you think translates into four sprigs of thyme. Because you forgot to buy it.
2 bay leaves
3 teaspoons olive oil
3 cups diced onion (or however many cups one gets from two large onions)
Quantity of minced fresh garlic that can only be described as “I am not planning on getting to close to anyone for the foreseeable future, and perhaps even the next year”.
5 cups parve chicken broth
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Random number of shakes of Tabasco.
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 container of unflavored soy milk
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Preheat broiler.

Cut bell peppers in half lengthwise; discard seeds and membranes. Place pepper halves, skin sides up, on a foil-lined baking sheet; flatten with hand. Broil for 15 minutes or until blackened. Place in a zip-top plastic bag; seal. Let stand for 15 minutes or until you finish prepping the chicken cacciatore (about 40 minutes). Whichever comes first. Peel and chop. Curse the Italians for their deranged obsession with peeling tomatoes and bell peppers—vegetables that G-d clearly did not intend to be peeled.

Place peppercorns, thyme, and bay leaves into a little metal tea thingy because you do not have cheesecloth, and, to be perfectly honest, are not entirely sure what cheesecloth is.

Return to the recipe. Ask yourself “do I have a Dutch oven”? Do I know what one is? Determine that the answer to both questions is “no”. Give up on the Dutch oven thing, and heat oil in a big metal pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; cook 15 minutes or until onion is lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add bell peppers, metal thingy, broth, vinegar, salt and pepper and hot pepper sauce to pan. Increase heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes. Taste. My G-d, but this is vile. Did you add too much vinegar? Apparently you did! Dump in the soy milk in a desperate attempt to tone down the flavor. Realize that you added the salt and pepper at the beginning of the recipe instead of waiting for the proper time, which is now. Following directions is not your forte. This is probably why you are not married.

You cannot place the bell pepper mixture in a blender because your blender is dairy and if you use it, than the soup will be dairy and then everyone will go to hell because you have served them milk and meat together. And that would be bad. Instead, dump it (in installments) into a food processer and set it to liquefy. Repeat procedure with remaining soup. Pour pureed mixture into your soup tureen (deemed “posh” by your British guest). Forget to add the chives when serving.

Monday, January 4, 2010

No. More. Autism. Websites.

I think that one of my New Year's Resolutions is going to be to never, ever, EVER look at another website having to do with autism.

The story goes like this. Last week I had a chat with a woman who is acquainted both with my perennial single and dateless status and my diagnosis as being on the autism spectrum (PDD-NOS). Of course, this could describe virtually anyone who knows me, and quite a few random people who do not, but who have happened upon the relevant posts in my blog. No matter. Anyway, THIS particular person is also well-acquainted with autism spectrum disorders in general, and as such, it occurred to her to put both tidbits of information together. You know, she said, it could very well be that the dating woes are linked to the autism spectrum disorder. Perhaps I might be helped by cognitive therapy. Had I considered that?

The truth is that I had not considered that. This is due, in no small part, to my having not the foggiest idea of what the hell "cognitive therapy" is. (I Googled it. From what I can see, it is coaching. I love coaching—like a shrink, but practical.) But it is also due to our having very different perceptions of the PDD-NOS. She views it as something I have. I view it as something I had.

As in, I do not have it anymore.

I was fucked up. Now, I am normal. Granted, I am a bit eccentric. But apart from that (and really, eccentricity can be quite nice, no?) perfectly normal. And well adjusted. And a productive member of society. With friends and everything.

But, admittedly, without a love life. And now that she had mentioned it, I supposed she might be onto something. Maybe I was having problems making connections or reading signals or something. Why not give this a try? I made an appointment with the cognitive therapist she recommended. And then, just to get the therapy ball rolling, I decided to read up a bit on autism spectrum disorders, so as to get a feel for where I am falling short. I pulled out my medical records from the Center and read over and marveled (for the zillionth time) just how badly screwed up I was at the time I was admitted. Then I entered the official diagnosis into Google: Atypical Pervasive Developmental Disorder. A list of websites popped up. I started to read.

I read over the symptoms, compared them to my life and evaluated which ones could be applied to me. People with my disorder have troubles fitting in. We act differently; we seem to lack social skills. We have trouble connecting to others and establishing relationships. We are detached from the feelings of others and find it difficult to "read" people. The reading and transmission of non-verbal communication and body language are not our fortes. We do not know how to handle feelings of anxiety or anger; we will go off if frustrated. We are obsessive and have a profound attachment to schedules, routines and order.* In short, we are weirdoes. Loners. Clueless. And (this is key) many of us do not succeed in finding a partner or establishing a family. We are the ultimate dateless wonders.

Suffice it to say that by the time I was done reading, I had managed to convince myself that I was still suffering from the disorder, was not cured at all, was a complete social misfit, hopelessly disabled and a good candidate for a sheltered care facility. Finally, and most importantly, I was doomed to be single.

Saturday evening, I finally shut off the computer and went to a party at a friend's house.The guest list included several million people I did not know, all of whom arrived with spouses and children. I did not enjoy this party. Based on the day's reading, I attributed my lack of enjoyment to the PDD-NOS. Had I been normal, I told myself, even though I did not know and (apparently) did not have a lot in common with anyone there, I would have had a swell time. I would have been wandering the room, striking up conversations and getting to know everyone and their children. Instead, I spent most of my time hiding out in the corner by the popcorn, nursing a killer headache, and biding my time until I figured I had been there long enough that I could leave without causing offense.

So that was the weekend. Sunday was no better. I spent the day fighting off gloom and envisioning my sad and loveless future. I wrote off ever having a husband. Really Gila, can you handle a relationship? Would that not be just too much for your fragile psyche? Are you not just too…well…different to ever get a guy? And children? Oh, out of the question. Completely.

Families are for normal people. I am not normal. I am on the autism spectrum. We do not have families and relationships. Therefore, I will not have a family.

This went on ALL DAY. I sat in my office, working on the Report From Hell, imagining my desolate future, envying the Normal People, and trying not to cry. Finally, at 8:30 PM (did I mention it was the Report From Hell?), as I was leaving the office, a rather irritated voice popped up inside your head.

Oh for fuck's sake**, Gila, have you lost your mind? You read the websites, yes? How many of the things that you have done were you "supposed" to have done, based on the websites? You did them because no one ever told you that you couldn't, and you just assumed you could, if you worked hard enough and long enough. Now some random website is saying "oh, people with autism spectrum disorders rarely end up in relationships", and you are buying that? Yes, it is probable that the woman is correct and the disorder has handicapped you in respect to dating. It makes a lot of sense, fits the facts and is even good to know; you do not have to continue beat yourself up over your failure. But, self-pity? Despair? This is helping? Knowing the cause of a problem means you have a chance at solving it. Cut the crap, go to the cognitive therapist or a coach or whatever, fix whatever the hell needs fixing—all these skills can be learned—and gamarnu. Nu, get OVER yourself, already!

Ahem. My brain, she has a tendency towards crankiness. She does not handle irritating situations well. I think she is a bit disturbed.

Right, so, I am off the websites.

*My order includes a daily ritual in which I toss a pile of clothes on the floor every night and toss them back on my bed in the morning, at which point I promise myself that, really, from tonight, I am going to start putting my clothes away after I am done wearing them. I do this every day but Saturday. On Saturday morning I put the clothes away. Saturday night, I start a new pile. In my opinion, this counts as order.

**New profanity, picked up from my friend Natalie. Is it not the best profanity ever???