On Pasta Salad and Dogs

I’m going to start with the pasta salad, because the Dog bit of this blog might make you sad. I’ll give you a spoiler alert, so you can stop reading, and just use this week’s entry to go make yourself a tasty side-dish or wowza contribution to your next potluck gathering.

The Facebook algorithm delivered this recipe to me. Now I will say, I often find the algorithm spooky on a good day, obnoxious on a bad one. For instance, the algo decided I must have gone to Camp Lejeune and gotten horrible diseases. I blocked about fifteen variants of that particular ad, and I am still getting it in my spam email.

Other times, it can be amusing. As in, I’m thinking about doing a SwimTrek trip to Indonesia. On this one, along with swimming in gorgeous waters with sea turtles and colorful fish and sharks (I know, I just don’t have a big fear of them, not like I do, say, going to the car mechanic on my own), you visit an island Komodo dragons live on. I did zero research online about the reptiles, other than going to the site and checking out the trip. Next day, Komodo Dragons littered my feed. Everything from where to see them to movies about them to pictures of them. Totally obscure, although I did learn the government has recently hiked the price to step foot on the island from $65 to $250, so all the folks who make their living preventing people from being eaten showing people the Komodo dragons are mad.

Another friend looked at one bra and then had to weed through bra commercials for weeks. I’ll let you know if that happens to me after I publish this.

I do like to try the occasional recipe that the algorithm serves up. This one was very easy. I only watched the video once. A few little notes before I give it to you:

1. Dice instead of chop. It all melds better with smaller pieces. As one of my sons says, that shows the love. He likes chopping though.

2. Amounts of each ingredient are really up to you, except with the dressing. If you love black olives, put more in. Hate green pepper? Don’t add it. I don’t care for spicy things, much to the chagrin of my children (although I remind them, I liked spicy/hot things before I was pregnant with them, so they only have themselves to blame for my pallid palate), so I keep my red onion to a half one, instead of a whole one. You do you.

3. This is best made ahead of time. Just seal it up in Tupperware and let it sit in the fridge.

4. This is just as delicious with regular pasta. I just use brown rice pasta because we are trying to be better about gluten.

5. I know we can’t all get organic food, or care to. I would try to get organic tomatoes for this, though.

PASTA SALAD (This makes enough to serve 10-12 as a side dish.)

1 bag brown rice pasta. Cook and rinse and cool. Tip: Heavily salting your water really makes it taste better.

Green onion, red onion, green pepper, black olives, cherry tomatoes—chop up and add to cooked pasta.

Toss in dressing: 4 cloves of garlic minced, 1 T Dijon mustard, equal parts red wine vinegar and olive oil, 1 T oregano, 2 T parm cheese. Whisk until it melds. You’ll know you have your proportions right if the color turns creamy. Taste it and see if you want it tangier (add more vinegar), or if it needs be more mellow (add more olive oil).

When getting ready to serve, add a bunch of tiny fresh mozzarella balls… or go crazy and add chopped meat too. It’s your pasta salad. Enjoy!

Now, if you’d like to just be happy with a recipe this week, I bid you adieu… the next bit about Dogs makes me awfully emotional, and I wouldn’t want to ruin your coffee time.

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So, a few days ago was National Dog Day, and FB had oodles of cute pictures of pups. Don’t get me wrong, or think I’m ready to sit on the porch and wave my cane at people. I wasn’t resentful at all. I LOVED seeing everyone’s pictures of their doggos. It stabbed me in the heart at the same time, because after over a year, a month, and a handful of days, I still miss our beloved rescue dog. Like, I still cry weekly that we had to let her go.

Yes, it was the right thing to do, yes it was time. Yes, she let us know she was ready.

I wasn’t ready. None of us were.

I’m still not ready.

Most of you know our story of Keisha, who was a rescue who rescued us, or you can read about it in this blog, or in the book I wrote about her and us. My husband has nearly convinced me she was a Beauceron.

So now we are on all these Beauceron websites looking at them, getting to know where to find the breed. We will 100% do a rescue again. We are not puppy people anymore. We are NOT READY for another dog yet, mind you. But we are super wistful for the one that is gone. I also torture myself by having friends who rescue animals (I donate proceeds from the book) so really, I should be used to seeing all the cute noses and perky ears and that soulful way dogs gaze at their person.

Whew, howdy. After about the tenth picture, I had to close the website. I know, I know. I AM grateful we had her. I’m relatively sure my heart is mending from the loss, and very sure that I’d like to have a dog or two again.

I like the walks too, amiable pup by my side, or just ahead, sniffing things. I love the way dogs’ tails wag when they walk. Letting you know they are happy.

That’s the other thing. Where I walk in the mornings is the same route we used to walk with our dog. It got shorter as she got older. And then recently, when I was back visiting where we lived when she had lots of energy, I walked in those spaces as well. It was very emotional.

I have to believe that loving something that much is good for me. It better be, because this broken feeling is hard to take some days.

Please give your pup an extra snuggle from me, and a biscuit. Our dog loved biscuits. She was a such a good girl.

On Air Fryers and Terrible Toys

My husband and I have birthdays just 5 days apart. Now that our children are grown, this means that we often get combination gifts for the household rather than individual things.

This birthday week brought us an air fryer. I have to admit, I was leery of the thing. Just like I was with the Instapot I got for Christmas a couple of years ago. As I am totally without mechanical skills, the arrival of any new gadget fills me with suspicion that something could go very wrong, that it will explode somehow, leaving bits of both myself and the kitchen cabinets scattered on the linoleum.

Its name also reminded me of the Air Poppers that we all owned in the early 1980s. Nothing better than some cardboard-textured, tasteless air popped popcorn to go with your strongest-aftertaste-ever-on-the-planet Tab. Mmmmm.

The exploding thing was really what stopped me. The dread of what could happen. It’s like that feeling you get when you have to open those heinous round cannisters of poppin’ fresh dough. Please tell me this happens to you, too. I hold them at arm’s length and avert my eyes as much as I can. Trepidation builds as I get closer and closer to the POP when it opens. It’s almost not worth making orange sweet rolls on Thanksgiving morning. Almost.

I think those “peel and open” containers were invented by the scions of the super crazy loon who invented the Jack in the Box as a “fun” toy for children. That horrific building suspense, and then the awful “surprise” of a THING popping out at you. A thing dressed like a clown that then bobs around on a spring. I’ll give you a shiny quarter if that thing made you laugh, but you have to be honest about it. I am sure it made most of us cry. My Jack in the Box played “Pop goes the Weasel,” and I loathe that tune to this day. This is what mine looked like. Terrifying, am I right?

I’m sure a close cousin of the Jack in the Box was the inventor of the game Operation, where you pull the diseased and broken parts of a human being out of a man on an operating table. If you hit the metal edge of the game with your metal operating instrument, a buzzer goes off and the nose of the guy you are operating on blinks red. You might not actually get shocked for real, but the jarring sensation feels like it. Honestly, they should all be locked up for scarring us for a lifetime.

I’ll give you one more. My kids were raised on Legos, and we stepped on our fair share, to be sure. Not fun at all. However, I believe Jacks, with their multiple pointy bits were much more lethal on the night-time walks from bedroom to bathroom. How did we ever survive our childhoods?

Back to the present. I now love my Instapot and can cook whole meals in it if I get ambitious. The air fryer sat on the counter untouched by me in spite of this proof that newfangled gadgets can make my life easier. But my braver husband started making things with it while I remained in another room, far away. Then I tasted what he made. I’m now a solid convert. It was the air fries that sold me. Being that it was a potato product, it had a natural edge, but man those were good. Fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside. I’ve made really good salmon in it so far. My son tells me I can bake with it too, but we will have to see about that. Preheating the thing seems to be the secret. It’s all very self-contained, nothing exploding that I’ve unearthed yet. And pretty easy to clean, too.

The Instapot was definitely more scary. I think it’s the hissing sound the steam makes. It’s just not a friendly sound.

It’s great to have the Air Fryer during the 100+ degree temperatures of summer. Anything that helps me avoid turning on my oven is a plus. Here are a couple of recipes to get you started. They tell me I can make bread in the thing too, I’ll let you know when I try it.

AIR FRYER SWEET POTATO FRIES

Preheat your frier at 380 degrees. Cook for about 10 minutes. Give the potatoes a little shake about halfway through.

Peel and cut sweet potatoes into fries, about ¼ -1/2 inch or so.

Toss with a little olive oil (about a teaspoon). Or just spray the inside of the cooker with spray olive oil.

Sprinkle potatoes with garlic powder, paprika, salt and pepper.

Put in the air fryer in a single layer. One or two potatoes is plenty.

NOTE: It’s the same principle and temp for regular fries, just soak your cut potatoes in water for about fifteen minutes, then dry them first.

AIR FRYER SALMON

Preheat fryer to 400.

Make sure your filets are the same size. Season with a little lemon, garlic, and salt and drizzle a little olive oil on top. If you are getting fancy, some sprigs of rosemary are nice.

Place salmon skin-side down in fryer. Cook for 6-11 minutes, depending on thickness and how done you like your salmon. It’s not a temperamental thing, you can pull the basket out and check on it, and then put it back in.

On Italian Salad and Birthday Resolutions

May is our month for multiple birthdays. My father, me, my husband, and one of my best friends all have birthdays within a week. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day get kind of rolled up in the bunch too. My mother’s is the last day of April, so we often add it in. I like baking the pies and cakes we eat to celebrate.

I don’t mind birthdays some years, others I do. I really hated the year last year’s celebrated. And yes, I am fully aware there are many people who wish they could be so old. A ridiculous number of friends died this past year that will never hit 61. I try very hard to be grateful.

I just fall short sometimes.

The theme around many of my birthdays is the desire to make big changes for the year to come—or at least a small one—on my birthday. Last year’s pit of despair led to me taking a writing class and now it looks like writing books is my 3rd act in what I hope is a lengthy lifespan. I’m giving it ten years, and my goal is to have 40-60 books on the book/library shelves by the time I’m done. And be in at least 20 anthologies. So, as bitter-tasting as that birthday was, it yielded some good stuff.

So far I’m at 1 publishing company established, and 3 complete novel-length books, 1 long novella, and 1 anthology completed this past year. On target! The hard part hasn’t been writing the words, it’s been learning the publication side of things. Next mountain is getting a handle on advertising and growing my newsletter and IG account.

This year finds me focused on health. Like many of us, Covid helped me add pounds I didn’t need, and as an *ahem* older adult, it’s proving to be harder and harder to get the pounds off. Losing our dog last July didn’t help either. All those walks not taken. I really miss her. No, we’re not ready to get another dog.

I know advertising on both IG and FB works because I occasionally cave to one. There’s a walking app called “The Conqueror Challenges” that has been dangling their medals and postcards and intriguing copy in front of me for years.

Resistance was futile when they offered not a walk along Hadrian’s wall, or a Swim across the English Channel, but Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor.

My inner geek squealed. My finger punched more info. I caved and signed up. I am just now through South Farthing in the Shire, 28.5 miles of walking* in my first 6 days. The moment when Sam realizes if he takes one more step, he’ll be further from home than he’s ever been before.

So, I guess joining the “group” the app provides is working for me. Are you like me? Do you make “birthday resolutions?” If so, let me know some of yours.

Next up is regulating my food choices. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes. Meanwhile, here’s the recipe I promised you last week for a most excellent Italian salad. Find someone who likes chopping or get some music going as you prep this.

The smaller the chop, the tastier the salad. I use Trader Joe’s Romano Italian dressing, just enough to coat. Any Italian dressing will do. If you’re a vegetarian, you can eat around the meat bits. Or just don’t add them. It’s an easygoing recipe.

You can make this big or little. The amount listed below fed 6 people for a main course with leftovers. We had a side of sourdough bread and rhubarb pie** for dessert.

ITALIAN SALAD

Chop:

5 Persian Cucumbers or 1 large English cucumber

1 red pepper

1 box cherry tomatoes

½ of a red onion

Half a can of black olives

Add: 10 oz cubed low-fat mozzarella cheese, half of a cubed summer sausage (I used turkey summer sausage), cubed cooked chicken breast and a can of garbanzo beans drained and rinsed. Toss lightly with dressing. You can also add baby spinach if you wish.

*the app also counts my swimming and converts it into steps.

** see my rhubarb pie post for recipe. It’s probably the best pie you’ll ever eat, and I CANNOT BELIEVE how many people don’t know what rhubarb is.

On The Strip and Fried Pickles

This past weekend was a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas to celebrate our daughter’s wedding reception. We’d been at the actual chapel wedding back last summer (no, not done by Elvis), but this was the Covid-free mix and mingle of the families.

The Strip is a unique place, and it really is fun to visit. It’s not a place the locals go unless they have visitors in town. I’ve been in Vegas a lot over the years, often trapped in a single hotel for days on end during a conference and never stepping foot outside the MGM Grand. This trip, my husband and I took advantage of our position on the far end of the strip at Excalibur to take an early morning walk while it was still relatively cool — 80 degrees at 8am, but it’s a dry heat. Bonus points for those who get that movie reference (answer below*).

We started on the sunny side of the street first. Everything on the strip is further away and takes longer to walk to than you’d think it would, and involves a lot of up and down as pedestrians are routed over the streets on walkways. Most of the time, the escalators work, but if you want a serious workout, take the stairs. My quads were screaming by the end of our walk, but it was worth it. I also washed my hands multiple times, as I did have to grab the handrails. If Covid has done nothing else, it has made me a prompt hand-washer.

I was very impressed with the Aria and its adjacent high-end shopping mall. It’s exactly as if Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills was transported indoors. The air conditioning was welcome, even after only fifteen minutes of walking.

We saw men working on the fountains at the Bellagio. There’s an odd job—fountain maintenance. It was fun to watch them don their scuba gear and hop off their boat, presumably to clear trash away from the fountains so they could do their thing unimpeded later in the day.

The inside of the Bellagio is lovely. Nice bathrooms too.

Caesars Palace is iconic and less tacky than you’d think. I can never see the outside of it without thinking about the cataclysmic end of Stephen King’s “The Stand.” I remember a long time ago when it first opened, you could get into the place, but it was hard finding your way out. Now they have convenient signs helping you with arrows to point the way. I love the shops at the Forum. The ceilings here (and in the Venetian) are all painted in trompe l’oeil style, to fool you into not knowing what time it is. You could swear the clouds were moving.

We crossed the street to the shady side. It was 10am, and the strip was starting to bustle with tourists and the street pros had their hustle on. Girls in bikinis and big feathered headdresses coaxing to take a picture for a fee, men with placards proclaiming the end was near, costumed characters, and a crazy shell game guy that rooked someone out of $600 while we watched. We popped into the Venetian for some more coolness. It has marble floors for miles and a canal running through it, with gondoliers who can belt out an opera tune or two as they paddle. It also boasts a full replica of St. Mark’s square, and you can have a gelato there. We didn’t indulge, but you could.

Our son and his wife were meeting us at our hotel, so we had to dash back past the venerable Flamingo without going in, but I noted from the billboards that Wayne Newton was still headlining a show there. He is 80 years old, bless his heart. Bet he can still make ‘em swoon.

We ended up having lunch at an Irish pub in New York, New York. Maybe it was the 20,000 steps we’d walked, but the fried pickles there were the best we’ve eaten. Here’s a recipe to make your own at home: Fried Pickles – Sugar Spun Run

Afterwards, we checked out the Hershey’s store. I did not buy this item, but it caught my eye.

I’ve been curious for years about the Luxor, the Egyptian-themed hotel that has a light on the top of it that can be seen from space. It’s literally the brightest light in the world. (Side note: as you can see from this picture, our hotel window faced this light but thankfully the Excalibur had excellent black-out curtains.) It is accessible via moving walkway and tram from our hotel, so I dashed out on our last morning to take a gander

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The interior is pretty fun. It reminded me of those old Holiday Inns where all the rooms faced into an interior courtyard. This hotel, along with the Excalibur, is dated… but if you’re of the mindset that you just want a place to sleep at night, but still be on the strip they are good, economical choices. One thing though—even though these hotels have been renovated, the smell of old cigarette smoke lingers. And since pot is legal… prepare for contact high as you walk along. Good times!

*Aliens. Bill Paxton says this quite ironically in the movie and it’s become one of those quotes our family uses often. It’s always funny to us.