Commoner’s Field Guide to Birds

Three years ago, I asked for a bird feeder for Mother’s Day. My first, time-intensive, agonizing identification was of a Black-capped Chickadee. If only I had first read the field guide books, which all agree that the likely first enthusiastic customer on a new backyard feeder will be the cheerful Black-capped Chickadee. I’ve since identified 25 bird species in my backyard, and the Black-capped Chickadee is one of the few whose name makes any kind of sense. It wears a rakish black beret, perfect for any basement poetry reading, and natters on throughout the day, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee,” sometimes commenting with goodwill, sometimes scolding with irritation, but always with its charming, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” If only my adolescent were so endearing with his constant repetition of, “Can we have pizza? Can we have pizza? Can we have pizza?”

Birds, I learned to my horror, were named by white men who shot them dead and noted the defining details of corpses. John James Audubon might shoot hundreds of birds for the sake of one drawing. A Ring-necked Duck’s neck ring might be obvious from close-up observation of a stationary object, but in the cold, wet field, from a distance, on a moving target, it’s a Ring-billed Duck, for heaven’s sake. Duh. I am not the first to note this, I now see in some field guides, so we are all in agreement: let’s get rid of these stupid names and start over.Read More »

Accidental Wonder

When the best moments are after you miss the turn to head home.

I sat in an Othello High School hallway, eating my sandwich at the 20th Annual Othello Sandhill Crane Festival. The Owl Lecture room was standing room only, so I found myself in familiar territory—flash back to eating lunch by myself in high school about forty years ago.

I had no adolescent feeling of exclusion, though I lapsed into the same behavior I did back then: eavesdropping on the popular kids.Read More »

The Lousy Cook Decorates a Cake–Redux!

Practicing rosettes
Practicing rosettes, stars, beads, and what my classmates called “poops”

Six months after my cake decorating fiasco and with cupcake-decorating and cookie-decorating classes under my belt, I was ready to try again: this time with adult supervision. I signed up for a two-part, six-hour cake decorating class. I’m not sure why I ever thought I could casually decorate a fabulous anniversary cake. Like brain surgeons who decide they’ll write a novel “when they retire,” my goal was a bit of an insult to pastry chefs.

There are only four great arts: music, painting, sculpture, and ornamental pastry. –Julia ChildRead More »

The Lousy Cook Makes Bread

Happy first birthday, sourdough starter! (Those bubbles are yeast farts.)
Happy first birthday, sourdough starter! (Those bubbles are yeast farts.)

Before there was cake, there was bread.

Breadmaker sourdough loaf
First perfect breadmaker sourdough loaf (July; yes, after half a year of trying)

It all started with the potato bread. Seattle has amazing fresh bread choices, but the prices are as high as the quality. My son particularly likes the potato bread, a soft white bread with a caraway tang, but an active fourteen-year-old can put away a lot of bread, which quickly adds up to a lot of dough.Read More »

The Lousy Cook Makes a Fruitcake

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My brown Caribbean Black Cake (if I’d burned the sugar as the recipe required, I would have burned the house down, so I substituted dark molasses)

The first time I used my new KitchenAid mixer(s), I might have gone overboard. I threw out my hip while making a fruitcake.

The day started out by finally making The Fruitcake. To be specific, this was a Caribbean Black Cake six months in the making. I’d read about it in Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking the previous summer, the same week I watched the Great British Baking Show and decided it wouldn’t be too difficult to make my own 30th anniversary cake. Colwin’s Caribbean Black Cake recipe stresses that the cake must be extravagantly decorated (“colored icing, flowers, swags, and garlands”), as it is typically for weddings. Also, the cake recipe includes two bottles of booze. Sounded like a good starter cake for me: a cake Colwin confessed that she herself had not attempted to make.Read More »

Santa Visits the Lousy Cook–Twice!

(A very late post! Pretend it’s still 2016: a nice thought in oh so many ways.)

Cookie "dough" in Grandma's mixing bowl
Cookie “dough” in Grandma’s mixing bowl

(Note: I wasn’t paid for this post by the advertising department of a certain kitchen appliance, but I should be. I’m open to offers.)

I left my holiday cookie decorating class full of resolve to practice the decorating skills I had learned, instead of shoving everything into the fridge like after my cupcake decorating class two months ago, where it all still sits, untouched. But the day after the cookie class, I ran into trouble with Step One: making the actual cookies. My dough looked like wet sand. I posted to Facebook:

Sugar cookie dough is in crumbles. Mixed with my old hand mixer. Supposed to be in fridge for two hours but it’s literally a bunch of crumbles. Add more egg?Read More »

The Lousy Cook Takes a Cooking Class

Curry! Amanda Coba teaching at The Book Larder, recipe from Anna Jones's "A Modern Way to Cook"
Curry! Amanda Coba teaching at The Book Larder (Anna Jones recipe)

Hot on the heels of acquiring my first new set of pots and pans since 1987, I signed up for a cooking class.

My 30-year-old pots were a gift from my parents, in hopes, I think, that I wouldn’t move back in with them. Again. Rather impressive that I’ve used the same cookware since the advent of Prozac and The Simpsons, though my set has dwindled to three pots and two lids (two pots have no lid; one lid doesn’t match any pot, but I hate to toss the lid, since it’s good for extinguishing fires). Especially impressive since it’s glass cookware for a klutz (the other day the Man I Married asked me if dropping things was a sign of MS, and I asked him if insensitivity was a sign of divorce).Read More »