Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The best? Yep. The BEST.

I watched an episode of America's Test Kitchen wherein the chefs made "the best blueberry muffins." Usually skeptical of such claims, I vowed to reserve judgement regarding the "bestness" of these muffins until I could make them myself. However, I know from experience that America's Test Kitchen recipes usually are as great as they claim.

We got back from Colorado on a Friday, and Sunday I whipped up some blueberry muffins.

I stuck fairly close to the Test Kitchen recipe, although I did make a modification in that I used some pre-made blueberry jam.

The finished product looked like this:
Lynn’s Best Blueberry Muffins
Servings: 12 muffins
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

For the Lemon-Sugar Topping:
1/3 c. sugar (2 1/3 ounces)
1 1/2 tsp. finely grated zest from 1 lemon

For the Muffins:
1 c. fresh blueberries (about 10 ounces), plus 1 Tbsp.
1 c. Trader Joe’s Blueberry Preserves
1 1/8 c. sugar (8 ounces)
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour (12 1/2 ounces)
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. table salt
2 large eggs
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter , melted and cooled slightly
1/4 c. Canola oil
1 c. buttermilk (see note)
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

For the topping:
Stir together sugar and lemon zest in small bowl until combined; set aside.

For the muffins:
Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Bring 1 cup blueberry preserves and 1 Tbsp. blueberries to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, mashing berries with spoon several times and stirring frequently, until berries have broken down and mixture is thickened slightly, about 5 mi. Transfer to small bowl and cool to room temperature, 10 to 15 minutes.

Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in large bowl. Whisk sugar and eggs together in medium bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter and oil until combined. Whisk in buttermilk and vanilla until combined. Using rubber spatula, fold egg mixture and remaining cup blueberries into flour mixture until just moistened. (Batter will be very lumpy with few spots of dry flour; do not overmix.)

Use a large spoon to divide batter equally among prepared muffin cups (batter should completely fill cups and mound slightly). Spoon teaspoon of cooked berry mixture into center of each mound of batter. Using chopstick or skewer, gently swirl berry filling into batter using figure-eight motion. Sprinkle lemon sugar evenly over muffins.

Bake until muffin tops are golden and just firm, 17 to 19 minutes, rotating muffin tin from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool muffins in muffin tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and cool 5 minutes before serving.
The result? These really are the best blueberry muffins. Hands down. For reals. The topping is crunchy and a little sticky, the texture of the cake is not too dry and not too moist, they're not too sweet and not too tart. These are the Mary Poppins of blueberry muffins - practically perfect in every way.

I ate one, Frank ate one, and I shared the rest with my co-workers for Treat Monday, who want to know when I'm bringing in muffins again. :)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Donation Day! - 10/18/2011

Monday night I went to bed feeling a little achy. I slept well and woke up to the sound of a hotel alarm clock at 5:45am on Tuesday morning. I couldn't have anything to eat since I was getting a central line inserted, so I drank a couple of big glasses of water, put on my comfie clothes and Frank and I headed to the hospital for the last time. We made ourselves comfortable in our own private room, complete with a bed for me, a chair for Frank and a television. One of the nurses came in and drew several tubes of blood, then gave me one last filgrastim injection. The last sting! We waited for the radiology group to call me down to get my central line and as soon as they were ready I headed that way.

I had to put on a gown as four or five doctors and nurses moved around very fast doing doctor and nurse things. One of them put on some music and as I laid on the bed, with the commotion and movement and music that sounded like The Fray, I felt like I was in an episode of Grey's Anatomy and tried to stifle my nerves.

The young Dr. Horner talked to me about going to medical school at KU, then told me that inserting a central line was easy - the easiest, most routine thing they do all day - but that he knew it wasn't easy for me. He said that the hardest part would be the anticipation, not the procedure, and he was right. One of the nurses hung a sheet near my face so that I couldn't see what was going on, and Dr. Horner injected some lidocaine in the general area of my neck. That stung a little bit, but not as bad as that first filgrastim shot. I couldn't see what was going on, but I could feel pressure. Not pain, pressure. I felt like a clown's pocket - like I was getting stuffed full of handkerchiefs. I had no idea what was going on, but it felt weird. Then it was over.

Dr. Horner said something about the Coldplay song playing - that it was "safe - you can't offend anyone with Coldplay." He was right, but I asked him what he likes to listen to, if not the safety of Coldplay. He said - and I'm not kidding - 60's-era jazz organ records. I would have busted out laughing if I didn't have a thing sticking out of my neck. I asked the room in general if anyone had ever heard of The Mighty Boosh and one awesome nurse answered affirmatively and started laughing. I said that Dr. Horner was Howard Moon, then we talked about Old Gregg and the Crack Fox until it was time for me to go back to my room. I thanked Dr. Horner for stabbing me in the neck and wished them all well.

'Back in my room, it was donation time. The central line in my neck made it difficult to turn my head - the nurses told me it was fine, but I was scared the line would pop out and blood would gush out all over everywhere and next thing you know it looks like Night of the Living Dead all up in here. So I kept head movements to a minimum. I then got hooked up to this machine:

Sort of looks like some retro Atari rig, right? There were two tubes coming out of my neck, so they hooked an output tube to one and an input to another. Over the next five hours, my blood was sucked out, passed through this machine where the stem cells were separated out and filtered to a collection bag, then the rest of my blood was pumped back into my body. Since I could't (wouldn't) turn my head, I didn't really see much of this happening, but Mr. Awesome said it looked really cool, if not a bit freaky.

During the collection, I did the following:
  • Slept
  • Ate a Denver omelette
  • Read Cooking Light magazine
  • Slept
  • Watched an episode of America's Test Kitchen where they made the world's best blueberry muffins
When I wasn't sleeping, I looked pretty much like this:

That's multitasking, right there.

Then, around 2:30 pm, a nurse checked the progress of the collection and determined that I was all done. Not only was I done, they were able to collect TWICE as many stem cells as were needed, so the extras could be frozen for use by the patient if she needed more! How awesome is that?!

Here I am, during one of the proudest moments of my whole life:

Shortly after, a courier arrived to pick up my cells and rush them to the airport for a 3:30 flight. It was right about then that I started to get all teary. All the emotion of the day, of the whole experience, was compressed into that bag and the courier and the journey my cells would be taking over the next several hours. It's unfathomable, really. Ain't science grand?

It was now time to remove the central line from my neck. Long story short, the nurses pulled it out, and then held pressure to the hole in my neck for about 5 full minutes. Then they put a chunky white patch over the area and told me not to do anything to strain my neck for a couple of days (like lifting luggage, bending over, etc.) No problem, ladies. I didn't want to see the thing they pulled out of my neck right then, but Mr. Awesome took a picture so I could look at it later. I debated posting the picture here, but decided against it because it's pretty disturbing. Not that the picture above of me holding a bag of blood isn't disturbing, but you get the idea.

I got dressed, put on my shoes (without bending over - no easy task), then said farewell to the great nurses who took such good care of me and Mr. Awesome during our stay:

They're laughing because Mr. Awesome tried to get foam hand sanitizer out of a dispenser, and it sprayed all over him. I sort of laughed, but didn't because I was afraid of the whole Night of the Living Dead thing. You know how it is.

And that was it. I was officially a bone marrow donor!

The process wasn't completely painless, but it wasn't as bad as I expected, either. I didn't have lots of soreness due to the injections like some people report. I preemptively addressed some of that by having Tylenol at the ready just in case and by drinking lots of water. The donation process itself was very easy. Mine was a bit more complicated because of the central line, but I highly recommend a central line to other donors because it keeps your hands free and because they can collect more cells in a shorter period.

I would donate again tomorrow if I asked. No hesitation.

We went back to the hotel, freshened up a bit, then headed to a celebratory dinner. Yep - I felt good enough to go out to dinner. I wore a turtleneck and you couldn't even tell I had a huge patch on my neck covering a gaping clown hanky hole.

With dinner, our day went from AMAZING to OMFGAMAZING. How? We had the best sushi we've ever eaten. In landlocked Denver. A mile above sea level. On a Tuesday.

Sushi Den is the most incredible sushi restaurant we've ever experienced.  Operated by the Kizaki brothers, Toshi, Yasu & Koichi, this is sushi like no other. Toshi and Yasu live in Denver and run the restaurant. Koichi lives in Japan and buys fish in one of Japan's largest fish markets every morning, then ships it to his brothers the same day. The result is that there is fish on the menu in Denver that was swimming 24 hours before. That's not something you run into every day in the midwest or mountains. Among the incredible pieces we sampled was some seared fatty tuna. It was a flavor and texture that was entirely new to me and I could have eaten a whole plate of it. We're looking forward to a trip to Colorado next summer for lots of reasons, including a return visit to Sushi Den.

Donation done, dinner eaten, back to the hotel for a nice, long sleep.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The good stuff - 10/17/2011

Another good night's sleep, another morning sleeping in - but we almost slept in too much! We had arranged to be at the hospital at 9:30am on Monday morning instead of noon so we could have more time to spend in and around Denver, but we woke up at 8:30 and had no idea it was so late!

Another Starbucks breakfast, another visit with the nurses and another stinging (but not too bad) injection of filgrastim.

The weather on Monday was much cooler - in the mid-50s - and a little drizzly. Rather than go into the mountains again, we decided to spend the day in Denver, mostly indoors.

We headed to IKEA.

We had never been in an IKEA before. I'd never really even looked around the company's website. We were in for a very pleasant surprise.

Everything is awesome. Everything is inexpensive. I felt like we rubes in Kansas City are being cheated by the lack of an IKEA in our area. It's the best store I've ever been in. The upper level is room after decorated room of design ideas, including an entire 500-some-odd square foot "house" with multiple rooms filled entirely with IKEA goodness. I could totally live in that space and be blissfully happy. The lower level is room after room of stuff to buy. Kitchen stuff, bedroom stuff, bathroom and office stuff. Wall stuff, candles, picture frames, lamps, rugs - you name it, if it goes in a house, IKEA has the coolest version of it at the best price. As Mr. Awesome said while we were looking around, slack-jawed, "I used to think families on TV were inexplicably wealthy. Now I know they all shop at IKEA."

There were things in that store that I didn't even know we needed. And we needed them.

Aside from a Ställ shoe holder (yes, everything has cutesy-sounding faux-Swedish names), we bought a couple of awesome floor lamps, some glass paneled lights to hang on the wall, a blanket, some LED lights to mount behind our TV and a few sink brushes. You can never have enough sink brushes.

Then, we ate lunch at IKEA.

Full-on Swedish lunch - smoked salmon, Swedish meatballs and lingonberry juice. Bork, bork, bork!

After IKEA, we headed across the street to the Park Meadows Mall. What a beautiful shopping center! Lots of wood, vaulted ceilings, wide walkways, huge skylights. We walked around for a bit, and I bought a couple of sweaters.

Then, I started to feel pretty tired, and my back was fairly sore. This was really the first time I had some extended discomfort and I felt like resting for a little bit. So we headed back to the hotel and relaxed until dinner.

Ah, dinner. Another wonderful adventure. This time, we had reservations at one of Denver's best restaurants, Rioja. We split a black mission fig and goat cheese tart, then I had a delicious roasted squash salad, and Frank had a salad of candied beets and greens. For our entrees, I had veal saltimbocca with polenta and Frank had braised short ribs. We shared a cake pop from Starbucks from dessert before heading back to the hotel once more.

My donation was the next morning, so we went to bed fairly early. I had to be at the hospital at 7am the next day!

Up next - donation day and the best sushi we've ever had.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fugue for greenhorns - 10/16/2011

I slept really good on Saturday night.

Sunday morning we slept in a little, then got up, had breakfast at Starbucks, and went to Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center for my third injection. I met with the nurses who would be with me during the donation, and talked to them about how the donation would work.

They checked my vital signs, conducted a brief health history, and evaluated my veins to see what type of collection method would work best for me. When they asked whether I'd had any trouble with blood draws in the past, I told them that sometimes it takes lots of sticks to hit the right spot. One of the nurses said that it might be a better idea if, instead of collecting the cells from my arms, I would get a central line inserted in my neck. This way, there would be one port with two stems - one to collect the cells and one to put my blood back in. The nurse said it was an additional procedure, but that overall it was a better way to go - the cells collected this way were usually of better quality and quantity, and I would be more comfortable during the donation procedure. I was sold.

I got my third injection and again, it stung, but not nearly as much as that first time. Hurray for meaty arms! Again, the injection site itched a little, but I rubbed on it a bit and it stopped being noticeable after about 10 minutes. This part of the day completed, we headed for the hills!

I'd heard that elks like to roam around Estes Park, Colorado, this time of year, so we drove up that way to see what we could see. We stopped at Whole Foods for a quick bite (there's one on every corner, it seems) before heading north through Boulder then on to Estes Park. The drive was punctuated by sweeping ranch land and splashes of yellow aspen trees among wide swaths of green pines. Colorado may be most popular in winter and summer, but autumn is really a spectacular sight.

Upon arriving in Estes Park, we were greeted by a large bull elk in the center of an intersection. It was just like the opening scene of Northern Exposure, when the moose is walking through the center of town, only this was real. Also, elk are really, really large and we were glad we were in a vehicle. The elk looked around a bit before a policeman chased him off into a lawn. We then noticed a large group of people gathered around a fence by a golf course, and pulled into the Estes Park Visitor's Center next door to find out what they were looking at. Elk. Lots and lots of elk had taken over the golf course. There must have been 20 females, 5 or 6 young and one huge male. Occasionally other males would try to approach and the huge male would chase the interloper off into the hills.

Did I mention elk are huge? They are also loud - the males anyway. At one point as we were watching the action, the big bull male turned toward us spectators and let out this loud, long call. It started off low, then pitched higher and higher until it sounded like one of those obnoxious plastic horns found at sporting events. Local volunteers did a good job of keeping the crowd back and answering questions about the animals.

I had hoped we'd see one elk off in the distance. I had no idea we'd get up close and personal with dozens. So, so cool.

I had made dinner reservations at Jax Fish House in Boulder (where Top Chef Season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg worked for a while) for that night, so we headed out of Estes Park and took the long way back to Boulder, through Boulder Canyon and stopped to see Boulder Falls. By this time, my lower back was hurting just a bit, and every once in a while I'd get these twinges in my back and thighs that lasted for just a couple of seconds but were sort of surprising each time they occurred.

Dinner at was just wonderful. The atmosphere in the restaurant was vibrant, but not too hipster, and even though it was Sunday night, the place was packed.We shared a Charcuterie Trio of smoked colorado trout pate, tuna confit and sockeye salmon pastrami. I had Char Grilled Alaskan Salmon with wild rice griddle cake, curried cauliflower, heirloom squash and pickled cherries. This dish tasted exactly like this rice dish my mom makes for holidays, so I planned on recreating the spirit of it when I returned home. Frank had Skinned Colorado Striped Bass with duck fat roasted yukon golds, eggplant agrodolce and cumin yogurt. For dessert, we split a slice of Key Lime Pie.

After dinner, we walked around Pearl Street Mall for a bit before heading back to the hotel for another good night's sleep.

Next up - Injection day 4 and the most wonderful store in the world.