Writer’s Note: Some of you may remember that I wrote a rare two-column series last year on special challenges in 2019 — hummingbirds and zinnias. I had spent years of being unable to attract the former or grow the latter. 2019 was going to be MY year!
As it turned out, it WAS! I — with LOTS of help from friends and neighbors — finally had hummingbirds coming every day to feed. And with persistence and again help from friends and neighbors, I grew glorious zinnias.
Now it is 2020 and I am facing new challenges. COVID-19 restrictions are a given for us all, so I’m not going to write about those. Instead, I’m going to devote this column to my latest personal challenges — a dirt dauber invasion and conquering the Instant Pot.
I will not give up on either without a fight . . .
Another Set of Challenges.
I was amused recently when I saw a social media post declaring that with all that is going on, we might as well put up our Christmas trees and call it a year for 2020. Another posted that she wasn’t adding 2020 to her age because she wasn’t using it anyway.
The truth is, 2020 has not been exactly stellar so far. While historians and researchers have more than enough to keep them busy now and for decades to come, the rest of us have had to find ways to deal with the isolation of being “quarantined” in our homes. Make no mistake, though. Even at home we may be confronted with unexpected challenges that must be addressed. I’m not talking here about children or spouses misbehaving, or curbside grocery delivery not being exactly what was ordered, or the satellite not working just when that favorite television show is about to begin. Nope, I’m talking about REAL challenges.
Dirt Dauber Invasion . . .
At our lake place we have always had dirt daubers. Their little mud nests are awful — they look like globs of mud with a hole in the bottom. Nothing attractive about them! They find spots to make their nests that any normal insect would surely find unacceptable.
This year we have LOTS of dirt daubers — more than we can ever remember. They are buzzing around and building their nests everywhere. We’ve found nests behind outdoor sofa pillows, inside outdoor ceiling fans (and on the fan blades — oh, the temptation to turn those fans on can be overpowering), and on every porch ceiling surface they can get to. It is clearly an invasion. As often said, desperate times call for desperate measures, so I took desperate action to combat them.
Two years ago, Jim and I were visiting with lake neighbors, Johnny and Debbie Dunn. We four were seated out on their back porch enjoying the breeze, cool drinks, and each other’s company. As I was admiring their outdoor space, I noticed something that seemed odd when compared to all of the other décor they had. In the corner at each end of the roof, hanging from the ceiling, was a paper bag. Both bags were stuffed with something that made them fill out into a rounded shape. After a few minutes, I finally had to ask Debbie what they were. She laughed and said, “Fake hornet nests. They scare away dirt daubers.”
I was amazed. I grew up on a farm and had never heard of such a “trick”. Debbie explained that she learned it from her maternal grandparents in Mississippi. I was so impressed by it that she told me how to make them. Just take a brown paper sack, stuff it with old newspaper to make the sides bow out, and then hang it up protected from the weather. As we were leaving, she gave me three brown paper sacks so that I could make my own.
As I said, this was two years ago. The sacks stayed folded neatly on my shelf until this year when the invasion started and I remembered her solution. I got those sacks, stuffed them, hung them up, and — like magic — we have no more dirt dauber nests being built! (You may thank me later.)
Overcoming Pressure Cooker Phobia . . .
When I was a child growing up on Kenilworth in Tensas Parish, the sound of our pressure cooker was terrifying. It was a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid, and had a round “something” that fit on a hollow peg sticking out of the lid’s top. When the pressure cooker was “cooking”, that round “something” would rattle around faster and faster, getting louder each turn.
Frankly, it terrified me because it terrified our cook. She was always absolutely convinced that it would “blow” and kill us all. As she stood as far away from it as possible (watching it with one eye open and one eye shut in anticipation of the explosion she was sure to come) she would pray fervently — asking the Lord to save us all. How can a child overcome that kind of experience?
Fast forward to Mother’s Day 2020. Brian, Leigh, and the grands sent me a gift in a large, heavy box. When I opened it, there it was — the Instant Pot, the modern-day pressure cooker! Suddenly I had a flashback to Kenilworth, hearing that sound as though I were a child again, cowering in another room.
If you are a pressure cooker devotee, then please accept my apologies for my insensitivity toward what for generations has been a staple device in the home kitchen. I mean no disrespect. I am just scared to death of them in spite of the fact that I have never actually seen one blow up. Turns out that Jim has (actually he heard the safety plug when it hit the ceiling). He said it was impressive. That did nothing to calm me.
Determined to quell my fears, I decided to make the most of this thoughtful gift. I knew that Leigh had an Instant Pot and just loved it. (Clearly, she had not grown up with a pressure cooker, so she had no fear.) She said it was a timesaver, made delicious meals, and offered to share her Pinterest board with me. As if that weren’t enough encouragement, she even offered to FaceTime to talk me through it.
the Directions . . .
Please know that I am no stranger to fine cooking. I make a mean beurre blanc, a better than passing roux, and have been known (on rare occasions) to sling spun sugar around a croquembouche with ease. It isn’t that I don’t know how, or that I don’t love, to cook.
Many of my problems have more to do with figuring out “new fangled” gadgets. You don’t want to know how long it took me to conquer the VCR. The Zoom teleconferencing program has me cornered at the moment on my laptop, and I’m not altogether comfortable with most social media. Nothing, however, prepared me for the control panel on the Instant Pot when I finally took it out of the box.
To make building a relationship with it easier, I named my Instant Pot — “The Machine”. On the control panel are 16 buttons (sixteen!) with eight that are preset for cooking specific things. The others are for different special functions like sauté, keeping food warm, delaying start of cooking for later, and my favorite: “slow cook” — ah! my old friend, the crockpot! I also noticed that two of the buttons are circled in red: “pressure level” and “cancel”. The flashbacks returned with a vengeance.
Go Big or Go Home . . .
After I had read everything about operating Instant Pots that I could find, I summoned my courage and prepared the first thing that (and I’m not joking here) all directions said must be done first — I boiled water in The Machine. Impressed? I suppose it was a check to make sure The Machine was working properly, but I did feel a little silly doing it. I mean, if I couldn’t boil water . . .
Over the next five days, I made chicken thighs with fresh lemon and garlic, roast beef (browned first on “sauté”), creamed potatoes, and barbeque chicken quarters. All required the dreaded pressure cooker function. To my delight (and even more to Jim’s), all were easy, quick, and delicious. More important, with the help of an extra long wooden spoon that I use to open the steam vent after the pressure cooker is finished, I am no longer terrified of The Machine. I am respectful, but not scared any more. This is big.
in Numbers . . .
I have discovered that I am not alone in my fear of pressure cooking or my impatience with gadgets that appear at first to be too complex. Google searches have turned up really good recipes for using Instant Pots (my first — the lemon garlic chicken thighs — came from the web) plus interesting tips on how to use it.
Leigh has been a great resource, as have friends who have Instant Pot experiences to spare. The most surprising resource, however, was also the most reassuring. Debbie Dunn (the same neighbor who shared the fake hornet nest cure for dirt daubers) invited me to join the Instant Pot Community, an online Facebook group.
This group ranges from new users who share my pressure cooker phobia (“it’s in the box and I’m afraid to take it out because I know it will blow up”) to culinary “masters” who make cheesecakes, breads, crème brulee, and all sorts of complex-sounding international dishes.
At this writing, there are 2,724,358 members. That proves that I’m not alone in needing help!
Because The Machine and I are still just beginning to get to know each other, my next adventure will be potato salad. Countless Instant Pot users say that I can put the raw potatoes and the uncooked eggs in the same pot, at the same time, and then cook them under pressure.
We shall see. From a safe distance, of course.