In service to all the klutzy cooks out there I will embarrass myself and pass my pie fixes on to you!
This is my kitchen, a typical New York City galley. It starts at a sink, followed by a counter, the stove, another counter, a bookcase and, finally, the refrigerator. There’s just enough cabinet and storage space–no more, no less. An old gate-leg table occupies the opposite wall, handy for feasts’ overflow. Too many people have opinionated that the wall between the kitchen and the dining room should be removed. I’m pretty sure the house’s next owner will do just that, for the same reason this appalling suggestion is made to me: Who would want to deny themselves the convivial pleasure of cooking surrounded by an invading horde?
Let me be clear: When that wall comes down, I’ll long be in my grave and just as happy with the solitude there as I am in my kitchen now.
Which brings me to my sister, Sue. I love and admire her to no end, and live for the times when we are together, even if all we do is lounge around all day. But we haven’t seen a lot of each other lately. She travels a lot as an expert in global health, so much so that the family often forgets what country she’s in. So it’s a special occasion when she lands in Brooklyn and has the time to stay over, as she does Friday, arriving just in time for dinner. Hold on to this thought as I allow her into my kitchen.
There’s a very good chance she doesn’t think I have a problem with this. She is, after all, my big sister and our father’s daughter, which means she has to fix things and fixing dinner is supremely nonnegotiable because, like me, she’s our mother’s daughter. We have been bred to feed people, with deep natural skills and learned culinary standards to do it well. Whether I like it or not, I have to accept that she will be wedged in beside me at the stove. Therapists have paid many a college tuition off our genes and upbringing.
First, though, there’s the cocktail hour. I fetch gin and vermouth while she searches for martini glasses.
“Where’s your martini glasses?”
“I like these.”–two old champagne glasses, etched with flowers.
“Get yourself some martini glasses. I can’t find your shaker.”
I retrieve my plastic one from Ikea.
“Are you kidding me? And it’s too small!”
I find a beaker.
“If that’s all you have,” she sighs and resigns herself to stir not shake. (Must purchase shaker before her next visit! But no martini glasses….)
Drinks accomplish, we move to the couch and fall into intense sister gossip–he/she’s doing what, when? How ridiculous! Right?! Wanna hear the latest annoyance from our asinine bosses/co-workers, etc, etc, etc. What should we make for dinner?
There’s nothing in the refrigerator, but a little digging in the freezer unearths Italian sausages and bread of uncertain age They should be fine.
If you do get to be in my small kitchen, you better claim a spot far away from me. I’m down at the south end. Sue’s up north scrounging in the cabinet for tomatoes. She hands me the can but, after opening it and passing it back to her station, it slips from my hands.
Without pause, she nonchalantly grabs a bowl: “No one will know.” I salvage what I can.
(Please note: If that wall wasn’t there, EVERYONE would see me scooping up tomato sauce. Who needs that?)
Back at the stove, Sue begins frying the sausage.
“Why’re you using that pan?” I ask.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I always use a saute pan.”
In no comment silence, she proceeds to cut the sausage into pieces.
(I stifle myself from sobbing, ‘I love links?!’ )
In goes the salvaged tomatoes.
Sue shifts over to the spice rack where, as is our family wont, starts pulling out spices and herbs.
“This smells good.” She sprinkles in a good size pinch.
“That’s sumac.” (A beautiful Middle Eastern spice, not known to be added to sausage and tomato sauce.)
“Oh, well,” she says and stirs. We taste…actually it’s lemony flavor brightens the sauce! (Reader, please remember to try this.)
While the spaghetti cooks, we open a bottle of wine and Sue sets out plates. I take down a tray.
“What’s that for?”
“It’s for the husband.”
“You serve him on a tray?” A comic book bubble pops up over her head: What’s happening to my sister?!
We eat in front of the TV at dinner to watch the news so we know what are the latest bombs heading our way. “A tray makes it neater for him,” I explain.
And shut up! I am, too, a feminist!
Sue admits she has her own tray for dinner television viewing, and goes on to arrange a much fancier setting than I would ever think of for the husband. There’s a little silver plate for bread and a tiny butter dish, and his silverware rolled up in a napkin. Our mom would be proud.
The spaghetti cooks just right and is sauced. The tray is placed in the husband’s lap. And the sisters settle down beside one another on the couch with the meal we made together.
And, later, the husband cleans up after us.
Disclaimer: No sister was harmed in the making of this dinner and, to prove it, here we are relaxing afterwards under facial masks. She brought them back from her latest humanitarian trip, this time to China. The masks’ directions are in Chinese but we do recognize the word snail on her’s and pressure points on mine. We tell each other we look so beautiful after peeling them off.
It’s awfully rude when you ignore Valentine’s Day and your significant other gives you a Valentine’s Day gift. It’s worse if you’re militantly oppose to all that kind of romantic hooey, even though you’re an ardent romantic soul and said significant other KNOWS this about you and agrees with you, yet stands before you bearing gift because, you know, you’re just adorable when you’re mad.
Couches and floors are made for such actions.
Which brings us to yesterday when, not even caffeinated, he thrust a huge bouquet into my arms with a card smashed in the middle. It’s a sappy thing with a couple embracing on the front and a big red heart to the side telling me how wonderful I am. Inside….
You can take this sentiment two ways: As a sure sign romance has completely abandoned your decades long affair OR you’re still desirable no matter how disgusting you may be at times. Actually, if you can read his scrawl, there’s a third.
The card memorializes the first weekend we stayed together. It was that weekend–
“Hey, you….free Saturday?”
(Of course you’re free Saturday! You’ve been seeing each for a whole month of Saturdays through Fridays. What kind of trick is this?) “I think so.”
“Maybe we could make dinner.”
“Great! You like lasagna?”
Come Saturday, struggle into your laciest bra and panties, and let’s go! To the market where you are YES! that disgusting couple furiously making out up against the ice cream freezer door. Then skip off to the wine store and waltz giggling back to the apartment where you put on music, open the first bottle of wine, rip open the market bags and commence spending an extraordinary amount of time dancing and drinking and getting in each other way (and perhaps revealing a little lacy bra, a rim of briefs). In the midst of this kind of mayhem, you know what happens…not enough attention is paid to your herbs and spices and a little too much garlic gets sprinkled carelessly about. More wine is poured, more funny stories about the past told, more music of the slower kind played. Then dinner and wine and layers of clothing peel off and there you are on the floor, being way too physical for having just eaten lasagna with a lot of garlic and….well….suddenly you’re curled up at the edge of the bed, totally out of the mood. If he loves you, he pulls you into his arms and kids you into laughing and then it’s forty years later and he’s giving you a Valentine’s Day card all about it.
What in God’s name is there to do with a Valentine like that? You pull yourself together and decide on something special even though you get off work late and are really tired.
Coeur a la creme! French cuisine’s love note.
This dessert is made for the harried and tired. A sweet and light cheese cake kiss. It’s made like soft cheese–ingredients bundled up in cheese cloth and allowed to drain overnight. What’s needed: cream cheese, sour cream (or creme fraiche if you can find it), vanilla, a little lemon, and powdered sugar. And they’re all on hand!
Except the necessary little heart shaped dish with draining holes. Epicurious to the rescue! It suggests cutting 12-ounce paper cups down to three inches, then making holes on the bottom with tooth picks. Unfortunately, I only have the kind of plastic cups you play beer bong with (thank you sons!) and plastic cracks when you cut it. Pull out the duct tape
Jabbing holes with a skewer on the bottom doesn’t go well. I stop at 5 instead of the dozen Epicurious instructs.
Undaunted, I mix the ingredients together, cut and dampen cheese cloth squares, then drape them into the cups and pour the mixture in.
Unfortunately, it’s now 7 p.m. and you have to let the cups drain for at least four hours.
About now, he comes home and you both need dinner. Afterwards, I present the cups as an enticing tomorrow promise.
“Nice,” he smiles, takes a swig of beer and returns to watching The Big Bang Theory.
Now it is morning and I hurry out of bed to the kitchen, unwrap one of the cups and unmold it onto one of my prettiest chipped china plates, strewing about chopped strawberries, dampened with Cointreau (nothing wrong with a nip of liqueur before work).
He radiates a smile and leans over to kiss me.
“Save me some!”
And off he goes out the door on some business trip across the country I forgot all about even though the suitcase was in the hall last night.
And that’s love for you. Decades and decades of love. A card memorializing a long ago indigestible dinner and the anticipation of a misshapen dessert to come home to.
Or I did, until two days ago when I fell as sick as everyone else. The reason I once loved the miserable thing is that I get vaccinated every year and avoid all gatherings–work-related and social. For someone with strong anti-social behavior, the flu provides … Continue reading I Love the Flu!
I packed only a few things when I tripped into marriage: a bunch of clothes and shoes; a beat up gate-leg table; a typewriter from the 50’s; and a cast-iron skillet and Dutch oven.
The skillet and oven were my most cherished possessions and considered essential to a well-fed marriage. Since my older sister claimed our grandmother’s, I bought mine in a thrift shop. If you don’t own cast-iron cookware–and I fervently believe every household needs at least one–I recommend you do the same. First of all, both my large skillet and oven collectively cost $10. I’ve found similar size and quality ones in high-end discount stores for about $180 together (and at least another hundred more at full-price stores). More importantly, though, used cast-iron comes already seasoned which prevents it from rusting and gives it a good non-stick surface. You never scrub cast-iron and definitely do not soak it. You shouldn’t have to, anyway, since ingredients rarely stick. What you do, instead, is wipe clean, dry with a dish towel and leave to air dry. Good cast-iron will last several life times (my grandmother’s is at least 100 years old).
I’ve used mine to fry, bake and simmer because they hold heat like nothing else and they can move easily from burner to oven. But beyond their versatility, what I truly love about used cast-iron is the patine formed from the long-line of cooks who owned them before me. I feel them watching over me, making sure that everything turns out right.
So you may understand my horror when my husband left the Dutch oven to soak overnight. I usually clean it but that night I was shattered-bone tired after work and left it to him. You’d think he would have at least recognized that special care was required, if only for the many times I claimed the oven would make a terrific urn for my ashes.
But, no, he didn’t and this is what greeted me the next morning:
He’s often told the story about the time his father’s mother slammed a cast-iron skillet over her husband’s head. I could imagine how a wife might resort to such measures. But instead of thwacking him, I screamed into a pillow. Marriages have broken up for lesser crimes but, after adding up all our years together and what we survived to arrive at this crisis, I eventually returned to the kitchen to heal my wounded oven.
This is what I did:
First, rub a layer of oil over the rust. The recommendation is for a tasteless vegetable oil. The women in my family use bacon grease. I like leaf lard because you can control how much you’re using.
You know when your skin get’s dry and you pull out the heavy-duty moisturizer? Your cast-iron should look as well-oiled as your face. (Plus, you can massage the extra oil/lard into your hands.)
Place a baking sheet on the lower shelf of the oven and preheat to 500 degrees. Lay your pot on the shelf above the sheet and bake for an hour.
Turn off the oven and let cool.
Now you are ready to use it again! I brewed up a perfect pork broth.
Pork bones (these are about a pound and a half of shin and knuckles)
1 large onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves
salt and fresh ground pepper
Use enough oil to coat the bottom of your Dutch oven. Add bones and cook until a nice crust forms. Remove the bones.
Add onions, garlic and cloves. Saute until the onions become silky and the garlic softens enough that you can mash them into the onions. Return the bones and season with salt and pepper. Add enough water to cover the bones, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Cover. Brew for a couple of hours, checking every now and then to see if you need to add water.
Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing down on the onions and discard. Chill the broth until the fat rises to the top and skim. Reheat and add whatever you want.
My friend, Tom the carpenter, is smitten with his girlfriend and decided to cook her dinner. He settled on homemade gnoochi and watched a couple of YouTube videos on how to make them. “I’m gonna knock this out of the park, woman,” he told me, and so he began by … Continue reading An Almost Tragic Romantic Dinner Part I
As often observed, offices create weird families. Haphazardly formed though they are, they contain similar characteristic components of unity and division; joy and grief.
Take mine, for instance, an office universally considered within our institution to contain an unusual number of saints, misfits, myopic, insane (i.e. me), hanger-ons and true believers. Part of the reason for this is because we’re a creative division and this no doubt injects another layer of mayhem among us. But over time, it can be said that we sort of established a hard-won measure of acceptance and peace.