In service to all the klutzy cooks out there I will embarrass myself and pass my pie fixes on to you!
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.
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.
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.
It’s meatloaf weather. Actually, you could argue every month is meatloaf weather, but none more so than during the late winter months that require all the comfort food you can find. On the cusp of an Armageddon blizzard, I finally managed to fight my way into a supermarket to secure the necessary … Continue reading The Meatloaf Incident
I have this stupid idea that I’m going to try to have us live a year or two longer by making everyone around me eat more fish. Trouble is, I grew up in a very meat and potato family and am now surrounded by meat men–married one, gave birth to two more. They’ll put up with shellfish if it’s cooked in some kind of broth or stew. Raw clams are okay if we happen to be down the shore. But anything with fins is basically non-negotiable.
But consider that sweet face above: a whole red snapper caught wild in U.S. waters, according to the fish lady who I generally believe. I picked out a very simple, vaguely Mediterranean, recipe consisting of a rub of olive oil, garlic, shallots, capers and hot red peppers. I added fresh lemon juice on my own.
I followed the instructions: slit the fish down its underbelly, make 5 gashes on either side and slather the rub on the flesh, particularly into the little slits. Let the fish sit for a while.
When you’re ready to cook, make an aluminum foil pillow and place it under the snapper’s chin so it’s sort of plumped up and its body splayed open on either side.
Then place it in the 425 degree oven for 30 minutes until the skin crisps.
Here’s where things started turning evil. The meat-eater I married has a phobia about fish bones. He grew up in Cleveland and Denver and the closest his family came to dining on anything with fins came from brook trout, a notoriously bony fish. But his mother loved it and a recipe for trout almondine. She seemed to have cooked trout quite a bit and my husband constantly assures me that he nearly choked to death every time.
His (1) phobia is so deep that before bringing home the whole red snapper I’ve only cooked fish filet and each time he rears back in horror until I promise him he’ll like it and there are absolutely no bones anywhere. He never believes me and, although he generally ends up liking whatever the filet is, he finishes dinner very much as if he’s survived a vicious mugging.
Back to the snapper. It looked and smelled lovely and I proceeded to the final step which called for cutting away the sides into two serving pieces. The recipe assured me they would easily fall away from the bones. They didn’t. In fact, it began to crumble with a lot of flesh clinging to thin, translucent bones.
What to do? This: I sifted through the meat, picking out every bone I could find and then arranging it in some kind of purposeful way across the rice I was serving. I also sprinkled on a middle eastern spice called (2)sumac, figuring it would go with the overall Mediterranean flavors that would hopefully beguile him away from any lurking dangers.
I placed the plate down in front of him.
“No bones?” he asked.
“Maybe one or two tiny ones, nothing to worry about,” I replied.
He frowned and tepidly lowered in his fork. A minute or two passed before he came across a tiny filament, and then another, and a couple of more but, he finished his plate.
He survived! No one was unduly harmed in the eating of the fish. And we are still married.
Lesson learned: If a recipe says a whole fish will easily debone into filet, be prepared that it won’t and perhaps have a camouflaging ingredient or sauce nearby, along with an excuse as to why you are serving chunks and shreds instead of the promised whole fish. Also, if someone really has a fear of bones, be honest unless you know the Heimlich maneuver.
1. I’m not going anywhere near his mother’s role in his phobia because, in truth, she was a lovely woman, although a limited cook, who meant well. It’s just one of his issues that a therapist obviously failed to resolve.
2. Sumac is a wonderful ingredient to have around. It’s a berry that grows in the Middle East and is generally finely ground. It has a gentle lemony flavor and its beautiful deep red color makes any plain dish more inviting . You’ll find it sold in Middle Eastern markets. I’ve started to see it in my local store, packaged by a company called Spicely.
The soup pot boils over. The roast is toast. Somehow the uncooked steak lands in the bag of dog food. At six o’clock–right when the day can’t get any worse considering the boss and the commute and the call from the parents who are definitely not sane–the significant other appears with eight co-workers in tow, having decided it will be great fun to have everyone stay for drinks and dinner.
I Can’t Believe I Did This! is going to help you through this and many other of life’s kitchen travails. How? Because my mother–descending from a long line of Irish cooks, the kind that made their way in this country through the back door of rich people’s kitchens–taught me. On top of that, I’ve been through them all. If all else fails, I have a pile of books and research wobbling on my desk to come up with the right solution, disguise, excuse, or stalling technique to help you salvage whatever it is that started you crying in the first place.
So pull yourself together and let’s get to work.