Thursday, January 20, 2011

For the Love of Man...or a Frying Pan

For the first five years that we lived in this house, we lived with a defunct dishwasher. Oh, we thought we had a working appliance when we bought the place. In fact, we were thrilled at the prospect of not having to hand-wash everything after years renting non-washer abodes. But we were hoodwinked. For legal reason I won’t tell you about the scam that was pulled on us, but needless to say, we were quite disappointed when we ran that very first load as homeowners through its cycle, and the floor flooded.

Being “young” (a relative term) parents, we watched (still do) every penny and decided we could keep living without a dishwasher for a while. “A while” became years, and our dishwasher basically became a cabinet for seldom-used cookware and appliances. But one year, after helping wash up after a particularly dishy Thanksgiving dinner, my in-laws surprised us with the delivery of a brand new Maytag dishwasher…and we’ve never looked back.

Tonight however, after a fabulous dinner, we had to wash most of the dishes by hand because we were completely out of dishwasher detergent. As I was scouring the pans and scrubbing the glasses, I looked about our tiny galley kitchen at the years of accumulated crockery, flatware and culinary paraphernalia we’d accumulated. Some of it was sentimental: items we’d inherited or had purchased to recreate our childhood kitchen comfort zones. But most of it was/is totally expendable. That being said, there are a few items around this place that are indispensable. The Kitchen Trifecta, if you will.

The Potato Ricer

This device is basically a hand-press for boiled potatoes, guaranteed to turn a cooked spud into a lump-free puree that would satisfy the fussiest of Thanksgiving guests. But it’s so much more. I think mine comes in contact with tuna far more often than it does with tubers. Ever open a can of tuna and find yourself pressing the detached can lid down against the fish flesh so hard that the lid eventually buckles, your thumbs ache, and the tuna is still too moist to turn into salad? Two seconds in a potato ricer, and you’ll have every last drop of liquid squeezed from Charlie. Yes, it makes perfect potatoes. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. How about homemade baby food? And let’s talk spätzle! If your love of noodles has advanced beyond spaghetti and mac-and-cheese in a blue box, then you’ve heard of spätzle, an egg noodle popular in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and beyond. The recipe has few ingredients and seems simple enough. I’d tried making it a few times from scratch, pressing the dough through a colander as many cookbooks suggest. But I’ve always ended up swearing and returning to store-bought boxes. Then a friend suggested I try using my potato ricer instead. Done and done. Take that, Knorr!

A Cast Iron Skillet

These black beauties are good for more than just conking men on the noggin. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet is the working mule of any cook’s kitchen. I found mine at a thrift store for $2. It was black as tar, crusted and disgusting. But it was solid, had a sturdy wood handle, and the promise of many awesome meals to come. I snatched it up, brought it home, and sprayed it with oven cleaner to remove the years of caked on gunk. While you don’t want to “wash” a cast iron skillet, you do want to clean it, and its previous owners apparently didn’t know the difference. Once it had the charred on, caked on remains of myriad meals removed, I knew the pan had to be re-seasoned. This being my first cast iron skillet, I wasn’t sure how exactly to go about that task. Fortunately, the monkey-friendly Google came through for me, and entering “How to re-season a cast iron skillet” yielded the desired information. Grease, heat, cool, wipe, repeat. Voila. That was five years ago. This baby hasn’t seen soap since, and is better than any Teflon-coated piece of crap you could buy at Target. Best $2 my kitchen has ever seen. Anyone want pancakes?

A Good Knife

I have a lot of knives. Paring knives, boning knives, butter knives, “chef” knives…I could stab, smear or spread the crap out of any of you. But for people who truly enjoy cooking, it all boils down to ONE good knife. Just as some parents may have a “favorite child” (Bastards! I love my children equally!...That’s my story and I’m sticking with it), all cooks have a “favorite knife.” It’s the one that will slice through a tomato without dimpling it, will open a package of bacon, or butterfly a chicken breast like it were made of butter. I have a relative who paid $80+ for their “favorite knife.” I bought mine for $7.49 at Marshall's. I think I could de-bone the mailman without having to resharpen this puppy. (Chill out, Mailman Mark. Purely a figure of speech.) I miss it when it’s in the dishwasher and I’m forced to use its ugly stepsisters to chop and mince. I would sleep with it under my pillow were it not for my fear of my husband filing for a restraining order.

Speaking of husbands, mine just came home from the store with dishwasher detergent pellets. So I can stop going all pioneer bad-ass on these pans and treat them the way God intended, with “normal wash” and “economy dry.” Except for my baby. Mommy’s gonna hand wash and dry you, lil’ cast iron skillet. I may not always know how to treat my fellow man, but I ALWAYS know how to treat my cast iron.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


If you know either of these songs,

you're alright by me, Jack.
(not many do...)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bring It On! ... with a few exceptions

As I've frequently
shared, I grew up living with my grandmother, my English/Welsh grandmother. The English/Welsh are known for many wonderful things, but culinary experimentation was not one of them in the 1970s. My grandmother, and her mother and mother's mother before her, believed in cooking things until they were D.O.N.E. done. Meat was cooked until it was brown, through-and-through. Vegetables were cooked until they were barely able to still be considered a "solid." At 433 West Upsal Street, things like wontons, sloppy joes or spaghetti were simply unheard of.

After we left Grandma's house, things got a little more interesting in the food department. Out went grandma's pressure cooker and in came the savior of 1970s working mothers' kitchens: the crockpot. I remember awesome all-day crockpotted (it's a word if I say it's a word) sloppy joes. And "barbecuing" became part of our vernacular. My father once even brought home and cooked blowfish. We survived.

When we moved west, we had our very first Mexican food when a Mexican family we befriended came to our house and prepared a feast. I remember thinking that guacamole looked revolting. But I was either willing or forced to try and was instantly addicted. Tamales hand-wrapped in husks, black beans, mole was like a suburban white kid's version of a Mexican Babette's Feast. And it was the birth of my adventurous spirit when it comes food.

Today, I love "exotic" food, foreign food. Indian, Thai, Vietnamese...heaven. Spicy food? If it makes your nose run and your eyes water, bring it on. I pride myself on my willingness to try just about anything once, an attitude I've passed on to my boys. Over the course of my two-score-and-a-few years, I have eaten some very unusual foods. Sometimes I just wanted to try what the locals were eating (a giant haggis in Scotland). Sometimes I was trying to be polite (spicy raw crab in Los Angeles). I may not always enjoy what I'm offered, but I'm willing to try it. Scrapple, monk fish liver, beef tongue...sure, why the hell not. But despite my love of the exotic and my adventurous spirit, there are certain things that I simply cannot bring myself to even try. Some are foods that others I know adore. Others? Well, you decide....

Raw oysters. I cannot bring myself to slurp one of these down. To me, it feels and looks like I'd be swallowing whole a giant gob of salty phlegm topped with Tabasco and lemon. I'll take the Tabasco and lemon, but in a Bloody Mary. You can keep the snot-on-the-half-shell, thank you.

. Nope, not gonna. I lived on a religious commune where one hippie mother fed her infant son calves brains. Blenderized brains to boot. We had tubs of them in our freezer. I'll never forget the look, smell and sound of her preparing them. I don't care if you cover them in Godiva chocolate or batter-fry them...I firmly believe that if it was encased in a skull it was not meant to be eaten. Which leads me to...

Head Cheese and/or Souse. This is a double whammy of things I don't "dig." Face meat and aspic. I can understand and appreciate its origins. It makes complete sense to use every available part of an animal if you can, including their cheeks, jowls, ears...Hell, I willingly eat scrapple and it has pig bits I don't even want to know about! But the inventors of scrapple knew what they were doing by grinding the bejeebers out of things then mixing them with cornmeal. It looks disgusting, but at least it's uniformly disgusting. (And delicious, BTW). The guy who invented head cheese, however, took the exact opposite approach. "Let's make every chunk visible and identifiable, then let's pack 'em in jelly! Make them jiggle a bit! I know, let's get Mikey to try it!" Pass.

Balut. This boiled egg is a treat in the Philippines that you can occasionally find in larger U.S. cities. It's no ordinary boiled egg. A balut is a duck (or chicken) egg with a nearly developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten right from the shell. Yeah, you read that right. Look... I love eggs. I love chicken. I love duck. I don't love the idea of boiling and eating an unborn baby duck. I guess that makes me a poultry pro-lifer. I say let 'em hatch, grow up for a few months, then eat 'em!

If you're an oyster, brain, souse or balut fan...well, the more power to ya. I'd actually love you to leave me a comment below. Do your best to persuade me to reconsider my disdain for any of the above. I may be able to be swayed to try two of the four. I'm pretty sure you can guess which two.

"Chili Sauce" by Louis Prima

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

They're Baaaccckkkk

Today I did the rarest of things for adult: I took a nap.

A medication I’m on is causing a dry cough that keeps me (and my husband) up half the night. Last night was so bad I think I slept a total of three hours, in 20 minute segments, between the coughing spells. I was so tired this morning as I readied for work that I didn’t notice until I started to get dressed that I had forgotten to rinse the shampoo out of my hair while I showered. So tired I spent five minutes looking for my reading glasses, which I had been wearing like a headband upon my freshly rinsed hair. So tired I had to drive back home when I was but blocks from the office, because I had forgotten my cell phone and my lozenges (which have left a permanent yellow spot in the center of my tongue from two weeks’ worth of sucking).

So as soon as I finished this morning’s work at the office, I had to lie down for a couple of hours before exhaustion made me iron the rabbit and put the laundry back in its cage. My husband gave his blessing (why do adults feel the need to ask permission to nap?), and I headed upstairs while he de-Christmased the rest of the house. Although I coughed half the time, I did manage to catch 34 ½ glorious winks…until the tornado blew in at exactly 4:01 p.m.

“We’re HOOMMMEE!!....What’s for snack? Can I eat this is or it for lunch? Can I have a juicebox? Where’s the remote?! Where are you?! MOOOOMMMM!!!!”

All that took 2.3 seconds to come out of mouths as they speed yelled in unison. By the time I descended the stairs literally one minute later, it looked like a bomb went off in the coat closet of my husband’s freshly cleaned living room. Coats, shoes, backpacks, lunchboxes, socks, THEIR JEANS…were all strew about the floor. Son #2 was hopping about yelling that his new pants had given him a rash on his thighs and he needed “itch goo.” Son #1 was yelling at Son #2 to put on some pants and that the “itch goo” (which by the way is prescription hydrocortisone…should you be wondering) was HIS and telling me he now refuses to use it on his neck if I allow Son #2 to put it anywhere near “his thing.” I may be dating myself with this reference, but this is the exact moment when I want to look into the imaginary camera that films every moment of my life and say, “Calgon, take me away!”

It’s not Calgon, but a large mug of “dreg” (reheated coffee from this morning’s pot….we’re out of wine) took the edge off just long enough for me to slather second grade thighs, pour drinks, dole out cookies (NEVER let them get their own), rinse out lunch boxes and point to the pile of outerwear in my trademarked “move it or lose it” gesture.

Once Son #1 and Son #2 were sated, settled and sitting on the sofa sipping soda (Can you say ‘alliteration’? I knew you could) I was able to look at them and remember why it was I wanted kids in the first place. But from 4:01 p.m. to 4:08 p.m., I had been cursing myself for not opting to raise cats.

Cats like naps.