Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

Oatmeal Cookies

March 16, 2012

You know how there are times when a craving hits you with such force that it’s futile to resist? I was hit with just such a craving yesterday — for oatmeal cookies. My mother makes really good oatmeal cookies, and if she lived next door, I would have walked fifty feet and nonchalantly asked her, like Ray Romano would have, and within a couple hours there would be a plate of oatmeal cookies in front of me.

But that is not the case, since my mother lives 3000 miles away.

So I went online and found a recipe for ‘chewy oatmeal cookies,’ because chewy is the operative word and the singular requirement. None of those crunchy, thin, crumbly dry ones for me. No, they must be huge and thick and chewy.

My wife is wedded, so to speak, to recipes. She must follow them to the letter. If we do not have the right kind of vinegar — and none of the eight other kinds of vinegar we do have in stock will suffice — then my job is to drop everything and go get her the kind she wants. If the recipe calls for a dozen exotic spices, and we have only eleven, then cooking screeches to halt, and she exits stage right waving her arms about.

The thing that gets me is that even if it is a new recipe, and she has no idea what the finished dish is supposed to taste like, the fact is that if she does not have the exact set of ingredients called for, the system breaks down. I do not understand this, as my approach would be that one of the eight vinegars on hand would do a fine job of substituting, and that the eleven spices on the shelf would be great; we would be none the wiser as to the omission of that pesky twelfth.

I mean really, if you hear a concert for the first time, and there are supposed to be 18 violins in the orchestra, but one guy doesn’t make it, will your evening be ruined? If the recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of peas, and you are one or two peas short, will the sun explode and kill us all? Um, no.

I have always looked at recipes as initial blueprints, prototypes that can be reinterpreted and improved. A pasta dish might generate more pleasure units if it had a little more cheese, or more garlic, or that roast pork tenderloin might hit more buttons if one used cherries and plums instead of apricots and apples. Cooking is play time, the pantry a chemistry set for grownups.

So when I looked at the recipe for the ‘chewy’ oatmeal cookies, I saw an opportunity for improvement. It recommended a half teaspoon of cinnamon; I used about half that and about the same of ground cloves. Cloves is my catnip, and every time I pass down the spices aisle of a grocery store, I grab the cloves and give it a good sniff, since the aroma passes through the container just enough.

The cookie recipe said that chopped walnuts were optional, so I added more than called for, since I love walnuts, along with a handful of coconut, my other secret cookie ingredient. I didn’t want to overwhelm the other ingredients — we want a nice balance — so the amount of coconut was less than the raisins and walnuts.

Something interesting about the recipe, and by ‘interesting’ I mean ‘disappointing,’ is that it gave no yield. The preliminary notes said that it was a “half recipe,” which I suppose could mean that it gave only half the instructions necessary, but I took it to mean instead that the original recipe called for twice as much of everything. But it didn’t say how many cookies it was supposed to make, which meant that it did not give an indication as to how big the cookies ought to be.

(Yes, it’s true, cooking can involve math, the thumbtack on the comfortable chair of life. If the recipe says that it makes 12 cookies, then you can start with a rough plan to make each ball approximately 1/12 of the mix in the bowl, and then adjust at the end if the numbers don’t come out right.)

So in terms of size, that meant that I was at liberty to make the things as big as I damn well pleased. Cookies as big as a catcher’s mitt might be a trifle too big, and cookies as small as a silver dollar would be too small; they had to be just right — the Goldilocks conundrum.

So when it was time to scoop up blobs of cookie dough and plop them onto the baking sheet, I had to conceive how big they ought to be. I chose a ball somewhere between a tennis ball and a golf ball, pretty close to a billiard ball. After I was done, the bowl of cookie mix had produced ten oatmeal cookie blobs.

As insider information, the author of the recipe surrendered one last tip to enhance chewiness and thickness: chill the cookies before you actually bake them. The baker qua cookie monster has two options: 1) leave the cookie mix in the bowl and throw it in the fridge, where it will keep for about a week, allowing the cookie lover to take out as much as is desired when desired and baking the cookies then; or 2) divvy up the mix into the cookie balls on a cookie sheet, and throw that into the fridge. I chose the latter, and allowed the sheet of cookies to chill for a few hours, saving the culinary rush for the dessert hour.

At about 8:30 pm I told the oven to preheat to 350 degrees, and it complied, since it knew who was boss. Soon it dinged, and I took the sheet of cookie blobs directly from the fridge and shoved it into the oven. At that point, the cookie balls were just that, spheres of uncooked cookie dough. They did not yet have the shape or appearance of cookies. I had no idea if they would eventually flatten out just right, as cookies tend to do, or if I was supposed to first flatten them a bit with a spatula. The very nature of cooking is that of experimentation, the essence of the laboratory.

The recipe said to give them 10-12 minutes, so I set the timer for ten minutes, with the intention of checking on them at that time, and then deciding if they needed a bit more cooking time. The author said to bake them up to the point “… when golden at the edges but still a little undercooked-looking on top.” At ten minutes the cookie balls were still cookie balls, albeit hotter. Concluding they needed more baking time, I popped them back in. At twelve minutes they still looked ball-like, but they had sagged a bit, which gave them more of an impression that they intended to evolve into cookies.

Do baked goods believe in evolution? If they did, that might give them a slight edge over the Christian right. Perhaps they are existentialists, prefering to think that there is nothingness, which is what my stomach felt like it contained when I first started craving oatmeal cookies.

Thinking that they needed a little assistance, I grabbed the spatula and pressed them down ever so slightly, like a guy grilling burgers might. After one more minute, the edges had that “golden at the edges” look, and indeed they looked slightly underdone on top. I pulled them out and set the tray on top of the stove. Man oh man they smelled good, the mostly classic aroma of oatmeal cookies, plus the intoxicating fragrances of cloves and coconut. Oh, yeah.

Using up more will-power than I am known for, I waited an hour or so for them to cool. And then I dove in.

They were still warm, and were thick and soft and chewy, and heavenly. (Sorry, Mom — they were better than yours.) Couldn’t eat just one, so I ate three as slowly as I could, washed down with cold white cow juice. The ten cookies didn’t last long. Guess I should make a “full recipe” next time, which might be as soon as tomorrow.


A Wall of Cheesecloth

February 16, 2012

The other day Michelle and I were at the Pike Place Market shopping for dinner stuff. We were going to try a Jamie Oliver fish dish, so we bought some very fresh snapper from one of the fishmongers, and leeks and fennel from a greengrocer. Then we needed some cheesecloth, so we headed to the kitchen supply shop.

I love to cook, and there’s always fun stuff to see there, the high-end pots and pans, gorgeous knives and all sorts of creative kitchen gadgetry — but it’s always crowded. And the aisles are only just wide enough for a Pekingese, one who has been dieting for the Westminster dog show. Doing anything there takes far longer than it should, precisely because the place is good and it’s popular.

(I am reminded of the Yogi Berra-ism, about a place that got so crowded nobody went there anymore.)

Before we reached the kitchen store, we had been steam-rolling our way through the market, finding what we needed and getting things done. And since we had a bus to catch, we were constantly looking at our watches. There was no time to waste, so instead of wandering around the store, getting lost in nooks and crannies and becoming distracted by all the cool stuff, I tackled a clerk like he was Tom Brady and asked where the cheesecloth was. By the time I found the right region, and then located another clerk to help zoom in, he told me that he had just helped someone else find cheesecloth.

“A little blonde?” I asked. He nodded yes, and I knew that Michelle had somehow beaten me to it, and was already taking her prize to the cashier. That’s where we hit the wall.

It was a wall of corporate policy, and this can often be a kind of wall you can’t go over, around or through.

While the little package had the bar code stuff on it, the item did not compute in the store’s cash register inventory system. The clerk asked for help, noting that the SKU number (stock-keeping unit) wasn’t coming up. We waited. But no help was forthcoming. So there we stood, money in hand, and neither the corporate software nor the company policy would let us buy it.

Or rather, the clerk wouldn’t let us buy it. He said it was about four or five dollars, and that was fine with us. Take our money and let’s go. But no such luck.

We had reached one of those situations where an employee, a relatively low-level employee, could not simply decide to enter a retail item as “miscellaneous” and proceed. He had to follow company protocol, which stipulated more or less that “all items have to have a valid SKU and be processed correctly, or the employee will be shot.”

At this point I started to get a little grouchy, and pointed out that now and then there will be things that are not in the system, and that the store has to have a way to deal with them. There has to be a way so that the item can be sold to a customer, and the transaction completed.

Why are retail employees brain-washed to follow this instruction so religiously? Part of it is because managers want reports, to know how things are going. What were the monthly sales from the pots and pans division? Was the big advertising campaign on gourmet knives successful? How did cheesecloth sales compare to last year? Designing product code categories and sub-categories allows managers to answer questions, and the better questions they can ask, the better chance they have to run the business successfully.

But now and then it’s going to happen, a customer is going to bring up something they want to buy, and it won’t have a price or an ID tag on it. (This drives me crazy; if I find something on a shelf with no price, I feel that it ought to be free.) I mean, c’mon! If you place a retail item in play, but don’t take the trouble to slap a price on it, how well are you doing your job? How is the company supposed to make money? And what about the inconvenience to the customer?

What then?

Maybe 99.9% of all items will be properly accounted for, and then along comes a phantom that shouldn’t exist. How much out of whack do you think this will knock the company’s accounting? Virtually zero. So why get all bent out of shape when it happens? What is more important: the happiness of the customer or the accountant?

(I know my answer.)

Allow the clerk, encourage the employee, to make a decision — estimate the price and hit the ‘Misc’ button — and let the customer get out of there. You owe it to the customer, and you build loyalty that way. And then I won’t get grouchy.

Someone eventually did help the clerk with a product code, but we had to wait a long time to pay for a $3.95 item. Jamie Oliver’s fish dish was delicious, but a Seattle retail clerk nearly found himself strained through a cheesecloth.

Beware of Peanut Butter Boy

September 10, 2011

As you know from a previous post, I can be experimentative in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s because I get bored, but sometimes it’s to keep costs down. If I don’t have a full complement of costly ingredients, or can’t afford them, I make do with the cheap stuff already in stock. One inexpensive and necessary ingredient in my kitchen is peanut butter, which has often played a key rôle in my cooking, but it is not the only character actor in this theatre.

The other day I brought home some nice cod. At least, I thought it was nice; I have no idea what its mother thought. I wanted to cook it in a different style from the last time, but I hadn’t yet decided how. The previous hunk of fish that landed in the pan got treated to the classic theme of olive oil, garlic and lemon, with a frisson of white wine.  I don’t know if frissons are legal in Washington State, but so far not a single police officer has been to my door. A plan of attack had not yet formed in my culinary cranium, so I looked around. (My wife thinks that when in the kitchen, I should never be allowed to look around.) There was the leftover jar of peanut butter. Hmm, that’s a start.

There was also a fat nectarine sitting in the fruit bowl, minding its own business. And some balsamic vinegar sat on a shelf, looking forlorn. So I whipped out the sauté pan and started cooking the cod very gently. Then I took a big scoop of peanut butter and added it to the pan, where it slowly turned into a melty goo; it looked like Mississippi mud, but it smelled like Mom’s peanut butter cookies in the oven.

While the peanut butter was changing shape, I drizzled a tiny amount of balsamic vinegar into the mud, and sniffed: it was the olfactory equivalent of cellos and French horns; some harmony as well as some contrast. Not too bad so far. Overtones of Thai food were swirling overhead, but I didn’t have any hot chili peppers or limes. I did however have a nectarine and Tabasco, so the first item I sliced up thin and threw in, along with a few drops of the second, stirring in an anti-clockwise direction. A sharper editor might have insisted I stick with the music metaphor, but that wasn’t working, so I dropped my baton like a hot potato, and instead grabbed a fork…

No, dear reader, I did not die – didn’t even suffer food poisoning.  It was pretty good, actually.

You know how when you’re a kid, and you try doing something on the edge of naughtiness and you get away with it, how you want to try it again? That’s what I did.

After I returned from the grocery store the next day, my kitchen’s  food ingredient manifest boasted some new items: ground beef and ground pork. The question was, what to do with them?

In the old days, on Monday nights, a bunch of us used to get together at a friend’s house, and we’d barbecue. It was the classic intersection of men, meat and fire. This old friend has a big, beautiful house in the trees with an enormous deck, an ideal place for a carnivorous gathering, and every Monday felt special. On some of those nights we would all bring our own main course, so the top of the capacious grill might play host to a meaty mélange of burgers, steak, salmon, chicken, pork chops or who knows what. On these occasions our benefactor would provide side dishes and maybe a dessert, and the rest of us would bring beer, wine, or copious cocktail ingredients. Other times, one guy would volunteer to assume the rôle of head chef, and cook the main course for the whole assembly, which meant that the rest of us would then bring side dishes, salad, dessert, bread, and of course lots of wine. We were men who didn’t like to suffer thirst.

Once in a while my old friend Doug would assume the responsibility, and bring a special entrée with him, concocted from a herd of cows and a pride of pigs. He called his offering Uncle Fred Burgers, and they were a sight to behold.  They were a mix of ground beef, ground pork, Italian sausage, hamster, badger, and god knows what else. Each one was two fingers thick and bigger than a catcher’s mitt, bigger than the biggest dinner plate, so we learned to use garbage can lids for plates.

They were great. You always wanted to eat two, but … well, it just wasn’t possible. Except for Big Chuck, and that’s another story.

So, on this occasion in my modest Seattle kitchen, Doug’s Uncle Fred burgers were an inspiration. I rolled up my sleeves and mixed the ground beef and ground pork, adding fistfuls of garlic, and allowing a few drops of sweat to substitute for herbs and spices. But I wasn’t in the mood for a burger; no, I felt like a pasta dish.

So I put on a pot of water to boil, stared at the pan with the browning meat, and, you guessed, looked around the kitchen. There was that trusty jar of peanut butter.  But wait, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

In the fridge was a leftover half of a large Walla Walla sweet onion, so I started to chop. Now, a sensible person should try to avoid getting into a lengthy discussion about Walla Walla sweet onions. Or, for that matter, the cellist Yo Yo Ma, or the former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The repetition will drive your listeners crazy. The repetition will drive your listeners crazy. There are some species, commonly found in Massachusetts, for whom repetition is in their DNA.  They will say the same thing six times in a span of 25 minutes.  This kills brain cells, but repeaters don’t seem to notice.

Anyway, the other day I overhead two people talking about Walla Walla sweet onions. In the duration of the conversation, they each said “Walla” 1,024 times, an even number, of course. Naturally, this had me looking for a weapon, which I never found. Why did it never occur to them to use a nickname, an acronym, a substitute, or anything besides saying “Walla Walla” over and over?  They could have said – once – “Walla”. Or they could have mutually agreed to say “onion” or even “Ralph” or some other word. But no, they each continued to say “Walla Walla” again and again, shortening my life span by accelerating my blood pressure.

OK, I’ve had a Manhattan, and I feel much better now. So where were we? Oh right, we were chopping Ralph.

After I had drained the browned beef and pork, I set the meat aside and sautéed the onions, coaxing them into that wonderful, translucent golden color when they are sweet and delicious. Finally, into one big pan I combined the pasta, browned meat, onions, peanut butter goo and garlic, and watched as it all seemed to coalesce together into something quite different from horrible. Again, I did not die; and I did not suffer any tummy-badness symptoms from food poisoning. Indeed, I did not even suffer from that nauseating condition when one assumes that some things simply shouldn’t be mixed with certain other things.

At this point, my wife would probably say, “Don’t applaud.  Don’t even smile. Please don’t encourage him.”

Tonight, I feel like pasta, and I will pair it with my old friend, canned mushroom soup. Oh, and I think there’s some peanut butter left.

Tune in next time, when we discuss the mathematics of determining precisely how much cheese should go on a cracker or piece of crusty bread.

Eggs-postulation in China

May 23, 2011

The Great Firewall has egg on its face, the result of a brazen protest attack against the chief computer strategist behind it. The expostulation took place last Thursday at Wuhan University in Hubei province, during a lecture on Internet security. Fang Binxing, known as “the father of the Great Firewall,” the highly censored Chinese version of the Internet, had eggs and shoes thrown at him.

Mr Fang’s more precise title is President of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and he is the architect of the vast and sophisticated system of censorship that prevents Chinese citizens from accessing such dangerously subversive Web sites as Facebook and YouTube videos of “Days of Our Lives.”

Little is known of the attacker eggs-ept his Twitter name, @hanunyi. The police have remained tight-lipped, and Fang’s office denied that the incident took place, but there is no doubt that a young man hurled non-fatal eggs and footwear, and that afterwards, a Twitter user named @hanunyi took responsibility for the bombardment. Even though police and security personnel scrambled, they could not capture the shoe soldier, who after the attack tweeted, “The egg missed the target. The first shoe hit the target.”

Apparently Fang is now in the hospital, suffering from a mild case of post-omelet syndrome. Some Chinese netizens said that he got eggs-actly what he deserved, and that he was bacon for it. Many Chinese Internet users, both business and private users, feel that restrictions placed upon their access constitute a form of pun-ishment.

Reports have circulated that prior to the assault, @hanunyi had practiced his egg-throwing in Hubei province, using the Three Gorges Dam as a target. It has been widely published that there are problems with the dam, which is showing cracks and other signs of strain, even though the dam is only 5 years old. (Officially the dam cost in the neighborhood of $23 billion, although some eggs-perts have estimated the cost to be possibly as much as twice that figure.) Chinese police records of cell phone location show that in recent weeks @hanunyi traveled often to the dam, only about 200 miles away from Wuhan.

It is not known how many eggs had been thrown at the dam, but given the Chinese penchant for shoddy construction and corruption in the inspection process, physicists agree that a lot of eggs crashing against the dam could seriously weaken it.

Eggs-haustive laboratory analysis has not been completed yet on the sizable egg deposits, which are clearly visible on NSA photographs of the dam. (I may have mentioned before that having so many relatives in the NSA, CIA and FBI gives me access to a lot of really cool data.) Preliminary reports suggest that the target practice eggs may not have been organic. Some analysts even believe that the practice eggs were the same kind of chemically produced cackle fruit described in an eggs-posé here on corruption in the Chinese food industry. If this is true, it is possible that in addition to the Fang Binxing offensive, a sabotage plot might have been in the works. Since the chemically altered eggs contained paraffin, a flammable hydrocarbon, the perpetrators may have been trying to set the dam on fire. Trust me, I am not trying to make a yolk.

A reasonable response might be that a plan to set fire to a dam is all wet, since the water set free from its damned prison would simply put the fire out. But the water held back by the Three Gorges Dam is so polluted, that I am reminded of the David Bowie song lyrics, about putting out the fire with gasoline.

A biblical-proportion catastrophe such as that might have pleased the rapturers, rabid Christians who were blindly convinced that the world was coming to an end on May 21st.

But back to reality.

Some Chinese pundits eggs-plain that the reason that egg producers have turned to artificial ovoids is a shortage of chickens. Recently Shanghai enacted a one-dog policy, mimicking a four-legged version of China’s one-child policy. The one-dog policy, designed to decrease the dog population, went into effect today, and required owners to register their pets, or hefty fines would be eggs-acted. What did not make the international press is that China also passed a one-chicken policy, limiting both rural and urban households to one chicken.

According to Fling Dung, propaganda chief of the Peoples Bullying Party, if there are fewer eggs, then there will be fewer egg-throwing protests against government officials.

If I may draw my story to a close by offering some eggs-piation, I will point out that China, in a rare eggs-ample of amazing timing, is giving Pakistan 50 jet fighters. It was just three weeks ago that an eggs-treme team of US Navy SEALs flew advanced helicopters as quiet as Swiss wrist watches into Pakistan, and in a daring raid found and killed Osama bin Laden. The international terrorist had been hiding, in plain view, in an upscale neighborhood about a three-wood shot away from a prestigious military academy, Pakistan’s version of West Point.

Why is China giving them jet fighters? To take the edge off their embarrassment from the news that bin Laden had been hiding in a country that had pledged to help find him?  To buy loyalty for a country that is in serious danger of losing same from the US?

At any rate, some military insiders intimate that for Pakistan to engage modern Western jet fighters with the hardware China is providing will be like bringing a knife to a gunfight. As noted in a previous article, some of China’s current inventory of fighter aircraft is, um, better suited to carnival rides. Employing outdated avionics and powered by inbred Russian vacuum cleaners — I mean jet engines — the JF-17’s may soon be seen outside Islamabad converted into roadside food carts and cooking up kebabs.

The raison d’être of any fighter aircraft is the weaponry it brings, and while the jury is out on how lethal and effective those on board the gifted jets will be, industrial spies think the most likely weapon to come out of China’s nest will be the HMPTDMPT-5000, a gun capable of firing a dozen eggs a minute.

Cherry Milk Dreams

May 18, 2011

Rod Serling never saw this coming. My wife Michelle woke me up in the middle of the night, demanding to know what thirty times thirty equals. Welcome to my middle of the night zone.

Some guys have more predictably mainstream nights, and get to, you know, sleep. Night-time fare here is more exotic and colorful, with plenty of creative, sci-fi flavor. I told her the answer, 900, and that seemed to satisfy her.

As I tucked her back in, before she drifted back to sleep, she explained that she had had a dream, involving Somali pirates and Julia Child. This dream, which she told me about later, didn’t even come close to some of her more complex night-time entertainments. The plot of this one, and this is so predictable, centered on the re-enactment of a 17th century naval battle. In her dream, after the theatrical battle was over, Julia Child, on board the flag ship, was going to cook historically accurate dishes from that era. She was going to make biscuits from dough which had been soaked very carefully in cherry milk. (I had her repeat that part to me several times.) This is where the 30 x 30 came in, I think, but we’ll get to that later.

As with all battle re-enactments, actors were used, as opposed to real Nazis, real Confederates, or real redcoats. But, in her dream, the fake Somali pirates somehow became real Somali pirates, and the light-hearted feel of a fake battle suddenly changed and became scary, as newly predatory pirates fired real projectiles at the magnificent sailing ship, with real cannon balls exploding on deck and real bullets kicking out flying splinters of wood.

I would not recommend to anyone — not even an expert — to try to bake biscuits under these conditions, even in a dream.

My lawyer tells me that at this point I must mention that a person’s dreams have nothing to do with the dreamer’s sanity or lack thereof, and are not indicative of anything else that one might want to make fun of.

OK, time to get back to Julia, who we left all alone in the ship’s galley, where the whistling of a tea kettle had been replaced by the whistling of bullets. As we noted before, the dough for the biscuits she was going to bake had to be soaked in cherry milk, which sounds odd but good. (Heck, I’d like a glass of cherry milk right now.) Here’s where things get dodgy. Since some of the dough had sunk down into the milk, and some remained floating on top, a crucial calculation pertaining to baking times had to be performed, to ensure the success of the biscuits. Again, I had to get my wife to repeat this to me several times. I must also point out that it is not possible to make this stuff up.

Sometimes the ancient art of cooking requires advanced mathematical calculations, such as: converting cups to centiliters (24); determining the optimal number of twists from a lemon (14); or multiplying 30 times 30 (900). In times like this, quantitative skills can complement the artistic skills of a chef.

So for those of you food scientists, like Nathan Myhrvold, it was vitally important to Julia, and therefore my wife, that we figured out what thirty times thirty was. One day this might all make sense. Maybe by then I will have made a fortune by marketing cherry milk to 68 countries.

Stranger things have occured in the Twilight Zone.

Stop! Do NOT Drink This!

December 12, 2010

When you go to the post office, you see posters of people who did bad things. When you look closely at their faces, one thought in particular should come to you: stay away from them. If and when you should see the bottle on the right, you should do the same thing. Stay away. Do NOT buy a bottle of Fernet Branca. If someone, even a close friend, offers you a glass at a party, do NOT drink it.

If you must know, it’s Italian, and it has a relatively respectable history. Some drink it before a meal, some after. It is considered an amaro, also known as bitters, like Campari and Cynar. It’s over 150 years old, and like many other pedigreed beverages like Grand Marnier and Coca-Cola, was born in a laboratory. Some of the mad scientists were like John Pemberton, a 19th Century pharmacist in Georgia, who developed the early version of what became Coke. The corporate history of formulas, owners and names for Coca-Cola is so convoluted you’d think that huge quantities of cocaine were involved.

Fernet was the brainchild of Bernardino Branca, a spice trader looking for new products to drive his business in spices. (“It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!”) You should visit the company’s official website, which is wildly creative and entertaining. This still does not mean, however, that you should drink any.

There’s even a very funny book about it. But make no mistake: one mouthful and you will wish you were dead.

What does it taste like? Sort of like aged Armenian shellac, with a big splash of shoe polish and a dash of asphalt. Sound good? Boy do you need help.

Why am I talking about it? Because last night I finished off a bottle, a bottle we’ve had for years, so I felt like sharing the experience. Every few months I’d pour myself a wee dram, hoping that it would be better than the last time I tried it.

You know how this is, some foods we detest as kids we like as adults. I could never stand spinach, which either came out of a Popeye-style can or was frozen. Either way it was overcooked, wet and sloppy and a complete failure as a food product. Years later, when working in good restaurants, I discovered how wonderful fresh spinach could be, say, in salads, or even if cooked very slightly and thrown on top of pasta. Another one was Brussells sprouts, which are forced on children everywhere. Most kids think that they should be used as ammunition for large bore assault rifles. They too are now one of my favorites, when steamed with a bit of butter and sesame oil.

Fernet Branca, on the other hand, never got any better. Never. Last night I sipped on the last shot glass full of it while cooking, and it was awful. Why did I drink it? Heck if I know, but it reminded me of a story I read many years ago in the Wall Street Journal.

On an island in the South Pacific, the people produced a fermented beverage from gourds. Evidently it was awful. A masculine culture, the men would sit around a fire and eat, sometimes a barbecued horse. (That’s what it said in the WSJ article.) Then, the men would pass around this fermented drink, getting drunk and telling stories, and they would make jokes about how bad it tasted.

While they kept drinking it. I will never forget that.

So when I was forcing down this gawd-awful Fernet Branca, with its long-lasting, lingering, gawd-awful taste, I was really communing with my people, sitting with the guys around a roaring fire on the beach, chewing on a barbecued horse haunch, and laughing.

Boeuf Bourguignon

November 19, 2010

When I first met Michelle at the University of St Andrews, in the post-Prince William/Kate Middleton days, her cooking skills ranged from tea to toast. She has come quite a long way since.

(Coincidentally, just as William gave Kate a sapphire engagement ring, I gave Michelle a sapphire ring, but our on-bended-knee ceremony took place at Edinburgh Castle.)

In 2007 we moved from our post-graduate student housing in St Andrews to a flat in Edinburgh, after a search that tasted like “Alice in Wonderland” with a dash of “Catch-22”.  The kitchen was one of our favorite rooms, with lots of light and a view of the park. I did 99% of the cooking, but there in Edinburgh she felt a bit more adventurous, and showed some culinary courage.  One night she cooked a marvelous meal of Indian food that she claimed she had made before back in Boston; it was hard to believe. Astounded, I watched her prepare the dishes: one was a chickpea extravaganza featuring 877 ingredients and exotic spices, and requiring 422 steps; the other was a chicken and cashew dish that featured 1038 ingredients and required 612 steps.  It was all very surreal to think that this tiny toast maven could prepare such impressive and delicious food.

But mostly, in the roughly three years since, she has proven to be a microwave girl.  Her kitchen skills include popping in a Lean Cuisine bag, and opening individual containers of cottage cheese. If she opens a container, pours a cup of coffee, or puts a slice of delivery pizza on a plate, she shouts, “I cooked!”  We disagree on what constitutes ‘cooking’ but I am a lenient kitchen policeman.

We bought the “Julie & Julia” movie that came out last year, about the young New York blogger who cooked her way through Julia Child’s seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” of 1961, and have watched it several hundred times.  (Trust me, I have it memorized.)  In addition, we bought Julia Child’s memoirs, “My Life in France”, which also seasoned the movie.

Recently, something inside Michelle snapped.  She has cooked difficult and demanding items from “Mastering” and she keeps on plugging. She sits on the couch and flips through recipes, proud that many of the pages now look well-used. Then in a flash she jabs a page with an épée thrust and shouts “Ah HAH!”  It’s my job to encourage her, so when she says that she wants to try a new recipe, I grab a wine glass and my monogrammed Swiss cutlery. Friends who have been to my house for dinner will tell you that I’m pretty comfortable in the kitchen, but my most important kitchen implement is still the corkscrew. “Sweetheart, you want to try what?  OK, I better go buy a bottle of wine.”

A few months ago she cooked the roast chicken with mushrooms in cream and port wine recipe featured in the movie (Poulet au Porto), which was fantastic, along with potatoes sautéed in butter (Pommes de Terre Sautées), which is just like it sounds, only more so.   For our anniversary dinner a few weeks ago, she cooked Lobster Thermidor, and she needed me to perform just one function, crustacean execution.  Like with Michelle’s counterpart from the movie, the Julie character, plunging a live lobster into a boiling pot was a problem. Someone with a hairy chest had to kill them first, which somehow seemed more humane.  After I dispatched the unlucky lobsters with a knife, Michelle still needed to hold my hand when she picked up a lobster and plopped it into the pot.  The result was delicious, a prize winner.

Last week she cooked the classic French chicken in wine dish, Coq au Vin, which was very yummy.  This week, she has set her mind on mastering the art of cooking Boeuf Bourguignon, a beef stew made with bacon, onions, mushrooms, and two and a half gallons of wine, half of which goes into the chef, again as featured in the movie.  To make this demanded the proper cooking equipment, a casserole dish constructed of enameled cast iron, which can be used to sauté on the stove, and then transfer seamlessly into the oven.  Last night the man of the house brought home one marketed by Mario Batali, and this savior was treated to much jubilant, giggly dancing and squealing by the female chef of the house.

In her cookbook, Julia Child refers to Boeuf Bourguignon as “one of the most delicious beef dishes ever concocted by man.”  We’ll find out soon.

“If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy with a corkscrew.”

Welcome to the House of Cheese!

November 7, 2010

The US Government wants to encourage its citizens to lose weight, since American obesity is causing the US landmass to sink, and is forcing Boeing to add more engines to their planes.  Yet a marketing arm of the United States Department of Agriculture has provided funding and resources for Domino’s Pizzas to produce pizzas with 40% more cheese, and paid for a $12 million ad campaign to help them sell more of these cheese mountains.

It’s as if one stomach doesn’t know what the other stomach is doing.

This USDA organization, a conglomeration of dairy producers called Dairy Management, is like a wolf in cow’s clothing.  Among their recent achievements is the construction of the World’s Biggest Ball of String Cheese, which can be seen from space.

So while on the one hand, the government wants us to eat healthier foods with less saturated fat and fewer calories, on the other hand they want us to pile on the cheese, and wolf down those very things that we shouldn’t be eating…?

According to a New York Times article, a slice of the “new and improved” Domino’s pizza with this extra cheese contains about two-thirds of the recommended daily amount of saturated fat.  Eat more!  No, eat less!  No, wait!  I meant EAT MORE!

Domino’s research reveals that Americans would eat virtually anything if it was covered in melted cheese.

Your Government wants to help you – well, even more so if you are a dairy business or cheese product manufacturer – so you should go quickly to a new restaurant, located in a cave in Missouri…

Welcome to the House of Cheese®!

Here at the House of Cheese, you can order any kind of cheese you wish, in any quantity, and if you so desire, you can order it with a variety of unnecessary but somewhat enhancing side dishes such as: pizza crust, crackers, bread, or our personal favorite, more cheese!

In addition, we want our customers to be happy, so you can have it served however you wish: bowl, plate, silver salver, or in a paper cone.

Here are a few of our specialties you might enjoy:

• Cow’s Caress:  1/2 pound bowl of Colby

• Wisconsin Whammy:  American cheddar in a one pound wedge

• Bovine Bounty:  a brick of Velveeta

• Canadian Cradle:  one litre of curdled cheese in a bread bowl

• French Poodle:   a perky sculpture of canine Camembert

• German Castle:  a mound of Muenster

• Buffalo Basher:  1 kilogram of mozzarella on a stick

• Palin Platform:  Swiss cheese on a paper plate

Please be efficient and respectful when ordering, and follow our strict House of Cheese protocols, or our Cheese Nazi will declare, “No cheese for you!”


Grains of Truth

June 23, 2008

As you will recall from my recent missive on martinis, I am trying to empty the flat of food, drink and condiments in time for my departure later this week.  This causes some unusual combinations, and while my tongue has taken some esoteric journeys, I am none the worse for wear.

In St Andrews last year I bought a rice cooker, the advantages of which I was taught long ago by my buddy Gary.  When Michelle was here we ate mostly pasta, but since I have been alone I have mixed it up a bit more, and have enjoyed experimenting with Indian food.  Running against the grain, as it were, I prefer brown and wild rice to the more bland white rices, and when you add some sautéed vegetables to some Indian sauce it’s not bad at all.

If I cook rice as a side dish, to take things up a notch I like to add a little butter, non-fat if it’s around, and maybe a little splash of sesame oil.  I like that mysterious, nutty quality that sesame oil brings, and it hasn’t killed me yet.

Last night I was in the mood for some low-intensity comfort food after a long and rigorous day of shopping on the tourist-strewn Royal Mile, so I reached for the rice cooker.  Sadly, I was out of butter — both regular and non-fat — as well as sesame oil.  Then I noticed a small jar of peanut butter.  Hmm.

If I can add butter to the rice and water in the cooker before I turn it on, and if I can also add sesame oil, why not add a blob of peanut butter?  (It was the smooth kind in this case.)  I measured the rice and added the water, and then I spooned out a glob of peanut butter the size of a golf ball — the larger American ball, not the smaller British ball — and tossed it in.  I switched the rice cooker on and then fled the room, having run out of courage.  Nestled safely in the living room I poured a glass of wine and waited.

In a little while the kitchen and hall were filled with that rich, satisfying smell of peanut butter, something like Mom’s homemade peanut butter cookies.  When the light indicated that the rice was done, I removed the lid and gave it a good stir and sniff.  The rice was moist and heavy, and smelled intoxicating.  Usually I look at rice as a filler vehicle on which you pile something interesting and nourishing, but I was shoveling this stuff down.

If you like to experiment in the kitchen, and Michelle LOVES it when I experiment, you might want to try mixing in some green onions or some crumbled bacon.  Tune in next week, when we see what happens when you use jasmine rice with peanut butter and jelly.