Author Archives: Him

The South Shall Rosé Again

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“Are you going to eat these collards, or should we just put them in the compost?”

She wasn’t making it a personal challenge, just letting me know that she had no intention of doing anything with those greens we’d received in the CSA box.

It being summer musical writing season—this year I’m working on three shows at once because, I guess, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person—I haven’t put a lot of thought into the lunches I’ve grabbed in the few seconds before I had to run to catch a train. Which meant it was Sunday, I’d just brought home this week’s CSA box, and last week’s collard greens were staring out from the crisper. I was determined not to waste them, and she wasn’t home for lunch anyway, so collards it would be.

Note to Self: put “prepare lunch” on your morning to-do list so it isn’t the last thing that gets done—or, worse, doesn’t.

I set the Instant Pot to “Sauté” (sort of like setting phasers to Stun, but tastier) and put in a big dollop of bacon fat from the jar in the fridge. While the pot came to temp and the fat melted, I washed and dried and chopped the greens and a couple of garlic scapes. This would have been a great time to use that ham hock in the back of the freezer, but we didn’t have a ham hock in the back of the freezer, so bacon fat and garlic would have to do.

Note to Self #2: get a ham hock and put it in the freezer.

I added the greens and garlic to the now-sizzling pot and stirred to make sure everything got coated, and sautéed the greens for a couple of minutes. This would have been a great time to have some stock defrosted, too. Alas, I hadn’t had that much foresight either.

I added a dollop of Dijon mustard, a little squirt of sriracha sauce, and a cup of rosé wine, then lidded up the pot and set it to pressure-cook for 20 minutes.

Now I know perfectly well that no self-respecting Southerner would cook collards with Dijon mustard, sriracha sauce, and rosé wine—if they had those things in the fridge to begin with.

I never said I was a self-respecting Southerner.

They were delicious.

Will I do it this way again? Probably not. Maybe next time it’ll be Swiss chard with orange juice and soy sauce.

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The Triangle Dilemma

1P_WC_MainBG_Transition_Moment_07_00011There’s an adage in business that goes something like “You can have it fast, you can have it cheap, or you can have it good–but you can’t have all three.”

The drive-through window is usually cheap and fast, but seldom really good.
A sit-down restaurant might be good and (relatively fast), but it’s usually not fast.
Cooking at home is almost always good, and more often than not cheaper than a restaurant, but hardly ever fast.

This triangle—cheap, fast, and good, in varying combinations—has been the dilemma of our spring. Really, it wasn’t a triangle; perhaps it was a pyramid. Really, it was a Pyramid.

This Pyramid.

I’ve loved this game since I was a kid, and, after many years, lots of conversations, the faith of friends, and quite a few prayers, I was invited to join the staff of The $100,000 Pyramid for the season that’s about to start airing. It was the most fun I’ve ever had working, and I was grateful for every moment.

This isn’t a story in which I geek out about working on the best word game ever to air on TV, though; it’s a story about what happens when the opportunity of a lifetime comes along when I’d already cobbled together lots of freelance jobs that equalled a full-time job: lots of church things, lots of theatre things, lots of teaching things, and enough juggling to make a circus act say “Whew!” (But that’s another game show.)

For most of the last 12 weeks the routine of our days was: get up before 6AM, feed the cat, pack breakfasts and lunches, drive to the train station, commute two hours one way, work a pretty-full day, leave one job and commute an hour to one or another of the cobbled-together gigs (and then sometime commute to another one), and meet for a train home arriving sometime between 9 and 10PM. Weekends, too. On a good day, we’d put something in a slow-cooker. On a less good day, we had some more-or-less convenient food in the freezer that could be augmented with relatively healthy side dishes that we’d batch-cooked or that took very little time to prepare. But since, to be perfectly honest, sometimes the 20 minutes it takes to steam a pot of rice and bake some chicken was just more than we had the emotional fortitude to endure.

There was a lot of take-out. There were many sandwiches. It wasn’t a total disaster. It wasn’t bacon-double-cheeseburgers and super-sized fries from morning ’til night. There were salads. There were vegetables. There were bowls of really good oatmeal.  The choices just weren’t as healthy as we might have hoped.

And at work there were meals from the bountiful tables of Craft Services—catering companies who support the crew and staff during the long days in the TV studio with generous portions, plentiful desserts, and meals tasty enough that you don’t mind seeing no sunlight for 12 hours at a time.

I’m not complaining. I’m saying I have three hopes.

  1. That you’ll tune in every Sunday night starting June 10—and tell your friends and family to do the same—so that we become a big fat hit and ABC has no reason not to renew us.
  2. That I’m offered a chance to return to the staff on that still-hypothetical next season, and perhaps on another show between now and then.
  3. That the pick-up order and the re-staffing happen before I start the cobbling-together for the fall and winter, such that I don’t have to juggle quite so much and have a little time to breathe and cook such that any new trousers I order between now and then purchased because I want them, not because the old ones don’t fit.

But this time, I hope not to have to choose only two. 1P_WC_MainBG_Transition_Moment_07_00011

To Win the Game, First Boil Water

“What about Carbonara?” she asked, as we rode the train home last Monday evening.

“Carbonara,” I said, thinking that was beyond my reach; it would be 10 pm before we got home.

“We have bacon and eggs and cheese and pasta.”

Challenge accepted. It would certainly keep us from going to the drive-through window, or eating a bowl of ice cream for dinner. Neither of those is necessarily terrible, but we could do better.

I’m sure the idea arose because we’d watched an episode of a cooking game show the night before. Just for fun, the host challenged one of the judges to join the competition. The meal he prepared didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but he started halfway into the cooking period and prepared a meal of spaghetti carbonara in less than 15 minutes. (Because it was also a “budget” challenge, the judge used bacon rather than the traditional pancetta.)

“How did he do that so fast?” she asked. “Did they stop the clock to let him boil the water?”

I’m pretty sure, I said, that they let all the contestants have a pot of boiling water all the time. In fact, although I can’t remember where, I’d read that every cook should set a pot of water to boil as soon as walking in the door, even if you don’t know what you’re planning to cook. It could be used for to cook pasta, potatoes, or rice; or turn into the basis for a simple soup; or a steamer basket could go over it for vegetables. I don’t always do this, but it does seem like a good idea.

“Okay,” I said, “but you can’t hold me to 15 minutes since I don’t already have boiling water.”

That seemed fair to her.

Carbonara Against the Clock.

First things first. Come in the door. Put down your bag and go straight to the stove. Put on a pot of water to boil. Feed the cat.

Now take off your coat. Hey, every second counts.

Set a skillet on medium heat.

Pull a package of bacon from the freezer; and, from the fridge, a wedge of parmesan and a carton of eggs.

Green peas are not to be included, the judge pointedly said. Heck with him. Get peas if you want them. We didn’t have any peas. I grabbed some asparagus.

Turn on the oven to low, add a couple of bowls. No cold plates for hot food.

Dice a few strips of bacon and set them in the skillet to render, stirring occasionally so nothing burns. (If the bacon is frozen, so much the better: it dices neatly and cooks slower.)

Trim the asparagus (if using) and cut it into half-inch long pieces.

Grate the cheese until you have about half a cup.

When the water is boiling, in goes a half-box of spaghetti. Stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t clump.

When the bacon is cooked, remove it with a slotted spoon to one of the warming bowls. If Pour off the bacon fat, reserving it for another day! Leave a little fat in the skillet and sauté the if-using asparagus in it.

Cracked four eggs into a big bowl and whisk them. Stirred in most of the grated cheese and a generous amount of pepper.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, add it to the eggs-and-cheese bowl, and stir vigorously. This way, the hot pasta cooks the eggs gently—rather than pouring the eggs into the pasta pot, where they’d seize up instantly. Add the bacon and completely-non-traditional asparagus, stirred a little more to combine. Divide into the warmed bowls, and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Serves two, who most decidedly did not have to go to the drive-through; if there are no leftovers, I will certainly not judge.

35 minutes from walking in the door to sitting down to eat.

Cooking game shows are fun to watch, though they don’t really have the play-along factor of Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune—or, one that is very close to my heart, The $100,000 Pyramid. There’s no way to “get the answer” before the contestants do, and, of course, there’s no way for the home audience to “judge” the food the contestants prepare, other than by saying, “That looks good,” or “I wouldn’t eat that.”

Or—and this is particularly important for an improvisational cook like me—as a reminder of how to cook within limitations.

Whatever the challenge, first, boil some water.

Post-Graduate Work

Ramen Watercolor

It was Saturday morning, and we were making a slow start of it. She was playing a video game on her phone, the cat was snuggled at her feet, and I was reading Twitter.

I was scrolling past the seemingly-endless political stuff, passing the tech news, dodging the ads, when a friend’s retweet caught my eye.

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I laughed out loud at the thought of it, and showed her, and she laughed, too. “Yours,” she said, would be, ‘I’m going to eat all the Brussels Sprouts.'” And I laughed, because I was thinking exactly the same thing, and made that comment in a reply to the original poster.  The replies got more absurd and delightful. “I’m going to build a water slide in the basement,” one said.

And then women were getting involved, making it clear that it wasn’t only the men who eat less than prudently when they’re alone. One poster suggested she would make Blue-box Mac and Cheese and eat it out of the pan with the spoon she used to stir it. “This is your spiritual sister,” I said. “Nope. This is me!” she replied. By this point it was pretty clear I was going to read the entire thread, even if it meant I got nothing else done.  (She, for her part, had gotten up, dressed, and headed off to an eye exam and a trip to the market.) I kept going, through very specific “eat something stupid” replies, many focusing on chips, pizza, and Ramen noodles.

I haven’t thought about Ramen noodles in ages, but all of a sudden I wanted them for lunch. Sure, it was quick and easy and—most importantly for college students—cheap, not what anybody would call great cuisine, but maybe a little comforting. Sort of like blue-box macaroni and cheese.

I switched over to the shopping-list app and added Ramen noodles and scallions, and dressed to go out for a run.

She hadn’t found the five-packages-for-a-dollar variety. The Ramen she brought home was the real stuff—no MSG-filled flavor packet to be found, which was just fine with me. I hadn’t planned to use it anyway; I was thinking of one of the folks who posted about mixing in “a soft boiled egg, if you want to be fancy.” I didn’t know about fancy, but I did want it to be good.

Post-Graduate Ramen

Serves 1, because you know what she really wants for lunch isn’t Ramen.

1 tsp dried shrimp
3 or 4 cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 carrot, diced
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1-inch nob ginger, minced
2 scallions, sliced
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp sriracha sauce
1/4 tsp sesame oil
1 cup stock
1 package Ramen noodles

In a small bowl, pour a quarter-cup of boiling water over the dried shrimp.

Pour a little olive oil in a skillet and put it over medium-high heat.

When the oil is hot, add and sauté the mushrooms, carrot, and pepper. When the mushrooms are nicely browned and the others have softened a bit, lower the heat a little and add the garlic and ginger; toss, and continue to sauté until the aromatics are, well, aromatic.

Add the soy sauce and fish sauce, toss to combine.

Add the shrimp and their liquid, and the stock. Increase heat until the liquid is at a brisk simmer, then add the noodles and put a lid on the skillet. Cook 2-3 minutes (or per package directions).

Remove and serve, garnished with a few drops each of sesame oil and sriracha, and the chopped scallions.

Ramen

While you are doing all of this, of course, prepare one package blue-box mac and cheese. Offer her the pot, and the stirring spoon to use as a utensil.

Measure Twice, Bake Once

I looked at the shopping list app again. There was indeed a 2 in the listing for cream cheese. That’s more cream cheese than I’ve ever bought at one time, but I was sure she had a reason. I added another package to my cart and headed, at last, for the cashier.

It had been one of those complicated shopping trips, where you have to look carefully to make sure you have the specific brand and size and number—and that you get each item from the proper store. (If your spouse doesn’t load up the shared shopping-list app with such specific details because various things qualify for various rebates and compounded bonus rebates and triple money-back whatnots, you may not understand. But mine has turned shopping into a video game, practically, and by doing so has brought the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment over the past year, so I’m not complaining.)

Okay, sometimes all I want to do is run into the nearest store and get a carton of milk, and then I complain a little, but only a little.

I arrived home and gave her the goods and receipts—so that everything could be properly app-catalogued—and then asked why we’d needed all that cream cheese.

“Cheesecake,” she said. “I found a recipe for the Instant Pot.”

Well, that did sound like fun. (Also, it explained the graham crackers I’d just bought.)

She went back to project she’d been working on, and I went back to mine, and when I finished mine first I decided this hypothetical cheesecake wasn’t going to bake itself. I found the recipe she mentioned, gathered the rest of the ingredients, and assembled the hardware.

Her parents gave us the Instant Pot last Christmas, and, as accessories for our birthdays this year a set of cute little nesting steamer baskets that fit inside its stainless steel cooking pot. This seemed like a good use for one of the baskets; otherwise, how would I get the cheesecake out of the big Instant Pot…pot?

But how would I get it out of the little steamer basket, with its solid bottom? Cheesecakes are usually baked in springform pans. I found one of those that fit neatly inside the Instant Pot, and I was on my way. Graham crackers crumbled and buttered to form a crust in the springform pan. Cream cheese softened, whipped, sweetened, vanilla-ed, egged and slightly thickened with a tiny bit of flour. The whole mixture poured into the crust. Time to put the pan in the liner and get it cooking.

You see what I did there, don’t you? Or, rather, what I didn’t do?

I had checked that the springform pan would fit inside the Instant Pot, not inside the stainless steel liner. It was a half-inch too big. I was glad that I hadn’t made a New Year’s resolution to give up cussing, or that one would have been over before it started.

I calmed down and baked the cheesecake in a nice little water bath in our conventional oven. It looked perfect when it came out, and just as good when it cooled—no cracks! I smoothed a thin layer of sweetened yogurt on top and set it in the fridge to chill overnight.

EPILOGUE

Before we sat down to dinner on New Year’s Day, I covered the rest of the main course (thanks again, Instant Pot!) so the always-hungry cat wouldn’t do something naughty, and I took the cheesecake out of the fridge so it wouldn’t be frosty at dessert time.

“Aschie, NO!” she shouted.

I hadn’t covered the cheesecake. Aschenputtel had served herself a little dessert —just a few licks of the yogurt layer, but we’d never be serving this cheesecake to company.

Fortunately, we weren’t having company.

The cat got her face squirted for being bold. I scraped rest of the yogurt layer off the cheesecake, sliced some strawberries, and plated dessert for us.

Was it the best cheesecake I’ve ever baked? Well, it was the first cheesecake I’ve ever baked, so it wins by default. I’m not sure if it would have come out differently if I’d pressure-baked it as planned; I’ll try that one day, after I find an appropriately sized springform.  I will, in fact, measure twice to make sure that pan fits. And I’ll make sure that dessert is out of the cat’s reach.

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Scene of the crime.

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Well, it’s not like she skipped dinner and still wanted dessert.

SIDE NOTE

I’ll ask her to write a post about the shopping list app, and the rebate apps; they might be of more use than a cautionary tale of bad measurement and questionable cat parenting.

Not Mincing Words

Gather, my children, and you shall hear the story of a boy, a girl, and the Christmas without a Mince Pie.

Watching the 2017 Christmas Masterclass Mince Pie segment (and missing Mary Berry very much), she says, “We should try that.”

I can’t remember the last time I had a mincemeat pie. I can’t remember ever having a mincemeat pie. It’s the sort of thing I vaguely recall my grandmother baking, but nothing I would have been willing to try as a child.

But perhaps because of the recent visit from a picky-eating 10-year-old, I was feeling willing to give it a go. Of course we didn’t have a jar of mincemeat on hand, but the weather wasn’t bad, and I was going to be sitting on an organ bench at church for a long time later, so I volunteered for a Christmas Eve-afternoon walk.

Reaching the market, I began my search for the international foods aisle. I know there’s an international foods aisle, for it is where I buy PG Tips tea, her preferred brand. I can’t find it. I checked at the customer service desk, where I was told, “We don’t really have a section like that,” but maybe in aisle 7.  In aisle 7, I find the German foods, the Thai foods, Chinese foods, Japanese foods, lots of Kosher products, and stuff from many South American cultures. This feels pretty international to me, but whatever. In any event, there was nothing British.

Thinking the Brit-food has been distributed in other departments, I looked for pie fillings in the baking-supplies aisle. Couldn’t find ’em. Cake mix of every variety, muffins as far as the eye can see, plenty of flour and sugar, but no pie fillings. Oh, wait, there they are. Or were: a mostly empty shelf. But the mostly empty shelf has no tag indicating mincemeat was once there. I checked in produce, where the dried fruits are kept. Nothing doing there either. By this point I was on a mission. It must be there somewhere.
I found two clerks talking while one restocked the cheese section. I heard only the end of their conversation. “…and then it just wasn’t there anymore.” The other one threw her hands in the air in a helpless shrug, and the first one left. I said to the one remaining, “Speaking of things that aren’t there any more, do you know where I can find mincemeat?” She wasn’t sure, but led me to another guy. “Mincemeat?” this guy said. “That’s with the lamb.”
“I think that’s something else,” I said. “This has beef suet, but it’s mostly fruit.”
“Oh—fruit,” he replied. “Look with the prunes.” (That’s the dried fruit section, where I’ve been, but maybe I missed it.)  My guide-clerk led helpfully to the produce section, where she saw a third clerk and called to him, “Mincemeat?” He nods, and starts down the aisle. I followed him, encouraged.
He reached the end of his section and pointed to a shelf where proudly stood bags…of snow peas.
“Uh, thanks,” I said. “Let me think about it.” He nodded, and walked away, happy that his mission was accomplished.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a mince pie. All except us, anyway. I had a great walk, and baked brownies.

Not Quite an Instant

Her parents gave us an Instant Pot for Christmas last year. We love it. We’ve never had such good yogurt as the stuff we make in it. It gives us great chili, and pulled pork, and chicken stock.

I’m not completely expert at using it. I haven’t yet got brown rice to come out as tender as it would from a saucepan, or chickpeas from the slow cooker. Maybe I’m rushing things–but if the whole idea of a pressure cooker is that it works faster than other cooking methods, then I think it really ought to be faster.

Our CSA share hasn’t been piling on the carrots and parsnips quite so much as it was for a while there, but we’ve still got quite a few, and some nice potatoes. And, with a bit of chill in the evening air of late, stew seemed like a good idea—and a perfect job for the Pot. I seared the beef, I chopped the veg, I added seasonings and wine, closed the lid and headed for rehearsal.

She didn’t have stew. She had, according to the text message she sent me, “cooked beef and veggies sitting in oily liquid—not broth, not gravy.”

And, unfortunately, the gravy separator had melted in a stovetop accident sometime during the holidays last year. (We don’t make gravy very often.) Ever-resourceful, she refrigerated the solids in one container, the liquid in another, and made mac and cheese for her dinner.

When we got home the next evening–a rare night home together!–I skimmed the solidified fat, made a roux, and used the broth to make a nice, hearty gravy. I warmed the meat and veg, added them to the gravy, topped the stew-at-last with some chopped celery leaves, and we had dinner in not quite an instant.

Some things happen in a flash. Some take a very long time. Sometimes it’s a little of both. We’d known each other for ten years before our first date.

Happy anniversary to us.