Tag Archives: Sunday

Thermal Control

The first Sunday in October was clear and blue-skied.  And more than a little chilly.  It might have been the Christmas-themed movie we finished watching during lunch, or maybe the breeze that had blown away Saturday’s rainclouds, but by late afternoon the yard-clearing was done and we were both thinking thoughts of getting warmer.  We headed for the garden center to buy firewood.

I’ve used pre-packaged firelogs for some years–the sort that are mostly compressed sawdust–and liked their convenience, but not the high cost or chemical smell. Even the “environmentally friendly” versions stunk up the place pretty badly. The garden center offered us a great price on half a cord of seasoned logs, which I hoped meant that they had been left to dry for a long while, and not sprinkled with oregano and cumin. They even keep most of the wood “on file,” so to speak, letting us bring home a few at a time as we choose to. We took one-tenth of our order and headed happily for home, stopping at the market for a few groceries.

The broiler-fryer chickens we’d been looking for were back in stock and on sale.  We bought one and had visions of a lovely evening: a roaring fire and a chicken roasted on a bed of chopped vegetables.

The house smelled delicious, but nothing was quite working.  However much kindling we added, the logs were getting singed but not catching flame.  And dinner was nowhere near ready. At 10 PM, I portioned the chicken, putting the legs and thighs back into the oven and slicing the breast meat for a quick finish in a sauté pan.  The fire was a lost cause.

I got fiercely cranky during the whole endeavor–a grown man who can’t build a proper fire or cook a chicken?  Fortunately, only one of us has a meltdown at a time. She tried to lighten my mood, but wisely tempered her efforts when it was clear I wasn’t ready to laugh at the situation. Eventually, with enough edible food to make dinner a viable option, I calmed down. Last-of-the-season corn isn’t as plump-kerneled as earlier ears, but it was deliciously sweet. The vegetables had been abundantly doused with chicken drippings. The chicken itself was tender and flavorful, finally. And pumpkin-spice cake from a recipe she’d found on Pinterest was a sweet and spicy finish, if not necessarily one that will go into heavy rotation in our repertoire.

From now on, we’ll roast chickens that are already portioned, or perhaps learn to butterfly them for faster cooking.  We’ll either start earlier when preparing a big Sunday dinner, or we’ll plan an easier menu.  And, until the logs season a little further and we learn a little more about organizing twigs and newspaper and fatwood, we’ll keep an extra afghan on the sofa.

Last-of-the-season corn isn't as plump-kerneled as the earlier ears, but it was deliciously sweet.  Roasted vegetables had been abundantly doused with chicken drippings. The chicken itself was tender and flavorful, finally.

Last-of-the-season corn isn’t as plump-kerneled as the earlier ears, but it was deliciously sweet. Roasted vegetables had been abundantly doused with chicken drippings. The chicken itself was tender and flavorful, finally.

What Price Convenience?

We don’t use a lot of convenience foods; whenever possible, we cook from scratch. A notable exception, of course, is the boxed macaroni and cheese she enjoys.  Sure, we’ll buy a bottle of ketchup rather than make our own (though I have considered homemade), and neither of us has a moral objection to frozen pizza in a pinch, but for the most part we start with ingredients and end up with a meal.  We passed through the frozen-food section at Trader Joe’s yesterday and realized there was nothing we wanted for the freezer.  This is a good thing; cooking from scratch is usually less expensive than a pre-packaged meal, and always gives us control over what’s included.

We had decided on a roasted chicken for Sunday dinner, since fryer-roasters were on sale at our preferred supermarket. It seemed like such a civilized, normal-family sort of Sunday dinner, and would provide plenty of leftovers for repurposing during the week. There was only one of the sale-priced chickens left, and a small one at that.  There were, however, several “Oven-ready” chickens, which come pre-seasoned.  Also, even less expensive, and a little larger.  So we gave one a shot.

I didn’t realize the chicken came in its own roasting bag; I wasn’t thrilled about the extra plastic, but figured it would make cleanup easier.

As soon as a perfect-looking cast iron skillet of cornbread came out of the oven, I parked the chicken-in-a-bag-in-a-roasting-pan between the roasting beets and sweet potatoes, and set the oven timer for the short end of the chicken’s recommended range. The sides came out first (because I, unlike my godmother, did not study Home Economics and have impeccable meal-planning timing), but they stayed foil-wrapped and happily warm until the chicken finished.  At timer’s beep, the meat thermometer said the chicken was a couple degrees from perfect, so I removed the chicken to allow for carryover heat, bumped the oven to low to bake a pan of granola, and sautéed the beet greens to accompany their roasted roots.

Whatever seasoning solution had been added to the chicken didn’t do much other than keep it from becoming dry–which is certainly worthwhile, but if I’d put a chicken in the oven myself I could have controlled for that with timing (and maybe a judiciously placed soda can full of broth). If the liquid was seasoned, it had no recognizable flavor  More disappointing was the chicken’s skin, which was sort-of-brown, but not at all crisp. The whole meal was fragrant enough to attract the attention of a small Feline American Companion, but she knew she wasn’t going to get any table scraps, and she was more companionable than begging.

All told, the convenience of this Oven-Ready Roaster didn’t outweigh its disadvantages. If this one had been more expensive than a “regular” chicken, we wouldn’t have even considered it.  But it was worth a try. We won’t be buying another, but the leftover chicken is in the fridge, and its bones (along with those from several other chickens or pieces thereof) are in the slow-cooker becoming stock.

Sunday dinner was served a little later than back in my childhood, but with our little family around our little table, it was every bit as pleasant.

She liked the chicken, but the cornbread really got her attention.

She liked the chicken, but the cornbread really got her attention.

When Delays, Doubles, and Failed Plans are Just Right

Things don’t always go as planned.

Boxes are unpacked right away, but then piles of indecision clutter the surfaces. Items are carefully re-boxed and placed for the local thrift store to collect, but then they don’t want your extra sofa after all. Contract painters show up four days early and do a lovely job, creating an unexpected construction zone for weekend entertaining.

He was a saint on Friday night, when the long hours, longer commutes, and lack of order finally took their toll on my good humour. The unplanned meltdown was ugly. The picking up and going on was beautiful – suffice it to say that the bedroom, guest room, and living room are all finally pleasant spaces to relax in.

On Saturday afternoon, we put together a stew for our guests – friends stopping over with us on the sad occasion of traveling to a funeral. Comfort food seemed called for.

A three-pound rump roast was cubed, dredged in flour, and seared. A trio of red onions were diced and cooked in the half-drained drippings, collecting the flavorful leavings and warming their bite. A few ribs of celery, a handful of carrots, and a minced bell pepper were added then the beef was tossed on top.  Seasoned liberally with oregano and bay leaf, with two dozen whole peppercorns thrown in for good measure. A palmful of kosher salt. Half a bottle of dry red wine.

(He drank a glass, proclaiming it “good” and “very dry”. I can’t stand the stuff; I take my grapes in a sugary cocktail, thanks.) Four cups of well seasoned mushroom stock were poured over all, then the lid went on and the Dutch oven went into the actual oven while we got back to work.

Six hours later, the beef was tasty but the broth was inconsistent in appearance and flavor. We set the oven to “warm” and left the pot alone overnight.

By Sunday morning, the meat and vegetables were fabulous, but the broth was still a mess – so I set out to repair it.

Solids were scooped from the first Dutch oven, drained, and placed into a second one. The liquid was painstakingly ladled into his grandmother’s gravy strainer, one cup at a time, and left to rest for twelve minutes.

When the oily bits had risen to the surface, every speck of fat was discarded and the good stuff was saved into a saucepan. Two hours later, with “the good stuff” fully assembled, the now fat-free broth was brought to a low simmer and thickened with corn starch – then poured over the meat and vegetable bits. The whole lot was brought back to temperature, covered, then placed back in the 200 degree oven to stay happy until our (delayed) guests arrived.

When they did, baked red potatoes were roughly chopped and placed into shallow bowls. Stew was ladled over top. Seconds were served, along with still and sparkling wines, ginger ales, and plenty of ice cream at dessert.

It couldn’t have been better if it had gone according to plan; there aren’t any leftovers to photograph.

Sometimes doubles aren't awful.

I’m glad to have kept both Dutch Ovens – one enameled, one not.

DIY, Kind-of

Home cooking is pretty much the definition of “do it yourself,” and we do that nearly all the time. Usually our cooking is done one meal at a time–though often in larger batches so as to have leftovers for lunches. 

Our DIY-ness isn’t confined to the kitchen, though. I’m used to her knitting (or “making clothes from string,” as one of our friends called it, awed at her skill as if it were alchemy). She came home the other day and was delighted by the jewelry keeper I’d fashioned from some screw-in hooks and an antique wooden coat hanger.

This weekend, we were back in the Country House kitchen to make batches of non-meal DIY projects–saving a shekel or two over store-bought, relishing the satisfaction of doing something not everybody else can or would do, and knowing that we are well-stocked for the future.

She’s been enjoying Kind Bars as an afternoon office snack.  I’ll admit they’re tasty, and not full of chemical nastiness, but a little “spendy.” She picked up a box at the market the other day, thinking economies of scale would help matters, and, after doing math in her head decided the bars were still an extravagance. Sure, we can afford a snack, but we’d rather go to Paris. (And eat really well when we get there.)

“I bet we could reverse-engineer those,” I said.  And realized it might be even easier than that.  A quick search proved that another home-cook/blogger had already done the work.  We had most of the ingredients on hand; the few we didn’t were items we usually stock–except for flaxseed meal, which she assures me we will be able to use in many other recipes. As for the extra puffed-rice cereal, as I’m concerned it’s nothing more than an excuse to make marshmallows.

Toast some nuts, add cereal, heat some syrup, spread in baking pan, salt, cut into bars, drizzle with melted chocolate, cool, wrap. It could hardly be easier. Further refinement come with future attempts, but for now we’ve got “Kind-of” bars to last a few weeks.

Her story of the well-traveled salsa will wait for another post.

Dipping Kind-of bars in spicy tomato salsa is not recommended

Dipping Kind-of bars in spicy tomato salsa is not recommended

It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity

‘Twas the night before Labor Day, and the grill was alight.

This isn’t going to be a poem, though that would be fun.  Nor was this a “oh, gosh, it’s the last gasp of summer, we have to have a cookout!” sort of panic.  It was burgers.  One of which was going to be well-done and not one degree beyond.  The smoke detector was not going to sound.

The burgers were originally intended to come from the awesome burger place our neighbor suggested, but they’d closed early for the holiday weekend. Thus, 80/20 chuck was defrosted and formed into patties–one thick and narrow, one thin and wide, so they’d cook to the desired doneness in approximately the same time.

Potatoes were sliced thinly through most of their cross-section, buttered, salt-and-peppered, and foil-wrapped for tucking into the coals. Cabbage was sliced and carrots shredded for slaw. The charcoal was lighted.  The grill-grate was cleaned and swabbed with oil. All was right with the world.

And then it started raining. 

Not cute little sprinkles, either. Let’s-get-this-over-with buckets. The kind that makes you consider gathering the animals by twos.

And thus it was that I fetched an umbrella and became one of those suburban guys who stands on the deck, grilling in the rain.

The burgers were worth it.

Grilling in the Rain 2

I am afraid her umbrella may smell a little smoky the next time she needs to use it.

Burgers 0831

Nothing says “end of summer” like taking off your wet shoes and plating a pretty-much-perfect dinner.




Thinking Outside the Boxes

I got home from work to find that she had been opening boxes. Pretty much every flat surface was covered with the contents of two kitchens about to merge.  It looked like a bit of a garage sale. I cleared the coffee table and, one category at a time, we brought all its items there and sat down to consider them. Small appliances. Mugs. Glasses. Saucepans. Skillets. Bakeware. Serving pieces. Utensils. (Dinnerware and flatware were skipped: we had already agreed which set of the former to keep; the latter had been inadvertently put in storage.) Nearly every decision was easy; there were no turf wars over paring knives, no heated debates about measuring cups. It’s a little easier because we have some extra storage space in the garage. A waffle iron can wait there, along with some Corningware and another pair of cookie sheets. If we don’t miss them by Thanksgiving, they’ll be available to fit under someone else’s Christmas tree.

But the day stretched on, as moving-days do, and we hadn’t thought much about dinner.  “Can we have boxed macaroni and cheese?” she asked mournfully.

We’ve known each other long enough for me to recognize that as international code for “I need comfort food and I need it now, or at least in about 8 minutes.” We keep a few boxes around for such emergencies–and they’re currently very easy to find, since all the kitchen cupboard doors have been removed for refinishing. I took one off its shelf and set a pot of water to boil. 

While she sorted wooden spoons and spatulas for comparison, I started making extras. I know better than to suggest mixing anything into boxed macaroni and cheese, but there are no such prohibitions against preparing bits and pieces that can go alongside. (Good thing, because unless there are other flavors nearby, I find more than a few bites of mac-and-cheese–even made from scratch–to be overkill.)

I browned a hunk of ground beef (a little less than a quarter pound), removed it, and in its drippings sautéed a small head of swiss chard and the kernels stripped from the ear of corn that had been slept through on Friday; finally, with a little olive oil, a chopped tomato was more heated than cooked. All were combined in a serving bowl and tossed with a little Worcestershire sauce, salt and fresh pepper.

By this point–the utensil decisions having been made–she prepared the deck for dinner, and returned to the kitchen to find a colander of draining macaroni, and a pot in which I had melted butter, heated milk, and was augmenting the cheese powder with a little cheddar and monterey jack. (Full disclosure: I was tempted to ignore the powder completely, but I am just wise enough not to completely mess with comfort food.) When the cheese melted and the sauce came together, the macaroni was stirred in, and served in shallow bowls–mac and cheese on one side, extras on the other.

“If you make it this way, you can make all the macaroni and cheese,” she said. Knowing I hadn’t ruined one of her favorites: well, that’s a comfort.

Outside the Box