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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Waste Not, Want Not: The Champagne Edition

My regular readers (all two of them) already know that one way to kill me is to waste food. Or, more specifically, make me waste food. New Year’s Eve was beautiful and romantic, and I was on antibiotics. Champagne was not exactly what I craved, but you’ve got to open a bottle on December 31. I believe it’s a federal regulation.

We ended up with a lot of leftover champagne. Chip thinks you can just throw it away, but I think there’s an ordinance governing old paint cans and champagne bottles. If you must dispose of them, they must be empty. And don’t pour either in a creek or down a drain!

It’s very cold right now. Extremely cold. Unusually cold for Western North Carolina. Our little house, which is 90 years old, has a smokehouse off the kitchen. That’s where we keep our refrigerator, freezer, and pantry items. (I told you, the house is little.) The other night I learned that vinegar freezes. Who knew? That wasn’t an experiment high on my list. Plans for dinner included slow-cooked chicken breasts, and my recipe required vinegar and orange marmalade (equal amounts of each). When I went to get the vinegar, it was frozen. I wanted to make orange-chicken-something. What to do? What to do? Aha! Leftover champagne. I substituted champagne for the vinegar, rechristened the dish “Chicken Mimosa,” and dinner was saved.

Now to give you a clear idea of exactly how cold it is here, the food in my refrigerator is also frozen. My Diet Peach Snapple Iced Tea (uncompensated product placement) has chunks of ice in it. The lettuce is ruined. As a result, I have learned something else. Although your refrigerator is well insulated, that’s to keep out the heat, not the cold. If the temperatures outdoors are in the single digits, there’s a good chance that your outdoor refrigerator won’t be too much warmer than that. Don’t “Duhhhh….” me, I’m sure you don’t know everything either.

Speaking of appliances, let’s go back to the slow-cooker. I use mine a lot. Frequently doesn’t quite cover it. And the most important thing I can share about using a slow-cooker (i.e., Crock Pot) is that any meat will come out tender as long as there are three ingredients: acid, sweetness, time. (No, not thyme, that’s another issue). The acid breaks down the meat, so even the toughest cuts become incredibly tender (I haven’t tried this with my shoes yet), and the sweetness counteracts the acidic taste. The importance of time is what slow-cooking is all about, allowing all the ingredients to incorporate into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Not all slow-cooker cooking is easy; sometimes you have to precook things on the stove. I don’t use recipes like that. My slow-cooker is a convenience tool; throw in all the ingredients, look at it in four or five hours, serve it in about 6 to 8 hours. Beef takes longer; chicken and pork take less time. When my daughters were children, I used to make a beef stew—stovetop—from an old Pennsylvania Dutch recipe. It was based on the combination of sweets and sours, and is actually ideal for slow-cooking. Here’s how difficult it is: take meat (chicken, pork, beef, whatever) throw it in a slow-cooker that contains ¼ cup brown sugar, ¼ cup apple cider vinegar, one tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, and an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce. Throw in some chopped onion, carrots, potatoes, or whatever it is you like. You can use corn, sweet potatoes, celery, and/or peas. You can use frozen vegetables. If you are going to use veggies that cook quickly, save them for the last two hours of cooking. If you don’t like potatoes, make noodles on the side (the original recipe called for noodles, not potatoes). Pineapple chunks are a great addition. I’ve made this with stew chunks, cheap beef roasts, London broil, pork chops, pork roast, and boneless chicken breasts. Not all at once, though. I have served it to dozens of people (ain’t potluck great?) and everyone wants the recipe. It’s not your mama’s stew or pot roast, unless--of course--I’m your mama.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cooking Resolution

As I was reviewing my Facebook newsfeed today, I found an item asking for a New Year’s resolution that didn’t involve weight, exercise, or money. That’s the problem with resolutions—we always make negative ones. It’s always “I’ll stop [smoking, eating, drinking—you fill in the blank). Our resolutions are designed to make our lives better but they involve interrupting our lives—ceasing to do something that is basically a part of us. I prefer to make resolutions that will improve my life. I won’t resolve to stop being so nasty, but I would resolve to try to be sweet to someone at least once a week. My memory is good enough for me to remember the resolution, but so bad that I can’t remember if I’ve been sweet to anyone this week, so I end up doing it more than once. The more I forget, the more people benefit.

Other good things to resolve are learning something new every day or week, adding $X to your grocery shopping and donating those goods to a food bank, or doing something once a month to make your neighborhood a better place. Bad resolutions involve stopping or undoing. “I will clean out my purse twice a month” is a bad resolution because it involves undoing something you’ve done. Bad resolutions also involve doing unpleasant things, such as “I will clean the cat litter box every day,” or “I will call my mother every week.” Bad resolutions either get forgotten or deferred (“I’ll try again next year.”).

In answer to my Facebook friend’s question, I suggested “Try a new recipe every week.” That was my resolution for 1995, and I stuck with it for 8 full months, until Hurricane Katrina struck. Katrina changed a lot of things.

Why is recipe-testing a good resolution? It involves doing something you do anyway and it offers self-improvement as well as relief from the boredom of your own cooking. I’ll never understand how some people can go to restaurants and order the same thing every time they go out—if I wanted to eat the same thing all the time, I’d stay home and eat. Since I can be pretty creative in the kitchen, my own concoctions were excluded as well as minor changes to previously used recipes.

I approached the first week with trepidation; after all, trying new recipes and techniques sounded like it involved work, and I generally try to spare myself any physical or mental effort in an effort to stay forever young. I dove right in and found the exercise excruciatingly painless. In other words—fun! During the eight months that my resolution lasted I made breads, desserts, casseroles, coffee cakes, side dishes, you name it! And to mitigate the early demise of my resolution, I confess that I was often trying new recipes two or three times a week. Undoubtedly, by the end of the year I had added at least 52 new dishes to my repertoire. And I did continue, throughout the dreadful aftermath of Katrina, to intermittently stick to my resolution.

Among the many treats we enjoyed were an outrageous sweet potato soufflĂ©, amazing cranberry pecan bread, and fabulous pecan-crusted catfish. I even found a very old fruit cocktail cake recipe which had once been enormously popular and is still excellent, and learned to make Chinese fried rice and lo mein. The new techniques I learned were not difficult, just different. I tried things I’d formerly lacked the confidence to prepare. Not everything turned out wonderfully, but nothing turned out badly. The worst thing I could say for a dish was, “it was good but I wouldn’t want it again.” Chip had no complaints. Nobody got sick.

New recipes are so easy to obtain, there is no reason not to broaden your cooking horizons, even if you don’t do it regularly. I got recipes from newspapers and magazines, and bought used cookbooks at thrift shops and rummage sales. I then started what I called “the recipe project.” I bought a bunch of 4x6 photo albums at the less-than-a-dollar store (I think they were about fifty-nine cents each), devoting each one to a different specialty such as cookies, pork, desserts, etc. I cut out the recipes of interest, and divided them among the albums. If a recipe was great I kept it. I threw away the cookbooks after I had removed the most promising ideas. I rarely applied my favorite recipe-finding technique, Googling ingredients to find a new way to use them (i.e., going to Google and entering the appropriate search terms, such as “chicken onions tomatoes recipe”). Alas, the recipe project was also a victim of Katrina, though it could be resuscitated at any time.

By 2006 I had changed the way I cook, although not necessarily the way I feel about cooking (mostly unenthusiastic). The experience prepared me to attempt recipes I thought were impossible for me, such as Pasta e Fagioli and Coquille St. Jacques. Those are two dishes that I hadn’t eaten in decades because I was afraid they were too complex for my meager cooking abilities. Again, I learned they were not difficult, just different. I also learned that some things that sounded terribly complicated (especially things with loooooong ingredient lists) were easier to prepare than some of my old, reliable, boring but easy-to-make regulars such as chili or casseroles. Oh, and I never deboned a duck—we don’t eat duck.

You can adapt this resolution to many things, some easier, some harder, than cooking. Read a new author every month. Learn six new crafts this year. Handwrite a letter every week, or a note. Watch foreign films. The best thing to do is to tie your resolution to a period of time (e.g., once a week, twice monthly). If you resolve to learn some foreign phrases without committing to when you will learn them, you won’t. You’ll keep putting it off until next week or month or year. If you resolve to learn a new word every week, you’ve given yourself a deadline. After all, a resolution is a contract you make with yourself. You wouldn’t want to break a contract with the most important person you know, would you?

Remember…it’s never too late to make a New Year’s resolution. If you start after August you can call it a “pilot program” that you’re testing for next year. If it doesn’t work out, well, you tried.

(Thank you, Susan D, for the inspiration!)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Grannie Get Your Gun

The gun control issue has been a hot one in this country for as long as I can remember. According to the various media, there are two sides: rightists who think that everyone should be armed and leftists who believe no one should be. That, of course, is totally inaccurate. Like most issues that divide us, this is an issue that has many shades of gray. I guess you could call me a moderate since I do and do not believe in gun control. I believe that any sane, rational personal who wants to own a gun should be allowed to have as many as they like, and that criminals and crazy people should not. In other words, people who would use a gun to kill someone or something shouldn’t have guns, people who wouldn’t can.

There are those who would argue that gun ownership is not sane or rational. Those people are called extremists. Then there are those that cite the constitution and the right to bear arms. They belong to the NRA.

No matter on what side of the issue you stand, you know that Americans have a fascination with guns. Our history was written at gunpoint, from the time Europeans landed on these shores through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, prohibition, both World Wars, the Wild West, and drive-bys.

There are stories in the Coe family history of a great-great-great-grandfather who worked on the building of the North Platte Railroad. At one point, he worked on a crew within a stone’s throw of a little old lady’s farm. As for accuracy, I can’t vouch for the size of this lady, or her age. For all we know, she could have been 40-years-old and 6’3”. But as so happens in so many stories, she was a “little old lady.” And this said lady sat on the porch of her farmhouse with a rifle across her lap. Should any of the railroad construction crew members take a step onto her property, she took a shot at them. Clearly, she was not in the same class as another inhabitant of these family legends, “some nice old lady.”

Family history, like American History, is studded with a variety of firearms. There are the inevitable Civil War stories, the poker games with pistols parked on the tables, World Wars I and II, and a variety of other questionable and apocryphal tales, the most famous of these features Phil Coe, a man determined to kill Wild Bill Hickok. While Phil was indeed “a gambler and a gunman,” it has never been proven to my satisfaction that he and I sprang from the same branch of the family tree.

I have, though, shared the American fascination with guns. Decades ago, when I first heard of the AK-47 assault rifle, I said, “I want one of those!” The definition of “want” being “that is so cool but I really shouldn’t have one.” Some people, when discussing the need for a gun, have a certain model they imagine, as in “If I had a .45 he wouldn’t be walking the earth today,” or “where’s a Glock when you need one?” For me, it’s been the AK-47. Being a typical middle class housewife, I haven’t the slightest idea how one would procure such an item. Being an intelligent middle class housewife, I’ve always known I shouldn’t have one. My reasoning is simple: guns are like toys, if you’ve got one you’ve got to play with it, and we all know what happens when you play with guns.

One evening, about a month ago, Chip came home from work and told me about a friend of his that has an AK-47. The gist of the story was that you could actually just go into a store and buy one. They’re legal. My question was, “do they come in pink?” End of conversation.

Chip and I do not exchange Christmas gifts. We are fortunate enough that when we need something we go out and get it. Therefore, gifts are generally comprised of things we don’t need. And if there’s one thing we don’t need, it’s more stuff that we don’t need. We also do not exchange birthday, Valentine’s or anniversary gifts. Name an occasion and we don’t exchange gifts to celebrate it. If I’m in a store and I see something I know he needs or wants, I get it for him. Those are the items we call “presents.”

Yesterday he went out to gas up his truck and pick up some lunch. He called me from Hardee’s to see what I’d like to eat, I told him, and he came home with the meal. He dropped it on the table and said that I should stay in the kitchen, that he had something out in the truck for me, a Christmas present. It was special-ordered and he wasn’t able to pick it up before the holiday because we were snowbound. I confess, I suffered a moment of terror when I imagined he would come back in with a puppy. We’ve already got four cats and a dog in our tiny farmhouse. Imagine, then, my surprise when he reentered the kitchen bearing a toy—a pink AK-47 assault rifle! We’re talking pink here, pink in all its girly glamour. He handed it to me with a cheery “Merry Christmas” and I was shocked at its weight. This was, indeed, a real AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifle.

I’m from New Jersey. I lived there for fifty years. In New Jersey you can get firearms but you can’t just walk into a store and buy one. You can’t even easily get a Daisy Model 1938 Red Ryder BB Gun, which just happens to be the last Christmas gift Chip gave me, two years ago (and which I also considered getting for him when I saw them displayed at the local WalMart, but thought better of it). The idea that I might actually some day own an AK-47 never occurred to me.

Surprisingly, I don’t have mixed feelings about my “gun.” Right now, my main thought is that it’s pretty cool to be a gun-toting grandma. Why, I have been elevated to the ranks of Sarah Palin! I haven’t test-fired the rifle yet, Chip did that. He couldn’t wait. I am left musing, however, what kind of sick person thought up a pink AK-47? It does go very nicely with my pink Blackberry, pink digital camera, pink netbook, and pink DS. Pink Cadillac, here I come!

It turns out that there are lots of weapons made with the “weaker sex” (they sort of equalize the playing field, don’t you think?) in mind. I even found a “Hello Kitty” AK-47 at Manufactured by Glambo (no, I’m not kidding) it is thus described: “The world should note the hand-crocheted shoulder-stock muffler and the anodized titanium plating. This fully functional firearm fires standard 7.62mm 125 or 150 grain ammunition with a muzzle velocity of approximately 710 meters per second and a maximum effective range of approximately 300 meters. Several choices in stock wood are available. With a limited run of only 500, buy now before they're gone! A mere $100 extra includes Glambo's signature wood-burnt into the opposite side of the handguard. A perfect gift for the young lady of the house.” Hello Kitty herself appears on the stock and magazine. What really intrigues me is the “hand-crocheted shoulder-stock muffler.” I don’t have one of those.

Now, should I have a gun? Any gun. Since I’m post-menopausal, there is some question about the rationality and saneness issues. Even if it’s “a perfect gift for the young lady of the house,” what is it in the hands of the old lady of the house?

I expect that I will fire my AK-47 a few times (or a few hundred times), put it in a closet and refer to it only when I need to threaten a cat (“Boris, if you don’t stay off that table…). The idea of using it, as Chip suggested, to take out a few of the coyote overpopulation is anathema to me. Nonetheless, I suggest that anyone interested in building a railroad near my house consider that enterprise very carefully.