Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Snooping and Cleaning Kids' Rooms

I'm currently reading a book called "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You." I had been hoping it would be pleasantly snarky and full of judgmental conclusions I can draw after scrutinizing people's bookshelves and CD collections. Unfortch, it reads like someone's Ph.D dissertation re-tooled as a pop psych book. Yawn. However, it dovetails nicely with my primary activity of the past day: super-cleaning the boys' rooms. At this point in their childhood, Oscar and Ike are one hundred percent dependent on their parents for food, clothing, lodging, transportation, etc. so it's always surprising to swamp out their rooms and find things I didn't expect to be there. The fruits of their black-market barterings with classmates, hoarded food (Ike), girls' phone numbers (Oscar. Age 7). Once, I was reading Oscar's journal (still OK, right? He's 7?) and discovered a page that said nothing but the words "I hate Mom!" More heartbreaking: a single sheet of folded 8.5x11 paper, labeled on the ourside, "Oscar's Laptop." Inside, hand-drawn screen and keyboard.

The poorly-lit photo you see above is a snap of Oscar's room, less than 16 hours after it was CLEANED. So clean that not a single Lego remained on the floor. His participation in the project was coerced by my agreement to move his bed into the position you see it here, jutting six inches into the doorway of his room and probably violating the fire code. Entropy has clearly taken hold. Picking up and organizing his many building kits simply kindles his passion to scatter the parts of those kits all over the now-empty pallette of his floor and engage in ever-more-Quixotic projects. (Note: Pallette: what an artist uses. Pallet: what they use at Costco to move around bales of paper towels. Palate: your sense of taste. None of my three readers may ever use these words incorrectly ever again.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Random Post

These puffy fleece pants make me look like Mr. Tumnus.

That is all.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

You Are Getting Sleepy . . .

. . . as you stare into the mesmerizing swirl of spicy paste that makes an otherwise-ordinary pork roast into a hypnotic point of ocular fixation. This represents one of those rare occasions when I went off-recipe in a substantial way. I'm usually a recipe-follower, one who takes pleasure in perfectly re-creating a dish that looks exactly like the photo in Bon Appetit. I like the scientific precision of the recipes in Cook's Illustrated and the feeling that as long as I do everything just as I've been told, the result will be at minimum palatable. The result of a poorly-received meal is a great deal of personal self-flagellation (metaphorical) that I'd rather not risk.

Whilst on vacation, Caleb read a book entitled "Anti-Cancer", a sort of instruction manual for eating and living your life in the least cancer-encouraging way possible. He loves this stuff. Whereas I view food almost exclusively from the p.o.v. of "what tastes good," Caleb seems to approach food as a tool for the constant betterment of one's physical plant. Food can make you healthier, stronger, less prone to illness, more prone to have washboard abs. This is admirable. His typical breakfast is a bowl of homemade oatmeal sprinkled with flax seeds and blueberries. I like a good fried-egg sandwich.

One thing we both agree on, at least for the moment, is turmeric. We are both Pro. Caleb, because it combats cancer, me because it's in delicious Indian food. So I was trying to find a preparation for pork that would incorporate the Spice Of The Moment. I found an Indonesian recipe called babi gulang, which is typically a whole roast suckling pig, spiced and cooked on a spit over an open flame. The version I found called for making a curry-like spice paste out of shallots, lemongrass, lime juice, garlic, turmeric (natch), jalapenos and a number of other goodies, rubbing it all over some dead pig and roasting it on your grill. Wisconsin Januaries not being amenable to outdoor grilling, I decided to make this paste and, after carving my roast into a blanket of raw pork, spread said blanket with the spices, rolled it up cinnamon-bun-style, and tied it with kitchen twine. I was then able to cook it in the usual way in my oven, and the result is something I am calling "Ho-Ho Of Meat." It tasted great, and the cancer-fighting spice paste has definitely not made its last appearance in my kitch.

Now. Stare DEEP INTO THE MEAT. Relax. Count backwards from ten. When you wake up, you will not remember anything about this blog post.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

First Dinner Back, Or, The Comfort (Foods) of Home

For our first meal back from vacation, I cooked the above-pictured pasta dish. The recipe is officially titled "Slow-Cooked Meat Ragu" but we just call it "The Sauce" chez nous. It's from my doughty copy of the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, which is foolproof and, in my house, splattered with enough different types of foodstuffs that its pages would provide you sustenance throughout a Gobi desert crossing. This recipe is one of my all-time favorites. It's simple and every one of its (few) ingredients are nonperishable pantry-type items. Here's how you make it:

1.5 pounds beef short ribs
Olive oil
One minced/chopped onion
1/2 cup red wine
One 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes.

You brown the short ribs in the olive oil for ten minutes, then remove them from the pan. You saute the onions in that same pan for five minutes. Add the wine and reduce to a glaze (2-4 minutes). Dump in the can of tomatoes and return the meat and accumulated juices. Bring to bubbling, cover, and let simmer for about 2 hours. Shred the meat and remove the bones. Serve over pasta - I use rigatoni but any "short" pasta works well (penne, farfalle, etc.). Top with grated parmesan.

So simple! So easy! You can vary the fat content of the sauce by removing as much of the remaining beef juice from the pan as you like before adding the onions. The quality of the short ribs makes a big difference in this recipe. I've tried meat from every grocery store in town and find that the Whole Foods short ribs trounce every other ribs in this recipe, but since the amount of meat is relatively small, the dish is still not a budget-buster. I keep this meat in the freezer at all times so I can bust out The Sauce on pretty short notice. A green salad and nice baguette would make this a swell dinner-party dish, and it makes the whole house smell delish. Sometimes I get crazazy and use canned fire-roasted tomatoes. A little bit of red pepper flakes might give it a pleasant little kick.

The longer you cook this sauce, the more tender and falling-apart the meat will be. Two hours usually makes it shreddable into soft cat-whiskers. It tastes just as good leftover. Can a recipe save the world? If so, this might be the one. Unless you are vegetarian, in which case I got nothin'.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Back from Vacay

The huz and I have just returned from a much-needed tropical vacation, one highlight of which you can see above. That is us, and behind us, that is a totally kick-ass waterfall. Best! Swim! Ever! The occasion for this getaway was our upcoming ten-year anniversary, which has now been well and truly celebrated. Culinary highlights are forthcoming. While the food on the cruise ship was good and abundant, I didn't geek out and take pictures of anything. However, the best discovery was the "Asian Corner" of the buffet, where yours truly could get samosas and spring rolls in unlimited quantities. Score! However, the real food spelunking took place in San Juan, PR, where we spent some time on either end of our cruise and where I ate one of the most delicious lunches I've had in recent memory and also had to tragically pass up what would have been a mind-blowing dinner because I was still digesting my mind-blowing lunch. Also there were a few places in the West Indies we had to skip because (a) they most emphatically took only cash payment, and (b) they were too sketchy for bacteriaphobe husband (although in this case he might have been on the right side of this argument).

At any rate, over a week away from the kitchen has re-invigorated my energy for cooking and the resulting meals - with recipes! - will be coming soon, including an old favorite that has the shortest and simplests recipe imaginable - only five ingredients, and one of them is a tablespoon of olive oil, which doesn't really count. Also including a recipe I kind of created myself and am calling a "Ho-Ho of Meat." Stay tuned, trio of faithful blog readers!!!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Au Revoir, Les Enfants

We are on vacation without the kids. Yesterday, my mother met us at the airport in Chicago and we handed Oscar and Ike over to her for what will undoubtedly be a week of such extreme fun for the dudes that they may never want to return to Wisconsin. Right now, Caleb and I are at a HoJos in San Juan, Puerto Rico, enjoying the free wireless and the balmy breeze blowing in the window of our seventh-floor room. We've been travelling all day, beginning at six o'clock this morning when Caleb's sister Naomi drove us to O'Hare in an extremely ominous snowstorm. After a de-icing procedure that involved an extremely macabre-looking red fluid being sprayed onto the airplane windows, our flight took of on time. And we were behind Law & Order star Dennis Farina in the security line! His carry-on luggage looked very expensive and I felt a bit embarrassed when the plastic tub containing my Radio-Shack-model laptop collided with his briefcase, which looked as if it were made from the tanned hide of a unicorn.

From a gustatory standpoint, the trip has been a disaster. After an encouraging start (deluxe cocktails at The Violet Hour with Naomi and a "small plates" dinner), I have had nothing but cheeseburgers all day, as well as one extremely doughy and bland in-flight bagel sandwich. The strip our hotel is on contains no real dining options other than a full complement of American fast food. My dream of dining in Puerto Rico involved a little shack on the beach where a pig was being roasted in some authentic Boricuan style on a spit, and adventurous gringos are welcomed with raised glasses of mojitos and fed delicious pork dishes garnished with sofrito. No dice. However, the ocean is clearly visible from our hotel-room window, our view bisected neatly by the tower of the fancier and more-expensive hotel across the steet. Nonetheless - can't complain.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Mom, Do I Get My Dessert Now?

Still getting the hang of posting photos - these appear in reverse chronological order. We just got back from a rare meal out, courtesy of my in-laws at Madison's Nepalese institution, Himal Chuli. The place has been operating for as long as I've lived here, which is going on twenty-plus years, and it has a sort of careworn authenticity about it. I've historically ordered the same thing every time I go there, operating on the "if it ain't broke" principle, because what I order - momochas - are the thing most people kvell about when they talk about Himal Chuli. The sweet waitress very earnestly tried to take six-year-old Ike's order first, and he credibly and seriously began ordering for himself a dish from the menu he had selected - i.e., not the kid-friendly dish Caleb and I had pre-chosen for his meal. He had ordered chicken sikar, which I then decided to have so that we could share it, and it's pictured above in its before and after states. This dish was so very tasty - it was listed as "popular chicken sikar" on the menu, and I can see why. Nothing novel, just general curry-like tastiness with lots of flavor but no real heat, the perfect thing to eat on a cold day like today.

Right now, Madison is covered in a thick, glossy sheet of ice and the cold has that peculiar quality that can only be described as "bitter." We wouldn't have left the house at all if not for the in-laws' visit. The experience was something like a sauna - plunging ourselves into the freezing outdoors to go consume Himal Chuli's food, which is the alimentary equivalent of antifreeze: steaming bowls of dal, steaming cups of tea, steaming everything. Except the lassis, which the boys are pictured draining in the above photo. In the kid-adventuring department, the meal was a resounding success. Ike polished off his half of the sikar and Oscar demolished two samosas, which he had never tried before. The dudes did us proud, although Osk may be suffering from culinary whiplash after consuming two pepperoni-pizza Hot Pockets for lunch before dining on authentic vegetarian Nepali cuisine for dinner.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Bad Day, Fixed by Curry, Or: "I'm Warning You, There's Tofu in This!"

So I've been on a bit of a losing streak. My car needed new terminal clamps, and it died in the middle of traffic yesterday; I had to have my seven-year-old sit in the driver's seat and turn the key in the ignition while I held the battery cable in place so we could start it and drive it to the nearest auto parts store, where I had to replace the clamps in the parking lot. This morning I was at a big-box store and accidentally left one of my bags at the checkout, not realizing my mistake until I was all the way home, causing an aggravating re-schlep. Let me not even describe the demoralizing shopping experience prompted by my fear that none of my kicky cotton sundresses will be sufficiently Krystle Carrington-esque for the fancy dinners on the cruise I'll soon be departing for. I fear the biddies on the ship will receive my down-home attire like Nellie Oleson responded to the Ingalls girls' outgrown calico dresses and bare feet in "On The Banks of Plum Creek:" - "Country girls!" [sniff!]

This curry recipe RAWKS. Easy, convenient, delicious, vegetarian. The kids both liked it, despite the fact that Ike was determined not to eat the tofu. The red curry paste I worried would be magma-hot based on its lava-red appearance was actually mild, flavorful and sweet(ish). It would not be possible to improve on this by the addition of bacon. I felt good about myself while cooking it and good about myself after eating it. You could even serve it to freaks who don't think they like spicy or "foreign" food. Ahhh. Curry happiness.

And yes, Oscar is wearing pants to the dinner table. They are out of frame.

Tofu and Sweet Potato Curry: Before

I take a demented pleasure in creating these little pre-dinner tableaux. Assembling ingredients, especially for a colorful dish like this one, makes me understand the appeal of raw-foodism a bit more. There's also an orderly appeal in doing a super-thorough mise en place, which is a cooking lesson it took me FAR too long to learn: that "two cups chopped onion" means that you, the cook, need to actually chop two cups of onion before you even begin step one of the recipe in order to avoid manic and dangerous mid-recipe chopping and potential disruption of the entire enterprise. My cooking is now discretely divided into chopping mode and cooking mode, and when it comes to a Thai dish like this one, the former is orders of magnitude lengthier than the latter, the prime example being pad thai, which takes about an hour to chop and prep and five minutes to cook. Ike has already informed me that he is "allergic" to two of the ingredients in this dish - red peppers and tofu - so I'm pessimistic about its success and considering changing the name of this blog to "Cooking Despite Two Dudes." My kitchen looks much gloomier in this picture than it actually is, but for those of you who dislike the heartless objectification of food you can clearly see my knife, cutting board and cookbook in the background of this slightly ominous still life.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

What Do You Do With a Head of Red Cabbage?

If it were left entirely up to me, my family's diet would be far less healthy. Lots of butter, lots of coconut milk, unlimited quantities of cheese - if I were a single girl, my cuisine might have ultimately devolved into me, sitting on the couch in my sweats with a whole stick of butter in my hand and chomping on it like a peeled banana. Caleb is a healthful influence, but sometimes he'll bring a so-called Superfood into the house without any overall design as to how it's going to fit into our shambles of a family meal plan. Recently, an entire head of red cabbage appeared in our fridge, and there it has sat, waiting for me to transmogrify it into a Dish. Hence the salad you see in its pre-assembled components: vinaigrette and Braeburn apples, shredded red cabbage with some very un-appetizing-looking dried cherries, and the spiced candied pecans I MADE MYSELF while buzzing from a big Starbucks latte, which is the unbilled ingredient in nearly every meal I make. The pecans were absurdly easy to make and smelled up the kitchen in a good way - brown sugar, cayenne pepper and Worcestershire sauce which sadly makes this a not-strictly-vegetarian recipe. The salad is meant to contain equal parts red and Napa cabbage but the overall raison d'etre here is to lay waste to an entire head of the red stuff, so the Napa has been benched. The kids will hate this recipe, I have little doubt, but it will probably add a good week or so to the lives of those of us who eat it.