Thursday, May 28, 2020

It's My Birthday Again

     I thought I had gotten that out of the way last year, but here it is again.

     Most people's birthdays are fine with me.  Mine is not.  A time for agonizing reappraisal, for looking back and seeing how little I have done, how terribly short I have fallen of my goals.  I do not enjoy it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The 2020 Pot Roast Experiment

     "You'll send me detailed instructions, right?"  That was Tam's question as I departed for work yesterday, leaving her with a large lump of beef in the fridge, a stewpot and a short (verbal) course in how to prepare and simmer a pot roast.

     She was apprehensive.  It takes hours.  Most of them aren't very busy, but with a stewpot on a gas range, it's not set-and-forget, either.

     A little after noon yesterday, I sat down at my laptop and wrote about two and a half pages on what I thought I knew about cooking a pot roast,* from seasoning and rolling it in flour, to browning, to simmering, with as much detail as I could provide on where various kitchen supplies and tools were to be found.†

     And then I stopped worrying.  What would happen would happen.

     Three or four hours later, when I arrived home, it was fine.  (I should have had one more box of bone broth or beef broth on hand than I did, but that's on me).  I added vegetables -- a lot of washing and knife work -- and gave them time to cook up.  We had a nice dinner, tender pot roast and veggies in their own broth.  (Carrots, potatoes, celery, mushrooms and the very last of the Shishito peppers.)

     Tam was only a little frazzled when I got home from work -- this was well outsider her comfort zone.  Other than the occasional rare steak and tasty things sold in cans, she has avoided cooking for years, put off by TV cooking shows set in spacious, gleaming kitchens crowded with fancy gadgets.  (And possibly by my tendency to growl at interlopers when I am in the middle of cooking in our tiny kitchen.)   I hope this dinner has helped make cookery a little less daunting for her.  Like most tool-using activities, learning a few core skills and a small set of basic tools is all it really takes to do everyday cookery; that other stuff is nice once you've got the basics down but it can also get in the way.
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* Here is what I wrote:
It looks like I will clock out at 6:45 p.m., home about 7:00, and we want 3-4 hours total cook time, so if you start the process about 4:30 or 4:45, that should do.
 

This is a process that you can use over and over, to cook beef, pork and poultry. It is one of the basic ways to prepare meat, the basis of most stews and soups. So it’s worth learning. I get very detailed but my aim is to share some of the wonderfulness in this skill.
 

On Cooking A Large Beef

To begin with, take the meat out of the refrigerator and set it in the bottom of the oven, towards the front, and give it about fifteen minutes to ponder its fate. Set Alexa for, say, 12 to 14 minutes.

Take the large glass bowl I have left on the stove, and put about a quarter-cup of flour in it. The flour is in a paper bag in the cabinets over the stove, behind the right-hand door on the middle shelf. The quarter-cup measuring scoop is on the oatmeal box, to the right of the stove. It is the smaller of the two scoops on the oatmeal box – the markings on them are difficult to read. You don’t have to be exact, heaping or a little scant should be okay.

Flour is sneaky stuff. Move slowly, especially when closing the bag back up. You do not want to aerosol it near flame.

With the flour in the bowl, pepper it and salt it. Don’t stir, just grind pepper over it and shake salt over it, like you are seasoning it to eat.

Slide the bowl back out of the way and get the meat out of the oven. Unwrap it and try not to get blood in your hands. Finish unwrapping and then wash them if you do! I don’t know if the roast was bagged or has a plastic sheet on it or if it is just wrapped. With clean hands, salt and pepper the visible portion, then pick it up and set it in the bowl of flour so the unseasoned bottom side is still down.

Throw away the wrapping that was on the meat (this is why I like step-to-open trash cans).

Now bring the bowl forward where it is easy to get at, and turn the meat over and over until it has a good coating of flour on it. You can use a big fork (hang on to the bowl with your other hand!) but it’s often easier with hands. Once the meat is coated, leave it in the bowl and wash your hands.

You will want a fork later on, so get one out and set it on a saucer on the counter to the right of the stove.

Get the copper-bottomed stewpot (the one from last night) out of the dishwasher and put it on the front, right-hand burner of the stove. Do not turn the burner on yet.

Get the small glass bowl of good bacon grease out of the fridge. It is on a shelf in the door, up high between (I think) jars of mustard and horseradish. Set it on the stove top.

Get out a teaspoon, just a regular metal teaspoon like I use to eat soup, and scoop out a couple of teaspoons of bacon grease into the stewpot. Hold the bowl in one hand, or it will get away. The stuff has the consistency of slightly soft ice cream. You may need to use a butter knife to push it out of the spoon. If a little stays stuck to the inside wall of the stewpot, that’s okay.

Set the grease bowl on the counter off to one side – over by the coffeepot, maybe. Prop the spoon on it.

Get a one-cup glass measure from the cabinet over the stove and fill it with water. Set it on the counter to the right, near your fork. You’ll want it later.

Turn on the burner, turn it down to about medium or lower, and watch the grease melt. You want it liquid but not sizzling. It should cover ¾ or more of the bottom of the pot once it has melted. If it doesn’t, add another teaspoon.

With the grease melted, transfer the meat from the glass bowl to the stewpot. It may sizzle a little. If you used your hands to move it (safer), wash them, quickly! You may want to turn the fire down. Give that side about a minute (use Alexa) and then turn the meat to another side, using he fork. (Weirdly-shaped sides might require holding the meat in place with the fork stuck in the up side – save those for last.) Continue browning and turning until all sides are brown. Some of the flour in cracks and crannies might not brown, oh well.

When the meat is browned on all sides, pour the cup of water over it. It may yelp a little.

On the counter on the other side of the kitchen, in front of the microwave, is a box of bone broth. Shake it up, then follow the instructions to open it – fold up the triangular flaps on the sides, pop the top up like an old-fashioned milk carton, and use scissors or bend and tear on the dotted line to open. Pour it into the stewpot.

Does the water and bone broth cover the meat? If so, you win! If not, use the measuring cup to add a little more to barely cover it. If the meat floats, stop. Put the lid on and set a timer for five minutes. This is a good time to stay in the kitchen, to see how things go. Now is the time to put the grease bowl back in the fridge, and then dump any left-over flour from the big bowl into the trash and wipe it out with a damp paper towel. If timer is still ticking, empty the dishwasher or find something else to do that will keep you in the room and not staring at the pot like it’s a TV. (This is why you sometimes catch me doing randomish stuff in the kitchen while cooking.)

Remember to throw away the box from the bone broth.

At the end of five minutes, have a look. Is the water simmering, bubbling, boiling? Then turn down the heat. If not, go for another five and check again. If the stewpot starts making noise while you are waiting, it’s boiling – lift the lid and have a look. You want it just simmering – maybe a few bubbles coming up, maybe only rarely. You do not want it boiling after the initial temperature has been reached. This is the critical phase.

Regulating temperature – gas ranges are a little finicky at the low end. Ours will go into “carburation” if it is too low, the flame going out and relighting repeatedly with a series of popping noises. That is highly undesirable; it can put itself out and build up rather more gas than one might wish before the pilot relights it, or it can put the pilot out. Sometimes the pot gets too hot even at the low setting – taking the lid off, stirring, and leaving the lid off awhile will help. It get hotter and stays hotter with the lid on. We want most of the cooking to take place with the lid on, so it takes some attention.

It would be best to check the pot every five minutes for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, and every ten for the next half-hour and if you feel confident after that, every 15 minutes afterward. Do not leave the pot unattended for longer than that. I would advise not going outside while cooking; it’s the hottest part of the day anyway. Make sure there is nothing left out on the counter or stovetop near the burner.

If the liquid cooks down far enough to uncover the meat, add a little more. Cold water is best, and will help with temperature regulation.

What we are after with all this is to preserve the flavor of the meat while cooking it very tender. The flour and fat will help form gravy. The whole process is nearly magical to me, from bloody, raw meat and white, raw flour to warm rich, thick broth and delightful roast meat.



† My Mother and I organize our kitchens similarly, about 50-50 between getting things as close to where they will be used as possible and the art of making everything fit into the available space.  It works -- if you know where everything is.  Her own mother is said to have remarked, "When I visit Ellen's kitchen, I know it will be neat, clean and organized, but I won't be able to find anything."  Her other daughters got better marks for findability, but not quite as well in the other categories.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

It's One Of My Favorite Meals

     Hoppin' John.  It's a classic, though without a nailed-down list of ingredients -- meat (usually ham), black-eyed peas (or other legumes), tomatoes and...?  And whatever.  Usually some kind of heat -- hot sauce, hot pepper, what have you.  (Black-eyed peas turn out to be eaten by just about everybody, everywhere, in everything from desserts to curries to fritters!)

     The version I have been making suits the two of us at Roseholme Cottage.  You need a big stewpot; it makes a lot.  The most recent version started with a hot Italian sausage, squeezed out of its casing and mashed into bits as it cooked.  While that has started to cook, I cut a big (a pound or more) bone-in, center-cut ham steak into roughly 3/8" cubes -- a generous spoon-size.

     The ham goes in as the sausage nears (but is not quite) done, and cooks a bit while I chop up some baby carrots and a good-sized onion  -- pick your favorite; I had a nice yellow one.  Push the meat to the sides of the pan and saute the vegetables in the center.

     As they cook, dice a medium fresh tomato (or a handful of cherry tomatoes) and add it, skin, seeds, pulp and and all.  Chop up two or three stalks of celery and put them in, too.

     It is only then that you can start to think about adding peppers.  Canned chilies are good, and I used a small can of them.  I had a large Poblano, which have a fairly delicate flavor, lost if overcooked.  Diced it, then stirred the canned chilies, other vegetables and meat, pushed all that to the sides of the pan, and gave the Poblano a quick saute before stirring it in.

     Finally time for the beans!  First, a 14.5 oz can of diced or crushed tomatoes, then a can of black-eyed peas the same size, liquid and all.  Pour them right in.  A little basil and a touch of garlic goes well -- or you can raid the spice rack for whatever else seems good. 

     Get it all stirred in and bubbling, add a couple of bay leaves for luck then reduce heat to a simmer and see what else you'd like.  Tam and I have taken to keeping hot pickled okra* in the fridge -- it's a nice snack.  Some of that sliced into coins goes well in the Hoppin' John, too.  I had a few Shishito peppers, left, too; I washed them, sliced one into short sections and added it to the pot, leaving the others to add whole a few minutes before serving.  Their flavor is even more elusive than the Poblano -- you want them just barely cooked to bright-green to retain it.

     Ten minutes to simmer (adding the last peppers at five) and it was ready.  Usually served over rice, but we had a little rye bread to use up, so we toasted a couple of slices each and had them on the side.  A nice meal, with plenty left over for the day after tomorrow.  Be sure to provide hot sauce or pepper flakes at the table for those who want more heat!
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* Southerners will be aghast, but our corner market stocks "Brooklyn Whatever" brand and their pickled okra is among the best I have had.  Their website appears defunct and they haven't updated their Facebook page since October, but I'm hoping it's just an oversight.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Memorial Day

     Today is the day we remember the fallen military personnel -- the vast majority of them young, the vast majority of them without any real grasp of mortality until, suddenly, they were in the midst of it.  They did their duty.  They did their work and they did not return from it; or they returned shattered, and later perished from it.

     They're gone.  There is nothing you can do for them save remember them, respect them and the terrible price they paid.  Few were philosophers, most could not have given you a grand overview of the conflict that killed them; they stepped up, did as well as they could and died.

     We should work to keep that from happening without dire need -- and we should never forget what they and we have lost.   

Sunday, May 24, 2020

I Was Missing Pork Chops

     I grew up in a house where pork chops showed up for dinner with some regularity (not to mention the occasional slow-cooked-all-day pork roast with vegetables).  I like them and don't have them very often these days.  Tamara's not a fan, correctly pointing out that pork chops in general are often dry, grainy and short on flavor.

     My Mom's were not; she had a sure hand in the kitchen and with no more than salt, pepper and a 1949 RevereWare copper-bottomed skillet,* turned out delicious, moist pork chops.  (There's probably a clue in that she rarely bought the boneless ones and made sure to leave all the fat on.)

     Lacking that level of skill, I cheated.  I have a nice, deep non-stick pan that straddles the line between frying pan† and saucepan.  That mandates boneless pork chops -- but the lid is clear high-temperature glass, so I can see what's going on while keeping them covered.

     A covered pan alone is not enough.  So, what's good with pork?  Shishito peppers pair well, and maybe a quick soy sauce marinade, but that's not enough.  I had a Pink Lady apple, too -- I like apples but I don't always eat them before they go soft.  Apples are a natural pairing with pork.  But the dish needed something else to pull it together.

     Last week, during my once-a-week grocery shopping trip,‡ I had picked up an interesting-looking spice mixture at the butcher counter.  It was labelled "togarashi" but it turns out that it's really shichi-mi tōgarashi or nana-iro tōgarashi, two ways to call it "seven-ingredient chili powder" and apparently it's about as common in japan as plain old spice-mix chili powder is here.  The kind the store sells has ground red dried chilies, Japanese pepper, roasted orange peel, poppyseed, a bit of ground dried seaweed (nori) and black and white sesame seeds.  I'd already tried it on eggs (after tasting it by itself) and it's good stuff.

     I sprinkled a teaspoon or two on the chops, gave it a little while to get absorbed, added maybe a whole tablespoon of soy sauce over them,  and let the pork chops sit in it.  I only gave it five minutes -- longer would be better, but I was hungry.

     Spent the marinating time washing and slicing the apple into wedges about 1/8" thick and then cut those into small wedges.  I peeled most of slices but that's a matter of taste; the peel I left on cooked right up and it does add a note to the flavor.  (I had planned to add a few shavings of pickled ginger, but forgot.  On the list for next time!)

     Just a tiny dollop of bacon fat in the pan, and I added the chops when it was melted, then splashed a little more soy sauce on them.

     While the chops were browning, I washed a generous handful of shishito peppers, slicing two of them into small sections but leaving the remainder whole.  They are small, thin-skinned peppers with a lot of flavor and are usually cooked whole; you eat everything but the stem.

     Flipped the chops and added about half the apples; when I was happy that the down side was browned, I turned them over, added the sliced peppers and the rest of the apples, and put the cover on.

     From there on, I cooked them for ten minutes a side and kept adding whole shishito peppers (I should have taken the cooked ones out, as the flavor gets cooked right out of them -- and into whatever you're cooking with them.)  I used a meat thermometer to determine doneness.  It was something over 25 minutes, the apple was cooked down very soft, and the smell was....wonderful!

     The finished chops looked good and were moist and flavorful.  Even Tam liked them (or at least found them acceptable).  The cooked-down apple, soy sauce, spice mix and sliced peppers made a wonderful kind of gravy and the whole peppers were a nice accompaniment.  (We also had steamed broccoli with Italian seasoning and Parmesan cheese.)

     Things to try next time?  Definitely the ginger.  Definitely another apple or possible a pear, one of the harder varieties like a Bosc.  The togarashi is mild enough that I could add some more of it, too.
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* Good luck finding a new one -- I think they're all aluminum-bottomed now, when you find them.  All stainless steel except for the heat-conducting bottoms and black handles.  I have several pieces of Mom's 1949 set, supplemented with more of the same that Dad bought for her fifty years later.  While you can tell the old ones from the new, it's not by the cooking surface: the handle material is duller and the markings are just about worn off the bottoms of the older pans.  A quick check shows used sets and individual pieces commanding remarkable prices.  There's a reason for that.

† Is it a Midwesternism?  A Hoosierism?  "Frying pan" and "skillet" are exactly the same thing to me.  They are not necessarily synonyms to everyone, everywhere.

‡ That's a big change, as has been my doing any kind of weekly menu-planning.  Living in the city with a nearby almost-gourmet supermarket, I have long been in the habit of deciding what to make for dinner based on what looked good at the market during an almost daily stop on my way home.   I won't be doing that for awhile; Indianapolis has still got the highest per-capita infection rate in the state and I'm in no hurry to join.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Ah, Sunrise....

     When the rising sun lights the snow-capped mountains in the distance....
     Hey, wait a minute!  This is Indiana.  We don't have mountains!

     If you look close, you can see the rays of a faint solar glory.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Okay, That's Enough

     I'm sorry guys, but within minutes of sitting down, I've had enough already.  People will politicize any damn thing, no matter how wholesome or innocuous.  I'm not glib enough to persuade them, I'm not big enough or mean enough to beat any sense into them, and, frankly, I just don't care.

     Tam's sitting across from me,  muttering angrily because our lousy AT&T Internet service is down again, or at least struggling.  She's been fuming about the miserable service for at least ten minutes.  I turned around and yelled at her, which scared me and annoyed her even more.  Yeah, that move really helped improve things for everyone, didn't it?  I'm a real miracle of reason, sweetness and light, you betcha.

     This is not a good morning for me to be messing around online.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Cat Overboard!

     Came home last night and noticed the window of my room was very far open -- it's one of two facing west, where the prevailing winds come from, so it's a good one to open.  We rarely open it very far -- the screen isn't that strong.

     I started dinner and went back to my room to change.  My cat Huck was in the window and I thought I had better close it down to a narrow gap, just in case--

     No sooner had I leaned across the bed to close the window than Holden came bouncing in at full speed, leapt onto the bed, jumped on Huck and knocked Huck and the screen right out onto the patio!  I grabbed Holden just as he started over the windowsill, too.  Huck bounded around the corner of the house and out of sight.

     Carrying Holden into the dining room, I closed the door to the hallway so he couldn't get to the open window and shouted "Huck's out!" toward Tam.  I dropped Holden, ran into the kitchen, clawed a container of cat treats out of the cabinet and hurried outside, shaking the bag and calling, "Huuuuck...."  I figured he was gone.

     Instead, he headed right towards me from the corner of the yard; I scooped him up, carried him back inside, and gave him a treat while Holden watched worriedly.

     It took another trip outside to get the screen back in place.  We will only open the window to a smaller than cat-sized crack from now on. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Everything Annoys Me Today

     Woke up hurting in multiple places and in a sour mood.  Hurting less now that I am up and moving around, but haven't been able to improve my mood.  Quite the reverse.

     Forgot to take my thyroid medicine when I fed the cats.  The darned pills come with instructions to take them with a full glass of water and then consume nothing else -- nothing at all -- for at least thirty minutes afterward.  So that was time lost, with a full cup of fresh coffee sitting over one of the between-the-burner pilot lights of the stove with a saucer over the top and a box of UHT "shelf milk" cooling down in the freezer for cereal while the timer ticked down.

     Nothing doesn't irk me this morning.  Not the most innocent or amusing comment.

     It's a symptom of prolonged stress.  Even before the viral pandemic, changes at my work had me on edge.  The small company I work for was purchased by a much larger, publicly-traded company, with their own and quite different culture, procedures and expectations.  I have been through this kind of thing once before and it didn't end well; my expectations for the present experience are pretty low.  I'd like to hold on until full retirement age but it's just a hope.

     The weather has been miserable so far this Spring, mostly cold, cloudy and rainy, the kind of wretched rain that varies in intensity but never goes away, chilly and penetrating.

     The new cat is so full of energy that my cat Huck now hides from him unless it's meal time or he's minded to fight.  Huck rarely comes to sleep on me when I go to bed, preferring to wait until the small hours of the morning when the younger cat is quieter to sneak in and settle down on my legs.  It makes me sad.  I miss him.

     I'm not getting near enough done.  Can't focus.  Can't stick with it.  Days off, I sleep and sleep, cook and veg out at the computer or in front of the TV.  Weekday evenings are about the same.  I hate it but can't get out of the pattern.

     Don't have a summary or a nice, snappy thought to end with.  One endeavors to persevere.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Splash!

     This was going to be a kind of generic post about having a lot to do and not much time or motivation to do it.  Holden the new cat fixed that for me.

     That's what it started out to be.  I was running a tub of water -- my various aches and pains are bothersome enough that I do so several times a week -- and had stopped it about a quarter full, to let the water heater catch up.

     I left the washroom door open and went into the office to work on my post.  Right after Blogger's compose window opened, I heard thump-Splash! Thud, pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat....  I looked up to see the tip of the tail of New (and still very young) Cat Holden vanishing though the door from the hallway into the dining room/library, and a trail of wet footprints and splashes leading back to the washroom door.

     Yes, Holden had decided to jump into the tub. And right back out when he learned that water is indeed wet.
Holden - TAMARA KEEL PHOTO
      He was more surprised than annoyed when I caught up with him, picked him up and hugged his very wet belly against my bathrobe.  I carried him back to where I could grab a bath towel, then lugged cat and towel into my room, where I could set him on the bed and start to dry him off.  I was able to blot a lot of water from his front legs and chest, and then wrapped him up in the towel to get more water from his torso.  That was only okay with him for a little while.  Trying to towel off his tummy and back legs resulted in a little drying and a short, happy play-fight between Holden and the Mysterious Hand-In-Towel Creature.  I carried him into the washroom and tried my hair dryer, but he was terrified of just the sound of it; so he got as much more towel-drying as he would tolerate and I had to leave it at that.
Proof that tomcats are like small boys: Weaponized Washing Behind The Ears!
TAMARA KEEL PHOTO
     As I type, he's sitting on one of the pull-out shelves of my desk (see above), grooming his hind feet. 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Looking At TV We Missed

     Tam and I have been watching Breaking Bad, which neither of us saw first time around.  It is fascinating and well-told, though remarkably harrowing. 

     For me, there are weird resonances in the relationship between Walt and Jesse, and that of my father with my older sister and me.  Oh, not the same; but parts of it rhyme.  Dad had very high standards and expectations; my sister and I, in different ways, were layabouts and not terribly competent at our chores.   We had other interests and we tended to "phone it in" unless closely watched.

     That adds a kind of undercurrent to the drama for me.  The Machiavellian drug boss Gus reminds me of how some of the general managers I have worked for in the past would have liked to be -- or at least how they wanted to be perceived.

     The twisty, close-in plotline, with secrets and subtle moves, is fascinating.  Real life is undoubtedly darker and more grim, but the show is a heck of a ride.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

A Small Project

     I have had an inexpensive kit-built code-practice oscillator for years, built into the hard-plastic box it was sold in.  The plastic was pretty brittle and the little widget had gotten knocked around over the years.  It needed a new case.

     So I gave it one.  That's just a tea tin, with some added spray paint, a perforated metal backing to the thin metal on the (former bottom) front panel, labelled with home-made decals on laser-printable water-slide decal material.
(I have blanked out the rest of my callsign.)
     The slowest part was waiting for the paint and lacquer to dry.

     It was a fun little project and a chance to see how the printable decal material works.  It's nice stuff!