Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

I pride myself on a certain amount of snobbery, but I must confess to having more than a few guilty pleasures. For the moment, allow me to indulge my snobbish side while I explain what I mean by guilty pleasure.

I believe the term guilty pleasure has suffered from a bit of the Irony Effect. Alanis Morissette screwed up a generation's understanding of the true definition of irony. I don't know who messed with guilty pleasure, but my experience indicates many people think it means "something you feel guilty about but still like to do it, so you have no intention of stopping." Like smoking or drinking. Or cheating on your diet. I define guilty pleasure the One True Right Way: "something you like that you would be ashamed to have your friends know about." Like Kid Rock. I'm hardcore.

But most of my guilty pleasures fall in the area of food. My mom has never been the most imaginative or fastidious of cooks. She honed her cooking skills over a period where meat and potatoes ruled the dinner table, and frozen and convenience foods were fabulous new ideas. So, many of our family dinners comprised a pan-fried or oven-roasted protein, Rice-a-Roni, and a small portion of frozen vegetables. I don't recall the spice rack getting a lot of action during those times. We definitely had no knowledge of fresh herbs, and a limited understanding of fresh vegetables: corn on the cob for Independence Day, occasional green beans, and potatoes (though scalloped potatoes from a box showed up frequently on our plates).

Sometime during my late teens and early twenties, probably influenced by all the varieties of fresh and delicious foods I had during a stay in France, I started to develop my own interest in cooking. Guided by Bon Appetit and early cooking shows like "The Frugal Gourmet" and Jaques Pepin's show on PBS, I gravitated toward fresh ingredients, including lots of herbs and fresh garlic, and explored the world through food. I also decided to become a vegetarian, and for years, I eschewed the hearty, nutritious, but boring, meals my mom made.

In the ensuing years, I have maintained my love of cooking, trying new flavors, and experimenting with new dishes. Unfortunately, I also got a lot busier in life, what with having a child and working a stressful full-time job. Also, I moved back in with mom and dad after my husband and I split up.

As unmemorable as most of my mom's dinners were, she had a couple "special" meals she made that really stand out in my memory. Recently, after a long stressful week, she made what I discovered I still consider the ultimate comfort food: The Joy of Cooking's version of Chicken Cacciatore, as modified by my mom. As I described previously, my mom does not like cooked onion, so she substitutes onion powder. She also uses garlic powder rather than regular garlic because in the fifties and sixties, I don't think Americans had discovered garlic yet. She doesn't drink wine, so she uses the old standby bottle of dry sherry we keep in the cupboard pretty much just for this dish. Finally, because she hates mushrooms, but my dad loves them, instead of fresh sliced mushrooms, she uses canned whole button mushrooms that she can easily avoid when plating up her serving. The sauce is made by thinning out tomato paste and the chicken juices with the sherry. The chicken is served with a side of spaghettini and green beans, and the whole thing is drizzled with the sauce and then sprinkled with parmesan.

Don't ask me why, but I love this. There's something about the blend of crappy "wine" and rubbery mushrooms that takes me straight back to a secure, comforting family dinner after a winter day. These days, I have been known to turn and flee if I see canned mushrooms in a salad bar or as an ingredient in any other recipe, but in this one dish, it's the only thing that will do. I confess that when I lived by myself, I tried to make this dish using fresh ingredients and the original recipe, but the result did nothing for me. It didn't have the tang of the vinegary sherry. It didn't have the little bursts of salty brine that come when you bite into a canned mushroom. It didn't taste like home, or like mom.

I love mom.

I Totally Submitted a LOLcat!

Here it is: http://www.thecheezburgerfactory.com/View.aspx?InvisibleOrch128394493592500000.jpg. Maybe I'll be famous!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Uranus? Are You Kidding Me?

Why are the astronomers wasting time reclassifying Pluto, when what they really need to do is rename Uranus? Can I be the only one mystified, here?

Monday, November 5, 2007

America's War on Pancakes

Looking back, I suppose I should have known it was inevitable, but I just didn't realize the pancake was such a threat. In my own experiences with pancakes, they've ranged in threat level from innocuous (say, an iHOP short stack) to divine (my friend Margaret's perfectly spiced gingerbread pancakes, for example). Evidently, my experience was not typical, as there is no other explanation for recent developments than an angry public's response to pancake aggression.

What developments, you ask? Why, the humiliation and subjugation of the entire pancake race, of course! Haven't you heard?

It started innocently enough with the Pancake Puff device. On the surface, it doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Who's against puffy stuff, right? But then you get to thinking about it. A puffed pancake is pretty much just a muffin. So, that niche is already filled. And if you need to put stuff in your pancake, all you have to do is roll it, like people have done for centuries. The pancake shape is what sets it apart! You don't need to inject it with pudding, because you can just blop the pudding on the pancake and roll it. And if you really want to make a pizza out of your pancake, I don't think the world wants to know about it.

But it was about to get much worse. Recently, a coworker alerted me to this crime against pancakity: Pancakes on a stick. Around a Jimmy Dean sausage. With chocolate chips. This is when I first started to suspect there was an anti-pancake agenda in this country. I don't know how it started or why, but I began to see that a rising tide of pancake hatred was flowing over America. And America wasn't afraid to fight the pancake insurgence. With chocolate chips.

I had no idea at the time how far the people of this country were willing to go to win the war against pancakes. It wasn't long before I learned how deep the pancake hatred went. The very same coworker who spotted the besticked pancakes pointed out this monstrosity: The Batter Blaster. The American people hate pancakes so much, they confine them within aerosol cans! Organically! (Presumably, this was one of the lessons learned from the cheez internment of 1953. What an embarrassing episode in this country's history!)

I don't know what's going to happen next. If you care about the pancakes of your future, write your representatives and ask them to step in to stop this massacre! I believe this can only get worse: The Batter Blaster is imprisoning waffles too!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Yummy, Yummy Anchovy-Mushroom Pizza

The Background
I'll tell you what: If you don't like pizza, there is something wrong with you. I state that unequivocally, without fear of contradiction. It would not surprise me to learn that neither George Bush nor this man likes pizza.

I do understand why many people would not like anchovy pizza. I happen to love anchovy pizza, but can't usually make it for myself because I typically share my pizza with my little boy who wants only cheese. If I do a half-and-half thing, he sees the anchovies on top of mine, and thinks they have somehow contaminated the whole thing. Plus, it can be unpleasant to end up getting a large piece of anchovy in a smallish bite. So, last night, I set out to find a way to have my anchovy pizza and still share with my little boy.

The Recipe
This is not so much an actual recipe as it is a method. Or a series of suggestions, if you like. Quantities are based on taste, and many substitutions could be made. For example, any pizza dough would work, and you could substitute a different type of mushroom if shitakes aren't available. In any case, these are the ingredients I used:

1 package Trader Joe's pizza dough

olive oil

shredded mozzarella cheese

8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced

approximately 1 1/2 cups simple marinara sauce leftover from last time I made pasta

1 clove fresh garlic, minced

3 anchovy filets, chopped

2 or 3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped off woody stems

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. (Note: This is for the Trader Joe's crust. Use whatever temperature settings work best for the crust you are using.)

Heat about two tablespoons olive oil in a saute pan and toss in the mushrooms. Do not add salt. Saute, stirring occasionally, until mushroom water has evaporated and mushrooms are caramelized. This can take awhile. Last night, it took about thirty minutes. Add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper toward the end of the process. Remove the mushrooms from the pan and set aside.

Roll out or stretch the pizza dough to fit your taste and your pan. In this case, I decided to make a thickish crust on a round pizza pan. Brush or spray the crust with olive oil, and then sprinkle with about 1/4 cup of shredded mozzarella. The cheese should just dot the crust, not form a layer. (This is a tasty way to weight the dough so it doesn't puff too much when you par-bake it.) Bake the pizza crust in the oven for ten to twelve minutes, until golden brown.

While the crust is baking, heat a couple teaspoons of olive oil in the pan you used for the mushrooms. Add the anchovies and cook until they "melt" into the oil. Add the minced garlic, marinara sauce, and thyme and stir until anchovies and garlic are well incorporated into the sauce.

Remove the crust from the oven and spread with the sauce. Sprinkle caramelized mushrooms over the sauce. Top with shredded mozzarella to taste. Pop the pizza back into the oven for about ten more minutes, or until mozzarella is bubbling and browned in places.

Slice pizza into a manageable number of pieces and eat! Well, you might want to wait for it to cool first. Or you could put it on a plate with a sprig of thyme if you're into presentation. Some people would probably take a picture before they take a bite!

The Result
Yummmm! Well, that's just me. The anchovies lent a savory depth to the sauce, and the mushrooms were almost smoky and . . . well, they tasted brown. In a good way. The thyme brightened everything up a bit, whilst the tomato sauce provided a touch of sweetness.

I would love to tell you my little boy ate it up and loved it, but after I spent a good hour working on that pizza, he told me he'd rather have the Kid Cuisine my mom had gotten at the supermarket. Damn you, Kid Cuisine, with your whimsical characters and included crappy desserts!

The Future
Next time I make this, I will make the crust thinner. To be honest, I was just a little lazy about it last night. Depending on who you're serving, just about any vegetables could probably be added. I think it would be especially good with some thinly sliced eggplant, but I'm an eggplant whore. In general, I really liked this savory, salty pizza. As with so many sauces that include anchovies, the taste was not the strong, fishy one many people expect, but the anchovies' presence was noticeable and tasty!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Miss Mouse

You, Miss Mouse, are the young woman who refused to let me in on the jammed freeway entrance with four converging lanes yesterday morning, even though my car was half a length ahead of yours, and you risked scraping the sides of our cars together in your desire to win your car-length of advantage over me in traffic that was not moving.

I will confess to some momentary pettiness on my part. It's true that I had the "courtesy" right-of-way and that I would have had to do a bit of maneuvering to avoid sideswiping the car on my right to let you in safely, but I could have managed it, I'm sure. But your insistent creeping on my left opened up a little hidden pocket of road rage left over from my younger days, abruptly ending my iPod-induced chair dance.

When the car ahead of me moved, I crept up into the space it left. Of course, you did too. I wondered whether I would finally find out what happens if neither driver gives an inch. If we collided, no matter whose fault the crash turned out to be, I would have to talk to you. The prospect was not appealing. Once you pulled up even with me, I looked at you, thinking to confront my nemesis eye-to-eye.

That's when I noticed you are a mouse. Not just because of your mousy hair or nose. Your entire demeanor mewls, "mouse." You felt me looking at you, so you looked down and away to avoid the terrifying gaze of a complete stranger in another car on the freeway. What could I have done to you? Given you a disgusted look? Flipped you the bird? Shaken my fist? I suppose it's possible you believed I was a gun-toting freeway psycho, but that would have meant your insistence on displacing me was suicidal, not just stupid. I rejected the idea.

Then I had my revelation: That car-length advantage was all you have! Not just over me, but at all. If you can't face the driver you're trying to squeeze in front of, whom can you face? What possible challenge could you surmount? Your hunched posture, your nondescript ponytail, and your misunderstanding of the place of denim jackets in a stylish wardrobe conveyed to me everything you don't have. And with that realization, I began to catalogue everything I do have:

  • Confidence
  • An impact in this world
  • A great family
  • Many wonderful friends
  • An ability to use makeup stylishly and with a sense of whimsy, rather than as obvious compensation for overplucked brows
  • Respect
  • Good hair
  • Nice manners on the freeway (usually)
  • An excellent bra
  • Talent for developing consistent bulleted lists
  • A creative streak that allows me to turn a minor freeway annoyance into a blog entry

So, I stopped. I held up the people behind me. I let the drivers on my right confusedly push past. And finally, you looked at me long enough to see me wave you in. Quickly, you looked back down, pathetically shaking your head as though to indicate you think I'm pathetic. But I basked in my benevolence, knowing I had given Miss Mouse her one opportunity to be a big shot -- by overtaking a stranger's car in stop-and-go traffic.

Five minutes later, when I passed you further up the freeway, I barely noticed because I was so busy chair dancing.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Lentil and Sausage Soup. If you call it "stoup," I will cut you.

The Reasoning
As the millions of you who have faithfully followed my meandering mutterings have likely deduced, I have no clear idea what to do with my blog. Until the light bulb comes on, I will take the common road of bloggers throughout time and post whichever of my thoughts I believe the world cannot do without. Also, I plan to steal ideas from others. In this post, I take a leaf from my friend
Gumbeauxgal's blog, and post a recipe I puttered with that came out pretty darn good.

The Background
It all started sometime last week, when my mom wanted to make black bean soup. She got the idea too late in the day to soak the beans, so we talked about other options, like using canned beans (ick). I said she could always have used lentils, which don't need to be soaked before cooking. She hasn't cooked much with lentils, but then reminisced about a soup she used to get at a great no-longer-existent restaurant called Cane's (owned by
these people). The soup she remembered had red lentils and some kind of sausage. I had black lentils in the pantry and a curiosity about andouille. So, I decided I would make lentil and andouille soup on Sunday.

The Recipe
Because I spent the last half of the eighties and all of the nineties as a vegetarian, I haven’t cooked much with meat, especially “exotic” meats and sausages that weren’t available in San Diego until the last decade or so. So, though I know how to make a vegetarian lentil soup, I did some research on the web to figure out how long I was going to have to cook the sausage. I came up with
this recipe. Based on the reviews, I knew right off I was going to make the following changes:

  • I increased the amount of the veggies to one-half cup (more or less) each.
  • I omitted the first half hour of cooking the lentils in the broth by themselves.
  • I made my own creole seasoning rather than using a commercial product. This is the recipe I used.
  • I used twelve ounces of sausage.
  • I used fresh thyme.

Then I had to make some further modifications due to personal limitations:

  • I could not get hold of my aforementioned friend Gumbeauxgal to find out whether good andouille is available in a San Diego market. Rather than risk disaster, I instead opted to use Trader Joe’s smoked chicken-turkey-garlic sausage.
  • My mom hates, hates, hates the texture of large pieces of cooked onions, celery, peppers, and probably some other vegetables. For my mom, large is defined as detectable. Therefore, instead of dicing or even mincing the vegetables, I essentially turned them into pulp in the food processor. I drained off some of the water that pooled in the bottom of the processor, and then sweated them with a bit of salt for five or ten minutes.
  • I couldn’t find beef broth, so I used all low-sodium, organic chicken broth and reduced the amount of broth from nine cups to eight.
  • Finally, to make extra super sure that my mom would not notice any sort of vegetation, after cooking, I stuck the ol’ stick blender in there (being sure not to “catch” any of the sausage) and whirred it around for awhile. It seems to have worked!

The Result
After about an hour of making my house smell like smoky sausage heaven, the soup came out pretty darn good. My mom loved it, which means I successfully hid all the veggies from her (and makes me think those books that tell you how to sneak veggies into your kids by pureeing them must have some merit). Though smoky, the sausages weren’t overly salty, so, with the couple big pinches of kosher salt I added during the cooking process, the soup was perfectly seasoned. There was a bit of a kick from the cayenne in the creole seasoning, but not too much, so this soup would be good for kids. Sourdough rolls dipped in were divine. And in the end, it’s healthy!

The Future
As good as it was, I will continue to refine this soup. For me, it was a little thin, so I will definitely increase the amount of lentils the next time I make it. I also felt it was a bit celery-riffic, so I would change the vegetable proportions to those used in mirepoix. Here are some of the other tweaks I will try:

  • Create a vegetarian version using vegetarian sausage and/or liquid smoke and vegetable broth.
  • Increase the cayenne, if not serving kids.
  • Find out how to get andouille and use it. I’m still dying to know what it tastes like!
  • Experiment with different varieties of lentils.
  • Add rice.
  • When using the chicken sausage or other lower salt sausage, render pancetta or bacon for the fat in which to start sautéing the mirepoix.
  • When using the stick blender in the future, I will cook the sausages whole so I can remove them easily, blend, and then cut them up and put them back in.
The End
While I was shopping at Trader Joe’s for the remaining ingredients I wanted for the soup, I remember standing in front of the Greek yogurt section wondering if I ought to get some for the week. I couldn’t think of anything I would use it for, so I didn’t get any. It would have been absolutely perfect dolloped on top of a nice hot bowl of this soup. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that! Let that be a lesson to you all. Always get the Greek yogurt.

Monday, May 7, 2007

An Open Letter to Guy and His Big Bite

Dear Guy, from "Guy's Big Bite" on the Food Network,

Surely I'm not the first person who has begged you, for the love of all that is holy, to stop tasting your oh-so-manly, meat-stuffed-meat, pseudofusion greasetronomy and pronouncing it "money."

If an actual cool person ever used that expression, he stopped ten seconds after Swingers came out. (Psst! Swingers is about guys who think they're hip, but are actually pathetic. Okay?)

Clearly, you think you're a rock star, but real rock stars don't use hackneyed expressions like "That's so money" and "It's on like Donkey Kong." Plus, I hate to break it to you, but there are no rock stars on the Food Network. No matter how blond you bleach your hair, no matter how often you refer to yourself in the third person (smooth, dude), and no matter how many times you name one of your wake-n-bake entrees after a cocktail, you're still just a no-repeat Saturday throwaway on the Food Network. Your audience is way more Good Housekeeping than Maxim, so you might as well just try to make good food instead of a spectacle of yourself.

By the way: It's 2007. I know! That's fifteen years later than you thought it was.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Can I become cool at age almost-41?

I just signed on to twitter. I don't really know why, but I suddenly feel it necessary to reenter the realm of random communication with strangers, after having left message boards and discussion lists behind last year. I can't figure out myspace.com. Twitter seems easier, but weirder.

Anyway, I noticed all the cool kids at Twitter have web sites and blogs, so here's mine. I have opinions -- oh, yes indeed. But a life? That is what I don't have.

I know all the words to the Go, Diego, Go! and Pokemon: Battle Frontier theme songs. I know how to put together Bionicles. I have a good score in Viva Pinata. What's that spell? I have a five-year-old son.