Monday, February 28, 2011

Follow-up: Secrets of an Indifferent Home Chef

Yesterday I actually cooked the beef brisket that I blogged about last week. After a moment of sticker shock at the grocery store, I found a brisket (only 2 pounds, but then, there are only two of us), but no slab bacon. That was okay, the regular bacon I used worked just fine. Prep time took almost twice as long as I thought: I had planned half an hour but it took fifty minutes. I sliced the onions and celery before I started browning the meat, which turned out to be good planning. I sliced the mushrooms, bundled up the thyme and chopped the garlic while the onions and celery were cooking, and measured out the balsamic vinegar and found the bay leaves while the mushrooms and garlic were cooking. That all worked out smoothly.

It tasted great. It did not taste too vinegary, just a pleasant sweet-sour taste with more sour than sweet. With it I served an orzo salad (orzo, chopped red bell pepper, niblets corn, minced shallots, Dijon vinaigrette) because I wanted a contrasting texture but mostly because it was easier than Anne Burrell's potato pancakes. "Contrasting texture" just sounds better.

I notice from the reviews on the Food Network website that several people cooked this recipe in a crockpot with good results. Next time I might try using a chuck roast and cooking it in the crockpot. That sounds like Clue: Ms. Coleslaw, with the chuck roast, in the crockpot. I hope it doesn't turn out to be a crime.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Secrets of an Indifferent Home Chef

One of the cooking shows I love to watch is Chef Anne Burrell's Secrets of a Restaurant Chef I love watching it because of Anne Burrell's interesting personality, not because of any cooking tips I intend to pick up from it. My impression is that the secret to cooking like a restaurant chef is to be a restaurant chef, i.e., to have a staff of sous chefs that do prep work for you, to have a supplier that you can order the exact cuts of meat you want from, and to have a kitchen with several ovens and a six burner gas stove. I realize that there are some people who are not restaurant chefs who have double ovens and six burner stoves, but I'm not one of them.

Besides, I don't have recipes so much as procedures. There's the making hash out of anything procedure, the whatever parmesan procedure, the fried food procedure, the steamed veggies procedure, the braising procedure, the soup/stew/ sauce procedure, and the dice it up with onions, potatoes, bell pepper and garlic and cook it in the oven procedure. If I use an actual recipe, I will only use it once unless I can memorize it.

On one of her recent shows, though, Anne (may I call her Anne?) was cooking a beef brisket and it actually looked easier to cook than my standard pot roast recipe. First of all, she started off by salting and peppering the meat and throwing it into a pan to brown. When I make pot roast, I start off by marinating it in olive oil, red wine, lemon juice, shallots and bay leaf. Then I have to wipe it dry, then I put slits in it and insert slivers of garlic, and then it's ready to brown. So if I make Anne's recipe I've already saved 3 or 4 steps. 

Then she removes the roast from the pan and adds chopped slab bacon. That's where we run into that pesky supplier thing. I'm not sure Walmart carries slab bacon, but then, I don't see why regular old bacon wouldn't do; just stack a few slices and slice them crosswise. After that, she throws sliced onions and celery into the bacon fat to cook. I use chopped onions, celery, and carrots - slicing is much easier. Then add finely chopped garlic, not much harder than the slivering I do, especially since you can use the smash and peel method before chopping, which you can't do if you want to put slivers into slits in your beef. So so far, other than the bacon, she hasn't done anything I don't already do, plus she's left out a few steps. Easy.

Then add some sliced mushrooms, then add the liquid and aromatics. My liquid is beef stock, red wine, and coffee (yes, coffee). Hers is chicken stock (huh?) and balsamic vinegar. We both use thyme and bay leaves. Cover and put in the oven. I cook mine on the top of the stove, but my Le Creuset pot, a Christmas present from a bewildered husband ("It costs how much?") is ovenproof up to 500 degrees. 

Shorter version - I can make this. Heck, after one viewing I practically had the recipe memorized.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dead Lifter

Today I deadlifted for the first time in at least five years. Deadlifting was the power lift I used to love the most because I had perfect form and, for single lifts at least, I could actually lift more than I weighed. I never reached my goal of 225 for a single lift, but in the process of striving for it I strengthened my back to the point where my backaches disappeared. My old exercise log shows that in August of 2005, before all my foot problems set in, I was doing 3 sets of 8 reps for 100 pounds. In January of 2003, I lifted 3 sets of 140 pounds for 8 reps.

I also loved the word, "deadlift". I love to read mystery novels and the word "Deadlifter" sounded like the perfect title for a murder mystery. One of my online buddies is a champion deadlifter and her tales of the politics that go on at power lift meets makes it obvious that they are perfect settings for a tale of murder and mayhem.

Once I got the title Dead Lifter in my head, I realized there are a lot of phrases in the English language using the word "dead" that would lend themselves to a sports venue, and I thought of a whole list of titles that could be set at our local university: Dead Ball (football), Dead Center (basketball), Dead Wood (baseball, although college baseball bats are metal, not wood), Dead Heat (track and field), Dead in the Water (swimming), Dead Meat (wrestling), and Dead Set (volleyball).

But in a university setting, why stop with sports? There's always Dead Drunk for a tale of death at a frat house party. Malice in the math department could give us Dead Reckoning. There's a veterinary school (Dead Duck) and of course the business school (Dead Loss) or the law school (Dead to Rights). My favorite idea, though, was for a murder set in the dental school and called Dead Gummit. Unfortunately, thinking of titles is a far as I ever get. When it comes to the hard work, like plot development, character development, setting, I am at a dead end.

But to get back on topic, this morning I deadlifted for the first time in at least five years. I did 3 sets of 8 reps each with a whole 40 pounds. Not something that would knock 'em dead at meet, but it's where I started the first time around, so I'm dead certain it's where  need to start now.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

No Offense

I  have a problem understanding being offended. Don’t get me wrong; I am not a sunny natured person who sails through life  with never a negative emotion. I understand being angry, in all degrees, from mild frustration through the kind of fury that leaves you thinking, “Yeah, but then where would I hide the body?” I understand feeling hurt, too and I realize that anger and hurt are big components of feeling offended. It’s just that there seems to be something else, something I can’t quite identify, that changes hurt and angry into offended. I’m like the person sitting in a restaurant, tasting an unusual dish and trying to figure out what that elusive spice is that makes all the difference.

A therapist I know says that all anger stems from hurt. I’m not entirely sure of that. I think anger comes from fear - the fear of being hurt, not emotionally, but physically. Anger is part of our system of self-defense, one that we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. When a mama bear attacks you for getting too close to her cub, though, I’m not sure you can say that she was offended. She was just taking care of mama bear business. 

I think of situations in which I might have felt offended. I can think of two recent ones, both of which occurred at work shortly before I retired. As I have mentioned before, I worked with some difficult children. One of them was a five year old with a mental and emotional age of around three and a real problem with impulse control. One day I had him sitting  in a chair with a tray (to prevent escapes) and was trying to get him to follow some simple directions with his favorite toys. He was screaming at the top of his lungs because I wouldn’t let him play by throwing the toys. A coworker knocked at the door and said my boss asked if I could please get him to be quiet because our boss was on the phone and the child could be heard.

Okay, now let’s run through the pertinent points. I’m the one with my ears about a foot from the screaming child. If I had some magic way of calming him down, I assure you, I would have applied it without being asked. So I guess I was offended, briefly, but I was mostly amused. You have to admit, that’s funny. Everyone I tell the story to sees the funny side immediately, except maybe my boss. I wonder if I had told her how funny I thought her request was if she would have been offended.

The other incident occurred at our Christmas lunch, which was also my farewell appearance the day before I retired. We drew names every year for “Secret Santa”, and I wound up sitting next to the person whose name I drew. She had wanted a gift certificate to a party store because she bakes cakes as a hobby and they have a good selection of specialty cake pans. I bought her the gift certificate, and put it in a small decorative box, like a hat box, with a few truffles from a specialty candy store.

Coworker proceeds to tell me that she had been asked if she could bake a cake for me but she didn’t have any recipes that weren’t chocolate and I don’t like chocolate*, so she couldn’t. Uhm, okay. Why tell me this, I wonder. It’s not like I was sitting there going, “What, no cake?”

The thing is, when I ask myself something like “Why tell me this?”, it’s not a rhetorical question. I think about a possible answer. This coworker is a friendly, kind person as a rule and we haven’t had any run-ins. She is, however, the mother of two young children with a full-time job and this was right before Christmas. I’m sure her spare time was taken up with shopping, decorating, taking kids to see Santa, explaining for the fortieth time just how many more days until Christmas and wishing she was on her own private island. She didn’t have time to bake a cake, and I don’t blame her for saying “no”. 

I suspect when presented with the gift that I had taken extra time to wrap and make look special (not having two young kids and being free to do stuff like that) she felt a little wistful, and wanted to explain about the cake she didn’t bake, and unfortunately the resentment she felt at being asked when there are perfectly good bakeries around town made itself apparent without her meaning it to.  That’s just the sort of social klutziness I am prone to, so I feel for my fellow sufferers. 

So I’m still no closer to understanding being offended than when I started. My efforts seem to dissolve into amusement, or problem solving, or reflections on whether social tact and social klutziness are inherited, like curly hair. Besides, I'm thinking about cake. I just heard my husband saying something about buying a king cake. I hope he's not offended if I take a slice.

*Actually, I love chocolate, but for medical reasons, I am not supposed to eat it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


One of several rooms that could use a makeover

Home and Garden Television is starting a new show where they drive around the country surprising fans with a makeover. The way they put it is "surprising fans with a jaw-dropping makeover". It occurs to me that "jaw-dropping" can be taken more than one way.

I have more than enough rooms that could benefit from a makeover (all of them, in fact), but I see a problem with my applying to be on the show. I just do not speak HGTV's language.

First of all, when homeowners are asked how they want their finished room to look, they are obligated to say "warm and inviting". Notwithstanding that "cold and forbidding" as a design style went out when people stopped building medieval castles complete with moats, it is considered necessary to say you want your room (oh, excuse me, "space") to be warm and inviting because it's not the sort of thing that someone who spent years studying design could be trusted to think up on their own.

It is also necessary to state that you want your roo - uh, space, to seem  both cozy and spacious. Of course, you can't say both words together like that so that everyone will recognize how impossible that is. You have to use "cozy" in one sentence and "spacious" in the next, or better yet, the one after that. 

Furthermore, it is important for some reason to want your whole house to "flow". Where, I don't know. A few months after Hurricane Katrina, my husband and I went to New Orleans to look at the neighborhood where he grew up. We met a woman who was standing by the foundation of her former home. The slab wasn't even left, just the footings that the slab had stood on. I do not want my house to flow anywhere, thank you. I think houses should stay exactly where you left them last time you saw them.

People also seem to be willing to spend outrageous amounts of money to make their bedrooms look like hotels. I do not understand this. I have never been in a hotel that makes me think, "I want my house to look just like this." Partly that's because we mostly stay in places like Comfort Inn when we travel, but even our $450 a night room at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, while lovely as hotel rooms go, didn't make me think, "I want my bedroom to look just like this." It just looked too anonymous, like a hotel or something. Of course, I did like the view, but it's not like I could take that home with me.

The other thing that amazes me is how much money people spend on kitchens. Fancy kitchens don't say "rich" to me. Fancy kitchens say "If I were really rich, I'd hire a cook and wouldn't care what kind of dump I stuck him or her in, but I'm not so I did this instead."

While we're on the subject of what rooms "say", I should note that some designers, like Candace Olsen and Sarah Richardson, always want their design elements to speak to one another. The mirrors speak to the windows, the rugs speak to the curtains, the chairs speak to the sofa. They don't even need people to have a party. If it were my house and I heard all those objects speaking to one another, I'd check myself into a psychiatric facility.

And no matter how high end that facility might be, when I got home, I wouldn't want my bedroom to look like it.