Friday, June 3, 2016

A Trip to My Kitchen

Since it may be a while before I travel anywhere else worthy of writing about, I figured this was a good time to visit an area of expertise I have threatened to visit before.  Yeah, besides being a Lumberjack, Jack of all trades and a fan of Jack Lemmon, sometimes I put on women's clothing and hang around in bars.  Kind of like Jack did in "Some Like it Hot".   Or maybe I just put on an apron and cook in the kitchen, although I have actually been in drag in a bar once.


I have visited one area of this expertise a couple years ago with Let's Get Sauced, which can be found there.  Just click on the link.  It's not really a story about debauchery, it's about about making sauce.

I've been cooking for over fifty years, give or take a year or two.  Granted, gourmet didn't come for a while.  But everybody has to start somewhere, you know, peanut butter and jelly land.  Actually, my penchant for combining unusual complimentary flavors began back when I put together a peanut butter and carrot sandwich.  I mean, peanut butter and celery went together.  And carrots and celery went together.  It seemed natural to a five year old that peanut butter and carrots should go together.

It wasn't my finest culinary achievement, but it was edible.

And then came ground beef.  Seven ways to Sunday.  My brother and I pretty much lived on Hamburger Helper the entire four years I was in high school.  We knew our way around that staple for sure.  And if we didn't cook it we probably weren't going to be eating anything, at least during the week.  DOM was a divorced mother of two, she had a job and worked late.  So we cooked the beef.

Some sophistication came to my cooking when I took a Boy's Chef class my senior year in high school.  I  learned about properly measuring ingredients and why peanut butter, tuna and pickles shouldn't be served in the same sandwich.

I actually took Boy's Chef twice my senior year.  It wasn't that I didn't pass the first time, I did.  It was more along the line that I only had two or three college entrance requirements left to do my senior year, the rest of my classes were all electives.  Since I didn't want to take Sewing the second semester I took Boys Chef again. 

Each semester I ended up having a different very good friend at the three person cooking station in class.  Naturally we all got A's, I mean, how hard is it to kanoodle a carrot?   We also pushed the envelope and had a rousing good time.  One morning, and we're talking first period 8:30 in the morning, a future CEO and internationally known expert in his field and I drank a bottle of Annie Green Springs wine in class.  Amidst all the cooking chaos.

 Annie Green Springs?  In class?  At 8:30 in the morning?  What were we thinking?  A bottle of Pinot Grigio would have gone much better with the meal we were preparing that day. 

Another howling hoot that compadre and I manifested upon the unsuspecting high school establishment happened during "cheese" day in class.  That morning we were introduced to a number of elegant, sophisticated and quite pungent cheeses.  One of which was Limburger.

You ever smell Limburger cheese?  It smells like a combination of a four hundred pound man's hairy stomach roll sweat, the toe jam that's been incubating inside his sweaty socks and a dead warthog whose guts have been exposed to the baking sun for hours.  Mmmmm, Limburger cheese.  It was foul, but it was also gold.

So my bud and I took a few little chunks of this precious stuff to our next class, which was Mythology.   Prior to class starting we wandered around, chatting with friends, putting a little dollop of Limburger about the size of a chewed up stick of gum under desk tops here and there throughout the room.  It wasn't bad during our class, but by early afternoon ALL the desks were outside and all the doors and windows of the room were open.  We were never suspected. 

The other semester allowed another life long chum and I to collaborate on some really silly literary ventures for my next class, Creative Writing.  After graduation we continued to collaborate on renowned invitations to renowned parties wherever I happened to be living at the time.

The upshot of all this is the literary sense of humor you see scrawled across these pages was actually born in a high school cooking class.  In case you were wondering and maybe seeking some correlation.  I know I don't understand.

I still have my Mother's all round basic Betty Crocker Cookbook I used back in my early cooking days.
It looks a lot like this,

only mine is really beat up.  Scuff marks, tape and food stains are everywhere.  This cookbook, by the way, circa 1969, contains the absolute best Meat Loaf recipe I have ever tasted, and I have tried more than a few.  I'll even order it in a restaurant from time to time, just to see what the chef is doing.  Naturally I have added a few touches of my own to Betty's version, which brings me to a point.

When you're cooking a "savory" dish, a little bit of this and a little bit of that is just fine.  Encouraged as a matter of fact, unless you get a little heavy handed with the pepper on my corn flakes.

When you're baking, you need to be precise with the batter ingredients.  After that you can play away.

For instance, when I make a coffee cake, I measure all the ingredients that will make up the cake batter of the recipe.  Then I'll usually toss some sort of fruit in the batter, like chopped apple or blueberries.  Then I top it x3.  I alwayas triple the topping of a coffee cake.  I usually triple the filling of cinnamon rolls too.  And once either of those sumptuous delights are out of the oven they get drizzled with icing.  Lots of icing.

Let's be clear.  When I want a sugar rush, I want to dance like Snoopy on a sunny day.  But I don't wanna have to eat the whole shebang to get there.  Think of the calories!  One or two slices or rolls should do, but let's be clear on something else.  If there's room in my stomach I'm gonna have three, even if I'm already tripping a light fantastic.

Cakes are another sweet treat I enjoy baking.  I have lovely, nine inch round commercial grade cake tins that bake batter wonderfully.  To make sure the cake releases properly, I always grease the pans with butter.  Sure, you can use Pam, but maybe she doesn't want to be bothered.  Besides, butter will impart a little more flavor.  I also put in parchment paper, grease again and finally dust the greased up pan and paper with flour or cocoa, depending if the cake is chocolate or not.  Scratch cakes, which is what I tend to make, tend to be a little denser than cake mixes, hence the extra care.

The last thing you want to have happen after lovingly creating a masterpiece is to not have the cake release properly.  Cause now you've got pieces of cake that you can only put in a pudding, and maybe that's not what you had in mind for the company coming that evening.  Plus, now you gotta make the pudding and you just used your last three eggs in the cake.  Which means a run to the store.  Which is a forty minute round trip cause you live in the country.  Ah, screw it.  There's some Ho Ho's in the pantry, those will have to do.

Why take the risk?  It only takes a couple minutes, and then you completely avoid a potential cake-tastrophe happening early in the game.  Cake-tastrophies, by the way, can occur at almost any time in the process.  Mine tend to occur getting the cake from here to there.

It's easy when it only has to move two feet into the fridge after creation.  I chill my cakes by the way.  It gives the frosting and fillings a creamy thick "ice cream" sort of aura and texture.  Plus, if the cake has to travel further than six feet to the table it travels better chilled.  More solid. 

I learned about traveling cake-tastrophes many moons ago, I think I was twenty at the time.  And a friend was getting married.  Kind of a hippy sort of thing.

I don't remember if I volunteered or was volunteered, but I was making the cake.  And I took it seriously.   I did my research, and since this was in the days before the internet I probably went to a library.  And a book store.  I also went to our local bakery for some tips.

When go time came I rented three round cake pans, big ones.  Wedding cake size and everything.  I baked the three descending layers, each a different complimentary flavor.  With complimentary fillings and icing.  Some of them rather unusual for a cake.  I think I had some flavor input from the bride and groom.  Probably after smoking a joint or two.

"Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay.  How about some peanut butter cream filling for the carrot cake layer?" I seem to recall coming from somewhere.  Or maybe that was something entirely different.  I wish I could recall exactly what I did because the cake got rave reviews.  Alas.  That, my friends, was a long, long time ago.

The big trick was getting the dang thing to the venue, which was about thirty miles from its point of creation.  Which was a bachelor pad without a fully equipped kitchen.  How the hell did I do this, anyway?  I'm beginning to think I'm making it all up. 

Anyway, another one of the invited guests and a roomie hopped in the back seat of my orange VW bug named "Edith".  There's a story there too, but I don't remember that either.  I don't even know anybody named Edith, then or now.  As far as you know.  But then this was the 1970's.  Anything could be possible.  Between the natural aging process and the fairly consistent ingestion of mind bending ethereal substances throughout that decade it's amazing I have a mind left at all, let alone a few casual memories. 

Once the human cake holder was in place in the back seat, another roomie and I carried out the three layer, foot and a half tall twenty pound beauty.  I had put it together on a foil wrapped chunk of plywood, which was good.  It definitely needed sturdy.

It was a long, precarious 35 MPH drive with lots of twists and turns.  There was some slippage and sliding.  A hand got involved.  So did a lap, a shirt and the seat of the car.  But nothing touched the floor.  So we had that going for us.

Once we got to the venue, we went to work.  With surgical precision I maneuvered the layers on center and sashayed the frosting back into sunshine and rainbows.  Rob went in search of some I Beams or Moonbeams or some other stout support, and probably some stout ale or Jim Beam because we both needed a drink by that time.

I forget what else went south, but Rob returned with home made cookies, store bought daisies and a six pack of malt liquor.  We placed the cookies around the bottom of each of the three layers for foundation support.  Then we interlaced the daisies around the cookies to hide any and all deformities.  All the while drinking malt liquor.  The cake ended up looking great.  Perfectly hippie great.  I actually got a compliment from the bride's mother.  She had called months earlier expressing concern I would be arriving with an ice cream sheet cake from Baskin Robbins.

I think part of the travel problem with those types of cakes is their thickness.  Plus a lot of frosting between layers doesn't help solidify the situation.  Unless it's chilled.  Then the frosting acts almost like concrete.

If pressed, I would admit to being a frosting and filling kind of guy.  I mean, who doesn't love frosting?  I like just the right amount of cake going along with just the right amount of frosting.  Your basic two layer cake usually ends up with too much cake for the amount of frosting per bite.  Per me.

To fix this problem I now slice each cake layer in half, diagonally, so I get four layers out of two.  They're usually about a half inch thick instead of an inch and I get a lot more surface to play with.  Many times I'll put some fruit between layer one and three, a cream filling in the middle and frosting all round the sides.  I can get at least three complimentary flavors going, with a variation of a fourth.

Like a go to for me is a really dense chocolate cake, four egg and a cup of butter dense.  I'll put some cherry or strawberry filling between layer one and three with an almond cream filling in the middle.  Topped with some form of chocolate frosting.  Many times I'll sprinkle each layer with a little Amaretto. 

This all came about because of a dessert bar at an all inclusive resort in San Jose del Cabo we visited about a decade ago.  It's what their pastry chef was doing with all their cakes.  Four layers with all sorts of games in between.  It was a major cake epiphany for me.  Good sugar rush too.  Nothing like having to eat cake for research's sake.

I do pies too.  I use butter in the crust instead of shortening.  Do you have any idea how bad shortening is for you?  I also add 1-2 T of sugar in a sweet pie crust.  Yeah, sugar is bad too, but at least it can get you high.  All shortening does is coagulate in your veins.

Then, depending on what the filling is, I will also add some spice to the crust mixture.  For instance, a little cinnamon, clove and/or nutmeg in an apple or cherry pie crust.  A little lemon zest and sugar in the flaky light crust of a blueberry pie.

I cut my pastry dough in a food processor.  I'll spin the dry ingredients to combine then add cut up ice cold butter.  Spin that until it's rightly mixed and transfer to a bowl.  I'll then add 1/2-1 T apple cider vinegar along with 2-3 T ice cold water.  Mix it up and form a ball.  The vinegar adds a nice, faint taste and also helps with texture.

Speaking of apple cider vinegar, who doesn't love buttermilk pancakes on a Saturday morning?  After five harried mornings of pop tarts and cold pizza you finally have a little time to slow down and enjoy a relaxing breakfast. 

Buttermilk pancakes.  Been thinking of them all week.  Hot off the griddle.  Drizzled with butter. Smothered with syrup.   Mmmmmmmh, buttermi.....

Uh oh.  Did you forget to put buttermilk on the shopping list?  Hell, it's not going to be a relaxing morning if you have to go to the store at 8:00 AM to get buttermilk.  Especially if you live in the country and the store is ten miles away.  Might as well just go to Denny's.

But if you have milk in the fridge and apple cider vinegar in the pantry, you've got buttermilk.  Simply add 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to 1 cup of milk.  Stir and let it sit a couple minutes.  Buttermilk.  If you don't have apple cider vinegar in your pantry, get some.  You now have two uses for it.  Plus now you don't have to remember to buy a quart of buttermilk when you go to the store.  You can make it on demand.

One of my original go to fancy pants dinner recipes was Scampi.  I got the basic recipe from a long established restaurant at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.  It's the best.  Ever.  My lovely wife and I can no longer order it in a restaurant.  It's a flavor waster of gastronomical time.

Most Scampi you see out there is simply prawns sauteed in a garlic butter.  With maybe a shallot or two tossed in.  It's hard to go wrong with just garlic and prawns, but there can be more.

I dredge the prawns in flour before tossing into the crackling garlic butter.  A minute or two a side, and then I'll add about a cup of sweetish white wine, like a Riesling.  You can use any white wine, like the Chardonnay you're having with dinner, but the flavor is better with a sweeter variety.

Then I'll toss in some chopped scallions or shallots, squeeze in a teaspoon or two of lemon juice and stir for a couple minutes while the sauce thickens.  If done properly, you should end up with a nice, medium white wine & garlic flavored sauce to go along with your gorgeous prawns.  Goes great with wild rice or rice pilaf.  Asparagus or Brussel sprouts.  Total cooking time on the prawns, including sauce, should not exceed 6-7 minutes.  Too much longer and the prawns will have the texture of my two year old grandson's play toys.

If you're a guy and just starting out at the cooking console and want to impress a woman, you can't lose with a rendition of "Girlfriend Chicken."  I need to acknowledge the hilarious PJ O'Rourke for that term, although my recipe is different than his.  "Girlfriend Chicken" first appeared in print in PJ's now out of print tome for single guys, "The Bachelor's Home Companion." A Kindle version is currently available.  It's a must read for any college student or just out of high school beer guzzling service station attendant.

Basically you get a couple boneless chicken breasts.  You can buy breasts still on the bone if you want, but then you're going to have to take the bone off.  Have you ever done this?  It's a hassle.  Plus, if you're not using a really sharp trimming or boning knife chances are you'll be taking the tip off a finger as well.  Then you're gonna have to go to the ER so they can stem the hemorrhaging and try to sew the damn thing back on.  There goes seven hours of your life.

Just start with boneless.  It's safer and much less time consuming.

If you want to be macho and BBQ the breasts, then marinate them for half a day in a mixture of olive oil, minced garlic, lemon juice and a little of that Riesling left over from Scampi night.  BBQ away.

Or, if you want to show a more epicurean side, dredge the breasts in flour and fry in the olive oil.  Add the garlic, maybe shallots, lemon juice and Riesling.  Similar to the Scampi recipe, only it'll taste like chicken.

Right about the time I was seriously getting into cheesecakes and cream pies, a decade or so ago, I discovered I was lactose intolerant.  So I stopped making those and ventured elsewhere to seek my sugar mania.  But I recently made a discovery about five years ago that changed all that.  Lactards, pay attention!

First of all, cream pies and cheesecakes are a gas because of what you get to do with the crust.  Graham crackers, chocolate grahams, Nilla Vanilla's, ginger snaps, nuts, coconut, the list is almost endless.

Cheesecakes are still out for me though.  Yeah, there's a cream cheese substitute out there, but it's expensive as hell and the flavor is not up to my par.  But, there is a substitute for whipped cream I have discovered that allows me to make lovely and wondrous creations of creamy and custardy delight without sacrificing flavor or texture.  Two words.  Silk tofu.  Replace any called for whip cream with the same amount of soft, or silk tofu.  Simple as that.  Oh, and use lactose free milk for any other called for milk.

You may be skeptical, but I make a lactose free Bavarian Cream Pie and Tiramisu that I'll put up against anyone's.  And the original recipes are loaded with whipped cream.  So lactards, rejoice!  You can now enjoy a Boston Cream Pie without putting your intestines through a buzz saw. 

Just in case you're wondering, I BBQ and smoke stuff too.  Beef, turkey, pork, chicken, cigars.  You name it, I'll smoke it.  Although there are some items I think it would be a complete waste of time to smoke. 
Like jello.  I refuse to smoke jello.  On the grill or in a pipe.

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Homestead News

Boy Howdy, it's almost summer.  What have I been up to?  Well, a lot.  This year I cleared about a quarter acre of my neighbor's property so that our house now has a hundred foot clearance over yonder.  It's been a concern since we moved here.  That was huge, and a huge job.  Slash and burn, slash and burn.  It's the hardest work an old man can do around here.

Then, since it's the first year we are deer free, I've gone garden crazy.  I got started back in February with some corn seeds.  Since I wasn't sure how they'd sprout, I ended up with about 120 plants.  Did the same with tomatoes.  Anybody need or want an heirloom Beefsteak tomato plant?

Then there has been deployment of the corn in the ground, construction of several grow boxes, weed whacking and general all round maintenance.  This will be the second time in six years we've brought in help with the weed whacking.  Only he worked for a day and a half last week and then disappeared.  Looks like I'll get to play some more with that.  And since we had close to normal rainfall this year the weeds are no longer thigh high, they're just about eye high.


I've also been working on the Winchester Mystery Steps on the back cliff.  You know, steps that go up a cliff to seemingly no where and then abruptly stop.  They looked something like this.

It's been a process.   Drilling holes in the treated 4x4's, then pounding two foot long pieces of rebar through to hold the wood and bricks in place.


That's a lot of digging right there.  Just in case you wondering.  I've completed both top side laterals now, three and four steps respectively.  The ground was still a little moist underneath, I had to get it done.  Another week or two that earth will be like concrete.

Fortunately, I have an area I could put all the dirt, about 25 wheel barrow loads.  That will even out the over flow parking area.

On a less physically exhausting and bodily breaking note, we did pick up six new chicks in March.  We've added from two to four every year since we started the flock in 2012, and prior to this new batch we have the same amount of hens as what we started with.  Yeah, there's attrition.  And varmints.

The new girls have already been integrated into the main flock, although they all still want to sleep together in the companion cage, which is next to the main cage, which is fine with me.  They should be online and laying this fall, and in anticipation of this new influx of layers I have added three more nesting boxes in the hen house.

The front and back decks have both been washed and oil finished for another year, I just need to get everything back up on them.  Potatoes, tomatoes, corn, pumpkins, melons, leeks, radishes, onions, spinach, lettuce and zinnias are in the ground.  So are the raspberry plants I've been harboring for a couple years.  More stuff will be going in soon.

Next up, besides 20-30 more hours of weed whacking, will be planting drought tolerant yellow and white blooming perennials on the hillside above the back lawn and on either side of the new stairway to infinity.  Then I've got to refinish an old oak antique table for the back yard.  Might do a blog post on that one.  It's another creative re-purpose whisperer type dealio.  My lovely wife's eye.  All this by Dad's Day.

Then, nah, forget it.  Rest assured there's a ridiculous amount of upcoming to do's.  We live in the country, it's what we do.  There are a few minor upcoming excursions on tap though and I shall hopefully be able to strip some veneer from them and squeeze some funny out.  I'll keep you posted.

Happy summer of 2016 y'all.