Monthly Archives: December 2013

Parts Per Million

A dear friend and I were talking about the vicissitudes of food preparation. specifically what the hell happened to her bloody bandaid while she was making dinner?  No seriously, bloody as in blood-soaked, not the British curse, and seriously, where the hell did it go?  I told her she should turn her frown upside-down and tell her guests that it was like the King Cake tradition at Mardi Gras; whoever gets the bandaid in his dinner gets a year of good luck and extra dessert.

In my kitchen I have experienced not being able to account for a tiny sliver of skin missing from my knuckle while grating white cheddar cheese.  My skin and white cheddar cheese are basically the same color and since I wasn’t bleeding, the skin had no red flag to distinguish it from the mound of cheese shreds.  Frugality won the day; the cheese went into the gratin.  Don’t judge, it was for family.

Wikipedia has a piece on “Food Defect Action Levels,” which defines how many (no kidding look it up) “maggots, thrips, insect fragments, foreign matter, mold, rodent hairs, hairs, and insect and mammalian feces” can be in food before it presents a health hazard.  (Thrips: AKA  “thunderbugs” or “corn lice” = GROSS).  There is a whole lot about food prep you don’t want to know, no matter where that food is prepared. We like to think about food factories or restaurants as uber-pristine environments– all shiny stainless steel, every human covered in moon suits and gloves, but…

Ask anyone who works behind the scenes anywhere– a bakery, a butcher shop, a restaurant– everyone has stories.  (I once went into the darkened restaurant kitchen after hours to check on the bread I’d set to a slow rise, and startled a momma possum with several babies on her back.) Or better yet, DON’T ask.  Just accept the fact that people or insects or rodent hairs are in some way in the toast you’re jellying or the cinnamon you’re sprinkling or the chocolate upon which you’re nibbling.  It’s THERE, get used to it and put it right out of your head.

Next time you find a hair in your pasta pomodoro, reflect on the cook who put his heart and soul and hair into your dish and be grateful he did not also toss in a bloody bandaid.


A Royal Birthday

The prince is fourteen today!  As befits a royal he will breakfast upon bagels, bacon, and blueberries, and given the mild temperatures will ride his bike through the streets to receive the public’s blessings.

The prince is evolving into a smart and funny person.  As recently as a year ago he might have suffered hurt from the sarcasm employed by the prince consort and queen; we knew sometimes we had taken the quest for humor a bit too far.   But at fourteen the comedic exoskeleton is sufficiently hardened; he knows the joke as we toss it out.  He now has his own funny take on things and is apt ably to skewer his parents in jest, saving the funniest barbs for the clown.  At the same time, he is kind, intuitive, and has so far adopted his parents’ liberal values for his own.  The royal we are aware this could change.  But I’ve warned him that becoming a conservative could cost him his inheritance (Dad’s box of “vintage toys,” Grandma’s collection of Native American Artifacts, a ticket stub from a Chicago concert we went to in 1986, and my mother’s Corelleware casserole dish, all of which, after the funeral, could fit nicely in a Prius but will never find a home in a Mercedes).

(Speaking of funerals: I was especially careful driving yesterday since my father died the day before my 21st birthday and my mother died just before Christmas.  These are the family traditions one hopes most to avoid perpetuating.)

Happy Birthday to my dear prince!


Hey, Asshole

We arrived at the four-way stop at the same moment.  You were driving a white SUV on an uphill incline; I was in a small black sedan on a flat plane, ready to take a quick right.  The second is split, when one can dither or one can move.  I took the initiative, and you took offense.  Cleared of the intersection you accelerated with a vengeance, honked your horn, and offered me your middle finger.

You proceeded to tailgate me for half a mile, gesticulating wildly, obviously saying less than kind things about my having robbed you of the upper hand and two fucking seconds of your life.  I pulled into a trucking company’s parking lot to rid myself of your irrational anger; you honked again, flipped the bird again, accelerated again.  It was 7:10 am and your over-the-top response to the simplest negotiation of a commute left me trembling.  I breathed for a moment, and tried to shake you off the rest of my day.

Had we been pedestrians on a city street with a parallel set of conflicting needs– say, I wanted to leave a bus stop as you wanted to enter same– you would have waved me on and felt chivalrous to do so.  So why does having 4000 pounds of steel surrounding you allow you to be that rude?  In person you would not be so menacing, but behind a windshield you feel free to tell me to go fuck off.  Really.  My wish for you is to spend purgatory stuck behind an endless supply of city buses and school buses and trash trucks, fucker.

Still bothered by it, I got back at you today.  I swung through Wendy’s to get a soda in the midst of errands.  My bill for same was a dollar and change.  I saw in the rear-view that he was driving a shabbier car, paint peeling, a couple dings.  She was in the backseat with the rear-facing car seat: maybe the baby was brand new, maybe the baby was sick. Maybe she was back there doing a line of coke off the baby’s chubby thigh, I don’t know or care.  Their bill was fourteen and change and I paid it.  The cashier asked what she should tell them and I said, “tell them merry christmas.”

So there— and merry christmas to you, Mr. Asshole in the white SUV.

Demons vs Sinners and Saints

…And, the Demons win.  This is the game of life, really, pitting sinners against demons.  I tried to be an angel but if the queen’s robes are ill-fitting there was no way in hell I could pull off the angel’s costume.

Turns out when one is most motivated to put oneself and one’s needs first, one is overwhelmed by the needs of one’s family and one’s clientele.  People refuse to stop needing a clown, and a clown, as has been established, is too hapless a figure to refuse.

Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century Scottish author: “The saints are the sinners who keep on trying.”  This is the worker bee’s avenue to heaven, and the clown’s new mantra: Keep. On. Trying.



I’m no angel, but I’d like to be one for a week.

Here’s where that came from.  Saturday morning I saw that I had forgotten to shut down my laptop.  Nine tabs were open.  Nine.  The New York Times, Jezebel, Kottke, allrecipes, Chow, Yahoo, Pioneer Woman, Dooce, and the Atlantic.  Whereas twenty years ago I would have been engrossed in a book for the entire evening, instead I was “just checking in” at a few of my favorites, and reading deeply of none of them, for (I wasn’t paying attention but probably as long as) two or three hours.  Too much internet.

Saturday afternoon my brother and I went for a walk; we took a familiar route and pushed it a bit.  He later calculated our mileage and figured we’d done five miles.  What’s more, while we walked we made plans to work up to walking 15 miles in one go.  Now while this isn’t too much, it is a big goal– not as big as running 26 miles, and certainly a worthy and doable goal, but it’s big nonetheless and something my “let’s not be moderate” personality responds to.

Sunday, I woke up sore.  If I had been exercising more regularly, likely I would not have been so sore, for one, and for two, I later moved boxes and such for my mother in law, and more here at home looking for Christmas doo-dads, and felt a “klinkghk” in my back.  Through the night I suffered and ultimately will spend the day with painkillers and a heating pad, praising my lower back for being such a trooper through the abuse I give it (only Really Old People need to bend at the knees when lifting 40 lbs).

Finally, through the weekend I cooked a lot, stuff the newly cold weather calls out for: oniony and thick potato soup, a pasta casserole with italian sausage and ricotta, and snickerdoodles, which I’d been craving and haven’t made in at least 15 years.  I ate 12 cookies.  TWELVE.  Too much.

Too often I am all or nothing.   I can sustain a pristine, extremely healthy lifestyle for a whopping three or four days– then something, a sliver of resentment, a crappy day at work, a half hour too much of a “to do” list leaves me feeling sorry for myself and the only cure for that is a little too much wine, or too many cookies, or skipping the exercise I know I need, or staying up and reading until 1am, or grazing through NINE tabs on the internet.  It’s all too much.

So for one week I’m going to be insanely moderate: 7.5 hours of sleep each night, one half hour or more of exercise every day, no checking the internet but ONCE a day for email, vegetarian until five, omnivore in the evening.  For just one week.  Seems so simple.  What I know of angels is that they don’t run marathons.  They don’t have hangovers.  They are moderate, peaceful, quiet, not given to mood swings.  They don’t use the word “fuck” twice in a sentence.  I’m pretty sure about that last bit.  Just one fucking week; I’ll post a report when it’s over.



So lazy; it’s snowing, and cozy in here, and I’d prefer to be curled up on the davenport watching “Breaking Bad” on Netflix, but a full 20% of my readership has requested the second Thanksgiving menu.  If I could I’d write the WHOLE post without vowels to save time and energy on all these keystrokes.  But that would be cheating Kate.  :o)

I did a 14 lb turkey very simply, with butter jammed underneath the skin of the breast and lots of kosher salt and pepper everywhere; it went in at 325 on a roasting rack, for three hours or maybe a bit more (this is why you should write things down sooner than 8 days later).  When it was done I removed it to a carving board (the kind with the channel around the edge to contain the juices); the fat and stock in the bottom of the pan got strained into a 4 cup measure, and refrigerated while the bird rested to allow the fat to congeal somewhat on top for easier removal.

I did nothing special with the mashed potatoes; I use a ricer, which is like an immense garlic press.  The potatoes (especially waxy ones) will retain a bit of texture when you use the ricer as opposed to a mixer, which will get a much smoother texture.  I don’t mind the bits of solids and I like the old school feel of doing it by hand.  Once an unconscionable amount of butter and half and half were added (with S&P to taste), I put them in a covered casserole in the oven until the rest of the meal was done.

I like cooking from scratch but I LOVE convenience, and since for this second meal I was a bit less prepared I used STOVE TOP.  I love Stove Top Stuffing, stop laughing.  I once had my friend Joan over (the best, most accomplished home cook of this century) for a roast chicken dinner and she was aghast: “JESUS CHRIST BARBARA what the hell is in that box–?”  She couldn’t conceive of using anything that required only that one add water and margarine (no worries, I use butter not margarine).  I told her it was addictive, just like potato chips.  And she agreed– this stuff is salty and rich with nothing else added, and I don’t care that it’s so 1978.  Not even Stove Top can escape gilding though; what I’ve found is it’s a way to cram in vegetables and no one’s the wiser.  For two boxes of Stove Top I browned a pound of fresh Hot & Spicy breakfast sausage, the type that comes in the chubby tube. ( I can’t help that that sounds funny, and that it sticks with you; it’s like getting “It’s a Small World After All” out of your head, you just can’t do it.  And for the rest of the day now your mind will treat you to variations on the theme of “It’s a Small World After All” with visions of dancing chubby tubes.  You’re welcome.)  OK, to the browned sausage I added a ton of diced celery and onion and sliced mushrooms (– in the past I’ve also added zucchini and carrot– when it’s done you can barely tell and the kids have gobbled it down), and sauteed until all is nicely browned, then I put the measured hot water and half the butter the package calls for (the sausage provides plenty of fat) into a larger casserole dish, added the sausage and veg, and let that hang out in the oven until the rest of the dinner is almost done.  Ten minutes before dinner, I added the packaged bread pieces, tossed it all together, and covered it to let the bread soak everything up.

For the gravy, I started with a can of gravy (I think it’s Campbell’s now, it used to be Franco American I think), and added the reserved turkey juices, minus as much of the fat as I could skim off.  I thin it all with a bit of water and add a cornstarch slurry (two or so tsps of cornstarch dissolved in a couple TBLS of cold water), cook it over medium heat until it thickens and bubbles, and then pepper it to taste; it usually never needs salt as everything is salted already.

I made cranberry sauce from scratch, if you can call this scratch cooking –it’s so fucking easy and delicious, people think you’re brilliant: a 12 oz bag of cranberries, picked over (some of them are too mushy to use, likely the Cranberry Board would say they’re fine but I toss the ones that don’t look fabulous), rinse, tossed into a small saucepan with 3/4 cup of water, and start with a half cup of sugar.  Cook it until thickened.  That’s it.  DON’T ADD ANYTHING ELSE.  You only use cranberries for a short time this time of year, you must respect the cranberry!  Add a bit more sugar if your palate demands it, but no orange, no funky stuff– just let this jewel shine.

Pepperidge Farm made the rolls this year, which was very kind of them: I only had to give them $3 for 8 rolls, which were pre-baked, frozen, and ready to be crisped in the oven.

Asparagus appeared again, this time seared in bacon fat and salted.  Seared?  I meant to say burnt.  I was lucky the smoke alarm didn’t go off, which puts the dog into paroxysms of death-angst.  Still, when you picked the burned parts away it was really quite delicious.

Finally, a super quick pumpkin cheesecake, an amalgam of a couple of recipes from  The following is the closest to what I used for the filling, except I always use way more cinnamon than recipes call for, and I made a graham cracker crust instead of pastry:


Damn Hamn Bone Makes Hamn Good Soup

In the quest for frugality, the royal we are annoyed by the damn hamn bone.  We know the bone makes good soup, but we are tired and we don’t feel like messing with this gross thing.

We have removed all the usable meat within three days of baking the ham.   We have used the bigger chunks for sandwiches and we have cubed the remaining odder bits to freeze for omelets on future Saturday mornings. With vexation we put that bone into a larger soup pot with water to cover, and we simmered it for several hours.  Then we removed the bone to cool, and once cool we stripped it of any edible flotsam, then we strained the broth and returned it to the stove with the flotsam, then we cheated.  We drained a huge can of cannellini beans (40 oz) and dumped it into the ham stock, added a tablespoon or so of cider vinegar, some salt and lots of black pepper, and used a potato masher to smush most the beans.  The resultant thickened velvet was salty and soothing and a perfect winter comfort.

We were most pleased.

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

3:30 PM ET, November 30, 2013

Jordan-Hare Stadium, AUBURN, AL

1 2 3 4 T
#1 ALA 0 21 0 7 28
#4 AUB 7 7 7 13 34

For non-football fans: the above grid represents a spectacular upset in college football, and an opportunity to practice royal parenting.

Alabama and Auburn were tied at 28-28 in the fourth quarter.  Bama’s coach went for a field goal in the final seconds, literally, seconds, of the game.  Auburn’s quarterback returned the missed field goal in an unbelievable run of 109 yards to a touchdown, and earned the best day of his life thus far and the win for Auburn.

I saw this last play because the prince called me in.  An Alabama fan, he was sure he was inviting me to watch the Crimson Tide wash Auburn down the drain.  When instead the unthinkable happened,  the prince flipped OUT.  This is a placid kid, a quieter, thinking kid.  Oh, he can be loud, but he’s never mouthy or disrespectful or dramatic.  But in this instance:  “ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!”  he raged, and ran upstairs, slamming his bedroom door.  Me, I’m thinking, “are you kidding me?”  Because these types of things just don’t happen in the royal quarters; we operate with a bit more decorum, even if the decor around here is White Trash circa 1996.

So at the base of the stairs I called up, “I’d like to see you in ten minutes down here, please.”  He was down shortly and had a seat at the kitchen table, on the verge of angry tears.  I told him that if this was his home team, maybe.  If he had not gotten into his first choice college, maybe.  If he’d asked a girl to prom and she’d said “no,” maybe.  But that Alabama’s loss did not have a great enough impact on his life for him to upset the entire household with his anger (now the entire household at that moment was just him, me, a dog, and two cats but whatever).  “You have to learn to modulate your reaction.  I know it was disappointing, but for bigger disappointments, you won’t have the option to take a sledgehammer to someone’s temple– so you have to control how you react and be mindful of the people around you.  If you had let out a loud and mighty curse I think I would have been ok with that, but we do not slam doors here.  Understood?”  He smirked a sad smirk and acquiesced.  “Go chill out for a bit, ok?”  And he did.  And he was fine.  And the lesson was learned.  Cue music.

It’s hard to do this, whether “this” is being the clown or being a 13 year old prince.    How to live and what it means is like a math problem that takes four days to solve; the prince looks to me because I’m on day two and my paper is covered with pencil scratches, but until day four I’m just as clueless.   Or as Kurt Vonnegut said: “Don’t look at me, I just got here myself.”