Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pre Easter Oddness

We are having a Visitation. The Easter Bunny has apparently been dropping by the house when we are at work and leaving yard decorations.

Momma sent me home with these:

Giant plastic pastel eggs. Whimsical and cute.

Then the other day, I came home to these:

More whimsical large eggs. And little mylar balloons on sticks.

Then a couple of days later:

These are lining our walkway.

Finally yesterday was this little tableau:

That’s a hamster. With rabbit ears. And each one of those eggs is filled with sugar-free candy and Easter confetti. The hamster was holding a note that said:

“Hi, Mike and Kim,
I am helping someone deliver more eggs to your house. I hope you like your surprises so far. Somebody thinks your Easter eggs look pretty in your yard.
I hope you like these eggs! I filled them with special sugar-free goodies just for you two. We don’t want Kim to have any problems with sugar.
I did spill a few eggs and as you can see, my hands are too short to pick them up. I hope you like them!

Happy Easter!

Hey, you like my bunny ears?”

We are charmed. And a mite creeped out.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Goin' to New Orleans

We are off to New Orleans on Friday to celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary. I have spent HOURS at the dining room table surrounded by lists and maps and guide books and computer print outs. We’ve gotten advice from folks at eGullet and cookskorner and friends and co-workers. We’re going to be there for 3 ½ days and my initial restaurant list had 25 places on it – that would be approximately 7.14 restaurants a day! I’ve winnowed it down to only (ha) 14 places – that’s 4 places a day – MUCH more manageable.

I am so excited about this trip. I’ve never been to NOLA and Mr. Kim has only been once on a business trip. I have a tendency to romanticize places. I’m sure that when we eventually get to England that it will be just like an Agatha Christie mystery – manor houses, dotty and shrewd old ladies, kindly vicars and one charming village after another.
To me, New York, no matter how many times I actually am there, is stuck in the elegant, jazzy cocktail times of Nick and Nora Charles or Pam and Jerry North. When my good friend Lynn said she was going to NY for Christmas, I responded: “I have this impossibly romantic picture in my head of Christmas in NY - from watching too many movies, I'm sure. I mean, you probably didn't actually go dancing at the Stork Club with Myrna Loy and William Powell, right?”

So about half the time, when I am imagining this trip, I’m picturing a NOLA dripping with Southerness – sweet, hot days lazily sipping Sazeracs and watching the river drift by. I see a city with a certain sinister (but safe) charm.

Of course, since I’m ME and have a bizarre brain that can easily hold two completely opposite beliefs at the same time – I am also imagining the two of us mugged, knifed and lying bleeding in some dirty alley. This me sees NOLA the same way that many people see NYC – danger from every person, crime ridden and scary.

The actual experience will probably lie somewhere in between. So I’m packing a pretty, floaty dress….and my money belt!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Barbeque Diaries, Part 3 - Mr. Kim blogs

5:15 PM. Temperature is falling again. I decided to check the meat temperature directly. The meat looks gorgeous. Not falling apart yet, but clearly cooking nicely. Temperature is 165 degrees so there’s still some waiting ahead. So two thirds of the remaining charcoal goes in. Nervously, I eyeball the ten or so briquettes remaining in the bag. Who would have thought 15 pounds wouldn’t do the trick? Soon I’ll be burning leaves, and if necessary clothing to get this thing across the finish line. With The Queen asleep in the easy chair, no one is running to Lowes for more conventional fuel right now.

6 PM. No choice, awoke Her Highness and asked her to go to the store. The last of the charcoal is now in play and the temp is still below optimal. With her now conscious and alert, I took the opportunity with the last of the daylight to show off the meat and check the internal temperature. It is now up to 168. grrrrrrr. I have found that the barbecue sauce makes a great dip for dark brown pretzels. Kim doesn’t agree. Maybe I am just hungry. Or just determined to make it work. Or my tastebuds may just be numb from all the cayenne over the past 24 hours. I wonder if this stuff would be good underneath some stinky cheese on a piece of crusty bread? It’s a certainty it would take paint off of wrought iron.

8:42 PM. Gentlemen, we have lift off! Both smoker and smokee are resting comfortably after ten hours of labor. The pork passes its initial physical examination – a nice thin char, and even a bit of pink smoke ring to bear evidence that it didn’t just go in the oven. Well, I think it at least proves that it had to START in the smoker to get the ring. I could say it tastes pretty good too, except, um, I was ordered not to slurp any until it finishes resting. Why go to all the trouble to get it to 190 degrees if I now have to wait for it to drop again? So no, I haven’t been tasting on it. Much. But if I HAD tasted it, I would mention that the outer shell turned out nicely and carries a nice perfume of cumin but no trace of cayenne, while the inner meat is moist and hearty, with the wood flavor well penetrated. I am sure that is what my initial impressions would be if I had snagged any of it when The Queen wasn’t looking. But I guess I’ll just have to wait to be able to determine that.

9:48 PM, it’s all shredded and ready to go, thanks largely to Kim. Once it came off the smoker, I had run out of pages in the instruction book. So with the look of helplessness I have been perfecting over nearly three decades of marriage, I appealed for assistance with next steps. So we took turns burning our fingers on newly uncovered pockets of fatty lava and cleaning and shredding the shoulder.

As we finally can eat in earnest, Kim is raving about the flavor. A classically trained actress, she is hitting all the right notes, hardly overplaying it at all as she strokes my ego. Her slaw is perfect, with its sharp counterpoint to the smoke of the meat. I secretly don’t believe umami exists, but if it did, this combo would have to come close:

As I sit back with a full belly, the fragrance of the smoke rises from the remaining four pounds of meat on the platter and from my clothes and my hair. There are a few things I’d do differently. The sauce (as suspected) completely overwhelms the meat and will not be repeated. And the rub, alas, needs more heat. Go figure. All in all, though, I have to say I am very pleased with the venture.

There are things to change for our next attempt: Allow more time, start before dawn. Buy cheap beer and a good cigar for the journey; but try to hold off on both until at least breakfast. Two bags of charcoal and a box lunch are definitely in order too. And I need to remember that there’s ample room for a chicken or two along side (or above) the pork. Why stop at “enough” when there’s an opportunity to over the top? Life is good.

Barbeque Diaries, Part 2 - Mr. Kim blogs

Day Two. Clock goes off at 6, I get out of bed at 7:15. No matter, time to get started. I start pulling pieces parts of the smoker out and line them up. I feel victorious when I get them all set out without dropping any of them into my coffee. As expected, some of the nuts/bolts/screws are missing. Back to Lowes. I pick up the fasteners and go to the check out, and the same clerk is there as last night. She looks at me and smiles and asks me if I’m done cooking. I just chuckle that hollow “what can I say here without sounding stupid” awkward sound. It’s 9 AM and there’s meat to cook. And goddess willing, this is my last trip to Lowes today.

The first thing I do is rub the meat. If nothing else works today, at least I will be able to shove the beast into the oven, go all teenager sullen, and ask The Queen to just cook the damned thing.

Then I put the pieces parts together. Not too bad, about 30 minutes. Never mind the parts left over, they are probably extras:

I re-read the instructions and notice the part about the use of the wood and realize I have a small issue. I have wood chips, which I had intended to soak. The instructions say use blocks and put them on dry. I opt for the wet method, because no matter whether I should have bought blocks, the chips I have would just burn up dry. And I am not going back to Lowes for hardwood blocks. So using wet chips seems like the right decision, but I have just departed from the path. Ah well, if it bombs, there’s always pizza. Besides, the wood is optional I think. It is an important option, since it is the source of the flavor, but what’s the worst thing that can happen? I have to add more or pull some out? So after a 30 minute soak I make a foil packet for the wood and move on.

Lighting the coals, I feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway. “I….HAVE….MADE….FIRE!”

Not a great modern achievement, but it’s been hours in the making. Or months, depending on when you start counting. I haven’t cooked on coals in decades. I’d forgotten the smell of the coals, the irrational fear that once the flames are gone the fire is out, the seeming randomness of the cooking temperature. But by now I am committed and feeling better about this. I even have fragment memory flashes of dad, watching him light the coals in the rickety three legged grill and being allowed to stay and monitor the flames when he went inside, as long as I followed orders to Stand Back. My brother and I would play a game in which we each would pick a spot in the unlit coals and declare that “our house.” The owner of whichever house was the last to burn was the winner. What can I say, dad was a fireman and we were obsessed with it.

But that was another era. Back to this century, I still stand vigil but without the joy of watching my brother’s house burn. Once the grey ash crowns 80% of the coals, I place the apple wood packet on, fill the water bowl of the grill (never knew THAT was part of the smoking process!) and onto the rack goes the meat. Cover on, I stand back. It’s going to be a long wait. It’s now 10:30 AM.

The guide book says a 4 to 8 pound butt should take 10 to 12 hours to get to temperature. This one is a full shoulder and nearly 10 pounds. I am guessing the movie is out we had planned to see this evening. For the next several hours, I resist the urge to peak at the meat and content myself with adjusting carburetors to keep the temperature near 250 degrees and checking once to make sure the wood isn’t burnt to dust.

But after three hours, a few questions are starting to occur…… If I see no smoke, do I need to add wood? Did I use too much or not enough in the first place? At what point should I start checking the meat temperature? Should I be expecting to have to add charcoal? Would Avatar have been as impressive without the 3-D effects? I become obsessed with the issue of adding wood. So despite my male predisposition not to ask for directions, I give in and call One Of The Guys and left a message. To be on the safe side, I went ahead and began soaking more wood.

This all became problematic at 3 PM. The instruction book says to check your charcoal at +4 hours. I guess they meant it. At 2:30 (+4) I checked the thermostat and it looked fine. I did NOT look at the coals, fool that I am. At 3 PM, I checked again, and the thermo was at about 200. I checked the coals, or the mostly dust that used to be coals, pulled out the foil pack and threw in half of the remaining bag of briquettes. I opened the foil to see that the bet of the wood was long gone so I quickly drained and packed the next load of wood chips and threw it on top of the newly introduced charcoal. And watched the thermostat. 200… 205... 210... 200… 200… 200… 205… 210… 215…..rescued. And I add hot water to the water pan, which is looking pretty low as well.

So apparently they are serious about the four hours.

But now I can see that I may need another bag of charcoal. And The Queen mentions we need something other than meat. Maybe slaw? Buns? Fries? Anything? So it’s going to be Back To The Store for someone. Like I said, I didn’t plan this out too well.

And so with new coals I need to once again play constant temperature games with the smoker. Touchy little bugger. At least I am seeing smoke again. And what the hell is going on in there? As the time reaches 4:30 (+6) I still haven’t taken a look. Maybe it’s burning up. Maybe it’s falling apart. In an hour, I’ll take the meat’s temperature. I content myself with wandering into the kitchen and tasting the sauce from last night. The Queen and I agree, it has lost a little of its edge but the cayenne has now blossomed a bit. She puts me on notice that she’s going to use the Short Sugar’s sauce she brought back from North Carolina on her last trip. Short Sugar’s is my mind the Holy Grail of western NC barbecue. I was first introduced to it when Kim and I were courting and went to visit her grandparents. With Richmond Virginia being the only BBQ I had ever previously tasted, I thought all BBQ either tasted like Bill’s or Dunn’s (two local drive ins that I now learned had been completely screwing over their patrons by putting a thin spread of tasteless minced meat on a bun and charging a fortune – that is what Richmonders knew as BBQ) or came out of a can from a company called James River. James River canned BBQ was this metallic tasting cloying shredded stuff that was mixed with a paste that is reminiscent of that ersatz sauce that barbecue flavor Vienna sausages was packed in. Do not hold it against me that I know what that tastes like. Disgusting. I still remember the cartoonish black waiter on the can and his pearly white smile in a deep brown face. And I remember thinking even as a child that the taste in the can bore no resemblance to the feast that the happy gentleman promised. So when I tasted Short Sugar’s I was instantly converted. I had never tasted anything so good. Wood smoked, moist, smoky, and plentiful on the whitebread bun, with the perfect thin vinegar sauce. If my novice effort at sauce has to be jilted for another, I do not mind losing out to the best there is. I am thinking I’ll have two sandwiches this evening, one with this stuff I made (got to dance at least once with your date) and one with the Short Sugar’s as well. That assumes, of course, that this smoker delivers at all.

Barbeque Diaries Part 1 - Mr. Kim blogs

I have been invited by Queen Kim to “guest blog” about our first venture into the world of smoking meats. So to the millions of folks tuning in expecting to read about HER cooking exploits, I beg your patience and promise to be brief. Well, as brief as I EVER am.

Where to begin? I got a smoker for Christmas. It’s a Weber Smoky Mountain model, the Bullet. And it’s the big manly 22 incher, not the piddly little 18. Naturally.

It’s been sitting in the shed through all the weekends of long work hours, snow plops, rain, shopping trips, Superbowl, Jessica’s relocation, and general lethargy. So this weekend, March 6 and 7, seemed to be the alignment of all things barbecue – The Queen’s trip to her grandmother’s was cancelled, work didn’t schedule me to come in and volunteer my time, and the weather was ordered especially for the effort – 60 degrees, sunny, dry. I was determined to smoke a butt and make some barbecue.

I was ready. Okay, I was intent, anyway. Prep was another story. I had everything ready except uncrating and assembling the smoker, buying the meat, reading the instructions, laying out a menu, and making sure I had shopped for everything I needed.

Saturday morning arrived, and I woke up early. 4 AM. Didn’t have anything to do with childhood anticipation, just my metabolism and damned intermittent insomnia. Welcome to your 50s, Mikey, please keep your arms and legs inside the car until it comes to a complete stop. Gave up and got up at 6, and checked in with work email. ISSUE. So I head for the office, deal with STUFF and return home to Kim and breakfast. Now it’s 11 AM. Kim and I decide to spend a couple of hours looking for a bed and mattress. Kim is looking for Something Specific. While we’re out we have a nice lunch and grocery shop, including a 9.9 pound pork shoulder thing for my smoker. So at last I am making progress! Yes sir, I can almost taste it. So we return home at 6 PM. Day’s getting away from me. And it occurs to me that One Of The Guys had advised me that I need to soak my hardwood for smoking overnight. I forgot to get any.

So back out I go, Lowes must have it. Lowes has everything but beer. I looked at apple wood, mesquite, pecan, and several other variations. I chose apple, only because I do not like the flavor of mesquite in anything I have tasted in restaurants. Maybe I’ll try that sometime, but not this first time. While I am there, I cleverly pick up charcoal and lighter fluid. No fool I, another trip isn’t needed. The lady at the checkout asks whether I am cooking tonight or just getting ready. When I announce my plans, she offers to show up with macaroni salad.

Returning home, I display my wares for The Queen. She looks and says “Charcoal? I thought it was a propane smoker. Look at the instructions.” Instructions……yes, instructions would be a good thing. I hope they exist. Maybe if I actually uncrate the smoker I might find some. Maybe I pulled them out at Christmas? If I did, where would I have put them? I check in on the Virtual Weber website, which assures me that the owner’s manual is safely packed in a small box inside the crate.

Success! After unpacking the various pieces parts, I find the instructions. I also find a few dozen very loose washers, screws, and nuts just rolling around in the box. It’s late, 8 PM, and I have no intention of actually assembling this thing tonight, but the loose parts already have me skeptical about finding everything I need. But tonight, I’ll READ THE INSTRUCTIONS. Not a step I am used to, but there’s a first time for everything.

By 8:30 PM, I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t going to be difficult to assemble. But there, in the back, were suggested recipes for barbecue rub and for barbecue sauce for ribs and for pulled pork and for all manner of birds and fish. This struck me like a realization that I had forgotten to pay some bill. Oh my god. I actually was going to have to manage more than Meat On A Grill. Hadn’t thought about this I guess. I show the recipes – very simple, straightforward – to The Queen. She is neither underwhelmed nor overwhelmed with the prospects. “You should look online for other recipes” was the suggestion. Good point, I love all things barbecue and there are many ways to go about this. So a quick search yields 2,140,000 hits for sauce and about half that for rubs. I was starting to feel the dread that always follows me when I start to do something new. Fear of screwing up, fear of doing something very stupid, fear of ambiguity, whatever. I know this feeling, it is a frequent guest. How I can play poker with this personality quirk, I’ll never know. But I know enough to know that the only thing to do is push through it, even if I spend the next twenty years reliving some critical action and kicking myself. Whatever, it’s just barbecue. So I review recipes and mixes. I select one of each.

The sauces ranged from Texas to St. Louis to Memphis to North Carolina brown or South Carolina yellow. I love them all. I decide to try a SC mustard type of sauce. The recipe includes yellow mustard, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, butter, Worcestershire, lemon juice, and cayenne:

Of course, I find that we are about out of mustard. Back to the store. The Queen’s eyes roll. After this finishes simmering for 30 minutes, taste tests find that this is sharp and harsh, not layered and tangy:

The Queen suggests maple syrup, and after another pass suggests tomato paste. I suggest KC Masterpiece. She encourages me to let it sit overnight and we agree that this particular balsamic (a gift from a Nonfoodie Friend) is really the culprit here. Another try another day with higher quality stuff, perhaps. But for now, into the fridge it goes for the night’s rest, with low hopes for its recovery by daylight.

Then there’s the rub. Sigh. This looked simple enough, just combine equal parts (I did one tablespoon each) salt, sugar, brown sugar, ground cumin, black pepper, chili powder, half a tablespoon cayenne, 2 tablespoons paprika:

This was very red and very hot. As a would-be ChiliHead, I like spicy. The Queen does not. And I knew immediately that this was way beyond her mainstream taste buds. What to do? Throw it out and start over? After tasting it and flashing that look at me that speaks of absolute betrayal, the one I get to see when I do things like wash her pink sweats with her white shirts, The Queen suggested I make another batch without the cayenne and blend the two batches until it’s right. Smart lady, that Queen.

Good idea, bad execution. Second batch was too bland with 2 tablespoons of batch one added. So I add 2 more. Went straight through bland right into too hot again. So batch THREE is created. Tossing batches one and two and their offspring into the trash, and again with The Queen’s guidance, I make this batch without any cayenne and then add ¼ teaspoon at a time in. At ½ a teaspoon, we looked at each other, shrugged, and declared victory. Or maybe we just declared fatigue. Either way, it’s 11:30, time to clean up and go to bed.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Everyone thinks I'm so nice, but...

Seriously, I have so many people so snowed. Everyone I work with thinks I'm the nicest person in the world. My online friends comment that I am so caring. Riding around in the car today with Mr. Kim, I was thinking about all that and this just popped out of my mouth, like an unexpected burp: "I'm not all that nice". Mr. Kim didn’t seem to be fazed. (He has become quite accustomed to my out of the blue statements). I can be very snide and judgemental and snobby. I think that a LOT of folks that I meet are idiots. I think that I know the right way to do everything.

I was supposed to be visiting my grandmother in NC this weekend. She is still recovering from a stroke that she had last summer and I haven’t gotten down there since before Thanksgiving. When I called on Thursday night to confirm, I learned that the lady who stays with her (a dear, wonderful, wackaloon friend who is devoted to my grandmother) had a fall and broke her wrist. She was having out-patient surgery on Friday morning and HER sister was coming this weekend to take care of BOTH of them. My grandmother said that she thought it would be better if I waited until another weekend when everyone was feeling good. OK. I am sorry that wackaloon lady hurt herself. I also feel bad that I won’t be able to go down until after Easter now. BUT (here it is), I am so dingidy glad that I am home this weekend. It feels like two stolen days. Mr. Kim and I wandered around antique stores and flea markets and thrift stores today looking for a bed for The Child’s old room (didn’t find a durn one). I got all the bed linens for the new bed. Mr. Kim finally opened the smoker that he got for Christmas and I’ve been tasting rubs and sauces for him (my tongue is on FIRE). I got all the Valentine’s decorations put away. I made a great breakfast for us and we had a lovely lunch together at a new restaurant. One of my bathrooms is clean. Tomorrow I’m planning on getting all the ironing done and organizing our spare room and The Child’s old room before the Sunday evening “Oh-crap-I-have-to-go-back-to-work-tomorrow” depression sets in. And I’m feeling really guilty about enjoying this weekend so much.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Recipe Development

I absolutely love the process of getting an idea in my head for a recipe and then following through in the kitchen. The inspiration can come from anywhere – something I ate or read or saw on TV. Many times I’ll have something that is just not quite right (or truly awful – like Hamburger Stroganoff that someone served to us once). And it just lodges in my head and won’t get out until I make it at home. This happened recently. For Valentine’s Day, we went to dinner at Mezzanine in Carytown. I know that it is never a good idea to eat out on Valentine’s Day or New Year’s, but, as much as I love to cook, I want to be pampered on Valentine’s Day. So out we go. The meal was ok – not nearly as good as it should have been considering that they were serving a limited version of their regular menu, but one dish stood out. The hoisin braised short ribs on grits was very, very good. But…well, there it is – it needed something more. I am a pretty good cook, but not inventive. I am totally derivative. That’s not modesty. I can do really good things by tweaking other people’s recipes – I just don’t make up my own stuff out of thin air they way that some people are able to do. So I had a recipe for a hoisin BBQ sauce that was good, but too strong - it overpowered the beef. I envisioned something that would let that lovely, BEEFY flavor of short ribs take center stage and I wanted LOTS of good sauce to sop up. So, last Saturday, I spent some quality time with my stove and got busy. Here are the notes from my process:

Actually they don't look too bad to me. Usually I am much messier!

I caramelized some onions and seared the short ribs and set them aside. I sautéed some garlic and deglazed the pan with balsamic vinegar. Then the fun started. I started with a half a jar of hoisin sauce, beef stock, soy sauce and sherry. I let that simmer for awhile and tasted and adjusted and added stuff. It was one of the most fun days I've had in awhile. Here's the sauce during the simmering:

Here are the ribs back in the sauce prior to going in a 300 degree oven for 5 hours:

Here's the finished dish, served on sautéed grits cakes:

This dish ended up tasting EXACTLY like I imagined. The short ribs were beefy and meltingly tender. The sauce was fragrant, deeply flavored and PLENTIFUL, but NOT overpowering. Mr. Kim and The Child thought it was wonderful. The Child said that it was one of the best things I'd ever made. I myself could have made a meal of just the sauce and some crusty bread. So this is just a little peek at what I love in my life.

On a completely different note, (but a happy update) it is looking like the situation with Jonah (the grandkitty) is not a dire as they had thought. It is more likely now that he has a kidney infection and not cancer!

I am a bad blogger, I know. I have a million ideas and bits and scraps of ideas for posts, but never seem to have the time to write and post. I don't mean for food to be the focus of this blog, but meals are easy to post.