That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Archive for December, 2010

How about a nice… football?

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2010

A little more than a year ago I took up cooking as a serious hobby. If one can consider hobbies serious, I suppose. Either way, I made a concerted effort to learn how to really cook, and in stark contrast to my other hobbies, it’s paid off handsome dividends. Well, not exactly PAID dividends, serious cooking isn’t exactly cheap, but I find the whole process very relaxing, and you do still get to eat the food at the end.

I don’t mean to self-aggrandize – for once – but I’ve actually gotten pretty decent at the whole cooking thing. I’m no master chef by any means, and my success rate certainly isn’t 100%, but the things I’m good at I am pretty goddamn good at.

So, despite last year’s… let’s call it “lapse” with the mashed potatoes, this past Thanksgiving I decided I was going to take the plunge and cook the entire meal myself, with the centerpiece being a brined turkey. (Well, a turkey breast, but let’s not get caught up in semantics.)

This is how you brine a turkey for Thanksgiving:

The night before you cook up a gallon of vegetable stock and some spices in a big-ass pot, and then stick it in the fridge. Then, you wake up at 7AM on Thanksgiving and put the brine and some cold water in a big-ass bucket and let it sit in there for about 8 hours. You then cook the turkey as you would normally.

Actually, you don’t even have to cook it normally. The brining process certainly adds a ton of flavor to the turkey (which I would normally consider a somewhat bland-ish meat) but it has another useful feature: it basically supersaturates the turkey meat with moisture, which is a good thing when, before you put it the oven, you ask “how long does it take to cook the turkey?” and instead of a certain someone – I’m not naming names, but it rhymes with “my mother” – saying “eleven minutes a pound,” i.e. the actual cooking time, they say “twenty minutes a pound.” The brining makes the turkey meat so moist that you can cook it for TWICE AS LONG as you are meant to, and after all that it is still absurdly tender and delicious. It was the greatest turkey ever.

The end result of the success of the brined turkey was that when the time came, even though we decided that I wasn’t going to cook the entire Christmas dinner, we did agree on one thing: I was going to brine the turkey.

********

When I was younger – and we’re talking as late as my senior year in high school – my mother used to tell me that I had a “serious mad-on for tradition.” Knowing what we know now, of course, this is something of an understatement. I don’t have so much as a mad-on for tradition as the obsessive-compulsive parts of my brain are biologically incapable of functioning without it.

Let me be clear: I do not have the kind of serious, debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder that most mainstream culture seems fit to simply make fun of most of the time. For the most part my obsessive-compulsive behaviors don’t ever rise above the level of annoyance. There are even some positive sides to it. I haven’t locked my keys in my car in 14 years because I now won’t ever close my car door without having the keys in my hand. All the TV shows on my computer are perfectly organized with matching syntax in the episode titles for easy reference. And, hygienically-speaking, I am one clean son of a bitch.

(This last, especially, is good habit to have when you cook, where microbial dangers abound.)

It does, however, tend to make me somewhat hidebound to tradition. Now, I have finally gotten myself to a point where I am not just slavishly doing the same things year after year. For the first time since I got my driver’s license I didn’t go to Willow Grove Mall this past Sunday for my shopping. Some traditions, however, ARE sacrosanct, and for me the most important one that is still with us is my family’s Christmas Eve.

Let’s walk this back a little bit, to a slightly earlier version, when I was a kid. The 1.0 series of Christmas Eve, if you will.

When I was young – I mean a little kid – me and my sister would go out with my father on Christmas Eve and buy a tree. There were two reasons for this.

One was that for everything else, my parents definitely had the whole “Christmas magic” thing down. Me and my sister and my father would go out and get the tree, and leave it in the garage, and then after my dad read us Clement Moore, we’d go to sleep, and when we woke up we would find that overnight Santa went berserk in our house. The tree would be up and festooned with lights and ornaments, the house would be decorated, and there would be piles and piles of presents under the tree. Santa did it all while we were asleep. Pretty awesome, huh? This was one of the reasons we got our tree on Christmas Eve, so Santa would have something to do when he got to our house.

The other reason we got our tree on Christmas Eve is that my dad is really cheap.

Over the years it has changed somewhat. Once Santa wasn’t necessarily part of the equation anymore we all did the decorating together. And, in a move that I reviled for a decade and a half, after I graduated from high school my parents got an artificial tree which I derisively named “the Christmas Stick.” This year, though, I finally negotiated with my parents that we would go back to a real tree.

(Yes, in truth, the negotiated price had been that we get a real tree two weeks before Christmas, but our unplanned home renovations put a slight crimp in those plans.)

In the interim, our Christmas Eve has metamorphosed into a pretty solid set of traditions: we order Santucci’s, decorate the tree and the house, have a big fight about the decorating, watch a movie not remotely related to Christmas, and at various points throughout force other people to leave the room so their presents can be wrapped. Last night went pretty swimmingly throughout, with an interesting exception: the big Christmas Eve fight never happened. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the fact that everything was still in pretty good shape house-wise (even with the recent construction), perhaps it was because I ducked out for an hour or so to hit Wigilia over at Nick and Reg’s (in time for cookies), or perhaps it’s just because I am of a generally more amiable nature anymore (the reasons for which you are free to speculate on). But there was no fight. Pretty sweet.

Once the pizza was eaten and the tree and the house were decorated and everything was done, I went into the kitchen to do two final things before we sat down to watch the movie: I got the brine going on the stove, and I poured my father a whiskey. With brine cooking and whiskey whiskeying, we settled down to watch our Christmas movie for 2010: Inception. (On Blu-Ray, in 5.1. Pretty awesome.)

Throughout the course of the movie I got up to stir and store the brine and refresh the whiskey – last night was the fourth time I’ve seen Inception, so I didn’t mind missing the occasional bit – and once the credits rolled at about 115AM everyone was pretty much ready to drop. It had been a long day.

***

I, however, wasn’t going to get to sleep long. I had to get up at 7AM this morning to actually put the turkey in the brine.

This is not as simple a process as it sounds.

For starters, you have to actually have a bucket big enough to hold 3-4 gallons of water and a 7-pound turkey breast. The first time I tried this, a month ago, I kept meaning to head over to Lowe’s and pick up a 5-gallon bucket to brine the turkey in, but come 10PM the night before I’d never actually done so. We went over a number of possibilities, all of them stupid. Stock pot? Not big enough. Bathtub? Too big. Kitchen sink? Can’t take the sink out of commission all day.

Eventually my mother said, “what about your father’s crab bucket?”

The crab bucket is this giant plastic bucket my mother got for when my father goes crabbing down the shore so that he would have something other than a plastic bag to bring the crabs back to the house in. It is very large, bright royal blue, and has “John’s Crabs” and a bunch of fish hand-painted on it.

(Why fish? Fish are easier to paint than crabs.)

I said, “that’s ridiculous, that will never… hmm, hang on a second.”

I rummaged in the shore stuff in the basement, found the bucket, cleaned the sand out of it – still sand in it, in November – and stuck it on the kitchen counter next to the sink.

“You know,” I said, “I think this is going to work.”

This is why I was standing in my kitchen this morning, at 7AM on Christmas, barely awake, filling a bright blue plastic bucket that says “John’s Crabs” with ice water and turkey brine. Don’t misunderstand – when you haven’t slept as much as you’d like this is not a simple procedure. You have to add the water, and the ice, and the brine, all without spilling ice water or brine all over the kitchen floor, no small ask when you consider the very strong urge to just dump everything in there as quickly as possible, and the fact that the lip of the bucket (on the kitchen counter) is at about shoulder height.

But befuddled by undersleeping or not, getting the liquids into the bucket without making a mess is the easy part. The hard part is getting the TURKEY into the bucket without making a mess. This involves getting the turkey out of the multi-layered plastic prison it comes from the store in.

First, you have to cut away the sort-of mesh bag it comes in. I tried getting my fingers in between the mesh and ripping it open with my bare hands. It didn’t budge.

I muttered, sleepily, “fuck.”

I tried to look around for my kitchen shears. I knew they were there someplace. They could cut open the mesh bag.

I eventually found them – under a bag of potato chips, naturally – and dimly tried to cut away part of the bag without damaging the turkey. I was way too tired for such a delicate maneuver. Eventually I just ended up grabbing the mesh bag by the top with one hand, hoisting it over the sink, and with the scissors in my other hand just cutting across where I was holding the bag.

The turkey landed in the sink with a wet thud.

I said, my eyes still only partially open, “fuck.”

I stripped away what was left of the mesh bag and then contemplated the next layer of turkey security: the actual, metal-grommeted plastic shrink wrap the turkey is shipped in. I turned the bird over to find the cavity and tried to push my fingers through the wrapper so as to rip it open with my bare hands.

My fingers didn’t even come close to getting through the plastic.

I muttered, “fuck.”

I set the turkey down in the sink and, as carefully as I could considering I still wasn’t really awake in any measurable sense, tried to cut open the bag at the cavity without damaging the (soon-to-be) sweet, delicious turkey inside. I managed to get a good sized opening going without actually touching the bird, and once the plastic was partially removed I shifted the turkey around to get a better grip and get rid of the rest of it.

When I turned the turkey cavity-downwards I learned that I had actually defrosted it MORE effectively than last time, when what on Thanksgiving had simply fallen out as a solid mass of frozen turkey juice and guts spilled out, in full-on liquid form, all over my hands.

I said, both squeamish and tired, “fuuuuck.”

I finally managed to get the plastic off and firmly gripped the turkey with both hands. It was time to get the bird into the bucket. Even half asleep I knew there was only one way to do this without making a huge mess – smoothly, carefully, with two hands, just lower it straight into the water.

I gave myself a “1-2-3-GO!” in my head, and in one motion, lifted the turkey out of the sink, moved 10 inches to my right, and swiftly, still clutched in both hands, dunked the turkey into the brine, which was, at this point, essentially 4 gallons of seasoned ice water.

I shouted, “FUCK!”

That woke me up.

So, okay. The turkey was in the bucket, where it would sit for 8 hours soaking up the tasty goodness of the brine. Thanks to the thermal shock of plunging my hands and forearms into the Arctic Ocean I was completely awake, but had to kill some time before the rest of my family woke up. But before I did anything, though, I had a slight problem: I’d been handling raw turkey for the last few minutes. My hands were a Union Station of cross-contamination. Bermuda for germs. I had to wash my hands before I did anything.

I turned on the hot water, ran my hands under it, and poured some soap into them. Finally awake, I cheerfully whistled “O Come All Ye Faithful” while I scrubbed away at my hands.

I got my hands nice and rinsed when I looked at the bottle of soap. It was just regular detergent. Not anti-bacterial. Not anti-microbial. It was just hand soap.

The trained cook in me said, “oh, no, that’s not good enough. You’ve been handling raw poultry. You won’t be able to cook anything later. You have to sterilize.”

The obsessive-compulsive in me said, “don’t even fucking THINK about leaving this sink without killing every single microorganism that is living on your hands right now.”

I stood there, with my hands now dripping with hot water instead of cold, thinking about what might be under the sink that I could clean my hands with. I knew what was down there. The only thing that would appropriately clean my hands to both kitchen and OCD standards was a can of Comet cleanser, but in addition to killing any germs that would also strip off most of my skin.

At this point I was convinced that I was going to have to stand there with my hands over the sink until someone else woke up, drove to Walgreens, and brought back some anti-bacterial Dawn.

Wishing I’d put on shoes, my gaze rested slightly down and to my right, to the space on the sink just behind where the bucket was sitting, and saw it:

The bottle of Tullamore Dew from last night.

I thought back to my chemistry class last year and tried to remember what molarity an alcohol solution needed to be to act as an effective disinfectant, then did some quick calculations in my head trying to convert ABV to molarity.

I looked at my hands. I looked at the turkey in the bucket. I looked behind me at the clock on the microwave.

I looked at the bottle of whiskey.

I said once, quietly, exasperated, “fuck.”

I washed my hands.

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

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