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Posts Tagged ‘cooking’

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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Kitchen Misadventures: “Homer, I have to go out to pick up something for dinner.”

Posted by kozemp on January 22, 2010

I am not, in the head, a well person.

Okay, let me walk that back a little. I’m not going to start, like, recreationally murdering prostitutes or anything. But speaking as someone who, for example, has to sit in the aisle seat at a crowded movie theatre or run the risk of a complete psychological freakout¬† – surely the stupidest presentation of claustrophobia in the history of mental health – I worry that the parts of my brain I can’t control are starting to outpace the parts that I can. I have found, though, that keeping busy is a pretty reliable way of making sure that that things stay reasonably in line. It’s tough for the crazy bits to get out of hand if they’re always pressed into service doing stuff.

But – my life is a neverending series of ominous conjunctions – I was recently set on something of an enforced vacation, and this has presented a new sort of problem. My job ate up a lot of available resources, and that was a good thing. I’m not saying that the 40 hours a week I was there I was necessarily pushing 100% CPU towards work-related stuff (I mean, let’s be honest, here), but it was a solid 45-50% at the very least. Even more important was that when I wasn’t there, resenting the very fact that I had to go to work at all still managed to take up maybe 20% in the background. This went a long way towards keeping things in check.

The problem arose when I found myself without a job to go to or resent the existence of, and the bad parts of my brain had much more space in which to stretch their legs and really get comfortable.

Something had to be done, clearly. And something was done. Well, something was thought about being done. Thought about being doing? Thought about having been done? Thoughten-on been doing-ton? Stupid verb tenses. I will consult Dr. Streetmentioner’s book later, but the point is: at some point on a continuum I will not attempt to distinguish with any more specificity, I had a thought about what to do with the problem of all my unused brainpower.

The original plan was to spend my entire prolonged period of not-working-ness just reading books, watching movies, and playing video games. This strategy lasted almost two days before I realized that there was a limit to even how much time -I- could spend in front of a television and, prior to my back surgery a couple weeks ago, sitting in a position required for long stretches of reading was incredibly painful. So that plan wasn’t going to fly in any long-term sort of way.

Around about 10PM on the third day I had this mental conversation with myself:

“I could take this time to learn how to play the piano.”

You already know how to play the piano.

“I knew how to play the piano when I was a kid.”

You still know.

“I haven’t touched a piano in almost 20 years. It’s not like riding a bicycle.”

Sure it is.

“Remember what happened the last time I tried to ride a bicycle? I almost put myself through the windshield of Kenny’s dad’s ’68 Bel Air, and that car was still in the garage.”

Come on, that was ages ago.

“It was September.”

Come on. I bet you can still play the Sonata Pathetique.

“I assure you I cannot.”

Sure you can, slugger! Go try it now. I bet it comes right back.

I went to our piano and proceeded to remember exactly 2/3s of the first chord of the adagio and not one other note from the entire 17-minute piece, after which I took that specific part of my brain and bludgeoned it to death with a metronome.

How, then, was I going to fill all this time I now found myself with? If my brain sat unused much longer it was going to start doing things on its own, and when you consider that one of the few projects I completed my first time through college was a semester-long seminar paper on the production of chemical and biological weapons, my brain’s version of idle noodling could result in a number of major treaty violations.

Then it hit me: I had just started watching Good Eats on the Food Network. Why didn’t I take all this copious free time (and far more dangerous free brainpower) and spend it learning to cook? Like, REALLY cook?

I started cooking for myself in high school and the things I have made since have met the barest conditions of edibility, I suppose – no one ever died from anything I made, no one that I am aware of at least – but I couldn’t really COOK per se. I could follow a recipe and not set a kitchen on fire (the latter is no longer true), but that’s not the same thing. We’re talking about COOKING with a capital C (and, apparently, capital everything else as well).

It also helps that Alton Brown’s cooking philosophy hits a deep groove in my brain. Most cooking shows are just food porn, but Good Eats is basically a science show that happens to be about food. “Cooking magic?” Fuck that noise. Maillard Reaction? Now you’re speaking my language.

(Good Eats is, in fact, on in the background while I’m writing this.)

So I started devouring watching Good Eats with reckless abandon (great gods what a terrible pun that would have been had it escaped). Unfortunately this wasn’t really helping. For killing time just watching Good Eats for hours at a stretch is fantastic, but in terms of actual practicable learning it’s far too scattershot a method to be useful. Change of plans, then: try learning one thing at a time.

My original thought had been that I would quite literally only cook one thing repeatedly until completely mastered. This plan went by the wayside when I made the I think not-unreasonable decision to start learning with the first episode of Good Eats, which happens to be about steak. I wanted to learn, yes, but I wasn’t about to just keep buying and cooking steaks over and over again until I got them perfect. Aside from the fact that steak isn’t exactly the cheapest food in the world, I am fairly certain that much red meat in succession would be fatal. Deliciously fatal, yes, but I’m not sure any modifier really makes “fatal” any better.

I still decided to start field testing with steak, though, which brings us to the crux of the matter at hand:

Being, as I am, a person who gets a little weird about some things makes cooking much more of an adventure than it needs to be sometimes.

Take, then, my first attempt at actual cookery: steaks. I had all the equipment required for this particular application; in this case that meant a cast-iron skillet, which has a dreadful cure and should really be replaced, and an oven, whose controls are so extraordinarily fucked-up that it should not be replaced so much as I am seriously considering inventing time travel so that I might go back and murder the person at the Kenmore plant who assembled it to prevent me from ever having to attempt to cook food in it. It’s one thing for an oven dial to be off by 50 degrees, that’s fine, but for anything past “on” my oven dial is a schizophrenic crapshoot – making anything in it requires adding an extra half hour or so to cooking times while I swing the dial back and forth every 5 minutes trying to figure out what position on said dial will make the oven stay at 350.

(It has not, to date, ever been the same thing twice.)

I had, as Alton Brown would say, the hardware, but I needed the software: the actual steak. This, I determined, would be obtained at my friendly neighborhood Pathmark.

When I walked up to the meat cooler I immediately regretted not just going to the butcher up the street and saying “give me a 3/4″ ribeye,” because once I saw the approximately 4,000 different steaks available I was paralyzed by choice. Latent perfectionists in the audience will recognize this feeling instantly, that depressing notion that when presented with an array of options too vast to count you must pick the ONE PERFECT ITEM amongst the innumerable hordes.

I stood there in front of the cooler, looking at something like 300 square feet of steak, and quietly said, “fuck.”

I started looking at the steaks. This took longer than you might think. Because in addition to the things I had learned about how to buy a steak – color, evenness of cut, marbling, etc etc – all the steaks available had those handy little price tags on them that listed things like price per pound and sell by dates, so in addition to the soft scores of color and cut I had quantifiable data about freshness and price which needed to be maximized. This required looking at as many different options as possible so as to build up the largest possible data set. This is how I buy food. Normal people walk up and buy the first piece of meat that looks good. I perform a statistical regression in my head.

Eventually I found a New York strip that I deemed to be the perfect combination of good steak and available mathematical data and took it home for my first attempt at serious cooking. This attempt lasted almost 45 seconds before I had a complete freakout. I was all set to go. I had finally gotten the oven to settle at 350 degrees. The skillet was in there heating up. My ingredients – kosher salt, black pepper, canola oil – and my tools – spatula, meat thermometer, pot holders, plates – were neatly placed on the counter and ready to go. I took the steak out of the fridge, placed the package on the counter, stared at it for 45 seconds, and then thought I was going to faint.

Cooking the steak would involve TOUCHING the steak.

This was problematic.

The bad part of my brain, perhaps angry that it was being shoved aside for something so trifling as “learning to prepare sustenance,” had lashed out and convinced the entire place that “touching raw steak” was one of those things that, surprisingly enough, would kill me.

I stood there and realized that if I ever wanted to really cook I was going to have to learn how to make myself do things like touch raw meat, but that first time it flares up trying to beat a compulsion is like trying to stop the Juggernaut. No, I had to get around it. Trick it. I had learned with the Christmas shopping it could be done; it was just a matter of figuring out the right way around.

This led to the following little internal monologue:

“Okay, okay, how do I rub the oil onto the raw steak… hmm… put my hands in ziploc bags? No, too clumsy… latex gloves? I don’t have any, and that’s just stupid… put the steak on a grill fork, pick it up with that, and brush the oil on? That’s even dumber than the latex gloves… oh, okay, I’ll cook the steak first, then touch it… wait, that’s the problem in the first place… I wonder if there’s anything in the cabinets that will help…”

I turned my head to look at the corner cabinet at my 4 o’clock.

I thought, wait a minute.

I looked down at the steak.

I twisted my head back to look at the cabinet.

I looked down at the steak again.

I thought, that couldn’t work, could it?

I took out a knife and carefully Рoh god so very, very carefully so as not to touch anything  Рcut the plastic wrap off the steak and threw it out. I upended the now open package and deposited the steak on a waiting plate. I poured a little bit of canola oil onto the center of the steak.

I twisted my head back around to look at the corner cabinet and started rubbing the oil over the surface of the steak.

I said out loud, “this is really fucking stupid.”

When I thought I had gotten decent coverage over that entire side, I took my hands away and turned back to look at it. Not too bad, actually. A nice, thin coat of oil over the surface of the steak – just like I had learned.

As I sprinkled the salt and pepper on it and prepared to avert my eyes so that I could flip the steak to its other side, I thought of the Army saying my friend Larry once told me: “if it’s stupid and it works, it isn’t stupid.”

I turned to look at the cabinet again, flipped over the steak, fumbled around with my hands trying to grab the bottle of oil, and said, “no, this is still really fucking stupid.”

JLK

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