It’s the big 6-0

Not for me, of course. I’m creeping up there, but I’m not quite there yet.

One of my aunts is turning 60 this week. Way back at her 4th of July party, she said that for her birthday dinner, she wanted ribs – my ribs.

No problem.

Since 60 is a milestone, the “ribs for dinner” rapidly turned into an Event. My mother suggested that the gathering be held at our place, and volunteered to have the food. That is, she volunteered to have me make the food, although she does intend to make the carrot cake that my aunt requested and that was such a hit at the last gathering.

“How many people will be here?” I asked m mother, the wheels turning in my head as I thought about menus.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe 30?”

Right up there with one of our usual gatherings, then.

Sunday is the Superbowl, so we’ll need a menu for that as well. It will be quite a busy weekend.

Planned menu:
Ribs – a given, since they were requested
Shrimp – ditto on the request list
Chicken breasts, for those who don’t eat pork and don’t like seafood
Baked beans
Hummus and crudites or chickpea salad (or both)
Guacamole and chips
Some vegetarian thingie I haven’t figured out yet (although I would like to try a zucchini, red and sweet onion tart with gruyere that’s knocking around in my head but that no one seems to want but me)
Perhaps a soup of some kind, as it will be chilly again this weekend after a couple of days of schizophrenic-like 70-ish degree weather that will follow our mid-20 lows the past couple of days
Maybe some vegetarian spring rolls that I can mass up from the batch I’m making Wednesday for my sister

And about those spring rolls: turns out, just about no one likes rice paper but me, so the last batch were not as excellent as everyone wanted. This evening, while picking up some things, I also picked up some egg roll wrappers, and Wednesday, I’ll be prepping some spring rolls that will be little bundles of lightly fried goodness wrapped around tasty, sauteed vegetables. I’ll also be making a ham/potato/onion/jarlsberg quiche for those of us who enjoy both meat and quiche. This evening, I whipped up another batch of roasted red pepper soup, since the last batch disappeared with a frightening rapidity between my mom and I. Now, if I only had a bunch of red pepper plants churning out tons of red peppers for me….

On Superbowl Sunday, we will also be having more tempura, and I’m considering some lobster tails to throw in with whatever we have left from Saturday. The beauty of this menu is that a lot of it can be made ahead (assuming I can keep family members from picking off tastes over the next couple days), or it doesn’t require a lot of babysitting (toss the slabs of ribs on the smoker and turn them every so often). This makes it much less stressful the day of the event.

Wednesday, in addition to the spring rolls and quiche, I’ll be making a few more loaves of bread (cinnamon-raisin, of course, since that’s what everyone wants around here), maybe some Italian loaves, and maybe something that I’ve not yet tried – focaccia? Been awhile since I had focaccia. Thursday will be sides day: slaw, hummus/salad, beans. The ribs will go into a brine on Friday night, get a rub Saturday morning, and then hit the smoker around noon. I figure by Saturday evening when people start arriving, the only thing left to do will be to throw it all on the tables and tell people to dig in.

At least, I hope it all works out that way. We have a few more servers arriving, which will likely be here Friday afternoon, and since Friday evening we’ll all be out celebrating my little brother’s 21st birthday – another milestone! – Saturday morning will also be for finalizing software setups on those new machines.

What a week(end) this will be.

Ride ’em, cowboy

Flipping channels tonight while waiting for some damn server thing to finish, I stumbled across Cowboy U. Take eight people, put them through the motions of being a cowboy on a working ranch, and one of them gets $25,000 at the end (at least that’s what I think they said). I’m not one for reality television in general, but this one caught me.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

In some cases, perhaps, but not this one: my breakup with PEG is imminent. We’re scheduled for tube removal on February 8th in the afternoon.

It was a little amusing, our visit with the gastro guy. Young guy, friendly, funny. He tugged on the tube, pulled it back and forth (which made me want to smack him, since, you know, it hurts a bit when they do that and then for some time afterward, not to mention it allows more granular tissue to form – the stuff that makes it look like the insides of your gut are trying to escape – which sticks to the gauze dressing and pulls if the gauze rides up too closely to the tube, and which then dries and has to fall off or be cut off, etc.). He tells us that he can probably pull it out right then and there, but it would be painful, a bit barbaric, and pretty messy. The more humane way, he says, is for them to knock me out, send a scope down to snip the balloon, then pull it out and sew me up. Hey, I’m all for that, since that’s how they put it in.

I’m looking forward to it, although I know it will involve some discomfort again when they pump air into me. It will be so very nice not to have to worry about the tube getting tangled, not have to do the daily cleaning rituals to keep things clean, and get rid of the itching around the tube placement – since it’s a wound that’s constantly trying to close, it itches almost all the time, and it’s a bit raw where the flange of the tube rests and rides against my skin.

Of course, this means that any medications I may have to take in the future will have to be crushed and I’ll have to drink them down. Eww.

Going to ground

It isn’t enough to feed a family of four, but it’s a nice snack.

Those were the first handful of sugar snaps pulled off the vines. The collards remain as yet unharvested, but that’s going to happen soon – they’re taking over the line and need to be eaten.

Friday night, my sister decided she wanted to try a new restaurant. I’m not a huge fan of Indian food – although I love naan – but I’m always interested in other cuisines. The rest of us had also already eaten, but since her planned dinner date was a no-go, The Boy and I went with her.

Authentic Indian cuisine. The restaurant was recommended to her by her calculus instructor, who is himself Indian, so we figured it was a good bet.

We started with some sweet corn soup (right) and paneer pakora (left). The latter was homemade cottage cheese, according to the menu.

Since I can’t eat very much at one sitting, and since I’d already had some hearty soup I’d made, I didn’t order anything and opted to just sample whatever the kids ordered. The Boy, who is not a vegetarian, ordered chicken saagwala.

For my sister the vegetarian, the menu was a bonanza of available items. She choose aloo palak (potatoes and spinach). We also ordered some naan (at the right), as they both chose rice to go with their dinners. We had also ordered a sweet lassi (upper left) so they could taste it.

Both look exactly the same due to the spinach in the dishes. I don’t want to say that they didn’t look appetizing, but it’s not as if they were jumping up and down with an “eat me” sign blaring away. Still, everything was tasty, and the kids seemed to enjoy everything. I suspect The Boy was less enamored of the food than my sister, even though he did like the chicken.

Before we went on our Indian excursion, Mom, The Boy, and I had gone to look at a piece of property, just down the road a bit from the original piece of property that we wanted. The agent listing it said there was a “livable doublewide” on the property. Now, we’re not particularly interested in that, and would have it yanked off the land anyway, but when we reached the property, we wondered just how long it had been since the agent had been there, since the structure was in no way “livable”.

The property is just under 3.5 acres and is overgrown. View to the front of the property, toward the road.

Turning around from that same spot, a view of this “livable” trailer.

We started out around 4 PM to go see the property, but by the time we made a long detour around downed power lines on the main road, it was after 5 PM, and the sun was beginning to sink.

Whoever lived on the property last left behind quite a few things. From old Coke bottles that some collector would probably love…

…to some split and cured firewood (which would have been nice to use to start a fire, as it was getting chilly)…

…to an old saw…

…to a camera that would pique the interest of those who collect such things…

…to an old piano that has seen much better days.

I wonder what sort of tunes someone played on this? Finding views like this makes me think about searching out other old, abandoned places and finding out what’s there.

A view into the neighbor’s property. It was a stunner of a day: chilly, with a piercing blue sky settling into dusk.

The light was fading fast, and we needed to work our way back through the overgrowth to see what else could be seen. One thing was apparently a workshop or shed of some sort, overtaken by the brush.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

Always liked Robert Frost. Anyhow, we met up with a guy from the property next door, who heard us talking – a good thing, since he had a pretty high powered rifle on him, and we could hear doves in the air. Since the growth was too severe for us to make our way further back on the property, he kindly invited us to walk down his property to the back end of the property line and cut through the preserve to an entrance on the property at which we were looking. This tree was one whose branches we could see had been used for target practice.

The sun was dropping further from the sky…

…but still illuminated the trail on the preserve for us.

We found parts of the land that had apparently been cleared at some point but which were now tangled with grass and brush.

And were amazed at how brilliant and sharp things were against the sky.

But finally, it was time to go, as the light continued to fade.

It has potential: it’s far enough out to be in the country, but not so far out that people would refuse to visit. It’s large enough to have elbow room for us and from the neighbors, but not so vast that it is unmanageable.

It’s definitely a possibility.

Football Sunday

Hey, did you hear that?

Sunday. Two weeks before the Superbowl. The NFC and AFC Championship games. A good day for some food, family, and friends, alliteratively speaking.

In the wee hours, as I was doing some work, I got a head start on a batch of roasted red pepper soup. By roasting some peppers, of course.

Those got to hang out while I got some sleep, but when I got up, the cooking began in earnest. Finished up the soup…

…made the guacamole so we’d have it by the time the first game started…

…and then started chopping up various vegetables (leeks, red and yellow onions, carrots, celery, garlic)…

…and even more vegetables (cabbage and bok choy)…

…for the spring rolls, some of which would also have shrimp.

I also started some vegetable stock, for my sister the converted vegetarian.

All the spring roll vegetables got a quick saute.

And then a wrap in rice paper.

Shrimp spring roll.

Waiting patiently for dinner.

We also had steamed cauliflower and broccoli.

And mango-mustard glazed chicken.

With the extra sauce from the chicken on the side, cheese sauce made by my sister, and a dipping sauce for the spring rolls (made by yours truly), it was time to eat.

It was also time to watch the very exciting late game, with the Colts and Patriots duking it out. For awhile, it looked like the Pats were headed to another big game, but the Colts pulled it out. We’ll see how they do in two weeks, and if the Bears can make a game of it.

Let there be fried goodness

May I have…

…your attention…



I haven’t eaten tempura in quite a long time – since before I went in for surgery to remove the tumor that had latched on to my tongue. On Friday, I made an offhand remark to my mom and sister that we should have tempura Saturday evening. At home, of course. I’m a huge fan of tempura. When I would go out for sushi, my first course would always be tempura at Yoshi’s: vegetables and shrimp, in a convenient size that would not fill me up to the point where I couldn’t then stuff my face with a few rolls.

These days, I can’t eat as much in one sitting as I used to, no doubt due to that whole eating through a tube thing for a year. Still, I can eat small portions, and tempura is perfect for that.

I decided on a variety of vegetables: fresh green beans, sweet onions, peppers, mushrooms.

Some zucchini.

And sweet potatoes.

There needed to be some protein in there as well, so I added some shrimp.

I’ve never made tempura at home before. I suppose it was always much easier to just go out to eat it. but I have to say that the process is not that difficult (if you handle the batter properly, and have all the mise en place set up), and the rewards are excellent.

The one thing you can’t do when cooking this is walk away. Line up the food, the flour, the batter, the oil, and keep the assembly line going.

The food goes in the oil for a very short time – after all, we’re not frying it to death here.

A quick rest on a rack was all that was needed. We ate it almost as fast as it came out of the oil, with a typical dipping sauce – minus the dashi, which we couldn’t find anywhere in this town. I hear the Internet ordering calling my name for that.

We’ll be doing this again for Superbowl Sunday in a couple of weeks. Interested in some tempura goodness? Drop on by.

Playing catch up

Where does the time go?

A blurry picture of dinner from a few nights ago. Boneless pork loin chops in a mustard-tarragon cream sauce, roasted red potatoes, and baked zucchini and tomatoes.

The tomatoes and zucchini were layered in a dish. This is before any water, salt, pepper, and basil were added. Naked veggies, if you will.

I’m getting rather bummed out about pork, and I’ll tell you why, in the odd event you were wondering: the pork is too lean. Without massive amounts of additions, it doesn’t taste like anything at all these days. I suppose we’ll have to find an alternate source for certain pork products.

The other night, we also ate broccoli from our very own garden.

It was fabulous, steamed simply with a touch of lemon. The only problem? There wasn’t enough of it. We definitely need to grow more broccoli next time around.

And finally, I made marshmallows. The first batch didn’t turn out well at all, so I scrapped it and made a second batch. These turned out quite well indeed, and are infinitely better than store-bought. They’re also almost gone, since yours truly has been dunking them into mugs of hot chocolate.

These were kind of thin, since I wanted them to cure fairly quickly for taste-testing purposes. I’d like to make another batch or two – vanilla and chocolate – and make them thicker now that I know the recipe works.

What else is in the works? To be continued.

The art of waiting

If you are a baker of breads, you know the art of waiting. If there is a preferment, you wait for that. First rise? Wait for that. Second rise? Wait. Proof? Wait. Bake? Wait.

This is not to say that all the waiting time is filled with a zen-like nothingness. There is cleanup after each step, generally, or the next step to prepare for, or something else to get started.

But there is something a bit different about the no-knead bread. Throw the dough together, and then let it go for hours and hours.

Over 24 hours, in my case.

When I finally got around to rescuing the dough from the first (long) rise and then set it out for the second (shorter) rise, over 24 hours had passed since I’d put the dough together. After that short rise, it went into the oven for about an hour, and when removed to a cooling rack, the finished bread began crackling as it cooled, singing like garlic being sauteed in a pan and promising certain delicious things to come.

The crust absolutely cracked when I cut the first slice off the boule after it had cooled sufficiently. The crumb? Wide and airy.

The taste? Somewhere between a traditional loaf and sourdough: not as tangy as a traditional sourdough, but moving in that direction given the long ferment.

Will I make it again? Maybe. There is something to be said for leaving things alone from time to time.

The bread, as it happens, is perfect for soup. While Friday’s menu has been set (and more on that in a bit), Thursday was for soup: cream of butternut squash and apple soup.

It is – as most soups are – simple to prepare. This particular soup has a very short list of ingredients.

I think, though, that I’m not entirely satisfied with this one. The taste is good, but it could use a more defined squash flavor. The next experimental batch will be with roasted squash instead, perhaps drizzled with a touch of maple syrup.

We still ate it, of course. Even the not-as-good-as-I-want stuff is not terribly bad.

Here’s a gratuitous dog picture: Newton has a habit of sleeping while leaning up against things. It doesn’t seem to matter what those things are. Tables, pots, people. Anything will do.

Friday’s menu:

Boneless pork loin chops with a mustard-tarragon cream sauce
Roasted red potatoes with garlic
Baked tomatoes and zucchini

My mom likes the entire thing. My brother thinks tarragon is not good, but will eat whatever I make – and he asked me if I could duplicate Campbell’s chicken corn chowder. My sister, of course, is a vegetarian and will only eat the last two items – and she asked me to duplicate the sauce used by a restaurant on a particular dish so she could use it on her tofu.

It’s like working in a restaurant sometimes. Fussy diners.

Can you dig it?

For years, I would never eat any mollusk. No oysters, no clams, no mussels, not in chowders, none of them fried. It may have been due to the way they looked, or perhaps because their only function seemed to be to filter nasty things through themselves and thus be icky and mucky on the inside.

I got over that, for the most part, and have quite a fondness for clam chowder. Not the tomatoey Manhattan style. No, for me, it can only the calorie-laden, creamy new England style. I still won’t eat oysters, but I do have to try the clam chowder anywhere I go if it’s on the menu.

Over the years, I’ve made clam chowder from scratch several times. Some batches have been rather good. At least one was dreadful, no doubt because the clams themselves were not altogether good.

Monday, the day of my hours-long trip to the dentist to address a couple of cavities – one filled easily, the other not quite so, since it was both a replacement for a cracked filling and deep in the back of my mouth, which, as we all know, I can’t open even two fingers’ width – I decided that since it was turning a little cooler and because it’s been gray and rainy, chowder would be good.

Like most soups, clam chowder is fairly simple to prepare. I knew my sister wouldn’t eat any, and I wasn’t quite sure about The Boy, but I knew that both my mom and I would eat it and picked up three dozen littleneck clams for our batch. They were pretty clean, and after scrubbing went into some sauteed garlic, water, and dry white wine.

The thing to remember about shellfish – and anything else, really – is to avoid overcooking. Shellfish get rubbery and chewy and just aren’t all that much fun to eat if they’re overcooked.

Ours went about seven minutes before they opened. I strained them, reserving the cooking liquid.

Thye were content to hang out while I rinsed out the pot and started the rest of the soup.

I love leeks, but don’t get a chance to cook with them as often as I’d like. I should change that. After all, they’re good in more things than soups, and good with more things than bacon that’s been browned off in a touch of butter.

But what’s a clam chowder without that reserved liquid, cream, some thyme, a dash of salt and pepper, and some small cubed red potatoes? And those clams, of course, pulled from their shells and chopped.

To go with our simple meal, we had bread and some cherry tomatoes, sauteed in a bit of olive oil, and seasoned only with salt and pepper.

After letting the clams warm up again in the chowder, pulling apart some fresh mozz and picking a few leaves of fresh basil from the plant outside, it was time to put it together and call it dinner.

Just in time to watch the Ohio State – Florida game, too.

Delicious. Simple. Two of the finest words that can be put together about a meal.

Dinner for 10…8…7…5…ok, just dinner

“Know what we should have?” I asked. “Spaghetti, with some good meatballs and fresh bread.”

And those around me were in agreement, mostly (I think) because it meant that I was shaking off a bit of the funk in which I had found myself and actually thinking about cooking something.

My sister picked the day: Saturday. This family being what it is, casual invitations went out to other family members and friends, and suddenly there were ten plates to visualize sitting on the table, awaiting whatever came out of the kitchen.

I’d been making bread this week – cinnamon-raisin bread that while quite tasty according to those actually eating it, wasn’t very pretty to look at, in my opinion. Because my sister had requested a loaf for someone else, and because the bread simply doesn’t last very long, I decided to double up and make four instead of the usual two. The flour may be the problem, since it’s almost acting like bread flour instead of the usual all-purpose flour, but I soldiered on, fiddling with the proportions and trying to figure out just why things were not turning out as prettily as they could be. I made all the dough and took it through the first rises on Friday, then stowed it all away in the fridges, as we had to head to the NOC to set up seven servers that had arrived. I planned to roll out the dough on Saturday, put on the cinnamon and raisins, and then give it the final rise before baking it off in the morning. That turned out to be a workable plan.

For the most part, they turned out much better.

Beyond the flour issue, part of the problem may be that it’s been fairly warm here – as I type this, it’s 82 degrees outside. Since the dough has a fair bit of butter in it, and because it’s a moist dough to start, even the short handling time from the fridge to the loaf pan after it’s been rolled out and rolled up leaves me with tacky dough, and this may contribute to the issue. Unfortunately, I have no way to keep the dough chilled during the rolling process. The loaf at the bottom of the photo was the worst of it, with the dough separating terribly during baking. The others were not quite as bad (looking) this time around. The mini loaf, made from the trimmings of the larger loaves, is mine: no raisins in there. There is something about warm raisins that is unappetizing to me.

While that round of baking was going on, I put together the biga for the Italian loaves that would go with our spaghetti. While you can refrigerate the biga overnight to help build the flavor, the bread can also be made with a much shorter fermentation period. In our case, I let the biga go for about four hours before putting the entire dough together and letting it rise. For this bread, because of the problems I’ve been having with the cinnamon bread, the biga was made with the all-purpose flour, but the rest of the dough was made with bread flour (Kind Arthur unbleached). This dough isn’t quite as moist as the cinnamon bread, of course, but it does have some olive oil in it, and after rising, punching down, forming into batards, rising, slashing, and baking, it turned out to be a very well-behaved dough after all. It is also delicious.

With all that rising was going on, we needed something else to do. So we made sauce. We, in this sense, means my sister, who decided she wanted to make the sauce, but didn’t know how. So we told her: simplicity itself. A few cans of whole, peeled tomatoes, squished, with the liquid. A couple cans of tomato paste. Fresh basil. Salt, pepper, some finely diced onion, a dash of baking soda, a pinch of sugar, a bit of oregano, some parsley. After reducing for about three hours, it was ready.

Since I had suggested meatballs, I got to make them. My sister had called me from the store Friday afternoon, balking at having to buy veal.

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to buy veal,” she said.

Now, I knew this was not because they had none at the store. In fact, I’m often amazed that in this area, they carry it at all, but they do. Rather, it was because of late she has been eating no meat at all – although she had no issues picking up the ground beef and ground pork that would also be in the meatballs – and got to thinking about the cute little calves.

I told her to forget about it, and that I’d pick it up, but not only did she bring some to me, she also had to request that they grind some, as they had no ground veal out. Victory for me, progress for her.

Beef, pork, veal, spices + formed and chilled + fried = meatballs.

I generally ask other people to taste test things, because my own sense of taste is rather suspect these days. My brother, whom I asked to taste test a small bit fried up before the final shaping and chilling of the meatballs, said, “it tastes like meat fried in oil.” I had also tried a small bit, and could taste, at the very edges, a hint of basil and black pepper. I adjusted the seasonings, fried a small bit again, and had him taste again. “It tastes the same,” he said. Even with my issues, I could tell that it was not the same. The flavors of the meat blended with garlic, basil, pepper, a pinch of oregano, a touch of onion powder, and a sprinkle of salt? A perfect complement to the sauce.

My sister, not wanting to be left out, wanted tofu “meatballs” as I had made on a previous dinner night. “How do you make them?” she asked. Well, it’s almost the same way you make the real thing, except in the tofu version, I add some parm, too, as this helps keep the things together. She wanted paprika, too, so that went in as well. the last little spoonful of the tofu made the perfect mini-meatball.

These only needed to be warmed through, of course, and we didn’t make as many of these as we did the real thing because most of us are carnivores around here.

With everything done, it was time to make some garlic bread using the loaves I’d made.


Before going under the broiler: butter, garlic, paprika, parm.

After coming out. The butter had soaked its way into each slice, the parm had melted/hardened off nicely, and the garlic was not terribly overpowering. The crust, already fairly crisp from the baking, had a wonderful, crisp snap, and when broken, a small shower of crumbs fell to the plate.

The boys like bread. A lot. They happily eat the cinnamon bread, the italian loaf, the garlic bread.

My sister can’t mix her foods.

After all was said and done, we wound up with three for dinner: myself, my mom, and my sister. We packed some leftovers off to my other (sick) sister and her boyfriend. The rest? Into the fridge or freezer, to be savored on another day.