Sunday, March 12, 2017

Corned Beef, Green Glasses and Smiling Eyes...

My cheap reading glassed broke, again, and I decided it was time to step it up and spend over $20 on a real pair.  So, I strode purposefully into the local Bi-Mart to make an investment.  The rotating eyeglass carousels stood sentinel at the end of the pharmacy aisles and no less than Brooke Shields beckoned me to try her Foster Grants.  Wow, if she's advertising reading glasses, I thought, then they must be not only fashionable, but, classically alluring, just like her.  After trying on several pairs, the right fit and magnification were found and I proceeded to the check out stand wondering which checker would greet me; the one with the smoker's cough that calls me "Hun" or the hipster with purple hair and bangs... most discount stores, Bi-Mart prides itself on going over-board with seasonal and holiday kitch, and the approach of St. Patrick's Day was particularly well-proclaimed with all things green.  What other holiday boasts anything similar to stacks of green plastic derbys, light-up over sized eye glasses, bow ties, shirts, red beards, strands of shamrock necklaces and signage with Gaelic greetings?!  Nobody knows where this comes from, I thought, it's origins or meaning, but, we embrace it like Super Bowl Sunday.  You don't even have to be Irish, but, everybody celebrates St. Patrick's Day with a child like spirit and smiling eyes.  Got me to thinking about the Kid's Parade and corned beef for the coming week...

Waking to the aroma of allspice, coriander, bay leaf and mustard seed on the morning of March 17th is like an extra quilt on your bed in winter; comforting, warm and enveloping.  I lay there thinking this is the way to wake every day!   OK, maybe an exaggeration, but, you get the idea; corned beef feeds the body and nourishes the soul.  It's salty, exotically spiced, tender when done right (and we'll get to that...) and a real treat, like roast turkey that we should be preparing more often.  Sure, it's special, but, is it a sin to have corned beef or roast turkey more than one day per year?!  Hay-uhl No!
Let's get on this ASAP, so, we are ready to give our families and friends a "friggin' BRILL-yunt" meal this Friday.
Disclaimer: for practicing Catholics, I know it's Lent, but, either do it the day before or the day after, since Fridays are meatless.  Better yet, see if you can get a dispensation from your parish priest...

Perfect Corned Beef Brisket

I like to use a Brisket for this; it has a great fat content, wonderful grain to the meat and is very forgiving.  Do NOT use a Top's textureless, fatless protein devoid of character that turns into salty sawdust. Just sayin'...
Now, can you ever have too much corned beef?  No way!  All your left-overs (and you want some) will get cooled and placed in quart sized, ziploc freezer bags for hash or reuben sandwiches later on. In supermarkets, they usually have the briskets cut into sections and cryovaced with the spices in a minuscule packet or the spices are already dispersed in the bag.  Either way, if you get one with the miserly spice packet, bump it with 2 Tablespoons of Pickling Spice.  The house will smell GREAT!
Place your brisket in a covered pot, like a turkey roaster or smaller.  Bring the water level up to 1/3 the height of the meat, cover and place in a 250 degree oven at 10:30 at night, right after the late news.  Give it a smile and a peck on the lid as you slide it in for a low 'n slow braise.
The next morning, rain or shine, prepare to be lifted to glorious heights as you stumble down the hall towards the kitchen, following an aroma that intensifies the closer you get.
Remove the brisket from the pan to a cookie sheet to cool for a 1/2 hour.  Slice the meat against the grain; if you see long strands of meat in your slice, rotate the meat 90 degrees and slice again.  Long strands are difficult to chew.
What to serve with this this gorgeous creation?  Steamed red potatoes with Kerrygold Irish butter, cabbage cut into wedges and a spoonful of whole grain mustard with a sprinkle of chopped parsley for color.  Place quartered potatoes and cabbage in a covered pot, add 1/4 the way up with water, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer on the stovetop.  Steam till fork tender.

Friday, March 17th: I can't wait to see my little Siobhan (Gaelic for Joan), chubby cheeks and smiling Irish eyes, looking through green twinkly glasses at a steaming plate of her Daddy's Corned Beef and Cabbage with 'Preities.'
I may share a sip of Guinness with her, too!

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life aren't Things!"


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Crummy Food

Crumbs get a bum rap.
When something is lousy it's referred to as 'crummy.'
Instead of cussing, old folks will sometimes say, "Oh, Crumb!"
Meager portions of food, minuscule allotments of affection and miserly generosity all use 'crumb' as a synonym.
Enough already!
There IS a positive connotation to this word and it needs to be shouted from the mountain tops, in every village and hamlet, in every kitchen and cafeteria.  For where would we be without crumbs?

Goodbye Crabcakes...
So long Oven Fried Chicken...
Later dates Mac and Cheese...
Arrivederci Chicken Parmesan...

It could be the culinary version of a post-Apocalyptic world; those with bread crumbs would dine well and culture would survive.
Those without would revert to meat on sticks and no napkins.
Here's an example of the power of crumbs.  The maintaining culture part is still a work in progress...

"Dude, this salmon is off the flippin' HOOK!  Who MADE this?!"  Liam was just in from a late night run and was doing his usual 'dining in three different spots' kitchen routine: beverage station at the Bullet shake blender, veggies in a mixing bowl by the sink and protein-in-a-pan on the stove top. He'll eat one thing for a few bites, then shift to another station, graze, then complete the circuit a couple of more times until everything has been consumed.
"I mean it's so moist, but still crunchy on the outside.  And what's this stuff on top?  It's perfect!  Green onions and lime juice?"  If something is really delicious for him, he'll kind of breathe/groan/growl as he's eating.

"Yeah, Mom made the Salmon with panko bread crumbs," I followed, "and topped it with green onions sauted in butter and finished with fresh lime juice, just a squeeze.  She didn't bake the salmon, it was sauted which crisped-up the crumb coating.  Pretty sweet, huh?"

"Hell yeah!" he replied, pulling his head from under the kitchen sink faucet and wiping his mouth with his arm, "Mom's got skills."
Liam let out a burp and began cleaning up his counter-top debris field.
"Why'zit so good, Dad?  I mean this is so simple, not a lot of fancy ingredients, but, this salmon has it all."

I went on to tell him of our human taste for fats, most peoples love of texture and that a thin line separates success from failure.  Bread crumbs were one of those tools in the magic cook's box that bring a dish from a solid 'B' to an 'A+.'  These wonderfully plain morsels work as a barrier to protect the texture of say, a fish filet, keeping the juices in and eventually satisfying your palate.  Bread crumbs can take on a seasoning profile, too, when added as a condiment, like a topping on a casserole. The lightly browned layer of crumbs on a Mac and Cheese dish tells me I love it already!  And Oven-Fried Chicken?  Other than the birth of our four children and maybe the Sistine Chapel, nothing is more moving than a cookie sheet clustered with chicken thighs, skin coated with toasty, seasoned bread crumbs right out of the oven.  You want to just take in the beauty, like standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, but, this art was meant to be eaten with passion and in good company. 

And for those souls that watch their fat intake, but, still love 'fried foods,' bread crumbs have zero oil! Oven-baking requires no oil and these little, mini-sponges absorb all the liquid from the chicken, fish or vegetables that you've coated; a cardigan of flavor!  (Wait, that sounded kinda weird...I don't even get that...sounds like a Jim Gaffigan comment...I should delete that...).  OK, I'm going to conclude...

Now, I suggest either getting Panko Japanese bread crumbs that you can season to your delight or buy a cylinder of Progresso Seasoned bread crumbs.  The Panko is more coarse and completely plain, while the Progresso is very fine and blended with dried herbs and what-not.  Hell, get 'em both and do a side-by-side!  That'd be kinda neat actually...present them to family and get feed back; who likes which and why?
Be sure that the food you are coating is damp enough to have the crumbs stick to them; I like a little egg/milk mixture for good adhesion (1/2 cup milk with 2 eggs, beaten).  Put the crumbs in a mixing bowl and pat the crumbs onto the protein or veggies after dipping them in the milk/egg mixture.

When I hear an older person say something is crummy and frown, I can't help but close my eyes and smile; the aroma of crispy chicken thighs filling my memory, resting on a pan with two boys, one old and one young, pointing to which they'll eat first and why!

Make some Crummy Food today and create a memory for the week!

Take care, God bless and remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends; 
the Best Things in Life aren't Things!"


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Cooking IS Diversity...

"Best sauce ever this year, Mr. Quinn!"

Huh?  I was running up the stairwell at St. Agatha's School on Monday with my 4th grade daughter trying to beat the second bell.  A mom was at the bottom of the stairwell waving at me with enthusiasm generally reserved for your own child's send off.

"It was really, REALLY good this year, thank you SO MUCH!!!"  Her grin was now beyond her jawline, cheeks pinching her eyes, all 32 teeth present, still waving like she was signaling an aircraft for rescue.
"Umm, thanks and uh...thanks for coming! " I puffed at the top, rushing to Mrs. Johnson's classroom door.  We made it.

Three of us 'made it' on Saturday, too: 150 lbs of Italian sausage and 20 gallons of Tomato Sauce with toasted fennel and balsamic vinegar.  All created by a chef of Irish heritage, a naturopath from Santa Cruz and a guy named Dominic from the Phillipines for our annual Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinner held on the third Sunday of each October.

Funny, as we become more 'convenienced' as a culture, we have less time to give to one another. Years ago, we'd have 10 or 12 guys in the kitchen, drinking wine and eating fresh sausage at 11:00 in the morning.  Times change and, I suppose, we deal.

The lads arrived as scheduled and we assigned tasks; the first thing to do was to cut up the mire poix, the veggies for the sauce.  Pat and Dom set up their cutting boards and began dicing onions, celery and carrots while conversation began...

..."So, BQ, whaddya been up to?  How's the fam?  Do anything fun this summer?" Patrick asked.  The guy is a workhorse and has lent his hands to many projects in the kitchen for the few years they have been at the school.  His wife, also a naturopath, is an organizing machine at the annual school auction.

"Well, the highlight I guess, was that my college-bound son Brendan and I did a complete tear off of our roof and re-shingled in a week.  That was a bee-otch in 85-90 degree weather.  Good thing was I lost 8 pounds in 7 days!  Told Brendan it was part of a family duty to assist, but, I kicked him 5 Benjamins when we dropped him off at Oregon State in August.  Shoulda seen his smile!
We hired a couple amigos from the day labor pool for the tear off which was the toughest part.  Brendan swears he'll never do that again..."

"Oh, sweeeet dude..." he laughed, "Dominic, how 'bout you?  Anything fun this summer?"

Dom is a quiet guy, early 30s and all business.  I see him at drop off in the morning with his kids and the man is always dressed to the nines; even has those dress shoes that kinda turn up at the toe.  Shirt and tie, suit or sport coat, not a hair outta place.

"We took the kids to Disneyland...." he stated and continued dicing, head down and focused, "Brian, is this the right size for dice?"  he asked.
"Perfect," I confirmed.
We waited for follow-up details, but, none were forthcoming.  He wasn't angry or sad, he just doesn't say alot.

"Pat, how 'bout you...anything special?"  Younger parents live much more adventuresome lives and I knew there was a story waiting to be told...

"Dude!  I went on a SURF trip to indo-NESIA!"  he beamed, "been saving for a long time and Leanne said it was time for me to do it, so, I met a buddy in Sinapore and we just traaaa-vuhlled, ate a-MAZ-ing food and surfed all these spots I've dreeeeamed of..."  Patrick's 'surf-speak' accent really comes out when he's talking about waves and breaks. 

"Shut-the-front-door!"  I exclaimed, "that musta been a helluva trip!?"

Pat went on to describe his dude-venture when Dominic chimed in,

"I like Indonesia...been there a few times.  Very orderly..."

His family are all in the Philippines and suddenly, he and Patrick are exchanging impressions of shared places, food and weather of the South Pacific...mostly food.

"Brian, you kinda pissed off my wife that time," Dom offered looking up from his diced celery, "you know when she said she would make lumpia for you and then she didn't see you at drop off for a week..."

Ohhh, busted.  The Student becomes the Master...Ethel's Lumpia (little fried egg rolls) are delicious and to be offered a dozen from the family coffers is a great honor, as any Philipina woman worth her fish sauce keeps her freezer stocked at all times.  

"Yeah, ummm...seemed like I was in and out all week and our paths never crossed.  They didn't go bad, did they?"

Dominic looked up from his cutting board, grinned and an confirmed that lumpia never go bad; they get eaten. 

Pat started bustin' up, "Dude, he's breakin' your cajones!  Nice to see you took it seriously and twisted in the wind...Hah-HAH!"  The boys fist bumped from across the table, grinning and nodding. 

Good to see the lads having a laugh at my expense, keeps things on an even keel. 

I had the meat cut into strips within the next 30 minutes, spices measured and casings rinsed.  The guys were saute'ing veggies in bacon fat and adding the minced garlic, commenting on doneness and asking when to add the tomatoes.  Once tomatoes were added, we reduced the flame to medium and diverted our attention to sausage stuffing. 

"So, what ex-ACTLY are the casings, Brian,"  Patrick asked.  When you tell people 'hog intestines' they have two very distinct reactions; one is revulsion, the other kind of matter-of-fact.  Pat wasn't phased and just said, "Sweeeeeet!  It's like everything gets used..."

"In the Philippines, they say you must use everything on a pig but the 'Oink'.  Only we don't say 'Oink.'"

The boys watched me do the first batch, explaining the finer points of running a commercial meat grinder and passing the mixture back through in the casing attachment.  Of course, Quality Control is exercised at every critical point (when we're hungry); Pat and Dom were impressed with our efforts and a quick rinse of red wine confirmed our good spirits. 

"Duuuude!  This is SO a-MAZ-ing!"  Patrick said, "and it's SO easy to do!" (fist bump).

"Meatloaf in a tube..." I replied, "if you can make meatloaf, you can make sausage."

The guys proceeded to knock out 100 lbs of cased Italian sausage, stirring 20 gallons of sauce while I did a clean-up and organized for the following day.  This was kinda nice, actually; having the students run the show and my being able to step back in a supporting role. 

"So, Brian, we can't be here tomorrow for service but, I hope we did OK in helping out..." Pat stated as we wiped down counters and put chef knives away, "it's always fun to work with you in the kitchen...I learn things..."

"Right!"  I said, "I learned that 3 guys who are focused can do more than 10 men wandering around.  This was GREAT today!  We're ready for 300 guests tomorrow." 

"Ummm, Brian,"  Dominic queried, "what about the noodles?  We didn't cook the noodles.  There's 60 lbs stacked up in those boxes over there..."

"Shit!..." I murmured, "a minor detail...I'll tackle it early in the morning."

"Yeah," concluded Dominic, "kinda need spaghetti for the spaghetti dinner..."

Pat chuckled, Dominic smiled, they fist-bumped for the last time that day.

Take care, God bless and remember,
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life aren't Things!"

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Cooking, Shooting and Hitting Your Mark


"Nice," I said to myself, "these reloads are right on."
It was an early Saturday morning which typically finds me at one of my 'happy spots':  the gun range. The sun was beginning to turn the overnight dew to a light vapor; rising above the grasses of the 300 yard rifle range.  Robins and the occasional squirrel taunted me to challenge the crosshairs of my Leupold 24 power scope.  The little boy in me said 'do it', the dad in me said, 'that's against range rules.'  Dad won out...this time.

I started reloading my own rifle and handgun cartridges for fun and some savings.  I also found that the more I reloaded, the more I took target practice.  The exercises were complimentary.  My aim is becoming better;  trigger pull, breathing, grip and sight picture all becoming more scrutinized and corrected.  How else can you put a bullet the diameter of a pencil eraser on a 4" metal plate 250 yards away?  The rifle caliber, .220 Swift, pushes that bullet out of the barrel at 5500 mph.  Yes, it is a racehorse!

Yet, with a precision scope, a fast bullet and a trigger that breaks like a glass rod, I can still miss a coyote at 150 yards!  Why?  Too excited, taking things for granted, rushing the shot, not following my training...

...Came home the other night and had a meal planned out already.  Walking through the door at 6:00 doesn't leave much time for a chicken to roast, so, had the veggies, meat and rice lined up for a quick stir-fry. It's one of those wonderful methods, too, to clean out the crisper section of the fridge and empty those bits of remnant protein in plates and bowls, cluttering the shelves.

"Daddyyyyyy...when's dinner ready?"  Siobhan was in the cat-like whining mode, tucking her head under my left arm while I stood at the stove shaking a saute' pan.
"Soon, baby girl, soon," I whispered, bending over, brushing her hair back and kissing her forehead.
She put her arm around my waist and said,

"DADDY! I need a BIG HUG from you!" in a pouting, Shirley Temple voice.

If you ever want to see me melt like butter left out on a summer grill station, have my daughter give me a squeeze.  Spun the handle of the pan away from me, growled like a bear, bent over and slid my hands under her outstretched and raised arms.  I rubbed her back like she likes and concluded with a smack on the rumpy.  She giggled, told me to stop and kissed me on the cheek.

"Can you go get Brendan downstairs and tell him dinner's ready?"  I asked her, "and then set the table, please."
"Brendan's not home from work yet, Mom says he'll be home in a few minutes...," she informed me.

Crap, I thought, these beautiful sugar snap peas aren't going to last forever; they have about a 4 minute window of goodness.  The sweet peppers and onions will hang pretty tough and the carrots will become a little softer than I like, but, what the hell, we're not all here.  So, I put a lid on the pan and waited for the fourth member of the household to return from work.

When we finally sat down for dinner after an excruciating 20 minutes passed, my once proud and vibrant stir-fry vegetables more closely resembled a color palate for camouflage hunting gear.  The vivid greens had faded to an olive drab, the sauce had permeated the meal, wiping away the contrasting colors and leaving everything in a dull, brown cast.  I needed to save this meal somehow... kicked into gear!  An old Alsatian cooking instructor drilled into us the phrase,
"Yew eet wiz yorrr eyezz firrrstt!"  With that maxim resonating in the back of my head, I reached for green onions and an orange.  The onions were a fine dice in 9 seconds, the outer peel of the orange was zested into fine threads of citrus fragrance.

Layed the plates on kitchen counter, cut a wedge of sticky white rice from the steamer and folded it onto center-plate.  Over that, I draped the stir-fry and followed with a substantial garnish of dark green onions and the fine orange zest.   Pulled the pin on a squeeze bottle of Hoisin sauce for a light drizzle over the top.

Passable, I thought.

All gathered at the table, napkins placed on laps and a blessing was said.

"Smells good, dad..."
"Just bit into some fresh ginger and it cleared my sinuses!" all worked out and good eats make happy peeps.

So, I thought, you don't have to hit the bullseye every time to be successful; you can be in the 9-ring or 8-ring of a paper target and find great satisfaction.

Just because you have a Wolf range, convection oven and a shelf of books, there's no guarantee that it'll be spot-on each time.  Seldom is it and that's OK!  Our success is not defined by perfection; it's measured in smiles, laughter, and the occasional compliment shared at table with each other.
Hell, whether you're taking aim at 300 yards or walking in the door at 6:00 p.m., everyone will be impressed that you hit your plate!

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends; 
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Cooking the Best Corned Beef? Do it Twice!

D'ya ever start a project with more than a little apprehension?  An electrical outlet in the garage, the leaking kitchen sink or a vegetable garden have your pulse quickening and blood pressure on the rise?  Some folks have that anxiety with cooking, but, even good cooks get the willies when a Corned Beef dinner looms on the March horizon.

"I've got 16 days to figure this out...I don't want polite thanks from adults and wrinkled noses from the kids this year."

Lousy corned beef is like dry turkey at Thanksgiving: an annual rite of passage that for odd reasons becomes an American tradition.  At the end of the meal people will entertain thoughts similar to those in recovery rooms after root canals, colonoscopies and child birth.

"Phew, glad that's done!"
"I vow to live better, so, I won't have to do THAT again!"
"Maybe if we don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day, we won't have to eat this."
"I'd like a drink right now..."


Well, I have a simple and easy fix to the Corned Beef Blues: Cook it Twice.  Hear me out, been doing this for years and each year get a raft of compliments from diners young and old.
"Quinn!  I hated corned beef till I had yours..."
"How'dja get it so tender?"
"Everything was perfectly done; what's the secret?"

Two phrases I use:

1)  Low and Slow is the Way to Go
2)  Divide and Conquer

Ready to Conquer?  Let's DO this!

Corned beef is from the brisket usually.  It is a tough cut that requires extended cooking time to become tender.  Boiling water only gets 212 degrees and will never get hotter.
Boiling is OUT!!!

Braising, placing protein in a covered cooking vessel in an oven, causes a steam environment which is much hotter than 212 degrees and will actually break down those tough muscle tissues.  So, take your corned beef brisket, place it in a pan that is taller than the meat; a deep pan.  Bring the water level up to 1/3 the height of the meat; don't submerse the meat.  Then we'd be back to the 'boiling' method. Not good.
I use heavy duty aluminum foil to cover the pan and seal it tightly without letting the foil touch the meat.  The salt from the meat will burn a hole in the foil, break the 'steam seal' and lower your cooking temp in the pot.  Water will evaporate through the hole and well, now, you're roasting meat.

Put it in at 10:00 at night right before bed at 250 degrees and give the oven door a kiss goodnight.

Wake at 6:00 a.m.

What the heck?!  House smells great, I'm ready for dinner and in my bathrobe still.

Remove corned beef from oven and poke with a knife to check doneness (it's done).  Transfer with a spatula to a cookie sheet and let cool on a counter for an hour.  Place in the fridge to chill till dinner.

Steam quartered red potatoes and sliced cabbage separately to fork tender at dinner; both should take no more than 30 minutes.  Again, place each in it's own covered pot on the stove, filled 1/2 way with water.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let 'er go.

While these guys are steaming, remove the chilled corned beef to a cutting board.  Cut against the grain of the meat into slabs for serving.  'Shingle' them on a cookie sheet and return to a 350 oven for 20 minutes to heat up, render a little fat, and get crispy on the edges.

Assemble on a large platter or dish up from the kitchen and garnish with finely chopped, fresh parsley.  Salted butter for the potatoes, malt vinegar splash for the cabbage and stone ground mustard for the corned beef.

You'll be a rock star!
U-2 can succeed at Corned Beef and Cabbage this year.

Take care, God bless and Remember,
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things."


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Raising Kids, Making Cooks and Developing Men

"So, whaddya think I should make 'er?"
"I dunno, whadduz she like?"

It was a Sunday morning and my youngest boy, Brendan, a high school senior, was wondering what to cook for his girlfriend of 2 1/2 years for her 18th birthday.
Actually, it was 'Birthday Week,' ya know with trumpet fanfare beginning a full seven days before commemoration of the blessed nativity.  It's what happens when you're the oldest of two children, the only girl and drive a Mercedes that you were given on your 16th birthday...

"Well, what does she like?  I mean, don't go into experimental mode on a very important evening.  Go with a tried and true success,"  I suggested, as Brendan ate a tortilla wrapped something, in sweat pants, pillow head, bare-chested and sucking water out of the kitchen sink faucet like he had just completed a trek across the Sahara.
I keep thinking that there's money to be made in reality entertainment using high school boys and their living habits.  It's 'Pre-Frat House' and primordial in nature.  They seem to be, no, they ARE unfazed by any semblance of modesty, civility and decorum.

"UUHH-gggroowww-UHHH!" he belches.
"That's really disgusting," I add, "what did that taste like?  Flamin' Doritos or 7-11 Grillerz?!"
He giggled over his dark-framed glasses, then, hawked a huge lugey into the sink...
"You are foul..." I concluded, as Brendan laughed, raised his right leg and let one rip on cue.

The more you recognize the invalid nature of said progeny, the more entertaining it is to them; they're getting your goat and relishing every second.
Brendan gets the biggest kick out of listening to me chastise his every waking moment from the time he walks up the stairs to the time he wipes his mouth on his arm after the morning feeding.

Both of us are messing with each other and we have a good laugh.  Comedy in our home is like currency; it makes things happen and keeps everything fluid.

"Seriously, what does she like, think of something special that you would like to do?" I ask.
"Well, she likes Pepperoni Pizza..."
"OK, how about a Calzone with Kalamata  Olives, Garden Tomatoes and Fresh Basil?"  I offer, "a pizza that is folded over and is an individual package for the diner; kinda like a Wellington or a 'Salmon en Croute.'
"Huh...?" he queries
"Forget it, let's do this.  It's a Personal Pan Pizza that YOU made!  She'll luv ya fer-ever!"
"She doesn't like Basil..." he sheepishly offered.
"What?!" said Liam passing through the kitchen, "She doesn't like fresh basil?  You gotta DUMP this chick...that's total BULL-shit, man..."
"Liam, shut the f..." Brendan responded, stepping into his brother.
"Hey! Watch the LANG-guage!" I boomed, "Your mother and sister are right around the corner."
Once separated, the boys chuckled and Brendan and I went back on task.

We made a menu, scratched out a shopping list, funded the project and off he went to the store.  Upon return, Brendan actually started looking 'big picture.'  He asked for table linens, silverware and stemware.
He consulted with Mom and found an off-white table cloth with a smaller, scarlet cloth to diamond on top.
Napkins were sourced and I showed him how to fold a stand-up triangle like in restaurants.  Sparkling water was the beverage of choice and a few stems from my wine tasting classes were used for the table.
"I need an appetizer on the table when she gets here," he concluded, then proceeded to create a cheese, bread and sliced apple/pear platter on a piece of his great-grandmother's Desert Rose china.

Nice touch and again, forward thinking to have an attractive dish at the ready when Her Highness arrives.
Votive candles were centered, Pandora was set on 'Sinatra' and the lights dimmed.

Brendan went back to the kitchen, assembled the Calzone, folded it gently into a half-moon, pinched the edges and brushed with an egg wash allowing it to rise for a half-hour.

"GF" arrived in leggings, Birkenstocks and a jersey; pin-straight hair pulled back at the sides in a '70s throwback style.  Funny how what was once old is new again.
She can be a bit of a 'sticky wicket' when it comes to food; her tastes run to mostly colorless choices like Pasta Alfredo, skinless chicken breast, bread, bread sticks, quesadillas.  She seemed genuinely impressed with the fruit and cheese tray Brendan had created and went to it immediately as JoJo fired the Calzone.  Mom and I sat in the living room watching TV, fielding quick service questions and listening to the evening progress.  The kids sat down and began their meal...

"So, this one is Humbolt Fog, it's a goat cheese with an ash center and rind.  The part getting somewhat translucent is getting ripe.  This guy is one of my favorites, Delice de Bourgonne.  It's a triple cream that spreads like's SO dang good!"  Our host was explaining the selection and the first course went along swimmingly with much giggling and candid chatting.
"Omygawd, did you hear what he said to Jessa-kaislyn?!  Then I told Mykailie..."

(What the hell's up with kids names these days, anyway?!  Did all these moms conceive at the Mall?
I don't get it...)

Timer went off for the Calzone and like a new Papa, Brendan beamed with pride as he pulled it out of the oven and placed it on the counter to cool.  Ooohs and Ahhhs followed.  The Caesar salad was tossed and sprinkled with freshly grated Romano Pecorino cheese.  A few turns of the pepper mill completed the dish.  The Calzone rose to double size and was enough for four people, so, Brendan cut it into fourths and plated it up.  The kids sat down.

The dining room got quiet as GF focused on her meal and BF waited for comment.
"What's this MU-sic playing?" she asked.
"Oh, it's the Sinatra selection on Pandora," he offered. "Daaaaad!  Who's this singinggggg?!" he yelled from 10 feet away.
"Perrr-yyy Co-Moooo," I echoed back from across the canyon.
"It's Perry Como," he said to his girlfriend,"he was popular in the 50s and 60s.  Kind of Crosby-crooner like.  Do you like it?"
"I guessss...," she laughed, "why do you like it?"

"It's romantic," he whispered, "and that's what I like." He leaned over, gave her a peck on the lips and they giggled again.

Mission Accomplished!


1--12" round pizza dough skin
blend---freshly diced onions, sweet peppers, ham, pepperoni, olives, feta cheese, fresh herbs and whatever else you like on a pizza
1 cup---thick tomato sauce
2 egg yolks with 2 Tbls of water mixed in a coffee cup
pastry brush


Place the uncooked dough skin on a lightly floured pizza pan and with your finger, trace a line down the center.  That is your fold line.  Place your filling on one side of the line, keeping one inch from the perimeter edge.  Brush the one inch edge with egg wash, fold the unfilled side over and pinch the edges to seal, like a pie crust.  Brush the top with the remaining egg wash for a golden color.  Place in a 350 degree oven and bake till done.  Use a spatula to raise the calzone edge to check the underside for a nice dark brown color.  We don't want a soggy bottom!  That can be irritating.
These things grow substantially, so, don't be alarmed.  Bigger is better in this case.

When you cut into it, the steam releases, everyone is drooling and it looks pretty impressive.
Nice work!

That's it, so...
Take care, God bless and remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life aren't Things!"

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Red or Green?

The Boeing 737 slipped out from towering columns of cumulus clouds revealing an almost verdant desert floor.  Mesas and arroyos both were dotted with a spotty green mat that resembled a 'ChiaPet-landscape.'  Unusually constant rainfall this summer affected a lushness not seen in decades.
'New Mexico?' I thought to myself, 'I got on the right plane, didn't I?'

The only thing I ever recall being really green on a regular, seasonal basis in the Land of Enchantment were the chile pods grown from Santa Fe to Las Cruces with names like Big Jim, Sandia and Anaheim.

It had been 25 years since my last visit and the occasion of a first ever high school reunion had me excited to see old friends.  Truth be told, there was some apprehension, anticipation, nervousness and a dose of good old self-doubt.  Travelling into a time-warp is a little scary and three questions haunted me for months ahead of time:

  • How have I changed?
  • How have they changed?
  • Will we still like to be around each other?  
Granted, some of us are a few pounds heavier and greying certainly, but, what about those other friends: plates of enchiladas and huevos rancheros; have they stood the test of time or have they 'evolved' as well...?

The plane's wheels chirped as we touched down and the engines revved as the brakes were applied.
'Red or Green chile,' I pondered, 'What will be my first meal with New Mexico Chile?...will it taste as good as I remember...?'

Food and meals have this spiritual quality about them; our olfactory, the sense of smell and taste, have this unique ability to bring us to a particular spot, a specific instant in time with just a fleeting taste or wisp of aroma. With one bite, we are at a friends house, grandma's table or with a romantic interest.

New Mexico chile at my first Christmas party after moving from California in high school, is in a pot on a back burner at Jean Brackett's house.  She worked for my uncle in the turquoise jewelry business and had our family over one dark, December night.  Her posole was made with red chile, roast pork and hominy corn.  It was brothy and had a thin layer of fat that came together and receded with every slow bubble popping on a delicate simmer.  A ladle hung in the pot and a stack of bowls resided nearby.  This thin stew possessed a rich, mild heat.  The corn was tender and the chunks of pork fell apart with the slightest pressure.  It was perfect and I was hooked!

In college at NMSU in Las Cruces, weekend mornings started late, but, usually consisted of huevos rancheros or stacked enchiladas at some local diner.  Lightly fried corn tortillas were dipped in red chile sauce and layered flat with rice, beans, cheese and either beef or chicken.  Two over easy eggs crowned this feat.  If this didn't cure what ailed you, nothing could save you.  My buddy Ralph, a local Messkin, would pump his folded arm like a chicken and give out a crow when he finished, indicating he was cured and good to go.

The memories and people associated with chile are as vivid today as they were 25 or 35 years ago. My hope was that both people and New Mexico Chile would welcome me and satisfy me as in the past.

"Red or Green?" the lady asked me, as for the type of chile I wanted with my Huevos Rancheros.

"Green,"  I stated with confidence and finality, snapping my menu shut and handing it to her.
High school football buddies, Clark and Dave, took me to this nondescript breakfast hang-out in one of a ga-jillion strip malls to ward off the effects of another night of 2 a.m. bedtimes.

The waitress had high cheek bones and a round, smiling face; her long cheeks crowded her eyes and mouth; pueblo Indian for sure, I thought.  Her name was 'Jana' which was the clincher, since no local Latino would name their child after a white movie star or film character.  Jana must be either Zia, Cochiti or Santo Domingo pueblo Indian, the closest reservations to this part of town.  Regardless, she was as sweet as honey on a fresh sopaipilla, the airy, fried dough pillows served with every meal in New Mexico.   

"Red or Green?" she asked again

"Green," called my buddy Clark for his Huevos Rancheros, slipping his reading glasses off his nose to hang on the fine cord around his neck and onto his chest.  Clark pushed back from the table, crossed his arms and settled back into his seat, ready for another conversation thread.
Clark and I knocked heads at opposing positions in football for three years, yet, remained best of friends.  We drank beer, chased girls, double-dated, shaved our heads one football season in solidarity and even worked the oil rigs of Oklahoma together.  He filmed our wedding in 1990 and that was the last we saw of each other.  A damned shame that will not be repeated.

"Red or Green?" was asked one more time for Huevos Rancheros.

"Red and Green," said Dave

Whoa, whoa, WHOA, I thought to myself.  Has this boy learned something we don't know?  Has Dave entered the cauldron of a volcano and been divined some secret knowledge?  The word is "or" not "and."  Like all great discoverers, he had gone against convention and charted new culinary territory.  Good on ye!

"OK, Christmas for you and Green for you two then?" asked Jana, confirming our order.

"Yep!" in unison.

Our breakfast arrived in little time and I just sat there taking it all in.
"Yes, yes, yes," I thought, "...this is the other reason I came here.  To immerse myself in the healing properties of New Mexico Chile...washing away my sins of ever leaving and entering the domaine of the divine."
I took great care in cutting up my dish, piece by succulent piece, one at a time, arranging it on my cheap, diner fork and consuming every last morsel, every last grain of rice and every diced piece of roasted green chile.

I was cured, sated and at peace with the cosmos.

"Red or Green?"

It's a phrase that can immediately identify you as having spent at least one year living in New Mexico.  Those three words put you in a time and place; "you've been there and know what I'm talkin' about!"  Chile is not just a vegetable or condiment for a forgotten southwestern state, it is a way of life.  It defines who you are and where you come from.  "CHEE-lay" is what the locals have called it for 400 years.  It brings heat to winter pork or chicken stews.  Chile is what you smell on street corners rotating in cylindrical Bingo baskets in September and October with propane burners charring the outer skins.  Dumped into paper grocery bags, it surpasses the best of any car-freshener for the drive home.

"Red or Green?"

The words invite you to join together with friends over a great meal without care for TV shows, phones, social media or the latest anything.
New Mexico Chile puts us in a space: a time and place without a clock, only each other and the love between us.

New Mexico Green Chile Stew: serves 12

3 lbs.    Pork Shoulder, boneless (Butt), 1" cubes
1/2 C.   Cooking oil
2           Onions, cut to fork sized pieces
2 ribs    Celery ribs, diced
2 Tbls   Garlic, diced
1 Tbls   Oregano, Mexican (if available, regular if not)
4 Qts.    Chicken stock, water if stock isn't available
10          Red potatoes, the size of the palm of your hand, cut fork sized
6 pods   Green chiles, roasted, peeled and diced (to your heat liking)
to taste  Salt

In a cast iron skillet (go to a thrift store or yard sale and buy a Wagner or Griswold, it has soul!), saute' the pork cubes in canola oil.  It will render more fat, so, that's a good thing.  Once crispy, place meat in a 8 qt. stock pot as you go.  Once all the meat is seared, saute' the onions and celery in the cast iron.  When the onions are transparent, add the garlic and cook for 3 minutes or so.  Get a little color on the garlic. Then, dump the veggies in the pot. Scrape the cast iron with a whisk and a cup of water to get all the yummy bits and add to the pot. If you don't, an old French chef will arise from his grave and haunt you for all eternity!  Add oregano and stock/water; bring to a boil.  Add potatoes and green chiles, bring back to a boil, cover, and reduce to a simmer.  Give it three hours for the pork to become super tender.  No need to agitate the stew as the potatoes will break down and turn to mush. Not good.  Add salt as you like; start with about 2 Tbls to get going then, tweek it to your taste.
When ready, serve with a chunk of stout bread and a weekend football game with people that you genuinely care for.  Don't waste it on wimps; this is too good for 'boneless, skinless, chicken breast only' people.  Is this better the next day...?  Hay-uhlll yeah!

Lastly, I want to thank the many people who were huge pieces of my life as a teenager in Albuquerque. Their affection, admiration, companionship, humor and friendship are as vivid today as it was 36 years ago.  We have lived entire lives separately, raising families in far off communities, but, there remains a core of friendship that has been re-discovered.  It is a font to which I hope we can return. The Gang is still as solid as ever.

I love you all: Karin, Annie, Kate, Shelly, Pat, Clark, Dave, Scott, Kim, Jeff,
And to all the spouses:  Thanks for the Hall Pass.
Seeing you made my summer, no my year, no, my whatever!

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"