January 17, 2012
Music: Patty Griffin: Downtown Church
Kitchen, I don’t even know you anymore.
When the holidays come around, family chaos ensues. It seems we’re constantly at a family function or planning the next.
I get invited to my parents’ house for a lot of meals during this time. On days I don’t get invited, I invite myself, because I lack social boundaries and discipline. I didn’t even go to the grocery store for over a month. I FAILED my kitchen. And adulthood in general.
(Before I go on, let me fill you in on what my dog has eaten since my last post: a yankee candle, a full bag of bones, hot cocoa packets, all of my Clif bars, toothpaste, the face off of a stuffed animal that my mom got me, which was also malamute. Thank goodness I got her spayed!)
My refrigerator has been deserted for weeks, with empty bags of produce I ate months ago moving across the shelves like tumbleweed. Orange juice expired in November that I never opened. Milk I bought to eat with cereal that expired when I failed buy cereal. And brie (for no apparent reason).
Tonight, I returned to my kitchen, new kitchen knife in hand and new camera strewn across my back for documentation. Ready. To. Rumble.
I’m a sucker for a potato noodle, so it was no surprise to me that I jumped on the first gnocchi recipe. I found it on one of my “Cheap Healthy Dinner” Google searches and headed to the grocery store. I tend to nullify the “Healthy” part of this search by choosing the recipe that involves the most cheese. C’est la vie.
When I got home with my ingredients, it was a bit awkward. My kitchen stared at me like an angry wife of a lazy husband.
Kitchen: Where have you been? Its half past nine already.
Me: I went to the grocery store, Kitchen, so I could get food to put in you.
Kitchen: Well it is about time.
Me: What’s that supposed to mean?
Kitchen: Well, the dishwasher hasn’t been put up for days, the dishes are stacking up in the sink, the table has a mysterious orange sticky spot. It is your responsibility to do these things.
Me: Well, I’m SORRY, Kitchen. I’m sorry I work ALL day so I can make a living to support this household while you sit around with your cabinets, gabbing away all day.
Kitchen: You got off like four hours ago, and you watched like two hours of television.
Me: Well I’m gonna start cooking now.
Kitchen: Please… proceeeeed.
Me: (under my breath) Bitchen.
Kitchen: WHAT DID YOU JUST CALL ME?
In honesty, I took back to the kitchen like we had never been apart. I staged the counter space in preparation for the meal, making sure every ingredient was in the shape it needed to be for its role in the recipe. I’ve graduated in that regard. I’m used to not reading ahead. Tonight the counter was my stage and the recipe was my performance. Maybe the break did me good.
This was the first gnocchi recipe I’ve ever cooked where you cook the gnocchi in a skillet. The nice thing about gnocchi is it boils in about five minutes. But in a skillet for five minutes with one tablespoon of oil? This made me worry. I let it sit for ten, browning the edges.
I cut up the onion, sans tears, and minced the garlic. Everything else was in cans. The recipe, though it took a while to cook in all the steps, was quite easy. I added the onions to the mix first, softening them in the snapping oil. Spinach was added, shrinking and wilting in the oil and water. Other ingredients followed one by one until my wok was overflowing.
The gnocchi actually cooked well in the oil. It was plenty soft and browned to perfection. I added the the additional ingredients to the gnocchi in a big pan. I cleaned the kitchen while the cheese melted in.
I sat alone at my kitchen table. My Patty Griffin album came to an end as I enjoyed my meal. I thought about this year, how I decided I would start cooking at its beginning and it took a whole 16 days to pick up my butcher knife. And I thought about how I didn’t care, because resolutions never work for me. Timelines never work. No more resolutions. No timelines. This year its just drive and a healthy sense of urgency.
And maybe less cheese in my next gnocchi dish.
On to the next one.
November 15, 2011
I can’t take me anywhere.
I have been friends with my friend Tara for five years. Not once have I not gotten lost on my way to her house. Here’s some perspective: I once got so lost that I literally had to be found by a search party of other friends, describing my surroundings like a kidnapping victim. And last week I got so lost I was 45 minutes late to cook them dinner, and I lied and told them it was rain and traffic. The truth is I had gotten on the wrong highway altogether. Which is fine because its not like I’ve lived in this city for the vast majority of my life. Also a lie.
I showed up to the house in the trickling rain with my bag of ingredients for homemade mac and cheese. My other friends Cari and Tim, Tara’s husband, were in the living room, but I didn’t notice this. I B-Lined to Ivy Coraline, the lady of the hour, the reason for my visit, Tara and Tim’s brand spanking new little baby girl. Her pudgy pink face and squinty little eyes were resting on Cari’s shoulder. She was wearing a leopard print onesy proving that she is already far more chic than I will ever be. She was perfect.
I knew she would be, and I wanted to hold her so I came to the house with a strategy: Cook them dinner. Make them feel like it is a service to them. Then, when dinner is served, continue my martyrdom my offering to take the baby off their hands, and then don’t give her back until its time to leave.
The mac and cheese took a while. I had to boil the noodles, create roux with flour and butter, mix in the cheese and milk for the sauce, and then it had to cook for about 30 minutes.
I accidentally added way too much flour (a misread of the recipe). As my friends sat in the adjacent room, I frantically tried to save my cheese sauce which looked more like lumpy cafeteria stroganoff that would inevitably be served by a lady with a giant hairy mole.
Luckily I had enough ingredients to counteract the flour. I just added more milk and cheese, and it was still a bit lumpy, but still cheesy delicious. I lay the sauce over the freshly boiled noodles and stuck it in the oven.
Tara joined me in the kitchen in the interim. Though she was exhausted from the toils of child-rearing, motherhood looked good on my friend. She was a natural and she didn’t even know it. Tim, who was lounging with Cari in the living room, was practically glowing with joy over Ivy. It was almost too much awesome to handle.
Dinner was finally ready, which means I could phase in part two of my martyrdom strategy.
“Oh, let me take Ivy, you guys just enjoy your meal. You deserve a break. Really. Seriously. Give me the baby. Give her to me. Seriously. Tim? Seriously. Hand her over.”
While the three others enjoyed, or at least claimed to enjoy their mac, I held Ivy The thing with holding babies is there’s not a lot to say about it. Its not like Ivy was dancing the polka or practicing her yodel, which was frankly quite disappointing. But she was awesome without having to do anything to prove it. Like: “Yea, I’m gonna spit up on your shirt a little and then take my twentieth nap of the day, because I’m better than you bitches”. And she was, damn it.
Eventually I had to leave, and luckily this time I managed to let the baby go before I left. I’m just kidding. That’s never happened. Really it hasn’t. Really. Let me come over and hold your baby. Let me do it. Really. It never happened. Really. It was a JOKE.
I said my goodbyes to my friends and headed into the night fog. As I walked to the car I realized I had forgotten my phone. Turning back towards the house, I paused as I looked through the window. Tara and Tim staring at Ivy, making the same stink face she was making. It was incredibly cinematic, as if Ivy’s whole life was playing right in front of me. And it was awesome.
On to the next one.
October 26, 2011
Source: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/robin-miller/roasted-butternut-squash-recipe/index.html and http://bigblackdogs.net/sauteed-potato-gnocchi-with-three-sauces/
I’m not afraid of spiders. I’m afraid of spiders in shot glasses.
This realization came after a trip to the grocery store that forever changed the way I look at squash. This ingredient was required for my side dish. I examined my choices of squash in the produce section. An oddly shaped object by nature, I wasn’t examining them for perfect shape. My only requirement was ripeness.
And then I saw it. Normally I try to describe what I see and smell with words – its a good exercise of the right side of my brain. But I’m going to let this picture do the talking. Normally a picture is worth a thousand words. Tonight, it is worth one word.
I don’t know what it was, but I picked up the penis squash and it seemed like it was the natural choice of squash. I’m not going to talk about it anymore because my mom reads this blog sometimes, and I’m already feeling weird enough about it. I’ll just make one joke:
So that’s why they call it butternut squash. (Get it, nuts?)
I kept the squash uncut until Kelley came over so that I could have some prove to her I found a penis squash. I started preparation by cutting the stems off the spinach. I needed to press the garlic next, so I reached into my utensil drawer.
And there he was.
I’m not afraid of spiders, so when I saw that spider (a brown recluse to be exact) resting peacefully in a shot glass, I just grabbed the nearest utensil to kill him with. I’m the bug killer. I kill bugs. If there are bugs around, I kill them. But this one was huge. And I jabbed at him, and he didn’t die. He came out of the glass. Onto my arm.
I flayed my arms about and he landed on the counter.
“BLOODY HELL! DEAR LORD HELP ME! HELP ME KILL THE BUG!”
I actually yelled this. Alone. In my house. And I grabbed a shoe and pranced around my kitchen, hunting him into corridors and crevices.
Whack. One swing and I stand supreme as the killer of the bugs.
Kelley missed the drama, but came in time to cut up the butternuts squash. (Get it, nuts?). I blended the ingredients of the pesto and cooked the gnocchi. I failed to preheat the oven at an appropriate time so we had to eat the squash as a second course.
Kelley and I determined the main dish was interesting – not good, interesting. The second course came about twenty minutes later, so we forked the sweet flavored squash from the serving plate. I don’t know if it was the squash or just my entrenchment in good conversation with a dear friend, but the second dish took the cake.
Unfortunately there was no actual cake, so we topped the night off with ice cream sandwiches, the dead spider sprawled on a napkin in the trash and the leftover butternut squash looking a lot more G rated.
On to the next one.
August 22, 2011
Oh. Just so you know, I’m better than you now.
I started this blog after having watched talent for a few days. It’s a refreshing thing, to watch talent. That’s why I enjoy live music so much. Its why I got so much pleasure today, reading a twelve page letter from my friend in Korea, who also happens to be an impeccable writer. Its why I enjoy watching my sisters be mothers, and watching my parents be parents, and watching my friends be friends. Its refreshing, watching people be good at things.
One of the cooks who motivated this blog wears red glasses that come apart in the middle, where the plastic meets the ridge of your nose, when she cooks. They’re magnetic. When I was in California and watched her cook, even her glasses made me writhe in cooking jealousy. She works in the kitchen so effortlessly. And everything she made, everything wreaked of talent. You would be so lucky to sit at that dining room table and eat a meal that she prepared.
She also has this beautiful apron, which she made with her own hands. Her daughter, a wonderful talent in her own right, had an apron too. Its not a normal apron. There’s no tie in the back. It loops through each arm, casting over the opposite shoulders in an “x” like pattern. It covers the whole front of you, leaving no area safe for the landing of flying flour or sauces gone awry. Its amazing.
For my 24th birthday, I got a package from my Californian friends. It was such a wonderful gift, and when I opened the last little wrapped part, I became better than you*.
I now own an Amazing Technicolor Dream Apron. I am the favorite son of Jacob. And though I may be sold into slavery by my own brothers for receiving such a marvelous piece of cloth, I want everyone to know that I look awesome in it. Also I want everyone to know that I don’t have brothers.
Tonight I finally got to put it into action. It has been weeks since I have cooked in my kitchen. Vacations, work, applications, friendships, family events have kept me away. But this evening I returned to make an asparagus themed pasta dish, and I looked good doing it.
I had three things going at once. Asparagus in the oven, noodles boiling, balsamic based sauce sulking. I’ve finally got to the point where I can look at the recipe and understand what I am doing before I do it, so I can now multitask.
After enjoying a dinner alone with my Alaskan Malamute lying on the floor next to my bright yellow chair, staring out the window my weed ridden backyard, I refused to disband from my apron. I felt too much power. I can safely say I wore an apron for four hours this evening. I kept it on through my house hold chores and eventually pried myself out of it, feeling the energy leave my body as a superhero does with his cape.
I’m mostly writing all this to stir up envy. I’m writing this from a high, high horse. No literally. I’m on a horse, writing this. I have my MacBook Air resting on his neck and a glass of wine seated in a specially designed drink holder saddle I built**. And guess what? His name is Vladmir. And guess what else? He’s better than you too because he is also wearing an apron.
So thank you, Recobs, for this amazing gift. It will certainly be a part of many recipes to come. And a source of future arrogance.
On to the next one.
*For full disclosure, I want to assure the falsehood of this statement. Not even a fabulous apron could make me better than you. Or a specially designed horse saddle.
June 22, 2011
Source: Grandma Benz
Dumplings are kind of like my cooking Mt. Everest.
You need to understand something about my family. My grandmother had the option to go anywhere on Mother’s day. The sky was the limit. Fancy italian, chinese, whatever. She chose a buffet at a truck stop.
It wasn’t surprising. This is just how my family is. We don’t do fancy very often because we’re not very good at it and usually wind up making fools of ourselves.
This truck stop buffet had many things my Grandma had cooked for my father, uncle and aunt, and then again for the next generation. There were many foods that define Southern Illinois for me. I feel like a viewer discretion advised warning is necessary for this list, because its so unhealthy my blood is clotting at the very thought. Fried chicken, vegetables cooked with bacon, ham, cobblers, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole. You know, things that make your heart say: oh for love of God, are you trying to kill us? But I eat them anyway. Because I’m a Benz. And I love them.
But the most important Benz family staple that was on that buffet were the Chicken and Dumplings.
Chicken and dumplings have such weight in my mind. Both of my Grandma’s have made chicken and dumplings my whole life, so its one of my favorite comfort foods. They each make it very differently. Grandma Cauble’s are a bit thicker and she only uses the broth and serves the chicken on the side. Grandma Benz’s are thinner and she keeps the chicken in. Both equally unique and delicious. And, unfortunately, both recipes undocumented.
It came much to our surprise that when a family cookbook was passed out at a family reunion last year, one page said: Barbara Benz’s chicken and dumplings. We imagine it took a bit of time to think about what is in this recipe, because she does it unscripted every time. But we were excited, and a year later, we were going to cook it.
I went over to Mom and Dad’s one sunday afternoon a bit nervous. The chicken was already boiling in a pot. The ingredients were out. After Mom taught me to make my Dad fried eggs for brunch, it was go time.
We took the chicken out of the water to later be pitted. We drained the broth and got it ready for dumplings to be placed in it, one at a time. We needed the flour, salt, and broth together to make the dumplings. Yes, the dumplings would be double brothy.
Dumplings take a lot of kneading and precision. They are hard to roll out and hard to find good consistency for, a trait that will come in time. But Mom and I did fine for our first try together. We rolled them out and cut them into 2 by 2 squares. We added them to the boiling broth.
Then we pitted the chicken. Mom had been threatening me all morning with this.
“I’m so making you pit the chicken, and its awful. Its the worst. You’ll hate it.”
I don’t know why she did this, because it wasn’t that bad. Its just slimy. But I played with Nickelodeon Gak as a child, so I can handle slimy.
We put the chicken in with the dumplings and boom, Everest completed in an hour. Did we rock it? Almost. The dumplings were are bit too thick for our liking, but it got Dad’s seal of approval, so we still felt good about it.
On to the next one.
“I’m only seeing the movie if Will Smith is in it.”
The most amazing thing about the Apple company is not its products, its the random types of people that it brings together. I experienced this collaboration in a major way when I worked there. The types of unique people that I was exposed to, the types of people that became my friends, the types of things that I realized about myself by being their friend are astounding. No other place I will ever work again will match these people.
Erkel is one of these friends. His real name is Eric, but I call him Erkel because I love nicknames. They help me connect to people.
Erkel once came up to me and said:
Hello Mallori Jeaaaaan.
To which I replied:
How the crap do you know my middle name.
To which he replied:
I know everyone’s middle name here.
Its true. Erkel once took a roster of the store that I worked at, a roster of more than 100 names, and memorized all of our middle names. Maybe just to be irritating. Unclear. Regardless of any irritation, I miss people like Erkel now that I don’t work there. So I invited Erkel and my other friend Timmy over for dinner.
Erkel’s a vegetarian, so he prepared the menu and brought the food. The vegetarian chili was a series of vegetables, spices: an onion, a jalepeno, garlic, chili powder, kidney beans, black beans. It wasn’t too hard to make because we mostly just had to cut everything and open cans.
The mashed potato recipe we used involved potatoes, garlic, and a whole lot of heavy whipping cream. Like. A lot. Like. I’m lucky to be alive after eating as many potatoes as I did.
We planned our evening while we cooked our meal and drank our Schlafly Weissbier (which in Timmy and Erkel’s opinion is the second best Schlafly brew of all time).
Me: Want to see Super 8?
Erkel: What is that?
Me: I don’t know. Its an alien movie.
Erkel: Is Will Smith in it?
Timmy: YES. He’s just hiding. In the alien costume.
Me: Right. He’s the alien in the movie, but you won’t recognize him.
Erkel: Good. I’m only seeing it if Will Smith is in it.
We ate our meals so we could get to the movie. I ate a lot and my lips turned dark red because the chili was much hotter than a wimp like me can handle but it tasted to good to deny. And the potatoes? Holy mother of pearl. I don’t even have time to tell you how good they were.
We finished our meal and saw the alien movie, but not before hearing Erkel quote the same independence day lines at least 10 times: Welcome to ERF! I gotta get me one of these!
A great night with missed friends and lies about alien movie casting.
On to the next one.
June 14, 2011
Listening To: Dana’s Wedding Mix
I don’t really know what cocktail party means.
Two friends of mine, Lauren and Kelley, moved into a new house and Lauren threw a cocktail party as a sort of christening. My initial thought was, I guess I wear a dress. That was the extent of thought. Because I don’t know what cocktail party means.
I called Lauren on my way over to ask what recipe I should make for the party. Her reply was something to the effect of:
You know, anything! Except I don’t have a knife…
And then she proceeded to list off the other kitchen essentials her beautiful new kitchen was lacking. It wasn’t her fault I was unprepared. I should have looked into what she had, what I had, and what recipe to make sooner than ten minutes before the party was to start.
I was in Dierberg’s (grocery store) for at least a half hour. I wanted to make mojitos, but they had no mint. I wanted to make cookies, but I worried about my vegan friends. I searched for motivation, and searched in vain. I was lost in an unfamiliar store. I was out of my element. I was out of ideas.
After walking around Dierberg’s for ten minutes, Google searching recipes for cocktail parties, I landed on a salsa. Everything was to be roasted, which I thought would be easy enough because one thing she did not lack was a grill.
I bought a knife as a sort of housewarming gift with selfish ambitions. I arrived at Lauren’s and was ready to get my butt to the grill. Minor detail: I forgot aluminum foil.
On the road again.
After failing to find a Walgreens and then stopping at a grocery store that was, and I quote, fresh out of aluminum foil, I chose the hard road to roasting. I stuck all the tomatoes in a skillet, turning them, turning them, turning them, until the skins were about ready to peel themselves off, which took about thirty minutes. I roasted the pepper. I roasted the garlic. I roasted.
The girls kept me company in the kitchen. I made them gimlets to, a very easy recipe (that still counts) and we chatted as I stood in Lauren’s beautiful apron, minding the veggies.
After everything was roasted, I cut them up. I cut up the tomatoes, which took forever. I cut up the garlic, which was beautiful after being roasted; a wonderful texture. I think I’ll forever roast my garlic. Lauren taught me a few of her mom’s cutting skills like cutting the cilantro in a see saw motion, never really lifting it from the board. She taught me to stab a fork into the lime to really get the juices out. Brilliant.
The salsa was wonderful and the evening was lovely. Its hard not to have a lovely evening when the hostess is lovely and your friends are lovely and you feel good about the food you make.
Confidence in the kitchen is a new friend of mine. He’s lovely too.
On to the next one.