18 October 2004

on Good Eats

There is a show on the Food Network, hosted by Alton Brown, called Good Eats. Alton Brown is a very clever guy, and I have learned a lot from him. In each episode of his show he gives a humorous and detailed treatise on a particular topic. He has sent up Junkyard Wars with his discussion of smoking bacon. He has gone into the chemistry of fats and proteins in his discussion of mayonnaise (ie. why oil and eggs go together in that special way). He has helped me understand why my pie crust was such a struggle (although my real break through required my own perseverance). In addition to the theoretical discussions and practical demonstrations he spends time shopping for food and equipment.

My geeky side gets a kick out of the theory, but Alton and I differ on some key elements of aesthetics. For instance, Sunday morning I made pancakes. I mix from scratch and do a basic pancake from Joy of Cooking (more on Joy later) where Alton works from an an instant mix that is set up for buttermilk.

Putting aside difference in recipes, where we really depart is in the cooking. With just me and my daughter these days, I put the cast iron griddle on the big burner and get it heating with the dial set to what I think I remember worked well last time. When the batter is ready, I start cooking and adjust the heat as I go. Alton cooks his on an electric griddle that keeps the cooking surface at just the right temperature (350 degrees F). He doesn't start cooking until water dances on the griddle (or the red light comes on).

For Brown the cooking aesthetic is in the production of uniformly high quality pancakes time after time. For me the cooking aesthetic is in figuring out how to get and keep a slab of cast iron uniformly heated at the right temperature. Don't get me wrong, I am trying to get a batch of pancakes with high quality and low variance, but the trade off between variance and an electric griddle is too high for me.

15 October 2004

Bake sales

This morning, as with other mornings this week, it has been foggy in my mind. Today there is a bake sale at PS 84 in support of the 5th grade trip. A year or so ago, I was presented with the need to supply a bake sale in the rainy dark of the night before. The miracle of eggs and sugar that become brownies was my standard response to such a situation but at that time my oven wasn't working so I needed a top of the stove solution to the bake sale problem. We came up with pudding and jello cups; a bit of market testing has since shown that jello cups are by far the more popular item. (see the "guidance" below for more details...)

So this morning I packed up the jello cups in the cooler in the fashion that I have worked out over a couple of iterations and was done with it. Not however the end of the story... It seems that packing up the jello had replaced packing Zora's lunch in my fog bound mind's automatic functioning (i.e. the standing order seems to be "pack something while making coffee" rather than "pack Zora's lunch while making coffee"...). So the rush to get out the door comes and Zora announces that she has packed her lunch because I forgot. (There is more to this, but it will turn up in Everything Else eventually.)

My kid is amazing!

Jello Cup Guidance (not a recipie)
  • You get 8, 1/4 cup cups from a box of jello. The little disposable plastic bathroom cups work great.
  • We did 2 boxes, lemon and lime mixed together, to get 16 cups. At $.25 each, that yields $4 to the sale. At $.83 per box plus cups (and spoons, see below), it is about a 100% margin (not sure how that compares to brownies...). Should have done 4 boxes of jello.
  • I pack the cups in a small cooler in layers separated by cardboard. I can get 15 per layer and 2 layers in my cooler (hence the "should have done 4 boxes") (the extras provide quality control tests). My cooler has an ice pack that fastens into the lid. Cover the top layer so that drips don't collect in the jello cups.
  • Don't forget the spoons (although if you do, the kids will figure out how to eat them anyway)

07 October 2004

Good Food

Good food is the food that you like. It might be fancy and it might be plain; it most likely depends on the day and time. This thought was brought up by the dinner that Zora and I enjoyed tonight.

Basically it was ground beef. I browned it in the skillet and then took it out and sauteed some onions and garlic in a little olive oil. I could have started with the onions and garlic, but Zora doesn't like them (or at least claims she doesn't like them) and will spend most of the meal picking them out. After the onions and garlic were going, I put most of the meat back in the pan added a bit more salt and pepper, some paprika and some oregano. And turned off the heat.

I was undecieded on starch and toyed with noodles and pasta, but finally settled on mashed potatoes. So I boiled and mashed some potatoes. While that was going on I added a bit of flour to the meat cooked it a bit more added a bit of milk and brought it all back up to heat and adjusted the liquid so it was sort of thick.

Green stuff was peas - fozen peas into a bowl, covered the peas with water, in the microwave for 2.5 minutes.

Blob of mashed potatoes in the middle of the plate, meat on top, peas around the edge. Looks ok - tastes great. Real comfort food. Z loved it too. A simple good meal that hit the spot.

28 September 2004

canned soup

I am under the influence of a pretty impressive head cold. One of the hardest things about feeding yourself is doing it when you are sick. It really sucks if there is no one else around to fix lunch or bring you water or tell you to take a nap. I am certainly not a happy patient and would likely try the patience of anyone who did try to take care of me. And because of that I have learned a thing or two about taking care of myself when I am sick.

The first and foremost is that canned soup and crackers are a good thing! I always try to keep a few cans of Progresso in the house against just the sort of eventualities of the last couple of days. I used to put it in a pan and heat it up on the stove, but now I have a microwave, so I give the can a little shake, cut the top off, pour it in a bowl big enough for the whole thing and pop it in the microwave for about 2-3 minutes. A few crackers to crumble on top and, How about that, I'm feeding myself. The nice thing about the microwave is that you can't burn the soup - you can make a mess but you won't burn it. (the full story on burned soup will have to wait for another day).

The other thing I have learned is that in fact drinking a lot of water and sleeping all day really does make a difference. Sometimes you can't and you just have to push through the fog, but if at all possible go to bed and stay there. For me if I really sleep for 1 day, it makes a world of difference. The water helps too, and yes it is a drag to keep on peeing, but a hydrated body is a happy body.

One last thing - Ginger Ale. A God send when you are feeling really crummy. I have tales about ginger ale too, but suffice it to say for now, keep some in the house right next to the canned soup...

Time to sleep...

24 September 2004

Oven update

After 3 aborted attempts the oven repairman and I managed to be at my apartment at the same time yesterday. In the previous attempts, he managed to come pretty much exactly when I had told the dispatchre that I would not be home. The successful meeting, required a pre-emtpive move on my part.

He did manage to fix it so the oven now works.

Tally relative to my prediction:
  • about a week to get it fixed - much less than my predicted month

  • about 7 phone calls - less than the 12 I predicted, but about twice as many as it should have taken and on track for my prediction had the first repair attempt failed (as I expected it too)

  • 1 repair visit - I know I didn't publish this prediction, but I expected it to take 2 or 3 visits.

So now we can bake another pie, or perhaps even cookies!

21 September 2004

Kent White

Kent White had a big influence on my cooking. He and I were collegues at NC State we were both chasing Masters degrees, he in geology, me in geophysics. Kent was an artist of many kinds. He built beautiful things, among which were his cookers. My favorite was the chicken cooker. It was a big steel box with a hinged lid - the best part was that the lid had 3 square stacks coming out it. When a whole mess of chicken was cooking, those stacks would smoke like there was no tomorrow. I learned that cooking on a grill takes patience and a good supply of beer. Kent would never drink from the keg, but he always had a good supply of cans - I can't remember what he drank, but I am sure it was domestic.

I also learned that barbeque means different things depending on what part of the state you were from. In Raliegh, barbeque sauce definitely did not have tomato in it. Kent's barbeque was a simple mixture of vinegar, butter and crushed red pepper. I don't remember the ratios, but the real trick was to keep it warm on the back of the cooker and to dip the meat often. As you progressed so did the barbeque sauce. When he did a pig (that cooker had wheels and was towed behind his truck) he bought a cotton mop with which to apply the sauce. Pigs required alot of patience and consequently alot more beer.

More about Kent as we go forward - I was thinking about him tonight because I still chop vegetables on the endgrain cutting board that he gave me.

19 September 2004

Pie outcome

The Pie came out ok. Certainly not our best effort, but edible. The top crust was great, and the apples were cooked (after about 2.5 hours at somewhere well below 350 and usually above about 225). The lower crust is ok but soggy and in an effort to amplify the not too spectacular apples, I put in a bit too much lemon juice. (The amount of lemon juice was perfect if you wanted to eat the apples uncooked; something to keep in mind in the future...)

Overall a respectable outcome given the hurdles.

This all reminds me of perhaps Dad's greatest lesson "Don't apologize for the food" - that lesson calls for at least one post all of its own. (And then of course there were the non-food lessons which will hopefully find their way in as well).

Now I just have to get the damn oven fixed. My guess is that it will take at least a month and close to a dozen frustrating phone calls.

18 September 2004

Dad was not a cook

My dad was not a cook, but I learned some important things about feeding myself from him. Here are a couple:
You have to eat
When I moved to North Carolina to go to graduate school at NCSU, I pretty much lost my shit. I could get to work, but I couldn't do much else. On the payphone at the end of the street, Dad told me that I had to eat and that if that meant going over to Food Lion and buying a bunch of Carnation Instant Breakfast and a gallon of milk, then I should do that. So I did.
Its ok to eat out
This is a corollary to the previous point, but in addition to the simple feeding part, it also addresses a certain level of self-respect. Take yourself out to eat. Pay for it, it is money well spent. This is an idea I will come back to later.
Cooking and heating things up are different
He never said this, I learned it from watching him. He couldn't cook, but he could also barely heat things up. Eventually he started to get it and my sister Maris spent hours with him on the phone walking him through dinner prepartions. The point is that burning canned soup sucks whether you do it or somebody else does.

There is probably more, but that's what I have at the moment.


Lesson 1 - don't give up

Zora and I are in the process of baking an apple pie. Lots of stories to go with me and pie - it only in the most recent of history that crust has not be an nearly intolerable stress experience. But today the stress is different. The oven preheated to 450 just like it is supposed to. Stuck the thing in (a beautiful one that Zora had artfully layered) hit the timer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, I stuck in the crusties and an apple dumpling experiment of Zora's and thought that the oven didn't feel hot enough. 10 minutes after that I was certain that the oven was no longer heating.

what to do what to do - my instinct is to give up, curse the world, curse oven technology, curse landlords and supers and finally to simply give up the ghost and call it quits. But another part of me says god damn it that is a perfectly good pie in there and Z really wants it for breakfast tomorrow.

So what to do what to do - drive 45 minutes to Annie's house, too complicated. Ask the neighbors, don't know them well enough.

Turns out the broiler is still working (part of the over engineeredness of the god damn appliance) so I stuck a skillet on the top rack pumped up the broiler, stuck an oven thermometer inside and am hoping that the thing will come close to baking. The crusties and dumpling experiment worked - stay tuned with respect to the main event.

Starting another one

Welcome to my new blog (my old blog is Earth Systems Management and has a very different focus than this one).

This one is an effort to advance my long standing and stagnant project to write a cook book that has no recipies. In will be different from say the work of Ruth Reichels or Anthony Bourdain in that it will be about cooking but it also meant to teach some one to cook - or more preciesly to feed oneself. Thus it will not just be about cooking but also about shopping, cleaning up and all the other stuff that surrounds the activities of getting good-to-decent food into one's body.

It will be told alot through stories of my mom, my dad, my friends and other people who have been a part of my learning to incorporate food into my daily life. The project began in second major phase of my cooking lifetime. It was a time when of necessity I was cooking for myself and rarely for anyone else. As many before me have commented, this is a particularly difficult task and one that is prone to alot of functional food (which definitely has its place). Somewhere in there I discovered that even functional food could have an aesthetic value and this project came out of that realization.

I haven't cooked for only myself for a long time - yet many of the lessons I learned in that period still come to bear. The most important of those is the value of aesthetics. When aesthetics come into play, the game changes. And the change for me was definitely for the better.

Let's see what happens...