Saltastrophe: The Saltening

Here’s what it’s like when I make dinner.

Day 1. Plan that shit in advance.

I have a lot of butternut squash. I like tacos. What if I put those things together? Look! Someone already has. I can work with this. I mean, obviously we’re going to change a few things (ahem, refried beans, ahem).

Read the recipe and make a grocery list; basically, plan the hell out of it.

Day 2. Go to the grocery store.

I attempt to buy 20 medium shallots, because pickled shallots. Mariano’s has three in a baggie for three dollars. I do some quick math and refuse to pay $20 for shallots, but buy everything else on the list.

Day 3. Try another store.

The produce market has a small bag of the largest shallots you’ve ever seen. That one there? I suspect it of independent thought. There are only seven or eight shallots in this mesh bag, but there is nothing medium about them.

The Shallot that took down Tokyo.

The shallot that took down Tokyo.

This brings up a lot of tough questions:

  • What is medium?
  • How many medium shallots could fit in one of these Mac Daddy shallots?
  • What’s size, anyway, but an arbitrary concept?
  • Are we all not a medium shallot?
  • Why are we even here?

I reason that one of these giant shallots is at least two medium shallots. Really, seven or eight of these should be plenty, but I buy two bags. To be safe.

Now I have all the ingredients to make dinner, but I don’t make it home until 7:30 and I’m already starving. Pizza naan for dinner.

Day 4. Make the fucking dinner or give up on life.

Step 1. Pickle up some shallots.

Of course, the recipe doesn’t acknowledge this as a separate step. It’s all, Oh hey, you know those pickled shallots that you keep around the place, because who wouldn’t? No? Wow. Okay…you could start making them now. That’s cool, I guess.

Step 1a. Slice all the shallots.

The recipe doesn’t tell me to do this, but who are they kidding? I’m not going to put one of these bad boys all whole onto one of my tacos.

All I can smell is shallots. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t crying over a stinking pile of veg. The world has shrunk to me: the cutting board, my Japanese knife, and these shallots. I’m a shallot-slicing factory. Slice, snip, peel peel, slice slice slice slice slice. Rinse, repeat.

shallots

All I have and all I am are these shallots.

I’ve made it through one bag of shallots and that’s quite enough. There’s no way I’m eating all of these, anyway.

Step 1b. Prep the pickling solution (ie, dump shit into a pot and boil.)

I still haven’t technically begun with the first step in the recipe.

Behold, the glory.

Behold, the glory.

Looks like I’ll need a teaspoon of salt. Wait a damn minute! I have a new device just for this. In fact, I have it calibrated to dispense exactly one teaspoon of kosher salt, specifically because it’s such a common measurement.

Ruh-roh. Some of the salt is stuck. The container just needs a shake to loosen it up.

The lid wasn’t so secure, after all. It’s like a volcano of salt erupting over my stove.

Mount St. Sodium.

Salt. Is. Everywhere. It’s covering my stove top, the counter, the floor. It’s stuck to the fossilized grease on the front of the range, in the crook of the handle to the oven door.

I scratch my head. There’s salt in my hair.

I grab a paper towel and attempt to swipe salt off the range; it just embeds further under the burner grates. I wipe down the counter and salt finds the fissure between the stove and the cabinet. Whatever tiny kingdom lives at the bottom of this canyon will never grow anything again.

Looks like it’s a good thing I still haven’t returned my friends’ baby vacuum.

The dog comes in to investigate. I fire up the vacuum, and she breaks a speedy retreat in reverse.

There. I’ve made the salt my bitch. I leave the vacuum on the kitchen floor because, really, I have important things to finish. Bitches gotta bounce.

I still need to add salt.

See? Timesaver.

See? Time-saver.

shallots picklingThe mixture boils. I add the shallots.

They can simmer while I work out the tacos. Speaking of…

Step 2. I’m an hour in at this point, and just reached what the recipe considers Step 1. Fuck  you, Food Network!

Time to reclaim my kitchen cool.

I don’t spend my time peeling a butternut squash and dicing it. I pull out some pre-peeled, pre-cubed squash from my freezer.

Suck on that, squash.

I roll the black beans in the skillet with the browned squash and aromatic spices.

I add the Serrano peppers to mellow the flavor and add a hint of smokiness.

squashnbeans

Yep. That’s cast iron. Come at me.

Time to assemble the tacos!

Like a good girl, I’ve mise en place’d the fuck out of this shit. Cilantro plucked from its stems, washed and drained? Check. Chihuahua cheese instead of cream? Check.

Pickled shallots?

friends

Tortillas hot from a dry skillet? Check.

I layer the ingredients in tacos like a boss.

butternut squash tacos

See that blinding light emanating from flour tortillas under the light of my flash? This is how my skin looks in the sun.

I am a genius. And it only took an hour and a half, plus a vacuum.

Nahm nahm, motherfuckers.

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Call Her Margaret

This is not going to be one of those stories. You know, where I explain my love of cooking with misty memories of my mom and grandma in the kitchen. That’s not my family. I didn’t learn food in the kitchens of my childhood; I learned guilt and shame, like a good Catholic.

I.  At seven, in my mother’s kitchen, I learned not to call my mom’s mother Grandma.

I was returning from backyard exile, flushed and sweaty from the July heat. I gave the woman a warm (and sweaty) hug. “Hi Grandma!”

She sucked air in through her teeth—a hiss like a snake, or the shocked sibilant of a vampire doused in holy water. “Grandma is for someone…” She paused. …warm? …inviting? …loving? She failed to finish her sentence, starting a new one instead. “You call me Grand Mother or nothing at all, you understand?”

I looked at my mom, wondering if it was too soon to retire to my bedroom with a book. Come to think of it, Mom looked like she could use a dose of Beverly Cleary, herself.

II. Every Thanksgiving I learned that, no matter what someone makes for you, you have to eat it.

Grand Mother’s signature dish—Jello salad—graced Mom’s table every year. It was neither Jello nor salad, but shredded carrots suspended in a sea of orange gelatinous goo. I retain only a whisper of memory when I was taught to suck it up and deal with how awful this food abomination was. I do recall, with startling detail, dutifully scooping orange jiggly carrots onto my plate and eating every bite.

III. At six or seven, I learned that you can do the wrong thing without even knowing it was wrong.

I was sitting at Grand Mother’s kitchen table, eating the sandwich she made me. She was standing several feet away when she bent over and looked under my chair to make sure that my Mary Janes did not touch the wooden spindles of her chair legs. Mary Janes have buckles, and buckles spell disaster for wooden chairs.

IV. At nine or ten, I learned that cheese makes you fat.

I stayed the night at Grand Mother’s house—an occasion that my mom forced on us both. Saturday morning, I sat in my pajamas at the kitchen table, slathering my bagel with cream cheese. Grand Mother watched me shrewdly. “You really like cream cheese, don’t you?” She drew out the word really until it was almost a song.

Later that morning, I dressed in my pale pink skirt set for the wedding we were attending. I emerged from the spare bedroom, nervous without knowing why. Grand Mother beckoned me over, turned me around. “You can certainly see where all the cream cheese is going, can’t you?”

V. At twelve, I learned to call things by their proper name.

It was Easter dinner at Grand Mother’s house. I had already learned the importance of being polite at the table; Grand Mother’s family had a lot of rules, like which direction to pass food and which fork to use to eat your salad. Of course there was a ritual for asking someone to pass you a dish.

Accordingly, I waited for an opening in the conversation before politely asking my cousin, “Laura, can you please pass the butter?”

“There’s no butter at this table,” snapped Grand Mother.

Terrified and confused, I looked to my mother. She smiled tenderly, sadly. “She means margarine,” Mom said, to me or to Grand Mother, I’m not sure.

“Well,” Grand Mother huffed. “Margarine and butter are not the same.”

I certainly knew the difference between the two, but in our house, you treated yourself to butter on a fucking holiday. Everyone understood my polite request, anyway, since the margarine was already en route when Grand Mother brought the snark.

If using the wrong fork or asking for the wrong spreadable fat was such bad form, how was it appropriate to make a twelve-year-old feel like shit at the dining table? Such was etiquette, in our family at least: a set of complicated rules wielded as power. Somehow, for Grand Mother, etiquette never extended to the good treatment of others. It only encompassed an invisible, ever-shifting set of rules she used to make everyone else feel inferior.

VI. At seventeen, I learned about rebellion and smarts.

I returned home, carrying the soda my brothers requested. Everyone was in the kitchen, setting the table. My quest had taken me to the grocery store in town; I hadn’t thought to check the newly constructed Walgreens on the corner.

Grand Mother, of course, had something to say. “Anyone with smarts would have checked Walgreens first.”

The woman passed out her insults with passive aggressive panache. It certainly wouldn’t bother her to call me stupid, but she never would do so in front of my family. Even if she did, probably nobody would do anything. It isn’t good etiquette to form a mob and hunt down your Grand Mother. With pitchforks. And shovels.

Good etiquette would have me tuck my tail apologetically and live a long, timid life without striving for greatness, in or out of the kitchen. But that’s not what I did.

I stood tall and looked her in the eyes. “What are you saying, Grand Mother, that I’m stupid?” Everyone in the room knew the complete opposite; she and I both knew she couldn’t say those direct words here.

For the first time, I had silenced my Grand Mother.

VII. Almost twenty years later, Thanksgivings in my home are full of friends and love.

Every dish is a tiny rebellion—brined turkey, gorgeous roasted vegetables, rolls made from scratch, and pies that make you give thanks.

We don’t serve judgment or Jello salad.

There is butter, made from goat’s milk. You just don’t have to ask for it by name.

Cookie Monster

Every year, as part of my fundraising efforts for the ACS, I bribe friends and family with a box of homemade cookies to make a donation.

The cookie-making process has gotten more involved and rigorous with each passing year. I make a cool dozen or more batches of cookies and candy. The selection is varied, and the cookies are bundled in separate treat bags and assembled in boxes.

Behold, the glory.

Behold, the glory.

Last year, I made an extra box for someone who wasn’t expecting it. “Next time I see him,” I thought, “I’ll bring him the box.”

Weeks went by. Months.

Then one night, in a fit of desperation and insomnia, I pulled the box out of the freezer.

“I’ll just have one of these bags. No one will know.”

One bag turned into three, turned into ten, turned into the whole box.

There, in the darkness of my living room, illuminated only by the flickering light of the television, I beheld the carnage. The casualties? Empty cellophane bags, a spray of crumbs, and some tissue paper.

I could throw away all of that and tuck the box away with my wrapping supplies. No one would know.

Except that the empty spot on the freezer shelf was sure to rat me out. Husband knew the box was there; he kept asking about it when we jockeyed for space in the freezer. “Who is this box for? When are you going to give it to him?” He would notice the box was gone, just as sure as he’d know that I hadn’t seen its intended recipient.

I stared at the box, gauging the space it left behind in the freezer. There really was no other recourse.

Carefully, I assembled all of the cookie waste—the bags and silvery ties, the tissue paper, the crumbs—all evidence of my misdeed, inside the box and closed the lid.

I stood up from the couch, flailing a little with my full cookie belly, and waddled to the kitchen. I opened the freezer door, took one last assessment of the items inside, and placed the empty box back on the shelf.

I don’t tell you this because I want to warn against the dangers of the late-night hunger munches.

I tell this story because it’s that time of year again, with fresh boxes of cookies in my freezer, and this empty box of shame wrappers was only evacuated three months ago.

Thanksgiving Countdown

Double double,  boil and trouble

Thanksgiving may be Thursday, but I’ve been making food for four or five days now.

Today’s adventures included Apple Cider Caramels from the Smitten Kitchen. (Deb Perelman is a god, by the way.) Do you say kair-uh-mel or car-mul?
The best part of making caramels? Feeling like a witch over a cauldron as the concentrated liquid love grows and grows and grows in the pot on the stove. The color deepens as the sugars, well, caramelize.
I would make an excellent witch, mostly because I heed carefully constructed and documented scientific procedures. Heat the potion to precisely 252 degrees Fahrenheit? Check. Remove from heat and stir in final ingredients? Check. Chill in refrigerator for an hour, then cut into precise one-inch squares? I got this.
 
Go ahead. Try one. I promise it isn’t poison.

‘Soup?

Whose idea was it to make soup out of cheese? For this person, I would like to start a church, sacrifice some virgin cows. What good would virgin cows be, otherwise? Everyone knows the first step on the road to cheese involves a knocked-up lady cow.
The pinnacle of this culinary breakthrough came to my house tonight, in the form of a cheddar and ale soup with crispy shallots. I found the original recipe in this cookbook from Williams-Sonoma. Soups are my favorite way to pack a bunch of nutrient-dense vegetables into a meal without having to go to all the work of chewing them.
This recipe is no exception, though the veg is balanced by approximately a metric ton of dairy. We start with some basic produce: potatoes, onion, celery, carrots, garlic, shallots.
All is fine and good until we consider my market, the premier purveyor of mutant produce. This market only stocks vegetables that could take down Tokyo, or one of its many distinct neighborhoods, at the very least. Only the largest, most robust produce will do.
For example, this carrot.
The runt of its litter
I’m pretty sure that, when the recipe calls for two carrots, it’s not thinking of this fellah. But I started with two gigantic carrots and one enormous onion. For some reason, though, I could only find baby yellow potatoes this week. Next to their 2-pound Russet brethren, all scale was lost. So, I brought home three baby potatoes instead of the two regular-sized ones the recipe demands. In the pot they went.

As more produce made its way to the stove, I realized that this thing had gone off the rails. A real shitshow of guesswork and compensation, the mass continued to grow and morph, like an illness. Or an alien pile of organic matter.The soup began to take over my stove. “Soon, it’s coming for YOU.”

Next, I added non-produce things. I had to round up the quantities for good measure. In order to maintain balance, I needed more more more. Two-thirds cup cream became one full cup. Twelve ounces of ale was promoted to sixteen.

I feared the soup was getting away from me.

Exhibit A:

What do you mean, I still have to add the cheese?

We’ll talk about those biscuits in the background later.

For now, let’s talk about the soup. The bite from the ale underlines the hot, cheesy, creamy nectar. This soup, if properly applied, could bring about world peace. I should submit it to the Nobel committee. Certainly they would like to open up a new category for food, which this soup would dominate.

Thanks to my oversized vegetation, I now have enough of this world-changing concoction to eat every night for a week and a half. I settled for freezing most of it in individual-sized containers, labeled GOD LOVES ME, Nov 2014.

For tonight, though, I poured some in a soup bowl, sprinkled with those crispy shallots, and sidled the whole thing up to to freshly baked buttermilk biscuits. It’s the very definition of comfort food, perfect for curling up on the couch and eating in front of an episode of the Gilmore Girls.

Dinner: It is served.

Dontcha wish your girlfriend made dinner like me? (Dontcha Baby, dontcha)

Hello Jewel, Is That You? It’s Me, Megan. (I Think.)

A strange thing happened tonight.

Overwhelmed with the desire for cake, I rushed to the grocery store. I hemmed and hawed, Which kind of cake do I want? What sounds good? I settled on chocolate with buttercream frosting, just enough to get me into trouble, but not so much that it would tower over my entire weekend.

I wandered through the store, picking up this and that, all needed in my kitchen. With my items acquired, I made my way to the registers to check out. Suddenly, I was overcome with a desire to not eat cake. My head and my stomach told me not to eat anything sweet, in fact.

At the register, I handed the cake over to the cashier. “I’m sorry; I changed my mind. Can you take this back?”

I know. It doesn’t sound like me, does it?

And now I’m hungry.

Negotiations Are for Turkeys

I’m shoring up shopping plans for tomorrow. This, of course, means consulting a half dozen cookbooks and the Thanksgiving Spreadsheet. The following conversation with Husband ensues:

ME: We need to buy a turkey of 12 to 14 pounds.
HIM: What, now? I’m not wearing pants.
ME: No, tomorrow. When we’re at the store.
HIM: Hmm. Okay.
ME: Good.
HIM: Wait. I think we need a bigger turkey.
ME: No, we don’t. Remember last year?
HIM: No, it’s more than a week ago.
ME: Last year, you picked out the biggest turkey they had. Kitchen disaster ensued. And we had waaaay too much turkey.
HIM: No such thing.
ME: Yes. You even admitted as much.
HIM: That doesn’t sound like me.
ME: I don’t know what to tell you.
HIM: Shouldn’t we do some math, figure out how many pounds of turkey per person?
ME: Who’s eating POUNDS of turkey?
HIM: Me, easy.
ME: Listen, it’s like four people who will actually eat turkey, and you’re one of them. I think 14 pounds of turkey will suffice.
HIM: I don’t know…
ME: Pal, this is not a negotiation. We are getting a turkey of 12 to 14 pounds.
HIM: 14 pounds, then!

It’s All in the Stuffing

What I remember most about Thanksgiving when I was a kid is my mother’s stuffing. I would sit up with her late at night, Thanksgiving Eve, thinly chopping celery and dicing onions. (Onions didn’t make Young Megan cry.)
For this magic concoction, Mom used a special cauldron. She’d duck into the garage to hunt it down, bring it inside, and wash it in the sink. Only this pot could hope to contain her creation as it morphed and grew.
The sausage went on the fire…pop pop pop.
The onions were browned in butter…sizzle.
Then the celery.
And cubes of stale bread…chink chink chink.
Finally, some herbs.
All in the pot it went.
Then the tasting began. In dove the small spoon, quickly disappearing into Mom’s mouth. I could see her rolling the flavors around, deciding what she needed to add.
A dash of pepper here. A bit of salt there. Maybe some more celery?
The mixture grew in the pot as flavors were added and balanced, like a terrific-smelling abacus there on the stove. Finally, Mom would consult me. “Taste this. What do you think this needs?” Of course, I didn’t know. But I loved to taste, anyway.
Only when Mom was satisfied was the stuffing declared ready. What followed was twelve hours of torture in which I tried not to think of what awaited us in the refrigerator the next evening.
Years later, stuffing remains my favorite part of the meal. You can take my share of the turkey; just pass the stuffing.

The Thanksgiving Spreadsheet

Wait. So you’ve never heard of a Thanksgiving spreadsheet?

As a vegetarian on a food-centric holiday, Thanksgiving historically offered little to me. That is, until I was able to host my own. Not only did it guarantee me food I actually like to eat, but it really let my inner Julia Child shine. Now, Thanksgiving is the Big Show. Step aside, bitches; I am a kitchen diva and this is my day.

You all know Charles M. Schultz, right?

Rolls are made from scratch. The turkey is moist and tender. My mashed potatoes are the creamiest you’ll eat. (Got spoon?) Stick with me, kid, and you’ll have your choice of homemade pie.

All of this, pulled off in a two-bedroom in Albany Park, doesn’t happen without planning. I’m a nerd, so of course I make a spreadsheet. I’ll tell you how it’s done.

I gather my dishes–good little soldiers that work hard, look hot, and make the perfect team. Once I have the lineup complete, I catalog the dishes in a spreadsheet. For every one, I list each ingredient and required quantity. Next, I sort the ingredients in alphabetical order.

Finally, the coup de grâce, I program the spreadsheet to calculate the total amount of each ingredient I’ll need for the entire meal. Sure, I need flour for my rolls, pie crust, and the gravy. But how much do I need overall? I use the calculations to generate my grocery shopping list, which is, of course, organized by store and section.

You think I’m done? Not a chance.

Next up is mapping out my time the week of the big day. Dishes are color-coded by day they will be prepared. For the night before and the big day, I break down the time table to an hour-by-hour accounting of prep work, oven space, reheating requirements, and cooling time.

Perhaps this all makes me a spreadsheet nerd. But days of planning and shopping also makes for weeks of anticipation. You may think of Thanksgiving the week it happens, but it lives in my heart for much longer.

Bring it, Thanksgiving 2014.