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.

The Summer Barbecue

What I am about to say may release a mob bearing pitchforks and torches, tools that can excoriate heretics from the population and char up some meat. Nevertheless…

I hate barbecues.

Okay, I hate 95% of barbecues.

They are man’s answer to what makes a scorching hot day even better: fire. Plus, scorched meat. As a pale vegetarian whose favorite vacation involved glaciers and sleet, you can imagine how this thrills me. Somehow, the events attract a diverse cross-section of the population. For your convenience, I’ve assembled a field guide.

Population 1: The menfolk. Men tend fire. Every one of them is an expert, and half the barbecue will be spent arguing the finer points of fire-making. The other half will consist of them walking in and out of the house, trailing heat and smoke and bugs. Humans spent centuries perfecting doors as a means to keep these things outside the home, but no matter.

Conversation: Endless debates on charcoal placement, chimneys, or lighter fluid; explosions; things that can be set on fire or made to explode; sportsball (or, “dude, did you catch the game last night?”); and the tragically short film career of the great John Belushi.

Population 2: The womenfolk. Women are responsible for everything else. The majority of their time will be split between assembling salads, drinking wine, caring for tiny humans, and talking about child birth/child rearing/fluids that come out of said tiny humans.

Conversation: how to raise a tiny human to adulthood (I understand this is difficult and necessitates a support group of your peers); funny things the tiny humans say or do; the horrifying ordeal miracle of childbirth, in explicit detail; complaints about the menfolk; the price of a pound of beef.

Population 3: Tiny Humans. The children are responsible for “AAAHHHHH! Jimmy’s head is stuck in the laundry chute!” Their volume increases in direct relation to the number of children in their age-range also attending the event, an effect both staggering and exponential in nature. Remember what it was like to hear the thoughts in your head? Neither do I.

Conversation is disjointed and histrionic. In the course of five minutes you may hear: what they can do better than anyone else; what they can do better than you; “Look at this!”; noises that tiny butts make; smells that tiny butts make; and, “Did you see Jimmy’s head stuck in the laundry chute?!”

Perhaps it’s that I hate the outdoors, and therefore have no interest in sitting outside on a hot day, next to fire, debating which mind-numbing movie is funnier: Animal House or The Blues Brothers. Perhaps it’s that, even though I’m a woman, I can’t decide between puking or fainting over the casual conversations about wombs and vaginal tearing around a big bowl of pasta salad. Perhaps, after fifteen minutes trying to rediscover my childhood amongst the tiny humans, I remember that I’m glad to have left it behind.

As if this isn’t enough, a barbecue shines a large, blinking FREAK light over my vegetarian head. I’ve tried to mitigate the effect by sneaking faux meat onto the grill. You know the kind of over-processed, pre-packaged meat substitute I’m talking about. It’s not delicious and definitely doesn’t taste like meat (thank goodness), but my other option is to fill my plate with chips and mayonnaise salad. Sometimes I do this, then cut out of the party early to appease my hunger with a cheese sandwich on the way home.

Either way, everyone notices my meatless plate.

All attempts to fit in fail. Though I’m in a house or yard full of good people, I am uncomfortable and alone. Where are my people? You know the ones–those who want to talk quietly about a good book, who’d rather play a game of cards than turn on the game. I’ll tell you where they are; they’re inside, sitting around little plates of cheese and drinking wine in an air conditioned room, like civilized people.

Come to think of it, the 5% of barbecues that I find enjoyable involves these people.

At other barbecues, my inability to fit in casts me adrift, wandering from room to room. I can’t even eat to look busy and give my hands something to do.

Wait. This family has a dog. She’s not starting a fire–no opposable thumbs. And she’s almost certainly avoiding the tiny humans and their not-at-all gentle touch. Maybe she’s my people.

I’ll just be over there making friends.

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.

Dinner Time

The door closes; my fleeting view of the hallway narrows to a sliver, then it’s gone. I can still smell the neighbors in my nose.
I heave a sigh and turn away. There are things to do.
I patrol the grounds: kitchen, living room, den, bedroom, living room. I stand sentinel at the living room window. (There’s a bird!) I start my rotation again. My nails (too long, now; someone should really do something about that), tap a soft staccato rhythm into the hardwood floors.
I stop to sniff a scarf carelessly left on a chair. I prod it with my nose and take in the intoxicating layers of smell: the factory where it was made, the store where it was sold, the house of the person who gave it as a gift, and finally of the owner. Her scent I know well. But a new smell lies on top of them all—one of my own kind, but no one I recognize. I inhale one last, deep sniff of the scarf, and then turn away and shake it off. What a great shake, all the way from my nose to my tail!
Moving on…Something interesting happened on the floor over here. What is that? Sweet potato? Pumpkin? Tentatively, I touch my tongue lightly to the spot. Sometimes I smell better with my tongue.
Nope. Still not sure. Must be something new. I take a little longer taste and decide I like it.
What a full morning! I find my bed, pat it down just right, and curl up in a ball; it’s cold, after all. I drift off to sleep, pondering the new smell on the floor.
I wake up with a giant yawn and take a big stretch I can feel in my toes and tail. Time for patrol; maybe something’s changed.
I make another go of the floor, the scarf. The bird has moved on from the window, but I stand guard a few minutes longer in case he comes back. This is how my day passes, patrolling the rooms of our home, checking on the neighborhood, keeping the family safe.
I’m napping when the door opens; someone’s home! I jump up (no stretch this time) and run to the door. In the quiet monotony of my morning and afternoon, the promise of family coming home makes every muscle in my body zing with joy.
Let me tell you about my day! Did you know there was a bird? And that scarf! Where has it been?
You set down all these things you carry and I watch patiently. You start wandering through the house, patrolling the grounds. No need, chief. I’ve got this. We’re all clear.
Now you’re doing that thing with food in the kitchen. It’s my favorite part of the day. Almost. I love watching you working. I especially love when you’re not so good at it and a little something drops on the floor. Floor nibbles are the best kind.
Speaking of nibbles… Oh no, you’re right. You better eat first. I’ve just been protecting the home all day, but whatever. I sit patiently and wait. You eat your dinner off the fancy plate. I only look back at you a few times, to make sure you’re still there. Be cool. Beeee cooool.
You stand up and start walking from room to room, picking up this, putting down that. Your movements are erratic and nonsensical; you don’t smell anything. Still, I follow closely at your heels. Don’t forget about me!
Finally, my patience pays off. You look down at me with all the love in your eyes, a smile quirked on your lips. You ask the question you already know the answer to. “Are you hungry?”
Yes, yes, yesyes, yesyesyesYesYesYesYESYESYES!!! Every cell in my body dances; I can’t decide between my Let’s Play stance and my Front Paw Half-Jump. So, I alternate between the two. You walk toward the Magic Closet, and I start to prance in place. It’s time. It’s happening.
Every moment since the final click of the door shutting on me this morning has led to this: one level cup of dry kibble. I wait off to the side as you pour it in my bowl: chinkedy chinky chink. Let’s Play Stance. Front Paw Half-Jump. Prance prance prance.
As a young one, I inhaled my food. Now, with the wisdom of age, I appreciate these finer moments in life. I savor the food, actually chewing every fifth piece. Funny how the food never changes, but never fails to delight.
Too soon, I’ve eaten the last bit of kibble (but left the half-pill you tried to sneak to me on the floor, thank you very much). I take a quick drink of water, fresh how I like it, and lick my lips. I pad out to find you and put my head on your lap. I thank you with my eyes, pouring love and gratitude from my heart straight to yours. My tail wags and I wait until you acknowledge my thanks with a pat on the head. Satisfied, I turn around and walk away, leaving a puddle of drool and my love on your lap.