Saturday, January 29, 2011

"This looks like what you would get at a fancy restaurant, like Denny's or something"

You have friends coming over for coffee and dessert and conversation after dining out. For the fifth time. And now you are beginning to wonder if you should serve something other than chocolate pudding. You were inventive. The second time you added a little bloop of peanut butter right in the center of the pudding expecting comments of delight...and was a little disappointed when no one said anything. But you kept experimenting. The third time you plopped in a dollop of whipped cream. Silence from your guests. Even when you put a cherry on top of the whipped cream the fourth comment.

You are now beginning to think that you should try something new. Something to awe and stun your guests into expressing appreciation for all of your hard work. You could go down and buy a cheese cake, and put some whipped cream with a cherry on it -- but you are beginning to suspect you are in a whipped cream and cherry rut.

Okay -- go to the store and buy:

One can of Cherry Pie Filling
A bag of frozen Blackberries...or Blueberries...whatever strikes your fancy.
One of those cartons of Fresh Strawberries
A box of Graham Crackers
A box of Powdered Sugar

And that's it.


Okay, you can get some stupid whipped cream if you insist.

Now you have to get this stuff ready for intermixalation.

Cut off the stems on the strawberries, wash them, and plop them into large bowl.

Take the frozen Blackberries (or Blueberries) and zap them in the microwave for a few seconds to defrost 'em. Throw them into the bowl with the strawberries.

See how easy this is?

Open the can of Cherry Pie Filling and and add that to the bowl.

And stir.

You can taste it if you want. It will taste tart which means that you will scrunch up your face as you swallow it. So throw some plain old sugar into the mixture. Throw in a little sugar at a time until the taste is not too sweet but the tartness is gone. I figure a maximum of half a cup.

Now comes presentation time. Presentation is what sells your dessert and you have to use your imagination a little.

We have some blue glass goblets and some blue glass plates. What I do is place a goblet in the middle of the plate. Then break off pieces of Graham Crackers and line the inside of the goblet. Then I carefully spoon in the berry mixture into the center of the Graham Crackers in the goblet. Yeah, yeah, you can put a small dollop of whipped cream on top if that is your thing. But then I take the Powdered Sugar and sprinkle on top of the dessert and onto the plate too. Sometimes I even sprinkle little chocolate chips onto the dessert and the plate -- but this is because I can't leave well enough alone.

No -- you don't have to have blue goblets and plates. But it is neat if you can use a colored glass or bowl on a colored plate. That way the Powdered Sugar shows up really neat.

Now just watch what happens when you carry your creation out one by one and hand them to your guests. Listen to the comments"

"Oh, it's not chocolate pudding."

"Wow...this looks like what you would get at a fancy restaurant, like Denny's or something."

"Mmmmm...this is good. I didn't know that you could get berries out of a box."

"Do you have any more?"

The recipe is stupidly simple, and wonderfully tasty.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Scalloped Marriage

…and Marilyn asked if I had any thoughts about dinner. I didn’t – and threw out the simplest thing I could thing of, “I don’t know – maybe grilled cheese sandwiches and soup or something.” She pondered this and then responded with “How about Scalloped Potatoes?”

I knew then that the gauntlet was cast. First, if it was Scalloped Potatoes, I would be the one to make it. I was the Scalloped Potato maker. Second, an implied divisiveness was embedded in this suggestion.

You see, this goes to the heart of our relationship. I enjoy change; appreciate the ebb and flow of life. I greet crises as a challenge to be mastered, and a bit of turmoil now and then gives me a fresh appreciation of life. Smooth, trouble-free life is boring. And this is reflected in my cooking.

In contrast, Marilyn is an aficionado of the concept of smooth sailing. A trouble-free existence. This is reflected in her preferences of dining pleasure.

This all erupted years ago. The first time I made Scalloped Potatoes.

It is a simple recipe. My way – reflecting the ruggedness of my soul -- was to simply layer sliced potatoes with bacon and butter and cheese and salt and pepper and hefty sprinkles of flour, with the whole thing drenched in milk. Throw it in the oven uncovered and cook the hell out of it. It is scrumptious.

But, the first time Marilyn tasted it, she grimaced. It seems she confronted pockets of flour. And some of the potatoes on the top were a little burnt. My response was, “Precisely. That is what makes this so good. It isn’t bland, and each mouthful is a surprise. It is this inconsistency which reflects the pioneerish spirit of Texas.”

She wasn’t impressed. “I don’t think there are supposed to be globs of flour.”

This was her way of saying that we live in the 21st century and everything should be homogenized and smooth and of velvet texture.

Marriage is give and take. Sometimes you just have to suck it in, bite your tongue, and give way on your lusts a little. The next time that I was required to create the essence of Scalloped Potatoes, she stepped in. “Why don’t you not put flour in the potatoes, but instead mix it with the milk that you pour over it? And put a top over it when you cook it?”

This was a direct challenge to not only my cooking expertise and manhood, but to the Spirit of a rugged Texas. There are times when you have to put your foot down.

I dramatically responded with, “Yes dear.”

So now we eat bland pap Scalloped Potatoes.

Last night, when she suggested this for our dinner, I knew the angst and contention of our scalloped history was rearing its ugly head. “How about Scalloped Potatoes?” Those meek words caused me to tremor. The question was: her puny Scalloped Potatoes or my rough tough Scalloped Potatoes?

I decided to take the Dr. Phil approach. Negotiation. Compromise.

“I’m not going to peel the potatoes!” I declared. I introduced a change – something to disrupt the smoothness of the whole potato thing.

“Okay,” she said.

“And I’m going to slice up a bunch of link sausage and throw it in!”

She could see what was happening. She was going to get her bland potatoes, but with compromise.

“Okay,” she said.

So last night I stood before the cutting board making pretty-thin slices of unpeeled potatoes. After spraying the bottom of a glass pan with some of that spray oil, I made a nifty potato layer across the bottom. Then I sprinkled some salt and pepper on that layer. Threw in a plop of butter. Then I sliced up a bunch of link sausage and threw these bits of sausage onto the layer – whispering, “Take that! And that!” as I flung each slice in.

I really wanted to sprinkle some flour in. It almost killed me not to. But, I remembered our compromise. So I slapped some cheddar and mozzarella over the layer. And I repeated this process over and over until the glass pan was filled. Then came the hard part -- the part that went against everything that I believed in. I threw some flour in a shaker glass thing, and then filled it with milk. And I stood there shaking the stupid thing until it all reached a state of entermixation. Then I poured it over the potato conglomeration. Actually I had to do this twice. And then I put the damned top on the pan.

As I getting ready to shove it into the 400-degree oven, Marilyn called out – “Why don’t you put in the microwave for a while to give it a head start? That way, maybe it won’t take so long.”

Damn! Who is cooking this anyway? I am the chef! It really tees me off when my wife comes up with weird ideas about my chefness.

Especially if the idea is good.

Humiliated, I put it into the microwave for ten minutes. Then into the oven. Later we sat and ate. I especially enjoyed the skins-on-the-potatoes and sausage part. At least I got something out of the deal, and she did too.

Maybe that is what this is all about. Maybe all relationships should be scalloped.

I really Hate Reading Recipes...

..because they are so boring. No sex. No intrigue. No human dynamic.
Maybe it could be done better.

And she said, “Oh no, dear Sir. What am I going to do? My new in-laws are having a party and I need to bring something to eat….and I don’t know what to bring. I don’t cook and I am worried and what will they think of me if I don’t bring anything and I don’t want my husband to get mad.”
I looked at her and replied, “Forsooth, young maiden. Fret not. For verily I say unto you – thoust anguish is but a tiny ripple in the tide of life.”
“What is a ‘thoust’? ” she replied.
Such things burden me. It is hard work saving damsels in distress. And it is even harder work talking weird. But, the problem this young lass is confronting is one that plagues myriads of new brides. And there is such a simple solution, and it doesn’t even require cooking.
 “Hark! I say unto you – payeth attention!”
What this young lady needs is a recipe that she cannot screw up. She needs to walk into her in-law’s house confident and proud handing her mother-in-law something simple, colorful and tasty. When her mother-in-law accepts the presentation and says, “Oh, thank you dear. You really didn’t have to.” She will know that she has arrived.
The key is always simplicity. There is never a need to imitate the great chefs by preparing something like Split Peas Soup from the can and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, like we had last night. Always stick to something that not only will feel good, but make your confidence soar.
What am I talking about? Stuffed celery! It is inexpensive, a delight to the palate, looks marvelous, and even fun to make. I am sure that there are a bunch of recipes for this – but throw all of ‘em out, and stick with this one. Here goes.
Step 1. Buy some celery. One bunch is plenty. Test the celery first by grabbing it. It should feel strong and firm, just like when you grab a…..well, you know – something firm! You do not want wimpy celery stalks.
Step 2. I know this is just the beginning and is already getting complicated, but stick with me. Buy a package of cream cheese. Just one. No – no, don’t get the strawberry or pineapple flavored stuff – just plain old white cream cheese.
Step 3 and 4. Buy a jar of cherries with all the cherry juice in it, and then buy some chopped pecans.
There. Now the job is half done. Celery, cream cheese, cherries and nuts.
The remainder of this process will take about fifteen minutes. Well, twenty if you are one of those slow and plodding and precise people.
Take half of the cream cheese and put it into a bowl – and stick the damn bowl in a microwave and nuke it for about fifteen seconds or so. All you want to do is soften the cream cheese a little bit. If you don’t have a microwave, go outside and start your car and let it run for fifteen minutes. Then raise the hood and put the bowl on top of the air filter, so the heat from the engine can do the deed. Aw hell, just let the stuff sit out for a while if you want to. The goal is to turn the cream cheese from a sturdy block into a wimpy block. So use your imagination.
You see, that is what fussing around with food in the kitchen is all about. Imagination. And talk. You have to talk to your food as you mess with it. When you do this, you will find that you begin to express emotion – and emotionally prepared food always tastes better.
Oh, I guess that was step 5.
Step 6. Take a cherry, and with a knife cut into pieces over the bowl. Just let the cherry pieces rain down onto the wimpy cream cheese. Then chop up some more cherries.
“How many cherries do I chop up?”
I don’t know. Maybe ten. Well, probably fifteen. Who knows? Just chop some cherries, and every now and then pour a dash of cherry juice into the bowl. When you get tired of cherry-chopping, take a fork and squish everything together. Just smush and mash. Pretty soon, with the cherry juice and all, everything will become real mushy and you can sort of whip it.
You will find the concoction to be a nice pink color and bits of cherry-red in it. Taste it. Want it to taste more cherry-like, throw some more cherry juice in it. Want more red bits, chop up some more cherries.
 This is your creation. You are the creator. You can do whatever you want. You are in control. You have power. You are the master. This is where emotional talking comes into play. I can imagine the young daughter-in-law squishing the hell out of the cream cheese with her fork, muttering to her mother-in-law: “Take this you old bitch! Mess with me, huh? How does this feel? And this? And this???” 

It is better that her husband is not in the kitchen when she makes stuffed celery.
Oh, where was I.
Step 7. When you have the cheese a pretty pink and you like how it tastes and you like how it looks – throw some chopped pecans in it. My daughter says I put too many nuts in, so I guess you should put less than me. The pecans add a little surprise to the texture of the whole thing. Stir it all together.
Step 8. Now too many pretend cooks taste what they have concocted in the bowl, and taste again, and taste again…..and eat it all up before they get to the celery. Don’t do this. Yes I know it tastes good…..but control yourself.
Wash the stupid celery. For some reason, it always seems to have bits of dirt in it.
Now cut it into pieces about three inches long. Cut and throw away the really white part of the celery, and do away with the real skinny sections down by the leaves.

Now that you have your pieces of celery, get a slab of the cream cheese mixture with your fork, and slop it onto the celery. I know – look – the celery isn’t really actually stuffed. You try to get as much into that big groove of the celery as you can, and just sort of pile the remainder on. Leave one end of the celery unstuffed. This is where you pick it up with your fingers.
This sounds so complicated. Here is the short version. Mix together some cream cheese, cherries and nuts and slap it onto some celery.

That is all there is to it.
Arrange you stuffed celery like spokes onto a plate. It looks cool. And tastes cool too.
See – no big deal. Problem solved. Hubby is happy and mother-in-law is happy and you are the creator of the world. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Rustic and Bloopy Bread Pudding

Sometimes though people gravitate to my Rustic and Bloopy Bread Pudding. It’s rustic because it looks kind of odd coming out of the oven and it’s bloopy because…..well, you’ll see.

Step Uno: Turn the oven on to 350-degrees. How do I know this? 350-degrees is a universal temperature as prescribed by the  Culinary Institute of the Universe. If you tune in to the Cooking Channel you will see that 95% of the time the oven is set to 350-degrees.

Step Dos: Actually this is a two step process and I don’t mean to confuse the whole. It involves a cooking vessel and a liquid.

First find a casserole pan, you know – something four of five inches deep. The next part, put milk into it up to almost half-way. Yeah, if you want some extra calories you can use Half and Half but plain old American milk seems to do just fine.

Step Tres: Throw some eggs into the milk mixture. Unshelled. I figure it takes two eggs but I usually end up putting in three because it just seems kind of neat. I’ve never tried four eggs so I will leave that up to you. Let me know.

Next Step: Grab cinnamon and splat four or five shakes into the milk-egg stuff.

Next Next Step: Grab a whisk or fork and kind of beat the mixture a little bit. Mainly you want the eggs to get un-eggy and sort of mixed in. That damn cinnamon just won't mix and will float on top making faces at you. Don’t sweat it.

Next Next Next Step: Sugar – to pour, not spoon. Dump some sugar into the middle of your concoction. You want to make a little mountain of sugar with its peak just poking through the liquid. You are welcome to add more or less but the mountain pokey thing works for me.

Step Siete: Put a capful of Vanilla into the mix. Or if you are like me you will think that the smells so damn good that two capfuls must be better than one. Now stir it.

Step Siete plus One: Bread. This is Bread Pudding after all. Find the oldest moldiest bread or hamburger or hot dog buns that you have. Tear off the mold and throw that in the trash can. Then step back….oh, around ten paces. Rip off a piece or bread and calmly toss it at the casserole dish. Keep trying until you start getting some of the bread pieces to actually land in the dish. It works better if you imagine that a crowd of 10,000 is watching you and they ooh and aah when you connect. Step back further and toss more. This is the bloopy part.

Now you can be a fuddy duddy and lay out bread precisely into the mixture and that is actually so boring and doesn’t improve the taste one bit. The goal here is to load up the bowl with bread pieces – well, you need to pick up the bread pieces that missed the dish and probably clean up the splashed milk all over the counter, but that is a small price to pay for Boopy Awe.

Okay, take a fork or something and kind of squish the bread down so that it is all soaked. You see the combination of the starch in the bread and the eggs and the milk will result in oxymorification which is kind of technical in that it involves gravitons and quasars but will result on a puddingy concoction.

Step Nueve: Here you can do what you want to or not want to. Since my wife likes raisins I throw some of those in there and punch them down into the pudding. You can add nuts, chocolate, brussel sprouts or whatever you want to. I would be careful with the brussel sprout thing.

Step Finale: Put your casserole dish on a pizza pan or something to catch the stuff when it boils over because it will because you probably screwed up the precise measurements. Slap it into the oven for…..perhaps an hour. Just check it every now and then. It will puff up and turn brown. You want it to be a toasty brown….and you can take it out and shake it every now and then and if it feels puddingy you are done but if it feels liquidy you need to cook some more.

Presentation: You can whip up some powdered sugar glaze (with milk) or lemon sauce (add lemon extract) but we like it without any extra stuff. Heck, if you want to plop some strawberries over it. Now if you are a guy trying to impress someone you can heft a big spoonful into a large plate and sprinkle a bit of powdered sugar and cinnamon all over it and maybe place a pine cone on top. The colors will meld nicely. If you are a female and like pretty stuff – do the sugar and cinnamon sprinkle that put a cherry right on top. Then maybe run into the back yard and pick a couple of leaves off the tree and position them adoringly around your concoction.

Why are you people recoiling in horror? Just because the Food Channel says that one should never put inedible things on a plate – well, who made them boss? The problem is easily solved when you serve the precious desert. You simply say, “Don’t eat the damn leaves! Or the Pine Cone!”

Quick Focus: If this sounds complicated lets look at it another way. Put some eggs, milk, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla into a casserole dish. Throw in some bread and raisins or whatever. Cook at 350 until done. Prep Time: Seven Minutes. Cook Time: An hour more or less. Calories: More then Brussel Sprouts.