So much for planning . . . .

The Return of the Fred has put a crimp in my “cooking school” plans, as we prepare to move the remainder from our worldly goods from the ATL to the RTP. However, in the midst of our turmoil I did come across one of the most, um, interesting recipes I’ve seen in a long time.

The recipe is called “Egg and Coffee Combo” and it comes from a family cookbook that a friend sent me recently. It was submitted by “Uncle Furman”:

Egg and Coffee Combo

1 cup
1 egg
Instant coffee
Hot stove

Put desired amount of instant coffee in a cup. Fill the pot 3/4 with water. Put pot on hot stove with an egg it it and let water boil for several minutes or more, depending on how you want your egg. Remove the pot. Take out egg. Pour hot water in pot into coffee cup. Stir. Run cold water over egg and strike tenderly and gently with prongs of fork, and disrobe it. You are ready.

I’ve grown to like Uncle Furman. Although he seems thrifty (not typically a quality I appreciate), he indulges in some linguistic extravagances that are quite appealing. I love the image of tenderly and gently disrobing an egg. And I suspect the reference to the “pot” in the list of ingredients is a deliberate double entendre. Maybe that’s the special ingredient that allows Uncle Furman to forget exactly where his egg had been before it went to the store and ended up in the water he used for his coffee.

Back to School with Husband

I promise to return to cooking school this week, but it was an unexpectedly joyful and momentous weekend in the Wise household. Fred is here to stay! His return happened a bit more quickly than I’d dared to hope, so suffice it to say we’re thrilled to be back together.

Of course, Fred’s arrival necessitated a festive meal involving some form of animal flesh, and I used the opportunity to implement Lesson 1 on mis-en-place. As Fred writes in his blog entry, I purchased his favorites: cheese, steak, and peanuts. We won’t quibble very much over his failure to list the maple pecan pie I made him from scratch, with a wonderful butter crust that actually managed to be flaky, but I am sure that our friends who will receive all the remaining pieces will be appreciative.

The ingredients from the meal came from Trader Joe’s in Chapel Hill, and the visit marked my first excursion to a Trader Joe’s. The store does not have the feel of luxury and glamour I get from other stores that offer $8 per pound bacon, but then again, I didn’t spend my Whole Paycheck there either. (In all fairness, I did see uncured bacon there that was actually more than $8 per pound, but the $6 bottle of actually drinkable cabernet sauvignon made up for it.)

But that’s really the subject of another entry. Trying to implement Lesson 1, I tucked my towel in my apron, as the professional chefs who commented last time recommended. I discovered, however, that my kitchen is just too tiny for this to matter. The reality is that the towel that hangs on the oven door and the one on the wall next to the “pantry” are always within easy reach. (I will download a photo to demonstrate as soon as I figure out how to do that with Fred’s new camera.) Other items, such as spoons and spatulas, are so handily located that all I need to do is make sure they’re clean and in place.

What was helpful, though, was thinking through how I was going to prepare and set out the meal, even though it was quite simple: an appetizer of bought olive bruschetta and crackers, two cheeses, and bought honey roasted peanuts; steak; a salad of baby greens with button mushrooms and Irish cheddar cheese; and the maple pecan pie. Typically, my technique is to dive in and beginning preparing one thing that will take a while, somehow hoping that I’ll have time to do everything else as the first item is going. But this time, I set out the ingredients and thought about the entire meal first. Here’s how it went.

Step 1: Make pie crust and refrigerate.
Step 2: While pie crust is chilling, set out appetizers, except cheese, on nice plates. Include spoon for nuts and knife for cutting cheese. Remove cheese from wrapper, set on board and cover with plastic wrap in refrigerator before serving. (The cheese would have been fine set out, except it would have ended up on the floor with suspiciously cat-shaped teeth marks covering the remains.)
Step 3: Salt and pepper steak and drizzle with Worcestshire sauce. (This is Fred’s favorite marinade.)
Step 4: Rinse mushrooms and set on paper towel to dry. Julia Child says you don’t have to rinse them, but I just can’t help it.
Step 5: Make dressing for salad with olive oil, spicy mustard, and balsamic vinegar.
Step 6: Grate cheese and store in refrigerator.
Step 7: Roll out pie crust, set in dish and flute edges, and refrigerate.
Step 8: Preheat oven for pie.
Step 9: Put pie ingredients into shell and bake pie. Take pie out of oven before you leave to pick up husband at the airport so pie will have time to set.
Step 10: Pick up ailing husband, who is suffering from a cold that has depleted his appetite, an hour later than planned. Arrive home at 10:00. Munch on appetizers and cut into pie that has not had time to set but is still good. Leave steak and salad for the next day and go to bed.

The Table

I don’t write much about my faith on this blog. But as our event this weekend has got us talking about Jesus pretty much non-stop, I feel compelled to say something about a few inevitable connections between food and faith. These connections are by no means limited to Christianity–it seems that every major world religion has practices that emphasize the importance of food in our lives. (Think of the Brahman cows or the seder meal.)

Back in October I heard a sermon by Carolyn Bechtel for a communion service, in which she said, “The table is the central image for the survival of creation.” What she was getting at was not that we have to eat to live. That’s obvious.

What she was getting at were some of these things:

During the service of Christian communion, the best moment to my mind is when the people approach the table to receive the bread and the cup. Coming together over this shared symbolic meal, they suddenly cease to become victims of fashion mistakes, or whiny complainers who grate on my last nerve, or self-righteous, pompous boobs. Instead I’m reminded that they may just have lost the will to care about themselves, or maybe they care about more important things, or maybe they complain because they hope someone will listen to them, and maybe they’re pompous are because . . . okay, they may be just pompous, but even pomposity can have its charms. They’re part of my community and my family.

That’s why the table, and not the individual act of communion, is the critical image. Eating together helps creation survive because we have to feed each other and sustain each other even if we don’t like each other. Producing a meal, especially in a global economy, calls on the skills and energy of many more people than the cook or the person who eats it. And the way we’re producing our meals now calls on the energy of an awful lot of people so a few can eat.

We need to bring more people to the table. We can’t focus just on feeding ourselves. We need to make sure that we create and support a system of production that allows everyone to sit down and enjoy something to eat.

I’ll return to cooking school soon, but will be thinking, if not always writing, about these ideas as I go.

My Working Life

A few days ago, while we were on vacation skiing, I was griping about having to go on a business trip after vacation. Yes, we’re hosting a group at The Cloisters on Sea Island, located in one of the richest zip codes in the U.S.; yes, I get to stay in a $1,300 a night room for free; yes, there would be good food. But I had serious doubts that all this would offset missing Fred and having to be extra special nice to lots of people for three days.

But last night, after eating one of the most spectacular pieces of filet mignon I’ve ever had, and having my driver pull up in the Jaguar and shuttle me back to my room–which is as big as our house in Decatur–and curling up on my oceanfront balcony in the robe and slippers the maid had laid out, and speaking with room service about my morning coffee and breakfast delivery, I decided it wasn’t so bad after all. It’ll be really easy to be nice here.

Mis-en-Place for the New Year

Thanks to everyone for your comments and encouragement this year. Happy 2008 to all!

Here at The Not-So-Newly-But-Overly-Well-Feds we have committed ourselves to a new plan for 2008. We will learn how to be a better cook, and we will take you along with us.

“But you already know how to cook,” you say. “Is Fred going to try something besides exploding eggs in your pots and welding Wonder bread packages to the stovetop?”

Yes, I can cook, and no, Fred is not getting anywhere near my kitch . . . I mean, the kitchen if I can help it. But I know squat about the technical side–the part where you measure things, and know maybe half of the terms a professional chef might use, and can explain why you shouldn’t use a cast-iron skillet for a tomato sauce.

My plan was spurred, or inspired, by a post on Michael Ruhlman’s blog by Bob del Grosso. I quote here because the post was part of an excruciatingly long thread, but here’s the link. Explaining why home cooks get inconsistent results, he writes:

“One day the cook leaves a roast out on the countertop for an hour or so before cooking while on another day he pulls it from the fridge and slams it right into to oven. The pre-warmed roast cooked to 125-130, carried over to 140 is evenly rare while the other roast shows a ring of well done on the outside and lens of rare in the middle.

One day he lets the roast rest in front an open window and finds that it only carries over to 130 and on another day he shoves it into a corner and it carries to 150.

Point is that it is not good enough to only focus on the quality of ingredients or the steps that one follows while constructing a recipe. It’s also important to focus on the totality of the cooking (And eating!) environment and to be aware of things like internal and surface temperatures of foods prior to, during and following cooking.

I may be stating the obvious here, and I certainly mean no condescension, but when you take cooking seriously, it gets very very interesting and very very challenging.”

Well, my goal is make my cooking more interesting and challenging this year, and to learn things, and to record it here.

Let’s start with the towel on the shoulder from my last post. I learned (far too recently to tell you when without embarrassment) that’s part of my “mis-en-place,” which is simply the practice of setting out everything you need before you begin preparing a meal. It’s something I’ve known and ignored since childhood. It’s possible the technique was developed by August Escoffier (1846-1935), who pioneered the “brigade” style of French cooking, but I bet my great-great-grandmother was doing the same thing in Appalachia around the same time.

Here is my mother’s advice on mis-en-place. I was going to cite some other sources, but after consulting them I was reminded, once again, that my mother is always right.

First, about your kitchen setup:

You will be a better person and a happier cook if you keep your kitchen organized–not perfect, or even tidy, but organized. That is, put everything back in exactly the same place every time, and make sure most frequently used items are handy. Example: Pots and pans should be within easy reach of the stove, with those you use daily towards the front and those used less often in the back. All those who desire to “help” in the kitchen should have the system explained to them, or they should buy you a label maker for your birthday.

Now, for the actual cooking:

1) If you’re using a recipe, read through the entire recipe first. If not, decide what you’re going to make and what ingredients you’ll use. Check to make sure you have all the ingredients and equipment you need. I only sorta kinda do this, which certainly makes my cooking exciting and interesting, especially when I set out to make, say, an omelette and discover the expiration date on the carton of eggs was two months ago. But things will be different now. Really.

2) Put a towel on your shoulder for cleaning up accidents and make sure you have cleaning items (sponges, paper towels, etc.) close by. (Okay, what the pros say is actually slightly different. In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain writes that he merely squirreled away his favorite towels at the beginning of every shift. But you get the idea–be prepared to clean up after yourself.)

3) Determine the equipment you need–measuring spoons, skillet, bowls, pots, cups. Set it out. If you’re short on countertop space, you don’t have to pull everything out–just check to make sure it’s clean and exactly where it should be.

4) Prepare as many items as possible before you actually assemble the dish: chop vegetables, grate cheese, measure liquids, etc. Clean up your mess as you go. Place prepared items in bowls or plates and set aside.

5) Pre-heat oven and move racks as needed. Check the recipe again, make sure everything is in place, and get going . . . .

This may sound intimidating, but it’s a heck of a lot better than setting out to make pecan pie on Christmas Day, then spending over an hour looking for an open convenience store that sold flour, only to discover the two bags of pecans you had in the freezer were actually 1) over two years old and 2) walnuts.**

** Okay, I did find a bag of pecans underneath some ancient, frozen wheat germ. . . . see what I mean by “organized”?