The Sad Demise of the Trans Fat

Well, it’s happening here even in the South: At work we just received a MEMO informing us that as of February 5, 2007, there would be NO MORE trans fat served in our cafeteria. We had to sign it–probably so our loved ones won’t sue if we fall over dead into our fried chicken and barbecued pork skins in the next few months.

For the record the pound cake I am making Fred has Crisco in it because that’s the way my Aunt Willie made it and it is damn good.


No cooking last night. We saw Babel last night in our effort to see all the Oscar nominees before the awards. We had two bags of movie popcorn (free refills on the large!!) for our dinner.

I also talked to my friend Rocco last night, who was just putting away the ingredients for the Valentine dinner he’s making for his sweetie. I’m afraid forty-one years of East Tennessee-trained cooking simply cannot compete with forty-five-ish years of New York Italian cooking. (Rocco got his first promotion from AARP and was feeling sensitive about his age.) He even knew what calabasa was.

Rocco’s sweetie is getting tapas that include beet and blood orange salad and some kind of hazelnut/orange vinaigrette. Rocco doesn’t use recipes either. I can’t remember the rest but it was all glamorous and yummy. Fred is getting a pound cake and some as-yet-undetermined meat.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all.

Still No Calabasa Soup

The Great Calabasa Quest remains unfinished. Last night poor Fred agreed not to go to a movie, even though he really wanted to, because I said I wanted to stay home and cook. Here’s a chronicle of the evening’s events:

5:00 Chicken put in to roast

5:00 – 6:00 Chicken roasts. Cook plays around on the internet. Cook periodically gets up to turn/poke at chicken. Cook has a glass of wine. (Las Rocas Garnacha, which we LOVE.)

6:15 Chicken done. One breast given to neighbor for washing our car. Cook and Fred hover over chicken, peeling off brown, crispy, delicious skin and eating it, along with the wings and tasty bits from the thighs. Cook and Fred are no longer really very hungry.

6:15 – 7:30 Cook balances checkbook while having one more, much-needed glass of wine. Cook discovers she and new spouse cannot eat out again for the rest of the month if all bills are to be paid.

7:30 Cook gets up to make a weird combination of cumin, anchiote chili powder, Hungarian paprika, pepper, salt, cayenne pepper, onion powder (bought specifically for this experiment), garlic powder (again, bought for experiment), and sugar. Cook is trying to replicate powder that goes on barbecued potato chips. It is a shameful fact that the Cook loves sauces and spices and has been known to eat them ALL BY THEMSELVES, something about which she is so embarrassed that she cannot even write about it in the first person. Cook’s idea was to use it for dipping celery in, as Cook is beginning to plump out and has to be careful about snacks.

8ish Cook and Fred sit down to watch Good Night and Good Luck. Poor Fred is actually still hungry, has given up his plan for a movie and nevertheless still has no calabasa soup. He gets more roast chicken and some cheese while Cook munches on celery and spice dip, occasionally eating the spice dip all by itself.

9ish Movie stopped so Cook can get up and put chicken carcass in a pot with water to make stock. At some point tops of celery stalks are also thrown in.

10ish Movie finishes. Somehow it still ends up being 1:00 a.m. by the time Cook and Fred actually go to sleep but all they seem to accomplish is watching two more episodes of Bob Newhart. And straining the chicken stock. And the Cook eats the liver and neck without even sharing it with the sweet, kind husband who gave up a movie for all this.

So this is how our life really goes. Do professional chefs do these kinds of things, or do they just not tell their bad habits to the world?

I came across Michael Ruhlman’s blog today, where Anthony Bourdaine talks about the horrors of various celebrity chefs on the Food Network. Not having cable, I can’t really comment, but the blog was hilarious. Nevertheless, Bourdaine’s lambasting of Sandra Lee and her love of canned food leads me here (while the subject of bad eating habits is still fresh in my mind) to make a few confessions:

  1. I actually like some casseroles that contain cream of mushroom soup and sour cream mixed together, topped with Ritz crackers and butter. There. That feels better. On a side note, I once served such a dish to several foodie friends to settle an argument about whether or not something like that was actually edible, and they had to confess it was pretty good. One did so while scooping leftover sauce out of the casserole dish.
  2. Other things I like (child of the 70s, that’s all I can say): Hamburger Helper Lasagna. Spaghetti-Os. Macaroni and cheese made from a box. Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Spaghetti made from Campbell’s Tomato Soup and Cream of Mushroom. Pies made with evaporated milk and canned cherries on top. Krystal hamburgers.

In confessing these sins, I’m probably forfeiting whatever miniscule chance I might ever have had to gain the respect of someone like Anthony Bourdain or Marc Ruhlman. (Maybe I could regain that by learning exactly how to spell their names.) Not that an East Tennessee trained home cook is likely to have that happen to begin with–but maybe I can improve things by noting that I can make home-churned butter and grew up drinking raw cow’s milk.

There will be no cooking tonight, as we are going to see Babel, as I promised WFW. Most likely dinner will consist of movie popcorn.

The Art of Food, Part I

This morning as I am contemplating calabasa soup, or perhaps cauliflower, but have no definite food activity to report, might be a good time to discuss food philosophy in general. Or general philosophy in general.

Cooking is art deploying science. I’m grateful for those folks who test and test recipes until they’re “perfect” (blessings upon you, Cooks Illustrated!). But then there are so many variables you face in the kitchen: you run out of, or have never heard of, anchiote chili powder; you live in the sticks, where if you asked for lemongrass the clerk would send you to the garden section of your local Wal-Mart; the recipe calls for pork but the store has fresh lamb for the first time in ages. There is much beauty and possibility in all this unpredictability.

Fred says that when he paints he has to turn off his inner critic, which allows him to try new things. This is how I approach food, despite the fact that I have that Southern inability to put a dish on the table without saying something like, “Well, I don’t know if this will be any good because I think I let the onions get too brown,” or the classic, “Oh, it’s nothing fancy–I just threw it together.”

That’s not how I approach writing, which I agonize over and edit and nitpick till it’s dead sometimes. That’s the other reason for this blog. It would be nice to write a bit more like I cook–freely, with a little less of the inner critic and a little more sense of fun.

Two of my happiest cooking moments occurred when I had to make dinner for a large group of people using only the leftovers available in the kitchen. In some ways this is how I approach grocery shopping, only instead of looking for leftovers (my goodness! the canned spinach is on sale!) I’m looking for the prettiest seasonal vegetables, the freshest-looking fish, the plumpest pork and tastiest cheese. When you’re confined to recipes you can’t do this–you want to make peach Melba in December; the store has just gotten some wild sockeye salmon that costs as much as a new pair of shoes but won’t be there as long and will taste much better; you get home with the chicken but realize you forgot to pick up the celery.

Fred and I now have to go to church–a friend of ours is being ordained. Just one more factor that keeps us from being bohemian.