In which I nearly kill Fred

Last week, Fred triumphed in a marital victory of epic proportions. On Wednesday morning, he pointed out to me a red spot on his waist, just at the top of the thigh bone, about an inch or so across.

“I think I need to go to the doctor about this,” he said. “It looks like it’s getting infected, and I think my lymph nodes are swollen.”

I peered at the spot. “Oh for heaven’s sake,” I scoffed. “It’s just an infected mosquito bite. That’s why your lymph glands are swollen. They swell up even for regular mosquito bites. If it starts to spread go to the doctor.”

“Are you sure?” Fred said.

I rolled my eyes and made the sort of face you might make at a small child pestering you to fix a scratched finger. “Of course I’m sure. You’ll be fine.” I am always sure, since I am always right.

That was the end of the story, I figured–except, of course, for getting a good laugh out of it with my female colleagues at work. What big babies men are! we said. Running to the doctor over a little infected mosquito bite! HAHAHAHAHA!

That night, as we were getting into bed, I said smugly to Fred, “I take it your bite hasn’t gotten any worse?”

“It still itches,” he replied, “but I haven’t checked it since this morning.”

“Let’s take a look at it then.” I figured we might as well put an end to this.

Fred pulled down his waistband. “It looks like it might be a little redder,” he said.

In that moment it dawned on me that Fred is no baby. The spot was not “a little redder.” It had grown about a half inch in diameter and turned a fiery scarlet. Worse, a pinkish swelling, about a foot or more across, had spread across his groin, waist, and thigh.

In that moment I remembered the inch-long splinter Fred had left in his thigh for over a month, which got infected and which he treated only when I made him go to the doctor.

“I guess I should go to the doctor tomorrow,” he said.

“No you will not! We are going to the emergency room right now!”

We’d recently had a friend hospitalized for just this sort of thing–a rapidly spreading redness on this skin that quickly developed into a nasty MRSA infection (a superbug that is resistant to multiple antibiotics). Fred, it turns out, had the same thing that set off our friend’s MRSA infection–cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin that can spread rapidly. The bite, which Fred later revealed had been there for a couple of weeks and had been growing steadily worse, probably came from a spider.

We were lucky to get  in and out of the emergency room in a little over three hours. I felt terrible for dismissing Fred’s worries earlier. I felt even worse thinking about the bill we would get for the emergency room visit. I felt still worse thinking that if I’d listened to Fred, we would be out only a $30 co-pay for a visit to urgent care and would not be sitting in Duke’s emergency room at 2:00 a.m.

As the doctor was writing out the prescription for some powerful antibiotics, I tried to think of something that would get me out of a lifetime of groveling, that might somehow indicate that I had not pooh-poohed Fred’s troubles in vain.

“So if we didn’t treat this,” I offered, timidly, “would it just resolve itself? I mean, is this the sort of thing that might clear up without going to the doctor?”

The doctor looked up from his paperwork. “Oh no,” he replied cheerily. Clearly, he was on Fred’s side. “He would die. The infection would get into his bloodstream and become septic. That’s why antibiotics were such an important development. This used to kill people all the time!”

Happy to have set our minds at rest, he handed us his paperwork and breezed out of the room.

Fred is recovering well, and he is too kind to gloat. But let’s just say he’s getting fed very well these days. I had intended to post a recipe for the lamb dish I made for him the next night, but frankly it didn’t turn out very well. But there will be plenty more, since I will be paying for this for the rest of our life together. And since I’m awfully glad he’s here.

Pupuseria y Taqueria Orellana

Fred pretends to be adventurous. After all, he’s the artist–the one who moved to New Mexico on a lark to make his life as a painter; the one who likes to horrify me by wearing white athletic socks to social events; the one for whom “CD investments” means spending too much money on jazz recordings in the late 1990s.

But the truth came out on a recent Sunday venture after church, when we decided to eat out before running some errands. Driving away from the service, I said, “Why don’t we stop at one of those little Mexican restaurants on Roxboro?”

Fred squirmed–actually squirmed–moving back and forth in his seat. “Which one?” he said, fear coming in to his eyes.

“I was thinking about that little place right after the church on the left.”


“You don’t want to go,” I said. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just outside my comfort zone.”

“What do you mean? Are you afraid you’ll order something that tastes bad?”

He thought for a minute. “I’m afraid there won’t be anything I recognize on the menu.”

“They’ll have carnitas,” I scoffed. “All Mexican restaurants have carnitas, and you always like that.”

Poor Fred was trapped, and he knew it. If he refused, he’d lose his cachet as the zany artist, the free spirit eager to seek out new experiences. I had him.

Thus we found ourselves pulling in to the parking lot of Pupuseria y Taqueria Orellana (5300 N. Roxboro Rd; 919-471-3299).

To be fair to Fred, it’s a stretch to describe this place as a restaurant. The dining area is in the back of a convenience store featuring Mexican and Latin American products. It consists of an order window, several colorful plastic booths, a large-screen TV, and a fascinating stone fountain with potted plants set up along the back wall in an empty refrigerated case, shelves and doors having been removed. With the exception of the fountain, it’s a lot like the fast food places you’ll find attached to a gas station at an Interstate exit.

Unlike a fast food joint at a gas station, though, the food here was fresh, clearly prepared to order. Much to Fred’s horror, there were no carnitas on the very short menu, which kindly offered some English translations. But he found comfort in a miraculous sandwich, a torta de carne asada. This featured thin slices of spiced meat on an enormous bread roll good enough to be homemade: white on the inside, dark brown and crusty-soft on the outside. It also included generous amounts of mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, jalapenos, and “a special cheese”–a soft, mild white cheese I’m afraid I can’t identify.

The sandwich calmed Fred. Here were recognizable items–meat, bread, jalapenos, cheese–and he wasn’t being forced to speak Spanish. With his anxieties under control, I was able to turn my attention to my own order–tacos with tongue (lengua), cabeza (pig’s head), and al pastor (spiced beef).

These were wondrous creations. Each was covered in neatly diced onion, cilantro, a slice of avocado, and fresh limes. The salsa–a sauce in the traditional Mexican sense, not our American tomato-based tortilla dip–was thin, sharp and vinegary. The meat was tender and nicely seasoned. (There were, by the way, plenty of offerings for the less adventurous: chicken, carne asada, chorizo).

We also enjoyed a tamale, which resembled a giant hush puppy with a moist, cake-like interior, and a pupusa de queso. There’s a nice description of the pupusa here: it’s a Salvadoran dish consisting of a corn tortilla stuffed with a variety fillings, such as meat or cheese. The pupusa de queso here included Salvadoran and mozzarella cheeses. I’m sure mozzarella is not native to El Salvador, but it worked nicely in combination with the slightly sour Salvadoran cheese.

Fred was happy when we left. His response the next Sunday was predictable. “Can we stop at that place again?”

Clammy Disaster

Fred and I received some beautiful clams from our CSF yesterday. We’d made a wonderful recipe with them just a few weeks before, simmering them in white wine, shallots, garlic, and a bay leaf, adding fresh parsley and butter at the end. Here’s how that dish turned out.

But yesterday we were out of white wine, and I’d just gotten the last of some pre-frost jalapenos from a colleague’s garden. So I decided to improvise and make a spicy broth.
We had red wine, beer, and turkey broth to serve as possible broths. I chose the beer, an India pale ale, thinking it would be the best complement to the jalapenos. I added shallots, garlic, a bay leaf, and some diced potatoes, bringing the ingredients to a boil and cooking until the potatoes were tender. All was going well. Everything smelled fine, a nice robust simmer of shallots, garlic, and jalapeno. I tasted a potato piece or two–they were tender and tasty enough.
Then I added the clams. Without washing them.
Fresh clams are not a regular part of my repertoire. I’ve opened plenty of cans and made a quick linguini dish with them, but I’ve rarely been willing to spend the money for fresh. I’m also a bit squeamish about cooking things that are still alive. So perhaps I can be forgiven for forgetting that clam shells are covered in an invisible grit. Invisible, that is, until it has sloughed off into your broth.
After the clams had steamed for about six minutes and were all opened, I ladeled them into bowls, poured the broth over them, and proudly presented them at the table. We dug in.
Fred took the first bite. This is sometimes followed by an exclamation of, “Honey, you are an excellent cook!” or “Wow!” He is very easy to please. There were no comments this time.
I scooped a clam from its shell. It was tender though not as flavorful as our earlier batch. I speared a potato. It was not obviously bad, but it lacked a certain richness. Then I tasted a spoonful of the broth.
Fred was eating silently, seemingly content. I wrinkled my nose.
“This is disgusting!” I exclaimed.
Fred put down his spoon. “I thought I noticed a metallic taste,” he said.
That comment proves without a doubt that Fred is a saint. The broth tasted like liquid tin foil, with sand added for texture. The jalapenos contributed a spicy note.
“We can’t eat this,” I said. “It’s awful.” 
Fred looked relieved. I suspect he would have eaten the entire bowl without complaint. I picked the bowl up and carried it away. He dove in to his salad. 
Not wanting to throw out an entire batch of fresh clams I drained off the broth, noticing that it was the color and consistency of a dirty pond. I rinsed the clams and potatoes multiple times. I took out the turkey broth–prepared over Thanksgiving–from the freezer and made a quick soup with onions, garlic, butter, more potato, herbes de Provence, thyme, bay leaf, pepper, and cream. I added the clam/potato remains back in and served it back to Fred, who had temporarily retreated into the study to look at Facebook–perhaps hoping to forget the horror of what he’d eaten earlier.
The soup was edible if not spectacular. We were able to determine that the metallic flavor actually came from the beer–I’m not sure why, since I’ve made beer-based dishes before without that effect. Fred thought it was the particular characteristic of an India pale ale, but we may never know for sure.
And the potatoes still tasted like tin.

Grilling Myself

It’s a little embarrassing to have been cooking as long as I have and to have such a poor command of the grill. Frankly, I’ve always been bewildered by cooks who say they love the grill because it’s so easy and cleanup is a snap. These must be people who also enjoy pounding their laundry clean over rocks in a river, or mucking out the barns of their cattle, or perhaps mowing the lawn with a pair of hand shears.

My experiences with our new grill over the last few weeks have typically gone something like this:

1) Crumple newspaper and stuff into bottom of chimney starter.

2) Set starter on bottom rack of grill and add charcoal. Forget that black dust has adhered to fingers. Wipe fingers on white shorts.

3) Light newspaper. Wait in hopeful but futile anticipation for flames to erupt. Cough and wave hands in front of face when seemingly non-existent wind somehow manages to blow smoke into eyes. Light another corner of newspaper. Get more smoke in eyes. Note flames beginning to erupt.

4) Run back up stairs into kitchen. Salt and pepper meat or fish as the grill heats up. Glance out door to check on fire. Note that there is plenty of smoke but no sign of fire.

5) Continue with meal preparation. Check fire again. When there is still no sign of fire, run downstairs to stare at smoking starter in hopes that flames shooting from eyes will cause charcoal to burn at last.

6) Repeat steps 4 & 5 several times until flames actually erupt.

7) Wait what seems a reasonable amount of time for charcoal to catch fire. Turn starter over onto grill and try not to catch self on fire as flames unexpectedly shoot from all corners of the starter.

8) Watch as fire either slowly dies or continues to rage uncontrollably. Futilely move various levers and knobs on grill. Run upstairs to collect various items you have forgotten (tongs, mitt, shot of bourbon). Eventually, toss food onto roaring flames, where it will char on the outside and remain nearly raw on the inside, or set onto icy rack over barely flickering embers, where it will lie inertly until you give up, take it inside, and cook it on the stove.

Still, we remain hopeful. Even the very poorly prepared swordfish and salmon I’ve produced has beated pan-seared and baked versions for taste and tenderness. If I ever get this grilling thing right, I’ll report results.

Grilling tips, anyone?

Scenes from the Sea (This Time, for Real)

We’re back in Durham after two weeks at the beach, one at Kiawah with my family and another at Oak Island with friends.

In Kiawah, I made kitty sand castles with my niece, Grace.

These projects involved a lot of sandy goo, most of which ended up on Grace herself.

Fred created a nest in the corner of our room, his little haven of detritus surrounding him within 24 hours–empty vegetable boxes (used to transport books), sketchbooks, scissors, sunscreen, empty gum packs, and his razor. He managed to whisk away a dozen or so random bits of paper before I could get the shot.
At Oak Island, I stuck to my crossword puzzles.

Especially after Fred made me take this picture of a pun.

And even more so after he showed me how he had repaired his glasses.

“What is that, honey?” I asked, cringing.

“Isn’t it great?” he beamed. “My glasses were completely falling apart, so I took one of those blister packs from my Claritin pack and stuck it on there! They’re really holding together now!”

“You did what?” I squealed in happy delight. There would be years of material from this one.

It was dawning on Fred that his ingenuity was not making the kind of impression he’d hoped it would. “I was afraid they might look a little odd,” he confessed. “They really stuck out when I first put them on, with the squares and all, so I trimmed them down.”

I went into the bathroom, where thin slivers of Claritin pack covered the vanity. I collapsed in laughter. I laughed some more when I saw Fred wearing the glasses the next day. I still laugh in the morning sometimes just thinking about those blister packs sticking out of the side of his glasses.

I’m glad to be married to someone who makes me laugh.

Grill Baby Grill

Like most couples marrying later in life, Fred and I had already accumulated most of the kitchenware we needed. Knowing this, our friends and relatives flooded us with gift certificates at our wedding, most of which have long since been used.

Still, one set of key certificates remained untouched: two cards from Crate and Barrel in generous amounts, waiting for just the right purchase.

The pressure to decide on exactly the perfect way to use these cards was becoming a terrible burden for Fred and me. We are people who hem and haw over restaurant and movie choices. How could we be entrusted with such a weighty matter as this?

And so it was that shortly after our arrival in Durham, cards in hand, we visited the Crate and Barrel at Crabtree and spent an entire afternoon examining every item in the store, debating their individual merits: potholders, bed frames, pillows, chaise lounges, All Clad cookware, pickled onions. Only one item, though, really stuck with me: a grill, made by Weber, that allowed you to use propane to light the charcoal and that came attached to a handy plastic table for holding your plates of burgers and steak. (I assume the table won’t melt.) We decided, though, that the wooden screened-in porch of our apartment would not be the best place for grilling, and let it go.

But this summer, finally beginning to settle into our house in Trinity Park and freed from the confines of the wooden screened-in porch, I found myself fantasizing about seared salmon steaks and mesquite-smoked pork chops, with my equipment tidily arranged on the little plastic table and my charcoal and wood chips securely stored in the handy pull-out bin underneath. And so it was that on one of our rare trips to Raleigh recently, we took the plunge.

Here it is, safely ensconced on our concrete porch next to our brick basement. We can only hope that the weeds growing out of the patio won’t catch fire.

Louise, excited by the prospect of grilled tuna, also helped with the assembly.

The Octo-Pie

For years, my reputation as a cook hinged on my pies. This was largely the result of my friends’ utter ignorance of the pie-making process. Not realizing that the phrase “easy as pie” had been coined for a reason, they were easy targets, impressed by the mere fact that I made my own crusts. I did what I could to reinforce the myth, pointing out that I rolled out my crusts on an old flour sack taken from my grandmother and regaling them with stories of summer blackberry picking. Other key points were quietly omitted, such as the fact that my crust recipe was lifted from the back of the Crisco can and that my grandfather said of my first blackberry pie, “That crust reminds me of the bottom of my boot!”

So it came as a bit of a surpise when, a few months into our marriage, I realized that I had never made a pie for Fred.

He was thrilled to know that I could actually make pies from scratch and immediately began to imagine the possibilities.

“Can you make rhubarb pie?” he asked.

“Oh yes, when it’s in season.”

“How about blueberry?”

“Of course. There’s also grape pie in the fall,” I added. “You use Concord grapes, and it tastes like a really good grape jam.”

Then Fred’s brain, straying into odd corners as it likes to do, began to explore other options.

“What about onion pie?” he said.

“Actually, yes. It’s like a quiche.”

“Fish pie?”

“Um, never tried it, but I could probably figure it out.”

Then Fred’s eyes lit up and his face erupted in a happy smile–a sure sign that a terrible, terrible pun was at hand.

“What about octo-pie?”

I sighed. “I’m sure I could figure that out too.”

With that, the spectre of the octo-pie began to haunt my culinary imagination. Surely there must be a way to make a savory pie using octopus, a delicacy we both enjoy. But the project stayed on the back burner until Fred’s most recent birthday.

Preparing for a small dinner party to celebrate, I began scouring my cookbooks for ideas. And when I pulled out my copy of Lidia’s Italy and flipped it open, there it was: Octo-pie.

The recipe is actually for a tiella, a dough made with semolina flour that tastes like a cross between a pie crust and cornbread. Lidia’s recipe includes other fillings if octopus is not your thing, but the octopus was delicious–firm, tender and richly complemented by the flavors of olives and garlic.* Even some of our timid dinner guests tried it and were pleased. And Fred was ecstatic to have a pun to eat on his birthday

*I’ll describe where I got hold of the octopus in a future post.

Nona Lisa’s Tiella and Filling with Octopus, Garlic and Oil (adapted from Lidia’s Italy by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, pages 247 – 252)

Tiella Dough

1 pkg. (2 tsps.) dry yeast
1/4 c. warm water
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for handling the dough
1 1/2 c. semolina flour
1 tsp. coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
3/4 c. cool water plus more if needed
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the bowl

Dissolve yeast in warm water and let it sit for several minutes.

Put flours, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and run the machine for a few seconds to blend the dry ingredients.

Stir the active yeast together with the cool water and olive oil in a spouted measuring cup. With food processor running, pour all the liquid into the flours and continue processing for 30 seconds or so. A soft dough should gather on the blade and clean the sides of the bowl. If the sides are not clear, incorporate more flour, a tablespoon at a time, to stiffen the dough. If the dough is very stiff, work in more cool water in small amounts. (You can also use a heavy-duty electric mixer to form the dough or do it by hand.)

Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead by hand briefly to form a smooth round. Placed the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled, about an hour. Deflate the dough when doubled, knead it briefly, and return to the bowl for a second rise. Dough can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a day at this point; deflate and knead it whenever it doubles. (It doubled only once in the 24 hours it sat in my refrigerator.)

Octopus Filling

4 lbs. frozen, cleaned octopus (tentacles about 1/2″ thick at thickest part)

2 bay leaves
1 lb. ripe plum tomatoes (4 tomatoes)
4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp. sliced garlic
2/3 c. Gaeta olives, pitted and cut in half (I could not find Gaeta olives and used Kalamata)
1/2 tsp. peperoncino flakes
1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt or kosher salt

2 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian parsley

Defrost the octopus, and put it in a big pot with several inches of water to cover. Add the bay leaves. Bring to a boil, and cook at a bubbling simmer for about 35 minutes, or until the octopus is tender but al dente. You should be able to pierce the flesh with a big meat fork but still feel a bit of resistance when you withdraw it. The skin of the octopus should still be largely intact–not broken and peeling off, which indicates overcooking. Let it cool in the cooking water, then drain well and cut it up into 3/4″ pieces.

Rinse, core, and seed the plum tomatoes, and cut into 1/2″ dice. Pour the olive oil into a big skillet, set it over medium heat, and stir in the garlic. Cook for a minute, until sizzling, then add the octopus pieces and toss them in the oil. Scatter the olives in the pan, and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring and tossing; sprinkle in the peperoncino. When the octopus is sizzling, toss in the diced tomatoes, and season with the salt.

Cook at the simmer, stirring frequently, for another 10 minutes or so, until the filling is dense and glistening, with no liquid left in the pan. Toss in the parsley, and cool the filling before assembling the tiella.

Assembly and Baking

Heat oven to 375. Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and put a baking stone on it, if you have one. Brush the bottom and sides of a 12″ oven-proof skillet, baking pan, or tiella pan lightly with olive oil.

Deflate the dough, knead it briefly to form a round again, and cut off a third of the dough for the top crust of the tiella. The larger, two-thirds piece will be the bottom crust. Let the dough relax (especially if it has been chilled) before rolling.

On a floured surface, roll out the big piece of dough to a 14″ round. Transfer the round to the skillet or baking pan, centered and lying flat on the bottom and sides. Trim the top edge of the dough neatly so it is an even height, about 1 1/2″, up the sides all around.

Scrape the cooled filling into the bottom crust, and spread it in an even layer, slightly compressed. The bottom crust should extend at least 1/2″ above the filling all around.

Roll out the smaller piece of dough to a 12″ round and trim it into a neat circle that is a bit larger than the layer of filling–use a ruler to get the right dimensions. Center the circle and lay it on top of the filling. Pinch together the overlapping edges of the bottom and top crusts all around. Fold this flap of dough inward and press it down and against the pan sides all around. Make uniform indentations with your fingertips, to seal the tiella tightly and create a decorative rim of dough at the same time.

With the tip of a sharp knife, pierce the top crust all over with a dozen or so small slits. Finally, brush extra virgin olive oil all over the tiella, including the border of the crust.

Bake the tiella, on the heated stone if you have one, for about 45 minutes, or until the crust is a deep golden brown. Cool it on a rack for at least an hour in the skillet. Invert and remove the tiella if you want, or leave it in the pan for serving. Cut wedges and serve slightly warm or at room temperature. (It is also good hot.)

The Cooking Well Runs Dry

With all the vegetables we’re receiving lately, you’d think that I’d be posting recipes almost every day. The trouble is that I have entered a rut familiar to all cooks who have been at this game for a while. “I just cook the same old things,” my grandmother used to say. So it is with me. Tired at the end of the work day, I turn to well-worn formulas, spices, and combinations to get supper on the table. Onions and garlic are sauteed in olive oil; another vegetable or meat is added; herbs are tossed in; everything gets dumped over pasta, rolled into a burrito, or served over potatoes.

And that’s okay, because a few experiments over the last week or so revealed why it’s probably best to trudge along in your little food rut until a clear path out is revealed. Efforts to claw your way over the edge will result in injury only to yourself and others who are forced to eat the unsavory products that emerge in the process.

The baked cabbage should serve as sufficient warning. We’ve been slightly overwhelmed with cabbage lately, after buying a couple of heads just before receiving more from Britt Farms, our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Of course, it really doesn’t take much cabbage to overwhelm even an experienced cook. Not only does it increase exponentially with each cup that is used, it also conjures only a limited number of dishes to mind. Having made cole slaw, added it to soups, steamed it, eaten it raw, and even considered then quickly dispensed with the idea of making homemade sauerkraut after realizing the impracticality of storing rotting vegetable matter in a pot in the basement for a month, I was pretty well out of ideas.

Then I remembered a recent New York Times Magazine article on baked kale, which I’d tried and which had made a pleasantly crunchy snack. You took kale leaves, rolled them up, sliced the rolls into thin strips, tossed in olive oil and salt, and baked them in the oven at about 400 degrees for several minutes until they crisped up. They made a light, crunchy snack.

Cabbage doesn’t do that. It makes a heavy, chewy, oily snack. You can try cooking it until the cabbage browns, but then you will have a bitter, crispy, burned-tasting, oily snack. If you have a sweet, kind husband as I do, he will taste the results and declare them “interesting.” If you are a sweet, kind wife in return, you will take the whole mess, toss it straight into the trash, and make a nice dish of olive oil, onions, garlic, your favorite spices, vegetables, and pasta.