In Praise of Cooking by the Seat of Your Pants

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While on the hunt for a recipe for scalloped potatoes, I come upon this one for “Long Branch Milk Potatoes.”  No one knows who made it up, but God bless them!  (It was printed in the Fresno Republican in July of 1879, so trying to get in touch with the author and congratulate them would, I feel, be a fruitless endeavour.) 

The endearing quality of the recipe lies in the wonderful vagueness of its directions.  Have a look:

“Take good, sound potatoes, cut them in slices (raw) and put the milk, according to the quantity you wish to make, in a pudding dish; then after you have put the potatoes in the milk, put it in the oven for about 20 minutes; then take out and put potatoes, with the same milk, into a saucepan to boil until done; season before you put them to boil.”

To the anally retentive, lock-step recipe followers, such a recipe may lead them to an intense session of wailing and teeth gnashing.  This would then be followed by a string of profanity-laced questions such as:

(NOTE:  I’ve edited out the profanity.)

How do you define the difference between a sound and unsound potato?

What kind of potato?  Magic Molly?  Purple Majesty?  Yukon Gold?

How thick are the slices?  1/4”?    1”?    3.256”?

“To the quantity you wish to make?”  I wish to make the right amount, so how much is the right amount?

“Season” before you put them to boil?  Season with what?  Smoked Paprika? Red pepper flakes?  Organic Amazonian salt?

To those who ask such questions of this recipe, I say, RELAX!  Instead of relying upon obediently following blow-by-blow instructions, take a deep breath, and let your instincts take over.

I ask you, who wants a recipe to turn out the same way time after time?  Embrace uncertainty! Embrace a little too much salt, not quite enough milk, and just a little over-baked.  Regard each iteration of a recipe as a once-in-a-lifetime gastronomic experience.  Know that each bite you take will never be replicated again for as long as you chew and swallow upon this earth.  Jump off a kitchen counter and attempt to cook by the seat of your pants!

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A Blunt Assessment of the Dutch Poffertje

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Just because you find a bow and arrow in your basement doesn’t mean you should become a bow hunter.  Just because you inherit two chainsaws from your long forgotten uncle doesn’t mean you should take up chainsaw juggling.  Having the tools to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea.

If you find yourself in the possession of a poffertje pan, don’t assume it’s a good idea to make poffertjes.  I have my reasons:

Reason Number One

The poffertje pan is cast iron.  I can’t use it on my glass stove top, so instead I tried it on my barbecue.  It didn’t work so well.  Then, I balanced it precariously upon my backpacking stove.  This worked even less well.  In fact, the experience brought a degree of frustration which I had not experienced since my last attempt at country line-dancing.

Reason Number Two

They’re just basically miniature pancakes.  I like pancakes.  In fact, Shrove Tuesday is the 27th most important day on my calendar each and every year, just behind Robbie Burns Day and just before International Doghouse Repair Day.  How can you not love great wads of batter fried in oil and covered in syrup, whipped cream, fruit, or whatever?  So, if you love pancakes, instead of making three dozen poffertjes to satisfy your pancake pleasures, why not just make adult-sized pancakes?  The cuteness factor of the poffertje doesn’t make up for all of that extra dipping and flipping.  Using a regular frying pan for regular-sized pancakes just makes so much more sense.

Of course, some people have to try things themselves to reach their own conclusions.  So, if you don’t believe me, go ahead and make poffertjes using the recipe below.  Just remember, you’ve been warned.

Traditional Dutch Poffertjes

1.  Dissolve 1 teaspoon of dried yeast in 1 Tablespoon of warm milk.

2.  In another bowl, combine 1 cup of white flour, 1 cup of buckwheat flour, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 5/8ths of a cup of warm milk.  Whisk in the yeast mixture until it is smooth.

3.  Add 5/8ths more of warm milk and beat the mixture.

4.  Cover this bowl and let it rest for 1 hour.

5.  Use your poffertje pan to cook the little devils until they are crisp.

6.  To make them tasty, smother them in whatever you like.

7.  Sell your poffertje pan on Kijiji.

Rhymes with ‘Gone’

IMG_0971If shooting yourself in the foot had been a literal act, Ransford would have, at most, four toes left between both feet.  The ammunition of his self-inflicted social wounds was his rabid defence of the purity of the English language.  His excessively stated opinion had cost him at least three potential romantic relationships, two fledgling friendships, and one job.  He berated his tennis partner for consistently dropping the ‘ly’ from his adverbs.  He declared his supervisor at the insurance office an illiterate for her consistently incorrect use of the apostrophe. 

Just yesterday, he blasted off that seventh proverbial toe by rapidly turning a first date into a last date.  The woman he had met online and known face-to-face for less than three minutes stood at the counter of the coffee shop, ordering a latte and a scone.  Not that Ransford objected to lattes or scones.   

His reaction to her words, however, were reflexive.  Once again, Ransford applied his Ready!  Fire!  Aim! diplomacy.

“It’s pronounced scone!” he blasted.  “It rhymes with gone!  Got it?  Scone rhymes with gone! Not drone! Not clone!  Not bone!  It rhymes with gone!”

Although, in Ransford’s mind, scone did not rhyme with drone, clone or bone, in reality, it most certainly did rhyme with alone.

 

 

Genetic Tasting

The arborio rice just wouldn’t soften up for me with my risotto.  Then there’s my pasta that got all bundled and stuck-together as I rolled it through the pasta roller.  My lasagne was a sloppy, soupy mess of ill-defined layers.  I apparently have no flair for cooking Italian.

And then, I discovered why.  Thanks to the results of a genetic test, I was enlightened to know that I’m only 30% qualified to cook Italian food.  The same goes for French, German, Dutch, and Lichtensteinian dishes.  The undeniable truth is that I am a kilted Scotsman attempting to ride the Tour de France. 

In reality, my culinary focus should really be upon creating steak and kidney pies, Yorkshire puddings, haggis, bangers and mash . . .  You get the idea.  British food.  60% of my DNA knows how to properly put a toad in a hole, spot a dick, or Scotch an egg.  I can pretty much play the pipes, write post-modernist fiction, and bemoan the lack of World Cup success all while throwing together a stout and steak pie.  At least, that’s what the genetic test tells me.

Being 30% western European doesn’t mean I’m completely incapable of cooking western European food.  I can make a mean thin-crust pizza– 70% thinner, in fact.  So, given my genetic make-up, I have to realize my strengths and my limitations when it comes to regional recipes.

Being only 5% Jewish means I shouldn’t even begin to think about making a Gefilte fish.  And when it comes to my 1.2% Neanderthal inheritance, I now have 98.8 reasons for not going on the Paleo diet.

Ah, the insights you get from swabbing your tongue and cheek.

Tricked and Treated

IMG_0869You don’t want to run out of candy at 8:09 pm on the night of October 31st.  Just ask Byron O’Donahue of 241 56th Ave. SE.

He’d just moved to the neighbourhood and figured he was prepared.  On his way home from work, he picked up two boxes of mini-chocolate bars plus a bag of suckers, just in case some large group like a junior marching band or baton twirling team all decided to trick or treat together.  He didn’t mind polishing off any left-overs.

Byron’s doorbell rang for the first time at 4:30 pm. 

By 5:06 pm, he was already onto the second box of chocolate bars.  

By 6:12 pm, he’d already broken open that last resort bag of suckers.  As the numbers of remaining suckers in the bag dwindled with wave after wave of costumed kids pounding on his door, he contemplated cracking the suckers in two to make them go further.  But who would get the stick, and who would get the short end of the stick?

At 7:45 pm, Byron checked his watch and hoped that maybe there was a curfew in the city.  Or maybe the weatherman had predicted a tornado to sweep through town so everyone started trick or treating early.  This had to stop soon.

He was wrong.  They kept coming, and at 8:09 pm, Byron gave out the last sucker. 

He contemplated turning out the lights and hiding in the basement, but then he’d heard stories of what happened to vacant houses on Hallowe’en.  The thought of cleaning raw egg or shaving cream off his siding, or pulling the streamers of toilet paper out of his trees was not appealing. 

At this point, there was only one thing left to do.  Byron headed for the kitchen.  The next three groups of kids who rang his doorbell and shouted, “Trick or Treat!” watched in amazement as Byron dropped cans of beans, a tin of coconut milk, and a packet of dried lentils into their loot bags.  “You can’t get any sweeter than this!” he said to the next group as he poured a cup of white sugar into their pillowcases.  Byron followed this by dropping a lump of solidified brown sugar into the bag of a lone kid in a ninja costume.  “Try using your ninja powers to break up this lump,” he said.

They kept coming.

The kid who got the half-bottle of soya sauce looked somewhat perplexed, as did the next twenty or so kids who got something in their goody bags they’d never gotten before– a box of salt, a shaker of oregano, bags of raw pasta, a bottle of olive oil, a partial tin of cocoa powder, individual tea bags. 

They kept coming.

As his cupboards emptied, his level of desperation rose.  The fridge was next.  He was out of eggs, so he didn’t have to face the dilemma of handing out something that could be used against him.  A carton of milk– “Make sure you keep it upright, just in case,” half a cabbage– “We wouldn’t want to forget about pet rabbits on Hallowe’en, would we?” (He closed the door before the kids finished telling him he didn’t have a pet rabbit.) A bag of frozen peas– “Hurry home before they melt, or you’ll have to boil them up and eat them tonight.”

At 9:58 pm, his fridge was empty.  Almost empty.  There were two cans in the door.  He stared at those cans, his mind waxing and waning, pushing and pulling with the greatest ethical dilemma he could ever remember facing. 

“No.  I can’t,” he said out loud finally.  “If I did, it would make the news.”  So, instead of handing out two cans of beer to the next trick or treaters, Byron cracked them open, threw back his head, and drained them.  When the doorbell rang, he went to the front door with two empty cans.  “You can get something for these,” he said, dropping them into the bulging goody bags.

It was 10:02 pm when he heard the pickup truck pulling away.  “That’s got to be it,” he said with a sigh and a flick of the outside light switch.

What Byron did not hear was the rumble of a bus pulling up to the end of his driveway.  They’d been delayed by a flat tire, but now, the bus door swung open, and out streamed all thirty-two members of the Nose Hill Junior Marching Band and Baton Twirling Squadron. 

The True Tortilla

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With the completion of a circumnavigation of the rectangular Province of Saskatchewan by foot, he had reached the bottom of his Bucket of Lists and thought, Oh, my goodness.  I have no more reasons to live.  But then, he noticed a thin slip of damp paper stuck to the side about half way up.  Using the tip of a cracked fingernail, he peeled the paper off the side of the bucket and read a note he’d made so many years before– a time when his commitment to Southwestern cuisine was at the forefront of his compulsiveness.  “Make Homemade Tortillas,” read the simple ambition. 

Why this?  He figured that store bought tortillas– resembling cardboard cutout Frisbees– couldn’t really be what tortillas were all about.  No.  There had to be more to them than serving the role as a neutral non-entity platform for fillings. 

Now with a reason to live, he forged ahead to perform a task which gave a whole new complex level of meaning to a life desperate for accomplishments.

Homemade Tortillas

(Adapted from allrecipes.com)

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons lard or shortening or even margarine

1 1/2 cups water

Combine the salt and the flour with the baking powder in a bowl.  Mix the lard or shortening or even margarine into the bowl and work it with your fingers until you get an even consistency similar to cornmeal.  Combine with the water and create a dough.  Knead the dough for 10 minutes, adding water if too dry or more flour if too sticky.

Under the cover of a dishcloth, let it sit for 10 minutes.  Divide into equally sized balls.  I made six with this recipe and rolled them out to be as large as possible.  You could make them half the size if that’s your preference.

Fry in a pan with oil until they bubble on the surface then flip.  Keep them warm in the oven while you cook the others.  With the amazing flavour of these tortillas, you can go fully minimalist on the fillings and still have a satisfying gastronomic experience. 

When you’re done, you can make a great big checkmark next to “Make Homemade Tortillas,” on your Bucket List and be assured that your life has a much greater depth of meaning.

Mona Lisa Revisionist

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So, you’ve got a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in your living room.  Don’t ask why.  You just do.  Then, after living with the picture for a few weeks, you finally start to let go of the notion that the painting if perfect in everyone’s eyes.  In other words, you begin to think about ways of improving the Mona Lisa.  She needs more bling you decide.  You begin by painting in a few decorative rings on the fingers.  Then a necklace.  Lipstick and eye shadow.  Is this sacrilege?  Is this totally wrong?  After all, you’re the one who has to live with the painting.

When I made a recipe from Yotem Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem.  I had received a jar of za’atar and was itching to use it. The recipe I chose was “Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar.”  I made it, and it was great.  But then, I began to think . . .

Is it sacrilege to change a recipe developed by Yotem Ottolenghi?  Probably.  I would defer to him on any food matters.  Except, I’ve got this thing about wanting to feel free to change recipes– to tinker with them, so that they fit my own tastes, inadequacies, or limited supply of exotic ingredients.  So, after making “Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar,” I’ll have to rename it the next time I make it. 

Next time, I will ditch the onions.  (This was a group decision by those of us eating it, although I think there may have been an unfair anti-onion /pro-squash bias, meaning that the onions didn’t stand a chance.)  I’ll also replace the pine nuts with walnuts just because I don’t want to have to remortgage the house every time I make it.  I’ll make a few other changes, too, but I don’t feel like letting them get out on the internet because, to many people, they would be cringeworthy in a culinary sense.

And so, the next time I make this wonderful dish, I’ll do it differently.  Yes, I realize it’s like altering Munsch’s “The Scream” to become, “The Yodel,” or Monet’s “Waterlilies” to become, “Waterlilies with Man Doing Backstroke.”  But ultimately, it comes down to the fact that I’m the one eating, “Roasted Butternut Squash & No Red Onion with Tahini If You Have Any and Za’atar on a Tight Budget.” 

Eating Profanity

dsc_0024Better Than Washing Your Mouth Out With Soap

So, what happens when someone dumps ten pounds of plums on your doorstep?  You say, “Oh, chutney!  What the heck am I going to do with these?”

That basket full of pears is starting to turn brown. “Oh, chutney!  All these pears going brown so fast?”

The same could be said of any sudden, unexpected and superfluous arrival of unwelcome fruits which guilt compels you not to throw away.  “Chutney!”

Chutney is a profanity, and a solution.  You can’t go wrong with a 1:1 ratio of fruit to sugar. Throw in a few spices to clove things up.  Get random and chuck in a few raisins and maybe some mustard seed.  Vinegar does everything: window cleaner, weed killer, so why not pour in a couple of cups along with a dash or three of salt.  And, of course, you can give it some jump with a dusting of cayenne pepper.  Boil it up, seal it in jars, and give it away for Christmas presents. 

In the aftermath of your initial angst of dealing with volumes of unwanted produce, you’re left with the fire cracker of condiments.  It makes everything taste better– even those shoe-leather tough pork chops or those bargain sausages bulked up with sawdust.

Marilyn’s Pear Chutney

(Who is Marilyn?  Oh, chutney!  I’m not positive, but I have a pretty good idea.)

3 pounds of fresh pears (about 7 cups unpeeled and chopped)
1 pound of brown sugar.  (Okay, so I exaggerated.  It’s only 3:1)
2 cups cider vinegar  (and, no, there is no scientific proof that this stuff helps you lose weight.)
1 medium onion, chopped.
1 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup diced preserved ginger
1 clove of garlic
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
2 teaspoons mustard seed

Combine the brown sugar and vinegar in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.  Add the pears and everything else (omitting the kitchen sink).  Cook slowly, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is thick.  How thick?  Imagine it pooling on a pork chop.  It’ll take about an hour to thicken.  Pour into hot sterilized jars and seal.  It makes about 5 half pint jars.  The chutney may also be kept in the fridge for 3 to 4 weeks.

Pizza to Die From

I’d never eaten cardboard before. It wasn’t an ambition of mine.  It never really entered my mind to do such a thing.  But then came that summer evening when we ordered a thin crust pizza from Dominos.

As my teeth tore at the stubborn crust covered in what theoretically was at one time cheese and tomatoes, a horrible thought crossed my mind.  Had the bottom of the box inadvertently stuck to my slice of pizza?  In spite of my complete lack of experience in eating cardboard, my active imagination was able to project that what I was attempting to chew and swallow, was quite likely cardboard– toughness dissolving into a pulpy mush.

The outcome was a ‘good news/ bad news’ scenario.  The good news was that it wasn’t actually cardboard.  The bad news was that it was supposed to be pizza crust.

Inspired by this corrugated catastrophe, I decided to seek out a recipe for pizza dough made from scratch.  I even checked Youtube to learn how to throw the dough, using centrifugal force and a clenched fist to form the dough.  My advise to anyone wishing to learn this is, “Make sure your kitchen floor is swept and washed with disinfectant.”  Your dough will spend about half of its time hitting all corners of the kitchen floor.  Instead, I now use a rolling pin.  Learning to toss pizza dough may have to wait for my next life, provided I’m not reincarnated as a Dominos delivery boy.

Basic Pizza Dough

(Shamelessly borrowed from Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks Dinner)

3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon course kosher or sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

The By-hand Method:

1.  Combine flour, yeast and salt in large mixing bowl.

2.  Add 1 cup of cold water and olive oil.  Kneed into smooth ball that is slightly sticky to touch.  If dry, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water.  If sticky, add tablespoon of flour at a time. (I nearly always add water one teaspoon at a time.)

3.  Put dough in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Let rise ideally 1 to 2 hours.  (Or, do what I do.  Let it rise about 10 minutes simply because you didn’t think ahead and you’re really hungry.)

4.  Press the dough into an oiled or non-stick baking sheet.  You can roll it out with a rolling pin and your hands.  You can also put it on parchment paper on a stone slab.  Whatever works for you.

With whatever toppings you choose, bake in a 500 F. oven for 6 to 12 minutes.  If your pizza crust tastes like cardboard using this recipe, you’ve done something seriously wrong.  It’s time to re-examine your life.