Archive for November, 2010


Meow

My cat went out cutting capers all night, which had me worried to death.  I don’t let him outside on purpose, but sometimes he darts between my ankles while I’m on the way out the door, and poof!–he’s gone, off like a shot.  Maybe it’s silly, but until he comes back inside I fret and worry.  What if he gets into a fight?  What if he starts running with a bad crowd?  What if he decides to be Huckleberry Finn and never come home again?

Well, he came home this morning, and although I was in no mood to lolly-gag in bed all day, he was, so that’s what we did.  He curled up in a very efficient ball and slept, on my chest, like Morpheus himself.  We stayed that way for hours, until I broke the news to him:  “Look, I have to go.  I’m going to have to move you, so prepare to hate me.  Okay, commence hatred on my mark:  three, two, one.”  Sure enough, he did, but it didn’t last very long.  He conked out again after about eight seconds–a very brief but, I assume, satisfying hatred.

When I was nine years old, my maternal grandparents came down for a week-long visit.  Toward the end of their stay, my grandfather settled himself into the recliner in our den, with a copy of Time magazine.  My sister’s cat, Misty, promptly settled herself onto my grandfather’s substantial belly, and went to sleep.

My dad was at work, but the rest of us–my grandmother, mother, two sisters and me–went off shopping.  Shopping for what, I don’t remember.  My job, in those days, was standing by the entrance to the store (usually Lerner’s, the Popular, or the White House) and holding their purses until they were done with the seemingly interminable process of trying things on.

Anyway, as we were leaving, my grandmother said to my grandfather, “We’re going shopping.  Would you like to come with us?”

“No, thanks,” he said.  “I’m pretty happy here with my cat and magazine.”

I was looking over his shoulder at the time, and I can tell you that the magazine’s left page was two columns of ad space, and the right page was just one full-page ad, so that just leaves one column of actual content:  not much to read.

We came home about four hours later (four hours of purse-holding for me, thank you very much), and my grandmother looked at my grandfather in his continued repose.

“Old man!” she cried.  “You’re still on the same page of that magazine” (which, indeed, he was).

“Well,” he said, “I was afraid that if I turned the page I’d wake the cat.”

My kind of man.

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She touched; she ate II

I talked to my mother yesterday, and I mentioned my previous post to her–the one about apples–and she said “Well, you know, that wasn’t Chita.  That was Ana Maria Palacios.”

As soon as I heard that name, I knew that she was absolutely right.  It was Ana Maria.

It turns out that she and my mother still run into one another from time to time–at the library or the grocery store or whatever–and Ana Maria, after forty or 45 years, always asks whether I’m still eating my apples.

Maybe my very first crush wasn’t unrequited after all.

She touched; she ate

I was a very lucky kid.

I never got consigned to day-care, and rarely had a babysitter.  I only remember one babysitter, actually, and the fact that I remember her is a pretty good sign that I didn’t need her–I had two sisters, for heaven’s sake, one two years older than me and the other five years older.  What did we need a babysitter for?

My dad was a college professor and sometimes he worked through the summer.  When those summers coincided with the summers that my mother was a Girl Scout camp counselor and both of my sisters were at camp, guess what happened to me in lieu of day-care.

That’s right:  I went to Girl Scout camp.  I was an honorary girl.

At first, I was horrified and humiliated, but eventually it dawned on me:  “Hey, girls is cute.”  And after a while I wasn’t just an honorary girl:  I was an honorary Girl Scout.  To this day, I can sell cookies and do CPR like nobody’s business.

I never got the green vest or the sash or the knee-socks, but that’s okay.  I learned how to fold a flag and got to look at lots of girls.  Lots.

There were occasional summers when, instead of going to Girl Scout camp, my mother would just drop me off at the UTEP campus, where my dad worked.  I guess she assumed that I would make a bee-line for my dad’s office, but I never did.

My first stop was the Centennial Museum.  I got to look at shrunken heads, stuffed animals, a planetarium-in-a-box, and rocks that glowed in the dark.  I loved that museum, until that S.O.B. Bill Clements became governor of Texas and decimated funding for anything that smacked of education.  His tenure was, in my opinion, Texas’s darkest hour.  It was awful.

Anyway . . . .

After I toddled around the museum, I’d go toddling around Leech Grove, which was a very pleasant little park, and then I’d wander off to the library, which was an awful place.

The library, by that time, was a hideous concrete confabulation of ugliness and efficiency-at-any-cost.  I’ve never been in any prison, but I’ll bet you anything that every one of them feels like that awful, awful old library.  Every time I walked in there, I thought “Man, this totally sucks.”  It seemed to have been designed to keep people away from books rather than attract them.

The worst part is that, contained within the old library was the older library, which was a beautiful and serious old building of Georgian architecture, with arches and columns and busts of great thinkers above the marble lintels, and mottoes in Latin inscribed beneath them.  In the middle of the older library was an enclosed atrium, with exotic flowers and–rarity of rarities in El Paso!–humidity, and marble benches where librarians sat and ate their lunches.

It’s the worst part because you had to negotiate the ugly, cold confines of the newish library in order to get to the old one, and that little garden atrium within it, with the sweet flowers and the solitude and quiet, and the marble bust of Descartes and the inscription “Cogito, ergo sum” beneath it, and the musty smell of hundred-year-old dictionaries.

Being a youngster, it didn’t take me long to get bored, so then I’d wander off and go sit on a rock wall over a ditch and wait for UTEP’s innumerable feral cats to come sneaking out from the big concrete pipes.  It got to the point that I saw the same ones so often that I could recognize them individually, and I gave them names:  Ma, Jiggs, Otis, Barney, Blinky.

Eventually, I’d find my way down to the Liberal Arts building, where my dad’s office was, and I’d wander in there, sunburned and cat-scratched.  My dad always had a couple of work-study students and teaching assistants within hollering range, so as soon as I showed up, he’d holler for one of them–usually either Chita or Marisol–to take me away for something to do.

Chita always took me to the cafeteria.  She’d hold my hand and tell me I could have anything I wanted, but for some reason, all I could ever say was “A apple.”  She’d ask “Is that it?  Are you sure?  (¿Es todo?  ¿Seguro que si?),” and I’d say “Yes, please,” and then she’d hold my hand and we’d wait in line along the chrome bars where people rested their trays until we got to the cashier and Chita paid the twelve cents for my apple.

I don’t know whether my dad ever reimbursed her.

Then, still holding hands, Chita and I would walk down University Avenue, to a concrete picnic table between the hideous library and Magoffin Auditorium.  I don’t remember anything about the apple.  I only remember that I was always wearing shorts, and the heat from the concrete, against my thighs, kept getting worse and worse.

Twenty years later, I was a graduate student at UTEP, studying rhetoric and literature, and I spent many hours sitting at that same picnic table reading Aristotle and Tennyson and Joyce and all that.

Nobody else ever sat there.

One of my graduate classes was a Milton seminar, which was pretty grueling.  I hated the professor, who was a pompous ass with a reputation for being a genius.  The other students in the seminar–all of whom I liked–fell on the “He’s a genius!” side of the fence; I seemed to be the only one who thought “He’s not a genius; he’s a pompous ass.”

Which doesn’t mean that I was right:  It just means that it was, for me, a tough semester, and I suppose, now, that you could be a genius and a pompous ass at the same time.

Bach, for instance.

So, we spent three months doing nothing but picking apart Paradise Lost.  I learned to love it.  I learned to love Milton’s idea of how God and the angels tried to corral the earth and all the people on it, and I learned about the natures of Satan, Sin, and Death, and their relationships with God.  I also learned about God’s approach to Adam and Eve, which was pretty telling–how He dispatched an archangel to remind them not to do what He had already told them not to do (although, being omniscient, He knew they would go ahead and do it anyway).

Here’s the bit from Paradise Lost that hit me like a baseball bat in the crotch:

She touched; she ate

It hit me for a couple of reasons.

First, Eve has gotten a bad rap.  You have to remember that she and Adam both were totally innocent in every way–they had no concept of harm or foul, or sin.  So, Satan appears in the form of a serpent–why should Eve doubt the credibility and kindness of a serpent?  Incredibility and unkindess had never existed in Eden.  It was Paradise, after all.  There wasn’t anything to be afraid of.

Satan, though, was one bad-ass mother, and he managed pretty neatly to connive innocent Eve into doing the one and only thing God had told her not to do:  touching the fruit from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So she comes wandering back into the glen or the dale or whatever, and Adam sees her, and he knows, immediately, that something’s wrong and that Eve has screwed up, big time.  He can tell just by looking at her.  She has fallen.  She had touched; she had eaten.

What does he do?

More to the point, what should he have done?

Well, he should have fallen to his knees and cried to God:  “It was her!  Not me!  I’ve kept your one and only commandment!  I ain’t done nothin’!”

But did he?  Heck, no.  He hitched his wagon to a woman he knew was fallen, and he took his own bite of the apple anyway.  Pretty stupid.

For my money, innocent Eve was bamboozled by the ultimate irresistible salesman who can make anything look good (that being Satan).  Adam was pretty much just a guy with a boner.

We all know that the Bible doesn’t say that Satan took the form of a snake (“serpent,” which could mean pretty much anything legless, I guess), and we all know that it doesn’t say that the forbidden fruit in question was actually an apple–it just says “fruit.”  More likely, it was a fig or an apricot or a date.

So now Eve and apples are both taking a bad rap.  That’s not cool.

Why’s the apple the scapegoat?  A fig looks like a dessicated snotball, an apricot looks like a peach that didn’t make it, and a date looks like a fig.  Why pick on apples?

The only answer I can up with:  They’re red and they’re shaped like hearts (okay, they’re not all red, but they’re certainly not dates, figs, or apricots.  Botanically, I think that green apples came much later, and in a different hemisphere).

Mostly, I think, it hit me because those four words, right there, say it all:  Somebody succumbed to temptation, in such a seemingly harmless way, and it’s all been downhill for everybody since.

There’s a great deal of meaning in those four words:  “She touched; she ate.”  You could spend three months just on that.

For whatever reason, and in spite of all this anti-apple and anti-Eve haranguing to the contrary, I grew up as an apple kid.  I never liked cake, for instance:  Every time my birthday rolled around, I would ask my mother for an apple pie, not any kind of cake, and I always got that pie.

This here’s a bit odd, because I grew up in prime apricot country (Shirley O. Corriher, one of my favorite food writers, praises El Paso apricots in her book CookWise).  Still, I’d much, much rather drive a few hours north, into New Mexico, and take advantage of the High Rolls apple harvest than eat an apricot–which, incidentally, we had growing in the back yard of my parents’ house.  Peaches too.  And plums.

When I lived in Vermont, I had my first tastes of real, fresh apple cider, both the hard and soft varieties.  I also tasted “boiled cider,” which is apple cider gently reduced down to a syrup, and used in place of butter and maple syrup and things like that.

Kind of makes me wonder why I ever left Vermont.

My second year of teaching at UTEP, I had a very attractive young student named Leslie (she was a model and an aerobics instructor to boot).  I didn’t think too much about it at first, to be honest, but one day, she came to my office and set an apple at the edge of my desk.  It was November.  The apple was red and flecked with gold and had a long stem with a drying leaf on it.  I could smell the apple from where I sat.

“From my tree,” she said, smiling.  “From my own yard,” and then she smiled more, showing her perfect white teeth.

“Oh, God,” I thought; “I’m screwed.”

And indeed, once again, I was.

It’s not just for Grandma any more

Am I the only person left on planet Earth who likes tapioca pudding?  Looks that way.  Try this recipe, though, and you’ll soon be whistling out the other side of your sleeve, or something like that.

This here’s about enough to satisfy four typical people.

Tapioca pudding

  • 2 1/2 c. milk
  • 1 whole egg plus 1 yolk, beaten together
  • 1 Tbsp. light brown sugar (packed)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 c. Minute tapioca
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 c. heavy cream, good ‘n’ cold

Put the milk, eggs, 1/4 c. of the sugar, the brown sugar, salt, and tapioca into a saucepan, and let it sit there doing absolutely nothing for about five minutes.  Then crank it up to a boil, turn it back down to a simmer, and let it burble merrily along for about two minutes, stirring all the while.  Take it off the heat, stir in the vanilla extract, and glomp the whole mess into a bowl.  Let it cool, and then cover it with plastic and chill it for at least an hour.

Beat the cream and the rest of the sugar to stiff peaks (two minutes or so), and then fold half of it into the pudding.  When it comes time to serve it up, whomp a dollop of the remaining whipped cream on each, and if you are feeling especially lovely, garnish each one with a few seasonal berries to boot.

Your guests will love you, and so will your grandmother.

Oh, dear!

I almost forgot dessert.  What’s wrong with me?  Sorry.

Ever want to make your own ice cream, but dread the idea of dealing with one of those whacking great arm-breaking ice cream-making gadgets?  Yeah?  Me too.  Well, dread no more.  I hereby present you with the best and easiest:

Vanilla ice cream

and no exotic gadgetry required.

  • 1/2 c. sweetened condensed milk (don’t know ’bout you, but I swear by Eagle Brand®)
  • 1 oz. good, real white chocolate chips (Ghirardelli’s my pick)
  • 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract (Mexican, if you can get it)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1/4 c. sour cream
  • 1 1/4 c. heavy cream, nice and cold

Microwave the condensed milk and the chocolate for for about thirty seconds–just long enough to get the chocolate to be melty.  Give it a good stir about half-way through.  Let that cool, and then stir in the next three ingredients.

Whip the cream until you arrive at the much-lauded “soft peak” stage, which’ll take, probably, about two minutes.  Fold that, about one-third at a time, into the milky-choco mix.  Freeze it, and there y’are.

Told you it was easy.

Mea culpa

Well, I’ve certainly been lax in posting things, for which I apologize.  I haven’t fully recovered from my computer’s router failure, and I haven’t seen the point in spending money on a new router when I want to save up money for a whole new computer in the first place.

That being said, please allow me to try and make it up to you by offering a number of excellent recipes.  We shall begin with:

Nashville-style hot fried chicken

You’re going to need a brine, first of all, which means that you shall have to corral the following ingredients:

  • 1/2 g. water
  • 1/2 c. Tabasco®
  • 1/2 c. salt
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 chicken, whacked up into quarters (specifically, two each of thighs, legs, wings, and breasts)

This amount ought to be enough to feed four or five or maybe even six people–depending, obviously, on how hungry they are.

You will also require the coating for said chicken, thus:

  • 3 qt. peanut or plain ol’ vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper

Kindly see to it that your various spices are new and fresh.

All right, moving on:  Whisk the first four brine ingredients together; make sure that the solid bits get nice and dissolved.  Dump the chicken therein, cover it, and stash the whole thing in your refrigerator for 45 minutes or so (give or take fifteen minutes).

Heat up 3 Tbsp. of oil and add to that the cayenne, paprika, 1/2 tsp. of the salt, the garlic powder, and the second measure of sugar, for just about thirty seconds.  If you think it might have burned, even a little, toss it out and start over.

Now take the chicken out of the brine.  Mix together the flour, 1/2 tsp. of salt, and the pepper.  Knock the chicken pieces around in that flour mix, banging off the excess flour (be sure to coat them well), and then set them on a wire rack.

Okay, heat up the oil in your deep-fryer or a Dutch oven or whatever, and get it up to somewhere between 300 and 325º.  That’s a bit low for most deep-frying purposes (generally, you want to be around 360º) but in this case, we want to make sure that the chicken is thoroughly cooked before the coating starts burning, so we need a temp. a little on the low side.  Toss the chicken around in the flour again, and then fry it until it’s done.  Let it drain on a rack.

Rewhisk the spicy oil and brush it all over the chicken.  Be generous.  Serve the chicken up on plain ol’ white bread, with plenty of pickles.

If you want it extra hot–which is fine with me–use 1/4 c. oil, 3 1/2 Tbsp. cayenne, 3/4 tsp. sugar, and 1 tsp. mustard powder.

Good stuff.

You may, at this point, require a bit of cooling influence, in which case the following should come in quite handy:

Amish potato salad

Awfully good, and pretty simple.

  • 3 lbs. Yukon Gold taters, peeled and cut up into 3/4″ pieces
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/3 c. cider vinegar
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. plain ol’ yellow mustard, of the ball-park variety
  • 4 hard-cooked eggs
  • 1/2 tsp. celery seeds
  • 3/4 c. sour cream
  • 1 celery rib, diced up nice and fine

Simmer the taters with 1 Tbsp. of salt for about ten minutes.  While that’s doing its thing, microwave the vinegar and sugar just long enough to get the sugar to dissolve–thirty seconds or so.  Then zap in your food processor:  the vinegar/sugar solution, mustard, one hard-cooked egg yolk (save the white), celery seeds, and 1/2 tsp. salt until it’s all nice and smooth.

Drain yon taters and put them in a big-ass bowl.  Add about two tablespoons of the dressing and give it all a good toss.  Stash that in your icebox for a good half-hour, remembering to fold or gently stir it from time to time.

Now, whisk the sour cream into the remaining dressing.  Add all of the remaining egg bits and mash all that up with a potato masher or some similar device (personally, I prefer using a sturdy whisk, but that’s just me).  Add the dressing and the celery to the potatoes, once they’re cool, and then cover the whole thing and chill it for at least half an hour.  Taste it and tweak the salt & pepper level.  Done.

Not in a Nashville-style hot fried chicken mood?  Maybe this’ll be your style:

Grilled pork tenderloin

Easy-peasy, and lickity-split.

  • 2 pork tenderloins (around 1 1/2-2 lbs. total)
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. mustard seeds, cracked
  • 1 Tbsp. coriander seeds, also cracked
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns, also also cracked
  • 1 tsp. demarara or turbinado or ordinary brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp. cornmeal
  • 1/2 c. cornstarch
  • 2 egg whites

Pat the pork dry with some paper towels.  Combine the mustard seeds, coriander seeds, peppercorns, sugar, salt, and cornmeal on a baking sheet with a rim around it.  Put the cornstarch in a largish bowl, and then whip the egg whites until they’re nice and foamy.  Coat the tenderloins with a bit of the cornstarch, and then the egg whites, and then the spices.  Get your grill nice and clean, oil it, and then grill the tenderloins until they have an internal temp. of 145º.  Take ’em off, put ’em on a plate or something, and let them enjoy themselves underneath a pup-tent of foil for about eight minutes before you slice ‘n’ serve.

Told you it was easy.

Maryland crab cakes

Bear in mind, please, that I used to live in Maryland, and I can tell you for a fact that every single restaurant in the whole damned state claims to have the “best” and “most authentic” Maryland crab cakes.  Screw all that; here’s the real deal, and the best you’ll have.  Honest.  And if you don’t like crab cakes, no offense, but y’ain’t quite right upstairs.  Know what I mean?  Of course you do.

  • 14 saltine crackers
  • 1 lb. lump crab meat, picked over to assure the absence of bits of shells
  • 3 scallions, minced up nice & small (a bit of a pain, but hang in there)
  • 2 Tbsp. butter, melted, and 1 Tbsp. just soft
  • 2 Tbsp. mayo
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 Tbsp. good Dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp. Frank’s Red Hot® sauce
  • 1 tsp. Old Bay® seasoning
  • 1 lemon, cut up into wedges

Zap the saltines in your food processor until they’re nice and fine.  Drain the crab meat and pat it nice and dry with some paper towels.  Fold together the crab, 1/4 c. of the cracker crumbs, the scallions, melted butter, mayo, yolk, Frank’s® and Old Bay®.

Heck, we’re almost done!

Form four cakes, and press the top of each one into the remaining cracker crumbs.  Put the crumb-side down on a sheet pan covered with parchment paper, and refrigerate them for anywhere between one and eight hours.

When service time rolls around, grease another sheet pan with the soft butter, and put the crab cakes on it–again, crumb-side down–and broil them for twelve or fifteen minutes (personally, I like mine pretty much on the brown side, but maybe that’s just me).  Serve ’em up with the lemon wedges.

Do we need one more side dish?  Well, okay.

Three-bean salad

  • 1/2 c. red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 3 Tbsp. oil
  • 1 red onion, sliced thin
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • salt and pepper
  • 8 oz. green beans, trimmed and cut into 1″ pieces
  • 8 oz. yellow wax beans, likewise
  • 1 x 16 oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed well
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

Bring the following to a boil, and then turn it all down to a simmer and let it go for about five minutes:  the vinegar, sugar, oil, onion, garlic, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper.

Have a big bowl of ice water ready.

Boil 1 g. water, and add 1 Tbsp. salt, the green and yellow beans, and let that cook for about three minutes.  Drain the beans off and move them to the bowl of ice water.  Let them sit there for a few minutes, and then drain them again and make sure they’re nice and dry (it’d be a good idea to pat them with some paper towels).

Now, just toss everything together and stash it in your icebox for a good half hour, then have a taste and tweak the S & P.