Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the 27th Time

Here's my second place-winning entry to The Colony Public Library's 30th anniversary writer's competition.  Thanks Kevin for encouraging me to enter.  I love you!                                    

                                  On Reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the 27th Time

I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of Harper Lee’s only novel. My mother and sister referred to it often, quoted it when the occasion presented, and Atticus stood but one notch below my own father in my personal pantheon of male achievement. 

I had heard so much about this book and seen my sister act out the main scenes of the film so many times that by the time the paperback became available to me through a school book sale and my mother handed over the $1.95 Scholastic wanted for it, I could hardly wait to get it home.

I still have that yellow-covered paperback with its red-block title font somewhere, although it’s the hardcover version I read now. I’ve read “To Kill a Mockingbird” every summer since my seventh-grade year. This story means summer to me. Summer and freedom. Freedom from school, freedom from kids my age, freedom to read whatever I feel like reading- the freedom of childhood. 

The opening sentence is never far from me: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow,” and the last sentence “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning,” crosses my mind every time my own daughter is sick.

This summer, though, I only managed to skim through the book, but I watched the movie with my three year-old daughter. I watched it and I watched her enthralled with the first half of the film, then watched her drift off to her toys when things got serious and sad and adult- just as I had drifted away from the sad stuff when I was a girl.

What strikes me now, listening to the book on CD and doing dishes while everyone else is sleeping, is how life carries on. I vividly remember thinking that things were “over” at each turning point in the book. Scout goes to school and isn’t allowed to read with Atticus anymore. Miss Maudie’s house burns down, Jem is waylaid by old Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, Scout is confined to petticoats and tea parties by Aunt Alexandra; Atticus’s fellow citizens show up to lynch his client and him, too.  How will things ever be the same?

As I grew up, each of these developments wrenched me, saddened me, laid me low, but I kept reading, kept loving this book. 

At forty now, it hits me. Alone at night, listening to the book on CD and washing dishes while everyone else is asleep- this is what happens: life carries on.

As children, as young people, every major shift in life is the end- how will we go on?  Our family moves, our friends marry and move away, our loved ones die- life will never be the same comforting tableau we’ve come to know. 

Then we wake up the next morning. We brush our teeth, go to work, take the kids to school- and things carry on. Tom Robinson may be gone; Boo Radley may have been explained and demystified, but still we go on. 

We carry on living and working and loving and reading- above all, loving and reading. Then we share “To Kill a Mockingbird” with our daughters. We share that sense of summer, of fun, of youth, of melancholy, of fighting even though “we were licked a hundred years before we started.”

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Humble Potato- Elevated

Ronald Reagan said that "all great change in America begins at the dinner table."  I'm not a Reagan fan, but I am down with that statement.   Let's start with the basic, the favorite, the most potentially delightful object on many an American dinner table, or supper table, if you're from my neck of the woods, and change THAT- or at least the way many of us prepare it.   

Mashed potatoes.  They don't come out of a box. They're not made by fictional tarts called Betty or Ida. :-)  They DO take more than ten minutes to prepare, but most good things in life take more than ten minutes to make, do, arrive at, or accomplish. 

If you've been dragged down into as many caverns by your spelunking parents as I have, you will know that potato flakes smell exactly like bat guano. If you haven't been dragged down into countless caverns (or as I like to call them, the bowels of hell) consider yourself blessed and lucky. 

You with me still?

Get some potatoes.  Figure on one per person- or two per if you're feeding the family I grew up in.  Big brown potatoes.  You don't want tiny new potatoes for this.  Those little red guys you roast entire with olive oil and herbs or you turn them into a yummy German potato salad- no mayo allowed.  But that's another post.

Give those taters a good rinse and scrub off any visible dirt with a veggie brush or non-soapy scouring-type pad. Peel those potatoes, or don't.  That's up to you.  Kevin and I like the peel in there, but Mimi won't touch it.  Dice up those taters into smallish cubes.  The smaller your pieces, the faster they'll cook.  (A sharp knife is really important here.  You don't want a dull knife slipping off the potato's damp flesh and into yours.)  

Add the cubed potatoes to the big pot of salted water you've already got going on the stove.  I usually smash a clove or two of garlic and throw them in the water along with the potatoes.  

Let the water come to a boil, then boil a couple of minutes, before reducing the heat a little so the pan doesn't boil over.  Prod a piece of tater after five or ten minutes- the cooking time is totally dependent on how small you diced your praties.

Once they are tender, but not disintegrating, drain them in a colander as you'd drain pasta.  Now for the fun part.  

Melt some butter in the tater pot, which you should have over low heat now, add some milk, salt, pepper, and a dash of Tabasco, and let the ingredients warm up.  Alternately, you can you use chicken or veg broth to cut fat and calories, but this is mashed potatoes, so...

Now return your taters to the pot and mash away with a potato masher.  If you have a potato ricer, use that for finer, fluffier taters.  You can also use a big spoon or fork if that's what you have.  I wouldn't recommend any electrical means of mashing or whipping here- a hand beater, immersion blender , or fo-pro will only turn your fluffy little lovelies into wallpaper paste.

Once you've got your babies mashed, you can add diced green onions, chives- whatever strikes your fancy.  Chipotle mashed potatoes anyone?  Bacon mashed potatoes?  Oh, my!
Mmm, taters!
Anyway, there you have it.  Homemade mashed potatoes are easy and you can get creative and/or crazy with them, and you're keeping all those potato flake boxes out of your recycling bin or landfill. 

Your new mantra: 


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pasta pet peeves

Been pondering that pasta article from the previous evening.  Yes, every pasta shape has its particular uses and some perform better with pancetta than with pesto and these precepts are all good to know, but the particular problem most people have with pasta pertains to preparation.

My pet particular pet peeves pertaining to pasta are plentiful- puny pan, parsimonious portions, and partially-heated pots of water.   

1) You a need a big-ass pot-  big enough to hold enough water for the amount of pasta you're going to cook.  "The bigger the better" is your rule of thumb here.

2) Fill that pot to the highest level possible while still permitting bubbling space for the water after the pasta has been presented.

3)  SALT the water.  Don't be parsimonious with your NaCL.  Your pasta water should approximate the waters of the Mediterranean.  Use good kosher salt, too.  Regular table salt contains chemicals that can lend an ICK  factor to your finished dishes.  Nobody wants an ICK factor in his/her finished dishes.

4)  Let your pasta water come to a full rolling boil before you add your noodles. (This goes for tea-making, too. There's a reason that the phrase "she can't boil water" is so derogatory to us cooking-type people.)  

5)  Once your water is BOILING, add the pasta and stir that stuff till the water is fully boiling again- this is how you keep it from sticking. (Don't put any damn oil in your cooking water. The only thing you'll accomplish doing that is pasta that glue won't stick to. Oil is a lubricant, folks- think about it.)  On a side note, one of my most-used kitchen tools is a plastic pasta measure/stirrer/server.  I don't use it to measure pasta now that I've discovered the scale, but it's the best tool I've found for stirring, separating, and serving pasta.  You don't want clumps, you gotta stir.

6)  When your pasta is cooked to your desired tenderness (I refrain from judgement here- I prefer mush to crunchy clumps of not-dente half-raw noodles), drain it in a large colander/strainer then add it directly to whatever warmed sauce you're serving it with.  If you're making a pasta salad, drain it and then rinse it in cold water to stop the cooking or follow the directions of whatever recipe you're following.  The  circa-1973 bowl of naked spag with a blob of Ragu on it ain't cuttin' it here,  buddy. 

7) Last but most important of all, if you LIKE half-raw pasta half-doused in cold sauce and no one is coming to dinner, by all means cook your pasta that way.  Cooking is personal, very personal.  Please yourself but please your friends, too.  Keep a can of that Kraft crap in the back of your fridge where no one can see it if that's what makes you happy. 


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

No time to post because I'm reading

Check this out:

"You know what happens when you add oil to pasta water? The pasta, regardless of the shape, will be so slippery that it will no longer absorb your sauce. After all of the work that those diligent pasta magicians went through, you ruin all of it by pouring oil all over your pasta, and it won't even keep the pasta from sticking together. Selfish. That's what you are."


Read more: 9 Ridiculous Cooking Myths You Probably Believe |

Monday, January 9, 2012

Two followers- whoo-hoo!

Hey, I have two followers already!  Nice!  And I'm only related to one of them.  :-)  Tonight I cooked Chicken and Noodles from your mom's copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.  It was delicious and Kevin and I scarfed it down, but the Mimi wouldn't touch it.  Live and learn, kid- more for us.  No pictures tonight- we were too tired and too freaking hungry.  I'll probably only manage real posts with pictures on weekends, but I'll try.

What did YOU make for supper tonight?  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Schnitzelesque Pork Parmesan

An hour-long drive home and a three year-old who has mastered the phrase "I need you" and the puppy-dog eyes do not an early evening make, but I can pound this out pretty quickly after a cocktail and a round or three of Hungry Hungry Hippos.  

Assemble this stuff:

4 boneless pork loin chops, 3/4-inch thick
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
½ teaspoon ground oregano
½ teaspoon dried basil
Dash of Tabasco
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup panko (or other bread crumbs)
¼ cup vegetable oil
parmesan cheese- REAL parm, not that crap in the can
marinara sauce
spaghetti, vermicelli or linguine

Set a heavy fry or saute pan over medium heat.  Add a couple tablespoons of vegetable or olive oil.

Get the water for your pasta going.  Please, please make sure the pot is big enough so that all your little noodles have their elbow room. Salt the water generously- it should taste like the sea.  And please, PLEASE make sure the water is BOILING before you put the pasta in- boiling as in big bubbles breaking the surface over and over again all fast-like. Stir the noodles till the water returns to the boil, then let it do its thing with the occasional stir till the pasta is to your liking. 

Set up your breading station. 
Season the flour with salt, add Tabasco, basil and oregano to the two beaten eggs and leave your breadcrumbs virginal.

Trim the excess fat and any tough tendony bits from your chops.
Save the bits for your sister's chickens.

Dredge each chop in the seasoned flour, shake off the excess, then dip into the egg mixture, let the excess drip off and then coat the chops with the panko.
My chef in cooking school said something about using one hand for the dry chops and one for the wet chops, but I could never figure out how to keep one hand dry...
                                         Pretty pretty pork chops.

Pop 'em in the pan.
                                         Watch for flying, spattering, boiling flecks of hell fat. 

Give 'em three or four minutes on each side. I usually put my chops on a rack over a baking sheet and put them into the warm oven while I drain the pasta and sauce it and stuff. 

Slice up one chop and tell your daughter it's chicken nuggets. 
                                         She'll love it.

Put something green on a plate, add chops and pasta.  Please sauce your pasta, don't put it naked on the plate.

Grate that parm over it all and enjoy! 

If you've done it right, you'll have chops that are crispy-crunchy on the outside and tender in the middle.   If not, you'll have slightly charred chops that are a little chewy on the inside. It happens to us all.