Monday, September 25, 2006

What to Eat When You Feel Like Dying

Sick, sick, and even more sick. Since Thursday, I've battled fever, swollen glands, and enough snot to drown large mammals.

What do you cook when you can't smell, you can't focus your watery eyes, and the last thing you want to do is stand on your feet while you figure out something complicated over the stove? The answer is very simple: a roast chicken. The beauty of this meal is that it lasts over the course of your illness. You can eat it with a roast sweet potato and coleslaw when you're in the denial stage, make sandwiches with it when you've accepted your illness, and make a garlicky soup with it when you're ready to just get the damn thing over with.

Liberally salt a small chicken, slide a few branches of thyme under the skin, and set the chicken in the refrigerator overnight. When you're ready to start thinking about food, preheat the oven to 480 degrees Fahrenheit, take the chicken out of the refrigerator, set it on a cutting board and pat the whole thing dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Set your cast iron skillet on the burner to get nice and hot, then, place the chicken--breast side up--in the skillet. Protecting your hand with a mitt, place the hot skillet in the oven. Go take a decongestant-induced half hour nap. Come back, remove the skillet from the oven, and using large forks, flip the chicken over to be back side up. Place it back in the oven and take another nap, this time only twenty minutes long. When you return to the kitchen, your chicken will be almost ready. Take the skillet out of the oven and flip the bird over one more time, breast side facing up again, and place it in the oven to re-crisp the skin over the breast and legs. This should only take five or ten minutes, enough time to down a combination of Airborne, echinacea, and Tylenol. Remove the skillet from the oven, place the bird on a platter, and let it rest for a couple minutes. The skin will be crispy brown all over and you may even get a whiff of it's delicious thyme-y sent through those clogged up nostrils. If you're feeling half conscious, you can figure out something to do with the drippings; don't feel guilty if you don't do anything with the drippings though. Take solace in the fact that your nose is dripping so much you can't even take the word "drippings" seriously, and if you were healthy, you'd come up with something wonderful to do. Tell yourself that when you're healthy, you are master of all that is culinary, and when you are sick, you can still roast up a tasty little fryer.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

On Being (Temporarily) Manless in September

Bleached out, saggy summer takes her leave. Finally. Fall has fallen and the evenings have cooled off enough to throw open the windows and throw on another blanket. Cold feet feel great after months of sweaty ones. The early autumn light drenches an extra layer of color on every surface. And, after months of being too hot to dance around my house when I clean and cook, today I found myself straight-out jamming to Lauryn Hill. I'm feeling hip-hop.

It's great. Except.

Halfway across the world, ECG is presenting at several conferences, making connections, and exploring job opportunities. He's getting a chance to see where his dreams may take him. After a week in Gottingen, Germany, a city he found exceptionally livable due to the culture of quality work and attention to detail, he's now spending a week at another conference in Rome. I don't think he is enjoying Rome nearly as much as he did Germany.

I'm so happy that ECG has this chance, but I miss him. In the last few days, the missing him has overwhelmed the excitement I feel for his opportunity to adventure. In addition, as much as I am enjoying the onset of fall, I keep enjoying it in the ways that I think about explaining it to him. My appreciation of it has been filtered through his absence, so each experience becomes a story directed towards ECG as my audience. We've been communicating almost entirely through email, with one five-minute conversation on Friday morning before the line went dead, when instead of ECG's voice, quiet filled my ear. In each case of emailing or conversation, I am trapped because I want to tell him every detail of each day and how I feel about all of it, while hearing all of his details and feelings, but it's impossible to keep up on the daily-ness of one's life when one isn't around to experience it with you. Together at home, we spatter our conversation onto the mirror during morning toothbrushing, we shoot each other brief funny emails through the course of the day, we come home and take turns complaining, laughing, and chatting. We problem solve over dinner and house organizing. We talk in front of the TV, tease each other, gripe about doing the dishes. As we cuddle, we murmer, and fall asleep tangled up. Our words are tangled, our bodies are tangled, our thoughts are too. So, as every couple knows, it sucks being apart.

Next Saturday can't come fast enough.

While I wait for ECG's return, I have been staying late at work grading papers and planning. I haven't cooked much, nor have I spent as much time outside celebrating the onset of fall as I usually do. This weekend, I decided I had to remedy that. I love this season, after all, and whether ECG is here or not to celebrate it with me, I need to appreciate the bounty the season offers. So, last night, I made a hearty vegetable soup, rich with greens and completely void of any form of meat, the kind of meal that ECG would not even recognize as a meal. Oh man, it tasted good. And today, I wandered through The Huntington grounds, thrilling in the September light and colors. I took pictures with ECG in mind. With each shot, I remembered the ways that ECG has taught me to use my camera, ways that I never knew before I knew him. It's just one of the many things I never knew before I knew him.

So here, ECG and whoever else may read this, is my Sunday afternoon at The Huntington.

Bright colors.

Variations on the theme of green.

O, las floras.

Critters, or evidence thereof.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


He has no butt. He wears his jeans too high—nearly to his ribcage—and appears unable to cleanly shave the silver stubble under his chin. His face is unremarkable, one that wouldn’t catch my attention if I saw it anywhere other than on stage. But, with that guitar, scarred, signed by nearly every musical luminary of the past fifty years or so, marked with a splintery puncture hole, Willie Nelson made Los Angeles stand in thunderous applause last night. No one in the audience could help but pay attention.

Willie and his family band played their hearts out to us. His sister pounded away on the piano while his son gave Stevie Ray Vaughan a run for his money, making the electric guitar wail like a woman weeping over lost love. Willie’s long time buddies, including the famous Paul (of “Paul and Me”) played and sang with him the way they’ve been playing for years. We all know that the life he loves is “making music with [his] friends,” and last night, the audience could feel the love he has for his life. His music is rough; it has texture. The lyrics are simple, usually about women he’s done wrong or his own music-focused lifestyle, all sung in a Texas twang, yet somehow they brought all of us together, and it felt great. In fact, a couple of times, I even got a bit teary. I’m not one to feel remarkably patriotic. I enjoy the freedoms living in this country offers, but I have a hard time saying what this country is. I’ve lived in enough different cities in the United States to know that the differences between the cities is extreme enough to make each seem likes its own nation. However, last night, seeing Willie Nelson sing and play, I felt a deep love for this mixed-up country.

In the second half, the LA Phil left and it was just Willie and the band. The almost-full moon rose, huge and orange, over the hills, and a cold breeze made sweatshirts futile. It felt like fall feels everywhere I’ve lived. The crowd of thousands sang along with familiar songs, just like any other Willie Nelson crowd would. Wannabe rebel punkers sang, the wrinkled couple holding hands sang, the gay men in wire-rimmed glasses sang, the Asian kid with the handheld video game sang, the middle aged married couple in leather vests and cowboy hats sang. I sang.

It was as American as American could be. American like baked beans.

Patriotic Beans
ECG and I hosted a barbecue last weekend to celebrate the end of summer, the start of school, and our now official cohabitation. Working his magic on the grill, ECG fed the crowd smoky tri tip and burgers. I made baked beans from scratch, and I’ve got to say, these are the best baked beans that I’ve ever had, even though there is no baking involved. I adapted the recipe a bit from’s Blue Smoke’s baked beans recipe—it says it feeds twenty, but it doesn’t really. They’re too good and they go too fast for twenty people to get to them. They’re sweet, smoky, and have just the right bite. Even better, they’re thick and chunky. The combination of a couple types of beans means that the softer pintos or cranberries cook down into a velvety base for the perfectly intact, but very tender navy beans.

Beans—a legume native to the Americas—flavored with chili—also native to our eclectic continent. How much more patriotic could you get?

To cook the beans:
1 lb dried cranberry or pinto beans (or a mix of the two)
½ lb dried navy beans
4 peeled carrots, chopped into 1 inch pieces
2 small onions, peeled
4 bay leaves
4 generous branches of thyme
4 teaspoons salt

Soak the beans separately overnight and rinse the next day. Cook the cranberry/pintos in one pot, and the navy beans in another. To each pot, add two of the carrots, one onion, two bay leaves, and two branches of thyme. Add enough water to cover the beans and ingredients in each pot by two inches. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, then cook for about an hour or so—just until the beans are tender. The two pots may take different amounts of time to cook, even up to two hours. Just as the beans are finishing, add two teaspoons of salt to each pot. When the beans are finished, drain, reserving a couple cups of the cooking liquid. Discard the spent carrots, onions, bay leaves, and thyme. They’ve done their duty. Now you can dump the separate beans all in one bowl. (You can do all the of this they a day or two before you plan on finishing the beans. They’ll keep if covered in the refrigerator.)

To finish the beans:
6-7 ounces of bacon, diced
1 medium onion, chopped finely
2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1 red pepper, chopped finely
1 red-ripe jalapeno, chopped very finely
1 ¾ cups ketchup
1 ½ cups bean cooking liquid
½ cup dark brown sugar
2 ½ tablespoons spice mix (see note below)
1 ½ tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoon spicy mustard
1 teaspoon chipotle Tabasco
¼ teaspoon smoked (Spanish) paprika

You’ll need a large stockpot or Dutch oven in which to make the beans. Over medium heat, cook the diced backon until the fat has rendered and the pieces are crispy. Add the onion, garlic, and peppers and cook until the onion starts to get the sweet brown edges that we all love so much.

Add everything except the beans, and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the beans and bring to a simmer, cooking for at least 30 minutes. Truthfully, you can let the pot simmer for much longer, occasionally stirring to keep the mixture from sticking, as all the flavors combine into bean-y deliciousness.

Spice mix note: Blue Smoke calls this mix Magic Dust and deems it the spice cabinet’s culinary gift to all of mankind. I took the original recipe and added fennel. Why? Because I like it and think nearly all barbecue-y spice mixes should include fennel seed. This makes more than you need, but the spice mix tastes wonderful rubbed on a skirt steak before tossing it on the grill, or sprinkled on buttered corn-on-the-cob. Don’t worry. You’ll use it.

To make the spice mix (aka Magic Dust), combine:

¼ cup paprika
3 tablespoons ground dried medium-hot chili
2 ½ tablespoons dry mustard
2 tablespoons coarse salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed

Keep it a glass jar in your spice cabinet.

P.S. I'm having issues posting pictures on Blogger lately. Has anyone else been having any trouble? Do you have any advice?

Friday, September 01, 2006

A Cast-Iron-Sand-Down

An apology--it's been too long to go without a post--I'm sorry. (Also, I have pictures to accompany this posting, but I got in a fight with the server trying to upload them. They'll have to come later.)

I just finished Undaunted Courage. I knew Meriwether Lewis would kill himself in the end, but it still made me cry. There was no one better suited for his job exploring the American West, but the very things that made him so ideal for such a job limited his ability to survive in any other setting. He didn't know how to help himself change. He hadn't learned the tools he needed.

I'm trying to learn the tools I need to help myself change right now. Recently, I've run into short corriders of my personality that close off the opportunity to build or strengthen certain relationships. I've got to start ripping out some personal drywall, and I'm trying to figure out just how to do it. As I'm mulling over my personal reconstruction, I've been wholeheartedly consumed with actual projects that require sandpaper and screwdrivers.

ECG has moved in, which necessitated a new entertainment center to accomodate the huge TV, Tivo, and cable that follow him. A couple months ago, we found an Ikea "media shelving unit" that fit our budget and our needs, so we tried to buy it. Unfortunately, our local Ikea only had the bottom part of the piece. We purchased that and asked the friendly salesman how long it would be before the top part--the essential bookcase section--would be in stock. Just a few weeks, he assured us. A few weeks came and went, and by that time, no one in Southern California stocked the top portion of the piece. In fact, only one store in all of California had it in stock: Emeryville. ECG and I decided that we had to complete this project before school started, so we thought we'd drive up one day and buy the piece, crash at CD's that night, and drive back down the following day. When I called CD up to ask if he could accomodate us for the night, he firmly told me no. "We love you and would love to see you, but you may not drive up here to simply buy some furniture." He told me that he'd purchase it for us then send it down on Greyhound. Greyhound? Who knew Greyhound was a shipping solution?

CD promptly fulfilled his promise and sent down our new piece of furniture in heavy boxes. It arrived with minor dings, not enough to discourage us, and we spent most of a day putting it together. School starts tomorrow and it will be harder for both of us to commit time to house projects, but at least we finished the "media shelving unit." Now we can listen to music, watch cooking shows on TV, and play video games with no difficulties. As you can see, we've got our priorities straight.

ECG's move into my house has also meant a complete reorganization of every closet, a reassessment of all my material goods (determining what should stay and what should go), and a major construction job in my garage. ECG and our friend SM built hefty shelves that now line the garage. Suddenly, much of what we own is hanging two feet below ceiling level, and the garage has a new purpose. As ECG's personal workshop and darkroom, every shelf and hook now holds the weight of future projects. I've never seen ECG so completely consumed with a project as he is by the garage. For the past few days, he's spent hours working down there, my cat Reggie keeping him company, and I can hear little bits of conversation float upstairs from the two of them. ECG asks where he should put a certain box, and Reggie replies with his startlingly human sounding, "Mwowowow." Whenever I go down the stairs to see what's happening, I find ECG ripping open a box to determine its contents, painting the shelves, or finding a new way to hang the bike. He has a the radio on down there, and more than once, I've found him dancing as he's organizing. Yes, dancing.

My kitchen has not been free from this wave of reorganization. Along with giving every drawer and shelf a specific purpose, I also went through the tools I own and figured out which were still useful. One very important tool stood out as needing some special care: my ancient cast iron pan. I've used it for everything from caramelly-rich tarte tatin to pungent Moroccan chicken, and it's the perfect pan for Saturday morning Dutch babies; however, even though I knew that a good cast iron pan should be relatively stick-free, everything stuck to mine. When I bought it at a swap meet a couple years ago, I followed the generally accepted principle of using steel wool to scrub it down, then lightly oiling it and placing it in the oven on a low temperature for a few hours to season it. Although the steel wool took off years of wear and made it clean enough to consider sanitary, it didn't eliminate the issue of stickiness. When my brother was here over Thanksgiving last year, the pan infuriated him, and he tried the same technique I had used when I first purchased it, with no better results. Last week, after eggs stuck to the pan like a mess of crunchy dried super-glue, I was unable to even use what I had cooked, and I had reached the end of my rope with the pan. So I did my research. I found this site that gave me more ideas than I had even known existed about how to re-season an old cast iron pan. I tried the sanding technique.

I placed newspaper in a large square on the living room floor, put my pan on top of it, and prepared myself with several sheets of medium grit sand paper. And, I began. I sanded. I sanded some more. And more. I spent two hours sanding the inside and most of the outside of the pan. (I didn't worry too much about the handle--as far as I know, no one cooks on the handle.) A huge pile of rusty colored dust collected on my newspaper, and my hands became stained a charcoal-ly black. When I finally rinsed the pan down, all the layers of burnt-on food were gone, and the pan dully gleamed with clean iron. I rinsed it a couple more times, wiped it dry, then spread a thin layer of canola oil all over it. I placed in the oven upside down over tinfoil to catch any drips, and turned the oven on to 350. After an hour, I turned the oven off, but left the pan in to cool slowly.

When I took the pan out, it had a couple spots where the oil had not coated the pan very well, so I repeated the light oiling and heating steps. The pan now resembles its former self in its capacity for even heating and sturdy functionality, but it is better. Now, it is stick-free. My research recommends that I break time-honored rules and maintain the pan by washing it with soap and water after each use, letting it dry over low heat on the burner, lightly oiling it with canola, and then heating it again on the burner. The heat should help the oil bond to the surface. I haven't tried this process yet, but since the sanding was so much work, I'm going to do my darnedest to keep this pan working well.

So, to shape up the pan, I had to give it a sanding to take off years of cooked-on crap and a series of hot ovens to smooth out the newly rough surface, and now I have to perform daily maintenance to keep it healthy.

You know, I think this process might be applicable somewhere else.