Thursday, July 24, 2008

Good Gravy Marie

Yaks, bovines, bad bully cud chewers and mean mommy moo cows....they've been in the news in their new dress blues, cats and kittens! Someone needs to tell these rumbustious ruminants ENOUGH ALREADY with the headline hogging shenanigans and high-spirited hijinks!!!

Figure A, Desiree...'s not OK.

This is NOT beautiful.
Or Propriate.

Would someone like to explain this to me?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I cast thee out, Pressure Cooker! I rebuke thee utterly!

This is going to be kind of rough, but the disgusting parts are icky enough to make for entertaining reading.

My mother could have provided an entire career's worth of valuable data for someone specializing in the effects of poverty, abuse, malnutrition and rage over the long term. To describe the woman as having been 'warped' is simply to describe her in part. Her every waking moment was spent in a state of seething hatred and resentment. The entire world was her enemy and her coping strategies were that of a prisoner of war who had given up all thought of escape:

1. Life was shit, was never going to be anything other than shit and was in fact SUPPOSED TO BE shit because you were bad and were being punished.
2. Suck up to the strong
3. Trample the weak.

Yes, it was a barrel of laughs.

Now, despite having been employed in her fathers Greek restaurant for a number of years, and despite having been known as an excellent cook by all their navy friends, the woman I ended up with by the 1960's didn't cook so much as she simply opened cans and boiled the contents to death. Period. It took me years to associate the stories I heard about the dinner parties she used to throw and the food she used to cook with HER just never computed.

Not one meal-not ONE-ever landed on our table without having been complained about bitterly. 'Slaving over a hot stove' was a phrase she used frequently. So...three meals a day over 18 years is...a fuck of a lot of bitching about how she was nothing but a maid around this place and nobody ever lifted a finger to help because I was nuttin but lazy and boy, I'd sure have another thing coming once I grew up because POW comes the revolution etc etc etc WHATEVER, MOM, OK.

This is not to say that I was welcome in the kitchen (or that my help was even needed; after all, we had an electric can opener.) Neither would it be accurate to say that she ever taught me how to do anything in the kitchen except stay out of the way (I had to learn how to cook off the television from Graham Kerr) but the insinuation was, that were it not for me and my laziness, we would be eating fine cuisine off linen and silver.


The story I heard most often was how she and her brother never had nuttin to eat but oatmeal. How all she can remember was standing on a chair next to the stove stirring the oatmeal. That much is probably 100% true....right up until the point where she went to work in her fathers restaurant, of course. So deprivation doesn't cover it, and lack of skill wasn't the issue.

It was power.

For example, she liked to brag about how, back when they were first married, every time my dad pissed her off, she took a dish that he liked off the menu.

He pissed her off a lot.

Their early marriage, from what I've been given to understand, was pretty much one long drunken slugfest. All that became a way of life. A perpetual grudge match. Nobody quite remembered why it was that way, only that it had to be that way.
I think that, in her mind, food meant love.
You pissed her off, you lost something you liked. Forever. The end. That'll fix ya.

Then I came along, and the grand tradition continued. On top of losing a favorite item off the menu for good, though, you got in trouble for 'wasting food'. Not that it makes any rational sense; when you were just sitting there as this shrieking harpy suddenly jumped up and went screaming around the room brandishing hot bowls and plates and emptying the contents into the trash; you MADE her do that so it was your fault. (And remember,we were Catholic! Wasting food was also a sin, which meant THAT was one more reason you were going to hell! Two for the price of one! What a deal!)

Now, not one-NOT ONE- single specific incident or misdeed or transgression comes to mind. Not one triggering incident or episode. She'd just jump up and start in, apropos of God only knew what, and that was that. Goodbye anything you liked. Spaghetti. Goodbye hamburgers. Goodbye forever. Goodbye Franz bread. Goodbye blueberry jelly. Goodbye cereal. Goodbye.

What happened to the stuff that still remained? I have no earthly idea whatsoever. I've wondered about that for years. Did she sit and gorge on it like an ogre gloating over its hoard while no one was around? I kind of suspect that's exactly what happened. It makes a kind of weird, mythic sense. Heaven knows, everything else that ever came into that house REMAINED unto all eternity, particularly if it was food.

I've written about the hoarding. Huge 10 lb tins of flour absolutely alive with weevils and castings. Sugar turned into solid bricks in the bag, stuck to the shelves. Cans and mixes from 1963 that nobody was allowed to touch. Cases of capers in the basement.

Food was stashed all over the house. Behind books on the shelves. On the top shelf of the linen closet. In the buffet. Ancient candy stolen out of my Easter baskets and Halloween bags. Her purse, her coat pockets, all her sweater pockets were full of old hard rolls, bread sticks and crackers, packets full of every condiment known to civilization, creamers and old fortune cookies. We never left a restaurant without a doggie bag. Doggie never saw it. She even ganked food off other peoples plates once they'd left the table. If we went to a buffet, she brought an extra purse and a scarf. My father and I were press-ganged into going back for more, more, more. When we left the restaurant, that purse was full. There'd be a scarf lying on top of all the greasy napkins full of fried chicken and dinner rolls.

Now, I belong to two online groups dealing with hoarding and having grown up with a hoarder, and I'm still at a crossroads with the issue. They tend to see it as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and for some people it definitely is. But that explanation doesn't cover it all. Not by a long shot. Compulsion does NOT describe what I grew up with. It's my contention that it wasn't OCD at all... it was warfare. SHE won. You LOST. SHE got the food. You didn't. SHE had it, not you. That was her attitude. Nothing was more blatantly obvious. She wasn't stressed or fearful about starving...that old 'child of the Great Depression living in fear of the next market crash' bullshit doesn't wash in her case. She was going to WIN and you were going to LOSE. The way you kept score was by the number of stale fortune cookies in your purse.

I have had nightmares about the sound of a pressure cooker. Remember them? They had a little round thing that went over the steam vent on the top of the pot, and when the steam would reach a certain pressure that metal thing would rattle and hiss and shake. I remember that noise going on for HOURS at a time. Literally.

Anything that came out of that pot was a crime against nature.

Particularly a dish she liked to call "stew".

It started out innocently enough. A cheap cut of beef, potatoes, yellow onions, maybe some cabbage, and carrots...other things that had started out green; and here I'm assuming beans or peas or something along those lines...some salt and pepper.

All of it hacked into fist sized chunks.

All of it sealed up in this iron lung of pressurized horror together where it screamed and cried and beat its little fists bloody against the hard, unyielding walls of its prison to no avail.

And then the heat was turned on, and it was left there.


What came out of that pot was something that I had to wait years to see again, not that I was waiting with bated breath, mind you. The next time I saw it again was when I opened the door to a refrigerator in a house that the tenants had abandoned, where the electricity had been shut off for a month.

The contents were MELTED.

It was like opening a sealed coffin. It was SOUP. The only way it could be identified as food was that some of the wrappers were still recognizable. The food inside had not decomposed in any sense that you'd ordinarily recognize; it had simply turned into a chunky, indescribably foetid, LIQUID.

The same sight greeted you when the lid was finally taken off the pressure cooker, and God help me, something of the same warm, armpitty, bacterially active smell. Now heaven knows there was nothing left alive after that kind of treatment; you could have packed it into an open chest wound and not worried about infection because whatever else it might have been it sure'n the fuck was STERILE.

She would serve it up with a mean, mean grin as the loooooong strands of translucent onion slithered off the spoon like dead angleworms after a hard rain. In fact its that slithery texture, that texture of decomposition and slime that comes back clearly across the years. That, and the SMELL. Oh my God, that smell, like bad, bad breath, like boiled fat, like a sink full of dirty dishes on a hot day.

"Your favorite thing!" she'd chirp, and my father would laugh. Then the screaming would start, and the threats, no television, no going outside, no phone calls, no friends until I stayed there and ate everything on my plate and no getting up until someone gave me permission and I'd have the same thing for breakfast and on and on and on and on. I mean, as the night follows the day. That pot would come to the table along with the grin, and then the yelling and freaking. Meanwhile I'm just sitting there. Counting the days left until I'm 18.

Now there was a period of time when we saw that shit come to the table every single evening. Even my dads pickled taste buds woke up. He was lucky, of course; he had a car and money, so he just started eating dinner before he came home from work in the evening.

But yeah, this was something she started when I was about midway through 4Th grade, and she'd return to this tactic every time she was good and pissed off about something I'd done, which was more often than not. Deliberately destroy a meal and then scream at me to eat it. Over and over and over again. It took me years to figure out what was going on. Wanna know why? You want to know the punchline? The kicker? The really good part?

Started right after I hit puberty.

Happened about once a month.

So yes, there's a reason I've never been worried about where this womans' remains are buried. Just knowing that they ARE BURIED is more than enough.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Green Cow Is Destruction: Have The Black Light Poster!!

Yeah, there will eventually be a recipe-several, in fact!- and yeah, I'll give the link for the conversion table thingie so that people who aren't American can cook it too and learn how to eat like normal people.

Middle of summer? Check!
Hotter than Kilauea? Check!


You know you want to. In fact, mix up a basic batch of this and then use the handy variations to make Albondigas and Italian Meatballs!


I grew up with the worlds worst cook. Basic dysfunction aside, this woman made the same mistake many women in that era made: they relied on the recipe booklets handed out by the modern convenience food industry for new ideas. This is the same source which gave us American classics like Tuna Wiggle with Green Peas. I've talked with friends who grew up in the same era and compared notes... we all grew up eating the same horrific dishes, in fact, prepared in exactly the same ways, no matter what the region.

The two main malefactors in the horror story that was American home cooking in the early 60's were the Hunts Corporation and the Campbells Soup Company. Their evil minions were the church/school fundraiser cookbook...where these 'recipes' were re-printed and handed along by the type of woman who insists that everyone loooooooooves her food, and who thought that topping something with miniature marshmallows represented the pinnacle of fine dining. I have proof of this too...I collect old cookbooks. They tell a sad, sad tale.

Anyway, this was eventually going to lead to meatloaf. OK. So.

The archetypal recipe for bad meatloaf was perpetrated by the Hunts corporation. The things that made it so very, very bad were the use of CUBED WHITE BREAD, COARSELY CHOPPED RAW VEGETABLES; SPECIFICALLY GREEN BELL PEPPER AND YELLOW ONION, and a topping of either CATSUP or TOMATO SAUCE. * You can see that the entire thrust of the recipe is toward the 'sweet' setting on the taste-o-meter.

By following the recipe to the letter, which meant using a medium-grade ground beef and baking it under a covering of tinfoil at 375 for 50 minutes, you ended up with something that was very soft and had a distinctly stewed flavor, as the loaf essentially spent all that time boiling in its own copious juices.

Now I'd had this prepared by people who actually cared about what they cooked and who followed the recipe, and at best its edible. Barely. In the hands of an enraged 4-pack a day smoker who used food as I cannot adequately describe the fear and loathing that rose in my throat when, opening the door to my room, I smelled the distinctive aroma of DEATHLOAF shambling down the hall like a victim of wet leprosy. **

Folks, meatloaf CAN BE delicious. It doesn't have to be frightening.

I figured there had to be a way to make this stuff edible. The idea was to stretch a given amount of minced meat economically, without killing members of the immediate family. And really, there was nothing particularly wrong with the ingredients; just the combination.

The tomato topping, the cubed white bread, the green pepper and the yellow onion were the first things to go. There is no reason in the world to have all that 'sweet' in there.*** The idea I came up with was to simply add in the most emame (savory, meaty flavored) ingredients I could, things that harmonize with cooked meat, things that you'd be making a sauce out of anyway if you were serving a bland cut.

Once the main ingredient was treated with a little respect, flavor wise, I twiddled with the cooking method in order to eliminate the 'soupy' flavor. The idea here is that you're eating meat, not drinking it. You want some browning to occur. That caramelizing is what makes meat delicious.

Here's what I came up with. It's pretty simple, and it's not 'fine dining' chow, but I promise that nobody will be traumatized by it. Really.

Yes, you have to use your hands to mix this up. Pull on your big girl panties and deal with it.


I lb ground beef, room temperature
1/2 cup dry, toasted bread crumbs
combine in a large bowl, set aside.

now, this is important:
Minced-yes, MINCED. The same size as the bits of ground beef. Not chopped coarsely. Not LIQUIFIED either or put through the Cuisinart....just MINCED....

1/2 cup each:
carrot, celery, WHITE onion, mushrooms
Saute in a little oil - in batches so that the pan isn't crowded- until soft and liquids are reduced. A nonstick pan is good for this since you aren't looking to create a fond.

Cool, then add to ingredients in bowl, combine.

Mix together: 1 egg
Sprig oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil
Soy sauce
(or Braggs liquid amino...same ingredient, no 'boozy' taste) used judiciously; it's salty
...this stuff. yeah, i know, the packaging makes it look like plant fertilizer but it's not. maybe they use the same advertising firm that Dr. Bronner does. anyway, its delicious. tastes like soy sauce but not fermented.

combine using a hand blender (Bamix), add to ingredients in bowl, blend.

Let mixture sit for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 425

Mush the mixture around a little bit...what you want is a material that you can form a ball out of, one that holds its shape. If it feels too soft, add some bread crumbs....too stiff and dry, add water, maybe a little more soy sauce, stock, milk, red wine..whatever. If you've never made this before, play it safe and just use water. ( can always season something UP once its done; but once seasoned, it can never be seasoned DOWN.)

Now plop it into a loaf pan. Don't bother greasing it. Just plop that sucker right in there. Dome the top all nice and make it look pretty. I smooth it so that it makes a nice brown, shiny appearance when its cooked. I do not require that you emulate my dorkiness, however.




Just put it in the nice oven.

At about 15 minutes, take out and dump off juices. Most of it will be fat. (Save these aside for your dog or cat.)

Replace in oven and finish cooking. This will take about 15-20 more minutes, or until the interior temp is 160f.

The top should be nice and browned and not cracked. The loaf will be shrunken away from the sides of the pan a little, and have a little juice in the bottom. That's fine. Leave it there; it will soak back in. You've already gotten rid of most of the fat.

Let loaf rest for 20 minutes

Serve! I like it sliced, with cream gravy over the top, and mashed potatoes with. Oh yeah!


Now, you could mix that all up to the point just before you correct the texture, plop it in the pan and put it in the oven...and make instead

by simply adding...

1/2 cup leftover white rice
1 tsp sambal oelek (oh you do TOO have it, Brits; sheesh, look in the 'oriental foods' section.)
Quite a bit of fresh mint, chopped finely. I use about 1/4 cup of strong, rank old field mint and it's perfect.

Combine and let set for 1 hour
Form into balls the size of a walnut
Place on a flat, ungreased pan
Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, giving the meatballs a shake to roll them around about halfway through.
Turn off the heat, open the door, and let them cool in the oven until you can reach in with your bare hands and pick up the pan.

Drop them carefully into soup that is just at a bare, bare simmer...not even tiny bubbles. Leave them for about 1 hour, checking them occasionally and 'sinking' them. When they stay sunk, the soup is done.

(the soup is a basic, regular soup stock...carrots, onion, celery and parsley with a chicken base, with a can of chopped tomatoes and 1/2 cup of refries added to it. Easy!)

you could make ITALIAN MEATBALLS instead!

Just add twice the amount of rosemary and oregano-fresh, please
and 2 tbls -yeah, get over it- of garlic confit (a paste of olive oil and ground fresh garlic)
mixed with the egg and soy sauce (or Braggs, which I prefer)

Form and bake as for Albondigas
Place into marinara, same temp, and hold for 1 hour (or place in cooled marinara and hold overnight in the fridge. Bring up to serving temp and droooooooooooooooool all over the place because it smells so good!)

Eat it all up and don't share any of it.



* Later 'improvements' also call for barbecue sauce, something called 'chili sauce' (that I recall as kind of a chunky catsup with a little extra ascorbic acid thrown in), chopped sweet pickle, lima beans and white rice.
No no no no no no no no no. No. Just NO.

**Second only to PRESSURE COOKED STEW. I've been to the dump and smelled things that didn't arouse that kind of nausea. I think it was the combination of the smell, knowing that I'd have to sit at the table until I was actually seen to put some of it in my mouth, and the....visual. Stew isn't an attractive dish at its very best. After spending over an hour in the pressure cooker it resembles what must have poured out of the rum cask that Admiral Nelson was stored in.

***ever notice that about American cooking from the old days? Everyfucking thing was sweet. Everything. They put sugar in GREEN BEANS for heavens sake. What the hell? Just because you can, doesn't mean you SHOULD.
I also blame this on Germans. At least the ones I knew. Man, if you could put sugar or caraway in it, there it was. When I caught my husband (German, taught to cook by Germans) putting BROWN SUGAR into spaghetti sauce and chili we had several long, long talks about who should do the cooking and who should stay the fuck out of my kitchen if he was going to go dumping all brown sugar into shit.