The Rules of Error

More and more, my sons are in the kitchen making meals alongside me, their spatulas wielded by increasingly-confident hands. Because they have learned how to express themselves through cooking, their techniques are much more advanced than mine were at their age. My twelve-year-old makes a great omelet and rolls sushi properly, my seven-year-old has waffle-making down pat and is a whiz at flipping sliders.

I instruct them, show them a technique once or twice, and then slowly remove myself from the process, because I believe that the best teacher is one who makes himself less and less necessary. In the kitchen, this stepping aside isn’t easy for me, even though I teach literature to teenagers five days a week for a living. After all, in the classroom, I never have cause to flinch at the carnage I imagine whenever one of my budding chefs grabs a butcher knife or pours boiling water from the kettle or almost reaches into a rocket-hot skillet with his bare naïve fingertips. Despite what my high schoolers will tell you, none of them has ever had to have stitches to seal a gash opened by a rogue metaphor or been given a third degree burn by a copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Josh lost a couple of rolls, but soldiered on.

Josh lost a couple of rolls, but soldiered on.

So far, though, my sons’ mistakes are of the nonlethal variety, and these are often the best moments because they always plant road signs to the future, to next time.  The chimichanga burned? That’s okay, Mom likes them a little crunchy, but you might want to put the burner on medium instead of high next time. The sushi fell apart? That’s okay, it happens to me all the time, but try running a wet finger along the edge of the nori so you seal the roll next time. And when things go well, when the meal is exquisite and the recipe worthy of being written down and saved for another time, there is pride and celebration. But mistakes are going to happen. They are speed bumps on the culinary highway, and speed bumps are irritating. They slow you down, spill coffee on your lap, make the CD skip (you still listen to those, right?), cause the baby in his car seat to drop his toy and howl until you find a way to return it. Despite their inconveniences, they still serve a purpose, and so do mistakes. To this end, I’ve crafted a culinary Rule of Three on how to deal with mistakes in our kitchen, which reads as follows:

Rule One: We don’t fear making mistakes in our kitchen. We need to take the occasional culinary risk in the kitchen (but never a safety risk – wash those hands, goshdarnit!). We’re artists, and artists need to stretch in order to thrive, to excel. We need to pay mind to the flighty muse who whispers in our ear when she feels like it: Hey, baby, how would some red pepper flake taste in that sauce? Try adding some cocoa powder to your chili, trust me. The problem is that this muse is a bit of a flake who alternately has moments of brilliance and idiocy: Well, I thought using beer instead of wine in your risotto sounded like a good idea. Oh, well. Gotta run! It’s our job to figure out which is which, and that’s where we have to be a bit fearless. And we’ll never take a chance on a new idea if we’re terrified of lousing it up; fear leads to stagnation, stagnation leads to boredom, boredom leads to giving up and eating cheap fast food every night. I’m not saying we need to like our mistakes (that’s problematic in its own right), but we should understand the role of error in the learning process.

Ian's sliders are a work in constant process.

Ian’s sliders are a work in constant process.

Rule Two: We don’t conceal mistakes. This is a tough one. It’s human nature to try and hide a whoopsie. We can’t do this on a regular basis, though, especially if it’s for the same mistake over and over. That kind of concealment often leads to a widening gyre of screw-ups and cover-ups, ad infinitum; it’s a path of procrastination where you never find a solution, only ways to pretend that you know what you’re doing. Plus, if you are in a pattern of concealment, you’ll never seek help from outside. Someone else out there (maybe in our very kitchen!) has made the very same mistake, and if you’re in denial about your own, you’ll never seek out their feedback. Suck it up, confess, and ask for guidance. Luckily, we have our last rule to make this one more feasible.

Rule Three: We don’t judge another based upon his or her mistakes. This rule is absolute, whether you’re the cook who oversalted the soup or the diner who spit it out. The way I see it, if you haven’t messed a meal up at some point, you’re either lying or lazy; don’t judge yourself or others too harshly. Luckily, most of our kitchen failings are still edible (I usually set out a special bowl filled with those sushi rolls that, well, refused to roll, and they are consumed as readily as the properly formed ones), and if not? Well, if there’s no immediate chance to try again, that’s why we have pizza delivery on speed dial.

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A Visualization of Perfect Simplicity…

1008646_10200712658232753_80300414_o…cooked by my twelve-year-old son. “But, Dad, it’s just grilled ham and cheese!”

I took a picture and showed him the details: the perfectly melted and browned cheese, the crunchy earthtones of sourdough which has been properly buttered and seared. “Don’t underestimate the importance of simplicity,” I said. “There are too many ways to screw it up.”


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Roll Out!

Yeah, I’m hungry now.

I freely admit that sushi techniques can be found just about anywhere on the web. I also freely admit my noobness when it comes to sushi prep. Having been born into an Irish Catholic household, I was more likely to fry my fish on Friday than wrap rice and seaweed around it.

Results may vary, but the satisfaction of creating a sushi roll is infinite.

I am, however, ravenous when it comes to consuming sushi rolls. This has, unfortunately, led to the eating of many substandard items. Rolls where pieces of fried breading were a main ingredient. Rolls made almost entirely of rice with a sliver of Krab (crab’s adopted Neptunian brother) for form’s sake rather than flavor’s. Gray tuna. Limp haddock. Rubbery shrimp. And since the places in my area who actually make consumable sushi seem to be closed whenever I need them the most, I do my best to make my own whenever I feel a hankering.

And you thought sushi was only made from raw fish. Shame on you.

Yes, it’s labor intensive, but it’s not as expensive as you might think, although that depends upon your ingredients. You can make veggie rolls for pennies, and yet drop a hefty sum for lobster and roe on the same day. And no, no, no, sushi does not NEED to be raw. Most of mine isn’t, in fact. The sole exception to this (except for the occasional veggie roll) is the tuna roll, which I wouldn’t sully by adding cooked tuna.

I’m going to take a look today at the inside-out roll. I had been frustrated by the formation of this roll for some time, and one day, it just…clicked. I’m not entirely certain why. Maybe it was because I changed the type of wrap I placed around my bamboo mat. Maybe I managed to make a decently sticky rice. Maybe the sushi could just smell my fear. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Prep your mise-en-place early.

Sushi can be made of just about any ingredients you like: vegetables, seafood, chicken, pork, peanut butter and jelly, the sky’s the limit. There are some select items you’ll need every time, though.

Item one: sushi rice. DO NOT drop a ton of dimes on an officially-sanctioned and trademarked Japanese sushi rice. Instead, head over to the Hispanic section of the ethnic aisle and grab some short-grain or pearl rice there. It’s a lot cheaper, and serves nicely as a culinary equivalent. You’ll also need some rice wine vinegar, sugar, and salt for the rice. I’m sure you have them already, though.

Item two: nori sheets. These are flat pieces of edible seaweed for wrapping the sushi, and not as expensive as they used to be. Do NOT store these in your fridge. Keep them dry and crispy.

Items three: the extras. Wasabi powder. Pickled ginger (also called Gari). Roasted sesame seeds (white and black, if you can find them). Soy sauce. Sriracha. Maybe some seaweed salad, which you can often find already prepared.

Okay, I cheated with pre-matchsticked carrots. Sue me.

Firstly, the cutting and prep. This is largely contingent upon what type of rolls you’re planning, of course. I usually matchstick some onions, cucumbers, and carrots just for form. My sushi today consists of three rolls, so I need to consider prep for each.

Roll one: a Tampa Roll. This usually consists of fried grouper, onion, and mayonnaise. Today I have catfish. Deal with it. I’ll cut the catfish filets into strips before pan-frying them and will have spicy mayonnaise, carrots, onions, and cucumbers at my disposal. Bob’s your uncle.

The spicy shrimp filling. That particular shade of orange doesn’t occur in nature.

Roll two: a Spicy Shrimp roll. This is my signature roll, to be honest. The filling consists of seared shrimp which I have then diced and soaked for a couple of hours in a hellish sauce concocted from five different pepper sauces. If you overdo it, add some sour cream to cut the heat. But remember that the rice will do the same thing, so don’t bland the spice to death.

Roll three: the Philly Roll. My best gal’s favorite, this is also known as a Bagel Roll. Cream cheese and lox, cut into workable strips beforehand. Onions are optional. Very basic and very tasty. Toss some capers into the mix if you have them handy.

Okay, get everything ready first. Next is the rice. There are a kazillion different recipes for sushi rice out there, so I won’t bore you with redundancy. Find one that uses a vinegar/sugar/salt solution for flavor, though. It makes a ton of difference. Alton Brown has a good one here.

Step one is the preparation of the bamboo mat. Cover it on both sides with plastic wrap so that the inside-out roll doesn’t stick to it. I use Glad Press and Seal for this – the edges are less likely to come apart on you as you roll out your sushi. This makes a HUGE difference, believe you me.

Step two: place your nori on the mat. I usually cut it down in size by a third or so with a pair of scissors. The rest tends to get in my way, and can lead to excessive rice content in my rolls. You’ll be working horizontally on the mat.

Step three: completely cover the nori with rice. Be sure to dip your fingers into some water every time you go back to the rice bowl, otherwise you’ll have a rice mitten in no time. Press the rice down as you spread it out, and then sprinkle some sesame seeds onto the rice once you have a good, not-too-thick covering.

Step three. The mashing of the rice.

Step four: the flip. Carefully pick up the sheet of covered nori and flip it over so that the seaweed side is now facing up.

Step four: flip it out.

Step five: ingredient time. Lay your ingredients down in a horizontal strip. Add some wasabi and/or sriracha for spice if you feel like it. Your roll’s thickness will correspond to how many ingredients you add here – use your judgment.

Step five: the ingredients make the roll.

Step six: roll it up. Using the flexibility of your bamboo mat, roll the nori around your ingredients. Press down pretty firmly as you go. Once the sushi is in a roll shape underneath the mat, compress it firmly with the bamboo one last time. This pretty much locks the roll and its ingredients into place.

Step six: roll and press.

Step seven: the reveal, part one. Pull away the bamboo mat and extract the roll. Slowly. Carefully. Glorious.

Step seven: the roll emerges.

Step eight: the reveal, part two. Take hold of your longest, sharpest knife and wet the blade by wiping it with a damp washcloth. The less drag, the better. Call everyone within shouting distance to come see. When they’ve arrived, slice the sushi in half, using as few strokes as possible. Relish the oohs and aahs as the colors of the ingredients reveal themselves, but don’t cut yourself, now – how embarrassing would that be? Place the two halves next to each other and cut them into eight to ten slices, depending upon the width desired. Now you can plate.

Step eight: slice it up.

You can array the sushi family-style:

A cutting board makes for a suitable sushi platter.

…or on a plate with your ginger and wasabi standing by. Soy sauce in a shallow dish for dipping is somewhat traditional, but I like a little swab of wasabi on each piece these days. Be sure to nibble on some of the ginger from time to time in order to cleanse your palate.

Presentation is everything.

Those are the basics,but by no means the end. The sheer variety of ingredients you can roll up is next to limitless, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Mess around. Let me know if you have any tips that I may have missed here, or if you have a particular favorite that you’d like to recommend. I feel compelled to warn you, however: once people find out that you make your own sushi, you’ll have house guests much more often. So keep things spruced up.

Feed ’em and free ’em!

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A Pie Fit for a Shepherd

Shepherd’s pie. Good for what ails ya.

In the past few months, shepherd’s pie (also known as cottage pie for you old-school types) has started the process of becoming a perennial favorite in our dining room. I think this is a very good thing indeed. My mother would sometimes make her version (and there seem to be a kazillion different adaptations of this recipe out there) of this dish in my childhood, and it’s one of those meals that resonates with warmth and nostalgia – right up there with chicken a la king and pineapple upside-down cake. It’s comprised of a few ingredients, but they are all pretty pure and…well, elemental is the word that comes to mind. The recipe is almost infinitely adaptable with room for an array of spicing and ingredient adjustments; you can make a vegetarian version (often called a “shepherdless pie,” chuckle, chuckle), or a super-meaty-tyrannosaurus-rex-interpretation. And then there are the mashed potatoes. Those lovely, creamy, cheesy mashed potatoes.

You probably have these things just lying around, right?

My take on shepherd’s pie is somewhere in between these two. The ingredients tend to be fairly imprecise as to amount, but I think that’s okay – the more flexibility, the better. I use a pound or so of ground pork (you could use ground beef, turkey or chicken, tofu, lentils, beans, whatever your protein fix demands), five or six carrots (or a double handful of baby carrots), a large onion, three or four cloves of garlic, two cups of frozen peas (I just can’t bring myself to eat canned peas, but if you can get fresh, do so), a can of creamed corn, five or six medium-sized potatoes, some Worcestershire sauce, some grated cheese (I love cheddar for this application, plus some parmesan for potato seasoning), breadcrumbs, and some bacon pieces if you’re feeling naughty. You’ll need some milk and butter for the potatoes as well, plus the ubiquitous salt and pepper.

The background music is a nod to my ancestry, since this meal always makes me feel so Celtic; the latest edition of Marc Gunn’s excellent Irish and Celtic Music Podcast. Marc somehow manages to compile a bevy of incredible songs from talented independent musicians every month into his show, and always makes me a little wistful, hoping that I can one day go and finally visit the roots of my heritage in the Isles. Oh, well. This dish will make me feel better. Mise-en-place managed? Let’s cook.

Layer One abides.

The pie has two basic layers: the veggie/meat layer (henceforth referred to as Layer One)and the potato/cheese layer (Layer Two). I usually start with the former by prepping my proteins: in this case, browning the ground pork on medium heat. While this is going on, I grab my knife…sorry. I carefully pick up my honed and ever-so-sharp knife, dice my onions and carrots and mince my garlic. I’ll also make sure my peas are cooked and ready to go, usually by tossing them in the microwave with a half-cup of water for four or five minutes. Right before the pork is completely browned, I toss my diced veggies (but not the peas – not yet, anyway) into the same pan and start to sweat them. Toss some salt and pepper in there, turn the heat to medium low and turn your attention to Layer Two.

Layer Two challenges for the title.

Your potatoes will make or break this dish, so give them some time and consideration. I like to leave the skins on, especially if I have red potatoes in the house. Give them a quick scrub and cut them into, oh, one inch chunks or so. I drop them into a pot of water, cold at this point, as soon as I cut each potato – prevents discoloration, dontcha know. Put the pot of water on the stove at high heat and boil the spuds until they’re, as they say, fork tender. While they’re cooking, let’s check back on Layer One.

Make sure the meat is cooked through and that the veggies have softened. Yes? Good? All right, then go ahead and add your cooked peas (which you should drain first) and the can of creamed corn. Why creamed and not whole kernel corn, you ask? Very astute question. I’ll sacrifice the whole corn texture for the moisture that the creamed corn brings to the soiree. We’ll have plenty of chewability from the rest of the veggies, and this way we don’t need to add any broth, an unnecessary staple of many shepherd’s pie recipes out there. Mix everything together, and add a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce as to your taste. Let it sit on medium low for a little while – it’ll only get better as it simmers (like the tomato sauce from my last blog post – you read it, right?) Feel free to go all Remy and get fancy with the spices at this point – some garlic or onion powder, cayenne, herbs, whatever you think will add to your pie. You might have to add some extra liquid as it cooks – a bit of water here and there does the trick. Oh, and you might want to set your oven to 400 degrees at this point.

This is Remy. Come on, people, work with me.

Now, back to the potatoes and Layer Two. When they’ve cooked and are fork tender, drain the liquid and put them back into the cooking pot. Time to mash. I use a standard, run-of-the-mill potato masher for this, and everything is done right in the already-warm pot. My personal potato procedure is simple – add a few pats of butter, some milk (enough to get the potatoes to the desired texture but not so much as to make them runny – just add a little at a time), some grated parmesan, salt and pepper, and maybe some chopped rosemary if you have it on hand. Then lay on the masher. The nice thing about making mashed potatoes is that you can taste and adjust on the fly as you pulverize your tubers.

We are gathered here today…

Our layer fodder is complete, and now we assemble. I like to use a round, covered ceramic casserole for this; it really holds in the heat after the cooking in case dinner runs a bit late. Pour in the Layer One first. Hey, I saw you sprinkle some cheese in there! You just watch yourself, pal. Now grab a spatula and plop the potatoes on top of the meat and veggies. Don’t stir them together – you want two distinct layers here, kind of like a culinary Black and Tan. Spread the potatoes on top, almost like icing a beefy, savory, sloppy cake. Make the potato mixture thick as you like, and cover Layer One completely.

Aaaaand a-one, and a-two, and a-three…

Now we toss the casserole, uncovered, in the oven for half an hour or so. Clean up as you let the pie warm through and get all tasty. Peek every now and them. What should happen is that you’ll get a bit of browning on the potato peaks and maybe some spots where Layer One burbles up through Layer Two. Time for the last step. Sprinkle (or entirely cover – your call) your cheese on top, along a handful or two of your breadcrumbs. Add those bacon pieces if you have them, and then back into the oven for a bit – just until the cheese melts and browns. You’ll know when it’s ready.

Now, this is the true beauty of the dish. Shepherd’s pie is almost like a lasagna in a way – it needs to sit and sort of coalesce for a bit. I usually cover the casserole and rest it for half an hour or so. Don’t worry, it should be plenty hot when the time for dinner comes around. You can top it with some chopped scallions if you like, or you can just grab a big spoon. I actually add some hot sauce onto my portion before eating – a good chipotle one which adds flavor as well as heat.

Your dinner destination.

Okay, time to eat, so I’ll shut up now. As always, let me know if you have any tidbits, comments, additions, or questions. By the way, this makes great leftovers. One final thought for the day: cooking is never a waste of time. Feed ’em and free ’em!

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Briefly, Sushi

I whipped up a few…

Okay, fine. You don’t just “whip up” fourteen sushi rolls. Hence the lack of a proper blog post – there just wasn’t any time for it. I made fourteen sushi rolls of five different varieties the other night for some friends, and I think it turned out pretty well…

I’m still exhausted.

The rolls are, clockwise from the bottom:

  • Fisherman’s Roll: All the seafood that remained from the other rolls. Goodness from the deep.
  • Tampa Roll: Traditionally made with fried grouper, this is an attempt to replicate a grouper sandwich in sushi format. I used fried haddock, along with mayonnaise and onions.
  • Seared Flounder Roll: Pretty much what you think it is. Seared flounder, guacamole, sweet peppers, and cucumber.
  • Spicy Shrimp Roll: The popular favorite. I used five favorite spicy condiments in their creation, along with some chopped shrimp and sour cream (for relief):

Fear me.

  • Veggie Roll: Onion, sweet peppers, carrots, cucumber, and guacamole.

I promise to do a full post on sushi soon, but I have to say that I’m glad that I finally figured out the inside-out roll. What a difference!

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Saucy Behavior

They say that hunger is the best sauce. This is a close second.

I used to be a big believer in already-ready-already spaghetti sauces. Ragu, Prego, Classico: if it ended in a vowel, it was in my possession and on my pasta. They were convenient, quick, tasty, and a godsend after a hectic day of expanding young minds. They’re also loaded down with a good deal of sodium, which I was trying to avoid for a number of reasons. Many processed foods, alas, were banned from my pantry forthwith. I surrendered convenience for a lower blood pressure and cholesterol count, traded quickness for more time in my kitchen and a smaller jean size. I regretted nothing. But in my darker moments, I missed the sauce.

Then I got my ceramic-coated Dutch oven.

The sauce was resurrected.

It wasn’t quick. It wasn’t (overly) convenient. But it was infinitely adaptable and much lower-impact than I thought it would be, not to mention extraordinarily inexpensive. Just check out the dramatis personae:

The usual suspects.

Four 14.5 oz. cans of no-salt-added diced tomatoes (I’ve also used fresh tomatoes with great success, but as Count Rugen says, let’s just start with what we have), one six-ounce can of tomato paste, one bottle (more or less) of red wine, one medium onion, and one sweet bell pepper (or four small peppers, in my case). If you like, you can dice some carrots and throw them into the initial saute as well.

The seasonings can be adjusted (as can most of the ingredients in the recipe), but I use four cloves of fresh garlic (six if I’m feeling extra funky), fresh herbs (whatever you have on hand – we grow some basil, thyme, rosemary, and oregano in our little box garden on the porch), some dried herbs to round things out, red pepper flakes for some zing (I’d use something with more punch, but Pip and Pop would never eat it), a couple of bay leaves, salt, pepper, sugar, and some olive oil. I also keep some balsamic vinegar on hand, just to finish the sauce off near the end.

The musical selection is a Paul Simon playlist: easygoing and mellow, the perfect mood for the sauce prep, which isn’t too bad on this one. Dice your onion and peppers, mince the garlic, clean and chop your herbs (except for the bay leaves – those stay whole), and grab your favorite blender or food processor.

Hassan chop!

Put your glorious, fire-engine-red Dutch oven (colors may vary) over low heat, and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Toss in the chopped garlic, onions, and peppers along with a pinch of salt and a few twists of pepper. Sweat this mixture until the onions are, as they say, translucent (I keep trying for totally transparent, but I guess science just doesn’t work that way). Scootch the temperature up a notch or two and throw in a couple tablespoons of tomato paste, the red pepper flakes and your herbs. Stir everything together and let it sit for a few. Then turn, as menacingly as you dare, to your tomatoes.

These tomatoes are gentle beings, I know. Nothing they’ve done in life justifies the treatment they are about to receive, but we must keep the greater good in the forefront of our minds. Dinner, after all, is coming. Two cans are emptied into a strainer (which should be placed in a sink, hopefully), and the other into your blender, liquid and all. The ones in the blender have it easy – their liquefaction will be quick and merciful. Thirty seconds or so should be enough. The ones in the colander, now, their fate is somewhat…messier and definitely not for the squeamish.

“Hit puree!” I always feel bad for Chunk in that scene.

Reach into the colander with both hands and crush the tomatoes. Get in there and pulp them. Channel your inner Hulk. They’ll lose some liquid, but that’s collateral damage. Take a breath. Good, good. Now pour the remnants from the colander to the Dutch oven, stir them into the mixture that’s already in there and let them cook down and caramelize a bit. Give them a stir every minute or two for, oh, ten minutes or so. Once they’re at the desired softness, pour the liquefied tomatoes from the blender into the mix, along with a healthy dollop of wine and a splash of olive oil.

Puny tomatoes.

Sugar is a somewhat odd ingredient to consider adding to an otherwise savory dish. I use it to cut down on the tomatoes’ inherent acid content, but it’s tricky to say how much to throw into your proto-sauce. It depends on your tomatoes, your wine, and your personal taste. Start small – a tablespoon or so – and add more as needed while the sauce cooks; as they say, it’s easier to add an ingredient than take it out. Add salt and pepper as necessary as well, plus anything you have a taste for: onion powder, garlic powder, extra herbs, additional red pepper flakes, whatever floats your meatball. Make sure the heat is on low to medium-low (it should be at a low bubble) and cover the pot.

Now sit down. Go ahead, take a break. Really. In fact, the longer this cooks, the better it’ll taste. Check it every half-hour or so for a quick stir and the occasional flavoring adjustment. You might need to add extra wine (or water, or even beer if you have a mind) as the sauce cooks down. Today, it’s going to sit and simmer for four hours. About half an hour before I serve it, though, I have a couple of choices to make.

Two tomato preparations, both alike in dignity.

First, I need to consider my consistency. I usually like a chunky sauce, so I sometimes just serve it as is. I could get a smooth texture if I hit it with an immersion blender for five minutes or so, or I could grab a potato masher and work it over for something in between. If you use the masher in the kind of Dutch oven I have, though, be careful – the metal can damage the ceramic surface of your pot, so tread lightly. And get those bay leaves out of there before you hit it with the blender or otherwise serve the sauce.

Second, what else needs to be added? A fair question, and endless in variety. Consider the possibilities…

  • Balsamic vinegar? A tablespoon or so adds a nice tang.
  • Sliced mushrooms? You bet! I usually have some, already sautéed, in my fridge at all times.
  • A pat of butter? Added right before you serve the sauce, this can add some great flavor and creaminess.
  • Some cheese? No doubt. I like to add some grated or shredded parmesan right at the end myself. Maybe a bit of mozzarella as well.
  • Hot sauce? Go to town, especially if your sauce isn’t spicy enough for your palate.
  • Sausage? Chicken? Ground beef? Make sure they’re precooked and have at it. Remember, this is your sauce, dammit!

Those little sauces grow up so quickly, don’t they?

There you have it! Enjoy, and remember to clean as you cook; it makes for less trouble after dinner and…

Wait, what? Whaddya mean, serving options? Well, that’s your call, isn’t it? Pizza sauce, chicken parmesan, beef-a-roni, whatever you got. Okay, fine. I’ll use it in…oh, a pasta bake.  I have some nice, deep ramekins I use pretty frequently for this application. Cook your favorite pasta to an al dente consistency, strain, and mix with some sauce in a ramekin. Add as much sauce as you like (I usually add more than it seems like I’ll need, as the pasta will absorb the sauce as it bakes, especially if it’s an especially hearty pasta like ziti or penne), and stir in some of your favorite cheese – mozzarella, asiago, parmesan, ricotta, whatever. Heck, I’ve even been known to mix in a tablespoon of cream cheese at this stage. Put an additional layer of cheese on top of the full ramekin and place it into a 400 degree oven for ten to fifteen minutes. If the cheese isn’t browned to your satisfaction, let it sit under your broiler for a minute or so.

There. Now go eat.

You now have a meal. I like to wrap up a loaf of ciabatta bread in aluminum foil and warm it up in the oven for a bit before dinner, and then carve thick chunks off of it and serve it immediately with an herb-and-oil dipping sauce. You can whip one of those up by mixing some olive oil with whatever herbs you have left (dried or fresh), some pepper, red pepper flakes, and grated parmesan. Remember, get in there and experiment with this. Nothing is absolute and everything can be negotiated. Any clever additions? Questions? Suggestions? Don’t hesitate to post them up.

In closing, bear in mind what Adlai Stevenson said: that a hungry man is not a free man. Get in the kitchen and feed somebody: a spouse, a child, a parent, a stranger. Feed them and free them.

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A Strange First Post, Perhaps…

The Incredible Shrinking Geek

260 lb., 235 lb. , 190 lb.

…but one that is most relevant to my current life.  I by no means intend for this to be one of those weight loss blogs (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but I’ve been asked dozens of times in the past few weeks how I lost so much weight successfully. And that picture on the left makes me a little nauseated. Sorry about that.

I’ve been overweight for most of my life. I was actually pretty thin until maybe fourth grade or so. I don’t know what happened then: maybe I discovered Twinkies, I’m not quite sure. But I put on weight relatively quickly, and stayed overweight for the next thirty or so years. I was on (admittedly mild) blood pressure medication, and just toddling through life, cursing the clothing manufacturers who made t-shirts so small.

I’m not sure what made me want to lose weight in a decided fashion. I was diagnosed with a fatty liver early in the year, but that’s only part of it. I think the other part might have come over Christmas. In all the hubbub of the holiday, I forgot to pick up my BP meds for two weeks. I wasn’t overly concerned at the time. After two weeks, though, I was galvanized. The meds had left my system, and I was chock-full of energy. They had been turning me into a couch potato slowly and inexorably, like the proverbial boiled frog (and who boils a frog like that, anyway? Seriously!). I needed an outlet, so I started working out.

Slowly at first, but with more endurance and energy as time passed. I got hold of EA Active 2, a workout program for the Wii which tracks heart rate during the exercise and allows for routine customization. I felt better, but I knew that exercise wouldn’t be enough. Heck, in high school, I was in the best shape of my life – could run a few miles with little exertion at my best – and yet I was still overweight. I knew that I’d have to adjust my eating habits. Not a diet, mind you, but an utter quantum shift in how I approached food.

Now, I love food. I love to cook. I love to try new meals and experiment with recipes. And so I had to take a deep breath and figure out what practical changes I could make: Could I actually start eating (and enjoying) salad? Did I have to give up fried foods? What about red meat? God, I could still eat bacon, right? Obviously, I had to deal with a lot of stress in the beginning. I was doing well by adding more fruit and veg to my diet, and cutting back on my salty mistress: chips. Potato, tortilla, cracker-based. Anything that was savory, salty, and crunchy was the enemy. In the beginning, I had to distract myself when snacktime came, which was usually in the evenings. So I logged onto my Warcraft account and wandered Azeroth when I got the peckishes. It worked, and I got some pretty neat gear to boot (Drake of the West Wind, baby!)

Next to go were as many processed foods that I could bear to part with. Luckily, I didn’t eat too many of these to start with, so giving up canned soup didn’t put me out very much. I implemented the mantra of portion control, which was liberating, as it meant that I didn’t have to avoid foods, just regulate their consumption and…eat…slowly. I was pretty hard on myself for a while, shaking my head at the days when I gained, and nodding solemnly at my down days. Yes, I weighed myself often – it helped me stay on track. My greatest discovery, though, involved everyone’s favorite hoppy adult beverage: beer.

I had always had a neutral attitude towards beer, but at some point in January or so, it grew vastly in appeal. I’m not sure why; maybe my change in diet triggered a change in my tastes. In any case, I found myself enjoying a craft beer or two before dinner. There were two benefits here. One – this became an end-of-the-day reward for me, replacing the chips and dips which had preceded it. Which was nice. Two – beer helped fill me up before I ate dinner, so I was eating less at mealtime. As a bonus, I seemed to metabolize beer fairly well. Eight months of testing has since proved that on days of beer consumption, my weight is usually down, and when I skip, it’s likely to go up. Who knew, right?

And here I am, over seventy pounds lighter, and still losing those pounds which have plagued me for so long. There were no tricks, no fads, no secret formulas. I have had to experiment a lot and pay close attention to what I was shoving into my mouth. I’ve had to exercise a good deal of self-control, but it’s gotten easier. The burger I had to drag myself away from a few months ago is much easier to deal with now, mainly because I eat it. Just not all of it.

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