Baking in the Buff

On this Friday morning, I thought I would share with you a memory.

My senior year of college, I lived in an on-campus student apartment with my darling friend, Brigette. When we moved in, we had grand designs of cooking delicious and wholesome meals in our very own kitchen, but then we learned how not having a dishwasher or disposal made those plans considerably more ambitious than we’d thought. Another factor contributing to our limited use of that postage stamp-sized kitchen was our smoke alarm.

I’m pretty sure this smoke alarm ran on steroids instead of batteries. I understand that some smoke alarms can get confused by large amounts of steam. I can respect that. But this thing would start squealing at the slightest increase of temperature. We learned the hard way that simply opening a hot oven would set off the alarm, which, since we lived on campus, was wired to set off the fire alarm for the entire building after a certain amount of time. Once the alarm started sounding, we had only a couple of minutes to make it stop before we caused a total-building evacuation and became social pariahs. This was serious business.

We figured out by frantic, forced trial and error that the best way to operate our oven required the buddy system. One girl would open our front door for ventilation and assume the ready position with one hand on the oven door handle and the other inside an oven mitt. The other girl would stand holding a dish towel beneath the evil smoke detector and begin preemptively fanning the air. The first girl would then open the oven, yank out whatever was inside, and slam the oven door shut as quickly as possible. Deviating from this approach only caused panic, distress, and loud, shrill noises.

Brigette and I became pretty skilled at this routine. In retrospect, I have no idea why we didn’t just stop using the oven, but for the most part, we had things under control. And then one day, I found myself committed to baking cookies for a sorority function while Brigette was not at home. Uh oh. Luckily, my other darling friend, Christina, lived just a few doors down. Being the darling friend she is, Christina agreed to come sit with me while I finished up the cookies and, when needed, abet my oven antics.

Because I had have a slight problem with procrastination, I had yet to shower for whatever sorority event was to blame for this whole situation, so when I put the cookies in to bake, I quickly briefed Christina about the oven protocol and hopped in the shower. My plan was to be out before the cookies were done, but I told Christina to yell for me if she needed to take them out before I was finished.

A few minutes later, as I was stepping out of the shower, I heard the dreaded squeal of the smoke alarm. I bolted out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel and found Christina standing in front of the open oven door holding the pan of cookies. The front door was open (check!), but the calm spring air couldn’t cancel out the 375 degrees wafting from the gaping oven door, and there was no second girl fanning the smoke alarm!

I panicked.

I slammed the oven door shut, grabbed the nearest dish towel, and started fanning violently. Christina stood, horrified, watching as I fanned so vigorously that my towel began to come loose. I sacrificed a fanning hand to hold my towel up, but as the squealing continued, bringing us ever closer to a full-on evacuation, I knew I needed both hands for this. I let go of my bath towel, which immediately fell to the ground. I fanned the smoke detector like I’d never fanned before, and suddenly…it stopped!

And then the adrenaline wore off. I realized I was standing completely naked in front of my wide-open front door. Neighbors had been walking around outside throughout the entire ordeal. Christina was laughing (…and laughing…and laughing…). I was mortified.

But you know what? Those cookies were perfect.

Posted in Not That You Asked... | 5 Comments

Never Let Me Go

I finished this book a few weeks ago, and I just can’t get it out of my head. As I was reading it, I don’t think I realized how much it would stick with me after I finished. The plot is simple, yet the story is masterfully nuanced and complex. The first-person narrator has one of the most haunting and unique voices of any character I’ve read. She is at once authentic and completely unreliable. This is the kind of book I would have been excited to write about as an English major–it’s totally readable, but at the same time, I feel like I could read it over and over again without ever getting to the bottom of it. If you’re looking for the literary equivalent of oatmeal–something that will stick to your ribs–read this book.

Has anyone seen the movie? Thoughts?

Posted in Book Snobbery | 1 Comment

I’m Just Here for Your Entertainment

Do you ever have one of those moments when you realize you’re doing something completely stupid? Like, if anyone else could see what you were doing at this moment, that person’s perception of your intelligence would plummet. I had one of these moments last week, standing in front of a UPS drop box, desperately rattling its locked door, and wishing I’d made a few different choices over the past 20 minutes.

I just wanted to return something I had ordered online. As is sometimes the case, the two dresses I looooved on did not quite love me back when I had the chance to try them on. So, back they were going. The kind folks from Bluefly enable these returns by letting customers print their own UPS return labels. As long as you can get your return package into the hands of a UPS delivery person, you can sit back, relax, and expect a full refund in about 10 business days. Voila!

This whole process becomes a bit more complicated, however, when there are no UPS stores nearby, as seems to be the case for downtown Madison. To make things even more inconvenient, UPS won’t schedule a pickup unless you’re using a UPS account to pay for the shipment. Strike two. So I was left with one option: the drop box.

Once I schlepped the package all the way to the nearest drop box, I stood there, a bit skeptical that the package would fit in door. It fit–barely–but I had to push kind of hard to get it to close. Okay, fine, I had to squish the box down a little bit and force the door shut. And then…nothing happened. The box was there in the compartment, not falling neatly into the holding cell below. Oh well, I thought. Worth a shot. I decided just to take the package back home and worry about it later.

Except the door wouldn’t open because I’d wedged the box inside. Terrific.

Since the box was clearly not coming home with me, I thought I should at least try to get it to drop down to where it belonged. So I grabbed the door handle and gave it a shake. Nothing. I shook again. The box didn’t budge, but I heard a distinctive click. Not only was the package pretty well stuck inside, the door had locked.

So, there I was. Grasping the door handle, rattling it loudly in my ever-growing panic, realizing there was absolutely nothing I could do about this. And, of course, looking really, really stupid. I finally walked away, abandoning my package in the deposit compartment where it sat, locked away, preventing anyone else from dropping off a package for pickup that day.

I walked out, trying not to look too shifty as I scurried away, and realized I would have no way of knowing whether or not my package had been retrieved for days. And then I realized that I was expecting a delivery the very next day…from UPS. If I were the type of person with qualities like forethought, I could have waited one more day and safely handed the return package to my friendly UPS delivery person. Instead, I avoided eye contact out of embarrassment when the UPS guy did come, and I spent the next three days compulsively checking my email for notification that the return had been processed.

Don’t worry–the notification email finally arrived. Order has been restored in my world and my ego bruise has almost completely healed. You know, until the next moment of stupidity. Stay tuned.

Posted in Not That You Asked... | 2 Comments

Welcome, Spring! Have Some…Chili?

Today has been the nicest day in Madison so far this year by a long shot. As I type this, it’s 79 degrees outside, and we’ve got the windows open to let some spring into this joint. Earlier, we took a walk to the terrace and sat for awhile looking out at the lake (the THAWED lake!!) and enjoying not being cold. It’s gorgeous. It’s springy. So what are we having for dinner to celebrate this excellent weather? Chili. Naturally.

I don’t know if you realize this, but we’re kind of a big deal when it comes to chili. We hosted a chili cook off back in November (you know, when it was actually chili weather) and although we really tried our best to be gracious hosts, I’m afraid we creamed the competition and won in a landslide. This chili is the bomb. It’s just that simple.

On the off chance that anyone else feels like ringing in spring with a big, steaming bowl of comfort food, here’s how it goes:

CHILI (Adapted from a Southern Living recipe)

  • 2 lbs chuck roast, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 jalapeno, minced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 (15-oz.) cans beans–whatever floats your boat
  • 3 (8-oz.) cans tomato sauce
  • 1 beer
  • A little less than 2 c beef broth
  • 1 (6-oz.) can tomato paste
  • 1 (4.5-oz.) can chopped green chiles
  • 2 T chili powder
  • 1 T Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 t ground cumin
  • 1 to 2 t cayenne (I back off this a little, since I add the jalapeno with the seeds)
  • 1 t paprika
  • 1 t hot sauce

Toss the meat, onion, garlic, and jalapeno into a large pot with a little bit of olive oil and cook it up, stirring frequently, until the meat is browned.

Now, you dump. Dump the tomato sauce, dump the beer, dump the broth, dump the tomato paste, dump the chiles. Add all the spices, give it a good stir, and walk away.

The following three hours will be torture. Your house will start to smell like heaven, provided heaven smells like chili. All you’ll want to do is eat the chili, but you can’t! You mustn’t! It needs time to get acquainted with itself and to reduce to a thick, rich, fragrant stew. The good news is that you can sneak a taste every time you stir the pot, which should happen only as frequently as you need to sneak a taste. After about two hours, go ahead and add the beans.

After three hours, your chili will finally, finally be ready. Wipe your drool, grab a bowl, and fill it up. We sometimes serve this over rice. Sour cream and cheese only make it more excellent.

Posted in What's Cookin'? | Leave a comment

Paella: Bringing People Together

Several months ago, I posted this picture on Facebook:
We had just received, like, three pounds of Louisiana smoked sausage from Kurt’s grandfather over Christmas, and one of my first thoughts was, Oooh…paella… So when we got home, I got to work.
About a million years ago I received the amazing cookbook The Foods & Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas as a going-away present from my team at my very first grown-up job in D.C. I had worked there exactly five months, hated every nanosecond of the work, and truly thought the team’s Director didn’t even know my name. (He called me Mary every.single.time.) As it turned out, they were incredibly gracious when I left and sent me off with well wishes, a gift card to Jaleo, and this really wonderful cookbook. I felt guilty for underestimating them for about 16 seconds, then happy danced all the way home because I was FREE!
Now, my CEB legacy lives on only through friendship (Hi, Court!) and that cookbook. (The gift card was gone long ago.) It’s a good thing I held onto it, because I think I instantly solidified at least three new-ish friendships here in Madison when I posted that photo on my wall in January. Earlier today, my friend who is also named Mary Beth (did I just blow your mind?) asked me for the famous paella recipe, so I thought I’d share it with you, too.
I’m going to give you exactly what it says in the book, but then I’ll tell you how I adapted it in parentheses. First and foremost, you should know that I halved this because I’m American and don’t own a paella pan. We still had leftovers for like a week. This is a fantastic special occasion meal, best enjoyed with crusty white bread and a good Spanish red.
  • 6 c very strong chicken broth, preferably homemade
  • 1/2 t saffron
  • 1 small onion, peeled
  • 1-2 small chickens, about 2 1/2 lb each (I just used boneless, skinless chicken thighs–a 1+ lb package because I halved the recipe.)
  • Coarse salt
  • 1/2 c olive oil
  • 1/4 lb chorizo sausage, in 1/4 in slices (Be sure to get smoked Spanish chorizo, not raw Mexican chorizo. I used the Louisiana stuff and piled it on to make up for omitting the other pork products. It seemed like the right thing to do.)
  • 1 large pork chop, boned and diced (I omitted this, but not without experiencing a deep sense of regret.)
  • A 1/4 lb piece cured ham, diced (Again, I didn’t have this on hand, so I just went without. I bet pancetta or bacon would do quite nicely as well, for those of you who don’t have an entire leg of cured ham on a spike in your pantry like my Spanish host mother did.)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 scallions, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 pimientos, homemade or imported, diced
  • 1 lb small or medium shrimp, shelled (To avoid messing with lobster and other assorted shellfish, I basically just used a ton of shrimp because that’s what was easy. Adding the clams and mussels would be divine, but I’ve never worked with those before, so instead of facing my fears I just stuck with plain ol’ shrimp.)
  • 2 live lobsters, split and divided into tail sections and claws; or 4 lobster tails, split lengthwise; or 8 king crab claws; or 8 jumbo shrimp, in their shells
  • 3 c short-grain rice (The book is very specific about the importance of using short-grain rice. It says, “It may be imported from Valencia, or short-grain pearl rice grown in California [Spanish or Japanese style], or imported Italian rice.” I assume arborio would work, but I had no problem finding Spanish-style rice in the international aisle with the Goya products.)
  • 5 T chopped parsley
  • 2 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 1/2 c dry white wine
  • 1 T lemon juice
  • 1/4 lb fresh or frozen peas
  • 18 clams, smallest available, at room temperature, scrubbed
  • 18 small mussels, scrubbed
  • Lemon wedges for garnish
  • Chopped parsley for garnish
Preheat the oven to 325.
Heat the broth with the saffron and the whole small onion. (I just cut up a large onion and used some for this, some for the chopped onion later on.) Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Remove the onion and measure the broth–you need exactly 5 1/2 c.
Cut the chicken into small serving pieces–the whole breast in 4 parts, each thigh into 2 parts, the bony tip of the leg chopped off, the wing tip discarded, and the rest of the wing separated into 2 parts. (Or just halve your chicken thighs. Isn’t my way better??) Dry the pieces well and sprinkle with salt.
In a metal paella pan with about a 15″ base (Yeah, right. I used a 10″ cast iron skillet. It was FULL with half the mixture, but worked just fine. Just be sure to use something that can transfer to the oven.), heat the oil. Add the chicken pieces and fry over high heat until golden. Remove to a warm platter. (I ended up not cooking these enough. They didn’t cook through like I thought they would in the oven, so just be sure they’re mostly cooked during this step.)
Add the chorizo, pork, and ham to the pan and stir fry about 10 minutes. Add the chopped onion, scallions, garlic, and pimientos and saute until the onion is wilted. Add the shrimp and the lobster and saute about 3 minutes more, or until the shrimp and lobster barely turn pink (the lobster will cook more in the oven). Remove the shrimp and lobster to the platter with the chicken.
Add the rice to the pan and stir to coat it well with the oil. Sprinkle in the 5 T chopped parsley and the crumbled bay leaves. (Make in advance up to this point.)
Stir in the broth, boiling hot, the wine, lemon juice, and peas. Salt to taste. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, over medium-high heat about 7 minutes or until the rice is no longer soupy but some liquid remains. (I remember not thinking this would be done in 7 minutes, but it came together at the end, so this estimate is pretty good!)
Bury the shrimp and chicken in the rice. Push the clams and mussels into the rice, with the edge that will open facing up. Decorate the paella with the lobster pieces (?), then bake at 325 degrees, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let sit on top of the stove, lightly covered with foil, for about 10 minutes. To serve, decorate with lemon wedges and chopped parsley.
Posted in What's Cookin'? | 1 Comment

Conquering Fears, Eating Pizza

I’ve mentioned before my phobia of yeast. Usually when I cook, I like the fact that I have control over how the food turns out–the flavors, the doneness, the ingredients–but with yeast, you have to mix it in and just…wait. In my first yeast experiment, I spent the requisite “several hours” between the mixing and the rising fretting over whether the water into which I’d dissolved the active dry yeast was the right kind of “warm but not hot” (like I have a kitchen thermometer), whether my attempt to quarter the recipe had affected the chemistry of it all (um…yes, it did), and whether I’d left the covered dough in a warm enough spot to properly catalyze the reaction that would result in a beautiful, pillowy ball of risen dough (apparently not). Thanks to my experimental tweaking, I was left with nothing but a dense, gluey lump that had to be sacrificed to the trash can.

But I’ve really been wanting to try to make pizza dough from scratch. And that takes [gulp] yeast. I had been eyeing a recipe from The Pioneer Woman Cooks, and, empowered by author Ree Drummond’s clear step-by-step instructions and bolstered by the nice, round measurements of the ingredients, I went for it.

4 c all-purpose flour
1 t kosher salt
1/3 c olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 t dry, active yeast
1 1/2 c “warm (not lukewarm) but not hot” water

First, you sprinkle the yeast over the water and just leave it alone for a sec. Meanwhile, mix the flour and salt together in a medium bowl, then add the 1/3 c oil and mix that in, too. Now, stir the yeast into the water to dissolve it, then add the water to the flour mixture and mix until it’s all combined. It should be sticky and wet. Mmm. (I did all this by hand–like, literally with my bare hands–because I don’t have a fancy shmancy KitchenAid mixer. Not that I’m bitter. Sniff.) Okay, now grab another bowl, drizzle some olive oil in the bottom. Pick up the dough ball and work it a little to stick it all together and smooth it out. Coat the ball in the drizzled oil and leave it in the bottom of the bowl. At this point, you can cover it with a towel and leave it “in a warm, dry place” for a few hours, but we all know how this worked out for me before. Instead, I covered it with plastic wrap and stuck it in the fridge for a good long while. Like 27 hours. By the time I checked it again, it had doubled in size and was the gorgeous puffball I was hoping for.


This recipe makes two pizza crusts, which is fine, because you can either refrigerate the unused half (wrapped in plastic) for a couple more days or freeze it for, like, a long time. So for now, take half the dough ball and work it out slowly until it’s nice and thin. I was doing this on a rimmed cookie sheet drizzled with a little olive oil. Once it’s all spread out, just add sauce and all the toppings your little heart desires (I used pepperoni, black olives, mushrooms, onions, and mozzarella) and bake it at 500° for 10-12 minutes.

I was nervous about cooking something that hot, so as I was washing my dishes, I kept whipping my head around to check on the pizza through the oven window. Keep in mind I was still heavily congested from my cold at this point, so rapidly turning my head made for a dizzy–and frankly kind of trippy–dishwashing experience. The pizza did fine.

The pizza dough was a raging success, and I’m really excited to make the second one. I’m thinking barbecue sauce, white cheddar, chicken, red onion, and maaaybe a little pineapple.

In summary,
Yeast: 1
MB: 1

Stay tuned.

Posted in What's Cookin'? | Leave a comment

You Have a Baby! In a Bar!

Hi! Remember me? I didn’t forget about you. I’ve been fighting off a pretty gross cold over here all week and am just now starting to feel normal and insightful again. What’s really cruel is that I just got over another nasty cold about two weeks ago. We’re calling this one “Second Sick” over here. The plan this week is lots of fruits and veggies and yoga. Third Sick is not welcome here.

I did manage to have a little fun between colds, though. Last weekend, Kurt and I went down to Chicago to celebrate his spring break (woo!) and check out the St. Patty’s Day festivities down there. We managed to snag a last-minute deal at the Allerton hotel on Michigan Ave., so we were conveniently located a few blocks from the green river and in the midst of the day-drinking scene. Have you ever seen the river dyed green? Green is sort of an understatement, actually. For St. Patty’s Day, the Chicago River is turned to Ecto Cooler, and I kept checking all the manhole covers for signs of emerging Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s that green.

The bar we went to on Saturday was located right by the river and had set up a tent with makeshift bars and a lot of extra room for spill-over crowds, so we spent most of our time in there trying to stay warm and maintain a modicum of personal space. When the day started, I had been impressed by how many Chicagoans were out wearing their green clothes and guzzling beer at breakfast time, but I soon realized I had been far too easily impressed. Around 1 p.m., a young mother arrived at the bar/tent with her 14-month-old child on her back. The little girl was totally zonked out, but to her credit was dressed in green and even sported a leprechaun hat with red-yarn braids attached to it. It’s unclear whether she was just a kid serious about her naptime or perhaps had been slipped a few drops of Jameson in her sippy cup, but her mom had a great time chatting and laughing with friends while her daughter slept. In a bar. At 1 p.m.

Maybe you’re thinking, as I was at the time, “Well…at least it’s not the middle of the night?” But then later on, after we’d had a nap and some dinner, we went to another bar for a beer and more visiting. Something low key, we thought. It turned out, though, that we were the only ones who had taken a break from the festivities that afternoon, so by 11 p.m., the crowd was sloppy and rowdy. That’s why I was flabbergasted to see a young couple making their way through the drunken hoards, carrying their infant and a Boppy pillow toward the door. As calmly as if they were leaving a play date, they navigated around the girl with smudged eyeliner who was trying to pole dance on the two-foot-square pillar; dodged the 6’4″ oaf who had lost all sense of balance yet continued to jump up and down in time to the music; steered clear of the hipster in all black who stood by himself swaying; and headed home to bed.

Or, you know, to the bar next door.

Posted in Jetsetting | Leave a comment