Tag Archives: Cooking

Oscar menu set for four small plate courses

The bride does not like to cook. She used to pretend to like to cook because when she’d get home from work and I’d be cooking. I’d have an open bottle of wine. So she’d come sit across the bar and drink wine and snack on my latest appetizers and even chop a few things at times to put up a good appearance. But then we got sober and the wine went away. So did the Bride at dinner time.

To be fair, the bride cleans up. She doesn’t mind this at all and virtually never blasts me for all the pans I may have used. She cranks the ’80s hair bands and spends about three times as long as I would cleaning. Doddering, I call it. Only I don’t have to clean, so I don’t call it that out loud. I only say, “Wonderful! Thanks baby.”

But, despite her lack of interest in cooking, the Bride does very much like to eat what I cook — and can be a little finicky at times as well — so she does take a big interest in planning what we will eat, especially on big events.

When it comes to big events, Oscar Night is right up there. So while I was thinking of making my grandmother’s famous Big-4 Inn ravioli and apple rings, five emails with various food ideas magically appeared in my email inbox.

The ravioli will wait.

I began preparation last night, baking bread and cookies, making homemade pesto, biking to the store for produce… all the usual stuff. Because not only do I have to prepare the four-course, small-plate menu the Bride dreamed up, but I have to be her guest, as our party is being attended by two. If I’m busy in the kitchen, well, I think two is necessary for a party (to be honest, I’m not sure the Bride agrees. She will be enraptured with the Oscars. I’m ancillary. I can accept that one night a year…. still I’d rather watch too).  So I need to get everything prepped early.

Anyway, if you need some last-minute ideas for your party, here’s my menu. Photos to come later.

Course one: 3 p.m. when the Bride gets serious about “who are you wearing” and I can be out of the room all I want.

  • Baked Baby Portobellos with pesto and avocado stuffing.
  • Toasted and roasted: Toasted Pomegranate Italian Bread (an Effin Artist original, see photo above) topped with roasted tomatoes.

Course two: 4 p.m.

  • Eggplant Pizzas
  • Toasted Ravioli

Course three: 5:30 p.m. as Ellen dances on the stage.

  • Steak and Pepper Skewers
  • Sweet Potato Fries

Course four: 7:30 p.m. as the big winners hit the stage

  • Homemade Mint Ice-Cream Sandwiches. (both ice cream and cookies made from scratch… bring the A game).

Enjoy the big night. Check back for pictures of the menu and updates on the ballot contest.

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If food is a drug we may as well use the good stuff

Addicts often replace one addiction for another one. For those in recovery, it starts with replacing the drug of choice with something more benign and then gradually changing the addictive behaviors. You’ve never seen sugar consumed until you’ve seen a former meth addict in rehab. I once sat with a friend of mine and watched him dump at least half a cup of sugar in his milk.

This is also why AA meetings are shrouded in a smog of cigarette smoke in the entryway.

For those going the other way, deeper into their addictions, this process works in reverse, with addictions trading up in search of a better high. Either way, the process is in constant motion, evolving and adapting to our ever-changing mental state.

The key, as was pointed out in a seminal book on addictions, Addiction and Grace, by Gerald May, to recognize this process rather than fight it. By dragging our addictions up from the depth of our unconscious, we are less ensnared by them. By recognizing that we have these addictions we are far less likely to be consumed by them.

May does an excellent job in explaining that most people suffer from addictive behavior. A rarer special group of us addicts take those addictions to extreme levels and therefore need treatment. Most simply manage them.

Regardless, the process of making these addictions conscious (not conscience, which can be similar in this regard) is important for everyone, not just those of us in recovery.

When I went through rehab, I took on a spirit of monk-like deprivation. I cut everything out of my life. No booze to be sure, but also a long list of other things I said no to like sex, and sugar and even for a short while caffeine. Eventually I allowed myself to return to more normal experiences of all of the above with the exception of booze. I’ve been clean and sober now for 55 months, thank God.

Slowly but surely the other old addictions returned. I drink a lot of coffee these days. As you can read from my post, I have reunited with sugar too. Both crept back into my life until I really wanted both each day. I even called it happy hour, which it is… coffee and chocolate? That’s happy:

happy hour
happy hour

Ding, ding, ding, the bells went off in my head. Addiction alert?!

Food is a drug, I realize that now. I don’t spend hours in the kitchen crafting crazy recipes over and over without understanding the addictive needs I have are being met.

Like everything else, I simply have to recognize the process. I have to accept that making food and eating food (especially sugar, which is the Meth of food) my brain experiences sensations similar to what alcohol used to do for me.

I watched a great documentary on this recently called, Hungry for Change. It expertly explained the addictive properties of food, especially my beloved devil: sugar. Watching that show was like going to an AA meeting. I felt my out-of-balance need for food shift within me back into greater balance.

It finally dawned on me this nagging feeling I’ve had for weeks. If food is going to be my drug of choice (which it is along with coffee… I’ve accepted these in my life) then why not go for the best. I don’t want to waste my addiction on crappy food. I want to enjoy it with excellent food.

It made me think back to rehab when they’d talk about triggers. I was asked if the holidays were triggering me to drink.

“Well, nobody’s tossing a bottle of Grey Goose onto the grounds here, so it’s not too bad,” I told them.

I was just like that as an alcoholic. I didn’t want my addiction diluted with beers at 7 a.m. I’d hang on each day until Happy Hour and an expensive cocktail followed by a nice bottle of wine. That’s what The Bride and I would call it, “Nice.” It was always a nice bottle of wine even when it would cause an ugly hangover the next day.

Well, those tendencies serve me well now. If I focus on good food, healthy food, food I make and grow and nurture, I get far more bang for my addictive buck than a blast down to McDonald’s. I also keep that lusty sugar in check. (By the way, I think my sobriety date for McDonald’s or other fast food joints is going on 31 months. Not bad?!)

Food is my drug now. It beats the other ones I’ve had. So I may as well make it good food and everything will be just fine.

Broken-hearted over broken pizza stone

My ancient oven may well kill me some day. In the meantime it seemed content to kill my pizza stone and cut my heart out at the same time.

The oven is old. It’s one of the smallish ones for a small kitchen like mine. But it doesn’t seal up correctly. The range tips at random, once nearly spilling a massive pot of Italian sauce until I caught it at an angle. That was a rush, I’ll tell you. Of course, I should replace it. But I haven’t yet.

Now I wish I would have. It killed my stone.

I was having my pizza night as I always do when I suddenly heard a pop, like a gun in a drive-by shooting. I peered into the oven and my stone lay broken in three clean pieces, exactly like the priest breaks the communion wafer during celebration of the Holy Eucharist service. Like Christ’s body, my stone was broken for me.

I love my stone. I love pizza night. I can’t really have pizza night without the stone. I don’t really want to shell out for another stone right now. You can see the grief-stricken confusion blurring my post as I write, can’t you?

Sigh.

So I went online to find out if others had the same problem. As Solomon wrote, there is nothing new under the sun. Of course others have suffered broken stones.

A healthy debate ensued whether the stones could be glued back together. I seriously considered it until I considered the 500-degree temps I use to cook my pizza and knowing my oven, it’s likely as hot as the fires of Hades no matter what the temp dial says. This is precisely why I think my stone is dead now. Too hot. The idea of subjecting glue to that heat and then subjecting my pizza to the glue sent shivers of Cancer-ridden phobia coursing through my veins. I dismissed the idea entirely.

For now, I put the pieces back into the spawn of Satan oven. I just edged them real close. It will have to do until I get a new stone. It’s that old neurotic obsession I have with waste rearing up. I’ll replace it sooner or later once my grief abates. For now, this will have to do.

Rest in peace pizza stone… rest in peace.

And as for you, Mr. Oven… I’m gunning for you. Believe that.

Caramels and creativity go sweetly together

Do not re-invent the wheel is not a very useful cliche’ most of the time. In this day and age where everyone is writing and experimenting and inventing and creating and starting businesses and copying others and trying to find their little niche’, most everything has already been invented to some degree. If you don’t re-invent, you become a clone, not a creator and certainly not an Effin Artist.

By re-inventing the wheel we find our own explorations. Sure John Muir hiked it first, but it feels new and adventurous to us the first time we tread in his footsteps. The same goes for our creative expressions, whether they be on canvas or paper or baking sheets. Explore. Go off the trail. Re-invent. Discover. The journey beats the arrival. So, yes, re-invent the wheel… except for those times its just stupid to do so. Like the wheel. Let’s face it, that’s a good one. Don’t EFF with it.

Caramel, I discovered is the wheel of sweet creations. Folks have spent a lot of time getting this thing down and unless you have a masochistic love of frustration and failure, follow their lead.

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Before embarking on caramels of my own, I read a lot of different blogs about how to do it. Disclaimer: When I google something I typically skip the first page of Website powerhouses like the Food Network and the blogs that are so widely read you have to shift through ads like chopping through a jungle with a machete.

Once again, as usual, my bride disagrees. She goes to the ones with hundreds of reviews, reads those hundreds of reviews, and picks the one most celebrated. Then she follows the recipe like the Essenes. If I try to suggest a modification she threatens to banish me from the commune. It isn’t pretty.  She obviously agrees you don’t re-invent the wheel.

I like the blogs from un-celebrated artists like me, who do this for the love of the game. It may not be the most professional or glitzy, but it has heart. It has sweat and soul, still unmolested by corporate ads, (ASIDE: to any corporate advertisers out there wanting to populate this blog… just kidding?! see below… Apparently I’m a sellout.). just like my blogs, which are supposed to be short, I go against the grain and write long and longer. Screw them. I’m not People Magazine here, OK. Relax. Get some coffee, enjoy the read… or not. Really, it’s OK. Maybe next time.

Anyway….

In my search for caramel help, I landed on a blog more akin to my wife’s thinking than my own.  The simple video sucked me in. Soon I was following their footsteps and remarkably for me, staying on the path.

The folks at inspiredtaste.com know how to make the wheel. Their caramel recipe was spot -on and in the dozen batches I made I never varied. Ok, that’s not true. I Nearly Never Varied. I added a 1/4 tsp of vanilla by the second batch and then swirled in chocolate ganache by the seventh. But that’s it. For me that’s as coloring inside the lines as I get. I’m proud of myself for simply having lines to color in at all.

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So really, if you want to learn to make caramel, go watch their video. Whallaaaa! You’re an expert.  Don’t waste your time looking here for secrets. I didn’t invent the wheel.

I’ll say only this: Don’t stress it. It’s fun. Everyone makes caramel akin to splitting atoms. I’ve not split atoms, but it sounds stressful. Caramel is not… I repeat… not stressful. If it gets too hot too fast and turns too brown or hard, well as my daughter says, “that’s a first-world problem.”  You are only out some butter, sugar and cream, so try again. Besides, even hard, brown caramel is pretty tasty. Eating my less than brilliant projects is not what I call stressful.

I give a full recommendation to two key tips from the folks at inspiredtaste. 1) Put the lid on the pot as they say and screw that whole wet-the-sides-of-the-pan-with-a-pastry-brush thing most often advised. This is easier and more effective by far. and 2) Put the pan right back on the stove to boil water in it. This cleans it up in a snap, which is the one stressful part of caramels– cleaning– if you don’t do this step.

I made a scad of caramels and built up plenty of excitement on the ole email chain vying for the package winner this week. I laid out a big hint saying I wanted a bribe. I have several days free after New Year’s and wanted company to go snowboarding. Absolutely nobody took the bait. But my brother did take the bribe route and ordered caramels for 50 at his Christmas party. WINNER WINNER chicken DINNER! Soon the Test Kitchen as a football- watching, candy-wrapping sweatshop:

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The reaction from my loved ones was… well, let’s just say enthusiastic:

“DICK MOVE!”

“EFF off…. you sold out. If all it meant was cold hard cash, I’ll just go right over to Trader Joe’s…”

ME: “Effin Artist gotta eat!”

“I’m thoroughly disgusted.”

ME: “Wait, I’m confused. Effin Artist doesn’t gotta eat?! You callin’ me fat?”

“sellouts always have excuses…”

“Sorry I haven’t been getting your emails today, I sent them all to spam.”

Tough crowd, my family. We play rough. And on that note, we’ll move on from the Caramel and move into something less hostile (we hope ;-)). Next week’s test kitchen ingredient: Peanut Butter!

Effin Artist out!

Testing this week is like nectar of the gods

I have to admit, caramel intimidated me a bit when this week started. It seemed temperamental… exactly the opposite of why I do this nonsense.

The first batch of caramel was …. well … something other than caramel. It was gooey and tasted ok but looked white and slid around so I just made it into a sauce and served it at Thanksgiving in an apple crisp where it was good, but hidden.

So I knew what I was up against… Not to mention, expectations were high. Folks came hard after the caramel sweepstakes mailing to be sent out at week’s end (for those playing along from home, EffinArtists.com sends out a mailing each week to whoever bribes us the best…errr…. is the lucky winner of a surprise package of whatever we make for our test kitchen). Apparently, their confidence in me was, well, incongruent to use a term I learned way, way back before failing out of grad school.

Anyway, I do not shy away from a challenge. If caramel was going to mean mug me, then it was on. “Let do this!” I shouted as I walked into the test kitchen.

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I’m not even done yet, but as you can see from above, I made that caramel my … uh.. never mind. Let’s just say park bench and try not to lose our PG rating.

A few days into this project and I’ve given those worries the beat down. This stuff so far is bomb.com! Check out this gooey, gooey goodness…

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I can honestly say these cookies are so good I decided to make a list of top five best all-time cookies. These are on the list, which is still under development. I’ve lost at least an hour to pondering it, recalling cookies from days gone by. That was a good hour though.. ummm…

The bottom line is this stuff has game. To my lovely family vying for the surprise package at week’s end, here’s the translation: You need to step it up. I want a visit. Especially on Jan. 1-5 for someone to go snowboarding with me. So call me and make plans, then get in your car and head north. That’s the trump card this week.

Who says bribes don’t work?

Farewell to a beloved Auntie

Family is big with most people. At least we all give it some pretty good lip service of importance. With us, for all its complications, family remains foundational to all we do. From the day my grandfather’s boat (see photo above) arrived at Ellis Island, family has been our focus. That’s what makes Thanksgiving so wonderful as food and family pretty much sum up the holiday — even this year despite my Clark Grizwald turkey.

Each year at Thanksgiving my ties to family weaves through the distinct aromas in the kitchen. Each year I break out the old grinder from my Nonie’s restaurant of years ago and mash the ingredients that will become our signature green stuffing. Every time I break out the grinder or heat up the ancient cast iron pan, I can’t help but think of the woman who distilled in me the passion for cooking and for our culture and … for family. Family most of all. She lived 95 wonderful years but I miss her as I grind away. I’ll never stop missing her.

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This year the memories are thicker for many reasons, but not the least was the loss right after the holiday of my beloved Auntie, who lost a four-year battle with cancer. She may have always been too dramatic, too loud and likely very difficult. But she always made me feel loved and she was my favorite. She will be missed. My mother is now the only one remaining of the old Italians of my youth who gave me such rich memories. I’m glad she is here to anchor her generation to mine and to that of my children.

To end on a lighter note, I ask you… do you recall Green Eggs and Ham? Of course you do, if you of a certain age. Remember how disgusting it sounded? We all agreed with the guy in the book, “not in a car, not on a bar… I will not eat Green Eggs and Ham…” or something like that.

But Dr. Seuss had it right, and the green eggs and ham were delicious. Well, so too is GREEN thanksgiving stuffing. This Italian recipe goes back with my grandmother at least half a century and it is amazing how good it is. This is the only stuffing I eat. The grinder still drips stuff all over the floor and counters and that’s fine with me. I still grind the turkey giblets and whatnot because my grandmother knew what it was to be poor before she was successful and never lost the basic fundamental of using everything. And I still miss her every time I make it.

Green stuffing? Wonderful. Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without it.

 

News from the EffinArtist test kitchen

We start with an interesting commentary on contemporary life. Just last month pumpkins were as ubiquitous as hair on my back. Now the produce guy tells me there are none in stock. Ten days before the biggest pumpkin holiday of the year and a major grocery has nary a single pumpkin. This just shows how far removed our “food” culture is from actual food. The demand for carving and tossing food is more important that actually eating it.

It makes me more serious about the new ethos that says if you aren’t willing to do what it takes to obtain your food, you shouldn’t eat it. Granted, I just had a cow sent to the slaughterhouse … see photo below… (he looks a little pissed if you ask me, but then again, wouldn’t you be..?)

Dinner

and while someone else did the honors of execution and hanging and cutting, I made up my mind that I WOULD do it. In fact, next year, I’ll likely ask to find a butcher I can be somewhat more in the process. Likewise, I don’t enjoy tearing the dingy off crabs, but I did it. By the way, my steer — I call him “Dinner” –is now hanging. Dinner came in about 200 pounds overweight (typical a cow in our family would be overweight… but I guess in cow speak its a good thing).

Anyway, before I dive into the pumpkin stories of the day, a thought… speaking of the hairs on my back: My bride did me the favor of shearing me the other day. At my feet was a pile of wool. How is human wool different from sheep’s wool? This seems like a renewable resource that should have a market. Reduce, reuse, recycle and restore, right? So… The Effin Artist Italian Wool Company?

OK… on to the kitchen!  Don’t worry. Know.. wait I mean NO (big difference!) shearing takes place in the kitchen.

This week we have THREE pumpkin projects:

The first, a test pie in preparation for Thanksgiving is already underway…

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This is a beauty. We are going to make a few minor tweaks for the holidays, but this particular combination of pie and filling, culled from the ranks of pie genius, is divine. My biggest complain about pumpkin pie is its too sweet. Not this, full of complex flavors like ginger, cinnamon, and flaky crust. The whipped cream provides the sweetness and can be dolled out by the individual. Our holiday guests will get the chance to chime in, so expect reader reviews soon. We’ve found in person reviews to be a bit kinder than the cyber-kind… not sure what that it is, but my friend told me my recent photo mad me look ‘intimidating,” which he says will scare off publishers. Maybe that has something to do with it. As for scaring publishers, I told him. “You want me to look like a punk? I ain’t no punk.” He said I need to recognize my audience and environment has changed of late. I’m considering that. But I digress.

Project two is our very own invention: a pumpkin empenada. Typically these are sweet, like brown sugar pumpkin turnovers. But my sugar buzz from buttermilk week lingers like a bad hangover, so I’m moving this into the savory realm. Ours will be filled with meat and herbs to offset the sweetness of the brown sugar and pumpkin mix. Stay tuned.

Project three is a return to our foundational elusive artistry: Chocolate, which is the damn point of this whole thing when I’m not chasing after the next shiny thing like a meth addict in the throws of a big one. This will be a pumpkin chocolate truffle.

A fourth bonus project could be in the offing, but we’ll see.

Let the Pumpkin Games Begin! 

To UNSUBSCRIBE call out to the universe for cosmic assistance… what’s that?… oh the universe just called back. She said “no.”