Cooking for Southerners

The Hausfrau has, for many years, had a short list of things she will almost always make for parties. Guests at our cocktail parties know that we are very likely to have cocktail meatballs — those sweet/sour little things you eat with toothpicks, the kind you make with incredibly lowbrow ingredients like canned cranberry sauce or grape jelly — and pimiento cheese. Normally when I make pimiento cheese I throw everything into the food processors and generate a thick paste that’s not entirely smooth, but quite close to it. Now, I know this isn’t “authentic,” but in my book, “easy” wins over “authentic” if it saves me six minutes of hand-grating cheese and mincing roasted red peppers. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is.

But we were recently invited to a dinner party at the home of a woman who grew up in Virginia horse country and who also lived somewhere in the Carolinas for a long while. I offered, naturally, to bring something to the dinner party, and said, “Would you like me to make a dessert?” because it was my dim recollection that she is not a big baker. She wrote back quickly, saying, “Will you bring pimiento cheese?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “Done and done,” I wrote back, but my brow was furrowed. I couldn’t bring Cuisinart pimiento cheese to this woman’s house! That would be heresy, or something.

So I did it all by hand. I got out my big orange-red Pyrex bowl and grated Cheddar into it, and then I minced roasted red peppers, and I scooped in some Hellmann’s mayonnaise. I suppose I could have made a special trip somewhere to find some Duke’s, but I have to draw lines somewhere. I used all my animal strength and put some raw horseradish through a garlic press to get some oomph into the mix, and added a little dry mustard. Then I mixed and mixed and mixed until the stuff looked right. “It doesn’t look right,” said my husband, peering over my shoulder. “It doesn’t look like how you usually do it. It’s not almost smooth.”

“Yeah, well, how I usually make it is wrong,” I said, “because I’m a lazy Yankee. You’re supposed to do it by hand, all the cheese grating and everything, and it’s supposed to look lumpy like this.”

“Oh,” he said, doubtfully.

We both looked into the bowl. The mixing bowl, while very pretty, was way too big for serving this dish attractively; it looked as though I’d thought I was making pimiento cheese for 20 and only came up with pimiento cheese for six. “I need to move this into a smaller container,” I said, and I grabbed another little Pyrex dish, a blue-grey rectangular tub that I bought on a whim at the English Building Market and have used more times than I can count since then. It’s funny because when I bought it, I thought, “I so don’t need this, but I cannot resist,” and it turns out to be one of the most-used serving pieces in the kitchen. I spooned the pimiento cheese into it and the tub was almost full, but it still looked a little… naked. “Needs a garnish,” I said. “What the hell do I have I can use as a garnish?”

I opened the fridge and stared into it. There was a big, big jar of green olives stuffed with pimientos. “Perfect,” I said.

I got about twenty olives out and sliced each one in half and then I began to place them around the edges of the cheese to make what I told myself was an attractive border. The thing is, no matter what you do, green olives just aren’t that attractive. They are inevitably that…. well, there’s a reason why there’s a color called olive drab. However, the deed was done. I pressed the last sliced olive into the cheese and stood back to survey the product. “Look,” I said to my husband, “It’s 1953.”

*********

We carried the tub of pimiento cheese to the dinner party and were introduced to the other guests; our daughter immediately ran off to play with our hosts’ son, whom she adores, and I held out the little tub of pimiento cheese and said, “Um, here’s your pimiento cheese.” I had never met the other guests to this party and hoped they wouldn’t be people who said, “oh, cheese? Not for me, I’m vegan.” I got lucky: both of them gushed, “Pimiento cheese?” and looked at me with great interest. It turned out that one of them grew up in Texas, where, I’m given to understand, pimiento cheese is kind of a food group. “I made this,” I said, “and I tried to be a little more authentic about it than I usually am, but — well, I hope you guys will like it.” The hostess brought out a tray of sliced baguette and some crackers and everyone dug in. “This is good,” the men told me. We addressed the possible variants involved with pimiento cheese. There was cheerful discussion of my use of horseradish versus the Texan’s mother’s use of jalapeños. “Are you from the South?” I was asked. I shook my head and explained that I am decidedly not from the South, I just have a thing about Southern cooking. By the time dinner was served and we were all seated around the table, the Auntie Mame jokes were flying thick and fast, we’d gone through three bottles of wine, and the tub of pimiento cheese was empty.

I’ll be making more today. We’re having brisket for dinner, and I have this idea that I should make biscuits and a green pea salad to serve on the side. Pimiento cheese would go very well with that,  I think, and it serves the Rule of Four (cf. Lee Bailey and Nora Ephron). In the meantime: better buy more peppers.

Sometimes Recipes Aren’t Worth a Damn.

I had to do two things between the hours of 11 and 2: I had to bake cookies (“had to” being a relative term, yes) and I had to eat lunch (non-negotiable). I had this idea to make peanut butter shortbread cookies, and Googled up a plausible-sounding recipe. It seemed like it would be not sweet enough perhaps — it called for only half a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and no granulated sugar at all — but I thought that, perhaps, since commercial peanut butter has so much sugar in it, it would turn out just fine.

So I followed the recipe. I’m going to tell you exactly what I did, so that you can follow along and share in my emotional rise and fall.
I creamed one stick of butter with 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter. In a measuring cup I whisked together  1 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a pinch of salt. You have to whip the butter and peanut butter together for a surprisingly long time to get it right — I know this from experience cooking with peanut butter — you don’t want it just “combined until smooth,” but you want it absolutely creamy looking. The peanut butter mixture actually turns a whole different color through the process — you wind up with something that looks like a pale peanut butter sauce to serve on ice cream, or the filling of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Sounds good, right?

Once the butters are whipped together, add the dry ingredients. The recipe I was working with said to fold in 3/4 of a cup of chocolate chips, but I opted to do 1/3 cup peanuts and 1/3 cup mini chocolate chips. Then you roll this up in parchment paper or plastic wrap, to make a tube, and chill for a bit. I chilled mine for about an hour, and then I sliced the dough and baked it. You need the oven at 350°; the cookies bake in 12-14 minutes, depending on how thick the slices are.

The cookies I’ve got are ok; the texture is nice and crumbly. But they are nowhere near sweet enough, and nowhere near peanut-buttery enough. I’m very disappointed. I am so disappointed that I am wondering if I will be able to do a second batch this afternoon. This time, I would add 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, and possibly up the peanut butter, too. I grasp that you need the confectioner’s sugar to achieve the texture of shortbread (you could, I suppose, substitute cornstarch for some of the flour to achieve the same end), but something’s gotta give. Because these cookies, in a word, suck. I mean, “ok” is “sucks,” you get me? A cooky is supposed to be not just an “ok” thing. A cooky is supposed to bring light and joy. A cooky is supposed to be a thing where when you take your first bite of one, you’re already going, “yeah, I think I’ll have about four or five of these. I better pour a glass of milk.”

The website where I got this recipe had 212 comments for these cookies — it was astonishing, the range of reviews. Some people loved them. Some people, like me, were plainly disgusted — one person wrote, basically, “These suck, I’m sticking to my old recipe.” One guy wrote that he was planning to make them using honey roasted peanut butter and mint chocolate chips, and all I can say to him is, “Good luck, man” — I can’t imagine putting mint chocolate chips into a peanut butter based recipe, but whatever.

(Sometimes, winging it in the kitchen should lead to disaster but results in something quite enjoyable. The opposite of the failed peanut butter cookies. For example, following no recipe whatsoever, I recently made myself a lunch that was perfectly lovely and exactly the kind of thing I like to eat when I’m by myself. Since we had no bread in the house, and hence I had no way of making a cheese sandwich, I was forced to boil some pasta to get some ballast into me mid-day. I opened the fridge to see what I could put on the noodles, and found…. not much. Three tablespoons of leftover tomato sauce waiting to be used up (how? there is nothing in the world that requires only three tablespoons of tomato sauce, except dressing a pizza; and we have no pizza dough on hand — this was was, in fact, leftover sauce from when I made pizza and strombolis earlier in the week, and it’s not my fault no one used it up on the stromboli last night); some eggs; cheese. (Also the usual array of condiments and dairy products — but the question was, “How could I assemble stuff here into a sauce without putting real effort into it?”)

The answer was: take an egg; crack it into the tub of leftover tomato sauce; whisk in the egg. Add a pat of butter. When the noodles are cooked, drain them and then put them in a big bowl. Pour the egg/tomato sauce on top, and stir and stir and stir until everything’s coated with sauce. The egg, of course, cooks to safe eating in the heat of the pasta. Top with grated Parmesan. Sit down. Eat. Try to not think about the news of the day. I recommend watching old episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Laura Petrie is quite a cook, from what I can tell.

I find, lately, that more than half the time that I dig up a recipe online, it is a disappointment. I can’t quite figure it out. I can’t decide if it’s that these things are a matter of taste — I just don’t happen to like that kind of cooky, say — or if it’s just that the internet is so filled with copied-and-pasted bad ideas that it’s just not a reliable way to look for recipes. The thing is, cookbooks are often no better — though I’ve certainly come to know certain writers’ strengths and weaknesses and I know where I can turn for the most reliable results. We know how critical I am of certain cookbooks that have recipes that simply don’t work. Even “foolproof” recipes; even recipe outlets that are usually as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning (I’m looking at you, Christopher Kimball); I find, in recent months, that about 1/4 of my baking things other than an old tried-and-true has resulted in sadness.

Well, tonight I’m making a tried-and-true baked thing for dinner: pizza. I can’t give you a recipe because I didn’t follow one. I took water,  a little yeast, a little sugar, a little salt, some olive oil, and three kinds of flour (KAF unbleached white, KAF bread flour, and some Italian semolina I have sitting around) and I made dough. It’s rising now. I’m gonna make pizza tonight using the scraps of whatever I’ve got in the fridge — I know there’s a few ounces of tomato sauce, a few ounces of mozz, a little of this, a little of that. I’ll be better off winging it, I am positive, than I would be if I followed a recipe.

I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something, but I’m not gonna dwell on it now.

Homemade Goodies: or, How I am Under Strict Orders to Not Make Cracklin’ Oat Bran from Scratch

This morning, out of the kindness of my heart, I slipped a few pieces of Cracklin’ Oat Bran (the finest and possibly most expensive of all schlocky breakfast cereals) into my daughter’s morning bowl of Grape-Nuts. “Almost used up,” I said, peering into the box, which I’d given to my daughter as a silly birthday present.
“Buy more,” my daughter advised.
“Nah, this crap is too expensive for me to buy it all the time,” I said.
“How much could it cost?” asked my husband.
“It’s almost six dollars a box,” I said.
“Well, that’s bullshit,” he said. “Considering what breakfast cereal is made of, too.” He spared us his traditional diatribe about pencil shavings but only because I stepped in to distract him by suggesting I might attempt to make them from scratch. This proposal was made entirely in jest — I’m not messing around with that kind of thing anymore, I’ve learned my lesson — but he was fast to say, firmly, “No! Don’t do that!”
“You should make oatmeal cookies instead,” he said.
“Oatmeal cookies are awful,” said our daughter.
“No, they’re not!” my husband and I said as one. “What are you talking about?”
“They have raisins in them!” she insisted. “They’re bad.”
It was odd, because in fact this is a child who doesn’t mind eating raisins, but she has apparently absorbed the notion (held by me, to be sure) that raisins in desserts are a real bummer. My husband consoled her, “Oatmeal cookies don’t have to have raisins. They can have chocolate chips! And that’s a really good cookie. Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are really, really good.”
He did admit that he likes them better with raisins AND chocolate chips. The skeptical girl at the dining table looked at me askance: she would have no truck with this.
“This afternoon, we can make oatmeal cookies,” I told her. “Good ones. No raisins.”
“Okay,” she said gamely.
“Check Cook’s Illustrated,” my husband reminded me. “I’m sure Christopher Kimball has some ludicrously elaborate and perfect way to make oatmeal cookies.”
We can do that. Because here it is. (Though I think this is from an issue that’s post-CK’s tenure at CI; the basic premise still holds.)

1 cup (5 oz.) all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¾ cup (5 ¼ oz.) dark brown sugar
½ cup (3 ½ oz.) granulated sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 whole egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups (9 oz.) old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup raisins, optional

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour, salt, and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

Melt butter in 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, swirling pan occasionally, until foaming subsides. Continue to cook, stirring and scraping bottom of pan with heat‑resistant spatula, until milk solids are dark golden brown and butter has nutty aroma, 1 to 2 minutes. Immediately transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl, scraping skillet with spatula. Stir in cinnamon.

Add brown sugar, granulated sugar, and oil to bowl with butter and whisk until combined. Add egg and yolk and vanilla and whisk until mixture is smooth. Using wooden spoon or spatula, stir in flour mixture until fully combined, about 1 minute. Add oats and raisins, if using, and stir until evenly distributed (mixture will be stiff).

Divide dough into 20 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use #24 cookie scoop). Arrange dough balls 2 inches apart on prepared sheets, 10 dough balls per sheet. Using your damp hand, press each ball into 2½-inch disk.

Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until cookie edges are set and lightly browned and centers are still soft but not wet, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking. Let cookies cool on sheet on wire rack for 5 minutes; using wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and let cool completely.

Housecleaning: The Story of One Friday Morning

The house has gotten rather disgusting, what with one thing and another: we’ve had almost two straight weeks of serious domestic chaos (meaning, Life as We Know It has forced me to focus on things other than doing the bare minimum of household-maintenance, and as a result while we’ve always had clean underwear, the state of the house otherwise got to near-revolting — no, scratch that. It got pretty gross). The sky was gray and the air damp: it felt like rain. If it was going to be a grim, depressing-looking day, I might as well stay in and make the most of a few hours of uninterrupted time here. I knew that there were dust bunnies on the stairs and I knew that the bathtub was all scummy and I knew that I needed to do laundry again (again!) so as soon as I packed my daughter off to school this morning I said, “OK, Let’s Do This.”

I began, as I often do, by clearing the countertop at the bathroom sink we use the most. I took care of that, including dusting the lightbulbs above the mirror there. Then I scrubbed the bathtub. I decided to leave the third floor alone this week — I did it quite thoroughly two weeks ago, and the only person who uses it really is my husband, and if he’s not happy with it, he can either take care of it himself or wait for me to have the intestinal fortitude to deal with it. The last time I cleaned the bathroom up there, I discovered the sink wasn’t draining right, and had to spend about thirty minutes dealing with the clogged drain, which wasn’t my idea of fun. So I’m happy to put that off for a little while.

Once the second floor bathroom was tackled, it was time to vacuum. I carried the vacuum cleaner upstairs and plugged it in and then looked into my daughter’s room. She has a big rug in her room and the cats love to claw at it and roll around on it, which is fine — it’s not a fancy rug, just a thing we got at Ikea about a decade ago; it can be trashed by the cats and none of us will mind.
Thing was, my daughter’s room was such a goddamned mess I couldn’t just vacuum: I had to straighten up a bit before I could vacuum. I hate this. Now, I am not what you’d call a minimalist, in my approach to life: I have a lot of stuff, and I like having it around. It drives my husband nuts. Unfortunately, my daughter seems to have inherited my tendencies, and elaborated upon them: not only does she have a lot of stuff and want it around, she likes to have it around on the floor, and is not fazed by things like little tiny snips of paper being scattered all over the place. Little peel-off-sticker-backs are all over the floor in my daughter’s room, all the time. Little scraps of paper from the time she decided it would be fun to cut out paper dolls. Little rocks. Little shells. Little THINGS. All over the place.
So this is a room that really needs vacuuming, but the thing is, there are also piles of books all over the place, and stuffed animals, and maybe some socks that were supposed to make it into the laundry basket but didn’t, in addition to the precious little shells, which, if I vacuum them up, there will be hell to pay, because those little shells are IMPORTANT. I can’t say it’s chaos, really, but it is a mess. However, it is my job to corral this mess a little once in a while, and I accept that. (I don’t do total room overhauls anymore: my daughter’s old enough to do this. But vacuuming isn’t something she can do yet — she can’t even lift the machine — so, I bite the bullet periodically.) I made the bed (which is a mattress on the floor — you need to have the bed neat in order to vacuum correctly)and did some cursory straightening up enough that I could do the rug, and I vacuumed the rug and also did the closet floor. I have no idea what she does that causes the pillows to leak feathers like this, but there were a lot of feathers around; there were also about 2 cups of little paper snips and some ponytail holders (I rescued those), in addition to the anticipated general schmutz.

It was as I went to vacuum over by the side of the bed that I noticed the wadded up tissue on the floor. “Jeez,” I thought, “can’t she even throw her used Kleenex away?” I picked up the Kleenex, and that was when I noticed the cat puke.

It had been there for a while.

I don’t know if it was there last night, when I was reading to my daughter, the usual bedtime session.

I assume it was there when I went in this morning to say “Good morning, want some breakfast?” She was, at that moment, snuggling with Roger the cat, who seemed perfectly content, and probably hadn’t just recently thrown up.

Usually, when a cat throws up — and it happens pretty often, because, you know, CATS — I either know about it immediately and clean it up immediately, or whoever is first to discover it cleans it up immediately, unless the discoverer is my daughter, who is, for whatever reason, scared to clean it up. I find this annoying, because she’s perfectly capable of using paper towels, but, ok: she is, I give her credit, very good at coming to get me, saying, “The cat gakked,” and she will bring me paper towels and vinegar or whatever I need to clean up the mess.

This was a case where it’s like she tried to get brave and start to clean up the gak, but something happened and her nerves got the best of her so she thought, “I’ll just put this tissue on top and IT’LL BE FINE.”

I’ll tell you: I had to use two rags to clean this mess up. (Don’t worry, they went straight into the washing machine with some bleach, they’re right as rain now.)

But I cleaned it up, muttering to myself, and then I continued vacuuming. I did the bedroom as thoroughly as I could, all things considered; I moved down the staircase (my god, how cat fur will accumulate in the corners of the steps!); I tackled the first floor of the house (Meow Mix crumbs make a very satisfying noise when you vacuum them up). I did the front entryway, and even did the stairs to the basement (which is, truly, cat fur central — and, lucky me, I discovered more cat puke in the basement, in the process, so now that’s taken care of as well).

I ran a load of whites, I ran the dishwasher, I organized the recycling to go out. I dealt with the nasty tubs of leftover food in the fridge that really needed to just face their trash dumpster fate (this happens even to me) and readied the trash to go out. By two p.m., the sun had fought its way through the gray, and the air felt clear and dry. I’ve opened all the windows I can; the house is as clean as it’s going to be this week; and as soon as I take out the trash and recycling, unload the dishwasher, and fold the laundry, I’ll be ready for the weekend.

Well, except that I still have to make dinner tonight.

Adventures with Heavy Cream

It sounds like it could be a previously unpublished with by William S. Burroughs, but no, it’s just me in my kitchen.

It took me several days to reach a point in our schedule when it was feasible and reasonable for me to leave the oven on at 180°, which is what I would have to do to try my hand at making clotted cream. But I hit that golden hour on a recent Saturday night. And so, armed with the link provided me by a staffer at Kimball Brook Farm, I tried my hand at making clotted cream.

The instructions, from this website, are very easy. You buy cream and pour it into a shallow pan; you cover the pan with tinfoil, and then you leave the pan in the preheated oven for twelve hours. After twelve hours, you take the pan out of the oven, and peel back the foil a bit to let steam escape. When the cream’s cooled for 30 minutes, you decant the stuff into a jar, pop it in the fridge for another twelve hours, and at the end you’re supposed to have — WHOO HOO! CLOTTED CREAM!

So I did all this. At eight thirty in the evening, after the dinner dishes were cleaned up, I turned the oven to 180° and I poured the cream into an 8″ square Pyrex dish and I covered it with tinfoil and I slid the pan gently into the oven. Then we all went upstairs. Eight-thirty the next morning, after my first cup of coffee, I removed the pan from the oven, peeled back the foil a bit, and let the cream cool. After thirty minutes, I got out a little Mason jar and a shallow spoon and did the big reveal.

What I saw was a thick layer of stuff on top and… warm cream underneath. I was frankly not sure what the big deal was; was the stuff on top the clotted cream? Because it really wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Or maybe it was; no, it definitely was; but there wasn’t much of it.

Nonetheless, I had a sense that separating the cream from the cream, if you’ll follow me, was not what I wanted to do quite yet; I needed to get all of this stuff into the Mason jar. It wasn’t easy to spoon it into the jar, but I managed, and only made a small mess (which the cats were happy to clean up) (yes, I cleaned the floor afterwards), and then I bunged the jar into the fridge and told myself that no matter what happened, I would be able to use the cream, and it was just some dairy products and everything would be ok.

I didn’t dare to open the jar until Monday morning. The jar made a strong “pop!” sound as I opened it, and the cats came running. “Okay,” I said to myself reassuringly, like the way the surgeons do in movies when they’re reconstructing the violinist’s hands and rebuilding his heart at the same time. Sure, it’s tricky work, but if you stay calm, you can do it. As I was saying, I opened the jar and I gingerly stuck a teaspoon in. Sure enough the top of the jar was nearly-solid cream — butter, more like — and underneath it was a pool of heavy cream.

Bearing in mind that my husband had been very curious about this process, I decided to not muck with it any further until he got home from work. During the course of the day I decided, too, that I would use some of the cream to make biscuits for dinner — because, frankly, I’d have to use the cream up, and it would probably only be suitable for baking. He came home from work and as he poured himself a drink and lifted the lid of the pot on the stove to see what we were eating for dinner (chicken and lentil soup), I said, “You gotta see this.” I took the Mason jar from the fridge.
“What’s that?” he asked

“This is the cream from Vermont,” I said. “Check this out.” I opened the jar and jabbed another spoon into the thick cream. “Oh, nasty,” he said.

“Come on, you jerk,” I snapped.

No one wanted to try it. I ate some of it myself, on toast, and found it fine, but to be honest, not particularly compelling; and it wasn’t the kind of thing I’m capable of eating in vast quantities anymore. I guess I’m getting old. And, given my family’s reception of the results of all this work and attention, I don’t think I’ll be bothering to do this again anytime soon.

The Bench Scraper. This sounds like the name of a sports movie, but this is not about sports.

As long as ten years ago, I don’t know for sure, someone gave me a bench scraper. It was a softly waved piece of white rectangular plastic, and one long side of it had a beveled-to-a-point edge and the other long side of it had a silicone or rubber strip. It was meant to be used as a tool in the kitchen for working with dough, but I found it totally useless in this context. I tried. The “sharp” side couldn’t cut through anything well, and the softer side, well, duh: it was too soft to cut anything at all.

The thing was completely useless  to me, but I kept it because I thought, “Some day, I will wish I had this thing.”

In the meantime, somewhat less then ten years ago, I acquired a metal bench scraper at a tag sale, and that thing is lethal and I use it all the time. It has one rolled edge you use as a handle and one sharp sharp sharp edge that I use to cut through dough, dividing raw dough for pizza, cutting biscuits, cooky dough, whatever. It works great and I can run it through the dishwasher without worrying about it melting. It looks kind of like this. It isn’t fancy but it does its job extraordinarily well. This is what you want in most kitchen utensils. You don’t need bells or whistles, you just want the thing to do its job. The metal bench scraper lives in the drawer where I keep the work tools I use most frequently: the Microplanes; the rolling pin; the scissors that come apart for cleaning; the can opener; the garlic press; the silicone-tipped whisk; the tongs. (You’re wondering, What about the silicone spatulas? Where do those live? Answer: they live in their own separate drawer. Yes, the silicone spatulas have their own drawer.)

The white plastic device, on the other hand, lives in a drawer where I keep things I use pretty frequently, but not as frequently as you might guess. Ready at hand in that drawer are: measuring cups; measuring spoons; ladles; a balloon whisk; biscuit cutters; and the white bench scraper. Which I’ve kept there not because I’ve used it, ever, in all these years, but just because it seemed to fit there in a categorical way: “small kitchen utensils that I don’t need a lot but when I need them I want to know where they are.”

Other stuff I keep in this drawer full of things that I hardly ever use:
1. a little plastic thing in the shape of an apple where you take off the top half of the apple and what you’re supposed to do is put your apple that you want to have for lunch in there, and then put the lid on. Supposedly this will keep your apple from getting bruised as you carry it in your bag. It may work, but I’ll never know because I’ve never purchased an apple that fit into it. However, my daughter likes it for carrying snacks now and then, so, fine;

2. All tea balls. I don’t use tea balls, but my husband does. They need to be accessible, but they don’t need to be in my way all the time. So they live in this drawer.

3. Nutcrackers and picks;

4. drinking straws;

5. salad tongs and other more elegant devices one might use to serve salad.

So you get the idea. These are all USEFUL things to be sure: but they are not everyday-on-the-table-or-countertop things, for me, personally.

Well, a few weeks ago, I was dealing with the aftermath of spending several hours working on some really messy cooking projects involving a lot of dough and fillings and frostings; the countertop was a mess. It was the kind of clean-up job where there was nothing for it but to take everything off the countertop, wash the surface down with a clean dishrag, and then wipe up the detergent. As I was contemplating the drag it would be to keep rinsing this countertop to get all the soap off, I suddenly remembered how I deal with wiping water off my shower walls (to reduce mildew growth): I squeegee the shower every day. (Shut up. Don’t laugh at me. It helps.)

But, I reasoned: I did not want to use my shower squeegee on my kitchen countertops. ‘Cause that just seemed…. gross.

On the other hand…. I suddenly remembered that I did — I do — own a thing that is, basically, a kitchen squeegee. That white bench scraper thingy: THIS is what the bendy side of it is for! 

It was a an epiphany. I pulled the white bench scraper from the drawer, got a waiting-to-be-washed bowl from the sink, and began to squeegee the countertop, letting all the scungy, soapy water run straight off the counter into the bowl. It worked like a charm. I got the counter basically clean and almost dry in about two seconds. I dumped the bowl back into the sink, and then I sprayed my usual rubbing alcohol dose on the counter and wiped it dry with a towel. Done and done. The white bench scraper no longer lives in the drawer; it now lives at the kitchen sink, with the dishrag and the bottle of Dawn, and it gets used almost daily. I use it to push water from the countertop near the sink straight into the sink (I used to just use the side of my hand, which, believe me, never worked as well as I thought it should), and I use it to clean my working countertop. And I feel like a fucking genius for doing so.

My husband, who has long been aware of this odd white object in the kitchen drawer (probably because it is near his precious tea ball collection), asked me a few days ago, “Why is this thing living next to the bottle of dishwashing liquid?” I explained, “Because after years of being a useless object, it has suddenly become a very useful object!”
“How so?” asked my ever-curious husband. Ok, he wasn’t curious exactly; he was skeptical. I could feel his skepticism oozing all over the floor (great, more for me to clean up). But I showed him. I explained how a cleaning process that, ok, wasn’t arduous, but was slightly messier and more time-consuming than I’d like, had suddenly been made simpler and easier by using this previously-useless tool. “It’s a small leap for the household,” I concluded. He nodded. “It’s like the time I changed the method for emptying the coffee grounds from the coffeepot, and my life improved exponentially,” he said.

I don’t actually agree that his method is superior to the method I use. But if it works for him, fine and dandy. In the meantime, the white bench scraper lives at the kitchen sink, it gets used, and I’m already wondering what I’ll do when I do something horrible to it by accident or through over-use and I can’t use it anymore. I guess I’ll either get used to the old counter-cleaning system again, or go spend a few bucks on another “useless” bench scraper.

Pastrami Risotto. Because I’m a daredevil.

It was the end of a long and difficult afternoon involving bus travel, poor weather, and unhappy children. I was facing making dinner without a lot of emotional steam to work with, and also without a concrete plan. This is how someone like the Hausfrau winds up staring into the refrigerator and saying, “Sure, I could make a pastrami risotto.”

It began when I was at the Italian market down the street a couple blocks, contemplating pizza toppings. This was a few nights ago: it was my daughter’s birthday dinner. She had requested that I make pizza. A spur of the moment reminder from my daughter than I’d made an excellent stromboli with pastrami inspired me to buy a pound of pastrami. “We’ll use it on the pizza, Papa will love it,” I said to my daughter, who nodded. I had visions of pastrami sandwiches, another stromboli, and so on. We carried the pastrami home and I assembled the pizzas and they were quite good. One was pastrami, red onion, and olive; the other was spinach and olive. Those were some fine pizzas.

I wrapped up the rest of the pastrami — the cats yowled indignantly — and felt smug about it, thinking I had a trick up my sleeve to help me jazz up dinners for the rest of the week.

And when it came to last night: it was dismal outside. It was pouring rain when my husband walked in the door. I was trying to be optimistic about the tiny epiphany I thought I’d had, which was, People use proscuitto to form a layer of flavor when they’re starting all kinds of italian dishes, including when they’re making risotto; why couldn’t I use pastrami the same way?
So when my husband came home, the rain was pounding down and I was in the kitchen chopping onion and I said to my daughter, “Bring Papa a towel from the drawer” — pointing my foot to the low drawer where I keep plastic storage tubs and towels to be used for cleaning up messes, along with a few special-purpose linens (tea towels suitable for use as pastry cloths; cheesecloth; stuff like that). She reached into the drawer and then ran to help her father, a dutiful daughter, and my husband came into the kitchen, squidge squidge squidge, to find me roughly chopping long slices of pastrami. “Whatcha making?” he asked cheerfully. “Pastrami risotto,” I said. He looked skeptical, but I pressed on.

I had some nice vegetable stock that I’d made; I heated it up and used it to start to cook the risotto. I added a couple tablespoons of tomato paste to pep things up a bit. I had a lot of sliced red onion in the pot, and the pastrami, and the rice, and everything smelled quite delicious. Toward the end of the cooking time I added green peas and parsley. My daughter walked over and stuck her nose over the pot. She made approving noises. I was,  thus, optimistic that this meal would be greeted with pleasure. It did, for sure, look absolutely beautiful: the red pastrami and the red onion looked gorgeous with the bright dots of green peas and parsley. I mean, it looked like something you’d totally want to eat, and it smelled like something you’d totally want to eat.

Instead, we all sat down to eat, and while no one complained that the food was bad, no one seemed to actually enjoy it very much.

It was fine.
There’s plenty left over.

It was today when I started to sort the laundry — one of many small tasks I had to tackle today — that I found my biggest piece of cheesecloth in the laundry. “What the hell,” I said to myself. I knew I hadn’t used it for anything — I haven’t used cheesecloth since I think last summer. And then I realized: my beloved girl had handed her dripping wet father a piece of cheesecloth to use as a towel. I’m sure he was confused, but too polite to say anything like, “no, can you get me an actual towel?”

So I laundered it. And I’ll be the one to eat the leftover pastrami risotto, for lunches, tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. It’ll be fine.