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.

Bandi Caramel Evaporated Milk: Not What I was Expecting

One recent rainy morning I found myself in the kitchen aiming to make caramel of the type I use when I’m making homemade Twix bars. This means opening a can of sweetened condensed milk. I had, in my pantry, a can of Bandi caramel condensed milk, and it occurred to me that it might be a wonderful thing to use for this purpose, since it would provide an extra layer of caramel flavor to the finished product.

I opened the can, fully expecting to find a pale creamy brown viscous liquid — like regular sweetened condensed milk, but tawnier.

Instead, what I found was basically a solid can of caramel. Dark, rich, amber brown caramel. I mean, it was essentially a can of Kraft caramel.

While this is, of course, an entirely welcome discovery, at the time, I said to myself, “I cannot work with this right now.” I had something else entirely in mind. So I painstakingly scraped the caramel from the can into a glass jar (no, you can’t store opened cans of food in the fridge, everyone knows that), and stowed it in the fridge. It will, I am positive, come in handy some time soon. When I showed my husband and child this stuff, in the evening, after dinner and before dessert, they were enthusiastic, to put it mildly, and asked mock-casually, “What do you think you’ll do with that?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but how about in the meantime we think about the chocolate pudding pie that I made for us to have for dessert tonight?” My husband had two slices, and my daughter horrified her parents by licking her plate clean like a cat.

 

Beef Stew, Born out of Desperation, Hailed as a Triumph; or, I Won’t Make This Often, but It Would be So Good if I Did

The other day I was mulling grimly the possible options for our evening dinner hour: grimly, because there was a meeting I wanted to attend that was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., which would mean that whatever I was serving for dinner, it would have to be done before I left the house, and somehow kept warm for my husband and child to eat while I was at the meeting.

Contemplating  the raw materials in the fridge, I remembered that I had a lot of carrots and some celery. “If I bought some beef, and maybe some potatoes, I could set up a beef stew in the early afternoon and just leave it in the oven to cook all afternoon. And then I could just leave — “Dinner’s in the oven!” — with a clear conscience.”

So I popped off to the butcher counter, snagged a couple of pounds of beef cubes, and grabbed a loaf of ciabatta bread and some smoked Gouda while I was at it, and trotted home feeling like I had just solved a long-standing cold case. I got home, pulled down my biggest Dutch oven, and got to work immediately. It was almost 1 p.m.

I have a lot of experience making beef stews but it occurred to me that perhaps it would be a good idea if I did a quick Google search on the matter to see if anything in terms of technique jumped out at me as something I should try. The first thing I landed on was a discussion of a Cook’s Illustrated beef stew recipe. I skimmed the list of ingredients and realized that I in fact had everything necessary on hand (or I could fudge it). The things I don’t always have around that I happened to have right there? Several cups of chicken broth (taking up a lot of space in the fridge!); anchovy; carrots. Making this recipe would not only be a good idea in culinary terms, it would also free up space I desperately needed in the refrigerator. So I decided to go with that recipe. It was simple, if a little time consuming in terms of prep, but then, any beef stew involves a lot of prep work, if you’re putting in vegetables. So I set to it. I began by preheating the oven to 250°.

The real work began after that, and I was quite busy for about forty-five minutes. The first thing I did was dry the cubes of beef with paper towels. (This is one of the very few tasks in our household where I think paper towels are called for; we use a roll of paper towels a year, they are so seldom used. But for drying meat: just the thing.) Then I browned them, in small batches, in olive oil. I think it was three or four batches of beef I had to do — it was rather a lot of meat. I set the browned meat in the upturned pot lid so that I could work on the next batch. The cats circled my legs anxiously and hopefully while I did this.

When the meat was done, I deglazed the pan a bit with some sweet vermouth — maybe a quarter of a cupful. I let it cook away, rubbing the bottom of the pot with a wooden spatula.  I threw an anchovy (from a jar of oil-packed anchovies) into the pot. I peeled several fat cloves of garlic, sliced them in half, and browned them in the vermouthy-beefy sludge. I added half a very large onion, minced, and a bay leaf. I squeezed about three tablespoons of vegetable paste (a kind of concentrated form of V-8, like Ortolina, but made by Cento) into the pot, and stirred the sludge around. The anchovy melted in with the tomato-vegetable paste, and the sludge smelled good, but in danger of burning. Working quickly, I sprinkled in about 1/4 cup of white flour, and stirred that around for a moment, again worrying about burning, moving fast so that the flour didn’t have time to form wretched clots around the vegetables. I didn’t wait long before I slowly poured the chicken stock (probably about four cups, all told) into the flour and onions. I stirred it for a few minutes until the flour dissolved and something akin to a smooth brown sauce began to form. Once I was confident that I’d passed the dangerous phase of the cooking process — if you burn  the onions and flour, the whole project is going to be disgusting; if you don’t, then you’ll be fine — I put the beef back into the pot, added a bag of frozen pearl onions, stirred the slop around, covered the pot, and opened the oven.

It was 1.30 by the time the pot went into the oven. I then ignored the pot until 4.30. The time was filled up with washing prep dishes, picking up my daughter after school, giving her a snack, helping her with homework, paying bills, and realizing that I’d done two loads of laundry but I’d forgotten to fold them and put them away.

At 4.30 I added to the stew a pound of carrots, peeled and cut into 1″ chunks, two large stalks of celery, trimmed and cut into chunks, and five red potatoes, peeled and also cut into hefty chunks. Making sure that everything was mixed in, and not just a pile of naked vegetables sitting atop the beef stew (because I didn’t think they’d cook properly if I did that), I covered the pot again and shoved it back into the oven.

There was another frenzy of domestic activity between five and six — laundry folding, cleaning the countertops where I discovered a Jackson Pollack-worthy scattering of paw prints (doubtless the cats were trying to figure out if they could get at the beef stew) — but I checked the stew just before I left the house to go to the meeting. The potatoes and carrots were nicely cooked through, the beef was tender: everything was exactly as it should be. I handed off our daughter to my husband, saying, “There’s beef stew in the oven, and a loaf of nice bread and some cheese,” and then I ran off to my meeting.

When I got home two hours later, husband and child were curled up on the couch with one of the cats. Their dinner plates were on the floor (a revolting, uncool habit we are all guilty of falling into, letting the cats lick our plates). “Was the stew good?” I asked.

The opinion passed down was unanimous: this was the best beef stew ever prepared in our house. “Huh, good,” I said as I sat down to sample it myself. I could not offer dissent. The Cook’s Illustrated recipe — which I admittedly did not follow precisely, but which I certainly followed in spirit, and relatively accurately — really was fabulous. It wasn’t quick, and beef isn’t cheap, but it isn’t hard to do, and it’s clear that the payback on the effort is tremendous. “The best thing about this,” I said, “is that there’s enough that we can have it for Shabbat dinner tomorrow, too.” Everyone seemed pleased with that arrangement; and so, happily, at this juncture in the narrative, mid-day on Friday, I don’t have to worry about cooking dinner tonight. All I have to do is buy a challah and set the table, and we’ll be ready for Shabbat tonight.

Except, I’m thinking about making a coconut cake this afternoon.

It’s just a stack of big heavy books and laundry supplies in the doorway. No big deal.

One recent evening, as the adults in the household were getting ready for bed, my husband’s sock snagged on a tiny splinter of wood from the wood floor, right in the doorway to our room. “Hey,” he said, annoyed. He bent and and felt the little flaw with his fingers. “I better glue that down,” he said. I was sitting on the bed folding the last few laundry items that had been piled up there for hours; there was no going to bed without folding the laundry first. Hence, my back was facing my husband as he got down and did some futzing around with stuff at the floor in the middle of the doorway.

I got up, holding a stack of clean towels, and noticed that while my husband was no longer in the doorway, there was, instead, a rather imposing little tower. We had, in the middle of the doorway, the following items, which are, you’ll note, mostly very large, heavy books:

The Grove Dictionary of Jazz; the Washburn Bible; Roz Chast’s Theories of Everything; a collection of works by Lewis Carroll; and a brand new, full, 5 lb. tub of OxiClean.

In the middle of the doorway.

I gave my husband a skeptical look. “What,” he said.
“What if the cats trip on this?” I said.
“The cats can see in the dark,” he said.
“What if trip on it? when I go the bathroom in the night?”
“You’ll see it there; there’s a nightlight in the hall.”
I sighed.
“This would make a great Roz Chast cartoon,” my husband observed cheerfully, settling in with his book. Annoyed as I was, I had to laugh at that.

Short and Sweet: Remembering A Housebitch Moment

My husband decided to make pancakes on a recent Saturday morning. He needed 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. I happened to be standing in front of the sugar tub, which I keep a 1/2 cup measuring cup in, all the time. “I’ll get it for you,” I said, trying to be helpful. I scooped up some sugar, eyeballed, shook some out, and held the cup aloft for him to take.
“You can’t just scoop some out,” he scolded. “You have to measure.”
I said, “This is one and a half tablespoons of sugar.” He protested that there was no way I could know that. I said, “Fine, get a measuring spoon, measure it.”
He got a set of measuring spoons and measured it. It was precisely one and a half tablespoons.
“Fine,” he said, grudgingly.
Do not fuck with the Hausfrau, people.

I have no need for runny blue cooky icing, do you?

I try very hard to keep track of what I’ve got on hand in the house and what I need to stock up on. For example, I knew that it would become necessary for me to supply various social occasions with vast quantities of baked goods, and so I would need a lot of flour, a lot of sugar, and a lot of butter. Accordingly, when I placed a Peapod order, to be delivered a few mornings ago, I requested several five-pound sacks of flour (on sale! lucky me!), many pounds of butter (also on sale! More lucky me!), and many pounds of granulated sugar (not on sale, but also not that expensive, so it’s ok).

However, I made what my husband might call a rookie error. I neglected to order several pounds of confectioner’s sugar. Any idiot knows that if you’re baking snazzy desserts, you’re going to need confectioner’s sugar; and, what’s more, that it’s the kind of thing it’s smart to over-purchase, because you often need to add it with abandon to get icing or frosting consistencies just so. Recipes SAY “Combine two cups confectioner’s sugar to four tablespoons of creamed butter” or whatever but I’ll be damned if two cups has ever really been sufficient. They say two cups, I say three and a half cups. Basically, I know better. And I need, like, six pounds of confectioner’s sugar, easily, if I’m going to ice 58 little cookies shaped like letters.

One recent fine, cold morning I set aside several hours in which, I told myself sternly, I was going to make icings in pretty colors to decorate the 50-odd alphabet cookies I had already baked. I was going to mix up the icing and sit down at the table with the cookies and many sheets of wax paper and squeeze bottles and I was just going to do this thing.

Except I had no confectioner’s sugar.

Shit.

Furthermore, the grocery stores, which are normally an easy stroll away, were treacherous to get to because they were covered in sheet ice. I love my neighborhood, I do, but too many homeowners do not shovel their sidewalks as they are supposed to; this is a real bummer (and also illegal, but we won’t dwell on that). Did I want to risk falling and hurting myself to get confectioner’s sugar? No. I remembered that I could, hypothetically, make my own confectioner’s sugar out of granulated sugar and some cornstarch, and so I cheerfully took out the food processor, the sugar, and the cornstarch, and got to work.

I won’t go into the boring details, but let’s say that 90 minutes after embarking on this project, what I had was something that was totally unsuited to the task before me. I wasted a cup of sugar, two teaspoons of cornstarch, about two tablespoons of milk, two tablespoons of corn syrup, a squirt of fancy blue food coloring gel, and even — added in a moment of hope and desperation — two tablespoons of Bird’s Custard, to arrive at…. nothing useful.

In the end, I waited until the next day, when I felt more confident about my ability to walk safely to the grocery store. I paid a ridiculous amount of money for four pounds of confectioner’s sugar; I took it home; and then I got to work, feeling totally on top of things. The cookies were iced (not beautifully, but for sure colorfully); my daughter came home from school and expressed deep admiration for them, asking if I would do another batch but this time do only purple and green because those are her colors; and they were dispatched to the art opening. I washed my hands (and my pastry bag) of the whole enterprise, and had, happily, a whole bag of confectioner’s sugar left over for the next project.

One problem remains: what should I do with the two squeeze bottles of different shades of blue icing I have leftover? I see more cooky decorating in my near future.

Recalibrating the Oven: or, The Hausfrau Can Google Things, Too.

Well, a few days ago the Hausfrau went to bake a loaf of bread, as she frequently does, and this time things went horribly wrong. The bread baked; and it baked; and it baked; and it was, somehow, never done. I should have known, sooner than I did, that something was not right — my inner Miss Clavell should have sat right up, pointing a finger in the air — but I did not. And so nearly two hours was that bread baking (ok, maybe 90 minutes). The house smelled wonderful, and the exterior of the loaf looked fine. But evil  was lurking within.

I admit: it wasn’t evil. It wasn’t as though we cut the bread open to find anything festering in there (thank god). But it was a sodden, heavy, wrong loaf of bread. And I was very sad, because I had used really good stuff to make that bread, and it was simply useless.

(I should, someday, attempt to whizz this stuff up into bread crumbs, I suppose. But it is so sad and wretched, even after being sliced into large wedges and dried out in the oven, that I suspect I will simply give up on it and throw it in the trash.)

It was four days after I baked that bread that I went to bake some cookies and discovered, in the process of pre-heating the oven, that things were not correct with the oven. I thought I had preheated the oven to 350°, but it was hovering around 325°. “Well, that isn’t right,” I said to myself. I re-set the oven so it would say it was at 375°; this time it got up to just under 350°. “Huh,” I said to myself. “That isn’t right, either.” I texted my husband: “The oven needs to be recalibrated,” I said to him, “I think.”

He wrote back saying, basically, “Huh?”

I baked my cookies, keeping a very close eye on them. They turned out fine. I made dinner, which also came out fine. Then in the evening, when the kitchen was officially closed for the night, I went to Google and did a search for “recalibrate oven.” My fear, of course, was that this was a task that I could not do on my own, and that I would wind up paying some big burly guy $300 for the pleasure of having him hit three buttons, go “boopboopboop” with some battery operated device, and then turn to me to say “There you go, ma’am.”

It turned out that recalibrating the oven — a phrase that I’m familiar with mostly through reading old cookbooks and household manuals — is something that current oven manuals discuss. I was, in fact, able to track down my oven’s model number and through the wonders of Google find the manual for it online. It turns out that I didn’t have to pay a big burly man anything to come go boopboopboop and no battery operated device was necessary at all. I was able to recalibrate our oven myself — well, mostly. It’s still running about five degrees cool, I think. I want to put a little more effort into getting it as correct as I can — but I can do that.

I want to assure you: I am probably the least mechanically-minded person in the world. While it’s true I’m not afraid of disassembling a vacuum cleaner to see why the suction’s all stopped up, it’s also true I’m really afraid of tinkering with computers and I certainly don’t want to mess with something that might, theoretically, explode (cf. gas ovens in my apartment). But I figured if the household manual says I can do this, then I can do it. Here’s one thing to bear in mind, when you go to recalibrate your oven: you want to have at least one, and probably ideally three oven thermometers on hand so that you can arrange them in different parts of the oven and see for yourself what the temperature(s) is(are) in the different parts of the oven. We experienced bakers get that ovens have hot spots and cool spots — but you ideally have a sense of where they are. I’ve never had this information in my head; I’m just someone who keeps a close eye on things when I’m baking, or else relies on the fact that it’s almost impossible to overcook a braised dish.

Believe it or not, I do not own three oven thermometers, but I do own two of them. (One is better than the other — easier to read.) So it was easy for me to place two of them in the oven  — one way to the left, one way to the right, one on the upper middle rack and one on the lower middle rack — and set the oven for 350° and see what would happen. What I found was that one dial moved up to 345° and the other one went to just a smidge past 350°.   If I had a third and fourth thermometer, I’d scatter them about, too, and see where they landed. My guess is that the middle of the oven is, in fact 350°, or close enough for government work anyhow, and I’m ok.

But isn’t it funny: we’ve been using this oven for five years, and I’ve never had any trouble with it, and then suddenly it’s out of whack. What happened to cause this? I have no idea. I don’t know what (other than just sheer mechanical failure of some oven part) causes an oven to go out of whack. I’ve now spent enough time reading up online about oven functioning and what I’ve decided is that a) I’m going to keep both of these thermometers in the oven and b) when I preheat the oven, I will not assume that things are ‘correct’ just because the oven display says it is so: I will wait a little longer, and check the thermometers before putting food in. If I have to preheat twice (moving the setting up or down, as needed), so be it.

On that note, I’m going to go roast some beautiful red peppers I bought the other day. Maybe I’ll make pimiento cheese this afternoon.