The Mad Chef

One man's search for sanity through the creation of tasty vittles

Friday, January 28, 2005


OK. After my self-indulgent rambling this morning, I had to share this. What in the name of all that is good and holy made the marketing folks at Harris Teeter think that this was an appetizing picture to put on their "Weekly Specials?"

I don't think I will ever be able to eat a Swedish meatball again. Unless I'm drunk, in which case all bets are off.

Baked Fish and Misanthropy

Always a magic combo. The baked fish turned out quite nicely, I must say. I think it could have stood to be pulled out a minute or two sooner, but certainly edible. I used this recipe as my inspiration, and actually stuck pretty close to it, ingredient-wise. I sauteed ~1/2 a red onion (diced) with 5 cloves garlic (minced) in a little olive oil, then deglazed with white wine and lemon juice. Added 1 (15oz) can of diced tomatoes, then cooked the sauce down for a few minutes. In went 1lb of cod filet, I tossed some sauce on top, then into a 375º oven for about 15 minutes. Probably would have been better around 13 minutes, but not a tragedy. Fish comes out of the oven and is removed to a plate to rest. You mount a few pats of butter into the sauce, the toss in some angel hair that's been cooked just shy of al dente and finish it in the pan. Made some sauteed and steamed green beans on the side, and it was a great, quick, weeknight meal. I almost didn't try the recipe, though. I like the braised fish idea, and my lovely and talented wife actually requested this recipe, so there was really no question about it.
I just have a problem with the source.
Rachel Ray has some great ideas, and I have it on good authority from Reader #3 (who has met her in person) that she's a very nice person. She just seems too. . .bubbly. She seems like that person that I would meet at a social gathering that someone, somehow, convinced me to attend, and she would refuse to let me off the hook conversationally. Normally in those situations, I try to keep my verbal interactions with people brief. I either keep moving, or find a location where I can do something without making it obvious that I'm avoiding human contact, while that is exactly my intent. And I keep drinking. I think I see Rachel Ray, and she just seems so gosh-darn friendly and energetic that I immediately feel a wave of fear and anxiety wash over me as I realize that, in this imaginary setting that will never happen, I might become entrapped in a conversation with her and I wouldn't be able to escape. This terrifies me. Please understand, I have nothing against Rachel Ray. In fact, I watch her show all the time. I even DVRed her episode of $40 a Day in my hometown. She just represents something that I fear. This is something I give a lot of thought to. . .
I realize that this can send the wrong message about me, and it became rather apparent this past Sunday. My lovely and talented wife and I met another couple our age at a potluck that night. After she made the initial conversation and deemed it safe (God do I love her, she saves me), she called me over. Turns out, the wife works in an elementary school (as does my lovely and talented wife), and the husband works in clinical trials (which has nothing to do with my work). Why are we deemed a good match? He hates people.
We spoke for quite some time, and he's a great guy. We got along well, we've even invited them over this weekend, I just feel the need to clarify myself. I don't hate people. I dislike interacting with people, but it's not their fault. It's because it terrifies me to speak to new people, I'm paralyzed by the very thought of it. I'm only comfortable at social gatherings if I'm cooking, and that's mostly because it gives me the aforementioned "thing to do while avoiding human contact."
My good friend, and erstwhile Reader #1, helps me out with this. Whenever he has a large gathering, he usually makes some kind of a food event out of it and lets me handle some aspect of the cooking. When he hosted his annual scavenger hunt two years ago, I grilled pork loin for 40+ people. Then, I promptly took my plate from the kitchen and snuck around to eat in the stairwell. It was perfect. I wanted them to eat the food, and enjoy it, I just didn't want to be there while they did it. Well, it was perfect until one person found me. But he was just being polite, and offered some thanks and compliments for the food. I still felt awkward, though, I just didn't know how to handle it. Once again, not the other person's fault. I guess that is why I enjoy the web so much, I'm not me. I'm my email address, or my blogger handle, or my forum ID. This is probably why I thrived as a theatre major in college. I was up there in front of anywhere from 125 to over 800 people, but it wasn't me. They weren't there to judge me, or see my faults, they were there to watch a character. No matter what they thought of the character, it wasn't me. I was safe.
I still use some of those characters, when avoidance isn't an option. It seems harder to maintain them now, but they're still there for me. On stage, I'm strong. I have a deep, resonating voice that you can hear in the rafters. Stage Me speaks clearly, and with confidence. He's charming, and quick-witted, and doesn't doubt himself for a moment. He's a handy guy to have access to sometimes.
Real Life Me. . .I mumble. I second guess my words to the point that I often can't get them out of my mouth. I stutter sometimes, and occasionally lapse into the speech impediment I went to therapy for in elementary school.
It's funny that those two personas exist in the same person. I know they're both me, I just wish I understood more fully how to control them. I like aspects of both, and each certainly has it's place. It's just that I know I'm a very strange little man, and the conversation will always be easier if that strange man isn't involved.
Well, enough rambling for today. I've really got to start cutting back on my Friday morning drinking. Until next.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Winter Day Chili

We had a nasty stretch of weather last week, following up our bizarre ascent into the mid-70's the week before. I decided that rather than try to make sense of it all, I'd just start drinking early and make some chili! I had originally set out to make one of my complicated, lengthy, what-the-hell-is-in-this-but-it-sure-tastes-good batches, but my own poor time-management prevailed. We also rushed to the grocery store on a Friday night in hopes of beating the mob spurred on by the forecasts of snow and sleet and ice and freezing rain, none of which really appeared in any significant amount. The point of that is that I just shopped for slacker chili ingredients, so slacker chili is what I made. I had to improvise a little, some of my favorites were in short supply, but I was very happy with the result. Smooth, red, rich, and just spicy enough that my lovely and talented wife could still eat it. Here's what went in, minus the secret blend of herbs and spices:

~2.5# Lean Stew Beef
1 jar of HT Traders Tomatillo Salsa (I wanted to link to it, but apparently the HT doesn't want to put this on the web)
1 15oz can Hunt's Tomato Sauce
1 15oz can each Bush's White and Gold Hominy (normally I just use white, but they only had one can left)
1 bottle of my Roasted Chile Wheat Beer
1 red onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 Hahong Ku Chu chiles, minced
Assorted spices, lots of cumin

I didn't drain any of the cans, as I wanted to be able to simmer all of the liquid off. I even added a little water by way of rinsing out the salsa and tomato sauce into the pot. Browned the meat in batches with a little salt and canola oil in my chef's pan, then dumped them into my dutch oven for simmering. I have a really cheap and thin dutch oven right now, so my chef's pan is much better and browning and searing things. Figured I could get the best of both worlds this way. I added all of the canned goods (salsa, tomato sauce, hominy) and the spices to the DO and put it over low heat while I cooked the meat and veggies. After the meat was done, I tossed the onions, garlic, and chiles into the CP, salted them, then cooked them until they started sticking to the bottom of the pan. Then I deglazed it all with the chile beer, and dumped it into the pot.
I simmered it covered for 2 or 3 hours, then ditched the lid and brought it back to just a simmer again. I took a little break to drink some more beer, futz around online, and watch my boys roll to 15-0, then back to stir and sniff some velvety, red, beefy goodness.
Didn't even make corn muffins for this one, just threw some sliced chiles in the bottom of the bowl, and spooned the goodness on top. I have to say, this was one of the better batches I've made in a while. I wish I could pinpoint the one thing that set it apart, but I think it was just that everything melded together perfectly. I do love the slacker method, but there's really no substitute for hours of slow-cooking at just a bare simmer. I usually gauge the (cooking) heat by whether or not a "skin" forms on the surface. If one does, but you still have some bubbles breaking through, you've got it perfect. A full boil will overcook the meat in a heartbeat, and then you have to simmer it even longer to get the meat to break down again. And, even then, it's still going to be a little dried out. If you don't even have the bubbles, you're pretty much just warming it.
Well, I'm making baked cod with tomato sauce tonight, doing some pasta and green beans on the side. Should be good, and quick. Will report back on that tomorrow. . .I've also added a few new links on the side here, just some of my favorite reading of late. Until next time.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Dieting Sucks

OK, I've been inspired by Reader #3 to post this. I'm ending week 2 of calorie restriction, and I honestly haven't weighed myself yet. I've been to the doctor a few times, but they always weigh me while fully dressed. Why they wouldn't want to see my glorious, nekkid, in need of losing a few pounds body posing on the scales, I will never know. But they don't. Ever. Soooo. . .here's what I now eat every day.

Breakfast: 1-1/2 cups of Kashi GoLean! ceral w/ 1/2cup of 2% milk, and 12oz of orange juice.
If you do the math, I have 15 grams of fiber before I walk out the door every morning. My colon is scared at this point.
I have also now been reduced to using Splenda in my coffee, and it kind of sucks. Yes, it is made from real sugar. Never in a million years will that make it taste like real sugar, though. It's just creepy stuff, but I can get much better food in my system for those calories. I think the best thing about it is that it's making me want to drink my coffee black. I really can't emphasize enough just how much this stuff bothers me, it may have to be it's own entry sometime. Until then, though, I'm still trying to wean myself off it.
Mid-Morning Snack: 2 hard-boiled eggs w/ hot sauce.
This one sounds kind of boring, but I've come to really look forward to it. I like eggs, I like hot sauce (a lot), and I need that mid-morning boost. I originally just had one egg, but I cut some other calories to get the second one in. No real complaints here.
Lunch: Tunafish sandwich on whole wheat bread
This is actually pretty OK, too. I'm getting a little tired of the tuna, though. Must find more ways to make it interesting without adding calories. Right now, it's just hot sauce, light mayo, and lettuce. Occasionally mustard of some type, various spices, but it's still tunafish. I need to work on this particular portion of my day, or I will go insane. The cats love it, though.
Afternoon Snack: Carrots and Microwave Popcorn
Carrots are good, carrots are safe, I like carrots. Of course, microwave popcorn wouldn't normally have any place in a diet. But this one is made with olive oil, and only 2tsp at that. I think the major appeal of it is that it gives me something else to mess with, so I can at least get some variety. I'm trying a different method every day, but I don't have it right yet. I found out why the recipe calls for dry seasonings instead of hot sauce, though. If you add liquid to the mix, the water must cook out before the oil can pop the corn. It had the most flavor of any method I've tried, but the most burnt kernels too. Anyone who has ever lived in a dorm knows how long it takes to get rid of the smell of burnt popcorn. That's why I only make it at work.

I'm on a 2400 calorie diet, so all of this leaves me with ~1300 calories to work with for dinner and beer, which really isn't bad. Average beer is 140 cal, so I get almost 460 to work with for my meal. This whole diet thing is all right, if I weren't so dang hungry, crabby, and hungover all the time. Well, must go to PT and humiliate myself, but don't get discouraged when faced with dieting! Just make sure you adjust your intake to have room for what is important. Until next time.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Couldn't Have Said it Better Myself

Before I get started, I just had to share this essay from Tomato Nation. She does an excellent job of putting into words my own frustrations with both the low carb craze, and what it says about our society as a whole. Read all about it right here.

Sorry I've been absent lately, haven't been able to do much cooking. New treatments seem to be working well, but I'm just getting my ass kicked in PT. I feel like that has to be a good thing, though, must mean that I'm accomplishing something. I'm starting to get inspired again, so I'll try to get back in the saddle after payday. Nothing terribly exciting in our pantry to cook with right now, but I'm trying to get creative with it. Thanks to Reader #2 for joining us, I'm glad you enjoyed the bubbling pork fat. I'm actually still working on the (frozen) remains of that pork roast, mostly in ramen. Pretty good with some scallions, chiles, and mushrooms. And thank you Reader #3 for the recipe link, I'm definitely putting that on the list. I can't wait to have the real thing when I go visit him in NM. Apparently he had a run-in with the Department of Homeland Security during his trip, but I haven't received the details yet. Sounds potentially exciting. Still working on the popcorn, haven't gotten it quite right yet. My dry seasonings smell great, but they're not sticking. I'm trying tossing the kernels with oil, salt, and hot sauce, and hoping that it sticks better this time. Will report back.
Diet is doing fine, down a pound or two. It actually makes it easier in the mornings, because I have no decisions to make while waiting for my caffeine to kick in. I just pack my pre-assembled lunch according to my list, and out the door I go. Wow, this may be the most boring entry I've ever written, I apologize. I'm going to end the suffering now, but I'll be back with some more goodies this weekend. Until then.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Until Our Paths Meet Again

Last night was a very tasty, but somewhat sad occasion. My cousin, who is the closest thing I have to a brother, is moving from our home state of NC out to New Mexico. His job is putting him in charge of a whole region out there, and it is a wonderful opportunity. However, he is a truly excellent human being, and we will all miss him. But now we have an excuse to go to New Mexico!! I still feel like I need to give the state another chance, as I've only seen it in the middle of the night while driving cross-country. I think I will get that chance.
Anyway, I wanted to make sure we gave him a good send-off meal, so I grilled up a 1.5lb aged angus beef sirloin. I marinated it in olive oil, soy, worcestershire, garlic, cumin, and 4 different types of smoked chiles (Thank you, Stevo!), then slapped it on the grill. I poured the marinade into a saucepan with a little brandy and cooked it down while I was grilling. A little pat of butter to finish the sauce, and then I sliced up the steak and tossed it all together. Grilled some yellow squash with a sweet & spicy rub that my lovely and talented wife gave me, and threw on some corn to round things out. A damn good meal, if I do say so myself. Wish I had some left for lunch today, but that ain't happening.
Even if we hadn't eaten all of the food, I don't think it would fit my new lunch guidelines. Yes, lady (or possibly ladies, though I only know of one who reads this) and gentlemen, the mad chef is going on a reduced-calorie diet. No trendy crap, no Atkins BS, just eating less. I figure that with how my joints are doing these days, I could stand to put a little less weight on them. The goal is to get back down to, or maybe even under, 200lbs. That's about 15-20lbs, so it will probably take a little while. And I figure that if I write about it here, maybe I'll hold myself to it. Had I planned ahead, I could have weighed in this morning and posted it here, but that will have to wait for now.
Well, given how long the last two entries were, I'll keep this one short. Just wanted to get those two things out there. Hopefully making big, complicated chili this weekend, and continuing the popcorn experiment. Had a test run last night, but I want to try a few things before I post about it. Until then.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Better Late Than Christmas

I have no idea what that title is supposed to mean, other than the fact that this took me way too long to write. Sorry about that.

I have to say, I think I've taken Christmas Eve dinner for granted during my life. I've cooked a lot of dinners, a lot of really complicated dinners, and I think I've cooked all but 2 or 3 of them very well. But I've never tried to prepare a fancy, formal dinner with the time constraint of having to be at baby Jesus's birthday party at 8:30. I found myself staring at the Polder thinking "Why oh why am I trying to have a 10# pork shoulder ready to eat by 6pm?" I guess the answer to that comes in the form of an amusing story. Actually, to paraphrase Grandpa Simpson, it's not so much amusing as it is long and complicated, so readers of this blog shouldn't notice anything out of the ordinary.

The whole thing started with my lovely and talented wife offering to host Christmas Eve dinner for her family while talking to her mother one day. I immediately took on the deer-in-headlights look as I started running through possible menus, having never been responsible for a major holiday meal like this before. I've made Christmas dinner for my family before, but it was tacos. This needed to be the real deal. I should also take this moment to clarify one point: I actually do like my in-laws. I just thought that should be specified before I went any further. I like them, I think they like me, we just have very different food likes and dislikes. That is what made this most intimidating, not the people themselves. Anyway, back to it!

The natural choice for meat was a pork shoulder, as there are very few things I would rather cook for a meal like this. The only problem was that the Boston butt in the deep freeze was almost 8lbs, and way too much for the 6 people that would be eating it. So the plan was to save the big one and go buy a smaller one for the dinner. For sides, we decided to make mashed sweet potatoes, broiled asparagus, homemade yeast rolls (prepared by my lovely and talented wife), and a baked potato for my father- (and one sister-)in-law, since they don't care for sweet potatoes. A spice cake for dessert, and we were in good shape.

The weekend beforehand, I went to the store to buy the (smaller) pork shoulder and made a rather alarming discovery: Harris Teeter no longer sells their own butcher-packaged pork shoulders. They now sell only Smithfield brand pork chunks, which are all fairly large and a good bit more expensive than the old "HT" ones. Of course, it was now too late to try and thaw the shoulder in my freezer, so decided to employ one of my old favorite mantras, "Fuck it." If I was going to have to pay almost $20 for pretty much exactly what was in my freezer, I was going to skip the Boston butt and just buy a full 10# pork picnic roast for half the price. And I did. So thbbppt, Harris Teeter.

I made a slightly North African-inspired spice rub for it, and put it in a honey and kosher salt brine. The rub consisted of olive oil, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, salt, pepper, paprika, toasted ground fennel seed, and cilantro, which I made in advance so the flavors could blend.

On the morning of the 24th, the day of cooking, I woke up at my father's house around 9. My father's house is about 35 minutes away from our house and is not where we were to be cooking the pork shoulder that day. This presented a slight logistical problem. I staggered downstairs for coffee and solid food, then we drove back to our house in a panic. As soon as I made it through the door, I cranked the oven to 550º and pulled the pork out of the fridge. I drained and rinsed the meat, then scored the layer of skin and fat on top into ~1/2" squares. Now, there are two types of people in this world: those who read that sentence and thought, "Eww, skin and fat!" And those who thought, "Mmmmm. . .pork fat crackers. . ." I am obviously of the second type. I slathered on the rub, and let it rest while the oven preheated.

Once it hit 550º, I popped the pork in (on a rack in a heavy roasting pan, gravy was not optional). 20 minutes at 550, and I began to fear I had overdone it. There was smoke coming out of the oven's vent, and I could smell slight a aroma of burning. I rushed to the kitchen as the timer went off and opened the oven. I was terrified (again) as a cloud of smoke and steam rushed out at me, but I had nothing to fear. The pork was a beautiful mahogany color, and the smoke was simply from the bubbling pork fat hitting the heating element in the oven. Read that sentence again. Now go smoke a cigarette. I put the thermometer's probe into the pork, dropped the oven to 200º, and sat back to wait.

The rest of the day was pretty simple, nothing overwhelming about mashing potatoes and broiling asparagus. Mostly just time spent cleaning up the house to get ready. Of course, it started getting late and some concerns were raised about whether or not the pork would be ready on time. The "raising" of these concerns mostly consisted of me babbling to myself while my lovely and talented wife tried not to laugh. Or scream. Couldn't quite tell, but I guess it would have depended on whether or not the pork was indeed ready to eat by 6. Thankfully, for my sake, she laughed. I cut it close, but it was ready almost on time, which is about as well as I can do. I made a roux in the roasting pan, and deglazed it with brandy. Added a little chicken stock to thin it out, and it was ready to go.

The flavors came out perfectly, and they were a wonderful pair with the sweet potatoes. Gravy was a little thick, but still quite good. But I think the best part of it all was the pork fat crackers. While carving the meat, I sliced off the little squares and make sure I still had some actual meat attached. It was amazing. The skin was crunchy, the hot pork fat in the middle was creamy, and the meat underneath was juicy and full of spiced pork goodness. I ate so many of those while carving, I didn't even go back for seconds on my dinner. I know the concept sounds a little iffy, but I have to recommend it. If people don't want them, they're easily sliced off. But, good lord, they are incredible!

Well, I hope all three of you readers out there had a great holiday and a happy New Year's, and I wish you the best in 2005. Stay tuned for the next project, which will be based on experimentation with the Professor's popcorn recipe! Until then.