Over a hot stove all day

We feel lucky to be surrounded in our neighborhood by terrific people we really like. We invited our Japanese neighbors Isamu and Akiko and their children for dinner one night — they are such nice people, and Akiko takes my child to school on the days when the bus arrives too early and we miss it, or never arrives at all.

It’s hard to know what to cook for people you don’t know well, so when Akiko mentioned that they had honeymooned in Lisbon, I settled on Spanish food. We had sauteed pasta with lobster, which is one of those 2 hour, 15-step dishes, even when I skip the whole lobster abbatoir thing and use Better Than Bouillon lobster base. But it is insanely delicious, and it usually makes enough for leftovers the next night.

So what did I make for dessert? Something simple like ice cream and cookies? Fresh fruit? No, of course not. I made Spanish Orange and Almond Cake , an 18-step recipe that includes lining a springform pan with parchment, zesting 8 oranges, separating 6 eggs and toasting and grinding almonds. Making it dirtied so many utensils that after a while it was almost comical. This photo doesn’t even show all the dishes — they wouldn’t all fit in the frame.

Once I’d made these two delicious-but-involved recipes, do you think I had time for bread, salad or hors d’oeuvres? I feel bad for my guests, and for Japanese-US relations — everyone was famished by the time we sat down, and there was nothing on the plate but lobster spaghetti and a piece of storebought French bread.  I’ll always be curious to know what they said to their friends back home about their dinner in the home of their American neighbor.

“Currant” events update — alcohol highly flammable

Every couple of years I make limoncello. An ice-cold shot is such a treat after dinner, and it’s simple to make. Zest organic lemons, soak them in pure grain alcohol for 2 weeks, then add sugar syrup.  I made cherry liqueur the same way in England, where a cherry tree fruits like mad in a corner of every ancient churchyard.

Fruit, alcohol, sugar syrup. You know how it is when you finally turn your attention to something that’s been bothering you? That happened with a bag of frozen black currants from the Russian market. After wondering for months what to do with them, it dawned on me that cassis is made from them. My professional brewing device here is proof positive of my redneck heritage. 
Three months of soaking was followed by combining the strained liquid with sugar and water and bringing it to a boil. On a gas stove.

I like you all a lot, so I want to share a safety tip: Do not set a saucepan full of sugar and 190-proof alcohol over an open flame and go to the next room and go to zappos.com and open about 3 browser windows to compare espresso-colored mid-heel boots.

First I heard the mixture boil over and sizzle as it hit the flame. I leaped up, and before I was fully out of the chair, I heard it ignite with a cartoonishly giant FWOOOOF! The flames were reaching the ceiling by the time I got to the kitchen.

Which to put out firstThe stoveThe panAnd how? The alcohol would burn off, but I was worried it would ignite the sugar, which might burn long enough to ignite something else. I couldn’t throw water on them, but it seemed too small for the extinguisher. Really, it was time for action, whatever I did. I grabbed the burning pan.

Here I’d like to plug Emerilware. I’m not much for celebrity endorsements, but I could go on about how good it is and all the useful features. What’s important to focus on here is the stay-cool handle, which I seized, and rushed to the back door. Which was locked. Pan in left hand, I didn’t want to reach across the billowing flames to unlock and possibly ignite hair and clothing. So I switched hands as the flames reached 3 feet. In retrospect, I genuinely hope a neighbor was watching as I leaped out the door and and set the flaming pan on the ground.

Raced back inside to put out the stove. The flames had died out by the time I got there. So I went back to the pan on the porch, where the flames, billowing just seconds ago, had died. The disaster was over. It seemed anti-climactic. Nothing to show for it but a mess. And not enough to complain about, considering what could have happened.

I wish I had photos of the conflagration. I confess that running to get the camera did occur to me but the flames somehow felt more urgent in need of attention.

The cassis? Laughably not worth the effort. I was supposed to use vodka, but as usual, I used what was in the cabinet meaning it’s almost twice as strong as it should be. On its own, it tastes just exactly like cough medicine. The only use so far — and it’s a good one — is to make kir with just a spoonful in a glass of white wine. That should make for a nice summer libation for the next, say, 10 years.

The food’s terrible. And the portions are too small, too.

You may or may not remember Barry Stokes, so I’ll catch you up. His company, 1Point Solutions, seems to have taken in a great deal of retirement money which subsequently vanished without satisfactory explanation or documentation. Victims included a 57-year-old who lost more than $400,000. What would you do at that age? Where would you even begin?

While 1Point was in its manic growth mode, there were expensive dinners with expensive wine — I know someone who attended two such meals. After his activities were discovered, the bankruptcy trustee sold his extensive fine wine collection and his Japanese art was auctioned. Stokes himself is in jail awaiting a trial for fraud and embezzlement that may begin in June. Just a guess here — the food and service provided at his accomodations by the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office probably stink.

Prison food is a whole other world. It’s where meat graded USDA “utility” “commercial” and “standard” goes after you and I have eaten all the Prime and Choice and Select. It’s where the “chunk dark” and other of the five grades of tuna go after we have eaten the “solid white” and “chunk light” (The bottom two grades go to pet food). It’s where violent offenders (and vegans, occasionally) are punished with a nutritious but unappetizing Management Loaf that can be eaten without utensils. Go on — ask me how I know.
His lawyers have petitioned the court to alter his diabetic meal plan

For starters, he told the court he’s being shorted several hundred calories a day on his 2,600-calories meal plan. For better blood sugar management, he wants an apple instead of an orange. Finally, he is being served
10 slices of white bread  a day. And wants whole wheat instead. Since it’s an accepted disease management measure, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Except that the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office replied that they don’t serve wheat bread.

bread and a friend!

It’s hard to figure whom to side with sometimes. But I do know one thing: it’ll be better in the Big House.

Big EZ

Like a lot of parents, I buy for Sweet Cheeks whatever toys I really, really wanted as a kid, but didn’t get.

So it was a happy Christmas for everyone in 2004 when Santa brought an Easy-Bake oven. I was so excited, er, Sweet Cheeks was initially excited, mostly about the cookies and cakes that were suddenly not just permitted, but encouraged. We worked that oven like Faberge worked those eggs, like Banksy works a wall. We made chicken spaghetticranberry orange torte with a cookie crust, pies

quiche, yellow cake, soda bread. If we were artists, it was our “Easy-Bake” period.

Like any Christmas gift, the Easy-Bake’s novelty fizzled quickly. One rainy Saturday, I pitched the idea of a cake and filling. “Let’s make sponge cake with creme anglais filling. I mean, in the Easy-Bake! Of course! Doesn’t that sound fun??!!?” And before the egg whites were even holding firm peaks, Sweet Cheeks had wandered off to play with some inferior form of entertainment.

        I tried to get rid of the thing last year. Bad timing — there was a recall of Easy-Bake ovens two models newer than ours. Hysteria being what it is, there was no explaining that my oven wasn’t a threat to life and limb. It was a tough sell: “No, see, my oven is


    • years old, not two years old.” Tried again to sell it when the hysteria had passed. This time Sweet Cheeks protested — she liked it. So she said — it is still sitting, untouched, on the kitchen counter, collecting dust.

We were packing for a trip on a sunny day recently when I noticed that Sweet Cheeks was developing her first pimple. I’m thinking our Easy-Bake period is history.

The Best Second-Place Finish Ever

I was recently the runner up in a blogging competition here. I entered an essay contest aimed at picking a blogger to attend the International Housewares Show. I really wanted to go, so I wrote about my filthy secret: I have a lot of crappy kitchen gear. Considering what I do for a living, it’s shameful that I own a 1989 grocery store can opener and some Guardianware aluminum pots that my granny bought from a divorcing couple in 1942. I wrote about how I marched right out and purchased a Wusthof Trident vegetable peeler about 11 years ago, and it changed my life. I should attend the housewares show, I wrote, because I can totally channel the power and excitement of awesome kitchen gear.

Never mind that I couldn’t actually attend the housewares show, since I would be in New Orleans. I never win anything, so I figured it was harmless enough to enter.

They called a few days after I submitted. I missed the call, so I was really nervous by the time we connected. I spent a lot of psychic energy thinking of how I would say, “Thanks for choosing me! I can’t go to Chicago.”

When I finally connected with the pubescent-voiced customer service manager, the news was sosososo good. I didn’t win the blogging trip, but they liked my writing, and they felt bad about my kitchen tools, so even though it wasn’t part of the original rules, they wanted to give me a big ole gift certificate to spend on their site! Is that the nicest thing? Aren’t they the bestest cooking gear website people ever? I want All-Clad measuring cups, a silpat muffin tin, a thermal Pyrex dish carrier. So, what should I get?  What would you get?