Dear Someone: Schrödinger’s Dachshund

Dear Someone,

I’m at my wits end. I was shopping a large supermarket 5 days ago, and as I was loading groceries a good friend, who has a darling dachshund, called to me. The dog was on a leash, but it loves me and my friend unleashed it to run and greet me. We chatted for about 5 minutes and then I finished loading and drove home.

Today I opened the van door and was overwhelmed by a stench. It was the dog, which had climbed into the van and probably gone to sleep. I think it starved to death. My friend had called me that day asking if I knew where the dog was, but I had no clue it was in the van and didn’t look. Should I let her know what happened, or just get the dog buried and let her think it ran away?

–Guilty Mom

Dear Guilty,

After weighing various considerations, including the emotional well-being of your friend, the possibility of canine depression, your reputation, and the potential repercussions of telling the truth, I must advise you to come clean immediately and confess to your unintentional dogslaughter. The deciding factor is this; you cannot keep a secret. A secret is a burden you accept to carry to your grave. Having typed out your account and sent it into the public sphere, this situation no longer qualifies as such. After all, my wildly successful blog has been known to receive as high as one hundred hits per day, at least twice, so you’re playing fast and loose with discretion. Additionally, I’m betting the dachshund community is a rather tight one. Finally, I foresee a counterproductive sense of guilt (not about the dog itself, who’s further insulted by the omission of “its” gender in your missive) tempting you to unburden yourself on close friends or subway passengers, so you’re clearly someone who personally benefits from closure, even if it further wounds the offended party.

I, myself, can keep a secret, but only if it’s a really big one. Luckily, my friends and family understand that they would need to practically hide a body to be allowed admittance into my Seinfeldian vault, so for the most part they wisely exclude me from their state secrets. If I was the owner of the malodorous van, I would have called my friend as soon as I opened the door, but I have to say that if the dog was a larger breed, perhaps a mastiff or retriever, I might have experienced a moment of hesitation. That, however, is just my own bigotry talking. So bite the bullet, suit up with Kevlar if you hail from the Lone Star State, and make the call. On the off chance that your friend becomes unhinged upon identifying the body, necessitating your hasty departure, you’ll want to have already transferred the remains to a (here it comes) doggie bag.

–Someone

Please send questions for Dear Someone to someonesintheoven@yahoo.com.

New Year’s Eve: Meh.

I’ve never been fond of New Year’s Eve. Save for one perfect celebration back in ’94 (the best of Providence’s short-lived First Nights), a string of failures had cemented my New Year’s cynicism by the time Mr. P and I joined forces, and he accepted that, like my love/try-to-hate relationship with cigarettes, some things are just part of this package. Until my mid-twenties, my self-imposed panic to secure plans and contingencies increased annually, yet I always wound up watching the 11PM Law & Order with my parents until I could no longer justify the wait, and would fall asleep irate and underwhelmed at quarter to midnight. In ’96, some confusion regarding a ridiculous “New Year’s Night” soiree ground my evening to a halt before it started. In ’98, half an hour into a delightful cocktail party at a childhood friend’s home, my obviously-uncomfortable tag-along chum developed a flash-migraine, so once again I found myself ringing in the new year an hour early with those familiar words: “in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups…”

Several factors in addition to chronic disappointment culminate in my aversion to the holiday. I have some specific issues with authority, so I bristle at the cultural direction to make resolutions; I’m doing things perfectly well, thank you. Then there’s that ball. I’ve always resented the famous orb for its ability to draw crowds of thousands with its promise of performing the most anticlimactic feat imaginable. The ball doesn’t even drop, it descends slowly, and just sits there once it reaches the bottom of its decline. The ball should start at the bottom, increase in speed on the way up, and at the stroke of midnight, it should blast straight off its scaffolding before exploding into fireworks or confetti. I still wouldn’t stay up to watch it, but at least I wouldn’t find it so infuriating.

My mission to ignore New Year’s Eve became less pleasant by the year, and then something wonderful happened. I had a baby, which is wonderful all by itself, but suddenly no one expected me to make it to midnight anymore. And just as Billy the Kid neared the age that would compromise my excuse, what do you know? Two more babies! A pair of free passes to early December 31st turn-ins for another two years!

It turns out that if I’m under no obligation to stay awake, New Year’s Eve is delightful. On Saturday, Mr. P and I paused halfway through the remake of Dawn of the Dead for a 9:30 PM champagne toast, and as I happily headed to bed an hour later, towards dreams of organizing rations and ammo during a zombie apocalypse, I stopped in to give my little monsters an extra tuck and whispers of thanks for my reasonable bedtime.

How can I “help?”

I awoke this morning to a late Christmas present: a solicitation for my advice regarding a delicate issue of etiquette. Save for toothy grins from my little angels and the knowledge that all my loved ones are healthy and happy, nothing pleases me more than to be considered an expert on anything, but most particularly on matters of the Big E. Some scoff at the concept as trite or obsolete, but it’s what allows us to dine together at the the table without physical violence or gagging, what enables PETA and Tea Party members to enjoy meaningful friendships with each other, and why, more often than not, when you leave your house, you don’t come home with a black eye. We’re all active participants in our culture’s etiquette, which is why we have any culture at all, in the most basic sense of the word. A thorough mastery of the formal place-setting is not required to possess “good manners,” but the ability to make every guest in your home feel welcome and special is. Anyone who would use their knowledge of specific manners as a means to exclude or ridicule others is, perhaps unwittingly, practicing the dark art of etiquette’s evil cousin: snobbery.

All this is to preface my introduction of a new component I’m adding to the site: Dear Someone. If my readers would be so kind to send me questions at someonesintheoven@yahoo.com regarding breaches of basic civility, family quandaries, partner stand-offs, what-does-one-do-whens, and so forth, I will graciously provide you with either an outline of the high road or, if merited, the best way to “innocently” emotionally cripple the offender. I’ll refrain from suggesting retribution in the form of contaminated baked goods (i.e., Visine cookies) for obvious liability reasons, but if you get caught following any advice pertaining to, say, the old living-room-furniture-counter-clockwise-shift, you’ll have neither legal recourse nor my sympathy; if you couldn’t do it right, you had no business doing it at all.

To give you a taste of the kind of brutally honest yet ultimately helpful advice you can expect from this new feature, I’ll answer a recent question submitted to the maven of propriety, Miss Manners, and published on December 26th. The writer begins, “I am afraid that I am one of those people who tend not to respond to invitations if I don’t wish to accept,” and continues with a lengthy explanation as to why, which I didn’t read, assuming it would only be the simpering drivel of a highly functional neanderthal. I would suggest that the letter writer send out a mass communication to everyone for which she has an address, inviting them to stop wasting their offers of hospitality on such an undeserving wretch as she, and then penny-lock her mailbox before spending the rest of her days under her porch.

I hope I haven’t scared off any potential initial contributors, and you can always submit anonymously if you suspect you may, indeed, be the offending party. But I have faith that none of my loyal followers would require a firm unraveling, and do hope that you’ll drop me a line the next time you find yourself with five responses and twenty guests to your dinner party. I’d love to be of service.

And to All, a Loosened Belt

A Delicious Christmas Dinner to All…

This year is the second of my recent decade-to-lifelong election/takeover as Christmas Dinner Host; thank you again for being so gracious about the whole thing, Mrs. S! In the case that you, too, are preparing the yuletide feast, but have yet to finalize your menu, allow me to suggest one that seamlessly combines New England tradition with festive flair, and reinforces that your children never prefer their future spouses’ cooking to your own. Speaking of children, while they are often delightful, we don’t consider them actual people when determining food quantities, especially turkey poundage. That leaves my diner total at ten, requiring a twenty-pound turkey to ensure enough white meat for all with a few leftovers to sustain Mr. P during his annual Christmas night toy bender.

20-Pound Butter-Basted Roast Turkey with Giblet Gravy*

The Wood Sisters’ Pork Stuffing

Whipped Russet Potatoes*

Mashed Butternut Squash with Honey and Crushed Red Pepper*

Fo Show Green Beans (Green Beans with Toasted Almond Butter)

Red Pearl Onions Tossed in a Balsamic-Brown Sugar Glaze*

Orange Scented Cranberry Sauce

Dessert will be a gingerbread train cake with an individual car for each plate, and of course we’ll have a wasply assortment of spirits ranging from wine and sherry to gin and rum as liven-uppers for the nog and cider.

*The recipes for the unlinked dishes involve little more than their descriptions, and I’ll trust you to use your judgement when determining quantities. After all, if you weren’t confident in your potato whipping or onion boiling skills, you wouldn’t have any business hosting the most stately of annual feasts.

Weather you celebrate the holidays with faith, aesthetic, or a combination of both, I wish all of you a transplendent meal, and a quiet moment afterwards to consider how delightful it is to be you.

Angry Cooking

Angry Chicken

I decided to shelve a 986-word rant regarding my threshold for inconsideration and incompetence across all age groups having possibly been crossed. It turned out that being stood-up for a blind play date with all three kids at Funworld, and my resulting expulsion from a playgroup I’d never been to, did not, in fact, kill me. Nor did the overly audible comment from a woman behind me in line at the Hallmark store as I waited to have an ornament boxed so I could quickly remove my whiny children from the public sphere. Please don’t bother getting irked on my behalf at her declaration of “I don’t understand people who have more kids than they can handle.” In exchange for her helpful insight, I provided her with something to work on with her therapist for the next several years. And Sally the Entitled’s incessant reproachment of my parenting still hasn’t plateaued, but fortunately, I have an abundance of faith in myself, and rubes, barbs, and gripes haven’t debilitated me. On the contrary, my fury-induced blood pressure spikes result in waves of some of my best cooking.

It was a rare occasion yesterday afternoon when, although I had adequate hustle and elan to cook something delicious, I considered the prospect of a trip to the market as appealing as participating in organized running. I may send Simply Recipes a Christmas gift; I had chicken, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and not much else, but the resulting Chicken, Mushrooms, and Tomatoes with Port Wine caused an elated Mr. P to unconsciously hum quietly until he admirably gave up just before the bite that would have killed the evening.

I’m sure you’re aware of my penchant for a well-executed cream sauce, but this is a refreshingly dairy-free combination of shallot and mushroom, and the tomato manages to restrain itself to a supporting role. The final reduction is spectacular, and even better when drizzled over whatever accompanies your chicken; in retrospect I would have gone with rice, as my choice of egg noodles proved to be a slippery one.

So even though the end of my tether is in clear sight, the pairing of productive, passionate ire with a reliable site for new recipes culminates in several days of Michelin-worthy dinners at Chez Peña, before my wrath cools back down to mild irritability and Mr. P resigns himself with grace and dignity to another long stretch of family-restaurant-tier cooking. But not tonight. Tonight, I summon my last sputters of anger for Sherry-Dijon London Broil with caramelized shallots and rice pilaf.

Tidings of Spendy Cheer!

Once again, it’s time to stifle our own material desires for a month and go shopping solely for others. If you’re lucky (I most certainly am), the ultimate recipients of your selections are individuals you at least like and preferably adore, and gifting any of the following items will leave you nestled in good graces for another 365 days. If there are any special people in your life for whom Christmas is your opportunity to passive-aggressively send a snarky message, the suggestions below would be completely inappropriate, and you’d be better off bestowing a certificate for laser hair removal, a Proactive regimen, or a basket brimming with Dr. Scholl’s products. But for the good boys and girls on your list, especially those with any culinary flair, here are a few items certain to delight and enchant.

Chef’n Strawberry Huller $7.95, Williams-Sonoma
I usually avoid single-purpose kitchen tools, having a small kitchen and CCD (Compulsive Chucking Disorder), but if you know someone who loves serving food in other food, this is a must. I’m not sure with what you’d stuff the strawberries, or how you’d get them to stand upright for serving, but the recipient won’t even think of these quandaries until well after you’ve received a glowing thank you note.

Rösle Garlic Press $39.00, Williams-Sonoma
Is forty dollars too much to spend on a garlic press? Not if it’s the Carl Lewis of garlic presses. The perforated bin flips out for easy cleaning, and you don’t have to peel your cloves before pressing. I do anyway, having received my press from gift-giver extraordinaire, Mr. S, but knowing that it’s unnecessary gives me a tingle of smugness.

Stainless Steel Breading Pans, Set of 3 $34.95, Williams-Sonoma
If I have to use two dinner plates and a shallow bowl to flour, egg, and bread my schnitzel once more, I may wash my hands of the whole thing. This would be a hint to anyone who’d like to get something for their humble content provider. A little costly to buy for oneself, these are priced to be gifts, so let’s remind ourselves why we came to the mall in the first place.

Kaiser Stainless Steel Cookie Press Set $49.95, Chef Tools
Best to keep this one in the immediate family, so that you can enjoy the fruits of the giftee’s labor, again and again.

Small Treat Boxes $3.29/3, Wilton
Anyone who goes the homemade route at Christmas with coworkers, friends and family would be beside themselves to receive a few dozen of these bad larries. Never again will they have to shop at dollar stores for the least atrociously decorated tins, and now they can throw away that intimidating Incoming/Outgoing Tupperware log.

AK Bullet Ice Tray $6.99, Amazon
I don’t often go in for novelty cookware, even though the Tardis Cookie Jar would work so well with my kitchen’s blue and yellow color scheme, but ten dollars is absolutely worth being able to ask your companion if they’d be so kind as to pop a couple of caps in your Diet Coke.

Sorry, Chef Ramsey, they can’t all be “the most magnificent.”

TMI Chicken Soup

The first day of Mr. P’s long awaited nine-day Thanksgiving break found all five Peñas sick as dogs. We, the house-bound four, had been chewing on this particular bug for twenty-four hours, initially tipped off by Billy the Kid’s impressive reverse-vacuum all over my bedspread, while Mr. P efficiently wrapped up all loose ends at work on Friday before succumbing to the inevitable, compounded by the standard general start-of-vacation collapse. By the time I dragged the king comforter out of the dryer two hours after its ordeal, I was in full denial of my own doom. I was not ill. By Saturday afternoon, I was still the most functional, but only because I refuse to negotiate with disease, my ability to ignore discomfort having increased tenfold after carrying twins with a perforated appendix.

Note to potential and current gestators: if you point to the side of your enormous pregnant belly and tell your doctor, “this hurts and I can’t eat,” don’t downplay the pain and nausea, or you’ll receive the standard “why don’t we take a look after the baby comes.” I’m betting that liability near-miss still keeps a certain OB/GYN up at night. I’d heard of women being sick while in labor, but getting off an operating table seconds after receiving an epidural and seconds before a c-section, throwing up, and remounting just as all feeling drained from my legs reassured me that I possess excellent time management and multi-tasking skills. Unfortunately, it also detracted from focusing on the miracle of life and whatnot. Had my concerns been addressed, however, I might not have come out the other end fifty pounds lighter and then I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy creeping out Mr. P with my ultra-slender “tween starlet calves” for a month before returning to my preferred state of sturdiness.

Back to the present, with a mere low-grade fever and repulsiveness confined mostly to my head, the task of making chicken soup with rice fell to me. When visiting Epicurious, I prefer to to limit my options to recipes that boast four entire forks, but three and a half are apparently the mediocre standard in this case, so I settled on one that conformed to Mr.P’s request for “not weird.”  I found the absence of onion unsettling, so I threw in half a chopped yellow, and combined a tablespoon each of fresh thyme and parsley, scoffing at the direction to limit myself to one or the other. Then I salted and peppered the dickens out of it.

I regard chicken soup as a food of necessity, and since one can’t taste much of it when one needs it the most, and wouldn’t make it if one didn’t need it, it doesn’t really matter that this one is exceptional to a fully functioning palate. The rice leaves relatively little broth, but just enough to avoid the dreaded bisque effect. The carrots and celery remain brisk and cheerful, having just cooked through upon serving, and lend an appealing primavera quality that’s often appetizing to an invalid. I suppose Epicurious’ three-and-a-half-forks rating is, indeed, appropriate; even at it’s best, chicken soup is still just chicken soup.

Isn’t there room for one more at the table?

This year, the Peña Five will be the happy guests of the gracious Carroll family, whose Thanksgiving dinners embody Norman Rockwell paintings, only with better lighting, more attractive guests, and less inebriation. Aunt N always prepares an impeccable traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, pork stuffing, whipped potatoes, and so on, but done so perfectly and consistently that I can hardly bear the excruciating anticipation in the weeks leading up to the most delicious of Thursdays.

The single issue I have with my favorite meal-based holiday involves the majority of tables across the US, and in no way directs any criticism toward two of my favorite hosts. Many dinner guests enjoy a beer or a glass of wine during the hour before the meal, but not much of a drinker, I turn to another nerve softener: cheese. I can almost always rely on my old friend to ease me into a mingle, and start feeling at home as soon as I spot a cheddar and pepperoni combo plate with a fan of Ritz, a nut-encrusted ball surrounded by water crackers, a yule log, a pub cheese, a baked brie and baguette toasts, or the Excalibur, generally reserved for wedding receptions: the fruit and cheese cube fountain.

How many Thanksgiving dinners can you recall that incorporated any sort of cheese showcase? My best guess is that most diners on this particular occasion are concerned that they will exceed capacity before they’d like to stop eating, and can’t allow distractions like pepperjack to poach on precious abdominal real estate. I, however, do not overeat at Thanksgiving. I’m not above the occasional overindulgence, but I dread experiencing the inevitable system shutdown anywhere but at home. If I can’t get into my bed, I stop at one plate.

There must be others like me, who yearn to stick their head right into the bowl of whipped potatoes, while instead they slowly cut their one slice of breast meat, and savor their single scoop of pork stuffing, when they just want to grab the serving dish and lock themselves in the nearest closet with it. A good bracing of cheese beforehand would spare us from these horrible fantasies.

Since I’ve managed to establish a solid run for my coveted monopoly on the Christmas feast (a childhood dream), I don’t see myself hosting many Thanksgiving dinners in the coming years. So I entreat you, gentle reader, to leave a little space on the coffee tables between the nuts and olives this Thursday, and let’s see what happens when we get some Camembert involved.

Cow and Chicken

Chicken Chicharrones

I resent Chick-fil-A for three reasons. Long before I’d been unlucky enough to live within a drivable distance to the fast food establishment that considers itself above operating on Sundays (I am a staunch advocate of separation of church and chicken, so that’s reason number one), I worked in the screen-printing sector for a spell, where I came across the ambiguous logo for the first time. I assumed the pronunciation was “chick fillah,” and figured the company had been founded by a surly aviculteur with a strong Boston accent, who supplied chicken filling for nuggets, patties, and the like. Obviously, reason number two addresses the all too common liberties taken with the alphabet.

Reason number three arose the first time I acquiesced to BK’s pleas for a Chick-fil-A kid’s meal from our mall’s food court, a routine I was unaware Mr. P had allowed to develop. I’ll note that our mall, though relatively close by, is actually in another state, one that boasts a long line of historically bad ideas. To my delight, I saw that the nuggets looked homemade, identifiably chicken, and lightly breaded. But then I tasted one, and a specific rage rose up out of my chest, one reserved for the slap in the face that is misleadingly appealing fare. I don’t know if the trademark “flavor” originates intentionally from a specific “seasoning,” or if I’m just experiencing the complex flavor profiles of grease, but those obsequious cow mascots need to offer at least bearable fare if they don’t want to end up in my sandwich.

I recently came across a recipe for chicken chicharrones on the always reliable simplyrecipes.com, and jumped at the chance to impress Mr. Tilde with some flavors from the mother protectorate. Upon plating the piping hot, shimmering with oil yet obviously crunchy little chunks, I noticed a hint of physical resemblance to the insipid little orts slung by CfA, but hoped that half an hour marinating in rum, lime juice, and soy sauce would yield a much more palatable product. Palatable is an understatement, and elastic waistbands are called for once again, as well as a table-side candy dish filled with Tums. A squirt each of lime juice and hot sauce are legally mandated in this case, and I find diners are especially delighted if the lime wedges are presented in a small communal bowl.  I’ve never been much of a deep-fryer, especially when peanut oil is involved, but I’m going to need to start that new gym membership, now that I’ll be eating this three nights a week. And when I finally have a few too many chicharrones sometime after Christmas, I’m coming for you, beefcakes.

Night Baking: Never a Good Idea

Waker-Upper Animal Crackers

I usually don’t begin thinking abut Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving, but after stumbling upon the yuletidiest cookie I’ve ever tasted, I’m ready to start the season before we even hit Halloween. Billy the Kid has a knack for randomly remembering items we used once, over a year back, and last night while we had some “us time,” waiting up late for Mr. P after the ladies retired, BK declared he had a great idea. Indeed, it was the perfect time to dig out the five small animal-cracker cookie-cutters/stampers from Williams-Sonoma we bought two summers ago, our singular attempt thwarted by an inappropriate dough that melted over details and puffed out when baked, yielding cartoonishly cloud-shaped cookies. But Mrs. Peña runs a tight ship, and they were exactly where they should have been, as I had already learned when BK was one that throwing away anything he deemed “his” was a very bad idea.

In my end-of-day haze, I quickly scanned several holiday baking magazines until I saw a picture of a cinnamon cookie that looked like it could stand up to our stampers with a few slight modifications. I only noticed the call for espresso grounds once I had started assembling the mis-en-place, but it was already late, so how bad could one small coffee-infused cookie be for a toddler at 9:00 PM? Gleeful cries of “my feet  can’t stop running!” finally tapered off around 10:30 when BK fell asleep while talking, and a steady stream of the little “crackers” kept me fully alert until Mr. P’s arrival around midnight.

If you’ve ever been the lucky recipient or partaker of a Pepperidge Farms Entertaining Cookie Collection, you’ll recall the thin, unassuming, simple Bordeaux wafers, and the uncomfortably urgent desire to put all of them in your mouth at the same time. The following recipe produces the same flavor and crisp consistency, but with more heft than flake, and if you bake for just a minute less than indicated, a hint of chew. The combination of small and thin with the descriptor “cracker” will encourage gluttony, so keep a mental count as you visit the plate throughout the day in case you need to shame yourself into restraint.

1 stick butter, softened
1/4 C shortening
1 C sugar
1/2 C brown sugar, packed
1 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp instant espresso grounds
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
2 C flour

Assemble the dough in the standard manner. Shape it into two discs and refrigerate them for an hour. Roll out the dough to 1/4″ thickness before cutting out shapes, and bake single sheets at 375 degrees for 6 minutes (check every minute after 4 during the first batch to determine exact baking time). Cool the cookies on the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a sealable plastic container or bag before hiding them under your bathing suit in the corner of your top drawer.

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