Thank heavens I was drunk.

Chicken and Rice Beware

I was overjoyed to find that BJ’s stocks wine glasses this morning, saving me a separate trip with the Sisters Sledge. Two trips, actually, since the smallest quantity available was twelve, and half the box is now in my basement. It’s difficult to judge an item’s size in a warehouse club, and upon unpacking the first half dozen, I realized that I could fit both my fists in the cup area of a glass. Perhaps it should have been obvious that the majority of people who pick up twelve wine glasses with their pallet of paper towel would prefer them to hold as much as possible, but these come close to novelty scale. I’m not much of wine drinker myself, yet the chalices are so impressive that I’ve got one filled up right now with Riesling. It doesn’t seem that the meniscus has budged over the last half hour, though the children have become much more bearable and the overhead lights are really beginning to grate.

Braced with enough of a buzz to risk a failure in the kitchen, this evening I took on a recipe for Chicken and Rice Casserole that I’ve been considering for the past year, but that’s always struck me as a little too weird. Mrs. Peña becomes dangerously fearless, however, with a little of the grape coursing through her veins, so even as the aroma of garlic wafting from the oven carries a little too much char for my taste, I’m not worried. An entire large pizza is rather appetizing right now, anyway.

Oh, Simply Recipes. Although I knew this day would come, the smack across my face still brings tears to my eyes. Why would you subject rice to such treatment? If aiming for a consistency between aspic and tapioca, one usually turns to cornstarch instead. And why would you do that to garlic? Eating this is like kissing a man who just ate scampi and chased it with a shot of foot. And where, for the love of all things holy, is that cloying sweetness coming from? I re-sampled my sour cream to verify that it hadn’t gone off, but now I wish I just assumed it had, since the alternative is that this tastes good to someone.

My grandmother had a way of writing someone off that sent shivers down the spines of those who witnessed her ruling. While I’m not adequately furious with Simply Recipes to “leave them to God,” another culinary fiasco on their heads and I might have to become a Catholic.

The harsh light of this particular morning finds me doubtful that this casserole merits such scathing criticism as above. More likely, my gripe tank couldn’t withstand the pressure of one more minor disappointment and, as it burst, spewed forth the rantings of a tipsy perfectionist. Further, Mr. P enjoyed two servings as I withheld my commentary, having eaten earlier, and his verdict was an enthusiastic “delicious!” Keep in mind, though, that I married a smart man.

I hear it’s fantastic, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The Best Vegetarian Chili I Never Tasted

I love a challenge. I hosted a baby shower for the radiant and ever-gracious Jess D last Sunday, and it was a rare occasion to find more vegetarians and vegans on the guest list than otherwise. Regretfully, I may have harbored a tinge of culinary resentment toward the sans-meat crowd back when I had endless, uninterrupted prep time before parties to spend on crown roasts, sushi, and various fowl. But now that I average two diaper changes while waiting for my morning coffee to percolate, I’m grateful whenever the time-consuming task of meat preparation is rendered null.

Obviously, my tried and true Vegetarian Appeasement made the spread, but I needed one more vegetarian entree, having been physically unable to hold back from applying the bacon topping to You Ain’t Leavin’ Mac & Cheese. Somehow, I was able to locate the recipe for a meatless chili I made six Labor Days ago, combing through search results on Epicurious until I found one with a familiar, ridiculously long list of ingredients.

‘Vores of all walks claimed to enjoy the chili, but one should never take guests’ compliments as honest criticism. I’ll admit that I don’t eat chili of any kind, ever, so I had no idea what was going on in those bowls. However, Mr. P revisited the leftovers twice, legitimizing it as an official victory.

I find it inordinately satisfying to approach meals I prepare and events I host as competitions with myself. None of my children put up a fair fight at anything other than Candy Land, and I no longer work in an office environment (where competitive baking is always encouraged), so I have no choice but to set my own bar progressively higher in order to routinely best past selves. A disconcerting side effect of my approach to staying sharp has been my inner monologue’s shift to a dialogue, with definite manager and underling roles.

In addition to barking orders at my underling and maintaining a high level of hustle in the kitchen, my manager enforces our unnecessarily rigorous weekly schedule, ensures everyone is dressed and fed by eight, and gets us all strapped in the car and on our way by nine. My underling wonders if my manager has been overbooking us lately, but the former doesn’t get a say. Fortunately for my underling, my manager (who’s also in charge of menu planning) is a voracious carnivore, and while this chili is now a standard in our vegetarian repertoire, we’re still not eating it.

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.

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.

(Belated) Feliz Cumpleaños, Señor P!

Steak and Hysteria

Today (when written) is the dashingly well-dressed Mr. P’s birthday, and a great man deserves a great dinner. We discovered our new favorite way of eating steak several weeks ago via Epicurious, and having served the slices over beds of spring mix or arugula several times, I’m ready to plate this bad Larry up piping hot. There’s a fifty per cent chance I’ll be laying the strips over Puerto Rican white rice, but if that fails miserably, which it does every other time I make it, I’ll pull out a box of Near East pilaf. I anticipate that the combination of glazed shallots over white rice will be silencingly delicious, and I know of three little mouths that simply must stop making noises simultaneously for a full ten minutes at some point soon, lest our family be spotlit during local news.

Logic suggests that twin one-year-olds would experience less separation anxiety than singletons, but my girls are determined to defy everything from sleep to the laws of physics, so it fits that I can’t cross a threshold without triggering a complex dual alarm system. Aside from the dimensional portal that clearly opens when I walk away from them into the kitchen, I have no idea what exactly they think I’m doing during my tiny increments out of their sight. I can run a stack of laundry up the stairs, calling to them for the entire twenty seconds, but their wails start even before I’ve opened the door to the hall. Lately the tone of their reproach has been more wrathful than fearsome, so I suspect they picture some sort of flash party takes place, with a drop-down disco ball, anonymous dancers, and my top drawer pulled out and spilling over with candy. Most baffling, they aren’t even confined most of the time they spend screaming at me to stay; all they need do to avoid theoretical abandonment is follow me. Alas, my children appear to be wealthy estate owners trapped in a middle-class household, but they refuse to accept they don’t get a paid staff.

Normally I try to tie everything up neatly in the third paragraph, but I have a cake to frost, a table to set, and Sally the Slugger’s hitting someone with her mallet while loudly working on her first phrase: “bring it me.”

And I’ve been added to yet another watch list.

Chicken Ham and Basil What?

Picture coming eventually. Mr. P. ate the designated model.

Every now and then I create something other than a person, and I’m beside myself with smug delight over my new oeuvre. A few weeks ago I found a recipe for Chicken Prosciutto on my go-to site for new recipes, and I remembered having seen some prosciutto in the deli bin the previous month. I didn’t have sage on hand, but had some basil, and instead of Fontina, figured I could substitute a parm/mozz blend. (Un)forunately, a quick call to Mrs. Hamilton confirmed my fear that no lunch meat can stand up to three weeks past its expiration date. I may have detected a slight note of confused distaste in her tone; I know one probably assumes I’m a freshness tyrant, but I was genetically blessed with a cast-iron stomach (except when gestating), and worked in fast food as a teenager, so I’ve developed an it’ll-cook-off outlook toward food-borne pathogens. The tradeoff is that I’m pathologically obsessive about meat temperature, and I’ve turned off the scald-proof mechanism on my kitchen sink (soap should serve as a backup when washing dishes; the water should be hot enough to burn off all bacteria).

So the only thing my refrigerator had in common with Chicken Prosciutto at this point was chicken. I borrowed a few of the techniques from the found recipe, slicing each breast into two fillets before pounding them to one eighth of an inch, and frying the basil leaves in a stick of butter, using them in the chicken, and frying the chicken in the resulting basil butter. But here’s where I went a little I-wonder-what-would-happen-if…

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, tenderloins removed, sliced into two fillets each, pounded within a millimeter of their lives
6 thin slices of deli ham (I used Hannaford Inspirations Wildflower Honey Ham, because I’m Frasier)
12 fresh basil leaves
1 stick butter
1 C breadcrumbs
2 eggs, lightly beaten in a shallow bowl
6 long, thin slices of mozzarella
Vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
Toothpicks

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Once foaming, add the basil leaves and let them fry for 1 minute, then turn and fry for another 30 seconds before transferring the leaves to a paper towel. Turn the butter down to warm. Trim a pounded chicken fillet of any fly-aways, then lay 2 basil leaves on top. Place a slice of ham on top of that, folding in any edges that protrude. Fold the bottom third of the fillet to the center, hold it in place while folding the top half down as far as it will reach, and secure with a toothpick. It should be packed up tightly enough to prevent anything from sliding out the sides. I will refer to the resulting unit as the briquette (loaf, knuckle, and chicken fist were runners up).

Assemble all of the briquettes before starting to cook. Mix up the breadcrumbs with some salt and pepper, and spread them out on a large plate. Increase the heat on the basil butter to medium-high and add 3 tbsp of vegetable oil to the pan, swirling to incorporate with the butter, and give it a minute to get hot. Dip a briquette in the beaten egg, then coat completely in the bread crumbs, packing them into the sides. Immediately place it into the hot butter/oil. Repeat for the remaining briquettes, and once the last one goes into the pan, flip the first one over with tongs, and proceed to flip the others at thirty-second intervals, in the order they went in. After the final flip, cook for an additional 2 minutes, then check one to verify doneness (I like to designate Billy the Kid’s portion as the tester, as I have to cut it up anyway). Transfer the briquettes to a wire rack placed over a pan or cookie sheet, top each with mozzarella, and broil on high for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until the cheese is melted and hinting at browning.

As with all breaded and fried proteins, have lemons or at least lemon juice on hand. Since each briquette is half a chicken breast, you can serve them in decadent pairs — just remove the toothpicks upon plating unless you happen to be spite-hosting. In that case, set the table with disposable linens, invite at least 1 vegetarian paramedic, and combine 10 drops of Visine with the bottled lemon juice. You’ll want to have a lawyer on retainer, but that’s just good sense in general.

Saturday Night Special

Emergency Dinner


I’m insanely competitive, but only with myself. Many mistake this for low self-esteem; on the contrary, I’m just not that concerned with everyone else. Since becoming a stay-at-home mother, I’ve had to institute policies that keep me on my toes, as the lack of a supervisor translates into the lack of a glowing annual review. For example, I try to cook as many meals out of the week as possible, not for the warm contentment that comes from nourishing one’s family, but because an uninterrupted string of “HCD”s (home-cooked dinner) on my wall calendar reassures me that I’m earning a nice pointy A. The only real feedback I get from my subordinates comes in the forms of screams, wails and tantrums, and the occasional “I love you” is usually a last-ditch attempt to elude the repercussional time-out nap. So my need to self-monitor/praise manifests in my psyche’s constant addition of items to my daily to-do lists, while conscious executive-me gripes through each chore, cursing the perfectionist work ethic instilled by a former Catholic (nicely done, Mrs. S!).

There are no corners that the tiny slacker who lives deep inside me and constantly undermines my cultivation of hustle won’t cut, so a good percentage of HCDs involves prepared foods, to my chagrin. I reserve jarred sauces for the end of the week, which usually finds me too disoriented and frazzled to be trusted with a measuring cup. It would be impressive, indeed, to screw up this mindless but tasty pasta dish, and I don’t offer it because I assume you need help putting spaghetti together, but to reassure you that even I don’t start every dinner at the farmers’ market. In fact, I avoid farmers’ markets as well as the California attitude they promote.

1 jar Newman’s Own Roasted Garlic and Peppers Sauce
1 16-oz box spaghetti (1/2 box per 2 eaters)
1 pkg sweet Italian sausage (5 or 6 links)
olive oil
salt

Cover and heat up the sauce in a medium saucepan over low while you fry the sausage in 1 tbsp olive oil over medium-high/medium until completely cooked (fill the emptied — not rinsed! — sauce jar with hot water and add as needed to the sauce to achieve the desired consistency). Toss the completely cooked (it’s never redundant) sausage into the sauce along with 1 tbsp of the pan sludge, and continue to cook over low, covered, stirring occasionally, while you boil well-salted water for the pasta and cook it. When the spaghetti is done (drain, but don’t rinse), so is the sauce. Look at all that free time! Let’s find some trim that needs a fresh coat of paint.

If you use a plate, you use a fork.

Buttermilk Fried Vehicle for Fried Buttermilk


I know next to nothing about the South. Why would I? I recoil from sun and heat, reserve physical affection for family, the Hamiltons, and Jess D, and prefer not to make eye contact with strangers, especially in crowds. When I first became aware of the “see something, say something” campaign at train stations and airports, I was slightly taken aback that the administration would assume I was in the habit of taking stock of my fellow passengers. Once the practice of noticing people becomes acceptable etiquette, the terrorists have won. No, I’ll keep my eyes quietly glued to my Maugham novel all the way to my grave, thank you very much.

As mysterious and stressful as I find Southern culture, the food is another story; I can be bought with fried chicken. My first successfully fried chicken (I usually wind up with fried chicken and fried flour) is courtesy of Simply Recipes, a site that garners more of my trust with every new recipe. I was nervous that the eight hours my refrigerator invested soaking the chicken in herbed buttermilk might be wasted, but the payoff was nothing short of magnificent. There was little conversation at dinner this evening, and both Mr. P and I were relieved that our new rice cooker botched the starch, opening up some unexpected gastronomical real estate. It’s not at all greasy, no small feat considering the two cups of oil you get going, and if you use grape seed oil without actually reading the recommended article on its health benefits, the sky is the nutrient-rich limit! A squirt of lemon juice rendered the whole thing intolerably good — so good that I’m still just a little furious.

Teeth. Jealousy. Shanks.

More Italian Than Not Chicken Parmesan


It’s not the incessant and simultaneous wails of two teething babies that have driven me to enact a semi-weekly 5:00 cocktail hour (consisting of two shots of amaretto), but more the straining required to hear the tiny, inappropriately quiet voice of a certain toddler over the racket, and ultimately realizing that the urgent refrain is none other than the jaw-clench-inducing “what are you doooing?” It’s become part of Monk Jr’s routine, and every time I change a diaper or feed a belly (activities which infuriate whoever isn’t receiving the attention), Billy the Kid is right there, inaudibly inquiring about the nature of my distraction from El Dicta-toro. “Well, what do you think I’m doing?” I ask in a sweet but pretty obviously condescending tone. And what do you know, BK offers the correct answer every time.

It’s Friday, and I have nothing left for anyone. No energy, no functioning brain cells, no sympathy. Teeth hurt? Yeah, I’ve been there, too. But guess what. You get Orajel, Tylenol, and eventually teeth. Bored? Why don’t you head down to the basement and see what/who you can rustle up. Hungry? Next scheduled feeding, how about drinking more than an ounce instead of looking around frantically to make sure your sister isn’t happy? Today’s snow was the literal icing on the proverbial cake. The only thing that induces more guilt in me than not taking the underlings out into the world at least once a day is taking them out under sub-par driving conditions, and putting their tiny lives at a slightly higher risk than usual. My serious need for some contact with civilization: denied.

The death of such a bastard of a week should be observed properly, with a seam-splitting meal involving cheese, a casserole dish, and meat, that will have us all unconscious and transported out of the hell that has been February 21 through 25 (with a brief respite on the 24th spanning the length of Jess D’s visit). For those who need it spelled out: Chicken Parmesan. In spite of my insecurities about preparing cuisines of nationalities to which I have no relation, I found a promising recipe on Simply Recipes, a site that has yet to disappoint me (well played, Ms. B). Aside from a smidge too much heat from the red pepper flakes, this is what I hope for whenever I order Chicken Parm at a restaurant, though I haven’t been able to find it outside of Providence’s Federal Hill.

Speaking of Federal Hill, my father, the venerable Mr. S, alerted me of an interview with the locally famous Baby Shanks Manocchio, in which the former Patriarca family boss (and serial restauranteur extraordinaire) was asked about the nature of his name. It turns out that his original nickname was Baby Shacks, an allusion to his success at finding continual transitional housing with charitable women, but that the erroneous “Shanks” eventually replaced “Shacks,” some assuming it referred to his stature, others convinced he must fashion a mean shiv. When asked for the final word, Manocchio offered the entirely unhelpful “what does it really matter?” Seldom does my heart pine so achingly for my state.

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