Friday, January 04, 2008

Holiday Comedy of Errors

My, it is hard to get back to real life after the holidays, isn’t it? The last three weeks have been trying because a) we moved, b) we had company, and c) it was the holidays. The moving wasn’t horrible, but it was still moving. The company was my brother-in-law and his wife, who knew full well that we had been in our house for one week and one day prior to their arrival, so they were prepared for pretty much anything. And of course Christmas was Christmas, complete with last-minute present wrapping (see “moving,” above) and small children getting up at 4:30 a.m.

In some ways the season was a sort of comedy of errors. My new stove is a lot more high-strung than the Kenmore-types I’ve previously had, and I’ve never had a brand brand brand new stove before. The refrigerator is fairly docile. Its only oddity is that if you hold the door open too long, it starts beeping at you. Putting groceries away was somewhat trying until Alex found the “off” switch and subdued it. The dishwasher is just a delight—quiet, efficient, and not the least bit temperamental. In fact, it’s quiet to the point that you can’t even tell it’s running—more than once we’ve opened the door to find it in full cycle, whereupon we hastily shut the door in the manner of someone who has walked in on a roommate entertaining a romantic guest.

But the stove. The stove is somewhat arrogant, as befits an appliance of its pedigree. It has both convection and non-convection capabilities. It has racks that look like they could be used as structural supports in a skyscraper. And it has power. So much power, in fact, that our hood isn’t really quite strong enough to deal with the potential output from it. If we had both ovens going, plus all six burners and the griddle, I don’t think the hood would be able to keep up. Fortunately it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find ourselves in need of that kind of BTU production, but it’s worth keeping in mind, in any event.

And it’s quirky. I realized this when I made the French Onion Soup the Saturday night before Christmas. My brother-in-law and his wife were getting in on an early evening plane, which meant they’d be getting to our house about 8:30, when you factor in the drive from the airport and the 35 minute ferry ride. I was sure they would want something filling and warming, but not heavy or rich, so I spent quite some time caramelizing thinly sliced onions, simmering broth, and toasting baguette slices. When they arrived, I dished up the soup, topped it with the croutons, and sliced up Gruyere cheese to melt over the whole.

I needed to move an oven rack to get the bowls in the right position under the broiler. I popped them in and waited. When they were perfectly golden and bubbling, I pulled the rack out and watched in horror as it tipped forward with the weight from the bowls and dumped the entire contents plus the bowls themselves on the inside of the open oven door. I stood there in shock and disbelief while my husband, his brother, and my sister-in-law sprang to action. They scooped the soup into a mixing bowl, and did their best to wipe out the oven. When it was confirmed that none of the scalding hot soup had splattered on me, and none of the bowls were actually broken (although I did discover later that one was chipped, but no one broke a tooth on the shard, or at least, they didn’t say anything if they did), we dished up the sloppy mess into new bowls and ate what could only be called Upside Down French Onion Soup. It tasted fine, but it was a far cry from the elegant presentation I had planned.

I’ve now been shown four times exactly how to get the oven racks in and stable, but I still have trouble remembering the three step process. The Range Police are going to come and take my beautiful new oven away from me for being completely inept and unworthy of such a magnificent appliance.

And my children are going to go deaf from the smoke detectors. Our smoke detectors are hard-wired into the house, and all networked to one another (of course; too bad there's no way to visually imbue a word with sarcasm, because this is a case that calls for it). The result of this is that when one goes off, they all go off in a cacophony of ear-splitting beeping and chirping that gives me a headache and lasts until the offending miasma has dissipated.

The first time this happened was at lunchtime on Christmas Eve. We’d been to the grocery store to stock up on cheese (the larger of the two grocery stores near us has a fantastic selection of cheeses, and we all plead guilty to being total cheese freaks), and I was making grilled sandwiches on the new griddle. Ciabatta with Manchego cheese, proscuitto, arugula, and the slightest wisp of homemade mayonnaise to moisten them, each brushed lightly with olive oil and grilled until golden, toasty, and melty. Well, that was the plan, of course. The reality was that they were grilled until golden, toasty, and melty, but with the blare of the smoke detector’s siren as an accompaniment. We opened windows and blasted the hood to its highest setting. My husband maintains the griddle hadn’t been properly seasoned, which is entirely possible. Fortunately, by the time I broke out the sweet potato chips, the green salad, and the blue cheese dressing, the concert was over and we could eat in peace.

The second time this happened was at dinnertime on Christmas Eve. Yes, twice in one day I managed to generate enough kitchen pollution to set off the smoke detectors. This time the baby was asleep (and slept through it, if you can imagine; I guess this is what happens when you’re accustomed to the screaming of three small boys—you learn to sleep through smoke detectors, earthquakes, and other acts of God and Mom). My husband was getting the twins ready for bed, and discovered that if you go into the bathroom that adjoins their room, the shrilling noise is muffled because there’s no detector in there to serenade you. My oldest son danced up and down on the front porch, asking me when it would stop and begging me to go get him his shoes so he could run down into the front yard to get further from the noise. I assured him it would soon end, which it did.

The catalyst for this second bout of aural mayhem was the prime rib we were having for Christmas Eve dinner. My aunt had invited everyone over for light snacky things on Christmas afternoon around 4, so we decided to have our really nice meal on Christmas Eve, and have something more casual on Christmas night. Prime rib was our protein of choice on Christmas Eve, and I proceeded to cook it according to the gospel of James Beard. The instructions said to roast it at 500 degrees for 30 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350. I dutifully cranked the oven up, turned on the hood, and put the roast in.

The roast setting on my oven activates both the broiler and the heating elements. When the fat from that beautiful piece of meat slipped down and hit the superheated roasting pan in which it rested, it was immediately vaporized, and wafted up into the path of the hood. But either the smoke overpowered the hood, or there was too much “overdrift” (if you will) in the direction of the smoke detector. Either way, within 15 minutes, we were in shrieking hell again. Once again we sprang to open windows and doors and generally encourage complete replacement of the fouled air with fresh. Once again within about ten minutes the noise had ceased. The meal continued uneventfully (although I did think the gravy was a tad on the greasy side, but I was so thrown by having set off the smoke detectors twice in one day that I probably didn’t skim the fat well enough; no one else mentioned it).

With those occurrences, you’d think that the entrée I made for our Christmas dinner would just spontaneously combust and save me the drama and the pain. Well I have delightful news—no such thing happened. I made Beef Bourguignon from an old issue of Martha Stewart Living, and it turned out beautifully. I was forced to use bacon scraps instead of salt pork, and complained to my sister-in-law about the inability to get salt pork in this part of the country. They live in Atlanta, so salt pork is readily available, as it was in the part of the country in which I used to live. We served the stew over mashed potatoes, and everyone went to bed full, happy, and humming “You’re Easy to Dance With” from Holiday Inn (although admittedly still with a slight ringing in our ears, not from the jingling of sleigh bells, but from the wail of the smoke detectors. Oh well, no holiday is ever perfect).

I’ve promised the recipe for the Beef Bourguignon before, so now here it is. I love this recipe because it has all the advantages of beef stew—beef slow cooked until tender, a lovely flavorful gravy, caramelized pearl onions—but none of the other things about beef stew that always make me shy away from it, like carrots and potatoes cooked to a gray and indistinguishable mush (I know that if you add them later they don’t get as bad, but let’s face it, even then they can still be somewhat unappealingly discolored). If you can’t get salt pork you can substitute bacon scraps, or bacon cut into really small pieces. Also, I left out the rosemary because my sister-in-law can’t eat it. I’ve made it with and without, and it’s fine both ways.

Boeuf Bourguignon
recipe from Martha Stewart Living, February 2003

1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
1 head garlic, cloves separated and lightly crushed (unpeeled)
10 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, cut in half, plus 3 tablespoons chopped for garnish
6 sprigs thyme
4 sprigs rosemary
2 dried bay leaves
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 oz. salt pork, trimmed of rind and cut into ¼ -by-1 inch pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups homemade or low-sodium canned beef stock
1 750-ml bottle red wine, preferably Burgundy or another Pinot Noir
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 pound frozen pearl onions
½ cup water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
10 oz. large white mushrooms, trimmed and quartered

Cut two 12-by-22 inch pieces of cheesecloth; lay them on a clean work surface, overlapping each other perpendicularly in the center to form a cross. Pile the chopped onion, carrots, garlic cloves, parsley sprigs, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, and peppercorns in the center.

Gather the ends together to enclose contents completely, and tie the top with kitchen twine, Place in an 8 quart Dutch oven, and set aside.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add salt pork, and sauté until brown and crisp, about 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pork to Dutch oven, leaving rendered fat in skillet.

Season beef cubes with salt and pepper. Working in two batches, place beef in skillet in a single layer; cook until dark brown on all sides, about 6 minutes total.

Using tongs, transfer beef to Dutch oven, reserving fat in skillet.

Whisk the flour into the fat in the skillet. Slowly whisk in beef stock, and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently until thickened.

Pour mixture into Dutch oven around cheesecloth bundle. Add wine and tomato paste, and season with salt and pepper; stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover; transfer to oven. Cook until beef is very tender, about 2 ½ hours.

Remove pot from oven, and transfer cheesecloth bundle to a large sieve set over a bowl. With a wooden spoon, press on bundle to release as much liquid as possible. Discard bundle, and pour accumulated juices into Dutch oven.

Remove beef and pork from Dutch oven; reserve. Return liquid to a boil over high heat; reduce to 4 cups, about 10 minutes. Skim surface as needed with a large metal spoon. Reduce heat to low; return beef and pork to Dutch oven.

While sauce is reducing further, set skillet over high heat. Add the pearl onions, the water, butter, sugar, and a large pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, and reduce heat to medium; simmer until almost all the liquid evaporates, 5 to 8 minutes. Raise heat to medium-high, and add the mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are browned and glazed, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Transfer contents to Dutch oven, and simmer over medium heat until heated through. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as desired, and serve at once. Garnish each serving with chopped parsley.

Serves 8; makes 2 ½ quarts.


Jamie Franklin said...

You have to say what kind of stove you have. I think viking or wolf? love the house. I want to see more pics.

Jamie Franklin said...

you must say what kind of stove you have. I think wolf or viking. i have a few recipes I will send you as well . the barefoot contessa is great especially her french cookbook. love the house I want see more pictures.

Anonymous said...

i too have a problem with the smoke alarm. i have a small space fan permanently installed beneath the smoke alarm closest to the kitchen and turn it on pre-emptively every time i cook any meat on the stovetop.

hannah is immune to the sound.

it's gone off from boiling water before

there is nothing you can do

sara brown

TD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TD said...


It's a Wolf. It has six burners with a griddle, and double ovens. It's also duel fuel--electric ovens, gas burners and griddle. The gas is propane, not natural gas, becuase there's no natural gas on the island--too expensive to run a line from the "mainland" under the water, so anyone with gas is using propane. I'll take some more pics and post them when the primary focal point in them would be something other than huge stacks of cardboard boxes!


I think this may have to be the route we go. I'll have to check Wal-Mart for one of those little fans like bus drivers use and bolt it to the wall under the smoke detector. It should be a stunning addition to the decor (insert sarcastic tone here). Margaret and the twins don't mind at all, but Chris just goes nuts when it happens and then shies like a horse on loose cobbles every time we turn on the stove for the next two days...


wondering... said...

I wish I could empathize with your stove-problem, but we'd actually have to cook in our kitchen in order to do that...

Great house, btw!!

TD said...


Considering that the alarms go off seemingly on a whim, we may not do as much cooking as I originally thought we would on this stove...I just burned a piece of toast and was on pins and needles that they might be set off by that!