Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Bad Mood

I didn’t mean to write this post in quite this mood, but I’m cranky. I’m sorry, but I am. This was going to be a post about choosing dinner recipes, but it’s taken on a life of its own. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I am just in a bad, bad mood. And everything in the last few hours has conspired to make me more crabby.

Of course kids can always get under your skin, and mine have been going through a potty word regression that’s really bugging me. I tried to stay even tempered over that (with only moderate success, which didn’t make things any better), so of course I overreacted to everything else.

Even my thoughts were ticking me off. I have an insane neighbor. Totally deranged. She appears normal and lucid, but inside she’s a seething volcano of crazy. It’s like living next door to Mount Whackatoa. You never know when she’s going to erupt. Summer is her active season, because her kids are home and she finds ways to compare mine to hers (and of course mine come off second best) and then she takes it on herself to instruct my nanny on how to control them (because she won’t expose her crazy to me directly). At least once every summer I have to point out to her the inappropriateness of this behavior. Today I was thinking about some of the things she’s been doing lately, and of course, that didn’t make me particularly chipper.

Then I ran out of white wine after only three quarters of a glass. Need I say more?

Michael Jackson died today, which doesn’t make me particularly sad (we weren’t close), but I have 27,000 Facebook posts saying “RIP MJ” and variations from people I know didn’t care a whip about him when he was alive. Yes, I’m sure his family is devastated, and he recorded some good songs (although I never wore a single glittery glove, obscenely tight black chinos. and tried to moonwalk with zombies). Under normal circumstances, the tributes to Michael Jackson via social networking probably wouldn’t bother me in the least, but today is another story.

Naturally the radio in the car wasn’t functioning. Alex replaced the motor that operates the driver's side window last weekend, and the car is new enough (although not that new) that it has one of those radios that when you disconnect the power supply (as in stealing it), you can’t use it again until you enter some secret code. Naturally we haven’t the first idea where said secret code is. It’s on some scrap of paper somewhere that’s been moved around four times each time we've moved, and each time whoever puts it away says to themselves, “I’m going to put it HERE and I’m going to REMEMBER that it’s here.” Then we promptly forget where “here” is. So no radio.

I went to the grocery store (three quarters of a glass of white wine just doesn’t cut it), and was put out to find that there were no new cooking magazines. A new cooking magazine might have turned everything around, but it was not to be. Could this get any worse?

Evidently, yes. I was on my way home (admittedly, I was probably going a little too fast) and listening to what I thought might be a good grump-reduction song on my iPod (clarification: iPhone--I was using the "speaker" function; not listening to music via earbuds jammed in my ears, thus blocking out all other road sounds, I promise) because the song itself was pretty grouchy and negative (my life would seem fine by contrast? I don’t know, I guess that was my strategy. Otherwise why else would I have been listening to The Kinks’ “Father Christmas”?) when the car in front of me started getting bigger and bigger (and its brake lights brighter and brighter) for no good reason I could discern. Praying that whatever mammoth vehicle behind me wasn’t also the bad combination of cranky-speeding-inattentive, I too hit my brakes, only to see a deer prancing across the road in front of the Volvo ahead of me. Seriously? Not that I wanted the Volvo to hit the deer. Actually, I just wanted the deer not to be there at all. Frankly, the Volvo too.

So what are you going to do about all of this?, you might reasonably ask. When are you going to stop inflicting your personal brand of snarly on us?

The answer is, I made dinner. Yes, I chopped garlic, and mixed up fish sauce and brown sugar (it’s better than it sounds, I promise) and did various other cookly things and now I feel quite a bit better. I also watched an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and that helped a lot.

Like so many things in my life, The Mary Tyler Moore show is tied to both my emotional and my culinary memory. My parents used to let me stay up late to watch it on Saturday nights on our grainy black and white portable TV set. This would have been after our dinner of Chick’n Bucket pizza. I can’t say if that was really the best pizza I ever had, but it seems like it. First I ate off the toppings (pepperoni and sausage; I never ate the pizza my mother ordered—pepperoni and onion. Ew.), then I ate off the cheese, then licked off the tomato sauce, and lastly I ate the crust. I remember that the crust had concentric circles stamped into it, just as though…well as though it had been stamped out by a giant crust-making machine (which, let’s face it, it probably had been).

Anyway, at some point later in the evening, I was permitted to stay up late to watch that old CBS classic line up—M*A*S*H*, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show. I loved Mary. I wanted to be Mary. So anyway, tonight I watched the episode where she invites the Congresswoman over and serves her Veal Price Orloff (what a 1970s dinner party—I love it!). And I made dinner.

Our dinner was a lovely spicy-sweet stir fry of chicken thighs with a brown sugar-based sauce on it. I added a chopped Napa cabbage to the mix, because there were really no vegetables in the meal otherwise. Doing so had a nice added side benefit—as my boys were getting ready for bed (the four year old twins), they begged to taste the cabbage and one declared he wanted it for breakfast tomorrow morning. We’ll see if that holds, but it certainly helped tremendously to relieve my crankiness.

Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken
adapted from Food + Wine Magazine

½ cup dark brown sugar (I only had light brown sugar; I used it, and it turned out fine, but yes, that didn’t help my snippy mood)
3 Tablespoons fish sauce
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon minced garlic (I used three cloves, actually; love garlic)
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 fresh Thai chilis, halved (I left these out; I don’t like things too spicy. If you like spice, by all means, add them)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1” pieces
1 medium head Napa cabbage, cut into 1” pieces

Combine the first 8 ingredients in a small bowl (brown sugar through chilis [if using; otherwise, through pepper]).

Heat oil in a large deep skillet over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, add shallot and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add brown sugar mixture and chicken, and simmer over high heat until chicken is almost cooked through, about 8 minutes. Add cabbage and stir to incorporate. Let cook until cabbage is softened, but not wilted, about 2 minutes. Sauce will be somewhat watery. I have good luck turning the heat up high and reducing the sauce for about 2 minutes. It doesn’t get as saucy and thick as it might, but the cabbage stays more crisp.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


What is it about a recipe title that screams, “MAKE ME”? In a list of choices like Rainbow Chard and Comte Quiche, Cheese Quesadilla with Squash Blossoms and Poblanos, and Butter Lettuce and Arugula Salad with Sovrano, what did I lunge for? Popeye’s Wannabe Biscuits. Did I go for the highbrow-sounding seasonal delicacies? No, I went for what I anticipated to be the fatty carbohydrate that would be just this side of “The White Trash Cookbook” (which, I am not ashamed to say, I own although as more of a novelty item than as a cookbook from which I cook on a regular—or really even an infrequent—basis, but if I am ever invited to a potluck the theme of which is “My Grandfather Was a Shifflett*, How About Yours?” I am all set).

As I waited for the page to render, I was filled with a degree of hesitation, and was preparing myself to be disappointed. Was I in the process of opening a recipe for spinach muffins? Just which Popeye was referenced here? The sailor with the weirdly misshapen arms (seriously, what was up with that guy’s elbows? Even as a kid, and even understanding that it was a cartoon, I thought those little gumdrop-shaped growths between his forearms and his biceps were freakish and unsettling as, for that matter, were his forearms and biceps) or the home of the world’s second most awesome biscuits—Chick-fil-A will always be #1—and the fried chicken that caused an ex-boyfriend of mine to lie puking in a gutter (to be fair, not the fault of the chicken, but the fault of the eight-24oz Hurricanes he drank prior to consuming the skin off of roughly a dozen pieces of said chicken at a Mardi Gras parade approximately twenty years ago) and from which gutter I (a foot shorter and eighty pounds lighter than he) was forced by the New Orleans Police Department to drag him prior to the start of the parade? Which Popeye was in question here??

To my joy, it was the latter (although of course it did bring to mind the ex-boyfriend reference, which I then inflicted on you and my apologies if you were snacking or anything when you read the preceding paragraph). And to my further joy, it appeared to be the simplest of recipes. Four ingredients, two of them shamelessly low rent, and what appeared to be a 30 minute process. Fast and cheap—what more could I ask?

Clearly, I could ask that they be awesome. And so, to verify their awesomeness, I was forced to make them immediately. The plan that formed was that I would make them that very night. Alex was leaving town for a golf trip (I should say, another golf trip), but he was on a red eye, so I knew I’d have a little time between my arrival home and our departure for the ferry and the airport. Since it appeared to be such a speedy recipe (even the source labeled it as “Features: Fast”), I decided to go for it. We don’t keep non-diet soda of any kind in the house, and neither of us drinks Sprite anyway, so a grocery stop would be in order.

I almost got derailed when I arrived home and started searching for my muffin tins. "Where are they?" I asked. My husband directed me to the dining room, where 18 individual muffin tins were filled with approximately 43 million microscopic Legos. My oldest son had been permitted to purchase a Star Wars Imperial Death Cruiser Battle Station Fighter Kill Maim Destroy Something Or Other this past weekend. In an effort to speed the construction process, my husband had divided all the parts into their individual "steps." I heaved a sigh and put all of the pieces into their own Ziplock bags, whereupon I was chastised for not numbering them. Whatever.

When I was finally able to get all the muffins in the oven, the smell that emanated was heavenly. They looked amazing too. When I broke one apart, it was tender and light. Much more muffin than biscuit, although with a lovely crunchy biscuity top. I'd be tempted to make these as a drop biscuit on a pan, just to see how that experiment worked. I was informed that they smelled more buttery than they tasted, although the flavor was outstanding. I confess I basted 15 muffins with only two tablespoons of butter (only!), so I think being a bit more lavish and unrestrained with the butter might improve them (go ahead, melt the rest of that stick and baste the bejesus out of them).

I could go all Rachel Ray on you and insist that these be called buffins, or misquits, or muffits or bisquins, but I shall not because I would not be able to live with myself if I did (but it’s out there, isn’t it? Yes it is). Call them what you will, but they are indeed well worth the grand total of 30 minutes that they take to make.

Popeye’s Wannabe Muffins
from the Washington Post Food Section, June 17, 2009

4 cups Bisquick baking mix
1 cup chilled Sprite
1 cup chilled sour cream
4 tablespoons butter, melted, plus additional for gilding the lily (brushing the tops)

Preheat oven to 375. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except the extra butter for brushing. Mix until just combined. Batter will be sticky.

Grease 15 standard size muffin cups. Fill each cup to the top, and brush tops of batter with melted butter.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until tops rise and are starting to brown.

Transfer muffins to a wire rack and allow to cool slightly before serving. Muffins can be stored in a tin at room temperature for up to 2 days. To freeze, wrap each muffin in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil, and freeze for up to 1 month.

Nutritional Information: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Actually they’re not that bad—200 calories and 13g of fat (although of course they have no fiber at all) per muffin. Or buffin. Or misquit. Or muffit. Or bisquin. See what I did? I did it again, didn’t I? Yes I did.

*Just as an aside, out of sheer curiosity and because this is how my somewhat twisted mind works, I Googled the name Shifflett and found a website that was offering to sell me a Shifflett coat of arms for the bargain price of $18.93. On closer inspection, the primary feature of the Shifflett coat of arms is the profile of what appears to be a crow with what appears to be a saltine cracker in its mouth. I think that’s astonishingly fitting.

Monday, June 08, 2009


I've neglected this blog sorely the last two months. What do you mean it's June?!? I just got back from a vacation, so I should be ready to cook with vigor now, right? Right? It wasn't a cooking kind of vacation--we stayed in a hotel, so no cooking facilities--but I'm back now and have a huge list of things to cook, so I'll get back on the ball! Also, we're starting a supper club with some friends, so surely that will offer some opportunities to share recipes. More to come!