Friday, December 30, 2011

Since You've Been Gone

January 4th, 2002 seems like a lifetime ago. And it seems like yesterday.  It's hard to believe, sometimes, that I left work a little early on that Friday, stopped at the store for a few things, and came home and discovered that you'd had a massive heart attack and died on the kitchen floor earlier in the day.

I called 9-1-1 and hoped they'd somehow breathe life back into you, even though through my shock, I was pretty sure it was too late.  The paramedics, including a fire truck, soon filled our tiny street, and got the neighbors buzzing.  Turns out, Ritchie, our neighbor the paramedic, was the one who confirmed what I'd feared the most. 

Hours passed waiting for the coroner's office and whatever paperwork needed to be processed, while you laid in the kitchen.  Police and detectives arrived in succession; searched outside, walked around with notepads, and sequestered and questioned me several times.  The juvenile division detective with the bad toupee asked me several times, several ways, when was the last time I saw you.  Finally they took you away.  But left the sheet carelessly tossed in the corner of the kitchen floor. Calling your parents was the hardest phone call I've ever made in my life.

People came. Brought food I couldn't eat and answered phone calls I couldn't take.  It's a sobering reality when someone 46 years drops dead with no warning.

Who knew that a few weeks earlier, when we had a conversation after your father drug you to the funeral home to pre-plan your parents funeral, when you told me that you thought the whole process was ridiculous ("Fuck that. Cremate me and have a big fucking party."), that I'd be doing just that.  My mother picked out the ugly urn that looks just like a Kleenex box; don't blame me for that.  We had the big F'in party in May, around our anniversary, which I still can't remember if it is the 24th or the 25th. I haven't seen or heard from most of those people since.

People came. Brought food I couldn't eat and answered phone calls I couldn't take.  It's a sobering reality when someone 46 years drops dead with no warning.

Your father showed up the next day, and true to his completely self-centered nature, started immediately whining about who would take care of them and administer the Living Trust he had made his personal pet project.  He went into high gear torturing the lawyer (and me) re-writing the Trust, which entailed near weekly phone calls and visits.  I could barely deal with one deceased Mitchell and he couldn't stop drilling me about what I'd need to do when the last two died.

I drug myself back to work but the 'career' I'd worked hard to climb the ladder in had already become a mind-numbing, boring series of repetitively stupid meetings, conference calls, and the corporate babble du jour threatened to drive me crazy.  My contempt filter switch flipped and progressively got worse.  Working with stupid people pulling down six figure salaries while constantly being told to whittle budgets and lay off the those at the bottom of ladder wasn't working really well with my current state of mind.

In April, your mother got breast cancer.  I found a lump the day I was taking her for surgery. A big one. I cried, by myself, while the doctor said I needed a mammogram ASAP, and I told him I was busy that day. (Turned out after a biopsy, that mine was benign).

After the surgery, it became apparent your mom could no longer stay at home.  Turns out not planning a first floor bath and bedroom in that Dutch colonial was the fatal flaw that sent us scrambling for assisted living accommodations in an urgent, need it now situation - just like I figured it would go down.  You can just imagine how much fun it was touring places with your father.  We found a place close to the house in Wadsworth where he could visit every day.  She complained bitterly about the food, which I found mildly ironic, since she wasn't the best cook.  Then I discovered that complaining about the food is one of the main activities in nursing homes.

I tried drowning my sorrows and it turned out that, like stuffing one end of a pool float in the water, the other end just kept popping out of the water. Your parents had no one else, so they just couldn't help calling me constantly, not really to ask how I was doing, I don't think they ever did actually, but to constantly test me to make sure I was going to take care of them to the bitter end.

I did stupid things with inappropriate people, all the while trying to tread the water of sanity while your parents constantly grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me back underwater.  Mostly I was just numb. All of the time. No one apparently understood; no one offered to help.  I thought about suicide. A lot.

I finally couldn't take the bullshit of my corporate life.  On almost exactly my tenth anniversay, I quit.  Regardless of what a couple of the self centered assholes I worked with think, I did not get fired.  I could have have made them work at firing me; I didn't have the energy to stay that course, so I called bullshit and left.

I gardened and cooked and tried to get some sense of calm in the never ending undertow of need of your parents.  Then I remembered the gift certificate for the personal chef that we bought your parents as a gift, and my new career was born.  Then I chickened out when I was offered a chance to go back to the corporate life.

The first few days back in the office your father ended up in the hospital, taken in by an ex-employee of the assisted living your mom was in, who was 'helping' by driving him to appointments and cleaning the house. He had two tumors taken out of his brain and was never the same afterwards.  Was lucid for a few days, then totally out of it.  The 'cleaning lady' caused extra trouble by telling them I was just trying to take their money, when in fact SHE was, and I eventually had to have the hospital staff ban her from visiting then reporting back to your mother with tales that made her hysterical.  None of this worked out very well with my new job. One of the first few days I had to leave to change the locks and figure out what to do with Bob, the cat, who had apparently from the smell, decided the house was his litter box.

The stress really threatened to kill me.  With the federal privacy laws, your mother would call the hospital where your father was and they would say he wasn't there.  She would call me hysterical. The only way I could stay on top of it was to camp out at the hospital trying to talk to a doctor, then go to your mother in assisted living.

My cousin, an Air Force veteran, who had a bunch of young kids, was killed in a tragic car accident right before Good Friday in 2006.   I took off work to go to the funeral and when I returned my boss called and told me I was fired.  To be fair I'd already told her I wanted to quit so I wasn't too broken up.  I'd hated every single second of being back in corporate prison.  I went back to the personal chef plan. It was easier to launch a new business while juggling your parents than report to a boss that wasn't me.

Your dad lasted two years in the nursing home, completely unaware of who he was, or anyone else, including me or your mother.  Most of the time he thought he was back in the Navy. Once he flirted with me, which was a little creepy. He was violent and prone to falling out of his wheelchair, which prompted calls to me nearly every night.  He was in hospice and when he was taken off all of the drugs he'd been put on when he made going to doctors his main hobby, he actually got better physically and they eventually kicked him out. I had to clean out the house and auction it; it was in such bad shape I was happy to get anything out of it.

The economy took a shit and fortunately he was out of it when his portfolio took a massive hit when the markets started to tank.  Your mother was blissfully clueless as I wrote huge monthly checks for their care.

Pneumonia finally claimed your father, and by then your mother was at peace because he'd really been gone for over 2 years by then.  She ended up in the hospital nearly every year, usually around Christmas, and turned into a completely different, crazy person.  Finally a nurse told me there was a condition called hospital psychosis.  The minute she was wheeled through the hospital door she'd start hallucinating. She'd spin fantastic tales of parties and being taken to the roof for testing and telling me how the swans in the picture in her room where constantly changing direction.  Her neighbor's phone would ring and she'd grab her call button and scream into it "Stop calling me!".  Then she'd return to her room at the facility and melt back into her old self with barely a memory of being in the hospital.

Then she fell. Injured her shoulder, and that was the beginning of the end.  I sat with her in the hospital all day. It was the Indians home opener; they couldn't pull off a win for her last game, sadly.  She was out of it and I told her it was ok to go. She went peacefully in her sleep that night.

I've honestly lost track of when I became the last Mitchell standing, but roughly seven to eight years. I cleaned up the paperwork, which not surprisingly, did not go as smoothly as your father had hoped, including a six month battle with the IRS to get back a sizable refund, which resulted in me having to start a totally pointless probate process, that unfortunately, is still not closed.

Finally I had some time to release the stress and live my life without the constant weight of having to make sure someone else was ok.  Played in the garden, ate better, went to the gym every day.  Built my business and met a lot of fun people.  Turned down jobs that just weren't appealing.  I felt happy for the first time in a long time.  I made lots of chef and foodie friends.

Then a year ago I went for a slightly overdue mammogram.  Then got the 'come back for more tests' call. And as those tests progressed, I found out this time I wasn't so lucky.  I suspect the years of constant stress  probably gave the cancer cells a helluva kick start.  Had surgery, then chemo, and radiation. It was a long winter.

Jake, who will always and forever be my favorite cat, snuggled close the entire time I was in treatment.  He was either on my lap, or he started burrowing under the covers with me in bed. At seventeen, he wasn't a kitten anymore, and right before my last chemo he stopped eating and I knew it was time.  So I sent him to keep you company.  It nearly tore my heart out. I still miss him.

I'm better now.  Older, fatter, grayer, probably wiser.  I've shed all of the things and people that don't add any joy to my life. I try not to add anything or anyone that doesn't make me happy. I finally got the kitchen of my dreams. I am blissfully debt-free. I am happy.

I now know that you only get one soulmate. I think about you, and miss you, every single day. I sometimes think back to that conversation a few weeks before you were gone, when I begged you to take better care of yourself because "If you drop dead before you're fifty, I am going to be really pissed."

I wish I'd said instead "Because if you die before me, you're going to take a piece of my heart with you forever."  xoxoxo

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dine-In Diva's Guide to Buying Pots & Pans

As the holiday season approaches, new pots and pans (and other kitchen gadgets) often appear on wish lists, but how do you decide just exactly what are the right pots and pans for you? With a myriad of finishes, sizes, types, and manufacturers, the task of selecting a workable collection can be daunting, especially for the beginner cook.

Whether you are purchasing them as a gift, or for yourself, the first question you should ask, is 'What do I cook?' The number of people you cook for also can influence your purchases.

Should you buy a set? Besides the expense of buying a collection, vs. individual pieces, there is a likelihood that some of those pieces are going to go unused, so it wouldn't be my preferred method.

I think there is a tendency to lean towards the set your mother used, and my first set was the same as my mother's, a heavy duty Club Aluminum set consisting of a dutch oven, a large frying pan, and two sauce pans, each with a heavy lid with a large plastic handle.  Club Aluminum is apparently out of business, no doubt due to the persistent reports that cooking in aluminum contributes to Alzheimer's Disease, but a quick search on the internet reveals there are still plenty of devotees, with sources to buy replacement parts, and plenty showing up on EBay as collectibles. And I am sure my mother's avocado green pieces are still in service.

Since I really didn't know how to cook when I got married, I graduated to a set of completely non-stick pans, probably Calphalon.  I really think non-stick everything was invented because people didn't know how to cook and freaked out when something stuck to a pan; in fact I overheard a couple complaining in Williams Sonoma that things stuck to the Le Creuset they were browsing and I wanted to shout at them - "IT'S BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T GET THE PAN HOT ENOUGH AND THEN LEAVE THE FOOD ALONE".  But I decided that probably wasn't going to change their minds and kept that information to myself.

I had the dark anodized set and it was hard to see what was going on in the pans most of the time, which wasn't totally critical, since I wasn't that proficient anyway.  The set itself, was functional enough, and like high thread count sheets, until I cooked with some stainless All Clad, you probably couldn't have convinced me it was THAT much better.  Of course now I am ruined for both the All Clad and the high thread count sheets.

Attempting to create and use fond, the delicious brown flavorful bits, left in the pan after browning and sautéing, is virtually impossible in a non-stick or anodized pan.  You're cheating yourself out of an important flavor component by not learning the technique properly, using the proper equipment.

Thanks to the twice yearly All Clad factory sale, coincidentally that is going on this weekend, I have accumulated quite a collection, but there is a core collection of pieces that I use most frequently, and the winners are:

1 - All Clad French non-stick skillet 7.5"  - about the only thing I want non-stick for now is my morning eggs, so this one gets used nearly every day. Get a larger one if you are making more than 2 eggs at a time

2 - A large, heavy bottom stock pot - this doesn't have to be a fancy brand, but it does have to be heavy and feel sturdy, stainless steel preferred. I've tried cooking with the cheap, thin ones, and it's just no fun. You'll use this for boiling water for pasta, making stocks & soups, blanching water for veggies, so get a minimum of an 8 quart size, bigger if you can afford it and store it. You can also use a larger one, fitted with a rack or towel in the bottom, as a makeshift canner for small batches of jams.

3 -Large Saute/Skillet/Frying Pan Stainless Steel - there are a variety of sizes available, you are looking for something in the 10" - 12" range (14" if you have a big family, and a big stovetop). The sauté pans have straight vs. sloped sides in the skillets, and will hold a larger quantity of food, so I am recommending this 3 quart stainless steel sauté pan, over the others because you will get the most use from it. Make sure it can go directly into the oven - the All Clad is safe to 500 degrees. Use this pan to sauté or sear roast meats and vegetables.  A lid is nice, but honestly I very rarely use a lid with this pan, and when I do I use a a universal lid or foil.

Caramelizing Onions 

4 -  2 or 3 quart saucepan with lid - for making grains, heating soup, making sauces. I am, of course,  partial to my All Clad, but as long as you find a sturdy one, you'll be fine.

5 - 5 to 6.5 quart enamel covered cast iron dutch oven  - The best in this class is Le Creuset, which is pricey, but if you don't get too hung up on getting your preferred color, and there are lots of pretty ones, you'll find them often at TJ Maxx or Homegoods.

In fact my first Le Creuset was a beautiful lime green 9.5 quart that I scored at Homegoods.  I loved that pan so much that I started using it as often as possible.  Shortly after I got though, I was shopping for a personal chef client, and when I opened the hatch of my truck, the pan shot out, barely missing my foot, and bounced off of the asphalt, leaving it with a pretty sizable crack.  While they are warrantied for normal use, I am pretty sure this would not have been considered normal.  I couldn't bear to throw it out, so it is now a flower pot on my front porch.  I bought the Lodge version to replace it, but I never fell in love with it like I did the Le Creuset, which I eventually replaced with an orange version at Homegoods.

For soups, stews, and braises, including tender pot roasts, this is my go to pan.  I also use them when I make jams and jellies. It is also an essential tool for the popular no knead bread.  If you are getting one mostly for the bread, make sure you get one with a metal handle (there was a rash of handle thefts when the plastic ones melted, and Le Creuset now sells the metal lids separately), and I probably wouldn't use a Le Creuset for it, because the high heat will discolor your pan. (You can see the discoloration on my green one below from baking bread in it) I saw a nice one at Sams Club for about $40, and TJMaxx and Homegoods have knockoffs.

Stock Pots and Le Creuset hard at work on soup and stock day 
6 - 2 to 4 rimmed half sheet pans and parchment paper  - I am partial to the ones from Sams Club, sold in a 2 pack for around $12. They are a little more heavy duty than "cookie sheets" and are probably my most used pans - I can get 6 at a time in my oven if need be.  Even with the parchment liners, which I buy in bulk and pre-cut to fit, they will turn ugly in no time, but at that price when they get too nasty, I just replace them.

My other preference, is to keep your most used pans on a hanging rack; mine was custom designed at a sheet metal shop to fit over the window. They also crafted the hooks.  You have to use the pans though, otherwise you've created a dusty, sticky centerpiece.  I like a tiered rack for the Le Creuset because they are heavy and bulky to store.

*Disclaimer: I have an Amazon affiliate account and your purchases through any of my links will put a few pennies in my account.  I earn enough to buy a couple of cookbooks a year.  I promise there isn't enough for a nice vacation or I'd already be gone.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pastured Pork Chop with Spiced Pecan Apples

A few simple ingredients 
If you've stopped eating pork chops because you think they're too dry and flavorless, you probably have two issues: Overcooking, and factory farmed meat. Both are easily correctable.  The USDA has lowered the temperature for cooking pork to 145 degrees (vs. the previous 160 degrees), which cooks it to a a juicy, tender, lightly pink, medium rare.  (And despite what my mom says, you are not going to get trichinosis) This is when your Thermopen really comes in handy. You can get pasture raised pork at your nearest farmers market. Mine came from my CSA farm, Brunty Farms.

Take your pork out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before dinner and let it rest and lose it's chill a bit while you prep the rest of your dinner.  Super cold meat plus super hot pan equals cooked on the outside, but not the inside. Pat the chops dry and rub with some Penzeys Bicentennial Rub on each side. (rub has salt, sugar, black pepper, orange peel, turmeric, and coriander)

Core and chop your apple while a couple of teaspoons of butter melts in a skillet.  Add the apples and sauté until they soften and turn a nice golden brown.  Add a splash of apple cider if you have some, and drizzle with a spoonful of Pecan Praline vinegar. There is a commercial brand available at large supermarkets, but I got mine at The Olive and The Grape at West Side Market.  It's an infused, thick, slightly sweet balsamic with a spiced pecan flavor.

Remove the apples to a bowl, then wipe out your skillet with a dampened paper towel.  I did not do that you can see that my fond got a little too dark to be usable for a finishing sauce.  This is a stainless pan, which I prefer to a non-stick when searing meat. Never fear, the pan is as clean and shiny as new - I added a bit of water and scraped most of it out while it was warm, and finished cleaning it with a bit of Bar Keepers Friend.

Brown the chops in a bit of butter and bit of olive oil.  These chops weren't that thick and probably only took about 5 minutes a side.  If my fond had been usable, I would have deglazed the pan with some cider and scraped the brown bits from the pan with a wooden spoon.  Maybe added a bit of butter and a little more of the pecan vinegar.

I garnished the chop with some chopped Sweet and Spicy Pecan from Trader Joes. You could use this recipe if you don't have a TJ's nearby.

Pastured Pork Chop with Spiced Pecan Apples 
Serves 2, can be easily doubled

1 - 2 teaspoons Penzeys Bicentennial Rub
2 pasture raised, bone-in pork chops2 teaspoons butter
1 tart apple, such as Granny Smith, diced
1/4 c. apple cider
1 teaspoon Spiced Pecan Balsamic Vinegar
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 cup of Sweet and Spicy Pecans, roughly chopped

Pat chops dry and rub with Bicentennial Rub. Let rest at room temperature at least 30 minutes.

Melt butter in large skillet, then add chopped apples and sauté until softened and golden brown. Add cider and reduce until glazed, then add vinegar and toss to coat.

Wipe skillet with damp paper towel.  Add butter and olive oil and heat to medium high. Add chops and cook approximately 5 minutes on each side for thinner chops, until center temp, not touching bone reaches 140 degrees (will come up to 145 while resting).

Serve pork chop atop apples and garnish with chopped pecans.