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On Saturday night we had “fake Valentine’s Day” here at our house. We had company last weekend and Robert and I spent a good part of the week bickering, so we designated Saturday for a nice dinner together. I decided to do my pork belly experiment because, hey, we love pig fat. It was a reasonably successful attempt, but not exactly right. I have to work on it a little more. Any dish that comes to me in a dream deserves a few attempts at perfection.

If you recall from my last post, I dreamed about pork belly that was braised in pear eau de vie. I did find the eau de vie, but wow, it was pricey. The one kind that was a true dry style was $43 a bottle. I just couldn’t do it. I ended up buying a bottle of sweet pear liqueur made in Portland. It was also expensive, but it came in smaller bottles and looked like something I would want to drink if nothing else. Braising in this costly liquid was out so I had to come up with another plan. I ended up browning the meat and some aromatic vegetables and then cooking it in a combination of chicken broth and white wine. I stuck the whole thing in the oven at 350 degrees and cooked it for about 3 1/2 hours.

raw pork belly

ready to go into the oven

When it came out it was falling apart and had given up a lot of the fat.  I removed the meat and strained the cooking juices into my gravy separator to get out most of the fat. I added some pear cider to the juices and then reduced them to a syrupy sauce.  I cut the meat into four pieces and rolled them around in the sauce and put them back in the oven at 425 degrees to crisp up.  I think that the meat would have benefited greatly from a 24 hour brining or a dry rub, something to cure it a little bit.  I think some salt, sugar, cloves and black pepper would make a really good dry rub for this meat.  But anyhow…

I decided to serve the pork with blue cheese polenta, kale with shallots and toasted hazelnuts, and roasted pears.  The roasted pears were maybe the best part of the dinner and also the most dangerous.  I cut them into quarters and brushed them with a healthy amount (I guess I should say a not-so-healthy amount) of melted butter.  I stuck them in the oven at 425 with the pork to cook.  They weren’t browning a much as I wanted, so when the pork was done I put them under the broiler.  I also poured in some of my tasty pear liqueur.  This is when things got exciting.  I was busy, stirring polenta, checking the greens, just the general puttering that goes on just before you sit down to eat, when I heard a WHOOSH! in the oven and the door banged open and then shut again.  I looked in and there were big blue flames.  Lots of big blue flames.  I hadn’t even thought that the alcohol in the liqueur could catch fire from the broiler, but it did.  It was a lucky mistake though, the pears were divine and I didn’t even singe my eyebrows off.  Here’s the final product:

Fake Valentine's Dinner

All in all I give it a 7.8.  I put too much blue cheese in the polenta, and I will try a few other things with the pork next time.   But it’s worth trying again (and again).  Pork belly is just uncured bacon after all.

Side note: Sunday night I made a tasty carbonara pasta with the leftover pork.  Eggs, cheese, belly of pig, a few cherry tomatoes and some fresh basil.  Easy and pretty darn good.

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I had a realization tonight: If it wasn’t for my husband I wouldn’t eat nearly as well. Since I do about 98.4% of the cooking dinner in this house it hasn’t ever occurred to me, but it’s true. Robert is out this evening for some much needed relaxation. I was making dinner for Lola and myself and I found that I didn’t have the energy to turn our simple meal of salmon, baked potatoes and green beans into anything other than basic food. I thought ‘Oh, some chopped green onions and crumbled blue cheese would be good on these potatoes’ and ‘I should make a little sauce for this fish’ and ‘Mmm, some toasted almonds and sauted shallots would taste great on these beans’ but I didn’t do any of it. Lola likes good food, but she also likes simple food, and I wasn’t willing to go to the work just for myself. I am willing, happy, drawn to do it almost every night, because I am in love. I had the sad thought tonight that if, God forbid and knock on wood, I am ever a single parent I will lose all that comes with a partnership, and also my ability to cook in detail oriented way on a Tuesday night. This relationship has taught me to cook more than any class or book ever could because I have the desire to please someone. Thank you Robert, you are powerful motivation.

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The other night Robert asked me to imagine a scenario where we would be stranded at our house, like in a snow storm or some other kind of natural disaster. We wouldn’t be able to get out even to walk to the store or anything, but we would still have power. His question was, how long could we last? How much food do we have around here? How well could we eat? I have to admit that I really like thinking about this. I like to think of how I could best use the food I have, what I would run out of first, and how I could still make tasty and interesting meals without going to the store. Here is what would happen at my house.

If we had power to keep the refrigerator and freezer working we would be in good shape for quite a while. We have meat enough to support us for many weeks thanks to buying part of a grass fed cow last winter and the fact that I can’t pass up a sale on pork roast or whole chickens. So we are good there.

Vegetables would get to be a problem pretty quick. I don’t tend to keep many frozen vegetables on hand, maybe a couple packages of frozen peas or corn. I have all those artichokes that I roasted and froze, they would be a treat. I would run out of onions and garlic pretty quick and that would make it hard to cook a good meal. At the moment I have a lot of canned tomatoes, but after a week or so that would be the only vegetable matter we would have.

I don’t feel like I have a lot of starches and grains on hand, but after looking a little bit I discovered that I have more than I thought. I have full jars of rice and polenta, at least five packages of pasta, and lots of flour, though most of it is white and not whole wheat. I’ve also got a little of this and that, quinoa, cornmeal, farro, oatmeal, etc. I could make that work.

When Robert posed this question on Sunday night I was in desperate need of a trip to Costco, mainly because our fat supply was low. I always buy my olive oil and butter there. I went a couple of days ago though and I am up to my normal levels (thank God we didn’t get stranded here before that, it would have been awful!) I now have a gallon of olive oil and two and a half pounds of butter in the house. I worry a little about the butter. It would be one of the first things I run out of. I used to keep way more butter around, I would buy it four pounds at a time and always had at least that much socked away. But I have been trying to do less baking (actually I have been trying to do less eating and it helps if I do less baking) so I haven’t been going through butter at the same rate. I also try to only buy organic butter now and it gets pricey to buy that much all at once. So if we are stranded there will be butter rationing.

Great news! Even though we don’t have a lot of vegetables, we won’t get scurvy! You know that I’m a berry glutton, right? I have 17 gallon bags of frozen berries that I picked or bought over the summer. That stockpile is my pride and joy. That and the jam I made. Wow, do we ever have jam! I’m going to digress for a moment here to tell you about it. On my pantry shelf I have over 70 jars that I made this year. Most of those are little half cup jars, but still I have over three gallons all together. I made seven kinds this year, peach, strawberry, bing cherry, rainier cherry, golden raspberry, gooseberry, and dewberry. I also made pear butter and two kinds of conserves (apricot and Italian plum). I don’t even eat that much jam, but I love to make it and give it away at Christmas. Robert has learned that even though we have 70 jars he had better think long and hard before opening one.  I like to save the special jam, and what jam is special depends on a number of things, how many jars we have, how long it took me to pick or deal with the fruit, how much I like the jam, how many scratches or other injuries I sustained in the jam making process… It is a big decision for him, one not to be made without major consideration. OK, now back to surviving the disaster.

Sugar. I wouldn’t have bought the ten pound bag at Costco the other day if I hadn’t been thinking about this. But I realized that I only had a couple of pounds and if we are going to be stranded here we are going to need sugar! The brown sugar is a little low too, but we can get by with white.

If we could make it to the chicken house then we could get eggs, but if this disaster is so bad that we are stuck here for weeks the chickens might not be laying very well. I better not count on having many eggs.

Hmmm. I just started to think about things like salt, baking powder and spices. Interesting. The baking powder wouldn’t last all that long, but neither would the butter, so I might not need it. I have sour dough starter that I could use to leaven bread. I should buy salt before it gets too low. I’m good on spices.

I don’t have the most exciting selection of cheese on hand right now, but it could be worse. I have a bunch of shredded mozzarella in the freezer, a big log of cheddar, some Parmesan, and a little hunk of Point Reyes blue cheese. Also quite a bit of ricotta. I can work with that.

As far as drinks go, we have quite a bit of tea. Since we would run out of milk in a few days we wouldn’t be drinking nearly as much black tea, and we have lots of herb tea. Lola could drink Emergen-C, we have some of that. We would have to ration the wine, along with the butter. We have maybe fifteen bottles or so, but if we are going to be stuck here wine will be important. Maybe I should stock up.

So, in conclusion, here at our house the disaster would look like this: Lots of tomatoey beef dishes. Pot roast. Lasagna. Chicken and rice. Pasta with roasted artichokes. Pork roast with cheesey polenta. White bread with jam but no butter. Frozen berries. Tea with no milk. Berry crisps and cobblers. Homemade ravioli. Not enough wine. My guess is that we could go for a month or so before things got really dismal. Maybe longer.

If you made it all the way through this post you deserve an award. I am realizing that probably not many people out there are very interested in what food stores I have at my house. My fascination with surviving without help from the outside world probably comes partly from the connection to Little House on the Prairie that I wrote about a while ago. And a fear of being hungry. If you were able to stay interested through this long post (without even any pictures) then you must be as food obsessed as I am. So what about you?

What will you be eating when disaster (but not power outage) strikes?

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I just had to share my recent popcorn success. After reading the helpful comments I got on my post about things I can’t cook I went out an bought a fresh bag of popcorn on Saturday. I wanted to find a way to pop regular popcorn in the microwave without the special bowl that Sue has. A little internet research led me to the paper bag method and I actually made a delicious bowl of popcorn, and the house didn’t stink! Robert and I had a good night eating popcorn, drinking Champagne and watching Weeds. I interrupted the show a couple times (OK, three or four times) to say ‘This is great! I’m so proud of myself!’ I felt like a real kitchen pro, popping corn and being able to eat it and all.

For those of you who want to try my new paper bag popcorn method, here’s how:

Put a generous 1/2 cup of popcorn in a paper bag. Squeeze out the air and fold the top over a few times. Put it in the microwave and turn it on. Nuke it until you stop hearing lots of popping. I think it took about five minutes in my microwave, but it is old and crappy so yours might be quicker.

Paper bag popcorn

Paper bag popcorn

Put popcorn into a bowl and pour melted butter over it. I ground up some salt in a mortar and pestle to sprinkle over. The powdered salt sticks to the popcorn better, I highly recommend it.

I can't believe I made this!

I can't believe I made this!

Robert and I have been really stressed out by our house building project lately. We’re feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and out of money. But the new popcorn development has been a bright spot in our life. I told Robert as he was heading up to bed that we need to think of something to do tomorrow to make it feel like Friday night without spending any money. He said “We could have popcorn…” We laughed a lot thinking of all the days we are going to have to make special by eating popcorn. It’s good to laugh.

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Birthday Girl

Birthday Girl

Today my sweet Lola turned six. We had a family party this evening with my parents, my brother, and my grandma. For her birthday dinner Lola requested “chanterelles in a creamy sauce” on homemade pasta and “green beans from Costco, fried brown.” Do you know how happy that makes me? To have my daughter request chanterelles and homemade pasta for her birthday? I am so lucky. And I have to say, those green beans from Costco are really good too, especially when you cook them in butter and top them with lemon juice and good salt. The grownups at the party also had an arugula salad with Parmesan and toasted walnuts. I have only one terrible picture of the pasta that we had because I was rushing around and forgot to take pictures before we ate. Here is what was left at the end:

chanterelles in a creamy sauce on homemade pasta

chanterelles in a creamy sauce on homemade pasta

Her cake is one that I am not proud of. She wanted a yellow cake with chocolate frosting which is easy enough, but she wanted me to draw a chicken on it and she wanted the chicken to be saying “Happy Birthday Lola”. Our day didn’t go as planned, in fact my whole weekend didn’t go as planned, and I ended up with an undecorated cake at 5:00 and people were coming at 5:30. So I couldn’t take the time that I normally would to decorate the cake. And it showed. This next picture is a humiliation. I mean, I used to decorate cakes for a job! This looks like it was done by a second grader. But Lola has a good imagination and she didn’t mind. And we cut it up and ate it pretty quickly.

Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake

Today was beautiful and sunny, just like the day Lola arrived. She was born in my parents living room just before ten o’clock in the evening and there were thirteen people waiting to greet her and love her. What a welcome she received.

I have never felt quite so cared for as I did in the week after she was born. When I think back on that time I remember the overwhelming love for my baby and my husband, a love that consumed me. But I also remember the love that was showered on our family by everyone around us. And the food, oh my. We ate so well. There was my mom’s Chinese chicken soup, and her tuna casserole (never have you eaten a tuna casserole like this, with fresh tuna, Italian egg noodles, lemon zest and herbs, oooh). There was tapioca pudding and homemade ravioli from Sue, blackberry pie from Sara, beef stew from Kathy, macaroni and cheese from Winoma, oatmeal cookies from Lauren… There was multi grain bread spread with triple cream Brie. There was apple and onion frittata. There was tomato salad from just about everyone (it was a good tomato year). There was food from people we hardly knew. For a few days after the birth I didn’t have much of an appetite, very rare for me, but I was still nourished and tempted into eating by all the carefully prepared food. And when my appetite came back with a vengeance I had the best of the best to choose from.

From the night she was born, Lola has been surrounded by good food. She knows how to appreciate the work that goes into a good meal. She loves that her birthday is during chanterelle season. She has the words and the knowledge to ask for exactly the meal that she wants to eat. What a gift that she has so many good cooks in her life. And what a gift she is to all of us.

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I usually feel pretty confident in the kitchen. I am comfortable there and for the most part I know that I can cook what I set out to cook. Until I try to make a pot of rice. Or a cup of coffee. Or a bowl of popcorn. These three things, these basic, basic, things can throw me into a panic. They are the bane of my culinary existence. I know there are people out there who can’t cook anything else but who can make coffee, rice and popcorn. And I wonder, what the hell is wrong with me?

Let me elaborate.

I can cook a decent pot of white rice. Not great, but good enough. But I like brown rice, and when I make it, more often than not it ends up mushy, or starchy, or undercooked, or stuck to the bottom of the pan. Robert thinks we should get a rice cooker, but I don’t want a rice cooker. That feels admitting defeat, and I don’t want to be defeated by rice, of all things. I know that you don’t need a rice cooker to make decent rice, people do it all the time. Just not me. And I try, I do. I change the proportion of water, I rinse, I don’t rinse, I boil the water before adding the rice, I start everything together… And still I get bad rice. I think I must have a rice cooking curse on me.

And coffee, well, let me tell you. I don’t drink coffee, that is part of the problem. But I want to be able to make a decent cup for someone who comes to my house. I mean, really, that’s basic hospitality. I never know how much coffee per cup or what kind to buy or how fine to grind it. I had some friends over for dinner a few months ago, and we had a good time, everything went well, and then I made coffee in my French press. After a while I asked if anyone would like any more coffee, and no one did but I didn’t think anything of it (I was drinking tea). After they left and I collected the cups on the table I realized that all the cups were half full of sludge. Thick, black goop. Apparently I had ground the coffee beans much too fine for the French press and I had made a kind of coffee soup. Lovely. Luckily I have friends who, although they are too polite to say anything, will overlook this kind of culinary debacle. Good friends, bad coffee curse.

On Saturday night I had a craving for popcorn while Robert and I were sitting on the couch watching a movie. I hadn’t had popcorn for quite a while. Not since my last attempt, and that killed the craving for a good long time. Here is another instance where maybe I should go out and buy a special appliance for making popcorn, but I really think it shouldn’t be necessary. But I’m starting to reconsider. When I make popcorn the house always ends up smelling like burning oil and my kernels only pop half way and are hard as rocks. And there is always some kind of fiasco where the pot is too small or I burn myself or get hit in the eye with a popping kernel. I even have a burn mark on my counter from a popcorn incident years ago to prove that this has been a life long issue for me. This last time I looked in the Joy Of Cooking for a popcorn recipe so I would get it right. But the Joy of Cooking doesn’t have a recipe for popcorn because it’s that basic. I swear, I have got some kind of problem. Corn popping curse perhaps.

So, if you have any suggestions for me, please pass them along. Maybe I am cursed, or maybe I just need some good advice.

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Right at this moment I am not thinking about the perfect fig, or beautiful vegetables from some friend’s garden. I wish I were. What is on my mind has nothing to do with seasonal, homemade, wholesome food. What I am thinking about is what the state of Washington says my kid should eat. The Washington State Department of Health sends out these mailings until your child turns six with information about immunizations, car seats, child safety and health. We just received our last one and I have to express my extreme frustration with the information that the Department of Health (!) is putting out there. First of all, let me say that I have always found these mailings to be condescending and biased. For instance, the mailings they sent out during the first six months included brochures about why you shouldn’t shake your baby. I’m sure there are people out there that need to be told this, but are these people really going to read this brochure that comes in the mail and say to themselves ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that shaking my newborn when I’m frustrated is a bad thing, I’m going to stop doing that.’? I think all that information like that does is upset mothers (like me) who are having a little bit of postpartum sensitivity and cause them to cry all the time because they can’t stop thinking about babies with “Shaken Baby Syndrome.”

But back to what I’m upset about tonight…In my oh so helpful packet of information about six year olds there is this pamphlet entitled ‘Think Inside the Bag Think Outside the Box.’ This pamphlet is brought to us by our friends at the Washington State Dairy Council and it tells us how to keep our kids healthy by encouraging them to exercise and feeding them healthy food. Healthy food like microwave popcorn, pudding, fortune cookies, fig newtons, pizza, chocolate milk and granola bars. These things were all on the list of healthy snacks for your child. There were other things on there too, like dairy in every form imaginable, but this just bugs me. The pamphlet says you should have you kids check out the list and pick their favorites so you can keep them on hand. One of the choices on the list is “any veggie”. What kid is going to pick “any veggie” over pudding and microwave popcorn?

Another part of this pamphlet that I find crazy is this kind of message: “Do your kids think eating healthy is boring? Not true! They can eat healthy and still enjoy their favorites like chips, cookies and candy. All foods can fit. The trick is to teach them what a portion or serving size is.” It goes on to explain about the size of a serving of meat, pasta, cheese (imagine that!) and a few other things, but not about the chips and candy. And is anyone’s kid going to decide that they need to eat their piece of chicken the size of a deck of cards and their baked potato the size of a computer mouse along with their chips, cookies and candy? It’s ridiculous.

I know most of you don’t care about my tirade, so I won’t go page by page through the stupid thing pointing out everything that makes me angry but I have to get one more off my chest. This page is called ‘Fitting in Fast Food Favorites’: “There’s no doubt that a meal of a burger, fries and soft drink tastes great. It’s fun to stop at your favorite fast food place with your family.” Really? Tastes great? Fun? I beg to differ. The pamphlet suggests not supersizing your meal as a way to make it healthier. Yep, I feel healthy just thinking about a Big Mac with a bag of fries the size of, hmm, what would it be, oh yeah, one of those paddles they use to make your heart start beating again when you have a heart attack.

I’m sure you know that I’m not opposed to pudding, candy, chips and fast food (okay, I am sort of opposed to fast food); what I’m upset by is including these things in a brochure about healthy eating. If we followed the guidelines set out by the dairy council we would all be eating white flour, cheese, strawberry milk, yogurt in a tube, and the occasional “any fruit or veggie” along with our junk food. Our kids deserve better than this. And I resent being talked down to. Stupid Department of Health.

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