What’s Cooking & Other Kitchen Games

emeril1_t290 I’m pitching a reality TV show idea to Hollywood.  This show would feature any number of really excellent cooks (Rachel Ray, Paula Dean, and, ooh la la Emeril (Bam!) to name a few) who would come in to the studio kitchen and attempt to teach me how to cook. I would then attempt (keyword: attempt) to make the dish or the meal, right there on national television.  It’s a bit like Julie & Julia because, of course I would be attempting to imitate a great cook, but it would also combine elements of some other reality TV shows like Survivor.  The audience members getting drawn to sample the finished product (would they be the contestants or the judges?) would be the ones trying to survive, of course.  The name of this new reality TV show?  You guessed it, “How To Screw Up A Really Great Meal”.  I can hear it now.  The studio audience applauding, the cameras swing into action panning the audience, lights go up full, the musical score plays and the announcer’s voice belts out my cue to go onstage, “This is How To Screw Up A Really Great Meal with your host, The Wild Mind!”  The crowd goes wild, because they truly hope that this episode will be the one where I finally pull off an edible attempt.

Sigh.  One can dream.

fantasy cook off Hell’s Kitchen

Truth of the matter is, I’ve never been comfortable in the kitchen until recently.  Growing up in my home, for me, and learning to cook with a dad who was first, an excellent cook himself, and two, anal retentive about leveling off every single cup, tablespoon and teaspoon.  Now, that’s not such a bad thing, but something happened between my father and I in the kitchen every time he tried to teach me a recipe that led to him getting frustrated with me and me in tears about it…or angry.  My memory of the experience is a bit Hell’s Kitchen-esque.  The result?  I gave up trying to cook.  By the time I really needed to cook to feed a family, there was no way on God’s green earth I was going to ever measure up to my, then, husband’s mom’s cooking or my now deceased father’s ability to measure and scoop so succinctly, so again, you guessed it, I gave up and quit trying.  I mean, who really enjoys slaving away for a couple of hours after a long day at work only to be greeted with criticism.  Throw the poor cook a bone and at least affirm the effort. Those of you wonderful family members out there who suffer in silence and still muster the lie, “It was great honey!” and manage to choke it down anyway, are to be commended.  You will soon be dining like kings instead of ordering out take-out. Anyway, enough of my deplorable kitchen issues. 

Cooking isn’t rocket science

One thing my dad did tell me was any fool who can read can learn to cook.  In fact, his attitude was that if you can read you can teach yourself to do anything and by the time I left home for college he’d proven that theory on a number of things in his own life.  It was pretty amazing.  So, while our father-daughter bonding kitchen experiences are less than ideal, my dad set a pretty great example in a bunch of areas. Learning things you have no clue how to do was one of them.

So, with that example, and with the added incentive that my poor children are starving, I’ve decided to, finally in midlife, do something I’ve really always wanted to do, but have never really made a commitment to doing.  I’m finding that cooking is a lot more fun than I expected. 

j0426457Since being single, I’ve found out that there are also many, many men who are not only great handy men, but they are skilled in the kitchen as well.  This leads me to think that gaining some kitchen knowledge might be a lot more fun than I previously thought.  After all, there’s a lot of fun to be had using hot pads, an egg beater and real butter.  Accompanying the meal preparations with a fine bottle of wine is a nice touch.  Later in the evening the adventurous cooking couple can advance to serving each other cocktails such as Sex On The Beach or Screwdrivers.  But for those, who like me, are uncertain of themselves in this new domain, I’d like to suggest these simple steps to enjoying a wonderful culinary experience. This is a combination cooking experience for beginners and a party game.  It is a versatile recipe.  Feel free to experiment with your own combinations and techniques.  As you gain confidence and skill, I’m sure you, too, will be able to develop your own personal culinary style.  If you’re more adept at the culinary arts maybe you could leave a comment and share what variations on this recipe you’ve tried. 

Recipe For Kitchen Success

Ingredients:

2 nicely shaped ripe oranges, one ripe but not over-ripe banana, saucepan, oven with working heat controls, 1 very flavorful Kielbasa, seasonings.

Instructions:

Step One:  Carefully and slowly, peel the oranges

Step Two:  Gently squeeze the oranges

Step Three: Savor the oranges as you simmer over a low heat and season to taste.

Step 4:  Continue savoring and simmering while stirring occasionally.

Step 4:  While simmering the oranges over a gradually increasing heat, peel the banana

Step 5:  When the oranges, banana and oven are fully heated…

Step 6:  Play Hide The Kielbasa

Enjoy!

Thanksgiving 2009 in Review: Screwing Up Fine American Traditions One Recipe At A Time

j0407467Never before have I been aware of the great lengths we Americans go to in our efforts to conceptualize, create, concoct and consume food on this particular day of the year.  Sure we say the day is all about family, but I think the day is all about food. Even more accurately, I suspect it isn’t even about food but about consumption. Better even, I believe it is about food, consumption and our competition to best each other in both realms.  Family, holiday and tradition simply legitimizes our desire to compete with each other in our desire to satiate our gluttonous tendencies.

Alright, alright.

Maybe that is a bit extreme, maudlin, or even harsh. Maybe it is unfair. Maybe I am just all sour grapes today.  I have reason to be. After all, I’m a lousy cook.  I can’t boil water without ruining a pan. Why would this day, of all days, the day we worship food and it’s preparation, even be a fun day for me? It isn’t.  It’s an ordeal.  It doesn’t ever start out this way for me.  I actually end up looking forward to making the attempt to enter into this realm of celebration, but somehow, some way disaster stalks me in the kitchen and always has his way with me.

A New Reality TV Show?

I’m notorious for screwing up completely wonderful UDSA approved food products in an attempt to take them from the state they were purchased in to a form that quasi resembles cooked and edible matter.  Delicious?  Ha!  That word NEVER is uttered at my table. I can blow a microwave TV dinner, I’m that good at screwing up anything food related. I can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich taste like something that should be used to pave roads.  Better, I can make it BE something that should be used to pave roads.  In fact, I’ve often considered pitching Hollywood for a new TV reality show called “Cooking With Cat: Screwing Up Great Cuisine One Recipe At A Time”.  Hell, I don’t even need a recipe. I can screw it up without even looking at the directions.  Really.  I am that good.  

The Way To A Man’s Heart?

If the adage “The  way to a man’s heart is through his beachtoesstomach” is true, I’m doomed.   This would totally explain why, as incredibly attractive as I am, I still remain single…well…that and the four kids…and the fact that I live in the Wild Wild West where mostly cavemen and cowboys reside, but details, details.  I keep hoping that, there really is something else more enticing to men than food.

Clearly, a holiday centered around boasting of one’s culinary clout is not one that I’m going to revel in let alone experience much success with.  Unless, of course, we measure success by my standards which is “She with the greatest disaster wins”.  (And, yes, I do have a scoring rubric to determine the greatest disaster.) This Thanksgiving had all the markings of an unmitigated disaster. Try as I might to maintain a respectable presence in my kitchen I was courted and consumed by disaster almost from the get-go.

Step 1 To Screwing Up A Great Meal:  Plan Ahead then Screw Up The Plan

I’ve heard that a key ingredient to a good meal is advance planning.  I really took this to heart this year.  When I went out to buy groceries for the month, I planned ahead.  I actually planned on cooking a Thanksgiving turkey this year instead of hoping beleaguered friends or relatives would take pity on my children and invite us over for the big meal.  You see, this works for me because then I can just bring a bottle or two of wine and call it good.  That’s really how I prefer to do my cooking. 

j0430498 This year, though, I decided to step up to the plate and attempt to be a “real” mom. I planned ahead and bought a 21 pound turkey at the beginning of the month.  Got it home, stuck it in the freezer and made a mental note that I’d have to take it out and put it in the fridge on the Sunday before Thanksgiving so it could thaw.  See?  Planning ahead.  I even remembered (the Sunday before Thanksgiving) to take the turkey out and let it thaw.  Never mind that it seemed a little bit smaller than the turkey I purchased a few weeks ago, but being as I am a tired, frazzled (can’t you hear the violins playing now?) single mom, I didn’t think much of it at the time. 

I thought a great deal about it when three days later I went out to the other freezer to get ice cream for the kids, pulled the door open and saw this huge 21 pound turkey stuffed in there.  I wondered, “What is this huge turkey doing here?”  Then panic struck and I wondered, “If that’s the turkey I bought at the beginning of the month then what did I stick in the refrigerator to thaw?”  I checked the refrigerator and, sure enough, the thing I put in the refrigerator was a much, much smaller bird.  “ Oh no!” I sighed in dismay, “We’re gonna be havin’ Thanksgiving chicken this year, I’m afraid.”

So, step number one to screwing up your Thanksgiving meal is to defrost the wrong bird.

Step 2 And Beyond:  Lose Your Camera

I trudged on valiantly hoping to make the best of things.  I even googled “How to Cook a Turkey” so I could get it right. I mean, after all, I can read.  How hard can this really be? I found some great recipes, complete with cooking times and seasoning recipes.  I followed all the directions for cleaning the turkey, seasoning it and getting it in the oven.  Everything seemed to be going well, until, about 45 minutes before the time went off I began smelling smoke.  I thought maybe something was up with the fireplace but, no, this smell was coming from the kitchen and, yes, there was a fine smoky haze in my kitchen.  I quickly opened windows and checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally put the oven in self-cleaning mode.  (Don’t even ask!) The turkey appeared to be fine.  I could detect no reason for the smoky haze in my kitchen. Eventually the haze dissipated through the open kitchen window and we went on about our day preparing for the disastrous time when the turkey comes out of the oven and everything else goes in (rolls, bean casserole, etc.) and potatoes need to be boiled and smashed. 

thermometer_in_turkey_in_panMost experienced cooks would have been proud of me at this point.  I even had a meat thermometer and I used it.  The chicken turkey was right on schedule and when the timer went off after three hours I checked the thermometer.  Everything read the right temperature so I pulled it out and let it sit while I quite effectively did the following:

1. Got Child Number 1 to do the mashed potatoes (that way if everything else got ruined at least the potatoes would provide nourishment until we could ruin the frozen pies we bought for desert).

1a. Got Number 2 to do the stuffing.  “Just read the directions on the back of the box.” I told her.  “Use this pan,” I instructed as I handed her the really nice and muy expensive saucepan my other daughter bought for me last Christmas.

2. Had a glass of wine (after all the most stressful part of the meal had begun). 

3.  Realized the chicken turkey looked great and I needed to take a picture to post on my blog so the world could see that, yes, even I can cook a great turkey!

4. Realized I’d lost my camera.

5. Went off looking for my camera and after looking everywhere and not finding it, went into panic mode and began hyperventilating.

6. Got Child Number 2 to abandon the stuffing effort and get involved in the search for the lost camera.

7.  Realized a short while later that something was again on fire. 

8. Discovered that the stuffing was now blackened stuffing.  Does that fit under Cajun style cooking?

9. Downed another glass of wine (was I supposed to be using that for the gravy?).

10.  Remembered about the gravy and the bean casserole.

11.  Left Number 2 to continue looking for the camera, while I tried to forge ahead with the meal.

12.  Got Child Number 4 to set the table, Child Number 3 to prepare the bean casserole.  At this point there were four of us in my tiny galley kitchen going back and forth.  Seriously?  Hell’s Kitchen had nothing on me! 

13.  Began carving the turkey at the designated 20 to 30 minutes after taking it out of the oven.j0427604

14.  Realized about 3/4 of the way through the carving project that the chicken turkey was NOT completely cooked.  (Yes, you heard me chicken turkey was undercooked in spite of 185 degree readings in several places from meat thermometer).  I should have gone with the 3 1/2 hours instead of the 3 hour time.  Sigh.

15. Wrapped the turkey up in foil and put it back in the oven to finish cooking while we ate was there was of our pathetic meal.  (No, I didn’t tell the kids anything about that so, shhhhh!)

16.  Put what could be salvaged of the “chicken” and stuffing on the table along with the mashed potatoes and green bean casserole which actually survived the ordeal and made it to the table in edible fashion.  Please note, those were the two dishes I let someone else prepare and left them alone to do it.

The Final Step:  Clean Up the Mess and Try Again Tomorrow

By the time we all sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, I had a great deal to be thankful for.  We did have something to eat.  Two parts of the meal actually ended up being edible.  The house didn’t burn down and I did find the camera.  Well, Number 2 found the camera. I did lose a really nice saucepan in the chaos though.   

j0443829 Now you understand why I was sour grapes about the whole Thanksgiving Feast thing. I mean, really, when it comes to putting food on the table, I’m lucky if it even makes it in edible form, forget it tasting good and looking good.  I simply had to forget the Martha Stewart or Rachel Ray cuisine and table settings everyone else was Face booking about on Thursday. I was simply glad to have made it through my meager attempt at celebrating in my own very unique way and still actually eat.  And losing one muy expensive saucepan in the fray was an improvement for me. 

In spite of it all, I’m still hopeful that I can pull off a tasty “chicken” noodle soup with the carcass and scraps. 

All’s Well That Ends Up Getting Eaten

As I sat down battle weary to yet another successful kitchen disaster (being this bad at cooking is really hard work!), I looked at my starving progeny.  They waited patiently in their chairs until everything was on the table. Their eyes gleamed at the mounds of fluffy white potatoes with butter melting unrestrained on top. The creamy gravy (little did they know then it would taste like paste) at least appeared tempting in its boat.  The “chicken” sliced with my new electric knife gleamed with the soft white juicy tenderness that the outer layers of an almost cooked bird can have.  The bean casserole provided color to an otherwise monochromatic culinary palette. And the soft, doughy rolls?  I completely forgot those, so we did without.  Sweet potatoes?  Nope.  Cranberry sauce?  None.  Other side dishes or soup?  Glaringly apparent in their absence. It was just me, my meager offerings, my hungry kids, some sparkling grape juice for them and a third glass of wine for me.

j0442231 In spite of my incredible lack of skill in creating ambiance and mood (at least a positive and inviting one) through food, my kids ended up eating until they were stuffed.  Not one of us ended up with food poisoning. The dismal state of our cuisine’s presentation didn’t dampen our gratitude and joy that day one bit.  We all worked together to clean up the mountain of dishes then retired to the living room where we ordered Four Christmases on pay-per-view while digesting our dubious dinner.

In all, the meal may have been a disaster but the day was alright.  The very best part of it all was the chilling realization that my daughter was completely accurate when she said, “Seriously!  Hollywood should so come in here and just film us!  We wouldn’t have to memorize a script.  We wouldn’t have to change a thing and people would watch us!”

Move over, Jon and Kate plus Eight!