Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lesson #3: Don't follow recipes

I've been on a kick recently of cooking dinner for myself everyday.  I know, what a noble, healthful endeavor!  But, for someone who has ruined a saucepan by cooking rice in it for six hours and twice burnt rubber spatulas on the stove, this has been more of an epic, perilous quest.  (Although, I should mention that the most ridiculous "cooking" mistake I've witnessed is a drunk friend microwaving an egg for 6 hours... but that's a story best left for another time).

Stumbling and bumbling my way through epicurious, allrecipes, and foodnetwork.com every day, I search for recipes that I eventually just become frustrated by -- why does it appear so complicated to put food from fridge into belly?  As an example, I got it in my head to make jambalaya.  Most of the recipes called for using a dutch oven.  Not knowing what a dutch oven was (besides the cruel act of trapping someone under the bedsheets after you've farted inside, which didn't seem relevant to cooking), I decided it wasn't important and just used a regular pot.  Then this happened:

I'm not sure what exactly this turned out to be, but it certainly wasn't jambalaya.  How do I know?  Because this is what jambalaya is supposed to look like:

I'd also rather not discuss in much detail my very brief foray into baking (it was a bit scarring... literally).  Suffice to say, that beating eggs until they form "soft peaks" and waiting until one sees "wisps of white" did not compute to me as necessary steps involved in preparing food.  I re-checked the recipe several times to ensure that I did not mistakenly stumble onto a travel site describing the scenery of the Swiss Alps.

The point of these little stories is to tell you that, if you are like me, and feel that many recipes may as well be written in Klingon, there is still hope.  What is the secret, then, you ask?


Example #1: Burgers and French Fries
I wanted to have a burger off, so I went to the store and picked up some ground meat and a bunch of fixins.  The fixins were simply items that appealed to me in the store: red onions, muenster, and of course bacon.  I rolled up the meat in some spices, coated it with some egg and bread crumbs because that seemed like it might hold the meat together, threw it on the pan and pushed/flipped it around until it was done (meat thermometers are kind of key here, I must admit).  Voila!  Out came a delicious burger and some fries that I made as a side.

It certainly doesn't look particularly impressive (sorry, I don't know how to use instagram), but the result was finger-licking good, I assure you.  The take-away lesson here is don't over think it.  How do you make french fries?  You cut potatoes into shapes you prefer and fry them.  Twice, for good measure.

Example #2: Roasted Pork Loin
Confession: my method of choosing dishes to prepare is almost wholly influenced by their names.  Especially in the aftermath of Jambalaya-gate, I resolved to stick with, for a while, meals whose titles second as recipes.  This is a general approach that I encourage all of my maladroit comrades to adopt.  For any readers still uncertain about how to cook a roasted pork loin, here are the steps.  Buy pork tenderloin.  Mix spices together that you think will taste good.  This is the key; one need not be restricted by spicing suggestions.  If you enjoy the aroma of celery salt and habanero, go for it!  Your goal is to cook food that you like, right?  Many recipes suggest rosemary for a roasted pork loin.  But, if the very thought of the herb impels you to dry heave, you have my permission to steer clear.  I used garlic, thyme, and parsley (mainly because I happened to have them around, and I love garlic).  Once you've found a spice mixture that works for you, rub it all over the pork loin, cutting slices into the meat so you can spice the innards if you see fit.  Pop that baby in the oven and wait until it's done (again... I stress the importance of the meat thermometer here).

Again, a delicious meal!

Certainly, these methods I've outlined are somewhat restrictive.  A more formal understanding (and even following recipes) would be necessary to truly explore the culinary cosmos.  But, do not let inexperience or an (I argue, genetic) inability to follow explicit directions prevent you from preparing healthy, hearty, and delectable home-cooked meals.

I know, it may seem like a terrible proposal to say that clumsy people who don't know how to cook shouldn't follow recipes.  But my advice: follow your heart... as long as your heart leads you to food!

P.S. I've been meaning to say something about this for sometime, but the same rules apply for making alcoholic drinks.  If you combine any sweet mixer with alcohol, the result will be a tasty mixed drink.  I feel that anyone who disagrees is simply lying to themselves.  Case in point: tequila and coke.  (try it, you won't regret it).

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lesson #2: Always carry a poncho

As anyone who has known me for a day will tell you, I am fairly prone to losing things.  How prone?  Let's just say that there's an entry in my annual budget spreadsheet for "Lost/Replacement Items."  Hell (without even planning this as a precursor to this blog post) I've lost my ID not once, but twice in the last week.  I've figured out that if the item is not directly strapped to me, there's basically a 50/50 shot that it won't end up on my person at the end of the day.

Usually, the forgotten article doesn't keep me up at night.  Now, don't get me wrong... I hate ending up with unpaired socks, but, at the end of the day, I'm not going to fret too much about my missing glove or sweatshirt or (believe it or not) eyeglasses.  After all, I've already lost three gloves this year and that's why you keep backup pairs of glasses!

"But what about the serious stuff, like your wallet or your cell phone?" you may ask.  Although the answer may surprise you, frankly, I hardly worry about that either.  I've lost my wallet god knows how many times, with credit cards, IDs, and even social security cards tucked inside.  And, don't get me started on how many times I've lost my cell phone (interestingly, for some reason, when I had the Pantech 3200, colloquially known as the "Zoolander phone, " I never lost it... curious).  Yet, (almost) always I am able to keep a cool head.  Why?  Because my lived experience tells me that these things have a way of finding their way back home.  Only once that I can remember have I misplaced my wallet and not been able to track it down later.  And that one time, it was actually just pick-pocketed from me, so it doesn't even count!  Which leads me to a funny story in which my mother pick-pocketed my wallet in order to teach me a lesson...  The lesson I learned was to never walk in front of my mother again.

Before I continue, I want to point out that while everything I've said so far may lead you to believe that I've never actually lost anything valuable, that conclusion couldn't be farther from the truth.  I have lost at least two (more likely three) iPods in the last five years, each time wiping away years of music collecting and innumerable OCD-induced hours of digital organization.  Worst of all, and you may need to sit down for this, I recently lost my partner's camera...... on the last day of a two-week long spring break in which we road-tripped down from Connecticut to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and went to San Francisco to wine taste and meet her family for the first time!  Oh goodness, all the gold lamé tops and cross-dressing that now remain undocumented!!!  I may never live down those memories that I've abandoned somewhere in a DSW in downtown San Francisco...

Those majestic blunders have taught me to keep better track of my valuable possessions, but the same lesson just doesn't apply to our daily accoutrements.  Picture, for instance, a bitter, stormy morning.  You strap on your rain boots, grab your umbrella, and gallantly endure the torrential rain on your way to class.  But, alas, it's not raining once you reach your classroom!  So you shake off your umbrella and place it on the floor by the door, so as not to drip tactlessly across the entire room.  Two hours later, you've learned a lot and you head outside pleased to find it's no longer raining.  Delighted, you prance around campus listening to Electric Light Orchestra in your head.  However, when you wake up to another rainy morning a week later and find no umbrella, you suddenly switch off the ELO and ramp up your mental Papa Roach (the early years) station.  What did you do wrong?

I'll tell you: you didn't carry a poncho!  I know ponchos aren't exactly the sexiest item in your wardrobe, but remember when I told you that something needs to be strapped to me in order for me to guarantee it's safe passage?  Well, ponchos are portable enough to be able to fit neatly into the second pouch of my bookbag upon folding.  This guarantees that no matter how many umbrellas I may misplace, I always have protection.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lesson #1: Soap cleans everything!

I don't know how, but when I eat, everything ends up on my pants.  I mean, there's the obvious: pasta, Indian food, the occasional wine spill.  But, I assure you, everything ends up on my pants.  That includes sandwiches, burritos, even jolly ranchers, and (I guess I'm not eating it but it's remarkable nonetheless) toothpaste.  In fact, there have been times where I've garnered a round of applause when I've finished a meal without covering half my body in sauce.  More often than not, the applause comes right before a glass of milk goes by the wayside and drips down my pant legs.  There's a funny story involving a seafood enchilada and a pitcher of margarita, but I'll save that for another time...

Suffice to say, I'm a bit of an expert in dealing with stained clothes, especially when the stains appear at inopportune times.  One solution is simply to carry around a handy Tide-to-Go or Oxiclean portable stain removing pen.  I'll be honest though, the types of stains I'm talking about would require 3 or 4 pens worth of stain remover alone.  In general, I always need another option, and given the frequency of my... mishaps... it needs to be accessible no matter where or when my issues occur.

Fear not! The simplest, most effective way to deal with that unfortunate salsa blob on your shorts is also the most accessible and perhaps most obvious thing you can think of.  SOAP AND WATER!  Perhaps for many this doesn't warrant an explanation (and certainly not its own lesson), but I have been skeptical enough of this fix to have not even attempted it until a few short hours ago.  

Sitting in lab and about to attend a reception in a few short hours, I looked down to see trail of dried hot sauce and sour cream trickling down my pants.  Now, I wasn't exactly "surprised" at this sight, and usually I keep an extra pair of pants in my office (now you understand just how messy I am), but this time I was unprepared.  The only resort I had was to head to the bathroom, douse myself with hot water and industrial quality hand foam, and pray to God that none of my professors felt an urgent bowel movement during my repair job.  Here are the steps:

1) Identify the stain... ALL OF IT.  Often, I consider myself triumphant after tackling the large gob of spilled lentils on my shirt collar, only to realize that the gob spawned its offspring across my entire back.  Check your entire body.

2) Wet a paper towel with some hot water and dab the stains on both sides of the fabric.

3) Pump several dollops (?) of the hand foam onto another paper towel and rub in vigorously into the stain.

4)  Let the soap sit for a few seconds before rinsing it off with another hot, wet, paper towel (don't get too excited now either).

5)  Repeat the above steps several times.  You will, I repeal, you will end up with a wet pant leg or arm sleeve at the end of this process, so make sure you can stay away from judgmental company for about a half an hour.

I promise you, as long as you didn't just combine blood, urine, and feces in a beaker and dip your shirt into it over a Bunsen burner, you can probably get the stain out as long as you act quickly enough.

As for me, I arrived at the reception looking clean as a whistle... until I decided to help myself to a plate of baked beans.  Luckily, there was a bathroom there too!