Tag Archives: cooking

Open yourself up and get out there

You’ve got to be open to trying new things, lots of new things. You start getting complacent in life, doing the same old stuff every day, pretty soon everything’s boring, you’re sitting at your computer for four hour stretches at a time, the days are blending into the nights and you can’t remember off the top of your head what day of the week it is, what time you have to start getting ready for work, you’re getting all of these text messages from your boss like, “Are you coming in? You’re supposed to be here right now. Where are you?”


And so yes, text him back, tell him that you got mugged on the way to work or something like that, like they stole your wallet, luckily not your cell phone, because … OK, yeah, don’t text, just show up at work, maybe look a little purposefully disheveled, and tell him that the mugger stole your cell phone too.

No, you really can’t use a trick like this more than once a year. And so while you’re in the bathroom splashing some cold water on your face, staring at a reflection in the mirror that’s looking less familiar every day, telling yourself, all right man, just really, really make an effort to show up to work on time, just really make it a point not to be late again, also, at the same time, think about getting involved in some new activities. You’ve got to get out there and try some new things.

Lots of things. Like, I don’t know. Why don’t you take a cooking class? That could be fun, right? You can learn all sorts of different ways to prepare food. And then when you wake up in the morning, you can start thinking about going to the store, and buying all of those fresh ingredients. Do you remember what that okra looked like? Will they have okra at the regular grocery store? Actually, you probably should have gotten up a little earlier. You can’t expect to go to the grocery store, cook a whole meal, and still be on time for work. Just go to Subway, just grab a sandwich, just remember you’ve really got to be in on time today.

But don’t stop thinking about all of those new activities you’re going to get involved in. Life is what you make of it, right? Right. What about hockey? You used to play hockey in high school, right? Well, there you go, get involved. Or don’t get involved, I didn’t realize how expensive ice time was. And yeah, I didn’t really think about the cost of buying all new equipment. You sure you won’t be able to find any of your old stuff at home? No, I guess I don’t have a lot of my old high school stuff either.

What about tennis though? That can’t be as expensive as hockey. Just go on craigslist and find an old racket, nothing too old, but come, you’ve got to be able to find something decent online. Do you know how many people are constantly taking up new activities? I guarantee you that there’s got to be at least ten people within a five block radius that have made a commitment to get involved in a new activity, probably tennis. They buy brand new rackets, they sign up for a free intro lesson at the tennis center, and then it’s like ten months later and that racket hasn’t been taken out the case at all, it’s practically brand new still, just waiting to be plucked for a totally lowball offer on craigslist.

Look, I’m not saying it has to be tennis. It could be anything. Carpentry. Guitar lessons. Running. Gardening. Is anything sounding cool here? Anything jumping out at you? Painting. Bird watching. I don’t know man, you just keep shaking your head no, it’s like, what do you want to do? Huh? Because for me anyway, it’s like, I won’t really get into something until I at least give it a shot. And so what if you don’t like it after a while? Try something else.

You want to play video games all day? Well, I mean I guess that’s something. You could play online, right? You could talk with some of the other gamers. That’s an activity. Yeah. Making popcorn, sure, that’s something else. Think about people living three, four hundred years ago. I doubt they made popcorn. And if they did, they definitely weren’t making it in a bag in the microwave. No man, just count your blessings, don’t forget to look on the bright side. Is this helping? Are you feeling a little better? Just, after you’re done with that next level, let’s go for a walk, OK? Or tomorrow, sure, just, you let me know when you’re ready to get out there, OK? The world is your oyster, OK! Well, I was just speaking figuratively, there aren’t any oysters, not really. But if you’ve never had an oyster, you should definitely at least try it. Yeah it’s got a really weird texture, but I’m telling you, you get used to that briny taste, you start to really like it man, or you can just add some lemon juice and Tabasco until it doesn’t seem so weird just slurping it out of the shell like that.

Homemade ice cream

My mom gave me an ice cream maker a little while ago, and the other day I finally got to try it out. Someone else had given me this cigar-shaped tube filled with a few actual vanilla beans from Madagascar. I’ve heard they’re pretty hard to come by, although I’ve never actually looked that up or anything, so I’m just assuming, yes, very rare, very special.


I got too excited though, that’s my only possible explanation as to why it didn’t work out like I had imagined. The recipe called for only fresh ingredients, egg yolks, cream, sugar, and it was cool to split the vanilla bean in half and scrape out all of the tiny little beads. And then I actually had to cook it, which, I mean it’s ice cream, I didn’t anticipate having to cook anything.

I started this whole project at like nine in the evening, assuming that I’d be eating ice cream in no time. But after I let everything cook and thicken, I reread the recipe, it said that I had to let the whole mixture cool completely until I ran it through the machine. This always happens. Regardless of whether I’m cooking or assembling furniture, whenever I read directions for anything, I’ll always try my best to pay close attention to what I’m being instructed to do. But I always miss at least one or two steps, every time. It’ll be like, mix all of this stuff together, and then I’ll do it, and then I’ll look back at the recipe and it’ll all of the sudden have said, first mix these two ingredients separately, and then mix everything together, and so everything winds up clumpy.

I waited as long as I could, about an hour or so, but I really wanted this cream to be ice cream. The ice cream maker came with this sleeve that I had to let freeze completely in the freezer for over twenty-four hours. That was like a whole day that I had to try my best to put it out of my mind, the rare vanilla, all of that heavy cream and half and half I bought specifically for the ice cream.

After that hour or so, well, it was almost an hour, it was definitely fifty minutes at least, I stuck my finger in the cream mixture. It wasn’t hot, not even warm really. Could it have been colder? In retrospect, sure, that should have been something to think about, because yes, it definitely could have been colder.

I put everything in the ice cream machine and set it to spin. While I sat down and tried to watch TV, something to keep my mind off of the twenty to thirty longest minutes in my life that I’d have to endure trying my best to wait patiently for what the recipe assured me would be some of the best ice cream I’ll ever eat in my life, I thought about future ice cream plans, that after I’d mastered vanilla, I could go on to experiment with all sorts of flavors, like maybe a bacon ice cream.

But twenty minutes passed and this stuff was still clearly liquid. So I waited another ten minutes, but it hadn’t thickened at all really. I removed myself from the kitchen for another hour, and when I got back, not only had this stuff not turned into ice cream, but the frozen sleeve was starting to melt, I could tell that the entire apparatus was getting warmer by the minute. So I just poured it all into a container and hoped something magical would happen inside the freezer.

I could barely sleep that night, I kept having these half-awake dreams where my homemade ice cream was winning all sorts of international home-cooking awards, like “World’s Great Ice Cream,” stuff like that. When I woke up the next morning, I rushed straight for the freezer and opened up the container.

And it wasn’t really ice cream. I mean, it was frozen, yes. But it lacked that ice cream consistency. That night I came home from work determined to at least try to enjoy a bowl for dessert. And whatever, the flavor was there, if not the texture. There was ice, yeah, and it was made out of cream, OK, nobody’s perfect, right?

I looked over to my side and my dog was staring intently at the bowl. Usually I never give my dog any sort of human food, but I thought, this stuff is pretty good, it’s OK anyway, and I gave myself way too big of a serving. Maybe I should give the little guy a taste. So I spooned off a chunk and put it in his dog bowl. He wolfed the whole thing down, fast, licking up the sides of the bowl for a while afterward.

And then five minutes after that, he walked back over to the couch, he stood at my feet, made a weird neck motion, and then threw up all over the floor. It was mostly dog food, but it was unmistakably streaked with coagulated white cream. My wife looked at me and was like, “Great job, Rob. Clean it up.”

It’s not that I don’t want to help

It’s not that I don’t want to help, I do. I want to help. I just don’t feel like it. If only I felt more like helping out. Like, I wish that I were in the mood to lend a hand. So I want to help, it’s just, I can’t get past that internal inertia, dammit, if only that weren’t there, then we’d be good to go, because I always want to help out, in any way that I can really, it’s just, right now, I don’t think there is a way. Because I’m so tired.

ants log

And it’s not that I don’t like that shirt you gave me. I do like it. It’s only, well I can never figure out the right occasion to wear it. Like, yeah I guess I could have worn it out tonight, but then that would have been it. The first time you put on a new shirt, that’s something special, something you can’t recreate the next time. After that it’s just an old shirt. So yeah, I’ll get to it eventually, but it has to be the right time. That’s something you can’t force. If anything, it’s too nice of a shirt. I may never get around to wearing it. And that would actually be a good thing, get it?

Please, don’t mistake my not eating very much of this meal as any sort of judgment on your cooking, it’s delicious, really, it’s just that, I’m still full from lunch. That happens sometimes, you eat lunch but it kind of just sits in your stomach. Right? And your appetizers, I mean, they weren’t that big, but they were really filling. Even just that one bite that I took out of those … what was that, a celery stick, yes, but filled with what? Yogurt? Cream cheese? Mayo? I couldn’t pinpoint the tartness exactly, and, when you put chocolate chips instead of raisins, was that on purpose? Those were raisins? Right, of course they were. And they were delicious. Can I take some of this home? Because I’m totally going to wolf it down tomorrow.

And come on, I think you’re a great driver, but I couldn’t accept a ride home from you, it would be too much. Besides, I always walk home, it’s only like seven or eight miles, I’ll be home in no time. I know, I did look pretty anxious the last time you gave me a ride, but don’t take it personally, I’m nervous in any type of an automobile. Christ, you should see me on an airplane. And the constantly checking to make sure you looked when you turned, the grabbing onto the side handle, the violent flinching when you kind of ran that red light. Well, it was pretty much red. Yeah, well, just because you didn’t get pulled over doesn’t mean you didn’t run the light. But whatever, you nailed it. You’re a great driver. But I’m going to walk.

And, again, I’m sorry if I misunderstood the reason you had us all over. I had no idea you were trying to organize canvassers to help out on Election Day. And bravo to you, seriously, that’s very commendable, getting out there, providing a great role model for the rest of us regular citizens. It’s not that I don’t want to help … I told you this already, right? Yeah, it’s just, I thought you were just having people over to have people over, not to fundraise or organize, or … and yeah, I’m a grassroots guy all the way. Except for right now. I’m so tired. I think that huge lunch from before, it’s turning into an upset stomach. Good thing I didn’t waste that shirt on tonight, am I right?

Well, hopefully this long walk home will help everything settle down inside. But let’s hang out soon, OK? Next Monday? Next Monday I think I’m busy. Actually, all of next week, and the week after that, man, I can’t believe I was even able to get free tonight. But this headache. Soon, definitely soon. See, look, I’m writing you in my calendar, “soon.” I’ll see you soon, man. Later.

Breadmaking: A skill worth pursuing

While I was living abroad in Ecuador, I got really into cooking. After the culture shock wore off, after the initial feelings of exciting and new wore into the normal rhythm of daily life, I started to feel a rumbling in my stomach, a yearning for the tastes and comforts of what I was used to back home. Without access to what I would consider normal groceries, I had to learn how to make what I wanted with the ingredients at my disposal.


Whereas Ecuadoreans receive the majority of their carbohydrates from rice, I was longing for my North American diet of bread, the thick, crusty loaves that I took for granted back home. So I learned how to bake. Everything boiled down to trial and error. Sure, I could read a recipe, watch videos of people kneading flour and water into dough, but it was only after doing it myself that I began to understand what a lot of people talk about when they describe bread making as a Zen-like, almost spiritual experience.

It’s something that I could only learn to appreciate by making it into a daily practice, by starting out with words on a page and developing those recipes into my own muscle memory. Again, trial and error. Like two cups of flour, that sounds simple enough, right? But the cookbooks never explain that flour scooped out from a sack with a spoon tends to measure out to a greater volume than that same flour packed into a measuring cup.

Stuff like that makes a big difference in the end product. So do variables that nobody could ever teach me, like the discrepancy in what my oven thermometer assured me was the inside temperature compared with the undercooked doughy loaves suggesting a different level of heat. Or the fact that on humid days, I found it necessary to keep a bowl of flour next to my counter space, to prevent the dough from sticking to my hands and the work surface.

When I took my first really good loaf out of the oven, I’m talking a deep brown, crusty bread, steaming from the inside out, I knew that this was a skill worth pursuing. After a few months, bread making became almost second nature. I knew how to make a dough without even using a measuring cup. Judging by touch and texture, I could tell if a little more water was needed, maybe an extra blast of heat at the end to really give it that golden finish.

After I had a comfortable handle with the basics, I was able to start experimenting, adding different ingredients, molding the dough into various shapes. My understanding of the leavening process allowed me to craft baguettes or custom cakes. With just three simple ingredients, I was able to create an endless amount of goods I’d normally buy prepackaged at the grocery store.

If I flattened out the dough, I had pizza crust. If I made those crusts a little thinner and cooked them on top of a hot skillet, my rounds inflated into perfect pitas. By adding some sugar and eggs and frying my dough in hot oil, suddenly I had fresh donuts. I found that all of these tricks could be applied to everyday dishes I hadn’t before considered, like yeasted pancakes, or by eliminating yeast all together, by replacing wheat flour with other grains, I could fashion my own tortillas.

After reading something online about sourdough bread, I decided to capture my own wild yeast, to leaven my bread without the use of the dry-active prepackaged convenience. The process was slow, starting with a tablespoon of flour and water, leaving it in the kitchen to attract the myriad microscopic organisms floating invisible through the air. I’d add a little more water and flour each day, giving everything a stir whenever I happened to pass by.

There was life inside of that cup. In that controlled environment, although I couldn’t see it, there was feeding, there was reproduction. Eventually my starter bubbled with visible proof of success. I poured a little into my next bread, and it actually rose. When I pressed my hands to the dough, I can’t explain it, but the texture was slightly different. I’m having trouble describing the difference, but it’s something that was noticeable only because I had become so familiar with my everyday process.

The finished product was denser, it had a definite sour taste, and as I took a few bites of what I had baked, I thought about the microbes and yeasts unique to that region, to my kitchen. I had made something distinctive, and this was the end result. How did human beings come up with this process? Without an Internet or cookbooks to consult, who thought to grind up grain into a flour, leave it out for days to moisten and rise, and then bake it in the oven?

It’s all too common to lose myself in the contemporary world, with the comforts of our modern food system, the many shortcuts available to every home cook. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn how to bake bread, to really make it a part of who I am. When I’m in the moment, when I have my hands in that dough, when the mixing turns to kneading and the mass becomes something real in my hands, I imagine the generations that came before, I feel the whole of humanity behind me, the future stretching out endlessly in front.

Originally published on HonestBlue.com

Nobody appreciates the magic of a good omelet

One thing I’ve been trying to perfect for a while now is a really good omelet. A couple of years ago I was reading the New Yorker, and there was this cartoon. It was a magician on stage and he had this portable little stove, on top of which he was operating a frying pan and a spatula. The caption read something like, “Nobody appreciates the magic of a good omelet.”

And that kind of stuck with me, because I can never make a good omelet. I’m a pretty decent cook. When I was living in Ecuador with the Peace Corps I prepared almost every single meal. I learned how to make everything from scratch: bread, pizza, bagels, pasta, ice cream. But omelets. It’s like I have a block in my brain that makes it impossible for me to make a good omelet.

It’s not like it’s a hard thing to do. You can go to any diner in the country and order an omelet, because every single short order cook in the country knows how to make an omelet. Eggs. A little milk. Some butter. Frying pan. Bam. Omelet.

Mine usually come out too well done on one side. And then I’ll try to flip the whole thing over and it falls apart. Recently I did some omelet reading, one cookbook said that you really don’t have to flip the omelet. Or maybe that’s just a personal preference? I don’t know. Flipping or not flipping, it all comes out the same, like shit.

And then I have to sit there and eat my disgusting omelet, the whole time thinking about the diner down the block from my house, and how probably at that exact moment, there are people sitting there at their tables, drinking their cups of coffee and their large glasses of orange juice, and they see the waiter come out of the kitchen holding like four plates, and they get excited, like maybe this is it, maybe this is my omelet, and so they pick up their utensils, getting ready to just dive in as soon as the plate hits the table. But the waiter passes right by. Not their omelets, it’s the other table’s omelets. And those people are so happy, because they did the same thing, they got faked out like three or four times, watching omelets go to every other table but theirs, theirs and that first table I was describing, still waiting. But everything’s coming out sooner or later. Everybody’s going to have a professional omelet eventually.

Everybody except for me. And I deserve it more. I actually sauté the mushrooms separately, making sure they’re perfectly seasoned. And the same thing with the peppers and the onions. I’ve grated out just the right amount of cheese. And then I blow it. The eggs won’t hold their form as I try to transfer everything to the plate, and so now I’ve got a poor-man’s version of an egg-scramble, but unlike good scrambled eggs, there’s nothing creamy about mine, nothing soft and velvety. Just these kind-of chunks of hard egg pieces, the filling just spilling out from the inside, wanting nothing to do with the egg massacre I’ve unleashed upon my kitchen.

And I look back at the stove and the pan is going to be impossible to clean, egg flaps dripping off the side, blackened, fused the metal. And the stovetop isn’t any better. It’s a mess. But it’s too hot for me to do anything about now. I’m going to have to choke down my breakfast first, try to imagine each bite to be something that it’s not, something palatable, something edible, I’m holding back the gag reflex as I try to swallow the unswallowable.

It takes forever. A good omelet always disappears off the plate, like you don’t know where the time went, where breakfast went. But trying to eat a bad omelet is what I imagine being stuck in purgatory must feel like. From a distance everything looks like breakfast. And just as you move in, hoping to get something to eat, you notice that burnt egg smell, you see the disaster in the kitchen, and you realize all too late that it’s not somebody’s else’s breakfast, but it’s all yours, and you have to sit there and eat every last bite.

The other day I was at a pretty nice restaurant and they had a spinach and goat cheese omelet on the menu. Of course I ordered it, and of course it was the nicest omelet I’ve ever seen in my life. I read an article in the newspaper one time about omelets like this, really professional omelets, “prepared in the French style.” To look at it almost makes you doubt that your eyes are working at all. First of all, the texture is absolutely flawless, smooth, like a yokey piece of glass. Every single spot is cooked uniformly, without any browning whatsoever. And as I cut into the middle, the goat cheese was barely starting to melt, blending perfectly with the still runny eggy interior. I wanted to cry. I wanted to get angry. I wanted to destroy that omelet. I wanted to be that omelet.

After I read that article I tried to replicate the chef’s instructions. Something about the perfect amount of butter, the perfect wrist action to keep the omelet from sticking to the bottom of the pan. I did everything I was told. And the results? Worse than you can imagine. Infinitely worse than all of what I’ve already told you, combined. It was my worst omelet yet.

I’m at this fancy restaurant staring at omelet nirvana on my plate. It was delicious, smooth, fluffy, moist. I started to cry. My tears fell into the omelet and added the perfect brine of salt. I looked around and everybody was doing the same. This was all part of the show, part of the omelet. Part of me is still crying inside. I’ll never be able to make an omelet like that. Never.