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Archive for February, 2010

Pressure Cooking

February 14, 2010 2 comments

I’m pretty comfortable in the kitchen, but occasionally I manage to forget that (1) I have three hungry kids waiting for me at home and (2) I haven’t gone shopping lately, which tends to make me anxious about preparing dinner. Ordering pizza is always an option but, in the interest of inflicting a death of a thousand cuts upon the debt monster, I prefer to reserve pizza and take-out for special occasions or emergencies.

It was on one of these brain-addled evenings that I was checking the larder when I got home. There are certain ingredients I try to keep on hand at all times for such situations; one of these is broccoli, which holds the honor of being the healthiest food that is also enjoyed by every member of my household.

A few other staples I had were eggs, milk, cheese and frozen pie shells — I know that pie crust isn’t that difficult but I have a hard time tolerating the mess — making broccoli quiche another option. But that would have taken about an hour and a half to prepare, bake and cool, and I don’t like pushing the evening routines too late, both for my kids’ sakes and mine.

Digging deeper, I found a few boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese — actually the Wegmans equivalent — but it’s one of the foods the kids can prepare by themselves when I can’t get home in time. Besides, it’s not a comfort food I grew up with — macaroni were made either with sauce or garlic and oil, never powdered neon-colored cheese — so I’d prefer to declare a pizza emergency than go the box-dinner route.

Fortunately there were also a few cakes of extra-firm tofu in the fridge and several packets of ramen noodles in the pantry, meaning I could make another family favorite: tofu and broccoli stir fry with ramen. I tend to avoid this dish on weeknights because I usually get too OCD about the preparation to do it quickly. But on this evening, I was pretty motivated and managed to throw it together efficiently (though accidentally leaving out the garlic) with a minimum of mess, stress and grumbling. In the end, there was good food that everyone liked, ready at a reasonable hour, without spending lots of extra money.

Tofu Broccoli Stir Fry

ingredients:
3 broccoli crowns
1 red or green bell pepper
1 medium onion
1 pound extra-firm tofu
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cornstarch
5 packages any flavor ramen noodles (throw away the flavor packets unless you have kids, in which case put one packet at each place at the table)
.25 mg Xanax (optional)

marinade:
juice of 1/2 medium lemon
3/4 cup soy sauce
2 cubic inches fresh ginger, grated
1 medium clove garlic, pressed
2 tablespoons honey

If you opt for the Xanax, take it first with a tall glass of water. This will help keep things under control later on when you have to clean up the mess, set the table, and serve the food before the noodles get gummy and the vegetables get limp.

Mix the marinade ingredients together with a whisk or fork.

Drain tofu and cut into cubes about a half inch on each side. I try to keep the entire block intact when I cut it so I can put it back into the plastic package it comes in, and then pour the marinade over it. If this is too anal-retentive for you, just toss the tofu and the marinade into a plastic ziploc bag and shake it up.

Cut broccoli into florets and stem chunks. Florets should be no larger than about an inch across, stem pieces roughly 1/2 inch cubes. Steam until bright green and still firm but not crunchy. You should be able to pierce it with a fork, but with significant resistance.

Slice the onion and pepper into strips about 1/2 inch by 2 inches. You can also use carrots, celery, bok choy, pretty much any firm vegetable, just cut the pieces about the same size. Or you can leave these out entirely and just use more broccoli, it’s up to you. Put the veggies aside. You’re done with the prep, so rinse the cutting board so you don’t get food chunks running around the dishwasher. And make sure you scrape the inside of the garlic press because you know how icky it is to empty the dishwasher and find soggy washed garlic inside the press.

Put up a big pot of water for cooking the ramen. By the time it boils, you should have the stir fry part done.

Heat oil in large frying pan or wok. Drain off marinade into a bowl, and mix in the cornstarch. Pat the tofu dry with a paper towel to avoid splattering oil when you drop the tofu into it.

Stir fry tofu for a few minutes until it starts to brown a little — you’ll need the heat pretty high or else you’ll just be sauteeing it. Add the cut up veggies and continue to stir fry until the onions start to get translucent. Add broccoli, lower heat to simmer. Add the marinade, stir and cover.

Serve with ramen. It’s good with rice too, but then you should make sure you start the rice before steaming the broccoli or else you’ll end up with soggy vegetables and nobody likes soggy stir fry. You’d end up throwing the whole thing out and ordering pizza after all.

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Categories: Essays, Recipes Tags: , , , , ,

On Pancakes and Fatherhood

February 13, 2010 2 comments

Dad at the grill, circa 1971*

I was 24 years old when my father died on Valentine’s Day in 1982. He was 56, only five years older than I am now. I think that’s when I first started to consider myself a grownup — I’m still considering it, but over the years I’ve come to accept some of the trappings of adulthood. Like driving, which I only learned after my father’s death — mildly unexpected for the son of an auto mechanic. I decided I needed my license after figuring out I wasn’t likely to make any more progress toward a PhD and so needed one of those job thingies, which were generally not located within walking or bicycling distance of my off-campus apartment. I inherited his living-room-sized pale blue ’77 Chevy Impala, and promptly dented all four corners of his last baby the week I took ownership.

I’m also disinclined toward household repair projects — though I have, with great effort, fixed a bathroom subfloor and installed flooring that’s nearly even if you don’t look too closely. On the plus side, I don’t eat red meat nor do I smoke two packs a day of unfiltered Camels — or any quantity of any cigarette for that matter — so the chances are good that I’ll live a bit longer than he did.

But one place where I think I compare favorably with my paragon of adult masculinity is in the kitchen. My dad liked to cook. Once he recovered from his first major heart attack at 49, he started to take over the grocery shopping and dinner preparation which had previously been my mom’s job. But even while he was working and all the kids still lived at home, there were two meal-related tasks that were his purview exclusively: barbecue and pancakes.

I may not be much for grilling dead animals, but I do a pretty good job with breakfast, and so was thinking about my dad this morning while preparing the breakfast that was the final event of my middle son’s fourteenth birthday party sleepover. After making some fresh strong coffee to get myself motivated, I put together my weekend special which I call “IHOP at home” — orange juice, pancakes, hash browns, eggs, bacon. I made veggie bacon for me and my youngest son — who is a stricter vegetarian than I am — but also regular pork bacon because I’m that kind of good dad. Besides, nothing associated with fatherhood disgusts me anymore since getting through the bottom-wiping stage.

Sure, I cut a few corners. I used frozen hash brown patties, partly to save effort but mostly because I have never made hash browns that didn’t end up a soggy oily mess. And I used a pancake mix — my favorite, New Hope Mills Buckwheat — but then I’m really honoring my dad in this respect, since he always used a mix. Granted his mix of choice was Bisquick, which I don’t ever recall being used for anything but pancakes — but I’m sure he would have loved these too.

Thinking about Dad’s meticulous attention to detail — getting all the lumps out of the batter, precisely adjusting the temperature under the griddle, making sure the pancakes turned out perfectly round and lightly brown — I recognize the source of my own OCD. Which was probably as helpful in his career as it is in mine, though probably also making neither of us the kind of guy you’d want to share a kitchen with.

I don’t know if he did much cooking before he got married, but at about the same age as he was when he got busy in the kitchen — though for very different reasons — I find myself taking pleasure in fixing my favorites again. I make a mean cheddar and broccoli quiche that my kids as well as my partner consume with enthusiasm, and which only needs a salad or some raw carrots to be called a meal. I can nail an eggplant parmigiana with varying degrees of difficulty — everywhere from slicing and breading and frying the eggplant to buying it pre-sliced, pre-breaded and frozen — and am nearly always happy with the results. I’ve devoted an entire post to my banana bread, and I think maybe writing about cooking is how I share my pleasure with those of you I may never even meet. Dad may not have been much for writing, but he sure did love to feed his friends and family.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad.



*My dad graciously posed in the chef’s outfit which, including the bellows, was a gag gift someone gave him on his birthday. This was in the Catskills where we spent summers while I was growing up. He rarely smiled as much as he did when he was there. On the drive up, once we got off the highway, he’d roll down the windows and exclaim “Smell! Smell!” It sure did smell a lot better than Brooklyn back in the day when most apartment buildings burned trash in residential incinerators.

Love of Chair

February 2, 2010 2 comments

What’s the first thing you think about when you start a new job?

As an information worker — and doesn’t that sound better than desk jockey? — I spend a good amount of time in the saddle. Add to this my chronic lower back pain and you might understand why whenever I start a new job, my main concern — before finding out whether I’ll have a window, free coffee, or a garage space — is where I’m going to be parking my butt.

But unlike the guy in the picture above, I’ve never had the perk of getting whatever chair I wanted — otherwise I’d be luxuriating in an Aeron right now. And when I’m shopping for a home-office chair, it all comes down to what’s on sale at OfficeMax and making the necessary tradeoffs between price and comfort. So it helps me to think about what’s worth spending extra for and what’s just a frill. Here’s what I look for in an office chair, in order of importance:

  1. Back support. And by this I mean the whole back, especially the lumbar. Chairs with just the little thing that goes across the mid or upper back? Pure agony in half an hour.
  2. Adjustable height. Even though desktops are generally a standard height (about 28″) I find that, because of my long torso, ordinary chairs make my wrists come down at a sharp angle. That gets uncomfortable pretty fast. Adjustable height is also good if you use a table as a workspace because tables tend to be a few inches higher than desks.
  3. Armrests. Yeah I know this moves most office chairs from the “nearly stylish” to the “fugly” category but then I don’t get paid to look good. The rests should be wide enough to support an arm, and at least somewhat height adjustable.
  4. Swivel. I like to work in an “L” formation, with my keyboard and monitor slightly to my left and room to spread out papers on my right, so being able to turn is nice. But if I’m just working at a desk, I can give on the spin.
  5. Casters. When my desk was in the same room as the office fridge, rolling was a definite plus. Otherwise I can give on this. But if there are wheels, there need to be five and not just four because I have a tendency to lean back and stretch from time to time. Speaking of which…
  6. Lean-back. Another nice-to-have but only if I can adjust it to make it very firm. Frankly I’d prefer a non-wheeled, non-leaning chair that was well built enough that I could rock onto the back legs — just like my mom always told me not to — but you can’t really find those with adjustable height.

I tend to spend a fair amount of time in office supply stores with someone who enjoys hanging out in the pen aisle so I’m looking forward to test driving the chairs soon. But no matter how much planning or sampling I do, I won’t know if I’ve got the right chair until I can go an entire day without even thinking about what’s keeping me off the floor — besides the coffee.

Categories: Essays Tags: , , ,