I want to cook like Trisha Yearwood, Giada, Ree The Pioneer Woman and a host of other TV chefs. I have accepted the reality that I never shall. That's just fine, if ever I get my own cooking show, it's going to be called "Disaster Kitchen" and it will show every step of the new recipe process, not just the ready for prime time bits. Let me preface all of this by saying that until about seven years ago I was a competent, but not particularly inspired or skilled cook. Then I quit smoking and needed to fill the time between getting home from work and dinner time. That was the hardest cigarette to give up for some reason so I decided to make food that kept me busy for the danger time. I needed recipes that required attention to detail, I wanted to chop and dice and simmer and blanch and all those cool things that I watched on Saturday mornings. In my head, that dangerous phrase formed, the one that has been the downfall of greater men than I. "How hard can it be?"
Harder than you think, it turns out. I knew the basics, I could make hamburger gravy and (boxed) mashed potatoes, I was a whiz at making Kraft Mac and cheese all fancy by adding a few chunks of Velveeta and sticking it in the oven for ten minutes and my addition of a shake each of garlic and red pepper flakes to a jar of spaghetti sauce bordered on genius, but that was pretty much where my culinary inspiration ended. This was it, my time had come and I was about to become master of my kitchen domain. Or I was about to get my ass kicked by a metric fuckton of potatoes.
At that point in time, my beloved worked for a company that, among other things, makes French fries. This meant he had access to huge bags of potatoes for just a couple of bucks. I'm talking 50 to 100 pound bags for $5, needless to say, we were the go to whenever our kids' sports teams wanted to do a baked potato fundraiser. This meant that on any given weekend, my kitchen was host to enough potatoes to have saved my people from the Famine. Occasionally, my beloved would randomly bring home 50 pounds of spuds just for the sheer joy of eating our body weight in potato. Slowly but surely, I started to notice that friends and family had begun to avoid eye contact and declined invitations to the house for dinner. As it turns out, a menu comprised solely of potato dishes wears on the palate and the belly after a while. Perhaps finding potatoes in their purses and slipped into their coat pockets put them off but I was desperate to unload the damn things as my house did not come equipped with a root cellar.
Determined to maintain healthy, non potato based relationships with the people in my life, I needed to figure out what to do with mass quantities of red potatoes ASAP. Searching YouTube yielded a blanch and freeze method of preservation, so I set about peeling and cutting a pile of potatoes the size of a VW Beetle. I can see why this was used as punishment back in the day. There are few tasks quite as tedious that cannot be done mindlessly as you risk slicing off layers of skin and flesh from your fingers as the price of inattention. The onerous chore completed, I set about the blanching process, this involves the biggest pot you can find (borrow one, seriously, because if you buy one, you will likely never use it again and it will stare accusingly at you from whatever dark cabinet or basement shelf you exile it to after this one ill conceived experiment), a shitload of salt and a week's worth of water. You get that giant pot of salted water to a lusty boil and, risking life and limb, dunk batch after batch of potatoes in to cook partway. Part way being the keyword here, as what what actually means is "Just cook them all the way because what you saw me do on YouTube is nothing you're going to be able to accomplish in your entire pathetic life, you silly little amateur." Then you let them cool, vacuum seal them and pop the tidy potato packages in your freezer for convenient use whenever you need them!
Wrong, you've never been so wrong in your life. Two weeks later, you'll go down to the basement freezer to begin your new life of preserving your own food only to find how terribly wrong this whole process can go. You see, if the potatoes aren't blanched for EXACTLY the right amount of time, something horrible happens in the freezer. Your careful vacuum sealing can't save it, your best intentions are not going to help you or the stacks of now gray/green/black/blue/whatthehellisthatcolor potatoes that cringe away from the light of the open freezer door like some kind of swamp dwelling, previously unknown creature that will forever haunt your dreams. Twenty five carefully labeled, stacked and sealed packages stared defiantly back at me, mocking my inexperience and daring me to step into the ring with my own kitchen for another go round. So "blanching" actually means "just cook the damn things, you'll thank me for it later". So noted.
We started our own compost in the back yard that day so it wasn't a complete waste.
My sister in law offered to come over and make salsa some months later, she's done it before and it's easier than I'd ever imagine. That's what she told me, that's what she said. And, I can use that giant pot that I've done nothing but move from place to place because I can't seem to find a permanent, out of my way, WHY IS IT SO DAMN BIG home for it. So, salsa, is it? She, my beloved, her beloved and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours chopping, seeding and prepping our tomatoes, onions, peppers and the rest while imbibing in a beer or maybe some bloody Marys with beer backs...my memory is a little fuzzy for some reason. Brenda claimed that we didn't need to boil the jars for canning, we just need to run them through the hi temp cycle in the dishwasher and that serves the same purpose. Having never canned anything in my life, I demurred to her experience and superior knowledge which turned out to be kind of helping her mother in law and seeing someone do it on TV once.
DO NOT DO IT THIS WAY. Not ever. Also, make damn sure you fill the jars almost to the brim. Why, you ask? Because the dishwasher method creates too much of a vacuum seal that eventually compromises the structural integrity of the lids and they pop. And by "pop", I mean they fail completely, make a noise that I don't not have the vocabulary to describe and launch the contents of the jar skyward until they inevitably encounter the barrier to the open sky that is your kitchen ceiling. You and your helpers will stare at a ceiling that now resembles nothing as much as a murder scene for a very, very long time as the reality of what just transpired takes a loooooong time to register to a vodka and beer soaked brain. Once it does, however, much hilarity ensues and the stain never quite goes away. Side note, tracking down and bathing your now salsa covered cat who was unlucky enough to have been in the kitchen at the moment of impact takes a lot of coaxing, chasing and eventual capture that involves brooms, tennis rackets and a bedsheet you're willing to sacrifice for the cause. He also won't speak to you for several days and when he does, you know you'll never be completely forgiven for this transgression to his person.
We did manage to seal the remaining jars properly and the salsa was delicious.
Fine, we'll start a little smaller than 500 potatoes and a couple dozen jars of salsa. Let's take a whack at something we can eat right away and enjoy the fruits of our labor immediately. I know, poached eggs! I always considered poached eggs to be a super fancy, special occasion kind of food that it never even occurred to me to try making at home as it seemed solely the domain of seasoned chefs and Saturday morning Food Network stars. I set my pot of water to a hearty simmer, got it swirling to the recommended velocity and carefully cracked an egg into the vortex. I could see immediately that this was not going well, the white of the egg spun wildly out of the grasp of the vortex to morph into jelly like tentacles that slithered to the edge of the saucepan in a desperate attempt to escape. The timer dinged and I gamely scooped what I knew was not a beautifully compact poached egg out of the water that was now cloudy and speckled with bits of gluey, semi cooked egg. It's okay, I know what I did wrong that time. Attempt number two was equally as unsuccessful as the first but my determination was not to be swayed by two failed attempts. Number three had me hopeful that this would work until the poached looking egg disintegrated into the water as I lifted it out, rendering the boiling water into an Irish girl version of egg drop soup (see what I did there?). Attempts four through nine involved vinegar added to the water as recommended by several chef types but yielded soggy jelly like messes that smelled strongly of pickles, this will not do. By now, I have abandoned even the pretense of wanting the damned eggs and am committed exclusively to the principle of the project I had set for myself. To hell with ever eating the damn things, I WILL WIN, THESE EGGS WILL NOT DEFEAT ME. Eighteen eggs, prolific swearing and three eggs that may or may not have been thrown at the wall (much to the dog's delight as he happily licked away the evidence of my burst of temper) I came to the conclusion that the perfect poached egg was a myth, some kind of culinary unicorn that only exists in story and song and I would never achieve this magical food in my lifetime.
One week later, I stumbled upon a poached egg cheat that actually did produce that perfection I had only dreamed possible. A ramekin, lined with plastic wrap, sprayed with nonstick spray, the egg nestled inside and tied into a little bundle with a bit of string and tossed into a pot of boiling water for three minutes and there is was, sexy, silky, creamy perfection in a gorgeous little bundle. It was glorious and I made it myself. The angels raised their voices in a magical chorus to this vision of beauty as a ray of golden light shone upon my plate as I raised my fork to pierce the lovely yolk, freeing it to fill every nook and cranny of the waiting English muffin, toasted for just this occasion. I took a moment to record my hard fought success with the perfect picture to share with all those who ever doubted me and watched in horror as my precious, gorgeous, perfect egg slid off the plate on its English muffin raft to the floor and the waiting jaws of my eternally patient yellow lab. That was it, it was over, I was done. I can't reproduce this result, or can I?
Turns out I can, and I do on a regular basis because poached eggs really are that good.
There you have it, the basis of my cooking show would show all the disasters in the first half and THEN the carefully crafted successful execution in the second half. I think it would be a smash hit.