Spicy Food, Eh?

I grew up without the benefit of Mexican food. We didn’t even eat tacos when I was a kid. It might have been worth it to see the look on Dad’s face if he sat down at the dinner table looking for pot roast and potatoes and Mom plopped down a plate of crunchy tacos in front of him. It’s actually not worth imaging because it would never have happened, not the least of which was because none of us had probably ever even heard of tacos.

Sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, Taco John’s moved into town. You have to understand that having a fast food joint in Columbus in 1970 was a big deal. There were very few chain restaurants. We had a Godfather’s Pizza, a Dairy Queen, a Pizza Hut, but no Burger King or McDonalds or Arby’s. So you would think that we would have flocked to Taco John’s. Perhaps others were flocking. There was no flocking by me. I don’t think I went a single time, because MEXICAN FOOD. I knew nothing about Mexican food.

In fact, I knew nothing about Mexican food until my folks moved to Leadville, Colorado, in 1973. I spent the summer with them in Leadville before returning to Lincoln to complete my sophomore year at the University of Nebraska. Leadville might as well have been Mars. The people looked, talked, acted, and certainly ate differently than that to which we were familiar.

What was different about the way they ate? MEXICAN FOOD. My first bite, and I was in love. My whole family was in love. I have been in love with Mexican food ever since, the spicier, the better. In fact, following my colon resection surgery in 2011, I met with the doctor who had done the surgery to find out if/how my life would be different. We talked a bit, and then I swallowed hard and asked him the question that was troubling me the most: Can I still eat spicy Mexican food? He assured me I could. His name was Dr. Lopez, so there’s that…..

Anyway, Sunday night, Bill and I had our neighbors over for dinner. They are snowbirds like us, and are from Alberta, Canada. They like to cook and enjoy good food. It became clear that he in particular likes to cook. So I was a bit stressed about what to make for dinner.

I decided on Mexican food. Specifically, I decided to make pollo asado, using Ree Drummond’s fabulous recipe. It involves marinating boneless chicken breasts or thighs in a mixture of olive oil, orange juice, lemon juice, lime juice, onions, and seasonings. It’s delicious and so, so pretty (what with all the citrus fruits).

It always takes me so long to get to the point. I wonder how many of you just give up about 2/3 of the way through my blogs when they seemingly have no point. Anyway, my point is that it turns out they had never tasted Mexican food. I mentioned that to Jen over the phone, and she responded as though I had said they have second spouses back in Edmonton. How can they live four months of the year in AZ and not have ever tried Mexican food, she asked. A fair question; however, they had not.

But they were game, and it was a win, my friends. I had to literally show them how to wrap the meat into a burrito-like a package, but they nailed the art of wrapping, and seemed to enjoy every single bite.

By the way, during Bill’s illustrious acting career, one of his gigs was playing the father of a small family eating Taco John’s tacos. None of the actors had speaking parts, so the commercial, which never ran in Colorado, apparently had voice over. What Bill remembers is that the four of them – he, his show biz wife, and his show biz kids – sat at a picnic table and a fan was blowing leaves underneath the table. I asked him if he had to actually eat the tacos.

“They tasted awful, so we had the kids eat them and we drank Taco John sodas,” he said.

I’m thankful our Canadian neighbors’ first bite of Mexican food wasn’t Taco John’s.

Christmas Chaos

At the beginning of every episode of The Pioneer Woman on Food Network, Ree Drummond says, “Here’s what’s happening on the ranch.” Apropos of nothing in this blog post, I love when she says that, because I have a secret desire to live on a ranch. Let me explain something, however. I would be a very, very bad rancher. Considering how many times a day I make my way to the grocery store for one reason or another (like when I realized yesterday that I didn’t have a lemon for my lemon butter chicken just as I was beginning dinner preparation), living in the middle of nowhere simply wouldn’t work for me. Plus, if I was going to live on a ranch, it would be in the Arkansas Valley of Colorado where my ranch would be surrounded by mountains. It certainly wouldn’t be in Oklahoma. I have no beef with Oklahoma (pun intended), but every time Ree Drummond says, “Let’s have a picnic,” she looks like she and everyone picnicking with her are going to blow away. You know, OOOOOOOOOOOOklahoma, where the winds come sweeping down the plain….

Anyhoo, with a wink to the Pioneer Woman, here’s what’s happening at the McLain suburban non-ranch.

It’s been a busy week because, as you know, we leave on Christmas Day for AZ, where we will spend the next four months soaking up sunshine and feeling sorry for all of our Colorado family and friends when the need to shovel snow arises. So in addition to preparing for Christmas – which in my case involves preparing two different meals on two different days – we are also doing the things we need to do to get the house ready for our departure.

This year, there isn’t as much involved in that regard because Allen and his girlfriend Emma are going to stay here and housesit while we are gone. The only reason that’s a panic situation for me is that my house is a mess. I would like to blame it on Christmas, and that certainly has added to the mess. However, I laid on my bed yesterday afternoon and glanced up and noticed about three-quarters of an inch of dust on the ceiling fan, and that can’t be blamed on Christmas. You know what’s really sad about that? That dust will still be there when I get back, because I certainly won’t be dusting ceiling fans any time before we go.

You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law? Well, we are experiencing Murphy’s Second Cousin Once Removed Ernie’s law, which is a step worse than Murphy’s Law. It all started last weekend when the temperature was hovering around 2 degrees and Bill went out to get our mail. Now then, there are lots of things wrong with cold weather, but not the least of these things is the fact that everyone is so clumsy when wearing heavy coats and gloves and hats and scarves. It is almost impossible to move. I always feel like Ralphie’s little brother in A Christmas Story. I’m afraid I’m going to fall down and need to yell, “Ralphie! I can’t get up.”

Anyhoo, Bill got our mail, but somewhere between our mailbox and the front porch, he dropped the mailbox key into the snow. It was 2 degrees, the snow was five or six inches deep, and it was almost dark. And there was poor Bill digging in the snow trying to find the key. The key which, to date, has not yet been found. Thankfully our kids had a spare, and we were able to make a duplicate key. But you know how those things BUG YOU? Both Bill and I have been out there on numerous occasions this week determined to find the key, and yet unsuccessful.

And then, of course, the toilet backed up. The downstairs toilet which is used in the neighborhood of 75 times a day. It happened the night that Court and the kids were over for dinner. Cole is our prime suspect, though he is wisely admitting to nothing. Bill is tenacious. He is determined to fix it himself, despite the fact that his degree is in law and not plumbing. He even ordered a special tool that was supposed to shoot whatever it is that is blocking to toilet (and only Cole knows for sure) to kingdom come so that the toilet will once again flush.

johnny-jolter-tool

So far, he has been unsuccessful. Perhaps I will send him to the grocery store and call a plumber while he is gone.

Not to be outdone, my car had to get its last-minute shots in as well. Suddenly the key remote stopped working. Thankfully, it was an easy fix, but Bill was not able to fix it before I sat in the parking lot waiting for Hobby Lobby to open and listening to my car alarm unceasingly screeching for a reason that I haven’t quite figured out, but which had something to do with my car remote not working. When the Hobby Lobby doors finally opened, the clerk looked at me as though I was driving a stolen yellow Bug.

Nevertheless, my presents are wrapped and ready for the weekend festivities. Our daughter Heather and her family arrive this afternoon to spend Christmas. We are warm and safe and healthy and dry, so I really can’t complain.

Even though it’s clear that I do.

And speaking of A Christmas Story, while the photo of Kaiya and Mylee that I shared yesterday is one of my favorites, here is another…….

Austin (on the left) is about as happy with the Christmas pajamas that his Grammie Jen bought him last year as Ralphie was with his pajamas he received from his aunt in the beloved movie.

Bulk Down

So, now that I’m out of the hospital and feeling better, I am taking the next step of getting used to my apparent new diet that consists of very little fiber. My hope is that I have fewer (or no) intestinal obstructions. My fear is that I will blow up like a balloon and eventually POP due to a fiberless existence resulting in, well, you know.

I went to see a gastroenterologist Monday afternoon, and unfortunately, he confirmed the need to limit my fiber if I have any chance of preventing further obstructions. LOW fiber, he emphasized, not NO fiber. Folks on the internet called it a low-residue diet, as they clutch their tummies and eat their yogurt without berries.

The doctor said an absolute no-no to apples or pears with the skin, popcorn, sweet corn, citrus fruit, nuts, and tomatoes with the skin. He listed those just off the top of his head. Further research on low-fiber, er, low-residue diets indicated I am able to eat zucchini (no skin), cucumbers (no skin, no seeds), asparagus with the woody part removed, carrots cooked to an inch of their lives, mushrooms, lettuce, very ripe bananas, soft melons, applesauce, peaches, apricots, most dairy (as long as there are no nuts or berries), most meat, poultry, and fish, and white bread, white pasta, and white rice.

In other words, consider the diet that doctors have BEGGED us to eat for years, and eat the opposite. Perhaps I should just eat Gerber baby food.

The only good news about the whole thing is that I can eat Frosted Flakes without feeling guilty. No fiber. Lots of sugar, but no fiber.  Oh, and martinis have absolutely positively no fiber. I’ll happily forgo the olive.

I’m speaking tongue- in-cheek of course. Not about the diet. That, I’m sorry to say, is reality. Or at least my reality until someone wearing a doctors’ coat tells me something different. The tongue-in-cheek part comes in my complaining about it. Because I have said it all along, and I will say it again, if I can eat or not eat something that will subsequently prevent me from a bimonthly hospital visit with a plastic tube inserted down my nasal cavity, I will do it. And not complain. Much.

But I am dangerously close to become one of those people. You know, the people for whom you have to cook special meals. I’m not complaining about those people because our daughter Heather has celiac disease and if she eats gluten, she gets very sick. So people cooking for her have to be careful that they aren’t accidentally poisoning her. She, by the way, has a very good attitude about her dietary limitation. She told me once that she was asked if she liked gluten-free beer. Her answer was, well, not particularly, but it’s what I can drink if I want to drink a beer, so what’s the use of complaining. I want to – and plan to – adopt such a good attitude.

Because the reality (and the good news) is that I have to eat low fiber and NOT that I have to figure out how to survive a few more months with liver cancer. So wah, wah, wah and keep your perspective straight!

Here is an example of the meal that I cooked last night, thanks to the Pioneer Woman.

WU0707_Scalloped-Potatoes-and-Ham_s4x3.jpg.rend.sni12col.landscape

Scalloped Potatoes and Ham, courtesy Ree Drummond and Food Network

Ingredients
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, plus extra for greasing dish
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1 1/2 cups milk
Freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds russet potatoes, washed thoroughly
3 cups diced cooked ham
2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
Chopped fresh parsley, for sprinkling, optional

Process
Slice the potatoes really thin using a mandolin or a really sharp knife, the thinner the better. Generously butter a 2-quart baking dish, then add half the sliced potatoes and half the diced ham. Sprinkle on half the cheese then pour on half the sauce from the skillet. Repeat with the rest of the ingredients, ending with a layer of cheese and sauce. Sprinkle extra pepper on top.

Cover the dish with foil and bake it for 40 minutes, then remove the foil and bake until the cheese is golden brown and the sauce is bubbling, an additional 20 to 30 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley if desired and serve it up.

Cooking Teachers

I’m not sure I can entirely remember what life was like prior to Food Network. This fact, of course, isn’t exactly surprising since I can’t remember where I park my car at the mall. The irony I’m afraid is that I CAN remember my home telephone number from when I was a 6 years old and the words to all of the songs from the 1960s. Sigh. Way to waste those important brain cells.

I guess our parents used those funny things called cookbooks. They didn’t have anyone to teach them to cook from their little black and white television sets. Well, except for Julia Child. And I don’t know about anyone else’s mom, but my mom didn’t particularly want to learn to cook French food. I would have liked to seen the look on my dad’s face should mom have plopped sole meuniere in front of him one night.

My mom says she learned to cook from my paternal grandmother (her mother died at a very young age). I learned to cook by watching my mother. And more recently from watching Food Network and PBS cooking shows.

It used to be that Food Network consisted almost entirely of actual cooking shows. Nowadays, you can find a few cooking shows on during the day, but nighttime consists entirely of competition shows. They don’t particularly interest me. So I mostly watch during the day. Ree Drummond, Trisha Yearwood, Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis. Others.

If I’m to tell you the entire truth, most of the stars of the shows drive me crazy. I can’t imagine cooking showing as much cleavage as does Giada, if for no other reason than that I would undoubtedly splash my chest with hot bacon grease. I sometimes think that if Ina Garten says “How (fill in the blank) is that?” one more time, I will throw my coveted seasoned cast iron skillet through the television screen.

But I have learned things from all of these Food Network and PBS cooks that I think has made me a better cook. Here’s a few of the things I have learned…..

Ina Garten: As annoyed as I get when the Barefoot Contessa instructs us to use “really good wine” or “good vanilla” or, as in one recipe, “really good saffron” (as if you should spend even more on an ingredient that already requires you to pawn your wedding ring to buy), I have learned that she is right that the better the ingredients, the better the final result. But the way I look at it, it doesn’t mean you have to fly to Madagascar to pick up a bottle of vanilla. It means, if possible, buy real vanilla extract as opposed to vanilla flavoring.

Paula Deen: Paula’s use of butter is (and I think was meant to be) ridiculous. But she taught me not to be afraid to use butter in my recipes. It simply tastes better. I also learned the easiest way to prepare collard greens – fold them in half and pull the leaves off the stem in one fell swoop.

Giada De Laurentiis: Despite my constant annoyance with her cleavage and the fact that she won’t simply say “spaghetti” or “fettucine” the way we do, she has taught me to use the freshest ingredients possible. Recently, she made a pasta red sauce that looked delicious, and she threw the rind of a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano into the sauce to flavor it. I will definitely give that a try. Giada also uses a lot of fresh fennel, and once I gave it a try when using one of her salad recipes that included fennel and grapefruit, I was hooked. Yum.

Ree Drummond: The Pioneer Woman has given me permission to use store-bought ingredients. Though Ina Garten must turn her nose up at Ree Drummond, I love that Ree will open up a box of chicken broth or use a jar of store-bought pesto.  If she can do it, so can I! It makes me happy to see her use her cast iron skillet so often because it’s one of my favorite cooking utensils. I couldn’t live without it. I love her 16-minute meals. Next to Lidia, I probably use more of the Pioneer Woman’s recipes than any other.

Lidia Bastianich: I left Lidia until last because, well, you know. I want her to adopt me. She speaks to me. For example, the day after I burned my hand because I grabbed the handle of a pan that I had taken out of the oven a minute or so before, she told me, “Kris, make sure when you take something out of the oven, you place a towel on it to remind yourself and others that it is hot.” (Well, she might not have directed it specifically to me, but she said it on her show the next day, and I know she meant it for me.) She has taught me not to fear anchovies but to embrace them as a rich and salty seasoning that melts in your fry pan and therefore won’t scare others, who will simply wonder why your sauce is so good. I also learned to salt my food as I cook, every time I add an ingredient or move to a new step. (If you fear oversalting, place the amount of salt you want to use in a little bowl and take from that. That’s what Lidia told me.) And maybe my favorite instruction from her is, “Clean hands are your best kitchen tool.” Amen.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Lidia recipes…..

Pasta with Baked Cherry Tomatoes, courtesy Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, Lidia Bastianich

Ingredients
3 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
½ c. plus 1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 c. fine dry bread crumbs
1 t. kosher salt, plus more for the pasta pot
¼ t. pepperoncino flakes, or to taste
1 lb. spaghetti, gemelli, or penne
10 plump garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 T. chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 c. loosely packed fresh basil leaves, shredded
½ c. freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano) plus more for passing
4 oz. Ricotta or ricotta salata

Process
Arrange a rack in the center of the oven, and heat to 350 degrees.

Toss the cherry tomato halves in a large bowl with 3 T. olive oil. Sprinkle over tomatoes the bread crumbs, salt, and pepperoncino; toss well to coat the tomatoes evenly. Pour the tomatoes onto a parchment-lined sheet, and spread them apart in a single layer. Bake until the tomatoes are shriveled and lightly caramelized (but not dried out), about 25 minutes in all.

Meanwhile, fill a large pot with salted water, and heat to a rolling boil. When the tomatoes are nearly done, drop the pasta into the pot, stir, and return the water to a boil.

As soon as the pasta is cooking, pour the remaining olive oil into a big skillet, set it over medium-high heat, and scatter in the sliced garlic. Cook for a minute or two, until it is sizzling and lightly colored, then ladle in about 2 c. of the pasta cooking water, and bring to a vigorous boil, stirring up the garlic. Let half the water evaporate, then lower the heat, stir in the chopped parsley, and keep the sauce barely simmering.

As soon as the tomatoes are done, remove them from the oven.

When the pasta is al dente, lift it from the water, drain for a moment, and drop it into the skillet, still over low heat. Toss pasta quickly with the garlic-and-parsley sauce in the pan, then slide the baked tomatoes on top of the pasta. Scatter the basil shreds all over, and toss everything together well, until the pasta is evenly dressed and the tomatoes are distributed throughout. Turn off the heat, sprinkle on the grated cheese, and toss once more.

Serve immediately.

pasta with baked tomatoes

Nana’s Notes: I cut the recipe in half by simply halving the ingredients. I used fresh tomatoes out of my garden, which I’m madly harvesting. The only cheese I used was Parmigiano. The meal was delicious. Thanks again Lidia.