Trusting The Bible

Like many cooks, whether pros or home cooks, I rely on ‘the bible.’ I’m not referring to the religious text that  recounts Jesus Christ’s life and influences the thoughts, actions and feelings of millions of Christians. I’m referring to the classic, and dare I say legendary, cooking reference – for it is much more than a cookbook – The Joy of Cooking. I was first introduced to The Joy of Cooking in the mid 1980s after my sister bought a copy. Since then, I’ve referred to it for relatively simple things such as Drop Cookies and Crêpes to more challenging dishes as Grilled Lobster, Chicken Livers and Risotto. However, also like many cooks, I have developed some level of experience and expertise in the kitchen so I don’t turn to the Becker, Becker and Rombauer work for every kitchen and cooking query I have. At times, I can create on the spot or trust my instincts and my experience to make wonderful things happen in the kitchen.

Christmas 2014, however, was not one of those times. Since getting married, our Christmas meal has largely been either my rendition of my childhood Christmas fare (roast turkey, baked ham) or my wife’s version of her mother’s Mechado (a beef stew with vegetables in a fresh tomato sauce). Last May, my wife and I celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary so this Christmas we felt that we needed something different. Growing up, I was fortunate to feast on my mother’s Roast Beef. I’ve never done one myself and we contemplated doing one for Christmas but neither of us were completely sold on the idea. Then the idea of Prime Rib came to mind and it stuck. Neither of us had ever made one but our friend did – her first time – last year and guinea pigged it on us. It came out successfully, seemed pretty easy to do so we decided we’d do the Primec Rib in our house this go around.

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However, having never done one, I referred to the bible. When got to the page and found the passage I needed, I read it and reread it no less than four times. Then I rustled through the beef pages to find other entries for variations of Prime Rib. Then I reread what I initially went to and shared it with my wife.

“That’s it?” was her response.

The instructions were very innocuous. Preheat the oven to 450. Liberally salt and pepper the meat. Cook it, uncovered, for ten minutes. Lower the heat to 250 and cook it for whatever time is needed, based on the weight of the meat, to get the temperature you want. In this case, at 30 minutes a pound for medium, we were looking at 90 minutes.

Like I said, innocuous. Well, it should have been. But, having never done a Prime Rib before, my uncertainty and, perhaps, the curse of arrogance from knowing a little about kitchen and cooking things, I felt the creep of mental and emotional injury. 250?! That’s it?

Well, after seasoning the meat, I put it in the oven and did what The Joy of Cooking told me to. I also made an advanced apology to my wife, just in case it didn’t turn out. If for some reason, it came out underdone, I figured I could just sliced the meat and fry it. If it came out overdone and ruined, I was all set to reenact the final scene in A Christmas Story and take my family out for a Christmas dinner at the nearest Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have the neighbour’s dogs to blame for a ruined meal.

After the time was up, I put in my cooking thermometer, got the desired temperature and let it set for the mandatory cool down and juice retaining minutes. I finished making the sauces and the sides and, shortly thereafter, dinner was served. And, if I may pat myself on the back, the Prime Rib turned out perfectly.

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I haven’t recounted this for you so I can brag and show you how wonderful a cook I am.  What my intention is, however, is three-fold. One: Don’t fear trying new things. Two: Have your plan and resources handy. (While my small opinion will count for little, I just want to say that The Joy of Cooking, at least in my culinary experiences, has been and continues to be the go to reference.) Three: Be humble and don’t get in your own way. Most of you follow these tips anyway. Heck, for you they’re less likely tips or reminders and your routine kitchen practise. For me, though, doing the Prime Rib was like an accidental Christmas present to myself and it reminded me of those three things and, now that I’ve been reminded of them, I intend to take them with me in the kitchen and, hopefully, out of the kitchen as I venture into 2015.

Happy cooking everyone! Thanks for stopping in my kitchen.

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It’s The Holiday Season

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Thanksgiving is only a few days away and, yes, the holiday season is upon us. That means loads of laughter, spending time with family and friends, exchanging gifts and hosting parties. Recently, my wife, son and I had dinner at a new friend’s place. She, with her husband and three kids, recently moved to New Jersey from New York City and, with a nice spacious kitchen and putting work on hold to be the homemaker, she’s decided to host both Thanksgiving and Christmas for her family. I think she said the total count is going to be around thirteen. So, in preparation, she had us over for dinner and practised with a chicken (pictured above) and some veggie dishes (a cauliflower one and a Brussels sprouts one) she learnt at cooking classics she’d taken at Williams and Sonoma and King’s Supermaket, both in Short Hills.

Looking back, growing up in Hong Kong, my family’s flat was the largest of the other homes of my parents’ friends and co-workers. For that reason and also, perhaps, from a ‘corporate mindset’ of the boss hosting the annual party (of the jobs my father had while in Hong Kong – journalist and business owner – he was among the higher ups), I recall that most of the holiday gatherings were held at our place. Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in Hong Kong but we did serve turkey at our gatherings – something my mother took with her from her German-American father – and we did celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in grand fashion. As a family, Christmas was an intimate affair with midnight mass on Christmas Eve, home for a feast and opening Christmas presens, staying up late, and sleeping in on Christmas Day. The big party my mother would host usually fell on Boxing Day. For New Year’s, the big event was usually on New Year’s Eve but sometimes on New Year’s Day. During those years, and the times my mother hosted Christmas parties in New Jersey before my parents moved back to The Philippines, I acquired a few handy tips that have helped my own parties run more smoothly than not. And, if I can pat myself on the back a little, I have prepared feasts, largely single-handedly, for parties of twenty or more and, sometimes, in a kitchen the size of a small New York City closet.

So, with the holidays approaching, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt, from my mother and others, to help your holiday celebration turn out tasty, run smoothly and be a challenge for your in-laws to top.

1. If you have a frozen turkey, make sure you give it enough time to defrost completely. I’m moving mine from the freezer to the fridge tonight so it’s thawed by Thursday morning.
2. Do any prep work you can days ahead of time. If anything can be cut, diced, puréed, etc do it now. Things like gravy and cranberry sauce can be made ahead of time and reheated, if needed. Pies, too. To this end, if out of town guests arrive early and are staying wih you, heck, put them to work. If not with the preparations and cooking, with kid-watching and errand-running.
3. With large family gatherings, make a little more than you were planning to and, if you’re doing a sit down, make sure you have extra place settings. There’s always that last minute person – your sister-in-law’s single friend, for example – who shows up.
4. Have some kid-friendly food ready. While I’m a big believer in kids eating what they’re given – the home is not a restaurant, after all – some kids (heck, some adults) just don’t like certain things and we don’t want anyone to go hungry.
5. Don’t take every (seeming) criticism from your mother or (cue Darth Vader music) your mot her-in-law to heart. It’s not worth getting into a battle over. Each generation has a way of doing things.
6. Plan your menu ahead of time. This is something you should’ve done already.
7. Tagging on to number 6, get to the store early and buy extra. I’ve noticed over the years that the Sunday before Thanksgiving – yesterday – is the busiest food shopping day of the week leading up to Turkey Day. It’s too late to get there before yesterday but, if you have to go again and not just for a run in, go early in the day and earlier in the week.
8. On the day, make a plate for yourself and stash it in the kitchen. Much like being the bride and groom at their wedding reception, the party host doesn’t often get to have a decent meal; busy with entertaining, serving, etc.
9. Be flexible. If something doesn’t turn out right, turn it into something else. You have the ability to do so. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have had the gumption to even attempt hosting.
10. Allow yourself to have fun, don’t worry if you make a mistake in your cooking and, if you need to, say “F**k it!” Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever you’re celebrating and hosting is one day out of three hundred and sixty-five. If it turns out great, you’re a star. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t define who you are. Bottom line, you gave it a shot and you probably learnt something about cooking and, more importantly, about yourself. Be better prepared next year or let someone else host. And, in the long run, it’s going to be one of those memorable days you and your kids will look back on with with fondness and/or good humour.

Anyway, so those are my ten quick tips to help with your holiday preparations. Good luck but, more importantly, have fun. Cooking and hosting are meant to be fun endeavours. Remember that.

Oh, and, Happy Thanksgiving! (albeit a little early).