Stage Fright

So, on Twitter, people are confessing at what stage of quarantine they currently occupy.

     For example, Pigeon Fancier wrote: “What stage of quarantine are you at, me I’m wearing a foofy bathrobe 24/7, drinking everything out of a champagne flute, calling the house spiders “dahling” in a transatlantic accent”

     As for myself, I’m at the stage that I’ve grown so used to wearing a mask that once this is all over, I’m contemplating taking a job as a stagecoach robber.

     And, I’m at the stage of quarantine where I’ve taken to shouting, “Social Distancing!” at crowd scenes in movies, such as The Ten Commandments, the beach scene in Jaws, and the ball in Walt Disney’s Cinderella.

     After years of familiarity, I’ve put together a list of where on the quarantine spectrum friends and family possibly (probably) reside.

     Petey, well-known for his taciturnity, is at the stage where he’s become positively chatty with folks he meets while walking the dog.  He actually spoke with a neighbor the other day for a full 90 seconds.

     The Kid has been so deprived of human companionship that furniture and accessories around the house have become anthropomorphized.  The child spends much of the day breaking up medical disputes between Doc Martens and Dr. Pepper, and refereeing refrigerator brawls between Duke’s Mayonnaise and a bowl of spaghetti that’s gone bad and joined a gang.

     My mom is a notorious clean freak, whose dirtiest surface in her house is still clean enough to perform neurosurgery on.  She’s at the stage where she’s begun removing the drywall from rooms to, “Really get into those nooks and crannies”.

     My father, who gets more done before lunch than I do in a month has begun cutting the grass with a pair of nail clippers, because edging and trimming with them gave him the control he was looking for.  Whenever my mother took a bath my father, the former Coast Guard rescue swimmer maintained a constant vigil in case of an accident.

     My mother has since switched to showers.

     For a couple of weeks, family friend Chef Chrissie has been playing a version of Chopped; a game in which you have a time limit to prepare dishes using four random ingredients.  Because Chrissie lives alone, he plays against an imaginary opponent with make-believe judges.

     He’s still looking for his first win.

     Maxie, one of my oldest and closest friends, and his husband Mark have three dogs.  They’re at the stage where they’ve made costumes and backdrops to stage an all-canine rendition of Downton Abbey.  The unfortunate effect is that two of the pooches have become unforgivably snooty.  And the pup who plays the butler keeps drinking all the sherry.

     Another friend of mine has drafted a list of enemies from high school, forty years ago.  She has no idea where most of them are today, but if she were to run into one of them, she has a rapier-sharp retort for the sick burn given to her in third-period French class sophomore year.

     A young friend of mine who has twin toddlers is at the stage where she’s been thinking about teaching her children to become bartenders, except their little legs are too short to reach the freezer and no matter how many times she shows them, they can’t make a decent dry martini.

     I hope you enjoyed what is mostly a fictional list.

     But quarantine is awful, and hard on us all.  If you’re struggling and need some help, or just want somebody to talk to, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on their Helpline at 800-950-NAMI.  Or in a crisis,  text “NAMI” to 741741.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

The Kid’s Birthday Cake

Except, it’s not actually a cake.

Disturbing, no?

In 1963 Jello published a cookbook called, The Joys of Jello.  In it are all the whack-a-doodle recipes that you would expect for a gelatin cookbook from that dark period of our culinary history.

Cthulhoid jello salad

There’s the Apple Tuna Mold: A molded salad with apples, tuna, and celery set into lime gelatin.  Another winner is Vegetables in Sour Cream: veggies molded into lemon Jell-o with bullion, sour cream, and vinegar.  And, lest we forget, this nightmare: Barbecue Salad: A regular tossed salad, but with barbecue-flavored Jell-o cubes on top.

It’s no wonder that when children that were raised on this techno-colored dreck got older they did so many drugs.  After a supper of cottage cheese salmon mold we’d all probably want to chemically erase any memory of that meal.

But.

Also in that cookbook was a little something called Strawberry-Pretzel salad.  This recipe had as much to do with salad as a sponge cake has to do with that thing you use to wash dishes.

This is a light version of a cheesecake.  And for something so simple, it takes the concept of balance to high art.

The pretzel crust is crunchy and sweet/salty.  The next layer is creamy, fluffy, and sweet.  Finally, the jello layer is cool, sweet, with the lightly sour pop of strawberries.

For someone who’s not an over-the-top sweet lover, it’s the perfect dessert.  But it’s so good that even someone with a sweet tooth the size of the rock of Gibraltar loves it (ahem, yeah, that would be me).

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Strawberry Pizza

(for some reason, we’ve always called it strawberry pizza)

Crust:

Heaping 2 cups of crushed pretzels

¾ cup melted butter (1 ½ sticks)

3 tbsp sugar

Kosher salt

Bake at 400°.

Mix butter and sugar, then mix in pretzels.  Sprinkle a small pinch of salt on top before baking.  Press into a 9×13-inch glass dish with high sides, or two smaller casserole dishes with higher sides—you need enough room to cover all three layers and the strawberries without smooshing it.  Alternatively you could cook them in individual ramekins, jam jars, or muffin tins.  I think you could get about 8-10 minis from this recipe.

Bake for 8 minutes and let cool completely.

Filling:

(Sometimes I make a larger amount for this part; this is my favorite layer.)

2-8 oz package cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

1-8 oz tub of Cool Whip, thawed

1 tablespoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon salt

To make a thicker layer: use 1 1/2 cup sugar, 3 blocks cream cheese, and 12 or 16 oz tub of cool whip, thawed

Mix together softened cream cheese and sugar until smooth (an immersion blender is especially helpful in getting the cream cheese smooth.

Fold in Cool Whip. 

Spread evenly on top of cooled crust, making sure the mixture has no gaps around the side.  The Jello will sneak through those gaps and leak onto the pretzels, making them soggy.  Place and fridge and let chill and set up (at least 2 hours).   

Topping :

1 large box strawberry gelatin

1-16 oz package frozen strawberries

2 cups boiling water

Directions

Whisk gelatin into boiling water until completely dissolved.  Add frozen strawberries to the hot jello.

When the strawberries are thawed remove them from the jello with tongs, and place evenly onto the cream cheese layer and gently press them into place.

Healing Begins When The Hurt Is Acknowledged & Shared

*Warning: If you think Covid19 is a hoax, you use the term, “lamestream media”, or you think this virus is a plot to influence an election, stop reading now.  The remainder of this column will only upset you and reinforce any notion you have that I am a deluded fool.

You’ ve been warned.

I’ll tell you a secret.  After being married to a nurse for years, and being around many hospital workers, I have learned something.

Medical folk ain’t quite right.

Every single day, they put others’ well being above their own.

When most people are cocooning and withdrawing from the world, nurses, doctors, lab staff, respiratory therapists, and every other human that works to heal and ensure our health keep on going.

And many have family with high-risk factors so haven’t seen or touched their parents, or children, or spouses in months in order to avoid exposing loved ones to the virus.

There are workers who’ve had family members born or pass away, but because they are considered a possible carrier of infection weren’t able to say hellos or goodbyes.  

I have a friend who has just graduated as a Doctor Nurse.  She has a Ph.D. in nursing. 

Throughout her studies, she has continued to work full time as an intensive care nurse at a very large university hospital.  There’s not enough PPE.  Early on, Petey and I found a box of N95 masks from his own nursing days.  We gave them to her.

In intensive care, where the normal ratio is one or two patients per nurse, the new ratio is four patients for each nurse, due to drastic nursing shortages and also hiring freezes, because money is in even shorter supply than protective gear.

Until there is a steady supply of reliable tests, the true number of Covid19 positive patients won’t be known.  But what is known is that there are countless untested patients admitted with unmistakable symptoms of the virus. 

And before the news was talking about meat processing outbreaks, they were getting multiple admissions a day from the plants—many don’t speak English, had no contact information, and were too sick or frightened to give a medical history to staff.

Right now, my friend is not working with current coronavirus patients.  She had worked four straight weeks without a break when her nurse manager made her rotate out.  The masks we gave her are currently being used because even when working with patients who have recovered from COVID and are still very sick, there are not enough masks for employees. 

And this devotion to caring for complete strangers at their own detriment is not new.  The very last day Petey ever worked before his career-ending illness, he was so sick, that after his shift, they had to bring him off his unit in a wheelchair.

Everybody knows frontline medical workers.  They’re the same kind that devoted their lives to their fellow man back when Petey was nursing, and it will be the same type of humans caring for us when Covid19 is just a horror story in our rearview.

So, give them some love.  Buy them some PPE.  Carry homemade dinner to their families.  Make a batch of cupcakes for them to take to work.  Or just stand six feet away, and say, “Thank you.  I am so grateful to you for your devoted service.”

“To do what nobody else will do, in a way that nobody else can do, in spite of all we go through…that is what it is to be a nurse.” – Rawsi Williams, Nurse and Attorney.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Dusseldorf, By Way of Eastern NC

“So, are you doing a pulled pork thing?”

That was Chef Chrissie when I told him I was cooking chunks of pork butt low and slow.

“No, I’m going in a German direction, with mushrooms and a mustard cream sauce.”

“Nice.”

Pork in Mustard Cream

2 pounds frozen pork shoulder, with most of the fat removed and cut into 2-3 inch chunks

Dry Brine

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped

1 teaspoon dry thyme

½ teaspoon dry mustard

24-48 hours before cooking, place the still frozen pork into a large zip-top bag.  Sprinkle with dry brine, seal bag, and massage all over the pork.  Store in fridge, and each time you go into the kitchen, massage the bag to evenly distribute the brine.  As the pork thaws, the meat will be infused with the flavor of the brine.

Aromatics

1-2 pounds mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 large yellow onion, chopped

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary minced

3 bay leaves

Pinch of salt and pepper

2 tablespoons butter

½ cup beer

Melt butter in large heavy pot with a lid.  Add mushrooms, onions, and herbs.  Cover and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes so the veg can release their water.  Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally until the pot is dry and the veg is lightly caramelized.

Deglaze with beer and let cook until the beer has completely cooked out.  Remove veg and set aside.

Pork

½ cup very fine flour, like Wondra

Vegetable oil

Pour the flour into the bag with the pork chunks.  Shake to coat.  Heat ¼ cup or so of oil, then add the coated pork.  Don’t put too many in at one time, they won’t get crusty and caramelize—leave at least an inch of space around each piece.  Cook on one side until golden brown and crusty (3-5 minutes), then flip and cook the other side.

Remove from pot and cook in batches until all of the pork is done.

Add all the pork and the veg to the pot, turn to around 6-ish.

Roux

½ cup butter

2/3 cups flour

Melt butter, stir in flour, and cook until peanut butter-colored.  Remove from heat and set aside.

Sauce

1 ½ cup chicken stock

1 ½ cup beef stock

¾ cup skim or 2% milk

1 tablespoon dark soy or Worcestershire sauce

3-4 tablespoons mustard

1-2 tablespoons apricot jelly, or maple syrup, or honey (something sweet that fits the flavor profiles)

15-20 gratings of fresh nutmeg

¾ cup heavy cream

Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 225° F.

Add all sauce ingredients except cream and salt & pepper to pot with pork and vegetables.

Bring to a boil.  Stir in enough roux to bring to desired gravy thickness.  Take off heat.

Stir in cream. Season, taste, and reseason until it’s perfect.

Cover, and place in oven.  After 90 minutes take out of oven, uncover, and skim off all the fat that has accumulated on the top.

Place back into oven and cook for another 90 minutes.  Remove and check for doneness.  You want it fork-tender, but not falling apart.

Serve over egg noodles.  Reheat leftovers in microwave. 

Or reheat it like I did for Petey: in a covered pan with raw long-grain white rice with an equal amount of water (for example; 1 ½ cups water & 1 ½ cups rice).  Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 30-40 minutes or until rice is cooked through.  Serve with a fresh veg or top each serving with a big handful of pea shoots.

“Nice.”

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Since You Can’t Rewind, Be Kind

Gentle Reader, dig if you will the picture, of you and your very best friend engaged in a visit.  It’s a glorious day and you’re enjoying each other’s company.

Or.

You’re in the grocery store with your child.  You’re both in a good mood and having fun together.  The phrase, “ice cream for dinner” may have been bandied about. 

Then.

You and your friend, or you and your offspring, are approached by a stranger.  Yet somehow, this stranger knows your companion.  They know their fears, mistakes, and secret shames.  They know the words that wound and how to wield the knife to cut the deepest.

In a blink, your friend, your child, has been flayed open with hidden weaknesses exposed to punish and humiliate. 

Words said cannot be unsaid, and these cruel, malignant words will be a burden never relinquished.  The trauma of these searing invectives will be bourn for all their days.

 So, what do you do?

Do you remain silent?  Do you join in, pile on, and feast upon your loved one’s pain?

Of course you don’t.

You defend and protect with the ferocity of a grizzly woken in late January to protect her cubs.  You shut them down and shut them up.  Depending on your self-control and blood sugar level, you just might punch them square in the mouth. 

And, once this evil troll has been dispatched (one way or another), you turn to your wounded, beloved bird.

Then, Gentle Reader, you set and splint the break, working to heal, and in the healing make stronger.

You remind them of their awesomeness.  You list their intelligence, fortitude, and magnificent heart.  You point out their kindness and sense of humor.  You tell them they are fiercely loved and ferociously lovable.

All in an attempt to defend, protect, and erase the un-erasable.

Of course you do.  Because you love them, and cannot stand to see hurt in their faces.

So let me ask you a question.

If you wouldn’t let a stranger talk this way to the ones you love, why, oh why would you say things to and about yourself that are so much crueler?

And your personal WMD’s are so much more lethally focused.

You can hear that boy’s voice when he publicly spurned your heart in the fifth grade.  The memory of the night when you thought you were looking pretty foxy and those guys driving past called you fat.  Closing your eyes, the malicious laughter of the eighth grade mean girls lacerates like they are standing right in front of you.

Every human, from the friendless first-grader at a new school to the most successful entrepreneur, has that venomous Greek chorus inside their head.  That internal voice that tells you you’re a screw up, or hideous, or a mental tree stump.  The monologue that explains, in exquisite, mortifying detail, why you will never succeed, and why you should just quit wasting your time and embarrassing yourself and everyone around you.

And I am a fully paid-up member of this soul-shredding club.           

So, let’s make a deal.

I am extremely protective of you, Gentle Reader.  And based on the communication I’ve received, you are in turn, mightily protective of me.

The next time we have that impulse to commit psychic hara-kiri with a sword made of words, stop.  Ask yourself if I would let a stranger speak to you in that fashion, and if not, knock it off.  I promise when I get rude with myself, to channel my Gentle Readers, and likewise, quit it.

Let’s be the restful, supportive angel on each others’ shoulders.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Pink Sauce

*This column was originally written in 2011.  But The Kid’s birthday is next week, and this week I’ll be working on gathering the ingredients to cook the sauce this weekend.  So, I thought it was appropriate to re-run.  I hope you enjoy, and try making this wonderful, versatile sauce.

 So, The Kid came home a few days ago, finished with six months of summer internship and first-time completely independent living.  Petey and I filled the fridge with childhood favorites like Clementines and RC Cola and counted the hours.

I made a big pot of childhood’s favorite guilty pleasure; pink sauce.

Despite being the child of an Italian girl from Jersey, I have never liked red sauce (called Sunday gravy by my mom and her sisters).  Consequently, I never made it.  If Petey or The Kid wanted spaghetti and meatballs, they had to leave home, and get their fix on the streets. 

Because I wanted to make some kind of spaghetti for the family, but mainly because I’m always looking for something thick and yummy to ladle onto carbs, I came up with this coral-colored, indulgent concoction. 

I invented this recipe before I could really cook, and The Kid has loved it for years.  This sauce is not for the faint of heart.  It should be no more than an occasional treat if you want to fit into your jeans or look your doctor in the eye.  Fat is flavor and can be the culinary equivalent of false eyelashes and push-up bra for the novice cook.

A big pot of this bubbling velvet starts the day before the finished dish.  I make a batch of meatballs.  My walnut-sized offerings are made with a mixture of ground veal and pork.  Before the meat even comes out of the fridge, I make a panade.  A panade is a bread ripped into tiny pieces and soaked until saturated.

My soak is egg, cream, shredded Parm, finely chopped garlic, chiffonade of basil, a splash of both olive oil and marsala wine, and salt and pepper.  When the bread and the soak are one, I break the ground meat into small pieces and lightly mix, almost folding the mixture together.  If you go nuts and mix your meatballs too much, they will be rubbery and dry.

I can’t fry a spherical meatball to save my life. So, I bake them, on a cooling rack over a cookie sheet, at 350 for twelve minutes, and a few minutes under the broiler flipped once.  This gives them some color that translates to flavor in the finished product. 

To get them uniform in size, I use a smallish cookie/portion scoop.  I roll them into balls, sprinkle them with salt, pepper, and a little bit of freshly ground nutmeg.  About eighteen or so go in the sauce, and any extra goes in the freezer for future use.

The sauce itself is pretty simple.  I brown 10-12 Italian sausages that I’ve cut into one-inch slices.  I remove them from the pot and carmelize about 1 1/2 pounds of sliced mushrooms, a small onion chopped, and five or six chopped cloves of garlic.  Then I add back the sausage and a can of tomato paste.  When the paste has cooked to a deep burgundy, I deglaze with a cup of marsala.  When the wine is almost gone, I dump in a quart of chicken stock and 2 cups of cream.  Into it I put a couple of tablespoons of sundried tomatoes, 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan, a tablespoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of chopped basil, a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. 

When it comes to a boil, I thicken it slightly with a peanut butter-colored roux and add the meatballs.  It then slowly cooks for hours on the stovetop. 

When we’re ready to eat, I toss in another handful of chopped basil for fresh flavor. 

I serve it on spaghetti, bake it into ziti, and use it on a ton of other things.  The Kid is convinced it would be tasty on an old tennis shoe.  Tonight, we’re having leftover sauce on rice, my personal favorite.

Thanks for your time.  

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Occupancy: Possession for Use

Before I was married, I lived in ten different houses in five different cities, towns, and military bases.

In the almost thirty-seven years since, I’ve lived in three homes in two cities. 

Before leaving for college, The kid lived in one home, in the same bedroom, with the same slightly creepy, Victorian doll wallpaper.

Since then our child has lived on both coasts and from New England to North Carolina in nine separate domiciles.  The many addresses were mandated by school, internships, and jobs.  The Kid has had the same apartment now for five years.  And I’ll bet there will only be two more addresses; a purchased home, and the old folks’ home.

My child hates change.  And loves nesting.

When Petey and I were married, we decided to buy a used mobile home. 

They saw us coming.  We were innocent children with good credit.

We purchased a used 12 X 60 trailer for $19,000.  Today a used 12 X 60 sells for around $20,000.  But that salesman had us convinced that we were getting a deal he couldn’t get for his own mother.

This was during a devastating recession so we paid the horrifying going rate of 14% interest. 

Our trailer park, Stevenson’s, was located in Symond’s Creek.  Which was a semi-suburb of Nixonton, a demi-suburb of Elizabeth City.  It was basically the back-est of beyond; mainly farms and really, not much else.

Our lot was the lower right, bordered on two sides with cornfields.

We lived twenty-three miles from the “mall” in E. City.  It took thirty minutes to get to town if you didn’t get stuck in a traffic jam involving a couple of tractors, a school bus, and a ninety-year-old farmer making his monthly trip to town.

Before we had the trailer moved to our lot at Stevenson’s, we had to hire a guy to perform a health department mandated, “perc test”.  It consists of drilling or digging a hole, filling it with water and timing how long it takes to drain out. 

A seemingly simple test, but for an unspeakable reason that has to do with a terrifying tank, buried deep in the ground nearby.

Our dirt passed its dirt-based SAT, and we scheduled delivery of our love shack.

The day our honeymoon cottage on wheels was delivered we were both so excited.  Even Petey, who is such a stoic he wouldn’t rush out of a burning building was mildly enthusiastic.

 The front door had been left unlocked.

We realized it because the door was wide open, and there was an odd little boy who eerily resembled Pugsley Addams standing in our living room.

Petey was kind of amused, but I was completely crushed.

I had had a vision for this day.  Petey would carry me up the flimsy aluminum steps, I would unlock our very own front door, and he would carry me over the threshold.  I can’t stress strongly enough how fortunate his musculoskeletal system was that day.  When we got hitched there was an awful lot of me.  Realistically, there would have been multiple broken bones and concussions for us both.

Rather than a honeymoon in a corner room (with a fireplace) at the Williamsburg Inn, we would have been long-term residents of Albemarle Hospital’s intensive care unit.

We diplomatically kicked the kid out, despite his protestations of, “It’s okay! My mom won’t mind if I eat supper here!”.

As we toured our new home and talked about the future, I happened to glance out the window to our front yard.

And out there was Pugsley with an absolutely blank expression.  But he was slowly rubbing his pudgy, grubby little hands together. 

Just like a miniature Bond villain.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.