John Handy, Hard Work
I made pizza for dinner the other night. There was pizza fallout from one end of the kitchen to the other—flour, semolina, caramelized onion/mushroom, pepperoni slices, tomato sauce, shreds of cheese, a floured rolling pin, parchment paper, olive jars, sliced tomatoes, and a hint of desperation—vaguely reminiscent of my La Jolla Sushi Burrito adventure. I’ve eaten great homemade pizza, but not at my house—eatable yes, but great, no. Ginny and Ron make killer pizza (on the grill even), Karen makes a delicious pie using a special pizza oven stored in a handy location for snack emergencies, I see Instagram pizza made by my nephew, my niece, and my grandchildren, so it can be done at home, just not by me. Sometimes when we cook, the results aren’t equal to the effort.
I remember Thanksgiving a few years ago—it was the Sweetie and me, so a turkey breast was just the thing. I brined, minced, stuffed, rubbed, roasted, and basted with lukewarm results. The gravy was grayish, the stuffing dry, and the meat had to be consumed with a glass of water, wine, or milk. The time and effort were there but the results were disappointing. Cooking can be like that—it always takes effort to make a stir fry, soup, stew, pie, or cookies, but sometimes the results don’t shine.
One summer in the 70s, I put falafel on the menu for a Sound Food ethnic dinner. During a trip to Israel a few years before, I had eaten as many as I could and wanted to reproduce the experience—how hard could it be? At the time, falafel was not readily available and could be found only at the Phoenecia in West Seattle. Ginny was working at Sound Food then and we soaked, ground, mixed, diced, and rolled falafel for one hundred. The afternoon before the event, we filled up a pot with oil, heated it to 375°, dropped in a few guinea pigs, and stood over the pot watching with dismay as the balls dissolved into crumbs, turned black, and sank to the bottom of the pot. After a desperate call to the Phoenecia, we added flour, squeezed falafel dough in kitchen towels, reshaped the balls so they looked like hockey pucks, and aired them out on bakery racks in the parking lot. On the second run the hockey pucks held together and the day was saved—unfortunately, they tasted like hockey pucks. But, oh well, after stuffing them into Baker Bob’s soft, chewy pita rounds and stuffing them with pickled vegetables, hummus, lettuce, tomatoes and tahini sauce, no one could taste them anyway.
Then there are those times when the knives align and everything is just right. My neighbors were telling me of a recent pot roast dinner they prepared. Now, they have made pot roast many times before and always with effort, time, and good results: the browning, the braising, the simmering, the waiting—but this time, the pot roast was perfect. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, the gravy brown and silky, the carrots sweet, the potatoes perfectly soft. Hard work paid off.
Years ago when I was a cube rat in Seattle, I came home from my grey, drizzling, two-hour commute to the smell of dinner in the oven. The Sweetie followed a Gourmet magazine recipe and made French lamb stew—tender cubes of meat, slender batons of carrot, a few rosemary branches, and garlic. All the result of smart shopping, effort, and a dose of good luck. I’ve tried over the years to reproduce that dish but haven’t come up with a lamb stew that good.
Then there was our January dinner party based on Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Oh Jerusalem. There was definitely hard work: dicing, boning, mincing, blending, roasting, basting, stuffing, creaming, baking, and whisking. This time, the results were equal to the effort: feta beet salad, tabouli, roast chicken with clementines—all reflective of the time spent in the kitchen.
Now, both Steve Jobs and the Buddha said that the journey is the reward, but when I spend hours over a hot stove, I’d like the results to match the effort—just sayin’. Here’s that pot roast recipe and a Mark Bittman vinegar chicken Ginny told me about that both return brilliant results. Skip falafel, buy them at Trader Joes or Costco.
BTW, foxglove season is with us, they’re beginning to bloom here and there along the walking trail. One year, the foxgloves bloomed tall and purple throughout Nikki’s property. It was a special event—every May we waited for it, but it never happened again.
Mark Bitman’s vinegar chicken
- 2 olive oil
- 1 3-pound chicken, cut up for sauteing
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup minced shallots or scallions
- 1 cup good red-wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Set a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil; when it is hot, place chicken in the skillet, skin side down. Cook undisturbed for about 5 minutes, or until chicken is nicely browned. Turn and cook 3 minutes on the other side. Season with salt and pepper.
Place skillet in the oven. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, or until almost done (juices will run clear, and there will be just a trace of pink near the bone). Remove chicken to an ovenproof platter. Place it in the oven; turn off the heat, and leave the door slightly ajar.
Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the cooking juices out of the skillet (discard them)(I never discard pan juices). Place skillet over medium-high heat, and add shallots; sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until tender, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar, and raise the heat to high. Cook a minute or two, or until the powerful acrid smell has subsided somewhat. Add ½ cup water (I added chicken stock) and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring, until the mixture is slightly reduced and somewhat thickened. Stir in butter, if desired (I will always desire the addition of butter).
Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet, and turn the chicken in the sauce. Serve immediately.
Pot roast from the Stay at Home Chef
- 1 3 to 5 pound beef roast chuck, round, or brisket
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 cloves minced garlic
- 1 to 2 cups red wine
- 2 cups low sodium beef broth
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2 large white onions cut into 2 inch chunks
- 1 pound baby carrots
- 1 pound red potatoes cut into bite-sized chunks
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heat a large dutch oven pot over high heat.
Season both sides of chuck roast with salt and pepper. Add vegetable oil to pot and sear roast until browned, about 3 to 4 minutes each side.
Remove roast from pan and set aside briefly on a plate or cutting board. Add garlic to pot and saute 60 seconds. Deglaze pan with red wine and beef broth. Add roast back to the pot.
Pour Worcestershire sauce over roast and place the onion chunks around the meat. Place rosemary sprig on top.
Place a lid on the pan and transfer it to the preheated 350 degree oven. Cook 2 hours, then add potatoes and carrots and cook for another hour or until meat shreds easily with a fork.