Another chicken dream…

I had chicken for dinner last night. As happens more often than not under these circumstances, my subconscious treated me to yet another of what I’ve fondly come to think of as “chicken dream.”

This one featured a very vivid sequence in which I was driving the Jeep along the edge of a park or maybe a town square. It was tree lined and bucolic and filled with protestors wearing red shirts. As I passed, rolling slowly, they began spilling over into the street. One of the red shirts, armed, and now standing in the middle of the street leveled a rifle (hunting, not assault). I have a stark recollection of staring down the open barrel – its bore looking like an ever-widening maw – and then instinctively popping the clutch and knocking the unknown rifleman out of the way.

Rather than fleeing as would probably have been advisable in a real-world mob scene, dream me pulled to the curb on the next block, locked the Jeep, and checked into a hotel. The next morning the protestors were gone, but so was the Jeep. The entire square looked pristine and as if no one had even the audacity to walk on the grass the day before.

I was getting decidedly surly looks from townspeople who were gathering in small groups of two or three people, whispering as I passed. After scouring the surrounding streets for the Jeep, my dream self gave up, commenting “Well, I guess I just live here now.”

And that’s where I jolted awake in the very early hours of Tuesday morning. My inner self was more than happy to go along with the crowds, running down an armed bandit, and choosing to stick around overnight for no apparent reason – but even in a dream state it couldn’t get past the idea that I’d voluntarily live in “downtown” anywhere.

I’ve said it before, but I really do need to stop having chicken for dinner. It truly makes for some of the dumbest dreams.

Meat, hunting, and home decoration…

A few months ago, I kicked around the idea of starting up a weekly limited feature focused on topics that some people might consider controversial, unpopular, or otherwise not appropriate for polite company. Nothing much came of the idea then, but it has stewed in my head ever since. This is the next of what I like to think will be a recurring series of Friday evening contemplations. If you’re easily offended, or for some reason have gotten the impression that your friends or family members have to agree with you on every conceivable topic, this might be a good time to look away. While it’s not my intention to be blatantly offensive, I only control the words I use, not how they’re received or interpreted.

It’s hard to go out for groceries without seeing another brand that’s introduced a new variety of plant-based ham or some other all natural, vegan certified, socially responsible food product. That’s fine. Some of these products aren’t half bad tasting and I’m happy to allow the substitution where it makes sense. 

Even so, you’d be hard pressed to fully break me of a lifetime of omnivorous eating. If I haven’t been shown satisfactory evidence that bacon can be made from turkey, there’s really very little chance I’m going to suddenly be convinced it can be made from pressed plants. In some cases, taste really is king.

I go through all that to demonstrate that I’m an unashamed meat eater.

I grew up in a place where hunting and fishing were a regular method of supplementing what ended up on the dinner table. Even though my days of wanting to sit in the cold waiting for a deer are long gone, I respect the hell out of people who are out there doing it for the right reasons. Despite what PETA tells you, taking game for sustenance or to control nuisance species are perfectly valid things to do and is considered a wildlife management best practice.

Trophy hunting, by contrast, pretty much makes you a douche. Yeah, I’m looking directly at whoever out there cuts off the antlers and leaves the carcass laying on the side of the road. Look, I love duck and goose hunting – but I don’t enjoy the taste of duck or goose, so I settle for taking clays and staying out of the blind. Going out just for the thrill of the kill or because you need a stuffed and mounted giraffe is about as asinine reason to hunt as I can imagine. 

That’s not the kind of statement that will endear me to some of my gun toting brethren, who would be perfectly happy to keep blasting a hundred ducks at a time with a skiff-mounted punt gun until they empty the river.

To enjoy any kind of legitimacy, hunting has to be about conserving the resource today and for the future. The most dedicated hunters I’ve ever known have approached the whole process with a reverence for the animal and full understanding that an animal was losing its life so that the hunter could eat. If your hunt is all about home décor choices, then honestly, I don’t even want to know you.

Waste…

Despite making reasonable efforts, one thing I’ve found impossible to avoid as an army of one is generating a fair amount of food waste. 

Every Saturday morning, the weeks leftovers, bread that’s started to mold, crackers gone stale, spring mix that’s slimed, and whatever other food is around that I’m just not going to eat, gets hauled out and dumped over the fence. The local critters seem to appreciate it, but it’s absolutely money out the window. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t also some low-level of guilt for what I nonchalantly throw out on a weekly basis, particularly given the increased cost of food and the sometime scarcity of staple products in our plague environment.

I’ve done my best to reduce recipe sizes but when I’m just feeding me there’s always some left. The easy answer would be to dramatically reduce the types of things I buy – just bread instead of bread and buns and English muffins. That’s fine if someone wants to be so self-sacrificing, but I like each of those things in a different preparation – sourdough bread for dipping in my over medium eggs and bacon butties, hamburger buns for, well, hamburgers, roast beef, and chicken sandwiches, and English muffins for breakfast sandies in all their various forms.

That just considers the various bread products that make regular appearances here at Fortress Jeff. Meats, produce, and most other grocery categories are equally represented. Some people are fanatical at cutting anything resembling waste. As much as I wish I was one of them, there are just limits to what I’m willing to eliminate because money is only one measure of value.

Having options is the measure that appeals most to me. The serious granola and sandals types won’t like it, but at least the local wildlife is appreciative. 

You can’t go home again…

When I go home for Christmas, I always make a point of searching out the favorite foods of my youth – unique flavors that live in my mind as essential elements of growing up in Allegany County. Across the years, savoring those tastes has become as much a part of my holiday tradition as a presents or a tree.

Sheetz coffee was a mainstay of my caffeine habit from the time I started driving. I’d go out of my way to get their standard drip brew over any other competitor. Now they’ve installed some fancy looking grind-on-demand “coffee system.” It looks pretty sitting on the counter, but what comes out of it doesn’t taste like Sheetz coffee. It might even be a decent cup of joe under other circumstances, but it’s not the flavor I wanted. For my money, Wawa or Royal Farms now offer up a better tasting selection of old-fashioned drip coffee.

For years, Snyder of Berlin (not to be confused with Snyder of Hanover) made what was packaged as “British style salt and vinegar” potato chips. As a connoisseur of salt and vinegar chips, Snyder’s was my favorite. It was an intensity of flavor not replicated anywhere as far as I can tell. Their packaging has lost the “British style” imagery… and their chips, it seems, retain only the barest hint of salt or vinegar flavoring. Herr’s and Utz now blow them away on all counts. 

The D’Atri’s cheesesteak sub has, for me, always been the definitive taste of western Maryland. That’s why I was horrified to find it something unrecognizable. Yes, it was a sub made with cheese and steak and their proprietary lettuce concoction… but the flavor profile was all wrong. Even the bread was different. It’s like walking into McDonald’s and finding that they’ve replaced their fries with tater tots. Sure, they’re made out of the same stuff, but it’s just not right. This is the one that really breaks my heart. 

Nearly all of my favorite foods from back home and back when now seem to exist only in memory. I’ve managed to recreate a few of them in my own kitchen, but most, I expect, are gone and will never return. The bright spot, in an otherwise disappointing food experience, was M&M Bakery. Their peanut butter frosted cinnamon roll doughnuts were exactly as I remember them… and that means they were possibly the finest doughnut ever devised or concocted by the mind of man. I’m wildly thankful they haven’t tried to improve upon it.

I guess old Tom Wolfe was right. You really can’t go home again. That won’t stop me from spending the next 40 years pining away for tastes and flavors I can still conjure immediately in my mind.

On just wanting a damned cup of coffee…

About a week ago I noticed that my coffee maker was making a mess of itself occasionally when I brewed up a K-cup. You never knew exactly when you’d find the machine sitting in a puddle of its own water. It was annoying, but easy enough to clean up as needed. For the last two days, though, it’s transitioned from an occasional issue to an every time sort of thing. That’s a bridge too far for an appliance that’s supposed to be about convenience. 

My Hamilton Beach Flexbrew surely isn’t a style leader, but it made a consistent pot of coffee and didn’t choke on any of the various K-cup products I threw at it. I know coffee purists out there reading this will rage at the mere mention of “pod” coffee, but I’ve come to appreciate the convenience as well as the ability to run non-coffee hot beverages through the machine when the mood strikes me. No, it’s not a scientific, cold brew, chemistry lab looking set up and I don’t really care. Mornings are about getting scalding hot caffeine into my system as quickly as possible. I don’t care much how artfully it happens.

I was tempted this morning to order up one of the fancy new Ninja brewers or even some of the more exotic offerings… but I’m old enough to remember when just about any kitchen appliance you could want was available for $19.99 plus tax. The middle three figure price slapped on some of those models was a too eyewatering for me. Most of them also showed delivery times out near Christmas, and of course I just don’t have that level of patience.

So, I’ll be replacing a five- or six-year-old Flexbrew with the exact same model. Maryland’s 6% cut drove the price over $100, but Amazon seems to think they can have it here before sunup tomorrow. I’m sure I could have pulled the baseplate off my old model and found the line that was split or needed a clamp replaced, but I think I’ve mostly decided that when any kind of consumer electronic has been in service for at least five years, it’s reached the end of its useful life cycle. Some people have a propensity to tinker around and don’t mind a bit of periodic bodging to keep something running indefinitely. Me? Yeah. I just want things to work when I flip a switch or push a button. If that means my annualized cost of being able to brew coffee at home is $20 and change, it’s a tolerable price to pay.

The unexpected perk of tea…

I love coffee and have since middle school. It’s been my reliable go-juice for the best part of three decades. Splash it in your tumbler and go. There’s a pot always on the warmer – or plenty of K-cups on the shelf for those occasions when I don’t need to fill a to go thermos. It’s the undisputed king of getting my mornings started.

Tea, though, is increasingly coming into its own in this household. I brew my first cuppa around 10 AM and then periodically through the afternoon.

You’d think one hot, caffeinated beverage would be as good as the next, but there’s something about tea, though. It forces you to take a pause. To boil the water. Heat the cup. Wait exactly 4 minutes for steeping.

It makes you wait and then rewards your patience, which, as it turns out, is a good thing.

Of onions and people…

It shouldn’t shock anyone to learn that I keep extensive lists. Everything from books I want to read to what groceries I need ends up on lists I keep on my phone for quick reference and for ease of making additions or deletions. It’s an old fashioned model lightly updated by technology. It is not, however, foolproof.

A few staple items, like rice and potatoes, I usually buy in quantity because so much of what I cook is loosely based around five or so key ingredients. They get used quickly and replenished on a regular basis. Because they get used and replaced so quickly, I occasionally find that the lists haven’t kept up.

It’s on days like that – like today – that I find myself conflicted between two compelling, but mutually exclusive, desires. I can either make a quick run into town to pick up the onion necessary for meatloaf I’ve planned for Sunday dinner or I can stay home avoiding people and use onion powder as a sad substitute.

I deeply love a good meatloaf. I am also appalled by the idea of dealing with the general public when it isn’t strictly necessary. Surely you can see the hooks of the dilemma on which I find myself stuck.

This is obviously what’s meant when they “adulting is hard.”

Just a taste…

In a lot of ways I’m a simple guy. In a world where celebrity chefs and experimental cuisine are a thing, I’m sure some of my more sophisticated friends would find my taste in food horribly pedestrian. Cooking here at Fortress Jeff tends largely towards traditional – shocking, I’m sure. For most meals there’s a meat, a vegetable, and a starch. With a few exceptions, perhaps on a Saturday or Sunday, my table wine is tap water over ice.

While my menus are not as limited as they once were, there are a few favorites that appear regularly in the rotation. I can make a roast that’s a dead ringer for the traditional Sunday meal at my grandparent’s house. My lasagna tastes like it came straight out of my aunt’s kitchen. I like the tastes, smells, and textures I grew up enjoying. I may not be passing them to the next generation, but keeping them alive in this one is important to me.

Some tastes – mountain bologna from B&B Meats, cheese steak subs from D’Atri’s, and cheeseburgers from Scotty’s – I’ve given up on ever being able to recreate. There are, however, a few tastes of home that I’ve been working for years to replicate. The longest running effort in my kitchen has been the effort to put together a basic ham salad that gets close to the taste I remember coming out of Love’s Grocery in Lonaconing. Finding that flavor has been something of an obsession of mine… and I think I’ve finally managed to crack the code.

I would never claim to have the ingredient list right, but I’ve finally got the flavor – or at least something close to the flavor I remember. The internet is thick with recipes that try to raise simple ham salad to an art form – but simplicity is the soul of the whole “salad” family. It’s a food specifically designed to stretch the budget from an era when people of necessity made use of every scrap of meat in their kitchen. To me, ham salad on white bread is the taste of summer, ranking right alongside the BLT and corn on the cob.

So what’s the big secret? Apparently in my incarnation the missing ingredient was Miracle Whip. Being a Hellman’s household I never considered it before, but switching between the two changed the entire “flavor profile” of my ground ham concoction. I can’t imagine that any scientist anywhere has ever had a more joyful eureka moment.

So this Sunday morning I’ve got that going for me. If I don’t manage to get anything else accomplished today, I’ll still consider the day a wild success.

Feeding myself…

I’ve written before about my love of roast beef for Sunday dinner. It’s the ultimate comfort food that takes me back a few decades in a single bite. Plus, it makes the whole house smell amazing all day long. I mean, come on, who doesn’t love the smell of roasting flesh permeating every square inch of their home, right?

As usual, of course, that’s not my point. What I’m trying to figure out this morning, is when a basic rump roast weighing in at a little less than 3 pounds (and needing another 1/3 of a pound of fat trimmed) started costing almost $20. By my back-of-the-napkin math, the steer that roast came from sold at auction for approximately $1.7 billion, or roughly the cost of 1.5 stealth bombers.

While it’s true that I’m probably going to make 4 complete meals from this roast and with sides the average cost per meal will still be about $5 a plate, $20 for a roast is a price point that bothers me on a philosophical level. I’m not what’s called a price conscious shopper. I have a list and I want to cross everything off that list in one stop rather than chase nickels and dimes all over the county. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

So look, I’m not going to start having Tofu Dinner Sundays or anything but I am starting to think it may be time to invest in a chest freezer and buying the whole damned cow direct from the source. The chances of it getting any cheaper from here on out seem somewhere between slim and none.

Roast…

I’m pretty sure I’ve covered this before, but it bears repeating – Roast beef is my favorite Sunday dinner. Of course it’s convenient, too. Seared on cast iron, laced with almost an entire garlic clove, plopped in the crock pot and surrounded by mushroom soup and dry italian dressing mix, dinner prep is basically finished by 8AM. Then there’s the smell. I love the way a roasting beef fills that house with that smell. And then, of course, there are the memories of long ago and far away family dinners. For me, roast beef is the working definition of comfort food. It’s something to savor.

I can’t really claim to be a foodie. I don’t rush off to try the great new restaurants or seek out a dining adventure. I’m sure I could cook just about anything, but dinner here at the Rental Casa de Jeff is always about simple home cooking. I can’t imagine anyone is shocked to find that I consider myself the quintessential meat and potatoes kind of guy. I don’t need or really want ostrich burgers, chilled monkey brains, or snake surprise. Keep the larder stocked with herbs and spices, carrots, celery, onions, and the basic cuts of chicken, pork, and beef and I’m both a happy cook and a happy diner.