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.

Brew…

So once upon a time, one of my more farfetched strategies to get back to Maryland involved a scheme to buy the rights to an old Maryland beer’s name and label and re-found the tradition of brewing in Cumberland. For any number of really good reasons, that plan never went past the “that would be cool” phase of research and development. After spending a couple fordham-brewing-logoof hours at the Fordham Brewery in Dover this afternoon, I think it’s safe to say I have a new respect for the art and science of the “small” craft brewer. From what I can tell, it’s about as far from the stovetop brewing I did in my St. Mary’s County condo as a model plane is from the space shuttle.

Alas, it seems that brewery owner is going to be one of those things best retired to the list of ways I’m going to spend my eventual Powerball winnings. If you ever find yourself in Dover on a Saturday and have an hour to kill, I highly recommend stopping in and taking the $5 tour. With a payout of five samples and a free pint glass, how can you afford not to?

Burger…

There are plenty of places that try very hard to raise the simple and delicious hamburger into something like a high art form. I’m sure there is a place for a gourmet burger piled high with expensive and exotic toppings, but for my money there’s nothing better than a basic cheeseburger loaded down with ketchup, mustard, and raw onion on a buttered and toasted bun. Take one look at me and you’ll know I’m not exactly one to go in for the latest trends in Asian fusion or French cuisine. Those meals are more like an appetizer than a main course. It all boils down to personal preference, but I’m going to lay the blame squarely on the greasy spoon dining of my youth – Scotty’s, Kelly’s, and Marshall’s were all places to go to find a burger that was unapologetic about what it was and that didn’t need to be heaped with extras to taste good.

The real, local hamburger experience is getting harder and harder to find – it’s almost impossible unless you’ve been in an area close to forever. Ask most people where to get the best burger in town and they’re as likely to direct you to Sonic as they are to some mom and pop diner outside of town on the back road. For most of us, those places don’t exist anywhere but in our memory any more… But fortunately, that doesn’t mean the purists among us are stuck with some kind of fancy pants, snob burger.

Enter Five Guys. In my travels a few weekends ago I was lucky enough to spy what appeared to be a Five Guys Burgers and Fries not far away from me in Delaware. As far as I can tell, putting in an order from them is the next best thing to sitting down for one more burger in the battered, stained, and broken booths at Scotty’s. The atmosphere doesn’t even come close, but if you close your eyes and bite, the flavor is right there… Now if I can just talk them into putting brown gravy on the fries.

You’ll have to excuse me, but I need to go change. It’s time to start thinking about crossing state lines in search of dinner.

Goodbye George…

I had to say goodbye this week to George Forman, well, to his grill at least. I may have some pots and pans that have been around longer, but they mostly just sit in a cabinet getting dusty. George was the longest continuously serving piece of gear in my kitchen, getting drug out two or three times a week depending on what was on the menu. He was old school – no fancy removable plates or accessories, no digital settings. He was the original “grilling machine.”

Sadly, in his later years, George began tending towards incontinence; ignoring the drip pan in favor of spewing grease all over the countertop. Even so, his cooking was as reliable as ever. Sadly, there’s something about needing to degrease your kitchen counters (and George’s undercarriage) a few times a week that just doesn’t lend itself to continuing your long and productive relationship. When there were more drippings on the counter than in the pan, I knew it was time to put George out of his misery.

Sometime yesterday afternoon, UPS delivered George II. He’s got removable, easy to clean plates, can double as a waffle iron, and came with accessories that I haven’t come up with a use for yet. He’s sleek and new and isn’t caked with “gunk” that no amount of industrial degreaser would remove. I have no idea how well George II will actually stack up against his predecessor, but at least he’ll look good doing it.

Sunday is for soup…

Some people are domestic by nature. They seem to have a knack for cooking, cleaning, and general homemaking. And I’m not talking just about the chicks, either. Me, on the other hand, I’m domestic by necessity; because I like to eat, wear clean clothes, and not have three inches of dust covering every flat surface in the house. That last part might be more a symptom of OCD that domesticity, but that’s not my point.

A few days ago I was informed that I had a lot of “kitchen stuff”… for a guy. I’m still not exactly sure how to take that, so I’ve decided that I’ll just take it as a compliment and move on. The fact is, I like good food and that has ment that I had to learn to cook. I suspect eating out every night only has a certain charm for people that haven’t had the experience of doing it. By the time a guy has reached tentatively into his mid 30s, I don’t think it should be surprising that he has a vegetable peeler and a couple of oven mits, right? Regardless, I decided it was better for the time being to keep the food processor, vast collection of spices, and collection of cook books and recipes to myself for the time being.

If I’m in a confessional mood, I’ll tell you that I actually enjoy cooking when I have time to really do it. Savory items are really my speciality. Comfort food, if you will. It’s rarely fancy, but more often than not it turns out to be somewhere between edible and pretty tasty. With enough effort over the weekend, I can usually make it all the way to Wednesday just on leftovers. So unlike many of my Y-chromosomed brethren this morning, I’m not preparing for an afternoon of football. I’m prepping to tend to a large stockpot of soup. The perk of soup is that it’s hard to ruin and easy to fix if you do screw it up… and it gets better after sitting for a day or two. So if you’ll excuse me, I have to go give some of my abundant “kitchen stuff” a workout… and then stash it back in the dark recesses of the kitchen cabinets before all my secrets are revealed.

Office food…

The top dog around here wandered into our office this afternoon and announced that he had descended from the 5th floor because he’d heard that we had pizza. Not only did we not have pizza, but we also didn’t have a clue what would make him think we did. As it turns out, the pizza was for an office on the other side of the building, but hey sir, it was nice seeing you. Realistically, I can understand his confusion. Our office eats. A lot. There’s always a pie or a cake or, strangely, a ham sitting in a conference room somewhere. I’ve never worked in an office that wasn’t run by some arm of the government, so I have no idea if it’s this way everywhere. For purposes of discussion, I’m going to assume that it is.

Maybe it’s just my own proclivity, but most of office food makes me nervous. I’m ok with the bagels and donuts that come from the nice shop down the street. It’s the stuff that people bring in from home that worries me. I mean how well do you really know that cranky old battleax that sits down the hall? Want to tell me the last time her kitchen counters got a good scrub? How many cats did she say she had again? You get the point. Let’s be brutally honest here, there’s a pretty good chance your coworkers can’t even make a good cup of coffee. I can’t think of any legitimately good reason I’d trust most of them to make lunch.

Sure, you say, but most restaurant kitchens are filthy too. But what I have with the restaurant that I don’t have with my coworkers is plausible deniability. Plausible deniability and a certificate from some local government inspector that says yeah it’s dirty, but not dirty enough to kill you. Probably. But come on, you’ve met the people you work with. What are the chances they’re not going to try to kill you?

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Saucer…

The list of things about Memphis that I’ll miss isn’t all that long, but the Flying Saucer is somewhere near the top of it. I haven’t been in as much after my perennial drinking buddies took off for greener pastures, but walking in even rarely as i do, it’s like I’ve been here every weekend. Same corner booth, same smartass servers, same schoolgirl skirts. Good stuff. It’s as close to a “third place” as I’ve found in Memphis. And to Ashley and the rest of the beer goddesses, all I can say is thanks for the good times and for keeping the suds cold. If you’re ever looking to trade barbecue for steamed crab, look me up.