That's irony, friends; I am always trying out things in my cooking that don't go the way I envisioned. In coming up with solutions — trying to salvage the mess in that pot — I have learned a lot about cooking, challenged my creativity, ended up doing seemingly crazy things that actually worked, and had a few good laughs as I fed unsalvagable messes to the dogs. (Or to the garbage, when even the dogs wouldn't touch my results — those Chihuahuas have highly developed palates.) I encourage all cooks to welcome their mistakes as windows into the unexpected.
|Here, Willy -- Daddy messed up in the kitchen. . . .|
It was another chilly day on Sunday, calling for hearty, warming meals. Because I'd ordered sauerkraut in our last delivery from the Amish and had bought a pound of garlicky pork sausage from the meat counter at Whole Foods the day before, I thought about re-creating an easy, one-dish meal using similar ingredients I'd first thrown together in the 90s, and hadn't made in a long time. I actually hadn't made it since we've been using Connie (the convection oven) exclusively for baking, so I was eager to see how she handled the task.
The dish calls for sauerkraut, sausage, apples, and an assortment of root vegetables, so I went down to our root cellar to take a look. (That's NY-talk for "I went out onto the balcony and took a look in the big plastic box in which I stuck a styrofoam box to keep veggies cool." If any of you other urban cooks want to try this out, just be sure that your box is squirrel-proof!) I came up with this beautiful assortment of ingredients:
|Potatoes (2 kinds), sweet potatoes, carrots, apples, and a tiny turnip (can you find it?) from the root "cellar"|
I brought these inside and chopped them into 3/4-inch chunks. (This specificity is hilariously misleading, as I actually just chopped them up.) Then I assembled my jar of sauerkraut and the sausages. For their photo shoot. Otherwise, they could have just continued to sit there on the counter.
|These ingredients really appeal to my German side|
|Imagine opening your door to this glamorous dame asking for spices|
At the first apartment, I struck out, and felt a little awkward besides, as my neighbor, after apologizing 3 times for the apparently unforgivable sin of not having caraway on hand, burst into tears, explaining that she was sick of Christmas because of what had happened over the holidays. (Frustratingly, she never revealed what exactly had happened. Maybe I'll send Cathy over later to pry out the details woman-to-woman.)
Whew — remind me never to shop THERE again! So I moved on to the only other person on our floor — a single man with a "roommate" — who might have some caraway tucked away. (Is it fair for me to have assumed the other gay man on our floor would have a well-stocked spice rack? I say, yes, given the aromas I've smelled coming from his apartment. There, I've rationalized my stereotyping.)
This time I was in luck! My next-door neighbor disappeared for a couple of minutes to check and came back with a can of caraway seeds.
From 1967. This is not a stock photo of an antique spice can, Readers; it's the ACTUAL can he handed to me, saying, "These might be a little past their prime."
Yeah, about 40 years past their prime. I dumped a little of the seed into my palm at his urging to see if it had any smell. Not only did it not smell, but it disintegrated as I poured it into what looked alarmingly like roach poop. (Don't ask me how I know so much about roach poop.)
Anyway, I thanked my neighbor and brought the can back home — to photograph for the blog, not to use. Even Willy at his most ravenous would've turned up his nose at Sauerkraut & Roach Poop Casserole. Looking through my own spice cabinet, which skews towards Indian flavorings, I came across my rarely used small black cumin seeds, a smokier variety that tastes nothing like normal cumin or caraway, for that matter, but it at least looks a little like caraway. I decided to throw in a pinch of these. (By this time, I could have easily gone out to the grocery store across the street for caraway seeds, but it was cold out there, and I'm a wimp in the winter.)
|Small Black Cumin Seeds (Kala Jeera)|
Enough background! Now let me show you how I assembled the dish. First, I cut up the pound of sausage into bite-sized pieces. I used my kitchen shears for this, which seemed more exciting than a knife, for some reason. (Bonus time-saving hint: Easiest way to chop up a few tablespoons of fresh herb? Put it in a small bowl and hack away with the kitchen shears. Fun!) I put these pieces into a big, oven-proof bowl.
I added to the bowl the chopped up apples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and turnip, then strewed some leaves of sage around to make the picture prettier. I was not expecting that these leaves would enhance the flavor much, since I'd found them earlier in the very back of my freezer in a container marked CSA sage, July 2007. But they ARE pretty. You can use some fresher sage, if you have it. (Why was I so herb-challenged when putting this dish together?)
Next I dumped in the sauerkraut and a big dollop of German-style deli mustard, then extruded (nasty-sounding word, that) 6 cloves of garlic through a press on top of it all.
Then I mixed it well.
OK, here's where my plans begin to go temporarily awry. I stuck the big blue bowl into the convection oven and immediately noticed that it barely fit, leaving no space around the perimeter to permit the air to circulate, and thus, totally defeating the functionality of a convection oven. I decided to see what would happen in this convection cooking situation in which no convection was possible. (I have to admit the thought of a potential failure to blog about piqued my excitement and inspired me to continue down an ill-advised path.) I dialed Connie's temperature up to 350 degrees and set her timer for an initial trial baking period of 20 minutes.
Twenty minutes later, I had a mostly cool-to-the-touch bowl of food with a slightly dried-out layer on top, because my big blue bowl put the ingredients right under the heat source and did not permit the heated air produced to be circulated further. Not being ready to admit failure (or a limitation on the part of my beloved Connie), I put a big glass lid on top of the blue bowl (from a different baking dish, but it fit perfectly) to protect my ingredients from drying out.
Unfortunately, it also protected them from cooking. I seem to have devised a heat-proof container within my oven. Well, Readers, if you ever find yourself trapped in a convection oven, you'll know how to keep yourself safe until help arrives. But my dinner was not any further along towards serving, and a certain sewist in the living room was beginning to grumble about his hunger levels. Believe me, you do not want to raise the grumpiness level of anyone with a large collection of scissors and rotary cutters.
At this point, I had to concede that Connie was just not the right tool for this baking job. I turned her off and ladled the contents of the blue bowl into a big pot, which I put onto a burner on my gas stovetop. I brought the pot to a simmer and let it cook until all the root vegetables were soft. (I wasn't timing, but it was probably somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes. Just so you know, the carrots were a little firmer than some people like when I called dinnertime. Remember, I was trying to get food as quickly as possible in to my grumpy sewist.)
A little grating of a stinky French cheese called Tete de Moine finished off the dish. (Don't be impressed that I knew exactly what variety of cheese my dish needed. I just grab what I find in the cheese-ends basket at Whole Foods. If I'd thought about it beforehand, I probably would have decided on Emmenthaler or some other Swiss cheese.)
Our beer sommelier, Freddy, suggested serving this hearty dish with a nice, dark ale made by Belgian monks. His recommendations are sometimes a little on the whimsical side, but he can always be trusted to come up with an off-beat choice that complements the meal nicely.
Okay, Readers, it's time for you to pony up with your own stories of how you have had to switch gears in the middle of preparing a dish in order to avert culinary disaster. Full disclosure, please — don't spare us any juicy details.