Monday, April 11, 2011

Snap, Crackle, and/or Pop

Some days I make the tried-and-true "simple rustic fare", like roast chicken stuffed with lemon. Some days I bake bread, trying to understand the science of gluten through my fingers. Some days I break out my exotic side and braise lamb shanks studded with cloves of garlic and crusted with garam masala, with mint yogurt on the side. And some days, like today, I make Rice Krispie Treats.
After not eating them for years, I had a sudden craving months ago, and have re-discovered a strong emotional attachment to them. They're not the first thing I ever cooked - I honestly can't remember what that was - but they were the source of one early and important cooking lesson.

I grew up in a family that required I receive confirmation before I could be in charge of my own religious direction, and their church required ten hours of volunteer service as part of the process. This brought me to a weekly dinner for women in need.

The kitchen was off a church recreation hall. (Not my family's church, but a nearby one, of a different denomination.) There was a restaurant-caliber stove and enough counter space for eight people to work at once, though most of the time there were just two of us.

The woman who ran the dinner was named Beth. She was in her early twenties and a recent culinary school dropout. She ran the dinner herself, using food from the church's food pantry and supplementing it with donations and her own money. One night we served thirty women on twenty dollars and a whole lot of food pantry butter. When I questioned the copious amounts of butter we used and if it wasn't unhealthy, Beth reflected and said "This is the only time this week some of these women will eat fresh vegetables, or any vegetables at all. We're serving lean chicken, lentils - it's what we have, and there's enough good to balance the bad. You'll drive yourself crazy if you try to make everything perfect."

When I arrived for my first day at the kitchen, Beth nodded towards a counter. There were three boxes of Rice Krispies, two sticks of butter, and three bags of marshmallows. "Start with dessert."

Smart move on her part. I assume she wanted to assess my kitchen skills, and Rice Krispie Treats are a great choice for the beginner cook. They require exactly three ingredients and don't need cooking to a set internal temperature to kill bacteria. No worrying about leavening. They're almost foolproof except for one thing - the heat.

I'd never made such a large batch before, and stirring the cereal into the melted marshmallow took longer than I expected. As I stirred, I saw patches of browner-than-expected Rice Krispies running through the mass. I know now that my burner was turned up too high, but at the time, I just panicked and yelped "Uh-oh, I think I burned it!"

Beth looked over my shoulder. "Nope. Just take it off the heat right away and press it into the pan. If anyone notices, call them Caramel Krispie Treats." We served them following a dinner of vegetable-heavy chicken pot pie and they were a hit.

That kitchen was where I learned to take culinary risks. Most of the time your cooking mistakes can be salvaged. Over-salted soup can be watered down, or you can add another serving of vegetables. Dry meat can be saved for another day, chopped, and added to a sauce. Broken omelets are just scrambled eggs with stuff in them. If your cake cracks in half, stick it back together with frosting.

I volunteered for several months, long after I'd fulfilled the confirmation requirement, gone through the motions of the ceremony, and after the argument I had with my family about no longer attending their church. After that first Thursday I was given other tasks. Beth was a patient teacher, and she taught me the best way to chop an onion, a half-dozen ways to cook summer squash (it was a bumper crop that year, and cheap), and her secret for non-greasy meatloaf. I eventually quit so I could be part of a school play, but I still think of that kitchen every time I'm teaching someone how to hold a knife correctly, every time I begin to panic about a dish looking wrong, every time I reach for the butter.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Back up. Back up.

My external hard drive took a fall last week and an IT Genius Friend diagnosed a broken arm. I can get the information back, but it's gonna cost me far more than I want to part with right now. I lost almost all of my photos, including my wedding photos, and everything I've written over the past fifteen years - college term papers (shut up, I wanted them), transcripts of the online chats my husband and I had while courting, the pieces I've written for MOSAIC, the short stories I never thought were ready to be sent to publishers, the half-finished novel that dogged me when I told myself I was bored.

I've come to terms with the loss. Maybe someday I'll have a spare wad of cash and I'll be able to get that work out of jail. For now, the loss is almost liberating. I cannot waste time on editing and refining when I have writers block. I'm forced to start over from scratch, trusting that what I remember is what is worth keeping.

The whole reason I had the external hard drive in the first place was my switch to AppleTv last year. Purchasing shows made my iTunes library grow larger than my computer could handle. I thought I'd lost all of my media with the drive fall, but I followed up on internet rumors that Apple will let customers re-download purchased items. If you ask nicely, they will do it, but just once, so learn to back up your files the right way. And they can't re-issue anything once you've changed the item info, so I'll just have to live without my download of Candyman's "Knockin' Boots".