Do YOU have a stake in the ground?

Hobbled Elephant Foot

What's holding YOU back?

You’ve probably heard this elephant tale before. I thought about it recently, though, when I had a sudden epiphany.

As part of their training, circuses routinely chain baby elephants to a stake in the ground. The baby pulls and struggles to break free and eventually learns it’s impossible. So even as she grows into a powerful adult, she’s resigned to the fact that when she’s hobbled to the stake, she is immobile.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve harbored — no, nurtured! — a belief about myself that has held me back and made me avoid many personal and professional risks. I took a hard look at that outdated belief. It suddenly looked as ridiculous as a two-inch stake keeping a grown elephant in one place.

Think about it: What’s YOUR stake in the ground?

The Crazy Turkey Incident

My dear sweet retired neighbor John got a 22-pound frozen turkey for free last year, and he gave it to me. I parked it in my deep freezer, because my talented cousin Stephanie always brings a succulent bird to our family Thanksgiving gathering. (What do I bring? That’s another story.) I figured I’d do something with that turkey eventually.

Last week I needed to find more real estate in my deep freezer and since I never did anything with that old turkey, I decided it was time to send him to the dumpster. Wait a second — the expiration date label said it’s still good! Hmmm.

I looked up Alton Brown’s technique for smoking a turkey and made up my mind to give it a go.  It’s way too much meat for just me and my kiddo, but hey, surely I could get a couple of decent sandwiches out of this guy instead of just trashing him entirely, right?  Um, yeah, right.

I thawed him carefully. I brined him for 16 hours. I meticulously followed cross-contamination protocols that would make the entire Culinary Institute of America stand up and salute me with oven mitts.

Thing is, I’m in a tiny condo with a tiny patio and a tiny Weber gas grill. Undaunted, I was certain I could use Alton’s technique to create a juicy, smoky, flavorful turkey.  And I was feeling cocky enough to think I could use my iPhone to document my cooking prowess and tweet it to the world.

My 22-pound turkey, ready to be smoked.

My 22-pound turkey, ready to be smoked.

That photo was taken at 5:04 pm. A few minutes later, I noticed that there was a lot more smoke escaping from the grill than I expected. So I lifted the lid.

Burning down the house?

Houston, we have a problem

Ha! The turkey fat is causing some flame-ups. Isn’t that cute? Let me just snap that with my iPhone and tweet it before I get my squirt gun to douse those little flames.

Dinosaur spritzer

Alton Brown gave me this. Really.

Within moments, those little flames grew. And grew. My jurassic water-delivery device couldn’t keep up. I feared a neighbor would alert the fire department because of the billowing smoke from my balcony. And (seriously!) I wondered what my Twitter pal @jdanton would be telling me to do at this moment.

To hell with iPhone pics! I rushed to my sink and filled a pitcher with water, then threw it on the whole inferno.

And by 5:34pm, here is what I had accomplished:

Turkey Schmurkey

No recovery from THIS disaster

Needless to say, the next step was to let this bird rest. In the dumpster.

My Grown-Up Celebrity Crush

Good Eats Live!I know I’m not Alton Brown‘s ONLY groupie, but he sure does make my heart go pitter-pat! Oh, and I’m a much better cook because of his Food Network show “Good Eats.”

For the show’s 10th anniversary, six lucky winners will be flown to Atlanta to see (and maybe be in) the live taping. How could I resist? Here’s our Greatest Good Eats Fan entry:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xnz0Zns9d8]

There’s also a VIP reception where we can (gulp) meet AB in person. Wish us luck! Winners are picked after August 12th.

p.s. Susanne, here’s how to make perfect meatballs. ;)

My Big Fat Pork Butt – PERFECTED

When I set up my blog, I thought I would be writing a lot about food since cooking has become something of an obsession for me in the past couple of years.  Instead, I’ve written about a dead cat and a religious experience.  Time to change the subject!

Someone else's. We eat ours too fast to get a photo.

Okay, this is someone else's sandwich. We always eat ours too fast to get a photo.

Today I’m here to tell you how I made pulled pork heaven because I promised my Twitter pal Joey D’Antoni that I would.  Warning: This is at least a two-day recipe. And it’s a lot of work. But it makes a ton of food, people will call you Kitchen Genius, and the leftovers are fabulous.

Get yourself a 5-7 pound bone-in pork butt.  If there’s a thick layer of fat on one side, trim most of that off.  The day before you plan to cook him, brine him overnight.  I use an 8-quart all-purpose plastic container that I got from my local restaurant supply house. You might need to reorganize your refrigerator to accomodate a container this large.

I’ve played with different brining ingredients (apple cider was a nice addition), but here’s the basic formula:

  1. Dissolve 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup salt in 2 quarts warm water.
  2. Stir in 4 bay leaves, 1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns, and 1 tablespoon of cayenne.
  3. Add enough ice to bring the volume up to 4 quarts. Immerse the pork butt in the brine and refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, make a braising liquid in a sauce pan:

  1. I originally started with 2 cups of veal stock, but hey, how many of us have that kind of stuff handy? I later tried chicken stock, then beef stock, but I think I got better results replacing those with soy sauce (1/2 cup) and water (1 cup).  But of all those experiments, the veal stock was best, hands-down, probably because of its unctuous qualities.  Veal stock also helps the other flavors shine through, I’m guessing.
    PERFECTED, June 24: Skipped the stock, just used about 1 cup water, no soy.
  2. Add about 1 cup of orange juice. Fresh tastes best, but I’ve gotten by with mixing some from frozen concentrate.
  3. Now add about 3/4 cup of Steen’s pure cane syrup.  If you’ve never had Steen’s, it’s a really unique treat from Louisiana, not hard to find in the South. Get yourself some, and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of ways to use it. (On pancakes, for starters.)
  4. Next add 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar. I prefer to use Bragg’s organic unfiltered, which is probably way easier to find than the Steen’s cane syrup.  :)
  5. Throw in a pinch of salt and pepper.  Stir, stir, stir. Bring it to a low simmer, then keep it on low heat while you move on to Phase Three.

You’ll need to get the pork butt ready for all the love and attention he deserves.  Here we go:

  1. Remove him from the brine, rinse him off, and pat him dry with paper towels.
  2. Season him liberally with salt and pepper.
  3. Heat 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil in a big-ass pot or dutch oven, and brown the pork butt on all sides. Don’t be shy, get it good and dark, because that crust will become the prize tidbits at the end.
    PERFECTED, June 24: Instead of browning him in the pot, I put my gas grill on low and put the butt in with a foil packet of wet cherry wood chips. (Alder or Apple would be good, too.) Turned the butt every 30 minutes to get a good char on “the big sides” and infuse it with smoke.
  4. Remove him from the pot (grill) and set aside. Now’s a good time to preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

Next you’re going to build a comfy bed for the pork butt, all in the same pot you browned him in:

  1. Saute 2 onions sliced into about 10 wedges each. I use one sweet Vidalia onion and one spanish yellow onion. You’re doing wedges because later you’ll want to be able to easily retrieve them from the braise.
  2. Add a couple of roughly chopped carrots and celery stalks. When they’ve started to soften, add 5-6 smashed cloves of garlic.
  3. Wait  a minute or so until you can breathe in the lovely garlic aroma, then add 1.5 tablespoons of Chinese five spice blend (a trick I saw on Top Chef) and about 1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper flakes.  Now a little salt and pepper.
  4. Hopefully you’ve been moving all the veggies around with a flat-edge wooden spoon, and you’ve noticed that there’s still some fond (the dark stuff) stuck to the bottom of the pot from browning the pork earlier. Pour 1/4 cup of bourbon in the pot and scrape as much of the fond up as you can (yes, it’s called deglazing).  If that’s not enough liquid to deglaze, add 1/4 cup of water and keep scraping.
    PERFECTED, June 24: Skipped the bourbon/water  deglaze since I didn’t brown the meat in the pot.
  5. Gently place the pork butt on top of all the veggies in the pot. Pour the warm braising mixture over him. It will probably come abuot midway to the height of the pork. Cover the pot with a piece of foil and then lid ‘r up and put it in the oven.
  6. If it’s not too early in the morning, raise a toast to your pork butt with your own shot of bourbon.

Okay, this is when you get to check your email, do some laundry, watch a movie, make a  nice slaw*, whatever.  You’ll leave your pork butt in the oven for at least 5-6 hours, but every couple of hours take him out to say nice things to him and bathe him gently with the braising liquid.  When he’s finally melting from all the love, carefully move him from the pot to a big oven-proof dish or casserole and let him relax under a sheet of foil.

PERFECTED, June 24: Since he got all that tender-loving smoke, I only braised him for 4 hours.

Now for Phase Five:

  1. Scoop all the veggies into a bowl with a slotted spoon.
  2. Strain the braising liquid into a fat separator if you have one.  Pour it (sans fat) into a sauce pan and start reducing it over medium heat.
  3. Use a couple of forks to start shredding the pork butt. Remove any unsightly blobs of fat as you go.
  4. From the bowl of veggies, retrieve as much of the braised onion as you can and add it to the shredded pork. Give the carrots to the dog. (My schnauzer loves those, but hates celery.)
  5. Ladle about a cup of the braising liquid back into the shredded pork and toss it all together.  Recover the pork with foil to stay warm until you’re ready to serve it up.

You can keep reducing the rest of the braising liquid until it’s almost syrupy.  It’s great to spoon a bit onto a pulled pork sandwich before piling slaw on top.

*Oh… you want the slaw, too?

Make a vinagrette dressing in a large bowl by whisking together:

  • Juice of two limes
  • Teaspoon of Dijon mustard
  • Enough olive oil
  • A few dashes of hot sauce
  • About two tablespoons of honey (Huajilla honey if you can get it!)

Now shred, chop or juilienne these goodies and thoroughly toss it all with salt and pepper in the big bowl with the dressing:

  • Small head of Napa cabbage
  • One red bell pepper
  • 5-6 green onions
  • One golden delicious apple
  • Half a red onion
  • Half a cup of cilantro
  • Two serrano chiles (leave ‘em out if you don’t like heat)

Now, as I said before, this is a whole lotta food.  Before you refrigerate the leftover pork, add the rest of the braising liquid and it will be wonderfully juicy when you reheat it.  And to my surprise, the slaw was still excellent after three days in the fridge, just not as crispy as day one.

I actually think all of this tastes better the second day, especially in warm flour tortillas. Give it a shot and tell me how it turns out!

A tree that makes no scents whatsoever

I don't smell anything

I’ve got a botanical holiday mystery I want to solve, and I don’t have the faintest idea how.

It’s become a favorite tradition for me and my 10-year-old daughter Kinsey to hunt down the perfect Christmas tree on Thanksgiving weekend. Well… only if it’s below 70 degrees here in Houston, where it’s hard to get into an elfish mood when it’s a warm and humid November day.

Sunday was surprisingly blustery and chilly, so off we went to the same upscale nursery where we always plunk down a hundred bucks for a fresh Frazier Fir. (I’ve gone the cheap tree-lot route before and quickly ended up with a crispy fire hazard. Ya get what ya pay for.)

Relentless gusts of wind kept toppling all the trees over at the nursery, so it was tough to pick out the perfect specimen. Nevertheless, we found a six-foot keeper and soon had it roped to the top of our vehicle. Kinsey decided the tree’s name should be Harold.

It’s the first time we’ve named our tree but, hey, why not? We’ll be feeding and caring for him in our home for at least a month, protecting him from our over-energetic Schnauzer, adorning him with cherished family treasures, expecting him to light the way for Santa himself. Harold deserves an identity better than just “The Tree.”

I managed to carry Harold up the flight of stairs to our condo, place him with his least-handsome side toward the wall, and give him a good drink of water. We wanted to allow him a day to relax before draping him in lights and ornaments. That’s when I noticed something was wrong.

I gave up our artificial tree years ago because the holidays didn’t feel complete without the evergreen fragrance of a REAL tree filling our home. Harold was definitely real… but he had no smell! I stuck my head into his branches and breathed deeply. I crushed some of his needles between my fingers and sniffed. Barely an iota of pine-y scent. How could that be?

The next day, I called the nursery and tried to find out what was up. Scent-cancelling pesticides? Misguided genetic engineering? A left-wing conspiracy to squash everyone’s Christmas spirit?

I felt rather silly describing the reason for my call, but the woman on the phone asked me to wait on hold a moment. Minutes later, she came back on the line saying, “You’re right! I sniffed some of our trees, wreaths, and garlands and could barely smell anything!” Still, she couldn’t offer any explanation.

I feel cheated. I suppose I could tie some of those ridiculous car air fresheners on Harold as make-shift ornaments to fake the missing fragrance. But I really want to know where Harold’s smell went.

Tell me this, dear reader (that means you, Mom) — have you bought a fresh tree? And did you take a good whiff? Are Kinsey and I the only Frazier Fir consumers wondering whether certain growers have been meddling with Mother Nature?

Can’t wait to hear if we’re alone in our predicament…

A halloween downturn?

Kinsey and I were excited that this year we’d be trick or treating in the Heights (a historic area here in Houston) with our favorite family friends.  For years I’ve heard stories about how their neighborhood pulls out all the stops for the local kiddos, and finally we’d get to share the experience!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXO11O5Ko9k]

It WAS fun, but not quite what we expected.  A surprising number of homes were silent, dark and candyless.  Were the residents gone?  Or just hiding themselves and the Milk Duds indoors?

We’re wondering what made this year so different.  Maybe it’s the post-hurricane blues, and no one is ready to do any celebrating.  Or maybe the noise about the economy is making people uncharacteristically stingy.  Or perhaps thousands of Houstonians were out waiting in line last night to cast their early votes for the upcoming election.

Was it the same in other neighborhoods?  What about yours?

A quick Ike story

Like everyone else in Houston, we lost power and didn’t want to sit around in the dark.  I had a box filled with tapered candles, but had no candlesticks.  So I found a bag of dried lentils in the pantry, poured a couple of inches worth into various flower vases and other glass containers, and stuck the candles in that.  Voila!  Brilliant.

Late one night we had all the windows open to catch a breeze, and we were playing games by candlelight.  My young daughter suddenly asked me, “What’s that funny smell?”  One whiff, and I thought someone must be outside smoking marijuana!  Nope, it turned out that when hot wax melts on dried lentils, it smells EXACTLY like pot.  (Not that I would know how to recognize that aroma…) ;)

My Dead Cat Diary

Several weeks ago, I noticed our fat and happy cat Pepper was looking a little less… fat.  She wasn’t eating.  In fact, the food in her bowl looked untouched for several days, I realized.

The vet said she had Feline Hepatic Lipidosis, or Fatty Liver Disease.  Strange for a cat this young.  Medical science really doesn’t know what causes it, but all the frantic research I did on the Web made it clear that survival odds were dismal.

This isn’t about the heaps of time, effort and money we spent trying to nurse Pepper back to health.  None of it helped.  Somehow she hung in there, week after week, even during the stress of Hurricane Ike and the following 13 days we endured without power.  (That’s another blog post entirely!)  I don’t know how this 11-pound kitty could wither away to 6.5 pounds and still be alive.  Stubbornness, I suppose.

Kinsey and Pepper, 2004

Kinsey and Pepper, 2004

Pepper was my little silky black purring birthday gift to my daughter Kinsey four years ago.  We rescued her from a shelter as a kitten.  Kinsey likes to say Pepper was her first best friend.

This past Monday I knew the time was quickly approaching when we’d have to face the euthanasia decision, and we talked about it calmly and tearfully.  I didn’t have to do much convincing — Kinsey knew it was the right thing to do.  She said she wanted to be with Pepper when it happened.

Although I was feeling sad, guilty and helpless about not being able to get Pepper to recover, as a mom I was more heartbroken knowing how difficult the loss of Pepper would be for Kinsey, only ten years old.  I suddenly began to grasp how important it would be to have some ceremony, some ritual, some well thought out gesture to help her say goodbye.  It had to be more significant than digging a hole and planting a rose bush above a pitiful corpse.   (Been there, done that with hamsters as a kid myself.)

An hour before Wednesday’s final vet appointment, I asked Kinsey which of the many blankets piled in her bedroom was Pepper’s favorite place for stealing a nap.  The fuzzy green one, she immediately responded.  We got my good sewing scissors and cut a long 3-inch wide strip from the edge of the blanket, leaving plenty of blanket for Kinsey to keep in Pepper’s honor.

We thought of some of Pepper’s other favorite things.  Her gourmet catnip.  Her mini monster teddy bear.  And the stiff brush she loved to rub her chin against endlessly.  Then we located a cardboard box that was the right size for the burial.

Having anticipated Pepper’s demise, the all-knowing Grammy Gayle had already planned on the right spot in her garden for the upcoming funeral.  She called my brother Brett to prepare the grave while Kinsey and I made the agonizing trip to the vet’s.  It was over quickly, peacefully, with a simple heart-stopping injection.  We cried all the way back to Grammy’s place.

We took our box and curled Pepper up inside, resting on her share of the green fuzzy blanket, teddy tucked in, stiff brush within chin distance, catnip sprinkled liberally.  Before we closed the box and sealed it, we each wrote a personal love note to Pepper on the inside of the four box flaps.   We put it in the ground at sunset, said a prayer, and cried some more.

I know this may sound a little cold.  I don’t want to hear, “Pepper is in a better place, out of pain, chasing mice,” and all the sentimental drivel that people say to ease your grief over losing a pet, a child, a parent, a friend.  I do miss our sweet cat, and I do hope there’s a pet-friendly heaven where we will all have a joyous reunion.  But for this mom, mostly I’m relieved that I found a way to help my daughter say a heartfelt farewell.

Goodbye, sweet Pepper.  We’ll remember you, always.

Doggone Famous?

Last year I put a silly video of our dog Snikkers up on YouTube to share with a few friends. I’m not sure why, but this schnauzer has gotten a surprising amount of attention!

Lately I’ve been getting email notices that people have posted a comment about it. A quick look shows me that it’s been viewed 5,731 times. What the… ???

I’d better not tell Snikkers. This notoriety is sure to go to his head.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tEtTnole2I]

Here’s the sleeper hit, “Schnauzers CAN talk.”

It’s the little touches that make your home …special

Hey, I watch enough HGTV to know about all kinds of interior design tricks and flourishes. Haven’t spotted THIS one yet, though!
Our guest bath.  Really.

Kinsey wanted to hang the cute sign there. I added the props.

Just thought I’d share the love…