Reverse Leftovers

I am not a bright ray of morning sunshine.

Even after eight hours of sleep unfettered by evening caffeine or smoke-alarm chirping, the first hour is not pretty. Obviously this is the perfect time to introduce knives, boiling water, splattery hot grease, or electric grinding appliances into the mix. It’s not pretty.

Other key fact: My routine demands I adhere to the following mantra: “Out the door at 8:04.” With keys, wallet emptied of all cash (vending machines), fully charged celly, Coffee Mug, ziploc bag full of tea, separate ziplo bac full of ice, fruit, and extra pair of socks. And, most obviously, lunch. I’m “Still Alive at 8:05,” but if I push it much farther… consequences can be profound.

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Some Like It Pot

So you’d think after four decades I might at least have the basics figured out.  What pocket to keep my keys in, where the umbrella should go, having a consistent wake-up time or remembering not to touch my face after I slice hot peppers -  stuff like that.  For such a creature of routine as I am, it feels simultaneously hilarious and crippling that I can never ease my way into one. Instead, most of the time, I  go through life feeling like my shirt is on inside out and backwards.

Oxford shirt, and, yes. I’ve done that.

Even in the kitchen, that one space in my world where the rules seem clear and I feel safe within a radius of my instincts – I go through weeks when I find myself feeling clumsy and error-prone.  Not that I expect perfection from myself, but, again, I’m at the point where a stir-fry or a roast chicken or a loaf of bread shouldn’t present many technical difficulties.

It’s more like a feeling that certain things I prepare frequently really should taste a LOT better than I’m willing to candidly admit.   And maybe it was time for a couple of tweaks. . And sometimes, luckily, I can even get things right.

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What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Caramel.  The braising liquid was caramel.  Fatty pork braised in CARMEL.

Nearly all of my get-togethers seem to stem out of an unconscious but important rule. If I am going to braise fatty pork in caramel, certain things need to be in place.  My shirt needs to be tucked in  And, you know,  bed made, clothes off the floor,  toilet paper IN the holder and not just sitting on top of it.

In other words, company.  I feel like if I don’t have friends over, I’ll go Lord of The Flies and basically eat the entire pot with my hands on the kitchen floor with my face painted. Remember: I’m still trying to be a once-a-week vegetarian and things have been stressful and I haven’t made pork in a while and haven’t really slow cooked anything for even longer.  I NEED least this thin veneer of civilization as a hedge against Dark Urges.

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Pork Products Ruined My Childhood

Some of you may know that I spent my childhood and college years in and around Lansing, Michigan.  You know, state capitol, birthplace of Oldsmobile, and home to a large and reasonably well-regarded public university.  It wasn’t a horrible place to grow up: there were parks, trees, video game arcades, a good local theater and a few thriving independent businesses.  I’m still thankful for its four distinct seasons, good public schools, and modicum of diversity.  And despite being an early casualty of the auto-industry-collapse Diaspora, I only moved about five hours south, to Cincinnati. While my sister is quite happy and prosperous in Phoenix, I’ve sometimes felt an affinity to one of Darwin’s Galapagos finches, well suited to my surroundings, but completely out of place anywhere but my own native habitat.

Now, despite my grounding in the Midwest, our family did have one other important geographic connection, one which I had to think clearly about when i received a small package from “home” this past week.  My father grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and all of his side of the family still lives there.  Our family vacations typically involved the twelve-hour trek down I69/65 to visit, sight see, guzzle the absurdly sweet tea I’m only now shaking off an addiction to, and absorb the culture shock of the slower, genteel Deep South.

But Birmingham is also home to my first real Food Memory.  Ollie’s Barbecue.  No matter what the circumstances of our trip south, no matter how much or how little time we had, our extended family always made it a point to go.  It’s one of those traditions kids get caught up in, but by the time I was a teenager I could never wait to go to Ollie’s and sit at the ancient Formica counter top and watch the meat being smoked.
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Best. Soup. Ever

It’s a wonder that Beth still talks to me, prone as I am to leaving her voice mail messages like this recent one:

“It’s me.  Stop.  Just stop. Whatever you are doing. Stop.  You are going to make soup.  And more specifically, you are going to make THIS soup, in precisely this manner. You will never make a soup THIS good and THIS easy. ”

“If you are inside, you will put your coat on and run.  Past that African market that doesnt have anything for sale, only bar I know still bearing “Like Cola” signage, and past that scary little graveyard where Ethan Allen’s family is buried, to that co op downtown where you shop.  You don’t even need to grab one of those undersized little “look at me I shop in fancy grocery stores” carts, and I don’t care if you push Christopher Kimball to the ground to do so, but you will hightail it around the store chop chop.”

“You will buy a 28 ounce can of tomatoes, and grab a package of baby spinach, an onion, and one of those packages of fresh tortellini.”

“You will then walk to the meat counter and buy eight ounces of Italian sausage.  You will not buy low-fat sausage.  You will not buy turkey sausage. You will not by artisanally produced charcuterie you people pawn off to the tourists from Boston and Montreal.  You will not NOT buy sausage.  You will buy Italian Sausage. “

“I know you have chicken broth and bay leaves in your kitchen so you will now pay for your items and run home.”

“You will dump the tortellini into a large bowl and cover it with boiling water for a moment.  You will then drain it. You will dice the onion, and smash the garlic. “

“You will put your large soup pot on medium-low heat, and add the sausage to it in little crumbled up pieces.  When the pork product attains a medium brown color you will remove it from the heat and add the onions and garlic.  You may add olive oil at your discretion. You will sweat the onions and garlic until they soften, making sure to scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pot.  You will add five cups of chicken broth, even though I know you are going to use that turkey broth you made last week.  Whatever. Just add it.  Then the can of tomatoes, mushing up as need be, depending on what kind you buy.  You will add the tortellini and the sausage and a bay leaf and, if you must, some red pepper.”

Now.  Here is the difficult part.  This one time, you will not adulterate this soup in any manner.  You will not gaze wantonly around your kitchen for “whatever else” might go well with this dish.  You will not search your fridge for that one extra mystical bonus ingredient as if selecting the next incarnate Lama.   You will not add tofu. Or beans. Or squash. Or dried bananas, ginger, harissa, plantains, birdseed, devilled eggs, sriracha sauce, artinsnal radishes or Dayquill tablets. None of that.

Just bring it to a boil, then simmer it for about ten minutes.  Then serve with crusty bread and realize that you are eating perhaps the most amazing soup ever.”

She never called back.

how I learned to stop worrying and just love to make fried rice

You know those guys who work in the nuclear silos?

I would presume their daily to-do list is hardly rigorous.    Sit in the chair, wait for the red phone to ring.  If it  rings, destroy the world,  If not, read the magazines and play 80s-era MUD games on the terminals.  

Now, my knowledge of day-to-day nuclear silo operational details is limited to Cold War-era still photographs and charming films starring Matthew Brodderick.  But i would imagine that most of the training is mental.   You hardly need a skill set to turn a key, but the sheer willingness to unleash a nuclear apocolypse is something that has to be coached, carefully honed and reinforced over a long time.  This is not a job where one can just falter at the moment of  truth.  You have one thing to do, and when the moment comes, you DO it.

Such is the case with fried rice.

There is a lot of very zen-like advice about making the stuff at home.  About how “it’s not a dish it’s a philosophy” and all of that. Yes, you are basically throwing leftover rice and veggies into a pan and cooking them.  And, yes, it is true that the ingredients can vary infinitely and the method is simple (note: I did not say “easy”).   But, again, to paraphrase Walter Sobcheck, it is not Nam, it is fried rice.  And there are rules.

1. the rice should be cooked and cooled.
2. the rice should be at room temperature.
3. all add-ins, garnish, plating must be ready prior to heating the pan.

and number four…

the pan must be very, VERY hot.

Rocket Hot. White Hot. Mira Sorvino circa 1994 Hot.  Hot.

And this is why I liken this dish to a nuclear crisis.

The pan will “seem” hot.  The oil will be shimmering, you’ll feel warm just standing near it, and you’ll get nervous.  You’ll be tempted to chicken out and just to toss in the rice and get cooking, before the pan is ready. 

You have to hold back… wait it out.  Wait until you see little whisps of smoke coming from the pan and the entire kitchen is smoldering.  And this is the most difficult part; and you need to train yourself.   You have to be willing to wait until the last possible moment before the smoke alarms go off and the pan itself combusts into a giant ball of flames.

Not easy, isn’t it?

The reason you need to wait so long is that the starch from the rice will “leak” from the kernel and stick to the bottom of the pan.  The pan needs to be hot so that this “sticky starch” can burn away.  If the starch remains, the pan will not  be hot enough to cook the rice.

On a similar note, you need to add the rice slowly, a little bit at a time.  Each “add” reduces the temperature of the pan, which, as I have mentioned, needs to be hot enough to burn away the pan starch.  Going slowly minimizes the thermal fluctuation of the pan.

So.  This is how I do mine:

Pork Fried Rice

2 cups cooked yesterday’s jasmine rice
6 ounces pork shoulder, cubed into small pieces and salted
1/3 cup peanut oil (or other oil w/ a very high smoke point)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup onion, chopped fine
1 carrot, diced fine
A little green pepper, for color, diced fine
1 egg
lime wedge

Note: all ingredients except for “rice” and “oil” are optional.

Chop everything.

In a clean flat-bottomed skillet stir-fry pan (as tempted as you might be to use a wok, don’t. It’s odd shape means that it will absorb less heat from your silly American cooktop and lead to dissapointment), place a drop or two of the oil into the skillet, turn it to medium, and cook the pork.  Undercook it.  Remove the pork.

Add the rest oil and  Turn the heat to VERY VERY HIGH.  Obviously make sure that ventilation is active.  Also, make sure that your utensils are dry.  I learned this one the hard way.



Wait.  Think red phone.

When you see the oil just barely start to whisp, add a pinch of the rice to the pot, and stir.  It will hiss.  It will bubble and splatter a little.  But it should not leave a lot of starchy residue at the bottom of the pan.  If it does, you may need to wait a second.  Or stir a little bit and wait until the stuff burns away.

When the bottom of the pan is sufficiently hot, add the rice a little (two tablespoons) at a time. Sear, and make sure that there is no residue, repeat. Add a little more oil if needed.

Note that the sides of the pan will likely “starch up.”  this is unavoidable. 

When all of the rice has been cooked, add the veggies all at once, cook for a nother minute or two (remember that you chopped them deliberately small), then add the pork.

I like to finish this with an egg.  Just turn the heat off, and crack the egg into the pan.  There will be enough heat to cook it.

Plate and serve with soy sauce and lime wedges.  Garnish with scallions if you have a food blog. 

(eta)- a better picture