Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Practicing chants

Good Friday and the Easter Vigil bring several chants that only happen once a year. Specifically:

"Behold the wood of the Cross..."; "Exult, let them exult..." and the blessing of the baptismal water.

Today I am practicing.

Will this be the year I try chanting the Eucharistic Prayer again? Stay tuned...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

My most ambitious cooking endeavor so far...

Neapolitan Ragu...

I found the recipe here. From what I've read, Naples is the source of much of what Americans know as Italian, so I thought, let's try something as authentic as I can find. In any case, it sounded delicious!

First I had to get all the ingredients. I had to go to a second Krogers for the pecorino romano. Guess what? Not in Sidney, but in humble Piqua! Hah! (Turns out I had enough pecorino already in my fridge that I'd forgotten about, but this is delicious cheese; it won't go to waste.) Fresh basil was unavailable at either store, and I wasn't going to drive to Troy or Dayton for it; so, I used dried basil.

First I get out all my ingredients:

Included in that cornucopia are a pound and a half of round steaks, six meaty spare ribs, some fresh parsley, garlic, the blasted dried basil, salt and pepper, onion, olive oil, some tomatoes, and cheese, celery and carrots. Oh, and some string (you'll see). Some of this I already had; I just got it all out so I wouldn't have to go hunting for it.

So, first it said to pat the round steaks dry with a paper towel, and then rub them with salt and pepper. It didn't specify regular or Kosher salt; I opted for the latter.

I also had to mince some parsley and grate some cheese. I did this by hand. (I think it's time to get a food processor.) What do you think -- would the Osterizer have worked? I was reluctant to use it, for fear it would liquify the parsley. I didn't get these ingredients as fine as I might have liked, but that means it's "rustic," eh?

Anyway, all that goes on the steaks, like so:

Here's where I needed the string. The recipe said to roll them up like a jelly roll, and tie with string. I have no idea how to do that, but I figured the main thing was to keep the cheese and parsley inside. Here's what I came up with (along with the spareribs, sprinkled generously with salt and pepper):

Next, some olive oil goes in the pan to heat up, then the meat goes in to brown. My pan has a raised area in the middle, that's a pain, but I made it work.

Because there was so much meat, I took some of it out once it was reasonably well browned, and brought it back later. I'm thinking the recipe intended smaller spareribs, but it said, four "meaty" ones, on the bone...

Next the celery, carrots and onion, cut "roughly," go in (I cut all this before I even turned on the stove):

You can see all but one piece of meat was removed. I was to cook this in the oil till the vegetables began to get soft.

While the meat and vegetables were cooking, I prepared the tomatoes. I had bought whole tomatoes, so I had to crush them. Yes, you can get them crushed; but I wanted to use this particular type of tomato: San Marzano; and I only found whole. So I squished them with my hands, which proved a bit more hazardous than I expected. Then the recipe called for a half-cup of dry red wine. I opted for Cabernet. What do you think?

Oh, I forgot something. When I took the meat out, that raised area in the middle had some nice brown bits; I decided to deglaze that. So I used a bit of the wine for that. A little more wine could hardly hurt, right?

After the vegetables had cooked awhile, I added the garlic and basil -- wow, did that smell good! -- then after a minute or so, the tomato-wine mixture.

This I brought to a boil, and then turned down to simmer. For at least an hour and a half. Dinner looks to be about 9 pm (after an 8 pm meeting).

And, lest you think I created LOTS of dirty dishes, here's my sink:

Those are clean dishes, which I leave for the angels to dry. They always do a great job!

Update, 7:57 pm...

It's still cooking; the sauce is thickening, but the meat isn't quite at the "off the bone" stage. Stay tuned...

Update, the morning after...

The recipe called for taking the meat out once it was falling off the bone, which I did. It also called for cooling the meat in the fridge, so it would be easier to cut. If it hadn't been past 9 pm at that point, I'd have done so (it would have given the sauce more time to cook); but I was ready to eat.

While I sliced up the meat and put it back in the sauce as called for, I cooked some spaghetti -- al dente, of course -- and poured some wine. Here's the sauce with the meat back in:

Here's the plate:


Oh. My. Heavens!

This is probably the best thing I have ever cooked!

If this is anything like what Ragu is like in Naples, I can't wait to visit Naples.

This is amazing! (Remember, I'm writing this the next morning. I was going nuts over this when I ate it, and when I went to bed, and when I woke up this morning. I told the servers about this before Mass.)

You'll notice I didn't put any cheese on it. My understanding is that in Italy, they don't always put cheese on pasta. I tried it without, and it was delicious. I had a little more -- to use up the remainder of the spaghetti, of course, because it was too little to put away -- and I did put some parmesan/romano cheese on it. Wonderful, but not really necessary.

I've got a lot of it left over, so I'm going to enjoy this for several days.

Here are the things about this that excite me:

> This wasn't all that hard. Rolling up the round steaks and tying them was the most tedious. If I recruit another set or two of hands, very easy (are you paying attention, seminarians who will be here this summer?). And, I could easily double the quantity.

> I think I can improve this a little. The sauce had a little separation; there could be a couple of reasons for that, but I think I can fix that. Also, the round steak rollups were a little bit of a disappointment (but the rib meat was wonderful); I might try a different cut of meat (more expensive), or even try using meatballs or sausage.

> Best of all, this gives me the basics of the sauce, which I am eager to experiment with. I'd never made a tomato sauce with celery, carrots and onion; but anyone who cooks knows these are the basics of any good sauce. Now I know how to do it.

Here's what I don't understand: why haven't I ever had anything like this till now? I don't see why a sauce like this couldn't be marketable; I don't know why Italian restaurants don't have anything like this. It's not that hard to make, and it'll keep.

Postscript: I have two spareribs left I didn't cook. Any suggestions?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Why do we Christians talk about death so much? (Sunday homily)

One of the striking things you surely noticed 
coming into church this morning is that the statues are all covered. 
Maybe everyone knows why; 
but I’m betting there are at least some who don’t.

So why do we cover the statues?

For one, it’s part of the fasting of Lent. 
We don’t just fast from food; 
you may have noticed there aren’t flowers on the altar during Lent. 
And the music is simpler. 
As we go along, we leave more and more behind.

It’s also a kind of dying. 
Little by little, shedding more and more, 
until we are alone, as it were, with Jesus, in his suffering and dying. 

Why do we talk about death like this? 
In the Gospel, Jesus talks about it. 
A lot of our Catholic Faith talks about it; 
we always keep an image of Jesus, dying on the cross, in front of us. 
Why do we Christians do this?

Some people will say, 
that’s because death is part of nature and the world around us. 

And while that’s a true statement, so far as it goes, 
it ignores something else we Christians believe: 
that God, in the original plan, did not want us to die. 
Death becomes part of this world 
because of human rebellion against God. 

No, there’s a very different reason. 
The reason Jesus talks about dying 
is because of what he teaches us about ourselves. 
That rebellion from God means 
that we have a shallow, shadow understanding of life. 

Rebelling against God doesn’t mean living without God; 
it means replacing the God who actually made us, and the universe, 
with the god of my own will, my own desires, making myself my god. 
And what do you get 
when you have a world centered not on one God, 
but a world of seven billion gods? 

That’s a world of greed, injustice, war and murder. 
And what Jesus came to tell us was this: 
that’s a shadow “life,” unworthy of the word life. 
You want life—real life? 
You have to be prepared to die to what this world thinks is life. 
Die to that—live true life, fullness of life, forever.

I can’t speak for you, but – I like pleasure! I like the absence of pain. 
I like being fed rather than being hungry, 
I like being rested rather than being tired; 
and I like being healthy, and not being sick.

Still, this is where God’s mercy is at work, if you think about it. 
When humanity turned from God to self, 
that’s when death became part of the course of our life on earth. 

I don’t want to romanticize any of this, or minimize suffering. 

But here’s something many of us understand. 

As we get a little older, and our eyes aren’t so good, 
our hearing fades, our body doesn’t do all it used to, 
and we can’t eat like we’re 20 any longer – 
maybe, like me, you have to cut out the caffeine 
because it keeps you up at night, 
and after a certain age, 
a good night’s sleep is not something to take for granted!

My point is, life has a way of humbling us, and teaching us: 
you really aren’t god, you know that? 
And if we listen, and accept the lesson, we grow wise. 

And we are reminded: this life isn’t my destination; 
it’s a part of the journey to something bigger and better. 
What’s truly good in this life is but an echo of what lies ahead. 
It is in letting go of this world that we gain the world to come.

Above all, what we die to is self. 
All the sins we confess, they all come to that. 
When we gossip, it’s because we think what we have to say 
is awfully important; and it’s something everyone needs to hear. 

How many arguments are because we simply cannot imagine 
that how we see things might not be correct? 

When we embrace a mindset that justifies doing something immoral
because of the good we claim to be aiming for…

And if you’re wondering what I’m talking about, 
how about when our government uses torture? 
Or when people seek to conceive a child in a laboratory – 
which in turn led to taking so-called “leftover” embryos 
and destroying them for research? 
Doesn’t it really boil down to this: 
we think we’re entitled to play God, if only for a short time. 
Only a little bit; trust us, we won’t go too far!

We do this because we grow impatient 
with how God is doing his job. 
He isn’t giving us what we want, so we’ll take it!

It might be a good exercise for each of us: 
to look ourselves in the mirror, and ask the question: 
“Who is God?” 
And then tell ourselves: “Not you.”

Dying to self is the very hardest thing we do: 
we fight it from the first word many of us learn – “No!” – 
to our last breath.

The good news is, God put us in a world 
that does a lot to help us learn this lesson. 
Human beings, by design, need each other. 
Love only works with dying to self; 
and then family teaches us that even more. 
We see what our parents did for us; 
then it’s our turn to do likewise.

What did we hear the Lord say in the Gospel? 
“Unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains only a grain of wheat.”

But it’s not just what Jesus said; it’s what he did. 
This is why, as Jesus told us, from before the foundation of the world, 
God planned to come as our savior, and to go to the Cross for us. 

He goes where we go. He goes ahead of us, lighting the way. 
Remember what he told the Apostles: 
I go to prepare a place for you. 

If you lost your focus during Lent, it’s not too late. 
We have two more weeks. 

If you need to go to confession, but have been procrastinating, 
there are plenty of opportunities the next two weeks. 
During Holy Week there will be many extra hours for confession. 

Do I live for me, for here, for this? Or do I want to live forever?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cooking for the Lord

It's time for the Saint Remy Casserole Crusade!

Last time I made two casseroles; today I decided to make five -- four for the soup kitchens, and one to keep in my freezer.

The recipe says to do the following:

Bring two quarts cups of chicken broth to a boil, then add a one pound bag of egg noodles. Bring back to a boil, then turn off for 20 minutes.

Then strain out the noodles, mix with one can of cream of mushroom soup, one can of cream of chicken soup, and two cups of chicken meat. All that goes in a foil pan that they passed out in the back of church.

Well, as always, I decided to jazz it up just a bit:

While the noodles were cooking, I chopped up some onions and some celery. I cooked these nicely in some melted butter, adding a bit of garlic powder. And in place of chicken broth, I used chicken stock, for added flavor. And since I didn't have any cooking oil spray for the foil pans, I used butter. Only the best!

Well, with enough fixings for five casseroles, I had some major quantities of food going on here; plus a lot of cans to open up while the noodles were cooking. That meant getting out every big pan I have, plus several smaller ones.

This also meant mixing everything in two large pots, and doing some switching back and forth so that the proportions were even in both pots. It worked pretty well.

One "oops" -- I was tasting it as I went along, only to remember: it's Friday! Sorry, Lord!

So, finally, I'm ready to pour the stuff into the pans; only the pots are too large for pouring; so I had a small strainer which worked pretty well for a scoop, and scooped it out into one pan, then another...

Now I'm scrambling for counter space...

When I got to the third one, I'm thinking, there's not enough for five casseroles! Sure enough, I had just enough to fill the four. (I guess I overfilled them.) I did get a couple of spoonfuls, just to see how it tasted.

Verdict? Good, but too bland for my taste. I'd have added more salt, more black pepper (I'd thrown in a bit), and some red pepper. But from my experience, it's not a good idea to make food for large groups overly seasoned; some people just don't care for it. Now that I've got it all sealed up and in the freezer, I think some grated parmesan cheese would have been good over the top of it.

In telling this story, I don't mean to brag. This wasn't a big deal -- it took about 90 minutes.

I'm letting you know that if I can do this, so can you!

Update, 3/21/15...

Working on those casseroles has got me on a cooking jag this weekend. That's what happens, I guess, when I get my homily finished on Friday, and I haven't any appointments for today.

After finishing the noodle casseroles yesterday, I had a lot of leftover chicken stock; plus I had some chicken meat I hadn't used in the casseroles. So that means soup!

I always keep a bag full of "soup junk" in the freezer: sorry looking onions, carrots and celery, onion skins, and any bones I might have, all of which are good for adding flavor to soup stock. So I got that out and dumped it into the leftover stock, and cooked that several hours yesterday. Last night I strained it, and put the pot into the fridge. It was a lot of stock.

So this morning, before getting my breakfast, I put it back on the stove. It's still there, simmering; I'm trying to cook down the liquid before adding some cut up carrots and celery (I'm all out of onions), some pasta, and later, the rest of the chicken. I may add a bit of parsley. I'm tempted to try tarragon, but I think that's better in chicken salad. What do you think?

I'm not watching it at the moment, yet it still won't boil.
Oh, and inspired by a comment in one of my other cooking entries, I decided to make up some cornpone. I did it the super-easy way: using a Jiffy mix. Is that bad?

Here's the pone, fresh out of the oven:

Right after that, I cut me a slice -- ow, hot! -- and cut off a blob of butter. Yes, it really was as it good it as you think it was! There's nothing like the crust you get with cornbread when you cook it in an iron skillet (after melting a generous amount of butter first).

Update, 1:45 pm...

The soup is "finished" -- at least, enough to try. It will certainly be better after it sits overnight, but as you can see, the pot is so full, I dasn't try to put it away like this. So I'll have a bowl, and I'm keeping it on the burner to simmer some more. Then I'll put it away to feed the staff on Tuesday. If there's enough left.

Here I am, stirring it up a bit so you can see something more than parsley floating on top.

And, yes, it is rather good! It would have been nice to have chopped onions, there's plenty of onion flavor in the broth. I'm resisting the temptation to doctor it up any further with either red or black pepper.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Posting comments

I've had more than a few readers tell me they find it hard to post comments. Basically, you've had to sign up for an account; and not everyone wants to do that.

The problem is spam comments, which I'm guessing are generated by computer programs.

Just now, I clicked one of the options; it allows anyone with a Google account. A Google account is free; I've had one for years. I am pretty sure nothing bad will happen to you.

Let's see how that works.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to change bad habits

This is from the website, The Art of Manliness; a hard-to-explain site, beyond the name. Just check it out. Bad habits are a plague, and a lot of us get really discouraged by being unable to overcome them. This video makes a lot of sense. Do you find the method described plausible? Have you experienced any of this in your own life -- either the stages of bad habits, or success in applying this method? What do you wish the video talked about more?

Perfect French Toast

As I'm getting back to cooking more, one of the things I'm doing is perfecting some dishes I like to make. You see, most of the time, I improvise. So when I'm adding a little of this, or more of that, it's hard to remember just how I did it. That's how my soups tend to come out.

But it's nice to be able to have a way you like to do something, and do it that way each time. I know how I like certain cocktails, for example. And, lately, I've been perfecting French Toast.

Monday night I ate out, and I brought back some bread I knew would make good French Toast. So I let it dry out on the counter yesterday, and this morning I whipped it up. Here's my recipe:

Four good slices of bread, cut thick if possible (you can make more slices if they are thinner; your preference)
Two large or extra-large eggs; if in doubt, add an egg
A little less milk than egg -- judge by appearance
A 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla, maybe a little less
Maple syrup

Cooking utensils:

A wide, flat bowl
A good frying pan
A small bowl or measuring cup or glass that can go in the microwave.

1. Crack your eggs into a bowl and add milk and vanilla; whisk up nicely. It doesn't have to be perfectly blended, but I like to get the whites broken up fairly well.

2. Set bread slices into this mixture. This is the key: you want to be sure your bread is completely soaked through with the milk and egg. Better to have too much egg-milk mixture than to have it all get absorbed with the bread wanting more. 

3. When your slices are well soaked, add a good amount of butter to the frying pan you'll use, and heat it to medium or medium low -- whatever setting will make the pan hot, but not so hot as to burn the butter. (I've never tried using clarified butter, but that would avoid this problem. In my experience, keeping the temp from going too high makes for very nice toast.)

4. When the pan and butter are nicely hot, add slices of toast. If any liquid remains, you can do two things with it:

a) Use a fork and jab the pieces in the pan. You can try pouring a bit more over the bread, and it may absorb. Not too much -- because, if you did your job right beforehand, the bread won't be able to take much more. If you pour too much, that leads to...

b) Pouring the remaining mixture into the pan anyway; it cooks sort of like a crepe, and is tasty by itself, although not as tasty as the French Toast.

5. Sprinkle as much cinnamon over the toast as you like. (Note: you also could add the cinnamon to the milk-and-egg, but I like the cinnamon on the surface of my toast. It doesn't bother me that it's only on one side. Any suggestions?)

6. Fry the bread till it's got a good color on one side, then flip; finish other side. Since the temperature isn't high, this isn't a rush. And it smells delicious!

7. When your toast is about finished, take some butter -- whatever amount you'd usually spread on the toast -- and some Maple Syrup, and add these to the cup or bowl you've got ready. Pop in microwave for about 20-30 seconds. Keep an eye on this, it can boil up very fast. All you want to do is melt the butter and have the syrup-butter mix be good and hot.

8. Plate your toast and when the buttery syrup is ready, pour over the top.

It should look something like this:

This was my breakfast this morning. You can see I had a bit of the egg mixture left over.

So, how was it?

Good, but I was much more successful the last time with getting the eggy goodness all through the bread. That makes a huge difference. When the bread is really soaked, the result is just wonderful. In fact, one night last week, I decided to make French Toast for dessert. This morning, I was hungry and rushed it. Still good, but not awesome.

Now, if you want to be even fancier with this, you can heat your plate ahead of time. One way is to set it in the oven for awhile. Another is to put a little water on the plate and nuke it in the microwave. Is that bad? It's quick at least.

A lot of folks would like this with sausage or bacon, which is always good, but I just wanted the toasty goodness -- plus it's Lent. While French Toast seems pretty luxurious, it's really pretty simple.

Other than soaking it well, it's also critical, I think, to use good ingredients. Fake "Maple" syrup? Are you crazy? Margarine? Bah. Even using oil in the pan -- nothing wrong with oil, but it won't add as much flavor as the butter, which always gives nice color.

And if you want a "healthy" version of this, I think you end up with an empty plate. If you have a different experience, by all means share it. And please feel free to offer any refinements you know of. I'm still perfecting this.