The Belgian Curse

Festive Brussel Sprout Centerpiece Tree Serving SuggestionSometimes, what you do to them, makes all the difference.

(Recipe below)

Growing up, I believed brussels sprouts to be the devil’s fruit.  Virtually inedible, sulphurous, gassy.  If the wind was right, I had early warning they were on the menu from more than a block away.  The hard green little cabbage wannabes topped my list of ‘if you can gag them down’ healthy foods.

According to history, brussels sprouts were eaten by Romans,  before their civilization collapsed.  I suspect barbarians simply left them in cartloads at the gates.  Thinking they were cute, the Romans gorged on them until they were all bloated, woozy, nauseous and disoriented, and easily conquered.

Given they were named after a city in Belgium, for many years I held a personal grudge against all Belgians as being responsible  for spreading them.  I suspected they were some sort of revenge weapon, payback to the rest of Europe for being unable to resist any invasion for centuries.

It wasn’t until I was married, and they showed up uninvited for dinner one evening that I learned brussels sprouts were not supposed to be boiled interminably until they’d dissolved  into an odorous grey glop.  That was my mother’s doing.  It turns out, overcooking releases the sulphurous compounds that made them so memorable.  Mom did some great dishes.  Brussels sprouts was not one.

Let me take this opportunity to publicly apologize to the Belgian people.

As fate would have it, being treated to a different upbringing than myself, my kids actually like brussels sprouts.  Which, considering they are packed with nutrients and anti-cancer goodness, is not a bad thing.

However, for reasons that should be clear, my personal favorite serving suggestion for brussels sprouts, illustrated at the top of the page, is as a festive table decoration or centerpiece.

If you’re looking for a simple way to get them into the kids, I strongly suggest roasting them in the oven, which turns them a bit sweet.

You’ll need:

Roasting pan or baking sheet, a large mixing bowl.  Preheat the oven to 400 F / 204 C

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 3/4 tsp salt and three shakes of pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh brussels sprouts

How To Make:

  1. Wash and drain the sprouts.  If they came on a stalk, take them off.
  2. Peel any yellow or discolored leaves from each sprout.
  3. Use a sharp knife to cut the stem and a small amount of the sprout bottom off.
  4. Cut the sprouts in half, top to bottom.
  5. Mix them in the bowl with oil, salt and pepper, coating them.
  6. Spread them on the baking pan, roast for 30 – 40 minutes, turning once with a spatula.
  7. Optional – sprinkle them with slivered almonds about 4 minutes before taking them out of the oven.
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Where Marshmallows Grow

A Marshmallow Farm in Western Washington, captured by Sten Wireout

Where do marshmallows come from?  That all depends.

Being a father has certain privileges.  Not many, but some.

First, Dads are bigger than everybody.  Yes,  size does matter.  If I can pick you up, hold you upside down, and tickle your tummy with my nose, you haven’t got a prayer.  The clicker is mine.

Second, Dads handle all kinds of really scary stuff. Like fires, live electricity, noisy engines and machines, wickedly sharp things, rogue spiders, snakes and rabid critters, fireworks, tall ladders, poisons and chemicals, and pitch black power outages.

Third, Dads know everything worth knowing.  Mind, I did not say, ‘Dads know everything there is – that would not be true.   Part of this particular gift is the ability to know what is, and what is not, worth knowing.  Why waste brain power on  stuff that’s going to just lay there,  collecting mental dust and taking up space that could have been used for something important?

For instance, we know, those are the three main reasons kids are likely to come find their father: when they need someone bigger, someone less afraid, or someone who can answer one of those questions nobody can agree on.

‘Dad!’, my youngest called as she ran into the kitchen, just one quick step ahead of her sisters.

‘Where ….’ (she was catching her breath)…

‘….do marshmallows come from?’ the twins finished.

‘Well,’ I said, sipping my coffee, ‘that depends’.

‘What?’ they all said.

‘Yes,’ I said.  ‘Natural, wild marshmallows used to grow in swampy areas, covered by mists, on marshmallow bushes protected by tufted marsh spiders.  The spider webs made them nearly invisible.  You could only collect the marshmallow fruit at night, when the spiders were sleeping, and there’s no mist. Otherwise, they were too sticky.’

My youngest was absorbing this, thinking about how easy it would be to find any out back.  The twins were having none of it.

‘Daa-ad!’ they said, with that widening of the eyes, thrusting of the head, turning up one edge of a lip look, that roughly translates to, ‘do we have to go ask Mom?’

‘That was before Samuel Farfenfuffel invented the mallowthresher,’ I said. ‘After that, all the wild ones were plowed under, and  marshmallow farmers had it pretty easy. No spiders, and the marshmallows grew really fat.’

This got the hands on the hips ‘what do you take us for, seriously’ look, and the youngest started measuring her sisters’ reaction and then mine with her eyes, not ready to let go, but no longer sure.

‘Course, today, they’re all made in factories, artificially.’  I said, ending it.  ‘Marshmallow farmers all went out of business, and nobody can find seeds any more.’

I went to my bureau, and out of a box in a box, took the photo up there at the top of this page, and showed them all.  A marshmallow farm.  I knew some time or other, this day would come.

They all looked, passed it around, looked really close.  ‘We don’t believe you’, the twins said.  Cops or officers or lawyers, I thought.  My youngest just had a look.  Wondering.

Nothing wrong with a little wonder, I said to myself.  That’s number four – Dads get to keep them wondering.

‘I wonder…’    That’s how somebody came up with the crazy idea for cooking marshmallows in the first place.

For those wondering where marshmallows actually came from in the first place, it’s thought the originals were made by Egyptians four thousand years ago.  They took the roots of a native plant, the marsh mallow (seriously) and boiled it with honey. The mallow root made a gel, and a sweet confection fit for gods or royals.  It was made in Europe as early as the 1600’s.  The modern marshmallow came in 1850, and since then they’ve been made  with gelatin instead of plant roots.  But the name has stuck.

Weather Tree and Pot Roast

A slender tree with maple like leaves, in colors of red, orange, yellow, brown.We all watch time go by.  We just see it differently, with age.

(Recipe below.)

One morning on the drive from home to schools, halfway down the hill on the two lane, the kids all crowded toward the passenger side window, hushed, peering out the glass, then cheered and chattered as we zipped past.

‘What is it’, I asked, scanning them in the rearview.

‘The weather tree!’, the twins announced, gleeful.

‘It’s red and orange, so rain’s are coming,’ they advised me.

That was the first time I’d heard of  it.  I’d never even noticed the tree before, and it took them another ride to point it out clearly to me.

On one stretch where the road straightened, off to the right near the edge of the shoulder, it stood, a thin but tall, scraggly liquid amber, with just a few branches, cropped close to the trunk.  It looked like it had taken a lightning strike at some time, and partly recovered.  A bit sad and forlorn, but obviously a survivor.

Over the years since, the weather tree has held a strange attraction for the kids, who for reasons unknown to me to this day, feel a kinship, and security, when they see it change.

‘How’s the weather tree’, I’ll say.  And season after season we’ve watched for it as we roll by, and the children call out it’s turning.  Bare to budding green, full leaf to fall leaf color, then, as it lost them again, back to winter bare.  The weather tree has marked our time in a way television or hallmark never could.

Last week an old family friend called my wife to come by.  She took her to the front room, where she’d lined up brown boxes.  They were filled with her kitchen –  her best special pots, platters, and utensils, from an earlier America, her life.  The time had come, she would no longer be using them, she said.  Collected, well employed,  she wanted them to have a home.  A good home.

We unpacked solid cast iron dutch ovens, heavyweight black covered pots and skillets of simple sturdy design.  I’m not superstitious, but they had a dull metallic glow, that hinted at a life, and asked for respect.

Coming home alone up the hill last night, I saw the weather tree, glaring its defiant red and burnt orange signal, shaken in the wind but not bending, and I decided to put the iron to use, as it was intended.

Now, pot roast actually describes how it was once cooked centuries ago – in a heavy pot over a hearth fire, where it simmered for hours.  An iron pot distributes heat from every side, top and bottom, and with a close-fitting heavy lid, holds moisture well, so the contents – usually a tough cut of meat – cooks slowly over time, and becomes fully tender.  Today’s crock pot is just a wannabe to this original.

The version here is just a straight, simple, savory old fashioned one I knew from my mother.

You’ll need:

Large cast iron or other heavy dutch oven (big enough to hold about 4 pounds of chuck roast)

Ingredients

  • a 3 to 5 pound, well marbled beef chuck cut, blade, or similar.  You want it nice and thick, not steaks.  Fat is your friend, with this dish. The method of cooking works to turn a tough cut tender.
  • salt and pepper;  your favorite spice rub for beef, if you like
  • 3 Tbs cooking oil
  • 3 – 5  garlic cloves, rough chopped – as much as you like
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 – 3 cups red wine, preferably a fruity red like merlot or cab
  • a sprig or 1/2 teaspoon of thyme;  one bay leaf if you like
  • 1 and1/2 packets of dry onion soup mix
  • 4 good sized carrots
  • 2 celery stalks, with some of the inner green leaves from the core
  • OPTIONAL – four large yukon or red potatoes cut in large chunks  (I always prefer to make mashed, because it catches the pan sauce so well, but you can add the potatoes to the pot 30 minutes before serving if you like)

How To Make:

  1. Heat the oven to 400 F / 205 C
  2. Lightly salt and pepper both sides of the beef, rub with optional spices if you like.
  3. Add the cooking oil to the iron pot, heat it on the stove top til a drop of water sizzles, but before oil smokes.
  4. Put the meat in and cook it each side about 3 -4 minutes, til each side is browned nicely. This adds color and flavor, but also sears the meat and seals in some moisture.
  5. Add the chopped garlic, thyme and bay leaf.
  6. Turn down the heat, and add the onion soup mix,  wine, onion, carrot, celery and celery leaf.  Add water, if needed, enough to just cover the meat.
  7. Cover and place the iron pot into the oven. Reduce oven temp to 350 F / 175 C, and cook for about three hours.  Ideally, the liquid around the meat will simmer, and not boil.
  8. About an hour in, you’ll smell it.  Be patient. Time is what tenderizes the meat.  It is done when a fork pierces it easily.  Slice it fairly thin across the grain.

I like to serve the roast with spoonfuls of the gravy, over mashed potatoes with a hearty bread, a nice salad, green beans. The red wine gives it a wonderful fruity, rich touch that complements the savory beef and onion.

Comfort food. The kind that’s fortified generations and generations.  And, maybe, also connects us to our past and future.

Where’d the Halloween Candy Go, Dad?

Colorful Halloween pumkin holding candiesIt’s that freaky time of year.  Halloween candy is strangely disappearing in homes across the country.

The pumpkins have arrived.  Costumes that have been discussed for weeks are getting picked out for fixing and fitting.  And final plans are being laid, as serious as Marines storming a beach.  In spite of its careful camouflage, the neighborhood is about to be invaded, flanked, porches will be swarmed, pesky pooches evaded, targets acquired and taken.

Everywhere youngsters are rip-roaring ready to fill overflowing sacks with sugar, heavier than they can manage to lug themselves.  Halloween.  The candy makers holiday.

This year my twins, who’ve outgrown princesses and witches and Disney characters, are even too old for trick or treating for candy, and for the first time, they’re made up helpers, to walk the younger two.

‘You can’t eat candy til you get home’, I hear them scolding my youngest daughter, who looks as fully surprised and let down by the news as a fisherman who finds his lake’s been drained bone dry.

‘Maybe one piece’, I say.  Maybe there’s still fish in there yet.

‘We check all the candy when we get home, and then decide what candy to keep, and what to give away’, they continue.

‘What?!’ my youngest says, now truly alarmed.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say, trying to signal the twins to cut it off.  It’s not something we make a big deal about. The girls catch me drawing a hand across my neck and take the hint.

It is the rule, however. We decided on it to keep the kids from gorging themselves for days on sweets.  Or hoarding and sneaking, then showing up for dinner with no appetite at all.  Like someone else I vaguely recall.

And, because, truthfully, my own kids don’t spend time after school running and playing til it’s so dark you can’t see a ball, the way we did.

‘You’ll have plenty of candy, believe me,’ I say to reassure her.  More than plenty.  How much more sugar does a child actually need a day, anyway?  I just don’t remember being tempted by anywhere near the sugary foods kids are being sold these days.  Candy was some real kind of treat.  And, we still had to portion it out.

Just when I think things are under control, the twins repeat the rule, for good measure.  A real issue is brewing now, and off my youngest goes, near tears, to ask Mom why she’s not getting any candy this year.

‘It’s better this way, Dad’, the twins tell me when it’s quieted down.  ‘A whole lot better than the other way.’

‘What other way’? I say.  I just assumed they didn’t pay all that much attention, and we got away with slipping it out, to drop at the shelter, or into the trash.

‘When our candy disappeared, it used to scare us. Then Mom told us you were eating it.’

I heard oak leaves rustle on the big tree outside, like water falling over stones in a brook.  And saw the dawn a second time that day.

‘That’s why nobody ever wanted to come to a Halloween sleepover at our house’, they said, and looked at me with years of secret candy missing suspicion in their eyes.

‘That’s what your Mother told you?’, I started, and could feel the heat rise.

‘Til last night. Then she told us, you didn’t really eat all of it.’

‘Girls, I did NOT take your candy to eat!’ I said.  And, I certainly ate no more than your mother.

‘Well, Mom said….’

‘….we could take care of checking and separating all the candy this year. Ok’?

And they smiled, at each other, and at me.  Plans had been laid, and just deserts secured.

Oh, times, they surely do change. I could see, a new order had come.

And so I set off to clear up a few Halloween ghosts of my own.

5 Things Dad Should Never Do in the Kitchen

Man cooking kitchen finger food drippingMost of the time, a guy in the kitchen won’t think twice.  Which is why women keep a careful watch.

Let me say, I don’t know of a single case where a family has ever keeled over and expired because of a man doing any of these things.  In fact, most of the time, the family probably gets along just fine for years without ever noticing.

Then, occasionally, someone does notice and an alarm will go up, so even distant neighbors pause behind their windows and wonder what  sick biohazard stuff dad’s been up to in the garage.

In the interest of domestic tranquility and general hygiene, consider these five tips on kitchen and cooking mistakes you might want to consider breaking.

1. Do Not Taste Food with Your Fingers   Now, at first it seems reasonable that those pointed things on the ends of your hands were custom built for the job of dipping into food, to check flavor or doneness.  However, its come to my attention that some people think men do not wash their hands nearly enough.  Or, they do not know where those hands have been. Therefore, it’s unwise to slip them into the pot or serving dish for sampling.  Especially more than once.

2.  Do Not Mix Food With Your Hands  This makes little sense.  A spoon or fork is slow and clumsy when it comes to,  say, tossing a salad, unless you want it on the floor.  And for blending sugar or spices into food that’s thick as paste?  And, are we  sure a spoon is really cleaner? I’m willing to bet, you have no idea where it originally came from. Or what somebody did with it before you got it.  Even so, some people consider it completely gross when you use the good hands you’ve had your entire life.

3.  Do Not Get Food On Your Clothes   Somehow, food which is good enough to put into your mouth, is no longer safe if it lands on the outside of your jeans or t-shirt.  Once there, it apparently turns instantly foul and repulsive.  You can no longer eat it. You need to immediately change, because wearing food below your neck puts some people completely off their appetite.  Apparently the only way to avert this disaster is to wear an apron.  A food-smacked apron makes folks feel homey.  On your t-shirt, the same thing is just stains and grime.

4. Do Not Mix The Wrong Foods Together   Many dads don’t realize,  certain spices, ingredients and seasonings need to be kept as far from each other as possible. If they ever are put together, the food turns instantly disgusting.  I’m told, someone doesn’t even have to taste it, to know its bad.  Apparently, everybody (who is not a man) knows this. You just don’t mix certain things together, even if you think it might work.  Or because they were the only food items you could find in the refrigerator. That’s a concoction.  Decent people don’t eat concoctions.  That’s why we have recipes.

5. Do Not Use the Kitchen Sink for Cleaning  Dirty things have no place being washed in the kitchen sink.  It’s used for washing.  That’s  just the way it is.  If you want to wash hands in the kitchen, go wash them first in the bathroom.  Don’t bring that filthy dog in here.  Don’t even dare think about doing anything greasy, gummy or grimy in there at all: the sink might get dirty. And then where would we wash up?

Good luck with all this, and take my word, there’s no point going to the mat on a single one.  By the way, when I talk about aprons, I’m talking about the kind a man should be comfortable in.

And since I get asked what that means, I decided to come up with a few one of a kind, Dad’s own, like the one’s below, that a guy can be PROUD standing in at the sink or stove.  Not your mother’s apron, by a long shot.  And, enough with the BBQ already – these are for men who cook in the kitchen, with some attitude.  Tshirts, for those who prefer to just wipe the hands.  Printed and delivered through Zazzle, a pro place that does high quality work, and ships worldwide.   Dad’s In the Kitchen! Gift Shop

Go over and take a look if you’re in the market.  I’m told some women find a man in an apron sexy. There are some fun ones, I come up with new ones every week, customizable, plus mugs and other gear.   Let me know what you think, or what you’d like to see .Gift cooking aprons for men and dads Chicken Dinner and I Love Dad's Cooking

Peach of a Summer

Summer sun sure adds sweetness.  Long afternoons, glowing heat and tanned skin, and the true miracle of peaches.

If the Big Man spent time trying to find a lure able to coax yours truly deep into a  stifling hot field for hours of sweaty effort (where sports and loving were not involved), summer peaches would be hook, line and sinker reliable. It’s that bad.

I suspect the family knows this quirk about me.  At any rate, shortly after every Fourth of July it seems they all suddenly find themselves without a free weekend.  Dental appointments crop up, along with important and unavoidable back to school shopping, tire rotation, and mystery tummy ailments, that make it impossible to drive any farther than the mall or beach.

I first met stone fruit with my own parents many years ago, when we’d pick and load lugs of them, warm from the trees, into the trunk and onto the seats of my father’s hot black Plymouth, and breathe their suffocating fragrance with the windows down all the way home.  What followed were days of mason jars and bubbling great pots, juicy wet newspapers covered with pits and peels, my mother’s longest spoon, and perspiring forehead.  We had a great green bureau down in the coolest corner of the wood frame garage, that held a year or more’s worth of that summer’s bounty:  jams, jellies, and whole fruits, with golden lids neatly dated in black crayon in my dad’s hand.

And, there were my siblings, out on the summer porch, arms and bare chests covered with dripping, sweet flavor, unbelieving that a colorful bite could produce such sugary liquid mouthfuls.

“Good sun this year”, my Dad would say, and carefully remind us, every summer, that the trees and the farmers put real sunshine right in our hands. We were thankful.

“Good sun this year”, I say to my wife one morning, with the kids running out to play.  She looks to the calendar on the kitchen wall, with it’s messy code of exes and times.   I don’t mention I’ve already got the list of ripening and variety reports from a dozen growers out to a hundred miles in my back pocket.

“Peaches?”, she says, with a glance, like I’ve just proposed to try and win the car back in one last craps game.

“It’s good for the kids, healthy.  And real, fresh fruit,” I remind her.  She remembers the aisles and bins of wood-like substitutes they’re passing off at the supermarket.  Maybe she knows about the hook, line and sinker, too.

And on the road with the kids laughing in the back, under the blue hot dome and out in the blazing white sun, I’m thinking about sticky forearms and that first, unforgettable, juicy mouthful.

Cupid: Worst Chocolate Valentines Gifts

Romance wasn’t built in a day.

There is probably nothing more frustrating about women than finding out that doing what they want, is not what they want. When it comes to romance, your favorite female wants you to surprise her by getting her what she really wants.  Just don’t ask her what that is.

‘What are you getting mom for Valentines?’, my twin girls asked the other night. They appeared in front of the couch, blocking the TV, in a casual way that guaranteed they were going to take this information directly back to the source of the question.

‘What do you think she’d like?’ I asked, trying to remember how many days I had to come up with an answer.  The girls looked at each other, then at me.

‘Something special’, they said. ‘Not just chocolates again’

They were referring to the one year, which shall never be forgotten, that Dad went all out and brought home about nine different kinds of chocolates.  In the store, it seemed like a great idea.  I imagined her being surrounded, and luxurious.  She imagined I’d scooped the entire closeout candy shelf into the cart at the last minute to avoid getting a real gift.  Alright, so I’d had to work late and couldn’t think of anything else.

‘Ok’, I said, trying to see around them to the screen, ‘no chocolate this year.’  They looked at each other again.

‘You have to get her chocolate, Dad’, they whispered.  They had that look like they would just like to reach out and slap the side of my head, if they dared.

‘She doesn’t like when I give her candy’, I reminded them, very quietly. ‘ She says it makes her…clothes too tight’.  This got big eyes and open mouths at each other, and then they ran off.  What a report that was going to make.  I’ll really have to pull one off this year.

If you’re hunting for something for Valentine’s gifts, remember that chocolate is almost always expected as part of the festivities.  And for that special Valentine chocolate gift, the most important thing to remember is, keep it romantic.  The following are actual chocolate gifts that should NOT be on your list.  Unless this is what she really wants.

1. Chocolate Perfume Ok, you’re thinking you can take care of the proverbial two birds with this stone.  It’s chocolate, and it’s perfume.  It’s got no calories.  It’s pretty cheap compared to what you find in Macy’s.  So, why not make some hubcap earrings to go with it?

2. Chocolate American Express Card Apart from the fact it’s a whopping full ten pound paving stone of chocolate, and a gazillion calories, what kind of message are we trying to send here, exactly?

3. Chocolate Ammo It comes in it’s own ammo tin, it’s .50 caliber, and the only question you should have if this is your gift of choice is whether there actually is something more to life than hunting.

4. Anatomically Correct Chocolate Heart anatomically correct chocolate heart Maybe you were thinking, well, no, actually, you couldn’t have been thinking if you ordered this.  Does the word ‘creepy’ come up often in your relationship?  It will.

5. Chocolate Bra edible chocolate bra No doubt you can’t believe somebody actually came up with this.  Your wife won’t believe you did either. Yes, she’ll get what you have in mind, and no, she won’t.

Now, get out there and get her something she really wants.  And if you figure out what, please, let me know.