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Saturday, December 22, 2012

How the WHS RAMS saved Christmas. It's a wonderful life.

Before I begin, let me say that this post contains no recipes, cooking advice or food science. What it does contain are my feeble efforts to communicate a wonderful thing that I experienced. Also, I'm not a photographer so some of the pictures are blurry. I hope they convey some of the wonder of a very special night.

 Like a lot of people on Facebook I have become re-acquainted with many of the people I went to High School with and luckily I still live in the same city so I get to see them frequently. They have been a great blessing to me in the tough times we have all experienced in this last handful of years.
 About a month ago one of our alumni; Mary, posted a plea for help. She works with foster kids that are approaching the age when they will be let out of the system, she helps them get food, clothing and above all, she gives them love. I wish I was half the human she is.

 The Following are her words. 
My dear WHS peeps. Thank you for taking a moment to read this, it will give you an idea what I am up against. I run a program for teenagers who are in or aging out of the foster care system. Our Holiday party is December 20 at 5:30. We have 300 kids in our program, we will hopefully get at least 1/2 of them there for a home cooked meal. It is the one time of year that I try to go all out, to have fresh baked goods, because they always get day old out of a box in their groups homes etc. We have several kiddos that are homeless or couch surfing, so we pack as many to go containers as there is food left to be sure that they get through the weekend. We qualify for the working poor tax credit, so a married couple can donate 400.00 to us that goes directly to gift cards for the kiddos and you get it ALL back in your AZ tax refund, as this is a dollar for dollar tax credit. You also get the deduction on the federal return, so you actually make money by donating. A single person can donate 200 and get it ALL back. We need gift cards to fast food places, target, wal mart and ross, places that we can stretch the dollars, what we come up with is the only gifts that these kiddos get. The clothing allowance for a young person in foster care is 150. a YEAR!! This includes shoes, socks, bras etc...When you think about that for a moment you cant help but know that there is something you can do to make a difference in the life of a child.... we have to try to get them gifts that help fill in the gaps. We would be so grateful for anything and everything that you would like to do! The meal and gift giving is December 20 at 5:30 on Tatum and Paradise and it will be a very fun and crazy night!! 



 All I did, really, was to say I would be there. I have loads of catering experience so I hoped I could at least be useful. That, and I "shared" her message on some of out local alumni pages. I then sent an E-mail to my old boss, Steve Short at Atlasta Catering where I used to work to ask his advice on what to do. 
 He sent back a reply that I truly was not expecting. "You can count on us for anything you need. Turkey, stuffing, vegetables, just let me know." More about that later.

 As the date approached I called again, it's his busiest time of year so I knew it was a lot to ask to just give away a bunch of food. I was really only asking for maybe a Cambro (for those who don't know that's an insulated container that caterers use to keep food hot.) of product. At least it would be something. As a side note, Steve once said to me "Accept the challenge first, then figure out how to make it happen." Good words. 

 In the meantime, Mary kept posting to remind people how much any help would be appreciated. Times are tough. Imagine how tough they are for these kids. We got some encouraging responses. Mostly though, all we got was silence. Or so I thought. 

WHS Alum, Susie
 On the day of the event I packed a duffel bag full of anything I thought I could use, a chef coat, some dish-outs, extra hand towels. I had to work at my real job that morning but one of my dear WHS friends was picking me up at 3pm to go help me pick up the food from Atlasta. That's when things started to get amazing. 




 Steve had ready for us, FOUR Cambros. I was stunned. It gets better, trust me. Even with that amount we were expecting maybe up to 300 teenagers. Barely a dent. I should have more faith. I really really should but I didn't know or had forgotten how magnificent humans can be. 




  Forgive me again. I'm an idiot. I have spent so much time wondering why people couldn't just stop being a sack of dicks to each other and realize that everyone is just as scared and fragile as themselves. Didn't someone come by once to tell us that? Isn't this season about that? I keep hoping. 

 Now I have proof. Wait for it. 

 We pulled up to the church hall where we would be serving. There were already a fair amount of volunteers wandering around. We introduced ourselves and drug what we had into the kitchen area. Small oven, some tables and chairs in the hall. A Christmas tree in the corner, looked pretty challenging. Someone had some Au Gratin Potatoes and Green-Bean casserole warming in the tiny oven. OK, well.....OK



  Loaves and Fishes, I kept saying to myself. It'll be ok. We'll make it work. I didn't know how, truly. God, I've become so cynical. I didn't used to be. 

 Mary is amazing, she knew the whole time. She does the Lord's work. 



 Another Alum showed up, I knew she would. Ricki had Ham and Pasta Salad and Cookies. 

me and Ricki




Then more WHS RAMS arrived bringing more. I got them organized and we got a two-sided buffet set up. 
 An army of volunteers plus RAMS. I began to see it. 





loaves and fishes

 The kids started to arrive. St Nicholas pray for us. More and more people arrived to help. Heaps of stuffing, ham and turkey, macaroni and cheese, more and more. As soon as we worried we wouldn't have enough the door would open and more would come. Rolls, salads, piles of turkeys, mounds of cupcakes, brownies, cookies. It was crazy trying to rotate one dish into the oven and back out again. I lost my voice just trying to keep it organized. Our good Lord was in attendance. I have no other explanation. 


 I kept seeing WHS alum arrive. Asking what they could do. Tom and his family. Patti brought cupcakes, best ever. Jamie and her lovely little girl Tatum who just helped in anyway they could. I still didn't know how much the RAMS had made it possible. 


 My friends, all I can do is to serve. I'm not smart, I'm not strong. In the face of something like this I can only keep up. 

 Then Santa Claus showed up, of course. 

I danced. 


The dessert table GROANED under the weight. We had stacks more under the table. 
















 It kept coming. Music, laughter, food. Tonight, we all knew wealth and riches of how amazing people can be. I became friends with a leather and jean clad biker dude who volunteered as dish-washer. His name is Mongo, he and his wife, Cat are now some of my best friends. 



MONGO !!

giving out to-go boxes
packing up boxes
We had more help then I knew what to do with. There was one dude, he was a great Sous-Chef. His wife's name was Mary. I hope to see you next time. 

 Someone brought us 1000 (YES) take-out containers. We set up an assembly line and sent ALL the kids home with loads of food. They will eat well for this week-end. Loaves and fishes.

















 We cleaned up. 

Our Alum Mary. She carries the heart of what it means to be a WHS RAM

















It wasn't until the following morning that I learned how much the WHS RAMS had made that night possible. Jeff, Kevin, Julie, Lisa, Cindy, Tom, Debbie, Heidi and many others sent funds and gift cards. 

Again, I only serve. I am not smart or strong. What I can do, I do. I bid you all a Merry Christmas. 

Here's some images from that night. 





I believe in Santa

proud to be a WHS RAM
















I love my Ricki






our lovely Jamie and Tatum. 















DRAMA GEEKS !!




Ricki, Tatum and me


























Merry Christmas. Remember what that means.
Cooking poor, eating rich
get your grub on
Ciao


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas means Ketchup..Catsup?




My friends. You all know how I like to give something jarred for Christmas. This has been a lost art among most Americans but recently has seen a revival. As terrible as the economical situation has been for most of us the last handful of years it has triggered a resurgence is canning and jarring. I myself learned this skill to make the most of what the garden produced.
 There was a time; it wasn't that long ago, when Moms, Grandmas and Aunties among others would give with pride something they jarred themselves to friends and family at this time of year. Since I'm a poor Chef I have replaced stressing about how to afford presents and now look forward to giving of myself from the kitchen where my heart and soul live. This year I have a mind to make Ketchup...'cus who doesn't like Ketchup? Or is it Catsup? Isn't it just like me to do months of research to find out?
 Yeah it is...
The first commercially produced Ketchup
Many, many years ago (mid 1600's) the Chinese had a pickled fish and soybean sauce (koe-chiap)  that bares no resemblance to the tomato condiment we use today but it was salty and vinegary, Yankee sailors encountered it and loved it so... Skip ahead, some lady in the 1700's named Sandy Addison penned a recipe in The Sugar House Book for Catsup using Tomatoes and Salt. The spelling depends on where in the States you live, that's all. Formerly it was made with vinegar, salt and a weird selection of anything including Mushrooms, Anchovies and unripe Chestnuts. Skip ahead again and we find someone adding sugar and spices. Ahead again, Onions and more Tomato. Simply, Salt is a preservative, so is Vinegar, so is Sugar. Get it now? I've made Ketchup before on this blog as a way to save a whole grip of unripe Tomatoes. (6-1-11) See? Save what can be saved. I dived into my pile of antique cook-books and emerged with....

Chef Nick's Christmas Spicy Ketchup: I used an old original recipe from the 1800's but I wanted something with more guts so I adjusted and added some assorted spices and Chipotle, 'cus I live in the southwest and that's just how we roll. 

Mise-en-Place
A big bunch of Roma Tomatoes (pictured above)
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove Garlic (no, the original recipe didn't call for it but how could I not add it?)
1 TB of Cumin
scant pinch of ground Allspice
good pinch fresh ground Black Pepper
4 Chipotle peppers in Adobo (the canned kind)
2 cups of white vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 cup Kosher Salt
1 TB of pickling spice tied up in cheesecloth

A big-ass pot with lid
and a fine wire-mesh strainer
either a food-processor or hand blender
Kerr mason jars. Later ok?




and a big pot of this
First up, rinse Tomatoes under cold water and then chop off the core end. Slice Tomatoes length-wise.

small bowl of potential compost
You can just dump the tomatoes right into the pot you're using







one of my favorite smells





Pickling spice is actually a blend of different things including Dill Seed, Bay Leaf, Pepper-Corns, Allspice Berries..etc. It's easy to find. What we need to do here is to take a Tablespoon and tie it into a small sack of cheese-cloth. This will make it easy to fish out later.












four whole Chipotle, the smear is the Adobo



I could have followed the original recipe, but I'm a Chef so I didn't. I wanted to make something more my style so after some consideration I thought a spicy Arizona version was more my speed. I adjusted the spice ratios a bit and added cumin and Chipotle in Adobo. Most of my readers are from this area but a good amount of you aren't so here's some words about what this is. Chipotle is made by dry-smoking Jalepeno chili peppers with Mesquite wood. Smoky-sweet and very very hot. It is then either sold in a dry form OR canned in a chili puree known as Adobo. It's one of the best ingredients to have on hand. After some testing I added four from the can. If you don't want spicy then by all means just leave it out and continue.







In the pot of Tomatoes just dump all the other ingredients in.










Set over high heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Lower heat and simmer until the Tomatoes are dissolved and the Onion is completely translucent. Fish out the sack of Pickling Spice and  toss it out.







All we have to do now is puree. Remove the pot from heat and let cool for a bit. If you're using a hand-blender just stick it in this mess and go nuts. If you're using a food-processor then by ladle-full process until liquid.
thunder stick
Either way we move on to the next step which is a real bitch. We need to remove all traces of seeds and skins. the only way to do that is to send it through a wire mesh strainer. I know, fun right?
 By ladle-full, strain this and with a flexible spatula PRESS through to remove all that stuff. Use a large bowl to catch what we need to catch. It takes a while. Take your time. Aaaannnnddd done now? Right on!!



  Dump all that back into another clean pot and bring back to a boil and then keep on simmer until reduced by half (approximately) This is a slow process, tomatoes contain a grip of water. The only way to thicken this stuff is by evaporation. Taste some and add maybe salt, more vinegar or sugar. Or not.

what you start with


reduced by half



Now we jar. Don't be scared. We've done this before. If our Grandmothers can do it then so can we.

Put the jars and lids in a big pot, fill with water and over high heat bring to a boil. Sterilize. Also any tools you might need like tongs should go in the water as well. Keep on hand some clean towels and some paper towels. The process is actually really easy. Keep everything sterile. Lift one jar at a time from the boiling water. Hold it with a towel and fill. Use a paper towel to wipe the top of the jar if you spill, it needs to stay clean or you won't get a good seal. Place the seal part of the lid on the top and then twist the ring part firmly but gently. Move on to the next jar. See? Easy right? Before you go to the last step, turn the heat off under your big pot of water.









Now, last step. Once you have filled all your jars put them back in the hot water making sure the entire jar is covered.




Let them sit in the water for a few minutes and remove to a clean flat surface. Keep them out of drafts and before too long you'll hear a soft "plink" as the jars seal. Let them cool completely and attach bitchin' labels. Mine are purple.
 I'm really excited to give these away this year. It took some work but it's all me and it was completely worth it. Merry Christmas all!!


Happy Holidays 
cooking poor, eating rich
Get your grub on
Ciao

















Sunday, December 2, 2012

Fruitcake. It's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas.


two of the best Christmas presents I ever got, my Nutcracker and my Mom's recipes


I love my Mom's fruitcake. Rich and dark and loaded with exotic spices. The smell of it takes me right back to being a kid. Two years ago; after many years of prodding, my Mom gave me a little tin box with all her Christmas recipes. It is one of my prized possessions. In that box is everything I loved as a kid about the season. Sugar cookies in tree and star shapes, her date pinwheels, her rich and decadent chocolate lebkuechen. If you would ask me today what I would want Santa to bring me, it would always be a loaf of my Mom's fruitcake and a Lionel train around my tree and all would be right with the world. That and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite as the back-round music. My Mom; bless her, doesn't make fruitcake anymore so it falls to me.
 Did I mention it's LOADED with booze?

My Mom's Spicy Dark Fruitcake. I think this originally came out of one of her old Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens books but I don't really know

Mise-en-place

3 1/2 cups mixed, diced fruits and peels, usually labeled as "fruitcake mix"
1 1/4 cup dark raisins
1 1/4 cup golden raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 cups sifted flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
(all spices ground)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cloves
1 cup shortening
2 cups dark brown sugar
4 large eggs, let these come to room temperature, it's easier that way, trust me
3/4 cup grape juice
Dark Rum. Myers's is a good brand.
cheesecloth
wax-paper
aluminum foil
loaf pans, lined with wax paper
three bowls...seriously
one large pan full of hot water but not until you put them in the oven
Since we're baking we measure out everything first and then follow the steps, right? 

The night before, mix your fruit stuff, raisins and nuts, add about 1/4 cup of the Rum, cover and set aside. The longer you let it sit, the better.


Sift together the flour, spices, baking powder and salt, SIFT DARN YOU we need to incorporate air into the dry ingredients. The easiest way to do this is to measure and mix first then sift it over wax paper, you can then pick up the paper and dump it back into the bowl.


measure out first, then sift


and just dump back



In a separate bowl cream together the shortening and brown sugar, just use your man-muscles and beat the crap out of it

Now when we say cream what we're actually doing is distributing the fat all around each grain of sugar, this will ensure a consistent product. Add one egg at a time and beat until smooth.
one.at.a.time. I mean it



 Here's the science. The eggs are one of our leveners and so we need to break it down as much as possible to combine it with the fat and sugar. 

Add about 1/4 cup of the sifted dry ingredients to the fruits. Toss to combine. 

  
What that does is surround the fruit with the flour which grips the residual water in the eggs and sugar and keeps it from sinking to the bottom of our batter, isn't food science neat? 

Didn't I say that you'd need three bowls for this? You should have three right in front of you. 
one two three
Pre-heat your oven to 275F. By spoonful, add your dry stuff to your wet stuff. Hey remember that grape juice? Alternate with the dry, beating to combine each time. 


Dump it onto your fruit stuff and fold until completely combined. 







So you have your loaf pans covered with wax paper, right? Fill each pan with the batter. Slam them onto the counter to remove any air bubbles. Your oven should be pre-heated by now. Put a wide pan of very hot water on the bottom rack and place your loaf pans above. "Your fruitcake will have greater volume, moist texture and a shiny glaze." My Mom's own words. 

This has a really long baking time. 3 and 1/2 hours. Seriously, three and a half hours. Now I get why Mom doesn't make these anymore. Test by poking with a knife, when it comes out clean, they're done. place on a rack for 'bout an hour, remove from wax-paper carefully. 

Let them cool completely. DO NOT HANDLE THEM FOR ANY REASON UNTIL THEN. 

Wrap in cheesecloth and then sprinkle a generous amount of rum onto the loaves. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and again in foil. Let sit somewhere dark and cool for at least 2 weeks or so. 

    


 It only seems right that after making these for 40 plus years my Mom and Dad should get one from their son, namely me. Merry Christmas Mom and Dad. Thank you for the Nutcracker. Dad reading us "A Christmas Carol." The Castle-Blocks. Lights in the snow. Christmas trees with trains underneath. Midnight Mass. Roast Turkey with stuffing inside. Sunday Lasagna. Mom's Mince-Meat Pie. I really-really lucked out. God Bless us all, EVERYONE!! 


Cooking poor, eating rich
get your grub on
Ciao



From our family to yours, Merry Christmas!!

p.s. I'm the guy in the back in the purple tie-die shirt


Saint Nicholas, wonder-worker. Pray for us.