Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Good Day

Took a walk down our street to the prairie reserve today. It's not much, and you are rarely away from the sight of suburban roofs and the spectacular TV antennae that half the folks around here seem to have. I'm kicking myself for not taking pictures of some of the monstrous antennae around here; Christ, we even have one!

But the thing I love is that after you walk for about twenty minutes through the jack pines and box elders you can veer off the main path and walk right up to the train tracks.

I don't know what it is about train tracks. I mean they're kinda hackneyed and sentimental, right? And yet I could just sit there all day, just waiting. I had a total Stand By Me moment last fall, when a deer picked its way delicately up to the tracks from the other side, stood fro a moment, then bolted.

We did not manage to tackle the Corner of Pure Drywalling Hell today.

I could fit all my journals from the 8th grade that crack between the ceiling and walls. I'm thinking about hiding a fake treasure map in there. When I was scraping the old paint off of the fascia (that's the vertical bit that hangs down at the roof's edge for those of you who haven't had to memorize Black & Decker's Home Repair Manual) I discovered that underneath the layer of white paint there was printed paper sealed onto the primed wood. It was printed only on one side, and had been applied printed side to the board, so that when I scraped away the paint, I found blank paper(the back), and when I scraped that away (very carefully) I found reversed letters on the thinnest scrap of ancient yellowed paper. It was mostly ineligible, but there was an intriguing mention of a diner party. Our house was owned from when it was built in 1950 till 2004 by couple, the female half of which was an Ambassador to Germany. I often imagine the swanky dinner parties they threw, with the mod style bar that took up most of the dining room and the monocled German diplomat name Herr Hackleheber with one of those red sashes and a big fluffy mustache that grows down and attaches to his sideburns...

Okay maybe not... Anyway, we did not manage to do any work on the house, but I did manage to make the absolutely delicious caramelized onion smothered pork chops, which I think Herr Hackleheber will be sorry to have missed.

I used a recipe from Cook's Illustrated, but changed quite a bit.

Fry up 3 slices of bacon, cut into little pieces (we buy Farmland Hickory, but I like Boar's Head too) on medium heat, remove them to drain, and keep the rendered bacon fat for building the roux that is the base of the gravy. Rouxs are not scary, they are easy, but something about it being French makes some inexperienced cooks freak right the fuck out. Don't worry, I'll walk you through it, easiest thing in the world. Take about 2-4 tablespoons of flour and whisk it into your rendered fat. It will bubble and may kind of clump up, depending on how much fat you had in the pan. That's okay, just kept whisking it and moving it around the pan for about five minutes or until it is a caramel color. What you are doing is cooking the flour to prevent the raw flour taste that icks up so many gravies. Now, get some help or get ready to use both hands on separate tasks. One hand will keep whisking, the other will slowly pour in about 1-3/4 cups chicken broth (homemade or Swanson's low sodium Natural Goodness brand in an aseptically sealed carton... I know, I'm finicky, but I only demand brands when I think brands make a difference...Have you ever actually tasted Campbell's chicken broth? It tastes like a sweaty armpit!). There will be all sort of bubbling, steaming action in your pan, just keep whisking so that the flour-fat mixture gets nicely incorporated into your liquid. Turn the heat up to medium-high and let the mixture come to a boil while you are whisking- it will happen quick. Go ahead and taste it and see what you think. You can add stuff- just remember that the gravy is going to cook with the pork for about a half hour (so no fresh delicate herbs like parsley) and will pick up some depth from the pork, and the gravy will also reduce a bit at the very end of cooking so it will get concentrated and thicken up a bit. Look, you just made a roux! Put the sauce off to the side with a cover on it.

Now, the pork. I used four boneless chops, about 3/4 of an inch thick. They would be even better thick cut, and bones would add some depth to the taste, but I got mine on sale so I wasn't gonna complain. Dry them off (less splattering when they hit the pan and better browning) and seasons them with lots of pepper and salt. Don't just sprinkle them with seasoning, you gotta actually push the seasoning in with your hands. I know, washing your hands ten billion times when preparing meat is a pain the ass, but this step is worth it. Get a nice heavy skillet- I use my cast iron, but then again I would use my cast iron to make birthday cake if I could (ohhh, that's totally going on the experiment list!)- and put it over high heat and add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Let it get so hot that the oil is almost smoking. How do you tell? Well, eventually you'll get an unconscious knack for that temperature, but at first it's much like predicting ovulation- you are always counting back form some future, unknown time. Make sure the oil had gotten nice and shimmery, that's a good start. Slap those chop on the skillet and cook them without moving for three minutes, flip and cook for three more minutes. You aren't cooking them all the way through, you are just getting a nice brown crust. Remove them and let them sit on a plate.

Next turn the heat down to medium and add a glug of oil and a couple of onions sliced very thin- you want enough onions to fill up the pan as they will cook down quite a bit. Also add about 1/4 teaspoon salt and a tablespoon of water. Cook the onions, turning and stirring regularly, till the onions are a nice caramel brown. Make sure to scrape up the browned bits left over from the chops at the bottom of the pan- this is the fond, a delicious base for many a meal. Once the onions are done, add a couple of minced or pressed garlic cloves and some thyme (a couple of shakes of the dried stuff, a couple of sprigs of the fresh) and cook for just about 30 seconds.

Put the chops back in the skillet, right on top of the onions (and pour any juices that have pooled under the chops in too) and then pour the gravy over the whole mess. Turn the heat to low, cover and cook until you can insert a paring knife easily into a chop. Pork will get tough if overcooked, so be careful- though to be honest the gravy is so yummy it will mask some of the overcooked texture if you leave them for too long. To be safe, insert a thermometer horizontally through the chop; you want it to be about 150 degrees. Remove the chops to a clean plate and tent with foil to keep them warm. Take the cover off the gravy and turn the heat up to medium high. Cook it till it has a consistency you like, taste, add salt and pepper (if it needs it) and some fresh parsley. Serve the chops with gravy over them. Save any left over gravy in the freezer and use it on sandwiches, with toast, or on any dry or boring meat that you have.

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