Sunday, May 10, 2020

Salad Days


garden salad in a while bowl on a brown table





It was my first job. I was 15 years old. My boss yelled at me everyday. She yelled at everyone. All Day Long. The restaurant was insanely busy in the summertime with tourists trying to make the ferry over to Martha's Vineyard and loud with the excitement and stressed out energy of families on vacation. I barely had time to use the bathroom during a 12 hour long shift. I drank Diet Coke and ate oyster crackers that I kept in my apron pocket to keep my stomach from growling. There were no breaks. Ever. Until you punched out. I went back day after day because my parents would have killed me if I didn't. Plus, my mother drove me to work.

When I was finally told that my shift was over and I could leave, I ran out the door, down the street to the payphone on the corner to call my mother to pick me up. I was so glad to be out of that building, away from the yelling, the noise, the smell of french fries, coffee and bleach. It took at least 30 minutes after I called for her to arrive in Woods Hole, driving down the hill and turning the corner in front of the drug store. I sat on the big rock next to the phone booth, watching, waiting for the yellow station wagon with the faux wood paneling and the ceiling my mother fixed herself by stapling it back into place. Each silver staple perfectly spaced so that it looked intentional, like it was part of the original design. 

I worked really hard at that job. Bussing tables as fast as I possibly could. Clearing the sticky dishes covered in maple syrup, refilling the sugar packets, making another pot of coffee, wiping down the glass tops, pushing in the chairs. Competing with myself, getting faster and faster, more efficient: anticipating, checking the bathrooms before being reminded, trying to think of everything so I wouldn't get screamed at. Somehow, I began to like the sense of accomplishment. But the intensity of the day always came out in a flood of tears as soon as I climbed into the car and closed the door.

The cooks started calling me, "Speed Queen", then, "Speedo" and sometimes just shortened the nick-name to, "Speed" because I did my job so fast powered by adrenaline from fear and teenage energy.  I didn't react to anything they said, just brought them Cokes with lemon and pint glasses of ice water when they asked. I was a little scared of them, too. They were older than me, in college. 

One Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer, my boss' husband, quiet but still imposing, told me to come into the kitchen. We were winding down in the dining room, cleaning and setting up before the dinner rush. I was sure he was going to tell me that I was doing something wrong, maybe fire me. When his wife was really, really angry, she stopped screaming and yelling and sent him to convey her angry message. Not only was I about to be humiliated, my mother would definitely kill me when she picked me up, having to drive all the way to Woods Hole to get her daughter who got canned for doing a terrible job.

I made my way through the swinging doors and into the lion's den. The kitchen was small, bright, bustling with energy that urged, "Get the prep done now or we are screwed!" He told me I was going to make the garden salads. You know the ones that come in a bamboo bowl: iceberg, shredded purple cabbage, 2 cherry tomatoes, 2 slices cucumber, a ring of red onion, a ring of green pepper and maybe a canned black olive, if you are lucky? That was it. He needed my help. 
He calmly showed me how he wanted the salads to look and asked me to make 60 of them: 5 sheet pans of 12 salads, each. Then, bring each one through the swinging doors, up the stairs, down the hallway and store it in the walk-in. Make them look good. Dinner starts in an hour.

I was terrified that I would mess it all up. 

I worked the salad and dessert station on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for the rest of the summer. Bussing tables during breakfast and lunch wearing a blue apron in the front of house, then changing into a red apron to work in the kitchen through the evening service. Baptized by fire on a hot summer day, pulled onto the "Red Team" out of necessity, allowed to stay because I kept my mouth shut and my hands moving. I worked in that restaurant for seven summers, through high school and part of college. I got tougher and grew a thick skin, no longer crying everyday on the ride home from work. My boss stopped yelling and screaming at me.  I must have passed her test. She moved on to new members of the dining room staff, who often quit because they didn't have parents who told them, "This is how it is in a restaurant. It's stressful, people yell. Let it roll off your back." This may seem like harsh parenting. But through the years, my first "professional" kitchen experience has made me realize that ranting bosses are usually their own worst enemies and being able to focus on crafting something as simple as a garden salad in the middle of the frenzy on an insanely busy Saturday in July are lessons that I have been using all my adult life.


Simple Garden Salad
(makes one)

1 1/2 cups chopped iceberg lettuce
1/4  cup shredded red cabbage
4 cherry tomatoes or 2 wedges from a medium sized tomato
4 slices cucumber 
1 ring cut from the center of a whole green or red pepper
1-2 rings sliced red onion
4 black olives
1 pepperoncini

salad dressing of choice: Italian, Ranch, Peppercorn Parmesan, Balsamic Vinaigrette, Blue Cheese*

Place lettuce and red cabbage in a small bowl. Toss gently. Strategically place tomato around edges of lettuce mixture. Place cucumbers in the same manner. Place pepper and onion rings on the center of the lettuce mixture. Place black olives in between tomatoes and cucumbers. Place pepperoncini in the center of the red onion rings, as the crowning center of the salad. Enjoy with dressing.

*May cost extra



















 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Rainy Day Beef Stew


  While digging around in my blog vault, I came across this unpublished post. Although it's from seven years ago (February 2013), and I now have an exciting and fulfilling job, during these uncertain days, it's a reminder that things can always get better and comfort food always helps.


beef stew in a white bowl with a slice of bread and butter

  I've been having a pity party lately. Actually, it's been going on for about 3 months now. I spend my days wracking my brain, trying to find a job that suits me, my schedule (kids), that is fun and brings in a decent amount of money for my time. Working on my resume, psyching myself up, trolling the internet, reconnecting with former colleagues...it's an exhausting roller coaster ride of emotion. Then it's time to cook dinner.
  Although there are times when I don't feel like coming up with something to make, once I get myself into the kitchen and begin working, I suddenly feel that I have regained some sense of control over my life again. Even when I feel like there is no hope of finding a job, of making things work, at least I have the confidence that I can produce a good meal, that is enjoyable not only to me but to the people I'm cooking it for as well.
  That's exactly how I felt last Friday after a long week of trying to figure out my life. The kids were home on school vacation so between refereeing their fights and getting them out the door to the library, public skating, to a friend's house to play, and finishing Ava's science project, it wasn't really an ideal time to come up with a new fabulous career idea. I was frustrated with myself and at the end of my rope with the kids. I took a break and watched some mindless t.v. before getting out of my pajamas and getting on the with day.
  "Slow Cooker" week on Rachael Ray....whoo-hoo! as I lay on my bed, half looking out the window at the dreary weather, half watching the show, the creative wheels in my head began to creak into motion. I came up with the brilliant idea to use the Crock-Pot to make a hearty stew. At least this was a mission I could motivate myself to get behind. Some good basic ingredients plus heat almost always yield the results I want, something delicious to eat and share with others.
  It's funny I never realized that the kitchen has been my place of comfort for so many years. In college, after my dearest friend died, I cooked chili and bread from scratch every week and ate all of the meals that I prepared for myself at the tiny kitchen table by the window in our basement apartment that I shared with two other girls. Later, while living in Boston on a (frayed) shoe string budget, most nights I made it home from working in the mall after 8:00pm but I always managed to whip up some eggs with salsa and cheddar cheese, my own version of comfort food in a neat little omelet. Now especially when I feel I have no control over what life has to offer, I turn to the stove. Baking chocolate chip cookies, kneading bread, chopping vegetables, these are things that restore my sense of stability and help me to relax. When nothing appears to be going my way, at least the oven still works, the sugar tastes sweet and a hot meal reminds me that tomorrow is another day.

kitchen window covered in snow


Rainy Day Beef Stew
(Serves 6)

Ingredients:
2 lbs. stew beef, cut into 1 inch pieces
salt and pepper
3-4 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons flour
6 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch pieces
2 medium stalks celery, thinly sliced
2 medium onions, diced
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1 cup beef stock
1 cup red wine
3 oz. tomato paste (1/2 of a small can)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

  Dry meat with paper towel and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Divide meat into 3 batches. Toss one batch of meat into skillet and sear on all sides. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of flour. Pour beef and juices into Crock-Pot. Repeat with remaining two batches.  Add 1 teaspoon oil  to the skillet and cook carrots  for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Place carrots in Crock-Pot. Cook  celery and onions until softened, season with salt and pepper and add to Crock-Pot. Add 1-2 teaspoons oil to skillet and cook mushrooms for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Place mushrooms in Crock-Pot.  Place pan back on heat and add beef broth and wine, stirring and scraping the pan to loosen any cooked bits from the bottom. Clean pan with this process and pour entire contents into Crock-Pot. Add tomato paste, thyme and mustard and stir entire contest of Crock-Pot to distribute ingredients.    Cook stew on high for 3 hours, then on low for one hour until meat is tender. Alternately, cook stew on low for 8 hours. Once cooking is complete, to thicken juices, mix one tablespoon cornstarch with one tablespoon cool water and add to stew. Stir to incorporate. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.  Add vinegar, stir and cook for 5 more minutes before serving over mashed potatoes or with a slice of bread.



Saturday, March 14, 2020

Never Too Old For Cupcakes



a plate of chocolate cupcakes with white frosting and orange sprinkles

  How old is too old to have a birthday party? Is it o.k.to want your mom to make cupcakes and to have your friends over for a bowling party when you are a 14 year old boy? Personally, I don't think anyone should ever grow out of the Birthday Party phase. Not ever. I hope my kids never do.
  Declan and I have a ritual. If we are both home in the evening, meaning if he doesn't have  basketball practice, a baseball game or some other activity after dinner, we watch a show on t.v. together. But not just any random show that may be broadcast that given night or something that is popular to binge watch on Prime or Netflix. Our show is carefully selected and must adhere to a strict criteria.  It must be light yet sprinkled with dramatic moments. It must have run for at least three seasons to be worth our time investment and capture our attention. It must have a serial element to it so that a cliff hanger is presented at the end of each episode compelling us to watch a second one in the same sitting.  And it must star a recognizable but not super famous female lead. 
  This is our not so secret shared guilty pleasure. And Declan isn't shy about it. He has actually had discussions with his friends about his healthy addiction to "Heart of Dixie" and "Gilmore Girls". Maybe it's cool to be into these dramedies set in small towns inhabited by quirky characters with their themes of relationships and farce. But I don't think so. Perhaps it's just ironically funny to him. But I know the real secret, the one he doesn't say out loud in public and it's my favorite part of our t.v. watching time together. While I am sitting on the couch, glass of wine in hand, ready for some small town drama; he is not too old to lean against me for the entire 40 minutes, or so, at least at this moment in time. It's not a full on snuggle like a little boy might want from his mom, it's the early teenage version. We are on the cusp of him growing up and leaving his childhood behind. While I will never be ready for this to finally happen, he will be someday, likely sooner than later.
  Most of the time, our relationship takes the shape of a typical mother-son dynamic. I am aware that I shouldn't go in for a hug in public. When I am driving him and a friend home from school, he talks with a sarcastic edge: just cool and distant enough to show the outside world that he is tough and grown-up. But when he puts on those fleece pj bottoms with the Celtics logos printed all over the fabric, the ones that have suddenly become three inches too short, along with his fuzzy socks and says in his recently deepened voice, "Mom, Gilmore Girls?", I know he is still my little boy.
  Even though next year he may say he doesn't want me to make cupcakes, I am still going to bake them and frost them and decorate them with orange sprinkles (his favorite color). I will not stop baking cupcakes on his birthday and I hope he never wants to stop watching bad t.v. in his pajamas on the couch with me.

  This chocolate cake and frosting recipe is a combination of a few found on the internet and the cake on the back of the Hershey's Cocoa can. It makes one large cake or 24 cupcakes. (Fill lined cups 2/3 full with batter.)


Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
(makes one 8 inch layer cake)
Cake:
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder such as Hershey's Cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon instant coffee
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup oil (canola, etc.)
3/4 cup boiling water

  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and line the bottoms of two 8 inch cake pans with parchment paper (cut to fit). 
  In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: sugar, flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder, baking soda and instant coffee. In a smaller bowl, combine eggs, buttermilk, vanilla and oil. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Gently stir in the boiling water. Pour batter into cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Begin checking cake at 28-30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans onto wire rack and allow to cool completely before frosting and decorating.

Frosting:
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (softened)
1/2 cup Crisco
3 cups powdered sugar 
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tsp vanilla
1-3 tablespoons milk

Place butter and Crisco in the bowl of a stand mixer. Combine. Add sugar in three parts, combining between each addition. Add salt and vanilla. Combine. Slowly add milk by the tablespoon and combine well until a spreadable consistency is achieved.

To frost and decorate:
Sprinkles, sugar decorations, candy

  Level each cake with a knife. (Save scraps for snacking!) Spread frosting on top of one layer, place the second on top. Top cake with a large amount of frosting. Smooth it over the top and down the sides. Add sprinkles and other decorations before frosting dries.