Friday, February 19, 2010

Oh, those crazy Russians

I haven't posted anything for a while, because it would basically be a repeat of everything in the last entry...snow, digging, more snow, more digging, and The Pit and I cooped up in the apartment, slowly driving each other insane. However, things are finally looking up around here...the snow is now melting, we went to trivia and won again on Monday night, The Pit finally went back to work on Tuesday, and there is some small glimmer of a chance that I might be gainfully employed come Monday morning. Should this wonder of wonders materialize, I'll let you guys know. In the meantime, my now twice postponed birthday celebration is happening tonight. Oh sweet sweet Olive Garden, I can't wait for your delicious cheese ravioli in my mouth.

Since I have no real news to report, and the weather conditions are appropriately wintery, I will use the rest of this post to make fun of Russians. Or more specifically, of one particular Russian superstition that never fails to amuse me. See, Russians believe that under no circumstances should the female of the species be allowed to sit anyplace cold. This particularly applies to sprawling on the ground, a hard-wood floor, or, horror of horrors, a park bench in winter. You might be asking yourself...why? And why should only women and girls have to stand if there isn't a padded chair available?

The answer has to do with our precious reproductive organs. You see, according to a shared hallucination of all the peoples of the former Soviet Union, placing the baby-making equipment anywhere near a cold surface somehow result in irreparable damage. Even well-educated Russians believe this to be true. Take, for example, the case of my mother, a biologist and normally all-around sensible human being. Shortly after we fled the hell hole that was the Soviet Russia and settled in Boston, my mother enrolled my sister and I in ballet classes. On the first day of the class, she watched in horror as the teacher gathered all the little girls together, sat us on the floor, and proceeded to blithely explain various stretching techniques, as if she wasn't thus dooming our future unborn children.

About ten years after this first observation of grossly negligent American behavior, and numerous subsequent experiences watching American posteriors interact with various chilly surfaces, I had a conversation with my mother about irrational Russian fears. I had assumed that my mom had come around to a reasonable view of things, and was thus surprised to hear her explain that the Russian opinion wasn't wrong, per se. It was just that it never got cold enough in America to truly endanger our unborn offspring.

It's been another ten years since that memorable conversation, so I think it might be time to question her again. Next time I remember, I'll ask and report back.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This and that

So, as some of you may know, last Friday was my birthday. We had decided to celebrate it old which I mean dinner at the Olive Garden, followed by bowling. Unfortunately, I was gifted with 18 inches of snow instead, so birthday plans were postponed.

Virgina seemed a bit better prepared for this snowstorm, and a plow kept going down our street even in the worst of the weather. On the plus side, this meant that our street was well cleared when the snow finally stopped falling. On the minus side, it meant approximately 3 extra feet of snow to shovel away from my car. I present you with exhibits A and B below:

A decided to forgo digging out, and so was trapped at his house and unable to come to trivia with us on Monday night. In an improbably turn of events, The Pit and I vanquished our opponents and received first place without his assistance, even though one of the rounds required extensive knowledge of sports nicknames.*

This win was especially nice, as we've been sucking it up the last few weeks. Our losing streak was capped last week, when we managed to drop from first to sixth place in the last round of the game after scoring a meager 2/10 on general knowledge questions. Apparently, our general knowledge does not extend to car racing, Victorian literature, or sequels to The Sheik. If only I was a little more redneck, and The Pit a bit more gay, and A about 60 years older, we might have been winners. But no matter, in week 20 of playing we were once again triumphant!

* We scored 3/10 based solely on The Pit's guessing.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Instructions from the motherland

The tale I’m about to tell will shock and horrify the majority of my readers. No, it’s not one of those kind of stories, although I do have a few of those from way back when…but I digress. This is a completely innocent story, featuring chicken soup and grandmotherly advice. See, last Monday I bought some chicken thighs at the grocery store. I shoved them to the back of the fridge, and promptly forgot about them. I belatedly remembered the chicken on Friday, and stuck the package in the freezer. If you’re keeping track, so far that’s raw chicken, kept for five days in the refrigerator.

Tuesday morning The Pit said he wanted chicken soup for dinner, so before leaving to babysit OL, I took the chicken out of the freezer and put it back in the fridge to defrost. Come Tuesday afternoon, I deposited it in the sink for a couple of hours of further defrosting, before opening the package to begin my customary de-fatting process* around 4 PM. That’s when I noticed a distinct odor coming from the meat. A sort of fruity and vinegary smell all at the same time. A smell that was definitely not normal.

* I’m just a touch OCD about picking the large chunks of fat off the chicken thighs before throwing 'em in the pot to make soup. Everyone laughs, but this evisceration results in delicious broth.

I briefly pondered throwing the chicken out, but two things stopped me. First of all, The Pit insists that I buy expensive organic chicken at Trader Joe’s. Throwing that chicken out would be like tossing a crisp five dollar bill in the trash can, and then following it up with some singles so it wouldn’t get lonely. Secondly, I didn’t have any back-up frozen chicken in the freezer, so tossing the meat would have required me to get back into my street clothes, venture out into the freezing cold, and drive to the grocery store to buy more thighs. After all that, dinner would be late. So to summarize, because I’m too frugal to throw away $7, and too lazy to waste 45 minutes buying more meat, I was willing to risk poisoning us both.

But! Before you get all flabbergasted on me, keep in mind my clever next move. I knew that if I consulted American friends or the Internets, I would be summarily told to throw the chicken away. Instead, I picked up the phone and called my grandparents, who had spent 40ish years cooking in Soviet Russia, where you definitely ate whatever came your way after standing in line for hours in sub-zero temperatures. There was no way that people raised in such an environment would let a little smell stop them from using almost-perfectly-good meat.

My grandpa answered the phone, listened to my chicken history, and reassured me that if I gave the thighs a thorough washing, all would be well. I was relieved, until he added that I would definitely be able to tell if the meat was still off by tasting the soup before serving it. Nevertheless, I began washing the thighs, a process made all the more thorough by the previously mentioned de-fatting.

Just when I had both hands wet and covered by potentially poisonous raw chicken, the phone rang. It was my grandmother, calling me back with more detailed instructions. She informed me that I should wash the thighs in warm water, then again in cold water, then keep them covered in cold water with a teaspoon of vinegar for five minutes, then rinse the vinegar off with more cold water, and only then cook the chicken per the usual routine. Greatly reassured, I did as I was told…there was no way such a wealth of folk knowledge could possibly be wrong.

Half-way through this process The Pit arrived home. Fortunately, he was quickly distracted by internet videos, and did not ask me what the chicken was doing soaking, or why I kept smelling little chunks of it before throwing them in the soup pot. These questions would have been problematic, since a) I’m a terrible liar, b) once the truth was discovered, I was fairly certain he would have stopped my whole complicated washing procedure by throwing away the meat, and c) the tossing of the chicken would then have been followed by pointed comments about my heritage. All in all, it’s a good thing he was engrossed in the laptop and didn’t look up to my acting all furtive and suspicious in the kitchen.

Anyway, as it turns out, my grandmother was 100% correct in her assessment. The soup was delicious, and neither one of us was even a little bit poisoned. Now that 48 hours have passed, the leftovers have all been consumed, and there is no longer a risk of placebo-induced stomach cramping on The Pit’s part**, I am publishing this triumph of Russian culinary skills for the world to admire.

** And for the record, I'd like my future in-laws to note that I would never truly risk poisoning your prodigal son. If the highest authority*** had so ordered, I would have thrown the chicken away.
*** My grandmother, of course.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Vegetarian Split Pea Soup (And Rosemary Bread)

My favorite food blogger recently did a post on Split Pea soup, and I was inspired to try it. Yes, that's right, much to The Pit's shock, I had never before tried Split Pea soup. This is partly because I'm not usually partial to foods that are almost completely liquid, and partly because most Split Pea recipes I've seen have included ham hocks. I don't like ham, and in point of fact, don't really even know what a ham hock is* or what it looks like.

*The Pit clarified that it's some sort of smoked ham bone. It sounds even less delicious with that description, although I direct you to the wikipedia page to see for yourself.

Anyway, I decided to omit the ham, simplify the recipe a bit, and hope for the best. With The Pit's optimistic encouragement, I actually used my biggest pot to make a giant amount of soup. Luckily, it turned out great, especially on the second day we had it, after sitting in the fridge overnight.

And the best part? Without the meat, it cost approximately $4 to make (with half of that cost coming from the croutons). Of course, the downside of no meat was that the soup alone wasn't super filling. I made this Rosemary Bread to go along with it, and I would suggest a big salad too.

What you'll need for 6-8 portions of soup:
  • 1 lb split peas
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 large celery stalk
  • 1 medium potato
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2-3 bay leaves
  • several good shakes of dried thyme and parsley (or a couple teaspoons of the fresh stuff)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 box of your favorite croutons (we used some with cheese and garlic flavor)
  • fresh parsley or chives for garnish (a good way to use up leftover herbs, but totally optional)

1) Pour the split peas into a colander, pick out any stones, and then rinse the peas. Fill your largest pot with water, and dump in the clean peas. Bring to a boil.

2) While the peas get boiling, dice the carrot, celery, and onion in small pieces. Peel the garlic cloves and cut off the hard 'foot' on each one.

3) When the peas come to a boil, a greenish scum will rise to the surface...skim this off for a few minutes, until the soup is relatively clear. Add the diced vegetables and the garlic cloves, and continue to boil for several minutes.

4) Season with salt, pepper, bay leaves, thyme, and parsley, and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot loosely, and let it simmer for about an hour.

5) Peel and dice the potato, and add to the soup after it's been simmering for about an hour. Bring to a boil for a few minutes, then reduce the heat again and allow to simmer for at least another 20 minutes.

6) At this point you have several options. If you like chunks of stuff in your soup, you can pretty much eat it as is. Otherwise, you can use a regular* or immersion blender to make a smoother consistency. If you're too lazy to use the blender, but have another hour of time on your hands, continue to simmer the soup until it's smooth and thick.

* If using a regular blender, don't fill the blender up too high, work in batches, and hold the lid down carefully when blending -- I got impatient with our tiny blender, filled it too high, and ended up with hot soup all over one side of the refrigerator.

7) Serve with the croutons, and garnish with diced parsley or chives if you have any laying around. There should be plenty of left-overs, which is excellent, because as I found out, the soup only gets better on the second day.