That’s Just a Suggestion, Right?
It’s fall in the Pacific Northwest.
Okay, it’s fall in the entire western hemisphere, but I reside in the PNW, so that’s what I’m gonna talk about.
Apparently it rained a lot in October, setting world records or something here. I was so busy that I admit, I didn’t really notice that there was an apparent deluge. But perhaps that’s a testament to my rain gear? I mean, I noticed there was rain, but there’s always rain after the middle of September here and it really didn’t seem any more than it usually is. I know these things because as of yesterday, I’ve lived here for 15 years.
It was dark, cold and raining the night I arrived too. In fact, it was dark, cold and raining until sometime between Christmas 2001 and the first day of 2002. That was when I realized that the mountain view that was in the description of the house my ex and I bought – the one that we thought was just put there as a blurb and we figured was a realtor’s lie – was actually true. I vividly remember him shouting at me to get out of my hibernation-induced stupor to come outside and look. Mountains! Glorious beautiful sun-capped mountains!
A few more months of adapting to constant drizzle and cold dampness after a few years of sunny South Florida winters , then a summer of glorious blue sky and perfect temperatures, after a few years of South Florida’s unbearable sticky and humid summers, and I was in love. And I still am.
Fall always encourages me to cook. Well, at least since I actually learned to cook.
My mother was a fantastic cook and an even better baker. The bar was so high there that I figured my contribution was to lick the beaters and wipe – or maybe that’s swipe – the bowl with my index finger. I was really, really good at that. So good in fact that my mother called it my Educated Finger. I didn’t even care about the whirring beaters of her trusty electric mixing bowl, a machine that became legendary in my house while growing up, mainly because so many magical things started inside it.
My mother also wasn’t very good about following recipes or writing down her favorites. She improvised. A lot. The very gifted are annoyingly good at that. Thus, on the few occasions when I expressed some minor interest in learning how to cook, the directions were extremely difficult to follow. Or maybe that was just me and my impatience.
I was far more interested in the pay-off than on the waiting to be paid part.
My mother did give me a Betty Crocker cookbook one Christmas after I had graduated from college and gotten my first apartment. I cracked it open and became instantly overwhelmed. She helpfully offered to share with me some of her favorite recipes that also happened to be staple dinner fare at my house growing up.
Of course, I had to write the recipes down myself. That was mostly because no one could read her handwriting. This also trusted that she was remembering them correctly.
Luckily, my own handwriting back then was somewhat legible and I still have those handwritten recipes tucked in the back of the Betty Crocker cookbook. A cookbook that I actually learned to eventually use, although it was still many years later.
The impetus for learning how to cook was my brilliant idea, in my 29th year of life, to cook the entire family Thanksgiving dinner.
Honestly, I think it went pretty well. My sisters seem to remember otherwise. Something about the stuffing I used for the turkey.
Fast forward many years and I grew to enjoy cooking. I’m still not a good baker, but I’m quite positive that has a lot to do with repressed memories and fear of maternal conflict.
I don’t cook a whole lot these days as 1) I’m busy, 2) I never learned how to downsize my cooking and still cook as if seven other people live here with me, and 3) I can only eat so much by myself. I realize I have four canines that helpfully offer their services on a regular basis, but as much as JaYoBaCa are spoiled on a regular basis – and yes, they have eaten off the fine china thank you very much – I’m not that over the edge. Yet.
The cool, drizzly and shorter fall days inspire me to cook. Mainly I cook stews or soup this time of year. I can make a big pot of something and have it for the entire week or freeze a portion of it for later. This satisfies both my desire to cook and create something over time, as well as for instant gratification later when I’m super hungry and inclined to make Very Bad Food Choices. Not that I’ve ever eaten a pint of ice cream for dinner or anything. With hot fudge sauce. Last week.
I purchased some beef stew meat a few days ago. It looked great, was on sale and met my vision of a warm and hearty fall meal.
My original thought was to use my slow cooker. The only problem with that is that Youke is a counter surfer. Therefore, I can really only safely employ my slow cooker during a time when I’m home all day and able to supervise, er, guard. I am positive it is not in the best interest of my future grumbling stomach to trust Youke in the presence of tantalizing warm and spicy stew scents wafting through the kitchen all day.
I also knew I didn’t really want to make a traditional beef stew, heavy on the starchy gravy and laden with potatoes and carrots.
Thankfully, I didn’t need to spend time pouring over my small accumulation of cookbooks – sorry Betty Crocker – because these days we have The Internet.
I found a recipe – or as my mother liked to call it – a receipt – for Cuban Beef Stew. Yum! This appealed to my taste-buds and love of spice.
Of course I did not look to see if I had all the ingredients on hand. Improvisation is the mother of invention, is it not?
The first substitution was the sherry. Despite a Thanksgiving many years ago that had a very heavy sherry theme, I apparently used it all. Cognac seemed like a good substitution, so that’s what I used.
Let me also mention that I did inherit from my mother a rather intense dislike for measuring. The dogs started sneezing, so I might have been a bit liberal on the cognac.
I also discovered I had no garlic around. This clearly shows that it’s been a while since I last really cooked. No problem though, just was a little more liberal on the onions.
I am famously heavy-handed when it comes to spices. I view those measurements as mere suggestions. Therefore, I added about five times as much cumin as the recipe I found suggested.
Next, I found that I did not have any pimento-stuffed green olives around. No problem, I found I inexplicably had a jar of pimentos. So sans green olives, I added them.
Now, read on at your own risk, as it gets dicey from here.
Turns out the jar of pimentos had an expiration date of 2013 on them. Saw that after I added them in to the stew. No worries, I thought. They smelled fine and the jar had been a bitch to open. They were fine.
The recipe also called for a can of tomato sauce. No problem, that’s a staple and I knew I had some. Except that I couldn’t find any cans of tomato sauce. I found jars of prepared spaghetti sauce and cans of diced tomatoes, but no plain old tomato sauce. This puzzled me as I clearly recalled seeing some recently.
After some digging around in the pantry, I finally found a can of tomato sauce. However, the can looked very sketchy. Quite rusted and the label was very faded. I threw it out and dug a bit further. I found another can of tomato sauce. It too looked old, but the can wasn’t as rusty and the label seemed in better repair. I rinsed the dust off of the can and opened it.
It passed the sniff test.
I threw it into the stew.
As I was about to recycle the can, I looked curiously at the top for the expiration date.
First, let me explain that of course I knew it was past its so-called expiration date. But I also know full well that those are just helpful suggestions.
From The Internet:
Most expiration dates on foods in cans range from 1 to 4 years—but keep the food in a cool, dark place and the cans undented and in good condition, and you can likely safely double that shelf life from 3 to up to 6 years.
Turns out that particular can of tomato sauce was supposed to be “best used by XXXX 2009.” The XXXX part denotes the date in 2009 that was illegible.
Hey, it was just a suggestion, right?
I let Camm and Brady lick the spoon and they seem alright.
My stew is still simmering and for the best flavor it needs to sit a day or so. I guess you’ll know if things didn’t go well if I don’t post any updates for a while. Or ever.