Saturday, December 26, 2015

Recipe: Christmas Dinner in Thirty Minutes or Less (The Feast of Three Fishes*)

Did you ever make pomanders as a kid? Remember how much those pokey cloves hurt your fingers? Clever adults use a lobster pick or other implement to poke pilot holes, first.

When you decide at 12:30 pm on December 24 that you’ll host dinner on December 25, you’re going to have to throw money at the problem. That means shellfish.  Since you’ll need to have grocery shopping, cookies for tonight, and cake for tomorrow all completed, and be showered (bonus!), coiffed (hah!), and out of the house by 4:00 pm to attend your Christmas Eve festivities, plan on making, rolling, and filling the Russian Cigarette cookies promised to your Christmas Eve hostess with one hand, while mixing up a cheesecake with the other. And I do mean this literally. The cookie crumbs that fall into the top of the cheese cake will be covered up by cherries, so don’t fret.   And because you simply can't survive one more year without those anise-seed Christmas cookies of your childhood, mix up a batch of those, too.  Oh, and cook an artichoke, so you don’t have to do it tomorrow. They take a while.  Finally, praise the deity of your choice with hearty song on high when your still warm cheesecake remains steadfastly in its pan, despite your 4:15 pm unscheduled tire squealing collision avoidance maneuver.  Don’t forget to pop the cheesecake in the fridge before the Sugar Plum Faeries do their dance, but let it cool to room temperature first.

Ready, set… GO!

T-30 min: Set a big pot with a few inches of water to boil.  Dump a half jar of the sour cherries you preserve each summer in a small pot with some of their juice, a bit of lemon, sugar, and cornstarch.  Set over medium flame, stirring as often as your hands are free of other things.  Rinse and section out king crab legs.  Waste 15 seconds or so pondering just how seriously big of sea beast this thing was,  then swear at it when its sharp shell slits your finger open.  Band-Aid, STAT!  Glass of wine, STAT! Do take a brief moment to savor the drama and excitement of it all.  The cherries are boiling now. After a minute or so of this, pour them - schloop! - into the nearest appropriate container.  Put it on ice.  The big pot is boiling now.  Sling the crab legs into it, and cover. Work in a snap and twirl to for effect.  Yank the leaves - pop! pop! pop! - off the artichoke you cooked last night, and smear the base of each one with a dollop of spicy, garlicky cream cheese.  Oh, right, you mixed up the cream cheese yesterday, too.

T-25 min: Pull out the crab legs from the pot and throw them into a colander whilst doing the "Gah! HotHot!" dance.  Dump and rinse the pot, avoiding a steam burn as best you can. If you forget to save a bit of the crab leg broth for two steps from now, you won't really miss it.  It was a bit too salty, anyway. Set the pot back on the burner, add olive oil, a lump of the garlic you prepped and froze earlier (because you hate prepping garlic on a daily basis), paprika, and slices of the Russian sausage “Babcia” gave you last night. Sausage is forbidden in the traditional feast of any number of fishes, but desperate people do desperate things, and, well... sausage!  Sauté for a full precious minute while you keep on keepin' on with those artichoke leaves. Dump a jar of tomatoes, that almost gone bottle of white wine at the back of the fridge, a quarter of the onion you were slicing for the salad (yes, you are also preparing a green salad), a bay leaf, and some cayenne into the big pot. Rethink. Take chances. More cayenne. Wish you had some spinach on hand to toss in at the last second, but don’t waste too much time here.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to the slightest simmer or less. You will come back to this later.**

T-20 min: Arrange the artichoke leaves artfully on a platter, put a caper on each one (because the jarred roasted sweet red peppers you found in Pilot Guy's fridge don't taste all that good, pretty as they may be), and sprinkle with smoked paprika. (Under the gun, you can do this incredibly rapidly. Trust me.) There. You have an artichoke sunflower on the table, should people arrive early.  Nuke butter with more of that frozen garlic in two little espresso cups, and set them on a platter with the drained crab legs. Oops! Pilot Guy is not equipped with crab cracking instrumentation. It’s easy to slit each side of the legs with kitchen scissors, but it will cost you two, possibly three, precious minutes.

T-15 min: Meanwhile, Pilot Guy is making fondue from a kit. Scorn the kit, but admit the ingredient list is suspiciously…. fondue like. Imagine that! His maneuver is approved.  Fire directives at him: toast bread cubes! Not too much! Cut up the apples we got at the orchard! (Oops, never posted about the orchard run.)  Set out olives and pickles! No, not those, these! Go! Go!  He complies with a knowing smile, sweet man that he is.

T-10 min: The cherries are cool. Maybe too cool. Nuke for 10 seconds. Chicken out and remove them at 8 seconds. Unmold the cheesecake pan side, but leave the cake on the pan bottom, because you just don’t dare at this point. Set it directly on the cake stand, instead, and pour the cherries on top. Allow them to spill over just so. My God, but those are good. Put the whole thing back into the fridge, and be good and smug about it, because you were clever enough to re-position all the space hogging beer bottles earlier today. Ta da! Should the slightly too soft cake collapse later under the weight of the cherries when you’re doing battle with a stuck fridge drawer, no matter. Tomorrow you can slap the creamy heart of the leftovers into martini glasses, poke in a Russian Cigarette, call it parfait, and pretend you meant to do that. My God, (again), but that is good.

Disaster recovery plan

T-5 min:  Finish a simple salad of greens and thinly sliced radishes and onions. Have at the ready the nice vinaigrette your friend made and gave you for Christmas last week, and also that speech your mom makes every single time about how the French eat salad***, since she won’t be there to make it herself. Pop bread in to warm.

Ding Dong! Pop the champagne cork, snap a hasty photo, and high five with Pilot Guy.  You did it!

Not a pretty photo, this is purely for documentation. It's the only course that got photographed, so you'll just have to believe me on the rest of it.  Thirty Minutes or Less does not include time for food styling or even proper exposure settings.

*A hasty version of the southern Italian tradition of La Vigilia, or “Feast of Seven Fishes,” in which seven or more seafood dishes and/or fishes are served before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.  With a little more thought, surely we could work in the other four?  See below for the two fishes I haven't explained yet.
**Start with the fondue, artichoke sunflower, crab legs, and champagne. When it’s time to move to the table, crank up the heat on the big pot, while Pilot Guy clears the dishes. Throw in a heap of mussels and little neck clams. You bought every last one from the store yesterday. <tap tap> Yep, they're still alive - don't prepare dead ones! The clams go in 1-2 minutes ahead, as they take a little longer. When the shellfish open, retrieve and toss the quarter onion, pour the shellfish and spicy rich broth in a big wide bowl, sprinkle with fresh herbs, and serve with crusty, warm bread and that green salad. 
*** Make the dressing: a proper vinaigrette of shallots, mustard, salt and pepper, and oil and vinegar (never balsamic!) in the bottom of an overly large bowl. Cross the business ends of your salad tossing and serving devices in the bowl, and place your plain greens – nothing else! – on top. Okay, thinly sliced onions and radishes are allowed, but nothing else! Not like those ridiculous American salads.   (Optional: insert discourse on composed vs. tossed salads here.)  Oh, wait, sometimes blue cheese crumbles are permissible as well, especially if you want to combine the cheese and salad courses, but nothing else!  Salad is eaten last, not first!, and gets tossed just before serving. Unless, of course, you're eating it with quiche, in which case, it may (must!) be eaten with the quiche, but that's another set of rules. See how the greens don’t get soggy while waiting?  Salad and pasta can never be over-tossed! (To be fair, that’s my own personal addition to the system, and by this I mean no amount of tossing will be too much. Toss! Toss! Be sure to appoint someone else for this particular part of the rite, then hover over the victim and correct his technique.  Ditto for cake and pie serving.)  P.S. Mom’s way really is the best way!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Amuse-Bouche: Tidbit from the Air

When you get scolded via email by a reader (I have readers??) for not having posted in waaaay tooo looong, it’s time to write.  I’m at least two good sized moto tours further behind than usual, including but not limited to: the Ducati’s first ferry crossing, a hunt for Chimayo chiles, a Huckleberry Helicopter ride, an embarrassingly slow run of my beloved Highway 12, another Ducati mechanical mishap (two, really, if you’re counting), a fruit stand campsite, and then – even better!- an actual orchard campsite, getting detained at an international border, saving a goat, and - oh, right - and milking a sheep. (Really).  But I – let’s all say it together, now! – “haven’t had time to write.”  I know, I know…

So here’s a quick post that has something to do with neither motorcycles nor food, unless you count lunch at Chicken Nuevo*, my guilty little secret, located conveniently close to the airport.
I had my first “Air-to-Air” photography gig last weekend!** For you and me, that means shooting, er, I mean photographing, airplanes in the air from – yes! – another airplane.

Let me begin by reminding you that I’m in no way a professional photographer***.  No, I’m not even a rabid amateur one. I don’t even own a decent camera. If fact, every time I’m ready to buy a decent camera, some disaster happens, like my car self destructing, or my beagle needing high dollar surgery, or, most recently, my former tenants trashing my house.  Evidently the universe is telling me, quite loudly, that I should really stop camera shopping.  So I was, despite being friendly with a few pilots, a teensy bit surprised to have this activity come my way. “Really??? Yeeeeahhh!”

A real aerial photographer would insist that the doors be removed from the platform aircraft, and wear a special safety harness, such that she (or he) not fall out of the bumping and rolling formation flying aircraft.  Said real aerial photographer might even be able to hang out of said platform aircraft to optimize angles and such, which sounds wickedly fun.  I want to be a real aerial photographer!  Not having a harness, I opted for the more conservative doors-on configuration.  The blue tinted, scratched, light reflecting windows were a challenge that marred, oh, say 90% of the photos beyond repair. A good 9% of those remaining were ruined by the simple fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Shooting Planes Cessna 205
Camera vs. microphone made communication with pilots in both aircraft difficult.  Higher! No! Lower! Say again?

But the pilots did know what they were doing, thank goodness, because formation flying requires adept communication and piloting skills.  Our “photo mission”, as it was reported to Air Traffic Control, consisted of our platform aircraft (Cessna 205), and five subject aircraft (two Cessna Citation Jets, one Beechcraft/Raytheon Premier Jet, a Beechcraft King Air, and a Beechcraft Baron, if you care about such things.)  It helps if your platform aircraft is as fast as or faster than the subjects, but we made do.

Even light turbulence presents a challenge, it turns out. A real aerial photographer would have an awesome and gyroscopically stabilized camera, and the biceps to hold all that gear up for hours.  Instead, my borrowed camera and I just bumped around a lot, as we twisted ourselves into various contorted forms. And since the photos were requested, you know, NOW, I had to cull and edit on the fly. (Hah!) Delicate lap top mousing is also difficult even in light turbulence, as it turns out.  I even got a little queasy staring at the screen too long.
Editing on the Fly Cessna 205
High speed editing… on the fly.

It was all wildly fun, and surprisingly exhausting.  Here’s a sampling of my, no, our,**** work over the two or three hours we spent in the air.

First Cessna Citation
Citation Jet No. 1.  Meh.

Beechcraft Baron
Twin engine prop planes are far more photogenic. (Beechcraft Baron)

Beechcraft Raytheon Premier Jet
Beechcraft/Raytheon Premier Jet

Beechcraft King Air
Beechcraft King Air

Second Cessna Citation (1)
Citation Jet Number Two 

Second Cessna Citation (2)
Bye, Bye, Citation Number Two!

Coincidentally, when we returned to earth, and were refueling, I stumbled across this magazine article, which describes the topic better than I do.

Three pilots, one photographer, six planes, hundreds of gallons of fuel… it was not a day to be proud of my carbon footprint.

* Don’t let the fast food atmosphere fool you.  It’s actually… good!
**Imagine that!
***Evidently someone on the ground mistook me for a well known (in the field, anyway) aerial photographer, not by my photos, to be sure, but by the combination of my appearance, I guess, and the fact there was a camera hanging around my neck.
****Not your usual landscape photography, it was a team sport to be sure.