Friday, January 30, 2015

The Secret to Making Chicken-Pot-Pie Flavored Mush

Sometimes, you plan to make a nice meal and it ends up a big pile of mush.

I wish that was an analogy, or some sort of lame metaphor. But it’s actually a true story.

This past week I was wandering through the grocery store when I found a whole chicken for a pretty good price. I often buy whole chickens and give them my version of Thomas Keller’s roast chicken and vegetables. It’s a simple, sophisticated meal that both kids and parents enjoy.

Yet, for some reason, when I spied this particular chicken, I had a different idea entirely.  I decided this chicken wanted to be … no, needed to be … the star in another dish: Chicken Pot Pie.

When I say Chicken Pot Pie, I’m not talking about a flaky little pie with chicken in it, a la Stouffers or Chicken Run. I’m talking about Pennsylvania Dutch Chicken Pot Pie.

What a proper PA Dutch Chicken
Pot Pie looks like.
Note the lack of mush.
It’s an amazing stew with a savory broth, chunks of chicken and vegetables, and the trademark fluffy, yet firm noodles that remind every descendent of a Pennsylvania Dutch cook of cozy Sunday evenings surrounded family, sitting by a warm fire, and covered with blankets.

Those noodles. Oh, those noodles.

When I go on an extended low-carb kick, I dream of those noodles. Those fluffy clouds in your mouth, that happen to taste like chicken. ... Sorry. Too much? 

For those who don’t know, my mom is part Pennsylvania Dutch and makes a legendary Chicken Pot Pie. I’ve always thought that if I opened a food truck – which I have no immediate plans to do – I’d just sell her pot pie, and I’m sure the food network would broadcast live from our little culinary trailer.

There’s only one problem with the food truck idea and with my more immediate plans for this one well-priced whole chicken I brought home from the store on a recent Wednesday: I don’t know how to make Chicken Pot Pie.

Some of my other siblings have had the good sense to invite mom over specifically for a pot pie tutorial. Apparently, I lack good sense.

My wife and I have my parents over often. Yet despite my self-proclaimed abilities in the kitchen (I could have been a chef if things had worked out differently; or a pro running back, but that’s a different story), I have never learned the fine art of chicken pot pie making.

I know how to make a fair chicken noodle soup, of course, which is a start. And when I called my mom that night – first to invite her over, then, upon being refused, just to ask how to make the dish – she told me the a good broth was the key.

I can do a broth, I said to myself. So I decided, “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead … on my pot pie meal plan” -- a quote that surely made the whole endeavor sound more important than it was. But heck, both the meal plan and this story left "good sense" in the dust two paragraphs ago.

Luckily, my sister, who lives nearby and has had the pot pie tutorial, called that same evening to inquire about dinner. Her husband was planning to work late, so her and her kid were looking for some company. The invite was extended.

She brought more potatoes, a pastry roller, and critical knowledge.

We were all set. 

So we thought.

Unfortunately, we made a few miscalculations. The first misstep being the amount of time it takes to make pot pie. There’s a reason Dutchie moms (and progressive Dutchie dads) make pot pie on Sundays. Because the darn thing takes a long time to make. Not to cook, but to make. No self-respecting Pennsylvania Dutch chef would make pot pie on a school night.

I’d started the broth earlier, so that was fine. But the noodles – those damn noodles. It took quite a while to get the noodle dough just right, with the rolling and the cutting and the fussing and the flouring.

Out next miscalculation also had to do with time: that being how long to cook the darn things. Not the broth or the vegetables, but the noodles – again with the noodles.

Once we got the noodle dough right (we thought), we added them one-by-one to the boiling broth, which was brimming deliciously with veggies, chicken and potatoes. 

“Let it go 20 minutes,” we were told over the phone by our remote Pennsylvania Dutch consultant, “or until the potatoes are done.” The potatoes were added right before the noodles, and were therefore a safe barometer of noodle doneness. In theory, anyway.

The only question we had was, do the noodles boil for 20 minutes or just simmer. Cooking potatoes in that time requires a boil, we thought. But we worried the delicate noodles couldn’t withstand the heat for that long.

We chose a full boil.

We should have called and asked yet another question. Damn, we should have asked!

Whenever you look back on something that ends up all wrong, there is usually one fatal error. There can be lots of smaller errors, and pre-errors. But there’s one fatal error. That was ours. We boiled the hell out of those noodles.

In the end our little family, and my sister and her child, gathered around the table to eat my first attempt -- solo or otherwise – at the family favorite: the well-revered, the often-exalted, the rarely-imitated Chicken Pot Pie of the Pennsylvania Dutch variety.

What I served them was a pile of mush.

I guess it's time for that tutorial.


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Thursday, January 15, 2015

New Year, Few Expactations


Blue Stilton…

St. Pete’s…

My hands stumbled through the blue cheese case at Wegman’s I wondered why the heck there are so many varieties of mold-ridden cheese? And more so, why the good people at Wegman’s insist on stacking the cheese in their neat little rows with the label’s facing down and the marbles of cream and green up, forcing the foraging shopper on the hunt for a specific type to turn over each one to read what it is.


Danish Blue…

Geez, I don’t speak Dutch, but isn’t that the same thing?

“Need help with finding something, my dear?” a thick, short older woman in a Wegman’s shirt and apron asked with an accent I could almost place. Czech, maybe. I had two students from Prague recently and heard something familiar in the way she said “with.” Then again, it could have been German or Hungarian or Icelandic or Dutch for all I know. Like I can tell one accent from the other from the sound of “with”?

“I’m looking for Roquefort, actually.”

She stepped away from the cart of cheeses she was pushing and stepped towards me, punching a stubby finger straight down at a small stack of cream and green triangles, looking remarkably like all the other varieties.

I turned one over and picked it up. Roquefort. Right beneath my nose.

 “Thanks,” I replied, a bit embarrassed. To make light of my inferior searching skill I added, “I like to think I would have found it eventually, but thank you.”

“This is life,” she replied. “Whether it’s a missing bill, a shoe or something more important, the second you give up looking, there it is.”

A truth I’ve pondered before.

It could be January or the cold or the passing of the holidays, but in the grey days of winter I often think about the passage of time. Not just how it leaves us, but how fickle and funny it is. A minute at a stoplight can feel like a forever, and yet a year can pass in a blink.
It’s odd how once distinct memories of similar things blend, too, shortening time in the past. Take the annual holiday gatherings, each their own at one time but melded together over the years into one inseparable whole. Was it last year that the kids got the easel, or the year before? I don’t remember. Our annual vacations to Hilton Head do the same thing, marrying together into one big blob.
When I first worked in Washington all those years ago, I took the Metro early each morning to a bus that left the Alexandria metro stop each day at 6:15 am. For two years, every day, I rode that bus: Bus Number 9. And just how the clock strikes the same number twice each day, when I was on that bus, it was my world -- mine and the other daily riders.
Looking back, those five hundred bus rides lasting 15 minutes each come down to a single blob of memories. Even those are foggy.
With the holidays gone again, and New Year upon us, I can’t help but think what a disappointment 2014 turned out to be. I entered the year searching for something, hoping for something. For some reason, 14 has always been my number. I know the reason, a childhood decision when two of my favorite players – the Orioles’ Mickey Tettelton and Caps’ Jeff Courtnall – both shared the number. It seems a silly thing in hindsight to put hope in a whole year based on the coincidence of two mediocre athletes. But I did.  And the year let us all down.
There were good things, too, reasons to be thankful, but as a whole it delivered more struggle than joy. It didn’t defeat us though. We survived, and there’s victory in that. There was certainly a lot worse that could happen, I don’t need reminding. But it was hardly my year. Don’t worry. I’m not wallowing in it, just writing about it. And lucky for 2015, it comes with no expectations and a pretty low bar. It’s sure to be another quick one, regardless.
I’ve thought a lot about the passage of time, how it crawls and flies. How different memories grow and shrink in the mind, shortening or expanding the memories of time. Those joyous moments that speed by tend to live longer and broader in the memory. While those ones that creep can disappear altogether. I’ve thought about how routines can play tricks on time, stringing things together with order and filing them away in a single box. We need those routines, but they chisel at time. Destroy it.
I decided awhile back that the way to make time feel longer was to fill it with experiences. Unique adventures, journeys, new explorations. Those things stand sturdier against the compression. But without some order and routine, it can all become a blur, too.
The last year seems a blur, for certain. Most of the memories that will last are not good ones, the phone calls delivering bad news, the great frustrations, the long nights.
It makes me wonder why it is we force everything into the bookends of a year. Was it a good one or a bad one, like a vintage of wine. The truth is, good and bad happen every year, every month, every day.
2014’s ultimate sin was my own expectations. And in that way, 2015 remains lucky.
I’m not looking for anything special. So maybe we’ll find it.
And maybe, like the cheese in the case, it will have been there all along.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Ending the Holidays With Style ... and a Splat.

Some kids are barfers. Let’s just get that out there.  

It seems every family has one. I remember growing up in our rather large family that my younger brother was our designated barfer. Whenever even the slightest cold would work its way through the gaggle of siblings, he’d end up hung over a bucket for a few hours or a few days.

In more recent years, my own kids have had a fairly open competition for who would carry the mantle in our family. They’ve all done their share of regurgitation.

But as I look back over the years, and read the related posts, I realize that one particular family member has dominated the competition of late. And if there was any doubt, the crown was officially won at a recent holiday gathering.

The Boy holding his new Paw
Patrol figures -- yet unable to
hold down his stomach contents. 
Let me briefly set the scene. For the past decade or so – roughly since my siblings and I began getting married and starting our own families – my parents have hosted a post-Christmas family gathering and gift-exchange known as Ruddy Christmas. It usually happens the first weekend after the actual Christmas. This year, however, due to the strange alignment of the holidays and weekends, and the various travel plans of those involved, the gathering did not take place until three days after the New Year. While other families were busy preparing for the return to school and stripping their houses of holiday d├ęcor, we were engaging in one last Christmas bash.

Since its inception, Ruddy Christmas has always been a bit of a show – if only due to the sheer number of people and gifts crammed into one modestly-sized home. We have a big family, which has only grown over the years. Two parents (now grandparents), seven adult siblings and their significant others, some seventeen grandchildren, and add in our uncle and/or aunt on occasion, and let’s just say we’re probably violating the local fire code.

To outsiders, our raucous little gift exchange can seem like quite an “ordeal” – as it was famously described by one former attendee. But it also has an order to it.

This year’s orderly ordeal seemed to be going as planned. Most of the adults were tightly packed in the kitchen and dining area, sharing stories, enjoying cocktails and some even playing cards.  The kids had just settled down to a movie after an initial hour-plus of rough housing and chocolate milk. A few of the parents – myself among them – found a spot on the couch, with our offspring draped over us, as we watched the latest Netflix offering.  My 4 year-old son settled onto my lap, and even started to fall asleep.

Dinner was about to be served, and the gifts waited in a hulking mass around the tree. That’s when the soon to be crowned barf champion slid off my lap and turned to me with tears in his eyes and a telltale ghost-white expression.

“My tummy hurts,” he whined.

I’ve learned the hard way to take him seriously when he says such a thing. When he’s not feeling well and tells me this, I know I have less than a minute before he’s going to hurl.

The weird thing, though, is that he’d been perfectly fine all day. In fact, he was rolling around with his cousins on the floor just moments before we decided to calm them with a movie.

Still, his look and whine level told me this was serious.

“Let’s get you to the bathroom,” I said as I leapt from the couch.

My parent's first-floor bathroom lies across the kitchen/dining area from the family room and down the hall. It was going to be long trip, especially navigating all the legs. So I hurriedly began the trek walking him in front of me across carpeted rugs toward the hardwood expanse crowded with adults.

We'd just crossed onto the hardwoods when I -- and everyone else at the gathering -- heard that special combination of sounds: a gag, a gush, and a splat. I froze, as I’m apt to do in these situations, as curdle chocolate milk and bile spread across the floor like a Rorschach on steroids.  

I saw sorrow in it.

I also saw splatter hitting a jacket that had unfortunately found its way to the floor and also the back of someone’s leather boots. A person was in the boots, too. Luckily it turned out the boots belonged to the up-chucker’s mother – my wife – who was standing at the island between the kitchen and dining room putting the final touches on a beautifully planned salad.

It was a Beautiful Salad.
Well, to say a pall fell on the festivities would be understatement. With all the hors d'oeuvres and beverages that filled our stomachs, and the acidy aroma that filled the air, I half expected my boy’s actions to kick off an epic Stand-By-Me style Barf-o-Rama. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Though it felt like it had.

Instead, the evening forged ahead. We cleaned up the vomit, washed the soiled clothing, and finished making the salad. My wife I considered leaving immediately, but the snow outside had just turned to freezing rain, and inside the consensus was that his voluminous vomit must have been caused by excessive amounts of chocolate and horse play. At least, that’s what we chose to believe.

Dinner and the gift exchange happened according to plan. Though neither the salad, nor anything else, was as beautiful as before.
Still, lots of toys, books and clothes were opened and enjoyed. And one less celebrated crown was bestowed, as the boy officially became our family’s Barf King and forever added his name to Ruddy Christmas lore.


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