Grouse Hunting

The air was redolent with the smell of fallen leaves, wet earth and the goodness of the land around me. I could smell the undercurrents of hickory and pork from my wood burning stove in the distance and see the glint of the sunset over my left shoulder on the New River, hundreds of feet below me. The faintest echoes of the target load I’d just fired from my shotgun reached my ears, but I mostly ignored everything as I instinctively chambered another load, slipped the empty cartridge into my pocket and stared in disbelief.

If my wife had not pointed it out to me I would have never seen the Ruffed Grouse, so cunningly hidden in the leaves and downfall from this season’s fall weather. Early winter was upon us, with numerous snows at higher elevations and two weeks out from Christmas we had not let the fire go out since Mid-October. Wood stoves are such blessings in weather like this, warming not only the house but the soul as well. I shrank to one knee and carefully surveyed my surroundings, as if awakening from a dream, as I had been so intent on my shot and the behavior of the bird that everything else had melted into the background.

You’re always supposed to stay aware while hunting, not only of your intended harvest, but to all your surroundings as well, particularly in the vicinity of where your shot is supposed to go. Today was a rare exception, although I had never dropped my peripheral vision or senses while puzzling over the beautiful grouse. Laura had been asking me to harvest a few off our property for dinner, but I had been reluctant. Wild grouse aren’t that abundant and they are so beautiful to watch and just stalk that I really didn’t have much of a desire to take one out the environment, despite of how much I like to eat them.

My shot was perfect, catching the animal just below the head, nearly severing it from the body. I had not been particularly quiet in my approach, and was puzzled why a bird so difficult to hunt had been so easy to take. They are as fragile as they are delicious and beautiful, which makes them even more precious to hunt and eat – my conscious usually gets in the way. Today, dinner won and I took the shot.

The bird never moved. I studied the area even more carefully, wondering why it had remained so hidden with the impending encroachment of my clumsy footsteps and blundering about. No matter how quiet or excellent at woodcraft, compared to a wild animal a human being is an ungainly and ponderous creature.

With the gun safely checked and over my shoulder, I approached the grouse and knelt beside it just as the last of its life thrummed through its body. Its eyes shielded over and I carefully picked it up for inspection wondering at the perfection of such a creature. Not one pellet had passed through the little guy’s body and I marveled at the beauty of the evening with the sun setting majestically over the river, casting a beautiful red light on the clouds. I wondered again why it had not fled.

As I picked it up from the ground, a hint of movement caught my eye a few feet away. It took a moment, but I realized what I was looking at. Just as cunningly hidden as the bird had been was my cat, Stubbs! He had been stalking the pheasant and was angrily baring his teeth at me! No wonder the bird hadn’t moved – he was intent on the cat! Stubbs turned and melted into the gathering dusk as I rose to make my way back to the fire. A hunting cat, indeed. He turned up on the stoop a few hours later as we were cutting pizza on the wooden board in our kitchen as if nothing had happened performing his nightly show for snacks.

I think that cat may eat better than we do. At least I did until I cooked the grouse.

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Christmas Cookies

Sweat isn’t exactly running into my eyes or anything, but I’m a little fatigued. After all, I’ve been up since around 4:30 a.m., prepping and then cooking breakfast for a hundred or so guests at the restaurant, the standards, home fries, omelets, eggs anyway you like, bacon, ham, sausage, French Toast, Pancakes, coffee encrusted cheeseburgers for those in the know, cheesy scrambled eggs. Oatmeal with molasses and brown sugar, grits with cheddar and hot sauce – fruit cups, strawberries, cranberries – you get the drift. I had then cleaned, tore down my line, prepped breakfast for the next day, placed that away and attempted to set up a lunch mise en place for a very grumpy and very hung-over lunch cook who seemed to have nothing more in mind that day than criticizing my every move, look and attempt to do what he needed. After the third attempt of communication, which main involved responses in the form of grunts as he sullenly stared at his smart phone (did he expect it to cook for him?), I fled the kitchen for home, remembering this time to clock out. Snow was falling heavily as I sang Christmas Carols along with the radio and grinned to myself. This season is awesome.

The holidays are a strange time to be a cook. If you are a home cook, then you are solely occupied with Christmas dinners, brunches, breakfasts, cakes, cookies, more cookies and foods that you generally don’t tackle all year long until this season. The days are shorter, colder and busier and you are driven indoors for the most part, thankful at first to be challenged by your favorite hobby. You can deliver your present’s gift wrapped in boxes, tins and jars, confident that they will be appreciated and enjoyed by all and sundry. It is truly a wonderful time to know your way around a kitchen.

If you are also a professional cook, in that you get paid to do so, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you are any better at it, then the holidays are a double edged sword. You are praying for business to boom, which is good for paychecks, which is in turn good for presents and for job security throughout the leaner post-holiday months.

So it was, with these thoughts and about three more running through my head that I picked up our physical mail, and traversed our disaster of a driveway up to our house, where our tree was blinking merrily, a wreath was on the door, presents covered the bed and both my wife and son were waiting by the door! That’s the best part of coming home, the air redolent of homemade stews that my wife has made, playing with the baby – splitting firewood, watching flames eat the ricks of oak and hickory and listening to the popping sounds of us not paying the electric company as all our hard work from years previous gets loaded into our wood stove, piece by piece, keeping us warm and comfortable.

I slog into the kitchen and take a look at my email. There is something about a cookie exchange the next day and I remember that I am supposed to go. Laura has already baked our allotment, but there was a message, more of a challenge, that I bake a cookie called an “Egg Nog Florentine.” It seems simple enough.

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Four hours later, I’ve built my caramel, mixed the dough, made the filling, dropped the cookies onto greased baking sheets, watched TV, played with my son, helped Laura with dinner, drank too much coffee and I pop five cookie sheets into the oven, merrily heated to 350 degrees, and set the timer for eight minutes. I walk away.
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Thanks to Susan Whetzel with Doughmesstic and Mary Wendel with McCormick, I’d received a creativity kit from a wonderful conference, Mixed, at Mountain Lake Lodge. The kit was FULL, I mean STUFFED with everything I needed for baking, which I rarely do, including coffee and rum extract, saving me a trip to the store! I’m no baker, only a cook, so I was feeling pretty good about myself.

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I burned all the cookies. All of them. I took a deep breath, scraped them into the trash and tasted one. Tastes pretty good. I look at the recipe again. Hmmmm. I make another batch, rather irritably this time, getting out all ingredients again and Kitchen-Aid mixer and food processor, set the timer for seven minutes this time and bake them again. They stick. Growl. I mix the ingredients again, eating some of the dough in the process and, at the advice of our pastry chef, make a single, solitary test cookie.

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Eureka! It worked. Five hours in, I now have one cookie – which I promptly eat. Laura wanders in to try the filling, which is delicious! I try the filling again, yummmm. Maybe I should just take a bowl of this and some spoons. The timer beckons and I remove the trays. They’re not exactly right, but it works. I load the pans again and we try a few of the filled, cooled cookies. Delicious! I make more filling and we share some of the raw dough with Nolan. There’s no raw eggs, so I’m not worried, not that I would be anyway, they’re local eggs from our farmer friends.

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I pull the cookies out again and we try a couple more, deeming them even better than the others. I make up more dough and double the filling, wondering where everything is going. Laura grins and grabs another cookie and makes her way to put Nolan to bed. I look at the clock, realizing that I’ve spent the entire evening making cookies and I have TWO!
Panicked, I make the rest of my dough and end up with seventeen semi-presentable cookies, decide that is enough and flop into bed. All that was totally worth it the following evening when the delicate little wafers of flour, butter, honey and sugar were devoured and appreciated during the cookie exchange party.

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I want to thank everyone for the ingredients, suggestions, challenge, recipe and most of all, for eating the cookies!
(The recipe is here: http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2013/12/eggnog-florentines/)

A Cook’s Christmas Poem

The cook had started to think that his day would never end

As he layered cookies, deep in a little red tin.

“Why, oh why,” he wondered aloud,

“Am I baking cookies? My head is not sound.”

For “I am a cook,” he said with a heave,

“Not a baker nor chef, those are special breeds.”

“They are used to hot ovens and timers and dough,

While I am not used to hovering over a stove.”

My idea of cooking is to dash and to sprinkle,

Then run here and there making the grill marks sizzle.

German dough I can do, with sausage and risotto

And other savory delights that would please even Frodo.

That most favorite of all the hobbits,

Who was known for his tastes in ale and fine chocolates.

A shiny new ring I should deserve,

For baking these cookies full of egg nog preserves.

 

But the Christmas spirit was upon the stubborn cook,

Despite how easy the cookies looked in the book.

Batch upon batch went in the trash,

While his son munched all the potatoes and mash.

Cooked earlier by his mother, the cook’s lovely wife,

Who watched with great interest at her husband’s strife.

His mood did not shift, his attention didn’t wander,

Even when his young son’s little hands did ponder.

The thoughts of checking out the hot stove,

Which did nothing but silently glow.

And burn all the cookies, one by one,

Until the cooks restless eyes found the target was won.

That sweet spot under the glowing red wand – And now the battle was almost won.

 

He tumbled into bed, to dream of omelets,

Succotash and rice.

And all those savory dishes that always turn out just right.

Daddyhood: Year One.

The first year of being a Dad is something that you are in no way prepared for. I thought I would be, was even arrogant about it, in fact. After all, I am the oldest of seven and like to think that I helped my Mom quite a bit (my Mom is laughing somewhere for reasons she has not yet realized at this moment while I am writing this). I did, actually help with my youngest sister who was born the summer I turned sixteen.

I have very fond memories of my sisters as babies, remembering only the good times and how they seemed to always be peaceful little humans, loved and cared for by everyone. At the age of sixteen, which was a very, very long time ago, I lived at home with my parents and family. I had a job, was preparing for my senior year of high school, applying to colleges, or more accurately, depending on my parents to help me/make me apply to college. My Dad had given me a car of sorts, a vehicle that I hated with all my soul but did get me from point A. to point B., at least until I crashed it in ill-attempt to travel from Claypool Hill to Marvin, which was roughly seventeen miles of crooked back roads, in fourteen minutes, in the rain. Did I mention the car was a Ford Escort Wagon? Those things were never known for speed, dependability or handling. Cheap? Yes. Good gas mileage? Yes. How much fuel could 45 horsepower possibly burn, anyway?

It turns out that the car could burn just enough fuel to wrap itself around a bridge embankment with me inside it. I somehow managed to lose both my shoes (socks were so out in 1990, thanks to Sonny Crockett) and most of my clothes as I tumbled down the highway after going through the windshield head first.

My little sisters were most upset about the crash, except for my Mom of course, who locked herself in the bathroom and prayed and cried, thankful that I was safe and relatively unscathed. My sisters followed me around like lost puppies, making sure I was ok, and I shamelessly gloried in their hero worship.

All these experiences and many more had given me the wrong impression of what being a father would be like. First and foremost, I am terrified that he will be like me. He is too little and too precious to be as stupid as his father has been most of his life, but I see traces of the stubbornness that I have in him already. He is developing a personality now, at one year of age, which I dimly recognize as a conglomeration of genetics that will, when combined with his parental and developmental environments, largely drive who he will become. My job as a Dad is to try to guide this young boy as well as I know how in the right direction, to teach him to be kind and thoughtful, respectful, curious, relentless in the pursuit of knowledge, honest in all things, install in him a proper work ethic and through it all allow him to become himself.

As I think any new Dad is, I am overwhelmed by the thought of these responsibilities, but eager, maybe too eager, to do my job. That is a fault of men, we want to jump in and fix things, then go away. Thousands of years of evolution have driven us to become problem solvers and to regard ourselves as heroes and soldiers, bravely confronting each situation that your poor trembling female partner just could not possibly do on her own, to be rewarded with huge chunks of meat served up fireside as you regale your doting family and friends with ever-escalating tales of conquest and battle.

Alas, this is not so. From day one, what nothing, and I mean nothing, really prepares you for is your utter and complete helplessness with the new baby. My wife knocked on heaven’s door to have little Nolan, to bring him yelling into this world. I was mainly in the way. She nursed him, changed him, dressed him and loved him as only a Mom can. I had a hard time even dressing the little guy, terrified that I would pull off an arm or leg, or drop him on his head. I became better at diapers, but nothing like his Mom. She could change his diaper while he slept and not wake him up.

Your ineptitude begins to wear on you, especially if you aren’t the primary breadwinner on top of having a new baby. My wife now had all the cards – the top earner in our household, the mother, the emotional stabilizer and effectively, the boss. The baby could not live without her, we could not have paid our bills without her, and I, the one who had been so confident about my abilities as a father before the baby was born found myself increasingly on the outside, looking in at the cocoon of love that swaddled little Nolan 24/7. Things were as they should be, except for my feeling of increasing worthlessness.

Did I love my son less for these emotions? No, I love him as completely and fiercely as any father could. Honestly, during those first few months I almost wished for a disaster, maybe an attack by very slow and mentally handicapped werewolves, or maybe a rabid kangaroo missing a leg or two, or a drunken koala bear – a situation where I could really strut my manhood without anyone being in too much peril. I simultaneously was ashamed and prayed for complete tranquility and peace, not only for our little household, but for the whole world that Nolan had just arrived in.

Then, a day came when he was approaching his first birthday. We were at my wife’s parent’s home, where is even more doted on than usual and I was truly feeling a little lost. I was carrying an endless pile of presents and new clothes and gifts and luggage to the car while the rest of the family played with Nolan, happily and merrily making him the center of attention. On one of my endless trips down the hall to the garage, feeling out of sorts and a bit lonely, I heard a tiny pitter-patter following me. I turned, luggage in hand, to find my little son crawling as fast as he could behind me with a look that I can only describe as confusion. I smiled inside and knelt on one knee, placing the luggage to the side. He stopped about twenty feet away, struggled to one knee, then placed his other little foot beside him and tried to stand.

He couldn’t, not at that moment. Instead, he did what he somehow knew to do. He lifted both his hands over his head to me, smiled from ear to ear, that innocent and most loving smile that only babies have, and said, “Dadadadada.”

Luggage forgotten, I scooped him from the floor and fled to the garage so that no one could see me cry. As soon as we got home, I burned all the baby books for new Dads. They’re worthless. Just love your little one, your wife, and be thankful for every single day that you have, for they turn to a torrent and the future, uncertain though it may be, will bring you joy and a gift that you could have never imagined.

I’m still prepared for the drunken Koala bear. You just never know.

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Just No Bacon!!

We didn’t really have all that many rules while I was growing up. At least, not ones that were hard and fast and written down on the fridge, like many of my friends had, complete with the appropriate punishment if they weren’t followed. It was more of a hard and quick rule by my parents with the two of them authoritatively in charge at all times. Our house was ran on more of common sense approach with commandments, such as: Don’t lie. Ever. Don’t shut your door unless you are changing clothes. Don’t backtalk. Ever. Don’t question decisions. Ever. Ask permission. Always. Be polite. Listen when spoken to.

My Dad had another one: Never run in a shop or indoors, unless it is absolutely necessary. A fall into a piece of equipment could very likely be fatal, especially when torches, spinning drill presses and other such machinery are concerned. It was a habit later reinforced by my coal mining days, when a haphazardly placed foot could mean a broken ankle or even death, especially when the footing was illuminated by only headlamps, which would sometimes be shinning in your eyes if there were untrained red hats around.

This is something I should have been thinking of recently on an ill-timed sprint to the ovens in the kitchen. I went through the dishwashing area with my mental clock counting down the seconds until the alarm went off in our fickle ovens, signaling that the bacon that one hundred or so people will be waiting on in a few minutes may be burning or perfectly done.

We had cooked so much bacon on that particular morning, like so many other mornings, that bacon grease was literally everywhere. My Chuck Taylors, which I like to wear so much and have since I was a little kid, offer very little traction in the kitchen environment and flew out from under me in the remnants of what not that long ago occupied a stock yard and dumped me unceremoniously into the giant mixing bowl.

Have you ever tried to get out of a mixing bowl? There is no graceful way to do so and of course there was an audience of wait staff standing around doing very little except expound on their recent exploits at a strip club, which may or may not have involved a hot tub, dependent on who was telling the story. I managed to save some face by not throwing the mixing bowl into the wall, getting hurt, cursing or insulting anyone’s mother, present or otherwise, but instead righted myself and yanked the six trays of mostly burned bacon out of the ovens.

So reinforced my mostly hate relationship with bacon. I know that every wannabe chef, self-ordained T.V. celebrity on the Food Network and most of America loves the stuff, but I honestly don’t. It’s not that I don’t think it has its place, I just feel it is kind of like Miley Cyrus – I’ve just seen too damn much of her stuff. I do love pork, especially pork belly, in moderation, and pulled barbecue, and ribs, and scrapple and everything else pork related, but just leave bacon alone.

When did bacon get to be so popular? More importantly, when did it become so guilt free? Is it since FN began broadcasts featuring fat chefs lovingly spooning bacon fat over more fat and then marinating eggs fried in lard with bacon fat? We scream about fast food, and I’m the first one to get on the soap box over that, but it’s just as disgusting to witness a restaurant crammed to the rafters with patrons eating plates of bacon.

Bacon used to be a treat, something that we would get once a month or so, carefully distributed by my mother to her four sons in an attempt to stretch meals, not a staple of breakfast. It went in baked beans, soups, green beans, soup beans prepared on our wood stove when we lost electricity (which was often) and utilized by our grandmothers to “flavor” things. It was a remnant of the pig slaughter, carefully harvested and cured with smoke and salt for leaner times and winter stews. It was by no means ever the star of the show.

So, what does this say of our current society? In a land where thin is worshipped and we thumb our noses at spam, scrapple, sausages, chicken feet and non-organic peanut butter, we will line up for deep fried candied bacon. The exact same people who refuse to shop for anything except local, organic, humanely harvested, feed-lot free groceries will gorge themselves on anything and everything that is wrapped in bacon. As a joke, a friend of ours even bought us vegan bacon mayonnaise. Really?

Maybe we should all start running indoors, outdoors, or wherever else we get a chance.

A Day in the Morning of a Cook

I enjoy cooking breakfast. I don’t know why, exactly, as most cooks that I talk with and Chef’s that give me advice say to stay away from breakfast, that if you gain a reputation as one of those freaks that enjoy getting up while everyone else is still asleep and preparing the first meal of the day for people who are more or less sleepwalking through it then you will never get another gig. There is a dearth of true breakfast cooks, those that can and will do more than just show up generally within an hour or so of when they are supposed to, rinse the night before out of their eyes and mouth and prepare a meal that is worth eating.

I’ve found that to be a bit odd, as people who are taking the time and trouble to go somewhere for breakfast and not take the obligatory bowl of cereal but instead opt for a full meal prepared by someone who is supposed to know what they are doing are people worth cooking for. Breakfast also gives the cook an inordinate amount of freedom with his or her menu, cooking techniques, ingredients, preparation and line arrangement. The wait staff can be sullen, but if they too are morning people or have other reasons to choose or want such a shift, such as children, another job, whatever, then they have every cause to make the most of what is usually considered to be the most irritating and demeaning shift ever. Did I mention everyone else is usually still asleep or fighting their way to work?

A breakfast shift usually begins for me the night before, poring over dog-eared recipe books, magazines and catalogued recipe entries for everything from Cheese toast, red-eyed gravy with lard biscuits to homemade sourdough cinnamon rolls. Breakfast, I’ve found, is an endless variation of savory and sweet, with it being perhaps one of the only meals of the day where it is completely acceptable to drown the client in an accompaniment of flavors, bursting through the early morning drudgery with tastes both fresh and bold, comforting and familiar and new and sublime. People develop their favorites with breakfast, and for whatever reason, it becomes easy to remember regulars’ names at breakfast. Clients are more punctual, more pleasant and generally happier with their meals in the mornings, as the mornings signal a day full of potential, of opportunities not yet missed.

Based on what I know is in the walk-in and the ingredients I have available, the night before I’ll pull together a few client favorites, one savory, one sweet and usually one traditional (French Toast with fresh blueberries and thick cut bacon is very popular. Portuguese Sweet Bread is the all-time favorite.) I’ll make a note to call the bakery in the morning, that place is usually in full swing at 4:00 a.m. Around 8:30, I’ll set the alarm, much to my wife’s dismay, and head off to bed. She still hates my getting up that early as it usually means that she will also be awake, no matter how quiet I am or the fact that I usually remember to place my work outfits near the door so I can dress by the light on the stove and not turn the lights on in our bedroom. I almost always still wake her up and get a warm sleepy kiss as I steal out of our bed into the waiting darkness.

As soon as I’m up – It’s go time. Shower, check shoes, check pens, check knives, check steel, check lighter – our old gas stoves are cranky and it takes a flame to get them going in the mornings. I start my old truck, scrape the windshield, feed the cat and then I’m following my headlights out the valley and up the mountain to the kitchen.
I like the kitchen first thing in the morning. It’s quiet and clean, usually, from the previous night’s shift. There usually isn’t much to put away, but I make coffee first and slip back outside to catch a glimpse of the first few rays of morning. A jay stirs up a fuss, but not too much, more of a sleepy chatter. The gray Momma cat comes out to say hello in the deepening cold just before dawn and parades her kittens out for me to see. I duck back inside for a few scraps of leftovers and a fresh cup of coffee.

It’s now almost 5:20 a.m. and I can see the headlights of the dishwasher’s car coming up the mountain. A deer chuffs at me and bounds away as the door slams to the loading dock hard for the first time that day, a sound that will become background in a few hours. I grab my few supplies from the truck along with my knives and say hello to the sleepy night clerk manning the front desk. She wants Pancakes this morning, with the usual plate of bacon and endless coffee. I tell her it’ll be in the window soon.

The dishwasher is much more than her title suggests. She is grumpily rearranging dishes, cleaning the filters on the sinks and ancient dishwashing machines and dragging my supplies out of the cold room where we stored them the afternoon before. I arrange my station, nonstick pans to my left, my favorite spatula lifted from its hiding place behind the Pastry Chef’s muffin tins. Everyone is terrified of the Pastry Chef and so they leave her stuff alone, making it the perfect spot to stash things. I clean and sort through fifty pounds of Idaho potatoes, taking only the best and those most consistent in size, placing the largest and smallest back into their bin, with which I will no doubt be making mash later in the day. I then slice the remainder for fries with my knife, listening with half a brain as D, the dishwasher, fills me in on the latest in County gossip as she mops the floor hard enough to scare the foundations.

People trickle in and out, bacon comes out of the ovens, potatoes go in the steamer (twenty minutes), more bacon comes out of the ovens, sausage and sliced potatoes go in (twenty minutes) and we arrange the bacon and sausage to cool and the potatoes on racks by the fryers. Even though I know the time, for I hear the wait staff coming through the perpetually slamming door, I check my watch, synchronizing for absolute point of no return. The test batch of pancakes are golden brown and I arrange the thick slices of bacon by the runny egg on the plate and slide it onto the window, essentially the first order of the day, although people have been snagging bacon and biscuits as though I don’t know for an hour. I don’t care, we generally have enough, but when I warn to leave the bacon alone I mean it.

The first few orders are always chaotic, especially if I’ve changed the menu, which I usually do. Then things fall into the way they should and orders start to go out in a blur. D, as usual, is chaotically ruling the kitchen as only she can, starting at least ten projects and working on them simultaneously, some pertinent to the moment, some not. That’s her value – everything is important to her. No task too small or too large to be left for someone else.
Omelets, build your own, house special, pancakes with berries, pancakes without, French Toast with bacon and regular toast, you name the combination and we are spitting it out. I drop the bread into the toaster, fries into the fryer, batter on the flat top and eggs in their skillets and then plate in the same direction, always one order, and one ticket at a time. Things hit the window in order and I usually have to rush the wait staff to pick up.

Orders slow and I get a small slump. I check to make sure I am sort of presentable, make my rounds through the dining room and usually get mostly positive feedback. By then I can hear the tickets chattering and I’m back at my station on the line, rolling though the orders.

I clean and attempt to straighten the knots out of my neck. I roll my knives back up, hid my spatula again and put the pots and pans away. We suicide wrap what we’ll need the next day and prepare the rest for lunch shift. We reset the line for lunch and start to heat soup stock for round two. Help arrives and things become more chaotic and I catch myself longing for breakfast again, when I can for a short while be captain of the ship.