PAgent’s Progress

Words Are My Favorite Toys

May 11th, 2006

Buyer’s Remorse?

I fired up the pellet grill again tonight, this time with a mix of alder and hickory pellets. We had some ears of corn, the first of the year, and we took the silk off them, buttered them, then tied the husks back around them. I put them in cold water to soak the husks.

While the corn was soaking, I gently shaped some patties from ground beef, and seasoned them with a Paul Prudhomme seasoning mixture, garlic powder, and Lawry’s seasoned salt.

Once the grill was good and hot, I put the corn on the grill to steam. Once the corn seemed done, I took it off, turned the heat up, and put the burgers on the grill.

At a higher temperature, and with the burgers cooking, the grill started throwing off some yummy smelling smoke. I flipped the burgers over, and turned the heat down just a touch.

When I took the burgers off the grill, they were so juicy they were dripping, and they smelled wonderful. We slapped them on buns and dived in. My daughter, who says she hates hamburgers, started making yummy noises. My son, who likes hamburgers, had his mouth full. And my wife, who usually only likes hamburgers that are bleeding, said it was delicious. And the corn, the corn was terrific as well.

So, am I suffering from buyer’s remorse? Did I spend too much on that fancy pellet grill?

Oh, HELL no. If I can keep turning out dinners like that, it was money well spent.

I can’t wait to smoke me some babybacks.

May 9th, 2006

Boy Meets Grill

I have always loved cooking. And of the many types of cooking, I have particularly been fond of grilling and barbecue. When I was an undergraduate, I bought a Weber Smokey Joe mini-kettle and used the hell out of it all the way through graduate school. Then, when the wife and I got married, my folks gave us a Weber Genesis gas grill as a wedding present.

I like Weber grills. They’re well-made, they last a long time, and they work. I liked our grill, because I could come home, fire it up, and be ready to grill chicken in about ten minutes. Turn it off, and you were done.

But, as any grilling enthusiast can tell you, nothing tastes like charcoal. You need the smoke to really get that ‘cooked on a fire’ flavor. So, I got a little Luhr-Jensen smoker. I made many batches of beef jerky, smoked some salmon, and added flavor to chicken breasts, steaks, and pork butts. But I still had to finish cooking on the Weber.

A couple of years ago, some friends invited us over for dinner. I walked out on their deck and saw a big black grill leaking wonderful-smelling smoke. It was our friends’ new Traeger wood pellet grill. What a concept. An auger delivers hardwood pellets to a firebox, which heats the grill. Turn it up high, you can grill. Turn it lower, you can roast. Turn it way down, and the whole thing becomes a hot smoker. You can select pellets that are 100% oak, cherry, mesquite, hickory, apple, alder, etc.

I wanted one.

But they weren’t cheap. And our Weber still worked fine. So, I filed it away in the back of my mind for ’someday’, and tried to forget about it everytime I fired up the old reliable Weber.

Well, someday finally came. The wife and I picked up our new Traeger pellet grill last weekend. Along with the grill itself came a recipe book, a Traeger ballcap, and two 20 lb bags of pellets. I chose alder and hickory. We got it home and I assembled it. Monday night I fired it up to 350 degrees for 45 minutes to season it. And tonight, it was time to cook.

100% alder pellets

For our first meal from the grill, I got a couple of young chickens, spatchcocked them, and applied a dry rub. Then I put them on the Traeger. The biggest adjustment I’m going to have to make is the difference between direct heat and purely indirect heat. The Traeger’s indirect heat means it’s almost impossible to burn your food. On the other hand, all my mental estimates of how long it will take to cook something are now obsolete.

Note: That’s a stack of two butterflied chickens, one on top of the other.

The chicken turned out a beautiful, golden brown, incredibly moist, and very tasty. Unfortunately, it was still a little bloody at the joints. Damn. Well, next time I’ll know better. The kids still scarfed it down like they were starving. I was pleased to note that it didn’t have more than a nice background flavor of smokiness. If you want to really add smoke flavor, you just need to turn the heat setting all the way down to ’smoke’. Otherwise, you just get a nice touch of hardwood flavor as you cook.

Yes, it was expensive, but I anticipate using it a LOT. With the digital thermostat you can bake in it easily. Wood-fired pizza, anyone? How about a skillet full of hot cornbread to go with your BBQ brisket?

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

May 5th, 2006

Wandering Aengus

Just wanted to devote a post to Wandering Aengus Ciderworks. Brendan, the Marketing Director for Wandering Aengus was dispensing samnples of their Medium-Sweet and Semi-Dry cider last night, and I had the opportunity to chat with him for a while. He’s clearly enthusiastic about the product, and quite knowledgeable about cidermaking, and more importantly the cider was just plain excellent.

Mimi and Nick at Wandering Aengus use certified organic heirloom cider apple varieties, and traditional cidermaking techniques to create some kickass cider. Brenden says you can find Wandering Aengus cider at a number of local shops, but you can certainly shop online at their website. I’m pretty enthused about the possibility of visiting the tasting room at their ciderworks.

Keep up the good work, guys.

UPDATE: D’oh! I can’t believe I didn’t work in a “Colonel Aengus” reference. Man, I’m losing my edge.

December 10th, 2005

The Spirits Have Moved Me

I normally don’t drink all that much. The occasional beer. Every now and then some single malt. But lately I’ve been drinking a bit more hard alcohol than usual.

One might hypothesize that a certain amount of stress in my life recently might be responsible for this. Certainly reasonable minds can hypothesize all they wish.

Nevertheless. I needed to get some rum to make rum fudge balls. I prefer to use dark rum for rum balls, so that the rum flavor isn’t overcome by the semisweet chocolate. I had finished my last bottle of dark rum, so I stopped by a liquor store to get some more. The last time I bought a good bottle of rum, it had been Appleton’s Estate rum, which was very good indeed. It was smooth enough to drink neat, and I often had.

Rather than get another bottle of Appleton’s, I wanted to try something new. I spotted a bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal rum on the shelf:

My first thought was, ‘Why would they put rum in a black bottle?’ Then I realized it was actually a clear glass bottle, and it was the rum that was dark. Gosling’s has been made in Bermuda for nearly 200 years, by seven generations of Goslings. It was originally sold only by the barrel, but at some point the rum was sold in recycled champagne bottles, with the corks sealed with black sealing wax. Soon it was known as “Black Seal” rum. Gosling’s is the only company that blends and bottles its rum in Bermuda.

At first sip, I was actually a bit disappointed. Given the exceptionally dark color, I expected a ton of rum flavor, with a strong molasses. It tasted a bit thin. Nevertheless, I went ahead and made the rum balls

To my surprise, the rum balls had a strong rum flavor that balanced nicely with the chocolate. I then made a rum and coke with the Golding’s, and it was very, very good. This is a rum that mixes very well without being either overwhelmed or overpowering.

So I went back and tasted it a bit more attentatively. Black Seal has a sweet nose and sweet flavor, with notes of butterscotch and caramel, instead of molasses, and an oaky spiciness. It has a strong alcoholic warmth, seeming even stronger than the 80 proof that it is. It mixes quite well, and in fact the “Dark ‘n Stormy”, a mix of Black Seal and ginger beer, is Bermuda’s official beverage. Can’t wait to try that.

Days later, while shopping, I was suddenly taken by a sudden desire for a gin and tonic. I rarely drink gin and tonics, usually only during hot weather, or at fancy parties where I’m wearing a tie and can’t walk around with a beer bottle in my hand. Once again at a liquor store, I scanned the shelf for a premium gin. I had heard that Bombay Sapphire was highly overrated, so I steered clear of that. I didn’t know much about other premium brands, except that I hated Tanqueray’s recent ad compaigns.

There on the shelf was Cascade Mountain gin:

A local gin? Made in Bend, Oregon? I was intrigued. Cascade Mountain gin is made from juniper berries picked in the high Oregon desert. I brought it home and mixed up a G&T.

It was incredibly good. The medicinal, mouthwash flavor that I associated with gin was completely absent, letting the flavor of the juniper berry come through. Cascade Mountain is terribly smooth, considering it is 95 proof, and I have enjoyed it so much that in only the last week or so I have dropped the level in the bottle by several inches. Mind you, I got a 750 mL bottle for less than $20. I have to believe that once more gin enthusiasts become aware of this stuff, the price is going to go up. In the meantime, I need to go get some Rose’s lime juice so I can try a gimlet.

If you enjoy trying unusual labels, by all means pick up a bottle of either Gosling’s Black Seal, or Cascade Mountain. And let me know what you think.

Update 12/16/05: ‘Dark ‘n Stormy’s are indeed tasty.

November 22nd, 2005

Food is More Than Fuel

When our children were old enough to make it practical, my wife went to the midwest to visit her family, by herself. She left the children home with me. This not only saved money on airfare, but gave her a critical break from the kids, at a time when she really needed one.

Since we are talking about my wife, you should not be surprised to hear that before leaving, she had scheduled childcare/babysitting for the kids, written down a list of where they had to be, at what time, and had generally foreseen every problem that could arise in her absence.

Well, almost every problem.

We had been without my wife for a couple of days, and I had just put the children in bed, when the phone rang. It was my brother. Our mother had collapsed, and had been transported to the hospital. It didn’t look good. She was still unconscious. He didn’t have any definitive information, but he promised to call back when he knew more.

So, I stayed awake for the next several hours, unable to concentrate on anything, waiting for a phone call. I felt like I should have joined my father at the hospital, but it was 90 minutes away, and I didn’t have anyone I could call in the middle of the night to come watch my kids. I didn’t even know how seriously ill my mom really was. But the phone finally rang, and my brother told me that Mom’s prognosis wasn’t good, but her condition hadn’t changed much. In short, get some sleep, but come down in the morning as soon as I could.

The next morning was a bit of a blur. I hustled the kids off to their childcare provider as early as I could drop them off, then quickly ran to work. I was responsible for an application that had to be filed that day. At this point I wasn’t going to file it myself, but I had to make sure that someone else would take responsibility for it. So, I got to work, ran in, got an associate to cover for me and file the application I had prepared, and ran back to my office to shut down and hit the road. As I entered my office, my cell phone rang. It was my sister, and from the tears in her voice, I knew Mom was gone.

She had started going downhill rapidly in the morning, until she was gone. She never woke up. I hadn’t made it down to see her, and felt badly about it. Maybe not so much for myself, but because I knew my father would have wanted me to be there.

So I drove down and met my family at the funeral home. Mom’s body had been transported there, and we had some time with her. Dad didn’t look good, which was to be expected. I think we went back to Dad’s place and got some lunch. Fortunately, the older siblings were coordinating things with the funeral home.

I don’t remember the details of the next few days, but it was a heck of time for my wife to be 2,500 miles away. I was moving in a bit of a daze, dropping off the kids, going to work, picking up the kids, fixing dinner. I usually took advantage of my wife’s absence by fixing things for dinner that she didn’t particularly care for. It had been a long time since I fixed skillet-fried pork chops, which I liked but she didn’t.

So, after work one night, I found myself fixing dinner. I put some green beans in a steamer, and sliced some onion and potatoes thinly. I dredged the pork chops in seasoned flour, and pan-fried them. I began to fry the potatoes in another skillet, while I made a light roux in the pork chop skillet, then made a batch of cream gravy.

Suddenly, like someone smacking me on the back of the head, I realized what I was doing. Fried pork chops, fried potatoes, cream gravy, and green beans. One of my mother’s favorite meals, and one that I had eaten countless times growing up. I was preparing comfort food, simply enough, but it was even more than that. This meal was a connection to my mother, to the way she had fed me for half my life. Food was how my mother showed love, and how we, in turn, showed our love for those close to us. With no conscious thought at all, I was preparing one of the most appropriate meals I could have envisioned for a remembrance, a farewell, and a consolation.

Upon receiving this epiphany, I could feel my throat clenching, and tears welling up in my eyes. I buried my face in my hands, and began to sob. It was the first time I had cried for my mother, who I would never see again. My daughter, alarmed, came into the kitchen and asked me what was wrong. I told her I was sad because my mom had died. I don’t think she had ever seen me cry like that before, and I think in some way it made her grandmother’s death suddenly more real for her.

Of course, my wife flew back to me, and we had a funeral service for my mother. To no one’s surprise, all of the children spoke of how much she loved her children, how much she loved to cook, and how important food had been in our relationship with her.

As we prepare for Thanksgiving this year, I think about the importance of food in our celebrations. Certainly the food we eat is fuel for our bodies, but it is so much more than that. It is sustenance for our souls, and a comfort for those in pain. You can help endure a nasty breakup with a pint of Haagen-Dazs, or confront the loss of a parent with a menu from your childhood. Food shared is hospitality, food in the pantry is security, and food prepared with love is love.

November 10th, 2005

Cafe Allegro

The PAgent family tried a new restaurant tonight. In the interest of doing something different, we all braved some wretched traffic and a steady cold drizzle to meet at “Cafe Allegro” in Tigard.

Dinner started with some crostini served with roasted garlic and goat cheese. The combination was very good. I had a bowl of sweet and sour cabbage and sausage soup, which was really excellent. Although both sweet and tangy, the richness of the stock kept it from being either too cloying or too tart. Much to my surprise, the wife liked it as well.

My wife had chicken piccata, my son had a cheese pizza, and my daughter had fettucini alfredo with shrimp, which she ate with gusto. I had a filet stuffed with mushrooms, garlic and havarti cheese, and topped with a marsala glaze. The filet was incredibly tender, and had a good flavor. The havarti was a bit odd, but the marsala glaze was very good. The filet was served with some seriously garlic mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables. After the roasted garlic in the appetizer, the garlic in the potatoes was almost too much. Almost.

All in all, it was a very good meal, and the service was better than average. The experience was somewhat spoiled, however, by a table of four teenagers near us. Three young ladies and a young man.

The young man was not just wearing a hat at the table, but had pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over it as well. He wore this redundant ensemble through the entire meal. I’m sure my mother was spinning in her grave. The young ladies demanded to order off the children’s menu (for children under 12), methodically stuck things in the candle at their table until the dining room reeked, knocked a glass of water over, rocked their chairs back on two legs, talked constantly on a cell phone, and generally made snide comments about everyone and everything through the entire meal.

I made a point of telling my children that the two of them were behaving better than anyone at that other table. I’m becoming such a curmudgeon.

Upon returning home, the overwhelming essence of garlic that was oozing from every pore of my body led me to rummage for a package of breath mints that I have kept on my dresser since I received them as a wedding momento. Much to my surprise, the tin was completely empty, even though the last time I’d opened it, it was nearly full. I immediately went to my daughter and confronted her. She didn’t even try to deny it. You would think a smart kid like that would realize that after consuming the entire tin of mints, it would become fairly obvious that someone had been taking them from Dad’s dresser. I’m furious, of course. Not about the mints, which I didn’t care much about, but because she can’t seem to stop herself from stealing sweets, whether or not there’s any chance she will be able to get away with it. It’s troubling.