Lessons Learned

I’ve been a little absent from the blogosphere this week. I’m sorry. Its way too early in the game here at “Table for Two?” for me to disappear for 6 days straight, and I apologize. I’ll try not to let it happen again but, well, you know how it is. Life gets in the way sometimes.

That being said, there are a couple of legitimate reasons for my neglect. The first is that the Olympics started last Friday, and I’ve been watching them just about every night. I’ve been looking forward to the games for months, and there’s been some really great stuff going on this year (Michael Phelps, anyone?) and I just don’t want to miss a minute of it if I can avoid it.

The second is that we naively planned a couple of positively epic meals this week, and when we spend 2-3 hours making dinner after a full day of work, its all I can do to sit in front of the boob tube for an hour or so of Olympics coverage afterwards before passing out for the night.

This week did, however, yield quite a few valuable learning experiences which I’d like to pass on.

Mmmm. Melty Mexican goodness.

Lesson #1
Enchilada sauce, or red chili sauce, is shockingly easy to make at home, and tastes SO much better than the canned, store-bought variety that I’ve always used. J actually made the sauce this first time around, and although he used Emeril’s recipe as a jumping-off point, he changed enough as he went along to render the original probably nearly unrecognizable. The end result? Pretty much what I would consider the perfect enchilada sauce: rich, savory, and tangy, with just a bit of warmth from some dried chilis. Poured under and over whole grain tortillas wrapped around smoked pulled pork and black beans, it yielded what J called “the best enchiladas EVAR” but I’ll leave the details for a separate post.

Lesson #2
Cleaning your own squid is an absolutely monstrous job, and not at all pleasant. More importantly, its a hell of an undertaking for a weeknight. I don’t think we ate dinner until after 9pm that night, and when you’re used to eating dinner closer to 7:30pm, that is a seriously late meal.

I volunteered to do the squid-cleaning first, and I have to admit that my knee-jerk revulsion to handling shellfish innards (and having my fingers anywhere near a dead creatures eyes) lessened significantly after the first 2 or 3. I managed to get through about 8 before deciding I’d had enough, and passing the torch to J to finish up. Of course that meant he ended up doing almost twice as many as I did (the package we bought had a shockingly large number of whole squid in it) but he was graciously silent about the clearly unfair division of labor. I think I owe him a 6-pack or something for that.

We cleaned out all the bodies (or tubes) so that we could stuff them with a mixture of veggies and breadcrumbs, then bake them in a basic tomato sauce. The tentacles ended up getting discarded because, frankly, they just didn’t look that good after being frozen and thawed. But of course, what you really want to know is, was it worth it?

No. Not at all. Never mind the fact that the plate of food up there will never win any beauty awards. It just didn’t taste that good. The sauce and the stuffing, taken individually, were delicious. And being that we based it on one of Mario Batali’s recipes, I’m not surprised. But the squid itself? Meh. Not impressed. I do think it was cooked just about right, as the finished product had a texture somewhat like al dente pasta. However, I’m used to squid being relatively non-fishy, and this was definitely fishy. I’m not sure if that’s because it had been frozen whole and then thawed, or if we just didn’t do a thorough-enough job of cleaning it (I suspect the latter, because some pieces were significantly more fishy than others) but quite frankly, I couldn’t finish it. It was dsappointing, to say the least, and not something we’ll be repeating anytime soon.

Now we’ve got a bag of about a dozen squid tubes in the freezer that we’ll need to use up, though. I’m thinking we’ll probably just fry them up at some point. Not anytime soon – I’ve got some mental scarring from this first fresh-squid encounter that needs to heal before I even look at it again – but eventually.

Lesson 3
Those little mini-springform pans I bought on my birthday are every bit as awesome as I expected them to be. I used them this week to make these delicious single-serving broccoli quiches, and they were really the perfect size for dinner when paired with some sauteed snow peas. The quiches rose in the oven and then held their form perfectly when removed from the pans, and were just perfectly cooked. I can’t wait to find more uses for them.

Lesson 4
Sometimes, just sometimes, you want something simple. Something comforting. Something that fills your belly and warms your soul without breaking the bank. Something like… franks and beans. Or as J calls them, beanie weenies (*gigglesnort*). However, just because you’re making a dish that your father made for you for dinner in grade school, doesn’t mean you can’t make it spectacular. We had this deceptively simple meal one night this week and made it amazing by making the baked beans from scratch, using dry beans that were soaked overnight and then cooked for a looooong time (over 12 hours) in the crock pot while we were at work. As a pleasant counterpoint to the squid fiasco, this made for a quick and easy dinner once we got home – all we had to do was crisp up the hot dogs a bit and then toast a couple of hot dog rolls in the rendered fat to have a supremely satisfying and surprisingly delicious dinner.

You know you want some of this. C’mon, don’t try to hide it.

Even more surprising is that this particular dish was really not that bad for you – if you skip the bread-toasted-in-hot-dog-fat part, the franks and beans themselves have no added fat (helped along by that pre-cooking step with the dogs). There’s a fair amount of sugar though, so diabetics may want to keep away from this sort of dish. The rest of you? Go get some beans soaking. Because I can guarantee there’ll be a day this week when you won’t want to cook, and this bowl of hot, hearty goodness is sure to soothe you after even the most difficult day.

Lesson 5
I still can’t make fried rice. I tried my hand at a thai-style vegetarian fried rice on Thursday, and although it was basically ok, it just wasn’t quite right. I’m pretty sure I overcooked the rice the night before, so it was a little too sticky and mushy when I tried to stir fry it, and fried rice just shouldn’t be mushy, ever. I also think I used too much fish sauce in the seasoning, because the flavor was just a bit too prominent for me to really enjoy the dish. The basic premise was good, and the bites that got a piece of fresh tomato or pineapple were really delicious, but I couldn’t quite finish my serving. J loved it, which I’m glad of, but I just know I could make it better if I could just get the rice part of it right.

Lesson 6
Rabbit is delicious. Also, “deconstructed” dishes are a ton of fun. But, I’ll leave those details for my next post.

Bonus Lesson:
My photography SUCKS. Its virtually impossible to take decent photos in this dim-as-hell basement apartment. Normally I enjoy the gentle lighting we’ve got going on down here, but its not at all conducive to taking attractive photos of our dinners. I’ve really gotta work on that lightbox…

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