Why Imperfect is Perfect – A Chat with Catherine De Orio

A Chat with Catherine de Orio | TheBachelorBasics.com

Catherine de Orio was eight years old when she bought her first cookbook. After paging through the recipes, she decided which dish she would attempt. Her father enjoyed fish so the fish dish was the clear choice. Her mother, however, was a bit apprehensive with this selection. She wasn’t a fan of fish or its smell.

But Catherine had one huge advantage. One of 14 cousins in an Italian family in Elmwood Park, Ill., she served as sous chef to her grandma. The de Orios gathered every week at Nana Kay’s for Sunday supper. Immersed in a world of food, Catherine learned the basics of cooking and the role of food beyond nourishment. Food was more than calories. Food served as a uniter. Long before Mo Rocca’s My Grandmother’s Ravioli, Catherine learned the basics the old-fashioned way, at the side of her nana. Continue reading Why Imperfect is Perfect – A Chat with Catherine De Orio

A Year of Moments

I could get used to hiking here.

I couldn’t stop staring at it.

There I was, Jan. 1, 2013, 3:24 a.m., watching Goonies on the couch of a girl I’d met earlier in the evening. She was witty and cute, but I failed to ascertain her stance on tacos–a mistake I would repeat in 2013. But in the glow of her Christmas tree I noticed something I hadn’t spotted previously. There was some sort of growth on the corner of her mouth. Is that a cold sore? Why did I blackout everything from sex ed? Can I avoid kissing that side of her mouth? Will I go immediately to hell when I die?

“I should head home,” I said after the movie ended. I put my shoes back on, thanked her and gave her a hug. Then I picked up my gym bag, the very bag I stared at for at least a minute while debating whether or not to bring it with me. It functions as a sleepover party bag, replete with sexy items like flannel pajama pants, contact solution, and a toothbrush. With my bag slung over my shoulder, I headed down the stairs and into the frigid morning air.

When you start a year driving home alone at 3:30 a.m., you know you’re in store for a special year.

I’ve never been one for resolutions. Instead I opt for more ambiguous goals. The kind that aren’t specific or measurable. This year’s goal was simple: Do more of what I love, and less of what I don’t. There will always be things we don’t want to do, but have to anyway. Dishes ranks highly on this list. (Note: I will wed someone solely for their willingness to always do the dishes.) Looking back at all the food I made and ate, all the places I visited, and all the things I achieved and learned, 2013 was a fine year.

Food

Overall, there were a ton of great moments and a slew of firsts. A few days after fleeing in the early morning, I was featured in the Daily Herald not for jerk of the week, but as Cook of the Week. Naturally, I shared that on every social network ever created. Once the press requests simmered down, I returned to normalcy. But that week gave me a glimpse of what it must be like for all my friends with kids when they post a picture of their baby.

In other food news, a rep from Plated, a New York-based food delivery company, found my blog and contacted me about trying out their service. After a few emails and conversations, I got two boxes of food for my first dinner party. The menu: BBQ Chicken Burgers with zucchini fries and Shrimp & Grits. I had won a wine tasting earlier in the year and combined the two for a great night of food, wine and stories with friends.

Kale safely wins new ingredient of the year. I started buying it this summer and there was no turning back. I tried several new dishes; coq au vin may be my favorite. I also became a roux master, turning fond into phenomenal pan sauces. Thanksgiving was my responsibility this year, and short of needing salt, the smoked turkey was delicious and the mashed potatoes whipped to perfection. According to the photographic evidence, I consumed/inhaled a burrito a week.

Frolicking

I was fortunate to be able to travel to a lot of new places, and revisit some favorites. I spent my birthday running up a sand dune in Michigan, sunning myself like an iguana, and racing back to the beach to see the sun dissolve into Lake Michigan. Shortly after that, I left the U.S. for the first time! Somehow I managed to visit our incredibly friendly neighbors to the north in Canada and the welcoming folks in Mexico. I already wrote about most of these adventures, but after reflecting, some of my favorite moments were hiking in the unrivaled beauty of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. It was someplace I likely would never have known about or gone to, were it not for my friend Rebecca. That leg of the trip also included staying in a yurt and canoeing, both firsts. I also saw the awe-inspiring Niagara Falls. Both places reminded me of how much beauty there is in this world. No matter how much I love cities, I have always found being near water incredibly restorative.

In September, I packed my bags for another getaway, heading west with my girlfriend. We managed to cover 550 miles in one week from Napa, Calif., all the way south to Rosarito, Mexico. Thanks to a tip from a Stanford student, I witnessed the most breathtaking vista I’ve ever seen, and that includes driving through Indiana. I thought Niagara and Canada were beautiful, but this spot, high on a hill 30 minutes from Palo Alto was nirvana. Stunningly gorgeous. And we sprinted up a trail just in time to see the sun descend into the clouds and Pacific Ocean. Those are moments I hope never to forget.

Fitness

This was also a great year for physical fitness. According to RunKeeper, I logged 133 miles of physical activity–running, cycling, hiking. I entered my first race–the BigTen 5k/10k. My shins were still bothering me from my training, so I opted to walk the 5k and finished in just a tad more than 40 minutes. I ran the fastest mile of my life (7:40ish). Then I doubled over and questioned the meaning of life. Strength-wise I worked up to being able to do 10 wide-grip pull-ups, as well as adding weight in all other muscle groups. I can bench press about 70% of my weight with dumbbells. All of this is a credit to persistence and sugar-laced protein bars.

I also danced a ton, improving my lindyhop and adding balboa to my swing dance repertoire. Sadly, fitness apps don’t track dancing.

I’ve been on vacation the past few weeks and spent an intensive week doing hot yoga before Christmas. Intense seems too weak an adjective. I wish they had a scale so I would know how much water weight I left on the mat. How much does dignity weigh? All that quiet time coupled with reading articles on self-improvement enabled me to deeply reflect on some events in 2013 and in my life. Normally I avoid looking back or looking ahead. I strongly believe that all we have is now, and dwelling on what was and what could be are a waste of thought. Inevitably as the remaining days on the calendar dwindle, I cannot quiet the urge to reflect.

Feelings

There were two main learning opportunities this year, and, with time, I have become grateful for both. The first was purchasing a condo. I have been looking for a residence, be it a hovel, condo, or house, for the past three years. At long last, I found a spacious one bedroom in an area of town where I wouldn’t be shot. I was excited at the prospect of increased independence and decorating my own place (clothes and magazines everywhere). The property was bank-owned and the bank was in no rush to unload it. I grew impatient and ended up rescinding my offer. Doing so meant forfeiting a decent sum of money. I read an article in Harvard Business Review about how successful leaders view and deal with loss. Those that cut their losses and move forward, saw it not as a loss, but as a chance to capitalize on another opportunity. That’s how I chose to view my situation. Later in the summer, I saw another condo that I loved. I felt much differently about this place than the one that was “good enough.” I liked it so much, I ended up putting an offer on it twice. My first offer wasn’t accepted and the person they picked wasn’t able to secure financing. Since my life isn’t yet a movie, neither of my offers were accepted. But I learned the value of not settling. If nothing else, I discovered what it felt like to really love a place.

The second big lesson was a variation on my first, but instead of a place it involved a person. After a few months of dating and our trip to California, my girlfriend decided to see someone else. Much like the condo situation, I learned what it felt like to truly love someone. Shortly thereafter, I discovered what it felt like to be deeply disappointed with someone. I had hoped for a different future for the two of us, but we weren’t meant to be.

In most of my relationships, I have the tendency of suppressing or not expressing my needs or wants. When asked what I needed, I simply responded to either be accepted or loved. In retrospect, I skipped over the easier fundamental needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. At this stage of my life, I’m self-sufficient. I don’t need food or housing (unless you know about a condo). What I’m after are those more elusive qualities like unconditional acceptance. That takes time and isn’t as easy as cooking someone dinner.

My takeaway was more introspection and resolving to be more vocal about boundaries. Much like Harry’s line in When Harry Met Sally:

You’re the worst kind; you’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.

Often I get disappointed with friends or loved ones when they don’t do as I hoped. But the flaw in this setup is that I don’t communicate expectations. If I don’t tell someone what I expect, I shouldn’t be disappointed if they aren’t psychic. This serves as a self-defense mechanism. I can dismiss people who act counter to how I would’ve liked them to act. This leads to a false sense of superiority and empowerment. I feel in control by deeming someone not my friend or unimportant to me because they didn’t act like I would or how I would like them to act.

In 2014, I would like to improve a few things. I want to be more accepting of people; to take them as they are and not to be upset if they don’t act as I would like. Second, to share my expectations. My best friend shared the old adage, “People treat you how you allow them to.” To continue to build on this year’s goal of doing more of what I love, that includes developing existing relationships.

It’s been a year.

I declare 2014 the year of MORE. While others are looking to scale back, I will be ramping up. More dancing. More traveling. More cooking. More new experiences. And more living!

11 Holiday Cooking Tips I Wish I Knew Sooner

I feel like there should be blurring or black bars for this shot.

I feel obligated to share that I’m eating cold, left-over pizza as I write this. The leftovers are all gone from Thanksgiving. A few weeks ago I started planning what new things I’d try this year. For fellow home chefs, holidays are the day we have been training for: making stocks, timing multiple dishes to finish at the same time, drinking enough to keep up with/tolerate the relatives, and avoid spilling anything on yourself thereby making others question your competency. This year’s turkey day served as a warm-up for Christmas.

The shopping and prep work started a week ago. I hit 5 stores to get all the ingredients. Since I don’t believe in making lists, instead, relying on my faulty memory, where was I going with this…Ah! Yes. Shopping. All told the meal cost about $60-75, which is lower than normal for my family.

Onto the cooking stories and lessons, lest I bury the lede any deeper. Here are the things I wish I knew before embarking on today’s feast. These are now useless until next year. You’re welcome for my planning ahead to help you.

A. Don’t apologize. However things turned out is how they were meant to be. Embrace it. Learn from your missteps, and do better next time. Enjoy the people you’re with and the time you have together. In the end, that’s all that matters. Not that you brined, smoked, and photographed a trollop of a bird, made mashed potatoes of the perfect texture, constructed gravy that would make grandmothers weep.

2. Make-ahead stock. Purchase turkey wings. Roast those with halved onions, roughly chopped celery, some salt and pepper for 45 minutes at 400 degrees. Flipping 20-25 minutes in. Then de-glaze the pan with 2 cups of water. Once you have gotten most of the bits off the bottom, add 10 more cups of water. Simmer the wings/bones/aromatics for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. Upside: this is mostly a passive activity and beats store-bought stock which is loaded with sodium.

D. Salt your food. I usually omit this step and rely on salting dishes individually. This bothers me largely due to watching cooking shows where chefs lambaste contestants  for not seasoning their dishes. All the dishes I made today needed salt. Otherwise the flavors were balanced. So, as a reminder, salt your food.

4. Delegate photo duties to someone you trust. When handling raw turkey and most meat, you don’t want to be spreading those bacteria to your phone. I had my sister take a few of the pics as I manhandled the bird on the grill. In retrospect, I should have discussed my preferred angles and framing.

5. Mashed Potatoes as God intended.  Heat milk/cream and half a stick of butter. I always used to add them cold to the hot potatoes. When you heat the fats, it makes for a much creamier end result.

6. You can’t eat all day, if you don’t eat breakfast. I had 2. My usual cereal upon opening my eyes. Then I made hash browns with my sister. Homemade hash browns. Added that with bacon, poblano, onion and cheddar for a frittata/omelette.

7. Post and post often. Your friends won’t invite you to friendsgiving if you don’t fill their feeds with food instead of kind notes about how thankful you are. By constantly posting, you’re screaming to the world that you have better food than they do. And that you need attention. But I prefer the former justification.

8. If you aren’t getting the necessary compliments on social media, take the direct approach. Text friends extreme close-ups of the bird or crudites. Possibly calling them, then rushing off the phone. “Gotta go check on my turkey smoking on the grill.” If possible, use a hashtag during the call. The more incoherent the better. I suggest #nevergohungry

9. Try something new. Every year I change something. Some of the changes are small. Some are new dishes. A few years ago, I started making stuffin muffins. Now, largely because of the hype I’ve created, all my friends request I bring in leftovers on Monday. This year saw two changes. First, was smoking the bird, which freed up the oven for other dishes, and was one less pan to wash. The second modification was a second gravy. I roasted poblano peppers after the turkey was done, then blended them with 2-3 cups of my finished gravy.

10. Find someone to wash dishes. Based on my straw poll, very few people like doing dishes. I’d consider marrying someone solely for their willingness to always wash dishes.

11. Embrace tradition. Maybe yours is guessing which relative will become uncomfortably intoxicated. Who will disappear before the dishes are done? If you don’t have any, create some! My family always watches Home Alone. This year I fell asleep sitting upright. No apologies.

 

Yes, and… A Guide to Improvising Dinner

 

SCENE: You have worked through lunch and feasted on feelings. The last hour was a struggle. You are running on fumes. After looking at BuzzFeed food articles you started making a list of what food each co-worker resembles.

Now you’re on your way home…in a rocket car… and decide to stay strong. No fast food for you. Because you’re in a rocket car.

After tuck-and-rolling out of the rocket car, you get back to your kitchen. Magically, groceries are not only in your fridge, but they are also still fresh.

In an ideal world, the dinner would be waiting for you on the table. If one of these women I have met would support me in the lifestyle i’m accustomed, this would be their reality. Some day…

Cooking and improv are two of my favorite things. Perhaps the improvisational elements of cooking are part of the allure. The other is sharing food with people also leads to sharing stories.

Last night’s supper was a mish-mosh (culinary term) of ingredients I had. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a good cook is the ability to combine flavors. Italian food tends to have some core ingredients and herbs: garlic, tomatoes, onions, cheese, basil. Mexican cuisine tends to rely on some of the same ingredients, but more cumin and peppers.

The great chefs tend to embark on their own path of flavors and herbs; pairing unconventional items.

One of the worst dishes I ever made was a stuffed pork chop. It looked good, but I deviated from the recipe because I didn’t have all the ingredients. It had apples inside. They were cut too big and subsequently didn’t cook. Did I still eat it? Of course. I spent good money on those pork chops and I was in college. Leave no meal behind!

With experience you’ll learn which vegetables and herbs/spices to add to dishes. When in doubt, experiment. I followed recipes for a while to get an idea of what goes well together. Eventually, you’ll start asking yourself “and what else can I put in this?” Once that happens, your next step will be to the psychologist’s office. When talking to yourself, it’s best to do in public, especially on public transit.

Pesto, Pronto

I bought a jar of pesto sauce. Huge helper, especially when everything has died in the tundra that is Chicago.

Remove the sausage from the casing and saute the Italian sausage for 4-5 minutes.

Add chopped bell pepper, onion, garlic, mushrooms. Then I ripped some kale and tossed that in. Get your vitamins! The sausage has to cook for 10-15 minutes. Removing it from the casing makes it cook faster. Meanwhile, I had pasta water coming to a boil in a separate pot.

From there, cook the pasta, drain, add sauce. Then add in the sausage and veggies mix. Shave or sprinkle some cheese on top.

Photograph and post on all the cougar dating sites. Wait for your phone to start lighting up like a [your joke here].

Coq au Vin

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God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.
-Voltaire


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Stop. I know what you’re going to ask.

French food, Andrew? How are you going to use tortillas avec la cuisine française? I’ve opted to take a break from my paramour, at least for one meal.

Earlier this week, I joined a friend for dinner at Bistro Voltaire, a French restaurant in River North. After practicing my French while reading the wine list and menu in my head, I decided on getting coq au vin. I don’t think I have ever had it at a restaurant, largely because taquerias don’t offer it. Previously I attempted to wing it by cooking chicken in half a bottle of red wine. While that was tasty, it was far from the elegant and tender chicken on a bed of mashed potatoes I got at Bistro Voltaire.

Similar to when I was first exposed to arrabiatta sauce at an Italian restaurant, I decided I would master coq au vin. I read a few recipes to see if there were any extra ingredients I didn’t spot in my inspiration dish–mushrooms, pearl onions, carrot, thyme. The ingredients are straight forward. This dish necessitates some basic kitchen competencies: sauteing, knife skills, and patience. Most of my kitchen creations are great for after work when you don’t have a lot of time. This dish will take about 90 minutes to make, but it’s worth tout les temps.

les ingrédients

  • 6 chicken thighs (you could also use chicken breasts, but I’d suggest bone-in chicken)
  • 3 strips bacon, cut into lardons (large chunks)
  • 1/2 package mushrooms (I used baby bellas. The restaurant used button and oyster ‘shrooms.)
  • 1 carrot, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 onion, medium dice
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 2 cups red wine (Pinot noir worked well, and be sure to pour some for the chef.)
  • 1 cup beef stock/broth
  • 1 tsp. tomato paste
  • 1/8 cup of flour
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 6-8 sprigs of fresh thyme

préparation

In an effort to be as French as possible, I started cooking this at 8PM and attempted to get all my mise en place out of the way like a real chef. If you’re cooking with a date, congratulations. You’ve managed to either get someone into your home or invite yourself to their home. If you have an extra set of hands to help, chopping duties can be split up. Additionally, your sous chef can help wash, peel, cut potatoes for mashed tatters or take care of making pasta.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

  1. Heat a dutch oven to super hot. I let mine heat over medium-high for about minutes while I chopped up my ingredients.20131117-083529.jpg
  2. Brown the bacon until all the fat renders. Then remove the bacon to a paper-towel lined plate, leaving the artery-clogging bacon fat.20131117-083537.jpg
  3. Pat the chicken thighs dry with a paper towel, then season with salt and pepper. Drying the chicken ensures that it will sear better, forming a crisper exterior. If there is moisture on the skin or meat, it has to cook off before the meat can sear. Sear for 5 minutes on each side. I had to work in two batches. Remove the chicken to a plate with a paper towel, then cook the remaining chicken. Don’t crowd the pan. It prevents you from properly searing the meat.20131117-083519.jpg
  4. Once all the chicken is seared, remove all but a few tablespoons of fat in the pan. I poured out about half the fat. Turn the heat down to medium. Add the onions and carrots, stirring occasionally. We aren’t looking to brown the veg, merely soften them. Cook for about 5 minutes before adding the mushrooms and garlic clove. Cook those 3-4 minutes.
  5. Add the tomato paste, then flour. These only need to cook for a minute or two to remove the raw flavor. The tomato paste adds a meatiness to the sauce, while the flour will aid in thickening the sauce.
  6. Combine 1 1/2 cups wine and 3/4 cup of beef stock in a measuring cup. This is also a good time to pour yourself another verre de vin. Add the wine/stock combo to the pot, stir to mix. Then return the chicken and most of the bacon to the pot. You can’t make bacon and not have a piece. Add the thyme and bay leaf.20131117-083550.jpg
  7. Bring the liquid to a boil. Put on the lid. Then put the put in the oven for 30-40 minutes. I checked the temperature after 35, and it displayed 170. Parfait!
  8. Serve with mashed potatoes (I added bacon to mine). For round 2, I’ll be serving this with egg noodles.

So, the dish takes some work, but is definitely doable and amazingly worth it. The sauce is phenomenal. I’ll be using up the thyme for some other dishes this week. If your date doesn’t profess their love for you after eating this, either you messed up OR you need to find someone else.

Rockin’ with Mawmaw on the Bayou

Suggested Listening: Old Folks by Miles DavisbayouBack and forth they rocked.

“How’s yo daddy?” Mawmaw asked, with a pronounced, drawn-out lingering on the “add” and a quick trailing off on the “y.”

Four oblong, baby blue bathroom rugs were placed under the four rocking chairs in the living room. A faded picture of her daughter’s wedding portrait was centered above the couch against the back wall. The other walls were adorned with an array of family photos like most grandparent’s homes. They always hold onto those school photos from when you awkwardly teetered on the precipice between childhood and adulthood.

“Y’all meet rain?” Mawmaw’s sister asked from her still rocking chair. Continue reading Rockin’ with Mawmaw on the Bayou