Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pre-Cruise Regimens

PJ and I are off on a cruise this weekend in the Caribbean. My nephew decided he wanted to get hitched on a beach in St. Lucia. So, you know, family obligations.

Regardless, we are grateful to him and his future bride for giving us another excuse to spend a week with 3500 other people, closely billeted on the world’s largest floating septic tank, surpassed only by aircraft carriers.

The Caribbean islanders call these port-o-call stops “The Invasion of Very Large People Wearing White Nikes.” If you are not large when you board, you will be a few days later.

We are amazed that the happy couple has amassed so many close friends so quickly. I posted a special sign-up page on the Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas’ website for the “Hans & Tracey St. Lucia Wedding Excursion”. So far 2753 have accepted the invitation. It is a special surprise I arranged for my brother, Hans’ father.

Most importantly, as a veteran of three humongous-ship-cruises, I thought I would share some pre-cruise regimens I have found useful.

· Turn your air conditioner down to 70 degrees. Stay in the house for half an hour, then, if you live in a warmer climate*, go outside for half an hour. Return to your house and repeat this ritual several times a day for the next three days. If you catch a cold…don’t come. If you don’t, you will have built up enough immunity for the cruise. *If from a colder climate, turn on your shower to high heat and stand in the middle of your bathroom without any fans running.

· Buy your favorite adult beverage and drink mass quantities of it over three hours. Vomiting is allowed – you’re in training. Repeat for the next four nights. The key object is to be able to find your key and your room at the end of the evening.

· If married or you have a roommate, move into about 200 square feet or less of space for the next several days. Perform basic living exercises while in the space. Try very hard not to get into each other’s face. Try to find a place to “contribute to the ambiance” discretely. Women will find this easier to do than men. While on the cruise your best bets are the balcony or the bathroom. If billeted in an inside cabin, you’re in foul-air jail.

· Try to go several days without roto-rootering your nose or scratching yourself in your nether region…in public. For guys this is actually impossible. The ship photographers seemingly take pictures of everything. They have no compunction about posting all photos on the ship’s gallery.

· Don’t be bothered that your stateroom attendant makes sculptures out of your pillows, towels or whatever he/she finds available. Hint – do not leave your underwear lying around. They are just angling for bigger tips.

· Visit your local flea market. Practice your negotiating skills. This will prepare you for the island stops and bizarre bazaars. On a cruise stop, paying more than half of the asking price is lame.

· Buy a calypso CD and Bobby Ferrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Practice your favorite Karaoke numbers to the beat of steel drums.

· Find a local all-you-can-eat buffet and visit it several times over the next few days. Consume mass quantities of everything. The goal is to stretch your stomach. Again, if you vomit, that’s fine. You are in training. Vomiting on the cruise, however, is not permitted, especially on the party balcony.

· Dust off your favorite resort attire and get in the mood early. Just don’t wear it in public. You neighbors will talk. On the cruise you will be part of the Brotherhood of Pasty-faced, and Pasty-legged Men Wearing Hawaiian Shirts.

If you follow these pre-cruise regimens, I guarantee that all will have a memorable time.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Grillin' and Chillin'

This is inaugural weekend for grillin’ and chillin’ – igniting the grill monster, and chillin’ on the patio.

Our dog is especially fond of this annual launch – he knows more pats are in store – his tail in perpetual motion. He is less enthusiastic while I’m around the barbecue. Experience has taught him that something will go awry, so he cowers in his pen while I fume over the flames and flare-ups.

Yesterday I braised (in traditional kitchen fashion) some short ribs with parsnips, red onion, garlic, rosemary, beef stock and zinfandel. Yes, I tasted the zinfandel first; just to make sure it wasn’t spit-out vintage Thursday. Forgive me, for I have zinned.

The side I chose was grill-roasted vegetables with pine nut pesto. While I have an in-door grill, I heard the siren call of the season and decided to grill outside. The vegetables were cubed parsnips, carrots, brussels sprouts (try cubing those), butternut squash, and shallots, with a few thyme sprigs tossed in. Brussels sprouts is one of my anti-guy foods, but mixed in with other veggies is tolerable. I find parsnips pretty bland as well but pine nut pesto can salvage most anything.

Both recipes are from Food and Wine Magazine. I usually faithfully follow a first-timer recipe. Then I begin making changes. Next time - no parsnips in the short ribs recipe*. Maybe sweet potatoes instead – and in the roasted vegetable dish as well.

I like most root vegetables but parsnips, turnips and rutabagas have more subtle flavors – a bit too subtle for my taste. I’ll keep rutabagas in the mix because a veggie with such a great name must be consumed now and then.

The first dance with the grill monster went fairly well – it led, I followed.

Last season I made the mistake of buying some briquettes that were so chemically soaked that they ignited before I even reached for the match, soon spouting more flames than the Shrek dragon. They also threw off my timing. Thinking I needed about 30 minutes for the coals to be ready, I returned to the kitchen for other prep work. Wrong.

I haven’t decided how I will prepare the New York steaks tonight. I have fallen in love with simple technique using a cast iron skillet – searing them in canola oil on the stove, and finishing them (still skilleted) in the oven at 350 degrees for about two minutes per side, with some butter, garlic and thyme. Sea salt is preferred. Maybe tonight I’ll put the skillet on the grill monster. Live on the edge, I always say.

Sunday night I’m doing a whole chicken outside, not beer can, but something similar using white wine as the enema. Sorry – infusion.

PJ is mildly amused each barbecue season. She’s guessing that it will take another 10 years for me to earn my barbecue eagle badge. I have noted that she never ventures near the grill monster. She gets to chill, while I grill.

The good news is that I’m not so old that the singed arm and eyebrow hair won’t grow back.

*There is a reason that the Simon & Garfunkel hit was not entitled “Parsnips, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Breaking Fast

I just had one of my favorite breakfasts, and it included a leftover. For the record, my fast lasted 12 hours. That’s enough fasting for me.

The basics are pancetta, scrambled eggs, and dill hollandaise sauce.

Pancetta is Italian bacon - not easy to find. It is cured with salt and spices but not usually smoked. How discernible is pancetta from good old-fashioned American porkers? Very little. But because of its Italian lineage, stores can charge more.

Trader Joes sells four-ounce packages of diced pancetta. Dill hollandaise is a basic hollandaise recipe with 1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh dill added to the blender just prior to slowly pouring in the melted butter.

The dill hollandaise was leftover from an asparagus recipe I prepared for guests over the weekend. The asparagus is sprinkled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper and baked in a baking dish at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes. The time depends on the thickness of the stalks. Asparagus doneness is a matter of taste. If you pick up a stalk and it collapses like al dente* spaghetti, it is over-cooked. You won’t even need teeth to process it. Process? That would be eating. Fork-tender is usually a good indicator.

The dill hollandaise is served on the side at the table. It is a rich sauce, so don’t water-board the asparagus with it.

For breakfast, first sauté a couple ounces of pancetta for 4-5 minutes, to a crispness similar to the way you like your bacon. Whip up whatever portion of scrambled eggs is needed for one person, or as hungry as you may be. Blend the eggs and pancetta together until the eggs are done (the whites of the eggs disappear), then top with the reheated dill hollandaise. There is a fair amount of salt in the pancetta and in the dill hollandaise mixture, so this concoction probably doesn’t need any more seasoning.

For two or more, simply adjust the pancetta and scrambled eggs’ portions.

*Al dente is a method of pasta preparation perfected by the noted Italian chef, Al Dente.