I am a safety conscious man; I will often look up from my cellphone when crossing streets, I historically get a tetanus shot ever 25ish years whether I need it or not, and from time-to-time I like to test the smoke detectors in my home to make sure they’re working, which is a very responsible thing to do – though you wouldn’t know it to judge from my family’s reaction. On a completely unrelated note, I probably shouldn’t be allowed to cook anymore. That’s sad, because autumn is upon us here in the Midwest, and with its colder weather and colored leaves comes a delicious mandate for the heartier foods we had eschewed during the steamy summer months. I’m a big fan of this transition back to carbs and casseroles, which is why – last weekend – I loaded up the kids and headed to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for my award-winning “Pork Smolder Chili.” The ol’ Pork Smolder is always a labor of love, and cooking it is at least a two day affair; sometimes three, depending on how much tinkering needs to be done, which means it’s a little bit different every time. This year’s first attempt came out pretty well, in that it made my lips burn and my face sweat, though it lacked the delayed back-of-the-throat flame sensation that’s historically my favorite part of the dish. I did share it with a couple people to get some outside opinions, and they were roughly the same as mine; “It’s a little sweeter than usual” said one friend, and “MILK! MILK! NOW! OHMYGODGETMEMILK!!!” said my wife. So flavor-wise, I thought that was respectable for a first outing, if not a home run. However, from a cooking standpoint, it was clear that I was a little out of practice, by which I mean the Surgeon General should slap a label on me warning anyone who reads it against letting me within 100 yards of their kitchen.
I say this for a couple of reasons, the first being the can of old grease I dumped down the garbage disposal thinking it was very rotten peaches. If you’d ever spent much time in my refrigerator you’d understand why I can be forgiven for making that mistake, as leftovers have a way of making their way to the back, occasionally lingering for long enough to grow limbs and become sentient. I once found a bottle of apple juice that had what appeared to be a giant closed eyeball floating in the middle of it, and was terrified to pour it out for fear that it would realize what was happening open it’s creepy eye, and stare angrily at me as I dumped it down the drain. So at any rate, I grabbed what I first assumed to be a can of grease, decided it was evolving fruit, and dumped it in the garbage disposal. My mistake became obvious as the contents slowly released from the can in one gelatinous wad, and disappeared into the drain with a moist thud. Figuring it was a bad idea to run that much congealed grease through my pipes, I rolled up my sleeve and shoved my hand into the garbage disposal, scooping up as much as I could as it squirted out between my fingers and oozed back into the sink. Eventually I got most of it out and grabbed a new can, which leads me to the second reason I shouldn’t be allowed near kitchens for awhile: the raging grease fire on the stove top. This was a completely unrelated incident that I actually thought was pretty cool, despite my wife’s assertions to the contrary. It was an innocent mistake; I had just finished frying the bacon – which improves any dish it graces, including chili – and thought, “Hey, I’d better pour this grease into the can before it congeals and gets stuck on the pan forever!” However, while a good thought from the standpoint of reducing dish scrubbing, this turned out to be a terrible idea in practice. Apparently you’re supposed to wait until the grease cools off a little before pouring it out of the pan. The bacon people neglected to print that warning on their package…or maybe they did print it – in fact it may have even been prominent – I can’t imagine ever looking for instructions on how to cook bacon, so I didn’t read it. Unfortunately, that was only mistake number one; mistake number two was trying to pour from a scalding hot cast iron pan that weighs over 10lbs with one hand in a giant oven mit, and the other holding a tiny pear can to catch the grease. Mistake number three, then, was attempting to execute this maneuver over the still blazing hot burner. This combination of errors resulted in a pretty impressive grease fire on the stove top, which I sincerely wish I had a picture of. Unfortunately, I was too busy trying to calm my wife, who had watched in disbelief as this scene took place, and was now frantically trying to figure out what to do. Calming her was no small feat, because she wouldn’t stop yelling things like “Oh my God! There’s a fire on the stove! What do we do?! Is it baking powder or baking soda?!?! WHICH ONE IS IT?! DAN HURRY OH MY GOSH!!”, whereas my immediate thought was “Huh…look at that!” I did tell her that the whole powder versus soda argument probably mattered more in baking cookies than it did in fire control – though even that was moot, as she stood frozen and terrified, never making a move for either – and I figured the fire would burn out on its’ own anyway, which it did after a minute or so – but of course the fun didn’t end there. The fire had burned for long enough to fill the house with a thick fog of smoke, which eventually rolled across the living room and settled firmly atop the nearest smoke detector. While I’m no stranger to using smoke detectors as oven timers, this was apparently a new concept for my children, who I guess are easily frightened, because when the beeping started it was followed immediately by yelling and crying from both the two-year-old and the infant. This time my wife and I immediately leapt into action, throwing open windows and doors with complete disregard for weather or bugs, and grabbing magazines and throw pillows to wave violently in the direction of the smoke detectors while cursing their infernal – though potentially life-saving – noise. We moved much faster during this emergency because, while the fire could’ve destroyed our home, taking our belongings, memories, and even lives, none of that holds a candle to the motivational power of children’s screaming.
Eventually everyone calmed down, so I felt like it was an overall successful – if trying – cooking experience, and certainly more interesting than anything you’ll ever see those cooking show wienies dealing with. (It’s not really “Hell’s Kitchen” unless there’s a screaming toddler in it) And while I’m still not sure what was different about this batch of chili, there’s a lot of cold weather left to keep trying…though now that I think about it, I forgot the fennel. Dangit! This is why I need to print out the recipe and cross things off as I go! Oh well – someone bring me the crockpot! It’s time for round two!