The Boy always likes helping in the kitchen. He likes helping anywhere, but especially in the kitchen. These days of Advent, that’s always a good thing: K can use all the help she can get in the kitchen.
Tonight: filling for the Christmas Eve dinner dumplings — the uszka (for the barszcz) filled with mushrooms and the pierogi stuffed with a sauerkraut-mushroom mixture. There’s lots of sauteing and grinding. We probably go through two sticks of butter in the process.
“We’re Polish, so that means we use butter for everything,” the Boy exclaims as we cook.
Tonight, we try out our new grinder attachment for the silver Beast, which usually sits on one of the racks in the basement but has spent Advent on the counter top upstairs. We finally have enough counter space to do it, why not?
We have definitely moved past the “It’s so new — don’t touch anything” phase of our new kitchen. It’s like the old one never existed. Certainly makes the pictures look better.
When we woke up, it was twenty-seven degrees outside. For South Carolina, that’s cold, especially in December. The really low temperatures like that don’t usually hit until January and February. It creates a challenge for the day’s activity: smoking of the holiday meat. With twenty-some pounds of pork loin, a rack of ribs (for soups), and several pounds of chicken to smoke, I’m going to have a long, cold day in such weather.
Part of being Polish in America is sharing that culture — with your family, with friends, and even with strangers, which is why you might spend the afternoon making literally hundreds of pierogi.
The Boy, ever willing and thrilled to help, makes a mess in the interest of helping. Afterward, he will come outside and help me in the yard.
The Boy woke up this morning already discussing the obstacle course we could create that day. “First I’ll go to school. Then I’ll come home. And when you come home from school, we’ll build the obstacle course!” It was the highlight of his morning, this little future utopia that was only hours away.
When I arrived home, though, he was asleep. It happens some times — he’s about to outgrow that nap, but every now and then, he falls asleep. Perhaps it’s when he and K are in the car line to pick up L. Maybe it’s watching a little TV with L after she’s done her homework. Perhaps it just a random “Mommy, I’m tired” situation. Whatever the cause today, he was asleep.
“Good,” I thought. “Just enough time to have a bit of coffee and relax for a few moments.” Just as the Boy looked forward to his afternoon obstacle course, I always look forward to that afternoon coffee. I put some water on and chatted with K about the day when suddenly from upstairs came an excited call: “Daddy!” That in itself was surprising: it’s always K whom he calls for. Not today. “Daddy, we can build the obstacle course!”
I went up to his room and started negotiating. “Well, first we have to do a little cooking.”
“Yeah, sure, sure!” he said. The Boy loves cooking, and I knew this wouldn’t be a problem. The next item, though, might be a little troublesome.
“Also, I have a little school work to do. How about you watch a Might Machines episode while I drink my coffee and finish up my work?” I suggested.
“Okay. I love Might Machines.” And who wouldn’t?
After coffee and Machines, it was time for kiełbasa. We had to cut up a link of sausage (read: I had to cut it up) and fry it. The Boy helped with the latter. He’s our professional stirrer. If anything needs stirring, providing it’s not spitting and bubbling too violently, he’s the man for the job.
It’s sometimes more trouble than help: he hasn’t mastered the gentle stir, and he tends to get a little excited and send various foods flying onto the cook top. Such was the case tonight.
“Daddy, some fell out.” I’d pick up the sausage piece, toss it back in, and wait for the next one. “Daddy, some more fell out.” One piece, two pieces. He tried putting it back in himself, but by the time he got the nerve up to try it, the sausage was quite hot.
Finally, we were all done.
Up the stairs we went, discussing our options.
“I want one just like the one yesterday.”
“I’m not sure I can make it like that again.” I didn’t mention the picture I had taken of it, nor the fact that I could in theory use the picture to recreate it almost perfectly. I wanted to try something else.
“It’s more of a maze than an obstacle course,” L observed when she got home from dance classes.
It got me to thinking about two different metaphors for life: mazes and obstacle courses. Which would be a more optimistic view? And how much more optimistic? A maze seems almost hopelessly impossible when it’s life-size and you’re stuck in it, I would imagine. At least with an obstacle course, one can theoretically see the end. But in the end, they both seem just a touch too negative. For most of us, life isn’t a game. Indeed, games and play in general, most child psychologists would argue, I think, are really only dress rehearsals for “real” life. Life is like a maze — at times. It’s like an obstacle course — at times. And sometimes it’s a couple of pieces of sausage tumbling from the frying pan.
The Boy is always eager to help, especially when it comes to cooking. Any time K is standing at the stove, E bounds over to the dining table, grabs a chair, and slides it across the whole room to the stove.
“I want to help!”
Most often, that’s just stirring. It’s simple, difficult to mess up, and difficult to make a mess doing. Today, though, as I was rinsing the boiled eggs we’d be putting in our żurek later, he decided he wanted to learn how to peel the eggs. Rather, having just woke up from a nap, he was encouraged to learn. Bribed, for he’s awfully fussy when he’s awakened prematurely.
“Want to help me cook?” I began.
He was reluctant at first, but the words “learn” and “something new” seemed to pique his interest, and soon enough, he was peeling an egg.
When it came time for dinner, he was quite insistent that he got the egg that he had peeled.
“Bardzo słuszna koncepcja.”
The Girl decided that she wanted to help K make barszcz, that most perfect of all uses of the beet. We’re meeting friends for a post-trick-or-treating party tomorrow night, and the hosts asked K to bring barszcz. What can I say — she’s a master. Everyone loves her barszcz — both varieties.
The Girl peeled some of the beets before heading off for a bath then peeled some of the carrots afterward. They all simmered with parsnip, garlic, onions, and some herbs to make the stock that will form the basis of the soup.
“Since it’s not a postny soup,” she said, “I also threw in some smoked ribs.” Which is to say, because it didn’t have to be vegetarian because of Lent or Advent, she used a few of the ribs I smoked a few weeks ago.
The other request was for smalec. In a word, smalec means lard, but to call the dish that shares the same name simply “lard” is a gross injustice. “Lard” is for frying donuts and cutlets. Smalec is a little slice of heaven — or perhaps a little glob of heaven, for it is essentially fat.
Fat with bacon bits, finely sliced (and sauteed in butter) onions, and slivers of apple (fried in the bacon drippings). At least that’s the way K’s mom taught her to make it. There are probably a thousand and one varieties, and truth be told, we’ve already begun experimenting: we took some of the meat from the ribs used in the barszcz stock and chopped it finely to mix in with the other ingredients for the smalec.
“Why not?” K shrugged when I suggested it. “It’s all pork.”
A friend invited me to join a social media group he’s set up that focuses on food. His friends — and he’s got many — have been posting the most amazing pictures of the most incredible things they’ve been cooking. It got me thinking today about what and how we eat.
I had a colleague who admitted to me that she and her husband almost never eat at home. “We go out every night because no one feels like cooking,” she laughed. And I recall reading an article somewhere some ten or so years ago about apartments built without a kitchen with the assumption that the owner/renter would eat out every day. Such eating misses out on what’s truly amazing about food, the creation process behind it. Often, for me, the preparation is just as enjoyable as the meal itself: having taken over Thanksgiving dinner for our family, I’m already beginning to think about what to cook. At the same time, though, I understand that that’s probably the case only because I cook so infrequently.
For K, who does most of the cooking, I think it’s not always quite as enjoyable, all the chopping and cutting and slicing and stirring. She often begins the cooking at night, after the kids have gone to bed, getting as much of it done before going to bed. Soups, for instance, are almost always completely done before she goes to bed. And while she does truly enjoy cooking (though perhaps baking a little more, I suspect), sometimes it can be just a drudgery for her.
That leads to the second half of my thoughts: the what. We rarely eat anything that could be called “processed.” Sure, we use canned beans in chili most of the time, and we sometimes cheat with this or that, but it’s usually what folks here in the south would call scratch cooking. K’s soups always begin with a pot full of vegetables and a couple of pieces of meat. And in recent years, we haven’t even bought sandwich meats all that much, preferring our own smoked meats to anything you can get in the store.
There’s a joy in that as well — the cutting of the wood, the preparation of the brine solution for marinating, the tending of the fire. It’s another case of the process being as enjoyable as the product. It all takes time, a finite resource that’s even scarcer when one figures the children into the equation. Yet what else is one going to spend the time doing? And besides, few things bring together a family as effectively as a good meal.
Perhaps a bonfire, with s’mores.