September 2009

When I was in my late 20’s, I once worked with an older male colleague who would tell me on more than one occasion that as he was drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, inevitably his wife would ask him what he wanted to eat for dinner.  His response was nearly always the same.

“I haven’t even had breakfast yet, why would I possibly know what I want for dinner.”

She probably sighed and took out a package of frozen steak or chicken and then both of them went off to work ignoring both the question and the answer that would still be facing them nine hours later. 

Fast forward 20 years and inevitably I find myself in the same predictament.  I however have learned not to ask the “what’s for dinner question,” only because I know the answer will inevitably be “what do you have?”

It’s usually not what I have in the downstairs freezer (sigh, yes, steak and chicken), it’s what I don’t have that I want.  Problem is I usually don’t know what I want.  If I stop at the upscale supermarket near my office after work, coming up with a daily dinner plan is never a problem; upscale shopping gives you lots of great menu ideas with prices to match.  Trying not to blow my entire paycheck on feeding the family, I shop at the “plain Jane” supermarket where prices are indeed much less but the range of products is decidedly less exotic.

It had been surprisingly cold and gray the first few days of September and since it was nearly 6:00 p.m. when I first walked into the supermarket,  I was scrambling to think of something to make fast. Because of the weather, chili came to mind.  Problem was prices at the “plain Jane” supermarket had suddenly escalated and I was staring at packages of chopped meat that were not only outrageously expensive ($9.00 for a package of hamburger?!) but also didn’t look that good. Perusing what else was available, I came across some cubes of beef chuck on sale ($3.00 a package) plus a small package of boneless beef short ribs also on sale (another $3.00).  Could I run home and pull off making a beef stew in less than an hour?  Try me.

When I pulled into the driveway, Rachel was calling to ask me if I would drive the boyfriend home.  (Big sigh.)  It’s not that the boyfriend lives far from us – it’s just that he lives on the one street that has a STOP SIGN ON EVERY BLOCK.  When you’re in a hurry, this is a real pain.  They both got in the car and I drove him home.  Once we were back in our driveway, Rachel helped me unload the groceries when I realized her father would be home in 20 minutes and dinner was still only in my head.

I’m a great multi-tasker.  Some days I’ve come home and started cooking to “get things started” with my coat still on.  I went upstairs to change, brought down a load of laundry and put it in the washing machine, grabbed a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from our wine fridge in the basement and went back upstairs to start dinner.

Normally, a good stew takes a few hours either on the stove or the way I like it — bubbling in a hot oven.  I was determined that this was going to happen in under 40 minutes.  How?  I had to get out the pressure cooker.  I know many people who are deathly afraid to use a pressure cooker.  Is it the hissing noise?  Is it the threat of having a pot explode in your face?  Is it a bad childhood memory that Mom actually did have a pressure cooker explode all over the kitchen?  Anyway, not only am I not afraid of using a pressure cooker, it’s managed to help me put dinner on the table very quickly on many an occasion. 

I got out the pressure cooker, added some vegetable oil, opened the packages of cubed beef and quickly seared them.  I then cut up the boneless short ribs into equal chunks and added them to the pot.  Of course everything started to smoke, so I had to crank up the exhaust (which in our house does little more than make a lot of noise it doesn’t actually blow the smoke out anywhere), added salt, pepper, and Hungarian paprika.  I realized I didn’t have any red wine I wanted to part with for cooking so I remembered a couple of beef stew recipes that used beer.  I went back downstairs to get a can of beer, opened it and poured half of it on the now-seared meat, added a couple of cups of water and put the lid on.

I put on a pot of water to boil thinking I would start boiling the vegetables since the original intention had been to take the meat out of the pressure cooker and finish it off under the broiler with the vegetables.  I peeled some carrots and potatoes and put them in the water.  I sliced some onions and mushrooms and chopped up some fresh parsley.  The pressure cooker started to smell like it was burning so letting the steam escape by tilting the top, I opened it.  Indeed, the meat while already soft had absorbed all the liquid.  More beer and more water were added and the whole thing was dumped into a clay pot with the onions, mushrooms, potatoes and carrots and put in the oven. A few minutes later I noticed a problem.  While the broiler was doing an ok job of broiling the meat, I also had more liquid than I wanted.  That said, I ended up putting the entire contents of the dish BACK IN THE PRESSURE COOKER to get rid of the excess liquid.  In the meantime I had some homemade bread leftover in the fridge, rubbed it with some olive oil and garlic and fried up the pieces on the stove. 

Finally everything was done.  Lynn had been watching me like a whirling dervish during all of this when Rachel came downstairs to ask if she had time to take a shower before dinner.  I looked at her and said sure.  This gave me some time to set the table and have a (much needed) vodka martini as an aperitif.

A few minutes later when I opened the pressure cooker, everything was perfect – the beef brown and tender, the vegetables nicely cooked.  I poured the contents back into the clay pot, arranging the grilled slices of bread around the sides.  Besides the harried dinner prep, the end result was terrific and ironically I liked this dish cooked with beer better than any version I had ever done with red wine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *