Ever try to wrangle cats?

That’s how last night’s dinner went. My lesson for you from this whole debacle is to plan accordingly. I vowed to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly here, so let this be an “ugly.”

Don’t get me wrong. The final product turned out pretty tasty, but it was
not perfect, not to my standards, and it’s all a result of piss poor planning. While I was groaning at my failures, though, I kept reminding myself being mad about this makes me kind of an arsehole. That made me slightly less invested in anger. Chastising myself also helps.

Even the photos from last night were subpar, but the colors are kind of nice. I guess.

If you’re looking for some realism in a food blog, this is it. Not everything is a home run, and that’s okay.

Read on to see why. This is another long one, so I’ve broken it down into parts so you can find the bits that interest you the most. It is definitely TL;DR if you’re in a hurry, but I’m very aware of this. That’s why you get subheadings.

I also started by giving you the recipes in case that’s all you need before telling you the details of how I turned this into a three ring circus and an 8:30 PM serve time. Be aware that I started the actual cooking (not marinating) at 5:00. Maybe it’ll help you plan or at least feel better when you don’t.

First of all, I was inspired to make this because I was watching Ant-Man, and the kid at the end was eating pork chops, mac and cheese, and green beans. This looked amazing for some reason.

My original goal was simply to make the homemade macaroni and cheese. I thought other people were taking care of the rest. The series of unfortunate events was set into motion when I realized too late in the day that I had somewhere along the way agreed to cook the entire dinner.

Okay. Sure. Not a problem, but I had 8 pork chops and no idea what to do with them. I love pork, but I’m still learning how to cook it with the same ease and confidence as other meats. In past pork-cooking events, I’ve created a leather shoe, a hockey puck, some bones, charcoal briquettes, a lovely Yule log, a fire. You can see why this didn’t excite me.

Baked Pork Chops w/Spiced Rum & Herb Gravy

After a little research and many realizations I was short on both time and ingredients to do anything that looked appealing, I threw caution to the wind and marinated it for an hour in something I made up on the spot (granted, the basic ideas came from several recipes I found, but they all had 8+ hour marinating times).

The final decision consisted of non-measured amounts of a series of random ingredients. I just kept tasting the mixture and imagining its effect on pork in the short term. Here’s the list:

These are the first round draft picks for the pork marinade. I took this picture before adding sage and onion.
  • A mix of dry and fresh thyme
  • White onion slices
  • Minced garlic
  • Dry sage
  • Lemon juice
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Captain Morgan Spiced Rum

    Bag of pork chops after round 1.
Bag of pork chops after Round 2. Doesn’t raw meat covered in liquor and onion just look…like a very bad idea?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then it went into the refrigerator for an hour. Well, that was the plan.

Ideally, I was going to marinate them for that hour, spread them evenly in a baking dish, separate the onion layers and spread them on top, and cook the pork for at least an hour at 400. Toward the end, I intended to drain the liquid (part marinade and part pork drippings) from the baking dish and use some of it to make a very interesting rum gravy (just some flour, the liquid, and a dash of the same herbs as the marinade).

Technically, I suppose that’s what I did, except you can add a half hour to the marinating time. This was an accident. We’ll revisit this.

Pork. Which rhymes with dork. Which is what I feel like after trying to make gravy and ending up with dumplings. Oh, wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. By all means, carry on.

Four (Six!) Cheese Mac and Cheese

So I spent $30 on cheese for mac and cheese. One of those cheeses was gruyère, which is a favorite. Let me reveal something that makes people question my humanity.

I don’t really like cheese.

Wait.

Shh…

Stop yelling.

I like cheese where cheese belongs, but I don’t necessarily like a slice of cheese, say, on a cracker. It’s fine on tacos (sometimes), grilled cheese, lasagne, and of course, in mac and cheese.

However, all bets are off with gruyère. I don’t even know why, but it’s delicious and I had to restrain myself from biting into the hunk.

I used this recipe from Food.com’s very own Swedish Chef. I’ve used this before, and it’s pretty amazing. This recipe has a single flaw, that half the cheeses are measured by cup and the other half by pound, but it’s not a huge deterrent to success. Read the reviews. Only two aren’t so great. Nobody’s perfect, so that’s a good ratio.

Of course, I made a couple alterations as you can see in the photo below. Instead of four cheese, mine turned out to be six cheese thanks to the Italian cheese blends below. Not being able to find fontina any other way should have been the first sign of danger, but alas, I kept going.

Aren’t they beautiful? If you don’t own the CHOSIGT from IKEA, you should click on the picture and order one right now. Only $4.99, and it’s great (get it?). You just put the top on and grate into the little receptacle.

For the most part, the mac and cheese was not the problem in this fiasco. Everything with it went relatively smoothly. The only problem was that I was out of onion powder and opted for minced onions instead. This made very little difference. Let’s just say technically, I only made three of the mistakes mentioned in this HuffPo article on mac and cheese mistakes, and I don’t consider expensive cheese or cavatappi over elbow to be mistakes. I do, however, see their point.

What’s that you say? That’s only two mistakes? Yep. We’ll get to the third one in a bit; feel free to skip to the section titled “where it all went wrong.”

I think it looks pretty good, but after last night, what do I know?

My sister graciously helped me grate the cheese, which is something I hate to do. At one point, I was measuring the Italian blend, poured about half a cup into the bowl, looked at the container, asked myself aloud, “This is about a cup, right?,” shrugged, and then dumped the entire contents of the container into the cheese mix.

My sister was befuddled. “Did you just ask if that was a cup, shrug, and dump the whole thing in?”

“Yes.”

She laugh-snorted with derision (or maybe it was awe?) and went on grating.

Hey, that’s what I do.

Fine. So I didn’t follow it exactly then. The cheese ratios may have been a little different, with more gruyère and Italian blend than it calls for, but that’s something else I really like about this recipe. It leaves room to blend cheeses in your own realm of understanding.

I also made another slight modification by doubling the cayenne and omitting the nutmeg. I found last time the onion/nutmeg combo made it taste a bit like spaetzle, which I love, but that’s not where my head was. The takeaway here is that you can play with the spices (like the cheese) depending on your tastes.

Cayenne and dry mustard in the roux before the cheese is introduced.

I’m not going to spend much more time on the mac and cheese other than to tell you I trust this recipe and recommend it whole-heartedly. If I had to rate it, I’d give it a full 5 stars out of 5. Please leave a review for the Swedish Chef at Food.com if you use it (you don’t have to credit me with helping you find it, but I wouldn’t object to it, either).

Green Beans with Almonds

This is an old standby that by itself is very easy to make. It’s only when you add in poor planning and unanticipated obstacles that it becomes rocket science.

Green beans isolated. Notice the almonds in the picture don’t look burnt at all…

My recipe for this is quite simple. There aren’t exact measurements because, like most of what I do, it’s a matter of taste.

  • Fresh whole green beans, tops and bottoms snipped (16 oz.)
  • Natural, unsalted, raw almond slices (roughly 1/8 cup)
  • Olive oil (1 tbsp.)
  • Fresh garlic, sliced or minced (1 clove – up to 2 if you like it garlicky)
  • Sea salt (very small pinch – the soy sauce has enough sodium. Man, I sound like your doctor. Well, your doctor and I are correct.)
  • Cracked pepper (which, this time, I forgot) (to taste)
  • Soy sauce, low sodium (a splash)

Toss the green beans with salt, pepper, garlic, and half the olive oil. Heat the oven to 350. Heat a skillet (ideally, cast iron) to medium heat, add the rest of the olive oil, and toast the almonds until they’re lightly brown. Take almonds off the heat QUICKLY (they’ll keep cooking) and put them aside. Save the oil. 

Spread green beans on a cookie sheet and bake until desired crunchiness. I like mine nearly raw, but that’s not everyone’s taste. 

Remove beans/garlic mix from oven and toss with almonds. Heat skillet used for almonds (that still has the oil) to medium heat and add bean/garlic/almond mix just long enough to brown some of the beans. Splash lightly with soy sauce and mix right before taking them off the heat. Serve hot.

Sautéed Coleslaw Mix

Now let me tell you how simple the cabbage mix was.

I didn’t make it.

Mom came in for the last minute save on that. Easiest moment of the night, hands down…even if I did, for one second, think she showered it with balsamic vinegar (has its place. This is not it). If you want to know what she did do, though, here it is.

Heat olive oil in a pan (medium because the coleslaw mix is pretty delicate), toss coleslaw mix (or just cabbage) onto the heat, add a pinch of salt and pepper and minced garlic. Sauté until it’s heated through, browned a bit, but still crunchy. Splash with soy sauce. Toss again.

Close up on the coleslaw mix. Thanks, Mom!

Where it all went wrong

This all looks pretty easy, no? Normally, it is, but, well, we know this didn’t go well. See, here’s the deal. About halfway into making the mac and cheese, I realized I had very little olive oil. By “very little,” I’m estimating about a quarter teaspoon could be coaxed out of the bottle. The timing on this sucked because the meat needed to go in, but I don’t like leaving food in an oven if I’m not in the vicinity. If I went to the store, I’d have to do that. So I waited. What’s another fifteen minutes of marinating? Not a problem. So we’d eat at 7:15 instead of 7. As I said, not a problem.

The store is very close by, so off I went. No sooner did I turn right in that direction than I was stopped by the presence of party parking at someone’s house. Now, normally, when you go to parties at someone’s house where there isn’t a lot of space for parking, what do you do?

The answer is (hopefully) not “park right on the road in the lane.” I didn’t take a picture, so let me try to describe it to you. They love pick up trucks in this town (I drive one by necessity, and sometimes I get the love affair with them but not always). This street was a two-lane residential street, and the houses are set back only about two car-lengths from the road. Most have driveways, but at this house, the driveway already had four cars in it (two across, two deep). There are no real curbs on the roads, but the lawns at these houses are kept rather nice, so maybe these people didn’t want to pull onto finely manicured lawns.

Whatever the motivation, the road contained two pick up trucks parked end to end on one side of the road (and facing the wrong direction). Directly across from them on the other side, there were two more pick up trucks parked on the road. These people had seemingly thought about pulling off the road a little, decided, “Aw, screw this,” and settled on parking 4/5 of the truck in the lanes of the road and the other 1/5 lazily on the curb. There was about a 21.64% chance my F-150 would fit between them.

Luckily, before I turned around, another Ford truck came the other way, traveled between them successfully, and renewed my hope. It took me a whole two minutes to squeeze through the line of trucks, all the while making that, “eeeeeeeeeee,” noise that sits somewhere between a scream and a whimper.

We’ve added five minutes to the trip already. 

Then I got to the store, and it took an inordinate amount of time to find olive oil because it wasn’t where it should be. Asking someone was a gamble because the first person had to ask me what olive oil was used for, and the second person couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t where “it’s supposed to be.” Well, it’s not. Let’s find it!

Finally, we located it (at the bottom of the shelves, beneath the potato chips). I headed to the register.

The line was six people deep. This isn’t a problem by itself, but it turns into one when the first person is complaining about her card being declined, the second person needs cigarettes the store apparently doesn’t carry, and the fourth person has a cart filled with ALL the Dr. Pepper in the Panhandle of Florida.

I’ve now lost a full thirty six minutes. I also forgot my phone, so I couldn’t do the logical thing and tell someone at the house to put the pork in the oven.

I was 2.4 seconds from putting the olive oil back (in its normal location) and using sesame oil in its place. Then I figured, “Well, I’m here so let me stick it out.”

Finally, I got out of there, took a different route home, and got the meat into the oven. That went smoothly, thankfully, and it was time to cook the pasta for the mac and cheese.

I.

Overcooked. 

It. 

I’ve probably overcooked pasta three times in my life, including this one. It’s in my DNA to instinctively know when it’s time for pasta to come off the stovetop.

At least, it is when I’m not distracted by the fact my beans (just bought them two days ago) were covered in a fine layer of slime and a nice fluff of mold.

Luckily, I had an extra pound of pasta and an extra bag of beans. Thank you, Publix BOGO! Now, this means I didn’t really get anything free in the end, but I did salvage dinner.

I suppose the pasta wasn’t really overcooked, but here’s the thing. I live in the south, and southern mac and cheese is generally pretty mushy. It’s good that way when that’s what you want. I, however, did not want this. I wanted a luxurious cheese sauce unapologetically gracing the ridges, curves, and tunnels of firm cavatappi.

Remember those Huffington Post mistakes and how I said I was only making three of them? Overcooked pasta was the third. That was not happening on my watch. Therefore, I stand by the assertion I made only two of their mistakes, both by choice. I fixed the third.

I cooked the second box of pasta, this time allowing it to cook only a few minutes so it would finish cooking in the oven with the sauce. I whipped up the cheese sauce and mixed it with the pasta, using a very old, very dilapidated plastic spoon so it was like churning butter by hand. I just laughed, thought, “figures,” and dug in. After what my right arm still believes was an epoch, I poured the pasta and cheese mix into the ramekins and baking dish. In the end, the mac and cheese did not let me down.

Those beans, though. I burned the almonds, didn’t have enough garlic left (still needed some for the cabbage), splashed too much soy sauce on them, and couldn’t seem to get them to brown in the skillet.

Finally, with the beans on a pizza pan on top of the pork (which was STILL not done) trying their best to resist being cooked, the ramekins and baking dish full of mac and cheese on the shelf below, I still needed to make cabbage and gravy.

It is now 8:00. Everyone is starving. I hate myself. I’m considering pizza.

As I mentioned above, Mom swooped in to help with the cabbage. That left me able to work on the gravy. I drained the liquid from the pork, reserved some of it, put the chops back into the oven, and started on the gravy.

It smelled awesome, but the damned flour – even after sifting – simply would not break down. I essentially made dumplings. Pork flavored dumplings in a thick sauce.

At this point, I just gave up. Everything was out of the oven, I got the gravy to an edible state, and all the dishes still resembled food items.

I know when to call the game.

I just wish I’d taken a picture of the 3 and a half foot stack of dishes I created in my wake.

Finally, watch as I take dreadfully unexciting photos from ridiculous angles in bad lighting.
Oh, look. There’s a napkin in the background. Award winning.
I’ll give you 3 seconds to tell me what ruined this photo, other than oddball framing. And 3…2…1…

******

UPDATE: I had some of the mac and cheese left over. If you microwave it, you will get a nice cheese oil river in the bowl. Use the oven to heat it.

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