Oh, boy. We have a lot to cover. My family was here for the past week, for a whirlwind tour of Portland, Seattle (although I wasn’t present for that portion), and a five-day stay on the San Juan Islands, all the way up in practically Canada. Somewhere in there, I found time to cook two Gwyneth recipes for these unsuspecting fools, and it wasn’t totally awful! Even after the grease fire.
I’ll spare the minute details of the Portland stay, especially because I was drunk for more than half of it. Between the Oregon Brewers Festival, a Timbers soccer game, and TWO nights of family karaoke in a row, we all had a half-remembered blast. This is what happens when 10 or so Irish/Jewish folk (and one frightening aunt getting in touch with her German ancestry) get together on vacation.
On Wednesday, cousin Kevin, friend Katie, and I dropped the dogs off at the kennel and drove up to Seattle to pick up sister Nikki and boyfriend Tim, in from Chicago. The five of us crammed into the car and drove to Anacortes, where we would catch the ferry to Orcas Island. As we pulled into line, we practically drove right into Aunt Carrie, who had left Portland for Orcas Island the day before, but hadn’t gotten on any of the ferries the previous evening, for various reasons. We wasted a lot of time waiting for the ferry, since my dad had told us to get in line FAR too early. We entertained ourselves by watching a police officer plant drugs under a random car to test a new drug-sniffing dog, who more or less failed his examination. We feared the dog would be put down for his failure, as the police officer was the most serious man in the entire Pacific Northwest. NO JOKES ALLOWED about the police dogs, apparently.
The ferry ride was beautiful and slightly frigid, but we persevered on the open deck, in order to watch for sea otters, of which we saw several. Sadly, no orcas were spotted. (Incidentally, the “Orcas” in Orcas Island has nothing to do with the whales — it was discovered by some Spanish guy named Orcas, in a happy coincidence for the tourism industry.)
Upon disembarking from the ferry, we were greeted by my parents, who had already spent two days in our rental house, while the rest of us toured Seattle or begrudgingly put in some required time at work/school. They led a caravan of vehicles through the windy dirt roads of Orcas Island, to our little rental home in Rosario.
Oh, and by “little,” I mean THIS:
The view from the second floor.
The huge kitchen, complete with Cap’n Crunch.
The house was enormously beautiful. It overlooked basically PERFECTION, with three floors, five bedrooms, three bathrooms, several balconies, a beautiful kitchen, a ping-pong table, and, as you’ll see later, a fireplace that doubles as a doorway.
We entered the house like the incoming cast of a new season of the Real World, screaming, “OH MY GOD!!!” and running around like lunatics, trying to pick out the best possible bed on which to throw our suitcases, before our roommates snatched up the best spots. Katie, Kevin, and I ended up in the upstairs corner bedroom, with a quite fantastic view. Nikki and Tim got the worst bedroom. Aunt Carrie and Uncle Billy got the main floor bedroom, connected to the living room by both a door and a double-sided fireplace through which the room could be seen by anyone in the living room, which appeared to both horrify and titillate Uncle Billy. Little sister Sara and her boyfriend/friends would be arriving from Seattle the next day (via seaplane, no less), and they were relegated to the basement area, as we knew they would be drinking and screaming until 5 AM (and oh, how right we were, KALLIE).
When Sara and friends arrived the next evening, Aunt Carrie and Uncle Billy were already asleep in their bedroom. So my mom did the only natural thing — introduced Sara’s friends to them by crawling through the fireplace:
Mom wakes Aunt Carrie and Uncle Billy up.
Just having a conversation!
From that point on, all 13 of us spent the weekend drinking, playing games, cooking, and exploring the islands via car, hiking path, and, of course, kayak. Our kayak trip was guided by two of the happiest people in the world, who live in a former inn on 50 or so acres of beautiful coastal land, where they exist in absolute paradise and almost certainly augment their kayak business by growing marijuana. Having no kids of their own, they plan to bequeath their land to the government when they die. Upon hearing this, I immediately began to formulate a plan by which I could become their heir. We’ll see how it goes.
Oh, I should note that no orcas were spotted on our kayak trip, but we did see several families of harbor seals (one swam under my kayak!), handled a big sea star, and paddled through a veritable sea of moon jellyfish. Orcas be damned, it was the best part of the trip.
The second best part of the trip was Tim’s display of his hidden talent. Let me try to explain the art of the Back Fart to you.
First, find a smooth, flat surface — the fake marble coffee table in the house worked perfectly — and cover it with a small puddle of water. Then, lower your pants to just below your tailbone, raise your shirt up over your shoulder blades, and lay on your back. Lift your legs and contract your back, and you should hear hilarious farts!
It sounds stupid, and Nikki tried her best to prevent Tim from doing this in front of her entire family, but she forgot how simpleminded we can be. Within seconds, we were in tears of laughter. Within 15 minutes, every single one of us had tried their turn back farting. For the friends at hand who weren’t very familiar with our extended family, this was a bit baffling, and probably what they expected least from a family reunion. For those of us in the family, this was just par for the course. (I am also happy to report that my back farts were voted second-best after Tim, who is truly the Mozart of back farts.)
The only person not taking part in the back farts was Aunt Carrie, who had already gone to bed. Now, let me relate this from her perspective:
She goes to bed, possibly a little drunk, after a pleasant evening with her family. Next thing she knows, she’s woken up by extremely loud farts, followed by uproarious laughter. This goes on for over five minutes, the farting and the laughing. Finally, she gets out of bed and comes to see what the hell is going on. She’s greeted by the sight of her various family members, shirtless in the middle of the living room, laying on their backs, lifting their legs, and farting loudly, as everyone applauds and cheers. A little disorienting, no?
Of course, the best part of all is that she watched this for nearly 10 minutes before she managed to see Tim prep the table for the next back-farter with a new puddle of water, cuing her in to what was really going on. Which means for practically 10 minutes, Aunt Carrie thought she was watching her family members actually farting for the amusement of the group. And, to tell the truth, she didn’t even seem that surprised at the idea.
Hopefully this helps explain me a bit more.
Now, the cooking.
My dad’s birthday was Thursday, and all he requested was that his son cook him a meal. Fucking great. I would have preferred to just get him a tie, but no. I must cook for 13 people.
At some point in the day, we went to the grocery store and purchased a massive amount of meat and beer. Some of my family members (particularly Uncle Billy) seemed apprehensive at the idea of having to eat disgusting Gwyneth Paltrow food, so I chose the least healthy meal in the book: Cheesy Stuffed Burgers. I also decided to make No-Fry French Fries, because duh, burgers and fries.
Gwyneth assured me the entire meal would take no more than half an hour. As we’ve seen time and time again, this was a blatant lie. It actually took well over two hours. (Of course, I was quadrupling the recipe, so she isn’t entirely to blame.)
I prepped the burger patties first, by sauteing some diced onions and fresh rosemary in olive oil, until the onions were soft and sweet. As you can probably assume, this smelled fantastic. The aroma of sauteed onions and rosemary together definitely helped soothe some of my family’s anxieties about having a Gwyneth meal.
After the onion cooled, I mixed it with a whopping 4.5 pounds of ground beef, smashing it all together with my hands. The only other seasonings were salt and pepper. This seemed a little basic, but we must follow her rules, right? I was then instructed to form the meat into groups of two patties. The patties would be used to sandwich the shredded cheese — I used Gruyere and cheddar. Finally, I had to pinch the edges of the patties to seal the cheese in the middle. Half an hour later, voila! 14 cheesy stuffed burger patties.
The burger patties, actually not looking too shabby.
Uncle Billy helpfully instructs me, not at ALL posing for a picture to look useful.
While the grill heated outside, I (along with lots of help from various family members) peeled and cut many, many potatoes. The potatoes had to be soaked in cold water, for whatever reason, and then painstakingly dried off individually. Finally, Nikki tossed the sliced potatoes in olive oil, salted them, and we ran into our first problem. The kitchen only had two very small baking sheets and drying racks. Gwyneth instructed me to put a drying rack on a baking sheet and to put the fries on top, so the juices would drip down, and the fries would crisp up. This made sense, but it also meant if you wanted to make a larger batch of fries, you would be cooking forever, seeing as you couldn’t layer the fries on the baking sheets. But we decided, screw it, and we layered away, popping the two overstuffed trays into the oven.
Within seconds, smoke was billowing out of the oven. You see, the olive oil was dripping down below the baking sheets, and then being cooked and burnt on its own, causing massive amounts of smoke and more than a few fears of an oven grease fire. Tim, always cool-headed, opened the oven, screaming at me, “HOW ARE YOU OKAY WITH THIS?” allowing more smoke to escape into the room. The fire alarms started going off.
Clearly, hand-drying fries is very thrilling.
That’s not a ghost; that’s billowing smoke.
Meanwhile, out on the porch, the grill had burst into flames.
The previous night, my dad had grilled chicken, which, presumably, had dripped down onto the burners in the grill, now fueling a grease fire. Tim again rushed to the rescue, panicking and just standing near the grill. I wasn’t much help, either, as I simply threw my hands up and yelled, “I QUIT.” My dad, however, kept his cool and put out the fire most impressively: by pouring his beer on the grill from the upstairs balcony.
Tim faces the fire.
Dad saves the day FROM THE SKY.
One crisis averted (and the oven crisis simply ignored, assuming it would fix itself), I returned to the kitchen to prepare the burgers for actual grilling, my nerves now completely shattered. My dad helped with the grilling, since the burgers quickly fell apart, causing cheese to spill out. It immediately became apparent that Gwyneth’s technique of sandwiching the cheese between two patties (rather than shoving it into the middle of a whole patty) was not the ideal way to stuff a burger. But we persevered, and they came out quite well, albeit a little too rosemary-flavored. Plus, it should be noted that the cheese melted almost entirely into the meat, causing the burgers to be less cheese-stuffed and more cheese-infused. Kind of disappointing.
The fries were either burnt to a crisp on the top, or completely soggy and half-cooked on the bottom. My disgusting family actually enjoyed the soggy fries, so I removed them from the oven early and we had warm, oil-soaked, half-cooked potatoes. They were horrible.
At least it looked pretty.
Happy birthday, Dad! See why I should have just gotten you a tie?
Now, I should note that Uncle Billy had been lobbying all weekend for the angle to this blog post to focus on our relationship and how the kitchen brought us closer together. He frequently jumped into the background of any pictures with me, and on more than one occasion asked, “So, when is the blog title going to change to ‘My Uncle’s Nephew?’”
Uncle Billy is an enormous help in the kitchen.
After the grill burst into flames, Uncle Billy knew this was his moment to shine. Rather than running around like Tim, throwing in the towel like myself, or actually doing something useful like my dad, Uncle Billy saw an opportunity and immediately sat down and began writing the blog post for me. He quickly presented me with a short script of how the night should be related to you all:
SCENE: Uncle Billy Saves the Burgers
Danny walks out on porch & fire is consuming burgers.
UNCLE BILLY: Danny, stand back, I’ve got this covered.
DANNY: (Starting to cry) The burgers are going to be ruined. Sob sob!!
UNCLE BILLY: (Slapping Danny) Get it together, man! Get me a fire extinguisher!
DANNY: (Furiously weeping) What? This was not in the recipe! Won’t the fire extinguisher pour poisonous chemicals on my delicious stuffed burgers?
UNCLE BILLY: (Slapping Danny furiously) STAND BACK.
Scene: At the table later.
EVERYONE: Wow! These burgers have an unexpected carbonic flavor. I love it!
And that’s exactly how it happened.