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When you blow up, do it in a big way

When I blow up, I blow up big time.

I’ve had a talent for blowing up since I was young. It has been all too easy throughout my life for me to veer from the correct path, to jump into the deep end of the pool without my floaties on.

As my wife says, I have a tendency to go “off the rails.”

There’s the correct way and, at some point, there is my way.

There is the advisable way and, at some point, there is my way.

There is the way that brings the least stress and causes the least problem and, at some point, there is my way.

I can’t help it.

It’s not that I don’t know the best way of doing things. I do.

It’s not that I am unaware of the path of least resistance and damage. I know what it is.

It’s just that I blow up.

I was born this way.

Thus my dear departed mother’s favorite phrase: “Oh no, what has he done this time?”

My wife, Kathy, thinks my propensity for blowing up has something to do with an homunculus. She is convinced there is a tiny being — head, legs, arms, torso, the whole shebang — that lives inside my head, whose sole mission in life is to cause me to blow up, to take the wrong turn, especially when the matter at hand concerns my physical and psychological well being.

The first thing she asked following my recent brain surgery was whether or not the neurosurgeon removed the homunculus.

He didn’t.

And now, I am at yet another junction, a place in life where significant decisions must be made. We all come to these points in life, many times.

My tactic: I am going to blow up.

As many of you, my dear readers, might remember, the physician who opened me stem to stern to remove a cancerous prostate nearly three years ago has continued to monitor me. Frank is a wonderful guy and his attention to the details of my lifestyle is extraordinary. He knows my propensities and he measures them when recommending changes in diet, exercise, etc. He knows I like to cook, to eat, to drink, to carouse. He also knows I need to make adjustments to keep the cancer at bay. The cancer is still inside me, albeit absent its home base, and there is always a chance it can take hold and cause cellular mayhem on a distressing scale.

As a result, Frank chides me about my diet. Specifically, a year ago, he warned me off of some of my favorite eats: dairy products, anything made with white flour, red meats.

My culinary universe includes a number of vitally important food groups (somewhat different than the regular food groups) and Frank, with the aid of Kathy, denied me access to a bunch of them: cheese, butter, regular pasta, beef, pork, veal, lard, white flour tortillas, baguettes, sugar, among others. Yes, these are all separate food groups.

Following his orders, life in the kitchen became a trek in the desert, and I’ve wandered there lost and listless since.

But, now, I sense the homunculus is waking and I am getting ready to blow.

It had to happen.

I’m surprised it has taken this long.

My first hint?

The other night, BFD, GB, Emma (Kathy’s alter ego) and I are preparing for a board meeting and it is BFD’s turn to cook. I get an e-mail from GB a day or so before.

“BFD wants to know if there is any chance you will eat pork? Specifically, pork tenderloin.”

Mmmm. Pork tenderloin. The other white meat. One of the animal kingdom’s great gifts to the plate.

I hear a voice inside my head. It is Kathy. “No red meat, Karl. Remember what Frank said. You’ve been doing so well on this diet. Stay the course.”

Then, I hear another voice.

“Karl, it’s pork tenderloin. The pig gave its life so you could enjoy this nearly useless muscle. It is so delicious. Go for it. What does the doctor know? A doctor raised you, and what good did it do you, huh? Eat the pork.”

So, naturally, I crack.

Friday night arrives and BFD mixes up some tremendous Manhattans. Ahhh, bourbon, bitters and a cherry. Oh so refreshing.

“Go ahead, Karl,” says the homunculus. “It’s really pretty, isn’t it? This is nothing. Remember the day you drank 37 gin and tonics in Vegas? Drink the Manhattan. In fact, have two.”

BFD rubs pork tenderloins in a chile and spice mix and grills the meat over charcoal until it is slightly pink in the center. (Yes, slightly pink. True, back when Ma and Pa fed the hogs anything left in the slop bucket and the nasty creatures rooted around in all manner of fetid muck, you needed to cook pork beyond reason. Now, however, you don’t, and the result is magnificent. Try it some time — pork cooked like medium-rare beef.)

The dish BFD creates is spectacular: a polenta cake goes in a shallow bowl. Three rounds of pork go on top of the cake. A thick and spicy pumpkin soup — pumpkin, chicken broth, coriander, cumin and a touch of enchilada sauce — is poured around the sides of the cake and drizzled with a ribbon of crema. A garnish of tomato pesto and julienned, roasted pasilla peppers decks the pork.

Dear heavens.

I have seconds.

We drink a Spanish grenacha and polish the evening off with a bit of baklava.

Consider the scales tipped. I’ve taken the first step.

Now, I am ready to go completely overboard. That pork worked on me like a taste of smack on a junkie fresh out of rehab.

The next board meeting is my responsibility and I know what I am going to cook.

I saw it on TV.

I was cruising the dial during a commercial on “Cops” when I came upon a cooking channel and the sight of Mario Batali. He’s hard to miss: he’s huge and he wears those stupid orange shoes.

He also knows food, as in all the kinds I am not supposed to eat.

On this particular show, Mario visits St. Louis and witnesses the creation of a St. Louis pasta pie. With a meat crust.

That’s correct: a meat crust.

I am making a version of this carnivore’s delight for the next board meeting. I am going to blow up, big time.

The meat crust uses a basic meatball recipe. I will make mine with a pound of 80/20 ground chuck, a half pound of hot Italian sausage meat, rough-chopped yellow onion, smushed garlic, three beaten eggs, a batch of bread crumbs, shredded parmesan, chopped parsley, some dried oregano, a bit of chopped basil, salt and pepper.

I will line a large pie pan with the meat, pushing it up the sides of the pan like pie dough. Meat pie dough. Red meat pie dough.

For the filling, I’ll cook elbow macaroni until it is on the hard side of al dente. I’ll drain the pasta and mix it with shredded, smoked provolone, shredded mozzarella, shredded parmesan, some asiago and a bit of shredded sharp cheddar. (I am not supposed to eat cheese so, when I blow up, I will eat every cheese I can get my hands on.) Into that, I will mix a bit of red sauce — just enough to moisten the blend — and some chopped, fresh basil, a scant dusting of red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.

Into the pan with the meat crust goes the filling, a formidable mound of high-grade carbs and fat, and into a 375 oven the pie goes for 45 minutes or so, until the top is browned.

Oh, mercy.

To start the evening, we’ll enjoy a round or two of my new, favorite cocktail, the Oldmanfashioned — a hybrid I have been developing in the lab. Muddle sugar, an orange slice and a maraschino cherry in a lowball glass (or in my favorite, a large coffee cup). In goes bourbon (I have a bottle of Buffalo Trace stashed in the laundry room) sweet vermouth and three dashes of bitters. Stir, a bit of ice and you’re off to the races.

With the pasta pie, a simple salad — greens, minced carrot, kalamata olives, halved cherry tomatoes, diced avocado, some diced English cucumber — with a red wine vinegar and mustard vinaigrette.

A bottle of Languedoc red and the stage is set.

For blowing up.

Kathy will be perturbed, for sure. But the homunculus and I will be very, very happy.

We’ll get back on the right path and worry about cancer later.

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