Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My OCD Breakfast

I can't believe I'm posting this. You should skip it. Or, if you want, read the next paragraph and the last paragraph. You'll be glad you did.

The issue is (and I deliberately use the word "issue" rather than "problem"--"issue" and "problem" are not the same things) that I apparently have a limited scope type of obsessive-compulsive disorder. To illustrate the typical manifestation of this quirk, I'll describe the breakfast I made for myself this morning.

Late last night, I charged my coffee pot with 3 cups of water and 3 measures of freshly ground coffee (2 measures Colombian and 1 measure Decaf House Roast, both by Starbucks). Early this morning, I was feeling miserable enough that I sent an email to my bosses saying I was taking a sick day. After taking some meds and resting in bed for a few hours with a heating pad under my neck, I felt good enough to make myself breakfast. First order of business was to add 2 more cups of water and 2 more measures of Colombian coffee to the pot. I turned this on to brew as I started work on the rest of the meal.

My main obsession with cooking a multi-dish meal of any kind is to have every dish ready and at the proper temperature at serving time. I'm sometimes nearly paralyzed by the number of choices available to me in the pursuit of this goal. (This is, incidentally, why I normally make one-pot meals.) No matter how many times I make breakfast, I'm still uncertain about the order in which I should perform the many little steps involved.

This morning, I put a small and a large skillet on the stove. I put a small amount of olive oil in the small skillet and a slightly larger amount of peanut oil in the large skillet. On a scale of 0-9, I set both burners on 4. As the oil was heating, I combined 3/4 cups cold water with 1/4 cup grits, a pinch of salt, and 1 tablespoon butter. Grits are tricky because right after they cook, they're thin and too hot to eat. They had to be stirred and set aside to cool. I was going to have to attack the "ideal temperature" from both sides. I removed two eggs from the refrigerator and placed them, intact, in a wide bowl. I once made the mistake of placing an egg directly on the counter. I turned my back for only a moment and Gypsy had shoved the egg onto the floor.

I added frozen hash browns to the large skillet. There were a few frozen lumps in the potatoes. I took the 1/4 cup metal measuring cup (used with the grits a moment ago) and tapped gently on the lumps to break them up. I turned the potatoes a few times so they were coated with peanut oil on all sides then I smoothed them out to a single layer, making a half circle against the far side of the skillet. The stove is slightly off-level and the oil would favor the far side of the skillet to the near side. Also important to note is that I reused the metal measuring cup rather than dirty a second utensil. Another point of obsession with me is finding the most economical solution to any challenge. Why spend time washing two utensils when there existed a strategy that would require you to wash only one?

I covered the large skillet and moved on to the sausage. I was at the end of the package so, rather than slice off two patties, I just slit the sides of the plastic wrapper and worked the sausage as a handful of ground meat. Avoidance of waste is the third leg of my OCD table. I spent nearly a minute teasing out every speck of sausage from the plastic wrapper. The end of the wrapper has all those creases which hide perfectly good bits of food. As I always tell myself, it's food now but if you don't use it, it's garbage. I formed a patty of half the meat and placed it in the small skillet. Panic: the sizzle was too loud. I needed to turn down the heat and I needed to flip the sausage over. Which should I do first? Which order would be most effective? I don't even remember the choice I made. This is the kind of thing that ties me up in knots while cooking. And the fact that I don't remember how I reacted means that, next time the situation occurs, I will again be caught without a plan. When the immediate crisis had been handled, I formed and added the second sausage patty to the skillet. I flipped both over a couple of times to make sure there would be no sticking and I loosely covered the skillet. I put the grits in the microwave, set the timer to 5 minutes on high, and the first phase of cooking was done.

I had a couple of peril-free minutes to myself before the next phase began. I put a dash of soy cream in a mug and poured myself a half mug of coffee. I always have to consider whether it's more efficient to take my cup to the coffee pot or bring the coffee pot to my cup on the counter. In this case, I decided to take my cup to the pot since I wanted the remaining coffee to stay on the heating element. Of course that meant that I would not immediately remove the coffee grounds from above the coffee. Immediate removal is advised in the coffee maker's instructions. I was going to try not to let that bother me.

Let me just say that, if you're still reading this post, you probably have OCD, too. And, if you've recently watched the MST3K treatment of "War of the Colossal Beast", the line "Spare us nothing, Bert I. Gordon!" has no doubt already come to mind.

Now to prepare the eggs. How to crack the eggs? I've always cracked eggs by striking them against the edge of the counter. A couple years ago, though, I heard on "The Splendid Table" that the correct way to crack an egg was to strike them with a table knife. I've tried that a few times and never had much success, but I always feel guilty about cracking eggs in the "wrong" way. With a mental sigh, I cracked the two eggs against the edge of the counter. I added a pinch of salt, a healthy sprinkle of black pepper, a half dozen dashes of chipotle Tabasco sauce, and about a tablespoon of cold water. I mixed with a fork (which I carefully scraped clean so no egg would be wasted!).

With the eggs prepped, I turned the hash browns. I've learned that they're very easy to overcook, so I have to keep my wits about me and not neglect them. Then I turned the sausage patties one last time, pushed them to the near side of the skillet, and poured in the beaten eggs, scraping the bowl with a wide, plastic spatula. I re-covered the skillet loosely. The grits were cooked so I removed them from the microwave and stirred well so there were no lumps. The eggs cook quickly so I scraped and turned them with a metal spatula to let the remaining liquid eggs flow to the bottom. I turned down the heat to the eggs to avoid burning them. I uncovered the large skillet, turned the potatoes one last time, and shaped them into a circle about 2 layers deep. I left the cover off and turned up the heat slightly--this was the final browning and drying phase.

Everything was coming together. All temperatures should be correct. I wish I could turn out everything onto a serving plate at once. Since that wasn't possible, I had to think about the order in which I put the components of the meal onto my plate. Grits seemed like the natural last to go since they were probably the hottest. Here again I don't remember my decision so the dilemma will be preserved for future breakfasts. I know I did decide to pour my juice first even though I was aware that it would be getting warmer during the time it took to put the food on the plate.

And you know, I hate putting cold ketchup from the refrigerator onto nice, hot hash browns. I tried warming the ketchup in the microwave but it popped and splattered from the get-go.

So, that was my OCD breakfast. What a complicated process! So much to consider... no pat answers!

I don't see my approach to breakfast as a problem--I see it as a feature. I know I have a borderline clinical obsession with details. Believe it or not, that's actually a plus when I'm dealing with a logical challenge. It's always helped me in my career as a programmer, technical writer, and systems analyst. Where it doesn't help is in the artistic realm--playing guitar, for example. Where do I place my thumb... exactly... for any chord or note that I might play? How deeply should my pick dig into the strings? How do I hold my pick?? I'm like a centipede trying to figure out how to walk.

That's it. You're free to go now.


  1. Awesome blog! Huge MST3k fan here... just watched Eegah last week, in fact! Wowsie wow wow!