It Isn’t a Straight Line

We opened a musical last weekend.

Considering that we met over the possibility of working on a musical together, it’s hard to believe it took 14 years for us to be working on the same show at the same time. But it isn’t always a straight line from idea to execution. The path that took us from that first meeting to last Friday’s opening performance is as twisty as a path can be.

To be clear, the show we opened isn’t the show we first met to discuss working on; it’s also not the show we started discussing by text message in the middle of the night ten years after that (and which we still haven’t finished). It’s not a show either of us wrote at all. I’m the music director, and she’s a member of the cast.

It’s been a long rehearsal process, and a very challenging one. It’s a very complicated show, and one that has been as full of frustrations as triumphal moments. And just when we felt like we’d gotten good at performing the show—in the rehearsal room, that is, with just a piano for accompaniment—it was time to move into the theatre and start adding the technical elements of the production: set, lighting, costumes, microphones, and the orchestra.

We all know that each new element we add will cause something else to be a problem. The “real” set piece is harder to move than the folding table we used in rehearsal. Changing a costume takes longer than expected, and all of a sudden the actor misses a cue. Microphones don’t always work exactly as expected, so sometimes the conductor can’t hear a singer, and sometimes the cast can’t hear the band, and sometimes there’s shrieking feedback or a roar of a high note… In other words, it’s always something. Sometimes it’s many somethings at once. Sometimes it’s practically every something it can be.

Yeah, that was our first night of technical rehearsal. We all try to be good-natured about it, but it’s immensely frustrating to feel like it was one step forward, a quarter-mile back. It wasn’t a total disaster, but nothing is perfect.

We left the theatre disheartened, grumpy, and very hungry.

“What’s even open at this hour?” she said, mournfully. It was a Monday night in the suburbs, and I couldn’t think of much except the drive-through window of a fast food place.

“Our kitchen,” I said.

She looked skeptical—well, I think she did; I was driving, so I didn’t have a clear view of her expression. “If you’ve got five minutes of kitchen-energy for me, I’ll handle the rest.”

First Night of Tech Shrimp and Grits

1/2 cup quick cooking grits
1/2 lb steamed shrimp
2 or 3 scallions
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp hot pepper sauce
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cumin
1 dash worcestershire sauce
2 tsp vegetable oil
5 or 6 asparagus stalks
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Set to boil 2-1/2 cups water.  Stir in the grits, add some salt. Reduce heat to low, cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the oil to a skillet over medium heat. While it gets hot, pull the tails off the shrimp and discard them. Cut the shrimp and asparagus into bite-size pieces.

Slice the scallions and sauté the white parts, reserving the greens. Add the shrimp, sprinkle with paprika and cumin, toss to combine and sauté another minute or two. Add the asparagus, worcestershire, pepper sauce, and stock; stir to combine and reduce the stock a little.

When the grits are cooked (but a little looser than usual, because of the extra water), stir in the cheese; the whole thing will thicken beautifully.  Ladle the cheesy grits into bowls, top with the shrimp and veg; top with scallion greens. Adjust seasoning to taste; if desired, add a bit more hot pepper sauce.

5 minutes. Serves 2, who will know that at least one thing went well tonight.

Oh, sure, you could start with fresh shrimp, using the shells to make stock—but that would take longer, and after a night like this there’s no way you’d have the patience for that sort of thing. And if you’ve got leftover shrimp in the fridge, you really ought to use it. Purists will also grouse that asparagus has no business being in shrimp and grits. To such purists we say: pbbbbt. We like asparagus, we had some on hand that needed to get out of the crisper in time for Tuesday’s CSA delivery, and another vegetable in the dish made me feel less guilty about not serving a salad alongside. Why cut the shrimp into pieces first? Because when dinner is served this close to midnight you want it to be as easy to eat as possible.

Tuesday’s rehearsal went infinitely better: many things were much better, and new things went wrong. Wednesday’s went just a little better than that; more elements, more fixes, more oopses. Thursday was better still. We opened Friday to an appreciative crowd and if every element didn’t go exactly as we hoped, it’s unlikely that anyone but us knew. Was every meal along the way home-cooked and nutritious? Not quite. But, y’know, one step forward…


Salsa for Canning: The Veg Box Chronicles

We’ve been steadily plugging away at using our CSA produce, but now that we’re approaching peak harvest, the volume is increasing faster than a family of two can chew. Given how the stressors of life earlier this summer led to some wasted veggies, my “we can’t waste anything” attitude has become a little more militant – so I’ve been mentally dividing our weekly hauls into four categories:

  • Foods that are best eaten fresh (eggplant, yellow squash)
  • Foods that can last for awhile (carrots, onions)
  • Foods that can be frozen with a little effort (berries, zucchini (shredded))
  • Foods that can be preserved with a lot of effort (tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, etc)

We’ve been roasting the “best fresh” foods and eating them with so many different grilled proteins and slow cooked grains, that my tummy is always full of yums. (The current favorite is brunch: slice an assortment of squash-like veggies and onions, arrange them on a cookie sheet a generous sprinkle of salt, and roast for an hour or more until they are fully caramelized – then pile them onto cheesy grits and top with an egg.)

We’ve been cycling through what can last for awhile, including the grocer’s sack of carrots. The first harvested are pulled from the bag and included in almost every meal – peeled as “noodles” under a stir-fry, shredded in cole slaw or salad, chopped as a mirepoix base for an adaptation of our favorite Instapot chili, quick-pickled to eat alongside bratwurst, and baked into a delicious frosted cake.

We’ve divided the “good frozen” foods into best-for-baking portions, and stocked the freezer with enough ingredients to keep us in quick breads for two months: so far we have 1 cup measures of shredded and drained zucchini and whole blueberries, and I’m looking forward to drying apples in the fall.

Yesterday, we turned the tomatoes, tomatillos, green peppers, cubanelles (in place of the called-for jalapenos,) garlic, and onions from this week’s box – along with some cilantro and a few extra toms to make up the right volume – into a gallon of salsa that we preserved for winter use.

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are standing on a chair at the kitchen counter of my grandmother’s house, the youngest of the “old enough” cousins tasked with preparing vegetables for canning. We shelled peas, snapped beans, peeled the skins off tomatoes, cut corn from the cob, and ate as we went – while avoiding the splash of boiling liquids from different hot pots on the stovetop. I don’t have a family recipe for tomato salsa, and I don’t believe anyone ever made a tomatillo variety, so I try new ones every year.

Having had some luck with a few of Mel’s recipes earlier in the season, we opted for her Best Homemade Salsa for Canning recipe, halving it for the volume of ripe tomatoes we had on hand. Seasoning to taste, we used half as much sugar as she did, and double the amounts of cumin and cilantro. I’ll try this recipe again, but will roast the garlic first – the overall recipe has a beautiful blended flavor, but biting into a mince of mostly raw garlic is a little over sharp. Using 5 cups of tomatoes and adjusting the other quantities to match yielded us four pint jars and a small bowlful for yesterday’s lunch.

Having never made tomatillo salsa, I found a well-reviewed recipe from Food.com, and gave it a whirl. We had 7-1/2 cups of tomatillos, so adjusted the other quantities accordingly for a yield of 3 pint jars, 2 half-pint jars, and a small bowlful for lunch.

Modifications: at the end of the 20-minute simmer the liquid was too lemony for our taste, so we added a tablespoon of sugar and more cumin, then let it cook for another 10 minutes before adding a palmful of cilantro and giving the whole pot a whizz with the immersion blender to turn it into a much smoother consistency. Next time, I’ll cut the lemon juice by 1/3, too (or sub in a little distilled vinegar if needed for the proper preserving PH).

We have plenty of salsa for the winter plus a few jars for gifts, and a day of remembering childhood – for $14 at the grocery store, and one week’s vegetable box. That’s quite a yield.

Tomato S…omething

Painted in Waterlogue

“We should make pulled pork,” she said. “There’s all that pork shoulder in the freezer.  And you should make favorite slaw from that cabbage.”

Ah. She wasn’t really jonesing for pulled pork; it was a ploy to use a young cabbage that had arrived in our CSA box. Still, I didn’t disagree. I never disagree with a request for pulled pork. But it was opening weekend for my new musical—which came directly on the heels of production week for my othernew musical—so we didn’t make the time to make the pork. I’d do it early on a weekday, and give it all day to sit in the slow cooker.

Except, well, there wasn’t all that pork shoulder in the freezer. Or any pork shoulder. There was a package of ground pork; there were several packages of ground beef, and some steaks; there were chicken breasts—she’s been doing most of the grocery shopping lately, and has been stocking up when things are on sale. That’s why I also found 10 pounds of butter, and quite a bit of ice cream. I’m not complaining about any of this; I’m just reporting what I found. Six quarts of really good stock, and bags of bones, shrimp shells, and vegetable clippings from which we’ll make more one day. And, although there was a package of bacon, too, nothing in the freezer was pork shoulder.

I also took from the freezer an unfortunately unmarked container of something red. I don’t know if its label fell off or it had never been labeled, but after it thawed overnight in the fridge and I tasted it, I still wasn’t quite sure if it was tomato soup or tomato sauce. (If the former, it had been made without cream; if the latter, without meat.) It was going to be the basis for dinner, but I wasn’t sure whether to make grilled cheese sandwiches or pasta.

Then the CSA delivery came, bearing purple carrots, green peppers, red onions, and some tender young eggplants. I chopped a big pile of each and sweated them in a big skillet, and set a pot of water to boil.  When the vegetables were softened, I poured in the tomato-something and let it simmer gently. There was some leftover sausage in the fridge, so I chopped and added it, along with a hunk of parmesan rind. If the red stuff had once been tomato soup, it would be soup no longer.

Dinner was wonderful. We haven’t had a bowl of pasta-with-sauce in quite a while. It felt like a treat.

Planning is good. Preparing is good. Stocking-up is great. Organizing the freezer once in a while is essential. Proper labeling is a fine and glorious thing. And figuring out what to do with a mysterious package—well, it might be better if there weren’t such mysteries, but the figuring-out was fun.

It’s Thursday, so the grocery store fliers will be in today’s mail. I’ve got a bunch of cole slaw, so I hope somebody’s running a special on pork shoulder.

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The eyes have it

So I made this carrot-tomato soup over the weekend, and we enjoyed it for dinner on Monday – along with grilled cheese sandwiches and a green salad. Fine, fine comfort food that seemed worth a review.

I couldn't get the texture smooth enough in the food processor, so he whirled an immersion blender through the last of it in the pot to remove lumps and bumps. The soup is very thick, even though I subbed in cream for the yogurt (since ours was still in the machine at finishing time), but beautifully spiced with basil, cracked black pepper, and the cumin-seasoned roasted veg.

If we hadn't been eating cheese-stuffed sandwiches along with (provolone, cheddar, and cranberry Wensleydale inside pumpernickel), I would have sprinkled shaved or crumbled cheddar over the soup as a mix-in, for a little sharpness over the top of the rest. As it was, the soup a great dipping consistency for our sandwiches.

I would make this again, albeit with a bit of something green thrown in – Garlic scapes, or some shredded cooked spinach – for a bit of contrast, and a bit of stock for thinning it out. And I can imagine tossing in a bit of roasted turnip, parsnip, beet, or potato when those come in season.

Do you have a favorite puréed or other root vegetable soup recipe?

My Family’s Favorite* Pickles

 

A jar of our Fave Dill Pickles, before delivering them to a friend on Saturday night.

Some of my earliest memories as a little kid are from the vegetable garden at my grandparents’ house. It seemed as large as a football field to me, and the when our shadows started to get long in the grass, Gram would lead us cousins down the rows with an enormous colander.  We would pluck beans, peas, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, and tomato for dinner – filling our tummies more quickly than the dinner basket, which was a great strategy to keep us from complaining of hunger.

 

My relatives preserved their own food the whole time I was growing up. Fresh food that we grew ourselves was tastier (and cheaper) than store-bought, so the pressure canners got passed around and everyone had a large collection of long-used and well-loved mason jars that got passed from house to house. I remember my mom carrying jar after jar of corn scraped fresh from the cob with small, bright pieces of red pepper down the stairs to our cellar while I sat at the kitchen table, well out of her way.

When I moved to the city on my own, I took on the work of hot-water-bath canning high acid foods on my own – sourced from pick-your-own orchards and farms, or the generous overflow from my hobby-farming uncles. By this point I’ve put up hundreds if not thousands of pints of tomato sauce, salsa fresca, spiced applesauce, apple butter, fruit jams, and sour dill pickles. The pickles are my absolute favorite.

I couldn’t tell you whose recipe this was to start with, but it’s pretty simple:

  • The night before canning begins, scrub your pickling cucumbers to remove dirt and the spiny groths from the nubbly outer skins. Toss the washed cukes into a colander in the fridge to dry.
  • The morning of canning, prep your cukes:
    • Slice off both ends
    • Sort the vegetables by size, and practice stuffing an empty jar, so you know how many of each size will fit into your jars.
  • Set up the hot water bath and sterilize jars, lids, and rings. While they are sterilizing,
  • Make a brine and bring it to a boil, following these ratios:
    • 1 cup of vinegar
    • 1 cup of water
    • 1 tbsp kosher salt
    • 1-1/2 tsp granulated sugar
  • Prep your seasonings. For each jar:
    • 1 head of fresh dill or 2 tsp of dried dill seeds
    • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
    • 1 clove of garlic, peeled but whole
  • Once the jars are sterilized, remove them from the canner. Into each jar, place the seasonings, then the cucumbers, then ladle in the hot brine (leaving 1/2 inch of headroom). Seal the jars and dump them back in the water bath for 10 minutes. Let cool, check the lids for a vacuum seal, label with the date, and place them into a cool dark cupboard to mellow for at least six weeks.

 

*If I’m 100% honest I’ll admit that most of the family prefer sweet bread-and-butter pickles to the dill ones. I despise those fake pickles, so am calling these the favorites. 

Pendulums Swing: The Veg Box Chronicles

Last week I wrote that we hadn’t done much cooking or eating in two weeks. We have more than made up for that lack in the last week!

  • Last Monday, we cleaned out the fridge of as much about-to-be-too-far-past-prime-for-eating produce as we could for the Salmon Feta Soba Salad.
  • Tuesday we had dinner with friends in town and came home too late to do much with our veg box other than tuck it into the fridge. It contained:
    • 3 pints of Blueberries
    • 1 head of Cabbage
    • 3 pounds of Carrots
    • 20 pickling Cucumbers
    • 8 small Eggplants
    • 2 heads of Leaf Lettuce
    • 1 enormous bunch of Parsley
    • 3 green Peppers
    • 8 summer Squashes
  • Wednesday was a lovely night for cooking.
    • I combined two-thirds of the carrots with some onions and garlic from our pantry and roasted them for a carrot-tomato soup.
    • He used all of the Peppers plus most of the Eggplants and Squashes (plus onions and tomatoes from the pantry) to make a Disney-inspired Ratatouille., served over grits with a fried egg for dinner.
  • Thursday was a late night for him, so I enjoyed left-overs and started the annual summer scrubbing of the kitchen cabinets.
  • Friday was for preserving.
    • I turned the 2 largest Cucumbers into Amy Pennington’s sesame quick pickles and preserved the rest as my family’s Favorite Dill Pickles (3 beautiful pint jars of them).
    • While a set of salmon filets were grilling away outside, he tossed the last of the prior week’s Romano Beans into the pressure cooker as an adaptation of this recipe from the New York Times – and they remind me of a stewed tomato and french bean dish my grandmother used to serve when I was a little girl.
  • Saturday we went to a dinner party, bringing a jar of those lovely pickles as a hostess gift, and a tray of hoisin-glazed grilled shrimp for the appetizers.
  • Yesterday I assembled the carrot-tomato soup from Wednesday night’s carrot roast, made a tart from the prior week’s pint of Sour Cherries and the last handful of blueberries (plus one of the bags we froze on Tuesday night) – while he made a salad with the last of the prior week’s Kale, Friday’s quick pickles, and some peppers, tomatoes, and herbs to go with a grilled steak for dinner, and did all of the work for more homemade yogurt.

Sadly, the parsley did not survive its overnight in the fridge without water, but the cabbage has been reserved for a batch of coleslaw – we’ll make it tonight to have with pulled pork on Friday – and the lettuces are washed and dressed for bag lunch sandwiches this week. We still have some eggplant, squash, and carrots, along with some potatoes from the prior week. I’m hoping that the Potatoes will become Hasselbacks to go with next Friday’s dinner, and that the Eggplant will become a lovely dip to take with lunch as an afternoon snack. Carrots last for a while so I’m not worried about those, but I am fast out of ideas for Squash.

What have you been cooking? What would you do with 4 little summer squashes that aren’t zucchini?

Odd Little Heirlooms

“I bought some salmon,” she said, as we were talking about meals for this busy week. “And feta.” I didn’t realize at first that she was talking about smoked salmon, so I didn’t make the connection right away; I didn’t realize she was talking about a salad she makes from salmon, feta, and soba noodles. Having caught on, I was completely in favor. It’s not something I’d ever had before we met, but I like it a lot; Neither one of us, in fact, could remember making it since we’d moved into the Country House. So it was very definitely time.

When we started our life together, we brought lots of things from our pasts. We spent a fair amount of time comparing and deciding which to keep—or sometimes both, and occasionally neither. There are some things that each of us brought that delight the other. How I ever lived without a wide-mouthed funnel is a great mystery to me. She used to hate driving, but loves being behind the wheel of the Prius.

We both brought recipes, too. Some from our families—her aunt Donna’s Lemon Squares are not to be trifled with!—and some we’d collected ourselves. And some from—well, where did they come from?

Salmon-Feta-Soba Salad

Cook the soba noodles according to package directions—usually about 7 minutes. That’s planty of time flake the 6-oz package of smoked salmon and to crumble the feta if it didn’t come that way already, and to chop a bunch of parsley. If it’s been an especially rough July and the parsley in the kitchen garden has wilted from too much sun and too little care, don’t beat yourself up; seven minutes is still plenty of time to see what you can use instead. One of you can harvest some chives from the pot on the porch while the other chops a cucumber, a couple of carrots, some tomatoes, a rib of celery, and, what the heck, a fat handful of kale that you chop and put into a steamer over the pot of noodles.

Then, not at all long after, when the noodles have been drained, combine everything in a big salad bowl; add a pepper to taste—you won’t need salt, since the salmon and feta bring plenty. Squeeze some lemon juice overtop if you feel like it. Maybe drizzle a little olive oil, too—but, really, no dressing is required.

At some length, we figured it out: this is a recipe she’d been introduced to by somebody she once thought she’d marry. That relationship didn’t work out—and much to our eventual and current happiness. But it’s the only recipe she could think of that she kept from that relationship—an unusual keepsake. An odd little heirloom.

This salad can be served warm, cold, or at room temperature. It’s hearty without being heavy; it’s nothing like any mayo-glopped pasta salad you’ve ever encountered. The bunch of parsley originally called for brings plenty of brightness; the assortment of vegetables I substituted were chosen for convenience and availability and because of the moisture they’d bring to balance the salty, fishy, buckwheat-y goodness brought by the original ingredients. But, really, use whatever you’ve got. If the tomatoes at hand are odd little heirlooms, they’ll be wonderful. But a handful of slightly-withered grape tomatoes from the supermarket will work, too.

Honor the past, be grateful for the present, look forward to the future.