Monthly Archives: March 2015

Perch, Pouch, Poach

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I spent most of the weekend perched on a bench. I wasn’t made to sit out a game while the rest of the team played for the championship–although there’s almost no team sport in which that wouldn’t be an appropriate place for me. It was a very busy rehearsal and performance week: performances of a school play I directed and accompanied, Palm Sunday masses at the church where I’m the music director, and rehearsals for a musical at a theatre a few miles north. Everything went well, if not perfectly.  The kids were pleased, and so were their parents; the masses went off without any significant hitch; rehearsals were productive. Lots of time on piano and organ benches, though. By the end of it all, I could not have been more fried if the baptismal font had been full of peanut oil.

Meanwhile, she barely perched for a moment. Now that the last of the major renovations are complete, she’s been working on the house: re-setting rooms where work is completed, making lists of small things yet to be done, storing items we won’t need while the house is on the market, and making the closet transition from winter wardrobe to spring clothes.

(Of course, that last item may have been tempting fate; it snowed this morning.)

Amid all this musical and domestic activity, there wasn’t much time in the kitchen. We took a visiting collaborator out for dinner after the show on Friday–nothing fancy, just a quick bite at a diner before her train back to NYC. I brought home Awesome Burgers after the show-and-church extravaganza of Saturday. It was time for Sunday dinner before we knew it. Daylight Saving Time had kept us going on our afternoon chores until mid-evening. Fortunately, we had a plan. (And, even more fortunately, her afternoon errands had included a trip to the market so our plan could be executed.)

Salmon Pouches with Cilantro-Lime Rice

Preheat oven to 400F. Toast 1 cup white rice in a dry saucepan; add 2 cups boiling water and 1/2 tsp salt. Cover and keep on low heat for 20 minutes.

Rinse and trim 3/4 lb. green beans. Place a third of the green beans in the centers of 3 12-inch pieces of aluminum foil.

Lay on top of the beans a 4-oz portion of salmon fillet. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a little dried dill. Add a thick slice of lemon. Gather the foil and fold each pouch to seal. Place pouches on a low-lipped pan or cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes.

While the fish is in the oven and the rice is steaming, zest a lime, and heat 1 tbsp oil in a small skillet. Rinse, dry, and chop some cilantro–maybe a quarter-cup.

When the oil is hot, sauté a cup of grape tomatoes until soft and slightly browned, about 5 minutes. Lower heat and stir in 1 tsp dijon mustard; stir to combine, then remove from heat.

Remove pouches from the oven and rice from the heat.  Quickly toss the lime zest into the rice and re-cover. Wait 5 minutes, then open the pouches and fluff rice with a fork. Stir in the cilantro, and a little lime juice to taste

Serves two, with leftovers for somebody’s lunch.

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I probably should have opened the leftovers-pouch when I plated the others; the other portions of salmon were more pink and the beans a brighter green–very spring-like. These are probably a little overdone, but they’ll still taste good.

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Cilantro-less rice.

She was so excited about seeing fresh herbs at the market that she bought mint instead of cilantro.  I didn’t add that to the rice, but she put it in a pitcher of rooibos tea.

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“But I was supposed to make you dinner,” she said. I reminded her that she had made lunch. And done the marketing. And arranged the flowers I’d been given after the shows. And all manner of other making-the-house-beautiful chores that are much more challenging for me than spending some time in the kitchen. She could do the dishes if she wanted to, but with the fish in pouches cleanup was a snap.

I’m a fan of big, meaty fish steaks much of the time, but this salmon came out sweet, delicate, and very tender. It was the perfect, gentle dinner at the end of a weekend so busy there hadn’t been much “end” at all. This week will be just as hectic, but we’ve built in a break to see a friend’s show on Wednesday night. Tickets are already bought, and we’ve already got dinner plans: no last-minute fuss. Like a little pouch waiting to go into the oven. IMG_0039

A Fork in the Road, a Bowl in the Office

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During the first Great Sorting, we realized that we liked her flatware better than mine. My set was perfectly good, but we didn’t have room in the kitchen for both.  It went into a box in storage. When we knew that none of our friends who were moving or unexpectedly refurnishing a house needed it, we sent that box to a second-hand store.

Well, not all of it.  We each kept a place setting. One knife, fork, and spoon was designated for each of our offices.  We’ve also each kept a little dinnerware: I’ve got a big bowl that’s perfect for salad, soup, or oatmeal, and is wide enough to work as a plate, too. She’s got a smaller plate and bowl in hers. Between us, we have a huge pile of cloth napkins, so we usually have one of those in the office as well, and bring it home for laundering.

We eat at least one meal at our desks, most days, and some days two or three.  There’s nothing wrong with going out for a workday meal. Taking some time away from the office is a good thing. But it gets pricey if it’s an everyday occurrence. Economics aside, though, we like the meals we bring from home. We know what’s in them, and what’s not.

We also like not having to dispose of plastic cutlery or paper plates or napkins. There’s nothing wrong with using a sandwich’s wrapper as a placemat, or eating a salad from the plastic container in which it was carried to work. It takes a little extra time to wash the dishes, and to find a place in the office where they can be stored. But there is something a bit more civilized about using proper dinnerware. It makes lunch-at-the-office feel more like a meal and less like a re-fueling stop during a 500 mile road race. And it reminds us of home. These days, we aren’t at home together as often as we’d like. Our matching flatware makes it a little more like we’re sharing a meal.

Ah, well. Back to work.

Latch-Key Mac and Cheese

IMG_0036 Packaged macaroni and cheese is the first meal she was allowed to cook. It was an after-school snack when she got home before her parents did. She wonders sometimes that her parents let her come home to an empty house, but it was a simpler time back then, and she was a very smart kid. Boil and drain the noodles, add a lump of butter and some milk, stir in the packet of bright-orange powder, stir and enjoy. A pot of boiling water might be risky, but at least there are no sharp knives involved, and there’s no possibility of undercooking meat. As after-school snacks go, it’s probably better than a bowl of ice cream or an entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. She knows it’s not gourmet cuisine, but it is comforting and friendly and nothing in the world is going to change her mind on that subject. Well, maybe a recall of packaged macaroni-and-cheese. Even without a recall because they accidentally added metal shavings, there’s a lot of stuff in that orange powder that you wouldn’t put in if you were making it from scratch.  All you need, really, is macaroni. And cheese. We joke about the “extras” I try to put in M&C, like a pile of sautéed kale or a handful of pan-roasted tomatoes, but even I recognize that they are accompaniments rather than ingredients. We both laughed out loud when I saw this recipe: Fundamentalist Macaroni and Cheese The humor of The Awl’s essay, from which this is adapted, is lost in this simplification. Read the original for fun. Boil 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni until it is not quite al dente. Grate a pound of cheddar cheese–half mild, half sharp. Drain the macaroni. Wipe out the pot and rub with butter. Add the macaroni back into the pot, then stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Add about 1/2 cup milk. Bake at 350F until top is slightly brown and crunchy, probably about 40 minutes. That’s it. I made a batch. And it was really quite good. Not at all elaborate, not complicated, but very good. The cheese was neither too mild nor too sharp; the noodles were nicely sturdy. I thought it could use some kale, but that’s another story. She got home and was thrilled to see what I’d done, but since I’d also made tomato soup–it was a batch-cooking Sunday night–she opted for a grilled cheese sandwich with the soup for her supper. Turns out it doesn’t reheat all that well, though. The cheese separates a little in the microwave. Maybe it would be better if it were reheated in a pan on the stovetop, or maybe at a lower power level. Or maybe this is a recipe we use when we don’t want leftovers. My grandmother lived with my parents and me, so I hardly ever came home to an empty house.  I don’t remember the first meal I was allowed to cook.  It was probably something like Spaghetti-o’s, which are arguably no healthier than the Blue Box. Maybe I just had a cookie. Or three.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Pasta

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It had been a whirlwind week, followed by a busy weekend leading into another week that’ll be more of the same. Major events are kicking up in her organization, and rehearsals and performances fill my evenings. Dinners together will be the exception rather than the rule. It’s easy to get focused on what has to be done at work and then discover a load of clothes put in the washer on Tuesday hasn’t been moved to the dryer until Friday. Or that we’ve driven past the market while holding the shopping list.

We remembered lunch, though. She had it nearly ready by the time I got home. All that was left was to grate the cheese I’d just brought–after I remembered where I was going and circled back for it. Pasta was bubbling. Cream simmered in a saucepan, flecked with perky strands of lemon zest and dark green rosemary. I squeezed the lemons for her before she realized that the recipe called for zest but not juice. That’s okay; I’ll make lemon soda sometime soon. She stirred in the cheese, steamed some asparagus to add, and brought everything together. The sauce was beautifully balanced between tart citrus, rich cream, and salty-sharp parmesan. A sprinkle of cayenne and a few grinds of black pepper contributed a little warmth, and the asparagus brought its unique earthiness. Nothing overwhelmed another–which is good, since we were both a little overwhelmed by life.

The recipe she was following didn’t include the asparagus, but I’m glad we did. Vegetables are always welcome. I’m sure we’ll try this again someday, perhaps with a little less cream and many more vegetables, as a pasta primavera. It’s time for that sort of thing, even if the thermometer doesn’t quite agree and there’s still snow on the ground. It might even be pleasant enough to linger over lunch on the deck. Not today, though, but that’s just as well; we had only enough time to clean up after lunch before going our separate ways for evening events.

The time it takes to make a simple meal is always well-spent, and most certainly healthier than speaking into an intercom and having someone hand a sack of burgers to us through a window. Even when the meal is a bowl of pasta and cheese.

Late Night Granola

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She’s working at an event tonight where young professionals will sleep outdoors in New York City to raise awareness of the plight of homeless children. (They’re also raising funds to support the work of the terrific organization that gives those children a safe home.)

And, of course, it’s going to snow.

I worry about the event staff and supporters who are going to sleep outdoors in the snow, but I worry more about the children who didn’t have a safe place to sleep last night. And might not tomorrow night, either.

I sent her off with a big cup of tea and a bagel this morning. She’ll have a late lunch with her colleagues and the participants as part of the event. For dinner, or breakfast, or whatever she calls it when she finally gets to sit down again, there are hard-boiled eggs, a bowl of fruit–and, at her request, a container of granola.

Country House Granola

Preheat oven to 250F.
Combine in a big bowl all of the following:
4 cups rolled oats (not quick-cooking, and certainly not instant)
1/2 cup each:
cashews, pecans, walnuts, shelled sunflower seeds, slivered almonds, flaked coconut
1/4 cup each:
vegetable oil, maple syrup, brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon

Spread the mixture onto a sheet pan and bake for 75 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. Allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

Note—omit any nuts, or substitute others, based on preference or dietary restrictions. I’ll mix it up sometimes and use peanuts instead of cashews.

Another Note on Nuts—whole pecans and walnuts are extravagant and pretty, but completely unnecessary. Pecan and walnut halves or pieces taste just as good and are more economical.

Nut-note III: Shells Revenge—all of the nuts should be unsalted, and raw if possible; otherwise, reduce the salt slightly and add the nuts partway through the baking time.

I wish there were more I could do. I wish I could make breakfast (or dinner) for everyone. I wish there was no reason to ask for support of an organization to help homeless children. Mostly, I wish that everyone could have a warm, dry and safe place to sleep tonight.

It Doesn’t Take Much

A friend of mine used to work in the food business–by which I mean he was an owner of some restaurants in Philadelphia, and had helped Julia Child publish one of her cookbooks. On matters of food I trust his views. When we were working on a dinner theatre project once, and I was trying to wrap my head around the per-customer price of napkins, and getting schooled in why green beans made more economic sense than tossed salad, he said something I’d never thought of: “If dessert is satisfying, they’ll forgive anything.”

Obviously we were hoping never to serve a bad meal, but I took that advice to heart. Something luscious can save the day. And if the day doesn’t need saving–if things are already going well–it’s the metaphorical cherry on top of the seven-layer cake.

But it doesn’t take seven layers, or a gigantic bowl of ice cream, to make a good last impression. When the ingredients are good, a spoon will do.

An inch-square piece of brownie, cut into two triangles. A strawberry, hulled and thinly sliced. Two dabs of vanilla ice cream. A few drops of mulled-wine syrup drizzled overtop. One luscious mouthful. One bit of sweetness to end the meal.

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We never opened the dinner theatre, as it turned out. That town was far more interested in another bar and another supermarket than in what we had to offer. Just as well. I’d rather make One-Spoon Sundaes for a small gathering than a big crowd.

Mulled-Wine Syrup

This recipe can be scaled up, but it’s perfect for using some leftover wine. 

1-1/2 cups red wine
1 tbsp mulling spice (packaged, or a combination of dried spices: cinnamon stick,  clove, orange peel, allspice)
1 tsp sugar (or to taste)

Put the wine in a saucepan over low heat. Put the spices in a tea strainer (metal or ceramic, not plastic) or tied up in a small piece of cheesecloth or tea bag and add to the saucepan.
When the wine is warm, add the sugar and stir to dissolve.
Continue to simmer 20-30 minutes or until the wine is reduced to 1/3 or less.

Use the syrup to top ice cream or cake, or add a small drizzle to a glass of seltzer, ginger ale, or sparkling wine.

Snap, Crackle, Mom

Driving home from the first rehearsal for a new show, I wanted a snack.  I’d had a light supper on the way there, but it had been a long and tiring night. Something crunchy was in order, and maybe salty. Or possibly sweet.

I avoided several McDonald’s drive-throughs and a Wendy’s or two, though the idea of fries was sorely tempting. I thought about the peanut-butter filled pretzels and Cool Ranch Doritos in our pantry, but neither of those seemed right either. If I didn’t figure it out by the time I got home, I could easily enough just go to bed. I wasn’t starving; I was probably more tired than hungry.

Coming into the house from the garage, I noticed a canister of Rice Krispies we’d bought to make Kind-of Bars. (I should do that again sometime.) The canister was too tall for the kitchen cupboard, so we stored the rest of the cereal on the garage shelves along with the extra waxed paper, plastic bags, and Vitamin Water.

Mom worked late a few nights a week when she managed the credit department for a local department store. Dad might have taken her out for a bite when he picked her up after work, but more often I remember her having cereal at the kitchen table. Sometimes I sat with her and told her about school; probably, I had a cup of cocoa or a cookie, too. I never understood the coffee Mom drank with her bedtime snack, but I absolutely got the appeal of the cereal. Crunchy, a little sweet, a little salty, relatively healthful, and quick to prepare.

It was just what I wanted–and I had a bowlful of memory, too.

Okay, so I sliced a little fruit and sprinkled some homemade granola on top. It's still healthier than fries or chips.

Okay, so I sliced a little fruit and sprinkled some homemade granola on top.
It’s still healthier than fries or chips.