Monthly Archives: May 2019

Managing Expectations

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I had a scone for breakfast today.

Nothing wrong with having a scone for breakfast; it’s just not what I expected. I’d planned to go for a run, come home, and have a bowl of oatmeal. But that plan got derailed by tasks that took longer than I expected they would. The music for the ad campaign got mixed and delivered to the marketing manager; I got to hear the ad with the voiceover my partner had written and our actors had recorded; and I found my way around a road closed for construction—but there it was, 11 AM, with a half-hour drive to my next stop, and I still hadn’t had breakfast. Oatmeal was now out of the question.

Route 42 is lined with farm stands, bakeries, and purveyors of all sorts of tastiness, so I figured I’d stop at one that looked appealing and find something. I found the baked-goods counter and a marker caught my eye: Cherry Scones, $2. Perfect. A scone would be relatively easy to eat while I drove, and Door County is known for its cherries. This will be great.

It was good, not quite great. It was really sweet. It was filled with white chocolate chips.

If you’re a fan of white chocolate chips, let’s just agree to disagree. To me, they’re nothing more than globs of sweetness. I can see how they might have some place in a scone filled nearly to bursting with tart dried cherries—though I think dark chocolate chips would be even better—but this scone was hardly cherry filled. If this scone were a movie, the cherries made a cameo appearance. Cherries were not the star.

And yet they got star billing.

If the little tag had said “White chocolate chip scone (with a few cherries),” I would have been fine with that. I would have chosen something else, but I would have known what to expect from that scone.

It’s all about expectations. Tell me it’s beef stew, and I expect beef. A can of chicken soup should contain more than a few fragments of chicken. A cherry scone should feature cherries.

So with every bite I thought, “Well, now I want to get some dried cherries and make the scones I expected this to be.”

But that’s a project for another day. There were many miles to drive, and many more errands to run. And then the work to do that got interrupted by the errands, some running, and then a full night of rehearsal.

For a white chocolate chip scone (with a few cherries), it wasn’t all that bad. I ate the whole thing.


(Here’s the music bed for the ad. I don’t yet have permission to post the whole thing, but the music is mine.)

Trying to be Self-Sufficient

There’s a bowl of pasta sauce cooling on the counter of my composer-house kitchenette. It was easy: chop an onion, half a green pepper, and the mushrooms that’ve been in the fridge a little too long, and sauté them all in a little bacon fat and olive oil. (All things in moderation.) Add half a 28-ounce can of tomatoes, hand-crushed, a splash of red wine, some salt, and a tablespoon of mixed herbs. (My portable pantry contained a jar of usual suspects–oregano, basil, and marjoram. I would have brought them separately, but on packing day I couldn’t find three small jars, and besides, I usually use them together.) Simmer on low for an hour or so. Adjust seasoning to taste.

There’s a slow-cooker on the counter, too, working its magic on a batch of chili: ground turkey, the other half of the green pepper, another onion, a can of beans, and a tablespoon of another spice blend I’d brought: cumin, paprika, and chili powder–again, they’re things I usually use together anyway.

Both of those will go into the fridge for lunches or dinners this week. Today’s lunch was a riff on cacio e pepe: I cracked an egg into a mixing bowl and whisked the heck out of it, then added a bunch of pepper, a palmful of grated parmesan cheese, and a fat handful of parsley. I made a batch of linguine to go with the red sauce, whisked a tablespoon of the starchy pasta water into the egg mixture, drained the pasta, and returned a lunch portion of it back to the pan. I poured in the egg mixture and stirred vigorously until everything was coated and the egg was cooked by the residual heat. I’d thought about adding a handful of spinach, but it was in the refrigerator down the hall, and I wasn’t quite dressed to go outdoors.

Lunch was spiffy. I’m looking forward to the chili, and the veggie-sauce pasta. None of this is extravagant, but all of it is better—or, at least, cheaper—than take-out. But I’m taking care of myself; I’m trying to be self-sufficient. It’s good to know that I can. (I mean, I’ve been cooking for a long time, so there’s not really any doubt, but I like doing it.)

On the other hand, I missed a stain on a pair of trousers when they came out of the washer. I’d hung them to dry rather than blast them with the heat of a commercial dryer, so there was a chance they’d be okay. I bought some stain remover, sprayed the trousers, waited a bit, and then put them into the washer again. I slid my quarters into their slots and hoped for the best.

In addition to pre-treating, you should soak the trousers, she texted me.

That ship has sailed, I replied, since they’re already in the washer.

Well, good luck, she pinged.

Thanks, I said. I should have asked you first. #tryingtobeselfsufficient.

The trousers came out of the wash unstained.

I made the chili and the red sauce and lunch in running clothes. I’m trying to be self-sufficient, but I didn’t want to press my luck.

 

The Adventures of Cherry Pandowdy

 

Painted in Waterlogue

It is beautiful here, there’s no question. But many of us are away from home, and though we are thankful for the miracles of WiFi and cell service that keep us in touch with loved ones, we still need to take care of each other. A theatre company very quickly becomes a sort of family. And thus is was that, on a Thursday that started beautiful and sunny but seemed to threaten something much colder and wetter, while I worked in my temporary home this morning, I used the cast-iron skillet I brought from home baked a batch of brownies to take to rehearsal. I used a boxed mix, but dressed it up a little with some cinnamon, some chopped nuts, and a sprinkle of salt on top.

There’s a character in our musical who courts a young sailor primarily by sending him gifts of baked goods—a walnut cake, gingerbread, cherry pandowdy. One of the actors and I joked that “Cherry Pandowdy” seemed like a great character name for a drag performer. So I left the plate of brownies on the break table along with a note from Cherry Pandowdy. (The note was in the form of parody lyrics to the tune of one of our show’s songs, because if you are a writer who bakes, that is what you do. Or at least what I do.)

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The brownies came out of the pan sort of messily. The actors seemed not to mind. Next time I’m at the market, I’ll buy some parchment paper to aid in removing baked goods from the pan.

It took longer for the cast to figure out who the baker was than to devour the brownies. Clearly I did the right thing. It’s been a long rehearsal week, and it’s not over yet. We all needed the treat.

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It turned out not to rain after all, but that’s okay. We take care of each other.

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The Refrigerator Down the Hall

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View outside my front door. I’m a city boy, but I enjoy it here.

I’m in Wisconsin while rehearsing a musical I’ve co-written. I have a lovely one-bedroom suite in a charming lodge. Outdoors it’s rustic—we’re across the street from a state park! but indoors it’s very pleasant indeed. If you write musicals, and you don’t get a place at least this nice, you should complain to your producers. I’ve got plenty of counter space, a microwave, a coffee maker, a four-burner stove with oven…and a teeny-tiny refrigerator.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t care about the size of a hotel room’s refrigerator; I’d usually only use it to store some leftover take-out food and maybe a soda or two. But I’m here for six weeks. It’s a vacation town, in the off-season; businesses close early—if they’re open at all on weekdays. Rehearsals run late into the evening. And even if none of that were true, six weeks is a long time to survive on restaurant food. And I like to cook.

My pint-sized refrigerator has a decent enough freezer compartment, but its vegetable drawer is laughably small. A quart of milk fits in a holder in the door, and there’s a rack for a six-pack of soda, but it’s just not meant for someone who needs to cook most of his own meals and who can’t get to the market every day. (The irony that She is learning to improvise while I have to meal-plan is not lost on me.)

I mentioned my predicament to the night manager, hoping he might offer me the mini-fridge from a vacant room. “Sure, we can take care of that,” he said. He led the way past my suite to a break room used by the housekeeping staff, which contained a full-sized fridge. “We’re not all staffed up for the summer yet. You can use this.”

Of course, he couldn’t move the fridge into my suite, but it’s got plenty of space, and nobody else is using it. It’s a little like having an extra freezer in the garage.

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So, today, zipping my little mini-cart around the Piggly Wiggly, I shopped for the week—or maybe more than the week. There’s a steak in my freezer (packaged in meal-sized pieces), along with some ground turkey that will become chili sometime soon, and some chicken thighs for which there isn’t yet a definite plan. A dozen eggs. Some bacon, because why not. Plenty of salad greens. Spinach. Other fruit and veg. Hummus. I’ve got this. I will not need to eat pasta or peanut butter sandwiches every night.

I’d made a pot of overnight oats for weekday breakfasts, and, before leaving on the shopping excursion and figuring this would be a busy day, today had a mushroom and asparagus omelet. (The mushrooms and asparagus were taking up most of my tiny vegetable drawer anyway.)

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I diced an onion, some carrots, and celery and simmered them with a quart of chicken stock, a little crumbled bacon, and some herbs. (I brought from home a bin of dry goods, so I wouldn’t have to buy everything here, along with some decent spare knives, and a cast-iron skillet.) When the stock was deeply flavored, I added a half-cup of brown rice and left it to simmer for another hour. The rice didn’t completely lose its structural integrity, but it thickened and fortified the soup—and, truth told, absorbed enough of the broth that the soup is much more like a stew, which is what I was hoping for in the first place. I sautéed some radish greens in the pan I’d used to cook the bacon and had those for a light lunch.

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The store didn’t have any “regular” pork shoulder, but I found a small pre-seasoned package that is in my slow-cooker now (along with more carrot and onion, a little mustard and a little red wine. It’ll do its slow-cooker thing all night, and I’ll cool it and package it up at breakfast time.

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After all the shopping and chopping and stowing and stewing, I went for a run, changed, and took myself out for dinner. I expect that the Coyote Roadhouse gets rowdier on a Saturday night during the high season, but on a late Sunday afternoon this out-of-the-way place was populated by gentle folks enjoying their barbecue and beers and the eclectic mix of music from Johnny Cash to Elton John that played in the background. The burger was good, the service was terrific, but the fried green beans were worth driving a thousand miles for. I brought home the leftovers and stored them in the fridge down the hall. They’re worth walking that far, too.

 

 

When “The Girl Who Follows Recipes” Proved She Can Improvise

Spring 2019 is an interesting season for us. Clay is adventuring in Wisconsin for six weeks of making theater (and living out of a very nice little hotel room with an efficiency kitchen), and I’m at home in Connecticut with the cats, the long commute to New York, and the CSA share.

He’s been more than idly afraid that I’ll choose to subsist on chips and guacamole for the duration of the trip, and I have been defiantly proving him wrong by preparing my own meals all week (with the exception of one extremely late night when take-out was the difference between eating and going to bed hungry). The catch is that I’ve been relying on leftovers or my go-to dishes, specific things that I know how to make from a precise list of ingredients. Last night that changed.

I left for the farm around 5:30, focused on arriving before they closed up shop at 6 and I missed my collection window. The whole way, I thought about what I might make from the yet-to-be-revealed bounty. I mentally ticked through the list of ingredients back home – a pint of lovely mushrooms Clay bought just before he left, a few glugs of red wine left in a bottle, a half dozen small potatoes, the end of a loaf of sourdough bread, a red pepper or two, several different cheeses, a pint of cream, and a pantry well-stocked with dry goods. Betting that – like in the last three weeks – there would be some salad greens and spring onions in the mix, I settled on a creamy mushroom sauce over egg noodles with a green salad (dressed with goat cheese, toasted pecans, and chive blossom vinaigrette).

I arrived at the farm just in time and read the list of share items for the week. Having promised that I would not accept anything I did not believe I would eat (since Clay is far more vegetable-loving than I am), I collected the arugula flowers, salad greens, asparagus, and green garlic but left the mustard greens and tatsoi greens (since bitter leaves are rarely my thing) and the basil and tomato seedlings (since after four years of trying I have accepted that my yard doesn’t receive enough sun to support either).

The lack of onions didn’t bother me; Clay had stocked the freezer with chopped onions for me before he left, so my plan was intact with the addition of mild garlic to add to the sauce, and enough asparagus that I could add in those languishing peppers and make a tiny lasagna primavera for myself this weekend.

I arrived home with my bag of beautiful produce and got to work. I pulled some onion from the freezer and tossed it in a pan over low heat to defrost while mincing a stalk of the garlic. (The other two were popped into a jar of water, roots down.) When the onions were thawed, I added a bit of oil to the pan and turned up the heat to soften them and earn some color, then pulled the mushrooms out of the fridge.

And the mushrooms had turned.

The star of my dish, a mushroom sauce I had seen many chef-type people make on countless food shows but not made myself before, was absolutely out of the question. But the onions were glistening and sizzling in their pan, with a fragrant pile of minced garlic on the cutting board next to them.

Follow-the-recipe Lissa would have tossed the onions and oil, washed the pan, and pulled out a cookbook. Learning-to-improvise Lissa thought on her feet.

“You’re hungry. If you stop now, you’ll order pizza or something else equally not-home-cooked and lose the game. Think about what you can do in 30 minutes with what’s already started. And move.

Yank open the refrigerator door and pull everything that you see onto the counter. Steak that Clay had seared but left too pink in the center, cooked potatoes, the aforementioned peppers, a tiny amount of mashed sweet potato, and two dozen kinds of sauces. Okay, two separate meals, to be cooked simultaneously.

Turn down the heat on the onions, stir the garlic into the pan, wipe down the cutting board, and set a cast iron skillet to heat on another burner. Run to the garage-pantry for a can of crushed tomatoes and pull out the spice box. Pour the tomatoes into the pan with the onions and garlic – now translucent but not yet browned – along with a cup of red wine, a palmful of salt and black pepper, a hearty dash of dried basil, and the usual seven shakes of Cavender’s seasoning blend. Turn the heat to medium so as to reduce the liquid, and pivot to the cast iron skillet.

The leftover steak was brushed with chive butter and chopped into three pieces before becoming leftovers, so goes into the hot skillet butter-side down. While it browns, chop the ends off the asparagus and carefully trim baby arugula leaves off of the flower stems. Flip the steak just in time to keep it from stepping more toward char, turn the oven to warm and set a large plate inside, and taste the sauce – still too watery.

Push the mashed sweet potato through a ricer and into the pan of sauce, shake in a few red pepper flakes, and turn up the heat. Meanwhile, take the steak out of the pan and onto the plate in the oven to keep warm. The outside is a gorgeous, rich brown just bursting with flavor, but the center is still too pink for someone who likes her meat “well done”. Fix it later. Place the asparagus into the skillet just vacated by the steak, and toss it in the herby, buttery drippings. Grind a mass of pepper over the top of it, and think.

Grab the slightly-too-hot-to-handle-comfortably plate from the oven and slice the New York Strip as if it were a London Broil – a quarter inch thick. Tip the perfectly cooked asparagus out of the skillet and pop the steak back in, pink sides down. Forty-five seconds per side and it’s a gorgeous mass of steak cooked as if to be “the browned bits” in the bottom of a beef stew. Pop into the warming oven with the asparagus.

Shove the leftover potatoes into the microwave to reheat and stir, stir, stir the sauce. Consider grabbing the food processor to smooth it out then realize that’s crazy talk and pour it into a quart-sized mason jar to cool. Clean as you go – there’s no joy in having to wash the dishes *after* eating dinner.

Pull the potatoes from the microwave and whip them with a wooden spoon. Consider adding cream, then remember that you just made a steak cooked in butter and vow “no more fat this weekend”.

Realize you made a steakhouse dinner for two. Assemble a bowl for yourself (because every meal is better in a bowl!) and a container of leftovers for the fridge: mashed potatoes spread across the bottom of the bowl, top with asparagus spears in a log-pile on the left and steak tidbits on the right, shake a bit of Worcestershire sauce over the steak (to cut the richness), then scatter torn baby arugula leaves over the top.

Wipe down the counter, put the jar of sauce and pyrex dish of leftovers into the fridge,  then sit down to enjoy your dinner – 35 minutes after you walked in the door with the CSA bounty – basking in the pride of a successful improvisation.

Lissa's Accidental Steakhouse Dinner

Lissa’s Accidental Steakhouse Dinner

P.S. I ate lunch while writing this: a bit of sausage roll with thick, chunky tomato sauce. It, too, was delicious.

Lissa's Accidental Tomato Sauce

Lissa’s Accidental Tomato Sauce