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

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