Author Archives: Him

Post-Graduate Work

Ramen Watercolor

It was Saturday morning, and we were making a slow start of it. She was playing a video game on her phone, the cat was snuggled at her feet, and I was reading Twitter.

I was scrolling past the seemingly-endless political stuff, passing the tech news, dodging the ads, when a friend’s retweet caught my eye.

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I laughed out loud at the thought of it, and showed her, and she laughed, too. “Yours,” she said, would be, ‘I’m going to eat all the Brussels Sprouts.'” And I laughed, because I was thinking exactly the same thing, and made that comment in a reply to the original poster.  The replies got more absurd and delightful. “I’m going to build a water slide in the basement,” one said.

And then women were getting involved, making it clear that it wasn’t only the men who eat less than prudently when they’re alone. One poster suggested she would make Blue-box Mac and Cheese and eat it out of the pan with the spoon she used to stir it. “This is your spiritual sister,” I said. “Nope. This is me!” she replied. By this point it was pretty clear I was going to read the entire thread, even if it meant I got nothing else done.  (She, for her part, had gotten up, dressed, and headed off to an eye exam and a trip to the market.) I kept going, through very specific “eat something stupid” replies, many focusing on chips, pizza, and Ramen noodles.

I haven’t thought about Ramen noodles in ages, but all of a sudden I wanted them for lunch. Sure, it was quick and easy and—most importantly for college students—cheap, not what anybody would call great cuisine, but maybe a little comforting. Sort of like blue-box macaroni and cheese.

I switched over to the shopping-list app and added Ramen noodles and scallions, and dressed to go out for a run.

She hadn’t found the five-packages-for-a-dollar variety. The Ramen she brought home was the real stuff—no MSG-filled flavor packet to be found, which was just fine with me. I hadn’t planned to use it anyway; I was thinking of one of the folks who posted about mixing in “a soft boiled egg, if you want to be fancy.” I didn’t know about fancy, but I did want it to be good.

Post-Graduate Ramen

Serves 1, because you know what she really wants for lunch isn’t Ramen.

1 tsp dried shrimp
3 or 4 cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 carrot, diced
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1-inch nob ginger, minced
2 scallions, sliced
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp sriracha sauce
1/4 tsp sesame oil
1 cup stock
1 package Ramen noodles

In a small bowl, pour a quarter-cup of boiling water over the dried shrimp.

Pour a little olive oil in a skillet and put it over medium-high heat.

When the oil is hot, add and sauté the mushrooms, carrot, and pepper. When the mushrooms are nicely browned and the others have softened a bit, lower the heat a little and add the garlic and ginger; toss, and continue to sauté until the aromatics are, well, aromatic.

Add the soy sauce and fish sauce, toss to combine.

Add the shrimp and their liquid, and the stock. Increase heat until the liquid is at a brisk simmer, then add the noodles and put a lid on the skillet. Cook 2-3 minutes (or per package directions).

Remove and serve, garnished with a few drops each of sesame oil and sriracha, and the chopped scallions.

Ramen

While you are doing all of this, of course, prepare one package blue-box mac and cheese. Offer her the pot, and the stirring spoon to use as a utensil.

Measure Twice, Bake Once

I looked at the shopping list app again. There was indeed a 2 in the listing for cream cheese. That’s more cream cheese than I’ve ever bought at one time, but I was sure she had a reason. I added another package to my cart and headed, at last, for the cashier.

It had been one of those complicated shopping trips, where you have to look carefully to make sure you have the specific brand and size and number—and that you get each item from the proper store. (If your spouse doesn’t load up the shared shopping-list app with such specific details because various things qualify for various rebates and compounded bonus rebates and triple money-back whatnots, you may not understand. But mine has turned shopping into a video game, practically, and by doing so has brought the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment over the past year, so I’m not complaining.)

Okay, sometimes all I want to do is run into the nearest store and get a carton of milk, and then I complain a little, but only a little.

I arrived home and gave her the goods and receipts—so that everything could be properly app-catalogued—and then asked why we’d needed all that cream cheese.

“Cheesecake,” she said. “I found a recipe for the Instant Pot.”

Well, that did sound like fun. (Also, it explained the graham crackers I’d just bought.)

She went back to project she’d been working on, and I went back to mine, and when I finished mine first I decided this hypothetical cheesecake wasn’t going to bake itself. I found the recipe she mentioned, gathered the rest of the ingredients, and assembled the hardware.

Her parents gave us the Instant Pot last Christmas, and, as accessories for our birthdays this year a set of cute little nesting steamer baskets that fit inside its stainless steel cooking pot. This seemed like a good use for one of the baskets; otherwise, how would I get the cheesecake out of the big Instant Pot…pot?

But how would I get it out of the little steamer basket, with its solid bottom? Cheesecakes are usually baked in springform pans. I found one of those that fit neatly inside the Instant Pot, and I was on my way. Graham crackers crumbled and buttered to form a crust in the springform pan. Cream cheese softened, whipped, sweetened, vanilla-ed, egged and slightly thickened with a tiny bit of flour. The whole mixture poured into the crust. Time to put the pan in the liner and get it cooking.

You see what I did there, don’t you? Or, rather, what I didn’t do?

I had checked that the springform pan would fit inside the Instant Pot, not inside the stainless steel liner. It was a half-inch too big. I was glad that I hadn’t made a New Year’s resolution to give up cussing, or that one would have been over before it started.

I calmed down and baked the cheesecake in a nice little water bath in our conventional oven. It looked perfect when it came out, and just as good when it cooled—no cracks! I smoothed a thin layer of sweetened yogurt on top and set it in the fridge to chill overnight.

EPILOGUE

Before we sat down to dinner on New Year’s Day, I covered the rest of the main course (thanks again, Instant Pot!) so the always-hungry cat wouldn’t do something naughty, and I took the cheesecake out of the fridge so it wouldn’t be frosty at dessert time.

“Aschie, NO!” she shouted.

I hadn’t covered the cheesecake. Aschenputtel had served herself a little dessert —just a few licks of the yogurt layer, but we’d never be serving this cheesecake to company.

Fortunately, we weren’t having company.

The cat got her face squirted for being bold. I scraped rest of the yogurt layer off the cheesecake, sliced some strawberries, and plated dessert for us.

Was it the best cheesecake I’ve ever baked? Well, it was the first cheesecake I’ve ever baked, so it wins by default. I’m not sure if it would have come out differently if I’d pressure-baked it as planned; I’ll try that one day, after I find an appropriately sized springform.  I will, in fact, measure twice to make sure that pan fits. And I’ll make sure that dessert is out of the cat’s reach.

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Scene of the crime.

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Well, it’s not like she skipped dinner and still wanted dessert.

SIDE NOTE

I’ll ask her to write a post about the shopping list app, and the rebate apps; they might be of more use than a cautionary tale of bad measurement and questionable cat parenting.

Not Mincing Words

Gather, my children, and you shall hear the story of a boy, a girl, and the Christmas without a Mince Pie.

Watching the 2017 Christmas Masterclass Mince Pie segment (and missing Mary Berry very much), she says, “We should try that.”

I can’t remember the last time I had a mincemeat pie. I can’t remember ever having a mincemeat pie. It’s the sort of thing I vaguely recall my grandmother baking, but nothing I would have been willing to try as a child.

But perhaps because of the recent visit from a picky-eating 10-year-old, I was feeling willing to give it a go. Of course we didn’t have a jar of mincemeat on hand, but the weather wasn’t bad, and I was going to be sitting on an organ bench at church for a long time later, so I volunteered for a Christmas Eve-afternoon walk.

Reaching the market, I began my search for the international foods aisle. I know there’s an international foods aisle, for it is where I buy PG Tips tea, her preferred brand. I can’t find it. I checked at the customer service desk, where I was told, “We don’t really have a section like that,” but maybe in aisle 7.  In aisle 7, I find the German foods, the Thai foods, Chinese foods, Japanese foods, lots of Kosher products, and stuff from many South American cultures. This feels pretty international to me, but whatever. In any event, there was nothing British.

Thinking the Brit-food has been distributed in other departments, I looked for pie fillings in the baking-supplies aisle. Couldn’t find ’em. Cake mix of every variety, muffins as far as the eye can see, plenty of flour and sugar, but no pie fillings. Oh, wait, there they are. Or were: a mostly empty shelf. But the mostly empty shelf has no tag indicating mincemeat was once there. I checked in produce, where the dried fruits are kept. Nothing doing there either. By this point I was on a mission. It must be there somewhere.
I found two clerks talking while one restocked the cheese section. I heard only the end of their conversation. “…and then it just wasn’t there anymore.” The other one threw her hands in the air in a helpless shrug, and the first one left. I said to the one remaining, “Speaking of things that aren’t there any more, do you know where I can find mincemeat?” She wasn’t sure, but led me to another guy. “Mincemeat?” this guy said. “That’s with the lamb.”
“I think that’s something else,” I said. “This has beef suet, but it’s mostly fruit.”
“Oh—fruit,” he replied. “Look with the prunes.” (That’s the dried fruit section, where I’ve been, but maybe I missed it.)  My guide-clerk led helpfully to the produce section, where she saw a third clerk and called to him, “Mincemeat?” He nods, and starts down the aisle. I followed him, encouraged.
He reached the end of his section and pointed to a shelf where proudly stood bags…of snow peas.
“Uh, thanks,” I said. “Let me think about it.” He nodded, and walked away, happy that his mission was accomplished.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a mince pie. All except us, anyway. I had a great walk, and baked brownies.

Not Quite an Instant

Her parents gave us an Instant Pot for Christmas last year. We love it. We’ve never had such good yogurt as the stuff we make in it. It gives us great chili, and pulled pork, and chicken stock.

I’m not completely expert at using it. I haven’t yet got brown rice to come out as tender as it would from a saucepan, or chickpeas from the slow cooker. Maybe I’m rushing things–but if the whole idea of a pressure cooker is that it works faster than other cooking methods, then I think it really ought to be faster.

Our CSA share hasn’t been piling on the carrots and parsnips quite so much as it was for a while there, but we’ve still got quite a few, and some nice potatoes. And, with a bit of chill in the evening air of late, stew seemed like a good idea—and a perfect job for the Pot. I seared the beef, I chopped the veg, I added seasonings and wine, closed the lid and headed for rehearsal.

She didn’t have stew. She had, according to the text message she sent me, “cooked beef and veggies sitting in oily liquid—not broth, not gravy.”

And, unfortunately, the gravy separator had melted in a stovetop accident sometime during the holidays last year. (We don’t make gravy very often.) Ever-resourceful, she refrigerated the solids in one container, the liquid in another, and made mac and cheese for her dinner.

When we got home the next evening–a rare night home together!–I skimmed the solidified fat, made a roux, and used the broth to make a nice, hearty gravy. I warmed the meat and veg, added them to the gravy, topped the stew-at-last with some chopped celery leaves, and we had dinner in not quite an instant.

Some things happen in a flash. Some take a very long time. Sometimes it’s a little of both. We’d known each other for ten years before our first date.

Happy anniversary to us.

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…


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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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.