Category Archives: Dinner

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

The Nowhere Near Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge

Painted in Waterlogue

“Let’s just have green beans,” she said.

She didn’t mean we should forego the turkey, skip the stuffing, or pass on the pumpkin pie. And she surely didn’t mean there would be no mashed potatoes.

I had been asking about green bean casserole, which is a pretty traditional Thanksgiving side dish around here. But considering the butternut squash soup, the giblet gravy, and the aforementioned and very buttery mashed potatoes, I agreed the there would be enough creamy things on the menu. Steamed beans with salt and pepper and a little lemon zest would provide a nice, crisp balance. Nobody missed the casserole at Thanksgiving dinner, and everybody left the table happily full.

But, on Sunday night, while watching a cooking game show that included a “remake this side dish” challenge, I thought about green beans. (I’d bought more vegetables than we’d needed to cook for the seven of us, so there were some in the fridge that ought to be cooked soon.) When we arrived home on Monday after long days at the offices and long, rainy commutes, it seemed time for something warm and comforting—and not just the last of the reheated Thanksgiving leftovers. One of my students today had said, “You know, give me green bean casserole and mashed potatoes, and I’m good for Thanksgiving.”  So, while she folded some laundry, I thought: Game on. Remake Green Bean Casserole as an entree using only things we have in the fridge or pantry.

Green Bean Tortellini

1/2 package spinach tortellini
2 cups green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 medium onion, sliced
2 tbsp giblet gravy
2 tbsp cream
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp grated parmesan cheese
2 strips crisp bacon, crumbled
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil

Do the slicing and chopping. Set a pot of water to boil. If you have been sitting at a desk or piano, or in traffic, all day long, go into the living room and do a 7 Minute Workout. If your day has been sufficiently active already, slice and dice while waiting for the water to boil. Warm pasta bowls in the oven.

Cook tortellini according to package directions. Steam the green beans over the water in the pasta pot.
Put a glug of oil in a skillet, get it good and hot, and sauté the onions, then the mushrooms. Add the Worcestershire sauce and toss.
Drain the tortellini and put it in the oven to keep warm; it won’t be long now.
Add the green beans to the drained pasta.
Add the cream and gravy to the mushrooms and onions; stir to combine and heat through.
Pour the mushroom/onion sort-of-sauce over the pasta and beans; toss to combine.
Divide into the warmed bowls. Sprinkle crumbled bacon and cheese on top.

Serves 2, plus one lucky lunch-eater the next day. (Or increase all the quantities and serve 2 for lunch, or 4 for dinner.)

 

The idea here is for a dish that is equal parts veg and pasta. The result is not soupy. The beans are still crisp. The bacon is totally optional, but I’d made it and forgot to add it to the Brussels sprouts on Thanksgiving day, so its salty crunch seemed like a wise addition. It’s not Thanksgiving leftovers, it’s something entirely different. And I’ll do it again.

Dinner in 30 minutes, plus a little exercise, and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a long day of happy-but-challenging work.  Not bad for Monday.

 

 

Stuffed

img_8192After you’ve driven in the rain for five hours and reached a vacation site so fog-shrouded it’s hard to tell if you might sail off the edge of the world, you order take-out.

You might do this even if the drive is completely sunny and the beach looks perfect, but I wouldn’t know. I’m new to this seaside-vacation thing.

Either way, you order too much take-out. Not that there really is such a thing as “too much,” but certainly too much for dinner on a driving day. So there are leftovers. And, aside from pizza (which can be perfectly good eaten cold on the beach with chocolate milk), leftovers are meant to be transformed.

This is especially the case if one of your party has dietary restrictions and what was ordered can best be described as Sometime Food.

Thus it was that, as Improviser-in-Chief, I removed packages from the fridge and found partial orders of boneless spare ribs, teriyaki beef kebabs, bourbon chicken, and way more fried rice than should be served to anybody with diabetes and cardiac concerns. So I also removed four bell peppers, a couple of carrots (with their greens still attached), a couple ribs of celery, and a bunch of chard. From the basket in the kitchen’s bay window, I took a handful of grape tomatoes, a red onion, and a head of garlic. I set the oven to 350F, put a big saute pan on the stove, a big cutting board on the counter, and got to work.

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I sliced off the tops of the bell peppers and set the bodies in a baking dish. I discarded the seeds, ribs, and stems, and chopped the tops. The chopped bits, along with the celery (diced), red onion (diced), garlic (2 cloves, minced), and chard (stemmed and chopped) were salted and sauteed briefly in olive oil, then put in a big mixing bowl.

Meanwhile, I scooped the chicken, ribs, and beef out of their containers and scraped off as much sauce as I could without making a full day’s project of it, then diced them all, and then gave them a turn in the saute pan, then added them to the big bowl.

Finally, the fried rice and tomatoes went in; when the rice started to get a little sticky, I added a little balsamic vinegar and a glug of the red wine I’d opened to serve with dinner; the object here was just to say “Hey, this isn’t Chinese food any more.” Into the bowl it went with everything else.

My smart leggy brunette sous-chef stirred everything together and then spooned the stuffing into the peppers. And, I might add, she did so far more neatly than I would have managed. I crushed some cracked-wheat crackers and topped the peppers with them. (She also swept up the cracker-crushings that went all over the kitchen floor.) I added some aluminum foil bolsters so the peppers wouldn’t fall over, covered the dish with foil, and set it in the oven.

While the peppers baked, I minced the carrot tops with some savory from the CSA box (I would have used parsley if we’d had any), and sprinkled them with a few drops of vinegar.

After 15 minutes, I removed the foil from the peppers, and after 15 more minutes realized the peppers needed another five. When the peppers were mostly tender, I plated the peppers, ringed with the stuffing that hadn’t fit inside, and garnished with the greens.

My sainted grandmother made stuffed peppers for dinner pretty regularly: bell peppers stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and rice, topped with stewed tomatoes and seasoned with nothing more than a little salt. Bless her soul, they were bland and mushy. These were crisp, full of vegetables, and, well, interesting. They weren’t candy-sweet, they weren’t OMG-the-MSG salty, and if I hadn’t known their origins as Chinese takeout I’m not sure I would have guessed.

I would not suggest that this meal was worth driving five hours in the rain for, but let’s put it this way: there were no leftovers.

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How To Make Pork Tenderloin with Braised Chard and Roasted Fennel

As promised, a recipe from last week’s CSA meal-plan:

We built a deck last week. To be more accurate, my parents built a deck while we schlepped stuff around and dug holes for footings and garden beds. The point being, we expended enormous amounts of physical energy in activities outside our norm, and were pretty hungry while having zero energy for cooking.  As a solution, one of the easiest dishes I know how to make: roasted pork tenderloin. It’s tender and succulent, and difficult to overcook if you watch it carefully.

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with a cast iron skillet inside.
  2. Prep your vegetables: I chose carrots and fennel cut into three-quarter-inch pieces, tossed with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh black pepper.
  3. Prep your tenderloin:
    1. Rinse it off, pat it dry, and trim away any silverskin.
    2. Slash it deeply in a few places and stuff the slashes full of minced garlic scapes.
    3. Drizzle the pork with a bit of olive oil, then massage a mixture of salt, pepper, and sweet Hungarian paprika into the meat.
  4. Pull the hot skillet from the oven; nestle the pork and veg into the pan, and pop it back in the oven for twenty-five minutes or until the internal temperature reads 160 degrees*.
  5. At the twenty-five minute mark, remove the pork to a carving board: tent it with foil and let it rest for ten minutes while the vegetables continue cooking, then slice it.

* Full disclosure: Clay swears by the instant-read meat thermometers, but I always determine doneness by color and texture. 160 is a little too shimmery and pale pink for my taste, so I generally end up slicing the pork, laying it over the top of the veg, and tossing it back into the oven for a few minutes to be really “done”.

During the twenty-five minute roasting time, prep the chard.

  1. Tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. I dislike the stems so compost them, but you could chop them into small pieces and cook them, as well.
  2. Prepare a seasoning mix of salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, and sliced scallions.
  3. Prepare braising liquid – a one-cup measure of chicken stock** and wine.

** I didn’t realize until most of the way through prep that my stock was frozen solid, so I strained off a bit of broth from leftover wonton soup and mixed it with an equal measure of pinot noir. It worked a treat.

Set a skillet over medium heat on the stove, and melt some bacon drippings in it. (If you don’t keep bacon drippings in your fridge, butter or olive oil will suffice but the final dish will be less flavorful.) Toss the chard and seasonings in the melted drippings; allow the leaves to wilt slightly. Add the braising liquid, lower the heat, lid the pan, and let it be for three to five minutes, until the greens are fully wilted. Remove the greens to a warm dish, then reduce the remaining liquid until it’s the consistency of a sauce; drizzle over the wilted greens.

Serve slices of pork over a small bed of wilted greens, alongside carrots and fennel. It’s an aromatic and filling plate, for sure – so much so that all four servings were eaten and the dishes were washed before I thought to take a photograph. Next time…

CSA Notes
We used all of the fennel and all of the chard from last week’s box in this dish, along with 1/5 of the garlic scapes and 1/2 of the scallions. The volume fed four adults with hearty dinner portions and no leftovers.

 

 

 

To Win the Game, First Boil Water

“What about Carbonara?” she asked, as we rode the train home last Monday evening.

“Carbonara,” I said, thinking that was beyond my reach; it would be 10 pm before we got home.

“We have bacon and eggs and cheese and pasta.”

Challenge accepted. It would certainly keep us from going to the drive-through window, or eating a bowl of ice cream for dinner. Neither of those is necessarily terrible, but we could do better.

I’m sure the idea arose because we’d watched an episode of a cooking game show the night before. Just for fun, the host challenged one of the judges to join the competition. The meal he prepared didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but he started halfway into the cooking period and prepared a meal of spaghetti carbonara in less than 15 minutes. (Because it was also a “budget” challenge, the judge used bacon rather than the traditional pancetta.)

“How did he do that so fast?” she asked. “Did they stop the clock to let him boil the water?”

I’m pretty sure, I said, that they let all the contestants have a pot of boiling water all the time. In fact, although I can’t remember where, I’d read that every cook should set a pot of water to boil as soon as walking in the door, even if you don’t know what you’re planning to cook. It could be used for to cook pasta, potatoes, or rice; or turn into the basis for a simple soup; or a steamer basket could go over it for vegetables. I don’t always do this, but it does seem like a good idea.

“Okay,” I said, “but you can’t hold me to 15 minutes since I don’t already have boiling water.”

That seemed fair to her.

Carbonara Against the Clock.

First things first. Come in the door. Put down your bag and go straight to the stove. Put on a pot of water to boil. Feed the cat.

Now take off your coat. Hey, every second counts.

Set a skillet on medium heat.

Pull a package of bacon from the freezer; and, from the fridge, a wedge of parmesan and a carton of eggs.

Green peas are not to be included, the judge pointedly said. Heck with him. Get peas if you want them. We didn’t have any peas. I grabbed some asparagus.

Turn on the oven to low, add a couple of bowls. No cold plates for hot food.

Dice a few strips of bacon and set them in the skillet to render, stirring occasionally so nothing burns. (If the bacon is frozen, so much the better: it dices neatly and cooks slower.)

Trim the asparagus (if using) and cut it into half-inch long pieces.

Grate the cheese until you have about half a cup.

When the water is boiling, in goes a half-box of spaghetti. Stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t clump.

When the bacon is cooked, remove it with a slotted spoon to one of the warming bowls. If Pour off the bacon fat, reserving it for another day! Leave a little fat in the skillet and sauté the if-using asparagus in it.

Cracked four eggs into a big bowl and whisk them. Stirred in most of the grated cheese and a generous amount of pepper.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, add it to the eggs-and-cheese bowl, and stir vigorously. This way, the hot pasta cooks the eggs gently—rather than pouring the eggs into the pasta pot, where they’d seize up instantly. Add the bacon and completely-non-traditional asparagus, stirred a little more to combine. Divide into the warmed bowls, and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Serves two, who most decidedly did not have to go to the drive-through; if there are no leftovers, I will certainly not judge.

35 minutes from walking in the door to sitting down to eat.

Cooking game shows are fun to watch, though they don’t really have the play-along factor of Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune—or, one that is very close to my heart, The $100,000 Pyramid. There’s no way to “get the answer” before the contestants do, and, of course, there’s no way for the home audience to “judge” the food the contestants prepare, other than by saying, “That looks good,” or “I wouldn’t eat that.”

Or—and this is particularly important for an improvisational cook like me—as a reminder of how to cook within limitations.

Whatever the challenge, first, boil some water.

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.