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Close Calls and Grits

You know those signs they hang in factories–“X days without an accident”? Well, I nearly needed to reset the one in the kitchen to 0.

I had defrosted some shrimp for dinner. “Are we going to have shrimp and grits?” she asked hopefully. I hadn’t gotten that far in my planning, but it sounded good to me.

I looked up the recipe (I know, right? I looked up a recipe!), I gathered the vegetables, I got the grits from the pantry, I started a skillet heating; I was ready. I got out a saucepan to make some quick stock from the shrimp shells–and then I realized that the beautiful shrimp had no shells. They had tails, but those really weren’t enough to flavor a stock.

Okay; I checked the freezer inventory. “Chicken stock, 1 qt jar.” Excellent. I’ll add the tails to the stock; that’ll do the trick. I diced and sautéed the vegetables while the stock defrosted in the microwave. I toasted the grits in a little butter.

Wow, that’s really thick stock, I thought. And it’s kinda lumpy. Was it gravy we’d mistaken for stock? Was there something wrong with it? I gave it a taste.

Mashed bananas.

Clearly the jar was mislabeled.

Good thing I didn’t just dump it into the pan with the toasted grits. I boiled some water for the grits, salted it liberally and laid the shrimp shells on top before lidding the saucepan. The cooked grits got a little more butter, and plenty of shredded cheese; if they weren’t quite as tasty as I’d hoped they were certainly fine. And the shrimp gravy had a little more tomato than usual to account for the stock I couldn’t add to it. Not perfect, but not bad.

I wrote a comic sketch for an industrial show some years ago–at the client’s request–making fun of the corporate language distinguishing between the words “incident” and “accident,” and how the phrase “near miss” seems to indicate that there was, in fact, a collision of some sort. That script was lost several moves ago, but the intention was to riff on the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine. I’m sure my sketch wan’t as funny as theirs, but it was certainly better than shrimp and grits and mashed bananas.

Happy-as-Possible Meal

“Oh, and I also vacuum-sealed the Dino-Bites,” I said when she came down to collect kitchen towels for the next load of laundry.

“The what?”

“Dino-bites. Little dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Organic chicken. The kids left them.”

(“The kids” was what we’d taken to call the pair of my beloved former students who’d been our house-and-cat sitters while we were away. Upon our earlier-than-expected return home, and the news that the university wasn’t going to re-open for on-campus classes, they had decided to decamp to stay with relatives in Florida. They’d bought groceries while they were here, and I guess hadn’t had room for the Dino-Bites in their cooler for the trip to Florida.)

“Dino-Bites,” she said, amused.

“Organic Dino-Bites,” I clarified, and she went back to the laundry.


Fast-forward a couple of weeks, to my first-day of on-line teaching, which had also included a two-hour on-line writing workshop and a bunch of other projects that involved staring at the screens in my office, not least of which was getting the tech working properly so I could do all this remote stuff; while, upstairs in her office she was dealing with work problems of her own. We were both in a mood, is what I’m trying to say. It was the sort of day when we’d have stopped at the burrito place for take-out on the way home; or, if she’d been on her own for dinner she would have visited the drive-through for some chicken nuggets and fries. Because however much meal planning you do and how careful you are about choosing only the best, sometimes you have to do that. It was definitely that sort of day, but we weren’t going out yet, not even to pick up something quick.

“Go take a shower,” I said. “I have a plan.”

She came back a while later, with damp hair and fresh jammies, and I presented dinner. Some vegetables, sure–we’re grown-ups most of the time–along with a pile of French fries and some dinosaur-shaped organic chicken nuggets.

Dinnerasaurus Rex

Closest thing to a Happy Meal I could provide. Some days close is good enough.

Taking Stock

We did a freezer inventory on the morning after we got home. (Also one of the pantry, and of the shelves in the garage. We’d made a quick stop at the market on the way home from the airport, but planned no shopping until we cleared the 14-day better-safe-than-sorry-since-we’ve-been-out-of-the-country hermitage. We were in good shape, and would continue to be so, but it’s always good to know what’s where.

I found two bags of chicken bones I was saving for stock. Now is the time. They went straight into the Instant Pot along with some celery, onion, and carrot. I covered it all with water, sealed it up, and let pressure do its thing for an hour. I removed the bits and pieces, turned on the slow-cooker setting, and left it ‘til the next morning. A little straining and a little skimming later, and I had two quarts of really good chicken stock. It felt like insurance against hunger—or, at least, against bland food.

I’ve been using it a bit at a time—for rice, gravy, and whatnot—but there was a quart left. “How about chicken and dumplings?” I asked. “Would it be more like stew than soup?” she replied. I confirmed that it would. She was in. I took out a pair of chicken breasts, crossed them off the inventory, and set them to defrost. I knew I’d have to look up the dumplings recipe to get the proportions right, but the rest would be easy.


Chicken and Herbed Dumplings

Set a quart of chicken stock to warm in a big pot. Check the fridge.

  • The last carrot. Okay, then, one carrot it is. (I added carrots to the grocery list.)
  • A couple ribs of celery. (Plenty of that left; I crossed it off the list.)
  • Half a package of mushrooms that need to be used. Yup.
  • A big, fat onion. Check.
  • A little jar of gravy made from the same stock. Definitely; it’s already got some thickening power. (Barring this, you might want to add a little cornstarch slurry to the stew before the dumplings go in.)
  • A third of a tub of store-bought pesto (divided). This is your time, my friend. A fat tablespoon of it went into the pot—hey, I would have used fresh herbs, but it’s been two weeks since we’ve been to the market!
  • Salt and pepper to taste, and a bit of Worcestershire sauce to bolster the umami.

Simmer until the carrots are not quite tender, then add the chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces, and simmer until the chicken is poached (another 10 minutes or so).

At this point I fed the cats, who had been very patient during all this peeling and chopping and stirring.

I prepped the dumplings, mostly according to The Joy of Cooking, stirring together in a big bowl:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • A good grind of pepper (hey, I said mostly according)

And bringing to a low simmer in a small saucepan:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • The rest of the pesto (definitely not part of the original recipe, but what fun to have herbed dumplings!) if you don[t have leftover pesto but like this idea, add some chopped herbs and grated Parmesan cheese to the dumpling dough.

Pour the wet into the dry, stir just to combine, turn out onto a board and knead very slightly. Working quickly and lightly, form into 18 or so balls. Don’t compress the dough.

Lay the dumplings atop the stew, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Serve in warmed bowls, topped with the last bit of parsley in the fridge.


Would I have thought of chicken and dumplings if I didn’t have a quart of really good stock? Probably not. I was kind of in the mood for pizza, but that for another day. Same with the pesto. Resources are not scarce, but it would have been a terrible shame to let that stock go sour, or the pesto spoil. What could have been clean-out-the-fridge night turned into a rich, comforting meal.

I look forward to our next market trip; I really look forward to a day when we can go back to feeling like we can go to the market whenever we please; but, meanwhile, cooking with what’s at hand is pretty much what I do. Knowing that I can might be the biggest comfort of all.

Not-Waffles

Even those of who enjoy cooking at home regularly are trying to have a little more fun with it these days. Sometimes this means comfort food. Sometimes this means gourmet dinner preparations. Sometimes it’s a cross between Survivor and Chopped. And since we can’t invite each other over for dinner, the next best thing is sharing photos of our kitchen accomplishments. And, often, trying to make each other laugh.

And sometimes it’s all of these things at once.

Witness the story of Tot-waffles.

I don’t know the creator of the Tot-waffle, but I do know that our friend V heard about this culinary innovation and went straight to hi freezer. And became the envy of all the others, as the Coolest Dad Ever. To be sure, this is a guy whose waffle-iron game is strong: at every community-theatre potluck his Broffles (brownie batter baked in a waffle iron) are the dessert descended upon with the greatest delight. To be further sure, this is a guy whose engineering skills are unparalleled among our friends. He’s the one who hacked his espresso maker with a water supply hose so he’d never have to refill the reservoir, and who 3D-printed a larger hopper for his coffee grinder so he wouldn’t run out of beans in the morning.

So of course he made Tot-waffles. And Sriracha-maple ketchup to go with them.

I don’t like Tater Tots all that much and even I wanted one of those waffles.

But we have no Tots. They’re not something we buy.

But we have science. And potatoes. And a subscription to The New York Times. And wouldn’t you know, there was a recipe for Tots.

Simple enough, really. Parboil potatoes; shred them on a box grater or food processor; add some salt, garlic powder, and cornstarch and mix gently (you don’t want mashed potatoes); form into little nuggets; fry very briefly; cool, then bake to finish.

Mark Bittman’s recipe said to leave the skins on; I didn’t, because I was working with some older potatoes that were pretty wrinkly. I added a little paprika, too.

She proclaimed the Tots the Best Thing in the History of Ever. I’ll take that with a grain of salt; she had worked late and hunger is, I know, the best sauce. But I liked them, too. In fact, if this is what Tots taste like, then I like Tots. No waffling about it.

Don’t Stew About It

One day it’s sunny and bright, the next grey and chill—in other words, March. While we were in Antigua a couple of weeks ago, it seemed to rain every night, overnight, leaving everything fresh and clear in the morning. I like that idea but don’t know how to get our climate to adopt it. These days it’s hard to be sure we know anything.

I am pretty sure, though, that on a damp, cool day we’re going to want something comforting and warm for dinner. With two hours of video that I needed to screen for work playing in the background, I could come up with something.


Don’t-Stew-About-It Stew

Put a film of oil in the Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Set the oven to 350F. Open the window a crack so the smoke detector doesn’t get fussy. Sprinkle cubes of beef chuck with salt and pepper. Working in batches so the pot doesn’t get crowded, brown the beef on all sides.

Deglaze the pot with a little stock. Roughly chop lots of vegetables: lots of carrots; a couple big, fat onions; plenty of celery; a few cloves of garlic. Add a bit more oil to the pot and lightly brown the vegetables; give them a little salt to help draw out moisture from the onions. Make a little well in the middle of the pot and sauté a couple tablespoons of tomato paste, then stir to distribute it among the vegetables.

Add the beef back to the pot, atop the veg. Sprinkle with a couple tablespoons of flour. Put the pot in the oven for 10 minutes or so to lightly brown the flour.

Remove the pot from the oven and stir in a couple cups of stock and a cup of red wine, salt and pepper, some thyme, a little paprika, a couple bay leaves. Put the lid on the pot, return the pot to the oven, and walk away.

Finish watching the stupid video. Take the quiz, passing it a perfect score and the knowledge that you would have scored just as well without watching the video. Don’t stew about it. The house is starting to smell wonderful. Go for a run and shower afterwards; there’s plenty of time.

After a few hours, check the beef. When it’s just shy of falling-apart tender, lower the oven temperature a bit and put the pot back in without its lid so the sauce can thicken a bit. At the last minute, warm a couple of serving bowls in the oven. Serve the stew in warm bowls, topped with a little chopped parsley, along with some nice, crusty bread.


No need for a cookbook, no need for exact amounts or fretting over lacking ingredients. Just a cutting board, a Dutch oven, a sharp knife, and little confidence that, though there’s a lot I can’t control and even more I can’t predict, there will be dinner.

And probably some leftovers. It’ll probably rain again tomorrow.

Does Not Follow Directions Well

Painted in Waterlogue

I was a pretty good student. I don’t ever remember seeing “Does Not Follow Directions Well” written on my report card. Of course, I was also not the kind of kid who waited until the night before the book report was due to start writing, but I most certainly have become that sort of writer now.

Nonetheless, if the instruction is “Stay away from other people for 14 days after returning from a foreign country,” or “Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after touching anything someone else may have touched,” I will get at least an A-minus. I mean, I’m gonna go out for a run every day the weather permits, and I’ll take a route that is not crowded with other pedestrians, but I won’t get closer than 6 feet to anyone I do encounter.

While we were on vacation recently She said often, “I miss your cooking.” I guess that’s gonna work out well for her, now that we’re home (and staying home) and getting groceries is going to be a challenge. She scheduled a delivery from our favorite market, but several things in the order didn’t show up.

I looked at the lovely piece of salmon that arrived, thought long and hard about it, and realized we hadn’t had Thai food for quite a while. There had been “Pan-Asian” night at the resort we visited; I think in that particular case “pan” was meant as the opposite of “rave.” (I didn’t miss my cooking generally, but that meal was a pretty big disappointment.)

I Googled “Thai salmon.” I scanned the first page of hits. I Googled “Thai Salmon Peanut Sauce.” I saw a pretty promising title. I clicked through and, while the page loaded, headed to the kitchen.

Oh. I’m gonna need coconut milk. And chili paste. Maybe I’d better do something else.

Nah. What I read was enough to get started. Bakers need recipes. Cooks need ideas.

Not At All the Recipe I Looked for Salmon with Peanut Sauce and Coconut Cilantro Rice
Serves 2, with some leftovers to repurpose for lunch

Salmon filet, about 1/3 lb. per serving
1 cup rice
2 cups water (or 1 cup water, 1 cup fish stock)
1/4 cup chopped peanuts
1/2 cup flaked coconut (unsweetened if possible)
2 tsp sesame seeds
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp peanut butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbsp soy sauce (more to taste)
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped roughly
1/2 tsp hot sauce
1 tsp each curry powder and paprika
Juice and zest of one lime

Cut the salmon into serving pieces.  Pat dry and set aside.

Toast 1 cup of rice in a little butter. Add 2 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt (or, if you have it as I did, 1 cup water, 1 cup stock), reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, still covered.

While the rice cooks, in a dry skillet, toast the coconut and remove; then toast the sesame seeds and remove. (Take care—neither one takes very long to toast!)

Make the sauce:
Warm the peanut butter in the microwave to make it easier to stir. Add the soy sauce, hot sauce, garlic, and lime juice.
Add a little oil to the hot skillet; add the peanuts, paprika, and curry powder and stir. When they’re hot and fragrant, add the spice/oil mixture and sesame seeds to the sauce, along with another 1 tbsp of oil. Stir until well combined and set aside.

Put 1 tbsp of oil in the skillet and heat until shimmering. Add the salmon, skin side down.   Cook for 2 minutes without touching, then top with a little of the peanut sauce. Place skillet in a 350F oven for 5 minutes.

Use a fork to fluff the rice. Stir in the lime zest, toasted coconut, and cilantro. Put the lid back on.

Remove the salmon from the oven and turn the filets over, now sauce-side down. Return to the oven for 5 minutes more.

In serving bowls, place the salmon over the rice, topped with a little more sauce. Serve with sautéed spinach (or whatever green thing you like).

Feel free to read this recipe and riff off it any way you want to–as I did with the ones I saw to come up with our dinner. Just wash your hands first, and afterward.

I hope whoever got the pastrami we ordered enjoys it.

Thai Salmo

 

Not Quite Breakfast for Not Quite Dinner

Painted in Waterlogue

There was a package of smoked salmon in the fridge. I guess that’s not tremendously unusual; it’s the sort of thing we have from time, not quite a staple and not quite a splurge. She bought it, I guess, when her mom came to visit, and they hadn’t eaten it. I didn’t have a lot of time to cook, so a protein I didn’t have to defrost had pretty strong appeal. What did not appeal, however, was serving it for breakfast with bagels and cream cheese. I like the idea of bagels and cream cheese and smoked salmon, but smoked fish is just too fishy for me in the morning.

But it was 4 in the afternoon, I had to leave for rehearsal shortly, and breakfast had been a long time ago.

While I cooked some linguine, I flaked the salmon into a bowl. I chopped a bunch of cilantro and a bunch of dill and added them. I chopped some capers and added them. Thinking I might be on the verge of too-salty, I saw some appealing-looking grape tomatoes on the counter; I halved and added them to the bowl.I very lightly steamed a few spears of asparagus, sliced them into quarter-inch rounds, and added them, too. We had cream cheese, but I left it in the fridge in favor of some mozzarella I roughly cubed.  I made a quick vinaigrette from a teaspoon of dijon mustard, a bit of the caper brine, and a couple tablespoons of olive oil, gave the bowl a generous grind of black pepper, and tossed everything to coat. When the noodles reached al dente, I scooped them into the bowl; some of their starchy cooking water came along, as intended. I tossed the pasta with its fishy-cheesy-herby condiment–too chunky to call it “sauce,” I think.

The heat of the noodles softened the cheese and tomatoes and warmed the salmon and herbs without cooking them. But the dressing wasn’t so cold as to turn the pasta into a salad. It was like a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon, but in a bowl. Fresh, bright herbs; sweet tomatoes; soft, creamy cheese; briny, hearty, yet delicate fish; this dish had a little of everything.

I called down to the office. “Dinner is served,” I said. “Or lunch, or whatever this is.”

Whatever it was, we enjoyed it a lot.

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