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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.

 

 

Fried

Painted in Waterlogue

Most of the photographs I see on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are of food and families. Exquisitely-set tables, elaborate dinners, generations of relatives with freshly-scrubbed faces and beautiful clothes (or, sometimes, new and often comically matching pajamas), happy pets and the occasional engagement ring.

They might as well be pictures from the surface of Mars.

I’ve worked for many years as a church musician—and most of that in a very big church with many, many services. Not only are Christmas Eve and Christmas day workdays, they’re two of the biggest workdays of the year, with extra services, huge crowds, extra musicians. And don’t even get me started about the perfect-storm of a bad year when December 24th falls on Sunday, which means it’s a “regular” workday all morning, and then suddenly becomes Christmas Eve in the afternoon. And if you work in a parish that has services on Saturday evening (“anticipating” Sunday morning), it gets even worse. A special Christmas Eve dinner is out of the question. And by the time you get home on Christmas Day, what you may want more than anything else is to collapse.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried. Hearing about the Feast of Seven Fishes in some families,  I tried picking up sushi on my brief Christmas Eve dinner break. It was sort of festive, but far more rushed than feast-like. Looking for a simpler option, I tried a particular tortilla soup I liked. It was tasty and quick to prepare, but one year it was accidentally too spicy and I turned my head to cough after the first spoonful and re-injured a pulled back muscle and had to play Midnight Mass on some pretty serious pain medication. (That was my first year in the parish and the head of the search committee that hired me worried that they’d made a terrible mistake.)

So I decided: whatever. A ham sandwich eaten in the choir room can be perfect Christmas Eve–maybe with a cookie for dessert. Big Christmas Dinner can be postponed until after I’ve had some sleep.

And then I decided: I’m not doing that any more. I’m not working in a big parish, and I don’t miss it. I may fill in here and there, playing one service on Christmas Eve in order to give a colleague a couple of hours off to have a decent meal with her or his family, but that’s it. And on Christmas morning I am home with my small, happy family.

It doesn’t mean that December is quiet and restful, though. This year, between teaching and concerts and writing and re-writing and re-writing the re-writes and rehearsals and performances—both of us doing shows at the same time in different theaters—there wasn’t a day off between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. But, while driving to the train station in the morning, or in the few minutes before sleep at night, or in text messages exchanged here and there, we made plans: I’d play my one service on Christmas Eve with her in attendance to hear the music she loves so well; we’d go for a little drive to look at the lights; then we’d come home to roast a fast-but-festive spatchcocked chicken. On Christmas Day, we’d have a late breakfast of pumpkin-cream-cheese French Toast Casserole, and slow-cook a dinner of Boeuf Bourguignon.

Of course none of that happened quite the way we planned. The looking-at-lights trip happened several days after Christmas. The beef stew went into the pressure cooker rather than a slow oven. And what we thought would be a quick Christmas Eve nap resulted in her waking up on Christmas morning.

I’m just reporting, not complaining.

But there it was, the 28th, and we still had a raw chicken in the fridge. “Should I spatchcock it?” I asked. “What about Alton’s fried chicken?” I was skeptical about thermal-control issues, but she had given me a spiffy new instant-read thermometer for Christmas. So I used my treasured boning knife to portion the chicken. She made the spice blend and moved on to other household tasks. I buttermilk-bathed and spice-rubbed and flour-massaged.

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While the chicken rested I prepared the salad, scrubbed and started the potatoes baking.

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I cranked up the not-very-effective exhaust fan, opened the kitchen window, and heated the oil

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I checked each piece with my spiffy new thermometer, and kept them warm in the oven until everybody was finished. 

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It was a wonderful meal.

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Oh, Christmas Eve? I woke up from our nap sooner than she did. I padded downstairs in my robe and slippers to I assembled the French Toast casserole so it could rest overnight.  Then I realized I really did want some dinner. I had a ham sandwich and a cookie for dessert.

It was perfect.

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.

 

 

Single-Serving Something

img_8335“I think this is a melon,” she said.

It might well have been. It looked like a tiny honeydew—about softball-sized, with sturdy, pale yellowish-green, and a good thump—but it had no fruity fragrance at all. Still the CSA listing said there was to be melon, and everything else was identifiable, so this must have been it. At any rate, its size wasn’t a problem, since she doesn’t like honeydew melon.

I took her to the train, came back to the house, and decided melon would be good for my breakfast.

Slicing it in half, I found flesh that was more yellow than green, and many more seeds (and larger ones) than any melon I know. I sliced off a bit and tried it. Nope. Not a melon. Definitely squash of some sort. I put the mystery squash aside and had a donut.

As lunchtime approached, I took the nothing-ventured-nothing-gained approach and set the toaster oven to 400F. I scooped out the seeds from the squash, lightly oiled and salted each half, and roasted it, cut side down on a little baking sheet. I checked every 10 minutes, and after about half an hour it was tender. I took it out of the oven and let it cool a little while I got to a stopping-point in a music-arranging project, then turned the halves over to take a look.

The squash, now slightly caramelized, revealed itself to be a little stringy. It was a petite spaghetti squash! Now lunch made perfect sense. I scraped it out with a fork, tossed it with a little butter, salt and pepper, and a spoonful of some excellent eggplant caponata I’d made for dinner the night before. It was a perfect single-serving lunch.

Mystery solved.

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The South Shall Rosé Again

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“Are you going to eat these collards, or should we just put them in the compost?”

She wasn’t making it a personal challenge, just letting me know that she had no intention of doing anything with those greens we’d received in the CSA box.

It being summer musical writing season—this year I’m working on three shows at once because, I guess, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person—I haven’t put a lot of thought into the lunches I’ve grabbed in the few seconds before I had to run to catch a train. Which meant it was Sunday, I’d just brought home this week’s CSA box, and last week’s collard greens were staring out from the crisper. I was determined not to waste them, and she wasn’t home for lunch anyway, so collards it would be.

Note to Self: put “prepare lunch” on your morning to-do list so it isn’t the last thing that gets done—or, worse, doesn’t.

I set the Instant Pot to “Sauté” (sort of like setting phasers to Stun, but tastier) and put in a big dollop of bacon fat from the jar in the fridge. While the pot came to temp and the fat melted, I washed and dried and chopped the greens and a couple of garlic scapes. This would have been a great time to use that ham hock in the back of the freezer, but we didn’t have a ham hock in the back of the freezer, so bacon fat and garlic would have to do.

Note to Self #2: get a ham hock and put it in the freezer.

I added the greens and garlic to the now-sizzling pot and stirred to make sure everything got coated, and sautéed the greens for a couple of minutes. This would have been a great time to have some stock defrosted, too. Alas, I hadn’t had that much foresight either.

I added a dollop of Dijon mustard, a little squirt of sriracha sauce, and a cup of rosé wine, then lidded up the pot and set it to pressure-cook for 20 minutes.

Now I know perfectly well that no self-respecting Southerner would cook collards with Dijon mustard, sriracha sauce, and rosé wine—if they had those things in the fridge to begin with.

I never said I was a self-respecting Southerner.

They were delicious.

Will I do it this way again? Probably not. Maybe next time it’ll be Swiss chard with orange juice and soy sauce.

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The Triangle Dilemma

1P_WC_MainBG_Transition_Moment_07_00011There’s an adage in business that goes something like “You can have it fast, you can have it cheap, or you can have it good–but you can’t have all three.”

The drive-through window is usually cheap and fast, but seldom really good.
A sit-down restaurant might be good and (relatively fast), but it’s usually not fast.
Cooking at home is almost always good, and more often than not cheaper than a restaurant, but hardly ever fast.

This triangle—cheap, fast, and good, in varying combinations—has been the dilemma of our spring. Really, it wasn’t a triangle; perhaps it was a pyramid. Really, it was a Pyramid.

This Pyramid.

I’ve loved this game since I was a kid, and, after many years, lots of conversations, the faith of friends, and quite a few prayers, I was invited to join the staff of The $100,000 Pyramid for the season that’s about to start airing. It was the most fun I’ve ever had working, and I was grateful for every moment.

This isn’t a story in which I geek out about working on the best word game ever to air on TV, though; it’s a story about what happens when the opportunity of a lifetime comes along when I’d already cobbled together lots of freelance jobs that equalled a full-time job: lots of church things, lots of theatre things, lots of teaching things, and enough juggling to make a circus act say “Whew!” (But that’s another game show.)

For most of the last 12 weeks the routine of our days was: get up before 6AM, feed the cat, pack breakfasts and lunches, drive to the train station, commute two hours one way, work a pretty-full day, leave one job and commute an hour to one or another of the cobbled-together gigs (and then sometime commute to another one), and meet for a train home arriving sometime between 9 and 10PM. Weekends, too. On a good day, we’d put something in a slow-cooker. On a less good day, we had some more-or-less convenient food in the freezer that could be augmented with relatively healthy side dishes that we’d batch-cooked or that took very little time to prepare. But since, to be perfectly honest, sometimes the 20 minutes it takes to steam a pot of rice and bake some chicken was just more than we had the emotional fortitude to endure.

There was a lot of take-out. There were many sandwiches. It wasn’t a total disaster. It wasn’t bacon-double-cheeseburgers and super-sized fries from morning ’til night. There were salads. There were vegetables. There were bowls of really good oatmeal.  The choices just weren’t as healthy as we might have hoped.

And at work there were meals from the bountiful tables of Craft Services—catering companies who support the crew and staff during the long days in the TV studio with generous portions, plentiful desserts, and meals tasty enough that you don’t mind seeing no sunlight for 12 hours at a time.

I’m not complaining. I’m saying I have three hopes.

  1. That you’ll tune in every Sunday night starting June 10—and tell your friends and family to do the same—so that we become a big fat hit and ABC has no reason not to renew us.
  2. That I’m offered a chance to return to the staff on that still-hypothetical next season, and perhaps on another show between now and then.
  3. That the pick-up order and the re-staffing happen before I start the cobbling-together for the fall and winter, such that I don’t have to juggle quite so much and have a little time to breathe and cook such that any new trousers I order between now and then purchased because I want them, not because the old ones don’t fit.

But this time, I hope not to have to choose only two. 1P_WC_MainBG_Transition_Moment_07_00011

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.