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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.

Getting over the Blues

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Work has been full of headaches for both of us. Our vacation contained more stress than we expected, and, while we were away, our older cat’s health took a turn for the worse. (Trust me, “What’s your vet’s phone number?” is not a text message you want to read while you are getting dressed for a wedding.)

That’s not to say that all is sturm und drang around here. We love our work, even when it gives us headaches. We have terrific friends and family. The older cat is no longer with us, but that means she is no longer suffering—and it means that round-the-clock medication is no longer being administered; and the younger-now-only kitten is growing into her role as Cat of the House.

And we have the CSA.

Finding a week’s worth of fruit and vegetables on your doorstep is a wonderful thing. Washing, sorting, and putting away a week’s worth of vegetables after arriving home at 10 PM is a little less wonderful. We stowed the box of veg in the refrigerator to deal with tonight, when we’ll get home earlier. The box of fruit was light—three pints of blueberries. (I love blueberries, but three pints in a week is more than I can handle. Especially when we’ve still got one of last week’s two pints in the fridge.) She proposed freezing them in 1-cup portions. I liked the idea. I fed the cat, she started packaging berries.

But the little plastic tubs of berries had rattled around in the big cardboard box, and more than a few were bruised, so sorting was required. It was turning into a larger project than she’d hoped. Trying not to sound too complaining, she said, “Would you mark these with a date, please?”

I took her at her word.

Sometime this winter, we will be making muffins with “Dinner and a Movie,” “Picnic in Central Park,” “10,000 Steps in a Mall,” “Pancakes and Broadway,” or “HGTV and Chill.”

She looked at the bags and guffawed. Mission accomplished.

(Yes, I went back later and marked them with today’s date. I can be practical sometimes.)

Berries

Sweetening Sorrow

Our beautiful, loving, feisty old girl left us forever last week. We miss her dreadfully, but are grateful that she's no longer in pain.

Part of grieving our friend has meant not eating very well (or very much), and being not at all creative with food. Last week's CSA delivery included pickling cucumbers that have not yet been pickled, squashes that have not yet been squashed, and lots of kale and lettuces that have been chopped and added to dishes that have gone mostly uneaten. We've pledged to take better care of ourselves this week, and have already started by drinking some of our nutrients, via smoothies.

I'm not much of a health foodie. Juice bars are not my thing. But I love milkshakes and things resembling them – like Starbucks frappucino. He's a bit more conscious of feeding me good-for-you ingredients than just milk + ice + fruit purée, so has been experimenting with ingredient combinations. Today's train-ride take-along is a tangy, tart-sweet blend of:

  • Banana
  • Pineapple
  • Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam (homemade)
  • Greek Yogurt (homemade)
  • Honey
  • Ice

After some trial and error, we found that fruit purée is a more reliable punch of flavor than whole fruit chunks, so I made up two bottles* of it on Sunday night.

Fruit Purée (adapted from Giada De Laurentis' recipe)

  1. Make a ginger-rosemary simple syrup: combine 3 tbsp chopped ginger, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until every grain of sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear. Remove from heat, add a 3" sprig of rosemary to the pot, cover, and let stand until cool. Strain the solids, reserving the liquid in a jar.
  2. Place 3/8 cup of ginger-rosemary syrup in a food processor with a pound of fresh fruit. (I used strawberries and pineapple.) Pulse until beautifully smooth; ladle into jars.

It took more time to wash the food processor (twice) than it did to make the purées, and they feel like decadent ingredients. Totally worth it.

* He claims that getting the purée out of slender-necked bottles is more trouble than it's worth. Next time I'll store it in jars.

No-fault Pasta

Painted in Waterlogue

A friend of ours got married on Sunday.

Another friend didn’t.

You get the idea, I think: those two friends once expected to be married to each other, and that marriage did not come to pass. Their relationship is not the point of this story; what is the point is that the friend who wasn’t putting on a tux this weekend wanted to have other things to think about than the friend who was putting on a pretty dress. We picked him up near relatives we were visiting and brought him home with us.

It was a perfect Sunday for a road trip: not too hot, not too humid, and lots of traffic. That might not seem like a good thing, but it gave my navigator an excuse to show her skills. We spent most of the day on back roads and small state routes that avoided the blockages and gave us much prettier scenery.

We stopped for lunch at a terrific—and uncrowded—place in a town I didn’t know anything about, and enjoyed grinders, salads, fish and chips and clam chowder, with a little Food Network in the background on the bar TV. We stopped at an outlet mall and did a little shopping, amusing ourselves greatly at the gender-stereotype-busting of the girl buying far less than the guys. Unfortunately, the stereo speakers I’d been looking for were out of stock. (Side note: Honey, I just ordered them from Amazon.)

By the time we got home and met the hungry cats, we were hungry, too, but not for anything big and heavy. And, remember, it was Sunday night—a veg box will arrive Tuesday morning, and there were still plenty of things in the crisper. While she made up the guest room, I chatted with our guest and made dinner. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but there was no question that it would contain plenty of vegetables. Sometimes you just have to start cooking and figure it out along the way.

No-Fault Pasta

Clearing out the crisper, discover:
1/2 lb. green beans
1/3 lb. asparagus
4 small cucumbers
half a bag of baby carrots brought home from someone’s lunch
4 oz. Baby Bella mushrooms
half a bunch of celery
1 celtuce
1 or 2 garlic scapes (Note that there are more, but that common decency suggests their judicious use–and that they still look plenty sturdy. Plan to regret this decision if next week’s box contains more.)

Elsewhere in the fridge, find:
A jar of chive vinegar
4 oz. chive-and-spinach pesto
a big hunk of parmesan cheese
a container of bite-sized mozzarella balls.

From the freezer, retrieve
4 oz. bulk Italian sausage

On the counter, catch sight of:
half a tub of week-old grape tomatoes, their skin just starting to wrinkle
the bottle of rosemary simple syrup used to sweeten the iced tea you took upstairs to the room-straightener.

From the pantry, retrieve:
A box of fettuccini

Note also the bounty of dill and oregano in the herb-garden-basket hung by the kitchen window.

Set a pot of salted water to boil.

Slice the cucumbers into a bowl, tossing with a couple teaspoons of the vinegar, a splash of rosemary simple syrup, and a couple of sprigs of dill from the kitchen garden.

Open a bottle of red wine; pour each of you a glass. Toast to friends, and to happiness. 

Rinse and trim the asparagus and green beans; cut them into bite-size pieces and toss in a big bowl. Don’t bother to dry them; instead, put a paper towel over the bowl; microwave 90 seconds to just-barely-steam the vegetables. Drain and set aside.

In a skillet over medium heat, brown the sausage; drain and remove.

Peel the celtuce as you would a broccoli stem; slice into coins about 1/4 inch thick. Taste raw, noting that it really does have a little celery flavor, but is much denser–almost like a water chestnut. Set aside.

When the water boils, add the fettuccini, stirring occasionally. (The clock is now ticking: finish everything else by the time the pasta cooks).

Dice an onion, which you’ve dispatched your guest to retrieve from the pantry-in-the-garage. Sauté it and a couple stalks of celery in a little olive oil until the onion is barely translucent. Finely slice the garlic scape and add it, along with the beans and asparagus; since they’re mostly cooked, the point is just to get everything combined without browning too much. Slice the baby carrots and add them; they’ll still be mostly crunchy when you’re done. Deglaze the pan with a splash of the wine. Clean and slice the mushrooms, but if your guest isn’t a fan of them, sauté them alone in a small skillet. (This is why stoves have several heating elements.)

Hand a hunk of cheese, the grater, and a collecting bowl to your guest.

Halve the grape tomatoes. When the sautéed vegetables are almost tender, add them to the skillet, along with the celtuce coins and the sausage. Toss to combine, then reduce the heat to low. Add 3 or 4 tbsp of the pesto to the center of the pan, but just let it sit on top to warm gently.

Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water, and divide into serving bowls.

Add a splash of the pasta water to the skillet; give everything a gentle toss to combine; taste and adjust seasoning, then spoon the seriously veggie sauce over the pasta. Add mushrooms or not. Sprinkle some fresh oregano on top, then let each diner add cheese to taste. Serve with the quick-pickled cucumbers.

Serves 3, who will be happy enough that everyone will forget about dessert.

If you’ve read more than one Dinner at the Country House post, you know perfectly well that this is not so much a recipe as a story about an adventure shared with others. If there had been chicken instead of sausage, I would have happily used that; if there had been no pesto, I might have used soy sauce and made rice instead of noodles. If any of a great many things had been different, I might have written about a wedding feast a couple years ago, rather than a not-wedding dinner last night, or served four instead of three, or gone to the movies by myself. It’s nobody’s fault. This is what happened. This is how we made the best of it. This is how we spent the day. This is how life goes on.

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