Tag Archives: Commuting

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.

In Transit

The first commuting days of the new year were long and frigid. Catching up on projects after a two week vacation translates to 10 or 12 hour days more often than not. Leaving and returning in the dark coupled with the “arctic air” temperatures in the single digits – plus whatever windchill factor is in effect on a given day – means that I spent the evenings of my first week back at work crawling out of the car and crawling straight into bed at night.

Trying to avoid a repeat of that during week two, we opted to have dinner in the city on Monday and Wednesday — the days when we are both on the evening train home from NYC. But being more interested in good food enjoyed at our leisure than in being served restaurant dinners, we’ve packed picnics rather than made reservations.

On Monday, two covered dishes of scalloped potatoes and spiral ham were packed into the bottom of my work bag, along with a ziplock of washed and trimmed green beans. He brought extra cutlery and a beverage later in the day, and took a subway to my office after class.

At home, the ham and potatoes might have been rough-chopped, tossed in a skillet to warm and crisp, then topped with some panko bread crumbs and served alongside the steamed beans. In the office, with only a microwave to work with, the items were mixed into servings, covered with damp towels, and steam heated to comfortable eating temperatures. We ate heartily while sharing details of our days, enjoyed a leisurely walk to the 8:03 train (with a pause to admire the Christmas tree still lit in Bryant Park), and arrived home free of the hangry-grumps with enough energy to make dessert sundaes from chocolate cake and raspberry sorbet.

Our Wednesday route is a little less neat. Grand Central makes a triangle with my office and his school, and he has the long side; if I secure seats for us both and he runs on a diagonal through Central Park, we can just make the 6:53 before the “All aboard” call. We did just that last night, slipping comfortably into our seats as the train made its way north, and he dropped our dinner bag into my lap.

Leftover pot roast had been chopped and mixed with a smoky-sweet barbecue sauce, than placed between slices of his homemade bread, slathered with a mayo-mustard concoction to keep the moisture inside each sandwich, then tightly wrapped to create a press. Small containers of cherry tomatoes, garlic cornichons, and corn chips were packed as accompaniments, and we fell to our aboard-train repast with enthusiasm.

Neither meal was gourmet, neither was served on either cheerful fiestaware or good china, and neither was actually eaten in the country house. But our life together is better for both.

A Dash of iPhone

She is not permanently attached to her iPhone, at least no more than I am to mine.  It serves so many functions: alarm clock, camera, runner-tracker-via-GPS, music-and-podcast-and-video player, text-message lifeline, video device, Internet reference library, email handler…and is even, occasionally, used as a telephone.

She knew that her phone’s battery was nearing the end of its usable life. Replacing the battery wasn’t really a viable option, as she’d been rubbing up against the phone’s 16-gigabyte memory limit pretty regularly–especially with the multi-year iMessage stream between us that she didn’t want to part with. We hoped the battery would hold out until January, when her contract permitted her to have a discounted rate on a new phone.

When such a device works perfectly, it is simultaneously thing of beauty and a thing almost not to be noticed: it just works.  When it fails, it needs to be repaired or replaced.  And when such a device fails on the night before arguably the most valuable fund-raising night of her professional year, replacement must be swift and decisive.

“I’m going to buy a new phone after work,” she said, in one of the few messages between us yesterday that reached its recipient before the battery expired again.

“Why not come home, and we can go to the store at the mall?” I replied, thinking that a suburban shopping experience might be a little less crowded and noisy than the Times Square AT&T store on a matinee-day evening.

She agreed. Her phone died again on the way to Grand Central, as we rushed to meet for the earliest train possible. We made it, by seconds and found seats, but seats without power outlets.  No work for her on the ride home.  No knitting, either, she realized; her sweater pattern was stored in her useless phone, too.

I realized we didn’t have to go all the way to the mall, as there are two AT&T stores in our town.  Unfortunately, both closed early. It was just past 8 PM.

“Ridiculous suburbs,” she said, or maybe it was something less refined. I restrained myself from reminding her how much she usually likes it here. We made it to the mall in record time. Knowing stores would close at 9, we raced up the escalators to reach AT&T. While she waited for a Customer Service Representative, I dashed to the nearby Apple Store to find out what was in stock there, just in case.  (She would, it turned out, have her choice of any iPhone she wanted, so long as it was silver and had a 64-gigabite memory capacity.) I nearly bowled over the young man hawking skin-care products from a kiosk between the stores.  Twice.

I returned to her just as she began a conversation with the sales rep–unfailingly politely and cheerfully, as she always is. But she began with the wrong question, and lost a valuable minute-thirty before learning that no phones were in stock there.  “Thank you,” she said sweetly, nearly dragging me out of the store behind her.

The Apple Store was busier, but the Specialist who’d given me the stock report was free soon enough and happy to see me back. She worked through the phone-purchase process as quickly as possible. I was reminded how much faster it used to be, when all you had to do was buy a phone, any phone, and plug it into the wall.  If Mom or Dad had been there, they might have been reminded how the phone company would simply bring the only phone they had and hard-wire it into your house. What Grandma would have thought, I’m not sure.

Once their process was underway, I turned to other errands: since the case she wanted for her new device wasn’t in stock, I purchased her a not-quite military-grade screen protector; I checked to see if the new eyeglass lens I needed had arrived at the optician’s shop; I picked up a piece of nerve-calming chocolate for her at Godiva; and phoned the Perfectly Adequate Mexican Restaurant to make sure they’d still be open to grab take-out on our way home. By the time I finished, the Specialist had installed the protective film, and we made our way to dinner, home, and sleep.

It was not the relaxed Night Before the Big Event that she’d been hoping for, and it wasn’t exactly the season finale of The Amazing Race, but it was full of twists and turns, setbacks, detours, and delays–and a happy ending. She is now the proud (if somewhat poorer) owner of a shiny new phone. Ingrid, as she calls the phone, carries all of her important information for today’s event, all of the photos that are important to her, even her knitting pattern–and, most importantly, has plenty of battery power.

When the Big Event is successfully completed, and after she has had a long nap and shower, I might even ask call her to ask what the name means. Assuming the battery holds out, I’m pretty sure she’ll answer.

The Well-Traveled Salsa, and the End of the Road

Community Supported Agriculture is a system of supporting farms based on the recognition that small farmers need an influx of cash before they have a crop to sell.   Members pay in advance for a share of a local farm’s produce, then meet once a week during the harvest season when the crop is delivered, sort of like buying a magazine subscription.  The produce is of a higher quality than most supermarket fruit and vegetables–and much tastier than Time or Car and Driver.

At a farmer’s market, customers can pick and choose, or walk away without buying anything. In a CSA, you don’t know what will be offered on any given week until an email arrives the night before distribution; but since you’ve already paid for the produce, there’s an incentive to try everything, even when it’s unfamilar.  It’s Vegetable Roulette!–oh, wow! What can we make with eggplant, radishes, and chili peppers?

When she lived in upstate New York, she bought produce from Windflower Farm at farmer’s markets, so she was delighted to continue supporting them as a New Yorker. She’s been a member of Windflower’s CSA for several years, and we’ve enjoyed virtually every bite. (Okay, bok choy not so much, but that’s just a personal preference; everything else has been dandy.)

Lately, though, her “local” vegetables have been making an odd and circuitous trip: they’re trucked from upstate to NYC, where she takes a subway train uptown to pick them up, a long walk or cab ride across town to the train station, and another commuter train home to the Country House. Because it is a peak-hour train, she and her many pounds of produce are unlikely to find a seat.  As autumn vegetables start arriving (potatoes and squash replacing airy kale and cherry tomatoes), the trip is starting to, well, weigh on her. What used to be a 15-minute subway ride followed by a 15-minute walk to her kitchen is now a 3- or 4-hour trip.  The produce is every bit as flavorful, but exhaustion is leaving a bad taste. It’s sad to think of resenting such good food, so we’re looking for someone to take over the remaining 7 weeks of this year’s season.

We’ll eventually find a farmer’s market here that we can get to regularly; meanwhile, we’ve got a pantry full of applesauce, pickles, and salsa to remind us of the well-traveled route that fruits and vegetables–even relatively local ones–can take.

Dipping Kind-of bars in spicy tomato salsa is not recommended

Dipping Kind-of bars in spicy tomato salsa is not recommended