Tag Archives: Dinner

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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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.

 

 

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 Vegetable Lasagna

When I think “vegetable lasagna”, I imagine a rich, hearty noodle dish bursting with the flavor of fresh vegetables. When I search for recipes for “vegetable lasagna”, I most often find thin, watery-sounding meals that substitute thin layers of squash for noodles and skimp out on the chunky fillings that make lasagna such a stand-out meal.

For our Easter celebration this year, I created a mash-up of lasagna and pasta primavera that was a beautiful, fresh, spring-flavor-filled dish, and it works equally as well for our summer CSA veggies.

Since Clay and I cook for only two, I generally make lasagna in a small loaf pan; it provides 6 average-sized portions, so there’s plenty for a second helping, or to share with friends, or to pack for work-day lunches.

Recipe for Vegetable Lasagna

Start with the Bechamel sauce.

  • 3 TBSP butter
  • 3 TBSP flour
  • 2 cups Whole Milk (the more flavorful your milk, the more flavorful your sauce. This is a dish where organic milk from grass-fed cows really shines)
  • Salt, Pepper, and Nutmeg – to taste

Melt and brown the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, until it is aromatic and a rich golden brown color. Whisk in the flour to make a roux; then continue cooking for three to four minutes until the roux takes on additional color. Whisk continuously while slowly streaming in the milk, to avoid lumps.

Turn the heat to medium-low and continue cooking while stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens. Once thickened, season to taste with salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg, then pour into a small glass container and set aside.

Once the sauce is made, prepare your other ingredients.

  • Half of a package of lasagna noodles, prepared according to package instructions (or fresh, if you’re fancy like that!)
  • One-and-a-half cups of fresh mozzarella cheese, diced and divided into three equal portions
  • One cup of freshly grated pecorino-romano cheese, divided into three equal portions
  • One-and-a-half cups of pesto, divided into three equal portions
    This week we used two parts roasted tomato and one part traditional basil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • An 8-ounce bunch of leafy greens (think chard, kale, or spinach), torn into bite-sized pieces, washed, blanched, and drained
    This week we used kale.
  • Approximately one-and-a-half cups of vegetables (think artichoke, asparagus, beets, green or wax beans, snap or snow peas, or summer squashes), diced and well seasoned with salt and pepper
    This week we used peas in their pods and zucchini.
  • Approximately half of one cup of alliums (think beyond onions to leeks, scallions, chives, or garlic), chopped very finely
    This week we used green onions, scallions, and garlic scapes.

Once your ingredients are assembled, pre-heat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, grab a loaf pan, and begin assembly.

  1. Spread a spoonful of bechamel sauce into the bottom of the pan.
  2. Arrange the first layer of noodles over the bechamel, with the edges overlapping slightly. Spread the noodles with one-third of the pesto then one-third of the mozzarella, then a drizzle of bechamel.
  3. Arrange a second layer of noodles over the first, and top them with your greens. Don’t be afraid to really pack the greens into your pan, since they will cook down significantly in the oven. Top with one-third of the pecorino-romano cheese and a generous spoonful of bechamel.
  4. Arrange a third layer of noodles, spread with a second third of pesto and a second third of mozzarella. Scatter your alliums here, and then add a drizzle of bechamel over the top.
  5. Arrange a fourth layer of noodles, spread with the last third of pesto. Scatter your chopped vegetables over the pesto with the second third of pecorino-romano, then drizzle with bechamel.
  6. Arrange your fifth and final layer of noodles, and spread the remaining bechamel sauce over the top. Scatter your remaining cheeses over the top, and grind fresh black pepper generously over the whole.

Cover your pan with aluminum foil, and place on a tray in the center of the oven; bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until the lasagna is browned and bubbling; remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

This dish is absolutely satisfying as a one-dish meal, though at Easter we served it alongside kefta and pickled root vegetables. If you make it, I’d love to know what vegetables you choose, and how you present it!

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…


How the Other Half Lunches

Painted in Waterlogue

It’s been one of those weeks–a lot of work, a lot of travel, some dinners out, some very late nights. We haven’t done any significant cooking. I won’t say the cupboard was bare, but I had a feeling it would be one of those Stump the Cook meals where you scrounge around the back of the fridge and hope for the best. We’d both had very long days. Between her work and phone calls dealing with an ailing relative, and my back-to-back-to-back rehearsals, I  wasn’t sure we had the energy to be creative enough to come up with something we’d both like enough to be satisfied.

We were in separate cars, so when we left choir practice she went home to feed the cats–I’m not sure what it says about us that we made sure there was plenty of cat food in the house!–and I headed to forage.

I went to Subway. It might not be a fine-dining experience, but it would be fine. There are worse options, certainly.

I looked at the menu board with thoughts of choosing a foot-long sandwich to share, and then decided to make lunch easy, too. I ordered two foot-longs, quite different. Sandwich #1 was rotisserie chicken with provolone, lettuce, and pickle on Italian bread. #2 was pastrami on whole wheat with swiss, spinach, and cucumber. Tomato and brown mustard on both.

I gave her half of the chicken sandwich and took half of the pastrami for myself. I wrapped the rest and stored them in the fridge. She took the rest of the pastrami for lunch, and I brought the rest of the chicken with me.

 

I’m not delighted to have served sandwiches for dinner and lunch, but neither of us had to scrounge in a desk drawer to find a granola bar under the extra staples. I can attest that both sandwiches were tasty, and that’s good enough for now.

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