Tag Archives: Friends

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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More than Just a Crash Pad (Thai)

The Country House still hasn’t gone on the market. It’s taken longer than we expected to get the insurance companies to decide how much they were going to pay for the water heater accident, which means we haven’t been able to arrange for contractors to come and repair the damage.  Which means the once-beautiful office is now a room we ignore, since it has a bare cement floor, a hole in the wall, and none of the equipment needed to make it a useful space.

But it’s also given us a chance to stop and think about where we really want to be next. I’ve recently accepted offers to work on two projects at The Theatre to Which We Now Have a Deep Emotional Attachment.  They’re both short-term projects, and neither is big enough to support me (let alone us) without other employment as well, but they’re both very worthwhile projects that I’ll enjoy doing. But they’re up here, which means moving down there–into New York City–would make them much less attractive. But she works down there every day, and down there is where many projects I want to be involved with are based. It’s all very complicated.

She pitched a neither-here-nor-there venue from her commute the other morning, a town neither of us knows much about, but which might have exactly what we’re looking for in terms of balancing space, price, and commuting time for each of us. What it wouldn’t have is anything we know. It’s easy to find the best supermarket in an area, and a new favorite Thai restaurant; what’s harder to find are good neighbors and friends.

What I’m really worried about is finding the perfect balance of price, location, and space, and then realizing that we do nothing but sleep there. That doesn’t seem like much will have been gained. So much is up in the air.

But not tonight’s dinner.

After a ridiculous weekend of work for me, and two late nights in NYC with work for both of us, we have determined that there will be Dinner at the Country House tonight.

We watched a Good Eats episode the other day. “Except for the tofu, that looks really good,” she said of the result.

“I thought you didn’t like Pad Thai.”

It turns out it’s just the wide noodles that are often served at Thai restaurants she dislikes. This recipe calls for the very fine ones.

“Well, then.  Wednesday?”

“You can make Pad Thai?”

I don’t know why this surprised her so much. I just hope the result pleases her as much as it will me. I’ve made this recipe many times. I don’t always improvise. It’s a balance of salty, sweet, sour, and savory. Sort of like finding the perfect home. Except the stakes are a little lower: if dinner doesn’t go well, there can be ice cream.

There might be, anyway.

Separate Checks

She took a very early train to town on Monday to have breakfast with an old friend, and stayed late in town tonight to have dinner and see a show with another friend. And I couldn’t be more delighted.

We both work long hours, and she has a long commute. She takes breakfast and lunch to the office nearly every workday; I often do, too, and on my late nights I’ll at least take something as a between-rehearsals snack. We see each other first thing in the morning and in the late evening, and on some parts of the weekend. That’s about it. There isn’t that much time together.

But there’s also not all that much time for our friends.  Even those who are our friends were, just as likely, her friends or my friends before they knew us as us. Friends deserve time.

We don’t have to enjoy spending time with the same people–though we mostly do. In the same way, we don’t have to enjoy all the same foods. It’s perfectly okay for her to have a burger if I want a piece of fish.  It’s perfectly okay for me to want a chicken sandwich when she’s craving macaroni and cheese. I love bitter greens. She could eat rice at every meal. Most of the time we agree on a menu, or meet in the middle, but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why there are restaurants. And lots of pots and pans in our kitchen.

While she’s been out with her friend, I haven’t been lonesome. I stopped at home and ate the leftovers from my dinner Wednesday night (a seafood dish she wouldn’t have enjoyed), then I went to the theatre, too. I saw a school musical starring the son of one of my friends. In fact, it was the invitation to that show that occasioned her evening: it’s a show she really dislikes. (Just like friends and foods, we don’t have to like the same plays.)

The show I saw ended earlier than hers, so I had time to stop at the market after, and spend some time at home with the cats before going to meet her train. We’ll share the stories of our days and our evenings.

Maybe over breakfast or lunch.

No Day So Grim

One of my favorite collaborators is a guy I met on an elevator. Our first collaboration went into rehearsal 36 hours later.

We were participating in an event where writers are thrown together to create a short theatre piece. Teams were introduced Friday at 8; rehearsal started Sunday at noon. This fellow and I did, in fact, ride an elevator together on the way to the first meeting, making nervous chat about the project without a clue that we were going to be partnered.

Our collaboration went very well, and in the 11 years since, we’ve written several more pieces together. Just as importantly, though, we’ve become good friends.  Perhaps one of the reasons we haven’t written together more often is that we have such a good time together. We end up talking more than we write. Often, the conversation is about food.  I introduced him to Alton Brown’s kitchen tips; he turned me onto Mark Bittman’s Chicken with Ketchup (which is far, far better than it sounds), and convinced me that a kitchen scale was an important tool. We agree that a Fryolator is the first purchase to be made if either of us wins a major writing award.

We were talking about waffles once. “There is no day so grim,” he said, “that it cannot be redeemed by waffles for supper.”  I’d never thought of it that way, but I had to admit he had a point.

Another winter storm. Another snow day. Cold, and very messy. She was going to work from home. I could wait until the roads were cleared to go to my much-closer office. The break in routine was cause for a special breakfast.  It might have been pancakes, but we have those pretty often. Besides, there is a waffle iron on the small-appliance shelves. If its space there is to be justified, it must be used. So I made waffles. They had crisp, golden brown crusts with light, fluffy centers, just the way I’d hoped. Served with sausage, fruit, and coffee or tea, any grimness that day had in store was waffled away.

The recipe makes 8, and although I could have done math to reduce it, I had something else in mind: Bonus Waffles. I made the full recipe; we had a hearty breakfast, and plenty of batter left over.  I reset the temperature to medium and par-baked the rest of the batter.  We left those waffles to cool on a baking rack, then individually wrapped them in waxed paper and stowed them in the freezer for a future breakfast. The waffle iron got a good workout–and a good cleaning after–and proudly reclaimed its shelf space. (I could imagine it saying to the ice cream machine, “Don’t worry, buddy, it’ll be your turn soon.”)

I packed those bonus waffles for our breakfasts today. Heated in a toaster oven, they crisp up nicely and are a reminder that, although we won’t see each other ’til nearly midnight, today will not be grim.

I thought of my collaborator as I made breakfast, and of the strange ways people come into our lives. One of my favorite collaborators is a guy I met in an elevator.  And my sweetheart is a girl I met on the internet.  But that story for another time…

Work-from-Home-on-a-Snow-Day Breakfast. Not pictured: crackling fire, happy kitten.

Work-from-Home-on-a-Snow-Day Breakfast.
(Not pictured: crackling fire, happy kitten.)

Babycakes

On a Friday night not long ago, we’d been looking forward to watching the PBS broadcast of a theatre production that featured some people we know. Unfortunately, she fell asleep on the couch before the show started.  I puttered around on the internet for a while, surprised at how many programs PBS made available as streaming video.  A series of short cooking videos called Kitchen Vignettes caught my attention. Beautifully shot and set to lovely music, they were educational, though there was no voice explaining the recipes being demonstrated.

I was especially intrigued by one called “Groaning Cake.” I wasn’t sure what sort of cake might groan, but the soundtrack–a recording by the folk singer Heather Kelday–held me. I learned from the text displayed in the video, that Groaning Cake is a traditional postpartum food.  It’s a very rich, calorie-dense spice cake made with whole wheat flour, carrots, zucchini, and apples.  It might even be considered healthy, save for the great deal of butter, the many eggs, and the gobs of honey and molasses.

In the video, a woman is shown baking the cake. She’s very pregnant, a fact which the filmmaker apparently wants us not to forget for a second.  Every shot that isn’t a closeup of ingredients going into a bowl is of her swollen belly or breasts. In the last moments of the video, we see the beautiful child, and a fellow who is likely the father; then the new mother feeds her partner the first slice of cake.

That’s where they lost me.

The idea seems to be that a new mother will have neither the time nor energy to cook after giving birth, so this cake would keep her fed while she regains her strength. If I followed the timeline, the woman baked the cake, gave birth, and then fed the cake to the guy. Was he not capable of turning on the oven, grating some zucchini, and measuring the cinnamon and cloves? Was he, at the very least, not up to the task of cutting a slice of cake for the mother of his child?

Maybe it’s all the breakfasts I’ve made and lunches I’ve packed, but it just seems fair that she would get the first bite. Of course, what do I know? I’m not a father. Maybe standing around while someone else does all the really hard work is harder than it seems. A guy can probably burn a lot of calories by pacing.

Friends of ours recently had a baby–a beautiful son. Of course we had a bear to give to the new baby; every child should have a good, sturdy bear to keep him company. But we thought we should do something more.

We baked them a Groaning Cake.

The cake takes its name from a woman’s cries during labor–which, some say, is induced by the preparation of the cake.  Somewhere around the third stick of butter (or maybe the fourth egg, or the half-a-jar of honey) I began to think the name had another meaning: when I felt how heavy the pan of batter was, I may have let out an involuntary grunt. At least I didn’t spill it on the way to the oven.

On Sunday afternoon, we wrapped up the cake and went to visit the proud parents and meet the baby. It tasted as swooningly good as it had smelled while baking (a fact I learned after the new mama got the first bite). It was also, it turned out, slightly underdone. It wasn’t hazardously soggy, but it is likely that I added too much of the apple-carrot-zucchini trifecta, and the batter was simply too moist to ever fully set.

The new mom and dad were too sleep-deprived to notice any baking issues. The baby was happy, calm, and snuggly–and he wasn’t going to get any cake, anyway. At least not today.

There aren’t any babies at the Country House.  It would be a nice place to raise a child, but it’s too far away from her office, and from where much of my theatrical work is, to be practical. We’d spend all of our time commuting and either never see the little one, or never see each other. That might change one day, but for now, we try to be good and loving examples to the children in our friends’ lives.

And if it does change, you can bet that she won’t have to bake her own cake.

I’m Going to Go Back There Someday

I’ve never been to her favorite restaurant. We’ve talked about it many times, but we haven’t gone there for a meal yet.  It’s a very nice place, she tells me. It’s a place where a meal has a real sense of occasion.

And it’s a place where she went for memorable meals with a person she was once engaged to.

That’s not the biggest reason we haven’t gone to her favorite place. Mostly, it’s because we don’t go out to eat. We visit a restaurant before or after we’ve done something else that we’ve gone out for: to see a show, for instance. Her place isn’t somewhere you go to grab a bite before the show. When we do go there, it will an occasion, not a meal to rush through.  We’ll go there, in part, to create new memories–to reclaim that restaurant for herself, and for us.

We met a friend for dinner last week before a rehearsal. He chose a Japanese restaurant we knew he liked. We liked it, too, and not simply because it was conveniently down the block from the rehearsal space.  We’d gone there after a performance once–with him, and with the woman he was then dating. Subsequently they became engaged, but that relationship recently, suddenly, and very painfully ended.  This was the first time we were seeing him since the breakup.

Dinner was excellent, maybe the best sushi I’ve ever had. The fish was meltingly tender, incredibly fresh, and  perfectly seasoned by the sushi chef.  The addition of extra soy sauce or wasabi was thoroughly unnecessary. I’m glad the food was so good, but I wouldn’t have cared if I’d been served a bowl of Cheerios that had been left out in the rain.

He may chosen the place because of its location, or because he especially likes the food there, but we hope it was because he wanted to reclaim the restaurant as his, rather than theirs. Although the memory of having dinner with a hurting friend isn’t exactly a joyous one, it’s one that we will cherish. We may not always think of this restaurant as the place where he told us what happened, but at least it won’t any longer be the place we went with them.

Columbus Day

It’s amazing how many things can go differently than expected in a single weekend–late office departures, pharmacy complications, detours and traffic, rain throughout a half-marathon, and much, much more. When a long-expected celebration ended up being called off at the last minute, it was the icing, so to speak, on the wedding cake.

But we are resilient creatures, we humans.  We revise.  We reconsider.  We adjust. We go on. We console our friends. We offer comfort and a place to stay. We know it isn’t enough, but we try.  And when we have done all we can, we say good night and head sadly for home.

She had brought home perfectly lovely cider donuts from an apple-picking trip with her parents.  But on a cloudy, hard-to-navigate morning, a little extra sweetness seemed appropriate: chopped Macoun and Honeycrisp apples were softened in a tablespoon of melted butter, caramelized with a little brown sugar and dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg. Halves of the donuts, gently warmed and slightly browned in the same pan, were sandwiched with the apples and drizzled with a little whipped cream.

Columbus was looking for a route to India when he found the New World.  We cannot know what world our friends will find in the coming days. The one certainty is that a workday-off due to a civic holiday–and with it a fire in the fireplace and a decadent breakfast–has never come at a more opportune time.

Sometimes donuts are lilies just waiting to be gilded.

Sometimes donuts are lilies just waiting to be gilded.