Tag Archives: Improvisation

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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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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Rice, Twice

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“I’d kind of like fried chicken,” she said.

Since I had no time machine with which to go back 24 hours to put some chicken in buttermilk, any fried chicken I could offer would be second-best, and second-best would not do. We were on a late-evening train home; dinner needed to be quick, tasty, and more nutritious than a pint of ice cream and two spoons.

“What I’d really like is rice with Thai peanut sauce.”

She’d had the last of some Thai take-out for breakfast on Sunday and had really enjoyed it. “Okay, then,” I said.

Immediately she backpedaled, I guess thinking I was going to drive around looking for a Thai place that was still open–a fool’s errand in the suburbs on a Monday night.

“Well, that wouldn’t take 20 minutes,” I said, having sorted through what I imagined what other than peanut butter I might need. She asked what I meant. “It takes 20 minutes to make rice.  I can come up with the sauce in less time than that.”

“You know how to make Thai peanut sauce?” she said, as if I’d been holding out on her all these years.

“No, but I can improvise. Find me a recipe.”

She Googled. We didn’t have the exact ingredient list of any of them, but I could get pretty close.

By the time she’d changed out of work clothes, rice was in one pot, oatmeal for future breakfasts was in another, the cherries I’d bought from a fruit cart were washed and draining in a colander, and the sauce was coming together in a big measuring cup.

The timer beeped.  I turned off the stove, pitted a few of the cherries, and offered her the sauce to taste. It needed another few drops of hot sauce–easier to add more than to take some out!–and a little more lime. Easy adjustments to make. The rice was ready to fluff, bowl, sauce and serve.

Thai-ish Peanut Sauce

1/2 cup peanut butter
1 T hot water
2 t lime juice
1 t hot sauce (sriracha preferred, but if it’s 10:30 PM in the suburbs, Tabasco will do)
1 t powdered ginger (fresh would be better, but not that much better; use less if you have fresh)
1 t soy sauce
1 T cream (or, more authentically, coconut milk)
1/2 t honey
1/2 t parsley, chopped

Stir all together. Add a little more hot water if necessary to help thin and warm the sauce. Serve over rice or noodles, with vegetables or protein as desired, topped with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Serves 2.

I had bowl of Rice Krispies, topped with a little granola and some wonderful pitted cherries. I liked the rice-and-sauce, but we didn’t have much rice–I’m sure I had forgotten to put it on the shopping list–and I wanted something a little lighter anyway.

That’s not true, in fact. We had plenty of rice, but most of it was brown. “It is a perfectly interesting grain,” she said of the brown variety, but it isn’t rice. “That’s funny,” I said, “when I have the white stuff, I think the same thing.” The case of White v. Brown may be taken up another day–or maybe it won’t. Perhaps, as in Creamy v. Crunchy, the Court will throw out the case and tell the participants that they must learn to coexist. If there is Thai Peanut Sauce, the peace will be easily won.

Still, after dropping her at the train this morning I swung by the market. IMG_0068

Duck Duck Improvise

We didn’t have long for dinner between train arrival and when we needed to leave to get to the theatre.  Grabbing sandwiches at a drive-through would have been perfectly justified, but I just didn’t want to do it.  There will be enough days coming when that really has to happen.  I stopped at the market to get half a pound of shrimp, which would take no time at all to steam (and in that no-time-at-all, I could mix ketchup, horseradish, and lemon juice to make better cocktail sauce than we’d find on any shelf). As for what else to serve, I figured I’d find something between the entrance and the fish counter.

The frozen section has a new line of international foods. A box of spring rolls presented itself.  These seemed worth a try. I’d much rather have made spring rolls, but this was a corner I was willing to cut. Cabbage, carrot, bean sprout–the vegetable course was covered.

I didn’t think about the appropriate condiments for the rolls, though. They weren’t packaged with duck sauce and hot mustard–which is just as well, considering the packaged stuff probably would have been full of ethylene this and glycol that.  She looked up a duck sauce recipe for me.

Apricot preserves, orange marmalade, fresh ginger…it was a festival of things I’d like to say were in our fridge, but they weren’t.

But we weren’t bereft.

A-Few-Days-Before-Spring Roll Sauce
2 tbsp ginger marmalade, warmed in a microwave for 30 seconds or so.
Stir in
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp orange juice, fresh-squeezed if you have it.
1 tsp Dijon mustard. This terrific mustard is the best I know, but whatever you have.
Sauce will thicken a little as it cools.

The result was not duck sauce, but something that went perfectly well with the spring rolls. It was a little like mixing duck sauce and hot mustard, which is what I would have done anyway. The shrimp probably would have been good dipped in the faux-duck, too.

We ate well, stowed the leftovers, started the dishwasher, and were on our way to a lovely production of a sweet, funny, romantic musical at a theatre built from converted barn. We love New York theatre, but there is something to be said for being able to have dinner at home and still make curtain. Especially when dinner was this good.

Chore, Sweetened

We rented a storage unit when we combined households. It’s been enormously useful during renovations. We haven’t been there recently, though. She had suggested that we spend a couple of hours there this morning–taking stock, photographing items that we want to sell, and removing anything we know now that we don’t want to keep. Saturday morning arrived, rainy and cold. I really just wanted to stay in bed, but that wasn’t going to get the job done.

I went to the kitchen to brew coffee and tea while she got dressed. Waiting for the kettle to boil, I looked around for something to snack on–I figured we’d have brunch later. I sliced a banana and peeled a clementine. The latter did not become part of our shared snack, though; I gobbled it down in no time flat. Seeing a partial loaf of banana bread, I had an idea and changed course. Maybe I would cook a little after all.

Banana Bread Foster

Put a small non-stick skillet over medium heat.
Toast 4 slices banana bread.
Melt 4 tbsp butter.
Add one banana, sliced into thick rounds.
Sprinkle with 2 tbsp brown sugar and 1/4 tsp vanilla extract.
Toss occasionally until the sugar is melted and syrupy and the bananas are caramelized and slightly softened.
Mix together 1/2 cup ricotta cheese and 1 tsp sugar.
Spread sweetened cheese over the toasted banana bread.
Spoon bananas over the cheese.
Top, if you have some, with a little whipped cream.

There are still boxes and boxes of books and CDs and files and some small pieces of furniture that we love but aren’t in current use, but the unit is well-organized now, and a trunk-load of items have been sent away. We’ll face the rest another day, but we did good work. It wasn’t such a daunting task as we’d feared–or perhaps we were just well-fortified.

The sliced apples are on the plate to suggest that this was a healthy, nutritious breakfast.  They are fooling no one. It was, however, delicious.

The sliced apples are on the plate to suggest that this was a healthy, nutritious breakfast.
They are fooling no one.
It was, however, delicious.

The Problem with Thanksgiving

Her mom was roasting a brined turkey, Nana had baked pumpkin and apple pies, and we had traveled with a carful of side dishes: a New York cheesecake, potatoes, asparagus, and construction kits for Waldorf salad and the cornbread dressing I’d make that she assured everyone they’d love.  Drinks were served upon arrival, and while everybody chatted happily we set to work unpacking the cooler and assembling our bits and pieces.

“Does this look right to you?” she asked. I had to admit, the salad dressing looked watery and grey; it tasted like dill and vinegar and not much else. She wanted to try this version for my benefit, since I’m no fan of gloppy salads. She headed for the sink. “I’m going to start over.” I suggested instead that she whisk in a little mayonnaise.  She did; the dressing wasn’t quite where she wanted it, but it was closer.  A little more mayo, and a sprinkling of sugar, and the dressing held together nicely and tasted great.

Dinner was served and enjoyed. Family stories were told and political conversations defused. Many hands made the clean-up light, and the afternoon was a success. There were plenty of leftovers–particularly the cornbread dressing, which had sadly not lived up to its reputation.  “The stuffing wasn’t as good as last year’s,” she said softly to me. Leaving aside that it was dressing, not stuffing, since it had been cooked alongside the turkey rather than in it, I had to agree, but neither of us was sure why. Her mom had baked the cornbread, so we weren’t sure what was in it; I’d used pork sausage, which always seems like a good idea; the spices, such that I recalled, were the same, but the result was different.  Not terrible, but not as we’d remembered.

The problem with improvising is that, unless you have an extremely accurate memory or are meticulous about documentation, it’s nearly impossible to recreate what you’ve done.  Whether creating a piece of music or a Thanksgiving side dish, the pleasure of success is ephemeral.

The problem with following recipes, on the other hand, is that, unless you have a trusted source, it’s nearly impossible to guarantee that what you’ll end up with is what you intend.  Whether cooking or knitting, when the result is different than you expect, the temptation may be to chuck it in the waste bin and start over.

The problem with Thanksgiving–or any big holiday dinner, for that matter–is that a lot of pressure can be put on every component.  Far more than needs to be.   If the salad had been a total bust, there still would have been plenty of food.  If no one had touched the cornbread dressing, there would still have been laughter and joy.  If I had put the cheesecake in the cooler along with the sealed bags of chopped vegetables and it turned out they weren’t as well-sealed as I thought and the cheesecake tasted a little of onion, no one would mention it.

Her parents have accepted an offer to sell their house before beginning a grand retirement adventure, so this will be the last Thanksgiving in the house she grew up in. She was a little melancholy, but it was as joyful a celebration as I could want. I don’t know where we’ll be next November, but wherever it is, if the dressing is perfect or if we burn the turkey and end up with grilled cheese sandwiches, there will be plenty to be thankful for.

I did, by the way, put the cheesecake in the cooler, and it did taste funky. Nobody teased me about it more than I did. But I’ve never enjoyed a Waldorf salad so much. There was a pleasantly chilly late evening walk, and the first holiday lights of the season. And, seriously, Nana’s pies are better than any store-bought cheesecake.

Over the river and through the woods...

Over the river and through the woods…

Accidental Soup

When we merged kitchens, there were abundances of pantry staples, and far too many duplicate containers. Half a box of salt from one kitchen and three quarters of one from the other found a home together in a labeled glass jar. Baking soda, rice, flour–all into airtight containers, leaving us far less clutter, and a very pretty pantry. Not everything was identical, though, so some things stayed in their original containers; some went into small glass jars. Occasionally, a label didn’t stick, but every system has a couple of kinks to work out.

One night I emptied a cup of hearty looking oats into a dry saucepan to toast them, added three cups of boiling water, lidded the pan, and walked away. Morning came. Coffee and tea were brewed.  Lunches were packed.  She came into the kitchen as I was turning to breakfast. “You made oatmeal!” she said with delight.

I lifted the lid and was puzzled. “I thought I made oatmeal.”

She looked over my shoulder.

“You made barley.”

What I toasted had  looked different than I was used to seeing, but the jar wasn’t labeled, and it was in the oats-jar’s place.  I thought they were the last of a container of ritzy, organic, free-range oats that she’d kept separate from the everyday suburban oats.

I made barley. Dummy!

“It’s okay. I’ll pick up a bagel, and we’ll make soup.”

Saturday night, I chopped and she sweated onion, celery, and carrots in a little oil; beef stock, diced tomatoes, and some water were added, along with leftover pot roast, salt, pepper, bay leaf, oregano, and, yes, barley. In the half hour while everything simmered and the kitchen became warm and fragrant, we did a few chores: mopping up plaster dust that settled after the painter left, preparing cabinet doors to be re-hung.  Just before dinner time, I steamed some chopped kale.  She ladled the soup we hadn’t expected to cook and sprinkled on some parmesan cheese. We dug in.

A friend once told me the story of her young sister, who, while mixing batter, confused vinegar for vanilla.  My friend turned it into a reading lesson and helped her start over.  Another young woman I know mistook one canister for another and baked cookies with salt instead of sugar.  Her boyfriend gobbled them up. They didn’t stay together, but it wasn’t because of the cookies.

Mistakes are made.  What matters is how you correct them. How you recover.  What you learn.  We had accidental soup, and it was wonderful.

Accidental Soup

Not everyone likes kale in her soup, even accidentally.