Tag Archives: Improvisation

It is So Green by the Side of the Road

Painted in Waterlogue

There’s a farmer’s market held in each of the villages around here, each on a different day of the week. My rehearsal call on Friday wasn’t until mid-afternoon, so I had a little extra time. I put on running clothes, grabbed a tote bag, and my wallet and keys, and drove to Egg Harbor.

The market there is tiny, as befits the tiny park in which it’s held. Winter was severe here, and it’s been a late spring. Not much has grown to harvest yet. Photographs on offer in one booth caught my eye; I chatted for a while with the merchant, a poet (her sweetheart is the photographer; his work illustrates her books). I bought a scone baked with rhubarb from the garden of another vendor. I passed on the meats at two stalls; even with the Refrigerator Down the Hall, their portions were too large. Somebody was selling maple syrup, but I haven’t been in the mood for pancakes. Somebody was selling fabric goods—some stuffed toys, and some hanging hand towels fashioned to look like sundresses.

The last booth had some freshly harvested greens—“Spicy Asian Mixed Greens,” the label read. “They’re a little bit spicy,” the vendor said, in case I’d missed the label. She said they were okay to use as a salad, but would be even better braised. That sounded good to me. I paid and thanked her. Juggling my keys, phone, and wallet, not all of which would fit neatly in the small pockets of my running shorts, I put the greens in my tote along with the scone, and put the bag in the car.

The little park overlooked the Egg Harbor marina, so I walked down to take a look at the water. It was a spectacular day, maybe the first day that hinted at summer. But there wasn’t much sidewalk near the marina—certainly nothing to run along—so I backtracked, checked the grocer across the street to see if they had the tea I wanted to stock for her visit—7 days 10 hours 45 minutes from, not that I’m counting. There was plenty of tea, but she’s particular, and none of her favorites were there.

I started for home, deciding to run on the trails in the park rather than try to find some not-too-busy route in Egg Harbor. I finished and, tired and happy, drove back to my home-away-from. Inside, getting ready for a post-run shower, I realized I’d left my tote in the car. I trotted back out to get it, reached in and found the scone.

No greens.

I trotted back to the parking lot; maybe they’d fallen onto the floor of the car.

No greens.

They’d fallen, all right, but not in my car. They were somewhere between the farm stand and where I’d parked the car, very likely dropped while I was juggling my keys and phone and wallet and tote bag.

I had the scone for breakfast this morning. It was okay, though not really good enough to be worth its price andthe price of a bag of Spicy Asian Mixed Greens, neither tossed in a salad nor braised.

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What didI do for dinner? I finished rehearsal and went to the grocer—there were some other things I needed. I bought some chard and a bunch of radishes. I washed the radish greens and chard and braised them along with a sliced onion, a dash of soy sauce, some sliced mushrooms, and a couple cups of chicken stock. I sliced a leftover chicken thigh and, while it warmed (and its cornmeal breading crisped a little) in a skillet, I tore some a few strands of linguine and let them heat through with the braising greens. It wasn’t quite soup, it certainly wasn’t a pasta dish; it was a bowl of vegetables with some bits of noodle and chicken. It was exactly what I’d wanted, and completely different than I’d planned. And it was so green.

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The Day Off

She semi-scolded me because my plans for Sunday were not exclusively recreational. Admittedly, I hadn’t had a day off between Presidents Day and my birthday in May, and then spent the next two days driving 1100 miles. That’s not to say I worked double-shifts in a factory the whole time, but I hadn’t had a day without at least one work event on the calendar. And let’s recall that I love what I do, and that most of my work is what many people would call “play.” But the rehearsal schedule here designates one full day off per week and she was a little righteously indignant that I didn’t plan to take the full day for myself. Well, sorry, I told her, but I have to be ready for tomorrow’s rehearsals, and I haven’t been willing to go without sleep for the last several nights, so I’m going to have to do some work today. She harrumphed, but recognized that I was probably right; and I assured her that at least some time during the day would be spent outside of working time.

A lot of it was, in fact. I walked to church in beautiful sunshine, and stopped on the way home at a bakery that had been highly recommended. One placard in the display case caught my eye: Cherry Scones. I asked the clerk—whose hair was not exactly the color of cherries, but pretty close—what was in the scones. “Dried cherries,” she said, “and white chocolate chips.” “Great,” I said, and asked for a cinnamon roll. “Excellent choice!” she said. “They’re our biggest seller.” (I wonder if she secretly knew that the white chocolate chips were a bad idea.) The roll was gigantic, and gooey with frosting. It was yeasty and light, and there was probably cinnamon in there, but the very sweet frosting masked it.

I did some laundry, and since the day was beautiful and breezy (and since the weekend guests were mostly gone), hotel-hacked a way to hang it out to dry. I edited some keyboard parts.

I probably wouldn’t do this at the Ritz-Carlton.

I thought about food-prep for the week. I had a small grocery list, but nothing worth a half-hour drive to the market and back. I got a steak and some chicken thighs from my baby freezer and hotel-hacked my ice bucket as a defrosting rig while I settled back into composer-work for a while.

When the chicken was thawed, I patted it dry, seasoned some corn meal, and it it in my hot cast-iron skillet. By the time they came out the steak was ready to go in—now having similarly been patted dry, then seasoned with salt and pepper. A couple minutes on each side to sear, then seven minutes in the oven to cook more gently, and it seemed a perfect medium-rare. The skillet was still warm, and had some lovely beef juices in it, so I put it back on the stove. I sliced an onion and the last few mushrooms in the veggie bin and sautéed them to have with the steak.

Protein accounted for, I edited a bunch more pages of keyboard parts. I thought about my still-warm oven. Scones. My alter-ego Cherry Pandowdy had thoughtfully provided self-rising flour, and I had a bag of dried cherries and half a bar of dark chocolate. Even if I use the rest of the eggs, I thought, I’ve already had breakfast. I looked around for scone recipes. Cooking is jazz, a composer friend of mine likes to say, but baking is classical—I needed a score to follow.

I found recipe after recipe that called for baking powder—even the ones that used self-rising flour. Finally I found one. It seemed a little wacky, asking that the wet and dry ingredients be mixed in a Ziploc bag, but the rest of the ingredient list was one I could handle. Except that all the measurements were metric. “Hey, Siri,” I called. My phone chirped to life. “Convert 200 grams of flour to cups.” She told me (1.67). I thanked her, and she responded, “It’s nice to be appreciated.” Our “conversation” continued as I got the right amounts of butter and sugar and salt. I figured I’d take my chances with the called-for “a splash of milk” and “one egg.” I rehydrated the dried cherries just a bit in a splash of red wine (because why not) and chopped the chocolate. I cut the butter into the dry ingredients with a fork and my fingers, working as quickly as I could so as not to develop too much gluten. The recipe hadn’t given me a good reason to use the Ziploc method, so I threw in a little jazz. I mixed in the chocolate and cherries, then turned the dough out onto my floured cutting board (which, yes, had been washed and dried and washed and dried, and washed and dried again since the chicken, steak, mushrooms, and onions), dusted it with a little more flour, patted as lightly as I could, and cut the dough into six wedges that fit neatly into my cast-iron do-everything pan. “Hey, Siri, one more thing—convert 200 degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit.” I didn’t have an oven thermometer (I’m camping!) so set the not-so-finely-calibrated oven knob to a bit under 400 and hoped for the best.

Scones, before

Are these the best scones ever? No. They’re a little heavier than the ones I make with baking powder, but they’re not bricks. And they have the right proportion of cherry to everything else. Dark chocolate is exactly what I wanted. And now breakfast is accounted for. While the scones cooled I went back to editing.

Scones, after.

I took myself out for a late afternoon run, edited more pages while I cooled down, showered, edited a few more pages, drove toward the market and found a place to get a bite of dinner while reading a play that I’ll be working on later this summer. The market was closed by the time I got back to it, but no worries. I’ll get salad greens and eggs—and baking powder—another time.

She and I talked on the phone for a while, she sent me photos of the outfit she planned for a gala work event. I heartily approved!

This is not her gala outfit. Or her car. But I’m working on it.

And then it was time for her to head for bed and me back to work. I had a rehearsal to get ready for.

A day off? Not quite. Well-spent? Definitely.

Sunset over Nicolet Bay

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.