More on getting my kitchen mojo back . . .
The winter had its charms, but, as always, ended up deadening, enervating, driving me beyond necessary hibernation and into immobility. But now, I read the Zuni Cafe Cookbook and the weather warms (sunburn! In April!) and there are those greens in the market, and I wake once more into consciousness, That’s the thing really, the key to my pleasure in the kitchen. Being aware of my choices, of the thwack of the knife, of where the food comes from.
So I begin with the pantry. Reminding myself what’s there; taking out the bottles of oil, the vinegars, and wiping away the accumulated grime; throwing out the fancy little sauces and potions that are beyond possibility of use; making transfers from crumpled plastic bags to clean glass jars. A brief illusion of order.
The scarlet runner beans will pair well with the ham bone left from Easter. The can of Italian tuna in oil should move to the front and go into a salad “soon” (only a year or so after it entered the cupboard). I can not bear to discard the unopened and perfectly fine, if aged, jars of ginger preserves and orange marmelade, so they go back onto the shelf. I may become a jam eater yet, or learn to do clever things involving glazes, tarts and sauces. Right now, these are mostly decorative.
I confront the conflicting desires of abundance and minimalism. I want the pulses and legumes ordered in matching jars, promising delicious meals produced from air and a few staples, but I don’t want their silent reproach as they gather dust and that particular bean density that it will take days to cook to tenderness. How can I keep quinoa so I can say any given night that quinoa will be the perfect complement for the pork chops and at the same time not feel oppressed by the quinoa always on the shelf?
At the same time as I toss out, I plot new acquistions, think about the need for oatmeal and more dried fruit, wonder why there are no roasted red peppers in the cupboard, debate the wisdom of having only jasmine rice.
I know I’m absurd. If I want to create and maintain the perfectly ordered pantry, the perfectly stocked larder, I would have to die because I would have to stop eating (or just go out all the time . . . there’s an idea). Really, after all, both the tyranny and beauty (the terrible beauty) of food production is that it never ceases. Two, three times a day, it is demanded of us that we step up to the plate, belly up to the bar, start chopping. Again. There’s always another chance. Damn. Hallelujah.
No matter how tidy we are, cooking is always kind of a mess. We run out of things, we make do, there are always left-over odds and ends that dog us until we abandon them and move on or, on a lucky day, combine into something new in moment of inspiration and grace.
From the highest shelf, I have pulled half a box of bow tie pasta left over from a Christmas gift basket. There are unevenly cut scraps of ham still lagging from Easter dinner. They might be redeemed with a careful dice. I have two beautiful trumpet mushrooms, each bigger than Nick’s fist. I know the ratio for an Italian cream sauce, learned in the restaurant where I put in my time between college and Europe: 1/2 cup warmed cream, 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, I T butter, per serving, all in a pan swirled over a medium flame. The jar of artichoke hearts rescued from a dark corner of a bottom shelf has potential. These things together might be a dinner. Or they might be a disaster. If so, tomorrow brings yet another chance for redemption.
Photo by Timothy Valentine; used under a CC license.
Spring Cleaning Supper: A Variation on Paglia e Fieno
Amounts are person, multiply as necessary and possible given ingredients on hand:
Farfalle pasta (or other reasonably surface-rich pasta to hold the cream sauce)
Butter for cooking
1/2 cup diced ham
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
2 jarred artichoke hearts
1/2 cup cream
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 T Additional butter to finish sauce
Traditional Paglia e Fieno is made with egg and spinach fettucini (thus the “straw and hay”) and with prosciutto. But I am sure thrifty Italian homemakers would not be ashamed to use farfalle and ham.
Prepare about a quarter pound of pasta per person according to your standard method or the package directions. While cooking, melt a few tablespoons of butter in a saute pan. When the butter is melted, add mushrooms and saute until soft and lightly browned. Add ham and diced artichoke hearts, stirring until warmed through. Pour in the cream and let bubble over medium heat until slightly thickened (about five minutes). Add an additional T of butter per person. When it has melted, toss in Parmesan cheese. Although I learned to do this on the heat, it works just as well to turn the flame off and add cheese immediately. Salt and pepper to taste (a healthy grind of black pepper perks this up quite a bit). I also drizzled some of the oil from the artichoke hearts on top to intensify the flavor a bit.
Take out to the deck and enjoy, with company, while marveling there’s still light out at supper time.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that while the sauce was quite satisfying, the farfalle had probably been hanging around in my cupboard for so long because it was pretty low quality and wouldn’t cook evenly (mushy wings and chewy centers). And the scarlet runner beans are on their 12th hour of cooking and are still hard. But, hey, tomorrow is another meal. And the kitchen smells good.