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Sometimes I overestimate my talents, my improvisational flare, my ability to combine a few fine ingredients with a little je ne sais quoi and produce something that can be quite respectably called dinner. One night a couple of weeks ago, I found myself alone with young Nick with dinner coming on and not a menu plan in site. So I parked the boy in front of a bowl of butter noodles and peas, poured myself a gin and tonic and rummaged in the fridge.

I emerged from this hunt with full hands and a smug sense of self-satisfaction.  Fresh bitter greens? Check. Egg delivered from the farm the day before? Yup. And some really creamy feta and a bit of shallot. Everything shaping up nicely. Saute the greens with the shallot, stir in a little of the chili sauce, fold in the feta and slide a softly fried egg on top.  Great building blocks. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, maybe my confidence was the gin and tonic talking.  Because when I sat down and tried it, the result of this experiment was just, well, weird. The greens cooked down too quickly into mush. The sweet of the chili sauce battled with the saltiness of the feta rather than balanced it.  The egg was too soft, even for me who will pretty much slurp eggs raw out of the shell, and the chili sauce crept into the yoke in a bloodily unappealing way.  Three quarters of the way through, I pushed the plate aside and scarfed the last of the cold butter noodles from Nick’s Spider Man plate and inwardly browbeat my cock-sure culinary self “Thought you could cook, huh Maria?” I vowed never to stray from my (many) cookbooks or the internet again. Improvisation was dead to me.

Until the other night, when dinner came again (it inexorably does that, doesn’t it?), the fridge was full of unused farm share, I had no plan, and Something Had To Be Cooked. This time my hunting and gathering expedition through the kitchen yielded rather a lot of spinach, a big bunch of spring onions, a small clutch of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, and two tissue thin slices of prosciutto hanging around because they didn’t fit on a pizza. And, of course, penne, because I firmly believe penne should be omnipresent.

So,  I started a pot of water boiling and while I was waiting, cleaned the spinach really well (two more rinses than really I was willing to put up with), ripped off the tough stems and tore it into pieces a normal size mouth could accommodate.  Then I sliced up the spring onions. When the water came to a boil, I tossed in the pasta (I know; you know how to cook pasta, I can spare you the details) and filmed the bottom of a saute pan with olive oil. When the pasta had been cooking about five minutes, I tossed the spinach in with it, and paused for a moment to marvel at the immediate collapse of the spinach and to feel grateful for all the room in the refrigerator previously occupied by spinach that could now be filled with more interesting things like berries. Then I slid the onions into the frying pan and cooked them over medium heat, while turning my attention to slicing the sun-dried tomatoes and prosciutto into thin strips, then tipped them in with onions. After about eleven minutes of pasta cooking, I drained the pasta and spinach, holding back a slim cup of the pasta water. Then the pasta and spinach went into the frying pan, got moistened with the cooking water, and the whole thing got a good shake and a moment to think about its new identity.

After that moment, it went into a pretty bowl, received a good grating of parmesan cheese and was promptly devoured. It had moments of comfort food, leavened with a little sophistication from the prosciutto and tomatoes, and made virtuous (without pain) by the presence of the spinach. Fine ingredients on hand and a little skill? What could possibly go wrong? Why nothing at all.

Make this. Or riff on the theme. Mix it up. You won’t be sorry. Just maybe avoid feta cheese and sweet chili sauce in combination.

So I’m back to extolling the virtues of a good pantry, a little ingenuity and the improvisational kitchen life. While trying to keep in mind that I’ll be humbled by that life once in a while, and that’s okay, because it’s good to be reminded that improvisation is not the same as haphazard carelessness, even though a gin and tonic might blur the lines between the two. And for such humbling occasions, one should always keep butter and cheese on hand, as well as penne.

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