Wednesday folks, another edition of Cooking wit da fat man.
Dare I say that I can call myself a cook, as opposed to a guy who does the cooking? A guy who does the cooking, in my view, is that guy or gal, who can follow a recipe with good results, but takes no joy from the experience. These folks never deviate, lacking the essential quality of a true cook, culinary curiosity.
I like to think that I’m cook because I do have that curiosity. One of the reasons that I love Iron Chef on the Food Network, putting up with the lame ass chairman and stupid commentary , is that the chefs go into each episode with no recipes and no idea of what they’re going to make, they let the ingredients spark their ideas. Now, I realize that when you’ve cooked as long and as well as a Bobby Flay or Mario Batalli it doesn’t take much to inspire you, and lets be serious, you’ve probably worked with any of the ingredients that the chairman can come up with. The deck being a bit stacked after all.
My Iron Chef challenge, what to cook when I haven’t really planned to cook and therefore need to scrape something together. How do you approach the question “what should I fix” when you have to deal with what’s in front of you?
That is exactly the situation I found myself in on Saturday night. Dinner time was coming and I knew two things 1) I didn’t want to go out, either to a restaurant or to the grocery store. What ever I made would have to come from things we already had. 2) It couldn’t be pre-packaged stuff, we’ve completely cut that out of the diet and I just never buy stuff that comes in a box. It also had to be kinda quick, Mrs S and I were hungry.
So, how do you do it?
For me I start with a good rummage through the pantry looking for things to build on. We’re blessed and I mean this most sincerely, with a pretty well stocked pantry most of the time, we don’t ever have to worry about food.
My pantry presents more of a challenge actually. I’m currently in a mode where I’m trying to move through some things as we’re overstocked in a few categories due my compulsive hording when it comes to things I need. For example, if the weeks recipes call for a can of tomato paste, get three, ‘cause you always should have some of that stuff on hand. This explains why we have no less than 3 cans of Libby’s pumpkin filling, every Thanksgiving I think we’re going to make a pie and that I’m going to need some pumpkin filling. Every year our guests bring pies. This has been the situation for like 10 years. And still, I go to the store, see the endcap of filling and think… .69 cents? Better get one. Just in case.
Tomato sauce, chicken broth, rice, pasta, ketchup, packaged tofu, frozen orange juice, frozen chicken breasts..seem to be things I think we need regardless of what we have at home. I’ve been challenged to work through some of what we have before I buy more, in other words, “Check the damn cupboard before you go to the store please.” Legitimate challenge, and I’ve been doing much better, many of those items I can now say, we’re down to one week of supply or less.
For me basic building block usually starts with pasta. Do we have any pasta? If we have pasta I have something to make. In this case we did, we had a year old bag of Trader Joes rigatoni in the back of the pantry. BINGO.
Next up, the sauce. In the days before I would have called myself a cook, I might have just cracked opened a jar of Newman’s sauce and poured it over the pasta, maybe, just maybe added some ground beef and called it done. I try not buy jars of pasta sauce anymore, my one exception, I use Ragu when I make my meatless lasagna simply because it’s easy and I’m usually in a hurry when I’m making it.
Since I make my own sauces now I had to check out the fridge and pantry to see what I could throw together. In my mind I was looking for peppers, onions, some kind of meat and any tomatoes. I struck out on the peppers, but I did find a container of cherry tomatoes I was going to use for a salad that I never got around to making. I also found a stick of smoked deer sausage, half a tub of smoked “deli style” turkey slices and some feta cheese.
SHAZAM- it was all clear now. A Mediterranean thing was coming together in my head.
A little more digging found a jar of olive tapenade I had bought for a dinner party last summer. Quick sniff said it was still fine. A little more digging in the produce drawer, and I came up with some basil, a bit wilted but we could use it, and half a bag of spinach.
Now, we were good.
I put the water on for the pasta and heated up my favorite stainless steel skillet. When I was in New York a few years ago I had lunch at an Italian deli that felt like it was right out of the 1930’s. The women in charge, when I ordered the gnocchi told me, like a good New Yorker that “she wasn’t interested in making what I had ordered” and I should choose something else. I told her to pick, which lit up her eyes in a big way. I then watched as she poured about half a bottle of olive oil into a skillet and started adding all sorts of stuff. I’ve been doing that ever since.
So, while the pan was heating up I started in on chopping the onions, garlic (we ALWAYS have garlic on hand) basil and spinach. I cubed the deer sausage and the turkey. Since the turkey was sliced wafer thin like I hate, I rolled it up, cut the roll in half long ways, then chopped the two sections. They would fall apart in the pan, but it made handling it for the prep easy.
When the pan was hot I poured in the olive oil, another staple we always have on hand, and here, I was super generous, like 1/3 cup. Olive oil would be the base of the sauce, not tomato sauce. As the oil heated I added the onions and the garlic and let it cook until it was fragrant and the onions translucent.
A few weeks ago I made a chiliquillies that’s supposed to have sautéed onions. I forgot to cook them and added them raw to the bake. Many family members had issues with heart burn and I’ve had to promise to be more careful with my onions. Please be careful people, you could hurt someone you love.
While the onions were cooking I sliced the tomatoes into quarters. I added a handful of Italian Seasoning, half a palm of pepper, and a light tablespoon of Archer Farms Chipolte Pepper powder to the skillet, stirred it, and then added the meat. Both meats were already cooked but I wanted a little maillard reaction on the meat, or slight charring.
By now the pasta was ready to go into the pot. I can’t say this enough, key to good pasta is a good timer. Rigatoni from bag to al dente is about an 8 minute boil.
Meanwhile, back on the skillet I added the olive mix, basil and spinach, I let spinach cook down then added the tomatoes. About now things were starting to smell pretty good. Covered the skillet, turned it to low, and waited on the noodles. When the noodles were done I added the feta to the skillet, stirred it in and removed it from the heat. I was trying to keep the tomatoes from over cooking, the only really tricky part of this thing. I wanted them warm cooked, but still with a bit of texture and crispness.
I added the contents of the skillet to the pasta and tossed it well.
The results were excellent. The smokiness of the sausage and the pepper powder played off the feta very nicely, the olives added just a bit of sour and the tomatoes were sweet, perfect consistency. That was luck BTW, more than skill.
I was especially excited about this dish as 20 minutes before I made it, it didn’t exist. Like all improv kitchen experiences, pieces of it existed in recipes I’d made in the past, things I’d eaten at restaurants, things I seen on TV. But until I got in the kitchen and rolled up my sleeves to make it happen I had no idea where it was going.
I’m thinking some of the best recipes come from playing around like this.