On Being Flexible, and Last-Minute Pasta

Tuesday night was one of those nights when you’re glad you are the kind of person who errs on the side of too much. I expected 5 for dinner, and that extended to an extra for drinks only plus two more at the very last minute for the meal itself (so doing that math that’s … seven people to cram around my table). I’d baked a lemon cake, to be served with fruit, whipped cream and leftover strawberry-rhubarb compote in generous portions and there was sure to be lots of dessert to share, but I was slightly concerned I wouldn’t have enough red sauce to stretch to cover the additional diners.

So I made two pounds of pasta, added a bit more lettuce to the salad, and after cooking the linguine tossed as much of it as I could with the homemade marinara I’d made earlier that afternoon. I reserved a little of the pasta water and poured the rest of the noodles into a medium bowl. Then I added

4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
a few tablespoons of the pasta water
lots of salt and pepper

and stirred it all around and around until the butter and cheese melted into the pasta and the bit of water bound it all together in a creamy, salty, utterly delicious sauce. I added some more black pepper just before serving and voila: enough food to amply feed everyone crowded into my small dining room.

Perhaps this isn’t the healthiest way to prepare pasta but it sure tastes good. Anyway, I had made a big arugula and greens salad full of cherry tomatoes, cucumber, radishes, and scallions that more than made up for it. Along with a bowl of shrimp sauteed in butter and wine and a loaf of freshly baked no-knead bread my simple meal seemed to heartily satisfy all those present. And I was reminded again of my erstwhile impromptu dinner party days in Washington when I invited all and sundry to Sunday afternoon dinners. If a few extra guests showed up unexpectedly I’d add more water to the soup pot and make another batch of the white sangria we adored on those hot summer days. A key to being a decent cook, I think, going beyond using good ingredients, is being flexible and able to think quickly.

The other night served as a good reminder.

This weekend I have a birthday breakfast (and dinner!) on my cooking agenda (cake, too), a baseball game, some furniture shopping, some mental preparation for the packing that is to come in the next few weeks. Wishing you long days of sun and wind and good meals around whatever table you choose.

Two-fer



Lunch

Cauliflower-leek soup + garlic toasts
Asparagus-spinach quiche w. whole-wheat crust
Salad
Almond butter cookies + vanilla ice cream
(white wine, sparkling water, coffee)

Dinner

(G-f) Crackers and apples w. olives, cheeses, hummus

Baked salmon w. lemon + white wine
Roasted fingerling potatoes w. garlic
Kale gratin (parmesan cheese ‘crust’)
Saute of chickpeas, garlic, broccoli, feta
Roasted cauliflower + green beans
(white/red wines)

Flourless chocolate cake w. whipped cream + strawberries

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I like the two-fer: It may seem like a lot of work (especially if you’re moi, who must from-scratch it all), but in my twisted mind I think that if I’m already going to be cooking I might as well cook some more. Right? In for a penny in for a pound and all that. The only downside is the dishes, and there are a lot, but it’s not so bad really (though, truth: I stayed up ’til nearly 2a doing them and was a bit of a wreck the next day).

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For Sunday dinner – after breakfasting up the street, after a run, after an afternoon of movie-watching – we ate leftovers and a salad heavy on the roasted beets. I cooed over the beautiful cauliflower I couldn’t resist at the rainy farmer’s market. Last night I baked mini cornmeal-blueberry muffins and a sort of white bean-cabbage bake inspired by the New York Times, accompanied by Brian and little Radley (who sadly was not impressed although he did enjoy his few spoonfuls of organic vanilla ice cream and bite of muffin). Tonight there is yoga. A few friends to catch up with later in the week. Then birthday dinner trip to Marin will round out these days of rain.

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I am plotting more dinners, of course. And more baking projects. Inspiration welcome.

Dinners, Parties


[Quiche-in-progress this morning, March 2012.]

Whew. Today I have cooked. I am doing a two-fer this weekend, which means friends over for lunch and then more friends over for dinner. I will report back on Monday if I make it through to the other side. Today I worked at home to work, of course (and, ahem, do laundry), and to also do some preparations.

This also meant I spent the bulk of the day alone after a quick shopping trip and brief conversation with a girl in my building who is a runner who gets up to log her miles far earlier than me (as previously discussed over the washing machines). I don’t mind this; just this morning I was lamenting how full even the smallest of cities can feel, especially when you’re literally rubbing elbows with strangers every day on the bus. A bit of solitude and peace and quiet does wonders for my soul (and mental health).

Still, I wasn’t really alone all day, as I was kept company by the memories of previous lunches, brunches, dinner parties. As I chopped an onion, I remembered Emily showing me how to do it properly (of course I promptly forgot how to do it) the night of Father’s Day 2010 as we quickly prepared a simple yet delicious dinner with local fish, home grown greens, and my newest quinoa invention. This morning as I made my first quiche in years I remembered a night I had my aunt and cousins over for dinner in DC during one of those bitterly cold spells in mid-January in Washington. The heat in my building had crapped out a few days earlier, and I was glad I’d planned to make roasted red pepper tartlets so I had an excuse to turn on the oven. I don’t recall what I made for dessert (maybe cranberry upside down cakes) but I do remember making a pot of barley-mushroom soup to go with the tarts, and I’m sure there was a spinach salad with almonds and clementines, a staple of those days. Also that it was so cold and I was very grateful the boiler had been re-lit and my radiator clanking away by the time they were sitting ’round my beloved oak table.

Sometimes I think I’m better served to cook rather than to write about it; sure, I can DIY and tell you about it as good as the next guy but what’s most important to me is the actual doing. I’ve never worked in a restaurant and I’m sure it is a frenzy and lots of work and so much more than I can even imagine, but then again I don’t always mind frenzy and I definitely don’t mind working a lot/hard so …

But yes: today, I remembered. I remembered, as I pureed the cauliflower-leek soup, the dinner parties that expanded to include friends of friends or last-minute additions and how I’d add a bit more water and salt to the soup pot to stretch it (no one ever seemed to mind, or even to notice). I honestly had forgotten all about that until just now. I remembered how exciting it was to try new things: from Gourmet, from Vegetarian Times, from old cookbooks, and, increasingly, the Internet (williams-sonoma.com and epicurious.com were my reliables and still are) and how soon enough I used recipes – save for baking – more as inspiration points or guides and made stuff up as I went along (and depending on what I had on hand).

I think I cook similarly now, although my energy is not as high and I have less time than I did. Back then I worked a job that had me working shifts, either from 7-3, 10-6, or 4-12, which meant there was lots of time in the off-hours to experiment. Every month I’d have a four-day weekend after working 10 days straight and I’d be lying if I said most of those days off, at least when I was in town, weren’t spent in pursuit of some sort of food-related get-together. My sweet friends, who let me ply them with hand-rolled cannelloni (success!) and little cakes concocted from the semolina flour I grabbed last minute at the overpriced organic market in my neighborhood on the way back from my run because I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough food (Jessie, do you remember that one? A ate them all. We talked about scuba diving.) or yeasted sugar cake (delicious) with fruit and watermelon puddings (awful; will never live it down) or, more recently, my first roast chicken (Zuni way) and a vegan pre-Thanksgiving celebration my first season in San Francisco.

These days it may be simpler fare – by which I mean less time-consuming – but still, I hope, satisfactory and satisfying. While tomorrow’s meal may be composed of a lot of roasted vegetables, they’ll be rubbed in good olive oil and sea salt and garlic and all will be organic, darn it, even if I didn’t stay up late the night before putting it all together. Of course, I will still do this but since rain is forecast for the next few days I thought lots of delicious, comforting, warm things were in order. Anyway, the meal is really an excuse to socialize isn’t it?

So – quiet and introspective, yes; lonely, never.

Of course the trouble is that when you’re cooking all day and smelling the various good smells that come from combining cream with butter and greens with Parmesan, all you want to eat for lunch is cheese and chocolate (I ate a bowl of leftover cabbage-white bean soup). It’s veggie burgers, salad, and baked potatoes for dinner tonight and I will try to save my appetite for tomorrow’s feastings.

Happy weekend, all.