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The Blessing of Roast Chicken.

It’s the time of year for counting one’s blessings, and I have been having a great time with that. Unsurprisingly, an awful lot of my blessings have to do with food. Creamed spinach. Persimmons. Green peas and butter. Salad with walnuts and blue cheese. Oysters…I could go on.

And of all the blessings that make it worthwhile being a human born into this body of limitations and inevitable suffering mixed with joy, one of the greatest is Roast Chicken.

My roast chicken.

My roast chicken is simply the best, having been honed to perfection over years of tinkering. Tinkering and then eating. So you can trust me on this one.

I used to think Nigel Slater’s was the best. Simple. You just slathered a load of butter on a good organic bird, salt and pepper, maybe shove a garlic clove or two into the cavity, then roast it at 400 degrees until done, still a tiny bit rose colored at the joints, and gilded brown all over.

That’s a pretty good recipe, to tell the truth.

But then I discovered BRINE.

The brined roast chicken. If you are into roast chicken (and I think we know by now I’m into them, yes?), this is the recipe for you.

Here’s how:

First…and most important…the bird. It should be organic, and the best quality you can get. No, really, I’m not kidding. I cannot emphasize this enough. This is not just so you don’t have to push out of your imagination the torture some poor Arkansas bred creature went through to get broasted at Costco with so much paprika and cayenne that you can’t taste the fact that the bird itself is, well, tasteless. This is not just for hippie idealistic reasons (although, momentary commercial interlude, THE HIPPIES WERE RIGHT, okay? live with it). This is because most nonorganic birds have by now been so badly treated by techniques of mass production that they have just about no flavor. If we are going to eat meat, we need to understand that the higher morality is the higher practicality. In this as in so many other things.

Okay, now you have your bird. Take a brief moment to mourn the days when it would come stuffed with its own neck, giblets and liver, all of which come in very handy in the Good Eating Stakes. But never mind. We’ll get a good chicken broth out of the bones at the end, which is one of the advantages of roasting your own good chicken. (This is impossible with a supermarket rotisserie chicken. Take my word for it.)

Now you brine the bird. This may seem like a lot of hoopla, but there are times when hoopla adds so much to your quality of life that it cannot be avoided. This is one of those times.

Say you have a bird that’s about three to five pounds, the usual size you find in the market. For a good brine, it should soak about three hours. You can do more if you like a brine-ier bird (which I do). Not more than six hours, though—too salty at that point. (And if I say it’s too salty, believe me…)

Here’s how you make the divine brine:

Mix

1 ½ cups of salt (just table is fine) with

1 ½ cups of sugar (here, if anywhere, is the proper use for white) in

A gallon of water (or as much as it will take to cover the bird)

Crush into the liquid a handful of BAY LEAVES (as many or as few as you can spare)

Squash a head or two (two is better) of garlic and add the cloves, even with the skin still clinging to them as all we want is the flavor, you’re not going to eat them (this is a very important step, it adds a dimension to the chicken that is way out)

Now submerge your bird. Refrigerate. From time to time, turn the bird over in the brine. Don’t fuss about this—just when you think of it is fine. And if you don’t think of it, that’s fine, too.

An hour and a half or so before you want to eat the bird, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. If you want, do what I do: plan to cook the bird in a ridged cast iron pan, in which case, put the pan in the preheating oven to preheat itself.

While all this is going on, drain the bird (garlic cloves and bay leaves can go happily on the compost), dry it off with paper towels, inside and out. If you’re not going to use the cast iron option, put the bird breast down on a rack in a roasting pan.

When the oven is hot (and so is your ridged cast iron pan, if you’re with me on this one), add the bird breast side down. It’s going to take about an hour to cook, but I like to leave it upside down for the first twenty minutes.

After twenty minutes, turn it right side up. NO NEED TO BASTE! Really! I’m not kidding! The brine does something magic to the chicken so you don’t have to bother.

Roast for about forty more minutes, though I would check it at thirty. If you have an instant read thermometer (and really, you should, really you SHOULD), the dark meat joint, where the thigh attaches to the bird, should read a little under 180 degrees when it’s done to my idea of perfection. You’ll have your own ideas, of course.

Take the bird out, let it sit (under a tent of foil if you must, but I usually just leave it out so the crispy skin stays that way) for five or ten or fifteen minutes. Then carve.

Then eat. Then oooh. Then aaahhh.

And if you’ve roasted a few carrots, perhaps even a few potatoes, in the same oven, have them on the side. By the way, I generally serve my portion on top of shredded lettuce, with a little wedge of lemon for possible squeezing.

This is truly the Greatest Roast Chicken in the world. And here’s the other advantage it has over those Costco rotisserie chickens: as you eat, throw the bones into a pot with a scrubbed carrot, a bit of celery and parsley if you have them, a couple of garlic cloves, a bay leaf, and a peppercorn or two. Cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer. As you eat the chicken, add the bones to the soup. Or save all the bones in a bag in the freezer and make the soup later. Either way, simmer everything together until it smells beautifully like chicken broth (at least an hour, but more won’t hurt), and then cool, drain, use or freeze. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that brined birds can’t make good broth. I don’t know where they got that idea. From some unsalted galaxy far far away, no doubt.

Happy eating. And a happy, happy, happy new year to all. Safety, warmth, creativity, and good food for all.

 

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In Praise of the Tomato.

The Tomato is a wonderful thing.

Few foodstuffs are more wonderful. There are unlimited vistas to meals as you, the Cook, contemplate the beautiful round vegetable. (Okay, yes, I know, it’s technically a fruit. So sue me.) It goes with just about anything around, with the small exception of sugar. (Which is why I refuse to call it a fruit.) And even that—high falutin’ chefs have been known to make tomato desserts, but we just have to avert our eyes and courteously pretend we haven’t noticed. The noble Tomato has charms enough without being tarted up and led down the garden path of sweets.

Now I want to praise then noble Tomato.

Let me count the ways in which it can be (and is) prepared. Ah, tomatoes! They are wonderful raw: sliced thinly, scattered with herbs (marjoram, thyme, or torn basil…yum), perhaps a bit of sweet raw garlic, shallots, green onions…or sliced onions, white, yellow, red, or purple, lain on top…and then a little salt, preferably the flaky stuff. Sometimes a good grind of black pepper. And then the final anointing, depending on the sweetness or lack thereof of the basic tomato: olive oil alone. Olive oil followed by a squeeze of lemon or lime over the whole lot. Olive oil followed by a shaking of any one of a number of delicious vinegars. Or, if the tomatoes absolutely seem to demand it—and listen to them, as you get to know them, you will get to understand their needs—just a spoonful or two of sweet balsamic vinegar whooshed atop. Leave the tomatoes to marinate in that last. Spoon the vinegar over them from time to time as you wander past the platter. And then…enjoy.

Chop them up this way, add to them some chopped cucumber, a little minced hot pepper, some sliced sweet onion and mashed garlic, a bunch of minced herbs, and a little water or tomato juice to taste…and there it is, like Spanish magic, GAZPACHO.

As for the cooked tomato. I would scarcely have the room here or the time to list all the ways. You’ll have your favorites. Pasta sauce, of course, but in how many delicious variations! With garlic sautéed and then removed from olive oil before adding the tomatoes…and these last can be raw or canned. Canned tomatoes are probably one of mankind’s most profound inventions. They certainly have provided more definite happiness for humankind than just about anything else with the exception of indoor plumbing and modern dentistry. Canned tomatoes make me purr in the winter months. I make sauces, as above. Add a red pepper pod from time to time. Raw garlic chopped and added at the last moment. Anchovies melted into a mix of butter and olive oil before they’re added. This reminds me…raw tomatoes are great mixed at the last minute with a melting of said anchovies, chopped garlic, minced capers, chopped green onion and olives into said olive oil and butter. Add to linguine, toss with handfuls of green herbs. Parsley is nice. Parsley, come to think of it, is always nice with tomatoes.

But wait, I got off the subject of cooked tomatoes: Tomato/Onion/Garlic/Greens/Potato hash! Tomato sauce heated with whole eggs poached atop. Tomatoes and chilies cooked down to a sauce to top fried tortillas and a fried egg. A little cheese never hurts this one. Stuffed tomatoes!

Tomato soup!

And then, the stews and soups that hang their heads with pallid shame without their friend the tomato. But add them and wonder. Beef stew! Mushroom stew! Vegetable soup! Ratatouille!

Roasted vegetables!

Which brings me to the single most useful tomato recipe I have to offer. So useful, in fact, and so cherished in my own home, that it has featured in BOTH “Jam Today” cookbooks. Because I know some of the more informed, tomato-wise, of you are out there making mournful tsk-tsk noises, and wondering why I’m bringing all of this up, all of this about the Wonder of the Tomato, just right at the painful moment for tomato lovers everywhere when the beautiful, perfectly ripe, marvelously flavorful tomato of the summer/fall season is just about to disappear from gardens and markets everywhere. Leaving…what? The relatively pallid, some would even say hockey-puckesque hothouse tomatoes, or those transported from such far away climes that necessity dictated their being picked about a half a century too early for proper flavor.

But wait! There is hope (there is always hope). Because what you need now is a good recipe for OVEN DRIED ORGANIC ROMA TOMATOES.

(I should have mentioned that ‘organic’ thing sooner. Believe me, the kind of pesticides you find soaked all the way through your average store-bought tomato are nothing you want anywhere near the bodies of yourself or your loved ones. Not to mention near the bodies of the poor overworked souls who had to stoop to pick them, breathing in all those horrible fumes. I think the less we encourage the growth of nonorganic tomatoes, the better for everyone.)

Back to the recipe. I find you can get rather well priced organic Roma tomatoes, imported probably from Mexico, even in the depth of winter. All that’s needed to relieve them of their miserable cottony, untomatoey taste is a good long bout in a very slow oven. You want them cooked to the point where they are flexible, not dried out, but without any liquid remaining to go moldy on you later. Then they are extraordinarily sweet, and last an amazing amount of time in a covered bowl in your refrigerator, ready to be taken out and used in any number of ways: in salads, in soups, in stews, or even just mashed up and spread on a good slice of bread.

This is how:

Take as many Roma tomatoes as you want and split in half, leaving them connected a bit in the middle. Cover as many cookie sheets as you need to hold the tomatoes involved, and as your oven can stand, with foil. Put tomatoes on foil. Sprinkle with salt—coarse is my favorite here. Now you can either spoon a little olive oil over each one, or leave them plain. The first way makes a more unctuous dried tomato (you’ll probably never go back), but the real advantage is the olive oil helps them last longer in the refrigerator. However, if you’re dieting, or you want to use them right away and don’t want the oil, for whatever strategic reason, no worries, just leave it off.

Now put them the tomatoes the oven at a very low temperature, 200 or 250 degrees. You can leave them like that all night. In fact, all night is a very good amount of time. You’ll wake to the smell of deep red tomato (yes, it’s true, you can smell the color, at least I always think I can). Of course, they don’t NEED to be in all night, just a good four to eight hours…so for the latter amount of time, the lower oven temperature of course. Once they’re done to your liking (remember: flexible, chewy, not dried out and crackly), take them out, pile them in a bowl, cover, put in your refrigerator, and feel happy, once again, to have a supply laid-in of tomato goodness.

Then silently thank the tomato and the force that made it.

The Wonder of the Tomato. Whoever invented the tomato certainly knew one or two things about the joy of everyday life.

 

 

 

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Kentucky Curry or Talking Food Over with Friends.

One of my favorite games is the ‘what’s in your refrigerator?’ game. What I like to do (in fact, I get so enthusiastic in this game that I end up tripping all over myself in my eagerness to play) is get on the phone with a friend or two, find out what they’ve got in their kitchen, talk about what they feel like eating, and then construct a menu out of those elements.

It’s especially fun, I have to admit, when the person whose kitchen is at issue insists there is NOTHING in that kitchen with which to make a meal. I once came up with six different possibilities for dinner in such a kitchen, but of course, Jennifer and Jeff, the couple who owned the kitchen, had totally forgotten all that late autumn chard they still had in their garden, and the bowl of purple potatoes on the sideboard. Not to mention the eggs.

Recently, I played this with my friends Margaret Hultz and Marie Davis, who, I must admit, are no slouches in the kitchen stocking/cooking department. I mean, when they told me what they had in their refrigerator, and the cupboards surrounding that refrigerator, I was overwhelmed by an embarrassment of riches, as it were. And they knew it, too. In fact, I realized that they were just being kind, letting me play with their kitchen like that. They had contributed to EAP’s Indiegogo campaign (as if their writing wasn’t enough!) and asked for that  phone call game as their perk. I think they were just being friendly. They didn’t need me at all. Still it was fun to play.

And their kitchen, in the South, was filled with typically American 21st Century ingredients, as well as all the bounty one expects from a southern household that keeps a garden. So, I mean, this was such a no-brainer, I had to make it more difficult for myself. I cudgeled my brain as to how to do this as Margaret chanted, “And then there are the vegetables we froze from the garden, there’s green beans, and okra, oh, and tomatoes, I almost forgot that, and…”

“Wait, wait, wait!” I wailed. “Isn’t there something you have in there that you don’t know what to do with? Something I can really (figuratively) sink my teeth into?”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Well,” Marie said finally. “There’s that coconut milk.”

“I don’t know what she was thinking, buying that coconut milk,” said Margaret.

“It is just sitting there,” Marie admitted.

“Hah!” I said. “HAH! Eureka!” Then I said cautiously, “Wait a minute, in all that list you gave me, you never mentioned garlic or onions.”

“Oh,” Margaret scoffed, “Of course we have THOSE.”

“We ALWAYS have those,”  Marie said.

True cooks. That is their mark. So for two true cooks, who let me play with their kitchen that day, I made the recipe below, from ingredients they found in their refrigerator:

Kentucky Curry (atop Tabouli Salad)

For two you need:

A chopped or sliced onion
A bit of minced fresh chile pepper or a pod of dried
Frozen vegetables from the garden: green beans, okra, tomatoes
Whole peeled garlic cloves
Coconut milk
A bit of olive oil
A bit of minced fresh ginger
Curry powder
Salt
Chopped fresh mint from the Southern winter garden

&

Tabouli
Kale/parsley/romaine salad
Lemon juice

In a big skillet, fry the chopped onion till soft. Add a bit of minced fresh chile pepper or a crushed dried chile pod. Add the minced ginger and about a teaspoon of curry powder. Salt. Taste to see if you want more curry powder, and if you do, then add a little more. Fry till it all smells heavenly of curry and ginger. Then add as many frozen green beans and okra as you think both of you can eat, with a few over for lunch leftovers the next day. Coat well in the curry oil, then add the whole garlic cloves and one or two or three frozen tomatoes, chopped. Cook it all till the veggies are defrosted and the tomato has started to disintegrate. Then add enough coconut milk to make a nice sauce, as much as you like. Cook till the whole begins to amalgamate in a deliriously delicious smelling way.

In the meantime, prepare the tabouli. Mix with as much chopped kale/parsley/romaine salad as you like. Squirt it with lemon juice to taste.

To serve: Spoon the Kentucky Curry atop the tabouli, sprinkle with chopped fresh mint from the garden.

I suspect even more that Margaret and Marie were humoring me with this, in fact, I know it, because I found out later what they had for dinner later that night was reheated pot roast with corn bread and salad and a nice Beaujolais. But I still maintain Kentucky Curry is a cheerful dish to cook in the depths of any winter, and I know for sure that the recipe has already given me a lot of satisfaction: as so often happens in cookery, much of the pleasure in any dish comes from the plotting of it and the thought of it and the enjoyment of the discussion together.

Thanks for that, Margaret and Marie!

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Flood Soup.

It was a king-sized disaster for way too many, but for us, a small one, at least above the anxiety we felt when Alex got caught at home in the biggest flood in Boulder’s history, and I was caught on the way there, unable to make the last 100 miles because of road closures and detours. We had a flooded crawl space, but that put us in among the lucky ones. We didn’t lose our home, or even any rugs, and we were both safe.

I managed to get home in the break between storms–amazing how the roads clear suddenly, and then, when the rain comes again, clog and close just as fast. But I did get home. Tired and spacey after driving 1300 miles with my little dog, but happy to be there, happy to see my loved ones, happy to be home…since home is defined as where your loved ones reside. The Dear Husband had really thoughtfully gone out and bought some grocery store sushi rolls for lunch, so I wouldn’t have to think about feeding us. And he suggested we go out to dinner down the street at the local pub, which invitation I accepted gratefully. Dinner, hearing stories about how our waitstaff had to watch, helpless, as the water roared down the street in front of the restaurant–“right down to where most of us live”–sympathetic ear, back home,  and then an exhausted tumble into bed.

Next morning, I looked blankly into the refrigerator. Well, there was almost nothing there. “What have you been living on for the last six weeks?” I asked, though, amused, I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

“Oh, you know. The usual. Cheese and salsa sandwiches and granola and bananas for breakfast.”

Ah. Thought so. I laughed and started to make a grocery list.

Then it started to rain. Again. Hard. Continuously. You could almost feel the collective anxiety of the county begin to rise. For the moment, it was foolish to think of going outside on the unstable roads, with the sheets of water pouring down. But life goes on, people need to be fed. We were hungry. I’d bought a jar of pickled okra on my way home, and we had some of that, with Alex’s cheese and Triscuits he’d been living on. That was lunch. But what were we going to do for dinner? I considered my possible courses of action.

And then, of course, I did what I always do in these circumstances. I rooted around to see what we had. And I made something out of that.

Here was what we had:

1 old, wrinkled turnip (but turnips can keep a long time, as long as you shave the wrinkles off, they’re always good in soup…)

1 almost equally wrinkled potato, with sprouts (see above comment about turnips)

A half a bag of baby carrots (obviously bought as a salad course for the Dear Husband’s cheese sandwich meals)

One wilted celery heart (obviously left from a bunch bought as a … see above)

A half a bottle of spicy tomato juice

A can of beets

 

I don’t know what that says to you, but what it says to me is soup. Especially on a cold, rainy, potentially dangerous day. Soup. Definitely soup.

So this is what I did:

I peeled the old turnip deeply, until the bit left was white. Then I sliced it thinly, and cross cut the slices until they were minced.

Did the same with the potato. This is an excellent thing to know: sprouting potatoes are fine as long as you cut away all the sprouts and green areas. What’s left is a great addition to soup.

Cut the brown bits off the celery heart and sliced what was left.

Chopped the baby carrots.

Sauteed them in olive oil. Added a little dried thyme and some salt. Wilted them.

Added the juice drained from the beet can. Added some spicy tomato juice.

Added a little juice from the pickled okra jar.

Cooked on low heat until…

All the veggies were tender.

Then I sliced the sliced beets again, and then cut up the slices.

Added them, and rinsed out the beet can with water, added that.

Tasted.

Added a little more spicy tomato juice.

Turned the soup off and waited till dinner…

 

Then the rain died down, and the water that was knocking at our back door gave up and sank back into the river that was running through our back yard.

To celebrate, we sat in front of the fire, he with a beer, me with a glass of wine.

We toasted the end in sight of the flood. We toasted luck to all those who had lost so much that day. We toasted each other being safe.

Then we sat down and ate our soup.

And the Dear Husband looked down at his empty bowl contemplatively, and said, “I’m glad you’re home. I was starting to get tired of cheese sandwiches and carrots after all.”

 

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A Medium-Sized Disaster and Calamari Steaks.

It took a medium-sized disaster to teach me how to really cook calamari.

So our kitchen flooded when we were away (don’t ask), and we’ve been living out of suitcases in various houses and motels, the dogs and me and the Beloved Husband, while the contractors and the insurance company put us back together (thank you, State Farm). And this is not a small disaster–like a fender bender–or a large disaster–like illness or injury–or, fortunately, a mega large disaster which we can all imagine and shiver at, and which I will hurry past. No, this is a garden variety medium-sized disaster, where you and/or loved ones are inconvenienced but not harmed. Which has its own repercussions at meal time, i.e.: meal times are a particularly good time to knit up any raveled sleeve of care, laugh away any frustrations, reaffirm that you are all whole and well and safe and relatively sane, and remember how lucky you are to be all that when so many people aren’t.

The lovely woman helping me with my insurance claim has been steadfastly amazed that we would rather live in cheaper digs and make our own meals, than in the (Insurance reimbursabal) local hotels with all our restaurant meals paid for. But, while we like to dine out very much, it is not the same as dining in. And it is definitely not the same as the healing power of dining in while you have the cuts and bruises and scrapes of a medium-sized disaster.

And, as always, I learn things from thinking about what we’re going to eat, and then preparing it, and then sitting down with the Beloved to dine.

Hence the calamari.

Now, why calamari, you are saying. Or perhaps you are even saying, what calamari? What IS calamari? So I’ll start with that. Better to be blunt and have it out immediately rather than trying to put one over on you. Calamari is squid. Yep. Those little things with tentacles. Except in this case, calamari is calamari steaks, which are, presumably, cut from the bodies of REALLY BIG SQUID. These steaks are white, and oval shaped, and scored for tenderness, and they’re usually fairly inexpensive as seafood goes; I know they’re sustainable…at least they are for the moment, who knows for how much longer with those industrial sized, computer driven nets dragging every inch of the deep sea floor these days?

But for now, we can enjoy calamari steaks unmolested by guilty thoughts of using up every fish in the sea. Which also adds to a pleasant dining experience.

We both love calamari. The Dear Husband especially relishes it when I cook it, as I used to do in the days before our kitchen was a construction site, dried and lightly floured, sauteed quickly in hot oil and butter, then taken out and kept warm while I deglaze the pan with a little white wine and some vinegar from the chopped up capers I add at the last minute with some paper thin lemon slices. A swirl of butter melted in the sauce as I take the pan off the heat and turn the steaks over in it, a sprinkling of chopped parsley, and he’s very happy. I usually serve this with a little steamed brown rice, and some sliced tomato, say, or corn on the cob, or, in the winter, a pile of buttered peas (frozen are perfectly fine, as a matter of fact).

Here’s the thing about living out of suitcases in a variety of vacation homes: the pot/pan/condiment situation is very sketchy at best. You’re dealing with an eccentric array of cooking equipment, and an odd choice of leftover gourmet flavorings left behind by previous guests. This means that I keep a box with us through every move that includes some olive oil, some vinegar, some honey, a bottle of soy sauce, two bottles of hot sauce, a packet of dried red pepper pods, a jar of garlic salt, and, of course, a pepper mill. Also a few packages of pasta and some cans of tomatoes. A jar of hot salsa, naturally. Then every time we go near a market, I buy a lemon, an onion, misc. veggies and fruit, and at least two heads of garlic.

This gives me enough choices for what to dine upon, as it interacts in my imagination with the too small pan to normally boil pasta, the cheap aluminum wok, and the scratched up, ancient teflon coated pans (in varying sizes) that you always find in these rentals.

Of course, though, there are always baking dishes. Lasagna pans. Every rental of any kind I’ve ever been in didn’t fail to have a pyrex lasagna pan.

So we had been living off the usual salads, and pasta dishes (arrabiata, meaning tomato sauce with garlic and red pepper, being always a favorite fallback position), and baked potatoes because there’s always a toaster oven and I can always go home and get butter out of my freezer, presently plugged into a wall in my living room. Tortillas with melted cheddar and salsa. That kind of thing.

I was getting a little tired of the old standbys., but we were exhausted after a day of more than usually tedious errand running, so I whipped through the market as our last errand. I was wistfully hoping for some seafood. Something for a change. But everything in the market–the EXPENSIVE market in town, too, so there was no excuse–had been packed, literally, days before, or, in the case of the halibut packed that day, cost an outrageous twenty five bucks a pound.

Forget that.

So on my way to the wine section–I really needed a bottle at this point–I had a look in the freezer section. And there were these calamari steaks at a more reasonable $7 a pound, so I threw those in the basket, grabbed two bottles of rose, and headed for the checkout. On the way there, I caught a whiff of freshly baked bread, and saw, to my delight, that Ken of New Sammy’s must have just delivered their sourdough bread; it was still warm. I grabbed a loaf of that (who wouldn’t have), and was out of there in record time.

Back at the rental, though, I realized I didn’t have my usual calamari cuisine accoutrements. No flour, first off. I scoured the cupboards, but all I could find were packets of gelatin (what could they have been doing, making jam?), and some microwave popcorn. And I was uneasy at the sight of those teflon pans. They were so old and scratched I had my doubts about being able to unstick the fish, let alone about what kind of coating chemicals might come with it when it did get unpanned.

Also, the fish was still frozen, and it’s just about impossible to get a nice brown crust on a calamari steak that’s still frozen. Too much liquid.

And THEN to top it all off I realized I didn’t have any rice. I did have some leftover cucumber/tomato/onion/lime juice salad. And I had bought some corn on the cob. So that was okay. But it seemed like we needed something more…

I got another whiff of that lovely bread as I prowled the kitchen. It smelled wonderful. And I thought, what a shame to have such fresh bread and not use it for something. And then I mentally hit myself on the forehead with the heel of my hand, and said, silently, “Idiot!”

Calamari sandwiches. Of course. And then it wouldn’t matter how brown the steaks were, just how they tasted. Then I thought, but those pans are NOT for high heat sauteeing. No, sirree. So I rooted around in the cupboards and found the aforementioned lasagna pan. Standing there contemplating it, a vague memory floated through my head, a memory of the SUNSET fish book (a very sensible and useful thing to have in any kitchen), where, among the many ways to prepare fish of all kinds, they recommend something I believe they call ‘ovenfrying’. I am not completely clear on their instructions, since that cookbook, like so much else, is packed in one of the many white boxes littering my living room at present, but what I seemed to recall was that it involved heating the oven to 500 degrees, putting a pan with oil in till the oil sizzled, then cooking the fish quickly.

Well, it was worth a try, I thought. Why not? So I tried it, with olive oil, and with a lot of chopped garlic thrown on the steaks when I turned them over, so the house smelled incredibly of Spain. And I served them as sandwiches, on slices of fresh sourdough bread, one side which was buttered, and the other spread with hot salsa.

Oh, and I almost forgot–I found the heart of some escarole lurking in the fridge, and I had sauteed that, and spread the cooked greens on the buttered side of the bread, put the calamari on top, enclosed the sandwich, and served with the cucumber/tomato/onions salad and some hot corn on the cob.

It was unutterably delicious. And browned. And garlicky. And messy as hell: the next day, I rooted around till I found a steel wool pad, thankfully, and set to work trying to return the lasagna pan to its former clarity. An impossible job, it’s still a little golden in spots from the high heat of the oil, but this is what happens to pots and pans in rental accomodations. Or should. I personally think it’s nicer to see evidence that a kitchen was in happy use before I get to it.

And this is how to make CALAMARI SANDWICHES WITH BRAISED ESCAROLE AND SALSA IN A VACATION RENTAL.

 

Ingredients for two:

Four slices sourdough bread

Two calamari steaks

A half head of escarole

As much fresh garlic as you please

A jar of hot salsa

Butter

Olive oil

 

Take pyrex baking dish, or similar, that will hold the calamari steaks flat. Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Put in oven.

Heat oven to 500 degrees.

On top of oven, heat a wide frying pan to medium high, and add a little olive oil. When oil is heated, add a crushed garlic clove and the escarole, washed and chopped (don’t dry it, it will cook in the liquid left on the leaves). Stir escarole around to coat, turn down the heat, put a lid on if you have one (or a cookie sheet, or something to help the veggies steam), take off the heat when tender. Salt.

If calamari steaks are unfrozen, dry on some paper towels, then add to the oil in the oven. If frozen, don’t bother drying, just put in–you’ll just cook them twice as long; it won’t hurt them at all.  If unfrozen, cook for three minutes, salt, then turn and scatter chopped garlic on top. Salt a little more. Cook for another two minutes–they should be done quickly, too long and they’ll turn rubbery. If frozen, just double time, five minutes on each side.

Butter two slices of bread. Spread salsa on the other two. Spread escarole on the buttered halves.

When the calamari is done, scoop it out and put one piece each on the escarole spread bread. Sprinkle whatever loose garlic cloves and olive oil from the baking pan still left. (Careful! That oil is HOT.) Cover each sandwich with its other half, cut in two, and serve with lots of paper napkins–this is messy.

Messy food is so delicious. And it’s worth trying to scrub that dish back to pristine shape. You won’t be able to manage it, but you can think as you do about how good all that garlicky oil and salsa and squid and greens tasted all squished together the night before.

And it almost makes it up to you for being kicked out of your own kitchen by fate. At least, it did for us.

 

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A Post Modern Feminist Pasta Salad.

Okay, you’re a woman, and you’re being driven mad by the news every day, is it not so? Is it not that you read about all these white guys blithely talking about what you can and can’t do with your own body, and you start feeling the burqua being lowered over your head, while everyone around you pretends to notice nothing, while they chant, “we are the most advanced and tolerant civilzation ever. We are free, we base our culture on freedom!” And meanwhile, you can feel those invisble fetters appearing and chasing you around, and you watch a lot of young women put on fetters thinking they’re just silly little ornaments to attract the boys. And you get very very frustrated and angry, and you want to rip someone’s throat out, but you feel, quite rightly, that not only is that counter productive, but a big waste of your time. But it’s so damn hot out, that doesn’t help things, yet you feel you want to do something constructive about the whole ghastly situation.

So what do you do?

Well, this is how I feel. And this is the question I put to myself: “So what do I do?” And I think about this time I was working on a film as the writer, a script that originally had a heroine who falls in love with the hero who has raped her. The men involved in this project (there were no women) vaguely understood that something was wrong, but for the life of them, they couldn’t figure out what. So they asked my then writing partner (who, three years later, became my life partner, and then, eight years after that, my husband), and he said that they needed a woman. He volunteered that he knew a woman. And so I came on board.

I was married to someone else at the time, one of the many undiscovered white guy geniuses that one finds all over (especially in certain metropolitan areas, where you can’t throw a bagel without hitting one of them), and so naturally, the Undiscovered Genius spent the days I was working watching television. In this particular case, at this particular time, the Anita Hill hearings. Anita Hill, you may remember (and you do remember if you have the kind of feelings I mention in paragraph one), had accused Clarence Thomas of harassing her at work. He memorably was supposed to have asked her if she noticed a pubic hair on a can of Coke

So I would be at work all day, with all these guys, who were well meaning but largely clueless about half of humanity. And let me tell you, there is nothing like being the only woman in a group of middle aged, clueless white guys for having to suck up offensive jokes at the rate of a cartload  a day. Pubic hair on the Coke can? Hah! Practically a nursery rhyme. I recall one producer who would hug me hello, and run his hand up my back to see if I was wearing a bra. Suck that one up, too.

I had not the slightest doubt that Mr. Thomas said all that to Ms. Hill, and a lot more.

But I’d get home from work on this film, and the Undiscovered Genius who was my first husband would make scornful remarks about Anita Hill, how she was probably lying, how impossible it was that anything like that could happen.

Yes. Well. That’s why he’s my first, not my present, husband. Thank goodness we didn’t live in a theocracy when I got my divorce. We may yet, though. If certain people get their way.

So what do I, we, do?

Here is my most recent solution, not the end of all solutions, but the one I have to work with today. I grit my teeth. I question ridiculous assumptions with as much courtesy as I can muster, never forgetting to question, and never forgetting to be courteous. I use my power when I can. And I get on with it.

In other words, what I think we can do best, aside from defending our own positions and voting and donating where it will most protect women everywhere, is to get on with understanding what being a woman really means, and acting accordingly.

First of all, it does not mean being an imitation man. Hell with that. Anymore than I think it right for a guy to be an imitation chick.

It means being a full person, and bringing to the party what we can to be that and act like that in the polity. Developing ourselves as women, and speaking up from that place.

It means taking pleasure in every day things, and supporting people in every day walks of life, and not dreaming of things and people ‘beyond our reach’…in other words, it means not being conned by the Big Con that says Rich and Famous people who don’t have to take out their own garbage are somehow different from us, and worthy of more respect than the people who do take out their garbage. Because who needs who the most, I ask you? And everyone deserves the same respect, everyone.

So, it means for me that I should concentrate on my work here, now, do the best I can, and keep going.

And to do that (especially in hot weather), I find cooking to be just about the perfect aid to this kind of meditation. I think about what I want to eat. I think about what I have. I think about what my Dear Husband would like to eat. And, these days, I think about how hot it is. Then I start meditatively chopping and slicing and dicing, and if, in my fantasies, as I think about more nation-wide matters, an image occurs of chopping, slicing, and dicing the organs of certain politicians, well, that’s my right to be amused as I get on with it, don’t you think?

Here is an idea for a chopping, slicing and dicing meal during the dog days of having to listen to idiot politicians, ignorant pundits, and malevolent churchmen:

A Calm and Nourishing Pasta Salad.

First off, what do you have in your larder? This is what you should have:

Some kind of onion (scallion, shallot, yellow, red, or white).
Some kind of  green fresh herb (parsley or basil or even cilantro if you like it).
At least two kinds of vegetables (celery, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, what do you have in the fridge? even frozen peas work well here).
Fixings for your favorite salad dressing.(Let me suggest a garlicky viniagrette.)
Some dried pasta, any shape, in the amount of your choice.

Cook the veggies that need it. (Although none of the ones I named above, with the exception of the frozen peas, do, come to think of it. It must be too hot for me to even contemplate that today.) Cool.

Make a salad dressing. Okay, I always seek to encourage personal autonomy, but I can still give you my suggestions here, right? I suggest a good strong viniagrette. For half a pound of pasta and a load of veggies, 1 1/2 tablespoons of a good wine vinegar, or 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, followed by 3 tablespoons of olive oil (with the wine vinegar) or walnut oil (good with the sherry vinegar). Mash a garlic clove into it. Salt and pepper.

Marinate the chopped, diced, or sliced onion in the dressing while you make the rest of it.

Cook the pasta (anywhere from a handful, if you have lots and lots of veggies, to half a pound).

Chop the raw veggies. Or, in the case of the carrot, grate it. Mix all the raw veggies, with the exception of the diced tomato (hold that back for a bit) with the salad dressing. Leave to marinate while the rest of happens.

Let the pasta cool off. I just dump it in a colander, run some cold water on it, tossing it about with my fingers, and then leaving it to drain.

When drained, toss the pasta with the marinated veggies and the dressing. Now add the diced tomatoes. Then chop up as much fresh green herb as you like, and toss THAT. Taste. Need more oil? More vinegar? More salt or pepper? Add judiciously at will.

Then check your teeth. Ungritted? I hope so. Have a glass of wine. Contemplate a world where women don’t have to continually battle against idiocy to make their position clear.

And have a good evening. Turn off the news. Sit with your loved ones. And be happy. Because Living Well is not only the Best Revenge, it’s the Best Example, too.

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