Foodie Tuesday: Thrilled Cheese

Photo: SwirlyMy name is Kathryn and I’m a dairy fiend.

I sincerely hope there’s no umpteen-step program out there to cure me of my addiction, because I would be ever so sad to part company with butter (pastured butter, sage butter, beurre noisette…), cream (yogurt, ice cream, whipped cream, a drizzle of heavy cream, sour cream…) and all of their cow- and goat- and sheep-produced milky ilk. Among the most dire of those losses would certainly be cheeses. It’s even a remote possibility that in my childhood I mistook various people’s talk about the power and centrality of a certain deity in their lives as completely understandable allegiance to the prepared and aged dairy product, hearing them intone instead, ‘come into my heart, Lord Cheeses.’

All of that is merely to tell you in what high esteem I hold dairy products. I know I am not alone in this. The worldwide fame of the French cheese board, an Italian feast topped with fine curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a glorious firework of Saganaki, a rich fondue or heart- and hearth-warming rustic iron cooker oozing with Raclette (somehow fitting is that the compute offers as a ‘correction’ of this name the word Paraclete, for it is both a helper and rather holy in its way)–these are all embedded in the souls and arteries of generations around the globe, along with many others. The land of my birth has been, if anything, impregnated with this rich and robust love by every wave of immigrants who have ever set foot on its shores, bringing along all of the aforementioned and so much more, and gradually adding a multitude of delightfully cheesy (in every sense of the word) American twists to them. Along the way, besides gleefully adopting and adapting all of the aforementioned, we dairy devotees stateside have high on the short list of our national favorite foods such delicacies as cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza and macaroni and cheese. [For the latter, by the way, I’d be hard pressed to find a recipe that rivals Amy Sedaris’s death-defying macaroni and cheese for my love; infinite variations of it have become my personal staple when I choose to make the dish.]

I confess that lowest on my personal list of cheese ratings, possibly even below the most notoriously stinky and bizarre of cheeses (yes, Gammelost, I’m looking at YOU) is the one ‘cheese’ named for our country, American Cheese, which I personally think of as purportedly edible vinyl and often has little or no actual dairy contents, though for good or ill there are otherwise reputable American cheese makers currently promoting a new, truly dairy version of this stuff. Yes, I get the whole melt-ability thing, whether for Tex-Mexqueso‘ (an ironic name, to my way of thinking) or for creamy sauces and the like—but I also know there are plenty of ways to achieve that smoothness with what I think of as real cheeses. But I digress. Yet again.Photo: Aging Cheeses

When hungry for grilled or toasted cheese sandwiches I am not averse to tinkering with the most sacred simple versions, as long as the cheese still gets to star in the meal, because after all, the entrée is named after it. Since there are whole restaurant menus devoted to the single item of this sandwich, I needn’t tell you what a wide and spectacular range of goodies goes ever-so-nicely with cheese and bread. Now that I think of it, the stereotype of the French eating nothing but bread, cheese and wine could be excellent reason to pour up a nice glass of red when one is consuming a grilled cheese sammy, but that’s merely a starting point for the whole world of possibilities of course. A cheese and chutney sandwich comprising a sharp white cheddar, Major Grey’s chutney and a lovely dense bread (how about a nice sweet pumpernickel? she asked) is a thing of beauty. A perfect deli Reuben is a great variant of the cheese sandwich. Tuna melt? Why, yes, please! And on we go.

Photo: Dungeness Crab Grilled Cheese

A purist’s dream, amped up: the Bee Hive Restaurant in Montesano, Washington makes a buttery grilled Tillamook (Oregon) cheddar cheese sandwich on sourdough bread, adorned with a heap of sweet Dungeness crab meat. If you can’t find happiness in a bite of that, you’re really not trying.

Sometimes it can be both simple and surprising. I’d be hard pressed to love a sandwich better than the peasant bread grilled cheese from Beecher’s in Seattle with their Flagship in the starring role. But I’ve also discovered that a thick slice of Leipäjuusto (a slow-melt cheese like Saganaki), a few slices of crisped bacon and a generous schmier of ginger marmalade make for a dandy combination, and I would certainly not keep such a stellar combination from you, my friends. Kevin, a Canadian small-kitchen wizard, has published a veritable encyclopedia of grilled cheese sandwich variations on his blog Closet Cooking (a site everyone with cheese in his DNA ought to bookmark, stat), and there are all sorts of other blogs and sites, foodie and otherwise, loaded with such cheesy champions as can make your spirits sing and your capillaries tighten simultaneously. So go forth and chase the cheeses! I’ll be here waiting for you, with the ribbons of some good, fat, stretchy melted mozzarella hanging out of the corners of my loopy grin.

Eating Thistles

Photo: The Big ThistleCardoons and artichokes are every bit as admirable as their strictly-for-visual-admiration wild growing thistle cousins. But as any avid eater should know, the aforementioned relatives are terrific dining companions as well as being attractive plants. Sure, I love the silvery magnificence of a shapely cardoon leaf accenting the garden border, but if I can admire its beauty and then eat it as well isn’t that just so much the better?Digital illustration from a photo: Antique Artichoke

And artichokes, well, we all know those are as worthy of battling past their thorny armor as it was ever worth storming a castle’s battlements and portcullises to get to the treasury inside.Digital illustration from a photo: Artichoke Arrangement

The wonderful earthiness of the artichoke is an outstanding companion to the similarly strong-yet-subtle virtues of asparagus, mushrooms or root vegetables. All of these, in turn, play nicely with the denser, meatier varieties of fish—roasted monkfish or grilled salmon, for example—or a roast or stew of wild game, if one has access to, say, boar or venison. Or, if meat or fish is simply not right for the moment, some boiled, steamed or poached eggs.

How about this for a tasty Collage of Earthy Vegetables:

Blanch some cleaned asparagus, small to medium-sized artichokes, halved and trimmed, and russet potatoes, skin on and cut into modest wedges. When they’re all blanched, stem and clean some Portobello mushrooms, toss everything with a little avocado oil, kosher salt & cracked black pepper, and grill or roast until tender.

Serve with any or all of the following as a finger food, small-plate meal or as a side to the main entree (fish or meat or eggs):

Toasted hazelnuts, small wedges of Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, brown butter Hollandaise, and/or rosemary sherried green olives.

This compilation seems to me almost a vegetable representation of terroir. At the least, it’s very down to earth!

Foodie Tuesday: Autumnal Comforts

You know that I love the Fall season, even though it’s very late and short here in Texas. Perhaps it benefits from my love of seasonal change in general, but I think the romantic leanings that come in autumn, that sense of impending death softened by the comforts with which we pad ourselves and by the death-defying renewal of the beginning of school and art seasons, have their own peculiar attractions. And of course, there is the bounty of foods that are best appreciated as we slide from the fall equinox to the winter.photoThe World in Autumn

Thin branches caging up the sun

In willow-wavy lacelike hands,

All skeletons and ampersands,

Hold clouds together in the one

Unreadable yet literate

Equation of the interstices

Whose elated season this is,

Crisp and quite deliberate

In tracing every moment in it,

Hour, year, and state of mind

Among the bones of humankind,

As though these things were infinite.

photoOne of the delights I most admire in this season is earthy flavors. An abundance of root vegetables and mushrooms signals time for soups, stews and sauces whose savory riches warm body and soul and recall me to the embrace of home and childhood in many ways. A simple creamy soup loaded with mushrooms is hard to beat for succor on a grey and blustery day. A bouquet of cauliflower roasted with nothing more than a quantity of butter and salt and pepper until just-right is heavenly; adding sage leaves to the butter and a handful of shredded Reggiano to the top of the cauliflower just when they’ll have time to crisp and brown lightly moves the easy dish to a higher floor in the heavenly skyscraper.photoRoasted vegetables of any kind are especially welcome in the cooler seasons, and so easy to toss together with a little olive oil or butter in the oven while everything else is being prepared for the table that it’s almost a crime not to put them in the oven. Throw a chopped lemon in to roast with them and they are sauced in their own juices. Put the remains (if any) the next day into a bowl with a cup of hot homemade broth and a poached or soft-cooked egg or two, add cooked rice or noodles if you like, and, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, (or bi-bim-bap!), you have a bowl full of nutritious, delicious, and not at all ambitious goodness right in your own little corner of this magical autumn season.

Foodie Tuesday: Restaurant Food = Leftover Heaven Too

photoLest you think I’m so thrifty, what with my numerous posts regarding the delights of leftovers, hashed and rehashed, that I’m not equally overindulgent when it comes to food freshly prepared, I could just refer you to all of the other Foodie Tuesday posts regaling you with proof positive of the opposite. Wherever, whenever and however I can get my choppers on it, I love good food. But of course if someone else has done the preparation, it’s often that much more to be–no pun intended–relished. Who doesn’t love having somebody else do all the work, I ask you.

So when I do go out to dine, I’m very pleased if it turns out there’s more to the meal than can be eaten at one sitting. Good once, good twice. In fact, good twice can = good at least three times, as in a recent casserole-like conglomeration of leftovers from eating out more than once upon a weekend. Convenient to the occasion, I had picked up a small carton of ready-made Parmesan tuiles (yes, I do know how to make them by hand, but there they were staring right at me in the store) and had also just taken it into my head to also make a sort of onion jam, so I already had good companions to side the dish. The ‘jam’ was simply two large yellow onions all sliced up thinly, three modest sized navel oranges (cut segments plus the peel of about a quarter orange, chopped), a half cup of butter and a half cup of dry sherry, a big pinch of salt and a couple of tablespoons of honey, all cooked down together for about 24 hours in my slow cooker until fully caramelized. The tuiles were of course prepared by the even more complicated method of Open Packet, Place Contents on Plate variety.photoIn spite of such ridiculous ease, the simplicity of preparing the ‘casserole’ was its rival in that regard. I chopped up and stirred together these leftovers from my weekend restaurant peregrinations: 1 chicken paillard, grilled with Italian seasonings and heaped with diced ripe tomatoes and parsley; 1 handful of hand-cut french fries made in beef tallow; about a cup of deep-fried zucchini, light breading and all. I seasoned them with a little smoked paprika, mixed them with about a half-cup of plain yogurt and a quarter cup of shredded Parmesan cheese, heated the whole thing in a covered casserole until it melted and melded together, and voilà! Instant main dish happiness. That it all came together with so little effort on my part only added to its savor. ‘Cause that sort of lazy success is exactly what appeals to this person who is mighty thrifty with her kitchen time.

Foodie Tuesday: Clean Hands and a Cooked Chicken

 

photoNo fingers must be licked for chicken to be considered notably delectable. Still, being no stickler for any particular sort of manners, I am not averse to slurping at any remnants of good food stuck to my fingers no matter what they are or, possibly, where I am. And I find that some of the appeal of eating chicken is that it lends itself to an enormous range of edible iterations that are a pleasure in the making, in the dining, and in the finger-licking aftermath of it all. Chicken plays such a lovely supporting role to any number of costars among the pantheon of possible flavorings and ingredients that it’s never difficult to imagine yet another wondrous way to enjoy a chicken dish. Add to that the potential for re-imagining the chicken in numerous follow-up dishes if there should happen to be any left over from dinner, and you’ve got one fine, fine companion in the kitchen.photoOur friendly chicken on this occasion, a handsomely fat-breasted creature of purportedly wholly organic origins (and who am I to argue), was gently consigned, in a Dutch oven larded with a generous quantity of sweet pastured butter, and wearing a good dusting of homemade lemon salt and pepper, to lie on a bed of neck and giblets, celery chunks and quartered limes that suspended it above the cupful or so of white wine pooled underneath. The oven, set at about as low a temperature as it could sustain below the mere warming of its interior light could generate, brought the chicken up to moist-cooked interior temperature over a long, slow afternoon before being brought out from under its protective lid for browning under the broiler at the last moment. Not the fast food version of ‘finger-lickin’ good’ but rather a lengthily slow-cooked bit of tenderness that deserves hand-cleaning after the fact all the same.photoThe simple sequel to this supper can come from any number of inspirations. On the latest occasion it was pairing the chicken with some crisp-tender hash browns, along with warming some leftover marinara sauce, butter-cooked mushrooms and herbs together to create a facsimile of Chicken Parmigiana. Rather than create the breaded cutlets in the traditional style, I simply layered the slices of moist chicken next to the potatoes, spooned on some mushroom marinara, sprinkled on some shredded Parmigiano, and melted the cheese just a little to round out its flavor. Far from the heights of authentic Italian culinary art, but let me tell you, it wasn’t hard to eat all the same. Might be having some again soon, since there’s still more of that nice chicken that I cut up and popped in the freezer after roasting it the other day. Of course, I could veer off toward some Tikka Masala . . . or chicken noodle soup . . . or quesadillas con pollo. photo

Foodie Tuesday: Lemon Chicken without Cats

A friend of ours once told us about the Chinese restaurant in the small southern town where he grew up that was renowned for its trademark Lemon Chicken–until, that is, the owner was questioned about the disappearance of many of the neighborhood’s pet cats on a timetable that coincided a little too closely for comfort with the preparation and the offering of said dish on the menu.

I prefer to offer a more strictly bird-based version of the dish when I get hungry for lemon chicken. Call me old-fashioned.

I kept it very simple too, though. I’m rarely interested in making things terribly complicated in the kitchen; that’s above my pay grade. My one innovation particular to this occasion was to test a new kind of gluten-free pasta and put together a dish that could sit around in the oven for an indeterminate period without dying, since our dinner guest wasn’t sure how quickly she could get to our house from Dallas that evening. Worked out pretty nicely, as it turned out, and was both lemony and quite acceptably chicken flavored, as planned.photoLemon Chicken Linguine

Layer into a covered four- or five-quart nonstick pan in order: 1 package of RP’s fresh GF linguine (9 oz)–uncooked, straight out of the package; 2 cups of roasted, poached or braised chicken cut into 1 inch pieces (I used chicken left from one I’d oven-braised a day or two before in butter with homemade lemon seasoning (oven-dried lemon peels finely ground with Tellicherry peppercorns and Kosher salt); 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese; the juice and zest of one lemon; about 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Season with ground mace, ground coriander and [the aforementioned] lemon seasoning to taste. Cover the pan snugly with its lid and set it in a low oven (not above 225°F/107°C) until the liquid is absorbed or the guests arrive, or both.

Side dishes for such an uncomplicated meal should also be uncomplicated. Good old, ubiquitous in our household, coleslaw, with apples complementing the ginger. Green beans Amandine, done up Southern style by throwing a handful of crisped bacon on top. Dessert? Why, of course. I (conveniently) had some of my strawberry-mandarin granita right in the freezer and, by golly, found some rather nice fresh strawberries and lovely sweet mandarin oranges at the grocery store as well, so I macerated a dish of those two mixed together in vanilla sugar; spooned over the granita and accompanied by some little nut and cocoa truffles I’d also made and stashed earlier.photoAlong with these foods, of course, there needed to be good drinks aplenty. Nice for wetting the whistle. But remember, one should always show appropriate restraint with the drinking or one might not know the difference if someone tries to serve a less savory sort of ‘lemon chicken’ than mine.photo

Foodie Tuesday: In Small Doses

Another lunch, another assortment of dishes. I’m not much on trying to unravel what magical single dish or small group of dishes will satisfy every person at the table when I’m serving them lunch, so as always, when I had a few friends over a few days ago, I opted for my usual ‘safe’ approach of a larger number of smaller dishes. As I so rarely use actual recipes, I do tend to make up a menu in the form of simple notes, lists of ingredients, combinations, that sort of thing. Here we go. Imaginary eating is sometimes half the fun!

For the occasion, a bunch of my friends became the LADIES WHO LUNCH.
*‘Virgitarian’ Green Punch
* 1 small honeydew, cubed
* 1 cup finely sliced celery
* 1/2 apple
*1 whole cucumber
* 1 cup water
* 1 bunch of fresh mint
* Juice of 1 small lemon, 1 lime
* 3 cups Stirrings Simple Mojito mix

photo    * Quinoa with browned butter and myzithra
   * Cornichons, Membrillo and fried shallots

photo    * Tomato Apricot Jam as ‘relish’
* 1/2 cup grape tomatoes
* 1/2 cup dried apricots
* 1/4 cup Cabernet
* 2-3 T Balsamic vinegar
* 2-3 T honey
photo    * Beef & Rice Stuffed Portobellos
* 2 large Portobello caps
* 1 cup broth-cooked rice
* 3/4 cup minced roasted beef
* 2 T cooked/thickened beef jus
* 1/2 cup whole milk yogurt
* 1 T sweet-hot or Dijon mustard
* 2 T sliced pimiento-stuffed green olives
* 1/4 cup finely grated Reggiano
*2 T (2 ‘butter pats’) sharp white cheddar
* (Optional: top with crumbled fried sage leaves)
photo    * Braised Kale in Tomato Sauce
* 1 bag (ca. 4-5 cups) of washed, cut kale
* 1/4 cup chopped celery
* 2 T butter
* couple of small pieces of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
* 1-1/2 cups fire roasted tomatoes
* 1/2 cup orange or tangerine) juice
* Pinch of sugar
photo    * Mixed Potato Gratin
* 1 Russet and two sweet potatoes, scrubbed and thinly sliced
* EV olive oil
* Alder smoked salt
* Ground black pepper
* Sprigs of fresh rosemary
* 1 cup heavy cream
photo    * Marinated Green Beans & Radishes (serve hot or cold)
* 2 cups lightly steamed cut green beans
* 1 bunch of radishes, cleaned and sliced
*1/2 cup cider vinegar
*1/4 cup mild oil (I used canola)
* Sugar to taste
* 1 tsp ground mustard
*1 tsp dried dill
* 1 tsp brown mustard seeds
* Salt and pepper to taste
* Black sesame seeds for garnishphoto
 * Tangerine & Fresh Strawberry Frozen Mousse & TJ’s caramel-sea salt chocolate

If It’s Wednesday, This Must be Foodie Tuesday Deja Vu

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Why, yes, if you are a fresh berry. Those sweet little nuggets of juicy goodness are the very epitome of summertime’s joys, and the longer we can extend the berry adventure by means of preserved, frozen or baked goods, the merrier. I’ve already rhapsodized about my mother’s justly famed raspberry pie (the mystic quality of her ethereal pie crusts a deservedly notable part of the equation, in the interest of full disclosure), and she made many a jar of equally brilliant raspberry jam over her wildly productive years of canning and preserving. I will never be her equal in either of these arts.photo

I do, however, have enough fondness for some berries that I will gladly binge on them while their season lasts, and far beyond, in whatever forms are available, because I can practically feel the vitamins rushing into my cells when I do, and more importantly, because they taste so fabulous and are such great utility players on Team Food. On their own, they are magnificent and refreshing. In salads, a divine break from any leanings toward excess of greens. Think, for example, of a marvelous mix of butter lettuce, Romaine, toasted sliced almonds, shavings of fine Reggiano cheese and a generous handful of raspberries all happily commingling with a light creamy fresh thyme dressing. Transcendent! Fruit salad melanges practically insist on having a handful of berries gracing them when the season is right. And I’m told by those who eat blueberries that no berry surpasses them for muffin or pancake making. Me, I’ll gladly stick with Swedish pancakes piled up with whipped cream and fresh strawberries when it comes to the breakfast berry-ations. And of course there are endless possibilities in the universe of fruit smoothies when it comes to berries, whether you’re in the camp that must strain out the seeds or among those who appreciate the fiber therein.

And don’t get me started about desserts! The natural affinity fruit has for sweet foods is showcased wonderfully in so many after-dinner or coffee-time treats that a mere post could hardly suffice to even skim the list. But some goodies do come immediately to mind: strawberries dipped in chocolate; cloudberry cream, as I learned to love it when prepared in the seconds-long fresh season by my brother-in-law’s late mother; blackberry tapioca pudding. Pies, tarts, and crumbles, oh my. A heap of berries and a gentle sluicing of vanilla custard atop a slice of toasted pound cake. Honestly, few ways to go awry.

Still, the berry, with its pristine, bright, zingy flavor, and the hints of sweetness underlying it, makes a superb foil for savory dishes too, not least of all meats and seafoods. One of those ways to slip berry-liciousness into the main dish is to pool any of the multitude of possible berry-enhanced sauces and purees under, over or alongside a portion of entrée. I’m fond of Beurres Rouges ou Blancs made with wine, butter and berries cooked down to dense, flavorful stupendousness. Hard to argue with, say, a blackberry-Cabernet sauce served with lamb or duck, and I can only imagine that a dry, red-fruity Rosé would pair gracefully in such a sauce with raspberries or, dare I say it, salmonberries, to accompany a roasted filet of salmon or breast of pheasant or grilled chicken. Champagne Beurre Blanc is hard to resist with shellfish; why not top that with roasted strawberries and a quick grind of black pepper?

As you can see, what happens when I get the mere image of a berry into my tiny brain is that it plants the seeds for extensive food fantasizing. And that is hardly a bad thing, my friends. Bury me in berries. I could do much worse.

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Foodie Tuesday: Greenglorious

photoHow ’bout a vegetarian lunch? Whaaaat, me, sharp-fanged old carnivore that I am? Really? Oh, yes, my friends, sometimes the vegetarian route, even in my greasy old meatatarian hands, leads to a fine meal indeed. As an eater, I can always latch onto that old saying ‘I’m just happy to be here’. Whatever goodness is on offer.

Vegetarian meals, particularly in summertime, can be marvelously easy to prepare and not get me horribly overheated when I am fighting off the internal flames already. Let me be honest, my dearies, I am over fifty, a prodigy of sorts who got the great gift of hot flashes starting at the ripe young age of forty, so cookery that doesn’t require a whole lot of, well, cooking is a generally welcome thing these days. So, darlings, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Salad. That’s always an easy start. So keep it easy. Romaine lettuce, diced ripe pear. Sliced almonds, white and black sesame seeds. A touch of lemon juice. Couple of spoons full of the pickling liquid from sushi ginger, a lick of Persian lime olive oil and a jot of toasted sesame oil. Fresh, fast, cooling, nice.photo

Not that I’m opposed to heated stuff. After all, the physiological truth is that eating and drinking warm treats is pretty good at starting the body’s cooling mechanisms to work. Cool! Really! So this time around, I went with one of those dishes that are basic throw-and-go foods. Oven roasted cauliflower, fine; oven roasted me: too much of a good thing. So in a lightly oiled casserole I put a couple of cups of broken cauliflower florets, straight from the freezer (not previously cooked), tossed on a few teaspoons of cold browned butter, a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts, a handful of brown mustard seeds, and a quarter cup or so of shredded Parmesan cheese. Into the cold oven it all went at 350°F, covered for the first fifteen minutes and then uncovered until browned, and lastly left covered again at table to keep steaming while the rest of the meal got set.photo

The rest included some good gluten-free crackers to spread with almond butter and peach chutney, a few of my homemade sesame crackers and smoked almonds, and some cornichons and pickled lotus for a touch further of pizzazz. My favorite part of the meal–not a huge surprise in this hot summertime, I suppose–happened to be the day’s beverage. I put a cup each of peeled and seeded cucumber pieces, chopped fresh celery, cubed honeydew melon and fresh mint leaves into the blender with about a pint of water and the juice of a whole lime and a tablespoon or two of raw honey, gave it all a thorough smash-up, and then strained it. When I drank the blended juices straight up, that was lovely, so if you want your zing without cane sugar or effervescence, just leave out added pop. I’d chilled it that way a couple of days before, but to serve it, I combined it with equal amounts of cucumber soda (Mr. Q Cumber, yummy stuff), and it made a good, refreshing accompaniment to the rest of the meal.

Best accompaniment, of course, is always the good companionship of a fine fellow eater at the table. Yes, thanks, this was a delicious day.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Ten Thousand Things I’ll Never Know

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Nash your teeth over this! Celery, raw . . .

Okay, you are all very well aware that there are more like ten squillion things I’ll never know, but it doesn’t make for as mellifluous a title, now, does it? Ahem. Confession is all well and good, but I might as well please my inner critic, too.

I am referring, in the title I did choose, to the multitude of cool tricks and fabulous skills I am quite unlikely to learn and/or acquire as a chef in this lifetime. Some of them I could undoubtedly get the hang of, if not exactly master, were I to make a dedicated effort. But I’m such a dilettante by nature and so easily moved to any attractive tangent, that such dedication is a fairly rare commodity in my personal performance toolbox. I certainly admire all of you artistes and culinary technicians who have such an abundance of graces in the kitchen, at the grill, and around any old fire pit you can conjure out of architectural rubble, used tuna tins and flammable leaf-mold. And I’ll leave such things to you.

If I were a serious student I might be able to learn how to poach, candy, spherify, souffle, smoke, sear and pulverize the universe of edible things into perfect submission, but I am instead the kid who sits in the corner and stares alternately out the window and down at my left shoelace until galvanized by the lunch bell, whereupon I am first in the cafeteria line and probably sticking my fork into my food well before I have sat at a table. So my hopes of becoming a great chef are limited at best. Part of the problem is getting practiced and patient enough to merely remember what I just did in preparing a dish to have even the remotest chance of either replicating it at some future date or–if it turns out it’s awful–avoiding said replication, at least by improving those things that were unsatisfactory about it in the event. That makes one of the Ten Thousand Things that ranks very high on my list the ability to prepare and eat the same thing twice.

While I’m all for playing Variations on a Theme and enjoying change and novelty, I’m not entirely free of the rather common human urge to indulge in familiar favorites. That means it’s often wisest not to stray exceedingly far from the few techniques I do know and the moderate batch of ingredients that are well-loved in my cookery adventures, or I’m surely doomed to a perpetual cycle of this battle with my limited memory, always eating whatever random concatenation or ridiculous concoction happened to come out of my latest crash course dans la cuisine.

Today, I was faced with a fair fridge-full of unrelated leftovers that, if I didn’t want them to die of old age, needed to be made into something approximating tastiness that I could at least freeze until we would be home to heat-and-eat them. Combined, there were the makings of a whole simple meal; it only required my ‘repurposing’ everything, if that’s not too odd an application of the term, and the time was decidedly now. Tonight the garbage and recycling bins get put out for morning collection, and if we’re not going to actually eat the stuff, it’s clearly better to cut losses before that cleansing event than after it.

So, since the ingredients presented themselves, I prepped three simple recombined dishes as follows. The main course: a BBQ meatloaf of sorts. Sides couldn’t be simpler than yet another version of my mainstay potato casserole and steamed vegetables, and that’s what we’ll have to feed our hunger and clear out the refrigerator this time. What I’ll do with the leftovers of the leftovers is anybody’s guess. I’m quite sure I won’t remember how they got this way in the first place.

Meatloaf probably sounds a bit better, or at least a little more identifiable, than A Hunk of Barbecue-Sauced Meats Put Together, but either way, it’s the simple truth. This loaf came out very tender, indeed, almost to the point of falling apart, so there’s clearly a spot that I could adjust in the recipe, if there were a recipe. Ah, well. I simply took equal parts of leftover pit ham and roast beef (both thoroughly cooked already, obviously) and a little bit of roasted chicken that I had, too–a little under 3 cups of meat in total, I suppose–and put them all together with about a quarter-to-half a cup of barbecue sauce plus two eggs (raw) in the food processor and chopped them all together into a light minced meat ‘dough’, pressed it into a lightly greased loaf pan, and baked it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes or so. Pretty nice tasting results for so little effort, really. Even better when I will have only to warm it up when it’s time to eat. And when, of course, I will already have forgotten entirely what I did with what ingredients to have made the food.

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Whatever you call me, just don’t call me Late for Dinner . . .

The other food is and was equally easy. The potato casserole this time is a mix of a cup of leftover good french fries (chips) plus one raw Russet plus 1/4 cup of queso blanco, all diced into similar small-sized pieces and mixed with a tablespoon of butter, a handful of shredded Parmesan cheese, and sprinklings of ground black pepper and salt and a small pinch of grated nutmeg and microwaved until the queso was just beginning to melt. I cooled this mix and put it in the fridge, and when it’s time to fix it for eating I’ll put it in a heat-proof container and warm it through thoroughly with a half cup or so of heavy cream. That always gives potato casseroles a nice texture somewhere in between baked and mashed potatoes, both of which I think are pretty fine, and helps the cheeses blend into the mix well.

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I’m always making a hash of things . . .

The steamed veg is prepared in the way that makes the dish, if you can even call it that, the easiest of all of them. Carrots and celery, cut into 1″ pieces and steamed with a pat of butter in a half cup of chicken broth (vegetarians can obviously substitute veg broth, wine, water or juice) plus a splash of Limoncello–that’s all there is to it. This one will get salted at the table because I don’t want to get any of that metallic hint of mixing salt and booze in cooked food that can sneak through when the dish is so wholly uncomplicated. The carrots and celery should mostly speak for themselves. And they will still taste pretty fresh and sweet, even in a day or two, rather than wilted and antique as they would have been had I not preemptively cooked them today.

Best defense is a good offense, so I’m told, and nowhere do I see it demonstrated as often as in getting food at least par-cooked before its shelf life has ended. A pseudo-science I learned because, among all of the other kitchen cuteness I will probably never know is the refined art of getting everything prepared and eaten exactly when it’s at its peak, never mind not having odd-lot leftovers or not losing time, tears and groceries if we get invited out to dinner after I’ve half-prepared a meal so it sits around extra days waiting for our attentions. Perfection in the kitchen? No, never. But this old dog does know a tiny trick or two, and that has kept us alive reasonably well so far.

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Celery, stewed . . . or steamed . . . oh, just hush up and eat your vegetables while they’re hot!