Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Creative Leftovers & Staples

Since it's been so cold and the brick sidewalks of Marlborough Street have turned walking into an adventure sport, I've been lazy about hiking to the grocery store. So, when we were starving and it was past dinnertime the other night, I figured I'd make our old standby, pasta. But then I remembered that my minor fiasco with the New Year's Eve chicken pot pies has left me with plenty of refrigerated phyllo dough.

Exploring our tiny apartment-sized fridge, I found most of a package of sliced baby bella mushrooms, light cream (also from the pies), and several slices of smoked turkey from Trader Joe's. I sautéed the mushrooms in butter and sherry, put them in a baking dish, added the turkey, a little parmesan, salt, and pepper, and topped it with the pastry sheets, each brushed in melted butter. Rather than laying them flat, I go for a scultural effect, so the top looks either interesting or weird, depending on your aesthetic.

We had a good head of red-leaf lettuce and my aunt and uncle had sent us a few clementines in our Christmas box. So I made sliced them up and made salad, adding dried cranberries and toasted almonds (throw them on the same baking sheet supporting the casserole 4 minutes before it's ready to come out). I buy a 6-packs of Conzorzio Raspberry & Balsamic Dressing from Annie's Naturals in California, which is a sweet and tasty fat-free dressing for a fruity green salad. It also lasts forever. I don't know why they stopped selling it anywhere in New England.

I meant to take a photo of this very pretty meal, but we were really hungry. And it was good! We ate while watching a football playoff game, which is the only time we eat in front of the TV.  Now that the Patriots have tanked so spectacularly, I can look forward to having the spouse at the dinner table.

I have a variety of oval baking dishes: petite Royal Worcester Evesham, mid-sized Polish hand-sponged pottery, and a huge Italian copper gratin for when I'm stressed and inevitably make too much food. Here's a good trick: anything served in a pretty oval dish tastes better. Trust me. I'm not advising you to mix 9-Lives Tuna with Campbell's cream of asparagus soup, but I bet it would taste better in an oval dish. (As good as anything made with Campbell's would taste, that is. It's simple to make your own soup without recipes or fuss, as I will describe soon, in another post.)

Early in our relationship, my husband told me that he had great respect for a cook who can assemble good meals from whatever is lying around. I took this to heart, but my strategy was not to hope for brilliant flights of creativity — our tastes are very simple —  but to always keep lots useful ingredients on hand. I like to improvise without recipes anyway, so I shop for stuff that will be both tasty and versatile. In the pantry, we have a few kinds of pasta, Italian rice, Vigo dried rice and beans, good bottled pasta sauce (Trader Joe's roasted garlic marinara makes a memorable pizza), sundried tomatoes, dried porcini, garlic, and onions. In the fridge: eggs, a few kinds of cheese, butter, salsa, carrots, celery, and other stray vegetables and fruits. In the freezer: chicken sausage, homemade soups and stock, pesto, nuts, filled pasta, and bags of peas and other veggies. These staples guarantee that we always have several quick meal options. If my husband wasn't so unadventurous, I'd be cooking with lots of whole grains, fish, olives, root vegetables, polenta, and goat cheese, too. (I do occasionally sneak some of those into our meals.)

Most of this food has a long shelf life, and I rarely need to toss anything that's gone science-project besides lemons. I hate wasting food, so our tiny pantry and fridge are just right for two people. I have no plans to follow my brother-in-law and purchase one-half of a pig for three people. (We don't eat a lot of meat, but we often have all-natural sliced turkey or the remains of a rotisserie chicken around.) Parsley and other herbs will stay fresh in the fridge for weeks if you trim the stems and keep them in water, like a bouquet. Since I make and freeze stock almost every time we buy a rotisserie bird, I could have made mushroom risotto the other night, for example, or a mushroom, sausage, and cheese frittata. Or some baked pasta with mozzarella, turkey, sundried tomatoes, and the baby bellas.

All of this talk of food is making me hungry. Time for breakfast!

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