07 January 2009

From the Frying Pan to the Fire

Square meals, not adventurous ones, are what you should seek.
~ Bryan Miller

Perhaps there is some truth to the above quote. I confess I do not know the context, and context is exceedingly important. But taking it at face value, it seems to me that all meals are adventurous, or can be. I suppose it depends on the temperament and sense of humour ~ or lack thereof ~ of the cook.

Many people approach the kitchen with fear and trembling or avoid it altogether and I blame the microwave. May I say that it is the most interesting contraption ever invented? It has the remarkable ability to take a piece of perfectly wonderful bread and turn it first into rubber and then into stone. Our Lord's question of whether a father would give his child a stone when he asks for bread makes more sense since the appearance of the microwave. I loathe the thing and use it as little as possible. And I believe that more people would become better cooks if they threw their microwave out. It is like the television ~ it rots "zee little grey cells" and impairs one's imagination.

And one needs imagination in the kitchen. How many of us have stood staring blankly into the refrigerator, cooling off the entire house, without the slightest clue what to make for dinner? The anxiety this question produces only increases when you are cooking for more than just yourself.

Such was the case last night. My housemates and I celebrated "Little Christmas" with each other on the Feast of Epiphany, as most of us had been away for the start of the Christmas season. I, being home earlier than anyone else, was the chef du jour.

I love a culinary challenge. How and with what would I feed four people? I had spinach and mushrooms left over from my volunteer dinner on Sunday and would have dearly loved to make stuffed chicken again, but it needed to stretch to four and I only had three chicken breasts left over. I did not want to waste gas or money by driving to the grocery store and the organic butcher was closed by then. What then could I make with just what I had?

When in doubt, keep it simple. I cut the chicken breasts into small chunks and sauteed them in about three to four tablespoons of butter (Gregorio is rolling his eyes), a dash of olive oil and three green onions, chopped. While they browned, I put more butter in another pan and added three cloves of garlic and two packages of sliced mushrooms. After they had cooked a few minutes, I added a splash (or three) of sherry, with a couple of pours of evaporated milk and a few sprinkles of all-purpose flour and voila! I had a lovely mushroom sauce/gravy.

A word about cooking with alcohol. I do not know who said it first, but one should never cook with alcohol that one would not drink. Please, dear reader, do yourself and your guests a favor and follow this rule, if none other. I myself learned the hard way and once made a scallop dish with the nastiest white wine I had ever tasted. Not even the most hard up college student would have drunk this wine. Consequently, the scallops were terrible. So, no more of that!

The chicken was now nicely browned. I took it out and put it aside and added more butter. (Gregorio, if you are reading this, I just know you are clutching your heart and laughing in spite of yourself, but look at it this way ~ butter is organic and all natural and much better for you then margarine!) Into the pan went the spinach and my all time Southern favorite: okra. I left it on the fire long enough to soften the okra and wilt the spinach. Then I added the chicken back in and tossed it. I spooned orzo into a big white pasta dish and topped it with the chicken and spinach mixture and ladled the mushroom sauce on top and dinner was served, complete with a nice red wine, candles and the "good" china.

James Beard himself once said that he did not like gourmet cooking ~ he liked good cooking. And a meal does not have to be super fancy in order to feed the body and warm the soul. But whether it is a Sunday five course dinner for fourteen or a one-dish dinner for four, a wonderful meal is within one's reach and worth the effort of cooking without radiating one's food. And in that context, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Miller. Cheers!

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela
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