Friday, June 20, 2008

Free-Form Food

When I was younger, I liked to watch my mother cook. My favorite spot to watch from was a bend in the counter. I sat there, on the counter, taking up precious work space and swinging my feet into the lower cabinet when something was interesting. Why always the corner area on the counter? I don't know. My sister, my mom and I all still like to sit in the counter-corners in our respective kitchens. Sitting on the counter gave me an excellent view of everything going on. I could see into the pots, watching the sauce burble and bubble away happily. I could watch my mom cutting ingredients or opening things. I could sniff each seasoning as she put it into the pan. I loved those times, and I know that those hours spent on the counter are the times that this love affair with good food began. I don't remember Mom cooking from a book too often. She used them for baking, when exact measurements are needed, and she did have a little box of index cards, and although she would take out a card for a dish, she usually didn't look at it very much. She seemed to cook by memory and by taste, by look and feel. Maybe she would dispute my childish memory, but to me, Mom just knew that this needed a little more garlic, and that needed 2 more minutes. 
As I grew older, I began making what I called 'experimental food'. No recipes, no rules. Sometimes they were versions of dishes described on television, sometimes they were a thought as nebulous as "Well, ham and cheese sandwiches are can I put together ham and make the cheese sort of saucy and I like broccoli with cheese sauce too, so I'll put that in..." Some of those dishes turned out much better than I expected, and of course some were just a learning experience. One has even evolved over time into my signature soup recipe. 
These days, I've got more confidence, and I no longer feel the need to add the warning label of "experimental" to my recipe-less creations. Occasionally though, I do still label something as a 'fridge-cleaner'. Fridge-cleaners are recipes that can be twisted and turned to fit anything that's lying around in that crisper drawer or languishing in the freezer. This pasta can take any vegetable you throw at it. Here's what I used the other night: 

I sauteed some pancetta that was hiding in the freezer, chopped asparagus, broccoli, red bell peppers, and cremini mushrooms, and julienned some zucchini. Lots of yellow onion was already caramelizing on the stove as I took this photo. With some tiny tomatoes and fresh basil from our patio garden, I had the makings of a great fridge-cleaning comfort meal. I must confess, though: our fridge didn't really need cleaning. All of these vegetables were lovely and fresh, and fridge-cleaners are supposed to make greatness out of wilted, neglected veg. Why, then, did I make this dish? Because there was a lot of cutting to be done, and I really, really wanted to use this:
Isn't it gorgeous?! Hubband got me some surprises this week, and this was one of them. It's a Shun Ken Onion Santoku, and let's face it people, this is a sexy knife. It goes through veggies as if they're soft butter, and I just love it. (Yes Mom, I know I'm spoiled. And yes, I enjoy it.) Hubband got me other thoughtful gifts as well: a Santoku sharpener, a second bowl for my stand mixer, some silicone Le Creuset ingredient cups (see top photo), and one other thing that I think I'm going to save for another post. I know, the suspense is murder! After everything was sauteed, mixed with a little olive oil, garlic and chili flakes, tossed with whole-wheat spaghetti, and topped with crunchy sea salt, this is what we had:
It really is an adaptable dish, so I don't think I will put up a recipe. Just take your favorite veggies and saute them, caramelize onions for some sweetness, and mix it all with pasta. I used pancetta this time, I've used a sun-dried tomato-basil chicken sausage in the past, or you don't need any meat at all. Free-form food. Embrace it! 
And in just another example of the circle of life, a few weeks ago Hubband went away on a business trip and Mom came over for dinner and a movie. I made this dish for her, just chucking the ingredients in the pan willy-nilly, spending time with my mom in the kitchen again. This time, she sat on the counter. 

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