Food

Food for Thought

A game of chance ... and loins

Ah, chance.

Or, what some call chance: The unexpected, the unplanned — whether actual, or merely a description of the limits of what we mortals can know.

What can be known is that the relation of chance, accident, what you will, to cooking is intimate — especially if one cooks with abandon, pursuing it as one pursues an art, say copper enameling, macramé, or the weaving of lanyards

I allow chance to play a big role in what I select to cook, if not in the actual process of preparing the food. I go to the market nearly every day. I cruise.

Rarely do I enter the market with a list, or even a firm idea of what I intend to make for dinner.

I bump into things. They are just there, around the corner, as it were. Surprises. I buy them. I figure some way to put them together. I cook them. We eat.

Easy as that.

And all without too many expectations. I get what I get. I cook what I cook. We eat what we eat.

When I do take a list to the store, it most often includes items my wife, Kathy, has demanded I purchase.

This is a complex and extended process.

She tells me what she wants on Day One. I forget; she gets a bit peeved.

The second day she writes out a list — dark chocolate, ginger snaps, “organic” junk, things like this. I forget the list, leaving it on the kitchen counter. She is miffed.

The next day, she forces me to take the list. I put it in my pocket then forget I have it by the time I go to the store. She is irritated.

This is the point at which I am threatened with some sort of credible pain — generally mental in nature — and, on Day Four, I remember the list.

Most of the time, I then manage to bring home half the items on the list. If so, I think am doing pretty darned well. After all, I tend to get distracted at the market, full as it is of bright, shiny objects, garishly colored displays, etc.

But, I generally arrive at the store with no firm plan and accident rules the experience.

If a list is a must, chance can still play an entertaining role in terms of the meal that eventually ends up on the table.

As in — if you have the money, and if the market has the ingredients — you can engage in a game that is sure to be fun if you are a kitchen freak.

Here’s how it goes: Find your favorite cookbook, or fave foodie journal, packed with recipes. If it is a magazine, tear out the index and tape it to the wall.

Stand back ten paces and throw a dart at the index.

Bingo, you have an item around which you can plan the rest of the dinner. It doesn’t matter where the dart lands — entrée, appetizer, dessert, etc. — that’s where you start, the hub from which the rest of the meal radiates.

If you have a preferred book of recipes, isolate a particular section. Close your eyes and allow the pages to flop through your fingers. Stop. With eyes still closed, plunge the tip of a finger to the page. Whatever recipe is beneath the fingertip is the starting point for your meal.

Chance.

Granted, if the dart or finger rests on blini with beluga caviar, or kangaroo tartare, you need to try again. But, select the right group of potential targets wisely, and you will hit pay dirt in the first couple tries.

And, in this case, a list is not only acceptable — it is required.

The list you take to the store should include only those ingredients that are in the one recipe. All the rest — bump into it, buy it, cook it, eat it.

You can also play the same game with a list of wines. Allow chance to guide the choice of a wine, then devise the dishes that will go with the wine — allowing the bump method to shape those choices.

I have a few bucks in my pocket and it is Sunday. I pick up my oppressively thick copy of the CIA’s “The Professional Chef.” I isolate the recipe section. I close my eyes. I flip. I stop. I point.

Predictably, my finger comes to rest on a recipe that includes an ingredient not available here in Siberia With a View. In fact, it includes an ingredient almost totally unknown here: scrod. The rest of the ingredients, however, sound just swell: heavy cream and butter (two of the main food groups), tomato, capers.

Hmmm.

I put the old thinking cap on. The cap doesn’t fit particularly well, but here’s what I come up with: Scrod … cod. Hey, the words share three letters of the alphabet. In both cases, we’re talking fish. Plus, there’s cream and butter in the recipe. Works for me.

I set off to the market with the slim hope I will find some cod. I am sure I can get frozen cod fillets, but it would be great to find something we good-heartedly call “fresh.”

This means a trip to the dreaded fish counter.

Could things get any worse, a thousand miles from the ocean?

In a word: No.

I take a detour and go to the gym, lift heavy objects and put them down, then, bolstered by a pathetic squirt of testosterone, I trek to the store. I waddle straight to the fish counter and — miracle of miracles (if one stretches the definition of “miracle”) — there is cod.

More precisely, there are some tubular hunks of white fish labeled “Cod Loin.”

Huh?

Cod have loins? As in: “Gird your loins?”

Apparently so.

The hub is in place. I chuck a couple packs of loins in the basket and set off to find the other critical ingredients. I have crushed tomatoes at home, as well as garlic, parsley, heavy cream, butter and capers. I purchase a couple shallots, a red Bell pepper, and a couple lemons and I have the makings of the main dish.

What to have with it?

Pasta, of course, or roasted fingerling potatoes. The spuds are up to about 2 zillion dollars per pound, so pasta it will be. Since Kathy dislikes most fish, (as well as most meats, the lion’s share of dairy products, a significant number of vegetables, and anything including high fructose corn syrup) I decide I will mollify her with some high-end, whole-wheat pasta (which, as we all know, is not real pasta, which Kathy dislikes). I cook the stuff al dente then swirl in a bunch o’butter, some crushed garlic, a hit of fresh lemon juice, some heavy cream, a handful of fresh-shaved Parmesan, salt, pepper — it’ll be fine after it sits in the cooking pot, covered, getting all creamy, steamy good.

Veggie. I ponder a ratatouille but decide we would O.T. — over-tomato. I opt for green peas, cooked with restraint, slathered with butter, with a dash of lemon juice and a load of freshly ground black pepper.

As for the scrod-cod … easy business.

I preheat the oven to 350.

I do the mise en place and have everything ready to go: finely diced shallot and red Bell pepper, crushed garlic, crushed tomatoes in their juice, the juice of two lemons, two tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped, a bit more than a quarter cup heavy cream, a knob of butter, some dried tarragon, salt, pepper. I have some chicken stock at the ready (I would use clam juice, but I can’t find any at the market).

I heat a heavy sauté pan over medium high heat and add extra-virgin olive oil. I season the “loins.” I plop them in the oil and cook them all round, taking care not to overdo it. I remove them to a warm plate and toss the shallot and pepper in the hot pan and cook for a few minutes, making sure the shallot does not brown. I throw in the garlic and a handful of tomato with some of the juice and I let the mix cook down a bit. In go some tarragon and a splash of chicken broth and I let it cook down. In go the capers, the heavy cream, the lemon juice and pepper. I let chance take yet another role and I chop a few nicoise olives and add them in. As soon as the mix begins to bubble, in go the pieces of fish. I cover the pan with foil and put it in the oven for about ten minutes. If the sauce gets too thick, I add a teeny bit of stock.

When the pan comes out of the oven, a wad o’ butter is swirled in and salt is added, to taste.

Hoo boy. Forget the loins (though they are just fine — bland, but fine). That sauce slopped over a nest of the cheesy fake pasta, with some peas scattered through the pile … have mercy!

I intend to play this game again, soon.

Next time around, I’ll use the dart method.

All I have on hand, however, is a set of lawn darts.

That shouldn’t be a problem, should it?


What's Cookin?

Traditional Sweet Potato Casserole

2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut 1-inch cubes
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans, divided
2 cups miniature marshmallows

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Place sweet potatoes in a Dutch oven and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until very tender. Drain and cool slightly.

3. Place potatoes in a large bowl. Add sugar, butter, salt and vanilla. Mash sweet potato mixture with a potato masher. Fold in 1/4 cup pecans. Scrape potato mixture into an even layer in an 11X7 inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.

4. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup pecans and top with marshmallows. Bake at 375 for 25 minutes or until golden.

Yields 16 servings. Per serving: 186 calories, 33g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 2g protein, 8mg cholesterol.


Obituaries