I was pretty darned excited.
Well, at least as excited as I get, which by most standards is pretty darned subdued.
It’s a matter of tradition.
It is also a tradition that when I get excited I can be compared to, say, The Hindenberg: a huge, gas-filled bag destined to explode and crash in flames to the ground.
“I’ve got a great idea: I read a recipe in a foodie mag and I want to make potato cylinders.”
Kathy is busy bagging items to take to a recycling center. Since local recycling is a joke, she is preparing to tote a carload of trash 60 miles to see that is it properly disposed of. She is bending over one of the several containers in an area off the kitchen I call “Kathy’s landfill.” She is putting metal cans in a sack.
I stop her. “Hold on a minute. I need to look through your treasure trove of old cans before you get them packed.”
“I thinking about using cans as molds for my potato cylinders. I’ll take a couple cans, call Jon and get a hacksaw, then I’ll cut the cans in half and file down the edges and then …”
“Yeah, sure you will.” She tosses the cans in a big sack and totes it to the garage.
“OK, so I’m not quite as handy as I might be, but I’m going to need some kind of mold. I’m going to cook and mash potatoes, let them cool, add egg yolks, salt, pepper, a touch of nutmeg and some grated Parmesan. Then I’m going to butter parchment and line the molds, swish around a mess of breadcrumbs so they stick to the parchment, and line the molds with the potato mix, about a half-inch thick. I’ll bake them at 350 for 20-25 minutes. I’ll let cylinders cool in the molds and … voila … vehicles.”
“Vehicles, for what?”
“Could be anything savory, wouldn’t you think? Meat, no meat; fungus and veggies. All manner of delectable, thick sauces. I’ll buy a bunch of chicken thighs, bacon, mushrooms, onions, carrots, peas — whip up a simple take on coq au vin or chicken marsala and, when I’ve reduced the braise to a syrup state, I’ll rewarm the cylinders, take them out of the molds, fill them with chickeny goodness, splatter the tops with a bit more cheese. Yow!”
“OK, just don’t waste anything.”
“Don’t cook so much that we end up wasting food. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this … again. You always cook enough for an army and, if you haven’t noticed, there are only two of us here.”
“Hey, I’m well aware of the tendency, and I’ve been making efforts to …”
“No, you haven’t. Are you aware that yesterday I took out a couple pounds of rotting turkey and fed it to those nasty, carnivorous birds that live in the trees on the hillside? And that’s after we had three meals of turkey leftovers following Thanksgiving. You cooked enough to feed an army”
“I had a bit of trouble gauging how much to make. After all, there was family in town, and …”
“And just the other night, when you made that pan-roasted sole, you cooked a pound of fish and you made enough sauce with capers to last a month. The two of us don’t need a full pound of fish, and you don’t have to use a half cup of mayonnaise in a sauce. I never eat more than a teaspoon of the stuff.”
“I like sauce, you know. Oh, and incidentally, thanks for raining on my parade. I should know better than to get excited about a project in the kitchen and share my excitement with you.”
“Don’t be a baby, and don’t you dare start pouting. I’m just pointing out, again, that we need to be careful about waste.”
Ms. Eco Smug finishes packing a mountain of plastic bags into a large trash sack. “I’m sure your potato cylinders will be great.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’m going to make them now. The spark is gone, dead. Maybe I’ll just start cooking for one, and you can eat those creepy, pseudo-Indian-food frozen dinners you seem to like so much.”
I turn and gaze forlornly out the window. The carnivorous birds are flocking to the branches of a ponderosa pine in the front yard. Something must have died out there. There are a couple dogs in the neighborhood that are getting on in years.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Karl; I am not trying to keep you from trying out a new recipe. It’s just that waste of food is more than a financial issue — it’s a moral problem. To waste food when others have little or none, when other people starve, is morally wrong. If you want to get tiny and personal about it, go ahead. But, it is a problem, and it is one you can remedy.”
Mother Teresa picks up the last large sack of refuse from her landfill, and she leaves.
I pout for a while.
And not because my enthusiasm for potato cylinders has been dampened.
I pout because Kathy’s right, and I hate being wrong. After all, I know everything.
Bottom line — I waste food. I’m trying to be more conscious of this failing, but I am not succeeding in any significant way. I can summon all sorts of excuses: I was conditioned by cooking for four, then three, and now there are two and I haven’t made the mental adjustment; the stores, insidiously, package ingredients (in particular, flesh) in amounts out of scale for the one- or two-person project.
But, there are no legitimate excuses. Even if I produce more than is necessary for one meal, the excess can and should be used shortly thereafter. My desire for novelty and variety in the kitchen cannot supercede the need to be mindful of how wrong it is to throw away anything more than teensy amounts of food.
So, after I slouch around and feel sorry for myself, I get back to my potato cylinder project.
I analyze my original plan; I was prepared to make six to eight cylinders and, since they were not projected as empty vessels, I was, necessarily, planning to fill each one of them.
Let’s see: one cylinder per diner, two diners, eight cylinders. That’s four meals, isn’t it? Three, at best.
Hmmm. Get real, Karl: that’s at least one meal’s worth of packed cylinders destined for delivery to the carnivorous birds now diving off the branches of a ponderosa pine in the front yard and returning to their roosts with some kind of hideous material in their beaks.
Eight means waste.
Easy to figure this one: No more than four cylinders, and a commitment to a leftover meal within two days.
Instead of four russets, I’ll chop, simmer and mash two. Instead of four egg yolks, I’ll add two. Instead of mauling myself attempting to hacksaw through some old cans, I’ll use a deep, 4-inch ramekin. The edge of the potato mix won’t be as crispy as it would if I used a thin, metal surround, but I’ll make the sacrifice for the sake of utility.
Vehicles. Now to the payload.
I’ll sauté chopped bacon in a heavy pot until the pieces are somewhat crisp then take the meat out and put it on a paper towel to drain. Into the pot will go a touch of olive oil. I’ll put seasoned chicken thighs dusted with seasoned flour into the pan, brown them off and remove them, toss in a mix of finely minced white onion and celery and cook for a couple minutes over medium-high heat. I’ll throw in some pieces of diced carrot, some thinly sliced onion and sliced cremini mushrooms and cook until the veggies begin to caramelize and the shrooms give up their moisture. In goes some garlic, and I’ll deglaze the pan with a touch of chicken broth, scraping up all the goodies on the bottom of the pan. In goes a half bottle of red wine, some herbs (just about anything will do — I’ll opt for herbes de Provence), back in go the bacon bits and chicken. I’ll bring the mix to a slow boil, and put the covered pot in a 325 oven for four hours.
When the braise is complete and the chicken meat is falling off the bone, I’ll remove the meat and veggies and, over medium high heat, reduce the heck out of what is left of the braising liquid. I won’t add any additional seasonings until the reduction is accomplished. When the liquid is thick and gooey, I’ll take the chicken meat off the bone, discard the bones and add meat and veggies back to the pot, spill in a half cup of frozen peas, cover the pot and turn off the heat.
Into a 300 oven go the potato cylinders. When the mix is firm and warm (and, hopefully, a bit brown) the cylinders will come out of the ramekins; I’ll put a single cylinder on each of two plates, gently spoon the chicken mix in, scatter some cheese on top and put some dressed greens with cherry tomatoes and olives on the side.
Kathy will return from her recycling venture (with a load of other items she has purchased and whose containers she will need to recycle), just in time for dinner.
I will greet her and act contrite.
No, wait, I will greet her, admit she is right, note that I have made a move in the direction of cutting waste … and put a flesh-filled potato cylinder in front of her as part of my penance.
We can eat and watch carnivorous birds devour whatever mess is left on the ground below the branches of the tree.