It is sad that anyone suffers want in the midst of plenty.
This is obvious, of course, when one considers that many people live in poverty in our prosperous society. But, here, I refer to another kind of want — one born of decadence. And a different kind of sad.
The land of plenty?
The local grocery store.
There are times when there is “nothing” there.
It’s pathetic. Or rather, I am pathetic for thinking it.
I am in the market. It is Saturday — the day the timeshare visitors check in for their week in Siberia With a View. The day tourists descend on the market like locusts on a ripe crop.
The joint is packed. Families work their way down clogged aisles, some with two full carts and ragamuffins in tow. The carts contain a wide variety of brightly-colored packages, highly-processed foods. The young ‘uns walk shoulder to shoulder, swarming the aisle, squalling, pulling items from the shelves, pushing and punching each other. Mom has a list as long as her arm and looks up only to snatch a “family-size” box of highly-sugared cereal from the shelf or to yell at the kids.
Then, there are the shoppers in a hurry. There’s so little time, you know? One such woman runs into me three times over the course of fifteen minutes, rushing down the aisles at a near trot, oblivious to others, not slowing as she reaches the end of the aisle and the side traffic. She crashes her cart into me, she collides with a man riding a motorized cart, smashes into a cart being pushed by an elderly woman. In each instance she snarls and acts offended that anyone dares occupy space in her store.
A gaggle of teens blocks the beverage aisle. The boys wear goofy, oversized hats that make them look like dim-witted bobblehead dolls glued to the dashboard of an aging Chrysler. The girls show entirely too much midriff, considering their weight. All are busy trying to impress one another in that oh-so-pitiful adolescent way and they fail to notice the line of shoppers on either side of them.
I am having a swell day at the market.
And, I am finding nothing interests me, foodwise.
Here I am, smack in the middle of an establishment three quarters of the people on the globe would love to patronize … and I can’t find anything I want to take home and cook.
I am acutely aware how decadent I am, how heedless I am of my good fortune. In the midst of plenty rarely experienced in human history, I am spoiled rotten and, this particular Saturday, I am pouting.
Compounding my decadence is the fact I regularly fall into a rut: I rely too often on familiar products and standard recipes. Life is too easy, comfy … and boring.
Beyond that, I deny myself options because I avoid the majority of highly-processed foods in brightly-colored packages. I leave them to others, to the lovers of an alien cuisine.
I don’t frequent the center of the store if I can avoid it. I buy certain canned goods (tomatoes, which best the tasteless varieties offered in the produce section, the occasional can of beans) as well as certain frozen goods (roasted green chile, peas and haricots verts and, rarely, a guilt-gilded frozen pizza). I purchase organic chicken broth because I don’t often have the time to make stock. I buy extra-virgin olive oil from a center aisle as well as capers, mayonnaise and mustards, and the occasional can of sardines, tuna or salmon. And I venture to a center aisle for spices, salt and pepper. Once in a blue moon, I scurry down the cookie and cracker aisle and throw an item in my basket and I make trips to the “ethnic foods” section for panko, coconut milk and Thai curry pastes.
Ice cream or frozen fruit juice bars?
Now and then.
Most of the time, however, my journey in the market leads me to items found on the perimeter.
And the pickings are kinda slim when one is out of ideas.
This day, I am coming up empty. Does that happen to you? Are there times when you cruise the store and nothing leaps out at you, nothing sparks your imagination?
I waddle to the fish counter. where I spot some oddly-colored finny protein, each item with a “Manager’s Special” sticker on it. Any time fish is on sale, I head the other way. I check the frozen fish and find nothing that looks particularly inviting.
I shuffle past the flesh, neatly packaged to conceal any hint that the animal died and was hacked up and processed, and, again, nothing screams, “Take me home and cook me.” There is a fascinating array of organ meats in a distant section of the case – a snazzy-looking beef heart, a kidney, and a bunch of tripe – but Kathy would surely detect something was amiss before I could get her to take a bite of a beef heart burrito.
I cruise to the produce section and a word comes into my mind: “Fennel.” Yes, I think, I can do something with fennel. Braise some fennel or cook it in olive oil until soft and just beginning to brown. Toss in garlic, salt, pepper. Use it with some sort of pork, perhaps.
I begin to get excited, only to discover … no fennel.
The eggplants look nice, but my grill is broken (I thought I had it fixed and was ready to grill some items last week when my pal BFD discovered a major propane leak and called me off. The blast would have killed us all as we sat on the deck drinking gin and tonics. I haven’t got around to finding a new regulator, so eggplant would have to be prepared indoors, and it’s been too hot for that. I recently saw a recipe for eggplant parm that substitutes a custardlike filling for ricotta , and I am going to try it once the weather turns.
Looking pretty feeble.
I find two reasonably ripe avocados and I snatch them, hoping they are not rotten, as so many are these days.
I flip a cone of grape tomatoes in my basket along with a bunch of cilantro. I grab a white onion and a head of garlic. All these items can be used in a variety of ways; they are staples as far as I am concerned.
I head back to the flesh case and a sizable gal clad in a Hook ‘Em Horns T-shirt broadsides me with her cart. She is on the cell phone and she is yelling. “Well, Bobby, if the damned burgers don’t suit you, maybe y’all and the kids need to be here doin’ the shoppin’ steada me.”
The woman’s cart contains four of the biggest packs of ground beef I have ever seen. She has six packs of buns, at least ten cartons of deli potato salad and ten or more huge cans of baked beans jammed next to the beef. On top of this foundation sit five gigantic bags of potato chips. The bottom rack of the cart is stuffed with two cases of soft drinks – a high fructose corn syrup extravaganza.
Gonna be some fun times at the condo tonight!
I navigate my way back to the flesh section and I make my decision. I know what I am going to make: tacos.
The old standby. Relatively easy, fairly quick. Tasty.
Fish tacos are out. I buy beef but once or twice a year, and this is not one of those days. Kathy is on an anti-pork crusade since she read Michael Pollan. I could use ground turkey, but I’ve had enough of it lately.
So, chicken it is.
When it comes time to prepare dinner, I cut a couple chicken breasts into chunks about a half-inch wide and season the chunks with salt and pepper. I chop half a white onion and mince three cloves of garlic I chop half a bunch of cilantro and open a can of diced, fire-roasted tomatoes. I empty a can of pinto beans into a pan, toss in a bit of ground cumin and dried oregano and set the legumes to cookin’.
Into a hot pan goes a bit of olive oil and when the oil shimmers, in goes the chicken. I cook it over medium high heat until it begins to take on some color, then I toss in the onion. I stir and cook the mix until the onion softens, seasoning everything with ground cumin and dried oregano. In goes the garlic and, a minute or so later, a half cup or so of the tomatoes and their juice. I cook the blend until the tomato juice reduces, then I sprinkle everything with a hefty amount of the ground red chile I buy in Espanola. I add some chicken broth and a big wad of the cilantro and I turn the heat down to medium. I taste occasionally and re-season as necessary.
I whip up a simple guacamole: mashed avocado, salt, pepper, lime juice, a small amount of minced white onion. I chop grape tomatoes. I grate a chunk of asadero cheese and I take a carton of feta from the fridge.
Sure. If they’re good for nothing else, they look nice on the plate.
The key is the tortillas.
Corn, for sure.
And none of that dry, stale crud they pass off as “taco shells” in the middle aisles at the store.
“Fresh,” corn or white corn will do the trick.
Take a skillet and put it over high heat. Add a bit of oil to the skillet and when it is hot take a tortilla and swirl it around in the pan, turn it and swirl the second side, giving the tortilla a slight slick of the oil. Repeat with a second tortilla. Saute the tortillas until they begin to brown, then flip. When the second side begins to brown, and the tortillas get a bit stiff, remove them to a paper towel on a warm plate. Repeat the process and cook more tortillas. These babies should be pliable, yet stiff enough to hold when filled with goodies.
By this time, the liquid in the chicken mix should be completely reduced, a nifty and zippy glaze coating meat and veggies.
Tortilla. A layer of the grated Asadero. Chicken. Chopped cilantro. Tomato chunks. A smattering of feta. Guacamole, greens and beans on the side. Perhaps some salsa.
It’s nothing new. It’s nothing exciting.
After all, I’m decadent and I am in a rut.
But, at least it’s not burgers with Bobby.