In which I produce a reasonably tasty dinner out of what is in the kitchen and a fair bit of luck. Also in which I grumble about recipes that use almost homeopathic garlic quantities.
Yesterday's dinner turned out to be an interesting combination of recipe and improvisation, and I was thinking as I was doing that a stream-of-consciousness narrative of the process would be entertaining. I can't do that now, but what follows is an attempt at reconstructing it.
This started about 6:30 with an agreement to figure out something for dinner, and an idea that it should probably involve the spaghetti squash that I had bought a couple of weeks ago. I looked online for how to cook a spaghetti squash, and found a general consensus of splitting it in half and baking the halves face-down in a 350-to-400-degree oven for 40-60 minutes. I also noticed this recipe for spaghetti squash with chickpeas and kale, which looked tasty and lined up very conveniently with the bag of kale in the fridge that we needed to cook. Even more conveniently, it also would use some of the shallots that have been sitting on our counter for a month waiting for us to find a purpose for them.
So, a plan. I started the squash baking -- set the oven to 425 because I was running a little late, split the squash and scraped the seeds out with a spoon, put it on a baking tray on a bit of parchment paper, and put it in, with a timer set for 40 minutes. I'd salted and peppered it lightly according to the recipe, but I figured that the oil didn't seem likely to do anything useful (and the parchment paper would keep it from sticking) so I left it off. I didn't bother waiting for the oven to preheat; for something like this, it doesn't matter and I could cook it a little longer at the end if it needed it.
Then, I reset the timer for 25 minutes, since the kale and such gets cooked separately and seemed likely to need 15 minutes or so to cook. This way, the timer would tell me when that needed to start.
Squash and kale isn't a complete dinner, though, so I looked in the freezer, found a fillet of rockfish that needed eating (it was starting to look slightly freezerburned on the edges), and set that in a bowl of water on the counter to thaw.
The squash-and-kale recipe has one of the stranger approaches to homeopathic garlic quantities that I have seen. It's almost like planked possum (and how on earth is it that those are the only two references to planked possum I could find online?): You take a single lonely garlic clove, whole, and place it in the pan to saute with the shallot and spices. And then, when they are cooked, you take out the garlic clove and discard it.
I appreciate that some people do not particularly like garlic, but this is a waste of a good garlic clove. If you do not like garlic, leave it out.
Suzanne does not particularly like garlic, so I left it out.
She pointed out to me, at about this point in the dinner preparation when I was telling her about the garlic in this recipe, that she also does not like spaghetti squash.
I did notice that the bag of kale was probably four to six cups or so, packed, depending on how tightly one were to pack it, and the recipe only wanted two cups, so that wouldn't be a big issue; I'd simply leave half the kale mixture out as lack of spaghetti squash with chickpeas and kale, and that would be tasty too.
Thus, I chopped up two shallots (they were small) and put them aside in a small pyrex dish, and went out to the backyard to get some rosemary sticks off the rosemary bush that is in badly need of pruning, and pulled the leaves off those and chopped them up and put them on top of the shallots, and put some salt and pepper and a little bit of red pepper flake in, and checked with the recipe that that was all of the small-quantity ingredients, and then chopped up a third shallot for good measure because there was a lot of kale.
At this point I basically abandoned the recipe; the remaining instructions were to saute this all in olive oil with the chickpeas (unless they were roasted, in which case they were to be added later), and then mix with the kale and cook that, and then shred the squash and mix that all in. None of this required looking back at the recipe.
Somewhere around here, the timer went off, and I reset it for 15 more minutes. I also checked on the fish, which was still stiff in the thickest part, so I poured out the now-quite-cold water it was in and replaced it with lukewarm water.
I put the finned 14-inch frying pan on the stove (the idea of putting heat-sink-like fins on the bottom of a pan to absorb the heat from a gas stove more effectively is genius), on medium, and waited until it got warm and put in a good dollop of olive oil and sloshed it around in the pan. This is one of the things that I learned recently about nonstick pans and wish I had known earlier: The nonstick property is vastly increased if you put in some oil after the pan gets hot and coat the surface with it. If you look closely, you can see that the surface is slightly darker where the oil has washed over it.
The large frying pan doesn't have the color-change thing in the middle like our smaller frying pans do to indicate when it's hot, so I usually hold my hand about an inch or two over the middle, palm down, to see if I can feel the heat coming off it. When that feels properly warm, I put the oil in the middle, and when it heats to the viscosity of water (which should only take a few seconds), I swish it around to wash over all of the bottom of the pan, and then run it around the edge up an inch or so. Depending on what I'm cooking, I'll adjust the amount of oil I add. For onions or shallots or such, I want to have a few tablespoons left over, because the onions soak it up and I don't want them going dry. For things where I don't want much extra oil, it does take a bit of practice.
Once I'd dumped the shallot-and-rosemary dish into the pan and stirred it a bit and turned the heat down a little so it didn't need continuous stirring, I located a can of chickpeas. We had two large cans, which seemed a bit big, and one small can that had a previous iteration of the relevant brand's graphical design. I figured that the small can was in the "this should be used" state, and made sure it was sloshing properly when shaken (bean-liquid sometimes ends up sort of dry and clay-like in the can, even without going bad, but chickpeas in particular ought to slosh when shaken), and drained and washed them in the sink. I have a from-Kickstarter bowl with a mesh-covered spout on the side about two inches below the edge, intended for washing things like berries, which is not necessarily all that great for berries but is perfect for chickpeas, so I used that.
I then put some olive oil in a second baking tray (I find the enameled metal lower half of a roasting pan is ideal for this), and put the washed chickpeas in it, and set them on the top shelf of the oven to roast -- it turns out that canned chickpeas really taste substantially better when roasted, and it's quite easy to do that when one's already cooking something. The top shelf of a 425-degree oven might not be precisely ideal for this, though -- when they were reasonably done ten minutes later, I was alerted to this fact by a few of them popping like popcorn.
So, back to the fish, after stirring the shallots. Pretty much all of the second part of the story should be implicitly punctuated by stirring the shallots. I got out one of the aforementioned smaller frying pans with color-changing bits in the middle, and put it on a small burner to get hot. When that was warm, I was about to put in olive oil, but remembered that my new habit is cooking fish with butter -- it's substantially tastier. So, a pat of butter into the pan. For this, I don't want it quite as hot as with the oil; the butter should melt slowly and not immediately brown.
I then took out the fish, shook it dry, and sat it on a small plate to spice. My usual recipe is salt, black pepper (white pepper is traditional but is also another thing to keep around, so I don't), and some smoked paprika -- Penzey's has a really good smoked Spanish paprika, and a little dash of it on the fish gives the butter a nice orange color as well as adding flavor. Then I put the fish, spiced side down, in the slightly-browned butter and spiced the other side in the same way. The plate then went in the sink, as it had raw fish juice on it.
The chickpeas had now been in for ten minutes, and I was hearing an occasional muffled popping sound from the oven, so I took those out and stirred them around a bit and collected the three that popped out of the pan when they were stirred onto a bit of hot oil, and poured them into the shallot mixture.
Then, I started adding the kale to the mixture. With greens like spinach or chard, mixing with onions and/or chickpeas or such can be a bit tricky -- if you put all the greens in at once, you end up with large clumps of cooked greens that won't separate with the stirring to get onions or whatever in between them. A while ago I realized that this was rather like gravy where if you add in the milk quickly you get lumps that are hard to mix out, but if you add a little milk at a time you can mix it to a thick paste and then a slightly thinner paste and so on down to a smooth non-lumpy consistency, because there's never the the lumps-and-thin-liquid state. It works the same way with greens and onions -- add a little bit, mix it well, and repeat, and you don't get the clumps of greens. Kale has enough texture that it's probably not going to have this clumping problem, but I did it in stages anyway.
Doing the kale in stages also meant that I could notice when it was starting to get a bit dry in the pan (which we don't really want because then the chickpeas start sticking and getting broken apart). I put a quarter-cup or so of water in the now-empty little glass shallot dish, and poured that into the pan and mixed it around to steam the kale. I ended up doing that twice more as I added more kale -- just enough that it would reasonably quickly boil off but provide a good bit of steam in the process. Once the kale was basically done, I also added some lemon juice, in a "that looks good" sort of amount, since the recipe had called for some.
The fish was looking ready to flip over at this point, so I went to do that, and realized that I was using my preferred fish-flipper -- a thin and flexible plastic turner -- for the kale because it was also the ideal tool for that. Rather than getting fish on it and needing to clean it or else get fishy flavor in the kale or else need to switch to something else for the kale, I considered that this fish was just one piece that was reasonably thick and structurally coherent (not yet near the flaking apart stage), so I just flipped it with the pan like an omelette. This is surprisingly not-difficult with practice (the rubber circles used for opening jars are good practice subjects, if they will slide easily in your pan), and it worked just fine, though it always feels a bit edgy and impressive.
At this point the kale was all in and cooking, and I had a couple of minutes, so I washed the plate I'd used earlier and then used it to put the cooked fish on when it was done in a couple more minutes. On consideration, this didn't really seem like enough fish for the three of us, so I got out the leftover sole from a couple of nights previously, and put that in the pan to warm up.
It had at this point been rather more than the planned 40 minutes, so I took the squash out of the oven and set it on the stovetop to cool for a moment, and took about half of the kale mixture out into a bowl for serving. Putting things in a glass bowl makes them look quite a lot fancier than just serving them from the pan, and the effect is sort of surprising every time.
Then I shredded the squash out with a pair of forks (which also work fairly well as paddles to pick up the hot squash and maneuver it onto a cutting board) into a larger bowl -- basically, use one fork in one's off hand to steady the squash, and scrape the inside away from it with the other fork to pull off strands, and then use both to scoop up the strands and transfer them to the bowl. This turned out to have a fair bit of wateriness, possibly because of being cooked a little long and being slightly mushier than I'd intended (though still quite fine; squash really doesn't need anything like precise cooking). Thus, when I'd scraped all of it out of the squash skins, I dumped it into the frying pan and mixed it there so some of the water would boil away.
The recipe had called for adding sun-dried tomatoes and optionally some shredded parmesan cheese at this point, and while we didn't have whole sun-dried tomatoes we did have some sun-tried tomato bruschetta mixture (which was basically tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic -- so the garlic ended up in the recipe that way instead!), and I figured a couple of medium-sized spoonfuls looked reasonable, so I added that and mixed it in. Then a generous amount of shredded parmesan we happened to have -- did I mention that this recipe seemed remarkably well-aligned to what we had on hand? -- and mixed that together, and cooked it a few more minutes to remove a little more moisture, and put it back in the glass bowl, and called it done.
Anyway, it always seems notable to me how much difference there is between how cooking a dinner seems to work out in practice and what the recipe describes, if I'm cooking an everyday dinner rather than something I've specifically bought ingredients for and where I want to precisely follow the recipe, and this seemed a particularly good example of all that. And, even without the divergence from the recipe, the amount of words it takes to actually describe all the things I did is far more than what the recipe contains.
Crossposted from Dreamwidth (original here), with comments. Comment here or there; comments here will eventually be duplicated to there.