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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

*leftover makeover.

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One of these days I'm going to stop beginning every blog post with an apology for my absence. Like just before the next scheduled Rapture, or after this debt ceiling thing gets sorted out.



I could argue that work has meant long hours, or that budgetary constraints have hampered my ability to shop boundlessly at the market. Both of those things are true, being that there is a finite number of hours in the day and that my debt ceiling is slightly lower than that of a first-world country (also I spend all my money on goldfish crackers and cans of Pringles that say "NEW!" on the label). But mostly I am a girl of very rusty brain who struggles to manage even one grown-up task at a time, so in the ultimate battle of blog post versus clean sheets, laundry won out.

(Full disclosure: I just did that particular load of laundry tonight, so that doesn't account for the rest of the six weeks I've been mindlessly trolling Pinterest instead of posting, but go with me here.)

I been bizzee. Blank pages are hard.

Bear with me, too, while I post yet another leftovers makeover recipe; I have no intention of this forum becoming On the Woodside: How to Cook for One Because You Are SO ALONE. After all, I love cooking for other people, particularly if those people are content to eat on the couch. The Woodside dining table, after all, is strictly for the storage of handbags, junk mail, and various items I've either borrowed or accidentally stolen from other people that I have yet to return in the past six months.

When it comes to food, lately I've been trying to listen to what my cravings are, what my body/brain is telling me I really want to eat. I find that what I eat is a lot more satisfying that way. (I like dinner the way some people like Harry Potter—any letdown in my expectations is no small dismay. I also like hyperbole the way some people like Harry Potter.) To that end, I've let myself sprinkle some less than gourmet, order-from-your-car experiences in among my home-cooked meals; sometimes it's all I have time for, but sometimes it's just what I want. And I've cooked some things that I've thought were a little blah, and I've had some Wendy's spicy chicken sandwiches that were better in memory than reality, but what never fails to disappoint is frozen food.

Or specifically, frozen meals. They are the most heinous miscarriages of packaging, like telling a small child she's getting a puppy and then presenting her with a Chia pet. This is not what I was promised. And they're small; this post alone should give you a fairly good idea of what I consider proper portion size to be.

BUT what I have discovered (and god did it ever take me a long time to get to the point) is that having some STAPLES in the freezer, in apportioned amounts, is brilliant. I don't know why it took me so long to understand the science of freezing. Possibly because I see it most often utilized by beautifully organized moms who manage to put thoughtful meals on the table for parties of six every night, and I figure their methods won't translate to a dust-plagued single dog mother whose dinnertime planning only requires the skills it takes to transfer dry food from bag to bowl. (Note: Said dog still turns down the food-in-bowl at least 50% of the time, even though it's exactly the same as it was the day before, which I guess means J doesn't like leftovers all that much, either.)

The other consideration is that I inherited from my mother this sense that plastic bags are bad for the Earth, and I have a real crisis of confidence about the implications of moving chicken, say, from one styrofoam (!) container into four (!) evil Ziplocs. It offends my basic insane-and-only-sporadically-applied thriftiness sensibilities, too: I hate throwing them out. So if anyone has any fail-safe approaches to freezer food storage that are reusable and environmentally friendly (and not a helluva pain to clean), I'd love to hear them!

Two nights ago I didn't have to investigate my cravings too closely; I'd been jonesing for Giada's Orechiette with Sausage, Beans, and Mascarpone (say it with me: MASS-car-pone, not MARS-ca-pone, pretty please) for a week. And it was good, albeit a little crazy even by my standards—a quarter-pound of pasta seems like a LOT for one person, though of course I managed because I'm a trouper!—but I did neglect my own instinct that this is, at its heart, probably a winter dish.

There are no bright vegetables, no clean freshness that a person needs in the summer. Nothing to balance out the metric tonnage of carbohydrates. And though I had already learned that reinvention is the necessity of leftovers, tonight's epiphany was more about FLAVOR.

Flavor's biggest enemy, I realized, is the cold. The reason I'm so deflated in the face of Last Night's Dinner the next day is that it just tastes like a lesser version of something I've already eaten. All of the brightness and subtlety goes flat.

To summerize things, I knew I wanted something green and something fresh. I picked up a beautiful Alabama-grown tomato at the grocery store, and I had spinach in the freezer—I was able to break off a chunk and add it to the pan, with the remainder going back on ice for another day (thrifty!). The spinach doesn't have to be thawed; that extra moisture helps re-create the mascarpone sauce. And I was going to need some help in the texture department—refrigerated and reheated pasta can take a turn for the overly soft—so garlic and onion were a must. But I also wanted to reenergize the flavors that were already there: The buttery cheese would be muted, the fragrant oregano would be less fresh, and the spicy sausage (I'd used a hot version the night before) would have lost some of its punch. So I added some dried crushed red pepper for heat, a little more oregano (freshly chopped; just a little more will do because it's a fairly aggressive flavor), and a big spoonful of Dijon mustard. I know it's a bit strange, mascarpone and Dijon being from wholly different lands, but they play beautifully together. The mustard gives the cheese back its smoothness and wakes up that zing.

(Note: Nutmeg would be a nice addition here, too, with the cream sauce and the dark greens, if you're into that sort of thing. And with all apologies to delicate cardiovascular systems like mine, leftovers will always need more salt and pepper. It's just scientific fact. I'm very scientific.)

It was fun and tasty, and I ate WAY too much of it, but mostly it was nice to feel like I learned something—about flavors, and the way my palate likes to balance them. The thing about cooking for other people is that I'm a little more conservative and, in the pursuit of applause, a little more afraid to take risks. When I cook for myself, it doesn't matter if it winds up tasting like bananas and scallops. I will still have learned something. And Wendy's is open late.

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Pasta with Sausage, Beans, and Mascarpone, Redux
1 teaspoon olive oil
¼ cup diced onion
1 garlic clove
2 ounces frozen chopped spinach
½ large tomato, chopped
Dried crushed red pepper to taste
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ recipe Orechiette with Sausage, Beans, and Mascarpone
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Heat olive oil over medium-low heat; stir in onion, and sauté 2 minutes. Add garlic; cook 1 minute. Stir in spinach, and heat until thawed. Add tomato, red pepper, and mustard; stir until combined.

2. Add pasta to pan, and stir gently just until heated through. Season with salt and pepper. Makes 1 to 2 servings.

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I am a work in progress. I perpetually need a hair cut. I'm totally devoted to my remarkable nieces and nephew. I am an elementary home cook and a magazine worker bee. (Please criticize my syntax and spelling in the comments.) I think my dog is hilarious. I like chicken and spicy things. I have difficulty being a grown-up. Left to my own devices, I will eat enormous amounts of cheese snacks of all kinds.

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