How it really works
Rather, a typical evening meal happens something like this:
- Get home from work. Feed the cats. Water the garden. Check my e-mail and phone messages. Get distracted uploading photos to Flickr. Realize that my stomach is growling.
- Wander into the kitchen. Open the refrigerator and stand there staring at the contents. Wonder why I have so many condiments, and how I acquired three half-empty bottles of club soda .
- Discover something potentially tasty. Think, “Hm, what could I do with that?”
- Start improvising. Taste. Improvise some more.
- Declare it dinner. Eat.
All of which is to apologize for the fact that a lot of my favorite meals don’t come from, or produce, recipes – they come from inspiration, and keeping good ingredients on hand. Which means either keeping notes as I go (and who does that?), or trying to reconstruct the dish after the fact, and explains why I often use such technical terms as “a handful of this” or “a glug of that.” In short, I cook pretty much like my mother and grandmother did, except that I’m lucky enough to have a much wider range of ingredients at my disposal.
Last night I was inspired to put together what turned out to be an absolutely delicious pasta dish using local vegetables, herbs from my garden and one of my favorite regional cheeses. I would love to give you a detailed recipe, but I don’t have one. So I’ll tell you what I did, and encourage you to try your own improvisation. Like much of what I cook, this dish could spin off in several different directions, depending on your tastes, your dietary requirements and what’s in your own refrigerator. Frankly, about the only thing you could do to mess it up would be to overcook or overseason.
Pasta with shrimp, asparagus and smoked blue cheese: An improvisation
- I usually have a bag of quick-peel shrimp in the freezer, in whatever size is the best price at the supermarket. They’re practically a staple. Last night’s dinner started with pouring a quantity of shrimp into a colander, setting that in a bowl in my kitchen sink and filling it with cold water to thaw the shrimp, a process which took no more than 15 minutes or so – just long enough for me to water the garden.
- Once the shrimp were thawed, I peeled them, set some water to boil for pasta, and got out my small skillet, which is the perfect size for one serving of pasta topping; it went on the burner with a little olive oil.
- While the oil heated, I chopped a bit of sweet onion and a couple of cloves of garlic; those went into the skillet at medium heat. Practically everything I cook that isn’t dessert starts with “chop some onion and garlic.”
- The fridge revealed a half-dozen spears of asparagus left from last weekend’s farmers’ market run. Shrimp and asparagus go great together, so I snapped off the woody ends (and tucked them into my freezer bag of veggie trimmings for stock) and cut the spears in inch-long pieces.
- Also in stock: An unopened wedge of Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue Cheese, one of those “ooh, must try this!” finds from the supermarket. Rogue makes terrific blue cheeses at its creamery down in Central Point (a great side trip if you’re heading down to Medford or Ashland), and I was delighted to discover that Ray’s Market in North Albany currently has three or four varieties (including a lovely Chipotle Cheddar) in stock. I hope they plan to keep the brand in stock.
- Brain starts working, inspired by tastebuds: Asparagus … shrimp … smoked blue cheese. Oh, yeah, baby. The water was boiling, so in went the pasta – just good old spaghetti, although I could have chosen rotini, flat egg noodles or Japanese soba; I tend to keep a lot of noodles on hand.
- Once the onion and garlic had begun to soften, I tossed the asparagus and shrimp – both of which benefit from quick cooking – into the pan. Some liquid seemed required, so I opened a bottle of Elk Cove Pinot Gris, poured a splash into the pan, filled my glass and let things simmer a while.
- I’d pinched some herbs to stimulate branching while I was watering the garden earlier. No point wasting those tender, aromatic bits, so I minced thyme, oregano, Italian parsley and a couple of tiny basil leaves, and tossed them into the mix.
- It took less than five minutes for the shrimp to turn a delicate, opaque pink and the asparagus to reach that vivid-green stage that signals crisp-tender. Time to lower the heat waaaaaaay down to continue reducing the liquid, and add some of that blue cheese, crumbled. I thought about adding a spoonful or two of creme fraiche*, but that seemed excessive. A quick taste (blow on the spoon!) confimred that no further seasoning was required.
- In less than a minute of stirring and tossing, the cheese had begun to melt and merge with the pan liquids, so I took the skillet off the heat, plated some pasta and spooned the sauce over it.
- One final inspiration: Walnuts. I love the combination of blue cheese and walnuts, so I grabbed a small handful from the bulk bag I keep with baking supplies, broke them with my fingers and scattered them on top of the dish.
Holy cow, that was good. And with a pretty good ratio of local-to-not-local ingredients, too:
- Local: Asparagus, onion, garlic, cheese, herbs, wine. OK, the cheese and wine aren’t local-local, but I’m willing to stretch the boundaries of “local” to encompass Oregon-made food produced within a few hours’ drive.
- Not local: Shrimp, pasta, olive oil. And everything but the oil could be local, if shrimp is in season and you make your own pasta. For that matter, you could omit the shrimp and increase the asparagus and have a perfectly satisfying vegetarian meal.
* You know about creme fraiche, don’t you? If you don’t, you should. Milder than sour cream, plus a distinctive, almost nutty flavor, it’s great for saucing dishes because its high butterfat content prevents curdling. It’s also lovely dolloped onto fresh fruit or a scone, floated on top of home-made soups or used any way you might use sour cream or whipped cream. Not easy to find here in the Valley, it sometimes turns up as a specialty item in a supermarket cheese section – I last found it at Safeway, but they don’t stock it regularly.
However, you can extend the life of a single small container by using some of it to grow your own. Just warm a cup or so of heavy cream in a small saucepan (don’t let it boil), let it cool to body temperature, stir in a big spoonful of creme fraiche and pour the mixture into a glass jar with a good lid – a canning jar works great. Let it sit at room temperature for a few hours until the cream has thickened (I drape a clean dishcloth over the top to keep out stray environmental yeasts, which can spoil the culture) then lid and refrigerate. Creme fraiche keeps for a couple of weeks, and you can keep culturing more from each batch. You can also use buttermilk as a culture-starter, but I find the resulting flavor a bit sharper and less delicate.