Since V. has been on the road to Hamilton, Thunder Bay and now Rome, I am usually faced with the problem of how do I feed myself without creating pounds of leftovers or turning to heavily processed, quick foods. When I cook for friends, or enemies, the question that I am always asked is whether I “eat like this every night.” Ahhh, yes. Ahhh, no. Frankly, my answer depends on the audience, because the truth is that I usually do eat like this, but that most people think I am crazy for attempting to do so. The reality is that most people microwave their dinner or pour it from a can after a long day’s work. Few people have the luxury of having a spouse slaving over a hot stove anymore [which is a shame because that is a job I would love to have], and pressing a few buttons is the extent of the average Joe’s imagination.
For better or worse, I hate microwaved food, and I love the act of cooking. The problem is that single-servings are hard to produce from grocery store counters that cater to a minimum of two servings per package. Leftovers are a problem, too, because I do not want to eat spaghetti for four nights straight nor do I want to waste good, expensive food when so few people have access to it. So what do I do?
My strategy of late has been to buy a few prime, frozen options that are versatile enough to be pulled out and matched with most cultural flavourings. This week was shrimp, lamb shanks, and one treat night was two different types of pork rib chops from Oliffe. Gnocchi was in my fridge needing to be used up, and I always have a wide variety of high quality pasta on hand for such occasions, so I worked from there. The first dinner was comprised of 5 jumbo shrimp sauteed in butter and Paul Prudhomme Cajun Seasonings, and added to that was potato gnocchi cooked with a truffle hunter sauce and celery, shallot and carrot reduction. Total time was 22 minutes, and there were no leftovers or waste.
Next night was a complex soup that used up the rapini, peppers, corn and beans I had in my fridge from the previous week. I added a few pieces of sheet pasta and then the shrimp came back for another appearance. I am allergic to shrimp sometimes – it depends on where they are from and the time of year they were caught – and these ones from Sobeys just happened to be good for me. The soup was eaten once and the second portion is frozen without any shrimp for freshness. While not a clean start from leftovers, this soup is easily re-flavoured for up to two weeks, and after that the leftover should probably be taken out of the freezer and tossed.
Being sick of shrimp, I went into the freezer yet again and found a package of three lamb shanks. A lamb shank is wonderful or terrible depending on the lamb and whether you can remove the silver skin yourself [silver skin is a membrane on the shank that most people ignore but whose removal is key to ensuring your lamb is not tight, tough and yucky]. After work I took the shanks out, let them defrost in cold water and went to work on something else that needed my attention. In an hour they were soft enough to start in a Staub Coq au Vin pot, so with a sear on all sides and a liberal dousing of vodka, tomato sauce and garlic I began a braise that would last for 2 hours. No, I did not eat until late that night, but I had the pleasure of the preparation, and the braising required no attention from me, so I was able to work on photography until I was ready to eat. The gnocchi were boiled and then tossed in the tomato reduction, and the shank was broiled to darkness for four minutes. The leftovers were used for other meat sauces later in the week.
Potato and egg salad is a favourite from my childhood, but I never cook it because it is not exactly light. However, I accidentally cracked two eggs at breakfast so I hard-boiled them to reduce waste. I had baby potatoes and salad greens in the fridge from before Thunder Bay, so I resolved to mix them all onto a plate with the final few shrimp in the frozen bag. Nice, light tasting, and filling. The moral of this story should be that beautiful food is possible on an almost nightly basis once you learn to see food as more than a recipe. When I lived in Montreal I had no money and had to learn how to take what was on the reduced to clear rack and turn it into an edible dinner. Now that I am no longer a starving student, I still enjoy that challenge, but this time it is to take whatever is best and freshest in market and turn that into a dish that is more than edible without a recipe beyond the standard culinary techniques that every person should learn to ensure they never go hungry…who knows when the zombie apocalypse will happen and you will be forced to live off the land.
My last thoughts of the morning come from how much I loved the entire 4×5 film process. Upon reflection though, it is a process that cannot really transfer to my commercial work, which is sad. Time, money and quality standards in commercial photography demand digital techniques. Still, I enjoyed the art of photography when I dragged the Linhof around the Thunder Bay countryside, and I felt a bit of peace that is unique to the process. At least I have film to last me until 2013…then we will have to see if there are any manufacturers left.
I spent last night watching Durs a Cuire, the french film featuring Norman Laprise from Toque and Martin Picard from Au Pied du Cochon. It was a revelation in food to watch these masters travel to Spain, Portugal, Toronto and Lyons in search of the real food. To hear Picard lament about how industrial and idiotic Canadian health inspectors are in their belief that they know what is best for us was disheartening, because it is so true. Eggs, for instance, in Paris were astonishingly good, but they were fresh and not industrialized in the way North Americans ruin many of our foods. I stuck through the killing of a large hog, too, onscreen, because such killing is also what cooking is about. Perhaps what I noticed was not the horror of killing for food, but rather the respect that the Portuguese family gave to the pig as they handled everything from the blood to the corpse. It was not an industrial killing, but a holistic one after living with that pig for seven years. I adore both of these chefs and cannot wait until I eat at their restaurants again.