When you're out of ideas and don't have a hunk of meat handy...
The cooking person of the household will often ask the recipients of his/her efforts what they would like for dinner. This question might seem like a kind, solicitous inquiry. The spouse/family will invariably politely reply, “Whatever you want. Anything is fine”. On the surface of the water, this seems an amiable, perfect family, but danger lurks beneath.
Let’s straighten a few things out right now. The cooking person would not ask if they had the breath of an idea. This question means that they are out of ideas. They are at the end of their rope and they are hanging on by a thread. It means, “Help me out here! Give me a hint! A clue! An idea! Throw me a bone!”.
The spouse/family is trying to be amenable by saying, “Anything is fine” but, in fact this is roughly the equivalent of saying, “I don’t give a hoot. Don’t bother me. Figure it out and let me know when it’s ready”.
There are ways out of this familial conundrum that don’t involve profanity or violence. The first and ideal solution is to put a responsible non-cooking person in charge of the freezer. Their job is to select something from the freezer and place it on the counter. When Cook enters the kitchen, he/she knows that their task is to cook that up and add appropriate bits to round out the selection resulting in a nutritionally acceptable meal. If fish is on the counter, brew up some rice, and a green veg. Slice a lemon if such a thing is kicking around, and off you go. The only choices now are rice, pasta or potato. (Frozen vegetables in bags are the real ‘Mother’s Little Helper’). You can readily see that this would work fine for whatever meat item has emerged from the freezer.
If the designated person fails in their task, don’t despair. Take a leaf out if the book of the rest of the world and focus on the grains and veg. So many cultures have created fabulous dishes consisting primarily of non meat edibles. Oh there is meat, but instead of meat being the main event around which everything else dances attendance, meat steps out of the limelight to become but a bit player. It is a flavouring, there to merely season the dish.
“Seasoning meat,” contrary to popular opinion, does not always refer to the act of salting and peppering a big hunk of something dead before popping it into the oven or onto the barbecue. Ok. Usually that’s what it means. But the southern states, and in most of the rest of the world, this term refers to bits of meat, often pork, used as a flavouring, an enhancement of dishes comprised primarily of grains and vegetables.
Wily cooks the world around have used their wits to stretch their budgets since the dawn of time and in the process have created some dandy favourites. A wise cooker of my acquaintance once said that she could eat well and very cheaply if push came to shove, because she knows how to cook rice, make pasta from flour and an egg and feed a crowd on a bag of potatoes. Not to mention bread. Now, in my youth, it was quite common in many homes to see a stack of Wonder Bread in the middle of the dinner table. But the Italians had long since taken that trick to even thriftier heights with the glory that is pizza! Flour, water, yeast, salt – a few bits of whatever is fresh or handy, a sprinkle of cheese, and you have a meal fit for a king.
So if your designated meat selector fails you, boil some water and create a tasty meal out of a bag of noodles.
My Default Pasta Dinner:
- Salt and set water to boil
- In a frying pan, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Not too hot.
- Add a bit of chopped pancetta, ham or bacon – whatever you have - to the oil
- I like a good spoonful of pesto tossed in.
- A splash of cream is nice if you have it
- Let that bubble away quietly
- The water is boiling by now. Throw in the pasta.
- Cook pasta as per package instructions or if you’ve made it, you know what to do
- Remove the pasta from the water when it’s just almost ready and add to your frying pan.
- Add a half cup or so of the pasta water, now rich with starchy goodness. (This keeps the final dish silky and luscious rather than thick and claggy – the pasta will continue to absorb sauce, you know).
- Put on a bed of baby spinach if you have some, or not if you don’t. I’ve never received a complaint if the spinach was missing…
- Grate some fresh Parmesan on each serving and a grating of pepper
- As you enjoy, toast the thrifty Italians with a nice glass of red.
The only caution is that if you get too good at meals simply seasoned lightly with meat, your designated meat selector may forget rather often.