Meandering Thoughts on Pizza Toppings

Once upon a time, there was pizza, and it came with toppings on it, usually only one or two at a time, of types that were easily removed by children who didn’t like them, ever. You could get pepperoni, onion, mushroom, sausage, meatball, garlic, peppers, black olives, and clams. (If you’re not from New Haven, you’re going, “Clams?” Just shut up and keep reading, okay? I said clams and I meant clams. By the way, it’s not so easy to remove clams from clam pizza, so if your child won’t eat clam pizza, get them a little plain cheese pie; more clam pizza for you that way.) People would say, “I’ll have a small mushroom and pepperoni pie, double mushrooms, please” if they wanted to feel they were eating healthy. In New Haven, you also had to specify if you wanted red sauce on your pie, and say if you wanted cheese, too, because these things are not a given. This isn’t Domino’s, for god’s sake.

Then time went on. More vegetables became standard pizza items, you saw spinach and broccoli pizzas. I remember in the late 1980s my mother and I would go to Est Est Est and order a white pie with spinach and garlic and feel pretty pleased with ourselves, because we were eating pizza, which isn’t serious food, but we were also getting health vegetables, because of all that spinach.
You could get pizzas with chicken on them; then buffalo chicken. In New Haven, the potato pizza was born, and kept an open secret for an astonishingly long time. Somewhere along the way, some smart aleck began to put pineapple and bacon on pizza, and I’m not going to discuss that any further. Basically, things started to get weird. The weird seemed to be focused regionally. For example, I’m told that there are places where people routinely eat their pizza with a side of ranch dressing, which has to be a 1980s development, because, well, ranch dressing?

I don’t understand this, and I’m not going to dwell on it.

Then we hit a new age of hipster pizzas — all basically borne from the first era of weird pizzas, like the California pizzas Wolfgang Puck got famous for doing in the 1980s. This is pretty much where we are now, and it’s a mixed blessing. Sure, you can find smoked salmon and caviar pizzas. But there are pizzas out there that are, let’s just be honest, far too ongepotchket for their own good. They often involved vegetables that were not handled properly in the first place, and hence arrive at your table somehow burnt and hideously undercooked at the same time. The Holy Trinity of pizzerias in New Haven don’t get too involved with this kind of thing, but other places are straining for novel combinations of things to put on their pies, and while the combinations are often tasty — they strike me as morally dubious.

There, I said it. There is morally dubious pizza out there.

I don’t mean simply bad pizza, which is certainly a thing that people eat. I mean, pizzas that are made with no basic respect for the form. At some level, is a pizza just a flat disc of bread you can put anything on and bake in a hot oven? Yes, and no. I mean, it is; but there are certain things that just don’t seem very pizza-y to me, no matter how good they taste. A prime example of this, an item sold at a local pizzeria I don’t go to because I find their pies so salty they hurt to eat, is a pie loaded with barbecued pulled pork, roasted corn kernels, cheddar cheese, and mashed potato. I’m sure it’s delicious. But why is it on a pizza? I mean, wouldn’t it be better on a hard roll? This is morally dubious pizza. Or pizza with tofu and vegan cheese on it. No no no. This is not pizza, this is a sad excuse for food.

Occasionally we are faced with a novelty pizza topping that seems so obvious that I will say to my family, “Why have we never done this?” I’m no stranger to putting somewhat unusual things on pizza. Zucchini or yellow squash pizzas are totally standard fare here, and have been for as long as I can remember (I started making zucchini pizzas when I lived alone, because I could make a pizza and eat some for dinner and bring some to work for lunch; it was easy to eat, not too messy, and delicious even at room temperature). We have been known to cut up slices of leftover meatloaf into small chunks and put them on pizza (what’s the difference between meatballs and meatloaf? Just the shape, really). I have put meatloaf and leftover mashed potatoes on pizza. We have drained cans of chick peas and made pizzas with chick peas, black olives, and garlic. It’s true that not everyone liked the pea shoot pizza I made some years back, but I still think it was a good idea and I would make it again. I make pizzas with leftover roasted Brussels sprouts on them, shredded quickly with a knife so that they can be scattered more evenly across the pie. I like to think I’m gently inventive with pizza toppings, in other words, but it had never once occurred to me to put cauliflower on a pizza. But why not? I don’t know; but the thought never came to me until a couple years ago, because of a pizzeria that opened a few blocks away from us.

This small pizza place had been a pizzeria for as long as we’ve lived in the neighborhood — the kind of joint you can go to get a cheap Greek pizza for ten bucks, and if someone wanted a meatball sub, they could get that, and, sure, what the hell, you could get an order of fries, too. Then the Greek pizza place closed, and new owners came in. They cleaned up the joint, installed a serious pizza oven, and now it’s seriously not a Greek pizzeria anymore. Now it’s the kind of place that has ongepotchket hipster pizza, and ten bucks will get you pretty much nothing. Bring your credit card. They’ve got some ridiculous-sounding things on the menu (which isn’t limited to pizza — there are also some small plate type things, and sandwiches), but they also have some damned fine pizzas. The first time we went, with low expectations, but hopeful and hungry, we got a small pepperoni, a small Brussels sprout/balsamic vinegar, and a small cauliflower. And you know what? They were all great. My husband doesn’t even particularly like cauliflower, and I think he ate three pieces of that pizza. “How come we never make this at home?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s good!” They fry their cauliflower before they put it on the pizza, but I couldn’t think of a good reason why I couldn’t just parboil the vegetable and drain it before putting it on a pizza. It’s delicious, it’s filling, and it’s probably more healthful than meatloaf… though, come to think of it, a meatloaf and cauliflower pizza could be a very good thing indeed. Since then, I’ve parboiled cauliflowers and made excellent pizzas with it. I’ve also put leftover creamed cauliflower on pizza. Once you start mucking around with pizza toppings…. it’s a slippery slope.

Then there was the pizza we ate in Northampton, Massachusetts. We are fond of Pinocchio’s, on Main Street, which makes excellent pizza — thicker crust than New Haven pizza, but tasty — and seems to specialize in making up these weird combinations for the fun of it. I imagine that the staff enjoys getting slightly baked and then sitting around with notepads dreaming up weird pizza topping combinations. There was a barbecued chicken, gorgonzola, and spinach pie the last time we were there. It was good, for a bite or two, but I can’t imagine wanting to eat an entire slice of it. The one that really slayed me, though, I had to order, because I just thought it was so ridiculous: it was a tortellini pizza. And you know what? It was wonderful. Again, we all had a bite and said to each other, “so, is there a reason why we never make this at home?”

Pizzas I have made at home that people pay lots of money for in fancy restaurants: pizza with fig jam, goat cheese, red onion, and olives; pizza with mushrooms, capers, and caramelized onions; spinach and olive; pizza with honey, pistachios, goat cheese, red onion, and sliced fresh figs; pizza with spinach and goat cheese; pizzas with honey-whipped goat cheese and pistachios. For years, when getting pizza out, we made a point of getting an eggplant pizza if it was available, because eggplant pizza is one of the best things in the world (especially if you get it with double onions and some garlic), but I’d never made it myself because I have a deep-seated and reasonable fear of cooking eggplant. Well, guess what. Recently, it dawned on me that if I roasted the fuck out of eggplant slices before making a pizza, I could do it. I’m not someone who’s good with eggplant, but even I can slice an eggplant and put slices of it on a tray and put it in a hot oven and let it cook for twenty minutes. As long as the eggplant winds up mushy-soft, you can totally put those slices onto pizza dough and make yourself an excellent, excellent pie. Last month my husband made eggplant parmigiana, which is a real pain in the ass to make, and there was a little bit leftover. Not a lot — not enough to make a meal of — but after looking at it sitting forlornly in the fridge for three days it dawned on me that the solution to the leftover eggplant parmigiana problem is to use it as a pizza topping. Good lord was that delicious. I need him to make it again so I can make the pizza again.

I suffer from real and tangible guilt and embarrassment at making some of these pizzas. A pizza with barbecued chicken on it is stupid. It just is. On the other hand, in the name of using up leftovers, I don’t regard it as stupid, I regard it as clever and frugal. I think it’s all about context. I wouldn’t go out of my way to order a whole barbecued chicken pizza, but I’ll definitely make one if it means we’re having a decent meal and I’m cleaning out the fridge at the same time. I am at heart a purist. But I’m also pragmatic. Making a pizza at home is often a matter of opening the fridge and going, “What can I use?” The morally dubious pie — the pizza decked out with leftover creamed spinach, olives, red onion, and duck bacon — is morally dubious, indeed. But it’s also really fucking good to eat. Most importantly, the greater good is served. Which is to say, Dinner is served, and we are all fed, and go to bed happy.

And, bonus, it’s easy to pack leftover pizza in the kid’s lunch for school the next day. Nothing morally dubious about that.

 

 

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One Pot. One Bowl. One Hot Summer Evening. Cold Spicy Peanut Noodles with Chicken.

We are in the home stretch of Summer 2017. I had a short phase when there was this thing called Summer Camp and I would, daily, trot my daughter to her summer program, go away to lead a productive life, and then pick her up at three p.m. and continue on with my hands-on mothering. It was a short phase, a kind of golden era in which I did little that your MBA types would value, but I did contribute to the local economy and the house was fairly tidy.

Those days are gone. The house is a fucking disaster area. I feel unable to take it on. It is more or less all I can do, having gotten my daughter to 5 p.m. alive and in one piece, to make dinner, serve it, and make sure that we’re ready for the next day and whatever it may bring. (It needs to bring coffee by 6.30 a.m., that’s for damned sure; so the coffee has to be set up as soon as we’ve wiped down the kitchen counter. Otherwise, we wake up in the morning and the day is shit shit shit. But I digress.)

Yesterday I spent mostly in back-burner panic mode because I knew I’d have to make dinner and I really didn’t know what I could do, I just knew I didn’t want to spend a lot of money buying groceries to create it. Fuck it: I didn’t want to spend any money at all, but I knew I had to, because I’d already done some vegetarian dinners this week and it was clear that my husband would start to get cranky if I didn’t feed him a dead animal.

So we went to the grocery store and I bought two boneless, skinless chicken breasts and a bunch of scallions.

I had, suddenly, a plan. I was going to make cold spicy peanut noodles with chicken. And I was going to do it in such a way that the cleanup would be minimal, because, goddamnit, I was not going to spend my evening washing dishes.

On getting back into the house I took out my stockpot and put about two quarts of water into it. I brought it to a boil and then put the chicken breasts in, then turned down the heat to a bare simmer. I added some soy sauce and a piece of star anise. And then I poached the chicken, cooking it for about twenty minutes. (I had thought it would take less time than that, but when I cut into it around 15 minutes, it was still raw in the middle. At twenty minutes or so, it was done.) I removed the chicken from the pot, put it into a bowl, and put the bowl into the fridge. I then removed the star anise from the pot (slotted spoons are our friends), brought the water and soy sauce back to a hard boil, and cooked a 12 oz. box of whole wheat thin spaghetti in the pot.

While the spaghetti cooked, I whomped up a bowlful of peanut sauce. This is the kind of thing I put together all the time to make “Asian” dishes and it’s never the same thing twice but no one cares ’cause it’s always good no matter what I do. In a mixing bowl I whip together peanut butter, soy sauce, and spices. Thinned with water if needed (it’s not so needed if you’re using this as a dip, but as a sauce for noodles, it definitely needs thinning), this is crazy versatile and you throw it together so fast it’s nearly painless. Last night, I used 1 cup of Skippy peanut butter, 1/2 cup soy sauce,  1 tsp. granulated garlic (because I really didn’t have it in me to peel fresh garlic, which should give you a sense of how fried I felt), 1 tsp. Sriracha, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, almost two tablespoons granulated sugar, a tablespoon of toasted sesame oil, and about a teaspoon of chili powder. This made a very thick paste, which I thinned with water from the noodle pot — it probably took about a cup of water to get this to the correct consistency.

I drained the noodles in a colander, ran them under cold water for a moment, returned the noodles to the pot. Then I spooned on about half of the sauce and tossed the noodles around. When they were nicely coated and didn’t seem in danger of sticking to themselves I put the pot in the fridge.

Taking the chicken from the fridge, I began to work on setting it up for the peanut sauce. I sliced one of the breasts lengthwise and then cut each section into thin slices, which were roughly bite-sized — small enough that my daughter wouldn’t need to fight with any of them to get them into her mouth. (The other chicken breast, I didn’t use; it is waiting to be turned into something else for dinner tonight.) I threw the bits of chicken into the bowl of peanut sauce. I washed the scallions and minced about five of them finely and added that to the bowl. Then I diced about half of a big beefsteak tomato and threw that into the peanut sauce bowl, too. The juice from the tomatoes helped thin the last half of the peanut sauce — I did splash in a little water, but only a tablespoon or two — and then I mixed that all up and set it in the fridge.

When it was time to serve the evening meal, I took the pot and the bowl from the fridge. Every plate — pasta bowl, actually — got a heap of noodles and then a scoop or two of chicken and veggie peanut sludge draped on top of it. It was quite satisfying. As we ate, I said to my husband, “I meant to slice up a hard boiled egg to put on this of this,” but according to my husband, it didn’t need further gussying up. Similarly, one could have scattered peanuts on top, or sesame seeds, or some minced red onion, or any number of things. Just to make things look fancier. But none of them were really needed.

The greatest part about all of this was that when dinner was over, there was only one pot to wash. By cooking the chicken and the noodles in the same pot, sequentially, and using the same cooking water, I’d made the most of both the pot and the cooking liquid. The bowl I’d mixed the sauce in? Two seconds to clean up. The stock pot? Ten seconds.

Compare this to the usual deal: one pot I’d used to cook rice or noodles in — ok, that’s fast clean up, I admit — plus, the bad part, one pot that had everything else in it. Sometimes two pots. If you’ve been sautéing things, if you’ve been braising things, the pot can get pretty dirty. I’m not really complaining: I’m good at scrubbing pots and I can usually handle dirty pots without too much agony. But there are times when two pots is two pots too many. Nights like that, it’s good to go with sandwiches, but that wasn’t in the cards for me. This peanut noodle dish, regardless of how inauthentic or sloppy it is, wins. One pot. One bowl. Dinner for three. And, bonus, a headstart (with that second chicken breast) on the next night’s meal. I win.

My friend needs picnic help. I am going to try to provide encouragement. I may fail, but no one will say I didn’t try.

A number of my associates — and I myself, I have to admit, I am not exempt from this bourgeois shit — spend time in the summer at a local pool club which has what we might call a certain rustic charm. It’s bourgeois, to be sure, but as pool clubs go, it is rather… unintimidating. It’s not a place with a fancy restaurant attached to it where you call a staffer over and they bring you an iced tea and maybe a turkey club sandwich with extra mayo. It’s the kind of place where there’s a Coleman cooler of ice water over near the gate and a stack of paper cones to drink out of.  There is a snack shack, and that means you can spend five bucks on a cheeseburger if you want to. You can also buy what are politely called “ice cream novelties.” If  you want to.

As a rule, I don’t want to.

This has meant that I’ve developed a keen sense of what can be toted to the pool to have for picnic lunches and/or dinners. It’s not merely that I’m stingy, though I am; it’s that if I’m going to spend money on stuff like this, I want it to be genuinely good. And I mean no disrespect to the snack shack really: it’s not like they’ve got a real kitchen to work with. It’s a tough gig. But I’d just as soon bring my own food. Okay?

Admittedly: Not all of my friends share this keen sense. What’s more, many of my friends are, in addition to trying to feed themselves and their families, under what we’ll call gently trying circumstances (because you’ve got to schlep your food, and probably have it already cooked — not everyone wants to grill, believe it or not), facing the basic challenge of parenthood, which is: what the fuck to feed the children, whose palates are not exactly ranked with Jacques Pepin’s. Because man cannot live on SpongeBob SquarePants pops. Believe it or not.

So there’s the “nutritious” dining issue, and the “not hideously expensive” dining issue, combined with the “bring a picnic” issue. It’s rather daunting. Then to really up the ante, one of my friends confessed to me recently that she is extremely averse, herself, to the idea of eating sandwiches for dinner. She is not a fan of sandwiches for dinner. Personally I don’t know how that’s possible, but we’ll let that go and just accept the premise: No Sandwiches For Dinner.

So what can one serve at a picnic, for dinner, that isn’t sandwiches and doesn’t require cooking on-site on the grill? Whether or not they appeal to one’s children is another matter entirely, and one I will address shortly.

There are a thousand great things you can eat at a picnic. They taste especially great if you’ve been out in the sun and swimming and stuff like that for a few hours: your appetite is huge. There is a catch, though: they require you to have put effort into the matter before you left the house. It may take you as long as an hour to set up the picnic at home — and I realize most people don’t want to do that. However, the benefits are tangible once you’re sitting down at your picnic table.

OK, you do hypothetically have other options. You could go to the nice place near your apartment that sells takeout, and buy takeout. You could buy a pound of healthful, delicious grilled vegetables and maybe some seaweed salad and a bag of horseradish potato chips. That’s your prerogative. They’ll even give you little plastic forks and napkins and stuff. Cram the takeout containers into your tote bags, remember to bring a drink, you’re good.

But what if you don’t want to pay $10.99/lb for pasta salad and fruit salad and seaweed salad and grilled veggies, and you’re not willing to slap some PB&J on bread and call it dinner? Then you’re going to have to face an ugly truth, which is this: A good homemade picnic requires some effort.

In July of 2008, the New York Times did a big, multi-page spread, by Mark Bittman, listing things you could bring on a picnic.  It’s a pretty good list, generally speaking. I actually tore the pages out of the paper and folded them up and shoved them into one of my Bittman cookbooks, for quick reference. I’ve got it around here someplace.

The thing about the Bittman List is, a lot of it is stuff you’d be eating were you making dinner at home anyhow — at least, this is true in my household. Panzanella is a standard summertime evening meal for us, because it uses up stale bread, tomatoes are at their best in the summer, and it’s easy to make. Bittman doesn’t like calling things pasta salads, but I don’t share this phobia, and so I’m willing to accept that there are a ton of sauced pasta dishes that are just as good room temperature or cold as they are hot, and I’m happy to eat them as pasta salads. (In other words, remember that pasta salad doesn’t have to be sad gloppy stuff, it can be happy, non-gloppy stuff; and it can even be happy and gloppy, if you’ve made a sauce that has, say, excellent ricotta whipped into the dressing.) (Be sure to take care with keeping these kinds of things cool — you do not want to give yourself food poisoning. In other words, pasta with tuna packed in olive oil, red onion, garlic, parsley, and white beans is one of the best things in the world to eat on a hot summer evening — but it won’t seem like such a great idea if your tub of this has been sitting around in the hot sun for five hours before you eat it and hence has turned into a festering tub of I don’t know what. You have to pack your picnic with a serious attention to the biohazard detail. So maybe skip the tuna and the white beans. But feel free to go for olives, capers, red onion, garlic, and parsley: these are things that can take a bit of a beating.)

Rice salads are also great for picnics. The same theories behind pasta salads hold for rice salads. However, cooking rice for rice salads is a little different from cooking rice to serve alongside a hot dish. If you’re planning a rice salad, cook the rice as you would pasta: fill a stock pot with water, bring to boil, and cook the rice in the boiling water for about 11 minutes. Drain through a colander and then — this is important — dump the rice out on a cooky sheet and let it cool for about 20 minutes before you dress it. Rice salad can be set up a thousand ways. Dice up any leftover vegetables you have on hand (the six cherry tomatoes in a bowl, the half a can of olives in the back of the fridge, the last four tablespoons of salsa in the jar, a stalk of celery, the leftover steamed broccoli), toss with oil and vinegar. This is rice salad. It can be made heftier if you add some protein (leftover diced chicken, beef, or whatever). It’s often nice to toss with some grated Parmesan or whatever hard cheese you like. All of this is a matter of taste. If you like parsley add parsley; if you don’t, don’t. My child believes no salad is really correct without capers. So I add capers.

I like to have a picnic involve more than one thing. I will raid the fridge to see what I can come up with. Things I wouldn’t do normally, like slice up some celery sticks to munch on, plain, I will do in the name of a good picnic. Prep the celery and pack it in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel (this rule also holds for carrot sticks). The last time I assembled a picnic, I was rummaging through the fridge and found a jar of pickled okra in the back — so I took a little Rubbermaid tub and filled it with okra, some black olives, some green olives, and cherry tomatoes. It made a nice little side dish, gave the meal a little variety.

My patron saint, Laurie Colwin, wrote an essay on picnics (in More Home Cooking) that made me realize that even I could deal with a picnic, it was just that I’d been thinking about them all wrong. And that dealing with a picnic didn’t have to mean special picnic-specific food; it meant adapting what I’d normally eat into a portable format. This is the key. What is it you normally eat? Figure out a way to carry that to your picnic spot. If the specific dish is not going to be portable in a reasonable way, figure out a variant form of it. Be willing to strike some compromises. Be willing to have things be a little off-kilter.

Your picnic can be bread, cheese — a cheese you want to be a little soft, like brie, can be perfect picnic food — some pickles, and fruit. This would involve buying a loaf of bread you like, buying cheese you like, snagging a jar of cornichons, and getting a bag of grapes or whatever looks good at the store. Your picnic can be a Fakes Elotes Salad (one of my own summer favorites) and a bag of potato chips and a pile of celery stalks. Your picnic can be a watermelon and feta salad, some slices of chicken breast slathered with fig jam on a baguette, and a little dish of olives. Your picnic can be cold leftover ears of corn on the cob, a bowl of cherry tomatoes with a thick salad dressing to dip them in, or maybe some pimiento cheese, and an avocado smashed onto slices of bread. Your picnic can be green pea salad and a few slices of ciabatta smeared with jam and layered with a sharp cheese. (It’s good, if you get the jam and cheese flavors right.) For God’s sake: leftover pizza, cold cooked veggies with a salad dressing to dip them in, and a cold drink — that’s a picnic! Don’t worry about dessert if you don’t want to. Buy some Oreo cookies for dessert, or break down and buy an ice cream sandwich at the snack shack. Whatever. I’m telling you: this doesn’t have to be hard. It just requires some forethought.

“But I’m no good at the forethought,” I can hear my friend wailing. But here’s the thing: I know she’s wrong. She is good at the forethought. She just doesn’t want to apply the forethought to food she herself will eat. To which my reply is: Why should you, my friend, have to suffer through a mediocre meal just because you’re not at home, but are, instead, three miles away from home at a club that has picnic tables and coolers of water waiting for you? You are worth the effort. A good picnic dinner is worth the effort. If you didn’t think so, you’d be picking up a burger at the Dairy Queen on your way home and calling it a night.

As for What Will The Children Eat: my solution to that is, when you’re cooking for the children at home, cook extra — a lot extra — and pack it into bags or tubs for the kids to eat later. If they’ll eat roasted sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli, then make two extra sweet potatoes and cook another head of broccoli to tote for lunch the next day. If the only protein they will eat is Swiss cheese, buy extra Swiss cheese and cut it up, wrap it up in wax paper or whatever, and put it in the cooler. Only you, the parent, know how to cater to your little one, so I leave that to you. It’s merely a matter of having extra on hand. If, on the other hand, the kid is a not-picky eater, then they’ll just join in with whatever you’re having, and life is a bowl of cherries. (Cherries are, by the way, excellent picnic food; pack them into a bag or a bowl with ice cubes, because sun-heated cherries make for a sad dining experience.)

The grownup picnic should be a genuinely enjoyable meal. I mean, despite the bugs, despite the sunburn, despite the fact that you feel a distinct need to wash your hair because the chlorine is eating at your scalp. A picnic meal shouldn’t mean lowering your standards; it just means altering your system. And if you’re the kind of parent who’s been dutifully lugging water bottles and the right kind of crackers for the last six years, to keep your child cool, calm, and collected, I know you can do it.

The last good thing about a picnic is this: if you’ve done it right, you will find that you come home with far less stuff than you came with. The paper plates go in the trash. Yes, you’ll have some Rubbermaid tubs to wash, some cutlery, things like that — but the bag that seemed so heavy as you left the house will weigh a fraction of what it weighed when you walked out the door. You can empty out the cooler and the tote bags as the kids go clean themselves up and put on pajamas and brush their teeth. And you can fall into bed feeling like you ate a good meal and that you’ve earned your exhaustion honestly.

Then the next day, you get to do it all again! Ain’t summertime grand?

I don’t want to cook dinner.

I didn’t want to cook dinner last night, either.

On the other hand, I have to cook dinner. We need to eat.

Last night, when I didn’t want to cook dinner, I thought very carefully about the contents of the fridge, and arrived at the conclusion that I had two options.

One was, Take the leftover steak and do something ludicrously clever and thoughtful with it. (We’re talking about six ounces of meat here, enough that, had I been feeling clever and thoughtful, I could have come up with something clever and thoughtful and delicious to boot.)

The second, more likely, move would be to take the steak and the various other things I had lying about and put them on nachos. This struck me as a much better idea. It would allow me to use up the last of the nacho cheese goop I made last week. This was a sauce made with cheese, evaporated milk, and a little cornstarch. It melted nicely on nachos and was, I thought, a nice change of pace from the usual grated Cheddar or Monterey Jack, though I admit my husband and child were somewhat underwhelmed by it.

Still: I had all these things that would go well on nachos, and I had that cheese sauce sitting around in a little congealed block in the fridge, and I thought, “Yes. Nachos.” I even put a tiny bit of effort into it: I sauteed the minced red pepper and the minced onion before I put them on the nachos. At my husband’s request, I did not put the sliced steak directly on the nachos, but left them to be served on the side. I laid out the chips, and put on the toppings, and I put the pan in the oven with a certain amount of satisfaction, thinking, “This didn’t take much effort and it should be reasonably good, even if we’re running low on sour cream.”

Well, things were not as I expected. The sauce — which, I now realize, I should have re-melted before putting it on the nachos (I had simply sliced up the brick of congealed sauce, optimistically telling myself it would melt back into happy goo in the oven) — had sat in its little Lego-brick-size congealed state on the chips. Sometimes the top of the Cheese Legos had browned a little, sometimes not. But nothing was gooey at all.

I pulled the tray out of the oven and said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Which my family has come to learn is the sign of a really good time coming their way, if you know what I mean. “I’m sure it’s fine,” my husband said doggedly.

We all ate, but I can’t say it was one of my finest moments. Everyone had the good sense to not complain. Everyone knows that when Mama is pissed about dinner, it’s best to keep quiet.

I cleaned up the dinner dishes, ate a granola bar, and sighed.

Come the next day, I vowed I would not let this happen again. “I’m thinking I’ll make some barbecue chicken or something,” I said to my family in the morning. Everyone thought that sounded fine.

So today, in spite of my total lack of interest in doing it, I put a little thought and effort into making dinner. I didn’t want to. I just knew I had to. I cannot bear, personally, to eat two depressingly crappy meals two evenings in a row. I’m a hausfrau, for god’s sake: this is part of my job. If I don’t do it well, what the hell am I doing, exactly? It’s one thing if it happens once in a while, if once in a while dinner really sucks — I know it’s inevitable. There are, in every household, nights where things go hideously wrong and you really have no choice but to say “Uncle” and order a pizza, fast. And I know that not every evening is a showstopper — it’s not that; I’m a reasonable person — but it just bums me out so much when dinner sucks. I’m sure no one else enjoys it either, but  hate it, too. want to eat a decent meal at the end of the day. For breakfast I usually eat cold cereal. Some days, I don’t get lunch at all, and if I do eat lunch it’s almost always some random leftovers scavenged from the fridge. So dinner, if dinner is not good then Mama is not happy.

So today — as I was saying — I put a little thought and effort into it. I bought two chicken breasts and I took them home and set them up to braise in a fake BBQ sauce. Longtime readers have probably heard me talk about this before. I swear it’s nothing fancy. Saute the chicken in a little olive oil to get it started, and then assemble the sauce straight in the pan, and let it cook, slow, for a couple hours.  The good thing about this method of cooking is it gives you a shitload of leeway: it’s an accommodating technique. Today, I threw into the pot a tablespoon of garlic powder, a tablespoon of onion powder. Because, ok, I was  too fucking lazy to mince actual garlic and actual onion: sue me. But it put me on the right path. The stuff in the pot smelled good and I found it encouraging, motivational: I could do this.
I veered back toward the traditional moves and poured into the pot some apple cider vinegar, about two tablespoons of brown sugar, maybe three tablespoons of ketchup ketchup, two tablespoons of French’s mustard, and a tablespoons of chili powder. I stirred this all around to make sure none of the powdered stuff just settled in lumps at the bottom of the pot — that would suck — and when things looked pleasantly sludgy and smelled good, I poured in maybe half a cup of water from the kettle. Normally I would turn on the oven and let this cook in there for a few hours. But it’s a hot day, and I knew I didn’t want this to be an all-day production. I wanted the chicken to remain intact. (Cook it for a very, very long time, it tends to start to break up, and become pulled chicken, which is great, but not what I wanted specifically tonight.) I kept it on the stove on a low flame for about two hours: it smelled great.

By this point I’d totally gotten with the program and assembled a rice and lentil salad, with a yogurt dressing. This involved boiling rice as for pasta, adding some leftover lentils I had in the fridge to the pot (because, I’ll admit it, they were slightly undercooked the first time around). I drained all the rice and lentils into a colander, let them cool spread out on a baking tray, and then made a dressing out of yogurt and the last two tablespoons of sour cream I had in the house. (Remind me to buy more sour cream tomorrow.) The dressing was doctored up with fresh garlic (see, I’m not ALL lazy — I was conserving my energy for the rice and lentil salad) and and some Penzey’s spice mix I can no longer recall. I think it might have been the Turkish spice mix. Whatever it was, it worked. When the rice and lentils were cooled I combined them with the dressing and settled the bowl in the fridge. So all I had to do, to have a respectable meal, would be to put together a little green salad really fast. Dinner might not be impressive, it might not be the best thing we ever ate, but at least I could be confident it would not be as solidly, resolutely depressing as the meal we ate last night.

*************

8.30 p.m. We have eaten dinner. The countertops have been wiped down, the coffee for the morning is set up, the dishwasher is running (which is a damned good thing because otherwise we will not be able to eat anything good tomorrow morning, what with every piece of silverware we own being in there).
The verdict on dinner tonight?
“This is really good. The sauce from the chicken is really good on the rice salad and the lettuce too.”
“I really like the chicken and the rice and lentil salad. Can you pack me some of this in a thermos to take to school for lunch tomorrow?”

Victory was mine tonight, but now the problem remains: what to make for dinner tomorrow? I’ve got about three cups of cooked lentils in the fridge. Perhaps a salad with the leftover chicken, chopped up and served over lettuce with some decadent salad dressing, some chopped scallions? I can do this. 

Creamed Spinach is Our Friend

I’ve gone on public record regarding my love of creamed spinach. Here I will discuss a) how to make it, should you be so inclined, and b) why you should make a lot more of it than you think you need, because it is useful in leftover form.

Making Creamed Spinach: it is very easy. Let us presume you’re going to start with boxes of frozen spinach, though, because washing and trimming fresh spinach is a true pain in the ass. (I really don’t wanna hear from the peanut gallery about this. I have a salad spinner. I know I could use fresh spinach. But look: fresh spinach is a pain in the ass and it’s expensive, and when you’re making creamed spinach, it’s just easier and cheaper to use frozen. So, enough, ok?) Here is what you do to make a considerable quantity of the stuff, enough to serve to three hungry people at dinnertime, and have leftovers to work with later on.

Take three boxes of spinach (10 oz. boxes, I think, are what I usually see when I’m shopping) from the freezer and let them thaw on the counter while you focus on the next steps.

1. Put a pot of water on to boil — it doesn’t have to be a big stockpot, but it should be big enough to hold a cup or two of water and the contents of the spinach boxes.

2. On another burner, melt 3-4 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy pot (I use enameled cast iron).  To this add maybe 3/4 of a cup of minced yellow onion. Saute the onion until soft and translucent, and then sprinkle in three or four tablespoons of white flour. Yes, you are making what the grownup fancy people call a roux. Whatever amount of butter you used, use an equal amount of flour. Stir stir stir: you want the flour to combined with the butter, and to cook: raw flour is not tasty stuff. Your pot will seem to be filled with an uninteresting lumpy mess, but it will be ok so long as you don’t burn it. Keep the flame on medium or even medium low. When the onion and butter and flour have formed a depressing-looking paste, and before it starts to burn (this takes maybe three minutes), slowly pour in maybe 1/4 cup of milk (or cream, or half and half, whatever you have on hand; skim milk will work but look rather sad and watery; I’d go for fattier dairy products if possible). Stir the liquid into the flour and onion combination; what you’re trying to do is dissolve the lumps and create a sauce that will be mostly smooth, but for the bits of onion. Add liquid a little bit at a time, ending up with between 1 1/2 and 2 cups of dairy in the pot.

Somewhere along the line, you’ve doubtless noticed that your pot of water is boiling. Seize the moment: Cook the spinach in the boiling water for a few minutes; you don’t need to let it cook to death, just let the bricks of spinach loosen up. Drain in a colander in the sink, press excess water out of the spinach and into the sink, and add the spinach to the pot with the roux. Stir well: the contents of the pot will suddenly look like creamed spinach, and you’ll think “Hey, we’re done!” but you’re not. You’ll want this to simmer for a little while, maybe ten minutes. Now is when you add your seasonings. I like nutmeg, salt, and pepper. You might want a little cayenne or some hot sauce or something else entirely, it’s up to you.

So here’s the thing: this is a lovely dish to serve alongside chicken or beef or fish or whatever you are into: all well and good. My family will eat easily a cup and a half, per person, in a sitting. I’ve heard of people who don’t like creamed spinach and who’ll only grudgingly choke down, like, a tablespoonful if they’re out at a restaurant and it’s foisted on them next to a steak; we are not like that. If we’re gonna eat creamed spinach, we’re gonna eat creamed spinach.
But as a leftover, it’s a useful tool for gussying up something that needs a little extra oomph. For example, the night after I first made this creamed spinach last week, I used some of the leftovers, along with some shredded brisket I had around, on nachos. I know that sounds weird, but let me tell you, my husband and child snarfed those suckers down. And another trick I’ve used a lot is, creamed spinach as kind of a ready-made pasta sauce. (You have to thin it out a bit, and it wants to have lots of Parmesan cheese added, or maybe some goat cheese — but it’s good and colorful and a comforting thing to eat on a rainy night.) Creamed spinach can be added to soups; it can be whipped up with cream cheese and/or sour cream to make a dip; I’ve put it on pizzas.

I know it’s not fashionable, and I know it’s not exactly a dietetic food item. Someone with dairy issues is not crying out for a long explanation of how to make and use creamed spinach. But people who like creamed spinach — we, the silent, the unpopular people, the kitchen wallflowers — need to know that we are not alone. Don’t worry, my friend: I am with you (with about a dozen boxes of spinach in the freezer ready).

Cooking for Southerners

The Hausfrau has, for many years, had a short list of things she will almost always make for parties. Guests at our cocktail parties know that we are very likely to have cocktail meatballs — those sweet/sour little things you eat with toothpicks, the kind you make with incredibly lowbrow ingredients like canned cranberry sauce or grape jelly — and pimiento cheese. Normally when I make pimiento cheese I throw everything into the food processors and generate a thick paste that’s not entirely smooth, but quite close to it. Now, I know this isn’t “authentic,” but in my book, “easy” wins over “authentic” if it saves me six minutes of hand-grating cheese and mincing roasted red peppers. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is.

But we were recently invited to a dinner party at the home of a woman who grew up in Virginia horse country and who also lived somewhere in the Carolinas for a long while. I offered, naturally, to bring something to the dinner party, and said, “Would you like me to make a dessert?” because it was my dim recollection that she is not a big baker. She wrote back quickly, saying, “Will you bring pimiento cheese?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “Done and done,” I wrote back, but my brow was furrowed. I couldn’t bring Cuisinart pimiento cheese to this woman’s house! That would be heresy, or something.

So I did it all by hand. I got out my big orange-red Pyrex bowl and grated Cheddar into it, and then I minced roasted red peppers, and I scooped in some Hellmann’s mayonnaise. I suppose I could have made a special trip somewhere to find some Duke’s, but I have to draw lines somewhere. I used all my animal strength and put some raw horseradish through a garlic press to get some oomph into the mix, and added a little dry mustard. Then I mixed and mixed and mixed until the stuff looked right. “It doesn’t look right,” said my husband, peering over my shoulder. “It doesn’t look like how you usually do it. It’s not almost smooth.”

“Yeah, well, how I usually make it is wrong,” I said, “because I’m a lazy Yankee. You’re supposed to do it by hand, all the cheese grating and everything, and it’s supposed to look lumpy like this.”

“Oh,” he said, doubtfully.

We both looked into the bowl. The mixing bowl, while very pretty, was way too big for serving this dish attractively; it looked as though I’d thought I was making pimiento cheese for 20 and only came up with pimiento cheese for six. “I need to move this into a smaller container,” I said, and I grabbed another little Pyrex dish, a blue-grey rectangular tub that I bought on a whim at the English Building Market and have used more times than I can count since then. It’s funny because when I bought it, I thought, “I so don’t need this, but I cannot resist,” and it turns out to be one of the most-used serving pieces in the kitchen. I spooned the pimiento cheese into it and the tub was almost full, but it still looked a little… naked. “Needs a garnish,” I said. “What the hell do I have I can use as a garnish?”

I opened the fridge and stared into it. There was a big, big jar of green olives stuffed with pimientos. “Perfect,” I said.

I got about twenty olives out and sliced each one in half and then I began to place them around the edges of the cheese to make what I told myself was an attractive border. The thing is, no matter what you do, green olives just aren’t that attractive. They are inevitably that…. well, there’s a reason why there’s a color called olive drab. However, the deed was done. I pressed the last sliced olive into the cheese and stood back to survey the product. “Look,” I said to my husband, “It’s 1953.”

*********

We carried the tub of pimiento cheese to the dinner party and were introduced to the other guests; our daughter immediately ran off to play with our hosts’ son, whom she adores, and I held out the little tub of pimiento cheese and said, “Um, here’s your pimiento cheese.” I had never met the other guests to this party and hoped they wouldn’t be people who said, “oh, cheese? Not for me, I’m vegan.” I got lucky: both of them gushed, “Pimiento cheese?” and looked at me with great interest. It turned out that one of them grew up in Texas, where, I’m given to understand, pimiento cheese is kind of a food group. “I made this,” I said, “and I tried to be a little more authentic about it than I usually am, but — well, I hope you guys will like it.” The hostess brought out a tray of sliced baguette and some crackers and everyone dug in. “This is good,” the men told me. We addressed the possible variants involved with pimiento cheese. There was cheerful discussion of my use of horseradish versus the Texan’s mother’s use of jalapeños. “Are you from the South?” I was asked. I shook my head and explained that I am decidedly not from the South, I just have a thing about Southern cooking. By the time dinner was served and we were all seated around the table, the Auntie Mame jokes were flying thick and fast, we’d gone through three bottles of wine, and the tub of pimiento cheese was empty.

I’ll be making more today. We’re having brisket for dinner, and I have this idea that I should make biscuits and a green pea salad to serve on the side. Pimiento cheese would go very well with that,  I think, and it serves the Rule of Four (cf. Lee Bailey and Nora Ephron). In the meantime: better buy more peppers.

Sometimes Recipes Aren’t Worth a Damn.

I had to do two things between the hours of 11 and 2: I had to bake cookies (“had to” being a relative term, yes) and I had to eat lunch (non-negotiable). I had this idea to make peanut butter shortbread cookies, and Googled up a plausible-sounding recipe. It seemed like it would be not sweet enough perhaps — it called for only half a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and no granulated sugar at all — but I thought that, perhaps, since commercial peanut butter has so much sugar in it, it would turn out just fine.

So I followed the recipe. I’m going to tell you exactly what I did, so that you can follow along and share in my emotional rise and fall.
I creamed one stick of butter with 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter. In a measuring cup I whisked together  1 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a pinch of salt. You have to whip the butter and peanut butter together for a surprisingly long time to get it right — I know this from experience cooking with peanut butter — you don’t want it just “combined until smooth,” but you want it absolutely creamy looking. The peanut butter mixture actually turns a whole different color through the process — you wind up with something that looks like a pale peanut butter sauce to serve on ice cream, or the filling of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Sounds good, right?

Once the butters are whipped together, add the dry ingredients. The recipe I was working with said to fold in 3/4 of a cup of chocolate chips, but I opted to do 1/3 cup peanuts and 1/3 cup mini chocolate chips. Then you roll this up in parchment paper or plastic wrap, to make a tube, and chill for a bit. I chilled mine for about an hour, and then I sliced the dough and baked it. You need the oven at 350°; the cookies bake in 12-14 minutes, depending on how thick the slices are.

The cookies I’ve got are ok; the texture is nice and crumbly. But they are nowhere near sweet enough, and nowhere near peanut-buttery enough. I’m very disappointed. I am so disappointed that I am wondering if I will be able to do a second batch this afternoon. This time, I would add 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, and possibly up the peanut butter, too. I grasp that you need the confectioner’s sugar to achieve the texture of shortbread (you could, I suppose, substitute cornstarch for some of the flour to achieve the same end), but something’s gotta give. Because these cookies, in a word, suck. I mean, “ok” is “sucks,” you get me? A cooky is supposed to be not just an “ok” thing. A cooky is supposed to bring light and joy. A cooky is supposed to be a thing where when you take your first bite of one, you’re already going, “yeah, I think I’ll have about four or five of these. I better pour a glass of milk.”

The website where I got this recipe had 212 comments for these cookies — it was astonishing, the range of reviews. Some people loved them. Some people, like me, were plainly disgusted — one person wrote, basically, “These suck, I’m sticking to my old recipe.” One guy wrote that he was planning to make them using honey roasted peanut butter and mint chocolate chips, and all I can say to him is, “Good luck, man” — I can’t imagine putting mint chocolate chips into a peanut butter based recipe, but whatever.

(Sometimes, winging it in the kitchen should lead to disaster but results in something quite enjoyable. The opposite of the failed peanut butter cookies. For example, following no recipe whatsoever, I recently made myself a lunch that was perfectly lovely and exactly the kind of thing I like to eat when I’m by myself. Since we had no bread in the house, and hence I had no way of making a cheese sandwich, I was forced to boil some pasta to get some ballast into me mid-day. I opened the fridge to see what I could put on the noodles, and found…. not much. Three tablespoons of leftover tomato sauce waiting to be used up (how? there is nothing in the world that requires only three tablespoons of tomato sauce, except dressing a pizza; and we have no pizza dough on hand — this was was, in fact, leftover sauce from when I made pizza and strombolis earlier in the week, and it’s not my fault no one used it up on the stromboli last night); some eggs; cheese. (Also the usual array of condiments and dairy products — but the question was, “How could I assemble stuff here into a sauce without putting real effort into it?”)

The answer was: take an egg; crack it into the tub of leftover tomato sauce; whisk in the egg. Add a pat of butter. When the noodles are cooked, drain them and then put them in a big bowl. Pour the egg/tomato sauce on top, and stir and stir and stir until everything’s coated with sauce. The egg, of course, cooks to safe eating in the heat of the pasta. Top with grated Parmesan. Sit down. Eat. Try to not think about the news of the day. I recommend watching old episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Laura Petrie is quite a cook, from what I can tell.

I find, lately, that more than half the time that I dig up a recipe online, it is a disappointment. I can’t quite figure it out. I can’t decide if it’s that these things are a matter of taste — I just don’t happen to like that kind of cooky, say — or if it’s just that the internet is so filled with copied-and-pasted bad ideas that it’s just not a reliable way to look for recipes. The thing is, cookbooks are often no better — though I’ve certainly come to know certain writers’ strengths and weaknesses and I know where I can turn for the most reliable results. We know how critical I am of certain cookbooks that have recipes that simply don’t work. Even “foolproof” recipes; even recipe outlets that are usually as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning (I’m looking at you, Christopher Kimball); I find, in recent months, that about 1/4 of my baking things other than an old tried-and-true has resulted in sadness.

Well, tonight I’m making a tried-and-true baked thing for dinner: pizza. I can’t give you a recipe because I didn’t follow one. I took water,  a little yeast, a little sugar, a little salt, some olive oil, and three kinds of flour (KAF unbleached white, KAF bread flour, and some Italian semolina I have sitting around) and I made dough. It’s rising now. I’m gonna make pizza tonight using the scraps of whatever I’ve got in the fridge — I know there’s a few ounces of tomato sauce, a few ounces of mozz, a little of this, a little of that. I’ll be better off winging it, I am positive, than I would be if I followed a recipe.

I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something, but I’m not gonna dwell on it now.

Pastrami Risotto. Because I’m a daredevil.

It was the end of a long and difficult afternoon involving bus travel, poor weather, and unhappy children. I was facing making dinner without a lot of emotional steam to work with, and also without a concrete plan. This is how someone like the Hausfrau winds up staring into the refrigerator and saying, “Sure, I could make a pastrami risotto.”

It began when I was at the Italian market down the street a couple blocks, contemplating pizza toppings. This was a few nights ago: it was my daughter’s birthday dinner. She had requested that I make pizza. A spur of the moment reminder from my daughter than I’d made an excellent stromboli with pastrami inspired me to buy a pound of pastrami. “We’ll use it on the pizza, Papa will love it,” I said to my daughter, who nodded. I had visions of pastrami sandwiches, another stromboli, and so on. We carried the pastrami home and I assembled the pizzas and they were quite good. One was pastrami, red onion, and olive; the other was spinach and olive. Those were some fine pizzas.

I wrapped up the rest of the pastrami — the cats yowled indignantly — and felt smug about it, thinking I had a trick up my sleeve to help me jazz up dinners for the rest of the week.

And when it came to last night: it was dismal outside. It was pouring rain when my husband walked in the door. I was trying to be optimistic about the tiny epiphany I thought I’d had, which was, People use proscuitto to form a layer of flavor when they’re starting all kinds of italian dishes, including when they’re making risotto; why couldn’t I use pastrami the same way?
So when my husband came home, the rain was pounding down and I was in the kitchen chopping onion and I said to my daughter, “Bring Papa a towel from the drawer” — pointing my foot to the low drawer where I keep plastic storage tubs and towels to be used for cleaning up messes, along with a few special-purpose linens (tea towels suitable for use as pastry cloths; cheesecloth; stuff like that). She reached into the drawer and then ran to help her father, a dutiful daughter, and my husband came into the kitchen, squidge squidge squidge, to find me roughly chopping long slices of pastrami. “Whatcha making?” he asked cheerfully. “Pastrami risotto,” I said. He looked skeptical, but I pressed on.

I had some nice vegetable stock that I’d made; I heated it up and used it to start to cook the risotto. I added a couple tablespoons of tomato paste to pep things up a bit. I had a lot of sliced red onion in the pot, and the pastrami, and the rice, and everything smelled quite delicious. Toward the end of the cooking time I added green peas and parsley. My daughter walked over and stuck her nose over the pot. She made approving noises. I was,  thus, optimistic that this meal would be greeted with pleasure. It did, for sure, look absolutely beautiful: the red pastrami and the red onion looked gorgeous with the bright dots of green peas and parsley. I mean, it looked like something you’d totally want to eat, and it smelled like something you’d totally want to eat.

Instead, we all sat down to eat, and while no one complained that the food was bad, no one seemed to actually enjoy it very much.

It was fine.
There’s plenty left over.

It was today when I started to sort the laundry — one of many small tasks I had to tackle today — that I found my biggest piece of cheesecloth in the laundry. “What the hell,” I said to myself. I knew I hadn’t used it for anything — I haven’t used cheesecloth since I think last summer. And then I realized: my beloved girl had handed her dripping wet father a piece of cheesecloth to use as a towel. I’m sure he was confused, but too polite to say anything like, “no, can you get me an actual towel?”

So I laundered it. And I’ll be the one to eat the leftover pastrami risotto, for lunches, tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. It’ll be fine.

Hausfrau Roadshow

The Hausfrau usually keeps to herself more than you’d imagine when she’s out in public. True, I have a life in the world, and I talk to people  and stuff, but by and large I don’t put on my Hausfrau hat unless specifically asked to, like when I’m asked to be a guest on someone’s radio show or something. But today I was at a pricey supermarket downtown, and a moment just happened and I had to spring into action in Hausfrau, or maybe Housebitch, mode, to help out a total stranger.

I was at the Elm City Market, which is not in fact the most expensive supermarket in the State of Connecticut, but a lot of people feel like they gouge you. The reality is, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, more nuanced than that. Anyhow, I decided today to stop in and buy a challah from the company they stock (just to see what it’s like) and also pick up something to serve for Shabbat dinner. Also to buy the fancy non-mint toothpaste I like; I’m low on toothpaste. Not that you needed to know that.

So I’m standing there at the packaged meat section, which is not the same as the meat counter, and wondering if I should buy some meat there or go to my usual butcher on the way home. I don’t like to buy meat from anyone except Jimmy at P&M, but I was already anticipating a rather complicated agenda and I decided that to simplify matters I would get my meat at Elm City Market. I stared at the options and noticed that ground beef was on special. I hefted a package and decided to go for it (we’ve been eating chicken all week, and meatloaf is always popular here). I was wondering if I should get one package or two when a man squeezed in next to me and stared, befuddled, at the shelves.

“Am I in your way?” I asked him.

“No, you’re good,” he said. He looked around and saw packages of hamburger patties,”Ok, here we go,” he said. He grabbed one, started to walk away, and then came back. “I better get two,” he said.

He turned to leave and something in me just had to say something. “You could save a lot of money buying a package of this instead!” I said to him, pointing to the packages of ground beef. The man stopped short. “What?”
I said, “Look, what do those hamburger patties cost per pound?” He said, “I dunno!” He looked at the packages. I can’t remember the number he read off, but it was in the neighborhood of $7 per pound. “This stuff’s only $3.49 a pound,” I said. “Do you need the meat to be already in patties or can you make the patties yourself?” “Aw, my wife’s making it!” he said. “Well, does she mind shaping the patties?” “No, she don’t mind,” “Well,” I said, “Why not save yourself a few bucks? I mean, that’s a lot of meat to buy at a higher price.” “Boy, you’re right,” he said, putting the patties back and reaching for a package of the cheaper, less-elegantly presented meat. “I’m not really a grocery shopper,” he said. “But that’s a big difference.”
I nodded. “It’s ok, I am a grocery shopper, and I just … I don’t know, I had to say something.”
“No, I’m glad you did!” he said. “You take care, now,” he told me, and I waved as he dashed off to the checkout line.

I paid for my few purchases and took the bus home, thinking about it for a while: how many people need help figuring out how to buy groceries? Is this how everyone buys food? Am I the only person who thinks, “I will NOT pay extra for pre-formed hamburger meat?” I mean, I never make hamburgers at home, but —

It was all very interesting. I came home and made a panade to use to make my meatloaf. I’m wondering if that guy’s wife will see the meat this afternoon and say, “Hm, this would make a good meatloaf. I’m gonna make meatloaf instead.” I really hope she does. The world needs more homemade meatloaves.