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.