Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ingredients in search of a meal. Part 2.

Somehow the various ingredients I bought at the market yesterday came together for three separate dishes at dinner. The easiest were the salmon and halibut collars, angular lengths of bone just barely covered in rich, tender meat. The salmon was seasoned with salt and sprinkled with dill and parsley; I left the halibut plain, adding just salt, before letting them broil for ten minutes or so, until the skin became blistered and blackened. Fish collars are trickier to eat, relatively little meat for more work; you have to pick out the pockets of remaining flesh from the expanse of bone. But it’s worth the trouble; the meat is tastier, moister, it has more fat and is therefore easier to cook (that is, harder to overcook). A squeeze of lemon brings out the intense flavor, the sharp acidity cutting through the oily richness of the fish.

A co-worker had given me some zucchinis from her garden, and I sliced them into jade-skinned half-moons, along with the bright yellow pattypan squash, tiny and round, with frilled edges, and then some crisp green sugar snap peas. Rooting around in the fridge yields an onion, which I chop finely and sauté in some olive oil until it just begins to brown. When the onion is translucent and starting to caramelize slightly, I throw in the zucchini and squash and let them cook for a while, as the linguine boils away on the next burner. (It’s not dinner unless I’ve got three burners and the oven going. Bonus points for using four burners and two ovens, but that usually only happens at Thanksgiving).

Meanwhile, I’ve got a handful of prosciutto slivers warming in a small pool of olive oil. As the pan heats up the fat begins to melt and render out, and the shavings of ham begin to cook in the hot oil. I throw in the asparagus spears, stirring them occasionally, until they are nearly cooked, before adding sliced morels. The prosciutto fat has infused the olive oil, and permeates the morels and asparagus with its flavor. Everything is coming together; I’ve timed it just about right. (Timing is everything). I rescue the fish just before it starts to burn, the linguine is al dente, the squash and zucchini are tender. The asparagus with morels is turned out into a plate; the pasta is tossed with the other vegetables. I add a thin stream of pale greeny-gold olive oil, a faint whisper of white truffle oil that I found lurking in the fridge.

This is a very relaxed sort of dinner. I've made things I've cooked before; usually I add cubes of steak to the pasta, along with mushrooms, but since my mom doesn't eat a lot of meat and it's her birthday, I use as many kinds of vegetables as I can. The prosciutto added to asparagus and morels is new, but I often add prosciutto or bacon to peas or brussels sprouts so this has the same feeling to it. I love morels with asparagus; I was going to do it with peas, but asparagus is easier and it's something I've tried before. The fish I can just whack in the oven and forget about; the pasta needs an occasional stir, and the seperate pans of vegetables need a close eye. But I know my kitchen, and I know my ingredients, so it is easy decide when to add pasta to boiling water, vegetables to hot oil, fish into the oven. I've done this before. Some nights, you try something new, and because you're cooking for family they won't mind if chaos erupts or things take longer than you expect so dinner is at 8. But tonight I wanted to cook something that was familiar to me, and when I told them dinner would be in an hour, I was not off by more than five minutes.

It’s not perfect. The morels are the last of the season, so they do not have the intensity of flavor that you see at their peak, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I did not quite wash all the grit from them. I meant to slice the prosciutto more carefully, so they were more like very fine matchsticks, tiny shreds rather than shavings, but I was in a hurry. I could have added parsley (which I always forget to buy), perhaps some garlic, maybe a dash of hot pepper to add life to the pasta. But it is all very good, and I have not cooked like this for a while. We sit around, my parents and I, and eat as they gently critique this night’s dinner. This is how I learned to cook when I was growing up; I would make dinner, and they would point out all the things I did right and all the things I could have done differently. I have missed this. They are home for the rest of the summer, and my world is whole again. For a while.

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