Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bits and pieces.

I know many stories have begun this way, but it started with an invitation given on impulse. K. would be going out of town soon; when she returned, it would be time for her to move back to her remodeled house. I regretted that I had not invited her to dinner more often when she was in her temporary digs nearby, and asked her to dinner tonight. I had in mind a simple pasta, with chard and bacon and the shredded grana padano that has been lurking in my fridge for a couple of weeks. But it wasn't sure how it would work out, so I turned to J. for help. J. is my Pilates teacher, but she is also one of the foodiest foodies I know. She is not a snob, but knows how to cook, I mean, really knows how to cook, and more importantly, how to eat.

J. tends to begin recipes with "chop a shallot and toss it in the pan," forgetting that ordinary folk like myself seldom happen to have shallots lying around the kitchen. She suggests adding dried currants to the chard for sweetness; I have none, but raisins will do, and I always have raisins on hand. Then this reminds me of the Harvest Vine, where I often order spinach cooked with golden raisins and a fillip of sherry, topped with pine nuts. I have sherry (bought for a recipe and rarely used, which always tends to happen) and pine nuts (from Costco, a whole bag of them) and some sort of dried fruit somewhere in the pantry. J. mentions prosciutto, for contrast, but I only have bacon, which is fine by me. A shaped pasta will work better than a long pasta, she tells me. There must be some fusilli somewhere, I think. Dinner begins to take shape in my mind, just the pasta with chard, bacon, raisins, and pine nuts, and fresh sliced watermelon for dessert.

I get home twenty minutes before my guest is due to arrive. Plenty of time. The first thing: Put a pot of water on to boil, for the pasta. (Again, thinking of Edouard de Pomiane). Then: Toast the pine nuts gently, this time on medium heat, so they will slowly brown instead of suddenly burn. This allows me to turn my back to the stove, so I can wash the bright green chard - now ever so slightly wilted from several days in the refrigerator - and chop it into manageable pieces. I turn back to the pine nuts, but they are only just getting warm. I find some raisins, but no golden ones. Dark ones will have to do. Then, rummaging around in the dark cupboard for pasta, I unearth a forgotten bag of cranberries, just what I need.

I find some orrecchiette, enough for the two of us. The pine nuts are just golden brown. In goes the bacon, which I stir occasionally, until most of the fat has rendered out and the bits are crisp-chewy. They go into a bowl as I turn my attention to the chard. I turn it over and over in the hot pan until it begins to wilt, then add the cranberries and sherry. The pasta goes into the boiling water; I call K. and find she has already left, so I run and leave my front door ajar so I am not interrupted at a crucial point. She comes in just as I am testing the pasta for doneness; not quite ready. I hear her prowling around the living room, pulling up the blinds to look at the view. Then dinner is ready, and I toss everything together, adding a handful of grated cheese at the last minute, sprinkling our bowls of pasta with pine nuts just before we sit down.

It is, if I may say so, an unqualified success. I make a note to tell J. how well it went over when I see her next week. K. reminds me that when you know how to cook, you can throw anything together and it will just work. I am not there yet. It only works about half the time. Maybe three-quarters. But that is good enough for me.

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