I just popped a pan in the oven – on one side, three weiners wrapped in scraps of whole-wheat puff pastry turn a golden brown, and on the other side, a jumble of slightly shrivelled root vegetables simmer in oil and spices. Dinner is a mere half hour away, and along with a pot of green peas, I think it’s going to be delicious.
I love making this kind of meal. Rooting about in the vegetable drawer of the fridge, rescuing bits of obscurity (the pastry is left over from a pie I made last Friday) and using up the free stuff (the weiners are a left over gift from a youth group fundraising lunch).
As much as I enjoy grocery shopping and planning a menu, I secretly enjoy throwing things together and seeing the astonishing results. I love leftovers. This has made me a brilliant/terrible cook.
Successes include a scintillating key-lime apple tart, rich bacon and rosemary potato soup, and the world’s best sour cherry eggnog custard spice cake trifle. I threw that one together for a hundred people one special Christmas at work. It was a personal triumph and a culinary success – but like most of my improvisational work, will probably never happen again. Recipes don’t really enter the creative process of leftover scratch cooking. I think this love of ‘found cuisine’ – (like making a poem out of words cut out of the newspaper) runs in the family – my brother recently made an excellent icing sugar, rice and vegetable chili, and my dad is the king of last-minute cinnamon buns, and sizzling second plans because the oven just broke down half an hour before lunch service to 100.
I’ve had some spectacular failures, mind you: Chocolate pudding that refused to resolve itself into brownies, no matter how much flour and coaxing I tried, a beef broth that resembled a sandy puddle on the beach, and several suspect soups that lurk in the bottom of my freezer. I’ve also foolishly substituted things that look similar to the real deal, but actually have very different and dangerously unknown properties (baking soda and powder are NOT the same thing, neither are white vinegar and white wine, eg).
I feel, of late, that as in my cooking, my life has been a triumph and a test of improvisation, with varied results.
As if I’ve been given a random bag of goofy hats and odd props, and told to perform something funny, something useful, something successful with them. And if all else fails, make ’em laugh.
Some skills and ways of dealing with life that I’ve faked simply need to be thrown out – time to start over, this time with a recipe and a plan, and some patience.
Other achievements, like my professional resume and cooking experience, or my joy at writing off-the-cuff blog posts, or coping well in circumstantial crisis (car breakdowns, housefires, unexpected guests, bad news, hospital trips), are best left to that marvellous and mysterious seat-of-the-pants realm that fills me with glee and an otherwordly confidence.
But back to the vegetable drawer – like life, which, since the day I was born, has filled my days with the rotten and the ripe, the odd and the fresh. Starting over is expensive, and unfortunately, you can’t just throw away the parts of your heart and life experience that are getting a bit old, sour, shrivelled or moldy. They are right there alongside the good, the healthy and the tasty. Nobody started out with the perfect grocery list, and even the best menu plans can go awry.
Enter improvisation – making something out of this mixed-up life I’m in the middle of, and although it’s risky, it just might turn out to be delicious.