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Monday, August 15, 2011

Whatever's in the fridge...

I'd be lying if I said that it was just another Saturday morning. No, it wasn't. In fact, it most certainly was not a Saturday morning that I could under most circumstances refer to as "ordinary". It had been a while since I had woken up at 7:00am on a Saturday morning all charged up to face the day ahead. Boy did it feel good. The energy felt great, and long story short, I planted the wild lily seeds that I had earlier collected, made myself some tea, and got started on checking out "who said what" on Facebook. Oh, that and the incessant updating of the several grow-this-now-and-come-back-tomorrow-to-harvest-it-and-get-coins-to-be-able-to-buy-more-seeds-or-whatever-to-come-back-and-harvest-the-next-day games that I find myself in the vice-like grip of. Didn't make it to the end of that overly hyphenated description? Me neither, the first couple of times. But, you get what I mean. Anyway, a couple of hours later, I found myself in a position to be making a slightly early lunch for my roommate Venky and myself, and it got my mind working on what to make that I hadn't really made in a while...or ever.

Wait for it...
I was glad, among other things, to rediscover my will to experiment with what I could or could not cook, and to top it off, I've been trying to arrive at the "bare minimum" kind of cuisine, where something like your regular button mushrooms is something that I pick up once a month. The key concept behind "bare minimum" cuisine
Mixed Vegetable Stew a la Pressure Cooker
in my mind, or as I define it - not to imply, in anyway, that I spawned the idea or anything - is to eat what is most easily available, hopefully locally, and trying to serve them up in different ways. The vegetables that fall into this classification are potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, and tomatoes. They, in my opinion, form the basis for most hearty meals, and you can make anything from a nice vegetable masala curry, to a hearty broth-like dish that I love to make. It's a hodgepodge recipe that's a combination of things I learned in my International Cooking class in my senior year of high school, and all the TV shows that I've seen of people making some kind of "western" gravy dish, but it includes all of the vegetables listed above, plus a couple more if you think it will make sense in terms of the overall dish, or something totally random, if you're feeling a little risqué. I went with "random" and ended up throwing some cabbage in there too.
Holy Stew Batman!
Why not, right? I mean, it's only going to help thicken up the gravy, right? Uh, not exactly. As it turns out, I seemed to forget that slight hint, that faint edge that cabbage has in terms of its final flavor. So, while not exactly a taste I would call "European" in any sense of that word being applied to the description of cuisine, it did seem to have and "Asian" leaning. Not too much, just enough to keep the dish interesting. Besides, the tomatoes seemed to add their own little acidic twist to help take the flavor from "strange" to "mildly intriguing". Here's one of the recipes that I aimed to ape with the limited number of ingredients that I had on hand. Not that that's a bad thing, by the way. If nothing else, it's the perfect way to get rid of your left-over veggies, before you have to "really" get rid of them, know what I mean? 

Anyway, long story short, here's what was on the menu. I made a mushroom rice, a mixed vegetable stew (that you've already been introduced to), and a stuffed focaccia. That last little bit I thought up when I opened the fridge and saw that there was a little leftover vegetable from "homemade pizza night" a couple of nights ago. Anyway, here's what I did, one dish at a time, using recipes already out there, plus my usual brand of going on and on about things I may not completely know about.

Tell me that doesn't have the makings of 'the perfect murder' written all over it.

The mushroom rice, or the idea for it, popped into my head before the idea of what to eat it with did. I guess I was pining to make something different from the usual plain or jeera rice that I had become accustomed to throwing into the rice cooker. So, it made perfect sentence that the "back burner" of my mind helped me put the button mushrooms that I'd picked up two days ago perfectly together with the need to make a different kind of rice to come up with "Mushroom Rice". A search of this term on Google revealed a whole bunch of recipes that were similar at first glance, so I went with one of the first ones on the list. Now, when I say "...went with one of the first [recipes] on the list," I am of course referring to treating it as an overall suggestion. I find that I usually don't have anywhere close to half the ingredients necessary for dishes where I expect to use no more than a handful of ingredients, based on such things as the fact that the name of the dish is made up of its key ingredients - "mushrooms" and "rice", in this case. Armed with a couple of handfuls of slightly large, robust-looking button mushrooms,
some sona masoori rice

So, this is what fungi cooked in rice looks like...
(the kind we "normal" people "normally" eat), some fresh coriander and dill that I had had the foresight of picking up, just in case I found occasion to throw them into anything, of which there was never a dearth of opportunities, and last but not least, an onion and some butter, to sauté everything to enhance the flavors. So, I did just that, after chopping up the onion and the mushrooms, and frying them in butter, with a little hint of pepper to give the mixture some character. I mixed it with the rice and appropriate amount of water (Ratio of water:rice is 2cups:1cup. In this case, add at least a half cup extra for the mushrooms and onions to help integrate better with the rice) and put it in the rice cooker to cook like it "normally" would. Just kidding about the "normally" thing. CAUTION: Upon closer examination of the photograph, and the cooking pot part of the electric rice cooker, what I thought was aluminum, anyway, has revealed that further cooking in said kitchen utensil is probably, most definitely and certainly "injurious to health". ;)

It came in through the window and flew straight onto the frying pan. I swear!

And then we come to the stuffed focaccia, which was my own personal moment of brilliance when I finally pieced together what I could do to get rid of the left-over pizza base, the chopped up onions, tomatoes, and green bell peppers and roughly 100 grams of mozzarella cheese that was also cubed. Those were the ingredients, by the way. Bet you never had a recipe thrown at you sideways before eh? Don't worry, here was my inspiration for this side project. Although, I would eventually like to get closer to something like this "Cheese Focaccia" recipe in my abilities as an amateur chef of sorts.
Now, the reason why it looks a lot like a flying saucer of some kind is because I only had a small vegetable knife with me that was both sharp enough and accurate in line that I couldn't get right through the base horizontally at the center. The blade was too short. When I tried and used a longer, but unfortunately much duller knife, I ended up carving out a monstrosity -- a freakishly lobotomized pizza base on the table, and an eerily crooked "O" in my non-knife hand. I can't but thank my stars for the good fortune that made decide to go ahead anyway, rather than abort and duck for cover, but I decided to make it work to my advantage. 
So, I went about stuffing all the remaining chopped vegetables and cubed cheese mixture, making sure to add that last hint of parsley to wake everything up. The last few slices of cheese I carved off a larger piece of mozzarella that I had lying around, just to try and tie in all the elements and to not make it stand out on the table like a botched operation. Needless to say, I'm glad I did it the way I did it because I managed to get a nice, crisp base that had been laden with chopped veggies and cheese, and because I had covered the deep-dish-style frying pan as soon as I had put the focaccia on the stove, the top stayed still mostly soft. 

Not to sing my own praises, but I think I'm fortunate that things worked out for me the way they did on this amazing Saturday. Well, I don't know if it was the fact that I was supposed to be working but the company that I work for finally decided to give us Saturday off, in light of Monday, today, being a holiday because it's our 65th Independence Day, or if I was just up to the task of waking up early on Saturdays and seeing what was up. Whatever the case, I finally managed to put it to good use and saved myself the heartache of watching vegetables turn bad and get thrown in the makeshift composting project in the back.  I finally managed to put together three dishes from what I could find in the fridge, or in the kitchen cabinet and thereabouts. All in a day's work, like the title of that Reader's Digest section which has jokes that people send in about funny things that happened to them at work. Or at least, for my own satisfaction, meeting the criteria of "waste not, want not". Maybe we can use more of this in our everyday lives in these times of not-so-plenty. I sure hope so. Glad I grew up and stopped being a spoiled kid from the city who wanted everything close enough so that he didn't have to reach too far, to a half-hermit, seeking sense and common logic in all things "life", learning to recognize it as the force that powers every beginning, and brings about every end.

Happy 65th Independence Day to all my Indian Brothers and Sisters. Uncles and Aunties too. Yes, yes, and all of the rest...
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