Despite what the recipe index may indicate, one of my favorite ways to relax in the kitchen is to ditch the recipes and cook by the seat of my pants. I find it very freeing to assess the pantry and crisper drawer, to snatch leftovers from the fridge, and to flex my creative muscles to put dinner on the table. That sense of spontaneity is a contrast to most of my life, especially my work life, where so much must be planned days and weeks in advance, where a sense of completion is hard to find because, like a good scientist should, I always have more experiments in the pipeline. But in the kitchen, I can play, and at the end, I get to eat. It’s a pretty sweet deal.
Wednesday night was a good one in the kitchen. I was primed with a lot of goodies on hand, in the cupboards and in the fridge. A few of the key players included:
* two perfect yellow onions
* a cooked pumpkin
* a can of black beans
* a can of diced tomatoes
* leftover cooked white rice
Everything starts with onions, and my impromptu stew was no exception. In my cast-iron skillet, I caramelized those two yellow onions to a gorgeous chestnut brown. While the onions were going, I snatched a few celery stalks from the fridge and sautéed them in some olive oil. Matt used up all my garlic during his cooking frenzy on Saturday, so there was no garlic in this stew, but I did add cumin and thyme, a spice combination that delights me. From there, I scraped about a cup’s worth of soft pumpkin chunks and added two cups each water and tomatoes, along with a vegetable stock cube.
The whole mess was brought to a boil, and while that was happening, I rooted around for some side dish items. I emerged triumphant with baby spinach, some leftover salad dressing, and two pieces of fresh mozzarella. Feeling very motivated, I made these Smokehouse Almonds, then buzzed them in the food processor to make a nubbly topping for the mozzarella. While the almonds were roasting, I added the black beans, rice, and caramelized onions to the stew and let everything simmer for a few more minutes. The final addition was a handful of chopped parsley, just to add a nice green note to the dish.
I ladled my stew into a bowl, set the table, and poured the last of my hard cider into a short glass. The stew was thick and flavorful, with a wonderful stick-to-your-ribs quality that is the hallmark of a good stew. The mozzarella was dense and a little chewy; the nutty topping added savory and sweet notes. It needed salt, so I sprinkled a few pinches of flaky salt over everything. The spinach salad was the same as it ever is, which is to say it was fine. It was no showstopper, but it was green and healthy and that’s good enough for me. For dessert, I dug the last piece of this banana bread out of the freezer and nibbled on it while watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a television show that ought to give me nightmares but for some reason, it doesn’t. I love all the crazy plot twists! All in all, it was a good night. And the best part? My impromptu stew made enough leftovers to cover lunches for the next few days. Which is good, because I’ll need them!