Dinner for Two: A Soldier's Story

I'm generally barred from using the kitchen for anything other than making my breakfast. That's only because Freya is too tired to interfere first thing in the morning. In spite of this, I know that when the month is nearing conclusion and the cupboards are bare, and payday is 2-3 days off, I will be encouraged to cook dinner. It's really not fair.

I wouldn't mind so much, but the reasons for this tradition are completely cynical. Whereas Freya loves having a full stock cupboard, TWO freezers stuffed to the breaking point, drawers with spices labelled A-ZZZZ1, and a fridge with stratified layers of food descending by sell-by dates; I prefer to cook makeshift meals on the fly. I think it's just the survivalist in me. It's the result of too much time in the hot sun of the high desert facing the prospect of a very long hike out for supplies vs. "eating that lizard or cactus and hoping it's not poisonous." Sure, I had supplies buried, but when you're in the desert you learn the benefit of hoarding. This is why if you decide to do some camping off the beaten track in Western Colorado you might find an old duffle bag under three feet of clay loaded with bottled water, fruit cocktail, and ravioli.

As the date of this post would indicate, we have now entered the grace period when I am granted amnesty and allowed free reign over the kitchen. The ingredients at my disposal were indeed Spartan, but I can see a meal in anything. I'm not saying that Freya wouldn't have made the exact same thing, but she would have done so under different circumstances. She would have said to me, "I'm making X for dinner. I have everything I need except for 1 ingredient." We would then head to the store and proceed to purchase said ingredient as well as 40 additional ingredients not called for in the recipe, "just in case". The method to her madness is only thinly veiled as she knows that I know that she knows that I am on to her trickery. My methodology is somewhat different.

I approach everything in my life as a contingency planner. I think about the possible pitfalls and how I will compensate when they occur. e.g. The zombies are attacking:
1. Liberate a prison, it's the safest place. The prisoners would probably prefer freedom among the zombies to more time behind bars.
2. Station snipers in the guard towers. Not to waste bullets on the walking dead, but to pick off any marauders and bandits.
3. Raise crops and livestock in the courtyard for food.
4. Assign every occupant his/her own cell with enough canned food and ammunition to protect themselves (kill themselves) should they find themselves the last survivor.
5. The movies all get this wrong. Anybody not in their own cell would have to wear a mask, Hannibal Lecter style to avoid any confusion about who is and who is not infected and to avoid the all too common "Joe Schmoe just had a heart attack and now he's biting my arm" scenario.

The only thing not provided for in this contingency plan is the rogue doomsday cultist who poisons your crops and water supply while pretending to be just one of the guys.

Right, so this is how I live my life and work in my kitchen. And this is why when I needed spring onions for Tuesday night's meal I used a shallot. When I needed 8oz of prawns, I used a 1/2 tablespoon of shrimp paste. Instead of shiitake, I used the last of some mysterious, potentially hallucinogenic, potentially deadly Chinese mushrooms sent to us by a friend in Singapore. You get the point. About the only thing I had for this recipe that was required was the ground pork.

I get excited by cooking on the frontlines. I like the challenge of thinking fast. I hate planning meals and prepping the night before. I love the desperation that comes from improvisational cooking. This isn't to say that my wife's method isn't great. She studies cookbooks meticulously and selects her ingredients with the sort of discrimination usually reserved for Southern country clubs. And in spite of the assertions of a friend of mine, this is not cooking by the numbers. The belief that any literate person can cook anything out of a book is ridiculous. The art of cooking is a cumulative process. Knowing what works comes from study and trial and error.

The fact is that my style of cooking is momentarily exciting, a test of my skills and knowledge of ingredients, but it's also very safe. I'm not putting myself out on a limb, risking my neck preparing a meal that takes hours or days to make. Freya chooses recipes that challenge her and teach her skills. She makes dishes that hinge on exact ingredients and precise cooking times, where days of hard work can be destroyed by stirring too fast or too slow. I'm just a grunt, cooking in the trenches. Even so, you must admit, my ad hoc siu mai looks pretty sweet!


Quellia said...

Very nice looking Paul!
And Freya, you are lucky! My husband's cooking repetoire involves spaghetti, mostly sauce from a can or if I have any in the freezer, and putting frozen chicken fingers or egg rolls in the oven. Not much else. He claims that since I like cooking so much, he would hate to deprive me of the pleasure by cooking himself.

Kelly-Jane said...

They look good.

Freya is lucky to have an on the edge cook for nights off!

Although you can't just go into a food shop and buy one missing item - it's not allowed! :)

You write really well Paul.

Mother of that one kid said...

You actually make me feel better for having bizarre contingency plans. OK... mine probably aren't THAT bizarre, but I have been known to figure out what I would do if someone walked into the restaurant with a machine gun.

Most people die from the unexpected... so I try to expect everything.

The food looks good, btw. :)

Callipygia said...

Wow I was momentarily in the trenches dodging zombies, good fun- and yes the siu mai look very sweet.

Sig said...

Ha ha Paul, that is indeed a sweet looking siu mai :) but I'm with Freya though, I need all my ingredients including that missing one and the fifty i'd pick up from the store when I go to buy that one thing, before I start cooking...

Gattina said...

siu mai does look great, actually much better than many chinese places in here!
I thought I could see your mushroom-fiesta dish =)

pom d'api said...

Very nice your cooking. It's so pretty. I'm hungry now.hihih

Jerry said...

Someone else that cooks like I do!!!!
Only I do it every night :-)

The siu mai looks fantastic Paul.

Saffron said...

Paul you're the ideal husband! lucky Freya!Baci

Little Foodie said...

I study cookery books for the theory and pics. I envy Freya's ability to follow them. Her creations always look delicious. These look yummy too!

Joyce said...

Just when I thought I'd make pot stickers you do a one-ups-manship!
Fabulous image to complement the prose. Nice going, Paul

Sher said...

Wonderful post and those sui mai...just the thing before you go into battle. Love that picture!

Susan said...

The best cuisines can be created from the trenches -- look at Chicken Marengo. Your dumplings seem to be suffering from extreme professionalism despite your protestations. Beautifully done.

Amy said...

I wish my boyfriend cooked more, he always comes up with the strangest suggestions that are shocking to me. Unfortunately, he never tries them out himself, which leaves him ever curious.

The siu mai look so cute. :) Sometimes I follow recipes exactly, sometimes I just cook with whatever I have lying around.

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Paul, your ad hoc siu mai looks great to me. You can fix dinner in my kitchen any day of the month!
Freya you are my kind of girl.

valentinA said...

Your siu mai looks great!
I loooove these dumplings, they're my favourites! & we use practically the same ingrdients at home too!:)

JennDZ said...

Hey guys!

I wanted to let you know I started a new, totally food related blog, and the principles of that blog are really based on what you are talking about here, Paul.

I like how you describe it though:
"Cooking on the Frontlines".

Check it out and let me know what you think! I am going to have to start calling you the leftoverking!

Jeanne said...

LOL - I love the prison scenario for when the zombies attack. You shuld write your own "Little Book of Worst Case Scenarios"! And those little guys look great, even with the ingredient substitutions. My strategy for dealing with a missing ingredient mid-preparation is to persuade my husband to pop out to the grocery store ;-)

Melting Wok said...

dang, woman, you lucky devil :P Paul, I'm with you hehe, last minute desperation and cravings put to the test, and I usually approximate my measurements, phew..lucky me, all ends well :) shoot, now that you know my secret..you probably wouldn't want to try my recipes ? hahaha...my god, Paul, I thought that was take-out siu mai dumplings from some Hong Kong chef, you made those ? *salute* :)

p/s: guys, do you mind changing my link in your blog roll from meltingwok.blogspot.com to just http://www.meltingwok.com ? thanks :)

Tez Leaver said...

Cracking. Nic cooks like you but without the edible results. I'm more of a cross between the two of you

Mark Tufo said...

I wouldn't have eaten this meal, I am apparently one of the pickiest eaters on the planet. I had believed for the longest time that this honor was held by my youngest son as he would complain about what we were having for dinner generally 4 out of the 7 days in any given week. But to my surprise complaining does not equate to not eating. We are in the midst of an ongoing competition where we will list the foods that we will NOT eat, my wife is now involved. I was holding my own for about 5 minutes into the conversation when my son and wife took this opportunity to unfairly gang up on me and point out the MULTITUDE of foods I will not eat. I have more than the two of them combined which is strange because I was in the Marines and you wouldn't even believe what I have eaten, maybe that's part of the problem. Out of your limited ingredients for this meal, I would excude myself because of the shrimp paste and mushroom (but not necessarily if they were of the hallucinegenic variety)