Saturday, November 20, 2010

Beautiful Redux

Here we go again.
In the best way.

It's been a good food week here at the barn. As if the beautiful experience of Tuesday evening wasn't enough, we did it all over again on Thursday. The sky was quiet this time, but dinner was again a treat. Not because it was anything grandiose, but because the preparation and consumption of our evening repast was viewed as a sensual treat rather than a necessary chore.

Every dinner has been better, actually, since my smart husband began tapping into the power of music.
We drag home hungry and tired like we always have, but when he turns on his Michael Buble or Diana Krall channel on Pandora, I feel instantly happier. The atmosphere is transformed from stressed to swank, and cooking feels like pampering, not drudgery. I highly recommend this technique. Bring the restaurant ambiance to your house soon. Dinner will never be the same. Light candles, even, when dinner time is dark (another winter tradition I've come to love). Making memories on an ordinary day makes ordinary days memorable.

But before all that, Thursday's culinary inspiration was, of all things, cabbage. I had a head that needed using, which meant that the next logical thought was sausage. Polska kielbasa to be exact. I sliced up a pound of it, browned the slices, softened some onion, deglazed the pan with chicken stock and a plop of Dijon mustard, threw in chopped cabbage and a little salt and pepper, and clapped a lid on it for about 20 minutes or so.

My recipe-free concoction (Thank you, school!) was just what I wanted. Deeply savory, well seasoned, and very satisfying--especially with crusty bread to sop in the plentiful juices. Sopping may not be glamorous, but it's a time honored practice for a reason. It tastes good, yes, but it's also a mite good-to-the-last-drop lusty. It smacks of really enjoying every bit of what's in front of you. We've been blessed to feel just that way multiple times this week. No wonder I'm writing this all down!

Another virtue of this relatively painless meal is that the bulk of it is made up of a vegetable, and an inexpensive one at that. In fact, I could probably have gotten away with using only half the sausage to stretch the meat dollar and cut down on fat and calories, but I was feeling expansive. Even with carnivorous generosity, there were easily two servings or more of cooked cabbage in my blate...or plowl..or whatever. (There needs to be a better term for those broad shallow food containers usually labeled "pasta bowls" because they elevate so many more one-pot dishes than pasta into Dinner with a capital D.)

I even felt inspired (again I say, again!) to concoct a quick fruit dessert. Maybe the presence of vanilla ice cream compelled me. Whatever the reason, I suddenly had to try poaching diced Granny Smith apple and raisins in half a bottle of hard cider that had been a disappointment as a beverage but that I hoped would be redeemed as a poaching medium. (The other half became our aperitif, with cheese and crackers, during the cabbage tenderizing time!) I tossed in a multi-finger pinch of sugar, a cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves, and a strip of lemon zest, and left it to simmer while we ate. By the time we were ready for dessert, the apple was tender, the raisins were plumped, and the cider had reduced to a golden syrup. My wicked improvisation had worked. And since I had more fruit than ice cream, I still felt virtuous.

Mostly I savored the life-is-good feeling of being relaxed, safe at home, puttering about the kitchen, feeding our whole selves well with music and soft light, in addition to the food. As usual, I've decided that the difference is attitude and the choices we made because of it. I've hit the door hungry and tired before, but choosing to make the experience of getting food on the table as pleasurable as possible made it the self care we needed at the end of the work day, an island of sensory restoration rather than a dull chore.

When you, dear reader, are faced with the dilemma of how to handle that time of the day when hunger could drive you to go quick and dirty, remember that real food, however humble, will leave you with an after glow that take out pizza or a fast food fix will not. You don't have to be a chef. Nibble on come crackers to appease the hunger demon. Then scramble some eggs and toast some bread. Or boil up some pasta and toss it hot with cheese, a few veggies, and a bit of protein. The food doesn't have to be fancy, just the feeling. Music, wine, and candlelight will supply that, and your body and mind will thank you for simple, loving food.

Just in case you don't feel improvisational (I certainly didn't for years), here are directions for my quick cabbage and sausage braise. Try it some night when you don't want to think. And don't forget the music!

Braised Cabbage and Sausage

Serves 4

1 tablespoon oil
1/2 to 1 pound polska kielbasa (depending upon how carnivorous you're feeling)
1/2 onion, chopped
1 14-oz can chicken broth
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 medium head cabbage, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the sliced sausages and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are browned. Add the onion and cook until they are soft and translucent. Add the chicken broth and mustard to the skillet, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom. Add the cabbage, reduce the heat a bit, and cook covered until the cabbage is tender, 20-30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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