Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gentlemen, Start Your Noodles

I remember Ken telling me about how, when he was growing up, his father rarely cooked, but had at least one specialty-- macaroni salad. Ken remembered the basic idea, and one day, while we were at the store, he called his mom in Connecticut. "What was in Dad's macaroni salad, Mom? Just the basic ingredients, not the amounts, we can figure that out." After a bit of familiar negotiating banter between Ken and his mom, we gleaned that red and green bell peppers, onion, celery, REAL mayonnaise ("Hellman's, Ken!"), dry mustard, cider vinegar, and, yes, MACARONI were the simple ingredients.

Well, I don't have any dry English mustard, but I have dijon, and that is quite acceptable to me. Ken was amazed that the cider vinegar his mother spoke of was the same stuff I'd suggested several days before as a remedy for the huge number of chigger bites he'd come home with after a weekend party with some friends. I'm still not sure he believes me, actually. But it cured his chigger bites, and made a delicious salad to boot. (That's RAW apple cider vinegar. Bragg's is good.) We can't get Ken's father's favorite brand of macaroni in St. Louis, but I'm sure our choice was a fine substitute-- and economical to boot! I agree with Ken's mom about the mayonnaise. It would be nice if Hellmann's mayonnaise would offer a little sponsorship money, huh?

Well, it seems to me that this is a basic Americana macaroni salad. I'd made similar potato salads in my youth, and didn't feel the need to look up any recipes beforehand. I'm a good hand at proportions, and so I came up with a basic idea, and then tweaked the amounts as we made the recipe by measuring carefully and noting any adjustments. Ken decided to add a little garlic and hot pepper to put his own stamp on it, and LO! Here's our recipe. (Subsequent research on the web shows that we have indeed reinvented the wheel, but I think we did so with great aplomb.)

The first salad was good. Already Ken was thinking, "How could I augment this idea?" I was thinking, "How can we tweak the formula?"

We made it again. My goal-- to increase the sauce a bit, make the salad a bit wetter initially so as it sits, mingles, and chills, it doesn't dry out. Ken's goal-- to make it zippier, add an element of citrus, and something tomato. When we made this, we had some lovely spiced tomato jam that a friend had made, but chopped sundried tomatoes, or a bit of tomato paste, tomato sauce, or salsa could satisfy this desire.

K&K Macaroni salad

1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 medium onion
3 stalks celery
4 hardboiled eggs

1 pound macaroni


1 1/2 c. mayonnaise
2-3 cloves garlic, or to taste
1 T dijon mustard
1/4 c. cider vinegar
1/4 cup lemon juice, lime juice, or combination
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 T chopped fresh basil
1- 4 T tomato element (see above)

black pepper to taste
hot pepper to taste

chop all vegetable ingredients, eggs, add to cooked macaroni. Mix together sauce ingredients, and add to salad. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Both times we've made this salad,we were on our way to barbecues, and were not responsible for eating the whole bowl of macaroni salad. For the two of us, it would be good to cut the recipe in half, and possibly increase the vegetables. I thought about adding a little broccoli, raw, or slightly streamed. Actually, there are many vegetables that could make their way into such a salad. Really, if you get down to it, it's: noodle, sauce, veg. Serve cold, often in a crowd, generally in the summer. It was fun reminiscing with Ken on this one, and then playing with the recipe. I look forward to our next collaboration!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Teetering Crockery

Food, largely responsible for keeping me alive over the years, has brought me great pleasure. Like great music, art and literature, food is often inexorably tied to life-changing events, triggering cherished memories and making the heart long for a culinary past with an innocence and sense of purpose we have somehow lost. Such yearnings are completely normal and nothing to worry about.

As it is for so many, my rudimentary cooking skills are wholly derived from the primordial need to survive and to entertain. I have always been an appreciator of good food and have, on occasion, approximated good food in my own kitchen. My greatest shortcoming was a dogmatic approach that valued recipes over intuition--an approach buoyed by the fact that I didn't really know what I was doing. But Kate's influence has led me to trust my instincts and have fun trying new combinations of tastes with less regard for propriety and tradition, and my culinary curiosity has flowered under her aegis.

When I was growing up, my mother did most of the cooking, and cook well she did. My father, who passed away two years ago, had a few specialties including a delicious macaroni salad. I got the list of ingredients from mom in the hopes of recreating it. I did, and it was great--just as I remembered it. I remembered the large white glass bowl we used to serve it in, the wicker paper plate holders at each place at the table and the smell of burgers cooked on our indoor grill (it was like a fireplace in the kitchen that allowed us to barbecue even in the thick of brutal Connecticut winters). Although I made the dish more or less according to the recipe, in the back of my mind I couldn't help but think of what would happen if I were to have a little fun by changing things around or introducing new flavors into this very unpretentious dish.

Thus, the macaroni salad can be seen as symbolic of my awakening to intuitive and improvisational cookery. I can see myself like Sonny Rollins with a spatula, like Coltrane with a cutting board, flinging garnish, slinging fresh veggies and creating new dishes on a whim. With Kate's gentle suggestions and guidance, this blog is a forum for me to discover my inner chef. Macaroni salad seems an unlikely portal to self-discovery, but as sure as God made little green peppers, I'm willing to give it a shot. Come with me on my inner journey...