Dining Alone

or

Happily Ever After Everybody Leaves

Originally published in the Herald Sun 3/4/2012

The Kid and I have this thing. If we can’t decide what to eat, we employ the “magic wand” gambit.
We close our eyes, and pretend that our imaginary, enchanted, baton has the power to grant us anything our brain-stomach collectives can envision.
A burger from a joint near my junior high, 2500 hundred miles and thirty-five years away. Or waffles from the actual Cinderella castle at Disney World. Maybe guacamole made by Chef Chrissie, my sensai, and the closest thing to a big brother The Kid has (not including the dog).
Then we adjust downward.
Since there’s no winner in the time/space X Prize, I make Del Taco’s hamburger myself (it’s really just a burger with tomato and Miracle Whip). Visiting Orlando is out, but I have a waffle iron, and make a mean sourdough/chocolate chip version.
Choosing guac, though, is dicey.
Avocados are not able to ripen on the tree, so they are shipped, and arrive hard.
“How unripe are they?”
I’m glad you asked.
They’re so new, they think that Angelina Jolie is a heart-stoppingly beautiful movie legend, a humanitarian warrior for the voiceless, a loving partner and mother to biological children and orphans from around the globe.
And not a home-wrecker.
But I recently made a discovery.
Some stores sell a lot of avocados. Some, not so much. Those slower volume stores will sometimes have avocados that have been around for a while, and have done their ripening for you in the produce section. Every once in a while, the universe aligns itself just because you deserve a bowl of Chrissie’s guac (The last time The Kid was home from college, the universe did just that. We gorged ourselves on guacamole for days. Short of Chrissie coming in from Chicago and whipping it up for us, it was a flawless magic wand performance.).
Three nights a week, my ever-lovin’ spouse works overnight at Duke. Before driver’s licenses and New England, The Kid and I used those evenings to investigate personal gastronomic theories, and indulge wand inspired whims.
Nowadays, alone after Petey leaves for work, I break out my private dinner scepter.
Those meals are bound by nothing but taste, mood, and pantry.
I cook for only myself; all the stuff I’ve been craving.
Once, as a little girl visiting relatives in New Jersey, I went to a sleep-over at the house of my second cousin, and her three daughters (There’s “kin” in Jersey, too.)
Back then, in the old days, an authority figure put food on the table, no questions asked. Children’s sole input was the mandatory cleaning of the plate.
In a shocking twist, Cousin Dody put the menu entirely into our hands.
That was the night that the wand and I first met.
We dined on hot dogs, Jiffy-Pop, and root beer. Dessert was rock candy.
Now, I often want childhood favorites. Blue box mac, pb&j’s (apple jelly rulez), mashed potatoes and corn. Last Sunday night, I ate a nutmeg dusted bowl of oatmeal and fruit.
Occasionally, it’s a full-on dinner that I cook from the ground up. Sometimes I go for a diner-style breakfast for supper. Some weeks, it’s chocolate (Or murder. I’ve decided on chocolate.).
Many nights I have salad. Sometimes it’s a salad to make a nutritionist proud. Crisp greens, fruit, veggies, some nuts, a little parm, and a light dressing.
But about half the time, my salad would make the same nutritionist take an extended sabbatical to reexamine their life choices.
There is my very favorite, potato, and all it’s numerous starchy, fatty variations. But a lot of times my rib-sticking dinner salad is pasta based.
This afternoon, I bought a couple of thick, beautiful, ruby red slices of London Broil from the prepped food case at Whole Foods. I knew I had plenty of other salad stuff at home, including about a cup of leftover rotini.
Tonight, I thought about what I wanted. A variety of textures. Cool and not too heavy, but creamy and comforting. And, I wanted to have a balance of all the flavor notes–salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. What resulted was half bowl of pasta to eat in my jimmies in front of “The Supersizers Go” (amazing show on foodtv, check it, home slice), and half lab experiment, selecting items on the fly from my test kitchen that could provide the desired accent.

Performance Art Pasta Salad

1 cup cooked salad-friendly shaped pasta
4 oz cold very rare beef * (deli counter or leftover), sliced length of the pasta, 1/4 inch thin
*vegetarians could substitute grilled portobellos, or tofu
2 cups baby spinach
1/3 cup dried blueberries
1/4 cup roughly chopped, salted pistachios
1/4 cup manchego or very dry English cheddar, shaved into salad with potato peeler
1/4 cup green onions, both white and green parts, sliced very thin on extreme bias
salt and pepper
Dressing:
1/3 best olive oil (best in your kitchen, my best usually comes from Costco)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise (makes dressing feel creamy on the salad, and the palate)
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
Whisk together all ingredients until an emulsion is formed. Check on a piece of spinach for seasoning. Lemony things demand more salt, and the juice may be too sour, so that a little more honey is called for. Taste and adjust, please!
Refrigerate for 30-60 minutes before folding into pasta.

Gently toss all ingredients, while slowly adding the dressing. Stop adding it when everything is barely, barely coated. The water from the spinach, and the juice in the steak will contribute lots of flavor, and liquid, to the final dish. Cover with plastic wrap to rest at room temperature. In 15-20 minutes, give it another gentle toss. Check for seasoning, plate, and serve.

To be perfectly honest, after I mixed it but before I had tasted it, I got a little nervous. There were some seriously non-traditional participants and combinations in that salad. But when I tasted it, I was delighted. The flavors worked. The dried blueberries were a little out there, but they were my favorite part. The chewiness was met with nutty crunch and the burst of sour/sweet was a perfect foil for the salty/funky meat and cheese.
This may sound perfectly dreadful to you. But that’s the point. I made it with my own magic wand.
You’re a grownup, it is your druthers. It doesn’t matter if the fantasy banquet for one is to dine on the perfect Waygu steak, champagne-glazed fiddlehead ferns, and fresh porcinis seared in brown butter, or chilling in your underwear, swilling YooHoo and munching Funyuns, while watching the “Prime Minister’s Questions”, the wand is yours, to do with as you wish.
Close you eyes, and pick it up.
Thanks for your time.

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