Occasionally, summer and winter meet in a pot. This evening, it was the inevitable.
The winter, last winter, was, of course, dismally not wintery at all. Or delightfully so, if you distain shoveling any amount of snow and don’t tend to hunger for rich stews filled with rooty vegetables enjoyed while watching, through a large expanse of window, while reclining on the couch, a snow fall.
I do, and was saddened that I had the occasion to enjoy not one stew in repose last winter. The importance of which is marked by the fact that my couch is poised specifically to encourage reclining while gazing out the large picture window that dominates my front room.
Though it never really happened, winter was still captured, for me, in the flavors of dried herbs from my summer garden. And this year, as summer draws ever near, it seems my cache of stiff brittle rosemary and crumbly oregano, flaky thyme bits and dried savory, are all still filling their jars. I haven’t, actually, used any of them much at all because the weather never really let me know it was time to cook things slowly — a process which in fact requires dried herbs to get the flavors right, no matter how déclassé you imagine them to be.
Similarly, for reasons I won’t go into here other than to say that I, like winter, never happened during those months, I have yet to really dig into the cache of frozen tomatoes and squashes I squirreled away from last summer’s garden.
But April is cresting and May is moving ever near — so I have commenced upon digging through my stored provisions for that which will be fed to the chickens if not tossed in a pot before warm weather, for good and for certain, takes hold.
But you should know, I am not a creative cook. So piecing together thises and thats can be stressful enough that I try to avoid it all together. Yet, I also live without a car. So I miss out the modern urban notion of shooting to the store for a choice ingredient in a recipe I want to try.
These two decidedly disparate ideas must be reconciled when I am hungry and dinner time has arrived.
Which is precisely the inevitability that tends to push my ideas about food and my cooking into an area that honors Albert Eistein — Try not to make a meal of success, but rather try to make a meal of value.
Grabbing frozen hunks of meat and mysterious bags of vegetables, scanning the spice horizon for possibilities, deciding on a cuisine to ground the idea and, with some hope, cooking forth. It is then, really, that I turn into a cook I can admire, if not for culinary brilliance but for frugality and resource and though, naturally in these times, one who leans heavily on The Google Machine.
Which brings me to tonight’s dinner. Following a chilly end-of-April day after a not very cold winter, I happened upon a dish I’ll call Baked/Braised Chicken with Long-stewed Summer Tomatoes and Squash.
I freeze leftover tomatoes whole in the summer. To do it, and you should, just shove them in a zip-top bag and toss the whole of it in the freezer. It captures the flavor like nothing in a jar ever can, if you pardon the pun. They’re best, then, cooked with just a bit of stock and seasoning in a covered pan, slowly, until they are soft, then poured over crusts of bread and doused with parmesan, which I’ll assume is of the good variety. Once the bread has softened, the soupy bite fools you long enough to remember the particular warmth of the summer sun on your face.
The summer squash, shredded, came from a rather aggressive pair of Zephyr squash plants grown last summer. I ended up, after eating squash dishes of every sort, pickling a batch and even giving some away, shredding and bagging piles of it for the freezer in single serving- and appropriate-for-bread-sized packages. It’s a worthy pursuit if one then uses the bagged treasure even occasionally, if not regularly.
Which I did not.
And so now I am stuck searching high and low for what people do with bagged shredded frozen summer squash. Thankfully there is much to choose from but unfortunately most of it is very casserole-like. Casseroles are not for single people; and even for pairs or more, it is really is only a thing you can make one of as you will end up eating it for eons if it is made well.
So, in true squash fashion, I have decided to bake up a few loaves of “zucchini” bread for foisting on a few friends who have done me good in the past and likely haven’t been thanked enough. Zucchini — or rather piles of bagged frozen summer squash — is good for that. Especially when you can accompany the bread with some companion jam that lingers on the pantry shelf reminding you that you clearly didn’t eat jam last winter either.
For this dinner, I tossed the tomatoes in a cast iron cocotte to melt. Then, I added a bag of squash and half an onion, sliced, which had been languishing in the fridge. A good smattering of the dried herbs, a heavy dose of salt and pepper, and just a scant half hour on the stove and the tomatoes will still taste of the freshness of summer and a goodly portion of summer squash will melt into the middle distance of taste.
While it cooked, I seared off some chicken legs, which I frustratingly bagged in pairs, though I can only eat one. It is important, when you are single, to fight off the urge to store up goods in portions more than one. I think, when it happens, it is the primal urge to break bread with others taking over one’s better judgement. Which, if it happens, can easily and simply be accommodated by defrosting two of a thing. But once the bag with two is opened, two you shall have, forcing leftovers which you must be clever enough to disguise, lest you eat another of the same.
The chicken legs got nestled into the tomato-squash mixture, covered with a mixture of ham-y bread crumbs and parmesan, and cooked in the oven until the crust was crusty and the legs were done.
It was a dish that bolsters my confidence in my resourceful frugality, which is the thing I most definitely admire most, and was best accompanied by a glass of wine. I ate it while reclining on the couch, to mark, in a way, the passing of a winter that never was.