The Chef doesn’t care for leftovers.
Oh, he’ll protest about this statement. He would never say it out loud. But every time we are wondering what to eat for breakfast, and I say, “Well, we could use that polenta I saved in small squares and fry it up into cornmeal mush,” he’ll scrunch up his face, then shake his head. The other night, we bought a fresh chicken and he made an incredible barbeque sauce with aromatic rice. We both oohed and ahhed as we laughed over Letterman. Last night, he said, “What’s for dinner?”
“Well, we have the leftover quinoa from last, and we could do something with that. And there are the drumsticks leftover from the chicken,” I said, trying to put a bright voice on what I knew would disappoint him. It was nearly 11 pm, snowing, and I just didn’t want to stop at the store when we had food in the house.
He sighed, then made the best of it. And then, of course, when he roasted the chicken with olive oil and black rice flour, plus lots of pepper, he still managed to make it taste different than it had been the night before.
It’s not that he is that picky. It’s just that he loves food so thoroughly that he wants to experience a new taste every day. This is a man who crafts an incredible menu every month, worries about it for days before he starts it, loves experimenting and refining in the first days of the month, and then is bored with cooking it after week one is done. He keeps me on my toes.
Before I met him, I was perfectly willing to mull over the same stew for days on end. After all, I had made enough to feed a small army of semi-starved soldiers, and I lived alone. I had no choice but to munch on the same meal all week. But the Chef has this uncanny ability to know just how much food to make to create one filling meal and no more. Whenever he makes stock, he throws in bones and vegetables with seeming abandon. But when he pours the finished stock into the jug in which we keep stock, he has just enough to fill the two-quart container and no more.
Every time, I say, “How do you do that?”
So to the Chef, the idea of eating leftovers for several days is anaethma. Why not plan ahead and make just enough food for that night, then eat something entirely new the next night?
I am learning so much from him.
When I made the cream puffs with the meyer lemon ricotta the other day, I had far more cheese than cream puffs. What was I going to do? Well, I could have made another batch of cream puffs, but we had eaten our fill for that day. (I gave most of them away. Living the writing life is just too much temptation to nibble on cream puffs all day long.) What could I do?
Well, one thing on my side about food is that I am not afraid to throw ingredients together and make up dishes on the spot. I play. The Chef is entirely playful in his life, but his extensive culinary training makes it impossible for him to cook with the utter abandon with which I cook. That’s how I have crafted most of the recipes on this site: with a what-the-hell attitude.
When he was at work, the afternoon following the cream puff evening, my mind suddenly uttered this: baked ricotta. Someone must have made it before, but I had never run across it before. Instead of searching for a recipe, I rushed to the kitchen and threw together what made sense to me: the leftover meyer lemon ricotta, an egg, and some more sugar. Without thinking too much — a process that usually stops me — I just threw it in the oven.
I should have followed my nose. I smelled the light lemony waft, the sweetness that followed, and then a definite over-warmth. But I was busy writing, deep in a paragraph. By the time I came to my everyday senses and remembered the ricotta, it had dried out, not the moist spread I expected. In fact, when I touched it with a spoon, it cracked like the top of a creme brulee.
However, when it cooled, I realized my folly had been smart in the end. A fork dragged across the top scraped the baked ricotta cheese into soft little fluffs. They looked like finely diced hard-boiled eggs. But they were sweet and lemony, like little beams of light against grey clouds. I loved them.
The next morning, I took them out of the refrigerator without the Chef noticing. I piled some on top of my hot cereal and invited him to take a bite. “Hmmmm.…hey, that’s good. What is it?”
This morning, I folded some into the crepes I made us for breakfast. Three days in a row with the same food, and he wasn’t complaining.
BAKED MEYER LEMON RICOTTA CHEESE
Make the ricotta cheese the day before. In case you missed it, here is the recipe for that:
12 ounces fresh ricotta cheese
juice of three Meyer lemons
zest of three Meyer lemons
½ cup sugar
Combine all the ingredients together. When they have mixed well, put the ricotta mixture into a fine-mesh sieve and set it over a bowl. Let the ricotta sit in the refrigerator overnight. By the next morning, all the water will have drained from the ricotta, leaving a firm, lemony ricotta.
1 large egg
1/2 cup sugar
When this has finished, add the egg and sugar and integrate all the ingredients together.
Plop the ricotta mixture into a small baking pan, forming it into a rounded shape in the middle. It will probably slump a little during baking. Don’t worry. This doesn’t need to look perfect.
Cook in a preheated 350° oven for ten to twenty minutes. Check the cheese, frequently. If you want it soft — and yet still baked — with a spreading consistency, take it out after twelve minutes or so. If you would like it a bit drier, so that you can crumble it, leave it in for longer.
Makes about a cup and a half of baked ricotta cheese.