Then I remembered the ginger ale.
I was just about to put the cabbage in. I had plenty of butter in the pan and the pancetta had rendered out its fat, but I still needed some braising liquid. We're out of the frozen cubes of stock that Lynn makes when we've finished a rotisserie chicken or I would've used a couple of those. I was about to give up and grab the vermouth when I gave the carrots and onions and garlic and pancetta one more stir. The carrots' orange was bright and glistening in the butter and fat and I remembered the carrots braised in butter and ginger ale that I'd fixed some months ago. Happy boy, now. That's it. Hint of ginger and a touch of sweet. Lynn keeps a rack of soda cans there near the kitchen door. Splash some in. Ten minutes covered, then a minute more for the last of the liquid to cook off. Finished with a few dashes of sherry vinegar.
The plan had evolved during the day. There's quite a bit in the refrigerator to work with and now that I'm taking on another meal each week I was mulling menus. Three-quarters of a head of cabbage in the lower drawer. That'd be easy with a bit of onion. I asked Lynn if she'd get a kielbasa out of the freezer. I could steam chunks of that in with the cabbage and onion.
Then, after I'd gone upstairs and was doing the morning exercising, I thought of the pancetta. I'd been musing about an amatriciana or a carbonara later in the week, but the pancetta would go well with the cabbage. I finished my stretches and sent a text to Lynn -- leave the kielbasa, I'll use up the pancetta. Later on decided that garlic was now in order and that carrots would add some color and heft. I was still making it up all the way to the moment I remembered the ginger ale.
This is my favorite way of working in the kitchen. No recipe. No measuring. A notion of a plan. I'll browse recipes online for ideas (that's where the sherry vinegar came from). Then I'll try to turn myself loose.
It comes from being decades in the kitchen. Some good cookbooks that teach technique and not just following recipes. (Thank you, Jack Bishop.) Paying close attention when we're out to eat at the way our favorite chefs find balance in the unusual. (Praises to Duane Nutter.)
And then there's the competition with Lynn.
In the years before the short circuit, when I was responsible for getting supper on every weeknight, I loved the chopping and combining and stirring. It was so wonderfully concrete after another day spent planning and cajoling and nudging and trying to help the people I worked with accomplish things. I was good at that and it was marvelously rewarding but there was rarely a sense of accomplishment that felt like completion. Opening the wine and putting the plates on the table gave me that.
Then the years when I was incapable. Dragging myself exhausted after working through the day, hands enfeebled, not able to stand for more than a few minutes at a time. Lynn had to take on all the daily cooking. It was years before I was able to do more than the very occasional special meal or my pasta lunch on Saturdays. The Christmas spaghetti. Josie helping me with potato pancakes.
Slowly it came back. Truly, the competition with Lynn helped. She expanded her repertoire, continued to hone her skills, increase her knowledge (thanks in no small part to her "beloved Kenji") and emphasize appearance as much as flavor and balance. I'd always relished the fact that we were equal partners in the kitchen, albeit with very different styles. Now I was clearly falling behind.
A meal like last night's, the pleasure that came from fixing it and eating it, reassures me. I don't think I'll ever be her equal in presentation. I just don't have that visual sense. But I'm back to doing my share.