Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cooking Without a Recipe

I have a friend who comes over to my house for dinner every couple of weeks, usually on Tuesdays. I have referred to her in the past as "my bi-weekly dinner guest." Today she showed up around lunch time (she's on vacation) with two cardboard boxes filled with fresh vegetables harvested just yesterday from her parents' garden. She brought with her tomatoes, both beefsteak and cherry, large green onions, peaches, zucchini, eggplant, green beans and enough garlic to last me for weeks. She also brought all the fixings for Caesars (the drink, not the salad) as she planned to show me she makes a mean Caesar. To top it all off a large basil plant, soil and roots attached, was also in the box. We were going to make basil pesto but we decided it would be best if we used only a little of it and plant the rest in the garden so I can have it for the rest of the summer/fall. Since I am not a gardener, I handed my friend the little shovel (or whatever it's called) and, a few minutes later, two basil plants of different variety were basking in the late afternoon sun in the middle of Jen's flower bed.
For this particular dinner gathering I had previously decided not to plan a menu or to even think about what I would be making. For once I was going to wing it so it came in handy that she had brought all the vegetables. The large tomatoes turned into bruschetta mix (a no brainer). As for the main...

I had stopped at my neighbourhood Longo's earlier in the morning and picked up some prosciutto, some nice white asparagus (all the way from Peru), mushrooms and fresh salmon. Since my friend had also brought a 500g bag of penne, dinner just came together. It would be a simple, comforting, pasta salmone with prosciutto, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms and, of course, garlic and basil. A no frills meal for my Italian friend for whom I have not yet cooked pasta. You see, I didn't think a Romanian girl, no matter how into cooking she is, can do pasta justice the way an Italian would.

So anyway, back to the impromptu dish. I wasn't sure if salmon would actually go with prosciutto but since I had both and had to use them I went for it. I also had too many vegetables in the pan to get a nice heat to them. The zucchini and mushrooms started releasing their moisture and my vegetables soon were almost boiling in there, instead of caramelizing nicely. I drained some of the liquid and switched to the biggest pot I had. It seemed to work but still the dish was not coming together as I envisioned. Something was missing. Since we ended up not making pesto (too much wine and too many caesars) I had nothing bringing those ingredients together so at the last minute I poured in some heavy cream and after it reduced a little I added some shredded cheese for good measure. Dumped the cooked pasta over it, seasoned with some very nice cyprus sea salt I bought (that damn Longo's, I tell you, is a dangerous place) and freshly ground pepper and voila...

I still had some very ripe, very juicy peaches to use up so for dessert I whipped us up peaches and strawberry sundaes. I have been wanting to try a balsamic syrup for a while now and this gave me the perfect opportunity as I had no other syrup for the sundae. So I mixed a nice balsamic vinegar with maple syrup (equal parts) and let it reduce until I was satisfying with the sweetness and consistency. I drizzled it over three small scoops of chocolate hazelnut icecream topped with the fresh peaches and strawberries. For the final touch I added whipping cream and a strawberry.

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