My close friend-slash-accidental mentor, Allen Johnson, is visiting from Mississippi this week. It's always bittersweet to see him, only in that it sucks to see him go. He happens to be one of the most inspirational people I've ever met, especially when it comes to cooking. His professional advice aside (he's spent time in the kitchen at Trattoria Stella here in Denver as well as various restaurants down south), it's his ability to improvise that I admire most.
I'll never forget, years ago, drunkenly raiding the kitchen together for a late-night snack. I stared at a pile of completely unrelated ingredients we'd collected, doubting that anything remotely palatable could come from them. "Dude," he slurred in his strong Southern drawl as he turned on the stove, "it's pretty hard to fuck up good ingredients."
The results from that night are too goofy to share but, rest assured, very tasty. And it was the first time I'd witnessed the making of a meal from true scratch, a lesson I've benefited from infinitely. Nothing cultivates confidence quite like improvisation, and I've found that cooking with confidence is crucial.
Ever since then, Allen and I try to throw down makeshift concoctions as often as possible whenever we see each other. The spinach-and-leek Asian-style pasta we made the other night was badass, but not as locally sourced as I'd like. So I took a trip to Marczyk Fine Foods the next day and grabbed some local spaghetti squash (while it's still available), some turnips (ditto) and a variety of cheeses from Colorado creameries.
That night, we cracked some beers and slowly but surely put a meal together -- baking the squash, "quick-pickling" the turnips, raiding the freezer, relying on tons of butter, a handful of cheese, and, of course, a splash or two of beer (New Belgium's Trippel, in this case).
And even though we didn't actually sit down and start eating until close to midnight, it ended up being one of the best meals I've had in years, made more so by a bomber of Odell's Saboteur. Described as "an unpretentious yet sophisticated" barrel-aged sour brown ale, the small-batch beer was spot on -- which is to say, superbly balanced. Of all the flavors presented in its profile, the chocolate notes stood out the most with the food, giving the meal a dessert-like vibe fitting to the hour in which we ate it.
We capped things off with a mini-bottle of bootleg whiskey given to me by a friend for Christmas two years ago, which may or may not have been a good idea in retrospect. It was distilled using the mash from Great Divide's Hoss rye lager and was a pleasantly harsh and flavorful followup to the meal. The morning after, however, was decidedly less so. We awoke in a haze, embarrassingly late, like two would-be musicians after a late-night jam session in the garage.
Here's the recipe for the quick pickle:
1 1/2 cup water 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar 1/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns 2 tablespoons salt 1 cup ice 2 turnips, sliced thin
1. Combine water, vinegar, sugar, pepper and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. 2. Once sugar melts, add ice and remove from heat. 3. Once ice melts, add turnips, cover and let sit for at least an hour.
and for the spaghetti squash:
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SHOW ME HOW
1 large spaghetti squash cut in half 1/2 onion, julienned 1/2 cup Tripel beer 1 cup frozen peas 1 cup aged sheep's milk cheese 1/2 stick of butter 1 dash of nutmeg 2 tablespoons brown sugar Olive oil Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. 2. Rub squash with olive oil and place on a baking sheet. 3. Bake for 40 minutes, remove, let cool and scrap out the insides with a spoon. 4. In a large skillet, sauté onions in a tablespoon of olive oil until soft and translucent. 5. Add beer and cook until most of the liquid is reduced. 6. Add peas and cook until thawed. 7. Add squash, nutmeg and brown sugar and stir to combine. 8. Remove from heat and add butter and cheese, stir to combine. 9. Season with salt and pepper to taste.