There are no mistakes, only unique creations
I read recently that a French philosopher once said that all human misery comes from our inability to sit alone in a room.
And to this, I would add, with a pot and some water and maybe a little bread, and perhaps a chicken for the pot and water; and, as long as we are at it, I wouldn’t mind some salt with the bread, maybe a little butter, unsalted in this case. And so it goes.
If necessity is the mother of invention, boredom begat inspiration. What’s wrong with being bored? The ideal green-tea-sipping, zen-focused, mantra-mouthing me should be happy spending hours contemplating the universe. But in reality, there is reality. Chicken soup for the soul is all well and good, but chicken soup for the table is so much better.
There are two levels of inspiration when it comes to cooking. First, we challenge the conventional. For example, the most basic prepared food is probably bread. Every culture has a version of flour and water fashioned into dough that is fired, baked or steamed: chapatis, sourdoughs, pitas, tortillas, pizza, matzoh—it is basically the same. However, we are never satisfied with basics and constantly change the formula. Add more water, some baking powder and an egg, and we roam into cake land.
Similarly, braised beef is nice by itself. But when company calls, the Flavourguy adds vegetables in the last half hour of cooking and serves stew. If more people drop in, I can thin it with more stock or water and it’s a hearty soup. Add bread, cheese and a salad and I am home free.
Recently, friends came over for hot dogs and potato salad. The teenage male (a joy to watch, a human being in the act of near continual consumption) asked for ketchup. We didn’t have any. But I mixed a few tablespoons of canned tomato paste with a little Worcester sauce, dashes of sugar and salt, a teaspoon of cider vinegar and just enough water for the right consistency.
“You can make ketchup?” he asked, amazed at my sudden inspiration.
This exercise in immediate gratification reminded me that there are two levels of inspiration in the kitchen. First, we are inspired to create. And then, if all else fails, and it often does, we can be inspired to rename the dish. A fallen soufflé? It’s now a frittata. Pancake batter is too thin? Voila—crêpes! Homemade ketchup tastes different than Mr. Heinz’s? Ahh, that’s because it is really an Indian chutney. While in P.E.I. this summer, we cooked dinner for friends who try to eat food from as many local sources as possible. I had an inspiration and decided to make pad Thai, a dish they had never eaten, with P.E.I. lobster instead of the traditional shrimp.
Lobster pad Thai
Take a half-pound (about 250 grams) of rice noodles for four people. Let the noodles soak in very hot water for about a half hour, or until they are supple but not mushy. As they soak, prepare the rest.
The sauce: Mix a half-cup of ketchup, a tablespoon of Vietnamese fish sauce or Worcester sauce, a teaspoon of sesame oil and a half-teaspoon of chili paste or similar hot sauce.
Cook two chicken legs (any method of cooking is fine and leftover chicken is great too), remove the skin and coarsely chop the meat. Cook a lobster (or buy one pre-cooked), cool it, remove the meat from the tail and claws and coarsely chop it. Set aside a half-cup of chopped peanuts, a cup of chopped fresh coriander leaves, a teaspoon of dried chili flakes, and two limes. Use half a lime for juice and cut the rest into slices.
Drain the noodles and set them in a colander. Heat a large frying pan or wok with a quarter-cup of oil. Stir in a finely chopped clove of garlic. When it starts to brown, stir in the sauce. When it bubbles, add the chicken and lobster and then the noodles, tossing everything together and cooking until the noodles are barely soft. Put the pad Thai on a platter and cover it with peanuts, chilis and cilantro. Drizzle the lime juice over the dish and decorate the platter with the lime slices.