I have spent my life modeling my behavior after brilliant, soulful women of a certain age, and so, in the manner of my current idol of perfection, Her Grace (she knows who she is, and if you’re reading this, you probably do as well), who displays her impeccable breeding by reserving comment about whatever current fetid cesspool of events is polluting Twitter and focusing on the eternal, I have been shutting up about (or, hiding from) the news and peppering (so to speak) my Twitter-feed with photos of the food I’ve been making. Cooking comforts me, particularly when I am creating dishes for others, and like reading and writing, it nourishes my heart and soul. My Twitter-food photos and descriptions have prompted requests to share my recipes and so I have decided to start food-blogging in addition to book-blogging and navel-gazing-too-much-information-in-need-of-therapy-please-love-me blogging. I warn you, I’m no more qualified to chef than I am to write, and my methods are best described as improvisational, the resulting concoctions sometimes delicious and sometimes … well, they are always an effort of love and that’s what counts. So, here we are, going, on this new food-blogging adventure. And I wouldn’t be me, whatever name you want to call me, if I didn’t go on at great length about how I got to be here, going. Much love, dear ones.
THE BEGINNINGS OF GASTRONOMICAL ME
My aunt, Sissie, lived in the Libertytown house where she’d been born in 1918 for more than sixty years until the flock of family to whom she’d devoted her decades was by death and marriage and failure and hubris culled to a herd unable (or, unwilling) to physically and financially maintain what Sissie and I, in our BritLit loving affectation called “The Manse”.
I spent Sundays and summers at The Manse through my childhood, and when my fizzled flounderings at becoming a productive, contributing member of society in my teens and twenties failed, Sissie would take me in. We were a happy melange of Grey Gardens, bargain basement Brideshead, and the Babe Paley/TrumanCapote-dowager/walker dynamic.
What Sissie did and loved and was, I wanted to do and love and be to please her, and so in addition to modeling her quiet Catholic piety, goodness, and kindness, I became a devotee of theatre — especially musicals, especially those starring Miss Mary Martin — and a voracious reader of books, and a fanatic for the culture of New York City, or, at least, the Manhattan as depicted in MGM musicals and written about by members of the Algonquin Round Table and Helene Hanff, and, too, when I was ten or eleven, on the family Sundays which I spent with Sissie in Libertytown, I started “helping” her to cook.
Despite having made the meals for her parents daily and every Sunday for between five and twenty-some members of gathered extended family, Sissie didn’t enjoy cooking and stuck to a limited menu. No matter how many times she made a dish, she always had the recipe right there, following it step by step. Those recipes could be found either handwritten or typed up/clipped from magazines and filed in the pages of The Household Searchlight Recipe Book. And although Sissie did not enjoy cooking, she loved reading about it and so next to Household Searchlight, was a paperback edition of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating.
My first solo foray was pie crust, for which Sissie insisted she had no talent and for which it turned out I had a magic touch (which I seem to have lost, but that is another story and one to do, I think, with no longer having an oilcloth tablecloth) and soon enough I was wielding the Excalibur of wooden spoons to beat the cookie doughs, helping with Sunday suppers, trying my hand at gravy (another thing Sissie seemed unable to do) and fancying myself her sous chef, though, in retrospect, I doubt I was the indispensable help I imagined myself to be.
I was thirteen when Sissie took me to see the pre-Broadway tryout of Mack & Mabel at the Kennedy Center where we ate in the Roof Terrace Restaurant and for the first time I heard of and tasted ratatouille. There was no recipe for that in Household Searchlight and there was no internet then, so in the same way I would later create my own theatre using clip-lights and shower curtains and refrigerator boxes in the back room of a factory, I built my first ratatouille without any recipe other than what I had seen, remembered, and could afford and find and believe me, at that time in Frederick, Maryland, finding an eggplant was a feat.
I’ve been winging it ever since. In theatre. In writing. In cooking. And, most of all, in life.
Consider the preceding 750 words fair warning and full disclosure. My approach to cooking is to look at many, many recipes, compare, and then make up my own. Certainly real chefs and skilled cooks would be as horrified by some of the things I do as were many theatre-folk when I took Stephen Sondheim at (my interpretation of) his word and cut I Feel Pretty from my production of West Side Story.
CHARLIE’S DECONSTRUCTED CABBAGE ROLL LASAGNA
Fall is my favorite season. I love the changing leaves, the cool nights, the promise of rest and renewal in this shedding season. It is a time for vegetable soups, chili, and all day Sunday Swiss Steak simmers. So, when I left my apartment to pick up Momma for our weekly Thursday-get-your-hair-done jaunt, I found the most beautiful red leaf on the ground outside my door. Later, waiting as Mom’s hair was washed and blown and set and sprayed into submission for another week, I flipped through the magazines at the beauty salon which were home-y sorts of “It’s HALLOWEEN & THANKSGIVING” themed, and I saw three variations of cabbage rolls and cabbage roll bakes alongside all the decorating suggestions.
While I have never done anything with cabbage other than boil it, and I am not a huge seasonal decorator, THE GLIMMER came over me. I’ll spare you (for this entry, anyway) a long explanation, but since I was a child I have had a lot of noise in my head, or, not so much noise as a sort of music which doesn’t always involve words, but, in short, many times I can hear(ish) and feel(ish) and sense(ish) what others are thinking, what they need, what they want, what they mean, in a way and at a level beyond words, as if I am translating what and who they are from some original source. I know, airy-fairy and all that, sorry, but it’s true (or an integral part of my insanity, either way – it’s my reality). I have often wished I could not hear and feel these things, but, again, another blog. Anyway, along with that music, those knowings, come urges and impulses it is best not to resist, because often they are messages asking me to do things the reasons for which I won’t understand until much later. Thursday morning, the leaf, the cabbage roll recipes, all hit me in that way I have long called THE GLIMMER, telling me I needed to make something called Cabbage Roll Lasagna.
Luckily, Momma and I had already planned to head to Catoctin Orchards after her coiffure-ing to get the kale she’d requested for the Sunday dinner I was making her. And I needed to pumpkin shop. Why? Well, for the last few Halloweens I lived in a place where I was not allowed to have a pumpkin (don’t ask) and so, this year, I promised my niece and nephew that we would carve pumpkins during our next Wednesday weekly dinner.
Wow, typing this I realize that not only do I sound insane, but I have a lot of dinners and dates with relatives every week. Hmm, maybe I am even more like Sissie than I knew? Good thing, that, and good thing too I have all of her cookbooks and M.F.K. Fisher volumes to guide me. (And her Helene Hanff and Edna St. Vincent Millay and . . . )
So, off to the orchard Momma and I went. I got my pumpkin and a couple of gourds. I got her kale. I got my cabbage. And it was a lovely day.
Oh, you’re waiting for the recipe? Okay. Here we go.
3/4 lbs loose hamburger
3/4 lbs loose sweet sausage
8 garlic cloves, chopped
2 small or 1 large or none at all onion (we’ll talk)
29 oz (ish) can tomato sauce
SPICES: Dried thyme, dill weed, sage, Italian seasoning, basil, salt, white pepper, cayenne pepper
3 cups (maybe 4) of cooked rice
1/2 lb cooked, chopped bacon
1 medium head of cabbage, par-boiled (then, or maybe before, shredded – we’ll talk)
Sliced mozzarella (amount is up to you – we’ll talk)
Shredded mozzarella (amount is up to you – we’ll talk)
Freshly grated parmesan (again – amount is up to you – we’ll talk)
STEP ONE: Get your ingredients together. I have a very small kitchen with limited counter space, so I get everything chopped, sliced, measured (well, I don’t really measure a lot, to be honest) and ready to go so that when it comes time to use it, it’s there to be poured or dumped or mixed or whatevered.
STEP TWO: Preheat your oven to 350-ish. My oven runs hot, so I always set the temperature 25 degrees lower than whatever the recipe calls for if I am using a recipe. This has resulted in a number of cake disasters, but, that’s another story. You should know your oven, you decide. Relax though, it’s a casserole. If it takes longer to bake, so what?
STEP THREE: Prepare your baking dish. I use a Martha Stewart 9 x13 ceramic baking dish. I love Martha Stewart baking dishes and pans and utensils and bowls and sheets and — I am a gay man. I just love Martha Stewart. I rubbed the baking dish with olive oil.
STEP FOUR: In a heated skillet with about a tablespoon of olive oil (I use a Lodge cast iron skillet for almost everything I do – and you need a REALLY BIG one for this, but you could just as easily do all this in a Le Creuset – although I use the Martha Stewart version – dutch oven type huge pan) on low heat cook the onions for about five minutes; add the garlic and cook about two more minutes; add the burger and sausage and raise heat to medium, toss frequently until all shades of red and pink have been done away with — some people stop at gray, I like to go to near-brown before I move on to next step.
STEP FIVE: Add about one half of the can of tomato sauce and start throwing in the spices. I don’t measure spices, but for this I went heavy on the thyme, sage, Italian, basil, (maybe a tablespoon of each) then about half as much dill weed and salt, then half again for the peppers (because I live with my sister who does NOT like pepper-spicy things, otherwise I’d have used as much pepper as I used for the thyme group) and now bring this mixture to a boil at which point, turn it down to a simmer. All of which while you’re waiting for —
STEP SIX: Make the rice. I use Uncle Ben’s. It’s easy. Bring it to a boil. Reduce heat. Twenty minutes. By the time the rice is ready, your sauce from Step Five has simmered long enough.
STEP SEVEN: Stir in the rice and the bacon (because my kitchen is so small and my stove top rather tiny, I had already cooked and crumbled the bacon) into your sauce, add the rest of the tomato sauce, simmer for about five more minutes. Now, I ended up using a lot of rice, because I wanted the sauce to be really thick, a firm layer of its own, but you can use less if you want. It’s up to you. Cooking from the heart is about following your heart and your instincts, so do what gives you a glow when you see it. You’ll know. Trust yourself.
STEP EIGHT: Spoon a thin layer of sauce onto the bottom of the dish, just lightly covering. Then lay down a layer of cabbage. NOW LISTEN HERE; if you do NOT parboil the cabbage, it will give you a near crunchy layer even when baked — which some people like. I DO NOT. Too, up to you whether you want to shred the cabbage, or leave the leaves more intact so the casserole has a more lasagna like feel. I shredded mine, I think it allows for the sauce and cheese to better permeate, the flavors to meld better, but, again, whatever makes you happy. Next, layer in 1/2 of your sauce. It will seem kind of thick. That’s what I like. THICK SAUCE. It should cover that cabbage. Drown the cabbage. Then, a thinner layer of shredded mozzarella and freshly grated parmesan — or SKIP THE CHEESE LAYER HERE IF YOU WANT TO. I would NEVER skip the cheese because I’m a fan of much cheese, everywhere, in massive quantities, so I made this inner cheese layer pretty thick. Now, repeat, cabbage, sauce, and top with sliced mozzarella.
STEP NINE: I now place my baking dish on a double-thickness, aluminum foil lined cookie sheet. I do this because my preferred method of casserole-ing is a lower temperature, long, slow bake, a languid, patient, gradual coming together of all the ingredients in an orgy of flavor-blending. If you don’t insulate the dish this way, the bottom of the casserole can be overdone before the middle is fully merged into orgasmic deliciousness. I left mine in for about an hour, and such is my oven — it’s a bottom type thus my need to protect the underside — the cheese on top never got too brown, but if your oven is more of a top-aggressive sort, you can cover the top with a loose sheet of foil when the browning reaches a dangerous level. I think it’s done when the sauce from the under layer is bubbling through the cheese and all around the edges. Remove from the oven. Let it sit for about ten minutes BEFORE YOU TRY TO CUT IT. It needs to set. It will. Cut. Put on a serving dish. Grate some fresh parmesan onto it. Yum.
AFTERTHOUGHTS: This dish, like most casseroles and soups, is even better the second day. So, my recommendation is to make it a day ahead. Bake it. Take it out of oven. Let it cool. Then wrap it and put it in the fridge overnight and reheat it for dinner the NEXT NIGHT — put in a 325 oven, foiled and cookie-sheeted, for about an hour. Let it sit for ten minutes. Sprinkle some freshly grated parmesan over the top. Serve.
Our second night I whipped up a salad of escarole with which I combined tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms I’d marinated in anchovy oil and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning and then grilled under the broiler for a few minutes. I made a dressing of crushed anchovies and garlic, heated in a small heavy saucepan with some olive oil and Marsala cooking wine (very cheap, honestly, and still, this was GLORIOUS), and I smooshed and swooshed and crushed and dumped it all into a big bowl, tossed it around a while and, well, really delightful.
Warning, though: This isn’t really lasagna. This isn’t really a cabbage roll. So, if you’re looking for either of those, or searching for the flavors remembered from your Italian or Polish ancestry, well, you might be telling me to golumpki this. But, it is what it is, and my heritage is pure mutt, so, I just throw together the ingredients in the measurements and combinations my Glimmers tell me to, and, usually, people enjoy it.
I hope you do. P.S. I used my Catoctin Orchard pumpkins and gourds, my morning leaf, and a few others I picked up along the way to make a centerpiece arrangement! Martha Stewart — watch it. I’m coming for you.