I have a bad habit. Maybe you have it, too? Maybe we can attempt to break it together? You see, far too often I will be in possession of an entire kitchen arsenal of perfectly good foods- fresh vegetables, grains, and a freezer ludicrously packed with proteins and leftovers galore- but suddenly crave a dish that I have absolutely none of the ingredients for. Many a last minute Publix trip has been embarked upon in the name of getting what I want, when I want it.
As if that’s not bad enough, I have another culinary proclivity which has recently been brought to my attention, possibly by other hungry residents of my household. Whenever I am cooking something that is easily made in big batches, I like to go ahead and portion out what will be eaten that week, and freeze the rest. This applies to things like chili, spaghetti sauce, lasagna, greens, soups, or anything in a sauce/stew format (like last month’s beef bourguignon– there’s some in my freezer right now!). I consider it a gentle and kind gift to my future harried self, that one evening when I’m tired or sick or there’s some sort of emergency, there will be a delicious home-cooked meal waiting for me. And indeed, the leftovers are waiting… and waiting… and waiting.
The problem is, no situation ever seems quite emergent enough to justify dipping into my stash. Thawing those braised lentils and chicken thighs on a day when I just don’t feel like cooking seems tantamount to phoning a friend on a $100 question. What about when I REALLY need those lentils? What will I eat when I break both of my wrists and can’t cook? What about when I suddenly acquire the chicken pox for the first time, as an adult, in spite of having been vaccinated, and don’t wish to endanger infants and the elderly by venturing to the store? What about the quasi-apocalyptic situation after the aliens come during which we cannot leave the house but have somehow maintained electricity?
I said it was a proclivity. I did not say it made any sense.
The twisted ways I’ve managed to justify this irresponsible behavior in my gluttonous little mind are manifold, but a couple of months ago, upon throwing out yet another ream of sad green beans as I was trying to fit $50 worth of groceries into an already full fridge, I decided enough was enough. So, in an effort to be less consumptive and reduce waste, I’ve lately begun stretching out my once-weekly (or more) grocery store trips to every-so-oftenish. By and large, this has translated to every three weeks or so for a big grocery haul, with small replenishing trips for things like salad greens or half and half.
Armed with my new philosophy and only slightly pining for my weekly foray into the calming, seafoam green, gently fluorescent atmosphere of Publix, I began making changes. Entire meals were constructed of the remnants of previous dinners. I pulled out a bag containing maybe two portions of lentil, sausage, and kale soup from the freezer, then added it to a fresh pot of lentils that I cooked in the slow cooker to create a whole new week’s worth of lunches. I chiseled away at the mental irons that shackled together certain main dish/side dish combinations (i.e., roasted zucchini is served with chicken shawarma, asparagus with Korean glazed salmon; anything else is heresy and wrong) and began reusing side dishes for later meals, rather than optimistically saving containers of roasted broccoli and sauteed mushrooms for a stir fry which may or may not ever come to pass. I vowed to use to completion every single avocado that came through the door. (Avocados, right?! So delicious! So expensive! So temperamental! Many a half has languished when I couldn’t eat the whole thing in one go; it is only due to my true love for them that I retain the optimism required to keep shoving them in the fridge.)
This new meal creation method reminded me of a time when I had an unexpected afternoon free and was faced with the delicious decision of what sort of fuck-offery to get into. As I was wont to do when she was living, I decided to drive to Aiken to visit my grandmother. Since neither of us knew I was coming, she hadn’t made the requisite batch of fried chicken, with extra thighs- my favorite cut; she always hid one for me at the bottom of the paper towel-lined pewter bowl she served the chicken in at big family gatherings – but this did not deter her. She chatted with me while one long, slender white arm probed the recesses of the refrigerator shelves, pulling out a motley assortment of dishes- blue flowered bowls wrapped in saran wrap, vintage mustard yellow Tupperware, and of course, Cool Whip containers, which I knew without question to be filled with beans. Within minutes, and without any actual cooking being done, the table fairly groaned with the weight of roasted sweet potatoes, stewed green beans, giant lima beans over rice, sauteed squash, cornbread, cabbage, and cold ham. The various components had been cooked over a span of meals in the past week, and were assembled to create a lunch which was so cohesive and satisfying that it was hard to believe it wasn’t prepared especially for my visit. Kill the fatted calf and all that. Her ability to unthinkingly tuck pockets of foresight into her cooking, as well as her stewardship of what she had, was an enviable quality that was certainly forged by having been born to parents whose youth was so touched by the Great Depression.
I thought about this one night when I was feeling grumpy about the fact that I didn’t have the ingredients to make chicken parmesan, but had virtuously chosen to make do with what I had. I opened the refrigerator and found, not a Cool Whip container of legumes, but a hunk of garlic pork loin, a half an onion, some yellow rice which had turned out too mushy, and the bane of my existence, one half of an avocado. I weighed the options: stir fry would use the pork and less than satisfactory rice but would require slicing new peppers and using up broccoli, and wouldn’t use the avocado; tacos would use the pork and avocado but not the rice. A little brainstorming, a little improvising, and then inspiration struck!- I had a vision to make a sort of aranciata-rice cake hybrid with Latin flair, layered with pork and avocado. Yes, Latin Crispy Rice Cake and Pork Sandwiches sounded incredible in my head. I mixed the yellow rice with several eggs, some lime juice, a fair bit of shredded cheddar cheese (also leftover), and a generous sprinkling of tajin. I chilled the mixture a bit, formed it into patties, then nestled them into a sizzling hot skillet. It smelled divine! The bottom was browning beautifully! And then- and then- I tried to flip them. Utter failure. They fell apart immediately. Moving quickly forward, I decided to mix together all of the rice in skillet and add a little onion, allowing it to brown and crisp as I envisioned, but letting the egg and cheese in the mixture meld to give a creamy, frittata-esque texture to it.
The dish that resulted was one of the best damn things to come out of my kitchen all month. I was glad I’d taken Julia Child’s advice and not named the dish before it was served; thus, there were no continuity errors when Cheesy Skillet Rice with Seared Pork, Poached Egg, and Avocado, as tantalizingly pictured at the top of the article, was served.
There’s no recipe to be had here – I honestly don’t even know if I could recreate the dish. If you would like a bit of a play-by-play: While the rice was sizzling merrily away in the skillet, I cubed the leftover pork and seared it in a little oil until it was brown and crispy, then tossed it with lime and cumin. I poached some eggs. When the rice was done, I plated it as the foundation of the dish, then topped it with the pork, egg, and avocado, and showered the whole thing with more lime, pepper, and Valentina hot sauce. One photo was allowed to be snapped before my dining companion and I laid into our suppers, relishing in the creamy, crispy, salty, piquant combination of flavors and textures, and the porny unctuousness of perfectly cooked poached egg yolk yielding to the tines of a fork and saucing the whole dish. It was a good time. I don’t know that the stars will align in such a way to allow me to recreate the dish, but the lesson on resourcefulness, as well as the basics of the cheesy skillet rice technique, are handy things to have in my cooking arsenal. And it’s always a triumph when the second half of an avocado does not go to waste.
*photo provided by the author