It's easy to get into a cooking rut. I get stuck, but my ruts don't revolve around the food. Instead, my ruts involve who I'm cooking for. My problem comes when I spend day in and day out cooking for Kent and for Kent alone. And, frankly, at this point, after being together for nearly 10 years cooking for Kent is almost like cooking for myself. They only exception is the list of things he won't eat: green beans, kale, shrimp, and offal. I still cook those things sometimes anyway. I've never been the type of cook to shy away from preparing food that solely satisfies my desire--if no one else's at the table--so I suppose you can fault me that selfish, hedonistic indulgence.
This weekend, I've had a chance to stretch my culinary comfort zone a bit. It's not that I don't like having dinner parties or cooking for other people, I really do. But doing so requires more thought than just cooking for my family. Suddenly, I'm wont to examine every culinary decision and over analyze it. After all, it's what English teacher types do.
On Thursday, Kent's dad came in from out of town for a visit. Luckily, I've eaten enough meals with his dad to know his style: Contemporary American. Contemporary American stays true to the meat/starch/veg trinity, but using more exciting flavorings and seasonings, including fresh herbs. This style of cooking relies on traditional techniques and is decidedly against any ethnic fusion (with the exception of French cuisine). Wasabi powder and tahini paste need not apply. Learning the type of food my father-in-law gravitates to reminded me of learning enough about a college professor's speech habits and lecture style to begin imitating it in term papers. Which, but the way, always seemed to help on the grade front.
And preparing a dinner for company is really like any other rhetorical situation. What is your purpose? Who is your audience? What is your focus?
My explicit purpose was given to me: cook dinner for your father-in-law, but I also wanted to hit a few other criteria. I wanted it to be something he'd really like (audience awareness). Sometimes I cook to show off, or cook to add adventure to my diner's experience (AMR's a great dining companion to serve chicken feet, cow tongue, and other more inaccessible ingredients to.) But now was not one of those times. Also, I wanted it to be relatively easy. I'm getting lazier. I recently read about "the minimum effective dose" or MED in Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Body. If I can get away with the minimum amount of work [dose] (throw the dinner into the oven and steam a few asparagus spears and get the same results as from a more fussy dinner, than I'm doing the minimum to still be effective.)
I had one other objective focus for this meal. I wanted to use some of the fancy-pants pantry items Kent's dad gave me for Christmas. Food items make great gifts, but they can also be challenging to use. In fact, sometimes any gift can me a challenge to use. Lenz family-lore has it that whenever Kent's grandmother came to visit, his mom rushed around the house putting out all the tacky items that she made the family as gifts. We're talking things like plastic canvas tissue box covers and gaudy needle points.
This time, however, I relished the little extra push to use some of the items on my pantry shelf that my father-in-law gave me for Christmas. I made Chicken Mirabella, which used up a jar of fancy olives, and then in an inspired moment went for the Christmas bottle of truffle oil in wild rice.
Truffled Wild Rice
I happen to live in area of this country where good bulk sections are non-existent. The only wild rice I can find is Reese brand. Although the quality is fine, it comes in an incredulously tiny box at an exorbitant price. I find it slightly ironic that in this recipe the rice is more expensive than the truffle oil. If you are in this boat, then follow the package directions for cooking. Otherwise, cooking directions follow.
1 cup wild rice
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
3 teaspoons black truffle oil (or more to taste)
Combine rice, water, and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 50 to 60 minutes, until rice is desired doneness. Aim for a nice al dente. If you overcook wild rice, the grains split and look terrible.
Drain any remaining water and immediately toss hot rice with butter and truffle oil. Taste to adjust seasoning, adding more truffle oil if necessary. Serve at once.
Serves about 4 as a small side.