Beware of Peanut Butter Boy

As you know from a previous post, I can be experimentative in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s because I get bored, but sometimes it’s to keep costs down. If I don’t have a full complement of costly ingredients, or can’t afford them, I make do with the cheap stuff already in stock. One inexpensive and necessary ingredient in my kitchen is peanut butter, which has often played a key rôle in my cooking, but it is not the only character actor in this theatre.

The other day I brought home some nice cod. At least, I thought it was nice; I have no idea what its mother thought. I wanted to cook it in a different style from the last time, but I hadn’t yet decided how. The previous hunk of fish that landed in the pan got treated to the classic theme of olive oil, garlic and lemon, with a frisson of white wine.  I don’t know if frissons are legal in Washington State, but so far not a single police officer has been to my door. A plan of attack had not yet formed in my culinary cranium, so I looked around. (My wife thinks that when in the kitchen, I should never be allowed to look around.) There was the leftover jar of peanut butter. Hmm, that’s a start.

There was also a fat nectarine sitting in the fruit bowl, minding its own business. And some balsamic vinegar sat on a shelf, looking forlorn. So I whipped out the sauté pan and started cooking the cod very gently. Then I took a big scoop of peanut butter and added it to the pan, where it slowly turned into a melty goo; it looked like Mississippi mud, but it smelled like Mom’s peanut butter cookies in the oven.

While the peanut butter was changing shape, I drizzled a tiny amount of balsamic vinegar into the mud, and sniffed: it was the olfactory equivalent of cellos and French horns; some harmony as well as some contrast. Not too bad so far. Overtones of Thai food were swirling overhead, but I didn’t have any hot chili peppers or limes. I did however have a nectarine and Tabasco, so the first item I sliced up thin and threw in, along with a few drops of the second, stirring in an anti-clockwise direction. A sharper editor might have insisted I stick with the music metaphor, but that wasn’t working, so I dropped my baton like a hot potato, and instead grabbed a fork…

No, dear reader, I did not die – didn’t even suffer food poisoning.  It was pretty good, actually.

You know how when you’re a kid, and you try doing something on the edge of naughtiness and you get away with it, how you want to try it again? That’s what I did.

After I returned from the grocery store the next day, my kitchen’s  food ingredient manifest boasted some new items: ground beef and ground pork. The question was, what to do with them?

In the old days, on Monday nights, a bunch of us used to get together at a friend’s house, and we’d barbecue. It was the classic intersection of men, meat and fire. This old friend has a big, beautiful house in the trees with an enormous deck, an ideal place for a carnivorous gathering, and every Monday felt special. On some of those nights we would all bring our own main course, so the top of the capacious grill might play host to a meaty mélange of burgers, steak, salmon, chicken, pork chops or who knows what. On these occasions our benefactor would provide side dishes and maybe a dessert, and the rest of us would bring beer, wine, or copious cocktail ingredients. Other times, one guy would volunteer to assume the rôle of head chef, and cook the main course for the whole assembly, which meant that the rest of us would then bring side dishes, salad, dessert, bread, and of course lots of wine. We were men who didn’t like to suffer thirst.

Once in a while my old friend Doug would assume the responsibility, and bring a special entrée with him, concocted from a herd of cows and a pride of pigs. He called his offering Uncle Fred Burgers, and they were a sight to behold.  They were a mix of ground beef, ground pork, Italian sausage, hamster, badger, and god knows what else. Each one was two fingers thick and bigger than a catcher’s mitt, bigger than the biggest dinner plate, so we learned to use garbage can lids for plates.

They were great. You always wanted to eat two, but … well, it just wasn’t possible. Except for Big Chuck, and that’s another story.

So, on this occasion in my modest Seattle kitchen, Doug’s Uncle Fred burgers were an inspiration. I rolled up my sleeves and mixed the ground beef and ground pork, adding fistfuls of garlic, and allowing a few drops of sweat to substitute for herbs and spices. But I wasn’t in the mood for a burger; no, I felt like a pasta dish.

So I put on a pot of water to boil, stared at the pan with the browning meat, and, you guessed, looked around the kitchen. There was that trusty jar of peanut butter.  But wait, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

In the fridge was a leftover half of a large Walla Walla sweet onion, so I started to chop. Now, a sensible person should try to avoid getting into a lengthy discussion about Walla Walla sweet onions. Or, for that matter, the cellist Yo Yo Ma, or the former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The repetition will drive your listeners crazy. The repetition will drive your listeners crazy. There are some species, commonly found in Massachusetts, for whom repetition is in their DNA.  They will say the same thing six times in a span of 25 minutes.  This kills brain cells, but repeaters don’t seem to notice.

Anyway, the other day I overhead two people talking about Walla Walla sweet onions. In the duration of the conversation, they each said “Walla” 1,024 times, an even number, of course. Naturally, this had me looking for a weapon, which I never found. Why did it never occur to them to use a nickname, an acronym, a substitute, or anything besides saying “Walla Walla” over and over?  They could have said – once – “Walla”. Or they could have mutually agreed to say “onion” or even “Ralph” or some other word. But no, they each continued to say “Walla Walla” again and again, shortening my life span by accelerating my blood pressure.

OK, I’ve had a Manhattan, and I feel much better now. So where were we? Oh right, we were chopping Ralph.

After I had drained the browned beef and pork, I set the meat aside and sautéed the onions, coaxing them into that wonderful, translucent golden color when they are sweet and delicious. Finally, into one big pan I combined the pasta, browned meat, onions, peanut butter goo and garlic, and watched as it all seemed to coalesce together into something quite different from horrible. Again, I did not die; and I did not suffer any tummy-badness symptoms from food poisoning. Indeed, I did not even suffer from that nauseating condition when one assumes that some things simply shouldn’t be mixed with certain other things.

At this point, my wife would probably say, “Don’t applaud.  Don’t even smile. Please don’t encourage him.”

Tonight, I feel like pasta, and I will pair it with my old friend, canned mushroom soup. Oh, and I think there’s some peanut butter left.

Tune in next time, when we discuss the mathematics of determining precisely how much cheese should go on a cracker or piece of crusty bread.

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