I had a nagging feeling this Monday morning when I woke up from a sleeping pill haze (an hour earlier, actually, thanks to the time change). I looked to my left and saw Monkey curled up in the crook of my rib and then I heard very loud, concentrated mewing emanating from Osama Beans Laden, a very persistent, totally annoying rescue kitten downstairs, so I knew everything was OK, but something was off (anybody want a really cute, neutered gray cat--he's 'ca(s)t'rati?)... like in Pretty in Pink when Andie and wacky Iona are discussing whether or not Andie should go to prom. Iona says, "I have this girlfriend who didn't go to hers, and every once in a while, she gets this really terrible feeling--you know, like something is missing. She checks her purse, and then she checks her keys. She counts her kids, she goes crazy, and then she realizes that nothing is missing. She decided it was side effects from skipping the prom."
But I didn't skip the prom, I actually went four times. Granted I never even got kissed at any one of them, so it could hardly count that I even went, but I did take a hit of ecstasy my Sophomore year and I danced up a storm while I tapped my acrylic nails rhythmically on a red solo cup full of rum and coke, so I have that going for me. Which is good. I also happened to wear a silver lamé sequined poufy gown that year and I tanned myself into oblivion which meant the only things keeping me from exactly resembling a baked potato were a of a pat of butter and a sprinkle of bacon bits dusted on my head (ugly but DELICIOUS!). Incidentally, I think the fact that the only thing that keeps lamé from being lame is a french accent. Never has anything been more perfect.
As I started my hike Monday morning, it hit me. Sunday was the three year anniversary of soupapalooza! and I hadn't remembered.
WTF? How could I have put in three years of quasi-diligent, narcissistic ramblings and yet still have failed to mark the occasion appropriately, like by getting blotto on whiskey and drunk dialing ex-boyfriends? But more importantly, how could I forget the one thing I've done somewhat consistently for more than 1000 days?
I'm very glad I have such well-honed coping skills, since it would be a crying shame to sit around all day and cry over this shame, but I am nothing if not queen of the retroactive justification and I remembered, as I huffed and puffed my way to the top of Fryman Canyon, that I actually did kind of mark my anniversary on Sunday, though I didn't know it consciously at the time. I had made a very large pot of potato kielbasa soup and scarfed much of it down with an entire roll of Ritz crackers while I watched Bridezillas. Boom! There is was.
And what was better than just realizing my justification was actually true was that I had also done something when I was cooking on Sunday that I almost never do-- I had completely improvised.
I am not a natural cook. I am a bad, cancels-each-other-out combination of a little OCD and a lot of impatient (excluding my personal life, naturally-- in that I'm pretty much a deaf and blind messy mute) which doesn't lend itself to developing much of a palate or a sense of confidence. In order to be a good cook, you are forced to improvise, to make quick judgments, to let go, to sometimes fail spectacularly or to discover glorious new things. This has never been easy for me. I cling to the past, to the tried and true and to what I know and I rarely trust even those memories unless they've been written down. Which is why soupapalooza! was such a big deal to me in the first place-- everything was an unknown. And I explicitly gave myself the rule that I couldn't repeat a recipe or test it out before making it. Yes, over the last three years I've made up recipes of my own, but not without using at least a half dozen recipes as a base from which to start. So making something up on the fly was a pretty big accomplishment for me and nothing if not an ideal way to mark a big anniversary that I didn't remember.
I didn't know how much I'd learned cooking-wise in the last three years, but the following happened in an automatic zen-like blur. I think I spent about three minutes thinking about the commonality in many of the recipes I'd made and how that would translate into the perfect accompaniment to bad reality television and I determined that a little white trash creamy potato soup would do it just fine. Here's how it went down (as best as I can remember, anyway):
potato kielbasa soup
16 oz kielbasa, sliced into 1/4" crosswise rounds
4 TBSP butter
2 medium onions (I like yellow), diced
3 stalks celery, diced
2 TBSP smoked paprika
1 TBSP dried oregano
1 TBSP kosher salt
1 TBSP fresh ground black pepper
2 TBSP flour
4 medium russet potatoes, peeled and diced
4-8 cups chicken stock (if you make your own you'll get better results)
1-3 TBSP champagne vinegar
1 cup heavy cream
In a large dutch oven (or large pot), brown kielbasa over medium/ medium-high heat, about 8-10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove browned kielbasa from the pan and drain on a paper towel lined plate and put aside.
Keeping the drippings from the kielbasa in the pan, lower heat to medium, add butter and melt. Next, add the onion and celery and cook, careful not to brown, until the onion is translucent about 10 minutes.
Sprinkle paprika, oregano, salt and pepper over the onion and mix until it forms a paste. Sprinkle flour on top and mix again.
Add potatoes to the pot and coat (you may add a little butter here, again, if the pot seems really dry or if the paste feels like it might burn-- it shouldn't). Pour in chicken stock, increase heat to medium high and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally 20-40 minutes, until potato is soft and mixture is creamy. Feel free to add water or reduce at will, but remember cream will be added at the end.
Reduce heat to low and add browned kielbasa, vinegar and cream to the pot and mix thoroughly. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, ladle into bowls and sprinkle with chives.
At least that's how I remember.
It felt really good to realize that I am moving forward, whether I am aware of it or not. Like in grad school, it's taken a while for the skills I've learned to actually settle in and become automatic, and it's exhilarating that they're starting to. I've learned more than I give myself credit for and I'm actually kind of, dare I say, happy. I wish some things were different. I wish I were cooking every night for my family instead of opening cans of Fussie Cat for Monkey and Beans, though they seem appreciative that I do. I wish that it didn't take so long for me to learn my lessons. I wish I were more present in general most of the time.
But mostly I wish I had chosen better prom dresses.
Stay warm, my friend(s), don't forget the butter and Bacos (tm) and...