Kitchen improv.

But first, just to clear the air:

Was it selfish of me to run away for a little while, ignore texts, emails, and the entire to-do list? Well, yeah. And also, no. Because the me who came back, after this magical decompression (and yes, even after having COVID for the week that followed), is calmer and more clear-headed, more available to the people who are important to me, at home and at work. Decompressed me is more realistic, practical, and resolute about saying NO.

(Funny side note: During my COVID recovery week I took a look at the goals I set at the beginning of the year, using those Ink+Volt worksheets I keep pushing on you, year after year. (They’re good; they really are….) Anyway, I had three big goals for this year, and one of them was to get better at saying NO. Not a qualified “no,” apologetic “no,” or default-to-no-through-avoidance “no.” Just no. I encourage you to give that a try; you might be surprised how much you enjoy it.)

How did I manage to decompress in just a few days, you’re wondering?

Easy: Cooking.

Yes, really.

And afterward, I realized why. I’ll get to that. Come along…


The place where we were staying, on this secret getaway trip, was remote enough that grocery shopping was not an easy option.

Preparing for the arrival of guests, my host made a big grocery run in advance and stocked the kitchen with the following items:

  • 2 pounds of fresh shrimp, steamed at the store and ready to eat
  • 2 pounds chicken thighs
  • 4 zucchini, 2 yellow squash
  • 2 containers of raspberries
  • 8 peaches
  • 1 sweet onion
  • 1 white onion
  • 1 big clamshell container of arugula
  • 1 big clamshell container of spring mix
  • 2 avocados
  • 1 tub of crumbled feta
  • 1 dozen eggs
  • half and half
  • 1 can of garbanzo beans
  • Good butter
  • EVOO
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt
  • American Spoon Whole Seed Mustard

In the cabinet, and of questionable expiration dates, were cumin, cayenne pepper, and black pepper.

The first night, when we were all just settling in, we had to navigate how this dinner preparation thing was going to work. Would we work together, each with a job? Take turns?

One decision was easy, that first night: we would eat the shrimp, which were perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned.

“How about I make a salad to go with them,” I offered.

So I made a big salad that night, and the next night, and the next, and the next, using my standard formula (I’ll get to that), with a different variation each night. One night the salad was the main course; the other nights it was a companion dish.

I made a salad that first night, and then the second night (and third night, and fourth night) I volunteered to make a salad plus the rest of the dinner.

The reason I ended up doing the cooking was that I enjoy cooking. It’s that simple.

To be clear, the friends I was with also enjoy cooking, and they are very good cooks. But the kind of cooking they enjoy involves using recipes and planning meals in advance. The kind of cooking I enjoy is in the moment, using whatever’s at hand, improvising as I go. It is my very favorite way to cook, and this trip gave me the opportunity to think about why that’s true.

Here’s the rundown of what I made:

  • Steamed shrimp on a bed of salad: arugula, peaches, and thinly sliced sweet onion
  • Raspberry chicken; oven-roasted zucchini; sauteed squash and onion; salad of spring mix, sweet onion, feta
  • Salad platter: bed of arugula and spring mix with peaches, sweet onions, and feta, topped with rows of sliced soft-boiled eggs, sliced avocado, room-temperature zucchini/squash (leftovers), and oven-roasted garbanzo beans
  • Crust-less quiche with remaining zucchini, feta, and sauteed white onion; salad of remaining arugula/spring mix, peaches, sweet onion

The raspberry chicken? That was the number one choice on my catering menu when I had a catering business in Boston to supplement my art teacher’s salary. At that time I used the Silver Palate recipe, and I stuck to the recipe pretty precisely, dozens of times. This time around, I marinated chicken thighs in red wine vinegar, mashed raspberries, and salt while I heated the George Foreman Lean Mean Grilling Machine. No, I am not making that up. When one is in a vacation house kitchen, one uses what’s available. And that George Foreman thing is a fantastic piece of kitchen equipment, I promise you. I marinated the chicken, cooked it on the “grill,” and prepared a sauce of onions and raspberries, cooked in butter and silkened with half and half.

The garbanzo beans? I rinsed them, in the can, and then dried them on paper towels. Getting the water out is key. Then I tossed them with olive oil, sprinkled a coating of kosher salt, cumin, cayenne, and black pepper, then roasted them at 400 degrees until they were crispy but not burnt.

The crustless quiche? Eggs and cream whipped together with salt, poured on top of sauteed onion, oven-roasted zucchini, and a good bit of crumbled feta (in a glass pie plate), and baked at 350/375 until puffy, cooked through, and lightly brown on top.

The salads? Sliced fruit and onion (and cheese, if using) stirred together with vinegar, mustard, and olive oil, sprinkled with salt and allowed to sit at room temp while the rest of the dinner is prepared, whether that’s 30 minutes or 2 hours doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Let that salad base sit, and then, right before serving dinner, put the fresh, cold greens on top and toss with your hands until it’s mixed and looks good. How much of all those things? Enough that it all looks right. I don’t have a better answer. Play with your food; you might enjoy it.

Pictures? I didn’t take any, not of the food, anyway. You’ll have to use your imagination.

And how, exactly, was all of this relaxing, restorative, and decompression-inducing?

For me – which might not be true for you – preparing food in this way is creative and liberating. It’s also a kind of internal trust exercise.

I know how to cook; I know what to do.

I won’t ever be a chef or have a restaurant or write recipes for a living. But I know how to cook because my mother taught me how to love cooking and how to enjoy the experience of eating a shared meal.

I’ve used that love to practice and practice and practice. Trusting that experience while letting go of every other expectation and pressure, for even a few days, helped restore order, balance, and confidence in myself.

Improvisational cooking is, for me, a deeply joyful experience that reaches into every corner of my mind, heart, body, and soul. It is the truest me, and getting to be myself for a few days was nothing short of a divine experience.

So the question I’ll leave you with isn’t “what are you going to cook this week?” or even “how do you improvise in the kitchen?”

No; the question for you is this: What connects you back to your truest self, and when’s the last time you did that?

-30-

5 thoughts on “Kitchen improv.

  1. I have no true self. I ride on busses, stay in hotels, eat buffet and never feel “musically fulfilled” when I walk off the stage. I have three days off to clear my head and recharge. That should be enough. Right?

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  2. I don’t know what my true self is, but I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with a kitchen! Maybe once upon a time, but certainly not now.

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