The Mother of Invention (aka Sarah)

Faithful readers, thanks for indulging my bad day/week/year. And I really appreciate the responses, both public and private. I was especially touched by the personal stories of your own challenges that you so generously shared with me. The difficult roads we travel are a little less lonely when we walk them together. And of course, Goethe said it best:

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit – this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.

So how about something a little more cheerful anyway? At last count, Tony and I had lived in approximately fifteen different houses since we were married almost seven years ago. (And I’m not being funny with the “approximately.” I’m really not quite sure. I think we added up seventeen once, but I don’t know where those last two went, and of course you all know that I would never stoop to exaggeration. This also only counts actual apartments or houses we moved into, not hotels or other places where we’ve spent up to a month in various foreign countries). So, yes, I should have moving down to a science, or at least a fine art. But I don’t. And I hope I don’t have to keep on moving until I finally do perfect it.

However, I have learned a few things. And one of the most useful is substitutions in the kitchen. I’ve already talked about how to eat in a foreign country without going crazy. In fact, that’s one of the most popular pages on this blog, leading me to believe that many of you must be either closet foodies or as desperate as I am for new recipes. But what to cook is only half the battle. Sometimes it’s just as challenging to know what to cook it in. At least for me.

My first experience with this problem (well, after the single hot plate and dented frying pan during our study abroad in the Philippines, and after the time I ended up making some pretty decent mac and cheese in the coffee-maker on our honeymoon) was when we moved from Italy back to the United States after our business failed. We were in no financial state to buy anything to furnish a home, but luckily our whole house was still packed up in a storage unit in San Diego. Or so I thought. As we unpacked, it became apparent that the stress of a very hurried packing job downstairs from a dangerous lunatic had caused Tony to throw away quite a lot of useful items rather than going to the trouble of packing them. Including all my pots and pans. Yes, I eventually forgave him. But I still needed to find some way to make food for my family.

I went out in the garage to scrounge through the halfway unpacked boxes in the hope that one or two of my pans might have escaped the general disaster. No such luck. But I did come across a large rubbermaid tub full of the camping gear we’d used only once or twice during our marriage. And lo and behold, at the bottom of the tub were a metal teapot, a very rusty cast-iron frying pan, and even a deluxe mess kit, which included a small lightweight saucepan with a folding handle. Eureka! My problems were solved. At least I could cook something. My mother-in-law did show up a few weeks later with several other pans, and my mom got me a great crock-pot, so I didn’t have to cook in the camping stuff for very long (although I did discover that the mess kit pan made excellent old fashioned popcorn).

Thus, it was not until we were in Ireland a few months ago that I began to get very creative with the pans. We had never been to Ireland before we moved there, but we blithely gave ourselves one day to find an apartment. We flew into Dublin on a Tuesday evening, drove to the little town where we’d decided to live, and spent the night in a hotel. Early the next morning we got up, went to some apartment-viewing appointments we’d set up beforehand, and were moved in by that evening. This would have been laughably impossible in Italy, and was still practically miraculous in Ireland.

The apartment was even furnished, but another thing I’ve learned during my many moves is that “furnished” means different things to different people. In our Saluzzo, Italy and downtown San Diego apartments it meant everything from bed linens, towels, and every imaginable kitchen utensil to a cute little basket for bread at meals (Saluzzo) and an extensive DVD library (San Diego). Sadly, this was not what our Irish landlord meant by “furnished.” Besides having no sheets for the first night, I discovered in the morning that we had no pots and pans. None. We ended up finding a set of three nesting saucepans on sale somewhere, and that was pretty much the extent of my kitchen equipage. I like to cook. I am not a frozen dinners person. So I was not about to give up making any of my favorite meals. I soon discovered that I could cook quite a lot of things in those pans. Luckily, they had metal handles and glass lids, so they worked equally as well in the oven as on the stove.

My regular bread recipes didn’t turn out in Ireland because the flour was so low in gluten. So I made soda bread, one loaf in the small saucepan and one in the medium saucepan. They came out beautifully, just like the authentic round loaves in the Irish bakeries (this also worked well for traditional Tuscan sourdough). I didn’t have a roasting pan to make my favorite yoghurt-marinated roast chicken. So I set the chicken on top of the collapsable vegetable steamer (the kind that opens like a flower), put the steamer in the large saucepan, and roasted away. I even made pancakes in my saucepan, but not very often, since I could only make three small pancakes at a time. Crepes were unfortunately out of the question (yes, I tried), and omelettes were too difficult to flip in a saucepan, but I could make a small fritatta, which went straight under the broiler when it was almost cooked, to melt the cheese.

In my experience, cookie sheets are not easy to come by in Europe. But the broiler pan that comes with the oven functions nicely as a jelly roll pan, as long as you’re baking a kind of cookies that works in a dark pan. I also bake cinnamon rolls, free-form bread, and shallow-dish casseroles like moussaka (Greek lasagna) in the broiler pan. However, since I have a small family, I often prefer to divide oven-baked dishes into more than one saucepan. I cook the small, medium, and large saucepans all at once (they fit exactly, with no room to spare). Then we can eat one pot of baked beans tonight, and put the other two pans (with lids on) in the fridge for tomorrow. Since I am not a microwave person either, I love to already have the meal in a saucepan to warm up as leftovers the next day. But I think my favorite innovation was the three-tiered chocolate cake I baked for Raj’s birthday. Once it was properly frosted, you would never know that I had cooked the three perfectly graded layers in my three trusty saucepans.

Now aren’t you inspired to go throw most of your pans away?

3 thoughts on “The Mother of Invention (aka Sarah)

  • Pingback: Chinese Buns — Casteluzzo

  • November 9, 2010 at 10:49 am

    When we moved to Hawaii, I got rid of nearly an entire house of stuff including kitchen “tools.” Now that we’ve been back on the mainland (US) for six years, I’ve somehow mysteriously acquired lots of kitchen and other household stuff. I preferred the time of simplicity and doing without. It is much easier to organize and care for a few possessions. I guess it’s time to move again.


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