Chicken-Fried Love Interest


We bring you a bit of unusualness today with this audio reading of Rob Northrup’s short story, from his Dungeons and Dayjobs, a collection of 2d6 stories. A quirky little tale of romance gone wrong, the story also contains five complete recipes.

It’s that kind of story. Enjoy.

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The audio of the story follows.


Chicken Fried Love interest (with Cilantro and Asparagus)
1. flour

The first dinner I made for Ben was scalloped potatoes with ham. When I was a little girl, my mom taught me how to throw it together without taking time to measure.

Scalloped Potatoes with Ham

bag of flour
jug of milk
sticks of butter
bag of potatoes
quantity of diced ham

  1. Peel and slice potatoes until you cover the bottom of an ovenproof dish with a layer of potatoes.

  2. Dot the potatoes with butter, maybe one teaspoon for every two or three potatoes.

  3. Sprinkle a thin layer of flour over the potatoes and dots of butter.

  4. Spread some ham over that, as much or as little as you want.

  5. Repeat layers (steps 1-4) until the dish is full. Pour milk slowly over the top, trying to dampen as much of the flour as you can on the top layer, until milk rises to about one-third of the depth of potatoes. (Transparent dish is helpful for this.)

  6. Bake at 300 degrees or 350 degrees F for 45 or 60 minutes, or until potatoes are done.

I don’t know if it’s my grampa’s Dutch heritage or gramma’s English, but one of them taught my mother the technique, and she taught me.

Ben was sweet. We were in love and he couldn’t find anything wrong with my scalloped potatoes. He’s not a big fan of ham, so he had a couple helpings and just pulled the cubes of ham to the side of his plate.

About three months later he moved in with me. It made more sense than me moving in with him because his apartment was small and grody.

2. cilantro (optional)

Ben had a little difficulty with the name “Moors and Christians” applied to black beans and rice. I said it’s Spanish, blame them. Probably hundreds of years old. Isn’t it okay to use it if they used it in the first place? Ben said we might be perpetuating stereotypes or something. It was probably privileged white Christian Spaniards who came up with the name. Is it insulting to call someone a Moor nowadays?

Well, anyhow, we had Cuban black beans and rice, which they supposedly call “Moros y Cristianos”. I set out this big ceramic bowl full of the stuff. Ben noted that it was more than the two of us could eat. I said, yeah, because I like it and I want to freeze the leftovers and have it for lunch at work. Skip the salami on wheat for a few days.

Ben asked, “Where’s the meat?”

I said, “Oh, I don’t know, I just put so much stuff together, I thought with all the vegetables and beans and rice and stuff. I didn’t even think of it.”

Ben said, “You got this out of Vegetarian Times, didn’t you?”

“No,” I said, “but I got the idea there. I saw a version of this in Vegetarian Times and I didn’t want to mess with plantains, so I found a different version on a website.”

Ben said, “All right. Can we please have meat next time?”

“Yes. I’m not turning into a vegetarian. I just thought this seemed like a cool recipe, and I got all this stuff together. I was hoping it would turn out good. I think it did. Will you try some?”

He said, “All right.” He tried some. He didn’t complain about it. I had a lot left to put away in the freezer.

Moors & Christians (Cuban black beans and rice)

1 cup black beans
6 cups water
3 tbsp butter or oil
1 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes
salt
black pepper
cooked rice
1 bay leaf
diced red onion (optional)
cilantro (optional)
sliced hard-boiled eggs (optional)

  1. Clean and rinse beans. Soak overnight in a pan covered by at least one inch of water. Drain, rinse, and place in a large saucepan with water and bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer about two and a half hours or until beans are tender.

  2. Melt butter or oil in a skillet. Sauté thyme, celery, onion and bell pepper 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes. Cook 2 to 3 more minutes.

  3. Add vegetables to beans. Simmer 45 minutes or until the sauce thickens. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice. Garnish with diced red onion, chopped cilantro and slices of hard-boiled egg (if the person you’re cooking for notices extra touches like that).

3. water

I didn’t bring any exciting dishes to work for a while. For dinner, I made standard meals like baked chicken and rice-a-roni, burgers and chips, stuff like that. Didn’t bother making extra for work. My usual lunch at work is a package of ramen noodles with some extras. I like spicy shrimp flavor.

Lunch at Work

1 package ramen noodles, spicy shrimp flavor
1/2 cup frozen mixed vegetables
water

  1. Cover noodles and vegetables with water.

  2. Microwave on High for two minutes. Stir. Microwave two more minutes.

  3. Steep for two minutes.

One morning I told Ben, “Anyways, meat is expensive.” He was on the toilet, reading Harper’s magazine. “What?” I said, “It’s expensive. You can’t hardly get chicken for a buck a pound anymore, or ground beef for a buck and a half a pound. Even if you get a big family pack. It’s not cheap anymore.”

Ben looked up from the magazine. “What are you talking about?”

“When I made black beans and rice. We don’t need to go vegetarian to be smart about eating vegetables once in a while and skipping meat, which happens to be expensive and usually bad for you.”

He went back to the magazine. “Humans have sharp canine teeth for ripping apart meat. Our anatomy has evolved to be omnivores, and it messes up peoples’ stomachs when they eat only vegetables for long periods. We’re not herbivores.”

I made a pot of black beans and rice that night, just so I’d have it for lunch at work again. It was a good batch. I think I added more tomatoes to that one and used two bay leaves instead of one.

4. dried split peas

Ben took me to Red Lobster one night. That was really nice. I had coconut-lime shrimp. He had lobster.

I liked their biscuits, the kind with cheese baked in them. I tried to make them on my own, looked up a couple different recipes on the web. Never came out with anything very satisfying, but it got me on a real cooking jag. I started making a lot of soups. The thing about soup that appeals to me is that, after you cut everything up and throw it in a pot, you let it simmer for a while and then it’s done. No complicated steps except for stirring it now and then, or sautéing some ingredients at the start.

I tried chicken noodle soups, cream of broccoli and mushroom. That turned out pretty good. I tried different ways to make the cream part. The recipe I started with used flour and milk and butter and a little tarragon, and it wasn’t bad, but it tasted like flour and milk and butter. I wanted something that was more of a creamy cream. I tried soup mixes from the store, trying to reverse engineer them so I could make them from scratch.

Eventually I figured out that the secret ingredient in the yummiest canned soups is MSG. People bitched about Chinese restaurants to the point that they started putting up neon signs that say “No MSG,” but nobody raises a fuss about it in grocery store items like soup, crackers, everything. If you buy something processed and it tastes good, you can bet your ass it has MSG in it.

I got burned out on the cream quest after a while. I had absorbed enough to start improvising soups without recipes, knowing which combinations of vegetables worked, which ones add strong flavor or subtle flavor. I try to be fearless about putting unusual or wrong things together. Don’t tell me what I’m doing is wrong unless you can explain why plum pork is right. If some bastard put ham with pineapple and made it work, then there must be a combination out there with my name on it, waiting to rule the world.

So Ben came home from overtime one night. I didn’t plan it this way, because he usually picks up a sandwich out of the vending machine at work. But this time he came home starving, just as I was finished an experiment called “Untitled #7 with Split Peas and Rice.”

Untitled #7 with Split Peas and Rice

1/2 cup dried split peas
3/4 cup long grain rice
4 potatoes chopped
1 onion diced
2 to 3 tomatoes, diced
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
5 to 6 cups water
1/2 tsp coriander
2 stalks celery diced
1 cup or more mushrooms
1 clove minced garlic

  1. Bring peas, rice and water to a boil in big pot.

  2. Reduce temperature, cover and simmer 15 minutes.

  3. Add potatoes, onion, celery, garlic and sugar. Simmer 15 more minutes.

  4. Add the rest and simmer 15 to 30 minutes.

He tried a couple bowls of Untitled #7. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I had been experimenting with dried split peas. I like how they disintegrate into the broth and give it a different flavor from the typical, clear chicken broth. I didn’t like the freaky stinking farts that pure split pea soup gave me. So I was minimizing the peas, just enough to give a flavor and thickness to the soup, but not enough to be dangerous. Some carrots, onions, a little ham in there if you got some around. But you’ll survive if you don’t have any.

Ben took a bowl of it and ate in front of the tv, watching CSI: Hoboken. I asked what he thought. He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “What?”

He said, “What?”

I said, “How do you like it?”

He said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s cool.”

I said, “Okay, good. Thank you.”

5. cauliflower

About a week after Ben mentioned the possibility of moving back in with his friend Stu, I attempted Cheesy Cauliflower and Mushroom Gougère. I made it on a night that Ben was going to be home. I added some damn bacon so it would have meat in it.

Cheesy Cauliflower and Mushroom Gougere

1.25 cups water
4 ounces butter
5 ounces flour (1.25 cups!)
4 eggs
1.5 cups Gruyère or Cheddar cheese, diced
1 tsp French mustard
salt and black pepper

Filling:

14 ounce can tomatoes
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 ounce butter
1 onion chopped
1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
1 small cauliflower, broken into bite-size pieces
some thyme

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and grease a large oven-proof dish. Heat water and butter in large saucepan until butter melts. Remove from heat and dump flour in. Don’t mix it in slowly; dump it all at once. Beat well with a spoon for 30 seconds until smooth. Allow to cool a little.

  2. Beat eggs into the mixture, one at a time. Continue beating until thick and glossy. Stir in cheese, mustard, salt and pepper. Push mixture to sides of dish, leaving hollow center for the filling.

  3. You’re supposed to puree the tomatoes. Like it’ll make any difference. Diced is good enough.

  4. Heat oil and butter in skillet and fry onion 3-4 minutes until softened. Add mushrooms and cook three more minutes. Add cauliflower pieces and fry for one minute.

  5. Add tomatoes, thyme, some salt and pepper. Cook over low heat uncovered for five minutes or until cauliflower is tender.

  6. Spoon mixture into center of ovenproof dish. Don’t hold back any of the liquid. Bake 35-50 minutes until golden brown pastry rises.

The problem with my gougère, which I figured out after four or five more attempts, was that the fucking recipe lists the amount of flour in ounces. I was unaware that there are dry ounces of measurement and liquid ounces. Whichever kind of ounces is marked on my measuring cup, I guarantee it was the wrong kind. To make the proper gougère, you have to use dry ounces. Or better yet, fuck ounces. Use one and a quarter cups of flour. You use the right amount and you get this savory pastry with tomatoey stuff in the center and it’s all good and it rises like a cake or something. You use the liquid ounces and it will only give you half as much flour, and your end product is a ring of pasty eggs, surrounding a jumble of vegetables that bleeds into the eggy part. It’s like a wet, aborted omelette.

The last elaborate meal I bothered making for Ben was the wet, aborted omelette version.

It took me two weeks after Ben left before I felt like making anything more complicated than ramen noodles and tv dinners. I ate dinner watching Law and Order: Special Vegetarians Unit.

6. mad dog

Chicken Pot Pie with Death Stars Soup was not something I made for the joy of cooking. Running out of tv dinners motivated me. I also ran out of salami, ramen noodles, peanut butter and cheese. Shoved in the back of a cupboard, I found a package of tiny star pasta. I could never figure out what to use them in until I got this desperate. I had green onions and bean sprouts leftover from stir fry, from back in the days when I could stand to cook. I didn’t have any fucking meat.

I had no parsnips or flavorful vegetables, so I thought about what I could use to give it flavor and thickness. On the door of the freezer was a chicken pot pie that had been waiting there since before Ben moved in. I did not want to eat that chicken pot pie. But I figured after it thawed, the gravy and chicken would give my soup flavor and thickness, and the pie pastry would either thicken the soup some more, or it might break apart into something like dumplings.

Chicken Pot Pie with Death Stars Soup

1 generic chicken pot pie, frozen
1/2 pound stars pasta (or alphabet)
1 cup water
1 bouillon cube
some green onions, chopped
some bean sprouts
1 shot of Italian dressing
1/3 cup Mad Dog/cheapest wine available

  1. Make sure you have a pot pie that comes in a tin, not in a microwavable cardboard container. Save the tin pie plate. Defrost the pot pie. Peel off the top crust and eat it, standing over the sink.

  2. Boil enough water to cook pasta. After the stars have been boiling about 7 minutes, pick one out and throw it on the ceiling. That’s supposed to be some kind of test of whether it’s done. If you throw food on the ceiling in the first place instead of just tasting it, you fail the more important part of the test.

  3. Drain stars into a big bowl. I was afraid the little stars would slip through the holes in my colander, so I created a better one by poking fork holes in the tin pie plate and draining a cup at a time.

  4. In the pot you used to cook the pasta, boil one cup water, bouillon cube, sprouts, green onions, Mad Dog and Italian dressing. Chop up the pot pie and dump it in. Add stars. Heat through. Serve with Mad Dog until it’s all gone.

The next day after my hangover diminished, I went to see Revenge of the Sith. I knew it would be as lousy as the last two Star Wars movies, but thought it would give me something to despise more than Ben.

At the concession stand, a guy named Larry spilled his drink on my arm. He manages a sporting goods store. Larry has a passing interest in sci-fi, but his real passion is reenacting frontier days as a buckskinner. They call the events Mountain Men Rendezvous. Imagine a biker gang crashing a Civil War reenactment and you get a sense of the atmosphere. He showed me his fringed deerskin pants and matching shirt and the authentic tent he sleeps in at the semi-annual rendezvous. They’re supposed to camp out using no modern amenities.

He made me corn bread on his cast iron skillet over a campfire. The only details that might not have been authentic were the tiny bits of wild grapes and jalapeño he added, because it wasn’t the standard way of making it, and you probably couldn’t find jalapeños in this part of the country two hundred years ago. Larry’s corn bread was moist and sweet and melted in my mouth.

We lived happily ever after.