Last weekend I decided to make dinner. If you know me personally, you might be laughing out loud right now. If you do not, I will bring you up to speed: the last time I prepared a multi-course meal was 8 years ago; my favorite utensil is a microwave; boiling water and making toast in a toaster qualify as ‘cooking’; in New York I used to get regular inspection notices from ConEd because they did not register any gas usage for my apartment for months in a row, and were afraid the stove and pipes might be faulty (this is also why I am so dependent on round-the-clock dining establishments).
So, cooking is more of an ambitious creative undertaking rather than a quotidian means of sustenance for me, so I was not going to cut any corners.
For the Sunday dinner I decided to make Anna’s Special Garden Salad with Italian dressing, Jenna’s Famous Double-Breaded Chicken and linguine with home-made pesto.
I picked my dishes based on what I wanted to eat and not the local availability of ingredients, so Moscow grocery stores decided to teach me a lesson. Although I had no problem getting pine nuts and excellent Parmesan cheese for the pesto, and even though there were dozens of sauce varieties on the shelves – including many brands and creative variants of soy, ketchup and teriyaki concoctions – there was no fresh basil, Italian dressing, or iceberg/romaine lettuce available (save for the really old, pre-chopped- and -bagged kind).
A friend coming over for dinner could not find it at his mega-market either – and keep in mind that those supermarkets can rival any suburban Stop&Shop in size and variety of products. So, I had to improvise, on the spot. While this might be ok for an experienced cook, I was basically shooting in the dark.
My substitutions: balsamic vinegar and EVOO for Italian dressing (I whisked the two together with some dried basil, salt and pepper at home); Chinese cabbage for lettuce in the salad (chopped into 1 x 1 inch pieces, along with similarly sized pieces of cucumber and tomato, plus copious amounts of sweet corn and grated Parmesan; in America I used to add a bit of red cabbage but I was pretty sure I would not find it here, at least easily); fresh dill for basil in the pesto sauce.
I am pretty sure I did not invent the wheel with any of these interpretations, but bear in mind that I had never even tasted Chinese cabbage, and bought it on hunch that consisted of ‘it kind of looks like lettuce?’. Having never used a blender/food processor of any kind before that evening, I had no idea if it was even going to be possible to turn dill into pesto – what if, not being leafy, like basil, it just wrapped around the blade and got stuck?
Thankfully, nothing nearly that dramatic happened. In fast, the Chinese cabbage salad turned our very fresh and crispy, and the dill pesto – very fragrant. The chicken – coated in a crispy breadcrumb blend I made myself by liberally dipping into my sister’s seasonings stash – was also a great success. I have already been asked for a repeat culinary performance. I’m thinking… some time around 2021.