Monday, April 9, 2012

In Praise of the Midnight Supper

It's late. You've just finished defeating the supernatural menace in that old mansion a few miles away. Or you've just caught the fiendish Blue Fox Murderer. Or you and your cohorts have just successfully removed an ill-gotten art treasure from the home of a billionaire with questionable morals.

You're hungry, and you need a bite.

OK, more and the gang have been out at the theater. Or the symphony. Or the opera, or at a burlesque show or rock concert, or as I did a few months ago, stupidly wander into The Mysteries of Lisbon not knowing it's a five-hour movie. Or perhaps returning from a day trip and ended up being caught in traffic, or spending too much time hunting for fossils or taking photos of the sunset over the bay or touring some historic site.

Anyway, it's late, you and the gang are hungry, and a meal is in order. There's always the all-night diner, and that sort of thing is OK every so often, but c'mon, they're usually greasy and unhealthy. And if you've been at the symphony, you're likely too dressed-up and not in the mood for that sort of thing.

So you, with your best smile and your eyes shining, turn to the others and say, "Why come by my place? I can whip something up in no time. It's right nearby; we can relax a bit before everyone goes their separate way. No, it's no trouble; it'll be fun! Do come by."

A midnight supper, when everyone's relaxing after a full evening (or day), is simultaneously glamorous and raffish. There's a sense of naughtiness, perhaps a touch of conspiracy as everyone gathers around the table at night. It's delightfully louche while also being somewhat proper, if informal. Ties are loosened, hair patted back into place, makeup retouched hastily in the bathroom. Sleeves are rolled up, jackets draped over the backs of chairs, wingtips and high heels kicked off and sore toes massaged.

But what to make? If you've got some experience under your belt as a cook, you're likely to come up with something fun. You should always have something on hand that could be quickly and easily prepared, even if you end up with an improvised omelet or scrambled eggs. (I don't recommend that, though; I'm not a fan of breakfast foods for your late-night meal.) Ideally, midnight suppers are light, just filling enough without overdoing it. I'll make an exception for nights when you've been clubbing and have had a few already; what you may need then is something a bit substantial, plus a few glasses of water and maybe a cup of coffee or two.

Here's something I came up with on my own one night; a friend dubbed it "Penne Pesce Fiorentino di Vagrarian."

Boil up some penne pasta, the amount depending on how many there are of you and how hungry you are. Cook al dente and drain; leave in the colander. Thinly slice some garlic cloves (2-3, up to 5 if you're doing a lot), and warm up some olive oil in a 12-inch skillet. Dump in the garlic and saute slowly until blonde. Open a can or two of tuna, drain, and dump into the skillet, stirring around for about 30 seconds, then dump in the pasta. Saute until you can see the pasta is developing a nice crust on it; you want a mix of soft and crunchy here. Dump in several handfuls of washed spinach, preferably the "baby" kind you can buy in bags at the grocery store. Stir over heat until the spinach wilts. Scrape into a serving bowl, or onto plates, and serve. Should need only salt & pepper. Goes well with a dry white wine, and maybe a bit of fruit to follow.

There's lots of fun things you can serve, though. And you don't want to be too labor-intensive, unless it's something you can rope friends into helping. For something lighter, here's a classic Italian recipe for Stracciatella, or "Roman Rag Soup."

Bring 4 1/2 cups of chicken broth to a boil in a saucepan. While it is heating up, beat 2 eggs in a small bowl. Beat in 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan, 2 tablespoons bread crumbs, and a dash of nutmeg. Stir in 1/2 cup of cold stock. When the broth is boiling, stir 1/2 cup of broth into the bowl with the eggs, and when the broth is boiling, reduce heat and pour in the egg mixture, stirring constantly. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring all the while as the egg mixture turns into tiny flakes. Serve at once, garnished with parsley. Again, goes with a good white wine and maybe a salad, bread, cheese, and fruit.

Of course, midnight suppers can also be seductive. Maybe you're just inviting James over (or Laura, which ever your preferences are), and maybe this is a first caress before something more daring. You may have already invited them over and are taking a break to fortify yourselves. Who knows?

And perhaps you thought ahead. In fact, there's nothing wrong at all with telling your friends beforehand, "That show will go on till late; why not just grab a sandwich or something early in the evening and we'll have a late dinner at my place afterwards? It'll be fun!" And then you can prepare in advance. Have something in your slow cooker? Why not? Or maybe have something that can be quickly reheated, plus some other things that can be quickly cooked and served a la minute. The sky's the limit.

It's always good to have some meals under your belt that can be cooked in 30 minutes or so. There's cookbooks galore that focus on that; Rachael Ray's whole career is based on that, but I personally find her grating. I was given one of her cookbooks once, and have yet to be impressed with any of the recipes I've tried. Her ultra-perky persona drives me mad, and I often joke that one of my dreams is for her to come down with Tourette's in the middle of a live event. Imagine it. "Yum-o! WHORE!"

Still, let's stick with the scenario. You and the gang have been at the symphony, and after the Beethoven and Debussy program, you invite everyone over. You know you have everything set up at home; you were expecting this.

So you're in the kitchen; you've got the veal chops and olives at the ready, and are fussing over the skillet with them, knowing it'll only be a few minutes. Viola, heedless of that vintage gown hugging her mature curves, warms a bag of frozen veggies in the microwave and tosses the salad, keeping up a lively conversation as only she can. James has undone his bow tie and has lit the candles and pours the wine while May sets the table. Ramsey has already prepped and plugged in your vintage percolator; by the time the meal is done, there'll be hot fresh coffee. Laura is setting out the bread and the pickle tray, and turns the radio on low, to the classical station.

Sooner than anyone realizes, you're all laughing and exchanging opinions of the concert, gossiping about friends, discussing books and movies. Plans are hatched for another outing, and more adventures to come. Coffee is ready just in time to cut into the cake; it dispels the late-night fog. Laura scintillates, while May is at her sarcastic best. James tosses in a well-timed comment or two, while Ramsey is quiet, but with that familiar amused smile and dancing eyes. Viola laughs and adds her own jokes, and you just bask in the glow of friendship and comfort and good food and drink.You just drink the moment in, filing it away with other happy memories.

Don't do the midnight supper too frequently; then it becomes familiar and mundane. Keep it for times when you're up for it, and you know you'll have good company and something to talk about.

Midnight suppers are an adventure. It's something you're taught not to do ("Don't eat so late! You'll have nightmares!") but the concept brings to mind all sorts of possibilities. One can imagine late-night passers-by, glancing up at the flickering light in your window, wondering what's going on and maybe feeling a stab of envy. There are thoughts and ideas that seem to exist only late at night; impulses that never come to you during the day seem like everyday ideas at midnight. You never know WHAT may happen...and that's all part of the fun.

So do it. Practice some dishes, and invite friends over. Or practice on yourself. Or have fun with a loved one. Explore the possibilities.


Child, Julia. The Way to Cook. This classic guide taught me how to cook when I was depending on canned soup and burgers. It has its flaws (overly dependent on the food processor, for one) but overall a great guide for the beginning cook.
A good standard recipe book, like The Joy of Cooking, or perhaps one of those Better Homes & Gardens or Betty Crocker collections.

Child, Julia. The French Chef Cookbook, the companion to her first TV series, has a number of quick recipes, including several 3-course meals that can be cooked in half an hour. From Julia Child's Kitchen, the sequel to that, has some other recipes and a general good attitude. (OK, I adore Julia C.)
Lawson, Nigella.  Feast contains a section called "Midnight Feast" for stuff best eaten late at night. How to Eat has a number of quick recipes as well.
Maxwell, Brini. Brini Maxwell's Guide to Gracious Living has a few recipes for quick cooking and some cool cocktail recipes, but also a great bohemian, can-do attitude. Plus Brini herself is a blast.
Urvater, Michele. Monday-to-Friday Pasta is dedicated to recipes that can be done in about 30 minutes. She's somewhat overdependent on bell peppers, which I abhor, but otherwise good. She did two other Monday-to-Friday cookbooks.

For the amatory:
Allende, Isabel. Aphrodite is a book-length meditation on the connections between food and sex, and makes for great voluptuary reading. Also a great selection of recipes that can be cooked in a flash.
Sheraton, Mimi. The Seducer's Cookbook is out of print and the recipes aren't always ideal for the late-night cook, but is a hoot to read and can provide great inspiration.

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