Almost anyone can whip up a dish when he has the necessary ingredients. The challenge comes when most of the fixin's are missing.
The other night, for instance, I made stir-fried Chinese broccoli with beef, without the broccoli, but with a pair of pliers.
It happened in a time frame well-known around our house for its dramatic culinary events. That would be when Mom is out of town. In the midst of fulfilling my parental responsibilities I had forgotten one small item: Fixing supper. I arrived home from work and realized that my two kids were expecting me to feed them.
Immediately I thought of my common solution to this problem: a cold beer for Dad and a frozen pizza for the lads. There was plenty of cold beer, but somehow we had exhausted our once-endless supply of frozen dough topped with bright orange stuff.
During my beer search I had seen a slab of round steak in the refrigerator. The meat had been in the fridge a while, but when I sliced off its cellophane wrapping, there was no odor. This meant the "aged" beef was edible.
I decided to "enlist my children in the preparation of the meal." I had read this in books that used that exact language. I used other language, some of it not printable in a family newspaper, to enlist my sons' cooperation in this venture.
The 6-year-old was busy alternately oiling the chain on his bicycle then test-driving the bike around the kitchen. The 10-year old was parked at the kitchen table, reading his favorite philosophers, Calvin and Hobbes.
I put the 10-year old in charge of supper's first course, tomato soup. He dumped the can of soup into a pan, stirred in the milk, then slipped back to his Calvin and Hobbes.
I let the 6-year-old slice the meat into 1-inch strips. Giving a kid that young a knife was a gamble. But this kid has always been good with his hands. Besides, his big brother was well out of knife range.
As the 6-year-old sliced the steak, I searched the kitchen for the ingredients needed for the meat's marinade. The recipe called for eight ingredients. I had five, if you counted water. I found the salt, sugar, soy sauce, black pepper and water, but had no luck turning up any potato flour, Shaohsing wine or peanut oil.
I was close to panic. I remembered reading what top chefs say they do in this situation: They improvise. I knew I could substitute corn oil for the missing peanut oil, but I couldn't find any corn oil either. I used olive oil.
Since the recipe called for only half a teaspoon of potato flour, I ignored that part of the instructions. I didn't have any Shaohsing wine, but I did have two bottles of incredibly bad wine. This was red wine that had been so sour that instead of drinking it, I had corked it and saved it for just such an occasion.
By now my slicer had run out of meat. I told him to drop the knife and "give the strips of meat a bath in the marinade." This he joyfully did with his bare hands.
Meanwhile, I searched the house for more ingredients. These were needed for a sauce that the marinated meat cooked in. Again I lacked the elusive potato flour, but I found water, soy sauce, and a bottle of oyster sauce.
I was going to stir-fry the meat in a wok. Finding the wok was easy. I ordered the kids to sit at the table and sip their bowls of tomato soup. As they sipped, I planned to stir-fry.
Things were going pretty much according to plan, until it was time to add the oyster sauce to the sizzling meat. Once it hit the hot wok, the meat was supposed to be forever on the move, constantly stirred.
My strips of meat were highly mobile, until I tried to open the oyster sauce. The lid wouldn't budge. I tried again and again with both hands. Now the meat was standing still and starting to smoke. The kids were stirring, demanding to be fed.
Disaster loomed, but the pliers saved supper. Sprinting to my workbench, I grabbed a pair of channel-lock pliers and used them to open the oyster sauce.
When the oyster sauce hit the pan, it doused the smoking meat. I set down the pliers and announced that supper, stir-fried beef over brown rice, was ready.
The kids ate about half of it, an approval rating most parents would settle for. I ate some as well. It was very good. The meat had a new, exotic flavor.
As I sat at the table eating the dish, I tried to figure out where this flavor came from. It wasn't the soy or oyster sauce. It wasn't the wine. I was pretty sure it was the olive oil, until I recalled how the meat had been placed in the marinade.
The 6-year-old had done the deed, with his bare hands, not long after he had oiled his bicycle. Which meant that perhaps the thrilling new flavor had come from just a touch of 10W-40.