I was a Theater major in college (playwright, not actor, don’t go all diva-shaming on me now). One of the pieces of advice most pressed on us in our lessons on craft was the importance of research. When you’re creating a character, you have to go as deep as possible into every nook and cranny you can find, and pull together all the context and factual evidence and analysis you can muster. You have to create this fully-fleshed conception, right down to tattoos and breakfast cereal and all sorts of pieces that the audience may never hear of.
And then when it’s go time, you throw it all away. You set aside all that exacting work, and leap into the unknown.
It’s not a stretch to say that I live my whole life this way. I’m about the opposite of spontaneous. I’m shy and neurotic, and I overthink everything. I spend days planning what I might say in a phone conversation, and weeks thinking up a single night’s meal. But more often than not, when the time comes for action, I end up ignoring all my well-laid mental plans and making it up as I go along.
Seems to have served me all right so far.
Several months ago, I was faced with the task of cleaning out a small stash of unused ingredients from Sam’s fridge. This is actually a fairly unusual occurrence, as he works at a well-known tech company with an all-day cafeteria, and so usually his fridge is reserved for drinks and straight-from-the-store snack products. But on this particular day, I noticed a pair of leeks I’d bought, for some cockamamie cooking idea or other, that I’d never gotten around to using. They were so pearly and serene in their vegetable-drawer cocoon, cooing gently to me. (Yes, vegetables coo.) So I started gathering.
There were also a couple bell peppers, purchased for snacking and then forgotten; a package of precooked sausage links; and various condiments. I decided to go with my fallback method–when in doubt, dump everything into a skillet and stir–and came up with a loose mustardy hash-type concoction that was perfectly serviceable. We ate it with forks, pronounced it “Hmm! Interesting,” and moved on with our lives. And then the idea sparked, and the mechanics began to percolate: I could make this better. I could make it tastier. I could make it memorable. This is how plots are hatched, my friends.
First piece was the sausage; I switched out the precooked stuff for the raw hot Italian variety, liberated from casings and crumbled into itty-bitty meatballs. The photo Audrey took of me de-casing(ing) the sausage is actually mildly discomfiting to me, for reasons I can’t quite articulate–maybe it’s just the pink phallic phloppiness of it. But here it is anyway, in case you’re morbidly curious.
Hanyway. I browned the sausage, releasing that oh-so-decadent and guiltily disgusting layer of bright orange grease into the bottom of the skillet. Then I fished them out, and caramelized the leeks in the sausage-slick. In true home-cook spirit, I’d never actually caramelized leeks before, so I was entirely unprepared for how soft and iridescent and…well, mushy they became. Eventually I was anxiously pushing a glossy, stringy mass of coffee-tinted leek glop around in the pan. The plan was falling apart. But damned if they didn’t smell like heaven–nutty, oniony heaven. So I said, all right, let’s run with this.
It took three installments of mustard, two of vinegar, one of tomato paste and a healthy sprinkle of salt before I realized something was off. For all my great intentions to keep this a six-ingredient dish, it was…flat. Audrey, who was on hand to help finish off my kitchen experiment, suggested “something green.” I grabbed a bottle of dried tarragon–an herb I’ve never actually used before–and tossed it in with a little finger-cross. Slowly, the mixture began to wake up, unfurling layers of meaty heat and deep browning and licorice. And then, with a shrug and a “Come and get it!” to our respective meal partners, we discovered this half-hash’s true calling: to be piled into a multi-grain seeded roll and eaten with greedy hands.
The sandwich saved that hash. I don’t know how to explain it. The tarragon and the seeds on the roll, the mustard and the hearty bread, the sausage and the peppers and that odd leeky mush binding it all together–it worked. In some crazy wing-it way, it worked. We ate happily, alongside piles of those golden lacy discs which I will explain…
Later. There’s leftover hash in the fridge, and I’m jonesing for a midnight snack.
Sausage and Caramelized Leek Sandwiches (makes 4 heaped-to-bursting sandwiches, or 6 daintier ones)
1 package raw Italian sausage, removed from casing and crumbled
2 small or 1 medium leek, split, rinsed, and sliced (half a medium onion would probably also do fine)
2 medium bell peppers, seeded and cut into small strips
2 tbsp Dijon mustard (you can add another half-tbsp if you’re a mustard junkie like me)
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp tomato paste
1 tbsp fresh or 1 tsp dried tarragon, minced or finely crushed
Salt and pepper to taste
4-6 whole-grain sandwich rolls
In a large skillet or frying pan, brown the sausage in a small amount of olive oil over medium heat, until most traces of pink are gone. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Add the leeks to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until they’re soft, deep brown and nutty-smelling. Add bell peppers and cook for another 3-5 minutes, until they’re beginning to soften. Return the sausage to the pan, and add mustard, vinegar, tomato paste, tarragon, salt and pepper. Stir until everything is well-combined and heated through. Keep the filling warm while you toast the sandwich rolls, then pile ’em high and dig in!