Most of the time, when I come here to write, I’m vibrating with eagerness to share something you, the reader, can repeat. These are the recipe posts, neatly lined and limned, ingredients measured and just-the-right equipment dirtied–all in the hopes that one or two of you will have the same moment of giddy flavor recognition that I did. It’s so easy to pretend I’ve caught lightning in a bottle, that I’ve strewn the path with pebbles instead of breadcrumbs. But here’s my confession: more often than not, the most exciting food eurekas are the ones that I know will never happen again.
This weekend I went to a birthday party. There was an avalanche of food, and no matter how we packed our gullets, we couldn’t polish it off. So each guest was bundled home with leftovers from the grill: skewers of enormous shrimp, pearl onions in their skins, a cob of corn slathered with chili-garlic butter. I also begged the discarded shrimp shells from the hostess, who would otherwise have thrown them away. On the drive home, I started fitting together puzzle pieces in my mind, plotting how to turn our bounty into an invigorating dinner for two.
I started by turning the shrimp shells and onions into a rich broth. While it simmered, I rooted through the cabinets in Sam’s kitchen for inspiration: a can of tomato sauce, a dwindling jar of chili garlic sauce, a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, an open box of orzo. I mixed the hot broth with the sauces, cooked a handful of orzo in it, sliced the corn kernels off the cob and cut the shrimp into chewable pieces. Then I stirred everything together and ladled the whole steaming muddle into bowls.
I wasn’t expecting much. I rarely do, from my ingredient-scramble dinners. But that soup was special: smoky and sharp, with nuggets of charred shrimp and intensely sweet corn kernels bobbing in a fiery barn-red broth. It was unlike anything I usually make, and all the more delicious for how unexpected it was. There was no way to reverse-engineer what I’d done into a neat and tidy blueprint. I had never made this soup before, and I probably never will again.
So this post is not a recipe. It is an apology. All I have for you is a memory, a rich and spicy soup washed down with glasses of sake while watching old Masterpiece Mystery! episodes on Netflix. I love when these things happen, for the sheer untamable magic of it, and I hate it because I can’t transmit the experience to you. That’s what electrifies me about cooking: there’s no guarantee I’ll ever find my way back to where I’ve been.