I’m married to a restaurant chef. A competitive chef. An efficient chef. A chef with particular “needs” about how the walk-in is kept and organized, how much food we keep in it and for how long, what time we should all be finished with our prep and getting ready in our stations for dinner service. A chef who keeps her compliments on the highest shelf, to be reached for. And the sorry fact that she no longer has a job and now does all her cheffing in our home on the comparatively miniature domestic scale doesn’t mean she has gone slack or lost her muscle. She is still 100 percent thoroughbred Chef. Which is like living in a Fisher-Price Play Family Farm with an actual 1,300-pound chestnut mare.
One recent night, I was at my cutting board, making family meal — a.k.a. dinner — and Ashley was tearing the refrigerator apart to get a lime for our cocktail hour, ruthlessly sorting the bins and tossing the rotten things. She pulled out a wrinkled, soft red bell pepper obviously way past its prime but hesitated, instead setting it gently on the counter right against the compost bin.
It was not a directive to throw it out. She just left it in front of the compost bin as a suggestion for my consideration.
A bit about me: I once saw a news story about a guy who was trapped in his S.U.V. for five days in a snowstorm and survived, more or less, on a few stray packets of taco sauce that he found, and I felt ecstatic vindication for my own glove-compartment stashes. I am definitely the kind of chef who will keep a few packets of miscellany to someday repurpose; it kills me to throw anything away that I feel certain I can find a use for. Ashley and I no longer argue about this since she once, a couple of years ago on a rare day off, decided to clean out the fridge in our home and tossed, without consultation, all my perfectly good, wilted, bruised caches of potential mise en place.
But there lingers a slight tension, now more like a friendly competition: Which chef will “win” the can-I-throw-this-out challenge? So when she threw that gauntlet onto the counter in the form of a rotting red pepper, I took it right over to my cutting board. I knew for sure I could use it somehow. Anyone could slice up the still-viable sections and scatter them into a salad, but in this home-style mash-up episode of “the timer is ticking and this is the wild-card ingredient and you have to use it right now in the dinner you already have going or else it is destined for the compost” — a.k.a. “let’s stay happily married during quarantine” — there are points available for style and imagination. Sometimes you watch those cooking competitions in which the contestants are given ingredients, and as they unpack the basket you nod confidently from the couch, until they get an item that makes you frown — even as a very experienced professional chef — and think, Oh, you poor soul. How are you going to incorporate that?
But besides the red bell pepper with a few spots of oozy rot, I also had three ears of cooked corn on the cob in the fridge somewhere, leftover from the kids’ dinner a couple of nights before. And I keep a pint container in the veg drawer with bits of onion and ginger and various fresh chiles. Sometimes you need only half a serrano, and so I always put the other half, unwrapped, into the pint container, and suddenly there it was in front of me: maque choux, the traditional Cajun corn side dish with the French-inflected name. Obvious to me, and certainly to the spectator on the couch at home, especially the ones from Louisiana. I shaved the corn off the cob, painstakingly salvaged a still proudly vital half cup of diced red pepper, rummaged up the last halves of a red onion and that serrano and some poblano chile and sweated each ingredient in stages, seasoning along the way, with a final brief simmering together that resulted in colorful, sweet, hot, juicy, milky, buttery perfection. It looked gorgeous, I thought, but I just slid it quietly onto the family meal table.
With pork burgers that first night, it made a remarkable condiment along with sriracha mayonnaise. The next day, I ate the leftovers straight, for a perfect lunch. Made with fresh new ingredients again and again in the following days, it didn’t need the pork burgers; I put it directly on the bun, like a juicy, spicy, vegetarian sloppy joe. In this judge’s mind, it was not just a win but a trouncing. Meanwhile, at the dinner table, Chef said: “Excellent use of the secret ingredient.”
Recipe: Maque Choux