At Alaska Repertory Theatre David held the position of Assistant Technical Director and I had the position of Box Office Manager. You could boil that down by saying David built scenery and I sold tickets. Since David and I worked in two different areas of the theatre our schedules were usually very different. When David had down time because the set pieces were completed for a show, I was busy processing ticket orders. When I had a break between shows David was always busy building the next one. Planning anything together when one of us can't get away is very hard to do. I don't remember how but we finally got the break we needed where both of us were free at the same time so we decided we would book a vacation. It was winter in Anchorage so there was no better time to get out of the cold and go somewhere warmer. Somehow we decided that our vacation would be in Florida and we decided to go to a travel agent to have the whole thing arranged. Remember travel agents? Sure you do! Cue the game show announcer... "That's right... David and James, you'll be spending seven days and six nights in beautiful Orlando, Florida where your days will be filled with visits to nearby St. Augustine, the Kennedy space center, Seaworld water park and of course the place where dreams come true, Disney World! You'll stay at the luxurious Flankenberry hotel... and round trip airfare and rental car are included (of course taxes and gratuities are extra)".
All that was ours, and the price was right! After the agent booked our grand excursion we could barely wait to get out of the cold. When departure day finally came we packed our summer clothes and headed to the Anchorage airport. Our flight was to take us from Anchorage to Seattle and there we would change planes for Orlando, Florida. We got to the airport just fine, but that was literally the last good thing that happened that day. The flight out of Anchorage was delayed over 8 hours due to bad weather in Seattle. In the winter this is a very common problem. We figured we should start our vacation anyway by going to the movies and watching "Young Sherlock Holmes" before returning to the airport and waiting for a break in the weather. Good movie by the way... and our game was definitely afoot... When the skies cleared and we finally departed we breathed a sign of relief that probably the worst was over. When we arrived in Seattle the desk agents were busy trying to rebook stranded people onto other flights. As you can imagine when an airport has been shut down for a while it takes a lot of work to get everybody rebooked. We were told we wouldn't get on another flight for another several hours and that it would be “standby” at best. Upon hearing this we took our bags and placed them in a nearby locker so we could walk around and try to find something to eat. After a while we returned to the gate area and discovered that there was another flight they were able to book passengers on. It was departing very shortly and we would have to hurry. We grabbed our new tickets and ran back to the locker to grab our bags only to discover that the lock wouldn't open. A maintenance person was called to come and fix it but he must have been at home when they called him because it took an eternity for him to show up. Once our bags were freed we had to run, full bore through the airport, to the gate, to catch the plane, which we did with just a minute to spare.
When we finally landed in Florida it was late afternoon and we still needed to get our rental car and get to the hotel. By this time we are pretty fatigued. The car we got was nothing fancy, just a standard four door sedan, and as we drove out of the lot onto the Florida highway we tried to turn on the radio, but found there was no indication at all on how to actually turn the thing on. We twisted every dial we saw in every configuration but no luck. Nothing was working, until somehow, most likely in a fit of frustration we ending up pushing the very center of one of the dials and, bang, salsa music... and very loud! The drive to the hotel took about an hour and by this time we are getting super hungry, extremely tired and quite frankly we sort of felt cheated out of our first day of vacation. When we got to the hotel we were also a little surprised to find that it was being renovated and the lobby was basically a construction zone. Not to worry however, the pool and the restaurant were still open for business as usual. We checked in and got our room key, grabbed our bags and made our way to the room. When we opened the door and threw our bags inside we discovered the room was a bit untidy, like the cleaning crew had been in a hurry and didn't do their best job, however on closer inspection we discovered that the room was actually already occupied, and the guests were simply away at that moment. We grabbed our bags again and headed back to the desk to get a different room. The desk clerk did some typing into his computer, looking puzzled the whole time, and found us a new room. New key in hand we grabbed our bags and hiked off to the new room.
David decided that the first thing he wanted to do was get cleaned up and take a shower. However, as quickly as he had gone in, he came back out to call the desk clerk to report the faucet was broken and there was no water. We were informed that a maintenance person had to be called to come to the room and get it working. We unpacked while we waited for the maintenance person to arrive, (which as luck would have it wasn't that long), and about 45 minutes later we had running water. At this point we decided that we should just go to the restaurant and get something to eat. The restaurant was fancy (it was the 80's after all) the tables had long white table cloths, glistening silverware (and a lot of it), more glasses that any one person needs, nicely folded cloth napkins, fabric cushioned chairs... the whole nine yards. We, however, were tattered and worn down by more than nineteen hours of travel. At this point all we wanted to do was get some food, and the sooner the better. We were shown to one of the fancy tables and each handed fancy menus. They were made of leather and the outside was padded and the restaurants name was deeply embossed in bright gold into the cover. It was packed with pages and pages of choices. Unfortunately it was all in French. Both of us just looked at each other, somewhat in disbelief and somewhat in exasperation. I think we may have uttered a few "you've got to be kidding" or "this can't be happening" phrases. Sure it's supposed to be a fancy hotel, but come on that's a bit much wouldn't you say? After a long pause David said, "now wait, I think we can figure this out. It can't be that hard, Chanterelles are mushrooms, we know that..., we can do this...". We both stared at the first couple of pages for a good long while, trying to decipher what things were, and it was only after turning several pages more that we discovered that the menu was in 4 or 5 different languages repeating itself, section by section. All we had to do was turn to the center of the menu for the English section. Did I mention we were tired? I really wish I remembered what we ordered that night, but if I had to guess it was cheeseburgers and fries.
Nowadays when someone asks me "ever had one of those days?” I simply say yes... yes, I have. Days like this might be why I like simple meals a great deal; it's a way of alleviating stress and giving yourself a break after a long day. This meal is one of those meals, everything is made in one big pot and the prep is minimal. The recipe is also infinitely scalable, only limited by the size of your pot. When I was a kid my mother would make a big pot roast surrounded by potatoes and carrots but it would take a good portion of the day to cook. Here we will use Italian sausages instead of beef, which will cut down the cooking time considerably. We’ll change some of the typical pot roast seasonings like rosemary and thyme to oregano and basil and at the end you can throw in some zucchini or yellow squash if you have some. What you’ll end up with is a sort of sausage stew that my grandmother would say was just a “regular” meal. Honestly there is nothing new about this. It’s just simple and good. The only special thing you’ll need is a good Dutch oven (or any large lidded pot that can go from stove top to the oven).
Here’s what you do.
2 pounds Italian sausages (hot or sweet, your choice)
1½ tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (omit if using hot sausages)
5 large red or yukon gold potatoes, peeled & cut into 8 pieces each (about 1 to 1½ inch chunks)
½ pound baby carrots (or 4 to 5 medium sized carrots cut into similar sizes)
3 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
3 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt (more to taste)
½ teaspoon black pepper (more to taste)
2 medium zucchini, halved and sliced into ½ inch pieces – optional
1 cup frozen peas – optional
½ pound green beans, blanched then cut into 1½ inch pieces - optional
Preheat the oven to 350°F with the oven rack in the lower third position, making sure your Dutch oven will fit before preheating.
Prick the sausages with a fork or the tip of a sharp knife several times and set aside.
Now get your large Dutch oven and heat the olive oil over medium heat until it is hot and shimmering a bit.
Add the sausages and brown them on all sides, turning often, until they take on a nice golden color, which takes about 10 minutes.
Now, remove the sausages from the pot to a clean plate and lower the heat to medium low.
Add the onion to the pot and sauté until just starting to soften, about 5 minutes or so.
Next, stir in the garlic, oregano, basil, and paprika and continue cooking for about one minute more.
Toss in the potatoes and carrots and give everything a good stir.
Now add the tomatoes, the chicken broth and that bay leaf.
Sprinkle in the salt and pepper and again stir everything up really well.
Finally, add the sausages back to the pot pushing them down into the potatoes a bit.
Increase the heat to medium high and bring to a good simmer. When the liquid is bubbling around the edges you’re ready to put it in the oven.
Cover the pot and transfer to the oven for 45 minutes at which time the potatoes should be fork tender and you are ready to serve.
But wait, you want it to have a little extra umph don’t you? I can tell… OK, we can do that.
During the last 10 minutes of cooking (at the point that the potatoes are almost done) add in the zucchini, peas and blanched green beans. My grandmother would call this a “clean out the refrigerator meal” (much like her minestrone soup or pasta fagioli), where basically she would use up any left over vegetables she had in the fridge. Honestly, if you don’t like zucchini, peas, or green beans, substitute whatever you like. For longer cooking vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower just be sure to blanch them (or steam them just a little) so they will cook through in 10 minutes.
Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper to taste. Then replace the pot in the oven for the final 10 minutes and you’re good to go!
Again this is what my Grandmother would call peasant food, so just put the whole pot on the table and serve directly from it. Have some crusty bread on the side and a green salad and you’re all set.
I really like this dish, It’s simple, easy to prepare, easy to modify, easy to eat. It’s just easy all around, I am sure other dishes judge it, call it names and are super jealous, but they’ll get over it. I hope you try it and let me know how (if) you liked it!
And for those of you who have read this far… here is another modification possibility:
When the dish is done, remove the sausages and slice them into ½ round pieces (bite sized chunks) then mix back into the vegetables for more of a stew like feel.