-1/2 lb of excess frozen ground chuck from the last meatloaf you ate as a family, thawed
-1/2 lb extra turkey pasta sauce tossed in the freezer beside the ground chuck and forgotten, thawed
-1 smallish Vidalia onion purchased at your soon-to-be-ex in-laws’ Publix (a welcome haven of familiarity in all the upheaval), chopped. I’d say chopped fine but it’s all too much; whatever you can manage is what we’ll call fine.
-Heat the broiler on the electric stove in your new apartment.
-Appreciate that the refurbished space offsets the fact of you finding yourself in another bachelor pad at age 45. Ignore the burning-plastic smell as the oven is used for the first time.
Place 8 plum tomatoes, 6 jalapenos, and 1 large red bell pepper – also purchased at the aforementioned Publix you’ve been known to frequent during happier times, including several weeks of house-sitting while your soon-to-be-ex in-laws took extended vacations and you played family in a house that wasn’t yours – onto a tinfoil-lined cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and toss until the skins are well-coated.
Heat the overpriced Dutch oven you brought into the marriage and sure as shit took out of the marriage because it’s part of a whole overpriced set over medium heat. When water beads across the bottom, add the chuck and the chopped onion. Break up the meat and stir often. Add a generous dusting of Dinosaur Bar B Que All-Purpose Red Rub that you made from scratch (Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: an American Roadhouse, page 167), another bit of the familiar to calm your anxious soul. Cook until chuck is browned and onion is soft, approximately 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, pop the cookie sheet of vegetables into the oven. Turn every few minutes to blacken evenly. The skin will blacken at different rates so you’ll need to remove them in shifts, starting with the plum tomatoes, moving on to the jalapenos, and finishing with the red pepper. During this process you will set off the brand new fire alarm four times. Resist the urge to approach your neighbor downstairs to assure him that you are not some idiot man-child who is just learning to cook on his own, but that you are in fact an accomplished cook who has shown his wife and her son love with nearly a decade of home-cooked meals, just as your mother showed your family love through nightly home-cooked meals, it’s just that you’re familiar with gas ovens and the “HI” setting on the electric broiler is surprisingly high.
TIP: to make removing the skin from the peppers easier, cover them with plastic wrap while they’re cooling. The steam loosens the skin for easy peeling. Be sure that any accumulated juice from the peppers goes into the pot for flavoring.
Once your onion is soft and your ground chuck is browned, add the turkey pasta sauce and a tiny Tupperware of chipotle chilis leftover from the last barbecue pizza you made for your soon-to-be-ex-wife. Don’t ignore the memory of how the two of you loved pairing spicy foods with fruity beers; embrace the memory, and embrace the tears that follow. Mix well.
Add what’s left of two small bags of barley, found when the contents of the pantry was divided and tossed aside with “take both of these; they’ll never get used.” Mix well and cook for 1-2 minutes. Skip this step and you risk mushy barley; you’ve been warned.
Add an 8oz can of tomato sauce from what is now, let’s face facts, your Publix. Add water to the pot, using the Tupperware that held the chipotle and the can that held the sauce, until you clean them out and get every last bit of flavoring, then throw in some more water because barley is thirsty. Leave plenty of room for the dish to expand.
While waiting for the pot to boil, chop the roasted tomatoes, peel, seed, and dice both the jalapenos and red bell pepper, and add it all to the pot. This was supposed to be chili with barley instead of beans but it’s looking more like beef and barley, so add a generous portion of chili powder and freshly-ground pepper (from one of those stupid containers with the built-in grinder because she kept the good peppermill, which is ironic because she barely even cooked before she met you).
While that’s coming to a boil, go to your living room and sit on the daybed that’s also where you sleep because you can’t afford to purchase a mattress for the bedframe that’s your ex- son’s old Ikea bed (and which is in pieces anyway), once stored in hallway for more than a year and ignored, and finally moved to a closet so said hallway could be a showcase for her artwork. A gift of love that was touching at the time but which didn’t stop her from requesting a divorce some scant weeks later. Look around at everything that’s still in boxes, at the fresh drywall that’s never known spackle or a nail, at imitation-wood tile floors dusty from construction, at the piles of clothes you have nowhere to store, at all of the fiction you’ve unboxed, beautifully-arranged by color in the big bookcase, the one oasis in all the chaos which tells you there’s a chance you’ll be okay. Maybe even better than okay.
Keep telling yourself that; you’ll be okay.
Stir the pot, stir the pot, stir the pot.
It’s getting a little dry and the barley is still tiny, so add a cup of water. Realize you forgot salt and add some of that. It’s still a little too tomato-colored, so add more chili powder while you’re at it.
Sit back down and read pages from the writers you’re meeting with on Sunday. You should have kept the whole weekend to unpack and nest and run errands but you’ll be damned if you’ll miss this month’s meeting, not when so much else has been taken from you.
Wonder if plain, whole milk yogurt would make a healthy alternative to sour cream.
When the barley is puffy and soft, your Dutch oven is full and you’ll see just how little meat is in the dish, which is fine. Downright Mohawk, in fact, letting the grains and veggies shine and using scraps of meat for flavoring. Discover that in the distraction of the first shopping trip as a separated, middle-aged man, you bought regular yogurt rather than Greek. You hope it will be firm since it hasn’t been opened, and the universe cuts you a break. Not only does plain yogurt make a welcome substitute for sour cream, it makes the whole dish delicious. It’s not what you expected, which was your award-winning chili with barley rather than beans, but you took the scraps left in your freezer and fridge and cabinets, mixed them with new ingredients, and created something entirely your own. It’s a nice metaphor for exactly what you’ll need to get through this, the best parts you’re bringing with you mixed with something new, so well done you. You can do this.
You’ll be eating this dish for days, which was the idea, but you can’t finish it all before it goes bad. Freeze most of it. Vow to cook more sensible, single-guy portions in the future.
Wonder whether your marriage is really over.
Wonder if she really was the love of your life.