WHY I HAVE TO COOK
Why I have to Cook: A Recipe for time well spent.
I have to admit it, I cannot wait to get into the kitchen. That is just the way it is. I may start by opening the refrigerator to see what is there. Hmmm, radishes; why not pickle them? Asparagus and shiitakes; lets stir fry. The leftover butternut squashes? coconut milk might thicken them up for a soup? As usual, I am at my bookcase of cookbooks once again....
Just a stroll thru the vegetable garden and I am conjuring up the days menu. I notice there are so many green tomatoes that might not get ripe. Could they be turned into a green tomato chunky salsa? Or a smooth enchilada green sauce? What about marinating the green tomatoes: I imagine something sweet, tart, slightly pungent and refreshing. What kind of vinegar? plain white. How much sugar? basil, tarragon, cilantro? How small should the chunks be? I see a lime. Not too much though. Yes, that is what I will do.
I cut thru each slice of Gold, Maroon and Orange tomatoe. What are their names? Early Girls? Black Brandywines? Green Zebras? I love smacking cloves of garlic with a wooden mallet and throwing them into the hot oil. After I watched my ninety year old neighbor do this when he was making salad dressing, I never used a garlic press again.
When I am cooking, I play back scenes of the day in my mind as I come back to my senses. The sting of the onion hits my eye when I make the first cut; miraculously the pain starts to fade away as soon as the onions hit the hot pan. The onions start to soften then become golden. I know one thing for sure: Onions are the workhorses of ingredients. Most dishes count on their sturdiness.
I move into chopping, washing, stirring, into tasting, watching, and waiting.
In Vietnamese New Year traditions, the Kitchen Gods come down from the heavens to pick up any offerings you leave out. It is usually a yellow flowering plant, or a carp in a bucket which symbolizes its last stage before it turns into a dragon and flies away. Fruits with red seeds mean prosperity. The Kitchen Gods come down only after you have solved your personal conflicts and "cleaned up your act" sort of speak. I like to think that the Kitchen Gods are present when I am cooking and I am putting my troubles behind me.
The sounds of the kitchen comfort me: the tick, tick, ticking of the gas lighting, the low hum of the refrigerator, rattle and clanking of spoons in the drawer and the bang of cupboards closing. Is the sauce thickening? Are the potatoes becoming crusty on either side? Are the skins of the chilies blackened enough or too much? So many decisions but this time I will be sure to cover the pan and keep the heat on low. Isn't that what made the potatoes evenly brown?
Between the end of work and the start of dinner, Some people are running or off to music class, have tennis lessons, attend night school, go to a 12 step meeting or to a bar.... I cook. The menu has been changing all morning since I woke up and I thought of chili rellenos. I forgot I had laundry to pick up and I had to get gas and then I ran into an old friend. Dinner has got to be simpler now. Eggs and noodles become my default favorites; especially breakfast for dinner. There are always old pieces of bread stashed in the back of the fridge or thrown into a drawer. I never did like to eat the ends. Soak them in whole milk and eggs flavored with vanilla and cinnamon and a little brown sugar. I Melt the butter, drench the bread in the egg mixture then let them brown on both sides in the pan. Serve hot with maple syrup, berries and fresh cream... Did you ever make French toast with a croissant? I can't wait to try that.
Have you ever noticed that the conversation is better when the food is good? One of my favorite food writers M.F.K. Fisher wrote:
"Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly."
I think about some of my favorite meals that I have cooked for friends. What was it? Outside or inside? What did we talk about? Was the food rich or light? What was the occasion? a death? a birthday? a graduation? just because?
My Viennese grandmother died twenty-five years ago. She cooked for me in her small apartment in Queens, New York when I would visit during summer vacations. She would always have a tablecloth and a vase with flowers on the small table where I ate in the kitchen. I was in my late teens and I remember the excitement and anticipation of having those meals every day. I loved the Japanese red plate on which she served me either leg of lamb, or a roast, a trout, kugel. She loved frozen peas. My favorite were the dumplings.. She would ladle me out two or three of the lightest, fluffiest forms of dough then tell me to cut some butter to melt over them.. She always wore an apron as she waited on me and only briefly would she sit just to taste a particular dish to make sure it was just right. Dessert was wafer thin hazelnut cookies, orange sherbert or a fancy chocolate cake from her favorite neighborhood bakery in the suburb of Jamaica, Queens.
These past few years, I have been cooking for my parents who are both in their mid eighties. As far back as I can remember, my mother insisted that we all (dad, my brother and sister) be at the table for dinner We each got a chance to share what went on in our day and my mother always announced what she had cooked and then usually told us how she had made it.
Now eighty-two my mom tells me; "I want lots of green salads." "Make sure you make enough sauce for the stirfrys."
"I could have soup every day." My father, on the other hand, wants to have plenty of fruit, chocolate and peanut butter. The other day he was standing at the stove making himself a poached egg. He said he was then going to set it atop fresh spinach and then on an English Muffin. "This is one of the things I remember my mother making me for breakfast" he says, " and it was so good. I just had a hunger for it again." I hope they will keep telling me what they are hungry for and I will be around to cook it.
anina marcus fall 2009