Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Unsuitable for eating

I am told I used to be a good cook, but I no longer am one. That is what happens when you are in a relationship: you are not told that you are a good cook. You are told that you are not a good cook.

My specialties of yesteryear have been thwarted on a few fronts. First, I think I forgot how to cook. I don’t do it enough. Second, the last few years have been the busiest of my life and I’ve found less time to cook that the carefree days of my youth. Third, I used to make lots of chicken dishes, and lots of easy turkey things. I stopped being a vegetarian several years ago and then started eating beef and pork during a visit to Argentina. I decided to abandon red meat-free diet so I could be less fussy, blend in, be invited to more dinner parties and begin to cook a more interesting variety of things. But when my spouse came along, I abandoned my omnivorous desirous maximus diet with regard to cooking. I harbor no resentment – really –about not eating these things at home, but am at a loss to cook seafood and vegetarian options. Fourth, I tend to do better sometimes cooking things with an interesting ethnic flair, but that’s not in style anymore. I don’t know where to turn.

Baked. Of course I love to bake things. But baking results in things that are often unhealthy. And nutritional value indeed has some value.

One of the first dishes I created as a child was a recipe I called healthy potatoes. I served healthy potatoes #1, about which I can recall only that potatoes were an ingredient, among other things. I don’t recall whether it was really healthy or not, but I left on the potato skins which was the inspiration for the recipe’s moniker. The next time I made dinner, I made Healthy Potatoes #2. I couldn’t remember what I had put in Healthy Potatoes #1, so I created it as the next in a series that culminated a couple of years later with Healthy Potatoes #8, piping and waiting on the stovetop when my mother returned home with my leotard-dressed sister, post intermediate gymnastics class. I have some recollection that it may have included basil or another herb, because our family was growing herbs by then and I thought it was elegant to cook with herbs. Nowadays, I still threaten my family that I will make dinner and include a nice side dish: Healthy Potatoes #9.

All of these tuber compilations were originally inspired by the children’s cookbook my sister and I had. We made dark Spanish rice and catsup-clad meatloaf and other things that kids can make with minimal adult supervision when using a Betty Cocker cookbook for kids. I still remember my immense pride at uncovering and serving a plate of Spanish Rice. The wonder that one could measure white grainy bits into a pot with a mix of spices and other things, and that it would turn out to be a colorfully seasoned one-pot side dish that I served to my parents as a main dish.

My sister and I would often “play” restaurant, setting up a table and making a menu using chalk on a small chalkboard tablet like the ones the swishy waiters would use to tell us about the menu at any of Atlanta’s Pleasant Peasant-owned restaurants. We would talk about the special toasts of the evening and the chutney, featuring Callaway Gardens jam, and other seemingly gourmet delicacies that we crafted from the jars of condiments and cheeses and leftovers in the refrigerator. My parents, or sometimes my uncle, or perhaps a friend of my parents graciously put up with the alacrity of two children mimicking everything they’d ever learned by eating out.

Nowadays, I try to serve with a bit more of an understated effort, but one that is still likely to impress anyone whose usual dining adventures are conducted at dim bistros or omnipresent chain eateries. I have been baking gruyere-filled gougeres that look perfect on a common dining plate. I’ve made a couple of rounds of pickled mini carrots (not mini carrots ala Safeway: we’re talking about tiny whole organic carrots with a length of four or five inches and a diameter of 1/3rd of an inch), lightly spiced and brined, and served on a perfectly rectangular small linen serving dish from Heath Ceramics. A little fussy, but elegant in that “I live in a remodeled house in Northern California with a white kitchen and a view, and I only serve on ceramics designed by Edith Heath.” After having my cookbooks locked away, I’m getting back to Marlene Sorosky’s easy and flavor-filled recipes: always delicious even in my hastiest execution (though I made some marinated seafood kabobs that flopped miserably when the grill refused to light, forcing me to finish them under the broiler with a loss of crispness – and flavor.). A recent successful ginger apple cream cake reconfirmed by admiration for her recipes. Pre-Christmas, I made a great pot of Dal Makhani and some nearly as authentic Tandoori Salmon and Chicken, which were not as successfully re-created as part of my Christmas Eve Indian food cooking extravaganza, where the Dal was heavy and the Bengan Bartha too lemony and oily. Although the Indian food may not have been fit for a persnickety Vishnu, the Hummingbird Cake that was crafted the same weekend, thanks for Paula Deen’s recipe and some crafty cake cutting, was a bakery success and clearly okay for the southerners in attendance. Perhaps not as good, nor as beautiful, as the vanilla and framboise macarons that I baked the following week, but still lip smacking.

My goal is to keep cooking both premeditated dishes (those which require me to go to the supermarket and buy the ingredients in advance) and work to improve my cooking with whatever I can find in the house, without resorting to spaghetti & corn or other sad courses.

I’m getting better. I’m also learning that I can do a better job when I concentrate and stop writing about how bad I'm doing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why have I been AWOL?

I couldn’t get it together over the last several months to complain about anything in writing because I was complaining so much about everything and everyone verbally. It takes a lot of effort to get stressed out about all of the annoying things in the world and to internalize and vocalize all of that annoyance. I’m usually pretty good as spurting out my annoyances on Splenda Sucks, but I’ve realized even I have limits.

We completed a house remodel. After all the couch surfing and even finding ourselves in a hotel for one desperate night, we cleared out the four storage units and paid off a high-priced mover and schlepped all of our stuff into our house.

I had a vision that the day I moved back into my house, I would be running around turning on faucets, flicking light switches, testing the stove flames and lying on the floor. I imagined myself giddy with excitement, gliding from room to room like the people on Extreme Makeover Home Edition, saying “Oh my God!!” every time I entered a room. I would take a deep breath and look around at the pictures on the wall, the house fully furnished. “Come here! Look at this!” I would scream in my dreams, beckoning Brad to see how the drawers opened and closed as smoothly and gently as a rocket docking with a spaceship in slow motion. “Wow! Look at all this hot water!” I would exclaim. “The paint job is amazing!!!” That was my vision.

The reality is very different. I saw every bit of construction, every fixture going in, and every cost overrun that accompanied anything that we did. For days and days, we moved things out of storage units and my friend Mark’s attic. We looked at things that had been carefully wrapped in plasticky bubbles and locked away for a year, only to pull them out of their storage spots and peer down upon them with disdain: how am I going to deal with this thing? This sofa looks like ass. This bookshelf looks old and scratched. This looks ugly. This looks uglier. And so, a few days later, after all of those precious items had been dragged to Goodwill or, in many cases, taken to the dump, I looked around at the emptiness and wondered how the hell we were going to furnish our new house.

Person after person would ask me, “How’s your house? You must be thrilled that it’s all done.”

I would always smile. “Oh, gosh. It’s great. But we still have a few punch list items that need to be dealt with.” I laughed, trying hard to be nonchalant. “Just minor things, of course.”

And then I would go home. I would look around and see piles of things that belonged in places, but didn’t know what those places would be. I would see imperfectly tiled walls, wallboards with unsightly seams, floors that popped, unpainted surfaces, an old front door.

Bit by bit, the contractors made minor progress on the punch list. The new front door arrived, the tile was fixed, the wallboards caulked. But moving into an unfinished house, knowing the contractor could pop by at any time to work on this or that, made me anxious. I was grouchy and pissy. And I wasn’t alone.

So I thought it best to spare you my wrath until I got my groove back. And now, I think, maybe I have. The house is coming together, many visitors have dropped by, and furnishings and pictures are appearing here and there. Slowly, but surely, I’m discovering other things about which I can complain: things that can find their way to Splenda Sucks.
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