Friday, December 31, 2010

Farewell, 2010. Thanks for the Recipes.

New Year's Eve is inevitably a day of reflection on the rapid passage of time, in the year past and the years before. For me, it's a particularly sentimental day of remembering, since I first met Chef Matt on New Year's Eve 2003. Each year on this day, it's both the sunset of a old year and an anniversary of a great new beginning in my life.

The first time I saw Chef Matt he was, of course, in a kitchen. He was making food for the New Year's party we were both attending, and although I do not remember talking to him much that night, I do remember my first thought about him when I saw him standing there by the stove: "Boy, that guy is really short."

In the seven years since that rather uncharitable thought, I have gone from a single graduate student living with my parents to a wife, mother of two (and one more on the way), history professional, living in our own home. I have also transformed my knowledge and use of food; I am not quite at "live to eat," but I know that I am no longer just "eat to live."

When I met Chef Matt, I did not own salt, pepper or any other spices or herbs. Why waste the money, I reasoned. Sometimes I splurged on grated parmesan cheese, but usually my shells with red sauce went without. I ate noodle and rice mixes a few times a week, and rarely kept unfrozen vegetables in the house. Looking back, it was a sad state of affairs.

In this year alone, however, I have learned to make homemade cherry pie, pizza, au gratin potatoes, zucchini bread and strawberry jam. I have not purchased a box of dehydrated mashed potatoes in five years, and I always make my french fries by hand. This is not meant to be especially impressive; I still use cream soups every week and eat a frozen pizza every Sunday.

It is the focus that has changed. When I was alone, meals were quick events, rarely fancier than something that proclaimed "Just add water!" on the box. But since I'm cooking for four, and since I am trying to consider the cultivation of my children's taste buds, meals have become an opportunity to learn, be creative and conquer the boxed entree. Plus, it is hard to argue that the potato flakes taste better than real mashed potatoes with chicken stock, sour cream and butter.

Overall, 2010 has been a good year in my food education. Our trip to the French Laundry was the shining moment of the year, but on a much less grand note, learning how to make new foods by hand, by way of much trial and error, has made me a more curious, adventurous and patient cook. And as 2011 dawns, a whole new year with my chef and our growing family, I am excited for the food possibilities -- maybe there are souffles and bisques in my future.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's the Holiday Season. Just Give Up Now.

It happens every year between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, from the minute the first turkey appears until the last bottle of champagne has been drunk. All my good habits, the usual absence of sweets in our house, the attempts at portion control and daily vegetables, swirl out of sight with the first snow.

It's not my fault, I argue with myself. What logical human being, faced with an onslaught of starchy, sugary, cheesy, chocolatey foods for five weeks, can raise the necessary willpower to fight back and declare: "I will stick to my diet. I will eat fruit not dipped in chocolate. I will eat vegetables not covered in crispy onions. I will turn my nose up at every treat that comes my way."

The answer is: No one. I challenge any person confronting a holiday season and multiple family gatherings to successfully combat the operatives of the Holiday Food Assault. Sometimes I find the will to turn down a fourth cookie or a third helping of roasted turkey, but it is not often. I have come to accept, then, that the weeks between the fourth Thursday of November and the last day of the year must simply be named a Bermuda Triangle of Healthful Eating.

It begins with Thanksgiving, when I strategically map out the coordinates of my plate to ensure maximum capacity. Normally, I would say "no" to a generous pour of gravy on everything, but little is as delectably comforting as a pillow of mashed potatoes, cradling melted butter and smothered in gravy.

From Thanksgiving, we roll straight into Christmastime, and although the actual holiday does not arrive for several weeks, it does not mean that those days need be absent of gooey fudge or coma-inducing workplace potlucks. I feel strangely compelled to keep my oven perpetually on and full of homemade cinnamon rolls, peanut butter crinkles or cherry pie. This year, even Chef Matt, normally not a baker, got into the indulgent spirit of things and made M&M cookies. Of course, his recipe was the child of the French Laundry chef, and mine are the product of Betty Crocker, but the point is that our house has been a nonstop bake shop since November.

For the record, I do ensure that my children continue to eat green things that are not Christmas-tree-shaped cookies. But I have long since given up feeling bad about my own overeating during the holidays. The last weeks of the year are so full of treats because they are also so full of family and celebrations and giving. And if spending time with my family, and baking with my daughter, and preparing meals in warm, bustling kitchens means that my jeans do not quite fit come January, then pass the fudge and bring on the gravy, because it's worth it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Thanksgiving Comes Not Just Once a Year

On Thanksgiving morning this year, Chef Matt and the kids and I walked to end hunger at the Mall of America. We only made it about a mile before the walking toddler declared herself finished, so it was not, by any means, a rigorous race, but the idea was more of an installation of the value of helping people into our children's heads than anything else. It was a helpful reminder of what we have that others may not.

Because Thanksgiving is a holiday of indulgence. We give thanks for all our blessings, eat mounds of turkey and potatoes and stuffing, and then roll onto the couch for several hours of football. These are all things I love about Thanksgiving, but this year it also made me wonder, as I do every year on Valentine's Day when I am instructed by Hallmark to express my love, if we shouldn't remember to give thanks all year with the same vigor that we do on the fourth Thursday of November.

I am guilty of this. Life speeds by at a million miles an hour, and how often do I pause to show gratitude for the good things in my life? How often do I cease complaining and change my perspective? I have been thinking on this for a few weeks, slowly working on persistent gratitude for the things that, at first glance, might be more cause for complaint. Two things in particular have emerged from this reflection.

First, I am grateful that my husband has a job, and a job doing what he loves. Sometimes I get lost under self-pity and loneliness in those long nights and weekends when he is working. But I have reminded myself that he, unlike so many others these days, has a steady job to go to each week, and that while I am home with the kids, he is working long shifts to provide for his family.

And it is a business that he loves. When he describes the delicious nightly specials he has created or vents because he knows that something could be better, I know that we are lucky he is able to work every day in a job that elicits such passion. I remember six weeks when he was out of a job in 2009, and it was frightening and humbling. Now, every time I feel frustrated because he is not home, I shift gears and am thankful he is not home because he is working.

Second, I am grateful that I am able to feed my children. There are some nights that the toddler and I wage an epic battle of wills over dinner; I have come very close to a breaking point that involves me actually tossing food at her head. Other nights I feel an overwhelming guilt that I feed my children too much macaroni and cheese, simply because it is easy for me.

But despite the stubborn refusals to eat and the Mommy guilt, I know that my babies will never go to bed hungry, as long as I am alive. I strive to focus on the fact that we have macaroni and cheese to feed our kids, and that if they eat it two nights in a row, at least they are fed.

I think if we all took a closer look, we would see that our gifts are cleverly disguised as grievances. For me, it took a slow walk around a mall, past stacks of canned food for hungry people, to remind me that Thanksgiving is an everyday holiday, if we can only see past the irksome moments and find the blessings underneath.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A First-Trimester Love Letter

Dear Baby,

You do not know me yet, but I am your mommy. When you become aware of such things, you will hear my heart beating all around you. And when you are born, you and I will recognize each other, as if we had been friends a long time.

When you are out the in world, you will discover many things, not the least of which is that food is art and magic and divinity. Your daddy will present you with marvelous concoctions draped in wonderful things like roulades, sandwiched between days of peanut butter and jelly and Chef Boyardee. You will develop tastes, likes and dislikes, and will not be shy about letting your voice be heard.

But for now, the choices are all mine. I am doing everything I can to make it easy for you to grow in peace. Some things are simple -- giving up wine and lunchmeat is not a sacrifice. Others are harder. Sometimes I want to slather goat cheese on everything I eat and wash it down with a sugary forbidden Coke. When your daddy and I were out to dinner a few weeks ago, I waged a fierce battle in my head as I contemplated the consequences of the steak tartare. You won -- the delicious raw meat stayed in the kitchen.

I must apologize for all the crackers and dry cereal in the past six weeks, but as you approach the size of a peach and I near the second trimester, the days of Cheerio-popping are almost over, soon to be replaced by cravings for everything from milk to hot sauce. I promise to try and continue to make the right choices for you over the next six months, but as you will inevitably learn, sometimes you just need a McDonald's cheeseburger. Or two.

It's a strange and wonderful thing to never be alone, to know that every decision affects a sweet wee being floating in a dark and quiet world. Everything I eat grows your little brain and little eyelashes. Bananas and broccoli take on a new importance, and goat cheese, no matter how sublime, can be effortlessly shelved for 40 weeks.

Rest easy, Baby. Mommy will take care of everything.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Beware the Succubus Heavy Cream

Cream soups are my savior when I am home alone with the kids for the evening. If I have a cream soup, and chicken, and a starch, and some kind of vegetable, I feel like that resembles a complete meal and even hits most of the food groups. 

But the other night, as I was preparing to pop open a can of cream of mushroom soup to dollop over my chicken and rice, I was lured to the fridge by that devastating siren of the culinary world, that ingredient that is concurrently evil and divine, and my entire evening changed: It was a pint of heavy cream, rich and fattening and glorious. The cream soup went back in the cupboard, the fresh mushrooms emerged, and it was on.

This was the third time in a week we had cooked with heavy cream, and I could not entirely suppress a feeling of guilt that I was prematurely blocking my toddler's arteries. It was likely, I told myself, that heavy cream and fresh mushrooms have less preservatives than the soup. I argued myself down, and into the saucepan went a waterfall of cream, on top of slightly browned portobellos.

The key to a really beautiful white sauce, I have been taught, is to let the heavy cream reduce and thicken, all the while adding generous pats of butter (not margarine ... why bother?) and sprinkles of parmesan cheese. The butter melts and spirals yellow in the lightly bubbling cream, as the parmesan softens and diffuses flavor. After several minutes of patient stirring with a wooden spoon, and the addition of tomatoes or rosemary or more butter, the heavy cream has abandoned its original form and become a graceful blanket of sauce. 

Done right, such sauce is blissful. Tossed with chewy gnocchi or ladled over chicken and risotto, a perfect heavy cream sauce can transform my Monday night from "dinner is the only barrier between me and the couch" to "maybe I'll linger a little longer at the table and just lick my plate while no one's looking." 

And even more enticing is that the same heavy cream used to dress your pasta can be whisked, with sugar and vanilla, into pillows of whipped cream for your after-dinner treat. Versatile, impressive no matter what it adorns, heavy cream is a decadent gift to noodles and pies everywhere. It is enough to make me forgive the blocked arteries. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Food is an Instrument of Wedded Bliss

Four years ago this week, Chef Matt made an honest woman out of me at the magnificient Cathedral of St. Paul. The day flashed by in a flurry of taffeta and vows and tears and dancing, and I made a desperate attempt to take mental snapshots of everything that was not caught on camera, to file away for reminiscence's sake or for the rainy days of marriage.

Among a thousand other memories, what I remember most was a new husband who looked at me like he could not believe his luck. I was never one to think that I was a great catch for anyone, but that look was unequivocal in its meaning: You are a great catch for me. I still see that look sometimes, but as more time has separated the present from our wedding day, I see that belief more often in his actions than his eyes, which, to me, is even greater proof.

Everyone's marriage is perfect on that first day, when the joy is intoxicating and everything seems more beautiful under the influence of a white dress and a haze of champagne. You learn quickly that married life, even if it is wonderful, is not a fairy tale, that it demands hard work and compromise you never could have imagined while gazing at each other over a first dance.

Over time, the little actions show love far more earnestly than words at a wedding dinner, because they come amidst nasty bouts of the flu, stressful losses of jobs, empty checking accounts, and children who will not sleep. When my husband, who was prone to leaving cabinet doors open and a trail of socks across the bedroom floor, makes sure that the house is picked up before I get home from work, I know he loves me.

For us, our great love affair with food has only served to strengthen our great love affair with each other. Every time he cooks me up something special after I have had a long day, or saves me the last scoop of cookies and cream because he knows I love it, or thanks me for my suppertime concoctions even though they are rarely fancy, I know he loves me. Each anniversary, when he recreates our wedding dinner, I know that he does it not just for tradition's sake but also to demonstrate, through his great gift with food, that our love is alive and well.

I do not mean to be overly sentimental. But when the first week of November each year sweeps in with wedding flashbacks, I cannot help but remember that gush of emotion and the promise of great things to come. And the great things have certainly come, disguised as thoughtful pots of etouffee and late-night Blizzard runs in my third trimester and sincere compliments on my improvised lasagna. These are the actions of love in our house, and they abound.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Comforting Foods of Fall

The other day, I spent a rare peaceful moment reading on our front porch swing, inhaling deep breaths of warm autumn air and mourning the loss of summer. Fall can be a lovely time in Minnesota, but hiding just behind the smell of wet leaves are sharp icy winds, so I can never quite leap onto the autumn bandwagon.

My husband, however, is a creature of fall. He eagerly anticipates the resurrection of his sweaters and the recollection of early October mornings spent on the North Shore of Lake Superior. But most of all, he loves the reappearance of fall foods. 

Ingredients are seasonal, as you might expect. The cycles of growth and weather ensure that the watermelons we eat in excess in the summer are far superior to those we might find on a grocery store's bottom shelf in the winter. Restaurants take seasonal ingredients into account when changing menus, to fit both availability and mood; I am always relieved when berries and heirloom tomatoes appear on menus after months of silence.

But Chef Matt's attachment is largely to the ingredients of autumn, foods that defy the image of dying crops and weakening sunshine: apples, sweet potatoes, wild mushrooms, pumpkins, squash, beets, cranberries. Such foods are wonderful in their stamina and subtlety. A sweet potato can hold its ground paired with something as delicate as a cream sauce or something as hearty as peppercorn-crusted steak, without disappearing under either. And apples, so fine alone, are equally beautiful in a pie or garnishing a pork loin. 

I feel as if fall foods are Mother Nature's way of shouting at us, "Wait! Wait! I'm not done yet. See what else I have before you turn in for the winter!" Summer foods are abundant and brash and sweet, and winter foods unleash survival instincts in the way that they stick to our bones. The produce of autumn settles neatly in between. 

My preference is generally for the foods of summer, but I see the allure of the fall harvest.  Butternut squash ravioli and pumpkin pie are cozy and comforting, and as the days cool, there are few things more healing than a cup of hot cider. If I must endure fall on the way back to summer, I shall at least eat well on the journey. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mouse in the Kitchen, Girl on the Counter

As a rule, I try not to dwell on the aloneness that comes with being a Kitchen Widow; it only frustrates me and makes Chef Matt feel guilty. But try as I might to rise above the frustration and the occasional dip into self-pity, I do have nights that stretch on forever or nights where every minute is filled with some sort of near-catastrophe that is impossible for two hands but would be manageable with four. 

These nights test my stamina as a Kitchen Widow. Mostly, I do all right: the kids always get fed, bathed, read to, pajama-ed, and tucked in. If it is sometimes 10:00 before the toddler actually stays in bed, so be it. But I had a moment tonight that brought me to the edge of my tolerance for the aloneness, a moment when I briefly considered asking Matt if he knew of any cooking jobs with bankers' hours, and it had nothing to do with our kids and everything to do with a small brown rodent that scurried past my feet as I was starting dinner.

I am the cliche when it comes to mice. At the first sight or sound or sign of a mouse, I am perched on furniture and leaping from chair to chair to avoid the miniscule possibility that I might come in contact with the critter as it runs past. Usually, Matt is home to reassure me that my cowardice is unfounded, and he charges bravely in, armed with traps, to save his damsel in distress.

Tonight, our baby was in his high chair and our daughter playing outside when I spied the mouse and immediately took a flying leap onto our center island, where I sat for ten minutes, formulating a plan. I stared at the corner where the mouse had fled, and while tossing baby treats at our son to keep him happy, I snatched up our Swiffer and advanced on the corner. For me, this constitutes the height of bravery. 

The mouse reappeared twice, both times sending me back up onto the island, and tried to get out the back door. Finally, I opened the back door wide, still blindly throwing snacks at my poor baby, and waited for him to try one more time to get out. I did not want to use the Swiffer as a weapon if the mouse went anywhere but outside, but I steeled myself nonetheless. Finally, after 30 minutes of my glaring at the corner and calming a fluttering heart, the mouse snuck out the back door, and I slammed it shut behind him. 

The great casualty in all this was the lovely dinner I had planned. There was no way I was going to mash potatoes and saute mushrooms, when such inattentiveness might allow the mouse to escape to another part of the house. Instead, I threw a frozen pizza in the oven without ever taking my eyes off the corner. Thoroughly tweaked out, I hauled the kids upstairs immediately after dinner, where we hid the rest of the evening. 

It may seem illogical that I felt the aloneness more acutely tonight with the appearance of a mouse than I do when handling the necessities of home and family by myself. But I think it is merely an issue of practice. I handle the solitary feeding/cleaning/bathing just fine alone because I do it almost every day. If I had to combat mice every day, I might be less of a shrieking little girl. As it is, I'll just let Matt handle it, by himself, when he gets home. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blessed are the Messy Children at Dinner

A few years ago, there was a television commerical that depicted a couple gazing at each other over a quiet, romantic dinner. Then the camera panned out and showed screaming children throwing food and running amok, sandwiching the couple and their amorous moment in a circus of mealtime chaos.

Sometimes, when I glance at my husband across the table, I get lost in a cloudy dream sequence where it is just me and him and a beautiful osso bucco. It is only when a baby sneeze showers rice cereal into my hair that I am jerked back into the reality of dinnertime with children.

I have occasional flashes of our brief life together before children: leisurely meals that took hours to prepare; leaning against a kitchen counter, talking, with a bottomless glass of wine; spontaneous walks to the pub down the street; long evenings at dimly lit restaurants. We ate without curfews or timelines or interruptions, without pauses to cut chicken into chewable pieces or squish bananas into a texture appropriate for a mouth with four teeth. It was an unknowingly selfish time, and I admit that there are days that I long for such quiet, singular meals.

Our house is certainly quiet now, at times, but the silence of sleeping children still pulses with life and the potential for noise, in a way that our two-person home never did. But I know that someday, when our house is once again the living space of just Chef Matt and myself, I will long for the dinners with loud, messy kids. I will recall the merry-go-round of child-feeding -- one parent spoons cereal with the other argues the case for vegetables -- and will certainly miss the sticky fingers and the early victories with silverware and the surprisingly sweet way that babies chew.

I do love occasionally having Matt all to myself, eating without having to cajole or scrub food out of little eyebrows, but a dinner table with laughing, yelling, chattering children is a profound joy that we could never have imagined while sitting alone, in candlelight and stillness. We were missing out, but did not know it yet.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Great Minnesota Eat-Deep-Fried-Foods-Together

Early on a Thursday morning in late August, as the sun rises over a muggy Twin Cities, a slumbering animal comes to life on 320 acres in St. Paul. Crowds wait outside entrance gates to be the first ones to view the largest pumpkins, witness the birth of lambs and calves, navigate the wares, and be endlessly entertained.

The mass of humanity that pulses up and down the streets for 12 days, rain or shine or oppressive heat, comes to the Minnesota State Fair for any number of reasons, but chief among those is to answer the most pressing question of all: How much deep-fried food can I consume in one day?

Chef Matt and I only attend the State Fair every other year, partly because of the price tag and partly because the consumption of so much fair food makes my heart stop a little in protest. We love fair food, which is best eaten while sitting on a curb somewhere, engaged in the best people-watching of the year, but after one particularly ugly fair-food binge a few years ago (and the harsh realization that alas, we are no longer 18), we have trimmed our fair fare to a highlight reel.

There are three non-negotiables on our list: corn dogs, roasted sweet corn, and Sweet Martha's cookies. Corn dogs, that quintessential fair food, are best when the fried batter is still hot and chewy, drizzled with mustard that inevitably lands on your shirt, shorts and shoes. The roasted corn, plunged into hot butter, is nothing less than a Midwestern confection. And Sweet Martha's cookies, always our final stop and always eaten with cold milk, are warm and gooey and piled impossibly high in a cone cup, or even better, served by the dozens in a bucket.

Aside from the Big Three, we vary our food choices to hit a solid representation of the fair's offerings. We have eaten, at various times, deep-fried pickles, hot dish on a stick, spaghetti and meatballs on a stick, mini donuts, deep-fried risotto balls, Australian battered potatoes with ranch and cheese sauce, and cheese curds. The infinity of food at the fair and our flexible list of snack requirements are all part of the fun for us biennial visitors: will we eat alligator on a stick in 2012? deep-fried candy bars in 2014?

The State Fair is, at worst, a strain on your wallet and your arteries. At best, it is a jolly 12-day block party where all diets are shelved, no one can stop comparing foods consumed, and the food groups descend into two categories: fried and not fried. But leave your food guilt at the door, Minnesotans, and eat a deep-fried pickle in the alternate reality that is the State Fair, where there is no shame attached to eating cookies out of a bucket. Such blissful freedom won't be back for 353 days.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Divine Foods of Summer

I always feel a little desperate on the eve of September, as if I need to start storing sunshine in my bones to save for the dark days of February. As fall peeks around the corner, I can feel the heavy, humid days slowly fading, and with them baseball, the sweet smell of grass, and the guilty pleasure that is summer food.

As wonderful as it is, summer food does not have a sophisticated culinary pedigree. Unlike its blueblood cousins that require delicate handling and white-linen surroundings, summer food is best eaten when you are sweaty, dirty, sunburned, tipsy and/or trying to remove sand from every crevice. It is, much like a Thanksgiving meal, food that is inextricably linked to experiences and memories.

We all have a perfect summer day lodged somewhere in our past: a hot sun shimmering over a lake/pool/beach/backyard, an afternoon that lasts forever, friends and family circling around a grill, the pleasant thump of slamming cooler lids. And in every perfect summer day, picnic/patio/kitchen tables groan under the weight of too much food, which is then ladled in enormous quantities onto paper plates, sending all partygoers into a comfortable haze of food coma.

When confronted with a pile of meat and a bottle of ketchup, I am slightly disgusted by how much I can eat. But summer etiquette does not frown upon a three-bratwurst day. I do not go so far as to fill up two plates at once, mostly because I need one hand for my beer, but I find it almost impossible to overlook any dessert, or not take one of every salad. No matter how many times I have eaten potato salad in my life, it never tastes better than it does coming out of a big plastic bowl and sloshing around on a plate next to watermelon, baked beans and corn on the cob.

Warm-weather fare is comfort food in a different way than fried chicken and gravy. Hot dogs and ice tea are the companions of the days I love best, from my past and present. I remember long weekends spent camping with my family, and I foresee Sunday afternoons spent playing with my kids in the pool, and I can see both of me with a hot dog in hand.

As summer winds down, I vacillate between excitement for fall and longing for July. Come September, I will miss the summer food and the barbecues that go with it. But no matter what the season or how deep the snow, I know that I can instantly conjure up cicadas, late sunsets and the smell of sunscreen with a single bite of potato salad.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mastering the Art of Julia Child

Before there was Emeril Lagasse or Gordon Ramsay, or any other TV-reared chef, there was Julia Child. She made complex French cooking accessible, and she did it with honest passion and likeability. When Chef Matt and I watched Julie and Julia for the first time last week, I was struck by the masterful combination of talent and coincidence that paved the way for her transformation of the culinary world.

In some ways, she had much in common with many other chefs. She was gifted, she adored food, and she was tenacious. I loved the scene in which the uncomparable Meryl Streep portrayed Child chopping mounds of onions, both to perfect her technique and to keep pace with her male classmates, as well as the scene where a beautifully prepared bit of fish brought her close to tears. I recognized both of those reactions.

But it was Child's life circumstances that allowed her talent to see the light of day in ways that elude 99 percent of chefs. First, she was unwillingly childless. As a historian, I shrink from speculation, but I think the presence of a child would have shifted her attention and perhaps her iconic status would not have come to be. It is difficult enough to have children while working the world of food, but for a woman in the 1950s, even one of Child's determined demeanor, a revolutionary cookbook would likely have taken a backseat.

Second, she lived in Paris and studied at a legendary institution with renowned chefs. Such a culinary upbringing would certainly do wonders for most budding cooks.

Third, and nearest to my heart, was the support of her husband, Paul. I watched with interest and understanding as Paul Child nurtured her great love of food and acted as an anchor during her long, arduous journey to Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Food was a merciless business even then, and Paul Child embraced his wife's destiny with grace. As a modern-day Kitchen Widow, I admit that such grace comes to me, at times, with difficulty. My support, much like Matt's cooking technique, is always a work in progress.

It is likely that our fortunes will not follow the Childs' path. But Julia Child, however unattainable her fame, showed chefs the way to an entirely possible career outcome: You can cook, and do it well, and do it with ferocity and love.

And for me, the lesson came from Paul Child: Your spouse's attachment to knives and sauces and butter is worthy of relentless support, and will surely keep you well-fed in the process.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Six O'Clock Dilemma

One of the first things people say to me when they discover I'm a chef's wife is: "Oh, so he must cook for you all the time!" It's a logical enough remark, but I always feel a desperate twitch to correct assumptions about the home life of a chef.

Chef Matt does cook, to be sure, but it is not often and is not the luxurious three-course meal that people may imagine. Once a month or so, he'll make a delicious reduction of some kind and ladle it over a sauteed pork chop and cream cheese mashed potatoes, but the reality is that he works five nights a week and is generally not home to cook for us. When he is home, he doesn't necessarily have the desire, or ingredients, to execute a lavish meal for me and our selectively finicky toddler.

That leaves me in the role of "chef du maison." I alternately love and dread this role. I love to employ the skills absorbed while watching my chef work his kitchen magic, particularly when I manage to create a passable cream sauce. I dread it when I must assemble a mildly delicious meal on short notice and a long day, much like, I am sure, thousands of other grown-ups attempting to be grown-ups.

Every day that I am home alone with kids, I open the refrigerator around 6:00 and blankly stare at its contents, willing inspiration to hit. I close the fridge and open the pantry cupboard, calculating an equation of starch + meat + vegetables before closing the cupboard and going back to the fridge in an endless cycle of passivity.

This regular indecision has made me a master of the creative dinner. I can take five random ingredients and a baking dish and thirty minutes, and have at least an edible dish to give my family. I rarely use recipes or ingredients fancier than a box of rigatoni, and as a result, the family of the chef eats not sirloin and crab cakes but sloppy concoctions of whatever we happen to have hiding in the cabinets.

In an effort to ensure that our kids do not go out into the world thinking that a hot dish is the only possible evening meal, I recently started planning out dinners and shopping accordingly. So far, so good, but I know that my days of the apathetic refrigerator stare are not gone. And in a very strange way, this makes me feel proud, and a little like McGyver. Matt can cook a dish worthy of fine-dining restaurants, but I can scramble together five nights' dinners with nothing but a wooden spoon, a can of soup, and that box of rigatoni.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Now Hiring: Somebody Good with a Knife

A chef's resume must, by occasional necessity, appear on paper. But a printed resume does little to demonstrate a chef's skills or the curiosities of each restaurant experience. It's a business that often has little continuity and does not always consider multiple jobs in a few years to be a deal-breaker. Such a business is not often reflected well in a formal resume.

Every time we have updated Chef Matt's resume, informality seems more attractive, if not necessarily appropriate. "Can peel thirty pounds of potatoes in thirty minutes" would be of much greater help to a potential employer than "Manages tasks efficiently and quickly." Similarly, "Will show up for work every day, on time and not hung-over" would be a valuable demonstration of reliability.

A good culinary resume would read like a shopping list of skills. Instead of "Experienced in authentic Mexican cuisine," a head chef or manager would be much more interested in:

  • Can artfully butcher chickens and a variety of large fish.
  • Able to easily identify a dozen peppers and their heat intensities.
  • Cooks tamales that have the seal of approval from multiple Mexicans. Taster references available.
  • Makes awesome guacamole. Will whip some up on demand.

Restaurant resumes should be thus reformatted to fit the culinary universe. Head chefs browsing resumes need to know that "good team player" means "I can handle three stations by myself when another cook walks out during Friday dinner rush," and "skilled at multi-tasking" means "I can assemble fifteen taco platters, neatly chop a pound of cilantro, translate and answer a co-worker's question in my broken kitchen Spanish, and roll twenty pounds of pork in banana leaves, all at the same time," and "hard-working" means "I can go twelve hours without eating."

As Matt begins a new culinary adventure today and our loyalty shifts once more, I know he looks forward to adding new skills to his resume list and using the ones already mastered. Restaurant culture shifts depending on cuisine, but some things do stay constant. He will always have to chop a lot of onions or tomatoes, will always have nights where he faces a line of tickets three feet long, and will always have shifts where he subsists on Coke and water.

It's the constants that make me think chefs should add a section to their resumes titled: "Why I Love This Business Despite All I Know About It." That might be the longest section of all.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Backyard Gardening for Amateurs

I always feel sad for the poor, unsuspecting plants that find their way into our home, as their days are most certainly numbered. There are few people more adept at killing plants than Chef Matt and myself. We have driven hardy house plants to early deaths and easily destroyed a whole row of hostas, that Green Beret of yard plants.

The exception has been our little backyard garden. Most of the work is left to the whims of weather; the responsibility of regular (or even occasional) watering and correct lighting is not in our hands, which is likely the reason our herbs and vegetables survive past June. We plant in May, and then glance at our little fenced plot on our way to the garage all summer, hoping that something will eventually produce edibles. Our cucumbers were quickly gobbled up by some industrious neighborhood animal, but otherwise, Mother Nature has prevailed, in spite of our ineptitude.

Our horticultural limitations certainly curb the types of foods we can grow. Not for us anything delicate or temperamental. We prefer plants like thyme, which can be buried under snow for several months and sprout fresh in the spring without any pruning or replanting or fertilizer. Cherry tomatoes require a little more love, but simply ensuring that the stalks are tied to the tomato cage guarantees a plant heavy with clusters of fruit.

We don't plant a backyard garden with any sort of ambition. Our garden will never be one of those glorious quarter-acres of sunshiny vegetables peeking out from beneath leafy greens, carefully organized for maximum capacity. We are always a little surprised when things actually grow. For us, the great pleasure of our garden is just nearness. It is highly satisfying to step out our backdoor, pluck a few leaves of fresh basil, inhale the sharp, clean scent, and sprinkle the product of our wee sprout on tomatoes and a lovely mozzarella.

Despite our general inability to make things grow, we'll always try to keep something that resembles a garden for the sheer enjoyment of brushing the dirt off chives before we stir them into a cream sauce. Someday, we may try to plant more than a twelve-foot-square space, as long as the sun and rain continue to keep our garden alive so we don't have to.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Early-Twenties Empty Refrigerator

Last week, my brother, 23 and in his first apartment, invited us over for dinner. My brother's repetoire includes approximately four meals, most of which originate in a box labeled "Kraft" or a can labeled "Chef Boyardee," so I was pleasantly surprised when he presented us with a Stouffer's lasagna, garlic bread and a dessert.

While waiting to eat, I peeked in his refrigerator and was appalled at the emptiness. The shelves were bare, save for a few grapes, a package of sliced cheese, and three beers. I found bread and chips and donuts elsewhere in his kitchen, and to a casual observer it appeared that he either orders pizza five days a week or subsists on snacks and cheese sandwiches.

The gaping whiteness reminded me of my own early-twenties refrigerator. I recalled the near-desperation of my post-college years, stretching loaves of bread and gallons of milk, living without the luxuries of salt or pepper or napkins, using paper towels as coffee filters, and staring longingly at fresh produce I could not afford.

When I was 23, my grocery budget was $25 a week, and there were weeks when I ate ramen noodles for lunch and tortillas with butter for dinner. On my 24th birthday, I was snowed into my home with cereal and a beer. It is jarring when you spend 20 years with readily available food and are suddenly standing alone, staring at a deserted icebox, wondering if it would be at all appetizing to mix rice, peas and barbecue sauce.

That year, my brother sent me a "Rations Box," filled with non-perishables. I never opened it. Instead, I kept it on the counter in case of an emergency, carried it with me to each new home, and eventually stored it in a kitchen cabinet as a reminder of my food-poor days. I still have it, and whenever I see it, I am grateful that there is no ramen in my cupboards.

What began as a joke, however, transformed into a lesson in determination and appreciation. I stared down that Rations Box when times were tough, intent on saving it for a time of great need. I keep it now so I will not forget the popcorn dinners and will always appreciate the rush of relief when I open my full refrigerator.

Perhaps it is time for me to return the favor and make my brother a box of his own.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Testimony of a Wine Lover

Chef Matt and I are not big drinkers. On the rare occasion that we open a bottle of wine, it will sit on the counter and further ferment, almost full, for two months before it finally comes to rest at the bottom of our garbage disposal.

During our epic Napa vacation, however, I woke each day feeling like I'd been marinating in a cask of wine. We Ping-Ponged up and down Highway 29 in Napa Valley, armed with a tourist brochure highlighting all the vineyards offering free tastings, and sampled dozens of reds and whites, and a few champagnes. The exotic thrill of a mid-morning haze lured us down canopied driveways, into stone buildings or wide porches with a view of the valley, where the ancient spell of wine swirled about us like wind and neatly carried us away.

My wine education began, as many others' have, in college with a box of something pink and ridiculously sweet. It wasn't until I spent a summer in Germany, drinking red Argentinian wine late into the evenings, that I understood how wine should be acknowledged as its own course, alongside appetizer and dessert. When I drink a glass of good wine with a good meal, it seems to seep into the miniscule crevices between food-flavors and complete by way of complementing.

The allure of wine is much the same as the allure of food: enjoyment tempered with education. I can enjoy food without feeling compelled to learn, but when I understand how to parfait flavors or appreciate textures, eating is less an act of sustinence and more an act of gratification. Wine becomes more complex as the secrets behind aromas and tastes and pairings are revealed, and I am tempted to savor its complexity with greater care, just as one would sip a fine whiskey or take tiny bites of a dense chocolate fudge.

Neither Matt nor I have sophisticated wine palates -- although I must admit I was duly impressed with his ability to isolate flavors in every wine we tasted -- but we both love the aura that accompanies wine-drinking. I feel more companionable with a glass of wine in hand, more aware of fermented grapes' place at a wedding in Cana and centuries of Tuscan dinner tables and homemade presses in 1920s cellars.

We left Napa with a rather embarassing number of bottles, especially for two people who drink more Coke than wine. But we couldn't help ourselves. We simply could not leave to memory wines tasted in a replica Italian castle, in a migrant-owned vineyard, or on a sunny patio where I was reacquainted with Chardonnay, so we filled our wine rack with images of Napa, suspended for a time in divine gold and scarlet liquids.

Monday, June 28, 2010

And At Last, The French Laundry

My husband is, in my estimation, a good-looking man. But I have rarely seen him look as handsome as he did on the night we ate at The French Laundry, dressed in a black pinstriped suit and glowing with completely unrestrained joy. If good looks were measured by such things as happiness, in fact, I do believe he was the best-looking man on Earth last Wednesday.

It was an epic dining experience, with foods I had never seen before and flavors pairings that I could not have anticipated. Each course made me catch my breath and wonder how something so beautiful could be created with little more than a knife, a flame and a steady hand.

We arrived a half-hour early and were received as if the hostess wanted nothing more in the world than to make us comfortable. We were treated graciously, without a hint of pretentiousness, by everyone who stopped by our table, as if we were honored guests. The nine-course tasting menus were presented, and when the dishes began to arrive, I watched Chef Matt's giddy adrenaline rush relax into a profound appreciation of what was clearly a genius at work.

With every bite, he turned his face upwards, like someone soaking up a warm sunshine. My understanding of cuisine complexities is not as sharp as his, but I, too, found myself savoring the few precious bites of each course with a deliberate intention to commit each flavor to memory.

We discussed each course at length -- oysters and caviar in a luxurious cream sauce, buttered lobster with sweet peaches, crispy pork belly with black truffles, creamy foie gras with bing cherries, graceful apricot sorbet, and the very best of them all, a slice of unbearably tender steak finished in a warm butter bath.

At the end of the meal, finished with a dessert labeled "Happy Birthday" in chocolate script and steamed cream for my coffee, we were invited to tour the kitchen. We accepted, very nearly tripping over ourselves in excitement, and viewed what was likely the cleanest working kitchen in America. Its surfaces gleamed like brand-new, and the chefs set to their tasks with a serenity I had never seen before in any restaurant. The sous chef autographed our menu and acknowledged our thanks with humility. We left, three hours after entering, laden with parting shortbread cookies and a full camera, and just stared at each other a bit in wonderment.

To many people, I suppose this seems like utter nonsense, getting so weepy over a restaurant. But I'm happy to be nonsensical in return for the best meal of my life, the best service ever encountered, and the pleasure of seeing my husband alight with inspiration. The restaurant business can be relentless, demanding and unforgiving, but our evening at The French Laundry restored my faith that it can also be positively magical.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Road to The French Laundry

I love to watch people observe experts in their craft, to see them glow with appreciation at nuances the rest of us miss. Last June, my joy in watching Chef Matt exclaim over the work of his fellow chef-artists evolved into a secret plan to get him to the epicenter of foodie perfection: The French Laundry.

"The Laundry", in Yountville, California, is home to some of the most gorgeous food in America. I listened to Matt mention this restaurant with a syrupy admiration that is shared by anyone who has ever worn a chef coat, and I knew that we must eat there. But two daunting barricades, one that I was expecting and one that I was not, threatened to spoil my well-laid plans.

The one I expected was the price. For two people to eat a single meal at The French Laundry, including the nine-course tasting menu and wine, it costs about $700. That is two months' worth of groceries, for one meal.

When I recovered from the physical sickness that arose at the discovery of such a ludicrous price tag, I put my head down and started saving. I pinched money out of every corner of our budget, set aside tax-return money, and pleaded with my family to give me money instead of gifts for my birthday.

The barricade I did not expect was the difficulty of actually securing a reservation. I had already bought the plane tickets, reserved the hotel, and told Matt about his impending adventure, before I set out to reserve a table. To my dismay, I discovered that I had about as much a chance of getting a table as I would guessing a perfect March Madness bracket.

The restaurant has 17 tables and only accepts reservations for three and a half hours each night. To reserve one of these coveted seats, you must call the reservation line the precise second it opens, two months to the calendar date in advance, and hit redial dozens of times, in hopes that a brief pause in the barrage of calls will open a sliver of possibility for your call's acceptance.

On April 23, I recruited 10 people to dial the reservation line at exactly 12:00:00 CST, and redial and redial and redial. At 12:02, my mother-in-law e-mailed: "I'm in and on hold!" By the time she spoke with an actual person at 12:14, June 23 was booked.

But The French Laundry was not lost to us. Matt stalked, and secured the one and only two-top they release each day. We could both barely breathe the rest of the day.

It feels a bit ridiculous: $700 and several weeks of stress beforehand (what if we don't get a reservation?!) for one dinner. But the sense of absurdity is quickly diminished by the thought of watching my chef's eyes widen and his lavish praise unable to manifest into the right words at the first bite of such peerless food. It will be the defining moment in his culinary education, and I can't wait to see it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

No Food Snobs in this Kitchen

The other day, Chef Matt and I were on a semi-date (which means that only one child was present, the non-mobile one), so we decided to go out for dinner. We drove by a number of options -- including a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant, spotted with the Asian Takeout Radar -- when he cried out, with absolute sincerity: "Oh, there's an Old Country Buffet. I'd eat there."

I have nothing against a buffet. When one is broke and hungry, buffets are a good option. What is so amusing to me, however, is that my husband the chef, who can pinpoint ingredients in dishes with razor-sharp accuracy and savors foods such as beef tartare and seared scallops, is willing, even excited, to eat canned corn and bulk mashed potatoes that have been sitting under warmers for a half-hour and have likely been handled by two dozen people.

Common belief about chefs says that they are food snobs, and I suppose that is true for some. Matt is a bit of a garbage disposal. He won't eat melon ("too watery") or raw onions ("then that's all I can taste"), but otherwise he is open to just about anything that resembles food.

He eats large quantities of Kraft mac-and-cheese and canned soups, loves Taco Bell, will never say no to a frozen pizza, and (although I have never seen it) will eat hot dogs dipped in applesauce.

He has tried, and loved, Scottish haggis, sweetbreads and tripe. If you're uncertain about exactly what those foods are, imagine innards on a plate.

In many ways, this is blessing. Whatever crazy concoction I put in front of him, he will eat. He can always find something he likes on a menu and is more than willing to indulge my fast-food or Dairy Queen cravings.

Food appreciation is all about situation. Braised short ribs at a fancy restaurant will elicit a different assessment than a quarter-pounder with cheese. I have to be impressed, however, that he can turn off those super-sensitive taste buds and eat drive-through cheeseburgers with the same enthusiasm as he eats expensive delicacies. A food snob he is certainly not; I like to think of him as an equal-opportunity-eater.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Problem With Stir-Fry

Stir-fry is an excellent back-up plan. When the baby broccoli is looking a little limp and the mushrooms a bit too shriveled, even for edible fungus, I dig out the wok and the General Tso and toss up what is essentially Remnants On Rice.

The beauty of a stir-fry is that anything can be sauteed in a wok and eaten with Boil-in-a-Bag rice. A handful of almost-slimy green beans? Nearly dry baby carrots? Mixed veggies and shrimp with freezer burn? Toss 'em in.

Generally, stir-fry night is when Chef Matt is working, which is unfortunate for two reasons. One: Matt loves any food with a spicy Asian sauce eaten with rice/skinny noodles. He has uncanny Asian Takeout Radar that can isolate any restaurant serving crab rangoons within a five-mile radius, even if it's a city he's never set foot in before. Two: If Matt made the stir-fry, it would be a perfect tower of flavors, coated just so in sauce, ladled artfully over not-too-crunchy rice.

When I make it, there is no precision. There is no careful calculation to determine when the sweated onions are ready to receive the red peppers, and no amount of sauce can mask the unmistakable flavor of "burned."

The big problem with stir-fry, however, is not that I can't make it right, although I suppose that is a problem, too. The difficulty is that it's a pile of vegetables smothered in sauce that's not ketchup, offered next to the starch that is the most easily wedged in between floorboards.

My two-year-old flat-out refuses to eat stir-fry, even when I painstakingly spoon around the offensive mushrooms and onions, digging out every kernel of corn to place on her plate next to plain rice and two relatively sauceless chicken pieces. I can be finished eating, have the kitchen cleaned and be halfway through a Harry Potter novel, and she'll still be staring down at the unacceptable dinner on her tray and the gummy rice she's scattered across the floor.

I am resolved to be firm with dinner and not give in with a PBJ. But when I'm on my hands and knees picking up individual pieces of rice, I'm tempted to swallow my pride.

It's such a wonderful idea, in theory: Use up leftover food AND get double the daily vegetable intake. In practice, I'd be better off giving the two-year-old animal crackers for dinner and saving my sad little stir-fry for someone who has spent enough time in good/bad/ugly Chinese takeout places to at least appreciate my attempt.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Lessons, By Way of Strawberry Jam

Sometimes when Chef Matt works long hours, I have the urge to cook difficult foods that I could just as easily buy at the grocery store. Last Halloween, I was seduced by seasonal fruits and made my first homemade apple pie. Around Thanksgiving, I was desperate for the smell of baked goods and labored over cinnamon rolls for an entire evening.

Today, I saw a container of strawberries in our refrigerator and thought it might be nice to learn to make jam. I found a recipe online that required only three ingredients. I unearthed a huge Mason jar in our cupboards, and the boiling concoction of strawberries, sugar and lemon juice ultimately filled about an eighth of said jar.

It was a little anticlimactic. I had visions of spreading my homemade jam on crispy English muffins for weeks, and as it turns out, I made enough to last approximately one and a half breakfasts.

As I was pouring my several tablespoons of jam into the jar, I started to picture, as all good historians do, this process in a setting other than a modern kitchen on a quiet afternoon. I imagined rows of gleaming jars, filled with jams in varying shades of red, lined up next to canned tomatoes and a wealth of pickled foods. I could see a woman in an apron, standing next to a furious stove, stirring liquids in pots and wrangling a half-dozen children and refastening her escaping hair, and I felt a sudden admiration for the women of kitchens past.

On Memorial Day, I try to remember those serving on the homefront, as well as those on the front lines, and acknowledge their great sacrifices, too. As I envisioned a woman in another kitchen in another time, I was reminded that a spontaneous jam on a holiday weekend was a luxury that eluded these women, whose rationed meat, butter and sugar made for creative and frustrating cooking. A strawberry jam made from the fruits of a victory garden and a bit of precious sugar carried a different importance than mine made out of curiosity.

My jam settled into the texture of taffy, but the jar of Smucker's is waiting in the cabinet to cover up my experiment, and I have plenty of sugar to try again. But my perspective on flirting with homemade foods has widened, as I can see the other woman looking back at me, eyeing my sugar and four sticks of butter, and I watch as she turns back to make a pie for a husband who is away much longer than mine ever will be.

Monday, May 24, 2010

There's a Romance in My Risotto

Before I met Chef Matt, risotto was something I had never eaten. I imagined that it appeared only on fancy, expensive menus, and knew that it was certainly nothing I could ever cook. Far too much stirring.

In the years since, risotto has become a staple in our kitchen's repetoire: roasted sweet corn risotto, lime and cilantro risotto, even my bastardized version with cream of mushroom soup and frozen mixed vegetables. When cooked properly, risotto has a marvelous texture, creamy with a barely perceptible crunch, like a perfect al dente pasta. I have come to love it as a versatile side and hot-dish substitute and something I can eat in large quantities.

My change of heart regarding risotto was not merely gastronomical. I associate risotto with the important romantic moments in my relationship with Matt, an edible marker of the milestones of our couplehood.

Risotto was the very first thing he ever cooked for me. By his own admission, Matt is a terrible judge of dry rice and pasta quantities, and that night he made enough risotto to feed most of the people living in my zip code. I happily ate reheated risotto for two weeks.

At our wedding, we had parmesan risotto in lieu of potatoes. In the midst of the gaiety, he leaned over to me and said, "The texture isn't right." I said, "No one will notice but you." Ultimately, one other person did notice, but the night went on despite the texture deficiency.

Five days later, we met risotto in its native country. On our second night in Venice, we had reservations at Osteria da Fiore, a restaurant tagged by four dollar signs in our travel guide and so modestly marked in a narrow street that we walked by it three times. The shrimp and mushroom risotto was only available ordered "for two." Convinced that anything only available "for two" must be something particularly amazing, we ordered it. The dish was both dense and light as air, the most splendid risotto either of us had ever eaten.

Each year on our anniversary, Matt makes our wedding dinner, including a lovely, correct-texture parmesan risotto, and it's blissful in taste and memory. Although the dish has lost some of its mystique, it will always be a magical food for me, reminiscent of heady new love, a wedding, and an Italian honeymoon soaked in wine and enlightened by flawless foods.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Beginnings of Kitchen Widow

This is how the story goes: Girl meets boy. Girl asks boy: "What do you do?" Boy says: "I'm a chef." Girl thinks: "Jackpot. A man who cooks."

They combat opposite schedules with late nights at the restaurant bar and lazy weekend mornings. Girl thinks: "He has his time, I have mine. It's perfect."

Girl and boy get married, buy a house, have two kids. Suddenly, opposite schedules lose their luster. Boy sees head chef more than wife and kids. Girl and boy become the proverbial ships passing in the night. Boy works a lot, and girl is sometimes bitter.

But girl watches boy mature as a chef, wax poetic about beautiful cheeses and slow-cooked meats, and offer up his heart to the kitchen deities who are neither patient nor sympathetic. Girl realizes that his organic make-up is less blood and bone than it is beurre blanc sauce and the cumulative sweat of generations of hardened, fanatically devoted cooks who sneak toasted hamburger buns in the fifteen seconds between tickets so waiting guests can savor a precise sculpture of meat, starch, veg and sauce.

Girl knows that not all who wield the knife are artists, but that boy is one of them, and her heart softens. Girl realizes that boy's pride in his craft widens her love. Girl accepts status as Kitchen Widow. Boy continues to work a lot, and as girl and the kids eat pasta with marinara sauce for the tenth time that month, girl eagerly waits for the precious thirty minutes of conversation she and boy will have after the kitchen has been closed, wrapped and scrubbed.

Girl thinks: "Still a jackpot."