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."