Sunday, July 24, 2011

And in Far Second Place, the "Other Woman"

I was discussing potential topics for future blogs with Chef Matt, and he, always ready with helpful ideas, suggested that I blog about how handsome he is. While I was grateful for the advice, I thought perhaps an entire entry gushing about the extraordinary good looks of my husband might make people want to gag just a little bit.

I felt a little bad about laughing at his suggestion, although it was, by far, not the most ridiculous idea he's ever had. So I thought it was only fair that I concede and share, not my syrupy admiration for his fine looks, but my admiration for his ability to be a good husband, despite the "other woman" in our life: the kitchen.

Restaurant life is, actually, much like an illicit affair, but one that is conducted quite out in the open. Matt is gone for long hours, sometimes home later than expected. He reads about food at every chance, texts and calls his co-workers about dishes and schedules and frustrations, checks restaurant menus online, and talks restaurant life all day long.

And he is not alone. This business is notorious for swallowing up its devotees, and very often, they love it. So many chefs are sadists who live for the thrill of the beat-down of a Saturday night rush, the challenge of unexpected disasters, and the conquering of irate eaters. When the smoke clears and the chaos is over, they lean against their flattops and pause for a breath, euphoric and slightly drugged from adrenaline. It is a high, for certain.

This can make for very difficult relationships. Chefs often top the list for highest divorce rate, and truthfully, I can see why. Waiting at home can be a lonely life. But the ones who have the business in their blood are attached like sinews to bone, allowing elusive perfection of their craft to stand between them and their loved ones.

Except for my chef. Even though he does see his line cooks more than he sees me, I know that the "other woman" doesn't stand a chance. Matt makes time out of no time and never leaves any doubt as to what is really the driving force of his days. His heart, though it beats just a bit faster when in the same room as some sumptuous cut of meat, is always at home with me.

Other wives might roll their eyes a bit if their husband ever declared, as mine does: "I love you more than osso bucco." But for me, knowing how much my chef loves osso bucco and all the other quirks and wonders of the business, that compliment is proof, beyond doubt, that he loves me quite a lot and that the "other woman" will continue to sit, tapping her feet, waiting for him to call.

Friday, July 15, 2011

In a World Where Art Class is Cooking Class

No matter how much I might like to be, I am not an arts-and-crafts sort of person. Elbow macaroni is meant to be eaten, not glued to paper plates or strung in a necklace, and I do not think I am even capable of summoning the patience needed to make a placemat out of construction paper strips. The extent of our art projects does not generally go beyond a box of crayons and the occasional sticker.

At our house, we work in a different medium, one that I think is just as interesting as paints and glitter and slightly more functional. When I want to engage my preschooler in a creative activity that does not involve the possibility of marker drawings on my walls, we make a mess, and usually something edible, in the kitchen.

Our daughter is at the age where she loves to help but is not much help. She drags a dining room chair over to our center island and demands to pour and mix while I measure and chop. The majority of the flour does end up in the bowl when I pass over the measuring cup, but as we progress, the mechanics of making food always become less interesting to her than inserting a licked finger into the sugar and pressing little indentations into the butter.

The end results are sometimes better than others, but the journey there is always a success. Perhaps baking and cooking are not traditional "art forms," and perhaps when she gets to kindergarten she will be a bit perplexed by Elmer's glue. She will, however, have an early understanding of the lovely precision of baking -- instilled by a exacting mother -- and the way that a proper order and careful attention to measuring can result in a baked good with excellent texture. She will also understand the artistry of cooking -- demonstrated by an inventive father -- and how the blending of experimentation and knowledge can produce profound meals.

I never want my daughter, or my sons, to have memory of a time when they were not allowed to help in the kitchen. Even our toddler, who is currently one percent helpful and 99 percent destructive, stands at the island and munches on Cheerios while we work. They will be trained as artists from the beginning, but their tools will be spatulas and wooden spoons, and someday, paring knives and zesters.

My daughter will never present me with an elbow-macaroni necklace, and she will probably never see a watercolor paint until she gets to school. Instead, she will, with flour smudged on her pretty face and batter glommed in her hair, eat a chocolate chip cookie that was the product of her mildly dextrous mixing, baked while she traced designs in a pile of sugar spilled on the counter. To me, that is the best kind of artistry: the kind you cannot hang on the fridge.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sometimes We Pretend to Be Fancy Eaters

The other night, Chef Matt and I uncorked a bottle of wine from our trip to Napa Valley, one that we had been eyeing ever since I was able to imbibe again: a tempranillo from a family owned Sonoma winery, Robledo. It was gorgeous -- robust, full of dark fruit, with aromas reminiscent of some ancient Spanish vineyard where the grape was born.

It would have been fitting to pair such a fine wine with an equally fine appetizer as we made dinner, maybe roasted poquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, or a dense foccacia dipped in 10-year balsamic vinegar. At our house, however, it has become the norm to pair elegance with inelegance, so we saw nothing strange about sipping a beautiful red wine while munching on plain ruffled potato chips.

Like the person who buys a 900-square-foot plain Jane house and installs a professional gourmet kitchen, we inject bits and pieces of excellent into our menu of otherwise ordinary in an attempt to pretend that most of our meals don't originate in the Campbell's Soup Cookbook.

Our sad, tiny pieces of generic sandwich bread do not taste quite so dull when transformed by fancy homemade jams or gourmet slabs of cheese. Our elbow macaroni and marinara bakes taste a little less like a college meal when mixed with bits of steak and topped with Panko bread crumbs.

Even when we create elaborate meals with high-end ingredients, there is always an element of our Poor Man's Pantry that I want to casually eliminate when I am describing the dish, or at least mumble it quietly out the corner of my mouth: slow-cooked, pulled-pork stroganoff with sauteed kale and sweet cippolini onions and ... shhhh ... cream of mushroom soup. Or, smoked salmon and scrambled egg fajitas with fresh dill sour cream and ... don't tell anyone ... Imitation American Cheese Food.

Such motley cooking habits remind me vividly of a scene in the movie "Sideways," when the main character sits in a fast-food restaurant, eating onion rings and drinking the rare, perfect bottle of wine that he has been saving for the absolute right special occasion.

I think the lesson is that every occasion is the right one for luxurious foods, no matter what you see fit to pair it with. Drinking a rich tempranillo with potato chips may not be classy or a practice endorsed by celebrity chefs, but the reality is that most of us do not have the available funds or particular palates to support singularly ostentatious eating all the time. Saving a bottle of champagne or an expensive prime rib for just the right moment is a lovely idea, but sometimes it is more enjoyable and memorable to create that moment out of thin air, even if it means you have to add a little Imitation Cheese Food to make it happen.