Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Culinary Skills Gone With the Wind. Or Never There in the First Place.

When you live with a chef, you face a daily reality of Second-Best Syndrome. This guy takes something that I have to do every day just to keep my kids alive, and he does it a thousand times better.

He is a professional, I get it. But I have watched him cut a hundred onions, saute a dozen different cuts of meat, flip countless over-easy eggs, and like any artist, he makes it look effortless. The surest way to get better is to practice, but I can assure that you that my over-easy eggs are consistent only in that they are not actually over easy.

So I have had to put aside my competitive tendency and accept that try, try again does not apply to me and cutting onions. It has been a consolation to adopt a sort of Rhett Butler attitude about the whole thing and frankly, just not give a damn.

My regular audience is three kids who would eat bricks of cheese for dinner if I let them, who are suspicious of anything that does not immediately resemble a hot dog, and who would probably rather clean toilets than eat cauliflower. My culinary skills count for next to nothing most nights of the week. On so many evenings, I have patiently stirred risotto or roasted squash or sauteed stir-fry, only to have one or all of them refuse to eat, spit food back onto their plates, and occasionally (like this evening, for example), run wailing from the room.

So I do not give a damn, and I cook for me. Chef Matt, bless him, will eat just about anything, although I think he is just relieved to see leftovers in the fridge that he did not have to cook. Aside from the infamous "are-these-boxed-mashed-potatoes" incident in our early years, he has never made negative remarks about my cooking. I cook what I want, then, and do it in my own amateur sort of way.

And every once in a while, the Rhett Butler attitude pays off. My daughter inexplicably loves it when I make shrimp and grits. They all love salmon. And this afternoon, I just about burst with pride when Matt called because he had forgotten to tell me that the shepherd's pie I made yesterday was among the best he has ever had. He ate it for breakfast and thought it was beautiful.

It is comforting for a very mediocre cook like myself to have eaters that are alternately non-discriminating and still growing into their palates. That means I can live with a man who makes Mona Lisas out of a few cloves of garlic and some olive oil, and be assured that there is no comparison taking place. I cook the way I know how and hope that at some tomorrow in the future, I will get the eggs right and the kids will realize that cauliflower is delicious. After all, (she said, amidst sweeping theme music and inspirational gumption to succeed despite the odds) tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A DeLorean, Shaped Like a Chocolate Biscuit

I am grateful for the sharpness of sense memory, especially these days when the memory in my head is imperfect and full of holes. Our senses have a remarkable ability to shut down all the life around us and transport us, with great clarity, to a moment in our pasts.

There are certain smells that, for me, trigger vivid memories of a particular event or person, no matter how often I encounter those scents in other situations. A particular flowery lotion smell sends me back to sophomore year three-act play, and the smell of fresh-cut wood always reminds me of my father. Sounds work much the same way, especially in the form of songs.

Of all the senses that evoke memory, however, I think taste is by far the most powerful. Food memory is perhaps responsible, partly, for why we love or hate certain foods, or why certain foods are coated in thick veneers of our pasts.

Whenever I eat Spaghetti-O's (which is not that often, but I am a mom, so it does happen), I am suddenly in my grandma's dining room, swinging my five-year-old legs that do not touch the floor and admiring my collection of sparkly rocks. Whenever I eat pasta that has a spicy tomato cream sauce, I am back in my St. Paul apartment, leaning against the counter and talking to Chef Matt, who has just shown up with leftovers after a late cooking shift.

One of my favorite food memories came crashing back at me this weekend, with my parents' return home from Australia. When I was 20, I spent five months in Sydney and came to love, among many other things, an Australian chocolate biscuit called a Tim-Tam. At first glance, they are nothing special: crunchy cookies sandwiching chocolate frosting and coated in chocolate. But try one, and I guarantee you that your outlook on the world of chocolate biscuits will be transformed. Bite each end off and suck coffee through it like a straw, and your outlook on all sweets will never be the same.

Up until recently, you could not get anything like a Tim-Tam in the United States. I have had occasion to have a few since I was in Sydney, and every experience was the same. I was back at the University of Sydney, drinking strong Australian beer and skipping class to soak up a beach, always toting a Tim-Tam or the lingering taste of one on my tongue.

The ghost of Sydney is back upon me now, as I savor Tim-Tams that my parents brought from Down Under. I could not be farther from that time and place. But luckily, food memory does not easily die. For the briefest of instances, I am not a pregnant mother of three staring out the window at a frozen lake. I am a young exchange student with nothing much to think about except a snorkel on the Reef.

Thank goodness for those food memories. I would never exchange the life I have now for the life I was living then, but it certainly does not hurt to call that life up every once in a while with a chocolate biscuit or two.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

You Ruined my Day, Applesauce Muffins

Cooking disasters are just part of the deal. You cannot do wonderful things with food without sometimes doing disastrous things with food, and it is important to our sense of accomplishment as cooks (amateur or professional) to screw up a bit sometimes.

Unless you are me, and then you screw up a lot of the time. Nothing I cook ever looks pretty enough to eat, and sometimes only marginally tastes good. I brown scrambled eggs, never cut the onions small enough, and occasionally bake things that are only easy to chew if they are toasted and doused with butter. I am never going to be a Pinterest phenomenon.

Usually it does not bother me much. My kids do not care what the food looks like and Chef Matt will eat just about anything I make. But sometimes a cooking disaster explodes in your face. And other times it explodes in your face when you are already having a rotten day, and suddenly you are sulking in a corner, ignoring everyone and wishing you could have a stiff drink.

Yesterday was not a good day. The main floor bathroom flooded, dripping through the floor and soaking the basement carpet. As I stewed over that, and another wrong cable bill, I decided to channel my anger into efficient domesticity and use precious afternoon nap time to cook some things for the week. In particular, I thought I would be Fun Mommy and bake a batch of applesauce muffins.

My daughter insisted on helping, which generally means that she eats the sugar and does not actually help much. Sure enough, half of the applesauce ended up on the cookbook and not one drop of the egg made it into the bowl. But the disaster part came at my hands, and I do not have the excuse of being five.

As I lifted the muffin tin to put it into the high wall oven, the tin hit the oven door, and in ridiculous slow motion, tumbled to the floor, flinging muffin batter in all directions. I gazed at it stupidly for a minute. It was a spectacular, gloppy mess, seeping between floorboards and coating our kitchen rug that I am pretty sure is unwashable. For one wild second, I wondered if it would be possible to just scoop it back into the tins. I had just cleaned the floors; no one would actually know.

Then I just lost it completely, spitting out a string of profanity that I am sure startled my poor daughter and scandalized the neighbors. I scraped muffin batter off the floor and walls, furious at the waste and the mess, and started all over again. I was determined not to let applesauce muffins get the better of me.

I finally baked a batch and calmed down a bit. I reasoned with myself that I still managed to make homemade muffins for my kids. The disaster was overcome (except for the blasted rug) and I would stand to bake another day.

But in the end, the muffins did get the better of me: for all that, they do not even remotely taste good.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Champagne, Leftovers and the Unknown New Year

I think a lot of people are cynical about New Year's. The first day of a new year is truly just another sunrise and sunset, and the night before can be nothing more than an agony of ridiculous cover charges and hangovers-to-be.

But it just might be my favorite holiday. Unlike most holidays, it is a two-day affair: the Eve, in which we remember the year that has gone, and the Day, in which we look with hope at the year to come.

I love, too, that it is that perfect mixture of all that is ordinary about our lives and those few unique moments that keep our lives interesting. We still have to fix meals, do laundry and buy groceries, but we get to wear sparkly clothes, drink champagne and stay home from work.

These last few days, as we finished up 2012 and coasted into 2013, I felt keenly the blend of regular and unusual in our house. Around the table, the last three days have felt like a cross-section of how we eat at our house: one-third mommy-scrambling to prepare something with leftovers, imperceptible vegetables and a gush of sauce; one-third patronage at Chef Matt's restaurant, shoveling lovely food while vainly trying to sedate screaming children; and one-third Matt-at-home concoction, wondering why we can't eat venison au jus and rutabaga-carrot mash more often.

Eating these three wildly different meals were my typical little eaters: a five-year-old who cannot eat a meal in less than 45 minutes, a three-year-old who can be convinced to eat anything provided it comes with ketchup, and a one-year-old who can sniff out a vegetable even when it has been pureed and baked in a brownie.

All of that smacks of the everyday in our house. But this New Year's was sprinkled with all those little things that make the ordinary gleam, just a little bit. We were eating leftover slop and venison chops in our new house. Matt worked a 14-hour day on the Eve, but was home all day with us on the Day, a rare family day. I skipped the champagne and went to bed at nine-thirty, courtesy of Baby Number Four. I wore sparkly clothes and stayed home from work.

None of us knows what a new year will bring, in the form of out-of-the-ordinary. Is that not the amazing, and scary, thing about our brief time on this earth? Our lives generally just continue as usual, and we get tired of doing dishes and changing diapers. But every year, New Year's comes around to remind us that there are champagne glasses and new babies, too, and we can feel hopeful again.