What I am about to reveal will not paint a flattering self-portrait. It will not give you the warm-fuzzies or make you want to become my new very best friend forever (v.b.f.f.). Yet, it’s a story that plays out daily in kitchens across the country and undoubtedly is the source of “complications” in many relationships. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m willing to own up to it, for you see:
I am an alpha cook.
There. I’ve said it. What’s an alpha cook, you ask? In a nutshell, it’s somebody who must. be. in. charge. in. the. kitchen. A dictator in an apron. A cleanliness- and order-obsessed bitch with a whisk. The person who’s not going to be nominated anytime soon for the Retro Haus Frau of the Year award. In short, me.
It wasn’t until I had to share my kitchen with a beta cook, we’ll call him B for short, that I became aware of my, shall we say, obsessive tendencies, over matters of the culinary variety. As B has learned, I will likely turn down any well-intended offers to help me put together a meal, but I will happily bask in your praise for my cooking and let you clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Somewhere out there, some of you will be nodding your head, chuckling in recognition in a slightly guilty, knowing way. Fellow alpha cooks, you know who you are. As for the rest of you, hopefully, I’ll still be able to look you in the eye after you read this.
when every meal feels like the first time
The other day I was reflecting on memorable food experiences: the dishes that never disappoint at favorite restaurants (can I get an amen for the roasted rice cakes @ Momofuku?), exotic meals in foreign lands, unusual but interesting flavor pairings, and of course, those first times you taste something that rocks your world. Like that other “first time,” such experiences can be seminal moments.
Growing up in a tiny western New York town, practically a galaxy away from the food mecca of Manhattan, my future foodie’s palate was woefully underdeveloped and underexposed. While there were, and still are, lots of good cooks in my family, their culinary exploits at the time rarely ranged beyond standard meat-and-potatoes type fare: pork chops and apple sauce, beef stew, sloppy joes, roast beef on weck, goulash, and my childhood favorite, beef stroganoff. My nose still perks up at the thought of the delicious aromas that would escape the bubbling crockpot my mother often used. This type of cooking was about comfort and practicality, far from the realm of “cuisine” so accessible to middle-Americans today thanks to the likes of Iron Chef, Top Chef, and their ilk.
Although it felt like cruel and unusual punishment at the time, I’m sure that my father’s unrelenting insistence that my brother and I at least try everything on our plates (and refusal to allow us to move from the table until we’d done so) is partly responsible for the adventurous palate I have today. Luckily back then, I was just sneaky—and angelic—enough to get away with dropping a few hated Brussels sprouts down the toilet after stealing them away from the table in my pockets. My pocket disposal strategy was certainly less messy than my brother’s more melodramatic gag-vomit scheme, although his methods were equally successful in achieving the end goal of not having to eat a hated food (in his case, eggplant Parmesan).
As an upstate New York native, I’m accustomed to having four distinct seasons and unlike here in Washington, DC, summers up north don’t wear out their welcome. Fall has long been my favorite time of year, and I can barely wait to see the landscape explode into a riot of colors. The days are shorter, the nights are cooler, and the urge to cook and nest takes hold.
When I think back to the autumns of my youth, I remember the excitement of heading back to school; rooting for our home team, the Purple Eagles, at Friday night football games; hiking at Letchworth State Park (aka “Grand Canyon of the East”) and collecting colorful leaves for pressing between sheets of waxed paper; gathering glossy brown chestnuts in big paper bags from the huge tree down the block from my grandparent’s house; and eating lots and lots of apples.
Avec Eric is Chef Eric Ripert’s award-winning cooking show on PBS. I find myself continually impressed and inspired by his commitment to craft, as he constantly seeks new sources of inspiration and knows the value of stepping outside the kitchen walls to learn and grow as a chef. It’s also heartening to see someone so excited about food and well, just naturally exuberant. He always looks like a kid in a candy store, especially when he’s meeting and learning from other chefs, winemakers, fishermen, growers and food artisans. And I love getting a glimpse of the creative process in Le Bernardin’s kitchen, as he leads his team of cooks through tasting exercises, while they try to develop dishes based on new flavors or ingredients that he’s discovered in his travels.
Growing up, I recall lots of lazy Sunday mornings, with plenty of time for sleeping in, watching cartoons, and doing pretty much anything that didn’t involve homework. My parents would be drinking coffee in their bathrobes, while my father lorded over the newspaper, doling out sections as he saw fit. Every now and then, he’d abandon the paper and make his way into the kitchen to cook up a super-sized brunch-for-one (although sometimes he could be convinced to make extra) that always had one essential component: grits.
You see, he was a southern boy, trapped in my mother’s yankee hometown in upstate NY. Back in those days, my mom did nearly all the cooking, grilled beast notwithstanding, so anything that managed to draw my father into the kitchen surely must have been the holy grail of breakfasts. Perhaps these meals were his way of reclaiming those southern roots; but I bet it was also simply a matter of knowing how well his belly would be rewarded for the time he put in at the stove.
This was one of my favorite, go-to dishes all summer long, but it’s got potential year-round. Thank you Mark Bittman for yet another simple and tasty recipe.
Recipe: Vietnamese-Style Portobello Mushrooms – NYTimes.com.
A few tips and tweaks:
- Pan: apartment dweller that I am, I don’t have a grill, so I use a hot grill pan on the stove.
- Herbs: I tend to have cilantro around more often than mint, so that’s what I use.
- Oil: I use canola instead of peanut.
- Marinade: more time in the marinade means more flavor, so I let the mushrooms soak it up in the fridge for at least an hour, sometimes up to three.
- Serving: I serve the mushrooms over rice (usually white, but jasmine is probably better), and more importantly, save the marinade and pour it over the rice before serving. LOTS of extra flavor that way.
Relationships, jobs, and fortunes may come and go, but you, Mr. Bialetti man, you’ll always be by my side. I never get tired of waking up to you.