Like “love in the time of cholera,” there are many ways of dealing with an overwhelming melt-down crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, binge-watching old episodes of “Sex in the City” or “Friends” while pigging out on cookies and cream ice cream, going through several bottles of chardonnay while Zoom meeting your BFF’s, or finally reading War and Peace is the coping mechanism. Well, the last one is a far reach, but you get the idea. It’s doing something to take your mind off the reality of the “new normal.” For me, it has become cooking in the time of pandemic.
For almost fifty years of marriage, I seldom cooked a meal. Sure, I barbecued at times and helped with holiday meals, like corned beef and cabbage at St. Patrick’s Day and turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as my special chili for cook-offs, but not much else. But when my wife had rotator cuff surgery in June of 2020, I took over cooking duties for the duration. Or at least that’s what I thought. Being the person that I am, I wanted to do something different, something a bit challenging. So, not long after I became chief cook and bottle washer, I started checking the Internet for interesting recipes. Since I am a subscriber to the New York Times crossword puzzles, I checked out their Cooking section. While I was not willing to pay for full access, I did get a few good ones. My first culinary success came from there, Corn Polenta with Baked Eggs.
My undergraduate degree is in engineering, so following instructions is not a problem for me. And I did. Admittedly, I would have been wiser to try something simple, like tuna casserole. But I hate tuna casserole. As my high-school friends used to say when trying to take over the world in the game of Risk, God hates a coward. While there is some problem with that statement theologically, let’s just let it ride for this post. Cooking-wise, that was my philosophy. After printing out the recipe, I bought all the ingredients. Then I carefully followed the
instructions. Since I had never made polenta or shirred eggs, you might say I was a virgin culinarian. I carefully prepped all the ingredients before starting to cook (mise en place in cooking lingo) , using small containers for each of them so they would be ready and close at hand. After starting the polenta in a non-stick skillet on the stove top, I mixed in the other ingredients and the dish went into the oven. Then I pulled it out, made four depressions in the polenta and cracked eggs into them before returning it to the oven. It was good. No, it was very good. Okay, I think it was great. More importantly, so did my wife. The opinions of others, especially ones that will be honest with you, are far more important than your own. And that’s how I got the cooking bug.
I continued to try recipes I got online. My brother-in-law (who also is my best friend since high school) and sister came to our hose to celebrate my sister’s birthday. He had become quite the home chef of late, so I had to be on my toes. Am I competitive? Nah. Anyway, I made the polenta dish, Roasted Tomato and White Bean Stew and Sheet-Pan Roasted Salmon Nicoise Salad for three of our meals, all of them were courtesy of the New York Times. When my brother (for that’s what he is to me) requested the recipe for the stew, I knew I had succeeded. Especially since I had started to make a few tweaks to the recipes and that was one to which I had done several modifications. Yes! I resisted the impulse to do a fist pump.
My wife, who cooked more out of duty than of love for the art, was more than willing to let me assume the mantle of home chef. I began to scour the Internet for appealing recipes. I wanted to be daring, fly in the face of the banal, the expected. Be bold. Live dangerously. Well, maybe not really dangerously, but at least not too tamely. So I took on Salmon Cakes With Thai Basil Yogurt. I mean, everyone and his or her kid brother does crab cakes, right? I like salmon, right? I like Thai food, right? It’s gotta be a winner, right? Wrong. I had to get ingredients like Jerusalem artichokes and wakame seaweed, that I had never eaten, much less used in a dish. The prep time was way more than the one and a quarter hours that the NYT said. More like three. But if it had been great, it would have been worth it. It wasn’t. I’m not saying it was horrible, just average. Very average and bland. Something you would never order again in a restaurant. It was a lesson for me. First, don’t get arrogant and think you cannot fail. Second, really think over the ingredients. Do you like all of them? Do they work together? Do they have enough flavor? Third, even if the above two seem to be fulfilled, the end product might not be that great. Only experience will help. And I needed a lot of that. I still do.
I have continued to cook. Most of what I cook is what is termed Mediterranean. Lots of garlic, olive oil and lemon. But I like Thai, with garlic lime, ginger and coriander, as well. I have continued to search for new and interesting recipes online. And I have increased my modifications of them. I now modify about every recipe and, IMHO, improve them. At least, often I do. They under season and use too little garlic and/or lemon or lime. For me, herbs need to be fresh, not dried, so avoid recipes that opt for dried. I also use California extra virgin olive oil in green bottles. Unlike wine, olive oil does NOT improve with age (hence I do not buy oil from Europe that takes a while to get here) plus heat and sunlight are its enemy. Always taste it and see if the oil has a pleasant, almost buttery flavor. It’s like wine, if it doesn’t taste good alone, it won’t taste good in the finished product. For Christmas, my daughter chose and my wife bought a couple of high-carbon steel, custom made knives for me, one a large chef’s knife and one a paring knife. While the saying goes that it’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools, having the right one does make a big difference. I’m not into having a bunch of kitchen gadgets, but a good knife does make a big difference.
Sometimes I read through a few recipes and make my own because none of them seem to fit the bill. With more experience has come more boldness, more confidence in my palate. That’s the writer in me: a desire to be creative, to express my originality. Sometimes the recipes need improvement and I’m willing to try to do that. Sure, it hasn’t always been all sunshine and roses. Or sunchokes and rosemary. I have had some results that were not worth the effort and some that were very average, but I am learning. I guess cooking is like any endeavor, if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you shouldn’t don’t do it. My first attempt at pesto sauce was not good. I ended up tossing most of it down the drain. But my second attempt was a definite success, at least to me. And I did not strictly follow any recipe, just the the list of ingredients and general guidelines. I do hope I can replicate it in the future.
One constraint on any gastronomic endeavor is the taste of the individual. Or, in my case, two individuals. Neither of us eat red meat, so that’s an easy one to avoid. I don’t like celery, but that’s about it. (Interestingly enough, neither do my two siblings, so maybe it’s genetic?) My wife has a few more dislikes. Except for shellfish, she’s not really into seafood, so I try to disguise the flavor of fish with olives, garlic, shallots, etc. Dijon mustard and ginger are okay to her, but only in small amounts. Paprika is a no-no. Eggplant and okra? Not her favorites, but I plan to try different recipes. I will have to exercise some real finesse when I do so in order for those two ingredients not to dominate. Maybe I’ll post about that. If it turns out well.
The end result is that I have a new hobby. And my wife is glad to indulge me. Unlike many hobbies, it has not required a lot of new, expensive gear. Besides the knives I got for Christmas, my daughter bought me a large covered skillet and bigger, hygienic cutting board that have been most helpful, but that’s nothing compared to the cost of, say, a set of golf clubs and a country club membership. Plus my wife seems to appreciate the results more than if I made par. And I was never as good with the sticks as the non-stick pans anyway.