Monday, February 27, 2012
Monday, February 6, 2012
Saturday, February 4, 2012
I can pinpoint exactly when my love affair with cooking began. It wasn’t, sadly, after eating a life-changing meal at a brasserie in Paris, but rather after reading Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mays. I distinctly remember my mouth salivating and wishing I were eating the meals that she was writing about in her book, and then it dawned on me: I could. Up until that moment I was more of an anti-cook, mostly by choice. NOT learning to cook was my way of rebelling against my mother. We rarely ate out when I was growing up, and all of our meals were shared as a family around the dining room table. I can’t say that I have particularly fond memories of the foods we ate while growing up, there are no stand outs that I can recall, but I do remember my mother spending a lot of time in the kitchen and when I was in the throes of my teen years, that was THE LAST PLACE you would ever find me I vowed, and probably screamed at one point. And so I never did really cook or even attempt to.
After Quinn and Logan came along and they went from a liquid to solid diet, well if someone wasn’t cooking or at least preparing food, then we’d find ourselves in a bit of a pickle. And so I went from no cooking ever to at least preparing food items for the boys. I do recall them eating a lot of tofu dogs, which makes me cringe now. As I bumbled my way through their earliest years and as their appetites grew, I do remember feeling the stress of my limitations when it came to food. Jim and I both value and treasure the nightly ritual of family time at the table, but if there isn’t much to put on the table, then what’s the point. We ate out a lot! We probably single handedly kept certain restaurants in business well beyond their prime, but we also made lasting friendships, particularly with Keung whose Korean cooking kept us well nourished and satiated, and thankfully, exposed the boys to spicy, Asian cuisine.
In my twenties my motto was “eat for fuel.” This was also Jim’s motto and so we were both perfectly happy to eat peanut butter and honey rolled into a whole-wheat tortilla for nights on end. Neither of us wanted to be bothered with anything elaborate nor time consuming. I had no inclination to spend any more time in the kitchen than was necessary. And then I read Under the Tuscan Sun, and I was forever ruined—but in a good way. It is no wonder that it took writing to convert me into a cook. I’ve always been a sucker for anything well-written and as I was reading Ms. Mays’s description of the succulent vegetables and chicken that melted in one’s mouth, well I felt as if I were right there with her and my mouth was salivating and all I remember is that I wanted to be experiencing what she was writing about. My first thought was, “What restaurant would serve such a meal around here?” My second thought was, “Wait, I could probably make that myself!” The very next day in all my exuberance as newly crowned “home chef” I went out and purchased vegetables that prior to that moment I had never considered and then I really over the edge and bought a whole chicken. This, my friends, was an enormous step for me. I absolutely refused to touch raw meat until that point. Imagine Jim’s surprise when I came home with said provisions! I followed the recipe and being that our kitchen was ill equipped with the proper utensils, I definitely hacked my way through the instructions, but I did it. A few hours later and voilå! While the flavor of my prepared meal tasted nothing like the description in the book, I surprisingly found the whole process not only enjoyable, but relaxing. Believe me, I was a bit stunned and it took a bit of work to reconcile these newly discovered feelings. Me, relaxed in a kitchen! Go figure.
Fast forward to present day and I am buried in cookbooks, cooking magazines, and my computer is bookmarked with more cooking blogs/recipe websites than I can handle. In short, I love cooking and I get cranky if more than a few days pass when I can’t cook. (Look at me now, mom!) Over the years I’ve matured in my understanding and knowledge of cooking. Anyone can follow a recipe—well, most anyone—but that doesn’t at all guarantee good results. Au contraire. I’ve learned the subtleties of how to build a recipe, the balance of salt/sweet or spice/starch. I have a long ways to go before I have the confidence to build meals without the guidance of a recipe, but I am more comfortable to veer from a recipe as my taste dictates. I would say that I tinker with recipes more often than not and it wasn’t until my dear friend and cook extraordinaire, Amy, suggested a Spanish cookbook to me, that I understood subtleties with cooking. The first recipe I tried from this cookbook, Delicioso-The Regional Cooking of Spain by Penelope Casas Albøndigas con Picada de Almendra (Meatballs in Almond, Garlic and Parsely Sauce.) Normally if a recipe called for a 1/2 cup of chopped onion, I’d ignore it and add a whole chopped onion. When I read this particular recipe, however; I knew that this was a recipe I should follow to a “T” because it called for such small amounts of certain ingredients that I couldn’t wrap my head around how they’d affect the overall outcome. One tablespoon of chopped blanched almonds? That’s all?! Two tablespoons of fresh peas. Really? So glad I followed this recipe as written because it was so perfectly balanced and the taste so incredible that I learned in that instant that if a recipe called for pollen extracted from a honeybee’s belly, then I would oblige. This recipe was a game-changer for me. I learned that there are certain styles of cooking that really are perfectly measured for the optimum result, and one should pay attention. Here’s the recipe if you feel so inclined:
1/3 cup dried breadcrumbs
1/3 cup chicken broth
1 pound ground veal or a mixture of ground beef, veal and pork, in equal measure
1 tablespoon minced parsely
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced Spanish mountain cured ham, capicollo, or prosciutto
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
Flour for dusting
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons skinned, seeded, and finely chopped tomato
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 small bay leaf
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon minced parsely
2 cloves garlic, minced
Few strands of saffron, crumbled
1 tablespoon chopped, blanched almonds
1/4 teaspoon imported sweet paprika
2 tablespoons fresh or frozen peas
To make meatballs, in a large bowl soak the bread crumbs in the broth. Lightly mix in all the other meatball ingredients, then shape into 1 1/2 inch balls. Dust the meatballs with the flour. Heat the oil in a shallow flameproof casserole and brown the meatballs o all sides over medium-high heat. Lower the heat, add the onion, and cook until it has wilted, then add the tomato and cook another minute. Stir in the wine, broth, and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper, cover, and simmer 30 minutes. Meanwhile, mash to a paste in a mortar or mini processor the parsley, garlic 1/8 teaspoon salt, saffron, almonds, and paprika. Add this mixture, along with the peas, to the meatballs and cook 15 minutes more. Proceed to devour the entire dish!
I’ve made this meal on numerous occasions and each and every time we are licking the pan clean. It’s surprisingly easy and simple to prepare and if you follow the instructions and quantities you will not be disappointed.
I’m using this recipe as a reminder of how to go through life. That it is easy to stomp and clomp around, but that beauty is often subtle and we must slow down enough to pay attention to what is so easily overlooked in our hectic lives. By slowing down today, I noticed that our Daphne is about ready to bloom in our front yard and overpower us with the scent if Spring and that the silhouette of bamboo leaves makes for lovely, if fleeting art, and that sometimes less is more. Bon week-end et une bonne alimentation.