Thursday, May 11, 2006

The road to hell is paved with...

I was reading my own blog and berating myself over just how much rewriting I needed to get to when I realized that most every entry features a recipe of something I can actually make. Lentil soup? Got that one down, for the most part. Chicken No-No soup? Yeah yeah. Rice? No problem. Haven’t nailed the Japanese breakfast yet but that’s a work in progress. I realized that I was woefully off-topic only a few entries in. Perhaps this indicated that years of trial and error had helped hone my feeble skills in the kitchen. Maybe I was getting better. I wondered whether my blog name was even accurate anymore. Maybe I wasn’t such a bad home cook after all.
Alas, no.
Just this last week: two culinary disasters,both because of maddeningly elementary reasons.
Audrey S. is a friend and neighbor. A housewife/mom who turns the stereotype on its ear. She’s Martha Stewart if MS was black and went to art school. Her womanly skills are formidable, and her talent in the kitchen is legendary. The woman makes her own jam and ketchup, for God’s sake. When Audrey invites you over to try something, you drop everything, get in your car, and show up with a little gift to thank her for the honor. She is a Kitchen Goddess I will feature at more length in another entry, but I introduce her here because she hipped me to a meatball soup recipe so simple a child could make it. I expressed doubt.
"Maybe your child..." I muttered.
“No, this is really simple,” she insisted. “And it’s delicious.” Only a couple of cans and some frozen meatballs are involved. Nothing could be easier, she promised.
Naturally I tried hers, and it was of course to die for – hearty and piquant, but not greasy or heavy. I’d pay $12.95 at a bistro for that very soup. Especially if crusty bread were included.
So she left the recipe on my message machine that evening.

Two teaspoons of olive oil.
Two thinly sliced garlic cloves
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
One bunch of kale, wilted for three minutes
Two cans reduced sodium chicken broth
two cup or so water
One can canelli beans
20 frozen meatballs

Serve with course salt and fresh parmesan cheese.

That very night I bought some frozen meatballs and some chicken broth from TJ’s. It didn’t sound so terribly hard, did it? And my dad was coming over that weekend. He’d love a nice, steaming bowl of meatball soup, some fresh bread, and a cold glass of German beer, wouldn’t he? What dad wouldn’t?

My first mistake. I cut up half an onion and sautéed that in the olive oil. The recipe doesn’t call for onion, but I have internalized the dictum that all good cooking starts with an onion, and there you go. Right from the start I altered the taste and made it wrong. Heavier than it should have been.
First mistake and a half – Audrey said to brown the meatballs before I threw them into the broth. But how do you do that, exactly? Fry them up in some olive oil? That was the only way I could think, so, into the frying pan they went.
Second mistake. I didn’t have all the right ingredients, and I tried to improvise. Bad move. Others can improvise. I need to realize that with me, improvisation in the kitchen only leads to bitter failure. Why didn’t I write down the needed ingredients on a Post-it note and made sure I either already had them or arrange to buy them at my last trip to the store? Martha Stewart would have done so. But of course that requires forethought and organization, qualities I don’t possess much of. The consequence was that while I was sautéing onions in olive oil and frying up the meatballs, I realized that I didn’t have red pepper flakes. I could have sworn I had red pepper flakes. I searched my cluttered shelves. I pulled out my spice bin and plumbed its depths. Twice. But there were no red pepper flakes. Nor did I have canelli beans. And I couldn’t find kale at the store.
What I did have was red chili powder and garbanzo beans. And I’d bought a big bag o’ greens to use instead of the kale. Greens were greens, right? And the recipe called for only ¼ teaspoon of pepper…how bad could I mess it up by using chili powder instead?
The smell of frying meat hung uneasily in my kitchen. I turned the stove fan on.
I cut the garlic into three clumsy “slices, using the wrong knife.
I threw several handfuls of greens into the pot, covered it, and let steam. After about three minutes I lifted the lid and saw with relief that they had, in fact, wilted as promised.
I added the chicken stock. Plus the two cups of water. I added the meatballs, sizzling, into the mix.
I almost forgot about the beans, but I added half a can of garbanzo beans at the last minute. I simmered for a while, then served.
I threw some sea salt over my bowl, and some ground black pepper. I got my parmesan cheese out of the fridge, but noticed it had gone over. Oh well. I took my first bite, expecting a clean, brothy taste similar to what I’d just sampled at Audrey’s…
No. What I’d made was a greasy, flavorless, urp-inducing soup that I wouldn’t be able to stomach a bowl of myself, much less serve to my father or foist upon my starving children. Once again I had fouled up what, on paper anyway, was a simple, straightforward dish. I threw half of this down my drain and threw the rest into a plastic bowl destined for the fridge. Maybe if I let it sit overnight its flavors would mingle and it would improve.
It didn’t improve. It did mold over nicely when next I checked though.

In my second ruinous kitchen gaffe I quite simply over-steamed asparagus until it fell apart in the tongs I tried to take them out of the steamer in. I have successfully steamed asparagus in the past – but my problem this night was that I was trying to hastily put together a simple meal for a friend and got flustered and lost track of time. It’s not too complicated to correctly time a piece of salmon, with heating crusty bread and steaming a vegetable, but it’s apparently beyond my abilities. Coming on the heels of my soup oops, and because this was for a guest, I was furious with myself. Steam asparagus for 5, maybe 10 minutes – I think…don’t forget about it for 20.
It’s always worse when you’re trying to cook for somebody and it comes out wrong. Even when the guest eats it graciously and proclaims it delicious, as my guest did, the ugly facts remain – I am a miserable, incompetent cook and I’m man enough to admit it. I really want to be a good home cook and nourish my friends and family with my output, but I suck in the kitchen. I have many, many examples of good intentions gone horribly, inedibley wrong, the most egregious of which I plan to share with you on this blog. This week’s fiasco simply reminded me that I’m still a bad home cook, and may indeed always remain a bad home cook. Come to my house and let me make you something.
At your peril.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Movable Feast

We didn't eat these fellows.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The only book that matters

Let us now praise Mark Bittman, whose big yellow book, aptly titled "How to Cook Everything" has changed my life and could possibly change yours. Especially if you suck like I do in the kitchen.
Stay tuned, my friends. Tonight I return to Asenabo and will make Mr. Flamenco Guitarist eat something that was all too recently alive and twitching in salt water.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Kitchen Goddess One

I must tell you about Leah, a girl I roomed with just after college. A girl I shared almost nothing in common with except a great, grinning love of food. Leah was a half-Chinese, half-white twin. Born and raised by artist parents in San Francisco’s North Beach, Leah's most interesting element were her looks. She was a sexy creature, with her long black hair and cinammon skin and indecipherable heritage. Ten units shy of a degree in theater from San Jose State everyone but her knew she'd never finish. A cocktail waitress. A party girl. Men swirled around her: pretty men, older men, playboy bachelors. She was uninterested in anything that wasn't shiny and exciting. She had hundreds of shoes, a mini-skirt in every hue and texture, and not a single book. She came home one afternoon to find my boyfriend and I on the living room couch engrossed in our novels and laughed all afternoon as if she’d never seen such a sight. For a while, we had the perfect living situation – she would get to bed about the time I’d get up in the morning for work, and when I returned home she’d be putting on her makeup to get out the door for her shift at a local nightclub. Sometimes I’d hear her return in the wee hours, often with friends, or a man or two, and they’d quietly take their bong hits or have their final drinks before retiring to her bedroom on the other side of the bathroom from mine. I was just out of college, working part time as a receptionist at an architecture firm and part time at an art magazine. I was madly in love with a man I’d met on the student newspaper, a man with a baritone voice and a 67’ Chevy Impala who wrote like John Steinbeck. This was back before everything. Back when I fretted about whether I’d ever really be a working writer. Back before I even wanted children. Back when $300 in the bank was cause for relief and back when I bought what is still my most valuable possession: a six-inch-thick 1923 Oxford Dictionary, found at a garage sale around the corner for just $10. Leah and I had nothing in common, and, truth be told, we didn't particularly like each other. But she was neat, and considerate in her message-taking and bill-paying. And with our schedules, we never had to spend more than an hour in the same room with each other. We didn't need to be best friends, we agreed, as long as we were good roommates.
The only thing we did share was a fascination with eating. Every month or so we’d meet at a Chinese restaurant somewhere downtown and we’d dine, both of us practically dancing a jig with anticipation. She’d order dishes on the very edge of my Caucasian ability to ingest. And except for the sea cucumber adventure, I went through every door she opened and never looked back.
At home, Leah concocted wild hybrid Asian meals out of ingredients I’d never seen or heard of before. She’d make a giant pot of rice every morning, and use it throughout the day as her staple, over which she’d throw all manner of curious things. She hipped me to kim-chi, that spicy, fermented vegetable glop that graces every Korean table. She’d crumble ground beef into an iron skillet and fry it dark brown and crunchy, almost always setting off the smoke alarms, and on top of that she’d scatter a handful of some dark, mystery ingredient pulled from a dark earthenware jar with Chinese lettering that she kept covered in tinfoil. Then she’d throw the whole thing over a bowl of rice and hand me a pair of worn wooden chopsticks and bid me dig in. Delicious. Smoky. Tangy. I developed a taste for kim-chi over rice as well. She made her own brown rice green tea. Her steamed white rice was always perfect. She kept coral-colored persimmons in her hanging basket by the kitchen window and every so often she'd stop and lean over and snatch one up to hold it to her nose to determine its ripeness.
One day Leah’s waitress shift changed and she started hanging out more during the evenings when I was home, and not surprisingly, we clashed. Soon thereafter I got my first “real” newspaper job and moved up the peninsula and out of her life. We spoke only a few times after that, mostly to argue over the phone bill. We never broke bread together again.
But to this day I remember her. I use chopsticks regularly. My love of kim-chi has surprised and delighted Korean friends met much later. The mystery ingredient she threw into her ground meat was preserved turnip, which you can buy at any Asian market, although I haven’t seen the keen little jar with the lettering for many years. Maybe Ranch 99 is too upscale for that sort of thing. Yes it looks a little funky to white eyes, I suppose, but it's really adds a delicious smoky, tart flavor to meat or rice.
I think of her every year when the persimmons come to market, and I buy them for no other reason than because I love their color and shape on my table. Funny. I bring them home and set them out, and every now and then I snatch one up and hold it to my nose, even though I don't particularly like them.
And Leah’s secret to rice is this: wash the rice first to release its spirit. Drain, spread flat on the bottom of your pot and fill with water so that it reaches the top of your thumb nail, if your thumb is just on top of, not buried in, the rice. Bring to a boil. Cover tightly and simmer for 20 minutes.
Thanks, Leah. Wherever you are.