How We Cook

Friday, March 7, 2014

My husband and I can't cook together. One of us can help the other cook--wash measuring spoons, fetch ingredients, give something a quick stir--but if we dive into a recipe together, equally invested in its ultimate success, we start to self-destruct. For us, two cooks ruin the broth.

There are a few reasons. One is that I'm very inflexible in my ideas of chopping versus mincing versus slicing. Invariably, when the recipe calls for minced garlic, I'm appalled to find that Marc has dumped sliced garlic into the pot. So basically, I'm a control freak. Also, I'm paranoid about the cross-contamination of salmonella, and I feel disturbed at a gut level whenever Marc does not treat raw chicken essentially like radioactive waste.

Marc takes a pretty wide interpretation of any given recipe. If he's in charge of dinner, he'll look up four or five different recipes for, say, chicken casserole, and then he won't follow any of them. He'll just get a general idea of which ingredients to use, and then play fast and loose with the spice rack. It usually turns out delicious (his squash soup, for instance: Imagine if silk had a taste), but on occasion it's a complete disaster (once he dumped cinnamon into chili).

I, on the other hand, am a teacher's pet when it comes to following recipes. I follow instructions to a T. I follow instructions against my better judgment. I am still of the opinion that people who write cook books know better than I do, so who am I to question how many tablespoons of olive oil I ought to use, or whether the 12-minute cook time is really appropriate? I make bland things, and also burn things, because I basically trust the experts too often. Then again, I also make extraordinarily delicious things, and things I would have never thought to try (mint-pressed tofu? yes, please.)

My daughter and I love to cook together. Specifically, we love to bake, not least because there is usually something chocolate-y to eat at the end of the night. She is learning to read numerals and also the words "cups" and "of." I think she enjoys it because, every so often, I lose control of the affection I feel for her, and I squeeze her flour-streaked body against mine, exulting, "I love you SO MUCH!" She shrugs her shoulders up to her ears and represses a smile. (She's two and already repressing.)

My dad was usually the person who cooked for me, growing up, and I was generally not wanted in the kitchen. To be fair: Our kitchen was about the size of a bathtub, and dinner usually needed to happen in the next 15 minutes. A child in the kitchen was about as useful as a cat, in these circumstances. My dad didn't follow recipes, because the meals he cooked didn't require them. Jarred marinara sauce with noodles. Stir-fry on rice, canned beans on tortillas, scrambled eggs. He worked full-time and then needed to get a thousand things done, of which dinner was number 694. Convenience ruled. When I got to college, I cooked the meals I grew up with. My junior year, I absolutely lived on canned beans and corn dumped onto a tortilla. There are worse things (*cough Ramen) one could eat.

My mom didn't cook very often, which was a good thing, because she's kind of a terrible cook. Plain chicken stuck in the oven until done--never mind spices or marinade or sauce. Plain baked potatoes, steamed broccoli. Everything was completely nutritious, and completely bland. She bakes occasionally, but her baked goods are not the sort of thing you bite into and close your eyes, and groan. Butter and sugar are usually what makes that happen, but oats and whole wheat flours are more her thing. My mom was not big on comfort food. Nobody in my family was.

My brother is the best cook in the family, hands-down. Up until last year, he was a chef at a Thai restaurant. It was an accident, his becoming a chef. He meant to just make some money in college, but then after he graduated with a history degree, his cooking experience was still the most valuable thing on his resume. Sometimes you get into something and then just keep doing it because you don't have many other options. Momentum is a powerful force. He makes a mean kimchee, and can tell you the right way to get crispy oven-baked fries.

My sister cooks the same few recipes every single week. Partially, this is because she's a picky eater, plus she won't do red meat, plus she's gluten-intolerant. She makes a lot of mashed potatoes. Also potato soup, using the recipe my grandma used to make. My grandma taught my sister to make potato soup, and I think even now my sister makes it as a way of keeping her alive, sort of. There's something comforting about the warmth and the carbs, and the floating, glistening butter. I think my sister's food habits are monotonous, but she likes it that way. Me, I'd be bored sick.

I like trying new things, but as I get older I veer more toward my dad's penchant for convenience. Time is limited, creative energy is limited, my family's palates are limited. I'm always trying to figure out how to get more vegetables into my toddler, while sticking to a small budget, while keeping my meal preparation time under 20 minutes. These days I'm a huge fan of the crockpot.

Before I had kids, I used to just eat cereal for dinner on some days, or go back to my beans-and-corn-on-tortilla streak. When I'm alone, I prefer to just take the quickest possible route to feeling full. No one that I have ever met really likes to cook for just one.

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