I cook so I can eat food I love. I didn’t grow up learning to cook. Once my family began an expat life when I was seven, I watched our various cooks over the years prepare food, but there were way more interesting things to see and do outside our overseas’ kitchens. I never made the leap to cooking until after my divorce from husband two. He was a chef and I was happy to have him cook. I cooked two things only: barbecue sauce and curry. When I craved curry, I copied my dad’s Nepalese recipe: equal amounts of tumeric and cumin, a little cayenne, all tossed into the sautéing onions, then the cut-up chicken, some water, salt and pepper.
I’ve improved this since then, using broth instead of plain water, and adding ginger and garlic to the onions, plus some potatoes and carrots; maybe something green like broccoli the last couple of minutes of simmer. When I left marriage two, my husband lamented how he’d never eat my curry again. I feel badly about not giving him the recipe, but I don’t really have one. It keeps changing. Sometimes I nail it and it’s perfect, other times the the balance of spice is off. But the renditions grow more interesting over time. Our marriage could’ve used more cayenne pepper.
I am not enamored with scallops, but keep trying. My husband likes them. He also prefers stab-able pasta to the string kind. Shopping at the co-op, gazing into the fresh seafood counter, the scallops gleamed like opalescent fat pearls or maybe squashed pillows, different hues of white to peachy. The were big 10-20’s, the count per pound, and called dry although they looked wet. Dry means no liquid pump to make them appear bigger so you pay for water instead of only sea flesh. Oooh that sounds disgusting.
I bought a pound and they sat in the plastic bag in the refrigerator for two days. Their presence gnawed away at me. I had to cook them or freeze them. I didn’t feel inspired. I poured a glass of wine. How does anyone cook dinner without sipping wine? I boiled water for farfalle and heated butter and olive oil in my favorite Caraway sauté pan; zested and juiced a lemon; grated a half cup of parmesan, and pulled some toasted slivered almonds and a bag of arugula from the fridge. I plucked the scallops from the pan after a few minutes–not as browned as I wanted, next time butter only–and set them aside. I splashed green olive oil from a humungous plastic container (my step daughter had lugged it back from Spain) into the emptied still hot pasta pot. Heated the oil and added the zest and juice, okay, a little more butter; turned off the gas flame and dumped in the al dente pasta. This perfect bite of pasta is only achieved by tasting a piece every five minutes or else I overcook it. Parmesan and arugula are stirred into the pot then a sprinkling of nuts. The pasta heaped into big bowls with the scallops perching on top. Garnish away.
My husband says it’s the best thing he’s ever eaten. He says this often. This doesn’t diminish his sincerity. He’s grateful for anything I cook having grown up in a family where food was mostly prefab. The first time I fed him, maybe our second date, I plastered a premade pizza crust–you know, the kind that hangs in little bags in the grocery store–with olive oil and sautéed onions and mushrooms, garlic, and fresh chopped tomatoes and basil. Eyes wide. “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.” I didn’t really believe him then; I just thought he wanted to get into my pants. That was twenty-seven, or is it twenty-eight, years ago. We have not always had perfect meals.
I only used two thirds of the box of pasta otherwise the dish would’ve been diminished by too much starch. I’ve learned over the years how omission can let flavor flourish. Who cares if ziplock bags with leftover pasta populate the cupboard.
Oh! Sometimes I mix in a spoon of crème fraîche at the end, balancing the citrus. Or not.
Not the microwave kind of popcorn. Not the dripping-down-your-wrists on a summer day and spitting-out-the-seeds kind of watermelon either. Cut the watermelon into one-bite squares.
Orville Redenbacher from a jar. 2 TBS of sunflower oil and a quarter cup of kernels into my big Revere Ware pan with black handles on each side. Heat on medium. The corn is situated so each kernel has its own space. Like a bus, overcrowding is bad.
Lid cracked to let out the steam. This is KEY. The popping starts slowly. (This is an instance when an adverb works.) Shake the pan a little to move the corn in the hot oil. Remain calm. Don’t turn up the heat.
The popping quickens and becomes sporadic. Turn off the flame. Or remove pot from burner; I’m sorry, if you have an electric stove. Electric burners are slow responders, and who wants them? I know I know. All opinions have opposing and sometimes valid views.
The lid has stayed cracked open the entire time you hear the pinging of exploding kernels. No soggy popcorn. Let the popcorn rest a minute after that hard exercise. While the popcorn catches its breath, melt as much butter as your conscience allows. Pour over the popcorn and salt generously with sea salt, kosher salt, you know, good salt. Try to divide evenly and not give one person more than the other. There might be words. Popcorn has been known to fly through the air, although that’s mostly for the dog.
After finishing off the popcorn, spear the juicy seedless watermelon with a fork. Or start with the watermelon as first course. Or alternate bites of popcorn and fruit- salt then sweet then salt…. So many choices.
Start the first episode of Modern Love Season 2 with Minnie Driver at any point. There’s a cool blue sports car involved.
We celebrated. My grandson passed his driver’s test and it was his birthday. I made enough chicken shwarma for about eight people and the five of us blew that estimate out of the water. The boneless skinless chicken thighs soaked in a marinade for three hours in lemon juice and olive oil, lots of paprika and black pepper, cumin, and a little turmeric. Flakey kosher salt. The last hour of marinating, I added 2 big quartered red onions. Using a slotted spoon, I removed the chicken and the onions from the marinade and onto two sheet pans, sliding them into a 425-degree oven.
While the chicken roasted, I chopped. Three medium cumbers and a pint of cherry tomatoes, a bunch of parsley and scallions, sprigs of mint from the garden. I mixed this with romaine hearts and arugula. Just before serving I added the dressing made with lemon juice, yogurt and olive oil. I added 2 teaspoons of sumac I’d brought back from a trip to Jordan several years ago. It was still good and made a difference. And isn’t that what we want, to be sumac?
I sliced the sizzling chicken and heaped it onto a platter with the crispy-at-the-edges onions and a stack of warm naan. The fattoush salad filled a carved wooden bowl that my mother had bought when we lived in Kathmandu in the late sixties. It has a small crack on one edge, but after fifty years it still holds dressing, and memories.
Our grandson had three servings. Perhaps he’ll remember the meal–the occasion of turning nineteen and getting his license–fifty years from now. Perhaps he’ll think of me.
After my Korean massage in the town across the river where Ginnette performed gua sha-scraping the sides of my hips and legs and lower back to release muscle tension-I stopped at the co-op. I like this co-op more than the one in my own town. My husband claims this is a common theme in my life: if something is far away it must be better. He might be 8% right.
On a visit to New Orleans, I insisted on hailing a taxi to a diner outside of the tourist loop for oyster Po’ Boys. It’s not the grass is greener sort of thing. A well-written rave review will send me on the hunt.
Outside the co-op, a chef was grilling. Gleaming bites of seared fish lined up for sampling. He said the barramundi was perfect for fish tacos. It had heft and wouldn’t fall apart at the first poke. Tacos for dinner!
Once I got home, depleted by the massage and shopping, all I wanted was a couch and a margarita. That night dinner came from the freezer – Vermont Flatbread pizza with caramelized onions and mushrooms and arugula salad lightly dressed with white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a little garlic. I tucked arugula into my folded slice of pizza for combo bites.
The next night, I cooked the fish. Corn tortillas. Soft and blue. A red onion and bright green jalapenos from the garden. A handful of cherry tomatoes. I’m a lazy gardener. Some mornings, I wave to the lettuces out the kitchen window and check on them the next day.
Slice and clean the jalapenos of seeds and ribs, slice the red onion; drop both into a jar with white vinegar and sugar and salt for some quick pickling. I just now remember that I had cilantro in the fridge, but forgot it. I’ll throw it in the freezer. The avocado, which had been on the counter for a week, was still hard as a rock; what are you waiting for?
Beans flavored with sazon, which stymied me until I found a recipe on my fav site at NYT Cooking https://cooking.nytimes.com/@samsifton Mix garlic and onion powder, cumin and turmeric, and oregano, paprika and sea salt. Black pepper. I sizzled the spices and some grated onion in sunflower oil. I’d never grated an onion before. It was too wet and bubbled instead of browning in the oil. Next time I’ll mince with a knife. Add a can of rinsed black beans. Mush most with a fork. Do not leave the kitchen until you turn off the flame. Luckily, I salvaged a layer of beans above the scorched ones.
I settled the fish, skin side down, in hot oil over a medium flame, maybe for 8 minutes. I halved the cherry tomatoes and tossed with a little olive oil and salt and garlic. Shredded some Queso Fresco. Warmed the tortillas. Assembled. Beans cheese fish onions jalapeños tomatoes no avocado no cilantro still good. Two each. No traveling.
Salmon from Faroe Island is my favorite even after I learn it’s farm raised. I’m going to believe that fish farming in the Faroe Islands is more sustainable than other places. The water is icy and pristine. You can’t ruin this particular salmon by over cooking or under cooking.
I offered my granddaughter three choices for her sixteenth birthday dinner: Greek-style shrimp in tomato sauce served with feta and mint rice; shrimp scampi baked with toasted orzo; salmon with coconut-tomato sauce and coconut jasmine rice.
Or a different fish substituted for any of the above. Salmon won.
She always loves rice. My rice.
Feelings well up at birthdays for me. And turning sixteen! At least you’re out of the dreaded fifteen-year-old pack. And hopefully eighth grade is a distant memory and not a nightmare. Uphill from here I tell her.
The salmon is foil-covered and roasted in a pan with a quarter inch of buttery-water in a hot oven. After 15 minutes I turn the oven off and open the door a crack, forcing myself to not open the foil to peek. I let the fish and broth commune while I gather my wits.
Delicata squash lightly sautéed and steamed broccoli go to the table for passing. We plate in the kitchen: creamy rice centered with a plump square of salmon on top, tomato-coconut sauce encircling the mound like a moat.
We toast the birthday girl with varying drinks: hard cider, wine, a kombucha spritzer.
When the grandkids were small, it was easy buying clothes for gifts, but now not so much. Granddad is in charge of wrapping because he has his way. Paper bags stapled shut. A bonus if the bags have labels from some store to confuse the recipient. Numerous bags for fifteen pairs of socks litter the floor. When she was eleven I gave her multiples of socks and leggings. She was due for another bounty.
Writing this now I wonder why I didn’t buy sixteen pairs to match her years on earth. I guess once you get beyond the normal gift of two or three maybe four pairs, no one’s counting because there are too many.
Kind of like who counts birthdays after sixty-nine?