Wednesday, February 8, 2012


I love food.  I have some favorite foods, and some really-seriously-I-know-it's-weird-but-I-can't-go-there foods -- for instance I can be convinced to eat anything fried in duck fat, I will eat good house made ranch dressing with a fork, dream about roasted Brussels sprouts, and a huge pot of beans and rice will just about undo me.  And now that I am searching my brain for foods I cannot, will not, just don't talk to me about them even, eat I can't think of a single one.

Everyone would like to say that they learned to cook by watching their mother or some aged and revered family member.  But that is not what happened to me.  My mother is a good cook, and I frequently ask her for recipes and inspiration, but I was sadly way to involved in my own teenage angst to learn how to cook...pretty much until my early twenties.  My college years were spent in a vegetarian haze of anxiety in the dining halls making sure the meat stir fry pans were cleaned before my food touched them.  The one year I lived in an apartment with two of my best friends I had about three meals I would make on a rotation: tune salad nachos (seriously, why didn't they kill me for making the microwave smell like that?), soy bacon and sausage with southwest flavored egg beaters, and garlic shrimp (I was eating fish by then) from the local Chinese take-out.

My love for cooking and food really began after graduating from college, when I went to work at a homeless shelter for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Tacoma, Washington.  As a volunteer, one of our duties was to cook breakfast and lunch for the guests, which could number in the 400s on a busy weekend.  We always had help in the kitchen, usually from a group of guests who had spent a lot of time cooking in commercial kitchens...or prison...but they were skilled and any skill is welcome when you are facing down a line of 400 hungry people and you have no idea when the rice is going to be done.

The Grindmaster Twin 3 Gallon Coffee Urn

It was a true baptism by fire.  We got many donations of fresh fruits, pastries, eggs and vegetables, but our main stock came from government donations.  Rice, beans, government grade canned pork, government grade canned salmon, canned peaches, canned beans, canned corn, canned hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, etc.  I made my first batch of coffee ever in a twin 3 gallon coffee urn.  My education was further refined cooking for my housemates in the evening, a task which we rotated and which had its own unique quirks.  Each of us only received an $80 stipend a month, and while our house also had a food stipend, it did not stretch very far.  We bought in bulk, we bought cheap and seasonal, and we made HUNDREDS of noodle casseroles that we dubbed Funky Macaroni Bakes (or, FMB) and worshiped the 5lb loaf of Tillamook cheddar in our fridge.

During Lent that year I gave up artificial and refined sugars to challenge myself to learn exactly how much sugar was in our food and why so many of our guests were obese and had type 2 diabetes when they were homeless and on food stamps.  I made all of our houses sauces and dips with honey or agave nectar, and learned about the politics of food in our country.  After only a few months at the shelter I could no longer handle the injustice of the food hierarchy that had me sneaking into the walk in to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich after making a canned pork and rice casserole for everyone else, and I began to eat meat again.  My first meal was macaroni and cheese with hot dogs.

After my volunteer year was over, I moved back to Indiana and into an apartment with my friend Juliana and another girl Jasmine.  I do not remember cooking in my all.  The kitchen in our apartment was haunted with the scents wafting from Juliana's dog's litter box, and I spent most of the time at my now-husband's house as he was in medical school and the only way I could see him was to eat meals with him or read quietly while he studied.  But I continued to cook at Don's house, intent on conquering certain recipes as I found them or as they struck Don's fancy.  I remember being horrified by one of his favorite meals, hamburger gravy and mashed potatoes.  Being raised in California on a diet of salads, grilled chicken and rice with vegetables, sushi for special occasions and any kind of fruit whenever you wanted it, just the sound of the term "hamburger gravy" made me feel as if my arteries were clogging.  His elaborate explanation that it "really wasn't that bad for you" because it was made from lean ground beef from his family's cows, 2% milk and wheat flour has become a long running joke in our family.

In the years that followed, I moved several more times and conquered a few more recipes, never bothering to write anything down of course.  Don and I learned to love cooking together, and learned a lot about each other and our relationship in the process.  For instance, we discovered that when we cook together, we must have a designated chef and sous chef, or one of us will try and take over and then be caught throwing salt into the sauce when the others back is turned and things will be thrown and silent rage will blossom and then whether or not the pasta is good, the meal will essentially be ruined.

This is because we have very different styles of cooking.  I am the planner/researcher.  I will select a meal, or several meals, that I would like to eat or learn to cook, and then spend a ridiculous amount of time looking up thousands of recipes in books and on blogs, searching for the perfect mix of ingredients (gross, I am not putting walnuts in that), technique (hhmmm, that recipe takes way too long, there must be something with a short-cut), etc.  Then I will go to the store, get the necessary ingredients that we do not have, and make the hell out of the recipe that I have come up with.  And then I will make it again a few days later, because what if I tried it with some lemon?  And then again, because that lemon didn't work out very well, but if I took the lemon out and used lime instead....I give Juliana a lot of credit for not kicking me out of the house when I went through my roasting chicken phase in 2008.  Our house smelled like a grocery store deli for weeks!

There are two other chickens off camera.  Not kidding.

Don is the fly by the seat of his pants cook - he gives true meaning to the term degage.  He wants to look in the cupboard, see what is there, and make something from it.  He is constantly reminding me of the time his mother made waffles with beer because there was no milk.  The first time he said this, I did not think it was the kind of thing that I would brag about...or tell anyone about, actually...and I looked at him like he was crazy.  He is a whirlwind of ideas and energy and challenges when in the kitchen, and when we first started cooking together I would sometimes (all the time) feel as if I would end up killing him or go insane while watching him cook.

Donsagna...the most requested dish of my MNA cadre during our summer intensive courses.

Now, we have struck a good balance for us.  I am able to degage in the kitchen a lot more, and Don has accepted that some meals do warrant an elaborate planning process.  Don makes the chili and the meat lasagna and the cookies, and I make the eggplant Parmesan and the quiches and pot pies.  When Don said all he wanted for his 30th birthday this year was cheese danish I literally prepared for months.  It took me several days to make the dough, and I got up at 4am on is birthday to make the fillings and form the pastries.

Happy birthday Danish

I feel an incredible amount of pride in cooking, and cooking well, for my family.  I can't say that I loved every second of pureeing chicken and apples together for Lucy when she was a baby, but I was happy that I could feed her healthy and nutritious food.  And I can't say that I love every second of peeling sweet potatoes or hacking through a huge butternut squash or tossing out pizza dough (OK, I hate tossing pizza dough.  I seriously once threw a piece of pizza dough across my kitchen in a fit of too-sticky-not-enough-flour rage).

But I love the smells and the textures (non-sticky) of cooking, and the satisfaction that comes from opening a pot of simmering tikka masala and knowing that I made it.  I am proud of the scratches on my knuckles from grating ginger and garlic.  I am giddy when Lucy can tell the difference between cumin and turmeric because I let her smell and try everything I put into a recipe.  I am joyful knowing that I don't have to cook tomorrow, because we can either have leftovers because I made two gallons of tikka masala (still don't have the cooking for less than 400 people thing quite pared down enough) or that Don will take the helm and I can step back and chop peppers for him.  And I am secretly looking forward to next week's reprisal of this new favored tikka masala recipe...wherein I add sweet potatoes.

P.S. I am not a food blogger, and will never claim to be.  However, because I do love food and I do cook a lot, and I do get requests from people to share certain recipes, I am adding a page to the blog for recipes.  Some will be added as I cook them.  Some will be dug up from the recesses of my brain for those of you who have asked.  All will give credit where credit is due to the many other blogs and websites from which I take my inspiration.

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