You should know I didn’t set out, at the beginning of this week, to bring you two back-to-back soup recipes. Read more…
You should know I didn’t set out, at the beginning of this week, to bring you two back-to-back soup recipes. Read more…
October brought dark and stormy skies today, which is another way of saying it’s a good time for soup. We made this fiery version out of a heap of roasted vegetables recently, and while the corresponding recipe is posted at the bottom of this post, the truth is that making it is much more about a method than it is about a list of ingredients: roast a bunch of chopped vegetables in oil, simmer them in hot water, pureé, add milk, add seasonings, adjust.
The other truth is that, basically, this is how we cook most days.
See, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that there are two main ways to approach recipes. (I have to say “for the sake of argument” in case any of those of you who are reading here today are the pesky, exacting sort [of which both Tim and I tend to be] and so, when you hear the words, “there are two main ways to approach recipes,” you can’t help it but your mind immediately begins making a case for why there are, in fact, actually at least six different ways to approach it, not two, and once you’ve realized that, you find it’s hard to hang in there through the rest of the paragraphs, having already deemed this post you’re reading to be written by an unworthy source. Listen, you just put those thoughts on hold a minute and rest easy because, right now, we are just talking about this for the sake of argument. Forehead unfurrowed, we continue.)
So let’s say one person gets a recipe, maybe like the one written in this post for an it’s-a-kick-in-your-pants soup, and she looks at her fridge and sees how her ingredients don’t match up with what’s needed and so, she either (a) saves the idea for another day when she’s able to buy everything listed or (b) abandons it altogether.
At the same time, another person gets the same recipe, understands the rough outline of what’s going on, and instead of following it to the letter, she instead pulls out all the carrots and onions, mushrooms, potatoes and zucchini lurking in her crisping drawers, and, experimenting, applies the same strategy to them.
One person caters to the recipe; the other, gets the recipe catering to her.
What’s the difference? Why is one person line-by-lining it and the other, just seeing instructions as a guide? For me, the biggest difference has been time—that incomparably valuable resource that is usually required to learn to do anything, be it speaking a language, riding a bike or handling basic HTML. Do you relate? Has it been that way for you? For me, cooking has been, and continues to be, all about practice, about trying over and over and over again in new ways and the same ways until, one day, you’re making roasted broccoli the way you drive a car, and you’re barely thinking about the way you’re waiting for the smell of crispy florets to tell you when they’re done. The progression from looking at a potato, thinking, how does this become French fries?, to pulling together a meal on the spot is not overnight, at least not for most of us, but usually, it comes.
In our life, Tim and I usually look in the fridge and opt for what’s easy, zucchini to roast and a salad to toss; leftover soup and garlic-rubbed toast; beets (roasted in the CSA apocalypse 2012) to top with goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts. There are times, of course, when we set to making something finer, something bigger, especially when we’ll be dining with guests, and some meals require more preparation, like soaking quinoa or slow-cooking pot roast or preparing a quiche.
But most nights, in our life, we’re throwing quick meals together—not from great skill but from practice, which is the kind of thing I wished I’d heard more often when I was just beginning and, to be honest, which I wish heard from food bloggers and home cooks and great chefs more often. Like a runner or a football player or a businessman, when it’s go time, we’re all mostly drawing on the years we’ve been trying—the failed frittatas and the terrible pie crusts and the cakes that turned gray.
When they happened, the failures were tragedies, but years later, they’re gifts.
It’s a hot and sunny Saturday and we’re on our way to Lynnville, a sleepy little town that you could live in Tennessee all your life without hearing of, but which today has drawn our attention because of an ad I saw somewhere for a blackberry festival. The whole trip, I’m reading to Tim from my latest library find, and right away, we’re both so into the stories about food and parenting and the world of magazine editing that before we know it, we’ve driven the entire hour, past hilly pasture land and giant barns and no places to use a bathroom, anywhere, and then there’s Lynnville, right before us, rewarding our travel with what turns out to be the very anti-climactic main street that today boasts one carnival booth, four craft tents and, off in the corner, a 85-year-old man selling tomatoes.
So we talk with the tomato man, who tells us he’s lived in Lynnville all his life, and we ask him about blackberries, and he says, no, there aren’t any, but you know, he used to pick them when he was a boy, and we buy a bag of his produce, and he gives us a green pepper for two quarters, and we’re back in the car.
We say to each other, laughing at the wasted hours in the countryside, well, at least there were tomatoes! but then I pull out my book and we remember: actually, at least there’s this.
It’s a week later that I finish “Dinner: A Love Story,” the Saturday night we’re flying home to Chicago, just a few minutes before we board the plane. About 80% of the book I’ve read aloud to Tim, either that day to and from the no-blackberry blackberry festival or in the five or six nights following, before we fall asleep at night. Part cookbook and part memoir, it comes from Jenny Rosenstrach, the former Real Simple editor who blogs at a site by the same name. I wasn’t a follower before I read the book, but I am now: after reading Rosenstrach’s stories, which are as much about food as they are about parenting, as much about gathering around the table as they are about building relationships, I feel like she’s someone with whom I’d like to be friends.
While we’re in Illinois, my mom says to us one morning, I have some chicken, what should I make? And I jump from my chair. I know exactly the thing! I tell her. And I run upstairs to my suitcase to pull out this book, to flip to the chicken pot pie recipe, the one Rosenstrach has been making since the early days of marriage and entertaining and which she has been known to monogram for a real wow factor for her kids.
My mom makes it and it has the same effect: I eat three pieces. And later that night, my brother wipes the dish clean. So when Tim and I come back to Nashville and we’re making dinner for friends, it’s this recipe that we turn to, making it the night before and just sticking in back in the oven for 15 minutes before serving.
The thing about chicken pot pie is it’s comfort food. It’s hot and it’s creamy and eating it feels like you’re nine years old again, cradling a cup of chicken soup—but it’s even better! with a flaky crust!—so while I know it’s July and it’s humid and many of us are heading to the pool or the beach or the lake house, and so salads and grilling and fresh fruit sounds more like the norm, bookmark this one (rainy days or not!) because it’s good.
My brother hasn’t been in the car with us twenty minutes before I hear him say something in passing about a spring pea risotto he’s tried the week before, and before I can stop myself I’m exclaiming, “Risotto! I want to make risotto! How do you do it? Was it hard?”
Then, to Tim, “Remember our carrot risotto in California?”
That risotto we’d had at La Bicyclette, the highlight of our meal and maybe our entire trip, was the kind of entrée you never forget, so even though I ask him, I know Tim knows it, too: a carrot risotto so creamy and buttery, so cheesy and comforting, so beautifully bright orange the way things hardly ever naturally are, that I heard at least three other bloggers say they would tackle this recipe when they got home.
Of course, I wasn’t one of those bloggers saying I’d make it later, just so we’re clear. I responded by saying how much I liked it, how warm and savory and amazing it was, but I didn’t dream of going home and trying it myself because, between us, risotto scares me. In my mind, risotto is great chefs and top restaurants and five-star reviews. It’s talent and skill and precision. There was a time, once, when I approached it, but the results were hard and bland and crunched when you took a spoonful, so Saturday, when we’re driving down the highway and I say, “I want to make risotto!” to my husband and my brother in the car, I don’t actually mean I want to make risotto. I mean that I want to eat risotto! and if it’s the La Bicyclette kind, preferably by the mixing bowl!
Because here’s the thing: risotto is hard. Risotto is fussy. Risotto isn’t something I can do.
But then my brother comes to town.
You know, when it comes to the kitchen, the idea of cooking with other people, any people, may seem charming at first, but the truth is that not all cooks make good companions. You don’t have to share your kitchen many times before you see this is true.
There are cooks who will come into your home and take over, for example, leaving you stressed out and insecure even as they rearrange your spice cabinet. There are cooks who will second-guess you, who will comment on the weird way you hold the frosting bag while they take it out of your hands.
But then on the other hand, there are cooks like my brother, the kind who already know you so well that they are easy partners whatever the project. They come to visit and tell you about a risotto they made and make it seem so approachable and possible that before you know it, it’s Monday afternoon and you’re standing with them over arborio rice cooking on your kitchen stove, learning as you watch them, gaining confidence as you work together. These cooks aren’t common, but when you’re blessed to find them, give thanks—these are the people you want to cook with.
And so it is that Adam and I are making risotto together, frozen stock thawing on the stove, my hands pressing buttons on the food processor to shred carrots, his hands chopping parsley on the cutting board. It’s not night yet, but the sky is darkening as storm clouds gather overhead, and the kitchen seems smaller and smaller as it grows more dim, so he flips on the overhead light above the stove; I close the blinds in the living room. He stirs the risotto, moving a long wooden spoon steadily through the rice and wine and carrots; I add stock, half cup by half cup, letting it soak in and be absorbed and change the rice to soft and plump and fragrant.
The two of us, who have been cooking together for as long as we’ve been cooking, work side by side in the entire process, like four hands in the same singular machine, a product of lifetimes of shared experience and kitchens and food. Even as it seems strange to be doing it now in Nashville, in my home, the one I share with Tim that’s eight hours away from where Adam and I spent most of our lives, it also seems familiar, just like Sunday afternoons making pizza in his Chicago apartment or weeknights baking cookies at Mom and Dad’s.
Today, while we scoop ladles of risotto into bowls and sprinkle them with parsley and chopped carrots and Pecorino, I think how this person standing next to me has known me all his life and most of mine and how he’s been the first friend I talk to about decisions and passions and, two years ago, Tim.
I think how nice it is to cook with him because he knows me, so I can say to him, keep your eye on this and know he will; I can trust him to anticipate the next step, to catch something I miss; I can go to turn the pepper grinder just before we finish the risotto and, when it releases half a jar of whole peppercorns instead of a light sprinkling of ground pepper, I can count on him to laugh with me even while we have to laboriously pick peppercorn after peppercorn out of the simmering food.
After the last bit of stock has been worked into the pot, we take our bowls of risotto to the brown leather sofa and plop down, side by side, putting our feet up and flipping through movie trailers on Apple TV, and I feel so thankful for this brother who cooks with me, even as I feel thankful for the thing we’ve cooked, the thing I feared, the thing we eat spoonful after spoonful on the couch: risotto.