Something about hospitals always leaves me craving green juice and salads and reading articles about foods with the most nutrients, so, after a chunk of days hanging in heart hospital rooms, maybe that's why I've been all about the turmeric…
Sometime this summer, Tim and I watched the movie "The Lunchbox," an Indian flick in which a man receives the wrong lunchbox---or really, the wrong tiffin box, a tall, stainless steel contraption with multiple containers stacked in a tower that…
I've fallen into the habit this summer of roasting whatever vegetables we have on hand for dinner, usually with just coconut oil, salt and pepper, sometimes with one or two other spices from the cabinet added in, and then arranging…
Most nights, our dinners are simple: roasted vegetables, salad, whatever leftovers we have from yesterday's lunch or another day's project in the fridge. Sometimes it's previously prepared food we've stuffed in the freezer. Other times it's ice cream. We tend…
You say that you can’t cook; I say, Give it time. I know it looks like people are born with fresh muffins coming out of their ovens, but it’s not true. Everybody starts somewhere. And the first time you try to cook, especially if that first time is when you’re no longer a kid and there’s nobody around to tell you what to do, it’s scary because you don’t know what will happen. Everybody knows this. Most people forget this, but everybody knows this. We all have different motivations for trying something in the kitchen at the beginning: adventure, curiosity, boredom, hunger, need. Whatever yours is, I probably felt it at one point or another. I grew up in a cooking household, the kind where my mom made dinner every night and my grandma’s life centered around what was simmering on the stove. I don’t remember learning from them to love to eat; I think I absorbed it naturally, the way I absorbed language or liking to laugh. Learning to cook was something different, though. Learning to cook took time—takes time—I mean, because, in a lot of ways, learning to cook is something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.
September 11, 2013 has been a beautiful day here in Nashville. Tim and I woke up early to grind popcorn kernels and make skillet cornbread. The cornbread was a dud, but Tim made a berry smoothie that wasn’t. Then, we drove through blue skies and bright sun to our car dealership, twenty minutes south, where a serviceman checked us in to get our air-conditioning fixed and asked the time: It was 9:11 AM on the nose.
Twelve years ago this morning, I was standing in a Wisconsin hotel, curling my hair, when my mom shouted from the TV in the main room, “Come look at this!” and I didn’t say anything, and we called my dad in Illinois, and he was crying. Today, I walked away from a serviceman and into a Tennessee car dealership lounge, where Tim and I would listen to someone making popcorn and watch a 10-month-old baby boy named John crawl around the room.
My mom and I were at that Port Washington hotel because I was scheduled for traffic court on September 11, for driving 24 miles over the speed limit a few months before. I remember telling the judge that day that I was sorry. “I don’t want to ever speed again,” I said to her when it was my turn. Everyone was talking about the planes and the towers, and there I was apologizing for something that was no one’s fault but my own. After court, we tried shopping, but our hearts weren’t in it. I wanted to drive back to school before dark. So my mom drove back to Naperville, and I drove back to college, and, when I got there, I returned to TVs all over campus, broadcasting live coverage of what was going on.
Today, Tim and I drove away from the car dealership and to the grocery store to pick up chicken; I had a dinner idea I told him I wanted to try. In the broad, bright Tennessee daylight, we cruised back up I-65 and then over to our house. We roasted spaghetti squash and tomatoes and chicken, and we boiled potatoes to combine with squash in a puree. We ate dinner by candlelight, the days shorter and the sun gone by before seven o’clock these days. And I exclaimed, over and over again out loud to Tim and Nathan, two men I’d never even met twelve years ago, about how much I liked the dinner tonight and how special it felt.
It occurs to me as I sit down on my bed tonight, fresh from this dinner, trying to write this post, how many people aren’t alive to be able to read it today. There are the ones killed by tragedy on this day twelve years ago, and there are the ones killed on other days by other things since then, from a Boston bombing to a Middle Eastern bombing to cancer to depression to kidney failure to old age. Even as I’ve been writing these thoughts, a mosquito has been bothering me, and I just, almost mindlessly, killed it between my hands and took it to the bathroom trashcan. Death is all around us. Life ends. We all know this, but there are a million ways to pretend it away—and in the pretending away, we miss something true. We are not promised tomorrow. Who of us knows when his or her life will end? Days like today, remembering and reflecting, it’s easy to see. We are finite. Our lives are short. And then, it’s easy to give thanks for the sheer blessing of living, of driving to the car dealership, of eating roast chicken in your dining room, of coming here to write about it in a blog post.
If you had stepped into our kitchen at around 4 p.m. a few Wednesday afternoons ago, you would have seen our side door, the one that exits to the driveway and our upstairs neighbor’s black iron stairs, flung wide open. You would have seen smoke wafting from the stove through that door, intermingling with the 50-some-degree weather and bright blue skies of Nashville February. And you would have smelled the sea, not the dreamy, refreshing scent of ocean tides, but the pungent, unfortunate odor of smelly, gamey raw fish. Tim and I were testing a recipe.
The idea of fish for dinner is nothing new in my family. My parents eat it once a week, at least. When we take my dad to restaurants, he looks for fish on the menu and asks the waiter, looking the guy in the eye and flashing a smile, if the chef might be able to blacken the salmon? And if you really could do that, boy, that would be great. While it’s true I didn’t grow up sharing my parents’ love of fish—nor their ability to treat perfect strangers as confidantes—thanks to their influence, blackened fish entered my palate early in adolescent life. Turns out, I learned as a teenager, cover something with enough powerful spice and cook it until it forms a crust, and even the fishiest fish tastes halfway okay. Now, as an adult, I freely admit I delight in a blackened, crusted tilapia and the way it sits light in my gut (not to mention, now also, the way that my dad values every waitress, businessperson or child he meets). And as far as how I feel now about fish, I think I like it best of all the meats—and yet, strangely, it is the kind I buy and cook least.
Standing over our smoky, steaming skillet, Tim and I wondered where we’d gone wrong. We’d followed a recipe I’d found on Pinterest, brushing Dover sole filets in lemon juice and coating them in a paprika-heavy spice mixture before sautéing them in oil. The resulting filets were fine, edible even. They were spicy, for sure, practically Cajun and the kind of food to leave you reaching for a water glass. But they weren’t fun to eat. I disliked them as much as I disliked the way our kitchen smelled for hours afterwards.
So that night, discouraged, I emailed my mom.
“Could you send me your recipe for blackened fish?” I typed and clicked send. That was all I said. Our correspondence, which, since I’ve lived in Nashville, relies more on emails than phone calls, typically plays out this way.
“Use whatever spices you like,” she responded. “Cayenne, Old Bay… there’s no real formula.”
“But what about technique?” I shot back. “Any tips?”
Her eventual response wasn’t lengthy—four sentences of instruction at most—but it gave me hope:
Put EVOO and butter in a pan and let it get hot, but not smoking. Place fish in pan and sprinkle on your seasonings. Let the fish get good and cooked, and flip it to the other side. It only taks a short time. Enjoy!
Directions like that imply that even a child could cook salmon well, so two weeks later, Mom’s email open on my laptop, her instructions are exactly what Tim and I followed, and here is the result: