Whenever I watch cooking shows on television, I’m always amazed at how foolproof the recipes seem to be. It’s the same thing time and time again…the chefs chop and dice lots of ingredients, they stir and toss and sauté, plate and taste…making it all look so effortless. When they sample the food, their reactions never vary – closing their eyes, they make that scowling “yummy face” and proclaim, “Delicious!”
I love watching Martha Stewart. She’ll dip her fork into a dish of something I can’t pronounce, take a bite and say, “Oh, it’s perfect!” or “Yes, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to taste!” Just once, I want to see her take a bite, close her eyes and say, “Mmmm…nope. I don’t care for it,” before dumping the whole damn thing in the sink and spitting into a napkin.
These days, I know my way around a kitchen, but I didn’t get here without plenty of disasters. My mother is a culinary artist, but never shared her skills with me. She cooks the way a mafia hit man works…alone. Whether this is an old Armenian trick to make us forever dependent, I’m not sure. But I can tell you this, if she needs your help, she’ll ask for it. Otherwise, stay out of her kitchen.
So, prior to striking out on my own, I couldn’t do much more than make a sandwich.
When I finally moved out of my parents’ home, my sister and I took an apartment in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. It was just like Sex In The City, except it wasn’t sexy, or really “in” the city and we couldn’t afford fabulous wardrobes, or $1,000 pairs of shoes, and neither of us had billionaire boyfriends – but otherwise, it was exactly the same.
As a housewarming gift, Mom and Dad gave us a microwave oven. It was about as big as a compact car, and practically as heavy. Microwaves were the newest, most exciting gadgets to hit the modern American kitchen since the frost-free freezer. Everyone knew how to reheat a cup of coffee with them, or cook bacon, but not much else. Ours came with a cookbook and a handy set of microwaveable cookware. We couldn’t wait to get started.
Skip the lasagna.
To christen the new apartment, we decided to host our first-ever dinner party. Flipping through the cookbook, we settled on the microwave lasagna recipe, which called for cottage cheese rather than ricotta. This sounded very, very wrong but, against our better judgment, we followed the directions to the letter. The end result was nothing short of revolting. And it was cold in the middle. And our guests suggested we order a pizza. And we did.
It’s a general rule that one should never experiment with a new recipe when cooking for guests. But I say, “If you can’t fall flat on your face in front of your friends, what kind of friends are they anyway?”
That lasagna debacle was my first lesson in “recipe skepticism.” This comes from knowing what you like, what sounds wrong, and knowing what you hate. Trust yourself before you trust the recipe. But I’m a slow learner, so I still had to make many more mistakes before going with my gut (wink, wink – see what I did there?).
Another “recipe skepticism” lesson came when preparing Julia Child’s Veau (Veal) Prince Orloff. By this time, I was a married woman, and wanted to do something swanky for my dinner guests. At first glance, the recipe looked a little light on seasonings and I worried that it would be bland. But who’s going to question Mrs. Julia Child? Certainly not Miss Cottage Cheese Lasagna. So I forged ahead. The instructions read to finely chop mushrooms, place them in a clean dish towel, and squeeze out all their moisture. Sounds easy, but half the mushrooms stuck to the cloth. After 15 minutes of painstakingly picking them off, I lost my patience and ended up flapping the towel out the window. To make a long story short, the veal turned out to be as bland as could be and I ruined some perfectly good kitchen linen.
Julia Child owes me a dish towel
Since then, I’ve become a little savvier when it comes to recipes, but I am still guilty of repeating one mistake over and over again – I don’t read them all the way through before I start cooking. I look over the ingredients and, if they include things that I like, I go with it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to make my family’s dinner, laying out everything I need (or mise en place, if you want to get fancy), only to discover that some element of the dish has to be made a day ahead, or has to be chilled for 8 hours (or some other crazy time constraint I wasn’t banking on), while my brood sits at the table banging their knives and forks like rowdy convicts.
Worst still, I’ll be halfway through cooking a recipe before noticing those two dreaded words: special equipment. I was once making blinis with caviar from the acclaimed French Laundry Cookbook. It called for a tamis. A what? I ran out to three different kitchen specialty stores looking for one. Nobody knew what I was talking about. I finally figured out that a tamis is mesh strainer. Pretentious much, French Laundry?!
Over the years, I have amassed plenty of special equipment. Most of it is unnecessary, if you have an ounce of ingenuity in your veins. For example, does anyone really need a banana slicer? But I do love my immersion blender, which is a sharp, whirling blade on the end of a stick. It lets you blend things in a bowl or pan. You can blend without blending in a blender! Oh, never mind.
Anyway, back to the recipes…Last night, I decided to make Beet Ginger & Coconut Milk Soup because my husband likes beets and I wanted to make a tasty treat for him. I don’t normally cook with beets for two reasons: I hate them, and I have an all-white kitchen, so they make me a little nervous. As usual, I did not read all the way through the recipe. As the soup was cooking on the stove, I looked at the rest of the instructions and saw with an immersion blender, puree soup. My heart stopped. Who wrote this recipe? What kind of madman would suggest that a home cook insert an immersion blender into a pot of roiling, boiling, never-get-the-stains-out, blood-red beets? But I was already in too deep. So I did it. I immersed. I blended. I was being so, so careful not to splatter. After I finished, the only thing missing from the kitchen was a chalk outline of a body on the floor. It looked like a crime scene.
I gave the soup to my husband and said, “Unless you absolutely love this, you will never see it again.” He took a spoonful, closed his eyes, made the scowling yummy face and said, “Mmm…uhhh…I don’t care for it.”
I dumped the rest in the sink.