rotten cooks may know something that the rest of us don't


I have a reputation for being a rotten cook.  I know most people wouldn’t admit this but I think it’s a blessing. First, I can throw down a bag of iceberg and a rutabaga and call it dinner, and second, I receive constant compliments from people who want to prove I’m wrong. “This instant oatmeal is just superb!” is the kind of praise I get all the time without hardly trying. 

One of the reasons I like being a rotten cook is that it reminds me of my mother. After spending the whole day scrubbing, ironing, mopping, and sewing, she wanted to do something we’d actually appreciate. She let stews simmer until all the love she could possibly pack in was totally absorbed, meaning everything was burnt to a crisp. I picked up lots of traits from her but I can proudly say I got this one perfectly right: I can char a lentil loaf better than a 5-alarm fire.  

I also like being a rotten cook because it bucks the popular trend. Great cooks are always dishing about their dishes and now you’ve all been inspired by the new Julie & Julia movie about Julia Child and everywhere I go, you are chatting and tasting and swooning. Maybe it’s just where I go -- being as hungry as I am for good food -- but I am amazed at the amount of grating and dicing and blanching that goes into the daily three squares. 

In my own kitchen, I use machete-ing the most. I chop vegetables like they’re wood, throw them in a steamer, dump them in a bowl, and apply soy sauce -- Monday to Friday, twice on Saturday, never on Sunday when, being a day of recuperation, we’d all rather take the soy sauce intravenously while lying down.   

The only time the menu becomes a problem is when I have a dinner party. A bad cook and a dinner party go together like beurre blanc and salsa. But then I had this dream: A chef sat down next to me, pointed her finger, and gave me this big challenge: “Boost your ego, change your self-perception, and become more popular. Learn how to cook 10 meals you can serve to a crowd.”    

Challenge accepted! 

I started with my only success of the past -- Moosewood Cookbook’s to-die-for mushroom barley soup. I used to make it for Thanksgiving, birthdays, special holidays. But then everyone wanted the recipe for the only thing I could cook without fearing a mass exodus. No amount of pleading stopped my sister from rifling through my dusty cookbooks. Ever since, I’ve been serving instant broth.  

But I needed to start with a bang. Moosewood holds up! 

Happy and positive, I got to work on my second dish: Donna’s savory eggplant and polenta party casserole, because I’ve learned it’s pretty hard to screw up anything with tomato sauce. I ran to seven stores before I finally found polenta and then chose an eggplant that appeared all shiny and plump. When I got home, I realized the polenta was the “mashed” not the “log” kind, and the eggplant was rotten inside.  

Did you notice in Julie & Julia that Julie is always carrying one tiny bag of groceries for the whole dish she’s about to make? And she never runs out for something she forgot. I need a car, a GPS for 17 gourmet markets, and a helper to get my ingredients home. Who has “eye of newt” just hanging around?  

Finally, I cut the eggplant the wrong way and had to butt the slices together. The polenta broiled up to rawhide dog chewies -- is that the way it’s supposed to look? Then I sautéed the mushrooms -- boy do they ever shrink -- OK I’ll add more. Then I shredded, shredded, shredded the mozzarella. And on top of everything I poured my one sure thing, tomato sauce. And voila! Red soup surrounding yellow hockey pucks laced with brown fungus and gooey yellow tentacles. Is the eggplant supposed to look like pieces of hanging flesh? 

How hard is cooking? A male acquaintance asked me this recently, not realizing I was working on building confidence and becoming more popular. Apparently, his wife had burned the Sunday night chicken and he trashed it. Literally.   

I’m not sure what my dream chef would say about that, but I know what my mother would say: His wife was probably just making sure all the love she had added was completely absorbed . . . down to the very last itsy bitsy teensy weensy bit . . .   

October 10, 2009

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