Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cook, Good, Food

When I really want to unwind and let loose, I used to crack open a bottle of Jack Daniels and grab a funnel from the kitchen drawer. These days, I use a slightly less liver-destroying method of cooling my sheeze down. I still have a soft spot for the bourbon, but now it's the loveliness of a single glass, an ounce and a quarter of the good stuff, and three ice cubes. Other methods include hot baths, sitcom television, and re-reading McSweeney's guide to '80s bands, which can make me laugh so hard I wheeze. But over the last few months, I've developed a real affinity for what may be my most relaxing pastime yet: cooking.

Back when I would have wine for, not with, dinner, I was a bit of a foodie. My first boyfriend was a chef, and my first jobs were all in the food service industry, so an interest in high-end food came naturally. There's an exoticism to fine dining. You get a little dressed up, people take you to your table and fawn over you with hunks of bread and little piles of food. An amuse-bouche? Okay! Some sort of prix-fixe menu that delivers artful towers of prawns or scallops or veal cheeks? Homemade ice cream? Deceptively tiny servings ("This is like, five mouthfuls for forty-five dollars! I'm going to eat eight slices of this really nice bread to make up for it."), and bucketload of booze. It's a very appealing, albeit expensive, way to live one's life. When the whole, 360 experience is taken into consideration (the room, the service, the view, the waiter's designer outfit), it feels glamorous. It can be a little bit addictive.

When we were younger, my mom was definitely the family dinner-maker. We used to pray for unadulterated Kraft Dinner, but she usually wouldn't cave to our high-pitched begging. I remember salmon cakes and steamed vegetables, or breakfast cereal-encrusted chicken, or spaghetti with olives and shredded carrots. These sound like culinary forerunner to taste experiments like nitrogen-frozen cherries, but my mom is an excellent cook (even if she did ruin KD by putting tuna in it). My dad made more "manly" foods - meat, grilled; meat, roasted; deli meat, fried. She usually cooked during the week, and they did a kitchen pas de deux on the weekends.

While there are entire magazines and cookbook sections devoted to getting dinner pumped out seven nights a week, I actually find cooking very relaxing. (This is probably due to the lack of hungry, shrieking children in my household.) I move fast in the kitchen, and have a slowly-growing repertoire of good, fast, tasty meals I can whip up ranging from breakfast burritos to vegan shepherds pie to banana-chocolate chip muffins. Sometimes I follow a recipe; other times, I improvise. With the exception of the chef boyfriend, I've been tapped in for KP on almost every relationship. I remember the first time I cooked for my Big Ex - we had been hanging out for, like, 36 hours straight. I was ravenous. We were both too broke for take-out, so I whipped up an udon-and-eggplant stir-fry. He looked at me with stars in his eyes. I love that feeling.

These days, I'm experimenting more. I buy the bacon marmalade and the kimchee. I make breakfasts with pickled beets. I want to try more advanced stuff, like whole chicken or yeast breads. Some of my friends will whip up salsas and make their own yogurt on the fly, but I'm not there. Years of denying the pleasure of food - unless it was really fancy food - have left me hesitant to explore my own kitchen. Islands of safety, like eggplant-and-udon stirfries, need to give way to oceans of new experiences.