I am not a natural in the kitchen. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself, because I’m not sure if anyone is born from the womb naturally inclined to wield knives (though NDB tried to at about 10 months) or perfectly time a soufflé. But I do know people who navigate the space with ease, churning out delicious, expertly filleted and flavored dishes and having the time to relish the efforts. This is my goal.
It was not more than two years ago at a big Thanksgiving celebration at my sister’s that I was in charge of peeling the apples for pies. I blame my left-handedness, but eventually someone had to take over for me because it took nearly 10 minutes of hacking for me to be able to finally present one mostly naked, already-oxidizing apple. I’m sure my dad got that on video. I’m sure it is painful to watch.
I know how to brown ground beef, but I still can’t hard boil an egg without the yolk turning that awful green.
I have never figured out how to easily prepare a mango, and instead succumb to paying three times the price for pre-cubed bites. I have heard there is a way to chop onions without crying all of my mascara off, but I haven’t stumbled upon it yet. I still don’t fully understand what “cutting against the grain” of meat means. I sometimes even use that nearly fail-proof appliance to microwave chicken nuggets for Noah into inedible rocks.
But I am determined. I have many cookbooks, and I drool longingly at the gorgeous photos and dream that someday I may be able to present a table full of interesting guests with a meal that looks like that. I read food blogs by ‘average‘ moms and I have convinced myself that if I just tried hard enough I could make my family look lovingly at the meal I’ve prepared just like their’s do.
A few times a week I try. Mat applauds my efforts every time. He’s not much of a cook either and I know that he truly does appreciate my attempts to put fresh food on our table. (I am slightly disheartened by the fact that our best meal so far has been one he found in a grilling cookbook that he prepares and serves. More on this dish later. It’s awesome. And it makes me feel bad about myself.)
Since I’ve had children I’ve become obsessed with mastering this piece of my housewiferly duties. But just like many other obsessions in my life, this one is more fun in the researching and dreaming than in the execution into reality. There is not much worse than spending an hour in the kitchen to have your seven year old give you her very honest and unfiltered opinion of the dish. (“This is gross!” I’ve heard more than once.) Not a lot that is more disheartening than having her favorite ‘homemade‘ meal of yours be the Hamburger Helper that you defaulted to on a crazy night. It’s not fun to get deep into a “30-minute” recipe and realize that the chef who wrote this piece of wishful thinking drank too much table wine because chopping the vegetables alone took the entire half hour.
I have realized today – not sure why it took me this long considering Lola is nine months old, but nonetheless – that I am not in a position to cook elaborate meals right now. Or even many of these 30 Minute monsters. When I am in the kitchen, I am not holding a child, and it is this realization that comes to both Noah and Lola right at the time I need to be “continually stirring.” Katya gets into the mix by suddenly discovering she desperately needs me to be the teacher’s helper in American Girl Doll School while I’m elbow deep in defrosted chicken parts and then when denied, complaining loudly that I never play with her. Dinner time is cranky time. For them and for me. And yet night after night I get myself into this mess.
The evening is even more stressful because I have to make three separate meals usually. One for Lola, one for Mat, Katya and me, and a modified version for Noah. Often, because of my above mentioned misfortune in picking recipes that take more than two Baby Einstein videos to make, Noah is in full Destructo mode (this is our superhero name for him when he gets so tired that he starts destroying all in his path, and toys and kittens are flying) and ends up with a scrambled egg and a squeezie (squeezie = most efficient way ever to get green things from the outside world into your baby.)
Mat thinks I should drink more wine while I cook, it’ll relax me, and I understand this to be one of the more pleasurable aspects of the endeavor. He has no problem drinking a lot of wine while I cook. However, I also have the misfortune that for some reason after my two-right-in-a-row-have-I-never-heard-of-birth-control pregnancies I have an extremely low ability to handle wine. (Maybe it’s my body’s way of protecting me from having more kids…because wine drinking got me into both pregnancies in the first place?) I blame the lame American doctors who forbid alcoholic beverages in pregnancy which crippled my tolerance. French women don’t have this problem. I have tried to remedy it by drinking vodka tonics, Champagne, and some crazy concoction my neighbor cooked up eponymously named the Scavetta*, to no avail. I can’t stomach much alcohol in the evening or the kitchen might light on fire while I doze.
So, I stress and stress and yell expletives at the cookbook author and throw knives (um, I mean, not really) and scream at Mat to take the kids far far away from me so I can cook a friggin’ lovingly homemade meal and we can sit at the table together and ENJOY OURSELVES.
Work in progress. But I will not give up. Because I grew up in one of those idyllic households where everyone sat down at the dinner table every night. We might have bitched about it, and threw food at each other. I’m sure we complained as loud as my kids do about the meals. But we did it.
My dad famously made us eat rotten, purple corndogs one night, one of the few my mom had to work late and couldn’t chaperone. On those nights we otherwise had a rotation of Dad’s Famous Meatloaf (not bad) and Dad’s Italian Sausage and Spaghetti (disgustingly served with a ladle of malodorous grease from the sausage.) My brother, or I, or my sister have at one time or another vomited on our dinner plates. My mom also had her famous ________ Surprise, which could be Fish, Lentil, or Beef Shoulder, or something else altogether. Sometimes her Surprises worked, sometimes they didn’t. But she tried. They both did, even though they worked all day. And we almost always ate together. And I remember it. And I want that for my family.
Many people learn to cook from their parents, but I’m sure you have to have some inkling to do it for it to happen. I know when I was younger I had no interest in learning – believing as my kids do it seems that there will always be someone just to make it for you. And I am sure my mom tried, though as hard as she worked during the day I can’t imagine her then coming home and exhaustively trying to motivate me in the kitchen.
So here I am, trying to learn it now. I don’t know what direction I’ll head, or where this will take me. My only hope is that my kids will learn an appreciation for good, real food. What I need to work on is demonstrating for them that cooking is not a chore, that it can and should be pleasurable and nourishing.
On that note, I need to calm down and lower my expectations. Seared Scallops with Corn and Bacon relish? Great idea until I dropped not one, not two, but three of those slippery bastards on the floor while Noah head-butted my leg trying to get my attention. I took a deep breath. Then hot oil spattered on to my face. It was at this point the tongs went flying across the room in disgust, bounced off the sink and hit me hard in the arm.
Let me restate this for you in case you missed the gravity of the situation.
In my attempt to make an awesome dinner, I almost impaled my son with a burning hot, greasy utensil.
Lesson learned, after I cried to my husband and boycotted dinner making forever? I need to understand that now is the time for simple goodness, and if it comes from a box sometimes that’s ok. In a few years, while the kids can entertain themselves and let Mommy have kitchen time alone, that’s when Bacon Scallops make their appearance again.
I am now in the process of collecting easy as dirt recipes for dinner. Send me your ideas!! And here is one for you – and may your kitchen adventures be less….adventurous than mine (i.e. learn from me and don’t kill anyone…)
Super Easy Fish Tacos
A few filets of white fish – we get ours frozen from Costco in a box and they are so fresh, sustainable, and inexpensive. I heart Costco even more than Target.
Cut fish into bite size strips and put in a Ziploc bag with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and some seasoning. I use Dirt from Whole Foods, it’s a Cajun type seasoning that is friggin’ good. Old Bay works just as well and has less bite. Marinate for 20 minutes.
Cook on medium in a non non-stick for a crispier bite with more cleanup time or in a non-stick to be super quick. Cook 2 minutes on each side.
Yay almost done!
Mix some prepared ranch (I get a ‘natural ranch’ seasoning packet from Whole Foods) with canned chipotle chiles in a blender or food processor or baby-food maker and use as sauce. Or mix some mayo with a bit of milk and more Dirt or Old Bay.)
Chop a bit of red cabbage or whatever lettuce type thing you have. It’s all good.
Serve with tortillas. (Before Lola I used to make my own tortillas from scratch. Yeah. So that doesn’t happen anymore. Whole Foods has some in the frozen section, as does Wegman’s for east coasters and Fry’s for west coasters, that are much better than the plasticky commercial ones. Or if you are feeling spritely, pick some up from a local Mexican bakery or restaurant.)
Done! Big hit with everyone! 15 minutes in the kitchen! Woohoo!
Would love to hear how you all handle dinners in your crazy homes!
* I have just figured out, after 36 years, what the word “eponymously” means, and will attempt to insert it into every blog post from now on.