Many home cooks started their journey in the post-dining-hall era of their early 20s with an urge to create dishes like the perfect hangover egg and cheese or an amazing dip for a party that would bring all the boys around.
What we lacked in cash for high-end ingredients or microplane zesters, we made up for with youthful abandon. Bacon 10 different ways! Hummus with triple the garlic, why not!
Then we got married and woke up to a kitchen full of shiny new toys — I still use my Kitchen Aid stand mixer 11 years later — and an urge to test drive. Plus we gained a captive, in-house audience and probably even a mother-in-law to impress. So we got a little serious. Pored over cookbooks, food magazines, fell either into the Martha camp or the Rachael Ray camp.
But you cooked in a way that seemed more adult. And, if you were like me, heavily reliant on recipes.
Without them, I’d mix creamed spinach with cranberries (Result: sickly gray-pink, not appetizing) or "slow roast" something at 500-degrees for 3 hours. But with recipes in hand, I felt safe and each success — “You made this? Wow” — seemed like graduation day at the Culinary Institute of America. "Gourmet" magazine may tag this “complicated” but voila, dinner! So I measured my salt and cut tablespoons of butter with the focus of a neurosurgeon. I still remember the four-hour-prep-and-cook roast vegetable lasagna masterpiece of Sherman Avenue and that was back when Pets.com was a hot stock.
Then the kids come along and, at least for me, kill any emerging joy you might be discovering in the kitchen. It only takes a handful of puckered faces, "Eww, gross!" or faux vomiting as you bring food to the table before your culinary spirit goes limp and falls to the floor like a toddler who doesn't want to get his coat on. And we were squarely in the "eat it or go hungry" parenting camp.
With three, we have seen it all. The ultra-picky child where nothing colorful, new or different can touch his plate. The gourmet-from-birth who was eating raw fennel at age 2 and asking for “more balsam-ee” for her salad at 3. And the one we still call the “last baby,” even though she’s headed for Kindergarten, who seemed just grateful someone remembered to feed her.
Not really, but third-child jokes are always fun. I’m a sixth child of nine, so allegations of motherly neglect by my kids usually get answered by, “Call me when I forget to pick you up from soccer practice and you stand there, alone, until bedtime, which is when MY mother finally realized I wasn't home.”
Of course, the truth is my mother was just a little late in picking me up and didn’t really forget at all. That was Steve and Little League. She also managed to have a healthy, home-cooked meal on the table — for 11! — seemingly every night of my life. I still have no idea how.
But kids invariably (we hope) get older and more adventurous. They can hang around a hot kitchen without constant maternal panic and even pitch in. They might even pick up a chef’s knife without you diving to grab it out of their hands. In my life, the aforementioned Picky Pete is now almost 10 and is not only eating way more diversely — he actually loves to cook and now calls me HIS “sous chef.” As if.
So it’s time to dust off my favorite OXO tongs and get back to the burners (or smooth top electric meal-killer.) But now, perhaps brainwashed by all those seasons of Top Chef and Padma intoning, “Your quickfire challenge is to create a gourmet, four-course-meal out of poisonous puffer fish, two mushrooms and a can of pork and beans,” I want to improvise. I want to create. Recipes seem a little stifling all of a sudden.
I hope with this column, your comments and ideas and all the great guest writers who will appear here in the future, we can celebrate our successes and failures of home cooking without a safety net. I want to know if the thrill of the lasagna of the ages can be matched by creating beauty out of a modest pantry, accessible ingredients and my own creativity.
And if I’ve learned anything up to this point, it’s not that you need a professionally stocked kitchen-length pantry, complete with olive oils that smell like Corsican wildflowers or the hair of a Basque maiden, just a few key staples and solid technique.
But we’ll save that for next week’s topic, sung to the tune of that Paula Cole song — “It’s Tuesday night and where have all the groceries gone?”
For anyone who wants to start cooking now, here's how I put together the dish in the photo: Thai Shrimp and Rice. It takes about 20-25 minutes and most of that is waiting for the rice to cook.
— Frozen shrimp. With frozen shrimp I prefer raw with the shell on — it's a bit of a pain to get off after cooking, but I think the difference in moisture rewards the effort. Having this in the freezer has sparked so many easy, quick meals it's amazing.
— Frozen peas. So easy. In a hot dish like this, you just throw them in.
— Thai curry paste. I used red curry paste from a tuna-sized can that I get at a local Asian market for less than $2. Used only about a tablespoon. Only you know your spice limit! It has garlic, chilies, lemongrass — all that good stuff — all ready for a hot pan with some oil. I find the biggest money-waster is to buy Asian staples at large supermarkets. Anyone who comes into my house will have to hear how my big container of Thai fish sauce was $1.65 at a local market, my rice wine vinegar $2.69 and my God will you look at the size of this soy sauce container! Less than $3! And if I have several near me in a town that makes Northern Westchester look dense and metropolitan, you definitely do, too. (Try Pearl Market on Route 32).
— Saffron rice. I like Vigo brand but whatever works for you. If you are watching sodium — it has a lot — or want more fiber or Thai authenticity go with white, brown or Jasmine.
— Hot sauce of your choice, if even needed. I used Huy Fong Sriracha, but if you go with Cholula, my other favorite, you could even skip the Thai curry all together and put a Mexican spin on the dish. In fact, the quickest meal ever is to saute shrimp in olive oil with salt and pepper and top with Cholula and a squeeze of lime and fold into a warm tortilla. Add homemade coleslaw and die happily.
— A lime. (If you have it)
— Green onions. (If you have them.) I had one stalk leftover from an earlier recipe. I try to clean produce the day I buy it, wrap in a paper towel and then store in tightly sealed in a plastic baggie in the crisper or leave unwashed, loosely, in one of those green bags. The killer is when you leave anything in the plastic bags you brought it home in. Kiss it goodbye after three days.
— Olive oil.
Start rice in a pot with tight-fitting lid or Dutch oven according to package directions. It usually takes 20-25 minutes so plan accordingly.
Defrost shrimp. Sitting in cold water for a few minutes will do the job.
Take out frozen peas and let them hang.
Saute shrimp in a hot, hot skillet with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. If it's pink and opaque, it's done. Shrimp goes really fast, so just stand there and watch the magic happen.
If you can, time it so the shrimp is done with the rice.
When rice is done, stir in peas and cover back up.
Shell shrimp as soon as you can touch it without burning yourself.
Chop green onion and mix with rice.
Spoon rice into a bowl and top with hot shrimp and any hot sauce.
Squeeze some lime to finish.
Of course there are a zillion-bazillion variations to this very simple recipe, perfect for weeknights. If I had cilantro on hand, that would absolutely make a star turn here. Enjoy!