This is the second installment in an on-going series about a full-grown adult learning to cook for the first time. Read the back story here.
While listening to America’s Test Kitchen recently, I heard a recipe for thin-crust whole-wheat pizza with garlic oil, three cheeses, and basil, which seemed like the perfect recipe to inaugurate my novice cooking project, so yesterday after work, starving and excited about my first attempt to make pizza, I printed out the recipe and walked up to my neighborhood grocery.
That’s where things started to go wrong.
I had filled my basket with flour and yeast and was picking out fresh basil when my eyes fell upon this line of the recipe: “Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 18 hours or up to 2 days.” Eighteen hours?! Two days?! I didn’t have that kind of time—I was on a deadline, and this time the boss was my stomach.
I looked around the produce section and noticed a huge display of cabbage, on sale for 30 cents a pound, so I took out my phone and searched The Splendid Table for cabbage recipes. The first thing that came up was crispy cabbage with poppy seeds. That would do. I added ginger, garlic, and seasonings to my list and looked around for another vegetable. Yukon Gold potatoes were on sale for 99 cents a pound. I checked The Splendid Table again and found this recipe for two-step mashed potatoes with shallots and garlic. I threw some potatoes, shallots, and garlic in my basket, congratulated myself on remembering to bring my phone to the grocery store, and headed home to break in my kitchen.
One thing that has always seemed so impossible about cooking to me is timing. How does one prepare multiple dishes so that they come out at the same time? I don’t know about you, but I only have two hands. The level of multitasking required to successfully time a meal is beyond me, but I was determined that this would be different.
I had a vague feeling that potatoes take a while, so I boiled a big pot of water, chopped up three over-sized Yukon Golds, threw them in, and set about cutting up the shallots and garlic. And that’s when I looked at the recipe:
"Precook the potatoes by heating enough water (about 6 cups) to cover them in a large pot over high heat until hot but well below a simmer. Turn heat down to low and add the potato slices, the 3 crushed shallots and garlic, 2 teaspoons salt, and vinegar. The potatoes will cool the water down to about 160°. Cook at about this temperature, well below a simmer, for about 20 minutes."
Um. Well this was a problem. My potatoes (cubed, not sliced) were currently boiling away on the stove, and the shallots and garlic sitting on my cutting board were certainly not crushed. How does one “crush” a shallot anyway? Each was the size of a jawbreaker and definitely wouldn’t fit in the garlic press I’d inherited from an old roommate. And was this even a shallot? Maybe I bought some weirdly shaped onion on accident.
I started to google “shallot” but quickly had to turn to my more immediate problem—the potatoes boiling away on my stove when they should have been cooking “well below a simmer.” I turned down the heat, threw in some ice cubes, and told myself that hiccups were to be expected at this early stage in my new hobby. At least I could get some photos of the garlic and what I hoped were shallots on my cutting board while the potatoes cooked. And that’s when I realized that the Nikon I’d hauled home from work needed to be charged. So much for stunning, high-resolution photos. I threw the shallots and garlic in with the boiling potatoes and moved on to the crispy cabbage with poppy seeds (minus the poppy seeds, which I forgot to buy).
Sautéed cabbage seemed like a simple enough recipe, but then I read the directions, which began: “First, make the ghee.” Ghee? I barely knew what ghee was, much less how to make it. Thankfully, some short instructions were provided:
"Put the butter in a small pan, bring it to a simmer, and cook until it turns brown at the edges, 3 to 4 minutes. Let the butter sit for a minute. Then tilt the pan and carefully skim off the solidified top crust with a spoon, taking care to remove as much of this stiff white froth as possible. Put it in a small dish. Pour the clear golden butter into another small dish, and pour the darker brown dregs at the bottom of the pan into the dish containing the froth."
I dropped the butter in a small pan and watched it closely, determined that my ghee would not burn. After a minute or two, all was going well—the butter had nicely melted and I could see it starting to brown around the edges. I can do this, I thought to myself. It’s not so hard. And that’s when my phone beeped. I should have known better than to look at it when I was involved in such a delicate procedure, but it was right there! What if my usual Chinese delivery guy was checking on me? He probably thought I was dead by now. But it wasn’t the delivery guy; it was one of my many pregnant friends, this one texting a sonogram of her six-week old fetus, which she’d taken to calling “Cellie.”
“Cute!,” I responded. “Looks like popcorn shrimp.”
“Right?!,” she texted back, “but no tail, thank God.”
“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl yet?,” I wrote.
“No, and honestly, I don’t care as long as she’s healthy.”
Such a brief conversation, and, yet, when I turned back to the stove, the ghee was not looking good. I pulled it off the stove and let it sit while I strained the potatoes. When the potatoes were safely out of water, I turned to evaluate my ghee saw it was low in “clear golden butter” and high in “darker brown dregs.” First time, I told myself, set it aside, and threw an arbitrary amount of cream and butter into the potato, scallop, and garlic mix before remembering I don’t know how to mash potatoes. When I was a kid, my mom made mashed potatoes with an electric mixer, which I would lick afterwards the way other kids might lick cake batter, but I had no mixer, and this recipe called specifically for a ricer, which I’d never heard of. What I did have was a fork, and so I started spearing the potato cubes, smashing them against the pot, and then stirring them together. It was a difficult, messy process and I had to keep switching hands because my arm was getting tired. After ten minutes or so, I had a large pot of slightly lumpy and decidedly un-photogenic mashed potatoes. I turned back to the ghee.
My ghee might not have been the right shade of gold, but it was still butter, and butter is good, so I heated my cast iron skillet and dumped it in, hastily grated some ginger, chopped a head of cabbage, grabbed an unlabeled jar of what I hoped was thyme (also inherited from a former roommate), and, when the ghee was spitting, threw it all in. After a few moments, I was pleasantly surprised to find that what I was cooking actually smelled good. The aroma of ginger in ghee reminded me of an Indian food truck I used to frequent (actually, it was a giant red school bus with “Mexican Tortas” painted on the side by a previous owner). After a few minutes of letting the butter coat the cabbage, I was done—my first home-cooked meal in an apartment I’d been living in for three months.
I plated my two-part meal (which, admittedly, didn’t have a “main course” the way you might imagine, but, hey, baby steps) and sat down to eat. And how was it? Pretty medium. The potatoes were lumpy and it turns out I don’t love ginger, but it was basically butter with a side of vegetables, and how can that be bad? I ate my fill and had leftovers for lunch. After my first culinary adventure, I need a bit of a break, so tonight, I’m ordering in, but I’ll be back in the kitchen in no time: after all, I still have pizza to make.