Wednesday, August 29, 2012

365) underdog chef cooks for a date

Poetry & Food 8/29/2012

I recently decided to cook dinner for this guy, CK, who I’ve been seeing.  We’d had a week filled with some heavy conversations, so I figured a home cooked meal would help lighten the mood.  And since I was on vacation, I had time to cook something adventurous.  The only problem was that I’m not exactly the next Madhur Jaffery.  But cooking for a guy is a ladylike gesture, and I wanted to give it a shot. 
CK agreed to come over Friday evening after work, and I woke up that morning wondering what I should prepare.  I was thinking something Pakistani or Indian because that’s what he likely expected, given my South Asian background and his predilection for spicy food. 
Still I was open to suggestion, so I began doing Internet searches on phrases like, “What to cook for a date.”  The matching websites were endless.  It was overwhelming, so I decided to consult my cookbooks instead. 
Retrieving my texts from a box in the dining area, I flipped the pages eagerly in search of something simple but tasty.  For a novice wannabe-chef such as myself, this was a bit stressful, but I took a few deep breaths and got centered.  Then I remembered this awesome chicken stuffed with leek that dish I’d made twice, but I couldn’t find the recipe.  After some fruitless detective work, I realized that the details were in a white hardback book that my ex had kept when we got divorced the previous year.  I could do an Internet search, but it wouldn’t be the same recipe.  I decided to find something else to make.
            By this time it was almost 11am, and I had plans to meet my mother for coffee.  I still hadn’t settled on a menu, but mom’s an amazing cook, and she teaches food classes all over Los Angeles, so I figured she’d have some inspiration for me.  I wasn’t wrong.  It was like she had intuited my state of mind, for to my amazement when I arrived at Corner Bakery, she presented me with a packet of printed out recipes.  “These are from the cooking class I taught at Whole Foods the other night.” 
            “Yes!” I said, my shoulders relaxing in relief. 
            The gods had intervened.  I finally knew what to prepare.    
            But when I sifted through the pages, I realized her recipes were pretty complicated, and I didn’t have the determination in me to work through them just yet.  However, there was a delicious raita (yogurt dip) recipe on the last page, and I’d made it once before, so I figured that could be the evening’s condiment.
            After coffee with Mom, I jetted home and sifted through my little Indian cookbook, one I’d bought from a bookstore I’d worked at in Austin many years ago.  I remembered CK saying that he liked chana masala (a garbanzo bean curry dish), so I figured I’d try my hand at it though I’d never cooked it before.  I also decided to marinate and skewer some boneless chicken breast pieces, which I would broil in the oven.  The marinade was another recipe my mother had shared with me a few months earlier, and it was a family favorite.  It would surely work well.  Finally, I settled on a rice recipe seasoned with saffron, chicken, almonds, and golden raisins. The meal was starting to take shape.
            A list of ingredients in hand, I drove to Gelson’s to do some grocery shopping.  I bought ginger, garlic, onions, and tomatoes.  I tossed cilantro, apples, and carrots into my cart.  At this point I was whistling, skipping, and smiling even.  I felt genuinely excited about the evening ahead, about the afternoon I would spend cooking, and I thought I’d made some pragmatic yet tasty decisions.  Before I checked out, I grabbed a carton of sweet cream ice cream and some strawberries for dessert.   I also placed a bottle of Chang’s beer in my cart. The drink would help temper the spices of the evening meal I had planned.
            By the time I got home it was around 3pm, and my date was due to arrive at 7:30pm.  After unloading groceries, I prepared the marinade for the chicken breasts, liquefying yogurt, lemon, and herbs in a blender.  Once that was done, I mixed the strawberries with sugar and fresh squeezed orange juice, placing the bowl in the fridge to cool.  When I glanced at my watch, it was almost four thirty, and I still wanted to workout, shower, clean up, and get the chana masala started.  Time was running out.  I’d have to skip the gym.
            It took me an hour to chop vegetables and simmer the curry sauce for the garbanzo beans.  And by the time I finished showering, dressing, and setting the table, it was almost 6pm.  I still had a curry dish to finish, and I hadn’t even started on the rice.
            I moved faster now, putting on an Usher CD, and singing along to the energizing music.  I’m the sort who likes to be done with most of the cooking when the guests arrive.  It makes me shy to have them nearby while I chop and sift ingredients because I feel like a self-conscious student in the kitchen.  Besides, this was a date.  I wanted to make a decent impression, and I wanted to seem in control.
            CK arrived on time with flowers and DVD’s in hand.  He wore jeans and a dark button down shirt, and he looked good.  Planting a kiss on my cheek, he surveyed the kitchen.  “Smells delicious,” he said.  “And you’re making saffron rice!  I have friends who make rice in a rice cooker, so they don’t know how to actually boil it from scratch.  They always mess it up.  But this looks yum.”
Retying the knot of my blue and white apron behind my waist, I giggled.  It seemed like I was close to serving, so I invited CK to take a seat while I retrieved the marinated chicken skewers from the fridge and lined them on a tray to put in the oven.  Ten minutes or so would do.  I tied my hair back in a loose bun.  I was a bit tipsy with the beer in me, so I felt myself moving slower in the kitchen now.  But I was also feeling the relief of a runner about to cross the finish line.  I whistled.  I hummed.  We were so close to eating, and I was eager to sample the results of my efforts.
After getting the oven going, I checked on the rice.
Through the glass cover, it looked yellow, rich, and edible.
I decided to take off the lid and have a taste, just to check that it was properly salted.  I lowered my utensil to lift a few grains of rice, but to my horror, I realized that the saffron and basmati mixture was undercooked.  I’d bunged it up!  It tasted like some bland paste that had hardened on thethe edge of a pot.  My mouth went dry, and I felt my shoulders tense up a bit.  As CK had pointed out, I didn’t have a rice cooker.   That meant I’d have to start from scratch again to prepare the rice, which meant the meal would be delayed. 
I felt a bit stressed, but I didn’t want to confess my blunder to CK just then, especially after his casual comment about friends who don’t know how to make rice.  So I got another pot going while I asked him questions about his day.
            The minutes drifted by, and the chicken broiling in the oven took longer than I thought it would, while the rice wouldn’t cooperate right away.  It took me a long time to get it to soften.  I didn’t understand why this was happening.  I’d made rice a hundred times.  It was the one thing I thought I could count on that night.
            “Sorry,” I said.  “I’m running a bit behind.”
            “The chana masala needs to simmer, right?” CK said, smiling helpfully.
For a moment, I felt like chucking the whole meal and ordering take out instead.  But as the minutes passed by, the rice finally seemed to cooperate.  It seemed like the meal was coming together.
            It was almost nine by the time we got around to eating. When I tasted the food, I was proud of my chicken and raita.  The marinade was delicious, and the yogurt richly smooth.  Even Mom would have agreed that it turned out to be a tasty blend of sweet and salty, with the salt, sugar, and slices of green apple working well together.  The chana masala was passable, but the garbanzo beans had not softened as I would’ve liked, nor were they spicy enough.  In my stress over the rice, I’d completely forgotten to give that dish due attention.  And the basmati, garnished with an almond, chicken, and raisin mix, did not have the full effect I had intended. 
            All in all, the food was decent, but I did not feel like I’d aced my chef debut. CK, however, seemed appropriately pleased, which meant a lot.
            What I learned from this experience is that cooking multiple dishes simultaneously is no easy task, particularly when you’re trying out new recipes on a night you want to make an impression.  It takes time and patience, and it’s better to start much earlier than you think.  I also thought that the recipes my mother shared with me had a sharper delivery than the ones I’d gotten out of the recipe book.  This made me wonder.  I mean, I’ve made plenty of stuff based off written recipes that turned out well, but there’s something reassuring about making a recipe you get directly from someone you know and trust.
            Cooking that night turned out to be a challenging experience.  I had wanted to prepare a meal that would lighten the mood, but it seemed my emotions had affected my dishes, not the other way around!  Still, in the end, the process inspired me, making me want to try again.  Very soon after, I was able to laugh at myself.  I realized then that the main ingredient I had forgotten to include that night was my sense of humor.  Next time I cooked, I would do so with less seriousness and more silliness!  I would imagine it as play and not put too much emphasis on the results. 

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