Adjust to Taste -- Esri Rose (aka Kiki Clark)
My mother is an excellent cook, as was my grandmother, who lived with us the whole time I was growing up. So I knew what good food tasted like and how it worked, but living with two experts who did all the work, I didn't develop the habit of cooking.
I married a man who cooked, and in the early years of our marriage, he was the one who fried chicken and grilled steaks. Then he went to work for a series of computer start-ups with irregular hours but good paychecks, and we ate out more than in. When he worked until eight, I found I could make a perfectly adequate dinner out of frozen spinach and edamame, finished off with a rice cake, some yoghurt and a piece of fruit. My habit of not cooking became more ingrained.
Several years ago, we met Dennis, through Neighbor Brad. We childless, spur-of-the-moment types have trouble making plans, but we never turn down a free meal in the comfort of our own home. Dennis came over and cooked meals at our houses. It’s how he gets people together, and it never fails. We usually do the dishes and provide the wine.
Not long ago, Neighbor Brad got a girlfriend who is a stellar cook, and our group's shindigs took on a more gourmet flavor. What had been a quick curry became halibut with grapefruit-infused burre blanc, or cinnamon duck. Our party of five sat around the table in a haze of well-being, chatting about Alton Brown’s latest show and the difficulty of getting kidneys to make steak-and-kidney pie.
Summer came. Joe replaced our rusting gas grill with a stainless-steel beauty. I bought a grilling cookbook with recipes for coconut-stuffed salmon, and summer squash on a bed of sautéed spinach, topped with cheese. I showed it to Dennis, and he made the lamb kabobs.
At this point, I should clarify something. It’s not that I never, ever cook. I have a small assortment of specialty cookbooks covering ethnic cuisines and the mysteries of pressure cooking, and I occasionally make dishes from these books, usually when we have guests. On these evenings, Joe and I harry each other through the kitchen, glaring when the other blocks the sink. I couldn’t understand when people said they found cooking relaxing.
I’ve also created a few of my own recipes – heavy on the canned and frozen items, but quick and cheap to make, and tasty in their own repetitive way. But I never considered cooking a pleasure. Part of this is because I struggle with perfectionism. Cooking one nice meal, or even a few, didn't seem adequate. Ideally, I would shop for the week, finding everything at one store so as to save on gas, and planning meals so efficiently that one night’s leftovers cascaded into the next one’s raw ingredients, with nary a stub of ginger left to mold in the refrigerator. Each meal should take no more than half an hour to make (my mother somehow achieves this), and nothing should be repeated more than once every two weeks. And this should be the rule, regardless of PMS, sick cats, hot writing streaks, or national disasters. Amen.
One very recent afternoon, when I was definitely not on a hot writing streak, I browsed through the grilling book. I enjoy looking at recipes; imagining the flavors and mentally savoring what they might taste like. A chicken-satay recipe caught my eye, and I realized I had all the spices – even a can of coconut milk, thanks to the tired curry recipe I trot out when rice cakes or a restaurant is too much to face. This particular recipe called for something called pandanus leaves to twist around the skewered chicken, but that was obviously a fanciful notion on the part of the British writer, and could be ignored.
It was a beautiful summer day, the roads unclogged with college students, so I got on my bike and rode to my local boutique grocery. They didn’t have boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but bony ones with skin were on sale, and I had plenty of time. It was unclear to me what the British writer had in mind when she described “four small, fresh, hot green chillies (not birdseye),” so I got a jalapeño. Cashew nuts, check, and why not add some chunks of green peppers to take up the room left by the missing pandanus leaves? I would serve the whole thing over rice.
I went home and sawed my way through the chicken, washing everything in sight in the prescribed
The next night, we made the salmon with mango mojo.