The eggplant sacrificed more than any of its comrades. Some slices seemed to have escaped cooking entirely, with minimal damage, while others were zombified. The chicken was alright, just overcooked. At least the sauce was even. In Yan’s kitchen, anything is possible!
While I’m not getting into the Zagat anytime soon, I will learn to salt the eggplant next time and put in the chicken a bit later. And maybe get a real wok.
Like studying for a test, I’ve put off learning to cook for a very long time. Maybe it is because I know I’ll never make it taste, smell, or even look like my mother’s dishes; maybe it is because eating out gives some measure of peace that I am able to, through some process, make a fragrant, hearty serving of Thai crispy chicken goodness appear in front of my plate. I knew the first real dish I cook would be a disaster, so to stall the pain to the ego I had all sorts of excuses to push it back.
The way these things usually go, everyone in the universe conspires against me to make the fated day happen. It was probably the tenth time my roommate J. casually left his chicken stew simmer on the stove, so flavorful that I got hungry while opening the room door, while my conscience kindly poked the back of my brain (with a chef’s knife?) that the last thing I cooked for myself, like the 500 times before it, was either cereal, microwavable oatmeal, or fried eggs when I decide to get fancy. Of course at school, G. suggested in her energetic European way that I simply *must* go watch Ratatouille because it was “so good that it makes you hungry,” only the day before L. wanted to watch a happy film. Ratatouille it was.
I tried to go to sleep that night after the film, but my stomach kept me awake, lecturing me in that language that only we both know, a kind of Morse code with rumbles, that I needed to cook. The next day I was somehow in front of the board, chopping onions, defrosting the chicken, and having one of those “huh what am I doing here” moments where I didn’t quite believe I was actually there cooking.
The garlic was somewhat burnt, the onions not so much, combining into barbeque smell with a hint of backyard charcoal. The chicken was overcooked just a little bit thanks to salmonella paranoia and I used too much soy sauce, but it was edible. I recycled the sauce from the pan in the first dish to make a quick omelet, a spark of the upper bound of my cooking genius. A microwaved bag of vegetables completed dinner, and L. approved.
It wasn’t bad. No painstaking work of breathtaking genius (TM), but it wasn’t bad.
Five days later Bittman’s How to Cook Everything arrived in the mail. Now my pantry has a little more than salt, pepper, and canned soup. I have tomatoes in the fridge and chicken in the freezer (in little ziploc bags after learning the hard way not to just put the whole piece in there at once). More than just cooking technique though, Bittman crystallized in one digestible packet the love of cooking I found in Emil (the rat chef from Ratatouille): “cooking is one of the few simple, routine joys of daily life.”
By spending much of my time avoiding learning how to cook and to rationalize it by the time I am saving, I lost time spent in earnest enjoyment in the moment as I smell the tomatoes, chop the onions, wipe my brow and salivate in anticipation at the satisfaction of one of God’s five basic sensations that can be born at my hands. It was jazz for my taste buds.