May, 2010 –
One minute I’m dutifully rinsing eight carrots and the next a pillar of smoke is billowing out of the pot on the stove, filling his apartment with a gag-inducing haze. Within seconds the stove fan is on, the front and balcony doors are wide open and I’m jumping up and down by the smoke detector like an insane person hoping my body will deflect the smoke.
I glanced at him through the dense fog. “What just happened?!”
Instantly, he flashed that charming grin of his and lifted up the pot to show me. Apparently some pots aren’t meant to be used at such high heats. The best part is all the smoke came from three tablespoons of olive oil and burning metal. How does that even happen?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start with a general fact.
I don’t cook.
And I’m not just saying that. I really don’t. My repertoire consists of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and three-cheese Totino’s pizzas. I’m a huge fan of Lean Cuisine and I usually find Ramen noodles way too difficult to make correctly. In fact, the only food I can make by combining actual ingredients is Nestle chocolate chip cookies, and lets be honest, you can’t really mess those up unless you are totally incapable of setting a microwave timer for nine minutes.
I’m not usually one to point fingers, but I’m pretty positive this is a genetic flaw. I love my mother to death, and she makes a great lasagna and baked ziti, but she would much rather clean the dishes than cook the meal. My grandmother was by far worse. Her one claim to fame was pork tenderloin, but beyond that she hated cooking and lived by the philosophy that take-out is much easier and safer.
So it isn’t like I’ve been raised with a recipe in one hand and a whisk in the other. But I don’t hate cooking. I’ve always wished I could cook, if not to feed myself, but for the sake of my future family. I think it basically comes down to the fact that I am a huge perfectionist. I’m all for trying new things, as long as I know it will be easy and I’ll be good at it.
Up until about six months ago, I didn’t even know how to cut an onion. That’s when Patrick showed up with his homemade meals, numerous different cooking utensils, and a slight case of OCD to match my perfectionist nature.
All of a sudden, I was dating a boy who loved to fry bacon, cook pasta, and mince anything within reach. He has his own set of Rachel Ray knives (He says they belong to his roommate, but given how much he uses them, they should have joint custody by now). I’m sure this love was fueled somewhat by his mama’s delicious home cooking, which is partially why I hid my lackluster skills from him as long as possible. I even made him cookies at one point so that he might think I could cook and just didn’t have time to make real meals in my hectic day-to-day schedule. However, this lasted all of a month. It was a dead giveaway when he asked me to cut up an onion and I just stared at it.
“And how would you suggest I go about doing that?” I asked, sheepishly.
After he stopped laughing long enough to take a breath, he showed me how to peel off the outer layer. “And now you cut it in half. Yep, right down the middle. And then you cut off a smaller portion and slice it into little tiny pieces and put it in the pan. Don’t cut your finger off.”
In the moments after I successfully cut that first onion, I thought to myself, “Ok. Maybe I can do this whole cooking thing.” My second thought was along the lines of, “Oh good, now someday my family won’t starve.” As if an onion could sustain a family. Ridiculous.
Our first serious cooking experience came about three months ago when he suggested we whip up some cheeseburger soup. Again, the fact that his mother makes this, and makes it really well, did not help my confidence. However, I didn’t need to worry. I wasn’t going to be doing any of the actual cooking.
“Here, you can melt the butter,” he said, as if he was letting me do his favorite thing in the world.
“I’m sorry, what?” Did I hear him correctly?
“You get to melt the butter,” he repeated as he handed me the yellow stick of salted Land of Lakes butter.
“As in, put the butter in the pan and turn on the stove and watch it for the next three minutes?”
“Yep.” Again with the charming grin. The piercing blue eyes don’t help much either.
I melted that butter like no one had ever melted butter before. I tilted the pan so the butter hit all parts of the Teflon covered metal. I cut it up into little pieces so it would melt faster. I owned that butter.
In the meantime, Patrick was chopping vegetables, browning hamburger meat (degree of difficulty: 1.5), and mixing the ingredients in a huge pot with the authority of a master chef.
“Great job with the butter, sweetie.”
“Oh, it was no big deal.”
“You want to cut up and melt the cheese?”
More than anything, I said to myself, dripping with sarcasm. Instead, I said “Sure!”
That was the first of many promotions. Soon I was allowed to brown the hamburger meat. And eventually, several weeks later, he was letting me measure ingredients. If you knew anything about this OCD, perfectionist boy, you would realize how colossally huge it was for him to let me take control of a few items.
Turns out we really enjoyed cooking together. And when I say cooking together, I mean he enjoyed demonstrating how to cook certain things, and I enjoyed watching and occasionally participating. I grew to enjoy my role of sitting on the kitchen counter, drinking a glass of wine, and providing the comic relief, which was usually unintentional. Cutting onions and melting cheese was pretty much where I drew the line. I didn’t want to mess something up and ruin something Patrick loved so much.
All of a sudden, it was the week before Valentine’s Day and Patrick suggested we make a meal at his place instead of going out somewhere. This sounded like a great idea to me, as I don’t really find it romantic to sit in a crowded restaurant, forced to lean across the table in order to hear what your date is saying.
With the plans for the evening set, all we needed was to find a recipe. That’s when Patrick sent me an email from work on February 11th.
Message: Which recipe would you like to try on Saturday night? Which one looks the most fun?
(Insert screeching break sound) My boyfriend was getting recipes off a website titled “The Pioneer Woman” with an About Me section that says: “My name is Ree. I’m a desperate housewife. I live in the country. I channel Lucille Ball and Ethel Merman. Welcome to my frontier!”
Excuse me?! My 6’1, ESPN-loving, scruffy-faced boyfriend was frequenting an online cooking blog by a woman who probably wears an I Love Lucy apron. This is the same boy who fixes things on my car and can change a flat tire in less than 30 minutes in a blinding snowstorm. Talk about contradictions.
After I got over the initial shock (I say initial because I still don’t think I’m completely over it), I picked the shrimp and scallop penne pasta. Little did Patrick know, he was providing me with more than just a recipe for February 14th. Not one to pass up on such an obvious opportunity, I immediately hopped in my green CRV and found my way to the cooking section of Barnes and Noble. Sure enough, I found The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl. In a momentary lapse of cynicism, I found myself putting sticky notes on recipes that sounded delicious, and writing in the cover “I can’t wait to cook through this book with you!”
Yes, at the time I thought it was slightly cliché and a little too Julie and Julia, but he loved it, so I loved it. That night we cooked the most amazing, delectable, incredible pasta I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. I was allowed to de-tail the shrimp, cut up the scallops, and even do a little mixing. What’s Valentine’s Day for, if not to go out of your way to make your loved one feel needed?
A week and a half later, we decided to try another recipe from his new cookbook, which, I can honestly say is the coolest cookbook I’ve ever seen. Obviously I don’t look at a lot of cookbooks, but it seems pretty great. This particular Wednesday we decided to make an attempt at calzones. These call for three different kinds of cheeses (Did you know that ricotta cheese is actually next to the sour cream in the grocery store? Its not next to all the other types of cheese, in case you ever go looking for it), some ground meat and a bunch of different spices that I can’t remember. The final step is wrapping it all up in some pizza dough and making it look pretty. We decided to skip the “making it look pretty” step and just focus on actually fitting all the fillings in the allotted pizza crust. If I don’t go off appearance, I would give our calzones an A+. Otherwise, I’d maybe go with a B, if I were feeling generous. But it all looks the same once you eat it, so we let it slide.
Feeling rather confident in myself, I suggested that every Wednesday we cook something new out of his cookbook. I know, we’re one of those couples. You can spare the jokes, as we’ve already been called a 70 year-old couple and the word “lame” seems to have suddenly become the word of choice for my friends.
This past Wednesday, it was my idea to cook a pot roast (cue the elderly jokes). Pioneer Woman labels the recipe as “Perfect Pot Roast.” How could you not want to cook that? Since Patrick had to work during the day, I was put in charge of purchasing the ingredients. This is an interesting responsibility since I look like a chicken with my head cut off when I try to find things in the grocery store (remember the ricotta scavenger hunt?). My list included a chuck roast, 8 carrots, kosher salt, beef stock, fresh rosemary and fresh thyme, which I still don’t know how to correctly pronounce.
My first goal was to find the kosher salt. There are different types of salts? Much to my surprise, I found it rather easily as it was located right next to the regular salt. Check. Next I went to find the beef stock. After walking up and down the same aisle four times, I found the chicken and beef stock and broth. Again, what’s the difference? So, I did what anyone else would do. I called my mom. Since I had told her earlier that I could be going to the store to buy the ingredients, I’m sure she was expecting the call.
“Hi mom. What’s the difference between beef stock and beef broth?”
“Um, one is stock and one is broth?”
“Okay…I’ll just get the beef stock like the recipe says.”
After that insightful phone call I grabbed the Rachel Ray brand of beef stock. Might as well match the knives. Check.
Next I went to find the fresh rosemary and thyme. I decided just to ask for help right away.
“Hi, sir? Yes, where is the fresh rosemary?”
“Right over there by the other herbs. I’ll show you.” (I’m pretty sure he only showed me because of the extremely confused look on my face).
I thanked him as he handed me the fresh rosemary. Check. He went back to unloading the lettuce. I looked around the little stands for about minute and decided to bug him again.
“Hi again! Um, where is the thyme?” I mumbled hoping he would understand what I meant without me having to actually pronounce the word.
“Uh, right by the rosemary.”
He walked me over there, and to my disappointment, they were all out. He checked the back. He then asked me not to hate him and told me that they hadn’t received any fresh thyme that day. I eventually had to go to Wal-Mart to find thyme, and ended up grabbing the last one they had. I guess there was a mad rush on thyme in Columbia.
After I got my fresh herbs, I picked up the carrots. Easy. Last but not least was the roast. I assumed this would be at the meat counter. I assumed correctly, for once. The recipe called for a 3 to 5-pound roast. I figured go big or go home, let’s go with the 5-pound.
“Hi ma’am, can I help you?”
First of all, don’t call me ma’am. “Yes, do you have chuck roast?”
“Yes, right here.” He pointed the display counter right in front of me.
“Oh, ok. Can I please have a 5-pound chuck roast?”
“Yes, I’ll need to cut it for you.”
Are these huge roasts in front of me not 5 pounds? “Ok. Thanks.”
He proceeded to the back room, emerged with an entire cow and hacked off a piece for me. The scale read 6.45 pounds.
“Do you want me to cut some off?”
Um, pretty sure 6.45 is greater than 5. “Yes please.”
The scale read 5.3.
“Is this ok?”
Sure, what’s an extra third of a pound? “That will be great sir. Thank you.”
“That’s big roast you are making.”
Is it? “Ha, yeah.”
“Are you cooking it?”
“That will be 21 dollars.”
Excuse me? Is that the last piece of roast on earth? Is it made of gold? “Ok. Thanks!”
I raced over to Patrick’s apartment to meet him on his lunch break so we could prepare the roast. This brings us to the billowing smoke and my grinning boyfriend holding a burnt pot. After we ditched the pot on his balcony (out of sight, out of mind, right?), we successfully combined the ingredients in a much larger, much more durable pot. I was even allowed to rinse and cut the carrots, and brown them with onions in the pot. Now all we needed to do was wait five hours and pray that I didn’t do something to screw it up. Patrick’s OCD kicked in and it was suggested that I hang out at his place that afternoon and babysit the roast. I think he was just worried about his apartment burning down. In that case, I’m not sure why he thought it was a good idea to leave me in charge. Regardless, I waited. I finished some homework. Watched a movie. Painted my nails. Cleaned his apartment. Ate some crackers. Eventually he got off work and it was time to unveil the masterpiece. Let me tell you, it is actually possible to taste a little bit of heaven. The meat actually fell off the fork. Carrots melted in your mouth. I could have slurped the broth all night, had I not fallen into a deep, slightly uncomfortable food coma. Overall, I’d call it a success, exceeding all expectations, and possibly put it in the record books as best dinner ever.
What’s on the menu for next week? After the complexity and expense of this week’s meal, I think we might go with Pioneer Woman’s seemingly easy Macaroni and Cheese recipe. Patrick has already informed me that we will be putting in some crumbled bacon. The boy loves bacon, what can I do? Maybe this time he’ll let me do the cooking.
But, probably not.