I eat well around here these days.
Late in the evening, the Chef comes to my house, after an entire day of cooking at his restaurant. He smells of warmth and richness, the mingled scents of grilled lamb, Spanish goat cheese, and Rainier cherry ice cream. When I kiss him, I can taste everything he made that night. He tastes of great food and hard work and real love.
Some nights, I cook for him. After all, he rarely eats a home-cooked meal. He simply sips and nibbles on bits of food in the tiny kitchen where he’s producing meals for other people. And most people are too intimidated to cook for him. Hell, I’m intimidated too, because I am nothing but a passionate amateur in comparison to this man. But, then again, he doesn’t really write — we both love the fact that we have different talents. He adores the pieces I write, and I adore the food he feeds me. So I don’t need to be great when I cook for him. I cook with love, and he eats, happily. And then, after much coaxing from me, he gives me notes on how to make it better.
But most nights, to my astonishment, the Chef insists on cooking for me. With great enthusiasm and a confidence in the kitchen I only wish I could exude, he throws together something delicious for us to eat: warm salads; grilled fish; potato purees; egg scrambles with sauteed zucchini and smoked salmon. When I protest that he shouldn’t have to come here and work when he has been cooking all day, he looks over his shoulder at me as he stands at the stove, and says, “I’m cooking dinner for the woman I love. This isn’t work.”
And so I sit at the table in the little kitchen nook, my feet propped up on the kitchen counter, regaling him with stories and grinning at him, adoring, as he cooks.
The Chef had a rigorous training in traditional French cuisine, and he has been cooking all his adult life in good restaurants in Seattle and Colorado. However, when he cooks in my kitchen — quickly becoming his kitchen — he enjoys simple food. Foods that are perfectly seasoned and in season, but simple, nonetheless. Foods that a mother might make — apple crisps; roast beef; chicken pot pies. Goulash.
The first time the Chef was in my kitchen, we cooked together. We stood in front of the stove and talked, both our hands chopping vegetables, the rhythm of our conversation matching the rhythm of our knives. He ate my roast chicken and ran around the room. I ate his mashed potatoes with roasted yellow peppers and yelled out a little hallelujah. We danced together. It was a beautiful meal. But the next time he came over, on his day off, he wanted to do everything for me. He wanted to make me something he remembered eating at his mother’s table. He made me goulash.
Before this, I had never eaten veal before, at least not consciously. I’m certain that veal stock lurked in sauces over which I swooned in top restaurants around the world. Now that I’m learning how much Dan uses it to infuse some of his dishes with surprising richness, I’m realizing I’ve been imbibing veal for years. But for nearly a decade, I was an ardent vegetarian. The thought of eating that meat made me a little sick. These days, I’m much more adventurous than I was in my twenties. (God, growing up is good.) And with the Chef, I just want to play, savor new tastes, and experience everything I can. So, when we stood in front of the cases at Don and Joe’s meats in Pike Place Market, the Chef gestured with his head at the ground veal. Would I try it? Why not? I trust him.
(Sometimes, now, I tease him: “Aren’t you glad I’m not a vegetarian anymore?” And he exhales, and admits, “Oh yes. Thank god.” This is a man who loves to cook duck and sweetbreads. I’m in for more surprises.)
So he stood in my kitchen and made me a meal. And simply watching him chop tomatoes he had blanched fascinated me. I have been wielding this Wusthoff knife for months, but it sits better in his hands. I feel sloppy in comparison. But that encourages me, too, because I have so much to learn about food and how to create it. He’s teaching me, every day. Seeing him chop anything entices me to wander over closer and watch his technique. Sometimes, I lean down as he is mincing garlic finely and take in a whiff, of spiciness and familiar warmth, clarity and head rush, and I love him even more.
When he starts to really cook, we don’t talk. We have music on in the background. The sun is shining through the skylights. I might do some dishes behind him, in a futile attempt to keep my kitchen clean. But mostly, I just sit and watch him, as he bends over and listens to the food in the skillet. As he pinches salt between his fingers and dashes in far less than I would, until the flavors start to sing. As he pays attention, deeply, to the textures and colors and smells and flavors, a little smile upon his lips. As he plates up our food, his face wide with excitement, because he knows how much I’m going to love this food he has made with his hands. Food for me, and I will show him, in a dozen ways, just how much I love that he does this for us.
That night, the goulash was a revelation. I remember eating goulash as a kid, but it didn’t taste like this. Such fresh tastes. The veal had a vibrancy to it, different than everything before it, evocative of every other kind of meat. The melted pecorino knocked me back in my seat with its softness. And of course, the pasta was gluten-free, so I felt even more loved than I would have if a man had made me dinner just two years before.
We both slammed our forks into the goulash and moaned. “Oh man, this is good,” the Chef said, and I grinned to hear him say it. That is the highest praise he will ever give himself. If you compliment him on his food, he will say, “Oh, I just throw crap into a pot.” Don’t believe him. This man can cook. Let me assure you — this dish is good.
Made on a Monday night, reminiscent of mothers and comfort, with a twist of culinary adventure — soft, rich, and memorable — this is the perfect meal for new lovers.
This morning, the Chef and I sat at the kitchen table in our boxer shorts and concocted this recipe. I have to admit — I adore being part of a foodie couple. Never in my life, not even in my most daring dreams, could I imagine feeling this comfortable in the kitchen with a man. Two cups of coffee, the remnants of breakfast between us, and my pen darting across the page of my orange notebook, full of food notes — we are completely absorbed in each other and the process.
And what we have found, over and over again, is that food is foreplay, food is fuel for our relationship, food is one of the languages we speak together. When we visit spice stores, his eyes grow wide as he asks me to smell Vietnamese cinnamon, then puts a bit on his lips and tells me to kiss him. I taste its warmth and my eyes grow wide. While most people regard going to the grocery store together as drudgery, we linger in every aisle and sniff everything we can. We shop with our arms around each other, hands tucked into the other’s back pockets. We only remove them to grab something else from the shelf.
We are a couple everywhere we go, but where we are most alive is in the kitchen, in the morning, after being together all night. Sleepy and happy, we stumble in for coffee and sit down to talk about food. The morning after he made this goulash, we had leftovers for breakfast. Let me tell you — oh my god.
One pound ground veal
Two tablespoons olive oil
One-half large yellow onion, diced small
Two tablespoons garlic, finely minced
One tablespoon each of chopped thyme, rosemary, and sage
One package gluten-free pasta of your choice (I prefer Bionaturae fusilli these days)
Six ripe-as-possible tomatoes, medium-sized, any color
One yellow onion, chopped, finely
One tablespoon garlic, minced
Two teaspoons smoked paprika
One tablespoon basil, cut into chiffonade
One-half teaspoon kosher salt
One-half teaspoon cracked black pepper
One stalk celery, chopped small
One-half medium-sized carrot, peeled, chopped small
One-half pound pecorino fresco (fresh pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk) or fresh mozzarella
Heat the olive oil on medium in a skillet. Add the ground veal and cook it until the meat is browned. Strain the cooked meat and set it aside. Sautée the onion, garlic, and olive oil until the onion and garlic are translucent. Add the fresh herbs. Cook them for two to three minutes. Add the veal back to the pan and set it aside.
Bring a pot of salted water to boil. (Throw a small handful of salt into the water before boiling. Taste the water to make sure it’s not too salty.) Take the top off each of the tomatoes and remove the tomato’s core. Turn the tomato upside down and score a small x on the bottom of each tomato. Place half the tomatoes into the boiling water. Bring the water back to a boil and let the tomatoes stay until you can start to slip the skin off them. (This will only be five to ten seconds — don’t let the tomatoes stay in the water for much longer, or you will start to cook them.) Remove the tomatoes from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl of ice water. Let the tomatoes stay there until they are cold. (This should be about two or three minutes.)
Remove the skins from the tomatoes, which should slip off fairly easily. Cut the tomatoes in half and remove the seeds. Chop up the tomatoes. Then, repeat this process with the other three tomatoes.
Cook the gluten-free pasta according to the directions. Drain and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Sautee the onions, the garlic, celery, and carrot until they are soft, with the smoked paprika in there too. Add the basil, then add five of the chopped tomatoes. Cook for ten minutes or so, on medium heat. Puree the tomatoes and vegetables in a blender. Pour it back into the saucepan and season it with salt and pepper.
Add the tomato sauce to the cooked veal. Bring the mixture to a boil. Season to taste. Put the last, chopped tomato to the sauce to give it a slightly chunky texture. Mix in the gluten-free pasta.
Pour the sauce, ground veal, and pasta into a casserole dish. Layer thick slices of the fresh pecorino or mozzarella on the top of the casserole. Cook in a 500° oven for about ten minutes, or until the cheese has melted and become brown.
Crack open a good bottle of wine, sit back with your love, and enjoy.