I have missed cooking.
Oh, I have been dabbling, slowly stirring scrambled eggs with a touch of cream on low heat, until the yellowy curds pile up like pillows on an unmade bed. Some mornings, I toss the potatoes into salted water and wait long enough that I can run a knife through their centers and pull it out without a hitch. (Sometimes, I imagine the scene from Romeo and Juliet, where Tybalt stabs Mercutio who heaves a little sigh, a gasp of surprise, and then topples over. But that’s only when I am feeling stressed. And remembering fourteen, when I was desperate to figure out how I could marry the impossibly beautiful man who played Romeo in the BBC production.) I glug canola oil into a glass jar, already 1/3 full with flecks of pepper, pinches of salt, a small spoon of sharp mustard, and champagne vinegar. Before I mix it up vigorously, tossing it back and forth over my shoulder like I’m mixing fabulous cocktails in a sleek metal container, I lean the jar under Little Bean’s nose and let her sniff. These days, she opens her mouth and tries to eat it.
So I’m in the kitchen. I’m talking with the Chef, working out what we will eat that day, what we should write, and wandering over for a kiss. And sometimes I’m dancing to Stevie Wonder songs in afternoon sunlight so sudden through the windows that I swoop up the baby from her highchair and twirl her around, past the shelves overstuffed with jars of grains, around the window above the sink, and swimming past the stove with pots simmering. That room is full of joy.
But these past few months, and if I’m being honest — since Little Bean was born — I have not been cooking the way I used to do.
The Chef is at home.
I’m never going to complain about having a chef for a husband. A few months before Little Bean was born, I was driving to an early-morning doctor’s appointment, and I heard two morning DJs with screeching voices and guffawing laughs talking about something. I don’t remember what. The woman suddenly burst out, “Can you imagine? Being married to a chef? He’d make you breakfast every morning. Oh god, I’d never leave the house.” I laughed out loud. Somehow, I had become the object of her envy. And I’d have to say, I agree. It’s good to be married to a chef, particularly mine.
He roasts sweet potatoes for Little Bean at night, so that the soft puree will be cooled for her lips in the morning. He lingers over breakfasts, throwing in a touch of curry powder with the yellow chanterelles, making every bite as surprising as spots of sunlight on the wooden floor in January. When I say we really ought to try eating a few dinners without veal stock sauces or homemade aioli, he puts a plate of pan-seared Dover sole, brown rice with lemongrass, and cumin-roasted carrots before me at the end of a long writing session. He’s the kindest man I know.
But with him at home, no longer in a restaurant kitchen, the days conspire to move him toward the stove. Little Bean needs a diaper change, and then some giggling squiggly time on the bed reading The Giving Tree or Sandra Boynton books. Between Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, emails, and essays, I could sit in front of the computer and never be done. We take a long walk to the coffee shop 30 minutes away, read The New York Times while Little Bean naps in her stroller, and then walk back to the house, our skin tingling with invigoration, and Little Bean giggling at the trees overhead. And suddenly, it’s time to start dinner, and we need to chop vegetables and begin searing the meat before the Bean’s bathtime, or we won’t eat until midnight. He looks at me as I pick up the baby and sling her on my hip, and I look back. “You cook tonight. I really have to tackle that recipe.” And so we are sitting in separate rooms, a shout away from each other, and I am writing, and he is cooking, and Bean is kicking. All is well. Except, another day has passed, and I haven’t stood in front of the stove, again.
I know. I’m sure that some of you would like to kick me right now.
But the thing is? I really love cooking. Eating is fantastic, one of the best parts of being awake. (And as my friend Matthew has said, you get to do it three times a day!) But cooking — the process of thoughts throughout the afternoon of what to make, the slow chopping, the simmering, the dreaming? That’s almost better than eating. Tackling a new recipe and then taping it into my giant black notebook, because I certainly want make that one again — that made me feel more capable than my job ever did. For years, the stove was my sustenance, the place I skipped to after a long day of teaching, or on Sunday afternoons instead of grading papers. In the kitchen, I stop thinking. I breathe in the smells. I sing along with Johnny Cash or Talking Heads, songs I know in my toes instead of learning new ones. I chop sloppy, I sometimes don’t clean up as I go, and I enjoy every damned moment of it. Cooking slows me down. There are times that nothing makes me happier than standing in the kitchen in my bare feet, warm air from the opened oven ruffling my hair, and my fingers feeling that the cake is done. It’s the relaxed time of the hands.
My shoulders are hunched from too much time in front of the computer.
So I don’t know exactly how to negotiate this. Certainly, the Chef needs to keep cooking. We cook side by side, but sometimes he can’t help but give me advice. I listen. He’s right. I learn so much from him. But sometimes I just want to cook, and not worry if I’m doing it well.
We talk about it, over roasted chicken and potato salad, our feet up on the coffee table, the television muted in the commercials of Jeopardy. He wants to teach me, gently, to make food more efficiently. I want to let go and not worry if I’m any good at all. He wants to feed me. I want to feed him. We don’t figure it out in ideas of 140 characters or less.
But we’re in this together. And the food tastes good. He stuffed the chicken with fresh herbs and preserved lemons as I read Madeline to Little Bean, again. I threw together the potato salad, after looking at Molly’s recipe to refresh my mind. They were both on the same plate, the new creation and the cherished dish handed down from one generation to another. We cooked, together. That’s all that really matters.
The Chef hates tofu. It’s anathema to him. Or so he says. Because, I just recently found out that he has eaten tofu exactly once. Our friend Daniel, a vegan for decades, seared cubes of tofu to a perfect sizzle, the insides rich and meaty. The Chef looked puzzled at first bite, and then told me, “That’s good.” From the way he talked about the stuff, I assumed he had eaten plenty of bad tofu, and made his choice. No, that’s the only time he’s eaten it. And he liked it.
“Why do you hate it, then?”
“It just seems weird.”
Hm. I’ll convince him, yet.
I love tofu. I adore the crisp crust that develops with a good sear and the soft custardy insides that heat around the tongue. I love how clean I feel when I eat it. I love how quickly I can gobble all that protein and not feel too full.
So the other day, the Chef was gone all afternoon on a catering gig. And I cooked. Tofu.
Little Bean looked confused when I stood in front of the stove. That told me something.
Mama needs to cook more often.
I will say, however, that the Chef’s lessons and skills have seeped into me. After watching him sear and braise meat, and throw together sauces that leave my toes curled for how good they taste, I guessed at this method of cooking tofu. I loved it. Dark with oyster sauce and rice wine vinegar mingled, soft and warm, this tofu was so satisfying that I could have this every day for lunch (with a side of sauteed spinach).
I’ll help the Chef to love it yet.
16 ounces extra-firm tofu
3 tablespoons oyster sauce (make sure it’s gf)
3 tablespoons fish sauce (again, gf)
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 nub ginger, freshly grated
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
5 tablespoons dark sesame oil
kosher salt and cracked black pepper
Preparing the tofu. Put the block of tofu on a cutting board, propped up to slope down toward the sink. (or, you could just use a plate.) Top it with a sturdy plate. Weigh the plate down with a couple of your favorite textbooks or heavy tomes. Allow the water to seep out of the tofu for at least an hour. Drain off any remaining water. This will keep the tofu firm when cooking, instead of watery.
Making the marinade. Combine the oyster sauce, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, ginger, garlic, 3 tablespoons of the sesame oil, and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Stir them up well. (These measurements are only guesses. Use your senses for your own taste.)
Marinating the tofu. Cut the tofu into large cubes, about 1 inch each. Toss the cubes of tofu into the marinade. Coat the cubes well and allow the tofu to marinate for about an hour.
Preparing to cook. Preheat the oven to 450°. Pull out your cast iron skillet or a large sauté pan. Bring it to high heat.
Cooking the tofu. Pour in the remaining sesame oil. When the oil runs around the pan and starts to smoke a bit, put the tofu cubes into the hot oil. Be careful. The oil will sizzle. Stand back and creep forward when the danger has passed. Place all the tofu cubes in the skillet. Cook about 4 minutes, or until the bottom of the tofu cubes have browned. Turn the cubes, carefully and brown the other side.
Pour any remaining marinade over the top of the tofu. Slide the skillet into the oven and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the tofu is piping hot.