better than a restaurant

cooking with my husband

If you walked into our small kitchen it might look as though the semi-circles we are dancing around each other are coordinated. They’re not. They’re of the moment, born of boiling water and butter that needs fetching and a simmering sauce that needs stirring. There’s groovy, mellow music from the 1970s floating in from the dining room. (The John Denver station on Pandora. I recommend it.) We’ve both put down our phones and the endless to-do list. Instead, we’re focused on slicing tomatoes, frying eggplant, and finding that damn casserole pan. (I know I pulled it out before we started. Where did it go?) There’s heat and steam escaping from the pan, the smell of tart dough lacquered with apple glaze wafting from the oven. The floor needs mopping. We might not get to it before we go to bed. Mostly, we’re laughing.

Danny and I are cooking together.

When I first started writing on this site, when I thought no one was reading, I was cooking every night. That’s where it began, with cooking. Suddenly spry after a lifetime of feeling lousy, I walked into the kitchen every evening with a sense of anticipation. What would happen that night as I stood in front of the stove? My movements were deliberate, conscious. I noticed everything. After a liftetime of living with dimmed windows, I stood bathed in light. I had celiac and I wasn’t eating gluten for the first time in my life.

And I could not believe how much joy existed in my fingertips as I chopped onions and listened for the sizzle as they hit hot oil in a pan.

When I realized people were watching — in clutches of comments from strangers — it changed, a little. I figured out enough html to put a site meter on here. 56 people a day were visiting in the summer of 2005. 56 people! (Of course, when I looked closer, I realized that at 1/3 of them came from ip addresses in the Middle East, searching for “free girl.”) I found other people writing websites with photographs of their food. I thought I was the only one strange enough to tip the camera above my plate. I found a community.

Back then, no one expected to run a business by starting a blog. No one began a blog after investigating WordPress vs. Blogspot or buying a $2500 camera to take composed shots on peeling white picnic tables with sprigs of lavender next to the plate. There was no one watching. We just cooked and took photographs and found our friends.

There are moments that I hate being a food blogger. I don’t think of myself as that. I’m a mama, a wife, a writer, someone playing with a more sophisticated camera after a year of a point and shoot, five years of an old used camera, and the camera on my phone. For me, this space —— this page on a computer screen virtually inspired to look like a page —— is just a place to write. Lately, I’ve loved figuring out ways —- with Danny and our tribe of good people — we can do more to help people and earn enough money at this to do even more. But a blogger? Blah.

It’s when I think of myself as a blogger that things go astray.

When I have looked at too many blogs, or lingered in the pretty world of Pinterest for a few moments, or spent too much time on Twitter, I start to doubt. I start talking to Danny about the photo studio space we should make under the one window in our garage, the props we should buy, the ways we should change. I wonder if I should buy those sturdy striped straws that show up in every third photo. I start thinking about hiring someone to teach me what the heck SEO is so we can increase the number of hits we get each month. I start worrying. I stop writing or dancing or looking for light. I start worrying.

It’s in this moment that Danny, who knows me best, takes me by the hand. He doesn’t say a word. He leads me into the kitchen.

And we cook.

I love having him home now.

We met a year after I started this site. After more than 365 nights of cooking in my kitchen, my movements becoming more deft with every dish, I gave him the keys to the apartment. And then I stepped out of the kitchen. He brought home meals, or played with new ingredients on his days off. Sure, we cooked together sometimes, but I mostly felt like his pupil. I had so much to learn.

For a year, he didn’t work at a restaurant, but we were writing our cookbook and surviving our first year of parenthood. I realize now it took almost two full years to feel like we were any good at this. No one tells you that, do they? That you’ll fumble and falter and feel like everyone else has it more together so you stay silent when you really just want to talk about the lack of sleep and the way this kid breaks your heart open every day. Having a kid breaks you. And you’re stronger for the broken places. So even though Danny was home with me in the kitchen, it’s a bit of a blur now. And we were writing a cookbook, where I felt like I had to prove myself, as a writer. And by the way, who was I to write a cookbook? So I relied on the chef.

And then he returned to a restaurant. And I was at home with a baby healing from major surgery, then a darling toddler who never stopped moving. I cooked. I baked. I never stopped. But I wasn’t cooking much with Danny. There was no longer time for those slow afternoons.

It has only been in the last six months, since he has been home and we’ve been doing all that we do as our full-time job, that I can feel us both relaxing in the kitchen. We’re not going anywhere. This is our home. And the small daily meals we make for Lu and ourselves are most of the time more interesting to me than the dishes we’re creating for cookbooks or other sites. We’re cooking in the moment, making a meal out of what is on the kitchen counters. Sauteed kale and onions with oven-dried tomatoes, with scrambled eggs, roasted fingerling potatoes, and goat cheese from the farmer down the road. Black rice and quinoa, with roasted chicken and butternut squash, topped with sunflower seeds and champagne vinaigrette. Vegetable stock started from the stems of the kale we’re growing in our garden.

These days, we’re really cooking, every day, most of the day. Danny’s whistling, more relaxed than he has ever been. I’m cubing cold butter to make a pie dough and look over at the steam escaping as he stirs and run for the camera. There’s that light. And it’s in the sheet tray full of fried eggplant he lay down on the floor since there is no more counter space.

If I were good at this blog thing, I would have written something entirely different. It would have been less than 500 words. It would have trumpeted easy! delicious! good for your family! I probably would have called it The Best Eggplant Parmesan, gluten-free, for the most hits. I used to do that because so many people told me that was the best way for hungry people to find my website on Google.

But who am I to say that ours is the best? It’s just the one we made on Wednesday afternoon, before the preschool potluck, before I flew away to New York. Once, I would have said it tasted of our connection and the way we were going to miss each other. But honestly? It was just really great tomatoes, gooey cheese, and some damned fine eggplant. Part of it ended up on my jeans when Danny tried to hand it to me as I sat in the car. Lu had just thrown a fit because she was flipping out I was leaving her for 2 days and I was holding back tears. This plate of eggplant parmesan disappeared at the potluck.

If I were good at this blog thing, I would know what I am doing by now. There are hugely successful bloggers who nailed their structure and routine years ago. They figured out how long their posts should be, how many photographs they should include, and all the right words to draw an audience. And they repeat those posts —- sometimes in brilliant words and photos —— again and again and again. Stumbling and writing, I’ve figured out some of that too.

But I still don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes we post three times a week. Sometimes it’s once every two weeks. I wish that I could just write a little post every day with our photograph of our lunch and a few words. (And then I remember that Canal House Cooks Lunch has that one owned already.) Mostly, we eat a lot of whole grains, fresh vegetables, local meat, and good cheese around here. But there are many, many baked goods recipes on this site because I thought that’s what people wanted.

This is why I love this place. This stumbling. The learning. My fumbling through words. I hope I don’t ever get too good at this.

When I don’t know much, I do know this. Cooking in the kitchen with my husband is one of the most deeply satisfying acts of my life, mostly without words.

So we’ll just keep cooking.

There are hundreds of recipes for eggplant parmesan online, and I’m sure most of them are good. (There’s even a page of links on Google for “Eggplant Parmesan to Induce Labor.” Um, really?) So this isn’t an attempt to create The Best Eggplant Parmesan or The Definitive Eggplant Parmesan.

Instead, this is what we made in our kitchen last week. The tomatoes were ripe, including a few from our own garden. The eggplants we had bought at the farmers’ market had a few squishy thumbprints in them, and they needed to be used now. We happened to have some Parmesan and mozzarella in the refrigerator. But let me tell you, if you have some of those same ingredients in your kitchen right now, and some thick tomato sauce, you might think about having this for dinner tonight. For the first days of fall, after a long lovely summer? This feels just right.

EGGPLANT PARMESAN, GLUTEN-FREE

2 large eggplants
2 cups neutral-tasting oil, such as sunflower
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and sliced thin
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1 red pepper, top taken off, seeds removed, and sliced thin
1 cup basil leaves, sliced thin
1 quart thick tomato sauce (if your bottled sauce is too thin, let it simmer until it thickens)
12 ounces fresh mozzarella
2 cups grated Parmesan
2 large tomatoes, sliced thin

Preparing the eggplant. Take the tops off the eggplants. Slice the eggplants into 1-inch slices. Scatter salt over the eggplant slices liberally. Let the eggplant slices sit for 1 hour.

Preparing to cook. Heat the oven to 425°.

Frying the eggplant. Set a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, pour in the sunflower oil. When the oil is hot — put a drop of water in the oil and watch it sizzle — lay 4 to 5 of the eggplant slices in the skillet. (Do not overcrowd the pan. You’re going to have to do this in batches anyway.) Fry the eggplant until the bottoms are golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the eggplant slices and brown the other side, about 2 minutes. Remove the eggplant slices from the oil and lay them down on paper-towel-covered plates. Repeat with the remaining eggplant, in batches.

(You can save the sunflower oil in a big jar for the next time you fry something.)

Cooking the vegetables. Set that skillet, drained of the oil, onto medium-high heat. Pour in the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions, garlic, and peppers. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables have softened, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the basil and stir until the scent of the basil releases into the room, about 1 minute.

Heating the tomato sauce. Meanwhile, in another pan, heat up the tomato sauce until it is simmering.

Building the final dish. Ladle enough tomato sauce onto the bottom of a 9x13 casserole pan to cover entirely. Arrange slices of eggplant on top of the sauce. Add a layer of the onion-pepper mixture. Ladle more sauce on top. Make a layer of the mozzarella slices. Add the sliced tomatoes, the last of the sauce, and the parmesan cheese.

Baking the eggplant parmesan. Put the pan onto a baking sheet. (Ideally, you cover the baking sheet with parchment paper too. We had just run out.) Slide it into the oven. Bake until all the cheeses and sauce are bubbling and hot, about 25 minutes. Pull it out of the oven to cool. Serve within a few moments.

Feeds 6.