Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Cook Of The House

You Are a Learning Cook

You've got the makings of an excellent cook, and the desire to be one.
But right now, you're just lacking the experience. You couldn't be a top chef yet, but you could be an apprentice.

About twelve years ago, when we moved to Maryland, my wife decided to give her attempt at a teaching degree one more shot. Being an understanding husband and not wanting to impair her earning potential in any way I fully supported her. Having a student spouse and small child necessitated some compromises. This is a recreation of one of those conversations.

WIFE: I’m going to need some help around the house if I’m going to be interning full time and taking night school courses to fill out my prerequisites.
ME: Sure. How can I help?
WIFE: Maybe you could cook dinner.
ME: Hey, no problem. Remember in college when I cooked nothing but spaghetti and meat sauce for an entire semester.
WIFE: That was because you were in the dorms.
ME: Right. When I moved to an apartment, I would steam some broccoli and have a bowl of ice cream.
WIFE: Maybe we want more balanced meals.
ME: No problem. There are all those cookbooks my mom has given you. They’ve never been used. I should be able to figure it out.
WIFE: That’ll be a great help.
ME: So once you’re out of school, you’ll go back to cooking right?
WIFE: A new teacher has a lot of lesson plans to write. That is going to take a lot of time.
ME: So after a year of teaching, you should have a full set of plans and then your time will free up.
WIFE: A teacher has a lot of papers to grade and reports to fill out. I’ll still be pretty busy.
ME: So in about two years we’ll go back to splitting the cooking.
WIFE: We’ll see about that.

That was twelve years ago. I’m still seeing about that. The one time I got militant and made her cook alternate meals, she claimed that my kitchen cleaning quality was so lackluster that she might as well just clean up afterwards herself. While that was part of my strategy, it backfired into making me keep the chef’s toque on.

The first meal in my repertoire was a variation on my dorm-room spaghetti recipe upscaled to family size: one box of spaghetti, one pound of hamburger, and one jar of sauce. I’ve dropped the ice cream accompaniment and just serve broccoli (or green beans) on the side. Over the years, the recipe has been upgraded. The hamburger has been replaced with pre-cooked frozen turkey meatballs and the brand of sauce has been upgraded from Ragu to Prego to Barilla.

But I was determined to make the best of my role and quickly began learning new things. While I can improvise, I need a base to work off of. It bugs my wife that I need a recipe no matter how many times I have prepared it before.

For example, the page in the Good Housekeeping Cookbook with the recipe for Oriental Pork Chops has turned dark brown from all the soaked-in spilled soy sauce. I still need to read the recipe every time even though there are only six ingredients: pork chops, soy sauce, cooking oil, rice wine, garlic, and ginger. It’s getting the right quantity that stumps me.

The most frequently used cooking appliances in our house are in order, the toaster oven, the microwave, and the rice cooker. My wife firmly believes that rice is the only suitable side dish for any meal. I do manage to slip in the occasional pasta-based meal or, even more rarely, some mashed potatoes. My son’s Irish heritage has definitely had to take a back seat to his Vietnamese side.

The Asian dishes I cook are usually just variations on stir-fry. A meat, usually chicken, a sauce, and some vegetables all in one big pan and served over rice. I sometimes eat the rice on the side with butter. My wife and son accuse me of contaminating the rice beyond edibility. My insistence that this was how I was raised falls on deaf ears and has occasionally erupted into major domestic disputes.

Nevertheless, I try to be accommodating. When she has to cook for herself, my wife often eats soups featuring mysterious Vietnamese processed meats and fish sauce. Fish sauce is, as the name implies, made of fish, but exceptionally concentrated and particularly pungent. I used to despise the smell. Really despise it. Then I started cooking a Thai basil chicken recipe that uses fish sauce and I’ve grown accustomed to the stench.

I would bring leftovers of my Thai basil to work and reheat it in the breakroom microwave. The aroma would reek through the office causing my coworkers to wonder what had died. I’d get accused of felinicide and caninicide and other assorted crimes against nature. I’d just smile and say it’s one of my family’s favorite meals and then offer to share the recipe.

Now, with my kid on the road with school activities several nights a week, we have resorted to more easy to cook meals. Once a month we go to a franchise dinner place where we prep and freeze about eight meals at a time. They cost more than making them from scratch, but the ingredients are high quality and pre-measured. Also, the portions can often be stretched to leftovers if my teenage son is not particularly ravenous that night.

Best of all, my wife and I make it a couples night out where we both go there together and split up the making of the meals. She may not realize it, but after twelve years in the kitchen, I’m finally putting her back to work. Just don’t tell her, she might catch on.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Who is the cook in your house?


Elizabeth said...

When my husband and I were dating I almost burnt down his house heating up a frozen pizza. He's cooked the meals from then on.
I've never heard of a place where you can go and make a bunch of meals to freeze. That sounds so cool. Is that a nation wide place or just local?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely me. I'm THE cook in my house. The only GF makes is a phone call to the takeout place up Harford Rd.

Come to think of it, I don't think I can remember EVER seeing her use the stove since we moved to this place. And that was what, Easter? I'm sure it's happened, but I wasn't in the house at the time.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I have radically different diets -- she's an almost-vegetarian (she does eat fish and shellfish), whereas I love meat and eat very few vegetables. Plus, we were in our early 30s when we moved in together and kind of set in our ways. As a result, we almost always cook separately but eat together, which causes a lot of jockeying for burner space and rights to the microwave and toaster oven.

On those occasions when we do eat the same home-cooked meal, my wife's the one who usually cooks it because she's better at it than me and has higher standards. I'm in charge of pan-frying fish though (one of our few overlaps).


yellojkt said...

A lot more guy chefs than I realized.

The prepared food place is called Let's Dish and it's a franchise with a lot of competitors. Meals run about twenty bucks for six servings. Your mileage may vary on the serving size.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

My wife does 90% of the cooking but as she gets busier and busier I find I'm having to fill in more. She's an ex dietitian so all her meals are very healthy and balanced, which I like, but sometimes my kids would just like a simple platefull of Mac and Cheese once in awhile.

I'm laughing at your need to read the recipes. I have to do the exact same thing.

Cedar said...

I'm more likely to cook in my house (and I'm the lady), but my husband has really influenced by diet for the better. I was underweight when we met, and I had no variety in my diet; I would ate the same veggie stir-fry with brown rice or pasta with veggies or big pot of lentils every night. I was making very, very little money at the time. I wasn't explicitly a vegetarian, but I rarely ate meat. My husband ate a lot more variety, but really bad food. Since moving in together, he's forced me to get outside my food comfort zones, and he's taught me not to be afraid of fats, meats, cheeses, and milk. I've shown him the wonders of veggies and organic meats, and healthy grains. We both look and feel a lot better.

For the most part, I do most of the day-to-day cooking, although he's far more likely than I am to attempt a difficult meal (he had some pad thai last week, and an Inian dish that required a ton of steps)

Impetua said...

We mostly fend for ourselves and whoever is most motivated (i.e. least lazy, usually *cough* me) makes food for our 3-year-old for breakfast and lunch. Then dinner is usually prepared by my better half. This is a recent development. I take care of most other household chores, so not having to make dinner is like being freed from prison. After a long day of taking care of the baby, doing laundry, running errands, etc, the last damn thing I want to do is think about what to make for dinner.