Thursday, October 14, 2010

Imagination in the Kitchen

As most of you already know, when I was seven, my parents made a move that would change my life; they opened a restaurant. They were hands-on restaurateurs, running on a tight budget, so my mother cooked while my father worked his day job and managed the restaurant at night. Being the youngest of five children, I was always attached to my parents, and while my brothers were perfectly content to stay home alone or with a babysitter, I refused to do so. The only option was to keep me in the kitchen, close to my mother while she worked.

At first, I was excited to be there and see the bustle of the kitchen. But after about one day, I was bored. I grew anxious and, like a typical seven-year old, began whining. Not knowing what else to do, my mother handed me a large stainless steel mixing bowl, positioned a large crate of sting beans at my feet and gave me a task that would keep me busy for hours.
“Snap these” she said, demonstrating how to removed the unwanted ends of the beans. “When they're clean, put them in this bowl.”
"How many should I do?” I asked, thinking that I would have to snap fifty or at most, one hundred.
“The entire case” my mom replied, returning to work behind the stove.

I looked at the box at my feet. There were at least a thousand beans in there. My eyes grew wide and I sighed heavily. The restaurant was ruining my life, but I knew if I kept complaining I’d be homebound with a babysitter, so I reached in the case and grabbed a handful of beans.
Though the work seemed daunting, I tackled it with finesse. As my tiny fingers worked rapidly, my mind reeled. I made up stories, pretended to be different characters; a lost princess held captive and forced to work kitchen duties; a farm girl responsible for the family dinner. Lost in thought, I didn’t realize that time had passed. Before long a huge pile of beans filled my bowl; I had finished the entire case and had had fun doing so.

Looking back, it's clear that my early time as an impromptu sous chef taught me an invaluable lesson; it taught me to use my imagination in the kitchen. Often I would see my mother experimenting, adding ingredients, tasting, stirring, and, sitting next to her with my pile of beans I’d pretend to be a chef doing the same.

Nowadays, I do not pretend to be someone I’m not, however, I still allow my mind to wander when faced with tasks that are so banal, like snapping string beans, that they require little attention or thought. During these moments, I’ll get inspired to throw a little extra spice into a dish, or mix ingredients that generally do not work well together. I’m no chef, just a home cook who allows her imagination to run wild. Sometimes I come out on top, and other times the food ends up half eaten or scraped into the garbage. But either way, I am successful, if I am able to relax, to experiment, and have fun. Which is really what cooking is all about anyway.

String Beans with Garlic and Mint

1 pound string beans
1 small clove of garlic (chopped)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh mint (chopped)
salt and pepper to taste

Blanche sting beans in salted boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain and transfer into a salad bowl.
While beans are still warm, top with garlic, mint, olive oil and salt and pepper. Toss together and serve.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lovely Split Pea Soup

We've been in Texas for a good four months now, and although I'm loving my new state ( and this absolutely gorgeous October weather) I do have one minor issue...

They say everything is bigger in Texas and they're not joking. It's almost impossible to go to a restaurant and not get a Texas sized portion put on the plate in front of you. And meat dominates most of that plate. Now, its not that I've gone vegetarian or anything, but frankly, I'm tired of meat!

The other day, in a near frenzy, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I ran out to Whole Foods and bought fish- wonderful calamari- which I thought I'd score and grill in a hot pan.

Earlier in the day, I'd been flipping through Jamie Oliver's Jaime at Home and saw an amazing recipe for grilled calamari with leeks. The picture made me salivate; I wanted that dish right now. Within half hour, I was picking up the goods and dreaming of the clever post I'd share with you all.

The calamari smelled funny right from the start, but to be honest, I wasn't quite sure what calamari was supposed to smell like, so I proceeded as I normally would, prepping the fish with salt and pepper, getting the grill hot enough.

But somewhere along the line, our kitchen ( or, more accurately, our entire apartment) filled with fishy smoke. I opened all the windows and had all the fans going, but the smell lingered, and despite the fact that the leeks looks beautiful, I didn't even want to try the calamari. So I threw them in the oven to get them out of my sight.

To escape the smell, I went to pick up Gian Luca at his office. I drove with the windows down, but the minute he got into the car, his face wrinkled into a scowl.
"What's for dinner?" he asked.
"Grilled Calamari," I said with a smile, hoping that if I made it sound good, it would taste OK.

But when we entered the apartment the smell slapped us in the face. "Oh my God," Gian Luca exclaimed. "It smells like a dead whale in here."
Only he didn't say it in English. He said it in Italian. And though balena morta, sounds lovely, it's not exactly what you want to eat for dinner.
Still hoping for a miracle, I pulled the calamari out of the oven. In horror, I looked at the shriveled, dried out fish. 'We're not eating this," I sighed, and Gian Luca whole heartily agreed.
We ate fried eggs and toast for dinner that night.

Ok, so maybe the calamari thing didn't turn out exactly as planned. Still, the thought of eating another steak, or even piece of chicken was making me sick, so I tried a completely vegetarian option this time. Split Pea Soup.
And after simmering on the stove for an hour, it flavored the house with that wonderful soup smell.
And it tasted even better.

Split Pea Soup

1 bag dried split peas
1 small onion
4 celery stalks
3 carrots
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 cups of water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

1) Finely chop the onion, celery, and carrots in a food processor. Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot, over a medium flame.
2) Add the chopped onions, celery and carrots and cook for a few minutes, until slightly golden.
3) Add the split peas, water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil.
4) Lower heat and simmer the soup until peas are tender. ( About 1 hour)
5) If you like a creamier soup, let the soup cool slightly and spoon into a blender. Blend until smooth.
6) Serve with grated cheese and a dash of cayenne pepper, for an added kick.