On cooking, cleaning, and learning

4 Jul

Pi Wen prefers eating at home to dining out. Eating out is a social event and a chance to enjoy time with friends. Her default fast meal at home is stir-fried vegetables with Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce, steamed rice, and maybe a side of protein–most likely chicken or grilled shrimp.  Marcus typically goes for fish tacos or pizza instead.

How times have changed. Marcus still eats fish tacos sometimes, but he’s discovered a new passion in cooking, gourmet no less.  Of course Pi Wen is very happy that Marcus likes to cook and explore recipes from the Sunday Chronicle. Since we moved to our new apartment, we’ve followed the recipes and made a few yummy meals at home.

First was the southwest salad with couscous. Alas, we didn’t have couscous at home but did possess a box of red quinoa. So we substituted quinoa for couscous and Pi Wen added some grilled shimp to make it look pretty. Marcus took photos and posted on Facebook. Our friends cheered and we were encouraged by the applause. This made the culinary journey easier to continue.

When Pi Wen was out of town for a business trip, Marcus made a corn-crusted lingcod with summer vegetables, courtesy of Lynne Char Bennett of San Francisco Chronicle. But the corn nuts proved to be quite a challenge. Tonight, we tried this recipe again. With the help of a blender, we were able to crush them to much finer texture and the cods got a nice coating of corn nuts.

Marcus, fueled by his newfound passion and with a practical eye toward cooking enough for two nights, added corn chowder to tonight’s meal. This recipe is from the Earthbound Farms cookbook Food to Live By, which Pi Wen recently bought as a gift for Marcus. The bits of bacon and just enough half-and-half made this a flavoful soup without being too greasy.

Pi Wen mostly cooks from what she knows and by improvisation using whatever is in the fridge. She uses recipes but always changes the ingredients, preferring a free flow format to sticking strictly with the recipe. Nonetheless, this joint cooking adventure has led Pi Wen to learn more about food and to develop an appreciation for proper cooking techinques. Before, Pi Wen only knew about cod fish and didn’t know there are so many kinds of cod. Likewise, she only knew squash as squash, but now she knows there’s a kind of squash called crookneck.

Marcus also didn’t know about crookneck until a few weeks ago.  But he is now becoming such a foodie that he smiled with delight upon discovering crookneck squash at the Oakland Whole Foods this morning.  (The first time he made this dish only the vague “summer squash” was available.) Another foodie moment was the realization that the stalks of fennel–called for in the cod recipe–could substitute for the celery stalks required in the chowder.

Despite these gourmet pretensions, Marcus is still learning some basic fundamentals of chopping, slicing, and apportioning.  His home economics training was decades ago, and he has not had much inclincation to hone those skills since.  Cleaning up afterwards can also become a heavy chore, particularly if–as was the case tonight–the recipes call for numerous ingredients.  Over the weekend Mark Bittman claimed that cleaning up after a home-cooked meal only took him 10 minutes, a speed that aroused great envy and suspicion in Marcus’s mind.

So there is a gap between skills and aspiration.  But Pi Wen is a patient and informative teacher, and the pleasures of a home-cooked meal seem ever more obvious as time goes on.  Our friends like the pics when they see our food photos online, and there is indeed a better connection to the land when you cook.  Watch out! Before too long Pi Wen and Marcus could do a full Michael Pollan and kill their own food. (NOT!)

Pollan is from Berkeley, which is not too surprising.  Aside from Pi Wen’s wise counsel about the virtues of a homecooked meal, the Bay Area is the epicenter of “farm to table,” “slow cooking” cuisine. Sometimes the food scene here feels a bit precious, but there is some glory to it.  That’s what Marcus has learned. Now, if only he can learn how to clean up more efficiently.

Quinoa Shrimp               Cod Chowder

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