My dad has a joke he makes whenever someone his age has a birthday: “Don’t buy any green bananas.”
I buy green bananas every week, but I’m only 41. The thing about buying green bananas is that eventually they become yellow bananas, perfect for snacking or slicing on to your yogurt and granola. And then those yellow bananas become speckled bananas, perfect for making banana bread.
I get so annoyed, sometimes, watching America’s Test Kitchen. As I’ve mentioned before, my Saturday ritual is to watch all of the PBS cooking shows and America’s Test Kitchen is the one that took me the longest to warm up to. Whereas Lidia’s Italy lets you peer over the shoulder of a real Italian grandmother cooking for her family with a pinch of this and a pinch of that, cooking from the heart and not the brain, America’s Test Kitchen is as antiseptic as a science lab. In fact, the set feels like a science lab and that’s intentional. The whole concept of the show is that everything is tested scientifically. “We did it five hundred times and after creating flow charts and factoring thousands of equations, we determined this is the best way to make a corn muffin.” It’s so dry and sexless.
And yet, there are so many reason to watch. I do love Bridgett and Julia, I do love Adam and the enthusiasm he musters for measuring cups. And then there’s Elle Simone, my favorite of the many chefs who pop up now and again. Elle seems to be just as wary of the show she’s on as I am of watching it. Yet she has such a gleam in her eye when she’s sharing one of her techniques that it’s hard not to want to make exactly what she’s making after she makes it. Which is why I knew I had to make her fingerling potatoes after seeing her make them on Saturday.
Why is it that there are things in this life that we KNOW are good for us and yet we don’t do them? Even if they’re easy? Even if the minimal amount of work that they require will yield enormous results, ones that’ll absolutely transform our day-to-day experiences for the better?
In case you couldn’t tell from the picture, or the title of this post, I’m talking about sharpening your knife. Raise your hand if you’ve had your knife sharpened lately. OK, very good, you can leave the classroom. Everyone else: listen up! Go to your kitchen right now and grab a tomato. Then get your main knife, your chef’s knife, the one that you use to chop everything. Drag it across the tomato without applying any pressure. Did it make a slice or did it barely make a dent? If it made a slice, very good, you too can leave the classroom. If not, it’s time we had a talk.
The idea of me teaching someone how to cook a few years ago would’ve been pretty laughable. I am, after all, The Amateur Gourmet, not The Gourmet Who Knows Enough About Cooking To Teach Others How To Do It (try loading that into your browser).
But, lately, I have to say, I’ve kind of hit my stride as a cook. I’ve been doing this now for over a decade and I cook meals at home about ten times a week (including breakfasts, lunches, and dinners), and after spending so much time in the kitchen, I guess you do get to a point where you’re more of an authority than not-an-authority. Which is why, when my friend Jonathan talked about wanting to learn how to cook, I said I’d be happy to teach him. I didn’t think he’d actually take me up on it. But then he did take me up on it and, this past Sunday, he was coming over at five PM to learn how to make some stuff. Suddenly I was cast in the role of cooking teacher. This was a lot of pressure!
This will shock none of you, especially if you know me in real life, but I’m something of a wimp.
Roller coasters? Terrifying. Horror movies? As if. (Though I do love Rosemary’s Baby, but mostly for Ruth Gordon). And, in the culinary department, I’ve been avoiding chiles for most of my adult life. Sure, I can handle a few pickled jalapeños in my nachos–and, as everyone knows, they’re a key ingredient in Eggs Adam Roberts–but the idea of cooking with raw, un-pickled, fiery chiles has never appealed to me. Until recently…
My friend Ryan O’Connell is one of my favorite people. If you don’t know who he is, hop on to Amazon now and check out his book, I’m Special, and come back here once you’ve bought it and read it. Not only did he write that book, but now he’s writing for fall’s most anticipated TV show: the reboot of Will & Grace. So Ryan’s a talented guy who has great taste in wine and even better taste in dinner parties: he loves my cooking. For his birthday, I told him I’d make him a dinner and he could choose the menu. He thought on it and came back with “spaghetti and meatballs, because I know you’ll do it really, really well.” His boyfriend Jonathan loves my Caesar salad, so we added that to the menu. Later I e-mailed to query about his favorite desserts and he wrote back: “My fave desserts are chocolate cake, chocolate pudding, and strawberry shortcake.” I combined a little from Column A and a little from Column B and chose my favorite dinner party staple, this flourless chocolate cake.
Everyone (Ryan, Jonathan, and our mutual friends Lara, Graydon, and Kyle) were all set to come over on Saturday night at 7:30 PM. So on Saturday morning, I set out for Gelson’s to get started on my food shopping when I had an idea: what if I documented the whole thing, from the food shopping in the morning to the moment everyone leaves at the end of the night? Sort of a timeline of how I pull off a dinner party? Wouldn’t that be an epic, potentially useful post for people who want to pull off similar dinner parties? Well, either way, I did it, so without further ado, I present: a timeline of how I pulled off Ryan’s Birthday Dinner.
Ugh, artichokes. At some point, I espoused my philosophy–“Artichokes: Not Worth It”–and then slightly changed my tune when I stuffed them with breadcrumbs and cheese and baked them. That was in 2013. Now it’s 2015, and here I am in the kitchen with four artichokes that I bought at the West Hollywood Farmer’s market (sadly my CSA is taking a break) and I’m acting all cocky, like: “I can tackle these, no problem.” The goal is to trim them down so I can slice them and fry them in olive oil. I don’t know where I go wrong, but before I know it, my cutting board looks like this….
Something that annoys me about the food world is the notion of a dish or an ingredient being dated. “Sun-dried tomatoes are so 1986,” some pretentious food person might say. Really? Well I really love them, especially in Cavatappi with Sun-Dried Tomatoes which doesn’t taste like 1986 to me, it just tastes good. And I suppose there’s a similar notion that garnishes–big gestural ones–are passé. It’s a shame, though, because–as I’ve discovered recently–garnishes can be a lot of fun, especially when they enhance whatever dish you’re serving. Let me show you what I mean.