I used to think I was a good cook. When I first met the Lovely Louise, I offered to make dinner for her and her boys and bring it over to her house. I did this because I knew she kept a bottle of Jack Daniels just for me. Yes, we were beginning to understand each other perfectly.
The morning of the dinner, I cut up some potatoes and carrots and threw them into the bottom of my slow cooker. A fine chunk of pot roast rested on top, and I sprinkled the pot roast with my “secret” ingredient: Lipton Onion Soup Mix. Eight hours later, I packed it up and headed to Louise’s house for dinner.
As she lifted up the cover to inspect my offering, she commented on how marvelous it smelled. There were large portions for everyone, and we sat down to eat. The boys inhaled it like starving dogs, but Louise just sort of stared at it as she ate it thoughtfully.
“What's in it?” she asked.
I told her my secret. “Ah, that explains it.” What did she mean by that? “Nothing,” she said. “It’s … good.” Slowly it dawned on me that her assessment of my cooking skills was dramatically different from mine.
She was right. I became determined to teach myself how to cook.
The first thing I did was check my spice drawer. Actually, I didn't have a spice drawer. I had salt, pepper, and oregano. That's it. Okay, off to the local spice vendor to stock up. I returned home with over one hundred spices, most of which I had never heard of.
In the beginning, I thought adding spices would be like doing laundry. When I was first married, I volunteered to do the laundry one fall weekend. In my brain, if the instructions say to use a half-cup of detergent, then if you want the clothes really, really clean, you should use two cups of detergent. About twenty minutes later, I learned that didn't work. The clothes weren't any cleaner than they would have been, but I did learn that two cups of detergent will create waves and waves of soap bubbles that end up covering the laundry room about a foot deep. I wasn't allowed to do laundry after that.
I took the same approach to spices. If the recipe calls for two teaspoons of curry powder, then two tablespoons would just make it taste even better, right? Nay, nay. I discovered that adding two tablespoons makes the dish virtually inedible. Okay, the first thing I need to learn is restraint. Not an easy thing for me, but I did learn it after a few more disasters.
The next thing I learned was that I had no idea what any of my spices would do to a recipe, since I had no idea what most of them tasted like. So one afternoon I got all of my spices out, tasted every one of them, and wrote down my impressions of each one. Some I liked and some I hated, but I now had a pretty good idea what all of them did.
At this time I had a woman working for me named Debbie. Debbie was a New Yorker. An Italian New Yorker. I told Debbie about my tomato sauce, and all the wonderful ingredients I had learned to add. She shook her head sadly and said, “I'm going to tell you how to make tomato gravy.” If you’re Italian and from New York or northern New Jersey, it's not tomato sauce; it's tomato gravy. I don't know why, but it is. Here is exactly what she told me to do:
Get a can of San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. Not the fake ones from California; you need peeled, whole tomatoes from Italy. Sauté some chopped onion in extra-virgin olive oil, and just as they start to turn translucent, add in a couple of cloves of finely minced garlic. After about a minute, add in the whole tomatoes. Turn it down to a simmer and let them cook all day. Just before you serve it, add some salt to bring out the brightness of the tomato and add a bit of butter to smooth it out.
“That's it?” I asked. “What about oregano, rosemary, thyme, maybe a little hot sauce? She looked me straight in the eye and said if I did exactly what she’d told me to do I would have a tomato gravy that would bring the very gods themselves to my dinner table. Debbie was right, and thanks to her, I still make the best tomato gravy you've ever had.
I am now a pretty good cook. I can cook almost anything from anywhere in the world. I can cook Italian, Moroccan, Indian, Thai, Mexican … you name it and I'll cook it. I don't cook French because I don't like the French, but that's another blog. My Lamb Tagine will make you long to be on a camel in the desert. My Rogan Josh curry will transport you to India. One of the boys’ friends came for dinner one night and said he hated fish and wouldn't eat any. We were having fish for dinner, however, so I asked him to try it, and if he didn't like it, I would give him a beer to wash away the horrible taste.
He asked if he could have seconds of my fish.
Now I still occasionally make something that's a complete disaster. I made something a while back that even teenage boys wouldn't eat—and if teenage boys won't eat it, I promise you it's not very good. But those disasters are fewer and farther between these days, and I've taken over all of the cooking in our house.
I can honestly say that there is no Lipton Onion Soup Mix in my house anymore, and if you're a woman, my pot roast would make you fall instantly in love with me. If you're a guy you'd probably just ask for seconds, and maybe a beer to wash it down.