I live with my husband, 3 children, a cat and a dog. We have a grandpa in town who often swings by for dinner. I ignore things like laundry, cleaning and gardening (all of which I am in charge of) using the excuse that I am far too busy because I have to go grocery shopping or make dinner. I don’t do fun breakfasts like french toast or waffles during the week (unless it’s for dinner) and my kids get by with very simple, often repetitive lunches in their lunch boxes. Our lives are busy, and I don’t apologize for this. But I do love to make dinner. I love to know what other people are eating. I like to solve tricky culinary problems, like children who only eat white foods or adults who hate vegetables – I love a good dinner challenge.
What makes me qualified to write about food? There are plenty of people who could justifiably say I’m not. But here’s what I can tell you. I have been cooking since I was small. I was 7 when I started making cookies out of the Joy of Cooking. I bet I tried every cookie recipe. Then, when I was in 8th grade, my best friend Patty and I formed the International Food Cooking Club. We used my mom’s copy of The New York Times International Cook Book and made dinners for our parents.
In high school all my friends liked to cook, a couple of their parents had incredible food stores – one an Italian grocery and the other a Viennese bakery, where I tried my first flourless chocolate cake. When we all cooked together the night before senior prom, I made Julia Child’s Reine de Saba, which I learned to make from my mom. Fold the egg whites in very carefully, not too much! Don’t deflate them! I still love that cake.
In architecture school, when I got my own apartment sophomore year, I had a dinner party after studio most Friday nights. Black bean soup for 30 hungry architecture students? – No problem! In the mood for apple pie? Stop by my apartment at 11:00…PM. In our semester in Rome during my thesis, my friend Nelson and I did 14 different dry rubs on 14 different turkeys that we then dispatched to our fellow students miniscule apartment ovens and to several restaurant pizza restaurants (who had very kindly offered space in their pizza ovens) around Rome. We stayed up until 1 in the morning, plucking stray feathers from those birds and rubbing them with garlic and olive oil or herb butter. Our dinner for 70 architecture and art students and professors was served on our drafting tables in a library with Raphael frescos on the ceiling, lit by candles.
After college, I couldn’t stop the Friday night dinner parties. It seemed natural to race home from work, stopping by the market on the way to get ingredients for crab linguine or paella. Other nights I would try new restaurants, in a futile attempt to eat at every restaurant in the city. One day, my roommate’s brother brought me the tenderloin of an elk. It was enormous and I had no idea what I would do with it. I ended up roasting it in the oven, and with the pan drippings, dried sour cherries, brandy and cream I made a sauce. We served our dinner for 14 on an old hollow-core door on a pair of carpenter’s saw horses with green enamel garden chairs for seating. That was a wonderful dinner.
When I met my husband Martin we practically lived on restaurant food. When we did cook, we made elaborate multi-course meals. Martin is a fearless bread and pasta maker. And then we had kids. And for 2 years we lived on take out.
Let me tell you, there are far worse things than having to eat take-out every night in San Francisco but at the end of two years we were done. I began to think about what I loved eating when I was a kid. My mom is a good cook, my grandmothers were fabulous cooks and I grew up eating well. I wanted my kids to know something more than Dragonwell, Star India, Eliza’s and Pluto’s. I went back to the kitchen and I started from scratch.
When I first really began life as a family cook, I made meatloaf and spätzle, macaroni and cheese with steamed green beans, pasta with tomato and butter sauce. Stuff I had never bothered with before…ok maybe the tomato-butter sauce – it’s ambrosial – see Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan). And I made them over and over again. But kids don’t need a steady diet of standards. And neither do I. It’s boring. Sure, those menus are good when you’re tired or they’re tired. That kind of cooking is very comforting and it becomes the stuff of childhood memories. I remember LOVING my mom’s tuna casserole!!! I think I still would probably like it a lot. But I can’t cook like that everyday.
And so, armed with my cookbooks (I have over 100) and some wonderful cooking magazines, I began to rethink how I made dinner. With help from books by Alice Waters, Annie Somerville, Julie Sahni, Madhur Jaffrey, Julia Child, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Marcella Hazan, Simon Hopkinson, Nigella Lawson I had made an enormous range of dinners since I was in 8th grade. Right there under my nose – a rich resource of ideas to turn into food I could make on a busy week night! Making dinner fun can be an adventure. I try to communicate that to my kids. I am taking notes here.